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Loki strode ahead to assume his rightful place. The weight of the fur-trimmed royal cape around his shoulders was intoxicating as it validated his assumption of the throne; the sweep and fall of the fabric behind him affirming everything he had ever known about who he was born to be: Asgard’s king.

He moved with grace up the great staircase, breathless with anticipation, elated with the sense of occasion. This ceremony, which had only happened twice in 10,000 years, was happening again, and he, reveling, near bursting with joy, was the focus of all Asgard’s love.

A vast throng of cheering people filled the enormous hall, their rapturous faces turned up to his. He lifted his arms in a kingly gesture, an embrace to take them all in, and say to them, you are my people. I am your king.

Stretching out one arm, he summoned the great uru hammer. Mjolnir sped in an audible hum of power clean and true into his waiting hand. The cheering, impossibly, grew even louder; it seemed to him the sound itself became some vast and wonderful thing, giving him all the love and acclaim he had ever desired.

“Loki…”

He struggled to hold on to it, clinging to the vision for one minute more.

“Loki, what are you doing?”

“I’m giving the people what they want.” The last remnants of the illusion fell away as he turned to face his mother. His lips twisted into a bitter smirk.

It had been perfect this time.

So perfect he’d forgotten it wasn’t real.

“Does all this make you feel better?” Frigga asked.

“It certainly doesn’t make me feel worse,” he said resentfully.

“Cast enough illusions and you risk forgetting what is real,” she cautioned.

The concern in her eyes ignited explosive anger, but he managed to keep his voice cold. “Precisely.” Harsh rage speared through him, warring with gratitude that she was here, and loathing at himself that he needed the sound of another’s voice – his mother’s voice – so very much.

“The books I sent – do they not interest you?”

“Is that how I am to while away eternity – reading?” He thought of ripping them up in front of her but the memory of the expression on her face when he’d indulged in such behavior as a child kept him from following through.

She was still looking at him with such disappointment. He clenched his fists behind his back. She’d ruined everything. He could have stayed there forever. He’d spent so much time re-creating all the familiar chambers in the palace, picturing those rooms in precise and ever growing detail. What it would be like as King: the feastings in his honor, the skalds and bards telling and singing of his brave acts, of all the times he had saved Asgard. And the people, ever grateful, bringing daily gifts of flowers to lay down on the steps of the palace. Rooms filled with tributes from all the realms, each more gorgeous than the last – jewelry, artworks, sumptuous clothing of all kinds. Bedmates, too, of every kind he might want; a whole harem of them, all vying with each other to bring him pleasure. People begging to have just one word of approval, one kind glance from their good and gracious king.

“You always loved books,” she said reminiscently. “All the times I found you, hidden in some alcove or concealed up on a tree branch, a book in your hand. Remember how you used to re-tell me the tales you had read? Remember how you told me that when you read the best stories it was as if you were actually living them?”

“And yet,” he said, “I could lay the book down and forget the story. I could go wherever I liked, do whatever I liked. I did not have to imagine my life. Now…” he paced the length of his cell, turned, and paced back to her again, emphasizing the confines of his current reality. “I would prefer to go mad than face eternity in this place.” He could see the pain in her eyes and told himself he didn’t care. He turned his back, paced to the other side of the cell, and muttered in a low voice. “I seek madness like a lover.” He heard the roughness in his voice and shut his eyes tightly, wishing this painful conversation over and done with.

A moment later he turned back, hard words ready on his lips. She was standing right in front of him. “Please, Loki. Please,” she said urgently, one hand half-reached out to touch him. She abruptly pulled it back a bare inch from his arm and clasped it tightly with her other hand. “What you seek is a trap, not an escape. Turn back from those thoughts. For me.”

He scoffed, but her reaction startled him. Instead of giving him a look that indicated her disapproval, a wide, secretive smile flickered across her lips and vanished, the sort of smile she always gave him as a child when he was about to play a harmless trick on someone – the sort of trick that amused him, that amused her. The sort of look that assured him she intended to turn a blind eye. This time, at least. There were bounds he could not cross, but he loved testing them, seeing just how far he could go before she put a halt to his mischief.

A look that had always assured him, in the past, that no matter what he did she still loved him.

But then she had to mention Odin, say the word “father”, and rage consumed him again.

When, later, he reached for her hands and encountered nothing but air, when she vanished before him, that look of mingled hurt and disappointment and love and concern in her eyes the last to disappear, he felt hollowed out, like an abandoned empty shell, worse than he had felt in some time.

Am I not your mother?

You’re not.

He wished he hadn’t said that. But he hadn’t taken it back.

He wanted to pretend he had never said those damning words. But the memory of their presence lay in his throat like nettles.

He wanted to call her back, make her return. He said nothing.

She didn’t come back.

But more books did.

It took him days to relent and pick up the first book. Days of pacing, days of indulging in illusions that took him elsewhere, anywhere but here.

Thor never came to visit, and it angered him that this pained him so much. He indulged himself in visions he did not want Mother to see, images he kept entirely in his mind. Asgard, melted to golden slag; Thor kneeling at the foot of an empty and destroyed throne. Loki himself, on a throne made of bones; Thor in chains at his feet, the corpses of everyone who had slighted him piled in towering heaps all around them.

And then there were the memories - Thor and he, doing every filthy thing together. Those memories stabbed at him most of all, filled him with anger and need and longing. Despite the pain they brought to him, he couldn’t resist recreating them in his mind. Then, he expanded on them, imagining himself shaming Thor in front of the entire court.

He relived these memories and fantasies over and over again. Someday, he knew, he would forget and manifest them as illusions for all to see.

Someday, he wouldn’t even care if Mother saw them.

Someday, he would forget they weren’t real.

He would welcome that day.

At few, brief times, his rage receded and he succumbed to the weakness of tears. Then, he remembered lying in the comfort of Thor’s arms.

There they were, a few years before Thor’s coronation, riding in Asgard’s best skiff, the one made of gold, with sapphire controls. Loki was piloting, enjoying his sense of control as the vehicle traversed the air. Thor was standing in the prow admiring the view as Loki took them on a wild and winding flight through the heights and deep winding valleys, past the gorgeous waterfalls plunging down narrow canyons, up to soar along ridges and around peaks and back down again to their favorite place.

When they were centuries younger they’d stolen Father’s skiff and gone flying about in the mountains, exploring its secrets. They’d gotten caught, of course, and punished. Loki had to spend extra hours in the sparring yard, while Thor had been given double study time. It hadn’t endeared either one of them to those tasks. And it hadn’t stopped them from taking the skiffs whenever they pleased, once Loki had perfected an illusion spell to shield them. By then, their explorations of the mountains were mostly abandoned in favor of explorations of each other’s bodies.

Later, being men and grown Princes of Asgard, they took the skiffs as they pleased, the best one having unofficially become their very own, since Odin seldom used it anymore.

He saw it clearly. He concealed it and made it real: that day on the mountains. The roar of the waterfall racing past the wet moss-covered rocks which bordered the swift-flowing river as it sped along on its course down the mountainside. The way the full daylight highlighted the details of the dark patterned bark and the tender new greens of the leaves fluttering in the breeze. The way the light picked out the intricacy of Thor’s golden eyelashes, brows, and beard. The way the breeze shifted the long gleaming strands of his hair around his face and shoulders as he bent down to press a kiss to Loki’s open mouth. The feel of their strong tongues, the heat of their mouths, the hardness of teeth as they indulged in ravenous kisses. The way they parted, still clinging tight to each other. Thor’s eyes looked down into his, storm-blue with passion and lust and love. The way his hands skimmed along Thor’s broad shoulders and back, the pressure of his fingertips against the hardness of muscle.

The way they tumbled down on the fur blanket Loki had conjured to cover the soft grasses beneath them. Their mouths, their hands in ceaseless caresses. The ecstasy, of Thor taking him in his mouth. The triumph, of Thor inviting him to take him, welcoming him into his body. The pleasure beyond anything he had dreamed of as he thrust and thrust again, with Thor urging him on with groans and words and caresses. Thor spilling as he spilled, Thor taking him into his arms as he had collapsed by his side, eyes pleasure dazed, lips curved into a vulnerable smile.

“Loki.” Thor’s low, deep voice, a force of nature in itself, like the movement of stone across stone. His name, repeated, lust and love together. “Loki… How I love you. You are everything to me.”

How those words had thrilled him, filled him. And there were more, sentiments spoken in elaborate ways as Thor compared their love to the endurance and strength of mountains and better in every way to all else he held dear.

It hadn’t happened that way, of course. The memories remained, a heightened reality, but the words and final actions were like a scene glimpsed through tattered fragments, fuzzy and indistinct in place.

Thor had never allowed Loki to take him. Thor had never spoken those words of sentiment. He still could not come close to believing Thor had done so. Thor had looked at him with affection, after. Thor had kissed him fondly, after. But words of love… Thor had never been given to words, much as Loki wanted to hear them.

He would continue to build on his embellishments, his improvements on reality. And he would hear them, again and again. He would believe it all, one day. It would be whole, complete. Real. He was certain of it.

And then.

Then he would never have to open his eyes and see the confines of this cell. Ever again.

Then he could be exactly where he wanted to be all the time.

But this moment was here, was now. Trapped in this endless light. He spilled into his hand now, possessed by fantasies, still aware enough to shield what he did from prying eyes.

Thor never came.

Thor never came, though well he knew from the gossip of the guards that his not-brother had returned home in triumph, victorious in his battles against the marauders testing Asgard’s defenses. The dungeon cells were filled to overflowing with prisoners from Thor’s wars. At least their constant shouts and arguments provided some source of amusement, particularly when Loki chose to taunt the ones in the cells closest to his own, getting grim amusement from their oaths and threats.

Then, one day, he woke up wondering what the point was of even arising from his bed. But, glancing to the side, he found himself reaching for one of Frigga’s books.

He read. And read. And read some more, until at some point, half-way through the novel, a tale of fantastic magical flying beasts and the riders who flew upon them to defend their realm, something shivered across his fingertips, some subtle pulse from the leather and paper, something almost beyond perception.

He paused. Set the book aside, swung himself to a seated position, and reached for a nearby goblet, as if he were merely taking a break from reading, just as he had earlier when food had magically arrived.

And while he slowly sipped the crisp, cool mountain water, flavored with citrus, spring berries, and complex spices, he cleared his mind and let it go wide, allowing the image he’d perceived to float to the surface of his mind.

Never changing expression, he set the goblet back down, settled back on his bed, and opened the book again.

He started at the top of the page in question, and reread to that particular point.

There. It swam into focus. Three words, signifying nothing, but still imbued with a subtle magical imprint.

He committed them to memory. And read on.

It happened twice more by the time he finished reading the book.

And, by then, he had a complete sentence.

With rising excitement, he realized what it was: The first line of a spell.

 

More books arrived and the older ones vanished. He forced himself to read them one page at a time, never paging ahead, never appearing to search for anything other than plain words on plain pages. And each carried scattered words throughout the text that, by the time he closed the volume, formed another line.

After finishing each book, he pretended to sleep. And, eyes closed, he created a new room in his imagined palace. A room with bare white walls. A room devoid of contents.

With his most favored pen, the one made of gold and emeralds, he wrote upon the walls, runes of green and gold and scarlet and blue, all of the colors working together to form something balanced and whole; a construct composed of words and color and unspoken sound, words he heard in Frigga’s voice in the way she had spoken to him when she had taught him the ways of seiðr. As he wrote, the image began forming in his mind, like a building under construction, its naked underpinnings only partially erected but already implying the totality. A construct that slid beneath the rules of energy without disturbing their surface, a hitherto unperceived undercurrent that sparked with contradictions – its focus other than the realms he already knew, the usual bounds of energy subverted into something beyond.

This was beyond the dark energy that mages could use to warp a pathway between realms.

Worlds beyond. He could see the outlines now, dark jagged pathways as similar to the worldwalking he had previously done as a child’s crude drawing of a building would seem next to a finished tower completed by a master architect.

It filled him with excitement, energy, a restlessness that he curbed or disguised by pacing the confines of his cage, just like any of the other prisoners who still held life and defiance, and not like the wretches who – some imprisoned for millennia since Bor’s time – slumped, defeated and mindless in the corners of their cages. He paced, and in his mind he wrote the words in his special room in his imagined palace, words that now covered half the wall, and like any story, pressed towards the end.

He took to reading in the corner of the front part of his cell, where he could watch Odin’s new prisoners being marched in – more and more of them every day. And after he’d finished reading his latest book and closed his eyes to commit the next line of the spell to memory, he opened his eyes again and watched. For Odin’s dungeons, near-empty for most of his childhood, were rapidly filling up, and any sort of change in Asgard was significant.

He greedily drank up every word of gossip the guards repeated to each other; even this distanced sort of news reminding him the outside world still existed. While waiting for the next book to arrive he kept track of what was going on, every nerve alight with excitement and anticipation.

It was amusing to realize he was inadvertently to blame for the current chaos. Well, Thor was to blame. If he hadn’t destroyed the Bifrost, none of this would have happened. He wouldn’t have fallen. He wouldn’t have seen… He wouldn’t have been….

His mind veered away from those thoughts. All those border skirmishes would never have happened. Asgard would have kept its fist firm on the Nine, and no one would have dared challenge them. Now, it was entertaining to think of Thor cleaning up his own mess – but his enjoyment was tainted with the realization that Thor was probably having the time of his life, throwing his hammer everywhere, gleefully bashing in skulls.

He told himself that he didn’t care what petty wars Asgard was involved in now. But he hated hearing of his not-brother’s triumphs, was sickened by the sick sharp twist in his belly every time he heard of his brother’s success.

Even more prisoners started arriving, every kind of outsider pirate, the dregs of all the realms and some from beyond the edges where lay other – things

Things that still kept him waking screaming from dreams, heart thudding madly in his chest, checking first each time to be sure his own wards had held and no one had beheld him vulnerable in his troubled sleep.

He fled from these thoughts further into his mind, now ignoring the rooms filled with adoring subjects, the rooms filled with countless riches and beautiful artifacts and every magical treasure, the concubines beckoning for his attention. He entered directly into the room whose further wall was now nearly filled, floor to ceiling, with his handwriting, runes shining with vast power. He knew his mother to be among the most powerful of mages, but this was something yet beyond anything he’d dreamed of her abilities.

He’d barely been able to sleep the final time, morning or night meaningless in this dungeon’s eternal day, so filled was he with anticipation. The story was almost complete. Every line of the spell, so cryptic as scattered words, now so bright and filled with energy, so full of promise, kept his nerves singing until at last he gave up and opened his eyes.

He wasn’t disappointed. The final book was on his bedside table.

He followed his usual routine, though every part of his mind urged him to pick up the book and read and read and read until it was finished. Instead, he ate the food that had been delivered, all of the finest quality and preparation, tasteless on his tongue as his mind raced so quickly he felt his thoughts leaping from realm to realm in haste and anticipation.

Instead, he drank the water, sipped at the wine, then settled back into his corner to observe the other prisoners. And read.

It was another simple tale, this one about the dwarves of Niðavellir, delving deep into the secret places of their realm, solving riddles, fending off thieves and magical animal pests, as they worked their way through mazes following the tracery of rare minerals, thin as spider silk, deeper and deeper into the mountains, until the rich golden vein was revealed to all.

One word.

At a time.

And then…

It was done.

A smile curved his lips when he remembered what he had tried to do, a bare few months after his imprisonment. In desperation, when all else of his magic had failed to find a means of escape, the idea had suddenly occurred to him: if the temperature of the cell was chilled enough, could he break through the barrier?

He had overcome his revulsion at the thought of choosing willingly to be in his birth form. Remembering how the touch of the Casket had woken his true nature, he sought out the power of ice. It had been difficult, at first, without the Casket to find the way, to open the door to the power that had lain dormant in him all along.

Then, he had succeeded, and though part of him screamed denial at what he was, the other part, led by curiosity as to what he could do, and desperation at his current fate, let loose the ice.

That attempt had failed, like all his others.

But he had been on the right path. This final phrase of a complicated working was elegant in its simplicity, but what had followed was a brief coda to the work itself.

It was not one casting. But two.

He ran it over in his mind, once, twice, a dozen times. He mentally wove the coda spell of frost and ice around the other casting and examined it.

Perfect.

Something exploded nearby and the lights outside his cell flickered. His concentration breaking, he went to the front of his cell and looked out into chaos.

Some huge ugly massively powerful creature had managed to break out of his cell and was tearing through the energy barriers of other cells as if it were as easy as ripping paper. The alarm was sounding. He smiled. Perhaps all his hard work would be unnecessary.

Prisoners were pouring out of their cells, the Einherjar were hacking and bashing, and the creature kept moving, releasing prisoners from every cell, adding to the noise and confusion. The alarm kept blaring, and Loki grinned. He hadn’t had this much entertainment since before… before he fell

The creature stopped in front of his cell and regarded him through the barrier of his helmet. He stared back, lips curved in a mocking smile.

Their gaze held for a long moment, and then the monster rumbled a dismissive sound and walked away.

What would hurt Odin the most? One of his favorite fantasies flashed through his mind – Asgard in ruins, Odin begging for his help, for mercy. Without thinking further, he called to the creature, “You might want to take the stairs to your left.”

It turned and regarded him again, but made no effort to free him, which filled Loki with a wild rage. He watched as it strode away towards the stairway to the left, and, anger fading, he grinned again, imagining the damage the creature was doubtless planning to wreak above. Odin and his warriors, battling within the walls of the palace itself! He wished he could be there to witness it and applaud the creature on.

Minutes later Thor and his idiot friends arrived in the dungeon, joining the embattled Einherjar. The battle was raging wildly toward its foregone conclusion. Thor would be victor, and doubtless would find some way to blame him for the chaos.

Which meant now would be the perfect time to make his escape. Still sitting in the corner where he had been keeping watch on what was happening outside his cell, he deliberately chose not to look at the once-brother, once-lover who had abandoned him. He focused inward, visualizing his hidden room, reading through the runes of the completed spell that sparked and shimmered on the white wall. He let his skin absorb the power, let the spell invade his bones.

Then, he reached for the ice.

BOOM! Suddenly the world was shaking. His eyes snapped open and he blinked against the sudden darkness outside his cell. He leapt to his feet and saw everyone outside the cell had paused, staring up, showers of grit falling around them. Thor and Fandral began looking around them, baffled by what was going on.

The ground settled. But everything had changed.

Sharp awareness intruded. That creature had taken his suggestion, had taken the stairway to the left.

The one that led to the weapons vault.

It was clear what had happened. The creature had destroyed the shield generator, leaving the palace open, vulnerable to attack.

And that attack had clearly happened. Nothing else could account for what had just occurred.

He grinned. Just as he had hoped. Let whatever enemies besieged Asgard now be victorious. He pictured it and added details to his fantasy. Odin’s guards and warriors slaughtered by the hundreds. Odin’s blood staining the floor before his ruined throne. Perfect. He wished he could witness it all.

Instead, he planned to be far away from here, certain that no matter who won the current battle none would look with favor on him.

It was time to cast the spell and take himself off to Niðavellir. He hadn’t done anything to irritate the dwarves in centuries, and he knew they secretly disliked the All-Father. He reached out to form the first gesture.

Then.

A horrified realization shot through him.

Mother.

Frantically, he tested the energy shield surrounding his cell. Still intact, showing no sign of weakness. Of course not. Everything else might fall in ruins around him, but this cell would still stand even as he was buried alive.

Calm. He must remain calm, despite the noise and commotion outside his cell. He drew in a deep breath. He focused on his memories of mother’s chamber. Surely, in this danger, Odin would have kept her well guarded there.

He exhaled, took in a second deep breath.

Again.

Then reached for his power and spoke and gestured the spell.

A resounding cracking noise filled the cell as ice shot out all around him, coating the floor, the ceiling, the solid wall behind him.

The ice met the energy walls. Crystallized. And the spell it carried with it infiltrated every part of the wards, dissolved the governing runes, and broke it apart.

The walls went dark. He lowered his gaze, not moving. The spell was now written on the air in front of him. There was no longer any need of his imaginary room. He had distilled it down to one powerful word.

He spoke it.

The world shimmered around him, made him invisible, and carried him instantly to the place he had chosen.

Frigga’s chambers.

One glance showed Mother had her blade at a dark elf’s throat. Fear and anger crashed over him. He moved by instinct, centuries of training taking over. There was no time to wonder how this creature of legend had returned, no time to question anything.

He took his first step forward as the creature who had caused such havoc in the dungeon grabbed Mother and lifted her off the ground. Panic driving him on, Loki rushed forward. The elf had turned away and was walking to what Loki instantly recognized as an illusion of Thor’s mortal woman. No time to question why mother would have cast an illusion of this woman. He would strike the first enemy while the other was distracted.

One second, and Loki was behind the creature’s back.

With one hand he grabbed the creature’s sword and jerked it back. With the other he formed a many-pronged ice knife and forced it forward, dozens of ice blades piercing every chink in its armor. The thing screamed and jerked; the sound abruptly cut off when one blade reached its heart.

Loki pivoted and caught his mother before she fell. He set her on her feet. She was already reaching for her own sword as he turned again. The elf was rushing towards him. He raised the creature’s sword up at a precise angle and, too late to slow his momentum, the elf tried to turn away. Loki took one step forward and shoved it into the elf’s heart.

The elf howled, its pallid face contorted with agony. Loki twisted the blade and the sound stopped. He jerked the sword back out and, as the elf’s body crumpled to the floor, he looked around, prepared for any other enemies that might confront them.

The room was empty. All was silence.

“Loki,” Frigga said in a ragged voice.

“Mother,” he said, his voice equally rough as he filled his gaze with her, drinking in the sight of a welcoming smile on her lips.

Then she was clinging to him, and he melted into her embrace, his arms encompassing her, and he lost himself in the touch of another being, warm and solid and real. The scent of her hair was intoxicating. That scent had never accompanied her image in the dungeon when she visited him, and he’d never been able to conjure it in fantasy. This was no illusion he had cast to comfort himself in his growing madness. He was no longer in his cell. This was happening.

This was real.

An overpowering sense of the world outside his own skin crashed over him.

The breeze through the window caressed his skin, a soft touch he hadn’t felt in so very long.

He could smell the scent of the fresh flowers and the familiar, rare perfumes that pervaded her chambers.

Birds called from outside and he could hear the faraway sound of rushing water.

There were shadows everywhere, in the corners, beneath furniture, re-creating the long columns in their own diminishing images across the floor, suddenly fresh and new and strange to him, existing as long as he had in steady unceasing light.

Her embrace tightened, and he suddenly realized she was whispering his name in his ear. He met her gaze, those familiar eyes filled with all kinds of emotion, love and pride foremost among them.

One of her hands shifted to grasp his forearm. He still wore the illusion, but the sensation of the pressure of her fingers pushing the rough prison garb against his skin dissolved his long-held image of fine clothing and carefully tended hair.

He stood before her, unkempt and ragged. Before he could call his favored garb to him, Mother pulled back a bit to look up at him. Her smile was like everything of wonder and delight in the world. Joy filled him, as if he were a child again and she was smiling with pleasure at one of his successes. “My clever boy,” she whispered, even as her gaze darted past him. When it returned to his face he saw fear in her eyes. “You can’t stay,” she added urgently.

“I was afraid for you. I had to come, to make sure that you were safe.” He’d clasped her warm soft hands in his own and the feeling of her fingers against his was so overwhelming he held on tightly, wanting never to let go, half expecting the sensation to dissolve and his hands to slide through her illusion as they had many times before when she had visited him in his cell.

She tilted her head up. “Fate is more charmed by subtlety than force. Go now, while you can.”

Still he lingered, still distracted by the reality of her hands clasped tightly by his own, the sound of her breath, out of rhythm with his own, the perfumed scents surrounding them.

Every minute detail of her face – which now showed alarm.

She was looking beyond his shoulder. “They’re coming. Go now.”

He responded to her urgent tone. Where to go? He thought briefly of Niðavellir, but the image didn’t firm quickly enough, and he grasped for and visualized the next destination that came to mind, a promontory at the far end of the bay, one of his favorite places to go and be alone and just think.

He spoke the word of the spell, and an instant later was there. He looked around wildly, but there was no one in sight. His hands were shaking; he knotted them together.

He was breathing too quickly, his heart pounding too rapidly. He forced himself to sit down on a nearby rock, to grasp its jagged edges so tightly it dug painfully into his fingers.

He welcomed that sensation too. Real. Real. He stared up at the wild riot of color in Asgard’s sky, the shades and hues shocking after the endless white of his cell. The sensation of the breeze tangling his hair around his face calmed him. One more breath. Another. He relaxed his grip, settled his palms on the warm stone, drinking in every sight and sound and sensation as if he had never experienced them before.

The realization that he was truly free began to settle in his mind – which immediately went racing in a thousand directions.

He had to leave here. It wasn’t safe. The All-Father’s guards could be upon him at any minute. Shuddering, he gathered his magick around himself, prepared to move.

But he hesitated, looking back toward where the tips of the palace towers gleamed in the sky, the rest of the building obscured by the city.

Mother was safe. But for how long? He should leave – she wanted him to go away, to be safe. Niðavellir, yes, that was the plan. He visualized the abandoned mines on one of their satellites; the tiny moon riddled through with their tunnels. The dwarves still maintained staging areas there. A safe place to hide, for now. A good first step. A place where he could be alone and make plans.

He should leave right now. But was happening in the palace? Another surge of fear stabbed through him, verging on panic. Would Mother remain safe? How many more enemies were still inside? Should he return – and risk recapture and eternal imprisonment?

Something shimmered across his view of the city, the tiniest distortion, like heat distortion. He took his attention away from the palace’s golden spires and refocused on the sky above the bay.

Oh. What was that in the air?

That was interesting. He could sense it, lines of power bending around something not visible to the eye. He focused magic and sight, and then its contours became apparent to him.

Ah.

It was a ship, cloaked in invisibility, floating in the air just outside the city.

He hesitated a second, his rage flaring as dozens of possibilities flickered through his mind. He could go back, take Mother with him. Asgard destroyed. Their enemy, triumphant. Odin imprisoned in his old cell. Odin dead. Thor –

 

Frigga took up her sword again and called to the Lady Jane, who emerged from her hiding place, eyes wide as she took in the carnage on the floor. Frigga leaned forward, touched her hand, and leaned forward conspiratorially, as if to whisper a secret in her ear.

A moment later and it was done. A tiny spell. That’s all it took. Mortal minds were susceptible to illusion and fantasy. Jane had been hidden away in another room and most likely had seen none of what had occurred. But she would have heard their voices, and she knew Loki’s voice.

A mere suggestion, that she had heard only Frigga’s voice, and those of the two enemies. Jane would confirm the story, how Frigga had been able to defeat them both, and how fortunate it was for all Asgard that the elf and his creature had not arrived in Frigga’s chambers at the same time.

Seconds after that, Thor and Odin raced into the chamber, swords in hand. They halted, taking in the scene: the corpses of Malekith and his berserker on the floor. Frigga, wearing a triumphant smile. And Jane standing at her side, eyes bright with relief at the sight of Thor.

“My Queen,” Odin said proudly. Frigga stepped gracefully to his side and accepted his embrace, watching over her husband’s shoulder as Jane and Thor moved into each other’s arms.

 

Images from the dozens of detailed fantasies he had created flashed through Loki’s mind. Asgard destroyed, in ruins, obliterated. Odin, bleeding from scores of wounds, begging for aid. Odin dead, mutilated, reduced to ashes.

And Thor. The image of Thor, broken, bleeding, dying, dead, flashed before Loki’s eyes. He recoiled from the vision of his brother’s body, feeling as if he had been punched in the gut.

I never wanted you dead.

He shoved the image of Thor’s death away. In all his fantasies, Loki had never once imagined Thor dead. On his knees, yes. Humiliated and broken, yes. But dead –

What came to him now were not his fantasies of Thor speaking words of affection he’d never actually said, but the reality of the way Thor always gazed at him, after.

With fondness.

With love.

He sucked in a breath. Everything had suddenly become clear.

He focused all his attention on the unseen ship, his magic laying bare its contours. He sent his magic searching among its components for a vulnerability. And found one.

“For you, Mother,” he said, and gestured a spell that flew off over the bay, directly toward the heart of the ship’s component parts. Another thought flitted across his mind, but stayed unspoken: And you, brother.

 

A flash of light obliterated Asgard’s skies, then ear shattering sound assaulted them. Frigga, Thor, Odin, and Jane turned toward the balcony, staring out at the water where thousands of points of fire were raining from the sky.

An instant later, Thor and Odin turned back to Frigga and Jane. “Stay here,” Odin ordered. “More guards are outside.”

He seemed slightly surprised when Frigga did not protest being left behind, but his hesitation lasted only a second, before he followed Thor who was already on his way out the door.

Frigga turned back to the Lady Jane, who had turned her attention from the doorway to the balcony, her lips curved in a gentle reassuring smile. She reached out for the mortal woman’s hand.

 

The ship, abruptly visible for one brief second, exploded into flames. Loki watched it break apart into pieces. Afire, they rained into the sea. He watched in satisfaction as those pieces, some still aflame, washed over the edge of the world.

He caught the last one in a net made of magic and sent it flying back to Frigga’s chamber, with a final message.

And thought of Niðavellir’s tiny moon. Small. Visible. Vulnerable.

No barren moon. The words shuddered through him.

He tightened his fists until his knuckles went white, then summoned his armor. He shoved back the fear. He was free. He would stay free. No one would capture him now.

And –

It suddenly struck him.

He had his magic. He would strengthen his wards so no one – not even him - could come upon him unaware.

He had the power of the ice. He would explore it fully, discover all the ways it could be used in battle.

And, he had new weapons.

With the growing complexity of his illusions he could now create a realm entire, baffle an enemy with complex labyrinths and false images of every kind.

And, with one word he could escape at any time.

New plans already blooming, he fixed in his mind an image of exactly where he wished to go inside Niðavellir’s tiny moon

Then, he was gone.

 

Frigga watched the sky as the last of the haze dissipated and Asgard shone again in daylight, its gleaming brightness now scarred and stained by war.

Her gaze moved unerringly to a certain point in space, where, for this moment, Niðavellir currently was to be found.

Her son was already there, seeking safety in its moon’s underground labyrinth. She need not worry about him for the moment. And when he chose to move on, she would know that too, as she would always know, from now on, where he could be found.

She looked down again at the thing in the palm of her hand. A bit of machinery, elven technology, blackened and near-formless from the explosion. And, attached to it, a silken ribbon, the exact color of her hair, with words written in green in an elegant script: A gift, in thanks for your gifts.

She smiled and made it disappear, safe in a tiny elsewhere dimension where she kept important things. But the smile left her mouth when she turned her gaze outward, scanning the skies.

Nothing. Nothing yet. She had more work yet to do, more study, more spellcasting, before she could locate the monster who had tried to destroy her son.

In the streets below she saw her husband giving orders to Einherjar. They began fanning out in different directions.

She trained her gaze on her husband. Her face remained placid as she swallowed back the anger that still raged in her. You let him fall. The son you chose you let slip through your fingers. I will not let him slip through mine. I will protect him from that which laid hands on him in the darkness. I will not let go.

It was a dangerous game she played, she knew, and it would take caution and cunning and much time before it was fulfilled. But the first part of her plan had worked perfectly. None of the magical wards around Loki’s cell had so much as detected the slightest hint of the spell she’d given him.

Her husband had turned back to the palace, Gungnir in his hands, his ravens settling on his shoulders. He looked up at her and she gave him an encouraging, loving smile, her mask perfectly in place, disguising her lost faith in her husband’s wisdom.

She would protect Loki. She would protect both her sons. How poorly thought-out her husband’s decisions were. How easily Thor could have died, as a mortal on Midgard. How very close she had come to losing Loki forever.

How easily she could have lost both her sons.

No more. She would protect them. And, she would protect her husband, despite himself.

And more: she would protect all of Asgard and all of the Nine.

The means were already here, or within her grasp. If her husband was too afraid to wield them, too cautious of the dangers inherent in controlling such power, she was not. She did not seek power. She had bigger goals in mind.

There were six. One lay within the Vaults. Two more were on Midgard, the center of the realms, and now that the Bifrost was repaired she would shortly be able to retrieve them. The others, for now, were beyond her grasp. But she sensed them already, flickers of purple and orange, not visible to her sight, but becoming more clear to her when she entered the realm of vision.

The last lay within her hands. And with it…

She smiled indulgently at the mortal woman. And Jane, eyes flashing and glimmering with an alien ruby light, smiled back.

Just a short while longer, and she would have the spell perfected. Eir’s work with the Soul Forge had pointed the way.

Her son would be so pleased to have his mortal woman back, safe and free of that which possessed her. He was so fond of his short-lived pet. Jane would be gone soon, the few decades of her mortal mayfly life spent in a blink or two of an eye, and then she would become just a memory. Given a few centuries, Thor might forget her entirely.

But at this instant in time, what the mortal woman held contained within her was the key to everything Frigga needed to accomplish.

With the Reality Stone captured in a magically warded shell, safe within her hands, she would choose a far different universe than any Malekith had imagined.

She thought of it now, all the branching realities, all the possibilities, all the dangers.

All the threads that she would take and tightly weave into a new reality.

She pictured it now:

Her sons would be safe.

The Titan who threatened them would be gone. She would find the perfect prison for him; isolate him further than ever Loki had been isolated. It would be as if he never existed.

Everyone she loved would be safe.

She smiled again at Jane. So much power. Almost within her hands.