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Archive for November, 2013

Surtur

Caught in the Realm of Fire

The retelling of the Norse myth

written as fanfiction

set in the Marvel Comics universe of Thor

The Bifrost opened and the delegation from Vanaheim walked into Asgard. Odin and Frigga were there to greet them as was Loki and Thor. An honor guard arrayed themselves around the gateroom. Frigga smiled and went to meet them.

A young girl at the back of the delegation pulled free of her matronly escort and made a beeline for Heimdall where he stood upon gate dais, his large, gnarled hands resting lightly around the hilt of his great golden sword.

Frigga kissed Freyr on the cheek. “It is good to see familiar faces from home, cousin. How goes it with you?” she asked.

“Well, as well as can be expected with this one in tow,” Freyr nodded towards the girl who had climbed the steps and now stared up into Heimdall’s eyes. Heimdall towered over her but the girl did not seem intimidated. She shook back a cloud of black curls and met his eyes. Her eyes were brilliant gold and seem to be burning with their own internal fire. Heimdall looked into those depths and knew them to be a mirror of his own.

Heimdall smiled. “Little Sister.” he said. The girl returned that smile.

“You are beautiful, Old Father,” she said in wonder.

“As are you, child.” Heimdall said.

“Come away, Idunn.” Freyr called. “Leave the Gatekeeper to his business. We have plenty of time for a family reunion later.”

Idunn looked away towards her grandfather for a moment before returning her gaze to Heimdall. Her eyes were no longer golden but a dusky green. “I have much to ask you, Old Father,” she said.

Heimdall bowed. “I have much to tell you, Daughter of my Heart.”

“Wait,” whispered Thor for Loki’s ears alone. “Did you see that?”

“See what,” Loki looked up from the study of his nails, obviously bored beyond bearing.

“Her eyes. Did you see her eyes? She had Heimdall’s eyes.”

Loki found the girl in the crowd, a look of intense interest on his face. “They look normal enough. The light in here can play tricks on your eyes.”

“I tell you brother, they were on fire not but a moment ago. She is of Heimdall’s line. Do you think what his gifts are hereditary?”

“I hope not, otherwise we would be up to our necks in golden eyed seers,” Loki drawled, brushing an imaginary speck from his sleeve, but his eyes followed the child as she reluctantly followed her grandfather out of the gate room and down the causeway.

****

At the formal court ceremony that afternoon, as Freyr bowed low before the Throne of Asgard to pay his tribute and reconfirm the treaty between Asgard and Vanaheim, Loki was there, as usual. He made a point of showing up to all these tedious court functions because Thor made it a point to absent himself from most of them. Loki liked to stand proudly next to the throne, as if his presence alone was a castigation of his brother’s ill manners.

“Greetings, Freyr, how fairs Vanaheim?” Odin’s voice boomed out from his throne.

“All is well, my Lord,” Freyr said. The ceremony continued on but Loki had no interest in it’s proceedings.

Instead he watched the delegation behind Freyr with great interest. The young girl fidgeting beside her duennas. Her beauty was captivating, fragile and as yet untouched by age or the vagaries of life. But was not her beauty that had Loki’s mind spinning. He was busy building one mad plan after another, each more ridiculously foolish than the last, each using a child with Heimdall’s magic as the leverage that might shift the world. But she was an unknown, in his mind, for he did not quite understand the extent of her powers.

Idunn looked around her in wonder and stared wide eyed at Odin and Frigga and Loki. Loki smiled at her. She blushed and hid behind her duenna.

Loki leaned close to Frigga, his mother. “These are your people. Is Freyr not your uncle?”

“More a third cousin.” Frigga replied softly.

“Who is the child?”

“His granddaughter, Idunn.”

“Why is she here? Is she part of the fealty gift? Is Father to take her into his household as his ward?” Loki could not keep the sneer from his face as if accusing Odin of having less than honorable intentions towards the girl.

“She is here to see Heimdall.” Frigga said patiently.

“The Gatekeeper?” Loki said in surprise.

“She has inherited his skills. Heimdall wishes to test the limits of her abilities”

Loki watched the girl out of the corner of his eye with new interest. “Has she? Surely she will not grow into a great warrior like Heimdall?”

“Heimdall is the Eye that Looks Outward. Idunn is female. Her’s will be The Inward Eye.”

“What does that mean?” Loki whispered.

“It is said that as long as a Vanir woman sits in the Temple on the Isle of Swords in Vanaheim, there will always be children being born in the Nine Realms, the fields will always be green, and the Asgardians, the Vanir, and the elves, both dark and light, will always be immortal.”

“She will become a priestess? What a shame. All that beauty locked away from the world.”

Frigga smiled. “You have obviously never been in a Vanir temple. The priestesses perform the rituals of fertility with any who ask.”

Loki looked down at his mother, an pinched look on his face, as if he had caught a whiff of something rotten. “I do not know which is worse, being celibate or being a holy whore.”

“Watch your tongue, Loki. You are not so old that I cannot beat you for your disrespect. If she is truly as powerful as Heimdall, then she will have no worries. She can do as she pleases for there would be none who could stand against her wishes.”

“Not even Odin?”

“Especially not your father. He is wise enough to leave the power of the goddesses to the women of the Upper Realms.”

Loki snorted in disbelief but said no more.

***

Loki spent the next week trying to spend time with Idunn. This proved a problem, as Freyr had no good opinion of Odin’s second son and the duenna’s guarding Idunn never left her side. He was frustrated enough to start plotting a kidnapping but was saved from the effort by no one other than his mother.

Frigga called her sons to her early one morning.

“Tsk. I have spread myself too thin,” Loki’s mother said with a frown. “I meant to give your cousins a tour of the city, to see all the most beautiful places. I want them to go home with fond memories of us. Could one of you take them to the lake district, today?”

“Mother,” groaned Thor, “you know Loki and I have to be in Nidavellir today.”

“Oh, I did not think your hunting trip with the Dwarf King was a matter of importance,” Frigga said, annoyed.

Thor opened his mouth to protest, a pained look on his face.

“I’ll take them, mother.” Loki said quickly. “I don’t mind.”

Frigga smiled. “You are a dear, Loki. I know you will keep your head about you when you are with them.”

“I? You know me, Mother. When have I been anything but circumspect? Thanks be to the World Tree that Thor is not taking them. He would try to kill a frost giant to impress them with his brawn.”

“Hey,” Thor protested. “I know how to be circum…. whatever.”

“Stop it, you two,” Frigga begged. “It is too early in the day to listen to you bicker.”

“Kiss ass,” whispered Thor as he walked away. Loki smiled a sly smile and said nothing.

Frigga put her hand on Loki’s arm. “I was being serious when I said to keep your head on your shoulders. Be careful around Idunn. She has yet to learn to control her power and it has seduced better men than you.”

Loki raised one elegant eyebrow, the only indication of his surprise. It was usually the good mothers who hid their daughters from him. Not the other way around. “I am at a loss, mother. What kind of advice is that for a mother to give her son? Father should be here.”

“Your Father is too shy about discussing such things. Womanly wiles confuse him, at times. Idunn is a thousand times more confusing than a normal girl. I am told that when her eyes burn golden, then it is already too late. Men loose their minds and their wills, becoming fools. Distraction is the key, I believe. Never fear. Her matronly escorts know how to deal with her. They will keep you safe enough, I think.”

“What? I am Loki Odinson, cleverest warrior in Asgard. Am I to hide behind women’s skirts?”

“Yes,” Frigga said firmly.

“What is she, that you fear her power so?” Loki asked.

Frigga shrugged. “The old wives say that the World Serpent sheds its skin once every thousand years but sometimes, what comes out of the hollowed out snake skin is not a bigger, better snake but something else. The old wives say that once a millennium or so, the World Serpent becomes a human with two legs who walks among humans for a time. When such a thing happens, great things occur. The course of all the realms are altered forever.”

“Surely you do not believe in such superstitious drivel, Mother?”

“No. But it helps to think of such things when you are dealing with her. Heimdall’s explanation makes less sense.”

“What does Heimdall say?”

“She is his mirror. What is up for Heimdall is down for Idunn. What is left, becomes right. What is dark becomes light.”

“If Heimdall is good, does that make Idunn evil? This explanation seems equally flawed,” Loki scoffed.

“Heimdall is neither good nor evil,” Frigga said patiently. “Is the sky good? Are the stars evil? He exists, just as the World Tree exists, a thing of power that is an elemental part of the fabric of Universe. Think of it as the seen and the unseen. Idunn is the unseen power. You would do well to remember that and forget that she is a beautiful and kind-hearted child.”

Loki puzzled over this. Frigga patted the cheek of her distracted son and left, the skirts of her dress swirling in her haste. Loki lifted his eyes to stare after her, his mind churning at the possibilities, all his questions still unanswered.

***

Loki stood in the shadows behind a pillar in the great antechamber of the palace and watched the Vanaheim delegation descend the grand staircase from the upper residential levels. Idunn fairly bounced down the stairs, full of innocent joy, obviously pleased at being here and seeing new things. Her grandfather called after her, a long suffering look on his face. Idunn leaped down the last two stairs, her skirts hiked up around her thighs, and then twirled to call back to him, laughing. Freya laughed, shaking his head ruefully and called something after her as she skipped down the great hall towards the balcony that overlooked the city.

Loki slid around the columns and then stepped out in front of her at just the right moment. Their bodies connected with a solid thud.

“Oof,” grunted Loki as she bounced off his chest. She nearly tumbled, but he grabbed her and held her steady. Idunn caught her fingers in his leather armor while she regained her footing.

Idunn looked up at him with her green eyes. This close, Loki noticed the flecks of gold in them. Had Heimdall’s eyes looked like this when he was a boy? Loki had always assumed Heimdall was born whole out of the ethers, warrior clad, having never seen him as anything other than the intimidating Gatekeeper.

“Prince Loki?” Idunn said tentatively.

Loki blinked. He had been standing overlong, holding her. He let go of her and stepped back.

“My apologies. I …. do you know you have the loveliest eyes?”

Idunn eyes twinkled in merriment, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Dimples threatened.

“Oh, dear,” Loki said. “Lovely eyes and dimples too. How can I resist?”

Idunn laughed. “I have been warned about you, Prince Loki.”

“No! What do they say?” he asked, pretending to be shocked, smiling. She was adorable, this green eyed child.

“That you are an expert at seduction and your golden tongue has led many a lass to your bed.” Idunn said solemnly.

“I am shocked. Who has been telling you such things? Such discussion are not meant for one as young as you, surely?”

“I am quite old. I shall be 14 in with the coming Harvest Moon.”

“Tsk, as old as that? I had no idea you were so long in the tooth. Well, there is no help for it. I could not possibly want you. Count yourself safe, being far too old and wise to fall for my wiles.”

Idunn laughed and then bowed. “Justly chastised. I will never listen to old wives and their gossip every again, for they are wrong about more than one thing.”

“What might be the other?”

“No one ever mentioned you were amusing,” Idunn said.

Loki clutched his heart in mock dismay, “My secret is out. Tell no one else I have a sense of humor, I beg you. They will expect droll conversation and amusing anecdotes if they knew. I could not bear the weariness of the burden.”

The dimples were back. “Oh, never. You secret is safe with me, Cousin.”

“What secret might that be,” asked Freyr, joining them, a little out of breath. The old man had fairly run to rescue Idunn from his clutches. Loki could not help himself. He pasted his habitual cold sneer on his face and waited for the snub.

Idunn intervened.

“Silly,” Idunn said, tucking her arm in the crook of her grandfather’s elbow. “It would not be a secret if I told everyone. I cannot betray Prince Loki’s trust, can I?”

“Well, …” Freyr said doubtfully.

Loki met the old man’s gaze. Freyr had the grace to look uncomfortable under his hard stare. The man was not totally witless.

***

Loki lounged lazily on a divan in his cousin’s apartments. Freyr, his retinue, and the matron escorts dozed on similar divans around the room. The day had been long and even Loki was exhausted.

“I am bored,” Idunn pouted.

Loki groaned and turned his head to eye his young cousin, a pained expression on his face.

“What? I have taken you to the High Opera, to a dozen Museums, and to the Great Library. I have taken you to the Edge of the world that you might look out into the stars. You have met everyone of note in Asgard.”

“I miss my horses.” she said, leaning her head on her hand and kicking her feet against the legs of the overlarge chair not made for one of her small stature.

“Are they like Odin’s horses, immortal and full of fire and brimstone?”

Idunn snorted. “They are just horses. Father brought a pair back from Midgard. I have taught them tricks. I would love for you to see them.”

“Perhaps one day I will visit you in Vanaheim but I do not think Freyr is done with his business here.” Loki commiserated.

Idunn looked up, dimples playing at the corners of her mouth. “Do you want to see something totally awesome?” she asked.

Loki shook his head. Nothing good would come from those dimples, he feared.

“I dread your definition of awesome,” he drawled.

Idunn jumped up and grabbed his arm, pulling at it, trying to get him to his feet. “Come on!”

“Where?” Loki asked, rising heavily, making her work to get him to his feet.

“Someplace away from prying eyes. Oh, and someplace away from breakable things, I think.”

Loki looked down at her, perplexed. “I am going to regret this, aren’t I?”

“Oh, my,” she said tugging him towards the door. “Stop being such a cry baby.”

***

Loki took her to the cave in the cliff above the sea. He set the sloop to hover in place, equal distant from the rough walls and the razor sharp rocks below and above them. Light streamed in from the entrance but it did not penetrate the gloom very far.

“There.” Loki said. “Safe and private.”

“I like it,” she said, looking around. “The walls will keep the wave front contained.”

“Whoa. Wait. What did I agree to?” Loki did not like that sound of this at all.

“I shall not tell you. It will spoil the surprise.” she sniffed loftily as she rose to her feet and held her hands out as if she were cupping a small ball between them. The air between her palms began to glow and after a moment a ball of golden fire the size of an apple spun lazily between her hands.

Loki rose to his feet, his heart racing. What she was doing was the finest of magic. He watched in admiration as the ball of light shifted and expanded, the fire cooling, the bubble now a cool blue color.

She had her head bowed, not looking at anything in particular, as she concentrated on whatever was going on in between her hands so Loki could be forgiven for not noticing. At first Loki thought that the hot wind whipping around them came from the mouth of the cave. He glanced back, thinking a storm was rising. The bit of sky outside the cave was still brilliantly blue. He turned back, momentarily confused, only to see Idunn’s hair rise into a wild halo that waved languidly in the air as if she were underwater.

“Idunn?”

Idunn looked up. Her eyes were molten fire.

“No!” Loki exclaimed, leaping across the sloop to grab her hands. He knew it was a mistake, the minute he touched her. Whatever she was doing with the energies of the world, now arced into his body with explosive force. Loki tried to howl in pain but his teeth were clenched too tightly together. He tried to release his hold on her but the muscles in his body spasmed uncontrollably. He did what survival ordained. He tried to channel the wild energy through his body and ground it out in the stones around them.

Idunn screamed. He could feel her trying to control the the spiral of power that was raging through the both of them. The mountain shook down to its roots as Idunn’s scream turned into a cry of agony, the energy threatening to pull them both apart.

Loki refused to be dominated by this. He fought back with all this strength, trying to control the power around him.

“Damn you, you will not die on my watch,” Loki shouted, pulling the energy away from her. He was not sure why he did not die. Perhaps he was too much a part of the magic of Asgard and it recognized him as one of its own. Perhaps it was that he was so focused on Idunn’s survival that he barely noticed his own, letting the power steam by him untouched. Perhaps fate and good fortune shone down on fools.

The rush of power faded to a trickle and then ceased altogether.

When it was done, when the light in Idunn’s eyes finally faded and she collapsed in a heap in the bottom of the air car and he could finally feel his fingers enough to let go of her arms, Loki looked up at the mountain over his head, wondering that it was still standing, wondering why they were alive, wondering who else had noticed this. Odin surely. Heimdall, without a doubt. There would be hell to pay when they got back to the palace.

Idunn rubbed the rising bruises on her arms and glared up at him. “What did you do? I had it under control.”

“What did I do? I was not the one channeling the power of ten thousand suns. What kind of idiot’s game do you play at, Idunn?”

“I was making a viewing ball so you could see my horses. Then you touched me and all the magic in Asgard tried to climb out of your heart.”

“Do not try to pin this on me!” Loki shouted furiously. “I was trying to stop you from doing something foolish.”

Idunn rose to her feet, her teeth bared in a barely suppressed snarl. “Just like a man, to think I need rescuing!”

“Did you not? The mountain nearly came down on our heads.” Loki shouted, waving his arm at the cave walls.

Idunn’s eyes followed his hand. She blanched, fear suddenly apparent on her face. Loki’s hand had disappeared for a moment. “Loki?” she said faintly.

“What?” he shouted.

“The front of your air car is gone.”

Loki turned. The front of his sloop was indeed gone, cut cleanly off with surgical precision. A strange gurgling sound came out of his throat. He grabbed the controls and backed up. The prow of the air car reappeared. The air in front of them returned to normal; that is, it ceased to wobble drunkenly around the prow of the air car.

Loki stared at the offending air. He press the controls forward and eased the air car forward until the sloop touch an invisible wall and slid into it. The prow disappeared once more. Whatever they had done, it seemed a permanent change to the fabric of Asgard.

Idunn pressed her fingers against her mouth, her eyes gone wide.

“What…..” Loki choked out. “What did you do?”

“Do you think we are going to be trouble if they see this?” she squeaked.

“Oh, I don’t know, Idunn. We just ripped a hole in the universe. What do you think they will say to that?”

“Well, its not exactly a hole.”

“What is it then?”

“If it is what I think it is, it is just … bigger.”

Loki sighed and resisted the urge to throttle her. “A bigger what, Idunn? What were you building?”

“A window.”

“A window to where?”

“Where ever I want to see. Wishes are the key that unlock the magic.”

“So as I stand here and wished to see Midgard, all I need do is stick my head in that thing?”

“Pretty much. But I have never built one so large,” Idunn said, staring at the place where the air car touched the window. “They never let me play with the worlds,” she said softly. “I think it frightens them, the things I do. The more adept I become, the more walls they build around me to keep me contained.”

Loki flinched at the pain he saw in her face. Who, more than he, knew what it was like to be powerful yet castrated by the circumstances of one’s birth.

Idunn looked back at him, a mischievous look building behind those eyes. “Let’s see what is on the other side.”

Loki laughed at the mercurial shift in her mood.

“No. Absolutely not. Odin would kill me. I am taking you back to the palace.”

“If we are already in trouble, what is a little more? They can only kill us once.”

Loki stared at her. She blinked, wide eyed, waiting.

“You are demon spawn,” Loki breathed out, nudging the controls forward.

“You are the best, Loki,” she said, her dimples back.

“Yes, I know, but I am trying to keep that a secret.”

“You have a lot of secrets,” Idunn observed faintly as the wave front eased around her.

“Yes,” Loki said to himself as the wave approached him, “yes, I do.”

The sloop disappeared and the air in the cave returned to normal.

***

The place beyond the doorway out of Asgard was not what Loki expected. It was a world of fire. The land underneath them was molten. Idunn, with a wave of her arm, had already built a bubble of blue light around them to shield them from the blasting heat.

“I thought we were going to Vanaheim to see your pet horses,” Loki said casually, careful to keep his tone neutral.

“Where do you think this is?” Idunn asked, a worried look on her face.

Loki closed his eyes for moment. He could not kill her. Her little bubble was likely the only thing keeping the air car from melting into slag. “I wished for nothing so it must be your wishes that directed the doorway. What was your wish?”

“I was thinking that they never let me go anywhere and wouldn’t it be fun to go somewhere I have never been. I …” Idunn looked up at Loki. “I am sorry. I have made a right mess of this, haven’t I?”

Loki shook his head and put the sloop in reverse. He was not sure but he had his suspicions. This must be Muspelheim. The fire realm. Surtur surely had noticed their invasion into his kingdom.

The sloop jerked to a halt. Loki tried changing direction. The engine whined but the air car did not move. Idunn looked over the side.

“Uh, Loki … ?” she said, her voice high pitched with fear.

Loki glanced down and cursed under his breath. A serpentine coil of fire had coalesced around the car’s undercarriage. It held them fast in its coils, Idunn’s blue bubble flaring under the attack.

Surtur had indeed noticed them. Loki scanned the distance around them. Something large swam towards them, using the air like water, its body as bright as the molten stone below them, its great undulations marking its immense size. A fire dragon with a mouth large enough to swallow ten air cars whole drew near.

Idunn crouched low in the bottom of the air car and stared up at it.

“So, dear one,” the dragon said. “You have come to me at last. Premature but welcome all the same.”

Idunn looked over at Loki, puzzled.

“I think he means you,” Loki said helpfully.

Idunn stood up and looked up into the eyes of the dragon. Loki would have warned her against that, but held his tongue. If anyone was in danger, it was probably the dragon.

“Do I know you?” Idunn asked.

“No. But I know you. I have waited an eternity for your return. Come. I will build you a palace that will put Odin’s palace to shame. You will live with me and we will have many children,” the dragon said, its deep rumbling voice wrapping itself around them as it purred in pleasure.

Idunn squeaked, her eyes wide.

“I am afraid the lady is mine, Lord Surtur. My claim must supersede yours,” Loki said, rising to his feet.

The dragon turned his great head. “Loki Odinson. I thought I recognized the stink of Asgard. Has the All Father sent you here to torment me?”

“My lady wanted a tour of the nine realms as a wedding present. I thought to bring her here, to the lowest of the realms, that she might see the least to better appreciate the greatest, Asgard.”

Surtur hissed and air was filled with the steam from his breath. “You are but a biting fly. I challenge you. I will fight you to the death for the Lady’s hand.”

“Hey!” Idunn yelled, stamping her foot and glaring angrily at the dragon. “The Lady is standing right here. If you have something to ask to me, you need to address me directly. And nobody is fighting to the death unless I say so.”

The dragon opened its great jaws in something that looked suspiciously like a grin and turned its head to stare at her with one great eye. “Idunn, Yggdrasil’s daughter. How fine you have become. The World Tree shook at your birth. Have you come to gather all the realms into your heart and unite us once more?”

Idunn looked up at him, a puzzled frown between her brows. “Is that why I am here?” she asked softly as she lifted her hand, reaching out into the fire world as if she could touch the fire demon without dying. “To merge the realms into one?’

The dragon shivered in pleasure and drew close, condensing its fire so that it might seem smaller. Loki watched her eyes turn molten and realized that the dragon was made of the same stuff as her eyes. He held his breath, waiting for her to destroy it.

“How could the Fire Realm exist in the same place as the realm of the Dark Elves? Would their merging not destroy them both? Have you grown so weary of the game, Father, that you would gladly go into oblivion?” Idunn asked, placing her hand upon the great fire lizard’s snout. The hot wind of her power whipped around them, inside their blue bubble, a tell-tale sign of just how much power it took for her to touch him and not die.

“Oblivion within your heart, beloved, would be paradise,” the dragon said putting his ear under her hand that she might scratch behind it.

“Now is not the time, dear heart,” Idunn said, obliging him.

“Shall I kill this maggot for you and set you fee?” the dragon asked, eying Loki.

Idunn looked over her shoulder and smiled, the dimples on her cheeks deep. Loki would have smiled back if it were not for the fire in her eyes and the perilously close jaws of the dragon. He found that he could barely breathe as her terrifying beauty washed over him.

“Oh, no,” Idunn said. “Please don’t. He has too many secrets and I am still trying to discover them all. Where would my pleasure be if you killed him?”

“If he pleases you then it is my pleasure that he lives.”

“Thank you, dear heart. I fear we have overstayed our time here, though. I had only meant to say hello. Odin and Heimdall will be looking for my return. Release us, if it pleases you.”

The coils of fire curled up over their heads, embracing the blue bubble tighter. “I cannot bring myself to loose you,” the dragon sighed sadly. “When will I see you again?”

“I shall return, one day. I promise,” Idunn said gently.

“When? Must I wait for the end days? Cruel is your heart, if that were true.”

Idunn puzzled over this for a moment.

“You are right, of course. Here. Take this,” she said, putting her hands together. A golden ball of fire grew between her hands. When it was no bigger than an apple she released it. It drifted in the air and she nudged it towards the dragon. “This is my promise.”

“What is it?”

“A piece of my heart that you might hold it safe until I return to retrieve it.”

The dragon swallowed the ball of fire and then shuddered in pleasure.

“A true gift. I am blessed. But I must give you something in return. A gift suitable for my future queen.” With that the dragon coiled over her head. She looked up in wonder as the substance of its body melted, dripping down around her. The dragon twisted and blew his hot breath upon it. Loki put his hand up to shield his eyes from the glare and when he brought it down again, Surtur was gone and Idunn stood resplendent in gold. A gold diadem sat amid her curls. A golden bodice wrapped her waist. Golden cuffs encircled her wrists, intricate runes embedded deep in all the metal.

Idunn looked at it and laughed in wonder, holding her arms out so Loki could admire her garb better.

Loki tried not to snarl. It turned into a sneer. “Very … gaudy,” he said. Did she think he would not care that she received gifts from her lovers and it would not affect him? Surtur had done this to spite him. He took it as the insult that it was.

“You are just jealous. Shall I call him back so you might have a golden crown too?”

Loki looked away from her teasing, not liking where his heart was taking him in this. He had thought himself immune to such emotions.

Light flashed below them. Loki peered over the side just in time to see the coils of fire released them. He grabbed the rudder and shoved the air car into reverse. Their stay in Muspelheim was thankfully over. If they could get back to the cave and then back to the palace before Freyr and the matron guards woke to notice their absence, then this day might not end in total fiasco. He was breathing a sigh of relief when the Bifrost opened and sucked them out of the fire realm.

***

Heimdall glared down at them from the gate dais. Idunn flinched and looked down at her feet. “Greetings, Old Father,” she said. “I am sorry to have bothered you.”

“We did not need rescuing,” Loki protested sullenly. “I had it under control.”

“Oh, it was not your worthless hide that we wanted to save. It was the well being of the nine realms and the peace between Asgard and Surtur that was in danger,” Odin said, his voice loud and harsh in the gate room. Freyr stood at Odin’s side, a black scowl on his face. “What were you thinking, boy?” Odin demanded.

“Obviously he wasn’t thinking,” Freyr said, taking Idunn by the hand and pulling her away. Idunn glared at her grandfather, furious, but she allowed herself to led away all the same. Loki stared after her, wondering why she tolerated it, this child who could tame demons.

Odin joined him and followed his gaze with his own. Loki thought to tell him what Surtur had said, to warn him about the crazy notion of merging the nine realms but he held his peace, the weight of Odin’s displeasure a palpable sensation in the air around him.

“I do not know what kind of game you think you are playing here, but I fear you are out of your depth with this one,” Odin said softly.

Loki turned his head to look into his father’s eyes. There were so many things that he could have said to that but instead he chose a different tact. “Did Mother do this to you? Did she keep changing the rules so that you never knew if it was solid ground you were standing upon when you were around her?”

Odin’s brow furrowed in concern. “Is that the way of it, then? You have feelings for her? I would have expected Thor to be the first to fall prey to the leg traps of love, not you. I thought you were more canny than that.”

“Is love a game just for the muscle-bound meat-heads, then?” Loki said, hurt for some reason that he could not immediately explain. “What of me? Shall I marry for logic and politics and leave my heart frozen?”

“Is it love or are you merely attracted to the power that rages inside her?” Odin asked point blank.

Loki hissed. Only his father had the power to draw blood with his words. He looked away while he waited for his temper to ebb that he might say something clever and cutting but by the time he looked up, Odin was already mounted and galloping away down the causeway.

“She will break your heart, Prince Loki,” Heimdall said gently. Loki looked up. Heimdall had joined him, to stand by his side as he watched Odin and Freyr and Idunn grow smaller in the distance.

“Have you gazed into my future, then? Do not tell me what you have seen. I do want to know.”

“I cannot see what will be but I see what is with utter clarity. I only warn you so that you will be prepared for the inevitable. Nothing good can come from this. The Lords of the Nine Realms will vie for her attention and in the end she will still go to the Isle of the Swords where she will wield her power in counterpoint to he who sits upon the throne in Asgard,” Heimdall said.

“Meaning what? That I, a mere second son, could not possibly hold her affections and that even this, Thor, as the future king, wins?”

“This is not about you or Thor. She is not meant for hearth and home and the love of a good man. She can never bear you children. Too much rests upon her shoulders.”

Loki shook his head, the bitter irony of this moment too much to bear. After a moment, he turned away to gaze out into the stars beyond the gate.

“She makes me laugh,” Loki said softly, as if this was all the explanation needed.

Heimdall studied him for a moment. “Then I am glad for you …. but truly, truly sorry.”

***

Thor looked up in surprise as the Bifrost opened and deposited Loki in the middle of his hunting camp.

“Brother!” Thor shouted with delight. “The glamour of city life has grown burdensome, I see. Come. I killed a stag in the hunt today and it is just now done roasting. King Eitri has been a gracious host and provided us with a dozen casks of ale.”

Loki glared at his brother but the thought of copious amounts of ale to drown his sorrows was enough to shift his mood a bit. Someday. Someday he, Loki, would come into his own and living in Thor’s shadow would end.

He crossed to the fire and let them shove a flagon into his hands.

***

Odin glared down at Idunn from his throne. Freyr pushed her to the bottom of the steps and retreated a space, leaving her all alone. Idunn was afraid to look up. She hated being afraid so she lifted her chin proudly and returned the Allfather’s gaze, unflinching.

“You went into Muspelheim today,” Odin said.

“I did.”

“And what did you do there, pray tell?”

“I met Surtur and promised him my heart.”

“Did you? That was foolish. What will you do when he finds out you cannot make good on your promise?”

Idunn looked up at the All Father, a smile playing on her lips. “But he has it. My heart. Or a place in it. Surtur was well pleased with our arrangement. Where have you taken Loki? Do not punish him. He is blameless in today’s events.”

“Loki is as far from you as it is possible to be. It seems he cannot be trusted to do the simplest things when you are present, so I deemed it safer for all of us to send him to Nidavellir to be with his brother. Thor is far less fragile than you and will not break if Loki has another lapse in judgement. What do you mean, you have given Surtur a place in your heart?”

Idunn looked down, trying to find the words to describe the ineffable. “What am I?” she asked. “Is there a word for it, I wonder?” She looked up again. Her eyes were liquid gold. “I am Nothing. I am the empty vessel into which all of Creation flows. I am the Well. Were you to drink from me all your thirsts would be satisfied. I will give you freely what I gave Surtur.”

Idunn cupped her hand and created a ball of light. She set it spinning and then nudged ti towards Odin. Odin stopped it with a wave of his hand.

“Do you fear it?” Idunn asked, her golden eyes staring up at him from under her thick black lashes.

“I will not be seduced by you,” Odin said.

“You, Odin All Father, more than any, must know what it takes to hold the reins of power. Do you fear the thing I am becoming?”

“Wielding power, young miss, is not about the ending but about the journey that leads to it. A man of true power learns to prolong the pleasure without ever seeking climax.”

Idunn stared up at him, something of Loki’s frustration bleeding into her own mind. Only angry words came to mind. She bowed her head and said nothing.

****

“Has father ever spoken of you marrying?” Loki asked drunkenly. The hour was late and the fire had burned down to embers. Most everyone else had found their pallets and fallen into drunken stupors.

“What?” Thor said genuinely surprised. “No. Why should he?

“No? Oh. Well,” Loki said with a shrug. “If is nothing. Perhaps I misunderstood. Do you think he arranged matches for us when we were born and just has not gotten around to telling us?”

“Father would never tell me who I was to marry.”

“Or when,” agreed Loki. “Or make taking the throne contingent on wedding who he deemed worthy as the next queen. I cannot imagine who Father would choose. Some cow with wide hips perhaps who can produce many heirs.” Loki shuddered theatrically.

“What has he said?” Thor asked, scowling at Loki angrily.

“Nothing really. He just warned me away from Idunn. Said he had other plans for her.”

“Who?”

“Cousin Idunn, Freyr’s grandaghter.”

“She is a child!” Thor said, aghast. “Would he have me marry babes barely out of their swaddling clothes? I do not believe it. You worry about nothing.”

“Of course. You are right. I must have misunderstood.” Loki said rising to find his own bed, content that he had planted the seeds of discontent in Thor’s mind.

The ensuing week was a blur of killing things during the day and getting raucously drunk at night. On the last day of the hunt, King Eitri took then to the enchanted forest high on the side of a mountain, promising the best hunting ever. A white boar appeared, its hide shimmering in the dim light under the dense canopy. Eitri laughed as Thor roared in pleasure and gave chase.

Loki, no stranger to magic, reined in hard, unwilling to chase illusions. His horse was not so willing to be parted from its companions. He was angry and sweating from the effort, by the time he had the animal under control, The hunting party was long gone.

The rush of wind was the only warming. Great taloned feet slam into him, catching him up and lifting him into the air. The talons pierce his magical armor, crushing his chest. This is no ordinary bird, but a magical demon dressed as an eagle. Loki tried to gather his wits about him but it was all he could do to breath as the monster flew him to the highest crags of the mountain.

The eagle dropped him upon the stones and landed next to him. It dipped its sharp beak close and pinned Loki with its cruel eye.

“I hear rumors, Asgardian,” the eagle said. “Loki Odinson. Trickster and liar extraordinaire. My ears are long and I hear much on this mountaintop. Surtur says you have married her already. What blasphemous plot is this? Has Odin lost his mind? Or has he become so deluded by the power of Asgardian magic that he spits upon the old magic of the World Tree?”

“Do you listen to demons? They are notorious liars.” Loki said, trying to sit up. The eagle put out a leg and pinned him to the stones.

“Tell me, Asgardian vermin. I will have the truth from you.”

“Truth. It is a stranger to me, I fear.”

“The ealge tightened his grip. Loki felt the talons slide between his ribs. He cried out in agony and when he thought he might truly die, the pressure eased a bit.

“I could kill you, Asgardian. No more of your games. Do not try to twist our conversation to suit your nature. Have you usurped the power of the World Snake Made Flesh?”

“No. We are friends, nothing more,” Loki gasped.

“I smell lies still,” the eagle said squeezing just a bit. “That is my talon against your heart. Tell me true. What does Odin have planned for the child, Idunn?”

“I do not know. I beg you. Believe me,” Loki cried. “I am only a second son. Odin tells his secrets to no one, not even his sons.”

“Yes? But what do you plan to do with her?”

“She is powerful, yet untrained. It makes her dangerous.”

“Would you teach her, then?” the eagle asked, amused by something.

“I know magic.”

“Ha,” shouted the eagle. “You are a fledgling in the land of magic. Better that someone such as I teach her.” The talons began to squeeze again. “I will kill you for a the sin of touching her sacred person.”

“No, wait. I can make that happen,” Loki said desperately.

The talons eased.

“Make what happen?”

“You obviously want to be her teacher. I can lure her out of Asgard and bring her to you.”

“You lie. How can I trust you?” The talons began to crush him again.

“You have my word as a son of Odin, on my honor as an Asgardian.” Loki screamed.

The eagle paused to consider this.

“I shall hold you to it, child of Asgard. Disappoint me and I shall hunt you down to finish what was started here.” The eagle launched himself into the air, Loki still in his talons.

It was with great surprise that Thor found his brother, some few minutes later, dropping into his arms out of the very air.

“Brother,” Loki said, coughing wetly. Blood bubbling out of the holes in his armor. Thor swore long and hard as he pressed his hands into the wounds.

“Who has done this. I shall hunt them down and kill them.”

‘”No, please, I beg you. I am sick to death of this place. Take me home,” Loki groaned.

Thor looked up. “Heimdall! Open the Bifrost!”

****

The air at the foot of Loki’s bed rippled as Idunn appeared.

Loki groaned. “Go away.”

“As a rule, I never do what people tell me,” she said sitting on the side of his bed and looking at him with concern. “Heimdall said I should never build doorways in Asgard again but here I am not half a day later, doing just that.”

“Father will not be pleased that you are here,” Loki said, pushing her hand away when she tried to touch his forehead.

“Odin,” Idunn snorted in disdain. “I offered him the Heart of the World and he turned it down.”

“Did he? That seems foolish.” Loki said, distracted, as she caught his hand and held it down. She pressed the other onto the center of his chest.

“Stay still,” she ordered. “Do you give Asgard’s healers this much trouble?” She closed her eyes and listened to something inside him. “Let me see what is wrong.”

“Hopefully you are a better healer than you are a sorceress.”

“Hah! Little do you know, but the core of my power lies in my ability to see what is broken about anything and then heal it. Bodies, minds, hearts. They are the little things. I am much better at healing the Nine Realms and Yggdrasil and the World Snake. They break less easy.”

Loki choked and pushed her hands away. “Please, please, do not try to heal me. I do not know that I am strong enough to survive it.”

“The eagle was not an eagle.”

“No. Really?” Loki said dryly.

“It was Lady Hel, supreme ruler of the underworld. She is not overly fond of the upper realms nor any of the house of Odin. It is a wonder that she let you go.”

“What do you know of Hel?” Loki asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“Surtur is not the first realm Lord I have met,” Idunn said with a shrug, as a net of golden light built on her right hand.

“What? When did you meet Hel? What idiot took you to the underworld?”

“She came to see me after I stole the dead from her. Well, not all of them. Just the ones in Vanaheim.”

Loki sat up in alarm and groaned, clutching at his chest. She pushed him down with the hand covered in light. It sank into his chest up to her wrist.

“Oh, well, that is interesting,” Idunn said, as if she had found a new bug for her bug collection.

“Gah!” cried Loki staring at his chest in horror. “Stop! What are you doing?”

“Oh my goodness,” Idunn said pulling her hand out, the golden net now gone. “You are such a baby. I was just putting a shield around your heart so she cannot do that again. Plus, your healers are very sloppy. I shored up the abrasion on your heart, left from Hel’s dark magic.”

Loki paused. He did feel better. He looked up in admiration. “Why are you not a full time healer?”

Idunn snorted. “Let’s just say I do not work well with others.”

Loki stared at her. “But you are brilliant.”

Idunn gave him an odd look. “I met Hel when I was six years old. She terrified me. The dead terrified me. I did not want to heal the Darkness. I thought I could be like other kids and take my problems to my parents so I told my mother that I had met Hel. She punished me for telling lies because who was I that Hel would come all the way from the underworld to visit? That was the first time the people who were supposed to love me disappointed me.” Idunn looked away. “Deeply, profoundly, disappointed,” she said softly. She shook her head and smiled down at Loki. “Now, I do not share my gifts willingly, though, being six kinds of a fool, I have tried over and over again, being ever hopeful. I find the reaction is almost universally identical. No, Idunn, they say. You must be wrong. That is not how normal people do things. No, Idunn, you must be confused. How could one as young as you understand?” She shrugged. “So when someone takes the time to teach me things I listen politely then do the opposite. It makes them angry with me. You, the legendary Trickster, must know what I am talking about.”

“I? I am nothing. I am nobody. I am Thor’s shadow. I excel at nothing but cleverness and words.”

“Don’t do that.” she said softly. “Don’t ever do that.”

Idunn stood up and walked away

“Do what?”

Idunn glared at him over her shoulder.

“You and I, we shared something, in that cave, as all the magic of Asgard tried to rip our souls from our bodies. I know you. I have seen inside your heart. I know you better than anyone else. You are brilliant, just like me. You know what it feels like. Your rage is the rage of frustration. You have stood upon the edge of great Chasm and she has whispered her secrets into your mind. Wonderful, exciting, secrets. They filled you with wonder. They made your heart want to explode out of your chest.”

Idunn twirled in a circle, her arms high over her head and she cried out. “They made you want to dance for joy at the glorious-ness of all Creation!”

She stopped and dropped her arms, her head drooping, her face turning sad. “But who could you tell? Who could you share any of this with. Who would understand? No one. Odin took the world because he is strongest. Thor is an apple that has not fallen far from that tree. The Court of Asgard is Odin’s Court, full of warriors. There is no elegance, no grace, no brilliance, no subtlety. Who needs to be subtle when you can win with your fists? You felt so alone. You began to hate them because you loved them and they made you be alone.” Idunn sat once more on the edge of the bed. She touched Loki’s cheek, taking his single tear onto her fingertips and anointing her brow with it. “I know you know. I feel the same thing. We are cursed.”

Loki put his hand on top of hers. “Never think it, dear heart,” he whispered fiercely. “We will have our time. They shall come crawling to us, begging for the scraps from out table.”

Idunn looked up at him from under her ebony lashes, her dimples peaking out. “Shall I tell you a secret?”

“Oh dear,” Loki said, “I dread to hear it.”

“They think it is time to teach me, now that my eyes turn to fire. But it is too late. That time was before I was six, before the dead of Vanaheim came to roost in the rafters of my bedroom and Hel had to come and retrieve them. But even then it might have been too late. I was born knowing who I was and what my destiny was and I think you are the same way. I am never sad when I remember that. I am never alone because the length and breadth of time ticks away inside my mind and I hear the same tick tock clock resonating inside your heart as well.”

“But what are we to do when the moments strung together are made unbearable by those who are blind to what we see?”

Idunn laughed. “You already know the answer to that, Master Trickster. This life is a game and the realms are merely our playground. Who is there to stop us?”

Loki smiled. “Have I told you that you are demon spawn?”

“Not today, you have not,” she said, looking down at him fondly.

“Go back to your room, Idunn. Surely your duenna’s are looking for you by now. I do not want Odin or Heimdall to turn their eyes in this direction.”

Idunn rose to her feet. “You are right. I must be away. But it is Hel I seek. I cannot have her trying to kill my friends. I have so few as it is.”

And she was gone in the next breath.

Loki cursed as he lay back on his pillows. He felt fine but he wanted to get all the rest he could because when they found Idunn missing they would hound him relentlessly until he produced her. Loki frowned. When, he wondered, had he become the guard dog of precocious teenagers? It was all so exhausting.

As he lay there the possibilities percolated through his brain. When he thought out all the angles, he rose and donned his best court trappings. This was going to be delicious. He could not wait for the idiots to realize Idunn had turned their world upside down once again.

***

Thor, standing attendance behind the throne, looked up in surprise. “What? Not half a day from your death bed and you are up and walking. What is your secret, brother?”

“Dying is such a dreadfully boring ordeal,” Loki said softly as he took his place beside his brother. “The court life has always been far more interesting.”

“Better you than I, Loki,” Thor said softly into his brother’s ear. “I am bored to tears here. I miss the Dwarf King’s hospitality.”

Loki was about to comment on the Dwarf King’s daughters when Freyr came storming into the court, Frigga in tow. Freyr stopped short and glared at Loki before he turned to confront Odin.

“Make this …” Freyr stuttered in his rage, his finger pointing, trembling, in Loki’s general direction. “Make this changeling confess to his crimes, I beg you, my Lord.”

Odin, not much appreciating Freyr’s reference to Loki’s parentage, scowled as he rose to his feet. “Control yourself, Freyr. If you seek justice, you will get it under my rule. Never fear. To what crime should Loki confess?”

“Idunn is missing. Ask him where she is.”

“Loki has been laying in his sick bed this past day,” protested Thor. “And before that he was with me in the Dwarf Realm.”

“He is master of illusion. Did you put your fingers into his wounds to see if they were real?” Freyr shouted in frustration.

“Are you calling me a liar?” roared Thor. “Ask the healers. They have no reason to lie.”

“Yet here he stands, the Dark Magic of his wounding completely gone. Your healers must be more extraordinary than I had heard, Lord Odin.”

Frigga went to Loki’s side.

Loki had been watching the exchange with delighted interest.

“Say something,” she begged. “Your silence is damning.”

“But mother, the truth is even more damning,” Loki drawled loudly. The room grew silent as everyone turned to stare at him.

“What truth do you have to share with us, Loki?” Odin asked.

“I do indeed know where Idunn is. It is my doing that she is there.”

“See!” shouted Freyr. “See. You harbor an asp to your heart, Odin All Father.”

“Where is she?” Odin asked, anger in his voice. Loki suspected the weight of that anger was more directed at Freyr for challenging his rule.

“I lured her out of Asgard,” Loki declared, redirection the attention of the room back on himself, “with a tale of a great sorceress that made golden balls of light far more sublime than hers. She went to find this imaginary teacher and was caught, instead, by the mountain giant Peyris, who has taken her home to be his wife, I imagine. The queue for that honor seems to be long and growing every larger by the moment.”

“Loki,” cried Frigga. “She is family!”

Odin held up his hand to silence the angry muttering that filled the great hall.

“Why would you do that?” asked Odin.

“It was no ordinary giant eagle that snatched me up in Meyerheim. They have not the magic to pierce my armor nor the dark magic to nearly stop my heart. It was the giant, Peyris. Under pain of torture, I promised Peyris that I would deliver Idunn to him. I have merely kept my word.”

The room erupted in shouts, most of them aimed at Loki. Loki raised an eyebrow and could barely suppress the sneer on his lips.

“Silence!” roared Odin. When all had grown quiet and the silence in the court was complete, Odin looked down at Loki. “On pain of death, Loki Odinson, I command you to retrieve the Lady Idunn. On pain of death.”

Loki sucked his rage into his heart, careful to keep his face an emotionless mask. He bowed low. “As you wish, Father.” he said. Turning smartly, he marched out of the great hall.

Thor fell into step by his side. “Tell me what you plan. I can help you kill this giant.”

“Yes, but I fear Idunn might die in the process. I think the skills of a thief are required here. I shall disguise myself as a hawk and fly into its eyrie.”

“But surely he will give chase once she is taken. Let us devise a trap. I and my men shall lie in wait while a handful create a distraction so that you can slip into the nest unnoticed. If you bring him to us, he will die for his crimes against our family,” Thor suggested.

“Why would you help me?”

“Father meant it, brother. You must get this girl back or he will execute you himself.”

“Hmm, yes, he would do that. Otherwise his rule would be suspect. Cruel is the throne for any who dare to love.”

Thor nodded, the irony lost on him.

***

A great hawk appeared in the air above Idunn’s head. Hel sighed and waved a hand, conjuring another chair and another tea cup. Idunn smiled and clapped her hands as the hawk hovered for a moment before dipping down to light upon the stone tile at her feet. Loki shook off the magic and bowed low to Hel.

“Lady Hel,” he said. “forgive my intrusion. I have come to retrieve my truant cousin.”

“Sit. Take tea with us. I will be insulted if you do not.”

Loki took the offered seat. Hel floated the cup to him. It filled with tea as it neared him. “You are a gracious host, Lady,” Loki said.

“What choice have I, with everyone who takes a mind to it dropping in unannounced,” she said.

“How did you find me?” Idunn asked.

“All I had to do was stand in front of the doorway in the cave and think about you. The doorway found you.”

“Clever. But I am not ready to go back,” Idunn sniffed regally, a dark cloud forming behind her eyes. “I will come when I wish to come and not before.”

“Too bad. You will miss all the fun.”

Idunn’s face brightened. “Fun?”

“There is a reason they call me the Trickster,” Loki said, a smile playing in his eyes. “The minute you were discovered missing they called out my name as the culprit. I could not very well tell them where you were without revealing your secrets, secrets that were not mine to tell, so I invented a marvelous story of magic and kidnapping. It so intrigued everyone in court that now I have my brother Thor and his lieutenants laying a trap for the magical eagle at this very moment.”

“You mean to trap me? I think not,” Hel said, her eyes glittering dangerously.

“No. I mean for you to stay as far from this as possible. It would not do for the Lady Idunn to be thought of as a minion of Hel. No, I mean to play a game of illusions. Everyone will be a hero and the Lady Idunn will be magically rescued, blameless more than anyone can be. All I need you to do, my dear cousin, is appear out of thin air on cue.”

“Oh, I can do that easy enough,” Idunn said brightly. “What is the trick, then?”

Loki explained the lie. Idunn giggled. “They did not believe this, surely?” she asked with a laugh.

“They did indeed,” Loki said, holding up an acorn. “So when I fly in, clutching you in the form of this nut, with the great eagle in hot pursuit, Thor will leap out of hiding and kill it with the lightning of Mjolnir. The eagle with transform into a giant and then die horribly, extinguishing its magic in the fire, leaving not even a tooth or a claw for Thor to take as a prize.”

“When do I come in?” Idunn asked, her eyes dancing.

“Then I shall wave my hand,” Loki said, making the nut disappear with a wave of hand, “and you shall appear with a tragic tale of unrequited love.”

“Who’s love?” Idunn asked puzzled,

“The tragic, smitten giant, Peyris. Pay attention, dear heart. You will have to make up that part. I want to be as surprised as everyone else by your tale. When you tell it, do not leave out the part where you were terrified of dying at the giant’s hands.”

“I was?” Idunn asked.

Loki glared at her.

“Oh,” Idunn said, suddenly grinning. “I mean, I was, terrified that is. Big, smelly, mountain giants. Ugg.” Idunn added an exaggerated shudder then looked at Hel, a curious look on her face. “Are mountain giants smelly? I have never met a giant. I would not know. I don’t suppose we could go find one down here in Hel?”

“No,” Hel and Loki said simultaneously.

“No, dear, do not worry about that part,” Hel said. “No one expects an adolescence girl to remember all the details in her hysteria. Just make something up and tell it like you believe it beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

“Hysteria? I do not think I know how to be hysterical.” Idunn said doubtfully.

“Of course you don’t,” Loki said fondly. “It is what they will think. Any errors in your story will be forgiven.”

“To add veracity,” Hel said, a smile on her lips – the demon was enjoying this, “change the story every time you tell it so that it becomes just a little bit scarier. Maybe on the third or fourth telling, try bursting into tears.”

Loki and Idunn laughed. “Oh, my, I cannot remember when I have had more fun,” Loki said drolly.

Later that evening, after a tour of the palace and fond farewells between Hel and Idunn, Idunn withdrew a pace, preparing to send Loki to Meyenheim. Hel pulled Loki aside.

“I will lend my magic to this endeavor. Do not be surprised if the giant eagle is hard to kill. Prince Thor and Lord Odin must believe your escape is truly dangerous.”

“You are most gracious, Lady.” Loki said. “To what do I owe this kindness?”

“I hear things down here. You did not tell her that you are burdened with Odin’s death sentence.”

“She did not need to hear that. The tragedy of my life is not something the kind-hearted need be reminded of.”

“She will learn of it eventually.”

“She will be outraged but she will look to me to see my mood, to see if my heart has been wounded. I will not burden her with my hate.”

“Odin is an old fool. His blindness is monumental,” Hel observed.

“Yes. I shall use that flaw to my advantage,” Loki said, his eyes glittering dangerously.

“Shall I tell you a secret?” Hel asked.

“Oh, dear. Please don’t.”

“Coward. I shall tell you anyway because, like you, I like to watch the earth shake and the walls crumble and the fools tumble down out of their high places. Eventually they all fall here and I get to feast upon their hearts. But I shall never taste your heart, Lord Loki. In the end, you will have your wish, though I think the victory will be bitter ash upon your tongue.”

Loki stared at her, his face an inscrutable mask. Hel bowed and turned to leave as Idunn approached them.

“Saying your goodbyes?” Idunn asked.

“The Lady Hel was under the mistaken assumption that I needed a fortune teller.”

“Oh, dear. Do not listen to her. All journeys have a beginning, a middle, and an end. She only sees the end part and it makes her view of the world fatally grim.”

Loki looked at her and he felt the weight lift off his heart. “Look at you. Even in Hel, your light cannot be quenched.” he whispered.

****

The delegation from Vanaheim gathered in the gate room, preparing to depart. Frigga was there to see them off. Loki eased quietly into the gate room and caught Idunn’s eye. He nodded his head slightly while pretending to be pleased as Freyr thanked him once again for rescuing his granddaughter.

Idunn was the last to offer him goodbyes. Loki bowed over her offered hand.

“You know,” Idunn said softly, “my little balls of fire fade over time. It takes constant attention to keep them alive.”

Loki looked up at her from under a puzzled brow, not sure of her meaning.

“Wishes are a very powerful kind of magic. Perhaps more potent than any other kind.” Idunn added, shaking back her cloud of ebony curls.

Loki smiled. She was talking about the doorway in the cave above the sea.

“I can think of many things to wish for. Seeing you again is high on that list,” Loki whispered.

Dimples appeared at the corner of Idunn’s mouth as she turned to scamper after her grandfather. Loki watched her disappeared as the Bifrost sucked her away, sending her on.

Frigga tucker her arm into his and pulled his attention away with her heart felt sigh of relief.

“Their stay went better than I had hoped,” his mother said.

Loki looked down at her in surprise, not sure if she was being ironic.

“Better? She had the entirety of Asgard in an uproar, Mother, if you did not notice.”

“Yes, but the city still stands and no one died except a pesky mountain giant. So much worse could have happened. We are all relatively unscathed.”

“Speak for yourself. I shall need a long vacation.”

Frigga smiled at her second son. “I know she captured your heart. Heimdall warned me. Do not fret. Your time will come.’

“Yes,” Loki said. “So I have been told.”

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Terrible as the Morning and the Night

Terrible as the Morning and the Night

Matt threw himself down on the lowest step of the bleachers and grabbed a towel to wipe the sweat from his face and neck. He needed a 15 minute break. Jesse could cover for him for a while. It’s was not like one more goal was going to make or break them. The game had been won in the first half. The opposing team had hope, though and it made their play rough and desperate. Indoor soccer was a brutal game. Too many players got caught against the walls, battered and bruised, trying to regain control the ball. He preferred field soccer but it was winter and all the fields were covered in snow.

Stuart sat down next to him. Matt ignored him. Stuart had been acting skittish all night which meant he had something to tell him but was waiting for the right moment. Apparently this was that moment.

Stuart cleared his throat.

“Jesus Christ,” spat Matt, turning on him, “if you weren’t my best friend, I would choke you right now. What!”

“You gotta see this,” Stuart quietly, holding out his phone.

“Fuck you, Stuart. I am not looking at any more of your twisted porn videos.” Matt threw his towel down on the bench and grabbed a water bottle.

“No, no, it is nothing like that,” Stuart protested. “I need you to see it so I know that I am not crazy.”

Matt scowled at his friend. Stuart, notorious for getting involved in some pheaky shit in the name of fringe science, had somehow found himself tangled in another drama of some sort. “What are you talking about?”

“Wait. You gotta promise not to tell another living soul that I am showing this to you, OK? If they find out I took this video they will never let me inside the house again.”

Matt held out his hand. “Do you want me to see your fucking video or not? Hand it over.”

“Promise.”

“I promise. Give me the fucking phone, goddammit.” Matt said, wresting the phone from his friend’s hand. He thumbed the play icon. A dimly lit living room full of people sitting around in a circle made of couches and divans and footstools appeared on the screen. Everyone had a wine glass in hand, and they seemed to be chatting as any group of friends might who knew each other for years. Though the audio was poor and the words indistinct, the tone of the conversation was unmistakable. Relaxed and comfortable were  the words that came to mind.

Matt looked up at Stuart, one eyebrow raised in question.

“Wait for it,” Stuart said. His tone was a little desperate so Matt cut him some slack and kept watching.

A woman rose from her chair and everyone in the circle froze, watching her intently. She was an ordinary looking woman, like enough to his own mom that she could have fit comfortably in his mom’s book club.  The woman crossed the circle and bent over a man sitting on an overstuffed footstool. She did something with her hands or said something. Matt could not be a hundred percent certain because the video fuzzed out as if something bright flashed across the phone’s lens. The man she touched went limp and would have fallen to the floor if the people around him had not been prepared to catch him. Catch him they did, holding him up for the few seconds it took for him to gasp for air and struggle to sit unaided. The woman smiled down at him and the man returned that smile. She reached down and wiped his cheek as if there were tears there. It was hard to tell. The video was too grainy for that kind of detail.

The video ended not long after that. Matt looked up at Stuart, trying to keep his annoyance at bay. “What did I just watch?”

“That man she touched. He had cerebral palsy.”

“Had?”

“She cured him. Although she claims she did not. She says she rebuilt his etheric body.”

“A faith healer? Stuart. Really? You have a PhD in physics and a Masters in biochemistry. What are you doing going to a whack job like this?”

“Watch it again,” Stuart insisted. “Watch him and see if you don’t believe me.”

Matt watched it again and then again. The first time he watched the man. He did indeed seem to have some sort of tremor in his body that he could not control, though he had obviously learned to adapt because he sipped his wine without spilling a drop even though his hands did not want to stay still. After the fuzzy bit, the tremor was gone. The second time, Matt watched the woman. She was a part of the lively conversation around her but her eyes kept straying back to the man with the tremors. Matt could actually see the moment when she decided to act. Her face went soft, her mouth relaxing into a Mona Lisa smile as if she knew a secret and was not about to tell it to anyone. Of course, he could have been mistaken. This was also the moment that the video began to get grainy. The fuzzy bit frustrated him.

“What happened to the camera right them?” Matt asked.

“Apparently electronic things, especially sophisticated modern electronic things, tend to go a little wonky in her presence. The closest I can figure is it is some sort of low grade EMP.”

“What? What the … Stuart. Get serious. Humans do not emit EMP. Trust me. Ten years studying medicine makes me certain of that.”

“See. You being a doctor in internal medicine, I knew you could give me your opinion. I got you an invite to the next pot luck dinner.”

“What? No. Absolutely not.” Matt said, rising to his feet. He signaled the ref. It was time to give someone else a breather from the soccer game that had turned into a crazed brawl behind the ref’s back.

“Bring something homemade and gourmet. These people are foodies from the get go.” Stuart called after him.

“Fuck you, Stuart,” Matt yelled back at him.

Matt knew he had not heard the last of it. Stuart could be like a dog with a bone. He would gnaw at Matt until Matt said yes just to have peace. It was the same old dance they had danced with each other since their days at the University together, so it was no surprise that Matt found himself a passenger in Stuart’s car as he drove them into a sketchy neighborhood one zip code removed from the ghettos of the congenitally poor and the enclaves of non-English speaking immigrants.

“How did you find this woman?” Matt asked as the car eased through traffic past store fronts that did not bother stating their purpose in English. Non-English speakers were not welcome here.

“You know I wrote my graduate thesis on human Outliers, right?”

“Remind me again what an Outlier is,” Matt sighed in resignation. It was going to be a long story if Stuart started his story twelve years in the past.

“Take any skill set,” Stuart said, “measure that skill set in any population and you will get a classic bell curve where 65% of the subjects fall in the center of the graph and the other 35% is split evenly between the un-gifted and the extremely gifted.”

Matt pressed his lips together. Human aberration was an obsession of Stuart’s and it filled all his free time between teaching physics at the local community college and taking care of his aging mother. If Matt let him, this lecture could last all night.

“Then there are the few, the 0.01% of the population who has either zero skill or 99.9% of the skill. In business it is easy to pick out the one-percent-ers. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett. The Mozarts and Beethovens. Einstein and all his ilk. In sports it is even easier. They are the idols of every kid who ever picked up a ball or watched the Olympics because their records stand unbroken for years. An Outlier is so freakishly endowed with extraordinary good luck, intuition, and intelligence that they often become the objects of witch hunts by those who do not believe such a thing is possible without some sort of cheat.”

“What about those with freakishly bad luck?” asked Matt. If he interrupted enough times, Stuart would forget his point and the lecture would cease.

Stuart waved a hand in the air as if swatting at flies. “You never hear about those Outliers and they are devilishly hard to find mostly because they die in childhood.”

“Or they are like that guy in the movie Unbreakable,” Matt ventured. He could not suppress the smile. He loved to get under Stuart’s skin when he got intense and didactic.

“Gah! I am being serious. This is not a philosophical argument. I have become convinced that there are Outliers that never get into the spotlight because their skill sets are not valued in a modern capitalist system. Name any quality.”

“What? Like the seven deadly sins?”

“The opposite of those. Virtues. Temperance, honesty, courage, frugality, that kind of stuff. The sins, in their extremes, are not survivable. But virtues, while problematic, are more conducive to survival. Parents tend to nurture those children who are easiest to love. Think of the human who most represents the quintessential virtuous being.”

“Uh,” Matt had to search his mind. Virtue was not something he thought of on a daily basis. “Jesus.”

“A construct invented by the Catholics. Try again.”

“The Dalai Lama. Mother Thesesa. Buddha. The Pope. Not this one, the sainted one.” Matt ventured, pulling names at random from his brain.

“Take those, roll them all into one, then add the intellect of Einstein and we might be getting close,” Stuart said. “Ask yourself this. If Einstein had turned his focus inward and led a contemplative life, the life a zen Buddhist monk, say, empowering his meditations of the inner life with acute intelligence, what do you think he might have discovered? Like Galileo, only his apple would fall in some internal landscape.”

“I am afraid to venture a guess,” Matt said, “but I am sure you aren’t.”

“The Shaolin monks have a myth about the Bodhisattva who stared at the wall of his cave for seven years and when he finally came out he left an impression of his face on that very wall,” Stuart said.

Matt shook his head, scowling. The conversation had just veered off into the weird.  “What does that mean?”

“You are about to be introduced to the modern version of the Bodhisattva,” Stuart said, pulling into the parking lot of a housing project, “made a thousand times more powerful because she is not hampered by religion or mysticism or dogma but instead is well versed in all the sciences and who, like the Bodhisattva, can bend space/time with a thought. Even knowing this, she will still surprise you.”

“You are crazy. You know that, right?” Matt said, concern in his voice.

“Maybe. I don’t care. I have made peace with this,” he said as he turned off the car and opened the door.

Matt did not believe that lie. He would not be here if Stuart was at peace with anything about this. Matt grabbed his bottle of wine and the bag containing the mushroom and truffle tart-lets he had bought from the restaurant around the corner from his high-rise and followed him to a security door. Stuart keyed in a code on the keypad set into the wall. A buzzer sounded and the sound of the lock snicking open was loud in the cold night air.

“Your mind is already made up, isn’t it. You are sure of this. You did not need me to tell you whether it is real or not. Why am I here, Stuart?” Matt asked.

Stuart said nothing. Instead, he pulled the door open and strode across the lobby to the elevators. He punched the button for the top floor and then turned as Matt approached.

“This is changing me, Matt,” Stuart said, his face contorted with the mental effort this confession cost him. “and I did not want to walk through the door and find myself alone. I did not want to leave you behind. I value your friendship above almost everything else. You have been there for me whenever I needed you. I want to return the favor.”

Matt looked at his friend sadly. “Stu, buddy, shit like this can’t be forced. You cannot make me a believer just by wishing it.”

The elevator doors whooshed open. Stuart entered and turned, watching Matt, an expectant look on his face. Matt very nearly turned to leave, but the thought of standing out in the snow for hours while Stuart dined with a gypsy con artist stopped him. He stepped in and let the doors close behind him. How bad could it get?

“Maybe,” Stuart said. “Maybe I just don’t want you to be the one-percent-er from the other end of the bell curve that turns his fear into a witch hunt. Maybe meeting her will convince  you that she is not all bad, even when I disappear out of your life forever.”

Matt wanted to deny that small opinion of himself but it was not hard to imagine himself doing exactly that to save Stuart from his own rash decisions. The ride up in the elevator was done in uncomfortable silence.

At the top floor, Stuart led him down to the end of the hall and knocked on a door.

“Maybe you are right,” Stuart said. “Maybe it is unfair of me to try to foist my beliefs on you. So I will warn you. If you want to keep any kind of self control, don’t look into her eyes.

“What!” Matt asked, startled by the strangeness of that request. Matt suddenly regretted getting into the elevator. He turned to leave but Stuart was already turning as the door swung open.

“Maggie, this is my friend, Matt,” Stuart said. Matt was careful to keep his eyes down, rising no higher than her chin.

“Matt,” Maggie said, her voice dark and smooth as chocolate, “I have heard so much about you. Stuart has only good things to say.” She held out her hand. Matt shook it. Her skin was cool and silky. He found himself reluctant to let go of her hand. She laughed then, a laugh full of joy and innocence. Matt could not stop himself. He looked up into her face. Their eyes locked and the delicate boned hand in his own turned hot to the touch. The Mona Lisa smile was his only warning before she sucked him into another place where only she and he existed.

She was beautiful here, her human shape oddly morphed by the energies that tried to crawl out of her flesh. It was a beauty that made him want to throw himself down on his knees and profess his undying devotion to her. It was not a beauty that just seduced his vision. No, it seduced all his senses and then reached inside his mind and sucked his will away. If he she asked, he would have thrown himself off the top of her building gladly.

She owned him, body and soul and he was content with that.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of his intellect, a quote from Tolkien repeated itself over and over again, a warning come too late.

‘In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!’

Tolkien got that last bit wrong, Matt thought vaguely. There was no place left inside him where despair could take hold. She controlled everything, even that.

“Do you know why you are here,” she asked.

“Stuart wanted me to come,” Matt said. It was a simple truth, the first layer of an onion with many layers.

“Stuart doubts me even though he, more than anyone, knows that in order for the universe to be in balance, my existence is inevitable. He thinks that if you give me your stamp of approval, he will be able to finally surrender his will to the will of the universal mind. Why do you think that is?”

“Stuart values my opinion.”

“Stuart loves you, perhaps more than you deserve.”

Matt looked around. They hung in a formless void. His brain wanted to build a floor and walls to keep the vertigo at bay. “Where is Stuart now?”

“We still stand on the threshold of my home, the bottle in your hand falling from your limp fingers. Stuart is trying to catch it before it shatters on the tiles of my foyer. It is a race he will not win unless I help things along a bit.”

“Do you do that a lot?”

“Do what,” she asked, that smile playing games with her lips.

“Help. Help things along. Change the coarse of events to suite your needs.”

“Tsk. Do I sense disapproval in your mind? And you, a medical doctor who spends his days doing exactly that. Why do you fear me?”

“I don’t fear you at all. You are beautiful,” Matt said.

She laughed. Matt shuddered in pleasure as the sound washed over him. He had to remind himself to breathe.

“The logical you, the moral you, the human you, he fears me because he has lost control of this moment.

Matt was not going to argue the obvious. Instead he asked the next question that popped into his head. “If you can make Stuart catch a bottle of wine what else can you do? Can you stop war? Eradicate hunger? Heal the sick?”

“Probably, but I have no wish to shift the world more than my survival requires,” she said with a small shrug.

“Why not?”

“Where would the fun be in that?” she asked, her smile turning mischievous.

“How can you call war and famine fun?”

“That is such a human question, Matt. Stand outside your species for a moment and consider it. A species must exploit its niche to the best of its abilities. Humans are so successful at this that they have eradicated their competition, erased their predators, and terraformed their environment to erase all risk. Without something to contend against, your species would devolve, so you make do with the next best thing. You prey upon your own kind, like a body eating itself from the inside.”

“The human species has an auto-immune disease?” Matt mused.

Maggie smiled, please with him. “Yes, exactly.”

Her pleasure exploded inside his brain. This must be what heroin felt like the first time you took it. All consuming. He would do anything for the next fix. Anything.

She reached out and touched his cheek, the pleasure of the touch almost agony. It did what she intended,  forcing his focus back to the moment.

“You are right to fear me. I do have ulterior motives as you suspected. With intent and much forethought, I have decided to shift the coarse of human history. Your self destruction is no longer an option. I will not allow it, for I have grown quite fond of humans and their peculiarities.”

Matt trembled. “What do you intend to do?”

“Stuart loves to expound on his bell curves. It is a simple thing, really and utterly selfish on my part. I just want to shift the curve so that I stand closer to the center.”

“What? Why? How?”

“Stuart’s life is about to be turned on its head. His mother will die. He will lose his job. I want you to be there for him. I want you to help him stay focused. I want him to write the book that has been brewing in the back of his mind this past decade. I want you to help him get it published. I want you to be there for him when the truth finally breaks down the barriers he has built inside his mind.”

“Truth?” Matt repeated, profoundly confused.

“Stuart does not choose to believe that I have a counterpart at the other end of my particular bell curve. I do, and he is a foe of formidable powers who is working just hard as I to shift the bell curve further into chaos. I need an army of Stuarts to defeat him.”

“But why use Stuart? He seems like a flawed vessel to hold so much of your hopes. Why not defeat this foe on your own?”

Maggie smiled that Mona Lisa smile. “Because, my dearest Matt, were we to meet on the battlefield it would be like matter and anti-matter occupying the same space. Life as you know it would cease to exist. Now, one could argue that this could actually be a good thing, on some level, but like I said, I am a fool and I have grown overly fond of all the beings that stand upon the field of play between us. Remember what I have said.”

The world came crashing back into his mind. Matt found himself leaning heavily against the door jam, Stuart looking up at him from where he had just managed to catch the wine bottle before it hit the floor. Maggie had somehow gotten across the room already.

Matt looked down at his friend, a bemused expression on his face.

“Hey, Stuart.”

“Hey yourself,” Stuart said, a little anxiously.

“I have a joke for you, buddy. What does an Outlier do for fun?”

“I don’t know. What?”

“Anything it damn well pleases,” Matt said with a grimace.

Stuart looked surprised for a moment. Then he laughed. After a moment, Matt decided to laugh, too. What else could he do?

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