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02 August 2013 @ 11:31 am
Hail of Shadows 2/?  
Previously - Chapter One

This one wouldn't work either.

With a gesture of his hand, Loki swept everything from the top of the table to crash to the floor, angry at the failure.

Five unbinding spells, all of them too weak. What he needed were the ones so dangerous no one would write them down. Or create his own.

Running a hand through his hair, he rose from the table to pick his way across the floor to the sideboard to pour himself wine. Vodka, now there was a drink of the gods, especially chilled. It was the only thing he missed from his time on Midgard.

After draining the glass, he went to his balcony to inhale the air and look out at the city. It was all too easy to imagine it burning, its shining towers ruined, people dead or enslaved. He cast his eyes upward to the aurora that shimmered even in daylight above, as if a reflection of the Bifrost.

Where are you, Thanos? Now that your effort to suborn me has failed, where have you turned? Do you spread your poison among the sheep on Midgard or somewhere less certain? Did the Other die with Stark's bomb or is he still your bannerman?

Jormungandr shivers at your touch, as you whisper to someone inside. I can almost hear you… he closed his eyes then to extend his sense outward, beyond the energies of Asgard itself, the void, and the great serpent that enclosed all. Where are you? If I walk the shadowpaths will I find where you lurk? Or is that what you want, that I weaken the barrier enough to draw you within?

A knock on the outer door interrupted his litany of unanswered questions. It was a relief at first, but his family wouldn't knock and he had no wish to see anyone else. He ignored the knock, trusting that without his permission the door would remain closed, but only a few seconds later, he heard the door open.

The bold footsteps of Sif headed across the floor, recognizable before he heard her voice calling, "Loki? Are you here?"

Biting his lip, he refused to confirm his presence and was tempted to cast invisibility and avoid her altogether. But she would only try again, so there was no point.

Her voice came more clearly, at the doorway behind him. "Loki?"

He did not turn, greeting her coolly, "Lady Sif. I see my mother's hand in this visit."

She did not deny it, and he knew he was right. It had not been Sif's idea. Any curiosity about why she was here burned away.

She inhaled a deep breath and approached. "May I speak with you?"

"There is nothing you might say that interests me." His eyes flicked to her and back to the city, unwilling to give her more.

"I thought you were… better," she murmured, disappointed.

Oh, that was irritating -- as if this was his fault. "You thought I would forget?" he asked. "I will tolerate your presence because Thor wishes it, but I will not pretend we are friends. You proved yourself false. At a time I most needed your help and your friendship, you turned your back and you betrayed me."

She hesitated. "Thor was supposed to be king--"

He turned to glare at her. "That was not the betrayal-- that much I could forgive. But I held Gungnir; I heard your words. All these years we fought together, knew one another, and you believed I had deliberately harmed my own father to steal the throne? Or I engineered Thor's exile, when that he did all on his own."

She froze, abruptly realizing that his anger was something quite different from what she had expected. "I -- I know that now," she protested.

"But you did not then. You believed me such a monster." He let out a brief bitter laugh. "And so I am, but not that." He flicked his fingers and the balcony doors banged open in unsubtle invitation. "You may go."

She didn't move. "You sent the Destroyer after me. That was the greater offense."

"Oh, I think false friendship is the far worse offense since it was not after you. You think it missed you by accident?" he taunted. "Pity, really. It might have given you what you have always longed for -- to die in Thor's arms."

She swung her arm to hit him, but he seized her wrist, staggering back a step but catching her tightly, narrowing his eyes. "No, Lady. I am done taking hurts from you or anyone else." He shoved her away and then paced back to the open doorway to regard her with cold politeness, "Take consolation, Lady Sif. You think me such a villain, but I am the villain who will stand between you and Thanos when he comes to burn this place to ash. I will save this place, even when everyone in it expects the worst of me."

He whirled and though he heard her call his name, he didn't pause on his way out.

* * *

Frigga smoothed the little girl's hair and smiled at her. "You fare better, sweetling. It is good to see."

The girl smiled back, still pale from her fever, but doing much better after the chimaera attack had poisoned her. Thankfully Tyr's hunting party had finally killed the beast that had threatened the people of the outer farms.

She gave her instructions to the staff and said her farewells to the girl and her mother, to be met by one of her guards. "My queen, Lord Fandral sends to you urgently, that there has been an accident in Prince Loki's quarters."

"With him in it?" she demanded, but didn't wait for the answer, heading down the steps of the palace's western ward of healing.

"I know not, your grace."

She didn't quite run, but it was a near thing, until she found Fandral waiting with two guards and a pair of household servants in the corridor outside Loki's doors. The doors stood shut, and she frowned at Fandral severely, wondering why, if there had been a terrible accident, they were all standing around doing nothing.

Fandral came to meet her. "My queen, there was a tremendous crash," he explained hurriedly. "The floor trembled. When there was no answer to my hail, I entered. Everything looked … exploded, within. Loki seemed unhurt, but he was in a vile temper and had me leave. I believe some magic has gone terribly awry."

She let out a breath that Loki was unhurt, though her relief transferred to disapproval that he had been so rude to Fandral. "No doubt. Forgive him his mood, Fandral; he has been deeply focused of late." That was understatement; she had heard a report from Wulfgar that Loki had not stirred from the depths of the archive in a full day. "I will tend to him. Thank you for being concerned."

He bowed deeply. "Of course."

As soon as she opened the door, Frigga gasped on seeing the destruction. Despite Fandral's words, she had not pictured the damage accurately, and she turned to the servants waiting behind her. "Tell the maester I need him here at once. There is much restoration work." She found Fandral's sword on the floor; apparently, he had not been exaggerating Loki's temper, if Fandral had left his sword within and not retrieved it. She toed the sword into the hall for him and closed the door behind her on her way to find Loki.

The sitting room looked as if Loki might have called forth and battled some eldritch beast. The furniture was all overturned or smashed up against the walls. His windows had blown out and the doors to the balcony and to his sleeping chamber lay on the floor, so the outside wind whistled through the chambers, stirring the papers and parchments into disarray.

Loki stood in the midst of it, and thankfully did seem unharmed, though his hair still held a few light-colored splinters tangled in it. His arms were folded, as he glared at the Casket, which was in the middle of the floor, sitting in ominous isolation.

"I told Fandral I am well," he snapped, not looking at her. "I can manage on my own." She held her silence until he said in a more acceptable tone of voice, "Thank you for coming to check on me, but I do not need assistance, Mother."

She was still not going to be dismissed like that. "What occurred?"

"Attempted my own spell of unmaking. It went poorly."

Her lips pressed together so she wouldn't smile at his irritable understatement. "Your own?"

"I thought I understood the concept from the others, so I made some refinements--" He bent to the floor to gather a disordered sheaf of notes, shuffling through them hastily before finding one to present to her. "This one." He pointed at the bottom of the page full of scrawl. Loki's handwriting was never very legible, but this one was particularly difficult. While she was deciphering it, he rescued a side-table that was overturned, but intact, and set it where his work table had been.

She tore off a corner of the sheet and held it in her other hand, while she called the spell and murmured the words. First the ink dissolved away into nothingness, and then with a flash the paper was gone. Her eyebrows lifted in surprise and she smiled. "It works."

He snatched the paper away from her and crumpled it, flinging it to the ground. "It works on simple things. It breaks organic molecules. Nothing more than that."

"'Nothing more than that'?" she repeated, incredulous. "Loki, that is a great accomplishment to design a new working spell of any kind, and you did it in a day."

He shrugged, dismissing the achievement as meaningless, and gestured toward the splintered furniture in sullen rejection of her praise. "At higher power, it failed what I wanted it to do."

"Well, I think it impressive." But he wasn't listening to her, so she changed her tack, adding more lightly, "It may not kill Thanos, but it will get wine stains out of the table cloths."

He froze, and he eyed her sidelong to see if she was serious. When he saw that she was, he looked at her fully, arms raised at his side as if to embrace the immensity of his confusion and disbelief at her words. "I am trying to kill a god, and you think of wine stains?"

She smiled and retrieved the paper, smoothing it out flat again as she spoke. "I'm certain I can think of more uses than that, but the point is, just because it failed for one purpose does not make it useless."

His gaze fell, a thoughtful expression replacing his irritability. A fleeting wry twist to his lips formed as he looked at her again. "You could think of no gardening use? I expect gardening metaphors with my lessons."

She laughed and plucked one of the splinters from his hair before he could duck away. "Try again, Loki. The universe is made of chaos, and it desires order --binding is always easier than unbinding. But still, chaos calls and all things must bow to it in the end. You need to encourage both principles, I think."

He nodded thoughtfully. "Not destruction alone."

"I think not, as the Celestials will certainly have countered that. But perhaps if you could encourage the binding beyond its limit… overload it surreptitiously…?"

He smirked. "Sneak up on it? Come at it with guile, not with a hammer?"

"You may as well work to your strengths."

He nodded and gathered up the other papers before the wind pulled them outside. He stacked them on the table and set the Casket on them, and she was amused to see such an object of power being used as a paperweight.

"I also came to bring you to the feasting hall," she said.

He turned away, grimacing. "I - I do not wish to attend. I'm in no mood for festivities."

"You need to make some public appearance now that you are returned to us. It is not every day Tyr kills a menace." She smiled and teased gently, "And Thor had nothing to do with it."

His flashing look was not amused and he bent to pick up his ink well, rolling it in his hands. "The feasting hall? It is my least favorite place, full of drunkards and gluttons and rudeness…. And false friends." He glanced at her and added, "No, Sif and I did not reconcile, despite your manipulations."

"I merely asked her to speak with you. That is hardly a manipulation." He looked down at the ink well, still irritated but unwilling to argue with her about it. "Come, you have been too much alone."

"I have more important things to do than empty carousing."

She couldn't really blame him for his reluctance. Even before the revelation of the secret and his subsequent … lapses, the feasting hall was where Thor flourished and Loki had never been fully comfortable there. He especially would not be now. But there was a time when being a prince meant doing things for public consumption, not personal desire, and this was one of those times. "This is not a request; your presence is required. You need not stay past the meal, and you need not be overly pleased about it, but I need you to be there. And in two days' time I have planned a ceremony to demonstrate publicly that you are returned to us."

His expression looked as if he was chewing thorns, and he would rather do anything but what she commanded. She could see his mind start to manufacture some reason to stay away, and so, before he could come up with something reckless like Frost Giants in the Treasury again, she added, "Loki, when there is war, you will be needed. And the people will need to have faith in you. How are they to do that if you hide yourself away in your room?"

He gave a jerky nod, still looking mutinous, but she decided to accept his assent as given. "Good. Then ready yourself. At the top of the hour, you may escort me, after I change my gown."

He bowed his head more fluidly, pleased at the chance to escort her, when ordinarily that would be Odin's place. But Odin was busy inspecting the outer fortifications and she did not expect him back until later.

And if she had a hand on Loki's arm, she could be sure he wouldn't find something desperately urgent calling him away.

* * *

Thor was telling the story of his fight alongside Hulk atop the giant flying Chitauri beast to an appreciative audience, when the hall quieted and people began standing to acknowledge that Frigga had arrived. She had her hand tucked around Loki's arm.

Thor bounded to his feet, grinning at the sight. She had finally pulled Loki from his room. Given the silence that fell, Thor was not the only one stunned by this change. Loki had a wary look, as if he expected someone in the audience to pull a knife on him, but at least he was present. He led her to her chair at the high table in the uneasy silence.

"To the queen!" Volstagg lifted his great horn in salute, and it echoed thunderously in the hall.

She smiled, lifting one hand in acknowledgment, as she seated herself and gestured Loki to sit at her left.

Immediately, staff began bringing the platters to her for her to select what she wanted. Thor slapped Hogun's back as he passed on his way up to the high table to stand before them, hearing one of the servers say to Loki, "I am sorry, my lord, it will be a few moments. The kitchen sent your meal to the royal family dining room by mistake."

Loki waved him off with polite words of indifference to his meal's destination.

"So, brother, you have stirred yourself into sociability," Thor declared and grabbed the pitcher to pour ale into his mother and Loki's goblets.

Loki flicked his eyes toward Frigga and scowled. "Not by my choice."

"But now you are here and it's not so terrible, is it?" she asked, a smile playing at her lips as she touched his arm.

"No, of course not." Loki's eyes roamed the hall behind Thor, watching the laughing and drinking that had restarted already after the brief quiet. He had a distant look on his face, as if he was observing strangers, not people he'd known most of his life.

Thor's eyes met Frigga's and he saw the same worry in hers that he felt.

Then, perhaps feeling their concern, Loki made himself smile at them. "When last I was here, I was king. Strange how fortunes may reverse so quickly."

"You are with us," Frigga murmured. "Where you belong." She transferred a bunch of golden grapes to his plate. "You can eat these while you wait for yours. I mistrust anything else when they thought you would not be here."

"But the ale is good, brother. Drink." Thor pushed the cup closer. "Destroying your room surely must make a powerful thirst."

Loki chuckled, protesting, "I did not!"

Thor was relieved he seemed to relax. "Fandral says otherwise."

"He exaggerates."

"Not very much. You made a good start on complete destruction," Frigga said drily. "Next time, experiment in a safer place, without furniture and windows to smash."

"Yes, Mother." He rolled his eyes and sipped at the ale, plucking the grapes idly.

"Thor!" Volstagg called out, making Thor turn. "You did not finish your story!"

"We killed it, Volstagg, what think you happened?" Thor called back.

The roar of approval was gratifying, but got much less so when Volstagg asked, "And Loki? You were there, were you not? What part had you in this great battle?"

Loki stilled, uncertain how to answer, and then he drew himself up, a flash in his eyes as if he planned to spit out the entire truth that the battle had been his doing -- something Thor had deliberately left out. Frigga lifted her cup to cover her mouth and warned in a voice only the three of them could hear, "Loki, no."

Glancing at her, he reconsidered his words and answered Volstagg, "I was there, yes. I fought. It was no great victory though." There were some gasps and whispers at that, and Volstagg looked to Thor as if Thor should be insulted by that. Loki's hand fisted, heedless of the grapes in it that he squeezed to juice. "The Chitauri fought badly, depending foolishly on their numbers with no sense of tactics. They did not listen to their commander, falling into unformed melee like a herd of aggressive goats."

That won Loki a laugh from those who heard, but Thor was surprised to hear that the Chitauri had not obeyed Loki's commands. That at least explained why their attack had disintegrated --he'd thought better of Loki's tactical ability. Though it was a bit unnerving as well, since he'd also taken the incompetence to have been evidence of Loki's internal struggle, and now he found out that it had simply been the enemy's own lack of discipline.

This topic was straying into difficult territory though, and Thor moved to change the subject. "We cannot always depend on our enemies' incompetence, but it worked in our favor, brother," Thor announced and raised his cup. "To the defeat of our enemies!"

Loki joined the toast. "To the defeat of Thanos."

"And to Loki, who thwarted certain death and has tirelessly sought a way to destroy Thanos these past few days!" Thor called and crashed his cup into Loki's. His brother's eyes met his over the rims, wide with surprise that Thor would make such a gesture. With Thor leading the salute and the queen joining it, even the most reluctant of Loki's supporters drank to him. Thor laughed to see Loki stunned to see all raising their cups to him.

They all had drink and smashed the cups to call for more. Soon Loki's supper was laid before him - two small tureens and a plate displaying a multicolored chimaera sculpture made of vegetable slivers that drew everyone's eye in appreciation. "Astonishing," Loki told the servitors. "Shall I eat it, or place it in the Hall of Treasures? Give my thanks to Hilde most profoundly for this delight."

The two youngsters bowed and left, looking a bit pole-axed but pleased from the praise.

Hogun came up to them as Loki was lifting off the lids to the tureens to inspect what was within each. "Have you had much success in your venture to find a way to kill Thanos?" he asked Loki.

"Not yet," Loki answered politely, busy with his soup.

"Is it so difficult?" Hogun asked.

Loki's hand tightened on his spoon, and he answered in a level, chill tone quite at odds with his previous warmth to the staff. "It is said to be impossible."

"But Loki will not accept that answer, and neither do I," Thor said. "Come, Hogun, give him a chance to think upon more pleasant things. This is a celebration."

He coaxed Hogun to go back and sit down, and let them draw him into a tale of his sparring with Iron Man so Loki could eat in peace.

Once in a while he cast his eye up to the high table where Frigga and Loki conversed, sitting apart from the carousing going on at the lower tables. Frigga smiled widely and bestowed her goblet on Tyr in thanks for his deed killing the menace, doing her part of the celebration. But Loki looked alternately morose or bored, as if he were watching a dull entertainment he couldn't wait to escape. Thor wanted to take him by the scruff of the neck and put him down in the middle of the lower hall and make him be merry. But right now that was like asking a stone to dance.

Thor leaned back in the bench, listening with only half an ear to Volstagg's story about how his youngest son was useless with a bow, except when he used it as a quarterstaff.

Behind him, from one of the tables at the wall, a snatch of conversation caught his attention, "… used that Frost Giant treasure."

"Heard the king gave it to him when he wasn't dead after all."

That meant Loki, and Thor concentrated to listen, figuring they were gossiping about the rumble that had shaken much of the palace from Loki's experiment.

"But my cousin is a guard, says he was held a prisoner in the underhall. The king said he was dead to hide he was mad as a cat in a skillet."

"Shush. He's looking at us."

"He can't hear us. What can he do anyway? He's no warrior, only books and magic. Kill Thanos? More likely to go over to him. Everybody knows he did something to the king to become regent, right?"

Thor stilled. That was no idle gossip; that was insult. While Thor would have been forced to let it go if it had been something true, that was an ugly lie. It offended the queen as well, as she had confirmed the Odinsleep had no external cause.

Thor turned to see who was speaking, but couldn't spot them, and when he stood up, they fell silent so it could have been anybody. He glared at the tables in that direction: some people looked confused by his attention, some abashed, and some wouldn't meet his eyes at all.

But shortly it became clear who the two were, and that someone else was quite aware of that. Higund, of the long dark hair and long beard that made him look half dwarf, reached up to scratch his head. He shuddered and scratched some more, as Jorlo beside him brushed at his own neck as if a small insect or spider were crawling on him.

Thor glanced at Loki, who was dipping pieces of his vegetable basilisk into sauce and appeared to be ignoring the hall completely. But his eyes kept flicking to the polished metal side of his goblet as if watching something there. He knew.

The two fighters scratched at their heads and beards more, as if they had bugs in their hair. Jorlo leapt to his feet, reaching under his tunic to scratch his belly. When they saw they were both doing it, they realized it wasn't natural.

"My lord! There is some foul sorcery afoot!" Higund said to him, realizing Thor was watching him and hoping he would intercede.

Which Thor had no intention of doing, especially since he recognized the voice as belonging to one of the offensive speakers. Thor gave a tight little smile that told them both he knew. "You should probably bathe, Higund, before you spread whatever it is you carry."

A round of laughter from the group who was listening made them flush with embarrassment. "Were I in your place, I would ask forgiveness before my brother becomes very offended," Thor added, glancing deliberately at the high table, and folded his arms. It was not a suggestion.

At the high table, Loki lifted his goblet to drink and oh-so-casually looked their way as if he were only just noticing what was happening. Thor expected him to be amused, but he was not. He didn't smirk as Thor escorted Higund and Jorlo to the high table, and his eyes were pale daggers as the two men came up to the table, still scratching at invisible, non-existent bugs.

Loki set his goblet down. "Know this," Loki said to them before they could speak, and his voice was cold enough to put a chill down Thor's back. "I hear everything --if you speak my name in another Realm, I hear it. There is no place in Asgard I will not hear what you say of me, so be very careful when you offer insult again. I learned a great many things from books, and I promise my next response will not be something so mild. Am I understood?"

Higund and Jorlo both looked a bit terrified and glanced at Frigga, as if expecting her to intervene. But she returned their look with no intent of involving herself, and they bowed to Loki hurriedly. "Yes, my lord. We ask forgiveness and swear we will not speak thus of you again."

"I hope so. For your sakes." Loki gestured, twisting his fingers as if pulling something away from the two men. He rubbed his fingers together, and a dozen small ruby-shelled roaches fell from his hand and scurried across the table toward the two warriors, who took nervous steps back. Loki grinned, enjoying their fear, before he flicked his fingers again and the crimson roaches vanished.

They lowered their hands, looking relieved.

Frigga commanded sharply, "You may leave us."

They bowed again to her and hurried from the hall. Gradually, the carousing resumed, as the others realized the show was over. Loki picked up his spoon and stirred his soup, without tasting it. The smirk was fixed on his lips, but Thor thought it was for the benefit of anyone watching. Loki seemed little pleased with the confrontation.

"You should have challenged them," Thor suggested. "You could beat them both at spears with ease. You know warriors like that would make fewer comments if you showed your strength."

Loki's lip curled in a sneer. "My strength is not in hacking at things. Duels are a waste of my time. As is this. Mother, am I finished to your satisfaction?"

She pressed her lips together and glanced at Loki's half-eaten meal, but agreed with a nod. Loki shoved back his chair and left with an expression that promised more illusory bugs to the person unwise enough to step in his path.

Thor sat in his abandoned chair to taste what was left. Hilde enjoyed the challenge of making Loki's dishes and finding something new, whether by preparation or presentation, to present to him. Frigga had often expressed her satisfaction that she was able to enforce more fresh fruits and vegetables at the main table because of him. But some dishes remained his exclusively, like his apple baked in sakken leaf which he liked for dessert, but made Thor wrinkle his nose at the strange combination of tastes.

Frigga sipped at her ale and murmured, "So a few words from two insignificant fools undo in an instant what a fortnight of our words had put together."

"It is not so--" Thor started but fell quiet at a look from her.

"Do you believe he will return to this hall in the foreseeable future?" she asked and he had to shake his head in the negative. "You are right, Thor; foolish warriors like Jorlo would never say such things if Loki trounced them at spears. But he remembers when dueling did nothing to change how others thought of him and caused him pain. He rejected that path a long time ago. Suggesting he is not enough as he is, is hurtful. You should know that by now."

"But I--" he started in some confusion. He had intended only to be helpful, to give Loki a solution to ease the insulting comments, and even Frigga agreed that he was right.

Frigga interrupted kindly, "Thor, you do not tell him at every meal how much better yours is than his."

He blinked at her, not understanding her point, and rather offended by the suggestion that he would think of doing that to his brother. "Of course not."

She smiled at him. "So do not tell him at every confrontation that your way is better. He is who he is, and you cannot force a nightflower to become a silverbell, though the silverbell would fit into the garden better." She patted his arm. "Our nightflower is prickly and proud, and we should teach our people to appreciate its beauty, not wish it was something else."

Thor's gaze lifted to the tables below, still laden with torn-apart roasts, bowls of custards, and strong cheeses, and then dropped to the delicate plate before him and its separate contets. A flash of memory of an upset cry -- "I only wanted to be your equal!" -- made his stomach twist with new understanding. He never would tell Loki that his meal was better -- Loki had never needed to be told that, when every day put it in his face. He ate differently and he fought differently, but why should that be treated as something less? Battles were won by lore and magic, as much as by sword and hammer. But for so long Thor had tried to force Loki to change, be a warrior, to fit in, when Loki had been reminded daily that he did not and never would.

In the spirit of newer understanding, Thor finished the remaining half of Loki's dessert and found the apple seemed to melt on his tongue sweetly and the sakken herb added a tangy bite. It was different, but delicious.

to Chapter Three

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