Author's Notes: I edited this chapter, but I haven't even started chapter four. Live with it.
"Since you asked." The Trickster purred. The teenager squirmed but the grip around his throat was much too firm to provide much room for movement. Loki smiled slowly, relishing the hard gasps that shook the boy's slender form as he squeezed tighter, fingers bending fragile bone. The boy's mouth opened in a whimper of pain as his eyes started to glaze from lack of air. Loki chuckled softly. The mortal's life meant nothing to him. He was a pitiful creature, a short-lived thing to be destroyed at Loki's whim. And Loki's whim was very much aimed at destruction. He smiled cruelly as the boy kicked out at him weakly, rather bemused at the boy's attempts to fight him. So, he had some kind of will, then. Amusing, but in the end, pitiful. Like the whole species.
At the moment, Loki really did not appreciate humanity. The fact that one of them had actually managed to hurt him had rather piqued his temper. So he was going to enjoy this. He didn't think the boy would be able to do any mental tricks of any kind if he was dead, after all, much less swing baseball bats at people. So Loki tightened his grip, felt the life slipping from the boy, like a fish trying desperately trying to flop back into water—and then…
Then, suddenly, he was falling.
He was back in Asgard. He was plucking a lyre, the instrument as much a part of his carefully chosen image as anything else. Seated at Odin's feet, he played a carefully chosen, purely instrumental melody that echoed out over the halls of Valhalla. No one could complain of the acoustics. Warriors stopped to listen, tipping Odin's half-brother a smile or a disdainful sneer or a drunken glare, depending on their natures, but they rarely passed him by without reacting to him in some way. Since Loki preferred attention of whatever kind he could get, he gleefully took the glares with the grins. Thor, at the end of the hall, raised his mug in a toast—to Odin or Freya, perhaps—and his booming laughter provided a strange counterpoint to Loki's music.
The music provided a comfort zone and Odin gazed down at everyone around him with benevolence instead of fury. Loki was securely in his brother's favor for the moment and Odin's favor bestowed everyone else's tolerance. Loki let the music wash over him, eyes closing in a cat's slit-eyed expression of pleasure as his lips curved up in an unmistakable, if rather demonic, smile. For a moment in time, he was content to simply be, for a moment he could forget what came before, and he could feel happiness. And then the lyre in his hands dissolved and the grand, vaulted ceiling of Valhalla became the dark roof of a cave, and he couldn't MOVE, the ground beneath was cold and hard, stone against his bare back, and above him was something so huge he couldn't quite grasp its size, but it had a mouth and that mouth opened…
And a tiny droplet of green felt, shining like a diamond even in the minimal light…
And then he screamed and screamed and screamed…
The sound of his own voice screaming itself hoarse startled Loki. He snapped to sitting position, gasping, running fingers through his own red hair as convulsive shudders shook him. He pulled his knees up to his chest and rocked back and forth, a disturbingly vulnerable position for a god. He stifled the whimpers that seemed to be growing in the back of his throat. The memory of the searing agony that tiny drop of green had caused him…
A dream. A bad, bad, BAD dream. But, since he wasn't narcoleptic, why HAD he been dreaming?
And where was he?
Next to him, he heard a groan and he whipped his head around to find its source. It was the human boy, curled into a fetal position on the ground, and Loki started to sneer before noting his own position. He untwined himself with a chagrined expression and stood, the motion lithe and graceful. That style and poise comforted him a little, restoring some of his old arrogance.
He noted that the ground beneath his feet was packed dirt, and that the flat ceiling was made of the same material. This brought back reminders of his strange dream and he shuddered. He turned a slow circle, straining his immortal eyes to see if he could make out anything or anyone that would tell him what had brought him to this strange cave. The boy moaned again, but Loki ignored him. His anger had burned out, and the whole situation was too upsetting for him to worry himself about one measly human.
Something about this strange, dank cave brought back memories and he furrowed his brow to try to remember if he had ever been here before. It seemed unlikely that he would have, since caves were not his favorite places to spend time in. Since the invention of the philosophy of Hedonism, in fact, he rarely visited for long any place not full of creature comforts. Norse Gods supposedly thrived on the harsh condition of their homeland, but Loki had always found such conceits laughable, preferring whenever possible comfort over endurance and stoicism, the values his blood-brother Odin so fanatically lived by. So this damp, dirty place should not have brought on such intense feelings of déjà vu.
The cave, at least as much of it as Loki could see, was dirt. The ceiling was held together by a meshwork of plant roots that kept it from collapsing in on him, though he wouldn't have been surprised to find that there was some magic involved in keeping the ceiling so perfectly regular, even and flat. It looked less and less like the little cave had developed naturally or even had been dug out, and more like it had been created magically. He would bet good money that it was a perfect oval, but since he couldn't see the walls of the cave, he had no way to verify that feeling, except the strange sense of familiarity the place evoked in him.
Something about the place made him feel more than a little distressed, for his suspicions about the shape of the cave also brought another faint memory to mind. He rather thought that this place had no natural exit. His eyes strayed to the roof, again, looking for some weakness in the flat, uniform structure, some opening that would allow him to reach the world of sunshine, clean air and freedom. Loki, unbeknownst to most, had a phobia of enclosed spaces, of being trapped with no exit and no recourse. No doubt Odin would have blamed this on Loki's inborn cowardice, for only a coward would spend so much time worrying about escape. It was true, when things turned bad, Loki had the tendency to run. He wasn't much the stand and fight kind.
What Odin called cowardice, his brother called common sense.
Loki's eyes stopped suddenly, and then carefully moved back, tracing over a particularly dark area. Something had caught his attention, something he had assumed was just a particularly dense shadow before now. But as his mahogany eyes adjusted to the minimal light—the source of which he didn't want to think too closely about—available in the cave, he saw the thick pools of darkness taking on edges and shapes. Long, rounded shapes.
Like roots. His mouth pursed in a silent 'O' and as he stared up at the ceiling, the dark red hair on his arms rose slowly, the acknowledged and well-documented sign of fear. He knew where he was. He tilted his head almost all the way back to stare up at the ceiling above him. The truly monstrous root—two or three times the length and width of a man—snaked above him and away into the inky darkness of the cave. Given its size, somewhere in the world above one could assume that it was attached to an absolutely huge tree.
Loki laughed aloud, his voice cracking with hysteria. Oh, he knew where he was. He knew exactly where he was. He hadn't been here for over a thousand years, and he had been quite happy about it. He didn't want to be here now. What he felt wasn't true fear, but the discomfort creatures of great power feel when confronted with something more powerful than they, combined with the uneasiness almost everyone feels around mystics, and true psychics, those who see the future and express its vagaries only in riddles and lunacy. The future is one of the few things Loki had no control over, so it was fully understandable that he felt something akin to panic when standing in the home of the Norns.
The Norns. Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, the past, present and future. Present at the birth of every babe, they determined the child's fate then and there, measuring out the length of thread that denoted length of life. The idea of even a human's fate being so randomly predetermined made Loki blanch. It was said, of course, that even the Gods had strings measuring out their lives. That was something Loki couldn't be bothered to consider. Loki wanted quite badly to believe in his own immortality. Besides, where did dead Gods go?
The echo of Baldur's voice whispered in his head. "Why do you hate me, Trickster?". Loki shuddered, and sought for something to turn his attention from such dark thoughts.
A sound caught his attention, the soft sound of labored breathing and he spun unthinking. The human boy, whose presence he had forgotten until now, stared back at him for a moment, his eyes wide and full of fear, and then turned and ran, giving up all pretense of subtlety. Loki smiled, his eyes narrowing to slits, a predator amused by the reactions of his prey. Then he gave chase.
The light followed them, he noted with vague disbelief, as they ran through the cave. It didn't matter, really, the boy's labored breathing would have proven as good a homing device. Loki's run was the loping pace of the wolf, the easy trot that he could keep up for hours on ends. It wouldn't take hours. This would be a very short chase. He slowed up a little, allowing the boy the illusion of victory. There was no way out. There was nowhere to run. And when he was the predator, that was a good thing.
Of course, at this point, he wasn't even sure what he would do with the boy when he did manage to catch him. He could kill him, he supposed, but he wasn't sure what would happen if he did kill the boy in Asgard. Besides, now that his head didn't hurt anymore, he had to admire the boy's ingenuity, if not his follow-up plan. The memory of the boy whimpering and begging Loki would keep the Trickster amused for quite a while. Loki's sense of humor tended to be quite macabre.
He heard the boy hit the wall, and he smiled, increasing his pace momentarily. He caught Chase's collar as the human pushed off the wall, throwing him to the ground easily. More out of fear and bestial instincts than anything planned, the young human kicked out, and Loki hissed in pain as the boy's foot—covered in the thick and protective material of tennis shoes—connected painfully with The Trickster's knee. He stumbled a little and the boy scrambled to his feet, his sides heaving. He really isn't in very good shape, Loki thought sardonically.
Then again, there was every chance that the sobs coming from the boy were more from fear than exertion. Loki could still see the red marks his fingers had left around Chase's neck, and he felt a moment's pity for humanity, for the sheer fragility of that race. Then Chase darted to one side—the boy was quick, Loki would give him that—and Loki moved with him, catching him by one shoulder to immobilize him. The boy grabbed Loki's wrist and jerked hard. The Trickster smiled coolly, amused at the boy's efforts to get himself loose from the painfully tight grip on his shoulder. With a snarl, Chase turned to face him and barreled his full weight into Loki.
That, at least, the Trickster had not been expecting, and his much-vaunted balance betrayed him. He hit the floor with a curse, the pain jarring him unexpectedly. It kept surprising him, how amazingly vulnerable he was to pain. Chase landed on top of him, and Loki caught the boy by the waist, holding him on the ground while he regained his composure. Chase jerked against the hold, like a butterfly fluttering to free itself from human hands. The analogy suited the situation at hand, for a butterfly with crushed wings will never fly again, and a broken human is just as trapped, though the cage comes from the mind. As far as Loki knew, butterflies didn't have much of a mind.
Then again, he had never been a butterfly.
It surprised him, how good it felt to have Chase close to him, for all that he was holding the boy there. There was nothing sexual about it. Instead, it echoed the comfort Loki had earlier tried to gain from holding Sigyn. The simple warmth of touching another human, of touching another living thing, comforted Loki on some deep psychological level he hadn't even known existed. He pulled Chase closer, subconsciously, as though the boy was only a form of living, breathing stuffed animal.
Chase drove his elbow hard back into Loki's stomach. The Trickster gasped in pain and lack of oxygen as the boy broke free, scrambling away from Loki. Loki, without much conscious thought, formed a fireball between his hands, a malicious little smile erasing any last traces of vulnerability from his features. Chase shuddered, seeing in those red eyes the demon he had first suspected.
As for Loki, his mind worked differently and illogically. It seemed to him that everything he tried to touch, everything he reached out to derive some comfort from pulled away. Disinclined as he was to connect his past attempt to kill Chase with the boy's present attitude toward him, Loki evinced complete confusion. But it was confusion coupled with rage.
"Hold, Trickster." The fire between Loki's fingers streamed away, leaving the Trickster holding only air, which makes a very poor projectile. He raised his eyebrows, drawing in a deep breath as he turned to face—them.
Skuld, Verdandi and Urd. The three Norns. They looked exactly like they had the last time he had come before them, so many years before. Urd still leaned heavily on a cane—but what a cane, carved with symbols and imagery, a pair of scissors, a long thread, a crawling child—and Loki, the divine blood in him understanding without question, knew that the staff had a life of its own—that it was, indeed, life. From Yggdrasil, the great tree of life that the Norn's tended and even the Gods held in reverence.
Verdandi stepped forward, her beautiful features composed in an almost mournful expression. Indeed, Loki felt a cold thrill of fear, looking over them, for never had the Norn's looked so very—sober. So sad. Even Skuld, the veiled one, hidden behind the wall of cloth, seemed to slump in despair. And Verdandi, Verdandi the youngest, the proud, seemed to have grown—older, tiny little lines around her eyes and mouth indicating an extreme influx of emotion. Human emotion. He shuddered with distaste. Age was anathema to Loki, and the idea of the ageless Norns suffering the ravages of time disgusted him.
"It has been a long time, Trickster." Verdandi said slowly, her eyes surveying him. They were dark green, and if one was foolish enough to look to closely into them, one saw spirals in spirals, tiny lines that turned and turned and turned, getting smaller and smaller, and yet somehow perfectly visible. Loki simply smiled, sensuous lips curving up in a predator's expression.
"It has been a long time, lady Verdandi." He said softly, his voice exceedingly calm—even cold. Bored with the entire proceedings. Even Odin held the Norn's wisdom in honor, but Loki at least pretended contempt for the entire, outmoded system of Fate.
Verdandi only smiled, and shook her head, cold fingers brushing against his cheek. He stepped back, automatically. "The thread of your life is not stretched taut yet, Trickster. You have nothing to fear from us." It was Urd who spoke, and her voice—full of iron—snapped with contempt. Loki's eyes blazed red, but facing the old ladies black orbs, he lowered his head slowly, a rare gesture of submission.
And if he was secretly plotting, well, hopefully not even they knew that. Besides, it seemed likely they could give him the answers he sought—he wondered why the thought hadn't occurred to him before. For that alone, he could pretend to deference.
Urd opened her mouth, perhaps to issue another reprimand, but another voice stopped her. "Tell him." Skuld said, and her voice cut through all of them, soft as it was. Her voice, a soft, delicate thing, like human bones, barely rose to the level of audibility—and yet they all heard it, in their hearts, in their minds, and for a bare second, it was everything. The present had commanded, and the other two sisters could do naught but acquiesce.
"We cannot tell you the answer to Baldur's riddle, but we can tell you the question." Verdandi said, softly, seeking to smooth over the awkward tension that always seemed to follow one of Skuld's pronouncements. Loki, his face blank, raised a dramatic eyebrow.
"Ah, Lady, it seems Baldur is not the only one who speaks in riddles." He said sardonically, his voice cutting, carrying with the crackling, devouring strength of the fires. Loki's anger—which made the unnoticed human boy behind him shudder, and, coming back to himself, start to back away—laced his voice. He was tired, tired before he truly even began, and he did not want to play the give-and-take, try-and-ask-the-right-questions game the Norns played with consummate skill. While Loki was normally anything but direct, he had little patience for riddles he himself did not pose.
"The questions is—why? The answer lies here." Urd said softly, her voice crackling with authority. With speed and stealth unlikely in a mortal woman of her appearance, she had circled around Loki, and had one hand on Chase's shoulder, the other lifting the angel pendant tucked into the collar of Chase's shirt. Loki stared at Urd, and the shivering, pitiful example of mortality who stood next to her, staring at all of them with a look of painful disbelief, and laughed. Long and loud, harsh and ringing— the laugh of the reviled Trickster, insane and rising up until the roots caught it and held it, pinning the sound that echoed and echoed, until tears ran down Loki's cheeks.
"That?! That thing is offal, and what that ornament represents is anathema to everything we are! No! NO!" He turned on all of them, his eyes a deep, dark red—the color, not of blood, but of fire and destruction, and chaos. "I will not accept that! Tell me the answers yourself." He smiled, a crazy smile, a threatening smile—a smile that held no humanity and little sanity in it.
"You know." He whispered, his voice silken and caressing. "There is almost nothing you do not know." He murmured, turning to face Verdandi slowly. "I know you know." He continued, swaying a little, red eyes meeting her hypnotic green. This time, she looked away first.
"I know." She confirmed. Urd shot her a look of annoyance, which she calmly ignored. "I know, Trickster. But the knowledge will do you no good now. The journey is often as important as the end." The light of the cavern—that ghostly light that extended only a certain distance, but was nevertheless constantly present—cast her face in bright relief, making prominent cheekbones and dark hair stand out all the more. There were dark circles under her eyes, and Loki suddenly wondered how long it had been since any God had come to the Norns, seeking wisdom. Surely they had suffered from this isolation as much as he had.
But he had a solution for both of them. The willow-wisp smile danced across his face, like a fey light, taunting the viewer to draw nearer, but warning simultaneously of the danger of doing so. He opened his hand, and a flame lit in it. It did not drift above his palm, but burned in the very center of it, the flames hurting him not a whit. Indeed, the heat caressed his skin like an old lover, and he turned mad eyes on the watching Norns—and the one, bewildered teenage observer. "Trees burn." He said, in his best, calm, edifying tone, his eyes glancing up, and smiling as their eyes followed his. "All trees." The flickering elemental in his hand doubled in size.
"You wouldn't dare!" Urd said, her voice going scratchy with age, black orbs fixed on the colossal roots that looped through the soil of the ceiling. She was shaking, clutching her staff. "Even you, Trickster, wouldn't dare."
Loki laughed again, a sharp bark of sound that made her flinch a little. He relished this now, and he laughed a little at himself for every fearing these outgrown relics, this bent old hag who now stared at him with terror in her eyes. The flame grew and it whispered to him, a litany of one word—burn, burn, burn, burn. He wasn't sure what would happen if flames touched Yggrasdil, but he was willing to find out.
A cold hand touched his shoulder. It was more than cold, it was freezing, and the cold seeped through his bones, dousing the fire, and the madness both, leaving him staring stupidly at his palm, mahogany eyes blinking in confusion. Then the hand tightened its grip, and the world became black.
Black. And white, and red, and blue, and green—yellow, orange, gray, magenta, aqua, gold, silver, a stupefying list of colors that went on, and with the colors came blurred images, like an out-of-focus television, and he tried to steady them. Odin embracing him, Thor swinging his hammer down at Chase's head, Verdandi kneeling at his feet, a fox-faced Asian boy laughing, a bald man standing under a waterfall, a beautiful girl with glasses and the cruelest smile even Loki had ever seen—and more, so many more, until they overwhelmed him and he tried to put up incorporeal hands to block his nonexistent eyes from seeing. And, suddenly, overwhelming them all, a huge snake that reared its head and whispered in a voice so full of hatred—but the words were blocked out by someone screaming his name—and he was crying, because his face was wet, but when he touched it, his hands came away wet with blood.
The future is a branching path, Trickster. I am Present, but My Sisters lend me their strengths to show you the vision of what-might-be. Listen and listen well. If you wish to know why Our Brothers and Sisters fell, then you must learn what became of our Cousins. If you wish to save them, you must learn to be one of them. You must learn, Loki! We cannot predict for you. We cannot decide for you. The gates of Asgard are closed to you, and to us.
You cannot do this alone, Loki. Remember that and look to your only allies now. Awaken. Awaken. AWAKEN!
Loki opened his eyes, and immediately raised his fingers to touch his cheeks. They came away with wet, but only with tears. He closed his eyes and called Skuld every name he could think of—though only mentally, and even those were quiet mental curses, because you never knew who might be listening. Or watching.
A double burden now. Not only a dead God relying on him, but the living Norns, the essences of Fate, had as much as ordered him to at least attempt to search for answers. He snarled at them, but it was a weak snarl at best, the last attempt of a defeated man to gain back some measure of dignity.
"She called you Loki." The quiet voice above him snapped him back to the present—what an ironic choice of terms—and he turned to look up at Chase, taking in his surroundings once again. They were in the boy's room, which, compared to Loki's apartment, was a haven of neatness and order. Loki stared at the human, trying to comprehend the words, and then mutely shook his head.
"Yes, she did. She called you Loki. When she…" He paused, and Loki didn't blame him. Even he would be hard put to name exactly what Skuld had done. Anyway, the human should not have heard that—as Loki understood mental communication, what had passed between Skuld and him in that dream-realm should have stayed there. Still, he already knew the boy had some kind of human magery.
"I used to read mythology, you know. I do know who Loki is. And I remember the Norns." He said, his voice so flat Loki resisted the urge to laugh. Instead, he rose slowly, brushing at his clothes in a nervous motion that made no sense. His clothes were as perfect, as always. Not even a wrinkle from the inter-dimensional transport.
That did make him laugh, and Chase cringed a little bit. "Yes, maybe she did, at that. What's it to you?" Loki said lazily, stretching and shaking his red hair, like a cat forced to take a bath. He could still feel the imprint of those visions on his brain, the huge snake head rearing and forming words that he could not—yet—understand.
"The Norse myths aren't real." Chase snapped, his voice breaking a little bit on the final word, the insulation of shock shattering as he realized what he had truly seen. Caught up in the hunt, and then held by the Norn's supernatural mystique, he had only just now realized what had passed. "That's why they call them myths." He said, staring at Loki with his arms crossed across his chest.
"I could rend you from limb to limb, and you're going to debate my existence?" Loki asked, fascinated despite himself by humanity's ability to deny the obvious. They never seemed to tire of it, either.
"I…yes!" Chase said, and Loki snickered. It was so perverse, that the boy who had only a short while ago been cowering at the sight of Loki, should now dare to argue with him. Still, that was one of the reasons he loved this strange species, because they never reacted quite as one expected.
The front door opened, and every muscle in Chase's body went taut as it closed again. Loki pivoted toward the door to Chase's room as it was pushed open. Leaning in the doorway was a beautiful, longhaired girl with glasses.
"I'm home." She purred, her lips curving up in the cruelest smile Loki had ever seen.
Except on those rare occasions he looked in a mirror.