The trek was excruciating. The air in the cave grew staler and hotter with each step, making each breath feel more and more like a dying gasp. Loki pressed onward, ducking through a low crevice. It opened into a spacious cavern, but there appeared to be no exit.
“Wrong turn?” Norah managed to ask in a pant.
The god was contemplating a shiny, rectangular patch of stone that seemed out of place in the wall. He turned toward her, his mouth pressed in a thin, hard line.
“Arm yourself. It is time.”
Norah shakily pulled out two razor sharp throwing knives from the side pocket of her day pack.
Loki took her by the shoulders and steadied her.
“You need only react, little Valkyrie. Your blades will do the rest.” He pressed a tender kiss to her cheek and turned, casting his arms up theatrically before the rock wall. Bizarre words poured fluidly from his mouth and the surface of the stone shimmied and became translucent.
Loki disappeared and a rough shove from behind pushed her through the veil shrouding the connection between the two realms. The surface stretched and pulled at her, forcing her to squeeze her eyes closed. When she opened them, nothing could have prepared Norah for what she saw.
On the other side of the veil, in a place betwixt worlds, the god Loki was chained and gagged beneath a monstrous serpent. Norah had fallen as she struggled to move through the viscous texture of the void and her noisy arrival disturbed the great beast. It twisted against its own bindings and hissed, sending caustic ribbons of venom down the left side of Loki’s body. He writhed in sheer, desperate agony, the muzzle over his mouth suppressing his screams.
Norah reacted, letting years of martial arts training animate her limbs instinctually. The deadly Asgardian blade sung through the air in a graceful arc and found its mark at the base of the creature’s skull. The serpent struggled, then wavered, before slumping over. She went to throw the second knife, just to be sure it was dead, but a hand restrained her. Loki’s doppelganger looked over his real form, hands imperiously on his hips. “Oh gods…” he gasped, shaking his head in disapproval. He was seeing himself for the first time in a very long while.
Norah ran to him, not even having registered that this was the real Loki. How many times had she imagined this moment? Fantasized that they would finally reunite? Presently, there was no time to be wasted savoring it, if there was truly anything to be savored about the horror before her. She pawed the ghastly muzzle, searching for some sort of latch. Deep in the snarls of his matted raven hair behind his head, she found the release.
Loki gasped like a drowned man taking in air.
“What do you need? What do I do?!” she frantically asked.
“Water…” he croaked.
Norah scrambled for her bag. After greedily guzzling several bottles, Loki finally seemed able to speak. She had been pulling hopelessly at the thick chains binding him. She knew these chains. They were the same that had grotesquely bound him on that fateful day in New York. Escape seemed impossible.
“Please tell me you have a key.”
He mustered a weak laugh. “Just give me a moment.”
She unwrapped a Power Bar and offered it to him.
“Eech,” he cringed, chewing the gummy food with a look of disgust, then demanded another bite. Norah obliged, slowly feeding him the rest.
“Loki, how are we going to get you out of this mess?” she asked, running a hand over the horrible choker that bound his neck to the wall. The flesh underneath was raw.
“These chains are one of Odin’s more thoughtful gifts to me. They bind my magic. We’re going to have to get a little creative, I’m afraid.”
“Okay. Tell me what to do.”
“Well, fortunately, you have the sole charm in the nine realms that circumvents these damnable things hanging around your neck. Unfortunately, I’m going to need you to ingest it.”
Norah’s eyes grew wide.
“You have got to be joking.”
He shot her a look that indicated he was entirely serious.
Norah took the king piece off its cord and inspected it warily. It was the size of a baby carrot, albeit a bit rougher around the edges. She could swallow a carrot whole, right? Without thinking further, she popped it in her mouth and took several quick gulps of water. It went down surprisingly easy.
“Uh…I’m going to apologize in advance for this next bit.”
Before Norah could ask what he meant, Loki closed his eyes in concentration and began chanting something in a fast whisper. An unsettling, tingling sensation crawled over her skin and suddenly she felt her vision telescope. Something was pressing at her mind, roughly pushing her down. A searing shock of pain struck in her head as her consciousness was suddenly displaced by something infinitely more vast. There was a god inside her head. Loki had projected his doppelganger in her mind! Panic swelled within her and yet it refused to connect to her body. She was no longer driving her own being. She struggled vainly, trying to regain command of her limbs.
Before her, Norah saw her arms outstretch and tendrils of green magic spun from her palms. Her own mouth moved against her will weaving an odd web of foreign words, and Loki’s chains abruptly popped open. A wave of nausea crashed over her as the doppelganger disappeared. Her mind was released, slamming back into its proper place, and she promptly vomited. The king piece clattered unceremoniously across the cave floor.
Loki was tugging at his restraints, weakly attempting to disentangle himself, while she struggled to right herself. After a few moments, her vision cleared and she rushed to help him.
“Here, gently.” She spoke soothingly, carefully extricating the cuffs and choker from his body. Once free, Loki slumped down against the wall like a leaden weight. Norah caught him in her arms, cradling his slack head in her lap.
“Shhh…I’ve got you now.” Pulling her handkerchief from around her neck, she began to carefully wipe away the snake’s poison from his face and neck. The angry, oozing flesh began to heal itself and she let him rest, murmuring quiet reassurances in his ear. He was absolutely filthy, but she refused to be disgusted by it. Someone has done this to him, she thought angrily.
Norah had no idea how much time passed before he opened his eyes. Gritting his teeth, he rolled inelegantly up on one elbow and pulled himself up.
“Take it easy, there,” she admonished
He let out a sigh and snapped his fingers. The serpent’s shackles disintegrated and its heavy body plopped to the ground with gross thud. Loki looked down at the giant beast.
“Could you pass me one of those empty bottles, darling?”
With a steady hand, he slowly drew out the blade from the snake’s neck with a surgeon’s precision. Much to Norah’s surprise, he proceeded to coax out a stream of blood from the wound by massaging down its midsection. Satisfied with his prize, he capped the plastic bottle and held it up, sloshing it slightly.
“At least there’s something to be salvaged from this ordeal. Here. Put that somewhere safe.”
Leaning down, Loki began to whisper into the wound and gently stroked his slender hands over the serpent down the length of its back. Suddenly its skin twitched under his hand.
“Oh my god!” Norah screamed, jumping back several yards. “It’s alive!”
Loki stood, wiping his hands on his leggings with a self-satisfied smile. The reptile’s wound was completely healed. He turned sluggishly, tongue flicking out to test the air.
“Run along, now.” He pointed toward a patch of glassy rock that Norah now recognized to be a portal. “Might I recommend you go that direction? Midgardians might be a tad confused by the sudden appearance of a basilisk on their realm.” The serpent seemed to nod in comprehension and silently slithered off.
“You saved him?!” she gasped in awe and confusion.
An rueful look crossed Loki’s brow. “He was imprisoned here too.”
It struck her then that perhaps she knew far less about the immortal than she thought. After all, she had just felt the sheer scale of his mind within hers. His knowledge – his very being – was immense and most definitely not human.
“Loki the Merciful,” she murmured.
He rolled his eyes indignantly. How he managed to remain so sassy when he was so sickly and exhausted from his imprisonment was beyond her.
“Shall we?” he asked, offering her a hand.
Norah looked longingly toward the gateway where the great beast had disappeared. “Is that…”
“The way to Asgard? Yes. And no, that’s not an option. I hate to impose myself on your hospitality, but it would seem I’m a bit…homeless…at present.”
“Well, Midgard it is, then. Do you think you can make the trek out?”
“I rather had a shortcut in mind.” Waving a hand over their heads, he cast a spell that sent painless little green sparks floating down over them. A few landed on Norah’s cheek, tickling her like snowflakes.
“Invisibility from Heimdall,” he explained. “Ready?”
She adjusted her backpack and made sure her king piece was securely in her pocket, whereupon Loki clutched her to his chest and they dissipated, rocketing through the very fabric of space and time.
In an instant they were back in Norah’s living room. Whatever void they had just traveled through had left her with the same disoriented feeling she’d experienced when crossing the boundaries between realms. Everything was spinning and Norah pitched over, taking an exhausted Loki down with her. She felt like she’d just been chewed up and spit out by the universe. In truth, that was a fairly good approximation of what had indeed happened.
Loki, however, was far worse for the wear. He lay limply on the ground covered in a sheen of clammy sweat. She felt his forehead.
“Loki! You’re burning up!”
“Too much magic,” he whispered through parched lips. It took all of her strength, but she managed to get a bit of leverage under one of his arms and heave him up to his unsteady feet. He shuffled along, careening dangerously. By the time she got him to the bathroom, his complexion had gone frighteningly pale.
Norah got the water running in the shower and started furiously undoing the copious straps and buckles that held together his complex armor. The pauldron and vambraces were fairly straightforward, as were his boots and gaiters, but after getting his overcoat off, she fumbled stupidly with how his doublet connected to the solid breastplate underneath.
“Help me!” she barked, growing desperate. He feebly reached to one fold in the leather, revealing a complicated series of hooks and eyes that attached everything together. Digging around his side, she found another fold with a similar setup. Finally freeing him of the leather tunic, she pulled it over his head only to be hit with a tremendous stench.
Norah gagged silently, her eyes watering from how absolutely foul he was. She hid her face from him, lest he see her reaction. Someone made this happen to him, she reminded herself.
“Cmon. Up you go. Get out of those pants and into the tub. You’ll feel better in a jiffy.” She closed the door, leaving the rest to him. A few banging sounds and a thump later and she was satisfied he’d made it into the shower.
In the meantime, she started some soup on the stove and rummaged through her closet for some clothes that would fit the god’s lanky frame. She managed to come up with an old AC/DC shirt and a pair of sweats that seemed workable. After twenty minutes, she checked the bathroom door.
She rapped lightly.
Worried, she cracked the door ajar. Through the steamy glass doors, she could see the god crouched, arms tightly wrapped around his legs, head hanging low. The jets of water beat down over him and his long hair was plastered in raven ribbons to his shoulders. He trembled violently – it was unclear whether from fever or sobbing.
“Are you okay? Can I get you anything?” She reached in and set the change of clothes down on the toilet seat.
“I am unfamiliar with your unguents,” he admitted hoarsely, his face still hidden between his arms.
“Just use that white bar of soap for your skin. The shampoo is in the grey container there on the rack and the tan bottle next to it is conditioner.”
“What is conditioner?” he asked sincerely, looking up. His face, like the rest of his body, was zebra streaked with grime and filth.
“Uh…really? Look, just scrub yourself down. Like, twice. I’ll come back and help you with your hair.”
Norah quickly excused herself before she accidently got an eyeful. The mere thought made her blush and she chastised herself for letting her mind wander so inappropriately.
Loki took his sweet time before emerging wrapped in nothing more than a towel.
“Lady Norah?” he called out to her. The one bedroom apartment was small, but well organized and tastefully appointed. He found her in the kitchen. She grimaced when she saw the trail of big wet footprints he’d left on the wood floor, but she held her tongue.
Corralling him back into the bathroom, she seated Loki on the edge of the tub and began working a generous squirt of shampoo into his head. He leaned into her massaging fingers, letting out a happy grunt.
“We have bath attendants in Asgard,” he said absently, eyes closed.
“Hnn…Though I have not had anyone attend me in a very long time. Oooh…there…” He cocked his head and practically purred under her touch.
“Alright, lean back.” Norah carefully rinsed out his long mane, trying her best to ignore how his bare chest and arms rippled with definition as he followed her instructions. He’d always seemed incredibly fit, but she had no idea until now that he was actually cut. Ridiculously so. And now that she stood over him, working her fingers through the snarls and tangles in his hair, he was also ridiculously close to her. She swallowed and focused on undoing an especially bad knot.
Loki supped quietly, even complementing her on the quick chicken noodle soup she’d whipped up from scratch. His palate was, not surprisingly, quite refined. (He was a prince, after all!) Most Midgardian food, according to him, tasted ‘dead.’ Tinned or frozen foods were immediately off the menu, as was anything with preservatives or artificial flavors. Norah had better up her culinary skills if she was going to host him. She didn’t especially want to learn what a god-sized temper tantrum looked like.
After settling Loki in bed, she was startled when, a few minutes later, she glanced up from her book and found him sitting across from her in an oversized armchair.
“You’re already up?! I thought you’d be out for at least a couple hours.” He frowned in thought.
“Hnn. Yes…I still am,” he murmured in realization. “I’ve fallen into the Lokisleep. I wanted to tell you so you wouldn’t worry.”
“It’s how those who eat Idunn’s apples recover from trauma. I might be out for a while.”
“Oh. That makes more sense. I was about to yell at you for putting those stinky clothes back on. Thank goodness they’re just an illusion.”
He looked down in consternation at his worn tunic and leather leggings.
“How long will you be out?”
“I am unsure. It has never happened before.”
“I am relatively young.”
“Well, take as long as you need, I suppose. How come you can still project?”
He shrugged. “Magic is basic to my nature. I experience this a bit like a dream, albeit one I can control.” He smiled, then just to prove his point, conjured at least twenty different projections in the room.
“Oh!” Norah leapt up from the couch in amazement. Each doppelganger was different and varied in age, clothing, and hairstyle.
“I weave them from memories,” he explained. “It’s a relief to use them freely now. There was so little I was capable of doing through the charm.”
“Little Loki!” she gasped in delight as a young one scampered towards her. The child extended a pointy finger toward her and when she touched it, the rascal gave her an electrical zap!
She recoiled and the child howled in laughter and disappeared.
Looking about the room, she noticed one looked very sickly.
“What happened to you?” she asked, turning to him. He gave a look of surpise and vanished. The rest dissipated as well, leaving only the projection in the armchair.
“Loki, what was wrong with that one? When was that?”
He frowned, not immediately responding.
“New York,” he answered finally, sounding remote.
“You looked like death!”
He flinched. “More true than you know.”
Hours later, Norah got up to check on the god passed out in her bed. His doppelganger wafted behind her like a friendly shade. Opening the door as quietly as possible, Norah and Loki both gasped in unison.
“Oh my god!”
Loki was a shade of deep blue. Norah lunged forward to start CPR, thinking he had stopped breathing. The projection grabbed her, horrified. He clearly didn’t expect to see himself like this either.
“Don’t!” he screamed, holding her back.
“What’s happening!? Is this normal?” She was pushing at the immensely strong illusion before her, his vice-like grip clamped down on her arms.
“It is absolutely not normal. Don’t touch it! It’s skin will flash-freeze you!”
“What the hell do you mean ‘it’?! It is you!” She was stunned by Loki’s panic.
“That vile thing is a monster, a jötunn! It’s…I…I mean, it might…It might give you frostbite. Their touch is known to…but I…I don’t know…”
Never before had she seen the Silvertongue tongue-tied. Norah stopped struggling against his grip.
“Just let me see you, Loki,” she said calmly. “Let’s just make sure you’re okay. Alright?”
He released her warily and she sank down next to the slumbering god. He looked incredibly peaceful, a stark contrast to the panicking doppelganger pacing at the foot of the bed. Norah tapped a finger against his arm. Nothing happened. She touched him again, this time slightly longer. He felt cool, but his flesh certainly wasn’t caustic. It was smooth and supple. She settled a hand on his muscular arm.
“See? It’s fine.” She ran her other hand down his cheek, brushing a tendril of hair off his face and tucking it behind his ear.
“This is your true form?”
He looked away in disgust. She took his silence as a ‘yes.’
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she pressed.
“I did not know myself until very recently,” he said quietly.
“You didn’t think to expect this, that Lokisleep would do this.”
“I know next to nothing about it, thanks to the mendacious, scheming åsna that is the Allfather.”
“Okay. So what? You have eternity to understand.”
The projection sneered hatefully, crossing his arms protectively over his chest. Subconsciously, he’d morphed from his casual tunic and leggings into a full suit of armor. The stupid horns barely cleared the ceiling.
Norah could have no idea that he had never actually seen himself as he truly was. The horror of his blue, serrated hands wrapped around the Casket of Ancient Winters was enough for him. But Odin knew. Odin had seen him then. And what had Loki seen of himself in his would-be father’s eyes? Disappointment. Displeasure. Disgust.
Of course, after his fall from the Bifröst, the creature that had caught him in the void had shown him many things. But those were thoughts, ideas, and images born in the warped haze of torture. Nothing he had been shown of himself could be trusted. It was perhaps the only truth he had extracted from all of these tribulations: Loki could not even trust himself.
Norah ignored the miserable doppelganger and took in the sleeping god. She was contemplating the swirling ridges across his face and body. They were extraordinary, carving out elegant, arching lines over his entire form.
“How truly amazing…” she said, her voice full of awe. “Loki, you’re so beautiful! Look at you!” She grabbed the projection’s hand and forced him to her side. His mouth was pressed into a tense line and he looked down at himself contemptuously.
“You’re absolutely extraordinary! Who knew that you could be even more handsome? That you were so much more!”
“Some would say ‘less is more’, darling. I am inclined to agree.”
“What do they mean, these lines? Are they unique?”
“They are the mark of Ymir, the Primordial One. The first god. The jötnar are primitives. They haven’t evolved since then,” he sneered.
She ignored his negativity, instead caressing the ridged marks. Her touch set off a cascade of goosebumps, which rose and pebbled across his azure skin. “It’s like a divine, cosmic fingerprint. Astonishing.”
“If I’d gone through the initiation rites, those ridges would all be tattooed and ritually scarified. It is as if they aren’t happy being ugly as it is; they want to be even more monstrous.”
“Oh shut up! That is seriously the most ignorant, racist thing I’ve heard in a long time.”
She was astounded by his prejudice. Norah wanted to show him love. She wanted him to feel her acceptance. How could he be so blind to his own beauty? Unable to resist, she pressed a kiss against the lines that crowned his forehead while stroking those stretched across his bared chest. She nuzzled his temple and inhaled the god’s intoxicating scent. When she pasted another chaste kiss along the line at the ridge of his cheek, the projection made an audible groan.
“Don’t.” he gasped, pulling her back gently. “They’re…sensitive.”
“Oh. Sorry.” She said, thinking it felt unpleasant. Then she noticed the hitch in his breath and the bulge that had appeared in the covers. Norah blushed a deep rose, realizing what he meant. She quickly shuffled off the bed. “Oh, god. Sorry,” she repeated.
“You can still touch me,” the doppelganger offered innocently.
“I know,” she said, swallowing hard to overcome her embarrassment. “It’s nice that you’re so solid now. But I can still tell you’re not real.”
“That’s a rare talent indeed.” Only Frigga could ever detect his apparitions. And even if other Aesir knew they were fake, there was certainly no shortage of people who desired the services of his illusions. “Tell me, what gives me away?”
“You lack a pulse and you have no scent.” She raised an eyebrow and nodded at the two-foot tall horns soaring atop his helmet. “And you sometimes dress your mood.”
“Come on,” she said, leading him out of the bedroom. “Let’s let you sleep.”