“‘Don’t you find that all ghost stories are optimistic? … We don’t just die. We go on.’”
- Stanley Kubrick [recounted by Stephen King]
* * * * *
He was lying on cold wooden slats, the taste of ash and dust thick in his mouth. He pushed himself upright, wincing at the creaking sound of the warped floorboards beneath him – or was it the sound of his own bones? Then he looked around at his new surroundings.
Then he looked around again.
How had he gotten here? He’d been on the Statesman, hadn’t he? On the Asgardian refugee ship, standing in Thor’s quarters, and the two of them had been discussing Loki’s trepidations about returning to a planet that probably still held a few bad feelings for him after his last visit. Thor was reassuring him, but then – they’d been interrupted. Something had come up.
He came slowly to his feet, the floorboards groaning beneath him as if in pain. The space was wrong; nothing but wooden slats in all directions. There was a soft, dim glow of light, just enough to see by – though where such a light could be coming from, he could not tell.
He turned, searching for a door set into the surrounding walls, and found none. Evidently, there was no way out.
Then how, he wondered, had he gotten in?
Hello, he called, or tried to, but the word seemed to catch in his chest. He raised a hand to pull at the raised collar surrounding his neck, then touched his fingertips to his throat, massaging against the stiff numbness.
He was alone.
A staircase rose up before him, each step coated in dust and age. Had the stairs been there a moment ago? Well, no matter. He moved towards it, placed a foot on the bottom step.
And heard a voice.
He couldn’t make out the words, the sense of it, but it was undeniably the sound of someone speaking. Coming from somewhere at the top of the stairs.
I know that voice, he thought, but he could not remember where. Still. If there was someone else here – there is no one else; you are alone here, alone – he meant to find them.
He wrapped a hand around the railing, and in the dim light, he did not see the dark streaks mottled through his pale fingers. His head tilted upwards, and he began to climb, placing each step slowly and deliberately.
His boots left no footprints in the dust.
* * * * *
The voice was fading in and out of his hearing, though he’d begun to make out a few words. “Under … repeat … few … here.” They were speaking to someone – pleading with someone.
But there was no one else here. He was certain.
The stairwell was lined with portraits, though when he tried to look at one, the shadows thickened and the painting was swallowed up in darkness. The soft glow surrounding him cast everything in pale shades, as if he were standing underwater.
At last Loki reached the top of the stairs. He stood there for a moment, trying to catch back his breath, and started swiftly when his ears caught a sudden burst of static.
“ – the Asgardian refugee vessel Statesman. We are under assault, I repeat, we are under –”
The voice was lost in another surge of interference.
Heart frozen in his chest, Loki moved swiftly, hugging close to the corridor wall where the fallen bits of cluttered metal debris did not block his way. Door after door swept by him, but none was the right one, because he could feel the crackling of the static now, and it was coming from the end of the hall, coming from …
Yes. There, from the last door. With the glow of firelight beneath it –
Loki threw open the door and saw his mother’s sitting room, with the soft blue chair and the cheerful little fire behind the ornate brass grate, and a glass of Frigga’s favorite cordial sitting on the elegantly carved table. The windows were grand archways, built tall and wide to bring in the air and the light – but now they opened out only onto darkness. Loki made for the windowseat, peering out curiously into the void beyond – until he became aware, with a start, that the Void was staring back.
He drew back, eyes wide, and then grinned.
No more of that, he chided, shaking a finger at the darkness. I know better now than to look to you for answers. He turned away, putting his back to the open windows, and made for the light of the fireplace. The flames licked up cheerfully, relentlessly, and turned his pale hands crimson.
His eyes caught something in the grate. He crouched down, and saw that the fireplace was filled not with logs, but bits of metal ship’s debris, smoking and charring in the aftermath of battle.
“The engines are dead, life support failing. Requesting aid from any vessel within range!”
Snapping to his feet, Loki turned and saw, next to his mother’s glass of cordial on the carved wooden table, the speaker end of a ship’s comms system.
“Our crew is made up of Asgardian families! We have very few soldiers here –”
Moving swiftly, he snatched up the speaker, turned back towards the windows opening into the emptiness – and hesitated.
“This is not a warcraft! I repeat, this is not –”
He laughed noiselessly, and tossed the comms into the fireplace, where it landed in a shower of sparks. There was a final burst of static, and then it fell silent.
* * * * *
He stalked the hallway, doors rising up on either side of him, glowing in the soft, impossible light that followed him still. His hand hovered above one knob, then the other, but none felt right.
There was only coldness.
“Hear me, and rejoice!”
The shutter that moved through him snapped his spine, and felt as though he’d jar his bones apart. His teeth gritting tightly, as if to shatter his jaw, he flowed through the coldness, letting it draw him inexorably through the heavy black archway set to one side. Dead leaves were strewn across the ash-soaked wooden slats of the floor, and wisps of smoke curled around the edges of his battle-torn cape.
“You may think this is suffering. No – it is salvation.”
The archway led to a dining hall, laid out with ebony plates and bone-white serving platters. The goblets were filled with something thick and dark crimson. Heaps of flowers, black and rotting, flowed over the centerpieces, and the chairs were filled with the bodies of dead Asgardians.
At the head of the table was the corpse of Ebony Maw. His eyes, glittering in the waxy sheen of his face, gleamed when he caught sight of Loki.
The Maw nodded regally, the bones of his skull glinting through cracked and torn flesh. “Universal scales tip toward balance because of your sacrifice.”
Loki sneered at him. He raised his hand slightly, thinking to conjure a dagger – then paused. The magic was cold and unmoving in his veins. He could feel that. There would be no summoning, no spellcasting.
But perhaps he did not need it.
He turned to go – and felt his wrist caught by a steel hand.
The occupant of the nearest chair had turned his way. The corpse’s skin was cracked and streaked with blood. The chest was broken and flayed open, exposing the snapped ribs and battered heart.
Heimdall turned his sightless eyes towards Loki. The bones in Loki’s wrist ground like glass in the other’s grip.
“Asgard is not a place,” said Heimdall, voice hoarse with decay. “It is a people. Your people. Will you not lead us home?”
“Or join us, instead, at this table of plenty!” cried Ebony Maw, beckoning with a frozen hand. “For even in death, you have all become Children of –”
The ebony plate cracked through the Maw’s head, splintering into his skull and sending the body slumping over the table, hands outstretched as if in supplication. Loki, struggling to catch his breath, lowered his outstretched hand and then turned back to Heimdall, hoping to find a flash of hope on the man’s face.
But Heimdall’s corpse lay slumped and motionless at table, another body amongst so many. The rage lay dully in Loki’s chest, for he could not seem to breathe – could not seem to cry out.
Eyes filled with tears he could not shed, Loki laid a hand on the other man’s shoulder, then turned and left the hall behind.
* * * * *
DESTINY IS HERE
OR SHOULD I SAY
After the last trick had failed, surely there was no real hope in catching him with this. He’d expected something less amateurish of this place; it was rather disappointing. No imagination at all; he almost felt sorry for –
A door in the wall opened, and he peered inside. The stairs inside were steep and narrow, and winding down into the darkness in a way that suggested the bottom was too far for comfort.
He put a hand to the back of his neck, fingers digging into the deadened nerves, and considered. There were other doors to try, other paths to take.
But he knew better. The slights-of-hand had failed; now there lay only the truth.
Tugging at the edge of his collar, Loki slipped onto the first step. He nearly lost his footing, and suddenly he was falling – or feeling it to be so – the same sinking feeling of weightlessness as when he’d been swallowed by the Void, as when he’d been on the ship and his feet could not touch the ground, and he’d been falling, he’d been –
He reached out a bone-white hand to press against the silk-smooth stone, and trailed a path like blood down the length of the tower, following the spiral ever downward into the dark. But he was not in total darkness, for still he was illuminated by the soft light that had been with him since the beginning, emanating from – where? He still did not know.
Gradually, another light began to waft up from beneath, a glow of thick, pulsating blue. His weakened legs took him the last few steps, and then he stood in the depths of the crypt, the space echoing endlessly around him. It stood empty of all save a single pillar, and on top of the pillar stood the Tesseract. Because of course.
And next to the Tesseract – a figure. But not the one he’d expected.
“Hello, Brother,” said Hela. “Welcome to my home.”
* * * * *
He arched an eyebrow at her. How did you manage it?
Hela gave a derisive snort. “How many times did I say it? Goddess of Death.” She gestured to the infinite crypt around them. “Dying simply sent me back home.”
He shrugged: Good point. Then he frowned, pointing at himself.
She sneered at him. “Well, what did you think would happen? Charging up to that brainless purple colossus and his delusions of grandeur, with a trick he’d see coming a mile away. Did you think it was going to end well for you?”
The smile pulled at his cold lips as he spread his hands magnanimously. Has it ended yet?
“Oh, Brother.” Hela gave a mockingly sympathetic smile. “We all end up in the grave.”
He tilted his head slightly. True. He hesitated, then gestured towards his own eyes.
It took her a moment; then her expression cleared. “Ah, yes – good old Heimdall!” She waved a hand dismissively. “Not truly here, I’m afraid. None of them are truly here.” She gestured grandly. “All just part of the horror show.”
Loki’s gaze dropped as he hid a slight smile. Did you really think to frighten me with him? Our family’s oldest friend?
Then his expression faltered, his gaze moving towards the Tesseract.
“Oh, this? Think of it as a housewarming present.” She slid towards the pillar and plucked up the Tesseract, holding it out towards Loki with the solemnity of an heirloom bequeathed. “You died for this, Loki of Asgard – of Jotunheim, of the House of Odin and Frigga. God of Mischief and Chaos and Story!” She shot him a nasty grin. “Come and claim your deathright!”
Loki hesitated. Then he slowly shook his head.
“Oh, no? You would choose something else for your eternal prize?” Hela lowered the gleaming cube, and Loki could see her glittering eyes reflected in its light. “I warn you – there are few other sources of light in the Death-Halls of Hel.”
There was silence – and then Loki’s shoulders began to tremble. He was choking again, no way to draw voice or breath – but still, he shook with laughter.
“You,” Hela said, and her voice was tight with rage. “You, after everything you and that storm-brained oaf did to me – after the Mad Titan crushed the very breath from you – you dare to laugh at me?”
Waving a hand in apparent apology, Loki collected himself. He tugged his collar into place around his broken throat, and straightened his cape at his stiffened shoulders. And smiled at his sister.
“Last chance,” she sneered, holding the Tesseract aloft. “Take it, or I promise you – you’ll die to regret it.”
But Loki shook his head. Pointed at himself.
At the soft glow of light that had illuminated his way, shining from the center of his own chest. From his heart.
Dear Sister, I’m afraid that I have no need of your tricks and your toys and your false promises. I am still myself, and I have carried my own light.
And I have my own promise to keep.
“Hmph.” Hela glared at him. “You do know, whatever happens – one day, your place will be here.”
“I think … not,” rasped Loki, through dead lungs and broken throat, and then he laughed again, and gave her a wink.
And disappeared in a burst of starlight.
* * * * *
“I wonder where you’re going, you little shit,” she said conversationally. “Back once again? Or – onward?”
She supposed it didn’t matter. Either way, he was heading home.
“… Bloody ghosts,” she mumbled, and let the darkness consume her.