Things had changed in Asgard.
For centuries on end, the realm of the gods had resembled an armed camp. The eyes of the All-Father, Odin, had been turned towards the future, to Ragnarok, and to how he would insure his survival. From the gathering of Einherjar to swell his army's ranks to the claiming of the Dragon Orb, his plans had all been directed towards victory in that prophesied final battle.
It was almost a pity, Loki thought, that he hadn't lived to see it.
He'd been undone by the scheming of a human wizard, a man who'd seen the future and didn't like it, so went back in time and in so doing created an alternate existence where he could fulfill his every whim. Only that hadn't worked out quite the way it was planned, either.
Really, by all accounts, it had been a bad time for plans that depended on more complex concepts than "All together now—hit it very hard!"
Thor was probably sorry he'd missed out on that. He'd have been in his element.
But the bottom line was, Asgard was under new administration. A new All-Father held Gungnir. And given that he'd returned the Dragon Orb to Midgard, it was a very good bet that "do whatever it takes to guarantee Asgard's victory" was no longer policy. The strife with the Vanir was not to be the be-all and end-all of the gods.
This left the strategist of the Aesir with quite a problem. After all, very few rulers need strategic advice for a war they aren't fighting. Of course, a man of wit could always find an application for it, but the difficulty there was—
Loki gave a sharp grunt as his shoulder collided with another's; being shorter and slighter, his body was knocked aside and half-turned by the impact.
"Hey, why don't you watch where you're—oh, you." The deep voice had begun with affront and ended with contempt, and Loki looked up to determine precisely which slab of meat he had crashed into. He saw long, straight red hair; a clean-shaven, square-jawed face; a torso that might have had fewer scars if its owner had thought to cover it up in battle with some armor now and again. And a right hand that wasn't actually there.
Loki found his lip curling into a sneer even before he could think of controlling himself.
"Indeed, far be it for the general of the Aesir to be able to walk in a straight line without guidance."
The red-haired god glowered at him.
"Do you seriously expect me to stand aside for you, giant-kin, when you wobble about with your head in the clouds like a maiden in love?" Tyr punctuated his statement with a contemptuous snort.
"Of course not. I wouldn't expect you to have the wit to step aside for an avalanche, let alone me."
Tyr's good hand shot out and fisted itself in the front of Loki's elaborate robe.
"Two insults to make you resort to violence? I must be slipping. Usually I can get in four or five before you even realize you're being insulted."
Tyr snarled, then hoisted the shorter god up until they were face to face.
"Odin may have found a use for that twisted brain of yours, half-breed, but Odin's not here any more." He held up his foreshortened right arm before Loki's eyes. "Thanks to this, I never need to be reminded what you really are, Loki, just another one of the monsters that needs to be put down. You might remember that the next time you try to get in my way."
He hurled Loki back, sending him sprawling onto the stones of the path. The swarthy god stared up at him, barely able to restrain himself, while the warlord looked down impassively.
No doubt just waiting to be given an excuse.
After a long moment when it became clear that nothing would occur, Tyr snorted again, turned on his heel, and walked away.
"You can come out now," Loki said.
The air shimmered, and a tall, slim man stood revealed.
"I guess I need more practice at that."
Can this day get worse? Loki thought ruefully. When he'd sensed the presence of the concealed watcher, he'd figured it was one of the younger Aesir, too weak to properly hide themselves from Loki's senses (which were, admittedly, the sharpest in Asgard). Instead, it was more a case of the watcher being too strong, so that power was leaking out past his veil all over the place.
The sharp-featured, dark-green-haired deity who bent over to offer Loki a hand up was the new All-Father, Rufus.
He didn't look much like an all-powerful creator god. Frankly, he looked more like a traveling entertainer with his colorful clothing, beads, and headscarf. But then, Loki reflected, at least his fashion sense was better than Odin's had been.
Loki's pride, battered already by his encounter with Tyr and the shame of it being witnessed, made him ache to slap aside the offered hand and stand on his own. The intellect of the strategist told him it was a stupid idea to insult his overlord over ego, so he took Rufus's hand and let the All-Father help him to his feet.
Neither man said anything for the first few moments. Normally, Loki was never at a loss for words—indeed, even when it would be better to be—but this encounter was proving to be the exception.
The plain truth was, he didn't know what to make of this newcomer. How could he? Everything had been turned on its head in the palace of Valhalla. Odin's rule had been absolute for eons; he was the constant that provided the basis for everything else to be built upon. In an eyeblink, he'd gone from being the center of the universe to nothing, and here was this little godlet wielding the power of all creation and turning millennia-old policies on their heads.
Plus he'd killed Ull and Heimdall—well, he and that human-slash-undead-slash-valkyrie princess he'd been tagging along with. That had to count for something. At least it did to Loki, who'd considered Heimdall to make Aesir like Tyr look like friendly little puppies.
Freya might stop gritting her teeth when she saw Rufus on the throne in a couple of centuries. On the other hand, maybe that's why he was running around Asgard instead of being on the throne. Even the All-Father mist find getting glared at by Freya a discomfiting experience.
"So." It was Rufus who spoke first. "Loki, was it? Sorry; I'm still getting to know everyone around here. I think Freya's going to tear her hair out by the roots if she has to keep telling me who various people are and what they do for a job."
The idea was so close to what Loki had just been thinking that he raised an eyebrow.
"It's a brave man who invites such danger," he said. So much for not insulting my overlord...though at least it's not over pride, just my usual sparkling personality.
Rufus just shrugged.
"It gives her something to do," he said with an impish grin that didn't really suit his face or his stature. The girls would have loved it, Loki decided. Frei would probably sparkle. "And it's not like she doesn't have her own problems. Sure, it was Lezard who killed Odin, but Alicia and I were fighting him at the time. Lezard was just better at it. Freya's no idiot; she knows that."
"Yet she follows you," Loki observed.
"I've got the pointy spear. Somebody's got to be the god of creation or Asgard pretty much falls apart. She loves Asgard more than she hates me. Or she thinks Odin loved Asgard more than he loved himself, which if you ask me is a little delusional, but..." He shrugged again. "She was his right hand for how many years? And Odin's never coming back to her." Rufus paused, then threw in, "Though I suppose neither you nor I are going to shed tears over that."
That was plain speaking.
Loki wondered if it was true.
"You think so, Lord Rufus?" So? I'm curious.
Rufus turned and began to walk along the path. Within a moment, Loki fell into step alongside him.
"That's why he kept me around. I was...useful to him," Rufus spat bitterly. Was it genuine emotion? Loki didn't know the All-Father well enough to say.
Rufus arched an eyebrow.
"You didn't know?"
"The stories concerning your ascension to power are a bit, shall we say, muddled? One minute you and your princess are a footnote to Odin crushing a rebel in Dipan, the next minute you're laying siege to Asgard and cutting down gods, and the next a rogue wizard has destroyed the All-Father, Hrist Valkyrie of all people has joined with you, and a new world is being forged out of the primal stuff of reality. Oh, and then that new world collapses, the Valkyries vanish, and somehow you are wielding the base forces of creation as Asgard's new ruler. If the skalds were telling it as a poem I'd laugh at the constant stream of ridiculous plot twists."
"And that was without even mentioning the Lord of the Undead and the part he played in all this," Rufus drawled. "Or the intervention of a creator deity from an alternate timeline. Or that everything that happened was really just the intersection of Odin being his usual contemptible self with someone else's twisted love story."
Loki looked at him suspiciously, but it seemed that, absurd or not, Rufus was merely telling the truth.
"Hel, I lived through it and I'm still not entirely sure what happened," he finished up.
"I see. May I ask, Lord Rufus, what that has to do with being useful to Odin, as you put it?"
"I was born mortal," Rufus said.
He shook his head.
"Half. My father was human, my mother an elf. I guess you'd know something about that."
Loki could hardly suppress a reaction. His own mixed blood answered the All-Father's question, though in his case it was Aesir and Vanir rather than a blending of mortal races.
"That...would not have been easy," he allowed. He didn't say more; pride and suspicion had long since hardened him to complaining about his own lot—that and the fact that none among the Aesir actually cared. Well, some cared, in the sense of "why are we not extinguishing this spawn of our enemies among us?"
"It wasn't. Particularly since my existence was for one intended purpose."
Loki knew what line he was supposed to give and did not miss his cue.
"A purpose, Lord Rufus?"
"To be a spare body for Odin."
If he ever gets tired of being the All-Father, he has a future as the god of surprises. Loki wasn't used to being surprised. He wasn't sure if he liked the experience or not.
"A spare body?" This time his question wasn't a conversational placeholder; he genuinely wanted to know.
"Odin may have been full of himself, but he knew there was always a chance that Surt or someone might be able to overcome him in battle. But when you're the lord of creation just getting your rump kicked isn't enough to end things. His will and his power were more than just tied to one life. But he'd need a new body. What's more, he'd need a special one, elven to be a divine vessel but also human, with the capacity to grow and change."
Loki gave a short, sharp laugh.
"So that was it," he barked with the delight of a riddle solved. "That's what set him aside from those hulking louts."
"The power of creation demands it. A god is a static entity, but creation is too fluid, too changeable a force to be wielded by one who is eternally beyond change." He rubbed the back of his neck with a sheepish grin. "I didn't really get what that meant until I actually had that power. But that's why Odin kept me around. Lucky for me Lezard Valeth didn't just want Odin dead, he wanted Gungnir and Odin's power and everything that went along with it, so he didn't just kill Odin, he consumed him utterly."
Loki winced. Worse, he did so obviously enough that Rufus noticed.
"You regret it?"
"The concept of absolute destruction doesn't sit well with any god," he pointed out. "That someone—a human, nonetheless—could visit it upon the strongest of us isn't an idea that's comfortable to think of."
"Yeah, I guess you've got a point. I've spent pretty much my entire life thinking about it, so I'm looking at it a little differently."
"Your entire life, thinking about absolute destruction?" Loki had to give the new All-Father this much, at least: he kept saying things that genuinely around his curiosity. That wasn't an emotion most of the other Aesir managed to rouse in him.
"What do you think would have happened to me if Odin had needed his spare body? He'd have crushed my soul utterly, wiping it out of existence." Rufus shrugged. "If it was just death, well, that wouldn't have been so bad. I'd have gotten an extended lifespan out of the deal, after all, but to know that one day I would simply be not at his whim..."
"You must have despised him."
"I definitely wasn't unhappy to see him go, that's certain."
"Under the circumstances, I'm surprised that you chose to fight against Lezard."
"It seemed like the thing to do at the time."
Recalling what Rufus had said earlier about Freya missing Odin, Loki thought he had a fairly good idea about what had driven Rufus.
"It was for the sake of the princess?" he suggested, surprising himself by saying so out loud. Experience had taught him that speculating about the weaknesses of those more powerful than he could go badly.
"Yeah, pretty much that. And I can't really see the idea of a creation ruled over by Lezard Valeth to be a great plan. But mostly, yes, it was because Alicia wanted—needed—to save Silmeria. Plus, Lezard certainly didn't do it for my sake, so it's not like I owed him."
He stretched his arms over his head, working out the kinks in his shoulders.
"So what about you?" Rufus asked.
"Half Aesir, half Vanir, not really part of either group, kept around by Odin because he could use your wits in battle. Spending your life in his tool shed with the rest of us picks and shovels until he needed something done."
Loki was caught between wanting to chortle and being insulted.
"Picks and shovels?" he sputtered.
"Hammer, garden rake, you know what I mean." He flashed Loki a grin. "Hey, I spent my mortal life being a smart-aleck; I'm probably not going to stop now that I can wise off with impunity."
Laughter won out.
"Just between us shovels," Loki admitted, "I'm not sure I'm all that happy he's gone."
"Because at least he wanted you around, even if it was just so he could use you?"
Loki gave him a sharp look.
"You were working your way around to that this entire time, weren't you?"
"Right down to telling me the story of your own life."
Rufus grinned at him.
"Yeah, pretty much."
"And your point is?"
"If I'm going to be stuck being All-Father, then the least I can do is not pull the same crap that Odin did. I want to do the right thing for Asgard and Midgard both. If mortals are going to put their faith in the gods, well, it might be a nice change to live up to that."
Loki gave him a look.
"So you're telling me this because...?"
Rufus let out his breath.
"Because I figured that of everyone around here, you'd be the best hope to understand that."
The strategist arched an eyebrow.
"Because as a fellow half-breed and tool of Odin I would be similarly sensitive to injustice and driven to fix it?" He let a trace of mockery slip into his voice.
"Well, that would be ideal, yes, but I don't need you to care, honestly."
Loki blinked. This "surprising" thing was getting completely out of hand.
"After all that?"
"'All that' is about me. I'd love it if someone else other than Silmeria Valkyrie and maybe her sisters shared those goals, but, well, the gods of Valhalla are going to pursue those ideals whether they believe in them or not." That last sentence held the firmness of conviction, a hint that yes, the new All-Father really did take seriously his current status and understood what it meant. "What I need from you...well, frankly, Loki, whether or not you actually agree for yourself about wanting to clean up the problems, at least I don't have to waste time explaining to you what the problems are."
The light dawned.
"Yes," Loki mused, "I can see where it might take some time to explain to Tyr and Vidar and their ilk the concept of gods protecting the well-being of humans. Perhaps if you had an eon or two to spare..."
"Exactly. Whereas I can at least trust that you'll understand what I want and can start putting your brain to work on a solution. It's not like Asgard doesn't still need creative thinking just because we won't be spending all our time drawing up battle plans."
"Well, I can't argue that point."
"And look at it this way. Imagine the idea of all of Midgard, when humans find themselves in a dire situation with their backs to the wall, turning to the gods for divine help...and the first name on their lips is Loki, source of inspiration for a cunning plan to put things right. Watching the steam come out of Freya's ears would be worth it all by itself."
Loki didn't chuckle, snicker, or chortle, but gave in entirely to a deep belly laugh. He still had no idea if Rufus was capable of leading Asgard in a new direction or not, but he had to admit that it was going to be genuinely entertaining to watch him try—and the idea of having fun doing the All-Father's work was definitely one he hadn't had in quite a long while.
~X X X~
A/N: I couldn't help but notice the similarities between Rufus and Loki, and with the new administration in Asgard, how Rufus might try to recruit his fellow outsider onto his "team," as it were. You can decide for himself if he thought of it on his own or if Lenneth the Creator had a chat with the others "off camera" in the final dungeon about how things went in her version of the future and Rufus connected the dots from there about what happens when you treat someone like a jackass for millennia. ^_-