The Hangman's Hands

Chapter 32: Conviction

The world flickered and spun, but the noose did not ease its lethal grip on Loki's throat. It had plucked him from the ground in mid-step and now, without a solid footing, he could not find a path. Instead of a path, fate gave him variations on a theme, just as it had long ago when he'd teleported himself out of a serpent's coils into the depths of the earth. Only this time there was no All-Father to save him.

The noose held him fast, shifting as the world shifted around him. It was rope, leather, metal, stone; it was hands closing off his breath, claws, feelers, hands again, other things living he had not the presence of mind to name. He was in a cave, a field, underwater, a public square, someone's bed, under the stars and under a pitiless sun and in the flawless dark. For fragments of seconds he inhabited other lives – no, other deaths. He tasted mortality a hundred times. The universe meted out to him in full the death he had left in his wake.

With every flicker the noose tightened a hairsbreadth, and as much as he kicked and clawed and struggled, the universe did not relinquish its grip on his throat. He fled through a thousand worlds and his punishment fled with him. He found no escape. Between the onslaught of sensation and the battle to suck in air, thought fragmented: he was instinct, feeling, body, knowing nothing but the body's thirst for life. The harder he fought the tighter the noose drew.

The pain of trying to breathe became more real than a thousand worlds. The darkness that lurks under eyelids leaked from its confines and bled into his vision. All the worlds he passed through grew shadowy, merging one into the other until nothing remained but the purest black.

His breath stopped. His heart pumped impoverished blood, each beat slower than the one before. He lived still, for gods did not die easy, but his time was measured.

He hung suspended in a lightless nowhere. He had passed beyond worlds to the space in between.

A sliver of light flashed into being. It split, branching into two, and the branches in turn forked, again and again. A tree of light grew around him, a tree of lightning whose boughs were all the paths that fate conceived: every flip of a coin, every crossroads, every choice made or not made. Its branches reached out for the infinite.

Yggdrasil, the World Tree, Loki named it in his agony. Where all possibilities existed at once, where fate waited for its final weaving, everywhere and nowhere. He had tried to elude his sentence in vain; here, where every potential future was manifest, he was still dying, still suffocating in the noose, and all of existence was his gallows. He had been judged.

He was not alone. Three figures condensed out of the void. They were the blackness personified, the fertile space from which possibility erupted. They took the shape of three maidens, robed and hooded in night. He knew them: the Norns, the fate-spinners, the doom-weavers. Urdr, Verdandi, and Skuld; past, present, and future.

Loki, they said, in a voice that was many voices, all voices.

He could no more answer than breathe.

They spoke each of his names in a different voice. Some he recognized and others he did not.

Loki. Laufeyson. Farbautison. Odinson. Friggason. Thorsbrodir. Janesvass. Silvertongue. Lie-smith. Mind-tester. Mischief-maker. Cunning-wise. Hair-thief. Arm-burden. The sly god. The bound god. Puny god. Trickster. Adversary. A full-tilt diva. Would-be king. Scourge of Jotunheim. Invader of Earth. Betrayer of Asgard. Monster. Boy. Bringer of Ragnarok. Odin's bane. Thanos' bane. Savior of Asgard. Savior of Midgard. Savior of Jotunheim. Savior of the Nine Realms.

They called him to account. But they did not give him his own voice back and without it he could weave no words, bring no defense. Tell no lies. His last power was denied him. He waited for their retribution or their mercy.

Dream-like, they laid hands on him, each in her turn. Each of them showed him three true things. Nine visions all together they gave him, each of them perfect in its conjuring of life.

First Skuld, the future, lent him her vision.

He saw himself fighting Heimdall, black against gold, spear against broadsword. Their blades found flesh at the same moment, and they slew each other while the land beneath their feet, burning, sank into a rough-backed sea. He knew this was true death. He did not recognize the place.

He saw a well of deep blue driven into a ridge of rocks in a misty wood. He knew that the water reached down beyond imagination, and that any who drank from it would be changed forever. Someone was with him, but before he could turn to look, the vision fled and a new one took its place.

He saw the throne of Asgard, and on it sat a tall man more beautiful than any he had ever seen. The king wore a crown of leaves and white berries like pearls. He did not recognize the man. The vision faded.

Skuld withdrew. Distantly, Loki's body protested. Air, he needed air; in this void, with less than half his strength, his flesh could not endure long without it. But the warning felt distant. His mind was crowded with color, beset with insight.

Next Verdandi, the present, showed him what was.

He saw Thor, and the sight made his tiring heart leap. Thor, every inch the king, stood before the Bifrost and greeted a delegation of jotuns. Behind him two Chitauri waited. The frost giants stepped from the rainbow bridge and Thor smiled and held out his hand in welcome. The vision faded into blackness and from the blackness a seed of a new image grew until it filled all his inner sight.

Jane, straight-backed, faced a crowd in a large hall of unassuming Midgard design. A great gold medallion ornamented the dais on which she stood. A man crossed to meet her and placed into her hands a small medal that was the very replica of this sole ornament. A smile broke out on her face, and he loved this smile more than any other.

This vision, too, abandoned him, and one more took its place. He saw the city of New York and the garden at the heart of it. Work was proceeding there at a rapid pace: a structure rose, domed and gleaming. He recognized it to be a Bifrost. Midgard was no longer a backwater. Time had marched forward while he whiled away in nowhere.

Verdandi left him. The warning from his body was now a remote scream, forcing its way through the visions into his awareness. But he could not escape, though he struggled again, writhing with what strength he had left. For last came the one he feared most to see: Urdr, his past, his weird, the fate that he had made for himself. No, a word formed in his mind, the only word he could recall.

Indifferent to his voiceless pleas, Urdr showed him what he had chosen.

He saw himself with Thanos, who held the scepter with its gem that whispered commands into the minds of others. He coveted its power, any power, for he was alone and the desire for vengeance burned within him. So when Thanos told him he was free to leave or free to bargain, he bargained. Information for power. Information about the Tesseract, about the Nine Realms, about Asgard, for the scepter and an army. In his mind he howled at his past self for a fool, not realizing how little he was receiving, not realizing how much he was giving and how violently it would ripple through time.

Next he saw himself, hanging over the abyss, the Bifrost crackling far below him and his hand clinging precariously to Gungnir. Thor nigh-wept, begging him to hold on, but he saw his own face and the mutinous petulance there. He saw his own fingers let go of the staff, and it was never Thor who had cast him into the abyss, Thor had never tried to kill him, it been only Loki who had tried to kill a brother, Loki who had caused his own fall, Loki who had set in motion all this terrible drama from its inception. Thor had never let him go; Thor had never given up on him. Loki's body and his mind screamed together.

The last vision took him far, far back in time, and he fought not to see it. But Urdr was merciless. The mist of the years parted and he saw a battlefield, deserted. Blood of multiple races stained a frozen, rocky terrain. Amidst the death lay a new life, a child – but its life, too, was to be short, for it had been exposed on this inhospitable waste to perish. As the vision pulled him closer, it was obvious why: the child, though of the giant race, was tiny, weak, and stunted.

Yet it was not quite abandoned. Odin the All-Father, already old but still hale, remained on the field he had won. He picked up the child with gentle hands, though the cold of its skin burned them. And the baby in turn quieted, unperturbed by the ghastly wound its rescuer had suffered: an eye gouged from his face, leaving a gaping hollow. As Loki watched, the child's skin began to change, azure to pale, ridged to smooth, freezing to warm, and its eyes faded from frost giant red to a gentler Asgardian blue. But it was not the man who worked this magic. Odin cast no illusion, no spell of any kind. The baby itself, entranced by the new being that had come into its world, transformed itself into an image of its rescuer and became, not just in appearance but in its blood and bone and heart, Asgardian. A shapechanger. Tears dried, and the child Loki smiled up at the father he had recreated himself to imitate. Odin smiled back with a vast tenderness.

This last vision pierced him to the heart. Even as it faded, he struggled harder than ever against death, against fate, against what he had wrought and what others had wrought for him. Slippery blood ran from his neck; the noose had cut skin. The Norns ringed him and Yggdrasil's infinite branchings flickered like a cage around him. They did not let him go.

What do you want from me?, he screamed in his mind.

They did not answer. Panic overwhelmed him. Was he to die now, knowing all this? Was there no purpose to any of it? Was there no purpose to him? The darkness was in his head, his heart, his blood. His mind was drowning. The Norns said nothing.

He fled from them into the darkness, into himself, deeper than he had ever gone, into the core of his being, a depth that even Gleipnir could not bind. Beyond old memories and old hurts he burrowed again into the child he had been. He found there the knowledge, long and desperately suppressed, of his true nature. He was unblinded. He grasped that knowledge, and became one with it once more, and he changed.

His body rippled and reshaped itself, thinning, limbs fusing, scales growing from his skin. He shifted, he changed, he sought a new form to free him. His bonds grew slack, and he slipped, a snake from its skin, out of the noose and the chains that held him. Twisting, he fell through the in-between where Yggdrasil grew and left the tree and its guardians behind him.

He fell and fell for the second time through an endless abyss, shifting, changing, becoming...

... until he landed, hard, on the earth. He lay for a moment with his stinging cheek pressed to the smooth surface beneath him, breathing the cool air. It tasted and smelled better than anything he could remember, fresh with life and motion. He turned his forehead to the ground and sucked breath into his aching lungs. He had arms and legs and his own body again.

He sprawled there in a daze for some time until he realized he was getting wet. It was raining; drops fell on his outstretched hands. He pulled himself to his knees and looked around him.

He was in the courtyard before the palace of Asgard. It was night, and deserted, and a storm murmured overhead, shedding warm spring rain on the city. He knelt under a tree. It was a young tree with fresh green leaves, but golden apples already hung from its limbs. He peered into its branches and, startled, caught a gleam of silver: the noose rested dark among the leaves and from it dangled the chain of Gleipnir. Empty.

This was Thanos' gallows, Loki's gallows. Idunn's gallows. She had sung it into an instrument of life again and they had left it to grow here in the courtyard. A memorial.

Loki got to his feet. He looked down at his hands. With only a small effort of will, he shifted them. They became blue and ridged, then white and smooth again. He felt certain that he could change them and all of himself into many other shapes. Perhaps anything he chose. And all of those shapes would be Loki. He'd never been false; this body had never been a lie. It was only one aspect of him.

He looked up at the sky. Black clouds veiled and unveiled the stars. Balmy raindrops fell on his cheeks. He found he was smiling. Within him all was calm and still. A hush reigned inside him where once there had been many voices, all contradictory. He knew himself.

So. He was in Asgard. It had been summer when he left and now it was spring. Someone was doing a poor job of managing the weather. He suspected he could guess who.

All his magic had returned to him. He fashioned a spell of invisibility and hid himself from all eyes. Then he went into the palace.

The throne room was empty, but the halls bustled with life. Servants ran to and fro and there were warriors, as well, crowding the halls, but they were merry rather than belligerent: it was a time of celebration, not war. Water dripped from Loki's clothes onto the floor and he dried it, swiftly, with a spell and followed the flow of people deeper into the palace.

He knew every passage and corner, so he soon realized the activity was concentrated around the banquet hall in the east wing. He slipped unseen through its great doors in the wake of two servants bearing a great platter of meat.

This was where he had tricked his brother into that ill-fated expedition to Jotunheim. A long table filled the room. On the far side, steps rose to a portico that looked out over the city. Speckles of rain blew past the bright lamps floating between the columns, but the assembled company paid no attention. They were fully engrossed in the feast.

In the center of one long end of the table, across from the doors, sat Thor. He gleamed in red and silver, jesting with his companions around him and calling for more ale. The whole spirit of the room, its love and admiration, focused on him. He showed no sign of sorrow or bitterness. One might have thought him entirely untroubled, were it not for the storm roiling outside. A king must keep a brave face, so the clouds and the wind and the rain churning above were where Thor had poured his grief and his pain.

Thor's eyes passed over him without remarking him. Loki moved, step by silent step, around the table. The guests feasted on food and company, but he feasted, too: his eyes drank them in, alive and beautiful and joyful as they were. Sif he saw, and Hogun laughing – laughing – at a joke she'd made. Volstagg's wife, Hildegund, and his daughter, Gudrun, were testing the strength of their arms against one another. Idunn was there and next to her Frigga – his steps slowed, his eyes stung with salt. His mother's cheeks glowed with good health and drink and yet she was, as ever, unmistakably a queen. Even more so, perhaps, than Thor was king.

Loki came around the end of the table and to his brother's seat. It was lavish, with intricate scrollwork on its arms, and the only one of its kind in the room. It was then he realized that someone was missing. Jane was not here. Mother sat at Thor's right hand and the captain of the palace guards at his left.

He had not, then, allowed her back to Asgard. Or she had not wished to come. Stubborn human, stubborn god. Loki could have laughed. He was sorry for them, but mischief sparked in him. So Thor had left Jane alone on Earth? She must be truly bored by now. But Loki would wager that something would come along to stir the pot soon enough.

His smiled faded as he watched the feasters call for a toast to their king. He stood still, letting the light and joy of the feast wash over him. He could feel the warmth, but he could not join in. He was forever outside the circle. None would ever accept him back. He could not stay here.

He had one more thing to do.

Mjolnir rested on the ground by Thor's side. Loki crept closer. His hand hovered over its haft, but he made no move to take it. The hammer was Thor's burden and Thor's measure. No other could bear it or be worthy of it any more than they could be Thor himself. And he had no need to be Thor, not any longer.

He had another design. He wove a tiny spell and looped it around Mjolnir's handle. The next time Thor picked up his hammer, he would hear Loki's voice speaking in his mind. For how I have wronged you, brother, I am truly sorry. Farewell. He wished he could say it to Thor's face, but this would have to do.

He was just lifting his fingers when Thor turned his head. Those bright blue eyes he knew too well searched the air, and the new keenness was in them again. A line appeared between Thor's brows.

"Mother," he said in an undertone, "do you perceive anything amiss?"

Frigga leaned over and replied in the same hushed voice. "I felt cold just now. The wind, I thought. What do you sense?"

They put their heads together, Thor's sunny gold and Frigga's pale brown. They were aglow with drink and yet sharp-minded still, mother and son so different in appearance but identical in nobility. He saw how they clove together by instinct, without thought. They were the only two left. The remnant of his family. They were but the span of hands away. He could reach out and touch her, his mother. He found his hand had half-risen without his knowledge and he froze. He dared not move for fear a footfall or rustle of cloth would give him away.

"The air had a familiar feel," Thor said. "A ghost, perhaps."

Frigga laid light fingers on his arm and said, "You miss him still." Her voice caught, almost imperceptibly.

"All of them. But at least I know what happened to the others. Loki... even his death is a riddle."

Frigga took a slow breath. "A long time has passed."

"Without word from anywhere in the Nine Realms. I know. It's time to let go. It would be easier, I think, if I could mourn him properly."

Frigga took a flagon from the table and poured sweet mead into Thor's drinking bowl and her own. "Drink with me," she said.

"Gladly." Thor's smile pierced the gloom shadowing his expression.

"Minni," Frigga said, raising her bowl.

"Remembrance," Thor replied.

They drank.

Loki backed away with infinite care. When he reached the nearest column, he leaned against it, pressing his palms to its cool surface. He watched his mother and his brother for a long moment, but they returned to the banquet and became merry again. Still, he was not forgotten. He waited until his heartbeat slowed and the ache in his throat eased.

He did not go through the palace again, but slipped out the portico into the city. Between the banquet and the rainy night, not many were afoot. He wandered, his legs guiding him along well-known paths and to favorite haunts. A strange feeling perplexed him. He mulled over it, not knowing what to name it. He was passing through the Heroes' Gallery, the statues of ancestors looking down on him, when it came to him.

Freedom. He was free. Nothing bound him or held him. Neither chains of steel nor of magic obstructed him, nor obligation nor the past itself. No one hunted him. No one needed saving. There was no one he must impress or manipulate or flee. He was free to choose his next path, and nothing forced his hand.

His heart felt light. When he came out of the gallery, he spun, laughing into the blustery night. He was giddy as if he'd been the one feasting on mead. What should he do? Where should he go? What did he desire? All his old desires and spurs had fallen away. He could replace them with whatever he chose.

No. Not all the old desires were gone. There was one more loose end. One more person to see.

He took the straight road out of the city, purposeful now. When he came to the rainbow bridge, he followed it over the ocean. Even from halfway across, he could see the dome rising ahead of him: the Bifrost rebuilt. The bridge was no longer broken. Asgard had retaken its place among the Realms.

He slowed before the entrance. The Bifrost was not unguarded. Heimdall, who loved solitude, waited there even on a night like this.

Loki considered. He could slip away unseen. For a while yet, his return could remain a secret. Not that Heimdall was especially talkative. But no doubt the news would get out. Thor might leave him be, but not every warrior in Asgard would be content to have Odin's slayer wandering free. He would soon have glory-hunters on his trail. The thought was not especially alarming. He doubted anyone here could be a real threat to him now. After all, he could become anyone. He no longer needed illusions, which could be shattered. He could hide in the form of an elf or a snake or a bee or... a human. He could not be found unless he wished it.

And then there was the vision he'd had of the man with the crown of leaves sitting on the throne. Someone was coming. Someone who would be trouble for Thor. He didn't know when, but it had been the last of the three apparitions and therefore, he thought, the one that would come to pass soonest. If a challenger came to usurp Thor's throne, Loki intended to stand in his way. And with the knowledge he possessed, he could search for this presumptive king before those events came to pass.

The irony nearly made him laugh aloud.

His mind ranged far ahead. It might be useful to be known. It might be useful to have a reputation. Let the Realms know that Loki was still a power, that Loki had brought Asgard to its knees and returned from the dead to tell the tale; then he could disappear, and watch, and wait. For though skuld meant the future, it also meant debt. His was great. He had much to repay; to Thor more than anyone.

He had gone too far into the darkness to ever be a hero. But it was not heroism that had defeated Thanos: it was fear. Loki could do fear. He had used his own tools to save Asgard and he could use them again. He knew what he was: he named himself chaos and trickery and lies, and above all he was change. But he was free to decide how to use his gifts. He would use them to balance his ledger.

He did not deliberate further, but unveiled himself. Heimdall started, springing to attention.

"Loki!" he exclaimed in his deep voice. "You live!" He rasped his blade out of its scabbard.

"Be at ease, gatekeeper," Loki said. "This is not the day we slay each other."

Heimdall did not relax. His golden eyes shone with a steady light. "How? I searched for you, to be sure you were dead. I found nothing!"

"Your senses were never keen enough to catch me."

Heimdall bristled, but he did not attack. Instead he hesitated, sword raised.

He was, Loki realized, if not afraid, then at least cautious. Heimdall had always been contemptuous of Loki the god of tricks and lies, who preferred mischief to battle. But Loki was no longer a mere god of tricks. He was a god of evil: fratricide, patricide, genocide twice over could be laid at his feet. He was Loki Realm-breaker, corrupt beyond salvation. He had slain the greatest powers in the known universe. He balked at nothing and he had powers Heimdall did not know.

The illusion of Loki he had created for Thanos lived still, and it had grown to proportions as immense as those of Thanos himself. He put it on like a mask. Yes, Heimdall was afraid.

"Why do you reveal yourself?" Heimdall demanded.

"I have a message for your king," Loki said with an easy smiile. "Tell him his throne is in danger, and perhaps his kingdom, too."

"From you, King-killer? Is your appetite for destruction still not satisfied?"

"Now that's no good. If it were me, why would I warn you?"

"For reasons of your own, no doubt. I will not allow you to pass."

"I need no permission from you." He drew the darkness around him and let his voice ring out. "Tell Thor a challenger comes. Tell him you have seen me and I told you so. Tell him to gird himself and make Asgard fast. I have no intention of fighting you today. Will you pass on my message?"

Heimdall wavered. Loki gathered his magic, plucking at the unseen lines of force that guided the fates of mortals and gods. Where to? To Earth. For one last glimpse, before he began his search for Thor's unknown future challenger.

"Tell him one more thing," he said as Heimdall tensed to leap at him. "Tell him if he doesn't want that woman of his – "

Heimdall rushed at him, blade slicing the air. He spun the dice and let luck forge him a path. Heimdall, the sword, the Bifrost, Asgard vanished into his past. He walked through worlds, alone, reborn, filled with new purpose.

"Maybe I'll pay her a visit myself," he said, scattering each word to a different star.

Thanks to everyone who waited so long to see this story finished. I hope it all held together and entertained you well. Coming back to it was difficult, but I knew I couldn't leave it incomplete and I'm so happy and relieved I finally managed to pull it together. Writing this story has stretched my abilities to the limit and I've learned a huge amount along the way.

To the people who sent me messages during the last two years: thank you very much, they meant a lot to me and I appreciated them even if I didn't respond. You're kind folk.

I'm writing a sequel, but this time I'm going to finish the whole thing before posting. ;)

And thanks to A for always listening.