NOTE: So this is it, the final chapter of Hail of Shadows! But no, the saga of 'Understanding the Storm' is not over yet. Enjoy this epilogue with Frigga. It's been a long, sometimes dark journey, and I hope you've enjoyed it!

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Frigga barely needed an illusion to cover her and Hogun at all. The dark elves were fleeing, terrified as the frostfire spread unchecked in the tunnels.

Ancestors, this was a calamity… There was no organization, so much panic making everything worse. "Where is Malekith?" she demanded of several dark elves. Some had no idea, some thought he was dead, but a few pointed her downward, even as they warned her that it was a deathtrap below. But they were hopeful that she could find him - or anyone - to help them.

A nearby infestation of frostfire pulled her to deal with it. Hogun protesting, "My queen, no!"

She ignored him; she was here for Loki, but she was not here to watch an entire civilization die for him either.

Bitter cold emerged from the tunnel, every surface glowing pale blue as it flowed toward the intersection of the main tunnel. If it reached the great hall from here, the whole palace would be lost. She held the hilt of her sword and called the warmth of summer: the gold and green of the fields of Asgard, the clear azure skies of Midgard, the aqua of the shallow seas of Vanaheim… cherry blossoms, the hum of bees, the laughter of children ... The sounds and sights of life and light ... and she sent the power of those things at that creeping death and cold.

It melted. The coldfire dwindled and faded to white frost. Frigga lowered her hands, weary but satisfied. At least that was done.

"Lady Sigyn?" a tentative voice asked at her back and then took a confused step away as Frigga turned, still embracing her dark elf illusion. "No, forgive me, you are not Lady Sigyn. Lady…?"

Frigga ignored the question, to ask her own. "Malekith. Where is he?"

But then, Malekith's whereabouts no longer mattered, as power abruptly blazed on her senses, stirring the aether. So much power… The Casket of Ancient Winters… that meant Loki, and Thanos, his taint like a shadow of death rushing through the tunnels, thick enough everyone should have tasted it.

They were in combat.

Frigga ordered the dark elves who had watched her. "Evacuate. Everyone. Now."

Then, heedless of queenly dignity or her illusion or anything else at all, she started to run toward that battle. Hogun paced her, and they kept their weapons ready, but they found no one down in the depths. Either this area was normally sparsely populated, or they had all evacuated the area. It helped her move quickly, but also meant there was no one to show her the route so they had to backtrack twice. Still the battle raged, power unleashed, such that she had not felt in centuries.

She felt a touch, then, a green glow in the aether brushing her with fierce need, in a silent cry for help. "Loki!" But even as she reached out for him, it vanished.

And the battle ended. The beacon of that battle was simply … and ominously… gone. She stumbled, Hogun catching her arm. "My queen?"

"Something… happened. We must hurry."

They found other workrooms, deserted. The tunnel became rimed with frost and it was cold, but the frostfire had died. She knew she was getting close when she found the bodies of several formal guards, overwhelmed by the frostfire.

She burst through an archway into a round work room, and she knew immediately this had been the epicenter of the battle. Wild magic still careened in the room, fierce freezing winds whipping around the chimney. In the center was a narrow sacrificial altar, surrounded by power sigils and runes carved into the floor. The chains and manacles attached to it were broken, but she knew Loki had been held there.

Loki was not there, but there was someone on the floor, with melted armor and ragged white hair. Hogun knelt near him, weapons extended warily to prod the body. "My queen, it is Malekith."

"Dead?"

Hogun shook his head. "Shall I?"

But before she could decide, a moan from benath the side overhang interrupted. Frigga hurried over to find another dark elf, slumped down against the wall, her eyes flickering open and her face crumpled in pain.

Frigga knelt before her. "Sigyn," she called softly, for who else would it be?

The girl's eyes found her and frowned curiously, whispering with difficulty, "Who-? I sense power, but you are strange to me."

Frigga let go of the illusion on her appearance. "I mean you no harm, child. I am Frigga of Asgard."

Sigyn's lips parted in amazement. "Queen Frigga? You have come…"

"Indeed I have." Frigga rested a gentle hand on her forehead to check her aura and catalog her hurts, then prepared her powers. Sigyn gasped, eyes flaring wide as Frigga's healing rushed through her. It also stripped the illusion which she held over her appearace as well, and Sigyn turned gold-touched as her Ljosalfar blood appeared. It was a lovely and aethereal combination, like a sunrise in this frosted, dim place.

Sigyn gasped, green eyes widening in dismay, as she realized what the healing had done. But Frigga's hand was gentle on her cheek. "You are beautiful. Please, leave it."

"Beautiful?" she repeated and choked a bitter laugh that echoed another Frigga had grown familiar with. "He said the same to me, but I thought he was lying."

"It is no lie, Sigyn, I promise. But please, tell me of him - what happened to Loki?"

"I saw… a portal," Sigyn began haltingly, more from uncertainty than lingering pain. Given her wounds and the power unleashed in this room, Frigga admired that she had been able to see anything at all. "My brother - Thanos possessed him. Thanos forced Loki through the portal. I know not where."

"Thanos possessed him?" Frigga drew back in alarm and glanced to where Hogun still stood watch over Malekith's body.

Hogun prodded him with a boot and got no response. "I think not, my queen. This is only Malekith."

"Loki was trying to separate them. I could feel that much, so perhaps he succeeded at the last," Sigyn said and pushed herself more upright, clenching her jaw when she saw Malekith's body. "Is he dead?"

"No, princess," Hogun answered. "Unless you wish it."

"He will be wroth with me, for betraying him for Loki, but -" she hesitated, biting her lip in distress. "He is my brother. I cannot."

"Then we will not," Frigga decided. "Perhaps being host to Thanos has taught him a lesson. We need to go before he rouses. Will you go with us, Sigyn?"

Sigyn said with soft uncertainty, "He said I should go with you."

Frigga cupped her face between her fingers. "Loki made special effort to tell me to help you."

"He did?" Sigyn smiled, her green eyes lighting, and Frigga recognized that look with hope. If she could nurture that sprout of feeling into love, then her son might have a mate finally worthy of him.

She helped Sigyn to her feet. "Hogun, help Lady Sigyn. I need to check something before we go."

The portal had unraveled but the traces were fresh and readable. It gave her a surprising destination answer, which seemed more troubling the more she considered.

Frowning, she turned back to Hogun and Sigyn, sparing a glance at Malekith. Had he been a willing ally or a passive victim of Thanos' manipulations? It would take more time than she had to unravel the truth, and perhaps it should be Sigyn and Loki's decisions.

It was time to go back, before her other warriors grew impatient. "We need to go. Many of your people fled the frostfire and are now prisoners of the Jotnar above. They would probably like to see you."

"Am I prisoner, too?" Sigyn asked.

Frigga returned to her. Sigyn's hands were cold, and Frigga clasped them. "Dear Sigyn, you helped my son. More than you know. So I owe you a debt I can never repay. You are under my protection, and I promise you will be safe. You are my guest, not a prisoner." She freed one hand to tuck a loose pale golden lock behind Sigyn's ear, thinking wistfully of daughters she had never had. "But we need to go, if you are coming."

"Yes. I will." Sigyn restored her dark elf appearance and followed them out. She looked at her brother once, glancing back from the entryway but then turned forward and did not look back again. She guided Frigga and Hogun through the labyrinth, and on their way, she and Frigga dampened what frostfire they found, and Frigga was impressed by her control. Sigyn also handled her people with a gentleness that Frigga would not have expected from the daughter of Durn the Cruel.

As Sigyn coaxed her people up a narrow staircase toward a secret exit, Hogun lingered near Frigga and asked, in a low voice, "Where is he? You looked disturbed."

"Midgard. Thanos sent him to Midgard."

Hogun frowned. "But surely that is good news. Thor is there, is he not?"

Frigga shook her head slowly, doubting that it was good news at all. "Thanos would not send him there for good purpose. Nor would he relinquish the Casket and Loki unless he had another means to achieve his goal. No, there is some dark plan in motion, I fear. Something we do not know."

Loki had kept Thanos from entering the Nine Realms in full, and he was now free of Malekith. Both of those were victories. But she knew the war was not yet won. And she had yet to discover Loki's state - Was he hurt? Was he trapped in Thanos' fell influence again? What had happened during his time in captivity? She would need to discover that, though she would have much to manage in the aftermath here as well.

She crawled out of the small gate into the open air and rose to her feet. Some distance away, she saw the huddled mass of white-haired Dark Elves and the towering forms of Frost Giants, all milling about in confusion. Sigyn started toward them, before retreating back to Frigga in uncertainty.

Casting her eyes to the steel-gray clouds, Frigga sent a prayer toward both her sons, now on distant Midgard:

Find your brother, Thor, I fear he needs you desperately. Loki, remember who you are and who you are not. Listen to your heart, not to the dark whispers Thanos left within you. Be strong, my son, and you may yet defeat this evil that pursues you.

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end.


To be continued in

Understanding the Storm, Part V: Comes the Hurricane

When Loki falls to Earth, the dark plans of Thanos come to fruition. Saving the Nine Realms will require more than Asgard to face this rising storm...

Coming in 2014!

In the meantime, feedback is always inspiring and appreciated.