Chapter Twenty

Loki kissed Angrboda deeply before they parted to take up their positions where Atum had directed them to go. He touched her face as he stepped back. "Be safe. I love you."

"You too." Angrboda looked straight ahead, her eyes blurring. "This will be over soon... at least Hela's safe."

Loki nodded, but his heart was sinking. Are we the only two left with something to fight for now? If Asgard falls, Hela dies... I will not let that happen, he vowed. My daughter will survive, no matter what.

Atum stood in the centre of the rubble. "Chthon!" he called. "Hour's up!"

"So it is". The shadow materialised before Atum, laughing.

"So let's end this," the sun god muttered, leaping into the air.

Chthon met him mid-leap, coalescing into the form of a monstrous wolf. The battle raged in the air, and all the others could do was watch, horrified.

Stay in place, Loki told himself. "Where are you, Set?"

The battle raged, guttural roars sounding from both combatants. Loki couldn't tell who had the upper hand. There was no sign of Set. He wanted nothing more than to run in and help Atum. Wait, he told himself. Follow the plan. He glanced over at Angrboda. His wife's face was grim, but determined. I wish we'd had more time together...

It was then that Set struck. He came from behind, devouring Hogun before any of them even knew he was there. Set hissed in triumph even as cries of horror and denial sounded.

Thor blasted the snake with a bolt of lightning as Set leapt at him. Gaea and Oshtur both pelted him with beams of white light, causing him to shriek in pain. He missed Thor, falling to the ground- then immediately lunged at Angrboda. His massive form prevented Loki from seeing what had happened.

A spear of ice went through the skull of one of his heads. Loki shouted his wife's name, mustering all his fire, hurling it towards the snake. Set screamed in agony, recoiling from the searing heat. Loki's eyes widened as he saw Angrboda...She was laying still and broken. Loki felt as though time stopped, but of course it hadn't. Frigga, Thor, Gaea and Oshtur were all charging the snake and Loki realised that his feet were making him do the same. He was dimly aware that Balder was in his place atop the roof, firing from his bow-

An arrow went cleanly through Frigga's heart.

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Balder sobbed aloud as Set's control wound through him, forcing him to take aim now at Loki. His brother was staring up at him, horrified. "What are you doing?!"

Loki's shout barely reached Balder, and Set didn't let him respond. I'm sorry, I'm sorry...

Another arrow flew.

Loki created a shield of fire; the arrow burned before impact. He brother started to run towards the palace, no doubt to stop him. Set's commands came physically; Balder was on his feet, running back into the palace. Towards where Eitri, Nanna and Hela were. He had no heart left, it hurt so much that he was numb.

Nanna...

Ssshe's proven resssissstant to a sssecond posssssessssion. I'm sssorry, Balder, but you're going to have to kill her.

Balder couldn't even think of a protest. He entered the room where his beloved waited... She smiled up at him trustingly. Balder felt sick.

"It's over, Nanna," he whispered, pulling her into his embrace.

"But I can still hear-"

"It's over for us." The dagger was in his hand and through her heart before even he knew it. He stood, face blank, as Nanna collapsed, her eyes wide open, full of shock as she took her last breath. Hela began wailing. Eitri's face went white with horror and rage.

The dwarf truly wasn't a fighter. He raised his hands to defend himself as Balder came at him, but the blade sliced cleanly across his throat within seconds. And then Balder turned to Hela, little, defenceless Hela whose life had only just begun. She was wailing, red-faced as Balder approached her bassinet.

His tears matched hers.

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Loki got into the room where they had left the others just in time to see Balder raise his dagger over Hela's bassinet.

No! Not like Tessa. He would not lose another child. He reacted instinctively. His arm locked around Balder's throat, and he found unnatural strength as he dragged his possessed brother away from his daughter. His free hand shot up, grasping Balder's wrist and twisting viciously until he dropped the knife. Loki now stood between him and Hela, eyes blazing. He made himself ignore the fact that Balder was still in there somewhere.

"I will never let you hurt my daughter, Set!"

Balder's blue eyes looked out at Loki as he grasped the dagger stained with Nanna and Eitri's blood. Tears were running down his face and Loki's heart wrenched.

"Please," Balder whispered. "Kill me."

If Balder dies, Asgard falls.

Loki stabbed him through the heart.

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Gaea felt the shift in the earth. She froze, and lowered her hands, stopping her blasts of light. "It's over." Set was hissing and thrashing in anger. Thor and Oshtur turned to look at her.

"Are you sure?"

Gaea nodded, tears blurring her eyes. "Balder lies dying."

Atum and Chthon still fought for supremacy in the skies above. The ground was littered with corpses- almost every citizen of Asgard lay dead or dying. Thor took a step forwards, intent on going to his brother - but Set's teeth closed around him. One sharp fang severed his head from his torso. Jord's scream of horror was the last thing he heard. Her cry distracted Atum for an instant, and he turned away from Chthon.

The shadowy wolf leapt forward, teeth slashing through Atum's golden skin. They fell together, Chthon's muzzle burying into Atum's chest to rip out his heart. Atum felt Death approaching and desperately threw out one last thought – to Loki. Get out. Out of the corner of his eye, Thor's weapon, Mjölnir, sped towards the palace.

Atum's eyes shifted to Gaea. I'm sorry. His mother was the last thing he saw.

Set stopped his attack on Oshtur. He, too, was sensing the shift in Asgard. Chthon laughed as his form swirled into his humanoid shape. His red eyes locked on Gaea.

"You owe me two hours now."

"I don't think we have two hours."

"What are you blathering about?"

Oshtur joined them, eyes cold. "Can't you feel it, Brother?"

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Balder's eyes fluttered. "Loki..."

"I'm sorry, Balder, I'm sorry," Loki whispered, holding his little brother close.

"Thank... you..."

All of Asgard seemed to groan. Loki shuddered, realising that this was it. The end. Balder's chest went still.

"No!" Loki cried, sobbing. "No, Balder..." He shook his brother, desperate. No, no, no... He hardly heard his baby daughter's continued wails. The ground began to shake, and Loki stood in a daze, gently closing Balder's eyes. A voice echoed in his mind.

Get out.

"Atum?" Loki muttered aloud, puzzled. He was struggling to make sense of that through the grief flooding his mind when Mjölnir came crashing through the wall. It skidded to a stop right in front of him. Thor. Loki's heart was frozen. Thor's dead. He reached out and touched the hammer; it seemed to purr under his fingers. "Hela."

Thoughts of his daughter filled his mind. She has to survive, I cannot let another child die... He lifted Mjölnir with ease, not caring how, and lifted Hela into his arms, rocking her gently.

"It's going to be alright, little one." He swung Thor's hammer in an arc, concentrating, and focused his thoughts on Midgard. At least Thor's allies are there... I might be believed... He and Hela vanished in a flash of light. The portal closed behind them, just as the whole palace shook, and cracks appeared in the ceiling, raining plaster and stone down on Balder, Nanna and Eitri's bodies.

~ Avengers Tower~

Wanda and Steve held each other's hands tightly as they stared at their fellow Avengers. This was not going to be easy! Tony was probably never going to shut up about it...

"Well, what's this about?" the billionaire said, looking a bit bored. "I was working on... something."

Natasha looked expectant, like she already knew.

Steve cleared his throat awkwardly. "We... uh... Wanda and I have something to tell you." He went red, looking at his fiancée for help. She smothered a laugh.

"I'm-" A flash of light interrupted her words, and a strong wind made everything in the room that wasn't nailed down go flying. As the tempest died, the gathered Avengers recognised Loki crouched on the floor, clutching Mjölnir in one hand, and cradling something tightly to his chest with the other.

Clint cursed, reaching for his gun but Natasha stopped him. Loki was covered in blood, and made no move as though he was going to attack them.

Bruce noticed as well, and moved to crouch down in front of the unmoving god. "Uh... Loki? Obviously, something's wrong... are you injured?"

Loki shivered for a moment, and then he pushed the scientist aside and lurched to his feet. "Mirror!" he shouted.

The Avengers stared in confusion.

"Mirror!" he repeated, and pushed between Natasha and Clint, not looking at either of them. He tore from the room.

"Does he have a baby with him?" Tony wondered aloud.

"Sounds like it," Pepper replied, concerned.

The Avengers followed him. He ran to the nearest bathroom, practically ripping the door off its hinges. Mjölnir thunked on the floor as he dropped it. Standing in front of the mirror, he began muttering something in a strange tongue. It glowed slightly and then a scene came into view. A city in ruins and littered with dead bodies. Wanda recoiled against Steve as she saw the charred personage of Chthon, the demon who had possessed her not too long ago. She shivered. With him were two women that bore vague resemblances to Thor. A giant, seven-headed snake coiled in on itself at his feet.

"What have you done?" Chthon seethed. "Gaea!"

"What was necessary to stop you. You'll never hurt anyone ever again."

"You've slaughtered everyone in this realm!"

Gaea nodded sorrowfully. "How many more would end if we had not?"

Loki stared in horror, frozen as the scene played out before him. Chthon stood, glaring in powerless rage. Oshtur put her hand on Gaea's shoulder.

"Thisss isss the end, isssn't it?" Set asked, pulling himself up and slithering away from Chthon.

"Not how you thought it would be?" Oshtur asked him.

"Funny," Set mused. "I thought I would be angry... But I'm jussst..."

"Relieved?" Oshtur murmured.

Set nodded all seven of his heads. "What will happen now... Is there sssomeplace we will go, or will we sssimply ceassse?"

Loki had tears running down his face as Gaea looked at Thor's body, lying nearby, and then Frigga's, Angrboda's, and stepped forward. She wrapped her arms around Set.

"What is going on?" Stark asked, sounding nervous, but nobody said anything.

"Gaea?" Set whispered.

"Yes, little brother?"

"I'm afraid." He closed his eyes tight, resting all seven of his heads on her shoulders. The mirror went blank.

"NO!" Loki screamed, falling to his knees. Hela startled and began wailing. Loki held her tight, rocking back and forth as tears poured down his face. The baby's cries were almost as loud as his weeping.

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Atum opened his eyes. He looked around. Was this Asgard? No, it couldn't be. The sky was bluer than anything he had ever seen, the air was fresh and light, tall grass surrounded him on all sides. And there were no bodies. Hhe looked around, brow furrowing. There were people all around. Shock rippled through him as he saw Freyja. She was beaming, looking happier than he had ever seen her. She ran to him and embraced him. Her nine daughters were with her. Hnossa, young and beautiful as she had been in her prime laughed at his dumbfounded expression.

"Welcome home, uncle!" she exclaimed. Beside them was Freyja's long-dead husband, Ve. Frey was there as well, hugging Gaea. Thor was nearby, and Balder, and Frigga, and Odin, bawling like infants and grinning like fools. Nanna was there, too, in Balder's arms. A few feet from them was Sif playfully trading punches with her father Tyr while her adoptive mother Alti looked on with a fond smile.

Gaea embraced him as Freyja let go. Oshtur was weaving her way through the people, looking stunned.

"What is this, Gaea?" Atum asked.

"Call me Mother. Please."

"Mother."

"I don't know what this is... but I must go see your brothers and sisters," she said excitedly, running off as light as a young girl.

And then he saw her. Carefully navigating her way around the throngs of reunited families and friends, she came walking towards him. Atum wished he was anywhere else. His gaze fell to the ground. There were so many people he saw here whom he had killed... but his biggest shame was his failure to protect Farbauti. She stopped in front of him, cupping his face with her cool hand, and lifted his head to look at her.

"I knew you would come."

Atum felt tears well in his eyes as he looked at her. "Farbauti..."

"Shhh. It's alright, Atum." She kissed him gently. "I know."

"How can you know when I do not?"

Farbauti winked at him. "I've been dead a lot longer than you. It comes with the territory."

And for the first time in his existence, Atum felt the heavy weight closing around his heart dissipate. He laughed, wrapped his arms around Farbauti's waist and lifted her, swinging her around, as she held his head and kissed him repeatedly. When he finally set her down, he cast a happy look around. It was good, this place, wherever and whatever it was.

There was only one person not being welcomed by loved ones. Angrboda was standing isolated from the happiness around her. Farbauti took Atum's hand and pulled him over to where she was. Thor, Balder, Frigga and Odin joined them.

"Loki and Hela didn't come," Angrboda whispered, tears rolling down her cheeks. "They stayed behind."

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Sigyn took a deep breath before hurling a fireball at the door and then throwing herself to the ground. It bounced around the cell for several minutes before burning out. She looked up; no effect. She wanted to tear her hair out. Something had to work!

Her attempts to contact Atum had failed and so were her attempts to free herself. Giving in to her frustration, she drove her fist into the wall as hard as she could, screaming.

There was a knock on the door. "Niece, art thou in there?"

She couldn't believe her ears! I must be hallucinating... or this is some trick of Chthon's... "Thoth?"

"Sigyn?"

"Thoth! I'm in here!"

"Excellent." A pause. "Where are the keys?"

"There aren't any! And, uh," Sigyn remembered her lack of clothing. "You shouldn't really come in, I'm not... decent."

There was silence, and then Sigyn saw blue runes seeping in through the stone door. She backed away - and had just enough time to drop and shield her face before the door exploded. Thoth came hurrying in, a cloak in his hands. "Hurry!" he squealed, but there was anger flashing in his eyes.

She grabbed the cloak and wrapped it tightly around herself, noting with gratitude that Thoth had averted his eyes.

"How did you get here?"

"I shalt explain once we are safely away. Come!" Thoth pulled her out of the cell quickly.

She followed him quickly, her heart in her throat. "Thoth... I need to get back to Asgard."

Thoth blinked. "I thought thou didst not wish to return to thy home?"

"I learned... Chthon told me my family is... in trouble." She wouldn't say the words!

"First we must needs leave this place in any case!" Thoth began chanting rapidly as the chattering, skittering sounds of the N'Garai drew closer. Sigyn tensed, seeing them approaching.

"Thoth, hurry!"

Sweat dripped down his face, but the portal opened. Grabbing Thoth's arm, Sigyn leapt through. One of the N'Garai lunged; the portal snapped closed- but the demon had come through with them. Its claws raked down Sigyn's back; she screamed. There was an now-familiar angry snarl, and a golden blur tackled the demon off her.

"Sekhmet?" Sigyn managed to gasp. And then Helblindi was there, helping her to her feet.

"Are you alright?" he asked. She nodded numbly. A screech distracted her and she turned... to see Sekhmet in a form that looked half-lion. She was ripping the N'Garai to shreds.

Sigyn, Thoth and Helblindi watched in horrified fascination as Sekhmet ripped it to shreds. When it was utterly decimated, Sekhmet reverted to humanoid form, black blood staining her mouth, and spat in disgust. She turned, feeling their eyes on her. "What?"

"You... took care of that very quickly," Sigyn said, shocked.

"And you're naked. Did Chthon-"

"No."

Sekhmet eyed her. "Are you telling the truth?"

"Yes. He... he was going to, that's why I'm..." she gestured at herself, "But he left without warning, I don't know why. Then Thoth found me."

"I encountered the younger uncle first," Thoth said. "Set."

"He was there," Sigyn said slowly. "He almost... it was like he was trying to stop Chthon..."

Sekhmet snorted. "That's ridiculous. Set has schemes of his own, but he is far too cowardly to openly go against Chthon!"

Sigyn shrugged. "It just seemed like he was making arguments for why Chthon shouldn't... you know."

"Thou art safe now."

"We need to get to Asgard," Sigyn said firmly. "Now."

"What? Why?" Helblindi asked.

Sigyn flinched at having to say it again, but repeated what Chthon had told her. Thoth went white, and Helblindi stared in horror.

"Gullveig killed her own sister?"

"I have to know if he was lying," Sigyn said, leaning into his arms, shaking. "I need to know."

"Alright, we'll go back." Helblindi held Sigyn close.

"It's nonsense, anyway." Sekhmet stated boldly. "Chthon's a liar, he'd have said anything to break your spirit!"

"But he was about to touch me afterwards. If it had been a lie..." she looked at Thoth hopefully.

He cleared his throat. "I have sensed great trauma in my family..."

"You never take your beak out of your books, how would you know anything?" Sekhmet snapped. She wasn't really angry with Thoth (for once) but she was trying to reassure Sigyn.

"I thought 'twas you..." Thoth continued, looking at Sigyn. "But Atum is full of wrath."

Sigyn's whole body began trembling. "We have to get home now!"

"But this world might still be in danger," Sekhmet said, her voice low.

"I NEED TO GO HOME!"

Helblindi took her hand. "Let's go."

Sekhmet huffed in frustration. "Fine. I haven't been to Asgard in a while anyway."

Sigyn and Helblindi stopped and stared at her. "You're coming with us?"

"Of course we are," Sekhmet replied, heading towards the ship.

Thoth looked startled. "Thou desirest me to come as well, niece?"

"Unless you want to stay here by yourself!"

"Ah..." Thoth considered for a minute, before scuttling after Sekhmet. "I will come too!"

Helbindi took Sigyn's hand and they followed. "How long will it take to get back to Asgard?"

"A few weeks."

"Great." Sigyn wanted to scream as they boarded the ship. A few weeks with nothing to do but panic about what I'll find at home...

"What do I need to do?" Helblindi asked her, looking worried.

Sigyn thought for a moment. "Distract me."

"How?"

She took his hand, tugging him into their room.

"I have to set the coordinates-" he started, but the engines started purring.

"I think Sekhmet knows the way."

"Fair enough." He let Sigyn tug him into their room, closing the door behind them. They had a few weeks more of privacy, before returning to Asgard, and whatever awaited them there... best to make the most of it.

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Loki felt only cold emptiness. He had long since ceased weeping after watching the destruction of Asgard. How long had it been? Hours, days, weeks, years? His body was too heavy to move, his eyes staring blankly ahead, muffled silence in his ears. They were gone. All of them. Every person he had ever loved, except his daughter...

Hela. Loki stirred, looking around for the first time. Banner had taken Hela from him, to quiet her, and Loki had allowed him to do so because he was afraid in his grief he might hurt her. The Avengers had then taken him to another room... was it a prison? The walls were pale blue, clouds painted on the door and ceiling, a window with white curtains open, letting in a breeze. A bed was pushed into a corner. Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton were sitting on it, leaning against the wall and each other, eyes closed, breathing deeply.

"Where is Hela?"

The assassins startled out of their rest. Barton yawed. "Out of the coma, are you?" he muttered.

Loki frowned. "Where is Hela?"

"The baby you had with you?" Romanoff asked. Loki nodded tersely, and she continued. "Bruce has been watching her. We weren't sure what was going on with you... Actually, we've had you on suicide watch for the past three days."

"Three days?" Loki repeated. "It can't have been that long... or only that long..." He shook his head. "I want to see my daughter."

"Thor didn't tell us that you had a daughter."

Thor. A lump rose in Loki's throat. Thor. Frigga. Balder. Angrboda. He stood abruptly. "Take me to my daughter."

"She's fine," Romanoff assured him. "She and Bruce have really hit it off. We do have questions for you, though. We haven't been able to contact Thor since-"

Loki seized her by the throat, hoisting her into the air and pinning her against the wall. With a flick of the wrist and a little magic, the floorboards Barton stood on liquefied. He sank into them until it was just his eyes and nose above the floor, and Loki solidified the wood again.

"Agent Romanoff," Loki said calmly as she struggled against his grip. He lifted his free hand and wreathed it in red-tinged flame. "You are looking at a man who has lost everything that he cares about- Everything and everyone except his daughter. I suggest that your questions wait!"

Romanoff managed a nod. Loki released her. She coughed, a hand going to her neck. "You mind?" She gestured at Barton.

Loki flicked his wrist again, and Romanoff was able to help Barton out. The agents both glared nervously at the god, but he couldn't have cared less. Silently, they lead him out of the room. They walked a little way down a corridor, and entered a room which held a crib and heaps of toys. Hela sat in the middle of the floor, playing with a stuffed horse. Banner stood nearby. A huge grin broke across Hela's face when she saw Loki, and she reached for him. Loki snatched up his daughter, holding her close. Tears threatened to fall again.

"I love you," he whispered, kissing Hela's downy forehead.

"Dadadadadada," Hela burbled.

"Guys, can you give us a moment?"

Loki heard Banner's mutter, but didn't pay attention as Barton and Romanoff left. The scientist walked over cautiously, and put a hand on Loki's shoulder. Loki didn't acknowledge him.

"What happened?"

Hela dropped her horse. Loki picked it up again, noticing for the first time that it had eight legs. Tears blurred his vision, and he kissed his daughter again.

"Loki?" Banner's voice was concerned. "What happened?"

Loki's voice came out in a sob. "Ragnarok."

The End.