Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 21

Seven in. Four out. Too long to wait.

 

Pounding feet. They were practically running up the trail, but I had no doubt that they knew their own endurance.

 

We, meanwhile, were at the end of ours for waiting, adrenalin threatening to crash before the fight even started.

 

Or whatever passed for it. It was all, for me, about energy and magic. Fire.

 

And I could not draw from the fire here. It still felt sickly. It wanted me. It also wanted Surtur.
The land would have liked both of us, united. “Sorry,” I whispered.

 

And knew that the land understood. Understood that it was wrong to force it. But it was still a dream.

 

Not my task to kill him.

 

He had to die.

 

And with that the first of the fire giants came around the rock…

 

…to take a bullet. It didn’t kill her – it was a woman – but she was thrown back slightly. Then she charged, letting battle fever take over.

 

A second shot at Surtur, second in line as I had suspected.

 

“What?” he said, abruptly.

 

“Surprise!” I yelled and leaped over the rocks towards him.

 

“I don’t want to kill you!”

 

I felt the same way, but my blade was out. “You have given me no choice. You could have asked. You could always have asked.”

 

“You would never have said yes.”

 

I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I might have said if he’d been saner. “You lost your chance when you tried to force me.”

 

Our blades struck against each other, crimson sparks into the air. Tried to force me. I heard the echo of my words from the mountainside.

 

“What do you want?” he asked.

 

“Should have asked me that a long time ago. Too late now.” What I wanted was in the past, out of reach. It was no longer possible to get there from here.

 

“I only ever…”

 

I struck at him again, causing a bit of blood to leak from his arm. His return blow sent vibrations all the way through my body.

 

But the bantering part was over. I could not take him, but I could hold my own. Not enough space.

 

If I fell…I no longer knew what would happen. But there were too few of us for me to get help.

 

It was not my task to kill him because I couldn’t. But I could hold him.

 

I could hold him until one of us tired into a mistake. That was all I could do.

 

Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 20

Thruor came back a bit later. “I see them. We definitely have company.”

 

“Surtur?”

 

“On horseback.”

 

He’d have to leave the horses. “We should…” I grinned. “Reckon our horses could herd his off somewhere?”

 

“So if he…” Thruor laughed. “Loki’s daughter.”

 

“It’s petty, I know.”

 

But I sort of felt sorry for Surtur’s horse. I’d been surprised to find they used them. Frost giants didn’t.

 

Angrboda. Somebody else I feared I would not see again, but there was nothing I could do.

 

He was coming, and task or no task, we were going to finish this. Unless it was so firm a prophecy that I could not be involved with killing him at all.

 

That might explain some things. If this did not work I would suggest to Thruor that I needed to pull out altogether. Help somewhere else.

 

I thought of Kanesha, used her as a sort of lodestone to focus my mind. Not that I was just doing this for her, but she was part and parcel of everything I was doing this for.

 

Focused. Dropped behind the rock. Waiting. “Maybe we should do another light show.”

 

Thruor nodded. “I’ll toss up a flare. Don’t need you.”

 

I suspected she wanted me to save my strength. My fire was far more useful in a fight, even against fire giants, than her, surprisingly lesser magic.

 

Or not so surprisingly. She was a valkyrie and a warrior. I was…what I was.

 

I was fire. Nurturing and burning. I let it grow within me.

 

Waited.

 

He would probably be dismounting right about now. Thruor said he had eight with him, men and women.

 

More elite forces. Nine might be more than we could handle. What would they do if we took him out?

 

What if we sniped him? None of us had the requisite skill, or did we? “Could take him out right as he comes around the corner,” I murmured to Mike.

 

“I thought of that, but he won’t come first.”

 

I nodded. “Well. If we get a shot we should take it.” It might only wound him. But it would weaken him.

 

And if we took him out, then would those with him go crazy for vengeance or would they fold? I knew he likely hoped for the former.

 

But given how fire giants felt about assassination, they might…

 

He was coming up the mountain. I realized I was holding my breath. Forced myself to take deep, patterned breaths, seven in, four out.

 

It helped.

 

Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 19

“I think he’s calling our bluff,” I said to Thruor.

 

“Or just assuming that this would take a while.”

 

“What do we do if he is?”

 

Not my task to kill him. Was it Thruor’s?

 

What if it was the dwarves? That might make things better or worse.

 

Who’s task was it? Somebody I didn’t know.

 

“Go find him, I suppose.”

 

“Could do another light show then immediately head out.”

 

“Might be too slow to surprise him.”

 

Her tone reminded me that I had picked the location. I was responsible for failure.

 

“And…I still…” I looked at the tree.

 

“Still want to help the tree.”

 

“Yes.” It wasn’t just a tree. It represented everything. But tactics. I delayed purely from that. “Can you see anything?”

 

“No more than you can, but let me see.”
And she was airborne, a rush of black feathers. I felt envy for a moment. Flying. Wasn’t something I longed for, but how could one not be just a little bit jealous of such an ability?

 

I doubted Ebba and Jorun envied her at all.

 

Mike. “Is she doing recon?”

 

“Yes. And don’t worry, she won’t be seen.”

 

“I’m not. I’m worried about you.”

 

“Mike, I’m only going to do what I have to.”

 

“Exactly.” He studied me. “I’m not your father. I never can be. But…”

 

I let out a breath. “I wish I could ask you to look after Kanesha for me. Just in case.” But it was too late for that.

 

“You think you are…”

 

I turned towards him. “Mike, if I don’t make it through this, then it might not even be a concern.”
The rift in the sky was trembling. Quivering. Maybe Surtur had not come because every part of him was devoted to keeping it closed.

 

Could I help?

 

“I know.” He paused. “But I still worry.”

 

“In your nature.” I looked at the rift again. It felt as if it echoed the divisions in this land.

 

I wanted to be back in DC. I wanted to be worrying about a shoot.

 

I knew I would never again get what I wanted.

 

Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 18

Apparently, it was going to take a while for Surtur to realize his men…and he had only sent men, for whatever reason…were not coming back.

 

Which left me more time to examine the tree. It did indeed seem to be nothing more than a dead ash. At a high altitude if we were on Earth, but the same rules likely did not apply here, in the realm of the giants.

 

I wanted Kanesha beside me badly. It was like I thought she would know what to do.

 

No, I honestly did want her intelligence. Ebba was hurt, but she said she would heal quickly. Reminded me dwarves were tough.

 

Still, it was keeping her and Jorun out of the picture, talking to each other quietly. I, Mike and Thruor had disposed of the bodies by tossing them off the mountain. It felt disrespectful, but we could not exactly bury them and did not fancy them as companions until the next wave got here.

 

Which I could only hope included Surtur. We could not hold this mountain forever, and they might not be under orders not to kill me.

 

Or intentionally ignoring those orders. Either way, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill the others.

 

I had brought them here, I was responsible. And if I…

 

“I don’t want this,” I murmured to the tree. “But it seems to be where every choice has taken me.”

 

Which might imply that I had chosen something before I could remember a choice, even before I was who I was.
Chosen something. Chosen what? No, I knew what.

 

This was my place now. I just had to do one more thing, and I hesitated only because of tactics.
And because of Kanesha, who could not be here without dwarven help. Could we risk that? If she lost the necklace, if it was damaged, the woman I loved would burn.

 

Sacrifice.

 

I was willing to make sacrifices if I had to. I was not willing to ask them of her. Which was why I wanted to end this, go back to Earth.

 

Not for long.

 

Just for the rest of her life.

 

I wondered in that moment. In that moment I was almost certain I would never see the woman I loved again.

 

Never see Earth again. Never talk to my friends. I had to save the world, but it would not be for me.

 

And silence settled down around us. Nobody came, for now.

 

It was a miserable thought, but perhaps he was calling our bluff. Waiting to see what we would do.

 

Perhaps he thought he could get us to do it, escape dying and…what?

 

Continue to be the king?

 

I suspected it was too late to put things back exactly the way they were.

 

Far too late for that.

 

Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 17

He did not. What came instead was a small party of elite forces, making their way up the trail. “What now?” I asked Thruor.

 

“We kill them. There’s only seven of them and we’re in a good position.”

 

I nodded, although I waited on drawing my sword until I was ready to pounce. It had a tendency to glow.

 

And make interesting singing noises. The dwarves had not given me a weapon meant for subtlety.

 

Of course, that was fine. Despite my parentage, I wasn’t meant for subtlety either. I launched at the giant with a battle cry.

 

He turned, but not fast enough to keep my blade from slicing through his shield…and his shield hand. Battle was joined, and I followed up with a kick to throw him back, away from me.

 

He scrabbled, but with only one hand he wasn’t able to stay on the trail, and he went rolling down the mountainside.

 

I didn’t think he was dead, but he was out of the picture for a while and I whirled to deal with another, entirely aware of how small a space we had to work with here.

 

I heard various other cries around me, a feminine yelp indicating one of the dwarves had been hit. Their voices were not like giant voices, a quite different timbre.

 

I’d have to worry about that later, right now it was taking all I had to stay alive and hold my own, with two very well-trained and experienced fire giants on me. Not much I could do about it.

 

We had to kill or capture them so Surtur would wonder where they were and maybe come himself next time.

 

And these were no conscripts. I felt no guilt. “Present for you, sister,” I couldn’t help but call as I slashed my blade through the throat of one of them.

 

He went down, but his companion only seemed to be emboldened. “You.”

 

“If you kill me, Surtur won’t be happy.”

 

“I don’t care. You caused all the trouble.”

 

Whatever else he was going to say was silenced by the throwing axe that hit him in the back. I dodged the fallen body. “Thanks for the assist!”

 

I didn’t bother retrieving the axe. There were still three of them standing and I moved in on the nearest, only to have Mike deal with him.

 

Yeah. Thruor had been right about us being able to take these guys, although only when the last one went down did I notice at all that I was bleeding.

 

Adrenalin and battle fever, I supposed. The injured dwarf was Ebba, who had a nasty cut in her side. Not deep enough to hit anything vital.

 

Jorun tended to her and I let Mike bandage my arm. Probably all it needed. “That was almost too easy.”

 

“He sent good. He did not send his best.”

 

“He must know it’s us.”

 

“Maybe he thought you would hesitate,” the valkyrie said, softly.

 

“No. I won’t.”

 

I might regret, but I would not hesitate.

 

Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 16

Mike and Thruor were quickly looking for cover. Jorun walked over to me. “What’s with the tree?”

 

“It’s a symbol of something. It’s an ash.”

 

“Like the world tree.”

 

I nodded. “Exactly. The thing is, there was a dead ash in my vision. There’s a dead ash here.”

 

“Which symbolizes a threat to the world tree. Tells us nothing new.”

 

“But what if it’s the ash that I have to restore?”

 

It was a fire tree, a Muspelheim tree. I put my hand on the bark. “Symbolic, right?”

 

“It could not be that easy,” the dwarf said, peering up at me.

 

“No, obviously not. But it’s part of it.”

 

“If you do it, you will have made a choice.”

 

“I know, and if I avoid that choice I might get a second chance at Surtur if he kicks my butt.”

 

She shook her head. “Maybe not any more.”

 

I’d had the same thought myself. “Meaning it’s too late. Meaning I can’t cheat. This has to be real.”

 

“Lokisdottir,” she said, simply.

 

“Always at the crux of things, this family.” I smiled. “I understand some things now that I didn’t before.”

 

“You remember.”

 

I nodded. “And I think I was taught stuff Odin doesn’t approve of. Which might or might not be wrong.”

 

“Odin approves of this.”

 

I grinned. “You worked it out too.”

 

“Of course I did. Or did you not notice that fire giant had a false eye.”

 

I laughed. “No, but trust a dwarf to pick up on that detail.”

 

“We offered him one. He refused to take it. Said it would…reduce the sacrifice.”
And what sacrifice did I need to make?
The king is the sacrifice. But it could not be that. “I know what I have to do. I think. But not yet.”

 

“Because of Surtur.”
“He needs to be here.”

 

But I was still doubting now that he would come.

 

Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 15

She wove a pattern of light. From the strain on her face I knew she wasn’t the best at this. Better than me, but we could very much have used a witch right now.

 

I was pretty sure it wasn’t convincing at all, but then it didn’t need to be. It needed to be a flicker.
And the stars responded. For a moment I thought we had screwed up and were going to end up with one of us dead.

 

Then I realized that they were laughing at us. Laughing. Appreciating.

 

There was probably a baby trickster up there. “This might actually work.”

 

She lowered her hands. “Let’s give him time to come up here. Let him think we got it wrong and are going to try again.”

 

“If he does.”

 

“He will. He won’t let anyone else do this. Because it will cost him his kingship as surely as anything else.”

 

“I thought he could not stop being king while he lives.”

 

Thruor gave me an almost nasty smile. “If somebody else saves Muspelheim, breaks the cycle, and ends the war, how long do you think he’ll live?”

 

“Two minutes,” I predicted. She was right. His own bodyguard would take him out. He had probably lied to them. He had probably told them winning the war was the only way, the only option they had.

 

“Exactly.”

 

Which did leave a possibility I hadn’t thought of until then – that he would not come himself, but would send somebody else.

 

Then we’d have to kill them. And I’d probably feel bad about it.

 

Regret.
The rift was pulsing, as if fighting against something. When it opened all the way? It was, in a very real sense, my brother.

 

It was the jaws of Fenris, opening to swallow the sun, and when that happened? When that happened it was over.

 

I sat down. I stared up at the sky, wishing there was more I could do than wait to see who came.

 

Please let him come. He had to come. But he would not come alone. “We still should set up an ambush. He may know who we are…”

 

“He still won’t know where, and he won’t come alone,” Thruor predicted. “A small force, mind. The mountain idea was a good one.”

 

I thought about the trail and nodded. “He can’t bring half an army up that trail.”

 

But I had come here for another reason. I looked at the sky again.

 

At the stars.

 

The cycle. How many had already died?

 

What happened to the dead if even the afterlife did not survive? Back to those stars, perhaps.

 

There was something beyond even them, something that was so alien I did not recognize it, but for a moment, I sensed it.

 

Behind the rift, behind the stars, behind my own eyes.

 

Maybe it was the multiverse’s consciousness of itself.

 

And I abruptly thought of something else. I stood up and walked to the tree.

 

It was dead. But I was sure it was, as I had expected, an ash.

 

Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 14

The sky cracked. It did so in the moment we did that. Perhaps something was angry with our intent to trick.

 

There were still stars, but there was darkness beyond them. I felt for a moment as if we were too late.

 

Had this been the warning? No, I rather thought that if it had been “You will make things far worse” he would have said that.

 

No, it was just the next step, and energy was starting to leap into the void. “Hell,” I said.

 

“Don’t insult your sister.”

 

I laughed weakly. “It’s too late, isn’t it.”

 

“No.” Ebba.

 

“You’re an optimistic dwarf,” I told her. But no, it wasn’t too late. It wouldn’t be too late until the temperature started to plummet.

 

Would it happen here first? Or would Muspelheim last longer with the heat it had?

 

“While the sun lives, it is not too late.”

 

I couldn’t see the sun. How long had it been night? “That may mean we only have until dawn,” I pointed out.

 

But all we could do was try to carry on with the plan. I was shaking, though. Shaking with real fear. It felt as if everything I did was only making things worse.

 

It felt as if I was caught up in the prophecy despite everything I tried to the contrary.

 

It felt as if I was ending the world.

 

But there was fire. I felt it flow within me, and I wondered if the rift was pulling it towards me.

 

There was fire and…Surtur could slow this down, I knew, if he was paying attention. And perhaps he was, because the rift shrank a little.

 

Fire within me, rising to the occasion. Threatening to join with the fire around me.

 

Maybe I should let it. Maybe I should accept that there was no escape, after all, for me. Last time it had been my brothers.

 

And my father imprisoned for an age of the world.

 

For breaking the cycle.

 

I suddenly knew that. That what he had done had been what had broken the cycle, not because Baldur had been causing it, but because there had to be a sacrifice.

 

There had to be.

 

Not my task to kill Surtur.

 

My brothers had died because Odin had lost his temper and because nobody had told him what was going on.

 

Not my task to kill Surtur.

 

Somebody else’s. I had thought it was the fire giant, Helgr. Not her. Then…who?

 

I looked at Thruor. “Let’s do this.”

 

Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 13

I opened my eyes again. “Well, I know this is…it’s the only good choice.”

 

“Which you’ll regret,” says Thruor.

 

“Exactly.” Because it implied I would be able to regret it. I still felt that sense of freedom, though. “So…here’s the thing. Surtur doesn’t know what this would look like either. He knows it’s possible.”

 

“And he’s not doing it because…”

 

“Because he still thinks he can win the war and that winning will somehow keep Muspelheim intact. Perhaps as the only realm. I think that’s it anyway.”

 

She grinned. “That does seem to fit what he’s been saying and doing. And he’s holding something like this in reserve.”

 

“But the thing is that if we do this we interrupt the cycle.” And destroying the forges? Would that interrupt the cycle?

 

Or did we need to do it anyway?

 

Or… I forced my thoughts. “He doesn’t want that to happen.”

 

“But we need a good long prep time. I don’t think he can teleport,” Thruor mused.

 

“So, we make a light show. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“I can help with that.”

 

“Shame your dad isn’t here.” Thor could make a better light show than any of us.

 

She grinned. “I know a bit of illusion magic, so do you.”
Ebba and Jorun. I looked at them.

 

“Nothing we can cast directly,” Ebba said. “Dwarves don’t do that kind of magic. But we can make sure you don’t get interrupted by any more…locals.”

 

From the way she emphasized it, I was pretty sure she knew that fire giant hadn’t been a local. But there might well be somebody up here, hiding from the war. And there was still wildlife.

 

“At least keep the curious wildlife away, although it doesn’t seem like anything’s wandering up to us.” They probably got hunted. I let out a breath. “So…”

 

“So, I think I have a good illusion idea,” Thruor said. “You’re right. He won’t know what to look for.”

 

“I can lend you some energy.” We had practiced that, albeit only once. “I wish Clara was here.”

 

“If she was here we’d still have demonic hordes.”

 

“Still, she could do this way better than either of us. No offense.”

 

She laughed. “None taken. Let’s do it.”

 

I wasn’t sure I wanted to, but I nodded and took her hands.

 

Episode Thirty-Five: Stalemate: Scene 12

“Okay. I have no clue how we do this,” I admitted. “We have to make it look good, but not actually do anything.”

 

Thruor nodded. “Well, we can’t do it. Only somebody bound to Muspelheim can actually do it.”
And the fyrhund was not here. Good. He might qualify. “Which none of us are. But does Surtur know that?”

 

“Yes, but he does not know you didn’t bring some random fire giant here.”

 

I grinned. “Good point. Although I wouldn’t.”

 

“Even if they wanted to do it?”

 

I knew what would happen, in my heart. “Maybe.”

 

If Surtur did it…well, it would be his free choice. Asking anyone, even saying it was something we needed or wanted?
That would make me responsible. But it should be him anyway. The king is the sacrifice.

 

“So…it’s a shame my dad isn’t here.” The only illusions I ever did were glamors to cover myself. Faking a spectacular ritual? I hadn’t tried that.

 

I glanced at the dwarves. “Got any ideas?” I’d come all this way thinking I would somehow know what to do when I got here.

 

The stars seemed much closer. No. I didn’t want to actually call one. I wanted to get rid of Surtur and then get the dwarves to destroy the forges.

 

Then…what?

 

I would regret this. Maybe…but if I ended up permanently dead would I have regrets?

 

Or would I be yelled at by my sister. She would not, I thought, be happy with me.

 

But would…

 

I shook my head. “Give me a few here.” I thought I was right, but I needed to calm my thoughts in order to know what to do.

 

I stepped away, towards the tree, and I was back in that vision again.

 

Lugh.

 

A sun god. Who had done that to me because he genuinely believed I was going to end the world. And maybe I had. Maybe none of this would have happened if I had not existed to be a target for Surtur’s desires.

 

Maybe sometimes there really was nothing you could do to change fate.

 

I would regret doing this. But I sensed for a moment that I was at a cusp of times and choices. I could say I couldn’t do it, go back down the mountain. Fight for the dwarves.

 

Probably die. And with the barriers down, I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t be permanent anyway.

 

I could run.

 

I could go back to Earth, I could cast my lot with those protecting it.

 

And I realized that every choice I would make, that wasn’t hiding in a quiet corner, led to my death.

 

I realized there was no escape. The knowledge was not depressing. Quite the opposite.

 

Because there was no escape I was free to do whatever I needed, and Loki had Kanesha in a safe quiet corner.

 

By, of course, trickery.