Capes, Cups, and Glittery Things @potionmistress95
Darkest Betrayal

13

Darkest Betrayal

The bitterest betrayal is that of family. ~ Loki

"I'm not going anywhere with you!" Jorunne snarled. "You have no right to arrest me."

"On the contrary," Loki refuted. "I have a sworn confession from your own mouth condemning you for a murder."

"I never confessed to you, Uncle Loki," she spat.

"Ah, but you did, little niece. You simply didn't know it. I heard every word, and I have recorded it here." He patted his satchel.

"It is most disgraceful, Jorunne, that you have brought such shame upon our family," Thor scolded.

"You're a fine one to talk," she snorted. "Consorting and living with mortals, and scheming with my black sheep uncle whom everyone in the family hates."

"My mortal friends display more honor and nobility than you, and my brother is a hero, no longer the black sheep, as you say," Thor defended. "Nor is Loki hated by everyone in the family. Hold your poison tongue, niece! You are going to answer for your misdeeds today."

Jorunne set her jaw. "I'm not going anywhere with you, Uncle Thor! And you can't make me!"

Loki just shook his head. "If you won't move on your own two feet, girl, I'll toss you over a shoulder like a misbehaving child and bring you to the palace that way. I won't care who sees you humiliated that way."

"Nor I," Thor asserted.

Jorunne gasped. "I am a princess of Asgard, not a sack of grain!"

"Then start acting like it, or else!" warned her uncle.

"Go to Hel, Loki!" she spat.

"Not before you," Loki smirked. He crossed his arms over his chest. "So what will it be? Walk or be carried?"

She spun and abruptly tried to make a break for it, but Loki was prepared for it and before she had gone three steps he caught her. She attempted to bite and kick him, but he simply lowered his shoulder and thrust it into her midsection, grabbed her about the knees, and heaved her over his shoulder.

Furious, she called him every name she could think of, kicking and squirming like a hooked fish.

"Enough!" her uncle exclaimed. "You chose this."

"Stop fighting, brat," Thor ordered, coming up beside Loki.

Jorunne promptly spat in his face.

Then she yelped as the Thunder God's hand smacked her upturned backside.

"Behave, young lady!" he ordered. "Or else there's more where that came from."

"I hate you! I hate both of you!" she cried.

"The feeling's mutual," Loki grunted. Then he began to walk towards the village square, which was where the sheriff had his office.

Mindful of Thor's hand and the whispers, stares, and snickers of the villagers, Jorunne sulked the entire way.

Upon reaching the sheriff's office, they asked if they could place their prisoner in one of temporary holding cells.

"We need to bring in her accomplice," explained Loki. "He's also wanted for murder."

The sheriff quickly locked Jorunne in a cell, promising no visitors until Loki and Thor returned. "Who else are you looking for?"

"Volskar," Loki replied.

"Volskar? He's a nasty one. Watch yourselves."

"We shall." Thor said. "Would you happen to know where he may be?"

"At this time of day he's doubtless at the mine, probably in one of the shafts watching the production."

Loki flinched and whispered, "Nine Hells! I was afraid you'd say that."

"Then we shall go to the mines," Thor said decisively.

Loki coughed. "Brilliant!" he said sarcastically. "Watch Jorunne closely. But don't let her be alone with anyone. No visitors. And try to avoid speaking to her if you can. She's a champion manipulator. In fact—" he gestured sharply. "There! Now she is silent and you'll be safe from her carping tongue."

"What did you do, Loki?" Thor queried.

"Just a simple silence charm," the frost giant replied. "I don't want to return and find she's escaped."

"That's clever thinking. Now let's go catch us a dark dwarf."

"Oh joy!" Loki was distinctly unhappy.

As they approached the shaft where the lift was located, Loki fought a sudden wave of panic. He had developed claustrophobia from being a prisoner in a cave for fifty years, another one of Odin's crazy punishments, and even though it had been very long ago, the frost giant had never quite conquered that phobia. But it was something he battled alone, not wishing to reveal his weakness to anyone.

"Come, brother. Let us descend and capture our last foe," Thor urged.

"Hold on," Loki ordered. "Give me a second to check our supplies." He pretended to be rummaging in his satchel. In reality he was reciting several calming mantras and doing some deep breathing. Get hold of yourself, Laufeyson. You aren't going to be trapped under the ground. You're just going to apprehend a criminal. Now relax!

But his heart raced at the mere thought of entering that cage like lift and he decided then it would be easier if he shifted forms. "Thor, I'm going to become a badger. I can travel faster and smell better in that form. I'll be able to smell where Volskar is," he quickly made up a plausible reason.

He handed his brother his satchel, saying, "There's an extra pair of cuffs in there. So unless you knock him out, use them."

Then he blurred into a huge badger with iron gray fur, black stripes and white around the muzzle and eyes. His eyes were, as usual, his own emerald green. He could disguise them with a spell, but normally didn't bother. Most people didn't look too closely at an animal to determine whether or not their eyes were an unusual shade.

Badger-Loki sniffled up to Thor, moving with a quick sort of shuffle, his long claws digging furrows in the earth.

Thor nodded, and then pressed the button that summoned the lift from the depths.

It creaked, squeaked, and groaned as it came to the top of the shaft.

Thor opened the door. Then he bent and picked up Badger-Loki, saying, "It's better if I carry you in here. That way you won't have your brains jostled too much.'

Badger-Loki made a chuffing noise and settled into the crook of Thor's muscled bicep, peering out nervously.

Thor stepped inside the lift, pulled the door shut, and pushed the button to descend.

As the lift rattled its way down, Badger-Loki shut his eyes, wincing at the horrendous noise assaulting his tender eardrums. Badgers had amazing hearing, which more than made up for their poor eyesight. He could still feel his heart beat a little rapidly, but it was not the full blown panic it would have been if he were still in his natural form. The badger nature, which was genetically made to tunnel and burrow beneath the earth, did not comprehend fear of small spaces, and so Loki allowed it to come to the fore more strongly than he would have otherwise. He did not relinquish control to the badger, but he did allow it to blanket his subconscious, and allow him to repel the claustrophobia.

As soon as the lift hit the ground, Badger-Loki was ready to jump out of Thor's arms.

"Loki, calm down!' his brother grunted. "Your claws are gonna scratch me to pieces!"

Badger-Loki quit struggling and Thor set him down.

The badger began to sniff along the ground. He smelled mold and dirt and then a familiar tang of sweat, blood, and iron. He scored the dirt with his back claws then began to run rapidly along the shaft.

Thor thudded along behind him, his footsteps making the ground tremble slightly.

The Thunder God lit a lantern to see by, but Badger-Loki needed nothing save his own eyes, which could see fairly well in the dim tunnels. But the most powerful sense Badger-Loki possessed was his keen sense of smell. Volskar gave off a distinct odor that Badger-Loki recognized from being near the dwarf at the mead hall.

With the foul odor stinging in his nostrils, Badger-Loki galloped through the dank mine, so focused upon finding his quarry that he forgot about being afraid in the subterranean depths.

He slowed as the ringing of pick axes and shovels echoed to his sensitive ears. Thor stopped too, and unslung his axe from its sheath over his shoulder. "They seem like they're just around the bend."

Badger-Loki made an odd grunting cough, as if disagreeing, then shook his head no.

He continued padding down the shaft, then took an abrupt right and led Thor deeper into the mine.

Soon they came to a large area where much digging had been done and whatever bounty the earth held extracted. Badger-Loki never slowed, but galloped straight through the area and into a tunnel going due north.

Thor was panting slightly behind him. Lugging around all that armor and his axe was slowing him down. Then too, Badger-Loki could run quite fast when he wished, and he did so now because he wanted this mission done and over with.

Finally they heard more pickaxes and shovels and the sound of gravelly dwarven voices speaking their own tongue, which both Asgardians understood.

"Why do we have to keep digging in this same spot? The vein is played out over here."

"Just shut your pie hole and do as your told, before you bring Overseer Volskar down on us and he lays our backs open with his lash."

"If he hadn't bought us like thralls to work here, we'd never be treated like this!" muttered the first dwarf.

"Hush! Or he'll hear you and then you'll regret it."

Badger-Loki drew up short as a third set of footsteps was heard. "How is the progress here?"

Volskar.

Badger-Loki's nose wrinkled and he bared his dagger sharp teeth.

Thor came up beside him, his face hard. "Let's get that pondslime."

Thor was no longer disguised, so when his blonde head poked around the corner of the shaft, all the miners quit working to gape at him.

Volskar turned and bowed smoothly. "Lord Thor! Have you come to inspect the mine?" He sounded delighted.

Thor's lip curled. "If by inspect you mean to fix what has gone wrong, then aye, verily I am here."

"But nothing has gone wrong," Volskar protested. "Our yield is higher than ever."

"I am not here to discuss how many rocks you pull out of the ground. I'm here to arrest you for the murder of your partner, Saskia Norlund."

Volskar went pale beneath his swarthy skin and black beard. "There must be some mistake. I am a humble overseer. Why would I kill a powerful woman who was also a witch?"

"I have no interest in debating words with a guilty dwarf. Your partner, Jorunne, has confessed all," Thor spat. "On your knees, hands behind your back!"

Volskar obeyed, but when Thor turned to pull the cuffs from the satchel, the devious dwarf sprang to his feet and darted away down a side tunnel.

"Mimir's balls!" Thor swore. "He's getting away!"

Badger-Loki began running full speed down the tunnel intent upon biting his target and holding him at bay.

Unfortunately he hadn't reckoned with Thor's over enthusiasm.

The Thunder God saw only that their quarry was escaping and he forgot the weapon he held was an Axe of Sharpness and not Mjolnir.

He spun the axe and threw it hard at the stone entryway.

The axe sliced through the rock like a knife through butter.

It slammed into rock so hard it buried itself up to the hilt.

Meanwhile, Badger-Loki had taken a chunk out of Volskar's thigh, growling and snarling like a rabid thing.

Volskar was afraid of the odd animal and he tried to kick Badger-Loki all the way across the shaft.

But the badger was too quick, dodging it, his fur on end, neatly avoiding the booted foot.

Growling viciously, Badger-Loki attacked again, and Volskar drew a long knife and lunged at the stocky animal, preparing to stab it through the back.

But he hadn't reckoned on how quickly a badger could bite and then release.

The medium-sized carnivore twisted away, like a fox dodging a pack of hounds, and Volskar's thrust missed.

Just as Thor's axe thudded into the wall of the small shaft's entrance, Badger-Loki felt the sudden shift within the earth and stone and drew back, all his fur standing on end.

Volskar looked up when he heard a roar and saw the roof of the tunnel beginning to collapse.

He threw himself towards the mouth of the tunnel, but Badger-Loki reared up and slashed him across the face with his long claws.

Volskar screamed and threw up his hand to protect his face, blood streaming through his fingers.

Badger-Loki ran into the large cavern just as the earth rumbled and shook and then the entire tunnel collapsed on top of Volskar.

Panicked, Badger-Loki transformed into his ordinary shape, grabbed his brother in a head lock, and teleported to the surface. Buried alive, you were nearly buried alive . . . sheer terror nearly caused him to hyperventilate right there. He coughed and spat out dust.

"What the Hel were you thinking,Thor?" Loki screamed in the other god's ear. "You collapsed the ceiling on top of Volskar and me, you idiot!"

"Forgive me, brother, but I didn't know throwing the axe would cause such a thing. I guess it's not really like throwing Mjolnir."

"Is that all you have to say?" Loki panted, his voice gritty.

"Loki, I'm sorry. But at least we got Volskar." Thor pointed out cheerfully.

"Oh yes, we got him all right. Under forty tons of solid rock."

"Dead or alive, he has been brought to justice," coughed Thor.

Loki was still trembling from the aftermath of nearly being buried alive and he abruptly released his brother only to draw back his fist and slam Thor one on the jaw. "That's for almost killing me!"

Thor rocked back on his heels, his cerulean eyes wide. Loki rarely resorted to physical violence, so he had to have truly angered the Jotun. He rubbed his jaw, which ached like Nine Hells, and gave his brother an apologetic lopsided grin.

"Loki, I really am sorry—"

"Forget it. I forgive you," the other sighed, and shook out his hand. He scanned the astral for Volskar's aura and found none, meaning the dwarf was truly dead, for even nearly dead individuals still had auras. "He's dead. Which means we've fulfilled our part of the bargain. Saskia, now fulfill yours!" he ordered.

There came a whirlwind of dust and greenish sparks and Saskia appeared before them. She seemed more solid than before and this time she spoke and both could hear her without the aid of Vince.

"You have indeed, Crafty One. For this you have my eternal gratitude."

"What about Mjolnir?" Thor demanded.

The ghost spread her hands, and a bar of light appeared between them. Then the lost hammer appeared.

Thor caught it before it could fall to the ground. His eyes gleamed and his lips curved in a relieved smile. Everything was right with his world again.

Saskia bowed then began to fade away into smaller and smaller sparks of light until she was gone.

Loki brushed dust from his clothes. "Okay, Thor. Now we drop off Jorunne and let Father deal with her, then I need to go home. I promised Samantha I'd only be gone three days and that's probably how much time has passed on Midgard since I left."

Thor patted his shoulder. "Quit worrying, Loki. Your little zoo is fine."

"How about Tony and Steve?" Loki challenged. "We might come home and find them staked out in the back yard because the kids were playing Comanches again."

His brother laughed. "I'd be sure and take pictures."

"So would I. Now let's go rid ourselves of our problem child," Loki urged. Then he took Thor's arm and teleported back to the holding cell where Jorunne was bound.

After collecting their niece, who glared daggers at both her uncles, Loki opened a portal to Asgard. Loki and Thor frog marched their royal captive to the palace, making sure all the citizens got a good look as they did so.

"The princess has been arrested!"

"I wonder what she did?"

"It's Prince Thor and Prince Loki!"

"Wasn't Loki dead?"

At that comment, Loki turned and said in his best imitation of Sherlock, "Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

That caused another sensation to run through the crowd, but soon enough they went back to discussing what trouble Jorunne could have gotten arrested for. Rumors flew from illegal poaching, to seducing another woman's husband, to sacrificing children at the dark of the moon. Jorunne, despite her status, was clearly unpopular with the people of her own realm.

Some of the bolder ones came and spat at her as she passed, a few threw rotten fruit and vegetables and jeered.

Jorunne looked like she wanted to murder them all.

Loki removed the silence spell because he knew she would need to talk in Odin's presence, and the captive snarled, "This is how you allow those peasants to treat a princess of the blood?"

"You're a prisoner," Loki pointed out roughly. "Get used to it."

He had been treated much the same long ago and so held no sympathy for her.

By the time they reached the palace proper, Jorunne had lost much of her haughty airs, as it was hard to be arrogant when you were covered in refuse. The guards on duty at the entrance saluted the two princes, their eyes widening at the prisoner between them.

"Is the Allfather in residence, Dagobar?" Loki queried formally of the guard he recognized.

"Indeed, Prince Loki. He awaits you and Prince Thor in the throne room."

Thor wrinkled his nose. "Loki, we need to clean her up a bit. Father won't want his throne room smelling like a dung heap."

Loki heaved a sigh and twitched a hand. The garbage clinging to Jorunne vanished, but some stains still clung to her dress and shoes. They processed into the palace.

Loki noticed that not much had changed since the last time he had been here. The palace still sprawled over the grounds like a monstrous brooding Jotun. Built of golden blocks of stone quarried from Niflheim which reflected and caught the sun, it gleamed brilliant gold. The tiles were silver and prettily worked tapestries of different heroic feats, battles, and quiet everyday scenes decorated the halls along with the carvings of ravens, wolves, horses, and cats. The entryway was guarded by yet another guard pair, these rotated every couple of hours. A spiral grand staircase led to the upper halls of the palace, a red carpet led to the huge carved doors of Odin's throne room to the right, while to the left was Valhalla and the great feast hall.

From the sound of things, another feast was already underway with some of the Einherjeri and Valkyries in attendance.

The guards saluted Thor and Loki and a herald in brown and gold colors announced them when the great doors to the throne room swung open. Some petitioners waited on benches outside to be admitted to ask Odin for favors or petition him about a matter, and they watched curiously as Jorunne was led inside with Thor and Loki flanking her. Loki was sure that in five seconds flat rumors would be flying all over Valhalla.

The throne room proper was filled with milling courtiers in small groups lounging on the window seats of the picturesque bay windows or on stools and benches. On a raised dais was Odin's magical throne from which he could see into all the Nine Realms called Hlidskjalf. The throne was draped with a snow white fur of a yeti and beside it lay Geri and Freki, his huge gray wolves. Perched on the back were two giant ravens, Huninn and Muninn. Huninn cawed when they entered, whispering loudly, "Odin, your sons have come home!"

Odin lifted a hand to stroke the raven, who preened at the god's touch. Odin was wearing his customary blue and gold robe with magical runic designs sewed by Frigga, soft gray trousers, dragonhide boots and his black eyepatch was of crushed velvet. Upon his head was a simple jeweled circlet. His iron gray hair flowed down past his shoulders and he watched his sons approach with his granddaughter in tow keenly, saying nothing.

As they neared the dais, Thor saluted with a fist to his heart and went to one knee. Loki did the same, but Jorunne remained in her feet until Loki hissed in outrage, "Kneel before your king, you impudent child!' and he tugged the chain fastened to her manacles, forcing the young woman to drop to the her knees or end up sprawled on the floor.

"Father, we have come to bring before you a matter of grave importance," Thor began.

"Rise, my sons, and welcome home," Odin greeted, a faint smile playing over his lips. "What brings you here with my granddaughter in chains like a common criminal?"

As they all rose, Jorunne gave Odin a pleading glance and cried, "Grandfather, it's all lies! Everything Loki says is a lie!"

Loki's jaw clenched. But he said nothing, simply released the chain to remove his Seeing globe from his satchel.

"You have not been accused of anything, granddaughter, yet you automatically claim your uncle has played you false?" Odin frowned.

"Father, that's not so," Thor spoke up. "She forgets, I was there too."

"And what is this matter that causes you to bind my granddaughter thus?"

"She murdered her partner, a woman named Saskia Norland," Loki replied. "The first we knew of it was when Saskia came to my house on Midgard and demanded we search for her murderers and bring them to justice and she would return Mjolnir to us."

Odin glanced at Thor and saw the hammer hanging in its usual place. "Mjolnir was missing?"

"Not now, Father, but yes. The ghost took it as ransom so we would search for her murderers."

"Which we did and found our niece Jorunne up to her neck in in intrigue and murder along with her new partner Volskar, a Dark Dwarf."

"He lies! Volskar was the one who did everything," Jorunne interrupted. Huge tears gathered at the corners of her brilliant blue eyes and she cried woefully, "I tried to tell them that, Grandfather, but Loki insisted on clapping me in these restraints and dragging me here like a criminal. You ought to punish him for treating a princess of Asgard like a thrall."

"My daughter is correct," Karnilla stated coldly, sweeping in from a side door reserved only for family to join them in front of the dais. "Loki, remove those manacles at once!"

Loki glared at her. "No. Jorunne has broken the law and as such we have brought her to judgment. The manacles are to prevent her using magic to escape."

"My daughter is innocent, Lie-Smith!" Karnilla spat. "This is just more of your mischief.'

"Believe me, sister darling, if I had a choice, I wouldn't be here!' Loki snapped. "I have far better things to do than run around cleaning up messes your daughter caused."

"Really?' Karnilla drew herself to her full height, which was impressive, her dark hair sweeping behind her, held up by a jeweled headband. She wore a tight-fitting cobalt blue gown that shimmered like starlight and was slit up the side, revealing her shapely legs. Her feet were encased in gold bejeweled sandals. "What's that, Master Mischief? Causing more mayhem down on Midgard? Raising those misfit brats that nobody else wanted?"

"Shut your mouth, you envious witch!" Loki snarled, clenching his fists. His magic roused and made the tapestries flutter as a cold wind sprang up. "All nine of my children are worth ten times what yours is! At least none of mine are sociopaths that torture helpless animals and murder people."

"Mama, he's spinning some fake story," Jorunne whined, her voice like thick treacle, more fake tears filling her expressive eyes.

"Loki is telling the truth," Thor asserted. "I saw for myself how meanly she treats her servants and she has no repentance in her for murdering her partner."

'You would take his side," Jorunne cried. "Mama, Thor hit me, the great bully."

"You hit my daughter?!" growled Balder, only now joining the rest of his family. He was a slightly smaller version of his more famous sibling, dressed in a sky blue tunic, white trousers and brown boots his blond hair bound back by a silver fillet. "I ought to knock your teeth in!"

Thor scowled. "Balder, I gave her a smack on the backside after she spit in my face. We asked her to return here with us in a dignified manner and she chose to try and run away, so Loki caught her and put her over his shoulder and she attacked him like a spoiled brat."

'How dare you?" Karnilla cried, her violet eyes sparking with outrage. "How dare you manhandle my daughter, Loki Lie-Smith?"

"It was either my shoulder or drag her by her hair through the street to jail," answered the Jotun. "Would you have preferred that? No? She behaved like a five-year-old so I treated her like one."

"On whose authority, Loki?" Balder demanded.

"We were acting as local law enforcement tasked with solving a crime," Loki replied smoothly. "Which we did solve. The proof is here." He held out the Seeing globe. "Father, I have here a Seeing globe which I recorded the confession Jorunne made to killing Saskia. But her aura is also dark with spilled blood, you can see it if you look."

"More lies!" Karnilla taunted.

"You're the one who is lying to yourself, sister," Thor reproved. He turned to Balder. "You ought to have taught your daughter manners, brother, then I wouldn't have needed to resort to such measures."

Balder, to his credit, looked embarrassed. "Jorunne, apologize to your Uncle Thor."

"For treating me like a churl?" his daughter wailed. "I won't!"

"Enough!" Odin yelled and everyone froze. He came down from his throne to take the globe from Loki. "Jorunne, cease this unseemly shrieking like a mortal fishwife and do as your father says. You are old enough to show respect for your elders."

"Yes, Grandfather," Jorunne pouted, then murmured an apology to Thor that was totally insincere.

"Now, I shall take this globe into my private audience chamber and view it. Balder, come with me." Then he turned and strode off to a door behind the throne half-hidden by a tapestry.

"Father, a moment," Loki called. Odin turned.

"What is it, Loki?"

"How is Mother?"

"Still in stasis, I'm afraid. The poisoned dagger she took for Jane Foster harmed her greatly and I am still healing her slowly. She woke briefly last week, asked about you, and then I put her back to sleep as she was in great pain."

Loki's eyes shone with repressed emotion. "She asked for me?"

"She asked me to tell you she misses you and wishes for you to come visit when she is well. She wants to meet her Laufeyson grandchildren, as do I."

"I will come as soon as she is well enough," Loki vowed. "Tell her I love her."

Odin nodded. "When she wakes I will do so." Then he spun and walked towards the audience chamber, Balder following.

"How touching!' sneered Karnilla. "But you don't fool me for a moment, Wolf-Father. Your silver tongue says one thing while you do another. You should have remained on Midgard, Loki, because you aren't wanted here!"

"Cease, Karnilla!" Thor snapped. "You are only blaming Loki because you can't bear to blame your own daughter, and your bitterness is only poisoning you. Why are you not with Balder and Father seeing the truth?"

"I don't need to see anything Loki has schemed up." said the Norn Queen. She went then to her daughter and embraced her, her eyes raining down fire upon the two brothers. "Even if she did kill this mortal, I'm sure it was not murder but an accident. Right, precious?" she stroked her daughter's ebony hair.

Jorunne, never one to miss her cue, began sobbing loudly on Karnilla's shoulder.

Loki applauded. "There's an Oscar winning performance right there, eh, Thor?"

Thor just rolled his eyes and looked disgusted.

Karnilla pulled her daughter a few feet closer to the dais and sat upon the stairs with her. She handed her distraught child a silk handkerchief and they leaned their heads together and spoke in soft whispers.

Thor nudged Loki. "I don't understand. How can she fall for that? Even I could tell that was fake."

Loki sighed. "Because she doesn't wish to face the truth. She'd rather spew her venom at me than stare reality in the face. But don't worry. Father will view the truth and hopefully mete out a suitable consequence."

In a way, the God of Mischief felt sorry for Karnilla, for he knew how difficult it was to learn that a child you had raised from an infant was suddenly someone who had thrown aside all your teachings to become someone you couldn't bear to know. At the same time, however, he also knew that the way Karnilla and Balder spoiled the girl had made her personality disorder worse, and by not acknowledging the truth they were only hurting themselves and everyone around them. But he knew nothing he said would be taken well by the angry sorceress and so he kept silent.

Just then the door to the antechamber opened and Balder came out. The shining god looked like he had aged ten years while viewing the globe, his eyes bright with shock and sorrow, his tread heavy.

Karnilla rose and went to him. "Well? What sort of lies has the Sly One cooked up this time?"

Balder shook his head. "Karnilla, he wasn't lying. I saw it. She condemned herself out of her own mouth."

"Papa, what are you saying?" cried Jorunne. She ran up and grabbed him by the arm, tears sparkling all over her cheeks. "Whatever you saw was fake. You know how good Loki is at casting illusions! I never killed anyone."

Balder looked at his only child gravely. "I heard what you said. You admitted your guilt, daughter."

'Balder, what are you saying?" Karnilla gasped. "This was an accident!"

"An accident? No, Karnilla. This was murder, plain and simple. Worse one that was hidden. Now the Allfather will decide your fat, Jorunne."

"No! Papa, you can't let them put me in prison!" Jorunne howled, clinging to him like a barnacle. "Why don't you believe me?"

Balder glanced away, an expression like he was being stretched on the rack on his face. "Because I've seen the truth, child. Now stop with the crocodile tears, Jorunne. They won't work on me. Face your fate like a princess, not a sniveling baby."

"Balder!" his wife snarled. "You're just going to stand here and let your father pass down judgment without even trying to persuade him otherwise?"

'Karnilla, I saw what I saw." Balder replied heavily. He turned then to Loki, who was standing a little ways from Thor, observing silently. "Forgive me, little brother. I didn't want to believe that my daughter was capable of those things you accused her of all those years ago. I was wrong. I see that now. I'm sorry I ever doubted you. Sometimes the truth is worse than a lie." He walked over to embrace Loki.

A horrified Karnilla followed.

"Balder, are you mad? To believe this-this wretched serpent tongued Jotun bastard over your own flesh and blood?"

Balder gave her an icy glance. "Hush, woman! That's my brother you insult!" He hugged a startled Loki.

"Sorcery!' the Norn Queen hissed, her eyes suddenly crazed. "He's enchanted you, husband! And there is only one way to stop his evil."

Balder turned, one arm still about Loki. "Karnilla, the truth is not enchantment. I know it's hard, beloved but you must stop lying to yourself and see that our daughter isn't the sweet innocent child you used to know. She's become a cold hardened killer. I love her, but I can't defend her any longer."

"Treachery!" Karnilla howled. Between one blink and the next, she drew a hidden dagger from her dress and went to lunge at her husband. But at the last moment she ducked under his arm and thrust the vorpal blade home where she had always intended-into Loki's chest.

Loki staggered backwards, the magical dagger sucking away his magic and his life like a vampire draining the blood of its prey. "You-bitch!" he choked, his emerald eyes dilated with shock and pain.

"Die, Jotun coward, as you have lived! On your knees!"

"Karnilla!" Balder roared. "What have you done?"

"Avenged me, Papa," Jorunne said with a sweet smile on her lips.

Loki found himself falling, unable to remain on his feet, only to be caught in familiar pair of arms.

"Loki!" Thor screamed. "No, not again!"

"Get the healers!' cried one courtier.

Another woman screamed and fainted.

Thor cradled his brother in his arms and sobbed, "Loki, please! Don't go! The healers will fix you." His eyes lifted to Balder, who held a dazed Karnilla by an arm. "Corral that treacherous bitch, brother, before I kill her!"

"Thor . . ." Loki plucked weakly at his sleeve. "Take me home . . . promised . . ."

"Loki, that's not possible . . ."

Loki coughed. "Do it! By the love you bear me . . . take me home . . ." The emerald eyes glittered fiercely.

He could feel his life force slipping away like a guttered candle. His head lolled back and his hand groped for the emerald cabochon he wore about his neck. He closed his bloodstained hand about it and hissed, "Blood of my blood . . ."

Then the cabochon activated and Thor and Loki were whisked away back to Midgard, to the Avengers mansion, while in Greenwich Village, his Lorekeeper daughter jerked awake from a sound sleep screaming into her pillow.

An instant later she sprang from her bed and heedless of the chill on her bare feet, raced into her father's bedroom and threw open the wardrobe. Pushing a stud, the entire panel slid open and Belle raced down the stairs to the secret workroom, praying she would be in time.

"BRUCE!" Thor bellowed in a voice that could have been heard in Australia, cradling a bleeding and broken Loki in his arms.

Loki smiled. Then he surrendered to the darkness.

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