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Changing Shadows

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The first time that Loki meets Sigyn, he believes that he loves her. She is very beautiful, with her auburn hair and dancing blue eyes, but what he loves about her is the mischief, the spark and fire in her. She’s stubborn and clever, and she laughs at Loki’s tricks whilst others hide their smiles behind their hands. She has read just as many books as Loki has, and knows easily as much as him, though she does not practice magic. She and Loki spend hours together, laughing, talking, learning, and he realises that he did not love her when he first met her, that what he felt then was nothing, because it does not even vaguely compare to how much he loves her now. The first time he kisses her, she giggles because he does not know what he is doing, but she is kind when she shows him how to do it better.

When Loki and Sigyn are married, it is spring, and there are garlands of flowers in her hair. The people are cheering because they think that the dark prince has mellowed, now that he has found his beautiful bride, and he shares a smile with Sigyn, because they do not understand anything. Sigyn does not laugh at him on their wedding night, because both of them are learning. But it’s ok, because they are both quick studies.

Loki has been married to Sigyn for one, perfect, shining year when she tells him that she is pregnant. He is delighted to hear the news, as is she to report it. They talk to the seers, and to Frigga, who tells her that the child will be a girl, and that she will be strong. She smiles at him as she says this. His father and his brother congratulate him, and Loki thanks them, sincerely. The people of Asgard cheer and revel in the streets at the news of a future princess, and Loki does not join them, but he shares their sentiment. Sigyn grows big with child, and Loki thinks that she looks even more beautiful than she ever has before.

He panics a few times, quietly and in private, about how he will be as a father to his new child, but he eventually realises that no one else in his position can know any more than he does, and there is nothing that he can be doing that he is not already, because his mother tells him so, in none too uncertain terms.

Their daughter is born in winter. When the child is born, she is half perfect. The left side of her body is as blue-eyed haired and fair and beautiful as her mother, though her hair is black as her father’s, black as her grandfather’s raven’s wings. However, her right side is where most eyes rest first. Her right eye is as red as the clouds can be at sunset and her skin is the colour of the sky at twilight, a blue of the deepest hue. There are markings on her skin that look like the raised tissue of healed cuts, but they are not. The markings are distinctive of good breeding and beauty, and they make half of her face look like a skull.

When Sigyn sees her child, she screams and cries and begs for it not to be true. She prays that she has not given birth to this mutilated half-ling, this cursed child, but the midwifes cannot tell her otherwise. She tells them to take it away from her, to kill it, drown it, burn it, but they give her herbal tea with sedatives and give the child to Loki instead.

When he holds his daughter in his arms for the first time, Loki understands what love is, true love. He holds this child that is half his, half monster, and he loves her. She is crying and screaming, because she hasn’t been alive long enough to see any reason not to, but he rocks her in his arms, shushes her, coos at her until she stops. She looks up at him, with mismatched eyes, and Loki understands what his mother meant when she said her granddaughter would have to be strong, but remembers that she was smiling when she said it. He loves his daughter, and he vows to protect her.

---

When Frigga looks at her granddaughter, she sees suffering and pain and death. She also sees love and devotion and pride and acceptance and calm and serenity. That is not a bad kind of life to live. Frigga loves her granddaughter Hel, because she is a wise woman, and she has no problem with loving monsters.

---

When Sigyn wakes up, she is much calmer. She asks to see her daughter, holds her in her arms, and looks at her mismatched eyes, understands that it is not the child’s fault that she is like this. She loves her, because a mother can’t not. Still, she is not proud of her daughter.

Loki and Sigyn call their daughter Hel, because it sounds sweet, and as she grows, it becomes more and more obvious that Hel is sweet. She puts people on edge, her nurses and tutors and other children, but it’s not her fault that she’s different, that her skin looks wrong. Still, she is a sweet child. She’s kind to animals, and polite to other children, even when they fail miserably to hide that they are afraid to be near her. She’s obedient and eager to please, and very clever. She is weak and sickly for much of the time, spends most of her childhood reading, learning of other realms, cultures and people through words as she cannot through experience. She delights in weaving spells, in illusions of light especially. Her favorite trick is to devise the image of a big black wolf. She calls him Fen, and he is her pet, and her confidant, and her playmate. He’s the daughter of the god of mischief’s imaginary friend. (Loki knows that seeing him bounding after the image of a stick that Hel has pretended to throw across the palace grounds to retrieve it for her, the sight of him running swift as the night and carrying it in his mouth with his huge, sharp teeth terrifies the servants, but at this point, he really doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of his daughter, because they are all wrong.) Loki tells her stories from his travels, visits to Midgard, his adventures with Thor, and his own trips to Alvheim to learn magic and crafts from the elves, and his tales of the wars with Jotunheim and Muspelheim. Hel listens to everything he says carefully and patiently, and learns well. She knows that her father does not tell her any lies, because he has promised her such.

Hel is a sweet child, but her disfigurement pushes Loki and Sigyn apart. Sigyn blames Loki for Hel’s deformity, saying that he has warped himself with the magic he practices, that he dabbles in dark arts, or else that he is simply wrong in his bones, and he has passed on this curse to her. Loki knows she only says this because she is terrified that it is somehow her fault, but he cannot bring himself to comfort her when she is insulting their precious child as well as himself.

At first Sigyn makes her daughter wear a veil in public, so the majority of Asgard knows nothing of her appearance except that it is unnatural. Loki argues with her, tells her that allowing her to remain unknown and unknowable will only make her more feared, alone and hated, but Sigyn refuses to change her stance. While Hel wears the veil, she cannot walk freely in public without people giving her second glances, whispering behind their hands about the deformed princess, their attitudes ranging from pitiful to curious to disturbed, and she cannot play with other children. The power with which this makes Loki wants to burn down his beloved home, the golden realm of Asgard, seriously scares Loki, sometimes. Loki tries to convince Sigyn that his magic is not harmful to Hel and eventually, with Frigga and several royal mages vouching for him, Sigyn concedes to allowing Loki to mask Hel in illusions so that she can play with other children.

It’s good for Hel, allowing her to play with other children, and anyone can see it, but Loki is angry that his daughter should have to feel that she should mask herself in order to be worthy in anyone’s presence. He knows that is how he felt, with Thor’s friends, but it makes him angry to think that his child should have to do the same. He tries to convince Sigyn, but she will not listen to him. It angers him greatly that anyone should think that Hel is any lesser for how she looks, let alone her own mother. Loki believes that his daughter is wholly perfect, rather than half, and he can’t believe that Sigyn doesn’t see it. Eventually, the strain is too much, and Sigyn and Loki break apart. He still loves her, and she says that she still loves him, but it’s not enough. She moves back to her mothers house, and leaves Hel at the royal palace with Loki. For this, for leaving Hel to finish growing up without a mother, Loki will never forgive her.

The year that Hel reaches adulthood, she becomes more ill than she ever has done before. She has always been more liable to sickness than most, and not as boisterous as other children even when well, though she has always pulled through. Her bones have ached all her life, but she always survives. This year, Loki is not sure. She has been spending more and more time sick instead of well, and Loki fears that this illness may be her final one. The illness is not in her chest or heart; it is not a fever or disease. The fault is something deeper within her. She struggles to breathe, her heart struggles to pump blood. She cannot eat, and barely sleeps. She can tell Loki that she is in pain, but she cannot pinpoint where. Every part of her feels wrong. Hel is dying.

Loki panics. He cannot loose his daughter. He will not.

Loki calls in a large proportion of the favours he is owed to try to find answers. He gets the advice of every higher mage in Asgard, and, when none of that proves useful, every mage in Alvheim too. He tries every sacred fruit the Vanir can grow to try to heal her, but none of them work. He asks Frigga for help, but she has no words of advice for him, only of comfort.

Desperate, Loki makes the long and treacherous journey to Mime’s Well, in the heart of a desolate valley in Jotunheim, where, despite the below zero temperatures and the ice surrounding it, the well is full of water. He spills his blood into the water as sacrifice, and it dissipates so quickly that the water is completely clear by the time he goes to drink it. He drinks deeply, the liquid burning with coldness down his throat, and he passes out in the cold and the ice. (When he awakes, he believes that it is only luck that the cold does not freeze him to death, and curses himself for his idiocy in not taking precautions). Loki’s dreams are fevered and full of red eyes and blue skin, and a landscape full of rock and mist where nothing, absolutely nothing, ever grows. The dreams follow him when he wakes; as he looks down at his hands as he rises from the snow, they appear as blue as the Jotun skin in his dreams. The colour quickly fades as he stands up and casts a warming spell around himself, and he shakes off the last vestiges of the nightmare. His dreams have left him exhausted, instead of rested, and once he returns to Asgard he sleeps for hours. When he wakes, it is three days later than he left, and he knows what he must do.

He takes his beloved, precious daughter to the land where nothing grows, the coldest realm of them all, the nicknamed land of the dead. Niflheim. No life has ever evolved to live here; there are no plants in the rocky crevices of it’s mountains. It’s far too cloudy and dark for any kind of plant to survive, and any kind of animal in the Nine Realms would choke at the mists it is full of, but Loki casts spells of protection around them, and ensures that their lungs remain as oxygenated as they would have done in Asgard. It is a complex spell, and it taxes him, but Loki maintains it. He has been learning magic for his entire life, and this is not above him.

People say that below Niflheim is the place where dead souls go. People say that there is a place in the heart of the Realm where the dead sink into the ground, that there is a portal to another Realm, another plane, beneath the rocks and mist and ice. Loki does not put much stock in mere rumour, but this is more than that. This is a tale spoken in every one of the realms. The branches of Yggdrasil can be mapped in the night skies in every Realm, and every one maps a Realm that cannot be traveled to. It is a fact that there are nine Realms, when only eight can be traveled. The rumour is that the gateway to the ninth is in Niflheim.

People occasionally wander through Niflheim, on their way to other places, or because they’re lost; Niflheim’s mountains and valleys are very steep, difficult to traverse, and nigh impossible to navigate, since no one’s ever stayed here long enough to make a very accurate map. It’s not unheard of for hermits to live here, because a graveyard is the ultimate place of solitude.

People sometimes come to Niflheim, but no one travels here for this long. There is an instinct in the mind of every being in the Nine Realms to avoid stepping on a grave, and that’s what being in this place feels like, but amplified. It’s more than a taboo, it’s more than a fear. Even breathing in this place feels sacrosanct.

Loki carries his daughter, young and feeble but almost as tall as he, in his arms, and walks further and further into Niflheim until he can see no more rocks, no more mountains, only mists. He walks as the feeling of wrongness, of violating something sacred increases. There are tears spilling down his cheeks but he ignores them because both of his hands are carrying his daughter. She might have passed out, she’s so still and silent in his arms. He can’t even see her breathing anymore. He hopes that she is merely sleeping. He hopes that he is not too late.

He ventures further into the unchartered, unowned territories of Niflheim than anyone before him, and since. He searches for the doorway to the land of the dead. He senses that he is walking between the borders between realms, a rip in the fabric of the universe, a bridge between the branches of Yggdrasil. That is when he stops walking. Now there is no more mist, and all that is left is whiteness and coolness, and the air no longer feels clammy against his skin, but dry.

Niflheim is the place where nothing grows. It cannot support life. At the same time, nothing laid here can rot. Nothing can decay, because there is nothing to decompose it. The cold preserves. Loki lays his daughter’s body in what is truly the land of the dead, what is more than the heart of a frozen realm. Here, everything is white, and he feels like he’s a murderer in a church, and it’s cold but he can’t see his breath in front of his face. Though that could be because of how everything that isn’t him and Hel just looks like white. There is no horizon, no boundary between ground and sky. He can’t see any stars, or moons, or suns. Loki’s used to hopping from planet to planet, and suspended realms such as Asgard, and moons and space ships. He’s used to the changing effects of gravity, air pressure, atmosphere, planet rotation, but this place doesn’t feel like anything he’s ever felt before.

He ignores every instinct that tells him he should not be here, and begins his task of casting spell work around Hel that will keep her body perfect for millennia. The magic is ancient and complicated, and if Sigyn could see him now, she would hate him. It’s known as dark magic on Asgard. It’s primitive and brutal but it’s effective. It’s blood magic. Loki binds his magic into his daughter’s body, and uses some of hers as well there are tears falling from his eyes as he cuts into her arm, but she just nods and smiles when he glances at her for permission, eyes half closed.

Loki thanks the stars that she was not dead before, just sleeping, and it is only when he knows it is not true that he acknowledges how terrified he was that he had lost her. From that moment he is certain that what he is doing is the right thing, because Hel is not someone who should ever die.

Hel is not as powerful as he is - she has had mere moments to study the art in comparison to his years of study - but her mind is strong and it and she knows enough to help in his efforts. She knows enough to sense the webs of the spell he is weaving, to aid in it’s construction, even though, in a way, she is weaving her own funeral shroud.

Loki is making her immortal with what most mages call death magic, but he’s using a spell that no one’s ever heard of before. It’s completely of his own making. He can’t remember thinking of it, but he knows it came to him in his sleep, after his visit to the Mime’s Well. One way or another, the seal to his daughter’s fate will be entirely his own.

The spell, once finished, will hold her body in suspension in a place where he knows no harm will come to her; he’s binding her soul to her body. If any harm did come to her physical self, she would be cast adrift in the universe, unable to leave it, to move on or to vanish whatever should happen to dead souls (Loki’s a god but he’s not a Norn, he doesn’t know the infinite secrets of the universe). She could become a ghost, but Loki won’t let that happen to his daughter. She’s in the safest place in the world, where nothing alive will ever venture to hurt her. Loki is protecting her, from the world, and from the frailty of her own body. Hel will never die, or at least, not truly. Her body will never decay, and her soul will remain tethered to this realm for as long as his magic lasts. He ensures that is millennia, at least as long as the Aesir lifespan, maybe more. She will be able to travel, to visit other realms for as long as she wishes. She will use her light illusions to give herself a presence in any place she wants to be. Perhaps one day they will find a way for her to be able to touch things, to have a more physical presence, outside of her true body. She will be able to dream walk, to talk to anyone she wants to, and, if she wants, they won’t remember it. She may not be able to have the life of a princess as she deserves, or a normal one, but she will be free, and as almost-immortal as any Asgardian, and this is the best that Loki can do for her.

Her magic weaves around his, flows into the shapes he’s making, fills out the framework of his knowledge and experience, and soon enough the spell work is cast, and he has to finish it. Loki leans back, on his knees past the doorway to the realm of dead things and scores a deep cut through his left forearm so that the blood falls onto his daughter’s throat. Then, he tells her, “Be strong now, sweet,” prays it isn’t goodbye, and runs his knife across her neck. The cut is shallow, far from lethal, but with it, their blood mixes in the hollow at the base of her throat and the magic is set. Hel breathes her last breath, and now, her body is nothing more than dead weight, where he is supporting her head. He lays it gently on the ground.

He’s completely drained. He’s used up all the magic he has, possibly more than he has, he’s used up everything. He poured his soul into that spell work and now he has nothing left. He thinks his vision is blurry, but it’s hard to tell in this place where everything is white. There are tears streaming down his cheeks now, but he still ignores them, because he’s still not done. Loki uses the very last vestiges of his magic, his strength, to carve a hole into the rock below him. It’s as wide and tall as Hel is, and it’s six feet deep. He lowers his daughter’s body into it’s grave, gently, tenderly, using magic he didn’t know he had to make sure she lands without the slightest bump at the bottom. He settles the rock back around her, using the excess that used to be in the space that her body now occupies to form round stones, and uses shaking hands to fashion them into a cairn.

When he gets up, he sways slightly, and he’s hearing a ringing in his ears now. He walks, staggers, really, out of the place where everything is white back into Niflheim. He can feel the change between the realms, the point where the one becomes the other, and it’s always jarring but right now it’s too much, it makes him dizzy. He falls to the ground, and passes out.

Later, he doesn’t know how much later, he wakes up. Some of his magic is back, as well as his strength, but now he’s starving hungry, and thirsty too. He walks until he gets to the portal back to Asgard, and then he walks through forests, fields, villages, to a place where he can buy a fast horse back to the palace. When he gets there, he eats, then sleeps, then he talks to his mother. She tells him he was gone for four days, but he knows how time can become distorted between the realms, and he isn’t worried. Frigga understands what he has done, of course she does. She knows what he did, and why he had to do it, he doesn’t have to explain it to her. She tells him she’s sure Hel will be fine, and that the next time he sees her, he should pass on her regards. There’s a lump in his throat at that, he’s not sure why. He thinks it’s because he’s so very, very glad that his mother, seer of Asgard, is so sure that he will see his daughter again. He can only now acknowledge how afraid he was that it wasn’t so.

Three nights after he gets back from Niflheim, his daughter appears to him in his dreams. She tells him that her new life is odd, but she’s getting used to it quickly. Her body doesn’t hurt her anymore; she no longer lives in pain. It’s strange, not being tied down to her body in the same way any more, but she can go almost anywhere now, as long as she can picture something of it in her mind. She’s planning on traveling around the Nine Realms, which up until now have been no more than bedtime stories to her. She’s going to try to meet some new people. She’s always loved magic, as he knows, and she wants to learn from the mages she’s heard of, whose works she wants to see. He can see she’s apprehensive, but she’s always been brave, and now she’s free, too. He tells her that it she’ll be fine, she’s going to do so well, that he’s proud of her for being so strong, that she’s the sweetest thing he knows, that he’s so, so glad she’s okay. He tells her to call in on her grandmother when she can, because Frigga’s been missing her, and to let Thor and Odin know that she is safe and well, more or less. When he embraces her in his dream, it feels as if she’s really there in his arms, and when he wakes up, he’s crying, but he’s smiling too.

---

Loki tells Thor that his niece is safe, and living somewhere where her delicate state of health is provided for, from whence she can leave for short visits, but not come all the way to Asgard. Thor is disappointed that he may no longer see his beloved niece, but Loki reassures him that Hel may visit Thor in his dreams, and will ever be out of contact with him. He doesn’t want Thor to think that Hel can’t leave, can’t travel and have the full life that she deserves, but he doesn’t want him to imagine he can visit her in person either.

Loki tells Odin that he has found somewhere that Hel’s body can remain, and be cared for, but that she can’t leave. He says that, whilst she sleeps, she can travel the Nine Realms on the astral plane, and Odin believes him.

It’s funny, but when Loki was younger, he always expected to be caught out with even a half-truth such as this to Odin All-father, but he’s starting to realise that Odin cannot truly be as omniscient as all of the kingdom of Asgard seems to believe. If it were true, then he would be unbeatable in combat, and flawless as a ruler. That is not the case. Odin makes mistakes, just like any other king.

Odin doesn’t know that his son Loki used death and blood magic to bind his daughter’s soul to her body for eternity. Odin doesn’t know that Loki did something that no one else has ever done, by putting a soul with solid links to the Nine Realms into the land of the dead, tied to a physical body. Odin didn’t even know that it was possible for anything physical to pass into the realm where dying souls go.

Odin didn’t know that that realm has been called Helheim in the minds of the Norns since the Nine Realms came into existence. He didn’t know that Hel is now the only soul, in the whole of existence, ever, to have one foot in the land of the living and one in the land of the dead, and to have knowledge of both. He didn’t know that her existence was written into the universe, that her name was spoken in every realm, after and before her birth, in many languages, and always, eventually, meant death.

Loki didn’t know any of this either, of course, though over the years, he guessed at some. Hel found out soon enough though.

After a couple of centuries - after Hel’s appearances in the dreams of monarchs and politicians averted several wars, and her visits to the musings of a number of poets and musicians earned several ballads in her name - that’s when the population of most every realm started to call the Ninth Realm, that had always been observed but never known, by the name of Helheim. Hel was never a true princess of Asgard, but she still became a Queen. They called her Queen of the Dead, and they feared her, but they did not hate her, on the whole, because it is hard to hate someone like Hel. She meddled a little, but mostly travelled. Hel learned all she could of everything she could, her presence invisible and barely felt, until she herself could almost challenge Odin for the claim to omniscience. After a millennia, many poets, priests, politicians, authors and mages claimed to have met her in her dreams, and some of them weren’t even lying. Most begged her to tell them secrets of the afterlife, but she would never answer their questions to their satisfaction (though they often did not realise so until after they had awoken from their slumbers).

Hel knew all of the secrets that they wanted to know. She knows what happens to souls after they die, she knows what the Norns’ plan is, she knows of the prophecies of Ragnarok, of the end of the world, of the roles that her family will play in the apocalypse. She knows that a snake will encircle Midgard, and a wolf of her father’s creation will swallow the sun. She knows that her grandfather’s blood is not her own, that her father will one day come to hate her uncle, that one day her grandmother will die. She knows that one day, her family will try to kill each other.

But she does not tell anyone anything. Even when she wants to, she can’t. Even when she knows she could save the ones she loves from suffering, she cannot tell them what path to take. She isn’t allowed to tell any of them anything; nobody’s told her this, but she knows. Self-fulfilling prophecies are fine in theory and fiction, but if one were allowed to occur in reality, it would rip the universe apart. So Hel tells no one what she knows. She is her father’s daughter after all. She knows about secrets.

---

However. If Hel were to - hint. On her occasional visits to her grandmother’s dreams. If she were to...indicate...the way that certain tides of time may be turning. If she made polite conversation ever so slightly overlaid with code. If she were to supplement the gifts and knowledge of her grandmother - by love if not by birth - with her own insight gained from being just a little removed from the same limited planes of existence that all other living souls inhabited...just to lend a helping hand...well. That’s not really. Telling. Per say.

And these poets and peasants on Midgard, they really do make up some ridiculous stories sometimes.

---

Frigga loves her granddaughter and both of her sons very much.

Frigga does not know everything, and neither does Odin, and neither does Hel, but between them, well, they know quite a lot.

The Midgardian will believe anything you tell them, at this time, especially if you appear to them out of the sky on a rainbow-coloured lightning-strike.

There is a war coming, not yet, and not now, but it’s sewn into the souls of the two sons of Asgard, and it’s going to be a big one. There will be casualties.

It’s only fair that the Midgardian have some forewarning. It won’t be for a long while yet, but they will remember.