Instead of the familiar office travel stations, I found myself staring at what looked like the inside of a grand hall, cathedral-like in size and expense. White marble lined the room, which was mostly empty except for two rows of four rectangular plinths that reminded me of the kitchen island in Tru’s penthouse. Most were empty, but two had bodies lying on them. The one I was hovering above was Sørine.
If this was Providence, it was no part of the office I’d ever seen before, although it did have a bit of the same look as the foyer. Themis was nowhere to be seen, either. Tentatively, I tested the waters for lingering invisible walls and found myself able to fly away from the body without mishap.
I was in approximately the centre of the hall. The far end had nothing in it but wasted space and acoustics, ending in a grand set of double doors. The closer end contained no exit but ended in a silent furnace burning with pure white flames. Leading up to it were sconces along the approaching walls, also burning the same white fire. In front of the furnace, dangling from the domed ceiling wreathed in ornate carvings, hung chains of solid gold from which flat discs were suspended. More white fire dribbled over their sides, showering the area in a rain of embers.
There were no windows.
Presiding over it all was a marble throne, so ostentatious and elaborate it had to be made for Yahweh. But sitting in it, lounging with the effortlessness of a rock star taking a backstage interview, was someone far more dangerous.
“Well, well,” said Odin. “What a fine little mess you’ve found yourself in.”
I hoped desperately it was a bluff, even as my instincts screamed at me it wasn't.
“Well, you did fool the rest of them. Even Themis was quite taken in, and she’s so tediously vigilant. To think you thought you could fool me, however?” Odin’s face curled into a mockery of hurt. “Why, Loki, I’m offended.”
He was strangely ageless in appearance; young enough to still want to conquer the world, yet old enough to have figured out how to do it. “I was wondering when you’d make your move,” he continued, rising from the throne in a smooth, languid migration. “Didn’t think it would take you this long.”
Unlike Mayari, who wore a glass eye to draw attention away from the fact she was missing one, Odin did nothing to cover up his scars. The void on the right side of his face seemed to bore into me with a comparative intensity his remaining eye lacked. This was only compounded by the rest of his appearance. He wore his hair long, iron-grey and half-braided, Viking-style, no doubt to capitalise on his public reputation. Here and there silver charms were woven into it, and I would have staked my life on them being functional rather than just aesthetic.
When I didn’t respond, he raised a hand and pointed it at me – how he could see me from that distance, I had no idea – and etched out a sequence of two runes with the tip of his finger. For one terrifying moment I felt my shape stolen from me, my mosquito body dissolving into air, senses vanishing into darkness and quiet, but I reconstituted a second later in human form, falling a good two metres onto the floor, my knee banging hard against the corner of a plinth on the way down.
“Fuck,” I gasped, cradling the joint. A trickle of blood oozed out of a small cut in the skin, seeping through a tear in the linen of my trousers.
Odin raised his eyebrows as he paced across the room towards me. The sound of his shoes on the marble rang out around the chamber. “No healing? She take your powers, too?” He made a tutting noise. “That makes it, what? A day you held onto them for?” He eyed me. “Two?” A wicked smile cracked his face. “Two. Oh my. You’re losing your touch.”
He wasn’t supposed to be talking to me, but I was in no position to be making threats. A restraining order breach was nothing compared to the crimes I’d committed against Providence over the last forty-eight hours. Anyone else and I would have tried to talk my way out of it, but every second I spent conversing with Odin was another second he had an opportunity to gather information and use it against me. “Just get it over with,” I muttered, not raising my voice. The acoustics carried it across anyway.
“Why? I’ve missed our talks. The corporate stiffs are many things, but there isn’t a decent conversationalist among them.”
The form I’d reverted to was one I hadn’t used in many centuries, I noted. Not since escaping from the chains, venom and endless pain. Even the tunic I was wearing was old-school, like I’d stepped straight out of that period of my life into the future. It took significant self-control to not raise a hand to my face to check it wasn’t half eaten away by acid. Odin had chosen it, not me.
“If it’s conversation you want,” I growled, “maybe you’ll find it up your own ass.”
"Now, there, Loki,” Odin reprimanded me, wagging a finger. “That’s no way to speak to the person who pays your wages. Treading on dangerous ground.”
I remained silent, staring into the hole in his face.
“Oh,” Odin said, bringing a hand to his forehead. He laughed, and the sound was not even remotely connected to joy. “You’re right. We don’t do wages. What an oversight. The independent advisory board would have our hides, if there was one. But that can be changed.” Hall thus traversed, he drew to a stop in front of me, bent forward and extended a hand.
I leaned forward as if to take it, then spat into it at the last moment.
Providence’s Chief Information Officer withdrew the hand, examined the spit, and smiled, his eye flicking back towards me. “Genetic material, freely given. Not what I was after on this occasion, but I’m sure our labs will appreciate your generous donation.” Crouching down, he gave the hand a shake and the spit disappeared. “We’re in a very interesting position here, you and I. Nobody else has figured it out yet.”
Something must have shown on my face, because the smile widened. “Oh, I don’t mean your powers. I know you had help from someone. Plenty of time to figure that out later. I’m talking about your little escape window. I should demote you for it, obviously. But as it happens, I have a job opening up right about – well, now – and as a previous employer, I can vouch for the fact you have an excellent track record.”
I felt my lips curl. “Do I? I seem to recall you having a very different opinion when you chained me up in my own child’s entrails."
Odin shrugged, a careless gesture that tangled in the waves of his hair. “Can you really blame me? It was a thousand years ago, and you murdered a god. I couldn’t just let you go with a slap on the wrist. People expect appropriate retribution for that sort of thing. No hard feelings.”
It had been warranted, I thought to myself, but refused to give him the ammunition. This was about him, not me. He had taken my children, who had done nothing to him and his, and done monstrous things to them. He had taken me prisoner, had me tortured, and made me work for him time and again with nothing to show for it, when all was said and done, but invisible scars and a reputation I couldn't outrun.
"And yet working for you is the worst poison I can imagine,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Worse than demotion?”
I opened my mouth to respond, when Odin held up a finger and motioned for me to be silent. The finger, like all his others, was adorned with multiple rings. All silver. All packed with magic. “I realise how that could be misconstrued,” he amended. “I should say, worse than demotion now. Because that’s your only alternative here. And it won’t be chains this time. R&D has come a very long way since then.”
It felt like my conversation with Apollo and the bridle all over again, except that this time I was seriously considering taking the demotion.
I looked at him sideways. “So you want me to kill Yahweh for you? Is that what this is about? Even if I could do it, which I can’t, I know how this ends. I take the fall and you come out to save what remains of the establishment. If you want someone gullible enough to fall for that, you’d be better off asking one of the warrior types. Smashy-smashy and all that jazz. One of them’s got to be dumb enough to take you up on the offer.”
“I’m not looking for someone gullible,” he responded, spitting out the adjective in distaste. “Neither am I after a killer. I want a capable agent to go where I can’t, free from scrutiny, and not let their emotions interfere with their brain. I believe our interests in this matter align. What Yahweh doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
“For now,” I drawled, and checked the cut on my knee. Halfway healed.
“Come, now. You already know I don’t intend on playing second fiddle to that egotist forever. This is your opportunity to be on the winning team. We do make a good one. In exchange for a few errands here and there, you’ll have your freedom, your powers, and my personal gratitude. If the company happens to suffer some instability in the process, well, these things happen.”
I held my tongue at the blatant lie. There was no ‘team’ when it came to him. And however bad the tyrant was, putting Odin in charge was a recipe for unmitigated disaster. As long as his faithful feared and obeyed him, Yahweh was happy to let things run themselves into ruin. Odin would drive them deliberately into the ground and laugh while he did it.
“Or,” he continued, making a sweeping gesture, “you can be demoted.” His voice turned conspiratorial. “You know, Vishnu has an interminable lack of imagination. He still comes to me for ideas. I don’t tell anyone, of course. Not my department. But I miss that old aspect of my job. Call it my guilty pleasure.”
The smile had finally faded from his face.
“I’m just saying, Loki,” he said, and his voice was cold now, as cold as an endless winter, “there are many questions to which I still don’t know the answers. Sometimes, for instance, I find myself wondering just how much razor wire could be interwoven into the human body without it all coming apart. We could find out, if you like. Together.”
I felt genuinely sick. Letting my head loll back, I expelled a furious breath through my nose as my eyes locked onto the ivory flames. What even was this place? I searched the surrounds for signs of anything I could use against him, but unless I could somehow throw him into the fire with my unaugmented strength, I was coming up blank.
I hoped the pact was still holding. It was so weak now I couldn’t even feel the threads. The one thing giving me hope was that I could still remember it existed, which meant its secrets were still safe. Odin’s attention was a fearsome thing, but his suspicions seemed to be allayed by the notion I’d stolen my powers back and nothing more. At least for now.
He noticed my eyes darting around the hall and the grin came back as if nothing had happened. “Ah, yes. The pearly gates. Not much use these days. Pretty, isn’t it?” He nodded towards the furnace. “They’d send people through there to have their sins burnt away. Didn’t work, of course, being as the whole thing was a psychological placebo. An effective one, though. Now it’s just a big empty room for bodies awaiting autopsy.”
I sat up properly at that. “The screening.”
“Relax. I’ll take care of it. If you make the right choice.”
“Yeah, I get it. I’ll take your stupid choice,” I snapped, clambering to my feet. “If only so I can live another day to ram it up your ass when you least expect it.”
“Wise decision. Though I think you’d be much happier if you’d just learn to let bygones be bygones. Look at me – I’ve forgiven you.”
I gave him an incredulous stare. As if there could ever be any comparison between us. “I might agree to be your errand boy,” I told him, “but the stars would all burn out before I forgave you, and even then it’d be too big an ask.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” he scolded me, rising out of the crouch. “There’s always a way. That’s what you’re always saying, isn’t it? People change. Circumstances evolve. Those of us who keep repeating the same behaviour will be left behind by the inexorable march of progress. Take your own advice and focus on the future, not the past. You’ll feel much better for it, I promise.”
I wanted to scream at him, but closed my eyes and shook my head. When I opened them, he was grinning at me. He’d always been able to read me – me – like an open book. I didn’t need to throw a tantrum for him to know what was going on inside my head. “What’s the errand?” I asked, my voice low and hard to my ears.
“There we go. That wasn’t so difficult, was it? First off, I’ll talk to Themis to have her loosen your bindings. Without revealing your status to her, of course. Otherwise you won’t be going anywhere, and you’ll be useless. Speaking of, I assume you’re going to run off and tell your chums about our understanding. You can do that. I won’t stop you. It just means they’ll be subject to the same arrangement. By all means, spread the joy. But if a breath of this reaches the wrong ears –”
“- the deal is off and everyone I’ve ever liked has horrible things happen to them, yada yada,” I interrupted. “We’ve been here before. Give me the errand.”
“Only a fool interrupts the tutorial,” Odin said. He ran a hand down his beard. “But since you insist.”
A cold thread of doubt wound its way through my chest. Had he really been going to say something that would have a meaningful impact on the situation? Or was he just messing with me? I was sure I succeeded in keeping the uncertainty off my face, but the cyclops was watching me with a wicked smile. I refused to bite, even if it would turn out to be my undoing.
“Your first task,” he began, “is to finish awakening your demon lords.”