A Race Against Time
The moment she felt the monster beneath her fall head-first to the icy floor, Aska held tightly onto the hilt of her sword. As soon as the now dead beast hit the ground, she nearly slipped, but quickly regained her footing, panting as she felt sweat form on her forehead. But although she felt the weight of fighting so hard press itself on her shoulders, she had far from forgotten about the next great problem set before her. The groan that then reached her ears instantly made her raise her head. Putting her own battle-hardened state aside, she quickly pressed the buttons on her shield and sword, causing the shield to return to a medallion and the blade to retract back inside the hilt. After then placing both inside her belt, she jumped off of the monster and rushed as fast as she could over to Loki. Joining her was Thor, who wore the same concerned and fearful expression she did. But whether his heart was pounding as hard and as fast as hers, she couldn't say.
Not knowing whether or not she should try to touch him, her eyes widened at the blood covering each of the prince's fingertips, Aska called in a soft but urgent voice, "Your Highness!"
"Loki!" Thor called slightly more abrasively. Loki immediately moaned in response to both, his chest heaving, his face going pale. Even so, he managed to open his eyes to behold the faces before him.
"Thor," he croaked. Though his mouth moved further, no words came through, and he closed his eyes again. While Aska remained frozen as the ice around her in shock, Thor quickly moved his brother's bloody hand aside, and both finally saw just how ugly his wound was. A four-inch long, deep looking wound stretched vertically down from his shoulder, and blood was continuing to seep out of it. Aska quickly put her hand to her mouth and averted her eyes, wondering if she would soon become ill at the sight. Still, she couldn't help but watch as Thor then pressed his hands on Loki's left chest, likely feeling for his heartbeat beneath his suit.
"He needs immediate aid!" he concluded, "We need to get him back to Asgard, fast!"
It was then that Aska realized she was hearing the now familiar struggles of battle behind her. She looked around, and frowned in dismay as she saw the rest of the warriors still fighting off more Frost Giants just as hard, if not more so, than before. Will it never end? she wondered. But then, when she looked back at Loki, and saw this great prince of Asgard, one of the two sons of Odin, as a simple man – indeed, a friend almost – in need, some unnamed but prevalent force seemed to tug magnetically at her heart. She didn't know where it had come from, but it was almost as if she too had received a wound to the shoulder, as if his pain was her pain also. It seemed to build within her, like steam desperate to escape, until it finally turned into a driving force she knew all too well. Replacing her worried look into one of pure concentration, Aska nodded to herself, and then turned to Thor.
"I'll go," she declared in a voice devoid of panic, "I'll take him back."
As fast as a lightning bolt, Thor turned to her with eyebrows raised in surprise. "Are you sure?" he asked.
"I am more than capable," Aska replied, "And your fellow warriors need you."
"But that wasn't the only beast," Thor warned her, "You might be followed."
Aska narrowed her eyes, as she knew very well of the danger that lay ahead of her. Now that the image of the monster's red eyes had been burned into her memory, she was even more determined than before. "Let them try," she said. And before Thor could even open his mouth to respond, she laid her hands on Loki's arm and underneath his bad shoulder.
"Now come, help me get him on his feet."
Though Thor wasn't sure if he agreed with this masked woman's proposal, a sudden moan immediately caught his attention. He looked down to see that his brother's eyes were open again. In that moment, he realized that if there was ever a time that he was so desperate for help, that time was now.
Resting his hand on Loki's other shoulder, Thor leaned down slightly and said, "Loki, speak to me brother. Can you stand?"
Loki bit his lip and gave a slight sigh, but he nodded. "I, I'll try," he replied.
Aska and Thor nodded back. Trying to be as gentle as possible, the two took hold of Loki on both sides, and steadily raised him up, while he kept his eyes shut and gritted his teeth in an attempt to keep from crying out again and worrying them any further.
Once he was on his feet, Aska hurried over to his left side. Thor wrapped Loki's good arm around her shoulder, where she held it in place while her other arm held the rest of his person, letting his still warm body – evidenced by the steam that emanated from his heavy breaths – lean on her. Though he was a bit taller than her, she held him steadily enough.
"Your Highness," she then said in a caring but stern tone. Loki turned his head to her, letting his soft, vulnerable, green eyes meet her own icy blue ones. So troubled did Aska feel by his distressing expression, that she shook her head slightly to remind herself what she was going to say.
"Listen to me," she continued in the same voice, "I'm taking you back to Asgard, but I need you to stay awake for as long as you can. Understand?"
Loki nodded slightly. "Very well," he managed to reply.
Suddenly, Aska heard a sound that made her heart sink dramatically. The sound of cracking ice immediately made her head turn, and her eyes widened with renewed worry when she beheld another statue in the same shape as the monster she had just slain begin to move and break, its pair of red eyes focused intensely, murderously, on her.
"Go!" Thor then shouted as he took up his hammer, "Go! Now!"
But Aska was off before he finished his order. With Loki at her side, the two hurried as fast as they could from the ugliest of scenes that was about to literally burst onto the sight. The two put their highest efforts at what they had promised the other – Loki tried his hardest to stay awake despite the pain that continued to torment him, while Aska, barely able even to breathe, ran as fast as her legs could carry her, and the prince, back the way she came.
As she followed the tracks she'd left earlier, Aska quickly realized that running while holding onto a grown man was not as easy as she'd first thought. With every step she took, sweat danced down both of her now red cheeks. But she couldn't turn back now. She couldn't even allow the thought to enter her mind. No matter what happened, no matter what other threats she might encounter, she was going to get the prince back to their realm, even if it killed her.
Before long, she wished she hadn't allowed herself to think that either. As soon as she and Loki were halfway down the path, the ground began to shake slightly. Fearing what she had the feeling would happen, Aska reluctantly turned her head around to see a great, menacing beast similar to the one she had just fought – if not bigger – racing after her and the prince, its too-sharp claws digging into the snow with every stride. But what frightened her even more was a sight she had seen before. There was a rider atop this monster as well, and it didn't take long for Aska to recognize her as the very same rider who was on the previous one. Even though they were still far away from each other, their eyes met. The Jotun woman's eyes seemed so mad with worry that Aska quickly turned her head around. But it could not prevent the shiver that then traveled up her spine the moment she heard her bellowing, angry voice.
"The son of Odin is mine!"
For a brief moment, Aska felt herself go into a panic, wondering if they would make it back safely at all. But suddenly, when she heard Loki moan again, and saw that he was now ashen-white and might be close to passing out, a resolute fire rose within her, one that refused to be quenched, even by a desire to think of any other outcome than the one she originally imagined.
"Your Highness!" she shouted between breaths, "Run faster!"
Loki showed his gritted teeth, showing the sheer effort it took to take step after step. "I don't know if I can!" he replied.
Hearing him say that, the determined fire for a short second turned into one of anger. "I know you can't but you've got to!" she almost shouted at him. Indeed, she herself was somewhat surprised at the manner in which she spoke those words, and to a prince of Asgard.
Apparently though, having heard the dire urgency in her voice, if not the heat of frustration, Loki bit his lip, and did as she said to the absolute best of his ability. For a while, Aska began to wonder if she shouldn't have ordered him to run faster and harder. What kind of a toll could it take on him?
But before she could think about it any further, Aska's thoughts instantly turned to the pathway ahead of her, and just as quickly she found a whole new reason to worry. Right before her eyes, whether by the force of the beast's strides or some other force of nature, the ground was beginning to split into two, rather quickly. Were they to meet their end here? Falling into the abyss of Jotunheim? To her renewed unease, she wasn't the only one who noticed.
"The ground!" Loki managed to say, "It's breaking apart!"
Though the worry in his voice matched her own, Aska still couldn't allow herself to even think about giving up. Even as they ran toward it, she calculated an estimated distance of the horizontal crack, and soon came to a conclusion that admittedly made even her skin crawl, without the aid of the still cold air around her.
"Your Highness!" she said, "When I say 'now,' you and I are going to jump!"
"Will we make it?" he asked.
"We've got to try!" Aska replied, though the doubt that they might not still lingered in the back of her mind.
But ruling out the possibility that they would, Aska and Loki continued to run toward the gap, until they were just a few yards away from it. Both prepared themselves physically and mentally, knowing that the only acceptable way out would be to land safely on the other side.
Narrowing her eyes as though pinpointing a target, Aska began to count. "Ready? One, two, three … NOW!"
Once the reached the edge of the opening, both vigilante maiden and prince of Asgard leaped forward with the greatest force they could muster. In only a few seconds that seemed like years, they flew across the gap blocking their way back home. To her great and immediate distress, Aska let go of Loki as they were making their way across. With flailing arms, and opened mouths but silent screams, both feared they would never touch the ground again, doomed to fall forever into the unknown.
But before either knew it, they landed in a heap of snow on the ground that greeted them. Remembering that her mission wasn't over, Aska quickly raised her head, thankful that she still had clear vision, and looked desperately around for Loki. Her eyes widened when she saw a black shadow with red snow surrounding him. Fearing the worst, Aska hastily raised herself up and hurried as fast as she could over to him. Gently, but urgently, she pulled him onto his back. Though his eyes were closed, she felt strangely elated to hear a moan escape his lips. He was still alive.
Taking his left arm, she wrapped it around her shoulder again, and pulled him back up as fast as she could with her other arm – and gritted teeth. "Come Highness," she implored him, "It's not much further, I promise."
Loki gave another slight moan in response, but before Aska could say anything more encouraging, she realized there was no time to do so, as she heard the monster – and the accursed Jotun woman – on the other side, but still chasing after them. All she could do was run away, hoping Loki would do the same, run away down the rest of the hopefully short pathway to the safe haven they both called home.
Fortunately, the rest of the road from here on out was short. Aska continued to follow the still fresh footprints in the snow, wishing as hard as she could that she were at the ledge where she entered the realm. As her heart continued to beat hard to accommodate the speed and strength with which she ran, and she felt the ground shake and heard further the most malignant of beasts following their trail, Aska began to wonder if they would ever reach the end of this tormenting journey, when her eyes finally set sight on the ledge she immediately recognized.
Running as if her life depended on it, Aska headed straight for it, her eyes intensely focused on nothing else until she and Loki finally stood on it. Holding firmly onto him, Aska then raised her head, and cried out in a desperate voice, "Heimdall! Please! Get us back to Asgard!"
Suddenly, a sound that nearly made her heart stop reached her ears. Aska looked instantly to see that the great, roaring monster, and the female Giant still riding atop it, were both rushing right at them. Searching for any possible escape, she quickly looked around, but all around them stood only the steepest of drops, and the only way to go was forward, in the direction of the ones who intended to either murder them or eat them alive. Biting her lip, and wanting to get out of this death-trap as fast as possible, Aska called out in a voice even more desperate than before, "Heimdall!"
Gritting her teeth again, she shut her eyes and awaited the fate she and Loki somehow managed to elude just now. Would they be able to again? Aska only held tightly onto the injured prince, and soon, she felt both of them begin to float off the ground. Not knowing whether or not they were dead, she kept her eyes closed tightly, trying to ignore the way her head – or rather, her world – seemed to spin as though the sheer madness of panic had gained an incarnation.
She soon realized that she had landed on solid ground. Still, Aska kept her eyes closed, until the need to know where she was implored her to open them again. The moment she did, she immediately gasped in disbelief when she saw that she was back in the golden teleportation dome, and Loki was still at her side. She almost wanted to laugh that they had twice defied death, but seeing just how much in need of medical attention his Highness was prevented her from doing so. Indeed, here he looked even more pale and weak than he did before.
There was no time to waste. After she hoisted both herself and Loki on each other's feet, Aska noticed that Heimdall was standing on the dais, holding his staff firmly in place. Putting aside her previous feelings of intimidation set upon her in his presence, she did not speak, but instead nodded her head to the outside in an attempt to get Heimdall to follow her. Nearly dragging Loki across the room toward the doorway that led to the outside, she did not turn her head as she heard Heimdall's footsteps behind them.
"The prince has been injured," he realized in a voice that revealed a faint hint of shock.
"Yes," Aska nodded as they finally made it outside. The black, haunting sky of the night still hung over the realm, but the great palace where Odin, king of Asgard, presided was still lit for all to see. Aska couldn't allow herself to be relieved for long. If she couldn't get his Highness there in time … she didn't even want to think about the consequences, knowing only that they'd be too heavy to bear.
She then turned around and implored Heimdall, "Please, help me get him on my horse!"
Heimdall nodded, held out his arms, and Aska quickly transferred Loki to his hold before mounting Dagny as fast as she could. Heimdall then lifted Loki onto the pale horse's back right behind her. Fortunately, Loki didn't seem to have completely lost his senses. To Aska's relief, he seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, as he wrapped his arms around her waist while she quickly took the reins in her hands. But once Aska looked at Heimdall again, her relief, like before, proved to be short-lived.
With a firmness in his eyes, as well as his voice, the great guardian warned her, "There is still time, but you must not waste it."
Aska nodded quickly. "I won't, thank you." Then, with her eyes set on her destination, which seemed so near and yet so far away, she grabbed a handful of the pale mare's mane gave her a slight kick to the flanks before urging her on. "Run Dagny, run!"
In no time, as if she'd sensed the seriousness of the great mission before her, Dagny neighed and immediately broke into a gallop, carrying both her mistress and the prince behind her across the Bifröst Bridge, and toward the magnificent golden fortress of a home that awaited them.
Your Highness, please, hold on, Aska silently begged him.
As she leaned forward in the saddle, with Loki leaning on her, and the lights of every color imaginable shining beneath her, Aska's gaze remained fiercely locked on her destination, which seemed so close yet so far away. She made a clicking noise with her tongue, signaling to Dagny to go faster. Her horse's hooves clattered against the bridge as she seemed to race effortlessly across it, matching the incessant beat of Aska's heart against her chest. Never did she look away or even flinch.
Once she was halfway across the bridge, Aska ignored the feeling of Loki's blood seeping onto her back. She couldn't allow anything to distract her. Yet, as she got closer to the palace, a new, strange, ominous feeling began to make itself known, its presence feeling like a snake crawling up her back. Aska wasn't sure at first if it was the realization of the palace looking even more massive than she first thought, the fact that she was heading toward the place where she would most likely be arrested, or something else. Before long though, something seemed to awake within her, like she was now riding into a dream, even though she was awake. What was this most bizarre of sensations?
Suddenly, almost before she knew it, she found that she was only a few yards away from where the bridge began. In front of the building of gold that towered above her stood four guards, two standing on either side of a set of stairs leading to a massive double-door entrance, and two standing on either side of those doors. Though the two at the bottom of the stairs seemed already to be alarmed at the sight heading toward them, Aska cried out in a desperate plea, "Someone, help me!"
"Good heavens!" the guard on her right shouted as he ran toward her. Aska quickly slowed her horse to a stop, and just in time. Just as the guard hurried over to them, Loki seemed to completely lose consciousness. He gave a groan and began to slip off of Dagny's back, and would have hit the ground were the guard not there to catch him. Aska hastily dismounted and rushed over to be at his side again, determined not to leave him.
"He's hurt, and needs immediate attention!" she managed to say, almost breathless at what she had just endured.
"Help me get him inside," the guard said. Aska nodded and wrapped Loki's arm around her shoulder while the guard wrapped his other arm around his. The two then together headed as fast as they could up the stairs, accompanied by the guard who once stood at the left, his stunned face meeting theirs.
"What happened?!" he asked, "I thought he was in Jotunheim!"
"Tell the doctors to ready the healing room now!" the first guard ordered, "His Highness is injured!"
They reached the top of the stairs, and without a word the guards at the entrance quickly opened the two large doors for them, allowing Aska and the two guards in. Once they were inside, the second guard hastily parted ways with Aska and the guard with her, rushing as fast as he could down the long hallway in the direction of the healing room to alert the physicians, while Aska and the first guard continued to carry Loki through another hallway, ignoring the shocked stares from other guards and maids that greeted them along the way.
As she made her way with Loki and the guard helping her through the biggest hallways she'd ever traveled through, Aska did her absolute best to remain calm, not knowing whether she should let herself feel relief again. How badly she wanted this mission to end. It seemed she had never been on a longer one in her life. But before she could dwell on that any further, a cloud of eccentricity much like the strange feeling of before seemed to surround her. As if subconsciously reacting to it, Aska's eyes began to wander as she moved, taking in the sights of all the grand halls she entered and exited. Suddenly, after she passed a number of torches that hung on the left and right walls, it felt like a lone spark within her was somehow rekindled after being held in the darkness of winter for far too long. Something felt strange about all of this, something, oddly, familiar, and it troubled her to the point that she felt her grip on Loki loosen slightly, until she regained her hold on him.
Before long though, Aska and the guard arrived in the last place she expected to visit in the palace. It appeared to be the largest room in it. A massive, wooden chandelier with lit candles hung from the ceiling high above it, casting a golden glow on everything their light touched. The pairs of guards who stood at the three entrances all gasped, but it was two others that immediately caught Aska's attention. She and the guard beside her slowed down, and she was about to ask why, when her eyes lifted to behold two people whom she highly revered, yet never got the privilege to meet. Odin, the mighty king of Asgard, and his queen, Frigga, stood together on the dais raised in the back of the room. Though she'd never met them before, Aska immediately knew who they were, and she knew not whether to flee in fear, or curtsy in respect. But the attentions of both monarchs were focused solely on their wounded son.
"LOKI!" Frigga cried out. She then became pale-faced, and Aska feared she might faint, but Odin quickly took hold of her to steady her, before turning his one eye back on the sight before him.
"What's the meaning of this?!" he demanded.
"Do please forgive us, your Majesties," the guard beside Aska tried to say as calmly as possible, "but this is one of the faster ways to the healing room."
But before either of them could try to carry Loki out the room and travel further into the palace, the doors to the left were quickly opened, and through them came the guard who had been ordered to alert the physicians, as well as two men in white doctor's robes carrying a stretcher on either side.
"Here they are!" the guard pointed out Aska and the one next to her. Everything that happened next went by so fast that Aska could barely breathe. After letting the stretcher down, with trained hands, the doctors took hold of the unconscious prince and laid him carefully on it. One of them then knelt down and pressed two gloved fingers at the top of Loki's neck, searching for any sign of life.
"This isn't good," he declared, "His pulse is rapid." As he then began to examine Loki further, the other doctor turned to Aska and the guard who had helped her, a concerned and questioning look on his face.
"How did this happen?" he asked.
Deciding to see her mission through to the very end, Aska quickly answered him. "He got hit with a wave of ice while fighting in Jotunheim," she replied.
"Wait," the doctor held his hand up, "How do you know about this? Who are you?"
In that moment, deciding neither to flee nor curtsy, Aska, despite the wild mixture of feeling that ran through her, stood tall in front of everyone there. "I am the Purple Phantom, protectoress of Asgard," she replied, "And as for my knowledge of his Highness's journey there…"
She then turned to the king and queen of Asgard themselves, determined to remain strong, even as she now stood in front of the ones who could call for her arrest at this very moment. "I confess to both of your Majesties," she said, "that I did follow your sons and your best warriors to Jotunheim. I assumed them to be looking for the same answers I was. But I promise you both, I meant none of them any harm."
"Then where are the rest?" Odin then asked, "Or do you know?"
Aska nodded in answer to his second question before answering his first. "I assume they're still in Jotunheim," she replied, "They distracted the Frost Giants so his Highness and I could escape."
"You mean to say you brought him back here by yourself?" the doctor beside her asked incredulously.
"Yes," Aska nodded without facing him, keeping her unflinching gaze instead on Odin and Frigga, "And it was a great honor to do so."
"We need to get his Highness in now, before he goes into shock!" the other doctor suddenly said.
"Right!" the first doctor replied. As quickly as they had come in previously, the two grabbed both ends of the stretcher, and Aska watched with unblinking eyes and an open mouth as the injured prince, whom she somehow managed to rescue, who seemed to almost draw her to him, disappeared into the hallway, taking with him his almost magnetic presence.
Meanwhile, Frigga did not know at first what to do, or even think. As a queen, she had to remain calm in such circumstances, but as a mother, every bit of her body seemed to ache in the need for her son to be well. Trying to focus her attention on something else, she found that she owed nothing but her deepest thanks to this masked vigilante woman, who acted outside the law, yet risked her life to save Loki's. If her husband was not going to do something about this, then she would.
Trying to stand tall, Frigga gently took Odin by the wrist, and pulled him aside. Immediately, his one eye met her own two, wanting to know what was on her mind.
"Dearest," Frigga said, "you may not like what I am about to say, but I am afraid I can say nothing else."
"Yes?" Odin asked as he leaned in a bit.
"This woman may not be one of your warriors," Frigga continued, "but you can clearly see she did everything she could to see Loki home safely. I did not detect anything deceitful about her when she spoke. If she truly means our children and the Warriors Three no harm, and found it an honor to help Loki in his hour of need, perhaps you could make her one of your warriors. If this deed does not make her deserving, then I do not know what can."
For a moment, Odin did not answer, but his frown remained on his face. "My dear," he said, "you may see no fault in her, but how can I trust a woman who sees it necessary to hide herself from the realm she claims to protect?"
"Will you not even consider it?" his wife asked, a hint of frustration in her tone of voice.
Odin sighed. "I will, for your sake," he tried to appease her, "But as king, I cannot let any threat, no matter how small, to run about freely in this realm."
This time, Frigga herself sighed. Though she deeply loved her husband, sometimes he could be frustratingly stubborn. But then, when she turned to look again at the warrior woman who had saved their son, her eyes widened at the sight she beheld.
"She's gone!" she exclaimed.
"What?" Odin asked. He turned and looked all around the room for the woman in purple, but nothing greeted his limited sight. In an attempt to finally hem her in, the mighty king of Asgard immediately called out orders. "Do not let her leave the palace!"
But not long after he commanded his men to do so, the Purple Phantom had managed to escape his grasp, after traveling through what at first seemed like an endless maze of halls, yet one she found she could easily move through. Soon, she was once again on her pale horse, and reluctantly galloping away from the palace. Reluctantly, because despite the threat of capture she felt when near his father, the woman who appeared to travel like a free shadow could not find herself to feel the same way toward his son whom she just helped. But whether or not she might come across him again, as she admittedly hoped she would, all she could focus on now was returning home. And yet, she could not resist reining her horse to a halt and letting her rear and give a victorious neigh.