As they fight, they will remember a time they battled long ago, when the world was simpler. They had fought in animal form, transformed into seals, competing to obtain the necklace of the Brisings: Loki had stolen it from Freya at Odin’s request, and Heimdall had retrieved it.
Loki never forgets an insult.
They will fight, and slash and stab and hack at each other.
They will fight, and they will fall, Heimdall and Loki, fall beside each other, each mortally wounded.
“It is done,” whispers Loki, dying on the battlefield. “I won.”
But Heimdall will grin then, in death, grin through golden teeth flecked with spittle and with blood. “I can see further than you,” Heimdall will tell Loki. “Odin’s son Vidar killed your son Fenris Wolf, and Vidar survives, and so does Odin’s son Vali, his brother. Thor is dead, but his children Magni and Modi still live. They took Mjollnir from their father’s cold hand. They are strong enough and noble enough to wield it.”
“None of this matters. The world is burning,” says Loki. “The mortals are dead. Midgard is destroyed. I have won.”
“I can see further than you can, Loki. I can see all the way to the world-tree,” Heimdall will tell him with his last breath. “Surtr’s fire cannot touch the world-tree, and two people have hidden themselves safely in the trunk of Yggdrasil. The woman is called Life, the man is called Life’s Yearning. Their descendants will populate the earth. It is not the end. There is no end. It is simply the end of the old times, Loki, and the beginning of the new times. Rebirth always follows death. You have failed.”
Loki would say something, something cutting and clever and hurtful, but his life will have gone, and all his brilliance, and all his cruelty, and he will say nothing, not ever again. He will lie still and cold beside Heimdall on the frozen battlefield.
Now Surtr, the burning giant, who was there before the beginning of all things, looks out at the vast plain of death and raises his bright sword to the heavens. There will be a sound like a thousand forests turning to flame, and the air itself will begin to burn.
The world will be cremated in Surtr’s flames. The flooding oceans steam. The last fires rage and flicker and then are extinguished. Black ash will fall from the sky like snow.
In the twilight, where Loki and Heimdall’s bodies once lay beside each other, nothing can be seen but two heaps of gray ash on the blackened earth, the smoke mingling with the mist of the morning. Nothing will remain of the armies of the living and of the dead, of the dreams of the gods and the bravery of their warriors, nothing but ash.
Soon after, the swollen ocean will swallow the ashes as it washes across all the land, and everything living will be forgotten under the sunless sky.
That is how the worlds will end, in ash and flood, in darkness and in ice. That is the final destiny of the gods.
That is the end. But there is also what will come after the end.
From the gray waters of the ocean, the green earth will arise once more.
The sun will have been eaten, but the sun’s daughter will shine in the place of her mother, and the new sun will shine even more brightly than the old, shine with young light and new.
The woman and the man, Life and Life’s Yearning, will come out from inside the ash tree that holds the worlds together. They will feed upon the dew on the green earth, and they will make love, and from their love will spring mankind.
Asgard will be gone, but Idavoll will stand where Asgard once stood, splendid and continual.
Odin’s sons Vidar and Vali will arrive in Idavoll. Next will come Thor’s sons, Modi and Magni. They will bring Mjollnir between them, because now that Thor is gone it will take two of them to carry it. Balder and Hod will return from the underworld, and the six of them will sit in the light of the new sun and talk among themselves, remembering mysteries and discussing what could have been done differently and whether the outcome of the game was inevitable.
They will talk of Fenrir, the wolf that ate the world, and of the Midgard serpent, and they will remember Loki, who was of the gods yet not of them, who saved the gods and who would have destroyed them.
And then Balder will say, “Hey. Hey, what’s that?”
“What?” asks Magni.
“There. Glittering in the long grass. Do you see it? And there. Look, it’s another of them.”
They go down on their knees then in the long grass, the gods like children.
Magni, Thor’s son, is the first to find one of the things in the long grass, and once he finds it, he knows what it is. It is a golden chess piece, the kind the gods played with when the gods still lived. It is a tiny golden carving of Odin, the all-father, on his high throne: the king.
They find more of them. Here is Thor, holding his hammer. There is Heimdall, his horn at his lips. Frigg, Odin’s wife, is the queen.
Balder holds up a little golden statue. “That one looks like you,” Modi tells him.
“It is me,” says Balder. “It is me long ago, before I died, when I was of the Aesir.”
They will find other pieces in the grass, some beautiful, some less so. Here, half buried in the black soil, are Loki and his monstrous children. There is a frost giant. Here is Sutr, his face all aflame.
Soon they will find they have all the pieces they could ever need to make a full chess set. They arrange the pieces into a chess game: on the tabletop chessboard the gods of Asgard face their eternal enemies. The new-minted sunlight glints from the golden chessmen on this perfect afternoon.
Balder will smile, like the sun coming out, and reach down, and he will move his first piece.