It was fortunate for Thor—and for Loki as well—that Sif and the Warriors Three had joined the brothers on their walk, so that they were all present when Thor was taken. Otherwise time might have been wasted with Loki attempting to convince them of the truth of what had happened.
As it was, Sif could scarce credit what she had witnessed with her own eyes. One moment Thor was walking beside them, smiling indulgently at his now-so-much-younger brother—Loki was telling some wild tale or other, all absurd exaggeration and skinny flailing arms, dancing about like a long-limbed frog. Sif didn't bother listening to his prattle, but Volstagg was laughing and Fandral looked caught between unwanted amusement and disbelief, and even Hogun deigned quirk a diverted brow.
The next moment thunder clapped as lightning arced down from the cloudless sky. Sif saw Thor's face, his surprise that someone else had usurped his domain, startled features limned in white brilliance, fist clenching around Mjolnir's short handle. She saw, too, the figure behind him, the slender arm that wrapped about Thor's neck, and the way his eyes widened as their blue faded out to gray—and then they closed, falling shut as meek as a swaddled babe's. His fist opened, and his hammer dropped from it.
Then the lightning blinked out, and Thor was gone, and Mjolnir lay on the ground between his footprints, with all of them staring at it.
Naturally Loki's quick tongue was the first to wrap around words. "Well, that can't be good..."
Heimdall could not see Thor, nor did the All-Mothers know where he might be. They counseled patience, waiting for a convincing sign that he was not dealing with the situation on his own.
"That he hasn't called that to him yet is sign enough!" Volstagg declared, as they stood around Mjolnir, still resting in its place in the field, like a carpenter's tool idly set aside and forgotten.
"Maybe he's not awake yet to call it," Loki said. "Or else too far away for it to hear him?" He extended his hand, wrapped his thin fingers around the handle.
"You think to take up Mjolnir yourself, in your brother's absence?" Fandral said, not quite jeering but close, as if he were scarcely past Loki's new years himself.
"I think to see if it might have trapped within it an aspect of the magic used to take my brother," Loki said, frowning at the hammer. "If I can deduce its nature, maybe I can trace it. Ikol!" He whistled for his magpie pet, which came flitting from some secret place on black and white wings.
Sif turned away from the bird's beady green-black eyes as Loki muttered to his pet. If she cared little for Loki, young again or not, then she cared that much less for his familiar. She did not fancy herself superstitious, but the bird was an ill omen, of that she was sure, by the prickling hairs on the back of her neck. And they stood up all the straighter when Loki rose from his crouch before Mjolnir, dusting off his hands. The magpie watched from his shoulder, sharp beak a mere inch from the boy's eye, an overly familiar familiar.
"We think we know where Thor was taken," Loki said. "Or, not where precisely; it seems to be both here and also another place entirely: a pocket dimension, tucked away within the folded spacetime of our own. A clever bit of work, to trick Heimdall...but anyway, the point is we can go there. I—or my friend, rather—can recreate the transportation spell, to bring us to where Thor was taken. Or in the same ballpark, at least."
Volstagg glowered. "Thor was taken to a park of the ball of bases? Those fiends! I thought it suspicious that they used clubs for other than battle."
"Er, right—I'll fetch Leah, then," Loki said.
Leah was a quiet girl, a darkly somber shadow of Loki's restless energy. Her eyes were as green as Loki's, as the magpie's, as she said, "Yes, I can recast the spell."
"Fantastic!" Loki said. "So many thanks for the trouble, Leah."
Leah leveled her even green gaze at him. "The trouble is worth the pleasure of sending you away."
Loki just winked at her, and held out his hands toward Sif and the Three, smiling his wicked mischievous smile. "So shall we, lady and gentlemen?"
Sif looked to her friends, saw mirrored in their faces the same distrust prickling in her own heart.
But Thor was lost, and they had no other way to find him. And they were four grown warriors, and Loki only one boy—even if they were putting themselves in the hands of his magic.
Sif was the first to take his hand, then Fandral the other, and Hogun and Volstagg completing the circle between them. The magpie on Loki's shoulder clacked its beak, and Leah raised her hands, closed her eyes as she murmured a few words of mystery.
Sif saw the flash of the lightning, but by the time the thunder struck, they had already vanished.
Sif had wondered if anywhere could be as dusty and shapelessly empty as the plains of Oklahoma. But the sky here was flat gray instead of blue, and the yellow-green land spread out in all directions, its far reaches concealed by mist and the rise and fall of the hillocks. There were no towns in sight, no roads or paths to follow, not even the trails of foxes or pheasants. There was nothing but low hills covered in low grass, rustling in the scentless breeze.
"Thor!" Volstagg and Fandral tried calling out, but their voices rolled over the fields without even an echo returning.
"How are we to find him?" Sif asked. "If indeed he's here at all."
"He's here," Loki said, bright and sure. The first time he had been a boy, as Sif recalled him, he had been capriciously moody, sometimes brimming with undeserved confidence and other times drained to sullen sulking. His second youth had self-assurance enough that it seemed never to run dry, even in the face of losing his sole champion. What did he know, Sif wondered—what did he remember, that he could be so certain?
"So where do we start this goose-hunt?" Hogun asked.
"Let's find out!" and Loki pulled from a fold of his tunic an arrow, borrowed from Ullur by the blue and white fletching. He passed his fingers up and down the arrow's length, then let it go, to hover in the air as if suspended on an invisible string of magic.
"Point us the way to Thor, if you'd be so kind," Loki told it, and the spelled arrow wavered, spun like a compass brought over a magnet. Loki frowned, wove a quick bit of magic with his hands, and the arrow stabilized to point steadily left.
"Aye, that's it!" Volstagg said, breaking into a grin, only to have it fall away as the arrow suddenly twitched like a switching horse tail and flipped over, reversing itself to point in the exact opposite direction.
Loki tapped it tentatively with one finger, and it rotated back upon itself, quivering. "Ah," the boy said. "Hmm." The magpie on his shoulder cocked its head, green-dark eyes gleaming.
"The arrow's spell must not work here," Sif said. "We'll have to track him another way—"
"No," Loki protested, "the spell is working perfectly—that's the direction Thor is in, mostly certainly. It's only that the distance is imprecise."
"One of those directions is as imprecise as it can be," Hogun observed.
"Not at all," Loki said. "Either direction's perfectly accurate; it's a mere puzzle of three-dimensional geometry." At their expressions he waved his hands up at them, cried in exasperation, "Oh come now, you've lived on the planet Earth for long enough to solve this, haven't you? Our old world might've had an edge to fall off of, but not Midgard—nor this realm. We are on a torus, or else a ring, or a more exotic formation—but however the land lies, it curves around continuously. Travel for long enough in that direction," and he pointed left as the arrow presently indicated, "or that direction," and he pointed right as the arrow twisted about, "and we will reach Thor, for certain."
Volstagg and Fandral both scratched their heads; Sif exchanged a look with Hogun, then asked, "So which direction would be faster?"
"That's what I'm not so sure about," Loki admitted, hooking a finger under his crown to scratch his head. "It's a matter of space rather than vector, you see; I'm not positive of the dimensions of this realm. It's small, I know, but how small I can't say. Perhaps if it were night, I could triangulate from the stars..."
"Thor needs us now; night's too far hence!" Volstagg protested.
"However far that is," Hogun agreed, looking up at the sun overhead, its light dimmed and diffused by the colorless clouds.
"So are we to just sit and twiddle our thumbs, while Thor remains captured?" Fandral said.
"We could braid each other's hair instead!" Loki suggested brightly, then ducked with a grin like he was expecting a swat to his head that did not come. Sif and the three only leveled long looks at him, and Loki straightened up, mobile features sobering. "It was only a joke—a small one, to relieve the tension? But yes, let's get to the rescuing; my brother may need us!"
"Which way?" Sif asked, as the arrow continued to switch back and forth.
"That way!" Volstagg declared, concurrent with Fandral announcing, "That way!"
They were pointing in the opposite direction.
"We could draw lots?" Hogun suggested.
"And if luck fails Thor, as it does, if rarely?" Sif shook her head. "Better we should divide up—to assure he is found, even if not by all of us. Whoever finds him can summon the others."
"Or else he's equidistant from us, upon which we find him simultaneously!" Loki grinned like this was a fine jest. "How shall we split up, then? If we do it by weight, I think myself and Volstagg might be equal to the rest of you." He leaned back to take proper measure of Volstagg's girth. "Or nearly so, at least..."
"No," Sif said. "The Three will go together, as they best do. And you, Loki, will accompany me."
If she disappointed the boy, he showed no sign of it, instead sketched a bow that was nearly a curtsey and said with knife-sharp cheer, "Why, Lady Sif, if you wanted to have me to yourself, you only had to ask! Though I don't know how my brother will feel about it..."
The Three all winced but were wise enough not to take a step back. Sif did not bother to reply; instead she shaded her eyes, looking out over the barren landscape. There was no hint among the undulating mounds of hills and dunes, no clue about which way was preferred, and her instincts were silent. She chose arbitrarily. "We'll take the left."
"Then we the right," Volstagg said, nodding toward the other direction along with his comrades.
Loki plucked the spelled arrow from the air, spoke a word over it and then snapped it in two over his knee. The half with the fletching he gave to Fandral. "I've fixed the spell to point only a single way," he said. "Just remember to keep going in the direction opposite the feathers."
Fandral nodded and accepted the arrow half, opening his fingers to let it hang in the air for a moment, orienting itself clean and straight as its spell's master was crooked. "Then, good hunting to you," he said.
"And to you," Sif returned.
"And may my brother be the only quarry—as opposed to ourselves," Loki said, then at the others' expressions gazed up at them with child-wide eyes and said, "Well, who can say what manner of monsters live here? Other than mysterious figures who can kidnap a god of thunder."
Sif exchanged a long look with the Warriors Three, at last said, "Guard yourselves," and with that they turned their backs on one another to embark upon their search.
There were no paths, but the walk was easy. The grass was sparse and only knee-high, and the hills but gentle slopes, scarce steep enough to be worthy of the name. The temperature was even, and had the sky not been so uniformly dulled with clouds it would have been a pleasant day.
Sif set the fastest pace she could maintain without exhausting herself. Loki's legs were shorter, but he had no difficulty keeping up, and often got ahead, jogging and skipping as much as walking, with his little light body and the boundless energy of the young. He hurried, but he did not seem hurried; he paused here and there to toe at the earth, or to pluck a blade of the yellow-green grass to make a squeaky whistle, or to sniff the occasional small white flowers that seemed to be all else that grew besides the grass. Sometimes he checked his arrow, letting it float in the air to point their way; otherwise Sif would've thought he'd forgotten their purpose entirely.
Loki talked as they walked, incessantly chattering, mostly to his magpie, which glided along over his head or took rest on his shoulder. Some of it was talk of magic, half in ancient tongues Sif had heard before but did not understand. Other things she understood most of the words, but not their content. It seemed he had been spending much time of late at a place of four chans—whatever a chan was? Perhaps a body of water, for he mentioned 'baiting' and 'trolling'. Though Loki as a fisherman she could not imagine; he hadn't the patience...
After a while he fell quiet, dropping back from his capering to walk beside her in the grass. Sif looked at him sidelong, thinking a solemn mood might have taken him, concern for his brother stilling his tongue—but he was grinning to himself. "Why do you smile, Loki?" Sif asked, keeping her hand from her sword's hilt with effort.
"Hmm? Oh, I was just thinking, about how this journeying is like a quest—a band of brave adventurers exploring a new world! Do you know the humans have as many stories of brave and exciting quests as we do? More, even. And most of them not true or even claimed to be, but that makes them more amazing, since nothing limits the excitement. I saw this movie recently, a wonderfully entertaining tale, of the excellent expedition of a William and Theodore—"
"So you dream of brave adventures and noble quests?"
"Don't all boys?—And girls, too," he added hastily, looking up at her. "Though the quests I've been on myself have maybe been a bit short of bravery or nobility. But this, now—we go until we find my brother, and then save him! It's so satisfyingly straightforward."
"I wouldn't think you'd find satisfaction in anything straightforward," Sif said. "It never contented you before."
"Yes, so it's a change of pace now! That's what makes it fun."
To be working to save his brother, rather than destroy him, was certainly a change, Sif had to admit. But how long before he bored of it? And turned—returned—to more dangerous diversions.
Though this for now was dangerous enough. "What thought have you given to our destination?" Sif asked. "We go to someone with the power to take Thor—have we the power ourselves to be victorious?"
"Power enough," Loki said. "Besides, they only took Thor by surprise—if they had the strength to take him directly, wouldn't they have, to prove themselves? But you've thought of that already, Sif," he said, giving her a cunning smile, "or else you wouldn't have come with this little back-up."
"Three of Asgard's greatest warriors are hardly little back-up," Sif said.
"And good Volstagg is not 'little' anything!" Loki laughed. "But you made the same guess that I did, of what we may be walking into. If they had to capture Thor through ambush and trickery, then they're not his match in strength. So all we need do is find him and free him—if he's not freed himself already—and then we'll easily have our victory."
"Leaving the matter of returning to our home from this place," Sif said.
"That's simplest of all," Loki said. "To come here wasn't anything as tricky as crossing the Bifrost; it's a mere temporary pocket dimension, a hidey-hole, not a true other world. Finding our way back into it might prove messy, with the original spell faded; but leaving is only a matter of ducking between the warp and weft of the universe. However far we go here, we're always only a thread away from Earth; with but a word Leah can pull us home."
So that was why he had so little fear; escape was but a spell for him. Sif wondered if it would be so simple for the rest of them, without Loki's knowledge, or his friendship with the girl Leah. If he stranded them here—but he would not. Even if he had the inclination, Thor would not allow it.
"There is another thing I would ask you about," Sif said. "When we spoke of who took Thor—"
"Wait!" Loki said, throwing up his hand. "Sorry to interrupt—but what's that?"
Sif looked to where he pointed, and saw a cloud of yellow-gray dust billowing over the hills, coming toward them. "A storm?" she said, though it was too small to be, and too contained; but she could not see what was within the dust.
The magpie screeched a warning and took to the air, soaring high above the cloud's height. Loki looked up at the bird, then at the approaching dust, and backed away from it, saying, "Maybe we should—"
He had not the chance to finish the thought, before the beasts within the dust cloud sprang from its cover and were upon them. There were two, both the size of bears or nearly, though lighter built, lithe but powerful in the shoulders. Their coats were the same gray-yellow as the dust and grass, shadowed with faint stripes. And their fangs when they roared were longer than her entire hand, from fingertip to wrist.
Sif had not seen cave-cats like them for ages past, and not on Midgard. Stepping before Loki, she gripped her sword in both hands and braced to meet their pouncing charge. But they both dodged around her, seeking as predators do the smaller, weaker prey.
"Smilodons!" Loki was saying, "if only I had brought my phone, to post this on You—ahhh!" He shrieked upon realizing he was the target of his objects of admiration, scrambled backwards only to trip and fall on his rear in the grass, staring up into the fanged mouths of his doom.
"Get back!" Sif swung her blade and caught one of the beasts across the flank. It yowled in pain and checked its rush. But the second had already sprung, catching Loki betwixt its spread claws—
Only not so after all, for the boy under its paws vanished like a popped soap bubble, the illusion dissolving into so much empty magic. The cat snarled around its massive fangs, turning round to discover where its prey had gone—and Sif took advantage of its confusion to stab her sword between the fangs, driving the blade up into its skull. It choked and collapsed to the earth, the light fading from its vicious amber eyes.
Sif wrenched her sword free, spun about to face the other beast. But it was already slinking away, limping with its flank bloody, its tawny coat blending with the grass so neatly that it almost seemed to fade from sight, even as Loki's illusion had.
The boy himself, now, was nowhere to be seen. "Loki!" Sif called sharply. If he had indeed fled to safety back on Earth—
Before she could complete the thought, he reappeared, crouched on the ground even as his illusion had been posed, a few feet from her. Tossing back his hood, he grinned up at her, said, "That went well, don't you think? I providing the distraction, while you took them out."
"Is that how it happened?" Sif said wryly. "What a fine plan you had."
Loki smirked. "I thought so!" He approached the slain cat with caution, prodded the body with the toe of his boot.
"Though next time I'd prefer to hear the plan for myself, beforehand," Sif remarked. "So I might better appreciate its cunning." She wiped her sword off on the grass, sheathed it, then surveyed her kill. It was the first cave cat she'd slain on her own, and the pelt was rightfully hers; but they had not the time to skin it. Regretfully she let it lie, and only sliced off the tasseled tip of its tail as a trophy.
"Perhaps you should take one of the fangs, too," Loki suggested, crouching to poke at them with his finger. "They'd certainly add color to the story! And an unfossilized saber-tooth would be a prize—there must be spells that use them, or else I should invent one if there isn't—"
"Practice animal dentistry another time," Sif said, "we must get moving now. Before the other beast returns with its pack-mates."
"Pride-mates—and Smilodons didn't hunt in prides anyway; saber-toothed tigers, not lions, you know—"
Sif grabbed the boy's arm and pulled him up. "Which way does the arrow say?"
"Yes, yes," Loki said, taking out the arrow and letting it hang in the air to point their way.
Sif watched him work, uneasy. "The arrow I assumed you had Leah spell—but how did you cast that illusion? I thought your magic lost, since your...return."
"Not lost, precisely," Loki said, "but forgotten. I have to learn everything all over again—but in this place, it seems, I can work a little light enchantment, even without remembering the proper spells."
"Your magic's coming back to you?"
"Oh, no, fear not!" Loki said hastily, raising his hands to placate. "I'm not regaining my old powers or anything like that. It's merely that this place was made by magic, and exists yet with the magic holding it apart from the regular universe. It's so thick here that I can taste it, feel it. Bend it, a little," and he mimed a shaping with his hands, as if molding a pot from clay made of air. "But only a very little. That trivial mirage, throwing my image by twisting the layers of warmth—that is the very limit of my ability, I swear."
The magpie spiraled down from the sky and alit once more on his shoulder, cocked its head to study Sif's dubious expression. "So, shall we be on our way?" Loki asked.
"Yes," Sif said, and started off in the arrow's indicated direction.
After a few steps she realized that she did not hear Loki behind her, turned back to see the boy halted before the cooling bloody body of the great cat, staring down at it.
"Loki," Sif called.
Loki started, then dashed to catch up with her. "I'm glad it was you with me, Sif, and not the others," he remarked when he reached her side.
"They are strong warriors, all," Sif said. "More than a match for these creatures, any one of them."
"Yes, but they might not have been so eager to place themselves between me and the bloodthirsty beasts, and without those seconds to ready my spell..." Loki shuddered.
"Eager or not, Fandral would have," Sif said. "And Volstagg. And Hogun, too—they all would. Believe we would for Thor's sake, if you'll not believe it for your own; none of us would want to see how your brother would suffer, should you come to harm."
"Even if you'd enjoy it yourselves—so my winning personality's not yet won you over?" If their disregard hurt Loki, it did not show in his impish grin. "But still, Sif, I am glad you were there."
Sif looked back at the slain beast with its sharp claws and gaping fangs. "You're welcome," she said.
The sun behind the colorless clouds sank slowly as they walked, and then as if exhausted by its own journey tumbled out of the sky like a dropped stone, plunging below the horizon. The fields sank into hazy purple twilight, deepening as they walked.
Sif would have walked through the night, and Loki seemed willing; but then they reached the river. Slow-moving and broader than a highway, it crawled lazily between the rounded hills. Its banks were dotted with brush and brambles, not true trees, but more cover than the grass, at least. Sif watched between the leaves' dark shade but saw no gleaming eyes, no predators lying in wait.
A bend in the river offered a decent vantage point, the high bank surrounded by water offering some safety from what beasts might come in the night. "We'll camp here," Sif decided.
"Why stop?" Loki asked. "We can ford the river—well, perhaps not ford," he admitted, looking out over the softly lapping water. The evening's last light played over the surface, but the darkness beneath the shimmers gave no hint to its depth. "But we can swim, if it's too deep to wade—"
"We could," Sif said, "but I'd as soon not explain to Thor how it happened that I let his little brother be pulled into the depths by a river monster, or bitten in two by a crocodile."
Loki gulped and sidled back from the murky waters. "That would be unlikely, don't you think? It looks so peaceful..."
"Those cats before weren't peaceful," Sif said, "and so far they're the only creatures we've seen here. If the others are like them..."
"I see your point." Loki said, retreating a little further from the river. "...Though surely there must be some harmless things? For the tigers to eat, if nothing else. Those teeth weren't for grass-grazing."
"Maybe someone feeds them," Sif said. "We know there's someone else living here at least."
Loki's eyes went wide in the dusk. "You don't suppose they would feed Thor to those beasts, if they got what they wanted from him?"
"What? No!" Sif said. "Where would you get such a wicked gruesome idea?" Only after saying it did she recall to whom she spoke.
But Loki was no less disturbed by the thought than she, by the paleness of his face. "No, no, they wouldn't—that wouldn't be..."
He trailed off, thin arms wrapped over his thin chest, as if taken with chill, though it was scarcely cooler on the fields for all the sun was gone, and besides the cold had never bothered Loki Laufeyson.
Sif shook her head, to throw off the unpleasant visions in her own mind and to enforce Loki's denial. "No, I can't imagine Thor would let himself lose to a few mindless beasts. And besides, those we met today hadn't been fed in some time. Don't think of such things; come, help me build a fire, before it's too dark to find tinder."
There was no wood, but they gathered dead dry brambles, and twisted grass into hanks that might burn a little slower. Loki started the fire with a snap of his fingers. In the yellow light from his sparks, Sif saw him grin, teeth gleaming gold in his joy.
Loki had always loved the power of his magic, what he could do with it, and how it was feared. Sif herself had feared it, and hated it that she did. She had almost forgotten how as a boy he delighted in the spells themselves, in mastering their cleverness. "You've missed it," she remarked. "Your spell-casting."
"I can't miss what I don't remember," Loki said, then grinned wider. "But oh, it's nice, for it to be so easy!"
The oily leaves of the bramble burned long and steady, a low orange fire. It did little to push back the surrounding shadows, but might be enough to ward off creatures in the night. They sat before it, Sif on one side and Loki on the other, watching the short flames dance. The magpie sat on his shoulder, head tucked under its wing, eyes hidden.
"Sleep," Sif told Loki. "Better to rest now, so we might be fresh tomorrow."
"But I'm not—" An enormous yawn interrupted Loki's protest. "—sleepy," he finished, then hunched his shoulders in sulky embarrassment. "At least, not very much. And you'll need rest, too, if you're to fight for Thor. Since I can't do much for that myself."
Sif looked at the boy across the fire, sitting with his legs drawn up to rest his chin on his knees, and his black brows drawn up as well, as he glared into the flames. "There might be more you can do, now," she said. Though she would rather he did not. Her sword would be enough for Thor; she should have no need of Loki's black magic.
Though if she did...if Thor did... She didn't know what foe they were walking toward. Loki's powers might be Thor's best chance.
And for that, Loki came, not knowing any more than she what he was to face, and he was not a warrior; he had never been, but now he was only a boy, and mostly powerless. But he came here anyway, to help his brother.
How many times had they called Loki a coward, both as a boy and as an evil man? He might be the boy again, but not a coward now.
Or else—or else he knew he had nothing to fear. A boy he might be, but Loki still. Sif cleared her throat. "So when you examined the spell that was used to take Thor and to bring us here—did you learn anything more? About who it was who took him?"
Loki blinked, looked up from the entrancing flames. "Other than that they can use magic?
No, there was no more I could glean from that spell. We figured out how to recreate it, but it was nothing I know myself. —Or know now, anyway," he amended.
"Why do you say 'they'?" Sif asked. "Why not 'she'? Do you believe there's another besides her?"
"A woman—who?" Loki asked.
"The woman who took Thor."
"It looked like a woman?" Loki said. "You could, er, tell?"
Sif frowned. "What was there to tell? She was tall, true, but her form was apparent, and her blonde tresses—"
"She looked blonde? I mean, er—it happened so quickly, and I was looking at my brother; I must have failed to notice..."
"Even under the circumstances, I'd think you would notice a woman so shapely," Sif said. "Though I suppose you are still young. Still, that you did not realize her at all...could there have been magic there as well?"
"Shapely, hmm?" Loki said, his gaze abstract and distracted for an instant; then he shook his head. "I think you must be right—I should have realized it before, that I was being deceived. I saw only a cloaked figure; I remember no features, save that the individual was tall enough to put their arm around my brother's neck."
"So they can cast illusions," Sif tallied grimly, "as well as teleportation, and whatever curse they laid upon Thor to hold him. This may be a powerful sorceress—sorcerer?—that we are to defeat."
"Not teleportation, quite," Loki said, "only moving from here to there and back again—but the rest, yes...but we will defeat them! For my brother's sake!" and he pumped his fist in the air, stirring the magpie on his shoulder, which grumpily mantled its wings and dug its claws into his tunic to steady itself.
"Once we find them—yes," Sif said, tapping the hilt of her sword as she looked at the boy sorcerer through the fire's smoke. "For your brother's sake, we will."
The river's gentle washing on the banks was a soothing sound, and Sif was careful not to let herself be lulled by it. While Loki slept, she listened instead to the uneven crackling of the fire and the whisper of wind through the leaves about them, while she braided grass hanks to feed the fire.
The cloud cover thickened later into the night, blotting out the faint glow of the veiled stars, and no moon rose. Focused as she was on the wide flat world around them, Sif did not immediately realize Loki's distress. Not until the magpie cawed, an ugly rasp like a raven's croak.
Sif looked past the fire to where the boy lay on his side, curled into a small tight knot, back to the flames and hood drawn over his head. The magpie sat on his thin shoulder, peering down at his hidden face.
Rising, she went to Loki's side, to find his hands balled into fists and pressed up under his chin, and his mouth and eyes clenched shut. His breathing was short and fast, not the steadiness of sleep; but when she asked, "Loki?" he made no response.
"Loki," Sif said again, shooing away the magpie to touch his shoulder; but when she did the boy jerked, arms and legs curling in tighter still, like a snail trying to hide in a missing shell. Muttered words escaped his lips—"...dies at dawn—No—I would again—Brother—!"
"Loki!" Sif said, and jostled him by the shoulder, and Loki shuddered again and came awake in a burst of thrashing limbs, as if he were drowning in empty air, gasping for breaths almost like sobs. The magpie cawed again, flapping its wings. Loki's wild arms would have clipped Sif across the chin, but she caught him by the thin wrists, held him still as gently as she could manage, saying, "It's all right; it was only a dream. Loki, calm yourself."
"S-Sif?" Loki froze, eyes open wide and white-rimmed; then he relaxed all at once, almost falling into her lap. Sif kept her arms around the boy, let him lean against her. He was gasping yet, and shivering, though the night was still mild; he clung to her for a moment, burying his face in her side, though her armor might bruise his cheeks if he pressed any closer.
After a moment he pulled away from her, so abruptly that Sif let him go for fear he might fight her otherwise and injure himself. Sitting apart from her, he wrapped his arms around his knees and hid his face in their circle. "I—" he said, muffled, and his boy's voice wavering and high as a small child's, "I am sorry, I am not used to—to waking with anyone there, except Ikol—"
As if summoned his magpie hopped back on his shoulder, but did not nestle close, instead turned its head to fix its beady eye on Sif, reflecting red the fire's embers.
Sif ignored the bird, asked instead, "Loki, are you well?"
"Well enough," Loki said, still muffled with his head down. "It was—was only a dream. They're all only dreams. Now. So I have no reason to fear them, do I?"
"I've never heard that one needed a reason to fear nightmares," Sif said. "Isn't it their nature, to have no reason?"
"Y-yes...yes, I suppose." Loki pressed his hands over his face, then pushed back his hood and raised his head to Sif. His face was pale but dry in the firelight. "I'm awake now," he said, voice bright and brittle, "so I could take the rest of the night's watch, and you might rest? I'll wake you right away if any monsters attacks, I promise."
"That, I would trust you to," Sif said, meant teasingly, though Loki didn't smile for it. Instead he looked into the fire, arms again around his knees. Sif lay herself on the sandy ground beside him, tucked her arm under her head for a pillow.
With a warrior's experience, practiced at taking rest when she could, she would have been asleep in a trice, had not Loki suddenly spoken. "Sif?"
"You remember me," Loki said. "As I was—before. Grown."
Sif opened her eyes, slanted her gaze up toward the black-haired boy sitting the fire. Such a small boy, tucked into himself like this. "I remember you, yes."
"Was there ever a time I ruled Asgard? When it was still Asgard, up in the heavens?"
"On occasion you claimed to," Sif said. "And once for truth, briefly, after Thor's banishment to Midgard, when Odin fell into the Odinsleep."
She heard Loki exhale, gulp in another quick breath. "Ah," he said. "So Thor was gone, then? Not thrown in a dungeon in chains or anything cliché like that?"
"No one was imprisoned," Sif said. "Although you did try to kill Thor with the Destroyer. And us as well."
"Hmm. I was a busy man, wasn't I," Loki said, but there was a quaver to his voice that made the jape sound like empty bravado in the dark. A small child's voice, talking to ward off the monsters hiding in their bedroom's shadows.
Did he put that quaver there deliberately, Sif wondered, knowing how harmless it made him sound, how it stirred her heart to sympathy? But her heart was moved all the same. "But you are a boy now, Loki," she said into the night. Even if a boy with a man's nightmares.
Loki caught another breath, then said, suddenly, "I'm sorry, Sif."
"For your hair," Loki said. "I'm very sorry. That wasn't the other...I mean, I did it. I remember doing it. Though when I think about it now, I wish I hadn't; it was such a childish thing to do..."
"It was," Sif said. "Childish and cruel and silly. And my reaction no less so—to grieve as if I'd lost anything more important than a bit of girlish pride. But we were children then, and it's the right of a child, to be childish." The right the trickster had granted himself again. Sif wondered if she should pity or envy him for it.
"Well—I'm still sorry," Loki said.
"So you have told me before," Sif said, though now was perhaps the first time she believed him. And was that the wisdom of age, or was it yet naivety? She did not decide, instead said only, "In three hours wake me, if the sun's not risen yet, and I'll spell you so that you might rest again."
"That's all right," Loki said. "I won't sleep again tonight anyway."
Sif watched the play of the firelight over his small narrow face. "Do you always have such nightmares?" And were they always nightmares, or did sometimes he find his dreams, his memories, more enjoyable? Did he ever miss the man he'd been, with all his power?
"Not always," Loki said. "Sometimes my dreams aren't so bad."
"What do you dream about, that isn't so bad?"
"Dying, mostly. Dying as a hero, when everyone knows I did, so no one can doubt it. Not that I want to die, being alive is so much more interesting—but it's a great trick, isn't it, to prove everybody wrong? But a trick I've done already; it wouldn't be so clever the second time."
"Yes," Sif said. "And your brother wouldn't like it any better in an encore."
Loki hesitated a moment, then allowed, "I suppose not—well, I'll just have to come up with something even better..."
He was still pondering the problem when Sif closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep.
Sif awoke to Loki saying her name. The sun was not quite risen, but near enough to the horizon to dye the sky pink, and the fields around them were shrouded in mist, fog hanging white over the river. The fire had burned down to orange embers, and Loki was kicking dirt over it. "Though I suppose it doesn't matter anyway," he remarked, "even if a fire does start, it couldn't reach us over the water—come on, Sif, let's go!"
The arrow, when he suspended it in the air, indicated the same direction as before, across the broad river. In the dawn's light the water was murky brown, the slow currents heavy with silt. Sif suggested that they might walk along it, find a narrower place to pass—but she was reluctant to waste the time, and Loki as well, after losing the whole night. Instead they decided to cross where they were.
They waded out into the middle without a problem; the water only came up to Sif's waist and Loki's chest. There were no crocodiles that they could see, or even fish to trouble them. The current was swifter as the water became deeper, and Loki paddled his arms to keep his balance, fording ahead of her.
Sif followed the boy, watching the level of his head to track the depth of the water—and so did not realize when the riverbed fell away, plunging into a much deeper channel, until she put her foot down and found no ground beneath it. She dropped under the water, over her head with her armor dragging her down, then pushed off the bottom and thrashed her way back up to the light, resurfacing with a spluttering shout.
Blinking murky water from her eyes, Sif saw Loki, only a couple feet from her, turned back to lend her a hand—or maybe not; his face was split in a great wide grin, his eyes sparkling bright.
He was swimming, she realized now, but he'd started doing so carefully, keeping his head level over the water so as not to betray the channel, letting her discover it for herself.
"Loki!" Sif shouted, "you—" but the river gave her a mouthful of muddy water for her trouble. Sif shut her mouth and surged towards Loki instead. The boy yelped and started swimming in earnest, Sif in pursuit. On the other side, Loki scrambled out of the water and up the bank. Sif dragged herself after him, with her heavier armor dripping and straggles of wet hair plastering themselves across her face.
By the time she made it up the bank he was laughing out loud, and failed to dodge in time when she lunged and grabbed him by the collar, squirming and shrieking, "S-sorry, Sif, truly, but—oh, your face, as you came up out of the water—scarier than any shark—"
"Loki, you—you horrible little brat—!" Sif started to yell—then stopped, not at the strangeness of the words, but their familiarity. How many times had she cried them as a girl, outraged and embarrassed—though she'd laughed, too, hadn't she, when the joke had not been on her; and sometimes when it had, if Loki's prank had been clever enough. But still, she remembered how upset she'd get, how much she'd hated him—
Except she hadn't, had she; as a child she'd not known what hatred was, not truly. She'd not known what evil was. There had sometimes been malice in Loki's mischief, even then, a child's thoughtless cruelty—but not always, not in those long ago days. However he had upset her, more often he'd only been playing.
And now? Now, she thought that while he smiled often, she'd not seen him laugh like this; and she could hear no spite in it.
Sif boxed the boy about the ears, let him go saying, "You'd play tricks, even when your brother's in trouble? We don't have time for your japery."
Loki kept grinning, even as he rubbed his ear. "Ah, but we crossed the second half of the river faster than the first," he said. "And besides, it was too good to pass up!' He snapped his fingers and the dripping river water leapt off them like fleas, leaving Sif's sodden hair smooth and her muddy armor shining like it had been polished.
"Thank you," Sif said.
Loki's grin widened. "So all's forgiven?"
"No," Sif said, because that was far, far too much to ask—even if he had not meant it so, by the way his face changed, his smile vanishing like a curtain dropping over a dark stage. How strange, for the liar to show such naked honest feeling—unless it was all but another play, another lie. But to ease her own conscience she said, "But for this prank, yes, I forgive you. And for my hair as well."
She'd chosen well; Loki beamed at her, a smile like it would crack open his face as they started on their way again, walking in step together toward where Thor was.
"We must be getting close," Loki said, as he checked his spelled arrow once more to verify their direction. "This pocket-verse can't be so very large; we must have walked nearly half of it by now. I thought we'd have reached him by now..."
Sif looked over the fields around them. They'd been walking for nearly two hours more, and not come to another river, nor any other landmark, just more of the endless low hills and scrub grass. She would have suggested bringing horses, had she known this journey would be so long. "Perhaps the others have found Thor," she suggested.
"Perhaps," Loki said, but he looked troubled.
"You said either way might be the shorter," Sif reminded him. "And Volstagg would be hurrying them anyway; he must be hungry indeed by now." She would be herself, if worry for Thor wasn't tying her belly in a knot; and Loki hadn't said a word himself. He'd never been a big eater, as a boy or a man; she remembered the days at a time he would spend in the library, feasting on knowledge rather than any physical sustenance. Sooner or later Thor always got bored and sought his brother out, else Loki might never have left his books—and maybe Asgard would've been better off for it; or maybe he'd have learned still more dangerous secrets, had he been left to molder with them.
Loki still seemed disquieted, so Sif told him, "The Warriors Three together are stronger than we two; they'll have the better chance of helping Thor."
"That depends on what they're up against," Loki said. "In this case...maybe it would've been better if I'd gone alone..."
Sif put her hand on the boy's shoulder in reassurance. "They wouldn't have stood for it, nor I. Thor is your brother, but our friend, and this was no fault of yours; it's no more your duty to save him than ours."
She felt Loki's shoulder stiffen, even as he said, "Yes, well, I suppose..."
"—Loki," Sif said, halting in her tracks, taking firmer hold of his arm to stop him from walking on. The knot in her belly tightened, an icy serpent coiling around her guts. "Was it no fault of yours?"
Loki swallowed, his green eyes drifting from her face up to the sky, where his magpie lazily glided. "Ah...that is...do you promise not to get mad?"
"I do not!"
"...That's not very encouraging," Loki said. "And we'd built such a pleasant spirit of camaraderie, too—"
"Loki. Tell me."
"I'm not sure it would help the mood—"
"Now," Sif said, leaning over him. "That Thor was taken—what was your part in this?"
Loki gulped again, ducking his head as he put up his hands, palms out and fingers open in surrender. "I had no part in him being taken, I swear! I never would have, if I'd known—"
"Never would have what?"
"I—I knew of this dimension," Loki babbled, the words pouring out of him like from an overturned pitcher. "I detected its presence from our side, in Oklahoma—the soft spot where the universe was twisted, like a pucker in spacetime. Where my brother was taken, that was the spot—I didn't know what it was, and I wanted to. It was why I wanted to walk that way today, and I asked Thor to accompany me. I thought perhaps Mjolnir might be used to breach it—I didn't think there would be any danger, not really, nothing too powerful for Thor—"
"Did you tell Thor of your plan, or this place? Because he said nothing of it to us," Sif said.
"...No," Loki admitted. "I doubted it would interest him, but I thought, once we were there—"
"That you might trick him into wielding Mjolnir, and tearing open the way to this place."
"I wouldn't have tricked him; I would've just asked," Loki said, but he looked down as he said it, as if the yellowed grass at his feet were different from all the rest in this barren place.
"I'd say I would believe it when I see it," Sif said darkly, "but I don't think I would even then, were it you." She started walking again, not looking behind her, but listening, so that she heard Loki run up after her.
"Do you believe me, though, that I meant Thor no harm?" he asked, striding beside her but a step behind, so that he was only a smudge of green in the corner of her eye.
"In honesty? I might believe that twice as much as I believe anything else you say," Sif said. "Or three times—it matters not, because twice or thrice or ten times none still is none, and that is how much faith I have in you." She did not look to him as she said it, or else she might not have said it, not to this boy; but she was angry now, and it was not only the boy she spoke to.
Loki walked alongside her in silence for a few paces, then said, soft like it would hurt less spoken quietly, "So you still hate me too much to trust me."
"No," Sif said. "Not that. All the mountain of hatred I bore for you, I let die when you died, and I would not have it back. Not for your sake, but for mine. For all your many sins, my bitterness was always rooted in the pettiness of our youth, old insecurities and resentments I've long since outgrown. I haven't been that angry girl for many ages; it's well she's passed, and I would not become her again. So no, I don't hate you."
Loki clapped his hands together, a sharp bright sound. "I knew I was too loveable for that! But why, then, do you mistrust me so?"
"Because I know you, Loki Lie-smith," Sif said. "I know the boy you were and are, and I know better than you the man you became. I look at you now, and see the man you will grow into."
"But Thor knew and knows me yet, and he—"
"Thor looks at you and sees only the boy you are now; the man he might as well have forgotten, as completely as you've forgotten him."
"I suppose it helps that Thor didn't used to hate me, back when we were all this age," Loki remarked, thoughtfully.
"Thor never hated you," Sif said. "The things you did, your many crimes, he loathed; but it hurt him all the more that it was you doing them, because he loved you, always. As much as ever you might have loved him."
Loki momentarily froze in place as if he'd forgotten to let his next footstep fall, leg left hanging in midair. Sif did not pause herself, so Loki was forced to jog a few steps to catch up with her. "So you allow that I might love my brother, in spite of all my past and maybe future wickedness?"
"I believe you love him now," Sif said, and then, because the greatest defense against a liar is always the truth, spoke on, "I think you loved him before, as a boy and as a man as well. For all you cursed and despised him, the both of you were always brothers. And I hated you all the more for that, because it made no difference. That you could love Thor and yet betray him as you did—it made all you did that much crueler, that much more incomprehensible."
"You think to comprehend the man I was? Well, there's your problem," Loki said, with an edge that made a weapon of his seeming flippancy. "The cause is lost before it begins, if to gain your trust I need your comprehension!"
Sif sighed. "Your pride always was among the greatest of your great many failings."
"Pride? How's this pride?"
"You've always thought yourself more intelligent than us, skilled in arts so evidently beyond our own skill that you never tried to share them with us. You decided we were too simple to understand your magic or your cunning plans, and kept them to yourself so that you might revel in your seeming superiority."
"Well, I am a bright boy—but that's not what I meant," Loki said. "I daresay if it were a matter of arithmancy or calculus, that you could grasp it well enough, even if my brother and the others might be lost. As Father—as Odin All-Father could have. But this has nothing to do with wits or skill. I am different from you, Sif. From you, from Thor though he's my brother—from Odin and Frigga and Volstagg and all the others, and it's not that I wasn't born Aesir, or that I'm better with magic than forged weapons.
"But look, we're walking here, on a strange little world where I've never been, where there are no maps or stories or anything to tell us what's ahead. And even standing on my toes, I can't see over that next hillock there—and more than anything I want to see over it, to see what's there that I don't yet know about. More of the same, most likely; but maybe not, and that thought makes me want to run up there right now and look, so badly that I can barely hold myself here by you. And once I've looked, then I'll want to look over the next hill, and the next one, and the hill after that. I want to pick up every stone I find and see what's underneath, and throw it as hard as I can to see where it falls, what it will hit, and what changes when it does. I want to do the things that no one has done, the things no one would think anyone would do, to find out what happens when they're done, everything I never would have guessed.
"And I hate it and I can't stand it and I love it, Sif; I love the not-knowing and the wanting-to-know, and the unpredictable things no one can ever know. I love it like it burns me, melts me, scars me. Maybe it's because I am god of mischief, or maybe it's why I am he—but this is who I am; this is how I am. And how I was before—I used to know so much more, so many more ways of turning over stones; but still, it was never enough. I had to find what would happen, if I was something other than who I was.
"And I don't know why, why I need this so badly, why when I go to sleep the last thing I think of is always a question, and when I wake up the first thing I think of is another question. This is who I am, and I don't know why. It's the one answer I can never find anywhere, no matter how I look, the solution to the riddle that is me. So if I doubt your comprehension, it's not that I think you stupid or less than me, because I don't; it is because I cannot manage it either. I do not think I am something to be comprehended."
Loki had stopped walking, and yet he was gasping for breath as if he had been running, as if he had been flying, thin shoulders shuddering and his face red. Sif stood there in the silent field, looking at him, and said at last, "And you ask why I cannot trust you?"
Loki wiped a skinny arm over his face. "Well, if you put it that way..."
"You love new things, and the unpredictable, and change," Sif said, "yet you don't change yourself."
"Only I did," Loki said. "I have. Even if no one believes it."
"So you say," Sif said, looking at him, thinking of his laughter on the river bank, his whimpers in the night's dark. The boy she remembered from her childhood, always in his brother's bright shadow; and the boy she saw before her now, always in the shadow of another man far more terrible.
As if he could take no more of her regard—or that his need to see over the next hill had become overwhelming—Loki ran ahead, sprinting up the long low slope. There on the peak he stopped, and laughed, a breathless sound that carried over the field.
"What?" Sif demanded, hurrying up the slope to join him.
"One hill—just one more hill to look over," Loki said, and pointed out ahead of them. Sif, reaching his side, saw on the misty horizon something breaking up the expected swell of hills, rising from the grass like a ship's sail on a yellow-green sea, neither tree nor stone by its regular shape.
Sif shaded her eyes to better peer at the conical construct, the outline of gathered poles at the top. "A tent?"
"Someone built that," Loki said, grinning. "Someone lives there, and the only person we know of who's from this place—"
"Is the one who took Thor," Sif said. "We should approach with care—Loki!" For Loki had taken off again, tearing down the hill in a cloud of sandy dust. "'Come back here—"
But he didn't stop, instead shouted back to her, "No, Sif, look!"
Sif looked, and saw over the next hill another puff of the yellow-gray dust, like that stirred by Loki's heels. More cats attacking, she feared at first, and started to run again, hand falling to her sword's hilt—but no; what approached now was not so quick, and taller—
The dust settled enough for her to see the figure within it, and Sif nearly lost her footing, flattening grass under her boots as she skidded the rest of the way down the slope. Loki had stopped at the bottom, watching up the next hill, as Thor strode down it, towards them.
He waved to them, smiling broadly. "Sif! Brother! I thought I heard your voices!"
"Thor," Sif said in greeting, smiling back as she let go of her sword. "So you're well?"
"Well enough," Thor said, "though greatly tired of this place—and greatly hungry as well! I'm glad you've found me; I wasn't sure how I was going to escape. Walking seemed to get me nowhere, just more fields all the same, 'til I believed either my mind or my self was going round in circles. But then I thought, this can't be Oklahoma, with no roads or buildings anywhere—and if I'd been taken elsewhere, surely someone would come to find me. And so you have!" and he gripped Sif's arms in greeting, solid and sure. "It's good to see you both. Though I wasn't expecting you, Brother."
"I had to come," Loki said. His magpie flitted down from the sky to perch on his shoulder, cocking its head to look up at Thor. "This place is of magic, you know."
"I thought it must be," Thor said. "So you can get us home?"
"As soon as we find the others—the Warriors Three came as well," Sif said, looking up at Thor. His eyes were as blue as ever, his face hale and hearty, no sign of the spell that had rendered him helpless. "But how'd you escape, Thor, from the one who caught you?"
"Ah, him?" Thor glanced behind them, to where the top of the tent was just visible over the hills. "He didn't prove so formidable an opponent; I was only caught off-guard. His magic was strong, but nothing compared to what you used to throw at me, Brother," and he smiled at Loki, more fond than accusing.
The magpie squawked, and Loki reached up to touch its white belly, lightly stroking the feathers with a fingertip to soothe the bird. "I'm surprised you didn't call Mjolnir to you, to aid your battle, Brother," he remarked.
"I tried," Thor said. "It would not come to my hand."
"It must be the magic of this place, preventing it," Sif said.
"Yes, it must be," Loki said, tilting his head to look up at Thor in imitation of his magpie, a sharp and overly cool look, after their heated search.
Thor noticed it too, and frowned. "What troubles you, Loki?" he asked, turning from Sif to kneel before his brother, though even stooped his head was still above the boy's. "Come, let's find the Three, and then we can leave this wretched place—"
He reached out to ruffle Loki's hair—only for his fingers to pass through the boy's hair and head and the magpie as well, stirring the illusion, like he'd put his hand into a reflection on still water. "What—?" Thor said, baffled, as the mirage of boy and bird rippled and then vanished. Thor leapt to his feet, looked about himself. "Loki, Brother, where have you gone?"
"There!" Sif said, pointing up at the sky, where the magpie was winging away, towards the tent over the hills.
Thor scowled and started up the hill after the bird, calling over his shoulder, "Come, Sif, we must find my brother—I fear the mischief he's up to!"
Sif stretched her legs to catch up with him, frowning with her own confusion. "The mischief he's up to is finding you, Thor," she said when she reached his side, jogging beside him. "Saving you."
A strange dark feeling crossed Thor's eyes, like the moon eclipsing the sun. "I fear that's not all," he said between breaths as they ran. "I fear he might be fooling you, Sif. And all of us."
"I've feared the same," Sif said. "But still, he came here for your sake." That it had in part been Loki's fault Thor needed rescue, she did not explain now; there would be time for that later, when they had returned home to Asgard.
Thor did not reply, but increased his pace, so that Sif had to sprint to keep up with him, clasping a hand over her sword so its scabbard did not knock against her knees. She was sweating and out of breath when they reached the tent between the hills. It proved tall, fifteen feet or more, crudely built from sticks and faded leather skins.
Before the tent was a fire-pit, dug in the ground and filled with ashes, and between the tent and the fire-pit was Loki. The boy crouched over a figure lying on the ground, wrapped in hides as tattered and dusty as those of the tent. An old man, Sif saw as they reached them, so old that time and infirmity had burned his flesh away, so every knobbly fragile bone showed under the papery skin. His face was hardly a man's anymore but rather a mask of lines and crevices, under a few wisps of white hair clinging to his mottled scalp.
He appeared asleep, his shallow, wheezing breaths barely audible, and stayed so even when Loki bent over him, when Loki reached to touch his face—
"Stop!" Thor shouted. "Don't wake him, else he'll cast his curse upon us—"
"What curse?" Sif asked.
"This was the sorcerer who took me," Thor said, "though he looked different at the time, and when I fought him after breaking free of his spell. I wouldn't have hit him so hard, had I realized his age," he added somewhat guiltily. "But his magic's still powerful; I feared to wake him—"
"No," Loki said. The boy was shaking his head like a dog throwing off water, face pale and eyes wide, kneeling before the old man and spreading his hand over the ancient chest. "No—no! This is—how could you—this is not illusion—no!"
Thor's face darkened. "No," he said in turn, "not illusion but the truth—I defeated him. Not what you were intending, Brother, was it?"
"Intending?" Sif repeated.
"Before I struck him down, when I was still bespelled," Thor said grimly, "this sorcerer spoke of an invitation he'd received—an offer of escape from this place where he'd been imprisoned, so long ago. And he who extended this invitation was none other than my own brother."
"One of Loki's old tricks?" Sif said. He'd made deals with so many monstrous creatures.
But Thor said, "No, not an old trick, but a recent one, only a fortnight past. A bargain with a devil in the shape of a child. A bargain for power, a gift of magic for a boy with little, and the price offered for that power was Thor Odinsson."
"You're saying that Loki tried to trade you, for magic power—" Sif grasped the hilt of her sword, sinking into a battle-ready stance as she stared at the black-haired boy—at the trickster, crouched before the old man.
But Loki did not look back to her; Loki did not move to attack, or wag his silver tongue to justify himself. His concentration remained on the old man—weaving a spell, Sif realized, his small hands passing over the brittle, sunken ribs as he muttered strange words.
"Loki, cease your magic!" Sif demanded. "Explain yourself—"
The boy's green eyes turned up to her but for an instant, before returning to the old man. "He lies, Sif," Loki blurted, hastily between his spell-chant.
"I lie?" Thor said. "You are the god of that skill, Brother."
"Not my brother!" Loki cried, spat out in a tumbling rush around his phrases of enchantment, "—You are not—he is not, Sif, that's not Thor; that is the monster, while my brother—this is—look at the arrow, Sif!"
The broken shaft of the arrow hung in the air above the fire-pit where Loki had placed it, pointing true and steady, at an angle, down toward the ground—down toward the ancient man Loki so urgently attended.
"What arrow?" Thor asked, bewildered as he followed Sif's gaze to it. "What's that, Sif?"
Sif drew her sword, though she did not raise it—did not know who to raise it to. "It was spelled to guide us to you—to Thor," she said.
Thor frowned, deep and dark with a thunder god's anger. "Who spelled it?"
"It was Loki's magic," Sif admitted.
"My magic, but true!" Loki said. "And still true—this is Thor, this man lying here, while that thing that looks like my brother—"
"Should I not be the one to say that?" Thor said, wrath darkening his brow like gathering storm clouds. "A thing that looks like a brother—have I not always called you my brother? But yet you turn on me, again and again. Even now—I restored your life after oblivion should have taken your soul, and you repay me by trading my own life for magic—for a mere bit of power you'd soon be able to gather for yourself. And now you shabbily lie to deny it—should I still claim you as my brother after this, Loki?"
"You shouldn't!" Loki screamed back at him, over the old man's body. "You shouldn't, when you're not my brother—when you've done this to him! He's dying, Sif, nearly all Thor's life source is drained, and I've not now the skill to replenish it, or even stop the siphoning. It has to be returned, taken back from who stole it—from the thing that stole it, that thing!" and he pointed an accusing finger at Thor. "If you want to save my brother, Sif—kill him!"
"What?" Sif said, bringing up her sword as she stared at the brothers: Thor as she had known him for so long, strong and brave and true; and Loki the changeling boy, green eyes and quick lying tongue. And the man on the ground, dying and so aged and withered as to be unrecognizable. Was the angle of that brow familiar beneath the layered wrinkles; was that white hair faded from gold? She could not tell.
Thor looked at Loki as well, pain lightning-bright in his blue eyes. "This was your plan, Brother?" he said, soft with grief. "To trap me here without Mjolnir, and then have me slain—slain by Sif? How could you do such a cruel thing, to me or to her—how could you hate us so?"
"I don't!" Loki cried, shaking his head. His eyes were as bright as Thor's, filled with hurt seemingly as true. "Not anymore, I don't! This wasn't my plan, Sif, none of this; he lies like I do. If you let him live—he'll take whatever of Thor is left; he's taking it right now. Soon Thor will die, and he—"
"But I could never lie like you," Thor said. "No one can lie like you, Loki. You know that, Sif; you know what he is, this creature who I've called brother. For so long I've tried to convince myself he is, in spite of everything—but you've always known, beloved, that it was a viper I was holding to my breast. How many times have you tried to warn me? I thought him born anew—but he's more monstrous now than ever, with an innocent face to hide a mind more wicked than what he had before."
"Maybe I am," Loki gasped. His narrow chest was heaving and his face was wet. "Maybe my mind is more wicked, maybe I am more twisted—but I would not do this. Not now. Not to Sif, and not to my brother. My mind is a labyrinth I cannot find my way out of, and my heart is a snarl of knots—but I have hold of an end, a single end, my one chance to unravel the tangle and follow it to freedom; and I will not let it go. I will not let my brother go."
He once more put his hands to the old man's chest, resumed his spell, glittering green eyes fixed on the ancient, decrepit face.
"Stop it," Thor said, a threatening, thunderous rumble. "Stop this—do not wake him! If you wake him, and he casts his curse upon us—Sif, we must stop him! Kill the old man, if we must—"
Sif looked at him. "Why did you let him live before, if he were so dangerous?" she asked.
Thor stared at her as if she were mad. "To slay an old man—or the likeness of one—when unconscious and helpless? I would not consider it, unless I had to—but with you here, and we all vulnerable, if Loki wakes him—"
"He lies," Loki said, not raising his gaze from the old man, "he didn't want to, not until he'd drained as much as he could from Thor—but now that he has almost all of it—"
"Silence!" Thor roared. "Cease your lying, Laufeyson!" and he lashed out with his arm to knock Loki aside.
Sif half-expected the blow not to land at all, to instead pass through another of Loki's mirages; but Thor's hand connected with Loki's cheek with the solid smack of flesh to flesh, snapping the boy's head back and bowling him over. Loki scrambled up again immediately, hurling forward to throw himself over the old man, to put his skinny boy's body between the old man's chest and Thor's descending fist.
Loki gasped a choked pained sound when Thor's blow fell upon his shoulders, collapsing on top of the old man, but he didn't try to roll away; instead Sif saw him grab at the hides to hold himself in place, pushing himself up on his hands and knees, trembling but bracing to take the next hit. "No," he was crying out, "don't—you can't—"
Thor's face was no longer pained but terrible with anger as he raised his fist again, like the hammer he did not have, over his brother and the unconscious man he shielded.
"Stop!" Sif shouted, taking Thor's arm to pull him back, but he wrenched away from her. "There must be—"
"No!" Thor said, fury roiling in his face and voice. He grabbed Sif's arms, fingers digging in painfully as he forced her sword down. "Give me your blade, and I'll do it! This ends now—these creatures' treachery ends, for all time, and do not try to stop me, Sif, or I'll—"
"You'll do nothing, not to her and not to my brother!" Loki screamed, shrill and shaking with terror, or something more horrible; Sif could not tell. He made a gesture like flinging a handful of sand upon them, and clouds rose up around them, poisonous green as Loki's eyes and choking thick.
But Thor paid them no heed; instead he plunged his hand through the vapor to grab hold of Loki by the throat and toss him to the ground—as if he did not dare touch the boy for more than an instant, as if Loki's venom might leach through his very skin.
Loki sprawled on his back among the fire-pit's ashes, too winded even to groan, and Thor loomed over him, lifting his boot to stamp down—"Wait!" Sif said, laying her hand on Thor's arm. With her other she raised her sword. "Let me, Thor," she said, as the green smoke billowed around them. "I would not see you slay your own kin; let me take this burden, beloved."
Thor looked at her, long and searching; then he nodded and stepped aside, so she could stand over Loki with her sword. The boy stared up at her, frozen still and silent, his open eyes and open mouth like holes in his face, like holes in a mask, and Sif could not see what was behind them. She glanced sidelong from him to Thor, watching closely, whole body canted forward with an intensity that seemed almost eager.
Sif raised her sword, just as with a piercing screech, the magpie flapped out from the clouds.
It flew at her—it flew past her, into Thor's face, shrieking, talons clawing his cheeks and dagger-beak stabbing at his eyes. Thor bellowed and staggered back, arms up to cover his face.
"Now, Sif!" Loki yelled, rolling onto his feet and into the concealing green smoke, "now, if you love Thor, kill this monster—"
"You're the monster, you liar, Loki Laufeyson!" Thor roared, batting aside the magpie and crashing forward, toward Loki's voice, great fists ready; only Sif was there first, and her sword was also ready.
And Thor should know her, even distracted by the bird's attack—should know her sword-work from centuries of sparring; should know her body well enough to see the resolve in her stance, in every line of her muscles. But this Thor did not know, not well enough to check his charge, or dodge Sif's swing.
The blade caught him across the torso, between the gap where his armor flexed, slicing halfway open his tunic and his stomach beneath. Then she reversed the sword's arc and brought it back around to cross his neck, cutting off his cry to a guttural gagging.
But there was no blood on her sword's shining blade, no blood dripping from Thor's opened neck or belly as he staggered back, arms clawing at the air. Sif clenched her hands around her sword's hilt, and swung the blade once more, the finishing blow, to part the head from the bloodless creature's body.
"Sif!" she heard shouted as she did, and, "Thor!"
The green clouds were subsiding, sinking to the ground. With a sharp clap they were gone, vanished from sight. Simple illusion, Sif realized, why the cloud's poison had not burned her throat. The magpie circled in the gray sky overhead.
Behind the clouds, running over the fields toward her, were Fandral and Hogun, and Volstagg puffing behind them. Their weapons were drawn and they were pale-faced and panting. "Sif," Fandral gasped, "what did you do—why did you—"
They all skidded to a stop before her, before Thor's body, staring down at him—only it was not him, lying on the grass: Thor's shining armor and Thor's winged helm, but within the armor was only a withered corpse and within the helm was only a blackened skull. Both decayed even as they stared, crumbling to dust as ash-gray as the sky overhead.
"What—what is this?" Fandral said, nudging one out-flung arm with his boot; but upon the touch it fell away, disintegrating to dust, leaving the gauntlet empty and the mail sagging into the grass.
"Some foul sorcery, it looks like," Volstagg said, and all three of them and Sif as well turned from the decomposing body, to the boy in green before the tent.
Loki did not look up at them; he was again kneeling over the hide-wrapped body of the old man, repeating as if it were a magic chant, "Come on, come on, come on, this must, this has to work—" as his fingers wove deft patterns. The air around them glowed faintly, the green of magic; and maybe it was a trick of this phosphorescence that the body before Loki looked changed, larger and more solid, the white hair darkening to gold and the wrinkled skin smoothing, firming—
Then the light was gone, and the man was sitting up, bare-chested as he pushed aside the dirty hides, scratching his big blond head as he asked, "Loki? What are you—ah, Sif! And there you are, my friends—but where are we? I would swear we were only just in Oklahoma—and that I was dressed, at the time—"
He made it no further before he was interrupted by an armful of little brother, flung upon him with no sign of the propriety or the dignity expected of a god, even one of mischief. Loki was wet-eyed if not openly sobbing, exhausted from his magic-working and clinging with scared desperation. Thor looked down at him in surprise and confusion, but needed no encouragement to put his arms back around his brother, saying surely, "There, Loki, it's all right, whatever's the matter?"
Returning home proved as simple as Loki had averred. They all held hands in a circle, Loki between Sif and Thor, as he called out to his friend, "Leah, reel us in!" and the lightning flashed to bring them back to Asgard.
Loki's voice was steady and he'd scrubbed his face dry, but his eyes were still a little red-rimmed. And Leah noticed, Sif thought; the girl looked at Loki long and hard before turning away, brushing off her hands as if to wash them of her favor as she said, "It took you long enough; I was considering going out for a milkshake."
"We can go now," Loki said, "all of us, perhaps?" and he grinned an invitation up at his brother.
"A fine plan!" Volstagg agreed, but Thor shook his head. "I must look to what's happened in my absence," he declared, then added, "...though perhaps you could get takeout? Strawberry-banana, if they have it."
"I will bring you one," Loki promised, with the teasingly solemn air of a knight accepting a quest. Thor laughed his thanks, then raised his hand, and Mjolnir flew into it. Sif saw Loki's shoulders relax a fraction, that it did, even as she exhaled her own sigh of relief.
Sif found ice cream too thick and cold for her taste, but pomegranate Italian soda was quite enticing. If their armor and dress received odd looks from some of the Broxton denizens frequenting the diner, the owners accepted Loki's gold without batting an eye, and saw them off with a friendly, "As long as you keep those swords all tucked away and don't go smashing any more windows, y'all come back anytime!"
Once returned to Asgard, Loki delivered Thor his shaken milk in its cleverly capped plastic container, then retreated to his own devices. He was absent at the nightly meal, and did not show up even for dessert.
Later in the evening, noticing Thor leave the post-feast carousing with a plate in hand, Sif excused herself and followed him through the castle halls to the library.
There Loki perched on a stool before a table of volumes, kneeling with his feet tucked under himself and turning the pages of a thick tome wider than the breadth of his own shoulders. With no lamp lit, he was reading by the bluish glow of one of the flat computer panels he sometimes watched moving pictures on, though now it only showed more text. The magpie paced along the edge of the table, his moving shadow making the computer's glimmer flicker.
"Here you go, Brother," Thor said, voice lowered to a library-appropriate level but still managing to boom, as he set the small tray of fruit and meat down beside Loki's book, nearly clipping the magpie's tail. The bird squawked at the plate's clatter, hopped up onto the stack of books behind the computer and cocked its head to eye Thor crossly.
Loki blinked in surprise at the interruption, then looked up with a smile. "Oh, is it dinnertime already? Thank you, Brother. Hallo, Sif," he added, leaning back to peer behind Thor to her, as she came a little further into the chamber.
Thor nodded to her absently, grimacing down at Loki's books, as if he were a boy again, back in a lesson he'd not done the work for. "So what are you reading about?"
"Just a little research." Loki stretched his arms over his head, cracking his neck. "I was curious about what manner of creature we encountered today."
"Have you figured out what it was?"
"I think so," Loki said, taking a piece of apple from the plate and talking around bites. "There's something called a shadow-stealer—old magic, a dark spirit that can take on human form. Or rather, take in human form—it can reflect shapes, like a shifter; but also take the spirits of its victims, stealing all they are to give itself a physical being. When first we saw it—when it grabbed you, Thor—it had no stolen shadow, instead reflecting those who looked upon it. So you saw a woman, Sif: yourself, or a reflection of yourself, a shadow given form."
A shadow with blonde hair, Sif thought—as she once so proudly had, though never as a grown woman. She might have imagined it sometimes, though. But Loki made no comment on her vanity, instead only went on, "But it wanted a being more solid than that, so it chose you, Thor, as the strongest of us. Though fortunately you were too much for it to devour in one sitting. Given time, however, it would've taken everything from you, until the shadow became the god..."
He trailed off, looking away, the computer light casting water-blue reflections across his face. But Thor thumped him gently on the back, said, "Don't fret about that, Loki. You and Sif arrived in time; I'm unharmed, whatever this shadow-stealer was trying."
"But where did it come from?" Sif asked. "Those endless plains—did it make that home for itself?"
Loki shook his head. "That wasn't its home, but its prison. Years ago, centuries or perhaps millennia, the humans living here encountered the creature. And while they couldn't destroy it, their shamans knew enough of the magic arts to banish it, tuck it under that little fold in the universe. Like sweeping evil dust under a spacetime rug. Along with a bit of the land as well, and the animals on it. So there it endured—but the arrival of Asgard here unfolded the dimensions a little, weakened the barrier between its place and here. And that..." Loki ducked his head, glanced up at Thor uncertainly through his black bangs. "That was what I sensed, that I wanted to investigate. It was why I wanted to go walking there yesterday."
"Was it, now," Thor said, not sounding entirely surprised.
"I was curious what might be on the other side; I thought Mjolnir might be able to break the barrier—I didn't know the shadow-stealer would come and steal you, Thor! I'm so very sorry—"
"I thought you seemed overly eager for a mere walk in the fields, even if it was a fine day," Thor remarked, then shrugged easy acceptance. "It's all right, Loki; no harm done, in the end. But next time perhaps tell me, if you've plans to visit another dimension? Even a small one. Especially if you don't know what's living there." He ruffled his brother's hair, then stretched with a yawn and said, "It's late now, and that shadow thievery has left me tired. I'll retire and leave you to your books, Brother. Coming, Sif?"
"I'll join you later," Sif said, and stayed standing between the library's looming shelves, listening as the door clapped shut and Thor's footsteps retreated down the hall, her gaze on Loki.
Loki watched her in return, green eyes dark in the computer's bluish light. "What?" he asked, when the last thud of Thor's steps had faded. "One thing I can still do is recognize a question when I see one."
"This shadow-stealer," Sif said. "When we were in its realm—the previous night, or whenever that was here. I told you I saw it as a blonde woman, to your surprise."
"I was surprised you saw it as a person at all," Loki said. "I didn't see anything clearly—it was all cloaked and shrouded, the reflection I saw."
"But that was what you remarked upon especially, that it was blonde. As if you thought that if I'd seen anything, it would have been a dark-haired woman. As if you knew somewhat what to expect—what the shadow-stealer could do."
"Well, I could guess it might cast illusions, from you and I seeing different things—"
"And then there was your spell," Sif said. "The enchantment you used to save Thor at the end, to call his shadow back, though you claim to know little magic now."
Loki squirmed where he sat, as if the stool under him were suddenly made of ants. "I told you, the magic in that place was strong enough for me to work it, even without remembering the right enchantments—"
"For your illusions, for the fire, maybe," Sif said. "But with Thor, that was a spell—I heard you speak the words of its casting. And you remember but a few spells now—so wasn't it fortunate for Thor, that among those few, you happened to know just the right one to counter the shadow-stealer's power?"
Loki smiled, a flash of white teeth, quick and meaningless. "Thor is always so fortunate, isn't he?"
Sif leaned over him, putting her hands on either side of the table to trap the boy between her arms. "How did you know that spell, Loki?"
The magpie clacked its beak, glaring at her. "I—I plead the Fifth!" Loki said, and at Sif's look expounded, "It's an American phrase—a code they follow, that no one accused of a crime in a court of law can be made a witness against himself. "
"Asgard has no such code," Sif said, letting go of the table and standing back, folding her arms as she stared down at the boy. "And you are in no court, nor are you accused of any crime."
"Not yet," Loki said. "But if I told you the—the truth," and of course his slick tongue would catch on that word—"and you did not see it my way, then it might go badly for me. With your word I might stand accused, to be put to death for apparent crimes or any number of other reasons, and everyone rallied against me even if I were deemed innocent; and Thor—Thor might hate me for it," and the way he said it, it was this last fear that frightened him greater than any of the others.
"Thor cannot hate you," Sif said, and did not add, more than he already does-—because there was that part of Thor which still wrestled with his grudge against his brother, all the blood between them, even if this boy's small hands were clean. "And he would never let them execute you." Deservedly or not, she also did not add. "But," and Sif put her hand to the dagger sheathed at her side, in warning more than threat, "if you are plotting against him—I would not put Thor through that trial; I'd mete out the justice deserved myself, though he might hate me for it."
Loki tilted back his chin, drew himself up—sitting up on the stool, with his back straightened, their eyes were level; and his were unafraid. "I know you would," he said, "but not without proof that I move against him, and I'm not. I might plot a bit, scheme here and there—but not against my brother. Nor against Asgard. If you, if anyone, would just believe me, toss me the littlest crumb of trust—"
"Why should we give you what you refuse to grant us?" Sif asked. "You ask us—tell us, beg us—to trust you, Loki. And yet you don't trust us in return. You make us pawns in your games, cast us in roles in your schemes, and never tell us, never consider us able or willing to play your games with you, to agree to your schemes, though you claim they serve us. How are we to believe in you, when you believe so little in us?"
Loki opened his mouth, then closed it. Then opened it again. "That is—you make an interesting point." The magpie croaked, raven-like, but Loki didn't look to his bird, only waved his hand to quiet it, his eyes remaining on Sif's. "If I—if I told you the truth," he said, licking his lips nervously, "then would you, perhaps—would you tell it to Thor? I think maybe it would sound better from you than me. And if he were angry..."
"I could try to calm his temper," Sif said, "but only if it's unfounded. What did you do, Loki—what did you know about the shadow-stealer?"
"Not all that much," Loki said, glancing back to the books on the table. "Mostly what I already told you, what I'd read about its kind. But...I knew it was there."
"How? Did you summon it? Put it in that place?"
"No!" Loki shook his head. "Its banishment happened as I told you, as far as I know. Except that in truth I discovered that bit of folded space a couple of weeks ago, and I'd already investigated it a little, with Leah's help—we hadn't actually gone there, but she was able to scry it, give us a peek around. And so we saw the shadow-stealer, trapped there and not enjoying itself at all, and desperate to escape—and it was getting close. With Asgard here, the fabric of spacetime is as thin as a cobweb. The shadow-stealer was clawing from its side, and soon would have torn through, torn free..."
"And so you made a bargain with it," Sif said grimly.
Loki's eyes opened wide. "How did you—I mean, I did not—"
Sif frowned at him. "Its anger at your betrayal—I recognized that rage. It lied, but not as well as you can. So you told it that you would lure Thor to it—"
"I only implied it!" Loki protested. "Suggested that I could give it a shot at its prey—when really it would have no chance. So I thought. A creature like that only steals human shadows, and we are gods. Thor's spirit burns too fiercely; it would try to take him, and Thor would vanquish it with one swing of Mjolnir. And if not, Asgard would be close enough to call another warrior to come and defeat it, while it was distracted with Thor—that was the plan! The monster wasn't meant to take him—I didn't know it could; once it came over here I didn't think it would go back. It knew more magic than I thought—likely it stole the shadow of one of the shamans who imprisoned it—"
"If there were such danger, if you knew this creature wanted Thor, why didn't you just tell us?" Sif demanded. "Rather than collude with it, we could have faced it in open battle, ready for its threat, and slain it honorably. Unless you didn't think your brother strong enough to defend against it?"
"I thought him strong enough—but it wasn't Thor the shadow-stealer aimed for," Loki said quietly. "Not until I proposed it, and even then, that wasn't the bargain it most wanted—Thor's wasn't the shadow it most craved. It only took my brother because he was the easier mark at the time; when Thor came there, at just that right spot, it could reflect his lightning to break between its prison and the world. Otherwise, had it freed itself on its own, it would've pursued another target."
Sif looked at the black-haired trickster boy, sitting cross-legged on the stool and surrounded by the shadows of knowledge. "It wanted you," she realized.
"Everybody wants me," Loki said, grinning, but it was a fragile, fractured expression, like looking at his face through a prism. "Or a piece of me, anyway."
"And so you offered it Thor instead—you sought to save yourself, and gave up your brother for your own protection."
"I sought to save all of us!" Loki cried, with real passion, or a convincing facsimile. "I sought to protect Asgard from its worst enemy—from the return of its most hated foe."
Sif understood then. "You mean yourself. Or rather, the man you were."
Loki's small hands were clenched into fists. "A shadow-stealer is the least of beings, lacking even a human heart. It becomes what it reflects, what it steals; and a god's shadow is much greater than that of the men it used to devour. You saw what it became with Thor's will, how close to the genuine article it was. I think, if it had managed to steal all of him, it might have been able to wield Mjolnir. It might even have forgotten what it was to begin with—the shadow become the man, entirely, with all Thor's will and power."
"So if it had stolen yours..." Loki might lack for courage or compassion, or oft enough common sense—but not will, and not power, even now. If that will had been strong enough, had overtaken the shadow-stealer, even as Thor's had...
"You looked into its mirror and saw yourself with golden hair, your old long-passed self," Loki said, head down, voice low. "While I saw nothing I could recognize—I don't know what part of me it would have reflected. But my shadow stretches long, however short I am now. And I would not have it fall over Asgard again. No one believes that, though—Thor, perhaps. But no one else. And if I told my brother, he wouldn't have kept quiet about it; and once the suspicion was raised..."
He was not wrong, Sif had to admit. She likely wouldn't have accepted it herself. Now, though?
She thought of the previous night, his nightmares and his better dreams. And how he had thrown himself over Thor's helpless body, putting his small self between his brother and the shadow-stealer's rage.
A great trick, he had said, to prove everybody wrong; to do what no one would ever expect, just to see what would happen.
"I believe you," Sif decided, though she might be a fool for it, falling again for the trickster's pranks. Stepping into deep water, and it might yet close over her head. But when Loki raised his head to smile up at her, she could not bring herself to regret her choice. "And Thor will believe you, too," she said, "though he'll be angry, and rightly so, that you didn't trust him sooner."
"...And that I nearly got him killed?" Loki said, again looking down at his hands, fingers twisting themselves into twiddling knots.
"That, too," Sif agreed. "Though you saved him, too, and that will count for much with him. But that will all wait for morning. As will these books—take your supper and go to bed now, Loki. A good night's sleep will give you a clearer mind for scheming. Even Asgard's 'most hated foe' needs his rest."
Loki, picking up his plate as he slipped off the stool, glanced up at her, sidelong and sly. "Well, if I must be hated, better the most than anything lesser! Right, Ikol?" and he whistled for his magpie, which obediently glided from the table to his shoulder.
Sif closed his computer to shut off its glow, and followed him out of the library. And if for a moment the hallway's yellow lamplight stretched Loki's shadow long and dark across the floor—Sif only had to raise her eyes to see the boy who cast it, as he walked into the light.