Loki slipped through the paths to Vanaheim, arriving in the Shadow Valley, so called because it was in the shadow of the massive wings of the greatest dragon left alive in the nine realms.
Climbing up the rock face of the east slope, Loki approached her lair, not disguising his approach.
As he climbed, the weight of her magic was tangible on his skin and other senses, growing oppressive as if he was swimming deeper beneath the water. They were friends, but only as much as she wanted to be, and Loki was careful to remember that she could kill him in an instant, if she chose.
The ledge was scored deeply with a thousand thousand claw marks of landings as he left the narrow defile and approached the opening of the cavern. There was Svafnir, the eldest of the dreki of old.
"Greetings, small Jotunn." Her 'voice' was only in his mind, the words landing there as if they had always been there.
He winced, and he could sense her puzzlement. "You still let the truth be a weapon against you; that is foolish."
"It is," he agreed aloud, as he conjured a small green fire in the tunnel of her lair though he probably knew the way without it. The stone was smooth, the height arched to keep it strong. "Yet it is a blade that cuts, nonetheless."
"Then you must make your hide tougher, or the blade more dull," she told him, which was true advice, except the secret preyed on his heart, and there was little he could do about that. Telling himself the truth didn't matter had yet to dull the blade when it struck. "Long has it been since you have sought me out."
"Not so long," he protested, but realized he hadn't visited since Midgard. So it had been awhile. "I hadn't realized... I would have come sooner. I was... busy."
"So I have seen." Svafnir's tone was dry. "I have watched you and Odinson scurrying like mice up and down Yggdrasil."
That wasn't a very complimentary comparison, but probably not unfair. They had been a great many places in the Nine and even beyond, in recent years. Thor wanted excitement and battle, and Loki wanted distraction, so it suited them to adventure together as they had in their youth.
He emerged into the great hall where she lay, a great shadow among other shadows until all at once magelights sprang into being all around the circumference. Here she was the spider in the center of the web, able to sense every entry into her domain. The mountain itself was her fortress, but the land around it scarcely less so.
Her great bulk lay curled up, belly warmed by the fiery heart of the mountain beneath the stones. Black as night, only the tips of the spikes along her back and tail glimmered, and her eyes, turned toward him like twin moons of silver. Her long tail twitched and moved, restless as a cat's, but her wings tucked along her body to make a shape both sinuous and wicked.
"Seek you more lessons, young one?" she asked.
"No, not lessons." He didn't flatter himself that he'd learned all she could teach him, but days of lessons were past. But now that he was here, he didn't want to admit he'd come merely to escape the tedium of preparations for Thor's coronation. He forced a smile at her. "I thought it was time to visit my second-favorite lady in all the Realms."
She yawned, displaying her dagger-like teeth. "Second-favorite?"
"After my mother. You would not begrudge my favoring of her?"
"For Queen Frigga? No." She moved her head to nudge him. "Your spirit is troubled. Kill it and eat it if it gives you trouble. Deer and hunters alike."
He grinned at her humor. "Oh, if only I could." His smile faded. "They irritate me so, Svafnir. The All-father. My fool of a brother."
She pondered. "You seemed... friendly, with your brother. When you were here last."
"We are friendly," Loki agreed. "That makes him no less of a war-mongering idiot. Father-- the All-father-- intends to make him king. King." He snorted and shook his head. "He thinks only of glory and fighting. When he is king, he will listen to no one, and do only as he wills."
"Listen to no one, or not to you?" Svafnir asked him.
The point struck, forcing Loki to consider whether the question had truth in it. "He rarely listens to anyone now; I cannot imagine he will do so more as king. But of course the All-father doesn't see it. He's never seen any flaw in Thor, why would he start now? No one does. Whatever cautions I give, they all think I scheme for the throne myself. As if I don't know it lies outside my grasp," he spat in sudden fury. "As if I did not spend a century on Midgard because I knew it would never be mine."
"Do you wish the throne?" she asked curiously. "You were less ambitious when last you were here."
Caught by the question, he opened his mouth to say of course he did, better him than Thor, but he let out a breath and let the words die, unspoken. His shoulders relaxed. "I was, wasn't I? I don't know that I want it now. But it angers me that he is so poorly suited for it, and Odin will give it to him because they share blood."
Blood which Loki didn't share, whatever he might appear to be and whatever was claimed in public. Blood which meant he would never rule Asgard, even should Odin and Thor both drop dead. He was not a fool; those who knew would not keep silent about the secret Jotunn. The truth would come out, and they would kill the foul creature who dared sit on the throne of Asgard.
He knew that. It was a truth that had settled on him long ago, when they had revealed the truth to him, which made it sting no less now than it had then. His place in Asgard was borrowed, and when the truth came out, it would end. Thor and Frigga liked to pretend otherwise, but they liked to think Asgard was a better place than it truly was.
Loki sat on the warm stone and when she gave a low rumble of approval, he scooted next to her, to lean against her side. He let out a deep breath to try to relax. "But why should I care? Asgard has so little interest in me. None of them understand the least bit about what I do, and they all hate what I am, even if they don't know it. So let the fools have a fool for a king. They deserve it."
They were his people by deceit, and he had little love for those whose caring would vanish in a puff of smoke if the deception was broken. Thor and Frigga had tried to direct the hate away, but they had only shoved it beneath the surface. Loki poked at it occasionally, easily provoking disgust and aggression against Frost Giants.
He held out a hand, examining the pale Aesir skin there. Real, yet not real. What he wanted to be, yet was not. Svafnir was right that he needed to make that truth less a weapon against himself, but how could he do that when the truth was so monstrous?
Yet Svafnir was considering greater things. She blew a puff of sulfurous, warm air through her nostrils. "I watch the Nine," she responded. "Asgard tries to herd the sheep of the other Realms. But the sheep grow restless and some grow claws and fangs in shadows unseen. Without Asgard to pen them in, they surely will grow."
He considered that. "Odin, and Bor before him, claimed they are 'protecting' the other Realms, but truly they mean dominion. What protection does Asgard truly offer but the threat of our warriors' boredom and mass slaughter if they revolt? That is not protection. Tyranny some would call it."
He remembered the discussions late at night, with Steven and James, and he remembered his own experience at the hands of unquestioned tyranny: torture and horror and nightmares that lingered still, despite his best efforts to forget. Asgard was not so terrible as Schmidt and his fellow Nazis, but that did not make them good either. Midgard was free because they had not achieved enough technology to need 'protection'. But Vanaheim had been protected for two thousand years, and all knew what had happened when Svartalfheim objected to their protected status.
He snorted. "They might be better off without Gungnir on their necks. Or Mjolnir."
Svafnir said, "And yet the universe tends to chaos. The absence of order is disorder, and many will perish when the hungry scramble for power."
Loki had seen as much on Midgard. Small scale or large, the result was the same, but he still shook his head. "Should they not sort it out themselves? Is that truly our problem?"
She lifted her head to twist around her neck and fix him with a great eye. "Yet it may become your problem if power that was once in your hand, collects in the hand of another. There are forces without, who do not claim to protect. They seek domination and power only."
"So you're saying..."
"Nothing you did not already know I would advise. Chaos favors only the strong, young one."
He let out a sigh. Now that she'd told him the opposite, he realized he had been hoping she would confirm his impulse to do nothing. Let Thor take the throne. Let him get Asgard into a war. It was what all the warriors wanted in their ignorance of what real war was like. They thought their little skirmishes were war. Let them learn what true war was. They were going to experience glorious war and death in battle just as they'd always wanted. Then when the fields were awash in blood, let them plead for magic to save them, and Loki would smile and wish them speedy voyage to Valhalla.
He wanted to be that vindictive, and to teach them all a lesson that there was no glory in battle, only suffering and death.
But she was right. As much as he despised Asgard's attitude, it would be worse if it were allowed to grow unfettered, as it surely would with Thor as King. War would come to the Nine and the other Realms would fall to chaos.
The irony did not escape him. "You know what the Midgardians say of me?" he asked idly. "It's all very poetic, but in the end, it will all burn in fire, because of me. So maybe it's not Thor; maybe it's me."
"Mortal prophecy." Svafnir's snort let him know what she thought of that. She nudged him with her furled wing, nearly knocking him over. "Tell me when it begins. I enjoy fire."
He laughed and patted her neck. "You and I shall be quite fearsome as we burn Yggdrasil to the root and begin again."
More seriously she added, "Eitri called council after you fled Nidavellir. There was nearly war then."
"I know. Heimdall saw." He sat up, pressing a fist unthinking into her hide. "Though it was Thor's idea alone to look upon the forges, the king called me to account. Because I used magic to hide us, not knowing until too late that it was warded and we would be discovered." He let out a frustrated groan, remembering how he'd tried to restore the illusion and Thor had called lightning on Eitri's son, which might have killed him and certainly made the dwarves angrier. Loki had to put a double in Thor's face to get him to stop fighting long enough to see they were thirty seconds from being surrounded and very dead. More irksome than the event itself was afterward, when Thor told the tale ending it that he'd slain a hundred dwarves and walked away victorious. In a few years, Thor would probably forget it had happened differently
"You did not expect a ward in their most sacred place?" Svafnir asked, disbelief coloring her mental tone.
He glowered at her, affronted by the unexpected echo of Odin's words to him. "I was careless, yes, but we would not have been there at all, but for his desire to see them. I'm not going to be king, so it matters little, yet Odin saw only my mistake. No words make him see Thor is anything but himself in younger form, a great shining hero all adore."
His heart was too heavy to find his usual sarcasm. It was a truth immutable and he knew of no way to change it. Asgard rejoiced in the very thing he loathed. He'd seen the true horror of war, but the rest of Asgard only played at it.
He slumped against Svafnir's bulk. "What can I do? What should I do?" he asked her. "He loves the glorious tales, the acclaim, and the battle, but that's what they want. "
"You accompanied him each time; do you not love the same?" Svafnir asked.
"No, I was just... bored." He shrugged, rubbing a thumb on his inner wrist.
"Hmm." She swung her head up to look at him again, and though he could feel nothing of her rifling through his thoughts, her kind words to follow made it clear she had. "Young one, your memories go with you, wherever you run. That is not how you escape them."
He shrugged again. "It worked well enough. Anyway, this is about Thor, not me. How can I make the All-father listen to me?"
"Do not speak," she advised. "I do not warn the hunters; I kill them to demonstrate my power. You must demonstrate your fear in such a way Borsson cannot ignore it. Or, if you cannot, then you must admit that your fear is empty."
He scrubbed a hand back through his hair, muttering, "I don't care. I'd rather do nothing."
"If that were true, you would not have come to me."
He grimaced, wishing she was wrong, but she knew him too well, the canny old dragon.
But how to make Thor demonstrate he was too eager for battle to be king? Could Loki do so without inviting true war or putting Asgard into peril?
There in the cavern with Svafnir, Loki pondered how to solve the riddle. Whatever he did, it would be dangerous, because only true danger would bring a true response. But he could manage the risk, make his point, and it would be done. The coronation would be delayed, and Odin would realize his other son had some wisdom after all.