Living in Thor's shadow was not always a bad thing.
It was Thor that everyone fussed over, worried for, fretted about. The kitchens spewed forth an endless stream of delicacies with which to tempt Thor's appetite. The healers clucked about his haggard looks. The Warriors Three were constantly at Thor's side, dragging him to the training rings, or through all of the taverns in the city, anything to keep him busy, to keep his thoughts occupied.
Nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to Loki.
Or so he thought, anyway. One pair of sharp eyes was fixed on him, taking in the shadows beneath his eyes, and the way that he artfully arranged food on his plate to make it appear less full. But even his mother did not suspect what he planned to do.
No one noticed him slipping out of the palace just after midnight. If anyone saw him walking swift and silent through the streets of the city with a pack on his back and a bundle under his arm, they took no notice.
Slowly the streets fell away beneath his feet, to be replaced first by small scattered houses, and then by open fields. The silhouettes of mountains, soft and gauzy against the light of the full moon, rose against the horizon.
Soon other shapes appeared between Loki and the horizon. They were rounded and regular, and from a distance they could be mistaken for foothills. Up close, the stone doorways in each dome became visible, glinting coldly in the moonlight.
He made his way to one particular mound. Its doorway still bore sharp, cleanly dressed lines not yet blunted by the elements, and the sod that covered it was fresh, barely starting to put down roots.
Loki knelt before the doorway, set down what he carried, and shrugged out of his pack. From the pack he pulled a variety of objects, both mundane and peculiar.
First came three candles, one white, one black, one red. With a word he lit all three of them. Each flame burned clear and still. The warm summer scent of beeswax began to seep into the cold night air.
Before the candles he placed three knives. The first was silver, bright and pure as the face of the moon. The second was carved of obsidian, black as the spaced between the stars. The last was an ancient thing, battered and pitted. In the moonlight, the rust that coated the blade was dull, old-blood red.
Next he drew a wooden bowl from the bag, and two stoppered flasks. From the first flask he poured fresh milk into the bowl, and from the second new wine. Then he lifted the silver knife, and with it he slashed a deep gash into his forearm. Blood dripped into the bowl, and he watched as each droplet swirled in a lazy dance with the milk and wine.
He paused for a moment then, going over the ritual in his mind to be certain that he had left nothing out.
Treating with the dead was a dangerous business, with no room in it for error. Revenants were notoriously fickle, irritable creatures. Without the layers of protection provided by ritual, that which was summoned might rend the summoner to bits.
At last, confident in his preparations, Loki spoke the words that would summon the dead. Like his breath, each word became visible briefly, hanging in the cold air.
A spot of mist blossomed over the barrow before him. Gradually it grew and shifted, and finally it assumed a human form.
For several seconds Loki stared up at the figure floating suspended over the barrow. When he finally found his tongue, his voice was hoarse and barely above a whisper.
“I seek the sword called Dawn-Bringer. Where may it be found?”
Sif did not want to answer. That much was clear. He watched as her fists clenched, as the muscles of her throat tightened and the line of her lips compressed. She fought, but there was no use in it. He had summoned her, and she was bound to answer the question he asked.
“In the barrow of the first forgotten king, beneath a blanket of roses.” She spat the words out as thought they burned her tongue.
“Thank you.” Loki spoke the words that ended the ritual, and as he did he tried to look anywhere but at her corpse white face and darkened eyes, at the shapeless gray rags that clothed her, or at her bare feet hanging limply in the air. “Sif, I now release you to your rest.”
The spell that had called her back to the earth and held her there broke with a feeling of tension
suddenly released, like the moment when a thunderstorm passes its zenith.
He expected her to vanish, but instead she drifted down, softly as a snowflake, from the sky above the barrow, coming to rest in front of him. He took an instinctive step backward.
“Am I really all that horrifying?” Sif asked, smiling faintly.
“No,” Loki whispered “I just did not think that you … that you would ...”
“Still be the same person I was? Still remember you?”
“Yes, more or less.”
Her smile broadened. “For one thing, I think these tales of the forgetful, vicious dead are a bit overblown. And for another, it would take a lot more than a swim in the river Lethe to make me forget you.”
He had to wait a moment for the ache in his throat to subside before he could reply.
“Sif, I release you. I am so sorry that I had to disturb your rest, but there was no other way for me to find the sword. You can go back now. I will not bother you again, I swear it.”
She shook her head. “I know what you mean to do. Do you really think I intend to let you go alone?”
He gaped at her. “You … you want to come with me?”
“Of course I do. When have you ever known me not to go where you go?”
“You do not have to do this.” He could hear the tremor in his own voice. “You must be weary, love. Go back to your rest.”
“I am not ready for bed just yet. I think I'll stay up with you.”
Up till now, Loki had not wept.
He had not cried when Thorn came from the Observatory bearing Sif's limp body in his arms.
He had shed no tears when he beheld her laid out on her funeral bier in a scarlet gown and gold breastplate, with her sword and glaive at her side, and lilies in her long dark hair.
Now all of those tears seemed to flood him at once. He sank to his knees in the grass with an anguished cry.
“Oh, Loki.” Sif knelt too, and reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. Her touch was ice cold and strangely hollow, as if her flesh was merely a facade with no substance behind it.
“Why,” he sobbed. “Why did you do it?!”
She brushed the tears from his cheeks, and though her touch made him shiver, still it was sweet.
“It was instinct. I saw the thing, and I knew it was … not right. It needed killing, and I thought I could kill it.”
“But you saw Mjolnir bounce right off of it. What were you thinking?!”
“I thought that a blade could do what blunt force could not.” She shook her head. “What can I say? It was foolish, and I surely would not have done it had I known what I was up against.”
“You would have known, if I had been with you. I could have warned you.”
“So it's all your fault, is it? All your fault that I happened to come upon the last living Despair Wyrm in the Nine Realms, and that I was stupid enough to charge right up to it and inhale it's poison. Is that why you are so determined to destroy yourself? Do you seek to expiate your sin?”
“No,” he whispered. “I mean to have revenge on the thing that took you from me. That is my only aim.”
“I understand the need, but there has to be a better way to go about it than what you have
“There is no other way.” He looked into her face, the face that he had loved for as long as he could remember. He told her the truth. “Even if there was another way, I would not want it.”
As he watched, tears welled in her death-darkened eyes. They trickled down her white cheeks, and where they fell the grass withered to gray.
“Loki, please do not give up your life for vengeance, or for me. Nothing is worth that.”
“I think I am the only one qualified to judge what my life is worth, or what it should be traded for.” He did not look at her as he spoke. Sif's tears had never been something that he was equipped to
He got to his feet then, brushing the tears from his face, and the dirt from his trousers.
“Well then,” he said briskly, despite the pounding of his head and the burning of his salt-scoured eyes, “the night flees before us. I have a tomb to locate and rob. Do you still wish to come with me?”
She flowed to her feet. Clearly dying had not diminished her grace. “Oh yes. I am going to follow you, and I am going to talk you out of your foolishness.”
“You will not succeed,” he said. “But I will enjoy listening to you try.”
“You know,” Loki panted, “you seem corporeal enough. Perhaps you should take a turn with the shovel.”
From her perch on a nearby boulder, Sif offered him an angelic smile. “No thank you, I am quite comfortable here.”
“So you seem.” He leaned on the handle of the shovel for a moment, resting his arms.
There was only one tomb among the field of barrows that was blanketed in the thorny vines of wild roses, so Loki reasoned that it must be the tomb of the first forgotten king. It was built in the most ancient form; a solid dome of stone with multiple layers of earth on top, overlain by sod. There was no door, the entrance having been bricked up after the body and the grave goods were placed inside.
In order to reach the interior of the tomb, one had to break the dim, faded wards that guarded it, and then dig down to the stone wall and breach it.
So far, breaking the wards had been the easiest part.
After a moment Loki went back to digging. Sif shifted on the boulder, drawing her legs up and resting her chin on her hand.
“How long has it been since you've slept?” she asked.
He shrugged. “A while.”
“There is no hurry, you know. The Wyrm will still be there tomorrow, and the next day. Why don't you take a day or two to rest?”
“No time for that. I must have the sword in hand and be out of this realm by dawn, before I am missed.”
“Mmm. Before you are missed,” Sif mused. “You will be missed for a very, very long time if you don't return, you know.”
Loki shrugged again, but did not reply.
“Have you thought about what the loss of you will do to Thor? To your mother and father?”
A few moments passed, filled only by the rhythmic swoosh and thump of the spade.
“Thor will be fine,” he said at last.
“Will he? And why is that? Because he loves you too little to grieve?”
“No. He loves me well enough. But he will not let himself be swamped with grief. He does not know how to loose himself to despair.” He is stronger than I have ever been, Loki added silently.
“You may be right,” Sif admitted softly. “But just because you are not destroyed by the loss of
someone does not mean that your life is not less for it. And do you think your mother will fare as well as Thor?”
The steady rhythm of Loki's digging faltered, but only for a moment. “She will be alright. It may take some time, but she will heal. Thor and Father will be there to buoy her up.” A wry, bitter smile twisted his lips. “And before you ask, my father will only notice my absence when he realizes he is no longer mired in a thick fog of disappointment.”
Sif slid down from the boulder and came to stand beside him. She lifted a hand as if to touch him, but at the last moment she let it fall.
“You know better than that,” she said softly.
He opened his mouth to reply, but just then the shovel hit stone, throwing up an electric blue spark. He cast the shovel aside, and took up a pick.
Within a few more moments he had broken through the stone wall, and into the tomb.
Loki summoned a bright green ball of mage fire, and sent it through the jagged hole in the tomb wall. Then he climbed in after it.
The mage-fire drifted over mounds of pale gold, and piles of tarnished silver, over scattered pearls and loose diamonds. He was not interested in any of it.
All he cared for was the slab of stone in the center of the tomb, where a skeleton lay on a bier of tattered silk. There was a crown on the bare brown skull, and a sword clutched in the ancient finger bones. Those fingers turned to dust when Loki pulled the sword from their grasp.
“Forgive me,” he whispered. There was no response. The king on the bier had forgotten the living just as surely as they had forgotten him.
It was only when he returned to the moonlight that Loki got a good look at the weapon in his hand.
It was a short sword, little more than a dagger, really. The blade was made from a single crystal of blue quartz that varied from palest sky blue in some spots to cobalt in others. The hilt was bronze, and embedded in the pommel was a topaz from which spread golden enameled sunbeams.
Even more extraordinary than the appearance of the sword was the way that holding it made him feel.
For the first time in weeks, he felt a lift in his heart. It was like smelling the very first warm green hint of spring in the air after a long, hard winter, or of the first soft light of dawn after a miserable night.
Dawn-Bringer was an apt name for the sword.
Without thinking, Loki held the sword out to Sif. He was acting out of instinct, thinking to share the warm, sunlit feeling that it gave him.
But Sif shrank back from the blade, raising a hand to shade her eyes.
“That is not for me, Loki,” she said faintly.
For a moment he was puzzled, and then he understood. Dawn-Bringer was a sword forged to slay the wicked and the unnatural. Sif was surely not the former, but as a revenant, she was the latter.
Any joy that he had felt was snuffed out like a candle flame. He quickly rolled the sword up in an oilcloth and shoved it to the bottom of his knapsack.
As soon as it was hidden, Sif relaxed visibly.
“You've found the sword,” she said, sounding slightly breathless, “now what?”
Loki rose and shouldered his pack. “Now for the stabbing.”
Her lips twitched briefly. “But the beast is not living in this realm. What is your brilliant plan for making it across the Bifrost without being stopped by Heimdall?”
“Ah, I have that problem entirely seen to. Come here, and I will show you.”
Sif raised an eyebrow, and drifted closer to him. When she was within reach, Loki grabbed her, pressed her tightly to him, and pulled her into the paths between the worlds.
In his arms, Sif was cold, so cold that her chill seeped through his clothes, through his flesh, and deep into the marrow of his bones. Still, he held her tight as stars and moons, planets and nebulae flew past them in a dazzling line.
At last the galactic whirl gave way to an ordinary night sky, and Loki felt solid ground beneath his feet.
Then he felt the ground with more than just his feet. Darkness lurked at the edge of his vision, and the sound of his own teeth chattering was loud in his ears.
He drifted for a little while, and then came back to himself because someone was shouting in his ear.
“Flint, Loki, flint! Where is it?!”
He blinked the fog from his eyes and saw a large pile of kindling on the ground before him.
There was no need for flint. He whispered a spell through numb lips, and the kindling caught fire.
Within a few minutes the warmth of the fire began to thaw him. He managed to sit up and to shed his pack, but his hands shook too badly to unfasten the buckles on his bedroll.
Sif took it from him (careful not to touch him) and unrolled it. He crept into it with a grateful sigh.
“Th-thank you for the f-fire.” he managed to tell her.
“I thought it was the least I could do since I nearly killed you. What on earth were you thinking?”
“S-same thing as always. W-wanted to have my hands on you.”
She snorted at that. “Hush. Nor more attempts at wit until your teeth stop chattering.”
In spite of the chattering teeth, he managed to smile.
He lay still there for a long while, waiting for the shivering to stop, and the feeling to return to his extremities. Sif sat nearby, prodding and feeding the fire until it blossomed into a blaze. After a while she pulled his knapsack to her, and began to paw through its contents.
“Didn't you bring any food?” she asked with a scowl.
Loki was half asleep and still a little fuzzy with cold. “Are you hungry?” he asked in confusion.
“No, you fool.” She had always had a way of saying “you fool” with the sort of warmth that other people reserve for “my darling.” “You surely must be, though. I was trying to make you some supper. Really, Loki, what sort of hero goes on a quest without provisions?”
“The sort who does not intend to return.”
For a long time Sif digested that in silence. She returned to breaking up kindling to feed the fire.
“You know,” she said at last, “for a man determined to die, you are remarkably incurious about what waits for you. You have not once asked me what it is like there.”
He gave a languid shrug. “You will be there. That is all I need to know.”
She flung a piece of wood into the fire, sending up a shower of angry sparks. “Are you trying to break my heart, Loki? For if so, you are doing a fine job!”
“No. It is simply that the truth is often painful. That is why I normally prefer a pretty lie.”
Sif shook her head. Her hair spilled over her shoulders, darker than the shadows flickering at the firelight's edge.
“Go to sleep. In the morning you will wake, you will see how foolish you have been, and you will tell me goodbye and go home.”
Loki did not reply. Instead he nestled deeper into the blanket and closed his eyes. If Sif needed a soothing lie to get her through this night, who was he to take it from her?
Morning came, and the light it cast was dull and gray as ash.
That was not surprising. This land, this forgotten corner of the Realms, held the lair of the last living Despair Wyrm. Its influence had blighted the air, the earth, and everything in-between. There was not a blade of grass, a flower or a tree within sight. A few spindly gray milkweeds were the only living things visible. A forest of dry, dead shrubs surrounded the weeds. They were good for kindling, but nothing else.
“You do not look very well, Loki.”
Loki looked around, and when he found the speaker, he blinked in shock. “Neither do you,” he said.
Sif gave him a wry smile. It was almost invisible, though, for in the light of day she had become little more than a faint outline, a sketch of the woman she had been in life.
He had been expecting something like that. In fact, he had been half afraid that he would wake to find she had vanished at first light.
“My state is natural,” she said. Even her voice sounded strangely distant, as though she were at the bottom of a well. “Yours is not. This place is not healthy.”
“I know it.” He sat up slowly, with a groan. Sleep had not refreshed him. If anything, he felt more tired than he had the night before, and full of small aches and pains.
Sif must have seen all of that in his face, for the outlines of hers melted in sympathy.
“Last night you told me to go home to my rest. Dead or not, I am not half as weary as you are. Go home. Rest. Do not make any decisions now when you are exhausted.”
Loki shook his head. “My decision was made before I ever left home, Sif. I have found my course, and I will not turn from it now.”
She shook her head. “I will change your mind yet. Even if I have to do it manually. By sticking my fingers in your ears.”
That was an ancient joke, but it still made him smile. He stood, and stretched. “Come then, my lady, for we have a long walk ahead of us. The cave where the dragon dwells is some distance away. You can use that time for more whining or wheedling, or for violence, if you would prefer.
“I am more inclined to violence, I think,” she said.
The walk was indeed long, and because of the the bleak landscape, replete as it was with unwholesome vapors and choking dusts, the journey was not an enjoyable one.
Loki was glad that he had decided to travel light. He had left everything behind but a skin full of water, and Dawn-Bringer. Sif had observed this without comment, but with an air of disapproval.
By noon, they had crossed half of the dead gray valley floor. Their destination filled the horizon.
“You see that cave, the big one there?” Loki pointed to the craggy face of the mountain before them. “That is where the lair of the Wyrm is.”
“I see it,” Sif replied. She did not sound excited.
The sun was starting to dip toward the west by the time they reached the foot of the mountain. The cave yawned before them like a misplaced slice of night.
Sif laid a hand on his arm. The chill bled through his jacket and flesh, right down to the bone. “Loki, you cannot do this. I will not let you do this.”
He laid his hand over hers and kept it there, even when his fingers began to go numb. “Tell me,” he whispered, “have you not missed me as I have missed you?
“Of course I miss you! There is an emptiness in my that only you can fill. But I can wait. I want you to live a long, happy life, and die in your bed an old man. Then when you come to me, I will greet you with all the joy in my heart, but not now. Not this way.”
“The Wyrm must be killed, Sif. It has despoiled this entire world, and soon it will go forth, to find a fresh nest. That is what it was doing in Asgard. It was scouting. We cannot allow it to spread its taint to our world, or to any other place in the Realms.
“If the beast must die, and if to come within striking distance of it means death, shouldn't it be slain by someone who does not mind dying? And I am not suited to that task?”
“There must be some other way! You could find it, if you would only try...”
“I already told you once, I do not want any other way. I am content.”
He startled when his stoic warrior woman gave a sudden, wild, wailing sob, and dropped to her knees at his feet.
“Please, please don't do this, I beg of you!” Her tears fell onto the toes of his boots like drops of sleet. “Loki, I... I did not want to tell you of it, but I suffered when I died.”
He reached down to stroke the cold black waves of her hair. “I know. When Thor brought you home, there were tears drying on your cheeks. I am so sorry, my love.”
“I do not want you to be sorry. I want you to leave this horrible place, and not to suffer what I did. I hurt, and I was so afraid. I cannot bear for that to happen to you.”
She raised her head, and her death-darkened eyes were wild.
“It was not what we were told, Loki,” she said in a low voice. “The world beyond death.”
“I suppose I will know what it is, soon enough.” He bent to press his lips to her icy forehead, and then he whispered a single word, an ancient word of banishment. At once she began to fade.
Her final sob lingered, echoing even after she was gone. Loki stood there for several long moments, waiting for his shaking to stop.
“I will not say goodbye,” he whispered, “for I will see you again, very soon.”
With that, he plunged into the cave.
The secret of the Despair Wyrm, the key to its deadly nature, was right there in its name: despair. The poison that it exuded from every pore was pure despair.
Sif had fallen the moment she drew close enough to breathe it in, to absorb it through her skin. Part of the reason it had proved fatal to her so quickly was that she was in no way prepared for it.
Loki, however, had had plenty of time to prepare. It would not keep him from dying, but it should keep him alive long enough to accomplish his goal. There was only one emotion that could serve as armor against despair.
Rage was not a problem. He had more than enough of it to begin with, and over the last fortnight he had stoked it, nurtured it, refined it. Now he drew it around him like a hot red cloak.
The cave was deeper than it looked. Loki followed the tunnel as it twisted and turned deeper into the mountain. When the thin gray sunlight gave out, he summoned a ball of mage-fire to light the way.
By its soft green light he saw the first of the bones. They littered the cave floor, piled against the walls as though by the passage of a large body.
At last he rounded a corner, and entered a chamber at the heart of the mountain so huge that the Allfather's throne-room would have fit in it easily.
Half of the chamber was filled with bones, some old and whitened, some still retaining clinging bits of hair or flesh. Some of them belonged to animals. Most of them did not.
Perched on top of that pile was the Wyrm of Despair.
It had a long, serpentine body, capped by a pair of sinuous brown wings, filmy and veined like a roach's wings. The beast's body was covered with black scales, but the scales were not a flat black. Their appearance reminded Loki of a oily puddle. A rainbow of slick, greasy colors flowed over the scales, ever changing.
The creature's hoary eyelids were closed, and it had not stirred since he entered the cave. He gave a prayer of thanks to any deity that might be listening, and charged up the hill of bones with Dawn-Bringer in hand. He stabbed directly into one of the mellon sized eyes.
The sword slid away as though it had struck stone instead of flesh.
With a nightmare feeling creeping over him, Loki tried again. He stabbed the beast in the side, and again it was as though the blade has struck against stone. Blue sparks flew from the site of the impact.
“Are you finished?” asked a deep, rumbling voice, like bones rolling through a pebble-filled stream. “Or shall I roll over and let you try my belly?”
Loki turned, and saw that the Wyrm's eyes were open. They were white, opaque, the rims coated with pus.
The Wyrm was blind.
“I may not be able to see you, boy, but I can smell you well enough. And I can feel you tapping me with that little pig sticker of yours.” The serpent stirred, rattling it's bed of bones. “Tell me, how are you feeling, little hero?”
The answer was, not so well. Dizziness buzzed in his skull, and the sword felt unnaturally heavy in his hands.
“I have never felt better.” Even to his own ears, his voice sounded shaky and uncertain.
“Mmm, I'm sure. You are dead, you know. Even if you start running now, you will not make it to the mouth of the cave.”
“I know it.”
“Also,” the Wyrm continued, sly pleasure coloring its voice, “you will hurt quite tremendously before you die. Whatever you are doing to shield yourself is only prolonging the agony.”
“I have no doubt.”
The beast gave a smoky chortle. “Then why persist?”
Now it was Loki's turn to laugh; a brief mirthless bark. “I would stop if I knew how, but I do not.”
The Wyrm sniffed, and made an appreciative sound. “Ah, rage, pure and fine as flames. And what is it I have done to set such a blaze?”
“On the night of the last new moon, you slew a warrior...”
“I remember. The woman. She was yours, then?”
“Yes,” Loki whispered, “she was mine.”
“You must be Loki, then.”
A shudder ran through him, along with a wave of cold sickness. “How did you...”
“Fret not, I am no reader of minds. She called out your name when she fell.”
A lance of pain shot through Loki's chest. He felt his heart stutter, and his legs went out from under him. Ancient bones cracked and crumbled beneath his hands and knees.
“There now,” said the Wyrm almost soothingly, “it will not be long.”
He knew it was true. His armor had cracked, the rage being subsumed and quenched by a tide of grief. Of despair.
Wait. Armor, despair. Despair and armor...
Loki managed to raise his head, but it was difficult. The pain was spreading from his chest, into his blood and his bones.“I ask you a boon,” he whispered. He did not try to disguise the weakness in his voice.
“And what makes you think that I am the boon granting sort?”
“I don't, really. But what I mean to ask will amuse you, I think.”
“Then, by all means, ask away.”
With each passing second the pain was growing worse, and it was becoming harder and harder to breathe. Loki marshaled all of his remaining strength, forced himself to focus, and spoke.
“All of my life, I have been a seeker after knowledge. The boon I ask is the answer to two questions. The first is, why did Dawn-Bringer not slay you, and the second is, why has your own poison not destroyed you long ago?”
The Wyrm wriggled happily, clearly preening. “Both matters are related. Dawn-Bringer was forged when I was young, and at that time even the barest touch of the blade would have killed me. But over time my flesh has grown thick with the poison I carry. Now it could only pierce me where the poison and the flesh are thinned, and there is no such place on my person.
“As for the other, the reason that my poison has nourished and shielded me, and not proved my destruction, is this: in my long life, I have never loved anyone or anything. That which does not love, cannot despair.”
Loki knelt just a few feet from the Wyrm. He only had to reach a few inches in order to place his hand against the cold scales.
There was a spell that his mother had taught him when he was a boy, one of many. At the time he had thought the idea behind it foolish. A thousand times a day, he was glad that nobody could peer into his heart and see what he felt or thought. Why on earth would he want to cast a spell that would make another feel what he felt? But he had learned the spell anyway, as he learned them all.
Now he spoke the words that would open his soul like a book, and force the one beneath his hands to read it.
Loki remembered being a child on his mother's lap, her warm arms around him. He remembered one of the many, many times that he had made Thor laugh, remembered the sunlight flashing on his golden throat as he threw his head back. He thought of the few cherished times in his life when Odin had looked on him with pride.
And last, he thought of Sif. Sif, the playmate of his boyhood. Sif, his lover, warm and bright in his arms. Sif, white and cold as marble, with tears drying on her cheeks.
The Wyrm screamed.
Loki dragged his eyes open as the serpent thrashed and shrieked. A thin, noisome fluid began to run from its eyes. It took him a moment to realize what the fluid was.
Dawn-Bringer was impossibly heavy in his trembling hands, but he managed to lift it. This time the sword slid into the Wyrm's flank as easily as it slid into its own sheath. Inky black blood fountained from from the wound, soaking the bones beneath the writhing reptilian body. The scales around the wound lost their opalescent sheen, growing dull and dry as unglazed porcelain.
Loki sank down in the bones and the welter of cold blood. He stared up at the ceiling of the cavern, black as a starless night.
His heart, he thought vaguely, must be on fire. That was the only possible explanation for the heat and the pain, and shivering, erratic way that it was beating. He almost fancied he could see his heart, a thing of blood and flame, lifting from his body. It seemed to fill the entire cavern with light.
And then the light went out.
When Loki opened his eyes, it was dark.
Was he in the cave? No, that could not be. There was grass beneath him, and the dark vault above him was the night sky, moon and stars blotted out by a thick layer of clouds.
Slowly, he sat up and looked around him. All he could see was darkness, and the faint suggestion of rolling hills, illuminated by the hint of starlight coming through the clouds.
He felt weary, drained, but the pain had stopped. That, at least, was positive.
After a moment he lay back down on the grass and closed his eyes. In his mind, he saw again Sif's wild, grief stricken face.
“It is not as we were told, Loki.” she had said. So it would seem.
He lay there for what seemed a long time, and he was just starting to drift back into sleep when he felt a boot come into less than gentle contact with his ribs.
“Get up, you lie-about.”
He opened his eyes, and there was Sif.
Her eyes were bright, her face full of color. She wore her favorite pair of hunting leathers, and in her hand she held a lamp that cast a soft golden glow.
“Come on now,” she said, more gently this time. “I know you're tired, but if I am to tuck you into a warm bed, you have to get up.”
Instead of rising, he grabbed her arm and pulled her down to him. He hugged her to him savagely, feeling her warmth, the beat of her heart against his own. He pressed his face to her shoulder
and gave a ragged sob.
“I know,” Sif whispered, hugging him back. “I know, love, but it's over now. It's all over.”
Finally he caught his breath, and then he let her haul him to his feet. She took him by the hand and began leading him over the hills.
“Where are we going?”
He let her lead him through the darkness. At last they crested a particularly large hill, and on the other side of it was a little stone cottage roofed with yellow thatch. Light shone in the windows, falling upon a riotous flower garden that surrounded the house.
“I told you the truth, but I told it slant,” Sif said. “This place is not what we were told it would be. It is much, much better.”
“That is good to hear. But as I said before, your being here is all I need to make it paradise.”
Sif gave him a long, very serious look. “Shut up, Loki.”
Loki laughed, and followed Sif as she led him home.