Well. That was… not successful. He was still alive, and would likely die slowly of thirst.
Loki drifted in the yawning void, wishing he were dead, but away from anything he might have used to kill himself. In hindsight, he should have expected this. He hadn’t succeeded at anything else, after all.
He felt a power older than Asgard reach out to him. He felt its first contact, which was clearly intended to be discreet. Then he heard it begin to speak to him, and for a moment, he could almost make out a tongue older and greater than the Alltongue, a tongue of which the Alltongue was only a branch, as all mortal languages were only branches of the Alltongue. Each word brought with it meaning enough to fill volumes, layer upon layer of association and connotation, and precision like a knife’s edge. He tried to understand, and in the attempt, he felt his mind strain and stretch almost to the breaking point.
Abruptly, it was as if the Speech were coming to him through a tiny bottleneck, till only a fraction of the meaning could reach him. He heard it now as the Alltongue, and as words, strange words, unlike any tongue he had ever heard.
“If you want to survive,” some ancient and terrible power said, “repeat after me: In Life’s name, and for Life’s sake…”
There were terrible things that lurked in the yawning void, and that was reason enough not to trust the voice.
Loki landed on some fragment of a world and saw a stronghold in the shape of a skull. He saw beasts flying around overhead. He guessed that the skull would not be the symbol of someone who wanted him to swear by life itself. And he knew what he had found here was far worse than even staying in Asgard, and probably worse even than throwing himself on the mercy of the voice he had heard.
So he leapt back into the void. The metal creatures came after him, but he drew a breath and spoke.
“In Life’s name and for Life’s sake, I assert that…”
The same power gave him the rest of the oath, piece by piece. He would rather not bind himself to anyone’s service, but he had no choice. Had this power not approached him, he would have had to try to make some alliance with whoever owned the skull keep, knowing both that he would almost certainly need to betray that alliance eventually, and that any alliance with a creature like the one he suspected owned the skull keep would be a poisoned prize indeed.
The terms of the oath were not so burdensome, either, as deals with unknowable powers went: protect all living things, interfere only when life is in danger, hinder the slow and inevitable heat death of the universe as much as possible, and step in to do the work of whoever had asked this oath of him.
He felt a new power flow through him. He was expert at weaving seidr already, and knew enough of the basics of spaecraft to know this wasn’t it. This was… new.
He wanted his seidr-weaving to get him somewhere safe, anywhere, but it wouldn’t work that way from here in the void.
So he called on his new power and made it work.
Loki landed on Midgard and wandered into the nearest building, a store selling electronic merchandise, mostly emblazoned with an emblem of a fruit with a bite taken out of it. He had to find out where on Midgard he was and how long he had been in the void. Then he had to—what? Go back to Asgard? That was impossible now. Though he had the power to go back, there was nothing there for him now. He was stranded here.
He saw something on the sales counter that caught his eye. There was magic in it, something beyond the electric power that lived in all the rest of the store’s wares. He walked up to the counter and picked it up. It was electric, and thin, with one side that might be a display, and two things that might be cameras. The maker’s mark on this one was different: there was no bite taken out of the apple.
“What’s this?” he asked, holding it up.
“An empty box,” said the merchant.
Well, this was a happy turn of events; if the merchant was under the impression that the device was an empty box, he would hardly care about anyone wandering away with it. Loki smiled and thanked the man for his time, then left the store with the device. Once outside, he tried the only button on the entire thing, and the display came on. It seemed humans were less primitive than he had thought; it was obvious the screen would respond to touch, since there was no other way to make it work. There were several pictorial icons visible. The picture of gears opened up a page that controlled the device’s settings—the brightness of the screen, and other such things. The picture of an ancient leather-bound tome opened a manual titled So You Want To Be A Wizard. And the one with the compass opened some sort of window for browsing… some sort of information repository. He very quickly found that it seemed to want to send him to a place called—if that was the title displayed at the top of the screen—the Wizards’ Forum. He figured out very quickly how to make the screen scroll, and looked through the list of forums, with titles like Forum News, Newbie Zone, Current Events, Theory of Wizardry, and half a dozen more. He touched one of the forum titles by accident, and found the Current Events forum displayed for his perusal. It had a list of topics by title, and he touched the first, “I sense a disturbance in the Force”.
The new page had little pieces of writing from multiple people. First from one person who wrote of a potential problem in another realm (“on another planet”, the writer said). Then from others who had also noticed, piecing together their impressions (he realized after a while that they were discussing his attack on Jotunheim using the Bifrost) and, apparently, competing to see who had noticed it first.
So Loki found the “post” icon and touched it, and then touched the blank box that must represent parchment, intending to write with his finger. But at his touch, a selection of letter icons appeared. All of them were minuscule, not the larger letters that should head a sentence or a name. The other writers—posters?—had written with capital letters, but Loki would figure that out later. He wrote out his own post, bragging that he had seen it as it happened, and that he had even had forewarning, and that he knew exactly what had happened and where it had happened.
He checked other topics in the same forum—everything from “three wizards on Ordeal on Rirhath B” to “mysterious humanoid alien in Texas, USA—UPDATE POST #50”. The humanoid alien was Thor, of course, and the Ordeal was apparently a normal part of becoming a wizard. This… was not encouraging news.
He saw that there were now new posts in the Jotunheim thread, and went back to that.
And that was when he learned something about how users of this art allocated responsibility. Namely, that whoever noticed the problem first was responsible for fixing it. How… quaint and provincial. Loki wondered whether he could get away with arguing that, though he had sworn to serve some mystery person, he had never sworn to work with anyone else to do so. Nor had he sworn to abide by the silly rules of mere mortals.
But he had exactly one ally at the moment, and he could not afford to lose that.
Loki spent half an hour arguing back and forth with other wizards on the forum, and finding out about a wizard’s Ordeal and what he was expected to do about Jotunheim. Then he spent another few hours traveling to the nearest complex of worldgates. As much of a waste of his time as this was, he still found that it ended too soon. He stepped through a gate with nothing but his iPad and stepped out into Jotunheim. It was day there; he had never been to Jotunheim during the day before, but he saw sun glinting off distant glaciers and illuminating every detail of the crater left behind by the Bifrost. It almost didn’t look so bad without Jotnar around. It could be a wild, mountainous place anywhere. He had gone questing in similar places.
But this was Jotunheim, home of monsters. With hatred in his heart, Loki examined the damage with more than his eyes. He could smell power bleeding. This place had been the intersection of three great ley-lines, and now power and chill bled from all of them, leaching out into the void. The crater thrummed with too much power in too little space, and if he strained he thought he could almost hear the flow of power away from this world. Unless someone repaired this place, Jotunheim would die, and all its inhabitants with it. An entire race of monsters, gone from the world at Loki’s hand. A plague exterminated. He couldn’t see what was wrong with that.
But he had taken an oath, and more than that, he probably owed his life—not that that was worth much—to those the mortal wizards called the Powers That Be. So for their sake, he set about creating a net of his own power to lay over the problem, not to fix it but to slow the bleeding while he worked. The work drained the power he used to work seidr to the point where his well was almost dry. That taxed some of the same things as he would use to work with his new power, but not all. There might be enough. For all he knew, there could be more than enough. He had never worked with this craft before. This art, as the mortals called it.
He next decided to set about reading the manual, but he had only just gotten it open when he was interrupted. He was sitting in the very center of the crater, and looked up at the sound of a deep voice greeting him.
A monster. He saw a monster. A frost giant, glaring down at him with its savage red eyes. For a moment, Loki wondered—he had never seen his own real eyes, but… all the Jotnar looked alike, except that Loki was smaller than most.
“And you are?” said Loki, and he poured all the contempt in his being into that question. It seemed the most obvious thing in the world that this creature was beneath him. But in the end, it wasn’t.
“Farbauti,” said the giant.
“Fascinating,” said Loki. “What are you doing here?”
“I was in the area,” said the giant, “and I saw you and thought I’d stop to say hello.”
“Oh?” said Loki. “And do you trolls often just decide to say hello to Aesir? With whom, I remind you, you are at war? Or are there others here to ambush me?” He wasn’t sure if that would be a good thing or a bad thing. They might kill him. He wondered if he was obliged to save his own life to fulfill his oath, and only wished he could still kill them all. But there was no telling what would be done to him if he broke this oath. An oath to any person was bad enough, with the potential to bring all manner of retribution when he inevitably broke it, but an oath to a primordial power of unknown strength was something else entirely. He would break this oath only if he could destroy himself so utterly that he could be neither found in Hel nor woken from death.
“Neither,” said the creature. “And believe me, no one will come while I’m here. I’ve told them not to.”
“Are you the new king of these beasts, then?” Loki tried to make his tone flippant. It came out strangled. This was him, this was what he looked like, this was all he had ever been or ever would be. He should never have aspired to more than to live as a savage in this wasteland, but the Allfather had taken him to Asgard to see something greater and now he could never be content to live as the monster he was. And neither could he ever claim what he had thought was his birthright, nor be equal to Thor, who, after all, was one of the Aesir.
“No, but I was Laufey’s consort,” said the creature. Loki fought down the urge to throw up. This was—no, it might not be, she might be a second wife, or—but it might be. It might be. And Loki would rather think of anything else than himself being birthed by this creature. Anything else, than the blood they shared. No. No. There was nothing else he could think but no.
The troll kept speaking, heedless of Loki’s disgust, and Loki focused on its words just because they were something else to think of. “Sorry, it looks like Laufey’s a sore subject. For what it’s worth, I miss her, too.”
“…Her?” It wasn’t useful to focus on that, but Loki would like to focus on anything besides—
“Her. Oh, right, Asgardians call female kings… what was it, keens?”
Oh, this was worse. This was so much worse. Loki hadn’t killed his father. He had killed his mother.
And with that thought, he had to fight off another wave of nausea, at the realisation that his mother was not beautiful Queen Frigga, but… Laufey. It was Laufey who had seen her belly swell and felt whatever pride a troll like her could feel, and then… and then even she hadn’t wanted him.
“But we just call them kings,” said Farbauti, who might be—no, Loki wouldn’t think about what this monster might be to him. “I can see why that would be confusing for you.”
“Why don’t you just shut up and get out of my way?” Loki demanded, no longer able to contain himself. “Go!”
To his shock, Farbauti left.
He went back to trying to read the manual, holding his iPad in shaking hands that should be blue. That were blue; the cream color was only a lie, yet another lie from Loki Liesmith.
He took a few deep breaths and made himself focus on the manual. He had sworn an oath; there was no going back now.
Evening came and Loki realized he was starving. He hadn’t eaten since the last time he was in Asgard. (And that it might be: it might be the last time he was ever in Asgard.) He had snow for water, but that was all.
And then a Jotun showed up and greeted him. He could smell that it had brought its dinner with it.
“Another of you?” Loki sighed dramatically.
“Nope, just me again,” said the Jotun. “I brought you something to eat, since you’ve been out here all day.”
The troll held out something wrapped in cloth. It smelled like cooked meat. Loki wondered if it was the flesh of disobedient children, as he had been told a few times when he was himself a disobedient child.
(It was probably something else. Maybe they ate their sick and elderly, or the children they left to die of exposure.)
“Or you can go hunt on your own and go find something to make a fire to cook your meat. Your choice. I’ll just leave this here,” said the Jotun. It set the meat down at the edge of the crater and left.
Loki’s first thought was that he shouldn’t eat it in case troll food was poisonous to Asgardians. But it wouldn’t be poison to him, then, would it? It wouldn’t, would it? He was himself a Jotun, wasn’t he? He shouldn’t flinch away from it; he was a Jotun. He was a monster. He should have died in the void. He should have died as an infant.
He climbed up out of the crater and unfolded the cloth to find bits of roast meat on skewers, interspersed with mushrooms. He ate. It was… good, but that was worse than if it had tasted like ash. He could hate the food, or he could hate to like it; he could hate his own kind or he could hate not hating them. There was no way to get what he wanted anymore; all he wanted was to be a Prince of Asgard like Thor.
Night fell. Then snow fell. It wasn’t a blizzard; it was shaping up to be only a light dusting. Loki lay down and let it cover him and hoped the cold would kill him. He wasn’t sure how much cold a Jotun could take, or how cold it would get in the night. And maybe if he was asleep at the time, it wouldn’t count as a violation of his oath.
Loki woke and felt for a moment as if all were right. He felt comfortable in his own skin in a way he never had, not even before finding out what he was. He hadn’t ended up buried in snow, only just covered with it. He brushed himself off and sat up. Time to see how the enchanted iPad had fared. He reached out to get it out of the snow, and saw his own hand. Blue. He sat there staring at it. It was blue.
It was blue.
His hand was blue.
He couldn’t change back. He realised after a while that he was too cold. It was cold enough to cause hypothermia or frostbite or both in anyone else.
If he had valued his own life, he could have seen this as useful, even if horrific. But he didn’t.
He started working on repairing the ley-lines, using the unfamiliar magic of the power or powers that had stepped in to save him. Work was slow. He could get the power itself moving along, flowing through the gap as if there were nothing wrong, but that was only a temporary fix that held as long as his spells did. He needed to fix the ley-lines themselves, and they weren’t yet answering him.
At around noon, a Jotun showed up with what seemed to be more food. He looked exactly like the one that had been there before, but then so did all Jotnar.
“I see you’ve decided to show your real face,” said the Jotun.
Loki snarled at him. His real face. Yes. No. No, he had been wearing his real face yesterday. No.
But yes. This was real. It was the other that was the lie.
“Hey, it’s a good idea,” said the beast. “The less energy you spend trying to pretend you’re warm-blooded, the more you can spend saving Jotunheim.”
Loki just glared. Glared with red eyes, with his real eyes, wanting to deny that he belonged here and knowing if he did, the beast would just argue. He didn’t want to hear that he belonged here. He knew he did, but surely there was some sense in which he didn’t, in which, having been raised in Asgard, he could be said to be from there.
“I brought something to break your fast with,” said the beast.
“Kindly leave it here and be on your way.”
The beast sighed heavily and did as he was told, taking yesterday’s cloth and skewers away with him.
As he was distracted already anyway, Loki decided he might as well eat now. That creature was good for something, at least; it had brought him a platter of things: sweet brown bread spread with soft cheese, a few thin slices of some kind of cured meat, and something like applesauce but made of a different sort of fruit. The cheese had a tang like goat dairy, but stronger; it must be an acquired taste, and Loki hadn’t acquired it. That was some small comfort. The fruit sauce smelled sweet, and was, sort of, but that it was also bitter took him by surprise and he nearly gagged on it. It went a bit better with the cheese and bread, and the meat was just fine, and in the end he ate all of it because there was nothing else available.
He wondered whether the Wizards Forum might have anything useful; he couldn’t seem to find quite what he needed in the manual yet. And this time, he would search the forum for information without speaking of his own situation, until he knew what other traps existed that might leave him officially responsible for more dying realms.
An hour later, he was drowning in information, from serious ethical debates about eating meat to supposed-to-be frivolous debates like “pick two species and bet on which one will reach eclesis first” that served very well as Loki’s introduction to certain parts of the mortal wizards’ lore. He had to reference the manual, and yet each explanation or definition he found led to more questions. Eclesis: the level of awareness at which a species could be offered the Choice. The Choice: rule and then die, or lead a long life of irrelevance and unimportance, to be decided not only for oneself but for an entire species for all time. Asgard, of course, seemed to have found a way to have it both ways: to live thousands of years and to reign in glory the entire time.
Loki read, and read, and read. Every moment that he wasn’t working or seeing to bodily needs (or sometimes while he was), he read. This was an entirely new sort of magic, and though he could grasp some things very quickly by analogy to seidr, all such analogies were inexact. And there was the Speech to learn; he could understand it already, but only because it worked like the Alltongue, not because he could use it himself yet. It was mostly a matter of learning vocabulary and grammar until he could say the things he wanted; wizardry done through the Speech worked by convincing the world itself to work as he wanted it to. Loki was deeply skeptical that this would ever work for him, and indeed, it didn’t seem to. He was trying, though; that had to count for something. He might be failing, but he was trying to keep his oath, and with any luck that would incline the Powers That Be to be merciful with him. With any luck.
(He never had much luck.)
He read the board’s entire Frequently Asked Questions section: all the answers to what they claimed were the most frequently asked questions about how to use the board, and how to use wizardry, except one. Not one that he didn’t read: one that was asked but not answered. Why were new wizards so much more powerful than older ones? All the board’s FAQ would say on the topic was not to ask the question if you were new. And the question itself was buried in the middle of a long, dry and mostly unrelated section of the FAQ.
Interesting. The answer must be potentially dangerous. Maybe it threatened to shatter the mind of any mortal foolish enough to try to comprehend it. Maybe knowing was responsible for the decrease in power. Loki would just have to find out.
But not yet. Later. He had enough to do without worrying about potentially mind-breaking ideas.
(Although he wondered whether it would be as dangerous for an Asgardian like him; maybe he should look into it and find out.)
(No. No, maybe he should do anything but that.)
Nothing seemed to tell him why the ley lines wouldn’t heal. He was failing at his Ordeal—the test that, it seemed, all wizards had to pass. At this rate, he wouldn’t need the Lone Power to kill him; he would just end up doing that himself.
That wasn’t an entirely unappealing idea. And right here in this crater, with two kinds of magic at his disposal, maybe he could take out Jotunheim with him. Maybe Odin and Frigga would notice that. Maybe they would see just how powerful he was, and they would regret that he wasn’t on their side. Or maybe they would regret bringing him to Asgard and raising him to think he was one of them. Maybe they would regret training him in their magic and the use of their weaponry.
Maybe he would go back and make them regret it.
No, it was too late for that now. He had his oath to think of; he would never be able to hurt any of them unless they threatened someone else, though that might not be too hard to arrange.
Maybe he could just tell the Powers That Be that he was saving all the innocent animals they would have eaten. If the Powers That Be cared even about Jotnar, then they must care about all sorts of beasts and vermin. Rats, maybe. Maybe even weeds. Poisonous mushrooms. Poison ivy. Bilgesnipe. Mosquitoes. He could claim to be saving all of those sorts of creatures.
It came to him that he couldn’t do that. It was… not quite his own thought, but he found it in his own mind: he couldn’t convince the Powers That Be that it was right to kill a few specific carnivores, when all of life fed on something, and most of it on other life.
Loki wondered why they wouldn’t just accept that only a world with nothing but plants could ever fulfill their wishes, but now they were silent. Within his own mind—which they had already proven themselves capable of spying on—he wondered why they couldn’t accept that the sort of world they wanted was impossible, that life fed on death and borrowed against its own death, when even he could see that. He was nowhere near as powerful or as ancient, but he could see that any creature other than a plant—and even some plants—could live only by taking the lives of usually thousands or tens of thousands of other creatures, though sometimes fewer than that. Warriors won glory by killing their enemies. Women (and Loki) were spared the risk and hardship of constant pregnancy only if they were carefully selective about when they did—and when they didn’t—allow children to grow within them. Kingdoms became empires on the death of enemy armies and the defeat of other realms.
And even plants, that mainly lived on air, sent their roots into soil made of dead things. Sometimes dead leaves from still-living plants. Sometimes dead creatures. Sometimes farmers’ waste that had once been alive, before it had been food.
To serve life alone and keep death at bay forever was impossible, and that was obvious even to Loki. There might be gods older than the Aesir, but they were all hypocrites or fools or both. All except the Lone Power.
Though to be honest, Loki cared less about careful balance and tending food crops and not overhunting or overgrazing than he did about how very much he wanted to make certain people suffer and put an end to certain creatures.
But it was no longer his to decide these things. Maybe it never should have been; this servitude would fit more easily if he had never thought himself a prince. If he had never been a king. If he had always been in someone’s service, and if he had never been lied to about his place in the world, then maybe, when some ancient and terrible power disagreed with him, his first thought wouldn’t be that it was a fool and he was wise.
He had been raised as if he were part of Asgard’s royal family, and he had come to compare himself with the Prince of Asgard, and as nothing more than the very smallest of giants he could never hope to match Thor. For a Jotun, and not even one born strong and healthy at that, he hadn’t done so badly. Sure, he’d been a failure as a prince, and even more so as a king, but he’d had most people convinced he at least was a prince. He could almost be proud of that, except that it made him sick of himself as not only a beast but so pathetic and runty a creature that even the other Jotnar wanted nothing to do with him.
Damn his pride. He’d never be happy now. Never. But maybe if he were to tell a bard and then die well, maybe he wouldn’t have to live with himself and he could be remembered as he wanted to be. Maybe they could remember him as he wished he were.
To do that, he’d have to fail his Ordeal, but he’d have to come close to success. He’d have to throw himself into it and do well enough that the Lone Power would show up to stop him.
Loki spent all the next day trying to get the ley-lines repaired. He made no progress. He thought the spell keeping the power flowing across the gap ought to be wearing out by now, and sure enough, just as soon as he thought that, it fell apart all at once. So he set about trying to recast it, but now he was tired, and it didn’t cast as powerfully as before. He was running out of power fast and it was starting to look like he would never manage to fix the ley-lines. It wasn’t possible, at least for him alone.
It didn’t snow that day, which Loki didn’t consciously notice until late afternoon, when he looked up and found that he hadn’t noticed that Jotun coming and leaving him food again. This time it was a new sort of cured meat, in thin and leathery slices that turned out to be somehow saltier than plain salt, and chunks of somewhat firmer cheese than last time. He ate, and drank some of the snowmelt that had collected in the crater. It was no worse than usual for a quest, except that there was no one to interrupt trying to make him join in the laughter. There was also no one making it clear that he was unwelcome, either. Maybe this desolate wilderness was where he belonged. Maybe he would stay here; maybe when he died trying to save Jotunheim, that one Jotun that kept coming to see him would bury him here. Maybe for all he knew Loki was a hero.
Loki thought about that. What did he know?
He knew Loki was here dressed like an Asgardian. He knew Loki was a Jotun. He knew Laufey had abandoned a child—he must know, because the child would have been his. He might have seen Loki on his first visit here with Thor.
Loki would have to talk with him next time he came.
He didn’t get back to work just yet. He went to the forum and made a post. His second. He would rather not ask for help. He would rather not speak to the mortal wizards. He would rather not confess that he was doing so poorly. But he couldn’t do this and if he failed before the Lone Power even arrived, he would be remembered as an utter failure; even if he had to ask them for help, he might still be remembered as brave, as someone who would have been a hero if only he had been stronger.
He started a new thread, and this time worked out how to use capital letters. “I am new here,” he wrote, resenting the iPad’s onscreen keyboard the whole time, “and I appear to be on Ordeal. It does not seem likely that I will succeed now. I would like to at least know why I don’t have the level of power I’m told it’s normal to have immediately after taking the Oath. I would also like any advice that anyone might have to offer. I’m in Jotunheim trying to repair the damaged ley-lines. The task is likely impossible. I suspect the Lone Power thinks so as well, because he has not yet deigned to make an appearance.”
He posted it, after debating with himself whether he really wanted to humble himself before all the mortals reading the forum.
As he waited for an answer, he went and looked at one of the more frivolous threads, an official collection of different cultures’ superstitions and how they related to the Powers and to wizardly lore. They were in alphabetical order, mostly from Earth cultures, and it was entirely haphazard whether they were listed by the name of the religion (like Christianity, which he found it interesting to read about: the Choice memorialised as eating an apple, and the Lone Power known as the Enemy), or by the culture that held to it (like Norse myth, which he didn’t read up on because by the time he got that far he was fairly sure there would be a response to his thread). So many names for them, and some seemed to be force-fit—especially the identification of nearly every deity who subverted an established order of any sort with the Lone Power, despite the Lone Power clearly reigning over the world and death itself being the closest thing to an inevitability that there was.
Loki went back to the thread he had started. There were several replies. He ignored the several variations on “believe in yourself” and “try harder”, because he had unfortunately sworn not to respond more appropriately. Those were most of the replies.
That left one from someone calling herself the Advisory for some small part of Earth located in some southern part of America, saying, “For me to tell you why you don’t seem to have as much power as other new wizards, I’d have to know more. How long have you had your wizardry and how old are you? What kind of studying have you already done? But I can tell you this already: Ordeals are tough. Not everyone comes out alive and sometimes there’s no telling who’ll make it and who won’t. I can say I hope you make it. I can tell you sometimes the Lone Power doesn’t show up for your Ordeal and sometimes it’s hard to recognize him when he does. Don’t worry about hitting all the right beats with your Ordeal. Just do it and hope you don’t die, or if you do, hope you don’t die in vain.”
And one more reply that wasn’t inane: “lolol young wizards are only powerful cuz there too dumb to know whats impossible”. Loki did have some sympathy for the person’s inability to use capital letters, especially as the Alltongue cleared up any possible confusion for him and even expanded “lolol” into “laughing out loud out loud” for his convenience. Why he was being laughed at, he didn’t know; he was for once genuinely baffled by being the subject of mockery.
So. He was powerless because he was too smart to believe in miracles. And being smart was his only asset.
It was truly hopeless now.
His spell shattered and power started pooling in the crater. His seidr-working held, and it kept the power from leaking out of the realm, making the wound less like an open gash and more like a bruise with blood pooling under the skin.
That was when the Jotun came back. It was just a moment before Loki could make himself look anything other than stricken, but then his control came back to him.
“Dai stiho,” said the Jotun. A greeting. A greeting in the Speech.
The Jotun had just greeted him in the Speech.
“Dai stiho,” said Loki. He had never before greeted anyone that way. He had never before heard that phrase spoken. As if this were an everyday occurrence, Loki continued speaking. “I have something I need to ask you.”
“Go ahead,” said the Jotun.
“You know who I am, don’t you?”
“Yes and no,” said the Jotun. “I know who gave birth to you and I know who raised you. Who you are, though… that I don’t know.”
A thousand questions all warred for priority. The first one to reach his mouth was, “Why come to me now, when you abandoned me before?”
“I should have guessed you’d ask that,” said the Jotun. He sat down on the edge of the crater. “Bear with me; this will be long. Laufey was a very good king, because she thought of the people first and herself and her family second. So when Odin took the fight to our realm just as she went into labor, she spent the whole time swearing she would still fight him. She had me relay her orders to the front lines and come back to keep her apprised. I must have made twenty trips all told. She had no one with her; everyone who could fight was fighting, and everyone who couldn’t was hiding. Then she was done. She cleaned you off and kissed you and I saw her smile, just for one moment, as if she’d forgotten the battle. But she didn’t smile for long. She knew we were losing. She was in the temple already, exactly where she needed to be if she wanted to make a sacrifice to Jotunheim's old gods to ensure victory. She ordered me away before she did it, but I heard her start to say the words to give you up and guarantee victory. She only had time for the first sentence or two before Odin and his Einherjar came to the temple itself and she came running to do battle not a quarter of an hour after giving birth. I slew an Asgardian and looked around to see what was happening. They had found where our civilians were hiding. I called out to Laufey and both of us ran to save our people. Afterward, when we had lost and everything else was taken from us, Laufey told me she’d never had the chance to finish what she’d started, and we went back to the temple together, but you were gone. We knew he’d taken you, but we never dared to think Odin had claimed you as his son.”
It was too much to take in.
“So,” said the Jotun, “maybe that makes you feel a little better about killing Laufey.”
It didn’t. He… didn’t feel anything. He had thought it would be that he was never wanted to begin with, or that he was discarded for being a runt, but it wasn’t that. It wasn’t that. This must change things, but Loki felt neither better nor worse, just bewildered and disoriented.
He spent a while thinking about this, trying to make sense of any of it. Then he changed topics abruptly, because he was getting nowhere. “You’re a wizard,” he said.
“Yes, I am. What about it?”
“How did that happen?”
“First I swore an oath. Then I had an Ordeal where I faced the Lone Power. That’s how that happened.”
Ideas swirled around in his mind. He tried to pick one or two out to think through first, but none of them were fully-formed and they all slipped away like water in his hands. So he asked another question. “What Choice did the Jotnar make?”
“Death. Couldn’t you guess?”
“You live as long as the Aesir.”
“They made the same Choice.”
“But we—but they live so much longer than the mortals…”
The Jotun snorted. “Maybe ten times as long. Compare that to how long a star lives. Compare that to the age of the universe.”
It was as if the ground he’d been standing on had caved in. The Aesir weren’t ancient. Asgard wasn’t ancient. Mortals were as mayflies and the Aesir were as mortal as humans and doomed by their Choice.
Loki could think of no way to react. He had so long taken for granted Asgard’s superiority over every realm, every people, and every force, that to realize the Lone Power had Asgard irrevocably in its grasp was like learning that the city had been moved to the bottom of the ocean without anyone noticing the change, or that the sun had decided to travel from west to east.
“I see,” said Loki.
There was an awkward silence for a while. It was the Jotun who broke it.
“Do you want me to stay a while, or…?”
“Can you fix the ley-lines?”
The Jotun set down Loki’s dinner and got up to leave.
“One last thing,” said Loki. “What did you say your name was?”
“Farbauti,” said his father. Loki made the effort to remember it this time. Farbauti.
Farbauti left him alone then, and Loki ate and thought about Laufey sacrificing him, and got the power flowing across the crater again without thinking much about what he was doing. Laufey had tried to kill him.
Laufey had tried to give him up.
Laufey had put Jotunheim first.
And Loki felt… hurt? That made no sense. Didn’t he wish he’d died as a newborn? Didn’t he wish Laufey had had the chance to finish killing him? His life and death could have been worth something then.
And yet, he wished Laufey hadn’t tried at all, not that she’d succeeded.
He’d been loved, in a way, by people who didn’t have the luxury of personal affection. But that wasn’t new; Odin was the same way. He had banished Thor for politics, after all. Loki had spent his life as the second, and then third, priority, first after politics, then after politics and Thor, and now he had agreed to keep as his first priority a useless, futile and never-ending quest that would make him exactly that sort of parent or lover or friend.
Or… no. No, it was the opposite of that. Loki could never start another war now; he couldn’t even win one except as a last resort to end it quickly. He would spend his life saving people. He would spend his life safeguarding growth and easing pain. He would spend his life being a healer to the sick, champion to the defenseless, friend to the friendless, and shield of all that lived.
He wondered whether anyone would thank him.
The next day, Loki studied the ley-lines and the Speech and thought about life and death, and more broadly about order and chaos, and good and evil, none of these being quite the same. The oath he’d sworn in the words he’d used in the Alltongue conflated order and life and good, and death and chaos and evil. They were three conflations that made very little sense. Chaos would freeze the universe to death as everything drifted apart from everything else and energy left every not-quite-closed system or became unusable. But order, if it were able to flourish on its own like chaos, could just as easily freeze the entire universe in some perfect lattice of crystal, every type of atom or ion separated from every other into perfectly pure realms of nothing but solid carbon, or nothing but solid iron.
Life was the opposite of either extreme; it was controlled order within chaos, creating chaos and expanding it, and yet maintaining its own walled garden of exactly what order it needed, not order for order’s sake nor chaos because chaos was unstoppable. Death was the defeat of those gardens of order; death was the walls coming down and the weeds coming in to take over and feed off the fallen leaves left behind. But death fed other gardens, other lives.
Good and evil were too big for him to grapple with, except that he was fairly sure he was the latter. He was evil and death and chaos at the same time, though he was only a very limited sort of chaos. He was chaos like princes giving birth to eight-legged horses, not chaos like the molecules of planets refusing to respond to gravity’s call, although he would love to be that sort of chaos right here or in Asgard.
But there was no passion in that thought anymore. There was the memory of passion, the habit of wishing death on his once-family. At the moment, his temper had cooled and all he wanted was an end for himself.
So he wasn’t evil, but he wasn’t good, either, although he supposed if he had to stay alive he might like to be good.
But which was it that the Powers wanted? Was it life, or was it order, or was it something else?
All of those, the answer came. Order, because without it life would cease to exist, and because in the struggle between order and chaos it was chaos that threatened to consume everything. Life, because there would be no one to enjoy a barren world. And the happiness of all alive, for its own sake; and if that was good, then good, for the sake of being good.
Loki set that aside and thought about the ley-lines for a while; not thinking about things could be as effective as thinking about them, done at the right time and in the right way. So he examined the damage and the way the intact parts worked, and thought about why they worked that way, and then about whether the Powers That Be cared what Farbauti had told him. At the very least, if his worldview could influence the power of his wizardry, then it was possible they cared about such momentous revelations. It wasn’t certain, but it could be. And if so, maybe he had never been meant to fix this before he could learn about his… about Farbauti and Laufey. So he should be able to fix the ley-lines now.
He closed his eyes and imagined every symbol he wanted in the spell, arranged them to his liking, thought it over, rearranged them, proofread that, and rearranged them again.
Then he fixed the ley-lines.
That was it; they were fine. The Ordeal was over. He could leave now.
That was it? But what about the Lone Power, or the inevitable threat to his life? Loki stayed right where he was to keep an eye on the ley-lines and make sure they really were fixed. He watched them for a while, then turned on the iPad and went to visit the Wizards Forum while he waited for something to go wrong. He supposed it couldn’t hurt to thank the two less terrible posters for their help, such as it was, and to tell them the ley-lines were probably fixed now.
And when he was done with that, he just… read. There was no more work to do on the ley-lines, and Farbauti hadn’t come back yet, and he wasn’t about to leave when the job was obviously not done.
In light of recent events and the sudden surge of curiosity, someone had posted links to several travel guide posts about the Nine Realms. Loki read the one about Jotunheim first.
“Jotunheim, or Jötunheimr, is an astahfrith world with a mostly nitrogenous atmosphere with slightly more oxygen than Earth. Most of Jotunheim’s plantlife is short-lived, appearing in late spring and gone by fall. The planet’s apex predators are the Jotnar (not their much larger carnivorous livestock and warbeasts, as might be expected), who are usually polite to visiting wizards but do not welcome other sorts of guests. Years are five hundred days each. Days are roughly twenty-three hours and ten minutes…”
And it went on like that, a dry recitation of facts. There were a few pictures of poisonous native flora, and of edible flora and fauna, and notes on the best time of year to visit. And…
“…Wizardry is highly respected, because for the last millennium, wizardry has been the only thing keeping the planet from a quick death, since the loss of the Casket of Ancient Winters…”
That was… good to know.
The guide went on about Jotun values (and if they were to be believed, then Jotnar were like Asgardians, but more peaceful and less vainglorious; Loki didn’t believe this for an instant), Jotun wizardry, Jotun superstitions… Loki moved on to another of the travel guides. He would be able to tell if the article about Asgard was inaccurate, and that would allow him to calibrate his trust for the other articles.
This one, too, was dry. It detailed some of Asgard’s native flora and fauna, and noted that there were far more species than listed. It described Asgard as sevarfrith, meaning that wizardry must be practiced in secret, advised all non-Asgardian wizards against visiting, advised all wizardly visitors to avoid making their presence known if they did visit, and warned them not to make their wizardry known on pain of death. This warning out of the way, the guide proceeded to give a short, pithy and perhaps overly cynical description of Asgardian culture and government.
Asgard was sevarfrith? But why? It made no sense. Heimdall saw everything; the Allfather knew everything. Surely wizardry couldn’t be hidden from them. Maybe wizardry was much more powerful than he had thought, powerful enough that even the newest wizards were hidden from Heimdall’s gaze, but even so… It made no sense. Either there was something wrong with wizardry or there was something wrong with Asgard. A week ago, faced with that choice, Loki would have just assumed wizardry was at fault, coming as it did from untrustworthy powers. But today… today anything seemed possible.
Until the next time he was called on to do something in fulfillment of his oath, Loki had nothing left but curiosity. Forget Odin Allfather. Forget Thor. Forget that Asgard had been his home, and forget that he had been its king. Asgard was the site of a new mystery. Loki hadn’t had one of those to pick at in centuries, not counting the whole wizard business. As long as he stayed out of sight, kept himself veiled from both ordinary eyes and Heimdall, then maybe…
Well, it was worth a try.
If the Powers That Be wanted him to stay and wait for the Lone Power to show up, they were perfectly capable of saying so. They didn’t. So he would leave, and if they were displeased with him, or expected him to stay and do more, then perhaps they would punish him for it later. But let him do this one thing for himself, as if he were still free.
Loki kept himself veiled not only from mundane sight but also from Heimdall’s gaze when he traveled to Asgard. From how much just being here began to fray his composure, he could tell instantly it had done him good to spend time away from this place where everything had gone wrong and no one was what he had thought.
It was partly the heat. He had thought he knew what hot and mild and cold felt like. He had not. What he would have called frigid before, following Asgard’s custom, he would now call mild if he thought anyone would understand. What he would have called mild before was sweltering, and he had never noticed. He felt a certain lethargy settle into him, and realized only in hindsight that he had been much more energetic on Jotunheim.
It took him a while to change his form back, in case anyone saw through his invisibility, and when he did, he felt the no-longer-familiar sensation of being only a guest in his own skin. That couldn’t be helping his composure; in hindsight, it was a wonder he’d never noticed anything wrong before in all his centuries of living as one of the Aesir.
He wasn’t sure where to start looking for information about why Asgard was sevarfrith. He wasn’t about to reveal himself and start asking questions, so he was limited to two possible courses of action: sneaking around, stealing books and overhearing conversations. And as he didn’t know of any Asgardian wizards (of the oathbound sort) he might follow and eavesdrop on—not that there were none, but in his millennium on Asgard eavesdropping on everyone, he had never overheard anything about this sort of wizardry before—he would rather opt for the other approach.
He had also read every publicly-available history of Asgard and every book that so much as mentioned magic, except a few in private collections, most notably his father’s.
So he snuck back into what had been his home, and found his father’s study. There was an entire shelf of Odin’s journals that no one but the Allfather was allowed to read, and Loki checked those for magical alarms or protections in the ways he knew how, using seidr. Then he wondered whether it would be safer to use the Art, as well; he pulled up the manual on the iPad and meant to reference a few sections as he crafted a spell, but found not only that the table of contents had changed, but that the first page of content described exactly what he meant to invent himself.
The manual could read his mind. This was terrible.
He had just found a book with theoretically infinite content that he could read forever. This was the farthest thing from terrible.
But the manual could read his mind. The Powers could read his mind. But of course they could; why was he surprised? He’d sworn himself into their service. Beings as ancient as those he was dealing with would not leave him room to defy them even in his own thoughts.
It occurred to him now that the person in the void whose very stronghold was made to look like the symbol of death itself would probably have had no problem killing him. He was fairly sure now that he had made the wrong choice.
His breath caught. He waited. He wasn’t struck down for the thought. So maybe changing the manual had been a lucky guess.
No, they had answered his thoughts directly already. He shouldn’t be surprised to see them read his mind again. But maybe they had chosen to overlook passing ideas, or had chosen to overlook grumbling.
Whatever it might be, Loki set that aside and cast the spell he found in the manual, and found that someone had used the Art to protect one, and only one, of the journals. But the spell was nearly out of power, and Loki bypassed it easily. He took that journal from the shelf, checked one more time for traps, and opened it.
The pages were very well preserved—he knew they weren’t new—and the ink stood out clear and black against the pages. Everything was written very neatly. There was only one problem: it was nonsense. There were two symbols, only two, in what appeared to be random arrangements. He saw no pattern in it. The Alltongue saw no meaning in it. It was obviously code, and not one of the sorts that the Alltongue could parse—or else it was a decoy. It had no spells in it that might go off and hurt him, and no tracking spells; he had checked for those already.
Loki took the journal and left Asgard. At worst it would waste his time and alert Odin. At best, it would be a place to start, and might give him some idea of where to find answers.
So it was something.
Loki took the journal to Jotunheim entirely at random; he had to go somewhere to read it, so he took it there, and sat at the base of a cliff, leaning against it and feeling the coldness of the rock. Just to avoid trouble if he was seen, he assumed his Jotun form, though he was still invisible. So far the Powers That Be had not called him back to the crater, and there was no sign that anything was amiss. The ley lines were fine. The Lone Power had still not appeared. So Loki read the journal, undisturbed.
He could see no pattern to the nonsense, and wondered whether the code might be unbreakable. It had been put into a two-symbol code, obviously; if Odin had then written a nonsense string of the same length, he could have compared the two, designated one of the symbols to mean that the message agreed with the nonsense and one to mean that it didn’t, and written that. If the result of that was what Loki had in his hands, he would never be able to break the code without also finding the key.
It was then that Loki realized that each set of facing pages was exactly the same length. If the left-hand page was short, so was the right-hand page. If the left-hand page was long, so was the right-hand page.
There was a relatively large patch of undisturbed snow nearby; Loki wrote in it with one finger. He found a short set of pages, and wrote what the previous step in the encoding should be for these if the left side was the message, and then, what it should be if the right side was the message. It was the right side, and the Alltongue allowed him to jump backward several steps to get something obviously not random, but just as obviously not entirely unencoded. The Allfather’s last line of defense was to write everything in references to things he would understand, but others might not.
Loki stayed on Jotunheim for a while before leaving for Midgard, to track down something to write out the rest of the journal entries on besides the iPad and the snow. His first idea was to buy supplies, but he had no Midgardian currency and was informed that it would be a violation of the Oath to hypnotise merchants into believing he had paid them, so in the end he found the home of the Advisory who had answered one of his forum threads. He rapped hard on her door and she answered.
“Dai stiho,” was the first thing he said to her. “I need to borrow whatever mortals write with. A lot of it.”
“You mean pen and paper? Sure. Come on in. Are you here on errantry?”
“You could say so.”
She led him into her house and showed him to a table in her kitchen. Then she went into another room and came back with a pen and several sheets of blindingly white paper with writing on only one side.
“This is just scrap paper; you can write on the back,” said the mortal.
“I’ll need more than this.”
“How much more?”
“Enough to transcribe everything in this book.” He held up the journal. He supposed Heimdall could see it as well as the wizard, but there would be no way to send anyone after him here for a long time. He hoped he would be dead on wizardly business before Asgard could get hold of him again. Or else that Asgard would decide to kill him quickly.
“You can get more from the box in the other room over there when you run out,” she said, gesturing toward the room she’d gotten the paper from. “I’m leaving later today on business and I really hope I’ll be back by tonight, but you know how it is in this business. Stay if you have to, just don’t leave a mess and don’t let anybody in that I wouldn’t let in.”
“Who would you let in?” Loki asked, not sure whom someone who allowed a stranger like him free reign of the place wouldn’t allow inside.
“Just don’t let in anybody who’s not a wizard. Wizards are fine, we’re all working for the same cause, but nobody else.” Ah. She would offer her home to other wizards—or, to put it another way, a servant of the Powers would allow them to house their other tools in her home. “What? What’s that look for?”
Loki had learned in his thousand years that saying “nothing” or “I’m fine” was the fastest way to guarantee that someone newly-suspicious would never let it go. So instead, he answered, “Only wishing I could live my life for myself.”
“Yeah, it gets rough. Anyway, I’ll be upstairs getting ready. While I’m still here, just call me if you need anything.”
“You have my thanks.”
She left, and Loki set to work reversing the final step of the encoding, writing out the binary code of the entire journal. While he focused on one symbol at a time, he couldn’t read it. But as soon as he looked at the thing as a whole, the Alltongue parsed which letter was signified by which series of symbols, and allowed him to read it.
The first three pages were all entirely inane, or else in yet another code—Odin wrote things like “Lopt and Hoenir have quit coming up with arguments and started calling each other names” and “if someone doesn’t quit arguing and go hunt soon we won’t live long enough to worry about our future beyond this winter” for three days straight (each entry was dated, though not using the calendar Asgard used now). Then came the fourth entry, which covered several pages. “I worry that I’ll forget; I’ve seen others lose their power and memory for having doubts about the Powers Who give it.” Immediately following this was a description of the Art and the Oath, and then… “I am nearly certain they mean well, and that the Lone One is a danger to us all. I am no longer certain our common enemy gives us common cause. Beyond this, I have worried about all the Nine Realms and worlds beyond my people’s ken for so long, and have spent so much of my power on them, that I refuse to keep going without compensation. My people number a dozen, in a land that yields its produce only grudgingly and then from only a limited area. Everyone is tired; everyone is young, and yet everyone is tired. In hindsight, wisdom grants only an endless series of impossible choices, and awareness of ourselves means only awareness of our own suffering. I’m starting to hate living. This is why I agree with Lopt now: Asgard must rise to greatness, comfort, and power; or else we must all die. Hoenir is wrong. We cannot live like this any longer. We cannot be patient. We cannot wait and stay in our place; we must make a new place for ourselves, atop the world.
“I know They will think practicing the Art in Their service is too much for me. It’s too much, not for me, but for my people.”
He went on like this at length, justifying his choice. No, justifying his Choice, the Choice of Asgard to accept entropy and death as the price for glory. It had evidently all happened very fast—the Aesir had attained ecclesis very suddenly and completely, then Odin had risen to power and learned the Art within a matter of years, and then had come the Choice. All of this would have been an eternity ago, shrouded in myth for the younger generations. Nearly everyone now alive had grandparents too young to remember.
Then came descriptions of the Art, and of the Powers, recorded in case Odin forgot them. Then an entry saying only, “We have made our choice.”
Then several weeks worth of entries describing Asgard’s meteoric rise to power and Odin’s retirement from wizardry and refusal to answer the Powers’ call, and his slow loss of the Art. He made references so obscure Loki understood only half of them—references to the beginning of Asgard’s history, to what must be in-jokes shared with Lopt and Hoenir, and to things Loki couldn’t begin to guess at.
Then came the answer Loki had been looking for: “The Powers called on a new wizard to stop us from declaring war on Vanaheim. We do not even stand against a common enemy; the Lone One’s bargain with us is to our satisfaction, and we accept the price. The Powers ask allegiance to Them above allegiance to Asgard. I will stamp out the use of the Art here, or else I fear for my throne and my people’s safety.”
Asgard was sevarfrith because the Art was outlawed.
The Art was outlawed because it invited disloyalty.
Loki had just committed treason. He had done that before, but only once, and never like this. He would never be able to hide this for long, assuming Heimdall or Odin didn’t already know. Nor could he make up for something of this magnitude. He had sworn himself to obey another power above his king, and above the good of Asgard.
He had no allies save the Powers’ other servants, but he had enemies. Oh, did he have enemies.
Loki stayed in the mortal’s house for the rest of the day, and helped himself to her hospitality—meaning her refrigerator, which turned out to be full of magically-chilled food such as he had thought only Asgard had. He had nowhere else to get food from, aside from Jotunheim. And he had nowhere to sleep tonight, either. Certainly not Asgard ever again; he was twice a traitor now, sworn to a foreign power, an enemy of Asgard’s crown prince, and never going home. He was never going back to Asgard. He would never again be safe there, if ever he had been.
His only allies were the Powers, and then only if they could be considered allies; it would be more accurate to call them masters, and they were surely enemies of Odin, since he had broken his own oath to them.
Odin had broken the Oath?
Odin had broken the Oath and gone on to rule Asgard for millennia? He had broken the Oath, and gone on to have children who could succeed him, and to build a reputation that would surely outlast him by many scores of generations?
Loki asked the voice in his head that read his mind how this had happened.
Because punishment as the Powers used it was for correction, he was told. Because anyone might turn away from them, but they would not stop caring even for traitors.
Which, Loki thought, made the ancient and unknowable gods of old less dangerous to him now than his own family.
He asked the voice if he would be allowed to end it now. If they would stop him. If they would force him to continue on living unless he could convince them he was a threat.
They would rather he didn’t, was the answer. But they would not themselves step in directly to stop him.
He could do it. He could end it here and now. So before he lost his nerve—
He heard the front door open. Of course. They wouldn’t step in themselves, but they would send another of their servants to preserve life, exactly as the Oath required.
“I’m back!” the owner of the house called. “The hell’d you do to my thermostat? It’s freezing in here!”
Loki sat back down at the kitchen table and waited. What he was waiting for, he didn’t know. They wouldn’t step in to enforce the Oath, not with the force he had thought they would. He could give up. But he couldn’t end it. There was nothing more for him to do, nothing at all.
So he sat there, waiting for nothing in particular. Waiting, perhaps, for the heat death of the universe, or for his own death, whichever came first. Or waiting to know what to do now, when there was nothing more to do.
“How’s your project going?” she asked, looking at the transcription on the table. She was speaking a mortal tongue, but evidently she also knew the Speech, because she held up a page and asked, “Whose diary is this and why are they talking about Norse gods? Did you get that from Asgard?”
“I stole it,” he said. It seemed so pointless to answer her. He was just as lost either way.
“Is this…” She picked up another page. “Is this about Asgard’s Choice?”
She set down the papers. “Wow.”
She looked down at the papers, then at him, then back to the papers. She nodded slowly, then let out a breath that wasn’t quite a sigh.
“So. You staying for dinner?”
He had no particular desire to. But then, he had nowhere else to be, and no particular desire to find anywhere to live while he waited for the Bifrost to be rebuilt so he could be captured and brought home.
“Hey, you okay?” she asked, after he spent a while not answering her.
If he told her he was fine, there was every chance she would know he wasn’t. But what did it matter if she did?
“No,” he said. “No, I am not okay. I have been tricked into taking an oath of service to life and the Powers That Be, I have lost everything, and even the Lone Power doesn’t think me worth challenging. I am such a useless wizard that I’m neither worth challenging nor worth sending on an Ordeal more difficult than a camping trip. So no. No, I am not okay.”
It had stopped mattering now whether some mortal knew this or not. What did he care? She could hardly make anything any worse. He could win neither respect nor fear; he knew that now. He could have charity, if he lived as the Powers’ most unsatisfactory servant. He could never have what he had been raised to think was his right. Perhaps he should leave here, and go lie wherever filthy mortals lived when they were homeless and of no use to anyone, least of all themselves.
“And do you know what else?” he said, cutting off his host when she started to say something. “I don’t care in the slightest about entropy, or life, or the universe or the Powers or the Oath.” He was breathing hard now. He was out of control and he knew it and he could barely bring himself to care, let alone to do anything about it.
There was a pause. He was out of things to say, and yet felt as if the pressure within him had not been even slightly relieved. He could feel a scream trying to claw its way past his throat.
“I guess they sent you here to have your breakdown, huh? Well, it’s probably not the worst place you could lose it.”
“Then I will go have my ‘breakdown’, as you put it, somewhere worse.”
He left without taking the journal with him. Night was falling. He heard laughter and could not bring himself to care where it came from. A prince might care if he were being mocked and seek to avenge himself, but what did a homeless, unwanted frost giant care? What right did he have to care, anyway? He had nothing anymore. He had himself mocked people in this position. In the position he had been in all his life, unknowingly. He was no prince, nor even Asgardian, and so had no right to the comfort he had come to expect, nor the right to vengeance against those who dared hurt him, because he was of no account and no value. He had been raised to think that it mattered what happened to him, that he should not have to suffer indignities, or be deprived of home and family, or forced to live off of the charity of lesser races like humans. But he was one of those lesser races, and he was nothing, no one, and his fall from grace was only to be expected. Would that he had been raised to accept that he deserved nothing; it stung now as if he were a Prince of Asgard and entitled to home and family and comfort and dignity, instead of an abandoned frost runt of no worth whatsoever.
He wandered, not sure where he was going and sure it didn’t matter. He was likely an outlaw now, to be treated with as much kindness as would be spared for a wolf menacing someone’s farm. He could no longer claim any family, not that they had ever been his to begin with. His very skin was a lie, and what was under it was the ugly, misshapen form of a Jotun. He had no value to anyone except to the Powers as their tool, and he couldn’t even serve them when he found himself agreeing with Odin that there were things worth eventually dying for, and things worse than entropy. His only worth was to them and it was nothing, because he couldn’t even be an obedient servant.
He heard laughter, and ignored it.
There was nothing to be done now. He had always been weak, always known he was weak, but he had been able to deal with that before. He had been able to get what he wanted even so, by careful application of enough force (if only just) at those times and in those places where it would most matter. He had been able, with a well-placed word, to be the difference between life and death.
And he had therefore learned to see quickly where not to strike, where it would do no good, when a situation was hopeless. And this situation was hopeless. It had always been hopeless, all along; he simply hadn’t known until now.
He was of no account. His thoughts came back to that, over and over. He was of no account, and what he did and what had been done to him was also of no account, and that meant—
He felt a hand on his shoulder and spun around, already driving an elbow into where his assailant’s stomach ought to be. Whoever it was evaded him and backed away.
“I just felt like telling you,” said the person, who felt like something much more than a mortal, “it does matter. You matter. You’re important.”
He wasn’t important anymore, he didn’t matter and never had, and this only served as a reminder of that. By habit, he called to mind every argument he had against the person who had spoken, who was clearly not a mortal. He didn’t matter; he was no longer in a position to take the throne, or even to visit Asgard; he was stuck here, traveling the worst of the realms, not daring to go anywhere even as nice as Vanaheim. He had no family. He was a monster. This stranger’s attempt at kindness only served to remind him (as if he needed a reminder) that he could not bear to live like this. There was truly nothing left for him except to see if he could end this without any other wizards getting in his way.
It occurred to him that no true stranger would want to help him, besides which, this was no random passerby. This was one of the Powers, he realized all of a sudden; and on closer scrutiny, he was sure he was right. How dare they lie to him! How dare they treat him like a child who could be soothed and made to obey with sweet lies!
By now she was walking away, and he realized the laughter was hers.
He would ignore her. He was of no account. What had happened to him didn’t matter, so he had no right to vengeance, nor even to feel this way—to stew in it, more like, to blow a few slights to an unimportant beast out of all proportion. A good joke it was, getting upset over his situation as if he were a prince.
He was nothing but a tool of the Powers, and… at least the people (if they could be called people) of Jotunheim had benefited from that. If he were to live on, as nothing but a tool of the Powers, to be used to preserve life and make the world safe for it, at least that would be of benefit to someone, somewhere, even if not him.
He was nothing; he could live with that. And he might have come to the realization sooner if not for the Power who now looked over her shoulder at him. She had, if anything, nearly kept him from the realization, and nearly lost their tool. Nearly killed their tool. And that was not something he had expected the Powers to do.
She walked away, having said her piece, and having gotten her claws into him. And Loki, for his part, regretted only that he hadn’t had the chance to greet her properly. He had been planning a mock bow, too, right after “I bid you greeting” and before “and defiance”.
But she was gone, and he had faced her and it had been very anticlimactic. He wasn’t dead, and he wasn’t full of pride and high on battle as he might have expected to be in the case of victory. He was only tired and empty. But now it was done with.
He walked back to the Advisory’s home, and this time didn’t worry about his own thoughts. He reached out with every sense, mundane and magical, to search for anyone who might need help. Anyone facing an untimely end or suffering loss or illness or mired in hopelessness. That was all he was for now—and the thought still stung, but not so badly. When he reached her home, he knocked on the door, and when she answered it, he asked if he might stay the night after all. To come crawling back would have wounded his pride, but he had no pride to wound now. He was the Powers’ tool. Whatever anyone might think of him, it mattered only if it made his work harder.
He smiled to himself. He had always wanted to be shameless.
The next day was easier, though not easy. Loki woke, reminded himself that he was nothing now but the servant of the Powers, and left after breakfast to go looking for people who needed wizardly help, of either sort. He had caught the scent of illness in the night air, so he went looking for that, and on his way, he heard an argument. Or, not an argument. He heard, with ears keener than any ordinary mortal’s, a man speaking at barely more than a whisper, inside a house he was passing by.
“…even think of doing something like that again, you inconsiderate, ungrateful little brat—”
“I said I was sorry!” a girl shouted, so loudly that even a mortal might have heard her.
“You said that last time, too. You said that this morning and you said that three times yesterday and twice the day before and I really don’t care how many times you tell me you’re sorry. If you don’t knock it off, I will make you sorrier than you can imagine.” He spoke quietly, but to call his voice soft would be a lie. He spoke in a furious hiss, not at all like—
Loki started walking again and told himself not to care about the girl. She had brought it on herself and if she would just be a better daughter, smarter and stronger, if she would just do what she was told—
He sped up to get out of earshot faster, and went to find whoever it was that was sick. He caught the scent around a diner and around a gas station, and that was all. After several minutes, he came to the conclusion that whoever it was was no longer in town—which served very well to free him of responsibility.
Other problems existed, but most everything else was more subtle, and anyway, the day was heating up. He headed back toward the home of the Advisory (Chloe May, she called herself). Along the way, he passed the house with the misbehaving girl and heard the soft smack of flesh against flesh, and felt his breathing catch.
Stupid girl, making her father angry again so soon. Or else this was the same thing, going on and on and on, in which case she must have made him very angry indeed.
Loki went, not to the Advisory’s home, but to the door of the contemptibly disobedient girl’s house, and knocked. Hard. Perhaps harder than was warranted. He forced himself to breathe deeply and slowly.
The girl’s father came to the door: not as tall as Loki, but muscular, face covered in short, black beard stubble, and calm blue eyes meeting Loki’s gaze without any apparent anxiety. “You must be the solar energy guy,” said the mortal.
“I’m afraid I’m someone else,” said Loki. He called on his own magic—the old and familiar sort—for a use he had only studied and never practiced. He knew in theory how to take hold of and manipulate a mind directly, but the sheer amount of power needed to influence an Asgardian at all had never made it feasible before. But a mortal… maybe, if he was very careful, if he was very efficient, and if he kept to the one thing he really cared about…
The man blinked and tilted his head to the side, confused. Loki leaned against the doorframe to keep himself upright. There was no resistance when Loki suggested to the man that he loved his daughter. There was no resistance when he suggested that the man wanted what was best for her. So he pushed on, and suggested very sweetly that if his attempts at discipline could fail with such a wonderful girl as this, maybe he was taking the wrong tack. Maybe he should try a different approach.
That met with resistance. Loki flattened it down, and hoped he wouldn’t leave the man a drooling idiot.
“Yeah, you’re right,” the man said, though Loki had said nothing aloud. “You’re right. I’m glad we had this talk.”
Loki left, and barely got out of view of the front windows before collapsing.
Never again. Never again would he try that without much more power than he had access to now.
A while later, a passing human helped him get to the Advisory’s house, and from there the Advisory herself helped him to her couch and brought him some water, apparently thinking it was the heat that had brought him low. When she left him alone, he took his iPad out of the same pocket dimension where he had hidden the Casket of Ancient Winters.
The Powers were silent about what he had done. He’d expected them to be displeased—wasn’t he supposed to avoid interfering except to save a life? Wasn’t mind control the sort of tactic they would disapprove of? Asgard would certainly never have approved of it. But the Powers were silent, and the mortal wizards all claimed that meant they were pleased.
Everything he’d done so far to keep the Oath had been in violation of the Oath as he had made it in the void. Clearly, it needed to be reworded.
He turned on the iPad and went to the forum, and found the sticky thread for restatements of the Oath, and started typing.
“In the name and for the sake of all those things which can perceive pleasure or pain in any way,” he wrote, “I swear the following:
First, that for this oath, I will define ‘good’ as avoiding pain and protecting and allowing pleasure for anything capable of feeling either or both.
Second, that, inasmuch as it is possible to do so despite the complexity of the systems on which I act, I will do good and only good.
Third, that, inasmuch as it is necessary to prevent or delay entropy to allow life time to survive and grow, that good might be done to it and by it, I will delay entropy to the extent that it is good to do so.
Fourth, that I will endeavor to remember that the complexity of the systems on which I act is such that even I cannot know all possible consequences ahead of time, and will therefore try to be conservative in making changes to any living thing.
Fifth, that I will not allow fear for my own life or my own pride to hinder the quest outlined above.
Sixth, that should I and a majority of wizards or of the Powers That Be agree that a course of action is right that conflicts with the Oath, the Oath will not take precedence.”
He could live with that.