I stood there on that silent plain at the end of the world for a long time. I wasn’t sure how long. Time didn’t seem terribly meaningful, in that place. In a way I supposed that made sense. This was the place where the conventions of my world started to break down. Time was probably no exception.
I felt comfortably numb, now. Before I’d been in turmoil, in mental agony, even. Now that it was over and done, there was no real emotion. Just…numbness.
I didn’t think of anything in particular as the blood soaked into me and poured out across the plain. Fenris had been large, very large; as the blood kept slowly draining out of the wound in his throat it made a sizable pool on the ground.
I felt like I should probably have been seeing my life flash before my eyes, or otherwise having some sort of vision quest experience. I wasn’t. I’d already done that; I’d made my peace with this before I ever came here. The cards were already on the table. There was nothing left to do now but play it out.
After some length of time, I felt…something. I wasn’t sure what it was, or even how I was perceiving it. It was another question that didn’t seem worth asking.
Following that impulse, I turned, raising Tyrfing to point at empty air as I moved.
Less than a second later, Loki appeared a few inches in front of the sword. The god of madness considered the scene for a few moments, then raised one eyebrow ever so slightly. “Impressive work,” he said. His lips had a twisted smile on them, but there was no humor in his voice at all.
“I’m not in the mood for games,” I said, gesturing very slightly with the sword.
“Do you really think you’re in a position to be making demands?” he asked, sounding vaguely amused now.
“I think,” I said, in a very slow, measured tone, “that this sword was made for killing gods. I think that it just killed Fenris and that action is too significant for it not to have left a mark on the weapon that did the deed. I think that I have very little left to lose. And I think that we both know it’s time to drop the masks and the games and just have an honest conversation.”
He smiled again, a fainter but more honest expression. “Touché,” he said. “Where do you want to start, then? Do you expect me to monologue about how my evil plans have finally come to fruition like a bad comic book villain?”
I stared at him for a few moments, then said, “Was it hard?”
“Was what hard?”
I gestured vaguely with the sword, since I didn’t have a free hand to use right now. “This,” I said. “All of it. The scheming, the manipulation, setting your son up to die. Was it hard?”
Loki was silent for a few moments. “Not practically,” he said at last. “No. It was a very easy plan, as such things go. Very straightforward, plenty of time to plan things out.”
I didn’t say that he hadn’t answered my question, because really, he had.
“Don’t try to act the white knight,” he said a few seconds later, likely guessing where my thoughts were going. “You and I are much alike, Winter. You have your share of blood on your hands.”
“Don’t think I’ve ever denied that,” I said. “But I’ve never done…this.”
“Done what?” he asked archly. “Killed someone who didn’t deserve it? Betrayed a friend? Set someone up to fail and die for something that wasn’t their fault?” He shook his head, not seeming concerned about how close the motion took his throat to the sword. “You said it yourself, Winter,” he said, almost gently. “It’s time to drop the masks. It’s time for the truth to come out. And the truth is that while you may have told yourself to do the right thing, this is hardly the first time that circumstances have required you to do what is actually the needful thing.”
I didn’t respond.
“I’m sorry that it happened this way,” Loki said. “You might not believe me, but I do genuinely regret the necessity of this. I made some mistakes, a long time ago, and Fenris is the one that paid for them. But in the end, it was necessary. And yes, it was…hard, to do this. To make this choice. But if I had the choice I’d do it all again.”
I thought about arguing with him. There didn’t seem to be much point. Nothing I could say would ever, ever change Loki’s mind.
“You know,” I commented, “I somehow thought that this would change things. That finally talking about it, confronting you, would…I don’t know. Put it in perspective, I guess. But now it just feels…pointless.”
“I regret that, as well,” he said. “What I’ve done to you, I mean. I am genuinely fond of you, Winter. I would like for things to be different.”
“Isn’t that just how it goes,” I sighed. “If only things could be different, huh?”
“If there are crueler words, I don’t know them,” Loki said. “But things aren’t different. This is the world we have.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.” I paused again. “You know, it’s funny,” I said. “You’d think I’d be nervous right now. Having cold feet, trying to delay as much as I can. Instead I find I just want to get things over with.”
“What do you mean?”
I sighed. “Come on, Loki,” I said. “I’m not a moron. This whole thing wasn’t just about killing Fenris. If that was all you wanted you could have done it yourself ages ago. I think we both know what’s coming next.”
“You’ve gotten more astute,” Loki said.
“Or maybe just less naive,” I said.
He nodded. “Possible. Well, since you’re in such a hurry, I’ll get right to the point, then. Fenris was working to undermine our world in recent years, but his existence was still necessary. His role was a necessary one for our survival. Now that he is no more, someone else will have to fill it.”
“And you want that someone to be me.” It wasn’t a question.
“You demonstrably have the necessary skills,” he said, with a trace of dry humor in his voice.
I shook my head. “Unbelievable,” I said. “You set all this up, from before I was even born, so that I could kill your son and take his place. Un-freaking-believable.” I shook my head again. “How do you live with yourself?” I asked. “That’s a serious question, by the way. How do you live with yourself with what you’ve done?”
“Every day,” he said, “every single day I look at the world I helped to build. I look at people who spend their days on self-serving nonsense, who lie and cheat and steal and kill. I look at people who hate us and would destroy us if they could, and they don’t even know what we do for them. I look at people who live their whole short lives, from birth to death, with never any understanding of how large the world is.” His voice was very quiet, and deadly serious.
I stared, fascinated. I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard Loki sound this passionate before, or this sincere.
“And I look at them, too,” he said, gesturing out at the wall I could just barely see. “They’re out there, Winter. All the time, they’re out there, looking in at us. They would destroy us if they could, not out of any malice, but simply because that is what they are. And I know that what I do is what stands between all of those people and an utterly remorseless threat which they have no capacity to fight.”
“So you’re using the greater good defense,” I said. “That’s…not what I was expecting, honestly.”
He shrugged. “I don’t always like what I do,” he said. “But what I do is necessary to protect the world.”
“If this is what it takes to preserve the world,” I said quietly, “then maybe this world deserves to end.”
“Maybe it does,” he agreed. “But do you have the right to make that choice for all the billions of people that would end with it?”
“No,” I said. “But I have the right to make that choice for me. And I’m done. I’m done with your games and your plans, with you and Hunter and your pointless little war. As far as I’m concerned you’re both equally bad, and you can both go screw yourselves.” I lowered the sword to hang by my side, staring defiantly into Loki’s eyes.
“I could make you do it,” he said.
“Controlling me to that extent would make me pretty much just an automaton,” I said. “Just following your orders, not acting on my own initiative. And if all you wanted was an automaton, you could just make a construct for that.”
“Did I mention that you’ve gotten more astute?” he asked, sounding a bit annoyed now. “Because you have. So why shouldn’t I just kill you, then, if you won’t do what I need?”
“Because that would mean that Fenris died for nothing,” I said, with a slightly manic grin. “That would mean admitting you failed. And you can’t do that, can you? So you’ll tell yourself that you can talk me around in time, that your plan can still work.” I shook my head. “You won’t kill me, Loki,” I said. “You were never going to kill me. The only difference is that this time I’m calling your bluff.”
I threw Tyrfing down at his feet, and gave him the finger. Then, without waiting for a response, I turned and walked away.
I’d walked away from Tyrfing more times than I could remember. Somehow, though, this time I knew it wouldn’t follow me, that it was well and truly done.
I would have expected to be glad about it.