A/N: If you haven't checked out my profile lately, you'll find a link to the cover art for this arc and a poll-I can only display one poll at a time, so every week I'll switch between polls for Hermione and Harry's pairings. With that said, thank you for waiting.
To Ride Upon Svadilfari
Memorialized in Minkowski Spacetime
Loki watched with a certain amount of disdain as the others trundled obediently to the doors, obeying without so much as a token resistance. In what seemed no time at all, only he and Hel remained in the great hall.
She looked on him with a lively curiosity, her woman-child's frame and the simple summer gown she wore making the study more unnerving rather than less. "The only other beings I know thought to be parent and child that look less alike are Odin and Frigga and yourself," she observed, her smile widening though Loki would have given oath he gave no indication that he was affected by the comment. Whether he was stung more deeply by the implication that he should have known himself to be no blood of Odin's or the persistent belief that every venture he undertook with good intention, every action meant harmlessly or in good faith, could only end in evil, he himself could give no answer.
Man, whether mortal or Æsir, could never hope to outlive a bad reputation. Whether he lived only five hundred years more or five thousand, there would always be someone who would refuse to let him rise above himself and his past mistakes, even if he cared to. And even if he did, he could never forget the children he had unwittingly fathered. The children who were born to herald the end of the world as the Æsir knew it.
"You won't enter a door?" Hel asked.
"And enter a darkness that never dissipates?" Loki asked, raised a dark brow expressively. "Or is having us in your kingdom not guarantee enough against treachery? Even children know that death walks abroad at night and your power increases exponentially in darkness."
"And yet the others chose to enter. Are they more courageous than you or simply more committed to the quest?"
"Doubtless both, but courage is most often synonymous with foolishness and quests are for those with something to prove. I am neither a fool, nor do I feel a desperate need to prove myself to anyone."
Hel frowned. "Liar," she accused softly. "They'll ruin you yet for lies-it couldn't be written on your face more clearly that you desperately want someone to believe in you wholeheartedly. What is a god without faith? Without belief? Do they cease to exist? Or do they become something much more like a man and less like a god? Why are you here, Sky Traveler?"
"Won't you just tell me what it is I'm supposed to do?" Loki asked irritably.
"No. I'm the quest-giver. And I wish to be satisfied that I won't have you lurking about my kingdom with every intention of circumventing the quest altogether. It might be my kingdom, but I do not underestimate your ability to cause trouble."
Though it remained irksome that Hel seemed to want to converse, for he had no desire to antagonize the keeper of the Books of Hel, he was beginning to regret his earnest intentions in coming here. Since he was already suspected of plotting to steal Baldur's soul rather than earn it, he might have saved himself a great deal of trouble if he'd done just that.
"If you were considering it, you should know that I've given his soul into the Ghostlord's companion's keeping. Could even your silvered tongue convince that one to compromise?"
Loki scowled. Even on his limited acquaintance with Hermione, despite her capacity for what others might see as cruel action and she simply thought of as pragmatic, he knew that she deeply invested herself in 'rules'. And unless her faith was shaken to the point it could no longer survive, she would cling to them, as if the greater rules that governed the universe might fall apart if she didn't obey the smaller, invented ones. Still, there was something odd in her tone when she said 'keeping.' Hermione already kept dangerous company, so taking on a ghost as a companion likely wouldn't be any different for her than being accompanied by any other kind of being.
But there was a kind of heavy satisfaction hanging on that word as it passed from Hel's lips. Loki doubted she would be actively malicious toward the 'Ghostlord's companion,' first and foremost because Harry had left no doubt that that kind of competition for his affection would guarantee that it would be lost forever. But Hel was inextricably linked with Death, and Death could not help but bring ugly realizations of the self. "What do you mean, 'keeping'?" he asked. "Surely even Ms. Granger wouldn't simply agree to keep charge of our trophy. And, last I knew, Baldur was still capable of making decisions for himself. Did he transform into a cow since last we checked, to be led docilely from one keeper to the next?"
"Baldur is a dead god forgotten among mortals. He has become...pliable, of late. But his opinion would have come to naught regardless. You know in part that both of them have a relationship with Death outside what we know and I've told you of the Lord of Ghosts. But his companion's hands drip with the blood of bygone battlefields, the air about her populated with heroes who were slain by a caprice mortals are forced to call fate in their ignorance."
"If the Ghostlord is a god of the dead as I am, the girl is a decider of battles much as the Allfather is and as selfish with those souls so doomed. With so many in chains, what was one more soul?" Hel shifted so that she nearly lay in her throne, elbow on the armrest, face cradled in one hand. "Don't you think the gods of sovereignty are the cruelest gods?" she asked him, tone light, but eyes demanding.
His lip quirked slightly in response to that. "Most think the gods of death cruelest."
"Only because they think justice beyond the reach of any influence they are capable of wielding is cruel. Death offers them nothing, cannot be bought, cannot be swayed, cannot be escaped, and cannot be understood, so mortals, limited as they are, fear us unreasonably."
"True." Loki was silent for a moment, then decided that Hel would have already guessed at his interest in his companions, so asking would do no further harm. "What else can you tell me of the two of them?"
"What's this? Curiosity?" White lashes swept down as her eyes were briefly obscured, one lid so translucently white that the dull metallic gleam of her iris and the darkness of her pupil were still visible. "They think of themselves as mortals with powers and, led by their example, you do the same, but it would be wiser to think of them as the gods of a foreign world. Their powers are different than ours, more vast in scope if more limited in scale for all that they were intended to live shorter lives, and yet the longer they remain in these Nine Realms, the easier it will become to relate them to existences as you understand them. One of rules, laws, order, learning, sovereignty, and battle; one of fire, courage, healing, rebirth and the dead, unfaltering friendship and stalwart companionship."
Her eyes opened, gleaming gold. "You may approach my throne," she said by way of invitation and bringing an end to their former conversation.
"My thanks, but I would prefer that you didn't force the memories of the dead upon me through contact with your flesh."
Hel smiled, then breathed into her hand. Her breath crystallized in the chill air and hung there glittering, assuming greater substance and color, until it was tiny jewels which dropped into her hand. She tossed them lazily in his direction and he caught them handily. "Peruse them at your leisure then," she said. "Your geas is to be a bitter one. You won't be able to lie to one of your companions; in fact you'll be compelled to tell them the truth. But which companion? I think it best a surprise. And a continual surprise at that. It will shift, you see. According to the sun, the moon, the tides, who could know? I'm sure your relationships will improve exponentially."
Loki snarled silently at Hel, but made no argument against it. That would only leave him with an even more unfavorable geas-perpetual honesty for the duration of the quest wouldn't be beyond Hel.
He became aware that he'd been making more excuses against argument, when once, regardless of the outcome, he would have tried to match his glib cleverness against whatever passed for wit on their side. Was it a kind of exhaustion, after the recent events? Or was it something else? A niggling fear that his abilities would no longer suffice? But Loki refused to think himself cowed and so dismissed the thought as quickly as it came, for the logic behind acquiescing to Hel was sound enough.
"My oath, then, that I will abide by your geas." Though he certainly could have done without the compulsion to tell the truth; the simple requirement to do so was so easily outwitted it was laughable. "Are we taking the long road or will you shorten our paths, Goddess of Crossroads?"
Hel smirked faintly. "Of course I shall shorten you paths. However else can I be assured that you take no inadvisable roads? Wander where I wouldn't have you? Allow you to avoid all company you might regard as companions?"
"Given your appalling tendency to predict what I'm thinking, you might very well be my daughter."
"No. Just a faithful watcher, who has been at her post since before you were born. It was night when the Allfather found you, fresh come from a battlefield and the loss of an eye, a friend, and a father. Helheim overlapped that night with Jotunheim. I watched as he picked you up, cradled you gently in hands still stained with the blood of your race, and waited for him to dash your brains against the stone. But he didn't. Even," and the tone of her voice changed slightly, "when there was a true prophecy concerning the son he would take in. A prophecy that ended in his death and in Ragnarok itself. Now what reason could the grim, fearsome god who build the worlds from the bones and body of Ymir have, really, for saving you? Unless," and now her voice verily danced with a delight that was chilling, "it was the Allfather who first dreamt of the end of the world?"
"He would never-," the words escaped Loki before he realized he had automatically come to the defense of the being he had such complex feelings about.
"Wouldn't he?" Hel asked, rising until she was sitting properly in her throne. "What do you really know of the Allfather when you call him simply 'Father'? All your life, short as it has been, the great battles that shook the Ninefold Realms had been ended, the Valkyries locked away in your childhood, the Raven-god grown old in the absence of the campaigns that kept him young and fierce. I have wanted to speak to the sons of the Grey Beard for an age, but I find both of you something of a disappointment. You are both children. And you are getting quite old to still be a child."
Brows furrowed, Loki asked, "Then you also resent Odin?"
"Also? No. Helheim might not be the sunlight and golden fields that please the Æsir, but I have been given the rule of a Realm where all the stories of Nine Realms gather like rain collected in a basin, sweet and refreshing and endlessly interesting. But Baldur's sorrow is rainwater grown stale and stagnant-I have great hopes that your tale will be of greater interest."
"Now," she said with all the inherent, infuriating smugness of a cat, "won't you go and enliven things a bit in the wider world? Odin and Freya hoard the most interesting souls, but this time-this time, it is Hel who shall pass the long nights with the tales of those who did not die after herding cows, raising pigs and children, and loving the same woman or man for years on years. The modern world is duller yet, those passing into my halls recalling only the alienation of a world crowded full to overflowing, living lives painted industrial beige, cubicles crowding them together like caged chickens, deaf and blind to miracles and any gods but those of their own invention. Their memories and stories make for dull gems that hardly gleam, the water tasteless. I will have kings of the age now past, Loki."
Hel suffered through Hermione's questioning with no appearance of impatience once Hermione had managed to gather what wits she could. 'Amorously adventurous' was not something she'd ever considered herself and being all of a sudden kissed by another woman was more likely to disconcert her than the appearance of Inferi, giants, or fire-breathing dragons, all of which she had successfully confronted in the past. The experimentation of the boarding school experience was something she'd regarded with disdain and no little bemusement and she'd never regretted spending her time dogging the professors and haunting the library rather than having a more 'normal' childhood.
The familiar rhythm of answer-seeking helped to restore her equilibrium. She explored the geas and her task with the attention to minute inflections and the letter of the contract that had served her well when campaigning for Being rights. When at last she was satisfied that further questions could only be brought about by contact with the enemy, Hermione thanked Hel very correctly for her time and consideration, when served to amuse her.
"Such pretty manners, even when caught in the dark with the Queen of Hel, who is exacting her fair price for the soul of the White Prince. But politeness is only another road to order, which is your paramount concern. A place for everything and everything in its proper place, draining the chaos from existence until it is so brittle that no one else may co-exist with you in real peace. But that is only you at your worst-at your best, you stand nearly equal to my Ghostlord."
"But not equal?" Hermione asked, not terribly offended. She too thought the world of Harry and if she bothered to compare them at all, she generally judged them by different parameters. Unless those parameters were purely academic, Harry generally won, but he had earned a special exemption from her usual competitiveness. Saving one's life on a semi-regular basis deserved at least that much.
"No. Just as books are merely reflections of life, you might have the advantage of deeper thoughts and further knowledge, but there is always something to the likes of you and the Lord of the Æsir have in common. It as if your soul was born of the ice rather than the fire-there is something deep within that cannot be thawed by the passions. You will always be a stranger to being moved so deeply by an emotion that your whole being bends to it; advantage, perhaps, from one point of view, but it separates you from the seething mass of unruly hearts. I pity you," Hel said.
Pity was something Hermione could do without ever gaining. Especially from a parti-colored being who attacked unsuspecting persons in dark places.
"You're not," Hermione ventured, hoping to turn the conversation from herself, "particularly fond of Odin?"
Hel's expression was impossible to read in the utter darkness, but she pressed herself close, so that Hermione could almost fell the wry twist of her lips against her neck. "There is a reason," Hel said, "he was the god of kings and not of the common man. He gave man the runes and gained all wisdom, sees all things through the eyes of his ravens, but he mutilated his body and sacrificed whomever necessary in his obsessive need for knowledge. Have you seen Mimir's head? Thought of what it actually means to have your soul caught up from the battlefield to fight for a being and a race of gods whose end in battle was foretold long ago? The Vanir can see more truly than I, for the first of that race saw the end of the universe even as he was being born, but isn't there bountiful evidence to prove him more fearsome than either of his sons? The myths of the Sky Traveler have endured longer in the minds of mortals, but those who dwell in Hel have not forgotten the Gallows God. Powerful favor, capriciously withdrawn-I mock him now like age has gelded him, but I dare only because I dwell in Helheim, where he doesn't often bother to look. You've heard of it, perhaps seen it yourself? He is master of dark energy. He doesn't need the Hel-road nor the Bifrost to travel where he wills."
Hermione was uneasily reminded of how Odin had somehow managed to send Thor to Midgard during the Loki incident even though the Bifrost had remained shattered. "And by that you mean to imply?"
"The Liesmith isn't the only one who travels in secret and on errands of dubious intent. But perhaps it is meet for you to trust him so readily. You are of a kind, after all. Have you asked yourself why the Allfather, who can travel to Helheim freely, has allowed this perfect prince to remain in the dark for all these ages?"
Hel withdrew from her with a pleased sound as Hermione went rigid with the implications. "Well," Hel said, "there will be darkness aplenty where you shall travel. Time enough to think. And learn to enjoy Baldur. I think you shall profit greatly from his companionship."
Then Hel was gone, as if she'd never been present in the room, and the darkness was filled with the low, rumbling growl that she hadn't noticed being absent. "Are you well, sorceress?"
"Well enough," Hermione murmured. "But I'm a little turned about-which way is the door?"
A furred hand, weighty and solid, came down on her shoulder, the hrafngrim pelt mitigating the sensation somewhat, but she was beginning to grow accustomed to feeling somewhat insulated from the world. First had been the Hands, whose remarkable magic ought to have extended to allowing the metal to take sensation like bare flesh, but they didn't, and now with wearing armor and the cloak, she realized that Hel was the last person in a long time to have touched her bare skin.
With a gentleness that belied his size and strength, Bleiki guided her toward the door, but it was a slow, uncertain journey punctuated by the sound of snuffling.
"We are still in the room, aren't we?" Hermione asked tentatively, finally deciding that as Hel had not specified any restrictions against light, she might attempt her magic. But, like the darkness on the road, it wouldn't be dispersed by a simple lumos.
"I think the room has become one with the road," Bleiki snarled. "The Hel-Road does not lead between Realms, but it can be accessed from all Nine. From Hel, you can reach the other eight."
It was awkward to be led from behind for any length of time, so Hermione coaxed his hand from her shoulder so that she could rest her hand on his forearm. She missed her wand fiercely during the long, anxious moments, silently cursing Smelt. The Heart responded to her hate, warming her and washing away some of the uncertainty.
Eventually the utter darkness gave way to a darkness of the more regular sort, though it wasn't lit by a moon. The black sun of Svartalfheim glowered down at them, casting its inexplicable not-light across the uncompromising desert wasteland below. Bleiki's pale fur glimmered like it was frosted, lips drawn back to reveal long fangs. Sensing her gaze, some of the fierceness left his expression.
"Who are we seeking, sorceress?" Bleiki asked her.
A name resounded in her heart, her mind, and across the landscape of her soul. "Ivaldi," she answered him.
Recognition lit a fire in his pale eyes. "First and greatest king of the Svartalfr. Hel has chosen us mighty prey, then."
Hermione made a sound of agreement. "But...this Realm is devastated," she said, never one loath to point out the obvious. "All the memories Hel provided me with are of the Realm in its prime-essentially, they're useless. Still...if you want to hunt, you search for a creature in its natural environment. That's true of people too. A king who ruled a Realm for thousands of years would remain a king in spirit as well, even if he happened to outlive his kingdom."
She glanced over at Bleiki, whose gaze locked with hers before turning toward the black sun. "And all of Svartalfr's palaces are underground."
Hermione nodded. "Even in ruins, the underground is likely more hospitable than the surface world regardless. At the least, it will limit the area we have to search. If Ivaldi has remained beyond the reach of death for all this time, we're hardly likely to stumble upon him by accident."
Bleiki produced a rough bark of laughter. "Good thing, sorceress, that you thought to bring along your hound." Whereas all the werewolves she knew looked to be in tremendous pain in the midst of transformation and she'd only seen Bleiki take don and doff his coat with the ease of someone removing a jacket, something approaching bliss crossed the inhuman features of his face.
Bones and joints cracked as his form swelled, until an immense wolf of silvered white stood before her. Larger even than Freki or Geri, his pelt was as heavy as if they were in deepest winter. The collar about his neck had shifted itself accordingly, the intricate patterns writ so Hermione thought she might be able to read them now. Are you adverse to riding, sorceress? His voice resounded in her mind rather than her ears, almost as if it were a very peculiar form of Legilimancy that rippled across the surface but didn't intrude further.
So startled was Hermione that it took her a moment to answer. "Not," she said hesitantly, "if you're willing to bear me."
Bleiki was so tall at the shoulder that he had to crouch so that she could mount, her fingers digging deep into the ruff at his neck in place of reins. There was nothing to be done about the lack of saddle, but she was grateful that despite standing at least as tall as a draught horse, he wasn't as broad across the back. "Do you know where the entrances are?"
No, Bleiki replied. But scent will guide when vision fails. We will find a way beneath. The Dark-elves have their roads beneath. If they survived intact, we can travel between their residences with relative ease.
Hermione cast a doubtful eye at the graveyard of ships that was the surface. With this much large-scale seismic activity, millions of tons of metal impacting the surface, she thought that it might be a small miracle if any of the underground edifices had escaped collapse. Closing her eyes, Hermione tried a tentative probe of the Realm, but searching for the Ivaldi in her memories couldn't focus the Mirror. She felt the ripple of Bleiki's muscles beneath her as he sought by scent what she attempted to find by sight, but the Realm was much larger than she anticipated, the sprawling expanse above only a foreshadowing of the immense and complex realm below.
She gave it up when she felt the warmth of blood trickling down her cheeks. Several spells were as fruitless as the Mirror. No easy magic to solve their quandary then. Simple effort would have to prevail. "Bleiki."
" Ulfhedinn...they can become wolves? Not simply the werewolf?"
A long pause, punctuated only by the sound of sand shifting beneath paws meant for the treachery of ice and snow. Not true ulfhedinn.
True ulfhedinn are first human. I was born something else entirely. But that creature died with my name. i
"Were you really...really so terrible?"