Just as he had predicted, Loki’s projections weakened over time. Norah hardly noticed at first. Several years later, however, the fact was undeniable. Most days he would show up, folded against a chair or the wall, silent. In his moments of distraction, she noticed a certain haggardness which he failed to conceal. It took shape in the form of tired bags underneath his eyes or his increasingly unkempt hair. Sometimes something in his dress simply seemed off – a slightly disheveled look in the once pin-neat Prince. Tactfully, she avoided ever mentioning it.
There came a day when Loki’s magic waned to the point that he could no longer manifest physically. Norah was finishing her bachelor’s thesis on gender roles in Viking culture and had just celebrated her 22nd birthday. She had little idea as to what to do next with her life, but in the meantime she had secured a decent desk job at the Field Museum. She moved to an apartment by herself; ditching her roommates seemed like an important step towards adulthood. Loki still came to her – a presence in the air – and she talked to him as though nothing had changed. If neither could do anything to rectify the situation, there seemed little point to arguing about that fact. Norah would feel the telltale crackle of his energy manifest in her small apartment and she’d go about her business, folding laundry or making dinner and chatting away at him.
Tonight she was especially giddy, as she’d settled on her summer plans.
“I’ve got a month before I start work, so I thought I’d take a trip out west,” she explained. “South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana…it should be amazing.”
Loki’s surprise shivered through the air.
“What? You don’t like the idea? Well, I know there’s bears and stuff. I’m not planning on doing any back country camping. Just easy peasy car camping at the big parks. I’ll be fine. Besides, there’s no bilgesnipes in North America, at least not that I know of,” she joked, trying to lighten the mood.
Norah felt the king gamepiece around her neck grow heavy.
“I know, I know, Loki. You know I won’t forget it. I wear it everywhere.” She fingered the figurine out of habit. Loki hated when she travelled. Perhaps it took extra energy to find the bewitched charm that served as the gateway connecting them. She wasn’t sure. In any event, she wasn’t about to stop living her life simply because the god felt grumpy.
In the weeks leading up to her vacation, Loki seemed to linger around her as much as possible. He seemed agitated and unusually mercurial, filling the atmosphere with a sense of unease. Norah tried calming words, but it had little effect. He’d long since lost the strength for speech, so she could only guess at what was bothering him.
A week before her departure, Loki disappeared all together. She suspected he was simply pouting, so she stopped worrying about his odd behavior and focused on enjoying her adventure out west.
The landscapes were phenomenal. The Western sky opened over the world on a scale that seemed impossible and Norah simply could not stop taking photographs. She had nearly filled her SD card with images. The small group of friends she’d ventured with had an absolute blast. They’d hiked through the Tetons, gone fly fishing in Montana, and even done some pretty spectacular trail riding in the Shoshone forests. Sadly, the trip was winding down and now it seemed it would have to be unexpectedly cut short. Ellie, a fellow history major, received an upsetting call from home. Her mother had been hospitalized after having a seizure.
“It’s no problem. Why don’t I drive you back to Rapid City and the rest of the car caravan can just continue onward.”
“Oh, Norah! Could you? I mean it seems really silly to have to double back since we just came from there, but otherwise I’ll have to wait until the next big town and who knows when I’ll be able to get a flight. Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Of course not. You need to get home.”
Her old college buddy Zach had come with them as well and quickly piped up. “I could come with you so you don’t have to drive all the way back to Chicago alone.”
Norah looked at him warily. They were dear friends, but Norah suspected he still nursed a secret crush on her. It was why she’d asked Ellie to be her driving partner in the first place.
“Nah, it’s cool. I’ll be fine.” Zach shrugged coolly and didn’t press the issue, much to her relief.
The next day Norah dropped Ellie off at the pitiably small regional airport in Rapid City. She stopped at a gas station on her way back to the main highway in order to gear up for the long drive east. Replenishing her stock of bottled water and Power Bars, she grabbed a free tourist map out of habit. They always had better details on the local roads and were necessary out here where cell reception, not to mention 3G, could still be quite spotty. She perused the map in her car while refueling.
“Wind Cave National Park?” she read aloud. She hadn’t heard of the place, but it sounded intriguing. It was also close, perhaps less than an hour and a half away. She’d already driven through the Badlands twice now and it seemed silly to repeat the route yet again. Norah settled on slightly altering her route to check the place out. The group had hit five national parks on this trip, so it would be a point of pride to add another to her list.
The drive, it turned out, was quite short, however the Big Gulp Norah had indulged in was less forgiving. She barely made it to the park bathroom at the ranger station. She was just washing her hands when a dark figure appeared behind her in the mirror. Norah screamed, then clapped a wet wrist over her mouth.
“Oh my god, Loki, you scared the crap out of me!” She doubled over, half-panting from the shock.
He stood before her, fully materialized, a wild look in his eyes.
“How are you!? Are you okay? I can see you!” She glanced down the row of stalls to make sure they were alone.
“What are you doing here, Norah?” he hissed.
“I’m on vacation, silly.”
“No. What are you doing here.”
“I was going to take a tour of the cave. It’s one of the biggest in the world, you know.”
He had the strangest look on his face.
“What? Should I not?” she asked, suddenly concerned he’d shown up to warn her of some danger.
He licked his lips and winced his eyes shut, clearly struggling with himself.
“You…should not have come here…I…of all the places…”
Norah walked toward him and tentatively placed a hand on his shoulder. She hadn’t been able to touch him in years.
Loki avoided her gaze and swore under his breath, shaking his head.
“Norah, you are my bastion, my oasis.”
She went to interrupt, but he continued. “You are pure, untouched by my…schemes. I’ve never even once considered involving you in my life. It is a dangerous world, even for an immortal. I know this…has been a point of contention between us.”
“What are you saying? Loki?” she grabbed him by the vambraces, now thoroughly scared.
“I cannot go on like this,” he admitted in a bare whisper.
“Like what? Lo? What’s happening? Don’t leave me. Don’t you dare leave me!” She grabbed him, desperate to somehow force his apparition to stay with her.
He met her gaze then with his emerald eyes and she saw there an emotion she didn’t know the god could possess.
Loki was wracked with shame.
“Get your things,” he ordered soberly.
“What?! Am I going with you?”
“No, worse.” he muttered harshly. “You’re coming to me. Do you have your knives with you?”
Norah’s eyes grew wide. “Yes.”
“Good. Bring them and lots of sustenance, as much as you can carry.”
“Okay,” she said, her voice quivering. She couldn’t even believe what he was saying.
“Where do I go?”
“Just take the tour. Wouldn’t want you to miss it,” he snarked, then vanished.
Ten minutes later she was in line with a large crowd of summer tourists, waiting for the park ranger to lead them into the depths of the cave. Not having thought this plan through, Norah hadn’t quite processed that the cave tour involved descending into an enclosed, underground space. . As she threaded down a very steep, narrow staircase cut into the cave floor, she now remembered how extremely claustrophobic she could get. The ranger cheerfully announced that they were some two hundred feet below ground and the mere idea made her woozy. The air temperature began to drop and several times she had to squeeze past two solid rock abutments, only to enter into another spacious room. This place was treacherous and devoid of life.
The tour group paused in one of the larger caverns and the guide offered to show the visitors how the cave looked when first explored at the turn of the 20th century. He lit a candle stuck inside a coffee tin and a fellow ranger cut the artificial lighting system. In the near pitch black, Norah felt a tug on her backback.
“This way,” a voice whispered. Loki’s doppelganger pulled her in a side room. They waited as the “oohs and ahs” of the group died down and when the lights came back on, they shuffled along the official path out of sight. The cave grew extremely silent. The only sound was Norah’s blood pounding loudly in her ears.
“Come. It’s a long hike. We should begin.” The slim figure leapt gracefully up and pulled himself through a tight passageway above their heads.
The precarity of the situation hit Norah full force.
“Loki, where are you taking me?!”
His head popped back down through the hole. “To me, as I said. This cave has a pathway connecting Asgard with Midgard. I’m at the crossroad at the moment, in between worlds.”
“Are you crazy?! Did you hear the ranger? This is the most complex cave system in the world! We’ll get lost and I’ll die down here!”
“You won’t get lost. I’ve been traveling these paths since I was a boy.”
“What if your projection weakens and blips out? I’d be doomed. I’m scared. Can’t I just wait here for you?”
The same strange look crossed his pale features. Shame. Guilt.
“I’m doomed without your help,” he admitted in a small voice.
“Oh jesus. Okay,” she swallowed thickly and reached up for a hand to pull through the opening.
They walked in near silence, scrambling into awkward holes and through narrow, solid walls of rock. Loki conjured a bluish ball of magic light to illuminate their way.
“You can project so clearly through the charm because you’re physically near?” she guessed.
He nodded gravely.
After the fourth or fifth winding twist and turn, Norah gave up trying to keep track of where they were headed. She simply had to believe that the god of mischief wouldn’t abandon her to die alone in this horrid tomb. His words kept haunting her. I can no longer live like this…I’m doomed without your help. She had no idea what to expect when she at long last reunited with the god and she refrained from pestering his uncommunicative projection with questions. She focused on the hike, knowing that a twisted ankle could easily spell disaster.
At one point Loki stopped them and gestured for her to sit and rest. Ever the prince, Norah reminded herself that he must have led many an expedition before. A good leader knew that they were only as strong as the weakest member (in this case her) and she took comfort in the fact that he was setting a steady but not overly treacherous pace.
They trudged onwards. Hours blended into each other. Her feet were aching. Her palms were raw and cut from pulling herself over the sharp granite. They must be terribly deep in the earth, because the temperature had risen significantly. Norah was covered in a layer of sweat and grime.
After they had been walking for what seemed like many hours, she checked her watch.
“That can’t be right.” She tapped the crystal face. Norah was certain at least an hour had passed since she had last looked at the time, but the dial indicated only a minute. “How long have we been traveling?”
“That device is useless in here. Time begins to bend the closer we get to the vortex. You would know that if you had ever done any of your physics homework.”
She narrowed her eyes in annoyance. “Well, how long have you been here?”
He cast a sharp look at her. “Long enough.”
Loki offered her a lean, pale hand to draw her inexorably forward. She took it, amazed that the immortal’s projection could appear so solid. It reminded her of a snatch of poetry from English class.
“See infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.”
Loki looked at her in amusement. Apparently, he was familiar with William Blake.
“And ‘a robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all of heaven in a rage,'” he responded smoothly, his smile a bit wistful and cruel.