The sword was definitely humming now, almost like a human voice trying to find the right pitch.
Surt stepped back. His lava-red eyes flickered nervously. ‘You don’t know what you have there, boy. You won’t live long enough to find out.’
He swung his scimitar.
I’d had no experience with swords, unless you count watching The Princess Bride twenty-six times as a kid. Surt would’ve cut me in half – but my weapon had other ideas.
Ever held a spinning top on the tip of your finger? You can feel it moving under its own power, tilting in all directions. The sword was like that. It swung itself, blocking Surt’s fiery blade. Then it spun in an arc, dragging my arm along with it, and hacked into Surt’s right leg.
The Black One screamed. The wound in his thigh smouldered, setting his trousers on fire. His blood sizzled and glowed like the flow from a volcano. His fiery blade dissipated.
Before he could recover, my sword leaped upward and slashed his face. With a howl, Surt stumbled back, cupping his hands over his nose.
To my left, someone screamed – the mother with the two kids.
Hearth was trying to help her extract her toddlers from the stroller, which was now smoking and about to combust.
‘Hearth!’ I yelled, before remembering that was no good.
With Surt still distracted, I limped over to Hearth and pointed down the bridge. ‘Go! Get the kids out of here!’
He could read lips just fine, but he didn’t like my message. He shook his head adamantly, hoisting one of the toddlers into his arms.
The mom was cradling the other kid.
‘Leave now,’ I told her. ‘My friend will help you.’
The mom didn’t hesitate. Hearth gave me one last look: This is not a good idea. Then he followed her, the little kid bouncing up and down in his arms crying, ‘Ah! Ah! Ah!’
Other innocent people were still stuck on the bridge: drivers trapped in their cars, pedestrians wandering around in a daze, their clothes steaming and their skin lobster red. Emergency sirens were closer now, but I didn’t see how the police or paramedics could help if Surt was still storming around being all fiery and stuff.
‘Boy!’ The Black One sounded like he was gargling with syrup.
He took his hands from his face, and I saw why. My self-guided sword had taken off his nose. Molten blood streamed down his cheeks, splattering on the ground in sizzling droplets. His trousers had burned off, leaving him in a pair of flame-patterned red boxers. Between that and the newly sawed-off snout, he looked like a diabolical version of Porky Pig.
‘I have tolerated you long enough,’ he gargled.
‘I was just thinking the same thing about you.’ I raised the sword. ‘You want this? Come and get it.’
In retrospect, that was a pretty stupid thing to say.
Above me, I caught a glimpse of the weird grey apparition – a girl on a horse, circling like a vulture, watching.
Instead of charging, Surt bent down and scooped asphalt from the road with his bare hands. He moulded it into a red-hot sphere of steaming gunk and pitched it towards me like a fastball.
Another game I’m not good at: baseball. I swung the sword, hoping to knock away the projectile. I missed. The asphalt cannonball ploughed into my gut and embedded itself – burning, searing, destroying.
I couldn’t breathe. The pain was so intense I felt every cell in my body explode in a chain reaction.
Despite that, a strange sort of calm fell over me: I was dying. I wasn’t coming back from this. Part of me thought, All right. Make it count.
My vision dimmed. The sword hummed and tugged at my hand, but I could barely feel my arms.
Surt studied me, a smile on his ruined face.
He wants the sword, I told myself. He can’t have it. If I’m going out, he’s going with me.
Weakly, I raised my free hand. I flipped him a gesture that he wouldn’t need to know sign language to understand.
He roared and charged.
Just as he reached me, my sword leaped up and ran him through. I used the last of my strength to grapple him as his momentum carried us both over the railing.
‘No!’ He fought to free himself, bursting into flames, kicking and gouging, but I held on as we plummeted towards the Charles River, my sword still embedded in his stomach, my own organs burning away from the molten tar in my gut. The sky flashed in and out of view. I caught a glimpse of the smoky apparition – the girl on the horse diving towards me at a full gallop, her hand outstretched.
FLOOM! I hit the water.
Then I died. The end.
Mind the Gap, and Also the Hairy Guy with the Axe
Back in school, I loved ending stories that way.
It’s the perfect conclusion, isn’t it? Billy went to school. He had a good day. Then he died. The end.
It doesn’t leave you hanging. It wraps everything up nice and neat.
Except in my case it didn’t.
Maybe you’re thinking, Oh, Magnus, you didn’t really die. Otherwise you couldn’t be narrating this story. You just came close. Then you were miraculously rescued, blah, blah, blah.
Nope. I actually died. One hundred per cent: guts impaled, vital organs burned, head smacked into a frozen river from forty feet up, every bone in my body broken, lungs filled with ice water.
The medical term for that is dead.
Gee, Magnus, what did it feel like?
It hurt. A lot. Thanks for asking.
I started to dream, which was weird – not only because I was dead, but because I never dream. People have tried to argue with me about that. They say everybody dreams and I just don’t remember mine. But, I’m telling you, I always slept like the dead. Until I was dead. Then I dreamed like a normal person.
I was hiking with my mom in the Blue Hills. I was maybe ten years old. It was a warm summer day, with a cool breeze through the pines. We stopped at Houghton’s Pond to skip stones across the water. I managed three skips. My mom managed four. She always won. Neither of us cared. She would laugh and hug me and that was enough for me.
It’s hard to describe her. To really understand Natalie Chase, you had to meet her. She used to joke that her spirit animal was Tinker Bell from Peter Pan. If you can imagine Tinker Bell at age thirty-something, minus the wings, wearing flannel, denim and Doc Martens, you’ve got a pretty good picture of my mom. She was a petite lady with delicate features, short blonde pixie hair and leaf-green eyes that sparkled with humour. Whenever she read me stories, I used to gaze at the spray of freckles across her nose and try to count them.
She radiated joy. That’s the only way I can put it. She loved life. Her enthusiasm was infectious. She was the kindest, most easy-going person I ever knew … until the weeks leading up to her death.
In the dream, that was still years in the future. We stood together at the pond. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of warm pine needles.
‘This is where I met your father,’ she told me. ‘On a summer day just like this.’
The comment surprised me. She rarely talked about my dad. I’d never met him, never even seen pictures of him. That might sound strange, but my mom didn’t make a big deal out of their relationship, so neither did I.
She was clear that my dad hadn’t abandoned us. He’d just moved on. She wasn’t bitter. She had fond memories of their brief time together. After it ended, she’d found out she was pregnant with me, and she was elated. Ever since, it had been just the two of us. We didn’t need anyone else.
‘You met him at the pond?’ I asked. ‘Was he good at skipping stones?’
She laughed. ‘Oh, yeah. He destroyed me at stone skipping. That first day … it was perfect. Well, except for one thing.’ She pulled me close and kissed my forehead. ‘I didn’t have you yet, pumpkin.’
Okay, yes. My mom called me pumpkin. Go ahead and laugh. As I got older, it embarrassed me, but that was while she was still alive. Now I’d give anything to hear her call me
‘What was my dad like?’ I asked. It felt strange to say my dad. How can somebody be yours if you’ve never met him? ‘What happened to him?’
My mom spread her arms to the sunlight. ‘That’s why I bring you here, Magnus. Can’t you feel it? He’s all around us.’
I didn’t know what she meant. Usually she didn’t talk in metaphors. My mom was about as literal and down-to-earth as you could get.
She ruffled my hair. ‘Come on, I’ll race you to the beach.’
My dream shifted. I found myself standing in Uncle Randolph’s library. In front of me, lounging sideways across the desk, was a man I’d never seen before. He was walking his fingers across the collection of old maps.
‘Death was an interesting choice, Magnus.’
The man grinned. His clothes looked fresh from the store: blinding white sneakers, crisp new jeans and a Red Sox home jersey. His feathery hair was a mix of red, brown and yellow, tousled in a fashionable I-just-got-out-of-bed-and-I-look-this-good sort of way. His face was shockingly handsome. He could’ve done ads for aftershave in men’s magazines, but his scars ruined the perfection. Burn tissue splashed across the bridge of his nose and his cheekbones, like impact lines on the moon’s surface. His lips were marred by a row of welts all the way around his mouth – maybe piercing holes that had closed over. But why would anyone have that many mouth piercings?
I wasn’t sure what to say to the scarred hallucination, but since my mom’s words were still lingering in my head, I asked, ‘Are you my father?’
The hallucination raised his eyebrows. He threw back his head and laughed.
‘Oh, I like you! We’ll have fun. No, Magnus Chase, I’m not your father, but I’m definitely on your side.’ He traced his finger under the Red Sox logo on his jersey. ‘You’ll meet my son soon enough. Until then, a little advice: don’t trust appearances. Don’t trust your comrades’ motives. Oh, and –’ he lunged forward and grabbed my wrist – ‘tell the All-Father I said hello.’
I tried to break free. His grip was like steel. The dream changed. Suddenly I was flying through cold grey fog.
‘Stop struggling!’ said a female voice.
Holding my wrist was the girl I’d seen circling the bridge. She charged through the air on her nebulous horse, pulling me along at her side like I was a sack of laundry. Her blazing spear was strapped across her back. Her chain-mail armour glinted in the grey light.
She tightened her grip. ‘Do you want to fall into the Gap?’
I got a feeling she wasn’t talking about the clothing store. Looking below me, I saw nothing – just endless grey. I decided I did not want to fall into it.
I tried to speak. I couldn’t. I shook my head weakly.
‘Then stop struggling,’ she ordered.
Beneath her helmet, a few wisps of dark hair had escaped her green headscarf. Her eyes were the colour of redwood bark.
‘Don’t make me regret this,’ she said.
My consciousness faded.
I awoke gasping, every muscle in my body tingling with alarm.
I sat up and grabbed my gut, expecting to find a burning hole where my intestines used to be. No smouldering asphalt was embedded there. I felt no pain. The strange sword was gone. My clothes looked perfectly fine – not wet or burned or torn.
In fact, my clothes looked too fine. The same stuff I’d been wearing for weeks – my only pair of jeans, my layers of shirts, my jacket – didn’t smell. They’d seemingly been washed, dried and put back on me while I was unconscious, which was an unsettling idea. They even had a warm lemony scent that reminded me of the good old days when my mom did my laundry. My shoes were like new, as shiny as when I dug them out of the dumpster behind Marathon Sports.
Even weirder: I was clean. My hands weren’t caked with grime. My skin felt freshly scrubbed. I ran my fingers through my hair and found no tangles, no twigs, no pieces of litter.
Slowly I got to my feet. There wasn’t a scratch on me. I bounced on my heels. I felt like I could run a mile. I breathed in the smell of chimney fires and an approaching snowstorm. I almost laughed with relief. Somehow I’d survived!
Except … that wasn’t possible.
Where was I?
Gradually my senses expanded. I was standing in the entry courtyard of an opulent town house, the kind you might see on Beacon Hill – eight storeys of imposing white limestone and grey marble jutting into the winter sky. The double front doors were dark heavy wood bound with iron. In the centre of each was a life-size wolf’s-head door knocker.
Wolves … that alone was enough to make me hate the place.
I turned to look for a street exit. There wasn’t one, just a fifteen-foot-tall white limestone wall surrounding the courtyard. How could you not have a front gate?
I couldn’t see much over the wall, but I was obviously still in Boston. I recognized some of the surrounding buildings. In the distance rose the towers of Downtown Crossing. I was probably on Beacon Street, just across from the Common. But how had I got here?
In one corner of the courtyard stood a tall birch tree with pure white bark. I thought about climbing it to get over the wall, but the lowest branches were out of reach. Then I realized the tree was in full leaf, which shouldn’t have been possible in the winter. Not only that: its leaves glittered gold as if someone had painted them with twenty-four-carat gilt.
Next to the tree, a bronze plaque was affixed to the wall. I hadn’t really noticed it earlier, since half the buildings in Boston had historic markers, but now I looked closer. The inscriptions were in two languages. One was the Norse alphabet I’d seen earlier. The other was English:
WELCOME TO THE GROVE OF GLASIR.
NO SOLICITING. NO LOITERING.
HOTEL DELIVERIES: PLEASE USE THE NIFLHEIM ENTRANCE.
Okay … I’d exceeded my daily quota of bizarre. I had to get out of here. I had to get over that wall, find out what had happened to Blitz and Hearth – and maybe Uncle Randolph if I was feeling generous – then possibly hitchhike to Guatemala. I was done with this town.
Then the double doors swung inward with a groan. Blinding golden light spilled out.
A burly man appeared on the stoop. He wore a doorman’s uniform: top hat, white gloves and a dark green jacket with tails and the interlocking letters HV embroidered on the lapel, but there was no way this guy was an actual doorman. His warty face was smeared with ashes. His beard hadn’t been trimmed in decades. His eyes were bloodshot and murderous, and a double-bladed axe hung at his side. His name tag read: HUNDING, SAXONY, VALUED TEAM MEMBER SINCE 749 C.E.
‘S-s-sorry,’ I stammered. ‘I must … um, wrong house.’
The man scowled. He shuffled closer and sniffed me. He smelled like turpentine and burning meat. ‘Wrong house? I don’t think so. You’re checking in.’
‘Uh … what?’
‘You’re dead, aren’t you?’ the man said. ‘Follow me. I’ll show you to registration.’
You Totally Want the Minibar Key
Would it surprise you to learn that the place was bigger on the inside?
The foyer alone could’ve been the world’s largest hunting lodge – a space twice as big as the mansion appeared on the outside. An acre of hardwood floor was covered with exotic animal skins: zebra, lion and a forty-foot-long reptile that I wouldn’t want to have met when it was alive. Against the right wall, a fire crackled in a bedroom-size hearth. In front of it, a few high-school-age guys in fluffy green bathrobes lounged on overstuffed leather couches, laughing and drinking from silver goblets. Over the mantel hung the stuffed head of a wolf.
Oh, joy, I thought with a shudder. More wolves.
Columns made from rough-hewn tree trunks held up the ceiling, which was lined with spears for rafters. Polished shields gleamed on the walls. Light seemed to radiate from everywhere – a warm golden glow that hurt my eyes like a summer afternoon after a dark theatre.
In the middle of the foyer, a freestanding
display board announced:
SINGLE COMBAT TO THE DEATH! – OSLO ROOM, 10 A.M.
GROUP COMBAT TO THE DEATH! – STOCKHOLM ROOM, 11 A.M.
BUFFET LUNCH TO THE DEATH! – DINING HALL, 12 P.M.
FULL ARMY COMBAT TO THE DEATH! – MAIN COURTYARD, 1 P.M.
BIKRAM YOGA TO THE DEATH! – COPENHAGEN ROOM,
BRING YOUR OWN MAT, 4 P.M.
The doorman Hunding said something, but my head was ringing so badly I missed it.
‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘what?’
‘Luggage,’ he repeated. ‘Do you have any?’
‘Um …’ I reached for my shoulder strap. My backpack had apparently not been resurrected with me. ‘No.’
Hunding grunted. ‘No one brings luggage any more. Don’t they put anything on your funeral pyre?’
‘Never mind.’ He scowled towards the far corner of the room, where an overturned boat’s keel served as the reception desk. ‘Guess there’s no putting it off. Come on.’
The man behind the keel apparently used the same barber as Hunding. His beard was so big it had its own zip code. His hair looked like a buzzard that had exploded on a windshield. He was dressed in a forest-green pinstriped suit. His name tag read: HELGI, MANAGER, EAST GOTHLAND, VALUED TEAM MEMBER SINCE 749 C.E.
‘Welcome!’ Helgi glanced up from his computer screen. ‘Checking in?’
‘You realize check-in time is three p.m.,’ he said. ‘If you die earlier in the day, I can’t guarantee your room will be ready.’
‘I can just go back to being alive,’ I offered.
‘No, no.’ He tapped on his keyboard. ‘Ah, here we are.’ He grinned, revealing exactly three teeth. ‘We’ve upgraded you to a suite.’
Next to me, Hunding muttered under his breath, ‘Everyone is upgraded to a suite. All we have are suites.’
‘Hunding …’ warned the manager.
‘You don’t want me to use the stick.’
Hunding winced. ‘No, sir.’
I looked back and forth between them, checking their name tags.
‘You guys started working here the same year,’ I noted. ‘749 … what is C.E.?’
‘Common Era,’ said the manager. ‘What you might call A.D.’
‘Then why don’t you just say A.D.?’
‘Because Anno Domini, in the Year of Our Lord, is fine for Christians, but Thor gets a little upset. He still holds a grudge that Jesus never showed up for that duel he challenged him to.’
‘Say what now?’
‘It’s not important,’ Helgi said. ‘How many keys would you like? Is one sufficient?’