My four hallmates made room for me at the table, which felt pretty good.
Compared to the main feast hall, lounge nineteen was downright intimate. Scattered around the room were a dozen tables, most unoccupied. In one corner, a fireplace crackled in front of a beat-up sofa. Along the other wall, a buffet table was laden with every kind of breakfast food imaginable (and a few kinds I had never imagined).
T.J. and company had parked themselves in front of a big picture window overlooking a vast field of ice and swirling snow. It made no sense, considering that it was summer in my atrium right down the hall, but I’d already learned that the hotel’s geography was wack.
‘That’s Niflheim,’ T.J. explained, ‘the realm of ice. The view changes daily, cycling through the Nine Worlds.’
‘The Nine Worlds …’ I stared at my scrambled eggs, wondering which solar system they’d come from. ‘I keep hearing about nine worlds. Hard to believe.’
Mallory Keen blew icing sugar off her doughnut. ‘Believe it, newbie. I’ve visited six of them so far.’
‘Five here.’ Halfborn grinned, showing me the rest of his cheese omelette. ‘ ’Course, Midgard hardly counts. That’s the human world. Been to Alfheim, Nidavellir, Jotunheim –’
‘Disney World,’ X said.
Mallory sighed. With her red hair, green eyes, and icing sugar around her mouth, she reminded me of a reverse-colour-scheme Joker. ‘For the last time, you numbskull, Disney World is not one of the nine.’
‘Why is it called a world, then?’ X nodded smugly, the argument won, and went back to his meal, sucking meat from the shell of a large crustacean.
T.J. pushed his empty plate away. ‘Magnus, I don’t know if it helps, but the Nine Worlds aren’t really separate planets. They’re more like … different dimensions, different layers of reality, all connected by the World Tree.’
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘That’s much more confusing.’
He laughed. ‘Yeah, I guess it is.’
‘The World Tree is the tree in the feast hall?’
‘Nah,’ Mallory said. ‘The World Tree is much bigger. You’ll see, sooner or later.’
That sounded ominous. I tried to concentrate on my food, but it was difficult with X right next to me demolishing a slimy mutant crab.
I pointed at T.J.’s jacket. ‘That’s a Civil War uniform?’
‘Private in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, my friend. I’m a Boston boy, same as you. I just got here a little earlier.’
I did the calculations. ‘You died in battle a hundred and fifty years ago?’
T.J. beamed. ‘The assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. My dad was Tyr, god of courage, law, and trial by combat. My mom was a runaway slave.’
I tried to fit that into my new world view: a teenager from the 1860s, the son of a former slave and a Norse god, who was now having breakfast with me in an extra-dimensional hotel.
X belched, which put things in perspective.
‘Gods of Asgard!’ Mallory complained. ‘That smell!’
‘Sorry,’ X grunted.
‘Is your name really X?’ I asked.
‘No. My real name is –’ The half-troll said something that started with Ks and went on for about thirty seconds.
Halfborn wiped his hands on his pelt shirt. ‘You see? Nobody can pronounce that. We call him X.’
‘X,’ agreed X.
‘He’s another one of Sam al-Abbas’s acquisitions,’ T.J. said. ‘X stumbled across a dog fight … one of those illegal ones in, where, Chicago?’
‘Chee-cah-go,’ affirmed X.
‘He saw what was going on and went nuts. Started smashing up the place, walloping the bettors, freeing the animals.’
‘Dogs should fight for themselves,’ X said. ‘Not for greedy humans. They should be wild and free. They should not be kept in cages.’
I didn’t want to argue with the big guy, but I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of wild dogs fighting for themselves. That sounded a lot like wolves – an animal I refused to harbinge.
‘Anyway,’ T.J. said, ‘it turned into a full-scale battle: X against a bunch of gangsters with automatic weapons. They finally killed him, but X took down a lot of scumbags and freed a lot of dogs. That was what … a month ago?’
X grunted and continued sucking his shellfish.
T.J. spread his hands. ‘Samirah judged him worthy and brought him here. She got some flak for that decision.’
Mallory snorted. ‘That’s putting it mildly. A troll in Valhalla. Who could possibly object?’
‘Half-troll,’ X corrected. ‘That is my better half, Mallory Keen.’
‘She didn’t mean anything, X,’ T.J. said. ‘It’s just that prejudice dies hard. When I got here in 1863, I wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms, either.’
Mallory rolled her eyes. ‘Then you won them over with your dazzling personality. I swear, you lot are giving floor nineteen a bad name. And now we have Magnus.’
Halfborn leaned towards me. ‘Don’t mind Mallory. She’s a sweetheart, once you get past the fact that she’s a horrible person.’
‘Shut up, Halfborn.’
The big guy chuckled. ‘She’s just grumpy because she died trying to disarm a car bomb with her face.’
Mallory’s ears turned as red as hummingbird nectar. ‘I didn’t – it wasn’t – Argh!’
‘Magnus, don’t worry about that mess last night,’ continued Halfborn. ‘Folks will forget about it in a few decades. Believe me, I’ve seen it all. I died during the Viking invasion of East Anglia, fought under the banner of Ivar the Boneless. I took twenty arrows in the chest protecting my thane!’
‘Ouch,’ I said.
Halfborn shrugged. ‘I’ve been here for … oh, going on twelve hundred years now.’
I stared at him. Despite his bulk and his beard, Halfborn looked maybe eighteen, tops. ‘How do you stand it without going crazy? And why do they call you Halfborn?’
His smile faded. ‘Second question first … when I was born, I was so big, strong and ugly that my mother said I looked like I’d been half born, half carved from rock. The name stuck.’
‘And you’re still ugly,’ Mallory muttered.
‘As for how to avoid going crazy here … Some do lose it, Magnus. Waiting for Ragnarok is hard. The trick is to keep busy. There’s plenty to do here. Me, I’ve learned a dozen languages, including English. I earned a doctorate in Germanic literature, and I learned to knit.’
T.J. nodded. ‘That’s why I invited you to breakfast, Magnus.’
‘To learn knitting?’
‘To keep active! Spending too much time alone in your room can be dangerous. If you isolate yourself, you start to fade. Some of the old-timers …’ He cleared his throat. ‘It doesn’t matter. You’re here! Just keep showing up every morning until Doomsday, and you’ll be fine.’
I stared out of the window at the swirling snow. I thought about Sam’s warning to find the sword, the Norns chanting that something bad would happen in nine days. ‘You said you’ve visited the other worlds. That means you can leave the hotel.’
The group exchanged uneasy glances.
‘Yes,’ Halfborn said. ‘But our main job is to wait for Ragnarok. Train, train, train.’
‘I rode the train at Disney World,’ said X.
Maybe he meant it as a jest. The half-troll seemed to have two facial expressions: wet cement and dry cement.
‘Occasionally,’ said T.J., ‘einherjar are sent into the Nine Worlds on missions.’
‘Tracking down monsters,’ Mallory offered. ‘Killing giants who cross into Midgard. Stopping witches and wights. And, of course, dealing with rogues –’
‘Wights? Rogues?’ I asked.
‘Point is,’ said Halfborn, ‘we only leave Valhalla under orders from Odin or the thanes.’
‘But, hypothetically,’ I said, ‘I could go back to earth, Midgard, whatever –’
‘Hypothetically, yes,’ T.J. said. ‘Look, I know that business with the Norn
s must be driving you bonkers, but we don’t know what the prophecy means. Give the thanes some time to decide what to do. You can’t rush off and do something stupid.’
‘Gods forbid,’ said Mallory. ‘We never do anything stupid. Like that late-night pizza run to Santarpio’s. That never happened.’
‘Shut up, woman,’ Halfborn growled.
‘Woman?’ Mallory reached for the knife at her belt. ‘Watch your words, you overgrown Swedish hamster.’
‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘You guys know how to sneak out of –’
T.J. coughed loudly. ‘Sorry, I didn’t hear that. I’m sure you weren’t asking about anything against the rules. Magnus, first of all: if you returned to Midgard so soon, how would you explain it to those who knew you? Everyone thinks you’re dead. Usually, if we go back, we wait until everyone we knew is dead. It’s easier all the way around. Besides, it takes a while, sometimes years, for your einherji strength to develop fully.’
I tried to imagine waiting here for years. I didn’t have many friends or relatives to go back to. Still, I didn’t want to be stuck here – learning new languages, knitting sweaters – for ages. After seeing my cousin Annabeth, I kind of wanted to reconnect with her before she died. And if Samirah was right about my mom not being in Valhalla … I wanted to find her, wherever she was.
‘But it’s possible to leave without permission,’ I persisted. ‘Maybe not forever, just for a while.’
T.J. shifted uncomfortably. ‘Valhalla has doors into every world. The hotel is designed that way. Most exits are guarded, but … well, there are a lot of ways to Boston, since Boston is the centre of Midgard.’
I glanced around the table. Nobody was laughing. ‘It is?’
‘Sure,’ T.J. said. ‘It’s right at the trunk of the World Tree, the easiest spot from which to access the other worlds. Why do you think Boston is called the Hub of the Universe?’
‘No. Mortals have always known there was something about that location, even if they couldn’t put their finger on what it was. The Vikings searched for the centre of the world for years. They knew the entrance to Asgard was in the west. That’s one reason they kept exploring into North America. When they met the Native Americans –’
‘We called them the skraelings,’ Halfborn said. ‘Vicious fighters. I liked them.’
‘– the natives had all sorts of stories about how strong the spirit world was in this area. Later, when the Puritans settled, well … John Winthrop’s vision of a shining “City on a Hill”? That wasn’t just a metaphor. He had a vision of Asgard, a glimpse into the other worlds. And the Salem witch trials? Hysteria caused by magic seeping into Midgard. Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston. It’s no accident his most famous poem was about a raven, one of Odin’s sacred animals.’
‘Enough.’ Mallory gave me a disgusted look. ‘T.J. will take forever when answering a yes/no question. The answer is yes, Magnus. It is possible to leave, with or without permission.’
X cracked a crab claw. ‘You would not be immortal.’
‘Yeah,’ T.J. said. ‘That’s the second big problem. In Valhalla, you can’t die – not permanently. You’ll just keep getting resurrected. It’s part of the training.’
I remembered the guy who had got impaled in the lobby and dragged off by wolves. Hunding had said he would be fine again by dinner.
‘But outside of Valhalla?’
‘Out in the Nine Worlds,’ T.J. said, ‘you’re still an einherji. You’re faster and stronger and tougher than any regular mortal. But if you die out there you stay dead. Your soul might go to Helheim. Or you might simply dissolve into the primordial void – Ginnungagap. Hard to know. It’s not worth the risk.’
‘Unless …’ Halfborn picked some egg out of his beard. ‘Unless he really did find the sword of Frey and the legends are true –’
‘It’s Magnus’s first day,’ T.J. said. ‘Let’s not go into that. He’s already freaked out enough.’
‘Freak me out more,’ I said. ‘What legends exactly?’
In the hallway, a horn blasted. At the other tables, einherjar started to get up and clear their plates.
Halfborn rubbed his hands eagerly. ‘Talking will have to wait. It’s battle time!’
‘Battle time,’ X agreed.
T.J. grimaced. ‘Magnus, we should probably warn you about the first-day initiation. Don’t be discouraged if –’
‘Oh, shush,’ said Mallory. ‘Don’t spoil the surprise!’ She gave me an icing-sugar smile. ‘I can’t wait to see the new boy get dismembered!’
Do Not Call Me Beantown. Like, Ever
I told my new friends I was allergic to dismemberment. They just laughed and herded me towards the combat arena. This is why I don’t like making new friends.
The battlefield was so huge I couldn’t process what I was seeing.
Back in the good old days when I was a street kid, I used to sleep on rooftops in the summertime. I could see the entire cityscape of Boston from Fenway Park to Bunker Hill. Valhalla’s battlefield was bigger than that. It offered maybe three square miles of interesting places to die, all contained within the hotel like an interior courtyard.
On all four sides rose the walls of the building – cliffs of white marble and gold-railed balconies, some hung with banners, some decorated with shields, some fitted with catapults. The upper floors seemed to dissolve in the hazy glow of the sky, as blank white as a fluorescent light.
In the centre of the field loomed a few craggy hills. Clumps of forest marbled the landscape. The outer rim was mostly rolling pastures, with a river as wide as the Charles snaking through. Several villages dotted the riverbank, maybe for those who preferred their warfare urban.
From hundreds of doors in the walls around the field, battalions of warriors were streaming in, their weapons and armour glinting in the harsh light. Some einherjar wore full plate mail like medieval knights. Others wore chain-mail shirts, breeches and combat boots. A few sported camo fatigues and AK-47s. One guy wore nothing but a pair of Speedos. He’d painted himself blue and was armed only with a baseball bat. Across his chest were the words COME AT ME, BRO.
‘I feel underdressed,’ I said.
X cracked his knuckles. ‘Armour does not make victory. Neither do weapons.’
Easy for him to say. He was larger than some sovereign nations.
Halfborn Gunderson was also taking the minimalist approach. He’d stripped down to nothing but his leggings, though he did sport a pair of vicious-looking double-bladed axes. Standing next to anyone else, Halfborn would’ve looked massive. Next to X, he looked like a toddler … with a beard, abs and axes.
T.J. fastened his bayonet to his rifle. ‘Magnus, if you want more than the basic equipment, you’ll have to capture it or trade for it. The hotel armouries take red gold, or they work on a barter system.’
‘Is that how you got your rifle?’
‘Nah, this is the weapon I died with. I hardly ever fire it. Bullets don’t have much effect on einherjar. Those guys out there with the assault rifles? That’s all flash and noise. They’re the least dangerous people on the field. But this bayonet? It’s bone steel, a gift from my father. Bone steel works just fine.’
‘Yeah. You’ll learn.’
My sword hand was already sweating. My shield felt much too flimsy. ‘So which groups are we fighting against?’
Halfborn clapped me on the back. ‘All of them! Vikings fight in small groups, my friend. We are your shield brothers.’
‘And shield sister,’ Mallory said. ‘Though some of us are shield idiots.’
Halfborn ignored her. ‘Stick with us, Magnus, and … well, you won’t do fine. You’ll get killed quickly. But stick with us anyway. We’ll wade into battle and slaughter as many as possible!’
‘That’s your plan?’
Halfborn tilted his head. ‘Why would I have a plan?’
‘Oh, sometimes we
do,’ said T.J. ‘Wednesdays are siege warfare. That’s more complicated. Thursdays they bring out the dragons.’
Mallory drew her sword and serrated dagger. ‘Today is free-for-all combat. I love Tuesdays.’
From a thousand different balconies, horns blasted. The einherjar charged into battle.
Until that morning, I’d never understood the term bloodbath. Within a few minutes, we were literally slipping in the stuff.
We’d just stepped onto the field when an axe flew out of nowhere and stuck in my shield, the blade going right through the wood above my arm.
Mallory yelled and threw her knife, which sank into the axe thrower’s chest. He fell to his knees, laughing. ‘Good one!’ Then he collapsed, dead.
Halfborn waded through enemies, his axes whirling, chopping off heads and limbs until he looked like he’d been playing paintball with only red paint. It was disgusting. And horrifying. And the most disturbing part? The einherjar treated it like a game. They killed with glee. They died as if someone had just taken down their avatar in Call of Duty. I’d never liked that game.
‘Ah, that sucks,’ one guy muttered as he studied the four arrows in his chest.
Another yelled, ‘I’ll get you tomorrow, Trixie!’ before falling sideways, a spear stuck through his gut.
T.J. sang ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ while he stabbed and parried with his bayonet.
X smashed through one group after another. A dozen arrows now stuck out of his back like porcupine quills, but they didn’t seem to bother him. Every time his fist connected, an einherji turned two-dimensional.
As for me, I shuffled along in abject terror, my shield raised, my sword dragging. I’d been told that death here wasn’t permanent, but I had a hard time believing it. A bunch of warriors with sharp, pointy objects were trying to kill me. I didn’t want to be killed.
I managed to parry a sword strike. I deflected a spear with my shield. I had a clear opening to stab one girl whose guard was down, but I just couldn’t make myself do it.
That was a mistake. Her axe bit into my thigh. Pain flared all the way up to my neck.
Mallory cut the girl down. ‘Come on, Chase, keep moving! You’ll get used to the pain after a while.’
‘Great.’ I grimaced. ‘Something to look forward to.’
T.J. jabbed his bayonet through the faceplate of a medieval knight. ‘Let’s take that hill!’ He pointed to a nearby ridge at the edge of the woods.
‘Why?’ I yelled.
‘Because it’s a hill!’
‘He loves taking hills,’ Mallory grumbled. ‘It’s a Civil War thing.’
We waded through the battle, heading for the high ground. My thigh still hurt, but the bleeding had stopped. Was that normal?
T.J. raised his rifle. He yelled ‘Charge!’ just as a javelin ran him through from behind.
‘T.J!’ I yelled.
He caught my eye, managed a weak smile, then face-planted in the mud.
‘For Frigg’s sake!’ Mallory cursed. ‘Come on, newbie.’
She grabbed my arm and pulled me along. More javelins sailed over my head.
‘You guys do this every day?’ I demanded.
‘No. Like we told you – Thursdays are dragons.’