‘Whoa. Not until I get some answers.’
‘I … Honestly, I don’t know where to start. I’m in kind of a dangerous situation. I don’t want to get you involved.’
‘Too late.’ She crossed her arms. ‘And I know a lot about dangerous situations.’
Somehow, I believed her. Here I was, a reborn superwarrior from Valhalla, and Annabeth still intimidated me. The way she held herself, her steely confidence – I could tell she’d overcome some hard stuff, the same way I could tell which guys in the shelters were the most dangerous. I couldn’t just blow her off. But I also didn’t want to drag her into my mess.
‘Randolph almost got killed on that bridge,’ I said. ‘I don’t want anything to happen to you.’
She laughed without humour. ‘Randolph – I swear, I’m going to shove that cane of his … Never mind. He wouldn’t explain why he took you to the bridge. He kept talking about how you were in danger because of your birthday. He said he was trying to help. Something about our family history –’
‘He told me about my father.’
Annabeth’s eyes darkened. ‘You never knew your dad.’
‘Yeah. But apparently …’ I shook my head. ‘Look, it would sound crazy. Just … there’s a connection between what happened on the bridge and what happened to my mom two years ago, and – and who my father is.’
Annabeth’s expression transformed. She looked as if she’d opened a window expecting to see a swimming pool and instead found the Pacific Ocean.
‘Magnus … oh, gods.’
Gods, I noted. Plural.
She paced in front of my coffin, her hands tented like she was praying. ‘I should’ve known. Randolph kept rambling about how our family was special, how we attracted attention. But I had no idea you –’ She froze, then grabbed my shoulders. ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t know sooner. I could’ve helped you.’
‘Um, I’m not sure –’
‘My dad’s flying back to California tonight after the funeral,’ she continued. ‘I was going to catch the train for New York, but school can wait. I get it now. I can help you. I know a place where you’ll be safe.’
I pulled away.
I wasn’t sure what Annabeth knew, or what she thought she knew. Maybe she’d got mixed up with the Nine Worlds somehow. Maybe she was talking about something totally different. But every nerve in my body tingled with warning when I thought about telling her the truth.
I appreciated her offer of help. I could tell it was genuine. Still … those words: I know a place where you’ll be safe. Nothing activated the flight instincts of a homeless kid faster than hearing that.
I was trying to figure out how to explain that when Hearthstone stumbled through the chapel doorway. His left eye was swollen shut. He gesticulated so frantically I could barely read the signs: HURRY. DANGER.
Annabeth turned, following my gaze. ‘Who –’
‘That’s my friend,’ I said. ‘I really have to go. Listen, Annabeth …’ I took her hands. ‘I have to do this by myself. It’s like … like a personal –’
‘I was going to say pain in the – yeah, quest works. If you really want to help me, please, just pretend you didn’t see me. Later, after I’m done, I’ll find you. I’ll explain everything, I promise. Right now, I have to go.’
She took a shaky breath. ‘Magnus, I probably could help. But …’ She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. ‘Recently I learned the hard way that sometimes I have to step back and let other people do their own quests, even people I care about. At least take this.’
I unfolded the paper. It was one of the MISSING flyers she and Uncle Frederick had been handing out.
‘The second number is my phone. Call me. Let me know when you’re okay, or if you change your mind and –’
‘I’ll call.’ I kissed her cheek. ‘You’re the best.’
She sighed. ‘You’re still a butt.’
‘I know. Thanks. Bye.’
I ran to Hearthstone, who was bouncing up and down with impatience. ‘What happened?’ I demanded. ‘Where were you?’
He was already running. I followed him out of the funeral home, north on Arlington. Even pouring on the speed with my upgraded einherji legs, I could barely keep up. Elves, I discovered, could run fast when they wanted to.
We reached the stairs to the T stop just as Blitzen was coming up. I recognized the wide-brimmed hat and coat from the Longfellow Bridge. He’d added larger sunglasses, a ski mask, leather gloves and a scarf. In one hand he carried a black canvas bag. I guessed he was going for that Invisible-Man-Goes-Bowling look.
‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’ Blitz grabbed Hearth to keep him from tumbling into traffic. ‘What happened to your eye? Did you guys find the sword?’
‘No sword,’ I gasped. ‘Hearth’s eye – I don’t know – something about danger.’
Hearth clapped for our attention.
Knocked out, he signed. Girl jumped from second storey of funeral home. Landed on me. I woke up in alley.
‘A girl in the funeral home?’ I scowled. ‘You don’t mean Annabeth? She’s my cousin.’
He shook his head. Not her. Other girl. She was – His hands froze when he noticed Blitz’s bag.
Hearth stepped back, shaking his head in disbelief. You brought him? He spelled it out – H-I-M – so I knew I hadn’t misunderstood.
Blitz hefted the bag. His face was impossible to read, swaddled in anti-sunlight protection, but his voice was heavy. ‘Yeah. Capo’s orders. First things first. Magnus, your cousin was at the funeral home?’
‘It’s okay.’ I resisted the urge to ask why there was a him in the bowling bag. ‘Annabeth won’t say anything.’
‘But … another girl was there?’
‘I didn’t see her. I guess she heard me coming in and went upstairs.’
The dwarf turned to Hearth. ‘At which point, she jumped from the second-floor window, knocked you out and got away?’
Hearth nodded. She had to be looking for the sword.
‘You think she found it?’ Blitz asked.
Hearth shook his head.
‘How can you be sure?’ I asked.
Because she’s right there.
Hearth pointed across Boylston. A quarter of a mile down Arlington Street, walking at a fast clip, was a girl in a brown peacoat and a green headscarf. I recognized that scarf.
Hearth’s swollen eye had been compliments of Samirah al-Abbas, my ex-Valkyrie.
Let’s Play Frisbee with Bladed Weapons!
At the north end of the park, Sam crossed Beacon Street, heading for the footbridge over Storrow Drive.
‘Where’s she going?’ I asked.
‘The river, obviously,’ Blitz said. ‘She checked out your body at the funeral home –’
‘Can we please not phrase it that way?’
‘She didn’t find the sword. Now she’s checking the river.’
Sam climbed the spiral ramp of the footbridge. She glanced back in our direction and we had to hide behind a pile of dirty snow. During the summer tourist season, it would’ve been easier to follow her without attracting attention. Now, the sidewalks were mostly empty.
Blitzen adjusted his dark glasses. ‘I don’t like it. Best case scenario, the Valkyries sent her, but –’
‘No,’ I said. ‘She was kicked out of the Valkyries.’
I told them the story as we crouched behind our snow-bank.
Hearth looked aghast. His swollen eye had turned the colour of Kermit the Frog. Daughter of Loki? he signed. She’s working for her dad.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I can’t quite believe that.’
Because she saved you?
I wasn’t sure. Maybe I didn’t want to believe she was playing for Team Evil. Maybe Loki’s words had wormed their way into my head: I’m definitely on your side!
I pointed at Hearth’s eye and signed P for Permission? I touched his eyelid. A spark
of warmth passed through my fingertip. The bruising faded.
Blitz chuckled. ‘You’re getting good at that, Magnus.’
Hearthstone grabbed my hand. He studied my fingertips as if looking for residual magic.
‘Whatever.’ I pulled my hand away, a little embarrassed. The last thing I wanted to be was Magnus Chase, Viking Paramedic. ‘We’re losing Sam. Let’s go.’
Sam headed downstream on the Esplanade jogging trail. We crossed the footbridge. Beneath us, cars edged along, bumper to bumper, honking incessantly. Judging from all the construction vehicles and flashing lights on the Longfellow Bridge, the traffic was probably my fault. My battle with Surt had completely closed the span.
We lost sight of Sam as we took the spiral ramp to the Esplanade. We walked past the playground. I figured we would spot her somewhere down the path, but she had disappeared.
‘Well, that’s just great,’ I said.
Blitz limped into the shadow of the closed concession stand. He looked like he was having trouble carrying his bowling bag.
‘You okay?’ I asked.
‘Legs are just slightly petrified. Nothing to worry about.’
‘That sounds like something to worry about.’
Hearth paced. Wish I had a bow. I could have shot her.
Blitzen shook his head. ‘Stick to magic, my friend.’
Hearth’s gestures were sharp with irritation. Can’t read your lips. The beard is bad enough. The ski mask – impossible.
Blitz set down the bowling bag, then signed while he spoke. ‘Hearth is very good with runes. He knows more rune magic than any living mortal.’
‘Mortal like human?’ I asked.
Blitz snorted. ‘Kid, humans aren’t the only mortal species. I meant humans, dwarves or elves. You can’t count giants – they’re weird. Or the gods, obviously. Or the soothsayers who live in Valhalla. I never understood what they were. But, among the three mortal species, Hearthstone is the best magician! Well, he’s also the only magician, as far as I know. He’s the first person in centuries to dedicate his life to magic.’
I’m blushing, Hearthstone signed, clearly not blushing.
‘My point is, you’ve got real talent,’ Blitz told him. ‘But still you want to be an archer!’
Elves were great archers! Hearth protested.
‘A thousand years ago!’ Blitzen chopped his hand twice between his opposite thumb and forefinger, the sign for annoyed. ‘Hearth is a romantic. He longs for the old days. He’s the sort of elf who goes to Renaissance festivals.’
Hearth grunted. I went one time.
‘Guys,’ I said, ‘we have to find Sam.’
No point, Hearth signed. She’ll search the river. Let her waste her time. We already looked.
‘What if we missed the sword?’ Blitz asked. ‘What if she’s got another way to find it?’
‘It’s not in the river,’ I said.
Blitz and Hearth both stared at me.
‘You sure about that?’ Blitz asked.
‘I … Yeah. Don’t ask me how, but now that I’m closer to the water …’ I stared out over the Charles, its rippling grey lines etched with ice. ‘I feel the same as when I stood over my coffin. There’s a kind of hollowness – like when you rattle a can and you can tell there’s nothing inside. I just know – the sword isn’t anywhere close.’
‘Rattling a can …’ Blitzen mused. ‘Okay. I don’t suppose you could direct us towards the cans we should be rattling?’
‘That would be good,’ said Samirah al-Abbas.
She charged from behind the concession building and kicked me in the chest, propelling me backwards into a tree. My lungs imploded like paper sacks. By the time I could see straight again, Blitzen was slumped against the wall. Hearth’s bag of runestones had scattered across the ground, and Sam was swinging her axe at him.
‘Stop it!’ I meant to yell, but it came out as more of a wheeze.
Hearth dodged the axe and tried to tackle her. Sam judo-flipped him over her knee. Hearth landed flat on his back.
Blitzen tried to get up. His hat was tilted sideways. His glasses had been knocked off, and the skin around his eyes was turning grey in the daylight.
Sam turned to axe-smack him. Anger roared through me. I reached for the chain on my belt. Instantly, it was a sword again. I pulled the blade and sent it spinning like a Frisbee. It clanged against Sam’s axe, knocking the weapon from her hand, almost taking off her face in the process.
She stared at me in disbelief. ‘What the Helheim?’
‘You started it!’
Hearth grabbed her ankle. Sam kicked him away.
‘And stop kicking my elf!’ I said.
Sam pushed back her headscarf, letting her dark hair sweep her shoulders. She crouched in a wrestler’s stance, ready to take us all on. ‘So help me, Magnus, if I had my full powers, I would rip your soul from your body for all the trouble you’ve caused me.’
‘That’s nice,’ I said. ‘Or you could tell us what you’re doing here. Maybe we could help each other.’
Blitzen snatched up his sunglasses. ‘Help her? Why would we help her? She knocked out Hearth at the funeral home! My eyes feel like chunks of quartz!’
‘Well, maybe if you hadn’t been stalking me,’ Sam said.
‘Bah!’ Blitzen readjusted his hat. ‘Nobody was stalking you, Valkyrie! We’re looking for the same thing – the sword!’
Still lying on the ground, Hearth signed, Somebody please kill her.
‘What’s he doing?’ Sam demanded. ‘Is he making rude elf gestures at me?’
‘It’s ASL,’ I said. ‘American Sign Language.’
‘Alf Sign Language,’ Blitz corrected.
‘Anyway –’ I raised my palms – ‘can we call a truce and talk? We can always go back to killing each other later.’
Sam paced, muttering under her breath. She retrieved her axe and my sword.
Nice job, Magnus, I told myself. Now she has all the weapons.
She tossed the sword back to me. ‘I should never have chosen you for Valhalla.’
Blitzen snorted. ‘On that, at least, we agree. If you hadn’t interfered on the bridge –’
‘Interfered?’ Sam demanded. ‘Magnus was already dead when I chose him! You and the elf weren’t doing him any good with your plastic sign and your squeaky arrows!’
Blitz stood straight, which didn’t make him much taller. ‘I’ll have you know my friend is a great rune caster.’
‘Really?’ Samirah asked. ‘I didn’t see him using magic on the bridge against Surt.’
Hearthstone looked offended. Would have. Got sidetracked.
‘Exactly,’ Blitz said. ‘And, as for me, I have many skills, Valkyrie.’
‘For instance, I could fix your disgraceful outfit. No one wears a brown peacoat with a green headscarf.’
‘A dwarf in sunglasses and a ski mask is giving me fashion advice.’
‘I have daylight issues!’
‘Guys,’ I said, ‘stop, please. Thank you.’
I helped Hearthstone to his feet. He scowled at Sam and began collecting his runestones.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Sam, why are you looking for the sword?’
‘Because it’s my only chance! Because –’ Her voice cracked. All the rage seemed to ebb out of her. ‘Because I honoured your stupid bravery. I rewarded you with Valhalla. And it cost me everything. If I can find the sword, maybe the thanes will reinstate me. I can convince them that … that I’m not –’
‘The daughter of Loki?’ Blitzen asked, but his voice had lost some of its edge.
Sam lowered her axe. ‘I can’t do anything about that. But I’m not working for my father. I’m loyal to Odin.’
Hearthstone glanced at me sceptically, like, Are you buying this?
‘I trust her,’ I said.
Blitz grunted. ‘Is this another rattle-the-can instinct?’
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Look, we all want to find th
is sword, right? We want to keep it away from Surt.’
‘Assuming Surt doesn’t already have it,’ Sam said. ‘Assuming we can figure out what’s going on. Assuming the Norns’ prophecy for you isn’t as bad as it sounds –’
‘One way to find out.’ Blitz held up the bowling-ball bag.
Sam stepped away. ‘What’s in there?’
Hearth made a claw and tapped it twice on his shoulder – the sign for boss.
‘Answers,’ Blitz said, ‘whether we want them or not. Let’s confer with the Capo.’
Talk to the Face, ’Cause That’s Pretty Much All He’s Got
Blitz led us down the Esplanade, where a pier extended into an icy lagoon. At the base of the dock, a candy-striped pole listed sideways.
‘This is where they do gondola rides in the summer,’ I said. ‘I don’t think you’re going to find one now.’
‘We just need water.’ Blitz sat on the dock and unzipped the bowling bag.
‘Oh, gods.’ Sam peered inside. ‘Is that human hair?’
‘Hair, yes,’ Blitz said. ‘Human, no.’
‘You mean …’ She pressed her hand to her stomach. ‘You’re not serious. You work for him? You brought him here?’
‘He insisted.’ Blitz pushed down the sides of the bag, revealing … yep, a severed head. The most messed-up thing about that? After two days in Valhalla, I wasn’t even surprised.
The beheaded man’s face was shrivelled like a month-old apple. Tufts of rust-coloured hair clung to his scalp. His closed eyes were sunken and dark. His bearded jaw protruded bulldog style, revealing a crooked row of bottom teeth.
Blitz unceremoniously shoved the head in the water, bag and all.
‘Dude,’ I said, ‘the state river authority isn’t going to like that.’
The head bobbed on the surface of the lagoon. The water around it bubbled and swirled. The man’s face inflated, his wrinkles softening, his skin turning pink. He opened his eyes.