I tossed my chain overboard. ‘Now the apple.’
A piece of fruit shot out from the net. It would’ve beaned Sam between the eyes if not for her fast reflexes. The apple didn’t look like much – just a shrivelled Golden Delicious – but Sam held it gingerly, as if it were radioactive. She slipped it into her coat pocket.
‘Go now, as you promised,’ Ran said. ‘But I tell you this, son of Frey: your high-handed bargaining will cost you dearly. You have made an enemy of Ran. My husband, Aegir, lord of the waves, will also hear about this, if I can ever get him out of the hops shop. For your sake, I hope you’re not planning any more sea voyages. Next time, your kinship with Njord will not save you. Cross my waters again and I will personally drag your soul to the bottom.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s something to look forward to.’
Ran spun. Her form blurred into a misty funnel cloud, her nets wrapping around her like twirled spaghetti. She sank into the depths and was gone.
Sam shuddered. ‘That was interesting.’
Behind us, a ladder creaked. Harald’s head popped up from below.
‘Interesting?’ he demanded. ‘Did you say it was interesting?’
He climbed out, glowering at us, his fists balled, his icy blue beard dripping. ‘World Serpent fishing – that’s one thing. But antagonizing Ran? I never would have taken you aboard if I had known, no matter what Big Boy said! I have to make a living on the ocean! I should throw you overboard –’
‘I’ll double your price,’ Sam said. ‘Ten red gold. Just get us back to dock.’
Harald blinked. ‘Okay.’ He headed for the wheelhouse.
I studied the Sword of Summer. Now that I had it, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. The steel glowed with its own light, silvery runes burning along the flat of the blade. The sword radiated warmth, heating the air around me, melting the frost on the railings, filling me with the same sense of quiet power I felt when I healed someone. It wasn’t so much like holding a weapon … more like holding open a door to a different time, walking with my mom in the Blue Hills, feeling the sunlight on my face.
Sam reached over. Still wearing her oversize leather gloves, she brushed a tear from my cheek.
I hadn’t realized I was crying.
‘Sorry,’ I said, my voice hoarse.
Sam studied me with concern. ‘Could you really have summoned the sword from Ran?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘In that case, you’re insane. But I’m impressed.’
I lowered the blade. It kept humming as if trying to tell me something.
‘What did Ran mean?’ I asked. ‘She said you didn’t need to be a Valkyrie to fly. Something about your father’s blood?’
Sam’s expression closed up faster than Ran’s nets. ‘It’s not important.’
‘You sure about that?’
She hung her axe on her belt. She looked everywhere but my eyes. ‘As sure as you could summon that sword.’
The outboard engines rumbled. The ship began to turn.
‘I’ll be at the wheel with Harald,’ Sam said, apparently anxious to put some distance between us. ‘I’ll make sure he takes us to Boston and not Jotunheim.’
Thou Shalt Not Poop on the Head of Art
After giving me the slightly shrivelled apple of immortality, Sam left me at the docks. Not that she wanted to, she said, but her grandparents were going to murder her, and she didn’t want to be any later for that. We made plans to meet the next morning at the Public Garden.
I made my way towards Copley Square. I felt a little self-conscious walking the streets with a glowing broadsword, so I had a conversation with my weapon. (Because that wasn’t crazy at all.)
‘Could you do a glamour and turn into something smaller?’ I asked it. ‘Preferably not a chain, since it’s no longer the 1990s?’
The sword didn’t reply (duh), but I imagined it was humming at a more interrogative pitch, like, Such as what?
‘I dunno. Something pocket-size and innocuous. A pen, maybe?’
The sword pulsed, almost like it was laughing. I imagined it saying, A pen sword. That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.
‘You have a better idea?’ I asked it.
The sword shrank in my hand, melting into a runestone on a gold chain. The small white stone was emblazoned with a black symbol:
‘The rune of Frey,’ I said. ‘I’m not really a jewellery guy, but okay.’
I fastened the chain around my neck. I discovered the stone was attached magnetically to its bail, so I could easily pull it off the chain. As soon as I did, the stone grew into a sword. If I wanted it back in pendant form, all I had to do was picture that. The sword shrank into a stone, and I could reattach it to the necklace.
‘Cool,’ I admitted.
Perhaps the sword really had heard my request. Perhaps I’d somehow created the glamour by myself. Or maybe I was hallucinating and wearing a huge sword around my neck.
I doubted anyone would look twice at my new medallion.
They’d see the and assume it stood for ailure.
By the time I reached Copley Square it was fully dark out. No sign of Blitz or Hearthstone, which made me apprehensive. The library had closed for the night. I wondered if Big Boy expected me to meet him on the roof, but I wasn’t about to climb the walls of the library.
It had been a long day. Einherji superwarrior strength or not, I was exhausted and shaking from hunger. If Big Boy wanted the apple, he would have to come get it. Otherwise I’d eat it myself.
I sat on the front steps of the library, the stone swaying under me like I was still on Harald’s ship. To either side of me, a bronze lady statue reclined on a marble throne. I remembered that one symbolized Art and the other Science, but to me they both looked ready for recess. They leaned on their armrests, metal shawls covering their heads, glancing in my direction like, Tough week, huh?
This was the first time I’d been alone and not in imminent danger since … the funeral home? Did it count as being alone if you were staring at your own dead body?
My memorial service had probably happened by now. I imagined my coffin being lowered into an icy grave; Uncle Randolph leaning on his cane, frowning resentfully; Uncle Frederick looking baffled and distressed in his mismatched clothes; and Annabeth … I couldn’t imagine what she was feeling.
She’d rushed to Boston to find me. She’d learned I was dead. Then she learned I wasn’t dead, but she still had to attend my funeral and not tell anyone she’d seen me.
I believed she would keep her promise, but our meeting had unsettled me. Some of the things she’d said: I can help you. I know a place where you’ll be safe.
I pulled the battered flyer from my coat pocket. MISSING! MAGNUS CHASE, 16 YEARS OLD. PLEASE CALL. I studied Annabeth’s phone number, committing it to memory. I owed her an explanation, but not yet. I’d already got Hearthstone knocked unconscious, Blitzen half petrified and Sam kicked out of the Valkyries. I couldn’t risk dragging anyone else into my problems.
According to the Norns, Fenris Wolf would be unleashed seven days from now unless I stopped it from happening. Ragnarok would begin. Surt would consume the Nine Worlds in fire. I would never find my mom or get justice for her murder.
Despite all that, every time I thought about facing a wolf – facing the Wolf, Fenris himself – I wanted to curl up in my old sleeping bag, stick my fingers in my ears and hum, La, la, la, it’s not happening.
A shadow swooped over my head. Big Boy the eagle landed on the bronze statue to my left and promptly decorated her head with eagle droppings.
‘Dude,’ I said, ‘you just pooped on Art.’
‘Did I?’ Big Boy lifted his tail feathers. ‘Ah, well. I imagine she’s used to it. I see you survived your fishing expedition!’
‘Surprised?’ I asked.
‘Yes, actually. Do you have my apple?’
I pulled it from my pocket and tossed it over. Big Boy caught it i
n his left claw and began to eat. ‘Ah, that’s the stuff!’
I’d seen some strange things recently, but an eagle eating an apple atop the poopy head of Art was definitely in the top twenty.
‘So will you tell me who you are, now?’ I asked.
Big Boy burped. ‘I suppose you’ve earned it. I’ll confess: I’m not really an eagle.’
‘I’m shocked. Shocked, I tell you.’
He snapped off another chunk of apple. ‘Also, I doubt you’ll make many friends among the gods when they learn you’ve assisted me.’
‘Wonderful,’ I said. ‘I’m already on Ran and Aegir’s naughty list.’
‘Oh, those two aren’t properly gods. They are neither Aesir nor Vanir. I think they’re more giantish, though of course the line between giant and god has always been blurred. Our clans have intermarried so many times over the years.’
‘Our clans. Meaning …’
The eagle grew. Shadows folded around him, adding to his size like a snowball gathering mass. His shape resolved into a huge old man lounging in the lap of Art. He wore iron-shod boots, leather breeches and a tunic of eagle feathers that was probably not in compliance with the Endangered Species Act. His hair was grey, his face weathered with age. On one forearm he wore a gold bracer encrusted with bloodstones – the sort of armband worn by the thanes in Valhalla.
‘You’re a lord?’ I asked.
‘A king, in fact.’ Big Boy took another bite of apple. Immediately his hair darkened and some of his wrinkles faded. ‘Utgard-Loki at your service!’
I curled my fingers around my sword pendant. ‘Loki as in Loki Loki?’
The giant king made a sour face. ‘You have no idea how many times I get that question. Are you the “famous” Loki?’ He put famous in air quotes. ‘Ugh! I was named Loki before he ever came along. It’s a popular name among giants! At any rate – no, Magnus Chase, I am not related to the famous Loki. I am Utgard-Loki, meaning Loki of the Outlands, king of the mountain giants. I’ve been watching you for years.’
‘I get that a lot.’
‘Well, you’re much more interesting than those dense children of Thor who usually challenge me. You’ll make a wonderful enemy!’
Pressure built in my ear canals. ‘We’re enemies now?’
‘Oh, there’s no need to draw your sword just yet. Nice pendant, though. Someday we’ll find ourselves on opposite sides. That can’t be helped. But, for the present, I’m happy to observe. I hope you’ll learn to use the sword without getting yourself killed. That would be amusing. Surt, the old bag of smoke, deserves to be humiliated.’
‘Well, I’m always happy to amuse you.’
The giant popped the rest of the apple in his mouth and swallowed it whole. He now looked about twenty-five, with coal-black hair, his handsome angular face free of wrinkles.
‘Speaking of Surt,’ he said, ‘the fire lord will never let you keep that sword. You have … probably until morning before he realizes that you’ve found it.’
My hand dropped from my pendant. My arms felt like wet sandbags. ‘I impaled Surt, cut off his nose and dropped him in an icy river. That didn’t even slow him down?’
‘Oh, it did! Right now he’s nothing but a seething noseless ball of fire, raging down in Muspellheim. He’ll have to conserve all his power to manifest again on the day of the full moon.’
‘When he tries to free the Wolf.’ Maybe I shouldn’t have been chatting about that with a self-declared enemy, but something told me Utgard-Loki already knew.
The giant nodded. ‘Surt is more anxious than anyone for Ragnarok to start. He knows he’ll get to consume the Nine Worlds in flames, and that’s what he’s been waiting for since the dawn of time. Me, I like the way things are! I’m having fun. But fire giants … ah, there’s no reasoning with them. It’s all burn, burn, burn. Anyway, the good news is that Surt won’t be able to kill you personally until the full moon. He’s much too weak. The bad news: he has lots of minions.’
‘I hate minions.’
‘Surt’s not the only one after you. Your former comrades from Valhalla have been searching. They’re not pleased that you left without permission.’
I thought about Captain Gunilla and her bandolier of hammers. I imagined one spinning towards my face. ‘Well, that’s just perfect.’
‘If I were you, Magnus, I’d get out of Midgard by dawn. That should throw your pursuers off your trail, at least temporarily.’
‘Leave the earth. Simple as that.’
‘I knew you were a quick learner.’ Utgard-Loki slid off the statue’s lap. Standing up, he was easily twelve feet tall. ‘We’ll meet again, Magnus Chase. Someday you’ll need a favour only Utgard-Loki can grant. But for now … your friends would like a word. Farewell!’
Shadows funnelled around him. Utgard-Loki was gone. In his place stood Blitzen and Hearthstone.
Hearth leaped away from me like a startled cat.
Blitzen dropped his duffel bag. ‘Heimdall’s Horn, kid! Where did you come from?’
‘Where did I – I’ve been here for almost an hour. I was talking to a giant.’
Hearth crept towards me. He poked me in the chest to see if I was real.
We have been here for hours, he signed. Waiting for you. We talked to giant. You just appeared.
A sick feeling rose in my chest. ‘Maybe we should compare notes.’
I told them what had happened since we parted ways: Harald’s boat; Mr J. and Bag Lady Ran (which would make an awesome name for a rapper duo); and my conversation with Utgard-Loki.
‘Ah. Not good.’ Blitzen stroked his beard. He’d dispensed with the anti-sun gear and was now wearing an eggplant-purple three-piece suit with a mauve shirt and a green carnation in the lapel. ‘The giant told us some of the same things, but … the giant did not tell us his own name.’
Hearth signed, Surprise, opening his pinched fingers on either side of his eyes, which in this context I took to mean YIKES!
Utgard-Loki. He spelled out the name. Most powerful sorcerer of Jotunheim. Can make any illusion.
‘We were lucky,’ Blitz said. ‘Utgard-Loki could’ve tricked us into seeing or doing anything. He could’ve made us walk off a roof, accidentally kill each other or even eat steak tartare. In fact –’ Blitz narrowed his eyes – ‘we could still be in an illusion. Any of us might be giants.’
Blitzen punched Hearthstone in the arm.
OUCH! Hearth signed. He stepped on the dwarf’s toes.
‘Or maybe not,’ Blitzen decided. ‘Still, this is very bad. Magnus, you’ve given an apple of immortality to a giant king.’
‘And … what does that mean, exactly?’
Blitz fiddled with his carnation. ‘To be honest, I’m not sure. I’ve never understood how those apples work. I imagine it will make Utgard-Loki stronger as well as younger. And, make no mistake, when Ragnarok comes he won’t be on our side.’
Hearthstone signed, Wish I’d known it was Utgard-Loki. I could have asked about magic.
‘Hmph,’ Blitz said. ‘You know plenty. Besides, you can’t trust a giant to give you straight answers. Right now, you two need sleep. Elves can’t stay awake very long without sunlight. And Magnus looks like he’s going to fall over.’
Blitz was right. I was starting to see double Blitzens and double Hearthstones, and I didn’t think it had anything to do with illusions.
We made camp in the library doorway, just like old times except with better supplies. Blitz pulled three down sleeping bags out of his duffel, along with a fresh change of clothes for me and some sandwiches, which I ate too fast to taste. Hearth collapsed in his bag and immediately began snoring.
‘Rest,’ Blitz told me. ‘I’ll keep watch. Tomorrow, we visit my kin.’
‘The dwarf world?’ My thoughts were getting fuzzy. ‘Your home?’
‘My home.’ Blitzen sounded uneasy. ‘Some of the research Hearth and I did today – it’s looking like we’ll need more information about the rope that bound Fenris. We can only
get that in Nidavellir.’ He focused on the chain around my neck. ‘Can I see it? The sword?’
I pulled off the pendant and set the sword between us, its light making Blitz’s face glitter like a vein of copper in the dark.
‘Breathtaking,’ he murmured. ‘Bone steel … or something even more exotic.’
‘Bone steel … T.J. in Valhalla mentioned that.’
Blitz didn’t touch the blade, but he passed his hand over it reverently. ‘To make steel, iron is smelted with carbon. Most swordsmiths use coal, but you can also use bones – the bones of enemies, or monsters, or ancestors.’
‘Oh …’ I stared at the blade, wondering if my great-great-grandparents might be in there somewhere.
‘Forged correctly,’ Blitz said, ‘bone steel can cut down supernatural creatures, even giants and gods. Of course, you have to quench the blade in blood to harden it, preferably the blood of whatever type of creature you want the sword to be most lethal against.’
The sandwiches weren’t sitting so well in my stomach. ‘This blade was made like that?’
‘I don’t know,’ Blitz admitted. ‘The sword of Frey is Vanir work, which is a mystery to me. It might be closer to Hearth’s elf magic.’
My spirits sank. I’d had this idea that dwarves were good with weapon crafting. In the back of my mind, I’d been hoping Blitzen could tell me something about the blade’s secrets.
I glanced at Hearth, still snoring peacefully. ‘You said Hearth knew a lot of magic. I’m not criticizing. I’ve just never seen him cast any … well, except maybe opening one door. What else can he do?’
Blitz set his hand protectively next to Hearth’s feet. ‘Magic drains him. He’s careful about using it. Also his family …’
He took a deep breath. ‘Modern elves don’t approve of magic. His parents shamed Hearthstone pretty badly. It still makes him self-conscious about casting magic in front of others. Hearthstone wasn’t the son his parents wanted, between the magic and the, you know …’ Blitz tapped his own earlobes.
I felt like saying something rude about Hearthstone’s parents in sign language. ‘It’s not his fault he’s deaf.’
‘Elves.’ Blitz shrugged. ‘They have a low tolerance for anything that isn’t perfect – music, art, appearances. Their own children.’
I wanted to protest how messed up that was. Then I thought about humans, and I decided we weren’t much better.
‘Get some sleep, kid,’ Blitz urged. ‘Big day tomorrow. To keep Fenris Wolf bound, we’re going to need help from a certain dwarf … and that help isn’t going to come cheap. We’ll need you at full strength when we jump to Nidavellir.’
‘Jump …’ I said. ‘What do you mean jump?’
He gave me a worried look, as if I might be getting another funeral very soon. ‘In the morning, you’re going to try climbing the World Tree.’
Call me crazy.
I was expecting the World Tree to be a tree. Not a row of bronze ducks.
‘Behold!’ Blitzen said. ‘The nexus of the universe!’
Hearthstone knelt reverently.
I glanced at Sam, who had joined us after a daring escape from first-period physics. She wasn’t laughing.
‘So …’ I said, ‘I’m just going to point out that this is the Make Way for Ducklings statue.’
‘Do you think it’s a coincidence?’ Blitzen demanded. ‘Nine Worlds? Nine ducks? The symbolism screams portal! This spot is the crux of creation, the centre of the tree, the easiest place to jump from one duck – I mean one world – to another.’