monument looked small and sad.
Thor had said I’d be sent where I needed to go. Why did I need to be here, and where were my friends?
A voice at my shoulder said, ‘Tragic, isn’t it?’
I hardly flinched. I supposed I was getting used to strange Norse entities popping up in my personal space.
Standing next to me, gazing at the monument, was a woman with elven-pale skin and long dark hair. In profile, she looked heart-achingly beautiful, about twenty-five years old. Her ermine cloak shimmered like a snowdrift rippling in the wind.
Then she turned towards me, and my lungs flattened against the back of my ribcage.
The right side of the woman’s face was a nightmare – withered skin, patches of blue ice covering decayed flesh, membrane-thin lips over rotten teeth, a milky-white eye and tufts of desiccated hair like black spiderwebs.
I tried to tell myself, Okay, this isn’t so bad. She’s just like that guy Two-Face from Batman. But Two-Face had always struck me as kind of comical, like, come on, nobody with that much facial damage could be alive.
The woman in front of me was very real. She looked like someone who’d been stuck halfway through a door when a devastating blizzard struck. Or worse … some hideous ghoul who’d tried to transform into a human, only to get interrupted in the middle of the process.
‘You’re Hel.’ My voice sounded like I was five years old again.
She lifted her skeletal right hand, brushing a tuft of hair behind her ear … or the stub of frostbitten flesh that might once have been an ear.
‘I am Hel,’ she agreed. ‘Sometimes called Hela, though most mortals dare not speak my name at all. No jokes, Magnus Chase? Who the Hel are you? What the Hel do you want? You look Hela bad. I was expecting more bravado.’
I was fresh out of bravado. The best I could manage was not running away shrieking. Wind gusted around Hel, lifting a few flakes of blackened skin from her zombie forearm and swirling them into the snow.
‘Wh-what do you want?’ I asked. ‘I’m already dead. I’m an einherji.’
‘I know that, young hero. I don’t want your soul. I have plenty of those already. I called you here to talk.’
‘You brought me? I thought Thor –’
‘Thor.’ The goddess scoffed. ‘If you want someone who can navigate one hundred and seventy channels of HD content, go to Thor. If you want someone who can accurately send people through the Nine Worlds, he’s not your guy.’
‘So I thought it was high time we talked. My father did mention I’d be seeking you out, yes? He gave you an exit strategy, Magnus: surrender the sword to your uncle. Remove it from play. This is your last opportunity. Perhaps you can take a lesson from this place.’
She turned towards the monument so only her mortal side was visible. ‘Sad and meaningless. Another hopeless battle, like the one you’re about to engage in …’
Granted, my American history was a little rusty, but I was pretty sure they didn’t build monuments at the site of sad and meaningless events.
‘Wasn’t Bunker Hill a victory? Americans holding off the British at the top of the hill? Don’t fire until you see …’
She fixed me with her milky zombie gaze, and I couldn’t make myself say the whites of their eyes.
‘For every hero, a thousand cowards,’ said Hel. ‘For every brave death, a thousand senseless ones. For every einherji … a thousand souls who enter my realm.’
She pointed with her withered hand. ‘Right over there, a British boy of your age died behind a hay bale, crying for his mother. He was the youngest of his regiment. His own commander shot him for cowardice. Do you think he appreciates this lovely monument? And there, at the top of the hill, after their ammunition ran out, your ancestors threw rocks at the British, fighting like cavemen. Some fled. Some stayed and were butchered with bayonets. Which were smarter?’
She smiled. I wasn’t sure which side of her mouth was more ghastly – the living zombie, or the beautiful woman who was amused by massacres.
‘No one ever said the whites of their eyes,’ she continued. ‘That’s a myth, made up years later. This isn’t even Bunker Hill. It’s Breed’s Hill. And, though the battle was costly to the British, it was an American defeat, not a victory. Such is human memory … you forget the truth and believe what makes you feel better.’
Snow melted against my neck, dampening my collar. ‘What’s your point? I shouldn’t fight? I should just let Surt free your brother the Big Bad Wolf?’
‘I merely point out options,’ Hel said. ‘Did Bunker Hill really affect the outcome of your Revolution? If you face Surt tonight, will you delay Ragnarok or hasten it? Charging into battle is what the hero would do – the sort of person who ends up in Valhalla. But what of the millions of souls who lived more careful lives and died peacefully in their beds at an old age? They ended up in my realm. Were they not wiser? Do you really belong in Valhalla, Magnus?’
The words of the Norns seemed to spiral around me in the cold. Wrongly chosen, wrongly slain; a hero Valhalla cannot contain.
I thought about my hallmate T.J., still carrying his rifle and wearing his Civil War coat, charging up hills day after day in a series of endless battles, waiting for his final death at Ragnarok. I thought about Halfborn Gunderson, trying to stay sane by earning PhDs in literature when he wasn’t going berserk and smashing skulls. Did I belong with those guys?
‘Take the sword to your uncle,’ Hel urged. ‘Let events unfold without you. This is the safer course. If you do so … my father Loki has asked me to reward you.’
The skin on my face burned. I had an irrational fear that I might be decaying from frostbite, becoming like Hel. ‘Reward me?’
‘Helheim is not such a terrible place,’ said the goddess. ‘My hall has many fine chambers for my favoured guests. A reunion could be arranged.’
‘A reunion …’ I could barely speak the words. ‘With my mother? You have her?’
The goddess seemed to consider the question, tilting her head from the living side to the dead. ‘I could have her. The status of her soul, of everything that she was, is still in flux.’
‘How …? I don’t –’
‘The prayers and wishes of the living often affect the dead, Magnus. Mortals have always known that.’ She bared her teeth – rotten on one side, pristine white on the other. ‘I cannot return Natalie Chase to life, but I can unite you both in Helheim if you wish it. I can bind your souls there so that you will never be separated. You could be a family again.’
I tried to imagine that. My tongue froze in my mouth.
‘You need not speak,’ Hel said. ‘Only give me an indication. Cry for your mother. Let your tears fall, and I will know you agree. But you must decide now. If you reject my offer, if you insist on fighting your own Bunker Hill tonight, I promise you will never see your mother again in this life or any other.’
I thought about my mother skipping stones with me at Houghton’s Pond, her green eyes sparkling with humour. She spread her arms in the sunlight, trying to explain what my father was like. That’s why I bring you here, Magnus. Can’t you feel it? He’s all around us.
Then I imagined my mother in a cold, dark palace, her soul bound for eternity. I remembered my own corpse in the funeral home – an embalmed relic, dressed up for display. I thought about the faces of the drowned souls swirling in Ran’s net.
‘You are crying,’ Hel noted with satisfaction. ‘Then we have a deal?’
‘You don’t understand.’ I looked at the goddess. ‘I’m crying because I know what my mother would want. She’d want me to remember her as she was. That’s the only monument she needs. She wouldn’t want to be trapped, preserved, forced to live as a ghost in some cold-storage underworld.’
Hel scowled, the right side of her face wrinkling and crackling. ‘You dare?’
‘You want bravado?’ I pulled my pendant from its chain. Jack the sword stretched
to full length, his blade steaming in the cold. ‘Leave me alone. Tell Loki we have no deal. If I see you again, I’ll cut you right down the dotted line.’
I raised my blade.
The goddess dissolved into snow. My surroundings faded. Suddenly I found myself balanced at the edge of a rooftop, five storeys above a stretch of asphalt.
The Terror That Is Middle School
Before I could plummet to my death, someone grabbed me and pulled me back.
‘Whoa, there, cowboy,’ Sam said.
She was dressed in a new peacoat – navy blue this time – with dark jeans and boots. Blue wasn’t my favourite colour, but it made her look dignified and serious, like an air-force officer. Her headscarf was freckled with snow. Her axe wasn’t at her side; I guessed it was tucked in the backpack over her shoulder.
She didn’t look surprised to see me. Then again, her expression was preoccupied, her gaze stuck somewhere in the distance.
My senses started to adjust. Jack was still in my hand. For some reason, I didn’t feel any exhaustion from his recent slaying of the giant sisters.
Below us, the patch of asphalt was not exactly a playground – more like a holding area between school buildings. Inside the chain-link fence, a few dozen students huddled in cliques, chatting in doorways or pushing each other around the icy ground. They looked like seventh-graders, though it was hard to be sure with everybody in their dark winter coats.
I willed my sword back into pendant form and returned it to its chain. I figured I shouldn’t be walking on the roof of a school with a broadsword.
‘Where are we?’ I asked Sam.
‘My old stomping ground.’ Her voice had a bitter edge. ‘Malcolm X Middle School.’
I tried to imagine Sam down in that courtyard, mingling with those cliques of girls, her headscarf the only splash of colour in the crowd.
‘Why did Thor send you back to middle school?’ I asked. ‘That seems especially cruel.’
She smirked. ‘He actually transported me home. I appeared in my bedroom, just in time for Jid and Bibi to barge in and demand to know where I’d been. That conversation was worse than middle school.’
My heart sank. I’d been so focused on my own problems I’d forgotten that Sam was trying to balance a normal life on top of everything else. ‘What did you tell them?’
‘That I’d been staying with friends. They’ll assume I meant Marianne Shaw.’
‘Rather than three strange guys.’
She hugged her arms. ‘I told Bibi I tried to text her, which is true. She’ll assume it was her fault. Bibi is hopeless with phones. Actually, Jotunheim just has no reception. I – I try not to actually lie, but I hate misleading them. After everything they’ve done for me, they worry I’m going to get in trouble, turn out like my mom.’
‘You mean a successful doctor who liked to help people? Gee, that would be terrible.’
She gave me an eye roll. ‘You know what I mean – a rebel, an embarrassment. They locked me in my room, told me I was grounded until Doomsday. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that might be tonight.’
The wind picked up, spinning the old metal roof fans like pinwheels.
‘How did you sneak out?’ I asked.
‘I didn’t. I just appeared here.’ She gazed down into the courtyard. ‘Maybe I needed a reminder of how it all started.’
My brain felt as rusty as the roof fans, but one thought gained traction and started to spin. ‘This is where you became a Valkyrie.’
Sam nodded. ‘A frost giant … he’d got into the school somehow. Maybe looking for me, maybe hunting some other demigod. He wrecked a few classrooms, caused a panic. He didn’t seem to care if there were mortal casualties. The school went on lockdown. They didn’t know what they were dealing with. They thought some crazy human was making a scene. They called the police, but there was no time …’
She slipped her hands into her coat pockets. ‘I taunted the giant – insulted his mom, that kind of thing. I lured him up here to the roof and …’ She looked below us. ‘The giant couldn’t fly. He landed right there on the asphalt and shattered into a million shards of ice.’
She sounded strangely embarrassed.
‘You took on a giant single-handed,’ I said. ‘You saved your school.’
‘I suppose,’ she said. ‘The staff, the police … they never figured out what happened. They thought the guy must’ve fled the scene. In the confusion, nobody noticed what I’d done … except Odin. After the giant died, the All-Father appeared in front of me, right where you’re standing. He offered me a job as a Valkyrie. I accepted.’
After my conversation with Hel, I didn’t think it was possible for me to feel worse. The loss of my mother still stung as painfully as the night she’d died. But Sam’s story made me feel bad in a different way. Sam had brought me to Valhalla. She’d lost her place among the Valkyries because she believed I was a hero – a hero like her. And, despite all that had happened since, she didn’t seem to blame me.
‘Do you regret it?’ I asked. ‘Taking my soul when I fell?’
She laughed under her breath. ‘You don’t get it, Magnus. I was told to bring you to Valhalla. And not by Loki. By Odin himself.’
My pendant heated up against my collarbone. For an instant, I smelled warm roses and strawberries, as if I’d stepped through a pocket of summer.
‘Odin,’ I said. ‘I thought he was missing … hadn’t appeared since you became a Valkyrie.’
‘He told me to say nothing.’ Sam shivered. ‘I guess I failed in that, too. The night before your fight with Surt, Odin met me outside my grandparents’ house. He was disguised as a homeless guy – a ratty beard, an old blue coat, a broad-brimmed hat. But I knew who he was. The eye patch, the voice … He told me to watch for you and, if you fought well, to bring you to Valhalla.’
Down in the courtyard, a period bell rang. The students headed inside, jostling and laughing. For them, it was a normal school day – the kind of day I could hardly remember.
‘I was wrongly chosen,’ I said. ‘The Norns told me I wasn’t supposed to be in Valhalla.’
‘Yet you were,’ Sam said. ‘Odin foresaw it. I don’t know why the contradiction, but we have to finish this quest. We have to reach that island tonight.’
I watched the snow erase footprints in the empty yard. Soon there’d be no more trace of the students than there was of the frost giant’s impact from two years ago.
I wasn’t sure what to think about Odin choosing me for Valhalla. I suppose I should’ve felt honoured. The All-Father himself thought I was important. He had chosen me, no matter what the Norns said. But, if that was true, why hadn’t Odin bothered to meet me in person? Loki was bound on a slab for eternity. He’d found a way to talk to me. Mimir was a severed head. He’d made the trip. But the All-Father, the great sorcerer who could supposedly bend reality just by speaking a rune – he couldn’t find the time for a quick check-in?
Hel’s voice echoed in my head: Do you really belong in Valhalla, Magnus?
‘I just came from Bunker Hill,’ I told Sam. ‘Hel offered me a reunion with my mother.’
I managed to tell her the story.
Samirah reached out as if to touch my arm, then apparently changed her mind. ‘I’m so sorry, Magnus. But Hel lies. You can’t trust her. She’s just like my father, only colder. You made the right choice.’
‘Yeah … still. You ever do the right thing, and you know it’s the right thing, but it leaves you feeling horrible?’
‘You’ve just described most days of my life.’ Sam pulled up her hood. ‘When I became a Valkyrie … I’m still not sure why I fought that frost giant. The kids at Malcolm X were terrible to me. The usual garbage: they asked me if I was a terrorist. They yanked off my hijab. They slipped disgusting notes and pictures into my locker. When that giant attacked … I could’ve pretended to be just another mortal and got myself to safety. But I didn’t even think about running away. Why did
I risk my life for those kids?’
‘What?’ she demanded.
‘Somebody once told me that a hero’s bravery has to be unplanned – a genuine response to a crisis. It has to come from the heart, without any thought of reward.’
Sam huffed. ‘That somebody sounds pretty smug.’
‘Maybe you didn’t need to come here,’ I decided. ‘Maybe I did. To understand why we’re a good team.’
‘Oh?’ She arched an eyebrow. ‘Are we a good team now?’
‘We’re about to find out.’ I gazed north into the snowstorm. Somewhere in that direction lay downtown Boston and Long Wharf. ‘Let’s find Blitzen and Hearthstone. We’ve got a fire giant to extinguish.’
A Lovely Homicidal Sunset Cruise
Blitz and Hearth were waiting for us outside the New England Aquarium.
Blitz had scored a new outfit, of course: olive-coloured fatigues, a yellow ascot necktie and a matching yellow pith helmet with yellow sun-proof netting. ‘My wolf-hunting clothes!’ he told us cheerfully.
He explained how Thor’s magic had transported him where he most needed to be: the best department store in Nidavellir. He’d used his Svartalf Express Card to charge a number of expeditionary supplies, including several spare outfits and a retractable bone-steel harpoon.
‘Not only that,’ Blitz said, ‘but the contest scandal with Junior? It backfired on the old maggot! Word got around about how badly he failed. Nobody is blaming me any more, or the horsefly, or anything! People started talking about my stylish armour designs, and now they’re clamouring for product. If I live through tonight, I might get to start my own clothing line after all!’
Sam and I both congratulated him, though living through the night did seem like a pretty big if. Nevertheless, Blitz was so happy I didn’t want to bring him down. He started bouncing on his heels, singing ‘Sharp Dressed Dwarf’ under his breath.
As for Hearth, he’d done a different kind of shopping. He was now carrying a polished staff of white oak. At the top, the staff split into a Y like a slingshot. I got the feeling – I don’t know how – that a piece was missing between the two prongs.
With his staff in hand, Hearth looked like a proper sword-and-sorcery elf – except that he was still wearing black jeans, a leather jacket over a HOUSE OF BLUES T-shirt and a candy-striped scarf.
Hearth rested the staff in the crook of his arm and explained in signs how he’d ended up at Mimir’s Well. The Capo had pronounced him a full master of alf seidr, ready to use a sorcerer’s staff.
‘Isn’t that awesome?’ Blitzen clapped him on the back. ‘I knew he could do it!’
Hearthstone pursed his lips. I don’t feel like a master.
‘I’ve got something that might help.’ I reached in my pocket and pulled out the runestone perthro. ‘A couple of hours ago I had a conversation with Hel. She reminded me of everything I’ve lost.’
I told them what the half-zombie goddess had offered me.
‘Ah, kid …’ Blitzen shook his head. ‘Here I’ve been going on about my new clothing line and you had to deal with that.’
‘It’s okay,’ I assured him. Strangely, it did feel okay. ‘The thing is, when I appeared on Bunker Hill, I’d just used my sword to kill two giantesses. I should’ve passed out or died from exhaustion. I didn’t. I think I know why.’
I turned the runestone between my fingers. ‘The longer I’m with you guys, the easier it gets to use my sword, or heal, or do anything, really. I’m no magic expert, but I think … somehow, we’re sharing the cost.’
I held out the rune for Hearthstone. ‘I know what it feels like to be an empty cup, to have everything taken away from you. But you’re not alone. However much magic you need to use, it’s okay. We’ve got you. We’re your family.’
Hearth’s eyes rimmed with green water. He signed to us, and this time I think he actually meant I love you and not the giantesses are drunk.
He took the rune and set it between the prongs of his new staff. The stone snapped into place the same way my pendant did on its chain. The symbol perthro glowed with a gentle gold light.
My sign, he announced. My family’s sign.
Blitzen sniffled. ‘I like that. A family of four empty cups!’
Sam wiped her eyes. ‘Suddenly I feel thirsty.’
‘Al-Abbas,’ I said, ‘I nominate you for the role of annoying sister.’
‘Shut up, Magnus.’ She straightened her coat, shouldered her backpack and took a deep breath. ‘All right. If we’re done with the family bonding, I don’t suppose anyone knows where we can find two dwarves with a boat?’