Sticking up from the ground, Jack hummed with satisfaction. ‘Summer. Yeah, I remember summer.’
I rolled out Andskoti until it trailed Jack like a kite string.
I faced the Wolf. ‘An old dwarf once told me that the most powerful crafting materials are paradoxes. This rope is made of them. But I’ve got one more – the final paradox that will bind you: the Sword of Summer, a weapon that wasn’t designed to be a weapon, a blade that is best used by letting go of it.’
I willed Jack to fly, trusting he would do the rest.
He could have sliced the last of the Wolf’s bonds. He could have flown across the battlefield straight into Surt’s hands, but he didn’t. He zipped under the Wolf’s belly, threading the cord Andskoti around his legs faster than Fenris could react, binding him and toppling him.
Fenris’s howl shook the island. ‘No! I will not –!’
The sword zipped around his snout. Jack tied off the rope in an aerial pirouette then floated back to me, his blade glowing with pride. ‘How’d I do, boss?’
‘Jack,’ I said, ‘you are one awesome sword.’
‘Well, I know that,’ he said. ‘But how about that rope-work, huh? That’s a perfect stevedore’s knot right there, and I don’t even have hands.’
Sam stumbled towards us. ‘You did it! You – ugh.’
Her lion form melted into regular old Sam – badly injured, face battered, her side soaked with blood. Before she could fall, I grabbed her and dragged her away from the Wolf. Even fully bound, he thrashed and frothed at the mouth. I didn’t want to be any closer to him than I had to be.
Hearthstone staggered after me, holding up Blitzen. The four of us fell together on a bed of heather.
‘Alive,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’
Our moment of triumph lasted about … well, one moment.
Then the sounds of battle became louder and clearer around us, as if a curtain had been ripped away. Hearthstone’s shielding magic may have given us extra protection against the Wolf, but it had also sealed us off from the fight with the fire giants … and my einherjar friends weren’t doing well.
‘To the Valkyrie!’ T.J. shouted. ‘Hurry!’
He stumbled across the ridge, bayoneting a fire giant and trying to reach Gunilla. All this time, while we’d been dealing with the Wolf, the Valkyrie captain had been holding off Surt. Now she was on the ground, her spear held weakly above her as Surt raised his scimitar.
Mallory staggered around weaponless, too far away and too bloodied to help. X was trying to dig his way out from beneath a pile of giant corpses. Halfborn Gunderson sat bloody and unmoving, his back propped against a rock.
I processed this in a split second. Just as quickly, I realized Hearth, Blitz, Sam and I wouldn’t be there in time to make a difference.
Nevertheless, I gripped my sword and rose. I staggered towards Gunilla. Our eyes met across the field, her last expression one of resignation and anger: Make it count.
The fire lord brought down his scimitar.
I don’t know why it broke me so badly.
I didn’t even like Gunilla.
But when I saw Surt standing over her lifeless body, his eyes smouldering in triumph, I wanted to fall down in the pile of bones and stay there until Ragnarok.
Gunilla was dead. Her lieutenants were dead. I didn’t even know their names, but they’d sacrificed their lives to buy me time. Halfborn was dead or dying. The other einherjar were not much better off. Sam and Blitz and Hearth were in no shape to fight.
And Surt was still on his feet, as strong as ever, his burning sword ready. Three of his fire giants were also still alive and armed.
After all we’d been through, the fire lord could kill me, take my sword and cut the wolf free.
Judging from the smile on his face, Surt expected to do just that.
‘I am impressed,’ he admitted. ‘The Wolf told me you had potential. I don’t think even Fenris expected you to do this well.’
The Wolf thrashed in his new magic bonds.
A few feet from the fire lord, T.J. crouched, his bayonet ready. He glanced at me, waiting for a sign. I knew he was ready to charge one last time, distract the giants if it would help me, but I couldn’t let another person die.
‘Go now,’ I told Surt. ‘Go back to Muspellheim.’
The fire lord threw back his head and laughed. ‘Brave to the end! I think not, Magnus Chase. I think you will burn.’
He thrust out his hand. A column of fire shot towards me.
I stood my ground.
I imagined being with my mom in the Blue Hills on the first day of spring, the sunlight warming my skin, gently thawing three months of cold and darkness out of my system.
My mom turned to me, her smile luminous: This is where I am, Magnus. In this moment. With you.
A sense of serenity anchored me. I remembered my mom once telling me how the town houses in Back Bay, like our family’s ancestral home, had been built on landfill. Every so often, engineers had to sink new pylons beneath the foundations to keep the buildings from collapsing. I felt like I’d had my pylons reinforced. I was solid.
Surt’s flames rolled over me. They lost their intensity. They were nothing but ghostly flickers of warm orange, as harmless as butterflies.
At my feet, the heather began to bloom – white flowers spreading across the landscape, reclaiming the trampled and burned areas where Surt’s warriors had walked, soaking up the blood, covering the corpses of the fallen giants.
‘The battle is over,’ I announced. ‘I consecrate this ground in the name of Frey.’
The words sent a shock wave in every direction. Swords, daggers and axes flew from the fire giants’ hands. T.J.’s rifle spun from his grasp. Even the weapons lying on the ground were expelled from the island, blasted into the darkness like shrapnel.
The only one left holding a weapon was me.
Without his flaming scimitar, Surt didn’t look so confident. ‘Tricks and childish magic,’ he snarled. ‘You cannot defeat me, Magnus Chase. That sword will be mine!’
I threw the blade. It spiralled towards Surt, passing over the giant’s head. Surt grabbed for it and missed.
‘What was that?’ The giant laughed. ‘An attack?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘That was your exit.’
Behind Surt, Jack slashed the air, ripping the fabric between the worlds. A zigzag of fire burned on the ridge. My ears popped. As if someone had shot out of the window in an aeroplane’s pressurized cabin, Surt and the other fire giants were sucked screaming into the rift, which closed behind them.
‘Bye!’ Jack called. ‘Catch you later!’
Except for the outraged snarling of the Wolf, the island was silent.
I stumbled across the field. I fell to my knees in front of Gunilla. I could tell immediately that the Valkyrie captain was gone. Her blue eyes stared into the dark. Her bandolier was empty of hammers. Her white spear lay broken across her chest.
My eyes stung. ‘I’m sorry.’
For five hundred years she’d been in Valhalla, collecting the souls of the dead, preparing for the final battle. I remembered how she’d scolded me: Even gazing upon Asgard, you have no sense of reverence.
In death, her face seemed full of wonder and awe. I hoped she was gazing upon Asgard the way she wanted it to be – filled with Aesir, all the lights burning in her father’s mansion.
‘Magnus,’ called T.J., ‘we have to go.’
He and Mallory were struggling to carry Halfborn Gunderson. X had managed to dig his way out from under the fire-giant corpse pile and was now carrying the two other fallen Valkyries. Blitz and Hearthstone stumbled along together, Sam close behind.
I picked up the body of the Valkyrie captain. She was not light, and my strength was fading again.
‘We have to hurry.’ T.J. spoke as gently as he could, but I heard the urgency in his tone.
The ground was shifting under my feet. I realized my glowing aura had done more than blind the wolf. The sunlight had affected the texture of the island. The island was supposed to disappear at dawn. My magic had hastened the process, causing the ground to dissolve into spongy mist.
‘Only seconds,’ Sam gasped. ‘Go.’
The last thing I felt capable of was a burst of speed, but somehow, carrying Gunilla, I followed T.J. as he led the way to the shore.
One More, for a Friend
‘We’ve got a frey boat!’ yelled T.J.
I had no idea what a Frey boat was. I didn’t see any boat on the beach, but I was too stunned and exhausted to ask questions. I felt like the extremes of heat and cold I’d tolerated my entire life were now taking revenge. My forehead burned with fever. My eyes felt close to boiling. My chest felt like a block of ice.
I plodded along. The ground became softer under my feet. The beach sank. The waves rushed in. My arm muscles screamed under the weight of the Valkyrie captain.
I started veering sideways. Sam grabbed my arm. ‘Just a little further, Magnus. Stay with me.’
We got to the beach. T.J. pulled out a piece of cloth like a handkerchief and tossed it into the surf. Immediately the cloth expanded, unfolding. By the count of ten, a full-size Viking warship bobbed in the surf with two oversized oars, a figurehead carved like a wild boar and a green sail emblazoned with the Hotel Valhalla logo. Along the side of the prow, lettered in white, were the words: HOTEL VALHALLA COURTESY VEHICLE.
‘In!’ T.J. jumped aboard first and reached out to take Gunilla from me.
The wet sand pulled at my feet, but somehow I managed to get over the rail. Sam made sure everyone else got in safely. Then she climbed aboard.
A deep hum reverberated across the island, like a bass amp turned to maximum. The Isle of Heather sank beneath the black waves. The ship’s sail tacked by itself. The oars began to row, and the ship turned west.
Blitzen and Hearthstone collapsed at the bow. They started arguing with each other about which of them had taken the stupider risks, but they were so tired the debate deteriorated into a half-hearted poking contest, like a couple of second-graders.
Sam knelt next to Gunilla. She folded the Valkyrie captain’s arms across her chest and gently closed Gunilla’s blue eyes.
‘The others?’ I asked.
X lowered his head.
He had set the two Valkyries in the stern, but it was clear they were gone. He folded their arms like Gunilla’s. ‘Brave warriors.’ He touched their foreheads with tenderness.
‘I didn’t know them,’ I said.
‘Margaret and Irene.’ Sam’s voice was unsteady. ‘They – they never liked me much, but … good Valkyries.’
‘Magnus,’ T.J. called from amidships, ‘we need you.’
He and Mallory were kneeling next to Halfborn Gunderson, whose berserker strength had finally failed him. His chest was a nightmarish patchwork of cuts and burns. His left arm hung at an unnatural angle. His beard and hair were sprinkled with blood and small bits of heather.
‘Good – fight,’ he wheezed.
‘Don’t talk, you big idiot!’ Mallory sobbed. ‘How dare you get yourself hurt like this?’
He grinned sleepily. ‘Sorry … Mother.’
‘Hang in there,’ T.J. said. ‘We can get you back to Vahalla. Then, if – if anything happens, you can be reborn.’
I put my hand on Halfborn’s shoulder. I sensed damage so severe I almost pulled away. It was like forcing myself to explore a bowl of glass shards.
‘There’s no time,’ I said. ‘We’re losing him.’
Mallory choked on tears. ‘Not an option. No. Halfborn Gunderson, I hate you so much.’
He coughed. Blood flecked his lips. ‘I hate you too, Mallory Keen.’
‘Hold him still,’ I said. ‘I’ll do what I can.’
‘Kid, think about this,’ Blitz said. ‘You’re already weak.’
‘I have to.’ I extended my senses, taking in Halfborn’s broken bones, his internal bleeding, his bruised organs. Fear washed over me. It was too much, too close to death. I needed help.
‘Jack,’ I called.
The sword hovered to my side. ‘Boss?’
‘Halfborn is dying. I’ll need your strength to help heal him. You can do that?’
The sword hummed nervously. ‘Yeah. But, boss, the second you take hold of me –’
‘I know. I’ll be even more exhausted.’
‘It’s not just binding the Wolf,’ Jack warned. ‘I also helped with the aura of golden light, which was pretty cool if I do say so myself. And then there was the Peace of Frey.’
‘The peace …’ I realized he meant the shock wave that had disarmed everyone, but I didn’t have time to worry about that. ‘Fine. Yes. We have to act now.’
I grabbed the sword. My eyesight dimmed. If I hadn’t been sitting already, I would’ve fallen down. I fought against the nausea and dizziness and placed the sword flat against Halfborn’s chest.
Warmth flooded through me. Light turned Halfborn’s beard to red gold. I sent the last of my strength coursing through his veins, repairing damage, closing ruptures.
The next thing I remember, I was lying face up on the deck, staring at a green sail rippling in the wind as my friends shook me and shouted my name.
Then I was standing in a sunlit meadow at the edge of a lake with blue sky above me. A warm breeze ruffled my hair.
Somewhere behind me, a man’s voice said, ‘Welcome.’
Don’t Be a No-Bro, Bro
He looked like a Hollywood Viking. He looked more like Thor from the movies than Thor did.
Blond hair fell to his shoulders. His tanned face, blue eyes, hawkish nose and stubbly beard would’ve worked equally well on the red carpet or the beaches of Malibu.
He reclined on a throne of living tree branches, the seat draped with deer hide. Across his lap lay a sort of sceptre – a stag’s antler fitted with a leather grip.
When he smiled, I saw my own self-conscious smirk, the same crooked chin. He even had the same cowlick I always got above my right ear.
I understood why my mom would’ve fallen in love with him. It wasn’t just because he was handsome, or because his faded jeans, flannel shirt and hiking boots were exactly her style. He radiated warmth and tranquility. Every time I’d healed someone, every time I’d called on the power of Frey, I’d captured a fragment of this guy’s aura.
‘Dad,’ I said.
‘Magnus.’ Frey rose. His eyes twinkled, but he didn’t seem sure what to do with his arms. ‘I’m so glad to see you at last. I’d – I’d give you a hug, but I imagine that would not be welcome. I understand you need more time –’
I charged in and gave him a bear hug.
That wasn’t like me. I’m not a hugger, especially not with strangers.
But he wasn’t a stranger. I knew him as well as I knew my mother. For the first time, I understood why my mom had been so insistent on taking me hiking and camping. Every time we were in the woods on a summer day, every time the sun came out from behind the clouds, Frey had been there.
Maybe I should have resented him, but I didn’t. After losing my mother, I didn’t have patience for grudges. My years on the street had taught me that it was pointless to whine and moan about what you could’ve had – what you deserved, what was fair. I was just happy to have this moment.
He cupped his hand gently on the back of my head. He smelled of campfire smoke, pine needles and toasted s’mores. Did they have s’mores in Vanaheim?
It occurred to me why I must be here. I was dead. Or at least dying again.
I pulled away. ‘My friends –’
‘Are safe,’ Frey assured me. ‘You pushed yourself to the verge of death healing the berserker, but he will live. So will you. You have done well, Magnus.’
His praise made me uncomfortable. ‘Three Valkyries died. I almost lost every friend I
had. All I did was bind the wolf with a new rope and send Surt back to Muspellheim – and Jack did all that work. It doesn’t really change anything.’
Frey laughed. ‘Magnus, you have changed everything. You, the wielder of the sword, are shaping the destiny of the Nine Worlds. As for the deaths of the Valkyries – that was a sacrifice they willingly made. Do not dishonour them by feeling guilt. You cannot prevent every death, any more than I can prevent each summer from becoming autumn … or any more than I can prevent my own fate at Ragnarok.’
‘Your fate …’ I closed my fingers around the runestone, now back on its chain. ‘I have your sword. Couldn’t you …?’
Frey shook his head. ‘No, son. As your Aunt Freya told you, I can never wield the Sword of Summer again. Ask the sword, if you want to be sure.’
I pulled off the pendant. Jack sprang to life, spewing a tirade of insults I can’t really repeat.
‘And another thing!’ he yelled. ‘Giving me away so you could marry a giantess? Dude, what was that? Blades before babes, you know what I’m saying?’
Frey smiled sadly. ‘Hello, old friend.’
‘Oh, we’re friends again?’ the sword demanded. ‘Nah. Nuh-uh. We’re done.’ Jack paused. ‘Your son’s okay, though. I like him. As long as he’s not planning to trade me for a giantess’s hand in marriage.’
‘That’s not on my to-do list,’ I promised.
‘Then we’re cool. But as for this sorry father of yours, this traitorous no-bro –’
I willed the sword back to pendant form. ‘No-bro?’
Frey shrugged. ‘I made my choice long ago. I surrendered the blade for the sake of love.’
‘But on Ragnarok you’ll die because you don’t have it.’
He held up the deer antler. ‘I will fight with this.’
‘An animal horn?’
‘Knowing your fate is one thing. Accepting it is another. I will do my duty. With this antler I will slay many giants, even Beli, one of their great generals. But you’re right. It won’t be enough to bring down Surt. In the end, I will die.’
‘How can you be so calm about it?’
‘Magnus … even gods can’t last forever. I don’t expend my energy trying to fight the change of seasons. I focus on making sure the days I have, and the season I oversee, are as joyful, rich and plentiful as possible.’ He touched my face. ‘But you already understand this. No child of Thor or Odin or even noble Tyr could have withstood Hel’s promises, Loki’s silver words. You did. Only a son of Frey, with the Sword of Summer, could choose to let go as you did.’