‘Hey, Beantown, the whole point is to get used to the horrors of battle. You think this is bad? Wait until we actually have to fight at Ragnarok.’
‘Why am I Beantown? T.J.’s from Boston. Why isn’t he Beantown?’
‘Because T.J. is slightly less annoying.’
We reached the edge of the woods. X and Halfborn guarded our backs, slowing down the pursuing horde. And the enemies were a horde now. All the scattered groups within sight had stopped fighting one another and were after us. Some pointed at me. Some called my name, and not in a friendly way.
‘Yeah, they’ve spotted you.’ Mallory sighed. ‘When I said I wanted to see you eviscerated, I didn’t mean I wanted to be standing next to you. Oh, well.’
I almost asked why everyone was after me. But I got it. I was a newbie. Of course the other einherjar would gang up on me and the other newcomers. Lars Ahlstrom was probably already decapitated. Dede might be running around with her arms cut off. The veteran einherjar would make this as painful and terrifying for us as possible to see how we handled ourselves. That made me angry.
We climbed the hill, weaving from tree to tree for cover. Halfborn threw himself into a group of twenty guys who were following us. He destroyed them all. He came up laughing, an insane light in his eyes. He was bleeding from a dozen wounds. A dagger stuck out of his chest, right over his heart.
‘How is he not dead yet?’ I asked.
‘He’s a berserker.’ Mallory glanced back, her expression a mix of disdain and exasperation and something else … admiration? ‘That idiot will keep fighting until he is literally hacked to pieces.’
Something clicked in my head. Mallory liked Halfborn. You don’t call somebody an idiot that many times unless you’re really into them. Under different circumstances, I might have teased her, but while she was distracted there was a wet thwack. An arrow sprouted from her neck.
She scowled at me as if to say, Totally your fault.
She collapsed. I knelt at her side, putting my hand on her neck. I could feel the life seeping out of her. I could sense the severed artery, the fading heartbeat, all the damage that had to be mended. My fingers seemed to grow warmer. If I had a little more time –
‘Look out!’ shouted X.
I raised my shield. A sword clanged against it. I pushed back, knocking the attacker downhill. My arms ached. My head was throbbing, but somehow I got to my feet.
Halfborn was forty yards away, surrounded by a mob of warriors all jabbing him with spears, shooting him full of arrows. Somehow he kept fighting, but even he wouldn’t be able to stand much longer.
X ripped a guy’s AK-47 out of his hands and smacked him over the head with it.
‘Go, Magnus Beantown,’ said the half-troll. ‘Take the crest for floor nineteen!’
‘My nickname will not be Beantown,’ I muttered. ‘I refuse.’
I stumbled uphill until I reached the summit. I put my back against a big oak tree while X smashed and backhanded and headbutted Vikings into oblivion.
An arrow hit my shoulder, pinning me to the tree. The pain almost made me black out, but I snapped the shaft and pulled myself free. The bleeding stopped instantly. I felt the wound closing as if somebody had filled it with hot wax.
A shadow passed over me – something large and dark hurtling from the sky. It took me a millisecond to realize it was a boulder, probably shot from a balcony catapult. It took me another millisecond to realize where it would land.
Too late. Before I could shout a warning to X, the half-troll and a dozen other einherjar disappeared under a twenty-ton chunk of limestone, the side of which was painted: WITH LOVE FROM FLOOR 63.
A hundred warriors stared at the rock. Leaves and broken twigs fluttered around them. Then the einherjar all turned towards me.
Another arrow hit me in the chest. I screamed, more in rage than in pain, and pulled it out.
‘Wow,’ one of the Vikings commented. ‘He’s a fast healer.’
‘Try a spear,’ someone suggested. ‘Try two spears.’
They spoke as if I wasn’t worth addressing – as if I were a cornered animal they could experiment with.
Twenty or thirty einherjar raised their weapons. The anger inside me exploded. I shouted, expelling energy like the shock wave from a bomb. Bowstrings snapped. Swords fell out of their owners’ hands. Spears and guns and axes went flying into the trees.
As quickly as it started, the surge of power shut off. All around me, a hundred einherjar had been stripped of their weapons.
The blue-painted guy stood in the front row, his baseball bat at his feet. He stared at me in shock. ‘What just happened?’
The warrior next to him had an eye patch and red leather armour decorated with silver curlicues. Cautiously, he crouched and retrieved his fallen axe.
‘Alf seidr,’ said Eye Patch. ‘Nicely done, son of Frey. I haven’t seen a trick like that in centuries. But bone steel is better.’
My eyes crossed as his axe blade spun towards my face. Then everything went dark.
Come to the Dark Side. We Have Pop-Tarts
A familiar voice said, ‘Dead again, eh?’
I opened my eyes. I was standing in a pavilion ringed with grey stone columns. Outside was nothing but empty sky. The air was thin. Cold wind whipped across the marble floor, stirring the fire in the central hearth, making the flames gutter in the braziers on either side of the tall dais. Three steps led up to a double throne – a loveseat of white wood carved with intricate shapes of animals, birds and tree branches. The seat itself was lined with ermine. Sprawling across it, eating Pop-Tarts from a silver wrapper, was the man in the Red Sox jersey.
‘Welcome to Hlidskjalf.’ He grinned, his scarred lips like the sides of a zipper. ‘The High Seat of Odin.’
‘You’re not Odin,’ I said, using process of elimination. ‘You’re Loki.’
Sox Man chuckled. ‘Nothing escapes your keen intellect.’
‘First, what are we doing here? Second, why is Odin’s throne named Lid Scalp?’
‘Hlidskjalf. Put an h at the beginning and an f at the end. On that first letter you have to sound like you’re hawking spit.’
‘On further reflection, I don’t care.’
‘You should. This is where it all started. That’s the answer to your second question – why we’re here.’ He patted the seat next to him. ‘Join me. Have a Pop-Tart.’
‘Uh, no thanks.’
‘Your loss.’ He broke off the edge of a pastry and tossed it into his mouth. ‘This purple icing … I don’t know what flavour it’s supposed to be, but it is insanely good.’
My pulse throbbed in my neck, which was strange since I was dreaming, and probably also dead.
Loki’s eyes unnerved me. They had that same intense glow as Sam’s, but Sam kept the flames under control. Loki’s gaze flitted restlessly like the fire in the hearth, pushed by the wind, looking for anything it could set ablaze.
‘Frey once sat here.’ He stroked the ermine fur. ‘Do you know the story?’
‘No, but … isn’t it illegal for anyone to sit there except Odin?’
‘Oh, yes. Well, Odin and Frigg, the king and queen. They can sit here and see anywhere in the Nine Worlds. They merely have to concentrate and they will find whatever they are looking for. But if anyone else sits here …’ He made tsk-tsk sounds. ‘The throne’s magic can be a terrible curse. I certainly would never risk it if this weren’t an illusion. But your father did. It was his one moment of rebellion.’ Loki took another bite of purple Pop-Tart. ‘I always admired him for that.’
‘And, instead of seeing what he was looking for, he saw what he most desired. It ruined his life. It’s the reason he lost his sword. He –’ Loki winced. ‘Excuse me.’
He turned his head, his features contorting like he was about to sneeze. Then he let loose a scream of agony. When he faced me again, wisps of steam rose from the scar tissu
e across the bridge of his nose.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Every so often the poison splashes in my eyes.’
‘The poison.’ I remembered a fragment of a myth. ‘You killed somebody. The gods captured you and tied you up. There was something about poison. Where are you now, really?’
He gave me that twisted grin. ‘Right where I always am. The gods had me, ah, properly restrained. But that’s not important. I can still send out splinters of my essence from time to time – like I’m doing now, to speak with my favourite friends!’
‘Just because you’re wearing a Sox jersey does not mean we’re friends.’
‘I’m hurt!’ His eyes sparkled. ‘My daughter Samirah saw something in you. We could help each other.’
‘You ordered her to take me to Valhalla?’
‘Oh, no. That wasn’t my idea. You, Magnus Chase, are of interest to many different parties. Some of them are not as charming or helpful as I.’
‘How about being charming and helpful to your daughter? She got kicked out of the Valkyries for choosing me.’
His smile faded. ‘That’s the gods for you. They banished me, too, and how many times did I save their hides? Don’t worry about Samirah. She is strong. She’ll be fine. I’m more worried about you.’
Cold wind blew through the pavilion, so strong it pushed me a few inches across the polished stone floor.
Loki crumpled his Pop-Tart wrapper. ‘You’ll be waking up soon. Before you go, some advice.’
‘I don’t suppose I can refuse.’
‘The Sword of Summer,’ Loki said. ‘When your father sat on this throne, what he saw doomed him. He gave his sword away. It passed to his servant and messenger, Skirnir.’
For a moment I was back on the Longfellow Bridge, the sword humming in my hand as if trying to speak.
‘Uncle Randolph mentioned Skirnir,’ I said. ‘His descendant was in that shipwreck.’
Loki pantomimed wild applause. ‘And there the sword lay for a thousand years, waiting for someone to reclaim it – someone who had the right to wield the blade.’
‘Ah, but you aren’t the only one who can use the sword. We know what will happen at Ragnarok. The Norns have told us our fates. Frey … poor Frey, because of the choices he made, will die at the hands of Surt. The lord of the fire giants will cut him down with his own lost sword.’
A spike of pain hit me between the eyes, right about where the einherji’s axe had killed me. ‘That’s why Surt wants the sword. So he’ll be ready for Ragnarok.’
‘Not only that. He’ll use the sword to set in motion a chain of events to hasten Doomsday. In eight days, unless you stop him, he will cut loose my son, the Wolf.’
‘Your son …?’ My arms were evaporating. My eyesight grew hazy. Too many questions crowded into my head. ‘Wait … aren’t you destined to fight against the gods at Ragnarok, too?’
‘Yes, but that was the gods’ choice, not mine. The thing about fate, Magnus: even if we can’t change the big picture, our choices can alter the details. That’s how we rebel against destiny, how we make our mark. What will you choose to do?’
His image flickered. For a moment I saw him spread-eagle on a slab of stone, his wrists and ankles tied with slimy ropes, his body writhing in pain. Then I saw him in a hospital bed, a female doctor leaning over him, her hand resting gently on his forehead. She looked like an older version of Sam – curls of dark hair escaping from a scarlet headscarf, her mouth set tight with concern.
Loki appeared on the throne again, brushing Pop-Tart crumbs from his Red Sox jersey. ‘I won’t tell you what to do, Magnus. That’s the difference between me and the other gods. I’ll only ask you this question: when you get a chance to sit on Odin’s throne – and that day is coming – will you search for your heart’s desire, knowing it may doom you as it doomed your father? Think on that, son of Frey. Perhaps we’ll speak again, if you survive the next eight days.’
My dream changed. Loki vanished. The braziers burst, showering hot coals across the dais, and the High Seat of Odin erupted in flames. The clouds turned into rolling banks of volcanic ash. Above the burning throne, two glowing red eyes appeared in the smoke.
YOU. The voice of Surt washed over me like a flamethrower. YOU HAVE ONLY DELAYED ME. YOU HAVE EARNED A MORE PAINFUL, MORE PERMANENT DEATH.
I tried to speak. The heat sucked the oxygen from my lungs. My lips cracked and blistered.
Surt laughed. THE WOLF THINKS YOU MAY STILL BE USEFUL. I DO NOT. WHEN WE MEET AGAIN, YOU WILL BURN, SON OF FREY. YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS WILL BE MY TINDER. YOU WILL START THE FIRE THAT BURNS THE NINE WORLDS.
The smoke thickened. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see.
My eyes flew open. I bolted upright, gasping for air. I was in bed in my hotel room. Surt was gone. I touched my face, but it wasn’t burned. No axe was embedded there. All my battlefield wounds had vanished.
Still, my whole body was buzzing with alarm. I felt like I’d fallen asleep on active train tracks and the Acela Express had just roared past.
The dream was already erasing itself. I struggled to hold on to the specifics: the throne of Odin; Loki and Pop-Tarts; my son, the Wolf; Surt promising to burn the Nine Worlds. Trying to make sense of it was even more painful than getting an axe in my face.
Someone knocked on my door.
Thinking it might be one of my hallmates, I leaped out of bed and ran to answer. I threw open the door, found myself face-to-face with the Valkyrie Gunilla and only then realized I was wearing nothing but underwear.
Her face turned magenta. Her jaw muscles knotted. ‘Oh.’
‘Captain Gorilla,’ I said. ‘What an honour.’
She recovered quickly, glaring at me like she was trying to activate her freeze-ray vision. ‘Magnus Chase. I, um – you resurrected with incredible speed.’
From her tone, I guessed that she hadn’t expected to find me here. But then why had she knocked?
‘I wasn’t timing my resurrection,’ I said. ‘Was it fast?’
‘Very.’ She glanced past me, maybe looking for something. ‘We have a few hours before dinner. Perhaps I could give you a tour of the hotel, since your own Valkyrie has been dismissed.’
‘You mean since you got her dismissed.’
Gunilla turned up her palms. ‘I don’t control the Norns. They decide all our fates.’
‘That’s convenient.’ I remembered what Loki had said: Our choices can alter the details. That’s how we rebel against destiny. ‘What about me? Have you – I mean the Norns – decided my fate?’
Gunilla scowled. Her posture was stiff and uneasy. Something was bothering her – maybe even scaring her.
‘The thanes are discussing your situation now.’ She unhooked the key ring from her belt. ‘Take a tour with me. We can talk. If I understand you better, I may be able to speak to the thanes on your behalf. Unless, of course, you want to take your chances without my help. You might get lucky. The thanes might sentence you to bellhop duty for a few centuries. Or washing dishes in the kitchen.’
The last thing I wanted was quality time with Gunilla. On the other hand, a tour of the hotel might show me some important features – like the exits. Also, after the dream I’d just had, I didn’t want to be alone.
Besides, I could imagine how many dirty dishes would need washing after three rounds of dinner in the feast hall.
‘I’ll take the tour,’ I said. ‘But I should probably put some clothes on first.’
Gunilla Gets Blowtorched and It’s Not Funny. Okay, It’s a Little Bit Funny
The main thing I discovered: Valhalla needed GPS. Even Gunilla got turned around in the endless corridors, banquet halls, gardens and lounges.
At one point we were riding in a service elevator when Gunilla said, ‘Here’s the food court.’
The doors opened and a wall of flames engulfed us both.
My heart leaped into my throat. I thought Surt had found me. Gunilla screamed a
nd staggered backwards. I smashed random buttons until the doors shut. Then I did my best to put out the burning hem of Gunilla’s dress.
‘You okay?’ My pulse was still racing. Gunilla’s arms were covered with patches of steaming red skin.
‘My skin will heal,’ Gunilla said. ‘My pride may not. That – that was Muspellheim, not the food court.’
I wondered if Surt had engineered our little detour somehow, or if elevator doors in Valhalla often opened into the world of fire. I wasn’t sure which possibility was more disturbing.
The tightness in Gunilla’s voice told me how much pain she was in. I remembered standing over Mallory Keen when she fell in battle – the way I’d been able to sense the damage and how it could have been mended if I’d had more time.
I knelt next to the Valkyrie. ‘May I?’
‘What are you –’
I touched her forearm.
My fingers began to steam, drawing the heat from her skin. The redness faded. Her burns disappeared. Even the singed tip of her nose healed.
Gunilla stared at me as if I’d sprouted horns. ‘How did you …? You weren’t burned, either. How?’
‘I don’t know.’ My head spun with exhaustion. ‘Good luck? Healthy living?’
I tried to stand and promptly collapsed.
‘Whoa, son of Frey.’ Gunilla grabbed my arm.
The elevator doors opened again. This time we really were at a food court. The smells of lemon chicken and pizza wafted in.
‘Let’s keep walking,’ Gunilla said. ‘Clear your head.’
We got some strange looks as we stumbled through the dining area, me leaning against the Valkyrie captain for support, Gunilla’s dress still smoking and tattered.
We turned into a corridor lined with conference rooms. Inside one, a guy in studded leather armour was giving a PowerPoint presentation to a dozen warriors, explaining the weaknesses of mountain trolls.
A few doors down, Valkyries in glittering party hats socialized over cake and ice cream. The birthday candle was shaped like the number 500.
‘I think I’m okay now,’ I told Gunilla. ‘Thanks.’
I wobbled a few steps on my own but managed to stay upright.
‘Your healing abilities are remarkable,’ Gunilla said. ‘Frey is the god of abundance and fertility, growth and vitality – I guess that explains it. Still, I’ve never seen an einherji who can heal himself so quickly, much less heal others.’
‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ I said. ‘Normally I have trouble just opening Band-Aids.’
‘And your immunity to fire?’
I concentrated on the carpet designs, keeping one foot in front of the other. I could walk now, but healing Gunilla’s burns had left me feeling like I’d just had a bad case of pneumonia.
‘I don’t think it’s fire immunity,’ I said. ‘I’ve burned myself before. I just … I have a high tolerance for extreme temperatures. Cold. Heat. The same thing happened on the Longfellow Bridge when I walked into the flames …’ My voice faltered. I remembered that Gunilla had edited that video and made me look like a fool. ‘But you know all about that.’
Gunilla didn’t seem to notice the sarcasm. She absently stroked one of the hammers in her bandolier as if it were a kitten. ‘Perhaps … In the beginning of creation, only two worlds existed: Muspellheim and Niflheim, fire and ice. Life rose between those extremes. Frey is the god of moderate climes and the growing season. He represents the middle ground. Perhaps that’s why you can resist heat and cold.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t know, Magnus Chase. It has been a long time since I met a child of Frey.’