The Sword of Summer (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard 1) - Page 20

‘If you say so.’ I’d passed these bronze ducks a thousand times. I’d never considered them much of a nexus. I hadn’t read the children’s book they were based on, but I gathered it was about a mama duck and her babies crossing a street in Boston, so they put a sculpture of it in the Public Garden.

In the summer, little kids would sit on Mrs Mallard and get their pictures taken. At Christmas, the ducks got little Santa hats. At the moment they were naked and alone, buried up to their necks in fresh snowfall.

Hearthstone passed his hands over the statues like he was testing a stovetop for heat.

He glanced at Blitz and shook his head.

‘As I feared,’ Blitz said. ‘Hearth and I have been travelling too much. We won’t be able to activate the ducks. Magnus, we’ll need you.’

I waited for an explanation, but Blitz just studied the sculptures. He was testing out a new hat this morning – a pith helmet with dark netting that draped to his shoulders. According to Blitz, the net fabric was his own design. It blocked ninety-eight per cent of the sunlight, allowing us to see his face while not covering up his fashionable outfit. It made him look like a beekeeper in mourning.

‘Okay, I’ll bite,’ I said. ‘How do I activate ducks?’

Sam scanned our surroundings. She didn’t look like she’d slept much. Her eyes were puffy. Her hands were raw and blistered from our fishing expedition. She’d changed into a black wool trench coat, but otherwise she was dressed the same as yesterday: green hijab, axe, shield, jeans, winter boots – all the accoutrements of a fashionable ex-Valkyrie.

‘However you do it,’ she said, ‘do it quickly. I don’t like how close we are to the gates of Valhalla.’

‘But I don’t know how,’ I protested. ‘Don’t you guys go world-jumping all the time?’

Hearth signed, Too much.

‘Kid,’ Blitz said, ‘the more frequently you travel between the worlds, the harder it gets. It’s kind of like overheating an engine. At some point, you have to stop and let the engine cool down. Besides, jumping randomly from one world to another is one thing. Travelling on a quest – that’s different. We can’t be sure where exactly we need to go.’

I turned to Sam. ‘What about you?’

‘When I was a Valkyrie, it would’ve been no problem. But now?’ She shook her head. ‘You’re a child of Frey. Your father is the god of growth and fertility. You should be able to coax Yggdrasil’s branches close enough to let us jump on. Besides, it’s your quest. You have the best chance of navigating. Just use the sculpture as a point of focus. Find us the quickest path.’

She would’ve had better luck explaining calculus to me.

I felt stupid, but I knelt next to the sculpture. I touched the duckling at the end of the line. Cold crept up my arm. I sensed ice, fog and darkness – somewhere harsh and unwelcoming.

‘This,’ I decided, ‘is the quickest way to Niflheim.’

‘Excellent,’ Blitz said. ‘Let’s not go there.’

I was just reaching for the next duck when someone yelled, ‘MAGNUS CHASE!’

Two hundred yards away, on the opposite side of Charles Street, Captain Gunilla stood flanked by two other Valkyries. Behind them was a line of einherjar. I couldn’t make out their expressions, but the grey looming mass of X the half-troll was unmistakable. Gunilla had drafted my own hallmates to fight against me.

My fingers twitched with anger. I wanted to get a meat hook and go fishing with Gunilla as bait. I reached for my pendant.

‘Magnus, no,’ Sam said. ‘Concentrate on the ducks. We have to change worlds now.’

On either side of Gunilla, the Valkyries slung glowing spears from their backs. They yelled at the einherjar to ready their weapons. Gunilla pulled two of her hammers and threw them in our direction.

Sam deflected one with her shield. She knocked the other aside with her axe, spinning the hammer into the nearest willow tree, where it embedded itself up to the handle. Across the street, all three Valkyries rose into the air.

‘I can’t fight them all,’ Sam warned. ‘It’s leave now or be captured.’

My anger turned to panic. I looked at the row of bronze ducks, but my concentration was shattered. ‘I – I need more time.’

‘We don’t have time!’ Sam deflected another hammer. The force of the blow cracked her shield down the middle.

‘Hearth.’ Blitzen nudged the elf’s arm. ‘Now would be good.’

A frown tugged at the corners of Hearthstone’s mouth. He reached into his pouch and pulled out a runestone. He cupped it in his hands and muttered to it silently, as if speaking to a captured bird. He threw the stone into the air.

It exploded above us, creating a rune of burning golden light:

Between Gunilla’s hunting party and us, distance seemed to elongate. The Valkyries flew towards us at top speed; my einherjar comrades drew their weapons and charged – but they made no progress.

It reminded me of those cheap 1970s cartoons where a character runs but the scenery behind him just keeps repeating itself. Charles Street spiralled around our pursuers like a giant hamster wheel. For the first time, I got what Sam had told me about runes being able to change reality.

‘Raidho,’ Blitzen said appreciatively. ‘It stands for the wheel, the journey. Hearthstone has bought you some time.’

Only seconds, Hearth signed. Hurry.

He promptly collapsed into Sam’s arms.

I ran my hands quickly across the bronze ducks. At the fourth one, I stopped. I felt warmth, safety … a sense of rightness.

‘This one,’ I said.

‘Well, open it!’ Blitzen shouted.

I rose to my feet. Not sure what I was doing, I pulled my pendant from its chain. The Sword of Summer appeared in my hands. Its blade purred like a demented cat. I tapped it against the bronze duck and sliced upward.

The air parted like a curtain. Stretching in front of me, instead of a sidewalk, was an expanse of tree branches. The nearest one, as wide as Beacon Street, ran directly under us, maybe three feet down, suspended over a grey void. Unfortunately, the cut I’d made in the fabric of Midgard was already closing.

‘Hurry!’ I said. ‘Jump!’

Blitzen didn’t hesitate. He leaped through the rift.

Over on Charles Street, Gunilla screamed in outrage. She and her Valkyries were still flying full-tilt on their cartoon hamster wheel, the einherjar stumbling along behind them.

‘You are doomed, Magnus Chase!’ Gunilla shouted. ‘We will pursue you to the ends of –’

With a loud POP, Hearth’s spell broke. The einherjar fell face first in the street. The three Valkyries shot over our heads. Judging from the sound of breaking glass, they must have hit a building over on Arlington Street.

I didn’t wait for my old hallmates to recover their senses.

I grabbed Hearth’s left arm while Sam took his right. Together, we leaped into the World Tree.

THIRTY-SEVEN

I Am Trash-Talked by a Squirrel

I always liked climbing trees.

My mom had been pretty understanding about that. She’d only get nervous if I got above twenty feet. Then a little tension crept into her voice. ‘Pumpkin, that branch may not hold you. Could you come down a little?’

On the World Tree, every branch would hold me. The biggest ones were wider than Interstate 93. The smallest were as large as your average redwood. As for Yggdrasil’s trunk, it was so immense it just didn’t compute. Each crevice in its surface seemed to lead to a different world, as if someone had wrapped tree bark around a column of television monitors glowing with a million different movies.

The wind roared, ripping at my new denim jacket. Beyond the tree’s canopy I saw nothing but a hazy white glow. Below was no ground – just more branches crisscrossing the void. The tree had to be rooted somewhere, but I felt woozy and unbalanced – as if Yggdrasil and everything it contained, including my world, was free-floating in primordial mist – the Ginnungagap.


If I fell here, in the best-case scenario I’d hit another branch and break my neck. Worst-case scenario, I’d keep falling forever into the Great White Nothingness.

I must’ve been leaning forward, because Blitzen grabbed my arm. ‘Careful, kid. First time in the tree will make you dizzy.’

‘Yeah, I noticed.’

Hearthstone still sagged between Sam and me. He tried to find his footing, but his ankles kept bending in odd directions.

Sam stumbled. Her broken shield slipped from her grip and somersaulted into the abyss.

She crouched, a look of barely controlled panic in her eyes. ‘I liked Yggdrasil a lot better when I could fly.’

‘What about Gunilla and the others?’ I asked. ‘Will they be able to follow us?’

‘Not easily,’ Sam said. ‘They can open another portal, but it won’t necessarily lead to the same branch of the tree. Still, we should keep moving. Being on Yggdrasil is not good for your sanity.’

Hearthstone managed to stand on his own. He signed, I’m okay. Let’s go. Though his hands were so shaky it looked more like: You are a rabbit tunnel.

We moved further along the branch.

The Sword of Summer hummed in my hand, tugging me along like it knew where we were going. I hoped it did, anyway.

Hostile winds buffeted us from side to side. Branches swayed, throwing deep pools of shadow and brilliant patches of light across our path. A leaf the size of a canoe fluttered by.

‘Stay focused,’ Blitzen told me. ‘That feeling you had when you opened the portal? Look for it again. Find us an exit.’

After walking about a quarter of a mile, we found a smaller branch crossing directly under ours. My sword hummed louder, tugging to the right.

I looked at my friends. ‘I think we need to take this exit.’

Changing branches might sound easy, but it involved sliding down ten feet from one curved surface to another, with the wind howling and the branches swaying apart. Amazingly, we managed it without anyone getting crushed or falling into oblivion.

Navigating the narrower branch was worse. It bobbed more violently under our feet. At one point I got flattened by a leaf – like a green tarp dropping on top of me out of nowhere. At another point I looked down and realized I was standing over a crack in the bark. Half a mile down, inside the branch, I could see a snow-capped mountain range, as if I were standing in a glass-bottom aeroplane.

We picked our way through a maze of lichen patches that looked like hills of burned marshmallows. I made the mistake of touching one. My hand sunk up to my wrist and I almost couldn’t pull it free.

Finally the lichen dispersed into smaller clumps like burned marshmallow sofas. We followed our branch until it split into half a dozen unclimbable twigs. The Sword of Summer seemed to go to sleep in my hand.

‘Well?’ Sam asked.

I peered over the side. About thirty feet below us, a larger branch swayed. In the middle of that branch, a hot-tub-size knothole glowed with soft warm light.

‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘That’s our way out.’

Blitzen scowled. ‘You sure? Nidavellir isn’t warm and glowy.’

‘I’m just telling you – the sword seems to think that’s our destination.’

Sam whistled silently. ‘Quite a jump. If we miss the hole …’

Hearthstone spelled out: S-P-L-A-T.

A gust of wind hit us, and Hearth stumbled. Before I could catch him, he fell backwards into a clump of lichen. His legs were promptly swallowed in the marshmallow gunk.

‘Hearth!’ Blitzen scrambled to his side. He pulled at Hearth’s arms, but the mucky lichen held on to his legs like a needy toddler.

‘We can cut him out,’ said Sam. ‘Your sword, my axe. It’ll take time. We’ll have to be careful of his legs. But it could be worse.’

Naturally, things got worse. From somewhere above us came an explosive YARK!

Blitzen crouched under his pith helmet. ‘Ratatosk! That damnable squirrel always appears at the worst time. Hurry with those blades!’

Sam cut into the lichen with her axe, but her blade stuck. ‘This is like cutting through melting tyres! It’s not going to be quick.’

GO! Hearth signed. Leave me.

‘Not an option,’ I said.

YAAAAARRRRK! The sound was much louder this time. A dozen branches above us, a large shadow passed across the leaves.

I hefted my sword. ‘We’ll fight the squirrel. We can do that, right?’

Sam looked at me like I was mad. ‘Ratatosk is invulnerable. There is no fighting him. Our options are running, hiding or dying.’

‘We can’t run,’ I said. ‘And I’ve already died twice this week.’

‘So we hide.’ Sam unwrapped her hijab. ‘At least, Hearth and I do. I can cover two people, no more. You and Blitz run – find the dwarves. We’ll meet up with you later.’

‘What?’ I wondered if Utgard-Loki was messing with her brain somehow. ‘Sam, you can’t hide under a green piece of silk! The squirrel can’t be that stupid …’

She shook out the fabric. It grew to the size of a bedsheet, the colours rippling until the hijab was exactly the same brown and yellow and white of the lichen patch.

She’s right, Hearth signed. GO.

Sam crouched next to him and pulled the hijab over them both, and they vanished, blending perfectly against the lichen.

‘Magnus.’ Blitz tugged at my arm. ‘It’s now or never.’ He pointed to the branch below. The knothole was closing.

At that moment, Ratatosk broke through foliage above. If you can imagine a Sherman tank covered in red fur, barrelling down the side of a tree … well, the squirrel was way scarier than that. His front teeth were twin wedges of white enamel terror. His claws were scimitars. His eyes were sulphur yellow, burning with fury.

YARK! The squirrel’s battle cry pierced my eardrums. A thousand insults were packed into that one sound, all of them invading my brain, drowning out any rational thought.

You have failed.

No one likes you.

You are dead.

Your dwarf’s pith helmet is stupid.

You could not save your mother.

I fell to my knees. A sob built in my chest. I probably would have died then and there if Blitz hadn’t hauled me up with all his dwarven strength and slapped me across the face.

I couldn’t hear him, but I read his lips well enough: ‘NOW, KID!’

Gripping my hand in rough calloused fingers, he jumped off the branch, dragging me with him into the wind.

THIRTY-EIGHT

I Break Down in a Volkswagen

I stood in a sunlit meadow with no memory of how I got there.

In the distance, wildflowers dusted rolling green hills. The breeze smelled of lavender. The light was warm and rich as if the air had turned to butter.

My thoughts moved sluggishly. Light … sunlight was bad for dwarves. I was pretty sure I’d been travelling with a dwarf – someone who had slapped me and saved my life.

‘Blitz?’

He stood to my left, holding his pith helmet at his side.

‘Blitz, your hat!’

I was afraid he’d already become stone.

Then he turned. His eyes were stormy and distant. ‘It’s okay, kid. This isn’t regular sunlight. We’re not on Midgard any more.’

He sounded like he was talking through wax paper. The squirrel’s yap had left a crackling in my ears and some corrosive thoughts rattling around in my brain.

‘Ratatosk …’ I couldn’t finish the sentence. Just saying his name made me want to curl up in the foetal position.

‘Yeah,’ Blitz said. ‘His bark is literally worse than his bite. He …’ Blitz looked down, blinking rapidly. ‘He’s the most destructive creature in the World Tree. He spends his time running up and down the trunk, carrying insults from the eagle who lives at the top to Nidhogg, the dragon who lives at the roots.’

I gazed towards the hills. Faint sounds of music seemed to be coming

from that direction, or maybe it was the static in my ears. ‘Why would a squirrel do that?’

‘To damage the tree,’ Blitz said. ‘Ratatosk keeps the eagle and the dragon whipped into a frenzy. He tells them lies, rumours, nasty gossip about each other. His words can … well, you know what his words can do. The dragon Nidhogg is always chewing on the roots of the World Tree, trying to kill it. The eagle flaps his wings and creates windstorms that rip the branches and cause devastation throughout the Nine Worlds. Ratatosk makes sure the two monsters stay angry and in competition with each other, to see which one can destroy their end of Yggdrasil faster.’

‘But that’s … crazy. The squirrel lives in the tree.’

Blitz grimaced. ‘We all do, kid. People have destructive impulses. Some of us want to see the world in ruins just for the fun of it … even if we’re ruined along with it.’

Ratatosk’s chatter echoed in my head: You have failed. You could not save your mother. The squirrel had driven me to despair, but I could see how his bark might stir up other emotions – hatred, bitterness, self-loathing.

‘How did you keep your wits?’ I asked Blitz. ‘When the squirrel barked, what did you hear?’

Blitz ran his fingers across the brim of his pith helmet, pinching the edge of the black veil. ‘Nothing I don’t tell myself all the time, kid. We should get going.’

He trudged off towards the hills. Despite his short stride, I had to power-walk to keep up.

We crossed a stream where a picturesque little frog sat on a lily pad. Doves and falcons spiralled through the air like they were playing tag. I half expected a chorus line of fuzzy animals to pop out of the wildflowers and launch into a Disney musical number.

‘I’m guessing this is not Nidavellir,’ I said as we climbed the hill.

Blitzen snorted. ‘No. Much worse.’

‘Alfheim?’

‘Worse.’ Blitzen stopped just short of the crest and took a deep breath. ‘Come on. Let’s get this over with.’

At the top of the hill I froze. ‘Whoa.’

Down the other side, green fields stretched to the horizon. Meadows were strewn with picnic blankets. Crowds of people were hanging out – eating, laughing, chatting, playing music, flying kites, tossing beach balls. It was the world’s largest, most laid-back outdoor concert, minus the concert. Some folks were dressed in various bits of armour. Most had weapons, but they didn’t seem very interested in using them.

In the shade of an oak tree, a couple of young ladies were sword fighting, but after crossing blades a few times they got bored, dropped their weapons and started chatting. Another guy lounged in a lawn chair, flirting with the girl on his left while he casually parried attacks from the guy standing on his right.

Blitz pointed to the crest of the next hill about half a mile away, where a strange palace gleamed. It looked like an upside-down Noah’s Ark made of gold and silver.

‘Sessrumnir,’ said Blitzen. ‘The Hall of Many Seats. If we’re lucky, maybe she won’t be home.’

Tags: Rick Riordan Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Fantasy
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