I was proud that the four of us responded as a team. In perfect unison, like a well-oiled combat machine, we turned and ran for our lives.
I Get to Know Jack
I’m pretty good at multitasking, so I figured I could flee in terror and argue at the same time.
‘A horsefly?’ I yelled at Sam. ‘You can turn into a horsefly?’
She ducked as a steam-powered dart buzzed over her head. ‘Now is not the time!’
‘Oh, excuse me. I should wait for the designated talk-about-turning-into-horseflies time.’
Hearthstone and Blitzen led the way. Behind us, a mob of thirty dwarves was closing fast. I didn’t like their murderous expressions or their fine assortment of handcrafted weapons.
‘This way!’ Blitzen ducked down an alley.
Unfortunately, Hearthstone wasn’t watching. The elf barrelled straight ahead.
‘Mother!’ Blitz cursed – at least, I thought it was a curse until Sam and I reached the corner and faltered.
A few steps down the alley, Blitz was trapped in a net of light. He squirmed and cussed as the glowing web lifted him into the air. ‘It’s my mother!’ he yelped. ‘She wants her damnable earrings. Go! Catch up with Hearthstone! I’ll meet you –’
POP! Our dwarf disappeared in a flash.
I glanced at Sam. ‘Did that just happen?’
‘We’ve got other problems.’ She pulled out her axe.
The mob had caught up with us. They fanned out in an angry semicircle of beards, scowls, baseball bats and broadswords. I wasn’t sure what they were waiting for. Then I heard Junior’s voice somewhere behind them. ‘Hold on!’ he wheezed. ‘I –’ Wheeze. ‘Kill –’ Wheeze. ‘First!’
The mob parted. Flanked by his bodyguards, the old dwarf pushed his walker towards us.
He eyed me, then Sam.
‘Where are Blitzen and the elf?’ Junior muttered. ‘Well, no matter. We’ll find them. You, boy, I don’t care about so much. Run now and I might let you live. The girl is obviously a daughter of Loki. She bit me and ruined my crafting! She dies.’
I pulled off my pendant. The Sword of Summer grew to full length. The crowd of dwarves edged backwards. I guess they knew a dangerous blade when they saw one.
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to take on both of us.’
The sword hummed for attention.
‘Correction,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to take on all three of us. This is Sumarbrander, the Sword of Summer, crafted by … actually I’m not sure, but it is definitely famous among swords, and it is about to kick your collective butts.’
‘Thank you,’ said the sword.
Sam made a squeaking noise. The dwarves’ shocked expressions told me I hadn’t imagined hearing the sword’s voice.
I held up the blade. ‘You can talk? I mean … of course you can talk. You have many, uh, incredible abilities.’
‘That’s what I’ve been saying.’ The sword’s voice was definitely male. It emanated from the runes along the blade, which vibrated and glowed with every word like the lights on a stereo equalizer.
I gave the dwarves an arrogant look, like, Yeah, that’s right. I’ve got a talking disco sword and you don’t.
‘Sumarbrander,’ I said, ‘how do you feel about taking on this mob?’
‘Sure,’ said the sword. ‘You want them dead or …?’
The mob shuffled backwards in alarm.
‘Nah,’ I decided. ‘Just make them go away.’
‘You’re no fun,’ the sword said. ‘Okay, then, let go.’
I hesitated. I didn’t particularly want to hold a flashing, talking, humming sword, but dropping my weapon didn’t seem like the natural first step towards victory.
Junior must’ve sensed my reluctance.
‘We can take him!’ he yelled. ‘He’s one boy with a sword he doesn’t know how to use!’
Sam snarled. ‘And a former Valkyrie with an axe she very much does know how to use.’
‘Bah!’ Junior said. ‘Let’s get ’em, boys! Granny Shuffler, activate!’
Rows of dagger blades extended from the front of his walker. Two miniature rocket engines fired in the back, propelling Junior towards us at a mind-boggling one mile an hour. His comrades roared and charged.
I let go of my sword. It hovered in the air for a split second. Then it flew into action. Faster than you could say son of Edna, every dwarf was disarmed. Their weapons were cut in half, split down the middle, knocked to the ground or diced into hors d’oeuvre-size cubes. The daggers and rockets were sheared off Junior’s walker. The severed ends of thirty beards fluttered to the ground, leaving thirty shocked dwarves with fifty per cent less facial hair.
The Sword of Summer hovered between the mob and me.
‘Anybody want more?’ the sword asked.
The dwarves turned and fled.
Junior yelled over his shoulder as he hobbled away, following his bodyguards, who were already a block ahead of him. ‘This isn’t over, boy! I’ll be back with reinforcements!’
Sam lowered her axe. ‘That was … Wow.’
‘Yeah,’ I agreed. ‘Thank you, Sumarbrander.’
‘De nada,’ said the sword. ‘But, you know, Sumarbrander is a really long name, and I’ve never liked it much.’
‘Okay.’ I wasn’t sure where to look when addressing the sword – the glowing runes? The tip of the blade? ‘What would you like us to call you?’
The sword hummed thoughtfully. ‘What is your name?’
‘That’s a good name. Call me Magnus.’
‘You can’t be Magnus. I’m Magnus.’
‘Then what is her name?’
‘Sam. You can’t be Sam, either. It would be too confusing.’
The blade swished from side to side. ‘Well, what is a good name? Something that fits my personality and my many talents.’
‘But I don’t really know you as well as I’d like to.’ I looked at Samirah, who just shook her head like, Hey, it’s your disco sword.
‘Honestly,’ I said. ‘I don’t know jack –’
‘Jack!’ the sword cried. ‘Perfect!’
The thing about talking swords … it’s hard to tell when they’re kidding. They have no facial expressions. Or faces.
‘So … you want me to call you Jack.’
‘It is a noble name,’ said the sword. ‘Fit for kings and sharp carving implements!’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Well, then, Jack, thanks for the save. You mind if …?’ I reached for the hilt, but Jack floated away from me.
‘I wouldn’t do that yet,’ he warned. ‘The price of my amazing abilities: as soon as you sheathe me, or turn me into a pendant, or whatever, you will feel just as exhausted as if you had performed all my actions yourself.’
My shoulder muscles tightened. I considered how tired I would feel if I had just destroyed all those weapons and cut all those beards. ‘Oh. I didn’t notice that earlier.’
‘Because you hadn’t used me for anything amazing yet.’
In the distance, an air-raid horn howled. I doubted they got many air raids in an underground world, so I figured the alarm had to do with us.
‘We need to go,’ Sam urged. ‘We have to find Hearthstone. I doubt Junior was joking about reinforcements.’
Finding Hearthstone was the easy part. Two blocks away, we ran into him as he was coming back to find us.
What the H-e-l-h-e-i-m? he signed. Where is Blitzen?
I told him about Freya’s gold net. ‘We’ll find him. Right now, Junior is calling up the Dwarven National Guard.’
Your sword is floating, Hearth noted.
‘Your elf is deaf,’ Jack noted.
I turned to the sword. ‘I know that. Sorry, introductions. Jack, Hearth. Hearth, Jack.’
Hearth signed, Is it talking? I don’t read sword lips.
‘What is he saying?’ Jack asked. ‘I don’t read elf hand
‘Guys.’ Sam pointed behind us. A few blocks away, an iron-plated vehicle with caterpillar treads and a mounted turret was turning slowly onto our street.
‘That’s a tank’ I said. ‘Junior has a tank?’
‘We should leave,’ Jack said. ‘I am awesome, but if I try to destroy a tank the strain might kill you.’
‘Yeah,’ I agreed. ‘How do we get out of Nidavellir?’
Hearthstone clapped for my attention. This way.
We sprinted after him, zigzagging through alleys, knocking over carefully handcrafted garbage cans that probably had names and souls.
From somewhere behind us, a deep BOOM! rattled windows and made pebbles rain from above.
‘Is the tank shaking the sky?’ I yelled. ‘That can’t be good.’
Hearthstone led us down another street of terraced clapboard houses. Dwarves sat on stoops, clapping and cheering as we ran by. A few of them recorded videos of us on uniquely crafted smartphones. I figured our attempted getaway would go viral on the Dwarven Internet, famous among Internets.
Finally we reached what would’ve been the southern edge of South Boston. On the far side of the avenue, instead of the M Street Beach, the ground dropped off into a chasm.
‘Oh, this is very helpful,’ Sam said.
Behind us in the gloom, Junior’s voice shouted, ‘Bazookas, take the right flank!’
Hearthstone led us to the rim of the canyon. Far below, a river roared.
He signed, We jump in.
‘Are you serious?’ I asked.
Blitzen and I did this before. River washes out of Nidavellir.
Depends, Hearthstone signed.
‘That’s not reassuring,’ said Sam.
Hearthstone pointed back towards the avenue. The dwarven mob was gathering, tanks and jeeps and RPGs and a whole bunch of really angry geriatric dwarves in armour-plated walkers.
‘We jump,’ I decided.
Jack the Sword hovered next to me. ‘Better hold me now, boss. Otherwise I might get lost again.’
‘But you said the exhaustion –’
‘Might make you pass out,’ the sword agreed. ‘On the bright side, it looks like you’re going to die anyway.’
He had a point. (Oh, sorry. That was bad.) I took the sword and willed it back into pendant form. I just had time to attach it to the chain before my legs buckled.
Sam caught me. ‘Hearthstone! Take his other arm!’
As my vision went dark, Sam and Hearth helped me leap off the cliff. Because, you know, what are friends for?
Aboard the Good Ship Toenail
I knew I was in trouble when I woke up dreaming.
I found myself standing next to Loki on the deck of a massive ship.
‘There you are!’ said Loki. ‘I was starting to wonder.’
‘How …?’ I noticed his outfit. ‘What are you wearing?’
‘You like it?’ His scarred lips twisted into a grin. His white admiral’s jacket gleamed with medals, but Loki wasn’t exactly wearing it regulation-style. It was open over a black T-shirt featuring Jack Nicholson’s face from The Shining. The caption read: HEEEERE’S LOKI!
‘Where are we?’ I asked.
Loki polished his medals with his coat sleeve. ‘Well, neither of us is here, of course. I’m still tied up on a stone slab with snake poison dripping in my face. You’re dying on the banks of a river in Jotunheim.’
‘Whether you live or not, this may be our last chance to talk. I wanted you to see this – Naglfar, the Ship of Nails! It’s almost complete.’
The ship came into clearer focus – a Viking longship larger than an aircraft carrier. The main deck could’ve accommodated the Boston Marathon. Giant shields lined the railings. Fore and aft rose thirty-foot-tall figureheads shaped like snarling wolves. Naturally, they had to be wolves.
I peered over the side between two shields. A hundred feet down, braided iron cables moored the ship to a dock. The grey sea churned with ice.
I ran my hand along the railing. The surface was bumpy and prickly – enamelled with white and grey ridges like fish scales or pearl shavings. At first glance, I’d assumed the deck was made of steel, but now I realized the whole ship was constructed of this weird translucent material – not metal, not wood, but something strangely familiar.
‘What is this?’ I asked Loki. ‘I don’t see any wood or nails. Why is it called the Ship of Nails?’
Loki chuckled. ‘Not carpentry nails, Magnus. Naglfar is made from the fingernails and toenails of dead men.’
The deck seemed to pitch beneath me. I wasn’t sure if it was possible to puke in a dream, but I was tempted. It wasn’t just the obvious grossness of standing on a ship made of nail clippings that made me nauseated – it was the sheer volume of the material. How many corpses had had to contribute their nails to make a ship this size?
Once I managed to steady my breathing, I faced Loki. ‘Why?’
Even with the ruined lips and scarred face, Loki’s grin was so infectious that I almost smiled back – almost.
‘Amazingly disgusting, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Back in the old days, your ancestors knew that nail clippings carried part of your spirit, your essence … your DNA, you’d call it now. Throughout their lives, mortals were careful to burn any clippings they made. When they died, their nails would be trimmed and the clippings destroyed so the material wouldn’t contribute to this great ship. But sometimes –’ Loki shrugged – ‘as you can see, the proper precautions weren’t taken.’
‘You’ve built yourself a battleship out of toenails.’
‘Well, the ship is building itself. And, technically, Naglfar belongs to Surt and the fire giants, but when Ragnarok comes I will guide this ship out of the harbour. We’ll have an army of giants led by Captain Hrym, plus hundreds of thousands of dishonoured dead from Helheim – all those who were careless or unlucky enough to die without a sword in their hand, a proper burial and a decent post-mortem mani-pedi. We’ll sail to Asgard and destroy the gods. It’ll be awesome.’
I looked aft, expecting to see an army gathering on the shore, but the mist was so thick I couldn’t see the end of the dock. Despite my usual resistance to cold, the damp air soaked into my bones and made my teeth chatter.
‘Why are you showing me this?’ I asked.
‘Because I like you, Magnus. You’ve got a sense of humour. You’ve got zing. So rare in a demigod! Even rarer among the einherjar. I’m glad my daughter found you.’
‘Samirah … that’s how she can turn into a horsefly. She’s a shape-shifter like you.’
‘Oh, she’s Daddy’s girl, all right. She doesn’t like to admit it, but she’s inherited a lot of things from me: my abilities, my dashing good looks, my keen intellect. She can spot talent, too. After all, she chose you, my friend.’
I clutched my stomach. ‘I don’t feel so good.’
‘Duh! You’re on the verge of death. Personally, I hope you wake up, because if you kick the bucket now your death will be meaningless and nothing you’ve done will matter.’
‘Thanks for the pep talk.’
‘Listen – I brought you here for some perspective. When Ragnarok comes, all bonds will break, not just the ropes binding Fenris. The moorings of this ship – snap. The bindings that hold me captive – snap. Whether or not you keep that sword out of Surt’s hands, it’s only a matter of time. One bond will snap and they’ll all start going – unravelling like one huge tapestry.’
‘You’re trying to discourage me? I thought you wanted Ragnarok delayed.’
‘Oh, I do!’ He put up his hands. His wrists were raw and bleeding, as if he’d been handcuffed too tightly. ‘I’m totally on your side, Magnus! Look at the figureheads. The wolves’ snouts aren’t finished yet. Is there anything more embarrassing than sailing into battle with half-finished figureheads?’
‘So what do you want?’
same thing I’ve always wanted,’ Loki said. ‘To help you fight your fate. Which of the gods besides me has bothered to speak to you as a friend and an equal?’
His eyes were like Sam’s – bright and intense, the colour of burning – but there was something harder and more calculating about Loki’s gaze – something that didn’t jibe with his friendly smile. I remembered how Sam had described him: a liar, a thief, a murderer.
‘We’re friends now?’ I asked. ‘Equals?’
‘We could be,’ he said. ‘In fact, I have an idea. Forget going to Fenris’s island. Forget facing Surt. I know a place where the sword will be safe.’
Loki laughed. ‘Don’t tempt me, kid. No, no. I was thinking about your Uncle Randolph. He understands the value of the sword. He’s spent his life looking for it, preparing to study it. You might not know it, but his house is heavily fortified with magic. If you took the sword to him … well, the old man can’t use it himself. But he would store it away. It would be out of Surt’s hands. And that’s what matters, eh? It would buy us all some time.’
I wanted to laugh in Loki’s face and tell him no. I figured he was trying to trick me. Yet I couldn’t see his angle.
‘You think it’s a trap,’ Loki said. ‘I get that. But you must have wondered why Mimir told you to take the blade to the Wolf’s island – the very place where Surt wants to use it. What’s the sense in that? What if Mimir is playing you? I mean, come on. That old severed head runs a pachinko racket! If you don’t bring the sword to the island, Surt won’t be able get his hands on it. Why take the risk?’
I struggled to clear my thoughts. ‘You’re – you’re a smooth talker. You’d make a good used-car salesman.’
Loki winked. ‘I think the term is pre-owned. You’ve got to make a choice soon, Magnus. We may not be able to speak again. If you want a gesture of good faith, however, I can sweeten the deal. My daughter Hel and I … we’ve been talking.’
My heart jackknifed. ‘Talking about …’
‘I’ll let her tell you. But now …’ He tilted his head, listening. ‘Yes, we don’t have much time. You might be waking up.’