The good news is –’ she put a finger to her lips – ‘I can pick my own strike force. So all of you … consider yourselves warned.’
I wanted to hug her, to tell her how much I appreciated everything she’d done, but I knew Sam wouldn’t be comfortable with that. I settled for a smile. ‘Any time, al-Abbas. Now that Odin has given us permission to travel the worlds, maybe I can come visit you in Dorchester.’
‘That,’ she said, ‘is a truly mortifying idea. My grandparents would kill me. Amir would –’
‘Okay, jeez,’ I said. ‘Just remember: you’re not in this alone.’
‘Noted.’ She bumped me with her elbow. ‘And what about you, Magnus – back to Valhalla for the feast? Your hallmates have been singing your praises. I even heard a few Valkyries speculating that you might be made a thane one of these centuries.’
I smiled, but I wasn’t ready to think about one of these centuries. I gazed across the Public Garden. A taxi was just pulling up in front of the Cheers bar on the corner of Beacon and Brimmer. The ceramic jar weighed heavily inside my winter coat.
‘First I have an appointment,’ I said. ‘I have to keep a promise.’
I said goodbye to my friends. Then I went to meet my cousin.
I Lose a Bet
‘This is way better than the last memorial I attended,’ Annabeth said. ‘Yours.’
We stood on a ridge in the Blue Hills, watching my mother’s ashes drift across the snowy trees. Far below, the sun glittered on Houghton’s Pond. The day was cold, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I felt warm and calm – more right than I’d felt in years.
I tucked the empty ceramic jar under my arm.
‘Thanks for coming with me,’ I said.
Annabeth’s grey eyes studied me, the same way she seemed to study everything – assessing not just my appearance, but my composition, my stress points, my potential for renovation. This was a girl, after all, who had made Parthenon models out of runestones when she was six years old.
‘Glad to,’ she said. ‘Your mom … from what I remember, she was great.’
‘She would’ve liked the fact that you’re here.’
Annabeth gazed across the treeline. Her face looked sunburned from the wind. ‘They cremated you, too, you know. I mean that other body … whatever that was. Your ashes were placed in the family mausoleum. I didn’t even know we had a family mausoleum.’
I shuddered, imagining those ashes in a porcelain vase in a dank stone cubbyhole. Much better to be here, in the fresh air and the frigid sunlight.
‘Pretending I was dead couldn’t have been easy for you,’ I said.
She brushed a strand of hair from her face. ‘The service was harder on Randolph, I think. He seemed pretty shaken up, considering, you know …’
‘That he never cared about me?’
‘Or any of us. My dad, though … Magnus, that was difficult. He and I have had a rocky history, but I’m trying to be honest with him now. I don’t like hiding things.’
‘Sorry.’ I spread my hands. ‘I thought it was better if I didn’t drag you into my problems. For the last few days, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. Some … some dangerous things were happening. It had to do with my father’s, uh, side of the family.’
‘Magnus, I might understand more than you think I do.’
I thought about that. Annabeth did seem more attuned, more grounded than most people I talked to – even most of the people in Valhalla. On the other hand, I didn’t want to put her at risk, or threaten the tenuous relationship we were starting to reconstruct.
‘I’m okay now,’ I assured her. ‘I’m staying with friends. It’s a good place, but it’s not the kind of arrangement most people would understand. Uncle Randolph can’t know about it. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone, not even your dad.’
‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘I don’t suppose I get details?’
I thought about what Frey had told me: You should talk. You will need her help before all is said and done. I remembered what Sam had said about her own family – how they’d attracted the attention of the gods for generations. Randolph had hinted that our family was the same way.
‘I just don’t want to put you in danger,’ I said. ‘I kind of hoped you could be my one connection to the regular world.’
Annabeth stared at me. She snorted and began to laugh. ‘Wow. You have no idea how funny that is.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Magnus, if you had any clue about how weird my life is –’
‘Okay, but being here with you?’ I said. ‘This is the most normal I’ve felt in years. After all the crazy fighting between our parents, the stupid grudges and years of not speaking to each other, I was hoping we could make our generation of the family not so messed up.’
Annabeth’s expression turned serious. ‘That kind of normal I like.’ She extended her hand. ‘To us, the Chase cousins. Here’s to being less messed up.’
We shook on it.
‘Now spill,’ she commanded. ‘Tell me what’s been going on. I promise I won’t tell. I might even be able to help. I also promise that, whatever’s been going on with you, my life is weirder. It’ll make yours look downright suburban.’
I considered everything I’d been through – death and resurrection, fishing for the World Serpent, fighting with giants, running from monster squirrels, binding a wolf on a disappearing island.
‘How much you want to bet?’ I said.
‘Bring it on, cousin.’
‘Lunch?’ I suggested. ‘I know a great falafel place.’
‘You’ve got a bet,’ she said. ‘Let’s hear what you’ve been up to.’
‘Oh, no,’ I said. ‘Your story is so amazing? You go first.’
Randolph hadn’t slept since his nephew’s funeral service.
Every day he visited the mausoleum, hoping for some sign, some miracle. He cried real tears, but not for young Magnus. He wept for everything he’d lost – everything that might never be recovered now.
He came in through the back door of the town house, his hands shaking so badly he could barely work the lock. He removed his snow boots and his heavy coat, then padded upstairs, going over what he’d said to Magnus on the bridge for the millionth time, wondering what he could have done differently.
He froze in the doorway of his office. A man in a priest’s frock was sitting on his desk, dangling his feet.
‘Visiting the gravesite again?’ Loki grinned. ‘Honestly, I thought the service provided some excellent closure.’
‘You were the priest?’ Randolph sighed. ‘Of course you were the priest.’
Loki chuckled. ‘A young life cut short, but let us celebrate his gifts and the impact he had upon us … I was improvising, of course. But that’s what I do best.’
Randolph had seen the god of lies a dozen times before – when Loki had chosen to send his essence to Midgard – but it was always a shock – those brilliant eyes, the hair like flames, the ruined lips and the scars across his nose. He was unnaturally handsome and unnaturally terrifying in equal measure.
‘You’ve come to kill me, I expect.’ Randolph tried to remain calm, but his heartbeat still pulsed in his ears. ‘Why did you wait this long?’
Loki spread his hands magnanimously. ‘I didn’t want to be hasty. I needed to see how things played out. It’s true you failed. I could kill you, but you might still be useful. After all, I still have something you want.’
The god rose from the desk and opened his hand. Above his palm, flames flickered, consolidating into the miniature shapes of a woman and two girls. They writhed in the fire, reaching out to Randolph, silently pleading.
Only Randolph’s cane kept him from collapsing. ‘Please. I tried. I didn’t – I didn’t anticipate the dwarf and the elf. Or that cursed Valkyrie. You didn’t tell me –’
‘Randolph, my dear friend …’ Loki closed his hand, extinguishing the fire. ‘I hope you’re not making excuses?’
‘No, but –’
‘I’m the master of excuses. You’d have to try really hard to impress me. Just tell me, do you still want your family returned?’
‘Of – of course.’
‘Oh, good. How nice. Because I’m not done with you. Nor am I done with that little boy Magnus.’
‘But he has the sword. He stopped your plan.’
‘He stopped one facet of my plan. Yes, it was very educational.’ Loki stepped forward. He cupped his hand on Randolph’s cheek – an almost tender gesture. ‘I must say, your nephew is impressive. I don’t see the family resemblance at all.’
Randolph smelled the poison before he felt it. Acrid steam curled into his nostrils. The side of his face erupted in white-hot pain. He fell to his knees, his throat seizing up in shock. He tried to pull away, but Loki’s hand stayed stuck in place.
‘There, there,’ Loki said soothingly. ‘It’s just a little taste of my life – the snake venom that is splashed in my face every day. Perhaps you can understand why it makes me a tad grumpy.’
Randolph screamed until his throat was raw.
‘I won’t kill you, old friend,’ Loki said. ‘But I do punish failure. Absolutely!’
He took the hand away. Randolph crumpled, weeping, the smell of burned flesh in his nose.
‘Why …’ he croaked. ‘Why …?’
Loki raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. ‘Why what? Torture you? Continue to use you? Fight against the gods? It is my nature, Randolph! Now, don’t fuss. I’m sure you’ll find a way to explain the horrible hand-shaped scar on your face. I think it lends you a certain … gravitas. The Vikings will be most impressed.’
Loki strolled to Randolph’s display cases. He ran his fingers along Randolph’s collection of trinkets and talismans. ‘Ragnarok has many triggers, my friend. The Sword of Summer is not the only weapon in play.’
He plucked a necklace from the display. His eyes gleamed as the small silver hammer pendant swung between his fingers.
‘Oh, yes, Randolph.’ Loki grinned. ‘You and I are going to have lots of fun.’