‘Why? Are we not allowed in Valhalla?’
‘Oh, we have some children of Frey from the old days. The kings of Sweden were his descendants, for instance. But we haven’t seen a new one in Valhalla for centuries. Frey is Vanir, for one thing.’
‘Is that bad? Surt called me Vanir-spawn.’
‘That wasn’t Surt.’
I thought about my dream: those glowing eyes in the smoke. ‘It was Surt.’
Gunilla looked like she wanted to argue, but she let it drop. ‘Whatever the case, the gods are divided into two tribes. The Aesir are mostly gods of war: Odin, Thor, Tyr and the rest. The Vanir are more like the gods of nature: Frey, Freya, their father, Njord. That’s an oversimplification, but anyway – long ago, the two tribes had a war. They almost destroyed the Nine Worlds. They finally settled their differences. They intermarried. They joined forces against the giants. But still they’re different clans. Some Vanir have palaces in Asgard, the seat of the Aesir gods, but the Vanir also have their own world, Vanaheim. When a child of the Vanir dies bravely, they don’t usually go to Valhalla. More often they go to the Vanir afterlife, overseen by the goddess Freya.’
It took me a minute to digest all that. Clans of gods. Wars. Whatever. But that last part, the Vanir afterlife … ‘You’re telling me there’s another place like Valhalla, except for Vanir children, and I’m not there? What if that’s where my mom went? What if I was supposed to –’
Gunilla took my arm. Her blue eyes were intense with anger. ‘That’s right, Magnus. Think about what Samirah al-Abbas has done. I’m not saying all children of the Vanir go to Folkvanger –’
‘You put them in a Volkswagen?’
‘Folkvanger. It’s the name of Freya’s hall for the slain.’
‘My point is, you could have gone there. It would’ve been more likely. Half the honoured dead go to Odin. Half go to Freya. That was part of the agreement that ended the gods’ war aeons ago. So why did Samirah bring you here? Wrongly chosen, wrongly slain. She’s the daughter of Loki, the father of evil. She cannot be trusted.’
I wasn’t sure how to answer. I hadn’t known Samirah all that long, but she seemed pretty nice. Of course, so did her dad, Loki …
‘You may not believe this,’ Gunilla said, ‘but I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. I think you may be innocent of Samirah’s plans.’
She laughed bitterly. ‘To hasten Doomsday, of course. To bring the war before we are ready. That’s what Loki wants.’
I was tempted to protest that Loki had told me otherwise. He seemed more interested in stopping Surt from getting my dad’s sword … But I decided it wouldn’t be wise to tell Gunilla I’d been having chats with the father of evil.
‘If you hate Sam so much,’ I said, ‘why did you let her be a Valkyrie in the first place?’
‘That wasn’t my choice. I oversee the Valkyries, but Odin picks them. Samirah al-Abbas was the last Valkyrie he chose, two years ago, under what were … unusual circumstances. The All-Father has not appeared in Valhalla since.’
‘You think Sam killed him?’
I meant it as a joke, but Gunilla actually seemed to consider it. ‘I think Samirah should never have been chosen as a Valkyrie. I think she’s working for her father as a spy and a saboteur. Getting her kicked out of Valhalla was the best thing I ever did.’
‘Magnus, you don’t know her. There was another child of Loki here once. He – he wasn’t what he seemed. He –’ She stopped herself, looking like someone had just stepped on her heart. ‘Never mind. I swore to myself I wouldn’t be fooled again. I intend to delay Ragnarok for as long as possible.’
The edge of fear had crept back into her voice. She didn’t sound much like the daughter of a war god.
‘Why delay?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t Ragnarok what you’re all training for? It’s like your big graduation party.’
‘You don’t understand,’ she said. ‘Come. There’s something I need to show you. We will go through the gift shop.’
When she said gift shop, I imagined a glorified closet selling cheap Valhalla souvenirs. Instead, it was a five-level department store combined with a convention-centre trade show. We passed through a supermarket, a clothing boutique with the latest in Viking fashions and an IKEA outlet (naturally).
Most of the showroom floor was a maze of stalls, kiosks and workshops. Bearded guys in leather aprons stood outside their forges offering free samples of arrowheads. There were specialized merchants for shields, spears, crossbows, helmets and drinking cups (lots and lots of drinking cups). Several of the larger booths had full-size boats for sale.
I patted the hull of a sixty-foot warship. ‘I don’t think this would fit in my bathtub.’
‘We have several lakes and rivers in Valhalla,’ Gunilla said. ‘There’s also the Whitewater Rafting Experience on floor twelve. All einherjar should know how to fight at sea as well as on land.’
I pointed to a riding ring where a dozen horses were tethered. ‘And those? You can ride a horse through the hallways?’
‘Of course,’ said Gunilla. ‘We’re pet-friendly. But notice, Magnus – the lack of weapons. The scarcity of armour.’
‘You’re kidding, right? This place has thousands of weapons for sale.’
‘Not enough,’ Gunilla said. ‘Not for Ragnarok.’
She led me down the Nordic Knick-knacks aisle to a big iron door marked: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
She slipped one of her keys into the lock. ‘I don’t show this to many people. It’s too disturbing.’
‘Not another wall of fire, is it?’
Behind the door was a set of stairs. Then another set of stairs. Then another set of stairs. By the time we reached the top, I’d lost count of how many flights. My upgraded einherji legs felt like overcooked linguine.
At last we stepped out onto a narrow balcony.
‘This,’ Gunilla said, ‘is my favourite view.’
I couldn’t answer. I was too busy trying not to die from vertigo.
The balcony ringed the opening in the roof above the Hall of the Slain. The tree Laeradr’s topmost branches stretched upward, making a green dome the size of Spaceship Earth at Epcot. Inside, far below, hotel staff scurried around the tables like termites, getting things ready for dinner.
From the outer edge of the balcony, the roofline of Valhalla sloped away – a thatch of gold shields blazing red in the evening sun. I felt like I was standing on the surface of a metal planet.
‘Why don’t you show this to people?’ I asked. ‘It’s … well, intimidating, but it’s also beautiful.’
‘Over here.’ Gunilla pulled me to a spot where I could gaze down between two sections of roof.
My eyeballs felt like they were going to implode. I flashed back to a presentation my sixth-grade science teacher once gave about the size of the universe. He explained how vast the earth was, then described how that was nothing compared to the solar system, which in turn was nothing compared to the galaxy, et cetera, et cetera, until I felt as significant as a speck on the underarm of a flea.
Stretching out around Valhalla, gleaming to the horizon, was a city of palaces, each as big and impressive as the hotel.
‘Asgard,’ Gunilla said. ‘The realm of the gods.’
I saw roofs made entirely of silver ingots, hammered-bronze doors big enough to fly a B-1 bomber through, sturdy stone towers that pierced the clouds. Streets were paved in gold. Each garden was as vast as Boston Harbor. And circling the edge of the city were white ramparts that made the Great Wall of China look like a baby fence.
At the very edge of my vision, the city’s widest avenue ran through a gateway in the walls. On the far side, the ground dissolved into multicoloured light – a roadway of prismatic fire.
‘The Bifrost,’ Gunilla said. ‘The rainbow bridge leading from Asgard to Midgard.’
I’d heard about the Bifro
st Bridge. In my children’s myth book, it was a seven-colour pastel arc with happy bunny rabbits dancing around the base. This bridge had no happy bunnies. It was terrifying. It was a rainbow in the way a nuclear explosion was a mushroom.
‘Only the gods may cross over,’ Gunilla said. ‘Anyone else would burn the moment they set foot on it.’
‘But … we’re in Asgard?’
‘Of course. Valhalla is one of Odin’s halls. That’s why, within the hotel, the einherjar are immortal.’
‘So you can go down there and see the gods, sell Girl Scout cookies door-to-door or whatever?’
Gunilla curled her lip. ‘Even gazing upon Asgard, you have no sense of reverence.’
‘Not really, no.’
‘Without the express permission of Odin, we aren’t allowed to visit the city of the gods – at least not until the day of Ragnarok, when we will defend the gates.’
‘But you can fly.’
‘It’s forbidden to go there. If I tried, I would fall from the sky. You’re missing the point, Magnus. Look at the city again. What do you notice?’
I scanned the neighbourhood, trying to see past all the silver and gold and the scary huge architecture. In one window, rich drapes hung in tatters. Along the streets, fire braziers stood empty and cold. The statues in one garden were completely overgrown with thorn bushes. The streets were deserted. No fires burned in any of the windows.
‘Where is everybody?’ I asked.
‘Exactly. I would not be selling many Girl Scout cookies.’
‘You mean the gods are gone?’
Gunilla turned towards me, her string of hammers glinting orange in the sunset. ‘Some may be slumbering. Some are roaming the Nine Worlds. Some still appear from time to time. The fact is, we don’t know what’s going on. I’ve been in Valhalla five hundred years, and I have never seen the gods so quiet, so inactive. The last two years …’
She plucked a leaf from a low-hanging branch of Laeradr. ‘Two years ago, something changed. The Valkyries and thanes all felt it. The barriers between the Nine Worlds began to weaken. Frost giants and fire giants raided Midgard more frequently. Monsters from Helheim broke into the worlds of the living. The gods grew distant and silent. This was around the time when Samirah became a Valkyrie – the last time we saw Odin. It was also when your mother died.’
A raven circled overhead. Two more joined it. I thought about my mom – how she used to joke that birds of prey were stalking us when we went hiking. They think we’re dead. Quick, start dancing!
At the moment I wasn’t tempted to dance. I wanted to borrow Gunilla’s hammers and knock the birds out of the sky.
‘You think there’s a connection between those things?’ I asked.
‘All I know … we are poorly prepared for Ragnarok. Then you arrive. The Norns issue dire warnings, calling you the Harbinger of the Wolf. That’s not good, Magnus. Samirah al-Abbas may have been watching you for years, waiting for the right moment to insert you into Valhalla.’
‘Those two friends of yours on the bridge, the ones who had been monitoring you since you became homeless, perhaps they were working with her.’
‘You mean Blitz and Hearth? They’re homeless guys.’
‘Are they? Don’t you find it strange they looked after you so carefully?’
I wanted to tell her to go to Helheim, but Blitz and Hearth had always seemed a little … unusual. Then again, when you live on the streets the definition of normal gets a little fuzzy.
Gunilla took my arm. ‘Magnus, I didn’t believe it at first, but if that was Surt on the bridge, if you did find the Sword of Summer … then you’re being used by the forces of evil. If Samirah al-Abbas wants you to retrieve the sword, then that’s exactly what you cannot do. Stay in Valhalla. Let the thanes deal with this prophecy. Swear you’ll do this, and I will speak to the thanes on your behalf. I’ll convince them that you can be trusted.’
‘Do I detect an or else?’
‘Only this: by tomorrow morning, the thanes will announce their decision regarding your fate. If we cannot trust you, then we will have to take precautions. We must know whose side you’re on.’
I looked down at the empty golden streets. I thought about Sam al-Abbas dragging me through the cold void, putting her career on the line because she thought I was brave. You have potential, Magnus Chase. Don’t prove me wrong. Then she’d been vaporized in the feast hall thanks to Gunilla’s edited blooper reel.
I pulled my arm away. ‘You said Frey is about the middle ground between fire and ice. Maybe this isn’t about choosing sides. Maybe I don’t want to pick an extreme.’
Gunilla’s expression rolled shut like a storm window. ‘I can be a powerful enemy, Magnus Chase. I will warn you one time: if you follow the plans of Loki, if you seek to hasten Ragnarok, I will destroy you.’
I tried to meet her eyes, and to ignore my lungs flopping around in my chest. ‘I’ll keep that in mind.’
Below us, the dinner horn echoed through the feast hall.
‘The tour is over,’ Gunilla announced. ‘From this point on, Magnus Chase, I will guide you no more.’
She leaped over the side of the balcony and flew down through the branches, leaving me to find my own way back. Without GPS.
My Friends Fall Out of a Tree
Fortunately, a friendly berserker found me wandering through the spa on the hundred and twelfth floor. He’d just had the gentleman’s pedicure (‘Just Because You Kill People Doesn’t Mean Your Feet Should!’) and was happy to lead me back to the elevators.
By the time I reached the feast hall, dinner was under way. I navigated towards X – who was hard to miss even in the huge crowd – and joined my hallmates from floor nineteen.
We traded stories about the morning’s battle.
‘I hear you used alf seidr!’ Halfborn said. ‘Impressive!’
I’d almost forgotten about the energy blast that had knocked everybody’s weapons away. ‘Yeah, uh … what exactly is alf seidr?’
‘Elf magic,’ Mallory said. ‘Sneaky Vanir-style witchcraft unfit for a true warrior.’ She punched me in the arm. ‘I like you better already.’
I tried for a smile, though I wasn’t sure how I’d managed to wield elf magic. As far as I knew, I was not an elf. I thought about the way I resisted extreme temperatures, and the way I’d healed Gunilla in the elevator … was that alf seidr, too? Maybe it came from being a son of Frey, though I didn’t understand how the powers were related.
T.J. complimented me on taking the crest of the hill. X complimented me on staying alive longer than five minutes.
It was good to feel like part of the group, but I didn’t pay much attention to their conversation. My head was still buzzing from the tour with Gunilla and the dream of Loki at the throne of Odin.
At the head table, Gunilla occasionally murmured something to Helgi, and the manager would scowl in my direction. I kept waiting for him to call me up and put me on grape-peeling duty with Hunding, but I guess he was contemplating some better punishment.
Tomorrow morning, Gunilla had warned, we will have to take precautions.
At the end of dinner, a couple of newbies were welcomed to Valhalla. Their videos were suitably heroic. No Norns showed up. No Valkyries got banished in disgrace. No butts were shot with squeaky arrows.
As the crowds filed out of the feast hall, T.J. clapped me on the shoulder. ‘Get some rest. Another glorious death tomorrow!’
‘Yippee,’ I said.
Back in my room, I couldn’t sleep. I spent hours pacing around like a zoo animal. I didn’t want to wait for the thanes’ judgement in the morning. I’d seen how wisely they judged when they exiled Sam.
But what choice did I have? Sneak around the hotel randomly opening doors, hoping to find one that led back to Boston? Even if I succeeded, there was no guarantee I’d be allowed to go back to my luxurious life as a homeless kid. Gunilla or Surt or some other Norse nas
ty might track me down again.
We must know whose side you are on, Gunilla had said.
I was on my side. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in some Viking Doomsday, but something told me it was too late. My mom had died two years ago, around the same time a bunch of other bad stuff was breaking loose in the Nine Worlds. With my luck, there was a connection. If I wanted justice for my mother – if I wanted to find out what had happened to her – I couldn’t go back to hiding under a bridge.
I also couldn’t keep hanging out in Valhalla, taking Swedish lessons and watching PowerPoint presentations on killing trolls.
At about five in the morning, I finally gave up on sleeping. I went to the restroom to wash my face. Clean towels hung on the rod. The hole in the wall had been repaired. I wondered if it had been done by magic or if some poor schmuck had had to fix it as a punishment from the thanes. Maybe tomorrow I’d be the one plastering the wall.
I walked to the atrium and stared at the stars through the trees. I wondered what sky I was looking at – what world, what constellations.
The branches rustled. Something dark and man-shaped toppled out of the tree. He landed at my feet with a nasty crunch.
‘OW!’ he wailed. ‘Stupid gravity!’
My old buddy Blitz lay on his back, moaning and cradling his left arm.
A second person dropped lightly to the grass – Hearth, dressed in his usual black leather clothes and candy-striped scarf. He signed, Hi.
I stared at them. ‘What are you – how did you –?’ I started to grin. I’d never been happier to see anyone.
‘Arm!’ Blitz yelped. ‘Broken!’
‘Right.’ I knelt, trying to focus. ‘I might be able to heal this.’
‘Wait … did you get a makeover?’
‘You’re asking about my wardrobe?’
‘Well, yeah.’ I’d never seen Blitz look so nice.
His chaotic hair had been washed and combed back. His beard was trimmed. His Cro-Magnon unibrow had been plucked and waxed. Only his zigzag nose had not been cosmetically corrected.
As for the clothes, he’d apparently robbed several high-end boutiques on Newbury Street. His boots were alligator leather. His black wool suit was tailored to fit his stocky five-feet-five frame and looked lovely with his dark skin tone. Under the jacket, he was rocking a charcoal paisley waistcoat with a gold watch chain, a smart turquoise shirt and a skinny bolo tie. He looked like a very short, well-groomed African-American cowboy hitman.
Hearth clapped to get my attention. He signed, Arm. Fix?
‘Right. Sorry.’ I placed my hand gently on Blitz’s forearm. I could feel the fracture under the skin. I willed it to mend. Click. Blitz yelped as the bone moved back into place.
‘Try it now,’ I said.
Blitz moved the arm. His expression changed from pain to surprise. ‘That actually worked!’
Hearth looked even more shocked. He signed, Magic? How?
‘I’ve been wondering that myself,’ I said. ‘Guys, don’t take this the wrong way, because I’m really glad to see you. But why are you falling out of my trees?’
‘Kid,’ Blitz said, ‘for the past twenty-four hours we’ve been climbing all over the World Tree looking for you. We thought we found you last night, but –’
‘I think you might have,’ I said. ‘Just before dawn I heard somebody moving in the branches.’
Blitz turned to Hearth. ‘I told you that was the right room!’
Hearth rolled his eyes and signed too fast for me to read.
‘Oh, please,’ Blitz said. ‘Your idea, my idea – it doesn’t matter. The point is, we’re here, and Magnus is alive! Well … technically he’s dead. But he’s alive. Which means the boss might not kill us!’
‘The boss?’ I asked.