Blitz developed a tic in his eye. ‘Yeah. We have a confession to make.’
‘You’re not really homeless,’ I said. ‘Last night, one of the thanes saw you guys on video and –’
Video? Hearth signed.
‘Yeah. Valkyrie Vision. Anyway, this thane called you a dwarf and an elf. I’m guessing –’ I pointed at Blitz – ‘you’re the dwarf?’
‘Typical,’ Blitz grumbled. ‘Assume I’m the dwarf because I’m short.’
‘So you’re not the dwarf?’
He sighed. ‘No. I’m the dwarf.’
‘And you …’ I looked at Hearth, but I couldn’t even make myself say it. I’d hung out with this guy for two years. He’d taught me curses in sign language. We’d eaten burritos out of trash cans together. What kind of elf does that?
E-L-F. Hearth signed the individual letters. Sometimes spelled A-L-F.
‘But … you guys don’t look that different from humans.’
‘Actually,’ Blitz said, ‘humans don’t look that different from dwarves and elves.’
‘I can’t believe I’m having this conversation, but you’re not that short. Like, for a dwarf. You could pass for a regular short human.’
‘Which I’ve been doing,’ Blitz said, ‘for two years now. Dwarves come in different sizes, just like humans. I happen to be a svartalf.’
‘A fart elf?’
‘Gah! Clean your ears, kid. A svartalf. It means dark elf. I’m from Svartalfheim.’
‘Um, I thought you just said you’re a dwarf.’
‘Dark elves aren’t actually elves, kid. It’s … what do you call it? A misnomer. We’re a subset of dwarves.’
‘Well, that certainly clears things up.’
Hearth developed a faint smile, which for him was the equivalent of rolling on the floor laughing. He signed, Fart elf.
Blitz pointedly ignored him. ‘Svartalfs tend to be taller than your average Nidavellir dwarves. Plus we’re devilishly handsome. But that’s not important right now. Hearthstone and I are here to help you.’
Hearth nodded. My full name. He is B-L-I-T-Z-E-N.
‘Kid, we don’t have much time. We’ve been watching you for the last two years, trying to keep you safe.’
‘For your boss.’
‘And who is your boss?’
‘That’s … classified. But he’s one of the good guys. He’s the head of our organization, dedicated to delaying Ragnarok as long as possible. And you, my friend, have been his most important project.’
‘So, just taking a wild guess here … you’re not working for Loki?’
Blitzen looked outraged. Hearth signed one of those curses he’d taught me.
‘That was uncalled for, kid.’ Blitzen sounded genuinely hurt. ‘I dressed up like a homeless person every day for two years for you. I let my personal hygiene go to Helheim. You know how long I had to stay in the bubble bath every morning to get the smell out?’
‘Sorry. So … were you working with Samirah, the Valkyrie?’
Another curse sign from Hearthstone. The one who took you? No. She made things hard for us.
Actually the literal signs were more like: HER. TOOK. YOU. MADE. DIFFICULT. US. But I’d become fairly good at interpreting.
‘You weren’t supposed to die, kid,’ said Blitzen. ‘Our job was to protect you. But now … well, you’re an einherji. Maybe we can still make this work. We’ve got to get you out of here. We have to find that sword.’
‘Let’s go, then,’ I said.
‘Now, don’t argue,’ Blitzen said. ‘I know you’re in warriors’ paradise and it’s all very new and exciting –’
‘Blitz, I said sure.’
The dwarf blinked. ‘But I had this whole speech prepared.’
‘No need. I trust you.’
The strange thing? I was telling the truth.
Maybe Blitzen and Hearthstone were professional stalkers who’d been keeping an eye on me for a top-secret anti-Ragnarok organization. Maybe their idea of protecting me involved attacking the lord of the fire giants with cheap plastic toys. Maybe they weren’t even the same species as me.
But they’d stuck by me while I was homeless. They were my best friends. Yes … that’s how messed up my life was.
‘Well, then.’ Blitzen brushed the grass from his paisley waistcoat. ‘We’ll just climb back into the World Tree before –’
From somewhere above, an explosive yap! reverberated through the room. It sounded like a rabid six-thousand-pound Boston terrier choking on a mammoth bone.
Hearthstone’s eyes widened. The sound was so loud he’d probably felt the vibrations through his shoes.
‘Gods almighty!’ Blitzen grabbed my arm. Together with Hearthstone, he pulled me away from the atrium. ‘Kid, please tell me you know another way out of this hotel. Because we aren’t using the tree.’
Another yap shook the room. Broken branches tumbled to the floor.
‘Wh-what’s up there?’ I asked, my knees shaking. I thought about the Norns’ prophecy, naming me a harbinger of evil. ‘Is it – the Wolf?’
‘Oh, much worse,’ Blitzen said. ‘It’s the Squirrel.’
I Recycle Myself
When someone says, It’s the Squirrel, you don’t ask questions. You run. The barking alone was enough to scare the mead out of me.
I grabbed my hotel-issued sword on the way out. Since I was wearing green silk Valhalla pajamas, I doubted I would need it. If I had to fight anyone, they would die laughing before I ever drew the blade.
We burst into the hallway to find T.J. and Mallory already standing there, bleary-eyed and hastily dressed.
‘What was that sound?’ Mallory scowled at me. ‘Why do you have a dwarf and an elf in your room?’
‘SQUIRREL!’ Blitzen yelled, slamming my door shut.
Hearth said the same thing in sign language – a gesture that looked disturbingly like a set of mandibles rending flesh.
T.J. looked like he’d been slapped across the face. ‘Magnus, what have you done?’
‘I need to leave the hotel. Now. Please don’t stop us.’
Mallory cursed in what was maybe Gaelic. Our little hallway group was a veritable United Nations of Cussing.
‘We won’t stop you,’ she said. ‘This is going to get us laundry duty for a decade, but we’ll help you.’
I stared at her. ‘Why? You’ve known me less than a day.’
‘Long enough to know you’re an idiot,’ she grumbled.
‘What she’s trying to say,’ T.J. offered, ‘is that hallmates always protect each other. We’ll cover your escape.’
The door of my room shook. Cracks spiderwebbed from the nameplate. A decorative spear fell off the wall of the corridor.
‘X!’ T.J. called. ‘Help!’
The half-troll’s door exploded off its hinges. X lumbered into the hallway as if he’d been standing just inside, waiting for the call. ‘Yes?’
T.J. pointed. ‘Magnus’s door. Squirrel.’
X marched over and shoved his back against my door. It shuddered again, but X held firm. Enraged barking echoed from inside.
Halfborn Gunderson stumbled out of his room wearing nothing but smiley-face boxers, double-bladed axes in his hands.
‘What’s going on?’ He glowered at Blitz and Hearth. ‘Should I kill the dwarf and the elf?’
‘No!’ Blitzen yelped. ‘Don’t kill the dwarf and the elf!’
‘They’re with me,’ I said. ‘We’re leaving.’
‘Squirrel,’ T.J. explained.
Halfborn’s shaggy eyebrows achieved orbit. ‘Squirrel as in squirrel squirrel?’
‘Squirrel squirrel,’ Mallory confirmed. ‘And I’m surrounded by moron morons.’
A raven soared down the hall. It landed on the nearest light fixture and squawked at me accusingly.
‘Well, that’s great,’ Mallory said.
‘The ravens have sensed your friends’ intrusion. That means the Valkyries won’t be far behind.’
From the direction of the elevator banks, half a dozen howls pierced the air.
‘And those would be Odin’s wolves,’ Halfborn said. ‘Very friendly unless you’re trespassing or leaving the hotel without permission, in which case they’ll tear you apart.’
An unmanly sob started to build in my throat. I could accept being killed by a squirrel, or an army of Valkyries, or even another axe in my face, but not wolves. My legs threatened to give out beneath me.
‘Blitz and Hearth –’ my voice trembled – ‘is there any alarm you guys failed to set off?’
Not fair, Hearth signed. We avoided the tree mines.
‘Tree mines?’ I wasn’t sure I’d understood him correctly.
Halfborn Gunderson hefted his axe. ‘I’ll slow down the wolves. Good luck, Magnus!’
He charged down the hall screaming, ‘DEATH!’ while the smiley faces rippled on his boxer shorts.
Mallory’s face turned red – with embarrassment or delight, I couldn’t tell. ‘I’ll stay with X in case the squirrel breaks through,’ she said. ‘T.J., you take them to recycling.’
‘Recycling?’ Blitz asked.
Mallory drew her sword. ‘Magnus, I can’t say it’s been a pleasure. You’re a true pain in the nári. Now get out of here.’
The door of my room shuddered again. Plaster rained from the ceiling.
‘The squirrel is strong,’ X grunted. ‘Hurry.’
T.J. fixed his bayonet. ‘Let’s go.’
He led us down the corridor, his blue Union jacket over his PJs. I got a feeling he probably slept in that jacket. Behind us, wolves howled and Halfborn Gunderson bellowed in Old Norse.
As we ran, a few einherjar opened their doors to see what was going on. When they spotted T.J. with his bayonet, they ducked back inside.
Left, right, right, left – I lost track of the turns. Another raven shot past, cawing angrily. I tried to swat it.
‘Don’t,’ T.J. warned. ‘They’re sacred to Odin.’
We were just passing a T in the hallway when a voice shouted, ‘MAGNUS!’
I made the mistake of looking.
To our left, fifty feet away, Gunilla stood in full armour, a hammer in either hand. ‘Take another step,’ she snarled, ‘and I will destroy you.’
T.J. glanced at me. ‘You three keep going. Next right, there’s a chute marked “recycling”. Jump in.’
‘No time.’ T.J. grinned. ‘Go kill some rebs for me – or monsters – or whatever.’
He pointed his rifle at the Valkyrie, shouted, ‘Fifty-fourth Massachusetts!’ and charged.
Hearth grabbed my arm and pulled me along. Blitz found the recycling chute and yanked it open. ‘GO, GO!’
Hearthstone dived in head first.
‘You next, kid,’ said the dwarf.
I hesitated. The smell coming out of the chute reminded me of my dumpster-diving days. Suddenly the comforts of the Hotel Valhalla didn’t seem so bad.
Then more wolves howled, closer this time, and I recycled myself.
You Had One Job
Turns out Valhalla had been sending its recycling to home plate at Fenway, which could explain any problems the Red Sox were having with their offensive line-up.
Hearthstone was just getting to his feet when I landed on top of him and knocked him flat. Before I could extricate myself, Blitzen ploughed into my chest. I pushed him off and rolled away just in case anyone else decided to drop out of the sky.
I struggled to my feet. ‘Why are we in Fenway Park?’
‘Don’t ask me.’ Blitzen sighed dismally. His nice wool suit looked like it had passed through the digestive tract of a snail. ‘The doors in and out of Valhalla are notoriously wonky. At least we’re in Midgard.’
Rows of red bleachers stood empty and silent, uncomfortably similar to the Feast Hall of the Slain before the einherjar marched in. The field was covered in a patchwork of frozen tarps that crunched under my feet.
It must have been around six in the morning. The eastern sky was just starting to turn grey. My breath steamed in the air.
‘What were we running from?’ I asked. ‘What kind of mutant squirrel –’
‘Ratatosk,’ Blitz said. ‘The bane of the World Tree. Anyone who dares climb Yggdrasil’s branches sooner or later has to deal with that monster. Count yourself lucky we escaped.’
Hearthstone pointed towards the dawn. He signed, Sun. Bad for Blitzen.
Blitz squinted. ‘You’re right. After that business on the bridge, I can’t stand any more direct exposure.’
‘What do you mean?’ I looked more closely at his face. ‘Are you turning grey?’
Blitzen looked away, but there was no doubt. His cheeks had lightened to the colour of wet clay. ‘Kid, you may have noticed I never hung around with you much during the day?’
‘I … yeah. It was like Hearth took the day shift. You took the night shift.’
‘Exactly. Dwarves are subterranean creatures. Sunlight is deadly to us. Mind you, not as deadly as it is to trolls. I can stand a little bit, but if I’m out for too long I start to … uh, petrify.’
I remembered the fight on Longfellow Bridge, how Blitzen had been wearing a broad-brimmed hat, coat, gloves and sunglasses – a strange fashion statement, especially with the MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS sign. ‘If you cover up, will you be okay?’
‘It helps. Thick clothing, sunscreen, et cetera. But at the moment –’ he gestured to his clothes – ‘I’m not prepared. I dropped my supply pack somewhere in the World Tree.’
Hearthstone signed, After bridge, his legs turned to stone. No walking until night.
A lump formed in my throat. Blitz and Hearth’s attempt to protect me on the Longfellow Bridge had been pretty ridiculous, but they’d tried. Just by being out in the daytime, Blitzen had risked his life.
As many questions as I had, as messed up as my life (death?) was at the moment, knowing that Blitzen was in danger again for my sake readjusted my priorities.
‘Let’s get you someplace dark,’ I said.
The easiest option was the Green Monster – the famous home-run-blocking four-storey wall along the left outfield. I’d been behind it once before on a school trip – first grade, maybe? I remembered there were service doors under the scoreboard.
I found one unlocked, and we slipped inside.
There wasn’t much to see – just metal scaffolding, stacks of green number cards hanging on the wall, and the stadium’s concrete ribs tattooed with a hundred years of graffiti. The space had one important requirement, though: it was dark.
Blitzen sat on a pile of mats and pulled off his boots. Acorns spilled out. His socks were grey paisley, matching his waistcoat.
The socks amazed me as much as anything I’d encountered in Valhalla. ‘Blitz, what’s with the outfit? You look so … spiffy.’
He puffed up his chest. ‘Thank you, Magnus. It hasn’t been easy dressing like a bum the last two years. No offence, of course.’
‘This is how I usually dress. I take my appearance very seriously. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a clothes horse.’
Hearth made a sound between a sneeze and a snort. He signed, A bit?
‘Oh, be quiet,’ Blitz grumbled. ‘Who bought you that scarf, eh?’ He turned to me for support. ‘I told Hearth he needed a splash of colour. The black clothes. The platinum-blond hair. The red-striped scarf makes a bold statement, don’t you think?’
‘Uh … sure,’ I said. ‘As long as I don’t have to wear it. Or the paisley socks.’
‘Don’t be silly. Patterned fabric would look terrible on you.’ Blitz frowned at his boot. ‘What were we talking about again?’
‘How about why you’ve been watching me for the last two years?’
Hearth signed, Told you. The boss.
sp; ‘Not Loki,’ I said. ‘Odin, then?’
Blitz laughed. ‘No. The Capo is even smarter than Odin. He likes to work behind the scenes, stay anonymous. He assigned us to watch you and, uh –’ he cleared his throat – ‘keep you alive.’
‘Yeah.’ Blitzen shook the acorns out of his other boot. ‘We had one job. We failed. “Keep him alive,” said the Capo. “Watch him. Protect him if needed, but don’t interfere with his choices. He’s important to the plan.” ’
‘The Capo knows stuff. The future, for instance. He does his best to nudge events in the right direction, keep the Nine Worlds from spiralling into chaos and exploding.’
‘That sounds like a good plan.’
‘He told us you were the son of Frey. He didn’t go into details, but he was very insistent: you were important, had to be protected. When you died … well, I’m just glad we found you in Valhalla. Maybe all isn’t lost. Now we’ve got to report to the Capo and get new orders.’
Hearthstone signed, And hope he doesn’t kill us.
‘That, too.’ Blitzen didn’t sound optimistic. ‘The thing is, Magnus, until we talk to the boss, I can’t really go into many details.’
‘Even though I’m important to the plan.’
That’s why we can’t, Hearth signed.