Blitzen was the only other person on deck. He was bundled up, but he wasn’t wearing any sun protection, despite the fact that it was clearly daytime. That could only mean one thing.
“We’re not in Midgard anymore,” I guessed.
Blitzen smiled wearily, no humor in his eyes. “We’ve been in Jotunheim for hours now, kid. The others are below, trying to stay warm. You…well, being the son of the summer god, you’re more resistant to cold, but even you are going to start having trouble soon. Judging from how fast the temperature is dropping, we’re getting close to the borders of Niflheim.”
I shivered instinctively. Niflheim, the primordial realm of ice: one of the few worlds I hadn’t yet visited, and one I wasn’t anxious to explore.
“How will we know when we’re there?” I asked.
The ship lurched with a juddering noise that loosened my joints. I staggered to my feet. The Big Banana was dead in the water. The surface of the sea had turned to solid ice in every direction.
“I’d say we’re here.” Blitz sighed. “Let’s hope Hearthstone can summon some magical fire. Otherwise we’re all going to freeze to death within the hour.”
I HAVE DIED many painful deaths. I’ve been impaled, decapitated, burned, drowned, crushed, and thrown off the terrace of floor 103.
I prefer all of those to hypothermia.
After only a few minutes, my lungs felt like I was breathing glass dust. We got all hands on deck—another nautical term I finally understood—to deal with the ice problem, but we had little success. I sent Jack out to break up the floe in front of us, while Halfborn and T.J. used poleaxes to chip away at the port and starboard sides. Sam flew ahead with a rope and tried to tug us along. Alex turned into a walrus and pushed from behind. I was too cold to make any jokes about how nice she looked with tusks, whiskers, and flippers.
Hearthstone summoned a new rune:
He explained this was kenaz: the torch, the fire of life. Instead of disappearing in a flash, like most runes did, kenaz continued to burn above the foredeck—a floating bend of fire five feet high, melting the frost on the deck and rigging. Kenaz kept us warm enough to avoid instant death, but Blitz fretted that sustaining the rune for an extended period would also burn up Hearth’s energy. A few months ago, expending so much energy would have killed him. Now he was stronger. Still, I worried, too.
I found a pair of binoculars in the supplies and scanned the mountains for any promise of shelter or harbor. I saw nothing but sheer rock.
I didn’t realize my fingers were turning blue until Blitz pointed it out. I summoned a little Frey-warmth into my hands, but the effort made me dizzy. Using the power of summer here was like trying to remember everything that had happened on my first day of elementary school. I knew summer still existed, somewhere, but it was so distant, so vague, I could barely conjure a memory of it.
“B-blitz, y-you don’t look affected,” I noted.
He scratched the ice from his beard. “Dwarves do well in the cold. You and I will be the last ones to freeze to death. But that’s not much comfort.”
Mallory, Blitz, and I tried using oars to push away the ice as Halfborn and T.J. broke it up. We alternated duties, going belowdecks two or three at a time to warm up, though below wasn’t much warmer. We would have made faster time just getting out and walking, but Walrus Alex reported that the ice had some nasty thin spots. Also, we had nowhere to shelter. At least the ship offered supplies and some cover from the wind.
My arms started to go numb. I got so used to shivering I couldn’t tell whether it had started to snow or my vision was blurred. The fiery rune was the only thing keeping us alive, but its light and heat slowly faded. Hearthstone sat cross-legged beneath the kenaz, his eyes closed in intense concentration. Beads of sweat dripped from his brow and froze as soon as they splattered on the deck.
After a while, even Jack started to act glum. He no longer seemed interested in serenading us or joking about doing icebreaker activities.
“And this is the nicest part of Niflheim,” he grumbled. “You should see the cold regions!”
I’m not sure how much time passed. It seemed impossible that there had been any life before this one: breaking ice, pushing ice, shivering, dying.
Then, at the prow, Mallory croaked, “Hey! Look!”
In front of us, the swirling snow thinned. Only a few hundred yards ahead, jutting from the main line of cliffs, was a jagged peninsula like the blade of a corroded ax. A thin line of black-gravel beach hugged the base. And toward the top of the cliff…were those fires flickering?
We turned the ship in that direction, but we didn’t make it far. The ice thickened, cementing our hull in place. Above Hearth’s head, the kenaz rune guttered weakly. We all gathered on the deck, solemn and silent. Every blanket and extra piece of clothing in the hold had been wrapped around us.
“W-walk for it,” Blitz suggested. Even he was starting to stutter. “We pair up for warmth. G-get across the ice to the shore. Maybe we find shelter.”
It wasn’t so much a “survival plan” as a plan for dying in a different place, but we grimly went to work. We shouldered all the supplies we couldn’t live without—some food, water, the canteen of Kvasir’s Mead, our weapons. Then we climbed onto the ice and I folded the Big Banana into a handkerchief, because dragging the ship along behind us would’ve been, well, a drag.
Jack volunteered to float in front of us and test the ice with his blade. I wasn’t sure whether that would make things more or less dangerous for us, but he refused to go back into pendant form, because the aftereffects of his extra exertion would’ve killed me. (He’s thoughtful that way.)
As we paired up, somebody’s arm curled around my waist. Alex Fierro wedged herself next to me, wrapping a blanket around our heads and shoulders. I looked at her in amazement. A pink wool scarf covered her head and mouth, so all I could see were her two-toned eyes and some wisps of green hair.
“Sh-shut up,” she stammered. “You’re w-warm and s-summery.”
Jack led the way across the ice. Behind him, Blitzen did his best to prop up Hearthstone, who stumbled along with the rune of kenaz above him, though its heat was now more like a candle’s than a bonfire’s.
Sam and Mallory followed, then T.J. and Halfborn, and finally Alex and me. We trudged across the frozen sea, making our way toward that outcropping of rock, but our destination seemed to get farther away with every step. Could the cliff be a mirage? Maybe distance was fluid
on the borders of Niflheim and Jotunheim. Once, in the hall of Utgard-Loki, Alex and I had rolled a bowling ball all the way to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, so I supposed anything was possible.
I couldn’t feel my face anymore. My feet had turned to one-gallon boxes of squishy ice cream. I thought how sad it would be to come as far as we had, facing so many gods, giants, and monsters, only to keel over and freeze to death in the middle of nowhere.
I clung to Alex. She clung to me. Her breath rattled. I wished she still had her walrus blubber, because she was all skin and bone, as wiry as her garrote. I wanted to chide her, Eat, eat! You’re wasting away.
I appreciated her warmth, though. Under any other circumstances, she would’ve killed me for getting this close. Also, I would’ve freaked out from so much physical contact. I considered it a personal triumph that I’d learned to hug my friends once in a while, but I wasn’t usually good with closeness. The need for warmth, and maybe the fact that this was Alex, made it okay somehow. I concentrated on her scent, a sort of citrusy fragrance that made me think of orange groves in a sunny valley in Mexico—not that I’d ever been to a place like that, but it smelled nice.
“Guava juice,” Alex croaked.
“Wh-what?” I asked.
“Roof d-deck. B-back B-bay. That was nice.”
She’s clinging to good memories, I realized. Trying to stay alive.
“Y-yeah,” I agreed.
“York,” she said. “Mr. Ch-chippy. You d-didn’t know what t-takeaway meant.”
“I hate you,” I said. “Keep t-talking.”
Her laugh sounded more like a smoker’s cough. “Wh-when you returned from Alfheim. The look—the look on your f-face when I t-took b-back m-my pink glasses.”
“B-but you were glad to see me?”
“Eh. Y-you have some entertainment v-value.”
Struggling to walk on the ice, our heads so close together, I could almost imagine Alex and I were a clay warrior with two faces, a twin being. The thought was comforting.
Maybe fifty yards from the cliff, the kenaz rune sputtered out. Hearth stumbled against Blitz. The temperature plummeted further, which I didn’t think was possible. My lungs expelled their last bit of warmth. They screamed when I tried to inhale.
“Keep going!” Blitz yelled back to us hoarsely. “I am not dying in this outfit!”
We obliged, marching step by step toward the narrow gravel beach, where at least we could die on solid ground.
Blitz and Hearth were almost at the shore when Alex stopped abruptly.
I didn’t have any energy left either, but I thought I should try to sound encouraging. “We—we have to k-keep going.” I looked over. We were nose-to-nose under the blankets. Her eyes glinted, amber and brown. Her scarf had dipped below her chin. Her breath was like limes.
Then, before I even knew what was happening, she kissed me. She could have bitten off my mouth and I would have been less surprised. Her lips were cracked and rough from the cold. Her nose fit perfectly next to mine. Our faces aligned, our breath mixed. Then she pulled away.
“I wasn’t going to die without doing that,” she said.
The world of primordial ice must not have frozen me completely, because my chest burned like a coal furnace.
“Well?” She frowned. “Stop gaping and let’s move.”
We trudged toward the shore. My mind wasn’t working properly. I wondered if Alex had kissed me just to inspire me to keep going, or to distract me from our imminent deaths. It didn’t seem possible she’d actually wanted to kiss me. Whatever the case, that kiss was the only reason I made it to shore.
Our friends were already there, huddled against the rocks. They hadn’t seemed to notice the kiss between Alex and me. Why would they? Everyone was too busy freezing to death.
“I—I have g-gunpowder,” T.J. stuttered. “C-could make a f-fire?”
Unfortunately, we had nothing to burn except our clothes, and we needed those.
Blitz looked miserably at the cliff face, which was sheer and unforgiving.
“I—I’ll try to shape the rock,” he said. “Maybe I can dig us a cave.”
I’d seen Blitz mold solid rock before, but it took a lot of energy and concentration. Even then, he’d only been making simple handholds. I didn’t see how he’d have the strength to dig an entire cave. Nor was that going to save us. But I appreciated his stubborn optimism.
He’d just dug his fingers into the stone when the entire cliff rumbled. A line of blazing light etched the shape of a door, twenty feet square, that swung inward with a deep grinding noise.
In the opening stood a giantess as terrible and beautiful as the Niflheim