I wondered if God was greater than the punch in the stomach Sam had just given me. “Um, what do you mean?”
“Oh, Magnus,” she said. “You are so emotionally nearsighted it’s almost cute.”
Before I could think of some clever way not to respond to that—perhaps by shouting Look over there! and running away—Skadi’s voice boomed through the hall. “There are my early risers!”
The giantess was dressed in enough white fur to outfit a family of polar bears. Behind her, a line of servants trudged in carrying an assortment of wooden skis. “Let’s rouse your friends and get you on your way!”
Our friends were not thrilled about getting up.
I had to pour ice water on Halfborn Gunderson’s head twice. Blitz grumbled something about ducks and told me to go away. When I tried to shake Hearth awake, he stuck one hand above the covers and signed, I am not here. T.J. bolted out of bed screaming, “CHARGE!” Fortunately he wasn’t armed, or he would’ve run me through.
Finally, everybody assembled in the main hall, where Skadi’s servants set out our last meal—sorry, our breakfast—of bread, cheese, and apple cider.
“This cider was made from the apples of immortality,” Skadi said. “Centuries ago, when my father kidnapped the goddess Idun, we fermented some of her apples into cider. It’s quite diluted. It won’t make you immortal, but it will give you a boost of endurance, at least long enough to get through the wilds of Niflheim.”
I drained the cup. The cider didn’t make me feel particularly boosted, but it did tingle a little. It settled the crackling and popping in my stomach.
After eating, we tried on our skis with varying degrees of success. Hearthstone waddled around gracefully in his (who knew elves could waddle gracefully?), while Blitz tried in vain to find a pair that matched his shoes. “Do you have anything smaller?” he asked. “Also, maybe in a dark brown? Like a mahogany?”
Skadi patted him on the head, which wasn’t something dwarves appreciated.
Mallory and Halfborn shuffled around with ease, but both of them had to help T.J. stay on his feet.
“Jefferson, I thought you grew up in New England,” Halfborn said. “You never skied?”
“I lived in a city,” T.J. grumbled. “Also, I’m Black. There weren’t a lot of Black guys skiing down the Boston waterfront in 1861.”
Sam looked a little awkward on her skis, but since she could fly, I wasn’t too worried about her.
As for Alex, she sat by an open window putting on a pair of hot-pink ski boots. Had she brought them with her? Had she tipped a servant a few kroner to find her a pair in Skadi’s supply closet? I had no idea, but she wouldn’t be skiing off to her death in bland white and gray. She wore a green fur cloak—Skadi must have skinned a few Grinches to make it—over her mauve jeans and green-and-pink sweater vest. To top off the look, she wore an Amelia Earhart–style aviator’s cap with her pink sunglasses. Just when I thought I’d seen all the outfits nobody but Alex could pull off, she pulled off a new one.
As she adjusted her skis, she paid no attention to the rest of us. (And by the rest of us, I mean me.) She seemed lost in her thoughts, maybe considering what she would say to her mother, Loki, before she attempted to garrote his head off.
At last we were all in skis, standing in pairs next to the open windows like a group of Olympic jumpers.
“Well, Magnus Chase,” Skadi said, “all that remains is the drinking of the mead.”
Sam, standing on my left, offered me the canteen.
“Oh.” I wondered if it was safe to drink mead before operating skis. Maybe the laws were more lax out here in the hinterlands. “You mean now?”
“Yes,” Skadi said. “Now.”
I uncapped the canteen. This was the moment of truth. We’d ventured across worlds and nearly died countless times. We’d feasted with Aegir, battled pottery with pottery, slain a dragon, and siphoned mead with an old rubber hose just so I could drink this honeyed blood beverage, which would hopefully make me poetic enough to talk smack about Loki.
I saw no point in doing a taste test. I chugged down the mead in three big gulps. I was expecting the taste of blood, but Kvasir’s Mead tasted more like…well, mead. It certainly didn’t burn like dragon’s blood, or even tingle like Skadi’s cider of not-quite-immortality.
“How do you feel?” Blitz asked hopefully. “Poetic?”
I burped. “I feel okay.”
“That’s it?” Alex demanded. “Say something impressive. Describe the storm.”
I gazed out the windows into the blizzard. “The storm looks…white. Also cold.”
Halfborn sighed. “We’re all dead.”
“Good luck, heroes!” Skadi called.
Then her servants pushed us out the windows into the void.
WE HURTLED through the sky like things that hurtle through the sky.
The wind whipped my face. The snow blinded me. The cold was so bad it made me cold.
Okay, yeah, the mead of poetry definitely wasn’t working.
Then gravity took hold. I hated gravity.
My skis scraped and hissed against packed snow. I hadn’t been skiing in a long time. I’d never done it careening down a forty-five-degree slope in subzero temperatures and blizzard conditions.
My eyeballs froze. The cold seared my cheeks. Somehow, I avoided a wipeout. Each time I started to wobble, my skis autocorrected, keeping me upright.
Off to my right, I caught a glimpse of Sam flying along, her skis six feet above the ground. Cheater. Hearthstone zipped past on my left, signing, On your left, which was not very helpful.
In front of me, Blitzen fell out of the sky, screaming at the top of his lungs. He hit the snow and immediately executed a series of dazzling slaloms, figure eights, and triple flips. Either he was a much better skier than he’d let on, or his magical skis had an evil sense of humor.
My knees and ankles burned with strain. The wind ripped straight through my superheavy giant-weave clothes. I figured any minute I would stumble more than my magical skis could compensate for. I’d hit a boulder, break my neck, and end up sprawled across the snow like…Forget it. I’m not even trying that one.
Suddenly the slope evened out. The blizzard abated. Our speed decreased, and all eight of us slid to a gentle stop like we’d just finished the bunny slope at Mount Easy McWeakSauce.
(Hey, that was a simile! Maybe my usual just-average skill with description was coming back!)
Our skis popped off of their own accord. Alex was the first one back in motion. She ran ahead and took cover behind a low stone ridge that cut across the snow. I suppose that made sense, since she was the most colorful target within five square miles. The rest of us joined her. Our riderless skis turned around and zipped back up the mountain.
“So much for an exit strategy.” Alex looked at me for the first time since last night. “You’d better start feeling poetic soon, Chase. ’Cause you’re out of time.”
I peeked over the ridge and saw what she meant. A few hundred yards away, through a thin veil of sleet, aluminum-gray water stretched to the horizon. At the near shore, rising from the icy bay, was the dark shape of Naglfar, the Ship of the Dead. It was so huge that if I hadn’t known it was a sailing vessel, I might have thought it was another promontory like Skadi’s mountain fortress. Its mainsail would’ve taken several days to climb. Its massive hull must have displaced enough water to fill the Grand Canyon. The deck and gangplanks swarmed with what looked like angry ants, though I had a feeling that if we were closer, those shapes would have resolved into giants and zombies—thousands upon thousands of them.
Before, I’d only seen the ship in dreams. Now, I realized how desperate our situation was: eight people facing an army designed to destroy worlds, and our hopes hinged on me finding Loki and calling him some bad names.
The absurdity of it might have made me feel hopeless. Instead, it made me angry.
I didn’t feel poetic, exactly, but I did feel a burning in my throat—the d
esire to tell Loki exactly what I thought of him. Some choice colorful metaphors sprang to mind.
“I’m ready,” I said, hoping I was right. “How do we find Loki without getting killed?”
“Frontal charge?” T.J. suggested.
“I’m kidding,” T.J. said. “Clearly, this calls for diversionary tactics. Most of us should find a way to the front of the vessel and attack. We cause a disturbance, draw as many of those baddies as we can away from the gangplanks, give Magnus a chance to get aboard and challenge Loki.”
“Wait a second—”
“I agree with Union Boy,” said Mallory.
“Yep.” Halfborn hefted his battle-ax. “Battle-Ax is thirsty for jotun blood!”
“Hold on!” I said. “That’s suicide.”
“Nah,” Blitz said. “Kid, we’ve been talking about this, and we’ve got a plan. I brought some dwarven ropes. Mallory’s got grappling hooks. Hearth’s got his runestones. With luck, we can scale the prow of that ship and start making chaos.”
He patted one of the supply bags he’d carried from the Big Banana. “Don’t worry, I’ve got some surprises in store for those undead warriors. You sneak up the aft gangway, find Loki, and demand a duel. Then the fighting should stop. We’ll be fine.”
“Yeah,” Halfborn said. “Then we’ll come watch you beat that meinfretr at insults.”
“And I’ll throw a walnut at him,” Mallory finished. “Give us thirty minutes or so to get in position. Sam, Alex—take good care of our boy.”
“We will,” Sam said.
Even Alex did not complain. I realized I’d been completely outmaneuvered. My friends had united on a plan to maximize my chances, regardless of how dangerous it might be for them.
Hearth signed, Time is wasting. Here. For you.
From his pouch, he handed me othala—the same runestone we’d taken from Andiron’s cairn. Lying in my palm, it brought back the smell of rotting reptile flesh and burnt brownies.
“Thanks,” I said, “but…why this particular rune?”
Does not just mean inheritance, Hearth signed. Othala symbolizes aid on a journey. Use it once we are gone. It should protect you.