He shrugged. Don’t ask me. I’m just the sorcerer.
“All right, then,” T.J. said. “Alex, Sam, Magnus—we’ll see you on that ship.”
Before I could object, or even thank them, the rest of the group trundled off through the snow. In their jotunish white clothes, they quickly disappeared into the terrain.
I turned to Alex and Sam. “How long have you all been planning this?”
Despite her cracked and bleeding lips, Alex grinned. “About as long as you’ve been clueless. So, a while.”
“We should get going,” Sam said. “Shall we try your rune?”
I looked down at othala. I wondered if there was some connection between inheritance and aid on a journey. I couldn’t think of any. I didn’t like where this rune came from or what it stood for, but I supposed it made sense that I’d have to use it. We’d earned it with a lot of pain and suffering, the same way we’d earned the mead.
“Do I just throw it in the air?” I wondered.
“I imagine Hearth would say…” Alex continued in sign language: Yes, you idiot.
I was pretty sure that wasn’t what Hearth would say.
I tossed the rune. The othala dissolved in a wisp of snow. I hoped it would reappear in Hearth’s rune bag after a day or two, the way runes usually did after he used them. I definitely didn’t want to buy him a replacement.
“Nothing happened,” I noted. Then I glanced to either side of me. Alex and Sam had disappeared. “Oh, gods, I vaporized you!” I tried to stand up, but unseen hands grabbed me from either side and dragged me back down.
“I’m right here,” Alex said. “Sam?”
“Here,” Sam confirmed. “It seems the rune made us invisible. I can see myself, but not you guys.”
I glanced down. Sam was right. I could see myself just fine, but the only sign of my two friends was their impressions where they sat in the snow.
I wondered why othala had chosen invisibility. Was it drawing on my personal experience, feeling invisible when I was homeless? Or maybe the magic was shaped by Hearthstone’s family experience. I imagined he’d wished he were invisible to his father for most of his childhood. Whatever the case, I didn’t intend to waste this chance.
“Let’s get moving,” I said.
“Hold hands,” Alex ordered.
She took my left hand with no particular affection, as if I were a walking stick. Sam did not take my other hand, but I suspected it wasn’t for religious reasons. She just liked the idea of Alex and me holding hands. I could almost hear Sam smiling.
“Okay,” she said, “let’s go.”
We trudged along the stone ridge, heading for the shore. I worried about leaving a trail of footprints, but the snow and wind quickly blew away all traces of our passage.
The temperature and wind were as bitter as the day before, but Skadi’s apple cider must have been working. My breathing didn’t feel like I was inhaling glass. I didn’t have the need to check my face every few seconds to make sure my nose hadn’t fallen off.
Over the howl of the wind and the boom of glaciers calving into the bay, other sounds reached us from the deck of Naglfar—chains clanking, beams creaking, giants barking orders, and the boots of last-minute arrivals tromping across the fingernail deck. The ship must have been very close to sailing.
We were about a hundred yards from the dock when Alex yanked on my hand. “Down, you idiot!”
I dropped in place, though I didn’t see how we could hide much better than being invisible.
Emerging from the wind and snow, passing within ten feet of us, a troop of ghoulish soldiers marched toward Naglfar. I hadn’t seen them coming, and Alex was right: I didn’t want to trust that invisibility would keep me hidden from these guys.
Their tattered leather armor was glazed with ice. Their bodies were nothing but desiccated bits of flesh clinging to bones. Blue spectral light flickered inside their rib cages and skulls, making me think of birthday candles parading across the worst birthday cake ever.
As the undead tromped past, I noticed that the soles of their boots were studded with nails, like cleats. I remembered something Halfborn Gunderson had once told me: because the road to Helheim was icy, the dishonored dead were buried with nailed shoes to keep them from slipping along the way. Now those boots were marching their owners back to the world of the living.
Alex’s hand shivered in mine. Or maybe I was the one shivering. At last the dead passed us, heading for the docks and the Ship of the Dead.
I got unsteadily to my feet.
“Allah defend us,” Sam muttered.
I desperately hoped that if the Big Guy was real, Sam had some pull with him. We were going to need defending.
“Our friends are facing that,” Alex said. “We’ve got to hurry.”
She was right again. The only thing that would make me want to go aboard a ship filled with thousands of those zombies was knowing that if we didn’t, our friends would fight them alone. That wasn’t going to happen.
I stepped into the tracks left by the dead army, and immediately, whispering voices filled my head: Magnus. Magnus.
Pain spiked my eyes. My knees buckled. I knew these voices. Some were harsh and angry, others kind and gentle. All of them echoed in my mind, demanding attention. One of them…One voice was my mother’s.
“Hey,” Alex hissed. “What are you—? Wait, what is that?”
Did she hear the voices, too? I turned, trying to pinpoint their source. I hadn’t seen it before, but about fifty feet away, in the direction from which the zombies had come, a dark square hole had appeared in the snow—a ramp leading down into nothingness.
Magnus, whispered Uncle Randolph’s voice. I’m so sorry, my bo
y. Can you ever forgive me? Come down. Let me see you once more.
Magnus, said a voice I’d only heard in dreams: Caroline, Randolph’s wife. Please forgive him. His heart was in the right place. Come, darling. I want to meet you.
Are you our cousin? said the voice of a little girl—Emma, Randolph’s older daughter. My daddy gave me an othala rune, too. Would you like to see it?
Most painful of all, my mom called Come on, Magnus! in the cheerful tone she used to use when she was encouraging me to hurry up the trail so she could share an amazing vista with me. Except now there was a coldness to her voice, as if her lungs were filled with Freon. Hurry!
The voices tore at me, taking little pieces of my mind. Was I sixteen? Was I twelve or ten? Was I in Niflheim or the Blue Hills or on Uncle Randolph’s boat?
Alex’s hand dropped from mine. I didn’t care.
I stepped toward the cave.
Somewhere behind me, Sam said, “Guys?”
She sounded concerned, on the edge of panic, but her voice didn’t seem any more real to me than the whispering spirits’. She couldn’t stop me. She couldn’t see my footprints on the trampled path left by the zombie soldiers. If I ran, I could make it down that icy road and plunge into Helheim before my friends knew what had happened. The thought thrilled me.
My family was down there. Hel, the goddess of the dishonored dead, had told me as much when I’d met her on Bunker Hill. She’d promised I could join them. Maybe they needed my help.
Jack pulsed warmly against my throat. Why was he doing that?
Off to my left, Alex muttered, “No. No, I won’t listen.”
“Alex!” Sam said. “Thank God. Where’s Magnus?”
Why did Sam sound so concerned? I had a vague recollection that we were in Niflheim for a reason. I—I probably shouldn’t be diving into Helheim right now. That would probably kill me.
The whispering voices got louder, more insistent.
My mind fought against them. I resisted the urge to run toward that dark ramp.
I was invisible because of the othala rune—the rune of inheritance. What if this was the downside of its magic? It was allowing me to hear the voices of my dead, pulling me into their realm.
Alex found my hand again. “Got him.”
I fought down a surge of irritation. “Why?” I croaked.
“I know,” Alex said, her voice surprisingly gentle. “I hear them, too. But you can’t follow them.”
Slowly the dark ramp closed. The voices stopped. The wind and snow began to erase the tracks of the zombies.
“You guys okay?” Sam called, her voice an octave higher than usual.
“Yeah,” I said, not feeling very okay. “I—I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t be.” Alex squeezed my fingers. “I heard my grandfather. I’d almost forgotten what he sounded like. And other voices. Adrian…” She choked on the name.
I almost didn’t dare ask. “Who?”
“A friend,” she said, loading the word with all sorts of possible meanings. “Committed suicide.”
Her hand went limp in mine, but I didn’t let her go. I was tempted to reach out with my power, to try to heal her, to share the backwash of pain and memories that would flood my head from Alex’s past. But I didn’t. I hadn’t been invited there.
Sam was silent for a count of ten. “Alex, I’m so sorry. I—I didn’t hear anything.”
“Be glad,” I said.
“Yeah,” Alex agreed.
Part of me was still resisting the urge to run across the snow, fling myself down, and claw at the ground until the tunnel reopened. I’d heard my mother. Even