if it was just a cold echo. Or a trick. A cruel joke from Hel.
I turned toward the sea. Suddenly I was more afraid of staying on solid ground than I was of boarding the Ship of the Dead.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Our friends are counting on us.”
THE GANGPLANK was made of toenails.
If that isn’t enough to gross you out, then no amount of Kvasir’s Mead will help me give you a sufficiently disgusting description. Though the ramp was fifty feet wide, it had so much traffic we had trouble finding an opening. We timed our ascent to follow a troop of zombies aboard, but I almost got stepped on by a giant carrying a stack of spears.
Once at the top, we ducked to one side, pressing ourselves against the railing.
In person, the ship was even more horrible than in my dreams. The deck seemed to stretch out forever—a glistening patchwork of yellow, black, and gray nail plates, like the hide of some armored prehistoric creature. Hundreds of giants bustled about, looking almost human-size in comparison with the vessel: stone giants, mountain giants, frost giants, hill giants, and a few nattily dressed fellows who might have been metropolitan giants, all coiling ropes, stacking weapons, and shouting at each other in a variety of jotun dialects.
The undead were not so industrious. Taking up most of the vast deck, they stood at attention in ranks of ghostly white and blue, tens of thousands, like they were waiting for a parade review. Some were mounted on zombie horses. Others had zombie dogs or wolves at their side. A few even had zombie birds of prey perched on their skeletal arms. They all seemed perfectly content to stand in silence until further orders. Many of them had waited centuries for this final battle. I supposed they figured a little longer wouldn’t hurt.
The giants did their best to avoid the undead. They stepped gingerly around the legions, cursing them for being in the way, but didn’t touch them or threaten them directly. I imagined I might feel the same way if I found myself sharing a ship with a horde of strangely well-behaved, heavily armed rodents.
I scanned the deck for Loki. I spotted nobody in a bright white admiral’s uniform, but that meant nothing. In those vast crowds, he could have been anywhere, disguised as anyone. Or he could have been belowdecks, having a leisurely pre-Ragnarok breakfast. So much for my plan of walking right up to him unopposed and saying Hi. I challenge you to a duel of name-calling, Stupid Head.
On the foredeck, maybe half a mile away, a giant paced back and forth, waving an ax and shouting orders. He was too far off for me to make out many details, but from my dreams I recognized his hunched, gaunt form and his elaborate rib-cage shield. He was Hrym, captain of the vessel. His voice carried over the din of crashing waves and growling jotuns:
“MAKE READY, YOU COW-FOOTED COWARDS! THE PASSAGE IS CLEAR! IF YOU DON’T MOVE FASTER, I’LL FEED YOU TO GARM!”
Then, somewhere behind the captain, toward the prow, an explosion shook the boat. Screaming, smoking giants tumbled through the air like acrobats shot from cannons.
“WE’RE UNDER ATTACK!” someone yelled. “GET THEM!”
Our friends had arrived.
I couldn’t see them, but over the din of confusion, I heard the brassy tones of a reveille from a bugle. I could only assume T.J. had found the instrument under his firing caps, marksman’s glasses, and hardtack.
Above Captain Hrym, a golden rune blazed in the sky:
Thurisaz, the sign for destruction, but also the symbol of the god Thor. Hearthstone couldn’t have picked a better rune to strike fear and confusion into a bunch of giants. Lightning bolts blasted from the rune in every direction, frying giants and undead alike.
More giants swarmed the upper deck. Not that they had much choice. The ship was so packed with troops that the crowds pushed the front lines forward whether they wanted to go or not. An avalanche of bodies choked ramps and stairways. A mob overtook Captain Hrym and carried him along as he waved his ax above his head and yelled to no effect.
The undead legions mostly stayed in their ranks, but even they turned their heads toward the chaos, as if mildly curious.
Next to me, Sam muttered, “Now or never.”
Alex let go of my hand. I heard the hissing sound of her garrote being pulled from her belt loops.
We started forward, occasionally touching each other’s shoulders to keep our bearings. I ducked as a giant strode over me. We wove our way through a legion of zombie cavalry, their spears bristling with frosty light, their horses’ dead white eyes staring at nothing.
I heard a war cry that sounded as if it had come from Halfborn Gunderson. I hoped he hadn’t taken his shirt off like he normally did in combat. Otherwise he might catch cold while he fought to the death.
Another rune exploded over the prow:
Isa, ice, which must have been easy to cast in Niflheim. A wave of frost surged across Naglfar’s port side, turning a whole swath of giants into ice sculptures.
In the gray morning light, I caught the glint of a small bronze object flying toward Captain Hrym, and I thought one of my friends had lobbed a grenade. But instead of exploding, the “grenade” enlarged as it fell, expanding to an impossibly large size, until the captain and a dozen of his nearest jotun friends disappeared under a metal duck the size of a Starbucks store.
Near the starboard rail, another bronze mallard ballooned into being, pushing a battalion of zombies into the sea. Giants screamed and fell back in chaos, as one does when large metal ducks rain from the sky.
“Expand-o-ducks,” I said. “Blitz outdid himself.”
“Keep going,” Alex said. “We’re close now.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t have spoken. In the nearest line of zombie warriors, a thane with golden armbands turned his wolf-faced helmet in our direction. A snarl rattled in his rib cage.
He said something in a language I didn’t know—his voice wet and hollow like water dripping in a coffin. His men drew rusted swords from moldy sheaths and turned to face us.
I glanced at Sam and Alex. They were visible, so I assumed I was, too. Like some sort of bad joke—the kind of magical protection you’d expect from Mr. Alderman—our othala cover had broken in the exact center of the ship’s main deck in front of a legion of undead.
Zombies encircled us. Most of the giants were still running forward to deal with our friends, but a few jotuns noticed us, yelled in outrage, and came to join the killing party.
“Well, Sam,” Alex said. “It’s been nice knowing you.”
“What about me?” I asked.
“Jury’s still out.” She turned into a mountain lion and lunged at the draugr thane, biting his head clean off, then moved through the ranks, changing form effortlessly from wolf to human to eagle, each one deadlier than the last.
Sam pulled out her Valkyrie spear. With searing light, she blasted through the undead, burning dozens at a time, but hundreds more pressed forward, their swords and spears bristling.
I drew Jack and yelled, “Fight!”
“OKAY!” he yelled back, sounding just as panicked as I was. He whirled around me, doing his best to keep me safe, but I found myself with a problem particular to children of Frey.
Einherjar have a saying: Kill the healer first.
This military philosophy was perfected by seasoned Viking warriors who, once in Valhalla, learned to play video games. The idea is simple: you target any guy in the enemy’s ranks who can heal your opponents’ wounds and send them back into combat. Kill the healer, and the rest die sooner. Besides, the healer is probably soft and squishy and easy to eliminate.
Evidently giants and zombies also knew this pro tip. Maybe they played the same video games einherjar did while waiting for Doomsday. Somehow, they pegged me for a healer, ignored Alex and Sam, and crowded toward me. Arrows flew past my ears. Spears jabbed at my belly. Axes hurtled between my legs. The quarters were much too close for so many combatants. Most of the draugr weapons found draugr targets, but I supposed zombies didn’t worry too much about friendly fire.
did what I could to look fighterly. With my einherji strength, I punched straight through the nearest zombie’s chest cavity, which was like punching through a vat of dry ice. Then, as he fell, I grabbed his sword and impaled his nearest comrade.
“Who needs a healer now?” I yelled.
For about ten seconds, we seemed to be doing okay. Another rune exploded. Another expand-o-duck visited mallard-shaped destruction upon our enemies. From the prow came the sharp report of T.J.’s 1861 Springfield. I heard Mallory cursing in Gaelic.
Halfborn Gunderson yelled, “I AM HALFBORN OF FLÄM!”
To which a dim-witted giant replied, “Fläm? What a dump!”
“RARRRRGGGHH!” Halfborn’s howl of anger shook the boat, followed by the sound of his battle-ax plowing through rows of bodies.
Alex and Sam fought like twin demons—Sam’s blazing spear and Alex’s razor-sharp garrote scything through the undead with equal speed.
But with so many enemies surrounding us, it was only a matter of time before a hit connected. The butt of a spear caught me on the side of my head and I crumpled to my knees.
“Señor!” Jack shouted.
I saw a zombie’s ax blade hurtling toward my face. I knew Jack wouldn’t have time to stop it. With all the poetic prowess of a Kvasir’s Mead drinker, I thought, Well, this sucks.
Then something happened that was not my death.
Angry pressure built in my stomach—a certainty that all this fighting had to stop, must stop if we were going to complete our mission. I roared even louder than Halfborn Gunderson.
Golden light exploded outward in all directions, blasting across the deck of the ship, ripping swords from their owners’ hands, turning projectiles in midair and sending them hurtling into the sea, stripping entire battalions of their spears and shields and axes.
I staggered to my feet.
The fighting had stopped. Every weapon within the sound of my voice had been violently blasted out of its owner’s reach. Even Jack had gone flying somewhere off the starboard side, which I imagined I’d be hearing about later if I survived. Everyone on the ship, friend and enemy, had been disarmed by the Peace of Frey, a power I’d only managed to invoke once before.
Wary giants and confused zombies backed away from me. Alex and Sam ran to my side.
My head throbbed. My vision swam. One of my molars was missing, and my mouth was full of blood.
The Peace of Frey was a pretty good party trick. It definitely got everyone’s attention. But it wasn’t a permanent fix. Nothing would stop our enemies from simply retrieving their weapons and returning to the business of healer-slaughter.