Alex snorted. “Oh, yeah. They’re still head over heels, dreaming of the day when they can get married. I swear, if those two didn’t have me to chaperone them, they’d do something crazy like hold hands.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Alex waved off my question. “All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t trust anything you get from your Uncle Randolph. Not the advice in that book. Not this house. Anything you inherit from family…it always comes with strings attached.”
That seemed a strange thing for him to say, considering he’d been enjoying the view from Randolph’s magnificent roof deck while sipping chilled guava juice from his Viking mead horn, but I got the feeling Alex wasn’t really thinking about my dysfunctional uncle.
“You never talk much about your family,” I noted. “I mean your mortal family.”
He stared at me darkly. “And I’m not going to start now. If you knew half the—”
BRAWK! In a flutter of black feathers, a raven landed on the tip of Alex’s boot.
You don’t see a lot of wild ravens in Boston. Canadian geese, seagulls, ducks, pigeons, even hawks, sure. But when a huge black raptor lands on your foot, that can only mean one thing: a message from Valhalla.
Alex held out his hand. (Not normally recommended with ravens. They have a vicious bite.) The bird hopped on his wrist, barfed up a hard pellet the size of a pecan right into Alex’s palm, and then flew away, its mission accomplished.
Yes, our ravens deliver messages via barf-mail. Ravens have a natural ability to regurgitate inedible substances like bones and fur, so they have no qualms about swallowing a message capsule, flying it across the Nine Worlds, and vomiting it to the correct recipient. It wouldn’t have been my chosen career, but hey, no judgment.
Alex cracked open the pellet. He unfolded the letter and began to read, the corner of his mouth starting to twitch again. “It’s from T.J.,” he said. “Looks like we’re leaving today. Right now, in fact.”
“What?” I sat up in my recliner. “Why?”
Of course, I’d known we were running out of time. We had to leave soon in order to reach Loki’s ship before Midsummer. But there was a big difference between soon and right now. I wasn’t a big fan of right now.
Alex kept reading. “Something about the tide? I dunno. I’d better go bust Samirah out of school. She’ll be in Calculus. She’s not going to be happy about leaving.”
He rose and offered me a hand.
I didn’t want to get up. I wanted to stay there on that deck with Alex and watch the afternoon sunlight change the color of the river from blue to amber. Maybe we could read some of Randolph’s old paperbacks. We could drink all his guava juice. But the raven had barfed up our orders. You couldn’t argue with raven barf.
I took Alex’s hand and got to my feet. “You want me to come with you?”
Alex frowned. “No, dummy. You’ve got to get back to Valhalla. You’re the one with the boat. Speaking of which, have you warned the others about—?”
“No,” I said, my face burning. “Not yet.”
Alex laughed. “That should be interesting. Don’t wait for Sam and me. We’ll catch up with you somewhere along the way!”
Before I could ask what he meant by that, Alex turned into a flamingo and launched himself into the sky, making it a banner day for Boston bird-watchers.
LEGENDS TELL US that Valhalla has 540 doors, conveniently distributed across the Nine Worlds for easy access.
The legends don’t mention that one of those entrances is in the Forever 21 store on Newbury Street, just behind the women’s activewear rack.
It normally wasn’t the entrance I liked to use, but it was the closest to Uncle Randolph’s mansion. Nobody in Valhalla could explain to me why we had a gateway in Forever 21. Some speculated it was left over from a time when the building was not a retail store. Personally, I thought the location might be one of Odin’s little jokes, since a lot of his einherjar were literally forever twenty-one, or sixteen, or sixty.
My dwarf friend Blitzen especially hated that entrance. Every time I mentioned Forever 21, he would launch into a rant about how his fashions were much better. Something about hemlines. I don’t know.
I strolled through the lingerie section, getting a strange look from a saleslady, then dove into the activewear rack and popped out the other side into one of the Hotel Valhalla’s game rooms. There was a pool tournament in progress, which Vikings play with spears instead of pool cues. (Hint: Never stand behind a Viking when he shoots.) Erik the Green from floor 135 greeted me cheerfully. (From what I can tell, approximately 72 percent of the population of Valhalla is named Erik.)
“Hail, Magnus Chase!” He pointed at my shoulder. “You’ve got some spandex just there.”
“Oh, thanks.” I untangled the yoga pants that had gotten stuck on my shirt and tossed them into the bin marked FOR RESTOCKING.
Then I strode off to find my friends.
Walking through the Hotel Valhalla never got old. At least it hadn’t for me so far, and einherjar who’d been here hundreds of years had told me the same thing. Thanks to the power of Odin, or the magic of the Norns, or maybe just the fact that we had an on-site IKEA, the decor was constantly changing, though it always incorporated a lot of spears and shields, and perhaps more wolf motifs than I would’ve liked.
Even just finding the elevators required me to navigate hallways that had changed size and direction since the morning, past rooms I’d never seen before. In one enormous oak-paneled lounge, warriors played shuffleboard with oars for pushers and combat shields for pucks. Many of the players sported leg splints, arm slings, and head bandages, because—of course—einherjar played shuffleboard to the death.
The main lobby had been re-carpeted in deep crimson, a great color to hide bloodstains. The walls were now hung with tapestries depicting Valkyries flying into battle against fire giants. It was beautiful work, though the proximity of so many wall torches made me nervous. Valhalla was pretty lax about safety codes. I didn’t like burning to death. (It was one of my least favorite ways to die, right up there with choking on the after-dinner mints in the feast hall.)
I took the elevator up to floor nineteen. Unfortunately, the elevator music hadn’t changed. It was getting to the point where I could sing along with Frank Sinatra in Norwegian. I was just glad I lived on a low floor. If I lived somewhere up in the hundreds, I would have gone…well, berserk.
On floor nineteen, everything was strangely quiet. No sounds of video-game violence emanated from Thomas
Jefferson Jr.’s room. (Dead Civil War soldiers love their video games almost as much as they love charging up hills.) I saw no signs that Mallory Keen had been practicing her knife-throwing in the hallway. Halfborn Gunderson’s room was open and being serviced by a flock of ravens, who swirled through his library and his weapons collection, dusting books and battle-axes. The big man himself was nowhere to be seen.
My own room had recently been cleaned. The bed was made. In the central atrium, the trees had been pruned and the grass mowed. (I could never figure out how the ravens operated a lawn mower.) On the coffee table, a note in T.J.’s elegant script read:
We’re at dock 23, sublevel 6. See you there!
The TV had been turned to the Hotel Valhalla Channel, which displayed a list of the afternoon’s events: racquetball, machine-gun tag (like laser tag, except with machine guns), watercolor painting, Italian cooking, advanced sword-sharpening, and something called flyting—all done to the death.
I stared wistfully at the screen. I’d never wanted to practice watercolor painting to the death before, but now I was tempted. It sounded much easier than the trip I was about to take from dock twenty-three, sublevel six.
First things first: I showered off the smell of Boston Harbor. I changed into new clothes. I grabbed my go bag: camping supplies, some basic provisions, and, of course, some chocolate bars.
As nice as my hotel suite was, I didn’t have much in the way of personal stuff—just a few of my favorite books, and some photos from my past that magically appeared over time, gradually filling up the fireplace mantel.
The hotel wasn’t meant to be a forever home. We einherjar might stay here for centuries, but it was only a stopover on our way to Ragnarok. The whole hotel radiated a sense of impermanence and anticipation. Don’t get too comfortable, it seemed to say. You might be leaving any minute to go die your final death at Doomsday. Hooray!
I checked my reflection in the full-length mirror. I wasn’t sure why it mattered. I’d never cared much about appearances during the two years I’d lived on the streets, but lately Alex Fierro had been teasing me mercilessly, which made me more conscious of how I looked.
Besides, if you don’t check yourself from time to time in Valhalla, you could be walking around for hours with raven poop on your shoulder, or an arrow in your butt, or a pair of yoga pants wrapped around your neck.
Hiking boots: check. New pair of jeans: check. Green Hotel Valhalla T-shirt: check. Down jacket, appropriate for cold-water expeditions and falling off masts: check. Runestone pendant that could turn into a heartbroken magical sword: check.
After living on the streets, I wasn’t used to my face looking so clean. I definitely wasn’t used to my new haircut, which Blitz had first given me during our expedition into Jotunheim. Since then, every time it started to grow out, Alex hacked it off again, leaving my bangs just long enough to fall in my eyes, the back chopped to collar level. I was used to my hair being much wilder and more wiry, but Alex took such glee in murdering my blond locks it was impossible to tell him no.
It’s perfect! Alex said. Now you at least look like you’re groomed, but your face is still obscured!
I slipped Randolph’s notebook into my pack, along with one last item I’d been trying hard not to think about—a certain silk handkerchief I’d gotten from my father.
I sighed at the Magnus in the mirror. “Well, sir, you’d better get going. Your friends are eagerly waiting to laugh at you.”
“There he is!” yelled Halfborn Gunderson, berserker extraordinaire, speaker of the obvious.
He barreled toward me like a friendly Mack truck. His hair was even wilder than mine used to be. (I was pretty sure he cut it himself, using a battle-ax, in the dark.) He wore a T-shirt today, which was unusual, but his arms were still a wild landscape of muscle and tattoo. Strapped across his back was his battle-ax named Battle-Ax, and holstered up and down his leather breeches were half a dozen knives.
He wrapped me in a bear hug and lifted me off my feet, perhaps testing to make sure my rib cage would not crack under pressure. He put me down and patted my arms, apparently satisfied.
“You ready for a quest?” he bellowed. “I’m ready for a quest!”
From the edge of the canal, where she was coiling ropes, Mallory Keen called, “Oh, shut up, you oaf! I still think we should use you as the rudder.”
Halfborn’s face mottled red, but he kept his eyes on me. “I’m trying not to kill her, Magnus. I really am. But it’s so hard. I’d better keep busy or I’m going to do something I’ll regret. You have the handkerchief?”
“Uh, yes, but—”
“Good man. Time’s a-wasting!”
He tromped back to the dockside and began sorting his supplies—huge canvas duffels no doubt full of food, weapons, and lots of spare leather breeches.
I scanned the length of the cavern. Along the left-hand wall, a river rushed through the canal, emerging from a train-size tunnel on one end and disappearing into an identical tunnel on the other. The barreled ceiling was polished wood,