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Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer

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Penguin Books Ltd
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Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard
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1. Good Morning! You’re Going to Die

2. The Man with the Metal Bra

3. Don’t Accept Rides from Strange Relatives

4. Seriously, the Dude Cannot Drive

5. I’ve Always Wanted to Destroy a Bridge

6. Make Way for Ducklings, or They Will Smack You Upside the Head

7. You Look Great Without a Nose, Really

8. Mind the Gap, and Also the Hairy Guy with the Axe

9. You Totally Want the Minibar Key

10. My Room Does Not Suck

11. Pleased to Meet You. I Will Now Crush Your Windpipe

12. At Least I’m Not on Goat-Chasing Duty

13. Phil the Potato Meets His Doom

14. Four Million Channels and There’s Still Nothing On Except Valkyrie Vision

15. My Blooper Video Goes Viral

16. Norns. Why Did It Have to Be Norns?

17. I Did Not Ask for Biceps

18. I Do Mighty Combat with Eggs

19. Do Not Call Me Beantown. Like, Ever

20. Come to the Dark Side. We Have Pop-Tarts

21. Gunilla Gets Blowtorched and It’s Not Funny. Okay, It’s a Little Bit Funny

22. My Friends Fall Out of a Tree

23. I Recycle Myself

24. You Had One Job

25. My Funeral Director Dresses Me Funny

26. Hey, I Know You’re Dead, But Call Me Maybe

27. Let’s Play Frisbee with Bladed Weapons!

28. Talk to the Face, ’Cause That’s Pretty Much All He’s Got

29. We Are Falafel-Jacked by an Eagle

30. An Apple a Day Will Get You Killed

31. Go Smelly or Go Home

32. My Years of Playing Bassmasters 2000 Really Pay Off

33. Sam’s Brother Wakes Up Kinda Cranky

34. My Sword Almost Ends Up on eBay

35. Thou Shalt Not Poop on the Head of Art

36. Duck!

37. I Am Trash-Talked by a Squirrel

38. I Break Down in a Volkswagen

39. Freya Is Pretty! She Has Cats!

40. My Friend Evolved from a – Nope. I Can’t Say It

41. Blitz Makes a Bad Deal

42. We Have a Pre-Decapitation Party, with Spring Rolls

43. Let the Crafting of Decorative Metal Waterfowl Begin

44. Junior Wins a Bag of Tears

45. I Get to Know Jack

46. Aboard the Good Ship Toenail

47. I Psychoanalyse a Goat

48.;  Hearthstone Passes Out Even More than Jason Grace (Though I Have No Idea Who That Is)

49. Well, There’s Your Problem. You’ve Got a Sword Up Your Nose

50. No Spoilers. Thor Is Way Behind on His Shows

51. We Have the Talk-About-Turning-Into-Horseflies Chat

52. I Got the Horse Right Here. His Name Is Stanley

53. How to Kill Giants Politely

54. Why You Should Not Use a Steak Knife as a Diving Board

55. I’m Carried into Battle by the First Dwarven Airborne Division

56. Never Ask a Dwarf to ‘Go Long’

57. Sam Hits the EJECT Button

58. What the Hel?

59. The Terror That Is Middle School

60. A Lovely Homicidal Sunset Cruise

61. Heather Is My New Least Favourite Flower

62. The Small Bad Wolf

63. I Hate Signing My Own Death Warrant

64. Whose Idea Was It to Make This Wolf Unkillable?

65. I Hate This Part

66. Sacrifices

67. One More, for a Friend

68. Don’t Be a No-Bro, Bro

69. Oh … So That’s Who Fenris Smelled in Chapter Sixty-Three

70. We Are Subjected to the PowerPoint of Doom

71. We Burn a Swan Boat, Which I’m Pretty Sure Is Illegal

72. I Lose a Bet



Other books by Rick Riordan

The Percy Jackson series:









For more about Percy Jackson, try:


The Heroes of Olympus series:







The Kane Chronicles series:




For more about the Kane Chronicles, try:


Percy Jackson/Kane Chronicles Adventures (ebooks):




To Cassandra Clare

Thanks for letting me share the excellent name Magnus


Good Morning! You’re Going to Die

Yeah, I know. You guys are going to read about how I died in agony, and you’re going be like, ‘Wow! That sounds cool, Magnus! Can I die in agony, too?’

No. Just no.

Don’t go jumping off any rooftops. Don’t run into the highway or set yourself on fire. It doesn’t work that way. You will not end up where I ended up.

Besides, you wouldn’t want to deal with my situation. Unless you’ve got some crazy desire to see undead warriors hacking one another to pieces, swords flying up giants’ noses and dark elves in snappy outfits, you shouldn’t even think about finding the wolf-headed doors.

My name is Magnus Chase. I’m sixteen years old. This is the story of how my life went downhill after I got myself killed.

My day started out normal enough. I was sleeping on the sidewalk under a bridge in the Public Garden when a guy kicked me awake and said, ‘They’re after you.’

By the way, I’ve been homeless for the past two years.

Some of you may think, Aw, how sad. Others may think, Ha, ha, loser! But, if you saw me on the street, ninety-nine per cent of you would walk right past like I’m invisible. You’d pray, Don’t let him ask me for money. You’d wonder if I’m older than I look, because surely a teenager wouldn’t be wrapped in a stinky old sleeping bag, stuck outside in the middle of a Boston winter. Somebody should help that poor boy!

Then you’d keep walking.

Whatever. I don’t need your sympathy. I’m used to being laughed at. I’m definitely used to being ignored. Let’s move on.

The bum who woke me was a guy called Blitz. As usual, he looked like he’d been running through a dirty hurricane. His wiry black hair was full of paper scraps and twigs. His face was the colour of saddle leather and was flecked with ice. His beard curled in all directions. Snow caked the bottom of his trench coat where it dragged around his feet – Blitz being about five feet five – and his eyes were so dilated the irises were all pupil. His permanently alarmed expression made him look like he might start screaming any second.

I blinked the gunk out of my eyes. My mouth tasted like day-old hamburger. My sleeping bag was warm, and I really didn’t want to get out of it.

‘Who’s after me?’

‘Not sure.’ Blitz rubbed his nose, which had been broken so many times it zigzagged like a lightning bolt. ‘They’re handing out flyers with your name and picture.’

I cursed. Random police and park rangers I could deal with. Truant officers, community-service volunteers, drunken college kids, addicts looking to roll somebody small and weak – all those would’ve been as easy to wake up to as pancakes and orange juice.

But when somebody knew my name and my face – that was bad. That meant they were targeting me specifically. Maybe the folks at the shelter were mad at me for breaking their stereo. (Those Christmas carols had been driving me crazy.) Maybe a security camera had caught that last bit of pickpocketing I did in the Theater District. (Hey, I needed money for pizza.) Or maybe, unlikely as it seemed, the police were still looking for me, wanting to ask questions about my mom’s murder …

I packed my stuff, which took about three seconds. The sleeping bag rolled up tight and fitted in my backpack with my toothbrush and a change of socks and underwear. Except for the clothes on my back, that’s all I owned. With the backpack over my shoulder and the hood of my jacket pulled low, I could blend in with pedestrian traffic pretty well. Boston was full of college kids. Some of them were even more scraggly and younger-looking than me.

I turned to Blitz. ‘Where’d you see these people with the flyers?’

‘Beacon Street. They’re coming this way. Middle-aged white guy and a teenage girl, probably his daughter.’

I frowned. ‘That makes no sense. Who –’

‘I don’t know, kid, but I gotta go.’ Blitz squinted at the sunrise, which was turning the skyscraper windows orange. For reasons I’d never quite understood, Blitz hated the daylight. Maybe he was the world’s shortest, stoutest homeless vampire. ‘You should go see Hearth. He’s hanging out in Copley Square.’

I tried not to feel irritated. The local street people jokingly called Hearth and Blitz my mom and dad because one or the other always seemed to be hovering around me.

‘I appreciate it,’ I said. ‘I’ll be fine.’

Blitz chewed his thumbnail. ‘I dunno, kid. Not today. You gotta be extra careful.’


He glanced over my shoulder. ‘They’re coming.’

I didn’t see anybody. When I turned back, Blitz was gone.

I hated it when he did that. Just – Poof. The guy was like a ninja. A homeless vampire ninja.

Now I had a choice: go to Copley Square and hang out with Hearth, or head towards Beacon Street and try to spot the people who were looking for me.

Blitz’s description of them made me curious. A middle-aged white guy and a teenage girl searching for me at sunrise on a bitter-cold morning. Why? Who were they?

I crept along the edge of the pond. Almost nobody took the lower trail under the bridge. I could hug the side of the hill and spot anyone approaching on the higher path without them seeing me.

Snow coated the ground. The sky was eye-achingly blue. The bare tree branches looked like they’d been dipped in glass. The wind cut through my layers of clothes, but I didn’t mind the cold. My mom used to joke that I was half polar bear.

Dammit, Magnus, I chided myself.

After two years, my memories of her were still a minefield. I’d stumble over one, and instantly my composure would be blown to bits.

I tried to focus.

The man and the girl were coming this way. The man’s sandy hair grew over his collar – not like an intentional style, but like he couldn’t be bothered to cut it. His baffled expression reminded me of a substitute teacher’s: I know I was hit by a spit wad, but I have no idea where it came from. His smart shoes were totally wrong for a Boston winter. His socks were different shades of brown. His tie looked like it had been tied while he spun around in total darkness.

The girl was definitely his daughter. Her hair was just as thick and wavy, though lighter blonde. She was dressed more sensibly in snow boots, jeans and a parka, with an orange T-shirt peeking out at the neckline. Her expression was more determined, angry. She gripped a sheaf of flyers like they were essays she’d been graded on unfairly.

If she was looking for me, I did not want to be found. She was scary.

I didn’t recognize her or her dad, but something tugged at the back of my skull … like a magnet trying to pull out a very old memory.

Father and daughter stopped where the path forked. They looked around as if just now realizing they were standing in the middle of a deserted park at no-thank-you o’clock in the dead of winter.

‘Unbelievable,’ said the girl. ‘I want to strangle him.’

Assuming she meant me, I hunkered down a little more.

Her dad sighed. ‘We should probably avoid killing him. He is your uncle.’

‘But two years?’ the girl demanded. ‘Dad, how could he not tell us for two years?’

‘I can’t explain Randolph’s actions. I never could, Annabeth.’

I inhaled so sharply that I was afraid they would hear me. A scab was ripped off my brain, exposing raw memories from when I was six years old.

Annabeth. Which meant the sandy-haired man was … Uncle Frederick?

I flashed back to the last family Thanksgiving we’d shared: Annabeth and me hiding in the library at Uncle Randolph’s town house, playing with dominoes while the adults yelled at each other downstairs.

You’re lucky you live with your momma. Annabeth stacked another domino on her miniature building. It was amazingly good, with columns in front like a temple. I’m going to run away.

I had no doubt she meant it. I was in awe of her confidence.

Then Uncle Frederick appeared in the doorway. His fists were clenched. His grim expression was at odds with the smiling reindeer on his sweater. Annabeth, we’re leaving.

Annabeth looked at me. Her grey eyes were a little too fierce for a first-grader’s. Be safe, Magnus.

With a flick of her finger, she knocked over her domino temple.

That was the last time I’d seen her.

Afterwards, my mom had been adamant: We’re staying away from your uncles. Especially Randolph. I won’t give him what he wants. Ever.

She wouldn’t explain what Randolph wanted, or what she and Frederick and Randolph had argued about.

You have to trust me, Magnus. Being around them … it’s too dangerous.

I trusted my mom. Even after her death, I hadn’t had any contact with my relatives.

Now, suddenly, they were looking for me.

Randolph lived in town, but, as far as I knew, Frederick and Annabeth still lived in Virginia. Yet here they were, passing out flyers with my name and photo on them. Where had they even got a photo of me?

My head buzzed so badly that I missed some of their conversation.

‘– to find Magnus,’ Uncle Frederick was saying. He checked his smartphone. ‘Randolph is at the city shelter in the South End. He says no luck. We should try the youth shelter across the park.’

‘How do we even know Magnus is alive?’ Annabeth asked miserably. ‘Missing for two years? He could be frozen in a ditch somewhere!’

Part of me was tempted to jump out of my hiding place and shout, TA-DA!

Even though it had been ten years since I’d seen Annabeth, I didn’t like seeing her distressed. But after so long on the streets I’d learned the hard way: you never walk into a situation until you understand what’s going on.

‘Randolph is sure Magnus is alive,’ said Uncle Frederick. ‘He’s somewhere in Boston. If his life is truly in danger …’

They set off towards Charles Street, their voices carried away by the wind.

I was shivering now, but it wasn’t from the cold. I wanted to run after Frederick, tackle him and demand to hear what was going on. How did Randolph know I was still in town? Why were they looking for me? How was my life in danger now more than on any other day?

But I didn’t follow them.

I remembered the last thing my mom ever told me. I’d been reluctant to use the fire escape, reluctant to leave her, but she’d gripped my arms and made me look at her. Magnus, run. Hide. Don’t trust anyone. I’ll find you. Whatever you do, don’t go to Randolph for help.

Then, before I’d made it out of the window, the door of our apartment had burst into splinters. Two pairs of glowing blue eyes had emerged from the darkness …

I shook off the memory and watched Uncle Frederick and Annabeth walk away, veering east towards the Common.

Uncle Randolph … For some reason, he’d contacted Frederick and Annabeth. He’d got them to Boston. All this time, Frederick and Annabeth hadn’t known that my mom was dead and I was missing. It seemed impossible, but, if it were true, why would Randolph tell them about it now?

Without confronting him directly, I could think of only one way to get answers. His town house was in Back Bay, an easy walk from here. According to Frederick, Randolph wasn’t home. He was somewhere in the South End, looking for me.

Since nothing started a day better than a little breaking and entering, I decided to pay his place a visit.


The Man with the Metal Bra

The family mansion sucked.

Oh, sure, you wouldn’t think so. You’d see the massive six-storey brownstone with gargoyles on the corners of the roof, stained-glass transom windows, marble front steps and all the other blah, blah, blah, rich-people-live-here details, and you’d wonder why I’m sleeping on the streets.

Two words: Uncle Randolph.

It was his house. As the oldest son, he’d inherited it from my grandparents, who died before I was born. I never knew much about the family soap opera, but there was a lot of bad blood between the three kids: Randolph, Frederick and my mom. After the Great Thanksgiving Schism, we never visited the ancestral homestead again. Our apartment was, like, half a mile away, but Randolph might as well have lived on Mars.

My mom only mentioned him if we happened to be driving past the brownstone. Then she would point it out the way you might point out a dangerous cliff. See? There it is. Avoid it.

After I started living on the streets, I would sometimes walk by at night. I’d peer in the windows and see glowing display cases of antique swords and axes, creepy helmets with face masks staring at me from the walls, statues silhouetted in the upstairs windows like petrified ghosts.

Several times I considered breaking in to poke around, but I’d never been tempted to knock on the door. Please, Uncle Randolph, I know you hated my mother and haven’t seen me in ten years; I know you care more about your rusty old collectibles than you do about your family, but may I live in your fine house and eat your leftover crusts of bread?

No thanks. I’d rather be on the street, eating day-old falafel from the food court.

Still … I figured it would be simple enough to break in, look around and see if I could find answers about what was going on. While I was there, maybe I could grab some stuff to pawn.

Sorry if that offends your sense of right and wrong.

Oh, wait. No, I’m not.

I don’t steal from just anybody. I choose obnoxious jerks who have too much already. If you’re driving a new BMW and you park it in a disabled spot without a permit, then, yeah, I’ve got no problem jimmying your window and taking some change from your cupholder. If you’re coming out of Barneys with your bag of silk handkerchiefs, so busy talking on your phone and pushing people out of your way that you’re not paying attention, I am there for you, ready to pickpocket your wallet. If you can afford five thousand dollars to blow your nose, you can afford to buy me dinner.

I am judge, jury and thief. And, as far as obnoxious jerks went, I figured I couldn’t do better than Uncle Randolph.

The house fronted Commonwealth Avenue. I headed around back to the poetically named Public Alley 429. Randolph’s parking spot was empty. Stairs led down to the basement entrance. If there was a security system, I couldn’t spot it. The door was a simple latch lock without even a deadbolt. Come on, Randolph. At least make it a challenge.

Two minutes later I was inside.

In the kitchen, I helped myself to some sliced turkey, crackers and milk from the carton. No falafel. Dammit. Now I was really in the mood for some, but I found a chocolate bar and stuffed it in my coat pocket for later. (Chocolate must be savoured, not rushed.) Then I headed upstairs into a mausoleum of mahogany furniture, oriental rugs, oil paintings, marble-tiled floors and crystal chandeliers … It was just embarrassing. Who lives like this?

At age six, I couldn’t appreciate how expensive all this stuff was, but my general impression of the mansion was the same: dark, oppressive, creepy. It was hard to imagine my mom growing up here. It was easy to understand why she’d become a fan of the great outdoors.

Our apartment over the Korean BBQ joint in Allston had been cosy enough, but Mom never liked being inside. She always said her real home was the Blue Hills. We used to go hiking and camping there in all kinds of weather – fresh air, no walls or ceilings, no company but the ducks, geese and squirrels.

This brownstone, by comparison, felt like a prison. As I stood alone in the foyer, my skin crawled with invisible beetles.

I climbed to the next floor. The library smelled of lemon polish and leather, just like I remembered. Along one wall was a lit glass case full of Randolph’s rusty Viking helmets and corroded axe blades. My mom once told me that Randolph taught history at Harvard before some big disgrace got him fired. She wouldn’t go into details, but clearly the guy was still an artefact nut.

You’re smarter than either of your uncles, Magnus, my mom once told me. With your grades, you could easily get into Harvard.

That had been back when she was still alive, I was still in school, and I might have had a future that extended past finding my next meal.

In one corner of Randolph’s office sat a big slab of rock like a tombstone, the front chiselled and painted with elaborate red swirly designs. In the centre was a crude drawing of a snarling beast – maybe a lion or a wolf.

I shuddered. Let’s not think about wolves.

I approached Randolph’s desk. I’d been hoping for a computer, or a notepad with helpful information – anything to explain why they were looking for me. Instead, spread across the desk were pieces of parchment as thin and yellow as onion skin. They looked like maps a school kid in medieval times had made for social studies: faint sketches of a coastline, various points labelled in an alphabet I didn’t know. Sitting on top of them, like a paperweight, was a leather pouch.

My breath caught. I recognized that pouch. I untied the drawstring and grabbed one of the dominoes … except it wasn’t a domino. My six-year-old self had assumed that’s what Annabeth and I had been playing with. Over the years, the memory had reinforced itself. But, instead of dots, these stones were painted with red symbols.

The one in my hand was shaped like a tree branch or a deformed F:

My heart pounded. I wasn’t sure why. I wondered if coming here had been such a good idea. The walls felt like they were closing in. On the big rock in the corner, the drawing of the beast seemed to sneer at me, its red outline glistening like fresh blood.

I moved to the window. I thought it might help to look outside. Along the centre of the avenue stretched the Commonwealth Mall – a ribbon of parkland covered in snow. The bare trees were strung with white Christmas lights. At the end of the block, inside an iron fence, the bronze statue of Leif Erikson stood on his pedestal, his hand cupped over his eyes. Leif gazed towards the Charlesgate overpass as if to say, Look, I discovered a highway!

My mom and I used to joke about Leif. His armour was on the skimpy side: a short skirt and a breastplate that looked like a Viking bra.

I had no clue why that statue was in the middle of Boston, but I figured it couldn’t be a coincidence that Uncle Randolph grew up to study Vikings. He’d lived here his whole life. He’d probably looked at Leif every day out of the window. Maybe as a child Randolph had thought, Someday, I want to study Vikings. Men who wear metal bras are cool!

My eyes drifted to the base of the statue. Somebody was standing there … looking up at me.

You know how when you see somebody out of context and it takes you a second to recognize them? In Leif Erikson’s shadow stood a tall, pale man in a black leather jacket, black motorcycle pants and pointy-toed boots. His short, spiky hair was so blond it was almost white. His only dash of colour was a striped red-and-white scarf wrapped around his neck and spilling off his shoulders like a melted candy cane.

If I didn’t know him, I might’ve guessed he was cosplaying some anime character. But I did know him. It was Hearth, my fellow homeless dude and surrogate ‘mom’.

I was a little creeped out, a little offended. Had he seen me on the street and followed me? I didn’t need some fairy god-stalker looking after me.

I spread my hands: What are you doing here?

Hearth made a gesture like he was plucking something from his cupped hand and throwing it away. After two years of hanging around him, I was getting pretty good at reading sign language.

He was saying GET OUT.

He didn’t look alarmed, but it was hard to tell with Hearth. He never showed much emotion. Whenever we hung out, he mostly just stared at me with those pale grey eyes like he was waiting for me to explode.

I lost valuable seconds trying to figure out what he meant, why he was here when he was supposed to be in Copley Square.

He gestured again: both hands pointing forward with two fingers, dipping up and down twice. Hurry.

‘Why?’ I said aloud.

Behind me, a deep voice said, ‘Hello, Magnus.’

I nearly jumped out of my shoes. Standing in the library doorway was a barrel-chested man with a trim white beard and a skullcap of grey hair. He wore a beige cashmere overcoat over a dark wool suit. His gloved hands gripped the handle of a polished wooden cane with an iron tip. Last time I’d seen him his hair had been black, but I knew that voice.


He inclined his head a millimetre. ‘What a pleasant surprise. I’m glad you’re here.’ He sounded neither surprised nor glad. ‘We don’t have much time.’

The food and milk started to churn in my stomach. ‘M-much time … before what?’

His brow furrowed. His nose wrinkled as if he detected a mildly unpleasant odour. ‘You’re sixteen today, aren’t you? They’ll be coming to kill you.’


Don’t Accept Rides from Strange Relatives

Well, happy birthday to me!

Was it 13 January? Honestly, I had no idea. Time flies when you’re sleeping under bridges and eating from dumpsters.

So I was officially sixteen. For my present, I got cornered by Uncle Freaky, who announced that I was marked for assassination.

‘Who –’ I started to ask. ‘You know what? Never mind. Nice seeing you, Randolph. I’ll be going now.’

Randolph remained in the doorway, blocking my exit. He pointed the iron tip of his cane at me. I swear I could feel it pushing against my sternum from across the room.

‘Magnus, we need to talk. I don’t want them to get to you. Not after what happened to your mother …’

A punch in the face would’ve been less painful.

Memories from that night spun through my head like a sickening kaleidoscope: our apartment building shuddering, a scream from the floor below, my mother – who’d been tense and paranoid all day – dragging me towards the fire escape, telling me to run. The door splintered and burst. From the hallway, two beasts emerged, their pelts the colour of dirty snow, their eyes glowing blue. My fingers slipped off the fire-escape railing and I fell, landing in a pile of garbage bags in the alley. Moments later, the windows of our apartment exploded, belching fire.

My mom had told me to run. I did. She’d promised to find me. She never did. Later, on the news, I heard that her body had been recovered from the fire. The police were searching for me. They had questions: signs of arson; my record of disciplinary problems at school; neighbours’ reports of shouting and a loud crash from our apartment just before the explosion; the fact that I’d run from the scene. None of the reports mentioned wolves with glowing eyes.

Ever since that night I’d been hiding, living under the radar, too busy surviving to grieve properly for my mom, wondering if I’d hallucinated those beasts … but I knew I hadn’t.

Now, after all this time, Uncle Randolph wanted to help me.

I gripped the little domino stone so tightly it cut into my palm. ‘You don’t know what happened to my mom. You never cared about either of us.’

Randolph lowered his cane. He leaned on it heavily and stared at the carpet. I could almost believe I’d hurt his feelings.

‘I pleaded with your mother,’ he said. ‘I wanted her to bring you here – to live where I could protect you. She refused. After she died …’ He shook his head. ‘Magnus, you have no idea how long I’ve looked for you, or how much danger you’re in.’

‘I’m fine,’ I snapped, though my heart was thumping against my ribs. ‘I’ve been taking care of myself pretty well.’

‘Perhaps, but those days are over.’ The certainty in Randolph’s voice gave me a chill. ‘You’re sixteen now, the age of manhood. You escaped them once, the night your mother died. They won’t let you escape again. This is our last chance. Let me help you, or you won’t live through the day.’

The low winter light shifted across the stained-glass transom, washing Randolph’s face in changing colours, chameleon-style.

I shouldn’t have come here. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Over and over, my mom had given me one clear message: Don’t go to Randolph. Yet here I was.

The longer I listened to him, the more terrified I got, and the more desperately I wanted to hear what he had to say.

‘I don’t need your help.’ I set the strange little domino on the desk. ‘I don’t want –’

‘I know about the wolves.’

That stopped me.

‘I know what you saw,’ he continued. ‘I know who sent the creatures. Regardless of what the police think, I know how your mother really died.’

‘How –’

‘Magnus, there’s so much I need to tell you about your parents, about your inheritance … About your father.’

An ice-cold wire threaded its way down my spine. ‘You knew my father?’

I didn’t want to give Randolph any leverage. Living on the street had taught me how dangerous leverage could be. But he had me hooked. I needed to hear this information. Judging from the appraising gleam in his eyes, he knew it.

‘Yes, Magnus. Your father’s identity, your mother’s murder, the reason she refused my help … it’s all connected.’ He gestured towards his display of Viking goodies. ‘My whole life, I’ve been working towards one goal. I’ve been trying to solve a historical mystery. Until recently, I didn’t see the whole picture. Now I do. It’s all been leading to this day, your sixteenth birthday.’

I backed up to the window, as far as I could get from Uncle Randolph. ‘Look, I don’t understand ninety per cent of what you’re saying, but if you can tell me about my dad –’

The building rattled like a volley of cannons had gone off in the distance – a rumble so low I felt it in my teeth.

‘They’ll be here soon,’ Randolph warned. ‘We’re running out of time.’

‘Who are they?’

Randolph limped forward, relying on his cane. His right knee didn’t seem to work. ‘I’m asking a lot, Magnus. You have no reason to trust me. But you need to come with me right now. I know where your birthright is.’ He pointed to the old maps on the desk. ‘Together, we can retrieve what is yours. It’s the only thing that might protect you.’

I glanced over my shoulder, out of the window. Down in the Commonwealth Mall, Hearth had disappeared. I should have done the same. Looking at Uncle Randolph, I tried to see any resemblance to my mother, anything that might inspire me to trust him. I found nothing. His imposing bulk, his intense dark eyes, his humourless face and stiff manner … he was the exact opposite of my mom.

‘My car is out back,’ he said.

‘M-maybe we should wait for Annabeth and Uncle Frederick.’

Randolph grimaced. ‘They don’t believe me. They never believed me. Out of desperation, as a last resort, I brought them to Boston to help me look for you, but now that you’re here –’

The building shook again. This time the boom felt closer and stronger. I wanted to believe it was from construction nearby, or a military ceremony, or anything easily explainable. But my gut told me otherwise. The noise sounded like the fall of a gargantuan foot – like the noise that had shaken our apartment two years ago.

‘Please, Magnus.’ Randolph’s voice quavered. ‘I lost my own family to those monsters. I lost my wife, my daughters.’

‘You – you had a family? My mom never said anything –’

‘No, she wouldn’t have. But your mother … Natalie was my only sister. I loved her. I hated to lose her. I can’t lose you, too. Come with me. Your father left something for you to find – something that will change the worlds.’

Too many questions crowded my brain. I didn’t like the crazy light in Randolph’s eyes. I didn’t like the way he said worlds, plural. And I didn’t believe he’d been trying to find me since my mom died. I had my antenna up constantly. If Randolph had been asking about me by name, one of my street friends would’ve tipped me off, like Blitz had done this morning with Annabeth and Frederick.

Something had changed – something that made Randolph decide I was worth looking for.

‘What if I just run?’ I asked. ‘Will you try to stop me?’

‘If you run, they’ll find you. They’ll kill you.’

My throat felt like it was full of cotton balls. I didn’t trust Randolph. Unfortunately, I believed he was in earnest about people trying to kill me. His voice had the ring of truth.

‘Well, then,’ I said, ‘let’s go for a ride.’


Seriously, the Dude Cannot Drive

You’ve heard about bad Boston drivers? That’s my Uncle Randolph.

The dude gunned his BMW 528i (of course it had to be a BMW) and shot down Commonwealth Avenue, ignoring the lights, honking at other cars, weaving randomly from lane to lane.

‘You missed a pedestrian,’ I said. ‘You want to go back and hit her?’

Randolph was too distracted to answer. He kept glancing at the sky as if looking for storm clouds. He gunned the BMW through the intersection at Exeter.

‘So,’ I said, ‘where are we going?’

‘The bridge.’

That explained everything. There were, like, twenty bridges in the Boston area.

I ran my hand along the heated leather seat. It had been maybe six months since I’d ridden in a car. The last time it had been a social worker’s Toyota. Before that, a police cruiser. Both times I’d used a fake name. Both times I’d escaped, but over the past two years I’d come to equate cars with holding cells. I wasn’t sure my luck had changed any today.

I waited for Randolph to answer any of the nagging little questions I had, like, oh: Who’s my dad? Who murdered my mom? How did you lose your wife and kids? Are you presently hallucinating? Did you really have to wear that clove-scented cologne?

But he was too busy causing traffic havoc.

Finally, just to make small talk, I asked, ‘So who’s trying to kill me?’

He turned right on Arlington. We skirted the Public Garden, past the equestrian statue of George Washington, the rows of gaslight lamp posts and snow-covered hedges. I was tempted to bail out of the car, run back to the swan pond and hide in my sleeping bag.

‘Magnus,’ said Randolph, ‘I’ve made my life’s work studying the Norse exploration of North America.’

‘Wow, thanks,’ I said. ‘That really answered my question.’

Suddenly Randolph did remind me of my mom. He gave me the same exasperated scowl, the same look over the top of his glasses, like, Please, kid, cut the sarcasm. The similarity made my chest ache.

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I’ll humour you. Norse exploration. You mean the Vikings.’

Randolph winced. ‘Well … Viking means raider. It’s more of a job description. Not all Norse people were Vikings. But, yes, those guys.’

‘The statue of Leif Erikson … Does that mean the Vikings – er, the Norse – discovered Boston? I thought the Pilgrims did that.’

‘I could give you a three-hour lecture on that topic alone.’

‘Please don’t.’

‘Suffice it to say, the Norse explored North America and even built settlements around the year 1000, almost five hundred years before Christopher Columbus. Scholars agree on that.’

‘That’s a relief. I hate it when scholars disagree.’

‘But no one is sure how far south the Norse sailed. Did they make it to what is now the United States? That statue of Leif Erikson … that was the pet project of a wishful thinker in the 1800s, a man named Eben Horsford. He was convinced that Boston was the lost Norse settlement of Norumbega, their furthest point of exploration. He had an instinct, a gut feeling, but no real proof. Most historians wrote him off as a crackpot.’

He looked at me meaningfully.

‘Let me guess … you don’t think he’s a crackpot.’ I resisted the urge to say, Takes one to believe one.

‘Those maps on my desk,’ Randolph said. ‘They are the proof. My colleagues call them forgeries, but they’re not. I staked my reputation on it!’

And that’s why you got fired from Harvard, I thought.

‘The Norse explorers did make it this far,’ he continued. ‘They were searching for something … and they found it here. One of their ships sank nearby. For years I thought the shipwreck was in Massachusetts Bay. I sacrificed everything to find it. I bought my own boat, took my wife, my children on expeditions. The last time …’ His voice broke. ‘The storm came out of nowhere, the fires …’

He didn’t seem anxious to share more, but I got the general idea: he’d lost his family at sea. He really had staked everything on his crazy theory about Vikings in Boston.

I felt bad for the guy, sure. I also didn’t want to be his next casualty.

We stopped at the corner of Boylston and Charles.

‘Maybe I’ll just get out here.’ I tried the handle. The door was locked from the driver’s side.

‘Magnus, listen. It’s no accident you were born in Boston. Your father wanted you to find what he lost two thousand years ago.’

My feet got jumpy. ‘Did you just say … two thousand years?’

‘Give or take.’

I considered screaming and pounding on the window. Would anybody help me? If I could get out of the car, maybe I could find Uncle Frederick and Annabeth, assuming they were any less insane than Randolph.

We turned onto Charles Street, heading north between the Public Garden and the Common. Randolph could’ve been taking me anywhere – Cambridge, the North End, or some out-of-the-way body dump.

I tried to keep calm. ‘Two thousand years … that’s a longer lifespan than your average dad.’

Randolph’s face reminded me of the Man in the Moon from old black-and-white cartoons: pale and rotund, pitted and scarred, with a secretive smile that wasn’t very friendly. ‘Magnus, what do you know about Norse mythology?’

This just gets better and better, I thought.

‘Uh, not much. My mom had a picture book she used to read me when I was little. And weren’t there a couple of movies about Thor?’

Randolph shook his head in disgust. ‘Those movies … ridiculously inaccurate. The real gods of Asgard – Thor, Loki, Odin and the rest – are much more powerful, much more terrifying than anything Hollywood could concoct.’

‘But … they’re myths. They’re not real.’

Randolph gave me a sort of pitying look. ‘Myths are simply stories about truths we’ve forgotten.’

‘So, look, I just remembered I have an appointment down the street –’

‘A millennium ago, Norse explorers came to this land.’ Randolph drove us past the Cheers bar on Beacon Street, where bundled-up tourists were taking photos of themselves in front of the sign. I spotted a crumpled flyer skittering across the sidewalk: it had the word MISSING and an old picture of me. One of the tourists stepped on it.

‘The captain of these explorers,’ Randolph continued, ‘was a son of the god Skirnir.’

‘A son of a god. Really, anywhere around here is good. I can walk.’

‘This man carried a very special item,’ Randolph said, ‘something that once belonged to your father. When the Norse ship went down in a storm, that item was lost. But you – you have the ability to find it.’

I tried the door again. Still locked.

The really bad part? The more Randolph talked, the less I could convince myself that he was nuts. His story seeped into my mind – storms, wolves, gods, Asgard. The words clicked into place like pieces of a puzzle I’d never had the courage to finish. I was starting to believe him, and that scared the baked beans out of me.

Randolph whipped around the access road for Storrow Drive. He parked at a meter on Cambridge Street. To the north, past the elevated tracks of the Mass General T station, rose the stone towers of the Longfellow Bridge.

‘That’s where we’re going?’ I asked.

Randolph fished for quarters in his cupholder. ‘All these years, it was so much closer than I realized. I just needed you!’

‘I’m definitely feeling the love.’

‘You are sixteen today.’ Randolph’s eyes danced with excitement. ‘It’s the perfect day for you to reclaim your birthright. But it’s also what your enemies have been waiting for. We have to find it first.’

‘But –’

‘Trust me a little while longer, Magnus. Once we have the weapon –’

‘Weapon? Now my birthright is a weapon?’

‘Once you have it in your possession, you’ll be much safer. I can explain everything to you. I can help you train for what’s to come.’

He opened his car door. Before he could get out, I grabbed his wrist.

I usually avoid touching people. Physical contact creeps me out. But I needed his full attention.

‘Give me one answer,’ I said. ‘One clear answer, without the rambling and the history lectures. You said you knew my dad. Who is he?’

Randolph placed his hand over mine, which made me squirm. His palm was too rough and calloused for a history professor’s. ‘On my life, Magnus, I swear this is the truth: your father is a Norse god. Now, hurry. We’re in a twenty-minute parking spot.’


I’ve Always Wanted to Destroy a Bridge

‘You can’t drop a bombshell like that and walk away!’ I yelled as Randolph walked away.

Despite his cane and his stiff leg, the guy could really move. He was like an Olympic gold medallist in hobbling. He forged ahead, climbing the sidewalk of the Longfellow Bridge as I jogged after him, the wind screaming in my ears.

The morning commuters were coming in from Cambridge. A single line of cars was backed up the length of the span, barely moving. You’d think my uncle and I would be the only ones dumb enough to walk across the bridge in sub-zero weather, but, this being Boston, half a dozen runners were chugging along, looking like emaciated seals in their Lycra bodysuits. A mom with two kids bundled in a stroller was walking on the opposite sidewalk. Her kids looked about as happy as I felt.

My uncle was still fifteen feet ahead of me.

‘Randolph!’ I called. ‘I’m talking to you!’

‘The drift of the river,’ he muttered. ‘The landfill on the banks … allowing for a thousand years of shifting tidal patterns –’

‘Yo!’ I caught the sleeve of his cashmere coat. ‘Rewind to the part about a Norse god being my pappy.’

Randolph scanned our surroundings. We’d stopped at one of the bridge’s main towers – a cone of granite rising fifty feet above us. People said the towers looked like giant salt and pepper shakers, but I’d always thought they looked like Daleks from Doctor Who. (So I’m a nerd. Sue me. And, yes, even homeless kids watch TV sometimes – in shelter rec rooms, on public-library computers … We have our ways.)

A hundred feet below us, the Charles River glistened steel grey, its surface mottled with patches of snow and ice like the skin of a massive python.

Randolph leaned so far over the railing it made me jittery.

‘The irony,’ he muttered. ‘Here, of all places …’

‘So, anyway,’ I said, ‘about my father …’

Randolph gripped my shoulder. ‘Look down there, Magnus. What do you see?’

Cautiously I glanced over the side. ‘Water.’

‘No, the carved ornamentation, just below us.’

I looked again. About halfway down the side of the pier, a shelf of granite jutted over the water like a theatre seating box with a pointy tip. ‘It looks like a nose.’

‘No, it’s … Well, from this angle, it does sort of look like a nose. But it’s the prow of a Viking longship. See? The other pier has one, too. The poet Longfellow – for whom the bridge was named – he was fascinated by the Norse. Wrote poems about their gods. Like Eben Horsford, Longfellow believed the Vikings had explored Boston. Hence the designs on the bridge.’

‘You should give tours,’ I said. ‘All the rabid Longfellow fans would pay big bucks.’

‘Don’t you see?’ Randolph still had his hand on my shoulder, which wasn’t making me any less anxious. ‘So many people over the centuries have known. They’ve felt it instinctively, even if they had no proof. This area wasn’t just visited by the Vikings. It was sacred to them! Right below us – somewhere near these decorative longships – is the wreck of an actual longship, holding a cargo of incalculable value.’

‘I still see water. And I still want to hear about Dad.’

‘Magnus, the Norse explorers came here searching for the axis of the worlds, the very trunk of the tree. They found it –’

A low boom echoed across the river. The bridge shook. About a mile away, amid the thicket of chimneys and steeples of Back Bay, a column of oily black smoke mushroomed skyward.

I steadied myself against the railing. ‘Um, wasn’t that close to your house?’

Randolph’s expression hardened. His stubbly beard glistened silver in the sunlight.

‘We’re out of time. Magnus, extend your hand over the water. The sword is down there. Call it. Focus on it as if it’s the most important thing in the world – the thing you want the most.’

‘A sword? I – look, Randolph, I can tell you’re having a hard day, but –’

‘DO IT.’

The sternness in his voice made me flinch. Randolph had to be insane, talking about gods and swords and ancient shipwrecks. Yet the column of smoke over Back Bay was very real. Sirens wailed in the distance. On the bridge, drivers stuck their heads out of their windows to gawk, holding up smartphones and taking pictures.

And, as much as I wanted to deny it, Randolph’s words resonated with me. For the first time, I felt like my body was humming at the right frequency, like I’d finally been tuned to match the crappy soundtrack of my life.

I stretched my hand out over the river.

Nothing happened.

Of course nothing happened, I chided myself. What were you expecting?

The bridge shook more violently. Further down the sidewalk, a jogger stumbled. From behind me came the crunch of one car rear-ending another. Horns blared.

Above the rooftops of Back Bay, a second column of smoke billowed. Ash and orange cinders sprayed upward as if the explosion were volcanic, spewing from the ground.

‘That – that was a lot closer,’ I noted. ‘It’s like something is zeroing in on us.’

I really hoped Randolph would say, Nah, of course not. Don’t be silly!

He seemed to get older before my eyes. His wrinkles darkened. His shoulders slumped. He leaned heavily on his cane. ‘Please, not again,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Not like last time.’

‘Last time?’ Then I remembered what he’d said about losing his wife and daughters – a storm out of nowhere, fires.

Randolph locked eyes with me. ‘Try again, Magnus. Please.’

I thrust my hand towards the river. I imagined I was reaching for my mom, trying to pull her from the past – trying to save her from the wolves and the burning apartment. I reached for answers that might explain why I’d lost her, why my whole life since then had been nothing but a downhill spiral of suck.

Directly below me, the surface of the water began to steam. Ice melted. Snow evaporated, leaving a hole the shape of a hand – my hand, twenty times larger.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d had the same feeling when my mom first taught me to ride a bike. Don’t think about what you’re doing, Magnus. Don’t hesitate, or you’ll fall. Just keep going.

I swept my hand back and forth. A hundred feet below, the steaming hand mirrored my movements, clearing the surface of the Charles. Suddenly I stopped. A pinpoint of warmth hit the centre of my palm as if I’d intercepted a beam of sunlight.

Something was down there … a heat source buried deep in the frigid mud of the river bottom. I closed my fingers and pulled.

A dome of water swelled and ruptured like a dry-ice bubble. An object resembling a lead pipe shot upward and landed in my hand.

It looked nothing like a sword. I held it by one end, but there was no hilt. If it had ever had a point or a sharp edge, it didn’t now. The thing was about the right size for a blade, but it was so pitted and corroded, so encrusted with barnacles and glistening with mud and slime, I couldn’t even be sure it was metal. In short, it was the saddest, flimsiest, most disgusting piece of scrap I’d ever magically pulled from a river.

‘At last!’ Randolph lifted his eyes to the heavens. I got the feeling that, if not for his bum knee, he might’ve knelt on the ground and offered a prayer to the non-existent Norse gods.

‘Yeah.’ I hefted my new prize. ‘I feel safer already.’

‘You can renew it!’ Randolph said. ‘Just try!’

I turned the blade. I was surprised that it hadn’t already disintegrated in my hand.

‘I dunno, Randolph. This thing looks way past renewing. I’m not even sure it can be recycled.’

If I sound unimpressed or ungrateful, don’t get me wrong. The way I’d pulled the sword out of the river was so cool it freaked me out. I’d always wanted a superpower. I just hadn’t expected mine to entail retrieving garbage from river bottoms. The community-service volunteers were going to love me.

‘Concentrate, Magnus!’ Randolph said. ‘Quickly, before –’

Fifty feet away, the centre of the bridge erupted in flames. The shock wave pushed me against the rail. The right side of my face felt sunburned. Pedestrians screamed. Cars swerved and crashed into one another.

For some stupid reason, I ran towards the explosion. It was like I couldn’t help myself. Randolph shuffled after me, calling my name, but his voice seemed far away, unimportant.

Fire danced across the roofs of cars. Windows shattered from the heat, spraying the street with glass gravel. Drivers scrambled out of their vehicles and fled.

It looked like a meteor had hit the bridge. A ten-foot-diameter circle of asphalt was charred and steaming. In the centre of the impact zone stood a human-size figure: a dark man in a dark suit.

When I say dark, I mean his skin was the purest, most beautiful shade of black I’d ever seen. Squid ink at midnight would not have been so black. His clothes were the same: a well-tailored jacket and slacks, a crisp shirt and tie – all cut from the fabric of a neutron star. His face was inhumanly handsome, chiselled obsidian. His long hair was combed back in an immaculate oil slick. His pupils glowed like tiny rings of lava.

I thought, If Satan were real, he would look like this guy.

Then I thought, No, Satan would be a schlub next to this guy. This guy is like Satan’s fashion consultant.

Those red eyes locked on to me.

‘Magnus Chase.’ His voice was deep and resonant, his accent vaguely German or Scandinavian. ‘You have brought me a gift.’

An abandoned Toyota Corolla stood between us. Satan’s fashion consultant walked straight through it, melting a path down the middle of the chassis like a blowtorch through wax.

The sizzling halves of the Corolla collapsed behind him, the wheels melted to puddles.

‘I will make you a gift as well.’ The dark man extended his hand. Smoke curled off his sleeve and ebony fingers. ‘Give me the sword and I will spare your life.’


Make Way for Ducklings, or They Will Smack You Upside the Head

I’d seen some weird stuff in my life.

I once watched a crowd of people wearing nothing but Speedos and Santa hats jog down Boylston in the middle of winter. I met a guy who could play the harmonica with his nose, a drum set with his feet, a guitar with his hands and a xylophone with his butt all at the same time. I knew a woman who’d adopted a grocery cart and named it Clarence. Then there was the dude who claimed to be from Alpha Centauri and had philosophical conversations with Canada geese.

So a well-dressed Satanic male model who could melt cars … why not? My brain just kind of expanded to accommodate the weirdness.

The dark man waited, his hand outstretched. The air around him rippled with heat.

About a hundred feet down the span of the bridge, a Red Line commuter train ground to a halt. The conductor gawked at the chaos in front of her. Two joggers tried to pull a guy from a half-crushed Prius. The lady with the double stroller was unfastening her screaming kids, the stroller’s wheels having melted into ovals. Standing next to her, instead of helping, one idiot held up his smartphone and tried to film the destruction. His hand was shaking so badly I doubted he was getting a very good picture.

Now at my shoulder, Randolph said, ‘The sword, Magnus. Use it!’

I got the uncomfortable impression my big burly uncle was hiding behind me.

The dark man chuckled. ‘Professor Chase … I admire your persistence. I thought our last encounter would’ve broken your spirit. But here you are, ready to sacrifice another family member!’

‘Be quiet, Surt!’ Randolph’s voice was shrill. ‘Magnus has the sword! Go back to the fires from whence you came.’

Surt didn’t seem intimidated, though personally I found the word whence very intimidating.

Fire Dude studied me like I was as barnacle-encrusted as the sword. ‘Give it here, boy, or I will show you the power of Muspell. I will incinerate this bridge and everyone on it.’

Surt raised his arms. Flames slithered between his fingers. At his feet, the paved ground bubbled. More windshields shattered. The train tracks groaned. The Red Line conductor yelled frantically into her walkie-talkie. The pedestrian with the smartphone fainted. The mom collapsed over the stroller, her kids still crying inside. Randolph grunted and staggered backwards.

Surt’s heat didn’t make me pass out. It just made me angry. I didn’t know who this fiery jack-hole was, but I knew a bully when I met one. First rule of the streets: never let a bully take your stuff.

I pointed my once-might-have-been-a-sword at Surt. ‘Cool down, man. I have a corroded piece of metal and I’m not afraid to use it.’

Surt sneered. ‘Just like your father, you are no fighter.’

I clenched my teeth. Okay, I thought, time to ruin this guy’s outfit.

But, before I could take action, something whizzed past my ear and smacked Surt in the forehead.

Had it been a real arrow, Surt would’ve been in trouble. Fortunately for him, it was a plastic toy projectile with a pink heart for a point – a Valentine’s Day novelty, I guessed. It hit Surt between the eyes with a cheerful squeak, fell to his feet and promptly melted.

Surt blinked. He looked as confused as I was.

Behind me a familiar voice shouted, ‘Run, kid!’

Charging up the bridge came my buddies Blitz and Hearth. Well … I say charging. That implies it was impressive. It really wasn’t. For some reason, Blitz had donned a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses along with his black trench coat, so he looked like a grungy, very short Italian priest. In his gloved hands he wielded a fearsome wooden dowel with a bright yellow traffic sign that read: MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS.

Hearth’s red-striped scarf trailed behind him like limp wings. He nocked another arrow in his pink plastic Cupid’s bow and fired at Surt.

Bless their demented little hearts. I understood where they’d got the ridiculous weapons: the toy store on Charles Street. I panhandled in front of that place sometimes, and they had that stuff in their window display. Somehow, Blitz and Hearth must’ve followed me here. In their rush, they’d done a smash-and-grab of the nearest deadly objects. Being crazed homeless guys, they hadn’t chosen very well.

Dumb and pointless? You bet. But it warmed my heart that they wanted to look out for me.

‘We’ll cover you!’ Blitz charged by me. ‘Run!’

Surt hadn’t been expecting an attack by lightly armed bums. He stood there while Blitz smacked him across the head with the MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS sign. Hearth’s next squeaky arrow misfired and hit me in the butt.

‘Hey!’ I complained.

Being deaf, Hearth couldn’t hear me. He ran past me and into battle, thwacking Surt in the chest with his plastic bow.

Uncle Randolph grabbed my arm. He was wheezing badly. ‘Magnus, we have to go. NOW!’

Maybe I should have run, but I stood there frozen, watching my only two friends attack the dark lord of fire with cheap plastic toys.

Finally Surt tired of the game. He backhanded Hearth and sent him flying across the ground. He kicked Blitz in the chest so hard the little guy stumbled backwards and landed on his butt right in front of me.

‘Enough.’ Surt extended his arm. From his open palm, fire spiralled and elongated until he was holding a curved sword made entirely of white flame. ‘I am annoyed now. You will all die.’

‘Gods’ galoshes!’ Blitz stammered. ‘That’s not just any fire giant. That’s the Black One!’

As opposed to the Yellow One? I wanted to ask, but the sight of the flaming sword kind of stifled my will to joke.

Around Surt, flames began to swirl. The firestorm spiralled outward, melting cars to slag heaps, liquefying the asphalt, popping rivets from the bridge like champagne corks.

I’d only thought it was warm before. Now Surt was really turning up the temperature.

Hearth slumped against the railing about thirty feet away. The unconscious pedestrians and trapped motorists wouldn’t last long either. Even if the flames didn’t touch them, they’d die from asphyxiation or heat stroke. But, for some reason, the heat still didn’t bother me.

Randolph stumbled, hanging off my arm with his full weight. ‘I – I … hum, umm …’

‘Blitz,’ I said, ‘get my uncle out of here. Drag him if you have to.’

Blitz’s sunglasses were steaming. The brim of his hat was beginning to smoulder. ‘Kid, you can’t fight that guy. That’s Surt, the Black One himself!’

‘You said that already.’

‘But Hearth and me – we’re supposed to protect you!’

I wanted to snap, And you’re doing a great job with the MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS sign! But what could I expect from a couple of homeless dudes? They weren’t exactly commandos. They were just my friends. There was no way I’d let them die defending me. As for Uncle Randolph … I hardly knew the guy. I didn’t much like him. But he was family. He’d said he couldn’t stand to lose another family member. Yeah, well, neither could I. This time I wasn’t going to run away.

‘Go,’ I told Blitz. ‘I’ll get Hearth.’

Somehow Blitz managed to hold up my uncle. Together they stumbled off.

Surt laughed. ‘The sword will be mine, boy. You cannot change fate. I will reduce your world to cinders!’

I turned to face him. ‘You’re starting to aggravate me. I have to kill you now.’

I walked into the wall of flames.


You Look Great Without a Nose, Really

Wow, Magnus, you’re probably thinking. That was … stupid!

Thanks. I have my moments.

Normally I don’t go stepping into walls of flame. But I had a feeling it wouldn’t hurt me. I know that sounds weird, but so far I hadn’t passed out. The heat didn’t feel so bad, even though the asphalt was turning to sludge at my feet.

Extreme temperatures have never bothered me. I don’t know why. Some people are double-jointed. Some people can wiggle their ears. I can sleep outside in the winter without freezing to death, and hold matches under my hand without getting burned. I’d won some bets that way in the homeless shelters, but I’d never thought of my tolerance as something special … magical. I’d definitely never tested its limits.

I walked through the curtain of fire and smacked Surt in the head with my rusty sword. Because, you know¸ I always try to keep my promises.

The blade didn’t seem to hurt him, but the swirling flames died. Surt stared at me for a millisecond, completely shocked. Then he punched me in the gut.

I’d been punched before, just not by a fiery heavyweight whose ring name was the Black One.

I folded like a deckchair. My vision blurred and tripled. When I regained my focus, I was on my knees, staring at a puddle of regurgitated milk, turkey and crackers steaming on the asphalt.

Surt could have taken my head off with his fiery sword, but I guess he didn’t feel I was worth it. He paced in front of me, making tsk-tsk sounds.

‘Feeble,’ he said. ‘A soft little boy. Give me the blade of your own free will, Vanir-spawn. I promise you a quick death.’


I knew a lot of good insults, but I’d never heard that one.

The corroded sword was still in my hand. I felt my pulse against the metal as if the sword itself had developed a heartbeat. Resonating up the blade, all the way to my ears, was a faint hum like a car engine turning over.

You can renew it, Randolph had told me.

I could almost believe the old weapon was stirring, waking up. Not fast enough, though. Surt kicked me in the ribs and sent me sprawling.

I lay flat on my back, staring at the smoke in the winter sky. Surt must have kicked me hard enough to trigger a near-death hallucination. A hundred feet up, I saw a girl in armour on a horse made of mist, circling like a vulture over the battle. She held a spear made of pure light. Her chain mail shone like silvered glass. She wore a conical steel helmet over a green head wrap, sort of like a medieval knight. Her face was beautiful but stern. Our eyes met for a fraction of a second.

If you’re real, I thought, help.

She dissolved into smoke.

‘The sword,’ Surt demanded, his obsidian face looming over me. ‘It’s worth more to me freely surrendered, but, if I must, I will prise it from your dead fingers.’

In the distance, sirens wailed. I wondered why emergency crews hadn’t shown up already. Then I remembered the other two giant explosions in Boston. Had Surt caused them, too? Or brought along some fiery friends?

At the edge of the bridge, Hearth staggered to his feet. A few unconscious pedestrians had started to stir. I couldn’t see Randolph or Blitz anywhere. Hopefully they were out of danger by now.

If I could keep Burning Man occupied, maybe the rest of the bystanders would have time to clear out, too.

Somehow I managed to stand.

I looked at the sword and … yeah, I was definitely hallucinating.

Instead of a corroded piece of junk, I held an actual weapon. The leather-wrapped grip felt warm and comfortable in my hand. The pommel, a simple polished-steel oval, helped counterweight the thirty-inch blade, which was double-edged and rounded at the tip, more for hacking than for stabbing. Down the centre of the blade, a wide groove was emblazoned with Viking runes – the same kind I’d seen in Randolph’s office. They shimmered a lighter shade of silver, as if they’d been inlaid while the blade was forged.

The sword was definitely humming now, almost like a human voice trying to find the right pitch.

Surt stepped back. His lava-red eyes flickered nervously. ‘You don’t know what you have there, boy. You won’t live long enough to find out.’

He swung his scimitar.

I’d had no experience with swords, unless you count watching The Princess Bride twenty-six times as a kid. Surt would’ve cut me in half – but my weapon had other ideas.

Ever held a spinning top on the tip of your finger? You can feel it moving under its own power, tilting in all directions. The sword was like that. It swung itself, blocking Surt’s fiery blade. Then it spun in an arc, dragging my arm along with it, and hacked into Surt’s right leg.

The Black One screamed. The wound in his thigh smouldered, setting his trousers on fire. His blood sizzled and glowed like the flow from a volcano. His fiery blade dissipated.

Before he could recover, my sword leaped upward and slashed his face. With a howl, Surt stumbled back, cupping his hands over his nose.

To my left, someone screamed – the mother with the two kids.

Hearth was trying to help her extract her toddlers from the stroller, which was now smoking and about to combust.

‘Hearth!’ I yelled, before remembering that was no good.

With Surt still distracted, I limped over to Hearth and pointed down the bridge. ‘Go! Get the kids out of here!’

He could read lips just fine, but he didn’t like my message. He shook his head adamantly, hoisting one of the toddlers into his arms.

The mom was cradling the other kid.

‘Leave now,’ I told her. ‘My friend will help you.’

The mom didn’t hesitate. Hearth gave me one last look: This is not a good idea. Then he followed her, the little kid bouncing up and down in his arms crying, ‘Ah! Ah! Ah!’

Other innocent people were still stuck on the bridge: drivers trapped in their cars, pedestrians wandering around in a daze, their clothes steaming and their skin lobster red. Emergency sirens were closer now, but I didn’t see how the police or paramedics could help if Surt was still storming around being all fiery and stuff.

‘Boy!’ The Black One sounded like he was gargling with syrup.

He took his hands from his face, and I saw why. My self-guided sword had taken off his nose. Molten blood streamed down his cheeks, splattering on the ground in sizzling droplets. His trousers had burned off, leaving him in a pair of flame-patterned red boxers. Between that and the newly sawed-off snout, he looked like a diabolical version of Porky Pig.

‘I have tolerated you long enough,’ he gargled.

‘I was just thinking the same thing about you.’ I raised the sword. ‘You want this? Come and get it.’

In retrospect, that was a pretty stupid thing to say.

Above me, I caught a glimpse of the weird grey apparition – a girl on a horse, circling like a vulture, watching.

Instead of charging, Surt bent down and scooped asphalt from the road with his bare hands. He moulded it into a red-hot sphere of steaming gunk and pitched it towards me like a fastball.

Another game I’m not good at: baseball. I swung the sword, hoping to knock away the projectile. I missed. The asphalt cannonball ploughed into my gut and embedded itself – burning, searing, destroying.

I couldn’t breathe. The pain was so intense I felt every cell in my body explode in a chain reaction.

Despite that, a strange sort of calm fell over me: I was dying. I wasn’t coming back from this. Part of me thought, All right. Make it count.

My vision dimmed. The sword hummed and tugged at my hand, but I could barely feel my arms.

Surt studied me, a smile on his ruined face.

He wants the sword, I told myself. He can’t have it. If I’m going out, he’s going with me.

Weakly, I raised my free hand. I flipped him a gesture that he wouldn’t need to know sign language to understand.

He roared and charged.

Just as he reached me, my sword leaped up and ran him through. I used the last of my strength to grapple him as his momentum carried us both over the railing.

‘No!’ He fought to free himself, bursting into flames, kicking and gouging, but I held on as we plummeted towards the Charles River, my sword still embedded in his stomach, my own organs burning away from the molten tar in my gut. The sky flashed in and out of view. I caught a glimpse of the smoky apparition – the girl on the horse diving towards me at a full gallop, her hand outstretched.

FLOOM! I hit the water.

Then I died. The end.


Mind the Gap, and Also the Hairy Guy with the Axe

Back in school, I loved ending stories that way.

It’s the perfect conclusion, isn’t it? Billy went to school. He had a good day. Then he died. The end.

It doesn’t leave you hanging. It wraps everything up nice and neat.

Except in my case it didn’t.

Maybe you’re thinking, Oh, Magnus, you didn’t really die. Otherwise you couldn’t be narrating this story. You just came close. Then you were miraculously rescued, blah, blah, blah.

Nope. I actually died. One hundred per cent: guts impaled, vital organs burned, head smacked into a frozen river from forty feet up, every bone in my body broken, lungs filled with ice water.

The medical term for that is dead.

Gee, Magnus, what did it feel like?

It hurt. A lot. Thanks for asking.

I started to dream, which was weird – not only because I was dead, but because I never dream. People have tried to argue with me about that. They say everybody dreams and I just don’t remember mine. But, I’m telling you, I always slept like the dead. Until I was dead. Then I dreamed like a normal person.

I was hiking with my mom in the Blue Hills. I was maybe ten years old. It was a warm summer day, with a cool breeze through the pines. We stopped at Houghton’s Pond to skip stones across the water. I managed three skips. My mom managed four. She always won. Neither of us cared. She would laugh and hug me and that was enough for me.

It’s hard to describe her. To really understand Natalie Chase, you had to meet her. She used to joke that her spirit animal was Tinker Bell from Peter Pan. If you can imagine Tinker Bell at age thirty-something, minus the wings, wearing flannel, denim and Doc Martens, you’ve got a pretty good picture of my mom. She was a petite lady with delicate features, short blonde pixie hair and leaf-green eyes that sparkled with humour. Whenever she read me stories, I used to gaze at the spray of freckles across her nose and try to count them.

She radiated joy. That’s the only way I can put it. She loved life. Her enthusiasm was infectious. She was the kindest, most easy-going person I ever knew … until the weeks leading up to her death.

In the dream, that was still years in the future. We stood together at the pond. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of warm pine needles.

‘This is where I met your father,’ she told me. ‘On a summer day just like this.’

The comment surprised me. She rarely talked about my dad. I’d never met him, never even seen pictures of him. That might sound strange, but my mom didn’t make a big deal out of their relationship, so neither did I.

She was clear that my dad hadn’t abandoned us. He’d just moved on. She wasn’t bitter. She had fond memories of their brief time together. After it ended, she’d found out she was pregnant with me, and she was elated. Ever since, it had been just the two of us. We didn’t need anyone else.

‘You met him at the pond?’ I asked. ‘Was he good at skipping stones?’

She laughed. ‘Oh, yeah. He destroyed me at stone skipping. That first day … it was perfect. Well, except for one thing.’ She pulled me close and kissed my forehead. ‘I didn’t have you yet, pumpkin.’

Okay, yes. My mom called me pumpkin. Go ahead and laugh. As I got older, it embarrassed me, but that was while she was still alive. Now I’d give anything to hear her call me pumpkin again.

‘What was my dad like?’ I asked. It felt strange to say my dad. How can somebody be yours if you’ve never met him? ‘What happened to him?’

My mom spread her arms to the sunlight. ‘That’s why I bring you here, Magnus. Can’t you feel it? He’s all around us.’

I didn’t know what she meant. Usually she didn’t talk in metaphors. My mom was about as literal and down-to-earth as you could get.

She ruffled my hair. ‘Come on, I’ll race you to the beach.’

My dream shifted. I found myself standing in Uncle Randolph’s library. In front of me, lounging sideways across the desk, was a man I’d never seen before. He was walking his fingers across the collection of old maps.

‘Death was an interesting choice, Magnus.’

The man grinned. His clothes looked fresh from the store: blinding white sneakers, crisp new jeans and a Red Sox home jersey. His feathery hair was a mix of red, brown and yellow, tousled in a fashionable I-just-got-out-of-bed-and-I-look-this-good sort of way. His face was shockingly handsome. He could’ve done ads for aftershave in men’s magazines, but his scars ruined the perfection. Burn tissue splashed across the bridge of his nose and his cheekbones, like impact lines on the moon’s surface. His lips were marred by a row of welts all the way around his mouth – maybe piercing holes that had closed over. But why would anyone have that many mouth piercings?

I wasn’t sure what to say to the scarred hallucination, but since my mom’s words were still lingering in my head, I asked, ‘Are you my father?’

The hallucination raised his eyebrows. He threw back his head and laughed.

‘Oh, I like you! We’ll have fun. No, Magnus Chase, I’m not your father, but I’m definitely on your side.’ He traced his finger under the Red Sox logo on his jersey. ‘You’ll meet my son soon enough. Until then, a little advice: don’t trust appearances. Don’t trust your comrades’ motives. Oh, and –’ he lunged forward and grabbed my wrist – ‘tell the All-Father I said hello.’

I tried to break free. His grip was like steel. The dream changed. Suddenly I was flying through cold grey fog.

‘Stop struggling!’ said a female voice.

Holding my wrist was the girl I’d seen circling the bridge. She charged through the air on her nebulous horse, pulling me along at her side like I was a sack of laundry. Her blazing spear was strapped across her back. Her chain-mail armour glinted in the grey light.

She tightened her grip. ‘Do you want to fall into the Gap?’

I got a feeling she wasn’t talking about the clothing store. Looking below me, I saw nothing – just endless grey. I decided I did not want to fall into it.

I tried to speak. I couldn’t. I shook my head weakly.

‘Then stop struggling,’ she ordered.

Beneath her helmet, a few wisps of dark hair had escaped her green headscarf. Her eyes were the colour of redwood bark.

‘Don’t make me regret this,’ she said.

My consciousness faded.

I awoke gasping, every muscle in my body tingling with alarm.

I sat up and grabbed my gut, expecting to find a burning hole where my intestines used to be. No smouldering asphalt was embedded there. I felt no pain. The strange sword was gone. My clothes looked perfectly fine – not wet or burned or torn.

In fact, my clothes looked too fine. The same stuff I’d been wearing for weeks – my only pair of jeans, my layers of shirts, my jacket – didn’t smell. They’d seemingly been washed, dried and put back on me while I was unconscious, which was an unsettling idea. They even had a warm lemony scent that reminded me of the good old days when my mom did my laundry. My shoes were like new, as shiny as when I dug them out of the dumpster behind Marathon Sports.

Even weirder: I was clean. My hands weren’t caked with grime. My skin felt freshly scrubbed. I ran my fingers through my hair and found no tangles, no twigs, no pieces of litter.

Slowly I got to my feet. There wasn’t a scratch on me. I bounced on my heels. I felt like I could run a mile. I breathed in the smell of chimney fires and an approaching snowstorm. I almost laughed with relief. Somehow I’d survived!

Except … that wasn’t possible.

Where was I?

Gradually my senses expanded. I was standing in the entry courtyard of an opulent town house, the kind you might see on Beacon Hill – eight storeys of imposing white limestone and grey marble jutting into the winter sky. The double front doors were dark heavy wood bound with iron. In the centre of each was a life-size wolf’s-head door knocker.

Wolves … that alone was enough to make me hate the place.

I turned to look for a street exit. There wasn’t one, just a fifteen-foot-tall white limestone wall surrounding the courtyard. How could you not have a front gate?

I couldn’t see much over the wall, but I was obviously still in Boston. I recognized some of the surrounding buildings. In the distance rose the towers of Downtown Crossing. I was probably on Beacon Street, just across from the Common. But how had I got here?

In one corner of the courtyard stood a tall birch tree with pure white bark. I thought about climbing it to get over the wall, but the lowest branches were out of reach. Then I realized the tree was in full leaf, which shouldn’t have been possible in the winter. Not only that: its leaves glittered gold as if someone had painted them with twenty-four-carat gilt.

Next to the tree, a bronze plaque was affixed to the wall. I hadn’t really noticed it earlier, since half the buildings in Boston had historic markers, but now I looked closer. The inscriptions were in two languages. One was the Norse alphabet I’d seen earlier. The other was English:




Okay … I’d exceeded my daily quota of bizarre. I had to get out of here. I had to get over that wall, find out what had happened to Blitz and Hearth – and maybe Uncle Randolph if I was feeling generous – then possibly hitchhike to Guatemala. I was done with this town.

Then the double doors swung inward with a groan. Blinding golden light spilled out.

A burly man appeared on the stoop. He wore a doorman’s uniform: top hat, white gloves and a dark green jacket with tails and the interlocking letters HV embroidered on the lapel, but there was no way this guy was an actual doorman. His warty face was smeared with ashes. His beard hadn’t been trimmed in decades. His eyes were bloodshot and murderous, and a double-bladed axe hung at his side. His name tag read: HUNDING, SAXONY, VALUED TEAM MEMBER SINCE 749 C.E.

‘S-s-sorry,’ I stammered. ‘I must … um, wrong house.’

The man scowled. He shuffled closer and sniffed me. He smelled like turpentine and burning meat. ‘Wrong house? I don’t think so. You’re checking in.’

‘Uh … what?’

‘You’re dead, aren’t you?’ the man said. ‘Follow me. I’ll show you to registration.’


You Totally Want the Minibar Key

Would it surprise you to learn that the place was bigger on the inside?

The foyer alone could’ve been the world’s largest hunting lodge – a space twice as big as the mansion appeared on the outside. An acre of hardwood floor was covered with exotic animal skins: zebra, lion and a forty-foot-long reptile that I wouldn’t want to have met when it was alive. Against the right wall, a fire crackled in a bedroom-size hearth. In front of it, a few high-school-age guys in fluffy green bathrobes lounged on overstuffed leather couches, laughing and drinking from silver goblets. Over the mantel hung the stuffed head of a wolf.

Oh, joy, I thought with a shudder. More wolves.

Columns made from rough-hewn tree trunks held up the ceiling, which was lined with spears for rafters. Polished shields gleamed on the walls. Light seemed to radiate from everywhere – a warm golden glow that hurt my eyes like a summer afternoon after a dark theatre.

In the middle of the foyer, a freestanding display board announced:








The doorman Hunding said something, but my head was ringing so badly I missed it.

‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘what?’

‘Luggage,’ he repeated. ‘Do you have any?’

‘Um …’ I reached for my shoulder strap. My backpack had apparently not been resurrected with me. ‘No.’

Hunding grunted. ‘No one brings luggage any more. Don’t they put anything on your funeral pyre?’

‘My what?’

‘Never mind.’ He scowled towards the far corner of the room, where an overturned boat’s keel served as the reception desk. ‘Guess there’s no putting it off. Come on.’

The man behind the keel apparently used the same barber as Hunding. His beard was so big it had its own zip code. His hair looked like a buzzard that had exploded on a windshield. He was dressed in a forest-green pinstriped suit. His name tag read: HELGI, MANAGER, EAST GOTHLAND, VALUED TEAM MEMBER SINCE 749 C.E.

‘Welcome!’ Helgi glanced up from his computer screen. ‘Checking in?’

‘Uh –’

‘You realize check-in time is three p.m.,’ he said. ‘If you die earlier in the day, I can’t guarantee your room will be ready.’

‘I can just go back to being alive,’ I offered.

‘No, no.’ He tapped on his keyboard. ‘Ah, here we are.’ He grinned, revealing exactly three teeth. ‘We’ve upgraded you to a suite.’

Next to me, Hunding muttered under his breath, ‘Everyone is upgraded to a suite. All we have are suites.’

‘Hunding …’ warned the manager.

‘Sorry, sir.’

‘You don’t want me to use the stick.’

Hunding winced. ‘No, sir.’

I looked back and forth between them, checking their name tags.

‘You guys started working here the same year,’ I noted. ‘749 … what is C.E.?’

‘Common Era,’ said the manager. ‘What you might call A.D.’

‘Then why don’t you just say A.D.?’

‘Because Anno Domini, in the Year of Our Lord, is fine for Christians, but Thor gets a little upset. He still holds a grudge that Jesus never showed up for that duel he challenged him to.’

‘Say what now?’

‘It’s not important,’ Helgi said. ‘How many keys would you like? Is one sufficient?’

‘I still don’t get where I am. If you guys have been here since 749, that’s over a thousand years.’

‘Don’t remind me,’ Hunding grumbled.

‘But that’s impossible. And … and you said I’m dead? I don’t feel dead. I feel fine.’

‘Sir,’ Helgi said, ‘all this will be explained tonight at dinner. That’s when new guests are formally welcomed.’

‘Valhalla.’ The word surfaced from the depths of my brain – a half-remembered story my mom had read me when I was little. ‘The HV on your lapel. The V stands for Valhalla?’

Helgi’s eyes made it clear I was straining his patience. ‘Yes, sir. The Hotel Valhalla. Congratulations. You’ve been chosen to join the hosts of Odin. I look forward to hearing about your brave exploits at dinner.’

My legs buckled. I leaned on the desk for support. I’d been trying to convince myself this was all a mistake – some elaborate theme hotel where I’d been mistaken for a guest. Now I wasn’t so sure.

‘Dead,’ I mumbled. ‘You mean I’m actually … I’m actually –’

‘Here is your room key.’ Helgi handed me a stone engraved with a single Viking rune, like the stones in Uncle Randolph’s library. ‘Would you like the minibar key?’

‘Uh –’

‘He wants the minibar key,’ Hunding answered for me. ‘Kid, you want the minibar key. It’s going to be a long stay.’

My mouth tasted like copper. ‘How long?’

‘Forever,’ Helgi said, ‘or at least until Ragnarok. Hunding will now show you to your room. Enjoy your afterlife. Next!’


My Room Does Not Suck

I wasn’t paying the closest attention as Hunding guided me through the hotel. I felt as if I’d been spun around fifty times then released into the middle of a circus and told to have fun.

Each hall we walked through seemed bigger than the one before. Most of the hotel guests looked like they were in high school, though some looked slightly older. Guys and girls sat together in small groups, lounging in front of fireplaces, chatting in many different languages, eating snacks or playing board games like chess and Scrabble and something that involved real daggers and a blowtorch. Peeking into side lounges, I spotted pool tables, pinball machines, an old-fashioned video arcade and something that looked like an iron maiden from a torture chamber.

Staff members in dark green shirts moved among the guests, bringing platters of food and pitchers of drink. As far as I could tell, all the servers were buff female warriors with shields on their backs and swords or axes on their belts, which is not something you see a lot in the service industry.

One heavily armed waitress passed me with a steaming plate of spring rolls. My stomach rumbled.

‘How can I be hungry if I’m dead?’ I asked Hunding. ‘None of these people look dead.’

Hunding shrugged. ‘Well, there’s dead and then there’s dead. Think of Valhalla more like … an upgrade. You’re one of the einherjar now.’

He pronounced the word like in-HAIR-yar.

‘Einherjar,’ I repeated. ‘Just rolls right off the tongue.’

‘Yeah. Singular: einherji.’ He said it like in-HAIR-yee. ‘We’re the chosen of Odin, soldiers in his eternal army. The word einherjar is usually translated as lone warriors, but that doesn’t really capture the meaning. It’s more like … the once warriors – the warriors who fought bravely in the last life and will fight bravely again on the Day of Doom. Duck.’

‘The Day of Doom Duck?’

‘No, duck!’

Hunding pushed me down as a spear flew past. It impaled a guy sitting on the nearest sofa, killing him instantly. Drinks, dice and Monopoly money flew everywhere. The people he’d been playing with rose to their feet, looking mildly annoyed, and glared in the direction the spear had come from.

‘I saw that, John Red Hand!’ Hunding yelled. ‘The lounge is a No Impaling area!’

From the billiard room, somebody laughed and called back in … Swedish? He didn’t sound very remorseful.

‘Anyway.’ Hunding resumed walking as if nothing had happened. ‘The elevators are right over here.’

‘Wait,’ I said. ‘That guy was just murdered with a spear. Aren’t you going to do anything?’

‘Oh, the wolves will clean up.’

My pulse went into double time. ‘Wolves?’

Sure enough, while the other Monopoly players were sorting their pieces, a pair of grey wolves bounded into the lounge, grabbed the dead man by his legs and dragged him away, the spear still sticking out of his chest. The trail of blood evaporated instantly. The perforated sofa mended itself.

I cowered behind the nearest potted plant. I don’t care how that sounds. My fear simply took control. These wolves didn’t have glowing blue eyes like the animals that had attacked my apartment, but still I wished I’d ended up in an afterlife where the mascot was a gerbil.

‘Aren’t there any rules against killing?’ I asked in a small voice.

Hunding raised a bushy eyebrow. ‘That was just a bit of fun, boy. The victim will be fine by dinner.’ He pulled me out of my hiding place. ‘Come on.’

Before I could ask more about the ‘bit of fun’, we reached an elevator. Its cage door was made out of spears. Overlapping gold shields lined the walls. The control panel had so many buttons, it stretched from floor to ceiling. The highest number was 540. Hunding pressed 19.

‘How can this place have five hundred and forty floors?’ I said. ‘It would be the tallest building in the world.’

‘If it only existed in one world, yes. But it connects with all the Nine Worlds. You just came through the Midgard entrance. Most mortals do.’

‘Midgard …’ I vaguely remembered something about the Vikings believing in nine different worlds. Randolph had used the term worlds, too. But it had been a long time since my mom read me those Norse bedtime stories. ‘You mean, like, the world of humans.’

‘Aye.’ Hunding took a breath and recited, ‘Five hundred and forty floors has Valhalla; five hundred and forty doors leading out into the Nine Worlds.’ He grinned. ‘You never know when or where we’ll have to march off to war.’

‘How often has that happened?’

‘Well, never. But still … it could happen at any time. I, for one, can’t wait! Finally, Helgi will have to stop punishing me.’

‘The manager? What’s he punishing you for?’

Hunding’s expression soured. ‘Long story. He and I –’

The elevator’s spear-cage door rolled open.

‘Forget it.’ Hunding clapped me on the back. ‘You’ll like floor nineteen. Good hallmates!’

I’d always thought of hotel corridors as dark, depressing and claustrophobic. Floor nineteen? Not so much. The vaulted ceiling was twenty feet tall, lined with – you guessed it – more spears for rafters. Valhalla had apparently got a good deal at the Spear Wholesale Warehouse. Torches burned in iron sconces, but they didn’t seem to make any smoke. They just cast warm orange light across the wall displays of swords, shields and tapestries. The hall was so wide you could’ve played a regulation soccer game, no problem. The blood-red carpet had tree-branch designs that moved as if swaying in the wind.

Set about fifty feet apart, each guest-room door was rough-hewn oak bound in iron. I didn’t see any doorknobs or locks. In the centre of each door, a plate-size iron circle was inscribed with a name surrounded by a ring of Viking runes.

The first read: HALFBORN GUNDERSON. Behind that door I heard shouting and metal clanging like a sword fight was in progress.

The next read: MALLORY KEEN. Behind that door, silence.

Then: THOMAS JEFFERSON JR. The popping of gunfire came from inside, though it sounded more like a video game than the actual thing. (Yes, I’ve heard both.)

The fourth door was simply marked X. In front, a room-service cart sat in the hallway with the severed head of a pig on a silver platter. The pig’s ears and nose looked slightly nibbled.

Now, I’m not a food critic. Being homeless, I could never afford to be. But I draw the line at pig heads.

We’d almost reached the T at the end of the hall when a large black bird shot around the corner and zipped past me, almost clipping my ear. I watched the bird disappear down the hall – a raven, with a notepad and a pen in its talons.

‘What was that?’ I asked.

‘A raven,’ Hunding said, which I found very helpful.

Finally we stopped at a door inscribed MAGNUS CHASE.

Seeing my name written in iron, inscribed with runes, I started to tremble. My last hope that this might be a mistake, birthday prank or cosmic mix-up finally evaporated. The hotel was expecting me. They’d spelled my name right and everything.

For the record, Magnus means great. My mom named me that because our family was descended from Swedish kings or something a billion years ago. Also, she said I was the greatest thing that had ever happened to her. I know. One, two, three: Awwwwww. It was an annoying name to have. People tended to spell it Mangus, rhymes with Angus. I always corrected them: No, it’s Magnus, rhymes with swag-ness. At which point they would stare at me blankly.

Anyway, there was my name on the door. Once I went through, I would be checked in. According to the manager, I’d have a new home until doomsday.

‘Go ahead.’ Hunding pointed at the runestone key in my hand. The symbol looked sort of like an infinity sign or a sideways hourglass:

‘It’s dagaz,’ Hunding said. ‘Nothing to be afraid of. It symbolizes new beginnings, transformations. It also opens your door. Only you have access.’

I swallowed. ‘What if, for instance, the staff want to get in?’

‘Oh, we use the staff key.’ Hunding patted the axe on his belt. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding.

I held up the runestone. I didn’t want to try it, but I also didn’t want to stay in the hallway until I got impaled by a random spear or injured by a raven hit-and-run. Instinctively, I touched the stone to the matching dagaz mark on the door. The ring of runes glowed green. The door swung open.

I stepped inside, and my jaw hit the floor.

The suite was nicer than any place I’d ever lived, nicer than any place I’d ever visited, including Uncle Randolph’s mansion.

In a trance, I moved to the middle of the suite, where a central atrium was open to the sky. My shoes sank into the thick green grass. Four large oak trees ringed the garden like pillars. The lower branches spread into the room across the ceiling, interweaving with the rafters. The taller branches grew up through the opening of the atrium, making a lacy canopy. Sunlight warmed my face. A pleasant breeze wafted through the room, bringing the smell of jasmine.

‘How?’ I stared at Hunding. ‘Hundreds of floors are above us, but that’s open sky. And it’s the middle of winter. How can it feel sunny and warm?’

Hunding shrugged. ‘I don’t know – magic. But this is your afterlife, boy. You’ve earned some perks, eh?’

Had I? I didn’t feel particularly perk-worthy.

I turned in a slow circle. The suite was shaped like a cross, with four sections radiating from the central atrium. Each wing was as large as my old apartment. One was the entry hall where we’d come in. The next was a bedroom with a king-size bed. Despite its size, the room was spare and simple: beige covers and fluffy-looking pillows on the bed, beige walls with no artwork or mirrors or other decoration. Heavy brown curtains could be drawn to close off the space.

I remembered when I was a kid, how my mom used to make my room as no-frills as possible. I’d always found it hard to sleep indoors unless I had total darkness and nothing to distract me. Looking at this bedroom, I felt like somebody had reached into my mind and pulled out exactly what I needed to be comfortable.

The wing to the left was a dressing area/bathroom tiled in black and beige, my favourite colours. The perks included a sauna, a hot tub, a walk-in wardrobe, a walk-in shower and a walk-in toilet. (Just kidding on that last one, but it was a fancy throne, suitable for the honoured dead.)

The suite’s fourth wing was a full kitchen and living room. At one end of the living room, a big leather couch faced a plasma-screen TV with about six different game systems stacked in the media cabinet. On the other side, two recliners sat in front of a crackling fireplace and a wall of books.

Yes, I like to read. I’m weird that way. Even after dropping out of school, I spent a lot of time in the Boston Public Library, learning random stuff just to pass the time in a warm, safe place. For two years I had missed my old book collection; I never seriously thought I would have one again.

I walked over to check out the titles on the shelves. Then I noticed the picture framed in silver on the fireplace mantel.

Something like a bubble of helium made its way up my oesophagus. ‘No way …’

I picked up the photo. It showed me, at age eight, and my mom at the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. That had been one of the best trips of my life. We’d asked a park ranger to take the photo. In the shot, I was grinning (which I don’t do much any more), showing off my missing two front teeth. My mom knelt behind me with her arms wrapped around my chest, her green eyes crinkling at the corners, her freckles dark from the sun, her blonde hair swept sideways by the wind.

‘This is impossible,’ I murmured. ‘There was only one copy of this picture. It burned in the fire …’ I turned to Hunding, who was wiping his eyes. ‘You okay?’

He cleared his throat. ‘Fine! Of course I’m fine. The hotel likes to provide you with keepsakes, reminders of your old life. Photographs …’ Under his beard, his mouth might have been quivering. ‘Back when I died, they didn’t have photographs. It’s just … you’re lucky.’

No one had called me lucky in a very long time. The idea shook me out of my daze. I’d been without my mom for two years. I’d been dead, or upgraded, for only a few hours. This bellhop from Saxony had been here since 749 C.E. I wondered how he had died and what family he’d left behind. Twelve hundred years later, he was still getting teary-eyed about them, which seemed like a cruel way to spend an afterlife.

Hunding straightened and wiped his nose. ‘Enough of that! If you have any questions, call the front desk. I look forward to hearing about your brave exploits tonight at dinner.’

‘My … brave exploits?’

‘Now, don’t be modest. You wouldn’t have been chosen unless you did something heroic.’

‘But –’

‘Been a pleasure serving you, sir, and welcome to the Hotel Valhalla.’

He held out his palm. It took me a second to realize he wanted a tip.

‘Oh, um …’ I dug into my jacket pockets, not expecting to find anything. Miraculously, the chocolate bar I’d swiped from Uncle Randolph’s house was still there, undamaged from its trip through the Great Beyond. I gave it to Hunding. ‘Sorry, that’s all I have.’

His eyes turned the size of drink coasters. ‘Gods of Asgard! Thank you, kid!’ He sniffed the chocolate and held it up like a holy chalice. ‘Wow! Okay, you need anything, you let me know. Your Valkyrie will come get you right before dinner. Wow!’

‘My Valkyrie? Wait. I don’t have a Valkyrie.’

Hunding laughed, his eyes still fixed on the chocolate bar. ‘Yeah, if I had your Valkyrie, I’d say the same thing. She’s caused her share of trouble.’

‘What do mean?’

‘See you tonight, kid!’ Hunding headed for the door. ‘I got things to eat – I mean do. Try not to kill yourself before dinner!’


Pleased to Meet You. I Will Now Crush Your Windpipe

I collapsed on the grass.

Gazing up through the tree branches at the blue sky, I had trouble breathing. I hadn’t had an asthma attack in years, but I remembered all the nights my mom had held me while I wheezed, feeling like an invisible belt was tightening around my chest. Maybe you’re wondering why my mom would take me camping and climbing mountains if I had asthma, but being outside always helped.

Lying in the middle of the atrium, I breathed in the fresh air and hoped my lungs would settle down.

Unfortunately, I was pretty sure this wasn’t an asthma attack. This was a complete nervous breakdown. What shook me wasn’t just the fact that I was dead, stuck in a bizarre Viking afterlife where people ordered pig heads from the room-service menu and impaled each other in the lobby.

The way my life had gone so far, I could accept that. Of course I’d end up in Valhalla on my sixteenth birthday. Just my luck.

What really hit me: for the first time since my mom died, I was in a comfortable place, alone and safe (as far as I could tell at the moment). Shelters didn’t count. Soup kitchens and rooftops and sleeping bags under bridges didn’t count. I’d always slept with one eye open. I could never relax. Now, I was free to think.

And thinking wasn’t a good thing.

I’d never had the luxury of grieving properly for my mom. I’d never had time to sit and feel sorry for myself. In a way, that had been as helpful to me as the survival skills my mom had taught me – how to navigate, how to camp, how to make a fire.

All those trips to the parks, the mountains, the lakes. As long as her old beat-up Subaru was working, we’d spend every weekend out of town, exploring the wilderness.

What are we running from? I asked her one Friday, a few months before she died. I was annoyed. I wanted to crash at home for once. I didn’t understand her frantic rush to pack and leave.

She’d smiled, but she seemed more preoccupied than usual. We have to make the most of our time, Magnus.

Had my mom been deliberately preparing me to survive on my own? Almost as if she’d known what would happen to her … but that wasn’t possible. Then again, having a Norse god for a dad wasn’t possible either.

My breathing still rattled, but I got up and paced around my new room. In the photo on the mantel, eight-year-old Magnus grinned at me with his tangled hair and his missing teeth. That kid was so clueless, so unappreciative of what he had.

I scanned the bookshelves: my favourite fantasy and horror authors from when I was younger – Stephen King, Darren Shan, Neal Shusterman, Michael Grant, Joe Hill; my favourite graphic-novel series – Scott Pilgrim, Sandman, Watchmen, Saga; plus a lot of books I’d been meaning to read at the library. (Pro homeless tip: public libraries are safe havens. They have bathrooms. They hardly ever kick out kids who are reading as long as you don’t smell too bad or cause a scene.)

I pulled down the illustrated children’s book of Norse myths my mom read to me when I was little. Inside were simplistic pictures of happy, smiling Viking gods, rainbows, flowers and pretty girls with blonde hair. And sentences like The gods dwelt in a wonderful and beautiful realm! There was nothing about the Black One, Surt, who burned baby carriages and threw molten asphalt, nothing about wolves that murdered people’s mothers and made apartments explode. That made me angry.

On the coffee table was a leather-bound notebook titled GUEST SERVICES. I flipped through it. The room-service menu went on for ten pages. The TV channel list was almost as long, and the hotel map was so convoluted, divided into so many subsections, I couldn’t make sense of it. There were no clearly marked emergency doors labelled: EXIT HERE TO RETURN TO YOUR OLD LIFE!

I threw the guest-services book into the fireplace.

As it burned, a new copy appeared on the coffee table. Stupid magical hotel wouldn’t even allow me to properly vandalize things.

In a rage, I flipped the sofa. I didn’t expect it to go far, but it cartwheeled across the room and smashed into the far wall.

I stared at the trail of dislodged cushions, the upside-down sofa, the cracked plaster and leather skid marks on the wall. How had I done that?

The sofa didn’t magically right itself. It stayed where I’d thrown it. The anger drained out of me. I’d probably just made extra work for some poor staff member like Hunding. That didn’t seem fair.

I paced some more, thinking about the dark fiery guy on the bridge and why he’d wanted the sword. I hoped Surt had died with me – more permanently than I had – but I wasn’t optimistic. As long as Blitz and Hearth had got away safely. (Oh, yeah. Randolph, too, I guess.)

And the sword itself … where was it? Back on the river bottom? Valhalla could resurrect me with a chocolate bar in my pocket, but not a sword in my hand. That was messed up.

In the old stories, Valhalla was for heroes who died in battle. I remembered that much. I definitely didn’t feel like a hero. I’d got my butt kicked and my guts cannonballed. By stabbing Surt and toppling off the bridge, I’d simply failed in the most productive way possible. A brave death? Not so much.

I froze.

An idea struck me with the force of a sledgehammer.

My mom … If anyone had died bravely, she had. To protect me from –

Just then someone knocked on my door.

It swung open and a girl stepped inside … the same girl who had circled over the battle on the bridge then pulled me through the grey void.

She had ditched her helmet, chain mail and glowing spear. Her green headscarf was now around her neck, letting her long brown hair spill freely over her shoulders. Her white dress was embroidered with Viking runes around the collar and cuffs. From her golden belt hung a set of old-fashioned keys and a single-bladed axe. She looked like the maid of honour at someone’s Mortal Kombat wedding.

She glanced at the overturned sofa. ‘Did the furniture offend you?’

‘You’re real,’ I noted.

She patted her own arms. ‘Yes, it appears I am.’

‘My mother,’ I said.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m not your mother.’

‘I mean, is she here in Valhalla?’

The girl’s mouth formed a silent Oh. She gazed over my shoulder as if considering her answer. ‘I’m sorry. Natalie Chase is not among the Chosen.’

‘But she was the brave one. She sacrificed herself for me.’

‘I believe you.’ The girl examined her key ring. ‘But I would know if she were here. We Valkyries are not allowed to choose everyone who dies bravely. There are … many factors, many different afterlives.’

‘Then where is she? I want to be there. I’m no hero!’

She surged towards me, pushing me against the wall as easily as I’d flipped the sofa. She pressed her forearm against my throat.

‘Don’t say that,’ the girl hissed. ‘DO – NOT – SAY – THAT! Especially not tonight at dinner.’

Her breath smelled like spearmint. Her eyes were somehow dark and bright at the same time. They reminded me of a fossil my mom used to have – a cross section of a nautilus-like sea animal called an ammonite. It seemed to glow from within, as if it had absorbed millions of years of memories while lying under the earth. The girl’s eyes had that same sort of lustre.

‘You don’t understand,’ I croaked. ‘I have to –’

She pushed harder against my windpipe. ‘What do you think I don’t understand? Grieving for your mother? Being judged unfairly? Being somewhere you don’t want to be, forced to deal with people you’d rather not deal with?’

I didn’t know how to respond to that, especially since I couldn’t breathe.

She stepped away. As I choked and gagged, she paced the foyer, glaring at nothing in particular. Her axe and keys swung on her belt.

I rubbed my bruised neck.

Stupid, Magnus, I told myself. New place: learn t