Now, though, Emma trembled with fear. The faint scent of urine told me that her bladder was not holding up under the stress. With each pitch of the boat, Emma shrieked and clutched a pendant to her chest—a runestone Randolph had given her for her last birthday. I couldn’t see the symbol, but somehow I knew what it was:
Othala: inheritance. Randolph saw Emma as his successor, the next great historian-archaeologist of the family.
“I’ll bring us home.” Randolph’s voice cracked with despair.
He had been so sure of his plans, and confident about the weather. They would make an easy trip from the harbor. He had done extremely thorough research. He knew the Sword of Summer must lie at the bottom of Massachusetts Bay. He imagined himself making one quick dive. The old gods of Asgard would bless his efforts. He would bring the sword to the surface and lift its blade into the sunlight for the first time in a thousand years. His family would be there to witness his triumph.
Yet here they were, caught in a freak tempest, their yacht being thrown about like the toy in Aubrey’s lap.
The boat rolled to starboard. Emma screamed.
A wall of water engulfed me.
I surfaced in a different dream. My disembodied head bobbed up and down in a full bathtub that smelled of strawberry soap and mildewed washcloths. To my right floated a cheerful rubber ducky with worn-away eyes. To my left floated the not-so-cheerful head of the god Mimir. Seaweed and dead minnows swirled in his beard. Bubble bath foam dribbled from his eyes, ears, and nose.
“I’m telling ya”—his voice echoed in the tiled bathroom—“you guys gotta go. And not just because I’m your boss. Destiny demands it.”
He wasn’t talking to me. Next to the tub, sitting on a lovely avocado porcelain commode, was my friend Hearthstone, his shoulders slumped, his expression despondent. He wore his usual black leather coat and pants, a starched white shirt, and a polka-dotted scarf that looked like it had been cut from a Twister game mat. His spiky blond hair was almost as pale as his face.
Hearth gesticulated in sign language, so quickly and with such annoyance that I could only catch some of his words: Too dangerous….death…protect this idiot.
He pointed to Blitzen, who leaned against the sink with his arms crossed. The dwarf was as dapper as always in a walnut colored three-piece suit that matched his skin tone, a bow tie as black as his beard, and a Frank Sinatra–style hat that somehow pulled the whole look together.
“We have to go,” Blitz insisted. “The kid needs us.”
I wanted to tell them how much I missed them, how much I wanted to see them, but also that they shouldn’t risk their lives for me. Unfortunately, when I opened my mouth, the only thing that came out was a goldfish frantically wriggling its way to freedom.
My face pitched forward into the bubbles. When I surfaced again, the dream had changed.
I was still a disembodied head, but now I was floating in a massive open jar filled with pickles and vinegar. It was difficult to see through the greenish liquid and the curved glass, but I seemed to be on a bar. Neon drink ads glowed on the walls. Huge, hazy shapes sat hunched on the stools. Laughter and conversation sent ripples through the pickle juice.
I didn’t spend a lot of time in bars. I certainly didn’t spend a lot of time staring at one through a filthy pickle jar. But something about this place seemed familiar—the arrangement of the tables, the diamond-patterned beveled glass window on the opposite wall, even the rack of wineglasses suspended above me like pendant lamps.
A new shape moved into my vision—someone even larger than the patrons and dressed all in white. “GET OUT!” Her voice was harsh and ragged, as if she spent her spare time gargling gasoline. “ALL OF YOU, OUT! I WOULD TALK TO MY BROTHER!”
With a lot of grumbling, the crowd dispersed. The bar fell silent except for the sound of a TV somewhere across the room—a sports broadcast, a commentator saying, “Oh, would you look at that, Bill? His head came right off!”
I took that comment personally.
At the far end of the bar, someone else moved—a figure so dark and large I had thought it was just a shadow.
“It’s my bar.” His voice was a deep baritone, huffy and wet. If a bull walrus could speak English, he would sound like that. “Why do you always kick out my friends?”
“Friends?” the woman yelled. “They are your subjects, Thrym, not your friends! Start acting like a king!”
“I am!” the man said. “I’m going to destroy Midgard!”
“Huh. I’ll believe that when I see it. If you were a real king, you would’ve used that hammer immediately rather than hide it away and dither for months about what to do. You certainly wouldn’t trade it to that no-good—”
“It’s an alliance, Thrynga!” the man bellowed. I doubted this guy Thrym was really a walrus, but I imagined him hopping from flipper to flipper, his whiskers bristling. “You don’t understand how important that is. I need allies in order to take on the human world. Once I have married Samirah al-Abbas—”
I didn’t mean to, but as soon as I’d heard Samirah’s name, I screamed inside my pickle jar, causi
ng a huge bubble to break the surface of the greasy green liquid.
“What was that?” Thrym demanded.
The white shape of Thrynga loomed over me. “It came from the pickle jar.” She said this like it was the title of a horror film.
“Well, kill it!” Thrym yelled.
Thrynga picked up a barstool and whacked my jar with it, hurling me against the wall and leaving me on the floor in a puddle of pickles, juice, and broken glass.
I woke up in my own bed, gasping for air. My hands flew to my neck.
Thank Frey, my head was once again attached to my body. My nostrils still burned from the scent of pickles and strawberry bubble bath.
I tried to parse what had just happened—which parts were real, and which were dreams. The dragon Grimwolf. Alex Fierro and her garrote. Loki burning his way inside my head, somehow using Uncle Randolph to get to me. His warning about a wedding in five days.
All that had actually happened.
Unfortunately, my dreams seemed just as concrete. I’d been with Randolph on his boat the day his family had perished. His memories were now tangled with mine. His anguish sat on my chest like a block of steel—his loss of Caroline, Aubrey, and Emma felt as painful to me as the death of my own mother. Worse, in a way, because Randolph had never gotten any kind of closure. He still suffered every hour of every day.
The rest of the visions: Hearthstone and Blitzen coming to help me. I should have been elated, but I remembered Hearthstone’s frantic signs: Too dangerous. Death.
And the scene from the pickle jar. What the Helheim was that? Those mystery siblings, Thrym and Thrynga—I was willing to bet fifty pieces of red gold and a falafel dinner that they were giants. The one named Thrym had Thor’s hammer and planned on trading it for—I swallowed back pickle-flavored bile—for Sam.
It’s up to you to bring the bride and the bride-price, Loki had said. An alliance. A one-time offer.
Loki must have been out of his mind. He wanted to “help us” get Thor’s hammer back by marrying off Samirah?
Why hadn’t Sam said anything about this?
The poor thing is embarrassed, Loki had said.
I remembered the urgency in Sam’s voice when we’d talked at the café, the way her fingers had trembled on her coffee cup. No wonder she needed to find the hammer so badly. It wasn’t just to save the world from invasion, blah, blah, blah. We were always saving the world. Sam wanted to prevent this marriage deal.
But why would she even think she’d have to honor such a stupid trade? Loki had no right to tell her what to do. She was betrothed to Amir. She loved the guy. I would raise an army of einherjar, magic elves, and well-dressed dwarves and burn down Jotunheim before I let them coerce my friend.
Whatever the case, I needed to talk to her again, and soon.
I struggled out of bed. My knees still felt worn and achy like Randolph’s, though I knew it was only in my head. I limped to my closet, wishing I had my uncle’s cane.
I got dressed and retrieved my phone from the kitchenette.
The screen read 7:02 P.M. I was late for Valhalla’s nightly feast.
I’d never taken so long to resurrect after dying in battle. Usually I was one of the first ones reborn. I remembered Alex Fierro standing over me, calmly slicing off my head with her garrote.
I checked my texts. Still nothing from Annabeth. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I kept hoping. I needed my cousin’s outside perspective right now, her smarts, her assurance that I could handle all the weirdness.
My door blew open. Three ravens flew in, spiraled around my head, then landed in the lowest branch of the atrium tree. They glared at me the way only ravens can do, like I was not worthy of being their roadkill dinner.
“I know I’m late,” I told them. “I just woke up.”
Most likely translation:
Samirah would be at the feast. Maybe I could talk to her.
I grabbed my neck chain and slipped it over my head. The runestone pendant