“Wait!” Blitzen cried. “We need an oral accounting! I want to hear about your pasts—who you are, why you were all buried together, and the names and histories of all your weapons. I’m a dwarf. The heritage of things is important to me, especially if those things are going to kill me. I motion that you tell us everything.”
“I second the motion,” Samirah said. “All in favor?”
Every zombie raised his hand, including Gellir—I guess out of habit—who then looked quite annoyed with himself. Jack shot into the air to make the vote unanimous.
Gellir shrugged, causing his armor and bones to creak. “You’re making this massacre very difficult, but all right, I will recount our story. Gentlemen, at ease.”
The other zombies sheathed their swords. Some sat on the floor. Others leaned against the wall and crossed their arms. Arvid and Knut retrieved bags of yarn and knitting needles from their niches and began to work on mittens.
“So I am Gellir,” began the prince, “son of Thorkel, a prince among the Danes. And this”—he patted his sword—“is Skofnung, the most famous blade ever wielded by a Viking!”
“Present company excepted,” Jack murmured. “But, oh, man, Skofnung is a hot name.”
I didn’t agree with him. I also didn’t like the look of terror on Hearthstone’s face. “Hearth, you know this sword?”
The elf signed cautiously, as if the air might burn his fingers. First belonged to King H-R-O-L-F. Was forged with souls of his twelve followers, all berserkers.
“What is he saying?” Gellir demanded. “Those hand gestures are very annoying.”
I started to translate, but Blitzen interrupted, shrieking so loudly that Arvid and Knut dropped their knitting needles.
“That sword?” Blitz stared at Hearthstone. “The one with…the stone…your house?”
This made no sense to me, but Hearth nodded.
Now you see? he signed. We should not have come.
Sam turned, her spear’s light making dust sizzle on the floor. “What do mean? What stone? And what does it have to do with Thor’s hammer?
“Excuse me,” Gellir said. “I believe I was speaking. If you came here looking for Thor’s hammer, I’m afraid someone gave you very bad information.”
“We have to live through this,” I told my friends. “There’s a goat I need to kill.”
“Ahem,” Gellir continued. “As I was saying, the Skofnung Sword was created by a king named Hrolf. His twelve berserkers sacrificed their lives so their souls could instill the blade with power.” Gellir scowled at his own men, two of whom were now playing cards in the corner. “Those were the days when a prince could find good bodyguards. At any rate, a man named Eid stole the sword from Hrolf’s grave. Eid lent it to my father, Thorkel, who sort of…forgot to return it. My dad died in a shipwreck, but the sword washed ashore in Iceland. I found it and used it in many glorious massacres. And now…here we are! When I died in battle, the sword was buried with me, along with my twelve berserkers, for protection.”
Dagfinn flipped a page in his notebook and jotted. “For…protection. Can I add that we expected to go to Valhalla? That we were cursed to stay in this tomb forever because your sword was stolen property? And that we hate our afterlives?”
“NO!” Gellir snapped. “How many times do you want me to apologize?”
Arvid looked up from his half-finished mittens. “I move that Gellir apologize a million more times. Do I hear a second?”
“Stop that!” Gellir said. “Look, we have guests. Let’s not air our dirty under-tunics, eh? Besides, once we kill these mortals and devour their souls, we’ll have enough power to break out of this tomb! I can’t wait to check out Provincetown.”
I imagined thirteen zombie Vikings marching down Commercial Street, barging into the Wired Puppy Coffee Shop and demanding espresso drinks at sword point.
“But enough old business!” Gellir said. “Can I please introduce a motion to kill these intruders?”
“I second.” Dagfinn shook his ballpoint pen. “I’m out of ink anyway.”
“No!” Blitzen said. “We need more discussion. I don’t know the names of these other weapons. And those knitting needles! Tell me about them!”
“You’re out of order,” Gellir said.
“I move that we be shown the nearest exit,” I said.
Gellir stomped his foot. “You’re also out of order! I call for a vote!”
Dagfinn looked at me apologetically. “It’s a Thing thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
I should have attacked immediately, while they were off guard, but that seemed undemocratic.
“All in favor?” Gellir called.
“Aye!” the dead Vikings cried in unison. They got to their feet, put away their cards and various knitting projects, and drew their swords once again.
Hearthstone Unleashes His Inner Bovine
JACK DECIDED this was an excellent time to give me a training session.
Despite being fully capable of fighting on his own, he had this strong belief that I should learn to wield him with my own power. Something about me being worthy and competent or whatever. The thing is, I sucked at swordplay. Also, Jack always decided to train me in the worst possible situations.
“No time like the present!” he yelled, turning heavy and unhelpful in my grip.
“Come on, man!” I ducked the first blade that swung toward my head. “Let’s practice later, on mannequins or something!”
“Dodge left!” Jack yelled. “Your other left! Make me proud, señor. The Skofnung blade is watching!”
I was almost tempted to die just to embarrass Jack in front of the lady sword. But since I was outside Valhalla and my death would be permanent, I decided that particular plan might be shortsighted.
The zombies crowded in.
The cramped quarters were our only advantage. Each draugr was armed with a broadsword, which requires about five feet of free space for effective swinging. Twelve dead berserkers with broadswords, surrounding a tight-knit group of defenders in a small chamber? I don’t care how good you are at forming a quorum, you’re just not going to be able to massacre those defenders very easily without hacking apart your comrades as well.
Our melee turned into an awkward shuffle with a lot of shoving, cursing, and bad zombie breath. Samirah thrust her spear under Arvid’s jaw. The weapon’s light burned away his head like a flame going through toilet paper.
Another zombie jabbed at Blitzen’s chest, but Blitz’s chain-mail-lined vest bent the blade. Blitz slammed his bow tie–wrapped fist into the zombie’s gut and—much to everyone’s disgust—got his hand stuck in the zombie’s abdominal cavity.
“Gross!” Blitzen proceeded to lurch backward, yanking the zombie along, swinging him like a clumsy dance partner and knocking other draugr out of t
Hearthstone took the award for Most Improved in Melee Combat. He slammed down a runestone:
He was immediately encased in golden light. He grew taller. His muscles swelled as though someone were inflating his clothes. His eyes turned bloodshot. His hair splayed with static. He grabbed the nearest zombie and tossed him across the room. Then he picked up another one and literally broke him in half over his knee.
As you can guess, the other zombies backed away from the crazy overinflated elf.
“What rune is that?” I accidentally swung Jack through the top of Gellir’s sarcophagus, giving it a sunroof.
Blitz yanked his hand free from his dance partner, who collapsed into pieces. “Uruz,” Blitz said. “The rune of the ox.”
I silently added an uruz rune to my Christmas wish list.
Meanwhile, Samirah cut through her enemies, twirling her spear in one hand like a shiny baton of death. Any zombie who managed to avoid going up in flames, she chopped down with her ax.
Jack continued shouting unhelpful advice. “Parry, Magnus! Duck! Defense Pattern Omega!”
I was pretty sure that wasn’t even a thing. The few times I managed to hit a zombie, Jack cut him to pieces, but I doubted the moves were impressive enough to win Jack a date with the lady sword.
When it became clear that Gellir was running out of bodyguards, he leaped into battle himself, whacking me with his sheathed sword and yelling, “Bad mortal! Bad mortal!”
I tried to fight back, but Jack resisted. Probably he thought it would be unchivalrous to fight a lady, especially one who was stuck in her sheath. Jack was old-fashioned that way.
Finally, Gellir was the only draugr left. His bodyguards lay strewn across the floor in a ghastly collection of arms, legs, weapons, and knitting supplies.
Gellir backed toward his sarcophagus, cradling the Skofnung Sword against his chest.
“Hold on. Point of order. I move that we table all further combat until—”
Hearthstone objected to Gellir’s motion by rushing the prince and ripping his head off. Gellir’s body toppled forward, and our ’roid-raging elf stomped him flat, kicking and scattering the desiccated remains until there was nothing left but the Skofnung Sword.
Hearthstone started to kick that, too.
“Stop him!” Jack yelled.
I grabbed Hearth’s arm, which was definitely the bravest thing I’d done that day. He rounded on me, his eyes blazing with fury.
He’s dead, I signed. You can stop now.
Chances were high that I was going to get decapitated again.
Then Hearthstone blinked. His bloodshot eyes cleared. His muscles deflated. His hair settled against his scalp. He crumpled, but Blitzen and I were both there to catch him. We’d gotten used to Hearthstone’s post-magic pass-outs.
Sam stuck her spear into Dagfinn’s corpse and left it standing up like a giant glow stick. She paced the tomb, cursing under her breath. “I’m sorry, guys. All that risk, all that effort, and no Mjolnir.”
“Hey, it’s cool,” Jack said. “We rescued the Skofnung Sword from her evil master! She’s going to be so grateful. We have to take her with us!”
Blitzen waved his orange handkerchief in Hearth’s face, trying to revive him. “Taking that sword would be a very bad idea.”
“Why?” I asked. “And why did Hearth look so freaked-out when he heard its name? You said something about a stone?”
Blitz cradled Hearth’s head in his lap like he was trying to protect the elf from our conversation. “Kid, whoever sent us here…it was a trap, all right. But the draugr were the least dangerous things in this chamber. Somebody wanted us to free that sword.”
A familiar voice said, “You’re absolutely right.”
My heart jackknifed. Standing in front of Gellir’s sarcophagus were the two men I least wanted to see in the Nine Worlds: Uncle Randolph and Loki. Behind them, the back panel of the sawed-off coffin had become a shimmering doorway. On the other side lay Randolph’s study.