Just because I’d been killed by a fire giant two months ago, I got to live in luxury. Meanwhile, these guys and their terrier ate from garbage bins. It wasn’t fair.
I wished I could round up every homeless person in Boston and say, Hey, there’s a big mansion right over here with thousands of comfy suites and free food forever. Follow me!
But that wouldn’t work.
You couldn’t bring mortals into Valhalla. You couldn’t even die on purpose to get in. Your death had to be an unplanned selfless act, and you had to hope there was a Valkyrie around to see it.
Of course, that still made Valhalla better than the high-rise condos sprouting up all around downtown. Most of them were full of empty luxury apartments, too—shiny fourth or fifth homes for billionaires. You didn’t need a brave death to get in, just a lot of money. If the giants did invade Boston, maybe I could convince them to do some strategic condo-stomping.
Finally, I reached the Midgard facade of the Hotel Valhalla. From the outside, it looked like an eight-story mansion of white-and-gray stone—just another piece of super-expensive real estate in a row of Colonial town houses. The only difference: the hotel’s front garden was completely enclosed by a fifteen-foot-tall limestone wall with no entryway—the first of many defenses to keep non-einherjar from trespassing.
I jumped straight over and into the Grove of Glasir.
A couple of Valkyries hovered in the branches of the white birch tree, collecting its twenty-four-karat-gold foliage. They waved to me, but I didn’t stop to chat. I marched up the front steps and pushed open the heavy double doors.
In the cathedral-size lobby, the usual scene was going on. In front of the roaring fireplace, teenage einherjar hung out playing board games or just chillaxing (which is like chilling, except with battle-axes). Other einherjar in fuzzy green hotel bathrobes chased each other around the rough-hewn pillars that lined the hall, playing hide-and-seek-and-kill. Their laughter echoed off the ceiling high above, where the rafters gleamed with the points of thousands of bundled spears.
I glanced over at the reception desk, wondering if Sam’s mysterious eye-punching brother might be checking in. The only person there was the manager, Helgi, glowering at his computer screen. One sleeve of his green suit had been ripped off. Chunks of his epic-size beard had been pulled out. His hair looked even more like a dead buzzard than usual.
“Don’t go over there,” warned a familiar voice.
Hunding the bellhop sidled up next to me, his warty red face covered with fresh scratches. His beard, like Helgi’s, looked like it had recently been caught in a chicken-plucking machine. “Boss is in a foul mood,” he said. “Like, beat-you-with-a-stick foul mood.”
“You don’t look so happy yourself,” I noted. “What happened?”
Hunding’s beard quivered with anger. “Our newest guest happened.”
“Hmph. If you want to call him that. I don’t know what Samirah was thinking, bringing that monster to Valhalla.”
“Monster?” I had a flashback to X, the half-troll Samirah had once admitted to Valhalla. She’d gotten flak for that, too, though X had later turned out to be Odin in disguise. (Long story.) “You mean this newcomer is an actual monster, like Fenris or—”
“Worse, if you ask me.” Hunding brushed a tuft of whiskers off his uniform name tag. “Cursed argr nearly tore my face off when he saw his accommodations. Not to mention the complete lack of a proper tip—”
“Bellhop!” the manager shouted from the reception desk. “Stop fraternizing and get over here! You have dragon teeth to floss!”
I looked at Hunding. “He makes you floss the dragons’ teeth?”
Hunding sighed. “Takes forever, too. I gotta go.”
“Hey, man.” I handed him the bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans I’d bought at the Thinking Cup. “Hang in there.”
The old Viking’s eyes turned misty. “Magnus Chase, you’re a fine lad. I could hug you to death—”
“BELLHOP!” Helgi shouted again.
“ALL RIGHT! HOLD YOUR EIGHT-LEGGED HORSES!” Hunding scurried toward the front desk, which spared me from a hug to the death.
As low as I felt, at least I didn’t have Hunding’s job. The poor guy had reached Valhalla only to be forced into servitude by Helgi, his archenemy from mortal life. I figured he deserved some chocolate now and then. Also, his friendship had already proven invaluable to me several times. Hunding knew his way around the hotel better than anybody, and he had all the juicy gossip.
I headed for the elevators, wondering what an “argr” was and why Sam would bring one into Valhalla. Mostly I wondered if I had time for lunch and a nap before this afternoon’s battle. It was important to be well fed and well rested when dying in combat.
In the corridors, a few einherjar gave me sidelong glances. Most ignored me. Sure, I’d retrieved the Sword of Summer and defeated Fenris Wolf, but the majority of my fellow warriors just saw me as the kid who’d gotten three Valkyries killed and almost started Ragnarok. The fact that I was a son of Frey, the Vanir summer god, didn’t help. His offspring weren’t usually found in Valhalla. I wasn’t cool enough to hang with the popular crowd—the children of war gods like Thor, Tyr, and Odin.
Yes, Valhalla had cliques just like high school. And while high school seemed to last for eternity, Valhalla actually did. The only einherjar who truly accepted me were my hallmates on floor nineteen, and I was anxious to get back to them.
In the elevator, the Viking easy-listening music did not help my mood. Questions swam around in my brain: Who had killed Otis? What had the goat wanted to warn me about? Who was Sam’s brother? What were Blitz and Hearth hiding from? And who in their right mind would want to record “Fly Me to the Moon” in Old Norse?
The elevator doors opened at floor nineteen. I stepped out and promptly got sideswiped by a large animal. It was moving so fast I only registered a blur of tan and black before it turned a corner and was gone. Then I noticed holes in my sneakers where the animal had run over them. Tiny geysers of pain erupted from the tops of my feet.
“Ow,” I said, belatedly.
“Stop that cheetah!” Thomas Jefferson, Jr. came charging down the corridor with his bayonet fixed, my other hallmates Mallory Keen and Halfborn Gunderson close behind him. They stumbled to a stop in front of me, all three panting and sweating.
“Did you see it?” T.J. demanded. “Where’d it go?”
“Um…” I pointed to the right. “Why do we have a cheetah?”
“It wasn’t our idea, believe me.” T.J. shouldered his rifle. As usual, he wore his blue Union Army uniform, his jacket unbuttoned over a green Hotel Valhalla T-shirt. “Our new hallmate isn’t happy to be here.”
“New hallmate,” I said. “A cheetah. You mean…the soul Sam brought in. A child of Loki. He’s a shape-shifter?”
“Among other things,” said Halfborn Gunderson. Being a berserker, he had the physique of Sasquatch and wore only hide britches. Runic tattoos swirled across his massive chest. He banged his battle-ax on the floor. “I almost got my face smashed in by that meinfretr!”
Since moving to Valhalla, I’d learned an impressive number of Old Norse cusswords. Meinfretr translated as something like stinkfart, which was, naturally, the worst kind of fart.
Mallory sheathed her two knives. “Halfborn, your face could use an occasional smashing.” Her brogue got thicker whenever she was angry. With her red hair and flushed cheeks, she could have passed for a small fire giant, except fire giants were not as intimidating. “I’m more concerned about that demon destroying the hotel! Did you see what he did to X’s room?”
“He took over X’s old room?” I asked.
“And proceeded to tear it up.” Mallory made a V with her fingers and flicked them under her chin in the direction the cheetah had fled. Miss Keen was Irish, so her V did not mean peace or victory—it meant something much ruder. “We came by to welcome him, found the place in ruins. No re
I remembered my own first day in Valhalla. I had thrown a sofa across the living room and put my fist through the bathroom wall. “Well…adjusting can be tough.”
T.J. shook his head. “Not like this. The kid tried to kill us on sight. Some of the stuff he said—”
“First-rate insults,” Halfborn conceded. “I’ll give him credit for that. But I’ve never seen one person do so much damage….Come have a look, Magnus. See for yourself.”
They led me down to X’s old room. I’d never been inside, but now the door was wide open. The interior looked like it had been redecorated by a Category 5 hurricane.
“Holy Frigg.” I stepped over a pile of busted furniture into the foyer.
The layout was a lot like my own suite—four square sections jutting out from a central atrium like a giant plus sign. The foyer had once been a sitting area with a sofa, bookshelves, a TV, and a fireplace. Now it was a disaster zone. Only the fireplace was still intact, and gouge marks scarred the mantel as if our new neighbor had taken a broadsword to it.
From what I could see, the bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom wings had been similarly destroyed. In a daze, I moved toward the atrium.
Just like mine, it had a huge tree in the middle. The lowest branches spread across the apartment’s ceiling, interweaving with the rafters. The upper branches stretched into a cloudless blue sky. My feet sank into green grass. The breeze from above smelled like mountain laurel—a sort of grape Kool-Aid scent. I’d been in several of my friends’ rooms, but none of them had an open-air atrium.
“Was it like this for X?” I asked.
Mallory snorted. “Hardly. X’s atrium was a big pool—a natural hot spring. His place was always as hot, humid, and sulfurous as a troll’s armpit.”
“I miss X.” Halfborn sighed. “But, yes, all this is completely new. Each suite arranges itself to fit its owner’s style.”
I wondered what it meant that my atrium was exactly like the newcomer’s. I didn’t want to share styles with a murderous wildcat son of Loki who ran over people’s feet.
At the edge of the atrium lay another pile of wreckage. Freestanding shelves had been overturned. The grass was littered with ceramic bowls and cups—some colorfully glazed, others unfired clay.
I knelt and picked up the base of a broken flowerpot. “You think Cheetah Boy made all these?”
“Yep.” T.J. gestured with his bayonet. “There are a kiln and a potter’s wheel in the kitchen, too.”
“Good quality stuff,” Halfborn said. “The vase he threw at my face was beautiful and deadly. Just like Miss Keen, here.”
Mallory’s face went from strawberry red to habanero orange. “You’re an idiot.” Which was her way of expressing affection for her boyfriend.
I turned over the shard. On the base, the initials A.F. were etched in the clay. I did not want to speculate what they might stand for. Under the initials was a decorative stamp: two snakes curled in an elaborate S pattern, their tails looped around each other’s heads.
My fingertips felt numb. I dropped the shard and picked up another broken pot: same initials on the bottom, same serpentine stamp.
“It’s a symbol of Loki,” Halfborn offered. “Flexibility, change, slipperiness.”
My ears buzzed. I’d seen this symbol before…recently, in my own room. “How—how do you know?”
Halfborn puffed out his already puffed-out chest. “As I’ve told you, I’ve spent my time well in Valhalla. I have a PhD in Germanic literature.”
“Which he only mentions several times a day,” Mallory added.
“Hey, guys,” T.J. called from the bedroom. He speared his bayonet into a pile of clothing and held up a dark green sleeveless silk dress.
“Posh,” Mallory said. “That’s a Stella McCartney.”