“Now, down to business,” Helgi said. “Loki has escaped, but we know where he is. Samirah al-Abbas…your next mission as Odin’s Valkyrie in charge of special operations will be to find your father and put him back in chains.”
Samirah lowered her head. She didn’t look surprised—more like she’d lost the final appeal for a death sentence she’d been fighting her entire life.
“Sir,” she said, “I will do as I’m ordered. But after what happened the last two times I faced my father, the ease with which he controlled me—”
“You can learn to fight it,” Alex interrupted. “I can help—”
“I’m not you, Alex! I can’t…” Sam gestured vaguely at her sister, as if to indicate all the things Alex was that Sam could never be.
Helgi brushed some food scraps out of his beard. “Samirah, I didn’t say it would be easy. But the ravens say you can do it. You must do it. And so you shall.”
Sam stared at the ball bearings bouncing back and forth. Click, click, click.
“This place where my father went…” she said. “Where is it?”
“The Eastern Shores,” Helgi said. “Just as the old stories say. Now that Loki is free, he has gone to the docks, where he hopes to complete construction of Naglfar.”
Hearthstone signed: The Ship of Nails. That is not good.
I felt cold…and seasick.
I remembered visiting that ship in a dream, standing on the deck of a Viking longboat the size of an aircraft carrier and made entirely from the toenails and fingernails of the dead. Loki had warned me that when Ragnarok began, he would sail the ship to Asgard, destroy the gods, steal their Pop-Tarts, and otherwise cause mass chaos.
“If Loki is free, is it already too late?” I asked. “Isn’t his unbinding one of the things that signals the beginning of Ragnarok?”
“Yes and no,” Helgi said.
I waited. “Am I supposed to pick one?”
“The unbinding of Loki does help start Ragnarok,” Helgi said. “But nothing says this escape is his last and final escape. It’s conceivable you could recapture him and put him back, thus postponing Doomsday.”
“Like we did with Fenris Wolf,” Blitz muttered. “That was a piece of cake.”
“Exactly.” Helgi nodded enthusiastically. “Cake.”
“I was being sarcastic,” Blitz said. “I suppose they don’t have sarcasm in Valhalla any more than they have decent barbers.”
Helgi reddened. “See here, dwarf—”
He was interrupted by a huge brown-and-orange shape slamming into his window.
Blitzen fell out of his chair. Alex leaped straight up and clung to the ceiling in the form of a sugar glider. Sam rose with her ax in hand, ready for battle. I valiantly took cover down in front of Helgi’s desk. Hearthstone just sat there, frowning at the giant squirrel.
Why? he signed.
“It’s all right, everyone,” Helgi assured us. “It’s just Ratatosk.”
The words just Ratatosk did not compute. I’d been chased through the World Tree by that monstrous rodent. I’d heard his soul-searing, scolding voice. It was never all right when he showed up.
“No, really,” Helgi insisted. “The window is soundproof and squirrel-proof. The beast just likes to stop by and taunt me sometimes.”
I peeked over the top of the desk. Ratatosk was barking and screeching, but only the faintest murmur came through the glass. He gnashed his teeth at us and pressed his cheek against the window.
The ravens didn’t seem bothered. They glanced over as if to say, Oh, it’s you, then went back to preening their feathers.
“How do you stand it?” Blitzen asked. “That—that thing is deadly!”
The squirrel puffed his mouth against the glass, showing us his teeth and gums, then licked the window.
“I’d rather know where he is than not,” Helgi said. “Sometimes I can tell what’s going on in the Nine Worlds just by observing the squirrel’s level of agitation.”
Judging from Ratatosk’s current state, I guessed some serious stuff was going down in the Nine Worlds. To alleviate our anxiety, Helgi rose, lowered the blinds, and sat back down.
“Where were we?” he said. “Ah, yes, cake and sarcasm.”
Alex dropped from the ceiling and returned to her regular form. She’d changed out of her wedding dress earlier and was back in her old diamond-pattern sweater-vest. She tugged at it casually as if to say, Yes, I totally meant to turn into a sugar glider.
Sam lowered her ax. “Helgi, about this mission…I wouldn’t know where to start. Where the ship is docked? The Eastern Shores could be on any world.”
The manager turned up his palms. “I don’t have those answers, Samirah, but Huginn and Muninn will brief you privately. Go with them to the high places of Valhalla. Let them show you thoughts and memories.”
To me, that sounded like some trippy vision quest with Darth Vader appearing in a foggy cave.
Sam didn’t look too happy about it, either. “But, Helgi—”
“There can be no debate,” the manager insisted. “Odin chose you. He has chosen this entire group because—” He paused abruptly and put a finger to his ear. I’d never realized Helgi wore an earpiece, but he was obviously listening to something.
He glanced up at us. “Apologies. Where was I? Ah, yes, all five of you were present when Loki escaped. Therefore, all five of you will have a part to play in recapturing the outlaw god.”
“We broke it, we bought it,” I muttered.
“Exactly!” Helgi grinned. “Now that that’s settled, you’ll have to excuse me. There’s been a massacre in the yoga studio, and they need clean mats.”
Daisies in the Shape of an Elf
AS SOON AS we left the office, the ravens led Sam up another staircase. She glanced back at us uneasily, but Helgi had been pretty clear that the rest of us weren’t invited.
Alex turned on her heel and marched off in the opposite direction.
“Hey,” I called. “Where—?”
She looked back, her eyes so angry I couldn’t finish my question.
“Later, Magnus,” she said. “I have to…” She made a strangling gesture with her hands. “Just later.”
That left me with Blitzen and Hearthstone, who were both swaying on their feet.
“You guys want to—?”
“Sleep,” Blitzen said. “Please. Immediately.”
I led them back to my room. The three of us camped in the grass in the middle of my atrium. It reminded me of the old days, sleeping in the Public Garden, but I’m not going to tell you I was nostalgic for being homeless. Homelessness is not something any sane person would ever be nostalgic about. Still, like I’ve said, it was a lot simpler than being an undead warrior who chased fugitive gods across the Nine Worlds and conducted serious conversations while a monstrous squirrel made faces at you in the window.
Hearthstone conked out first. He curled up, sighed gently, and went right to sleep. When he was still, despite his black clothes, he seemed to blend into the shadows of the grass. Maybe it was elf camouflage—a remnant of the time when they were one with nature.
Blitz wedged his back against a tree and stared at Hearth with concern.
“We’re going to Blitzen’s Best tomorrow,” he told me. “Reopen the shop. Spend a few weeks trying to regroup and get back to…whatever normal is. Before we have to go and find…” The prospect of taking on Loki again was so daunting he couldn’t even finish the thought.
I felt guilty that I hadn’t considered Hearthstone’s grief the past few days. I’d been too preoccupied with Thor’s stupid TV hammer.
“That’s a good idea,” I said. “Alfheim was rough for him.”
Blitz clasped his hands near where the Skofnung Sword had pierced him. “Yeah, I’m worried about Hearth’s unfinished business there.”
“I wish I’d been more help to him,” I said. “To both of you.”
“Nah, kid. Some kinds of help you have to do for yourself. Hearth…he’
s got a dad-shaped hole in his heart. You can’t do anything about that.”
“His dad will never be a nice guy.”
“No kidding. But Hearth has to come to terms with that. Sooner or later, he’ll have to go back and face him…get his inheritance rune back one way or another. When and how that will happen, though…” He shrugged helplessly.
I thought about my Uncle Randolph. How did you decide when someone was irretrievably lost—when they were so evil or toxic or just plain set in their ways that you had to face the fact they were never going to change? How long could you keep trying to save them, and when did you give up and grieve for them as though they were dead?
It was easy for me to advise Hearthstone on his father. The dude was way past horrible. But my own uncle, who had gotten me killed, stabbed my friend, and freed the god of evil…I still couldn’t quite bring myself to write him off.
Blitzen patted my hand. “Whatever happens, kid, we’ll be ready when you need us. We’ll see this through and get Loki back in chains, even if I have to make those chains myself.”
“Yours would be a lot more fashionable,” I said.
Blitz’s mouth twitched. “Yeah. Yeah, they would. And don’t feel guilty, kid. You did good.”