I picked up the photo of the three Chase siblings. “But sometime during the last week, that same Loki symbol appeared on my uncle’s face. Any thoughts?”
Jack planted the tip of his blade in the living room carpet. He bent forward until his hilt was an inch from the photo. Maybe he was getting nearsighted. (Near-hilted?)
“Hmm,” he said. “You want my opinion?”
“I think that’s pretty strange.”
I waited for more. Jack did not elaborate.
“Okay, then,” I said. “You don’t think maybe there’s a connection between…I don’t know, another child of Loki showing up in Valhalla, and this weird mark on Randolph’s face, and the fact that suddenly, after a couple of months of quiet, we have to find Thor’s hammer right away to avoid some invasion?”
“When you put it like that,” Jack said, “you’re right, it’s very strange. But Loki is always showing up in weird places. And Thor’s hammer…” Jack vibrated in place like he was either shuddering or suppressing a laugh. “Mjolnir is always getting misplaced. I swear, Thor needs to have that hammer duct-taped to his face.”
I doubted I would be getting that image out of my head anytime soon. “How can Thor lose it so easily? How could anyone steal it? I thought Mjolnir was so heavy nobody else could pick it up.”
“Common misconception,” Jack said. “Forget all that only-the-worthy-can-lift-it stuff from the movies. The hammer is heavy, but you get enough giants together? Sure, they can lift it. Now wielding it—throwing it correctly, catching it again, summoning lightning with it—that takes some skill. But I’ve lost count of the number of times Thor has fallen asleep in some forest, prankster giants have rolled up in a backhoe loader, and the next thing you know, the thunder god is hammerless. Most of the time he gets it back quickly, kills the pranksters, and lives happily ever after.”
“But not this time.”
Jack wobbled back and forth, his version of a shrug. “I suppose getting Mjolnir back is important. The hammer is powerful. Inspires fear in the giants. Smashes entire armies. Keeps the forces of evil from destroying the universe and whatever. Personally, I’ve always found him kind of a bore. He just sits there most of the time. Doesn’t say a word. And don’t ever invite him to karaoke night at the Nuclear Rainbow. Disaster. I completely had to carry both parts on ‘Love Never Felt So Good.’”
I wondered if Jack’s blade was sharp enough to cut off the too-much information he was giving me. I guessed not.
“Last question,” I said. “Halfborn mentioned that this new child of Loki was an ‘argr.’ You have any idea—”
“I LOVE argrs!” Jack somersaulted with glee, nearly slicing off my nose. “Frey’s Fripperies! We have an argr across the hall? That’s great news.”
“One time we were in Midgard—me and Frey and a couple of elves, right? It was like three in the morning, and this argr walked up to us…” Jack howled with laughter, his runes pulsing in full Saturday Night Fever mode. “Oh, wow. That was an epic night!”
“But what exactly—?”
Someone knocked on my door. T.J. poked his head in. “Magnus, sorry to bother—Oh, hey, Jack, what’s up?”
“T.J.!” Jack said. “You recover from last night?”
T.J. chuckled, though he looked embarrassed. “Just about.”
I frowned. “You guys went partying last night?”
“Oh, señor, señor,” Jack chided, “you really need to come out with us. You haven’t lived until you’ve gone clubbing with a Civil War bayonet.”
T.J. cleared his throat. “So, anyway, I came to get you, Magnus. The battle’s about to start.”
I looked around for a clock, then remembered I didn’t have one. “Isn’t it early?”
“It’s Thursday,” T.J. reminded me.
I cursed. Thursdays were special. And complicated. I hated them. “Let me grab my gear.”
“Also,” T.J. said, “the hotel ravens have tracked down our new hallmate. I thought we should probably go be with him. They’re bringing him to the battle…whether he wants to be there or not.”
Love Me Some Weasel Soup
THURSDAY MEANT dragons. Which meant an even more painful death than usual.
I would’ve brought Jack, but 1) he thought practice battles were beneath him, and 2) he had a hot date with a polearm.
By the time T.J. and I arrived at the battlefield, the fighting had already started. Armies streamed into the hotel’s interior courtyard—a topographical killing zone big enough to be its own sovereign country, with woods, meadows, rivers, hills, and mock villages. On all four sides, soaring into the hazy white fluorescent sky, tiers of gold-rimmed balconies overlooked the field. From the upper levels, catapults hurled fiery projectiles toward the warriors below like deadly ticker tape.
The blare of horns echoed through the forests. Plumes of smoke rose from burning huts. Einherjar charged into the river, fighting on horseback, laughing as they cut each other down.
And, because it was Thursday, a dozen large dragons had also joined the slaughter.
The older einherjar called them lindworms. If you ask me, that made them sound like a mildly annoying skin rash. Instead, lindworms were the size and length of eighteen-wheelers. They had just two front legs, with leathery brown bat-type wings too small for effective flight. Mostly they dragged themselves across the ground, occasionally flapping, leaping, and swooping down on their prey.
From a distance, with their brown, green, and ocher hides, they looked like an angry flock of giant carnivorous turkey snakes. But trust me: up close, they were bad news.
Our goal for Thursday’s battle? Stay alive as long as possible while the dragons tried very hard not to let us. (Spoiler: The dragons always won.)
Mallory and Halfborn waited for us at the edge of the field. Halfborn was adjusting the straps on Mallory’s armor.
“You’re doing it wrong,” she growled. “That’s too tight across the shoulders.”
“Woman, I’ve been putting on armor for centuries.”
“When? You always go into battle bare-chested.”
“Are you complaining about that?” Halfborn asked.
Mallory blushed. “Shut up.”
“Ah, look, here’s Magnus and T.J.!” Halfborn clapped me on the shoulder, dislocating several of my joints. “Floor nineteen is accounted for!”
Technically, that wasn’t true. Floor nineteen had almost a hundred residents. But our particular corridor—our neighborhood within the neighborhood—consisted of us four. Plus, of course, the newest resident…
“Where’s the cheetah?” T.J. asked.
As if on cue, a raven dive-bombed us. It dropped a burlap bag at my feet then landed nearby, flapping its wings and croaking angrily. The burlap bag moved. A long skinny animal squirmed out of it—a brown-and-white weasel.
The weasel hissed. The raven cawed. I didn’t speak raven, but I was pretty sure it was telling the weasel, Behave yourself or I will peck your weaselly eyes out.
T.J. pointed his rifle at the animal. “You know, when the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts was marching toward Darien, Georgia, we used to shoot weasels and cook them in a soup. Tasty stuff. You guys think I should get out my old recipe?”
The weasel transformed. I’d heard so much about this new recruit being a monster that I half expected him to turn into a living corpse like the goddess Hel, or a miniature version of the sea serpent Jormungand. Instead, the animal grew into a regular human teen, long and lanky, with a swirl of dyed green hair, black at the roots, like a plug of weeds pulled out of a lawn.
The weasel’s brown-and-white fur changed into green and pink clothes: battered rose high-tops, skinny lime green corduroy pants, a pink-and-green argyle sweater-vest over a white tee, and another pink cashmere sweater wrapped around the waist like a kilt. The outfit reminded me of a jester’s motley, or the coloration of a venomous animal warning the whole world: Try me and you die.
The newcomer looked up, and I forgot how to breathe. It was Loki’s face, except younger—the same wry smile and sharp features, the same unearthly beauty, but without the scarred lips or the acid burns across the nose. And those eyes—one dark brown, the other pale amber. I’d forgotten the term for that, having different-colored irises. My mom would’ve called it David Bowie eyes. I called it completely unnerving.
The weirdest thing of all? I was pretty sure I had seen this kid before.
Yeah, I know. You’re thinking a kid like that would stand out. How could I not remember exactly where we’d crossed paths? But when you live on the streets, wild-looking people are normal. Only normal people stand out as strange.
The kid flashed a perfect white smile at T.J., though there was no warmth in those eyes. “Point that rifle somewhere else, or I will wrap it around your neck like a bow tie.”
Something told me this was not an idle threat. The kid might actually know how to tie a bow tie, which was kinda scary arcane knowledge.
T.J. laughed. He also lowered his rifle. “We didn’t get a chance to introduce ourselves earlier, when you were trying to kill us. I’m Thomas Jefferson, Jr. This is Mallory Keen, Halfborn Gunderson, and Magnus Chase.”
The newcomer just stared at us. Finally the raven made an irritated squawk.
“Yeah, yeah,” the kid told the bird. “Like I said, I’m calmer now. You didn’t mess me up, so it’s all cool.”
The kid sighed. “Fine, I’ll introduce myself. I’m Alex Fierro. Pleased to meet you all, I guess. Mr. Raven, you can go now. I promise not to kill them unless I have to.”
The raven ruffled his feathers. He gave me the stink eye, like, It’s your problem now, buddy. Then he flew away.
Halfborn grinned. “Well, that’s settled! Now that you’ve promised not to kill us, let’s start killing other people!”
Mallory crossed her arms. “He doesn’t even have a weapon.”
“She,” Alex corrected.
“What?” Mallory asked.
“Call me she—unless and until I tell you otherwise.”