‘I still don’t get where I am. If you guys have been here since 749, that’s over a thousand years.’
‘Don’t remind me,’ Hunding grumbled.
‘But that’s impossible. And … and you said I’m dead? I don’t feel dead. I feel fine.’
‘Sir,’ Helgi said, ‘all this will be explained tonight at dinner. That’s when new guests are formally welcomed.’
‘Valhalla.’ The word surfaced from the depths of my brain – a half-remembered story my mom had read me when I was little. ‘The HV on your lapel. The V stands for Valhalla?’
Helgi’s eyes made it clear I was straining his patience. ‘Yes, sir. The Hotel Valhalla. Congratulations. You’ve been chosen to join the hosts of Odin. I look forward to hearing about your brave exploits at dinner.’
My legs buckled. I leaned on the desk for support. I’d been trying to convince myself this was all a mistake – some elaborate theme hotel where I’d been mistaken for a guest. Now I wasn’t so sure.
‘Dead,’ I mumbled. ‘You mean I’m actually … I’m actually –’
‘Here is your room key.’ Helgi handed me a stone engraved with a single Viking rune, like the stones in Uncle Randolph’s library. ‘Would you like the minibar key?’
‘He wants the minibar key,’ Hunding answered for me. ‘Kid, you want the minibar key. It’s going to be a long stay.’
My mouth tasted like copper. ‘How long?’
‘Forever,’ Helgi said, ‘or at least until Ragnarok. Hunding will now show you to your room. Enjoy your afterlife. Next!’
My Room Does Not Suck
I wasn’t paying the closest attention as Hunding guided me through the hotel. I felt as if I’d been spun around fifty times then released into the middle of a circus and told to have fun.
Each hall we walked through seemed bigger than the one before. Most of the hotel guests looked like they were in high school, though some looked slightly older. Guys and girls sat together in small groups, lounging in front of fireplaces, chatting in many different languages, eating snacks or playing board games like chess and Scrabble and something that involved real daggers and a blowtorch. Peeking into side lounges, I spotted pool tables, pinball machines, an old-fashioned video arcade and something that looked like an iron maiden from a torture chamber.
Staff members in dark green shirts moved among the guests, bringing platters of food and pitchers of drink. As far as I could tell, all the servers were buff female warriors with shields on their backs and swords or axes on their belts, which is not something you see a lot in the service industry.
One heavily armed waitress passed me with a steaming plate of spring rolls. My stomach rumbled.
‘How can I be hungry if I’m dead?’ I asked Hunding. ‘None of these people look dead.’
Hunding shrugged. ‘Well, there’s dead and then there’s dead. Think of Valhalla more like … an upgrade. You’re one of the einherjar now.’
He pronounced the word like in-HAIR-yar.
‘Einherjar,’ I repeated. ‘Just rolls right off the tongue.’
‘Yeah. Singular: einherji.’ He said it like in-HAIR-yee. ‘We’re the chosen of Odin, soldiers in his eternal army. The word einherjar is usually translated as lone warriors, but that doesn’t really capture the meaning. It’s more like … the once warriors – the warriors who fought bravely in the last life and will fight bravely again on the Day of Doom. Duck.’
‘The Day of Doom Duck?’
Hunding pushed me down as a spear flew past. It impaled a guy sitting on the nearest sofa, killing him instantly. Drinks, dice and Monopoly money flew everywhere. The people he’d been playing with rose to their feet, looking mildly annoyed, and glared in the direction the spear had come from.
‘I saw that, John Red Hand!’ Hunding yelled. ‘The lounge is a No Impaling area!’
From the billiard room, somebody laughed and called back in … Swedish? He didn’t sound very remorseful.
‘Anyway.’ Hunding resumed walking as if nothing had happened. ‘The elevators are right over here.’
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘That guy was just murdered with a spear. Aren’t you going to do anything?’
‘Oh, the wolves will clean up.’
My pulse went into double time. ‘Wolves?’
Sure enough, while the other Monopoly players were sorting their pieces, a pair of grey wolves bounded into the lounge, grabbed the dead man by his legs and dragged him away, the spear still sticking out of his chest. The trail of blood evaporated instantly. The perforated sofa mended itself.
I cowered behind the nearest potted plant. I don’t care how that sounds. My fear simply took control. These wolves didn’t have glowing blue eyes like the animals that had attacked my apartment, but still I wished I’d ended up in an afterlife where the mascot was a gerbil.
‘Aren’t there any rules against killing?’ I asked in a small voice.
Hunding raised a bushy eyebrow. ‘That was just a bit of fun, boy. The victim will be fine by dinner.’ He pulled me out of my hiding place. ‘Come on.’
Before I could ask more about the ‘bit of fun’, we reached an elevator. Its cage door was made out of spears. Overlapping gold shields lined the walls. The control panel had so many buttons, it stretched from floor to ceiling. The highest number was 540. Hunding pressed 19.
‘How can this place have five hundred and forty floors?’ I said. ‘It would be the tallest building in the world.’
‘If it only existed in one world, yes. But it connects with all the Nine Worlds. You just came through the Midgard entrance. Most mortals do.’
‘Midgard …’ I vaguely remembered something about the Vikings believing in nine different worlds. Randolph had used the term worlds, too. But it had been a long time since my mom read me those Norse bedtime stories. ‘You mean, like, the world of humans.’
‘Aye.’ Hunding took a breath and recited, ‘Five hundred and forty floors has Valhalla; five hundred and forty doors leading out into the Nine Worlds.’ He grinned. ‘You never know when or where we’ll have to march off to war.’
‘How often has that happened?’
‘Well, never. But still … it could happen at any time. I, for one, can’t wait! Finally, Helgi will have to stop punishing me.’
‘The manager? What’s he punishing you for?’
Hunding’s expression soured. ‘Long story. He and I –’
The elevator’s spear-cage door rolled open.
‘Forget it.’ Hunding clapped me on the back. ‘You’ll like floor nineteen. Good hallmates!’
I’d always thought of hotel corridors as dark, depressing and claustrophobic. Floor nineteen? Not so much. The vaulted ceiling was twenty feet tall, lined with – you guessed it – more spears for rafters. Valhalla had apparently got a good deal at the Spear Wholesale Warehouse. Torches burned in iron sconces, but they didn’t seem to make any smoke. They just cast warm orange light across the wall displays of swords, shields and tapestries. The hall was so wide you could’ve played a regulation soccer game, no problem. The blood-red carpet had tree-branch designs that moved as if swaying in the wind.
Set about fifty feet apart, each guest-room door was rough-hewn oak bound in iron. I didn’t see any doorknobs or locks. In the centre of each door, a plate-size iron circle was inscribed with a name surrounded by a ring of Viking runes.
The first read: HALFBORN GUNDERSON. Behind that door I heard shouting and metal clanging like a sword fight was in progress.
The next read: MALLORY KEEN. Behind that door, silence.
Then: THOMAS JEFFERSON JR. The popping of gunfire came from inside, though it sounded more like a video game than the actual thing. (Yes, I’ve heard both.)
The fourth door was simply marked X. In front, a room-service cart sat in the hallway with the severed head of a pig on a silver platter. The pig’s ears and nose looked slightly nibbled.
, I’m not a food critic. Being homeless, I could never afford to be. But I draw the line at pig heads.
We’d almost reached the T at the end of the hall when a large black bird shot around the corner and zipped past me, almost clipping my ear. I watched the bird disappear down the hall – a raven, with a notepad and a pen in its talons.
‘What was that?’ I asked.
‘A raven,’ Hunding said, which I found very helpful.
Finally we stopped at a door inscribed MAGNUS CHASE.
Seeing my name written in iron, inscribed with runes, I started to tremble. My last hope that this might be a mistake, birthday prank or cosmic mix-up finally evaporated. The hotel was expecting me. They’d spelled my name right and everything.
For the record, Magnus means great. My mom named me that because our family was descended from Swedish kings or something a billion years ago. Also, she said I was the greatest thing that had ever happened to her. I know. One, two, three: Awwwwww. It was an annoying name to have. People tended to spell it Mangus, rhymes with Angus. I always corrected them: No, it’s Magnus, rhymes with swag-ness. At which point they would stare at me blankly.
Anyway, there was my name on the door. Once I went through, I would be checked in. According to the manager, I’d have a new home until doomsday.
‘Go ahead.’ Hunding pointed at the runestone key in my hand. The symbol looked sort of like an infinity sign or a sideways hourglass:
‘It’s dagaz,’ Hunding said. ‘Nothing to be afraid of. It symbolizes new beginnings, transformations. It also opens your door. Only you have access.’
I swallowed. ‘What if, for instance, the staff want to get in?’
‘Oh, we use the staff key.’ Hunding patted the axe on his belt. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding.
I held up the runestone. I didn’t want to try it, but I also didn’t want to stay in the hallway until I got impaled by a random spear or injured by a raven hit-and-run. Instinctively, I touched the stone to the matching dagaz mark on the door. The ring of runes glowed green. The door swung open.
I stepped inside, and my jaw hit the floor.
The suite was nicer than any place I’d ever lived, nicer than any place I’d ever visited, including Uncle Randolph’s mansion.
In a trance, I moved to the middle of the suite, where a central atrium was open to the sky. My shoes sank into the thick green grass. Four large oak trees ringed the garden like pillars. The lower branches spread into the room across the ceiling, interweaving with the rafters. The taller branches grew up through the opening of the atrium, making a lacy canopy. Sunlight warmed my face. A pleasant breeze wafted through the room, bringing the smell of jasmine.
‘How?’ I stared at Hunding. ‘Hundreds of floors are above us, but that’s open sky. And it’s the middle of winter. How can it feel sunny and warm?’
Hunding shrugged. ‘I don’t know – magic. But this is your afterlife, boy. You’ve earned some perks, eh?’
Had I? I didn’t feel particularly perk-worthy.
I turned in a slow circle. The suite was shaped like a cross, with four sections radiating from the central atrium. Each wing was as large as my old apartment. One was the entry hall where we’d come in. The next was a bedroom with a king-size bed. Despite its size, the room was spare and simple: beige covers and fluffy-looking pillows on the bed, beige walls with no artwork or mirrors or other decoration. Heavy brown curtains could be drawn to close off the space.
I remembered when I was a kid, how my mom used to make my room as no-frills as possible. I’d always found it hard to sleep indoors unless I had total darkness and nothing to distract me. Looking at this bedroom, I felt like somebody had reached into my mind and pulled out exactly what I needed to be comfortable.
The wing to the left was a dressing area/bathroom tiled in black and beige, my favourite colours. The perks included a sauna, a hot tub, a walk-in wardrobe, a walk-in shower and a walk-in toilet. (Just kidding on that last one, but it was a fancy throne, suitable for the honoured dead.)
The suite’s fourth wing was a full kitchen and living room. At one end of the living room, a big leather couch faced a plasma-screen TV with about six different game systems stacked in the media cabinet. On the other side, two recliners sat in front of a crackling fireplace and a wall of books.
Yes, I like to read. I’m weird that way. Even after dropping out of school, I spent a lot of time in the Boston Public Library, learning random stuff just to pass the time in a warm, safe place. For two years I had missed my old book collection; I never seriously thought I would have one again.
I walked over to check out the titles on the shelves. Then I noticed the picture framed in silver on the fireplace mantel.
Something like a bubble of helium made its way up my oesophagus. ‘No way …’
I picked up the photo. It showed me, at age eight, and my mom at the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. That had been one of the best trips of my life. We’d asked a park ranger to take the photo. In the shot, I was grinning (which I don’t do much any more), showing off my missing two front teeth. My mom knelt behind me with her arms wrapped around my chest, her green eyes crinkling at the corners, her freckles dark from the sun, her blonde hair swept sideways by the wind.
‘This is impossible,’ I murmured. ‘There was only one copy of this picture. It burned in the fire …’ I turned to Hunding, who was wiping his eyes. ‘You okay?’
He cleared his throat. ‘Fine! Of course I’m fine. The hotel likes to provide you with keepsakes, reminders of your old life. Photographs …’ Under his beard, his mouth might have been quivering. ‘Back when I died, they didn’t have photographs. It’s just … you’re lucky.’
No one had called me lucky in a very long time. The idea shook me out of my daze. I’d been without my mom for two years. I’d been dead, or upgraded, for only a few hours. This bellhop from Saxony had been here since 749 C.E. I wondered how he had died and what family he’d left behind. Twelve hundred years later, he was still getting teary-eyed about them, which seemed like a cruel way to spend an afterlife.
Hunding straightened and wiped his nose. ‘Enough of that! If you have any questions, call the front desk. I look forward to hearing about your brave exploits tonight at dinner.’
‘My … brave exploits?’
‘Now, don’t be modest. You wouldn’t have been chosen unless you did something heroic.’
‘Been a pleasure serving you, sir, and welcome to the Hotel Valhalla.’
He held out his palm. It took me a second to realize he wanted a tip.
‘Oh, um …’ I dug into my jacket pockets, not expecting to find anything. Miraculously, the chocolate bar I’d swiped from Uncle Randolph’s house was still there, undamaged from its trip through the Great Beyond. I gave it to Hunding. ‘Sorry, that’s all I have.’
His eyes turned the size of drink coasters. ‘Gods of Asgard! Thank you, kid!’ He sniffed the chocolate and held it up like a holy chalice. ‘Wow! Okay, you need anything, you let me know. Your Valkyrie will come get you right before dinner. Wow!’
‘My Valkyrie? Wait. I don’t have a Valkyrie.’
Hunding laughed, his eyes still fixed on the chocolate bar. ‘Yeah, if I had your Valkyrie, I’d say the same thing. She’s caused her share of trouble.’
‘What do mean?’
‘See you tonight, kid!’ Hunding headed for the door. ‘I got things to eat – I mean do. Try not to kill yourself before dinner!’
Pleased to Meet You. I Will Now Crush Your Windpipe
I collapsed on the grass.
Gazing up through the tree branches at the blue sky, I had trouble breathing. I hadn’t had an asthma attack in years, but I remembered all the nights my mom had held me while I wheezed, feeling like an invisible belt was tightening around my chest. Maybe you’re wondering why my mom would take me camping and climbing mountains if I had asthma, but being outside always helped.
/> Lying in the middle of the atrium, I breathed in the fresh air and hoped my lungs would settle down.
Unfortunately, I was pretty sure this wasn’t an asthma attack. This was a complete nervous breakdown. What shook me wasn’t just the fact that I was dead, stuck in a bizarre Viking afterlife where people ordered pig heads from the room-service menu and impaled each other in the lobby.
The way my life had gone so far, I could accept that. Of course I’d end up in Valhalla on my sixteenth birthday. Just my luck.
What really hit me: for the first time since my mom died, I was in a comfortable place, alone and safe (as far as I could tell at the moment). Shelters didn’t count. Soup kitchens and rooftops and sleeping bags under bridges didn’t count. I’d always slept with one eye open. I could never relax. Now, I was free to think.
And thinking wasn’t a good thing.
I’d never had the luxury of grieving properly for my mom. I’d never had time to sit and feel sorry for myself. In a way, that had been as helpful to me as the survival skills my mom had taught me – how to navigate, how to camp, how to make a fire.
All those trips to the parks, the mountains, the lakes. As long as her old beat-up Subaru was working, we’d spend every weekend out of town, exploring the wilderness.
What are we running from? I asked her one Friday, a few months before she died. I was annoyed. I wanted to crash at home for once. I didn’t understand her frantic rush to pack and leave.
She’d smiled, but she seemed more preoccupied than usual. We have to make the most of our time, Magnus.
Had my mom been deliberately preparing me to survive on my own? Almost as if she’d known what would happen to her … but that wasn’t possible. Then again, having a Norse god for a dad wasn’t possible either.
My breathing still rattled, but I got up and paced around my new room. In the photo on the mantel, eight-year-old Magnus grinned at me with his tangled hair and his missing teeth. That kid was so clueless, so unappreciative of what he had.
I scanned the bookshelves: my favourite fantasy and horror authors from when I was younger – Stephen King, Darren Shan, Neal Shusterman, Michael Grant, Joe Hill; my favourite graphic-novel series – Scott Pilgrim, Sandman, Watchmen, Saga; plus a lot of books I’d been meaning to read at the library. (Pro homeless tip: public libraries are safe havens. They have bathrooms. They hardly ever kick out kids who are reading as long as you don’t smell too bad or cause a scene.)
I pulled down the illustrated children’s book of Norse myths my mom read to me when I was little. Inside were simplistic pictures of happy, smiling Viking gods, rainbows, flowers and pretty girls with blonde hair. And sentences like The gods dwelt in a wonderful and beautiful realm! There was nothing about the Black One, Surt, who burned baby carriages and threw molten asphalt, nothing about wolves that murdered people’s mothers and made apartments explode. That made me angry.
On the coffee table was a leather-bound notebook titled GUEST SERVICES. I flipped through it. The room-service menu went on for ten pages. The TV channel list was almost as long, and the hotel map was so convoluted, divided into so many subsections, I couldn’t make sense of it. There were no clearly marked emergency doors labelled: EXIT HERE TO RETURN TO YOUR OLD LIFE!
I threw the guest-services book into the fireplace.
As it burned, a new copy appeared on the coffee table. Stupid magical hotel wouldn’t even allow me to properly vandalize things.
In a rage, I flipped the sofa. I didn’t expect it to go far, but it cartwheeled across the room and smashed into the far wall.
I stared at the trail of dislodged cushions, the upside-down sofa, the cracked plaster and leather skid marks on the wall. How had I done that?
The sofa didn’t magically right itself. It stayed where I’d thrown it. The anger drained out of me. I’d probably just made extra work for some poor staff member like Hunding. That didn’t seem fair.
I paced some more, thinking about the dark fiery guy on the bridge and why he’d wanted the sword. I hoped Surt had died with me – more permanently than I had – but I wasn’t optimistic. As long as Blitz and Hearth had got away safely. (Oh, yeah. Randolph, too, I guess.)
And the sword itself … where was it? Back on the river bottom? Valhalla could resurrect me with a chocolate bar in my pocket, but not a sword in my hand. That was messed up.
In the old stories, Valhalla was for heroes who died in battle. I remembered