Chapter 1: ONE
I'm Eighty-Nine Point Seven Percent Sure I'm Dead
MY NAME is Jason Grace. Until recently, I was pretty alive, in California, going to school like every good teenager should.
And then I died a horrible, bloody death, which put a pretty big damper on my academic career.
I expected to wake up on the shores of the Underworld, or maybe in Charon’s boat, sailing across the River Styx to wait in line to be judged.
Instead, I woke up to a goat trying to eat my shirt.
I sat up with a groan, and the goat, with its gray fur and pointy horns, looked at me like Hey Buddy, give me back my lunch. It sniffed me again and apparently deemed me un-lunch-worthy because it ran off behind the giant building in front of me.
I checked over my body, finding no swords in my chest, and I was even more surprised by how immaculate I looked.
I didn’t have a mirror, but looking down, my shirt and pants looked freshly washed, and so did my hands.
The building looked like a mansion, with eight stories of gray marble and white limestone. The dark-stained wood doors were about three times as tall as me, and both of them had doorknockers with life-sized wolf heads.
I looked around. There was a tall white tree, birch maybe? that had leaves that glittered gold. A wall that was easily fifteen feet tall surrounded the property, and from what I could see, there was no exit.
Maybe I’m already in Elysium, I thought to myself as I walked up the steps of the mansion. Maybe I was so heroic that Hades decided to forego the trial completely and dump me in Paradise.
I liked the idea, but something didn’t seem right. Beyond the wall rose tall buildings and high-rises. From what Nico told me of the Underworld, there weren’t many skyscrapers in Elysium. Or any at all.
I was about to summon the winds the fly over the wall to see what’s up (‘cause you know, I can do that) when the giant doors swung inward soundlessly. Standing there, a grizzled looking man that looked like he had fought with a bear and lost was looking at me expectantly. He had a ferocious beard that looked like it housed a family of squirrels, and hair that looked quite the same, but his attire was the weird part.
He was wearing a bellhop’s uniform, complete with little white gloves and a jacket that had the interlocking letters HV embroidered on the lapel. He also had an ax at his belt, and I didn’t think that followed the policy of most hotels.
“Finally!” The man exclaimed with such gusto that I took a step back. “Come inside. Let’s get you checked in.”
I usually agree with people that have axes, so I followed him into the grand room.
I had to blink a moment to take it all in. The room looked to be twice as big as its exterior, and the dark hardwood under my feet seemed to go on for a mile. There were ships bigger than the Argo II docked inside, and a fireplace that could probably double as a bedroom if you extinguish the flames.
Man, Leo would love this place, I thought as I followed the bearded man, who called himself Hunding.
“Your Valkyrie called ahead, she was in California! That's a long ways away, but she was vacationing when she heard your soul calling, so she grabbed her spear and did her deed! Now that's what I call loyalty to Odin, huh?”
I didn't understand a word he was saying. “Who's Odin?”
“The Allfather, of course!” Hunding replied, which didn't answer any of my questions and only gave me more that this man probably couldn't answer.
We approached what I guessed was the front desk. It was a ship’s keel overturned, but there was a little bell and a man standing behind it.
His name tag was had a lot of words on it, but all I could make out was the name Helgi. He and Hunding looked like they had the same hair care (beard care?) routine, which means he did absolutely nothing to it and you could tell. His beard was gigantic (I've fought giants, and I'm pretty sure that Helgi’s a beard was more impressive), and a small squirrel seemed to be fighting its way out of it.
“Welcome!” Helgi said, turning away from the desktop computer that didn’t seem to be plugged into anything. “Name?"
"Kid, I've got three other calls I have to tell Hunding to attend to. I don't have all the time in the Nine Realms,” he said, leaning over and looking at me in the eyes. After growing up with wolves, I realized he was trying to be intimidating. It didn't work very well, what with the rodent roundhouse-kicking through the wild jungle of his hair.
"Uh, Jason. Jason Grace."
He tapped at his computer, fingers flying wildly over his keyboard. "Huh." He stroked his beard, almost punching the squirrel in the face, and went back to typing at his keyboard, muttering, "You should be in the database, but I don't understand why..."
"What's wrong?" Hunding asked. He looked nervous, but less for me and more for his own wellbeing. From the way that Helgi asserted himself towards Hunding, I guessed that Helgi usually punished Hunding for most things that went wrong.
"Hmm." He leaned back in his seat. "You're not in the database. This is kind of..." He tapped at his keyboard. "Well, that's okay. We'll put you in a suite. Hunding, Floor Nineteen."
"But Sir, Floor Nineteen is—"
"Do you want me to get the brush?" Helgi glowered, and Hunding winced.
"Oh Please, Sir, no!"
"Then lead him to his room, Hunding."
Helgi turned to me and smiled as if he didn't just threaten his coworker with extreme hairbrushing. “Here’s your key. Hunding will escort you to your room.” He smiled as he handed me a stone that looked like a domino, but instead of dots it just had a weird symbol that looked like a sideways hourglass, or maybe two triangles holding hands.
“Have a nice stay!”
And with that, Hunding led me away from the lobby and to my doom.
Chapter 2: TWO
I Pass Out (And No One Is Surprised)
OKAY, MAYBE it wasn't my doom. It was actually just my room.
There was a room full of people doing yoga poses, sitting on mats and listening to calming music. As I watched, one of the people fell over, and the girl next to him took out a knife and stabbed him in the chest.
I gasped as the guy bled out. The instructor glared at the wielder of the knife who smiled and said, “What? He almost bumped me.”
We walked through many large rooms that could probably hold a lot of blue whales if the building was filled with water. They all seemed stranger and stranger the deeper into the hotel I got.
Another room actually did hold a pod of blue whales, swimming in a pool so big that it made Olympic pools look kiddie-sized. About a hundred kids that looked my age were swimming with them, sunbathing on their backs, riding their tails, and doing other stupid crazy stuff.
He led me to an IKEA-worthy elevator, with enough room in it for me to lay on the ground and stretch my arms completely out.
“So…” I started as we ascended. “What exactly is this place?”
“It's Hotel Valhalla!” Hunding sounded flabbergasted, as if truly surprised that I didn't know where I was. “All of the good heroes come here after they die excruciatingly.”
“Oh, great to know I'm a good hero. Didn't want to be one of the mediocre ones.”
Hunding apparently didn't get my sarcasm. “You're exactly right, dead boy! You should be so grateful that your death was painful and brave so you could come here.”
Why does everyone bring up death so much? I wondered. They could afford to be a little cheerier.
The elevator dinged, and the doors opened up to a hallway larger than Cabin One at Camp Half-Blood. The ceiling was vaulted and could fit a giant comfortably. The walls had torches casting a merry glow on the dark wood floor, dancing shadows creating symbols I didn't know.
There were doors on each side of the hall, set about fifty feet apart. These people apparently really liked space. They had an abundance of it.
“Sorry you won’t get to be meeting your hallmates,” Hunding said as we approached a door near the end of the hall. “They're all on a quest right now.”
“All” I counted all of the doors, “five of them?”
“Yep! Don't worry, you'll get to meet them soon enough, if they succeed and don't die horrible deaths and start the end of the world.” He said the sentence in the same way that someone would talk about getting milk from the store. “I hope not,” he muttered to himself. “They're having Golfing to the Death on Friday, and I know James from Floor 123 is gonna be so disappointed if we have to cancel.”
I was about to reply to his comment with about a hundred questions when we approached a door that was apparently mine. It had my name on it. Literally.
Unlike all of the other doors, with names carved of iron and pressed into the door, mine had a piece of paper saying JASON GRACE taped to it.
Seeing my name there, tape and all, reaffirmed that feeling of fear in my chest. I was dead. Deader than a doornail. My lungs impaled and my heart beating no more. But…
I reached up to my chest, expecting nothing. But I could feel something beating, a tapping in my chest going on and on. A spark of hope lit inside me at the same time a spark of electricity flew from my fingers.
“Wait.” Hunding turned to look at me, his eyebrows furrowing. “If I'm dead, then why do I have a heartbeat? Why am I breathing? To most people with doctorate degrees, that means alive. Not dead !” My voice cracked on the last word. I hoped he didn't notice.
Hunding took a step back. He glanced to his right, maybe looking for an exit strategy. “Well, think of your body as an upgrade. Your old body was torn and broken and hopefully mangled. This is your new, improved einherji body! Complete with a beating heart.”
“Ein-hair-yee?” I looked at him with a quizzical look. “That doesn't sound like anything I've heard before.”
I gulped, my head buzzing. “This must be a mistake, you've got this all wrong. I’m supposed to be in Elysium, not a hotel! It must be a mix-up. You got the wrong guy, it must be!”
“Wrong guy?” Hunding shook his head confusedly. “Sorry buddy, but you’re in the system. Your name’s on the door. That doesn't happen unless you're a permanent resident of Valhalla.”
I leaned against the wall, my legs feeling weak. My fingers were numb. “Nothing’s adding up. Not the door, or the elevator, or the yoga, or the key, or the goddamn ‘Allfather!’” I was rambling now, as if I was talking to myself and not the bellhop next to me. “I mean...Who the hell is that? I’ve never heard of Hades being called that.” Hunding paled when I said the name Hades. A wind blew down the hall, whistling and making the torches sputter.
“I already told you,” Hunding said shakily, the way someone would talk to a cornered animal, “the Allfather is Odin, King of the Norse gods. Now, why don’t we see that room of yours, huh?”
My lips felt like lead when I mumbled, ”Norse… norse gods… ” My brain seemed to flash SYSTEM OVERLOAD behind my eyelids.
Norse? Greek and Roman, I can handle, but Norse? My knees gave out underneath me, and my vision went dark.
Why do I always have to dream when I’m unconscious? Why can’t I just wake up not soaked in sweat, or screaming, or shaken up? Why can’t I sleep peacefully for one goddamn time?
Well, I dreamed after I passed out. Naturally.
It started out simple enough. I was standing in a cabin, darkly lit, a fire crackling merrily, illuminating the beds that covered every inch of the wall. The steady drip, drip, drip of liquid on the mantle made me want to sleep, which was weird, because I already was asleep.
This was the Hypnos cabin, back at Camp Half-Blood.
“Jason?” I turned, finding the Hypnos cabin leader, Clovis, sitting up in his bed, enveloped by so many pristine white pillows and blankets that he looked like he was surrounded by clouds. Even though he was awake in my dream, I had a sneaking suspicion that he was doing his favorite hobby in the real world. That is, he was fast asleep.
His soft eyes reminded me of a child’s, even though Clovis was older than me. He was usually very easygoing; he was the most chilled out person I knew. But something wasn’t right. He looked worried, which was a face I hadn’t seen him do before.
“So it’s true.” His voice cracked at the end, which kind of broke my heart, since Clovis was basically a human teddy bear.
“What’s true?” I asked him.
“That you're…” His voice got quieter, and I almost didn't hear the end of the sentence. “Dead.”
“Oh. Uh. Yeah.” I scratched the back of my neck.
He thought for a minute, hugging his pillow to his chest. “How's Elysium?” he finally asked.
“It's… well, paradise.” To be honest, I didn’t know why I lied. Couldn’t I have just said “ well, actually, I’m not in Elysium. I’m in a different afterlife that I didn’t know existed! But hey, don’t worry, I’m fine!” ?
I mean, I could’ve, but that’s kind of the opposite thing you should say to cheer up your friend mourning your death.
I came to a realization, and I furrowed my brow. “Wait, if I'm dead, then how can you see me, talk to me?”
“Sleep isn't too different from death. Also, I can sense that you’re dreaming right now, in a ghosty way,” Clovis explained. “Speaking of ghosts, I’ll tell Nico I found you.”
“Found me? Have I been missing?”
“Oh, yeah. Nico’s been visiting the Underworld bi-weekly to see if you’ve arrived yet. We’ve all been worried.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I thought you knew. Nico told the counselors that your soul was missing from Hades’ realm. It’s been six months since—” His voice was cut off by the sound feedback, like a bad radio frequency. The Hypnos Cabin faded in and out, bits of static cutting in like it was an old TV.
Clovis looked confused. I could only hear bits and piece of what he was saying. “—someone—interruption—godly—bad connection—”
The scene cut out to complete static, then turned black.
I opened my eyes to the sound of a gentle knocking.
The room I was in was large and grand. The giant windows on the walls were covered in sheer white curtains, the walls a blue that reminded me of the sky. I found myself in a large, plush bed that put Memory Foam to shame; a golden-gilded frame that looked straight out of those fifties mansions you see in movies and magazines. The floor was in a black-and-white-checked pattern, and, from the feel of it, made of marble (the entire Zeus cabin was chiseled from the stuff).
There was a note sitting on the bedside table. You passed out. Enjoy your suite. Your Valkyrie will collect you when you are needed. ~ Hunding.
I stepped out of my bedroom to find even more black and white, with blue walls all around. What with all the antiquity, I was surprised to find a TV. There was also a claw-footed couch sitting on a carpet of something furry and giant.
A quiet, but firm, knock came from the door on the right, which was tall with a doorknob shaped elaborately like a wolf head. I walked over and opened it, finding a short, dark-haired girl in armor and a smile.
“Jason?” she asked, and I nodded. “I'm your Valkyrie, Silena Beauregard.”
Chapter 3: THREE
The Statues Tell Me of My Doom
THE FIRST thing she said to me as she lead me down the hall was, “Listen, when we get there, don’t talk to anyone, okay?”
She was dressed in armor made of leather, wood, and iron, which perfectly matched the decoration of the hotel. I wondered if there was a Viking outlet store that sold both decorations and clothing.
She looked around, then continued on as if she’d said it a hundred times before, “You get to Valhalla by dying heroically. However, it’s the Valkyrie’s job to decide if a death is worthy enough. If she takes a hero to Valhalla and the thanes don’t believe that the hero is worthy enough, that goes all on the Valkyrie. Meaning me. So stay silent.”
I kind of understood what she was saying. It was like if a centurion goes on a quest and one of the members dies or gets hurt, the blame falls on the leader.
I didn’t talk at all as we went down the elevator and took a new path through new rooms and hallways until we entered the biggest cafeteria I’d ever seen.
The room was the size of a football stadium, with rows and rows of tables filled with people, all the way down to the polished wooden floor. A giant tree, thicker than any redwood I’ve ever seen, stood in the middle of the room, branches growing far up through the hole in the roof, the lowest one about fifty feet above the ground. A waterfall seemed to fall from inside the tree, emptying into a lake the color of apple-scented dish soap.
One would probably wonder, “Wow, if this room has hundreds of floors above it, then how can there be a hole in the ceiling?” I’ve spent my entire life wonder how impossible things were possible.
A titan holding up the sky in San Francisco? Sure, why not? A dragon that can fly and loves Tabasco sauce? Why would that be strange? An emperor that supposedly died millennia ago? Just another day in my life.
Believe me, a tree touching the sky is the least weird thing I’ve encountered.
Silena lead me to the long table sitting at the bottom, in perfect view of everyone in the stadium, which was probably about thirty thousand. There were people sitting with a different assortment of beards and weapons, who I guessed were the Thanes, dressed in green hotel uniforms, with an empty throne sitting at the head of the table, two ravens perched at the top.
As soon as I sat down, food and drink whisked in front of me. I looked up, finding other girls with the same armor that Silena had on, flying through the air like a bunch of Peter Pans, serving food and pouring drinks.
“So…” I said, taking small bites of a roll. “What’s with the…” I gestured vaguely to the giant monster roasting on the world’s largest spit.
“That’s just Saehrimnir. A creature created to feed the einherjar.”
“Oh.” I silently ate my bread as everyone else dug into their feast beast. The guy two seats down from me was covered with mashed potatoes up to his eyebrows. I wrinkled my nose at the guy across from him, who had carrots in his mustache.
He looked up and saw me staring, then grumbled, “What’s it to ya, pipsqueak?” I turned away and busied myself with my roll.
The fancy guys, including Mr. Carrots, all started banging their goblets on their table. The sound repeated across the different tables until the entire room was a bunch of people hitting their cups on the table.
The sight reminded me of a little girl from New Rome I knew. Her name was Annie, and I watched her sometimes when her parents wanted to have a date. She used to slam her sippy cup up and down on the counter when she wanted more water.
This room was a bunch of Annies, except they were all full grown adults and teenagers.
Helgi stood and raised his goblet, and the hall quieted. One overenthusiastic person kept pounding their cup until their friend took it out of their hand.
“Warriors!” Helgi said. He had a radish on his lapel, but he apparently didn’t seem to notice. “Only three dead have joined us in the halls of Valhalla tonight! Not bad, eh?” Titters from the crowd. “Let’s start with Jenna Robertson, shall we?”
A petite girl with cornrows all over her head rose from her seat with her Valkyrie. She didn’t look older than thirteen, and she shifted quietly under the gaze of so many.
“Okay, roll the footage!” Helgi called, and holographic screens flickered to life around the giant tree, floating in the air to allow all einherjar to see all the glorious deaths in 1080 px.
The screens cut to a video of a dark alleyway, the timestamp around ten-thirty at night. The strange thing was that the date was wrong. It said it was November. I specifically remembered dying in March.
A couple of street thugs were kicking around some kid, who was cowering on the ground, covering his head as best as he could. They must’ve been in Chicago, or some other big city. I could see bright buildings standing tall.
The thugs turned around, showing the thin girl. The all laughed and guffawed, probably thinking the same thing as me: How could a little girl like that beat up a whole gang?
The answer came soon enough as the girl let out a loud sound that reminded me of purring. Almost immediately, hundreds of cats seemed to appear, out of dumpsters, climbing from windows, crawling from underneath piles of loose brick. The all gathered around the girl, who was holding a switchblade in one hand and a cat in the other. She made another sound, and the girl and her army of cats advanced on the gang.
Cats could have never been more terrifying. They got to work tearing up faces and clothing, scratching, biting, and yowling ferociously. But to my dreadful horror, one of the thugs had a gun, and he fired straight at the girl. She threw her knife, landing it in the man’s chest. The rest ran off, with a hundred cats on their tails.
But the damage was done. The girl lay crumpled on the ground, her cats licking her hair as she lay a hand on the growing red stain on her stomach. The boy that was getting beat up before was shaking as he quickly brought out his phone and dialed the police, his voice shrill and scared.
But it was too late. The man she fought lay with glassy eyes and a knife buried in his chest, while the girl had her one cat that stayed behind, nuzzling its head against the girl that would never grow up.
The video ended, and the entire room was in silence. Then thundering applause rose up, so loud that it seemed to shake the floor.
The thanes started conversing with themselves, debating if a cat was a weapon. They agreed and declared that Jenna's death was worthy of Valhalla. The Valkyrie visibly exhaled and smiled.
“Do you know your parentage?” Helgi asked Jenna, and she smiled and said yes. “And who might that be?”
“Well, my dad works at an accounting firm.”
“And your mother?”
‘Do not worry. We will seek wisdom from the runes, unless the All-Father wishes to speak up?” He looked at the ravens, who were preening their feathers and looking bored. “Very well. Bring forth the vala!”
A withered old woman with a cloak the color of moss shuffled forward. She stopped in front of Jenna, who was leaning away from her. The woman brought out a satchel. She grabbed a handful of what was in the bag, domino style wooden blocks with symbols that I didn’t recognize on them. She threw them down on the ground as she muttered something. Some landed face up, some face down. She pointed at one that looked like the letter f. The vala raised her arms.
“Jenna Robertson, daughter of Freya! The runes say you shall fight well at Ragnarok!”
“Freya?” the girl looked quizzical. “Isn’t she the goddess of cats?”
“And love,” one of the thanes muttered. “Among other things.”
“Shut up, Lord Erik,” the man next to him said as he punched him.
The ceremony kept on. The next person was a guy named Xavier, and he saved a football game from a suicide bomber by hitting him with a crowbar, but the bomb went off anyway. Because it wasn’t in the actual arena, nobody there was harmed, but Xavier still died. The runes said he was a regular mortal, but his courage had earned him Valhalla.
Then it was me. I stood up, and a couple of people from the crowd wolf-whistled, which made me blush and look down. The holographic feed turned to static for a second, and then the video of my death started.
For some reason, the video wasn't playing any sound at all. The thanes, as well as the einherjar, looked around as if they were confused. I glanced at Silena, who was staring intently at the screens, gnawing at the inside of her cheek.
She had arrived with her camera after I exploded half of the Julia Drusilla XII . She flew in through the hole right as the white-furred pandos flew out to find Meg. The camera zoomed in on me stepping out of the smoke with my sword raised. I watched apprehensively as Caligula jumped on his horse.
My hands were shaking as I watched myself fight, and the sounds from the crowd was worse. They gasped at the right parts and the wrong ones, and when they watched me summon Tempest, murmurs spread throughout, murmuring about a thunder god.
The actual fight must've been less than ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity as I watched the screens. When the video finally ended on a very sour note, I felt shaky, but also relieved.
The room exploded into applause, so deafening that my head started to hurt. I ran a hand through my hair, and I heard a crackling, like the sound of static electricity when you touch a doorknob.
Helgi had said something, and was looking at me expectantly for an answer.
“Um, what?” I asked.
“Your parents, boy. Do you know who they were?”
“Uh, my dad is—” I glanced at Silena, who had wide eyes “—Uh, he works at a bank.”
“And your mother?”
I could feel my fingernails dig into my palms, and a spark or two fizzled around me. “Dead,” I spat. “In a car crash. I don’t miss her.”
“Your parents were mortal?” one of the other thanes asked incredulously. “But-but the cloud horse. How did you—”
“I have weird friends.” I hoped they didn’t question me further, because I didn’t know how to explain the giant gaping hole I had made in the Julia Drusilla XII.
“Very well,” Helgi said. He had managed to brush off the radish. “We will seek the wisdom of the runes, unless Odin wishes to intercede?”
He looked to the empty throne with the two ravens perched on the end. They blinked in unison and looked expectantly toward the tree, where the holographic screens had shut off.
“Very well,” Helgi said. “Our vala shall—” he cut himself off as he looked back at the tree.
Billowing white fog was creeping out of the lake by the tree, drifting toward my spot at the table. It rose up to about ten feet, and then it blew away, as if a bust of wind had driven it back. Standing where the fog was were three tall women, with cloaks covering their blank white faces.
They reminded me of Roman statues, with blank white eyes and emotionless faces, if those Roman statues were nine feet tall and emitted more smoke than a fog machine.
Jason Grace, one of them had said. None of them opened their mouths, but they seemed to be talking straight into my brain, like when Rachel used to turn green and spout prophecies.
Fog collected again in the hands of the middle statue woman, and she threw it up in the air to reveal six dominoes the size of poster boards. Murmurs started around the room as the symbols materialized in a different language, one I could recognize.
“Greek,” Silena muttered. “It’s in ancient Greek.”
Great, I thought, now tell me what it means!
The women didn’t do that, but instead, three voices rang out, three women speaking without moving their lips at the same time:
The darkest day a group of three shall go,
To the Western land of Pseudotsuga and snow.
The queen of warriors the trio shall find,
To face the chains that can never unbind.
The women disappeared as fast as the appeared, and in less than a minute all that was left of them was a room full of silence.
Chapter 4: FOUR
I Become the Sixth Wheel On the Strange Car of Friendship
NOBODY SEEMED to know what to make of the prophecy, or me. After the fog fully dissipated, the thanes seemed to have no idea what to do.
“Good food!” Lord of Mashed Potatoes said, and the rest of the table agreed. One guy in one of those old raccoon caps scooped up the leftover crumbs on his plate for emphasis.
Helgi coughed. “Well, see you, everyone! Dinner adjourned!” And with that, everybody stood up and left, confused looks on their faces that matched what I was thinking.
I jumped as someone grabbed my arm, but it was just Silena.”Come on,” she said, and she pushed through everyone so fast that she almost dislocated my arm from its socket. We managed to squeeze through a horde of einherjar all trying to exit at the same time, and we headed down the way that lead to the elevators. She pressed the UP button, and we both waited until the doors slid open.
“So, what the hell was that?” I asked her as the floors passed. “It sounded like a prophecy or something, but who were those white ladies? Wait, I worded that wrong, I mean—”
“I know what you meant. They're called the Norns. Basically, like the Nordic version of the Oracle of Delphi.”
“Does that mean I have to go on another quest?”
She laughed. “Another? Have you been on many quests before?”
“Oh yeah. I've saved the world at least two or three thousand times…” I didn't sound miffed at all.
“Sorry about that. To answer your question, sadly for you, it is a yes.”
“Great. Just perfectly amazing.”
The elevator dinged onto floor nineteen, and I stepped out. Silena didn't.
“You coming?” I asked.
“Nah. I'm on floor twenty-one.”
“Oh.” It never occurred to me that she must've also been dead. That was a depressing thought.
“You better sleep well tonight. You have a big day tomorrow.”
I tilted my head. “Why? What's tomorrow?”
“You’ll hopefully meet your hallmates. They're a hectic bunch.”
The doors closed.
“‘Hopefully?’” I asked the closed elevator doors. “That sounds promising.”
I went back down to my room, where a plaque was engraved into the door, my name imprinted permanently in iron.
I yawned. I opened the door to my bedroom and climbed into my bed. I took off my glasses, with large frames of black plastic.
When I’d first gotten the pair from Asclepius, they were thin, long, and made of imperial gold. Over time, they seemed to change. One day I had fallen asleep with a large pair of glasses that I’m sure were very popular in the seventies, and had woken up to the round Harry Potter-style. Once they were a pair of pince-nez.
But they seemed to have settled on the black plastic frames, and out of all of them, I seemed to have liked these the best.
Unsurprisingly from the day I’d had, I fell asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I dreamed I was underground. Well, maybe not completely, but it was as if I were in a basement of sorts. Small windows near the ceiling let in a bright light, and I was surprised to find it was the moon, glowing brighter than I thought possible.
A door slammed behind me, and I jumped, whirling around. A man and a woman were struggling, and at first, I thought they were hugging, but then I realized he was trying to restrain her.
The girl was pushed to the floor. I couldn’t see much of her face, but she looked older than me, but still quite young, maybe in her early twenties. She was built like a fighter, strong but fast. She was wearing a dark jumpsuit. Half of the braid in her hair had fallen out, and her wrists and ankles were bound.
I watched as he dragged her over to a wooden pole, which I realized was actually a tree growing out of the ground. He handcuffed the girl to it, all while she was kicking, screaming, and swearing up a storm.
“I’ll keep you here until you agree to my terms!” the man said. I was surprised by his voice. He sounded like a kicked puppy.
The girl looked up, and I stifled a scream. She looked almost exactly like Reyna. But it couldn’t have been. This girl was definitely older, and no offense to Reyna, but this girl looked a lot more muscular, like she spent every day of her life bench pressing cars. I was surprised that the handcuffs could hold her.
“Never!” she yelled defiantly. She looked like she would’ve murdered the man with her eyes if she could.
“You will marry me, or else you’ll rot here for forever,” he said, glaring at the girl as if he couldn’t fathom why she would ever say no to him. “You can be a queen if you marry me.”
“I already am a queen, you fucking piece of shit,” she spat. “And believe me, I will have my armies tearing you to pieces if you do not release me.”
“Feisty,” he laughed. I was disgusted by the sound of his voice, as if he was attracted to what she was saying. “I will love loving you.”
“And I would love to wring your fucking neck,” she muttered.
“Mm, how gorgeous you are, my beauty.” He walked over to the door, turning back once to look at his prisoner, who’s snarl was so impressive, I’m sure Lupa would have felt scared. He then slammed the door shut, and it seemed to morph into the wall until I couldn’t tell where he had come in.
The girl’s snarl turned to anguish, and she looked up at the moon shining through the thin windows.
“Please come,” she said. “Please.”
I opened my eyes to light filtering through the windows.
The layout of the room seemed to have changed. I found a carpet under my feet as I got out of bed, and the wall seemed to have disappeared, opening up into the living room. Bookshelves were added to either side of the TV, and scanning the spines of them, they were all from my favorite authors, including Jack London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and others.
But my favorite thing was the skylight, lighting up the room with natural light even more than the windows.
I traipsed into the side room, finding a bathroom fit for a king, with a jetted tub, a shower with any option you could dream of, and a mini bathhouse that could give Camp Jupiter a run for their money.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and had to do a double-take. My hair was longer than I remembered it being, and lighter. My skin was tanner too, and I was reminded of how I looked at Notus’s palace, when two weeks of the African sun took its toll. My eyes stood out more, so I looked kind of startled.
But the strangest part was the lack of scars. There were zero traces of scars on my arms, and from the amount of sword fighting I had done, I had a lot. Even the scar on my lip I had gotten when I tried to eat a stapler when I was two had disappeared, which I was kind of sad about. It was like a part of my identity was missing.
After I had showered, I looked into the closet, finding clothes in my size: a loose-fitting striped shirt ( and jeans. But the best thing was the imperial golden sword in its scabbard, propped up against the closet like it was waiting for me.
I unsheathed the blade and was met with the familiar weight of the weapon that Juno (Hera, whoever) had gifted me. I smiled.
The sound of rustling made me turn. I found nothing of interest except for a piece of paper by the door, sitting there as if someone had slipped it under. I walked over and picked it up.
Join us in Lounge 19 for breakfast. Down the hall and to the left. Bring your weapons and armor.
It was written in really nice cursive, which weirdly was the first thing I noticed. I reread the note, and something struck me.
Armor? I hadn’t found any armor in the room. Maybe whoever stocked the closet thought I didn’t need it. In any case, I changed quickly, thinking I looked like an idiot, and headed out of my room to find Lounge Nineteen.
Walking into the lounge, it seemed quite homey. Like everything else in this hotel, the room was quite big, but the roaring fireplace and couches made everything feel closer together. The room was scattered with tables, most of them empty. A buffet table laden with every breakfast food under the sun.
I had just plucked up a poppyseed muffin when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to find a guy with curly hair. He had a rifle slung over his shoulder, and was wearing a blue wool army jacket. He must have been sweating like crazy, but he smiled anyway.
“Are you Jason?” he asked. I nodded. “I’m T.J., your neighbor. You can come sit with the rest of our hallmates.” He pointed at an occupied table next to a big picture window that showed a snow-covered mountain. I walked over with him, and the table looked up.
The first person I noticed was a guy who couldn’t have been shy of seven feet tall. He had scraggly hair and an impressive beard for a guy that looked no older than seventeen. Next to him sat a redheaded girl with green eyes, who was devouring a jelly-filled donut. Across from the duo sat a boy with green hair and a pink shirt, with heterochromic brown and gold eyes.
I sat down next to T.J., picking at my muffin.
“Hey, newbie,” the redhead waved. She had a vaguely Irish accent. “What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Jason,” the scraggly guy said through a mouthful of watermelon. I’m pretty sure it was a whole watermelon. He held out his hand. “I’m Halfborn Gunderson.” I shook his hand and tried to wipe my hand off on my jeans without him knowing. “That’s Mallory,” he pointed to the redhead. “And that’s—”
“Alex Fierro,” the boy in front of me grinned. With his wild eyes and hair, he looked more crazy than happy to meet me. “Also,” he looked to the others at the table, “announcing that my pronouns today are she/her.” She turned to me. “They are most likely subject to change.
“Sorry you won’t get to meet Magnus yet, but he’s an insolent dunce who can’t show up to anything on time!” She didn’t seem to be talking to me. I turned to find a guy with short hair the color of the sun hidden behind clouds, who was wearing a green shirt. He looked like a golfer’s son who ran through a hurricane. Part of his hair was sticking up in the back and one of his shoes was untied.
He sat next to Alex.
“Hey, I'm Magnus. Sorry I'm late.”
Up close, he looked tired, like sleep was the last item on his agenda. In the way his eyes darted around the room at anything that moved and how his head always seemed turned just slightly away from who he was talking to reminded me of someone…
“You're late,” Alex muttered as she bit into a croissant.
“Yeah well, Sprinkles really wanted scratched, and do you want to say no to a giant cat that could easily swallow me whole?” Alex shrugged.
They went on talking, discussing things I didn’t understand. It was like they were all in a relationship, and I was the odd one out (even if I did make the hallmates numbers even).
Damn, I thought as I picked at a poppyseed, now I know how Leo felt all that time on the Argo II. Oof.
At that moment, a horn blast sounded in the room.
Alex turned to me, her eyes making her look off-centered. “It’s battle time, newbie. I hope you know how to swing that pretty sword of yours.”
Nothing Like A Healthy Diet of a Couple Hundred Arrows in Your Chest
MY HALLMATES lead me into what they called the combat arena, which was just a fancy way of saying indoor battlefield.
It was like the Field of Mars and the forest in Camp Half-Blood had merged together. The room itself could have fit the entire valley of New Rome perfectly fine. The ceiling was so high that I couldn’t see. The ground was littered with hills, trenches, and clusters of bushes and trees. The main prize was the giant wall of fortifications sitting right in the middle of the entire field.
But the real fun was the fact that thousands of teenagers were milling around, each holding weapons and wearing lots of armor.
Next to me, Halfborn seemed to have taken a simple approach. He had removed his shirt and shoes, standing in just leather breeches (which couldn’t have been comfortable). He was holding an ax that probably weighed as much as I did, but he handled it with ease. After fighting for nearly my entire (short) life, I knew that he knew what he was doing with that thing.
Next to him was Mallory, who was dual-wielding knives, each with a serrated edge that could probably cut stone. Magnus was holding a sword that seemed to heavy for him, and Alex was equipped with nothing but a thin gold wire she was using as a belt.
On my other side, TJ had unslung his rifle, fixed with a bayonet made out of… holy Hera, was that bone?
“So uh, who are we fighting?” I asked no one in particular.
“Today’s Wednesday, which means siege warfare,” T.J. explained. “The main goal is to kill as many people as possible, and to try to conquer the wall.” He pointed out to the fortress.
“Yeah, except it’s literally impossible to do so,” Magnus said. “Those walls are piled with traps, cannons, and archers.”
Halfborn patted me on the back, which was slightly less force than a stampeding elephant. ‘We’ll try to show you the ropes, but don’t get discouraged if you get killed immediately. It happens to the best of us.”
‘It happens to all of us,” Alex muttered. “Just be glad you’re not stuck with the dragons.”
I opened my mouth to ask about twenty more questions, but just then, the sound of a hundred horns being blasted filled the air, amplified by a thousand.
Everyone charged into battle.
It was war games on steroids. After the horns blew, everyone was thrown into combat. Complete pandemonium rose up, and everyone stabbed and slashed and generously mutilated. Immediately, I deflected two arrows with the winds that would have found their mark in both T.J. and Mallory. I missed the five that hit Halfborn, but that didn’t seem to affect him very much. He laughed as he started cutting a path through the enemy.
We all ran toward the fort. “Does anybody have a plan?” Magnus called as he narrowly avoided getting hit by a flaming cannonball.
“I thought it was your turn to come up with a plan!” Alex yelled.
“What? I thought it was T.J.’s.”
“No, T.J.’s plan was last week, and you know frontal assault isn’t much of a plan.”
“Hey! It was a great plan,” T.J. argued.
“We died immediately,” Mallory pointed out.
“We always die immediately. I was just making it fun.”
Halfborn picked up two wriggling soldiers and smashed their heads together. “Why don’t we make the new guy come up with a plan? Or even better, we have no plan.”
I was about to speak, but I nearly ran into a warrior who was holding a flintlock in each hand. I winced as he fired, but was surprised when I found myself perfectly fine. He cackled and drew a knife, but let out a squeak of surprise before he fell forward. I scrambled back to not be squished. His back was peppered with arrows.
I turned to my colleagues. Halfborn was struggling under an onslaught of blades and firearms, Mallory was fifty feet away, trying to wade through fallen bodies, which was something entirely new and disgusting. Magnus and Alex were motionless under a fallen tree. And T.J…
“You got any special powers?” he asked, right next to me. “Healing? Calming? Being ruggedly handsome?”
“Never mind him.” Mallory had made her way over to us. “He’s asking if you’ve got any idea how to get to the fortress.”
“Uh… no. Usually, I just fly when doing things like this, but those arrows are too numerous for me to—”
“Fly?” T.J. questioned, one eyebrow quirking up. “You got wings?”
I laughed. “Not exactly.”
“Hey look, it’s the newbie!” a new voice spoke. Without realizing, we had somehow made it quite close to the walls. Sitting on top of them was, surprise, someone with armor and a cannon. I’d guessed they were the person talking.
Someone else had come over to gawk at us. They swiveled the cannon right towards us. “Open wide, losers.”
I jumped out of the way, tackling both T.J. and Mallory in the process. The explosion rocked the ground. Debris fell all around us, but when the shaking finally stopped, none of us seemed hurt.
Luckily for us, the walls did not go unscathed. A gaping hole opened up into the fortress. Unluckily for us, a sea of more enemies stood behind that hole.
T.J. whistled. “Cool. Do you guys wanna start killing first or should I?”
I laughed. I was starting to like this guy. “Go right ahead.” The three of us charged into pandemonium.
As we launched into battle, I must’ve gotten over-excited (which happens too often). A bolt of lightning came from the sky and branched out, frying the front line of attackers.
“Holy shit!” T.J. screamed, taking a step back as the others dropped dead. “Who did that?” He glanced behind him as if looking for someone with a hammer, maybe Chris Hemsworth.
The surprise wore off on our attackers as they remembered their numbers and weapons. Cries went up in the group of “Kill the newbie!”
“That’s not nice,” I muttered.
I have to admit, I didn’t really like the killing. All my life, I’d been trained to fight to stay alive, and all these warriors fought for fun .
And these warriors were currently having fun trying to kill me. T.J. and Mallory had gotten lost in the chaos. I stabbed and parried, ducked and jabbed and rolled, but I was tiring quickly. That stunt with the lightning had more backlash than I expected, and I stumbled as someone got a lucky hit with their ax.
My side erupted in pain, and everybody pounced at once.
I dreamed of one of my favorite memories.
I was early October, and Piper and I had done absolutely nothing all day except play board games and throw the pieces at each other when we had lost. It was a day before all of the dandelion yellow papers, before the fires that burned down half of California, before everything wrong that could have happened did.
But at that moment, nothing had mattered except the warm California air and Piper destroying me at Settlers of Catan. She was currently throwing little green roads at me.
“I win again!” she laughed. I laughed as well, and when she kissed me, I felt like I was flying (and I knew that feeling well). The scene dissolved into something much more abysmal.
I was back in the moonlit basement. The girl that looked so much like Reyna was pulling at her chains, muttering words in a language I didn’t know. It sounded like an incantation, as if she was trying to work a spell.
Something banged behind a wall, and she immediately went limp, feigning sleep. A moment later, a door was opened, and the mysterious man arrived.
He was dressed in a white hazmat-type suit, without the headpiece, so he looked like one of those guys who invested a crime scene. His gloves were thick and tucked into the cinched sleeves of his suit.
He strolled over to the chained woman. Kneeling down, he cupped her chin softly.
“I hope one day you will love me,” he whispered. “Until then, my sweet.” He kissed her cheek, and she tensed. He apparently didn’t notice, as he had let go of her face and stood up, leaving the way he had come.
Hi. Sorry it's so short and that it took a month to write.
Chapter 6: SIX
Sorry, it's been two months and it's only about 1000 more words. I'll try to get a better update schedule, but I don't know if that will happen.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
I Become a Tour Guide
“HE HAS to be a god.”
Alex looked up from her needlepoint. “What makes you think that?”
Half of Hall Nineteen was sitting in the 3 PM Needlepoint to The Death, learning how to stitch cute slogans on pillows with a high chance of death. My favorite way to spend my Wednesday afternoons, in a cozy room dominated by mainly rocking chairs, plus the usual wall decorations of assorted weapons.
“He's right,” Halfborn said, counting his stitches. “Did you see him on the battlefield? I've never seen fighting like that on someone's first day since X.”
I remembered X, my half-troll friend who enjoyed rollercoasters and pig heads, and was actually Odin in disguise. It really put a damper on our friendship.
“All I saw was a blond guy with a nice sword,” Alex shrugged.
“That's because you died before you could see anything. He can control lightning , Alex.” I looked up from my half-finished work.
“So he’s a child of Thor, big deal.”
“I haven’t seen a child of Thor ever be that powerful.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s a god.”
“Yeah, but he could be. That’s the point I’m trying to make.”
“You literally just said that he had to be a god.”
“I wasn’t being literal!”
“Be honest, you just think he’s attractive.”
“I don’t—what’d’you— I do not! ”
“You kinda do,” Halfborn muttered, not looking up from the pillow front that he was stitching the words DEATH SWEET DEATH onto.
“ No, I don’t, ” I hissed, leaning over and punching him hard in the arm, though I knew it didn’t affect him at all.
Alex leaned back in her chair, rocking gently, her face containing a small smirk that I didn’t understand.
The door burst open with a bang, and multiple glares were sent toward the newcomer, who was a short girl with black hair and pretty features.
“Sorry!” she said to the room, and everybody turned back to their projects. She rushed over to our corner, her armored feet the only loud sound in the room next to the crackling fire in the hearth.
“Silena! What brings you here?” Halfborn perked up in his chair, and I was tempted to do the same. Silena just had that effect on everyone.
She brushed the hair away from her flushed cheeks. “I’m so glad I found you guys! I went to give Jason the tour of Valhalla, but I got called in for a DIP. Can one of you guys give him the tour instead?”
“I guess I could—” I started.
“Oh, thank you so much!” She threw her arms around me, and I wasn’t even annoyed that she knocked my needlepoint askew. She flew out the door in her valkyrie way, shutting the open door behind her.
“DIP?” Alex muttered confusedly.
“Death-In-Progress,” Halfborn answered.
“Is that even a real thing?”
“Of course it is.” Halfborn looked away from Alex to turn to me as I was picking up my fallen tin of needles. “Did you just volunteer to give Pretty Boy a private tour of Valhalla?”
I sighed, gathering up everything into a neat pile and purposefully not looking at either Halfborn or Alex, knowing they were both repressing laughter. “Yes. I did. For Silena.”
“For Silena?” Alex’s eyes were watering.
“Yes. She’s a friend. You do nice things for friends.”
“Well, I mean, you can believe that.”
I glared at her as I left, nearly bumping into the wall when I walked through the door.
Alex and Halfborn’s cackles could be heard from down the hallway, and I sighed to myself as I straightened my jacket, heading for the elevator in fast strides.
The doors opened with a happy ding , and I stepped onto Floor 19. I followed the usual path that I had taken for over a century, down the hall to the last door on the left. Right next to mine. Fuck.
I lifted the wolf head knocker and let it fall with a resolute thud. The door opened a few seconds later.
Jason was wearing the same outfit he wore earlier, but it looked freshly cleaned (I knew this from the lack of bloodstains). His eyes met mine, and either I wasn’t paying attention earlier or they had magically gotten bluer. There was something in his gaze that reminded me of the many wolves wandering around Valhalla, who were way too intelligent, a little wild, and very deadly.
I forgot how to speak for a moment., and I ended up blurting out the first words that came to mind. “Welcome to Hotel Valhalla, I’ll be your tour guide for the day.”
He laughed, and the scariness in his demeanor dropped into humor. “Really?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Of course. It’s complimentary for new guests.”
“Well, more like permanent residents.”
He thought for a moment. About what, I didn’t know, but I could practically hear the nerves firing through the synapses, processing information. “Okay.”
“Yeah.” He stepped out of his room, closing the door behind him. “Lead the way, O’ knowledgeable guide.”
I laughed and started down the hall. He fell into step beside me.
“Is there any specific reason why you wanted to show me the hotel or are you doing it because you can?” Jason asked.
“Well technically, your valkyrie is supposed to do so, but Silena had to do the whole ‘reaping souls’ thing, so I filled in for her.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
I beamed and pointedly ignored telling him that I basically had no choice.
We arrived at the elevator, and nobody was in it when it opened. The easy listening music did little to calm my nerves as I was highly aware of Jason standing next to me, looking around politely.
Could he really be a god? He certainly looked it, with broad shoulders and tanned skin. He reminded me of those Roman statues that Halfborn was obsessed with in the nineties (those were some dark times. Mallory would not take her hair out of the ten scrunchies she had in at all times).
He seemed tense, with the way he held his shoulders and the tightness of his jawline (not that I was particularly looking at his jawline. Just observing). I redirected my gaze to his shirt. Nothing unique or unusual about stripes, right?
He looked really good in stripes.
So I wanted to have T.J. realize Jason's beauty, like, immediately, and I think it worked? I kind of want their relationship to be like Sadie and Walt's, where they knew they liked each other but they don't get together for like an entire year? Maybe? I might change my mind, but please cut me some slack, it's really hard writing about attractive guys when you're a lesbian.