The Ship of the Dead
“TRY IT AGAIN,” Percy told me. “This time with less dying.”
Standing on the yardarm of the USS Constitution, looking down at Boston Harbor two hundred feet below, I wished I had the natural defenses of a turkey buzzard. Then I could projectile vomit on Percy Jackson and make him go away.
The last time he’d made me try this jump, only an hour before, I’d broken every bone in my body. My friend Alex Fierro had rushed me back to the Hotel Valhalla just in time for me to die in my own bed.
Unfortunately, I was an einherji, one of Odin’s immortal warriors. I couldn’t die permanently as long as I expired within the boundaries of Valhalla. Thirty minutes later, I woke up as good as new. Now here I was again, ready for more pain. Hooray!
“Is this strictly necessary?” I asked.
Percy leaned against the rigging, the wind rippling little waves through his black hair.
He looked like a normal guy—orange T-shirt, jeans, battered white leather Reeboks. If you saw him walking down the street, you wouldn’t think, Hey, look, a demigod son of Poseidon! Praise the Olympians! He didn’t have gills or webbed fingers, though his eyes were sea green—about the same shade I imagined my face was just then. The only strange thing about Jackson was the tattoo on the inside of his forearm—a trident as dark as seared wood, with a single line underneath and the letters SPQR.
He’d told me the letters stood for Sono Pazzi Quelli Romani—those Romans are crazy. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding.
“Look, Magnus,” he told me. “You’ll be sailing across hostile territory. A bunch of sea monsters and sea gods and who-knows-what-else will be trying to kill you, right?”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
By which I meant: Please don’t remind me. Please leave me alone.
“At some point,” said Percy, “you’re going to get thrown off the boat, maybe from as high up as this. You’ll need to know how to survive the impact, avoid drowning, and get back to the surface ready to fight. That’s going to be tough, especially in cold water.”
I knew he was right. From what my cousin Annabeth had told me, Percy had been through even more dangerous adventures than I had. (And I lived in Valhalla. I died at least once a day.) As much as I appreciated him coming up from New York to offer me heroic aquatic-survival tips, though, I was getting tired of failing.
Yesterday, I’d gotten chomped by a great white shark, strangled by a giant squid, and stung by a thousand irate moon jellies. I’d swallowed several gallons of seawater trying to hold my breath, and learned that I was no better at hand-to-hand combat thirty feet down than I was on dry land.
This morning, Percy had walked me around Old Ironsides, trying to teach me the basics of sailing and navigation, but I still couldn’t tell the mizzenmast from the poop deck.
Now here I was: a failure at falling off a pole.
I glanced down, where Annabeth and Alex Fierro were watching us from the deck.
“You got this, Magnus!” Annabeth cheered.
Alex Fierro gave me two thumbs up. At least I think that was the gesture. It was hard to be sure from this distance.
Percy took a deep breath. He’d been patient with me so far, but I could tell the stress of the weekend was starting to get to him, too. Whenever he looked at me, his left eye twitched.
“It’s cool, man,” he promised. “I’ll demonstrate again, okay? Start in skydiver position, spread-eagle to slow your descent. Then, right before you hit the water, straighten like an arrow—head up, heels down, back straight, butt clenched. That last part is really important.”
“Skydiver,” I said. “Eagle. Arrow. Butt.”
“Right,” Percy said. “Watch me.”
He jumped from the yardarm, falling toward the harbor in perfect spread-eagle form. At the last moment, he straightened, heels downward, and hit the water, disappearing with hardly a ripple. A moment later, he surfaced, his palms raised like See? Nothing to it!
Annabeth and Alex applauded.
“Okay, Magnus!” Alex called up to me. “Your turn! Be a man!”
I suppose that was meant to be funny. Most of the time, Alex identified as female, but today he was definitely male. Sometimes I slipped up and used the wrong pronouns for him/her, so Alex liked to return the favor by teasing me mercilessly. Because friendship.
Annabeth hollered, “You got this, cuz!”
Below me, the dark surface of the water glinted like a freshly scrubbed waffle iron, ready to squash me flat.
Right, I muttered to myself.
For half a second, I felt pretty confident. The wind whistled past my ears. I spread my arms and managed not to scream.
Okay, I thought. I can do this.
Which was when my sword, Jack, decided to fly up out of nowhere and start a conversation.
“Hey, señor!” His runes glowed along his double-edged blade. “Whatcha doing?”
I flailed, trying to turn vertical for impact. “Jack, not now!”
“Oh, I get it! You’re falling! You know, one time Frey and I were falling—”
Before he could continue his fascinating story, I slammed into the water.
Just as Percy had warned, the cold stunned my system. I sank, momentarily paralyzed, the air knocked out of my lungs. My ankles throbbed like I’d bounced off a brick trampoline. But at least I wasn’t dead.
I scanned for major injuries. When you’re an einherji, you get pretty good at listening to your own pain. You can stagger around the battlefield in Valhalla, mortally wounded, gasping your last breath, and calmly think, Oh, so that’s what a crushed rib cage feels like. Interesting!
This time I’d broken my left ankle for sure. The right one was only sprained.
Easy fix. I summoned the power of Frey.
Warmth like summer sunlight spread from my chest into my limbs. The pain subsided. I wasn’t as good at healing myself as I was at healing others, but I felt my ankles beginning to mend—as if a swarm of friendly wasps were crawling around inside my flesh, mud-daubing the fractures, reknitting the ligaments.
Ah, better, I thought, as I floated through the cold darkness. Now, there’s something else I should be doing….Oh, right. Breathing.
Jack’s hilt nudged against my hand like a dog looking for attention. I wrapped my fingers around his leather grip and he hauled me upward, launching me out of the harbor like a rocket-powered Lady of the Lake. I landed, gasping and shivering, on the deck of Old Ironsides next to my friends.
“Whoa.” Percy stepped back. “That was different. You okay, Magnus?”
“Fine,” I coughed out, sounding like a duck with a chest cold.
Percy eyed the glowing runes on my weapon. “Where’d the sword come from?”
“Hi, I’m Jack!” said Jack.
Annabeth stifled a yelp. “It talks?”
“It?” Jack demanded. “Hey, lady, some respect. I’m Sumarbrander! The Sword of Summer! The weapon of Frey! I’ve been around for thousands of years! Also, I’m a dude!”
Annabeth frowned. “Magnus, when you told me about your magic sword, did you perhaps fail to mention that it—that he can speak?”
“Did I?” Honestly I couldn’t remember.
The past few weeks, Jack had been off on his own, doing whatever sentient magic swords did in their free time. Percy and I had been using standard-issue Hotel Valhalla practice blades for sparring. It hadn’t occurred to me that Jack might fly in out of nowhere and introduce himself. Besides, the fact that Jack talked was the least weird thing about him. The fact that he could sing the entire cast recording of Jersey Boys from memory…that was weird.
Alex Fierro looked like he was trying not to laugh. He was wearing pink and green today, as usual, though I’d never seen this par
ticular outfit before: lace-up leather boots, ultra-skinny rose jeans, an untucked lime dress shirt, and a checkered skinny tie as loose as a necklace. With his thick black Ray-Bans and his choppy green hair, he looked like he’d stepped off a New Wave album cover circa 1979.
“Be polite, Magnus,” he said. “Introduce your friends to your sword.”
“Uh, right,” I said. “Jack, this is Percy and Annabeth. They’re demigods—the Greek kind.”
“Hmm.” Jack didn’t sound impressed. “I met Hercules once.”
“Who hasn’t?” Annabeth muttered.
“Fair point,” Jack said. “But I suppose if you’re friends of Magnus’s…” He went completely still. His runes faded. Then he leaped out of my hand and flew toward Annabeth, his blade twitching as if he was sniffing the air. “Where is she? Where are you hiding the babe?”
Annabeth backed toward the rail. “Whoa, there, sword. Personal space!”
“Jack, behave,” Alex said. “What are you doing?”
“She’s around here somewhere,” Jack insisted. He flew to Percy. “Aha! What’s in your pocket, sea boy?”
“Excuse me?” Percy looked a bit nervous about the magical sword hovering at his waistline.
Alex lowered his Ray-Bans. “Okay, now I’m curious. What do you have in your pocket, Percy? Inquiring swords want to know.”
Percy pulled a plain-looking ballpoint pen from his jeans. “You mean this?”
“BAM!” Jack said. “Who is this vision of loveliness?”
“Jack,” I said. “It’s a pen.”
“No, it’s not! Show me! Show me!”
“Uh…sure.” Percy uncapped the pen.
Immediately it transformed into a three-foot-long sword with a leaf-shaped blade of glowing bronze. Compared to Jack, the weapon looked delicate, almost petite, but from the way Percy wielded it, I had no doubt he’d be able to hold his own on the battlefields of Valhalla with that thing.
Jack turned his point toward me, his runes flashing burgundy. “See, Magnus? I told you it wasn’t stupid to carry a sword disguised as a pen!”
“Jack, I never said that!” I protested. “You did.”
Percy raised an eyebrow. “What are you two talking about?”
“Nothing,” I said hastily. “So I guess this is the famous Riptide? Annabeth told me about it.”
“Her,” Jack corrected.
Annabeth frowned. “Percy’s sword is a she?”
Jack laughed. “Well, duh.”
Percy studied Riptide, though I could’ve told him from experience it was almost impossible to tell a sword’s gender by looking at it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Are you sure—?”
“Percy,” said Alex. “Respect the gender.”
“Okay, fine,” he said. “It’s just kinda strange that I never knew.”
“On the other hand,” Annabeth said, “you didn’t know the pen could write until last year.”
“That’s low, Wise Girl.”
“Anyway!” Jack interrupted. “The important thing is Riptide’s here now, she’s beautiful, and she’s met me! Maybe the two of us can…you know…have some private time to talk about, er, sword stuff?”
Alex smirked. “That sounds like a wonderful idea. How about we let the swords get to know each other while the rest of us have lunch? Magnus, do you think you can handle eating falafel without choking?”
WE ATE ON the aft spar deck. (Look at me with the nautical terms.)
After a hard morning of failing, I felt like I’d really earned my deep-fried chickpea patties and pita bread, my yogurt and chilled cucumber slices, and my side order of extra-spicy lamb kebabs. Annabeth had arranged our picnic lunch. She knew me too well.
My clothes dried quickly in the sunlight. The warm breeze felt good on my face. Sailboats traced their way across the harbor while airplanes cut across the blue sky, heading out from Logan Airport to New York or California or Europe. The whole city of Boston seemed charged with impatient energy, like a classroom at 2:59 P.M., waiting for the dismissal bell, everybody ready to get out of town for the summer and enjoy the good weather.
Me, all I wanted to do was stay put.
Riptide and Jack stood propped nearby in a coil of rope, their hilts leaning against the gunnery rail. Riptide acted like your typical inanimate object, but Jack kept inching closer, chatting her up, his blade glowing the same dark bronze as hers. Fortunately, Jack was used to holding one-sided conversations. He joked. He flattered. He name-dropped like a maniac. “You know, Thor and Odin and I were at this tavern one time…”
If Riptide was impressed, she didn’t show it.
Percy wadded up his falafel wrapper. Along with being a water-breather, the dude also had the ability to inhale food.
“So,” he said, “when do you guys sail out?”
Alex raised an eyebrow at me like Yeah, Magnus. When do we sail out?
I’d been trying to avoid this topic with Fierro for the past two weeks, without much luck.
“Soon,” I said. “We don’t exactly know where we’re headed, or how long it’ll take to get there—”
“Story of my life,” said Percy.
“—but we have to find Loki’s big nasty ship of death before it sails at Midsummer. It’s docked somewhere along the border between Niflheim and Jotunheim. We’re estimating it’ll take a couple of weeks to sail that distance.”
“Which means,” Alex said, “we really should’ve left already. We definitely have to sail by the end of the week, ready or not.”
In his dark lenses, I saw the reflection of my own worried face. We both knew we were as far from ready as we were from Niflheim.
Annabeth tucked her feet underneath her. Her long blond hair was tied back in a ponytail. Her dark blue T-shirt was emblazoned with the yellow words COLLEGE OF ENVIRONMENTAL DESIGN, UC BERKELEY.
“Heroes never get to be ready, do we?” she said. “We just do the best we can.”
Percy nodded. “Yep. Usually it works out. We haven’t died yet.”
“Though you keep trying.” Annabeth elbowed him. Percy put his arm around her. She nestled comfortably against his side. He kissed the blond curls on the top of her head.
This show of affection made my heart do a painful little twist.
I was glad to see my cousin so happy, but it reminded me how much was at stake if I failed to stop Loki.
Alex and I had already died. We would never age. We’d live in Valhalla until Doomsday came around (unless we got killed outside the hotel before that). The best life we could hope for was training for Ragnarok, postponing that inevitable battle as many centuries as possible, and then, one day, marching out of Valhalla with Odin’s army and dying a glorious death while the Nine Worlds burned around us. Fun.
But Annabeth and Percy had a chance for a normal life. They’d already made it through high school, which Annabeth told me was the most dangerous time for Greek demigods. In the fall, they’d go off to college on the West Coast. If they made it through that, they had a decent chance of surviving adulthood. They could live in the mortal world without monsters attacking them every five minutes.
Unless my friends and I failed to stop Loki, in which case the world—all the worlds—would end in a few weeks. But, you know…no pressure.
I set down my pita sandwich. Even falafel could only do so much to lift my spirits.
“What about you guys?” I asked. “Straight back to New York today?”
“Yeah,” Percy said. “I gotta babysit tonight. I’m psyched!”
“That’s right,” I remembered. “Your new baby sister.”
Yet another important life hanging in the balance, I thought.
But I managed a smile. “Congratulations, man. What’s her name?”
“Estelle. It was my grandmother’s name. Um, on my mom’s side, obviously. Not Poseidon’s.”
“I approve,” Alex said. “Old-fashioned and elegant. Estelle Jackson.”
“Well, Estelle Blofis,” Per
cy corrected. “My stepdad is Paul Blofis. Not much I can do about that surname, but my little sis is awesome. Five fingers. Five toes. Two eyes. She drools a lot.”
“Just like her brother,” Annabeth said.
I could totally imagine Percy bouncing baby Estelle in his arms, singing “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid. That made me feel even more miserable.
Somehow I had to buy little Estelle enough decades to have a proper life. I had to find Loki’s demonic ship full of zombie warriors, stop it from sailing off into battle and triggering Ragnarok, then recapture Loki and put him back in chains so he couldn’t cause any more world-burning mischief. (Or at least not as much world-burning mischief.)
“Hey.” Alex threw a piece of pita at me. “Stop looking so glum.”
“Sorry.” I tried to appear more cheerful. It wasn’t as easy as mending my ankle by sheer force of will. “I’m looking forward to meeting Estelle someday, when we get back from our quest. And I appreciate you guys coming up to Boston. Really.”
Percy glanced over at Jack, who was still chatting up Riptide. “Sorry I couldn’t be more help. The sea is”—he shrugged—“kinda unpredictable.”
Alex stretched his legs. “At least Magnus fell a lot better the second time. If worse comes to worst, I can always turn into a dolphin and save his sorry butt.”
The corner of Percy’s mouth twitched. “You can turn into a dolphin?”
“I’m a child of Loki. Want to see?”
“No, I believe you.” Percy gazed into the distance. “I’ve got a friend named Frank who’s a shape-shifter. He does dolphins. Also giant goldfish.”
I shuddered, imagining Alex Fierro as a giant pink-and-green koi. “We’ll make do. We’ve got a good team.”
“That’s important,” Percy agreed. “Probably more important than having sea skills…” He straightened and furrowed his eyebrows.
Annabeth unfolded herself from his side. “Uh-oh. I know that look. You’ve got an idea.”
“Something my dad told me…” Percy rose. He walked over to his sword, interrupting Jack in the middle of a fascinating tale about the time he’d embroidered a giant’s bowling bag. Percy picked up Riptide and studied her blade.
“Hey, man,” Jack complained. “We were just starting to hit it off.”
“Sorry, Jack.” From his pocket, Percy pulled out his pen cap and touched it to the tip of his sword. With a faint shink, Riptide shrank back into a ballpoint. “Poseidon and I had this conversation about weapons one time. He told me that all sea gods have one thing in common: they’re really vain and possessive when it comes to their magic items.”
Annabeth rolled her eyes. “That sounds like every god we’ve met.”
“True,” Percy said. “But sea gods even more so. Triton sleeps with his conch-shell trumpet. Galatea spends most of her time polishing her magic sea-horse saddle. And my dad is super-paranoid about losing his trident.”
I thought about my one and only encounter with a Norse sea goddess. It hadn’t gone well. Ran had promised to destroy me if I ever sailed into her waters again. But she had been obsessed with her magical nets and the junk collection that swirled inside them. Because of that, I’d been able to trick her into giving me my sword.
“You’re saying I’ll have to use their own stuff against them,” I guessed.
“Right,” Percy confirmed. “Also, what you said about having a good team—sometimes being the son of a sea god hasn’t been enough to save me, even underwater. One time, my friend Jason and I got pulled to the bottom of the Mediterranean by this storm goddess, Kymopoleia? I was useless. Jason saved my butt by offering to make trading cards and action figures of her.”
Alex almost choked on his falafel. “What?”
“The point is,” Percy continued, “Jason knew nothing about the ocean. He saved me anyway. It was kind of embarrassing.”