But before the moment of empty-handed awe wore off, a familiar voice spoke somewhere to my left: “Well, now, Magnus. That was dramatic!”
The draugr parted to reveal Loki in his crisp white admiral’s uniform, his hair the color of autumn leaves, his scarred lips twisted in a grin, his eyes bright with malicious humor.
Behind him stood Sigyn, his long-suffering wife, who had spent centuries collecting serpent venom in a cup to keep it from dripping into Loki’s face—a duty which was totally not covered in your typical marriage vows. Her pale, emaciated face was impossible to read, though bloodred tears still streamed from her eyes. I thought I detected a slight tightness in her lips, as if she were disappointed to see me again.
“Loki…” I spat blood. I could barely make my mouth work. “I challenge you to a flyting.”
He stared at me as if waiting for me to complete the sentence. Maybe he expected me to add: a flyting…with this other guy who’s good at insults and way more intimidating than I am.
Around us, the endless ranks of warriors seemed to be holding their breath, even though the zombies had no breath to hold.
Njord, Frigg, Skadi—all of them had assured me that Loki would have to accept my challenge. That was tradition. Honor demanded it. I might have a busted mouth, a ringing head, and no guarantee that the Mead of Kvasir would weave poetry with my vocal cords, but at least I would now get my shot to defeat the trickster in a war of words.
Loki lifted his face to the cold gray sky and laughed.
“Thanks anyway, Magnus Chase,” he said. “But I think I’ll just kill you.”
SAM LUNGED. I guess she was the least surprised that Loki would pull a sleazeball move like refusing my challenge.
Before her spear could hit her father’s chest, a loud voice roared, “STOP!”
My mind was still fuzzy. For a second, I thought Loki had shouted the order, and Sam had been forced to obey. All Sam’s training and practice, her fasting and confidence, had been for nothing.
Then I realized Loki hadn’t given the order at all. In fact, he looked quite annoyed. Sam had stopped of her own free will. Crowds of draugr and giants parted as Captain Hrym limped toward us. His ax was missing. His fancy rib-cage shield was dented with an impression that might have been made by a very large duck’s bill.
His ancient face wasn’t any prettier up close. Wisps of icicle-white beard clung to his chin. His pale blue eyes gleamed deep in their sockets like they were melting their way into his brain. His leathery mouth made it difficult to tell if he was glowering at us or about to spit out a watermelon seed.
And the captain’s smell: yeesh. Hrym’s moldy white furs made me nostalgic for the regular “old man” odors of Uncle Randolph’s closet.
“Who called for a challenge?” Hrym boomed.
“I did,” I said. “A flyting against Loki, unless he is too scared to face me.”
The crowd murmured, “Ooooohhhhh.”
Loki snarled. “Oh, please. You can’t bait me, Magnus Chase. Hrym, we don’t have time for this. The ice has melted. The way is clear. Smash these trespassers and let’s sail!”
“Now wait a minute!” Hrym said. “This is my ship! I am captain!”
Loki sighed. He took off his admiral’s hat and punched the inside, obviously trying to control his temper.
“My dear friend.” He smiled up at the captain. “We’ve been through this. We share command of Naglfar.”
“Your troops,” Hrym said. “My ship. And when we are in disagreement, all ties must be broken by Surt.”
“Surt?” I gulped down another mouthful of blood. I wasn’t thrilled to hear the name of my least favorite fire giant—the dude who’d blasted a hole in my chest and knocked my flaming corpse off the Longfellow Bridge. “Is, uh, Surt here, too?”
Loki snorted. “A fire giant in Niflheim? Not likely. You see, my dense young einherji, Surt technically owns this ship—but that’s just because Naglfar is registered in Muspellheim. More favorable tax laws.”
“That’s not the point!” yelled Hrym. “Since Surt is not here, final command is mine!”
“No,” Loki said with strained patience. “Final command is ours. And I say our troops need to get moving!”
“And I say a properly issued challenge must be accepted! Those are standard rules of engagement. Unless you are too cowardly, as the boy claims.”
Loki laughed. “Cowardly? Of facing a child like this? Oh, please! He’s nothing.”
“Well, then,” I said. “Show us your silver tongue—unless that got burned along with the rest of your face.”
“Ooooohhhhh!” said the crowd.
Alex raised an eyebrow at me. Her expression seemed to say That was not as lame as I might have expected.
Loki gazed at the heavens. “Father Farbauti, Mother Laufey, why me? My talents are wasted on this audience!”
Hrym turned to me. “Will you and your allies abide by a cease-fire until the flyting is done?”
Alex responded, “Magnus is our flyter, not our leader. But, yes, we will hold off our attacks.”
“Even the ducks?” Hrym asked gravely.
Alex frowned, as if this was a serious request indeed. “Very well. Even the ducks.”
“Then it is agreed!” Hrym bellowed. “Loki, you have been challenged! By ancient custom, you must accept
Loki bit back whatever insult he was going to fling at the captain, probably because Hrym was twice as tall as he was. “Very well. I will insult Magnus Chase into the deck boards and smear his remains under my shoe. Then we will sail! Samirah, dear, hold my hat.”
He tossed his admiral’s cap. Samirah let it fall at her feet.
She smiled at him coldly. “Hold your own hat, Father.”
“Ooooohhhhh!” said the crowd.
Anger rippled across Loki’s face. I could almost see the ideas churning in his head—all the wonderful ways he could torture us to death—but he said nothing.
“A FLYTING!” Hrym announced. “Until it is over, let no more blows be struck! Let no more ducks be thrown! Allow those enemy warriors forward to see the contest!”
With some jostling and cursing, our friends made their way through the crowd. Considering what they’d been through, they looked all right. Halfborn had indeed taken off his shirt. Written across his chest in what looked like giant’s blood was FLÄM with a big heart around it.
T.J.’s rifle muzzle steamed in the cold from so many discharges. His bayonet dripped zombie slime, and his bugle had been twisted into a brass pretzel. (I couldn’t really blame our enemies for doing that.)
Hearthstone looked unharmed but drained, which was understandable after destroying so many enemies with ice and lightning. At his side strode Blitzen, and giants ten times the dwarf’s size scrambled to get out of his way. Some muttered fearfully, calling him Duck Master. Others clawed at their necks, which Blitzen had somehow collared with tight-fitting chain mail neckties. Giants live in fear of neckties.
Mallory Keen was hopping, apparently having re-broken the same foot she’d broken in Norway. But she hopped fiercely, like a true warrior and daughter of Frigg. She sheathed her knives and signed to me, I have the walnut.
That would have made a great code phrase if we were spies talking about a nuclear weapon or something. Unfortunately, she just meant that she had the walnut. Now it was up to me to get Loki into it. I wondered if Mallory could open it and suck him inside without me first beating him in insult combat. Probably not. Nothing so far had been that simple. I doubted easy mode would start now.
Finally, Jack came floating back to me, grumbling, “Peace-of-Freying me? Not cool, señor.” Then he settled next to Samirah to watch the action.
The crowd made a rough circle maybe thirty feet in diameter around Loki and me. Surrounded by giants, I felt like I was at the bottom of a well. In the sudden quiet, I could hear the rumble of snow thunder in the distance, the crackle of melting glacial ice, the quiver and whine of Naglfar’s iron mooring cables straining to break free.
My head throbbed. My busted mouth oozed blood. The hole where my tooth used to be had started to hurt, and I did not feel poetic.
Loki grinned. He spread his arms as if to welcome me with an embrace.
“Well, Magnus, look at you—flyting in the big leagues like a grown-up! Or whatever you call an einherji who can’t age but is learning to be not quite so much of a whiny brat. If you weren’t such a useless piece of fluff, I might be impressed!”
The words stung. I mean they literally stung. They seemed to splash into my ear canals like acid, trickling down my eustachian tubes and into my throat. I tried to reply, but Loki thrust his scarred face into mine.
“Little son of Frey,” he said. “Walking into a battle he can’t win, with no clue, no planning—just a little mead in his stomach! Did you really think that would compensate for your complete lack of skill? I suppose it makes sense. You’re so used to relying on your friends to do all your fighting. Now it’s your turn! Sad! A no-talent loser! Do you even know what you are, Magnus Chase? Should I tell you?”
The crowd laughed and jostled each other. I didn’t dare look at my friends. Shame washed through me.
“Y-you’re one to talk,” I managed. “Are you a giant masquerading as a god, or a god masquerading as a giant? Are you on anybody’s side but your own?”
“Of course not!” Loki laughed. “We’re all free agents on this ship, aren’t we, gang? We look out for ourselves!”
The giants roared. The zombies shifted and hissed, their icy blue auras crackling in their skulls.
“Loki looks out for Loki.” He drummed his fingers on his admiralty medals. “I