can’t trust anyone else, can I?”
His wife, Sigyn, tilted her head ever so slightly, but Loki didn’t seem to notice.
“At least I’m honest about it!” Loki continued. “And to answer your question, I’m a giant! But here’s the thing, Magnus. The Aesir are just a different generation of giants. So they’re giants, too! This whole gods-versus-giants thing is ridiculous. We’re one big unhappy family. That’s something you should understand, you dysfunctional little human. You say you choose your family. You say you’ve got a new group of brothers and sisters in Valhalla, and isn’t that sweet? Stop lying to yourself. You’re never free of your blood. You are just like your real family. As weak and love-besotted as Frey. As desperate and spineless as old Uncle Randolph. And as stupidly optimistic and as dead as your mother. Poor kid. You’ve got the worst of both sides, Frey and Chase. You’re a mess!”
The crowd laughed. They seemed to grow larger, drowning me in their shadows.
Loki loomed over me. “Stop lying to yourself, Magnus. You’re nobody. You’re a mistake, one of Frey’s many bastards. He left your mom, forgot you completely until you recovered his sword.”
“That’s not true.”
“But it is! You know it! At least I claim my children. Sam and Alex here—they’ve known me since they were little kids! But you? You’re not even worth Frey sending a birthday card. And who does your hair?”
He howled. “Oh, right. Alex cut it, didn’t she? You didn’t think that meant anything, did you? She doesn’t care about Magnus Chase. She just needed to use you. She’s her mother’s child. I’m so proud.”
Alex’s face was livid, but she didn’t speak. None of my friends moved or made a sound. This was my fight. They couldn’t interfere.
Where was the magic of Kvasir’s Mead? Why couldn’t I come up with a decent zinger? Did I really think the mead could compensate for my complete lack of skill?
Wait…those were Loki’s words, burrowing into my brain. I couldn’t let him define me.
“You’re evil,” I said. Even that sounded halfhearted.
“Oh, come on!” Loki grinned. “Don’t throw that good-and-evil stuff at me. That’s not even a Norse concept. Are you good because you kill your enemies, but your enemies are bad because they kill you? What sort of logic is that?”
He leaned in close. He was definitely taller than I was now. The top of my head barely reached his shoulders. “A little secret, Magnus. There is no good and evil. There’s only capable and incapable. I am capable. You…are not.”
He didn’t push me, not physically, but I stumbled back. I was literally withering under the laughter of the crowd. Even Blitzen was taller than me now. Behind Loki, Sigyn watched me with interest, her red tears glistening down her cheeks.
“Aww.” Loki pouted with fake sympathy. “What are you going to do now, Magnus? Complain that I’m mean? Criticize me for murder and deceit? Go right ahead! Sing my greatest hits! You just wish you were so capable. You can’t fight. You can’t think on your feet. You can’t even express yourself in front of your so-called friends! What chance do you have against me?”
I continued to shrink. A few more lines from Loki and I would be two feet tall. Around my boots, the deck began to scritch and shift, finger- and toenails curling upward like hungry plant shoots.
“Give it your best shot!” Loki challenged. “No? Still tongue-tied? Then I guess I’ll tell you what I really think of you!”
I looked at the leering faces of giants, and the grim faces of my friends, all forming a ring around me, and I knew this was a well I would never climb out of.
I DESPERATELY tried to think of my best insults: You’re a meinfretr. You’re dumb. You’re ugly.
Yeah…my best really wasn’t that impressive, especially coming from a guy who was literally shrinking under Loki’s onslaught.
Hoping for inspiration, I glanced again at my friends. Sam looked stern and determined, somehow still believing in me. Alex Fierro looked angry and defiant, somehow still believing that if I messed this up, she would kill me. Blitz had developed a tic in his eye like he was watching me ruin a beautiful tailoring job. Hearthstone seemed sad and weary, scrutinizing my face as if searching for a lost rune. T.J., Mallory, and Halfborn were all tense, scanning the giants around them, probably trying to formulate a Plan B in which the B stood for Bad Magnus.
Then my gaze rested on Sigyn, standing discreetly behind her husband, her hands laced, her strange red eyes fixed on me as if she were waiting.
Waiting for what? She had stood by her husband’s side when everyone else abandoned him. For centuries, she had tended to him, keeping the snake’s venom from his face as much as she could, despite the fact that Loki had cheated on her, verbally abused her, ignored her. Even now, he barely looked at her.
Sigyn was loyal beyond belief. Yet back in Loki’s cave, during the giant’s wedding ceremony, I was almost positive she had helped us, distracting her husband at a critical time to keep him from killing me and my friends.
Why would she resist her husband like that? What did she want? It was almost as if she was subtly working to undermine him, as if she wanted to delay Ragnarok and see her husband back in his cave, lashed to the rocks and suffering.
Maybe Loki was right. Maybe he couldn’t trust anyone, not even Sigyn.
Then I thought about what Percy Jackson had told me back on the deck of the USS Constitution: that my biggest strength wasn’t my training. It was the team around me.
A flyting was supposed to cut people down to size, to insult them into nothingness. But I was a healer. I didn’t cut people. I put them back together. I couldn’t play by Loki’s rules and hope to win. I had to play by my rules.
I took a deep breath. “Let me tell you about Mallory Keen.”
Loki’s smile wavered. “Who is that and why should I care?”
“I’m so glad you asked.” I projected my voice into the crowd with as much volume and confidence as my tiny little lungs would allow. “Mallory Keen sacrificed her life to correct her own mistake and saved the lives of a bunch of schoolkids! Now she is the fiercest fighter and the best curser in Valhalla. She holds floor nineteen together as a team, even when we want to kill each other! Can any of you claim the same level of camaraderie?”
The giants shifted uncomfortably. The draugr eyed each other like I’ve been wanting to kill this guy forever, but he’s already dead.
“Mallory opened the doors of Suttung’s cave with just two daggers!” I continued. “She defeated the nine thralls of Baugi with nothing but trickery and a rock! And when she found out she was the daughter of Frigg, she refrained from attacking the goddess!”
“Ooh.” The giants nodded appreciatively.
Loki waved aside my words. “I don’t think you understand how a flyting works, little man. Those aren’t even insults—”
“Let me tell you about Halfborn Gunderson!” I shouted over him. “Berserker extraordinaire, the glory of Fläm! He conquered kingdoms with Ivar the Boneless. He singlehandedly slew the giant Baugi, saving his hometown and making his mother proud! He has steered our boat straight and true across the Nine Worlds, his battle-ax doing more damage than most battalions, and he’s done all this while wearing no shirt!”
“He pulls it off pretty well, too,” muttered another giant, poking the berserker’s abs. Halfborn slapped his hand away.
“And the deeds of Thomas Jefferson Junior!” I yelled. “Those are worthy of any Viking hall! He charged into enemy gunfire to meet his nemesis, Jeffrey Toussaint, face-to-face. He died taking up an impossible challenge, like a worthy son of Tyr! He is the heart and soul of our fellowship, a driving force that never fails. He defeated the giant Hrungnir with his trusty Springfield 1861, and wears the flint shard from the giant’s heart above his eye as a badge of honor. It can also light matches!”
“Mmmm.” The giants nodded, no doubt thinking how handy this would be for lighting their pipes in the cold winds of Niflheim.
; “And Blitzen, son of Freya!” I smiled at my dwarf friend, whose eyes were getting dewy. “He bested Eitri Junior, at the forges of Nidavellir. He makes the best cutting-edge fashions in the Nine Worlds. He sewed the magical bowling bag of Tiny! He stood face-to-face, empty-handed against the dragon Alderman and forced the monster to back down. His patented stainless-steel neckties and expand-o-ducks are the stuff of jotun nightmares!”
Several giants wailed in terrified agreement.
“Stop this!” Loki spat. “This is ridiculous! What’s all this—this positivity? Magnus Chase, your hair is still horrible and your clothes—”
“Hearthstone!” I roared. Was it my imagination, or was I getting taller again? It seemed I could look my opponent in the eyes now without straining my neck. “The greatest rune magician in the Nine Worlds! His bravery is legendary! He is willing to sacrifice anything for his friends. He has overcome the most horrible challenges—the death of his brother, the scorn of his family…” My voice cracked with emotion, but Loki did not speak into the void. The crowd stared at me expectantly, some with tears in their eyes.
“His own father turned into a dragon,” I said. “Yet Hearthstone faced him, faced his worst nightmares and emerged victorious, breaking a curse, destroying hatred with compassion. Without him, we would not be here. He is the mightiest and most beloved elf I know. He is my brother.”
Hearthstone placed his hand on his heart. His face was as pink as the scarf Alex had given him.
Captain Hrym sniffled. It seemed like he wanted to give Hearthstone a hug but was afraid that might not look good in front of his crew.
“Samirah al-Abbas,” I said. “Daughter of Loki, but better than Loki!”
Loki laughed. “I beg your pardon? This girl is not even—”
“A Valkyrie, sworn to Odin’s most important tasks!” My words were coming easily now. I could feel a rhythm to them, an unstoppable cadence and certainty. Maybe that was because of Kvasir’s Mead. Or maybe it was because I was speaking the truest things I knew. “You have felt her spear of light scorch your forces in combat! Her stamina is steel. Her faith is unwavering. She has overcome her father’s sway! She saved our ship from the dreaded vatnavaettir! She outflew the great Baugi in his eagle form, delivering Kvasir’s Mead to our crew! And she has done all of this while fasting for Ramadan.”
Several giants gasped. Some put their hands to their throats as if just realizing how thirsty they were.
“Samirah,” Loki growled, “turn into a lizard and scuttle away, my dear.”
Sam frowned at him. “No, Father, I don’t think I will. Why don’t you?”
“Oooh!” Some of the giants even clapped.
I was definitely taller than usual now. Or wait…Loki was getting shorter.
But I needed more. I turned to Alex. “Let me tell you all about Alex Fierro!”