“Saving the best for last?” Alex asked, a hint of challenge in her voice.
“She is our secret weapon!” I said. “The Terror of Jorvik! The creator of Pottery Barn, ceramic warrior!”
“I got some lovely place mats at Pottery Barn,” one of the giants muttered to a friend.
“At the House of Chase, he decapitated a wolf with nothing more than a wire, then drank guava juice from the horn of my ancestors!”
“He?” asked a giant.
“Just go with it,” said another.
“She once decapitated Grimwolf the elder lindworm!” I continued. “She defeated the sorcery of Utgard-Loki in a bowling tournament of horrors! She won the trust and affection of the goddess Sif! She kept me alive across the frozen sea of Niflheim, and when she kissed me under that blanket yesterday…” I met Alex’s two-color eyes. “Well, that was just about the best thing that ever happened to me.”
I turned toward Loki. My face was burning. I’d spoken maybe just a wee bit more truth than I’d intended, but I couldn’t let that break my momentum.
“Loki, you asked me who I am? I’m part of this team. I’m Magnus Chase from floor nineteen, Hotel Valhalla. I’m the son of Frey, son of Natalie, friend of Mallory, Halfborn, T.J., Blitzen, Hearthstone, Samirah, and Alex. This is my family! This is my othala. I know they will always support me, which is why I’m standing here, triumphant, on your ship, surrounded by my family, and you…even in the midst of thousands, you. Are. Still. Alone.”
Loki hissed. He backed into a wall of scowling draugr. “I am not alone! Sigyn! Dear wife!”
Sigyn had vanished. At some point during the flyting, she must have retreated into the crowd. That silent act spoke louder than centuries of verbal abuse.
“Alex! Samirah!” Loki tried for a confident smile. “Come on, my dears. You know I love you! Don’t be difficult. Kill your friends for me and all will be forgiven.”
Alex adjusted her shaggy green fur cloak over her sweater vest. “Sorry, Mom. I’m afraid I gotta say no.”
Loki dashed toward Samirah, who pushed him back at spear point. The trickster was about three feet tall now. He tried changing form. Fur sprouted across his brow. Fishy scales appeared on the backs of his hands. Nothing seemed to stick.
“You can’t hide from yourself, Loki,” I said. “No matter what form you take, you’re still you—alone, scorned, bitter, faithless. Your insults are hollow and desperate. You don’t stand a chance against us, because you don’t have an us. You are Loki, always alone.”
“I hate you all!” the god screamed, spittle flying. Acid oozed from his pores, hissing against the deck. “None of you are worthy of my company, much less my leadership!”
As Loki shrank, his scarred face rippled, contorting with rage. Acid steamed in puddles all around him. I wondered if this was all the venom that Skadi’s viper had dripped on him over the centuries, or if it was simply part of Loki’s essence. Perhaps Sigyn had tried to shield Loki from the snake because she knew her husband was already full of poison. He could barely keep his human form from liquefying into the stuff.
“You think your happy friendship speech means anything?” he snarled. “Is it time for a group hug now? You make me sick!”
“You’ll have to speak up,” I said. “It’s hard to hear you from way down there.”
Loki paced and ranted, no more than a few inches tall now, wading through puddles of his own venom. “I will kill you slowly! I will have Hel torture the spirits of everyone you love! I will—”
“Escape?” Samirah asked, blocking Loki with her spear point as he darted left. He ran to the right, but Alex put down her pink ski boot to stop him.
“I don’t think so, Mom,” said Alex. “I like you down there. And now, Mallory Keen has a lovely parting gift for you.”
Mallory hopped forward and brought out the walnut.
“No!” Loki squeaked. “No, you wouldn’t dare! I will never—”
Mallory tossed the nut toward the miniature god. The shell opened, inhaling Loki with a vicious sucking noise, then snapped shut again. The walnut rattled and quivered on the deck. A little voice was shouting obscenities from inside, but the shell remained sealed.
The giants frowned down at the walnut.
Captain Hrym cleared his throat. “Well, that was interesting.” He turned to me. “Congratulations, Magnus Chase! You won that flyting fair and square. I am impressed! I hope you’ll accept my apology for having to kill you all now.”
I DID NOT accept his apology.
Neither did my friends. They formed a protective ring around me and began slashing through the enemy ranks, slowly shuffling toward the starboard side of the ship.
Still hopping on one leg, Mallory Keen scooped up her evil walnut and dropped it into her pocket, then demonstrated her dual-knife-wielding prowess by stabbing her blades into Captain Hrym’s crotch.
Halfborn and T.J. fought like killing machines. I didn’t want to give myself credit for their gusto, but the way they plowed through troops of draugr was awe-inspiring, almost as if they were determined to be as good as I’d described them—as if my words had made them l
arger while making Loki smaller.
“Follow me!” Sam yelled, her spear of light blasting a path to starboard. Alex swung her garrote like a whip, lopping off the heads of any giants who came too close.
I was afraid Blitzen might get trampled in the crush, but Hearthstone knelt and let the dwarf climb onto his shoulders. Okay, that was a new one. I didn’t think Hearth had the physical strength to carry Blitz, who was short but stout and hardly a little kid. Yet Hearth managed, and from the unquestioning way Blitz accepted the ride, I got the feeling they’d done this before.
Blitz threw neckties and expand-o-ducks like Mardi Gras beads, sowing terror in the enemy’s ranks. Meanwhile Hearth lobbed a familiar rune toward the foredeck:
Ehwaz, the rune of the steed, exploded with golden light. Suddenly, floating in the air above us, was our old friend Stanley the eight-legged horse.
Stanley surveyed the chaos, whinnied as if to say Fight scene cameo? Okay. Then he leaped into the fray, fly-galloping on the skulls of jotuns and generally causing havoc.
Jack, buzzing angrily, flew to my side. “I have a blade to grind with you, señor.”
“What?” I ducked as a spear flew over my head.
“You give this beautiful speech,” Jack said. “And who do you leave out? Really?”
Jack hilt-punched a giant so hard the poor guy flew backward, domino-toppling a line of zombie cavalry.
I gulped down my mortification. How could I have forgotten my sword? Jack hated being forgotten.
“Jack, you were my secret weapon!” I said.
“You said that about Alex!”
“Uh, I mean you were my ace in the hole! I was saving the best for, you know, emergency poetry!”
“A likely story!” He chopped through the nearest clump of draugr like a Vitamix.
“I—I’ll get Bragi the god of poetry to personally write an epic about you!” I blurted out, regretting the promise as soon as I made it. “You’re the best sword ever! Honestly!”
“An epic, huh?” He glowed a brighter shade of red, or maybe that was all the gore dripping from his blade. “By Bragi, huh?”
“Absolutely!” I said. “Now let’s get out of here. Show me your best stuff so, you know, I can describe it to Bragi later.”
“Hmph.” Jack whirled toward a metropolitan giant, snicker-snacking him into natty pieces. “I suppose I can do that.”
He went to work, slashing our enemies like a frantic Black Friday shopper rifling through clothes racks. “No, no, no!” Jack yelled. “I don’t like you! Get out of my way! You’re ugly!”
Soon our little cluster of heroes reached the starboard rail. Unfortunately, the drop over the side was four hundred feet at least, straight into the icy gray waters. My stomach twisted. This was twice as long a fall as the one I’d flubbed from the mainmast of Old Ironsides.
“We’ll die if we jump,” Mallory noted.
The enemy horde pressed us against the rail. No matter how well we fought, our enemies wouldn’t even have to hit us to kill us now. Their sheer numbers would flatten us or push us overboard.
I pulled out my yellow handkerchief. “I can summon Mikillgulr, the way we did in Aegir’s hall.”
“Except we’re falling down now,” Alex said. “Not floating up. And there’s no Njord to protect us.”
“She’s right,” Blitz yelled, throwing a generous handful of neckties to his admirers. “Even if the ship doesn’t break apart on impact, all our bones will.”
Sam peered over the side. “And even if we survived, those guns would blow our ship out of the water.”
“Guns?” I followed her gaze. I hadn’t noticed them before, probably because the ports had been closed, but now the side of Naglfar’s hull bristled with rows of cannon muzzles.
“That’s not fair,” I said. “Vikings didn’t have cannons. How come Naglfar gets cannons?”
T.J. jabbed a zombie with his bayonet. “I’ll be sure to lodge a complaint with the Ragnarok Rules Committee. But right now, whatever we’re going to do, we need to do it!”
“Agreed!” Halfborn shouted, his ax slicing through a pack of skeletal wolves.
“I’ve got a plan,” Sam announced. “You’re not going to like it.”
“I love it!” Blitz cried. “What is it?”
“Jump,” Sam said.
Alex ducked a javelin. “But the whole breaking-every-bone-in-our-bodies thing…?”
“No time to explain,” Sam said. “Jump!”
When your Valkyrie tells you to jump, you jump. I was the first one over the side. I tried to remember what Percy had told me—skydiver, eagle, arrow, butt—though I knew that falling from this height, none of it would matter.
I hit the water with a mighty floom. I had died enough times to know what to expect—a sudden overwhelming surge of pain followed by complete darkness. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I bobbed to the surface, gasping and shivering but completely unharmed. I realized something was buoying me up.