“So you’re not much of a king, then,” I noted.
Utgard-Loki sneered. For the benefit of his followers, he shouted, “Is that all you can you eat, puny mortals? We have toddlers who can consume more nachos!” He pointed his corn-dog royal scepter at me and lowered his voice. “You know very little of leading, Magnus Chase. Kingship requires the right combination of iron and mead, fear and generosity. As great as I am at wielding magic, I cannot simply force my will upon my giants. They will always outnumber me. I must earn their respect every day. Now you must as well.”
Alex leaned away from the king. “If it’s so dangerous for you, why would you help us get back Mjolnir?”
“I care nothing about Thor’s hammer one way or the other! The Aesir have always relied too much on the fear it inspires. It is a mighty weapon, yes, but when Ragnarok comes, Thor will be outnumbered. The gods will die anyway. The hammer is a bluff, an illusion of overwhelming force. And believe a master sorcerer”—the giant grinned—“even the best illusions have their limits. What I care about is not the hammer. I want to stop Loki’s plan.”
Blitzen scratched his beard. “To marry Sam and Thrym? You fear that alliance?”
Utgard-Loki went into acting mode again, shouting for his audience: “Bah! These are the mightiest corn dogs in Jotunheim! None are their equal!” He took a savage bite, then threw the empty stick over his shoulder. “Blitzen, son of Freya, use your head. Of course I fear an alliance. That ugly toad Thrym and his sister, Thrynga, would love to lead Jotunheim into war. With a marriage alliance to Loki and the hammer of Thor in his possession, Thrym would become Thane of Thanes.”
Sam’s eyes narrowed. “‘With Thor’s hammer in his possession’? You mean, even if I went through with this wedding—which I won’t—Thrym wouldn’t give back Mjolnir?”
“Oh, wedding gifts will be exchanged! But perhaps not in the way you imagine.” Utgard-Loki reached over and flicked the pommel of the Skofnung Sword, still slung across Sam’s back. “Come, come, my friends. Before I can give you a solution, you must understand the problem. Do you truly not see Loki’s goal?”
From across the room, one of the giants bellowed, “Our king, what of the contests? Why are you flirting with those mortals?”
More giants laughed and wolf-whistled at us.
Utgard-Loki stood tall, grinning at his subjects as if this was all good fun. “Yes, of course! Ladies and jotunmen, let us begin the entertainment!” He leered down at us. “Honored guests, with what amazing skills will you impress us?”
All the giants turned toward us, obviously anxious to hear what manner of embarrassing failure we would choose. My chief talents were running away and eating falafel, but after a heavy meal of hot dogs and chemically engineered nachos, I doubted I could win a gold medal in either of those categories.
“Don’t be shy!” Utgard-Loki spread his arms. “Who wants to go first? We want to see what you champions of the mortal realms can do! Will you outdrink us? Outrace us? Outwrestle us?”
Samirah stood. I said a silent prayer of thanks for fearless Valkyries. Even when I was a regular mortal student, I hated going first. The teacher always promised to go easier on the first volunteer or give extra credit. No thanks. It wasn’t worth the extra anxiety.
Sam took a deep breath and faced the crowd. “I am handy with the ax,” she said. “Who would challenge me at ax-throwing?”
The giants cheered and catcalled.
“Well, now!” Utgard-Loki looked delighted. “That’s a very small ax you have, Samirah al-Abbas, but I’m sure you throw it with skill. Hmm. Normally I would name Bjorn Cleaveskull as our champion ax-thrower, but I don’t want you to feel too outmatched. How about you compete against Little Billy instead?”
From a knot of giants at the far end of the alley, a curly-haired kid giant stood. He looked about ten years old, his pudgy belly stuffed in a Where’s Waldo striped shirt, yellow suspenders holding up his schoolboy knickers. He was also severely cross-eyed. As he walked toward us he kept running into tables and tripping over bowling bags, much to the amusement of the other giants.
“Billy is just learning to throw,” Utgard-Loki said. “But he should be a good match for you.”
Samirah clenched her jaw. “Fine. What are the targets?”
Utgard-Loki snapped his fingers. At the far end of lanes one and three, slots opened in the floor and flat wooden figures shot up, each painted with the likeness of Thor, with his wild red hair and flowing beard, and his face scrunched up the way he looked mid-fart.
“Three throws each!” Utgard-Loki announced. “Samirah, would you like to begin?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Children first.”
Little Billy waddled toward the foul line. Next to him, another giant set down a leather bundle and opened it to reveal three tomahawks, each one almost as large as Billy.
Billy struggled to lift the first ax. He squinted at the distant target.
I had time to think, Maybe Sam will be okay. Maybe Utgard-Loki is going easy on her after all. Then Billy burst into action. He tossed one ax after another, so fast I could barely follow his movements. When he was done, one hatchet was embedded in Thor’s forehead, another in his chest, and a third in the thunder god’s mighty crotch.
The giants cheered.
“Not bad!” Utgard-Loki said. “Now, let us see if Samirah, pride of the Valkyries, can defeat a cross-eyed ten-year-old!”
Next to me, Alex muttered, “She’s doomed.”
“Do we step in?” Blitz worried. “Sam told us to think outside the box.”
I remembered her advice: Do something unexpected.
I clasped my fingers around my pendant. I wondered if I should jump out of my seat, summon Jack, and cause a distraction by singing a duet of “Love Never Felt So Good.” Hearthstone saved me from that embarrassment by raising his fingers: Wait.
Sam studied her opponent, Little Billy. She stared at the axes he’d planted in his target. Then she seemed to come to a conclusion. She stepped up to the foul line and raised her ax.
The room went respectfully quiet. Or maybe our hosts were just taking a deep breath so they could laugh really hard when Sam failed.
In one fluid movement, Sam turned and threw her ax right at Billy. The giants gasped.
Little Billy’s eyes went even more cross-eyed as he stared at the hatchet now sprouting from his forehead. He fell backward and crashed to the floor.
The giants roared in outrage. Some rose and drew their weapons.
“Hold!” Utgard-Loki bellowed. He glared at Sam. “Explain yourself, Valkyrie! Why should we not kill you for what you just did?”
“Because,” Sam said, “it was the only way to win this contest.”
She sounded remarkably calm considering what she’d done, and considering the number of giants now
ready to rip her apart. She pointed at the corpse of Little Billy. “This is no giant child!”
She announced it with all the authority of a TV detective, but I could see a bead of sweat trickling down from under the edge of her hijab. I could almost hear her thinking: Please let me be right. Please let me be right.
The crowd of giants stared at the corpse of Little Billy. He continued to look like a dead, badly-dressed giant child. I knew that at any moment the mob would charge Samirah and we’d all have to flee for our lives.
Then, slowly, the boy giant’s form began to change.
His flesh withered until he looked like one of Prince Gellir’s draugr. His leathery lips curled over his teeth. Yellow film covered his eyes. His fingernails lengthened into dirty scythes. Little Zombie Billy struggled to his feet and pulled the ax out of his forehead.
He hissed at Sam. A wave of pure terror swept through the room. Some giants dropped their drinks. Others fell to their knees and wept. My intestines tied themselves into a granny knot.
“Y-yes,” Sam announced, her voice much smaller. “As you can see, this is not Little Billy. This is Fear, which strikes quickly and always hits its mark. The only way to conquer Fear is to attack it head-on. That’s what I did. That’s why I win the contest.”
Fear threw down Sam’s ax in disgust. With one final terrifying hiss, he dissolved into white smoke and was gone.
A collective sigh of relief spread through the room. Several giants hastened to the restrooms, probably to throw up or change their underpants.
I whispered to Blitzen, “How the heck did Sam know? How could that thing be Fear?”
Blitzen’s own eyes looked a bit jaundiced. “I—I suppose she’s met Fear before. I’ve heard rumors that the giants are on good terms with a lot of minor deities—Anger, Hunger, Disease. Supposedly, Old Age used to bowl with the Utgard Ultimates—though not well. But I never thought I’d meet Fear in person….”
Alex shuddered. Hearthstone looked grim but not surprised. I wondered if he and Sam had encountered other minor deities during their twenty-four-hour ordeal.
I was glad Sam had gone first and not me. With my luck, I would’ve been pitted against Happiness and I would’ve had to whack it with my sword until it stopped smiling.
Utgard-Loki turned to Sam with a tiny glint of admiration in his eyes. “I suppose we will not kill you, then, Samirah al-Abbas, since you did what was necessary to win. This round goes to you!”
Sam’s shoulders sagged with relief. “Then we have proven ourselves? The contest is over?”
“Oh, not yet!” The king’s eyes widened. “What about our four other guests? We must see if they are as skilled as you!”
When in Doubt, Turn Into a Biting Insect
I WAS STARTING to hate the Utgard Bowling Ultimate Tournament.
Hearthstone went next. He gestured to the arcade and, with me translating, challenged the giants to bring forth their highest scorer at any game of the contestants’ choosing. Hugo’s Jotun Jammers team nominated a guy named Kyle, who marched over to the skee-ball lane and scored a perfect thousand points. While the giants cheered, Hearthstone walked to the Starsky and Hutch pinball machine and put a red gold coin in the slot.
“Wait!” Hugo protested. “That’s not even the same game!”
“It doesn’t have to be,” I said. “Hearth said ‘any game of the contestants’ choosing,’ plural. Your guy chose skee-ball. Hearth chooses pinball.”
The giants grumbled, but in the end they relented.
Blitzen grinned at me. “You’re in for a treat, kid. Hearth is a wizard.”
“I know that.”
“No, I mean a pinball wizard.”
Hearthstone fired up the first ball. I didn’t see him use any magic, but he quickly destroyed Kyle’s score—which, granted, wasn’t fair, since pinball scores go way higher than a thousand points. Even after he’d passed five hundred million, Hearth kept playing. He nudged the machine and hit the flippers with such intensity I wondered if he was thinking of his father and all those coins he’d made Hearth collect for good deeds. On this machine, Hearth quickly became a make-believe billionaire.
“Enough!” Utgard-Loki yelled, pulling the plug on the machine. “You’ve proved your skill! I think we can all agree that this deaf elf sure plays a mean pinball. Who’s next?”
Blitzen challenged the giants to a complete makeover. He promised he could turn any giant into someone more dashing and fashionable. The giants unanimously elected a jotun named Grum, who had apparently been sleeping under the bar—and collecting grime and lint there—for the past forty years. I was pretty sure he was the minor deity Bad Hygiene.