“Now, now, pinball wizard,” the giant said. “No need to get testy. If I let you go, and if you can beat Loki at his own game, then I get the same rewards, plus the satisfaction of knowing the upstart god of mischief has been humiliated with my help. As I may have mentioned, we mountain giants love humiliating our enemies.”
“And for engineering that humiliation,” Alex said, “you gain respect from your followers.”
Utgard-Loki bowed modestly. “Maybe in the process you get Thor’s hammer back. Maybe you don’t. I don’t really care. In my opinion, Thor’s hammer is nothing but an Asgardian boondoggle, and you can tell Thor I said so.”
“I wouldn’t,” I said, “even if I knew what that meant.”
“Make me proud!” Utgard-Loki said. “Find a way to change the rules of Loki’s game, the way you did today at our feast. Surely you can come up with a plan.”
“That’s option two?” Alex demanded. “‘Do it yourself’? That’s the extent of your help?”
Utgard-Loki clasped his hands to his chest. “I’m hurt. I’ve given you a lot! Besides, our five minutes is up.”
A BOOM reverberated through the woods—the sound of barroom doors being thrown open—followed by the roar of infuriated giants.
“Hurry along now, little ones!” Utgard-Loki urged. “Go find Thor and tell him what you’ve learned. If my liege men catch you…well, I’m afraid they are big fans of option one!”
We Are Honored with Runes and Coupons
I’D BEEN CHASED by Valkyries. I’d been chased by elves with firearms. I’d been chased by dwarves with a tank. Now, lucky me, I got to be chased by giants with giant bowling balls.
One of these days, I would love to exit a world without being pursued by an angry mob.
“Run!” Blitz yelled, like this idea hadn’t occurred to us.
The five of us raced through the woods, jumping over fallen trees and tangled roots. Behind us, the giants grew with every step. One moment they were twelve feet tall. The next they were twenty feet tall.
I felt like I was being pursued by a tidal wave. Their shadows overtook us, and I realized there was no hope.
Blitzen bought us a few seconds. With a curse, he tossed the bag Emptyleather behind us and yelled, “Password!” The mob of giants abruptly found their path blocked by the appearance of Mount Bowling Bag, but they quickly grew tall enough to step right over it. Soon we would be trampled. Even Jack couldn’t help against so many.
Hearthstone sprinted ahead, frantically gesturing Come on! He pointed to a tree with slender branches, clusters of red berries just ripening in their green foliage. The ground beneath was strewn with white flower petals. The tree definitely stood out among the huge pines of Jotunheim, but I didn’t understand why Hearth was so anxious to die in that particular location.
Then the trunk of the tree opened like a door. A lady stepped out and called, “Here, my heroes!”
She had fine elfish features and long hair of red gold, rich and warm and lustrous. Her orange-red dress was clasped at the shoulder with a green-and-silver brooch.
My first thought: It’s a trap. My experience with Yggdrasil had given me a healthy fear of jumping through doorways in trees. Second thought: The lady looked like one of the dryad tree spirits my cousin Annabeth had described, though I didn’t know what one would be doing in Jotunheim.
Sam didn’t hesitate. She sprinted after Hearthstone as the red-gold woman stretched out her hand and cried, “Hurry, hurry!”
That also seemed like pretty obvious advice to me.
The sky above turned midnight black. I glanced up and saw the yacht-size sole of a giant’s bowling shoe ready to stomp us flat. The red-gold lady pulled Hearth inside the tree. Sam leaped through next, followed by Alex. Blitz was struggling with his shorter stride, so I grabbed him and jumped. Just as the giant’s boot came down, the world was snuffed out in absolute, silent darkness.
I blinked. I seemed to be not dead. Blitzen was struggling to get out from under my arm, so I deduced he wasn’t dead either.
Suddenly, I was blinded by a dazzling light. Blitz grunted in alarm. I got him to his feet as he scrambled to put on his pith helmet. Only when he was safely covered up did I scan our surroundings.
We stood in a lavish room that was definitely not a bowling alley. Above us, a nine-sided glass pyramid let in the daylight. Floor-to-ceiling windows surrounded the chamber, giving us a penthouse-level view over the rooftops of Asgard. In the distance, I could make out Valhalla’s main dome. Hammered from a hundred thousand gold shields, it looked like the shell of the world’s fanciest armadillo.
The chamber we were in seemed to be an interior atrium. Ringing the circumference were nine trees, each like the one we’d stepped through in Jotunheim. In the center, in front of a raised dais, a fire crackled cheerfully and smokelessly in the hearth. And on the dais was a chair elaborately carved from white wood.
The woman with the red-gold hair climbed the steps and seated herself on the throne.
Like her hair, everything about her was graceful, flowing, and bright. The movement of her dress reminded me of a field of red poppies swaying in a warm summer breeze.
“Welcome, heroes,” said the goddess. (Oh, yeah. SPOILER ALERT. By this point, I was pretty sure she was a goddess.)
Hearthstone rushed forward. He knelt at the foot of the throne. I hadn’t seen him so awestruck since…well, ever—not even when he was facing Odin himself.
He finger-spelled: S-I-F.
“Yes, my dear Hearthstone,” said the goddess. “I am Sif.”
Blitz scrambled to Hearth’s side and also
knelt. I wasn’t much of a kneeler, but I gave the lady a bow and managed not to fall over in the process. Alex and Sam just stood there looking mildly disgruntled.
“My lady,” Sam said with obvious reluctance, “why have you brought us to Asgard?”
Sif wrinkled her delicate nose. “Samirah al-Abbas, the Valkyrie. And this one is Alex Fierro, the…new einherji.” Even Officers Sunspot and Wildflower would have approved of her look of distaste. “I saved your lives. Is that not cause to be grateful?”
Blitz cleared his throat. “My lady, Sam just meant—”
“I can speak for myself,” Sam said. “Yes, I appreciate the rescue, but it was awfully convenient timing. Have you been watching us?”
The goddess’s eyes flashed like coins underwater. “Of course I have been watching you, Samirah. But obviously I couldn’t retrieve you until you had the information to help my husband.”
I looked around. “Your husband…is Thor?”
I couldn’t imagine the thunder god living in a place so clean and pretty, with an unbroken glass ceiling and windows. Sif seemed so refined, so graceful, so unlikely to fart or belch in public.
“Yes, Magnus Chase.” Sif spread her arms. “Welcome to our home, Bilskirnir—the renowned palace Bright Crack!”
All around us, a heavenly chorus sang Ahhhhhhhh! then shut off as abruptly as it had begun.
Blitzen helped Hearthstone to his feet. I didn’t know godly etiquette, but I guessed once the heavenly chorus sounded, you were allowed to get up.
“The largest mansion in Asgard!” Blitzen marveled. “I have heard stories of this place. And such a fine name, Bilskirnir!”
Another chorus rang out. Ahhhhhhhh!
“Bright Crack?” Alex didn’t even wait for the angels to finish before asking, “Do you live next door to Plumber’s Crack?”
Sif frowned. “I do not like this one. I may send it back to Jotunheim.”
“Call me it again,” Alex snarled. “Just try.”
I put my arm in front of her like a guardrail, though I knew I was risking amputation by clay-cutter. “Um, Sif, so maybe you could tell us why we’re here?”
Sif’s eyes settled on me. “Yes, of course, son of Frey. I’ve always liked Frey. He’s quite handsome.” She fluffed her hair. Somehow I got the feeling that by handsome Sif meant likely to make my husband jealous.
“As I said,” she continued, “I am Thor’s wife. That’s all most people know about me, sadly, but I am also a goddess of the earth. It was a simple matter for me to track your movements across the Nine Worlds whenever you passed through a forest, or tread on living grass or moss.”
“Moss?” I said.
“Yes, my dear. There is even a moss called Sif’s hair, named after my luxurious golden locks.”
She looked smug, though I wasn’t sure I would be so excited about having a moss named after me.
Hearth pointed at the trees around the courtyard and signed, r-o-w-a-n.
Sif brightened. “You know much, Hearthstone! The rowan is indeed my sacred tree. I can pass from one to another across the Nine Worlds, which is how I brought you to my palace. The rowan is the source of so many blessings. Did you know my son Uller made the first bow and the first skis from rowan wood? I was so proud.”
“Oh, yeah.” I recalled a conversation I’d once had with a goat in Jotunheim. (It’s depressing I can even use that sentence.) “Otis mentioned something about Uller. I didn’t know he was Thor’s son.”
Sif put a finger to her lips. “Actually, Uller is my son by my first husband. Thor’s a little sensitive about that.” This fact seemed to please her. “But speaking of rowan trees, I have a gift for our elfish sorcerer!”
From the sleeves of her elegant dress, she brought out a leather pouch.
Hearth almost fell over. He made some wild hand gestures that didn’t really mean anything, but seemed to convey the idea GASP!
Blitzen grabbed his arm to steady him. “Is—is that a bag of runes, milady?”
Sif smiled. “That’s correct, my well-dressed dwarven friend. Runes written on wood carry a very different power than runes written on stone. They are full of life, full of suppleness. Their magic is softer and more malleable. And rowan is the best wood for runes.”
She beckoned Hearth forward. She pressed the leather pouch into his trembling hands.
“You will need these in the struggle to come,” she told him. “But be