Alex, being all about change and versatility, said, “I hate this idea.” Then she frowned at me. “Also, you owe me a drink for dreaming about me.”
She marched toward the entrance.
Blitzen raised his eyebrows. “Do I want to ask?”
“No,” I said. “You really don’t.”
Getting past the front doors was no problem. We walked right under them without even having to crouch.
Inside was the largest, most crowded bowling alley I’d ever seen.
To the left, twenty or thirty Statue-of-Liberty-size giants lined the bar, sitting on stools that would have made fine high-rise condominiums. The giants were dressed in neon-colored bowling shirts they must have stolen from a disco-era Salvation Army. Around their waists hung an assortment of knives, axes, and spiked clubs. They laughed and insulted each other and threw back mugs of mead that each could have watered all the crops in California for a year.
It seemed a little early in the morning for mead, but for all I knew these guys had been partying since 1999. That was the song blasting from the overhead speakers, anyway.
To our right stood an arcade where more giants played pinball and Ms. Very Large Pac-Man. In the back of the room, about as far away as, oh, Boston is from New Hampshire, still more giants gathered at the bowling lanes in groups of four or five with matching Day-Glo outfits and suede bowling shoes. A banner across the back wall read: UTGARD BOWLING ULTIMATE TOURNAMENT! WELCOME, U.B.U.T. CONTESTANTS!!
One of the giants threw a ball. Thunder boomed as it rolled down the lane. The floor vibrated, shaking me up and down like a wind-up hoppy toy.
I scanned the place for Tiny in his gray Turkey Bowler shirt. I couldn’t spot him. Tiny should have been easy to see, but from our vantage point on the floor, there were just too many other enormous obstacles in the way.
Then the crowd shifted. Across the room, looking right at me, was a giant I wanted to see even less than Tiny. He sat in a tall leather chair on a dais overlooking the lanes like he was the referee or the MC. His bowling shirt was made of eagle feathers. His slacks were brown polyester. His iron-shod boots looked like they’d been made from recycled World War II destroyers. Clasped around his forearm was a thane’s gold ring studded with bloodstones.
His face was angular and handsome in a cruel sort of way. Straight coal-black hair swept his shoulders. His eyes glittered with amusement and malice. He definitely would’ve made the list for 10 Most Attractive Murderers of Jotunheim. He was about ninety feet taller than the last time I’d seen him, but I recognized him.
“Big Boy,” I said.
I’m not sure how he heard my pipsqueak voice through all the chaos, but he nodded in acknowledgment.
“Magnus Chase!” he called out. “So glad you could make it!”
The music died. At the bar, giants turned to look at us. Big Boy raised his fist as if offering me a microphone. Clasped in his fingers like G.I. Joe figures were Samirah and Hearthstone.
Elvis Has Left the Bowling Bag
“WE CLAIM guest rights!” I yelled. “Utgard-Loki, let our friends go!”
I thought that was pretty brave of me, considering we were facing a heavily armed, badly-dressed Statue of Liberty convention.
The assembled giants laughed.
At the bar, one yelled, “What did you say? Speak up!”
The bartender turned “1999” back on and drowned me out. The giants howled with glee.
I frowned at Blitzen. “You told me Taylor Swift’s songs were dwarf music…does this mean that Prince was a giant?”
“Eh?” Blitzen kept his eyes locked on Hearthstone, who was still trapped and struggling in Utgard-Loki’s fist. “No, kid. This just means that giants have good taste in music. You think Jack could cut our friends out of the giant’s hand?”
“Before Utgard-Loki crushes them? Unlikely.”
Alex wrapped her garrote around her hand, though I didn’t see what good it would do unless she intended to give the giants a good flossing. “What’s the plan?”
“I’m working on it.”
Finally, Utgard-Loki made a cut it gesture with his finger across his throat. (Not my favorite gesture.) The music shut off again. The giants settled down.
“Magnus Chase, we’ve been expecting you!” Utgard-Loki grinned. “As for your friends, they’re not captives. I was merely lifting them up so they could see that you’ve arrived! I’m sure they are delighted!”
Sam did not look delighted. She twisted her shoulders, trying to break free. Her expression suggested she wanted to kill everyone wearing a bowling shirt and perhaps several people who were not.
As for Hearth, I knew how much he hated having his hands pinned down. He couldn’t communicate, couldn’t do magic. The cold fury in his eyes reminded me of his father, Mr. Alderman, and that was not a similarity I enjoyed seeing.
“Put them down now,” I said, “if they’re really not captives.”
“As you wish!” Utgard-Loki set Sam and Hearth on the table, where they stood about as tall as the giant’s mead cup. “We’ve made them quite comfortable while we waited for you to arrive. Tiny mentioned that you would bring his bowling bag no later than this morning. I was beginning to think you wouldn’t make it!”
The way he phrased that made it seem like this was a hostage exchange. A cold heavy feeling settled in my gut. I wondered what would’ve happened to Sam and Hearth if we’d failed to show up with the bag. We’d kept them waiting, trapped here for twenty-four hours, probably wondering if we were even still alive.
“We’ve got the bag!” I said. “No worries.”
I nudged Blitzen.
“Right!” Blitz stepped forward and raised his creation. “Behold
Emptyleather, soon to be famous among bowling bags, completed by Blitzen of Freya! And Jack helped!”
Our old friend Tiny muscled his way through the crowd. Mead stains speckled his gray shirt. His grizzled man bun had unraveled. Just like he’d warned us, compared to the other giants in the room, he actually did look tiny.
“What’d you do to my bag?” he cried. “Did you wash it on regular cycle? It’s minuscule!”
“Like you!” another giant catcalled.
“Shut up, Hugo!” Tiny yelled.
“Not to fear!” Blitzen promised, his voice demonstrating what fear sounded like. “I can return the bag to its normal size! But first, I want assurances from your king that we have guest rights—the three of us, and our two friends on the table.”
Utgard-Loki chuckled. “Well, Tiny, it seems like they did what you asked. They brought your bag.”
Tiny gestured helplessly to his new extra-small carry case. “But…”
“Tiny…” the king said, his tone hardening.
Tiny glared at us. He did not look quite so easygoing now.
“Yes,” he said through gritted teeth. “They have kept their part of their bargain. I vouch for them…in a very, very small way.”
“There you have it!” Utgard-Loki beamed. “You are all officially guests in my bowling alley!” He plucked up Sam and Hearth and set them on the floor. Thankfully, the Skofnung Sword and Stone were still strapped across Sam’s back.
The king turned to address the assembled giants. “My friends, if we entertain these guests in our present size, we’ll get eye-strain trying to avoid stepping on them. We’ll have to serve them food with tweezers and fill their teeny drinking glasses with eyedroppers. That’s no fun! Let’s take this party down a few notches, eh?”
The giants grumbled and muttered, but nobody seemed anxious to contradict the king. Utgard-Loki snapped his fingers. The room spun. My stomach churned from disorientation.
The bowling alley shrank from colossal to merely huge. The giants now averaged about seven feet tall. I could look at them without craning my neck or peering up their cavernous nostrils.
Samirah and Hearthstone hurried over to join us.
You okay? Blitz signed to Hearth.
Where were you? Hearth asked.
Samirah gave me a pained I-will-kill-you-later smile. “I thought you were dead. Also, what happened to your hair?”
“Long story,” I told her.
“Yeah, sorry we’re late,” Alex said. Her apology surprised me more than anything so far today. “What did we miss?”
Sam stared at her like, If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.
I couldn’t imagine that her story was any weirder than ours, but before we could compare notes, Tiny stumbled toward Blitzen. The giant grabbed his bowling bag, which was now just about the right size for him.
He zipped it open and breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness! Elvis!”
He pulled out his bowling ball and examined it for damage. Airbrushed across the surface was a 1970s Elvis Presley in his white rhinestone jumpsuit. “Oh, did they hurt you, baby?” Tiny kissed the ball and hugged it to his chest. He scowled at Blitzen. “You’re lucky you didn’t harm Elvis, little dwarf.”
“I have no interest in harming Elvis.” Blitzen swiped the now-empty bag out of Tiny’s hands. “But I’m keeping Emptyleather for insurance! You can have it back when we leave here unharmed. If you try anything, I should warn you, the bag only changes sizes with the word of command, and you’ll never guess it on your own!”
“What?” Tiny shrieked. “Is it Presley?”