“Is it Graceland?”
“Friends, friends!” Utgard-Loki walked toward us with his arms extended. “This is tournament day! We have special guests! Let’s not quibble. Let us feast and compete! Start the music! Drinks for everyone!”
“Little Red Corvette” blasted over the speakers. Most of the giants dispersed, going back to their mead-swilling or their bowling or their Ms. Not-Quite-So-Large Pac-Man. Some of the jotuns—especially those in gray shirts like Tiny’s—looked like they wanted to kill us, guest rights or no, but I took comfort in knowing we had a doomsday option. If worse came to worst, we could always shout password and destroy the entire building in an avalanche of fine dwarven-embroidered leather.
Utgard-Loki patted Tiny on the back. “That’s right! Go have a Jotun Juice!”
Tiny cradled Elvis and headed for the bar, glowering at us over his shoulder.
“Utgard-Loki,” I said, “we need information—”
“Not now, you idiot.” He maintained his grin, but his tone was a desperate snarl. “Look happy. Look like we’re just joking around.”
“Good one!” shouted the giant king. “Ha, ha, ha!”
My friends tried to get into the act. “Yeah, ha, ha!” Sam said. Blitzen let out a good dwarvish belly laugh. “Hilarious!” Alex volunteered.
H-A, H-A, Hearth signed.
Utgard-Loki kept smiling at me, but his eyes were as sharp as daggers. “No giant here wants to help you except me,” he said under his breath. “If you don’t prove yourself worthy, you’ll never leave this bowling alley alive.”
“What?” Blitzen hissed. “You promised guest rights. You’re the king!”
“And I’ve used every last bit of my influence and credibility trying to help you! Otherwise you wouldn’t have made it this far alive!”
“Help us?” I said. “By killing our goat?”
“And infiltrating Valhalla?” Sam added. “And possessing an innocent flight instructor?”
“All to dissuade you bungling mortals from falling into Loki’s trap. Which, so far, you’ve managed to do anyway.” He turned his head and shouted for the onlookers, “Well boasted, little mortal! But you will never beat the giants!”
He lowered his voice again. “Not everyone here thinks Loki needs to be stopped. I’ll tell you what you need to know to thwart him, but you’ll have to play along. If you don’t prove your worth and earn the respect of my followers, I’ll be ousted and one of these morons will become the new king. Then we’re all dead.”
Alex scanned the crowd as if trying to decide which moron to garrote first. “Look, Your Feathery Majesty, you could’ve just sent us this important information in a text or a phone call days ago. Why all the cloak-and-dagger and the inflatable Godzilla?”
Utgard-Loki wrinkled his nose at her. “I could not text you, child of Loki, for several reasons. First and foremost, because your father has ways of finding things out. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Alex’s face mottled red, but she said nothing.
“Now,” the king continued, “join the feast. I’ll show you to your table.”
“And after that?” I asked. “How do we prove our worth?”
Utgard-Loki’s eyes gleamed in a way I definitely didn’t like. “You entertain us with impressive feats. You best us in competition. Or you die trying.”
Little Billy Totally Deserved It
THE BOWLING alley breakfast of champions: peanuts, lukewarm hot dogs, and stale corn chips drizzled in orange goop that bore no resemblance to cheese. The mead was flat and tasted of Sweet’N Low. On the bright side, the portions were giant-size. I hadn’t eaten much since yesterday except for leftover falafel and chocolate. I courageously managed to eat.
At each bowling lane, giants sat grouped by team—throwing food, cracking jokes, and boasting about their pin-destroying prowess.
Sam, Hearthstone, Blitz, Alex, and I sat together on a wraparound plastic bench, picking through our food for the most edible bits and nervously surveying the crowd.
Utgard-Loki had insisted we trade our regular footwear for bowling shoes—all of which were too big and Day-Glo orange and pink. When Blitzen saw his, I thought he was going to go into anaphylactic shock. Alex, however, seemed to like them. At least we didn’t have to wear matching team shirts.
While we ate, we told Sam and Hearth what had happened to us in the woods.
Sam shook her head in disgust. “Magnus, you always get the easy stuff.”
I almost choked on a peanut. “Easy?”
“Hearth and I have been here for a day trying to stay alive. We’ve almost died six times.”
Hearth held up seven fingers.
“Oh, right,” Sam said. “The thing with the toilets.”
Blitzen tucked his feet under the bench, no doubt to avoid looking at his hideous shoes. “Didn’t the giants give you guest rights?”
“That was the first thing we asked for,” Sam said. “But these mountain jotuns…they’ll try to twist your words and kill you with kindness.”
“Like those sisters we met in January,” I said. “The ones who offered to raise our seat to table height and then tried to smash us against the ceiling in it.”
Sam nodded. “Yesterday I asked for a drink? The bartender dropped me in a full beer mug. First, I’m Muslim. I don’t drink alcohol. Second, the sides were so slippery I couldn’t get out. If Hearth hadn’t cracked the glass with a rune…”
Had to watch everything we said, Hearth signed. I asked for a place to sleep…He shuddered. Almost mangled to death in ball-return machine.
Sam translated for Alex’s sake.
“Ouch.” Alex winced. “No wonder you guys look so bad. No offense.”
“That’s not the worst of it,” Sam said. “Trying to do my prayers with Hearthstone keeping guard? Impossible. And the giants kept challenging us to rigged feats of skill.”
Illusions, Hearthstone signed, circling his palms at us simultaneously to represent two shifting images. Nothing here is what it seems.
“Yep.” Blitz nodded gravely. “Same with Tiny and his bowling bag. Utgard-Loki and his people are infamous for their powers of illusion.”
I glanced around, wondering how big the giants actually were and what they looked like without magic. Maybe the hideous bowling outfits were mirages meant to disorient us. “So how do you know what’s an illusion and what’s real?”
“Most importantly…” Alex held up a tortilla chip soggy with orange goo. “Can I pretend this is really a burrito from Anna’s Taqueria?”
“We have to stay sharp,” Sam warned. “Last night, after we phrased the request very carefully, they finally gave us sleeping bags, but we had to ‘prove our strength’ by spreading them out ourselves. We tried for about an hour. The bags wouldn’t budge. Utgard-Loki finally admitted they were made from curled shavings of titanium. The giants had a good laugh about that.”
I shook my head. “How is that even funny?”
Hearth signed: Tell about the cat.
“Ugh,” Sam agreed. “Then there was the cat. As a ‘favor’ before we got dinner, we were supposed to pick up Utgard-Loki’s cat and put it outside.”
I glanced around, but I saw no cat.
“It’s around here somewhere,” Sam assured me. “Except we couldn’t move it, because the cat was actually a thirteen-thousand-pound African bush elephant. We weren’t even aware until the giants told us later—after we’d tried for hours and missed dinner. They love to humiliate their guests by making them feel weak and puny.”
“It’s working,” Blitz muttered.
I imagined trying to pick up an elephant and not realizing it was an elephant. That was usually the sort of thing I would notice.
“How do we combat something like that?” I asked. “We’re supposed to impress them in a bunch of contests? Sorry, there’s not much I can do with titanium sleeping bags and African bush elephants.”
across the table. “Whatever you think is going on, just remember it’s a ruse. Think outside the box. Do something unexpected. Break the rules.”
“Oh,” Alex said. “You mean like every other day in my life.”
“Then your experience should come in handy,” Sam said. “Also, that stuff Utgard-Loki told us about trying to help? I don’t believe a word—”
For a big guy in a feather bowling shirt, the giant king was stealthy. Utgard-Loki leaned over the railing behind our table, peering down at us, a corn dog in his hand. “We only have a minute or so. Then the games must begin.”
“The games,” Sam said. “Like the ones we’ve been playing since yesterday?”
Utgard-Loki’s eyes matched his eagle-feather shirt. He had that bird-of-prey gaze, like he was about to swoop down and grab a rodent—or perhaps a small human—for dinner. “Now, Samirah, you have to understand. My liege men are already upset that I invited you here. You must be good sports. Provide entertainment, give us a great show, prove that you’re worthy. Don’t expect any kindness from me during the contests. My men will turn on me if I show any preferential treatment.”