The hammer of thor, p.22
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       The Hammer of Thor, p.22
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         Part #2 of Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series by Rick Riordan

  Alex cupped her hands around the back of her neck. “That design, the two entwined snakes? It’s usually called the Urnes snakes, named after some place in Norway. Anyway, it’s not necessarily a symbol of Loki.” She laced her fingers and wiggled them around. “The snakes signify change and flexibility. Being versatile. People started using the snakes to represent Loki, and Loki was fine with that. But I decided…why does Loki get to take over that cool symbol? I like it. I’m making it mine. He doesn’t get to own the symbol for change any more than he owns me. To Helheim with what people think.”

  I watched the flames break down another piece of wood; a swarm of orange sparks rose from the pit. I remembered my dream of Alex’s suite, Loki turning into a woman with red hair. I thought about the hesitation in Alex’s voice when she talked about Loki as her parent.

  “You’re like the eight-legged horse,” I realized.

  Alex frowned. “Stanley?”

  “No, the original eight-legged horse. What’s his name? Sleipnir. Mallory Keen told me the story, something about Loki turning into a beautiful mare so he could lure a giant’s stallion away. And then…Loki got pregnant. He—she gave birth to Sleipnir.” I glanced at Alex, very aware of the garrote now lying across her thigh. “Loki’s not your father, is he? He’s your mom.”

  Alex just stared at me.

  I thought, Well, here comes the wire. Good-bye, limbs! Good-bye, head!

  She surprised me with a sour laugh. “I think that haircut improved your brainpower.”

  I resisted the urge to pat my hacked locks. “So I’m right?”

  “Yes.” She tugged at her glittery pink bootlaces. “I wish I could’ve seen the look on my dad’s face when he found out. From what I gather, Loki shape-shifted into the sort of woman my dad liked. My dad was already married, but that never stopped him. He was used to getting what he wanted. He had an affair with this voluptuous redhead. Nine months later, Loki showed up at my dad’s doorstep with a little baby as a present.”

  I tried to imagine Loki in his usual dashing form, maybe wearing a green tuxedo, ringing the doorbell of some upscale house in the suburbs. Hi, I was that lady you had a fling with. Here’s our kid.

  “How did your mortal mom react?” I asked. “I mean, your dad’s wife…I mean, your stepmother…”

  “It’s confusing, huh?” Alex tossed another stick into the fire. “My stepmom wasn’t happy about it. I grew up with two parents who resented me and found me embarrassing. Then there was Loki, who kept showing up at random times, trying to parent me.”

  “Man,” I said.

  “Woman, today,” Alex corrected.

  “No, I mean…” I stopped, realizing she was teasing me. “What happened? When did you finally leave home?”

  “Two years ago, more or less. As for what happened? A lot.”

  This time I recognized the warning tone in her voice. I was not welcome to ask for more details.

  Still…Alex had become homeless around the same time my mom died, the same time I’d ended up on the streets. That coincidence didn’t sit well with me.

  Before I could chicken out, I blurted, “Did Loki ask you to come with us?”

  She locked eyes with me. “What do you mean?”

  I told her about my dream: her throwing pots at her father (mother), Loki saying: It’s such a simple request.

  It was fully dark now, though I wasn’t sure when that had happened. In the firelight, Alex’s face seemed to shift and jump. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t the Loki part of her revealing itself. It was just change, flexibility. Those twisting snakes on her neck were completely innocent.

  “You’ve got it wrong,” Alex said. “He told me not to come.”

  A strange pulsing sound filled in my ears. I realized it was my own heartbeat. “Why would Loki tell you that? And…what were you and Sam talking about last night—some plan?”

  She curled her garrote around her hands. “Maybe you’ll find out, Magnus. And by the way, if you ever spy on me in your dreams again—”

  “Guys!” Blitzen yelled from Mount Bowling Bag. “Come take a look!”

  You Will Never, Ever Guess Blitzen’s Password

  JACK HOVERED proudly next to his handiwork.

  Can you have handiwork if you don’t have hands?

  Stitched into the bag’s side were several new lines of glowing red runic script.

  “What does it say?” Alex asked.

  “Oh, a few technical runes.” Blitz’s eyes crinkled with satisfaction. “Magic nuts and bolts, terms and conditions, the end-user agreement. But there at the bottom, it says: ‘EMPTYLEATHER, a bag completed by Blitzen, son of Freya. Jack helped.’”

  “I wrote that!” Jack said proudly. “I helped!”

  “Good job, buddy,” I said. “So…does it work?”

  “We’re about to find out!” Blitzen rubbed his hands eagerly. “I’m going to speak the secret word of command. Then this bag will either shrink to an easy carrying size, or—well, I’m sure it will shrink.”

  “Rewind to the or,” Alex said. “What else might happen?”

  Blitzen shrugged. “Well…there’s a slight chance the bag could expand and cover most of this continent. No, no. I’m sure I got it right. Jack was very careful about backstitching the runes where I told him to.”

  “I was supposed to backstitch?” Jack glowed yellow. “Just kidding. Yeah, I backstitched.”

  I wasn’t feeling so confident. On the other hand, if the bag expanded to continental size, I wouldn’t live long enough to care.

  “Okay,” I said. “What’s the password?”

  “Don’t!” Blitzen shrieked.

  The bowling bag shuddered. The entire forest trembled. The bag collapsed so fast I got nauseated from the change in perspective. The mountain of leather was gone. Sitting at Blitzen’s feet was a regular-size bowling bag.

  “YES!” Blitz picked it up and peeked inside. “There’s a bowling ball inside, but the bag feels completely empty. Jack, we did it!”

  They gave each other a high five—or a high just-one, since Jack’s blade had no fingers.

  “Hold on,” Alex said. “I mean…good job and all. But did you seriously make the password password?”

  “DON’T!” Blitz threw the bowling bag like a grenade into the woods. Instantly it grew back to the size of a mountain, causing a tidal wave of crushed trees and terrified animals. I almost felt sorry for the untrustworthy squirrels.

  “I was in a rush!” Blitzen huffed. “I can reset the p—the word of command later on, but that would take more thread and more time. For now, can you please avoid saying…you know, that word?”

  He proceeded to say that word. The bag shrank back to small size.

  “You did great, man,” I said. “And hey, Jack, nice stitching.”

  “Thanks, señor! I love your sawed-off haircut, too. You don’t look like that Nirvana guy anymore. More like, I dunno…Johnny Rotten? Or a blond Joan Jett?”

  Alex cracked up. “How do you even know those people? T.J. told me you were you at the bottom of a river for a thousand years.”

  “I was, but I’ve been studying up!”

  Alex snickered. “Joan Jett.”

  “Just shut up, both of you,” I grumbled. “Who’s ready to go bowling?”

  No one was ready to go bowling.

  Blitzen crawled into a pup tent and collapsed from exhaustion. Then I made the mistake of letting Jack return to pendant form and I collapsed from exhaustion, feeling like I’d spent all day climbing cliffs.

  Alex promised to keep watch. At least I think that’s what she said. She could have announced I’ll invite Loki into camp and kill you all in your sleep! HAHAHAHA! and I still would’ve passed out.

  I dreamed of nothing except dolphins happily leaping through a sea of leather.

  I woke as the sky was turning from black to charcoal. I insisted Alex get a few hours of shut-eye. By the time all three of us had gotten up, eaten, and broken camp, the sky was a thick b
lanket of dirty gray.

  Almost twenty-four hours lost. Samirah and Hearthstone were still missing. I tried to imagine them safe by the fire in Utgard-Loki’s home, sharing stories and eating well. Instead, I imagined a bunch of giants by the fire, sharing stories about the tasty mortals they’d eaten the night before.

  Stop that, I told my brain.

  Also, the wedding is tomorrow, said my brain.

  Get out of my head.

  My brain refused to get out of my head. Inconsiderate brain.

  We hiked through the ravine, trying to keep to the direction Tiny had indicated. You’d think we could’ve just followed his footprints, but it was difficult to tell them apart from the natural valleys and canyons.

  After about an hour, we spotted our destination. On a massive cliff in the distance rose a boxy warehouse-type structure. The inflatable Godzilla was gone (the daily rental for something like that must have been exorbitant), but the neon sign still blazed: UTGARD LANES. The letters flashed one at a time, then all together, then with sparkles around the edges—just so you didn’t miss the only neon sign on the biggest cliff in Jotunheim.

  We trudged up a winding trail that was perfect for colossal donkeys, but not so much for small mortals. The cold wind pushed us around. My feet ached. Thank goodness for Blitzen’s magic bowling bag, because dragging the full-size version up that cliff would have been impossible and also not fun.

  Once we reached the top, I realized just how big Utgard Lanes really was. The building itself could have housed most of downtown Boston. The maroon upholstered double doors were studded with brass tacks each as big as your average three-bedroom house. In the grimy windows glowed neon ads for Jotun Juice, Big Small Ale, and Mega Mead. Tethered to posts outside were colossal riding animals: horses, rams, yaks, and, yes, donkeys—each roughly the size of Kilimanjaro.

  “No need to fear,” Blitz muttered to himself. “It’s just like a dwarven bar. Only…bigger.”

  “So how do we do this?” Alex asked. “Direct frontal assault?”

  “Ha, ha,” I said. “Sam and Hearth might be in there, so we play by the rules. Walk in. Ask for guest rights. Try to negotiate.”

  “And when that doesn’t work,” Blitz said, “we improvise.”

  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!”

  “I said—”

  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?”

  “No.”

 
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