“Eh.” From her belt, Mallory unsheathed its twin. “They aren’t as sharp as Jack. They don’t do anything magical, as far as I can tell. They were supposed to save my life, but as you can see”—she spread her arms—“I’m dead.”
“So…you had the knives when you were alive.”
“For the last five, six minutes of my life, yeah.” She twirled the blade between her fingers. “First my mates…they goaded me into setting the bomb.”
“Hold on. You set the—”
She cut me off with a harsh look, like Never interrupt a lady with a knife.
“That was Loki, egging me on,” she said. “His voice among my crew—the trickster disguised as one of us. Didn’t realize that at the time, of course. Then, after I did the deed, my conscience got the better of me. That’s when the old hag appeared.”
I waited. I’ll admit I wasn’t following Mallory’s story very well. I knew she had died disarming a car bomb, but a car bomb she had set herself? Seeing her as somebody who would do that was even harder than seeing her with short hair. I had no idea who I was looking at.
She brushed away a tear as if it were an annoying insect. “The hag says, ‘Oh, girl. Follow your heart.’ Blah, blah. Nonsense like that. She gives me these knives. Tells me they are indestructible. Can’t be dulled. Can’t be broken. And she’s right about that, far as I can tell. But she also says, ‘You’ll need them. Use them well.’ And I go back to—to undo what I did. I waste time, trying to figure out how these bloody daggers are supposed to solve my problem. But they don’t. And…” She opens her fingertips in a silent explosion.
My head buzzed. I had a lot of questions I was afraid to ask. Why had she set that bomb? Who was she trying to blow up? Was she completely insane?
She sheathed her knife, then gestured for me to throw her the other. I was afraid I might accidentally toss it overboard or kill her, but she caught it easily.
“The hag was also Loki,” she said. “Had to be. Wasn’t enough for him to fool me once. He had to fool me twice and get me killed.”
“Why did you keep the daggers then, if they’re from Loki?”
Her eyes glistened. “Because, my friend, when I see him again, I’m going to sheathe these blades right in his throat.”
She put the second dagger away, and I exhaled for the first time in several minutes.
“Point is, Magnus,” she said, “I wouldn’t put my faith in any magic weapon, knife or otherwise, to solve all our problems—whether it’s Kvasir’s Mead, or this whetstone that’s supposed to get us the mead. In the end, all that counts is us. Whatever Blitzen and Hearthstone are off searching for—”
As if their names were an incantation, a wave surged out of nowhere, crashing across the ship’s bow. Out of the sea spray stumbled two weary figures. Our elf and dwarf had returned.
“Well, well.” Mallory got to her feet, wiping away another tear. She forced some cheerfulness into her tone. “Nice of you boys to drop by.”
Blitzen was covered head to toe in anti-sun protection gear. Salt water glittered on his dark trench coat and gloves. Black netting circled the rim of his pith helmet, obscuring his expression until he lifted the veil. His facial muscles twitched. He blinked repeatedly, like someone who had just walked away from a car accident.
Hearthstone sat down right where he was. He draped his hands over his knees and shook his head, No, no, no. Somehow, he’d lost his scarf, leaving his outfit as black as hearse upholstery.
“You’re alive,” I said, dizzy with relief. My stomach had been knotted up for days worrying about them. Yet now, looking at their shocked expressions, I couldn’t savor having them back.
“You found what you were looking for,” I guessed.
Blitzen swallowed. “I—I’m afraid so, kid. Njord was right. We’re going to need your help for the hard stuff.”
“Alfheim.” I wanted to say it before he could, just to take the sting out of the word. I hoped I was wrong. I would have preferred a trip to the wildest corner of Jotunheim, the fires of Muspellheim, or even a public bathroom in Boston’s South Station.
“Yeah,” Blitzen agreed. He glanced at Mallory Keen. “Dear heart, would you let your friends know? We need to borrow Magnus. Hearthstone has to face his father one last time.”
WHAT WAS it about dads?
Almost everyone I knew had a garbage father, like they were all competing for the Worst Dad of the Universe award.
I was lucky. I’d never met my dad until last winter. Even then I’d only talked to him for a few minutes. But at least Frey seemed cool. We hugged. He let me keep his talking disco sword and sent me a bright yellow boat in my time of need.
Sam had Loki, who put the con in conniving. Alex’s dad was an abusive raging butt-hat with dreams of global dishware domination. And Hearthstone…he had it worse than any of us. Mr. Alderman had made Hearthstone’s childhood a living Helheim. I never wanted to spend another night under that man’s roof, and I’d only been there once. I couldn’t imagine how Hearthstone would bear it.
We fell out of the golden sky, the way one does when tumbling into the airy world of the elves. We landed gently on the street in front of the Alderman mansion. As before, the wide suburban lane stretched out in either direction, hedged with stone walls and carefully tended trees, obscuring the elf millionaires’ multi-acre estates from one another. The weak gravity made the ground seem squishy under my feet, as if I could trampoline right back into the stratosphere. (I was tempted to try.)
The sunlight was as harsh as I remembered, making me grateful for the dark glasses Alex had lent me, even if they did have thick pink Buddy Holly frames. (There had been much snickering about this aboard the Big Banana.)
Why we had left Midgard at sunset and arrived in Alfheim during what looked like early afternoon, I wasn’t sure. Maybe the elves observed Alf-light Saving Time.
Alderman’s elaborate gates still gleamed with their filigreed A monogram. On either side, the high walls still bristled with spikes and barbed wire to discourage riffraff. But now the security cameras were dark and motionless. The gates were laced shut with a chain and padlock. On either side of the gates, nailed to the brick columns, were matching yellow signs with glaring red letters:
BY ORDER OF ALFHEIM POLICE DEPARTMENT
TRESPASSERS WILL DIE
Not prosecuted. Not arrested or shot. That simple warning—step inside these boundaries and you’ll die—was much more sinister.
My gaze wandered over the grounds, which were roughly the size of the Boston Public Garden. Since our last visit, the grass had grown high and wild in the rich Alfheim light. Spiky balls of moss festooned the trees. The pungent smell of scum from the swan lake came wafting through the gates.
The half-mile driveway was littered with white feathers, possibly from the aforementioned swans; bones and tufts of fur that might have once been squirrels or raccoons; and a single black dress shoe that looked as if it had been chewed and spit out.
At the top of the hill, the once imposing Alderman Manor lay in ruins. The left side of the complex had collapsed in a heap of rubble, girders, and charred beams. Kudzu vines had completely overtaken the right side, growing so heavy that the roof had caved in. Only two picture windows remained intact, their glass panes smoked brown around the edges from the fire. Glinting in the sun, they reminded me uncomfortably of T.J.’s sniper glasses.
I turned to my friends. “Did we do this?”
I felt more amazement than guilt. The last time we fled Alfheim, we’d been pursued by evil water spirits and elfish police with guns, not to mention Hearth’s maniacal father. We may have busted a few windows in the process of escaping. I supposed it was possible we’d caused a fire to break out, too. If so, it couldn’t have happened to a viler mansion.
But still…I didn’t understand how the place could have been so thoroughly destroyed, or how quickly such a suburban paradise had turned into this creepy wilderness.
; “We only started it.” Blitzen’s face was again covered by netting, making it impossible to read his expression. “This destruction is the ring’s fault.”
In the harsh warm light, it shouldn’t have been possible to get a chill. Nevertheless, ice trickled down my back. On our last visit, Hearth and I had stolen a hoard of gold from a slimy old dwarf, Andvari, including the little dude’s cursed ring. He’d tried to warn us that the ring would only bring misery, but had we listened? Nooooo. At the time, we’d been more focused on stuff like, oh, saving Blitzen’s life. The only thing that could do that was the Skofnung Stone in Mr. Alderman’s possession. His price for it? A gazillion dollars in gold, because evil fathers don’t take American Express.
Long story short: Alderman took the cursed ring. He put it on and turned even crazier and eviler, which I hadn’t thought possible.
Personally, I liked my cursed rings to at least do something cool, like turn you invisible and let you see the Eye of Sauron. Andvari’s ring had no upside. It brought out the worst in you—greed, hate, jealousy. According to Hearth, it would eventually change you into a bona fide monster so your outside could be as repulsive as your inside.
If the ring was still working its magic on Mr. Alderman, and if it had overtaken him as quickly as the wilderness had overtaken his estate…Yeah, that wasn’t good.
I turned to Hearth. “Is your dad…is he still in there?”
Hearthstone’s expression was grim and stoic, like a man who had finally accepted a terminal diagnosis. Nearby, he signed. But not himself.
“You don’t mean…”
I stared at the chewed-up shoe in the drive. I wondered what had happened to its owner. I remembered my dream of large green eyes and rows of teeth. No, that couldn’t be what Hearth meant. No cursed ring could work so fast, could it?
“You—you scouted around inside?” I asked.
“Afraid so.” Blitz signed as he talked, since Hearth could not see his lips moving. “Alderman’s whole collection of rare stones and artifacts—gone. Along with all the gold. So, if the whetstone we’re looking for was somewhere in that house—”
It has been moved, Hearthstone signed. Part of his hoard.
The sign Hearth used for hoard was a grasping fist in front of his chin, like he was clutching something valuable: Treasure. Mine. Don’t touch, or you’ll die.
I swallowed a mouthful of sand. “And…did you find this hoard?” I knew my friends were brave, but the idea of them poking around inside the walls of that estate terrified me. Definitely it hadn’t been good for the local squirrel population.
“We think we found his lair,” Blitz said.