We visited her a few days ago, Hearth signed. While scouting. She is living with her family now.
Blitz sighed in exasperation, which, of course, Hearth couldn’t hear.
Inge is a good lady, the dwarf signed. But…He made Vs with both hands and circled them in front of his forehead, like he was pulling things out of his mind. In this context, I imagined the sign meant something like delusional.
Hearthstone frowned. Not fair. She tried to help. Hulder bracelet is good luck.
If you say so, Blitz signed.
Glad she is safe, I signed. Is the bracelet magic?
Hearth started to respond. Then his hands froze. He sniffed the air and gestured DOWN!
The birds had stopped chattering in the trees. The whole forest seemed to be holding its breath.
We crouched lower, our eyes barely peeking over the top of the fallen tree. On my next inhalation, I got such a snootful of dead-frog stench I had to repress a gag.
Just inside the cave entrance, twigs and dry leaves crackled under the weight of something huge.
The hairs on my neck quivered. I wished I had summoned Jack so I would be ready to fight if needed, but Jack wasn’t good in stakeout situations, what with his tendency to glow and sing.
Then, from the doorway of the cave came…Oh, gods of Asgard.
I’d been holding out hope that Alderman had turned into something not so bad. Maybe his cursed form was a Weimaraner puppy, or a chuckwalla iguana. Of course, deep down I’d known the truth all along. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it.
Hearth had told me horror stories about what happened to previous thieves who dared to take Andvari’s ring. Now I saw that he hadn’t been bluffing.
Emerging from the cave was a beast so hideous I couldn’t comprehend it all at once.
First I focused on the ring glinting on its middle right fore-toe—a tiny band of gold biting into the scaly flesh. It must have hurt badly, throbbing like a tourniquet. The end of the toe had blackened and shriveled.
The monster’s four feet were each the diameter of a trash-can lid. Its short thick legs dragged along a lizard-like body, maybe fifty feet from nose to tail, its spine ridged with spikes bigger than my sword.
The face I had seen in my dreams: glowing green eyes, a snub-nosed snout with slimy nostrils, a horrible maw with rows of triangular teeth. Its head was maned with green quills. The monster’s mouth reminded me of Fenris Wolf’s—too large and expressive for a beast, its lips too human. Worst of all: tufts of white clung to its forehead—the last remnants of Mr. Alderman’s once-impressive hair.
The new, dragonish Alderman pulled himself from his lair, muttering, grinning, snarling, then cackling hysterically—all for no apparent reason.
“No, Mr. Alderman,” he hissed. “You mustn’t leave, sir!”
With a roar of frustration, he belched a column of fire across the forest floor, roasting the trunks of the nearest trees. The heat made my eyebrows crinkle like rice paper.
I didn’t dare move. I couldn’t even look at my friends to see how they were taking this.
Now you may be thinking Magnus, you’ve seen dragons before. What was the big deal?
Okay, sure. I’d seen the occasional dragon. I even fought an elder lindworm once.
But I’d never faced a dragon that used to be someone I knew. I’d never seen a person transformed into something so awful, so smelly, so malevolent, and yet…so obviously correct. This was Mr. Alderman’s true self, his worst qualities given flesh.
That terrified me. Not just the knowledge that this creature could broil us alive, but the idea that anyone could have this much monster inside them. I couldn’t help but wonder…if I’d put on that ring, if the worst thoughts and failings of Magnus Chase had been given a form, what would’ve happened to me?
The dragon took another step, until only the tip of his tail remained in the cave. I held my breath. If the dragon went out to hunt, maybe we could dash into the cave while he was gone, find the whetstone we needed, and get out of Alfheim without a fight. I could’ve really gone for an easy win like that.
The dragon moaned. “So thirsty! The river isn’t far, Mr. Alderman. Just a quick drink, perhaps?”
He chuckled to himself. “Oh, no, Mr. Alderman. Your neighbors are tricky. Posers! Wannabes! They’d love for you to leave your treasure unguarded. Everything you have worked so hard for—your wealth! Yours alone! No, sir. Back you go! Back!”
Hissing and spitting, the dragon retreated into his cave, leaving behind only dead-frog stench and a few smoldering trees.
I still couldn’t move. I counted to fifty, waiting to see if the dragon would reemerge, but tonight’s show seemed to be over.
Finally my muscles began to thaw. I sank back behind our log. My legs shook uncontrollably. I had an overwhelming urge to pee.
“Gods,” I muttered. “Hearthstone, I…”
Words and sign language failed me. How could I commiserate, or even begin to understand what Hearthstone must be feeling?
He set his mouth in a hard line. His eyes glinted with steely determination, a look that reminded me too much of his father.
He made an open hand and tapped his thumb to his chest. I’m fine.
Sometimes you lie to deceive people. Sometimes you lie because you need the lie to become the truth. I guessed Hearth was doing the latter.
“Hey, buddy,” Blitzen whispered as he signed. His voice sounded like it had been crushed under the weight of the dragon. “Magnus and I can figure this out. Let us take the hit.”
The idea of Blitzen and me facing that monster alone didn’t do much for my bladder problems, but I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, sure. Maybe we can lure the dragon out and sneak in—”
You’re both wrong, Hearthstone signed. We must kill him. And I must help.
WORST PLACE for a council of war?
How about the collapsed well where Hearthstone’s brother had died, in the middle of a creepy forest, in my least favorite of the Nine Worlds, where we could expect absolutely no backup?
Yep, that’s where we went.
I brought out Jack and filled him in on the situation. For once, he did not squeal with excitement or burst into song.
“A ring dragon?” His runes dimmed to gray. “Oh, that’s bad. Cursed rings always make the worst dragons.”
I signed along for Hearth’s benefit.
Hearthstone grunted. The dragon has a weak spot. The belly.
“What’s he saying?” Jack asked.
Among Hearthstone’s friends, Jack was a stubborn holdout when it came to learning to read ASL. He claimed the gestures didn’t make sense to him because he didn’t have hands. Personally, I thought it was just payback for Hearth not being able to read Jack’s lips since, you know, Jack didn’t have lips. Magic swords can be petty like that.
“He said the belly is the dragon’s weak spot,” I repeated.
“Oh, well, yeah.” Jack sounded unenthused. “Their hide is almost impossible to cut, but they do have chinks in their belly armor. If you could somehow get the dragon to roll over—and good luck with that—you might be able to stab me through and reach his heart. But even if you could, have you ever pierced a ring dragon’s belly? I have. It’s gross. Their blood is acid!”
I translated all that for Hearth.
“Jack, did the blood damage you?” I asked.
“Of course not! I’m the Sword of Summer! I was forged with a magical finish that resists all wear and tear!”
Blitzen nodded. “It’s true. Jack’s got a nice finish.”
“Thank you,” Jack said. “Somebody here appreciates good workmanship! Piercing a dragon’s belly won’t damage me, but I’m thinking about you, señor. You get one drop of that blood on you while you’re cutting the dragon, and you’re done. That stuff will eat right through you. Nothing can stop it.”
I had to admit that didn’t sound fun. “Can’t you fight on your own, Jack? You could just fly up to the dragon and—?
“Ask him nicely if he will roll over?” Jack snorted, which sounded like a hammer hitting a corrugated metal roof. “Ring dragons crawl on their bellies for a reason, guys. They know better than to present their weak spot. Besides, killing a ring dragon is a very personal thing. You would have to wield me yourself. An act like that affects your wyrd.”
I frowned. “You mean it affects you weirdly?”
“No. Your wyrd.”
“You’re weird,” I muttered.
“He means fate,” Blitzen put in, signing as he spoke for Hearth’s benefit.
The sign for fate was one hand pushing forward, like everything was going along just fine, la-di-da, then both hands suddenly dropping into Blitz’s lap like they’d run into a wall and died. I may have mentioned that ASL can be a little too descriptive.
“When you kill a ring dragon,” Blitz said, “especially one who used to be someone you knew, you’re messing with serious magic. The dragon’s own curse can reverberate through your future, change the course of your destiny. It can…stain you.”