He said the word stain like it was worse than ketchup or grease—like dragon-killing wouldn’t come out of your wyrd even with a good presoaking.
Hearthstone signed in clipped gestures, the way he did when he was irritated: Must be done. I will do it.
“Buddy…” Blitz shifted uncomfortably. “This is your dad.”
Hearth, I signed. Some way to get whetstone without killing the dragon?
He shook his head adamantly. Not the point. Dragons can live for centuries. I can’t leave him like that.
His pale eyes moistened. With a shock, I realized he was crying. It may sound dumb, but elves were usually so in control and subdued about their emotions, it surprised me to know they were capable of tears.
Hearth wasn’t just angry. He didn’t want vengeance. Despite everything Alderman had done to him, Hearthstone didn’t want his dad to suffer as a twisted monster. Sif had warned Hearth that he would have to come back here to reclaim his lost inheritance rune. That meant closing the sad story of his family, putting Mr. Alderman’s tortured soul to rest.
“I get it,” I said. “I do. But let me strike the killing blow. You shouldn’t have that on your conscience, or your wyrd, or whatever.”
“Kid’s right,” Blitz said. “It won’t stain his destiny as badly. But you—killing your own dad, even if it’s a mercy? Nobody should ever have to face a choice like that.”
I thought Samirah and Alex might disagree. They might welcome the chance to put Loki out of our collective misery. But, generally speaking, I knew Blitz was right.
“Besides,” Jack chimed in, “I’m the only blade that can do the job, and I wouldn’t let the elf handle me!”
I decided not to translate that. “What do you say, Hearthstone? Will you let me do this?”
Hearthstone’s hands hovered in front of him like he was about to play air piano. At last, he signed, Thank you, Magnus—a gesture like blowing a kiss, then a fist with the thumb under three fingers, M, my name sign.
Normally he wouldn’t have bothered with my name. When you talk to somebody in ASL, it’s obvious who you are addressing. You just look at them or point. Hearth used my name sign to show respect and love.
“I got you, man,” I promised. My insides fluttered at the thought of killing the dragon, but there was no way I’d let Hearthstone take the fall for that act. His wyrd had already suffered enough, thanks to Mr. Alderman. “So how do we do this, preferably without acid dissolving me into a pile of Magnus foam?”
Hearth gazed at the cairn. His shoulders sagged, as if somebody were piling invisible rocks on top of him. There is a way. Andiron…He hesitated at his brother’s name sign. You know we used to play around here. There are tunnels, made by wild— Here he used a sign I’d never seen before.
“He means nisser,” Blitzen explained. “They’re like…” He held his hand about two feet off the ground. “Little guys. They’re also called hobs. Or di sma. Or brownies.”
I guessed he didn’t mean the Girl Scout Junior type of brownie, or the baked chocolate kind.
Hundreds used to live in the woods, Hearth signed, before Dad called exterminator.
A chunk of bread swelled in my throat. A minute before, I hadn’t even known brownies existed. Now I felt sorry for them. I could imagine Mr. Alderman making the call. Hello, Pest-Away? There’s a civilization in my backyard I’d like exterminated.
“So…the brownies’ tunnels are still there?” I asked.
Hearth nodded. They are narrow. But you could use one to crawl close to the cave. If we can taunt dragon to walk over the spot where you are hiding—
“I could strike from beneath,” I said. “Right into its heart.”
Jack’s runes glowed an angry scarlet. “That’s a terrible idea! You’ll get showered with dragon’s blood!”
I wasn’t crazy about the idea either. Hiding in a tunnel made by exterminated brownies while a five-ton dragon dragged himself overhead presented all kinds of possibilities for a painful demise. On the other hand, I wasn’t going to let Hearthstone down. Getting the whetstone now seemed almost beside the point. I had to help my friend get free of his horrible past once and for all, even if it meant risking an acid bath.
“Let’s try a dry run,” I said. “If we can find a good tunnel, maybe I’ll be able to stab the dragon quickly and scramble to the exit before I get splashed.”
“Hmph.” Jack sounded awfully grumpy. Then again, I was asking him to slay a dragon. “I suppose that means you’d leave me stuck in the dragon’s heart?”
“Once the dragon’s dead, I’ll come back and get you…uh, assuming I can figure out how to do that without getting destroyed by acid.”
Jack sighed. “All right, I suppose the idea’s worth exploring. Just, if you live through this, you’ll have to promise to clean me really well afterward.”
Blitzen nodded, as if Jack’s priorities made perfect sense to him. “We’ll still need a way to draw the dragon out of his cave,” he said. “To make sure he crawls over the right spot.”
Hearth rose. He walked to his dead brother’s cairn. He stared at it for a long while, as if wishing it would go away. Then, with trembling fingers, he reclaimed the othala rune. He held it out for us to see. He didn’t sign, but his meaning was clear:
Leave that to me.
IN VALHALLA, we spent a lot of time waiting.
We waited for our daily call to battle. We waited for our final glorious deaths at Ragnarok. We waited in line for tacos at the food court, because the Viking afterlife only had one taqueria, and Odin should really do something about that.
A lot of einherjar said waiting was the hardest part of our lives.
Normally, I disagreed. I was happy to wait for Ragnarok as long as possible, even if it meant long lines for my pollo asado fix.
But waiting to fight a dragon? Not my favorite thing.
We found a brownie tunnel easily enough. In fact, so many nisser holes peppered the forest floor I was surprised I hadn’t broken my leg in one already. The tunnel we scouted had an exit in the woods outside the clearing, and another only thirty feet from the cave entrance. It was perfect, except for the fact that the passage was claustrophobic and muddy and smelled of—I am not making this up—baked brownies. I wondered if the exterminator had used a blowtorch to eliminate the poor little guys.
Carefully, quietly, we laid branches over the hole nearest the cave. That’s where I would hide with my sword ready, waiting for the dragon to crawl over me. Then we did a few dry runs (which weren’t very dry in that damp crawlspace) so I could practice jabbing upward with my blade and scrambling out of the tunnel.
On my third try, as I crawled out gasping and sweaty, Jack announced, “Twenty-one seconds. That’s worse than last time! You’ll be acid soup for sure!”
Blitzen suggested I try it again. He assured me we had time, since ring dragons were nocturnal, but we were operati
ng so close to the dragon’s lair I didn’t want to push our luck. Also, I just didn’t want to go back into that little hole.
We retreated to the cairn, where Hearthstone had been practicing his magic in private. He wouldn’t tell us what he’d been doing or what he was planning. I figured the guy had been traumatized enough without me interrogating him. I just hoped his dragon lure worked, and he wasn’t going to be the bait.
We waited for nightfall, taking turns napping. I couldn’t sleep much, and when I did, my dreams were bad. I found myself back on the Ship of the Dead, though now the deck was strangely empty. In his admiral’s uniform, Loki paced back and forth in front of me, tsking as if I’d failed a uniform inspection. “Sloppy, Magnus. Going after that silly whetstone with so little time remaining?” He got in my face, his eyes so close I could see flecks of fire in his irises. His breath smelled of venom poorly masked with peppermint. “Even if you find it, what then? Your uncle’s idea is foolishness. You know you can never beat me.” He tapped my nose. “Hope you’ve got a Plan B!”
His laughter crashed over me like an avalanche, knocking me to the deck, squeezing the air from my lungs. Suddenly I was back in the nisser tunnel, little brownie dudes frantically pushing at my head and feet, screaming as they tried to get past. The mud walls collapsed. Smoke stung my eyes. Flames roared at my feet, roasting my shoes. Above my head, drops of acid ate through the mud, sizzling all around my face.
I woke with a gasp. I couldn’t stop shaking. I wanted to grab my friends and get out of Alfheim. Forget the stupid whetstone of Bolverk. Forget Kvasir’s Mead. We could find a Plan B. Any Plan B.
But the rational part of me knew that wasn’t the answer. We were following the most insane, horrifying Plan A imaginable, which meant it was probably the right one. Just once I wished I could go on a quest that involved walking across the hall, pushing a SAVE THE WORLD button, and going back to my room for a few more hours’ sleep.
Around sunset, we approached the dragon’s lair. We’d now spent over a day in the forest, and we didn’t smell so good. This brought back memories of our homeless days, the three of us huddled together in filthy sleeping bags in the alleys of Downtown Crossing. Ah, yes, the good ol’ bad times!
My skin crawled with grime and sweat. I could only imagine how Blitz felt in his heavy anti-sun outfit. Hearthstone looked as clean and spotless as ever, though the Alfheim evening light tinted his hair the color of Tizer. As usual, being an elf, the most pungent body odor he produced was no worse than diluted Pine-Sol.
Jack weighed heavily in my hand. “Remember, señor, the heart is located at the third chink in the armor. You have to count the lines as the dragon drags itself overhead.”
“Assuming I can see?” I asked.
“I’ll glow for you! Just remember: stab quick and get out of there. That blood will shoot out like water from a fire hose—”
“Got it,” I said queasily. “Thanks.”
Blitzen clapped my shoulder. “Good luck, kid. I’ll be waiting at the exit to pull you out. Unless Hearth needs backup…”
He glanced at the elf as if hoping for more details besides I have it covered.
Hearthstone signed, I have it covered.
I took a shaky breath. “If you guys have to run, run. Don’t wait for me. And if—if I don’t make it, tell the others—”
“We’ll tell them,” Blitzen promised. He sounded like he knew what I wanted to say to everybody, which was good, because I didn’t. “But you will make it back.”
I hugged Hearth and Blitz, which they both tolerated despite my BO.
Then, like a great hero of old, I crawled into my hole.
I wriggled through the nisser tunnel, my nose full of the smell of loam and burnt chocolate. When I reached the opening near the dragon’s lair, I balled myself up, grunting, shoving, and turning my legs until my head was facing the way I’d come. (As bad as crawling out of this tunnel would be, crawling out backward, feetfirst, would’ve been even worse.)
I lay faceup, staring at the sky through the lattice of branches. Carefully, so as not to kill myself, I summoned Jack. I positioned him along my left side, his hilt at my belt, his point resting against my collarbone. When I stabbed upward, the angle would be tricky. Using my right hand, I would have to lever the sword diagonally, guide the tip to the chink in the dragon’s belly armor, then thrust it through, into the dragon’s heart, with all my einherji strength. After that, I’d have to scramble out of the tunnel before I was sautéed in acid.