Blitzen balled his fists. “You’ve got some nerve—”
Hearthstone touched his sleeve. Stop. He knelt next to the dragon’s face so Alderman could see him signing.
I did not want this, Hearthstone signed. I am sorry.
The dragon’s lips curled over his fangs. “Use. Your. Board. Traitor.”
Alderman’s inner eyelid shut, filming over his greasy green iris. A final plume of smoke escaped his nostrils. Then Alderman’s massive body went still.
I waited for him to return to elfish form. He didn’t.
His corpse seemed perfectly content to stay a dragon.
Hearthstone rose. His expression was distant and confused—as if he’d just watched a movie made by an alien civilization and was trying to figure out what it meant.
Blitzen turned to me. “You did good, kid. It had to happen.”
I stared at him in amazement. “You faced down a dragon. You made him back off.”
Blitzen shrugged. “I don’t like bullies.” He pointed at my legs. “We might need to get you some new pants, kid. Dark khakis would go with that shirt. Or gray denim.”
I understood why he wanted to change the subject. He didn’t want to talk about how brave he’d been. He didn’t see his actions as praiseworthy. It was simply a fact: you didn’t mess with Blitzen’s bestie.
Hearthstone faced the ghost of his brother.
Andiron signed, We tried, Hearth. Don’t blame yourself. His features were hazy, but his expression was unmistakable. Unlike Mr. Alderman, Andiron felt nothing but love for his brother.
Hearth wiped his eyes. He stared into the woods as if trying to find his bearings, then signed to Andiron, I don’t want to lose you again.
I know, the ghost gestured. I don’t want to go.
Andiron chopped his palm, the symbol for stop.
Don’t waste another minute on him, Andiron said. He took enough of your life. Will you eat his heart?
That made no sense, so I figured I must have interpreted the signs wrong.
Hearth’s face darkened. He signed, I don’t know.
Andiron gestured, Come here.
Hearthstone hesitated. He edged closer to the ghost.
I will tell you a secret, Andiron said. When I whispered into that well, I made a wish. I wanted to be as kind and good as you, brother. You are perfect.
The little boy stretched out his phantom arms. Hearthstone leaned down to embrace him, and the ghost burst into white vapor.
The othala runestone fell into Hearth’s palm. Hearth studied it for a moment, as if it were something he’d never seen before—a dropped jewel that the owner would surely want back. He curled his fingers around the stone and pressed it to his forehead. For once, it was my turn to read his lips. I was pretty sure he whispered, Thank you.
Something rattled in the dragon’s chest. I was afraid Alderman had started to breathe again, but then I realized it was Jack quivering angrily, trying to get free.
“STUCK!” he shouted in a muffled voice. “GEMMEOUTTAEEER!”
Careful of my bare feet, I stepped toward the acidic cesspool. Blood still oozed from the dragon’s chest, forming a steamy, muddy lake. There was no way I could get close enough to grab the hilt. “Jack, I can’t reach you! Can’t you pull yourself out?”
“PULLMYWHATNO!” he yelled. “JUSTSAIDI’MSTUCK!”
I frowned at Blitz. “How can we get him out of there?”
Blitz cupped his hands and shouted to Jack as if he were on the other side of the Grand Canyon. “Jack, you’ll just have to wait! The dragon’s blood will lose its potency in about an hour. Then we can pull you free!”
“ANHOURAREYOUKIDDINGME?” His hilt vibrated, but he remained firmly embedded in Alderman’s rib cage.
“He’ll be fine,” Blitz assured me.
Easy for him to say. He didn’t have to live with the sword.
Blitz touched Hearth’s shoulder for attention. Need to check cave for the whetstone, he signed. You up for that?
Hearth clutched the othala rune tightly. He studied the dragon’s face as if trying to see anything familiar there. Then he slipped the rune into his bag, making his set complete.
You two go ahead, he signed. I need a minute.
Blitz grimaced. “Yeah, buddy, no problem. You’ve got a big decision to make.”
“What decision?” I asked.
Blitz gave me a look like Poor naïve kid. “Come on, Magnus—let’s check out this monster’s treasure.”
The treasure was easy to find. It took up most of the cave. In the middle of the hoard was a dragon-shaped impression where Alderman used to sleep. No wonder he’d been so cranky. That mound of coins, swords, and jewel-encrusted goblets couldn’t have afforded much back support.
I walked around the edges of the hoard, pinching my nose shut to block out the overwhelming stench. My mouth still tasted like a biology class terrarium.
“Where’s the stone?” I asked. “I don’t see any of Alderman’s old artifacts.”
Blitz scratched his beard. “Well, dragons are vain. He probably wouldn’t put his dull geology specimens on top. He’d bury those and show off the shiny stuff. I wonder….”
sp; He crouched next to the treasure. “Ha! Just as I figured. Look.”
Sticking out from the landslide of gold was the end of a braided cord.
It took me a second to recognize it. “Is that…the magic bag we got from Andvari?”
“Yep!” Blitz grinned. “The hoard is sitting right on top of it. Alderman might have been greedy, cruel, and horrible, but he wasn’t stupid. He wanted his treasure to be easy to transport in case he had to find a new lair.”
It seemed to me that this also made the treasure really easy to steal, but I wasn’t going to argue with the logic of a dead dragon.
Blitz pulled the cord. A canvas tsunami engulfed the treasure, shuddering and shrinking until lying on the floor at our feet was a simple tote bag, suitable for grocery shopping or concealing several billion dollars’ worth of priceless objects. Blitz lifted the bag with just two fingers.
Against the back wall of the cave, underneath where the treasure had been piled, lay dozens of Alderman’s artifacts. Many had been crushed by the weight of the gold. Fortunately for us, rocks were pretty durable. I picked up the round gray whetstone I’d seen in my dream. Holding it did not fill me with ecstasy. Angels did not sing. I did not feel all-powerful, like I could defeat the mysterious invincible guardians of Kvasir’s Mead.
“Why this?” I asked. “Why is it worth…?” I couldn’t put into words the sacrifices we’d made. Especially Hearthstone.
Blitzen took off his pith helmet. He ran his fingers through his sticky hair. Despite the cave’s smell of death and decay, he looked relieved to be out of the sun.
“I don’t know, kid,” he said. “I can only assume we’ll need the stone to sharpen some blades.”
I looked around at Alderman’s other artifacts. “Anything else we should take while we’re here? Because I really don’t want to come back.”
“Hope not, because I’m in complete agreement.” With obvious reluctance, he put his helmet back on. “Let’s go. I don’t want to leave Hearthstone alone too long.”
As it turned out, Hearth was not alone.
Somehow, he had freed Jack from the dragon’s chest. Now the sword, being a contrary weapon, was diving right back into the dragon’s carcass, wrenching the chest apart through a chink like he was performing an autopsy. Hearth seemed to be directing him.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” I said. “What are you guys doing?”
“Oh, hey, señor!” Jack floated over. He sounded cheerful for a gore-covered blade. “The elf asked me to open the rib cage. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what he was asking. I figured since he used his magic to pull me free, it was the least I could do! Oh, and I already chopped off the ring. It’s right there, ready to go!”
I looked down. Sure enough, a few inches from my bare foot, Andvari’s ring glittered on the swollen severed toe of the dragon. I swallowed down a surge of bile. “Ready to go? What are we doing with it?”
Hearth signed, Put it with the treasure. Take it back to river and return it to Andvari.
Blitz scooped up the dragon toe and dropped it in his magical tote. “We’d best do this quick, kid, before the ring starts tempting us to use it.”
“Okay, but…” I pointed to the partially dissected dragon. I’d never been a hunter, but one time my mom dated a guy who hunted. He’d taken us into the woods and tried to impress my mom by teaching me how to gut a carcass. (That hadn’t gone so well. Neither had their relationship.)
Anyway, looking at the dragon, I was sure Jack was trying to cut out Mr. Alderman’s no-longer-vital organs.
“Why?” I managed.