The taste was like ghost chili mixed with concentrated Hawaiian Punch syrup. I pulled my fingertips out and tried to spit away the blood. I retched and wiped my tongue. I crawled around sputtering, “No! Pffftss. No! Pffftss. No!”
But it was too late. Even that little taste of dragon heart’s blood had infiltrated my system. I could feel it seeping into my tongue, humming through my capillaries.
“Señor!” Jack flew toward me, his runes glowing orange. “You shouldn’t have done that!”
I bit back an insult about my sword’s godlike powers of hindsight.
Blitzen’s face was obscured by netting, but his posture was even stiffer than the time he’d been petrified. “Kid! Ah, gods, you feel okay? Dragon blood can…well, it can bring out some strange stuff in your DNA. Humans have DNA, don’t they?”
I wished we didn’t. I gripped my gut, worried that I might already be turning into a dragon. Or worse, an evil elf father.
I forced myself to meet Hearthstone’s eyes. “Hearth, I—I’m so sorry. It was an accident, I swear. I didn’t mean to…”
My voice faltered. I wasn’t sure I believed me. I didn’t know why Hearth would. I’d suggested destroying the heart. Then I’d done it. Worse, I’d tasted it.
Hearth’s face was a mask of shock.
“Tell me what to do,” I pleaded. “I’ll find some way to make it right—”
Hearthstone held up his hand. I’d seen the wall of ice he put up on those rare occasions when he was truly furious, but I saw none of that now. Instead, his muscles seemed to be unknotting, his tension draining away. He looked…relieved.
It is wyrd, Hearth signed. You killed the dragon. Fate decided that you would taste his blood.
“But…” I stopped myself from making another apology. Hearth’s expression made it clear he didn’t want that.
You put my father’s soul to rest, Hearth signed. You saved me from that deed. It may cost you, though. It is I who am sorry.
I was relieved he wasn’t angry with me. Then again, I didn’t like the new wariness in his gaze, as if he was waiting to see how the dragon blood would affect me.
Then, somewhere above, a chittering voice said, What a knucklehead.
“You okay, señor?” asked Jack.
I scanned the canopy of trees. I saw no one.
Another tiny voice said, He doesn’t even know what he’s done, does he?
Not a clue, the first voice agreed.
I spotted the source of the voices. On a branch about twenty feet up, two robins were eyeing me. They spoke in a series of chirps, as birds do, but somehow their meaning was clear to me.
Ah, eggshells, the first robin cursed. He sees us. Fly! Fly!
The two birds darted away.
“Kid?” Blitz asked.
My heart raced. What was happening to me? Was I hallucinating?
“I—I—yes.” I gulped. “Yeah. I’m okay. I guess.”
Hearthstone studied me, clearly unconvinced, but he decided not to argue. He rose to his feet, then glanced one last time at the corpse of his dragon father.
We’ve lingered too long, he signed. Should take the whetstone back to the ship. It may already be too late to stop Loki.
JUMPING OFF a cliff was the least strange thing I did in Alfheim.
Blitz, Hearth, and I hiked to an outcropping of rock at the edge of the Alderman property—the sort of place where a megalomaniac businessman could stand, survey the neighbors’ estates in the valley below, and think Someday, all this will be mine! BWAHAHA!
We were just high enough to break our legs if we fell, so Hearth declared the spot perfect. He cast raidho, , the rune of traveling, as we jumped. The air rippled around us, and instead of smashing into the ground below, we landed in a heap on the deck of the Big Banana, right on top of Halfborn Gunderson.
“Eldhusfifls!” Halfborn roared.
(That was another of his favorite insults. As he explained it, an eldhusfifl was a fool who sat by the communal fire all day, so basically, a village idiot. Plus, it just sounded insulting: el-doos-feef-full.)
We climbed off him and apologized. Then I healed his broken arm, which was still in a sling and had been re-broken by the weight of a falling dwarven butt.
“Hmph,” he said. “I suppose I forgive you, but I just washed my hair. You ruined my ’do!”
His hair looked no different than usual, so I couldn’t tell if he was joking. He didn’t kill us with his battle-ax, though, so I guess he wasn’t too upset.
Night had fallen in Midgard. Our ship sailed the open sea under a net of stars. Blitz stripped off his overcoat, gloves, and pith helmet and took in a lungful of air. “Finally!”
The first person to emerge from belowdecks was Alex Fierro, dressed like a 1950s greaser—her green-black hair slicked back, her white T-shirt tucked into lime-colored jeans.
“Thank the gods!” She rushed toward me, which lifted my spirits for about a microsecond until she plucked the pink Buddy Holly glasses off my face. “My outfit wasn’t complete without these. I hope you didn’t scratch them.”
While she polished her specs, Mallory, T.J., and Samirah clambered up to the deck.
“Whoa!” Sam averted her eyes. “Magnus, where are your pants?”
“Um, long story.”
“Well, put on some clothes, Beantown!” Mallory ordered. “Then tell us the story.”
I went below to get pants and shoes. When I came back, the crew was gathered around Hearth and Blitz, who were recounting our adventure in the magical land of elves, light, and reeking dragon carcasses.
Sam shook her head. “Oh, Hearthstone. I am so sorry about your dad.”
The others murmured in agreement.
Hearth shrugged. It had to be done. Magnus bore the worst of it. Tasting the heart.
I winced. “Yeah, about that…I should probably tell you guys something.”
I explained about the conversation I’d overheard between the two robins.
Alex Fierro snorted, then covered her mouth. “I’m sorry. It’s not funny.” She signed: Hearth, your father, the heart. Awful. I can’t imagine. She continued aloud: “In fact, I have something for you.”
From her pocket, she pulled a diaphanous silk scarf of pink and green. “I noticed you lost your other one.”
Hearth took the scarf like it was a holy relic. He solemnly wrapped it around his collar. Thank you, he signed. Love.
“You bet.” Alex faced me, her mouth curling in a mischievous smile. “But honestly, Magnus. You fumbled the heart. You tasted the blood. And now you’re talking to the animals—”
“I didn’t talk,” I protested. “I only listened.”
“—like Dr. Dolittle?”
T.J. frowned. “Who is Dr. Dolittle? Does he live in Valhalla?”
“He’s a character from a book.” Samirah bit a chunk off her cucumber sandwich. Since it was nighttime, she was doing her best to eat all the ship’s food rations as fast as possible. “Magnus, any other effects you’ve noticed from the heart’s blood? I’m worried about yo
“I—I don’t think so.”
“The effects might only be temporary,” T.J. suggested. “Do you still feel weird?”
“Weirder than usual?” Alex clarified.
“No,” I said. “But it’s hard to be sure. There aren’t any animals around to listen to.”
“I could turn into a ferret,” Alex offered, “and we could have a conversation.”
Mallory Keen had been trying out our new whetstone on one of her knives. Now she flung the newly sharpened blade against the deck. The knife sank up to its hilt in the solid wood. “Well, well.”
“Try not to destroy our boat, woman,” Halfborn said. “We’re still sailing in it.”
She made a face at him. “This is quite a good sharpener the boys brought back.”
T.J. coughed. “Yeah, could I see that for my bayonet?”
“No, indeed.” Mallory slipped the stone in the pocket of her jacket. “I don’t trust you lot with this little beauty. I think I’ll hold on to it so you all don’t hurt yourselves. As for the dragon blood, Magnus, I wouldn’t worry. You are a son of Frey, one of the most powerful nature gods. Perhaps the dragon’s blood simply enhanced your natural abilities. Makes sense for you to understand forest creatures.”
“Huh.” I nodded, slightly encouraged. “Maybe you’re right. Still, I’d feel bad if I took away part of Hearthstone’s heritage. I mean, what if Mr. Alderman could understand animals—?”
Hearth shook his head. Father was not Doctor Dolittle. Do not feel guilty. I have the othala rune back. That is enough for me.
He looked exhausted but relieved, like he’d just finished a six-hour test he’d been dreading all semester. He might not be sure he passed, but at least the ordeal was over.
“Well,” said Samirah, “we have the whetstone. Now we have to get to Fläm, find Kvasir’s Mead, and figure out how to defeat its guardians.”
“Then feed the mead to Magnus,” Alex said, “hoping it gives him the gift of speaking in complete sentences.”
Mallory frowned as if she found this unlikely. “Then we find the Ship of the Dead and pray Magnus can beat Loki in a flyting.”
“Then somehow recapture that meinfretr,” Halfborn said, “stop Naglfar from launching, and prevent Ragnarok. Assuming, of course, we’re not too late already.”
That seemed like a big assumption. We’d burned two more days in Alfheim. Midsummer was roughly ten days away now, and I was pretty sure Loki’s ship would be able to sail well before that.
Also, my mind stuck on Mallory’s words: pray Magnus can beat Loki in a flyting. I didn’t have Sam’s faith in prayer, especially when it was a prayer about me.
Blitz sighed. “I’m going to wash up. I smell like a troll. Then I’m going to sleep for a very long time.”
“Good idea,” Halfborn said. “Magnus and Hearth, you should, too.”
I could get behind that plan. Jack had returned to runestone form on my neck chain, which meant my arms and shoulders now ached like I’d spent the day sawing through dragon hide. My skin itched all over, as if my anti-acid finish had been sorely tested.
T.J. rubbed his hands with excitement. “Tomorrow morning, we should enter the fjords of Norway. I can’t wait to see what we get to kill there!”
I slept without dreams, which was a nice change, until eventually Samirah shook me awake. She was grinning way too much for someone on a fast. “You really should see this.”
I struggled out of my sleeping bag. When I got to my feet and looked over the