the host yells, “No one leaves here alive,” that’s your cue.
Elves screamed and ran for the exits, but the glass doors were shut fast. Security nixies moved through the crowd, changing shape from animal-like to human-like to solid wave, enveloping the elves one by one and leaving them passed out on the floor in elegant wet lumps. Meanwhile, Alderman laughed and danced around the room, retrieving his gold trinkets from his fallen guests.
“We’ve got to get out of here now,” Blitzen said.
“But we need to help the elves,” I said.
True, with the exception of Hearthstone, I didn’t think much of the elves I’d met. I liked the guppies in Andvari’s pond more. But I also couldn’t stand the idea of leaving four hundred people at the mercy of Mr. Alderman and his liquid nixie thugs. I pulled out my pendant and summoned Jack.
“Hey, guys!” Jack said. “What’s going—ah, nøkks? Are you kidding me? There’s nothing to cut with these guys.”
“Just do what you can!” I yelled.
Too late, Hearthstone signed. Violins!
I wasn’t sure if I’d read that last sign correctly. Then I looked downstairs. Half the nixies had stationed themselves around the room in humanoid form and were pulling out solid violins and bows from…well, somewhere inside their liquid selves. That seemed like a very bad place to store stringed instruments, but the nixies raised the wooden violins to their watery chins.
“Ears!” Blitz warned.
I clamped my hands to the sides of my head just as the nøkks began to play. It only helped a little. The dirge was so sad and dissonant my knees wobbled. Tears welled in my eyes. All around the room, more elves collapsed in fits of weeping—except Mr. Alderman, who seemed immune. He kept cackling and skipping around, occasionally kicking his VIP guests in the face.
From inside his terrycloth hood, Blitzen let out a muffled yell. “Make it stop or we’ll die of broken hearts in a matter of minutes!”
I didn’t think he was being metaphoric.
Thankfully, Hearthstone was not affected.
He snapped his fingers for attention then pointed at Jack: Sword. Cut violins.
“You heard him,” I told Jack.
“No, I didn’t!” Jack complained.
“Kill the violins!”
“Oh. That would be a pleasure.”
Jack flew into action.
Meanwhile, Hearthstone fished out a runestone. He tossed it from the top of the stairs and it exploded in midair, making a giant glowing H-shape above the heads of the elves:
Outside, the sky darkened. Rain hammered against the plate glass windows, drowning out the sound of the violins.
Follow me, Hearthstone ordered.
He clambered down the stairs as the storm intensified. Giant hailstones slammed into the windows, cracking the glass, causing the whole house to tremble. I pressed my hand to my waist, making sure the Skofnung Stone was still secure, then I ran after Hearth.
Jack flew from nøkk to nøkk, chopping up their violins and crushing the hopes and dreams of some very talented nixie musicians. The water creatures lashed out at Jack. They didn’t seem capable of hurting the sword any more than Jack could hurt them, but Jack kept them occupied long enough for us to reach the bottom of the stairs.
Hearthstone paused and raised his arms. With a tremendous BOOM!, every window and glass door in the house shattered. Hail swept in, pummeling the elves, hulder, and nixies alike.
“Let’s go!” I yelled to the crowd. “Come on!”
“Fools!” Alderman cried. “You are mine! You cannot escape!”
We did our best to herd everyone into the yard. Being outside felt like running through a hurricane of baseballs, but it was better than dying surrounded by nøkk fiddlers. I wished I’d had the good sense to cover myself in bath towels like Blitzen.
Elves scattered and fled. The nixies rushed after us, but the hail made them sluggish, slamming into them and forming icy froth until they looked like slushies escaped from their Big Gulp cups.
We were halfway across the lawn, heading for the wilderness, when I heard the sirens. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw emergency lights flashing as police cars and ambulances pulled into the main drive.
Above us, the dark clouds began to break up. The hail subsided. I caught Hearthstone as he stumbled. I almost thought we would make it to the woods when a voice behind us shouted, “Stop!”
Fifty yards away, our old friends Officers Wildflower and Sunspot had drawn their firearms and were preparing to shoot us for loitering, trespassing, or running away without permission.
“Jack!” I yelled.
My sword rocketed toward the cops and sliced off their utility belts. Their pants promptly fell around their ankles. Elves, I discovered, should never wear shorts. They have pale gangly legs that are not at all elegant or graceful.
While they tried to recover their dignity, we plunged into the woods. Hearthstone’s strength was nearly gone. He leaned on me as we ran, but I’d had a lot of practice carrying him. Jack flew to my side.
“That was fun!” he announced. “Afraid I just slowed them down, though. I’m sensing a good place to make a cut just up ahead.”
“Make a cut?” I asked.
“He means between worlds!” Blitzen said. “I don’t know about you, but to me, any of the other eight would be preferable right about now!”
We staggered into the clearing where the old well had been.
Hearthstone shook his head weakly. He signed with one hand, pointing in different directions. Anywhere but here.
Blitzen turned to me. “What is this place?”
“It’s where Hearth’s brother…you know.”
Blitzen seemed to shrink under his mound of towels. “Oh.”
“It’s the best spot, guys,” Jack insisted. “There’s a real thin portal between the worlds right on top of that cairn. I can—”
Behind us, a shot rang out. Everyone flinched except Hearthstone. Something buzzed past by my ear like an annoying insect.
“Do it, Jack!” I yelled.
He raced to the cairn. His blade sliced through the air, opening a rift into absolute darkness.
“I love darkness,” Blitzen said. “Come on!”
Together we hauled Hearthstone toward Pees-in-Well’s old lair and jumped into the space between the worlds.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow, There’s Some Messed-Up Stuff Going On
WE TUMBLED down some steps to a concrete landing. The three of us lay there in a heap, gasping and stunned. We appeared to be in an emergency stairwell—exposed brick walls, industrial green handrail, fire extinguishers, and illuminated EXIT signs. Just above us, the nearest metal door was stenciled with the words FLOOR 6.
I patted frantically at my waist, but the Skofnung Stone was still lashed there securely, undamaged. Jack had returned to pendant form. He rested comfortably on my chain while all the energy he’d expended fighting the nixies drained out of my soul. My bones felt leaden. My vision swam. Who knew slicing up violins and cutting the pants off police officers took so much effort?
Hearthstone wasn’t in much better shape. He clawed at the handrail to pull himself up, but his legs didn’t seem to be working. I might have thought he was drunk, but I’d never seen him consume anything stronger than Diet Sergeant Pepper in Nidavellir.
Blitzen tugged off his bath-towel burka. “We’re in Midgard,” he announced. “I’d know that smell anywhere.”
To me, the stairwell smelled only like wet elf, dwarf, and Magnus, but I took Blitz’s word for it.
Hearth stumbled, a red stain soaking his shirt.
“Buddy!” Blitz rushed to his side. “What happened?”
“Whoa, Hearth.” I made him sit down and examined the wound. “Gunshot. Our friendly elfish police officers gave him a parting gift.”
Blitz pulled off his Frank Sinatra hat and punched right through it. “Can we please go twenty-four hours without one of us getting mortally wounded?”
; “Relax,” I said. “It just grazed his ribs. Hold him steady.”
I signed to Hearth: Not bad. I can heal.
I pressed my hand to the wound. Warmth radiated through Hearthstone’s side. He took a sharp inhale, then began to breathe more easily. The gouge in his skin closed up.
Until I took away my hand, I didn’t realize how worried I’d been. My whole body was shaking. I hadn’t tried my healing powers since Blitzen had been stabbed, and I guess I was afraid they wouldn’t work anymore.
“See?” I tried for a confident smile, though it probably looked like I was having a stroke. “All better.”
Thanks, Hearth signed.
“You’re still weaker than I’d like,” I said. “We’ll rest here a minute. Tonight, you’ll need a good meal, lots of fluid, and sleep.”