“Dr. Chase has spoken.” Blitz scowled at the elf. “And no more running into stray bullets, you hear me?”
The corner of Hearth’s mouth twitched. I can’t hear you. I am deaf.
“Humor,” I noted. “That’s a good sign.”
We sat together and enjoyed the novelty of not being hunted, wounded, or terrified.
Well, okay, I was still pretty terrified, but one out of three wasn’t bad.
The full suckage of our last thirty-something hours in Alfheim started to sink in. I wanted to believe we’d left that crazy place behind for good—no more trigger-happy cops, manicured estates, or eye-stabbing sunlight. No more Mr. Alderman. But I couldn’t forget what Andvari had told us: Soon I would learn the price of stolen gifts, and Hearthstone was fated to return home again.
You’ve only delayed a much more dangerous reckoning.
The othala runestone still sat atop the cairn where Andiron had died. I had a feeling that someday Hearthstone would have to retrieve that missing letter of his cosmic alphabet, whether he wanted to or not.
I stared at Hearth as he flapped his shirt, trying to dry the blood on it. When he finally met my eyes, I signed: I’m sorry about your dad.
He half nodded, half shrugged.
“The curse of Fafnir,” I said. “Can I ask…?”
Blitzen cleared his throat. “Maybe we should wait on that until he’s at full strength.”
It’s okay, Hearth signed.
He leaned against the wall, steadying himself so he could use both hands for signing. Fafnir was a dwarf. Andvari’s ring drove him crazy. He murdered his father, took his gold. Guarded the treasure in a cave. Eventually he turned into a dragon.
I swallowed. “The ring can do that?”
Blitzen tugged at his beard. “The ring brings out the worst in people, kid. Maybe Mr. Alderman doesn’t have that much evil inside him. Maybe he’ll just…stay an unpleasant elf and win the lottery.”
I remembered Hearth’s father cackling as he kicked his guests, dancing around as his nixies attacked the crowd. Whatever Alderman had inside him, I doubted it was a fuzzy kitten.
I looked at the top of the stairwell, where a sign said ROOF ACCESS.
“We should find Sam,” I said. “We’re supposed to talk to the god Heimdall and get directions to some place in Jotunheim—”
“Ah, kid?” Blitzen’s eye twitched. “I think Hearth might need a little more quiet time before we meet up with Samirah and go racing off to fight giants. I could use some rest, too.”
“Right.” I felt bad bringing up our to-do list. Too many people to meet, too many dangerous worlds to visit. Three days left to find Thor’s hammer. So far we’d found a hot lady sword and a blue rock, barely managed not to get ourselves killed, and driven Hearthstone’s father criminally insane. About par for the course.
“You want to crash at Valhalla for the night?” I asked.
Blitzen grunted. “The thanes don’t like mortals mixing with the honored dead. You go ahead. I’ll take Hearth to Nidavellir and let him rest at my place. His tanning bed is all set up.”
“But…how will you get there?”
Blitz shrugged. “Like I told you before, there’s tons of entrances to Dwarf World underneath Midgard. Probably one in the basement of this building. If not, we’ll just find the nearest sewer.”
Yes, Hearth signed. We love sewers.
“Don’t you start with the sarcasm,” Blitz said. “Kid, how about we meet tomorrow morning at the old rendezvous point?”
I couldn’t help but smile at the memories of the good old days, hanging out with Hearth and Blitz, wondering where our next meal would come from and when we would next get mugged. The good old days really sucked, but they’d sucked in a less complicated way than the crazy new days.
“The old rendezvous point it is.” I hugged them both. I didn’t want Hearth or Blitz to leave, but neither of them was in any shape to face more danger tonight, and I wasn’t sure what I would find up on the roof. I unfastened the Skofnung Stone from my belt and handed it to Blitz. “Hold on to that. Keep it safe.”
“We will,” Blitz promised. “And, kid…thanks.”
They staggered down the stairwell arm in arm, leaning on each other for support. “Stop stepping on my toes,” Blitz grumbled. “Have you put on weight? No, lead with your left foot, you silly elf. There you go.”
I climbed to the top of the stairwell, wondering where in Midgard I had ended up.
Annoying fact about traveling between worlds: you often pop up exactly where you need to be, whether you want to be there or not.
Four people I knew already stood on the rooftop, though I had no idea why. Sam and Amir were having a hushed argument at the base of a huge illuminated billboard. And not just any billboard, I realized. Towering above us was the famous Boston Citgo sign, a sixty-foot square of LEDs that washed the rooftop in white, orange, and blue.
Sitting on the edge of the roof, looking very bored, were Halfborn Gunderson and Alex Fierro.
Sam and Amir were too busy arguing to notice me, but Halfborn nodded in greeting. He didn’t seem surprised.
I walked over to my fellow einherjar. “Uh…’sup?”
Alex skipped a piece of gravel across the roof. “Oh, so much fun. Samirah wanted to bring Amir to see the Citgo sign. Something about rainbows. She needed a male relative as a chaperone.”
I blinked. “So you…?”
Alex gave me an exaggerated at-your-service bow. “I’m her male relative.”
I had a moment of reality-flipping vertigo as I realized that, yes, indeed, Alex Fierro was presently a he. I’m not sure how I knew, other than the fact that he had told me so. His wardrobe wasn’t gender specific. He wore his usual rose high-tops with skinny green jeans and a pink long-sleeved T-shirt. His hair, if anything, seemed a little longer, still green with black roots, now combed to one side in the shape of a wave.
“My pronouns are he and him,” Alex confirmed. “And you can stop staring.”
“I wasn’t…” I caught myself. Arguing would’ve been pointless. “Halfborn, what are you doing here?”
The berserker grinned. He’d put on a Bruins T-shirt and jeans, maybe to blend in with the mortals, though the battle-ax strapped across his back was sort of a giveaway. “Oh, me? I’m chaperoning the chaperone. And my gender hasn’t changed, thanks for asking.”
Alex smacked him, which would’ve made Mallory Keen proud.
“Ow!” Halfborn complained. “You hit hard for an argr.”
“What have I told you about that term?” Alex said. “I will decide what is manly, unmanly, womanly, or unwomanly for me. Don’t make me kill you again.”
Halfborn rolled his eyes. “You killed me one time. And it wasn’t even a fair fight. I got you back at lunch.”
I stared at the two of them. It dawned on me that, over the last day and a half, they had become friends…in the sort of trash-talking, murdering-each-other way hallmates bonded on floor nineteen.
Alex slipped his garrote from his belt loops. “So, Magnus, did you manage to heal your dwarf?”
“Uh, yeah. You heard about that?”
p; “Sam filled us in.” He started to make a cat’s cradle with his wire, somehow managing not to cut off his own fingers in the process.
I wondered if it was a good sign that Samirah had shared information with Alex. Maybe they’d started to trust each other. Or maybe Sam’s desperation to stop Loki had simply overridden her caution. I wanted to ask Alex about the dream I’d had of Loki in his suite, asking Alex for a simple request while Alex threw pots at him. I decided maybe this wasn’t the time, especially with Fierro’s garrote so close to my neck.
Alex pointed with his chin to Sam and Amir. “You should go on over. They’ve been waiting for you.”
The happy couple was still arguing—Sam making imploring gestures with her upraised palms, Amir tugging at his hair as if he wanted to pull his brain out.
I frowned at Halfborn. “How could they know I would be here? I didn’t even know.”
“Odin’s ravens,” Halfborn said, as if that was a perfectly logical explanation. “By all means, go over and interrupt. They’re not getting anywhere with their argument, and I’m bored.”
Halfborn’s definition of boredom was I am not killing anyone at the moment, nor am I watching someone get killed in an interesting way. Therefore, I was not anxious to alleviate it. Nevertheless, I approached Sam and Amir.
Happily, Samirah did not impale me with her ax. She even looked relieved to see me. “Magnus, good.” The light of the Citgo sign washed over her, turning her hijab the color of tree bark. “Is Blitzen okay?”
“He’s better.” I told her what had happened, though she seemed distracted. Her eyes kept drifting back to Amir, who was still trying to pull out his brain.
“So,” I wrapped up, “what have you guys been up to?”
Amir barked a laugh. “Oh, you know. The usual.”
The poor guy didn’t sound like he was casting with a full bag of runes. I glanced at his hands to make sure he wasn’t wearing a new cursed ring.
Sam steepled her fingers in front of her mouth. I hoped she didn’t plan on piloting airplanes today, because she looked exhausted. “Magnus…Amir and I have been talking on and off since you left. I brought him here hoping to show him proof.”
“Proof of what?” I asked.
Amir spread his arms. “Gods, apparently! The Nine Worlds! Proof that our whole life is a lie!”
“Amir, our life isn’t a lie.” Sam’s voice quivered. “It’s just…more complicated than you realized.”
He shook his head, his hair now sticking up like an angry rooster’s comb. “Sam, running restaurants is complicated. Pleasing my dad and my grandparents and your grandparents is complicated. Waiting another two years to marry you when all I want is to be with you—that is complicated. But this? Valkyries? Gods? Einher…I can’t even pronounce that word!”
Samirah might have been blushing. It was hard to tell with the lights.
“I want to be with you, too.” Her voice was quiet but filled with conviction. “And I’m trying to show you.”
Being in the middle of their conversation, I felt about as awkward as an elf in swim trunks. I also felt guilty, because I’d encouraged Sam to be honest with Amir. I’d told her he was strong enough to handle the truth. I didn’t want to be proven wrong.
My instinct was to back off and leave them alone, but I got the feeling Sam and Amir were only being this open with each other because they had three