warned—one rune is missing, just as with your other set. When any letter is absent, the entire language of magic is weakened. Someday you will have to reclaim that symbol to reach your full potential. When you do, come see me again.”
I remembered the inheritance rune Hearthstone had left behind on his brother’s cairn. If Sif could jump through trees and telepathically communicate with moss, I didn’t understand why she couldn’t just hand Hearthstone a new othala. Then again, I wasn’t a graduate of Rune Magic with the All-Father: A Weekend Seminar.
Hearthstone bowed his head in gratitude. He stepped away from the dais, cradling his new pouch o’ power like it was a swaddled baby.
Sam shifted, gripping her ax. She eyed Sif as if the goddess might be Little Billy in disguise. “Lady Sif, that’s very kind. But you were going to tell us why you brought us here?”
“To help my husband!” Sif said. “I assume you now have the information necessary to find and retrieve his hammer?”
I glanced at my friends, wondering if anyone had a diplomatic way of saying sort of, kind of, not really.
Sif sighed with the slightest hint of disdain. “Oh, yes, I see. First you want to discuss the matter of payment.”
“Um,” I said, “that wasn’t really—”
“Just a moment.” Sif ran her fingers through her long hair like she was working a loom. Red-yellow strands fell into her lap and began weaving themselves into some sort of shape, like a 3-D printer spitting out solid gold.
I turned to Sam and whispered, “Is she like Rapunzel?”
Sam arched her eyebrow. “Where do you think that fairy tale came from?”
In moments, with no visible loss of integrity to Sif’s hairdo, the goddess was holding a small golden trophy. She held it up proudly. “You’ll each get one of these!”
At the top of the trophy was a tiny golden replica of the hammer Mjolnir. On the pedestal at the bottom was engraved: AWARD OF VALOR FOR RETRIEVING THOR’S HAMMER. And in smaller letters I had to squint to read: BEARER IS ENTITLED TO ONE FREE ENTRÉE WITH PURCHASE OF AN ENTRÉE OF EQUAL VALUE AT PARTICIPATING ASGARD RESTAURANTS.
Blitzen made a squeak sound. “That’s amazing! Such workmanship! How…?”
Sif smiled, obviously pleased. “Well, since my original hair was replaced with solid-gold magical hair after that horrible trick Loki played on me”—her smile soured as she glanced at Alex and Sam—“one benefit is that I can weave my extra hair into any number of solid-gold items. I am responsible for paying the house staff, including heroes such as yourselves, with tokens like this. Thor is so sweet. He appreciates my abilities so much he calls me his trophy wife.”
I blinked. “Wow.”
“I know!” Sif actually blushed. “At any rate, when your job is done, you’ll each get a trophy.”
Blitzen reached longingly for the sample. “A free entrée at—at any participating restaurant?” I was afraid he might weep for joy.
“Yes, dear,” said the goddess. “Now, how do you plan to retrieve the hammer?”
Alex coughed. “Um, actually—”
“Never mind, don’t tell me!” Sif raised her hand like she wanted to block out Alex’s face. “I prefer to leave details to the help.”
“The help,” Alex said.
“Yes. Now, your first task will be tricky. Whatever news you have, you will need to deliver it to my husband. The elevator is just there. You’ll find him in his—what does he call it?—his man cave. Just be warned, he has been in a very bad mood.”
Sam drummed her fingers on the head of her ax. “I don’t suppose you could just give him a message for us?”
Sif’s smile hardened. “Why, no, I couldn’t. Now run along. And try not to send Thor into a murderous rage. I don’t have time to hire another group of heroes.”
Pigtails Have Never Looked So Frightening
“SIF SUCKS,” Alex muttered as soon as the elevator doors closed.
“Maybe this isn’t the time to say that,” I suggested, “when we’re in her elevator.”
“If the legends are true,” Blitz added, “this mansion has over six hundred floors. I’d rather not fall all the way to the basement.”
“Whatever,” Alex grumbled. “Also, what kind of name is Bright Crack?”
A two-second chorus of heavenly bliss sounded from the overhead speakers.
“It’s a kenning!” Blitzen said. “You know, like Blood River for the Skofnung Sword guy. Bright Crack—”
“—is just a poetic way of saying lightning, since Thor’s the thunder god and all.”
“Hmpf,” said Alex. “There is nothing poetic about Bright Crack.”
Since getting his new rune bag, Hearthstone had been even more withdrawn than usual. He leaned in the corner of the elevator, tugging at the string on the leather pouch. I tried to get his attention, to ask if he was okay, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
As for Sam, she kept running her fingertips down the edge of her ax as if she anticipated using it soon.
“You don’t like Sif, either,” I noted.
Sam shrugged. “Why should I? She’s a vain goddess. I don’t often agree with my father’s pranks, but cutting off Sif’s original golden hair—that I understood. He was making a point. She cares about her appearance above everything else. The ability to weave things with her new precious-metal hair, the whole thing about her being a trophy wife? I’m sure my dad planned that, too. It’s his idea of a joke. Sif and Thor are just too dense to pick up on it.”
Hearthstone apparently caught that. He stuffed the rune bag into his pocket and signed, Sif is wise and good. Goddess of growing things. You— He pointed at Sam, then made two okay signs with his hands, flicking one across the other as if tearing a piece of paper—the sign for unfair.
“Hey, elf?” Alex said. “I’m guessing at your meaning, but if you’re defending Sif, I gotta say I’m with Samirah on this one.”
“Thank you,” said Sam.
Hearthstone scowled and crossed his arms, the deaf equivalent of I can’t even talk to you right now.
Blitz grunted. “Well, I think you’re nuts to be bad-mouthing Thor’s wife in Thor’s own house when we’re about to see—”
The elevator doors slid open.
“Holy man cave,” I said.
We stepped out of the elevator into a sort of garage area. Suspended on a hydraulic lift was Thor’s chariot, the wheels off and what looked like a broken transaxle hanging from the undercarriage. Lining a Peg-Board against one wall were dozens of wrenches, saws, screwdrivers, and rubber mallets. I briefly considered picking up one of the mallets and yelling, I found your hammer! But I thought the joke might not go over well.
Past the garage area, the basement opened up into a full-fledged man cavern. Stalactites hung from the ceiling high above, filling the room with a Nidavellir-like glow. The back half of the cave was an IMAX theater with two full-size screens and a line of smaller plasma monitors across the bottom, so Thor could watch two feature films while keeping track of a dozen different sporting events. Because, you know, relaxing. The theater chairs were leather-and-fur recliners fitted with drink tables fashioned from moose antlers.
To our left was a galley kitchen: five stainless steel Sub-Zero refrigerators, an oven, three microwaves, a row of high-end blenders, and a butchering station that was probably not his goats’ favorite place. At the end of a short hallway, a stuffed ram’s head pointed the way to the restrooms with a placard hanging from either horn:
The right half of the cavern was mostly arcade games—pretty much the last thing I wanted to see after Utgard Lanes. Fortunately, there was no bowling alley. Judging from the oversize table that took place of honor in the middle of the cave, Thor was more of an air-hockey man.
The place was so huge I didn’t even see Thor until he marched out from behind the Dance Dance Revolution machin
e. He looked lost in thought, pacing and muttering while knocking two air-hockey paddles together, as if preparing to defibrillate someone’s heart. Behind him trailed his goats, Otis and Marvin, but they weren’t very nimble on their hooves. Every time Thor turned, he collided with them and had to shove them out of the way.
“Hammers,” he was grumbling. “Stupid, stupid hammers. Hammers.”
Finally, he noticed us. “Aha!”
He stormed over, his eyes bloodshot and furious, his face as red as his bushy beard. His battle armor consisted of a ragged Metallica T-shirt and gym shorts that showed off his pale hairy legs. His bare feet were in dire need of a gentlemen’s pedicure. For some reason, his scraggly scarlet hair was in pigtails, but on Thor the look was more terrifying than funny. It was almost as if he wanted us to know I can wear my hair like a six-year-old girl and still murder you!
“What news?” he demanded.
“Hey, Thor,” I said, in a voice about as manly as his pigtails. “Uh, Sumarbrander has something to tell you.”
I pulled off my pendant and summoned Jack. Was it cowardly of me to hide behind a magical talking sword? I prefer to think of it as strategically wise. I wouldn’t be able to do Thor any favors if he smashed my face in with an air-hockey paddle.
“Hi, Thor!” Jack glowed cheerfully. “Hi, goats! Ooh, air hockey! Sweet chill pad, Thunder Man!”
Thor scratched his beard with a paddle. The name of his son Modi was tattooed in blue across his knuckles. I really hoped I didn’t get a closer look at that name.
“Yes, yes, hello, Sumarbrander,” Thor grumbled. “But where is my hammer? Where is Mjolnir?”
“Oh.” Jack glowed a darker shade of orange. He wasn’t able to glare, but he definitely turned a sharp edge in my direction. “So…good news on that front. We know who has the hammer, and we know where he is keeping it.”
Jack hovered back a few inches. “But there is some bad news…”
Otis sighed to his brother Marvin. “I have a feeling we’re about to be killed.”
“Stop that!” Marvin snapped. “Don’t give the boss ideas!”
“The hammer was stolen by a giant named Thrym,” Jack continued. “He’s buried it eight miles under the earth.”
“Not excellent!” Thor smashed his air-hockey paddles together. Thunder rolled through the room. Plasma-screen TVs toppled. Microwaves flickered. The goats stumbled back and forth like they were on the deck of a ship.