“Whatever happens,” he looks right into my eyes, his own gaze blazing like fire, “you run. Do you hear? You run.”
I stare up into my warden’s face, his old, marked brow slicked with sweat. His expression is a picture of fear – not for him, but for me.
The floor thumps again. I can hear them coming. They’re not that far off. With every step they get closer, my heart pounds.
“Say it, Astrid. Whatever happens—”
I gulp, and it’s hard to force my way past the tension climbing my throat. “I run,” I gasp. My voice is as weak as my trembling hands. I’m trying to convince him that I’ll have the wherewithal to run, even without him, but I’m failing.
Yet he has no choice but to let me go. His brow condenses, more tension ripping across his face. If it keeps continuing like this, it’ll tear him apart. Better that than the gods on our tail.
I hear them now. Their cries split the air. They make my stomach pitch. It feels like I’m going to throw up my own guts. I cram a hand on my stomach. But once more I part my trembling lips to repeat, “Whatever happens, I run.”
He grips my shoulder, his fingers sinking in hard. I don’t know if it’s because he’s trying to stop his hand from trembling, or because he wants this lesson to sink right into my body – past my mind, past my fears, and right into my muscles.
“It doesn’t matter if you have to activate another gate. You get out. No matter what.” As he says that, his lips wobble around each word. There’s more fear building in his gaze. That’s because they’re getting closer. The floor is quaking underneath us. It’s like it’s an outstretched hand that’s holding us – one that’s about to fail.
He turns me around just as he jerks his head to the side and locks his wild gaze on the open doorway at the other end of the room. The floor is now shaking so badly that the entire room is quaking. Dust and rubble rain from the ceiling above. In this old part of the palace, the ancient stones can’t take the pounding they are being forced to endure. One even cracks as I twist to the side.
“Celeste,” he says as he grips my shoulder and shoves me forward. “You will forget me. You will forget most of this. But I will ensure your guard remembers. Try to trust him. Even if your mind cannot recall, let your heart remember every single thing that happened to you. And trust no one else,” he says as he starts running with me. He lets his old, wizened hand slip down and clasp up my trembling fingers. He yanks me forward faster. It’s just in time. They’ve reached the open doorway.
At the lead is him. The one who will break me. The one who will do anything to kill me, all to stop his prophesied destruction.
Light glints off his armor plating. His chest piece looks as if someone has trapped the galaxy down there. His hammer hangs at his side. The perpetually glimmering symbols of Asgard and the motif of the tree of life blaze along the metal. They suck light into them, just like the man himself. Though there are other gods behind him, all lining up, none of them have the presence of Thor.
He locks his gaze on me. And as I turn one last time, my hair fanning around my face, his eyes try to cut me down. When that doesn’t work, he throws his hammer. Lightning blasts out of it in every direction.
But before it can reach us, my warden turns. He opens his hands wide then compresses them together. Space twists. It tilts to the side, throwing the hammer off course.
“Balthazar,” Thor screams my warden’s name, “you will pay for your treachery.”
“There is only one traitor in your midst, Lord, but I fear you will never be able to see through his lies.”
“Bring her back,” he roars, the whole room shaking. Large stones start to hail down from above. They smash into the roughly hewn floor. Wherever they gouge out holes, I can see energy fluctuating underneath. It is the beating heart of the palace – the power upon which every single god exists.
As a massive crack blasts through the floor and opens up underneath my feet, my gaze is drawn to it. I see that energy flickering, dancing like eternal flames, and calling to me, always calling to me.
Though I know I must run and I mustn’t allow myself to be distracted, I open a hand toward it, my fingers trembling even more than they did before. That part of me that cannot ignore the eternal flames rises once more, but Balthazar is there to stop me. He jolts in from behind. Rather than run with me, he picks me up.
He might be old, but he still has the true force of a god. I feel it pumping in his veins. It is irrepressible. For now. When I am gone….
I can’t finish that thought. I grab his collar. “I can’t do this without you,” I hiss.
He doesn’t even look down at me. He sets his blazing gaze forward. We have almost reached the room before us. I can see a hint of a circular platform within. There are strange contraptions all around it. They lack the immaculate, traditional quality of most of the architecture of the palace. For they are ancient. They come from a time before this reign of gods. Something about them calls to me, even now, even as tears run down my cheeks at the prospect of losing Balthazar.
“Do not worry, my lady. This is only a departure of sorts. All forms are reborn.”
My gut trembles. I want him to tell me that he will be okay, that he’ll survive this. But I see the look in his gaze – to him, he doesn’t care if he does. There’s only one task that’s important – getting me out of here before it’s too late.
I still grip his collar. “I don’t want to go without you.”
“Only you can travel down to the other realms. I cannot go. I must buy you the time. You understand where you are going, why you are doing this. You know why this is important.”
Yes. I do. My whole soul vibrates with the knowledge.
I have to leave before Thor kills me.
For if he kills me, the light around us will die with me.
He will destroy his kingdom without even being aware of it.
Just as we reach that open doorway, I lean up, strain over Balthazar’s shoulder, and catch sight of Thor once more.
He’s too far away to see his features. All I can make out is his figure. His hammer has returned to his hand. His shoulders are hunched, but I know better than to conclude that he has given up. Sure enough, he tilts his head up. He stares at me. I swear flames should be blazing around his face now – he is that intense. He opens his stiff lips. “No matter what realm you travel to, Phoenix, I will come for you. And I will stop you before you can open the heart of Ragnarok and bring death to the gods once more. It will be you who will pass this time. Not me.”
My gaze wrenches off him as we make it into the room.
Within me, my heart trembles. I stare at that raised platform. It’s gold, and around it are concentric circles that glow this deep neon blue. There’s an energy in the room – a hum, too. It causes my teeth to chatter in my skull and makes my skin vibrate.
There are markings all over the ceiling and the floor. They are ancient symbols. I have only ever glimpsed them in my dreams.
Balthazar slows, though he cannot slow forever. The gods are still hot on our heels.
He jerks forward and places me down in the middle of that platform. I go to leap up, to grab his wrist, but he just opens his hand and sends power spiraling down into the base of the platform. It lights up. The room was already aglow, but now it looks as if it’s turning into a bright star.
Balthazar has to hide behind his outstretched arm. Me, I don’t even blink. If it’s one thing I can put up with, it’s bright light or fire of any description. Fire is within me, after all – my very lifeblood, my very reason to be.
I still stretch a hand out to him. He cannot push beyond the circumference of the circle anymore. As more power pumps out of it, some kind of shield appears, locking me in place. My fingers slide against it, crackles erupting and dancing around my flesh. They light up my embroidered sleeves, travel over my purple robe, then reach my bright white hair. “Please, Balthazar. Try to come with me. You can’t go down like this. Not for me—”
“If not for you, my lady,” he says, his voice quiet but his determination as strong as any mountain, “then there is no one in this universe I am willing to sacrifice myself for.”
On the word sacrifice, tears brim along my eyelids. They trail down my cheeks. I force my hand harder against that shield, but it simply rebuffs me. “Balthazar, no.” I clench my hand into a fist and start pounding it against the magic, but it doesn’t matter. It continues to rebuff me.
“My lady,” he gets down to one knee and bows to me, “you may not remember me, but I beg of you to remember this.” He looks up at me just as the gods reach the room behind him. “You must forge your own path. You must understand your heart. And no matter what happens, you must stay away from the gods.”
I watch in gut-wrenching, heart-destroying terror as Thor reaches Balthazar.
He looks down at me, then pushes his hand out to grab Balthazar’s collar.
For a moment, time stands still. All there is is Thor and me, our gazes locked, our destinies intertwined.
He says nothing. There’s no time. But words don’t need to express what’s already written over his face. I see the deep hatred – the centuries-long anger. And the need to end this. To him, I am nothing more than an agent of his destruction. A weapon to be destroyed, a ghost to be eliminated.
Balthazar is not about to go down. As the whole room begins to hum, sounding like a thousand birds getting ready to take flight, Balthazar jerks to the side. He opens his hand wide and activates his arm channels. Light blasts down his forearms and into his palms. Two circles appear, and as they fill with energy, he throws them toward Thor, but Thor is ready. Even without his hammer, he can take such an attack. He just flexes one large bicep, lets energy build up along it, shores up his stance, and takes it. I watch his energy blast through the room. It’s only just visible above the growing light.
“Stop her,” he screams at the other gods as they sprint into the room.
“If you hadn’t lost your way, my Lord, you would realize there is no way to stop the gate when it begins to open,” Balthazar says, and I hear the disappointment in his tone. He sounds like a father who’s lost a wayward son.
But there is no filial recognition in Thor’s gaze. He snarls, his lips pulling over his face like whips. “The old ways were barbaric. Fictions – myths designed to manipulate. You have fallen far, Balthazar. Trust me,” he says as he pulls out his hammer and starts to charge it, “you have disappointed me more than I have disappointed you.”
“I only pray that in time you see what is happening here underneath your nose before it is too late,” Balthazar says. He opens his hands, flattens them against his chest, then closes his eyes.
“Balthazar,” I shriek at the top of my lungs. That hum in the room is getting far louder. It’s becoming hard to hear all the other screaming gods. But I am so attuned to Balthazar that even if he were to give one final whisper, I would pick it up. I’m on my knees now, my purple robe rumpled around me. I’m beating my hands against the shield.
No matter what I try, it does not work.
Balthazar keeps his hands flattened on his chest.
Thor reaches toward him, his hammer glowing with charged lightning.
Balthazar looks at me one last time. “You will not remember this, Celeste, but your heart will. Find it, and all will be unlocked.”
With that, he thrusts forward. Energy blasts off him. Several gods were about to throw themselves at the shield, but as the room fills with his power, they are thrust back.
I have a chance to scream Balthazar’s name one last time. Then I feel myself being lifted up off my knees. My hair and robes tumble around me as I’m caught in an invisible wave of power.
As I am lifted up, my eyes reach Thor’s gaze. Once more, time slows, and he stares right through me. I see his lips cracking open. Then, regardless of the cacophonous noise filling the room, I hear his warning, “I’ll come for you, Phoenix. And this time, there will be no rebirth.”
I wake up with a rocking sigh. I’ve got a terrible headache. As the breath pushes from my chest, I inch my fingers up and clasp my head. I wince immediately. “Damn, it feels like I’ve swallowed a car and it’s speeding around my brain. Knocking into things,” I add disjointedly as I shove up. My pillows tumble out from behind me. They strike the dusty floorboards. I kick them out of the way as I swing my legs over the side of my bed. There’s a full-length mirror on the opposite side of the room. It’s dawn, and rays of orange and purple tinged sunlight are streaming in through the old cracked blinds above my bed. It gives the mirror this ethereal glow. As I glumly stare at my disheveled appearance, that glow catches my eye. My lips twinge into a frown as I try to trace it in the air. It takes me a few seconds to shake my head. “What the hell are you doing, Celeste? You’ve gotta get to work, remember? Because work – work pays the bills. And if you don’t pay the bills,” I push up, stretch, then walk over to the wall and let my fingers trail over the crumbling plaster, “everything falls down around your ears.”
Stretching again, and feeling a knot so large in my shoulders, it would take a team of firemen to pull it out, I reach the landing.
It’s dusty. Everything in this house is dusty, regardless of how much I actually dust. I swear that it’s full of imps, and every morning while I’m sleeping, they’re out there throwing dust around like glitter.
That, or this place is super old, and it is just disintegrating.
I frown at a patch of plaster on the floor. I tilt my head up and see there’s a new hole in the ceiling. There is a section of damp. We had a lot of rain last night. And obviously the roof has started leaking. Again.
I wince, throw a hand over my eyes, and grind my palm back and forth until I see stars. It’s better than seeing what’s in front of me. “More bills, I guess,” I groan.
I reach the old stairs. I do not run down them. I have the coordination and all, just not the death wish. I carefully place my hand on the banister, and I try out the first step. That’s the worst. Sure enough, as I put weight on it, it complains as if I have just taken an old skeleton and asked it to hold up a human body.
It sounds as if it’s not just going to crack under my weight, but turn to frigging dust.
I ease my way past the damaged step, then walk down the rest of the long staircase. As soon as I reach the base, I stretch again, but it does nothing to eke the tension out of my body.
“One of these nights, I want to wake up from sleep refreshed,” I mutter to myself.
I make it into the kitchen. It is the nicest part of this house. It’s old, but it’s quaint. There are blue-and-white teacups sitting on a cracked but chic French dresser. There’s an old-style stove, a kitchen bench with a chipped but still functional marble top, and some pretty Art Deco tiles behind the sink. It’s the one place in the house I keep crisp and clean. I reach over, trail my fingers over the tiles, then finally let a grin settle into place over my lips. Yeah, I have knotty shoulders, and I had a crap sleep, but at least I have a house.
It’s not much, but it was left to me in my mom’s will. It’s far outside of the main city, but that doesn’t matter. I enjoy the walk to the bus station every day. Speaking of which. I slice my gaze over to the clock on the wall. It’s warning me that I have five minutes to get ready. I’m not even dressed.
Launching myself at the fridge as if I am a human cannonball, I clutch it open, my fingers sliding over the smooth metal. Biting my lip, I realize the only thing inside is old Chinese. And by that, I mean at least a week and a half old. I pin my lip with my incisor, pushing in hard, wondering if I can risk the ancient takeout, or if it would just be saner to drink toilet water.
I pluck it up experimentally. I draw it close and waft my hand over it, just like they teach you to do in chemistry class so, if there is toxic gas, you don’t instantly suck in a lungful.
I make a pained face, whirl around, dump the container in the sink, and flatten a hand on my stomach. “I don’t need breakfast,” I try to convince my stomach, even though it takes that exact opportunity to give a warning gurgle, reminding me I have to feed it or pay the consequences.
I grind my teeth back and forth across my lips again. I shrug. “I’ll just find something on the way,” I lie.
Even if I do run across a café selling something nice at this time in the morning, I won’t be able to afford it.
Racing into the bathroom, I grab up my work clothes. I cram them on.
I don’t usually go to work this early – I work in a bookstore; I’m not a baker. But we’ve had a recent shipment of books. I have to unpack them this morning before the shop opens at nine.
Yawning again, I make it to the door. I open it and intend to rush out, but I double back quickly.
“You again?” I snarl at the scraggly black cat sitting on my doorstep. Its fur is all mangy, but it has these eyes – eyes that would look appropriate on a sci-fi poster. They are some of the most penetrating I have ever seen. It glowers at me. Then it meows, the pitch of its cry like fingernails over a blackboard.
“I don’t even have food for myself, buddy,” I snarl at it as I inch past and close the door before it can shove in. “I’m certainly not gonna feed you. Go to the strays home or something.”
I don’t know what it is about this cat and me. Usually, I adore them. I had them, too, when my mom was alive. But I can’t afford them anymore.
This Is different, anyway. I don’t know if it’s the way it glowers at me. Maybe it’s its eyes. Maybe it’s that its damn personality reminds me too much of my own. The point is, it irritates me, so I edge past it, jump down the steps, and go to ignore it, but that’s when it shoots forward. It starts to curl between my legs.
“Go away,” I snap. “Where did you even come from, anyway?”
It ducks forward and looks at me. Maybe it’s trying to answer me. It can’t exactly speak English, and even if it could, I don’t think I’d care. I go to brush past it, but that’s when it uses its claws to get my attention. I’m thankful that I’m wearing thick stockings. Its claws fortunately don’t scratch me too hard, but it does ladder my nylons.
“Hey,” I say as I shove it off. “Just get out of here.”
I raise my fist to the cat, not that there would be any way I would ever actually physically hurt the little guy. He clearly knows this because he just settles his glower on me harder. He meows. I’ve described it previously as sounding like nails down a blackboard. I swear it’s more insistent than that. It’s also really loud. The cat is small for his age. It looks as if he’s perpetually stuck in a kitten state. Yet he meows like he’s a frigging lion.
I glower at him one last time, then reach the gate.
He doesn’t follow me. As I turn my head over my shoulder, I see him jump up onto the cracked gate post.
He locks his gaze on me. I swear that gaze could follow me across the city.
It takes me a while to shake it off, even when I get around the block.
I make the bus just before it leaves. I’m out of breath as I pull myself into one of the back seats. I don’t immediately go for my phone. I close my eyes instead. I think I can half-remember some kind of dream. It was a crazy one, too. I remember being lifted up off my feet in a cloud of invisible power. And I remember light – this brilliant, insanely bright light. It’s all around me, all through me.
I find myself staring at my palm. Then I begin to tune in to the conversations on the bus.
“Did you hear about the exhibition?”
“I’m sorry, but why the hell are you talking about some exhibition? I haven’t been to the museum once in my entire life.”
“Yeah, I get it, you’re more of a celebrity person. But that’s why I’m asking if you’ve heard about the exhibition.”
The two gossiping girls I’m listening to are right in front of me.
There are few other people on the bus yet, so I’m listening to their conversation by default.
I go to tune out, but that’s when the one taking charge grabs her friend’s arm and gets a manic kind of grin on her face. “Do you have any clue who is the patron of the exhibition?”
“Why are we still talking about this?”
“Because it’s only one of the wealthiest – and hottest – men in the world. Thor Asdor.”
I roll my eyes. I hate celebrity news. I feel like this world is hard enough for most people, and rather than latching onto people’s lives who are more successful, it’s better to just keep your head down and away from all that dross. It puts the wrong ideas in your head. You see somebody driving past in a fancy car, and suddenly you think your perfectly fine car isn’t good enough, all because it has the wrong rims.
I cross my arms and close my eyes again, but it’s pretty hard not to listen to their conversation, considering they’re loud and there’s no one else on the bus.
“You are kidding me, right?” the other friend says, her voice shaking with genuine disbelief. Either she’s faking her emotions, or she cares so much that some rich idiot is in town with some exhibition, that she’s acting like this is the best news of her life.
“He’s in town, too. He’ll be here for a month or something. Apparently he never leaves the exhibition. He likes to think he guards it.”
“That is so romantic.”
Sorry, romantic? Try possessive. Also, who cares? Yeah, exhibitions of genuine historical items are interesting and all, but this is a private collection. If Mr. Asdor actually cared about history, he’d donate his stuff.
I can read between the lines. This will be some kind of glorified PR exercise. It would be easier than, you know, actually giving money to charity or something.
The conversation is making me sour. Fortunately, it stops pretty quickly. Or at least, I stop paying attention to it. I find myself frowning as I try to remember the contents of my dream again. I have appalling dream recall. I can usually remember a few flickers – one or two moments – but that’s it.
Last night I… was running. Because every single night in every single one of my dreams, I’m running. I can remember that detail, at least.
I try to shrug it off. Running dreams are common, right? At the end of the day, dreams are meaningless, anyway.
I promise myself that as the bus stops at the train station. I jump off and immediately huddle into my collar as a fiendish wind shoots down the street. Tugging my head up, I see that clouds are clinging to the horizon. They haven’t marched their way across the whole sky yet, but there’s certainly a dark promise of rain and storms to come.
Even though it’s impossible, I think I can hear far off lightning.
I just dismiss it. I ride the train in a daze. My eyes are open, but I’m not really seeing anything. I can do that sometimes. It’s this weird ability of mine. It’s like the actual focus behind my mind can dim, even though my body is going through all of the normal daily functions. I… I kind of liken it to this between realm. It’s almost like my psyche is spreading to some other place. Just like my dreams, I can’t really remember it, but I don’t need to.
By the time I get off the train and complete the short walk to the bookstore, I’m actually refreshed. That happens when I let my mind wander.
I open up, get into the storeroom, and immediately start unpacking boxes.
I plan to do that for several solid hours, and I put a podcast on. It’s when I’m listening to it happily that I hear the back door open. I frown and look up to see my boss. He’s harangued. Grabbing his white hair in a tight grip, I swear he’ll pull it out. He looks like a mad scientist at the best of times, but now he’s extra-special disheveled. Not only is he unwashed and his clothes are rumpled, but his glasses aren’t even sitting straight. They’re all askew as if some bully has just grabbed him by the pants and shaken him around.
“Ah, you okay, Manfred?” I lean up and drum my fingers on one of the boxes I’ve just opened.
“No. I’m going out of my mind.”
I tamp down on the sarcastic part of me that wants to point out that he has been going out of his mind his entire life. It’s a perpetual state of being for him. And don’t get me wrong – I like him for it. He’s a lot zanier than most of the people I know. But the point is, he doesn’t look any crazier than usual.
“Did I tell you about my other venture? Of course I did. I’ve told everybody about it.”
“You mean the antique store you bought for your wife?”
“Yeah, the antique store.” He clenches his teeth together and forces a breath through them. It whistles through the room. “She’s sick today, and that no-good sales assistant she’s hired has taken the day off. I need someone to watch the store.” I can practically see as the cogs are turning in his mind. As his gaze latches onto me, he obviously realizes I’m his employee and thinks that that means I can work for him, wherever he pleases.
I straighten up. I try to control my expression. “I don’t know a thing about antiques.”
“You don’t have to. I don’t expect many sales today. The weather is not conducive to foot traffic.” He darts a finger to the side and waggles it at the impressive floor-to-ceiling shop windows. They let in an unrivaled view of the sky. And let me tell you, it’s a lot darker and more menacing than when I walked in.
Even though I’m inside, I still wrap my arms around my middle. The storeroom opens out onto the shop floor through a large set of double doors. I get the urge to go over and close them. That won’t change the storm – it’ll just keep another buffer between me and it. And let me tell you, I have always hated storms. Lightning, especially. I used to freak out at it when I was a kid. I would become inconsolable. And another thing? I’ve always had this fear – this perpetual, irrational, but immovable fear that I will be struck by lightning at some point in my life. It is only a matter of time.
“If you don’t expect anybody to come to the antique store, why are you keeping it open?”
“Because we’re expecting several special shipments today. I need someone there to man the desk and sign for them. And you’re perfect.”
There are a thousand things I can say to that. First and foremost is that I am employed in his bookstore. I am not his slave. I don’t have to do whatever he bids.
But Manfred is already grabbing his phone from his pocket. He calls his wife by the time I even open my lips. “It’s fine. Celeste has thankfully volunteered to watch the store.”
Volunteered? Really? Though I hadn’t managed to force any words out, my expression would show just how reluctant I am to do this.
The decision is already made, anyway. He shoves his phone away and grins at me. “You know where it is, don’t you? It’s just around the block.” He actually shoos me off.
I frown at him. “Don’t I need the keys?”
“Oh, yes. Of course. I’ll come with you and open it up. The alarm can be temperamental.”
The last thing I want to do is leave the storeroom. Though I had to get up early, I really like unpacking books. It’s a brainless task. It also keeps me away from other people. And before you think I’m agoraphobic, I just need to… get started in the morning. Maybe it’s a hangover from my dreams or the fact that I live alone, but I just need some me-time before I’m ready to face the rest of the world.
But there’ll be no me-time today. He rushes me out of the back of the store. Immediately wind charges down the laneway, grabs my loose hair, and whips it around my face in a frenzy. Sure, Manfred has shorter hair, but for whatever reason, the wind isn’t picking on him. It sticks to me. It tugs at my skirt, rips my blouse out from where it’s tucked in at my waist, and otherwise tries to pull me apart.
This probably sounds paranoid, but it bears saying anyway – the weather always has it in for me specifically. I remember as a kid camping near a river only to have my tent inundated despite the fact it was higher up than my friend’s tent. Then there’s every single time I’ve run to the bus during a rainstorm only to find other people at the bus stop are completely dry. My house leaks all the time, too, and before you put that down to bad maintenance, back when my mom was alive, she was pretty handy. There wasn’t a single leak. But it still damn well rained inside sometimes. I swear that every single storm cloud out there has a pact to hunt me down.
I’m glad of the fact that the antique store really is just around the block. By the time we reach it, it’s so dark out, it feels like it’s night.
Manfred takes the time to pause, the key in the lock of the back door, and he turns his head all the way back. His wild eyebrows peak, and his lips jerk open. “It’s gonna be a crazy one today. Destiny changer,” he mutters.
I ignore most of the stuff he says. He is easily the most eccentric man I have ever met, but that one gets to me. “Sorry?” It’s usually a mistake to draw Manfred up on one of his strange statements. The smartest thing to do would be to let it go.
Let it go I can not.
He turns to me, a wild grin spreading his lips as he finally opens the door, shoves in, and quickly presses in the alarm code to deactivate the system. “It’s a saying I’m fond of. You’ve heard it before, right?”
Maybe. There’s a lot that Manfred is fond of. He has thousands of sayings. Suffice to say, I do not keep track of all of them.
He jams a thumb in the direction of the roof. “Storms like that are built to change destinies.”
“You sure they’re not built to deliver rain?”
He doesn’t even chuckle at my snide joke. He shrugs and turns toward the windows at the front of the store. We can only just see them from here. This place is chaotic. It’s a jumble. And I get it, that’s part of marketing. The more you make people search, the more they find stuff they don’t know they want to buy. It’s a health hazard, though. I inch my way around an old yellowed stack of magazines. I glance at the windows once more. They’re nowhere near as impressive as the bookstore. They are also old. The glass is kind of warped, and the metal between the panes is all rusted. That does not detract from the view. Somehow, it’s even darker. It looks like the storm is about to break. But… it doesn’t feel like it. It’s gonna brew like this all day, something inside tells me. Then, when I have to leave, it’ll break – right on top of me. With a shiver, I trace my fingers up and down my arms.
It takes Manfred a while to get back to answering me. He picks his way to the front counter, muttering to himself the whole way. It’s only when I get close that I realize he’s actually reciting poetry. But he’s doing it in a language I don’t know.
My frown etches deeper across my lips. I feel like I’m chiseling it into my chin. “What are you saying?”
“It’s an old Norse poem.” His eyes glitter. They always do that when he intends to teach me something. “I live my life by it.”
Really? I can count about a thousand different theories that he lives his life by. Manfred has poor critical thinking. He believes every single thing he comes across. Being in his head would be like permanently being in this store.
“It’s pretty,” I lie. I don’t know if it’s the cadence of the language, or the actual words he’s saying, or just the overflow from my dream this morning, but the poem creeps me out.
“Destiny,” he lifts a finger again, something he always does, and grins, “is brought on the wings of the weather. When we can no longer flourish in these times, the great god of storms, Thor, will rise to tear down our old edifices and lift us up anew.”
I should ignored the words. I’m prepared to. I know exactly how to control Manfred and get him to stop reciting one of his crazy theories. But all I hear is one word. Thor. It brings me right back to what I overheard on the bus.
It shouldn’t. The Thor from Norse myths is one thing. The actual name Thor is pretty popular in Norway, as far as I understand.
But my brain is doing strange things today. My gut twists. My back straightens a little. My hands hang tensely by my sides.
Manfred might look like his head is in the clouds most of the time, but he’s actually pretty astute when it comes to psychology. He glances at me then claps his hands. “I had the same reaction as you when I heard those words. There’s something visceral about them. Something that reaches in here,” he thumps a hand against his chest wildly as if he’s trying to drum his way down to his heart, “and lifts you up. If only we could all have our own Thors to tear through our old edifices and help us rise once more.”
I take a step back from him. I feel like I’ve been hit, even though I clearly haven’t.
Fortunately, his phone rings, and it distracts him.
It’s his wife, and judging by past conversations I’ve overheard, this will be a long and fraught talk. It gives me all the reason I need to dart off and hide behind one of the overflowing bookcases.
I shouldn’t say hide, but it feels like that. As I reach the end of the stack, when I’m out of sight of him, I press my back against it, and I close my eyes. It’s my turn to drum against my chest. I’m harder, though. I really thump my heart. I’m trying to pull out my confusion.
“What’s wrong with you today?” I mutter under my breath.
I’m wrong, and Manfred’s conversation doesn’t last that long. I hear him walking out from behind the counter. “I shouldn’t have to tell you what to do. Like I said, there won’t be any foot traffic.”
“And if there is?”
“You know how to use an EFTPOS machine. If they’ve got cash, you know how to use a register, too. Just record the item number and the time it was bought if it’s with cash. Otherwise, scan in the barcode.” With a shrug, and without a goodbye or a good-luck, he walks off.
I could stop him and ask for more instructions, but honestly, I want to be alone.
It’s still early in the morning, and I’m assuming I only have to open the shop at nine.
That means I have several hours to kill.
I start by walking around the store. There are two levels. I frown as I reach the stairs. They look even ricketier than mine. I test them out, and they don’t kill me. I climb to the top of the building. It’s a lot nicer up here. I’m guessing the expensive antiques are kept here. It makes sense. To get to the stairs, you have to pass the counter, so whoever’s on it will always be able to see who’s coming up and down the steps and what they’re carrying.
I reach my hands out. I touch a few old brass trunks as I pass them.
It’s a lot more open and a lot prettier up here. It would make a great apartment. There are a few circular Persian rugs on the floor. I get the urge to lie down on one and just nap for an hour.
Manfred could return at any moment, though, so I don’t do that. I continue to search around.
There’s a really pretty stained-glass window on the main wall that stares out at the street.
I gravitate toward it.
The glass is strange. I’m no window expert or anything, but it seems thicker. There’s also… something inside it. Tilting my head to the side, I realize it’s some kind of gold leaf or something. There are strange symbols in it.
I reach out and let my fingers trail down the glass. It changes the angle of the light. The sun has just burst through the looming clouds. It strikes the stained-glass. The warped glass sends it out in split rays. Turning around, I track them. One lands on the carpet, one lands on the stairs, and another lands on an old box. It’s in a crammed bookcase. The box looks like it’s just acting as a book divider.
Frowning, my attention completely locked on it now, I walk over. My feet are a little unsteady. I don’t even notice. I reach the box. Pausing for a few breathless seconds, I shove out, and, trembling, I grab it from the bookcase.
I really must’ve slept badly last night. My nervous system is a mess. I’m trembling because of a box? God, if I didn’t have a full workday ahead of me, I’d check myself into the nearest clinic. I take the little box over to the carpet. I sit on it. I place the box down, and I just… stare at it for a bit.
“You’re mad. You know that, Celeste, don’t you?” I admonish myself as I rub my head hard. No matter how much I turn my nails in and try to dig out this insanity, it won’t come. My senses are locked on that box. So is my heart. I feel… it’s weird, but I feel like something is trying to grow within me.
I reach forward. There’s a simple clasp. I let my finger slide underneath it. My gut clenches. It feels like chains wrapped around my body. I’ve never felt this tense in my life. It’s like I’m on the edge of something – a precipice, a threshold, a—
Just as I go to open the box, something tears across the carpet and slams into my side. I shriek uncontrollably and bat it away. It’s only then that I realize it’s a cat. And it’s only when it turns its judgmental yellow gaze on me that I realize it’s my cat – or at least the stray that’s always bothering me.
“What the hell?” I stammer in a high-pitched voice. “Where did you come from? Did you follow me?” I’m accusing it like it’s a person. It can’t follow my words. That doesn’t stop me from spitting them.
I clutch up the box and secure it under one arm. Then I go to pick the cat up, but it rears back and reveals its claws. There’s something seriously smart about this little guy, because as I go to dart behind him, he just takes a step back, always following my moves.
Letting my arm drop to my side, I huff, and I stamp my foot. “You’re getting out of here, one way or another.”
I pretend I’m not interested. Then I dart in from behind. Sure, the cat will probably scratch me, but it’s not going to be anything compared to what Manfred will do if he finds a black cat in his store. He hates them. He’ll be irrational. I’ll try to tell him I don’t know how the cat got in, but it won’t matter.
As I grab the cat up, he focuses on the arm that’s holding the box. He sinks his teeth into it. I shriek, but I don’t drop the box. At the back of my head, I’m fully aware that it’s probably worth more than my entire fortune put together. But the cat isn’t done. Sinking his teeth further into my arm, he uses it as purchase, then damn well kicks the box out from underneath my elbow. It goes tumbling over the floor. I hear something inside crack.
“Dammit,” I shriek as I drop the cat.
I scrabble over to the box, but the cat’s there. For whatever reason, he doesn’t want me to open it. He gets in my way again, but I just bodily shove him back. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I snap.
I stand. The box thankfully looks fine from the outside.
The cat actually tries to launch up my leg. I just shove him back. Then I open the box.
There’s a crystal inside. A small red crystal. And it’s beating. Just like a heart.
Blackness condenses around me. It flows in from some unknown source. It grips my body. Climbing every muscle, it reaches my face. My consciousness dims. I stagger down to one knee. The cats there, but he’s no longer biting me. Just as I tumble to the side, he actually offers up his body before my head can crack against the side of the box.
That’s the last thing I’m aware of. No – that beating red crystal tumbles out onto the carpet, right in front of my fingers. Just before I lose consciousness completely, I clutch it up. As it settles in my grip, I feel its power.
For it is a power I have always been destined to hold.
It takes me a long time to rouse. I have to pull myself up through what feels like different realms. I may not be able to remember my dreams, but right now it’s not like I’m traveling through various levels of consciousness – but actual dimensions. Different worlds. Different worlds far, far away from this one.
I wake. The cat is right there in front of me. His eyes are all the way open. His deep, flickering yellow gaze does something inside me.
But it’s nowhere near as powerful as the power I can still feel trembling in my fingers. I gasp, my head jerks back, and my back arches. My hair is a mess over my face. It takes me a while to gather the coordination to shove it back. And that’s when I scream. Because there are blazing red symbols playing down my arm and across my palm. There are a few flickers of flames, too.
My brain can’t understand a thing that’s happening to me. I shake there on the floor, screaming uncontrollably.
I try to bat the fire away, try to do anything to extinguish it, but it can’t be removed. I’m not on fire – I’m… producing the flames.
I threaten to black out again, but before I can, the cat jumps up on my lap. I don’t have the wherewithal to shove him off.
And that’s when he opens his frigging lips and says, “Calm down.”
I stare at him, several seconds drifting past in chunks. He just… I just heard him speak.
I must’ve hit my head. I go to shove up, but the cat softly head-butts my face. It brings him close to one of the flames licking around my arm. I jerk back. I might hate the little guy, but I don’t want to burn him.
He looks unperturbed. “Calm down,” he repeats again. He has this really deep voice. It’s just like one of his many meows. It sounds like there’s a much bigger cat inside him, one his kitten-like frame simply could not support.
“You didn’t just speak,” I say in a falsely controlled tone as I shake my head repeatedly. I don’t care that my hair is knotting over my face. I don’t care that I’m covered in sweat. All I care about is denying what just happened. Because there’s no way it could have occurred.
I squeeze my eyes closed.
“That’s not going to change anything, Celeste. You’ve gone and done it. I tried to stop you, but there’s no going back now.” The little guy’s voice drips with disappointment.
“You didn’t just speak,” I say, putting all my effort into those words. I figure the more I try to say them, the truer they’ll become.
I’m out of luck. He chuckles. It’s deep. It honestly sounds like he has a lion crammed down his throat. “I’m afraid I did speak. And as I said, there’s no going back now. You found your heart. Me speaking is going to be the least of your troubles. Now get up.”
“You’re not speaking, and this is not happening,” I repeat. Cramming a hand over my face, I rub my eyes until I see stars.
I won’t open them until the cat stops speaking.
The little fella has absolutely no intention of stopping speaking, though. He remains on my lap. He paws at my face, but fortunately he doesn’t use his claws. “Look at your hand, Celeste. Feel the Phoenix fire within you. This is your power. I tried to keep it from you for a long time, but it is back. Now you must face it. And you must rise to your feet. There is a lot you must know.”
I open one of my eyes – just a crack. The cat is still there. I go to close my eyes, but he digs both paws into my cheeks. He doesn’t use his claws. It’s like he’s holding my face – like he’s a freaking human or something. And that would account for the sheer intelligence in his gaze.
“Ask your questions – don’t deny what’s in front of your eyes,” he counsels.
“Cats don’t speak.”
“Correction – cats in this realm do not speak. I am not from this realm, and neither, ultimately, are you.”
“… Realm,” I say in an empty tone. I sound like I’m training an AI voice.
“Yes, realm. We are currently in Midgard.”
“We’re currently…. No.” I freak out again. I close my eyes. I go back to shaking my head. My headache’s pounding. And repeatedly jerking my neck around is making it even worse. I don’t care. I’ll do anything right now, including taking a frigging fork to my head, to make all of this stop.
But the cat has no intention of letting me deny reality. I can practically hear him unsheathing his claws. “You want to do this the hard way?”
I go to shove him off me, but that’s when the cat just climbs my shoulder and settles down there. “I will never leave your side now, Mistress, not until the day we win.”
“I am Marus, your loyal servant. I will never leave your side until the day we win,” he repeats in a grander tone.
I go to shove him off my shoulder, but I’m too weak. The little guy’s also perilously close to my throat.
I start to cry. It’s uncontrollable. It’s worse than a rainstorm. I rock back and forth, this deep grief coming up from within me.
“If crying helps you calm down, then cry. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, you have much grief to release.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just… going mad.”
“Open your eyes and look at your hands. Do you see the Phoenix fire? Is that madness, or is it power? The power you have been kept from your entire life. But the power you have run into, nonetheless. I tried to stop you,” he repeats again in a grave voice, “but I could not. So now we must adapt. Rise. I will explain everything.”
“I—” even though I don’t want to, I do as he says. My eyes open. I stare down at my arm. It’s still completely covered in flames. And the flames are… objectively beautiful. I’ve had enough time now to realize that the fire is not burning me. It hasn’t even damaged my skin in the least. It’s there. It’s kind of hot, but more than anything, it’s energetic. It tells me there’s great power trapped within every single licking dance of every flame. For a few seconds, I become transfixed by it, then jerk my head around and stare at the cat’s eyes. They are yellower and more intense than ever.
“If you are about to tell me that cats don’t speak, please do not waste my time. Now, rise to your feet. I will only tell you everything when you are standing.”
“Because from this point on, you must stand. If you fall down, you will stay down. You have no idea of the forces that are aligning against you.” If I’d thought his voice had been grave before, then now his rumbling tones take me to a whole new level of bad.
I actually clutch my heart, spreading my fingers over my top and grinding my palm in against the center of my chest until I can feel its beat beneath. “What… what forces are you talking about?”
“I can repeat your history to you, but it will mean nothing. Balthazar wisely chose to remove your memories from you. He understood it was the only way to truly keep you safe.”
I open my mouth to repeat that word – Balthazar – but I can’t. My whole body shuts down. Tension grips my chest. It feels like someone has cemented my tongue in place. A single fat tear trails down my cheek. It wends its way over the skin, reaches my chin, trembles for a few seconds, then drops off.
This grief builds within me. It’s worse than what I felt a few seconds before. Hell, it’s on par with when I lost my mother.
“Balthazar was your warden. He is no longer. But I remain. I will watch you now. And I will never leave your side – you have my word on that. Stand.”
I have no reason to stand. The situation has not changed. It is still as crazy. I am still freaking out on every level, but I push up, and miraculously, I actually balance on my trembling feet.
“Good,” Marus says, his mouth opening and his whiskers twitching. “Now, you must leave.”
“But my boss—”
“You’re covered in magic,” he says pointedly as he tilts his head down and gestures to my right arm.
For whatever reason, my right arm is far more engulfed in flames than my left. The flames of my left arm are a different color, too. They are surrounded by more symbols under the skin. Frowning as I notice that detail, I scrape my nails back and forth across the flesh.
“You will never be able to dig them out. They are a part of you – a far deeper part than your mere human form.”
I frown hard at that. “Sorry?” My voice trembles out of my lips. “Mere human form? What does that mean?”
His eyes glitter. I feel like I’m standing back on that precipice I described earlier. My feet are right over the edge now. I may currently be covered in magic, but I get the distinct impression that whatever the cat is about to say, it will change my life even more.
“You’re not human – you never were. You,” he hisses, his voice lowering dramatically, “are a goddess.”
“Goddess,” I stumble over the words as if I’m learning to speak English for the first time. I shake my head again, but it is the weakest move I have ever made.
His eyes sparkle more. He nods once. “Goddess. You belong in the highest realm, not this one.”
“I… am not a goddess,” I say, and for the first time, there’s actual force behind my words. Maybe I’m clawing back my sanity now. It’s weird, though. Full-on magical flames don’t freak me out as much as the prospect that I’m not from this realm – that secretly, I’m some kind of goddess.
I think of that, but once more, I shake my head in this strong, visceral reaction. If I could bodily push that concept away, I would shove it off the ends of the earth.
“You cannot deny what is really within you. Not now that it will come out,” he says as he nods down at my flames again. “Instead, you must understand it, control it, and endeavor to hold on to your heart.”
I don’t need him to gesture to the crystal still clutched in my left hand. I open my trembling fingers and stare down at it. It has its own light. Those rays of light that made it in through the stained-glass window and the storm have disappeared. It’s pretty dark up here now. But the crystal still glows. I get the impression that even if you shoved it into a black hole, it would still blaze with its own internal fire. Every time I’m dumb enough to glance at it, it feels like time stops. Everything narrows into a point. My life kind of slips away, and I go back into one of those fugue states I fall into occasionally. I’m aware, but mostly, I’m aware of something else – something beyond this reality. Something I once held in my hand but can no longer reach.
Marus does not disturb me. I can feel his gaze on the side of my face. It’s more intense than ever. He’s clearly watching out for some kind of reaction, and as I disassociate while staring at the crystal, his lips tick up into a smile. “That is it, my lady. This is your heart. You must contemplate its depths. And you must never,” his voice drops in a warning, “ever let anyone else claim it.”
His voice is enough that I frown. I tear my gaze off the crystal. “Claim it?”
“As I said, there is much for you to understand. But it boils down to this. There are forces after you, and none of them are more dangerous than him.”
My whole body tenses. The last several minutes have been filled with strong physical reactions, but this is… this is in its own realm. I feel like I’m going to explode. Tension builds first in my chest than rockets up to my head. It’s like I’m trying to expand out of my skull. I can’t, though, and instead, every muscle contracts to the point of snapping. I finally open my lips. “Who?”
I threaten to black out again. I tumble back down to my knees. Marus has good balance, and he manages to stay on my shoulder. I sway back and forth. My gaze dims. I only heard one little word, and it’s having such an unsettling effect on my body, it’s like someone has shoved a knife between my ribs.
“Hold on to yourself, my lady,” Marus snaps. “If you’re this unsettled by his name, then you will never be able to face him. And I fear, sooner rather than later, you will have to face him, no matter what I do.”
Face him… face Thor.
I can’t hold on anymore. I tumble over. The stone is still in my hand. It’s the one thing I can continue to clutch hold of, even as every other thought and belief is washed from my mind as blessed unconsciousness takes hold.
I try to cling onto it with all my might, but it too will slip from me. Everything always does. For the flames within me burn all, in time.
This time, I wake up sharply. And there’s no questioning what happened to me. Though the fire has dimmed a little along my arms, it’s still there. I can feel it wriggling under the skin. As I snap up, I disrupt Marus. He was sleeping on my chest. Despite the fact he looks mangy, he’s still clearly a healthy cat, and he leaps back lithely. His glittering yellow eyes lock on me. “You have awakened. Good. Now, we must leave.”
I shove a hand against my face, but I grit my teeth as soon as I feel the magic pulsing under my skin. Or at least, I think it’s magic.
“Are you about to scream again? Please don’t. You have been out for an hour. The city streets outside have started to fill. People will hear you.”
I don’t shriek again. Even though a little of me still wants to. The rest is coming to terms with the changes happening in my body. Or at least, it’s beginning to. My lips wobble open. My brow condenses down in a twitch. “What exactly is this light? Is it… magic?” My voice trembles on that word.
I have never kept my head in the clouds. My life has never been an easy one, so I have always prided myself on being practical. I can tell you what’s not practical – honest to God magic.
I wince as Marus takes some time to answer. He tilts his head to the side thoughtfully, and his whiskers twitch, catching a few rays of the midmorning sun.
“I suppose you could call it magic – but from an unskilled point of view. It is Phoenix fire,” he says, his voice dipping down low. “It is the very flame of rebirth and destruction.”
On the word destruction, my whole body tenses. This wave of nervous energy tumbles from my head down to my feet, then up again. I’m glad I’m on the floor. If I weren’t, I would’ve tumbled into every single rare object up here and knocked them all over.
My lips open just a crack. “Destruction?”
“You are the only creature in all of reality who has Phoenix fire within you. It has multiple names. Origin fire, eternal flames, even hellfire.”
My already overactive imagination locks onto that word, and my eyes blast wide open in fear. “Sorry,” I stammer, “hellfire? I… I’m from hell?”
“No. The principle remains. Hellfire burns eternally – as does your Phoenix fire. Do not worry. In time, you will learn to not only become comfortable with it, but to control it.” He nods at the flames.
I don’t know if I’m unconsciously controlling it or anything, but it’s certainly less than what it was. I can feel it inside me, though. I know if I get nervous or excited, it will leap up over my skin again.
… So what would happen if I got angry? Or desperate?
My cheeks twitch.
I shove up.
Immediately, Marus bounds up my leg. He doesn’t need to scratch me this time. In the blink of an eye, he’s huddled down next to my shoulder. I’m thankful for the fact that he barely outgrew his kitten stage. I’m not large, but he slots next to my neck easily. His fur might not be the nicest to look at, but he’s still got a thankfully warm body. As he purrs, it relaxes me a little. It also draws my attention back to him. “Why didn’t you… speak before?”
“You would not have understood me. But now you have your heart,” he says, his voice dropping respectfully, “your powers have been awoken.”
“So… what? You were just watching me all this time?”
“Yes. And I was somewhat disheartened by the fact that you were so cruel to me.”
I make a face. “I’m poor as it is. I didn’t have the time to go looking after some stray.”
“A stray I am not. Though, in a manner of speaking, you are a stray yourself.”
My brow condenses with a twitch. “Sorry? Stray?” I get this look in my eyes – he gets one in his, too. It tells me he’s going to mention that word again. The word that ties my stomach into knots.
Sure enough, with a twitch of his whiskers, I see his mouth open, and I swear I can hear it readying on his tongue. “Goddess, you fled Asgard.”
I can’t even say that word. I try, and my lips wobble and all, but nothing comes out. There’s a block in my body. It’s the same one that stopped me from saying the name Balthazar.
I know if I push against that block, I’ll only become emotional.
So, sniffing, and wiping my hand down my face, I stare at the cat once more. “You’re telling me I’m… a runaway?”
“You ran so you would not be killed. You ran so the sky will not fall.”
My brow really does scrunch down now. Not wanting to be killed is one thing. The sky falling? That’s something else entirely.
“Why will the sky fall if I’m captured and killed?”
“Because, for hundreds of years, evil forces have been at work within the heart of Asgard. They have undermined the shoulders of its king. They seek to destroy it from within. And you are the key. So, my lady, no matter what happens, you must—”
“Stay away from Thor,” I say. I’m surprised when my voice is not just even, but strong. I sound like I’m reciting some kind of battle cry.
Out of nowhere, a little magic leaks out of me and crackles across the floor. Thankfully it doesn’t send the Persian rug up in flames, but it does burn off a patina of dust that’s covering the floorboards.
I yelp and jerk back.
“Please be careful, my lady. Those flames are capable of burning through anything, in time.”
Tension wraps around my chest. “How do I control them?”
“As I said, that will happen eventually. For now, you need to leave.”
I surprise myself when I shove a hand into my pocket and pull out my phone. Fortunately, the flames don’t burn it. I go to call my boss, but that’s when I hear a knock down at the front door.
“Dammit,” I spit. I grip my phone tighter.
“Ignore the knocking.”
The knocking does not go away. It becomes more insistent. The guy even starts hollering. “It’s the parcel delivery service.”
I wince. I happen to know that guy’s voice. He delivers to the bookstore. He’s really insistent.
I go to walk down the stairs, but Marus hisses in my ear. “You are currently covered in flames,” he stresses.
I cast my gaze around. I find an old-style jacket. I’ve got no idea which era it’s from. I bite my lip, then realize I have no other option. I walk over and shrug into it. It’s pretty comfortable, and fortunately, it covers my arms. I spend a few seconds staring down at my sleeves. When they don’t burst into flames, and my magic doesn’t become visible, I start to head down the stairs. Marus stays where he is. “Perhaps this will be a good test. Hopefully you will not reveal who you are.”
I stop a couple of stairs down, grip the railing hard, and turn to him, my heart pounding. “What happens if I do?”
“We will cross that bridge when you come to it.” He doesn’t say if, but when.
I force myself down the stairs. I’m shaking all over.
I inch toward the door. The window might not be large, but the delivery guy’s right there. He’s pointing to his watch.
I shrug over. I open the door. He bustles in. “Where were you? Manfred said you’d be here to collect some parcels. I’ve got more coming at some point today. Sign for this.” He shoves the parcel tracking device in front of me.
With a shaking hand, I sign it. The whole time, my gaze darts up to my wrists. I think I can see a little flicker of flames, but fortunately, the guy isn’t paying any attention. With his hands on his hips, he stares around the room. He crumples his brow, presses his lips together, and whistles. “Pretty place of junk Manfred’s got here. Be careful. From what I’ve heard, he’s looking for a permanent new sales assistant here.”
I splutter. “I have better things to do.”
He doesn’t even look at me as he hands over the parcel. “Sure you do.”
With that, he’s out and that little bell above the door is tinkling.
I stare at him until he gets into his van and drives away.
Then I actually fall down to my knees, right smack bang in front of the door. Fortunately no one is walking past. Hopefully even if they were, the glass is too warped that they won’t get a good view in.
Soon enough I hear pattering, and Marus stops beside me. “I take it he did not see your flames. So why are you on the ground?”
“Because this is insane. I’m… some kind of goddess,” I say as I grab my collar and try to pull it out. “I have magical flames. And I’ve got to stop the damn sky from falling.”
“You’ve forgotten one other fact,” he says, his voice grave.
I turn to him. “What’s that?”
“No matter what happens, you must stay away from Thor.”
I finally pry myself up off the floor. I have to pat the dust off the jacket. That’s when I realize it’s an antique. Very carefully, I take it off. I check the lining of the sleeves. They aren’t damaged. Trust me, my flames are still there. They’re marching up and down my arms relentlessly. As I stare at them, I frown over at Marus. “I thought you said this Phoenix fire could burn absolutely anything in reality? Why’s the jacket okay?”
“Because you did not make the flames destructive. That is the first lesson you must learn, and you must learn it quickly.”
“Because when your enemies come for you – and they will – you must be prepared to fight them.”
That is like a king hit. I actually stagger back. A few old stacks of magazines snag my knee, and I tumble over. They spread around me as I shake. “What?” I shouldn’t be reacting like this. He already said that Thor is trying to kill me. What are a few more monsters to add to the mix?
… It takes me a long time to appreciate I just thought that. Monsters. Gods. Magic.
It strikes me again. I squeeze my eyes closed. I furrow my brow until it feels like I’m going to crack the thing.
“Please stand up. You must leave.”
I stare down at him. I go to pull him back up onto my shoulder, but that’s when my gaze locks on the parcel I just received. I dropped it on the floor when I fell.
There’s… something about it.
“My lady, you must leave,” Marus repeats, obviously thinking I’m too hard of hearing.
I heard him all right, but I ignore him. I grab up the parcel. My fingers are shaking, and I’m not sure why. This isn’t because of everything I just found out. This is… there’s something inside.
I rush over to the counter. I quickly find a pair of scissors. I slice through the packing tape.
“What are you doing?” Marus bounds up onto the counter in a single leap. He’s very light-footed. Despite the fact he lands on some loose paper, he doesn’t go skidding around like an ordinary cat.
“My lady—” he begins.
I’m already through the packing tape, and I’ve grabbed whatever is in the box. I pull it out, my whole arm shaking despite the fact it’s not heavy.
Marus’s words die on his lips. My breath dies in my throat. Both of us stare at it.
It’s exactly the same kind of box as the one that held my heart. My heart is still up on the carpet on the second floor, and I can feel it beating from here. But I can also feel something beating in the box.
“What… what is this thing?” I wrench one hand off it and lock it on my chest. I grind my palm back and forth. “I’m having… this physical reaction to it. Something inside me knows this box – understands what’s within.”
“Open it, but be very careful,” Marus warns. His growl once more sounds as if it belongs to a lion, not a miniature cat.
I want to ask him how he can do that, but it’s probably a consequence of the fact that he’s fundamentally magical. I have something else to absorb my attention now, anyway. Still shaking, I settle the box down, then I carefully undo the latch. I squeeze my bottom lip between my teeth and wince as if someone is about to hit me. Then I open the box.
There’s a crystal inside. Mine is red. This one is blue. It captures my attention like nothing else. It’s not just like hands – it’s like chains, like rope. Every single thing that has ever been used to bind someone suddenly wraps around me. Even if a thousand explosions went off behind me, I wouldn’t turn. This box is suddenly everything.
Marus says something, but it takes him repeating it three times until I snap back in to not just the conversation, but the room at large.
Staring at this crystal… I swear it takes me somewhere else.
“My lady, that is a god’s heart crystal,” Marus says with a twitch of his whiskers.
“Is it mine?” I stammer.
“No. But it is another god’s.”
“That I cannot tell.”
“I thought… only I have a heart crystal?” I have absolutely no reason to think that, but nor do I have a reason not to. I am struggling to keep up with every second. And the visceral reaction I am having to this box is only making things worse.
“Why would your boss have ordered this box?”
“Maybe he doesn’t know what’s inside? Or maybe it was on consignment?” I mutter. I move around the counter. The box is still there. I watch it, despite the fact I need to pay attention to where I’m putting my feet in this death trap of a shop. It doesn’t matter. You could put a thousand obstacles in my path, but you would never be able to wrench my gaze off that box and the beating crystal within.
Sometimes I find it hard to focus throughout the day. That crystal focuses my mind for me, and it’s so powerful, I realize I’ve been operating under another level of consciousness my entire life. It’s as if somebody threw a veil over me but now they’ve removed it. Even the colors in the room are sharper and clearer. I swear I can hear further afield, too. And that’s nothing to mention the clear sensations raging through my body.
I finally wrench my gaze off the crystal. I look around for the stock book. Though it’s pretty chaotic, it doesn’t take me long to find it – it’s large and leather-bound, and the little red ribbon that separates the current pages from the rest tapers next to my leg. I yank it out.
I look at the address on the back of the package, and I start searching through the massive book.
I can see why Manfred wants someone better looking after the shop. If he is ever audited, he’s gonna be in a lot of trouble. It’s almost impossible to track sales and orders. But I finally find what I’m after. My gaze flashes up to the box. “Those symbols on the side – are those Norse runes?”
I place the book down on the counter then turn it around. I’ve found a loose page that seems to pertain to the order. I open it out flat. I stop. My nose scrunches up. “Can you… read?”
“Of course.” He eagerly reads what’s on the page. Then his whiskers twitch. “So the person who ordered this is Mr. Hampton?”
I’m staring at the crystal again, and it takes me a long time to realize I’m currently having a conversation. That crystal… it just takes me to another place. I shake my head. “Does that name mean anything to you?” I ask hopefully.
I press my lips together and swallow hard. “You don’t… you don’t think it could be a god, do you? Could this Mr. Hampton… could he be Thor?”
“That would be highly unlikely. But whoever he is, I wager that he ordered this box because he knew precisely what was inside.”
“What does the heart crystal do, anyway?”
“It will enable a god who has been reborn in this realm to reclaim their powers.”
I nod. At the sight of his grave gaze, I realize how grave this really is, and that nod quickly stiffens. “And that’s a bad thing, is it?”
“For you, any other god regaining their powers is a bad thing. Depending on exactly what kind of god it is, it can be a bad thing for everyone else, too. For every good god, there are three bad gods.”
I wince at that statistic. I pin my lip between my incisors again as I stare down at the box. I grab up the crystal. I don’t really know what I’m doing. As soon as my fingers settle around it, my magic reacts. Flames leap up over my arms. It’s the greatest display I’ve shown yet. I yelp, but only slightly.
“You must be careful, my lady,” Marus warns very quickly. “Strong magic will bring out your flames.”
“I’m not really trying to do anything. My heart’s pounding. But…” I just stare at the crystal and the flames along my arms as they become brighter and hotter.
“You cannot destroy that heart crystal. Not with your current power.”
“I’m not even trying to destroy it. I just…” I can’t describe what’s happening to me. It’s like this crystal is desperately trying to do something to me. I don’t know if it’s attempting to minimize my flames, or maybe it’s trying to kill me on behalf of its owner. I just….
It feels like there’s a wall – this massive wall in my head keeping me back from some important knowledge. This crystal is chipping away at a single part of that wall. As I realize that, I close my grip around it. My fingers are tense.
“My lady?” Marus says quietly, realizing something deep is going on with me.
It takes a few seconds to open my eyes. I think… I almost think I can recall a face. Not many features – just a smile. It’s engaging. It does things to my stomach I didn’t even know were possible. I flatten a hand on it, and I return the crystal to the box. I look up at Marus. “What happens now? We can’t let Mr. Hampton get hold of this crystal, can we?”
“What happens is you leave. And you are correct. You keep the crystal.”
I make a face. Manfred is a good employer and all, but he will figure out that I’ve stolen from this box, and when that happens, I will not just be sacked – he’ll call the cops.
… But is that really a priority for me right now? I’m covered in frigging ethereal flames.
“Now,” he bounds off the counter in a single move, “we must go.”
I go to leave, but I stop. “There are more deliveries today. What if they are more boxes?”
“That seems unlikely.”
“Why? Manfred said that there were exceptionally important deliveries happening today. And you wouldn’t have expected a god heart to be delivered, would you? What likelihood would you attach to one having been delivered here in the first place?”
“Low to impossible.”
“So maybe we should stick around? Maybe if we’re lucky, Mr. Hampton will come to pick up his box?”
Marus turns to me slowly, his tail twitching. “And how exactly would that be lucky? He would expect his crystal to be inside. When it is not, he will start asking questions. As you are in no position to defend yourself, your flames will leap over your skin. If he is really a god—”
I clutch the blue crystal and stare down at it. “If he is really a god, then he will have no power, right, because he needs this crystal first to activate it?”
“You’re telling me this entire world is dangerous. You’re telling me the gods are all after me. Doesn’t that mean I have to be proactive?”
Manfred finally concedes my point.
For the rest of the day, we remain at the shop. No god rushes through the door to get his heart crystal. There are a few more deliveries, though. There’s this funny, strange star-shaped receptacle. And another is a book – a blank one.
Though neither of them ostensibly seems to be magical, I find myself attracted to them for some reason.
When it finally hits 5 o’clock, Marus appears out from behind the bookshelf where he’s been hiding. He bounds over to me. He looks pointedly at the open sign.
I go to close it, but that’s when I hear keys grating in the lock of the back door. I nudge Marus gently with my leg. “Go hide. It’s my boss. He absolutely hates black cats.”
“Fool,” Marus mutters. He bounds up on top of one of the shelves and hides between several boxes.
I turn around and bite my lip just in time to see Manfred hustling in. He’s all wet. That means it’s just started raining. Of course. The clouds were looming and threatening all day, but when I have to leave, they start their downpour.
He pats his jacket, obviously not caring as he drips water over some stock on the floor. He looks up at me, and his face cracks into a grin. “Did the objects arrive?”
“Yeah, the—” I’m about to repeat them, but he gets there first.
“The book and the star container,” he says as he rushes over and stares at them. He plucks them up, marveling at both of them. Then he glances over at the box. He frowns. “Isn’t that from upstairs? Worthless piece of junk. I’ll never sell it. Why is it down here?”
I go to tell him that it arrived today, but I pause. I shrug.
“Probably that worthless shop assistant. You know, sometimes I think she’s running a business under my nose. Doing illegal orders and whatnot. After today, I’m getting rid of her.”
My nose twitches. I want to question if he really knows nothing about the box that arrived today, but I realize there’s no point. Manfred’s a lot of things, but he knows his business well. Sure, technically his wife runs this one, but that wouldn’t matter. He’d know every single order and sale. He’s crazy – but he’s also obsessive.
I glance over at the box.
He continues to marvel – mostly at the empty book. He grins as he turns around and looks at me. I can tell by the way his eyes are glittering that he’s about to share some epic news – or at least, epic to him.
“What is it?” I get there first.
“Do you have any idea who ordered this object?”
I shake my head.
“Only the most famous collector of ancient Norse goods. The philanthropist businessman Thor Asdor.”
My whole face twitches on the word Thor. I’ve already removed my heart crystal from up on the second floor. It’s currently in my left pocket. The blue god crystal is in my right. I grab both of them. They’re the only thing that stops eternal flames from erupting over my skin.
To be honest, even if I did start glowing, I’m not entirely sure that my boss would notice. He is obsessed with the book. “It’s one of the reasons I made you come today. I didn’t want a single hitch with this delivery. You know he came in personally the other day to order this from my wife? It comes from a private collector in town.” He pats the cover once more, then rushes behind the counter, finds some plastic wrap, and wraps it up neatly and protectively.
I tell myself to calm down. The businessman Thor is not the same as the one who’s been trying to kill me for hundreds of years. As I let that thought settle, I finally unclench my hands from around the crystals. I nod at the book. “Why is it blank?”
“If you believe the old stories, it’s because it’s a ritual book. It contains spells to bring back the gods.” He chuckles.
I hear the slightest scratching, and I jerk my head to the side to see that Marus has poked his head out from behind a stack of books on top of the shelf. His gaze is more intense than ever. That tells me that this book probably can do exactly what Manfred described. It would explain why I had such a visceral reaction to it.
“He was going to send someone to pick the book up tomorrow, but I will deliver it to him in person.” He clutches it up again, shining the bubblewrap with his thumb.
“And what about that little star-shaped box?”
“A light container,” he mutters.
My nose scrunches. “Sorry?”
“They are called light containers – though they have a far more technical Latin name I won’t bother you with. They are quite common. And, unfortunately, the man who ordered it has recently retracted his order. I don’t imagine I’ll ever be able to sell it.” He shrugs.
I look at it, and I look at Manfred. My lips open before I can control them. “How much is it?”
He turns and frowns at me. “Are you interested in buying it?”
I wince. It’s not like I’ll be able to afford it, but I still nod.
Manfred gets this look in his eyes. It’s one I know all too well. “Consider it a gift.” He grabs it up and places it in my hand, that look never shifting from his gaze. “For accepting your new employment.”
“New employment?” My eyebrows peak.
He gestures with his free hand in a wide circle. “You have proved that you are worthy of this job. And you’ve got to be a thousand times better than the last shop assistant. It’s better than dealing with books. Far more interesting.”
I have a hundred replies to that, but I don’t say a word. Primarily because Marus shrugs his head out from behind cover once more and just nods at me.
I really don’t want to work here, but if I keep running into objects that are important to the gods, then it makes more sense than a bookstore. I just nod. I close my hand around the star container. “Thank you. You need me to lock up?”
He shakes his head. “You take that box back to where it belongs.”
Dutifully, I pick up the Norse box and trundle up the stairs. My box is already sitting exactly where it belongs in the bookshelf, so I find a convenient place to hide it, one where I’m sure Manfred will never look for it. I walk back down the stairs. I glance up at Marus. I hope like hell he can get out of here. I’m assuming he can. He managed to get into the store on his own.
I walk out of the back of the store. Predictably, it is raining. It is absolutely pelting down. As soon as I step out into it, it drenches me. It also makes me cold down to my very bones.
That doesn’t stop me from tilting my head up and staring at the clouds. They’re this tumultuous, gray and white mess that clings to the sky as if they’re trying to hide what it’s really like.
That’s a particularly poetic image, but it’s one that really sticks in my head.
I find my lips opening. I can’t say the word, but it sure does tremble on my tongue. “Thor.”
The exact moment that word moves over my lips, I hear a crack of thunder far-off. I jolt. I lock a hand over my mouth to stifle a scream.
… He can’t be out there, right? He can’t be out there waiting for me, waiting to end this after hundreds of years of searching for me.
I don’t have to wait long until Marus finds me. Don’t ask me how, but he appears beside me after leaping off the roof. He looks at me once, then nods his head to the side.
What other choice do I have?
We head home. Marus, fortunately, isn’t obvious about it. I still ride the train and the bus. He isn’t sitting on my lap. I see him occasionally, though. He bounds up trees and glowers at me as the bus trundles past. I wonder how long he’s been doing that. My whole life? That would account for how mangy his fur is.
While I’m on the bus, my hands are in my pockets. One is locked around my heart crystal, and the other is grabbing that light container, not the blue crystal.
As soon as I get home, I’m gonna figure out what it does.
… It takes a while for that thought to settle in. As soon as I get home, I should collapse. I’m a goddess. I’ve had the biggest day of my entire life. Everything I thought I’d known has changed.
But I… it’s starting to settle in, believe it or not. And I wonder if it’s because I have a motivation to learn all of this quickly. I can tell that Marus is not lying. Thor is out there, and he will hunt me down.
The bus stops. I pull myself off. I don’t even bother to huddle into my collar. I just let the rain drench me. Glancing at the clouds, I realize they’re even more ominous than they were before. I stare over at my house on the edge of the block. I swear the clouds are even more tumultuous above it.
I reach my gate and thrust through to find Marus sitting dutifully on my stoop. He nods at the door.
I open it and walk in.
I close the door. I stare at the handle. This is where I should slide against the door, fall onto the floor, place my hands on my face, and cry every tear that’s welling inside me. I should give in to the tension. But as I’ve already said, while the tension is there, I’m… I’m starting to accept this.
I turn to look at Marus. He shakes his fur, and water splatters all over the floorboards.
There would have been a time when I would’ve cared about that, but I don’t anymore. I walk over to the couch. I am sopping wet, but that doesn’t stop me from flopping onto it. Immediately, I lovingly pull out my crystal. I place it on my lap. It beats in time with my heart. It would be the easiest thing to fall asleep with. I rest my head back, and I sigh, but Marus jumps up onto the back of the couch. He nudges the side of my face. “There is no time to rest, my lady. You must learn how to use your flames.”
I open one eye and swivel it over to him. “I’m dog tired.”
“I imagine you are. There are many thousands of changes occurring in your body right now. Your human side is falling away as your goddess side rises.”
That explanation freaks me out, and I jolt up. I stare at my arms again. “My body is rotting?”
“No. As I already said, your human side is simply giving way to your goddess powers. Do not fear.”
I find myself laughing. “Don’t fear? Sure, the sky is out to get me, but there’s nothing to fear.”
“There is no indication that Thor has come to Earth yet.”
“But you said—”
“He does not even know that you are in Midgard. He knows that you fled Asgard and traveled to one of the other realms, but he has no clue which one that is.”
“He has been searching for you for years. He has not found you. Take heart.”
On the term take heart, I just grab up my crystal and sink my fingers around it. It is a literal interpretation of his words, in a way.
I sigh once again, but I don’t close my eyes, lest Marus tries to swipe me with his claws.
Shoving my hand into my other pocket, I pull out the blue crystal. I start to fumble with it. “Is there any way to find out which god this belongs to?”
“By activating the crystal and calling the god’s physical form.”
I make the face that deserves. “We aren’t going to do that, are we?”
“No, we aren’t.”
“So what do I do with this thing? Can it be… I don’t know, tracked?”
“Theoretically, it could be. But a powerful god would have to be within range of it. Depending on the god’s power, if they were truly strong, they would be able to track it from several meters away.”
I freak out less as he says that. I shrug. “There are no powerful gods in my house, that I know of. So… what should I do? Stick it under my pillow or something?”
“That would not be recommended. It would warp your dreams.”
I laugh. “I never remember my dreams, anyway.” I push to my feet to find a good place to hide this crystal. That’s when something tumbles out of my pocket. I stare down at that little star box. Frowning, I pluck it up. I gesture to it. “Do you know what this thing is yet?”
“No. I am afraid the name star box means nothing to me.”
“Powerful though, right? I mean… it really speaks to me.”
“Then I suggest you hold on to it.”
I roll my lips through my teeth. My heart crystal’s still in my hand. I stare at the box. I open it, and I put the crystal inside.
Marus stands up. “It is not recommended to put your heart crystal in places you do not understand.”
Ignoring him, I close the lid on the box.
I stare at my arms. In shock, I watch my flames recede. “What—”
“Open the box,” Marus roars.
I open it. And my magic comes back.
I shift down to my knees, slightly wobbly, but not because I’m weak. “What was that?”
Marus bounds over. He sniffs at the box experimentally. “Close the lid.”
I do that. My flames recede.
“I see,” he says in this voice that shakes with awe.
“You see what?”
“This box has the capacity to block strong magic. It is preventing the heart crystal from activating your power.”
“That’s brilliant. It means I’ll be able to walk around without fear that flames will erupt over my skin.”
“Not so fast. You must learn how to control your powers. But you can place that other god’s heart crystal inside.”
I do that, and he sniffs once more.
“As long as a god does not recognize this box, the heart crystal could remain in here and no one will ever know.”
I smile, satisfied. I shove up. I look for a good place to hide this little box, and I see one on the mantelpiece. There’s a carriage clock. It has this base you can pull out and hide little things in. I do that. Then I turn around. I face Marus and shrug. “That’s one problem sorted. Now… you want me to learn to use my flames?”
I walk into my bedroom. I take off my sopping wet top and throw on a singlet. I trundle down the stairs. I catch sight of myself in some reflective pictures. Weirdly enough, I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that my skin is now completely covered in magic.
I meet Marus back in the lounge room.
I just stand there and stare at my arms. With a big frown plucking over my lips, I push and poke at my skin. This of course changes nothing. The magic’s still there. It doesn’t react to my prying fingers. The only thing it reacts to is my emotion.
I close my eyes. I let out a sigh. I open my eyes just a split, and I see that a little bit more magic has leaped over my forearm.
“It’s critical that you learn to control your flames. Evil forces will come for you.”
I make a face at that. “Evil forces?” Some part of me wants to make a joke, then I remind myself of what situation I’m in, and the joke very much dies on my lips. My gut gives a kick. “We’re just talking about the gods, right?” I don’t know why I say that so hopefully. It’s a damn foolish thing to wish for. I’m dealing with the gods, for the love of… well, god. They will be no ordinary enemies.
“No. Many creatures, far and wide, will be attracted to your light.”
I bite my lip again. It’s kind of this thing I do whenever I’m nervous, and I get the impression that I’m going to be nervous from now until the end of time. “So, how do I do it?” I stare at my hands again, turning my thumbs in and out. It does not increase or decrease my flames. But as I close my eyes and concentrate, that does see more flames leap over my skin.
“Your emotions are—” He begins, but he stops.
I’m only half paying attention to him. It’s crazy to be home and safe and capable of staring at my magic freely. Fortunately I don’t have any close neighbors, so there’s nobody to stare in through the windows. I’ve drawn the curtains, anyway. I spin on the spot, but when I come back around, I realize that Marus is up on his paws. His back is arched. His tail is all fluffy as if he’s a real cat and he’s just been spooked.
I frown at him. “Marus—”
He brings up a paw, the move so stiff, it looks like it could punch through a mountain.
My gut finally reacts. I put two and two together. Something must be wrong.
My world comes crashing down. I become cold, but then my magic leaps up more.
“Control it,” he hisses.
I try to, but at his desperate tone, my magic only reacts all the more. It now leaps up to my throat. It forms this collar around my neck.
I hear a creak. It’s coming from the back of the house. I turn my head toward it, my neck snapping fast enough to permanently break the muscles.
“It’s too late,” Marus says, “something’s here.”
I stand there, stock still, frozen to the core. I once had a home invasion – but that was years ago, and my mom was still alive. She was an ex-cop. She dealt with it, but it was still one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Now all of that fear floods back in. I hear another creak. It’s very much footfall.
Marus slinks around the side of the couch. I don’t know if he’s going for safety or if he’s just getting ready to surprise the attacker. I just stand there. I feel completely useless.
There are bona fide frigging eternal flames marching over my skin, but I’m still taken back to the time when I was a little kid watching someone creep into her house with a gun.
As more and more emotion tears through me, my heart starts to tremble. Not just my real heart, but the crystal in my hand. More flames erupt out of it. It crackles. Anyone would be able to hear it.
The footfall isn’t slow anymore. It speeds up.
I jerk back just in time to see someone round the corner into the lounge room. But here’s the thing. They’re not a someone – they are a something.
I tell myself that I’m prepared for anything, but I’m not. As I gaze upon this twisted, almost mutilated black bull face, I scream.
I have a single second before it throws itself at me. It’s surrounded by charging magic. It looks like smoke. It’s coming from this large circle in the thing’s chest.
It swipes toward me.
I have nowhere to go.
It grabs me by the throat and shoves me back. That magic instantly sinks into me. It snags hold of my skin like claws.
I find my eyes rolling into the back of my head.
They don’t stay there.
There’s a roar from behind the couch. The next thing I know, Marus slams into the bull, but there’s something wrong. Marus is much, much larger. In the blink of an eye, his body changes. He’s no longer half a kitten – he’s a goddamn lion. His mane is red, and down his back is another flamelike red stripe. As he twists his body and rams the bull, a few charges of magic leap up out of that stripe and sink into the creature.
It staggers back. Then it launches forward, aiming its horns at Marus’s side.
I freak out. I might’ve only known Marus for a short while, but something inside me can’t stand around and watch him get injured. I throw myself up. I don’t know what I plan on doing, but there’s nothing I can do. I impact the bull’s side, and I’m thrown off course. I slam into the couch. I roll down it, strike the coffee table, and crack right through. I’m winded. My brow is cut, too, and long red lines of blood dribble down the side of my face. As I shove up, I watch Marus dodge back. But the bull isn’t finished yet. It’s half bull, half man. It stands up on legs, but it still has hooves on them. It suddenly tamps them down, wrenches its head to the side, and roars.
I am certain that the entire block – maybe even the entire city – can hear this fight.
Marus roars once more. And make no mistake, it is very much the roar of a lion. It thumps through the floor, shaking it so hard, dust rains down from the ceiling.
The bull leaps at Marus again, but Marus twists to the side and shoves the bull against its hip. A lick of magical flame that looks almost exactly like a Phoenix rises up off Marus’s back. It tries to wrap around the bull’s middle.
I… I can barely even focus on what’s going on. My head is ringing. My whole body is pounding from where I was thrown against the table, but I know what that fire is. It’s my fire, isn’t it? Somehow, Marus can call on it. Sure enough, I watch as my arms shake and more magic pulses across them.
The bull can’t dodge back. He tries, but the fire simply wraps around him.
I think I can hear a Phoenix cawing. Then the flames sink into the bull’s side. He has a chance to scream before the Phoenix suddenly explodes in a wave of power.
It blasts the bull back. He smashes into the wall and shoves right through to the kitchen.
I’m on my feet, but I can’t hold steady. Marus jerks his head toward me, his massive mane ruffling at the sudden move. “Run upstairs. I have this.” With that, he sprints through the hole and into the kitchen.
I can’t move – not to run, and critically, not to go save Marus.
I stare at my arms. They’re still completely ablaze with magic. It’s burning so brightly now, it could rival the sun.
I hear quick footfall. Then the last thing I want to hear. Marus lets out a cry.
It forces me to move. I jump forward. Everything becomes a blur. I don’t know how to use my magic – I have even less of a clue how to use my goddess body – but every single misgiving simply falls away. I can’t let Marus get hurt. He has come a long way from the stray cat on my doorstep this morning. I have a connection to him, and I know that it’s a connection I will never be able to have with anyone else. In a universe that wants me dead, he’s the only one on my side.
I run into the kitchen. I see that the bull has Marus on his side. He’s trying to impale Marus with one of his horns. Marus’s Phoenix magic is pushing him back. For now. But with every second, the bull’s horn gets closer to Marus’s middle.
I scream. I throw myself forward. I have no clue at all what I intend to do. It’s already manifestly clear that I have no control over my power. It’s also just as clear that the bull is much stronger than me. I still wrap an arm around his middle and try to jerk him back. That isn’t as easy as it sounds. He’s three times bigger than me. It’s like trying to hug a car.
Predictably, the bull roars and jerks back, throwing me to the side. I smash into the fridge, the door creaking open as the whole fridge threatens to tumble onto me.
I’m winded, but I’m not down completely. I shove up.
“No, get out of here,” Marus roars.
I don’t. The bull has locked onto me, anyway. He rounds off in front of the doorway. He shoves his nostrils forward, and he sniffs.
My heart is still in my pocket. It trembles. The bull’s eyes suddenly open wide with recognition. He goes to open his mouth. I know what he’s going to do. He’s going to roar. And while maybe the rest of the noises he’s making can’t be heard by ordinary people, that roar will be heard by all. It will draw more creatures to his side, and there’ll be absolutely nothing I will be able to do to get away from them.
I shove up. I’m not thinking. All I’m doing is feeling. My heart is blasting away in my chest like a goddamn shotgun. My whole body shakes. I reach the bull.
Marus screams at me to leave, but that’s the last thing I can do. I open a hand.
My emotions align. The desperation reaches inside me. It grabs something I’m only vaguely aware of – something that has always been there throughout my life, no matter what’s happened to me.
The bull rushes toward me, his mouth open and a scream on his lips, but suddenly Phoenix flames curl around my hand and shoot forward. They smash into the bull’s open mouth. It sends the creature blasting back. He pounds into the wall and falls back into the lounge room.
I stand there, panting.
Marus pulls himself up. “That is it, my lady. One more strike, and he will be down.”
Shaking, I shove through the hole in the wall. Plaster and chunks of old nails rain down on top of me, but I don’t care. I keep my hand open like it’s some kind of gun.
The bull is shaking and pushing to his hooves. He jerks around to attack me once more, but I do it again. Half closing my eyes, I call on the power. A Phoenix rises up off my right hand and shoots forward. It smashes into the bull’s side. Flames erupt everywhere. This time, the bull is pulled up off his feet. He floats about a meter into the air as his arms are pulled wide. Magic spirals around his body. He opens his mouth in a silent scream. Then with a crack, he just disappears.
I let out a delayed scream. I flop down to my knees. I press a hand over my mouth, and I shake, shake like I’m about to crumble to dust. “What… what did I do? I killed it. I—”
Marus pads over to me. He nuzzles my arm. It’s a lot harder to ignore it now he’s a bona fide lion. His soft mane distracts me. I turn around and look into his yellow eyes. “That is a foul creature, my lady. When it is not hunting you, it hunts humans. It did not deserve to live on this plane. Do not fear.” He nuzzles me again.
Shaking, I turn around, grab my hands around his mane, and nuzzle up against him.
I cry. And there isn’t a damn thing I’d be able to do to stop it.
My life… will never be the same again.
I don’t know how long it takes me to pull away from Marus. Fortunately he doesn’t shove me away. He lets me cry into his fur. While as a cat, he looks a little bit mangy, as a lion, his fur is magnificent. It’s as soft as pillows.
When I finally pull myself up, he turns around and stares at the damage in the walls. “We must find a new abode.”
I press the back of my hand over my eyes, wiping away my tears. “My mother gave me this place. Plus, I can’t afford to rent.”
“We must find another abode, nonetheless. Though you managed to stop that hell bull from giving out a generalized cry to other monsters, he still found you here. And I do not know how. Others will likely come. We must leave.”
I stand there and shake my head. On some level, I’m okay with everything that happened – okay with finding out that I’m a goddess, okay with finding out that everyone wants to kill me. But I’m not okay with leaving this place. All my memories are here. If I leave it, then everything else will become real.
Freaking out, I lock my arms around my middle. That’s when my Phoenix fire reacts.
I shake my hands out.
Fortunately another one of those Phoenixes does not rise and leap around me.
“I understand this must be hard for you, my lady, but it is the only way. Pack only what you need.”
“Only what I need?” I whisper to myself. I look around. Absolutely everything has a memory.
“We must hurry,” he warns.
“But where are we going to go?”
“Back to the antique store.”
“Sorry? Manford is going to kill me if he finds that I’m living in one of his businesses.”
“He will never find out.”
“You don’t understand Manfred. He’s crazy, but he’s a workaholic. I know for a fact that he’s shown up to his bookstore to do work at like two in the morning. He will find out we’re there.”
“No, he will not. We will create another space.”
I’m not in the mood to argue. I know this is insane, but my nose still scrunches up. “What do you mean another space?”
“While we were at that antique store, I recognized that it has a powerful window.”
I shake my head. I just don’t have the brainpower to follow this conversation. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It acts as a kind of gate. I imagine the previous owner of that antique store was magical in some fashion. There may even be powerful objects we can use beyond the gate point.”
I’m not following a thing. I go to collapse, but Marus won’t let me. He pads over and uses his large head to push me on.
Crying the whole way, I start to pack my stuff. I try to tell myself that this is not a permanent goodbye. I’ll be able to come back here occasionally.
When I’m done, I go to leave, but Marus reminds me of the star box. I walk over and pluck it up. I frown at it. “You think I’m ever going to find out whose heart’s inside?”
“I hope you never do.”
With that, I leave home.
It’s still raining outside. It’s worse, too. Not that much time has passed, but it is dark. It looks like it’s midnight.
Marus doesn’t leave me this time. I’ve got a big duffel bag. He just jumps inside – not before turning into an ordinary cat, that is. I marvel at the sight of him changing form. It comes naturally, and it’s quick – just the blink of an eye. As I sit on the bus with him inside the bag, I clutch it protectively.
I think about the fight – every second. More than that, every feeling. I want to stare at my arms again, but I’m in a strategically thick jacket. It hides my flames. But if I start staring at them – and importantly, start watching my emotions – they might rise up, even over my sleeves.
I hold it together until I reach the antique store again.
Fortunately, it’s locked up, and Manfred isn’t around. But that just creates its own headache. I quickly remember the alarm system. I’m out back, and I bite my lips. “This isn’t going to work. There’s no way for us to get around that alarm system.”
“Perhaps for an ordinary mortal. Come with me.”
He suddenly leaps up onto a dumpster then onto a gutter, then onto the roof. From afar, he might look like an ordinary cat, until you realize that an ordinary cat should not be able to jump that far.
He peers over the roof at me. “Follow.”
I shake my head. “I can’t jump like that.”
“At this point in time,” he mutters to himself. “Very well. Wait there. I will do this.”
I wait nervously, shuffling from foot to foot. My pounding heart tells me that Manfred could arrive at any moment.
I just lost my house. I cannot afford to lose my job, too.
It doesn’t take long until the back door swings open. I wince and wait for the alarm to blare, but it doesn’t.
I glance over at the box to see it’s marked with magic. I frown at it then down at Marus. “What did you do?”
“I have many skills, my lady.”
I follow him in and close the door. “Why do you call me your lady?”
“Because you are.”
“Did you… know me on Asgard?” It is pretty hard to push those words out. I can say them, but the sane part of my mind, if it still exists, reminds me they are crazy.
“No. But I have been with you your entire life.”
“I have always been watching over you.”
“Thanks,” I mutter, meaning it.
We reach the stairs. We head up to the second floor.
Marus wastes no time in bounding over to the window. He tilts his head from side to side. “This is going to need combined magic.” He holds out a paw to me.
I get down onto my knees. “Um, what do you need me to do?”
“You must channel magic. It will be your third lesson, but I’m afraid we do not have time for lesson two. You must control it. Do not let your emotions get the better of you,” he adds gravely.
I don’t bother to ask what will happen if I let my emotions get the better of me. Because that most definitely will let my emotions get the better of me. The more I learn about what can go wrong in this world, the more freaked out I become.
I just swallow. I let him settle his paw in my palm. Then I start to feel magic leaping around him. It’s not as impressive as when he’s in his lion form, but it’s still pretty good. I become distracted by it. It’s enough that I don’t even notice when flames start to erupt out of the ends of my sleeves.
“That is it, my lady. Get out of the way of your magic. Let it circle around you with no pause and no attempt to control it.”
I close my eyes. That’s a bad idea. I can almost immediately feel my magic retracting back into my body.
“You must trust it. It has been inside you, though held back, your entire life. It is your one true friend. It is that which will never leave you.”
I’m sure these words are meant to pull me up, but they don’t. They push me back down. I’m just reminded of every single person who’s always left me in my life. Sure, it’s nice to have Marus and all, but at the back of my head, I know that won’t last. He’ll leave me at some point, too.
I can feel my flames start to reduce.
Marus lets out a sigh. “Open your eyes.”
I open my eyes.
“Do you not wish to have a bath?” Of all the things he could’ve said, that’s the weirdest.
My nose scrunches up. “Ah, sorry?”
“I wasn’t going to say this, but you stink.”
“I’m also aware that when you become stressed, you wish to have baths. I am only guessing this, but judging by the magic I feel, there will be a most spectacular bath in there.” He gestures to the window with his paw.
I am not following this conversation. It’s completely zany. But with his paw still in my hand, I suddenly feel my magic charge back. It sinks into his claws then jolts up his little paw.
“Finally,” he says. He spreads his other paw forward.
And that’s when magic leaps into the stained-glass window. I’m reminded of the gold-leaf I saw inside it this morning. All those little symbols. It was the window, after all, that alerted me to the presence of the box.
My stomach has a chance to tighten. Then something happens to the glass. It… wobbles.
I’ve seen a lot of magic, but this gets to me for some reason. I yelp, but I don’t remove my hand from Marus’s.
The glass continues to wobble until it shifts. It opens.
By reason, I should see the sky outside, but I don’t. I see a beautifully appointed sitting room.
“What… what the hell?” I stammer.
“Come,” Marus says as he bounds inside.
Fortunately, the window is at knee level, so I don’t have to climb the wall to get into it. It takes me a long time to gather the coordination to push forward. Even then, my whole body is shaking. As soon as I clamber in, the glass falls back into place. I turn around, and I can only just glimpse the top floor of the antique store beyond.
“A most comfortable chair,” Marus says, his voice trilling with approval as he jumps up onto an old gent’s chair. He starts to claw a cushion. He looks exactly like an ordinary cat.
I just stand there, my lips gently parted. “This….”
“Is some kind of wizard’s den,” he mutters. He looks as if he’s going to go to sleep.
“Um… what are you doing? Shouldn’t we explore this place? It could be dangerous.”
“It isn’t. And as for what I’m doing, I’m about to have a nap. Now go have a bath.”
He winks one eye open and looks at me. “You are safe, my lady. For now. Recharge your batteries, as the humans would say. You can explore this place on your own.” He closes his eyes, curls up, and instantly starts purring.
I shake my head. I try to rouse him a few more times, but it’s useless. So, with a knot forming in my gut, I walk through the sitting room. There’s a little rickety set of steps that leads down just beyond it. I reason it should lead straight to the street. But reason can’t count in this space, can it?
I fought a magical bull about an hour ago. And I have Phoenix fire inside my body. Nothing from this point on will make sense.
And that is a promise.
Though I’m dead tired, I still take the time to explore the place. I am nowhere near as comfortable as Marus. I’m not going to find a nice cushion to curl on top of and close my eyes in some wizard den. For all I know, there could be exploding potions everywhere. And yeah, I just said that.
I rub my brow as I head down those rickety old steps. They groan underneath my weight, but they don’t crack. It’s as if the sound is nothing more than an accompaniment to my movement – as if someone programmed it in because they think that rickety stairs have more charm than the solid kind.
I make my way down to the bottom level. There’s a short corridor with several rooms branching off it, and by branching, I literally mean that. They don’t come off the corridor directly – and instead, I have to follow these tiny little chaotic corridors to get to each room. It’s like I’m walking along the trunk of a tree or something.
The first room is packed full of books. I look at the spines and pluck a few out, but after a few muddled attempts to read what’s inside, I realize that while it’s in English, the words dart around every time I blink. I close the books and shove them back into the bookcase in disgust. I make it to another room. This is some kind of bedroom. It’s huge. You could fit eight of my old bedrooms in here. There’s this massive fourposter bed in the middle and a huge carpet. But that’s it.
I test out one of the pillows. When it doesn’t bite me, I figure out I’ll probably sleep here, but later. I investigate the rest of the house. There’s a kitchen, and it honestly looks like an ordinary kitchen, thankfully – without mysterious books or bottles of unknown potions. There’s a storeroom, though, and that takes my breath away. It’s down another small set of stairs. If I think the antique store is chaotic, it’s got nothing on this place. Things are stacked up on uneven shelves that get wider the further they go up the walls. They also taper outward, perpetually looking as if they are going to fall over. I try one, standing well back so I can’t be squashed, but it appears solid.
Everything has this kind of organic feel to it. It’s like the wizard cast some kind of spell, and this storeroom sorted itself out. Frowning, I get down on a knee and pluck up an old vial. At first, it’s clear it has nothing inside it, but as soon as my fingers touch the glass, it fills with liquid. I gasp but fortunately don’t drop it. Turning it around, I see that the liquid is bubbling and shoving up against the cork, looking as if it’s getting ready to explode. I place it down carefully and back out of the room.
That’s when I finally find the bathroom, and let me tell you, it’s everything I’ve ever dreamed about. It looks like a Turkish bathhouse. In the middle of the beautiful painted blue, yellow, and gold tiles, is a huge pool. It’s one that’s already filled with hot water. It’s also got amazing, botanical scents coming out of it. And it’s got rose petals over it to boot.
I make a face at it. All I want to do is slip inside, but I’m not that brave, right?
“I don’t know,” I start to mutter to myself as I grab my chin, lock my fingers in tight, and press my palm over my lips. “Just look around you,” I hiss, my voice becoming tight at the end. “Your entire life is changing, Celeste. You’ve left everything you know behind. Or almost everything. Marus seems fine. So just have a bath.”
I take my clothes off and slip under the water, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I instantly chill out. It also gives me a chance to calmly pluck my arms up and stare at the flames. I don’t know if it’s the water or the fact I’m becoming more adventurous, but I don’t freak out at them anymore – I marvel at their beauty. And trust me, they are beautiful. There are permanent symbols under the flesh on both my left and right arms. They are much more prominent on my right arms. The fire is weaker on my left arm, and I don’t know why. Is it because it will grow as I become better at magic? Or is it something else?
“By the end of this, you’ll have a thousand questions, and I doubt you’ll be able to get answers to everything,” I comment, and it’s sobering.
I imagine Marus hasn’t told me everything he knows, but I also get the faint sense that he is not going to tell me everything. I left my heart on top of my clothes. I turn around and look at it. Reaching over, I clasp it up. I really doubt that it’s affected by water. I take it under the surface, and I stare at it. It’s light is refracted out in every single direction.
I close my eyes.
I almost… almost feel like I’m remembering something. It’s this crazy sensation like I’m on the verge of taking some great leap into the unknown. I feel the sensation start to pick up through my body. It’s like I’m freefalling. I honestly think my hair is fluttering, too – racing around my face as if I’ve just encountered some wind.
But nothing happens. I give in to the sensations, but they don’t lead me into my memories. I open my eyes. I rub my face. Then I lean back.
I let the water soothe me. It doesn’t have long.
I hear pounding footfall, and I turn around to see Marus. He stops next to my pile of clothes. If he were an ordinary cat, this was where he would climb up on top of them and start scratching them.
Judging by the glint in his eyes, he has something far more important to tell me.
I stiffen up. Memories of the fight with the bull come flooding back in. “What is it?” My voice is dry and raspy.
“It’s time for you to get out of the bath. You must learn about the gods.”
“So we’re not under attack?”
“Not at this point in time. But there are several questions we need answers to.”
“Who ordered that god box for Mr. Hampton and why. I was assessing your boss when you said he spoke about it. It’s clear that he had no idea of its existence.”
I push my lip through my teeth. “It’s got to be that other sales assistant. When I found the piece of paper detailing the order, it was well hidden. I only found it because I was thorough. I know Manfred’s wife. She is not thorough. She would never look in the sales book. It would be easy as hell to hide things from her.”
“So get up. We must investigate.”
I make this face. “But the water is hot. It’ll be a waste.”
“The water is perpetually hot in this bathroom. It will stay in this state until the next time you are ready for it. Now, come.”
I really don’t want to get out of the bath, but I don’t have any option. Sloshing out of it, I stand there, and I look for a towel. This bathroom seems to have everything, but a towel is not in sight. “Ah—”
“Simply shake yourself dry.”
“I’m not a cat.”
“No, but you have perpetual access to eternal Phoenix flames. Use that to dry yourself. Treat it as a lesson.”
I frown and make a face at him, but then I draw my hands up. I open them wide. I settle a breath in my chest and close my eyes. Then I ground my hands into fists. I attempt to access the Phoenix fire, but it doesn’t work. I can feel it wobbling on my arm. It sure as hell doesn’t dry me.
“Be careful,” he warns.
Careful I am not. As I try even harder, I let out an accidental burst of fire, and it sails around me. I open my eyes and scream. I can see the shape of the Phoenix as it twists and turns around my middle.
“Control it,” Marus counsels.
I grit my teeth. I yank my gaze off the beauty of the Phoenix. I try to force my mind into it. It’s hard. It seems so chaotic. It feels like it’s beyond all forms of control.
“I will not let you out of the house until you can control it. There will be more incidents like that bull,” he promises.
That’s the kick in the guts I need. I press my eyes closed. I shove a breath out of my teeth, and I damn well concentrate with all my might. At first, all I’m doing is following the flames, but soon enough, I feel this latent kind of connection to them. It’s that I follow. I don’t know how long it takes with me standing there, dripping all over the tiles, but eventually I manage to let the Phoenix settle around my stomach. Miraculously, it doesn’t burn the skin. I can just feel it vibrating there. It sends this shot of heat over my body, and it gets rid of every last single drop of water – it even dries my hair. My fringe flutters around my face, and I see a few little crackles of fire escaping along the tips.
When everything settles down, I open my hands wide once more, and I gasp, “Wow.”
“Do not marvel at simple magic. This is stage one. You will not be able to take on Thor until you are stage 100.”
There were two things very wrong with that statement. “What do you mean take on Thor?” My voice barely pushes from my lips. It’s like somebody has chained it to my throat. “I thought you told me that I have to stay away from him, no matter what? And what do you mean stage 100? Just… what will I be able to do with these flames in time?”
He’s already pushed off, and he’s bounding for the door, but he stops and turns around. He just shoots me this look. He doesn’t say anything else.
With a sigh, I’m forced to follow.
We head back to that library.
There’s a lovely leather chair. I go to sit in it, but Marus does instead. He even starts scratching the leather.
“Should you really be doing that?” I wince.
“Relax, it’s self-healing. And I must always endeavor to keep my claws sharp. They are all that can keep you safe, my lady.”
I really don’t know if that’s true. It looks as if he’s just giving in to his cat instincts. He continues to claw the leather for a while until he sits straight. He nods at one of the bookcases. “Pluck out a book.”
“Whichever you are drawn to.”
I press my lips together, and, turning softly, it takes about two minutes until I spy something. I walk over to it, my brow twitching slightly. I don’t know what it is about the tome – whether it’s the color of the spine, or its position on the shelf, or if it’s just something inside me, but I clutch it up quickly. A little too fast, in fact – and my sweaty fingers slide over the old gold patterned leather.
“Good choice. That was a test.”
“Did I pass?”
“In a manner of speaking. That is a book that details the lives of the gods.”
I blink quickly. “Does that include my life?” I ask, and I’m not sure if it’s excitement or fear twisting through my tone.
“No. You will find that you are not written in any of the history books of the gods.”
“Because you were all but expunged from history.”
“There are several reasons. Thor forbade anyone to write about you, because he’s scared of your power and the prophecy that comes with you. Even if that prophecy was never anything more than a ploy to steal his kingdom from him.”
“What’s the other reason?”
“The very same forces that are manipulating him wish to erase you.”
I don’t like the way that Marus said erase. It makes my stomach all twitchy. I find myself standing straighter. “Why?”
“To claim your power for themselves. Though it is impossible, they have become convinced that if they obtain you, they will be able to transfer your Phoenix fire over to themselves.”
I have a really visceral reaction to this. My gut kicks so hard, I actually drop the book. It tumbles to my feet and opens on a random page.
And right there, I see a picture of Thor. It has to be him. It’s the same flaxen hair, the same hammer, and the same stare. He kind of fits the bill of the depictions of Norse myth – but more than anything, he fits what’s in my head.
I stop. I think Marus speaks, but I can’t hear him. Even if the guy got a megaphone and pressed it right up against my ear, I still wouldn’t be able to hear him. I get these electric jolts down my back, into my gut, then up into my heart. It’s almost as if I’m going to have a cardiac arrest.
Marus can obviously see that there’s something wrong with me, and he jumps off his chair. He clambers up my side and sits on my shoulder once more. He nuzzles my face until I finally snap out of it. “I shouldn’t have to tell you who that is,” he says as he extends a claw and gestures at the picture.
I shake my head. I press the back of my hand against my lips. I’m trembling all over. Closing my eyes, I take a firm breath. I tell myself I’m okay. Getting down carefully so Marus doesn’t fall, I sit on my haunches. “Does he look like that all the time? I mean, if he… when he comes to Earth,” I correct myself quickly, “is this what he’ll look like?”
“Yes. Though of course he will not wear his sacred armor.”
I nod. Closing my eyes, I tell myself this is good. I’ll be able to recognize him. But that just makes my gut kick harder, because it promises me that I will see him, sooner rather than later.
My hands are trembling as I pluck up the book once more. I grip the spine until it feels like I’m going to turn it to dust. I spend a few more seconds staring at Thor, and as I do, untold things happen within me. There’s this energy – it’s different to my Phoenix fire, but it interacts with it. Without being aware of it, my arms are vibrating ever so slightly, and the fire perpetually trapped under the skin is rising ever so slightly higher. It’s not dangerous yet, but it’s a testament to how emotional and powerful this moment is.
Marus doesn’t rush me. I don’t know how long it takes – maybe two minutes, maybe five – but I finally flip away from Thor’s face. I expect to see depictions of the other gods, but I don’t. I see runes, and I can’t read them. More than that, just like the other books I’ve encountered in this room, they’re constantly changing. Every time I blink, they rearrange themselves. I rub my eyes then quickly put the book down. I sigh, and the deep move shakes up my stomach and into Marus’s paws. He whips his tail over my shoulder. “Do not become so disheartened so quickly. In time, as you learn to control your powers, you will be able to read those runes without studying. The memory of them will be ignited within you.”
I press my hand against my head and force it against my scrappy fringe. “Then… will I remember everything?” There’s barely any volume in my voice. I honestly don’t know if I want to remember a thing. I had – but that was before I encountered that picture of Thor. Now I’m right back to being the scared girl who woke up with Marus on her chest in the antique store.
“No. That will not be automatic. And, in many ways, I hope you never get your full memories back. But your heart is the key. That is why you must always hold on to it. No matter what,” he says, every word designed to drill into me.
I nod. Taking a deep breath, I shove up. I walk over to that chair, and I sit in it. The leather is self-healing. It hasn’t been shredded. It’s soft, too, and supports my back as I flop all the way against it. Marus clambers up the back of the chair and sits there, his tail dangling against the side of my cheek. I flip through the book. I honest to god try to read a single word, but I can’t. I don’t come across any more pictures. I close it and look up at Marus. “Is that the end of the lesson?” I ask hopefully.
He chuckles darkly. “The real lesson hasn’t even begun.”
“So what are you going to teach me?”
“You’re going to fight with your flames.”
“Fight what?” I say, my voice stammering.
He jumps up off the back of the chair. He walks along the bookcase. He finds something, leaps up, grabs it out, and kicks it onto the floor. It opens.
Leaning over, I see a picture. It’s one of a contorted monster. It’s even worse than that bull I fought in my house. It has the head of half a lion, but half a snake, too. Its body looks like that of a goat.
I’ve heard of chimeras, but this is on another level. I press my hand over my mouth. “What the hell is that?” I whisper between my lips.
“Monsters like this have the generalized name of amalgamations.”
I’ve never found the word amalgamation disgusting before, but this makes my stomach clench. I wonder if it’s a memory, because my skin slicks with sweat. “Amalgamation,” I say quietly.
“Correct. Now, with a little magic and some potions from downstairs, this creature will come alive.”
I bolt up to my feet. “What? You sure that’s a good idea? I only just managed to defeat that bull in my lounge room.”
“Which is the point of fighting this amalgamation. Now,” he looks around the room, “it probably isn’t wise to fight one here. Let’s do it in your bathhouse.”
“I don’t want to. That’s a relaxing place. I don’t want to fight there.”
“You must be prepared to fight anywhere and everywhere. Now, come.” He twitches his tail and walks out of the room, but not before ripping the page that shows the amalgamation out of the book. He keeps it clutched in his mouth.
Standing, I close my eyes. I open them, one at a time. It’s almost as if I’m giving this situation a chance to return to normal. Maybe I’ll find myself curled up in bed. Maybe this will be a dream.
And maybe that’s just wishful thinking. Because inside me, I know the truth. I’m a fallen god. And if I don’t learn to fight, I’ll fall further.
We make it back into the bathroom. By the time we do, magic is already picking up from somewhere. I don’t know if it’s the vents in the floor or simply the cracks between normal space and whatever realms are connected to it. As soon as I encounter it, I freeze, my back stiffening. I’m treated to an anatomical lesson of my body as every single muscle grips in turn. It becomes almost impossible to use my lips. I have to hiss around them. “Marus, what’s happening?”
“The room is preparing for the fight. Now, take up position.”
I don’t get a chance to ask him how long this will take. That is apparent. The magic begins to coalesce in the middle of the room. It forms a creature. At first, it’s just this undifferentiated blob. I can see faces pressing against it, legs and hooves too. Then teeth and eyes.
It is categorically one of the creepiest things I have ever seen, and, grabbing my mouth, I let out a high-pitched scream.
Marus just snarls at me. “That is an undignified response. Trust me, if you cannot take one of these on, you will have no chance.”
I trust him all right, but that doesn’t make the sight of what I’m looking at any easier.
It finally starts to gather into what I saw in that book. It honestly is an amalgamation. There’s no cohesiveness between each separate body part – it’s as if they’ve been carved up and stuck together with glue.
Shaking, I bring my hands up. I expect there’ll be some time before the creature attacks, but I am fresh out of luck. It jolts forward and roars in my face. Then it swipes at me. I am very much not prepared. The blow connects, and I’m thrown across the room. I tumble into the bath. There’s a loud splash, but it’s accompanied by my scream. I swallow a few mouthfuls of water. I splash up and splutter on the surface of the deep bath just as the creature launches forward. It turns around. Just as it has half a snake head, it also has half a snake tail. It wraps around my middle and yanks me out of the pool. I scream. “Marus, please, help me.”
He’s sitting over by the crumpled piece of paper he ripped from the book. His tail is twitching, and his whiskers are practically shuddering. He does not look like he’s enjoying this, but he also does not move a muscle to help me. “This is tough love. If you do not learn how to fight, a creature like that will probably kill you in time. Now, use your flames.”
It is all very well for him to tell me that while he is sitting high and dry. I hear the creature roar, and, with me still in its tail, it smashes me down against the tiled floor. It’s hard enough that the tiles break.
My human mind tells me this is it. I struck the floor so hard that I’m either going to black out, or plain die. But my goddess side rises. I’m still awake. I’m in a lot of pain, but that doesn’t matter. It promises me I’m still whole, and importantly, I still have a chance to fight.
The tail goes to whip me down again, but that’s when I finally call on my arms. Fire rises off them. It doesn’t shoot around my stomach and curl up over the snake tail. It’s not that powerful yet.
I’m smashed down into the tiles again. My head rings, and my mouth fills with blood. But once more, I remain awake.
“Fight it,” Marus growls.
I see him out of the corner of my eye. He’s turning back into a lion. It’s very clear that if I don’t start fighting, he’ll end this. But I can also tell that it’s very clear he will be endlessly disappointed in me if I do. I’m reminded of the fact that he won’t let me leave here until I can defend myself.
The tail goes to whip me back into the tiles, but I fight back. I don’t have the wherewithal to call on my magic and make it snake around the tail, so I just give in to it. I let it rise off me. As I’m smashed into the tiles once more, it protects me. I can still feel the impact, but it’s nowhere near as damaging.
“Good,” Marus snaps. “Defensive spells are just as important as offensive spells. Your fire can be used to buffer almost any attack. It can also be used to cancel out most strong charges of magic. Speaking of which,” he says, but he doesn’t finish his sentence.
The amalgamation tries to whip me around once more, but when it realizes it’s no longer damaging me, it releases me suddenly. It takes several jerking bounds away, turns, then opens its mouth. A bolt of light shoots out of the lion side of its face.
I freak right out. I have this visceral reaction that claws something up from my stomach and throws it forward. It’s fire, and just as that bolt of light smashes into it, my flames grow bright enough to cancel out the attack.
I’m down on my butt and my hands, and I’m quaking all over, but the slightest smile spreads my lips. I did that.
“The fight is not over yet,” Marus counsels. “Prepare for the second wave of attacks.”
I’ve only played video games briefly, but I’m aware that just when you think you’re winning against the boss, they usually become more powerful and crack out their better attacks. That’s exactly what happens now.
The amalgamation flips backward. It’s lithe. It lands easily, then flashes its snake tail to the side. And that would be when the tip of the tail grows a tiny snake head too.
The sound of it is… god, it makes me want to throw up every meal I’ve ever had. It is grating and disgusting. As a wave of nerves charges through me, it also distracts me at the wrong moment.
“Duck,” Marus roars.
My mind might not be paying attention to him, but my body is. I throw myself to the side just in time. That snake head starts blasting out charges of magic everywhere. They’re these great big blue chaotic balls of power. They have these white-hot centers, and wherever they sink into, they destroy what’s in their path. Tiles crack and turn to dust. Hell, some of them plain atomize.
Several of the attacks come so close to me, they catch the ends of my clothes. I can feel them burning around my skin.
I freak out. I jerk back. I fall into the pool once more.
As I sink down, I see the amalgamation peer over the edge of the pool. It opens its mouth. I want to think that the water will protect me, but I realize it won’t.
I can see a reflection of Marus. He’s grown to his full size. He rears up, obviously getting ready to end this all.
I know I can’t let him do that. For a brief fraction of a second, I close my eyes. I think of Thor. He’s still out there. And he’s still waiting for me. I might like to think that I won’t come across him until I’m ready, but… something tells me that will not be the case. I have to learn how to fight him, and I have to do it now.
I hit the base of the pool. Then I thrust up. I use all my power – and its power I didn’t even know I had.
I’m propelled up above the surface of the water, but by the time I reach it, there’s already fire around me. I open my hands and let it blast out. A perfect picture of the Phoenix rises off my arm and shoots toward the amalgamation just as it opens its mouth wide.
My Phoenix sails around it. It catches the creature’s attack and extinguishes it, but it doesn’t leave it there. With a cry that shakes through the entire room, and powers into my soul, too, it wraps around the amalgamation. It lifts it up off its feet.
It took me two attacks to get rid of the bull in my house. It takes one to destroy this thing.
“That is it,” Marus trills, pride fattening his cheeks. “You’ve done it.”
I pull myself out of the pool and lean down on my knees. I shake a little as my sopping wet hair slides into my lap and loose hands. I watch as the creature is pulled several meters up into the air. Its head jerks back. Then… disgustingly, it starts to pull apart. Every single body piece it has from different creatures gets yanked away. Fortunately, they don’t thump onto the floor. They turn into little wisps of magic. In several seconds, they’re gone completely.
Trembling, I press my hand against my mouth. I shake my head. Then I let my fingers drop. And I actually smile.
Marus trots over to me. He’s still in his lion form. He nudges me, and I grab hold of his mane. He guides me up to my feet. I’m a little wobbly, but he stays there, supporting me the whole way. All the while, I stare at the point where that creature disappeared. “Did I… do good?”
Honestly, I don’t actually care what he says. I fought that thing. Yeah, it took a while to get going, but in the end, I defeated it in a single blow.
“I would’ve preferred that you not become injured at all. At least you won.”
“Injured,” I repeat that word dully. I turn my head down, and I stare at my middle. My skin is burned from where I dodged that snake head’s attack. There’s also a large bruise around my waist. I jerk back, terrified. “I—”
“Your injuries will heal in time.”
“How long?” I expect him to say several months.
He shrugs, his fluffy mane pushing up against my legs. “Likely several hours.”
I stare at him, open-mouthed. I go to say that’s impossible, but then I remind myself I’m a goddess. And honestly, it’s not something I need to remind myself of anymore. All the evidence is there – on my skin, in my heart, and pulsing through my soul. I close my hands. I drop them. “All right. Let’s investigate Mr. Hampton and the sales assistant.”
I am the first to walk out of the room. I was reluctant to come in here in the first place, but things have changed. That fight only solidified one fact. There’ll be more like it. Next time, it will not be a training session.
A storm is coming. One’s been coming my entire life. I need to prepare for it. And it’s now or never.
I find a new change of clothes. It’s in the bedroom. Though there isn’t a wardrobe or anything, there is a small chest of drawers next to the bed. While it’s small, that doesn’t account for the space inside it. I go rummaging within, and I’m surprised to find jeans of my size and several comfortable tops, too. Marus is in the doorway. I turn to him and frown. “I thought you said this place belonged to a wizard?”
“It does. But now that chest of drawers knows who it belongs to. You. It has changed its wardrobe to accommodate its new master.”
I just shrug. I have too many things I want to get done and too many questions kicking around in my head to care about this. I dress quickly. We head back out into the antique store. I don’t know what time it is yet. Maybe 10 o’clock at night? I did bathe for quite some time.
I hope like hell Manfred doesn’t decide to pop into the store late tonight. Even if he does… hopefully Marus will be able to do something about it. And by that, I don’t mean that he’ll eat my boss. It’s clear he has strong magic, though.
He’s in his cat form as we walk down to the main counter. I pull out the sales book once more, and I rummage inside. I find that little piece of folded up paper. I pull it out. I drum my fingers on the counter. “I don’t really know how this helps us. It doesn’t even have Mr. Hampton’s address.”
“Look for further evidence. This may not be the only illegal order that the sales assistant has attempted.”
Marus has a point. I get down on my knees. It’s truly dusty behind this counter. Now I work here, the first thing I’m going to do tomorrow is clean up.
I shake my head as soon as I think that. Really? That’s going to be my priority? I’m now on the run from the gods, and I’m going to spend most of my time dusting?
I shake my head. I continue to look. I finally find something promising. There’s this strange box. It’s right under the counter. It’s in this recess I have to twist my elbow and shove my hand up into. I only find it because I get this odd feeling that something’s there. I pluck it out and settle it on the counter.
It’s not another god box. But it certainly feels magical in some respect. I twitch my nose as I frown at it. “What the hell is that thing?”
Marus pushes in close. He sniffs. “It seems to be a blocking box.”
“I have a bad feeling about the sales assistant. This is the second magical item we have discovered of theirs, including the god box for Hampton.”
“Can I open it?”
“It depends. It might be booby-trapped.”
I already have it in my hands, but I quickly place it down and wince. “Booby-trapped? Why didn’t you tell me that to begin with?”
“It is highly unlikely that the booby-trap would successfully be able to disable you, anyway. Your magic is strong now,” he points out with a reverential nod.
I’m not about to pluck up the box and try, but I do settle a breath deep in my chest. “You’re telling me to try to open it, anyway?”
“Prepare yourself and your Phoenix fire.”
I really don’t want to lose my hands. But I still do as he says. I close my eyes, and this time it’s easier to call on my fire. It’s always there. And it always wants to rise to the surface – it’s just like I’m unconsciously blocking it most of the time. It takes a few seconds, but I get out of my own way, and I pluck up the box. “Here goes nothing,” I say with tightly closed eyes.
I open them one by one as I unlatch the clasp and open it.
Sure enough, I feel a pulse of magic blast out. It sinks into my hands, but they are already protected. I yelp, but I don’t drop the box. That’s a good thing. There’s some kind of war between its magic and mine. It pulses into my hands until they shake. But it does not rip them off my wrists.
“Keep holding it,” Marus roars.
I do that. It takes a few more seconds – then the box gives up. I actually hear this fizzle, and there’s this tiny blast of steam. Then it simply sits still in my hands like an ordinary box should.
My fire rises a little higher, obviously checking that the fight is done, but then it settles down back into my skin.
I force a breath through my teeth. “That was insane.”
“Indeed. Now place the box down where I can see it. With a magical display like that, I am assuming that something very important is inside.”
I do as I’m told. He plods over. The box, for all intents and purposes, is empty.
I shrug. “I guess that was a waste of time.”
“There is a great deal in this box,” he hisses.
My nose scrunches. “It’s empty.” I gesture at it pointedly.
His eyes flash up to mine. “You must learn to see sooner or later.”
“What are you talking about?” I tap the side of my head. “I can see just fine. And the box is—” I go to say that it’s empty again, but… it’s crazy, but I think I can see a flash of something inside. It happens quickly, so quickly that I can’t identify what the object is. But it’s enough that my gut clenches. “What—”
“In a way, it is the same magic that is stopping you from reading the books upstairs. You must see what is really there. There are many realms in this universe. They sit on top of each other. Those realms that are closest to this one – Midgard – can leak into ours. Very clever magicians can hide things between the realms. You must be able to see them to interact with them.”
Marus shoves an arm forward. He grabs something from the box. I can see it as the weight pushes down against his paw. I can also hear it as his claws scratch against it slightly – but I still can’t see it, no matter which angle I tilt my head on.
“What the heck is that thing?”
It takes him a while, but then, as he concentrates hard, whatever the object is, it snaps back from between the realms. It crackles with a few sparkles of magic, then sits still in his palm.
“It seems that way.”
Wincing, but still curious, I pluck it up. It’s got a gold band and a green stone inside. It’s beautiful. The stone is practically possessed of its own fire. “What do you think it’s for?”
“I would say that the more important equation here is who do I think it’s for. It is very clear that the sales assistant was acquiring rare objects for people. Sorry, I should say gods.”
My stomach kicks. I place the ring down. “If this sales assistant was acquiring all of these objects, then won’t they come back?”
Marus looks distracted for a few seconds. He darts his gaze to the side.
“Marus? Won’t they come back?”
He gazes right at me. “That is not a question of if. They are here right now.”
I don’t get a chance to freak out at that promise. I hear something from the back room. I know that I shouldn’t hear it – or at least, ordinary human ears shouldn’t be able to pick it up, but my gut senses rise to the fore.
I jerk around. My eyes open wide.
“Put the ring back in the box and duck behind cover,” Marus says.
I want to point out to him that I fought that amalgamation, but the exact note in his tone tells me not to mess with him. I grab up the box, shove the ring inside, and crunch down against the counter. Fortunately it’s so chaotic behind it, it’s easy enough to find a place to hide.
I lean there, my heart beating fast. I want to keep my eyes locked on the store, but instead, all I can see is the dusty books stacked up beside me.
I hear another creak.
Marus is up on the counter, and I can see his tail trailing down beside me. It twitches once.
Then he pushes forward.
He bounds away.
I squeeze my eyes shut. I tell myself that I’ll be ready for anything. Even if it’s Thor. That thought just slips in at the end, and there’s nothing I can do to control it. It won’t be Thor, right? There’s no way he could’ve found me. But—
“I thought I heard someone in here,” I hear a female voice. It’s light, but it’s got a strange grating quality to it. “If there’s any unlucky asshole in here, I’d come out right now,” she growls.
I bite my lip. I have no clue what Marus is planning.
If that’s the sales assistant, though, she’s going to head right over to the counter. I’m small, but it’s not like I can hide between the cracks in the boards.
As my heart pounds, I have to simultaneously control my Phoenix flames but get ready to use them. That’s harder said than done. The more I try to lock them away, the harder it will become to use them when the time comes.
The sales assistant takes several steps forward. “Goddamn junk house,” she mutters to herself. “I’m glad as hell to get out of here. First.” She doesn’t finish her sentence. She walks over to a stack of books. She grabs something out, and I can hear some mechanism grating.
I suddenly feel magic spreading through the room. It’s enough that I want to gasp.
I don’t know where Marus is, but he certainly hasn’t made his move yet.
“There we go,” the sales assistant says, her voice curling with victory. “This is gonna be worth my retirement.” She shoves something into her pocket. I might be making this up, but I get the impression that whatever object she just grabbed is big while her pocket is small. But I also get the feeling that doesn’t matter. Because whoever she is, she is clearly magical.
She takes several steps toward the counter. This is it. My whole body freezes up. I go over the mental steps to allow my magical flames to erupt over my skin, but then a thought erupts through me, and it is far more powerful. I can fight monsters, right? Because ultimately, monsters kill humans, and I don’t need to have to question the morality of getting rid of them.
But this woman sounds human. I….
I don’t have to continue to think that through. Just before she comes around the edge of the counter, Marus moves. He jumps up onto the counter, and he meows.
“What the hell?” the sales assistant says. “I really doubt you’re Manfred’s. He hates black cats, the superstitious fool. What have you been doing in this store?”
Marus meows. Any fool would be able to tell it’s not a real meow. It’s the meow of someone who can speak perfect English but is pretending that they’re a cat.
The sales assistant obviously doesn’t hear this. She chuckles to herself. Then she goes to shove Marus off. He lightly jumps to the side.
“You can do this the hard way, then,” the sales assistant growls once more. “I’m going to end you permanently.”
I hear and feel more magic picking up through the room. It makes my teeth clatter in my skull. It also makes me round a hand into a fist.
I might have only just met Marus today, but we have a connection, one that’s never going to be broken again. And at the prospect of this sales assistant threatening him, all I want to do is jump up and protect him. But he told me to stay here, so I remain where I am.
Marus hisses at the sales assistant.
She just chucks her head back and laughs. “You think that’s scary, cat? Try this.” She growls. It’s not just a human voice. I can hear something else underneath it. It’s this really animalistic growl. It’s not like a lion or anything. I can’t place it. I’ve never heard anything like it. But it certainly does call to some knowledge deep within me.
“Now that,” she growls when she is finished, “is scary.”
Marus suddenly opens his mouth, and he roars just like the lion he is. It’s loud enough that it completely blasts through the store. Dust even hails down from the ceiling.
The sales assistant jerks back. I can hear as she falls against a stack of magazines. “What the hell? You’re magical?”
“Yes,” Marus says. “And you are a sprite.”
I can hear her scramble to her feet. Hell, I can practically hear as she forces her lips open, “Yes, I’m a sprite. And what are you? A small magical cat with a mighty voice?”
“No. I’m a lion with a currently conveniently small form.”
I’d give anything to see the sprite’s face. I can imagine it. Her cheeks would be twitching right now, and fear would be pulsing through her eyes.
But she does not run, and she certainly doesn’t back down. “I don’t give a shit what you are. You shouldn’t mess with me and my kind.” She charges with magic again. The scent of it is insane. I get that my senses are changing, but it’s all-encompassing. There’s also this feeling that comes along with it. I wonder if it’s what Marus spoke about earlier – the between realms. It just… it’s like my mind is expanding or something.
That charge of magic sinks into the counter.
But Marus has already bounded away.
He jumps down behind the counter, and for a single flashing second looks at me. He shakes his head. I’m assuming that means that he does not want me to get involved, but it is murder sitting here and waiting. Only this morning before I came across my powers, I would’ve sat here gladly. But now I can’t deny what is inside me. My power wants to come to Marus’s aid. No, it needs to. It’s vibrating over my flesh more and more. It’s murder keeping it controlled.
Marus doesn’t stay behind the counter. He jumps up on top of it. Then he runs to the side.
The sprite is still sending off multiple attacks. They’re smashing into the stock. One of the things I still had going for me and my ordinary life was the fact that I still have a job. By the end of tonight, I won’t.
Hell, by the end of tonight, I imagine this place will have completely burned down.
Magic smashes into the counter just beside me. I watch as it starts to lick against the wood. I know that it’s seconds from engulfing it.
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I shove a hand forward. I concentrate. I don’t even have to grab hold of the flames. I just have to focus on them. And they just… start to disappear.
The sprite doesn’t notice. She’s clearly far too involved in capturing Marus. I hear her growl again. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a magical lion. You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”
“A glorified sales assistant,” Marus snarls. I hear him bound up onto a set of shelves.
“I don’t know where you’re from, but you obviously know nothing about this town. We creatures run the joint.”
“Is that why you are acquiring god heart crystals? I thought you sprites hated the gods?”
She lets out a frustrated scream. It shakes through the shop. It even pushes up into my knees. I have to grit my teeth and hold on. I know I can’t afford to make a single sound. I don’t know what this sprite’s senses are, but if they’re anything like mine, even breathing too hard will alert her to where I am.
“You found my crystal? Where the hell is it?”
“Already dealt with.”
“And who the hell are you to deal with a god’s heart crystal? You’ve got ideas above your station, changeling. Do you have any idea who I was acquiring that for?”
The sprite is still shooting off magic in every direction, but Marus is more than capable of dodging it. The shop, however, is not. It is still seconds from bursting into flames. I’m doing what I can from behind the counter to ensure that it doesn’t go up like a firecracker.
“The Dark One,” she growls. There’s a lot of satisfaction in her voice. I’m no psychologist, but I can read her tone. That’s the voice of someone who thinks there is nothing that can happen to them. They believe that they’ve picked the right side. No matter what obstacles get in their way, they will be destroyed.
She lets off several more blasts of magic. One slams into the counter again. I have to flatten a hand onto the wood to protect it.
That’s a mistake.
I can practically hear as she jerks her head toward the counter. “Why the hell is that thing still there?”
Marus roars again. He bounds down to the floor. He grows into his true form. I can hear his muscles.
The sprite jerks back. “Jesus. You weren’t lying. You really are a lion. You’d make a pretty pet for the Dark One. He’d give me anything if I bring you in. Now, where is that cage?”
She suddenly clicks her fingers. I can feel her magic vibrating through the room. It jerks up into the ceiling. From nowhere, a cage appears. I can see it just out of the corner of my eye as it sails down.
It traps Marus. I hear it as he lets out a roar. Then he smashes his body against the cage. Magic discharges through the room. But by the sound of it, he can’t break through.
The sprite just laughs. “I have been operating this store for years. Do you really think I didn’t take the time to protect the place? I deal in a lot of forbidden magical objects. People always come after me. Now,” I can hear as she rolls her tongue through her mouth, “how much magic do you think I have to sink into you before you are knocked out?”
I can’t take it anymore. There is no way that I am going to let Marus go down.
I shove up. “More magic than you have,” I growl.
I’m ready this time. I don’t have to think about my magic. It’s already activated. As I slice my gaze to the side and see Marus behind bars, my heart vibrates with the need to protect him.
I haven’t caught sight of the sprite yet. She just looks like an ordinary human – apart from her ears. They are pointy. And as I catch sight of her gaze, I realize her eyes are somewhat luminescent. She locks them on me, and she laughs. “What have we got here? A glorified witch? Is that pet yours?” She slices her thumb toward Marus. “Don’t worry. The Dark One accepts slaves too.” She goes to click her fingers. I can tell that she has more cages in this room. I don’t bother to dodge. Instead, I draw up an arm and let my Phoenix flames blast out. It’s just in time as the cage comes slicing down toward my head. It impacts my flames but does not push over me.
“What the hell?” she splutters.
Gritting my teeth, I force the flames harder against the cage. I’ve never dug so deep. But I’ve never had the reason to try so hard. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that Marus is continuing to slam his body against his cage, but there’s nothing he can do to break out. The energy pulsing from the bars into his form is too strong. I can smell his fur singeing from here.
With a roar that rips from my throat, I finally smash through the cage. It disintegrates all around me, chunks of burning metal blasting out in every direction.
The sprite jerks back. Her eyes widen, and I see more of that luminescent light within. “Who the hell are you? Do you have any idea who you’re taking on? I’m one of the Dark One’s favorite acquirers. You’re gonna go to hell.”
I leap over the counter. It’s not a move I have ever tried out before. Most of the time, I’m relatively uncoordinated, but I forget to remind myself of that fact now. And I pull off the move easily. All of my muscles just work together. I land right between her and Marus’s cage. I spread a hand her way. I let more magic light spark across it.
She twitches her nose and stares at it. “What kind of fire is that? Then again, who cares?” she snarls and throws herself at me. Magic laces her fist.
I don’t react immediately. Something tells me to watch the move first. And that something is right, because just before she lands the punch, her body jerks a full 30 centimeters to the side. It’s only then that I react. I let fire blast up over my arm, and I block her punch. She thrusts back.
All the while, Marus continues to throw himself against his cage. The bars are rattling.
Why can’t he break himself out? He can access my Phoenix fire, right? And while it was a little hard, all it took was several blasts of fire to destroy the cage that had been threatening to capture me.
I don’t have the time to turn around and stare at him. I have to keep my eyes on the sprite.
She jerks back. She snarls. There’s this wild look in her eyes, but she still looks as if she’s destined to win. There isn’t even a scrap of doubt anywhere in her. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with, do you, witch? I admit that you’re powerful, but no one can beat the Dark One.”
“Who the hell is the Dark One?” I manage to snap before she pushes in to punch me once more. Again, I control myself, and I don’t react to the move until, right at the last moment, she suddenly lurches to the side. It’s then that I allow magic to pulse up over me and follow her attack.
Once more, she’s thrust to the side.
This time she impacts a bookcase. Old boxes hail down around her. Snarling, she shoves up. For the first time, there’s a wary look glinting in her gaze. “Who the hell do you work for? You’ve got a lot of magic, witch. Who is it? Thor? Did he bring you with him? Are you one of his little foot soldiers?”
That’s the wrong word. That word right there can undermine me on every level. It can take me and rip off my wings while I’m in midflight, and importantly, in mid-fight. Which is exactly what it does now.
“My lady,” Marus roars, but it’s too late.
The sprite thrusts forward. I don’t dodge in time, and one of her magic-laced punches smashes into the side of my face. I can practically hear something break. I’m thrust back against the cage. The magic pulsing out of it and into Marus affects me, too. It shudders into my back, pulses down into my hips, and rips across my jaw. I find myself jolting as if I’m being electrocuted.
The sprite laughs, jerks back, and locks her arms around her middle. She looks at me from underneath her eyebrows. Then a smile splits her lips. She thrusts forward again. She locks her foot against my chest, and she pins me against the bars.
My whole body shakes now.
“My lady,” Marus roars.
I’m starting to black out. I’m only vaguely aware of what’s happening. I….
“Fight,” Marus roars. “Fight while you still have the chance.”
Still… have the chance.
That promise does something to me. But more than anything, I remember her words. She mentioned Thor – mentioned him like he was in the city.
And if he’s in the city….
His name might’ve been able to undermine me, but it can also give me strength.
I don’t want to lose to anyone, but the thought of Thor out there hunting me down lights up my desperation.
The sprite is still kicking me against the electrified metal. My whole body is shaking, but I manage to thrust a hand forward. I lock it around her ankle and draw her closer.
“Fat chance. You don’t have the magic—”
“No, but I have the fire.” With my other hand, I round it into a fist and punch her in the face.
She’s thrown back. It is categorically the strongest move I have ever managed. She smashes into the counter. It actually breaks under her weight.
I can see her eyes pulse wide as she shakes to her knees, but I’m not about to waste this advantage to go after her again. I turn around. I don’t lock my hands on the bars, but I do take a step back. I let Phoenix flames build around me. Then I thrust my hand forward. Energy blasts over it. Fortunately, a Phoenix doesn’t rise off, alerting her to who I am exactly. But fire does escape everywhere. The brunt of it smashes into the bars.
Marus stands as far back from the edge of the cage as he can, protecting his face with his paws.
With one more scream, I let out just that little bit more magic, and the bars crack.
The sprite’s already on her feet, though. She reaches me and wraps an arm around my throat. She goes to throw me to the side, but Marus is back, and he’s angry. He shoves into her. I’m knocked out of her grip. I roll and get to my feet just as Marus pins her on the ground.
She is charged with magic, but he is absolutely burning with flames now.
Her eyes open wide, and in a snap, I can see that she realizes she’s not going to win this.
“No. No one’s stronger than the Dark One. No one—”
“Just who the hell is the Dark One, anyway?” I growl. Marus has got this, but I still open a hand, and I let fire build in my palm. I let it hover several centimeters above her face as I get down to my knees. My scrappy hair fans over my shoulder, and it doesn’t stay still. It’s caught in the eddies of my flames. It licks up around my face. My torn clothes do the same. They move against my hips and legs. I’m completely encased in force. And this… this is only the beginning of my power. That fact is at the back of my head, but I shove it away for now.
“No one can face the Dark One. No one. If you take me down, he’s just gonna come hunting for you.”
“Who the hell is he?” I snarl.
Her face twitches. “Everybody knows who he is. Any magician in this town understands that he rules the place. It doesn’t matter what Thor’s got planned,” she snarls. “He will win. He always does.”
“Who is he?” I now bellow at the top of my lungs. I’ve never been one for screaming. I’ve always been the kind of girl to try to please others. Now I don’t care what I sound like, and I don’t care what comes out of my lips. I will do anything to find out the truth.
Her face twitches. “Where the hell do you come from?”
“Just answer the question,” Marus growls.
She snarls. “He’s a god, just like Thor. But unlike Thor, he’s got real power. He knows how to burn things. Unlike you.” She ticks her eyes up and down, staring at me as if I’m a disgrace to her.
I don’t react. Until I do. My cheeks twitch. “What do you mean he knows how to burn?”
“He’s got real hellfire. He holds it in his damn hands. And when he finds out what you’ve done to me,” she growls, arching her back as she pushes toward my flaming hand, “you’re going to die in holy hellfire. Eternal flames will lick you into ash.”
I don’t want to make any obvious movements, but I still dart my gaze over to Marus. He shoots me the kind of expression that tells me not to say a thing. So I keep my hand open above her head.
I might be making this up, but she is getting bolshie. And there’s no reason for her to do that. Unless she has some new tricks up her sleeve.
“That would be impossible,” Marus says.
I do not tune in to the conversation. I might not have very impressive goddess senses yet, but what I do have, I lock on the sprite. My gaze soon travels down to her pocket. It’s bulging. There’s also a slight vibration. She stole something from a secret recess in the bookshelf and shoved it in there. I go to reach a hand toward it, but that just activates her. Bolting forward, I try to stop her, but it’s too late. A charge of magic races over her pocket. I shove into Marus’s side, instead, and knock him away. It’s just in time as a massive bolt of magic smashes out. It pounds into the wall, half disintegrating it. I know Marus is strong and all, but if he was in the way of that, he’d be dead.
He growls just as the sprite gets to her feet. “I’m going to tell the Dark One all about you two. You’re going down.” She turns around. I can tell she’s fast. As my gaze darts over her body, I can practically feel all the embodied energy within her. If she gets out onto the street, I won’t be able to run her down. So this is now or never.
If she… she gets out and spreads information about what happened here, it could reach Thor’s ears. She might not recognize my power, but he will.
These thoughts pound through me, faster than the rain drilling against the roof. I snap a hand out. I don’t even have to concentrate. I let my fire do what it has to. It blasts out of my palm just as she reaches the front door. She doesn’t get a chance to wrench it open. My magic smashes into her back. It lifts her up off her feet, just as it did with both that amalgamation and the bull in my living room.
She screams, but her scream is soon cut out. My magic surrounds her ferociously.
“Control it, my lady,” Marus warns, his voice vibrating with just a note of fear.
I honestly thought attacking was going to be the hardest thing, but as I stand there, my hand open, my brow slicking with sweat, and my arm shaking, I realize that controlling a spell after I’ve already released it is murder. My mind… it feels like it’s a spring – one that has been stretched to the point of snapping.
“You can do this,” he growls again. He walks over to the sprite.
Her eyes are now completely wild with fright. She tries to lock them on me, but she has to do it periodically, as she is spinning in my magic.
She can’t move her arms to bat my Phoenix flames off. But I can see in her eyes that she will do anything to get rid of them. She spins around to me once more, and I see her terrified gaze. It makes my stomach kick. It forces me to question, yet again, just what I am and what I will become. But I do not lose hold of the magic. “Who the hell is the Dark One?” I growl. “Where is he? And what does he want with me?”
“He doesn’t even know who you are. Trust me,” her voice reaches down low, but it’s not with anger, just the deepest fear I’ve ever heard, “if he knew someone of your power was out there, he would’ve made a move for you already. He has no clue. Just who are you and where have you been hiding? You’re one of Thor’s, aren’t you?”
I tell myself not to react again, but it’s so hard. My arm continues to shake as I hold it out, my hand spreading as wide as it can. Every single moment, I have to reach back into my power. If I don’t, I won’t just lose control of the spell, but I’ll lose control of my mind, too. Just the mere word Thor is like a ledge. And every time it’s mentioned, it’s like I’m pushed backward over it.
Fortunately Marus doesn’t have to growl once more for me to control myself. My Phoenix flames do not slip, and they do not consume the sprite.
“Whoever you are,” the sprite starts to get over her surprise, though it’s still reflected in her large blue eyes, “the Dark One will consume you.”
“Good luck with that,” I growl. “Now, answer my questions. Where is he?”
“You don’t find him. He finds you. And trust me,” she says again as she stares at me in unbridled awe, “he will come to find you after tonight.”
“He will not know what happened here after tonight,” it’s Marus’s turn to speak, and his voice is about as deep as I have ever heard it.
The threat isn’t directed at me, but my heart still trembles in my chest. I also dart my gaze over to him quickly. I understand that I must be aggressive in protecting myself. The whole frigging sky is on the line – so of course I have to do everything I can to ensure I don’t fall into Thor’s hands. But, as I already pointed out, this woman, though not a human, is still certainly not an ordinary monster. I don’t think I have it within me to let my magic consume her completely.
Marus glances my way, and he shakes his head. It’s reassuring. “We will not consume her. But I have the ability to remove certain memories, if I’m left alone with someone for long enough.”
The sprite starts to jerk around. She can’t do much. My Phoenix fire completely encases her. It only allows her to twitch back and forth. But her eyes do the rest. They look like they want to spring out of her skull at that suggestion. “As if you have Mesmer mind-control magic,” she snarls, but there’s real fear in her voice. “You’re just a changeling. Nothing more. You might have a powerful witch master, but that doesn’t matter. The Dark One—”
Marus takes a menacing step forward, his whole body making the already cracked floor shake. “The Dark One is not here. And he will never learn of your escapades. Now,” Marus doesn’t add anything. He stops right in front of the floating sprite. He tilts his head down. I can’t see most of his eyes, but I catch a glimpse of the side of them, and they become… like two pure pools of attention. I’ve never seen anything like it. It locks me to the spot. I almost drop my hand.
“Glance away, my lady. Do not stare into my eyes directly while I’m doing this.”
“Okay,” I stammer. I glance to the side. It’s pretty hard not to look at him once. I want to understand this process. Something’s certainly happening. The sprite goes from fidgeting around to just stopping as if someone has wrapped her face in chains. I stare at her gaze. I think I can see the yellow magic reflected in her pupils.
Her eyes start to close. The next thing I know, she flops.
Marus doesn’t say anything. He just stares at her for a few more seconds. Then he slackens off and turns to me. I see just a glimmer of yellow magic playing in his irises. “What the heck was that? You can make people forget anything?”
“No. I can, however, make them forget some recent memories. And I can only do that to lesser practitioners like this sprite. It will buy us some time. For now. News of this Dark One, whoever he may be, is worrying indeed. Now, you can place the sprite down.”
I let my arm jolt at that promise. I take a jerked step back. I let my hand close. I do not put her down gently, suffice to say. She bangs with a bone-crunching thump. I wince on her behalf. Then I take an uneasy step toward her. I don’t need to have to use my gut senses to figure out if she’s down – Marus does that for me. Leaning forward, he takes a massive sniff, his huge nostrils rattling. He soon nods. “She will be no more trouble.”
“What are we gonna do with her, though?” I turn softly on the spot and stare at the store, the whole time my back arching with fear. “And what the hell are we going to do with this store? It’s only going to be convenient to stay here if I work here. If Manfred sells the place now, it might be knocked down. Then we’ll have no way of accessing that stained-glass window.”
“Magic, my lady, and hard work,” he growls, “can do wonderful things.”
I stare at him, then stare pointedly at the damage. I gesture toward it with a stiff hand. “There are holes in the walls. The stock has been damaged—”
“We can re-create it.”
I just shake my head at him. I don’t understand magic enough to tell him that’s not going to happen. I just tag along. He takes the sprite away. I don’t ask what he’s doing. He drags her out the back door. I can only assume that he’s going to dump her in a laneway somewhere. Hopefully when she wakes, she won’t remember a thing. If she does—
I just stand there, waiting for Marus, and my thoughts go wild. I replay everything she said. “He’s… in the city, isn’t he?” I stammer. I can barely breathe, let alone push those words out. Too much fear is rushing through me at the prospect that Thor is somewhere nearby. To be honest, ever since I learned about him, this pressure in my heart has warned me that he’s close. Now that pressure comes to the fore. I clamp a hand on my chest and rub it back and forth wildly, but I can’t release the tension building within me.
I hear paws, and Marus comes back. He’s in his cat form, though.
I stare at him pointedly and over to all of the junk everywhere. The counter is a smoldering mess. And there is a huge hole in the wall to my side. “I think you’re going to be more useful as a lion. I can’t fix this store in a single night on my own.”
“Incorrect. I will be more useful now as a channeler of magic. Wait here. I found some useful things in that wizard’s house.”
I’m forced to wait there with my thoughts again. They’re even worse now. I find myself pushing onto my tiptoes and staring out of the top of the window. I’m looking for Thor. Not on the street – in the sky. I don’t honestly think he’s rushing back and forth in a cart or something. It’s just… the storm is from him, isn’t it? Every time one of those fat raindrops shudders against my skin, it’s him. Every time I hear far-off lightning, it’s him. Every time the wind takes me, whips my hair over my face, and chills me to my bones, it’s freaking him.
Marus makes it back down the stairs with something in his mouth. It looks like a potion. It’s fizzling. By the sound of it, it’s about to explode.
I take a pronounced step back. “Ah, what is that thing?”
He tries to speak around the potion in his mouth, but he’s a small cat, and he doesn’t exactly have room. He places it down roughly in the middle of the store. “It is a one-of-a-kind. It is a shame we have to use it so early on in the piece. But you are correct. This is a convenient place for us to be. More than that, we must repair the damage. While we have removed the sprite’s memories, if this store remains damaged, people will be able to figure out what happened, regardless. And though I have no idea who this Dark One is, he sounds resourceful.”
I hear what he says, but I still spend most of my time staring at the potion warily. It’s fizzing violently now. I chew on my top lip. “What happens next?”
“Take a step to the side.”
I do as I’m told.
“No, the other side. Just there.”
I stop. “Marus—”
Without further warning, he pounces on the potion and rips the cork out.
I go to move, but something in me thankfully locks me to the spot. That’s a very good thing, because the potion suddenly unwinds. It doesn’t explode out… it’s… so much weirder than that. The glass pulls itself back off the potion and turns into sand and heat. As for the potion itself, it starts to twist and twirl through the room. It grabs up old torn apart magazines and remakes them, stacking them exactly where they were before the fight began. It picks up the counter, remakes it, and even re-creates the patina of dust on top.
I stand there, absolutely gob-smacked. I wouldn’t have been able to move for the world.
Marus jumps up on the counter, ignoring the fact the spell is still working its magic. I stand exactly where I am. My paranoid mind tells me that if I take a single step to the side, I’ll be captured by the spell, and god knows what will happen to me then. Perhaps I will be remade into a baby.
As I stand there, watching the magic do its work, it really settles in that my life has changed forever. This is true power. What I’m seeing right now is completely unexplainable by any modern science. The gods exist. I’m one of them. And nothing, nothing will ever be the same again.
When everything is said and done, I head to bed. It takes a long time to sleep, and even then, it’s restless. I capture glimpses of the dream again. I think I see a face. For the first time, I actually remember it upon waking. My lips tremble open as I lock a hand over them. “Thor,” I hiss.
It was him all right. The same blazing eyes, the same flaxen colored hair. The same weapon at his side.
I shake. It takes a long time to drag myself out of bed, and I only manage to do it when I hear Marus roar from the kitchen. “Breakfast is ready.”
I rub my face and walk out.
Somewhere in the back of my head, I tell myself that a magical lion who can transform into a house cat has just cooked me breakfast. Yesterday, I didn’t even have breakfast….
I walk into the kitchen to see the table is laden with food. I’m taken aback by it. There’s everything from roasts to three-layer cakes, to overflowing bowls of strawberries, to cupcakes that have icing so complicated, it looks like a team of bakers have been working on them for days. “Ah, Marus, what the heck is all of this stuff?”
“Breakfast.” He’s sitting on the table, his flashing tail hanging off the edge.
I make a face at him. “This looks like it could feed an army. I’m only one person.”
“Correction. You are a goddess,” he says slowly as if I’ve forgotten all of that overnight. “Your metabolism will change. Though ambrosia is most definitely the best food source for you, there is nothing like it on Earth. So you must have calorific rich food instead. Now, stop talking.”
He takes his own advice as he grabs up a section of meat and starts chewing on it right on the table.
It’s kind of gross, but I don’t comment.
I just stare at the food and try to tell myself that I’m not that hungry. That’s when my stomach gives a wobble and growls as if I’ve got a lion trapped down there.
I flatten a hand on it defensively.
Marus just shoots me a pointed look then swivels his gaze to the food.
I start eating, and I surprise myself when I can’t stop. By the end, I’ve consumed pretty much everything on the table – with Marus’s help, of course.
I sit there, staring at my empty plate, my mouth agape.
Marus laughs. “This is who you are now, my lady. You must rise and work. I imagine today will be an interesting day in the antique store.”
“Why is that?”
“Who knows what might arrive? It’s by now very clear that the sprite who was previously running the place was also running an illegal business on the side. I cannot say that she exclusively dealt in god objects, but she will most definitely have dealt in magical ones. She may have ordered things that will become very useful to us.”
I shrug. I go back to my room and dress. I’m surprised when my chest of drawers has work-suitable clothes. I throw them on. I stare at myself in the mirror on the opposite side of the room. There’s a pronounced frown flattening my features. “Are you really going to do this, Celeste?” I ask quietly, my voice barely making it out of my lips. “Are you gonna drag yourself to work, despite what happened yesterday?”
I stare into my eyes, looking for any sign of doubt. It’s there, but something rises to the fore and crushes it quickly. I can’t tell you if it’s curiosity or just… I dunno, a hangover from the past. It turns me around and gets me to the main room that leads back into the top floor of the antique store.
I have to get outside and wait before Manfred comes. He hasn’t taught me how to disarm the alarm yet. And he also hasn’t given me keys.
I’m a little nervous as I run outside. I shouldn’t be. It’s still only 8:30 in the morning. Manfred won’t show for a bit.
I don’t know what I plan to do – just wait around in this laneway until Manfred finally shows? I start to hear something, though. It’s a commotion out on the street.
Frowning and shoving my hands into the pockets of my jacket, I walk out.
I shoot a cursory glance at the sky. It fortunately is not raining. Yet. I can see clouds marching over the horizon.
I used to think I was paranoid for believing that the sky had it in for me. Now I understand perfectly.
I don’t allow myself to look at it for very long. For in my paranoid head, Thor will see, and he’ll come down to fight me.
I drag one hand out of my pocket and stare at it. If he does come down to fight me, will I have a chance? Half closing my eyes, I think of that sprite. When she appeared, I certainly didn’t think I’d have a chance to defeat her, but as the fight progressed, so too did my magic. Just what was inside me?
I make it to the mouth way of the lane. I can’t see the source of the commotion, but glancing down, I see a chunk of paper being pushed along by the early morning breeze. Leaning over, I grab it up. I turn it around.
And right there on it is a picture of a god box.
I turn around, wondering if Marus has followed me, but he hasn’t. He’s likely gone back up to our wizard house.
I have to tell someone, though. I’m not wrong, am I? This god box looks almost exactly like mine.
I finally calm down enough to actually read the paper. It’s about the exhibition that those two girls mentioned on the bus yesterday.
“This is one of them. I know it is. I—”
“What are you doing muttering to yourself out on the street in front of my store?” Manfred says as he bustles up from behind me.
I straighten immediately. “Sorry. I—”
He leans past my shoulder and takes a glance at what I’m staring at. Then he claps his hands. “Incredible, isn’t it?”
“What?” It’s too late to hide the paper. Yesterday, he was convinced that boxes like this are junk, but upon seeing one in a world-important exhibition, he’s clearly changed his mind. I don’t know if the box that held my heart crystal is important, but I certainly don’t want to sell it, either.
“The exhibition. It hasn’t opened yet. It opens tonight. I’m going to be there, you know?” He doesn’t mention the box again. He flattens a hand on his chest. He looks like he’s just been invited somewhere by a king.
“Exhibition?” I can’t really follow the conversation yet. I’m still afraid that he’s gonna find my box and sell it.
“I was invited by Thor himself.”
There’s that word again. And once more, it has the same damn effect on me. I become all clammy and cold. I could’ve been as hot as a star seconds before, but at the mention of Thor, my body just freezes as if heat can’t dare touch it anymore.
“You look a little pale. Let’s go inside. This wind is nasty.”
He takes me around back. Fortunately, Marus is nowhere to be seen.
I’m still holding onto the piece of paper.
I stiffen as Manfred walks in. He freezes. I hope like hell that the magic potion has put the store back to where it was before, but I watch his shoulders tense even more. He turns to me quickly. “Did you clean up in here?”
I scratch my face. “I had a little clean-up yesterday I guess.”
He claps me on my shoulder. “That’s why you’re the best person for this job. I can tell you’re going to get this place spick-and-span. Unlike that other damn sales assistant,” he growls.
I want to find out more about the exhibition, but at the same time, I need to do an investigation on that sprite. “How did you employ her, anyway?”
“She came to me. Or at least my wife. She said that she had extensive experience with antiques. I should’ve been suspicious from the get-go.”
I nod. We make it to the counter.
He slaps his hand down on it. “You might get a few more deliveries today. Just odds and ends. Nothing important like yesterday.”
I nod. Then I remember that book. “How come you got an invitation to the exhibition opening tonight?”
“As a thank you for tracking down that book. I hand-delivered it to Thor, and let me tell you, the look in his eyes… it was like I was giving him the keys to the universe.”
I cannot move a muscle now. I keep trying to tell myself this is not my Thor, but my gut… god, it trembles. It’s like I’ve swallowed an earthquake.
He turns around. He frowns. “You don’t look so good. Don’t tell me you’re getting sick?”
I open my hands defensively. “I just haven’t had a chance to have any breakfast this morning,” I outright lie. “I need coffee.”
“There’s a break room that way,” he shoves his thumb in the direction of the back rooms. “There should be plenty of coffee. You’ve got time before we open up.”
I look at him. “We? Have you got someone else watching the bookstore?”
“Slip of the tongue. You know me. I like to feel present in all my businesses. If you need any help, just call.” With that, he claps me on the shoulder yet again. Then he walks past.
I have 100 more questions to ask about the sprite and the exhibition tonight, but I can’t force them out quickly enough. He soon leaves.
It doesn’t take long for Marus to appear. “I cannot say whether I like your boss or do not like him. He is a curious character.”
I ignore that comment. Trembling, I open the piece of paper and hand it over to him. “That’s a god box, isn’t it?”
Marus jumps up onto the counter and stares at the paper. His whiskers twitch. He looks up at me, his eyes narrowed. He nods once, the move tense.
I swipe a hand down my face. There’s already sweat picking up across my brow. “It’s him, isn’t it? I’ve kept trying to tell myself that the name Thor is irrelevant. It’s popular in Norway or something,” I say as I clamp a hand on my brow and turn my nails in, dragging them down my flesh. “It’s not the real Thor.”
“You have lost me.” Marus twitches his tail.
“This exhibition – the patron of it, his name is Thor Asdor.”
“Let’s not jump to any conclusions.”
I clutch my arms around my middle. My eyes pulse wide as if I’ve just been slapped. “Jump to any conclusions? I’m not jumping. I’m stumbling. That’s a god box,” I hiss. I point at the picture once more. Even if I had only seen two before, it doesn’t matter. I know what that object is. My heart sings to it.
“I believe you are right. But that does not mean that this Thor is our Thor. What does he look like, anyway?”
“I have no idea. I’m not really into celebrities.”
“I suggest you find out.”
I nod. I go to look him up on my phone, but that’s when I see somebody approaching the front door.
They’re tall, whoever they are, and I can’t really see their face as the closed sign is obscuring it.
“Go away, customer,” I groan.
Marus quickly jumps behind the counter. “Deal with them quickly.”
I’m in no mood to open the store early, but Manfred could still be around. And if he sees me ignoring a possible customer, I’ll be out on my ear.
Manfred left the keys on the counter. I grab them up and walk over. I’m not thinking straight as I open up. My head is in the clouds – literally. I even dart my gaze to the side and stare at the weather just as I swing the door open for them and get out of the way.
Thor’s coming to kill me. He’s—
Everything comes crashing down. Every thought, every belief – all of it. I stiffen as if someone has just killed me and stuffed me. Because he’s right there. Thor, god of the sky, lord of lightning, and the one man who will do anything to kill me. He’s just walked into my store before nine in the morning. It’s all over before it’s even begun.
I can’t move. Even if someone straps me to a rocket, I still won’t be able to move. My heart, my lungs – nothing’s working.
Fortunately Thor doesn’t look at me at first. His hands are in his pockets as he mutters a thank you. His gaze locks on the store instead. His eyes narrow.
I might not be able to move, but my every sense is still locked on him. I swear I can track the exact path his gaze takes as it darts around the store. It’s very clear he’s looking for something. “Good morning,” he says. “I came in here to order something the other day. I was wondering if you could procure another object for me?”
I still don’t say anything. I just stare at him. I…. He’s gonna recognize me, any moment now. He is gonna turn around and lock his hands on my throat. I—
“It’s rude to stare,” someone growls from behind him.
I manage to wrench my gaze off Thor for a few seconds to see a tall, stunning lady walk up behind him. She has golden hair. It’s not blond – it actually looks like spun gold. It’s practically luminescent. Any human would be able to tell that it’s not normal, which means she’s not normal, either.
She has to be a god. Which means there are two of them. Even if I had a glimmer of a chance against Thor on his own, I’m dead now.
“Yes, he’s a celebrity,” she says with a slight growl, “but we have come here to offer your store patronage, so the least you can do is close your gaping mouth.”
“Serena,” Thor says, a warning in his voice. He finally turns around and stares at me.
I just… stand there. I can’t control my expression. I’m not even aware of it. All I know is that I am here, and he is there. Our distance is the only thing that matters.
He tries for a smile, but it’s as if he’s not really paying attention to me. He turns around and stares at the store again. “Serena, make the order while I explore.”
With that, he just walks away.
Thor, the king of the freaking sky, walks away, even though I, his number one nemesis, am standing right in front of him.
I… slowly but surely, I start to let myself appreciate that he hasn’t recognized me. I was watching him so intently that I would’ve seen even the tiniest shift in his expression. There was nothing.
Serena locks her gaze on me. It’s very clear that she does not approve of what she sees. When Thor is out of earshot – if a god can ever truly be out of earshot – she arches an eyebrow. “Please show some decorum.”
While Thor didn’t recognize me, maybe this goddess will. She’s certainly powerful. I’m aware of that. But once more, she seems too dismissive of me. She glances around the store. “We have an order to make. It will be a boon to your business. We may even let our other collectors know about you. If you can procure the item,” she says. There’s a real growl in her voice.
I usually don’t do well with bossy customers. I get defensive myself. Now I just stand there, all agape. She walks over to the counter. That’s when I remember that Marus is behind it. These two are gods. While I don’t know how powerful she is, Thor is freaking Thor. If he claps eyes on Marus, he’s going to recognize what he is. I rush forward.
I bump into a pile of magazines, and I tip to the side. I never get a chance to fall face-first into one of the shelves. Out of nowhere, Thor’s there, and he grabs my wrist, holding me in place.
I… everything happens inside me. These things that I’ve never known were possible. My nervous system ties into this experience. It becomes dedicated to relaying every single sensation, from the width of his hand, to the touch of his fingertips, to the hidden power within.
“Be careful,” he mutters. He doesn’t even look at me once. He turns around and continues to walk down the shelves.
“This place might be good at procuring objects, but you clearly aren’t very good at cleaning up,” Serena mutters to herself snidely.
It takes me a few seconds to unstick myself from where Thor touched me. My whole body is still tingling. My nerves are raging around, this dense storm in my gut. I manage to make it to the counter. That’s when I notice Marus is hidden. He’s jumped up into that recess I discovered last night. He is well out of sight.
Taking a sigh and realizing that he’s not going to be discovered – not that that means I won’t be discovered – I finally nod at Serena. “What is it that you want me to order for you?”
She makes this face. “I clearly said procure.”
If I weren’t so overwhelmed by what was happening, I’d point out that it’s pretty much the same thing. I just force my lips together. I tell myself that the less I talk, the harder it will be for them to figure out who I am.
I really don’t want to think about this, but I start to question why they don’t know who I am right now. I’m wearing long sleeves, and I’ve started to get control of my magic. It would be visible, though, if they rolled up my sleeves. Shouldn’t Thor have felt it, too? I felt his power.
“Are you paying attention to me?” Serena says, her voice strict.
She is obviously very good at watching people, because I was not paying attention to her. My thoughts had turned 150 percent inward. I nod. “Sorry,” I blurt. “This is only my second day of working here.”
She rolls her eyes. “Well, you can just relay this message to your boss. We wish for her to procure this object.” She reaches a hand into her pocket and pulls something out. She flattens the paper on the counter.
I try absolutely every trick I know not to react. It’s another god box. This one is gilded, though. Whoever’s heart crystal it contains, it must be a very important god indeed.
I press my lips together and swallow. I finally manage to unstick them from around my teeth. “And who do you want us to get it from?”
She arches an eyebrow again. “We want you to find it, dear,” she says, emphasizing that word as if I’m especially stupid.
My nose scrunches. “From where?” I’m not used to dealing with this kind of request. Sure, in a bookstore, you have to find books for curious customers occasionally. But there’s just a database of distributors. You look it up, and bam, you order the book.
Is Serena telling me that she has no idea where this object is to begin with?
“You’re having trouble understanding. Perhaps you should go and get your boss,” Serena says testily as she crosses her arms. She’s wearing this fabulous white jacket. It looks more expensive than anything I have ever owned put together.
I find my gaze darting up to her wrists. I wonder if I’m going to see any glimpses of magic. I’ve never met another god before. But are they visible like me? If I rolled back her sleeves, would I see magic? Or does that only happen because I have Phoenix flames?
“Serena,” Thor says, his voice deep, “stop terrorizing the sales assistant.”
“My lord—” she begins, but she stops quickly. “Thor, I am only insisting that our request is understood.”
He picks his way out from behind a set of shelves. Despite the fact the clouds were gathering before, they’re not anymore. Several rays of sunshine make it in through the warped glass. They strike the side of his face and his chest. They light him up, making him look unlike anything I have ever seen.
Everything else in the store becomes dim in comparison to him. It is as if the sky has blessed him with its presence. And it has. Because he’s the goddamn king of the sky, I remind myself as my gut trembles with fear.
He walks up to me. He finally settles his gaze on me.
My fear is screaming at me to run. If he watches me, he’ll figure out who I am.
Rather than leap over the counter, grab his hammer from somewhere, and dispatch me, that smile just spreads further. He looks kind, if anything. Kind and distracted. I suddenly see his gaze tick up toward the stairs.
I know very well that he is a powerful practitioner. He might not have detected Marus or me, but what about that wizard den?
I straighten up and clear my throat. “I’ll hand this to my boss. Do you guys have a contact number she can call you on?”
I fumble over my words, but even if I don’t, I get the impression that Serena was always going to hate every single thing that comes out of my mouth.
She arches an eyebrow, looks specifically from me over to Thor, then mutters, “Nice try.” She grabs a card out of her pocket and places it down in front of me. “You will call this number.”
I don’t react.
I… I remember his face from my dream last night. I can’t exactly remember what happened. But there was some kind of chase, wasn’t there? Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it wasn’t. Perhaps it was a memory of what happened long ago.
I don’t know when I was a goddess. I don’t even really understand how time works between the realms, but I know this – the man in front of me remembers everything.
And he’s the same man who will do anything to kill me.
I only know half the story, but it doesn’t matter. I can see it in his eyes.
He is not looking at me with daggers in them yet, but the potential is there.
I go to open my lips, but at that exact moment, there’s a strike of nearby lightning, and it starts to rain. I freak out completely and scream, right in his face.
He just stares at me, a muddled frown on his lips. “You shouldn’t fear lightning.”
My gut twitches.
I think I’m gonna start shaking. I can’t take this anymore. This pressure is eating me up from the inside out. It’s at that exact moment that I feel Marus reach a paw out from that recess and place it on my leg.
He might be in his cat form, and it might be just a touch, but it does absolutely everything I need it to do. I press my lips together and breathe. “I’ve always had this irrational fear that I will get struck by lightning,” I volunteer, having no idea why those words have pulled themselves out of my lips.
He’s become distracted again, but at that, he looks at me. His eyebrows crumple together, and he stares at me from underneath them. “You won’t be. Now, I hope my associate here hasn’t put you off accepting our order. But if there’s any chance you can find that box, please do.”
“It’s less of a request.” Serena gets this real peeved look as she stares at me.
“Serena, that’s enough. You have no right to terrorize anyone.”
Serena looks shocked at the fact that Thor has pulled her up on her behavior.
I’m shocked, too. In my head, he’s this beast. He wants me dead, after all. All I can remember is his expression from my dream, too. It’s one of compressed-brow, thin-lipped anger.
This man right here is completely different. He flattens his lips into a smile and nods at me. “You said you only started working here recently.”
I nod. I hadn’t actually thought he was paying any attention to me.
“I’ve already invited your boss to my exhibition opening tonight. Perhaps you would like to come too?”
“That’s unnecessary, Thor,” Serena mumbles. “You’ve already invited too many waifs and strays,” she mutters in a voice that is clearly designed not to be picked up.
I hear it anyway.
I don’t react. I’m just stiff all over as Thor reaches a hand into his pocket. He pulls out a card. That’s when I realize it’s actually an invitation. It has gold leaf lettering and all.
He reaches over, and it’s clear he wants me to take it off him, but I just can’t do it. I don’t want to touch him again. My nervous system will freak out once more. I don’t want to find out all the details that it will pick up this time. Him touching me just destroys my brain. It’s like overloading a computer with too much information.
When he realizes I’m not going to take it and I probably look like a scared deer in the headlights, he places it down politely. Then he nods once. His eyes dart up to the second floor. “Do you mind if I have a look around?”
I just want him to leave, so I go to nod, but that’s when Marus pushes his claws out. His paw is still on my leg. He doesn’t scratch me or anything, but the warning is apparent.
I suddenly remember that my god box is still up there. Manfred might not have recognized it – but Thor will recognize it immediately. Worse than that, he’ll buy it.
I quickly shake my head. “Sorry, it’s off-limits at the moment. Something… broke. It’s a health hazard,” I muddle together an excuse quickly.
“I see. I shall have a look next time, then.” He turns, but not before flashing me a smile.
I just stand there. I don’t smile back.
Serena arches an eyebrow at me again, mutters another unkind comment, and then leads Thor out of the store.
As soon as they’re gone and down the street, I just crumple. I hit the floor. I start to wheeze.
Marus jumps down.
Without looking at me, he rushes over to the door, angles his head up, and stares through it. It’s clear he’s checking to see that they won’t come back. When they don’t, he pushes over to me, bounces over the counter in a single leap, and lands beside me. “I suggest you breathe, my lady.”
“I’m trying to,” I say, my voice shaking badly. I grab my collar. I sink my fingers in. If I’m trying to drag the tension from my body, then I am failing. With every second, it just gets worse and worse. It reminds me that that could’ve been the last moment of my life. Had Thor recognized me, the game would have been up.
But… he didn’t.
It takes a few seconds, but I finally stop clutching my collar. I drop my hands. I open them and stare at my palms. “Why… didn’t he feel my Phoenix fire? I’ve learned to control it better, but it’s still there.” To prove that, I yank up my sleeve. I show Marus, not that he needs to see it.
“There’s only one explanation,” Marus says, his voice somehow sounding distant.
I look at him. “What?”
“He doesn’t have his heart crystal yet. Thor doesn’t have any power.”
I… that is too much to take in.
I might’ve only just learned about Thor, but the memory is too strong. The fear I have experienced over the past day cannot be wiped away so easily, but as Marus twitches his whiskers again and gets that look once more, I go to shake my head but stop. “You can’t be serious, right?”
“I am very serious indeed. Any god who comes to Midgard must obtain their heart crystal for their powers to be awoken. He sounds as if he has been unable to find his heart crystal. And I venture that that box,” he jumps up onto the counter, grabs the piece of paper in his mouth, then leaps down to me once more, “contains what he’s after.”
I shake my head. I do it until I can’t anymore. I do it until, not only does my neck protest, but my body realizes there’s no point. I clutch up the paper again. I almost tear it to shreds – my hands are that stiff. “Does that make any sense? That was the most powerful god there is. Surely he would have been born with his heart crystal.”
“That is not how it works in Midgard. If a god decides to travel down to Midgard for any length of time and be reborn with an ostensibly human form, they must find their heart crystal.”
“But he’s Thor,” I say again, tears trailing down my cheeks as my voice becomes choked and seizes in my throat. “There’s no one like him. He is a power unto himself,” I mutter again, that memory coming from somewhere. “Surely he would have a magnetic attraction with his heart crystal, just as I had with mine?”
“Were you attracted to yours?” Marus suddenly questions.
I go to say that I was, but that’s when I remind myself that actually, I would never have found it had it not been for the way the light had struck it that morning.
I don’t point that out. I finally push up.
There’s a possibility that more customer’s will come. There is also a possibility that Thor will come back. I stand at the counter, pressed against it because I can’t balance on my own. I stare at the shop windows nervously.
“This presents us with an opportunity,” Marus reveals, his voice shifting down low.
“What do you mean?”
“He still has no power—”
I turn to him, my eyes wild. “You think now is a good time to kill him?”
“My lady,” Marus says, and it’s the first time I’ve heard him growl at me like that. “You misunderstand what you must do.”
I wasn’t expecting that I would be remonstrated like this. I stiffen, and my cheeks become cold. “I—”
“You cannot kill Thor. That is what the forces aligning against him want. He must hold up the sky. That is his position. And more than that, though his heart has soured toward you, he is the only god who can unite the rest.”
I become so conflicted as I hear Marus say that. He’s angry at me for suggesting we kill Thor? I don’t honestly know if I can go through with it, but that’s not the point. Thor wants to kill me with his entire heart, and I can’t even contemplate revenge?
I don’t like the way Marus is looking at me. It’s a real kick in the guts. I move away from him quickly. I don’t know what I intend to do. I’m certainly in no mood to go and get myself a coffee, but I still stagger into the break room.
Marus is right behind me, not willing to let this go. “Whatever you do, while you must stay away from Thor, we also cannot let the forces aligning against him win—”
“But I can’t do anything to protect myself?” I say bitterly. I don’t know why I’m saying this. Like I said, I’m not even sure if I could begin to even imagine killing Thor. Heck, I couldn’t bring myself to kill that sprite. But none of that is the point. I just… Marus is meant to be on my side completely, isn’t he?
I go to turn on the kettle, but he jumps up and puts a paw on my hand.
I yank back, peeved by the move.
“My lady, this attitude is unbecoming.”
I laugh. It’s all shaky and broken. “Then you better find another lady. Because I wasn’t a lady to begin with.” I march over to the mugs, grab one out, and angrily scoop way too much coffee into it.
I can feel Marus’s eyes on me the entire time. They’re practically drilling into the back of my neck.
I slice my irritated gaze over to him. “I don’t get it. All you want me to do is stay away from Thor. Now I have to protect him, too? Isn’t that a little too much to ask?”
“He is ultimately your Lord.”
I splutter at that. “He tried to kill me.”
“He was not in his right mind.”
“And that makes it okay, does it?” I turn around, and I roar that. The emotion just bleeds out of me. I can’t tell you where it comes from, but I can tell you that it’s completely unstoppable. As it shakes out of my throat, I feel it curling around my gut. It rounds my hands into fists – the kind that can be used to punch through anything.
But more than that? The floor shakes. I don’t make it happen – it happens anyway.
Marus tilts his head back. He narrows his eyes at me. For several long seconds, he doesn’t say anything. It takes for a glass of water on the bench to stop trembling until he parts his lips. “My lady? Do you remember?”
I jerk back. I place a hand on my head. That… anger wasn’t entirely mine, was it? It just rose up from somewhere inside me – somewhere I couldn’t hope to stop.
Placing a hand on my chest, I breathe hard. Then I shake my head. “I don’t… I don’t remember,” I stammer quickly. Turning, I concentrate on making my coffee.
I’m keeping an ear out. Fortunately there is a bell above the front door. If anyone comes in, I’ll hear it.
“I understand this might be hard for you to accept, but ultimately, Thor is your Lord, and in some ways, you must serve him. But you must stay away from him.”
“That’s a pretty hard ask. How can you serve someone who wants to kill you?”
“By understanding that if you do not protect them, something far, far worse will happen.”
I don’t like the way that he emphasizes that. It makes me even stiffer. I am certain that if someone so much as touches me lightly, I’ll crack and crumble under the strain of my own anger.
Once I’m done making the coffee, I don’t even really want it. I get the urge to pour it down the sink, but I don’t want to look mad. I sip at it. It’s excessively bitter. That’s kind of appropriate, considering the rest of me.
I don’t want to face Marus, but I turn around. I press the hot mug against my lips. It should burn me, but it doesn’t.
“If the sky falls, then many, many lands will fall with it. Including Midgard,” he adds.
I jolt. “What?”
“Midgard is dependent on Thor’s power. And if he falls, so too will this land.” He spreads a hand to the side.
I know he sure as heck doesn’t mean this city. Nor does he mean the country. He means all of planet Earth.
That’s… way too much pressure on one girl’s shoulders. I feel myself starting to tremble. The coffee is still against my lips, and it starts to splash down my chin. I don’t even move to wipe it off.
Marus is still staring at me with those wide-open eyes that won’t be able to miss a single detail of my fear. “I understand this is hard for you. But you must still do your best to protect Thor, even from afar.”
I close my eyes. I don’t want to fight with him anymore. I just want this to all go away.
But go away it won’t.
I hear the doorbell tinkling.
Really? Right now? I don’t want to pull myself together. I want to hold on to this anger, this damn injustice. Thor tried to kill me, but I can’t get revenge? Why is he so special? Yeah, he’s the damn king of the sky and all, but that’s not the point.
I actually hold it together long enough to place the coffee down, wipe the dregs off my lips, and walk back into the main room.
There’s a guy standing there in a white suit. He’s probably in his sixties. He’s got a jaunty hat on. He looks eccentric. He also looks rich. My gaze darts down to the bona fide gold and platinum Rolex on his wrist.
I hope he’s a normal customer. I’ve had enough of dealing with gods for this morning.
As he sees me, he nods and smiles graciously. “I believe you are the new sales assistant here, is that correct?” He shoves a hand out to me.
I grab it and shake it. “My name’s Celeste.”
“Ah, Celeste. A truly beautiful name. I hope you live up to its reputation.”
I’ve dealt with eccentric customers before. When they go off on tangents, the best thing to do is smile and nod.
“My name is Mr. Hampton,” he begins—
I freeze. Dammit.
Fortunately Marus has stayed in the break room. But unfortunately that means he’s not here to show me what to do.
I just smile, extricate myself from his grip, and head over to the counter. “How can I help you, Mr. Hampton?”
“The previous sales assistant here, she made a special order for me.”
“Yes. I’m here to pick it up.”
“Can I have details of the order?”
“It’s a box. It—” he glances at the counter.
That piece of paper showing what Marus believes is Thor’s god box is still sitting there. The guy has a visceral reaction no one would be able to hide. His whole body stiffens. Then I can see something in his eyes. It’s just a glimpse – and it certainly doesn’t last, but it doesn’t need to for my entire body to lock onto it. It’s a faint glimmer of power. It runs around his irises then disappears with a flicker.
He’s definitely magical. I can’t tell if he’s a god yet. But does that matter?
He pulls himself together quickly. “This item here,” he says, feigning a casual attitude as he plucks up the picture and tries to stop his hand from trembling, “do you have it in stock?”
I watch him the whole time. I shake my head. “No. Some customer came in wondering if we could procure it.”
I watch his cheeks twitch. “Do you think you will be able to procure it?”
I shrug. “I don’t do that. My boss does.”
He shoves a hand into his pocket and pulls out a card. He places it on the counter. And that’s when he sees the invitation to the exhibition. His gaze also darts over to Serena’s card. I can see as his tongue trails across his teeth. More than that? I swear I hear this disgusting sound. It’s almost like a toad croaking. I have no clue where it comes from, but it makes my entire body stiffen.
“I would be interested in procuring this item, too. If your boss manages to do it, I will pay quadruple whatever the other customer’s willing to pay.”
I take his card. I can feel just a few faint charges of magic, so I put it down quickly.
Serena didn’t even say what she was willing to pay. I guess that’s what happens when you are an arrogant god.
“I’ll let my boss know. Now, what about your order?”
“I—” Mr. Hampton begins. But then he darts his gaze over to the front doors.
I see the sprite from last night. She’s standing there, her back to the glass, her hand in her pocket.
No doubt she came here yesterday to acquire the box, but she failed. So what? She’s here again for round two?
I become rigid.
If she attacks, I’m gonna have to defend myself. I don’t know what’s gonna happen to the store. I want to tell myself that she’s not gonna be crazy enough to do this during the day, but I saw in her eyes last night she doesn’t think she can lose. Worse? She’s not gonna remember the fight, so she’s not going to remember that she got roundly defeated yesterday. There’s gonna be no reason for her to back down.
She continues to stand there with her back to the door for several seconds, then whirls around and walks in. She was on her phone, and she dumps it into her pocket. “Mr. Hampton,” she says warmly.
His cheeks twitch oddly. Then he ducks his head down in a nod.
I just stare at her. I hope I don’t give anything away.
She lets her gaze flick up and down me. There isn’t even a hint of recognition in her eyes. “How do you like your new job? This place will certainly grow on you.”
“Never mind. I used to work here. I was handling Mr. Hampton’s order personally. Can you let me behind the counter?”
Nope. I go to say that, but that’s when something drops in the break room. It has to be Marus. I doubt he would’ve done it accidentally. So he’s trying to get my attention.
“Shouldn’t you go check on that?” she asks, a slight smile pressing across her lips.
I know I’m being had, but I still turn around.
I don’t even make it to the break room before I hear her jumping over the counter.
I tell myself that there’s nothing suspicious there. Sure, I found her box and everything, but I haven’t left anything that would lead her directly to me. I rush into the break room to see that Marus is a lion.
“What is it?” I hiss as I close the door.
“I found this,” he mutters. He uncoils his tail and pushes something toward me.
“It’s another damn god box.” My heart goes to beat wildly, but then I stop. I shake my head. Something’s not right. “What is that thing?”
He chuckles, but fortunately it isn’t a growl, and it doesn’t carry. “I am very proud of your growing skills, my lady. You are correct. This is not a true god box. It is a replica. I found it in the storeroom. And it can get you out of this mess. Take it to Mr. Hampton and tell him that this was what was ordered. It will deflect his attention off you and on to the sales assistant. And then, if we are lucky and if we follow them, we may find out who this Dark One is and peer deeper into the secrets of this city.”
He’s just said a lot. I don’t know if I am in any condition to follow anyone today. I also don’t know if I want to. Thor completely rattled me.
But my hearing picks up, and I can discern that the sprite is about to get down on her hands and knees to find that box with the ring. I grab the god box off Marus, and I rush out. I open the door that leads to the storeroom, then close it pointedly.
I walk out just before the sprite can get down on her knees behind the counter.
“What are you doing?” I ask sharply.
She pushes up. “I just left a personal item—”
“I’m afraid I can’t let you search for it. If you have a personal item, you have to make an appointment with Manfred to get it back.”
She locks me in a glower. It’s the kind of stare that wants to debone me.
I just untuck the god box from underneath my arm. “I found this in the storeroom. It arrived yesterday. Is this your order, Mr. Hampton?”
His cheeks twitch. I watch his eyes lighten, and once more, I catch a flicker of flames dancing around the pupils. He isn’t polite anymore. He rushes over, and he grabs the god box from me. Then he opens it. He intends to just peer inside, but as soon as he cracks open the lid, he stiffens. “This is not my order.”
I shrug and scratch my ear. “This came in yesterday. That was your order, right?”
The sprite straightens. She frowns. “Yeah, his order was meant to come in yesterday, but—”
“This is what came in the package. Is there something wrong with it?”
He slices his gaze over to the sprite. I can see real anger picking up in his eyes. “Where is my order?”
“I know what I ordered,” the sprite snaps back. “That isn’t it.”
I put my hands up. “Is there some kind of problem here? I’ll just look in the order book and see—”
The sprite actually ducks a hand out and grabs my wrist. “I’m fine. I’ve got this.”
But this she does not have. For at that exact moment, Manfred comes bustling into the store. He comes in the front way. He sees the sprite grabbing my wrist, and I watch as his face practically explodes. “What’s going on here?” he snarls.
I can’t believe my lucky stars. Manfred is usually showing up when I want him least, but now he’s saving the day.
“Boss,” the sprite says, and I can tell there’s forced loyalty in her voice. “I was just—”
“I was never really your boss, was I? You always did exactly what you wanted,” Manfred says as he crosses his arms and does a good job of looking menacing. That’s saying something, because with his wild hair and glasses, he usually just looks like a mad scientist.
Now, no sane person would want to get in his way.
I can’t really tell you if the sprite is sane, but at least she parts her lips and spreads them against her teeth with a hiss. “I—”
Manfred slices his gaze over to Mr. Hampton. Usually, Manfred has an unchecked ability to be able to sense someone’s wealth. He’d be able to see Mr. Hampton’s very real Rolex. He’d also be able to recognize that his suit is designer and made from the finest wool. But all of this just washes over Manfred today. “I know what I’m witnessing here, Jenny,” he snarls.
I’m assuming Jenny is the sales assistant. After all this time, I still didn’t know what her name was. It doesn’t fit her. Then again, I really doubt she shared her real sprite name with him.
“Manfred,” Jenny begins, her hand spreading wider.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hampton just stands there. He slides his gaze over to Manfred. Maybe it’s the angle I’m standing at or my skills, but I can see just a glimmer of magic tracing around his pupils. I also distinctly hear that strange croaking noise again. Honest to God, it sounds as if he’s got a toad stuck down his throat. It makes my back arch and nerves tingle up my spine.
“I know full well that you are running some kind of illegal side business. I’m assuming this is one of your clients,” Manfred snaps.
I don’t need any more evidence to conclude that Mr. Hampton is magical. Kudos to Manfred. But if he keeps doing this, he could get himself in trouble – of the magical kind. I go to clear my throat, but there’s no talking Manfred down. He actually snarls at Mr. Hampton. “If I were you, sir, I would get out of my shop immediately. And as for you, Jennifer, this is your last warning. If you come around here again, I will call the police.”
I think Mr. Hampton’s gonna push. It’s damn clear that he wants his box. I’m not entirely certain that he believes the box under my arm is his, but he shoots this really aggressive look Jenny’s way. Then, without another word, he walks off. The door slams behind him, the bell tinkling ominously.
That just leaves Jennifer. She’s been acting conciliatory, but she drops her hands. “You can’t tell me what to do. I don’t work for you anymore.”
“This is my premises. So you will get off it, right now,” he says, slowing down each word until puffs of air practically shoot out of his mouth like bullets.
She looks him up and down. There’s no hiding the disdain. Nor is there hiding the magic – to me at least. I can feel it building inside her. I wonder if she’s angry enough to attack. Automatically, I take a step between her and Manfred. It’s not like she’s gonna remember what I did to her yesterday. But I can’t stop myself.
“Celeste, you don’t need to get involved,” Manfred says.
“I’m the new sales assistant here,” I say. I look at Jenny. I make no attempt to hide my anger. “You’re gonna get out of the shop now.”
“And who the hell are you to—”
I very rarely get physical with people. Before I found out I was a goddess, I just didn’t have the frame. Nor the frame of mind. I didn’t see the point. But now I have glimpsed the darker side of reality, I understand full well what will happen if she stays. So I grab her by the arm. She tries to pull away from me, but I just tighten my grip. I yank her toward the door.
“Both of you are gonna get yours,” she snarls.
“Not before you do,” Manfred snaps back.
I open the door, and I shove her out. She’s not resisting me anymore, and fortunately, she’s not using magic. Marus has made her forget once, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to do it again.
She stands by the door, looking in ominously for a few seconds, then marches off.
I know which direction she goes in. This morning, Marus thought it was a good idea that I follow her – that she might lead me to someone important. I can hardly dart out and do that now. I turn around and look at Manfred. I blow air through my clenched lips. “That was pretty crazy.”
“I finally saw it with my own eyes,” he mutters. By the sound of his voice, he’s only getting started. It’s like he’s whirring up and is about to explode. He starts to turn around randomly on his feet. He grabs objects and checks them. I don’t know what he’s doing.
I clutch my arms and let my fingers slide down them. “Ah, sir?”
“I let it slide for too long. I need to find evidence now. Why don’t you take the day off?”
I just stand there and blink at him. I tell myself I didn’t hear what he just said. That would be impossible, owing to the fact that not once in the several years that I’ve worked for him, he has ever given me a day off. I’m surprised he even knows what the words mean.
When I don’t move, he stops and looks at me. He nods toward the door. “Take the day off. I’ve got the store.”
Honestly, I’d rather be out there, tracking Jenny down, so I don’t make a fuss. I nod and mutter, “Ah, thanks.”
“If either of them comes back, I’ll be ready for them,” he mutters under his breath.
I freeze. I roll my bottom lip through my teeth. No. Manfred will not be ready for them. They’ll be ready for him.
I teeter on the spot. Manfred might be a lot of things, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to go down to one of those magical pricks. Maybe I should stick around and protect him?
But that’s when I glimpse through the door and see that Marus is out on the street in his cat form. He nods his head to the side in the direction of where Jennifer left in.
“First, what’s this?” Manfred says before I can leave. He proffers up both the invitation and the picture of Thor’s box.
I whirl around. It takes a while for me to control my breath. “That rich philanthropist guy,” I say, not wanting to use Thor’s name in case it chokes me up, “came in this morning. He wants your wife to look for that object. But apparently it will be hard. They don’t even know where it is. And he… invited me to the exhibition.” I don’t know why, but I look down at the floor. I don’t want to make eye contact. It isn’t because I think Manfred will tell me not to go, right? Who cares what Manfred thinks? There’s no way I should go, anyway. Being trapped in the store with Thor was hard enough. Being trapped at an exhibition with him? God, I don’t know if I’d be able to hold out.
I rub my arms. I can feel my fire dancing under my flesh, but fortunately, it doesn’t leak out of my sleeves.
Manfred walks over and hands me the invitation. He looks at Serena’s card. “I’m assuming she wants us to call her when we find it? I’ll let my wife know.”
With that, he gets to work. It’s very clear that he is now searching for whatever Jennifer left behind.
I back away, nod, then leave through the front door.
I’ve already taken the box with the ring in it through the window into the wizard’s den. There shouldn’t be any other evidence for him to find. Sorry – any evidence that I’ve come across, at least. Who knows just what Jennifer was doing?
Which is the entire point of tracking her, I remind myself.
As soon as I walk out and close the door, Marus watches me. He doesn’t say a word. There are other people on the street.
I just shove my hands into my pockets and try my hardest to look like I’m not actually following a house cat.
He makes it easy for me. Occasionally he stops and preens before he catches up. He climbs up dumpsters. He tries to hiss at birds.
No one really pays any attention to him. But every now and then, I see him stop, sniff, and change direction.
He takes me on this really circuitous route through the city. I want to talk to him, but I know that he won’t answer.
Yeah, on the face of it, it’s a good idea to follow Jennifer. Once I got going last night, it was relatively easy to beat her. But what if she has powerful friends?
All I have to do is think of the Dark One, and my back seizes up. This pressure builds in my gut as if someone has spent the last half hour punching me. I even slide a hand out of my pocket and press it against my top. Scratching my nails in, I automatically tilt my head up and stare at the sky. Whenever I’m truly nervous, that’s the first place I stare at, as if I think Thor will unleash some final attack on me.
… He can’t do that, can he? Because he doesn’t have any magic.
I stare at my hands again just as I follow Marus down this tight laneway. There are no cars, and there are no people. He turns and flashes his tail at me. “That’s the eighth time you’ve stared at your hands. What exactly are you looking for?”
I jolt, surprised that he’s spoken.
“You do remember that I am a talking cat, don’t you?”
I force an uncomfortable laugh through my lips. “Yeah, of course I do. It’s pretty hard to forget the last 24 hours.”
“So what are you doing?”
I shrug, still staring at my hands. “I guess I’m thinking about Thor.”
“It is critically important we do absolutely everything in our power to keep him safe. While at the same time,” his voice drops, “keeping you away from him.”
I lost it back in the break room when he started talking about this. As he locks his wary gaze on me, I can tell he’s judging to see whether I’ll lose it again. I just double down and stare at my hands.
“What is it, my lady?”
I look up at the sky again. “You said… Thor wasn’t in his right mind when he tried to kill me. He’s still not in his right mind, is he? I mean, I don’t remember the situation, but people are still controlling him, right?”
“Yes,” Marus says with a great measure of relief. He momentarily sounds like a lion again, because his voice is much bigger than that of a house cat. I wonder if he loses the ability to sound like one when he’s emotional. “Thor is being controlled.”
“I don’t really understand that,” I admit, my voice soft. All the anger from my last outburst is completely lost. It’s there, though. I’m just not relying on it right now. I’m too distracted by my hands. I really don’t know what I expect to see there. An answer? I really doubt it. The one hallmark of this situation ever since I found out I was a goddess is ignorance. I imagine I will never have answers for all of my questions.
“What is it that you don’t understand?”
“He’s meant to be the most powerful god in the entire pantheon, right? So how can someone else control him?”
“This fell plot has lasted many centuries, my lady. And it is a complicated one. It involves many gods loyal to him.”
“Loki, right?” I suddenly snag hold of the little I know about Norse myths. I turn to him hopefully.
“Loki is his little brother.”
My nose scrunches up. “I don’t know a great deal about myths, but I know that. Loki is a trickster god. He’s constantly getting Thor into trouble. He must be one of the manipulators, right?”
Marus shakes his head. “Loki is one of the only gods who has ever truly stuck by his side.”
My gut kicks. “Then who is it?”
“I’m afraid I don’t even know myself. They have been keeping themselves successfully hidden since the plot has begun.”
“So how do you even know that they’re plotting? How do you know he’s being manipulated?”
“Because everything changed,” Marus says, and I’m surprised when he stares down at his paws. Again, he shows emotion.
I get sucked in by it. I drag my lip through my teeth. It’s something I’m doing a lot at the moment. It’s like it’s my only coping mechanism for finding out that I’m a goddess.
I have another, don’t I? I peek underneath my sleeves again. My magic is still there. When I use it… I feel alive in a way I never have before. I feel like… there’s a purpose to me. I’m aligned with something greater than myself.
“While you can stare at your hands, I really don’t recommend that you reveal your magic under any circumstances unless you are safely at home,” Marus counsels quickly and softly. Then he jumps forward a few bounds. “And I absolutely recommend that you hurry up. Time is running out to find that sprite. I still am capable of locating her scent, but I detect that she has just gotten into a vehicle.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“We’re going to get into a taxi.”
I arch an eyebrow. “Two things. I can’t afford a taxi. The other is that you’re a cat.”
“People have pet cats in Midgard,” he points out haughtily as if he knows some fact that I don’t.
I snort. “But they don’t take them into taxis on a tour around the city. Also, I don’t have any cash on me.”
He just looks at me. He twitches his nose in this really weird way. At first, I think he’s just peeved, but then as he twitches once to the side then three times to the left, I realize he’s doing something.
I frown at him. “Ah, Marus?”
He ignores me. Then he flips to the side. And out of nowhere, magic just kind of leaps up off him. It coalesces into a point on the pavement. I jolt forward, and I realize that there is gold – or at least some gold-like substance sitting there next to the drain.
Surprised, I can barely hold back a gasp. I lock my hands on my lips. “What the heck is that?”
“That,” he says with another nose twitch, “is gold. It will more than pay for our fare.”
I don’t know the current price of gold or anything, but I’m assuming that would pay for several taxis – the cars, not the fares. I look pointedly at him. “Gold isn’t really currency in this country. I need cash.”
“If it is insufficient, then I suggest we partake of someone else’s transport.”
“I’m hoping you mean the bus and not stealing someone’s car?”
His eyes light up at my last suggestion. “That is a fair possibility. We could requisition someone’s modern cart.”
I look at him, askance. I don’t point out the fact that he said modern cart. I just shake my head. “We’re not stealing someone’s car, Marus.”
“Then I guess it is the bus, then. We should hurry. I can still track where she is going. It seems to be above the city.” He turns his head to the west.
“Above the city, ha?” I close my eyes and think where she could be going. “There’s nothing out there but forests. There’s that fancy restaurant, I guess,” I mutter. “The one that’s been built as a lookout.”
He opens his eyes. “That is where we will head.”
I sigh. “You still haven’t answered my questions about Thor. How am I going to…?” I stop dead. It’s really hard to push these words out. I grate my lips back and forth. That doesn’t help any.
“How are you going to what?”
“How am I going to,” I take a deep breath and settle it into my stomach before closing my eyes and whispering, “save Thor if I don’t know who’s against him?”
“You will have to find out. Now, come. It is time for us to get on the bus.”
I follow, shaking my head the whole way. If I ever truly was a goddess, I wonder if the old me would be able to imagine the new me. She didn’t have to scrounge for bus fares and travel with lion cats on public transport. But beggars can’t be choosers. As my stomach kicks, I also realize that Marus is right. Time is running out.
We get on the bus. Before we do, I wrap Marus up in my jacket. Fortunately no one is paying too much attention to me, and I hold him naturally. He also doesn’t squirm around. I only kind of loosen my grip when we get to the very back of the bus. And even then, I whisper at him to stay quiet and stay still. He’s compliant. He doesn’t want to make a noise.
It’s a weird bus ride. I’m constantly checking up on the other passengers. Fortunately no one sits at the back of the bus, but I get defensive even if someone glances my way.
Add to that fact that I’m constantly checking the sky, and I slip into this kind of paranoid fugue. Every time I dart my gaze up to it, I wonder if this is it, and I’m going to be attacked now.
But I slowly have to remind myself that Thor has no power. I dismissed that possibility when Marus shared it with me, but now I wonder if he’s right. I stare at my hand again.
When Thor grabbed me, I felt his power, but it wasn’t extreme or anything. He’s the most powerful god in the pantheon, right? I imagine touching him would be like touching the damn sun. I felt energy, but it really was as if it was locked behind a wall.
I shake my head softly. I glance up to see that we’re almost at our destination. I’ve had to switch to three other buses to get here. It’s full of tourists. I’m highly aware that they have cameras. What if one of them snaps me carrying my cat around?
I’ve always had pretty stable mental health. I like to think that, in the past, I wasn’t paranoid. Now every single twitching movement someone makes makes me wonder if they’ve either got magic on board, or if they’re going to take some revealing photo of me that’s going to get back to Thor. Maybe he doesn’t have magic, but does that matter? By the sounds of it, he turned all the other gods against me. There will be gods in this city who have their power. If they find out….
I shiver. It’s like the eighth time I’ve done it. It’s full-bodied, and it makes me wonder if I’m gonna throw up my guts. Marus hasn’t made a move, but now he slides a paw out from underneath my jacket and places it on my leg. If he could speak right now, he’d presumably tell me to calm the hell down.
I pat his paw. Then I rest against the headrest, close my eyes, and wait out the last few minutes.
We arrive soon after.
The tourists are too excited to even glance at me as they get off the bus. This is my first time up here. I don’t really have time to explore the city. When my mom was alive, she took me to the nature reserves behind it, but I haven’t been back since.
I get a pang of loneliness as I finally walk out, Marus clutched firmly in my arms.
No one’s paying any attention to me. That means I can stop just half a meter from the bus on the dusty turn circle and stare up at the mountains beyond. The air is so much cleaner up here. I don’t tend to notice it when I’m ensconced in town, but as I take a lungful of it, it smells sweet. But there’s… something else.
I’m shocked by it. I take another sniff. I draw it deep into my lungs. I don’t know what I’m detecting, but I know – because my heart damn well screams at me – that whatever it is, it shouldn’t be here.
“Can you get away from the doors?” the bus driver grumbles as he tries to close them.
I dart away from them and mutter a quick, “Sorry.”
The tourists have pretty much disbursed.
Beyond is a car park. I’m not surprised it’s for swanky cars. It leads to the restaurant attached to the lookout. Beyond that is a different car park with much cheaper cars. That one is an overflow for the national park.
I pause, despite the fact that other cars are coming. I close my eyes and breathe again. There’s that scent. I… what does it smell like exactly? Sulfur?
As soon as that word pops into my head, I can’t push it away. It’s right. There’s sulfur out here. But that makes no sense. There are no volcanoes nearby.
I feel Marus shift slightly.
I don’t want to put him down in public, so I make my way around the side of the lookout. Fortunately it’s large enough that I reach a small section of gardens on the left down a set of steps that are empty. I place him down on the step below me. I open my jacket, and he jumps out, shakes his ears, then looks up at me. His whiskers are twitching. I see his nostrils widen. “So you can smell it, too?” I say, excitement shaking through my gut.
He nods. “There is magic in the air.”
“I thought it was sulfur.”
“Sulfur is a very common ingredient for a lot of rituals. Someone is doing something here. I am assuming it is our sprite. Now, we should spread out to track her down.”
I pale. “What do you mean spread out?” My voice shakes as if he’s just hit me. “You’ve got to stick by my side. You’re my loyal guard,” I stammer.
This just makes him arch an eyebrow at me. “You have become competent, my lady. You proved last night that you can take on this sprite. Plus, you should go inside. I cannot accompany you there.”
I stare down at my clothes then up toward the top of the lookout. “They’re not gonna let me in. This is a really fancy joint.”
“There will be a section for tourists. Go in. You will be able to find more inside than I can outside. Now, you know what you must do.” With that, he bounces down the steps and out of sight amongst some beautiful Japanese maples.
I open a hand out to him and go to scream his name, but I stop. There are people walking down the steps behind me. I turn and smile at them. They return the smile as they grab their cameras and take photos of the lush garden.
I walk up the steps, feeling nervous the whole way.
I’m not ready to do this on my own, I promise myself.
Yeah, I took down that sprite once, but I kinda got lucky. If she’s prepared for me….
“She is not going to be prepared for you,” I mutter to myself quickly. “Her memory was clearly wiped.”
I try to tell myself I can do this. It takes a lot of self-talk.
I finally reach the top of the lookout. I walk in. Marus is right. While the fancy restaurant is very much closed off to people like me, I can go to one level of the lookout. The second level is obviously for patrons of the restaurant, which is split into two levels. The building is built on two distinct floors. The second juts out further than the first floor. I guess that’s because the real view is only for paying customers. Still, I can see a lot of the city from up here. My breath is momentarily taken away. I let my gaze slide over the streets and buildings in the distance. I can see a glimmer of water beyond. Then, as always, my gaze darts up to the sky.
It’s so much bigger here. I swear I can’t just see all of it, but I can almost reach up and grab it in my hands.
My attention is so fixed on it that I don’t see someone until they walk right past me. And even then, it’s only my magic that recognizes them.
Fortunately my back is to him.
It doesn’t matter, anyway, because he’s paying attention to his phone.
Serena isn’t with him. She would recognize me in an instant and probably try to trample me a second later.
I have this moment as he walks past. It’s not a moment he shares, but that doesn’t matter. I swear the world stands still as time just becomes irrelevant. It’s just this backdrop that, if you know how to ignore it, withers away.
I’m aware of my breath, I’m aware of my heart, and more than anything, I’m aware of my Phoenix flames. They’re still there under my skin, but they’re… all around me, too. Their potential rises up in my mind like nothing else.
As Thor walks past on his phone, my power reaches out to him. But it’s a silent offer he can neither hear nor accept.
He walks away, reaches the front of that fancy restaurant, and is immediately allowed in.
I just… stand there. I take too long to realize I’m not breathing. And after that, it takes me way too long to realize what I just thought. My magic was silently reaching out to him? What the hell? Regardless of the fact I have to ultimately protect him, he is my enemy. That’s not gonna change.
Pissed off at my own mind and body, I turn around and stare at the view again, but that’s when I see Jennifer.
She’s down below in the gardens.
She’s talking to somebody. Even from here, I just know they are magical. Maybe my eyesight becomes crazy or something, but despite the fact I’m a good 50 meters up, I can see their eyes, and I recognize the magic blasting around their pupils.
I don’t wait. I act automatically. It’s like I’ve been doing this my whole life, and my body knows exactly what to do.
I push away from the view. I make it out of the lookout again.
I don’t call out to Marus. I’m focused.
I know exactly where I saw Jennifer, despite the fact I’ve never been here before. I race down the steps on the left side of the lookout. There is another sweet garden here. This one is a lot more closed off. It looks like a mini botanical garden. It’s got tall trees and close-knit flowering shrubs. I wonder how they planted it all? I mean, the lookout was only just built.
That thought is soon pushed away. All I can do is focus on my senses. They pull me forward. I reach the garden just under the lookout. I twist my head around, the wind picking up and catching my fringe. It sends it whipping around my face until I finally smell Jennifer again. She’s slipped into the base of the lookout. There’s some kind of heavyset metal maintenance door. It’s got a padlock around it.
It doesn’t look like it’s been disturbed, but as I reach out and place a hand on it, I just know she’s been through here.
There’s fortunately no one around in this large garden. At the moment. That will change. I hear people walking down the steps along the side of the building.
With a knot of nerves forming in my gut, I bolt forward. I grab the chains. How the hell did she get through this door without disturbing them?
I’ve only absorbed a few lessons about my magic. I can defend, and I can attack. That’s it.
If I burn through these chains, I’m gonna alert someone to the fact I’ve gone through here. But I’ve run out of time.
“Stuff it,” I stammer. Concentrating, I grab hold of the chains. It doesn’t take much. Just a little thought, just a moment of concentration. Then the chains start to burn, and they fall off in my grip.
Rather than leave them on the floor and alert people to the fact that someone ran through here, I keep hold of them, open the door, walk through, close it quietly, then dump them in a short concrete corridor.
I open my nostrils immediately. I don’t have the greatest sense of smell, but it ties in with my other senses. I know she’s been through here.
Somewhere at the back of my head, I realize that I should find Marus and tell him what’s going on. Yeah, I’ve taken the sprite on on my own before, but we’re much better off together.
All I can do is focus on her, though.
And the reason for that is a weird one.
I’m powerfully aware of the fact that Thor’s in the building. I don’t think that he’s gonna find me. I have now come to terms with the fact that he has no magic. But that only means there’s another problem. What if the sprite is after him?
I should be able to dismiss that thought. Hell, the side of me I want to keep hidden from Marus should celebrate it. I may not be able to get revenge on Thor, but the sprite can. But… it doesn’t work like that. My mind can think something vindictive like that, but my magic just won’t let me. At the thought that he could be in danger… I don’t think I have ever felt anything like it. My whole body becomes so tense, I swear it’s gonna pop like an over-filled balloon.
I make it through the short corridor. There’s a door, and fortunately this one isn’t locked or chained. I go to open it automatically, but I freeze when I hear someone behind it. I press my ear against it.
“He’s here. Did you see him? The arrogant bastard. He’s walking around without a goddamn god crystal,” it’s Jennifer, and she laughs righteously through her cruel words.
“How the hell do you know that he doesn’t have a god crystal?”
“Mr. Hampton saw it. Apparently he came into that antique store I used to work at. Thor’s looking for his god box. It’s his, all right. It’s the only one that’s covered in gold,” she snarls.
My stomach crunches as every single one of Marus’s suspicions are confirmed.
But my heart… I can’t even really begin to tell you what my heart does. It just kind of… shudders.
I press forward again. My ear is already locked up against the door, but now I want to push through it. My magic is done with hiding. It wants me to take on Jennifer right now. But my better reason wins out. I remain exactly where I am, listening to what they’re talking about.
While I recognize Jennifer’s voice, I have no clue who is with her. As I tune in to their voice and the sense of them, I get the impression that they are magical, but it’s a magic that I haven’t encountered before. It’s… I’m probably making this up, but it’s earthy.
It makes me frown.
“I don’t think we will ever get another opportunity like this,” Jennifer growls. “Right now, if we’re lucky, and if we focus, we can take them down in one hit. No waiting, no planning, no gathering our forces. It will be just like that.” By the sounds of it, she punches her own palm.
I am only just holding on. I want to burst through the door. And… what? Kill her?
Here’s the thing, yesterday when I took her on, Marus helped when he knocked her out with his magic.
What will I be able to do? More to the point, if I attack her, she’ll remember my face, won’t she?
My heart beats hard. My fingers slick with sweat as I press them against the door.
I focus on the conversation again, but it sounds like they’ve moved off.
I go to follow them, but that’s when I hear somebody open the door behind me out into the garden.
I whirl around.
I have no clue what to expect. I realize it’s a gardener.
He looks at me, surprise slackening his features. “What are you doing here, Miss?”
“I… got lost,” I lie.
He closes the door behind him, a smile flattening his features. “No, child, you’re not lost yet. You will be soon.” He delivers that line with perfect ease. He sounds just as kind as he did when he called me Miss. It’s so disarming that it takes me a second to realize what he said.
He shoots forward. No more words. He goes to punch me in the gut.
I twist to the side, but his punch smashes into the door. It warps the metal. Steam even erupts from his knuckles.
He is still smiling at me. It’s as if his expression is stuck.
“Now, now, Miss. You shouldn’t be here.” He jolts toward me again.
I dart backward. I trip, but I roll. He’s fast. He leaps over my head, twists around, then just rolls backward. He smashes into me.
He winds me as he rolls right over the top of me. He twists around, and he pins my shoulders.
“Now, now, now,” he says in that same friendly, singsong voice, “what have we got here? It’s impossible to get in here without breaking the lock. You magical, Miss?” he asks, his congenial tone never shifting.
I go to kick him in the stomach, but he’s faster than me. Grabbing my shoulders, he whips me up and suddenly pins me against the wall.
The whole while, his expression never changes.
“Weeds need to be dealt with,” he says, that same smile on his lips. “And the easiest way to deal with weeds is to rip them up by their roots.” He starts to pull my shoulders in opposite directions.
Long before I can scream, long before he can do any damage, I call on my Phoenix fire.
I don’t know why I haven’t used it yet. It comes raging out of my sleeves. I shove my hands forward, and it’s my turn to lock them on his shoulders. He is blasted back. He smashes into the concrete wall. It’s enough that it doesn’t just dent the concrete, but actually gouges out a hole. It rains down around him. For the first time, his expression changes. His eyes open wide. He looks up at me. “You are no ordinary weed.”
“No,” I growl, clenching my hands into tight, bloodless fists. “I’m not. And I really object to being pulled out by the roots.”
I don’t think about it. I shove forward. I have never fought in all my life – at least not with my fists. I’m not scrappy. Even in the playground, I just ran away and cried whenever anyone bullied me. Now my whole body knows exactly what to do. I round a hand into a tight fist, and I punch him across the jaw. My Phoenix fire blasts out at the last moment and sinks eagerly into his flesh, sealing my move. Something cracks. It’s not just his bone. His head jolts to the side. Then he lies there, as still as a mountain.
I push back. I don’t need to check his vitals to know that he’s still alive. But nor do I need to check in with my magic to know that he’s going to be down for some time. I stand above him, shaking my hand out, despite the fact it’s not hurt. I press a steady breath through my lips. Then the slightest smile cracks across them. “You did that,” I mutter to myself, surprise making it through my tone and shaking up through my chest. I plant a hand on my stomach. My smile is still there.
I don’t repeat what I did. I turn around. I head back to the other door. Pressing an ear against it, I realize no one is behind it. I go to open it, knowing full well that it’s unlocked, but then I turn and look back at the guy. He is magical. But I have no idea who he works for.
I rush over. I pat him down. I find a ring of keys. I also find a wallet. The only thing inside is this jet-black card. I frown at it. It’s magical, but I don’t think it’s going to attack me or anything. I shove it in my own pocket and steal his keys. Then I pat him on the side of his face and mutter, “Thanks.”
I rush back over to the door, open it, and slip into the room beyond.
It’s some kind of storeroom. There’s equipment I don’t even begin to understand. It looks like it comes from some kind of pumping room. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s no water up here – no large dam or anything like that.
I rush through it, find another door, and see that it’s locked. It doesn’t take me long to find the right key. In fact, the first key I select is the right key. The reason for that is that it magically pushes into the lock and conforms to the space.
I open the door and shove out.
That’s when my heart starts to beat hard. It comes out of nowhere. It is this real stress response. It’s like someone has just attacked me and shoved a gun up in my face.
I begin to breathe fast. I….
Jerking my head up, I stare at the ceiling. “Something… something’s happening, isn’t it?”
I want to stare around me. My nervous system says there must be some immediate threat. But I know there isn’t. The rest of my senses lock on the corridor. That crazy gardener hasn’t woken, and no one else is around here. So there must be something happening above me. Maybe there is going to be some kind of attack?
I find a set of stairs. I rush up them.
That’s when I realize it leads to the back of the restaurant.
It doesn’t lead directly to the kitchens, fortunately. There’s a corridor branching off into storerooms filled with alcohol and whatnot.
I inch out into the corridor when I realize that no one is bustling past.
I rush down the corridor.
There are several sets of doors. I smell that one of them leads directly onto the restaurant floor.
I edge toward it. I open it slightly. I stare out.
There are a lot of patrons out there. That doesn’t make sense. It’s just breakfast, right? Rich people don’t get up for breakfast, do they? They have it brought to them in bed.
I can think those snide thoughts all I want, but it doesn’t change the fact this place is absolutely packed.
Fortunately no one notices that I’m peering through the door at them. They’re all seated directed toward the view, anyway. And the person who is seated closest is none other than Thor. He’s facing it, a knife and fork in his hands. I can’t see the side of his face or anything – just his back, but I swear I can see his reflection in the glass. That makes absolutely no sense. I’m at the wrong angle. And even if I were standing right in front of him, I doubt the glass would be that reflective. But it doesn’t change what I think I can see.
He has this… I don’t really know how to define it, but this almost forgotten look on his face. I’m probably making this up, and it’s just my stupid florid mind getting the better of me, but it’s almost as if his gaze is appreciating something the rest of him can’t. There’s this absolutely endless quality to it.
I get sucked into it until I hear something.
Someone is coming in from behind me.
My heart is still beating hard. It’s still promising me that something’s about to go down.
I shove into the restaurant before I really know what I’m doing.
I’m discreet about it, and I close the door quietly.
Fortunately the maître d’ doesn’t see me. He’s busy at the door. The rest of the other waiters are too busy coming and going to glance at me once. They probably think that, despite my clothes, I must have been allowed in here if I made it in past the door.
I turn around and stare at the door. Nobody comes through it.
I twist to stare at the door again, and that’s when my heart does it once more – just leaps around my chest as if someone is about to jumpstart it. I even have to flatten a hand on my top.
I shove forward just as someone gets up and almost bangs into my arm.
It takes me several steps toward Thor. It happens again. My heart just… I can’t describe this. I’m terrified that something’s about to happen. But there’s no evidence that anything will happen. Yet the closer I get to Thor, the more freaked out I become. I try to tell myself that it’s just my fears reigniting. He could recognize me. He could set his gods on me. But….
I slice my gaze around the room. I look for Jennifer. I remember exactly what she said. She is planning an attack on him. I want to think that’s impossible – considering who he is, but maybe it isn’t. And maybe that’s the real reason my heart is now uncontrollable.
Yeah, Marus said that I have to do anything to protect him. But he didn’t say that it would feel like this.
I take another step toward Thor, and it gets even worse. I honestly think that my heart is gonna shake all the way out of my chest and fall at his feet. Unconsciously, I draw to a stop behind his table.
None of the other waiters have noticed me yet. Now the maître d’ turns around at just the wrong moment. In my peripheral vision, I see that he narrows his gaze. “You,” he snarls, drawing attention to me and gathering the stares of every single person in the room. “What are you doing here? How did you get in?” He goes to march toward me.
Thor turns around.
The maître d’ grabs my arm. It would be easy as pie to throw him off.
I don’t. I just stand there, ashamed of all the stares I’m getting. It speaks to an old part of my brain – not the new goddess side.
“I—” I splutter embarrassedly.
“Someone like you should not be here,” he growls, really emphasizing the word you as if I’m trash or something.
“She’s with me,” someone says.
I turn around slowly, my neck feeling like it’s on a spit. The person who just said that… was Thor?
He places his knife and fork down and stands up. He hasn’t even touched his food.
Every single person in the restaurant stares at him. Some of them even mutter.
I go to open my mouth to point out that I’m very much not with Thor, but I stop. My heart beat is going wild. I’ve never felt anything like it. It’s… shaking all the way through me. Its warning is clear. I have to do everything in my power to save Thor. He’s in danger. He—
I take a seat. I must look so rude.
The maître d’ does not grab my arm. He just splutters. “She’s not a guest—”
“She is now,” Thor says. He nods politely at the maître d’. Then he sits.
I can’t make eye contact with him. Which is crazy. He just saved me from the maître d’. But I…. engage my senses. I try to differentiate where the threat is coming from. Sniffing subtly, I attempt to pick up Jennifer’s scent. I can’t.
Thor, obviously, is staring at me. He picks up his knife and fork again, but he still hasn’t touched his food. He looks down at me from underneath crumpled eyebrows. “I take it you haven’t found my box. This isn’t a home delivery.”
I don’t point out that he doesn’t live here, so of course it can’t be a home delivery. I keep staring to the side.
He chuckles. “I won’t bite,” he tries.
I just bite my lip.
He clears his throat after a pause. “I saw you earlier. Why aren’t you in the store?”
I know I can’t keep ignoring him. He saved me. Even though it’s murder to sit across from him, it would be murder to leave. Jennifer will attack at some point, and I have to… I have to save him.
Actually saying that in my head… it’s… I don’t know if it’s liberating or the exact opposite. But it does have an effect on me. My hands are in my lap. I scrunch them up, grabbing handfuls of my skirt as if I want to rip the fabric in half.
He laughs. “I hope Serena didn’t permanently scare you off speaking to me. She’s… protective,” he mutters.
“You’re together?” I ask, my voice a little too sharp.
… Really? That’s what I care about?
No. I don’t care who Thor is with. All I care about is staying away from him while at the same time staying close enough to him to protect him.
As I think that, I realize how truly hard the situation is. No wonder I’m freaking out.
He looks surprised by my question. He shakes his head. There’s this odd quality to the move. “No.”
He falls into silence.
Now I’ve spoken – and proven I can actually move my lips – he is clearly waiting for my answers.
Come on, girl, I mutter to myself. If you can’t even speak to him, how are you gonna save him?
There I go again, commenting about saving him. This morning, all I wanted to do… all I wanted to do was get rid of him. Or at least, if not kill him, I wanted to get him as far away from me as possible. But now….
I look at him. I realize my gaze is a little intense. He arches an eyebrow, though it’s slight.
“My boss took over the store. He ran into the past sales assistant. He’s investigating her. She was procuring illegal goods for people,” I comment, for some reason telling him absolutely everything.
I can tell that he’s taken aback by my honesty, but I can tell he’s intrigued by what I’ve said. He frowns. “What kind of objects?”
I have absolutely no reason to tell him the truth, and I’m certainly not going to reveal anything that will compromise my identity. But as I stare at him, I realize that if he’s going to have any chance against Jennifer, he needs to know what he’s up against. I shrug. “It was kind of like the box that you asked to be found, actually.”
He freezes. He probably thinks it’s not obvious, but I can practically hear every single one of his muscles twanging. “A box?” he whispers, his voice hoarse.
I pretend not to notice it. My hands are still clamped in my lap, but I’m no longer grabbing my skirt as if I want to rip it off me. “Yeah. Not as fancy as yours, though,” I say as I shake my head.
“And you… have seen this box?”
I shrug. “Some guy in a white suit with a gold and platinum Rolex came to pick it up today. He….”
“Was kind of creepy,” I whisper. I hope that’s enough to alert Thor to who he is. I can hardly afford to point out that he had glimmering eyes and he croaked like a toad.
“And… this man has the box?”
“No. He said it was fake or something. His name,” I scrunch my nose up then click my fingers, “is Mr. Hampton or something. I hope that’s not sharing customer details. It wasn’t as if he was a legitimate customer, anyway. Manfred is looking into it now. So I got the whole day off. That guy – Mr. Hampton – he saw the picture Serena gave to me. He said he would offer us quadruple what you will. But don’t worry, Manfred shooed him out of the store.”
Thor stiffens. He’s way too interested in what I’m saying, but I can tell he’s trying to control his reaction. So he clears his throat and ducks his head toward the view. “So you chose to come here on your day off?”
“I guess.” I turn my head up to the sky, but I only glance at it. “I’ve never been here before. I heard it’s got… a great view.”
He smiles. It’s engaging. “Yes, it does. I had it built exactly for that purpose.”
My eyebrows scrunch. “Sorry, you had it built? I thought this was your first time in the city or something? Something to do with the exhibition.” I’m surprised by the fact that I’m talking to him now. It’s not easy, but I’m not waiting a million years between responses. I’m also not visibly shaken.
Either he’s happy with that, or he likes the question, because he smiles, and it seems more engaging than before. It’s… I know this sounds corny, but it’s like there’s infinity trapped behind that move. Like, when he twists his head to the side and stares at the sky, he opens out to eternity. He might not have his god powers, but that look’s enough to remind me of who he is.
“I always planned on relocating here. And yes, I had this place built. The third floor belongs to me,” he says, jamming his thumb upward.
“I didn’t even know there was a third floor.”
We fall into silence.
A waiter walks past, and Thor gets their attention. “Another menu, please.”
… Sorry, he plans on buying me breakfast?
As I realize that, I clam up. I go to open my mouth and say that there’s no way I can eat with him, but that’s when I feel something. I grab my chest. My heart is now pounding as if it’s about to shatter.
I hope he’s distracted, but he quickly turns his head back to me. “Are you alright?” Alarm fills his voice.
I go to drop my hand, but the pounding is getting worse.
I slice my gaze to the side. I realize that Jennifer has just walked in the front doors. She’s not in the same getup she was wearing this morning. She looks a lot classier. She’s also clutching a bag in front of her. There’s clearly something in it.
Thor reaches over to me. “Are you alright?”
I push up quickly. “I have to go to the bathroom. Sorry.”
He pushes to his feet, clearly not convinced by my excuse.
I angle toward Jennifer.
I don’t know how far I will go to stop her. But I guess my heart does, because as I even begin to question it, it trembles.
Jennifer flashes this truly snide smile Thor’s way, but he doesn’t notice.
He’s following me.
But then someone gets his attention. They jump up from one of the tables and grab his arm. They’re clearly some kind of businessman.
I hurry up.
I have no clue what I’m gonna do. But I can’t fight Jennifer in public, can I?
I have to slow her down. Then I have to get everyone out of here.
I don’t struggle to realize how to do that. I glance up, and I see sprinklers above me.
All I need is a little fire, and they’ll activate.
I stride past Jennifer. At the same time, I accidentally bump into her. My magic does a lot more. I’ve never used it like this before, but I let it travel down into my foot. I push it out just as I shove her. It snakes around her ankle and jerks her to the side.
She falls harshly, and her bag roles several meters away.
“I’m so sorry,” I mutter, but I don’t lean down to help her up. I rush out of the room as other people rush forward to help her.
As soon as I’m out of the restaurant, I yank my head up and look at some of those sprinklers.
If I let flames wrap around me here, people will see.
I notice a maintenance door several meters down.
I rush over to it, and quickly judging that no one is looking my way, yank it open. I don’t need to use the keys in my pocket. I just blast through the lock. I reach the other side. It’s a short corridor that leads to branching rooms that I don’t care about. The fire sensor just above me attached to the ceiling is all that matters.
I half close my eyes then open my palm. I let fire spread out. It blasts up against the roof. It takes precisely two seconds for it to activate.
An alarm blares through the building, and I hear surprised people scream beyond.
I shove out quickly.
I head back toward the restaurant, but people are being evacuated. It doesn’t take my gaze long to lock on Thor. He’s fine. He looks over at me, though.
Our gazes meet. And I…. I turn away quickly.
I scan the crowd for Jennifer.
That’s when I see somebody on the opposite side of the large viewing lobby.
I open my nostrils once, and I know it was whoever Jennifer was speaking to.
They have a bag, and there’s something in it.
I waste no time. I head over to them.
The sprinklers are now raining water down on everyone. People are screaming. The guy doesn’t pay any attention, though. His head is angled over toward where Thor is.
Fortunately someone else has grabbed Thor’s arm and is starting to pull him away. His head is angled toward me, but soon, I’m out of sight.
I reach the guy on the opposite side of the room.
I get right up in his face, but it takes him several seconds before he locks his gaze on me. First, he just tries to jerk his head to the side. When he sees that I’m not gonna move, he snarls, “Out of my way.” He locks a hand on my shoulder to shove me away.
I just lock my feet down, and I use my strength. He tries one last time before his eyes open in recognition. They slice toward me. He opens his mouth, but I never find out what he’s about to mutter.
I’m not going to punch him – not in public.
But there is a set of stairs to the side.
I grab his arm, and moving as fast as I can, whirl him to the side. I jump down two stairs, and, still holding onto him, pull him down with me.
He goes to grab whatever’s in his bag, but I just punch him across the jaw. My move isn’t complete this time. I can’t call on enough magic. I push him down several stairs, and he roles, but he jumps to his feet. His eyes blast open wide. “Who the hell are you?”
“Your worst nightmare,” I snap back. I jump down the stairs. I have to get back to Thor. My heart is going crazy.
The guy grabs something out of his bag.
I have a chance to glimpse it – then he squeezes it.
Magic blasts out. It doesn’t sail up the stairs, and fortunately no one rushing past would be able to see it. But that doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it is damned effective. It pushes into me, and it freezes me. My body might be jolting, but the rest of me is locked in place. It even has an effect on my thoughts. It’s like I become trapped behind a door.
He takes full advantage of the fact I can no longer move, and he jolts forward. He punches me. It’s a full-on attack, but at the last moment before he can break my nose clean off, my magic sails around my face without me having to call on it. Fortunately, it’s not in its Phoenix form and is rather undifferentiated fire. That protects my anonymity, but it sure as heck does not protect his fist.
He screams and lurches back. He almost tumbles down the stairs. He stops himself in time and snarls right in my face. “You made me waste my blocker spell. You’re gonna pay for that, witch, or whoever you are.”
He snaps forward. This time, there’s protective fire encasing his fist. Yeah, my magic is saving me, but without the capacity to control it directly, I don’t know how long it can do that for. I can’t even wince.
But I don’t need to. He never gets the chance to punch me. There’s this low growl that can’t carry. I see a flash of a tail, and the next thing I know, Marus smashes into the guy. He grabs the man’s magic-laced fist in his massive mouth and twists to the side.
The guy screams, but he doesn’t have a chance. Marus smashes him against the wall. It’s not just a physical move – magic blasts out everywhere. It sinks into the guy’s body, and his head jolts to the side. He slides down the wall until he lies still at Marus’s feet.
Marus turns to me. He shoves into me.
The electricity that’s holding me in place starts to jolt into him. I smell his fur singeing, and it terrifies me.
He starts to groan. He doesn’t move.
Slowly but surely, I begin to thaw. “Marus,” I choke back my tears, “shift back. Don’t get hurt for me.”
“You are my world, my lady. I would lay down my life for you.” With that, he pushes back. He’s absorbed all of the electricity now. It crackles over his fur. It’s still singeing. He’s even slightly burned across his nose.
I fall down to my knees, but immediately push up. He shoves in close to allow me to grab his mane, but I don’t need to. My trembling heart is enough. Without a word, I go to rush back up the stairs. “What is it?” he demands.
“Thor,” I stammer, “he’s in trouble. He’s—” I can’t explain myself. Even though Marus probably deserves an explanation. This morning I went spare at him because he suggested I can’t kill Thor. Now… screw it. I just have to get to Thor.
I shove up the steps. Now almost everybody has evacuated.
Thor is long gone, thankfully. Jenny, however, isn’t. I can see just the back of her as she rushes toward the main doors. I have no idea if she still intends to attack Thor. I hope not. I want to believe that she won’t do it in public. Before I found out about my powers, I didn’t know gods existed. I’d certainly never seen magic before. So I’m hoping that means that there’s some unwritten rule that you have to keep it secret.
But even if there is an unwritten rule, my heart won’t let me rely on it. It pounds at the sight of Jenny’s back. I can see how knotted her muscles are. I can practically see her magic system pulsing inside her body, getting ready to explode like a 10-ton chunk of dynamite. I’ve never felt the need to protect someone so much in my life.
I throw myself after her. Marus says nothing. He doesn’t growl at me to come back, doesn’t point out that I just got injured and I’m only getting my strength back. He also fortunately doesn’t transform into a house cat. The more people see us together, the more they’re going to realize we’re connected.
But I do know that if I need it, he’ll come to my aid.
I put on a burst of speed, finding strength and haste from some reserve I didn’t know I had. My feet practically fly over the already puddle covered floor. I did a real number on that fire sensor. I left a bit of magic blasting around it, too – not enough that it will actually set anything alight, but enough that the sensor won’t suddenly think that the fire has put itself out. The sprinklers continue to rain down on me. My hair is completely drenched. I ignore it.
I skid over to Jenny just before she exits the door. She’s the last to go, so no one notices as I grab her wrist and pull her to the side. I use a lot of strength, and despite the fact she is a strong sprite, there’s nothing she can do to fight me. I smash her hard against the wall beside the door, and there’s a wet thwack as her clothes and hair splash onto me. I ignore it as I bring my snarling face close. I have a single chance to do this, so I round a hand into a fist and punch her long before she can settle her gaze on me.
I put a lot of effort into it. I let my magic charge over me, though again, I control my Phoenix flames. Thor might not be in the room at this point in time, but I don’t know if he has some specific connection to my flames that transcends the fact he has no magic. Maybe if I use my flames’ true form close to his presence, he’ll recognize who I am.
My punch connects, and her head smashes against the wall behind her. There’s a sickening crack, and a few excess charges of magic spread out from where her skull impacts the wall.
She goes to open her eyes and lock them on me, but I crunch in close, grab my palm over them, and twist to the side until I’m whispering in her ear. “I know exactly who you are. And though you don’t remember this, I’ve beaten you in the past. The second time will just be a mere formality.”
She stiffens up. She also tries to fight me. I haven’t put something together yet. I might not know much about myths, but sprites tend to be elemental, don’t they?
I’m just about to find out which element Jenny commands.
I think I’ve all but won. I very much haven’t. She simply twists a hand to the side, then a single shot of water charges up from the puddles around her and forms in her hand. It becomes some kind of dagger, one she quickly uses to slice across the hand I’m using to cover her eyes.
I scream as blood splatters out.
Just as I fall back, Marus rears up. For a split second, he turns into a lion, and he bodily smashes the sprite to the side. She falls in the water before she has the chance to attack.
I shove up, staring at my blood as it mingles with the water gushing down from the sprinklers.
“End her quickly. I will wipe her memory again. Or at least, I will try.”
“End me?” the sprite snarls. “Fat chance.” She shoves a hand into her pocket. I know exactly what she’s going to do. She’ll have another one of those strange electricity spells that the other guy I just fought had. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that electricity and water don’t mix. The stairs weren’t as inundated as this section. As soon as she lets go of that electricity spell, both Marus and I are going to be fried.
I freak right out. My magic responds. It comes charging over my body. And just for a split second, I don’t control its form. The Phoenix rises. It flickers above my head, sending its power all around me until my hair flutters around my face and my clothes practically rip themselves off my body.
The sprite’s hand is around her spell, and judging by the stiffness in her shoulder, she’s seconds from throwing it at me, but as soon as she sees my Phoenix fire, everything, everything just stops. It’s like someone has hit pause on her entire world.
“My lady,” Marus roars.
I’m aware of what I’m doing now. There’s no chance to back out. I swipe a hand forward, and my Phoenix rises off my arm. It charges toward her. Before it strikes, she has a chance to mutter, “No way. We finally found you.”
My Phoenix fire smashes into her side. It collects her up then throws her down. There is a bone-crunching thump that echoes through the entire room. It’s somehow louder than the alarm system and the sprinklers put together.
My fire isn’t done yet – it circles around her and pulls her up. She floats a few meters up in the air just like she did last night.
“Control your flames,” Marus roars as he rushes over to her, stops a few centimeters from her face, and opens his eyes wide in an exact replay of last night.
I take a staggered step back and almost slip in the puddles. With my eyes locked on my hands and my lips opening limply, I stare at the Phoenix as it continues to slowly twist its way around my arm.
“My lady,” Marus snaps one last time.
I blink back my fugue, throw my hands to the side, close my eyes, and concentrate, and I can feel the Phoenix returning to me. When I open my eyes, it’s done. I’m no longer lit up. In fact, the only evidence that I’m magical is my enormous lion. Speaking of Marus, he’s finished his spell. With a low growl that can’t carry, he takes a step back, and the sprite’s head falls limply to the side. “She is done,” he says.
I press my hand to the side, and she falls. I don’t spare her any pain and certainly don’t place her down gently. She thwacks into the water.
Marus pushes forward and nudges her pocket with his nose. “I can feel a strong spell in here. We should take it.”
I splutter at him. I go to point out that’s stealing, but I just kind of stop. Firstly, it’s not the only thing I’ve ever stolen from this woman. And secondly, dammit, it’s a deadly spell she wanted to use against Thor. As that fact strikes me, I don’t question anymore. I shove over. I grab up the bag. I take a closer glimpse inside, and I stare at some kind of angry glowing orb. I make a face. “It’s going to be safe to carry, right?”
“Perfectly. But we won’t be safe until I deal with the security cameras in the room and the footage they’ve taken.”
I freak out. I only hear one word, and it’s perfectly primed to completely undermine me. “Footage?” I croak.
Marus shifts his head up. He locks his glowering yellow gaze on the security camera just in the corner of the room. I turn my head over to it. Even from here, I can see that there’s a little red light glinting underneath the camera.
I freeze. Suddenly, despite the fact I still have my flames, I’m cold all the way through. It’s like someone has shoved me in a long-term freezer.
“Do not dismay, my lady. This is not the first time I have had to disable cameras and delete their footage. You wait here.” With that, he turns into his cat form and disappears.
I know he told me to wait here, but it’s hard. At some point, the fire service is going to arrive. They’re gonna question why I’m just standing here when several meters from me is a completely unconscious woman. I’m clearly not even trying to help her.
I hear voices from outside. One of them is Thor. My heart ricochets around my chest as it tells me he’s seconds from rushing in.
I freak out. I don’t know what to do, so I skid over to the woman. I support her head just as Thor comes rushing in with several other people.
He cuts a strong figure, I can tell you that much. Despite everything that’s going on and the fear in me that he’s about to discover me, time slows down for a few seconds. It’s enough to notice the angle of his shoulders, the power in his form, and the look in his eyes. As the sprinklers continue to rain down, it doesn’t change how he looks. His white shirt clings to him, and his hair sticks to his neck, but it’s not the defined muscles beneath that take my breath away. It’s—
“What happened?” The maître d’s with him, and he rushes over to me, a growl in his voice. Fair enough, the last he saw me, I was deliberately knocking into this woman.
“She slipped over in the water and hit her head.” I look up at him.
“Take her, Bernard,” Thor instructs.
Bernard doesn’t look happy, but he shifts in and gently picks her up. He doesn’t check for any neck injuries or anything. In fact, as soon as he touches her, he gets this kind of weird look in his eyes.
Without being able to stop it, my nose twitches. Bernard’s not magical, is he?
Crap, there aren’t other gods around here, are there? My eyes have a chance to widen with fright, but Thor has just reached me. I’m still down on my hands and knees. I’m not scared or anything – I’m just overcome by everything that’s happening. I’m still capable of fighting, let alone walking, but clearly Thor thinks otherwise. He gently plucks up my hand.
I swivel my gaze over to him. We have a moment, and it’s one I don’t think my heart will ever be able to forget. Time doesn’t just stretch. It doesn’t stand still, either. It’s almost as if everything that has come before becomes irrelevant. The past just drops away like an old edifice that is falling into the sea.
I’m overtaken by the look in his eyes. He doesn’t technically have the most handsome eyes. But the gaze behind them is so piercing, so intense, and so captivating, it’s like there’s another universe stuffed behind them.
“Come on.” He doesn’t mention that I look like I can’t move. He pulls me to my feet.
If I was captivated by him when I was just staring into his eyes, it’s another thing now that he’s touching me again. It takes me back to the first time in the antique store. He… I can feel it now more clearly than ever. His magic is there; it’s just locked behind this thick wall.
And his magic… I swear it recognizes me. I can feel it pushing behind that wall, even though he doesn’t seem to be capable of realizing that.
All of a sudden, my knees cut out. I slide right down his side and thwack into a puddle by his feet.
He doesn’t question. Automatically, he reaches down and plucks me up. If I thought it was bad for him to hold my hand, then this is so much worse.
My senses drive me crazy. They pound into my body, wrap around my chest, and shake up into my jaw. I find myself squeezing my eyes closed. I can’t take anything else. Visual data, auditory – all other sensations will destroy me if I have to pay attention to them. Thor is just too much to handle.
He doesn’t say a word to me as he walks me out of the lobby. When we finally reach beyond the doors and the sprinklers stop hailing down on me, I barely notice. The only parts of my body I care about are my arms and legs – where he’s holding me.
I… I almost think I can remember something. It comes rushing up from some deep well inside me – some long-forgotten recess.
I think… I’m running hand-in-hand with someone. Is it Thor? We’re desperately heading through the basement of some palace. We have to get somewhere before it’s too late.
“What’s wrong with her?” the maître d’s snaps.
“I don’t know. Maybe she took a tumble too.”
I go to open my eyes to say that I’m completely fine, but I’m not. As those memories rise in me and I try my hardest to clutch at them, but fail, I start slipping back.
The next thing I know, I’m flopping limply against his chest.
The scent of him and feel of him surround me just as I black out.
It pulls me down to a deep place I cannot go to – a place that has been locked off my entire life, and a place that I must stay away from, or I will die.
I wake up on the ground with paramedics dealing with me.
As soon as my eyes open, I’m fine, and all my energy is back. I want to bolt up, but a kind guy places his hand on my shoulder and tells me to take it steady.
God. I blacked out. Worse, I fell unconscious in Thor’s arms. My heart rate shoots through the roof. I expect to see some kind of cage or other gods – proof that he discovered who I am and that I’m now trapped, but there’s nothing. Thor isn’t even in sight.
“I feel okay,” I mutter.
“You were out for quite a while,” the paramedic says.
“I… faint sometimes,” I lie.
I also don’t do a very good job, because he just shoots me a look. “You have to go to the hospital for observation.”
I go to nod, but then I completely clam up. Observation will presumably involve some kind of blood pressure monitor. And that will involve strapping it around my arm. What if they see my skin? God, what if this guy has already seen my Phoenix flames?
My heartbeat gets so wild, I swear that it’s going to shoot off faster than the speed of light.
Fortunately the paramedic takes that moment to turn around and stare at one of his other colleagues who’s attending to someone else. I expect it to be Jenny, but she is nowhere in sight.
… Thor would’ve been able to figure out she’s a sprite, right? Hopefully he recognizes that she was there to attack him. What if he’s taken her some place else to recover? What if—
As my thoughts completely spiral out of control, I finally see the one thing that can calm me down. Marus comes trotting across the car park. People point to him and marvel at the fact there’s a cat around, but they don’t do anything.
He reaches the paramedic and curls around his side.
Fortunately the guy likes cats, and he chuckles, though he doesn’t touch him while wearing his gloves.
Marus jumps to the side, stares at me, twitches his whiskers, and smiles. He nods once in a way that the paramedic won’t recognize, then glances over at the ambulance.
I could be making this all up, but maybe… just maybe Marus is telling me that it will be okay. Even if I get in the ambulance and I head to the hospital, no one will find out who I am.
I hope like hell he’s right.
I’m soon loaded into the ambulance. As the guy who attended to me goes to close the door, he turns, remembering something. “Oh, you must have made a pretty big impression on the guy who owns this place – Thor. Said even if you can’t make it to his exhibition tonight, you’ll be invited to the next one.”
With that, he closes the door. He doesn’t ride with me in the back. It’s obvious that I’m not in a critical condition.
At least that gives me the chance to close my eyes, ground a hand over them, and imagine every single way this could have gone worse. It takes me a long time to drop my hand and point out to myself that I’m still here, I’m still alive, and I’m still, thankfully, out of Thor’s clutches.
I might think that, but I slowly bring my arms up and lock them around my middle. I let my fingers trace back and down over my sopping wet sleeves. My mind is replaying his touch.
This could’ve been worse today. So much worse. But technically, the day isn’t over yet.
It’s a thankfully quick trip to the hospital.
The whole way, I kind of freak out, but at the same time, I tell myself that Marus clearly told me this would be okay.
I’m admitted, and I hold my damn breath when they take my vitals, but they don’t even bother to roll my sleeves up. They don’t take blood, and overall, they’re clearly pretty happy that I’m fine.
All the while, I… my Phoenix fire is there, but it’s not blazing over my skin. Maybe this is what Marus meant. I’m controlling it. It’s inside me, just not on the surface.
When I’m discharged, I walk out, and I find Marus just there. He’s sitting on top of a trashcan.
People are cooing at him as they walk past.
He locks his gaze on me, nods once, jumps down, then wanders off.
I don’t make it obvious that I’m following him. I stand there for a while, pretend to fix my hair, and walk off in the same direction.
He takes me around the hospital. Pausing and twitching his nose, he soon finds a convenient recess at the back. It’s some kind of loading bay.
He takes me there. As soon as I walk around it, he curls around my legs, jumps up onto my shoulder in a single bound, then nuzzles my face. “You should learn to trust yourself more,” he says strictly.
I pat him, thankful for his company. “What do you mean?”
“You do not need to fear being found out by humans. You can control your flames. I saw what you did back there. You saved Thor,” he says, and there’s this note in his voice I can’t place. I’m not sure if it’s pride or thankfulness, or both. There’s something else, though – it’s almost like it’s awe.
I scratch his head as I turn around and look at him. It’s a bit of an awkward movement, but I don’t spare my neck. “I… you didn’t tell me it would feel like this.”
His nose twitches. “Feel like what?”
I’ve opened my big fat mouth now. I should’ve just kept quiet. I rub my chest, and it’s an obviously awkward move. “You didn’t tell me that….”
“What is it, my lady?”
Marus is not the kind of lion to just drop something – especially not like this. He looks me up and down. “When it came to it, you had to protect Thor, didn’t you?”
I seize up, but I control my neck long enough to nod. “What was it, anyway?” I pound a hand on my heart as if I’m trying to restart it. “I just,” I stare at my hands, “it was impossible not to save him.”
“Though it would be hard to believe this, your past self, she didn’t hate Thor. She knew what was going on. Even though she understood,” his voice drops, “that she had to stay away from him.”
I look up at him sharply. “How is that going to be possible? He has no magic. It leaves him open. If I didn’t step in today—”
He nuzzles the side of my face again and purrs right in my ear. “Then he could have been killed. I understand. And I am proud of your efforts.”
“But you’re not answering the question,” I say, getting overwhelmed by the situation as I push a hand up my face, snag hold of my damp fringe, and tug it over my eyes. “How can I stay away from someone I have to protect?”
“I will admit that I never thought that this would be as complicated as it is. I thought, just like you, that Thor would automatically have his magic. There is only one thing we can do.”
“What is that?”
“Continue to protect him from afar.”
“Shouldn’t we… find his box?”
Marus looks at me. He looks away. “I cannot answer that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I fear that if you were to give him his box and he would find his magic again that he would….”
I let out a short laugh. I wrap my arms around my middle and lean back against the damp wall behind me. While it was raining holy hell in that lookout because of the sprinklers, it was also raining in the city. Because it seems that every single day for the rest of my life, it will always be raining. I tilt my head up and look at the sky. It might be dry for now, but once more, I can see ominous clouds gathering. It’s only the early afternoon, but that doesn’t matter. They’ll crack open at some point. I get the feeling they’ll bring lightning this time, too.
“There’s no easy way out of this, is there, Marus?”
“No, my lady. You must continue to endeavor to protect Thor. I suggest we find his box, too. At the very least, we can keep it safe from the numerous enemies who will use it to break him if they find it.”
I nod. Then I sigh. “I want to go home.”
“I recommend it.”
With that, we shift off.
My life has taken a turn for the worse, for the complicated, and most importantly, for the godly.
When I make it back to the antique store, I realize that Manfred is still manning the place. It’s not like I can sneak up behind him and head back into the wizard den.
I’m standing at the back of the store, still sopping wet. I make a face at Marus. “How do you keep getting secretly into the store, anyway?”
“By the roof. There is a small attic. It leads down to the back of the second showroom upstairs.”
“Do you think you can turn into a lion and carry me up there?” I ask facetiously, even though I already know the answer. I have already dodged death way too many times today. And I’ve already diced with potentially revealing my magic. Having a lion carry me on top of an antique store roof is going to be a bridge too far.
He shakes his head. “You can make the distance yourself.” With that, and without another word, he turns around, and in a single bound, jumps right up onto the roof.
It’s a crazy sight. I can see magic blasting around him. It’s not enough that anyone else further into the city would be able to see it or anything, but it still steals my breath away.
Yeah, it’s been 36 hours, but occasionally my mind just resets and it reminds me that magic is real.
I have one of those moments now. I can’t breathe properly, and I find myself staring down at my hands, but at least I’ve got good control of my Phoenix flames.
I close my hands into fists, open one eye, and stare up at the roof. I shake my head. There is no damn way I can make it up there.
I try – and it is stupid to watch. I throw myself at the wall and kind of just land face-first against it. I strike my nose hard, roll backward, and fall onto my ass. I do it once more, then roundly give up.
Marus darts his head over the top of the roof. “Maybe now is not the time for this lesson. It will come. You must first learn to control your magic better.”
“Great,” I mutter to myself as I rub my ass. I say it way too loudly, and I hear Manfred from inside the store.
I look for a place to hide, but he’s too quick. He comes darting out the back. He frowns as soon as he sees me. I am pretty bedraggled, after all. He looks me up and down. “What happened? Did you get caught in the rain?”
“It’s a really long story.”
“You look like you need a new set of clothes and somewhere to clean up. I’ve got some old vintage clothes that we’ll never sell. Come on.” Manfred nods toward the store as he keeps the door open for me.
I blink, pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, Manfred has always been a pretty good boss. He’s pretty clear about what he wants me to do. He’s also a strong manager. But he’s never usually nice like this. Maybe he’s thankful for the fact I took this job.
He brings me inside, finds a pile of old vintage clothes, hands them over, and leads me to the bathroom. I don’t know what this building was once upon a time, but there isn’t just a toilet. There’s a sink and a shower.
He rustles up a towel.
I wash, and I am so thankful for it. I get out, stare at myself in the mirror as steam covers it, then sigh. I wipe the steam away, gaze at myself for a few more seconds, then turn. I dry and dress. Manfred doesn’t have taste when it comes to clothes, but obviously his wife does. The vintage clothes he hands me are actually pretty cute. There’s this old bolero jacket, this Chinese silk kimono top, and a pretty vintage skirt.
It doesn’t really work together, but it kind of does. If I were a fashionista, I’d be able to pull it off.
I manage to dry my hair, and I walk back into the store.
Manfred is behind the counter. There are stacks of documents beside him. The store looks as if it’s been ripped apart.
I bite my lip as I look at it. “Did you find what you’re after?”
“Yes, I did,” he says through clenched teeth. “Jenny was running another business on the side. The police will be called.”
I wince. “Is that such a good idea?”
“She committed a crime—”
“I know she did, but that’s not my point. I was talking to Mr. Hampton before you came in. He looks like the kind of rich asshole who’ll do whatever he wants to whoever he wants. Do you really want to make an enemy of someone like him?”
Manfred just snorts. “I’ve had dealings with him before. I know exactly who he is.”
This surprises me. “You do?”
“Indeed. He grabs up every antique he can find of a certain age. In many ways, he’s my competition, but he doesn’t seem to have a store.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whenever I’m after a lucrative item for somebody like Thor, he always swoops in. He tries to get it first. When he can’t, he comes in and threatens my wife or offers double.”
“He did that this morning,” I admit, realizing I haven’t told Manfred this. “He wants that box that Thor ordered.”
Manfred laughs. “There is no way in hell I would ever sell to him. Now, speaking of that box.” Manfred looks right at me, and there’s a calculating quality to his gaze.
I frown, tilt my head to the side, and wait for his gaze to peter off, but it doesn’t. If anything, it becomes more intense. “Ah, Manfred?”
“I need you to do something for me.”
“Unfortunately, my wife is still poorly. It looks like she’ll be out for the week. But I want to make a good impression on Thor.”
My gut goes through the same reaction it always does when his name is mentioned. Though it deepens this time. It’s not just fear. It’s a memory of how he feels. It’s so awkward that I instantly lock a hand on the back of my neck, close my eyes slightly, then grate my nails down my trapezius. “What do you want me to do exactly?”
“I want you to track this down.” He grabs the picture that Serena gave me and proffers it forward.
I inch forward and take it. “You do realize that this is only my second day, right? I have absolutely no idea about antiquities.”
“Firstly, they’re antiques, not antiquities. Secondly, I’m not asking you to figure out where it is. I have several likely places, and they’re all in the vicinity of the city. Just go and track them down. See if they’re there. If they’re not, just strike them off the list.”
I already made the conclusion earlier at the hospital that I need to find Thor’s box. Now Manfred is practically going to hand it to me?
I don’t need to ask which is going to be more important – keeping this job or keeping Thor safe. My body knows that answer. So even if I have to become a petty criminal, I will.
I don’t tell Manfred a word of this, of course, and I just nod. I frown at the picture. “Why are you so good at looking for things like this? I thought you were just….”
He looks up at me from over the rims of his glasses. “A mad old hatter? Don’t know my past, do you?”
I scratch my brow.
“I used to be a private detective.”
I pause, then laugh. It has to be a joke.
He crosses his arms. “Is it really that unlikely?”
“You used to be a private detective? I thought you used to be in the Army? And you used to be a chef. And you used to… was it write books?”
“Yes. Mystery books. It was because I was a private detective,” he says matter-of-factly.
It’s always hard to tell when Manfred is making a joke. I finally suck my lips in and just shrug. “I don’t know what’s true. But are you certain you can find this box?”
“100 percent. Now, here’s the list.” He hands it to me.
It isn’t typed out or anything. I don’t think Manfred knows how to use a computer. All of his accounting he does by hand in ledger books.
At least his writing is immaculate.
I nod. “It’ll take a while. I’ll have to take the bus.”
“Take my car.” He shoves a hand into his pocket, pulls out his keys, and throws them to me.
I catch them, but I’m still startled enough to stare at him, mouth open. Manfred loves his car. It’s this old vintage Porsche. He freaked out when I so much as touched it once. Now he just shrugs as if it ain’t much of a thing.
I furrow my brow. “Ah, Manfred, aren’t these the keys to your Porsche?” I say Porsche like I’m talking about the most important thing in his entire life.
He is writing again and is not paying attention to me. As he shoves his glasses further up his nose, he suddenly gets a thought and scribbles it down quickly. He does not make anything of the fact that I’m about to drive his baby.
He finally looks up at me. “You have a car, and you have a new set of clothes. And you also have a job to do. So hurry on.”
I blink a few more times, then just turn around. I know when Manfred is in one of these moods. He’s not gonna budge. He’s not gonna explain himself. He just expects me to do what he told me to.
Sighing, I turn around. I glance at him one more time, but when he doesn’t scream that he wants the keys to his Porsche back, I walk out the back door.
Marus is waiting for me. He twitches his nose excitedly. “I overheard your conversation, and I cannot believe our good luck. If your boss managed to find that magical book, then maybe he will be able to find Thor’s heart crystal, too.”
I shush him. “Should you really be talking about that out loud?”
“I have an excellent sense of hearing. It rivals any other creature’s. I can tell when anyone is in ear-shot. We are fine. You should learn to trust more.”
I laugh at that as I turn around into the laneway behind the store and quickly find the Porsche. It sparkles. It always draws attention wherever it goes. I think it’s the only one in the city.
I make a face. “I really hope I don’t scratch this thing.”
“I think what you should concentrate on instead is hoping to find Thor’s god crystal. As you saw today, this town is a dangerous one. Others may be after it, too. You should prepare for a fight.”
“Okay,” I mutter as I unlock the door.
Marus jumps in the front seat. I pointedly look toward the store. I also swivel my head in every which direction to ensure that there are no witnesses. Manfred would absolutely kill me if he knew that I had a black cat in his car. He would rake me across the coals.
Manfred isn’t usually suspicious, but around black cats, he just turns to jelly.
“Hand me over the list,” Marus says from the passenger seat.
As I start the car, I hand it over to him.
“I am familiar with most of these places. One of them is a bookstore, but it deals in rare tomes and other objects. Another is a small antique store. It’s really just a bric-a-brac place. And the third one is the house of a prominent dealer. We should be careful when we enter it. I am almost certain the owner is magical.”
“Great. Maybe you should just do this on your own?” I suddenly say hopefully. “I can drop you off. Then you can rush into these stores in your cat form, have a good rummage, then come back if you don’t find anything.”
He looks at me pointedly. “And if I do find something? Say another jealous god, or a sprite, or the Dark One himself?”
I shiver as he mentions the Dark One. Forgive me, but I’d kinda forgotten about him. Way too much stuff has been happening. He slipped into the back of my mind, but now I recall the exact way that Jennifer said his name. She spoke about him as if he was the king of the gods. As that thought pushes into my mind, I shiver, and my shoulders rise high toward my ears. “Who do you think he could be, anyway?”
“As I have said before, I do not know.”
“I’m not asking for facts – just supposition. He has to be a god, right?”
“It will be likely, but not necessary. There are many powerful gods and monsters from many pantheons.”
My nose scrunches high. “Many pantheons? I mean… I just thought we were dealing with the Norse gods here. Right?” My voice shifts up. With good reason. I don’t want any more complications. This crazy world is more than enough for me without adding extra gods, extra monsters, and extra chaos to it.
“It is not right to compare this world to the myths humans have about the gods. You will find that there are some creatures from the Greek myths and Roman myths and other associated myths throughout the world that are real. And you will find that many North myths are false. They are nothing more than an approximation of events. In other words, you should—”
I rub my eyes as I pull out from the curb, “I should be prepared for anything,” I mutter.
“Indeed. Now, I will direct you to the closest place. First, we will go to the bookstore.”
I relax as I pull out of the laneway and join a larger street. “I like bookstores. Bookstores remind me of my old life.”
“You will not like this bookstore,” Marus warns.
I don’t like the note of it, and I frown as I jerk my gaze off the road and stare at him. “Why? Don’t tell me – it’s not full of monsters or anything, is it?” My voice tightens.
“No, but the owner is a wizard.”
“Why didn’t you lead with that? Are they going to be able to figure out who I am?” My voice chokes up.
“If you reveal your Phoenix fire to anyone,” he says pointedly, obviously going back to what happened with the sprite earlier today, “then they will figure out who you are. But if you control yourself at all times, then it will be practically impossible for someone to tell your identity.”
I look down at the wheel and clutch it harder. I nod. I remind myself that I managed to control my power all the while I was at the hospital. I’ll be able to do it again.
When I’ve absorbed that fact, I nod hard. “Okay, this guy is a wizard. Do you honestly think he’ll have Thor’s box?”
“So why are we going there?”
“He might know who does have the box.”
I scrunch my nose up again. That’s becoming a habit of mine in front of Marus. Fair enough – absolutely everything about this world confuses me now. “Are we going to question him just as ordinary people… or as one goddess and one lion-cat?” I stumble over my words.
“If you are asking whether we should reveal our powers, we should never, ever reveal our powers. It is best for you to hide behind the cloak of humanity for now. And as for me,” he reaches up and flattens a paw on his chest, “I must remain as nothing more than a house cat until times of need. You will have to question the wizard.”
“Great.” I scratch uncomfortably behind my ear.
It doesn’t take much longer to get to the bookstore. I pull up across the street. I get out of the car and notice as people stare at it. Some folks even take photos.
I know Manfred won’t be happy with that, but I’m not in the mood to chase them down for their phones.
I get out, and, predictably, a blast of wind comes chasing down the street. It grabs my skirt, but thankfully it’s pretty formfitting, and it doesn’t pull it up too high. I flatten it down, yank my jacket hard around my shoulders, fix my hair, and walk across the street. Marus does not follow. He slips out of the car, and out of the corner of my eye, I can see him walking down the laneway back on the opposite side of the street. Hopefully that means that he’s going to come around the block and approach the bookstore from the back. I really don’t want to be alone for this one.
As I stop in front of the store, despite the fact I’ve actually been here before and I quite like the place, I get a distinct feeling that I’m not gonna like it this time. Now I’m magical, I can sense it has this different energy. It’s kind of itchy, a little hot and nervous.
I don’t know if that’s because I’ve had too many fights today to count, or if it’s because I’m actually sensing something that’s there.
Nervously, I push the door open. The bell tinkles.
I’m struck by more magic as I walk-in. It’s all around. Most importantly, it’s beneath the floor. I swivel my gaze down. I realize there must be some kind of basement here.
There’s a guy behind the counter. I don’t think he’s the wizard. He looks too young, for one. I also don’t get a magical sense of him.
I walk up to him, chewing my lip the whole way.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“Yeah, is your boss around?”
The guy looks taken aback, but nods. “He’s just in the back room. Can I ask what this is about?”
“Yeah, Manfred has a question for him. Manfred Jones.”
The guy has obviously heard my boss’s name, and he nods in understanding. He rushes off, and a few seconds later, in walks the wizard.
I have to control myself. My fire wants to leap up. This guy is powerful. I… I’ve seen him before, but it’s like I’m seeing a new person. I swear he has this long deep shadow that dances behind him and gets deeper with every step. It practically consumes the whole store.
I tell myself not to freak out, but how can I not?
It feels like I’ve been walking around with closed eyes for most of my life. This whole other world has existed under my nose, and before yesterday, I didn’t even have a clue.
He looks me up and down. “You mentioned Manfred?”
Nervously, I pull the picture of Thor’s box out of my pocket. I hesitate. Should I really reveal this picture to him? Manfred obviously thinks there’s a possibility that this guy has Thor’s box, but he’s a wizard, for god’s sake. If he’s half as magical as he smells, he’s gonna know what the box is. And if he is half as dark as I suspect he is, he’s going to use the box against Thor, certainly not sell it to us.
I quickly make my mind up. I shove the paper back in my pocket. “Manfred is looking for objects for his store.”
I think quickly. I don’t need to mention that this box is gilded. “There are these little wooden boxes with Norse runes on the side. I just realized I took the wrong picture with me,” I say as he glances down to my pocket and sees the edge of the photo hanging out.
I shove it back in as I chew on my lips.
“I think I know of the objects you mean. I haven’t seen one for some time. Good day.” With that, he walks off. No goodbye, no nothing.
I lock my eyes on him.
I… I can see his shadow. I’m not making that up. And it’s not like an ordinary shadow. It doesn’t move quickly enough.
The sales assistant stands behind the counter again and offers me a friendly smile. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
My eyes are still on that shadow. The wizard has just walked through the back door and closed it, but for half a second, the shadow remains.
I finally jerk my gaze back to the sales assistant. I offer a friendly nod in return. “No, it’s fine. Thanks for your help.”
With that, I walk out of the store.
I do not get back in my car. Instead, I walk around the store. It’s pressed right up against the adjacent business, so I have to head around the block. I finally find a little laneway that leads back to it.
I push along it carefully.
Marus is nowhere to be seen. Presumably, if he were, he would tell me to head back in the car and leave. That would be saner than what I’m currently planning.
I don’t like the way that wizard makes me feel. And that isn’t even to mention his shadow.
I really don’t know what’s possessing me. I can’t run around town, dealing with every single creepy magical practitioner I find. Presumably, that will be all of them.
But like I said, I can’t control myself. I reach the back of the store. I wait there for a few seconds, my eyes closed and my senses open. When I realize that no one is coming, I open the back door. I slink in.
I know how dangerous this is. I have confirmed with my own eyes that this guy is a wizard. I have to control myself. I also can’t put myself into potentially compromising positions. Marus isn’t here, and if I get into a fight with the wizard, I’m only guessing that I’ll win. Even if I do, if he recognizes me….
God, there are so many reasons not to do this, but there’s only one to keep pushing through the back storeroom of this building. And that’s my heart. It pounds in my chest, telling me this is the right thing to do. My mind focuses on that shadow and how strange it was.
I… I was never really into justice. That isn’t to say that I’m the kind of mean-spirited soul that will hand out injustice to anyone she sees. The point is, I was never like my mom. She actively tracked down injustices and solved them. As a police officer, she put her heart and soul into serving the community. Anyone who was downtrodden, she tried her hardest to lift them up. Me… I don’t know if it was because I was selfish and so focused on my own life or something else, but I never went out of my way to help others. I just survived.
Now I’m possessed with this sense of injustice that I can’t shake. It tells me that this wizard is using his dark powers to hurt others and that I have to stop it.
It isn’t as strong as the way my heart trembled when I saved Thor this morning. But it’s there, and I can’t ignore it. I pat my chest a few times, rubbing at my sternum, but if I’m trying to extinguish the fire, all I’m doing is making it burn brighter.
I make it through the back storeroom. I place a hand on the door in front of me and concentrate. Fortunately that sales assistant is back on the shop floor. As for the wizard…?
I scrunch my nose and concentrate harder. He’s in some kind of backroom. No one’s in the corridor beyond this door. I open it and walk out. I’m surprised by the fact that I’m not even shaking. I should be trembling all over. I’m breaking and entering here. I should be freaking out.
I’m not. I’m focused.
As I shove forward, just the faintest flicker of fire is visible underneath the thick sleeve of my jacket. I’m pretty thankful for how large it is. It’s got long, good tight sleeves, too, but I still see just a glimmer of magic. It tells me my power is there, and it’s ready to help me, no matter what I have to do.
I make it past several doors. One leads to the shop floor. Another leads to another stockroom. One to my left leads to a break room, and the one to my right leads to the wizard.
I stop in front of it.
Last chance to back out, I tell myself. What’s my plan, anyway? I’m just gonna saunter inside, reveal my flames, punch the wizard out, and tell him to stop hurting people?
A flash of reason suddenly catches me, and it practically wraps my chest in chains.
This right here is stupid.
My hand is almost locked on the handle. It’s hovering just a few centimeters around it. My fingers stiffen. It feels like I’m pulling back sticks of wire as I try to retract them and let my hand drop, but as it gets 10 centimeters away, I freeze.
I can suddenly smell something. It’s sulfur.
My eyes open wide. Back when I went to the lookout this morning, as soon as I got off the bus, I smelled sulfur and Marus told me it’s used in strong magic. But here’s the thing, when I was traveling through the lookout, I didn’t smell it again.
… This could be a complete coincidence, and probably is, but what if the wizard was there today? What if he has something to do with this plot?
I can’t shake any of those theories. As the questions climb me, so does my need to protect Thor. I finally find my hand locking on the handle. That’s when I feel that it’s locked – and it’s a magical lock, to boot.
I don’t even wait. When I changed my clothes at the antique store, I pulled out that jet black card and set of keys I stole from the gardener. Now I shove one of the magical keys into the lock, and much to my surprise and good luck, it works. It conforms to the lock, and a second later, there’s a click. I turn the handle. I push in.
This is no ordinary room. I expect some kind of office or something – the administrative hub of the building. It is not that. It is… chaos. It looks like it’s been ripped from the pages of a fantasy book. For one, it’s large, and its ceiling is twice the height of an ordinary ceiling. It is completely packed with shelves that are overflowing with books and objects. They’re practically crawling down the sides of them. And there are desks – too many of them to count, and they too are completely covered with knickknacks and paraphernalia I can’t even begin to guess the use of. At the end of the room is a desk. The chair is directed away from me. I can just see the top of the guy’s head.
I was silent when I came in. I know I haven’t made a single noise, but I expect the guy will have senses like mine. He clearly doesn’t. He has no clue I’m in the room. He’s on the phone – or the wizard equivalent thereof.
“Do not fear. They will come. Tonight, he will be wiped away. His light will shine no longer.”
My back stiffens. As my heart propels its way through my chest and my breath suddenly changes pace, I tell myself he’s talking about Thor. So I’m not discovered, I lock a hand over my lips. I can only just breathe between them.
My heart does what it did this morning. It just… it acts like a shot of pure rocket fuel. It wants to see me jolt forward, wants to see me use every single gram of my power to do anything I can to stop this guy before he can hurt Thor.
If… I truly had the time to investigate that thought, I would realize how completely bonkers it is. Dammit, Thor wants me dead. But I….
I take a step forward. I’m as quiet as I possibly can be. That’s when I see the guy’s shadow. I can judge the light source in the room. I know where his shadow should fall based on where the shadows of every other object are falling. But his shadow is falling in the opposite direction. It’s also moving. It’s not moving in the same way he is, though.
It’s alive, isn’t it?
I lock my gaze on it. It clearly can’t see me, but I don’t make any large movements. Something tells me that if I do, it will notice me long before he does.
I slowly round a hand into a fist.
“The box has almost been found. Carlos is sure of where it is. All we have to do is break into Mortimer’s vaults, and we’ll find it. You do not need to worry, Oh Dark One.”
The way he says oh Dark One makes me want to rock forward and punch him right away – that or just crumple onto my knees.
It has to be the same guy that Jenny was talking about. And whoever he is, he has to be powerful. I haven’t been able to hear his voice on the other side of the line, but as I focus, I can certainly feel his presence. It’s chaos embodied.
I shudder. And that proves a mistake, because, my eyes still on that shadow, I see as it straightens.
Dammit, it sees me.
I don’t waste any more time. I roll to the side and bring myself behind a desk.
“Someone’s in the room,” the wizard snaps and hangs up quickly. I hear as his phone clatters onto his desk then as his chair turns around. He jumps to his feet. “Find them,” he snaps.
I feel a rush of energy push through the room as he releases his shadow. I don’t need to see to know what’s happening – my body screams at me that the shadow is coming for me.
I have no experience with magic – or at least precious little – but as I jerk my head to the side, I realize that the desk I’m hiding behind casts a strong shadow.
Something terrifying happens to it. It starts to elongate and sway back. It contracts and expands, contracts and expands, then goes to grab my ankles.
Jolting hard, I punch the desk. I also roll at the same time, quickly pushing myself behind cover before anyone can see my face.
“Who’s there?” the wizard snaps.
I can’t let anyone see me. Marus isn’t here. Even if he were here, I’d still have to learn to fight properly on my own. He’s constantly saying it’s important that I keep my anonymity, and I have to start understanding how to do that without his help.
As I rest behind another desk, it takes only a few seconds for its shadow to start to push in and out, too. It’s like a creepily beating heart – one that wants to wrap around me and squish me.
This time, I don’t get out of its embrace quickly enough, and I feel it as it locks around my ankles and wrists. It has a deathly grip.
I freak out, but it only takes a single blast of Phoenix flames to break the grip. Then something really weird happens – the shadow extinguishes as if it was never a shadow to begin with and was only dark flames.
I hear the wizard hiss. He’s not pushing through the room to find me. He’s clearly letting his shadows do that. “You can’t fight all of my dark flames, whoever you are.”
Sure enough, I dart my gaze to the side, and I can see the long shadow of one of the numerous stacks of shelves. It jolts, then pushes toward me. It wraps around my hips. I go to scream, but I don’t even want to do that. He has no clue what gender I am yet, and the more information I keep from him, the easier it will be to ensure he doesn’t find out who I am.
This time I don’t wait. Half closing my eyes, I send a pulse of magic blasting into the shadow’s grip. I think I hear this strange scream. It’s far-off, like it’s not coming from the room, but some other realm. It jerks to the side once, then twice, then extinguishes. As I glare at it, content not to miss a thing, I almost see something.
It brings me back to what Marus said when I found that box under the counter in the antique store. He said I need to learn to see between things.
I get the distinct impression that whatever is happening in this room, it’s happening in one of the between realms.
“You will not be able to extinguish them all,” the wizard cries again. “And you will pay for going against me.”
Suddenly I see two shadows coalesce. They form this kind of pointy sword then shoot toward me.
I don’t let them wrap around me this time, and I shove a hand forward, open my palm and fingers wide, and send a blast of magic into them. It easily extinguishes them.
I hear the wizard hiss, and I can detect the stress behind it. He’s obviously reassessing everything. “Whoever you are, you have no idea who you are ultimately going up against. I am a faithful servant of the Dark One.”
This is where I would like to question him, but I honestly can’t. I can’t use my voice. He might recognize it from when I came into the store earlier.
So far, it’s just been little shadows that have fought me, but now I get this eerie sense. It’s coming up behind me. It’s as if something is looming over my shoulder. I snap my head to the side, open my eyes wide, and stare up just in time to see his shadow. I know it’s his, because it’s more independent, it’s larger, and it’s far more powerful. As I stare at it, once more I swear I can catch a glimpse of the in-between realms. That’s when I see that it’s not a shadow at all. It’s dark flames that have kind of just been pressed flat. There’s also something inside it – some apparition or form.
I instinctively understand that that’s what I have to fight. It shoots toward me. It doesn’t wrap around my wrists or hands. It just cloaks me like a blanket. It immediately tries to smother my mouth. I can’t get in any air, but my ears still work. I can hear the wizard chuckling. It’s got this real cruel quality to it. It tells me that he doesn’t care if I live or die, because he ultimately doesn’t care if anyone lives or dies but himself.
I have a few seconds to freak out as the shadow tries to push further into me, then once more, it’s like my eyesight aligns. I can see it for what it really is. And the apparition is terrifying. It’s this kind of skeleton-like face that’s pressing against the smoke like someone has surrounded a skull in plastic wrap.
As I concentrate on it, I finally find my own force. I push out with my Phoenix flames. But the apparition is doing a good job of smothering them. I don’t know how, but as it completely covers my body, it stops me from connecting with my power properly.
The wizard laughs again. He takes a step forward. “Whoever you are,” he repeats once more, “beyond this point, you will be nothing but dust. I will use your body parts for my spells. That is the only memory anyone will ever have of you.”
I ignore his creepy statement and concentrate on the fact that he doesn’t know who I am. His shadow has me. But obviously his shadow either has no eyes, or can’t transmit its visual data to him. Which means I’m not discovered yet. That gives me a spark of hope. I clutch hold of it.
The wizard takes a step toward me. I hear the thump of his footfall. I realize I only have seconds now. I can’t let him discover me. So I close my eyes as hard as I can. I concentrate until I can feel my focus – feel it like hands groping around inside me for power. Finally, I clutch hold of it. Just as that shadow wraps around me tighter until I think that it will crush me in one cruel move, I find my force.
My Phoenix flames do not blast around me, and nor do they reach high through the room, alerting the wizard to who I am. It’s just this concentrated, quick flash, almost like some kind of gun. I hear the shadow scream. It’s a screech like no other. The way it shakes through the air makes my teeth chatter and the skin along the back of my neck tingle as if someone is shooting electricity down it.
The wizard jerks back. He lurches to the floor. I hear his body thump, and the next second, a whole host of books and knickknacks fall on him from a shelf to his side. He curses loudly, then staggers to his knees, but can’t push to his feet. “How—” he splutters.
I’m not done with the shadow yet. I’ve severely weakened it, but I have not downed it. I open my eyes, and I catch sight of my Phoenix flames. They are radiating just above my skin. It’s insane – it makes me look like I’ve turned into a small star. The shadow has now well and truly been thrust back off my body. It hangs limply against the floor about half a meter away.
I crunch up, but I do not push up from behind cover. I open a hand, spreading my fingers wide as I concentrate with all my might. Just a single slice of flame blasts out. It pushes into the shadow. It’s like a knife that tears it apart. This time there is no scream. This time the shadow just shudders, then falls apart. I can see right through to the in-between realms. That skull-like apparition I saw pressing against the gray and black flames simply disintegrates. The flames themselves shudder back and forth as if their lost lambs with no master, then disappear into cracks in the floor.
The wizard shrieks. It sounds as if someone has just wrapped their hands around his throat. He’s still on his knees, and by the sounds of it, he’s rocking back and forth as if he is about to explode. I hear the sound of his fingers clutch the side of his face, his nails denting into his old skin. “How?” he splutters, so much fear and surprise in his voice, I swear he’s going to start a fire in his throat.
This is where I should push up, stare at him with my deadly gaze, and point out he was never going to have a chance of fighting me. But instead, I stay exactly where I am. I’ve only ever used my flames on targets I can see, but it’s time to teach myself a new lesson. If Marus were here, he’d walk me through the steps, but without him, I have to figure them out on my own. I shut my eyes. I do it with so much concentration that I can feel stretch lines spreading across my brow. Grinding my teeth closed, I focus on my flames until I can fully access them. They are not just something that’s produced by my body – they are my body too. It’s only when I realize I have a fundamental, unbreakable connection to them that I truly grab hold of them.
I furl a hand to the side, spreading my fingers open in a flick. Fire leaps off my fingers, twirls around the side of the desk, and grabs hold of something. As I close my eyes tightly again, it’s almost as if I can see into the in-between realms. I swear, despite the fact I have not turned around and darted my head out of cover, that I’m watching as my flames pick up the wizard. His eyes boggle wide, the skin around his mouth stretches to the point of cracking, and he screams, but nothing comes out. My fire blocks the sound from vibrating through the room.
My flames keep hold of him, then twist him around.
I can finally stand up. I’m shaking a little, and my left hand is still spread all the way open as I concentrate on controlling my flames with everything I have. A single bead of sweat slides down my brow as I part my lips and take a few more steps out of cover. I desperately want to question him, but I can’t take the risk that he’ll recognize my voice. As I already said, I don’t even want him to know that I’m a woman. Any information is information he could use against me.
“Who the hell are you?” he splutters, his syllables practically clunking out of his throat. They’re full of anger, fear two – the kind of fear that is designed to destroy even the most arrogant of attackers.
I stop behind him. My hand’s still spread out. My shoulders are shaking a little. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve already used a lot of magic today, or because the situation was a pressured one, and inside, I doubted I would win.
“Whoever you are, you won’t win,” he growls, but there’s a real note of fear in it. He could do that all he wanted when he thought he was in control, but now he’s completely surrounded by my flames, reality has likely struck. And there’s only so much he can ignore in the face of danger.
I suddenly realize why I have to concentrate so much. It’s because I’m stopping my flames actively from turning into their Phoenix forms. Another bead of sweat slides down my brow, then yet another one joins it. I have to clench my teeth hard and use the muscular pressure to hold myself in place. I won’t be able to keep this up for much longer.
I try to think of ways I can question him. Maybe if I let flames spread around my mouth, it will muffle my voice sufficiently that he won’t be able to recognize me.
But there’s another possibility, isn’t there?
His own fear. He lets out this sound that’s halfway between a gasp and a sigh. “Whatever you think you’re capable of,” he says in that same shaking, fearful, but somehow still arrogant tone, “you’re mistaken. The Dark One owns this town. All who do not sacrifice to him will be sacrificed in the end.”
I desperately want to ask him about Mortimer’s vaults. All I can do is think about Thor, even when I am in far more danger than him at the moment.
“Why aren’t you speaking?” the wizard hisses, and I can hear his fear more than ever. “If you think you’re going to intimidate me, you’re wrong. Nothing you do,” he screams, but the screen can’t make it far past my flames, “will be irrelevant compared to the Dark One’s power. He is ancient. All who come after him can never match his power.”
Ancient? I wonder if that’s important information, or if it’s just hyperbole. I think it’s the first one. I base that on the fact my gut twitches kind of strangely. I get this pressure in my head. It spreads down the back of my neck and makes me stand straighter. I almost inadvertently open my lips and mutter the word ancient, but I control myself in time.
More and more sweat is sliding down my brow now, and I can’t even begin to describe how much my shoulders are shaking. It’s like they’re a pylon or something, and the building they’re holding up – me – is seconds from crumbling and never standing again.
“This city is about to change forever. Even if you work for Thor,” he growls, “you will not be safe from the Dark One. His reach will extend everywhere. Thor is dead.”
I can’t take it anymore. I don’t know any spells, and I’m not sure how to hide my tone, but I try anyway. I let a little flicker of magic spread over my lips as I hiss, “Not if I have anything to do with it.”
I watch him stiffen. He’s just in standard clothes, but they suddenly jerk over his shoulders as the muscles beneath contract to the point of snapping. I can tell that he wants to turn his head around desperately, but my flames don’t let him. More sweat slides down my brow. My left shoulder trembles so much, I feel like my entire spine is going to crack. But do I hold on? Of course I do.
“Whoever you are,” he snarls, “you’re dead.”
“You’re going to answer my questions,” I hiss. I’ve already used my voice. I have to trust in the fact that it’s being sufficiently hidden. I have to get out of here right now. But something still tells me I need to gather as much information as I can, because I’m never going to have this opportunity again.
“You have no idea what you’re up against,” he growls darkly.
Though it’s a lot of effort, and the last thing I can do right now is waste my energy, I still shore up my shoulder as I grab my shaking hand with my other palm, and lift him just that little bit higher. He is now about a meter and a half from the floor. I also use my flames to crunch his head down, so there’s no damn way he will ever catch a glimpse of me. He splutters in pain. “Who are you?” he now demands, and the fear that he has mostly been holding back now rages wildly through his voice.
“Who is the Dark One?”
Maybe it’s the wrong question. He just kind of freezes for a little. Then he laughs. “Everyone knows who the Dark One is.”
I go to point out that I don’t, but then I figure out why he’s laughing. Here I am, trying not to reveal my identity, but I can do that just as easily by asking stupid questions as I can by walking up and pointing to my face.
My gut clenches. Maybe it’s time to back out, but before I can, he laughs once more.
“I sense your fear, even from here. My shadow might have gone, but I’m still connected to this room,” he snarls with some satisfaction, though it doesn’t completely reduce his fear, “and it tells me that you are scared. Now, who are you?”
I blink back quickly. Dammit. I have to end this conversation now. But—
I crunch his head down further. I have absolutely no intention of breaking this guy’s neck, but I need to get his attention. And trust me, this move gets it.
He lets out half a snarling scream. “The Dark One will come for you.”
“He has no idea who I am. And he’s not here right now, is he?” I let just a little bit more fire slice around him. I’m sure it doesn’t burn him, but at the same time, I’m not dialing down the heat completely. It would be pretty damn hot to be him right now. He’s not exactly steaming, but it would feel as comfortable as hell.
Sure enough, he gasps a little.
“What are you planning for tonight?”
“Just answer the damn question. What are you planning for tonight?”
“Whoever you are, you’re naïve. You understand how a god is killed, do you not?”
My stomach kicks. I don’t want to admit to him that no, I have no clue about how a god is killed. I’m assuming it’s the same as how a human is killed, but now I’m not so sure.
“There is no point in hiding this from you. Why not pull the wool off your eyes, little child? Thor’s heart crystal will be found, and then it will be broken, right in front of him. There will be no coming back for Thor. He will neither be reborn nor capable of taking form in any of the realms again. He will finally be shattered, once and for all.”
Predictably, my heart reacts to that news. It’s stronger than anything it’s done previously. I don’t just swear that it will pull out of my chest – it feels like it will rush over to him and strangle him.
I can barely control my flames anymore. They want to control me. I can feel them pushing out, twisting faster around him and burning brighter.
He lets out a scream. “No matter what you do, the Dark One will find you.”
“Let him come.” With that, I half close my eyes, concentrate on my fire, and let it knock him out.
When I’m sure that he’s down, I relax my flames, and he thumps onto the messy floor.
I don’t bother taking a few steps forward to check that he’s unconscious. I know he is. I trust my senses. I go to leave, but then I realize I’m never gonna have an opportunity like this again.
Technically my boss sent me here because he thought that this monster would have information on where Thor’s box is. I’ve already heard it’s in Mortimer’s vaults, but maybe this guy has stuff I could use?
I turn around and face his messy office. It’s completely chunked full of things I can’t even begin to guess the use of.
I walk up to something on the shelf in front of me. It’s this strange contraption. I’m not entirely sure if it’s a box or just a knickknack. I shrug, and I shove it in my pocket.
I walk up to the next shelf. I instinctively ignore a lot of stuff until I come to a book. I open it, and it’s blank. It kind of reminds me of the book that my boss gave to Thor. So I just tuck it under my arm. It takes me a while to realize what I’m doing. This isn’t just theft – this is like I’m in some kind of point-and-click adventure.
I make it to his desk. I cast a wary eye over to him, even though he is still very much unconscious and will be for some time.
I let my gaze slide over his desk. Then I stop. I stare at his phone. I pluck it up.
It’s probably tracked or something, but at the same time, it could be useful, right? And if I run into Marus, he’ll be able to tell me how to stop tracking it, or at the very worst, just destroy it if he can’t.
Making my mind up, I shove it into my pocket.
I look over the desk. I see another one of those jet-black dark cards. Without even thinking, I grab that too.
I’m not done, but I get the impression that I have to leave.
I remind myself that he was on the phone with the Dark One before I came in. He declared that someone was in the office with him. What if he sends reinforcements?
As soon as that thought snags hold of me, I shake a little, and I shove forward.
I lean down and pat down his pockets. “You really are a petty criminal now, aren’t you, Celeste?” I mutter to myself.
I don’t find anything of use. I shove up. I make it to the door, turn around, and glance at him, not entirely sure why I’m doing it. Am I reinforcing the fact that I fought him? On my own, to boot? Or, as I look at this office, am I realizing that my days from now on are always going to involve fights like this?
It seems that absolutely every single force in the entire city is after Thor. And if there’s just me standing in his way….
I turn around. I face the door. No one’s behind it, so I open it and walk out. Then I answer my question in my head. If it’s just me, I’m gonna have to save Thor all on my own.
I don’t look back as I walk away, the book under my arm and the other stolen goods in my pockets.
I make it out of the back of the bookstore.
I’m not surprised to see that Marus is waiting across the side of the street for me, his tail flashing as he sits up on top of the car. I go to walk across the street, but then he looks at me pointedly.
Even from here, I can kind of guess what his expression means. He doesn’t want me to obviously be seen walking around from the back of the bookstore. So I take a circuitous route. It’s like 10 minutes until I make it back to the car, but I’m happy I’ve done this. By the time I reach it, I’ve already taken my jacket off and have hidden the book inside. I should look as if I’m a completely ordinary pedestrian. With a neutral expression, I open the car, clamber inside, and wait until Marus jumps in through the open window.
I pull out before Marus turns to me. He arches an eyebrow. “A masterful fight, my lady.”
We’ve stopped at a red light, and I turn to look at him, a peeved expression flattening my lips. “I’m sorry, were you paying attention to the entire fight? Did you just choose not to come to help me?”
“I was within range. I was there to assist you if you required it. But you never did. What did you learn?”
I blow air through my teeth. “Thor is screwed. Everyone in this town wants him dead.” I’m not really paying attention to my tone. I’m not trying to modulate it or anything, so I let raw emotion filter through. I hear it, and I’m shocked by how genuine it is. It’s like Thor and I….
I can’t go there. I turn to Marus. “Do you know where Mortimer’s vaults are? Do you even know what they are?” I ask hopefully.
He nods. “They are a set of magical vaults attached to a bank. They’re downtown. Why?”
“Someone called Carlos is going after them. Apparently Thor’s crystal is inside. They’re planning….” I have to take a steadying breath to spit this out – it’s too emotional just to say in one go. “They’re planning on killing him tonight. That wizard back there, he said that all they need to do is break Thor’s heart crystal in front of him. And—” I can’t finish. I don’t want to, and my lips just give up.
Fortunately Marus isn’t staring at me. He gazes ahead and slowly nods. “I see. We should investigate this. But first, we should track down the other two targets that your boss gave you.”
I’m so shocked by this, I almost flatten my foot on the brake. “I’m sorry? Maybe… maybe you didn’t hear me? Someone called Carlos is going after the crystal now. We need to get there and stop him.”
Marus turns his head and stares at me. “Your boss has successfully found god crystals in the past, as well as other important magical items.”
“What are you saying?” My stomach suddenly lurches as if I’ve swallowed a mule.
“There is something unusual about Manfred and his wife. There is a possibility… a very small one, that they may be slightly magical.”
I don’t even know where to begin with that, so I just stare at him, my eyes fully open and my lips parting slowly.
“I say we track down the last two targets on this map, and then we head to the vaults.”
“What if we don’t get there in time? What if they steal Thor’s heart crystal?”
“Then tonight, when you are at the exhibition, you steal it back.”
I just… I can’t even begin to comprehend this plan. My heart…. Screw it. I can’t even describe my heart. It’s like I’m disconnected from my body momentarily, because if I remain connected to it, I’ll explode.
“Marus, that’s downright irresponsible. You’re the one who told me that I have to do everything within my power to protect Thor,” I say, now speaking as fast as I possibly can and throwing the words out of my mouth as if I’m some sinking ship that suddenly has to reduce its weight or see everyone within drown.
“I am not convinced that you have the power to take on someone like Carlos. This may be the only way.”
“Wait, you know who this Carlos is?”
“If he’s who I think he is,” Marus says as he continues to stare forward out of the windscreen, his tail tucked neatly between his legs, “then he is a very high-level demigod.”
Marus flashes his gaze over to me. “Do not take that as evidence that you will be able to automatically defeat him, just because you are a full goddess. He has power you will not be able to match until you are much stronger.”
I swear. But then I shake my head. “We still have to give it a go. If we think that his heart crystal is there—”
“As I said, I believe it may be saner to simply follow your boss’s instructions. Now, what is the next locale? Oh yes, a bric-a-brac store. It’s not that far from here.”
I just stare at him. I wait for him to change his mind. Dammit, he was the one who forced me to understand that I have to protect Thor this morning. Now he’s just….
A part of me understands, but the rest of me just can’t comprehend this. It’s like I have to save Thor, even in my thoughts.
Though it’s the last thing I want to do, I follow through with Marus’s plan. My better reason wins out and points out to me that he has been magical for a lot longer than me. He understands this world, and importantly, he understands Thor.
I park directly outside the bric-a-brac store. It’s not deep in downtown. It’s out in one of the residential districts. As I look up at its dented façade and let my gaze trace along the old, warped sign, I realize this place hasn’t seen any love – and likely any money – for quite some time.
I frown at Marus. “You sure this isn’t a waste of our time? It looks as if this place hasn’t sold a single thing in years.”
“Looks are always deceiving. The man who runs this store is perhaps one of the most skilled acquirers of ancient items there is in the world.”
I think that’s a pretty grand statement, but I shrug. I want to get this done. If I see everyone on the list, then Marus will allow me to go to the vaults.
… And then what? I question myself as I wrap my arms around my middle and drum my fingers against my sides. I’ll just head to the vaults and take on this Carlos fella? I really doubt that Marus was lying to me, which means that I do not have the power yet to take the demigod on.
I get that I have to keep myself safe, I really do, but maybe I don’t, because every time Thor is potentially in danger, I forget that my primary remit is to stop myself from being killed.
“Marus,” I say quietly as he jumps up onto the pavement beside me.
I would say it’s not a good idea for us to speak in public, but there’s no one around. It’s completely dead out here.
“What is it, my lady?”
“What… what happens if I die?”
I can tell the question is completely out of the blue for him. His eyes widen slightly, and his tail gives this nervous twitch as if it wants to whip out from behind him and slap me across the wrists. “Why would you ask such a thing?”
“Because I need to know. You said that it’s important for me not to let Thor kill me. But what if I die naturally… or unnaturally at the hands of the gods?”
“There would be dark times ahead for everyone,” he says, his voice barely capable of pushing those words out.
I take a sharp breath. I turn to him fully. I frown hard. “What do you mean dark times?”
“Never mind. Let’s get this done.”
I want to push, but Marus has already darted ahead. Once more, he clearly has no intention of coming in the front door of the store with me. Instead, he rushes around back. All I can see is his flashing tail darting out of sight. I get the urge to follow him. I need him to answer that question. As I grip a hand on my stomach and roll it over my front, I realize I have to know what’s truly at stake.
“Things would become dark,” I mutter to myself, not letting those words push out far. I shiver. I look up at the sky. Is it just my imagination, or, despite the fact there are no clouds actively blocking the sun, is it that little bit dimmer now that I’ve asked this question?
I try to push away that completely paranoid thought. I finally walk in the front door.
If I think Manfred’s store is a crazy death trap, then this store is…. It looks like a junk pile. As I walk in, there’s this mound of magazines near the front. It’s sliding all about, the main tower of magazines probably having fallen decades ago. I have to pick my way between them, and even then, I half slip on one. I right myself quickly. I stare at shelves that are completely overflowing with… stuff. It’s all sorts of random stuff, too. There are dead house lights, old velvet and lace fans, shoes that are full of moss, and half-burned candles.
It looks… kind of looks like a magic supply store, I think quickly. I jerk my mind back to what I saw in that wizard’s office. I think I saw a couple of burned-out candles just like the one that’s right next to me. I go to pick it up, but that’s when I hear someone growling from behind me. It sure as hell isn’t Marus. Surprised, I jolt. I turn around.
There’s an old man. He’s pretty wizened. I can’t even guess his age. He’s wearing these thick coke-bottle glasses, and he peers at me from over the top of them. “You only touch what you buy,” he snaps.
I nod. I let my hand drop. “I’ve come here on business.”
“Everybody comes here on business,” he says as he gestures wide with his hands and lets them flop down to his sides with a thwack. He’s wearing old gray pants and britches. It barely looks as if he has any legs underneath them, he’s that skinny.
“Tell me when you have something you want to buy,” he snarls as he walks off.
What’s with all of these bitchy business owners? Do they know that the first rule of sales is to treat their customer like a king or queen?
I don’t point that out. I clear my throat. “Manfred Jones sent me,” I mutter.
He stops, but only for a couple of seconds. “What would I want to do with him?”
“He’s trying to procure an item for a client. It’s a box with Norse runes on it—”
“A god box,” he says.
I stiffen slightly as I realize he’s actually admitted to what it is. But I quickly realize he’s not actually admitting anything. He would still think I’m a human and that those words will just wash right over me.
I press a breath through my teeth. “I guess,” I mutter uneasily as I rub my arms. “This one’s… got gold around it.”
He chuckles. It’s dark, but I don’t get the sense that he is dangerous at all. It’s almost ironic.
“We’re all after that box. You can tell my dear friend Manfred that I don’t have it.”
He goes to walk away. I open a hand wide. “He said that you might know where it is, though?”
He turns around and looks at me. He darts his gaze up and down me. I stand straighter. I don’t like the look in his eyes. It’s disarming. I hope he can’t see through my sleeves to my flames underneath. They’re controlled and all, and it’s nothing more than a paranoid thought, but I can’t shift it, because his gaze is that piercing.
“You’re not the usual sales assistant that works for his wife. Where’d she go, anyway?”
“He fired her.”
“That would be the illegal side business she was running, then. What about you?” His nose twitches slightly.
I don’t exactly know what he’s asking. Does he want to know if I’m running a side business?
“Ah, I used to work for Manfred’s bookstore. He kind of just shoved me across to the antique store. I don’t really know anything about antiques,” I admit.
He laughs. “That’s quite obvious. You don’t seem to be cut out for this business.”
There’s something very specific about the way he says this business.
I press my lips between my teeth. I take a step toward him. I get the impression that he’s holding something back. I take a breath. “If you’ve got any information at all about how we could find this box, it would be greatly appreciated.”
He looks right at me. “All right, I’ve got some information, but I warn you, it’ll come at a cost.”
I make a face. I still actually haven’t established how much Serena is willing to pay for the box, then I quickly remind myself that I have absolutely no intention of giving it to her. Once this is all said and done and I get the box, I’ll… what, steal it and go into hiding? I’ll think about that when I come to it. For now, I just take one more step until I’m right in front of him. “That’s okay. Manfred’s keen to get his hands on the box for his client.”
“And who exactly is his client?”
This would probably be a breach of confidentiality, but I need to make my mind up. I’m not getting the same impression of this guy as I got of that wizard. Does that mean I can trust this guy? There’s obviously a magical underbelly of this town that I have never seen before. I have no experience with it. I’m new and naïve, and it will be too easy for me to trust the wrong people. I know that, but I quickly come to a decision, and I trust my gut over my brain. “He’s a rich philanthropist. He’s—”
“Thor Asdor,” he says. He looks at his feet, and he nods. “Come with me.” He turns around and leads me through the store.
I follow. All the while, I stare at the strange bric-a-brac on the shelves. I swear it only gets weirder. It’s honestly as if it’s trash, as if he’s just gone to the local municipal dump, grabbed a whole bag up of somebody’s junk, and just thrown it on his shelves. There’s even an empty packet of crisps. I really make a face at that.
“You should not judge what someone else’s treasure is,” he says quickly as we reach the back-room door.
“Isn’t that… just an empty packet of crisps?”
“An empty packet can be filled again,” he says opaquely.
I stare back at the packet of crisps, wondering if it has some kind of spell cast on it which means that it will automatically fill whenever its owner wants it to, then I hear a groaning creaking as the door opens. It sounds as if it has never been oiled in all of its existence. He ushers me onward. I follow.
The back of the store is large and expansive. There’s some kind of break room, and there’s a comfortable-looking chair. I sit down in it. He wanders off for a few seconds then comes back with a massive book in his hands. It is huge. It also has a gold-leaf spine and a picture of what looks like the tree of life on the front. As soon as I see that, I tense all over. My whole body primes me, telling me that whatever is inside the book, it’s going to be important.
Without sitting next to me, he moves up, opens the book at a specific page, and then just dumps it in my lap. It’s pretty heavy, but I don’t complain about the weight. I immediately let my gaze dart down until it locks on a picture.
“I can’t tell you where the box is, but I can tell you that it will be inside another box. That one.”
He points out the picture.
My gaze roves over it. I want to ensure that I’m careful with my expression, but maybe I’m not. I know a little too much wonder is spreading my features, slackening my lips, and opening my eyes too wide.
I even trace a hand down the picture of the box. There’s something mesmerizing about it. It’s massive, it’s black, and it’s got two gold handles with obsidian inlaid within them. There are Norse runes all over it, and on the top, there’s another picture of the tree of life.
I look up at him. “Can I take a photo of this?” I ask hopefully. I go to pull my phone out of my pocket, but then realize it’s the wrong phone. It’s the one that belongs to the wizard. I got Marus to have a look at it before I left the car. He cast something on it and promised it will be impossible to track.
I switch hands, grab up my real phone, and look up hopefully at the man.
He snorts. “You can try to take a photo, if you’d like.” He emphasizes the word try.
I don’t hear the warning in his voice, and I attempt to take a snap, anyway. I look down at the screen but realize that, despite the fact I pressed the right button and ostensibly took a photo, all that comes back is this black, undifferentiated blob.
I try again, then frown up at him.
He stares at me mysteriously. “There must be something wrong with your phone. So you’ll just have to take a mental picture.” He taps the side of his head.
I glance at the box again. Once more it kind of just stills me to the spot. I feel something gathering inside me. It’s enough that I want to clutch my chest, but I realize my expression is already way too uncontrolled. I soon close the book, even though I get the urge to look through the rest of it. I haven’t been invited to do that, though. And though I want to trust this guy, I can tell that he will be pretty easy to anger. I nod at him. “Thank you for your assistance.” I push up.
“Are you going to the exhibition tonight?” he suddenly demands.
I’m a little shocked by his forceful question, but I nod. I tuck my hair behind my ears. That’s a move I don’t do much. And it’s usually a telling one. I do it when I’m embarrassed or interested in something. And there should be no reason for either emotion right now.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t go,” he says flatly.
My back straightens. “Sorry, why not?”
He darts his gaze over to the window. It’s not a great window, but we can both still see a slice of sky. I watch him as his eyes get caught on the clouds marching across the horizon. “I can’t promise much in life, but I can promise this,” his voice dips down low, “there will be a storm tonight. And if you are unlucky enough to get caught up in it, it might sweep you off your feet forever.” With that opaque statement, he leans in, grabs his book back, and walks me back to the main store. He waves briefly but doesn’t say goodbye.
I stand there, blinking back my surprise.
I walk out the front door and make it across to the car.
Marus is already waiting for me. He jumps in as I roll down the window.
I sit there, my hands on the wheel, and slowly tilt my head up.
“Thor is unlikely to come scooting down from the sky to kill you,” Marus says as he settles back against the chair.
“That’s not what I’m thinking,” I say, but it’s a lie. I can’t get the way the guy said that I’ll be caught up in the storm out of my head. It shakes through my body.
Maybe… okay, this sounds crazy, and I don’t want to admit it to anyone else but my own mind, maybe I kind of want to be caught up in a storm? Maybe my whole life I’ve been waiting for something to happen, and it finally is?
“My lady, why are you staring so distractedly up at the sky with such a strange expression on your face?”
As soon as he mentions my expression, I quickly yank my head down, start the car, and pull out. “Okay, so we’ve only got one place left to go, right?”
“Yes. I fear there may be a fight, however.”
“Fight?” I frown powerfully.
“Indeed, my lady. A fight.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The last person on the list we must track down is Madam Sorrento. She is one of the best collectors in the city. If anyone has the box, it is her.”
“What about the vault?” I haven’t forgotten it. Now I’m driving, I have to control the urge to head there right now.
“As I said, we must trust your boss. I get the impression that he has skills we cannot ignore.”
I just sigh. “What about those items I stole from that wizard?”
They’re all in the back of my car, apart from the phone which is still in my pocket. As I negotiate a tricky turn, I pull it out and throw it onto the seat beside Marus.
He frowns down at it. “I’m sure it will come in handy in time, however—”
It suddenly rings.
I stiffen up and stare at it wildly. “Marus, what should we do? What should we do?”
“Not answer it,” he says calmly. “As I said before, I have cast spells on it – and it won’t be able to be tracked.”
“Right. But… what if it’s… him?”
“I can only assume you’re talking about the Dark One,” he says, and there’s an equally dark note in his voice as he mentions the creature’s name.
“That wizard said that he’s ancient.” My voice becomes all choked on the word ancient. It’s truly hard to push it from my lips, and I’m not entirely sure why. This reaction… it’s coming from some place beyond me – a place back in time, and back through the realms, too. I’ve never felt as connected as I do now, but it doesn’t last. It’s just a flash, yet it’s enough that I sit straighter and clutch the wheel tighter.
“The wizard was likely aggrandizing—”
“No, he wasn’t,” I say strictly, and I surprise myself with my vehemence. “Whatever the Dark One is… whoever he is,” I correct myself, “he’s ancient.”
Marus stares at me, a frown parting his small mouth. Then he shakes his head. “I still do not suggest answering. For if he is ancient,” his voice dips down too, “he may be able to cast spells that I will not be able to accommodate for. It would be very poor form to answer. However, if we’re lucky, he might leave a message or send a text.”
I blink at the sheer oddness of that. Here we are talking about an energy from long, long ago – some chaotic power the likes of which the world has not seen for ages – and Marus thinks the same dark power knows how to text?
It takes a few nerve-racking seconds until the phone rings out. When it does, I let out a long breath and don’t realize I’ve been holding it in my chest the whole time.
Weirdly, Marus is right, and a few seconds later, there’s a ping.
“Ah, we have a message,” he says happily. He leans over the phone. I then watch him awkwardly trying to manipulate the screen with the edge of his paw. He stuffs up often, owing to the fact his paw is large, and it doesn’t have the same dexterity as a finger, but he finally does what he has to.
“Isn’t the phone locked?”
“Yes, but a mere lock is nothing compared to my skills. Now…” he trails off but finally hisses in satisfaction. The next thing I know, he’s playing the message.
“The preparations are ready for tonight,” this dark voice says.
It immediately makes my hackles rise. “It’s—” I began, about to say that it’s the Dark One, but I stop. I shake my head. Sure, I get a dark sense, but I don’t get an old one.
“What is it, my lady?”
I don’t know why I say this, but it suddenly jumps into my head. “It’s Carlos, isn’t it?”
Marus gets this absolutely insanely happy look in his eyes. It’s like he’s just won the lottery. He even draws up his claws and claps them together. “Correct. I am so proud of you and your powers.”
I feel a little awkward.
There isn’t anything more to the message. “Play it again,” I insist anyway.
“As you wish.”
He plays it again. We just stopped at a red light, and I know from this section of town that it will be a long one, so I feel comfortable enough to close my eyes. I throw my senses completely into the message, and there, in the background, I hear something.
“Do you hear that crackle? It… it sounds like a toad.” Immediately, my eyes open. They snap wide. “It’s Mr. Hampton,” I hiss.
“How do you know that?”
“Because whenever I’m near him, he sounds like he’s got a toad in his throat. It’s him,” I say conclusively.
“Interesting,” Marus points out. “We should hurry to our next destination.”
“But it’s out of the city. It’ll take an hour round-trip.”
“It does not matter. We must head there now.”
“What if Mr. Hampton and Carlos have already got Thor’s crystal? I mean, I learned something at that bric-a-brac store. It’s inside this huge black box. But do you honestly think this collector will be able to help us at all?”
“Trust me,” Marus says as he settles back in the seat and closes his eyes. He turns his face up to the late afternoon sunshine.
“I do trust you,” I mutter. “But Thor….”
Marus looks like he’s just curled up to sleep. I know he’s still paying attention to me, though. He waits for me to finish the sentence.
Thor is… what?
A monster who tried to kill me? A fool who allowed himself to be manipulated by other people in his kingdom? Or… the kind man who wanted to buy me breakfast this morning and led me away from the fire alarm in his arms?
I am not good at being conflicted. I usually want to know my mind. I can’t right now. Because old fractured memories I can’t even begin to guess the significance of are swelling through me, rising up from some depth that’s just beginning to stir.
I don’t know what will happen when my memories rise once more. I don’t know who I’ll become. And more importantly, I don’t know what I’ll do.
No, I do. There’ll only be one fixture going forward. I will protect Thor. Because if I don’t, nothing else will count.
We arrive at Madam Sorrento’s. The entire way over, Marus sleeps softly while my mind just whirls about. It jerks from the clouds and the growing storm over to Mortimer’s vaults, then back to the message from Carlos, then over to what I learned at the bric-a-brac store.
By the time I pull up outside of Madam Sorrento’s veritable palace, I feel like I’ve swallowed a bullet and it’s been bouncing around my brain for the last half hour.
I actually stagger out of the car. I wait for Marus to jump out, but he just shakes his head and quickly leaps down into the footwell instead, doing his best job to hide within it.
I frown. “What are you doing? I thought you said this place was… dangerous?” I say carefully, lowering my tone so no one can pick it up, despite the fact no one’s in the car park but me.
There’s a clipping wind. I can smell the scent of rain. It’s like the storm has already started raining up in the hills, but I know that means it’s not going to spare the city. It’ll rain and rain and rain tonight. Oh, there’ll be thunder, too.
At that promise, I shake, but it isn’t nearly as uncontrollable as it should be.
I’m reminded of the soft smile Thor gave me. He promised me that I won’t be struck by lightning.
I shake my head again. Marus darts his little head out, his whiskers twitching as he opens his nostrils and sniffs the air. “I can’t come out. I told you, she’s powerful. If I use magic, she’ll know. You need to do this on your own.”
I clench my teeth. “Firstly, you could’ve told me that you weren’t coming on the car ride over here instead of sleeping in the sunshine. Secondly,” I grip the door tighter and lean in, my gaze becoming a little wild, “I can’t do this without you. You said she’s powerful. What if it comes to a fight? What if—”
“I trust you, my lady.” With that, he curls up, and once more, the blighter goes to sleep.
I don’t spare his ears as I slam the car door closed. I lock it, shove the keys in my pocket, then force a breath through my teeth.
I march up to the front door, but I stop and turn before knocking on it. I get this odd feeling. I stare up at the sky again. It’s like… it’s like there’s about to be lightning. I get such pressure building in my gut that I can’t ignore it. I stand straighter. I whip my head around, and that’s when I see that there’s another car parked across the side of the car park. It looks truly expensive.
I have no idea why I’m gazing at it. That is until I hear the doors open behind me and someone clears their throat.
I turn slowly, and then lightning strikes. You see, it’s Thor.
He looks surprised – actually happy to see me. “Are you okay? How was the hospital?”
Hospital? God, that feels like years ago. I’ve had another fight since then. I suddenly remind myself of that and check my hair, nervously pulling it down my shoulder. “It was fine. I’m fine,” I correct quickly, knowing I’m stammering. My cheeks are touched with red.
I try to scream at myself that Thor wants me dead.
He takes several steps down and pauses on the stair right above me. He turns his head to the sky. He gets this muddled frown. “Not too many people like the weather, you know. Most humans… people,” he corrects quickly, “go about their daily lives without ever actually paying attention to it. They might look it up on their phones. They might plan their picnics around it. But they never truly stop to stare.”
I’m surprised by how solemn his words are. More than anything, I’m surprised by the look he shoots the sky. It’s endless again. It reminds me of the gaze he used back in the lookout. It’s like he can see something that no one else will ever be able to glimpse. But I might be able to catch just the faintest glimmer of it if I stare, not at the sky, but at it reflected in his eyes.
That’s a seriously corny statement, but I can’t push it away quickly enough. He darts his gaze down to look at me and probably catches me staring at him all agape.
He smiles warmly again. “Don’t feel any pressure to come to the exhibition tonight if you’re not up to it.”
“I’m coming,” I say way too forcefully and way too hard.
“I’m glad. But what are you doing here?”
I go to make up some excuse, but I realize there’s no point. “Manfred sent me here looking for your box.”
He looks slightly disappointed, and he holds his jaw too stiffly. It makes his cheeks twitch. “It isn’t here. You can save your time—”
I shake my head. Even though the only thing I want to do is get this done so I can get to Mortimer’s vaults, now Thor is here… I dunno. I get the impression I have to stay. Maybe something important will happen. “The box might not be here, but she could know—”
“Trust me, she doesn’t.”
I should trust him. It’s his god box, after all. But I still don’t turn around and head back to the car.
“Madam Sorrento… she can be somewhat difficult to deal with. Trust me when I say that there is little point,” he warns.
Thor – despite the fact he’s a magical god and all – is a super-rich businessman. You would think that if he had a problem dealing with someone, then I – the seriously poor sales assistant – am going to get completely trampled by them. This is where I have to turn around, right? But I don’t. Now I’m here, I can’t shake the impression that I have to stay.
I just press a breath through my teeth. “My boss told me to come, so I’m gonna at least have to ask her. He’ll know if I don’t.”
Thor smiles once more. “Manfred’s lucky to have you.”
I go to walk past him, but I stop. That comment… it doesn’t mean what I think it means. It’s just a comment about me being competent or something. But a blush climbs my cheeks.
Really, a blush? I try to kick myself in the gut and point out who this is. Just because I don’t have any memories of Thor hunting me down, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
I have been told to stay away from him, no matter the costs, but today, I’ve already run into him twice. And tonight, I’ll be seeing him again.
That doesn’t stop me from turning slowly.
His eyes open slightly. “I didn’t—” he begins. His phone rings.
I know that I should take several steps back and be polite and offer him space and all, but I don’t.
He answers quickly. I can hear the voice on the other side of the line, even though I get the impression that I shouldn’t for some reason. Maybe there’s a latent crackle of magic, or maybe it’s something else, but I know that he’s actively blocking me from hearing what’s coming over the receiver. But it’s not working.
I know he doesn’t have any magic himself, so maybe it’s just a function of his phone. It very much does not work.
“Your brother has found a lead.” It’s Serena. Judging by the way she’s talking, this is all-important news.
I get that based on Thor’s reaction. I can tell he’s trying to control it, but it doesn’t matter. I see the way his jaw tightens, see the way his teeth practically turn into wire as they clamp his mouth together. He has to hiss between them. “What?”
“He’s got a lead,” Serena says again, her voice shaking. “Someone witnessed Phoenix flames recently. She’s… the defector is in the city.”
I… I just kind of stop. I can hear, I can feel, I can breathe, and my heart still works, but the rest of me… it falls away.
All those tender thoughts about Thor, they drop off. I’m reminded once more of the only reason I’m on Earth.
I have to stay away from him.
I look into his eyes, and I see a flash of something I have not seen before. I’m not sure if it’s cruelty, impending victory, or maybe anger – maybe an emotion I can’t even begin to recognize – but it’s like a kick in the guts.
“Where?” he asks, controlling his tone, even though I know that if I weren’t here, he’d be shouting that word down the line.
“No defined location.”
“How can that be possible?”
“The flames themselves were not seen. A reflection of them was seen.”
I just stand there, so completely frozen, it will take the sun to thaw me. Even then, I’ll have to jump inside it.
I have no clue what they mean about a reflection. All that matters is they’re talking about me.
Thor’s breathing becomes faster. It pounds in his chest. I watch it out of the corner of my eye as it pushes hard against his white shirt. “Do everything you can—”
“We already are. Your brother is onto it. She will be tracked down. That is a promise. And Ragnarok will be stopped. Her damned hellfire will not be able to start the end. Not this time.”
With that, the conversation’s over. He takes a few seconds to compose himself, then slides the phone back into his pocket. It takes him a while to stare at me again.
That gives me a few seconds to rein my expression in, but it’s too hard.
By the time he turns to me, I look like a mess.
It’s enough that he frowns.
I quickly look for an excuse, and I find one. There’s far-off lightning. It’s loud enough that I can hear it, but not enough that I know what direction it’s in. I still jolt.
It takes a few seconds. Then his features slacken in recognition. “You mentioned you didn’t like storms before. There’s no need. You won’t get struck by lightning,” he promises.
I just look at him.
Yeah, I will. And that’s the point. Today has lulled me into a false sense of security. It made me forget exactly who Thor is and what he wants to do.
“There are no certainties in this life,” I whisper quietly. Then I push past him.
He goes to say something, but I’ve already reached the doors and knocked on them.
I feel his gaze on the back of my neck. Then he turns away.
I hold it together until I hear him get in his car and drive off.
It takes a long time for somebody to answer, and it gives me the chance to stand there and take in everything I just heard. I should be freaking out. Somebody saw my reflected flames. I should run back to Marus and ask what the hell that means and if I can stop it from happening again. Worse, Thor’s brother – whom I can only assume is Loki – is on my tail, looking for me.
What did they mean about Ragnarok?
My hellfire will create Ragnarok? Marus told me that if my fire extinguishes, everyone will be in the dark? He didn’t tell me that it could start some kind of end of the gods.
I press a shaking breath through my teeth. I compose myself – only slightly – in time to see the door opening.
There’s a peeved looking butler. He looks me up and down. “If you work for Thor—”
“I don’t. I work for someone called Manfred Jones—”
I’m using Manfred’s name like he’s some kind of credit card that will get me entry into wherever I want to go. I don’t honestly think it’ll work now, but strangely, it does.
The butler straightens up. “He called ahead to say that his sales assistant was coming. Your name is Celeste, correct?” He shakes my hand politely.
He leads me forward.
I’m treated to a sight of the foyer. Damn. How the other half live, ha? This place is utterly, superbly beautiful. And it’s very much magical. It means I drag my gaze off all of the beautiful paintings and the massive domed stained-glass window above.
I feel it – magic down below me, in the walls, in the ceiling – even in some of the vases we pass.
It is intoxicating at the same time as it is scary. After all, Marus did promise me that there would likely be a fight.
I press my lips together. I try to hold on to myself, but it’s hard. My mind just keeps ticking back to everything I’ve learned.
I want to drag my sleeves up and stare at the skin. I will start Ragnarok? No wonder Thor wants to kill me. I know what Ragnarok is. Or at least, I know the human version of it. The prophesied destruction of the gods, right? Hardly anything survives. Thor very much is not one of the gods who makes it through.
So I get why he would want to deal with anyone who would bring Ragnarok on. But how could he honestly think that I would do that?
I don’t know where that thought comes from. I have no clue what our relationship was back in the past up on Asgard, but I very much doubt we were… what, together? Yeah, that’s the word I’m trying to flirt around. I… I need something to account for the way that I feel around Thor when I go to protect him. And maybe… god, as crazy as it sounds, maybe that’s the reason. But as soon as I think of it, I shake my head. Not only does it not fit in with what I know, it doesn’t feel right, either.
If Thor and I really were together up in Asgard, he wouldn’t have turned against me so easily, would he?
I’m not paying enough attention to the butler, despite the fact he’s asking questions.
I have to ask him to repeat.
Even then, it’s a stilted conversation. I just can’t draw my head out of my thoughts. And my thoughts are playing havoc with me.
Serena said Loki’s coming after me. I can only assume that means that Loki has his heart crystal. He’s going to be a full god.
I won’t be able to take him on, will I? If I can’t even take on Carlos the demigod, then Loki will be impossible.
I’m sweating now. It’s picking up between my shoulders. It makes my skin itch and prickle.
I bite my lip just as I’m led to this really fancy red door. The butler pauses in front of it, straightens his back, neatens his shirt, then knocks once. The door creaks open, seemingly of its own accord, and he gestures me inside.
“Thanks,” I mutter.
I walk in to see Madam Sorrento on a fabulous gold chaise longue. She has this dark wavy hair and these penetrating eyes. At first, I have no clue how old she is. It’s like it doesn’t matter. Her features are timeless. But as she gestures at me to sit, I get this sense that she’s done this thousands, if not millions of times before.
As I sit, I have to control my hands, curling them into fists. But I have to make it a nonobvious move, and I certainly don’t let tension build up into my shoulders and spread into my cheeks. I stare politely and nod at her. “I work for—”
“Dear Manfred Jones,” she says as she shifts forward. She’s wearing this beautiful black lace dress. It slides over her legs. The sound is the only thing I hear until she props her elbow on her knees and then clicks her fingers.
I sit even straighter. Though maybe this is just my paranoia talking, I get the impression that she’s just cast a spell.
Control yourself, I tell myself. I repeat that, over and over in my head. It’s not just for my benefit – but mostly for my Phoenix flames. They’re still there, under the surface of my left arm.
I feel just a faint crackle of magic spreading through the room.
Nothing happens, though. No dragon suddenly rises out of the walls, and nor does the ceiling squish me flat. I have to start to wonder if it’s a test. Maybe she uses it to figure out if anyone’s magical around her.
Hopefully I pass, because she certainly doesn’t call for her butler. She sits back in her chair, arranging her arms neatly over her middle. “I don’t have the box, so let’s just start there.”
I was expecting that much. Yeah, so Marus wanted me to come here, but in my heart of hearts, I know the box isn’t in this building. If it were… it sounds crazy, but if it were, my heart would react. I don’t know how, but it would do something. Maybe it would leap out of my chest. Maybe it would vibrate so hard that it would crack right through my sternum.
I can no longer deny that I’m connected to Thor – and his heart crystal – in a way that transcends anything else I have ever experienced. It’s time to trust that, not push it away.
Her dark eyes narrow in on me. The slightest smile plucks at her red lips. “You already knew that, didn’t you?”
I pale ever so slightly, suddenly reminding myself that I am not in the presence of an ordinary person. I can’t even begin to guess the kind of senses she has. All of that aside, judging by her piercing gaze, she’s very good at reading people.
I sigh, really hoping it’s genuine as my shoulders fall a little. “I’ve been all around town today, looking for it, and I haven’t been successful. I just got the feeling that you wouldn’t have it, either.”
She laughs a little. Then she leans back. “Because you are Manfred’s employee, and because Manfred is a dear friend,” she spreads a hand on her chest, “I’ll at least give you this advice.”
I sit a little straighter.
“You better get the right box.” Her eyes sparkle. It’s with a warning – a deep one.
My lips twitch down. “Sorry?”
“You may not be in a position to understand this advice,” she says, and it might just be my imagination, but she is using the kind of tone that suggests I’m an idiot. I hope she would only be doing that if she was under the impression that I’m not magical. “But tell dear Manfred that he’d better get the right box. You need to find out exactly what the outer case looks like. Because if you pick the wrong box, there will be consequences.”
I go to ask her exactly what will happen, but then I realize I need to keep my anonymity. I scratch my neck and look as confused as that statement should make an ordinary person. “Ah, consequences?”
“Just go and tell that to your boss. You can even use the word curse, if you’d like,” she says as she gestures one ring encrusted hand to the side. She leans all the way back again and locks her gaze on me.
Once or twice, I see her gaze dart around my outfit. Fortunately it never lingers on my sleeves.
“That will be all,” she says after a pointed silence.
I stand up. “Ah, thanks.”
“Will you be going to the function tonight?”
I turn just as I reach the door and nod. “Yeah, I was invited.”
“It’s not really a function for… how should I say this? People who won’t enjoy the show.” With that, she closes her eyes and fobs a hand at me, clearly indicating that it’s time for me to leave.
I close the door. The butler isn’t in sight, so there’s nothing to stop me from pressing my lips together and exhaling sharply. I frown back at the door then shrug. Marus promised me there would be a fight. Sure, it wasn’t exactly pleasant, but she didn’t throw any magic at me.
I turn to leave. That’s when I think I hear something. It’s this slight crackling noise.
It takes me a while to recognize that it’s not coming from the real world, if you will – but from the in-between realms.
I know that I’m not meant to pick it up, so I know that I have to control my reaction. It’s hard, though. As soon as my ears lock onto it, this creeping sense starts to climb my back. It shoots over my face, down into my chest, and across my rib cage. It swells down my arms. It’s my Phoenix flames trying to activate to keep me safe, and it’s hell controlling them.
I fix my hair. Whatever that crackle is being produced by, it could be conscious – it might even have the ability to transmit visual data to its master. So I act as normally as I can, and I don’t give in to my curiosity to investigate this place. I retrace my steps and make it back to the front of the foyer.
That’s when I dart my gaze to the side just for a split second. I glance over at where I hear that crackle the most. And there’s… something there. For a split second, I can see right through the in-between realms, and it’s as clear as if I were staring right at a picture in front of my face. I see this… creature. It’s all sinew and bones. Bones and flames. It’s like its flesh beneath all of its stretched plastic white skin is made out of pure fire.
I have to control my expression with every single trick in the book. To try to hide my surprise, I give out a fake cough or two, pretending my throat’s dry. I pat down my hair, force myself to turn, and open the door. The whole time, I feel that creature’s attention on me. It’s watching me, even though I can’t watch it.
I make it out, and there’s the butler, waiting for me.
He looks at me, and there’s a slightly dismissive look in his gaze now. I wonder if it’s because they’ve confirmed I’m not magical. Or at least, I hope that.
“Could you take this to Manfred? It is a gift from Madame.” He hands it over. It’s a small black box with a white envelope on top.
I nod, pluck it up, and instantly grit my teeth. It’s magical, all right. I can feel it wriggling there under my skin. It’s like I’ve just grabbed up electric worms.
I nod politely again and head back to the car. I place the box ever so carefully down on Marus’s seat, ram the keys into the ignition, and pull out a little too fast.
Marus doesn’t jump up and sit next to the box until we’re back on the main road. Even then, he stares at it warily. He pushes out a paw and touches it, then shivers. “There is a lot of strong magic inside. Who are you delivering this to, exactly?”
I slice my worried gaze down to it, a deep frown digging across my lips. “My boss. You don’t think it’s… some kind of booby-trap, do you?”
“I am starting to believe that your boss may indeed be magical.”
“That’s…” I go to say that’s crazy. Then I remind myself of how weird Manfred has always been over the years.
“I must remind you that we are dealing with the magical world. There is no crazy. There is just power.”
I give a real full-bodied shiver at that. It confirms all my worst nightmares. Common sense has been thrown out the door. Common decency, too. Now the only common denominator is power.
I close my eyes. I do it for a few seconds, but I don’t swerve. I drive perfectly straight. My other senses align, helping me to stay on the road. When I’m done, I press a breath through my teeth, then lock my face forward, and I practically glower out of the windscreen. “We’re heading to Mortimer’s now,” I say, and there’s no question in my voice, nor is there room for comment.
“What did she tell you exactly?”
I shrug. “She told me that I have to pick the right box. If I don’t, I’ll activate some kind of curse. It was something like that, I think.”
“Interesting. You see, Manfred has led you on the correct path, after all.”
I scrunch my nose high and stare at him. “What are you talking about? I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” my voice gets tight, even though all I want to do is act casually, “but we don’t have Thor’s box. And we’re running out of time,” I say instinctively as I tilt my head back and stare at the clouds. We’re still out of the city. We’re not up near the mountains or anything, but I can still see the clouds raining down on them. That rain will hit the city soon. And when it does….
I shiver, and this time, I have to try to control the car, but I still swerve a little. I get it back under control. “We’re going to get that box, okay?”
“Indeed. But unless Carlos and Mr. Hampton have the same information that you do, they may not be able to pick the correct box. Think about it.”
I think about it. My mind instantly goes back to that picture of the box I saw in that book with the tree of life on the front. I regret the fact that I couldn’t take a photo. I close one eye and concentrate as much as I can, trying to bring up the exact image of it.
It had gold handles with obsidian within. And it had a picture of the tree of life. Oh yeah, it was black as well. I hope that’s enough.
I drive as fast as I can, becoming as focused as I ever have in my life. It doesn’t take long to make it back to downtown. Because time becomes irrelevant. Marus leads me to the vaults, and I park out front.
It’s actually part of one of the largest banks in town. It’s also seriously fancy. It’s very much not the kind of place that would ever let someone like me in. It deals with very rich clients. The lobby is massive. There aren’t standard tellers. Instead, there are these stations with comfortable couches and even their own damn bar fridges. Everyone gets their own concierge. As for the building itself, it’s beautiful. It’s about 100 years old, and the architecture is regal. There are even gargoyles hanging off the top of the building. As I stop in front of it, I tilt my head back and look at them. I get a pang that travels fast through my stomach and then up into my jaw. “They’re not real, are they?” I suddenly stammer, knowing that, considering what I faced today, anything could be real, even my worst nightmares.
I don’t know who I’m talking to now. Marus has already bounded off.
He wants me to go in the front way. I know that’s suicide. I take a few steps up to the stairs that lead to the bank, and I see the main concierge. Though judging by his bristling muscles, he’s more of a bouncer. He shoots me this look. And the look says everything. It says there is no way.
I neaten my hair, turn quickly, and pretend I wasn’t even interested in going in in the first place.
Marus keeps telling me to follow my intuition, and this is me following my damn intuition.
It knots in my stomach, twisting and turning, just like the broiling clouds above. As I place a hand on it, I kind of just… lose my connection with the rest of the world. I follow it on this twisting, winding path until I find myself roughly at the back of the block. The bank is now a good 250 meters away. There’s no way that I’m going to get to it by hanging out this far away.
I don’t even know—
I hear it. No, maybe I smell it first. It’s Mr. Hampton. I haven’t consciously noticed it before, but he has this specific scent. It’s seriously earthy. It makes me feel as if he’s been rolling around in a pond for the past several days.
Then I hear his croak. It’s ever so slight. I honest to God shouldn’t be able to pick it up over the sound of traffic. But I do. It is coming toward me.
I freak out.
I don’t want him to see me, so I rush around. Fortunately, there’s a nature strip in this section. It’s more of a boulevard. I run up behind the thick tree trunk of an oak and press my back against it.
Instantly, it calms me in a way I never thought anything could. Yeah, I don’t mind nature and all, but I usually don’t have time for it. That means I certainly don’t have the kind of connection with it that would mean that by touching a tree, my entire nervous system would calm down. I can’t deny what’s happening to me now. It’s like…. Okay, this is crazy, but it’s like the tree is promising me it will do everything to keep me hidden.
“Carry them carefully,” I hear this deep male voice. It’s not Mr. Hampton. Not only do I not hear a croak between each syllable, but it’s… power embodied. It’s got this shaking quality to it that makes me feel as if it’s a natural disaster waiting to happen. All that power and ferocity, and all that uncontrolled rage.
I instantly stiffen up. I clutch my chest. That’s when I realize I’m on a busy boulevard. I need to pretend I’m doing something, so I grab a phone out of my pocket. I don’t even realize that it’s not my phone. It’s the wizard’s. I press it against my ear, pretending to look busy. All the while, I focus in on who has to be Carlos.
Sure enough, I hear Mr. Hampton next. There’s that croak. As soon as I pick it up, my body shivers. It’s like someone has just crammed electrodes into my brain and dialed them up to 11.
“We should open one of the boxes. This is a waste of our time.”
“Sure. Go ahead. Open the boxes. Rather you than me.”
“And what does that mean?” Mr. Hampton demands. Judging by the way he’s speaking, he’s carrying something – and it has to be heavy.
I can certainly feel magic. It’s making my teeth grate together.
I can see people walking back and forth. They no longer glance at me now I’m just on my phone. But why aren’t they glancing at Mr. Hampton and Carlos? Based on the picture I saw in that book, they should be carrying heavy cases apiece.
… Then I remind myself that when magic is involved, there are no rules.
“If you were to pick the wrong box, you would be cursed – to an eternal death. So I suggest,” Carlos says, his voice dropping down hard, “that you wait, and you trust in my plan.”
“Your plan is suicidal. If we take both of these boxes to the function tonight, we’re only assuming that we will have the men on the ground to control the situation. What if Loki gets involved?” Mr. Hampton hisses.
My body becomes all stiff on the word Loki. I can’t forget that he’s tracking me. I only found out a few hours ago, but that doesn’t matter. While I haven’t had time to think about it consciously, my body certainly has been doing all the thinking it requires. I feel like I’ve been slapped – and punched and shot. And who knows, maybe that’s exactly what will happen to me when Loki finds me?
“Loki can come. He can try to protect his brother, but I’ve got something more powerful. Our resources are greater. We will place these boxes down in front of Thor, and the idiot will choose the correct one. Then the rest is written in history – or rather, it will be by the end of tonight.”
Mr. Hampton actually laughs. He’s like he’s some kind of evil overlord. It’s like he’s playing a contrived role in some movie. Or at least, it would be, if his croaking didn’t suddenly get worse. It makes me shiver badly enough that I want to fall down to my knees.
I just hold on.
“Now, call Constantine,” Carlos demands.
“As you wish. But it is somewhat troublesome to hold one of these boxes under my arm at the same time.” Mr. Hampton grabs out his phone. I can also feel as he uses magic. I can hear it crackling, too.
Are they doing all of this in the in-between realms or something? I watch two police officers walk past my tree. But neither of them points out that these guys are using magic. No one’s on their phones, taking footage of this. It’s just as if it’s not happening at all.
I wait for them to call Constantine, whoever he is, but that’s when my damn phone rings.
I stare at it, jerking it away from my ear, and that’s when a name flashes on the screen. It’s none other than Carlos.
The conversation stops. I practically feel as both men stiffen.
The ring tone of this phone is unique.
There is footfall.
Somebody walks past the tree. My eyes lock on them. It’s not Mr. Hampton, but Carlos. And he is everything I imagined. He’s tall – maybe six foot four. He is also as broad as a football player. He’s got this strong jaw and these seriously intense eyes. He’s currently wearing a gray shirt and blue jeans. But none of that matters. The fact he is very clearly a god does. I can see the hint of a tattoo peeking out from underneath his collar. It’s crackling with real magic.
I just stand there, completely frozen to the spot. I’ve already dropped Constantine’s phone. It’s just by my feet.
I wait for Carlos to snap forward, lock a hand around my throat, or just bludgeon me with the massive black obsidian case he’s carrying. But he… his eyes don’t even look at me. He sees the phone. He secures the large black box under one arm, leans down, and picks it up. The phone is right by my foot. I stiffen up as he grabs it. He shifts past the fabric of my skirt, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
Mr. Hampton walks into view. He hiccups, and there’s a croak behind it. “Isn’t that Constantine’s phone? What the hell is it doing here?”
“That I cannot say.” Constantine stares at the tree.
I’m completely frozen. I’m not even breathing. I wait for him to see me there, but… his eyes just lurch past. He nods at Mr. Hampton. “Time is running out. Now, come.”
Both of them walk away. As they turn, I see a strange shimmering field covering them. I wonder if that is preventing the rest of the world from seeing who they are.
… But I can wonder that all I want. I have no clue why he didn’t see me. Yes, he’s a demigod, and I’m a full goddess, but Marus already promised me that when it came to a fight, he would win, hands down.
But he just walks away.
It takes me too long to unstick myself from the trunk I’m pressing my shaking shoulders into. I turn. I go to leave, my whole body still trembling, but that’s when I lock a hand on the bark. I look up at the lush oak leaves above. As I stare at the sky through them, it looks slightly different.
I let my fingers trail down the gnarled wood. When I approached it, I got the crazy impression that it would do anything to keep me safe.
I… I finally take a step away from it. I nod at it. It did something. I don’t know what – but that wasn’t me. Carlos would’ve found me if it weren’t for this tree.
I pull myself away. It takes me a long time to make it back to the car. By that time, Marus is already waiting, sitting by one of the wheels, his tail flashing. “What happened to the plan? Where did you go?”
Still shaking, I shove my keys in the lock, open the door, and clamber inside. I grip the steering wheel and close my eyes. Rocking back, I feel like I’m about to faint. Marus jumps up on my lap just as I close the door. I open one eye and stare down at him. “Change of plans. Carlson and Mr. Hampton have the boxes.”
“How do you know?”
I tell him the whole story. When I get to the bit about the oak protecting me, he laughs. I’m not expecting it. My brows knit together. “Marus? This is serious—”
“And you, my lady, despite everything that is happening to you, are lucky, after all.”
“Oaks are the official trees of the Sky God.”
“Right. I don’t know what that means. You’re not listening to me – it cast some kind of spell on me. It helped me.”
“Of course it did. Because it knows what you are trying to do.”
“It was a tree, Marus.”
“You will soon find that life is a mysterious thing. Do not judge something’s sentience based on whether it resembles you. Instead, reach inside and connect to it with your magic. Feel what is really there, my lady. Preconceived notions are for fools who only wish to experience the same world they did yesterday.”
His words are pretty and all, but they still don’t really answer my question.
The oak helped me out? It was… somehow sentient and cast a spell on me?
I close my eyes again and rest back, my head thumping against the headrest. Then I feel something. It’s lightning. It’s getting closer. It’s just out on the edge of the city. Don’t ask me how I know where it is, but I do. My hands slacken and fall into my lap. I turn to Marus. “We’re running out of time. I have to get ready. We need to go to the exhibition. And—”
He looks right up at me, pride filling his yellow gaze. “No matter what happens, we will save Thor.”
I make it back to the antique store.
Manfred’s waiting there for me. I hand him over the box from Madam Sorrento, and he just arches an eyebrow at it. He doesn’t even bother to look at it and instead tucks it under one arm. He nods at me. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about the exhibition?”
No, of course I haven’t. But I’m not thinking about putting on a dress, if that’s what he means. Makeup is the last thing I’m gonna need tonight.
I mean, that all being said, I don’t have a dress. I only took what I absolutely had to from my house.
Manfred nods upstairs.
For just a second, I forget the fact that he has no clue that I’m living here. I forget the fact that he doesn’t know I’m magical. I open my mouth to say the only thing I want right now is a bath in my gorgeous bathroom, but I stop.
“My wife has a vintage clothes collection upstairs. No one ever buys clothes these days. I don’t know why she keeps sourcing them. Anyhow, go knock yourself out. There are some nice dresses and heels up there.”
He turns and busies himself with some paperwork. I just stare at him. Did Manfred get switched or something? As I’ve already said, he never gave me anything free before in all the time that I worked for him.
“Ah—” I began.
He just looks at me and arches an eyebrow. “Yes, I am sure, Celeste. Now go ahead and knock yourself out. I’ll close up and see you at the function.” With that, he secures Madam Sorrento’s box further under his arm, flips the open sign, and leaves.
That just leaves me standing there.
It doesn’t take long until I hear Marus. He’s coming down the stairs. One of these days, I’m gonna really have to go up there and figure out where this little attic is that he’s mentioned.
He rubs against my legs and jumps onto the counter. “Are you ready?” His eyes flash.
I lock a hand on my stomach and grate my fingers back and forth. “I have no damn clue if I’m ready. I… I want to believe that I’m going to have the power to take on someone like Carlos. But they mentioned that they have multiple men on the ground. I’m assuming that means gods,” I say in a dark tone that shakes with true fear. I place a hand on my stomach and close my eyes.
He walks over and rubs against my elbow. “There is no need to become overwhelmed, my lady. We will get through this. You will soon find out that your power is unmatched. You must just rely on it.”
“So you’re recommending I go and find Carlos and take him on, do you?” My voice shakes just as much as it should at that proposition. “I felt his power, Marus. And I know instinctively that I’ll have no chance against him in a head-on battle.”
Marus leans back and stops rubbing me. He looks at his paw. He looks over to the glass doors and up at the clouds. “It’s about to rain. The storm will break momentarily.”
I walk over to the window. I place a hand on the warped glass. I don’t shiver as I tick my gaze up. Instead, I just tune in to my stomach. There’s this knot of nervous emotions there. And it’s getting more complicated and more twisted with every single second and every single thought.
I want to dismiss Thor – practically throw him away after everything I heard at Madam Sorrento’s. But… I still have to protect him. It’s not fair. I’m so conflicted that, as a single tear trails down my cheek, I still round a hand into a fist. Without me being aware of it, my Phoenix fire roars down my arm and collects a few centimeters over my skin.
I stare at it as Marus chuckles.
“I really do not suggest you remodel the store again. I will not be able to find another one of those potions that I used last night to fix it.”
I stare at my flames. Then something strikes me. I quickly extinguish them. I turn, my cheeks pale. “I told you about Loki, right? About the fact he’s after me.”
He nods solemnly.
“But what’s this about reflected flames?”
I mentioned it in the car, but Marus promised me it would be fine.
Now I doubt that. Because now, somewhere in the city, there’s a strike of lightning. As the thunder rolls through the sky, it’s like a knife against the back of my neck.
I take a step over to Marus, my hands curled into tight fists.
“Your flames disrupt magic,” he says matter-of-factly as if that’s something I should already know.
“What does that even mean?”
“Your energy is unlike any other energy that gods can call on – monsters too. That is why you alone have access to it.”
“What does that mean, Marus?” I become insistent, curling my hands even tighter until it feels like I will break my nails against my strong palms.
“That as soon as you practice magic – and whenever you practice magic – you disrupt the magic systems around you.”
My heart beats harder. “Why didn’t you tell me this before? I thought… that I’d be able to stay hidden forever.”
“But they know I’m in the city,” I say passionately as I ball a hand into a fist and ram it on my chest as if I’m trying to break through to my back.
“They were always going to know you are in the city. This… my lady, this was never going to be easy.”
I grab hold of myself, sinking my fingers into my arms. They slide down. I want to keep gripping, but I can’t. It’s like my arms are my identity right now. No matter how much I want to hold on to it and keep it secure, I can’t. It will slip through my fingers sooner rather than later.
Speaking of which, I open my hands and stare at my limp fingers then slice my gaze over to him. “You keep telling me that I have to stay away from Thor, or the other gods will kill me. How can I do all of this while keeping Thor safe, while attempting to keep my identity hidden, when apparently, people can track me anyway?” I’m starting to become overwhelmed. I need to pull my head in. I don’t want Marus to flash me another one of those disappointed looks that tells me there’s no chance in hell that I’ll ever make it through this.
But I just can’t control myself. All the day’s activities just come slamming back into my head. I’m reminded of how it felt when Thor plucked me up. I’m reminded of how my mind just fell out from underneath me – all at his touch. And I’m reminded of all of the things I don’t know. They are still locked behind this impenetrable wall in my head.
I feel weaker than I ever have, and I fall down to my knees. I clamp my hands over my face. My fingers knot my hair, and they become trapped as tears trail down my palms.
Marus does not jump off the bench. He stays exactly where he is, his tail flashing more and more as I become progressively more distressed. Soon enough, he can’t take it, and he lets out a shaking sigh. “Pull yourself together.”
“Why?” I practically shriek. “This situation is impossible.”
“Because dark forces are making it impossible,” he growls. “This is not misfortune, my lady. Chance itself is not messing with your life. Evil is. If you back away, if you choose to cry in the corner, you will let it win by default.”
I let one hand fall. I don’t open my eyes, though. This… none of this is fair.
“The same dark forces will spill across this universe – if you let them. And though this is hard to hear, you are now the only force that stands in their way.”
That’s a kick in the guts – and that’s the last thing I need now. I just sob more.
Finally Marus jumps off the bench. He heads over to me. He does not curl around my legs. He stops about a meter in front of me. I can feel his gaze, despite the fact my eyes are still closed. It’s not just the intensity – but it’s the magic behind it. Because whether I like it or not, my body is changing.
And you know what? As it changes, and as my power grows, my possibilities will, too.
That’s just this dim flicker of hope. But it’s enough that I finally drop my other hand and open both my eyes. I know that my cheeks will be red and blotchy and that my eyes are all bleary, but I make no attempt to clean myself up. As my lips still wobble slightly, I go to pick Marus up.
But that’s when he changes into a lion. It’s pretty hard to grab a lion and pull him into your lap for a cuddle.
But at least he has a mane. I wrap my hands around it, and I cry into his fur.
He lets out a sigh. It rumbles down into my chest. It helps me realign my senses, helps me anchor myself to the present.
It takes me a while until I drop my hands. I’m a little limp, but I’m no longer completely overwrought.
“This was never going to be easy, my lady. But your destiny never has been. You have a unique ability – and all those who are unique must stand on their own.”
“But I’m not on my own, right?” I say hopefully.
He looks me in the eyes, then twists to the side. I am still holding onto him, and as we kneel there on the ground, I lean against him.
I close my eyes.
And I ready myself with a single breath.
This is it. He’s right. There’s no one like me. But I won’t stand on my own. I’ll stay with him until the end.
It takes me a while to pull myself together. Fortunately I have a few hours until the function. I want to get there early, though. Not that I’m entirely sure that I’ll be let in. But I need to case the joint.
I head upstairs, and I find the vintage clothes that Manfred was talking about. They are stunning. My eyes are immediately drawn toward this white gown that looks like it’s from the 1920s. It has this beautiful delicate beading and a satin bodice. It doesn’t flare out at the hips but rather falls down in straight wisps of fabric as if I’m wearing nothing more than smoke. I twirl in front of the mirror, placing my hands on the fabric again and letting them slide down the smooth glossy sheen.
I turn to Marus. He’s back to being a cat. He nods once in approval.
I grab up a sweet pair of white heels and put them on. I instantly turn to the stained-glass window. It’s not showing the wizard den at the moment and instead is revealing the weather outside. Sure enough, it’s just started raining. It completely pelts against the glass. It’s like bullets from God – sorry, a specific god. Thor.
As I think that, I shiver. I frown at the rain again. “I probably need a jacket.”
“If you think you’ll get cold, remind yourself that you’re possessed of an eternal fire that can never extinguish.”
“It’s the fire I’m thinking about. What if I—”
“If you’re about to say what if you lose control and show your flames, today has proven that you can control them.”
I know that he’s right, but at the same time, I want a jacket. I don’t want to walk around town in this get-up. It’s way too nice. I find a coat and haul it over my shoulders. It’s really pretty and flows out at the hips. It hides most of the dress. And the sleeves are strong. I think I’m going to be obsessed with sleeves for the rest of my life from now on. I pat them, check them a few more times, then nod.
I point towards the stairs.
“I was already ready,” he promises.
I laugh. “Now, thanks to you, I am, too.”
We head out of the store.
I know that I’m gonna get wet. But at the same time, I know that if I get somewhere private, I can always dry myself with a single spurt of fire.
That’s a pretty weird feeling. But it’s not as strange as walking in the rain. I head out the back of the store, my hands in my pockets. In a few seconds, I’m completely drenched. I’m not cold so much as… I don’t know, assailed? It feels like the things I’ve been trying to hide from my entire life have finally caught up with me.
I do a lot of sighing on my way to the exhibition.
A lot of thinking, too. And most of those thoughts are directed toward my past. I try every single trick I know to get through that wall in my head, to try to access my past in Asgard. Nothing works. All I can see is that flash – that memory of me running with someone. It’s Thor, isn’t it? I think I can see him smiling.
I keep my eyes closed, which is pretty stupid, until I reach the main road. The museum is right across the street.
It’s all lit up. These fog lights are at strategic angles, shining on different sides of the building. It makes it look larger-than-life.
Someone has set up a marquee in front of the doors. Security staff are taking people’s invitations and ushering them in. There’s even a bellboy in a trim red and black vest with an umbrella helping guests get from their valet cars to the marquee.
Marus curls around my legs. He’s been following me from a distance. Now he pauses and looks up at me, his rain-sodden whiskers twitching in the wind. “I will be with you, my lady. Not in person. But if things become desperate—”
I lean down and pat his head. “I’ll be waiting.”
With that, I take a deep breath and walk across the road.
I know I need to dry myself before I reach the museum. So I do it subtly. With every step, I let a little Phoenix fire reach up. It certainly doesn’t breach my sleeves.
There’s a break in the rain. It means that by the time I am at the marquee, I’m thankfully dry and nobody questions.
I pull out my invitation and hand it to one of the bouncers. The guy just nods and accepts it without a remark.
It’s a completely different experience from when I showed up at the bank today. The bouncer just knew I was poor. Maybe it’s the dress – maybe it’s something else. But everyone simply smiles at me and ushers me inside.
I thought I’d get here early, but obviously a lot of people thought that, too, and the lobby is already packed. Waiters are walking past in black, carrying golden trays of drinks and nibbles.
There are ropes set up, protecting all of the artwork in the lobby.
I didn’t think you were allowed to eat in a museum, usually, but obviously when you’re someone like Thor, the rules don’t apply.
Speaking of him, I quickly duck my head this way and that, trying to find him, but he’s not here. My heart confirms that fact.
There’s a sudden strike of lightning outside. It’s relatively close, and everybody marvels at it. The flash blasts right through the lobby.
I’m already expecting it, so I don’t even jolt. I just turn my head slowly up, and I stare at the sky.
Don’t ask me how, but that was a message to me. Or a warning. If I fail….
I push off.
I keep replaying what Carlos and Mr. Hampton said. They’re going to bring both boxes here.
They are heavy, and they’re magical. And they must be hidden. Because Thor will recognize what they are immediately. So, presumably, will some of his other gods.
The whole museum isn’t open to the public. Doors are closed off in strategic places, and there are staff in front of them, leading us to the open sections.
I wander around. The whole while, I pay attention to my senses.
… What exactly do I think I’m doing? Do I think I’ll just be able to sniff out the box?
No, but I will be able to feel it.
Marus told me that I have to start trusting my power, my unique destiny, too. So this is me doing that. With my hands crammed in my pockets, only a flash of my beautiful white dress is visible underneath the flared skirt of the coat. I walk until I stop right in front of a certain door. I’m in one of the exhibition halls that’s showing old artwork.
These paintings are from around 200 years ago. They’ve all got these grand themes. Everything from important battles to, you guessed it, myths.
As my gaze locks on the painting right beside the door, I realize it depicts the Norse gods. More than that?
My lips slide open ever so slightly. Despite the fact there’s no volume behind them, I whisper, “Ragnarok.”
There’s a sudden strike of lightning outside. It has to be close, because just for a single second, the power fluctuates in the building.
It doesn’t last. But it doesn’t need to. I suddenly throw myself at the door beside the painting.
It’s locked, but that doesn’t matter to my hand. I let a blast of magic push into the lock, and I yank it open.
Long before the electricity turns back on, I’m already on the other side, panting as I press my back against the door.
That was a spur-of-the-moment decision.
There will be security cameras all the way through this museum. I can’t afford to suddenly disappear from one of them. People will realize that I’ve gone somewhere I shouldn’t.
But at the same time….
At the same time, Thor is in danger.
My heels click as I rush forward. I’m in some kind of corridor that branches off to random rooms. There’s artwork in them, but the one at the end leads somewhere different. I open the door. It isn’t closed. It’s this wide room, and on the opposite side is a set of stairs.
I find myself drawn to them.
And that’s when I hear voices. I’m expecting them, but I’m also not. You see my body is, but my mind isn’t quite ready for a fight yet.
I press a breath through my teeth, then quickly dart around, trying to find something to hide behind. I see an old couch on its side. It looks as if it was out in one of the exhibition halls, but it’s damaged. I quickly scoot behind it, press my shaking hands flat against the floor, and huddle down.
It’s just in time.
I hear people shift past.
I know they’re magical. I can feel it. As I press my tongue against the roof of my mouth, this distinct tingling feeling spreads through me.
I beg myself not to react.
“The disruption is ready,” one of them says. “The creature will be let out in 10 minutes. Then the rest….”
“The rest will be history,” a deep grating voice says. It’s Carlos.
I can tell he is carrying something.
It’s got to be one of the boxes.
I go to rocket out of cover. Something stops me. It’s Marus – or at least his words. I’ll have no chance against Carlos. And if I sacrifice myself… then everything will go dark.
I close my eyes.
I wait until he’s out of the room.
I shove up.
I push toward that set of stairs he came from. I stop on top of it. I sniff. I think I can smell something. I close my eyes and listen. And I can definitely hear something.
It’s this crackle. It brings me back to Madam Sorrento’s.
I open my eyes as I remember that creature in the corner.
It was terrifying. The way it stared at me, the way it sounded….
I go to turn away. It’s this real primal thing. The fear clawing through me tells me there’s no way I’ll be able to push through that creature. But I stop just before I go to walk away from the stairs.
A flash of anger rises through me. I don’t even really know where it comes from. Is it anger at the fact that my life was completely turned on its head in the past 48 hours? Or is it something else? Something far deeper, something far older.
Squeezing my eyes as closed as I possibly can, I get another flash of that vision. I’m running hand-in-hand with someone. Whoever he is, he stares at me, his eyes opening wide. His lips snap open. He calls my name, but I can’t hear what he says.
For the first time, that vision is sharp. It’s laid over reality, so much so that I take a step forward and think I’m walking in the vision, when I’m really walking in real life. I reach the stairs. I tumble down them. I manage to stop myself before I can do any damage, but I’ve already made a lot of noise.
That crackling… it stops. But only for a single second.
It’s completely dark in whatever hallway I just landed in. At the end of the corridor, there’s a door. It’s jet black. My senses are changing. I’m getting better night vision. But for whatever reason, I can’t even begin to tell what’s written on that door. I can’t even see the handle.
The crackling behind it is getting so much louder.
I shove to my feet, but I can’t run away. I’m drawn forward.
I turn my head around. I hope like hell that Marus has found me, but he hasn’t.
“Come on,” I hiss to myself. “You can do this on your own. You have to.” Curling my hands into fists, I reach the door.
I know exactly what I heard Carlos say. They’re gonna create a distraction. And I can put two and two together. This creature will be that distraction.
Now I’m pressed up against the door, I can see the handle. It’s ever so slight, and for whatever reason, it’s surrounded with blackness.
I lock a hand on it. I get this eerie sense. It shoots through me as if I’ve just swallowed a ghost. But I can’t twist the handle. It’s locked.
I prepared myself before I came. In one of my pockets is the keys I stole from that gardener. I pull them out. Shaking and knowing this is it, I cram a key into the lock. It unlocks.
I open the door.
I expect to see a jet-black room, and I do, save for a creature completely consumed by fire. I’m right – and it’s the monster from Madam Sorrento’s.
It’s at the end of the room, right down on its haunches, its clawed appendages locked into the floor. Its skin is little more than plastic wrap – I swear it is. I can see the flames swirling around within.
It instantly locks its eyes on me then twists its head to the side. It sniffs, then launches forward. Its gaze is locked on the door behind me, and not on me. I can tell it’s angling for escape.
Like hell. I slam the door closed. So it changes direction and launches right at me.
I roll backward. I’m quick. I have to be. I get the impression that if that creature latches its claws into me for a second, my clothes will incinerate. And maybe I’ll join them.
I twist to the side, leap, and surprise myself when I do a perfect somersault. I land next to some old wooden boxes. I can only see them out of the corner of my eye. I don’t know what’s wrong with the darkness in this room, but it is penetrating. The creature’s light can only be thrown so far.
But I have light of my own.
It screams, and it’s absolutely gruesome. As it opens its mouth wide, I see flames shoot up around its jagged yellow teeth. They go to push out.
I know I have to take this fight head-on. This is only a precursor to what’s about to happen next.
The flames shoot toward me. I shove my left hand out and open my palm wide. I don’t let my own flames burst out, but I concentrate.
As the fire smashes into my hand, just at the last moment before it can burn my skin, I control it.
The creature jerks back, its eyes open in surprise and fear.
My elbow is shaking and sweat’s sliding down my brow as I continue to hold that fire, but I find the strength to wrench it to the side. I go to smash it into the creature, but it lurches back.
It’s warier of me, but it still attacks again. I manage to catch the flames once more.
The monster becomes enraged.
It throws itself at me. It almost snags hold of my shoulders, but at the last moment I roll back, kick it in the chest, and push it off me.
It lands several meters away.
It’s time for me to end this.
I open my left hand wide. At the same time, it digs its claws into the floor, opens its jaw wider than it ever has, and draws on a charge of fire so strong, it could take down the entire building.
In a split second, I understand that it will be my power against its. If I lose, I’ll be burned to a crisp.
So I won’t lose.
I let my Phoenix fire burst out. I scream at the same time. The creature’s flames meet mine. For a second, both sets of fire crackle in the air, sparking and causing magic to discharge everywhere, but at the last moment, mine wins. My fire rushes toward the creature, picks it up, and turns it to ash without another damn sound.
It’s so sudden and so powerful that I jerk back and collapse a hand over my mouth. It’s my left hand, and I watch as the Phoenix Fire rises off it. For a second, the Phoenix stares at me then is buried back underneath my flesh.
I go to flop down to my knees, but I shake my head. I have to keep going.
I turn around and leave the room.
I’ve dealt with the distraction. So now I have to save the day.
“Just get to the boxes. Get to the boxes and find his crystal. Then it will all be over,” I promise myself.
I make it back into the rest of the museum. At the back of my head, I understand that I will be showing up on the security footage. Maybe there aren’t any security cameras at the back of the museum, but if anyone tracks me, they’ll see me disappearing from one room and entering into another.
It doesn’t matter. Only the heart crystal counts.
The exhibition is in full swing now.
As I walk down a corridor, I realize it leads into the main lobby.
I go to turn around and leave, but that’s when someone walks up behind me.
It’s a guy in a trim black suit with gold cufflinks and green eyes.
It is the eyes more than anything that make me stop.
As I turn, I almost bump into him, but he graciously turns to the side.
We have a moment, though – one where our eyes meet. One where our magic meets, too.
Or at least, mine recognizes his.
His name is on my lips, and I have to clamp my teeth down hard not to whisper it.
It has to be him. For it can be no one else.
He nods politely at me. “Are you here for the exhibition?”
I nod. I… what if he felt my reflected flames? What if he knows that I’m here, and he’s currently searching for me?
“You don’t look like the other guests,” he mutters.
“I don’t?” I say, my voice trembling.
“No.” We’re standing not far from the open foyer. With a hand in his pocket, he surveys them. “You have open eyes, Miss.”
With that, he walks off.
It’s such a strange comment that I tell myself that he must know who I am. But he doesn’t turn around, and he doesn’t attack me.
I go to back off, but that’s when I walk into someone again.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. And my world crumbles.
I don’t need to turn to look into his face, and I certainly don’t need to hear his words.
I think I’m gonna swoon again – fall unconscious or whatever I do when we touch.
“You’re here, Celeste,” Thor says, and it almost sounds as if he’s excited.
I draw together the courage to turn. At least it means his hand falls from my shoulder. I nod. “Yeah. I’m here. I made it after all.”
I’m still in my jacket. Though it sounds utterly crazy, I want to take it off. In front of him. So he can see the dress.
Thor is my enemy, for the love of God. He is the one person I have to stay away from more than anyone else.
He looks handsome in his suit. He looks handsome whatever he’s wearing, but it’s different today. He’s more regal. I swear I get a flash of the old king. It should terrify me, but it doesn’t.
He nods toward the lobby.
I’m not thinking, so I just turn around and follow him.
We cause quite a stir coming in together.
Some people even take photos.
Meanwhile, all I can do is stare out at everyone. I let my gaze cut across the crowd until finally I see Carlos.
He’s standing in the corner.
I freak out completely.
Thor just said something to me, but I can’t follow his words. It takes for him to lean in and place a hand on my shoulder for me to even hear. And that just sets up the perfect photo opportunity. There aren’t just guests here – there are paparazzi, too. They take photos of us together, closer than two strangers should ever be.
I’m a little blinded by the lights. Not blinded enough not to notice as Carlos walks to the side.
He talks into his phone.
I’m completely stiff now.
Thor still has his hand on my shoulder. “Celeste?” he asks, a note of worry in his voice.
What will I do? I’ve been struggling with that thought ever since I found out what I am and what I have to do. Just how far will I go to save Thor?
Will I run? Or will I sacrifice my own life and my flames just to keep his burning?
I get my answer.
I can see Carlos from across the room. I watch his lips move. “Now,” he hisses.
The lights suddenly turn off. It coincides with a strike of lightning outside. There are lots of windows on the left wall. As the lightning flashes, they let in brilliant illumination.
For a split second, as I stare up into Thor’s face, I see him as the god he is. The armor, the magic, the presence – even his hammer at his side.
But the second doesn’t last. The screaming starts.
I can hear the howl of a wild animal.
God. No. Did I take down the wrong creature?
Thor acts. He wraps an arm protectively around me and pulls me to the side.
I see as he jerks his head over to Loki. Loki has already yanked his hand out of his pocket.
People scream. A second later, they start dropping like flies. Slicing my gaze through the room, I catch a glimpse of the in-between realms and watch as this strange pink gas like smoke twists around people’s ankles then climbs into their nostrils. It’s coming from somewhere in the corner of the room. I see an open urn.
It’s completely dark now. The power is off, and there are no more strikes of lightning.
As I watch, I see that not everybody falls. Some people are fine. Though Thor is coughing.
Everyone who’s standing must be a god.
… So if I remain standing, they’ll know I’m a god, too.
Coughing, I fall down.
Thor isn’t paying attention to me, anyway. “Do something,” he screams at Loki.
Loki stands in front of the door, opens his hand wide, and lets green magic blast across it. It’s impressive power.
I think I hear Carlos chuckle. The noise of that wild animal only gets even wilder.
I can hear claws. Something is practically churning up the floor to get to us. It suddenly blasts through doors on the opposite side of the room. I see it’s this kind of large chimera-like creature. It’s an amalgamation of a tiger with a bull. It’s one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen. I might only be staring out of the corner of my eye as I’m locked on the ground, but I’m still shaken to the core.
Thor pushes forward, but Loki grabs him back. “No power, brother. Leave this to me.”
Loki roars, jolts forward, and lets magic slice off him as the creature bounces toward him, traveling 10 meters in a single move.
Thor stands there, shaking, his hands curled into fists. He can’t do anything. I can see the corner of his face, and it’s completely awash with fear. I can feel his frustration as if it’s pounding in my own heart.
I cannot lie here this entire time. I have to make a decision. Even if I rise to my feet and prove that I’m a god—
“Where is it?” I hear Carlos hiss. “Where’s the fire sprite?” He’s screaming down his phone.
He clearly doesn’t like the answer he gets, because he throws his phone to the side.
Thor turns and stares at him. There’s a menacing look on Thor’s face, but all Carlos does is open his hand.
Thor can’t do a damn thing.
I now notice that while there are other gods in the room, they’re not on Thor’s side.
They all band together with Carlos.
I… this is it. I have to do something. I go to push up. But that’s when the massive floor-to-ceiling windows on one side of the room smash. Something hurtles through. It’s covered in flames.
“Finally,” Carlos hisses. “The distraction we need.”
It doesn’t take me long to realize what that creature is, despite the fact it’s moving so fast no one will be able to see it. I almost scream Marus’s name. He barrels forward.
He runs at Carlos and his group.
Shocked, they disperse. They barrel back through the doors they came from.
“What the hell is happening?” Loki says as he continues to fight that creature.
“I don’t know. But they are getting away. Don’t let them get away.” Thor jolts forward.
“I’m almost done here,” Loki screams. Then with a pitching growl, he shoves both hands forward, and this wall of green light spreads out. It smashes into the chimera, and it’s obliterated into dust.
Together, both brothers turn.
Marus has already pushed Carlos and the other gods through the open doors.
Thor and Loki follow.
I’m on my own. Finally. I understand what Marus is doing. He’s buying me the chance to move.
I shove up.
I go to rush through the doors, too. But I realize that will just alert everyone to who I am. So, though it’s murder, I rush around back through the door I came through.
I run down the corridor, constantly keeping my eyes darted to the left in the direction of the fight I know will be happening. Tears are streaming down my cheeks, and my heart… I swear it’s melting.
“Get to Thor. Get to Thor,” I stammer.
I throw myself out of a door and make it to an exhibition room.
I quickly judge where the next door will be.
I take it.
I finally make my way back around to the gods.
I peer out of a door to see that right around the corner is Carlos and his group.
“Where is the fire sprite?” Carlos roars. “Someone find it. Now.”
That person rushes toward me.
I am still in hiding.
I throw myself back around the door and press my shoulders against the wall beside it.
As the god or demigod – or whoever he is – rushes through, I capitalize on the element of surprise. I use my pounding heart to sink myself into my magic, to call up its full force. Then I grab the guy by the shoulders, pull him around, pound him against the wall, and smash my magic-laced fist into his face. It takes a single blow, and he falls.
I’m surprised by my power. I don’t know how strong this guy is, but I have taken him out in a single blow, which means I have a chance.
When the guy doesn’t come back, I can hear Carlos screaming. He sends someone else. But I also hear him scream one little phrase. “Secure the boxes.”
This time, I don’t punch the guy who rushes through the door beside me. I flatten myself against the wall and just hope that he won’t notice me. Sure enough, it’s dark enough and chaotic enough that he doesn’t. He throws himself forward.
I fall into step behind him, willing my heels to stay quiet.
The storm has taken this exact moment to become chaotic. It’s pounding on the ceiling, and there are continuous bolts of lightning.
It means he never turns, even as I follow him, five meters behind.
He goes deeper into the museum.
He leads me right to a room.
I peer around the corridor and watch him open it. And within, I feel it.
The heart crystal. Finally.
I don’t wait anymore. I rush forward and grab the door just before the guy can close it.
“What the hell?” he stammers.
I don’t wait around. I let another blast of pure magic sail across my fist. It smashes into his jaw. This guy’s a little harder to take down, but I don’t stop. I punch him again, even as he tries to pick me up by the stomach and throw me down on the ground. With two more punches, he flops to the side.
Then it’s just me. Me and two boxes. They’re lined up together on this wooden plinth.
I stare at them and cram a hand on my heart. I shake all over.
Then I shove up. I go to open the first box, but then I stop myself. I stare at the boxes. They’re almost identical.
In my head, I hope they’d be different colors or something, but they aren’t.
I do not have much time.
I stare at the boxes again. My gaze slices left and right, left and right.
“What am I gonna do? I have to pick the right one.”
I crumple down to my knees. I’m wasting precious seconds. But as I try to draw up the memory of the box in my head, it doesn’t matter. I can’t figure out which is the right one.
Tears slice down my cheeks. I’m hovering over one of the boxes. One of my tears splashes onto it.
I can see magic ripple across it.
The tree of life in the middle becomes illuminated. But there’s something wrong. It’s missing two of its branches – the left and right lower ones.
I’m surprised as hell, but I realize I’m onto something. I lean over the other box, and it’s not hard at all to make a few more tears tumble down my cheeks and splash onto it. It lights up. This time, the tree of life is complete.
I don’t wait around anymore. I open that box. I wait for a curse to completely consume me – to kill me forevermore. But I’m fine. I picked the right box. And there within is that gilded god box.
I… I let myself appreciate what I’ve done for a few seconds. Because my heart won’t let me turn away. Shaking, I pluck up the box. Then I open it. And there….
I’m running, hand-in-hand with Thor. We’re in the basement of Asgard. He turns to me and smiles. He screams my name.
He calls me… Astrid.
That’s it. My name was Astrid.
I reach in and grab the crystal without even knowing it. I fall to my knees. I press my face against the outer obsidian box. I’m going to fall unconscious. And there’s nothing….
At the last moment, before I black out, that vision encompasses me. I’m with Thor again, and he pulls me up. He pulls me away. And once more, he turns to me. As terror but love slackens his features, his lips move. “Astrid, run, no matter what. Don’t let them make me kill you, no matter what.”
I tumble to the side. For a few bleary seconds, I struggle in and out of consciousness until finally the only thing that wakes me is his heart crystal. It pulses in my hand. It feels like he’s squeezing my fingers.
I push up.
I have the wherewithal to close the box and place it back in its case. I close that too. Then, using my sleeves, I wipe away my tears.
I step back, and both trees of light become dim again.
I run out of the room.
Far off, I can hear Loki fighting Carlos and the other gods.
I can hear Thor, too. And more than anything, I can feel him. As I collapse a hand around his crystal, I know that he’s alive. He’ll get through this because I have bought him another day.
And tomorrow? I will fight for him again.
The end of His Only Hope Book One. This series is complete, and all four books are currently available. You can continue the story in His Only Hope Book Two Today.