Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and Paranormal Romance Books
Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and Paranormal Romance Books

Fire & Magic: A Gods of Asgard Prequel

Chapter 1 – Val

My feet hit the rocky landscape with a thud. I looked up into the blue, cloudless sky, seeing no sign of the portal I had used to reach here, wherever here was. And as far as I could tell, none of the Dreki had followed me through the portal. But that did not mean I was safe. The Dreki were cunning and I had no way of knowing if they would be able to find me. I needed to keep running. I needed to hide.

I looked down around me to make sure I hadn’t dropped anything. Everything I carried with me was important. I could not lose any of my supplies. Seeing only rocks around my feet, I hurried over to the cover of the trees. If there were still eyes out searching for me, the more cover I had the better. And it was under that cover that I could finally take stock of my situation. It had been a mad rush to leave my home when I saw the gang of Dreki approaching, but I could not be sure of their numbers or how prepared they were to give chase.

“First thing’s first,” I said as I sat down with my back to a tree trunk. It was a tall fir, providing lots of shelter. But it was not the tree that concerned me, but the signal I was possibly sending out to any magical creature within a thousand miles. It was not every day that Skadi, Goddess of the Mountains, made an appearance on Earth. My home in Asgard would be there for me if I ever returned. But in the meantime, I needed to blend in with the humans. I needed to appear to be one of them. That meant hiding my magic.

I pulled out the locket from my pocket. When the Dreki first visited me, making their proposal, I had done my best to make it appear as if I was playing along with them, that I was interested in giving them what they wanted. The Dreki gang had grown powerful and their numbers had grown. Now they needed to expand their territory. They needed new lairs to accommodate their increasing numbers. That was why they came to me. I could use my magic of the mountains to transform otherwise normal mountains into volcanic lairs, the perfect home for their dragon forms. It was there that they could grow strong and powerful, building their army so that they could make war upon Asgard. I could not let that happen.

I opened the locket and looked into it. It was empty, as it was supposed to be. As soon as the Dreki made their proposal, I tried to tell the others about the Dreki plan, to warn them into action. However, none of the other gods and goddesses were worried about the Dreki. They were too caught up in their own little games and power plays as they tried to enhance their position in Asgard. The Council was corrupt or uncaring, likely a mixture of both.

Once it became clear that the Dreki threat was not taken seriously by my brethren, I instead made a visit to the dwarves. They were known for their craftsmanship and I needed a proper vessel in case I was required to escape to Midgard, the name we used for Earth. For on Earth, my magic would stand out like a beacon. I needed to hide it away. And it was this locket that would allow me to do that. It had all come to pass. I fled my home, my world, and was left to hide out in a foreign realm.

I focused intently on the locket, building up my magical powers as much as I could. Then I pushed that magic out of me, sending it toward the locket, holding it tight in a small ball. Any normal container would be unable to handle the pressure inside of all that magic compressed into such a small space. That was why I had needed the dwarves. And the price was high. They did not ask for money, but instead asked for my finest pair of skis. I hated to part with them, but the stakes were too high to quibble over such a price. I handed over the skis and they provided me with a locket strong enough to store away my magic.

The ball of magic glowed a bright green. I kept pushing on it, making the ball smaller and smaller, needing it to fit. I never liked the idea of giving up my magic, but I could not risk being found. I could never hide from the Dreki with my magic intact. I needed to hide it away, just as I intended to hide myself.

“Come on,” I groaned as I continued to use all my power to shrink down my ball of magic until it could fit inside the small locket. I had requested something small like this, wanting to make it easy to carry with me. Hidden in the locket, it would not appear to be anything other than a locket to humans, Dreki, or any other magical creatures who happened to be on Earth.

“Yes,” I finally cheered when I managed to snap the locket closed. The green light from my magic disappeared behind the gold plated cover. It was done. I was now invisible to the magical world. I was as good as human.

I hung the locket around my neck and hid it beneath my clothes. Then I turned my attention to my other supplies. My food stuffs were low. There had been no time to grab but the smallest supply. The Dreki had arrived while I was still preparing for my departure. But I was not overly concerned about food. I had my bow and my arrows. Humans may have limited the game available through over-hunting and the expansion of their settlements, but there was still food to be had for an experienced woman of the outdoors.

As soon as I was sure I had everything I needed, I set off, looking for shelter. I would need a defensible place to hide out, preferably an already built structure. I figured that way I would solve the need for water as well. My leather boots were nearly silent against the soft ground. Pine and fir needles blanketed the forest floor, padding each footfall. I moved quickly, but produced almost no noise. My eyes tracked left and right, keeping an eye out for anything unexpected. I felt like I was on the hunt, but I knew instead it was me who was being hunted.

It was hard to know how quickly I was moving or where exactly I was. There had not been time to decide on an exact location when I had opened the portal, my final act with my magic. I knew it would have been obvious to choose Iceland or the mountains of Norway to hide out in. Those would be the first places the Dreki would check, because they were the most familiar to me. I had walked across those mountains many times over my many years, back when I did not fear being spotted for my magic.

I had instead chosen mountains halfway around the world, but even then, I avoided the simplest of choices. The Colorado Rockies would have been an obvious choice. I heard Aspen had great skiing. But again, I didn’t want to be obvious in my actions. Instead, I chose an area farther west, a rugged region that felt more off the beaten path. I needed to be in the mountains, but I did not want to make it obvious.

When opening the portal, I knew I was headed to the Pacific Northwest on the North American continent. Where exactly was a bit of a mystery, but that did not really matter. I just needed to find myself some shelter. I needed to set up a base of operations, a place where I could defend myself if the Dreki somehow managed to track me. For I had no doubts they would try. I understood their desires almost better than they did themselves. It had been me who had first carved out their lairs for them, using the fire deep within the ground to give them their needed heat. But I had no idea they would choose to wage war against Asgard, to make such plans for the domination of the realms. Because once Asgard fell, the other realms would be no match for their power.

As I walked through the forest, I could feel the loss of my magic. In more normal circumstances, I could have used it to reach out and probe the terrain around me, looking for what I needed better than what my eyes and ears could tell me. I could not let myself slip into temptation, knowing that any use of magic, any release from the locket around my neck, could alert the Dreki to my location. It was already possible that they had generally identified my location from when I first arrived. I had to assume they already had a presence on Earth, ready to hunt me after my escape from Asgard.

I walked for hours, my knife on my hip and my bow always at the ready on my back. I was well-practiced in its use and could deploy it quickly. I passed lakes and creeks, always careful to avoid lingering too long or letting my scent waft in the air for too long. Dreki were known for their sense of smell, but I was unsure of how strong that sense was in their human forms. I could only presume they would want to blend in as much as I did, knowing the trouble the humans could cause if they discovered us.

“There,” I said after walking for many hours with the sun crossing the entire sky. There was a small cabin. It looked deserted. I saw no signs of recent human activity. And all the better, the trees thinned out around the cabin, giving me the chance to see someone come before they got too close. They would not be able to jump out of the woods in a surprise attack.

I walked around the cabin, looking for anything that worried me. I noticed the water pump on the outside of the wood structure. There was running water, likely from a well. That meant another of my immediate needs was satisfied. This place could provide both shelter and water. I just had to hope that no one had any plans to visit anytime soon.

Satisfied with my new home, I stood at the door, deciding the best method to enter. In normal circumstances, I could have used my magic to unlock the door. Human locks were easy to get past that way. But that was out of the question. Even letting the smallest amount out of my locket could alert the Dreki to my presence. I had no intention of sending up a flare about my new location.

The small glass pane in the door broke easily. All it took was a quick jab with my elbow and there was the sound of tinkling glass on the wood floor inside. I reached in and unlocked the door. I was unconcerned about the now easy method to get inside. The lock never would have troubled the Dreki either.

Inside, I was greeted with dusty sheets draped over the furniture. I checked the kitchen for running water. It worked and the water tasted clean. You could never be certain on Earth, but I had a good taste for such things. Then again, on a mountain, I would expect the water to be cleaner. It would not have had the chance to be contaminated yet as it flowed downhill. And the cupboards even had cans of food. This was all turning out better than I could have hoped for. My initial needs were met. Now it was time to make myself at home, as well as ready myself should the Dreki find me. I didn’t know if I would be able to fight off loads of Dreki, but they would be limited to their human forms here, making the odds slightly more fair.

Chapter 2 – David

“I needed this vacation,” I told myself as I drove up the mountain. Usually I was able to get away more often, but work had kept me too busy to even make a trip up to my cabin for a weekend. But now I had a whole week to myself. I planned to enjoy my time away from work, sitting around when I wanted to, going for long hikes in the mornings, and even maybe making a trip over to the nearby ski resort, which had an alpine slide that ran in the summer months, when the snow had melted off the ski runs. It was going to be a perfect week.

The cabin had been in my family for years. I had inherited it when my father passed. It was old, but sturdy, having already survived many winters. I had even taken the occasional ski trip, parking off the main road and skiing the rest of the way up to the cabin. It looked completely different in winter, but it still sometimes felt more like home than my house down in the city.

I could see the mountain from my office at work. There were times, especially in the last week, when I found myself drifting off into daydreams about spending time up there. If I hadn’t already scheduled a week-long break from work, I think my boss would have suggested I go. My efficiency had really fallen off a cliff.

I stopped off for supplies in the little town that marked the halfway point up the mountain. It would have been cheaper to buy them back in the city, but it had become a tradition to stop at the more local store. After the years of coming up as a kid and then again as an adult, I had gotten to know a lot of the locals. They half considered me a local themselves with how often I visited.

“Howdy, Harvey,” I said when I walked in, tipping my hat to the man behind the register. He had to be at least 80 years old now, but he was still going strong. Every single time I had visited the store, he had been the one at the register. It never mattered the day of the week or the time of the day. He was always working the register.

“David,” Harvey called out with a big smile on his face. “Long time no see.”

I shook my head. “Work has been crazy this year. But I got a whole week to myself up at the cabin. I can’t wait.”

“You work too hard, you know that?” Harvey said.

“Says the man who never takes a single day off.”

“I do what I love,” he answered back.

“Any big news around town?” I asked, figuring I would get the latest gossip.

“It’s been pretty quiet,” Harvey answered. “The big ice storm we had last winter knocked out phone lines on much of the mountain. Some of those small cabins like yours might still not have a connection.”

I was sure my place would be without. Not that I needed a phone up there. I only had it for emergencies. But I didn’t like how the phone company was still charging me for a service they probably weren’t providing. I’d have to call them on it, but I’d save that for another day.

“Thanks for the heads up. I appreciate it.”

Seeing Harvey gave me another big boost. I hadn’t realized how much I missed people like him. In the city, I was just a single face in the crowd, but here, I was one of the people. Everyone knew each other almost. I missed that kind of camaraderie outside of work. That was the only place I ever found it, and it wasn’t like my job was the best place for socializing. I had to actually get work done.

After stocking up my cooler with food for the week, I continued my journey up the mountain. The traffic was starting to increase as people drove off for the weekend. Most of them were not as lucky as me with getting a whole week on the mountain, but I still had to put up with the slower moving traffic as a result. It was a small price to pay for an uninterrupted week on the mountain.

Turning off the main highway, I still had nearly half an hour worth of driving to do. It was a long way to reach my cabin, but it would be worth it. I had considered at various points making the move up to the cabin permanent, but the commute to my job would have been murder. I couldn’t afford the gas either. And neither of those reasons included the fact that the cabin was inaccessible by car or truck during the winter months when snow blanketed the area. And as enticing as skiing in and out everyday as part of my commute would be, there was no way I could manage it and still earn a regular paycheck. I might have time for an hour or two of work everyday.

The road continued to wind up the mountain. It was not long before I left the sounds of the highway behind. I followed that road until its end. From there, I turned off onto a gravel road that would take me the rest of the way up to the cabin. In some ways, it could be described as the middle of nowhere. That was kind of the idea. It was a place of solitude.

I rolled down my window to get a smell of the forest and mountain air. It smelled just like I remembered it. That was one thing that had never changed about the cabin and the woods surrounding it. The smell was always the same, a heady mix of fir and pine trees. I loved it.

Pulling up to the cabin at the end of the gravel road, I felt like I was truly home. I stopped the car and sat back, letting out a deep and satisfying sigh. This was how life was supposed to be. And the cabin looked to be in great shape. There must have been some recent wind that cleared the porch of fallen fir and pine needles, but that was fine by me. It meant I wouldn’t need to do as much cleanup to get the little cabin shipshape as a residence again.

Every year I went through and performed maintenance on the cabin. Being so high up and getting buried in snow every year meant there were certain regular problems. The water pump needed to be looked after so it didn’t burst from frozen water in the pipes. And I always needed to check on the propane tank, although I had it refilled last year, so I figured it wouldn’t be a problem this time. And there were always shingles missing or nails that had worked their way out of the floorboards. But those were minor repairs overall and they were all a part of the experience, getting closer with nature.

I slung my pack over my shoulders and walked up to the front door, my key in hand. Admittedly, I had always left the cabin stocked with some food, just in case someone got lost and came across the cabin, needing a place for shelter before they continued their journey down the mountain toward civilization. Not that anyone had ever done that, but I figured it was the right thing to do, especially during winter when a night out  in the elements could mean hypothermia or worse.

The moment I reached the door, I knew someone had been in the cabin. The front door had several small panes of glass in it and the one closest to the handle had been busted in. And this wasn’t a situation where something had accidentally hit the glass and broken it. That would have left shards of glass still in the frame. In this case, all the glass had been picked clean. Someone had covered their tracks.

A wave of nervousness unsettled me. I looked around behind me, making sure that I was alone. I certainly seemed to be, but that no longer felt certain. My peaceful escape no longer felt so peaceful. However, it had been months since I had last visited. The snows had melted and it was possible my grand plan of saving someone really had saved someone. At least it appeared on the outside that no one was actively living here.

The moment I opened the door and stepped inside, I grimaced, not wanting to curse. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the low light. The curtains had been pulled closed, making that task more difficult. But I could immediately see the signs of habitation. There were dishes sitting in the drying rack next to the sink, still wet. The garbage can next to the counter had several empty food cans and boxes sitting inside. And the dust covers had been pulled off the furniture.

I quietly dropped my pack by the door, not wanting its weight to cause any problems if my visitor was inside the cabin. I wasn’t sure what I would find. Was this some drug addict that had found the place or had someone truly gotten lost? During the summer months, I assumed they would be smart enough to be able to follow the road down the mountain, but who knew. Or was this person a squatter? It was impossible to know, but I didn’t want to be burdened by a pack if the situation turned bad. There was a gun locked in a cabinet, but it was old and I didn’t even know if it still worked. Not that I felt confident with a gun. It had been my grandfather’s and I hadn’t shot it since I was a kid under his supervision.

I stepped quietly as I crossed the main room toward the door leading to the bedroom. Despite my attempts, the floorboards still creaked beneath my feet. I couldn’t help it. The floorboards were old and uneven. Normally, it was one of the lovely quirks about the cabin. Now, it scared the hell out of me.

I approached the bedroom door and reached out with my hand, making slow and determined movements. I opened the door a crack, wanting to get a look inside before I made my presence known. The room was dark, but I could see there was no one on the bed. A sleeping bag had been laid out neatly, but there was no body.

I opened the door further and stepped inside. There was no one there. I was alone.

I let out a sigh of relief. Whoever had been making my cabin their home seemed to be recent occupants, based on the state of the kitchen. And they were neat, making their bed each morning and generally cleaning up after themselves. My best guess was they knew they were using someone else’s property and they cared enough not to make a mess. There was a kindness in all of this that I could at least understand. But that gave me no answers about who the intruder was and where they might be now. It also didn’t tell me if they were dangerous or not.

Did I need to call the police? I could do that easily enough, although it would require driving back down the mountain. I wasn’t sure the situation called for that yet. Maybe the occupant was reasonable. Maybe they were just down on their luck. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions and end up with a police officer drawing a gun on someone who had barely done anything. I decided to wait until I knew more.

I walked out of the bedroom and froze the moment I looked up. Standing in the front doorway was a woman, silhouetted by the sun behind her. She held a bow in her hands. An arrow had been nocked and the string had been drawn. This was not the start to my vacation that I had expected.

Chapter 3 – Val

I stood there in the doorway, my bow drawn, ready to fire. It was a man, but it was hard to see more than that in the darkened cabin. I had pulled the curtains closed, trying to limit the signs of life in the cabin, especially at night when the lights would give away my position. It was not perfect, but it worked well enough for my needs. However, now I was paying for that choice, my eyes struggling to adjust from the bright sunlight outside to the darkened cabin.

“Who are you?” I shouted, doing my best to sound powerful and in control. However, ever since locking my magic away in the locket, I felt weak. I missed the strength it gave me, the knowledge that I could do what mere mortals could not. Without it, I was vulnerable.

The man moved his hands up above his head, a clear sign that he viewed me as a threat and had no intention of challenging me. However, I was not going to completely fall for that. I kept my bow raised, ready to loose an arrow into his heart if he so much as made a move toward me.

“My name is David,” the man said. I could hear the fear in his voice. He was unfamiliar with combat situations. “I own the cabin.”

I took a deep breath. It was possible he was a Dreki and was trying to play a trick on me, but that possibility decreased with each passing moment. I kept my arrow nocked, but I relaxed the bow string.

There was something about this man, David, that I could not place my finger on. I could sense something, but without my magic, I felt like a whole half of the world had been cut off from me.

“Are you lost?” David asked. “Do you need help? I’m not going to hurt you. Put down the bow and we can talk about this.”

I relaxed further, letting the bow drop. I un-nocked the arrow and returned it to the quiver on my back. David was not a threat to me. However, I knew I would need to move on. I couldn’t stay here. Now that I had been found, I needed to go elsewhere to hide. I had spotted a rocky outcropping on my hunt. There might be a cave I could use there. Water would become more difficult to find, but I would manage. There were streams all around the mountain. It would just be less convenient than the cabin.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have come here. Just let me get my gear and I will leave. I can’t pay you for the broken glass. I’m sorry.”

I moved toward David, expecting for him to let me pass so that I could collect my gear in the bedroom. I had attempted to keep my presence in the cabin to a minimum. I had cleaned up after myself, not wanting to impose anymore than I already had by staying in the cabin in the first place.

However, David did not just let me pass him. He stepped in front of me, blocking my path. My hand reached for one of the knives on my belt.

“Wait,” he said, his voice now growing in strength. There was a calmness about him that I rarely saw in humans when faced with an armed person. He had no idea who I was or what I was capable of and yet he still managed to stop me in my tracks with just his words. “Let’s talk about this for a moment. I’m not mad. If you need help, let me help you. What’s your name?”

There was no reason for me to answer him. There was absolutely no reason to even consider it. And even without my magic, I knew he was no match for me. I was trained in combat. I had survived on my own in the mountains for more years than he could count. And yet, there was something about him, something I could not understand or explain, that made me want to answer his question. All he wanted to know was my name.

I knew the danger of giving him my real name. All it would take was his loose lips gossiping about me to alert the Dreki to my presence. I was certain they had spies all around the world. If they were as organized as I assumed they would be, they were already asking their contacts about me. The last thing I wanted was for the name Skadi to make its way to the Dreki. They would surely bring a large force to the mountain, searching for me with every available asset. They needed me and there was nothing that could stop them from finding me if my name got out.

But this was not my first time coming to Earth and needing to pass as human. I could do that with other humans even with my magic. And then I went by the name Valborga. It meant mountain, which wasn’t the best name to hide out with, but it was a start. It was a name I would answer to. But it was also strange and rare. I knew it best to change it further.

“My name is Val,” I answered. Somehow admitting that, giving him a name, made me feel better. My racing heart slowed. This was not a moment to fight. My hand fell away from the knife.

“Look,” David said. “I don’t know your story, Val, but if you need help, I’m here to help. Clearly you needed a place to stay. You can go if you want, but I’m here for you if you need it.”

Why was he making this offer? It made no sense. He did not know me. I had broken into his cabin. I had eaten from his stockpile of food. He should have been angry with me. He should have wanted me gone. That was the response I had come to expect from humans. They were angry and volatile, not unlike my people in Asgard. Violence was the universal language of the powerful and the wronged. And I had wronged him. Yet he did not seem to see it that way.

“No, really, I should go,” I said, this time pushing past David and entering the bedroom so that I could load up my pack. “I shouldn’t have stopped here.”

David turned and watched me as I rolled up my sleeping bag and stashed it in the bottom of my pack. Then he disappeared from view. I heard footsteps around the kitchen. Was he getting a knife? Despite the way his voice and presence calmed me, I could not help but suspect his motives. It was only natural. I was on the run, not just trying to save my life, but to save the lives of all my people. I was trying to prevent the destruction of Asgard itself from the Dreki. The dragons would burn Asgard to the ground if they had enough numbers. And they would have those numbers if I expanded their territory, if I gave in and created more lairs for them deep inside the mountains.

I was about to pull my knife again when a bright shaft of light shot across the main room. Then there were more footsteps. Then a second shaft of light shot across the room. I relaxed again. David was simply opening the curtains, letting the natural light from outside into the cabin. That was a relief.

I left my pack on the bed and walked to the doorway. Now that I could see David, he seemed almost more impressive than when he had been a shadowy mass in the dark. He was tall and clean shaven. His eyes almost sparkled in the sunlight. He was handsome and strong, but his kindness was even more evident in the light. I had never seen a human exude true kindness before, but he did. I didn’t even know that was possible, but given my situation I didn’t want to turn a gift away that would ultimately save me and my world.

“I am sorry about this,” I said. “I didn’t mean to intrude on anyone. And just so you know, I’m not lost. I just needed a place to stay.”

“Maybe we can come to an arrangement,” David said. He seemed hesitant to turn me out, as if he feared I couldn’t take care of myself. Obviously, he knew nothing about me. I could take care of myself, even on Earth without my magic. Not that I was going to admit that part. Humans rarely believed in magic. Even when they saw it or experienced it, they found ways to explain it, to make it seem like a simple trick. There had been times when others had managed to convince humans that their magic was real and that they were all powerful gods. It didn’t really work like that, but there were a few humans over the years who had become believers at one time or another. But even if I wanted to show David my magic, I couldn’t risk it, knowing it would alert the Dreki to where I was.

“Like what?” I asked. I wanted to leave, yet there was something about David that made me want to hear him out. I felt as if me leaving would prevent something important from happening.

“I don’t know,” David admitted. “Here, have a seat.” David pulled out a chair at the small dining table. Then he moved to the other side of the table and pulled out a chair for himself. He sat first, giving me the option to join him or not. “Let’s just talk about this for a while.”

I didn’t know what to do. The rational part of me wanted to leave. It was easiest that way. But the emotional side of me, the side of me I shouldn’t have been listening to when the fate of all of Asgard was on the line, wanted me to stay, wanted me to hear him out. And despite my rational protests, I stepped forward and sat down in the offered chair.

“Okay, let’s talk,” I said, crossing my arms across my chest. I was still wary of him.

“I’ll be honest,” David said, leaning forward and placing his elbows on the edge of the table. He did not do it to be intimidating. It was more a way of him focusing his attention on me. At that moment, I felt like I was his entire world. “I always kept the cabin stocked for instances when someone got lost or they needed shelter for the night. I just never expected to actually run into anyone here. I take it you haven’t been here long. Based on the trash, it looks like a day or two, right?”

“That sounds about right,” I answered. I didn’t want to tell him the exact details. Sharing certain details could still put me at risk. If word of me showing up at his cabin when I did got out and a Dreki heard about it, that could be enough for them to put two and two together.

David leaned back, almost pushing his chair until it started to tip. He smiled. “Man, this is awkward.”

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. He said what we were both thinking. I knew right then that I had nothing to fear from this man. I wasn’t about to share everything with him, but I was confident that he wouldn’t betray me. I could trust him.

I uncrossed my arms and leaned forward. “You want the truth? Let me tell you the truth.”

Chapter 4 – David

I didn’t know why I was sitting across the table from this woman. Val, she called herself. She had offered to leave. Given that she said she wasn’t lost, I should have just let her go. But there was something about her, something I couldn’t understand, that made me want her to stay. Was it her deep knowing eyes? Was it the way her leather hunting outfit hugged her curves? I didn’t want to be a base male, but I had to wonder if I wanted her to stay because I found her attractive.

But we had gone from possible enemies to at least acquaintances in the space of several minutes. That had to count for something. And I certainly got the impression that Val didn’t want to leave if she didn’t have to. There was definitely something going on with her and I made the decision that I wanted to help. What that help might entail, I didn’t know yet. I could only hope that I wouldn’t live to regret my choice.

“I’m on the run,” Val said. “I was hiding out here, hoping I could remain hidden for as long as possible.”

“On the run from what?” I asked, now starting to wish she had left or that there had been time for me to drive back down the mountain to call the police. It might take some time for someone to get out to the cabin, but knowing someone was coming would have been comforting. But it was too late for that. There was no way I could do something like that without Val knowing about it, or at least finding out about it. “Not the police?”

“No, not the police,” Val answered quickly. “Something much worse though. There’s a gang, a violent gang, that needs something that I have. I have a… Let’s say I have a skill. I have a skill that they need and I’m the only person who can give them what they want.”

“Oh,” I said, beginning to understand the gravity under which Val lived. “Are we in danger here?”

“I don’t know,” Val said with a sigh. I could sense her honesty. She might not be telling me everything, but she was being truthful about the danger she was in and, by proxy, I was now in. “It’s possible they are honing in on my location as we speak. It’s also possible that they have no idea where I am and that they will never manage to find me, assuming I am able to stay hidden from them.”

“Look, if you fear for your life, maybe we should contact the police,” I said. It was clear that I alone could not help her. “They might be able to protect you.”

Val shook her head. “No. I can’t be sure the police aren’t compromised. I don’t know who I can trust. When the gang first came to me, I started making preparations to escape, but I don’t know how much they planned for me to run. When they came the second time, after they had given me time to consider their proposal, I made a run for it. And now I’m here. That was a few days ago.”

There were still some holes in Val’s story, but they didn’t matter to me. What mattered was, for the moment, she was safe. But that safety was not guaranteed. This gang could show up at any time looking for her. Luckily, I doubted they would spend their time looking for her at the end of a narrow mountain road that was needed to reach the cabin.

“Is there anyone you can contact?” I asked. “You must have family or friends who are worried about you.”

“I have long lived a solitary existence,” Val answered. “There is no one to contact, not here anyway.”

I didn’t understand what that meant, but clearly Val had been on her own for a long time. And judging by the way she could handle that bow, it looked like she could take care of herself. I hadn’t shot a bow myself since I was a kid. My grandfather had been all about trying to teach me various outdoorsmen skills. He taught me how to shoot a rifle and a bow, although I hadn’t done either since then. But I still remembered the theory behind it. If needed, I could pick up those skills again, I was certain. But Val didn’t need time. She was well versed in the use of her survival skills.

“Okay, so we’re not going to call the cops and there’s no one to contact to tell them you are all right,” I said, going through the facts. “Do you have money? Do you have supplies? What tools do you have?”

“No money,” Val answered. “I’ve never had the need for it before.” That right there should have sent up big red flags about this woman. How had she never needed money before? Had she just stolen what she needed? But looking at her clothing, her bow, the knives on her belt, I definitely got the sense that she wasn’t from around here. “The only supplies I have are what I was able to carry on my back on such short notice. As for tools, I have knives, my bow, enough arrows to get by for a while, assuming I can retrieve most of them, and I have a pack of fire starter, but I haven’t needed to use that since you have a proper stove here.”

“You can take care of yourself,” I said. “I get that. But since you have been using my cabin, you must need more help. At some point you’re going to need money, right?”

Val sat there for a long while before she answered. It didn’t seem like that hard of a question to answer, but there were a lot of things about her that seemed off. She spoke fluent English without a hint of an accent, but she did not look like she was from the area. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had just stepped off the set of some movie, although I couldn’t figure out the era from which the movie was set. However, I also knew that there was only so much she was going to tell me, at least until she got to know me better and learned that she could trust me. Regardless of the circumstances of our meeting, I could sense that Val needed help. Whether I could actually help her remained a mystery, but at the very least, I could let her stay at the cabin and even give her some money in case she needed to catch a bus or train or even a plane to somewhere else. Not that anyone would let her on those modes of transportation dressed and outfitted with weapons as she was, but we would cross that bridge if and when we came to it.

“I don’t know,” Val finally said. It was the closest she had come to showing real emotion. There was a sadness in her voice that almost broke my heart. It was the sound of her own broken heart finally cracking to pieces. There was a powerlessness in her words that seemed alien coming from her. She could take care of herself, but this was a situation that even she was unprepared for.

“I’m not going to kick you out of the cabin,” I said, making the biggest offer I felt I could make her. “And you can keep using the bedroom. I’ll sleep out here on the couch. My plan was to stay up here for the week. I needed the vacation from work. Hopefully we can at least tolerate each other while I’m here. We can discuss your options at the end of the week. How does that sound?”

Again Val said nothing to start. She needed time to consider my offer. And I didn’t blame her. If it weren’t for my need to get away from the city for the week, I would have just offered to leave. But similar to her, I felt like I had nowhere else to go. And maybe by staying, I could provide her the comfort and stability I figured she needed. I could only hope my presence would be of some benefit to her. And through me, she would have access to more and better food than the canned goods I generally kept in the cupboard. There were only so many nights of canned beans one could eat before growing sick of them.

“What’s the catch?” Val asked in reply. “Whenever a man offers me something, there’s always a catch.”

I held up my hands, palms facing her in mock surrender. “No catch. I just want to help. I’d offer to leave, but I can’t stand the thought of returning home right now. You have no idea how much stress I’ve been under recently.” I paused for a moment, realizing how my words must have sounded. “Not that my stress compares to yours. I just need a break from the bustle of the city. I hope you understand.”

“Fine,” Val said. “I accept your offer. If there’s anything I can do to help out around here while we explore this new living arrangement, please let me know.”

I smiled. “Communication is key. My dad always told me that growing up. Communication is key to making any relationship work, whether it’s a friendship or something more. If only I had followed his advice before.” I paused again, realizing I might have said the wrong thing. No matter what I did, it felt like I was either insulting her or propositioning her when I wanted neither. Or at least I wasn’t planning on either. There was just something about her that I didn’t understand. She was an enigma to me. “Not that I’m implying that anything romantic is expected of you. It’s probably time that I just shut up now.”

Val started laughing. It was a deep belly laugh, the kind that almost can’t be controlled. And it certainly wasn’t malicious or insulting.

Then I started laughing, unable to stop myself. Together, we laughed until our eyes started to water, the tension in the room finally falling away. We were just two people thrown together by possible tragic and certainly unexpected circumstances and we were just going to have to make the most of what we had. For all I knew, Val would eventually become a permanent resident of the cabin, keeping care of it when I was away. Anything seemed possible.

When the laughter finally fell away, we looked into each other’s eyes. I didn’t know what she saw in my eyes, but I saw determination in hers. She was determined to survive. She was determined to do what was right, at least according to her own code of conduct. At that moment, I knew this was going to work. Whatever this was remained a mystery to me, but I was certain it was going to work. That was until Val opened her mouth next.

“I’ve got a brace of rabbit outside that I caught,” she said. “I was planning to make a stew for dinner. Would you like to skin them or should I?”

I sat there for a moment, not knowing what to say. I had never eaten rabbit before. I suddenly felt like I had been transported to Middle Earth and was talking to Samwise Gamgee, at least in the movie.

“I think I’ll leave the skinning of rabbits up to you,” I finally said. “You can get the food started while I unpack. I’ll join you when it’s time to actually make the stew.” I placed special emphasis on the word “make,” wanting to make it clear that I was game for cooking the rabbit, but I wasn’t up for skinning it. I didn’t even know how to skin a rabbit, so it was best left to her.

Val smiled. “Good choice.”

Chapter 5 – Val

Over and over again, David proved to be a perfect gentleman. True to his word, he gave me the bedroom, with him sleeping in the main room. He gave me my privacy, but I could tell that he was curious about me. My appearance, my skills, my general demeanor was unusual to say the least.

When I came to Earth, my only intention was to hide myself away, to eke out the barest of livelihoods. In a perfect world, the cabin would have been abandoned. I did not need electricity or even a water pump to survive. I could have done all of that on my own, fetching water each day, maintaining a campfire for warmth and light at night. I could have done all of that, but I chose David’s cabin. It was the easy choice, although I had no idea if it had been a grave mistake. I knew that by staying, I was putting David’s life in danger. Even if I had left when he arrived, he would still be under threat. And yet, because I told him nothing, he knew nothing of the trouble that could befall him. He was oblivious to the risk I had shared with him.

The Dreki were ruthless. They maintained their human forms on Earth, but I knew if they got their way, Earth would fall to them soon after Asgard. And when they came for war, they would not do so in their human forms anymore. They would have the confidence to wage war in their true forms, as the fire breathing dragons they were inside. They would only leave death and fiery destruction in their wake, laying waste to Earth’s cities and subjugating its people, turning them into slaves.

My sacrifice, ignored by my kind, was not just to save Asgard. It was to save all the realms. And that included Earth and the humans. They remained oblivious to everything that happened beyond their world. That was largely by design. As a people, they were not ready for the true knowledge that was out there. They might never be ready. It was one more burden I would have to carry as I hid myself away. I could not warn the people around me of the true dangers, to them and to the world as they knew it.

I laid on my bed, letting the locket run through my fingers. It was the one possession I could not lose. Few would be able to detect what was contained inside if I lost it, but losing it was not an option. I would be stuck on Earth for the remainder of my days. I would no longer be able to call myself a goddess. I would no longer be able to return to my true home. I would just be another human, albeit one with knowledge and memories that far outstripped any mortal.

Not that the Dreki would be stopped by my magic disappearing. If they got their hands on the locket, there was nothing that would stop them from using the magic to fulfill their aims. It would only serve to increase their bloodlust and thirst for war and domination. And it was my magic specifically that they required. No other gods or goddesses had the power to create what they needed to expand their territory. But the addition of my magic would be enough to make it all work. There was no way I could allow that to happen.

I heard a knock and looked up. David stood in the open doorway. I had left the door open, not wanting to completely shut myself off from the man who had already been so kind to me. And it was not like me just sitting there required privacy. I felt no fear about David. Or at least, I felt no danger from him. There was something there, deep inside of me. It felt like fear, but I could not even begin to describe it. There was something about him that unsettled me. I was certain if I had my magic inside of me, I would feel nothing. It was that weakness that I feared. It was the knowledge that I needed his help. I needed to rely on him for protection. I hated it, but I felt like I had no choice. Or, more accurately, it was far, far easier to rely on him than to try my hand at true survivalism.

“Val,” David said, even though he already had my attention. He had not shaved and his stubble had started to grow in, the beginnings of a beard. I thought he looked attractive before, but the stubble gave him a roguish quality that made him all the more appealing. “I was thinking I should head into town to pick up a few more supplies. I only brought enough stuff for me, not expecting company. Do you need anything?”

I could only begin to imagine what he thought I might need. But it was a generous offer. He had already been more than generous, letting me remain at the cabin, sharing it with me, when I had no right to be there to begin with. Now he was offering to spend money on me, something I knew he had a limited supply of. I understood how the systems worked on Earth. I was not blind to the workings of the different worlds. Just because I lived a solitary existence in Asgard did not mean I was a complete hermit. But this was the first time in a long time that I had to worry about such matters.

If there had been more time to prepare for my escape, I would have arranged for monetary funds to sustain me here. It was not difficult to manipulate the systems that would give me access to the support I needed. But that manipulation required magic. And using my magic was out of the question. Such actions would no doubt lead to the Dreki finding me. Therefore, given the stakes of my situation, I found myself forced to rely on David, at least until the immediate danger had passed and I could either return to my former life in Asgard or find some means to assimilate into human society.

“Thank you,” I said, “but no. You’ve already been more than kind with your offers to me. I can’t let you spend both your time and your money on me.”

“Don’t worry about that,” David replied. “We just need to keep you safe. If that means I have to run into town to get something for you, I’m happy to do it. It’s really no trouble at all.”

“I appreciate the offer,” I said, trying to find some way that I could thank David for his hospitality. I had so little I could offer him, however. I felt stuck and perpetually in his debt.

“But I was thinking,” David continued. Clearly he had something more on his mind than just buying supplies for us. “Maybe you shouldn’t leave the cabin when I’m gone. I mean, if you’re in danger, I wouldn’t want something bad to happen to you while I’m not here.”

Part of me scoffed at the idea behind David’s words. Despite the skills I had already shown off to him, he still treated me as if I could not take care of myself. He had no idea how well I could protect myself. My bow and my knives were not just tools for hunting. They were weapons that I fully understood how to use to their best effect. I had killed men, Dreki, and other gods before. I could do it again.

The problem was I was just one person. I was one warrior who could fall simply by being outnumbered. I could not take on a whole army. If the Dreki came in numbers, which I could only guess they would, there would be little I could do to stop them. Not that David could protect me either. Together we might be able to put up a sizable defense, but that was it.

Therefore, I needed to remain hidden. I had no idea if the Dreki were searching for me here. Did they know I was on this mountain? Did they even know what region I was in? There were so many unknowns and I would not be able to feel them coming. With my magic, I might have been able to sense them, but if they already knew my location, it would be too late. It was best to deal with them while still hunting for me, rather than give them the opportunity to find me and then surround me. I needed to remain hidden. And the best way to hide was to remain out of sight. It meant David’s instincts were right. I needed to stay inside and not even go out for a breath of fresh air.

“You’re right,” I said. “I shouldn’t go outside. Really, I should be limiting my time outside, especially during the daylight, regardless.”

“I’m glad we see eye to eye on that,” David said. “Last call for requests from town.”

“I’m good,” I said. “I will see you on your return. But please remember. Do not speak of me to anyone. The Dreki could have eyes and ears anywhere.”

David ran his finger across his chest in the form of an X. “Cross my heart. No one will learn a thing from me.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Then David was off, leaving me once again alone with my thoughts.

I kept telling myself that I was in the same situation from before David showed up, but it didn’t feel that way. I felt trapped. I felt hemmed in. I felt like I was quickly developing a case of cabin fever.

At home in Asgard, I would go on long walks. They were hikes really. I would traverse many miles of mountainous terrain. I could be gone for weeks or even months when I sensed the need to roam. I could always satisfy my wanderlust in the high mountains of Asgard, sometimes even traveling into the neighboring Great Mountains. And all the while I could keep my solitary life. In all those wanderings, I rarely came across another soul. It gave me peace.

Before David arrived, I was forced to go out. I needed to hunt and gather for food. And if I hadn’t found the cabin, I would have needed to go out and collect water each day, sometimes more than once per day, especially during the heat of the summer. It was not the safest thing to do, to leave the relative safety of my shelter, but it had been a requirement. Now with David and his cabin providing those things for me, I had no need to leave the wooden structure that had become my temporary home. However, just because I didn’t have a physical need did not mean I didn’t crave the fresh air and the sounds of nature ringing around me. The walls of the cabin, even with windows open, blocked out too much of that. It left me cut off from that which I most craved. It had already become like a prison cell to me.

I almost didn’t hear David’s car as he returned from town. It could not have been that long that he was gone, but my whole sense of time had been called into question through all of this. The more I was forced to retreat into myself, the harder it was for me to track the passing of the day. I felt like I was losing a part of myself, but I did not know how to get it back.

I jumped at the sound of the car door. I looked up and spotted the backend of his car from the bedroom window. I realized that I needed to be more careful. If it had been someone else, I could have been in great trouble, especially if caught unaware.

I greeted David at the cabin door, actually looking forward to his presence. He carried a box with food stacked in it.

“Here, let me help you with that,” I said, reaching out for the box.

David smiled as he met me. Then before I knew it, his lips were on mine. He was kissing me. I could barely remember the last time I had been kissed. His lips felt warm and comforting. They chased away the stir craziness that was building inside of me. He left me feeling perfectly content and happy, as if there was nothing at all wrong with the world. I never wanted that feeling to end.

Chapter 6 – David

I didn’t know what made me do it. I barely knew Val. I had allowed her to stay and had planned to provide for her, with nothing asked of her in return. And yet I kissed her. I had kissed plenty of women before, but never without some sort of communication, requiring their permission before I even dared place my lips against theirs. I would have felt awful if it hadn’t felt so good.

Just the feel of her succulent lips against my own was more than enough to make my heart race with anticipation. I felt as if fireworks were going off inside my head. It felt right, it felt proper, and it felt better than every other kiss I ever had. I wanted nothing more than to drop the box that separated us and embrace her fully, wrapping my arms around her and holding her tight against me.

Instead, the kiss ended in a violent shove. I found myself flying backwards, off the small porch and landing on my backside in the dirt. I did not feel pain so much as I did surprise. My breath caught in my throat from the impact. I looked up to see Val almost towering over me as she remained in the doorway, her eyes aflame with anger and something else. She held the box in her hands. I didn’t even remember letting go.

Before I could say or do anything, she turned on her heels and disappeared inside with the box of food. I was alone, sitting in the dirt, feeling both pride for having kissed her, but also shame for stepping beyond the boundaries we had set. This was only our second day together and I felt like I had screwed it up completely. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she was already packing up her belongings and preparing to move out again. I couldn’t blame her for doing that. It was my fault.

I slowly picked myself up off the ground. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been pushed around like that. I wasn’t even sure if a woman had been able to do that to me before. Looking up at the doorway where I had been standing, I could barely believe how far back she had pushed me. I was sure stepping off the porch added to the distance, but Val had far more physical strength than I gave her credit for. Then again, she seemed pretty handy with that bow and I was at least vaguely familiar with the pull strength required for that.

Once standing, I took a moment to dust myself off. It had been several weeks since the last bout of rainfall on the mountain. The forest floor in most areas had managed to retain some moisture, but the area around the cabin was dry and dusty. At some point I would need to wash my pants, but I wasn’t about to take them off anytime soon. Not when Val could misinterpret my intentions.

I was not a man who forced himself onto women. I had always treated women with respect and kindness, never assuming anything. Yes, I was certain a few of my past relationships had fallen apart due to my chivalrous nature, but I always preferred communication to manipulation.

Once I had reasonably dusted myself off, I stepped up onto the porch, unsure of what I would meet when I stepped inside. Was Val waiting inside to strike? I wasn’t interested in striking back, but I wouldn’t have blamed her for continuing to lash out against me. As far as I was concerned, I deserved it. I could only brace myself so much in preparation.

Stepping into the dark cabin, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the lower light. It helped that the curtains were not pulled shut as they had been when we first met.

I scanned the room, half expecting it to be empty. Surely Val was getting ready to move out. I had betrayed her trust and her leaving would be fair recompense for that betrayal. However, Val stood by the cupboard, unloading the box of food I had purchased.

“Val,” I said.

She continued as she was, acting as if she didn’t hear me, but I saw her pause ever so slightly, a can of green beans in her hand. It was just for a moment, but I knew she heard me. But it wasn’t enough for me to just get her attention. I needed to do something with her attention. I needed to continue.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what came over me. One moment I was about to say thank you for helping carry in the supplies and the next my lips were pressed against yours. I kissed you when I had no right to do so. When I made you my offer to let you remain here, I did so with no strings attached. I expected nothing from you, but I asked you to trust me. I broke that trust.”

“Hmph,” Val grunted. Her anger was palpable.

I knew I had done wrong. Yes, a kiss was just a kiss, but to me it had so much more meaning. I wasn’t some completely hopeless romantic, but I didn’t just go around kissing every woman I met. I only did so when I felt a true romantic connection. And there were times I felt sparks between us. There was something about Val that I couldn’t place, something that made her seem unlike any other woman I had ever met. Yes, I had wanted to kiss her, but I had never before fallen victim to my own desires in such a way. I had lost control of myself and I almost hated myself for it.

“I’ll understand if you want to leave,” I continued. “I’ll even help you on your way if you want.” I would have offered money, but I didn’t want to have my intentions misconstrued. I didn’t want her to see it as payment for services rendered, even though it was just a kiss.

Val stopped and lowered her head. I would have given everything I owned for the chance to know what was going through her head. She braced herself against the kitchen counter and just stood there taking deep breaths.

“It’s all right,” she finally said.

Those words rang through me, making me want to jump for joy. I wanted to tell myself that it was my own guilt that was being assuaged, but it was more than that. The moment I had first met Val, I felt as if there was something different about her. Yes, I had never had a bow and arrow pointed at me, but I could see there was a depth to her that went beyond what she was telling me. Every bit of her interested me. I wished we could stay up all through the night as she told me everything about herself. But it wasn’t just her history that interested me. I felt a pull toward her that I had never felt with any other woman. I was afraid of what that meant, both for me and for her, but I knew there was something between us. And if it was not a potential romance, what was it?

“I mean, we shouldn’t do that again,” Val continued. She still faced away from me with her head bowed. “It’s probably best to just forget it. It was an accident, both the kiss and my reaction. I shouldn’t have even pushed you. You just caught me off guard.”

“Sorry about that,” I said. “I think I caught myself off guard too.”

A small chuckle escaped Val’s lips. She turned toward me and smiled. It was a smile that could melt the iciest of hearts. And for me, with no ice in my heart, I was left wondering the simplest of questions. Had Val won my heart? It had only been a day, but I was already asking myself whether I was falling in love with her.

“Did anything else happen in town while getting supplies?” Val asked, her expression turning serious again. The lightheartedness was gone. The smile was gone. She was back to business.

It took me a moment for my mind to snap back to the present. Her smile had me imagining Val and I sitting in a grassy meadow, eating a picnic after a nice hike through the forest. We were both smiling and laughing. And then the kiss. Oh how I wanted to feel her lips against mine once more. I knew better than to act on that, but my heart pounded in my chest at the mere possibility of repeating that brief moment we shared. Not the getting pushed and falling into the dirt though. That I would gladly skip if I could.

“Oh, right, my trip into town,” I said, reorienting myself to the conversation, shaking myself out of the fantasy that I had let run wild in my head. “Now that you mention it, there was a bit of a hubbub going on. I asked Harvey, the shop clerk, about what was going on. Don’t worry, I didn’t mention anything about you. I just told him that I had forgotten to buy a couple things when I stopped in yesterday.”

I felt like I was tripping over my own words, trying to get them out. I was certain I sounded like a lovesick puppy, but I couldn’t help it. I needed to get that kiss out of my head, but it seemed fully rooted in my memory and unwilling to budge.

“Anyway,” I continued, “he said there were a bunch of guys running around town, asking a lot of questions. I saw a group of them in the parking lot. They were all dressed in black suits and drove big black SUVs. They kind of made me think of the FBI or some other federal bureau, but there was something off about them too. I walked by one of them and he had flame tattoos poking up over the collar of his shirt on his neck. I didn’t think that was normal for government agents.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” Val said. Her voice sounded dire. “Those weren’t government agents. Or at least they aren’t really government agents. They are Dreki. The flames are a dead giveaway. They were searching for me. They are the people after me. They don’t know where I am exactly, but they certainly know I’m on this mountain.”

Val stopped for a moment and just stared at me, her eyes almost burning. It was just one more signal to me that she was unlike any woman I had ever met before. She might have been completely one of a kind in the history of the world. There were times when I even had to question whether she was entirely human.

“That’s the other thing,” I added. “I can’t verify this myself, but there was some guy who stopped in at the store and was complaining about some roadblock on the side of the highway leading down the mountain. He was complaining about the drivers slowing down to look while on their way up. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, figuring it was actually some sort of crash response or other police activity, but it’s completely possible they were looking for you.”

I didn’t want to say what else I was thinking. I was only now putting it all together. However, more and more I had to wonder why these Dreki people were after Val like this. The response seemed way overblown for the search of a single woman. Yes, I had seen her armed, but that still did not explain the kind of manhunt these people were undertaking. It was overkill in my opinion.

“David,” Val said. Her gaze dropped to the floor between us and her shoulders slumped forward. The range of emotions we had both felt over the past several minutes was beyond the ability for me to quantify.

“Yes?” I said.

She raised her gaze to look straight into my eyes. I felt her intensity from across the room, as if she was physically producing waves of heat and pushing them toward me. The seriousness scared me.

“I’ve put you in grave danger,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ve doomed you. At the very least I need to tell you what is really going on. I think you better sit down for this.”

Chapter 7 – Val

I was hoping this moment would never come. I was hoping to spare David from the truth. But now that I had put his life in danger, I had no doubt that I needed to explain it to him. I needed to lay it all out, telling him the truth about me and what the men searching for me could do to him if he got in their way, or worse, if they found out he knew something about me.

David sat down on the couch first. I joined him, sitting on opposite sides, facing each other. It was a small cabin. There was not room for additional seating, but this would work fine for our needs.

“Let me start by saying that what I’m about to tell you could actually put you in more danger than you are already in,” I said. “If that scares you or if you want no part in any of this, you should just get back in your car and leave now. When you reach the roadblock, you can tell them the truth or you can lie. Either way, I am certain they will be able to find me on this mountain eventually.”

David looked at me with care and determination. Despite what had just passed between us, the failed kiss as it were, I could see that he intended to stay. He had no idea what he was getting himself into, but he was brave. I would give him that. It was a quality far too few humans actually had. It reminded me of those like me on Asgard, other gods and goddesses. The only difference was we had actual magic on our side and a certain degree of immortality. Humans, even the strongest of them, were fragile in comparison. But I could still appreciate that he cared enough for a woman he only just met to stick around, even when he knew his life would be in danger.

“I’m staying,” David said. “This is my cabin and while you are staying here I will do everything I can to protect you.”

I couldn’t help but smile at his remark. I just hoped such chivalry wouldn’t get him killed, because that was where we were. That was what could happen by the end of this.

“Okay,” I said, accepting his pledge. “I should probably start by explaining who I really am. My name is not Val. I only chose it when we first met, before I knew I could trust you. My real name is Skadi. And I am not human.”

I could see David’s eyes grow wide from that revelation. But he said nothing, probably trying to figure out if I was being serious or not. But I was serious. I needed to tell him everything.

“There was a time when I was considered a goddess. Technically that still applies. I was known to the Northmen, the Vikings as you know them today, as the Goddess of the Mountains. And I have dwelled in the mountains of Asgard for many years, many generations, many millennia. As you may or may not know, Asgard and Earth, or Midgard as we call it, are two of the nine realms connected by the world tree. And at the base of that tree lies a Dreki, the Dreki, a dragon that gnaws away at the roots of the tree, trying to bring it down.”

I felt bad for David. I knew that most of the Norse mythology was lost with only a few stories of our exploits surviving and also tainted by outside influences. I was not only having to catch him up on thousands of years of history, but also explain to him just how bad the Dreki were and what they would do to him and me when they finally found us.

“But there are more Dreki than just the single dragon at the base of the world tree,” I continued. “The dragons dwell in the mountains, their lairs deep inside volcanoes where the magma keeps them warm and helps them grow and multiply. But the Dreki have a plan. They have slowly been building their numbers, preparing for a war against Asgard. But they still need more. They need additional territory to grow their numbers, new lairs to procreate within. And as the Goddess of the Mountains, it would fall to me to give them what they want. Only me and my magic can expand their territory.”

“Your magic?” David asked.

“As a goddess of Asgard, I am imbued with magic. It is that magic that the Dreki seek. If I do not do this task for them, allowing them to eventually wage war against Asgard and eventually the rest of the nine realms, they will seek out my magic, finding another who is capable of wielding such power to do their bidding.”

“Can you show me?” David asked.

I couldn’t blame him for the question. If I had been in his shoes, I would probably have asked the same thing.

“When outside of Asgard, my magic, like those of my people, acts as a beacon. Any magical being, including the Dreki, would be able to track me and find me almost instantly. As soon as I arrived, I hid my magic away, turning off the beacon and doing my best to hide.”

I could have shared the fact that the locket around my neck contained my magic, but I was not ready to give away that piece of information. It was not that I didn’t trust David. It was that I didn’t want to see the Dreki torture the information out of him. He could tell them all he knew and it would bring the Dreki no closer to the truth.

“I know that my magic could have alerted them to my presence when I first arrived, but I hoped they were not ready to begin tracking me when I made my escape. When they first came to me with their proposal, they gave me time to think about their offer. What they were asking for horrified me. I went to the others, Thor, Odin, Tyr and the rest of them, trying to warn them of the danger the Dreki now posed, but they were far too lost in their little games. I have almost always lived a solitary existence, spending my time up in the mountains where I lived. I rarely came down to congregate with the rest of my people. But when I did present my concerns and warnings, I was ignored. I feel that Asgard is broken, the bonds that once held us all together weakened to the point that no proper defense could ever be mounted until it was too late.”

“I’m sorry,” David said. It was an automatic response, but it was one he meant. I could feel his sorrow for me. Despite the fantastical nature of my story, he believed me.

“Once it was clear they were not going to lift a finger to save themselves, I began making plans to leave. I was not sure when the Dreki would return for an answer, but I wanted to be prepared for when they did. I organized supplies, and traded goods, getting together almost everything that I would need for survival on the run. I chose to escape to Earth, hoping I would be able to blend in as human. Once my magic has been hidden away, I present as human to every magical creature that does not already know who I am. I thought I could hide.”

“Why did you choose here?” David asked. I could imagine he wanted to know how my decision had placed him in danger. I could have chosen any mountain to hide out on. Why did I choose this one?

“Norway would have been obvious choice,” I explained. “Iceland too. All of those lands are familiar to me, but they are also familiar to the Dreki. Magical beings have been visiting Earth for thousands of years, walking beside humans all that time, sometimes known and other times unknown. I decided on North America, feeling it was less obvious and would have more space to hide in. I considered the Rockies, but the Dreki would know of my love of skiing. They would probably be prepared for me to hang out in Aspen during my hiding. I didn’t want that, so I chose here, the Pacific Northwest.”

“It is a place like no other,” David said, proud of his home. And he was right to be proud. It was a wonderful and beautiful place, if a little out of the way.

“When the Dreki returned,” I continued my story, “I didn’t give them a chance to get an answer out of me. I don’t know if they were prepared for me to run as I did, but as soon as I saw them approach my home, I made a run for it. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to gather all of my supplies, but I had enough to get me started. I used my magic, along with a special token I had procured, to open a portal to Earth and I came through, closing it behind me. I hid away my magic and ended up here. The rest you now know. You have unwittingly been playing host to a goddess. And I’m sorry that I have put you in danger.”

“Wow,” David said, sitting back, shocked. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Yeah, I can understand that,” I replied. It was weird, but I felt better for having told him the truth. I had left a few things out, but it felt good to confide in someone. And as strange as our relationship was, one of necessity in my case, I felt relief in it.

David seemed to pause for a moment. I could guess that he was running my story through his head again. I appreciated that he kept his questions to a minimum while I was talking. It helped me get everything out.

“Can you tell me more about these Dreki?” he finally asked. “The guys I saw in town looked like regular men, not dragons.”

“Dreki have two forms. They have their dragon form and their human form. They can transform back and forth at will, although they remain in human form almost exclusively on Earth. It is now generally agreed upon between all magical beings to keep ourselves secret from you when possible. There are too many of you and information travels too quickly for us to risk showing ourselves to you. One person with a camera would be enough to blow the whole thing wide open. Can you imagine what would happen if you managed to snap a photo, or even better a video, of a dragon?”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” David said, seemingly relieved. Not that the Dreki in human form were not equally dangerous as they were in their dragon form. It was just a different kind of danger.

“But as you can probably imagine, they like fire. They breathe fire in their dragon forms and those tattoos on their necks, which actually cover their entire torsos, are the physical embodiment of that fire when they are in human form. Not to mention they run extremely hot, both in physical temperature and in temperament when in human form. All that heat contained in such a small vessel is bound to make them hot.”

“So what do we do?” David asked, remaining pragmatic. I had just completely upended his world as he knew it and he was already thinking about what to do next. I had to hand it to him. I didn’t think I would be so understanding if I were in his shoes.

“We either make a run for it or we stay and fight. Those are our only two options.”

Chapter 8 – David

“I’m going for a walk,” I announced after Val dropped that bombshell on me. I couldn’t stay cooped up in the cabin while trying to figure out what I was going to do.

Val didn’t try to stop me as I practically bolted out the door. She must have sensed my need for space. Luckily, I had acres and acres of space to roam. And beyond that was the national forest where I could continue to roam without seeing a soul for miles. I needed the quiet of my own thoughts butted against the simple sounds of nature, the birds chirping, the wind rustling through the trees, and my feet softly striking the dry forest floor.

Never in all my life had I believed in any of the Norse legends. They were just stories to me, myths from a time before the modern day. Besides, the Norse religion that I figured had created the impressive set of deities like Thor and Odin and Freya had been replaced by Christianity. With the exception of a few holdouts, I knew the Norse pagan religion had all but died out.

Yet here was a woman claiming to be one of the goddesses of Asgard. I would have been the first to admit I had never heard of either Skadi or a mountain goddess, but outside of the major deities, I knew nothing of Norse mythology. I had no way of proving Val wrong about her origin. But it did explain a few things. It explained her bow and overall survival skills that seemed far more impressive than my own. But just because I owned a cabin on a mountain that had limited infrastructure didn’t mean I was an expert survivalist.

Still, it shouldn’t have made sense. It shouldn’t have been possible. There should have been no way for any of it to be true. Say what you will about the existence of God or gods, but I never imagined I would personally meet someone like that in my lifetime. After death was a possibility, but just the simple existence of Skadi threw all of what was known about the universe and our place within it into question. Science, technology, space, was just a small piece of the grand universe where magic actually existed.

Not that Val could prove her magical qualities to me. That was a knock against her story and I knew it to be the mark of a charlatan. But I also couldn’t get past the fact Val thought all of this was true. She was different, but she seemed completely rational. That had to count for something. In my experience, usually when someone claimed something that was impossible to prove, they either had a financial gain to make or they had far more issues than believing in what would otherwise be described as tall tales.

But just looking at her, I knew Val was a formidable woman. She was strong and powerful looking. Of course, the wild black hair and long black coat certainly played a role in that. She looked like someone who knew how to fight and could do some damage. I would much rather have her on my side than be fighting against her.

My walk carried me beyond my standard haunts when I usually visited the cabin. There were no man-made trails through this part of the forest. Instead, there was a network of deer trails to follow. The deer always seemed to follow the same path, cutting a trail of their own through the forest. The trails changed little over the years and they provided me a place to walk without worry of getting lost. And even if I did, I knew two important facts about how to find my way again. I knew where the sun was in the sky and I knew that walking downhill would eventually take me to the highway. It might be miles away, but I knew it was there.

I knew I was vaguely going uphill. Despite being on the mountain, there were many flat areas below the tree line. It was deceptive how much elevation I was climbing. It was only the top half of the mountain that saw the severe climbs. That wasn’t to say there weren’t steep cliffs and hills elsewhere, but I would not see those cliffs on this walk. That would require me to hike elsewhere on the mountain.

The summer had already been dry and hot. This was not an area where I expected to see snow—that was reserved for higher elevations on the mountain at this time of year—but everything appeared far drier than was normal. I sensed the forest was like a tinderbox. One spark in just the right place could cause a massive fire. That scared the hell out of me. There were even several creek beds that I crossed that normally had a decent amount of water flowing down them. If there was any water flowing, it was only a trickle. The previous heat had to have decimated the snowpack at high elevations.

The trees started to thin the higher I climbed. This side of the mountain was still dominated by fir trees. Farther east, the trees would primarily be pine. I was in no danger of reaching the actual timberline. That was higher yet and I figured I would have no reason to go up that high. It wasn’t like I was prepared for a long and strenuous hike. I left the cabin at the spur of the moment, without a thought of my usual outdoor preparations. I had no pack, I had no water, and I had no food.

I stopped suddenly at the sound of voices. They were faint, carried on the wind. I couldn’t see where they were coming from. It was rare for me to run into people out in the middle of the woods like this. The voices were male. That was all I could tell at first.

I stepped behind a tree, hoping to avoid being seen. Val had made it perfectly clear that the men who were after her were dangerous. I didn’t want to believe that these people were after her.

“What are we supposed to do if we see her?” asked one of the voices. “Can we shoot her?”

I winced as the voice became clear. I couldn’t see the men speaking, but I could hear them. It was clear they were hunting for someone. Could they be hunting for Val? It made sense based on her story.

“Shoot to wound, I guess,” another voice answered. This one was deeper and more gruff sounding.

“She can’t have gotten too far,” a third voice said. He sounded more commanding, although it was impossible to know for sure from the sound of their voices alone. “We can’t kill her until we know where she hid her magic. The timing of her ping puts her someplace on this mountain. I doubt she made it off before we started to close in. She’s alone and has no allies among the humans. We do. She should be easy pickings once we track her down.”

I swallowed hard at those words. These men seemed to confirm much of Val’s story. The mere mention of magic gave credence to her tale, but the threat against her life, the fact they were hunting for her, made it all the more clear she was in danger.

I did my best to slip away without being seen or heard. I had a good idea that the men would have killed me if they thought I might endanger their mission. Or worse, they might torture me for Val’s location. And I certainly wasn’t going to give her up that easily. Yes, she could take care of herself, but if these Dreki were positioned all around the mountain, the likelihood of being able to slip past them and escape seemed to be small. The roads were being watched and they had men out searching the woods for her. It seemed impossible they wouldn’t find her eventually.

The sound of the men’s voices slowly slipped away as I made my way back toward the cabin. I didn’t want to lead them directly, but I also couldn’t lose my own trail. I could only hope they weren’t good at tracking. If they found my tracks I could ultimately lead them to Val. I didn’t want that to happen.

As soon as I was out of hearing range of the men hunting Val, I followed the trail a little more closely, choosing speed over silence. I didn’t know how good their hearing was, but I figured if they didn’t hear me to start, I was probably safe. But it was clear to me that the net was tightening. I didn’t know what could be done except to fight.

The logical thing to do would be to leave Val behind. She could fight her own battles. This wasn’t a fight among humans. She was a goddess. But could goddesses die? It certainly sounded like that from Val’s story. She wouldn’t have been so afraid if she really were mortal. Maybe mortality is just different for her and the others in Asgard.

I shook my head, finding it difficult to believe everything I had heard and seen. I went from believing the world was just as I had always experienced it to learning that gods and magic were real. And it wasn’t just that both were real, but I had somehow ended up in the story. I was involved now.

Walking downhill was certainly easier than going up, but I was beginning to regret my long walk without bringing along any water. I could feel my throat drying out, but I pressed on. I didn’t want to stop until I had warned Val of what I overheard. She needed to know that they weren’t just looking for her via road checkpoints. They had people scouring the woods looking for her. And the net was tightening.

With each passing minute, I found myself growing angrier and angrier. These people were after someone I had taken in and offered shelter to. Yes, I realized she took that shelter first, but I then offered it back to her freely.

If Val had committed some crime, I would have happily handed her over to the authorities. Or at least I would have given the police a heads up about her location. However, Val was no criminal. She was on the run from a gang of thugs. They intended to kill her. They intended to steal her magic and use it to wage war against Asgard. Normally I wouldn’t have been concerned about a war in another world. Asgard should be able to defend itself, given who its people are. But if Asgard fell, Earth would be vulnerable. And I was pretty sure we didn’t have an effective weapon against fire-breathing dragons who could shift into human form.

The moment I came within sight of the cabin, I broke into a run. I slammed into the door, nearly forcing it off its hinges before it swung open. I skidded across the floor, trying to stop my momentum before I did any more damage to the cabin. I was already short a window pane in the door.

I looked up and for the second time found myself at the wrong end of an arrow. Val must have heard me coming and she prepared to defend herself. She had nocked an arrow and was ready to fire.

“David,” she cried. I could sense the fear in her voice. Even as powerful and as capable as she was, she feared the Dreki and what they could do to her. “You scared me. Why were you running around like that?”

“I came across some of them on my walk,” I explained between heavy breaths. “They didn’t see me, but I heard them. They’re planning to kill you once they find out where your magic is. They’re coming for you. They’re coming for us.”

At that moment I knew I had made my decision. Val had no choice but to fight, but she would not be alone. I was going to fight by her side and hope that it was possible for two people to fight a hoard of Dreki and somehow survive. But if I was going to die, I decided I wanted to do it beside Val.

Chapter 9 – Val

I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when David walked out of the cabin. I had never expected to share my true nature with him or anyone else. But I felt like I had no choice. I had no other options open to me. I had to tell him and live with the consequences.

David was gone so long I started to worry. I had no idea how close the Dreki were to my trail. I thought I had done a good job of disguising myself and the route I took. It would have been easier if the creeks and streams were running higher. They had dried out to mere trickles at best for the most part. But I still had been careful. My only hope was they did not know exactly where I was and that I might somehow escape their net. Or, if it came to a fight, they came in small enough numbers so that I could handle them on my own.

I didn’t expect David to want to fight. This wasn’t his battle. He wasn’t involved. And he wouldn’t have been involved if I hadn’t come across his cabin. Although, given the Dreki’s motivations, even then he might not have avoided dealing with them. It seemed like they were posing as government agents if they were setting up roadblocks and stopping and searching cars on the way down the mountain. They were working hard to find me. They had to know I was on the mountain. And slowly but surely, they would tighten the net until they had me completely surrounded.

When David left, I kept my weapons close to me. I didn’t want to be caught unawares. Without my magic, I did feel weaker and less capable. My senses felt dulled, making me doubt whether I would be able to hear them coming. But I heard David when he rushed into the cabin. I nocked an arrow and drew back the string before he had pushed inside. I stood there, ready to fire.

But I was glad I had the patience to hold back. Had I let loose that arrow, I would have killed him. I didn’t understand the connection I felt toward him, but the more time I spent with him, the more undeniable it seemed. I wished I understood it. I wished I understood the draw I felt toward him. He was a human. I knew many of my Asgard brethren had bedded humans before. They still did, I assumed, although I doubted they made frequent trips to Earth anymore. Those humans were brought to Asgard, under whatever pretense could be devised.

Generally, humans were not welcome in Asgard, except under very specific circumstances. And those circumstances would not have been appropriate for David. I doubted I would ever be able to share my world with him, assuming whatever it was we had was something of consequence. I couldn’t be sure since I didn’t know what this connection was.

After I lowered my bow, David made it clear to me the danger we were both in. He had encountered Dreki higher up the mountain. And if they weren’t Dreki, they were men who had been brought into the fold. I couldn’t be sure. It was theoretically possible that the Dreki had shared some version of the truth with a select group of humans. That might have been how they managed to set up checkpoints on the road down the mountain. But none of that mattered at the moment. It was clear that they wanted me dead. They wanted to steal my magic for themselves, leaving me dead in the process. I didn’t like that. It made me angry. They were coming to kill me and now I wanted to make them pay for it. Just the threat was enough for me to want to rain down on their parade.

And then David did the unimaginable. He offered to fight at my side. He offered to risk his life to not just save my own, but to stop a foe he did not know existed before today. They were no longer just coming for me. They were coming for us. His response made me want to kiss him. But there was no time for that. We had work to do if we were going to properly defend ourselves. Together, we might just have had a fighting chance against the Dreki and whatever weapons they brought to bear.

“What do we need to do to get ready?” David asked. “What can I do to help?”

My mind raced as I thought about different possibilities. I knew the Dreki weaknesses. Or, at least I knew them when they were in the human world. It was incredibly difficult for them to shift into their dragon forms on Earth. It was so difficult that I doubted they would even try, even though they were hundreds of times more dangerous in their dragon forms. Earth was special and there was something about it that required greater energy to shift for them.

Knowing we were unlikely to go up against hard-scaled dragons made it easier. I also knew the heat they generated. Their bodies burned so hot, they could sometimes ignore their own clothing. I had heard stories of supposed spontaneous combustion. Half the time, when there was some truth to the story, it was actually a Dreki who got a little hot under the collar. They themselves did not burn, but the flames could be big enough that humans would just assume the worst case scenario.

But I also knew that heat, that fire that burned within them, could be disrupted. And little did the humans know they had just such a tool available to them.

I glanced over to the corner next to the kitchen counter, stashed behind the garbage can. The little red fire extinguisher. That could work. Although, to make it work at scale, we would need far more of them.

“I need you to drive down into town and pick up as many fire extinguishers as you can,” I explained. “And… Hold on…”

I rushed over to the kitchen cabinets and started flinging open the doors. In short order I had pulled out a series of foodstuffs, things like sugar and oils, normal baking materials that could also be combined to make an explosive.

“And more of these items,” I added, waving toward the products I left on the counter. “With these items, we can set traps for the Dreki and keep them from approaching from elsewhere. If they try to surround us, they’ll be in for a nasty surprise.”

“Okay, I can do that,” David said, already grabbing his car keys off the coffee table.

“And try not to be too obvious about what you’re buying,” I added. “People you know and trust are fine to talk to, but don’t let any strangers know that you’re buying a load of fire extinguishers. Not that you’ll want to go around telling anyone about Dreki.”

David laughed. “No, I don’t think they’d believe me. They’d be more likely to throw me in the loony bin.”

“Try not to let that happen,” I said. “If this plan is going to work, I’m going to need your help.”

David waved a short good-bye and then left. He got in his car and drove away. Again, he left me alone, but this time we had a plan of action. I was not going to waste another moment while the Dreki closed in on us. The Dreki were looking for a fight. They were planning for a war. But they were not going to expect the fight I was going to give them. I was going to make it clear that their quest for domination would not succeed.

With David gone, I set to work building my first trap. The job was simple enough. I needed to surround the cabin, at a distance as far away as possible, with fire extinguisher based explosives. Trigger the trap and the explosive would go off, not only causing damage from metal shrapnel, but also spreading out the mono-ammonium phosphate inside the extinguisher, hopefully coating the approaching Dreki. Put out the dragon’s fire and the dragon all but dies.

I worked diligently. The cabin was well stocked for supplies and tools. At least it was well stocked with what I needed. It was just the raw ingredients that I needed more of. I had enough wire to create the trip wires that would set everything off. The Dreki were going to pay for coming after me and turning the whole mountain upside down looking for me. I didn’t have the other gods backing me, but I was used to being alone.

Except I wasn’t alone. I had David with me. I could tell he had never experienced battle, but I was grateful for that. I could only hope the fight with the Dreki would not scar him, assuming he survived at all. I was scarred enough for the both of us. I had seen how people change after battle, both magical beings and humans alike. It had taken me many years before I felt like myself again after my last fight. But this fight was entirely self defense. It was for the good of all people. The Dreki would not win if I could have the final say. And I fully intended to make this stand my final word.

I didn’t know what that meant for my future, assuming David and I managed to succeed, but I had seen too much to return to my old life. It was time for me to start anew. Asgard had abandoned not only me, but themselves in the process. After this fight, it was going to be a new beginning. We just needed to survive. But I had faith. I had faith that we would succeed. We had to succeed. To lose would mean the loss of the nine realms. It would mean the end of the worlds as we knew them. And I could not allow that to happen.

Chapter 10 – David

I hated leaving Val alone at the cabin. I knew she could take care of herself, but I didn’t like the idea of her being there alone if the Dreki showed up. But I also knew we needed additional supplies. It seemed unlikely we were going to make it off the mountain together. The only option was to fight. But to fight we needed supplies.

Once I made it back into town, the level of activity had increased ten-fold from my earlier trip. The men who were passing themselves off as government agents were busy running around. They were getting ready for something. Did they know where Val was hiding out or had they just finally gotten enough numbers gathered to actually start the hunt properly? I didn’t want to know, but more and more, they looked like a formidable force. I was beginning to have my doubts about this whole plan.

Luckily, the men in black suits and SUVs ignored most of the people in town, including myself. Either they figured we all had nothing to do with their search or they were confident enough in their checkpoints lower down the mountain to let people up here do as they pleased. It would only become a problem if we tried to leave.

“You’re back,” Harvey said when I walked into the store.

I looked around, making sure there weren’t any mystery men wandering the store. There were a few customers, but they were all locals. I either knew their names or at least I recognized them from some previous interaction.

“Yeah, it turns out I need a few things for a project I’m starting,” I said. “I see we’ve got more of those guys in suits running around.”

“It’s like they’re multiplying,” Harvey said. “But other than a couple guys coming in to buy some sandwiches, they’ve left the store and our customers alone.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” I said. The longer the men stuck around, even if they had a perfectly legitimate reason for being there, the more likely something bad would happen. That was just how these sorts of things went. Bring enough outside people and the local population starts to feel like they’ve been invaded. The tension would keep rising until someone finally snapped. And more likely than not, it would be one of the Dreki that got wounded or even killed in the process.

After that, who knew what would happen. I could only guess that the Dreki were heavily armed. If the Dreki were smart, they would let it be, even though they would have had a casualty to a local. However, if they weren’t smart, if they weren’t patient, if they weren’t level headed about the whole thing, suddenly they would have a new enemy. And at that point, I doubted there was a law enforcement agency in the country that would side with them. But I had been wrong in the past and I didn’t want to take any chances.

I had to keep the goal in mind with every action I took. The goal was to keep Val safe and to fight off the Dreki when they finally made their move. It didn’t help that I felt like I was operating right under their noses. I felt a bit like a spy. But I had to keep focused on my mission. I was here for supplies first. Any intel I could gather would be helpful, but it was secondary to the fact I was about to help Val make several bombs.

The bomb part scared me. I didn’t know what Val had planned exactly, but anytime explosives were involved, it was something to be careful about. There was no way that I wanted to see either of us get hurt, but I hadn’t expected making bombs would be a very good defensive weapon. Yes, I knew landmines were a thing, but it was much more common to see bombs used as offensive weapons. But I had to trust Val on this. She knew what she was doing, never mind the fact she seemed to have a full understanding of chemistry. I wasn’t aware that chemistry was a needed subject on Asgard. However, I wasn’t aware of anything but the few bits of Norse mythology I had heard and what Val told me.

“Just so you know, I’m going to be buying some weird stuff,” I added. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t ask too many questions. I promise I’m not doing anything that would get either of us in trouble.”

“I trust you, David,” Harvey said. “You’re a good egg. But if I hear you’ve gone and blown yourself up, I’ll be awfully disappointed in you.”

“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” I said. “I promise.”

I only wished I was confident in my promise. Luckily, if anyone asked me about how to make the bombs Val had planned, I wouldn’t be able to answer any questions. I didn’t know how to make anything with the stuff I was buying.

I hurried off, grabbing two shopping carts. This store had just about everything I might need. It was an all-purpose general store. Prices were cheaper farther down the mountain, but I didn’t think I would make it through a checkpoint with a car full of fire extinguishers. Surely the Dreki would understand the threat I posed in that case.

I followed Val’s list to the letter, but I saved the fire extinguishers until the end. I knew the store would have them. I was pretty sure I had bought the one in the cabin here. It probably took 20 minutes to collect everything. When I returned to the checkout counter, I could tell that Harvey’s eyes were about to bug out.

“You weren’t kidding about needing weird stuff. You’re not planning to set anything on fire, are you? You know there’s a burn ban.”

“I’m hoping it won’t come to that,” I said.

Harvey was otherwise true to his word. He started to ring me up. Luckily none of the other customers in the store needed to checkout while I was there. It would have been even weirder to have them watching me, judging me for my strange purchases.

Admittedly, my shopping list was not all that strange. The items were normal everyday household type of items. However, it was the volume that set my large number of purchases apart. I was buying at least a dozen fire extinguishers. I hadn’t even bothered to count them. I just made sure they had the right active ingredient and then bought the whole lot, clearing off the shelf. It was a good thing I grabbed two grocery carts before I started. I needed the space.

I swiped my credit card, ignoring the total cost of the purchase. I didn’t want to know how much all of this was going to cost me. I didn’t really care either. Whatever the cost, I knew it would be worth it if it kept Val and me safe.

After I had my latest purchases loaded back into the carts, I looked out to see an even larger group of men in black suits. And even from here I could see the fire tattoos sticking out from the necks of their collared shirts. A lump formed in my throat when I realized I wouldn’t be able to get back to my car without them noticing me. I was stuck.

“Harvey, you’ve got a loading dock in the back of the store, right?” I had an idea that could eliminate the Dreki from catching sight of me while I loaded my car with the potential elements of their destruction.

“Sure do,” he answered. “It’s the only way we can get stock into the backroom.”

“Do you mind if I use it?”

Harvey looked out to see what I had seen. The black suits had further multiplied since I had come into the store.

“Yeah, I think I can allow that,” he said. “Just this once though, you hear?”

“Crystal,” I said, smiling. “I owe you one.”

“Just roll your carts through the doors in the back. Then go get your car and drive it around. Everything is open back there.”

I did just as Harvey suggested. I started by rolling my two carts worth of goods into the back. There wasn’t anyone back there to yell at me, although I was ready to explain to some stock boy or another that I had Harvey’s permission.

I grabbed one bag of sugar out of the cart and carried it with me. I wanted to exit the store carrying something. If I got stopped, I didn’t want anyone to question why I had gone into the store if I hadn’t purchased anything. Although if they demanded to see my receipt, I didn’t think there would be anything I could do then. But then I realized I had left it in one of the carts and wouldn’t have any issues.

I hurried across the parking lot to my car, trying to avoid eye contact with the Dreki. They seemed much more watchful of people than they had earlier. I was beginning to wonder if they suspected that Val had help. Or maybe they thought she might try to make a run for it and travel in disguise. That might have been what I would have tried in different circumstances.

Luckily, no one questioned me or even seemed to care that I got in my car and drove it around to the back of the store. As soon as I was out of sight from the Dreki, I felt much better. I felt calmer, knowing I wasn’t under constant surveillance anymore. Thankfully the loading dock area was empty and quiet. I was able to pull right up and jump out. I hopped up onto the loading dock and hurried inside. My carts were right where I left them.

I loaded the supplies into my car. I placed the fire extinguishers in the trunk where they could sit out of sight. If I got stopped on my way out of town, I didn’t want my purpose to be automatically known. The rest of the supplies were technically groceries, although the volume of sugar and oils that I had bought would have attracted attention. I just hoped it wouldn’t attract so much attention that I would need to explain myself. I didn’t know if I could lie convincingly.

Everything went smoothly. There were no issues getting out of town and driving back up the mountain. And before I knew it, I was greeting Val with the bounty of my trip. She was more than happy with my haul.

“I’m going to start working on all of this, getting the traps ready,” Val said. “I’ll need your help pretty soon to place them, but until then, you should take a break and try to relax. We don’t know when the Dreki will come.”

“Sure,” I said, before I wandered away. As curious as I was about Val’s plan with the fire extinguishers, I figured it was something better left unknown. If at some point we were hauled in by the cops for something, I didn’t want to have access to information that would hurt us. As far as I knew, we hadn’t done anything illegal yet. But that might change by the time the Dreki arrived.

However, rather than sit down, I decided to take a look out in the storage shed. I wanted to see if there was anything I could use as a weapon. I walked outside and around the back of the cabin. The storage shed had multiple locks, something I never really bothered to think about before. But I had the keys, so I wasn’t concerned. I had complete access.

“I forgot about this,” I said once I had the shed open and began poking around. Most of the shed contained various tools I used to fix the cabin when something broke or failed. It didn’t hurt to keep a hammer and nails around. And I had used the wrenches on plumbing projects a few times. However, almost buried in the back of the shed, stationed high up on a shelf, was my grandfather’s old hunting rifle.

I pulled the gun case off the shelf. It was heavy. The case itself was designed to keep the elements out. Although that didn’t mean the gun still worked. I knew it had been put away properly oiled, because I had to learn how to do that so I could store it. But it was something I had placed into storage and then properly forgotten about afterward.

I opened the case, and there was the rifle, just as I had left it. I picked up the rifle and slid the bolt. It seemed to be in good shape. There was no rust or any other sign of issue. As long as the ammo was still in good shape, we had another weapon at our disposal. We had Val’s bow and my rifle. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

We worked late into the evening placing Val’s fire extinguisher traps. I wasn’t sure how they were exactly supposed to work, but from the sound of it, if a Dreki triggered one of the bombs, it would blow apart the fire extinguisher canister and spread its chemicals far and wide. Any Dreki who got hit would suffer severe consequences. We placed them strategically, wanting to make sure the Dreki couldn’t sneak up on us from behind or out flank us. We wanted to keep them coming up the road so that we could concentrate on one battlefront.

By the time night fell, we were both exhausted. But we took turns sleeping so there was always someone standing watch. Getting surprised at this junction would have been a death sentence.

But the rest, even when it was sitting out on the porch with my eyes open, scanning the forest in the darkness, was helpful. And we both needed it, because as soon as the sun rose, the sound of a big truck or SUV rumbled up the road. Someone was coming.

Chapter 11 – Val

“They’re coming,” David called out. I was awake, having barely been able to sleep during the night. I knew sleep was necessary, but it had become increasingly clear that the Dreki were coming. The movements David had described to me on his two visits to town meant they were getting ready to make a move. On Earth, the Dreki rarely worked alone.

I heard the rumble of the engine too. But it sounded like just a single vehicle. I couldn’t hear additional engines. That either meant this was a reconnaissance mission or they had already split up and were attempting to close in on us from all sides. The Dreki weren’t dumb. They had a plan and they were executing that plan to perfection. My only hope was that we had outsmarted them.

My bow was next to me. As was my quiver of arrows. I had kept my knives on my belt. Our plan was simple enough. We would fight for as long as we could.

Before I stepped out onto the porch to confront our visitors, I double checked to make sure the locket was still around my neck. This was what they wanted. They wanted my magic even more than they wanted me. And from what David overheard of the men hunting me higher up the mountain, they were aware my magic had been syphoned from my body already. Then again, it would have been easy to track me had I not done so.

Late last night, while David and I were in the middle of switching shifts at watch, he asked me why I didn’t use my magic now. They knew where I was, more or less. And there was some truth to his assertion. I was more formidable with my magic. But it was not so easy for me to reintegrate the magic into my body. It would take time for me to regain my powers, but I would instantly light up to other magical beings. The Dreki would have my precise location before I could actually use my powers. Either way, I wouldn’t be able to use my magic in time for it to actually be useful.

It didn’t matter anymore. It would be too late. I had never syphoned off my magic before, but I had heard stories of others struggling when their magic returned to their bodies. The pain was known to be almost unbearable. I would be useless to David in this fight, even though the Dreki would no longer be able to steal the magic from me. My magic was useless to us. It was just the two of us, with our traps and weapons against whatever the Dreki could bring against us.

A black SUV appeared on the road, making a slow, but deliberate drive up toward the cabin. It was clear they had limited knowledge of what to expect. They gave us plenty of time to take up our positions. David returned inside the cabin where he took up position at a window. We had worked out the details in advance. I would use the doorway, since I needed more space for my bow. His rifle required less physical space, so we had already broken out a window pane, much as I had done on the front door when I first entered the cabin, breaking in.

That felt like ages ago now. Everything had seemed so simple then. It had only been a couple days since I had met David, but here we were prepared to fight side by side. I didn’t know what the future held for us. I didn’t even know if we would survive past the morning. But if we did survive, I knew I needed him in my life. I had no idea how we would make it work, but the connection I felt with him was unlike anything I had ever felt before. It was almost like we were meant for each other.

The SUV stopped just near the edge of my high accuracy range. The driver was being careful, planning for my attack. Not that they were out of range. It was just that my accuracy dropped when the target was too far away. The SUV was right on the edge, forcing me to think before firing an arrow. However, that was not a problem for David. His rifle had better range, although he admitted he was not a great shot. He hadn’t used the gun in many years. Still, it was better than nothing.

The doors on the SUV opened and four men got out, two on each side. They were indeed Dreki. Even dressed as they were in black suits, I could tell that they were Dreki. The man who got out of the front passenger seat was even a man I recognized. He had been one of the Dreki who came to visit me at my home in Asgard. This was no recon mission. They were here to win. They were here to kill me and steal my magic.

“Skadi,” the man called out. “Just hand it over and no one needs to get hurt.”

I stood just out of sight in the doorway, an arrow nocked. I was ready. Even at this distance, I was pretty sure I could direct my arrow true. He would be a pile of ash before he knew what hit him.

I shifted my weight, drawing the bow string, preparing to fire, but a loud explosion sounded in the forest. I could see the smoke in the distance. The first of the traps had gone off. I had read the Dreki plan correctly. They meant to surround us. But that wasn’t going to happen.

The men at the SUV reacted to the explosion by scrambling behind the vehicle, hiding themselves, not knowing what had happened or that the men who had triggered the explosion were likely dead. If the explosion and shrapnel didn’t kill them, the chemicals in the fire extinguisher would.

Dreki, in their human forms, required the fire that burned within them to survive. The chemicals in the fire extinguisher worked just as they did on a real fire. Even contact with the skin was enough to severely injure a Dreki in human form. If they inhaled it or otherwise got themselves coated in it, the fire that each Dreki carried within him was put at risk. If it went out, there was no survival. They would shrivel up into ash.

I could tell that the Dreki from the SUV were panicking. They were not expecting such a reception. They probably thought they had surprised me. It explained why they had deployed most of their men into the forest and only approached with a few men in a single vehicle.

I caught sight of one of the Dreki speaking into a radio. I could guess he was telling his men to approach with caution. He had no idea what those explosions meant for his men, how they were designed to kill Dreki most of all. But I had been sneaky in disguising the trip wires. It would be difficult for anyone to get past the traps I had laid out. I had left one option for the Dreki. They could approach on the road and from nowhere else.

Three more explosions sounded through the forest in quick succession, coming from different points that encircled the cabin. One, two, three. Those explosions were followed by screams of agony. And then there was silence. Dreki were dying in the forest. My plan was working.

“David,” I said. “Can you try and shoot out the front tires on the vehicle? It’s time to let them know that they’re not going anywhere.”

This was our last stand. There would be no future battle. The Dreki needed to learn that their plans for domination would not be tolerated. I might not have had all of Asgard on my side, or even my magic at my disposal, but with a little help, I remained formidable.

I watched David out of the corner of my eye, watching how he carefully lined up his shot. He breathed out slowly and then stopped. A moment later, the shot rang out and the front corner of the SUV dropped. One tire down.

The sound of the gun sent the Dreki behind the vehicle scrambling, making sure they had cover from the cabin. It seemed they weren’t expecting weapons fire that was not a bow. They had come to this fight woefully unprepared and for that, I was going to make them pay. It was their overconfidence that would be their undoing.

Unfortunately, it took David three shots to successfully hit the other front tire. David was a decent shot, but he wasn’t great. I already knew that, but now so too did the Dreki.

“No one has to die,” one of the Dreki called out from behind the vehicle.

“You’ve already lost men today,” I called back. “The only way out of this for you is to walk back down this mountain and to leave forever.”

“Not an option,” he called back. “Give us the magic or we will burn this forest to the ground with you and your friend in it.”

I looked over to David to see him visually flinch at the threat. Up until this point, I wasn’t sure what firepower the Dreki had been willing to bring against me. Fire was their preferred weapon, but it had limited range. Then again, the summer heat had dried out the forest enough that all it would take was them to start the fire and we might burn alive. That was assuming the heavy smoke in the air didn’t kill us first. And I was pretty sure my locket could withstand a forest fire, even a hot one set by a Dreki.

But the fact was, the Dreki didn’t know that. They had no idea what I had done to protect my magic. They had no idea if starting a fire and burning us out would result in them getting what they wanted. For all they knew, it could lose them access to my magic forever. Therefore, I doubted they would follow through with their threat. It was too great a risk to them. And then there was the simple fact that a forest fire would bring attention to them and it would bring manpower to the region that could be a threat to them. As long as they kept acting like federal agents or whatever it was David was reminded of, eventually fire fighting personnel would supersede whatever stolen authority the Dreki had obtained.

Another explosion rocked the forest, the sound coming from behind the cabin. That meant five of the devices had gone off. There were seven more out there. I had also held one back, just in case.

“You think you’re funny, Skadi?” called out the Dreki. “You think we’ll stand for you killing any of us?”

“Self preservation,” I called back. “That’s all this is.”

I could sense the Dreki were growing angry. It seemed likely that I had foiled a part of their grand plan, but I had no idea how many more men they had out in the forest trying to close in on the cabin. I also didn’t know how well the men out in the forest would be able to change their tactics on the fly. The Dreki were known for being smart, but that didn’t mean they were smart when they needed to be. Sometimes they just acted like dumb gangsters, using the threat of violence to get what they wanted. They weren’t used to taking blows themselves.

The four men behind the SUV remained where they were, but I could tell they were trying to work out a new plan. They had failed at taking me by surprise. But they outnumbered us and that remained their primary advantage. The only question was how they would use those numbers against us. The fight had started, but it was still far from over.

Chapter 12 – David

I was proud of my first shot with the rifle, taking out the left front tire of the SUV. But I knew I embarrassed myself needing three shots to take out the right front tire. Val needed me to be on top of my game, but I just wasn’t that good of a shot with a rifle. I never had been. This wasn’t the sort of thing I had ever needed to be good at before. And I was glad for that, but it was still frustrating.

Val’s plan seemed to be working. The Dreki tried to close in on us from all directions and her traps had already significantly dwindled their numbers, or so I assumed. It was impossible to know for sure, but the screams I heard were a good indication that those dragon men trying to surround us were having a difficult time of it.

There was a part of me that cringed at every scream I heard. These were people and I hated to think I was causing death and injury. But at a certain point, I had to remind myself that these men wanted me dead. Helping Val was all that set them against me. Even if I gave up my gun and surrendered, which I had no plans of doing, they were unlikely to grant me mercy. They would probably just kill me for opposing them to begin with. That was how gangsters operated and the Dreki were nothing more than gangsters. I had no doubt about that.

Then the shooting started. I wasn’t sure who started first, but the men behind the SUV had produced rifles and had taken up position to limit their exposure. I fired back, but I could not sustain the same rate of fire they could. And I had little hope in actually hitting any of them. They just weren’t exposed enough from my vantage point. It had been a good idea when we started, but now I felt stuck.

Luckily, Val remained a whiz with that bow. She took out two of the men shooting at us from behind the SUV. That took a lot of the pressure off of us. The two remaining Dreki continued to fire at us, but the number of bullets riddling the cabin and flying through the window over my head was fewer.

“I’m out,” Val hissed as she stepped back from the doorway.

We both knew it would probably happen. Our ammunition supply was limited. She was limited by the number of arrows she had with her. Val had done a phenomenal job of conserving her arrows and retrieving them from her small hunting expeditions, but there was no way that she could go out into the field of battle and retrieve arrows without getting hit.

The remaining Dreki behind the SUV seemed to sense the change in dynamics. Val was no longer nearly picking them off with her bow. There was just me taking wild shots, hoping I hit something worthwhile. They conferred for a moment. I continued peppering away with the rifle, but I knew it wasn’t doing any good. I was just wasting ammunition, but I had to keep some sort of pressure on them.

Then it all changed at once. The men ran out from behind the SUV, charging toward us. They each held their guns out, shooting at us.

“Cover me,” Val shouted as she picked up the final explosive device, the one she had held back. It was our failsafe device. Its whole purpose was to thwart a charge like the one the two remaining Dreki launched at us.

I stood up and began firing, hoping to hit something, but also trying to draw their fire so that Val could throw out the final explosive and end everything once and for all. And it seemed to work. I drew their attention as Val heaved the final explosive out of the cabin. It landed at their feet and exploded. But at the same moment, a searing bit of lead struck my shoulder, throwing me back. One of their bullets had finally found its mark.

I screamed out in agony as I hit the floor with a thud. Val dove for cover and seemed to survive the explosion. Pieces of shrapnel rattled against the cabin wall. And then there was silence.

The pain was unlike anything I had ever felt before. I could feel warm blood pooling beneath me as I laid there, my left shoulder alight with a pain I had never experienced in my life. I turned my head to see Val’s worried face. We had lasted until the end, but I had been brought down in the final Hail Mary. I needed to get to a hospital. I was losing blood fast and I had no idea if I could even survive long enough to make it down the mountain. I didn’t even know if Val could drive. But I realized she would have to try.

Suddenly a shadow formed in the doorway. I tried to call out. I tried to warn Val. But it was too late. She spotted him, but only after he had lunged forward.

Val went flying backwards as the man threw his body at her. She tried to scramble for a weapon, but the man’s hands were already on her bow. He was on top of her before she had time to react, the bow string pressed against her throat. She needed both hands to keep herself alive, the knives on her belt were just sitting there, useless. The man had the advantage of her and I knew I was of no help. I couldn’t stand, let alone continue to fight.

But then I spotted it. The locket had somehow fallen from Val’s neck. It laid there on the floor, ignored by the man attacking Val. He had no idea what he was looking for. He just knew he needed to kill her. That was his duty. The magic could be found afterward.

I reached out with my good arm, trying to grab for the locket. I screamed out as a fresh jolt of pain shot through my shoulder. My body wanted me to stop, but I wasn’t about to do that. Val’s life was in danger. She needed my help.

My fingers just reached the locket, the tips brushing against the warm metal surface. I just needed another inch, but I couldn’t seem to get there. My body was stretched out as far as I could manage, but it wasn’t enough.

Val continued to struggle against the man. The bow string continued to press into her throat, her hands doing all she could to keep herself breathing. But the man had all the advantage. He was bigger and he was better positioned, able to use his weight to keep Val pinned to the floor as he tried to force the life out of her.

Then, growing impatient with the status quo, the man shifted his weight. His foot fell onto a loose floorboard. It was the same floorboard the locket was on. The board flexed and the locket shifted. It moved just a fraction of an inch closer, but that was all that I needed. I took hold of the locket and brought it close to my chest. I knew that her magic might not immediately help her, but it was our last chance. If she died, the magic would be his and he could do what he pleased with it. He could use it so that the Dreki could take over the world. I couldn’t let that happen.

I managed to pop open the locket with my one good hand. Green light poured out of it, filling the room. But both the man and Val were locked in place, neither of them able to notice what I had just done.

My expectation was the magic would return to Val. She was its rightful host. It was her magic. But it didn’t flow toward her. Instead, the green light sank down, lowering itself toward my chest.

I yelled out as it burned upon contact with my body. It sank down into my chest, choosing me as its next host. This new pain completely overrode whatever I felt from my shoulder. The light completely disappeared inside of me, continuing to burn me as it went. I was human. These powers were not meant for me. This hadn’t been what I wanted.

My heart pounded in my chest, making my blood loss all the worse. I knew I was going to die. I could feel it. It was the only option. And then Val would die too. My only hope was that our deaths would foil the Dreki plans. My single satisfaction was knowing my death was a noble one, even if it was completely accidental. The gun shot I had a chance to survive from, but this magic was surely going to kill me.

However, as I laid there, preparing for my end, I realized the pain had stopped. And it wasn’t just the burning in my chest. My shoulder had stopped hurting as well.

I glanced down and saw my blood-soaked shoulder, but it no longer looked to be actively bleeding. I flexed my muscles, trying to understand what had happened. My shoulder moved without pain. I moved my arm. Same thing. I could still feel the magic inside of me, but it no longer hurt. It had healed me.

Val. I had to help Val. I pushed myself up to my feet, still finding my balance. It was a strange sensation. Suddenly I felt more powerful than I could ever have imagined. I didn’t even know how to use the magic, but I could feel its presence inside of me, bolstering my strength.

“Get away from her,” I yelled as I raised my arm. I balled my hand into a fist and struck out toward the man. I made contact with the back of his skull. There was a crack that sounded through the cabin. Then the man dropped to the floor. Whether he was dead or just unconscious, I didn’t know.

“David?” Val coughed as she pushed the bow away from her.

She sat up and looked from the man and back to me. The man wasn’t moving. He just laid there.

“What did you do?”

I looked down at my hand, almost afraid of my own strength. And that’s when I saw it. My hand, still balled up in a fist, had turned into the color of stone. I reached out with my other hand, running my fingers along what was supposed to be my skin. It felt like I was petting a rock.

“I…” I started to speak, but my words failed me. I didn’t understand what had just happened. Why had my hand turned to stone? It made no sense. I was human. I wasn’t supposed to be able to wield magic.

“You saved me,” Val said.

Before I knew what was happening, she had practically leaped at me. I caught her in my arms, one normal and the other stone. Then her lips were pressed against my own. We kissed and nothing else mattered. Every moment before this one paled in comparison. All I cared about was the warmth of her lips pressed against my own as our two bodies came together in a loving embrace. I was beyond elated.

Chapter 13 – Val

“Did what I think just happened actually happen?” David asked once we broke the kiss.

I stepped back and looked him up and down. I could feel the power radiating from him. I recognized it as my magic, but I didn’t understand how it had happened. How had my magic entered his body? That wasn’t supposed to be how it worked. He was human.

“I think so,” I answered, awed by what amounted to a miracle. I had seen David fall. I knew he had been hit. His shirt was soaked with blood and yet he was perfectly fine. It was as if he had never been shot at all. He was fully healed. The only signals that something was amiss was his blood-soaked shirt and the pool of blood on the floor. “But it makes no sense.”

“I’m not complaining,” David said with a chuckle. I couldn’t blame him.

Suddenly he winced and doubled over in pain.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, suddenly worried. This was uncharted territory. We had both survived the Dreki attack, but that didn’t mean we were now free from attack. It was possible there were others still out in the woods. But more importantly, David was in pain and it was easy to guess the cause.

“My chest,” he wheezed. “It burns.”

“It’s my magic. You’re human. You shouldn’t even be able to contain it. We have to get it out of you.”

David said nothing as he continued to struggle to breathe. I felt so bad for him. He had saved my life, but now I wasn’t sure that I could save his. It had been difficult to remove my own magic when I first arrived on Earth. But I had no idea how to draw it out of someone else, let alone a human. Our biologies were different, even if we looked the same on the outside.

“Keep trying to breathe,” I told him. The important thing was not to panic. That would just make things worse.

I looked around for the locket. That seemed like the best way to handle it. But where was it?

David had used the locket, but now I couldn’t find it. I got down on my hands and knees, looking for the dwarf forged locket, knowing we needed it to absorb the magic. If we couldn’t find it, I was afraid David could die. After saving my life, the least I could do was save his in return.

“There it is,” I shouted, spotting it by the couch. It must have rolled away after David had unleashed the magic. There had been quite a scuffle.

I grabbed the locket, knowing David’s life hung in the balance. But what was I supposed to do with it?

“David, I need you to listen to me very carefully,” I said. “We need to get my magic out of you or else it will kill you. Here, take the locket.”

I shoved the locket into David’s hands. Even bent over as he was, I could sense his confusion. He didn’t know what to do.

I thought back to the day when I first arrived. I had channeled my magic into the locket. But how could David do the same thing? I needed to find a way to explain it to him.

“I need you to concentrate.”

“I can’t,” he wheezed. “It burns.”

“I know it hurts, but the pain will only get worse if you don’t concentrate,” I countered. “I need you to picture the magic in your body as a ball. Can you do that for me?”

It took a moment for David to respond, but he eventually nodded his head in affirmation.

“Okay, good. Now I want you to imagine pushing that ball out of your body. Push it out of your chest and toward the locket in your hands.”

David’s face screwed up in intense concentration. He was doing it. But would it work?

I could only stand there and watch. I was powerless to assist him further. But then a green light appeared. It peeked out of his chest, just barely shining through. It was a start.

“That’s it, David,” I said in encouragement. “You’ve got this. You’re doing it.”

David seemed to redouble his effort when he heard the good news. His eyes were squeezed shut as he pushed the green ball of magic out of his chest. With each passing moment, the light grew brighter with more of the magic leaving him.

“You’re almost there,” I continued. “You can do this. Just a little more.”

The ball of magic was now almost entirely outside of him, but its final few tendrils continued to hold onto his body, not wanting to leave.

“Argh,” David yelled as he continued to push. I knew he was struggling. I knew it hurt him. But he had to keep pushing.

And then finally the magic was free. It whooshed into the locket and I grabbed it from David’s hands, closing it before it went anywhere we didn’t want it to go.

“You did it,” I cheered.

David was bent over, his hands on his knees, his breathing ragged and heavy. He looked like he had just run up a mountain at his top speed. But he was alive and well. It was only a matter of needing rest. He would survive. We all would.

I returned the locket to around my neck, the place it had been before the fight began. I could feel the magic calling out to me, wanting to return to my body, but I held off the urge to reunite with it. There were still too many unknowns to return my magic now. I didn’t know if it was safe and David needed me to take care of him.

“You need to rest,” I said, slowly leading him toward the bedroom.

I set David down on the bed to sleep off the ordeal. He needed the rest more than I did. I was tired too, but I knew there were important cleanup tasks to complete. First, I needed to secure the area around the cabin. The only sign of the dead Dreki were the small piles of ash they left behind. Their own bodies were consumed with fire from the inside. I didn’t know if they felt pain when they died like that, but it happened so fast it might not have mattered.

The Dreki that had made it into the cabin and that David had struck down was gone. I panicked for a brief moment before I spotted the pile of ash from where his body had once laid. He was dead. I was already planning to keep that fact from David, not wanting him to worry about a death that me might have caused. He was too good a man to let a death by his hands haunt him like that. It was better that I take the fall for it.

After the battle that took place at the cabin, the forest was eerily quiet. Not even the birds had returned. Both the cabin and the SUV were riddled with bullet holes. I wasn’t even sure if the SUV was drivable anymore. Both front tires had been shot out and most of the window glass had shattered. The hood and grill featured lots of little holes from David’s rifle. But I wasn’t worried about driving the SUV far. It would need to be moved eventually to clear the road, but otherwise, it could be left alone for the time being.

I carried my bow out with me, wanting to make sure I remained armed in case there were any remaining Dreki lurking nearby. Seeing no one, I started to walk over toward the SUV. I needed to retrieve arrows. I had used my limited supply and I worried I would need more. Luckily, they were strong arrows and could be reused.

I reloaded my quiver with the arrows I could easily find. I would hunt for the rest later. In the meantime, I needed to check the surrounding area, looking for any Dreki survivors. But I also needed to deactivate the traps I had set. If any Dreki returned, they would change their tactics to avoid the traps. And even if they didn’t return, I didn’t want a human to be hurt unintentionally.

I took my time, keeping a wary eye out for any unexpected movement. Piles of ash decorated the forest floor where the bombs had gone off. There was white powder from the fire extinguishers as well, but there was nothing to be done about that at the moment. As I moved, I kept a running tally of the number of ash piles I found. The Dreki had brought a large force against us, but my traps had held them back. I doubted the Dreki would risk another assault like this. They might even give up entirely for all I knew, hoping there was another way they could advance their aims.

It was only after I had cleared the last trap that my stomach growled at me. It was a reminder that I hadn’t eaten anything yet. The Dreki came too early for me to break my fast. I was sure David would be hungry as well. I was certain the magic had burned up a lot of his energy and he would need that replaced soon.

Returning to the cabin, I found David already up and moving again. He stood in the kitchen, making lunch. He turned at the sound of my footsteps and smiled.

“I’m feeling much better now,” he said. “I figured we could both use some food.”

I stood there in awe of this man. I had only just met him, but I already felt as if I could not live without him. I had never been someone who believed in love at first sight, but I was already asking myself whether I loved him or not. Our connection ran deep. That much I knew. But I also knew that the actions we had both taken over the past several days were beyond kindness or even friendship. Our actions were rooted in love. There was no other explanation.

We both ate ravenously. It had been a big day for the both of us and we needed the energy. But all through the meal, there was something else. David was unlike any other human I had ever met. He was strong and kind, as well as handsome and smart. He had helped me when he had no reason to, just because I had been in need. He expected nothing in return from me.

But after lunch, after we had our fill, I took David by the hand and guided him to the bedroom. This time I had no intention of letting him rest. I wanted to show him how I felt about him, coming together as only a couple in love could do. When I came to Earth, I had intended to hide out alone. But then David fell into my life and I couldn’t imagine my life without him there by my side. I didn’t know what our future would look like, but the Dreki threat appeared gone for the moment. And if the threat returned, I was confident that we would face it head on, together. Because I had found the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and I knew David felt the same way about me. Asgard had been my home, but now I knew where I truly belonged.