Chapter 1: So, You're A Demon's Servant
“Odin Odin, stop the cart, I need to pick flowers for the guy who I've wanted to marry for a year now but I’m never going to ask him because I want him to ask me for some stupid reason weh weh weh stop the cart,” Odin muttered under his breath, rolling pastry out on the floured kitchen table. His fingers were covered in white flour and specks of pastry dough were clinging to the cracks of his knuckles. He scowled and forced the rolling pin into the dough in annoyance. The recipe book sat open in front of him, covered in flour and butter and his contempt.
“Well you got your goddamn flowers, Maggie. Got your flowers and your man and everything’s working out for you. I hope you’re happy. I hope you live a long and happy life and have fifteen hundred children. I hope it was worth me getting kidnapped my a g- goddamn demon.” His voice raised and his stammer came back briefly. With a huff of annoyance, Odin picked up the dough and slammed it back down onto the table to roll it from another direction.
All in all, it wasn’t shaping up to be one of his better mornings.
He and Maggie had spent the past few days visiting the dockside town, Fairlyn, where Maggie had been selling various dried herbs and plants to locals and visiting sailors. They’d raked in a good amount of coin, and Maggie had fallen over herself buying new herbs from across the sea to take back to Gil to make into tinctures and medical brews. She’d been giddy and grinning ear to ear the entire time. Odin’s job meanwhile had been to stand to one side of Maggie’s stall and look menacing. A pretty useless job since Maggie was more than capable of looking after herself, but she said it was more dignified to have a man there, and Gil was too busy with the medical centre to go travelling with her. So Odin had stood there, pipe in his mouth and eyes on anyone who looked like they might cause trouble. He was pretty good at looking threatening so long as he didn’t open his mouth. His mother had given him broad shoulders and a good few inches on the average farmer, and he had his father’s dark eyes. Pity the war had then gone and given him a tongue which didn’t work. He always felt it ruined his foreboding schtick.
Odin punched the pastry dough and turned to search through the cabinets for some sort of pan. He found an old cast iron pie dish tucked away behind an old kettle and scrubbed it with a huff of annoyance. Stupid demon couldn’t keep anything clean. This was such an aggravation.
He knew it wasn’t a good idea to travel between villages. The forests were still oozing with magic left over from the war against the Titans, and who knew what mutated monsters still lived in the trees. But Maggie’d been insistent. The war had been over for years, and people were beginning to travel from village to village again. It was a business opportunity, a chance to get some new people to buy her herbs. And she didn’t listen to Odin’s objections because she was a stubborn mule at the best of times. She said she was going with or without him. And of course, Odin couldn’t let Maggie go alone because she’d do something stupid and something would’ve happened to her. And it’s a good thing he had gone because something almost had happened to her, hadn’t it?
The pastry was pressed into the pie dish. Odin was so aggressive that his nails punched through the dough in some places, revealing the grey metal dish behind the crust. Whatever. He poured in the wild blueberries and sugar, making sure to squash as many berries as he could into pulp. He sucked the juices off his fingers then spat into the dish for extra measure.
Because on the way back home, Maggie just had to stop the cart and run down the little path with the rusted gate hanging off its side, because she’d seen some roses. Some stupid fucking roses growing around a derelict wall. Didn’t matter that they were clearly growing in a place with magic still in the soil, because no normal rose had petals that bright blue colour. No no, all that mattered were they were the colour of Gil’s eyes. And Maggie was going to bring back a whole bunch of them and give them to him and he’d finally come to his sense and ask her to marry him. Ask him yourself, Maggie, ask him to marry you and shut up about it. But a lady doesn’t ask, a lady has to be asked so she had to stop and gather the flowers. And she had to call Odin over to help because some of them were over the other side of the wall and she couldn’t reach. And Odin was a gentleman and for some reason he loved Maggie dearly even if she didn’t think anything through.
He forced the pie into the hot oven and slammed the door shut. It was probably hot enough. He put some more kindling onto the fire just in case, jabbing at it angrily with the poker. Hopefully the pastry would burn. Or it wouldn’t cook through and they’d be left with a sloppy, uncooked mess. Yeah, that’d be great.
Demon’s shouldn’t get pie. Pie wasn’t for demons. Pie was only for people who didn’t jump out of the trees with bright orange skin and glowing red eyes and smoke billowing from their lips as they yelled about how you’re stealing their flowers and trespassing on their land. Odin grit his teeth, remembering how the demon had leapt from the branches and crashed down on the wall in front of them. Her hair had been dark and had billowed in the wind. Her clawed hands reached for them as she’d yelled. Trespassers, thieves, criminals. How dare they steal from her? And sparks had flown from her pointed teeth.
Odin had shoved Maggie behind him, as if that would do any good. He’d warned her that there was still magic in the woods. That’s why people didn’t travel from town to town, because things like this happened. A demon with a pointed tongue and feet that burned the moss she was standing on yelled at you, and said that you needed to pay her back for the flowers. And then you’d try to reason with the demon and explain you meant no harm, that you could pay with whatever coin it wanted, but your stupid tongue would get caught in your throat and you’d trip over the same syllable over and over and over again. That’s what happened when you went into the forest, Maggie!
And then the demon says you have to work off your debt. That one of you has to go with her and work as her servant, to pay her back for taking a few flowers. And then she growls and more dark smoke flows from her mouth and her skin glows. And she says that she’s being kind, because if you’d caught her in a bad mood the two of you would be burnt to cinders.
He’d never seen Maggie so terrified, her hands shaking on her stupid fucking flowers that had started this entire thing. And apparently when it was crunch time Odin turned stupidly noble, because he’d pushed her behind him and stammered that she should run. And when she protested, he shook his head. He’d stay. He’d be the servant. It wasn’t like he had any real reason to go back to the village anyway, the only real thing back there for him was Maggie. But she had her family’s herb shop, and all her friends, and maybe Gil. She should go.
Gil had better marry her after all this shit Odin’s going through to get those stupid flowers. Or at the very least, Maggie had better shut up about him.
Congratulations on your engagement, my wedding present is saving the bride from a lifetime of servitude to a fire demon who lives in some old farm out in the country yes yes you're very welcome.
Why did a demon have a farm? Odin had expected to be dragged into some other dimension or maybe flung into a cave halfway up a mountain. Instead the demon had pulled him down the track in the forest, through more roses that grew through rocked walls, until the trees had given way to reveal his place. A little cottage whose roof badly needed thatched, and a wooden door with handprint-shaped burns all down the side. There was a well-tilled vegetable patch round the side of the cottage, and the distant sound of chickens and goats. Odin hadn’t had time to take it all in before being forced through the door and into a kitchen littered with plates and pots. The demon had promptly plunged her hand into the soot-covered oven, lighting the kindling in there and sending heat through the entire stove.
She was hungry, she told him. She wanted food. And Odin was going to cook for her. Then she’d left him there, flouncing away into the house and leaving dark footprints on the flagstone. And Odin had found an old cookbook on a shelf, and sorted through the pantry for some ingredients before deciding on blueberry pie.
Odin opened the door to the stove. The pie was done. Dark juices had bubbled up through the slits in the top of the pastry and it smelled of berries and sugar. He pulled the pie dish out and set it on top of the oven.
Okay, so this was his life now. Making pie for a demon who lived in an abandoned farm. At least the kitchen was well-stocked even if it was a mess. There was actually eggs and flour and a crock of butter, as well as vegetables and fruit and various conserves in the cabinets. Maybe demons farmed in their spare time. Or more likely they ate the farmers and took over their houses, then forced humans into slavery.
Odin huffed. He really didn’t want to work as a servant forever. But he also didn’t want to be burned alive. Real pickle, that was. If only his father could see him now. Look Father, aren’t you proud of me for living up to the family name? Isn’t this just what you hoped for? Aren’t you proud of me?
At least the pie smelled good and wasn’t a complete mess. If he was going to be a servant, at least he wasn't a terrible one. Odin found a tray in an old cupboard and loaded the pie onto it, along with bowl, spoon, and jug of milk. Then he carried everything through the kitchen door into a small living room. There was a fireplace in here, and a few chairs. Some books with burnt corners stacked on a table. Odin glanced around. A family had probably lived here before the war had everyone evacuating from the countryside to live in villages and towns. He left the living room into a small corridor with a staircase leading up. As he climbed the stairs, the dishes on the tray chinked slightly. Oh no look at that, he spilled some milk. Whatever. On the top floor, there were two more doors. One of them was open, leading onto a large bedroom with a double bed. The second was closed. He stepped up to this one and paused. Should he knock? Did demons want their human servants to knock?
Deciding to be safe, he knocked awkwardly with his elbow. “H- Hello?” His tongue and mouth stumbled over the words. Don’t burn me to a crisp, don’t burn me to a crisp, don’t burn me to a crisp. “I’ve got y- your, uh, pie.”
There was a strange sound coming from the other side of the door. Some sort of wailing? It was a little like a baby, or the wind. Was this a demon thing? Something demons did before eating? Odin had no idea. He hesitated in the hallway, deliberating what to do. Then he slowly pushed his hip against the door so that it swung open.
The door opened onto a second bedroom, smaller than the first. This one had a small bed pressed up against the opposite wall beneath a window with light green curtains. A round rug was sitting on the floorboards, stained with ashy footprints. There were a few small paintings on the walls, of cats and trees and children playing.
And sitting on the floor by the bed, with her knees up to her face and her head buried in her hands as she sobbed, was the demon.
The sound of the door opening had her looking up. Her eyes had changed from red to a bright gold, and there were fat tears pouring over her cheeks. They locked eyes across the room. And she immediately flared up, her skin glowing brighter.
“Don’t look at me,” she yelled, hands clenched and flames sparking from her tongue.
Odin took a hasty step backwards out of the room and into the corridor. More milk sloshed over the top of the jug onto the tray.
“S- Sor- Sorry.” His tongue twisted over itself in panic. “I’ll g- go back-“
But the demon suddenly shifted so she was on her knees and reaching out with her clawed hands. “No, wait! Wait, don’t go.”
Odin froze in position. He stared at her. The demon’s skin had stopped glowing and faded to a dusky orange. More tears dribbled down her face. And she said something he didn’t expect.
He blinked. “Y- You’re… Uh…”
The demon hunched forward. Her hair fell in front of her face, revealing the curve of her horns and pointed ears. Her hands wrapped around her front and she sobbed again. “I’m so sorry.”
Odin took a tentative step into the room. Was this some sort of demon trick? If he got close to her, would she eat him? Maybe if he gave her the pie, she wouldn’t eat him. Yeah okay, let’s give her the pie. He crossed the floor and placed the tray down on the rug in front of her. The demon sobbed and lifted her teary face. She had snot dribbling down her upper lip which she wiped away with the back of her hand.
Now that Odin stopped to look at her, he realised the demon was… Small. And thin. Maybe it was all the smoke and fire and swirling hair, but she’d looked huge on the walls outside when she’d been yelling at him and Maggie. But now she was tiny. Smaller than Maggie, at any rate. All curled up covered in snot and tears, sniffling to herself.
“W- w- what are you s- sorry for?” Odin clenched his hands, trying to steady his breathing and get the stammer under control. Breathe, you moron. Relax. Slow down and jump on the difficult sounds.
The demon blinked up at him. Her clawed toes dug into the carpet. “Yelling at you,” she said in a quiet voice. “And making you come here. I’m sorry, I just… I’ve been alone for so long. And I thought…” She tailed off into sniffles.
“Uh…” Odin had no response to that. He stared down at the pie instead. Pointing down at it uselessly, he said, “P- Pie?”
She sat up straighter and nodded. And she looked so pathetic and miserable sitting there with her lower lip quivering that Odin kneeled down and cut a slice for her along with a little milk on top. The demon took the bowl from him with a murmured thanks, and started eating. She took a few tentative bites using her fingers, still crying quietly. And then her face crumpled and more tears flowed as she shovelled more and more pie into her face, giant handfuls of berry and pastry until the bowl was empty and she licked her fingers clean. Then she put the bowl down and wailed again.
“It’s so good,” she cried, covering her face with her hands.
“Thank y- you?” Odin sat down on the carpet, utterly bewildered. He cut her another slice which was promptly devoured. The third slice was eaten more slowly. The demon chewed, her lips stained blue, her clawed hand picked at the pastry. Tears glistened on her face. Odin rested his head on his hand and watched her curiously.
She looked human. Sort of. She had orange skin, horns curling back around her skull, and pointed teeth, but still pretty human underneath all of that. A short human woman with a round face and small frame. Wearing an old dress that looked to have been sewn and patched up a thousand times over the years, and bare feet with clawed toes. She glanced up at Odin, and then back at her plate. Chewed. Swallowed.
Then, a quiet, “Thank you.”
Odin nodded. He tapped his hand on his face. This thing in front of him, it didn’t act like a demon. Not like the ones he’d read about in books. It had at first, but now it just seemed like a human with different colours. Maybe she just had a lot of magical blood in her family? Magic ran in Gil’s family and it gave his skin a blue shimmer in the sunlight, and Maggie had inherited her witch grandmother’s bright green hair. Maybe this was just a girl with a whole boatload of magic in her system. Maybe living out in the countryside had infected her with more magical energy like the roses outside.
He swallowed and decided it was time for a little diplomacy. Okay tongue, don’t fail now. “Uh… So, uh. W- w- what… Uh, who are y- you?”
The girls’ eyes widened. Another tear dribbled down her cheek. “I’m so sorry.” Her hands went to her face and her lips turned down, pointed teeth biting into her lower lip. “I never even told you my name, I just yelled at you and… I’m sorry.”
“D- d- don’t ap- apologise,” Odin said, holding out one hand. “My n- name’s Odin. What’s yours?”
“Mmhm.” Her hands fell from her face to hug her knees to her chest. “Ava Ire. Of the Verthurst Ires.”
“V- Verthurst? The v- village up in the Sa- Sagemount M- M- Mountains?” Odin licked his lips and rubbed a thumb over his jaw.
Ava nodded. “That’s where my grandparents live.” She paused and more tears dribbled down her cheeks. “Lived.”
Odin’s brow furrowed. “Oh. Yeah. It was d- des- destroyed?”
“In the war,” Ava said miserably. Another tear rolled down her cheek. “There was a battle and the spells reached the village. W- We could see the fires from here and my parents went to try and help. I stayed here. Waiting for them.”
“Oh…” Odin pressed his hand into his knees, unsure how to respond to that.
Her toes dug into the carpet more. “They didn’t come back. A- And I was crying, and calling for them, b- because I was scared and h- hungry. And then…” She sniffled and swallowed. “I, I think it was a witch. From the war. She found me and told me to be quiet. And I asked her if she’d seen my parents.” She bit her lip. More tears rolled down her cheeks. “And she hadn’t. And she told me to be quiet again. That I shouldn’t cry, and it was useless to cry during a war. But I couldn’t stop. And she said to shut up, and she said I should be angry instead. But I couldn’t stop crying! And she said she’d help me stop crying! Then she… Did something.” Ava’s eyes closed and she took a shuddering breath. “A spell. I don’t know. She grabbed me and I felt something hot on my arms, like I was on fire. And I think I passed out. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the forest l- like this.” She held out her clawed hands. “I looked like this.”
“Wow.” Odin reached out and picked up a blueberry from the pie dish, popping it into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed. “Th- that’s rough. H- how l- l- long have y- you…” He gestured.
“Oh.” Yeah, Verthurst had been destroyed in one of the final battles of the war. A few months after that, the last of the Titans had been killed down by the Southern Mountains. Had she been living out here for six years? Alone? Fuck. “W- why didn’t y- y- your parents evacuate to one of the cities earlier?”
“The farm,” Ava said. “We couldn’t leave the animals. And the war hadn’t come this far North, we thought we were safe. Until Verthurst…”
“Have y- you been alone? This wh- whole t- t- time?”
“Yes.” Ava hunched over again. “I’m sorry, I haven’t seen people in so long. Nobody comes out here any more. Not since the war. And I can’t go into town l- like this. And then, I saw you and I was so excited to see people, but then I saw y- you were stealing Mama’s roses! And I got so angry! A- And when I get angry, I can’t control myself. I say things I don’t mean. And I made you come here and cook for me and I said I’d burn you up but I didn’t mean it, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have done anything, I just didn’t want you to leave. And then I ate all the food you made and it was so good and now I feel sick.” She sobbed louder. “But I haven’t eaten good cooked food in so lo- ho- hong.”
“Ah, d- d- don’t cry.” Odin reached forward, his hands hovering in the air. Shit, he was terrible with people crying. “Uh, it’s okay n- now. I’m not m- mad or anything.”
“But I was so mea- hean.” Ava clutched at her hair. Tears poured down her face. “I haven’t seen anybody in so long and the first thing I did was yell at the- he- hem.”
“But y- you didn’t m- m- mean it. Y- You were just…” He floundered, trying to figure out just what you can say to stop a cursed girl from bawling her eyes out. “Surprised?”
Ava sobbed, slowly quieting to a few sniffles. She wiped at her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I haven’t spoken to anyone in so long.”
“Y- you’ve said.”
“I’ve never… Nobody’s ever seen me like this.” She sniffed. “I’m sorry.”
“Ah.” Odin scratched his chin, desperate for something to say. “D- Do you n- n- need anything? Water?” After crying that much, surely even someone with fire magic needed to rehydrate.
Ava nodded and got to her feet. She helped Odin gather up the plates and carried the tray back downstairs to the kitchen. Odin sat at the dirty table as she poured water from the old tap into a large jug and placed it on the table. Odin drank a glass as Ava gulped down three. She then sat there, both hands clutching the empty glass.
She hiccuped. “Th- thank you. For cooking.”
“It’s okay,” Odin said, waving his hand. “I’ve n- never had someone c- cry because of m- m- my cooking before.”
That had Ava giving a short laugh before more tears seeped out of her eyes. “I’m not very good at cooking,” she admitted. Her shoulders hunched a little. More tears splattered onto the kitchen table. “I just wanted to eat something warm.”
“G- Glad I could p- provide.” He glanced around the kitchen again. There were sooty handprints all over the white walls, and dirty pans stacked unwashed by the wooden sink. A cabinet against one wall was full of pristine china, which seemingly hadn’t been used in the entire six years Ava had been here alone. A half-eaten peach was sitting on one counter, balanced on top of a copper kettle. He looked at her. “This p- place is a m- m- mess, you know.”
Ava’s eyes widened. Her cheeks glowed bright orange again and she bore her teeth. “Well, I’m sorry,” she snapped. “I haven’t had much help cleaning it up, living here by myself! Oh.” She stopped, staring down at her hands. The glass had melted in her grip, turning into a misshapen lump. “Shoot.”
Odin gave a shaky grin. “I just m- meant… I could help y- y- you clean it up. A little.”
Ava’s face flickered with shock. “What? No, you don’t have to do that. You’ve already cooked something, and I was so mean.”
He waved his hand to get her to stop. “Y- you can clean too. M- maybe y- y- you’ll feel better with a clean, uh, kitchen.”
Ava blinked at him. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“I don’t kn- know.” Odin shrugged. “You lost your f- f- family in the war. M- maybe you deserve someone being n- n- nice to you after that.”
Oh God, please don’t start crying again, he thought as Ava’s lower lip quivered. He wasn’t good with feelings, he was already coming a bit unravelled. But luckily, Ava just took a deep breath and sniffed, nodding a little.
The two of them spent the rest of the day cleaning the kitchen. Ava was quiet and sniffled occasionally, and Odin was perfectly fine with no conversation. Meant he could concentrate on scrubbing all of the old pots with the one bar of soap he could find in the entire house. Ava dipped her hand into the water every so often to keep it hot, her hand glowing orange with fire. And she stood next to Odin, drying the pots with her magic, careful to not melt any of them. When all the pots were finally scrubbed, Odin hung them on their own hooks above the oven. He then handed Ava a dustpan and told her to clean out the ashes from the stove and give it a scouring too, whilst he wiped down the table and counter tops.
It was kind of funny watching the scary fire demon who’d terrified him earlier, crouching on the floor with her head inside a stove. She had ash and soot on her arms up to her elbows, and dirt on her cheeks, but she kept working until the stove was cleaned out. Odin was working on the counter tops which were absolutely terrible. When they were cleaned, he found a ratty old broom and started to sweep all the ashes and dirt out of the kitchen.
By the time they were done, the sun was beginning to set. But the kitchen looked halfway decent. Something you could actually take pride in.
Odin leaned in the doorway, watching the sun set over the mountains, and pulled his pipe out from the pocket of his britches. He filled the bowl of the pipe with dried florem mortem, noting that he was running low and would need to pick up some more when he next saw Maggie. The warm smoke filled his lungs as he breathed in. Then out. In the distance, he heard chickens and a river. The sound of goats. From the kitchen behind him, the sound of a fire being lit in the stove.
He looked over his shoulder. Ava was facing away from him, peering into the stove and holding out a hand to light the kindling inside. Her hair hanging down her back was the dark red of Autumn. He could see the tips of her horns peering round the tops of her ears. Odin breathed out the smoke and stepped back into the kitchen.
“Are you hungry?” Ava asked, still crouched by the stove. “I have some sausages still, and potatoes. And there’s some fresh spinach, too. I- I can try and make something.”
At the mention of food, Odin’s stomach grumbled to remind him that he hadn’t eaten anything that day except a small slice of blueberry pie. So he nodded and watched Ava run into a nearby pantry and grab food. Odin clenched his pipe between his teeth as she started to cook the sausages in a pan. He stood next to her and chopped potatoes to be boiled. Then he took over the cooking entirely when it became clear Ava didn’t really know what she was doing and was in danger of burning everything.
“How can you n- not kn- know how to cook sausages?” he said with a small smile.
“I’m bad at temperatures,” Ava snapped, her skin flaring orange. She breathed out smoke and shook her head. “Sorry. I never bothered cooking by myself. I- I just ate things raw.”
“You c- can do that?”
Ava raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth. As Odin watched, her throat and tongue began to glow and he could feel heat radiating from her mouth. She snapped it shut. “It cooks on the way down.”
“R- right.” Odin tapped his pipe against his lip and focussed on cooking. He wasn’t the best in the world, but he’d been cooking for himself for years so it was serviceable. Ava moved around the kitchen behind him, digging out some chipped plates and cutlery. She also poured them both more milk from a jug in the pantry.
Odin’s eyes wandered. Over the row of pans above the stove, across the door to the pantry that was hanging open revealing shelves of jars and dried herbs, to the back wall with the crockery cabinet full of white china. And hanging on the wall next to it, a photograph of a family. Odin squinted. He could make out a man with a prominent moustache, and a woman whose long hair was pulled back into a bun at the top of her neck. Then, in between them, a small girl who was clasping her hands in front of her and staring out of the photograph with wide eyes. Odin breathed out smoke. He turned the sausages over in the pan.
When they sat down to eat, it quickly became apparent that Ava hadn’t used cutlery in a while. Her clawed fingers were having difficulty holding her knife to cut. She stabbed at her food clumsily, and breathed smoke when Odin tried to help her. His hands hovered over his own plate.
“You d- don’t have to use a kn- knife and f- f- fork if you don’t want to,” he said. “I don’t m- mind.”
But Ava’s cheeks glowed and she didn’t meet his eyes. “Mama said it’s polite,” she muttered, her shoulders hunched. “When company’s over.”
Odin watched her struggle for another minute. He licked his lips and put his knife and fork down. Then picked up a piece of meat in his fingers and ate it.
Ava’s eyes shot up to him. Odin shrugged. “I d- don’t mind.”
There was a long silence and Odin wondered if he’d insulted her and she was going to set the entire kitchen on fire. But Ava’s mouth eventually twitched into a smile and she sat back in her chair. And she began eating with her hands, scarfing the food down happily. Odin grinned. He blew on his fingers and kept eating with her. When they were done, Ava sat back in her chair and glared at her hands.
“I hate my fingers,” she muttered, twitching her fingers. Her nails were about an inch long, and wickedly sharp. Tainted a darker red than the orange of her skin, they seemed in some lights as if they’d been painted. Ava turned her hand over, still glaring at them. “It’s like walking with knives on my hands.”
“Mm. That’d s- suck.” Odin relit his pipe and started smoking again. He looked across the room at the photograph on the wall, gesturing to it. “Is that y- you?”
Ava followed his gaze and nodded. “Yes. Me and my parents. That was the year before the fire,” she said.
“Ah.” He nodded, sucking on his pipe. “You look like your m- m- mother.”
“No I don’t. I look like this.” Ava gestured to herself. Orange and red, with horns and claws and a pointed tongue.
Odin shrugged and scratched behind his ear. “I m- mean like… You’ve got her f- f- face shape.” He got up and walked across the room to get a better look at the picture. Yeah, Ava looked like her mother if her mother had been dipped into a vat of clothing dye. Same round face and huge eyes. But she had her father’s nose, as well. “Did y- your parents have red hair too?”
“Papa did,” Ava said. She got up to come and stand next to him. “But I didn’t. My hair was brown before this happened.”
“Mm.” Odin nodded. He blew out a smoke ring pensively, frowning at the picture. Before the curse, Ava’s hair had been shorted and darker. Her ears had been hidden by her hair, instead of poking though. She’d had little bags under her eyes and skinny wrists. She probably hadn’t struggled with cutlery or melting glasses when she got angry. Odin tapped his pipe on his lower lip.
“Y- You said you haven’t gone into t- town for y- y- years,” he said slowly.
Ava shook her head. “I can’t. Everyone'll be scared of me. Like you were.”
“I’m n- n- not scared any more,” he said.
Ava looked up at him. She smiled softly.
Odin smiled back at her. He took a suck of his pipe. Breathed out. “L- listen, I was j- just thinking. I have some f- f- friends who know some m- magic. M- maybe there’s a way to… Reverse? This?” He cocked his head to one side. “If y- you want, I can ask them?”
“Really?” Ava stared up at him. “You think there might be a way to reverse it?”
Odin shrugged. “I don’t know. M- m- maybe? I’m n- not a wizard, I d- don’t-“
“Please!” Ava grabbed Odin’s sleeve, taking him by surprise. He gulped as more tears started to glisten in Ava’s eyes. “Please… If there’s anything you think you can do… I don’t want to stay like this. I don’t want to look like this for the rest of my life.” Her claws dug into Odin’s shirt, tearing little holes in the sleeves. “Please.”
Odin took a long breath and placed a reassuring a hand on Ava’s arm. “I c- can’t p- p- promise anything. But I’ll d- do my best. Okay?”
And the smile Ava gave him was the most radiant thing Odin thought he’d ever seen.
Chapter 2: So, There's a Mob of Villagers At Your Door
Odin woke up early to the sound of a cockerel crowing outside. He groaned and pressed a hand to his face. “It’s too fucking early for this,” he muttered to himself. But the bird kept crowing and then the sun was in his eyes and then chickens started making a tonne of noise as well so Odin eventually had to admit that he was never going to get back to sleep.
He pushed himself up and stretched, rubbing his hands over his face. Then peeked through his fingers. He was lying on an old bed in the middle of an unfamiliar bedroom, with threadbare carpet on the floor and a window looking out over a small farmyard. Okay, so there went his hopes that all that stuff with Ava had just been a dream. It had all happened. He had met a cursed girl who had the power to create fire, and he had agreed to go home and find Gil and Maggie and ask if they knew anything about this sort of magic to try and help lift the curse. Great. That was just great. It wasn’t like Odin had his own shit to do.
Okay, who was he fooling? Of course he didn't have his own shit to do.
Odin got up and pulled on his britches and boots then sat on the side of the bed examining his shirt. There were tiny holes in the sleeve where Ava had gripped him which he’d have to patch when he got home. Maggie’d hate that, she was always telling him to buy some decent new shirts. And honestly her complaints just made him patch them more because he was stubborn. With a sigh, Odin tossed his shirt over one shoulder and walked to the window. He pulled back the curtain to stare down into the garden. Below him, he could see the chicken coop and large vegetable patch which was surrounded by high fences. And then little way from the house, separated by another fence, was a barn. Odin picked at his teeth with a fingernail as he blinked at the hills beyond the barn. Smooth grass and a smattering of yellow and white flowers. Probably good fertile soil out here, but he dimly wondered just how much magic had affected the soil. His thoughts were interrupted when he spotted a flicker of red beneath his window and looked down.
Ava, wearing the same dress as the day before, was striding out from the house with three large pails clutched in one hand. Odin watched as she walked past the chickens and vegetable patch to the outer fence of the garden. She dropped the pails, and climbed up to stand on the top rung of the fence. A light breeze lifted the strands of her hair about her, making it shimmer bright red in the morning sun. Then she raised her hands to her mouth and gave a long, musical call.
“O hohh, hi!” Her voice echoed back off the hills, a a long lilting tone in a minor key. Odin tilted his head to one side as he listened. “Hi rü, yi rü!” She paused, her hands dropping to her sides and pointed ears twitching. Odin opened the window, which creaked. In the distance, he could hear something clanking quietly. Ava raised her hands again. “Yi yü haah hü, yi rü! Ah hoh, hi!”
Odin gaped as the clanking grew louder and over the lip of the nearest hill trotted a little herd of brown goats with golden bells round their necks. Ava kept giving the eery calls as the goats approached. The clattering of the bells grew louder and louder, and Odin shut the window. He pulled on his shirt, watching as Ava corralled the goats into the barn, and then went downstairs. He’d never actually been on a farm before, he was a little curious how everything worked.
He could hear the goats as soon as he stepped into the garden. The clanging of their bells, and their loud bleating from the barn. Odin furrowed his brow and crossed the garden, climbing over the outer fence to stand by the barn door. He peered inside. In the far corner of the barn was a tired looking horse with a caramel coat, and then in the middle of the floor the small herd of goats were contained in their own little pen. Odin counted about ten adults, and one baby hopping around in between them. And then next to the pen, Ava had a nanny goat on a milking stand and was humming quietly to herself as she worked.
She looked up as Odin approached, and smiled nervously. “Oh, uh… Good morning. Did I wake you when I called the herd? I’m sorry, it’s really loud.”
“No,” Odin said. “I w- was already up. Just w- wanted to see w- w- what you were doing.”
Ava relaxed and shrugged. “That's good. Uh, I’m not doing anything interesting though. Just morning chores.”
Odin walked over to stand next to her, a metre or so from the goat. Ava was hunched over, her hair now tied in a knot at the back of her head away from the milk. Odin watched her curiously. She was milking the goat carefully, moving her fingers so as not to scratch the animal with her long nails. And the goat seemed perfectly content, standing still on the milking stand waiting for her to finish. And soon enough Ava was done, moving the milk pail to one side and cleaning the goat up before letting her go into a second pen with fresh hay to eat.
“Have you ever milked a goat, before?” Ava asked, leading another nanny goat out to the milking stand.
“You want to try?”
“Come on, have a go with Yrsa.” Ava lead the other goat to the stand and got her set up with the pail of milk. With a small, shy smile, she made Odin sit down, and then carefully moved his hand over to the goat’s udders, showing him how to position his fingers and squeeze to get the milk. Odin wrinkled his nose at the smell of the goat and did his best. Then jerked backwards when Yrsa moved.
Ava laughed. “She’s not going to hurt you,” she said happily.
“I’m n- n- not good with animals,” Odin said, taking his hands away. Ava laughed again and took over for him, quickly milking the goat and letting her free.
“Are you not good with any animals?" she asked. "Not even a kid?”
“A k- kid?”
“Mmhm.” Ava walked across to the pen and leant down to pick up the baby goat. It bleated loudly, its ears flopping as she carried it back. “This is Kolka, she’s Yrsa’s daughter. Stroke her, she’s very soft.”
Odin reached out a hand and ran a tentative finger down Kolka’s back. Kolka gave a loud bleat. He wasn’t sure if it was a good bleat or a bad one and jerked his hand away just to be safe. But he had to admit, she was pretty soft. Ava laughed, rubbing a thumb on the goat’s fur.
“Y- You seem p- p- pretty good with them. The g- goats,” Odin said. She was certainly more relaxed than she had been the day before.
Ava smiled widely, showing off her pointed teeth. “I’ve been helping with them since I was little. We used to sell the milk to all the nearby villages, it took a long time to milk them all. A lot of the herd was killed in the Verthurst fire, but I’ve been looking after the rest.” She leaned down and gently kissed the top of Kolka’s head. Her smile flickered. “And, uh, they don’t care how I look.”
Odin looked at Ava. She was still the same fiery orange as ever, with pointed horns and glowing yellow eyes. But surely, nobody who saw her standing in her family barn with a baby goat happily bleating in her arms would ever think she was dangerous or anything. Okay, yes Odin had thought she was terrifying the day before, but that’s just because she was breathing fire at him. There was no fire here. Just a woman who had a tad more orange in her than your average person.
He helped Ava carry the pails of milk into the kitchen. There, Ava decanted the milk into crocks, setting some aside for butter and cheese. When that was done she immediately ran out again with a basket to collect eggs from the chicken coop. Odin followed her again, this time waiting outside the fence round the coop as Ava climbed inside. As soon as she stepped inside, she was surrounded by clucking birds. Ava stepped delicately between them all, and emerged with eight eggs in her basket.
“You have a lot of f- f- food here,” Odin commented as the walked back to the kitchen.
Ava tilted her head to one side and nodded. “I do. Too much. I really wish I could go to the market again.” She sighed, frowning down at her bare feet. Then up at Odin. “Did you mean what you said yesterday? Are you really going to find out if you can reverse this?”
“Of c- course,” Odin said with a nod. He rubbed the back of his head. He was entirely unsure where to even start with something like that, but nobody should be stuck in the middle of the country by themselves unable to even use a knife and fork. He could at least try to help out.
Ava looked away from him again. In a quiet voice, she said, “Thank you.”
“It’s n- no p- p- problem,” Odin said, waving his hand. “W- w- w- we should all help each other out, r- right?” Especially since the War screwed over the entire country.
In the kitchen, he started cooking eggs for the two of them, not paying much attention as Ava ran between the kitchen and pantry. When he was finished, he found that Ava was filling a basket with a block of cheese, a bunch of dried herbs, radishes, and two jars of jam. She hastily wrapped the entire thing up in cloth and insisted Odin take it with him as payment for the cleaning he’d done. Odin tried to refuse it, feeling a blush of embarrassment creep up his ears, but Ava insisted so hard her cheeks began to glow orange again. She then also insisted Odin take her horse back to his village, which Odin accepted numbly because she was clasping her hands in front of her and glowing a little yellow. He wasn’t even sure the stocky horse in the barn would be strong enough to support his lanky frame, but Ava assured him it would be fine. Apparently, the horse’s name was Auvindr and he’d been a foal when Ava’s parents had died so she’d raised him by herself. He snuffled at her hand and snorted when she lead him out of the barn.
And half an hour later when Odin was riding the horse back to his own village with a basket of farm food on his back and his pipe in his mouth, only then did he really contemplate just what had happened in the past twenty-four hours.
Okay, so yesterday he’d been just some guy helping his friend sell her herbs at the market. And now he was going to fulfil a promise he’d made to try and help a fire-breathing woman get rid of the curse that had been on her for the past six years. These things happen. This is pretty standard stuff. Right?
“Oh fuck,” Odin groaned, hunching over in the saddle. “What am I doing? I don’t know anything about magic or curses, what am I going to do? I can’t help her. Shit. I’m an idiot.” He pressed a hand to his face and sighed, gritting his teeth. He wasn’t a wizard, he was just a man. A stupid man who made stupid promises to people he’d just met. Fuck. He should just turn Auvindr around, then go straight back to Ava to apologise and tell her he couldn't’ do anything.
But the image of Ava holding Kolka and smiling up at him flickered through his mind. He thought about Ava crying and saying she hadn’t had a good cooked meal in years, hadn’t even spoken to another person in so long, and how she just wanted to be human again.
Dammit, he had to do something. He had to try. What kind of person would he be if he didn’t try?
“You’d be like Father,” he muttered to himself, gently nudging Auvindr into a trot. “Never, ever be like Father.”
Okay, so first thing he’d do when he got back to the village would be find Gil and ask him if he knew anything about magical curses. No wait scratch that. First thing he’d do would be find Maggie and let her know that he wasn’t dead or enslaved so she didn’t have to do anything stupid. Then Gil. Then maybe he’d find some cookbooks to take back for Ava so she could work out how to fend for herself a little more. With that plan in mind, Odin straightened up and squinted into the distance, waiting for the village to come into view.
He frowned. There was something in the road ahead of him. But he was too far away from the village for it to be buildings. What was that? A travelling merchant? Maggie? Well, he was sort of right. As he got closer, Odin realised that what it was was a mob of about half the village, all carrying pitchforks and the occasional scythe, trudging down the road towards him. And in the front of them, riding her horse and holding a flaming torch above her head, was Maggie.
“Oh no,” he sighed, kicking Auvindr to meet the mob and pulled the horse to a stop in front of Maggie. “W- what are you d- d- doing?”
Maggie blinked, stopping in the middle of the road. “Odin? We’re coming to rescue you. What are you doing?”
“Coming to tell y- you that I d- d- d- don’t n- need rescued.” He looked round at the mob. “Why are they here?”
“We’re the mob,” said one woman helpfully, brandishing her pitchfork. “Gotta have a good mob for these sorts of things, Sir.”
“W- what sort of things?
“Demon hunting,” said another man, holding a large frying pan. “Miss Lacivi told us you’d been kidnapped by a murderous demon who’d threatened the two of youse.”
“We’re going to find her and exorcise her,” Maggie said very matter-of-factly.
“D- Don’t do that,” Odin said quickly. “Yesterday was all a m- m- misunderstanding.”
“How could it be a misunderstanding?” Maggie asked with a grown. “She said she’d burn us to cinders, Odin.”
“B- But she d- d- didn’t,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’m c- clearly not kidnapped or dead.”
“How do we know?” said a voice from the mob.
“Because if I w- was, I wouldn’t be here would I?”
The mob shifted uneasily.
“That’s a good point,” someone said.
“Dead people don’t ride horses.”
“Unless it’s a demon trick!”
“It’s n- n- not a demon trick.” Odin pressed his hand to his face and sighed. “Look, c- can we just g- g- go back home? No m- mobs today. Please.”
“Not even a little one?” the woman with the pitchfork asked.
The mob all exchanged unhappy looks, but eventually agreed to head back home. Maggie was looking askance at Odin, her hands on the reigns of her horse. She took in his dishevelled appearance, the unfamiliar horse, and the pack of food on his back. Her eyes narrowed.
“You’re going to explain everything to me on the way home.”
And he did. In a lowered voice so that nobody in the mob could hear him, Odin told Maggie exactly what had happened after she’d left and everything he was planned to do now. As he spoke, Maggie’s eyes eventually shifted from a frown into wide-eyed surprise. She then admitted that she didn’t know anything about curses (her family's magic was limited to potion-making) but that Gil might. They agreed to find him as soon as they got back home.
The village of Feltraer (really, large enough to be a small town at that point) was nestled in the foothills of the northern mountains, and straddling both sides of the river Grün. The fertile soil of this part of the world allowed the land outside the village to be used as fields where they grew crops and raised a small number of animals. And in the hills themselves, upstream of the river, a black-brick manor loomed high over everyone like a shadow. That had once been home to the local baron and his family. But since there was no longer a noble family after the War, it had been taken over by the school and Gil’s hospital. Odin and Maggie headed there immediately.
As soon as they stepped in the front door of the manor, they were greeted by the blond bespectacled headmaster of the school: Travis.
“Hello you two,” he said, smiling so wide his dimples appeared and pushing his glasses up his nose. “Odin, I heard you were kidnapped by a demon.”
“N- not exactly,” he said with a shrug, making Travis laugh.
“Good, demon kidnapping’s not the best way to spend a weekend. How can we help? Are you sick? Demon sickness?”
“We need Gil,” Maggie said, holding her hands in front of her that her cleavage became more prominent. Odin rolled his eyes and pulled his pipe out of his pocket.
“Gil? Of course, I’ll just go get him.” And Travis vanished into the hospital.
Odin filled his pipe with leaves and lit it. The smoke filled his lungs again and calmed him. He breathed out purple. “So. D- did he ask you to m- m- marry him yet?”
Maggie scowled. “No. But he liked the flowers, they’re on his desk.”
“He’s going to ask me.”
“He hasn’t yet,” Odin muttered to himself. He smiled and didn’t meet Maggie’s eyes when she shot daggers at him. Breathed in more soothing smoke.
Then Gil was emerging from the back of the hospital, smiling and holding his arms out for both of them. Maggie immediately hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. Gil patted her shoulder and gestured to Odin.
“You’re not kidnapped,” he said happily.
“Good! That’s good.” He stepped back to smile at the two of them. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
And they both immediately explained everything. Gil’s expression was the opposite of Maggie’s: going from wide-eyed interest to a scowl of confusion. When they were finished, he was frowning to himself and tapping his finger against his lip. Odin and Maggie both watched him. Travis in the reception area also leaned forward in interest. Gil turned to him. “Do we have any books on curses in the library?”
“A few,” Travis nodded. “Not many, but there are a couple which might help.”
Gil nodded and led them all through the old manor to the library, climbing up the winding staircase to the higher floors. The lower two floors were taken up with the hospital, with the upper rooms devoted to the school. The library itself was on the top floor. Maggie jumped forward to walk besides Gil who was muttering to himself about curses and old magic. Odin looked up at the wallpaper peeling off the walls and didn’t say anything. This place needed doing over. Some new paint or some decent wallpaper maybe. A pop of colour for the children. He breathed out smoke.
They passed by the old bedrooms, now filled with desks and books. Past the large bathrooms whose tubs were big enough to swim in. Past the old nursery which had been changed into a music room complete with grand piano. All the way up to the library. Odin breathed curls of smoke through his nose and stood resolutely in the doorway as the others headed inside. This was really more Odin and Travis’ domain than his own. It was probably best for him to just stand there as the others flickered around the shelves, pulling down the relevant books and talking about various magical schools.
His fingers itched. His tongue tasted of smoke.
“Odin,” Gil called, making him tilt his head. “This girl… Abby?”
“Yes. Would you say her appearance was only a cosmetic change or did it effect the inside of her body as well?”
Odin tilted his head to the other side. He breathed out smoke. “Inside. She c- can heat up h- her throat.”
“Fascinating,” Gil muttered, picking up one book and dropping two others back on the shelf. “And it’s lasted multiple years? Simply fascinating.”
“Yeah. F- f- fascinating.” Odin hunched his shoulders stared at the books nearer the door. He sucked on his pipe more, listening to Gil and Travis discuss the different books and scholars that might be relevant. God, who cared, just grab the books and go. He’d carry anything they wanted if they just shut up and left the stupid building. Odin rocked back and forth on his heels. His teeth dug into his pipe. His skin crawled. And after what felt like an epoch, Gil did settle on five books and let them leave the library, walking back down to the hospital to grab his medical satchel ready to leave.
Before they left, Odin reached into his pack of food and pulled out the cheese and jam. He thrust them into Travis’ arms.
“Here,” he said. “For the k- kids.”
Travis boggled down at the food, then smiled widely to reveal his dimples again. “Odin, you don’t have to keep doing this. We’re already thrilled you’re letting us use your manor-“
“It’s n- n- not mine,” he interrupted, waving his hand in front of him with a slashing motion. “Never was. I… Look, just g- g- give the kids the f- food. And, uh… Keep up the g- good work." He clapped Travis briefly on the shoulder before heading out the front door where Gil and Maggie were saddling Gil’s horse. Odin slipped into Audinvindr’s saddle and sighed, rubbing his temple. He’d been riding so much today, he just wanted to go home and sleep. But instead of going home and sleeping for an entire day like he wanted, he kicked Auvindr into a trot and headed back into the forest. Travis stood on the steps of the manor and waved them goodbye, telling them to bring Ava back to meet him if she was willing.
The ride back out to the farm felt longer than the ride home, but maybe that was because Odin had to listen to Gil and Maggie talking about magic the entire way. Odin had no magic in his blood (to the great disappointment of his Father) so he had no idea about any of the more technical things they were talking about. He didn’t understand what the different wavelengths of magical energy were, or the various elements that comprised the entire world or how they mingled together in humans and animals. He definitely couldn’t answer any of the questions Gil asked him. He didn’t fucking know how Ava’s internal organs had been effected by the curse, how was he supposed to know that? God, he just wanted Gil to shut up for once in his life. He also wanted Maggie to stop gushing about how smart he was, and constantly pressing her arms together to make her cleavage more prominent. Gil had never stared at her chest, he was utterly uninterested in her chest, and Odin was incredibly tired of the two of them. He hoped they never got married so Maggie would go back to the kind and normal girl she’d been before she’d turned twenty and started worrying about becoming a spinster. He tried his best to tune them out, to mixed levels of success.
“So, what’s this place like,” Maggie asked when they finally reached the path to Ava’s farm and Odin dismounted to pull open the rusted gate. “A proper working farm, right?”
“Yup.” Odin got back in the saddle and started the walk down the walled path.
“How can one person run an entire farm?” Her face was set in an expression of utmost distrust.
Odin shrugged. “Dunno. She’s g- g- good at it.”
“What animals are there?” Gil asked in interest.
“Chickens and g- goats,” Odin said with a shrug. “And a vegetable p- patch.”
“Your stutter seems to be improving,” Gil said happily. “I told you the florem mortem would help relax your throat.”
They finally rounded the last corner and the forest gave way to open farmland, revealing the cottage and the barn. Girl sat up straighter in the cart and even Maggie raised her eyes in surprise. Odin kicked Auvindr forward, pulling to a stop in front of the cottage. He looked back at the others as he dismounted.
“I th- think I should go in f- first? She m- m- might be n- nervous. With m- more people here.”
Gil and Maggie nodded and he left them outside to push open the door into the kitchen. He quietly called, “Ava? It’s m- me.” He stepped into the kitchen, sucking on his pipe. “I b- brought some p- p- people who, uh, know about m- magic.”
There was the sound of movement upstairs, so Odin left the kitchen to climb the stairs to the bedroom. The door of Ava’s room was locked again so he clenched his teeth around his pipe and knocked.
There was a pause. Then, a quiet voice on the other side of the door said, “I don’t want to see anyone.”
Odin sucked on his pipe and breathed out smoke. “Are y- you alright?”
He wondered what would be the best thing to do in this situation, and eventually decided on asking, “C- can I come in?”
Another long pause. “Okay.”
Odin pushed the door open and peered into the room. Ava was sitting on her bed, staring down at her feet with tangled hair falling over her face which was glowing a dull orange. Her clawed hands were clutching something on top of her skirts. Odin stepped a little closer. And then Ava raised her face to reveal tear-covered cheeks. He froze in position, completely unprepared for more crying. But Ava just sniffed and held up something. A hairbrush, with a burnt handle.
“I…” She hiccuped and wiped her eye with the back of her hand. “I knew you’d be bringing people, and I wanted to look nice. But… But I couldn’t look nice and.. I lost control.” She grimaced, her cheeks flaring. “I’m such a mess, I don’t want to see anyone like this.”
Odin felt himself relax a little. “You l- look fine,” he said.
Ava shot him a disbelieving look and he sighed. Okay, if she didn't want compliments there was one other thing he could do. He held out his hand. “Give it h- here.”
“Give me the b- brush. I’ll d- do it.”
Ava stared at him. Her fingers clenched on the brush. “You don’t have to!”
“It’s f- fine. You l- l- look nice, but if you’re b- bothered by your hair, I can b- b- brush it for you. I kn- know how to do it.”
She bit her lip, then wordlessly handed him the brush. Odin sat next to her on the bed, and started brushing her hair, starting from the ends and slowly working up. He breathed smoke out of his nostrils. Ava fidgeted, her hands twitching in her lap as Odin worked. But as he worked, running his fingers through her long hair, her body relaxed. Her shoulders slumped, her hands came to rest gently on her knees, and her skin cooled to a dark red. Odin sucked on his pipe again. He gently brushed her hair loose so it tumbled down her back. It was soft, and smelt of berries and hay.
“How do you know how to do this?” Ava asked after a while. “Did you used to have long hair?”
“No. M- my sister did.” He ran his hands through Ava’s hair, and automatically started to tie it into a loose braid. Her hair was long and hung down to the middle of her back when it was braided.
“You have a sister?” Ava asked in interest. Then she wilted. “I- I’m sorry. I probably really scared your family.”
“No, you d- didn’t.” Odin breathed out smoke and let Ava’s braided hair drop onto her back. He didn’t have a ribbon to tie it, and the end unravelled slightly. “I d- d- don’t have a family anymore for y- you to scare.” Not that they would’ve cared about me even if they were alive. Father probably would’ve been shaking your hand and thanking you if you’d taken me off his hands.
“Oh…” Ava gripped her skirt. Her nails tore small holes in the fabric. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s w- whatever.” Odin got up and brushed down the front of his shirt. “Well. You want to c- come m- m- meet… Gil and Maggie?” He gestured to the door.
“Is Maggie the one from yesterday?”
“Uh…” Odin scratched his ear. “Yeah, she is. But don't worry, she’s not angry. Or anything.” It probably wasn’t best to bring up the mob with the pitchforks at that moment.
Ava’s toes curled. She bit her lip. “I should probably apologise to her.”
“If you w- want.” He opened the bedroom door and looked at her awkwardly.
Ava chewed her lip. Her cheeks glowed orange. “You’re sure they won’t care how I look?”
“They kn- know you look like this. They w- w- won’t care.” He tilted his head again, trying to find something to say to make her feel okay. “And if they do I’ll, uh, shoot them?”
That had Ava snorting and smiling a little. “Shoot them? With what arrows?”
“I’ll f- find some. Come on.”
And with a sniff, she got to her feet to follow him down the stairs. She kept close to his side as they walked through the kitchen and he opened the door to the garden. They found Gil and Maggie by the chicken coop, Gil leaning over to watch the chickens with interest and Maggie standing back a little with a look of mild disgust on her face. She’d never been fond of farm animals. Even horses she could only stand for so long. As they approached, Gil straightened up with a warm smile. The sun caught his skin so that the brown glimmered with blue for just a second. And maybe that sight of that magic was enough for Ava to breath out a puff of smoke and step forward to curtsy.
“Hello,” she said quietly. “My name’s Ava Ire, of the Verthurst Ires. I- I’m sorry for all of the trouble.”
Gil loved her immediately. Odin wasn’t sure if it was because of his fascination with her curse, if he admired her efforts at being polite by curtsying and inviting them in for tea, or if he was just putting on a kindly doctor facade. Whatever it was, he happily sat next to Ava in her kitchen and chatted to her about her fire abilities and how they were tied to her emotions, until Ava grew comfortable enough to let him examine her with his medical kit. She saw on her chair as he peered inside her mouth at her glowing throat, and pressed his cold stethoscope to her chest. She even tried her best to answer Gil’s numerous questions and blushed orange when he complimented her home and farm.
Meanwhile, Maggie was taking a little longer to warm up, and spent a lot of the medical examination glaring at her from across the room. Odin looked at Maggie’s mildly annoyed expression, at Ava who was clutching her chair so hard her nails were digging into the wood, and back to Maggie. He walked over to stand beside her.
“What’s your p- p- problem?” he whispered, facing away from Ava so she wouldn’t see.
Maggie shot him a glare. “My problem? She kidnapped you. Why's everyone being so nice to her?”
“I t- t- told you, the curse m- messes with her sometimes. And b- besides, she didn’t k- kidnap you.”
“But still. She’s acting like nothing happened.”
“Yes but still.”
“And I f- forgave her.”
Maggie huffed and glanced at Ava again, then back. Her cheeks were red. Odin rolled his eyes. “If y- you’re angry Gil’s p- p- paying attention to her, then y- you get cursed.”
“That’s not it,” she hissed quickly, waving her hands in front of Odin to get him to shut up.
Odin smirked at her. “He still hasn’t m- m- made a m- move?”
“Just ask him.”
“D- do it.”
“I will kill you.”
“What are you guys talking about over there?” Gil asked. He was sitting up with a frown and packing away his medical instruments.
Odin raised his eyebrows. “Maggie was saying you look like your mother, Ava.” He tapped his finger on the family photograph hanging besides his head and grinned at his friend. “Right, M- Maggie?”
Maggie scowled at him. But she sighed and folded her arms. “Yes. You look just like her. Same face shape.”
Ava smiled nervously. “Thank you.”
“So,” Gil said, snapping his medical case shut with. “I’m pretty sure I can diagnose this, Ava. What you seem to have is an advanced transmogrification spell rooted in the Fire Elemental Plane, with hints of sulphur, arsenic, amber, and wine in its composition. It was anchored to an emotion, so that’s where it derives its power. As long as you're able to get angry, the spell will still be in effect.” He clicked his tongue. “But it was done very thoroughly. Your internal organs were all changed to accomodate it.”
Ava’s eyes widened. “What do you mean they were changed?”
“Well, if you still had human organs you'd die as soon as you started conjuring fire,” Girl explained. “But all of your internal organs were rearranged slightly and transformed into a new material. They were infused with some brimstone, I think, to withstand the heat. Whoever did this was very thorough. They'd probably done this before.”
“So w- what can we do?”
“To fix it?” Gil sighed and rested his hand on Ava’s. His face looked a little pinched. “I’m sorry, there's not actually much I can do at this stage. This curse... It's too advanced for my abilities. If it was just a surface transformation then I could help, but this goes too deep for me.”
“You… You can’t fix it?” Ava stared at him. Her fingers tensed on the table, which started smoking. “What do you mean you can’t fix it?”
“It’s just too advanced for my skills,” Gil explained. “The transmogrification was incredibly detailed, it would take an expert on this sort of transmogrification to be able to reverse it. Especially since, after so long, your body and soul have become aligned with this new form and would reject any changes.”
Ava hunched over and her cheeks glowed orange. Maggie took a small step back, bumping into the wall. Gil let go of her hand and leaned back in his chair.
“You mean… I’m going to be stuck like this forever?” Thick, black smoke rolled from Ava's mouth. “There’s nothing you can do? I’m going to be a monster for the rest of my life? Are you fucking kidding me?” Her face was covered in dark clouds, and sparks flew from her teeth.
Gil was stammering. Maggie was backed against the wall. Ava’s entire body began to glow and radiate heat. And Odin did what was possibly the stupidest thing he’d ever done in his entire life. Instead of running away like a sensible person, he walked across the kitchen to the table where the woman was breathing fire, reached out his fleshy pink human hand, and placed it gently on Ava's head. And slowly, very slowly, he moved his fingers down so that her plait came undone. His fingers stroked her hair again to get rid of any tales, and again Ava’s shoulders slumped and her skin went from a bright orange glow to a dull matte. Odin’s fingers curled in her hair. Ava coughed a final cloud of smoke.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“It’s alright,” Odin said. “We’ll f- f- figure this out.” He left his hand in her hair to keep her calm and looked at Gil. “W- w- would anyone else b- be able to help?”
Gil looked up at him, his face terrified. But he took a breath to calm down and gave a shaky nod. “Maybe. The best person to ask would be the person who originally cursed Ava, though. Uh, do you know-“
And he was interrupted by Ava’s skin glowing again, and lava dribbling down her chin as she glowed bright orange with a sudden burst of rage and anger that had her collapsing into Odin’s arms. And through all of the heat and lava and smoke, Odin heard her snarling the name, “Wrathia Bellarmina.”
Gil scratched his chin as he stood by his horse, staring back at the cottage. “I’ll have to go home and search my records for that name,” he said. “But it sounds familiar. Can’t place it.”
“You think this p- person will h- help?” Odin asked.
“I think she’s the best chance we’ll have,” Gil shrugged. “The original caster will understand the spell the best, she’ll know how to turn it off. If it’s possible to turn it off.”
“Y- you think it m- m- might not be?”
“I don’t know. It was very… Ingrained.” Gil scratched the back of his head and sighed. “But all we can do is try.”
Maggie marched over, rubbing her hands in her skirts. She smiled widely. “We ready to go?”
Gil nodded and patted his horse, but Odin shook his head. “I'm staying.”
They both stared at him. “What?”
Odin shrugged. “I d- don’t want to abandon Ava. She’s b- b- been alone a lot. Feels m- mean.” Also she’d just spat up a gobbet of lava and fainted from exertion or something and had had to be carried to bed. It felt a little callous to leave her alone after that. “And b- besides. This w- way you can have some quality time together.”
Maggie’s face blushed bright red, and Gil gave a confused smile. “That’s kind of you, Odin, but we don’t need-“
“Gil,” Odin said, raising a hand to stop him. “Just d- do this. M- Maggie wants-“
“Shut up, Odin!” Maggie’s hands were clenched at her sides and her face was furious.
Gil looked between the two of them. “What’s going on? Is there some joke between the two of you I'm missing out on?”
“N- not exactly.”
“I’m so t- tired of this, though.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“So y- you tell him.”
“No! I mean, I will!”
“Go on, then.”
“F- fine! I'll do it! Gil, M- Maggie wants to m- m- marry you.”
Gil stared at him. Then he laughed. “What? No she doesn’t. You're going to have to plan your jokes a little better than that, Odin.” But his smile faded when he saw Maggie’s embarrassed and angry expression. “Wh… Maggie?”
“I’m sorry,” Maggie said quickly. A finger was nervously playing with her hair and she wasn't looking Gil in the eye. “I didn’t want to push you, I was waiting for the right time. But apparently I was being too subtle, and you didn’t notice. But… But yes, I… I’d like to marry you, Gil. I have for a while. W- what do you say?” She glanced up through her eyelashes and smiled her brightest smile.
Gil opened and closed his mouth. “B- But Maggie, I’m already married.”
There was a beat where Odin and Maggie both stared at him. Then Odin burst into loud laughter and Maggie’s face flared red.
“You- What? Since when?”
Gil’s cheeks turned pink. “S- Since last year. Maggie, you came to my wedding. Remember? There was you, my parents, and Travis’s parents? Our families were merged under the trees.”
“That was a wedding?” Maggie clutched her face. “I thought it was a business thing.”
“No! That was a wedding ceremony. I know we don’t like to flaunt our relationship, but I thought you knew.”
“Oh my God. That’s why you didn’t let me move in with you.”
“I did think it odd you’d want to move in with me when you had your own house,” Gil said quietly. “Uh… Sorry. I didn’t know-”
“Oh my God. I’m going home. I’m going home, don’t follow me.” And she pushed past Gil to her horse, cheeks still flaming red and eyes fiery.
Gil clutching his satchel and watched her leave. “Oh dear,” he said morosely. “I hope I haven’t embarrassed her.” And Odin would have comforted him, assured him that Maggie Lacivi bounced back from everything and was the strongest woman he knew, but at that moment he was too busy lying on the ground clutching his sides and laughing so hard he thought he would burst.
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