1: Demons, Ice, and Bad Directions
Maia’s body slammed against the crooked cement ground. Her head was like a boulder on her neck as she hauled herself back up, ignoring the pain as best as she could. She could see the thin rays of light streaming in through the cracked ceiling high above her, like a string of hope that she might climb back out with.
Maia shook off the stiffness from her fall, the pain of the scrapes. She glanced at the opening in the ceiling. She was an angel; could she fly back up? In this darkness, after the ground caving in like that, she wasn’t sure there was enough space for her wings to try.
She chewed at her lip; she didn’t like the idea of her friends being up there, fending for themselves against demons. Or that she was down here, alone…
Maia shook herself out of it. She couldn’t freeze up like this now.
Maia ran through why they were here again: her sort-of friend, DJ, wanted them to find someone for her. She’d practically begged, even though she’d never asked Maia for anything before. There was no way Maia could’ve refused. Plus, she’d told them it would be perfectly safe. She’d failed to mention the demons or the collapsing building, but Maia guessed DJ hadn’t known about any of that. Well, she hoped. Some decent directions to find this mystery person might have been nice, though.
Maia held up her halo. Its golden light filtered through the musty darkness, gently illuminating broken, disheveled halls of gray cement. The corridors around her led off into more collapsed tunnels. Ahead, more darkness.
Her frown deepened. Above this had been an abandoned building that stood in the middle of some forest. Used to be an office building for humans, she guessed; beyond that, there was no way to tell what it was for. Most of it had been completely empty, covered in scatterings of torn paper, busted glass, ash and debris. A group of demons had been digging through the wreckage when Maia and her friends had shown up; they were not happy about their new guests. Soon after the fighting started, the floor collapsed, sending Maia the short and painful way down. But nobody else had turned up, yet. Whoever they—and the demons—were looking for was probably long gone.
Or they’re down here, trapped under a pile of concrete, she thought as she peered into the darkness. Just her luck.
Maia’s hand tightened around the grip of her halo. She started walking, her unsteady footsteps echoing softly through the old corridors. Shadows skirted along the edges of her halo’s light. Bits of busted tech and torn steel were stuck to the walls, and shattered industrial lights littered the ground. This place was old, but it couldn’t have been abandoned for more than a few weeks—there was no dust anywhere, and some of the elevators and lights still had sparks fizzing out of their wires. Something must have destroyed it; maybe an earthquake?
Or something worse.
She sucked in a deep breath, pushed it out. She was going to make it out of here. It didn’t matter what the sharp twist in her gut or the cold rush in her blood told her. Cole and Sean were right behind her. If anything happened—not that anything would—they would be there to help her. And if she needed to get by alone for a minute, she had her training to fall back on.
Maia stopped. There was a distant, soft tapping of… well, something against the concrete. Someone else? Was that even possible after a collapse like that?
She pressed on, waving the darkness away with her halo. She’d better wrap this up. She was already getting a soft ache in her skull from sustaining this much light with what little magic she had; too much longer, and she’d be trapped in the darkness alone.
Maia trotted down a sharp slope, hopping down to a new broken piece of hallway about six feet below. She stumbled slightly and felt a prickle of annoyance. She never stumbled like that normally.
She turned another corner and found herself face to face with a glistening wall. An aura of cold surrounded it, curling along the floor and chilling the still air. She touched it, and her hand shot back. Ice.
Maia raised her halo, concentrating. The light from her halo burned brighter, revealing the ice as it extended up into the ceiling and down into the ground. Massive cracks stretched across it like a giant spider’s web. The darkness seemed to cling to the crevices in the ice even as she shined her light over them. She couldn’t see anything inside.
She frowned. This was definitely odd, but she didn’t think anyone could be inside. The demons did seem to think something important was here. Had she taken a wrong turn? Or maybe someone really was inside…?
Maia heard the tapping again, much closer this time. She whirled around, just in time to see a demon with curling, charcoal horns and a helmet that only barely showed her silver eyes. The crystal around the demon’s neck gleamed as she charged at Maia with a wicked longsword.
Maia held out her halo, her brain freezing under the pressure. Finally, her mind clung to one solid idea. When her eyes reopened, she was standing toe-to-toe with the demon, a golden, round shield rattling against the demon’s dark sword.
Maia was forced back a step, but her training kicked in before she was knocked to the concrete. She grounded her feet, holding her position despite the force of the demon’s blows.
The demon glowered down at her, her purple tail swishing in the darkness. “Nice one, kid,” she said, adjusting her full body armor as she spoke, its dark silver glinting in the light of her necklace. “Get lost. Before I have to kill you.”
Maia wavered at her bluntness. She recognized the intricate detail, the scaled pattern of her armor from her studies with Abraham; light for mobility, but tough as a dragon’s hide. She was high ranking, no doubt skilled.
Maia remembered the last time she’d been this close to a demon, years ago. She’d only been four years old. Her hand tightened on her shield’s grip; she’d been defenseless, then. Her free hand touched the grip on the shield, and a sword materialized.
She wasn’t defenseless anymore.
“That… that’s not going to happen,” Maia said, though her voice came out breathless. She bit back the panic.
The demon huffed. She swung her sword, and Maia blocked it with hers. Maia slammed her shield into the demon’s helmet, and the demon took a shocked step back. Maia felt herself smile, just slightly.
The demon shook it off too quickly. She drew a dagger from her belt with her other hand. She started swinging and jabbing so fast, Maia could barely keep up. Maia parried the sword, blocked the dagger, dodged a side swipe. She had no time to attack.
Maia finally managed to knock the dagger out of the demon’s hand using her sword, but the demon’s sword slashed her wrist. Maia’s sword fell out of her hand and vanished into the air.
Maia’s bloody hand trembled. She could always summon a new sword, but even if she could hold it, the demon’s barrage of strikes was keeping her too busy. Her back was to the cement wall. Her head rang from the repeated bashing of the demon’s sword on her shield. She couldn’t get on the offensive.
She was trapped.
The demon grabbed her shield and slammed her into the wall. Maia’s skull cracked against the cement. The demon tossed Maia’s shield to the ground a few feet away; it changed back to a halo, flickering pitifully without her.
The demon set her sword to Maia’s neck. Maia’s skull was still quaking. “I don’t like killing kids, but if you don’t get lost now, I won’t have a choice.”
Maia sank against the wall behind her. She blinked a few times, tightening her jaw. Why was her head ringing so bad? It was like her whole body was shaking, like the demon’s blows had rattled her very bones.
That was when Maia saw the nervous look in the demon’s eyes, the wide stance of her feet as she tried to maintain her balance. It wasn’t Maia’s head that was shaking; it was the whole tunnel. And it all seemed to be coming from the glacier.
She briefly considered what being crushed under several tons of dirt and cement would be like. Probably not a good feeling.
A thundering crack shook the ground. The demon staggered back, and Maia took a few unsteady steps away from her and the ice, towards her halo. The demon glanced at her, then at the ice as the fractures spread along its glittering surface. Maia’s hand clamped down on her halo. The ice shattered, and for a moment, what little light left in the tunnel was snuffed out.
Maia’s eyes squeezed shut. A gust of frigid air swirled around her, bits of ice grazing her skin. She heard a crashing sound, the demon screaming. Then… nothing.
She didn’t move for a long moment, scared she would find her legs chopped off or her wings crushed even as they shuddered against her back. Finally, she cracked open her eyes. Her halo was glowing again, dimly. She had all her limbs. She could see the demon’s crystal glowing a few feet away, illuminating the part of her motionless body that hadn’t been crushed beneath a massive piece of ice. Tiny pieces of ice glittered all over the ground, like shards of glass.
Standing above it all, barefoot and wheezing, was a human. Well, that was what she would’ve assumed if he hadn’t just stepped out of a giant ice cube. He had messy, short blond hair, pale skin. He was wearing a set of torn, dirty white clothes, a metal bracelet wrapped tight around his wrist. He had a pair of green eyes that stared at the demon, as if struggling to concentrate on what was right in front of him. He looked to Maia, blinking slowly.
“Y-y-y…” he stuttered. His voice came out hoarse, like more ice was caught in his throat. He broke off into a coughing fit. “You c-came back… I’m s-so s—”
Maia sat there for a long moment, staring at the boy. This had to be who DJ was talking about. Could anyone else survive under all this rubble?
Maia set her halo above her head, where it hovered lazily. Then she shuffled across the broken bits of ice toward the boy. Even if he wasn’t who DJ was talking about, he clearly needed help.
He didn’t seem to have any wounds, despite the tears in his clothes. She took the boy’s arm to search for a pulse. Her hand recoiled at the touch of his freezing skin. He couldn’t be alive. He couldn’t. He should’ve frozen to death!
And yet… he’d just been talking to her.
Maia racked her brain for explanations, fighting back against the chill that shook her spine and every other bone in her body. A jotun could survive in ice like that; they had control over that kind of thing, so maybe he was just glamoured? But why? The only other thing that made sense would be if he was undead…
Which might explain why DJ didn’t say anything about him to begin with.
She scowled. There was no use speculating now. Whatever the case, he was tall; no way she could carry him out of here, no matter how skinny he was. She didn’t think she could fly out on her own, much less with this guy in tow. But if there was a chance he was still alive, if he was the one DJ had sent them to find, she couldn’t leave him here. Even if it meant…
Maia sighed heavily. She touched the pendant on the woven bracelet fastened around her wrist. A soft, pale glow emitted from it.
Maia didn’t get the chance to say a word.
“It’s about time you called,” a familiar voice spoke through the pendant. Maia winced at the cold undertone of rage, the sharpness of the calm. “Now just what, exactly, are you three trying to do?”
Maia swallowed. “Uncle, I was just—”
“No, you were not just doing anything,” Abraham snapped. “Do you have any idea how dangerous this was?”
“DJ said it would be quick.”
“Oh, well, since DJ said so.” Maia winced again. “You do realize I explicitly told DJ to drop this foolish idea? And that, unlike her, I’m the one who’s supposed to be taking care of you? You could have died.”
Maia felt heat rise on her cheeks. Typical. Her uncle was always sheltering her. What was the point of teaching her to fight if she could never do anything herself? “I’m fine.”
“Where are Cole and Sean?”
Maia bit the inside of her cheek.
“Well?” he barked.
“I…” Maia sighed heavily. “I don’t know.”
There was a long pause. Maia could practically hear him counting to ten in his head.
“Coordinates. Now.” The sound of his voice was icy, so cold it sent a jarring chill down Maia’s spine that the ice around her couldn’t hope to compete with.
Maia sighed. Coordinates, so he could set up a portal and yell at her in person. Such were the benefits of having a powerful wizard as a guardian, alongside overprotectiveness and the knowledge of the many things that could instantly kill her.
Maia tapped her pendant again, and brought up a holographic image of the coordinates. She relayed them.
“And the elevation.”
Maia hesitated. As if he wasn’t mad enough without knowing how deep underground she was. She told him. There was a longer moment of silence.
“When you three get home,” Abraham said in a low voice, “you’re all grounded.”
2: Just Trust Me
At first, there was only a quiet stillness, an overwhelming nothing. Then came the prickling chill, a cold that sliced deep into his bones, into the marrow. His skin was seething. His body was burning and frozen.
Luke’s eyelids slid open. He winced at a brilliant light; his hands came up to meet his face, but they were cold, numb. He moaned, and the sound was distant and coarse.
His eyelids fluttered until the pain in his eyes faded. He scanned the small room around him. Walls; white and metal, artificial. A clean counter wrapped around three sides of the rectangular room, cabinets hovering above them. He could see the glint of steel drawer handles. He tried not to think about what was in them.
Luke sat up slowly, uneasily. The lights that blinded him before flooded in from the hallways, through the wide glass windows that made up one wall. Like a display for anyone walking by.
Luke felt a rumbling in his skull, a buzz that seemed to shake the room around him. He held his head in his hands, took a few deep breaths. He was okay. Stop worrying about the grogginess, about what was happening. Just focus on getting out. He could do that much, couldn’t he?
He slid out of the bed, then scowled at what he was wearing. First white sheets, now white clothes. It was too clean here, like even a hint of color would be too much. It made him nauseas; or maybe that was something else…?
Luke shook his head furiously. It only made it ache more. He took a few unsteady steps for the steel door, and his knees gave out. He crashed into the metal ground.
He cursed, breathless. He was blowing this. He was finally up and able to move and he was blowing his one chance to get out of here.
Luke forced himself to his feet. He trudged to the door, and cursed again. There wasn’t a door handle, just some stupid little slot. Looked like a payphone; the thought almost made him laugh.
He turned to the counters. No, nothing there. He opened a cabinet and found bandages, needles, surgical supplies. He slammed it closed. His stomach whirled, and his hand slapped over his mouth. It was stupid; he was too hungry to vomit, anyway.
He gritted his teeth. Then he did something even stupider. He rammed his fist into the door, again and again. Nothing happened, of course, other than Luke busting his knuckles to the point of bleeding, his lungs straining like deflated balloons in a vacuum. Eventually, he fell to his knees, slumping against the door under the weakness in his muscles, shaking from some lingering cold.
Shit, he was pitiful.
He wasn’t sure how much time passed, but at some point, the steel door slid into the wall. Luke nearly fell to the ground, barely catching himself with shaking arms and bloody hands. He looked up, and this time, he did slip and fall on his face.
Standing above him was a girl with long white hair tied back behind her head, cobalt blue eyes, gold skin, and a huge pair of white wings on her back. A golden halo hovered over her head. Definitely not human. But that wasn’t what bothered him; she was completely calm.
Luke was dumbfounded. She wasn’t freaking out? What was wrong with her? She also wasn’t wearing the same standard-issue clothes he was. Her leggings were mostly black with blue and violet racing stripes. Her equally tight shirt was a mishmash of different colors, like paint splatters of mostly blues and greens. Her sneakers were a blinding teal. It was so colorful it was hard to look at.
She was frowning at him. “Uh… you can understand me, right?”