Chapter 2

I pulled up to a giant warehouse in serious need of some TLC. The big, rusty monstrosity looked particularly ominous in the light from the fading sun. It was located in the middle of a vast industrial wasteland which seemed to have been abandoned a long time ago. Everywhere, small steel and concrete buildings were slowly crumbling, and in the middle of it all, stood the warehouse – like an old giant among ants. I hadn’t even known that this place existed so close to the city: I wasn’t more than 20 minutes from the city centre.
Turning off my bike, I pulled my helmet off and placed it on the seat. With a softly spoken command, the bike’s magical lock was activated, and the whole bike glowed. If anyone tried to steal it, they would get a nasty 3rd-degree burn mark for their trouble.
With the bike all locked up, I walked towards two massive doors. One of them was open, and two big guys were guarding the entrance. Both men had black jeans and tight t-shirts on which went well with their gloomy demeanour. The fact that it was the middle of winter didn’t seem to face them.
The closer I got, the bigger they seemed to get. Both were sporting some impressive muscles, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the bulky tissue had been created on a battlefield instead of a gym – they had that hard, gritty look that comes from wielding a heavy weapon. Aidrian from the office had it too, though he couldn’t compete with these two giants. I had to crane my neck to look up at them which annoyed me slightly.
“I’m here to see Mrs Vanadia.”
One of the guys nodded towards the darkness inside the doorway.
“Thanks.” I had pretty much deduced that I would be meeting my client inside the enormous pile of rusted steel, but a girl was allowed to hope. It would be a minor miracle if the building didn’t collapse on top of me. It looked positively ancient. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said the building was pre-barrier, but no steel building would have lasted that long without magical intervention.
Deciding to think less about possibly being crushed to death by a million tonnes of steel, I walked past the gloomy guys and into the darkness.
I hadn’t made it more than a couple of steps into the massive space before my jaw dropped. Completely stunned, I looked at the giant ash tree in the middle of the room. It was the only thing in here, but it was larger than life. Never in my life had I seen such a big tree. The trunk was as wide as a bus, and its branches reached towards a large hole in the roof which bathed the magical thing in starlight. It had to be ancient.
”Don’t be ridiculous.” Something moved in the darkness next to the tree. Mrs Vanadia stepped into the cold light from the stars. “This thing is nothing compared to The Tree of Life.”
”Sounds like you’ve seen the real one.” If she had seen the real one, I was in trouble. Big, big trouble.
She walked up to me and innocently took my arm in hers. I let her, though I wasn’t too comfortable having her this close to me.
Her feather cloak whirled around us as she gently guided me towards the tree. I could feel her power simmer in the air around me; it was like a kick to my system and more effective than any energy drink I’d ever tried. I felt a strange form of euphoria that seemed to grow the closer we got to the tree.
Something glinted in the corner of my eye, and I noticed a beautiful necklace made of gold and precious stones around Mrs Vanadia’s neck. ”Nice necklace.”
Mrs Vanadia smirked. ”Thanks, it was a pain in the ass to get it.”
We stopped at the foot of the tree, and I craned my neck to look up at the beautiful green crown. Mrs Vanadia let go of my arm and followed my gaze. “The Tree of Life is truly a magnificent sight. It has no equal – even this specimen fades in the glory that is Yggdrasil.”
The euphoria had started to fade the moment Vanadia let go of my arm, but it was slowly being replaced with a sinking feeling. Things were beginning to fall into place and I did not like what the bigger picture was starting to look like.
“Your real name isn’t Mrs Vanadia, is it?” I was really hoping that I was wrong, but my gut feeling told me I wasn’t.
“I have many names. This one is real to me right now. Tomorrow I may call myself something else. There are enough names to choose from.” She looked at me; a knowing look in her green, green eyes. “As an expert of Norse mythology, you are bound to know my most famous ones. I have one that I use more than others, though.”
She gave me a sad smile. ”You really are a smart cookie. Hopefully, that will help you in your quest for the lighter.” She looked towards the tree again. “Your quest begins at the top of this tree. The tree is hollow, you see. Once you’ve climbed down to the bottom, you will find a dark space with three doorways. Behind each door is a treasure chest where earthly riches are hidden. Feel free to grab as much as you want; I only want the lighter. To enter each of the chambers, you will need to solve a riddle. I don’t know in which room the lighter is hidden, so you may have to solve all three riddles. There may be guardians protecting the treasure chests, but if you encounter any, just spread my cloak on the floor and tell them to take a seat.” Freyja took off her feathered cloak and handed it to me. “This will also get you out of the tree once you’ve found the lighter. Just wrap it around you and think of a falcon.
Not quite sure what to say, I just took the cloak and tried not to stare. I was standing in the presence of an actual god. Knowing the stories of Freyja’s frightening temper, I decided to can my questions. She had told me most of what I needed to know, and it didn’t seem like she could tell me much more. I would just have to figure out the rest on my own.
“You will have to climb the tree to get to the hole, so I hope you’re climbing skills are fairly good.”
“Can’t I just use the bird cloak?”
Freyja shook her head. “No, the magic is not strong enough here. The power of the modern world is too dominant, but that will chance once you climb inside the tree.”
“Well then, I guess I’ll just have to do it the hard way.” I carefully folded the cloak and put it in the backpack along with all the other stuff I had brought with me. Suddenly glad that I had chosen the lightest of my biking gears, I tightened the straps of the backpack. The reinforced carbon fibre in my clothes would also act as a flexible armour if anything was indeed guarding the lighter. A lighter.
Shaking my head, I walked up to the tree trunk. A big, low-hanging branch was my starting point. I jumped up and grabbed the branch, pulling myself up and eying the next one. Slowly, I worked my way up through the thickening tree branches. This might not be the Tree of Life, but it felt like I might just run into a squirrel, an eagle and 4 red deers among the branches.
By the time I reached the top, the skin on my palms had been thoroughly scraped, and my muscles were aching. I could definitely feel that my latest cases had been less physically demanding, but it was great to get a little workout.
I wiped the worst of the blood and burst blisters away before inspecting the hole in the tree trunk. It was pretty narrow but big enough for me to squeeze through. The problem was that I couldn’t see just how deep it was, and there didn’t seem to be anything to hold onto on the way down.
Grabbing a branch, I leant in to get a better look. A loud snap was the only warning I got before I tumbled head first into the dark opening. My shoulder hit the edge of the hole, and I felt my right arm go numb. Luckily, the hole widened once I was through the entrance, and I managed to roll around so my feet was slipping down the path instead of my head. It felt like I was going down a giant slide, which was preferable to a free fall, but it didn’t seem to end. Down and down I went, and I was thanking my biking gear all the way as the surface was far from smooth.
Suddenly the tree disappeared beneath me, and for a split second, I was flying through the air – before I came crashing down on a stone floor.
Groaning, I just lay there for a second while I tried to figure out if I had broken anything. Everything hurt, but the pain disappeared in a rush of adrenaline when a deep growl echoed through the room. It was one of those sounds that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The kind of sound that made you afraid of the darkness.
Another growl joined in and a third followed close behind.
Great, just great.

Read chapter 3 here!