A Cold Offering

This was Sadie’s first Midwest winter and, so far, she wasn’t enjoying it one bit. In the past week, three storms had slammed Chicago in rapid succession, each dumping several feet of ice and snow so fast the city had barely been able to keep its head above the frozen water. Everything was shut down for the foreseeable future and the empty streets and idle train tracks gave the bustling city a rare moment of silence.

Sadie lay on the floor of her bedroom, staring listlessly at the ceiling. Toeing the wobbly tower of fantasy books she had consumed during her incarceration—every single book in The Knights of Freydann series—she rolled over and sighed. There was a whole new wonderland of ice mountains on the lakeshore. Adventures were waiting for her just outside the door and here she was wasting time waiting for the wind chill to creep up into less dangerous territory.

She popped up and raced into the kitchen where her roommate, Jen, was making coffee.

“I can’t wait anymore. We’ve gotta go to the lake. It’s covered in mountains and who knows what else. It’ll be amazing!” Sadie said, spinning around.

Jen laughed so hard she spilled coffee all over herself. “It’s like minus 40 outside, are you crazy? Everything’s closed because it’s too cold. In Chicago. The trains aren’t even running. I can’t remember the last time that happened.”

“Come on, we’ll wear tons of layers. It’ll be an adventure!” Sadie said.

Jen wasn’t biting. “Yeah, no. You’re gonna lose some fingers or toes. Also, your mom will lose her shit if she finds out you went out in this weather.”

Sadie’s shoulders sagged. “But it’s not an adventure if there isn’t any danger!”

Jen snorted. “I like to keep a healthy distance from danger. You’re on your own.”

“Fine then!” Sadie said. She stomped to her room and slammed the door. She was going to experience a real Midwest winter with or without Jen.

After half an hour of sweating and swearing, Sadie had covered every inch of her skin with warm layers to fend off frostbite. She flapped her extra puffy arms and giggled. “Lots of clothes? Check.” She reached into her pocket. “Phone? Check.” She checked the battery; it was fully charged and ready to go. Pics or it didn’t happen.

“I’m off!” Sadie yelled.

“Seriously, be careful. I don’t wanna have to call the police to dig your body out of the snow,” Jen said.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be just like in Erenia, Knight of Winter. The gods will grant my favor for a safe journey across the frozen wastes. And you’ll be jealous when you see my pictures!” Sadie grabbed her keys and ran into the chilly hallway. She could hear Jen laughing behind her, probably spilling the rest of her coffee.

Stepping outside, the cold air sliced through Sadie’s scarf and stabbed her lungs. She squinted at the pale sun shining on the pristine white street and smiled. “Let’s go!” Sinking her boots into the crunchy snow, she set out for the lake.

When she arrived, she shaded her eyes looking north and south, trying to take it all in at once. “This is amazing!” she said. The famously flat city now had a temporary topography of sparkling hills and mountains that stretched unbroken to the horizon. Far offshore, a water crib painted like a red and white circus tent floated in a shimmering fata morgana of blue sky.

The only sound Sadie could hear in a city of three million residents was the creaking of the ice as the lake sleeping beneath shifted under its heavy blanket.

Sadie stepped out onto the ice—the only thing standing between her and the frigid blue-green waters—and laughed as fear trilled up her spine. There were a few other brave explorers to the north, so Sadie went south. Wandering in this empty wasteland, she imagined herself as knight Erenia, bravely traversing the frozen wastelands in search of the long-lost relic, fighting dire wolves and wendigos along the way.

As she walked, the ice formations changed from white hills to towering spires, to snow-dusted blue canyons that meandered off into the distance. She took a picture of every one. “These’ll blow Jen’s mind for sure!”

After half a mile, Sadie came across dozens of perfectly round mesas looking as if they had been pushed up through the ice by giant hands. Beyond them, something large and blue caught her eye. She clambered up a mesa for a better view. “Dammit, I can’t tell what is from here.” Below the mesa, Sadie found a small canyon that curved toward it. She slid in and pushed her way through small snowdrifts until at last, the formation loomed in front of her.

“Woah!” It was a symmetric cone with a hole in the top, like a volcano. Sadie circled it skimming her gloved hand over the smooth surface. All the other ice formations were pitted and white, full of air bubbles and other imperfections, but the cone was clear blue crystal, looking for all the world as if it would sing if she tapped it. Her mind itched with unanswered questions.

After close inspection, she put her hands on her hips and huffed a plume of mist. It was more than twice as tall as her and too smooth to have any handholds. She circled the volcano while her mind ran through several MacGyver-esque scenarios involving her scarf and some driftwood. She stopped and crossed her arms. “There has to be a way in.” The ice creaked loudly in response.

On her third turn around the volcano, Sadie spotted a hole near the bottom. “How did I miss that?” It was perfectly round and just big enough for a small person. She leaned her head inside. The sun-struck ice glowed bright enough to reveal several feet of tunnel running under the volcano and off into the distance. Sadie grinned. “A volcano and an ice tunnel, all in the same day. I knew this would be a great adventure!”

She placed one hand inside and then hesitated. A slight breeze drifted out, blowing some errant strands of hair that had escaped her hat. Uncovering her nose, Sadie sniffed, getting a mix of pungent lake water and biting cold. Jen’s warning echoed in her head and she shivered at the thought of the police having to rescue her.

As Sadie reached inside the opening to take a picture with her phone, her hand collided with a large icicle. She dropped her phone and it ricocheted off the wall before sliding down the tunnel. She gaped as the only proof of today’s escapades disappeared from sight.

“Dammit!” She was going to have to search for a lost “relic” after all. Taking a deep breath, she squeezed into the opening, keeping an eye out for rogue icicles. The tunnel was big enough for her to crawl on her hands and knees without bumping her head. She touched the wall. It was smooth like glass. As she passed under the hole in the volcano, she looked up and said “Holy shit! No one’s gonna believe this without pictures.”

Several feet beyond the volcano, the light dimmed as the snow drifts above grew thick. Glancing back toward the opening for several long moments, Sadie turned and continued on, whispering, “Come on, gods. What do I have to do to get my phone back? Trials and tribulations? An offering?” The ice groaned around her.

She went about a hundred feet before the tunnel dipped sharply out of sight. There was no sign of her phone. She sat and stared into the tunnel, wondering just how far the stupid thing had luged. “Shit, shit, shit. This is officially more danger than I signed up for. Sorry, phone.” She turned and crawled back toward the opening, but after about twenty feet, the walls grew narrower. Sadie crawled faster but the tunnel seemed to be shrinking around her by the moment. The walls began to scrape her sides and back, making her feel like Alice after she drank the liquid and ended up wearing the white rabbit’s house.

“What’s happening?!” she cried.

It became so narrow she had to lay on her stomach to keep moving. Icy fingers of fear tightened around her heart. She gasped for breath. She closed her eyes. Calm down, Sadie. Heroes don’t have panic attacks when they’re in a pinch. The opening can’t be far. Just stay calm, she thought.

Sadie slowly counted to ten and took several deep breaths. Pushing herself back to a wider spot, she wrestled out of her coat. She slid forward more easily, but after a dozen feet, the tunnel ahead was no wider than her fist. She’d somehow crawled into a dead end. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. How did this happen?” She would have to backtrack. Sadie swallowed hard, her spit sticking in her dry throat as she crawled farther into the lake, searching for a way out.

She crawled for what felt like miles. Finally, Sadie stopped and clenched her fists. “Please, I just want to go home,” she whispered.

A grinding noise behind her made her jump and bump her head. She winced and massaged her scalp. Glancing over her shoulder, she gasped.

The tunnel had disappeared leaving behind a smooth blue wall of ice.

“What the hell is happening? Let me out!” she yelled. Sadie banged her fists against the new wall. It didn’t budge. The ice all around her groaned, as if warning her. It was too much.

She gave in to her rising panic and screamed over and over even though she knew no one would hear her through the thick ice.

Breathing hard, she lay down and pressed her hot face against the ice. “There’s no way out. I’m gonna freeze to death.” She imagined her lifeless body sinking into the silent waters when the ice melted in the spring.

Her phone pinged, shaking her from her morbid thoughts. She sat up. It sounded close. It pinged again. “Holy shit! I bet Jen’s texting me to see if I’m alive.” Sadie’s eyes opened wide. Her phone had a signal down here. She hurried down the rabbit hole after it.

The tunnel went on and on, taking Sadie deeper into the lake. Her phone was nowhere in sight. She squinted. It was getting harder to see in the fading light. She shivered. “That’s it. I’ve gotta go back,” she said, turning around. She immediately crashed into something solid. Reaching out, she found a wall.

“No, no, no. This isn’t happening,” she whispered. Sadie squeezed her eyes shut and hot tears slid down her face. The remaining light fled with the weary winter sun, leaving her in frigid darkness.

When she opened her eyes again, she started. The ice was emitting a soft green glow that was getting brighter by the moment. She touched the ice and it brightened. “I’m hallucinating,” she said. There was a scraping noise and marks appeared on the wall. Sadie leaned closer. The marks were words, glowing like a neon sign embedded in the ice.

The words said: the offering was made and accepted.

“What does that mean?” she said.

The marks vanished as if someone was erasing a chalkboard. New words appeared: the god rises.

“What god? Who are you?” she said.

The marks were replaced with new words: what you seek lies ahead.

“Wait, what?! Do you mean my phone? Or the way out?” she yelled.

The words disappeared and no new ones followed.

“I can sit here and freeze to death or follow directions from a hallucination.” The cold was starting to seep through her clothes. She grimaced and moved deeper into the bright green tunnel.

As she crawled on, she glanced behind from time to time only to see a wall of ice. She never saw it move, but it was always there, pushing her forward with small creaks and groans. After a time, the tunnel walls gradually became clear like glass, the soft glow illuminating everything around it. Her heart pounded. “Oh my god,” she whispered.

The tunnel had plunged into the depths of the lake and was forcing her still farther.

Unable to stop her descent into madness, Sadie continued.

Suddenly, the tunnel came to a dead end. Sadie turned around, but the wall had followed her. She was trapped in a green bubble of ice, floating in the dark nothingness. At the end of the bubble lay her phone. She lunged for it but when she clicked it on, it said “No Service”.

She sat down and laughed uncontrollably. When she could breathe again, Sadie heard scratching noises and marks appeared on the ice.

the favor was granted.

“What does that mean?” she said.

The words vanished and new ones appeared: wait for the signal.

“What signal? My phone doesn’t have one!” she cried.

The words changed again, swept clean and re-etched: the god rises.

“I don’t understand! Get me out of here!” she screamed, but she received no further reply. The words disappeared leaving behind smooth, glowing ice. Sadie lay down and cried until she had nothing left.

As she fell into an exhausted, dreamless sleep, something that never sleeps or dreams stirred in the depths of the lake.

The glow of the tunnel began to brighten and dim, pulsing like a beacon in the black waters. Sadie’s phone turned on and the screen began to pulse in rhythm with the glow.

Words appeared on the screen: what was lost is found. the god comes for the offering.

A small dark shape appeared below the tunnel, growing larger as it rose toward the pulsing light. Its blue-green eyes focused on the form in the ice. It unhinged its jaws, revealing thousands of sharp crystalline teeth, each longer than Sadie.

Its teeth latched onto the ice tunnel.

The ice broke with a crunch.

The creature swallowed Sadie whole.

Having received its offering, the god turned and glided back down into the cold dark depths.