Many years ago, deceased children of the damned still went to Heaven. However, these innocents were unfairly judged by others in Heaven and soon became miserable. So in 1227, St Mary created a safe place for these children to live again. It was diverse, a peaceful place for anyone, no matter their race, religion or social status. It was, and still is, known as Xanadu.
"Daniel, go faster! Ari's gonna beat us!" As he weaved between the tree trunks with the agility of a goshawk, Daniel looked down and grinned at his best friend Aika.
"Alright, alright! But if I smash into a tree I'm blaming you. Seriously, that was painful!"
"For the record, that was once," Aika retorted. Double checking that he was holding her securely against his chest, Daniel put some extra effort into flapping his swan-like wings. When Aika had died, her wings had been destroyed in an incident with a hellhound. But she had always enjoyed having Daniel as her mode of long-distance transport- she had once told him so. Daniel loved it too – the wind rushing through his unruly Bournville curls, the dappled gold-green light of the forest and the faint apple fragrance drifting up from Aika's hair. With the extra burst of speed he had put on, it wasn't long before he skilfully touched down onto springy moss. Hidden away in the forest was a little glade, surrounded by candyfloss-like cherry trees and cut off by a long-ago-flooded path which now served as a crystalline stream. The glade was the perfect place to relax and train, and best of all, no one knew but them of its existence. Daniel let Aika gently down.
"See? Told you I was faster than him. Even a lion can't compete with angel wings," Daniel announced proudly. Aika gave him a playful push and one of her amused smiles in response. Those smiles lit up her face, enhancing the pale gold skin and pretty, delicately slanted hazel eyes that came from her Japanese heritage.
"Congrats Gonzales, but don't you think we should train?" Aika suggested. Recognising the banter, Daniel joined in readily.
"Alright Rapunzel, but you'd better tie up your hair, otherwise you might trip." Aika's hair really was long. Poker-straight, it came midway down her back and was cut in a fringe. Somehow though, it still remained as dark and lustrous as obsidian. With a half-hearted sigh she took a hair band from her wrist (Daniel had always wondered why girls did that until he met Aika) and pulled her hair into a high ponytail.
"Better?" she asked.
"Much," Daniel reassured. Then added, "Cheerleader."
"Hey! Don't overdo it Bantersaurus Rex. We really should be training now though. Shall we?"
"Okay," Daniel gave in. They began combat training- hand to hand, archery, swordplay, the lot. Aika and Daniel were going to become soul collectors, angels who separated the newly deceased's souls from their bodies and got them safely to Xanadu. After a while Daniel decided that they should stop for lunch. He took a wholemeal cheese-and-raspberry-jam sandwich (his favourite) out of their hamper before sitting down, his back leaning against a callous-barked cherry tree. Glancing across at Aika, Daniel pondered whether or not he should ask her the question that had been on his mind for weeks. If she said yes, then it would be amazing, but if she rejected him, their close friendship could be ruined. He decided, once again, to keep quiet for now.
"Where do you think Ari is? I know he gets distracted by those sparkly deer but it's been 2 hours," As Aika voiced her concerns Daniel couldn't help but agree with her. Ari was his responsibility and if anything happened to him Daniel wouldn't be able to bear it. Just as he opened his mouth to reassure Aika, however, there was a deafening, familiar roar, followed by a streak of tawny and buff bounding into the clearing. Ari stopped and bumped his massive head against Daniel's leg urgently. Daniel put down a hand, running his pianist's fingers through the thick, slightly coarse fur of Ari's mane, attempting to calm down his agitated friend.
"Easy Boy," he murmured. "What's happened?" Ari fixed Daniel with an amber stare for a long time. When he at last blinked, a rolled up slip of parchment, tied with sapphire ribbon, dropped down from nowhere. Daniel swallowed. Receiving a message like this meant being summoned for something, and a summons in Xanadu rarely happened unless it was major. Nervously he reached out for the scroll, unrolled it and began to read it. He barely heard Aika's concerned voice asking what was up- all he could concentrate on was the summons, and remembering to breathe properly so he didn't pass out in front of Aika (that would be seriously embarrassing). As he reached the bottom of the page, he sucked in a breath.
"We need to go to the Portal Falls. Right now." Daniel's voice was barely audible- he felt as though there was a brick in his throat. "A demon's got through - the barrier's down. It's attacked a pair of kids." Without a word Aika let herself be picked up bridal style, before Daniel took off up into the azure sky, Ari in pursuit far below.
Aika found it unusual for Daniel to be this quiet. Something was bothering him about the attack, and it seemed personal. She didn't ask though. Although Daniel seemed so joking and happy, there were sometimes chinks in his armour, times when Aika saw past the façade and realised what was underneath was fragile as white ice. And if she pushed too hard, he would shatter. Instead she looked up at his deep-honey face. Those delicate eyebrows were drawn together, the twinkling black-coffee-eyes far away. Yes, something had hit home. Aika sometimes wished that he would just tell her whatever he seemed to be hiding. He had been so kind and accepting when she had died and come to Xanadu aged 16, giving her a chance to soar without wings of her own, making her feel safe- she just wanted to be able to repay him. Daniel was 16 as well but had died 6 months before her. It seemed like the journey had taken forever and a day yet Aika didn't realise that they had arrived until Daniel landed with a jolt. The Portal Falls was not a place they visited often – they wouldn't need to until they had completed training and were deemed ready to go out on call. Nonetheless, Aika made a mental note to come here more frequently, not because she wanted to portal to the Mortal World (she had portalled only 3 times during her existence, and it always made her feel nauseous) ,but because it was so serene. The water ran down in powerful rivulets, turning the lilac-grey rock face the colour of a storm cloud. Rainbows were cast by the spring sunshine in the misty spray, creating a veil over the rippling pool of water that lay at the foot of the falls. This pool was surrounded by lush green grass and the splashes of vibrant colour that were the first wildflowers of the year. Except today, a horrific beast stood there too. Its scarlet eyes, gleaming with malice, were set in a slimy black face. It had no arms or legs; the body just continued, long and ebony and oily, until it fused with an exoskeleton-covered tail, which arced up and ended in a venomous barb. It was a horrible combination of a slug and a scorpion. Cowering in front of it were 2 small children, who couldn't have been older than 10. Daniel didn't hesitate. As Ari loped onto the scene, he whistled and ordered Ari to be careful but get the children out of harm's way. Ever the obedient lion, Ari roared, distracting the demon. He danced away, teasing it, but only until the 2 little girls had scampered away to Aika.
"Are you alright?" she asked them softly. The slightly taller of the two, who had a kinky blonde bob, gave a nod.
"I'm okay but Harriet hit her arm." The other girl, Harriet, was cradling her forearm. From the slight odd angle it was at Aika could clearly see it was broken – not badly, but definitely painful, especially for a kid. She gently pried off the small fingers. Harriet looked up at her, cerulean eyes betraying her fear to Aika.
"It's okay," she reassured. "I just want to check it. It won't hurt, I promise." Harriet still looked uncertain but moved away her hand. After a quick look over, Aika smiled.
"It's broken, but it should heal up fine. Just let me set it and put some support on it." As she clicked the bone back into place, the little girl hissed in pain.
"Sorry," Aika apologised. "I'm nearly done." Aika took out the first aid kit and got to work. While she was putting the arm in a sling, a scream came from behind her. Quickly twisting her head round, Aika smiled as she saw one of Daniel's arrows hit the monster. It dissolved, going back to hell where it belonged. Daniel sprinted over, and the 2 children embraced him in a hug.
"Danny!" they cried over and over.
"Harriet, Charity! Don't scare me like that again!" Aika knew Daniel wasn't angry, just frightened over nearly losing these 2 little girls. Now that he said it, she had heard him mention their names to her before. This must've been the reason he was so worked up. Charity grinned and pointed to Aika.
"Is that your girlfriend? She's very pretty." Aika held back a laugh as Daniel blushed furiously.
"No Charity, Aika is not my girlfriend. She is just a friend."
"Just a friend?" she pressed, fixing Aika with a burning, ash-coloured stare.
"Just a friend," Aika confirmed. "but my best friend." Harriet tugged on Daniel's sleeve with her uninjured hand.
"How did the demon come in? Will it come back?" Daniel seemed relieved at the change of subject. He put his hands on Harriet's shoulders, careful not to trap her tumbling ginger locks, and looked her in the eyes.
"Don't worry. You're safe now. If it does come back then someone will stop it like me and Aika did. Go back to the village and tell them what happened." The girls waved goodbye and ran down the hill. Suddenly Ari tumbled down the slope the waterfalls cascaded down. Again he nudged Daniel persistently, clearly unsettled.
"Give us a minute," Daniel told Aika. "He wants to show me something. 'Says its real bad." Daniel followed Ari up the slope. A few minutes later he was hurrying back down, half-sliding, his expression grim and slightly terrified.
"You know the flame crystal that's in that cavern? The one that strengthens the protection spells that make up the barrier?" he said tentatively. His voice was higher than usual – never a good sign. When she nodded, he continued. "It's gone. Stolen. Nothing left but this note," Daniel held up a page torn from a lined notebook. It read:
If you want your precious little stone, send a lion with his love song - Writer of the 27th book of God and a wingless angel. Be there by midnight 2 days from now. I may spare your precious little land – if they prove themselves.
"Oh god," Aika was hit by ice-cold terror. "I'm the wingless angel, the love song. That's what my name means in Japanese."
"And I'm the lion. Whoever wrote this is referring to the bible – Daniel in the lion's den. And he wrote the 27th book in the bible." Aika didn't question him – Daniel had lived in a small seaside village in Israel and had gone to church every Sunday. His knowledge of the bible was faultless.
"So what do we do now then?" Aika had a feeling what Daniel would say next. Her suspicion was correct.
"We don't have much choice," he told her. "We need to go after the thief."