The pain is distant when I wake the next morning, and with a little effort, I can get to my feet. I try a little walk around the cave, which is small, and find her things. She’s not here, but she’s left a roll-mat, a sleeping bag and a backpack near the remains of the fire. Next to them lies my own pack, unopened - she must have recovered it for me when she saved my life. The suggestion that she might have moved on without me arises in my mind, and I curse myself for not making the effort to stay awake and talk to her a little longer. If she’s gone, I might not see anyone again for who knows how long. She might be the only person I ever meet. I stagger to the mouth of the cave and lean against the wall for support, peering outside. We’re still in the forest. The cave seems to tunnel into the side of a hill, and the ground is bare, dipping down into a ditch as it approaches the entrance. I imagine a river may have once run down here.
Where the hell is she? I briefly consider calling out for her, but something roars in the distance, shutting that thought down straight off the bat. Another lizard-beast? Whatever it is, drawing attention to myself in this condition would be a bad, bad idea.
I decide to wait here a while, until she returns or I get the call. Perhaps she has some food in her pack?
I start to turn to check, but out in the forest, a twig snaps. I freeze. Something’s out there.
I listen, intently, waiting for another sound and wondering if I might be able to run. I won’t get far, injured like this, but I’m prepared to try. It’s oddly silent – a bright, beautiful morning that should be full of birdsong, but all I can hear is my own heartbeat, pounding in my ears.
I reach for my knife, still in the pocket of my walking trousers, and retreat back into the cave with it in hand, ready for a fight.
The undergrowth parts.
Hayley emerges, a furry lump slung over her shoulder. She carries it to the cave entrance and deposits it on the ground with a satisfied grin.
“Boar,” she proclaims. “Know how to skin one?”
I hide my relief and subtly pocket my knife, joining her as she inspects her kill. “Haven’t had to yet.” Which is strange but true. In my year or so of travelling, I’ve hunted rabbits, deer, dogs, things I don’t even have names for, but I’ve never encountered boar.
“Takes bloody ages,” she replies. “But worth it. Lots of meat.”
She sits on her haunches and pulls out her own knife – longer and sharper than mine. With a jab, she hacks open the animal’s side, and grabs a hold of the skin.
“How long have you been travelling?” I ask as she prepares the animal, wondering if it’s as long as me.
“I honestly don’t know, it’s not as if the seasons are the same on each world. A year and a half? Two?”
“Longer than me then.” I think. All I can do is guess.
“Where’s home for you?” I have to ask. The coincidence of both her language and accent matching mine has been playing on my mind, and her answer only makes it even more staggering:
“London, before all this. I can hardly remember it sometimes.”
“I’m from Surrey,” I say. So we lived, what, an hour away from each other? “Look, don’t you think that’s weird?”
“Surrey?” she asks. “Nothing weird about that, it’s nice enough.”
“No, I mean... that you’re English, like me, and not only that, but we’re practically neighbours?”
She stops hacking at the boar, and raises an eyebrow.
“I guess you’re right,” she agrees, frowning. “But... we don’t know why we’re here, do we? Or how we move on? Maybe it’s linked somehow to where we come from? Maybe we like, both fell into a wormhole or something? Is that a thing?”
“I think Stephen Hawking talks about them,” I hazard, not convinced. “But that would move us once, not over and over like this.” I think about the bodies I found back on the world with the vultures. Would they have been English too? It was possible; I hadn’t found any evidence either way. Hayley shakes her head and returns to her work on the boar.
“I’m not sure it really matters,” she says. “We’re here now, and I don’t think we’ll go back any time soon. I’m just glad to have company.” She flashes me a smile, which I return. “Did you ever think you were going crazy, on your own for all that time?”
God, yes. I remember my friend Fred, the tree I’d camped under the night before the lizard attacked. He wasn’t the first inanimate object I’d turned to for companionship since I left home. “A little, maybe,” I admit. “I take it you did too?”
“I started chatting to rocks,” she says with a shameless grin. “You’re much more engaging.”
I chuckle. “And you really haven’t seen anyone else, in all the time you’ve been travelling?”
“No one alive,” she replies, peeling back a large swathe of the boar’s skin. I move around to help, its blood turning our hands crimson. “I found some bodies, like a week after all this started. A guy in his twenties, wore sunglasses - looked like he came from home. That’s where I got my stuff and...”
“And?” I prompt her after a moment.
“It’ll sound ridiculous.”
“Hayley,” I say bluntly. “I’ve visited at least a hundred different worlds and I haven’t even started uni. Let’s assume that’s given me an open mind.”
“I guess you’re right,” she concedes. “Okay. I swear to you, no word of a lie, the other guy was a proper medieval knight. Full armour, massive sword. He had this journal or something with him.”
“Did you keep it?” I ask, fascinated. I’ve wondered before whether I’m travelling in time as well as space when I change world, or whether it’s a dimensional thing. Parallel universes, something like that. I’ve looked at the stars, and never seen the same pattern twice. A medieval knight might suggest I was right about the time travel. I’d love to find out.
“I did for a while, but it was heavy and since it didn’t help keep me alive I figured it wasn’t worth bringing,” she says sadly. “I kept a page, though. I’ll show you when we’re done with this.”
It takes us a while to skin and cook the boar, and we spend the time swapping stories of worlds we’ve visited – the most beautiful things we’ve seen, and the most terrifying. She tells me about camping on a mountain made of gemstones, where great white eagles wheeled in the sky. I tell her about the time I was nearly eaten by a giant worm living under a desert of purple sand. It’s a tremendous, wonderful release just to be able to talk to someone about everything we’ve experienced.
It must be around mid-day when we finish cooking the boar, and we eat it with our fingers, tearing off strips of meat and stuffing our faces. It’s the best meal I’ve had in a long while – a considerable improvement on the dry shrubs of the last world. When we’re done, she gets out the page of the knight’s journal from her pack, and we look at it together.
“The Private Log of Sir Frederic Serpentsbane, Knight of Ava’lon,” I read aloud. “Day the fifth of my most peculiar excursion to worlds unknown. I have encountered another traveller like myself, who gives his name as Will, civilian of a land unfamiliar to me that he calls ‘Tecksus’. He is a friendly if slow-witted chap, and I feel it would be efficient for us to pool our resources, such that I may more expediently return to my men who fight on without me in the South-”
And then there’s this noise. Difficult to describe, like silence but... amplified. It drowns out my voice, it drowns out everything. I meet Hayley’s eyes, and it’s obvious she can hear it too.
We both listen, and after a while it feels like it’s somehow emanating from the back of the cave. I hand her back the note, which she folds and returns to a pocket, and then we get to our feet and move towards the noise, almost in a trance. If you’d asked me ten minutes ago, I’d have sworn the cave didn’t go back any further than a few metres, but now it seems to stretch on for ever, a great chasm of shadow, beckoning us by our very souls. Side by side, we walk into the darkness.
We know nothing.
We are nothing.
Everything is nothing.
Except the voice.
“You have come a long way,” it intones. “Come a little further. There isn’t far left to go. Seek me out.
Beyond the burning world.
Through the realm of ice.
To the gates of Hell itself.
There, I wait for you.
There, everything ends.”
We emerge from the darkness back into the cave. The boar still lies half-eaten, our things scattered where we left them. I lift a hand to my shoulder and am amazed to see my wound is gone, healed completely with no trace of a scar. I let the bandage fall to the floor.
Hayley looks at me and I look at her. Somehow, after what we’ve just experienced, I feel I know her better than I’ve ever known anyone...
She takes my hand, and together we look outside. The forest has gone, replaced by a land of jagged mountains and cracked earth. Everything is aflame, bar a single path leading out across the fire. We gather our things wordlessly and then, fully dressed, packs on our backs, we stand at the cave entrance.
We have something now that we haven’t known for a long time.
And with that, we step out into the flaming night.