Lonely Worlds

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VII

I lie there in the hot light of the sun, letting my bones start to warm as the snow softens around me and Iain. What happened?

I replay the last minute in my mind. I was digging at the ice, desperately trying to free Iain before the cold killed us both. My hands had gotten so cold I could hardly move any more. I was certain we were going to die. And then…

The snow had just… stopped.

Like some capricious god had flicked a switch, the blizzard had vanished in an eye-blink and suddenly a bright red sun was beaming down on the both of us. Iain and I were left standing there in a snowdrift, wondering just what in the universe had saved our lives.

I’m still shivering, but I can feel the warmth work its way through my body. It’s not long before I can feel my fingers and toes again, and I turn back to help Iain. It’s impossible – completely impossible – but who am I to complain?

We’re alive. That’s all that matters.

Iain chuckles as I free his last hoof. “Close one, huh.”

I nod, not as ready as him to make light of the situation. Part of how I’ve survived this long is due to my tendency to avoid risk of death wherever possible. I’ve never come so close to it as I have these past few days.

“So,” Iain says, as he shakes the snow off his ankles and we survey the landscape together. “What now?”

“We find Hayley,” I reply without hesitation.

Iain nods in agreement. “You and I weren’t that far apart when we came through. What do you think the chances are of her being the same?”

“From what I know of the rules of this game, I’d say it’s practically certain,” I tell him. Because this is a game, I know that now. It’s being played with lives – our lives – but it’s a game nonetheless, and I’m sure as hell going to find whoever’s playing it and they’re going to give me answers. But for now, we have to play along. We have to find Hayley, and do whatever we must to pass this stage of the voice’s tests.

With the blizzard gone, our view is almost completely unobstructed for several miles in each direction, white fields of snow stretching off into the distance all around us, clambering up into rocky grey mountains that lie scattered across the horizon like so many titanic teeth. Perhaps a kilometre ahead of us, down a gentle slope, a small cluster of alpine trees is visible on the shores of a frozen lake.

“We’d see her from here if she were anywhere else nearby,” I say, pointing, and Iain agrees. I climb up onto his back, despite his protests of being treated like a pack animal, and we set off at a trot towards the trees.

“Hayley!” I shout every now and again as we ride, my voice bouncing off the landscape in a series of eerie, wraithlike echoes, each more distorted than the last until I hardly recognise the sound. Iain adds the not inconsiderable power of his lungs to my own, but we get nothing back.

We skirt around the frozen lake, its surface glassy and still, with no sign of movement beneath the ice. That’s what this whole place feels like, I realise, ever since the blizzard stopped. Still. Too still.

I shout her name once more as we reach the edge of the trees, and I could swear I hear something in response that isn’t just my echo.

“Hayley!” Iain roars, and there – it’s no clearer this time than before, but it’s there. Just on the edge of the last echo, a distant, almost inaudible… chuckle?

The hairs on the back of my neck start to prickle.

“I don’t like this,” Iain says quietly. “Something’s wrong.”

“I know. But we need to find her.”

We move forward into the shade of the trees. It’s much, much colder here, out of the sun. A little light filters through the canopy above and glitters off the wet snow underfoot, but it casts strange shadows. I can’t tell what precisely is wrong with them, but they feel off, somehow. Innocent silhouettes of branches seem to shift silently into reaching, grasping claws. Patches of reflected light on snow turn to beady, hungry eyes, watching our every move.

“Hayley!” I shout again, and I feel like a crowd of birds should rise up from the trees in response to my cry, but nothing moves. Nothing at all.

We plough on into the cluster of woods. Surely she would have heard us by now if she were here, I wonder. I’m starting to doubt myself. Perhaps she’s come through somewhere else entirely. Perhaps she’s not even on this world. Maybe that’s the game the voice is playing.

No, wait. There’s something up ahead. A figure in the trees that’s neither shrub nor rock, it’s-

“Iain!” Hayley shouts, bursting through the trees in a headlong sprint for us. “We have to run, now!”

The brief jubilant grins that have sprung to our faces falter, but we don’t need telling twice. Iain charges to meet Hayley, and I lean out to one side to grab her, pulling her up with me onto Iain’s back just as something lets out a sound that’s either a scream, a howl, or some combination of the two.

“What the hell is that?” I ask her.

“Bad!” she cries, wrapping her arms around my waist from behind. “Very, very bad!”

So we run, crashing through the woods as fast as Iain can go. I crane my neck behind me, and my eyes catch a glimpse of some kind of pitch-black shape flickering through the trees in pursuit.

“Wolves?” I ask, although I know the chances of it being something so mundane are slim.

“No,” Hayley says breathlessly. “I don’t know what they are. I was hiding from them, but they were distracted by you shouting, so I ran.”

“I’m so glad we found you.”

“So am I.”

“Save the relief for a little while yet!” Iain shouts as we break from the cover of the trees, out onto the snowfields. “Where now?”

“Make for the mountains,” I tell him. “We might be able to lose them there.”

The feet of the nearest of said mountains are no more than a few kilometres up ahead. I’m not sure how long it’ll take us to get there – and if whatever’s chasing us will catch us in that time. Even with the both of us on his back, Iain moves very, very fast at a gallop. I can’t imagine much being able to keep up with him.

I turn again, peering through the powdered snow thrown up in Iain’s wake. I can’t make them out at this distance, but whatever’s pursuing us has left the trees, and they’re moving just as fast as we are. Three black shapes, streaking across the landscape in a cloud of churning snow. If I squint, I can make out the occasional flash of jagged horns, and what looks like a spiny tail.

“Definitely not wolves,” I observe. I turn back to Iain - “How fast can you go?” I ask him.

“Not as fast as them,” he pants back, his face plastered with sweat. I twist again to get another look at whatever monsters are following us, but then to make our situation even more dire, as suddenly as it ended, the blizzard starts up again, shrieking wind and driving snow materialising out of nowhere and leaving us utterly blind. I don’t even bother to waste time wondering at the impossibility of that. Clearly it’s just a quirk of this world.

“I can’t see a thing!” Iain cries over the storm.

“Hopefully neither can they!” I shout back.

We ride on, struggling against the forces of nature, hoping wildly that we’re managing to keep a straight line, and that the monsters aren’t quite upon us just yet.

“Do you think we can fight them?” Hayley asks, lifting a hand to the bow slung across her pack.

“Maybe one,” I say, shaking my head. “But there were at least three of them. I don’t fancy our chances.”

“So we just hope we get the call?” Iain snorts.

“Maybe,” I say. Or maybe…

I’ve wondered before about moving on without it. I tried, briefly, back when I was being chased by the lizard-beast. Is it possible to initiate it ourselves? I think about the actual sensations of moving on, trying to pinpoint the precise process. What do I actually do?

“Hayley,” I say, and she turns back round from trying to spot the monsters in the snow. “What does it feel like when you move on?”

“I don’t see why that’s-”

“Just tell me, please,” I insist.

“You don’t think we can make it happen ourselves, do you?” she asks.

“I don’t know, but it’s all I can think of. What does it feel like to you? What actually happens?”

She frowns, and closes her eyes, remembering. “I… it’s hard. I can’t quite make it out.”

I close my own eyes, despite the chaos whirling around me. “It’s like there’s a block of some kind… a fog…”

“Yes,” she murmurs. “I can’t see a way through… can you?”

I try. I really do, but it’s like trying to imagine the process of thinking itself. My mind just isn’t equipped to deal with it.

“What if we’re thinking about it the wrong way?” Hayley says suddenly.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I was learning to drive, before I left home. I haven’t a clue how the engine works, but I can work the pedals and make the car move.”

“Okay…” That could work. “So where are the pedals?”

“Door,” Iain pants. “I see it… as a door. The call’s the key.”

I visualise a door in my mind, trying to fit the sensations of moving on into that shape, to forge the call into a mental key to open its lock. It’s difficult, and it takes all my concentration, but I think I might be starting to make progress. Maybe I can reach for the handle-

Out of the snow rears the rocky face of a cliff. Iain pulls back sharply, swinging around to the left, and it’s all I can do to keep a hold on his back. The wind blasts into us, forcing us up against the stone. The cold bites at my face and neck, and I wonder for a moment if we might have managed to lose the monsters in the storm – but with cruel irony, it’s that exact moment that the blizzard drops again, vanishing in its impossible way, giving way to sunshine and clear skies. We’re right at the foot of the mountains, following the sheer wall around in search of a cave, and right there, less than a hundred metres away, are creatures from the darkest of nightmares.

I feel them before I see them. I can sense their hunger, pressing and pawing against me, probing my mind for a soft spot where they can start to tear.

Six sets of red, compound eyes focus on us. A dreadful, piercing howl rises from each of the figures, that cold, ravenous need to feed scrabbling and clawing against my consciousness. I clutch at the hair of Iain’s back, willing him to move faster, but they’re almost upon us.

Our circle of firelight has dwindled to a single, guttering flame. The dark has risen, and now it’s all around us, the last light of our survival flickering dimly between its black, cavernous jaws. Jaws that are poised to snap finally shut.

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