Lonely Worlds

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VIII

“If you two are going to do anything, now would be a good time!” Iain roars, putting on a last desperate burst of speed as we charge along the side of the cliff face, the monsters screeching and cackling with glee at the thrill of the hunt. Hayley turns in the saddle to pull a makeshift arrow from the bundle strapped to her pack, which she fits to her bow and looses into the cluster of demonic creatures bearing down on us, closer with every second. From her grunt of frustration I can tell she’s having no success, but my eyes are squeezed tightly shut – not from fear, though I’m certainly terrified, but from concentration.

None of us can feel the call. I don’t know if it’s going to come soon, or at all, and if it doesn’t, we’re all going to die. So if it’s possible to move on without it, if I’m ever going to find out, now is the time.

I’m picturing the door as Iain suggested. I can see it in my mind’s eye. I didn’t consciously choose it, but it’s my bedroom door from the house we lived in when I was little. I can see the pale blue paint, the Noah’s ark sign with the words “Felix’s Room” in bright colourful letters. It’s shut, but the handle’s very clearly in focus, and I’m reaching for it. If I can open it, I might be able to step out into the corridor, and if I’m in the corridor, I can take us to a different room where the monsters can’t follow. All I need to do is turn the handle. It’s just too far to reach.

“Felix!” Hayley cries. “If you can do it, do it now!”

“Almost…” I breathe, utterly focused. I reach out with my thoughts, just touching the handle with the tips of my fingers. I stretch, straining my mind to the point of physical pain.

“Felix!”

There. My fingers curl around the brass handle and I push down, and the door in my mind swings open. I pull the three of us through, and then and then and then and then and thenandthenandthenandandandWhereAreWeWhatAreWeWe’reLostWe’reFallingFallingIntoOurselvesWhereDoWeGoWhatDoWeDoHaveToStopStopSTOPSTOPSTOP!

Cold. I’m on the ground and it’s cold. Snow on my fingertips. But I’m not cold. The ground is cold, the air is warm. Just like on the ice world, when the blizzard stopped.

I open my eyes. The sky is bright and pale, a red sun glaring down, bathing the snowfields with light. I’m high up, looking down on it all. Dazed, I turn and take in my surroundings. This is still the ice world. We’re on a flatter patch of a rocky slope by the mouth of a cave, dizzyingly high up, on the side of a mountain. I’m sitting on the snowy ground, my clothes damp, my muscles aching. Iain and Hayley lie beside me, the centaur’s legs sprawled haphazardly, his tongue lolling comically out of his mouth. Hayley is curled in a ball. Neither looks hurt.

Did I do it? Did I move us on without the call?

It felt different, nothing like moving on ever was before. If moving on with the call was stepping through a door, this was diving off a canyon, landing in rapids, being tossed and thrown and battered by the streams and vortices of time and space. I managed to grab onto something, I think. I caught hold of this world before we were swept away.

I look down onto the snowfields, my eye drawn towards a cluster of woods – the cluster of woods Iain and I found Hayley in, I realise. This must be the mountain the monsters were chasing us along. So where are they now?

Iain groans. I run over to him and help him climb unsteadily to his feet… to his hooves, I mean. He looks around blearily. “Where are we?”

“Still on the ice world,” I tell him. “I think… I think I managed to move us. Not on to another world, just a little up the mountain.”

“That was fortunately timed,” Iain remarks, shaking his head and chuckling. “What happened to the scary things?”

“No sign of them…”

A few moments later, Hayley wakes as well, and when she’s regained her bearings, she voices the concerning observation that there doesn’t appear to be any obvious way down.

“At least we have shelter,” I say, gesturing towards the cave. “Maybe we can wait in there until we get the call.”

“I thought we didn’t need it now?” Hayley says, grinning.

“I’m not doing that again,” I shudder. “No way. I had no control at all. If I’d let us actually leave this world, I don’t think we’d have ended up anywhere at all. We’d just have been lost.”

“Lost where?” Iain asks, and I’m not certain myself. These are just… feelings I get. Vague silhouettes of knowledge cast in my mind – from where, I don’t know.

“Just… lost,” I say hesitantly. “I’m not exactly an expert on this.”

“What’s that?” asks Hayley, pointing, and we look towards the woods. There’s some kind of commotion happening on the near side. Shapes, moving quickly out of the forest, towards us. Something brown, followed by several other somethings that are black.

“The monsters,” I realise, “but what are they chasing?”

“By Ra…” Iain murmurs. We look at him. “It’s us.”

I look again at the leading figure. It can’t be… But it is. It’s Iain, bounding through the snow at a full gallop, and on his back, tiny from this distance, but still recognisable, are Hayley and me.

“I don’t think you just moved us in space…” Iain says quietly.

“We time travelled,” Hayley finishes, looking at me with wide, awed eyes. “You sent us a few minutes into the past.”

The figures work their way across the snow, trailing clouds of churned up ice, and I eye the monsters, trying to make out precisely what they are. Each is easily as big as Iain, spiny, multi-legged, fast-moving, and unquestionably deadly. I can’t tell much more of that, thanks both to the distance and the obscuring clouds thrown up by their passage. The past-Iain puts on a burst of speed, and without warning, the blizzard erupts out of nowhere again. Of course. Exactly as it did before.

We retreat into the cave, clinging to one another for warmth as the storms of nature howl past outside.

“We’ve got to be safe up here,” I say, but I don’t feel half as sure as I sound.

“Depends if they can climb or not,” Iain replies. “What do we do if they can?”

Hayley looks at me imploringly. “You’ll have to move us on, call or no call.”

I shake my head. “I meant what I said. I couldn’t control it, and we were nearly destroyed.”

“Then do what you did before and send us back in time again! I’d rather that than die!” She grabs me by the shoulders, her eyes boring into mine. I look away.

“We’ll help you,” Iain says. “We can imagine a door. Maybe the three of us can control it together.”

We sit in a triangle on the cave floor. Hayley suggests holding hands, and I figure it can’t hurt. Her hand is warm and soft in mine, and touching it sends a faint thrill through me that I can’t afford to indulge right now. We close our eyes, ignoring the sound of the blizzard outside.

The image of the door springs instantly to mind. It’s easier this time.

“Can you see it?” I ask the others.

“I… think so…” Hayley says slowly. “It’s my playroom… from when I was a kid.”

“It’s my daughter’s bedroom,” Iain says gruffly, but there’s a thick layer of emotion in his voice that he’s holding back.

“Can either of you reach the handle?”

I stretch for mine, and my mental fingers find the brass again.

“It’s too far away,” Iain says. Hayley makes a noise of agreement.

“You have to reach for it. Stretch yourself.” I wish I could be of more help to them, but it’s impossible to clearly describe. They have to find it by themselves.

The sound of the blizzard cuts out, and I open my eyes in response.

“Keep trying,” I tell them. “I need to see.”

I leave them facing each other on the cave floor, and I run to the edge, leaning down to see what’s happening below.

The monsters have nearly caught up with our past selves. They’re gaining every second. Hayley fires her arrow, and then another. I can see myself on Iain’s back, arms wrapped around his torso. It’s merest moments before the monsters will catch us.

Then we’re gone. There’s no flash of light or even a shimmer in the air, we’re just simply not there anymore.

The monsters stop, and now I can see them clearly. Their chitinous skin is black as obsidian, forming a seemingly impenetrable suit of armour around their spindly torsos. Five spiny legs extend like the points of a star, and two clawed arms reach forward from just below the neck. Atop that, snapping and hissing, is the head. It’s partly like a wolf, to a degree, rows of sharp teeth lining an extended, hairy muzzle, but its eyes are compound, a mess of nine or ten pupils glaring from two glittering red clusters. Those eyes turn from the spot where Iain, Hayley and I vanished, and look up, right at me. I shrink back against the cliff face, but I can feel them. They don’t need to see me to find me. They can feel my mind, and they’re ravenous for it.

I peer over the edge again, and to my horror, I see the foremost of the three monsters turn to the cliff face below me, and move towards it. The spider-like legs lift off the ground as the monster rears up, placing its front three on the wall. It shifts its weight, and then somehow it pulls the last two up with it, and it’s climbing the wall, its entire body at ninety degrees to the ground as it ascends the sheer vertical rise. No…

The other two follow suit. I turn and run.

“We need to go!” I shout to Iain and Hayley, still crouched where I left them. “They’re climbing the mountain.”

“We can’t do it, Felix!” Hayley protests, opening her eyes to look at me, fear plain on her face. “We’re trying, but we can’t do what you can do.”

“They’ll be here any second!” I cry.

“Then risk it,” Iain says calmly. “Pull us through with you like you did before. Wherever we end up – if we end up anywhere at all – it has to be better than being torn apart by those creatures.”

He’s right. “Fine.” I sit by them, taking both their hands. From outside, the scrabbling and screeching noises of the monsters are terrifyingly loud. They must be at least halfway up.

I close my eyes, and reach for the door handle in my mind. My fingers curl around it, and I pull.

But it won’t budge.

Something’s holding it shut.

I stare at the door with my mind’s eye, and then I see it. The handle isn’t brass anymore – it’s black, pitch black, pinned in place by a living, breathing shadow. I draw back from it, and the shadow rises up in front of me, and I hear the same sound I heard back in the forest when we were looking for Hayley. That chuckle.

You can’t run, little traveller. I feel rather than hear the words. Not like the voice in the cave, not blissful and peaceful like it was, but cold, jagged and dripping with hate. Stay. Come out of your cave and say hello. We won’t bite.

“Felix?” Hayley cries.

“I can’t do it!” I shout, panicked. “They’re blocking me!”

Won’t you stay with us? We’ve waited so very long, and we’re so very hungry.

“Then we’d better get moving,” Iain declares, pulling us to our feet. “Only one way to run.”

The three of us turn away from the approaching nightmares and flee into the darkness of the cave. It goes back further than I’d initially thought, though the light from the entrance provides only the dimmest of illumination. The roof slopes lower and lower, low enough that Iain has to duck his head as we run, the cave shifting into a tunnel running into the mountain. The tunnel dips, and suddenly narrows to a crack just wide enough for me to fit through if I turn sideways. Both Hayley and I look at Iain. There’s no way he can come any further.

Iain sighs, resignedly, and reaches into the pack slung across his shoulders. From it, he withdraws an axe, its handle carved beautifully with etchings of centaurs in motion, weapons in hand. The blade is bright, polished steel.

“This was my father’s,” he says softly. “Kept it with me all this way. Glad I did.”

“What are you doing?” Hayley asks him, her voice afraid. Iain simply hefts the axe, and turns to stand in the centre of the tunnel behind us.

“Get yourselves through that crack. They won’t be able to follow you.”

“But what about you?” she protests, and turns to me for support, but there’s nothing I can say.

“I,” he says, swinging his axe through the air, “am going to give these scum a taste of Stallroth steel.”

She looks tearfully to him, and then back to me again. “There has to be something we can do!” she cries. “Open the door again, Felix!”

“I told you. I can’t,” I say quietly. The monsters have sealed it shut.

As though summoned by my thought, the light at the entrance to the cave is blotted out by the huge, rearing shape of a monster. Its terrible scream fills the tunnel.

“Go!” Iain roars, and I pull Hayley towards the crack. She resists for a moment, reaching out a hand to Iain, which he touches, softly, before turning away to face the darkness.

“Back home, we have a saying,” I hear him say calmly, as we drop out of the other side of the gap, into another tunnel at a right angle to the first. “Ride fast, and die a good death. You lot certainly ride fast,” he calls to the approaching enemy, and I can hear the defiance in his voice. “Now which of you wants a good death?”

We hear the crunch of steel on chitin, and the howl of the monster, and then another, and another. The creature’s allies have caught up. Hayley grabs my hand, and we run, feeling our way through the pitch black of the tunnel, heedless of the cuts and scrapes of the rocks against our skin.

The sounds of battle echo after us, the scream of a monster, and an inarticulate battle-cry from Iain, a cry of fury and refusal to yield. Tears fill my eyes as the cry is drawn into a scream, and then reduced to a gurgle, before cutting out altogether. I pound a fist against the rock, closing my eyes in bitter frustration, and I realise the darkness holding the door in my mind shut has weakened, torn across the middle by the strike of Iain’s axe. With a little effort, I pull the shadows aside, grabbing the handle and pulling the door open.

Beyond it lies time and space, a tumbling cascade that threatens to carry us to oblivion. In the real world, I hear a great crash, a rumbling and a tearing of stone, followed by the cry of the monsters – far closer than it should be, and I realise they’ve managed to smash their way through into the tunnels after us. We have to go.

Where is the call? Why hasn’t it sounded for us? Why did Iain have to die? When we find the voice, it’s going to answer those questions, and it’s going to pay. But for that to happen, we have to survive.

So I take the risk. I pull Hayley through that door in my mind with me, and the two of us fall, carried away by the rushing torrents of time.

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