Grey. Everything is grey. The sky, the rain, the meagre light filtering through the clouds to the grey, sodden ground. Grey skies, grey clouds, grey tears.
We’ve been here for days, and we’ve hardly done a thing. We’re camped in an open field of grass, ringed by lumpy, undulating hills. The rain runs off their flanks and pools in shallow, muddy patches that squelch and suck at our feet as we scour for food. The rest of the time, we just sort of sit here together, watching the ripples of the rain on the river that flows right past our camp. Only two tents now. Just her and me.
We’re not really waiting for anything. We’re just… existing. Robbed entirely of our momentum, of our will to carry on, we simply sit here, listless, directionless, purposeless.
Why did Iain have to die?
It was so pointless. The voice could have moved us on, could have saved him, but it left it to me, and what could I do? I couldn’t open the door with the monsters holding it shut. It was Iain’s sacrifice that had allowed us to escape. But why had that even been necessary? If the voice hadn’t brought us to the ice world, Iain would still be alive.
I can’t really remember what happened after I pulled Hayley through the door with me. There’d been that panic again, that sense of falling and then… I can’t remember. It’s not blackness, it’s just…
Somehow we ended up here. Perhaps I managed to grab a hold on reality at some point as we fell. Perhaps we simply washed up here like flotsam on the currents of time. I don’t think I care.
On the third day, we hold a funeral for him. It’s not like we have a body to bury – that will have been torn to shreds by the monsters back on the ice world. But we feel we have to honour him somehow. We only knew Iain for a short time, but we loved him. He was one of us. A brother.
“He was good,” Hayley says quietly, looking down at the small cairn of pebbles we’ve built on a firmer patch of ground between our two tents. Were this a movie, we’d have built it around an axe of his, or a tool he used, or something that was at least vaguely relevant to him. But to our shame, we have nothing. Not a single thing between us that came from Iain. But for our memories, he might never have existed.
“He was kind,” I say. “Brave, too. He died for us.”
Hayley makes a noise halfway between a sob and a growl.
“What for?” she mutters. “We’ll die too. It’s just a matter of when.”
“Don’t say that!”
“Why not?” she retorts, meeting my eyes. “You know it’s true. Everywhere we go there’s something trying to kill us, and we’re clearly not going home any time soon. The voice was happy to abandon us on the ice world. We’ve been forgotten, Felix.”
I shake my head.
“We’re not going to die, Hayley. I won’t let us. I won’t let Iain have died for nothing.”
“This is all for nothing!” she shouts, grabbing my shoulders. “It’s all just been a game! We’re never going home, we’re never going to get anywhere, we’re just going to wander until we die.”
“Shut up!” I bark, pushing her hands roughly away from me, and she stumbles backwards. “Maybe you’ve given up, but I won’t. We survive, Hayley. We’re going to make it through this, and we’re going to win.”
She looks at me, her eyes furious, and something breaks inside of her. Her eyes fill with tears, and she buries her face in her hands. Tentatively, I take a step towards her, and then another. I gently put my arms around her, and she leans into me, crying into my chest as I look grimly out across the fields of mud. The rain runs down our necks and backs and into our boots. I hold her, and she cries. After a while, I cry too.
On the fifth day, I decide I’ve had enough. I leave Hayley asleep by the fire and march off towards the hills. Yesterday, while hunting, I came across a hollow in the gap between two of them that burrows into the earth. I thought nothing of it at the time, but now I know exactly what I need to do. It takes me ten minutes to find it again, a damp, muddy hole in the ground, small enough that I have to stoop to fit inside. I climb into it and make my way to the back, where the cave narrows into a wall full of earthworms and tree roots, and the grey light fades to pitch black.
“OK then,” I whisper to the darkness. “You’ve made your point. We’ve passed your trials, done as you said. But we’re tired of this. Just send us home. I know you can do it. Stop playing games and just let us go.”
“I know you can hear me, damn you,” I hiss.
The voice I want to hear says nothing.
“What do you want from us? What are we supposed to do?” I’m not whispering anymore, I’m crying, shouting, beating my fists against the wall in frustration and despair.
“Just let us go,” I keep on repeating, from the quietest murmurs to screams that leave my voice hoarse. “Just let us go.”
I sink to the ground and weep.
Time passes. I don’t know how long. I think I fall asleep, leaning against the wall in that hollow, but I hardly care if Hayley wonders where I am. I think I’m dreaming, but real or not, I hear a voice.
It’s my mother.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”
What’s that? It sounds like the Bible. My family is Church of England, but we don’t go very often – only really at Christmas, and sometimes at Easter and Remembrance Day. I’ve never heard my mother do a reading. But it’s her, clear as day. She sounds sad.
“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
I think I can see her. Yes, we’re in a church – I’m sitting in the pews, packed full of people, and my mother is reading at the altar. Her long blonde hair is neatly tied in a bun, her dress a demure black, her eyes red and puffy from crying. I want to go to her, to comfort her. It’s been so long since I last saw her. I miss her.
“Mum!” I try to call to her, but no sound leaves my mouth. She doesn’t look at me. Her eyes are on the casket lying closed beside her. Flowers lie scattered on the top of it, and there’s a framed photograph. It’s a funeral, or a memorial service. I wonder whose it is. I crane my neck, and I can just make out the face in the picture.
Oh my god, it’s me.
Am I dead? No, I know I’m not. I rise from my seat – no one looks at me, and then I’m walking down the aisle towards the casket.
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also,” my mother continues.
I reach the casket, and realise it’s not a casket at all. It’s a sort of table, the top of which has been shaped in that familiar casket-shape. But there’s no body. They’re holding my funeral without a body.
They think I’m dead. I’ve been missing for long enough that they think I’m dead.
I need to get back. Please, let me get back.
“And you know the way to where I am going.”
And then the vision is gone, and I’m alone in the hollow. The light outside is dim – it’s nearly dusk. But I left in the morning. Hayley will be looking for me. She might think I’ve moved on without her!
I run, and run, and run, fast as I can, across the mud and grass, desperate to get back to her and to tell her about what I saw, but I can see from afar something’s badly wrong. Our campsite is invisible beneath a cloud of thick, coiling smoke. Hayley!
I increase my speed, running faster than I ever have before. Panic grips me. She has to be all right. Please, dear God, let her be all right. My heart’s in my mouth as I plunge into the smoke.
“Hayley!” I scream. Our tents are ablaze. I dash for hers, lifting what remains of the flap, but inside it’s empty. I turn around, scanning the flames, and my heart stops.
In the spiny arms of a monster.
Huge, black, the same beast from the ice world. How can it be here? How? Has the voice brought it, to test me?
It killed Iain. I won’t let it take her from me. Consumed by instinct and primeval rage, I charge the beast, knife in hand, screaming a battle cry that hardly sounds human to my own ears.
The beast hisses, hurling Hayley to one side and meeting me head-on. My knife comes up, plunging into one of its many eyes, but one of its claws slashes open my shirt, tearing a jagged hole in the flesh of my belly. I gasp with agony, but my rage spurs me on. I twist my blade in the monster’s face, ripping a cluster of its eyes apart.
Its other claw swings down, biting into my leg with a shower of blood. I collapse to one knee, tearing my weapon free and stabbing it into the other cluster of eyes. Now it’s the monster’s turn to scream, blinded by my strike. Its head whips forward, snapping at me wildly - I twist to one side, breaking free of its grasp, but its teeth catch on my ear, ripping away a chunk of the earlobe. But I won’t give up. No wound can stop me now. I stab upwards, desperately, and my blade slips into a gap in the chitin between the torso and the abdomen. It slides in up to the hilt and hits something hard and tough. I push harder, and the point judders on through - something bursts inside the monster, and it hisses one last time, before it falls limp and collapses to the ground, legs splaying out like a crushed spider.
I stagger away, making for Hayley’s crumpled body. I put my hand out to her, and it comes away sticky with blood. She can’t be dead, she can’t be. Is she breathing? I can’t tell if she’s breathing. I lean closer to her, desperate to help but uncertain of what to do. She’s the one who was trained in first aid. I don’t… I can’t… there’s just so much blood.
Then a familiar feeling rises up in my mind. The call. It’s weak – much weaker than it was before the ice world – but it’s still strong enough to guide us on. I can’t help Hayley here. There’s just nothing I can do for her. “There I wait for you,” the voice said about the final world. The “Gates of Hell itself.” Is it waiting for us now? Can it help her?
It has to. And if it can’t, it’s going to pay. For Iain, for her, for everything. I wrap my arms around her body, holding her close, and move on.