It was to be his last solo venture into the world. He packed his bag slowly but thoroughly and set a course for the mountains across the forest – the only area he had yet to attempt on account of how difficult the gravity made climbing. If he found nothing, he’d give it up and try and get the others to explore some other world with him. They had agreed on one world at a time, but he thought he could convince them to leave this one open.
He headed off on Wednesday night. He told his parents he was tired and went up to bed, then out the window and on to the park. He planned to be gone two days, which would return him home before midnight. He’d bought a bigger knife from the supermarket, a fifteen centimetre butcher’s knife that was supposed to saw through tendons like butter, and he took that, too.
The first day was one of the best he’d ever had in this other world. Several times he had to look around and make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Here he was, in another world – no another universe! Exploring a place no human beings had ever seen before. This was adventure, this was living! He savoured every hardship – the thirst and hunger and muscle aches – a little voice in his mind saying over and over, ecstatic with joy: You’re an adventurer! You’re an explorer! What strange world will you visit next, Brian? What sights will you see there?
As always, there was no day or night, only that permanent twilight, and so he took a swig from his water bottle, managed to sleep for six hours, and then woke up and started the climb.
The smoke must have been there for a while, but he didn’t pick up on it until he was halfway up the mountain’s steep slopes, where the trees were thinner. He was so exhausted by then that he was only staring at his feet as they crunched through twigs and leaves up the steep slope, and it was only because he stopped for a rest to stare at the sky that he saw it at all. Rising from just beyond the mountain’s peak, a pillar of dark smoke blocked out the stars.
His first thought was forest fire! And his heart jumped in his chest as he remembered stories of fires jumping across rivers, moving through the trees as fast as the wind itself and burning hot enough to melt bricks. If that was what this was, he was going to die for sure. But there was none of that wide spanning orange glow that the really giant fires tended to have. This one was too small.
Life. What else could have started a fire, in a world without sun? He took a deep breath and calmed himself. Come back with the others. If the life here is anything like the other life you’ve seen… Only it would be too late then, wouldn’t it? Even if he made it all the way back in ten hours and made the others come immediately, at least two days will have passed before they could all make it to the mountain. No, to hell with that – this was his adventure. This was what he wanted from the beginning, he just had to be man enough to go.
‘So what’s it gonna be Brian?’ he muttered to himself, pulling the big knife from his belt. ‘Do you feel lucky?’
The ground rose steeply at the top of the mountain, but with the adrenaline coursing through him and the soft leaves giving way to easy to grip rock, he made it over the mountain’s left shoulder in less than an hour. He stood there for a long time, catching his breath and letting his sweat cool in a gentle wind. Behind him, the mountain in which the door was hidden was almost totally obscured in the mist.
The land on the far side of this mountain was like the African savannah. The endless fields of long red grass were broken by tall rock formations, and the trees were not like the black and white ones on the other side of the mountain – they were far taller and thicker, leafless with red bark and straggly limbs. There was another lake at the foot of the mountain, much smaller than the one by the clubhouse, and the smoke was gushing forth from a wide clearing beside it. Brian squinted and made out what looked like wooden houses. A village.
He made his way down narrow ledges and crumbling rocks, and saw that he was indeed right. The fire burned low, many of the buildings reduced to glowing charcoal, but some were still standing. When he arrived at the bottom of the mountain he wiped the sweat from his face and took a moment to loop the shoelace he’d tied to the handle of the knife around his wrist. There was no going back now. It would be at least nine hours to get home, and he’d have to walk over two mountains on the way.
As he neared the ruined village, the heat evaporated the sweat from his face. He centred himself on a wide stretch of sandy rock sort of like a road through the middle, and started down it, eyes darting left and right for signs of movement.
The village was not empty. Skeletons lined the streets, some with spears, others blackened by the fire. And a man sat against a leaning house at the end of the street.
He was short, no more than five feet tall, with a paper white complexion and wearing nothing but the hairy skin of some animal around his waist. He was so thin that Brian thought he was just another skeleton until he saw the enormous yellow tinged eyes staring out of the skull. Black lips lay across his face like a pair of dead worms. He’s still alive.
‘Are you alright, man? Hey, are you alright?’ He lifted his water bottle and pointed at it, and the man’s eyes looked at it with longing. He looked so dry, his skin like cracked rock. Brian wished he had more water.
The man watched him approach, breathing shallowly. Brian didn’t see what was wrong with him until he was right up close, and then he saw four very deep holes in the man’s side. They were leaking dark red blood. A black tear squeezed from the corner of the man’s eye. In one hand he held what looked like a leather skin full of liquid. When Brian crouched beside him and offered the water he shook his head and took a long swig from the skin instead.
‘C… can you understand me?’ Brian asked.
The man blinked his large eyes, slowly. Then he said something in a scratchy voice that sounded like ‘Vaath.’
‘Vaath!’ There was no mistaking the urgency in his voice, his throat straining with the effort. Brian looked around uneasily, wondering what in this empty world could have possibly done this. Perhaps a tribal war?
‘Is there anyone else alive?’ Brian asked. He imagined wounded children bleeding out in the dirt. What if he could save them? Get them to a hospital on earth? But the man was in the midst of another long swig. When he put down the skin for the second time, he motioned to the knife in Brian’s hand. ‘Graht. Halma se Graht.’
It was obvious what he was saying by his body language. Brian looked around again, glanced once more at the deep gashes in the man’s side. If he comes after me, I can always run. He gave him the knife.
But the man did not attack Brian. Instead, he grinned a wide smile that revealed two rows of jagged shark teeth, muttered something that sounded like ‘Vlekt,’ and drew it across his own throat, pushing so deeply that a fountain of blood shot out immediately. Brian staggered back, stumbling on the rough ground. He managed to evade almost all of it, but some landed on his shoes. He sat up and stared at the man, who was now covered in his own blood. His eyes were wider than ever, and when he saw Brian staring he made one final attempt to communicate: ‘Vaath!’ he shouted, or as close to a shout as he could get with his throat slit. His voice sounded like his vocal chords were made of charcoal. ‘Vaath!’
He lifted the skin halfway to his mouth before his strength seemed to fail him and he let it drop to the ground. His eyes glazed and half closed, and he rested back against the wall, his whole body relaxing. Brian was alone with a corpse. He stared at it.
‘What the fuck?’ Brian said. ‘What was that? What’s Vaath? What the hell?’ He stood up and walked over, sidestepping the man’s blood, and picked up his knife.
He stared at the corpse for a long time, until the blood stopped leaking. Then he pushed open the door of the little house and looked around. It wasn’t unlike the club house he and his friends had built, only smaller and without all of the earthly supplies. Grass instead of a bed, a table, no windows, a bunch of spears and a shield made of that leathery stuff and some wood. A skeleton lay on the pile of grass, arms crossed over its chest. A club with bits of sharpened stone stuck through it lay on the floor, covered in dark blood.
If there was anyone left, they were long past saving. He wanted to search the village anyway, the thought of some small child crouching by the bodies of his parents as clear in his mind as if it were in front of him, but he knew it was too dangerous. Search anyway. Are you an adventurer, or a coward? But they were empty words. Violence hung in the air like the smell of blood, and the feeling of unease grew with each passing second. Get out now.
He left the house, heading straight for the mountain. He hadn’t seen a soul anywhere near the village on the way down the mountain, and the village was definitely empty, yet the sense of danger wouldn’t leave him. Whoever had burned it couldn’t have left long ago. How long could that man have lasted with wound like that in his neck? Now you mentioned it, what had made those wounds in the first place? That thought raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
‘Get out of here, buddy. That’s what we’re going to do, yeah? No more messing around, let’s just get out of this place and get back home. Okay, yes sir, Mister Brian, comin right up.’
He started up the mountain. About a quarter of the way up he looked back and saw nothing. It took him another twenty minutes to get near the top, though he wasn’t going too fast, just yet. About three quarters up, he looked over his shoulder again. There in the long grass he saw men, running. They weren’t holding spears, and they were black, like the bird, like the beetle, like the shark in the lake. Then he heard their screams echoing up to him from below, more like the roar of lions than the shouts of men. And as he watched, he saw one of them look up at him, with those impossibly wide eyes.
His stomach dropped out of him. Suddenly, fear had no meaning. He was just going to run and run until he died or got home, and that was all there was to it. Death was literally on his heels.
He clambered the rest of the way up the mountain, then took the way down in long leaps and bounds, weaving through the trees at a break neck pace until they grew too thick and he had to slow down. He heard their shrieks and bellows again when he reached the foot of the mountain, but he didn’t look back. If they were up there, they were after him, and that was all he needed to know.
He ran, and when he couldn’t run any more, he jogged. He’d heard of guys in the military running a hundred kilometres or more with heavy packs on their backs. He could do that, sure he could. He’d just maintain a jog, not too fast, not too slow. Just keep it going, don’t burn out. They would get tired.
After two hours, they were still after him. Every now and again, he would hear a branch break somewhere behind him, or another bellow. They were getting closer.
After four hours, he no longer felt like a human being – more like a puppet that someone else was playing with, pulling the strings on his arms and legs to make him keep running. Sweat poured from him in rivers. He’d dropped his pack in a thorny bush maybe ten kilometres back, pulling out three water bottles and drinking them on the run.
At six hours, his legs started to crumble under him. Every sixth or seventh step, he faltered, his left leg slowly becoming nerveless under his weight. He realised he was crying, tears pouring down his face. He could feel the closeness of death, a lead weight in his stomach. It was the feeling men on death row got when the first needle slipped into their arm, the feeling a surfer got when he saw that dark shape moving through the next wave. He didn’t feel like an adventurer now, only a scared little boy, running for his life.
He hadn’t heard them for a while, so he made a sharp left, in the direction of the lake. He jogged until he saw a tree that was full of leaves and had some low branches. He climbed high enough that he’d be hard to see, and waited.
One bastard only, a mere five minutes behind him. He was still breathing hard when the thing got close and he had to hold his breath until it passed. Brian was afraid he’d be spotted by those enormous eyes, but the man was oblivious. It must have seen the place where Brian had changed course and it sprinted in that direction.
Brian forced himself to wait another ten minutes, but he neither saw nor heard any of the others. There had been about five of them to start with, but he had a feeling they had been dropping off as the run dragged on. Probably he’d outrun all but this one.
As quietly as he could, he dropped from the tree and made a beeline – walking now – for the mountain and the cave that held the way home. It wasn’t far now, he thought. Three hours, maybe, if he walked fast.
He felt so weak. The world was spinning around him. Somehow, he kept a straight path, glancing up every now and again to see the peak of the mountain over the trees, growing ever closer. He wondered if the thing chasing him had given up or if it had realised the trick and doubled back.
Walking was a gamble, especially considering the state he was in now, but it was all he could do. Resting would only make him weaker at this stage. Even if he made it all the way to the clubhouse, there was no telling if the others weren’t still after him. For all he knew, the whole forest could be crawling with them.
So he gambled. And lost.
He saw it coming a long way off, but although he’d already reached the foot of the mountain, there was no way he could make it in time. He wasn’t sure he wanted to, anyway. He didn’t fancy the thought of opening the door later only to have a whole tribe of the beasts come pouring into Earth. He was elevated, and leaning in the shadow of an overhanging rock, so he could watch the thing bounding over boulders and sprinting through the long grass.
It didn’t seem to have lost much speed since the beginning of the chase. As he approached the mountain, Brian got a closer look. It was small and human like, but that was its only disadvantage. It had claws rather than hands, dense muscle and thick bone, a large, drooling mouth with shark’s teeth. It moved with speed and grace. Brian was too weak to fight a thing like that. And too tired to climb to the cave in time.
‘Oh, shit, Brian.’ he whispered. He was trying to think, but his mind moved like a snail through honey. There was something there, a simple way out he would see if he could only think…
The gravity was heavy, and it pulled him inexorably down the steep sandy slope that he had just scrambled up. His mind was slow and tired. At least the breeze was cool on his face. It would be so nice to lie in the warm sand and stare at the sky full of stars, even if it was only just for a little while. He closed his eyes.
The beast man, though he was long past the point where he could still be called a man at all, saw the prey tumble down the slope. He’d lost sight of it in the caves and crevices of the slopes, but the shape of it falling from one of the lower ledges was unmistakeable.
The man doubled his pace, launching himself from rock to rock. He no longer felt pain, only a pleasant burn that filled his body and gave it power. He’d lost most feelings, but not all. There was the heat and cold, which he felt all the time. He felt like a vessel made of hard ice with a raging fire burning eternally in the place his heart used to be. That, and the endless lust for food made his thoughts muddled and warped. He still thought, but like an animal more than a man. Memories floated in his mind like dead fish in a dark pond, disconnected, irrelevant.
He closed in quickly, keeping his eye on the area in case the prey tried to escape to the flanks or run around the mountain. It didn’t. He hopped down from the last boulder, ran through the patches of overgrown grass and rock, and saw his meal. It had tumbled down the slope and come to a stop in a patch of thorny weeds in an awkward sprawl, legs spread, face up, one arm tucked under his back.
Dead already? No, he could sense life. He didn’t see the chest rise or fall with breath, but he sensed the life still strong and wild in the fallen thing. That was good. Dead things were neither tasty nor satisfying. They only left the fire burning hotter inside.
The man went for the thing’s right leg, an instinct as ingrained in him as barking in a dog. It was the usual pattern. The prey, once hobbled, lasted longer and couldn’t get away.
He lowered a long arm as he approached and made a slice for the back of the knee, knowing there was a chance the prey might wake from the pain and try to escape on a surge of adrenaline, although again this thought was more instinct than consciousness. Blood sprayed across the sand, and the man felt a blast of blessed relief.
The thing was shrieking, rising fast as predicted, and the man moved forward to catch it before it could get away. Only the thing wasn’t running but rising to meet him, and the man had time to see the blue eyes and the red mouth and to realise that this beast was big, much bigger than him, and then a flash of white blinded him.
There were a few seconds of utter confusion and darkness in which the man rolled over hot sand and tried repeatedly to open eyes that were no longer there. His face was on fire, and he roared, swiping with his long claws, hoping to catch whatever stinger the beast had struck him with but landing on nothing.
He stopped, opening his ears to noise, but something hit him in the throat, hard, and he stumbled back into a boulder and hit his head. The world was flashing from black to white and then black again. He got up and lunged, finding only air and hard ground, and before he could rise the stinger pierced him between the shoulder blades, and an enormous weight fell on top of him.
The first few seconds were close. The man struggled in a mad fury and almost threw off the beast, but blood was pouring freely from his throat and face and he weakened quickly. Soon he could only grunt and twist in the dirt, and then he could only lie there and try to breathe, and then he couldn’t do even that. The fire in him sputtered and flickered, shrank to glowing charcoals, and then went out.