They weren’t saying much by the time they left the soft beach sand for the red fields of grass and rock, and so when they heard the harsh screams rising above the wind they all turned at once. It was hard to make out anything besides the pillar of smoke that was their clubhouse at first, so Brian and Matt hopped onto a nearby boulder and stared hard at the horizon.
‘What is it?’ Steph said, the hair on the back of her neck pricking unpleasantly as she remembered Brian’s tale of savage men with wide eyes and razor teeth. The look on Matt’s face as he squinted into the distance didn’t help, but it was Brian’s pale expression that made her stomach churn. ‘It’s them,’ he said. ‘It’s them!’
‘Are you sure?’ Dale said.
Brian looked again, shook his head. ‘They’re too far away to see for sure, but it has to be! We shouldn’t have lit that fire.’
‘Let’s get the hell out of here!’ Elyse said.
‘Yup, with you on that.’ Steph said, shouldering her back and starting to run. A few seconds later, they were all sprinting over the fields as fast as they could, the weight of the packs weighing them down more and more with every step.
After a few minutes, Brian told the others to go on and pulled himself up onto another rock. He blocked the starlight out with one hand. Two dark figures were sprinting across the sand, already more than halfway along the beach from the clubhouse.
‘Everyone drop your bags, right now!’ he called to the others.
‘Oh my God.’ Steph and Elyse barely stopped to throw their own schoolbags aside, and Dale shrugged his off mid stride. ‘Brian!’ Matt was of course, holding the bag full of booze.
‘They’re after us, man! Drop it!’ Matt swore and let it fall. Brian caught up with him a moment later and they overtook the others. ‘Brian, you’ve got the key!’ Elyse called to him, breathless. ‘Get up there and open the door!’
He nodded, gritted his teeth, and let every bit of his newfound power go. He left the others in the dust in seconds, and suddenly he was alone, flying from boulder to boulder like he was about to take to the sky at any moment. The fire was bright inside him and he played with the idea of throwing the key to Matt and going to face the beast men by himself. There could be more, though. There could be a whole tribe waiting in the forest.
He hopped from ledge to ledge like a monkey, scrambled up steep sections of flat rock, and made it to the top. For a few minutes, he lay on the very brink, watching the progress of his friends and the two dark figures that covered ground with frightening speed after them. Had they not dropped their bags, they wouldn’t have made it, and even so, it was going to be close.
They were three quarters of the way up when Dale saw him looking and shouted up at him, pale with terror. ‘Get to the door!’ Brian didn’t need telling twice, and by the time Matt hauled himself up the last ledge and offered his hand to Steph, he was holding the door wide open. ‘Come on, come on!’
Steph ran past him, breathless, though not so much she couldn’t utter a constant stream of swear words as she went. Dale was up next and he and Matt grabbed each of Elyse’s hands and pulled her up, before the three of them sprinted into the darkness, bumping into each other and the rock walls on either side. Strangely, even though it was still early afternoon on Earth, none of the daylight flooded into the cavern. Only after the three of them rounded the corner could they see through the archway into the forest, where Steph had collapsed onto all fours in the pine needles.
Brian waited until they were all through. He cast one last look into the blackness, finding time even in his fear to mourn the loss of such a beautiful place where so many of his golden memories lived, and then he heard the echo of heavy footsteps. He jumped through the door, pulling it shut hard behind him, and fell backwards into Dale and Elyse.
Barely seconds after he came through, they all heard a heavy thump and the tree behind Brian shuddered, several pine cones dislodging from high branches and falling down around them.
‘Jesus,’ Matt said. They were all standing around the door now, tense as though they expected it to break any second and a horde of beast men to come swarming out. The door was only a bit of tree bark, after all.
‘Don’t worry,’ Brian said. ‘The magic keeps it locked. Nothing can open it without the key.’
‘I don’t remember him saying that in the book,’ Steph said, and then jumped as the tree shook with another loud thump.
Instead of replying, Brian lifted the string necklace over his head and held the key in both hands in front of him. ‘I’m gonna miss that place,’ he said. ‘I really am.’
‘I’m not,’ Elyse said. There was another thump within the tree, this one much weaker. ‘Just do it already.’
Brian paused just a little longer, sighed, and snapped the key. He paused just a second and then said, in his most commanding voice: ‘Claudo!’
Dead silence followed. Nothing changed. He could still make out the outline of the door in the mottled bark, and the keyhole. ‘Are… are you sure you pronounced it right?’ Steph said.
‘Yeah. I doesn’t matter, anyway. As long as it’s the right word, it’s all good.’
‘The thumping’s stopped,’ Matt said.
‘And the key’s broken,’ Brian said. ‘So nothing’s gonna open that door one way or the other.’
‘That wasn’t why we were closing it, remember?’
‘Oh, yeah. Well. It’s done now, anyway.’
And that was that. The world was closed forever. Even if they’d carved a new door exactly where the old one was, the world it opened on would only be similar, not the same, to the one they had just left behind. The big adventure was over, and they’d made it through intact.
‘So, I don’t want to be a buzzkill or anything,’ Steph said. ‘But can we wait until after exams to find a new world? I mean, beside the studying and that, I’ll feel better when Brian’s not… you know, cutting himself.’
‘All in favour say aye,’ Matt said. They all said Aye. ‘Hey guys, I’m fine, alright. I feel better already.’ He didn’t, of course, but it would take a little time for the parasite to die inside him, if Mr. Zindel knew what he was talking about.
‘All that booze, gone forever.’ Matt said, shaking his head sadly at the ground.
‘Shut up, ya wanker,’ Dale said, punching him in the arm. ‘You’re lucky those bastards didn’t eat us alive.
‘Drunk!’ Steph said, and just like that, with the kind of resilience only kids know, everything was back to normal. They turned and made their slow way out of the forest and back to the beaten track, joking and laughing as though they’d got off some wild theme park ride. Sometimes you had to laugh to keep from screaming, after all.
Brian was the last to leave the tree, and as he turned to catch up to the others, he thought he heard another thump as some great weight slammed against the other side of the (non existent) door. But it was so soft, and so quiet, he was sure it was only his imagination.