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49

 

At first, all Elyse and Brian could do was look up at the sky. It was both frightening and beautiful at the same time, a pitch black background pierced by thousands of red and white lights, some no more than pinpricks, others so large they could have matched earth’s moon for size. How many of those pinpricks were suns, how many planets, and how many were comets large enough to crush this planet? Enough.

‘I think I can see them moving,’ Elyse said after a long while. It was true. Brian squinted up at the closest rock and, after a few minutes, he was almost certain it had moved away from its nearest neighbour. Like watching clouds moving on a day with only the slightest wind.

‘Any one of those up there, no matter where it lands, this whole planet will die,’ Brian said.

‘Maybe. We don’t know what the atmosphere is like here. Maybe most of them will burn up. Or all of them, even. There must be an atmosphere, anyway – we’re breathing, aren’t we?’

‘And they’re burning.’ Every comet they could see had a ring of fire, or a tail running behind it. Hundreds of them were burning up even as they watched, appearing and vanishing in seconds, filling the sky with fireworks.

Finally, they took their eyes away from the scene long enough to absorb the rest of their surroundings, and it was just as Matt and Steph had told them: canyons, mountains and cliffs; a desert without end. The sand was reddish brown, and everything smelled like fire. When he turned to Elyse, she was looking at him, shivering. The air had a chill to it, the kind that crept up on you and slowly worked its way into your bones.

‘We’re not going to die,’ she told him, though he wasn’t sure if she meant it as a question or a statement.

He pulled her in for a hug, though his skin was as ice cold as hers. He could the wild, irregular beat of her heart. ‘All we gotta do is wait, now,’ he said.

‘I know, Brian.’ She pulled away from him, and fixed her brown eyes on his. ‘But what is it we’re waiting for?’

‘Death, maybe. Think about it like this. We’ve been playing Russian Roulette, and we just pulled the trigger. Now we’re waiting to see if a bullet comes out.’

‘That makes me feel much better.’

He cracked a smile, the first in what felt like a very long time, and she smiled back, a shadow of the old Elyse in the curl of those cracked, bleeding lips.

‘Hey, come lie down with me,’ he said. He took her hand and led her a little way – not too far – from the door, and the two of them lay on their backs in the cool sand and stared up at the sky, their heads touching.

‘You know, even if we did die. This isn’t that bad a way to go, huh?’

‘No. I guess it isn’t.’

‘I’m really sorry for, you know, for infecting you.’

‘Forget about it. It’s over.’

‘Yeah. How bad are you, right now?’

‘Pretty bad. I’ve got this, I don’t know, this anger. I want to tear things up, and…’

‘I know what you mean. I know that feeling.’

They were silent for a while.

‘Brian?’

‘Yeah?’

‘How bad are you?’

He squeezed her hand, almost hard enough to break a bone, but she didn’t make a sound. ‘I don’t know if I can make it,’ he said. He swallowed. It was hard to keep his voice steady. ‘I think I might die before that sky falls on us.’

‘Brian? You can hurt me if you need to. If you let me hurt you. Just enough so we don’t… you know, starve.’

His blood was boiling now, but he didn’t reply straight away. They hadn’t come into this world with tools or weapons of any kind, but his nails and teeth had already grown a long way since the last time he cut them. He could smell her skin in the chilled air, and her sweat, and even the dark blood that pumped through her veins.

You never had a choice, anyway, he thought.

48

 

It wasn’t hard to find Diana Zindel. Steph, Matt and Dale went straight from Westlake forest to Westlake library, where they collected as many books on town history as they could find, which amounted to four. Arthur T. Zindel, being a relatively famous author, was mentioned briefly in two of them, not at all in one of them, and extensively in the fourth. In that one, he was described as ‘one of Westlake’s literary triumphs, a man who brought mystery and adventure to adults and children alike.’ That alone didn’t help much, of course, but when Dale reached the last paragraph of the miniature biography, he clapped his hands and grinned up at the other two, who had been scanning through hundreds of pages of detailed and vastly boring Westlake history.

‘What?’ Steph said without looking up. Matt took a break, rubbing his eyes and breathing a long, tired sigh.

‘I got it. I know where he lived.’ Matt stopped mid rub and Steph glanced up, hopeful.

‘Listen to this,’ Dale went on, and cleared his throat: ‘Seven years after his disappearance, an eccentric end to an eccentric life, Zindel’s estate was legally passed on to his youngest daughter, Diana Zindel, who lives in the great Victorian Manor on Ridge Road, Westlake, to this day. Many of his books continue to sell in schools and bookstores all over the  world, and it seems he represents a page in Westlake’s history that will never truly be forgotten, blah blah blah.’

He looked up, and now Steph was grinning back at him, though Matt still looked dubious. ‘What’s the publication date of that book, though?’ he said.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Steph said. ‘We don’t need Diana to be living there. We just need the house, and the doors he left behind.’

‘That’s what I mean,’ Matt continued. ‘What if they knocked it down or something. What if trees got cut down and they dug a hole and filled it with concrete and built something else. What would happen to the doors?’

Dale felt a sour twinge in his stomach, but shook his head. ‘I dunno. But Zindel says destroying the door doesn’t work remember? He mentions trying it in the book, but the door was never gone, it just transferred to something else in the same place. Even if the house is demolished, the doors would still be there somewhere, hidden. It’ll be alright.’

‘Yeah, I remember that,’ Steph said.

‘Well, what the hell are we waiting for, then?’

 

Ridge road was about as far out of Westlake as it was possible to get while still being in the suburb. The road itself rose on a hill whose highest point was far above anywhere else in the area including Westlake park, but there was no view because all the surrounding roads were lined on either sides with tall trees that only let strips of sunlight shine intermittently through their branches.

‘No wonder none of us ever heard of this place,’ Matt said as they struggled up the steep hill to the top of the arch. They’d been walking for close to forty minutes and, with their long pants and sleeves, they were sweating hard. Still, better that than get a fly bite and spend the next few days wondering. ‘It’s a bloody jungle.’

The others saved their breath for the climb, and at last they arrived at the top of Ridge road, where the winding gravel became a straight and pleasant asphalt lane, trees descending steeply to their right and a tall hedge to their left. Dale saw a gap in the hedge up ahead, where a metal gate stood. They stopped in front of it, gentle wind cooling the sweat on their brows, trees rustling all around them, and looked up at the letters engraved in the metal: Z I N D E L

‘Well that was easy,’ Dale said.

The gate was unlocked, and it let out a cringe inducing squeal as they pushed it open. The vision on the other side was much more pleasant, however: the hedges concealed a garden of neatly cut grass and perfectly maintained and colourful flowerbeds, the smell of fresh fertiliser reaching them from across the lawn. There was a pond in one corner and a narrow artificial stream branched off from it and wound its way in a loop around the whole garden and then back again. A clay brick driveway led to the front door of the large house – three stories at least – built from heavy wood and stone.

‘It’s beautiful,’ Steph said.

‘Yeah, well, I dunno about you guys, but every second we spend smelling the roses out here is another one Brian and Elyse spend waiting for the apocalypse,’ Matt said, and without another word he marched up the driveway and knocked on the front door.

The other two stepped up beside him, and when no one answered Dale knocked again.

He’d barely taken his hand away from the door when it swung open, revealing a squat old woman with suspicious slit eyes and a tight lipped mouth. She didn’t relax in the slightest when she saw that they were mere teenagers and not insurance salesmen. ‘Yes?’

For a moment they were all lost for words, and then Steph said: ‘Mrs – Miss… Um, are you Diana Zindel?’

She looked at Steph for a long time, her expression deadpan, Steph holding the smile on her face as best she could. ‘Yes, that’s me.’

‘I…’ Steph looked across at Matt, who gave her a smile of his own and rescued her. Of the three of them, he’d always been the best liar, after all. ‘Mrs. Zindel,’

‘It’s Miss,’ she interrupted.

‘Miss Zindel,’ he went on, unfazed, ‘We are all really big fans of your father’s work – Arthur T. Zindel –

‘What’s his middle name?’

‘Uh… Sorry?’

‘If you’re such big fans, what’s his middle name? What does the T stand for?’

Matt could only stare, and the words were out of Dale’s mind before he could even remember where he’d seen them. ‘Terrence,’ he said. ‘His middle name is Terrence.’

Her face softened slightly as she took in their expressions. ‘Well alright. I’m sorry, it’s just, we’ve had some vandals in the area. Was a little suspicious you might be looking around for things to steal or something. Paranoia. Come in.’

She turned around and walked into the house, leaving the front door open behind her, and the other two looked at Dale, relieved and curious. ‘It’s on the last page of the book,’ he explained. ‘He signs off with his whole name. I just remembered randomly.’

‘Jesus, she’s nuts,’ Matt whispered. ‘Let’s get this over with.’

They followed her into the house, and found her brewing tea in a kettle on the stove. She’d set out four china teacups on the marble counter. The house seemed somehow larger now that they were inside, only sparse furniture here and there, no clutter, barely a speck of dust to be found. Paintings of all kinds lined every wall in the house.

‘So,’ Diana began after a brief silence in which she eyed their long sleeves and thick pants suspiciously. ‘All I know about you is that you are probably not vandals and you are a fan of my grandfather’s. How can I help you?’

Matt took the lead again, and Dale marvelled that he could imagine such detail in the space of mere seconds, and deliver it so convincingly. ‘The thing is, Mrs – Miss Zindel, we found a book of his, Book of Worlds it was called, and well, like I said, we’re all big fans. The reason we’re here now is, like, we want to go on a kind of uh…’ he glanced at the other two, but Dale and Steph just raised their eyebrows. They had no idea where he was going with this. ‘Pilgrimage, that’s the word. We thought the book was really cool, and you know how like, in New Zealand they go on the Lord of the Rings tour, and all that, yeah? We sort of figured wouldn’t it be cool to go around this house and check all the places he mentions in the book. Also…’ And the expression of nervous hopefulness was perfect. Dale couldn’t help but smile. ‘Also we were kind of hoping you might have some more stuff of his. Any unpublished books or things like that? Or keys…’

She passed them each their cup of tea, and led them into the next room, where they sat down on large but uncomfortable wooden chairs. Her mouth showed a hint of a smile now, and Dale felt a surge of hope. She’d known what they were talking about.

‘Well, you really are fans, I can see that now.’

‘That’s for sure,’ Steph put in, nodding. ‘We’re probably his biggest fans.’ Dale saw Matt nudge her foot with his own.

‘And all you want to do is… look around the house? I can’t really remember much of what’s in the book, but…’

‘Oh, you read the book as well?’ Matt said.

‘I read the first few chapters, but my father’s work never particularly caught my imagination. He was just so… fantastical. I was always a very practical girl, never much interested in fiction and magic and all that.’

She caught herself before she said the word nonsense, but Dale saw it. She’s chucked it. Oh, God, she’s thrown the keys away. By the look on his face, Matt was thinking something similar.

‘Oh, not to say there’s anything wrong with it,’ she went on. ‘It just wasn’t for me, personally. I think it irritated my grandfather very much. He was always writing things for me, trying to enchant me, trying to make it all seem real. Sometimes I wonder if his final disappearance wasn’t some silly attempt on his part to make me think he’d gone to another world. To get me into all of that once and for all.’ She smiled and looked down at her tea. ‘Strange man, my father.’

‘Um, so, you didn’t… I mean did you keep anything of his?’ Matt said, literally on the edge of his seat.

‘Oh, listen to me ramble on,’ she said, looking up at them. ‘Of course I kept all of it. I had a feeling someone like you lot might track me down one day. Truth be told, I was hoping some of the things he’d left behind would appreciate in value as the years went by. Doesn’t look like I’m having much luck, though. Anyway, come along and I’ll show you.’

She stood up and was already on her way out of the vast living room, and so didn’t see the looks of utter relief on all of their faces. Dale gave Matt a nod and smile as they started after her. We got this, man.

She took them up to the second floor, a maze of dusty hallways and empty rooms, and into an ancient bedroom. It was large, a window taking up most of one wall and looking out into the rolling back garden, but it felt cramped. The bed was enormous, and a desk of almost the same dimensions stood against one wall. Shelves of books lined every possible inch of spare space. ‘This was his bedroom,’ she explained, heading over to a small cupboard near the window.

‘Bloody hell,’ Dale said, staring at a wall of books. ‘Look how many he wrote. Half of these have his name on them.’ It was true. Standing so close, Dale realised that the thick, musty smell of the room was coming from the books, as though they were developing, becoming richer with age.

‘Yes, he was very prolific. Up at eight o clock every morning, writing almost nonstop until lunch time. You couldn’t have woken him up from those dreamworlds with a sledgehammer. I imagine this might interest you a bit more though, on your pilgrimage.’

They turned to look, and Dale’s heart thumped in his chest. Diana Zindel was holding an unadorned wooden case about the size of a lunchbox. ‘He mentions in the first part of the Book of Worlds the tree where he hid them, and out of curiosity I dug at the foot of it and found this. Like I said, he’d go to any lengths to add realism to his books, just for me.’

She handed the box to Dale, who opened it. There they were, about twenty or so ornately carved keys, done with much more care than any they’d done so far, looped together with a piece of string. Some were bark, some chipped stone, a couple of hard clay, and one even of glass. ‘Wow,’ Steph said. ‘He really made those?’

‘Yes.’ She stood back, watching their reactions with arms folded over her chest, clearly enjoying herself. ‘You can keep them if you want.’

‘Matt swallowed loudly, looking at her with wide eyes. ‘We can… keep them?’

‘Yes, of course. Like I said, I doubt they’d be of much value to anyone else, and I suppose I’ve got enough money I don’t need to take the pocket money from a few teenagers for a box of wood chippings.’

‘Thank you so much, Miss Zindel,’ Dale said. You just saved the world, lady, and you’ll never even know it.

‘Diana is fine,’ she said.

‘Thanks. Oh, right. My name is Dale, that’s Steph and that’s Matt. Sorry, we were just all excited, you know?’

‘That’s fine,’ she said.

‘So, would you mind if we, uh, looked around his room a bit? You never know, he might have hidden more things from the book, right?’

‘Yes, that’s fine. I’ve got a few things to do in the house, so just let me know when you’re ready to go. As it happens I do have a manuscript of his. He disappeared before he published it. I’ll let you have it before you go.’

‘Uh, wow, thankyou so much,’ Steph said.

‘That’s alright. I’ll leave you to it, I suppose.’ She looked them over one more time, as if trying to decide whether she could really trust them alone in her house for more than a few minutes, and then she gave an almost imperceptible nod and left the room. A minute later they heard one of the chairs creak downstairs. She was going to stay by the front door, just in case.

‘That was easy,’ Matt said quietly.

‘That’s because it was the easy part,’ Dale said. He’d dropped to all fours as soon as he was sure she wasn’t coming back, and was now feeling the floorboards with his fingers, as if searching for a loose one.

‘What are you doing?’ Steph said, but by then Matt had caught on and was searching the boards on the other side of the room.

‘Don’t you remember?’ he explained, lifting the small bedside table to check underneath. ‘The door to Pandemonium? It was a trapdoor, in his bedroom.’ So they searched in silence until they’d covered every inch of floor they could find, inhaling enough dust along the way to insulate a house, when Steph suggested they move the bed. Dale leaned against a bookshelf, massaging his scalp, and nodded. ‘She might hear, though,’ he said, glancing up at Matt, who simply replied: ‘We’ll tell her the truth. We were looking for a door from the book. She already thinks we’re weird, doesn’t she?’

The bed was made of some dark, dense wood, but Dale and Matt managed to lift the bottom half off the ground so it didn’t make a sound, and move it until it almost touched one of the walls. The trapdoor was there, deep scratches in a clear square in the wood, and a small hole in the middle. For a minute, the three of them stood in the dusty, cramped room, and stared at the floor. On the bedside table, an old alarm clock ticked the seconds loudly away.

‘Pretty funny, when you think about it,’ Matt said, smiling.

‘What?’ Dale said.

‘Everyone’s scared of monsters hiding under their bed, and this guy straight up opens a portal to hell under his, like, on purpose. Right?’

Dale and Steph just stared at Matt, and his smile faded. ‘I guess it’s not that funny.’

Dale put the box down and took out the key ring. It wasn’t hard to find the right key – small and sharply cut, and the only one made of the same varnished wood as the floor. He dropped to his knees and pushed it into the tiny lock, the other two standing over him, and heard the familiar, satisfying click as he turned it.

‘You guys ready?’

Neither of them answered, so he pulled open the trapdoor. The three of them looked down into the square hole. It was absolutely, totally black, the kind of darkness that not even the sun in all its blinding brilliance could illuminate. Impenetrable, all consuming.

‘So,’ Steph said in a shaky voice. ‘Who’s first?’

47

 

Frank Silic knew his son was bad, but not in any evil or unnatural sense. Had that been the case, he would have surrendered Jordan to the system, sent him to the shrinks and the juvenile prisons and all the rest of it. But Jordan reminded him too much of himself for him to believe that. Frank had been an angry boy, too, and sometimes he’d been mad enough to want to kill human beings, let alone dogs. He’d never done it, but it was the same thing, wanting it that bad, and the only way to keep a boy like that in line was to beat him good and hard. If it weren’t for the beatings he himself suffered as a boy, Frank was certain he’d have gone down different roads in life, darker ones and dangerous ones, and he wasn’t going to let that happen to Jordan, not if he had to break his arms.

The house was quiet when he came home from work, which was odd. Usually Dina would have started dinner by now, there’d be pans and pots boiling on the stove and the radio would be on, and her high pitched, off key voice would be sailing out the window. But the kitchen windows were dark and silent, today.

Feeling uneasy, he pushed open the front door and called out his wife’s name. The house was dim, not a light on anywhere, and there was no reply. He closed the door behind him and stood for a few moments in the house. Her car was here, so either she was out walking at this hour – which was a very un-Dina like activity in the first place – or… what? Jordan was probably still up in his room with plaster casts on his arms. The doctor hadn’t given Frank so much as a second glance when he told him his son had got in a bad fight. That was becoming a lot more common in Westlake these days.

His shoes echoing on the tiles, Frank walked slowly through the house, turning on lights. ‘Jordan? Where’s your mother?’ He ducked into the sitting room and saw everything in place, perfectly clean. Wherever she was now, Dina had been busy earlier. The house looked spotless. The hallways and kitchen were mopped, the laundry and bathroom shining.

Jordan wasn’t in his room, nor anywhere else in the house. ‘Where the hell are you, boy?’ he grumbled, thumping back down the stairs. Maybe she’d taken him out somewhere and bought him something to compensate for the punishment he’d received. Typical of Dina to undermine his authority. No wonder the kid was growing up so messed up, every punishment he got was followed by a reward. Frank headed to the garage, the only room in the house he hadn’t checked, although he didn’t expect to find them there.

The adjoining door was in the hall at the bottom of the stairs, a creaky wooden thing that always took a few hard shoves to get open. Frank got it open on the second and flipped the light switch on the right of the door. The fluorescent light bulb flickered twice, and in those moments the scene in the garage was illuminated, flashes of horror that froze him to the spot. Flash – Dina, dangling with her hands tied to one of the rafters overhead, unconscious, face bloody. Flash – gardening implements, power tools, knives, screwdrivers and saws in a haphazard array spread over the roof and bonnet of the corvette Frank had been tinkering with for the past five years – his baby.

Then the light came on completely and he saw it all at once, and now Dina was blinking, her head rising to look at him, face beaten worse than anything he’d ever done to her, which was saying something. Her eyes were wide and bloodshot, and when she saw him standing there they filled with total fear, as if he’d done it to her.

He opened his mouth, not sure what the hell he was going to say, when she screamed: ‘Frank he’s in the broom cupboard!’ and then his eyes went black for a split second and he was on the concrete floor, both arms in front of his face.

He rolled over and saw Jordan standing in the doorway, the door of the broom cupboard just across the hall swinging open on a broken hinge. His son was grinning wide enough to stretch the skin all over his face and show narrow teeth, spaced too far apart and jammed in dry gums. He’d lost the plaster casts, but his arms weren’t exactly healed – when he lifted the hammer he was holding to rest it on his shoulder a shard of bone shot through an open wound in his elbow, dripping black blood.

Frank scrambled backwards until he ran into the car and then pulled himself to his feet. He kept his eyes on Jordan, which was hard enough the way the world was swimming in front of him, but Jordan didn’t move and a moment later he had his hands on a hatchet that was leaning against the car’s windscreen – the same one that Jordan had killed the dog with, in fact.

‘Hey, Dad,’ Jordan said. He stepped into the garage and shut the door behind him. Frank struggled to concentrate. Why did Jordan look so strange? He looked huge, ropy black veins coiling all over his body like snakes. His eyes bulged out of his head.

‘I’m gonna kill you,’ Frank said thickly, aware of warm blood spilling down the back of his neck.

Jordan didn’t say anything, but Dina had enough voice for all of them, and she began to scream in her high pitched, off key tenor with everything she had, and at that moment Frank could have kissed her. ‘Hellllllp us someone pleassseeese!’

Jordan had moved from the doorway, and before the first word was out of Dina’s mouth he’d sunk a large fist into his father’s midsection. The world shrank to a pinpoint instantly and Frank was on a ball on the floor, breathless. He’d never been hit that hard in his whole life, not by anyone. The hatchet was loose in one hand, but he forced himself to hold on. Dina’s scream whined in both ears: ‘Pleeeeeeeeaaaa – ’ And then it cut off, though Frank’s ears continued to ring in the silence.

A ropy, impossibly hard forearm curled around his neck and squeezed, and less than a minute later the last pinprick of light in Frank’s eye winked out.

46

 

When they arrived in the forest, there was nobody there. There were plenty of doors, though. In a rough circle around the original door, the one that was theoretically closed, there were about ten others carved in the surrounding trees, and no way of telling which one Matt and Steph were in, or for how long they were likely to be there. It didn’t matter. Elyse used the time to tell Brian everything.

‘They want to lock us away somewhere?’ he said, when she told him about her last conversation with Steph. ‘No way! Look what happened in the last world. It’s a death sentence. Better off leaving us here, we can hole up somewhere and just wait it out.’

She gave him a cold look, and he took a step back. ‘What?’

‘Look at yourself, Brian.’

Of course, he didn’t have to. His torn body said everything. ‘You’re losing your mind,’ she said, ‘And so am I.’

‘If we let them lock us away, Elyse… You really think that’s a good idea, the way we are?’

She didn’t flinch. Hands in her pockets, hair over her shoulder, she told him the way it was, like always. ‘If they don’t lock us away, we’re going to hurt someone.’

He opened his mouth to tell her that was absurd, that it wasn’t as though they were a couple of puppets dancing around, that if he didn’t want his hand to pick up a knife and cut someone it wouldn’t – and then he thought of the kid on the bench. How much of my thoughts are still mine, anyway? So he said nothing, just took her hand in his and stood there with her, waiting.

They couldn’t have stood for more than a minute when one of the doors clicked open and Steph and Matt stepped through. They closed the door behind them and Matt looked up, noticing them for the first time.

‘You guys look like hell,’ Brian said. It was true. Matt seemed to have lost about five kilos, his face was pale and full of tiny scratches, his hair a bird’s nest; Steph had a similar sickly look and she had a gash on one arm that was crusted over with dried blood. She gave a tiny smile at the sight of Brian but didn’t come near him. She looked afraid.

‘Man am I glad to see you guys,’ Matt said, slapping Brian on the shoulder and forcing a smile of his own. ‘You would not believe the places we’ve been.’

Brian looked around at the doors, trying to count them all and then seeing that some trees had as many as three carved into their trunks, some only big enough to crawl through. ‘I can imagine.’

‘Believe me,’ Matt said. ‘You can’t.’

‘Did you get your blood test?’ Steph asked, but Elyse shook her head. She glanced at Brian, and it occurred to him she was about to tell them where he’d been and what he’d been doing. He spoke before she could answer. ‘There’s no time for that. Me and Elyse gotta get out of here soon. As in, today.’

Steph and Matt exchanged worried glances. ‘What do you mean? What happened?’ she said.

‘It doesn’t matter. Have you guys found a place yet? Anywhere decent, it doesn’t matter. We just need to be away from… Earth.’

But Steph looked at the ground and Matt shook his head. ‘It’s not that easy, man. I mean, half the places are deadly. Just stepping in places and looking around, we’ve almost been eaten like five times, crushed once, drowned a couple, and I almost fell out of a tree like a hundred meters tall.’

‘They can’t all be like that, though?’ Elyse said. ‘Why would all of them be so hostile?’

‘No, it’s not all of them. Those were the bad ones. We found a couple that were really barren, but they were both fast worlds. You two would probably be long dead by the time we figured anything out on this end.’

‘So what are the slow worlds, then? There has to be something, right?’ Brian asked.

Another worried glance. They didn’t say anything.

‘What? Come on.’

‘There is the last one, the one we just came from,’ Matt said. ‘It was a slow world.’

‘Yeah,okay… So?’

Matt shrugged and looked at his feet, and in the end it was Steph who came out and said it. ‘It’s dying. We think it’s an apocalypse.’

‘You think it’s – what?’

‘An apocalypse,’ she said again. ‘The door opens up in this big valley, mountains and canyons everywhere like a desert. We couldn’t see any life around, but there were a bunch of really tall trees in the distance and Matt said he could see a river, but it looked like a mirage to me.’

‘Okay, what about the apocalypse thing?’

‘The sky,’ Matt said slowly, ‘is full of rocks.’

‘He means meteors, or comets or whatever they’re called,’ Steph said. ‘We thought they were stars at first, because they were so bright, but then Matt saw they had these tails on them and we realised they were comets, coming in through the planet’s atmosphere. Hundreds of them.’

‘Thousands,’ Matt said.

‘Yeah, maybe thousands. Some of them were really big, too.’

‘Oh, man.’ Brian was staring at the door they’d just come through. If a meteorite crashed into that door, would the force of it break through to earth or was it impossible for anything to cross over as long as it was locked?

‘Come on, guys,’ Elyse said. ‘You’re kidding, right? That’s the best world? None of the others were better than a bloody apocalypse?’

Matt shrugged. ‘Half of ‘em were fast worlds. More than half, even. Then there were all the ones with horrible monsters in them, and suffocating gases. There was this giant castle one we thought could work, but then we explored a little further and…he shuddered. ‘I’m gonna have nightmares about that one.’

‘The apocalypse world is twenty to one, guys,’ Steph said. ‘It’s the best we’ve found so far. Plus, the comets were still, you know, far away – ish. I would have given them a few days to hit at least, which could translate to like, months of Earth time.’

‘Far away – ish?’ Brian said. He looked from her to Matt, and though they didn’t reply, his heart sank quickly. They meant it. They really meant it.

‘That’s the best world you’ve got?’

‘There must be better ones out there, I guess, but…’ Matt shrugged. ‘We won’t find them without looking for who knows how long. And I gotta be honest, Brian, I’ve risked my life more times in the past twenty four hours than most people do their whole lives.’

‘He’s right, Brian,’ Elyse said quietly beside him. She took his hand in his and squeezed gently. ‘It’s time to go.’

45

 

Dale didn’t leave the house that day. His windows were closed, and he’d spent the morning spraying the entire house with Raid, making sure the fly nets were up. He explained to his parents and older sister that there was a new insect-borne disease doing the rounds which made you vomit for days on end. When he thought they were sufficiently convinced, he went into his room and read Book of Worlds cover to cover for the second time.

When he finished, he dropped it on the carpet and put his head in his hands. He was still like that an hour later when the answer came to him, arriving in his mind unannounced, like he’d had the thought all along and hadn’t acknowledged it until now. It came in the form of a quote from the book, in the chapter titled Letter to Diana: To get to heaven, one must first cross hell. What hell, Dale wondered, had the author been thinking of? Pandemonium, of course.

To find Zindel, they would have to enter Pandemonium, find the door that led to the paradise land he lived in now (Dale was almost certain it was a place called Grale), and search for him there. To get to Pandemonium, they’d have to find out where Zindel had lived all these years. Considering he was a well known author and must have lived near Westlake for his original handwritten book to end up in the school library, that couldn’t be too difficult.

He sat up at last, heart beginning to beat steadily with renewed hope. There was something he could do, after all. It seemed almost too simple, but then Zindel had really wanted his daughter to find him, hadn’t he? He didn’t want to make the riddle too hard – just hard enough that she’d have to put in a little effort to figure it out. Yeah.

He reached for his phone, then hesitated. They would be in the forest, still looking for places. Better to meet up with them, first – safety in numbers, especially with a nutter like Jordan walking around. He stood up, snatched the copy of the book, and headed out. He wore long sleeves, because the flies were out.

44

 

Brian was in a bad place. There had been a period, one that had lasted far longer than it should have, in which he’d convinced himself that he could coexist with the parasite. Control it, even use it to his advantage. But he had been wrong, and he knew that now.

He was standing in front of the mirror in his bathroom, looking at a monster. His veins were prominent and dark, capillaries spreading over every inch of him like black cobwebs. There was not an ounce of fat on him, but his muscles were ropy and dense, giving him the odd misshapen look of a starved bodybuilder. He’d just tried to file down his teeth – the fifteen or so that remained at any rate, but the result was broken looking stubs that were still as sharp as pins. He had successfully cut his nails that morning, but the process had been deliciously painful and there had been blood. His eyes were huge in his skull, and he no longer felt the need to blink. They missed nothing, and his sense of smell and earing were tuned to the sounds of life for kilometres in every direction. He was living in a different world.

The time had at last come when he could not feed from himself, and it wasn’t just because his whole body was torn, burned and cut, many of the wounds still open and oozing blood. He’d caught and killed a rat from under the house, and while he’d taken his time, he doubted the satisfaction would last longer than a couple of days. Then what? Two rats? A cat? It would be that or die, he knew.

It was a hot day, but Brian left the house dressed in a black hooded jumper and track pants. It would only take a casual glance at him for someone to see something was badly wrong. His blood temperature had dropped several degrees, so the heat didn’t bother him too much. Nothing came close to matching the furnace inside him, anyway.

He meant to go for a walk, maybe through Westlake. It was hard to think, these days, but walking helped. Today was no different, or it wasn’t at first. He went, shoulders hunched, eyes fixed only on the next few feet of the path, past the cliffs, the forest, the lake for which Westlake was originally named. Over one of the rolling hills (on the opposite side of the lake to the one on which the boy Zane was almost murdered), and then out through a low wooden gate and onto Caspian street. Everywhere seemed deserted, though it was school holidays. People were getting scared, even in broad daylight.

After the park, he let his mind drift and his feet took him in their own direction. He thought mostly of Elyse, and also of death. A dark, quiet part of his mind reminded him that there was always suicide, but another part asked: what about her? It was a difficult question to answer, and he still hadn’t come to any kind of satisfactory solution, or any solution for that matter, when he realised he hadn’t moved for some time.

He was at Westlake primary, only that was impossible: he had started out barely an hour ago, hadn’t he? And even at a jog, it would have taken almost two hours to reach the school from his house. He took his phone out of his pocket at checked the time. One thirty. He’d left the house at one. Not possible. I wasn’t running… was I?

It was holiday time for the year tens and above at Westlake High School, but the primary schoolers didn’t finish the year until mid December. It was lunchtime, and children flooded the school oval in their dark blue uniforms and red hats, playing cricket and chasey and yelling at the tops of their voices. Behind the cricket nets the ground sloped steeply away to meet a wooden fence, and gum trees blocked this area from the metal fence and the road beyond that. Brian stood there, hidden in the shade. I don’t remember hopping that fence.

But he didn’t move. Instead, he leaned against a tree near the nets and watched the children play. There were no particular thoughts in his mind as he stood there. It was becoming harder to focus, and more and more his default state was one of passive receptiveness. He moved in reaction to things, acted according to instinct and gut feeling, and as a result patches of life were blind to his memory, like the walk to the primary school, for instance. Time flies when you’re having fun, a voice said in his mind, out of nowhere.

In the short time he watched, two fights broke out in the schoolyard. The first one wasn’t so bad, two of the older boys laying into each other over a disagreement in their game of soccer. A teacher standing at the sandpit intervened fast enough, though with her back turned she missed a younger boy holding another’s head in the sand, laughing and shoving sand in his mouth until he choked and coughed it out, crying. The second fight started near the jungle gym, and it was four on three, two of them girls, and there was plenty of blood before a couple of teachers managed to tear them apart and march them up to the sick bay. One girl had blood running from her ear, but she wasn’t crying. In fact, all the kids were smiling. One of the teachers hit a boy on the back of the head, quite hard, for no reason.

There was only the sandpit teacher left, now, and she was preoccupied with those trouble makers, already settling another dispute between two boys who’d kicked over each other’s sandcastles. Brian’s gaze moved to a boy sitting on a bench not far away. He was alone, snapping twigs in his hands and placing them beside him in some pattern Brian couldn’t discern. An outcast.

It would be so easy, wouldn’t it? One arm around the neck, hand over the mouth, and pull backwards. They’d go rolling down to the bottom of the slope. Then he would get on top, collapse the airway with a well aimed fist, break some ribs into lungs with another, and then get to work. It’d all be over in a few minutes, sure, but what minutes they’d be! He’d once eaten half a chicken in less than ten minutes, this would be like that. Rushed, but satisfying nevertheless.

Brian stood and stared at the kid, his eyes boring into him until he was sure the kid had to look around, had to feel the hairs on his neck pricking up or something, but he didn’t. It was so long, didn’t the lunch bell go at two? But when Brian checked his phone it was just one forty.

He broke out in a cold sweat. All his sweats were cold, these days. He clenched his fists, unclenched them, looked at the road, then back at the kid, then up at the blue sky. Maybe if he did it, he wouldn’t remember it. He’d have one of those mini blackouts, and then when he came to he wouldn’t have to blame himself. He could blame it on the parasite. It was still horrible, sure it was, but at least then he could still live with himself. If he blacked out, it was the parasite working, not him. He’d have a free conscience and he wouldn’t be so damn hungry anymore.

The boy took his hat off and swept the sticks into it, and then put it on the bench. He said something to himself in a low voice, and then looked out across the oval, hand over his eyes. A girl was pulling another girl’s hair and making her cry.

Brian took a step forward, then took a step back. He curled an arm around the tree and gripped it, hard, as though a hurricane was imminent and it was the only thing rooting him to the earth. Think, Brian. What the are you thinking, man? Think about where you are, what you’re doing. Get the fuck out of here.

But he didn’t move. Slowly, his arm relaxed and fell back by his side, and then he was just standing and staring again, eyes fixed on the boy to the exclusion of all else, leaning so far forward he might fall on his face at any second. A tear rolled down his cheek. His teeth were gritted so hard his jaw hurt, and they were sharp enough to cut into his gums.

A hand fell on his shoulder.

He turned, shocked that someone had managed to sneak up on him, when he could hear conversations happening on the other side of the oval and smell the sweat on the skins of a hundred children. Hell, he still had the tang of blood in his nostrils from that last fight, yet here she was, right next to him, looking into his eyes like an angel from heaven: Elyse.

‘Brian, what are you doing here?’

He let out a breath of relief and pulled her into a tight embrace, feeling her heart beating almost as fast as his. She smelled like oranges and blood.

‘Thank Christ you’re here,’ he whispered, his voice harsh. He led her further down the slope, deeper into the shadows. She looked at his tear stained face and just shook her head. ‘Oh, Brian. What are you doing?’

‘I don’t know. I just want this to end, you know?’ He looked at the grass at watched a tear fall onto one green blade.

‘It’ll end soon.’

He looked up at her, and behind the same despair he felt, the same helplessness, he saw hope. ‘What do you mean? Your blood test?’

‘Not back yet. Steph and the others, they figured some things out. We’re gonna meet them in the forest today.’

‘Oh, man.’ He hugged her again, and although the relief was there, it was nothing more than a little cold water on a burn. The dread would return soon enough. And the hunger. He kissed her, and she kissed him back for a minute or so before she pulled back.

‘There isn’t much time, is there?’ she asked.

He looked at her full, red lips, and thought about how nice it would be to eat them off her face, maybe draw one of his long nails across her unblinking eyes, and he shook his head. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said.

She took his hand, and they left the school grounds and the screaming children behind. The kid on the bench didn’t see them go.

43

 

As soon as he was in Westlake, now quiet and almost absent of people, Dale collapsed onto all fours and stared at the damp grass. He wanted to vomit, but nothing would come out. There was just a feeling of horrible sickness, and the visions of what he’d seen swimming in nauseating circles in front of his eyes. ‘Oh, Jesus. What the hell did we do?’ He sat back on his knees and put his hands up to his face, forcing himself to breathe slower. In time, the chill night air cooled his sweat and calmed him down.

It didn’t change that it was all their fault. Brian’s in part, but they all shared the blame. Messing with other worlds, thinking themselves brave adventurers. What were they thinking? He had an image of Jordan, partially obscured through the overhanging branches of a willow at the bottom of the garden, raising his hatchet. He’d closed his eyes, but his hearing worked perfectly fine, and his imagination was all too vivid. When he opened them again, he caught a glimpse of Jordan shoving a hind leg into a black bag, and Solly’s head was lying on its side, muzzle still taped closed, slack eyes seeming to stare right at Dale. Run, they said. Run or he’ll do it to you, too.

But of course, Dale hadn’t been able to move. He’d seen the way Brian had changed, how he’d been able to smell and hear and see things he shouldn’t have been able to. He’d hidden himself well enough so far, but had he moved then, it would have been all over.

He shook his head and got up on trembling legs. Took a deep breath, started down the hill to Westlake forest, where Steph had told him to go if he found anything out. ‘We’re going to be in a lot of other worlds,’ she’d said, a trace of fear in her voice, ‘so our phones won’t be working. Be careful, Dale.’

Be careful. If only it was that easy.

When he arrived at the first door, he found the forest empty. He took out a penlight and flicked it around, focusing on the bark of the surrounding pines, until he found what he was looking for: door carvings. Here was one, and here was another one… no more. They’d only opened two doors all day. That didn’t seem right. Unless they were in a really slow world.

The door he was standing in front of burst forward, slamming him square in the nose and knocking him onto the pine needles. A moment later Steph landed on top of him and rolled to the side, and Matt came soon after, slumping on all fours and gasping for breath.

‘Jesus! What’s going on?’ He scrambled to his feet, eyes watering, and caught a glimpse of mist and grass before the door swung gently closed. It took him a moment to realise that Steph wasn’t breathing. Matt was hacking and coughing in the dirt, so he dropped beside her. ‘Steph?’

What were you supposed to do? Heimlich? No that wasn’t right – CPR? He put both hands on her chest, just like he saw them do in the movies, and pushed down, hard. He’d never been this terrified in his whole life, except, perhaps, for about twenty minutes ago when he’d snuck through Jordan’s side gate while his father was beating him half to death.

Steph’s eyes popped open and she saw him, kicked him in the chest, and slapped him in the face. He leaned back against the tree trunk, staring at her, and she stared back, apparently just as surprised.

‘Fuck,’ Dale said, rubbing his face.

‘I’m sorry,’ Steph said. ‘Adrenaline, you know.’

‘What the hell happened to you guys in there?’

‘The mist,’ Matt said, getting to his feet. ‘Something in it. Too bad, though, that place would have been perfect.’

‘What are you doing here?’ Steph asked Dale as he pulled her to her feet.

‘Jordan’s got it. Bad.’

Steph looked over at Matt with something like resignation on her face and he returned it, tight lipped. ‘What happened?’ she said.

‘I went to watch him today. See what he did, you know? If he was any different. Seemed normal at first. I set up camp in some bushes in the back garden and just sat there all day, being quiet. I was worried he’d be really sensitive like Brian. He just lay around most of the day. I could see into the house through the back door and a couple of upstairs windows, but all he did was sit around and drink beer and watch TV. I didn’t want to leave yet in case he saw me, but then…’ Dale closed his eyes for a second and then forced himself to go on. ‘He killed his dog.’

‘Oh, God.’ Steph put a hand up to her mouth.

‘I saw the whole thing. I couldn’t move, because I knew he’d sense me.’

‘Couldn’t you just run? Hop a fence or just sprint out of there?’ Matt said, but Dale shook his head.

‘You didn’t see him. He was crazy. He’d have caught me in two seconds and he would have killed me. I’m sure of it. He wasn’t thinking like a human being. He’d have killed me, no question.’

The clearing was dead silent now, except for Dale’s shaking voice. He remembered every one of those brutal seconds, would never forget them, but he decided not to tell them. This was the last time he’d ever talk about this, or think about it. ‘The way he did it… He’s got it, the disease or whatever it is. After he finished, then he was all remorseful, hugging the body. Then he sort of woke up and stuffed it in a bag and went inside, and that was when I left. I ran down the side of the house, sprinted off down the street before he could see me. I looked back one time, and I saw a car pulling up in the driveway. His dad’s I think.’

‘Good.’ Steph said. ‘Maybe he’ll call the cops or something.’

‘I’m going there next,’ Dale said, his voice clearing a little. ‘I wanted to warn you first, to stay the hell away from him. But I’m going to the cops first thing and telling them my memory’s come back, that it was him that chucked me off the cliff.’

‘Was it?’ Matt asked. Dale shrugged. ‘Doesn’t matter. He’s gotta go down. One of you call and tip them off that he killed his dog, in case his dad doesn’t. They’ll find it somewhere, he wouldn’t have hid it yet.’

‘Call now,’ Matt said. Steph nodded and took out her phone. She dialled triple 0 and waited. ‘This is bad,’ she muttered. ‘This is getting way out of hand.’

A second later, there was a click and someone answered. ‘Hello? Steph said. ‘Listen, I’m calling because I just heard a dog going nuts in someone’s garden and I, like, stuck my head over the fence and this kid – I know him from school – Jordan Silic – he was killing his dog. There was blood everywhere, please go help, his address is…’ she looked at Dale and he told her, and she repeated it into the phone. ‘Please hurry, it was horrible. Oh, God, I think it’s dead.’

The voice on the other end erupted, and while the other two couldn’t hear what was said, the look on Steph’s face gave them all they needed. She interjected a few times but the raging voice was having none of it, and before she could get more than a few words in there was a click on the line. Steph stared at the phone in her hand as though it was a rotting tomato.

‘Steph?’ Matt said, when she didn’t say anything. ‘What was that?’

‘She just… I mean, they’re supposed to be calm and just believe you, aren’t they? They’re supposed to investigate even when they think it was a prank call or whatever and that… that didn’t sound like a prank did it?’

‘What did she say?’ Dale said, although he thought he already had a good idea.

‘She just lost it. She was telling me how the police department was swamped with assaults and attempted murders as it was, and here some pissy schoolgirl – she called me that – was calling about someone’s dog. And she said she could tell a prank a mile away and I should grow up and sort out my own problems. And then she hung up.’

Matt gaped at her, but despite the sick feeling in his stomach, Dale wasn’t entirely surprised. ‘You guys don’t see it yet, do you? This parasite’s been spreading all over Westlake. Probably beyond that by now. Brian was wrong, it doesn’t need claws or teeth or blood. Jordan’s infection proves that. It just needs, I dunno, to feed.’

‘How’s it moving so quick, though?’ Matt said. ‘And how come none of us have it?’

‘I dunno about you guys, but I haven’t been getting out much recently, except at night. And anything could be infected. Small animals, insects even.’

Matt’s eyes widened suddenly. ‘Flies,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘My Dad keeps getting bitten. He tried to have a barbeque the other day and it was like they targeted him as soon as he stepped outside. It was weird, he had to stop and come in because the repellent wasn’t keeping them off. Shit, what if it’s flies?’

‘How would that happen, though?’ Steph said.

‘Parasite feeds on something, or someone, and kills it,’ Dale said slowly, thinking of Solly, and the flies already beginning to collect as Jordan stuffed the limbs into black bags. ‘Flies feed on the body, get infected. Matt’s right.’

‘Oh no,’ Steph said. ‘Oh, this is bad, guys. The dispatcher must have been infected. She’s probably been getting aggressive and doesn’t even know why. Like how Brian was, in the beginning.’

‘Yeah, but look how long it’s taken Brian, though,’ Matt said. ‘And he’s not even fully changed. He’s still controlling it, mostly. Which means we’ve still got time before things gets really bad, if we find Zindel soon.’

‘Jordan got it way after Brian, and he just killed his own dog,’ Dale said. Neither of them had a reply to that, and for a long time the three of them just stood in the forest, a feeling of dread hanging thick in the night air.

‘Listen,’ Matt broke the silence first. Dale could make out his features in the dark, tight and strained with fear. ‘All we can do is find Zindel. Figure out what we did wrong closing the door. If we can just do it right, make sure it’s properly closed, all the parasites will die. Right? That’s the best course of action. The cops can’t do shit, and Elyse’s blood test isn’t going to help anything anyway. Even if it is possible to develop some kind of cure, who knows how long it will take? This thing is spreading too fast. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not sleeping until the two of them are locked away on some other planet, and the three of us get some answers from Zindel.’

‘Neither am I,’ Steph said.

‘Then forget finding an empty world for Brian,’ Dale said. ‘Even if he does infect it, once we close the door it’ll kill the parasites anyway. Just put the two of them somewhere they won’t die while we find Zindel.’

Matt nodded. ‘You still have the book of worlds?’

‘Yeah. I’ll read through it tonight. It can’t be that hard to figure out. He wanted his daughter Diana to find him, so it’s all in there.’

‘Okay.’ Steph stepped forward and pulled Dale into a hug. He was so surprised it was a moment before he reciprocated, and he looked at Matt over her shoulder. Matt shrugged, looking as surprised as he was.

‘I’m scared, Dale,’ she said.

‘Yeah. Me too.’

‘What if he doesn’t know? Do you think we could… find another world?’

The thought chilled Dale to the bone. Leave Brian and Elyse, hopeless. Leave their families to a doomed world, and take their chances somewhere else in the hopes that they could survive?

‘I… I have a little sister,’ he said. She didn’t reply, and he felt warm tears on his neck. He wondered if Jenny had been outside lately. If she had any fly bites on her. How long would it be before Matt’s dad started murdering stray cats, or torturing Matt?

‘We’ll find a way,’ he said.

She nodded, and finally stepped back, wiping her eyes. ‘Please be careful Dale,’ she said in a small voice.

‘Yeah. We need you, man,’ Matt said.

Dale gave them a bleak smile. ‘I’ll call as soon as I know where to go,’ he said. ‘If you don’t answer I’ll send messages and then I’ll come here and wait for you.’

‘Don’t wait longer than three hours,’ Matt said, and now the fear was in his voice as well as his face. Fear was taking them over faster than any parasite.

There was nothing else to say, so Dale gave a stiff nod and wound his way back through the trees, walking fast, his hands in his pockets and his head hunched, exposing as little skin as possible to the air.

42

 

Matt and Steph decided to stick to Westlake forest. It was relatively isolated, safe from prying eyes, and there were plenty of trees in which to carve a door. Matt brought his pocket knife, a small hammer and a box of nails, and the two of them marched right to the place where the old door had been. Still was, by the looks of it. Matt couldn’t help but think it was still there, just waiting for a key to twist in the lock.

‘Alright. So I guess we just get started, huh?’ he said.

Steph shrugged, looking less sure of herself now that they were actually here. ‘I guess. So, we just carve the outline and the key, cut ourselves and say a word?’

‘That’s what the book says. And that’s what Brian did, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah. It just seems so… easy.’

‘Well. I’ll do the first one. Better hope it’s the last, too, cos I got a feeling I’m gonna get really sick of cutting myself after a while.’ It was a bad joke and Steph didn’t laugh. Matt didn’t really blame her. He stepped up to the nearest tree, a twisted pine that was full of cobwebs and sap on the bark, and started carving his door. Steph waited in silence, shivering in the wind, full of doubt. He cut the sliver of bark and whittled away at it until he had something sort of resembling a key, and then hammered a nail into the tree to make the keyhole. Finally, he stood back and admired the handiwork.

‘It just looks like a tree,’ Steph said.

‘Yup.’

‘It’s not going to work.’

‘It already did,’ Matt said, nodding at the other tree. He remembered the figures chasing them through long red grass – Ray and Jimmy – and tried not to think of where they were now. Maybe right on the other side of that door, still. Rotting.

‘Ah, fuck it.’ He moved quickly, grimacing in advance of the pain, and drew the blade across his palm. It hurt more than he expected, and he sucked in a sharp breath. He stared at the cut and watched it fill with blood, and then he spoke, feeling stupider than ever. ‘Lanua Patet.’

Steph wrinkled her face, staring at the door. ‘Did you say it right?’ she said.

‘Lanua Patet!’ he said again, making his voice loud and authoritative. She stifled a giggle.

‘Goddammit, it’s not funny! I cut myself.’

She laughed again, and when he spoke the words again, louder, she was practically rolling.

Matt shook his head. ‘Fucking hell.’ He smiled at her – now red in the face from laughing – but inside his heart was sinking. Just what the hell were they supposed to do now? What were they doing wrong?

But the thing wasn’t finished yet. He took his pitiful piece of bark and jammed it into the small hole. It didn’t go at first, so he had to twist and push it until he was sure he’d bent the damn thing all out of shape. When it was all the way in, he gave a final twist and…

Click.

Steph had stopped laughing now, and when he turned to look at her she was dead serious. ‘Did you hear that?’ he asked. She nodded. The birds had fallen silent.

Hardly daring to believe it, Matt pulled, and instead of drawing out a broken piece of bark, a whole section of the tree opened up. He stepped back, opening the door all the way, and that was it. Just like that, they’d opened another door.

‘Holy…’ Steph said.

‘Shit.’ Matt could only stand and stare. This world was not like the last one, an entrance into a dark cave. This one opened out into an enormous, brightly lit hallway. They were looking at a wall of varnished wood, with a large painting of what looked like a cross between a spider and a fish: two lidless bulging eyes, a long scaly body lined with eight spindly legs and a bulbous abdomen.

‘I… dunno,’ Matt said. ‘What do you reckon?’

‘I think it could work,’ Steph said.

‘What?’

‘It looks like a house of some kind, right?’

‘A mansion, more like. Look how high up the hallway goes.’

‘So there might be like, a room in there we can stick Brian and Elyse and lock them in. You never know. Or if we get outside into a garden there might be somewhere.’

‘If you say so. You go first, then. We have to check the time difference, don’t we?’

‘Fine. Yeah, okay.’ Matt stepped back, holding the door open for her. She hesitated in the doorway, teeth gritted. Her hands were shaking.

‘Just step in, wait a minute, and step out again, alright?’ Matt said. ‘No exploring.’

‘Yeah no worries.’ She gave him a small smile, closed her eyes, and stepped through the opening.

Almost immediately, her body was filled with electricity. She moved and twitched and glanced every which way, stepped here and there, lifted her phone several times. It was as if someone had switched her onto fast forward. Matt stood in the doorway and gaped, but before he could reach in to pull her out – five or so seconds – she stepped back out and returned to normal.

Matt grabbed her arm and wrenched her away from the doorway. ‘Ah, what’d you do that for?’

‘Didn’t you… What happened to you in there?’

‘Nothing, idiot, what happened to you? The whole time I was in there you were just standing frozen solid like a statue.’

‘I…’ And then it hit him. He laughed. ‘Oh my God, I thought you were having a seizure or something.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Look at the time, Steph.’

She took out her phone, but he shook his head and handed her his, where the stopwatch he’d set before she entered had just reached twenty seconds. ‘Oh. The time difference,’ she said.

‘Yeah. That’s what it was. It must be a fast world. Probably about ten to one, I reckon. So ten seconds worth of light leaving you hit the barrier and then reached my eyes all at once. I saw you moving ten times faster than normal, and you saw me moving ten times slower.’

‘Right. Okay, that makes sense. That’s going to make things a lot easier.’

‘This isn’t the place, though – we need somewhere faster,’ Matt said, pushing the door shut. It closed with a satisfying clunk and he drew the key out. It looked skewed and soft, but when he touched it, it was stiff and brittle, more like thin metal than wood.

‘What was in there?’ he asked her.

She shrugged, glancing at the door like something was about to break it down and grab her. ‘Just a long hallway, with more of those gross paintings. There was a room at the end, but I didn’t really want to go there. I didn’t like how it felt, that place.’

‘Yeah, well. It’s my turn next, I guess. You make the door.’

It took a good five minutes for Steph to gather the courage to cut herself, but it wasn’t long before they had the second door open in another pine. This one opened on a wide field strewn with rocks and pebbles. It could have been anywhere in the Scottish highlands. It was overcast, and a few trees were visible poking out of the thick mist.

‘Looks promising,’ Steph said.

‘Yeah. Alright.’ Matt gritted his teeth, started his stopwatch, and marched through the doorway. When he turned around, he saw Steph through the doorway, twitching and shifting in that same fast forward motion he’d seen before. Which meant he was in a slow world. He waved for her to follow, and an instant later she was by his side, the door swinging shut behind her. On this side, it was inset in the side of a tree trunk as thick as the length of a car.

‘Were you timing it?’ he asked her. She nodded. They’d both stopped their watches as soon as she came through, and they compared them now to work out the time difference. ‘About five to one ratio,’ Matt said eventually. ‘Alright, I guess.’

‘Well we better decide quick, then,’ Steph said, looking around the misty clearing. ‘If we stay here too long it’ll be night when we get out.’

‘Right. I guess we’ll just look around, make sure there’s nothing living around here. Last thing we need is Brian and Elyse infecting a whole other universe with that parasite.’

He started out into the clearing, watching the soft ground in front of him and keeping both eyes wide and alert. The mist swirled around him like a living thing, so rich he could almost taste it. It reminded him of the smell of rain before a storm. Strange insects buzzed and croaked all around – the kind of sounds you’d expect to hear in a swamp more than a place like this – but he couldn’t catch a glimpse of any of them.

‘Hey, Matt! Wait!’ He spun around. Her voice had an echo, seeming to come from no particular direction. He’d barely taken twenty steps and she had completely vanished, lost to the mist. ‘Steph! Where are you?’

There were soft footsteps and she appeared, pale with fright. ‘Thank God. I thought I’d lost you. How are we supposed to find our way back to the door in this?’

‘Footprints, see?’ He pointed at the ground, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Both of their footprints were clearly visible in the mossy ground. Even though they could only see a meter or two in any given direction, it would be easy to follow those back.

‘Okay, low visibility, no obvious signs of life nearby, no apparent danger… I’m starting to like this one,’ Matt said.

‘God I hope this is the one. I want to go home.’

‘Yeah, me too. Come on, we’ll just look a little further.’

Without a word, she slid her hand into his and squeezed it hard. She smiled, and he smiled back, and suddenly things didn’t seem so bad. Moving slowly, they made their way through the mist, and in moments it was as though they’d never been there at all, save a few shallow prints in the mud.

Despair

41

 

The Westlake Watcher: Violence erupts in quiet streets

 

In the aftermath of the horrific mauling of young Zane Blaire, Westlake, Victoria has gone from being one of the most peaceful suburbs to one of the most violent in all of Australia. ‘The crime rate,’ says Chief Constable Tenner of the Victorian Crime Squad, ‘has increased twenty percent in a matter of weeks, and counting.’

‘Assaults are number one, attempted murder a close second, and crime in general is on the rise,’ Mr. Tenner said. When asked whether the nature of the newfound violence was gang or terror related, Mr. Tenner was adamant that neither was the case. ‘The cases we’re seeing are primarily personal and impulsive. The victims are usually vulnerable persons, but not always. Overall, the criminals are committing crimes of violence without any obvious motive or premeditation. In my opinion, the recession is taking its toll on the underprivileged.’

The severe assault on Zane Blaire by Mr. Clement Owens was only the first in a series of what seems to be an epidemic currently restricted to Westlake, and many residents report a growing feeling of fear and suspicion in the streets. Mr. Gruensberg, a tenant living just two streets from Westlake park, admitted that vandals had become a definite worry. ‘I keep a knife at my bedside, and I hear screams and sirens every night. These kids are getting out of control, and we need to do something about it,’ he said.

But is it the kids? Zane Blaire’s attacker was a middle aged man, and of those that have been convicted in Westlake recently the culprits have ranged from young males to middle aged parents to octogenarian grandmothers. Yes, you read it correctly, and eighty three year old Mrs. Maybelle Lance has been indicted for deliberately severing three fingers from the hand of her one year old grandson, whom she was babysitting at the time.

It would seem that the violence isn’t restricted to residents of Westlake, either, but also to its police force. There has been a remarkable rise in reported complaints of police brutality in this area. To this, officer Tenner simply states: ‘The more violent people are becoming… it’s the police defending themselves, isn’t it?’ In response to the case (details on page 5) of Emanuel Lerner, who claimed to have been bashed by three police officers for no apparent reason, Tenner declined to comment. (Continued page 36).

40

 

Excerpt from Book of Worlds

 

A place exists in Greek Mythology, one of the seven Greek hells, called Pandemonium. I believe the English word meaning ‘great noise and chaos’ probably originates from this hell. Pandemonium, to the best of my knowledge, is essentially made up of an endless network of cramped tunnels. A powerful wind whistles through the tunnels constantly, and the poor souls who are condemned to wander the tunnels for all eternity are eventually driven mad by the constant howl.

            The world I will tell you about in this chapter is not hell, in the sense that people go there when they die (At least I don’t think so – I didn’t meet any dead folk there at any rate), but this place is undoubtedly the closest thing to hell I have ever found in all my travels, and of all hells, Pandemonium is the one that comes to mind when I think of it.

            I opened the door in the floor of my attic. By now you will have realised that the house in which I lived was by this time littered with magic doors. To walk around the place would not reveal anything out of the ordinary, unless you were looking. But there was a secret door around every corner, in hallways, in ceilings, in trees, walls and cupboards. I have more keys than can fit in my pocket.

            It was a trapdoor, and that was a mistake I will never repeat as long as I live, and I’d advise you to make it one less time than I did. You see, trapdoors are risky things. Imagine, for example, your door happens to open on darkness, as many do, and as this one did. If it were a normal door, you could take a few steps in and poke around, knowing you could always run back through the door if you found something you didn’t like. But a dark trapdoor… If you’re hanging by your fingertips in the dark and can’t feel a thing below you, for all you know, you could start falling and never stop.

            Anyway, I was still a relatively young man, and I was drunk on adventure. I’d been through so many tight scrapes, some of which you’re familiar with, dear reader, and I thought there was nothing I couldn’t handle, no danger too great to brave. What greater adventure is there, after all, than leaping blindly into utter darkness, with no way back and no knowledge of what lies ahead? Only death, I think.

            So I jumped. And I landed in Pandemonium.

            I didn’t fall for long, but I assure you it was long enough. The real problem was that I hit rocks on the way down and when I landed I was in pitch darkness, totally disoriented, with a horrendous wind howling in my ears. It was loud, but not so loud that I didn’t hear the trapdoor shut behind me. The sound of it echoed in my ears from every direction.

            For the first several hours, I tried to find the trapdoor. I climbed up what I thought was the vertical tunnel that led to the door, only to find it levelled out into another tunnel entirely. I went back down and tried another vertical tunnel, with the same result. I hardly need to tell you, but it wasn’t long before I was irredeemably lost.

            The hours that followed were the darkest I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve had some dark times, believe me. Initially there was only despair, but it was followed by a feeling of terror so intense it almost drove me insane. I don’t know how I managed to hold myself together at all, curled up in those tunnels, grazed and bleeding and hopeless, but I did.

            I searched for a way out for a long, long time. I ran on the hope that the tunnels were only a small part of a larger world, and that if I just explored enough I was bound to arrive at an exit to the tunnels, whereupon I could discover the nature of the world I was really in. As time went on, I become more and more convinced that there was no larger world, and that what I saw was all that there was. The tunnels, if not endless, were the entirety of the world I was in.

            In the end, of course, I did find my way back to the trapdoor, but it was by sheer luck. I’d been going in circles, and while I thought I’d travelled many miles I had in fact not gone far from my original entry point. Emerging from one tunnel, I bumped my head against the ceiling and heard a hollow sound, and when I looked up I saw the tiniest pinprick of light above me. It was the keyhole to my trapdoor.

            When I emerged, I was bleeding, starved, dehydrated (the walls almost leaked salt), and fascinated. Over the years, I made several more ventures into this peculiar hell, mapping the intricate tunnels on a piece of paper, storing my valuables there (a foolproof safe if there ever was one), and cutting doorways.

One would think that only terrible worlds could stem from one such as that, but some of my greatest adventures came from the doors I carved in that rock. In fact, it was through one of these doorways that I discovered the strange Islands of Grale, and the priceless artefact I recovered from there, which sits to this day on my desk…

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