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According to Charles Darwin’s Encyclopaedia of Hellish Landscapes, written before his disappearance early this Era, almost any part of Hell’s geography can be traced in the mythology of living humans, suggesting that demons may have influenced Earth in more ways than initially thought. These areas exist on separate planes, some completely inaccessible and distant from others, and it has been posited that to fall is to travel from one plane to another indefinitely. I personally view this as ridiculous as the notion once held that Earth was flat and balanced on the back of a turtle.

  – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 2 (So Where is Everyone, Anyway?)

 

Things were not going well. The ship groaned and creaked and the sails threatened to tear with each gust, and before long rusty bolts and sections of old wood had torn out of the low deck, where the four cots were kept. No one would be sleeping there for a while, not with the howling void just under your bed. The holes were creating an unwelcome drag on the bottom of the ship, and Dale struggled to keep his footing in the turbulence.

‘I hate to say it, God Man,’ Calvin called down from the midsail. ‘But if we don’t double speed in the next hour they’re going to have anchors in our stern.’

Dale swore, subconsciously touching the knife he kept strapped to his belt. It was a mean looking thing, the edges carved with tiny hooks. Fighting in Hell was more about pain than damage; unless you separated a demon’s limbs and threw them into the void, anything was survivable. Pain, on the other hand, could incapacitate – a lesson Dale had learned from the very bastard on their tail that very minute. ‘Turn the back fin hard up!’ he said as Calvin dropped down beside him. ‘I want to take a dive, see if the currents are stronger lower down.’

Calvin hurried to the stern, and a moment later Dale’s stomach dropped as the ship descended into a quiet patch. A heavy gale caught them a moment later, but he knew it would only be a matter of time before their pursuers caught the same wind and made up the distance. He saw as much in Calvin’s face when he returned from the back of the ship. ‘You remember what I said? About jumping the side?’

‘Yes. But who is he, Dale? The demon with the blood clots for eyes?’

He took his time answering. There were so many unpleasant memories there, memories that still lived in him, like the worms that burrowed in his soul. ‘They call him Flay,’ he said. ‘He was the one who taught me about Hell. When Darla got me out of the Maze and showed me how to survive in Mort City, I still believed in God. I thought she was operating under divine grace.’ He chuckled, but couldn’t hide his bitterness. ‘Then The Angel got hold of Darla. She’d been protecting me, keeping me alive while she did most of the real work, stealing from him. I managed to break her out, but I got myself caught in the process, and he had me in his cells for… A long time. Flay was the cell master, then, and he only had one job. In The Angel’s words: “Teach them to fear me”.’

Calvin swallowed. ‘I suppose Flay wasn’t his given name.’

‘No. No it wasn’t. But he earned it.’

The ship caught a harsh cross wind just then, causing it to turn hard starboard and tilt madly, forcing them to grab the nearest piece of ship to keep from sliding all the way off the deck. When they levelled out, Dale managed to steer them beneath an enormous, flat island, using its mass for shelter. Calvin steadied himself on the mast and put the telescope back to his eye. Dale held his breath.

‘I’m sorry, Dale.’ Calvin’s voice was clear and light – ever the stiff upper lip of the English Doctor he’d once been, but Dale wasn’t fooled. His heart sank. ‘We’re not going to make it. They’re double our speed, at least.’

The island above shielded them enough from the wind that Dale could let go of the wheel. He stepped away from it and went to stand by Calvin, who had lowered the telescope. It wasn’t needed to see the enemy ship anymore – it was close enough that he could read the hate in the eyes of the demons who now stood at the prow beside their master. Beasts all of them, their souls made of hulking muscle, built by rage. Dale laid a hand on Calvin’s skeletal shoulder. ‘Best get the Good Stuff, my friend.’

They drank in the dusty cabin out of chipped glasses, which they clinked before each gulp. Dale guessed they had an hour at most before they’d have to make the jump and hope for the best, or else face Flay in a battle they would certainly lose.

‘At least the boy’s safe for now,’ Calvin said. ‘Their accuracy can’t be that good if they sent Flay here instead of to Freya.’

Dale grunted, and took a deep swig. It had been a long time since he’d had the Good Stuff, and it flooded him like molten lava, every part of him dancing and jumping. It was like having a heart again – one that beat two hundred times a minute.

He drew his knife and placed it on the table between them. ‘We should fight them.’

Calvin smirked and swallowed a mouthful big enough to make him gasp when it hit him. ‘Good God, it’s like waking up from a deep sleep, isn’t it?’ He shook his head. ‘But there’s no point, God Man. There’s no King or Country to fight for, now. Besides, we can’t kill any of them. They’ll torture us until one of us breaks and tells them where Will is, and then they’ll find a way to damn us properly.’

Dale knew he was right, of course. Part of him was relieved, but mostly he was filled with the horrible prospect of what they were about to do.

‘I always liked the idea that there were endless planes below. Fall off this one and you can start in another, fresh. On and on, new lives. But I don’t think it works that way, does it?’

Calvin shrugged. ‘No one knows. But I think… I think the devil is real, and he lives at the bottom of that drop. And I think he eats the souls of the fallen. Sorry, God Man. But it seems the only thing that fits in with…’ he waved the bottle. ‘All this. Never was religious, myself. I wasn’t optimistic enough to believe in the idea of heaven.’

Dale finished his glass, perhaps the last he’d ever have. ‘Maybe. Well, infinite worlds, none at all, or the devil himself, we’ll find out soon enough, if there’s no land under this ship.’ He met Calvin’s white eyes and gave him a grim smile. ‘Thank you for everything. You’ve come further than I’d ever have asked you.’

‘Ah, what can I say? You converted me. I believed in it then, and I still do. Peace in Hell.’ He tipped the bottle back and, in several long gulps, emptied it. When he set it down, his hand was shaking from the sudden rush.

Dale sat back in his creaky chair and enjoyed the feeling of soul intoxication. He’d forgotten how powerful it could be. It was like accelerating onto another plane of existence: you were still rooted in this world, but everything moved differently – you saw it all so clearly, your senses primed on hair triggers. Calvin’s milky eyes swivelled in his head, his jaw clenching and unclenching as it did when he was deep in thought, long fingers tapping a drumroll on the table.

‘Dale, what route were you going to take to Mort City?’

‘The long one – the one we’re already on. Straight down into empty space, then on below the Hadean Isles until we could navigate above the city.’

‘I see. And what if we were to take a quicker route. The quickest?’

‘You know there’s no time for that. We’d have to go around…’ He stopped. Calvin had the hint of a smile on the corner of his mouth, razor teeth shining through. Impossible.

‘No. They’d follow us.’

‘Would they? Even if we flew right into the centre, and dropped low into a blizzard?’

‘We’d wreck ourselves.’

‘Maybe.’

Dale stood, something like hope burning in the pit of his belly, a welcome warmth against the dread that had threatened to consume him a minute ago. Calvin watched him, no longer tapping on the table, his smile widening into a grin. ‘We could do it, God Man. They wouldn’t dare, not when they know we don’t have the Seer on board. There’s no guarantee we’d make it out again, of course, but then… There wasn’t to begin with, was there?’

Dale was gripping the back of the chair, deep in thought. ‘I always hated snakes, when I was alive,’ he muttered. ‘Don’t tell Darla I said that.’

‘If anyone can keep the ship steady in that place, it’s you, Dale. It’s the only chance we have.’

He locked eyes with Calvin, and saw the same hope, the same soul crazy fire he had in himself. They had another half bottle in the cupboard. Enough to keep them sane and warm, if they rationed it. And it was going to get cold.

‘When we leave the shelter of this island,’ he said eventually. ‘Pull the back fin to send us up, and then rig the sails to make use of any crosswinds.’

Calvin slid out of his chair, grinning, and gave him a mock salute. ‘Aye aye, Captain. God be with us.’

‘Pray to God if you like,’ Dale said. ‘I doubt it’ll do any good.’

Because they were going to Niffleheim.

Being back in his own body was equal parts jarring and comforting. For the first twenty minutes or so he’d felt horribly sick – his skin was ice cold, his mouth dry as coffin dust and all his joints were stiff. Once the nausea faded and his body warmed up, though, it was like slipping on an old pair of shoes – except that a demon was driving him along the highway at terrifying speeds and his dead sister was lying in the trunk amongst piles of frozen bread and steaks.

‘So,’ Darla said, winding up her window to block the sound of the roaring wind. ‘How’s it feel to be alive again?’

‘Okay. I’m hungry.’

‘For food, huh? Lucky shit. Well we don’t have time. Freya will have food for you when we get there. Can’t guarantee you’ll like it much, though. She’s always on some strange diet, trying to keep her current body alive as long as possible.’

Will didn’t want to ask what she meant by that, but after all he’d seen he knew he had to. Hell was sickening, terrible, evil, and unfair. But it was also unavoidable. Now that he’d been there he sensed it lying just beyond the folds of reality all the while, just a single death away, a few missed heartbeats, a long stifled breath – his bruised throat was a permanent reminder. The more he could find out about demons and the afterlife, the better. He sighed. ‘What do you mean, keep her body alive?’

‘She’s a Visitor – same as Dale. The way they feed is they get into a living body and just set up shop. The longer they’re in there, the more soul they absorb – that’s why Dale never comes up here if he can avoid it. Part of the reason his own soul’s in such bad shape, among other things – he just doesn’t feed it enough. But Freya’s not so thoughtful. She’ll climb in a body and just stay there until there’s no soul left and it just starts rotting all around her, and then she’ll go get a new one.’

Will stared at her, but she didn’t meet his gaze, just stared determinedly through the windscreen. She weaved between two cars and then stepped on the accelerator as they rounded a soft bend. At this rate they’d reach the coast in less than an hour. ‘She gets a new one?’ He repeated.

‘Look, we all do our best, alright? I didn’t have to eat a bloody dog earlier – I could have nabbed a baby. Then at least I’d have had enough to last me the rest of this trip, and I wouldn’t feel so sick, either. Freya’s no saint, but she takes the worst off she can find – drug addicts and suicidals and criminals. You’ll get it when you’re dead too, and you have to go find your own souls – then you can judge all you like. Till then, just shut up and help me save your damn sister.’ She took a breath and accelerated again, the force pushing them both back into their seats. Will had an unnerving image of her careening into a wall and then pointing a finger at his dead body and crowing: See! See!

‘Okay, I’m sorry,’ Will said.

She shrugged. ‘Don’t worry about it. I can’t say I didn’t have the same thoughts when I was younger. Crossed my mind to throw myself into the Void once or twice, but I never could do it. Something about seeing Hell makes you wonder that there might be no end to it, after all. Maybe you just move from one world on into the next, each one worse than the last. Horrible thought, isn’t it?’

Will didn’t reply. He rested his head against the window and watched the farmland drift by, acres and acres of green and yellow grass, home to all kinds of cows, sheep, horses, insects, birds… Life. ‘If you ate that dog,’ he said, ‘animals must have souls, too. Where do they go?’

‘Same as us. They just don’t last as long. Small souls get corrupted quicker. Or eaten… Listen, there’s some things you should know about Freya. She’s very rich, very smart, but most of all very off her nut. In other words don’t believe a word she says. There’s eccentric, and then there’s fucking crazy, and she’s the latter. Dale’s banking on her keeping you and your sister safe in her freezer room – the one she uses to keep her host bodies cool – but as far as I’m concerned it’s asking a bit much. If you want to live, I’d try not to stay dead for too long.’

They drove on in silence, leaving the farmland behind and taking a turn up a steep curve as the ocean came into view. As they climbed the winding roads, Will craned his neck to see the waves crashing into the base of the cliffs far below. Further out, the ocean was calm and shimmering with morning sunlight – the sky clear blue. It struck him as completely fake.

‘What’s the point?’ He said quietly. ‘Why live at all – if I’m going to end up in Hell with everyone else, anyway? Why bother living?’

Darla stomped on the break so hard the car nearly skidded through the barrier – which would have made his question meaningless in a few terrible moments – and they screeched to a stop in a gravel inlet by the side of the road. A truck whizzed by them, honking its horn. The smell of burnt rubber permeated the car.

Before Will could say a word, Darla had him by the collar, yanking his face so close to hers he could see – and smell – the shreds of dog meat between her snarling teeth. ‘Do you know what I would give for a single day of life? For an hour? Do you want to know what I’d do if it meant I could have an afternoon with my family again, and see everyone I left behind? Do you?’ Her slit yellow eyes burned with fury, and yet somehow they were the most human Will had ever seen them. He didn’t trust himself to answer her.

She pulled him closer, and lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. ‘We’re going to freeze your pathetic ass, and then you’re going to get your shit together and we’re gonna drag your sister’s soul from the depths of hell if it ends both of us. Every minute of life saved is a spit in the face of Hell. Understand?’

He nodded, and she let him go and settled back into her seat, breathing hard. Will supposed she was so worked up she’d forgotten she didn’t have to breathe at all. Neither of them said or did anything for a minute or two, and then at last she turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life.

‘Besides,’ she said, as they pulled back out onto the road. ‘You won’t want to be up here in the real world for a while, at least.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Haven’t you worked it out, yet? Your family was murdered, and you’re in a stolen vehicle with your sister’s dead body in the back.’ She shot him a grin with the slightest hint of bitter humour. ‘You’re a wanted criminal, Will. By the end of the day, the whole country will be looking for you.’

‘Both life and the afterlife are infinite, and that border between them that we call Death is not as clear as we’d like to believe. In fact, it is as indefinable as the point at which the beach sand ends and the waves begin. The borders constantly overlap, constantly interfere with each other, and yet remain separate.’

 – Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Introduction (So, You’re Finally Dead).

 

 

Will crawled, spluttering, out from under a moth eaten bed, into a room with peeling wallpaper, no carpet and a broken window. He couldn’t stand yet – the vertigo of moving from one world into another too much to take, and so he sat up against one wall and waited for his head to stop spinning.

Darla emerged a few seconds later, tumbling out of a rotted closet up against one wall and almost tripping over the bed. ‘Jesus, damn it.’ She steadied herself, then stomped across the room and yanked Will to his feet. He pressed his lips tight, heroically resisting the urge to vomit until the last of the spins left him.

‘Good job. We’ll make a real demon out of you yet,’ she said, patting him on the back roughly. ‘Now come on, we don’t have much time, I reckon.’

She led him through the house, a two story junk heap that appeared to be home only to rats and squatters: the kitchen sink was green with mould and what had once been a living room was now a mess of ragged blankets, empty beer bottles and discarded needles. Everything smelled like urine. Will welcomed it – after Hell, anything that represented the concrete real world was a breath of fresh air to him. Even the sight of the dirty street, when they stepped out through the front door, with its dumpsterss and litter and barbed wire fences, was a sight for sore eyes.

‘You know the way from here?’ She asked him. ‘It’s near your neighbourhood, right?’

Will nodded. He looked up and down the potholed street and recognized it immediately. ‘It’s Drader Street. My house is a few blocks over, this way.’ He started walking. It was strange to be the leader for once, but he was comfortable here, glad to be back. Darla, on the other hand, walked with her head low, snake eyes darting in seven directions at once and tongue flicking nervously behind her teeth.

‘What’s wrong?’ he said. ‘No one can see us, right? We’re like ghosts.’ Not that there was anyone to see them, anyway – it was early morning, the dawn light only just touching the chimneys and roof tiles of suburbia.

‘Yes and no. People see us, but they only see what they expect. Probably a couple of homeless junkies stumbling down the street. How far is it?’

‘Ten minutes, if we hurry. Why, what’s wrong?’

‘It’s not healthy for the dead to walk with the living. It takes a lot of soul to survive up here for long. Like breathing poisonous gas.’

‘What happens if you don’t eat?’

‘You get more… Monstrous. Or else you fade away and wake up somewhere in Hell. So hurry up, unless you don’t mind sparing a chunk of your shoulder any time soon.’

They left the shadier streets and Will took a few turns down the laneways that led into his own middle class suburb, all neat trimmed lawns and painted fences. Darla shook her head as a new BMW passed them on the street. ‘Every time I come up here it’s the same, you know that? Different styles, better tech. But same people doing the same shit. I bet it’s been the same since the start of time. People. Don’t know what life is, do they? Don’t know what they missed ‘till they’re dead.’

Will didn’t say anything. He was trying to work out how long it had been since Calvin ripped him out of his body. A siren sounded nearby and he jumped. What if the police were already there, loading his sister in a body bag? Or him? They reached his street – Whitely, and he started running.

But, despite the broken front window, there wasn’t a cop to be found. He let out the breath he’d been holding. ‘This is it, he said.

‘Nice place.’ She stood looking up at it, thoughtful. ‘Someone’s gonna see that window, though. Probably soon.’

‘I know. Darla – where’s Freya’s house? Did you say it was on the coast before? As in, the beach?’

She frowned. ‘Yeah. Shit. We need something to keep your sister cool for the drive. You got any ice?’

He was about to say no when he remembered the enormous stocks of frozen milk, meat and bags of peas his father had kept in the same freezer Sarah was now. If they kept all of that along with Sarah’s body, it might help to preserve her. ‘Um, close enough,’ he said.

‘Good. Okay.’ Darla glanced up and down the street. An early morning jogger was headed their way, but he rounded a corner several blocks down. She clapped her hands together and smiled. ‘I’ve got a plan.’

‘Okay?’

‘You get into your body, then grab as much ice stuff as you can in bags or whatever, right? I have to take care of something real quick. What car does your dad drive?’

‘A land rover.’

‘Nice. Find his keys, then load up the trunk with all the ice. Don’t take your sister out of the freezer until I get back. I won’t be long.’

‘Why? Where are you going?’

‘That depends…’ She turned away, scratching the scales on the back of her head. She seemed to be scanning the other houses on the street for something, and when she looked back at him there was something like guilt in her expression. ‘Which one of your neighbours has pets?’

Epilogue

 

After Dale’s funeral, Brian, Matt, Elyse and Steph met at the foot of the Westlake cliffs, where it all began. Brian came last, and he brought the Book of Worlds with him, held solemnly in both hands, like a priest with his bible. They were silent, sitting in an uncertain semicircle alongside the rock wall. They’d built a stack of kindling and Matt stooped and lit it with a match when he saw Brian approaching.

There were no greetings or smiles, everyone still sick from the funeral, the sight of Dale’s pale faced parents clear in their minds. Brian simply walked up to the sputtering fire, stood for a moment, and tossed the book onto it. A moment later, Steph leaned forward and tossed in the box which contained the ring of keys.

In silence, they watched the flames until there was nothing but ashes and glowing logs. Only then did Brian speak. ‘He was the best of all of us,’ he said. ‘He knew exactly what he was doing when he attacked Jordan. He made himself the sacrifice.’

‘It should have been me,’ Matt said, watching the flames flash and lick at the wood.

‘It was him,’ Brian said simply. Matt said nothing, but put an arm around Steph and pulled her closer.

‘I thought it was a trick, at first,’ Steph said. ‘I thought he had some decoy or something that Jordan was attacking, and he was just screaming to make it realistic. I thought we were going to find some dummy with its stuffing ripped out, and Dale would step out from the bushes, smiling like he used to when he pulled off a really good magic trick.’

‘I remember that smile,’ Elyse said. ‘Like he already knew how good it was, and he would rather die than tell you how he did it.’

‘Yeah.’

They watched the fire burn down, and when it was nothing but cinders they hugged each other and parted ways, Matt and Steph walking back down the lane towards Wayward road, Brian and Elyse to Brian’s house. Before they’d left the park, Brian turned to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Hey.’

‘Uh. Hey?’ She said, smiling.

‘Um.’ He was remembering blades. Skin split, blood leaking from the wounds. Blisters rising from new burns. He was remembering her face lit in ecstasy as he worked a nail into a fresh cut. He forced the thoughts away. He hoped it would get easier with time.

‘Now it’s all over,’ he said, finally. ‘Will you, um, will you go out with me?’

She smiled at him, and the scars across her lips looked prettier than ever.

‘Of course I will, idiot.’

He stopped walking and put an arm around her waist. He pulled her in for a kiss and she hesitated. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, heart thundering in his chest. ‘I won’t bite.’ She let out a sudden laugh, the first in a long time it seemed, and for a few moments he felt like it was all going to be alright. She kissed him then, hard – but not too hard – and it was good.

 

THE END

Epilogue

 

The Westlake Watcher: Peace Reigns?

 

After last month’s huge spike in violence in the usually peaceful suburb of Westlake, it seems that people have had enough. The unprecedented violence began with the assault on young Zane Blaire, and culminated in the torture and murder of Frank Silic by his son, Jordan Silic, who still has yet to be found (full story page 4).

Between these two crimes, hundreds of violent cases have been reported this summer, almost all of them apparently impulsive. According to the police (who were themselves accused of excessive force in over fifty percent of their criminal apprehensions during this period), many of the criminals claimed to have had no rational explanation or reason for their attacks. These were all crimes of passion, in other words.

So what was the cause, then, of this strange eruption of violence over the course of two months? Dina Silic, Jordan’s mother and a survivor of his brutal onslaught, claims her son had gone insane and ‘acted like someone I’d never met’. Similar sentiments were expressed by witnesses in Zaine’s attack, and an uncharacteristically large portion of the crimes committed were committed by citizens with no prior convictions. Many were described as normal, friendly people. ‘Wouldn’t hurt a fly’ was a common phrase. Those recently released from prison have apparently gone back to their ordinary lives. The crime rate in Westlake, since November, has dropped to below its long term average. And so the question remains: what are we to conclude?

Many interviewed seem to liken the event to a kind of natural disaster. As though a community can lose its collective mind for a period, cause great destruction, and return to normal, the same way a hurricane hits a town and then fades away. Ask an anthropologist, and it’s a case of over population coupled with a deteriorating economy. Ask a lawyer, and it’s a case of police corruption. Ask a Doctor, and it’s a case of drug and alcohol abuse. Everyone has their theories.

Whatever the cause, Westlake seems to have recovered, for now, and already the new year is looming and full of hope. The previous two months will, most likely, be swept under the rug and forgotten with time. Perhaps, that is how it should be, though Zane Blaire will doubtless remember his summer for the rest of his life, and so too will Dina Silic, both bearing scars that will never fade. Besides them, a staggering one hundred and sixty victims of assault, rape and attempted murder will no doubt be less eager to forgive and forget, and the families of Ray Deakin and Jimmy Lee, along with the relatives of ten other missing Westlake residents (including Jordan Silic), continue to search for answers.

For now, Westlake has very much the atmosphere of those rebuilding after an earthquake: families rally around each other to support those with lost loved ones, people can be seen tentatively stepping out into the streets once again to clean the wreckage left by mindless rioters, and others are beginning to get on with their lives once more. For better or worse, it seems Westlake has weathered the storm.

61

 

Matt stood in the clearing, shivering with cold, though the night was warm. The air was thick with the smell of pine needles and fresh grass. He wondered what things he’d miss most of Earth, once he was gone. Would it be friends and family, or simple things: fresh air, blue sky, beaches?

He took out the knife and started cutting one of the unmarked trees, praying he only had to do it once or twice. There had been so many close calls with Steph. I’m so sorry, Steph. Please forgive me.

A leaf crackled, somewhere from back the way he came. What was that? Paranoia. You’re losing it, man. Just get out of here, someplace you can’t get infected, you’ll be alright. He finished the carving of the door and started on the key hole, and then heard a twig snap. He froze, edged his head around the trunk of the tree and stared into the darkness. There was someone there, a large person picking his way through the undergrowth, trying to be quiet. Jordan.

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than Jordan himself stepped forward into the moonlight. His skin was a network of black veins. He wasn’t smiling but his eyes were alight with excitement. The same kind you might see in a cat’s eyes as it crouched, tail slowing flicking one way and the other, watching a mouse.

There was no time to finish the door and jump through, and Matt had no keys for any of the other doors. He stood up. He felt cold as ice.

‘You can run, if you want,’ Jordan said.

He didn’t run; there was nowhere to go – or at least, nowhere he could get to quickly enough. Jordan barely looked like himself any more. Gone was the thick Greek boy with dark circles under his eyes. This was an animal with the mind of a demon, lean muscles, black scarred skin, all seeing eyes and teeth sharp enough to crush stone.

‘You’re a monster,’ Matt said.

Jordan came a little closer and then raked his claws idly down one of the trees. It was the same one Brian and Elyse were inside now, if that world still existed at all. ‘Yeah? I wonder who did that to me?’

‘It’s not our fault. It’s a parasite. Brian had it too. My family have it.’

‘I wonder who gave it to them?’ Jordan said in the same flat voice.

‘No one. It just… came through. You wouldn’t hate us if we gave you a cold or something, would you?’ Why was it so hard to talk, to formulate thoughts? A frantic voice screamed over and over: Think of something! Think of something now!

Jordan’s mouth twitched a little, as if he was about to smile. He stepped over a thick tree root. ‘This,’ he took another step. ‘Is not. A fucking COLD!’

He lunged with the last word, but Matt had known from the first that this was it – that the fight for his life had begun – and he was already rolling over uneven ground, scrambling to get balance, screaming as loud as he could. The neighbourhood was filled with the infected – surely they wouldn’t miss a chance for some pain. He knew, of course, that it was a fifty fifty toss up whether it would be he or Jordan they’d tear to pieces, but they were the best odds he could get.

Six steps, dodging through the trees, hardly able to believe he’d got this far, and two heavy hands came down on his shoulders and wrenched him backwards. His feet flew out in front of him and he hit the ground hard on his back. Jordan’s claws had dug all the way down to his collarbone and there was warmth as blood flowed from the wounds, but no pain yet.

Jordan’s face hovered over Matt’s for a second, his mouth opening wider, wider, the skin stretching around the sides, eyes vanishing in folds of skin along with all the other features as the mouth went on growing. It was the size of his whole face now, just a round black hole with small sharp teeth sticking unevenly out of the gums around the sides. He’s going to bite my whole fucking head off.

Matt’s left arm was numb and immovable, but his right was just fine and he brought it up and gripped Jordan’s throat with everything he had – throwing a punch at that hole was hopeless. Jordan raised his claws, on the point of severing Matt’s arm at the elbow, when there was a scream – one that Matt was sure was familiar – and a flash of spinning light. A dull impact, and Matt lost hold of Jordan’s throat. A torch lay on the ground nearby, it’s light throwing long shadows all over the place, obscuring everything.

Matt got to his feet, disoriented, and tried to see what was going on. Someone was still screaming, and he followed the sound to a thicket of bushes. He saw Jordan there, his back to him, and he was hunched over, holding something, his whole body shifting and moving as if he were struggling with it, his back heaving as though he were vomiting. It’s not what’s coming out, it’s what’s going in.

It was that thought, and the final placement of that familiar scream, that sent Matt over the edge. He threw himself at the great heaving thing, a real monster now, nothing human left in it, and pounded it, bit it, tore at its throat with his hands until he felt his own fingernails snapping back from the force of his scratches.

Jordan twisted round and elbowed him in the chest. Ribs broke, and Matt found himself flying through the air and into a tree. He dropped onto his knees, unable to breathe. He put his right hand up to his chest as though it could ease the pressure there, somehow.

Amidst the pain, he heard Steph speak. He hadn’t even known she was there, but the sound of her voice sent his heart plummeting into the pit of his stomach. Oh, please, not her. Why did you come Steph? But he had not yet processed the words she’d spoken – had barely heard them at all – or just as importantly, where she’d spoken them from.

‘Pick on someone your own size, Shit Hole,’ she said, her voice shaky and afraid, but somehow also triumphant.

Matt stared through the bars of light and shadow, trying to see, the pain like a veil over his eyes. Jordan was standing straight up, unhurt, staring at Steph. She was partially illuminated in some of the torch’s errant light. She was holding a long knife in her left hand and the ring of keys Matt had left at Dale’s door in the other. Her dark hair hung over her scared eyes.

None of it made sense until Matt saw a dark, slender hand with nails like razors reach out of the pool of darkness beside her and take the knife gently from her grasp. Elyse stepped into the light, and Brian came up beside her, but if it weren’t for their eyes Matt would never have recognized them at all.

Brian glanced at him, briefly, though Matt couldn’t be sure he knew who he was. His dark eyes fixed on Jordan a second later, and then he was gone. Perhaps it was Matt’s concussion slowing his perception, but to him it seemed that one second Brian and Elyse were there, side by side like a pair of murderous rotted corpses, and then they had vanished. They moved so quickly it was like the shadows ate them up in one place and spat them out, instantly, in another.

Jordan let out a wild roar, a sound of pure fury that froze Matt’s bones and made him pull in his first deep breath. He turned in time to see Brian and Elyse dragging his great form to the ground, Brian crouching on his shoulders and wrenching his mouth wide open with both hands; Elyse hugging him from behind, pulling him downhill.

They fell in a mess, but it was over from the beginning. Brian was letting out strange, frantic yelps that it took Matt a few seconds to realise were a kind of laughter. Elyse was screeching with something that sounded almost like ecstasy, and Jordan was still shouting, but his cries were taking on a high, frantic quality.

The fight went on, and Matt stayed on his knees and stared into the darkness out of range of the torchlight and listened to it with growing horror. Jordan’s roars became howls, and then screams of pure agony: the screams of a boy now, not a man or a monster.

It went on and on, and Steph stepped up beside Matt and stared with him, and together they heard skin ripping away from muscle. They heard bones crack and ligaments snap. They heard pleading and begging and then whimpers, and then they heard nothing but the smack of raw meat between eager lips. All the while, the smell of blood wafted up to them and settled in the back of their throats. Steph’s hand was tight on his shoulder.

She knows they’re not going to stop. They’re going to come for us next.

‘Steph,’he said.

‘Yeah?’

‘Do you have the keys?’

‘Yes.’

‘Let’s go. We have to hide in a world. We have to hide until they’re dead or gone. They’re going to kill us, Steph.’

‘What about Dale?’ she said in a small voice.

Matt looked over at the dense patch of bushes. He saw Dale’s blue jeans protruding into the light, and they were soaked in blood. One foot twitched, then was still. ‘He’s dead.’

Steph got an arm under him and helped him to his feet.

‘Hey, wait.’ Brian was standing there on the slope. He looked almost like himself, except for the black veins knotting his face and the skin visible under his tattered clothes like ropes. He was panting, covered in head to toe in blood. It dripped from his fingertips. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘I won’t hurt you.’

Elyse came up beside him. She looked as bad as he did, if not worse. One of her eyes was closed, a gash across it. Something leaked from below her lid. Like Brian, she was covered in blood. She was chewing something, the corner of her mouth turned up in a satisfied half smile.

‘Steph.’ Matt nudged her. They could still make it to one of the doors. Maybe, if they were lucky, one of them could get through. He’d already made up his mind to make sure it was her. He had nothing, after all. There was nothing for him, anymore. She didn’t move.

Brian came forward, one step, two, and all of a sudden it was too late and there was no getting away. ‘It’s okay, now,’ he said. Steph was shaking, and Matt was on the point of throwing himself on Brian – take out his eyes and there might be a chance after all – when he’d closed the distance completely and pulled her into a hug. Before he knew what was happening, Elyse was in front of him, tears in her eyes, and she hugged him too, and he knew, somehow, that it was over.

 

Dale was still alive, barely. They picked up the torch and Brian and Elyse picked him up out of the bushes and laid him down on his back. Matt saw the gaping wound Jordan had made in Dale’s abdomen. His whole stomach was a mess of organs, some burst and torn, pulled out of place. His intestines almost spilled out of him as they set him down, and Matt could see the bite marks in the pink flesh. His eyes were half closed but bright with reflected moonlight, and he was breathing fast, two or three breaths a second.

‘It’s okay,’ he told them, eyes flicking, from one to the other, blinking. ‘I’ve done this before. It’s not so bad.’ He didn’t say anything after that, and Elyse held him until he died, his eyes fixed on the moon.

They stayed there for a long time afterward, huddled against the cold in a tight circle around their friend, no one speaking, crying in silence. They felt more than ever as though they were in another world. No one had answered their screams during the fight, and the sirens and shouts on the streets were far away. They were alone with their horror and their dead friend, the victors of a battle no one else knew had been fought.

‘The door’s closed now,’ Steph said eventually, looking down at Dale’s horribly slack face. There was no peace in that expression, no relief or grace; only an absence of everything. Death.

Matt almost didn’t dare to speak. He didn’t know what made her say that, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask. She sounded certain, and that was enough. He put an arm around her and one around Elyse, and the four of them huddled closer.

‘You think we’ll go back to normal?’ Brian asked. ‘Will the burn come back?’

‘I don’t know,’ Steph said. ‘We’ll just have to wait.’

And so they did. Hugging each other in the blue dark, crying often and talking in low voices occasionally, they waited for the sun.

60

 

‘Pick up, pick up, pick up. Damn.’ Dale redialled. ‘Come on.’

‘Dale?’ Steph answered at last, sounding worried.

‘Yeah, we have to find Matt right now.’

‘Why? What happened?’

‘I found something. I don’t know if it can help us or not but… I dunno, maybe. I was gonna run to Matt’s house but when I opened the front door I found the box of keys. He left them here, Steph, why would he do that?’

‘Oh, no. He’s running away, isn’t he?’

‘Yeah. I can’t get hold of him.’

‘Dale – oh, God, he must have gone to Westlake. That’s where all the other doors are.’

‘That’s what I figured. Listen, we don’t have that much time, I – ’

‘Dale, wait, what did you find out?’

‘Huh?’

‘What did you find out, why were you trying to get to him?’

‘Oh, yeah. Listen, Steph – it’s a sacrifice. A human sacrifice I think, I don’t know if it has to be innocent, or a child, or just anyone, but I’m sure of it. That kid that died, remember, in the book? That was what closed the door for good, that was the bit that was burned off in the original volumes. Someone has to die to make the door close properly.’

‘Oh, God, are you sure? Dale. Are you sure?’

‘No, not really, but… I dunno, Steph. It seems likely, that’s all.’

The phone crackled as she let out a frustrated breath. ‘We’re wasting time.’

‘Can you meet me there?’

‘Forget meeting, we just have to get to him as quick as possible. Like right now. Dale, if he gets into some other world, he’ll never know, do you realise that? He’ll just run away and never know about us or his family or anything.’

‘Okay, okay, I’m going now. Hurry – and bring a torch or something with you, yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

59

 

The light was on in the dining room, and Matt’s parents were eating dinner with his little sister. He stood in the lounge room, leaning against a wall in the dark, and listened for a moment, imagining he was in the room with them.

‘Daddy, you dropped your chicken!’

‘What? Oh, Jeez. Don’t look at me like that, Sarah.’

‘Isn’t there something you should say to your daughter, James?’

‘Uh. Oh, yeah. I’m sorry about what happened earlier, with the knife.’

‘That’s okay, Daddy. He asked me to hold the tomato and then he slipped and cut me!’

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It was an accident.’

‘Oh really?’ Matt’s mother said. ‘So how come you did the same thing to me just yesterday?’

‘Ah, oooh, well I guess I’m just clumsy, huh?’

‘Daddy!’

‘I can’t help it if she’s jiggling the carrots around.’ It was his dad alright, but he was putting on a show of happiness. Matt saw through it, because he was looking for it. His father was scared.

‘Where’s Matt tonight, Mommy?’

‘He’s at Dale’s house. He said he’d be back at nine or ten… which is after your bed time, baby girl.’

‘I’m not a baby.’

‘Well, the way you were crying about that little cut…’ Matt didn’t hear the rest, because he was back out the front door, walking fast. He gritted his teeth – it helped stop the tears. He thought he was moving aimlessly through the streets, but soon enough he came to see that he was heading straight for Westlake park, and he knew why, too.

There was nothing left here for him, on Earth. His entire family was infected. Dale had put on a strong front, but a front was all it was. Earth was as dead as the world the parasite had come from. One day some other traveller would come upon it, and it would be full of jungles and oceans and mountains, but there wouldn’t be a sign of life. If there was, it would be knotted with muscle, black skinned, and ravenous. Dale and the others had their families, but Matt had only himself now, and if he stayed, he would die. He had no one to rescue.

He still had the Stanley knife in his pocket, but he took a detour by Dale’s house and left the box containing all of the keys on his front doorstep. They’d need them when they went back to Zindel. After that, he stuck his hands in his pocket, pulled his hood down so the flies couldn’t get to him, and made a beeline for the rolling hills and forest of Westlake park.

He was not aware of a figure in a thick jacket, hands similarly tucked into pockets and hood pulled down, who followed him all the way to the rickety wooden fence and over it, keeping just far enough away to evade notice. A gibbous moon cast long shadows over everything, but Matt was listening to the sirens and his eyes were fixed on the tall pines silhouetted against the sky, marking the forest. Soon, the figures of both boys were lost in the dark.

Have you ever seen one of those big, deep rock pools at the beach, the kind that doesn’t look like it ever ends, and wondered where it leads? I have, and I do know where it goes. Here, let me show you…

Other

Ben Pienaar

 

Dean was the tough guy of Werner beach. The bro, the alpha dog. The guy who was out there in the middle of winter, in a storm, when the waves were big enough to block out the sky. He practically lived out there when school was out, and when class was in he’d often skip it if the surf was good.

So when he saw the rock pool for the first time, he didn’t see a rock pool at all. He saw the next adrenaline fix, the next competition. The other two tough guys of Werner beach – his friends Ron and Andy – were with him, and he knew they didn’t have the guts to go as far as he did.

‘Check it out,’ he said, pointing. They’d been walking across the rocky point to the next stretch of sand to see if the waves were better around the cove. It was a tricky business, navigating razor sharp rocks, slippery seaweed and deceptively deep pools, while strong waves pushed and pulled at your ankles.

‘So what? It’s a rock pool,’ Ron said. He’d been swimming all day but was so anxious to get back into the water he was shifting on his feet.

‘Nah, mate, not just a rock pool. It’s who can go the deepest.’

They peered over the side. The day was overcast, and it was impossible to see below a meter. Dean had grown up here, though, and he knew the nature of such pools: they twisted and turned and joined networks, but they didn’t end.

‘It’s probably not even that deep,’ Andy said, salt matted hair blowing in his face as he squinted into the water. The pool was about the size of a billiard table, and unnaturally circular. The sides were brittle rock and coral, the kind that would cut you if you so much as brushed it.

‘Go touch the bottom then,’ Dean challenged. ‘Bring up a handful of sand and I’ll give you five bucks.’ He didn’t know for sure it was deep, but he sensed it, the same way he could glance at the surf from the beach and sense where the rips were. When you went out to sea, beyond the waves, you could feel the depth under you. There wasn’t anything to say the sandy bottom was more than five or ten meters down – but you knew it wasn’t: it was hundreds of kilometres below your kicking feet.

‘If it’ll shut you up,’ Andy said, and with hardly a breath he dove into the middle of the rock pool and kicked, his pale feet vanishing into the dark, straight down. He and Ron waited for ten, twenty seconds.

Ron raised his eyebrows. ‘Shit. What if he doesn’t come up?’

‘Where’s he gonna go? Even Andy isn’t dumb enough to take a tunnel or something. He’ll either hit the bottom or chicken out. Bet I know which one, too.’

Dean counted another twenty seconds, and was about to say something when Andy rose to the surface and pulled himself over the side, gasping for breath.

‘Bloody hell. It was deep, alright. I went down far as I could go. Shit, my ears are killing me.’

‘You’re supposed to equalise, idiot,’ Ron said, folding his arms.

‘Yeah, well. It was way deeper than I thought. How long was I gone?’

‘Almost a minute,’ Dean said. ‘Did you see anything?’

‘Total blackness, man. Scary as. When I started back up I couldn’t even see the surface properly. It was just a blur of light way up there.’ He grinned, wiping sandy hair out of his face. ‘It was a rush, though.’

‘Alright,’ Dean said, nodding. ‘It’s on. Time to see who the real man is.’

 

*

 

Ron was next, and Dean timed it on his dive watch. One full minute. When he came back up, half senseless with oxygen deprivation, the first words out of his mouth were: ‘Did I beat Andy?’ And then, ‘It goes forever.’

Ever the cocky bastard, he was scoffing at Dean before he was even in the water. ‘You won’t beat a minute, mate, don’t worry. The pressure gets you, for one thing, squeezes your skull. Plus you get disoriented in the dark, don’t even know which way is up. Check this,’ he turned to show Dean the side of his arm, which was badly grazed. ‘Couldn’t even stay in the middle.’

Dean patiently unbound his watch and handed it to Ron. ‘Yeah, but then again, you guys are sissies, aren’t ya?’

Andy laughed. ‘Yeah, alright, buddy. Show us, then. Come on.’

Instead of replying, Dean winked and then turned away from the rock pool. He pried around until he found what he was looking for: a hefty rock lying at the base of the cliffs. It was the size of a basketball and weighed maybe twenty kilos. Perfect. He started back to the pool, cradling it to his chest. Ron shook his head as he approached. ‘Don’t do it, Dean. You’ll run out of breath.’

‘This is how real men do it,’ Dean said. He took a long, deep breath and then entered the pool in a long, smooth stride, not wanting to hesitate. He heard Andy mutter two words a second before he went under, equal parts scorn and respect: ‘Fucking crazy, dude.’

Dean sunk through ice cold pitch blackness for twenty seconds, clutching the rock, and as the light from above rose further and further out of sight, it occurred to him that maybe Andy had a point.

 

*

 

He gripped it for longer than he should have. It was impossible that this pool was so deep. Thirty seconds of such a quick descent should have put him at least thirty meters under, but he didn’t feel like he was anywhere near the bottom. He floated in darkness, and now that the rock was gone and he was no longer moving, he had no way to tell which way was up.

Panic arrived with the first stirrings of discomfort in his lungs – but then he fixed on something, a tiny speck of light as remote as a star. Surely the surface wasn’t that way – he was looking between his kicking feet. Had he turned himself upside down in those few seconds?

No time to think. Ten more seconds at this depth and he wouldn’t have the air to make it back. As it was, his lungs seized and black flecks jumped across his vision as he propelled himself upward, his strokes more urgent and less controlled as he drew nearer. He was going to make it, and best of all he was certain they’d never break his record. No human being was ever going to reach the bottom of that shaft, anyway.

He pulled himself over the side with arms so weak he had to roll onto his back to catch his breath before standing. He stared up at the grey clouded sky and sucked in salty air for a minute or so, a wide smile on his lips. No one said a word.

‘Man, that was deep,’ he said. ‘I bet I smashed you, Ron. How long was it?’ He held out his hand for one of them to help him up, but no one took it.

He sat up. The rock shelf was empty save a lone oncoming wave. He managed to stand before it hit, and scanned the beach for the other two. Nothing and no one. The whole beach was deserted, in fact, which was strange in itself – there’d been at least ten surfers out on the breakers when they’d arrived.

‘OY! STOP BEING ASSHOLES!’ Dean shouted. They had to be hiding. It was either that or they’d headed home as soon as he went under, which made no sense at all unless they were playing a stupid trick. God damn them – Ron still had his watch!

He walked around the cove, but they weren’t on the next beach, and nor was anyone else, so he gave up and went back to Werner, where he found his towel and possessions missing as well. So it was a prank, then: make him walk home in the cold and wet. Record, what record? he could imagine Andy saying with a furrowed brow. I don’t remember any rock pool, do you, Ron? They were jealous he beat them. Fine, whatever, he’d go straight home and they could laugh about it later. Screw them.

How they’d made ten surfers disappear, he didn’t know.

 

*

 

Something was wrong.

From the stars in the midday sky to the empty streets to the black clouds which had been grey an hour ago, everything was off kilter, false. This feeling struck him about ten minutes from his house, and it was strong enough that he stopped in the street and looked around, disoriented. An old man and his granddaughter walked hand in hand along the quiet road, and Dean watched them, trying to work out why they made him uneasy. They were just people, weren’t they?

Forget it. Go home and eat and play some Call of Duty and sleep, and Andy and Ron can go to hell.

            But he couldn’t enter his house – not through the front door. He went around the back and tiptoed in through the laundry, craning his neck around corners as though he expected someone to be waiting with a hammer and a grin. The only sound was that of a ticking clock, so it came as a surprise when he entered the kitchen and found his family. His father smiled as he entered. He was stirring an enormous pot on the stove while his mother set the table, at the head of which Gina slouched and flicked through a magazine.

Dean smiled back, but a crawling sensation worked its way along his back. His Dad never smiled. Mr. Holmes, as Dean’s friends called him, was an imposing and ever professional man, the type who wore a suit to every social event and always kept rigid posture and perfect manners, even with his children. Now, Dean observed his casual stance and the loopy expression. Was he high or what?

‘Hi, Dean, just in time for dinner,’ His mother said. ‘Where’ve you been all day?’ She was just as off putting as his father. She never cared where he’d been, and her voice tended to be flat and full of dry humour, not this sprightly chime. And Gina, who usually flooded him with a million words from the moment he entered a room, barely raised an eyebrow at him before looking back at her magazine. ‘Hey.’

‘Just at the beach,’ Dean said, taking a seat beside his sister. The smell of the cooking wafted over to him from the stove and made him want to gag. Once Ron’s mother had made him a stew of slow cooked lamb, but the meat was bad quality and past fresh, and the bones gave off the smell of rot. This wasn’t dissimilar.

‘The beach?’ his mother said, continuing to set the table. Her smile wobbled. ‘Why would you go to the beach? There isn’t anyone there. I notice you didn’t bring anyone back for dinner, either, unlike your sister.’

The comment was so bizarre that Dean couldn’t bring himself to reply. Why had he been at the beach? It was his second home. And what did she mean Gina brought someone for dinner? There wasn’t anyone here but the four of them. He just shrugged and said nothing. Gina looked up from her magazine long enough to stick her tongue out at him, but he hardly noticed, because he’d just seen the cutlery his mother had set in front of him.

Technically, it was a knife and fork, but not like any he’d used before. The knife had a blade eight inches long with a serrated edge, and the fork had only two long tines. He wasn’t certain, but they looked an awful lot like real silver, too. He opened his mouth to say something and then shut it again. Don’t do it or they’ll know.

Gina sniffed, and her eyes were on him again, but he didn’t meet them. Instead, he watched his mother go into the kitchen to check on whatever his father had in the crockpot. She whispered something in his ear and he smiled widely, chuckled and shook his head. Dean’s father never chuckled. He laughed, but only when a man he respected told a joke, and then in a false, hearty voice – never with genuine mirth. His mother leaned on his shoulder and looked into the pot, her left hand sliding down her husband’s lower back and settling on his ass.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Gina said. There was no trace of the giggling teenager he knew in her expression or voice: instead he saw a cold, cynical girl with steady confidence beyond her years. A stranger.

‘Just had a… weird day, that’s all.’

‘Didn’t get anyone? That’s unusual for you. Were you really at the beach?’

Get anyone? What is she talking about? ‘Yeah. Why, where were you? Who did you bring?’ If he kept the questions on her, maybe she’d stop probing. She seemed suspicious.

She sighed and rested her head in her hand, flipped a page. ‘Don’t even talk to me. Got run out of like three places, almost bloody lost my head. Ended up snatching a baby from up the road, just got lucky. Won’t be enough though, so you better get it together tomorrow. Less people every day.’

‘Oh. Yeah.’

She flipped another page and something caught his eye on the glossy paper. It didn’t seem right, so he shifted in his chair to get a closer look. Maybe there’d be a clue there as to what the hell was going…

Meat. Saws and screaming people, blood. An image of a crying naked child having its throat slit by a laughing mother. A long article along one page with the title PREY A DAY: HOW TO ENSURE YOU LAND FRESH ADULTS ON A REGULAR BASIS. Beside it was an image of a smiling family holding the disembowelled corpse of a bulky man.

Dean looked back to his bowl and then over at his parents. His father was spooning hot stew into bowls which his mother lifted and brought over to him and Gina, who was once again staring at him with that intense look.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ She said again.

‘Gina, stop pestering Dean – he’s clearly had a bad day.’ She set the bowls in front of them and went back to the kitchen.

‘Why do you keep asking me that?’ he said, trying to sound annoyed, trying not to think of the things he’d seen, and the internal voice that screamed at him to get the hell out of there before something happened.

‘Why do you smell so scared, then?’ she said. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, leaning in towards him, and then she settled back in her chair with a smug grin. ‘You’re pissing yourself!’ She said. ‘Mum, Dean’s losing it! He’s as scared as a legless bunny!’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Gina. What would Dean have to be scared about?’ But as she and his father sat down at the table she sniffed the air and cocked her head, considering it.

Time to go, man, time to go…

Dean scraped his chair back, pointing his long knife at his sister. ‘You’re mental. I’m not scared, okay. Something happened out there and I don’t want to talk about it.’ It was the first thing that came to him, but he saw doubt in her eyes and found hope. Maybe he could pretend to be mad and storm out with the knife. He could be back at the beach before the realised something was wrong.

His father had brought the pot to the middle of the table when he came over so that anyone could help themselves to seconds whenever they wanted. Now that he was standing, Dean couldn’t help but see what was inside, and when he did, the panic that had been simmering inside rose up and consumed him.

Ended up snatching a baby from up the road… Pale hairless flesh bobbed to the surface of a still simmering broth of potatoes onions and tomato, a thick brown sauce. A pudgy hand. At that moment, all three of them stared at him, his father’s mouth falling open in surprise and his mother gasping, a hand flying to her mouth. It was as though they could all see his terror as clearly as if it were a physical thing.

At that moment, the front door opened and Dean himself stepped in, someone’s severed torso and upper body hefted over one shoulder. ‘Sorry,’ he called out, turning to shut the front door behind him. His shirt was covered in blood. ‘Helped Andy and Ron out with this one, so we had to split him three ways. Tried to fight, but we took him down with rocks in the…’

He saw Dean and froze at the threshold. The body dropped to the floor with a sick thlomp! Leaking dark blood onto the floorboards.

 

*

 

Had Dean waited a moment longer, the spell would have broken and they’d have had him. As it was, his father managed to curl an arm around him as he pushed past, only letting go when Dean sunk the knife into his neck and pushed him away. The kitchen erupted in screams and clattering pots but Dean was out of there, through the back door and out into the street well ahead of them.

Cold evening air whipped his face as he ran, tears of panic streaming across his face and bare feet slapping asphalt. He didn’t see anyone at first, but when Gina started down the road after him and let out her piercing shriek, people began appearing from the shadows. They stared at him from alleyways and over fences, confused, curious. One man almost got him, an enormous slab who came around the side of a wall and lunged for him, baggy shirt brushing Dean as he leapt aside.

When his feet landed on the blessed soft sand, he chanced a look back. The Other Dean was in front of all the rest, sprinting over the road toward him, his eyes wide and bright: he was as shocked to see another version of himself as Dean was. Behind him, several others emerged from the short houses that lined the beach, necks craning, fingers pointing. He was the Other in this place, there was no doubt about that. And he didn’t want to find out what happened to outsiders here.

The rocks, sharp enough to draw blood even when you stepped lightly, tore his feet apart as he ran across them. He cried out but didn’t dare slow down. His other was gaining quickly now, letting out a whoop of exhilaration that Dean recognized as his own, the triumphant shout he would let loose as a wave took him the first burst of speed propelled him through the spray. From this other mouth it had a different meaning.

He was at the pool. He might have missed it in his panic if the last rays of the setting sun hadn’t glanced off its surface and made it shine for an instant, one dark patch out of many. He turned, gasping as a row of barnacles turned his soles to mincemeat. A large rock lay nearby – the shape and size of the one he’d dropped, in fact – and he stooped to pick it up, aware of his Other’s footsteps drawing up behind him.

He turned at the side of the pool, and the Other came to a stop a few meters away, eyeing the rock. The others were only just climbing the shelf far behind him. For the next couple of minutes, they were alone. Dean wanted to throw himself into the pool now, but he couldn’t. For one thing he was out of breath, his own chest burning with each inhalation (the Other hadn’t so much as broken a sweat), and for another, he dreaded that the pool was a one way trip. No going back.

‘What are you?’ he said.

The Other didn’t approach, knowing he’d have plenty of help soon. Instead, he stood back with his arms folded, glaring at Dean. ‘What are you?’

‘I’m human. I live on earth. What’s this place?’

‘Hewmin? Urth?’ The other spat at his feet, which were covered in a thick layer of callous, not bleeding at all. When they met eyes, it was very clear to both who was predator and who was prey. The Other smiled, showing white teeth that tapered to points. ‘Where can we get more of you, then?’

Perhaps it was the adrenaline coursing through his system and the knowledge that he was most likely about to die a horrible death, or perhaps it was this image of himself, an arrogant, musclebound, bastard looking down on him, but either way Dean felt a surge of anger and gave the Other a mean grin of his own.

‘Trust me, you don’t want more of me,’ he said. ‘But if you do, you’ll have to go all the way down to hell.’

The others were too close now – he could hear their feet, see their slobbering mouths as they pelted over slippery rock toward him. Before the Other could reply he let himself fall sideways, the rock pulling him as he curled around it and hugged it like a baby, eyes clenched tight and the only sound that of his heart slamming in his chest, burning the oxygen in his body like so much firewood.

When everything was pitch dark and he felt that he was no longer falling but floating, he looked down between his legs and saw a faint light, the pale grey of an overcast sky. Please, please let it be home.

Dean let go of the rock and swam toward the surface.

 

*

 

When he reached for the side of the pool two strong sets of arms grabbed him and hauled him up onto the rocks, coughing and spluttering.

‘Jesus, man, we thought you were dead. How long was that?’

‘Four minutes easy.’ Ron’s voice.

‘Four minutes, man. Are you alright?’

Dean turned over and vomited some seawater, got up onto shaky hands and knees and crawled away from the hole. He kept going until he got to the dry flat rocks and he settled there with his back to the cliff, watching the hole. The other two stood in front of him, exchanging worried glances, and the sun shone into his eyes between two clouds.

‘So… did you make it to the bottom?’ Andy said.

‘Nah. I just went down and down, but it was black all the way. Nothing, no bottom or anything.’

‘Wow, what happened to your feet man?’

‘Shit.’ Dean pulled his feet in and winced at the sight of them. It looked like he’d stuck them in a blender. Now that relief replaced terror, they were starting to sting a hell of a lot. ‘I don’t know. I was kicking really hard on the way up, must have hit the rocks. Can you guys help me back?’

‘Yeah, sure, man,’ Ron said.

‘Hey, you totally win, dude. Ice creams on me, yeah?’ Andy slapped him on the back but Dean couldn’t manage more than a faint smile. ‘Just in a bit, though,’ he said. ‘I want to chill out for a while.’

For a long time the three of them sat and trash talked, Dean barely saying a word, and watched the sunset. Beautiful as it was, Dean didn’t so much as look up at it while they were there. Instead he kept his eyes on the rock pool, watching wave after wave wash into it until the tide came in and obscured it completely. Occasionally the light tricked him and he thought he saw a shadow moving just below the surface, but nothing emerged and he shook himself out of it.

When the sun was gone and the air took on a fresh chill, Andy and Ron locked their arms into his and pulled him to his feet. He gritted his teeth against the pain of sea salt in his wounds, but didn’t say anything.

They shivered and licked ice cream and laughed and joked, but the other two went easy on him, sensing he’d been in much more trouble than he admitted. Their own relief was palpable and he realised they must have been on the point of running for help. Just before they parted ways, Andy put his hands on Dean’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes. ‘Hey, man, are you sure you’re alright?’

Dean nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah I’m good. Just shaken up a bit. Let’s hit the surf tomorrow again, yeah?’

Andy gave him his goofy grin and nodded. ‘You know it, baby. Alright, catchya later dude. Chill out, okay?’

On the walk back home, Dean found himself eyeing everything with suspicion, watching the cars and people closely. But he saw nothing, and when he returned home he was met with stern parents and an overly talkative Gina and an overwhelming sense of gratefulness.

He’d made it out alive. For now, that was all he wanted to think about.

 

*

 

They were the Alpha Dogs of Werner beach. They were heroes in their world, and Dean, the first to cross the bridge between the worlds, was the greatest hero of them all. Future generations would erect a statue in his glory. At first, the three boys were the only ones who had the lung capacity to make the journey, but as time went on and food grew more scarce, other hunters came to match them.

Word spread, and before long Werner grew into a prosperous border town, a place to stay before you ventured into the new world. Old and young alike who’d never seen it for themselves spoke in hushed whispers of great cities filled with prey. They could be dangerous in numbers, sure, but a skilled hunter could feed himself and his family for as far into the future as they could see.

 

58

 

Dale had made out like he really thought there would be something in the old tome, but as he sat down on his bed in his quiet house (dinner had been subdued and quick: pizza delivery, pieces shoved mindlessly into mouths, then various family members had disappeared into their respective areas of the house), and opened the Book of Worlds, he realised how ludicrous it was. Zindel had written the thing, after all – he should have known one way or the other.

But he read anyway, from the start, analysing each word, each sentence, not knowing what he was searching for, only that if he didn’t find it he was going to have to wake up his family and convince them that the whole world was going to die if they didn’t follow him into a secret trapdoor in some stranger’s house.

When he reached the crucial chapter, On Closing Doors, he read it through and, settling on one particular paragraph, his heart froze. The section detailing the closing of doors was so badly scorched that it took me a day to make out what I needed, and even then half a page was lost to me completely.

That was it, wasn’t it? The scorched pages had concealed something, some secret that you had to know to close the door. Only that didn’t quite make sense, because a moment later Zindel wrote: Fortunately, whatever was written there must not have mattered, because when I broke the key in half and spoke: ‘Claudo’ the door shut. So whatever was hidden, it hadn’t mattered. Or else, Dale thought, it had mattered, and Zindel had done it without knowing it.

He flipped back to the beginning and started again. It seemed straightforward: a beast followed him to Earth and mauled a child. Zindel closed the door the same way Brian had, and three days later found the animal, so he said, without a soul. He was certain the door closing had done it. What if it wasn’t the door at all? What if he didn’t close it properly after all, and the beast died of something else, some random disease. Oh, shit, what if Zindel never closed that door at all?

Dale closed his eyes for a second and then opened them again. No, it couldn’t be that. Zindel said he’d seen the outline of the door disappear. Was there something else that had happened? Some other event that had sealed the door closed finally, but something Zindel didn’t consciously do?

So, from the book, what event? The mauling of a small child? Dale laughed out loud, a shaky, hysterical laugh he didn’t like the sound of at all, but before it took hold of him he stopped, abruptly, and stared at the page. What if that was it? An innocent sacrifice. The door opened with blood, so it must be closed with blood. The thought had an uncomfortable ring of truth.

He mulled it over, and decided on two things. Firstly, there was nowhere near enough proof to be certain of it. Sure, it was the only event written that may have had an impact, though Zindel didn’t seem to think so, but there was something else: The book which I had to use (the same one that contained the method to open the doors) was badly burned on account of the previous owner attempting to destroy it… Now what the hell did that mean? Why would someone try to destroy a book they wrote? Especially since opening a door was no big deal, just a few carvings in a tree and a little cut on the hand. So why burn that last bit? Unless the burned section mentioned that to close a door you needed a sacrifice.

            Shit.

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