Authors: Claire McFall
ylan didn’t know how long she lay on the floor. She couldn’t take her eyes from the doorway. Any moment Tristan was going to walk through it, windswept, breathless, but fine. He was going to appear and be okay and take control. He had to. Her heart was crashing in her chest, straining painfully against muscles that felt locked in stone. Completely drained from her exertions, her body started to shake.
After what may have been mere minutes, but felt like an eternity, the cold seeped through from the floor and penetrated to the very core of her bones. Her trembling limbs began to seize up, and she knew she had to move.
Her muscles protested painfully, making her groan as she pulled herself up into a sitting position. She still didn’t dare take her eyes from the doorway. Tristan was going to arrive any second, as long as she kept looking. Somewhere at the back of her mind a small voice told her that this was ridiculous, but she held on to the belief, because it was the only thing keeping the panic from rising up in her throat and erupting in uncontrollable screaming.
Dylan managed to get her quivering legs underneath her and, with the support of the doorframe, hauled herself to her feet. She kept a firm hold on the rotting timber, swaying dangerously. Fear and fatigue had stripped her of every inch of energy. Standing on the threshold, she could hear the whispering and screaming outside, although something about the safe house seemed to dull the noise. Keeping her feet firmly behind the line, she leaned her head out, searching the night for a glimpse of blue eyes or tousled blond hair. Her eyes found nothing, but her ears were assaulted by a barrage of noise; outraged shrieking as the demons attempted to assail her but were frustrated by whatever supernatural charm the safe house held. Gasping with shock, she yanked her head back and the noise instantly dimmed.
Dylan backed away from the door slowly. Her feet caught on something on the floor and she almost tripped. She ripped her eyes away from the doorway for a fraction of a second, but it was almost pitch black and she couldn’t make out what she’d stepped on. That sent another wave of terror through Dylan. She could not bear a night alone in the dark here. She would go insane.
Fire. There was always a fireplace in these cottages. But she was going to have to turn away from the door, and that meant facing the fact that Tristan might be gone. No, she told herself. He would come. She should just get the fire sorted for when he arrived. She felt her way across the cottage, and sure enough at the other end of the room was a stone fireplace. Kneeling, she searched with her fingertips. Her fingers brushed against ash and lumps of wood in the grate. To the left of it she found some dry logs, but no matches, and no electronic switch like the one back home that would make fake flames dance and jolt while a fan heater blew out hot air that was almost as welcome as the light.
“Please,” she whispered, aware that she was begging an inanimate object to work but unable to stop herself. “Please, I need this.” On the last word her composure broke and strangled sobs broke through. Her chest convulsed and her eyelids squeezed together as the first teardrop slipped down her cheeks.
A crackling noise made her open them, momentarily afraid, but what she saw made her gasp with shock. There were flames in the fireplace. They were small and flickered in the draft from the open door, but they refused to be put out. As if they were acting of their own accord, Dylan’s hands reached out and grabbed a couple of logs. She placed them delicately on the fire, holding her breath in case her clumsy actions smothered the fledgling flames.
They held, but continued to sputter because of the draft. Dylan turned and looked at the door. Closing it felt like closing her hope, and meant closing the door on Tristan. But she couldn’t lose the fire. Feeling as if she was moving in slow motion, she rose and walked over to the door. She paused there, fighting a desire to run out into the night in a desperate attempt to find Tristan. That would mean surrendering herself to the demons, though, and Tristan wouldn’t want that. Unable to watch, she shut her eyes, and then the door.
As the latch clicked closed, something broke within Dylan. Tears blinding her, she blundered sightless across the room until she met what felt like a bed. She threw herself onto it and gave way to the sobs that threatened to overwhelm her. Panic engulfed her, and she battled desperate cravings to run and scream and break things.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” she repeated again and again in between gasping sobs. What was she going to do? Without Tristan she had no idea where she was going. She would get lost, wander till it was dark and then be a sitting duck for the demons. Or would she have to stay here, and wait? But who would come for her? If she didn’t need to eat or drink, would she wait here for an eternity, like a cursed princess in some ridiculous fairy tale, hoping for a prince to come and rescue her?
And then other thoughts crept into her head. The loneliness and fear dragged up issues that hadn’t had a chance to surface since the crash. Visions of Joan swam before her eyes. She imagined where she might be now, whether there had been a funeral held yet. In her mind’s eye she pictured her mum receiving the call at the hospital, saw the devastated look on her face, her perfectly arched eyebrows crumpling as her hand reached up to cover her mouth, as if she could hold the truth out. Dylan thought of all the arguments they’d ever had, of all the mean things she’d said and never meant, and all the things she wanted to say and never had. Their last proper conversation had been a fight about seeing her dad. She could still remember telling her mother she was going to visit him, could remember the look on her face. Joan had stared at Dylan as if she’d betrayed her.
This thought wove into another as naturally as day follows night. Her dad. How had he reacted? Who had told him? Had he mourned for the daughter he’d never really known?
All of a sudden her situation, her death, hit home. It wasn’t fair. How much could she be expected to lose? Her future, her family, her friends… all were gone. Now her ferryman, too? No, not just her ferryman. Tristan. Stolen away, just like everything else. Dylan didn’t think she had any tears left, but as his face burst into her mind, more bubbled over, hot and salty on her cheeks.
It was the longest night Dylan had ever endured. Every time she closed her eyes, haunting images flashed through her head: Joan, Tristan, a father figure who was terrifying without a face, flickers of the nightmare from the train. Slowly, sluggishly, it passed. The fire dimmed to an orange glow, and the dark outside dissolved into a soft light that filtered through the windows. The first rays of dawn chased away the colourless grey and brought life to the cottage, but Dylan didn’t notice. She continued to stare at the logs in the fire till the warm colours of heat had dimmed to grey ash and the spent pieces of wood could do nothing but smoke softly in their grate. Her body seemed to have turned to stone. Her mind was shell-shocked, and took refuge in stupor.
It took until mid-morning for her to realise that the light meant that she was free to escape her haven that was somehow also a prison. She could search for Tristan. What if he was lying somewhere in the valley, hurt and bleeding? What if he was waiting for her to come and find him?
She eyed the door, still closed against the terrors of the wasteland. Tristan was out there, but so were the wraiths. Were the valley’s shadows deep enough and dark enough for them to attack? Would the morning light be strong enough to keep her safe?
When she thought about going out into the wasteland, on her own… her entire being shied away from the idea.
But Tristan was out there.
“Get up, Dylan,” she told herself. “Don’t be so pathetic.”
She hauled her tired body, grumbling from yesterday’s enforced exercise, off the bed and over to the door. She paused with her hand on the handle, took a deep breath, then another, and tried to make herself grip the doorknob, twist and pull it open. Her fingers refused to obey.
“Cut it out,” she muttered.
Holding that thought in her head, she swung open the door.
The air caught in her lungs as she froze. Her heart stopped beating, then began thumping double time as her eyes struggled to take in the scene before her.
The wasteland that had become almost homely for the past few days had vanished.
There were no rolling hills, no long grasses tickled with dew drops to soak into her jeans and make tramping up and up and up as miserable as possible. The leaden sky had disappeared, and the gravelled pathway that had led her to safety last night was gone.
Instead, the world had turned into many dazzling shades of red. The two hills remained, but now they were coated with burgundy dirt. There was no vegetation, but the steep sides were pierced with sharp, jagged rocks that burst from the ground in unique formations. The gravelled path had been replaced by a slick black walkway that looked like boiling tar. It appeared to be constantly undulating and bubbling as if it was alive. The sky was blood red, with black clouds that did not drift so much as race to the western horizon. The sun glowed hot red like a burning oven ring.
But these were not the most frightening things. Gliding across the surface, climbing the hills and wandering up the pathway, were hundreds upon hundreds of what looked like… well, Dylan couldn’t even find the words. They were human and yet looked formless, only the briefest outline identifying their age and gender. Dylan looked closely at the ones nearest to her. They seemed not to see her, not even to be aware that
were really there. They were intent on only one thing – on following the brightly glowing orb that radiated in front of each of them.
Every figure was shadowed by a host of black spectres that hovered around their heads and circled in front of them. Dylan drew in a panicked breath as she watched them, fearful for each of the figures, but though the wraiths swirled in the air around them, they kept their distance. It was the orbs, she realised suddenly. The wraiths didn’t want to get close to the pulsing balls of light, though where the shadows were heaviest she noticed they glowed less brightly and the demons dared to swoop more closely. Little cogs clicked into place at the back of her head as she stared.
was one of those things. This was the real wasteland. And Tristan was her orb. Without her orb, could she even step outside safely? If she left the safe house now could the demons attack her even though it was daytime? The only way to be sure was to step outside the protective charm of the cottage. Could she do that? She swayed gently in the doorway as she thought about it. No. Tilting out, she caught the hiss and wail of wraiths. That was enough. Horrified, she stepped back and slammed the door. She leaned her back against it, as if she could hold the wraiths at bay. Her strength lasted only a few more seconds before she sank to the ground, wrapped her hands around her legs, dropped her head to her knees and began to sob.
“Tristan, I need you,” she whispered. “I need you!” Her voice cracked and broke as tears tumbled forth. “Where are you?” she cried, her lips trembling so much that the words were little more than a confused mumble. “I need you…”
She was trapped. Not only did she not know where she needed to go, but if she stepped outside, the demons would get her. The only safe place was here in the cottage, but how long could she stay here? How long could she wait for Tristan?
Minutes sauntered by, but after a while Dylan pulled herself together a little. She stood up and dragged a chair over to the window. She settled into it and leaned her head on her folded arms, which she rested against the windowsill. The view was the same as from the front door. A crimson desert dotted with drifting souls blindly following and being followed. It was mesmerising to watch. Seeing the demons still made her stomach churn, remembering the feel of their claws and the screaming in her ears.
The thought of facing them again caused a trickle of sweat to slither down her back. She knew that she would not be able to walk outside today. It was still possible that Tristan was out there, trying to make his way back to her. She had to hold on to that hope. She could wait at least another day.
After a brilliant sunset of oranges, reds and burgundies, the sky grew black. With the darkness came the whistling and screaming around the cottage. Dylan had long since lit the fire – this time in the light with matches she had found on top of the mantelpiece. It had been a much longer process than the previous night, but finally she had coaxed the flame to grow and devour the twigs. Now the large logs had caught and it was crackling and spitting, providing warmth and comforting light. She had abandoned her post at the window. The darkness frightened her, and she could not tell who was outside, watching her. Instead she lay on the bed and gazed at the flames till her eyes drooped as she slipped into semi-consciousness.
When she awoke hours later it was still pitch black outside. She looked up at the ceiling, and just for a few moments she could have been anywhere. In her cramped room at home, surrounded by posters of a certain film star and cuddly bears, or in a strange room in Aberdeen getting ready for another day of getting to know her dad. But she wasn’t in either of these places. She was in a safe house. And she was dead. A steel band wrapped itself around her ribs. She couldn’t breathe. Tears threatened, and she struggled to hold them in.
The cottage was warm. The fire that she had so carefully constructed still blazed in the grate and sent shadows dancing across the walls, but that wasn’t what had pulled her from sleep. Turning over onto her side to watch the flames, she noticed the true reason for her waking. A figure was silhouetted against the light of the fire, unmoving. Fear flooded her and she froze, but as her eyes adjusted, the outline began to take shape, a familiar shape. A shape that Dylan had feared she would never see again.
ristan!” Dylan gasped. She jumped off the bed, almost falling in her haste to cross the room. He stood as she approached and, forgetting herself, she threw her arms around him in relief. Quiet sobs escaped her, making her chest shake. She nestled her head into his shoulder and let herself drown in the ocean of safety and pleasure that engulfed her.
Tristan stood immobilised for a moment, but then wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tightly to him. He rubbed her back with one hand as she continued to cry into his chest.
Eventually Dylan felt the rush of emotions subside into calm, and she drew herself away from him, as the awkwardness returned. She had little experience of being held by boys, and her head was a whirlwind of confused emotions. A blush warmed her cheeks slightly, but she forced herself to look up into his eyes.
“Hi,” she whispered. His back was to the flames, his face hidden in shadow.
“Hi,” he replied, the smile evident in his voice.
“I thought… I thought you were gone.” Dylan’s voice caught with emotion, but she ploughed on, desperate to know. “What happened, you were just behind me?”
There was a pause. Dylan’s eyes searched in the darkness, but she couldn’t see enough to read his expression.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
He took her hand and led her back over to the bed, sitting beside her. The light from the fire now flickered across his face, illuminating it for the first time and causing Dylan a sharp intake of breath.
“Oh my God, Tristan, what happened to you?” she asked.
Tristan’s face was barely recognisable. One eye was puffy and almost closed; the other bloodshot. His jaw was bruised and swollen, and one cheek had a deep gash running the length of it. He struggled to smile, but the attempt clearly hurt. Even in the dark, his eyes conveyed the suffering he had endured. Dylan reached a hand up to stroke his face, but hesitated, afraid to cause him any more pain.
“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “It’s nothing.”
Dylan shook her head slowly. It wasn’t nothing. Tristan’s face had been ravaged, mutilated. Was that because of her?
“Shh,” he soothed. “I told you, it’s nothing. You’re still sleeping,” he commented, an obvious attempt to change the subject.
She nodded. “It was just to pass the time.”
“Do you think you could sleep more?” She shook her head before his sentence was finished. “Well, at the very least you should lie down and rest, tomorrow we have far to go.”
Dylan stared at him with pleading eyes. She knew he was trying to avoid discussion of where he’d been, but it felt as though he didn’t want to talk to her about anything. She felt rejected. She’d thrown herself at him and made her joy at his return very obvious. Now she just felt foolish. Her eyes smarting, she folded her arms across her chest. He seemed to sense her emotions. He reached and caught one of her hands, pulling it gently away from her side.
“Come on, lie down. I’ll stay with you.”
“I…” she was hesitant, uncertain.
His voice was a low murmur in the dark. “Lie down with me,” he coaxed. “Please.”
He shuffled backwards till he was leaning against the wall and pulled her over beside his chest. She nestled into his side, feeling self-conscious but safe. He didn’t seem to want to speak, but was content to lie there beside her. Dylan smiled to herself and allowed herself to relax for the first time in two days.
In the mornin light Tristan’s injuries looked even more horrific. His left eye was a blur of blue and black shadows, and his jaw was covered in shades of purple, brown and yellow. The gash down his cheek was beginning to close, but the dried blood stood out starkly against his white skin. He also had several long scratches down his arms. As the morning chased the gloom from the cottage, Dylan traced her fingers down one particularly
wound that ran the length of Tristan’s forearm. She still lay in his arms, and though she felt incredibly comfortable and secure there, she was afraid to speak and break the silence.
“We should get going,” Tristan whispered in her ear. His voice was soft and low, his breath tickled her neck and sent a shiver down her spine. Embarrassed, she jumped off the bed and away from him, coming to a standstill in the middle of the room, opposite a window. She glanced out of it and saw that the wasteland,
wasteland was back.
“It’s changed,” she gasped.
“What do you mean?” Tristan looked up sharply.
“Yesterday, before you came, I looked out of the door and… and…” Dylan didn’t know quite how to describe the world she had seen. “Everything was red – the sun, the sky, the ground. And I could see souls, thousands of them, travelling with their guides. I saw the demons, they were everywhere.” Caught in this memory, Dylan’s voice tailed off into a whisper.
Tristan frowned at her. He could not remember a time when a soul had seen and guessed so much about this world. No soul had ever been separated from their ferryman and survived a demon attack before. Dylan should be lost to him, and yet here she was. He was astounded, and palpably grateful, that she stood before him. How could this seemingly ordinary soul be so extraordinary?
“You only see the true wasteland when you lose your guide,” he said to her. “I am the vessel that creates your projection.”
“So it’s fake? Everything I see is fake? It’s just in my head?” Tristan had told her that, told her the wasteland was her projection, but Dylan had never really appreciated just what that meant. Until now. She didn’t like it. Although the wasteland of yesterday had been horrifying, she couldn’t stand the thought of being tricked by Tristan.
“Dylan,” he said tenderly. There was no way to sugarcoat his words so he tried to lessen their bite with his tone of voice. “You’re dead. What you see in your mind is all you have. This place, here, this is the only way you can make the journey. This is what’s real.”
Dylan looked at him, and her eyes were pools of helplessness. He held out his hand to her, aware that she was fragile, but knowing it was dangerous to delay.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.” He gave her a warm, reassuring smile that she returned with slightly trembling lips. She stepped forward to take his hand, thrilling a little at the contact, and faced the door. This cottage had been both jail and shelter to her, and she had mixed feelings about leaving it. Keen to be off, Tristan strode confidently to the door and pulled her after him, out once more into the wasteland.
There was no sun today, but the layer of cloud that covered the sky was light and fluffy. Dylan wondered what it revealed about her mood. If she had to identify it herself, she would say pensive and curious. She was confused by what Tristan had said about the wasteland and her mind, but although she did not want to be deceived by this artificial place, she felt a lot safer in the now familiar landscape of hills. Of course, the presence of Tristan played a vital role in that. She looked at him again, at the back of his head and his strong shoulders as he led her forward. What had happened to him? When she had spoken to him last night, he hadn’t wanted to talk about it, but Dylan felt responsible for every bruise, every scratch. After all, he was here protecting her.
“Tristan,” she began.
He looked back at her and slowed so that they were walking side by side. “What is it?”
Under his gaze, she chickened out and asked something else instead, something she was very curious about. “All those souls… I could see them walking, but they weren’t coming for me. For the safe house, I mean.”
“So, where did they stay? How does that work?”
Tristan shrugged nonchalantly. “Each ferryman has his own points of safety, of protection here. The way they look, that’s you. But that spot, that will always be
“Oh.” Dylan was quiet for a minute, but she continued to sneak looks at Tristan, wondering if it was alright to pose the question that she really wanted to ask.
He caught one of her sidelong looks. “You want to know what happened to me,” he guessed. She nodded.
He sighed, the desire to be honest and share with her fighting the knowledge that she should not know more about this world than was necessary for her to travel through it.
“Why does it matter?” It wasn’t so much a question as a stalling tactic whilst he tried to decide what to do: what was right or what he wanted.
It worked. Dylan was silent whilst she thought about it.
“Because, well… because it’s really my fault. You’re here because of me, and if I had been faster, or kept the sun out longer, shining more brightly, then… well, then it would never have happened.”
Tristan looked surprised, and he was. This was not the answer he had expected. He’d thought it was simply curiosity about this world, he’d thought it was the human need to know
. But it was because she cared. A glow began in his chest, and he knew his decision was made.
“You didn’t tell me they could hurt you,” she said softly, her green eyes wide with empathetic pain.
“Yes,” he replied. “They can’t actually kill me, but they can touch me.”
“Tell me what happened to you.” This time she wasn’t asking. It was a demand wrapped in velvet, and he couldn’t resist her a third time.
“They were everywhere, and you were frozen. I could see that you couldn’t move, and you needed to run.”
Dylan nodded, she remembered this part. Her cheeks burned with disgrace at the memory. If she had just run when he’d told her, if she’d been braver and hadn’t been immobilised by fear, they would have both made it.
“I pushed you, and you seemed to come out of a trance. Then, when we ran, I thought we would be okay.” He grimaced, shame furrowing his brow. “I didn’t mean to let go of you,” he whispered.
Dylan chewed on her lip, guilt rising like nausea inside of her.
felt bad, was blaming himself, when it had been all her fault.
“Tristan—” she tried to interrupt, but he shushed her with his hand.
I’m sorry, Dylan. I’m sorry about that. As soon as they saw that I’d let you go, they surrounded me, got between us. I couldn’t get through them to catch up. Then you were running, but the cottage was too far. You weren’t going to make it.” His eyes had a faraway look at this point, as if he was reliving it. The set of his mouth told Dylan that it was a painful process. Her guilt increased tenfold as she realised that she was hurting him again by dredging this back up, and she began to question her motives. Was it simply nosiness? She hoped not.
“The demons were everywhere. You can’t touch them, but I can. Did you know that?”
She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak, but not wanting to break his rhythm.
“I ran after you and pulled as many of them back as I could. I couldn’t get them all; I’ve never seen them swarm in such a number. It wasn’t working. Although I can touch them, I can’t damage them. Every time I yanked them away they would simply circle off and attack from another angle.”
He broke off at this point and seemed to be struggling internally. Dylan wasn’t sure if he was debating about whether to say something or simply trying to work out how to say it. She waited patiently. Tristan looked up at the sky – quite a feat as they were traversing a fairly steep hill and it was taking all of Dylan’s powers of concentration to keep her feet steady and listen at the same time. However the sky seemed to hold his answer as he nodded curtly and sighed.
“There are some things that I can do in the wasteland… things that aren’t normal, things you might call magical.”
Dylan held her breath; this was the sort of confession she had been waiting for, something that would make sense of the madness.
“I conjured up a wind.” He paused as Dylan’s eyebrows furrowed together, confused. She hadn’t noticed that. “You wouldn’t have felt it; it was only for the demons.”
“You conjured a wind?” she asked, astonished. “You can do that?”
Tristan grimaced. “It’s difficult, but I can.”
“What do you mean it’s difficult?”
“It takes a lot of energy, drains me, but it was working. They couldn’t hold on to their flight path, and were being buffeted all over the place. They couldn’t get a grip on you.” He sighed. “But it didn’t take them long to figure out what was causing it. The majority of the swarm turned and began to attack me.”
“You should have stopped,” Dylan blurted out. “You should have stopped the wind and… and fought them, or—”
Tristan shook his head, stopping her words. “I had to make sure you were safe. You are my number one priority in the wasteland.” He smiled at the horrified expression on her face. “I can’t die, and I am duty-bound to protect the soul first, myself second.”
Dylan nodded numbly at this. Of course he wasn’t just putting himself in danger specially for
. It was his job.
“They tried attacking me, slashing at me with their claws and flying straight at me, kind of like a full body punch. They can’t go through me like they can you. There were still some around you, but you were so close to the cottage. I managed to keep it going until I saw you cross the threshold, but then the entire swarm focused on me and there were too many for me to fight. They managed to drag me under.”