Authors: Claire McFall
It was much harder not to watch these souls, and the wraiths that hovered, ready to tear them from the boat, pull them under the murky surface of the lake. Facing back the way she’d come was the only way to row, so Dylan had no option but to stare in the direction of the boats, trying not to look at them. She tried to keep her eyes on the stern of her own dinghy, but it was hard. The movement fluttered around the edge of her vision, and she had to constantly fight the instinct to raise her eyes.
Especially when a boat got into trouble. The water around her dinghy remained calm, but Dylan knew without even raising her head that it was happening. First, the noise changed. Rather than the gentle lap of water against the side of the craft and the warped mumble of a hundred conversations, there was a shrill keening. Not the harsh, guttural sound of the wraiths, it was coming from a soul, she was sure of it. Then there was the light. The whispery glow of white from the orbs were barely making a difference to the glowing red light from the sun. But from the direction of the scream, the nearest orb brightened intensely. It was like suddenly having coloured glasses removed, and the world, just for a moment, seemed normal-coloured.
She saw the boat at once. It was directly in front of her, maybe a hundred metres away, and it was rocking from side to side like it was being attacked by a hurricane. It was hard to look at, because the orb floating in the middle of the boat was shining so brightly it stung her eyes. Still she couldn’t tear her eyes away. She wasn’t supposed to. It was calling to her. No, she realised. It was calling to its soul… but the soul was ignoring it.
The soul was looking into the water.
Before Dylan’s very eyes, the water rose up, forming a twisted shape that looked from where she was to be a claw. The claw detached itself from the lake, separated. Became a dozen, no, two dozen smaller beings. Like bats.
The creatures from the lake.
They swarmed over the soul, and the boat started to jump and lurch, tilting dangerously. As if they’d been waiting for permission, the circling wraiths joined in the attack.
“No!” Dylan shrieked, realising a second before it happened that the boat was about to capsize.
As soon as the word was out, she clapped her hand over her mouth, but it was too late. They’d heard her. The lake creatures continued to tug the soul down into the depths of the water, oblivious to the orb, which was now pulsing furiously. Then the wraiths came at her. With no orb, no ferryman, they didn’t need to wait for dark to feast on her.
“Damn it! Damn it! You idiot!”
Dylan started rowing manically, hauling the oars through the water as fast and as hard as she could. It wasn’t enough. Not even close. The wraiths were flying, soaring across the vapours as if feeding on them. In the time it had taken her to jerk through three hurried strokes, they’d closed half the distance. She could already hear their delighted snarls.
This was it. She was going to die.
Dylan stopped rowing, stopped breathing. She stared at them, waiting. She knew exactly how it would feel when they punched a hole in her chest: like ice in her heart. In her last few seconds, she wondered how long it would last; how much it would hurt.
As they raced over the final few metres, she closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see their faces.
But nothing happened.
They were still there, she knew that. She could hear them, hissing and growling and shrieking, but she couldn’t feel anything. Nothing beyond the hammering of her pulse and the icy sweat slithering down her back, despite the intense heat of the bloody sun. Puzzled, Dylan went to open her eyes, just allowing the first slither of red to penetrate.
They were still there; she could see them all around her. She squeezed her eyes tight shut again, scrunching up her whole face. Why weren’t they attacking? It was hard to take in, hard to believe that they could be so close and not touch her… just because she had her eyes shut? But she had no other explanation. Hardly daring to breath, Dylan reached out blindly and fumbled for the oars. Painstakingly slowly, she dipped them in and started to row. One stroke at a time, she pulled through the water. The growling increased to a roar, but it was a frustrated noise and still nothing touched her.
“Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look,” Dylan chanted, mumbling the words in rhythm with her strokes. She was shaking with the effort of not peeking. Worse than that, she couldn’t see where she was going, and she knew she wasn’t good enough to row in a straight line. Who knew where she would end up, but so long as she was off the water she’d be happy. She tried to remember how far it was from the beach to the safe house over the hill. It hadn’t seemed like a long way; just one hill. Just one hill. Just one hill. She focused on that thought. That, and keeping her eyes shut.
A jolt behind her almost undid all of her hard work. For a second, she thought the wraiths were making their attack and her eyes flew open in panic before she could force them closed again. She caught one quick glimpse of something black diving towards her before she squeezed her eyelids together, scrunching up her whole face to keep them shut. She tried to row, to dip the oars down into the water, but they bumped against something hard, jerking her hands, making pain shoot up both of her wrists. Then there was a loud scraping that sent another spike of adrenaline flooding through her system before reason caught up with her brain.
The shallows. She’d made it to the shallows. The dinghy was no longer rocking gently; it was beached on the shore
Clambering out of the dinghy with her eyes screwed shut was awkward. Even run aground as it was, the little boat tipped and jostled as she shifted about, making her yelp and lose her balance. Then, when she swung herself over the side, the drop seemed alarmingly far. When her feet hit the ground, it shocked her, shooting agony and cold up both legs.
She was in the water.
he terror of that realisation almost undid her again. Her eyes fluttered open only to see wraiths swirling round her head like a swarm of flies. She shut them again at once, but she could still feel the icy chill of the lake rippling up to her knees. Was it her imagination, or was something sliding round her ankle, coiling like a snake about to tighten? Horrified, she yanked her left foot up and out of the water, but whatever it was just moved smoothly over to her other leg. This time there was no doubt about it: there was something there.
Squealing, Dylan erupted into action. She thrashed towards the shore, eyes shut, her gait clumsy because with each step she had to lift her trainer clear, shaking her ankle to get rid of anything that clung on. She mustn’t look, and like the empty train carriage where this had all started, her mind filled in the blanks. She imagined things halfway between an eel and a crab with seizing claws, or a huge mouth, like a monkfish, filled with razor-sharp teeth. Nauseated and panicked, she ran on, not stopping until she heard the dry crunch of pebbles beneath her feet.
Overwhelmed and exhausted, she dropped to the ground, propping herself up on all fours, and scrabbled at the stones with her fingers. Dry land, she told herself. Dry land. You’re safe.
But still afraid to open her eyes, she was totally lost. There was a path up the hill, she knew, but that was in
wasteland. Not necessarily here. And even if it was, how the hell was she supposed to find it if she couldn’t open her eyes?
Out of ideas, Dylan’s face screwed up in anguish and a teardrop escaped from between her tightly clenched eyelids, plummeting down and exploding on her hand. Her mouth turned down, lips trembling, and her shoulders shook as she started crying. She was stuck. Trapped. Was this how far other souls had made it?
She stayed there for ten minutes, ten precious minutes of daylight, before a thought occurred to her. Perhaps she could see… just so long as she didn’t
. If she could keep her head down, stare at nothing but the ground, at all costs resist the temptation to fix her eyes on the things that were screaming for her attention. If she could do that…
It was a better idea than staying here and waiting for the night to claim her. The dark, the cold, the screaming; that, she knew, she wouldn’t survive.
Breathing in cautious gasps, she tentatively opened her eyes. Focusing on nothing but looking straight down, on
really looking, she waited. It took only three seconds. A wraith ducked low to the ground, skimming the pebbles, and flew straight for her face. Dylan blinked – an automatic reaction – but managed not to turn her gaze to the movement, to stay focused on the ground. At the last second the wraith veered off, snarling venomously in her ear as it passed, making the wind stir a loose tendril of her hair.
” Dylan hissed.
But one wraith was easy. Realising she’d now opened her eyes, the rest of the hovering demons tried the same approach, dive-bombing her one after another. The air was a confusing swirl of black, making it hard to see, but Dylan ignored then, getting clumsily to her feet. She had to hold her hands out for balance, disorientated by the rush of movement, and goosebumps erupted on both of her arms as the air vibrated around her.
Turning her head slowly left and right, she hunted out the path. It should be near the boatshed, but although the boat had been there, she couldn’t see the dilapidated little hut that housed it. No shed meant no path, but did she really need it? She knew she had to go up; that should be enough. Would have to be, because the afternoon was bleeding away with frightening speed.
Eyes down, she concentrated on the slick black pebbles, then, as she moved further from the shore, the burgundy dirt ground. Tufts of plants grew up the hillside, but not the heather and long grasses she’d become used to. These were purple and black, leaves tapering to thin spikes, stems armed with jagged thorns. They smelled too, wafting up the pungent aroma of rot and decay when her jeans brushed past. Now that she was moving away from the lake, the heat attacked with renewed fervour. Her clothes dried and stiffened, stained black from the water, then they began to stick to her as sweat leeched through her skin. The top of her head was burning under the glare of the sun.
It was miserable. She couldn’t breathe, she was exhausted and every few seconds the wraiths dived for her again, trying to catch her out. She didn’t dare lift her head to see how far she had to go, but her legs were aching, her back sore from being bent over. Scared and in pain and spent, Dylan screwed up her face and started to cry. The wraiths cackled, as if they could sense how close she was to giving up, to succumbing, but she couldn’t seem to pull herself together. The tears blurred her vision, and her route up the hill became erratic.
As the gravel finally gave way to the rocky floor that marked the beginning of the top of the hill, Dylan’s foot kicked a stone that refused to move, and she tripped. Throwing her arms out in front of her, she gasped, focusing her gaze to see the ground come rushing towards her.
Her hands took the brunt of her fall. Then her chest hit the path, snapping her head up. She found herself eye to eye with a wraith. There was just time to see its tiny, puckered face curl into a leer, before it dived at her and she was cold all over, as if she’d been submerged in the icy lake.
Once she’d seen one, it seemed impossible to avoid looking at the rest, and they attacked en masse, pulling and tugging, penetrating down into her bones. With Dylan on the ground, the wraiths had already won half the battle. She felt herself sinking, sliding downwards as if the hard, compacted dirt was quicksand.
“No!” she choked. “No, no, no!”
She hadn’t come this far to die now. Again, Tristan’s face danced in front of her eyes, the vivid blue of his stare a perfect remedy to this bloody hell. It was like a gulp of fresh air, galvanising Dylan. With monumental effort, she got her feet beneath her and exploded upwards, throwing off the wraiths clinging to her hands, her hair. Then she ran.
Her legs burned, her lungs ached, and the claws of countless wraiths hooked deep into her sweat-saturated T-shirt and hair. Staring at the top of the hill, she fought against their hold. The wraiths howled and snarled, buzzing round her head like angry bees. But Dylan kept going. She reached the top and down, she knew, would be much, much easier.
In fact, it was too easy. Too fast – far too fast. Her feet couldn’t keep up as gravity pulled her down the sheer slope. Unlike the wraiths, this was a battle she couldn’t win – and didn’t want to. Instead, she let herself free fall, careering forward, concentrating on nothing more than moving her legs as quickly as possible, on staying upright. If she fell over here, she’d had it. Toppling, flailing, she wouldn’t be able to think about where her eyes were focusing.
Suddenly, the safe house appeared. It was there, just in front of her. The incline levelled out, made it easier to control her speed. She was so close; she was going to make it. The wraiths knew it too. They doubled their efforts, soaring so close to her face she felt the wisps of their wings sting at her cheeks, wrapping around her legs to try and trip her again. Too little, too late. Dylan had the safe house to gaze upon and nothing the wraiths could do would tear her eyes away.
Dylan flung herself round the corner of the building and burst through the door. She knew she didn’t need to, but she slammed it behind her. Calm descended at once. She stood in the middle of the single room, hauling oxygen into her screaming lungs, shaking all over.
“I made it,” she whispered. “I made it.”
She felt as exhausted, as she had after her last crossing of the lake. For a while she burned, heated from within by the panic and adrenaline that was acid in her veins, but in the dim light of the cottage, the air cooled quickly. Soon she was shaking with the chill.
Dylan rubbed her bare arms. It was more than just the cold that was making her tremble. Shadows swirled on the ground as the wraiths circled at the window. She tried to ignore them, but it wasn’t easy. The sound of their wailing cut right to the centre of her brain, and with nothing else but silence in the tiny stone house, there was little to distract her ears.
She dropped down onto one of the chairs and lifted her legs to rest her feet on the seat, resting her chin on her knees, hugging herself for warmth. It wasn’t enough, though, and soon her teeth were chattering. Dylan heaved herself up and moved stiffly over to the hearth. There were no matches to get a fire going like there had been in the last safe house, but she remembered how she’d done it the last time, and how the oars had appeared in the boat. Using wood from a little basket to the side, she built a lopsided triangle and stared hard at the centre of it.
“Please?” she asked in a small voice. “Please, I need this.”
Nothing happened. Dylan shut her eyes, and thought her pathetic plea again, holding her breath and crossing her fingers. There was a snap, swiftly followed by a spitting sound. When she opened her eyes again, there were flames.
“Thank you,” she whispered automatically. It was uncomfortable kneeling on the cold stone floor, but she didn’t move. Though the fire showed no signs of going out, it was small and gave out little heat. She had to hold her fingers just above the tiny leaping flames to feel their delicious warmth. The light, too, held her there as the shadows thickened outside. She wished there were candles to light.
As the fire grew, the chill gradually dissipated. Slowly, the shivers racking Dylan dissolved. She wrinkled her nose as she caught the putrid stench of the lake water rising from her clothes as the fabric warmed in the heat of the fire. She felt filthy, and she could only imagine how she looked. Glancing around, she saw the big Belfast sink, the dresser. This was the safe house where she’d managed to wash her clothes before. She’d used all the soap, she knew, but even if she could just rinse them out she’d feel better. Cleaner. And this time there would be no Tristan to see her clothed in the hodge-podge, too-big outfit he’d found stuffed into one of the drawers.
She smiled to herself, remembering how embarrassed she’d been, wandering around half-clothed, her underwear slung over one of the chairs in full view.
Without Tristan’s stories, it seemed to take a lot longer to fill the sink, and without the slither of soap she wasn’t sure how much difference she actually made to the foul black stains coating her clothes. Still, she pounded the dirt from them as best she could and hung them on the chair backs. She put on the massive clothes from the dresser, then, ignoring the bed where she’d snuggled up tight to Tristan’s warmth, she curled herself up on a scrap of faded carpet beside the fire. There was no point lying down anyway. Here, alone, with the endless howling of the wraiths outside, she was never going to sleep.
The night dragged by. Dylan tried not to think, but let the flames lull her into a stupor, the way Tristan told her he did during the early days of the crossing when the souls still slept. It wasn’t easy – every noise made her jump, her head craning round to peer through the windows into the inky black – but the time passed slowly until a blood-red dawn roused her. She groaned as she rolled off the rug and stood up. She’d stiffened up overnight and her muscles were screaming in pain. Awkwardly, trying to move as little as possible, she shimmied out of her borrowed outfit and eased back into her torn,
clothes. They still looked horribly grubby, but they smelled a little better, she thought, lifting the hem of her T-shirt up to her nose and sniffing cautiously. She fussed for a while over the lie of her jeans, trying to reinstate her turn-ups, to stop the sulphurous mud soaking into them quite so quickly. Then she played with her hair, trying to fasten it up into a neat bun.
What she was really doing, she knew, was procrastinating. It was beyond time to step back outside, and she was wasting valuable daylight. But today was going to be hard. She’d crossed the lake, yes, but now she had to try and navigate her way across the wasteland to find the next safe house. As she saw the wasteland now, without Tristan, it was almost featureless and totally alien with its red sandstone and blackened shrubs. And she had to journey without looking at any of the other souls, their guiding orbs, or the wraiths that cloistered round them. Oh, and somehow do all this whilst looking for her own orb that may or may not look like Tristan.
Impossible. Totally impossible.
She gripped the chair in front of her, seized suddenly by an overwhelming sense of panic, and squeezed her eyes shut against tears. It was no use crying; she’d put herself in this position. Go forward or go back. That was the choice. The boat was still there, now nicely beached against the shore. She could row across the lake, take refuge in the final safe house and be back across the line tomorrow.
And be totally, utterly,
Dylan took one deep breath, held it, and forced herself to exhale slowly. Swallowing hard, she pushed the fear and the uncertainty away. She imagined Tristan’s face when he saw her, saw that she’d come back for him. She imagined the feel of his arms around her as he hugged her close to his chest. The smell of him. Holding that image firmly in her mind, she marched across the narrow room and threw open the door. She was doing this.
As soon as she stepped outside the protective confines of the cottage, the waiting wraiths began their cruel dance; circling and diving and trying to make her look at them. She ignored them, keeping her gaze fixed on the horizon, focusing on seeing but not looking. Like staring through the windscreen of a car whilst a million raindrops were splattering on the glass. It was hard, not allowing her eyes to focus, and it hurt her head, but it was easier than staring straight down all the time. A mixture of smoking grey and burgundy, the blood-red sun had yet to fully rise. Her glazed eyes swept across the peaks and valleys, trying to pick out something she recognised – a path, a landmark, anything.