Authors: Claire McFall
“I’m glad it’s you,” she mumbled, just as sleep overcame her.
Tristan’s face was confused, unsure of her meaning, but it made him happy all the same. He watched her sleep for a long time, looking at the shadows of the fire flicker and play across her face, untroubled in unconsciousness. A strange longing to touch her, to stroke down her smooth cheek and brush away the hair that fell over her eyes, came over him, but he didn’t move from where he sat. It was simply her youth and vulnerability that was bringing out these feelings in him, he told himself. He was her guide, her temporary protector. Nothing more.
Dylan dreamed again that night. Although her encounter with the demons had given her ample fodder for a nightmare, they didn’t feature. Instead she dreamed of Tristan.
They were not in the wasteland, but Dylan had the strangest feeling she’d been here before. They were in a forest. It was filled with large oak trees with gnarled trunks and wide, sprawling branches that interwove to create a canopy above them. It was night, but the moonlight filtered down through the trees, dappling gently and casting rippling shadows as the leaves swayed in the breeze. The light wind ruffled her hair, tickling her neck and shoulders. The floor underfoot was a carpet of leaves that rustled as they walked. At some point recently it must have rained, because the air smelled slightly of dampness and nature. Somewhere to her left she could hear the faint trickle of a slow-running stream. It was absolutely exquisite.
In the dream, Tristan held her hand as they walked, slowly weaving in and out of the trunks, following no set path but simply choosing a winding route to nowhere. Her skin seemed to burn where his hand touched it, but she was frightened even to twitch her fingers in case he let go.
They didn’t speak, but it didn’t feel uncomfortable to Dylan. They were content just to be near each other, and words would have ruined the peace of this beautiful place.
In the cottage, as she slept, Tristan watched her smile.
he first light of the morning sent the sun’s rays streaming through the windows of the cabin, and even filtered by the dust and grime on the panes it was strong enough to wake Dylan. She stirred feebly, brushing her hair from her face and rubbing her eyes. For a moment she wasn’t sure where she was, and she lay still, taking stock of her surroundings.
The bed was unfamiliar and narrow, the mattress lumpy. The ceiling above her was raftered with solid pieces of timber that looked like they had stood strong for a hundred years. She blinked twice, trying to get her bearings.
“Good morning.” The soft voice came from her left and made her snap her head sharply towards it.
“Ow!” The quick movement pinched a nerve in her neck. As her hand rubbed the cramping pain away, Dylan stared in the direction of the voice, comprehension dawning.
“Morning,” she replied softly, a blush warming her cheeks. Although they had shared much last night, Dylan felt awkward again, unsure of herself.
“How d’you sleep?” Tristan’s normal, polite question seemed somehow out of place; decorum in the midst of madness. She couldn’t help but grin.
He smiled. “I don’t need to. One of the oddities of the wasteland. You don’t really, either. Your mind just thinks it should, so it does. Eventually it will forget. Takes a while to adjust.”
She stared at him, speechless for a moment. “No sleep?”
He shook his head. “No sleeping, no eating, no drinking. Your body is just your mind’s projection. You left the real thing back on the train.”
Dylan’s mouth opened and closed a few times. This sounded like some bizarre science-fiction movie. Had she landed in the Matrix? All these things Tristan was telling her, they seemed incredible, unbelievable, but as she stared down at her hands she realised that, even though they were encrusted with mud, they were smooth, unblemished. The deep scratches left by the wraiths had healed.
“Huh,” was all she could manage. She looked towards the window. “Is it safe to go outside?” She wasn’t sure if the monsters – demons – from last night were still a threat during the day.
“Yeah, they’re not too keen on the sunlight. Of course, if it was a cloudy, dark day, they might surface, if they were desperate enough.” Tristan looked at her frightened expression. “We should be okay today, though. Nice sunshine.” He gestured towards the window.
“So, what now?”
“We move. We still have a long way to go. The next safe house is ten miles away, and the darkness seems to come quickly here.” He frowned out of the window, as if chastising the weather for placing them in danger.
“Did I die in the wasteland winter?” Dylan’s eyes were slightly amused, but also intrigued. She wanted to know more about this strange place.
Tristan stared at her, deliberating over how much to tell her. Guides were supposed to deliver their souls across the wasteland and nothing else. Most, when they discovered where they really were and what had happened to them, were too absorbed in their own sorrow and self-pity to show much interest in this road between the real world and the end. Dylan was not like any other soul he’d ever encountered. She had accepted the truth calmly, with no outbursts. Now the eyes that examined him were simply questioning, curious. And a little more information might make it easier for her to accept and understand, he argued with himself, but in truth, he wanted to share it with her. He wanted a way to be closer to her. He took a deep breath and chose.
“No.” He smiled. “It’s your fault.”
He had to bite his lip to stop himself from laughing. Her reaction was exactly as he had expected: perplexed and a little bit outraged. Her eyebrows furrowed and her lips pursed, her eyes narrowing to green slits.
fault? How is it my fault? I haven’t done anything!”
He chuckled. “What I mean is, the wasteland is what you make it.” Her expression turned to one of startled confusion, as her eyes widened to sparkling pools in the sunlight. “Come on.” He lifted himself from the chair, walked over to the door and opened it. “I’ll explain on the way.”
The air was warm as Dylan stepped outside, but a breeze crept around the walls of the cabin and tickled her hair, causing renegade strands to scurry across her face. The sun shone down, brightening the colours of the wasteland. Drops of dew caught the light and glinted in the wet grass, which looked a more luscious shade of green. The hills cut into the blue sky, their ridges razor sharp against the heavens. Everything appeared to be washed clean, and Dylan drew in a deep breath, revelling in the freshness of the morning. But dark clouds dotted the sky towards the horizon. She hoped the sun would banish them before they could steal the beautiful day.
She picked her way down the path after Tristan, trying to avoid the thistles and nettles that sneaked up between the cracked stones. Tristan waited just a few metres away, shifting from foot to foot in a way that told her he was eager to be off.
Dylan made a face. More marching. Understanding where they were going, and why it was so important to get there quickly, did not make the journey any more appealing.
“Why can’t the wasteland be a bit flatter?” she grumbled as she approached Tristan.
He smirked, but didn’t reply. Instead he turned on his heel and began to lead the way. Dylan sighed and hitched up her jeans a little higher, hoping that it might stop them from getting quite so wet, quite so quickly, but knowing that it was a futile gesture.
Their journey began on the other side of the cabin, following a narrow, dirt trail that snaked across a meadow of long grass. There were wild flowers hidden amongst the pasture; drops of purple, yellow and red popping up in an ocean of green. The meadow was like an oasis, nestled in between the hills. It was roughly the size of a football pitch, but infinitely more beautiful. Dylan wanted to wander slowly, to drink in the scenery and trail her fingers in the foliage, letting the grass and flowers tickle her hand. For Tristan, however, it was simply another obstacle to overcome and he strode through without glancing left or right at the surrounding splendour. It took about ten minutes to cross, and Dylan soon found herself at the foot of the first hill of the day, staring up at it in consternation. Tristan had already started the ascent, and Dylan hurried to draw level.
“So,” Dylan began as soon as she had caught up with his long, purposeful strides. “Why is all this…” She gestured to the barren landscape. “… my fault?”
“It’s also your fault that it’s all uphill.” Tristan chuckled darkly.
“Well, that’s just typical,” Dylan muttered, already out of breath and cross at Tristan’s enigmatic answers. Instead of being abashed, he laughed. The scowl on her face deepened.
“I said before that your body was your mind’s projection. The wasteland is sort of the same thing.” He paused to grab her elbow as she stumbled. She was too focused on what he was saying to watch her feet. “When you came out of the tunnel, you expected to be halfway to Aberdeen – somewhere in the Highlands, somewhere remote, hilly and wild – so that is what the wasteland became. You don’t like exercise, so all the walking is putting you in a bad mood. This place, it reacts to how you feel. When you got angry, that brought the cloud, the wind… and the dark. The darker your mind, the longer and darker the nights.” He looked across at her, trying to read her reaction. She stared back at him, drinking in his every word. A sly smile spread across his lips. “In fact, I look like I do because of you too.”
She frowned at that, and turned her head to concentrate on the ground, processing what he was saying, but also unable to keep looking at his face.
“Why?” she asked finally, failing to make sense of his last comment.
“Well, every soul’s guide is supposed to be non-threatening. You have to trust us, to follow us. We automatically form ourselves to look appealing to you.”
Dylan kept her head down, but her eyes popped wider and her face blushed scarlet, giving her away.
“So,” Tristan continued, enjoying himself immensely, “if I’ve done it right, you should fancy me.”
Dylan stopped dead in her tracks, hands on her hips, the blush deepening.
“What?! That’s… well, that’s just… I do not!” she finished hotly.
He walked forward a few more steps then whirled to face her, with a huge grin on his face.
“I don’t,” she repeated.
His grin widened. “Okay,” he answered, his tone disagreeing with his words, with her words.
“You are such a…” Appropriate insults seemed to fail Dylan, and she stormed onwards, stamping angrily up the hill. She didn’t even turn round to check if he was following. The dark clouds that had ringed the horizon just ten minutes earlier now rumbled forward, coating the sky and darkening the atmosphere.
Tristan glanced up and frowned at the change. He started after Dylan, making light work of the steep incline.
“I’m sorry,” he said as soon as he’d drawn level. “I was only teasing.”
Dylan didn’t turn or acknowledge that she’d heard him.
“Dylan, stop, please.” He reached out and grabbed her arm.
She attempted to shrug his hand off, but he held firm. “Let go of me,” she hissed through her teeth, embarrassment sharpening her anger.
“Let me explain,” he said, his voice gentle and almost pleading.
They stood facing each other, Dylan breathing heavily through exertion and emotion, Tristan exuding calm, only his eyes wary. He took another quick glance at the sky, the clouds were almost black. Drops of rain began to fall, thick heavy globules of cold water that left dark, circular stains on their clothes.
“Look,” he began, “that was mean. I’m sorry. But you see, we have to make you follow us. If you refuse to come with us, if you wander off on your own… well, you’ve seen those things. You wouldn’t last through day one, and you’d never find your way across even if they didn’t get you. You’d wander here for ever.” He searched her eyes, watching for a reaction to his words, but her expression remained unchanging.
“I appear in a form I think will be comforting. Sometimes, like with you, I choose a form that should be attractive, sometimes I’m a form that is intimidating, it depends what I think will best convince that specific person.”
“How do you know?” Dylan asked curiously.
Tristan shrugged. “I just know. I know
. Inside. Their past, their likes. Dislikes. Their feelings, hopes and dreams.” Dylan’s eyes widened as he spoke. What, then, did he know about her? She swallowed as a list of secrets, of private moments, flashed in her head, but Tristan wasn’t finished. “Sometimes I take the form of someone they’ve lost, like a spouse.” Catching sight of her face, he immediately realised that he’d said too much.
“You pretend to be someone’s love, their soul mate, to trick them into believing you?” Dylan spat the words at him, nauseated. How could he use a person’s most treasured memories, toy with their emotions like that? It made her sick to her stomach.
His face hardened. “It’s not a game, Dylan.” He spoke in a low, passionate voice. “If those things get you, you’re gone. We do what we have to.”
The rain was falling harder now, bouncing off the ground. It had soaked through Dylan’s hair and ran down her face like phantom tears. The wind had picked up too, sweeping off the mountain and exploiting every hole in their clothing. Dylan shivered, folding her arms across her chest in a vain attempt to hold in some warmth.
“What do you really look like?” Dylan demanded, wanting to see beyond the lies, to see his real face.
A change of emotion flickered in his eyes, but Dylan was too caught up in her outrage to notice it. He didn’t respond, and Dylan raised her eyebrows with impatience. Finally he dropped his gaze to the ground.
“I don’t know,” he whispered.
Shock dissolved Dylan’s anger. “What do you mean?” she asked.
He raised his head to look at her, and pain seemed to darken the blue of his eyes. He shrugged, and his words came out stiltingly. “I appear to each soul in the most suitable way. I keep that shape till I meet the next soul. I don’t know what I was before I met my first soul, if I was anything. I exist because you need me.”
As Dylan gazed at him, the rain began to lighten. Pity swelled in her chest and she reached out a hand to comfort him as the first rays of sunshine broke through the quickly dissipating cloud. Tristan pulled back from her touch, and the sadness was replaced by a mask of indifference. She watched him shutting down.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“We should go,” he said, looking towards the horizon and thinking of the distance that they still had to travel. Dylan nodded mutely and followed him as he led the way up the hill.
They spent the rest of the morning walking in silence, each caught up in their own thoughts. Tristan was angry. Angry at himself for making fun of her and causing the whole conversation that had made her face twist into an expression of disgust and abhorrence. She had made him feel deceitful, like a common trickster who played on the emotions of people to get what they wanted. He did not expect her to understand, but she had seen the demons, she knew the stakes. Sometimes it was necessary to be cruel; sometimes the end did justify the means.