The hollow sound
of dripping water roused Aldous as his eyelids opened to solid darkness. There
was a noise filling him, a sound he knew well, soft like rustling sheets of
paper, back and forth, in and out. The words came to him. Breathing, breath,
He made to raise himself up but stopped on impulse, not knowing what pains waited, not knowing why he expected these pains, or how he had come to be in this cold and heavy blackness. As he stared at the shining black ceiling above him through eyes clouded with confusion he remembered everything with a sudden jolt of clarity.
I've been shot… Redwood is ruined… Dylan is dead.
He tried to shout out – a wordless cry he heard in his mind – but his throat was parched, his tongue rough and swollen, harsh with the tang of blood. He ground his teeth and steeled himself for the pain from the buckshot wounds as he tried to lever himself up, grimacing in expectation, but felt nothing save the strain of his muscles. The sharp stabbing pains did not come, nor was there any sensation out of the ordinary, nothing that sat well alongside his memory. As he tried to shake off his confusion he looked down and saw the dark stain on his shirt, confirming what he remembered. Why then did he feel nothing? Why when he moved his hand across the wound was the skin smooth and unblemished?
He remembered the jolt of pain as the buckshot had ricocheted into his eye and reached up to find the rough material of an eye-patch but could not bring himself to remove it for fear of what he might find, or what further damage his shaking fingers might wreak. He looked around as best he could, half expecting to see members of an ambulance crew, but there was no one, no sound save his own shallow breathing, nothing in the silent gloom to indicate that anyone had made it through the rubble. But that, he knew, was impossible. If he was wearing an eye-patch it followed there would be someone there when he regained consciousness, some smiling face or other telling him everything was going to be fine. Even as he thought this he began to doubt that it was possible – it would take the emergency services days to even begin to move through what was left of the house, maybe weeks before the old stone stairwell was found, if he was lucky. Even if the passage he had uncovered had remained free, would anyone ever think to come this way, to write Aldous off as anything but dead? He was sure he had heard the house collapsing in those final moments, rock and earth compacting in the tunnels and caverns above, saw the cloud of dust race across the room like a squadron of ghosts If the pressure had made it this far that meant the tunnels would be blocked, some of them at least, the path he had followed trapped beneath rock and earth and rubble. It could take months to find a way through that, years even. Impossible, he knew, as he weighed it all up that anyone would find them in time, never mind the fact that he should be wearing an eye-patch, but he couldn’t deny the truth of it as the edge of the material scratched across his cheek, the small knot on the band at the back of his head pressing into him.
Someone was here.
The sound of light footsteps pulled him from his conflicting thoughts and he turned to see a blur of white by the opening in the cube, an impossible sight that almost sent him back to darkness.
“Dylan? Is that...” he mumbled. “No it can’t… I saw… you were… you were. I saw it, Dylan. I saw it.” The point Aldous was trying to convey was clear in his head – I watched you die, Dylan. You’re dead – but he could not argue with the cold hard fact of the boy, cheeks coloured, smiling as he reached out a hand towards him.
“I’m fine, Aldous,” the boy said softly in the darkness. “We’re both fine.”
Aldous wondered why the boy sounded so calm, so level, how he could’ve shrugged off all that had happened before. Wonder about it was all he could do for his mind seemed to be closing down, shutting off the world outside as though in fear that it might overload, the truth of the boy stood in front of him almost too much to bear. Aldous welcomed the warm and fuzzy sensation, the encroaching darkness. Perhaps he would wake up and this would all have been a dream, he would find himself drunk in the stairwell at Redwood, collapsed beside a pile of bricks with the bottle rolling on the ground beside him. And if that didn’t work he would go to sleep again and again until everything was as before.
His last thought before sleep claimed him was that the air in the chamber was fresh and that he couldn’t smell any smoke from the fire that had surely gutted the house.
Memories of times long-gone flitted away from Aldous’ thoughts as his eyes opened and slowly focussed on the pale form standing on the earth outside the cube.
It hadn’t been a dream. The boy was alive!
Aldous fought the rising tide of motion in his gut and gazed around the chamber through the opening in the cube, plunged back into disbelief, wondering why the space felt odd, why the shape of the room was different than what he remembered, subtle changes in the curve of the floor or the distance of a wall. He was sure there had been more stalactites and stalagmites, more roots grasping towards the cube, but the pieces were not coming together in his mind and he supposed that, in the shock of what had gone before, his memory was playing tricks. After all, from what he could remember, he had died, and if he remembered dying so clearly yet still lived, how could he hope to work through the lesser problems when his memory was so obviously at fault?
Yet he could not discount his worries as he crawled on his knees from the opening. The cavern was smaller, thinner, more elongated and the stone of the walls looked different from the pale limestone he remembered, darker in shade, more volcanic. Even the air had a different taste, a purer taste, untainted by the cloud of dust that had marched across the cavern, by the noxious smoke from the burning building far above.
Aldous stood up gingerly, unsure of the strength of his legs, moving his hand once again to his stomach in expectation and the motion once again proving needless.
“I was shot and I can’t feel anything,” he said to the boy. Something clicked into place as he spoke. Dylan was shot. You saw it. Where are his wounds? “How long was I out for? What happened to those men? I saw you…where is… why…” The questions spilled out in a muddled torrent, each more urgent than the last.
“Please, not yet,” Dylan said as he took Aldous’ by the arm and led him through the gloom to the stairwell at the far end of the chamber. “Catch your breath, then I’ll take you from here and show you everything.”
Aldous was spellbound as he followed Dylan away from the cube and across the dusty floor of the chamber towards the spot where he had watched the boy die, struggling with his freshly-broken boundaries between reality and falsehood. Working through the pieces in his mind, he tried to fit recent events into a pattern, for he was sure there must’ve been a moment when everything had been as it seemed. He could remember being drunk as he worked at the bricked-up passages in the clinging cold of the ancient stairwell, could remember the boy from his dreams at the door of Redwood and the men running on his heel, the jolt of fear as the strangers broke into the house, as the Luger dropped from his grip, the burning pain as the buckshot burst first into his stomach and then his eye. He could remember all these things and knew they were as real as anything he had ever lived. How then could he also remember other things – clinging blackness, breath wheezing, blood and life seeping out of him – and still be alive? How could Dylan be walking in front of him after the shotgun blast had all but ripped him in two? It seemed there had been a point, somewhere below ground, where the truth had been lost and Aldous was no longer sure what to think.
Dreaming, of course. I must be dreaming.
With every second it became clearer to Aldous that this was all in his head, that his body was lying unconscious somewhere below Redwood, or comatose in a hospital bed, nothing after the gunshot that had ricocheted into his eye having any truth outside his mind. But he could not deny that there was something so vital about the place in which he found himself: the dust that crumbled from the ceiling, the roughness of the stone beneath him, the sense of weight in his limbs, even the air, tinged with a dozen different scents that couldn’t be imagined. A voice inside screamed that – of course – the chamber was real, the child was real, all of this was undeniably real, yet screamed at the same time that he had seen Dylan killed, had felt his own life slip away: both sides equally real yet impossible together. Perhaps it was best to think that if he closed his eyes for a while he would awake somewhere else. Nothing else made sense other than madness, chemicals in his brain revolting against him, turning his thoughts to mush.
“What’s going on?” Aldous spat as he found his tongue, suddenly angry with the boy. His words sounded wild in the darkness, maddened almost. He took a deep breath to steady himself as the river of conflicting thoughts swam by, realising he couldn’t see any sign of the trail of blood he had surely left on his way to the cube. The dried blood was all over him – confirming what he remembered – so why would it not be on the ground which he’d crawled across?
The boy dragged him onward.
“I don’t understand what’s happening, Dylan,” he said as he pulled his arm free. “You came to my house as if you know me, as if you’d chosen me. You led those men to me as if you are playing some cruel game, destroy the only thing on this earth I have left, the thing I’ve waited my whole life for, then I … Oh, I don’t know...all this and you want me to…”
“I’m sorry,” Dylan interrupted. “I’m sorry you’re angry but that’s not my fault. I’ll explain as best I can as soon as we’ve left here.”
The boy was holding something back; Aldous could read it in the lines of his face. “Left here?” he echoed. “I can’t imagine us doing that, well, at least until someone makes it through the rubble, which might be a long time coming.” The truth that they may yet die here reared its head. Die again, came the thought, discarded instantly, too heavy to dwell upon. “This can’t be happening,” Aldous said. “I can’t be alive. You can’t be alive.” He ran his hands roughly through his matted hair, soaked pink with his own blood, a manic glint in his uncovered eye. “You had an eye-patch with you for Christ’s sake. It’s as if... as if...”
“When you saw me for the first time your eyes flared,” Dylan said.
Aldous’ tirade was stilled for a moment as he remembered. “I saw you in... in a dream.”
“And you’ve never laid eyes on me before that, or spoke of me with anyone?”
“And you didn’t know I was coming?”
Aldous shook his head. The questions weren’t right, didn’t help.
“Then you’ll have to wait.” Dylan turned away to walk off towards the stairwell, and added, almost as an afterthought, “Trust me.”
Aldous was sure now that something else was going on. The dream in Tiwanaku of the boy at Redwood had been much more than it appeared, for Dylan seemed to know he had walked in the dream, had known those two words would stick with the old man. Aldous gathered himself and walked after Dylan, trying not to think of anything.
As they made their way up the stairwell – free of rubble and much wider than Aldous remembered – a vast hollow sound began to assail them, growing clearer with each turn. Aldous could take the helplessness no more and pushed past Dylan, eager to find out what waited above, hoping Redwood had not been totally razed, hoping there would be something left with which he could rebuild.
He faltered and fell to his knees as he reached the top of the stairwell. Where the tunnels should be was a jagged cavern melting off into inky blackness, as though a great emptiness had opened in the earth and swallowed Redwood. But, he realised instantly, he could see no sky. He crawled forward on the narrow shelf of rock and glanced down into the pitchy void, thinking that surely these caverns couldn’t go any deeper. The darkness was complete but it felt as though he was standing on the edge of everything, that the cavern did really go on forever. He shuddered. His memories of the final sprint were of winding, narrow tunnels with walls that seemed to burst out towards him. Where were they? Had the whole series of tunnels collapsed at some point? Or had Dylan led him through some other stairwell, a path to some other cavern below the forest?
Vertigo tugged at his senses as he took in the vastness of the sight and he crawled back to the safety of the stairwell, breathing heavily as he tried to stop the shaking in his hands. He crouched down and inched forward until he could peer out again across the empty pitch-black space, to verify it was true more than anything. He could smell running water, he realised, hear it rippling below. The sound brought a flush of saliva to his mouth as he turned to see Dylan emerging from the stairwell. Again, his questions were muddled, his voice broken.
“What in the name of… Where have… Where is this?”
“Somewhere else,” Dylan said as he sat down on the bare stone floor, crossing his legs. “I don’t know where. Not yet.”
“Not yet?” Aldous spat.
“Sit down,” the boy said. “We don’t have much time and I can only tell you so much.”
As Aldous came to the floor, Dylan took a deep breath and began. “I don’t know much about me, about who I am or where I’m from, so I’ll tell you what I know about you, about your past, as I don’t know how much you know already.” The blank look Aldous offered was proof that he knew of nothing in his past that could have led to this. He was beginning to wish he had never found the key, had never made the choice to smash open those bricked-up passages. But that saved me, he remembered. Gave me somewhere to run.
“You are very important, Aldous,” the boy continued. “Your past, the past of your family, means so much. If not for your hatred of your father this might have been so different.”
“Did you know my fa..” He still found the word hard to say. “Did you know him?”
“Yes… and no. Not as I should have, not as I was meant to.”
Aldous shook his head, at a loss. “What does that even mean? Is this all something to do with him? Some kind of… some…”
Aldous knew he was grasping at straws and gave the question up.
Dylan sighed. “I met your father for the first time on the night he died. He fell down the stairwell, stumbled and fell before I could do anything. I came to find him but instead I’ve been led to you. Maybe it could’ve been different, maybe he could’ve told you what you’d inherit once he was gone. But he didn’t. That was the choice he made.”
Aldous didn’t know what to say. He had words aplenty but no way to get them out. Every singled word the boy spoke sounded utterly insane.
“He wasn’t the man you thought he was, you know. Everything he did, everything you hate him for was driven by...” Dylan waved his hand to the left and right. “All this.”
Darkness, Aldous thought. Just darkness.
“Perhaps, if you were in his shoes you would understand why he made certain choices. Perhaps you would have done just as he had.”
He knows about the boy. “You mean… how do you…”
“Your father did kill that boy – I’m sure you knew this already – but not for any reason you could understand. You shouldn’t hate him for it. He didn’t do it for himself.”
Aldous had no response to offer (the words were so strange, so fantastic), so Dylan continued. “It was blood he needed, my blood. That’s how you open the Gateway. That was how we came here – you and I, dying together. I can only guess he didn’t know what he was meant to do. Or maybe he just couldn’t muster the strength to take his own life and so breach the opening by joining their lives, and deaths, together. If he’d known this the boy would have lived; they would have found themselves here.”
“And the others,” Aldous said softly. “Did he kill the others?”
Dylan shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. But that isn’t important now. Your story started long before any of this. In the last days of October 1307 a ship sailed from La Rochelle into the Atlantic Ocean, a ship manned by fleeing Templars, never to be seen again. In the weeks before, a single man had set out from half a world away to find this ship, fleeing from the men who had killed everyone he loved, driven by something he couldn’t understand, by the secrets that came from a gift bestowed upon him. That man was Cassius Finaeus.”
The figure in the painting rushed into Aldous’ mind, the proud eyes, the slight smile – the one shining light in his family’s lineage. This all started with him?
“Your ancestor, Aldous. Your blood. He carried out his part in finding Redwood. The others who came after played theirs, whether for right or wrong. All those years searching below ground, carving out passages, chipping away… It was only their human weaknesses, their wishes of power and greatness that meant each man kept the secret to himself. Perhaps if your father and you had not drifted apart you could have prepared for this.”
“Prepared for… prepared for what?”
“I don’t know. The key will show us.”
The key will show us? “But those men took the key from you,” Aldous said. They were the only words he could find. “I saw them.”
“No, they took a key,” Dylan said with a satisfied grin. He reached into a pocket and removed a bundle of cloth wrapped in string.
Aldous could see it now as Dylan held the package aloft, the key separated from his skin by the cloth. He wondered why it was held like that, as though something unwanted would happen were he to touch it proper. Aldous had touched it. It was just a key, nothing more.
Dylan’s next words were so ludicrous that Aldous nearly laughed aloud.
“Your world isn’t the only one. There are others occupying the same space, beyond sight but closer than you can imagine.” Dylan reached out to stroke the air. “I have felt this place so many times before – my world, the world from which I came. It waits for me… for us outside this pocket of rock. But you’ll see soon, when my people come. Then you’ll have no choice but to believe.”
The statement hung in the air as Aldous looked for one word he could voice against this madness, for madness is exactly what it was.
A new noise echoed from the void below, demanding their attention. It sounded like a voice, a muted yell. Someone was down there. The men, a part of Aldous cried, but he discounted that thought immediately. They were in the stairwell when it crumbled. Then: This isn’t even the same place, Aldous, remember? You’re in another world. You and the boy died in some magical Gateway and came back to life in another world. A wide smile split his face. Jesus Christ, I must be losing my mind.
“Someone will be coming through the Gateway,” Dylan said, “and we don’t want to be here when they come. All this’ll be for nothing if we don’t leave now.”
“Sure,” Aldous said with a blank look, though he had never felt less sure of anything. He had a thousand questions and for all he knew the devil himself was coming through the Gateway – that thought seemed just as plausible as any other.
“How do you feel?”
“How do I feel?” Aldous said with a short laugh. What a bloody question. “Like I don’t exist. Like I’m going to fall to pieces any minute. Like I’m the butt of some sick joke you and the rest of the damn world dreamed up. I feel like turning on my heel and grabbing you by the scruff of the neck and making you… bloody making you take me back…” He shrugged and ran a hand through his matted hair, blinking away the threat of tears. “But I can’t. I just can’t. I don’t know how.”
Dylan couldn’t blame Aldous for his reactions and wished there was something he could say to make it better. He knew he’d be angry if he’d been the one kept in the dark, used like this – it was all that could be expected. He spoke slowly and clearly, never breaking the old man’s gaze.
“I promise you, Aldous, that I’ll do my best to make this clear as soon as we’ve reached safety, whatever I can, but first – right now – we have to find a way out of here.”
Aldous slumped to the floor as Dylan turned and ran back into the stairwell. The whole thing was impossible to think about. He felt beyond himself, thoughts drifting from one unanswerable to another. Moments later, though it could have been hours for all Aldous knew, Dylan returned carrying a battered leather satchel and a small wooden chest. Aldous recognised the latter. It was an ancient-looking thing, medieval, short bars of oak held by thick steel clasps, the frontispiece sealed with an iron crest bearing the Finaeus family coat of arms – a stunted olive tree on a field of dark red. Aldous realised then that Dylan’s words were true – this solid object from the world he knew confirmed it. His father was some part of this madness, all the Finaeus men, going right back to Cassius were a part of it, and that meant Aldous was part of it. He turned away and bit hard on his lip, almost drawing blood, picturing his father cast under a new light, warped and broken by a burden Aldous was only now being introduced to.
A sound drifted up from below – movement, heavy grinding. A hint of wind rose up the walls and licked across him as the sound diminished. And there was light too, he saw, the merest smudge breaking up the darkness from somewhere below.
Dylan moved to the edge and whistled into the abyss, a single sharp note. He held up his hand and cocked his head. Seconds later the whistle was returned.
Aldous felt his heart jump. Someone’s down there. Waiting. “Who is it?” he muttered.
“A friend,” Dylan said, then added rather ominously: “I hope.”
Aldous rubbed his fingers around the rim of his eye-sockets, trying not to scream.
“The men who killed us didn’t work alone.” Killed us, Aldous thought starkly. Killed us. “They were working for another, and I worry they’ll learn how to work the Gateway, if they haven’t already. Maybe they knew – whoever leads them knew – before they came here. If that’s the case, they could be here in minutes, and they probably won’t be alone.” Aldous pictured an army, a huge crowd out to kill him and the boy. He tried not to imagine what would need to happen, the blood that would need to be shed for them to get here in the manner Dylan had described.
“We have to go down,” Dylan said as he pointed to the shadow beyond the jagged cliff edge that Aldous thought could be ten feet or ten miles deep.
“And how might we do that?” Aldous asked as he peered over the edge, thinking it was foolhardy to go anywhere until he had regained a modicum of control, which might be a very long time in coming.
Dylan looked around the ground at his feet, picked up a small stone and dropped it over the edge. Not much more than two seconds later there was a muted splash. “We can climb or we can jump. But we have no rope and it’s dark. It’s up to you.”
“We stay here,” Aldous said with more certainty than he felt.
“If we stay here, we die.”
Suddenly Aldous was past caring. He didn’t even think to ask how Dylan knew the water would be deep enough, didn’t know if it even mattered. Maybe that’s what I need to do to stop this. “Well, if I have a choice, I suppose we jump.”
Aldous was imagining the moment when he would hit the water and wake from this lucid, fevered dream, burst back into life in a hospital bed, Wolfgang and Rita waiting for him. Yet at the same time he knew that, if he were to hit the water and still, when he surfaced, find himself here, he would have no reason to disbelieve.
“We have to slow them down,” Dylan said as he took the chest from Aldous. He opened the lid, reached inside and pulled a few sticks of dynamite free, holding them up and inspecting them as though they were some valuable antique.
“Dynamite! Is that real?”
Dylan nodded and reached into his pocket. “As real as these matches,” he said as he rattled the tiny box. “Now, if this works we’ll have no more than ten seconds to jump or we’re dead…” he smiled, “really dead this time.”
Aldous nodded blindly as Dylan sealed the satchel inside the chest and threw it over the cliff edge. He was thinking on those words. Really dead this time. Suddenly the hopes that he would wake were dwindling. What does the boy know? He’s only a figment of my imagination anyway. He heard the splash below and began to chuckle, the sound coming unbidden.
Seconds later the boy had wedged one stick of dynamite into a crack in the ceiling, lit the wicks of both, and threw the other down the stairwell. He turned and ran to the lip, reaching out for Aldous. They jumped off the edge in unison, dropping hand in hand through blackness as thick as tar as the sound of Aldous’ maddened laughter skittered around the cavern walls.
Aldous knew as soon as he hit the water – as soon as the cold flooded through him – that this was no dream, that he had been stupid even to think it. The splash of falling rocks peppered the water from above as he held himself tense, waiting for some massive rock to drive him to the bottom. When a few seconds passed and it did not come, he pushed upwards.
Aldous broke the surface and saw the chest bobbing nearby, the only thing he could make out in the darkness. He reached out and clung to it, hoping it would hold the water at bay, for he fancied there were answers inside. Dylan’s head appeared a few feet away just as Aldous was beginning to worry. He took a deep breath as he paddled over to the boy, grimacing at the loud splashing as he remembered there was someone down here. Dylan moved a finger to his mouth then pointed to his front, to a pasty circle of light a hundred feet or so away. It had been hidden from view on the platform from which they had jumped but was visible now – a circle of grey against the black.
Dylan moved off and Aldous began to follow, swimming until the ground levelled out beneath him. In no time at all the boy had all but vanished from sight – the sudden light to their front making the blackness here seem even thicker, drawing up thoughts of a million eyes peering from the darkness. The eye-patch didn’t help matters, and now it was sodden, pressing against his ruined eye with a dull ache that Aldous couldn’t be sure he wasn’t imagining.
Dylan stopped suddenly and grabbed Aldous’ arm. “There,” he hissed.
As Aldous looked up a dark shape detached from the wall to their front and stepped into the light, a tall form cloaked in darkness. Aldous froze and gripped the boy tight as the figure disappeared for a moment beyond the other side of the circle, the sound of some switch being flicked followed by a deep gurgle as the pool behind them began to empty.
“My friend,” the stranger called as he stood with arms outstretched. His voice sounded like the very fibre of the mountain, crumbling and ancient. The light from outside painted a silver halo around him as he filled the doorway. “Talos? Is that really you?”
Dylan felt his knees quiver. That name – Talos – felt like a bolt of heat in his heart, full of meaning he couldn’t understand. The figure took a step forward and the brightness dimmed. “Come, now. Come out from the water. It is I, Lemistat. I have come for you, Talos, as I said I would, as I promised.”
The same sensation struck Dylan as he heard the names – Talos, Lemistat. A pang of loss almost, an indefinable pull. The names felt heavy, sending his thoughts spinning. Some part of him knew those names intimately, but the memories linked to them he simply could not recall. With Aldous holding his arm as though it was all there was left, Dylan took a few steps forward as the water began to recede.
“Come closer, into the light,” Lemistat said as he shuffled forward, stooping over as he moved. “Come closer so I can be sure my aged mind is not playing tricks.”
Dylan noticed the blade against the stranger’s cowl and, as though the man in the light had read his thoughts, he loosed his belt and the sword clattered to the floor. Dylan took another step forward but held back from going too close, ready to turn and run if needs be, to fight if he must. “You… you’re expecting me?” he asked.
The shadowed man nodded and stepped forward. “I have been expecting you since the day you left.” A strange sound escaped him as he took the boy in. Aldous thought it was a sob. “Forgive me,” Lemistat said as he gathered himself. “I must control myself.”
“You talk as if you know me but I can’t remember you,” Dylan said, his voice barely a whisper. “I don’t even know why I’m here, or where here is.”
Lemistat nodded as though he had expected this. “We were companions once, a long time ago, before the world changed.” He pointed to Aldous and bowed his head almost imperceptibly. “You have brought the one promised to us. And here; here is home. Here is where you belong.”
Dylan’s words were answered but he didn’t feel any better for it He had expected to meet with someone, another who had fulfilled a purpose such as he had, but still he was wary of the shadowed man, something inside flaring – whether danger or resurging memory he could not tell.
Lemistat took another step forward. “I could speak to you of our days before the world turned but I feel they would be just stories to you, times beyond your memory. I could tell you of the terror when the Darkness came to our land. I could speak of the dark night when we came into this world, moments apart – you, your brother and I, joined in that brief interlude, chosen by the stars. But that was then and all of it is gone. I could speak of all I have done since you left; of shunning the city that took me in when the Turning came, of finding this place as the words of the old ones foretold, freeing it from the mountain with my own hands as evil blighted the land. I could speak of much more but those parts of my story would be as unknown to you as yours would be to me.”
Every word hit Dylan like a hammer blow as fractured memories came flooding back, locked away for so long in a place beyond his reach. He could see Lemistat now, the boy he once knew and had forgotten. They were in a dark room, a band of sunlight streaming through a narrow window. There was three wooden beds by the far wall, toys spread about the floor, carved statues with enigmatic faces, steel throwing hoops, wooden swords and brightly-painted shields. There was another person in the space, a person he could sense but not see, for the memory was little more than a fragment. My brother. There were blanks too, and plenty of them, but he knew – or at least hoped – more would come, in time.
But that this ancient stooped man hidden in the shadows was the child he knew seemed impossible. “How… how long have I been gone?” he asked.
“Too long. So long.”
Dylan’s eyes were finally beginning to pierce through the shadow and make out Lemistat’s features. Expectation bubbled inside him. When he focussed on the slowly revealing visage, piecing the parts together like a jigsaw, he was struck by what he found. There was something of this old and hoary man and the child in his thoughts that were one and the same.
“More years have passed than I known,” Lemistat continued as a host of bubbles surged through the diminishing waters in the cavern, “A hundred and fifty winters I would guess. It was so easy to lose count as the years sped on. Black years all of them, empty years filled with silence, years spent alone freeing the Gateway, holding this ground and waiting. But my punishment is that I can never know what will come, for I can never leave this prison that has poisoned me with too many thoughts yet kept me alive at the same time.” He paused and took another faltering step. “I fear for our kin, Talos. For a long time I knew that blood still flowed in the land, that some had survived. Once, I could feel them in the air, in the rock, feel their thoughts reaching out to me. Not now; now there is nothing, nothing but the blight.”
Dylan’s mouth gaped as he tried to make sense of it. If the words were true, if no one was here to guide him then Dylan was lost, and he couldn’t believe that.
“Someone is following us.”
“I know. I can feel them.”
They were within a few feet of Lemistat now, close enough to see the whites of his eyes beneath the hooded cowl, close enough to see the multitude of lines that etched his ancient face, close enough for the old man to lay his rheumy eyes on Dylan properly for the first time, to drink in the sight he had waited lifetimes for.
He removed his hood and a paper-thin smile cut across his face as he reached out to touch the boy, running a calloused fingertip across a strand of hair. “It is you. It really is,” Lemistat wept as he sunk to his knees, the creak of his bones echoing like crackling tinder. He reached out and took Dylan’s hand in his own with the touch of old leather, handing the boy something that Aldous couldn’t see. “This is all I have of you. I only wish we had more time.” His shoulders stooped then, as though some long-held weight had been lifted, and the last remains of the water gurgled loudly through the opening at the base of the pool.
There were questions Dylan wanted to ask but his tongue would not move, captivated as he was by the sickly thing the old man had placed in his hand.
Lemistat turned away and pulled a small glowing object from his cloak and placed it into a niche in the cavern wall where it pulsed and flared. The burgeoning glow began to spread upwards, painting the bare walls with a burning orange radiance, revealing the splendour of the cavern around them as the molten glow seeped into the thousand-fold grooves and channels spread across the walls like a great luminous spider web.
“They will come,” Lemistat intoned. “If our kin yet live, they will come.”
The sight of the molten glow was magical, and Aldous might have stared in wonder had he cared to turn his gaze towards it, but he could not look anywhere but at the old man's face. It was changing before his eyes, drying up like aged parchment, pulling back across the bones of the skull as the man let out a long, drawn-out sigh. Aldous stared in shock, watched as the years progressed impossibly before him, as the pearl-white motes of skin and bone lost their bonds with one another and drifted like falling stars to the floor. Within seconds, all that remained was a pile of dust and the filthy cowl where the man had stood moments before.
Dylan saw none of this. He was staring at the object in his hand.
Aldous, dumbstruck by all that had happened, moved over to the boy. “What is it?”
“Something is wrong. Very wrong,” Dylan said as he gathered himself and shrugged away the threat of tears, putting the object in his pocket.
He grabbed Aldous by the arm, leading him towards the doorway and the thick mists that waited outside, past the pile of dust that the breeze was sculpting across the floor.
“We must leave. This place isn’t safe.”
Aldous shook the water from his hair and beard and looked through the doorway from the cavern to the greyness outside as Dylan spoke.
“I was born somewhere in this place,” the boy said. “Somewhere out there is my home but I feel… I don’t know, disconnected, like I don’t really know what to do here. It’s as if… as if… it’s hard to explain. I think I feel like you do; a stranger.” He slumped down against the wall at the doorway and closed his eyes, drumming the fingers of one hand against his forehead as if he could coax the memories from within.
Aldous noticed the boy’s other fist was still tightly-clenched. “What did he give you?”
Dylan uncurled his fingers and threw the item to the floor by the doorway. It was a scrap of flesh, perhaps the size of a penny, brown and puckered, trailing a few dozen brittle black hairs.
“I don’t understand.”
Dylan reached up and pulled his hair away from the right side of his head. There was a pale scar there, a perfect patch of smooth skin, perhaps the size of a penny. “Me neither.”
The boy turned suddenly and moved off into the cavern, leaving Aldous to wonder whether the sounds he heard as Dylan walked away were tears. It dawned on him that perhaps the boy was as scared as he.
As the sound of Dylan's footsteps receded, Aldous began to cautiously explore his surroundings. As he walked forwards on the bare rock, wind tugged at his body and blew strands of hair across his face, sticking in pointed shards to his wet skin. He was at a much higher altitude than he had imagined when they had first emerged from the cave. The air was cool and thin and he was sure he had seen clouds through breaches in the thick wall of fog that pressed tight against him. A jolt of panic passing through him, he moved back to the wall and waited, biting his bottom lip to stop his teeth from chattering, allowing the machinations of his tired mind to work through the madness of its own accord.
Presently he heard the sound of Dylan’s running footsteps and was about to speak when he saw the grave look on Dylan’s face.
“They’re here,” the boy said. “I can feel them. We must leave now.”
“Yes, that’s it,” Aldous nodded. “That’s exactly what I want, to leave this place and go back to how it was before.”
“It can’t be like it was before, Aldous. I can’t take you back.”
Aldous felt as though a spear had been thrust through him. How could Dylan know how to bring him to this place but not how to take him back?
“I’ve known for most of my life what would happen last night,” the boy said as he saw Aldous’ shock, “that in finding you I would be going to my death. But as for what happens now that we’re here, I’ve no idea.”
“I…” Aldous started, but Dylan cut him off.
“I know that I’m the reason you’re alive and you’re the reason that I’m alive. Think about it. If either of us had died anywhere but at the Gateway then everything would be over. Those men would have found us regardless, someone would have found us, and then everything would be over. And you can be sure they’ll find you again if they must. Now they know who you are and next time, for I’m sure there’ll be a next time, we might not have a Gateway to save us.”
He pulled the key from his pocket and removed the wrappings. “It’s this. They want this, need this. This is all that matters.”
So that was the truth of it – to go back they would have to die, again. Aldous reached out to grab the key as the boy spoke. He was going to tell Dylan to give it to the men if that was all they really wanted, beg to boy to give them the blasted key and make all this madness stop, but the moment his hand touched the key everything changed.
Suddenly he was somewhere else, lying flat on his back in heavy darkness, rough stone beneath him. Dylan and the fog were gone. The key was gone, the ghost of it still warm in his hand, a hand he could not even see.
There was flickering light like the flame of lone candle piercing through the darkness from somewhere far away, dancing like a firefly. The light grew larger as he watched, flickering closer, dancing like a phantom until it was upon him. He became aware of the space around him as the light grew; became aware of the blank eyes through which he looked, eyes that were not his own, eyes that felt cold and useless, ignoring his need to take in what lay around him.
A figure stepped into his line of sight, detaching from the heavy shadows to his left. Aldous screamed but the sound was only in his own head.
The man was dressed in tattered furs that hung from his emaciated frame, his torso painted in great interlocking swirls of blue and red, every inch of skin coated in a filthy sheen of sweat and smoke as though he had spent half a lifetime in this dark and secret place. The man was smiling as he looked into and through the cold pools of Aldous’ eyes, seeing not a hint of the terror Aldous so clearly felt in this odd paralysis.
The figure knelt down and held his hands out of Aldous’ line of sight, moving them as though he were some master craftsman, shaping and forming. Aldous thought he could feel what was happening, could feel the ghost of movement inside him but did not want to entertain the thought of what it might mean. He tried to close his eyes but could not.
Other figures moved out the shadows now as the man kneeling over him brought his hands back to where Aldous could see them. The hands were covered in blood – Aldous’ blood; the blood from the body he inhabited that was not his own. The flickering glow of the fire painted the faces of the men in stark contrasts of black and orange, skewed and terrifying to Aldous’ eyes, each of them burning with purpose yet somehow vacant, as though all Aldous could see were the shells. He moved his eyes from face to face, straining to lift his head, to move his body, but it was to no avail.
He felt a hand beneath his head, a strong grip lifting him slowly up, heard words he could not understand, clouded as though from a great distance. The strength suddenly came to lift his hands and he glanced down upon them – small, grubby hands, the skin soft and free of the marks of the years; the hands of a child. A wave of apprehension rose within Aldous as he took in the body below. It was the naked body of a young boy, coated in filth and blood, a great stitched incision running from gut to gullet, crude medical implements glinting red in the firelight.
In moments he was on his feet and the crowd of figures stepped back, something like fear in their eyes as they bowed to the floor. Only one remained – the man who had fixed him, who had made everything better. The wild-eyed man moved forward. He was carrying an object in his smoke- and blood-stained hands which he raised in front of Aldous’ face – a polished piece of glass no more than a few inches across.
Aldous was removed from his own body yet he somehow knew that his heart leapt in the moment he saw the reflection. The face staring back was one he knew, changed by the years between then and now, but one he knew all the same. The eyes were different though. The eyes he knew were bright and blue but there was a heavy darkness lurking in the twisted reflection of these other eyes, a darkness which Aldous knew he could not forget.
Staring out from the mirror, the twisted face of Dylan smiled.
Aldous’ eyes snapped open to find Dylan still talking, the words coming to his ears as a muddled jumble. He glanced down himself, to his hands, to his filthy suit, and sighed to realise that he was himself again. It was clear that Dylan knew nothing of what Aldous had just experienced, clearer still that his long minutes in that dark and filthy place had happened in no more than a moment. His heart was racing and he felt icy beads of sweat drip down his back. Aldous knew he should be scared, knew the strange vision and the boy before him made no sense, absolutely no sense, but his thoughts were dragged away to the scene behind Dylan, revealed as the fog melted away with the emergence of the sun, and he was glad for a reason to turn away, to forget everything that had just happened.
They were stood on a narrow shelf of rock high on the side of a mountain, the range curling away to unseen distance on either side. A vast forest sloped away into a deep bowl a thousand feet and more below him, mile upon mile of tightly packed trees. Far in the distance the browns and blacks of the canopy muted and faded, melting into an orange-grey haze that seeped through the high pass of a distant mountain range, a vast sun that seemed to fill the sky with strands of quicksilver blazing beyond. Here and there a bird drifted on updrafts, a cloud crept out from behind the mountain, snaking turns of a river glinted in the rising sun. Aldous had no idea how long he stared at the panorama but after a time he realised there were tears in his eyes.
Dylan moved in beside him and saw the tears on Aldous’ cheeks.
“You saw something, didn’t you?” Dylan said softly.
Aldous had forgotten for a moment but there was no hiding the truth of it now.
Dylan grabbed Aldous’ arm, his eyes fervent – so similar yet so different to the foul eyes Aldous remembered from those dark moments before. “What was it? What did you see?”
“I need you here with me, Dylan,” Aldous said after a moment, as if that would satisfy the boy. “I trust you.”
“But what did you see?”
Aldous was gripped with confusion. With his own eyes he had watched Dylan die in the inky caverns below Redwood. He could smell the tang of cordite fresh in his memory, could see the white flash lighting up the chamber, could hear the gurgle of Dylan’s final breaths. And yet, the child was alive, standing before him. It followed that the child had come to Aldous’ world in much the same way, giving up his life or having it taken from him. And now, in some living dream, he had seen the empty vessel of Dylan’s body, cold and lifeless, felt it come to life, felt the evil deep in those knowing eyes. He ached to throw open Dylan’s shirt to see if the thick scar of evidence ran up his torso but wondered if he was mad for even entertaining the thought.