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Chapter 23: Courage

April 27, 2013

Ian felt his pockets and searched his bag. He’d got nothing sharp. He remembered the expensive camping knife in his tent.

“What kind of sharp?” asked Karen.
Fred shrugged. “We can’t climb the walls,” he said. “Maybe we can cut them.”
“I’ve got a Swiss army knife,” said Pip. “It’s blunt as hell, though.”

“Cut them? What for?”
“Dunno,” he said. “Footholds, maybe.” It was a hell of a long way to climb up, if you had to cut every hole as you went. If all you had was a blunt penknife.

“Sharp makes a good weapon, too,” said Fred. He was looking up at the circling shapes. Ian was wondering if the soul-eating light-monster thing was stabbable.

Pip got her knife out. The blade was stiff.
“Want me to do it?” offered Ian.
“No thanks,” said Pip, acidly. She could give Daisy a run for her money, that one.

“I should try there first,” he suggested. Why was he feeling so defensive? “I think it’s a bit less steep.”

She and Fred went to the section he had pointed out. He followed. Wanting to be useful. In real life, back in the world he knew, there was always something that could be done. Always someone to talk to, some button to press, some lever to pull. But then real life had never been quite as real as this.

Pip probed the wall.
“There aren’t any weak spots,” said Ian. “I’ve been looking.”
“OK, then,” she said. “I’ll just try anywhere.”

She raised the knife and pressed the point into the surface, sliced across.
Ian couldn’t see that it had made any impression.
Pip put her hand back up to the surface. “Not a scratch,” she said.

“Might need to be a bit more violent?” Karen, curious, had come to join them.

Pip raised the knife again, higher this time, up against her shoulder. She stabbed the wall. The point went in. She leaned on it, pushing it in further, and then began to saw back and forth.

“I made a hole!” she said, pulling out the knife.
Ian felt the hole while she wiped the blade.

“I can get my fingers in,” he said. “Christ almighty!” He withdrew his hand, shocked. He had expected earth. Something like earth. They were underground, after all.
“What is it?” asked Karen.
“I don’t know. It’s wet and sticky.”

He raised his fingers to sniff them. It smelled sweet. He wondered briefly if he dared taste it, then wiped his hand on his trousers.

“Look at that,” said Fred. A viscous liquid was seeping out of the wall, running down the sides.
“It’s like it’s bleeding,” said Karen.
“I vote we stab it again,” said Pip.

“No!”
It was Hazel and she rushed towards them, struggling to stay upright on the wobbly surface.
“Don’t!” she said.
“Why not?” asked Karen.
“It hurts.” said Hazel.

Lena was behind Hazel, and Ian noticed that Fatima was struggling to rise. He went to help her. She leaned on him, limping. That leg injury must have been worse than she had let on. Falcon held her free hand. They wanted to know what was happening.

“I don’t care if it hurts,” said Karen. “It should bloody well let us out if it doesn’t want us to hurt it.”
“I mean it hurts me.” said Hazel. She lifted the hem of her skirt to show them. There was a scratch, and blood on her leg. It was silvery.
“It’s all shiny,” said Falcon, drawing closer to Fatima.

It made Ian think of unicorn blood, in some film he’d seen with a girlfriend once. He looked back at the oozing wall and then back at Hazel’s leg.

“You mean – when Pip stabbed the wall, it cut you?”
“Yes,” said Lena. “I felt her wince.”

Everyone was quiet for the moment, putting two and two together.
“So you’re connected to it?” said Fatima. “We can’t hurt it without hurting you?”
“Looks that way,” said Hazel.

“Then you have to get it out of you,” said Karen.
“We might have to hurt it to escape,” said Fred. He sounded scared, but there was steel in his voice. Grit. Ian hadn’t thought he had that in him.
“I don’t know how,” said Hazel, faintly.
“Yes, you do,” said Fatima. They all looked at her. “You have to show it your soul.”

“But I -” Hazel looked at Lena, helpless.
“You’ve got no choice,” said Pip.

They were lining up, ranged against her. Backing her into a corner. Ian almost felt sorry for her. And she had a point, after all. How do you go about showing someone your soul? Even if you wanted to. It wasn’t something Ian had thought much about. Souls. It all sounded a bit wishy-washy to him. Of course – that was before. There was nothing wishy-washy about being down in this pit.

Lena took her hand.
“You fought it off,” she said. “Before.”
“Yes,” said Hazel.
“Stop fighting,” said Lena.
“I didn’t want to disappear. Like Helen. You think I should disappear?”
“I’ll hold you down.”

It must be a complicated thing, the soul of a person like Hazel, Ian thought. More complicated than average, anyway.

He took a step towards her. “I’ll hold on, too.”
They both looked at him, surprised.
He felt himself blushing and looked away. “If you need backup.”

“Thank you,” said Hazel, and held her hand towards him.

He took it and the three of them stood together.

Hazel closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let it out slowly. As she did so, Ian could see her brightening, starting to glow again. Her skin coruscated and her features became indistinct, lost in the blaze. Then she inflated, or so it appeared. Ian saw her as a giantess, and her light engulfed him.

He shut his eyes. He could still feel her hand. It was hot, but no bigger than it had been before. He gripped it. It was the light that was inflating. Not her.

“NO!” she shouted. “NOOOOOOO!”

Ian felt her pulling away from him. He held onto her with both hands.

The light was rising. It was trying to take her with it. He grabbed the leg nearest him. Lena had done the same and they stood side by side, holding onto Hazel. Ian’s face was level with her crotch. He felt a bit queasy for a second.

Her body crackled. He and Lena dragged on her legs. He held onto her and thought of the branches and saplings that he had grasped at only hours before, when he had been fighting the river. The light continued to rise, and he kept his hold.

He did not know how much time passed. It felt epic – but maybe it was only a few minutes.

He noticed that her feet were no longer glowing. Gradually, the light was beginning to leave her: they were gaining ground. Slowly, the dark crept up her body until there was too little alight to keep her up – she fell abruptly to the ground. Landed on top of them.

Ian extricated himself, crawled away, rubbing his shoulder. Hazel was sobbing, Lena held her. She was dark now, just like the rest of them. He wondered if it had left any – damage.

“It’s gone,” said Lena, soothing. “It’s gone.”

Gone from Hazel, yes.
But not altogether gone. It was hanging in the air, a few metres above them.

No longer Hazel-shaped. It was a cat. Washing its face – as though it had been at the cream. It looked smug. If Ian had been the type to kick cats, he’d have wanted to kick this one into the middle of next week.

It stood up. Stretched.
GOOOOOD, it boomed.
WE SAW. THE. TRUE SELF.

Hazel looked up and Ian saw the tears on her face. The cat-light glistened off them.
“And?” she asked.  Fear in her voice. Ian winced.

AND, WHAT?

There was a thunderous noise, like a storm, purring.

The cat began to lose shape. It began to spread, like an amorphous cloud of dissipating fog.
Perhaps, in a moment, there would be nothing left but the grin.

Had they defeated it? Was that it?

AND WHO’S NEXT?

Chapter 22: Death or balloons

April 26, 2013

Fred was acutely aware that what was happening could not be real.

“I thought it was going to let us go,” said Karen.
“Hazel asked it to,” said Fatima. Her soul for our freedom, that’s what she said.
“And it took her soul, right?” said Karen.
“Did it? How can you tell?” asked Pip.

Fred sat leaning back slightly, at the curve of the hole. It was shaped like the red vase that his Mum used every spring, to put daffodils in. Masses of daffodils. And it felt like a beanbag, the way it moulded itself to you. But soft and waxy. Like a petal. Like Edam cheese.

“Well, it hasn’t let us go, has it?” said Ian. “We’re still here.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” said Karen.
“Yeah, but he’s got a point,” said Pip. “She might still be all shiny, but it’s not like – not like before.”

So it didn’t get her soul? And they didn’t get their freedom.
The boy, Falcon, was sitting with Fatima. Seemed he had taken a shine to her. She let him snuggle right up to her. Fred hoped it was making him feel better. If they were scared and confused, what about him?

Fred was leaning into the curve, knees up, hugging his backpack to his chest. He listened with only half an ear. His eyes were on Hazel – there wasn’t really anything else to look at, because the weird light from her skin, although it was faint now, was still bright enough that everything else faded into the shadows.

He did not like the dark. He thought about the torch in his bag. Before, when all this was had been a landslide, a solvably human problem – then, he’d been dead keen on lighting up the torch. But, now, he thought perhaps he didn’t want to see after all.

The  wolfish shapes that they all kept half-seeing, out of the corners of eyes. They were still there. Moving about, but they had not approached. Not yet. Perhaps the light was keeping them away.

“Well,” said Ian. “There’s two ways this could go. Either it’s going to come back and want souls. Or it isn’t.” A right gift for stating the obvious.
“Either way, we’re still stuck down here,” said Pip. “Unless we can find a way back up to the top.”

They looked again at the walls. Ian began testing, looking for somewhere that wasn’t totally unclimbable. But all around the sides of this hole were completely smooth. Nowhere to put your hands or feet. You couldn’t dig into the surface because it just yielded and rippled away under your hands. Like fighting blancmange.

Fred had once tried to climb up the walls of a bouncy castle. It was impossible. This was the same.

“So what about this greatest-fear thing that we’re supposed to face?” began Pip. “What’s that about?”
“What are you most afraid of?”asked Fatima. Seemed like a reasonable question, if a bit personal.
“Clowns,” said Falcon.
Pip shrugged. “Dying? Torture?”
“Balloons?” suggested Fatima.

Fred was barely listening. He was watching Hazel, whispering with Lena. Maybe they were coming up with a plan.That would be good. And he was aware of Ian, continuing uselessly to probe the walls.

Mark had made him watch this horrible zombie film when was six. It had scared the bejesus out of him, he’d had nightmares for years afterwards. Years. In his dreams he would see the zombies coming. Dead people with grey-green skin and blank eyes, people who came to get you and wanted to eat your brains, and they wouldn’t stop no matter what you did.

Sometimes he would be able to run. He would run and run until his heart felt like it would explode.

“Balloons?” said Karen. “Death, torture – or balloons?”
“Balloons are creepy,” said Pip.
“Yeah, but they’re not the sort of thing that keeps you up at night are they?”

Other times, there would be nowhere to run. He would have to fight. And he would have no weapons, only what was nearest to him, things he could grab. He would hit the zombie with books, or lift up a chair, strength beyond his years, and smash it down on the zombie’s head time and time again. It didn’t stop them. They just kept coming.

“Cancer,” said Pip. “That’s bloody scary. My Mum….”
“Yes,” said Ian. “Cancer.”

Once, a zombie had come for him in the garden shed. He’d got the lawnmower, and managed to turn it on. His Dad had always kept him well away from it, but in the dream he knew how to turn it on. He’d run over them with the lawnmower, chopped them up with the blades that his Dad always said would take his hands right off if he got too close. Chopped them up, and they still kept on coming. Guts spilling out, green blood oozing. That lawnmower was a bloody lethal death machine, and they’d still kept coming.

“Nuclear bombs,” said Karen.
“That’s what we should be scared of,” said Fatima. “But are we? It’s not bombs or guns or cancer that keep me up at night.”
“I don’t like balloons,” said Falcon. “They squeak.”
“That’s what I mean, honey,” said Fatima.

“Someone could try and cut my face off with a spoon,” she went on. “And if I thought that was actually going to happen then I’d be scared of that. But I don’t. I’m more freaked out by balloons, actually.”
“And I’d be scared of big giant aliens with fifteen eyes and twenty arms and eleven legs,” said Falcon.
“I’d be scared of them too, if I ever saw one,” said Fatima.

Another time, he had hidden in the fridge. It had been so cold, and he’d had to stop his teeth from chattering in case the zombies heard. He’d stuffed his mouth with cheese to muffle the sound.

Cheese made him sick now.
The smell of it turned him green.

“What should scare me is knowing I’ll never go to university because my family are too poor,” said Pip.
“Does it?”
“No.”
“What then?” asked Karen.

He would throw rocks at them. Hefting great lumps of stone through the air. It would slow them down, if he hit them right. And when they got too close he would give up on the throwing and just bash them, over and over. Find a sharp one and stab them with it. Blindly, doggedly, tears streaming down his face. Knowing he was dead if he stopped.

“Exams. Failing exams.” Pip sounded bitter. “As if there was any point in passing them.”
“Dropping stitches,” said Karen. “I have to put stoppers on the ends of my needles, to stop the stitches coming off in the night.”
“Silence. If I’m lying in bed and I can’t hear anything. If it’s too quiet. Like there’s nobody else alive in the whole world. That’s what keeps me awake.”

That was the point – you mustn’t stop.

And he never had. He would wake up sweaty, sobbing, heart pounding through his chest. Sometimes, when he was very young, he would wake up covered in wee. Like after the time in the fridge. But he always woke up.

He never just let them get him.
That was the point.

“Hey,” he said, feeling again the waxy surface of the walls. Yes, like Edam cheese. “Does anyone have anything sharp?”

Chapter 21: For a tambourine

April 25, 2013

Lena watched in horror as the soul-light-Helen-Hazel-thing backed away from her.

WE ARE SOUL… it said. It stumbled.

Lena had been on the ground, where Hazel had pulled her down before she stood to face the thing. She forced herself to get up and follow.

She didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was it had got into her beloved.

She followed. It turned back towards her, its eyes blank and silvery, colours moving over its skin. She could see its flesh rippling. Changing.

It seemed to grow in size, and then shrank again.
WE ARE –

It took a step toward her. It tripped, fell forwards.

Lena caught it. It was Hazel but it was not Hazel. It was Andy but it was not Andy – a body possessed by some soul-eating creature. SOUL, trapped in a woman, trapped in a –

She caught it and fell backwards as it landed on top of her.

The creature was panting, effortful. It lay on her for a moment, then tried to get up.
She looked into its eyes as it reared up and –
“Hazel!” she said, urgently. Then: “Andy!”
She clung on. “Are you still you?”

WE ARE –
“Hazel!”

“Lena – ” The whisper came out like the hiss of steam from a pressure cooker when you rock the top.
“And are you – are you, you?” Lena asked.
The glow faded. It did not go but it faded.
“I am me,” said Hazel. She sat up, catching her breath.
“Thank God.”

“What the hell just happened?”
It was Karen.

Lena did not know Karen, did not recognise her at all. She hadn’t been part of the spell. Why was Karen even here? Why were any of those others here?

“It wants to see our souls,” said Hazel.
Her voice sounded distant, and there was still a light sheen over her skin.

“What does that even mean?” asked Pip. A kid. Another one just caught up in things.
Lena put her head in her hands.
“Why?” Karen again. “I don’t understand any of this,” she said.

“It’s because of the spell.”
“That thing at the Women’s Tent?” said Karen.
“You were there?”
“I had a tambourine,” said Karen. “I thought it would be fun.”

Lena’s heart sank. The first spell. There had been so many people.

Fatima moved over to Karen and put an arm around her shoulder.
“I didn’t think it was, like, actual magic,” Karen went on. “I didn’t know it was dangerous.”
“Bloody hell, nor did I,” said Fred.

Nor had Lena. She had meditated, prayed and communed with the spirits daily, for years. She had called for aid from time to time, and had always found it. But not like this. Never anything like this.
None of them had known. How could they?

Except – “Helen knew,” she said. “I think Helen knew.”

“What? What did she know?” demanded the guy, Ian. She might have known he would be like this. Aggressive. It wasn’t helping.
“She knew there would be a price,” said Lena. “That’s what it said.”

“There’s always a price,” said Hazel. “For everything.”
“We have to let it see our souls?” asked Fatima.

“It means -” Hazel began. They all looked at her. “It means you have to face your greatest fear. It means you have to show your true selves.”
“Bare all, you mean?” said Ian.
“Yes,” said Hazel. “Exactly that.”
“Blimey,” said Karen. All for a tambourine.

They talked it over.

“Spiders,” said Fred. “I’m bloody terrified of them.”
“That’s your true self, is it? Terrified of arachnids?” Pip, sarcastic.
“No,” said Fred, quietly. “Jesus.”
“It’s all a bit intense, isn’t it?”

Lena turned away from the group and took Hazel aside.
“What happened?” she said. “Tell me exactly.”

It was like when you shine a light through your thumb, and it feels hot and your thumb glows red.
But it was a light shining through my whole body.

It wasn’t scary though, not too scary, because I’d sort of done it before. The light – that’s how I got here in the first place. It was the candle from the spell. It kept getting bigger until it was filling the whole sky, and then it sort of engulfed us. It was like we became part of the flame. Me and those kids – Fred, Pip.
This was not quite the same – not so hot.

I became a part of something, like the light was an ocean and I was just a drop. I could feel it wanting me to dissolve away. But I didn’t want to lose myself. You brought me back, Lena. You called me back, and I didn’t want to lose you.

I can still feel it, but now I’m not part of it. It’s part of me.

But when I was there – when I was out there in this ocean or whatever it was, it was… I can’t even describe it. It’s like I knew all there was to know, like I could feel everything, everywhere, all at once. I wasn’t just in the universe, I wasn’t just part of it. It was like I was the universe.

“The universal soul…” whispered Lena.
“Yeah,” said Hazel. “Something like that.”
“And you came back.”
Hazel held up one hand, and it still had a bit of shine about it, like a glow-stick the morning after. “I think I brought some of it back with me.”

Lena took the hand, kissed it.
“What do we do now?” she said.
“I don’t know,” said Hazel.

“I don’t want to – when I was in there – ”
“What?” prompted Lena.
“I didn’t want it to know all my secrets. I wanted to keep my secrets safe inside. That’s why I couldn’t let it take me. That’s why I fought it”

Lena considered that. She didn’t know that Hazel had any secrets. Not real, secret secrets.
“You wanted to keep your secrets safe?” she said.

Hazel stayed silent for a long time.
“I’m afraid – afraid it will tell me I’m – wrong.”

“It said you have to face your greatest fears,” said Lena.
“I know,” said Hazel. “And I couldn’t.”

Chapter 20: The Price

April 24, 2013

Ian had never been so freaked out in his entire life.
Was this some weird, horrible nightmare? Had somebody put something in his drink? – acid or LSD or whatever they were calling it these days.

He was at the bottom of a well.
There was a woman made of multi-coloured light.
Daisy’s boyfriend was with some other girl – how did a spotty nerd like him get girls anyway? Two of them! (Ian never had, when he’d been the spotty nerd.)

The light-woman-thing opened its mouth.
THIS. IS. NOT. HELEN. it said. More boomed, than said. And it sounded like a chorus of voices, like a bad multi-track from the eighties. Slightly uncoordinated.

“What are you?” said that – man – that woman – that – Hazel.
THIS IS. HER. BODY. IN A MANNER. BUT WE. ARE NOT.

“What’s happening?” said the girl with Fred. She sounded terrified.
WE HAVE COME. FOR. THE PRICE.

“The price?” said Lena. “What price? What do you mean? What have you done with Helen?”
THERE IS ALWAYS. A PRICE.
“What for?”
YOU CALLED! It was shrieking now. DID YOU THINK WE WOULD NOT COME?

“I didn’t call,” said the knitting one. Karen. She was frightened. They all were.
Ian was pretty sure that he hadn’t called this thing either.

“The spell,” said Fatima quietly. “It was the spell.”
“Real magic,” said Hazel. “We called the spirits.”
“I didn’t even think it was real,” said Fatima.

Ian had no idea what they were talking about. What was this price? Was it – blood? Everything he had ever seen on TV would suggest it. A blood-price, profound, serious. He wondered how much they would need to give. And whose blood.

“What have you done with Helen?” shouted Lena.
SHE KNEW THE PRICE.
“What sodding price?” Lena was standing now, facing down this creature. A part of her was silhouetted against the glow and Ian could see that she was shaking. “What have you done to her?”

The light-thing grew in size, towering above them.
YOU CALLED! DID YOU THINK THERE WOULD. NOT BE. CONSEQUENCES?

Hazel had not been able to stand – the ground (if that’s what you could call it) too unsteady. She was kneeling next to Lena and put her arms around her waist, pulling her away from the fight.
“Tell us the price,” she said to the thing.

“It eats souls,” said a small voice. A child’s voice. Ian recognised it.
“Falcon?” When did he wake up?

“I had a dream where it eats souls. Mum said.”
“What do you mean?” asked Pip.
“Are you alright?” asked Fatima, at the same time.
“What’s a soul?” said Falcon.
“I don’t know,” Ian said. “I’m not sure if they’re even real.”
“It eats your soul and there’s this light that comes out of you,” said Falcon, bleakly. “It was in my dream. Mum said it was your soul that comes out.”

SILENCE!
“Do you eat souls?” asked Ian.
EAT, EAT. The thing sounded contemptuous. WE DO NOT. EAT SOULS.
“What then?” said Hazel.
WE ARE SOULS, it said. WE ARE SOUL.
“And have you – taken – Helen’s soul?”
WE DO NOT TAKE, it said.
“She gave it to you,” said Lena. “She knew the price. She gave it to you.”

Ian began to think he was following. It still didn’t believe it was actually happening, but he was starting to put two and two together.
“You’ve come for our souls now?” he asked.
“But what does it mean?” said Fatima. “You have Helen’s soul. What does that mean?”

THE EARTH IS AWAKE.
THE WATER IS AFLOAT.
THE FIRE IS ABLAZE.
THE AIR IS ADRIFT.
WE ARE UNQUIET. WE ARE IN. NEED OF. APPEASEMENT.

Hazel finally managed to stand up.
She took a step toward the creature, placed herself between it and Lena.
“Have mine,” said Hazel. “I will give it to you freely. If you let the others go.”
Lena sobbed – “No!”

WE DO NOT TAKE, repeated the thing.
“But – ?”
WE ARE SOUL. ARE YOU?
“Yes,” said Hazel. “I am soul. Let the others go.”
WE ONLY WANT. TO SEE.
“How?”

The thing held out its hand towards her.
WE WILL SHOW YOU, it said. COME.

Its fingertips caressed Hazel’s cheek and rested on her temple. Then it placed a palm on top of her head, and took her shoulder with its other hand.
Hazel gasped, there was a sort of dull sighing sound like an implosion, and Ian felt his ears pop. The light-woman-thing had somehow combined with Hazel, and the Helen-figure had gone. Instead, Hazel herself began to glow. She sank to her knees. Lena rushed to her, embraced her.

“What’s happening?” she sobbed.
Hazel gently pushed Lena away. She touched her cheek.
“What’s happening?” repeated Lena.

WE ARE. SOUL. ARE YOU?

Chapter 19: Venus fly-trap

April 24, 2013

Fatima stood at the tip of the ridiculous, bowl-like hill, twisting the yellow cap in her hands.

“Falcon!” she shouted.
The bowl echoed, returning the name back to her.

“FALCOOOOONNNNNN!”
The earth she stood on seemed to resonate with her shouts, singing with reverberations, a weird counterpoint to her desperation. Even the soil began to vibrate. It was shaking.

The shaking got stronger. It became violent and Fatima began to see cracks opening up in the ground. She looked about wildly for escape. The only way out was to fling herself down the mountainside but, even as she was steeling herself to do it, she was too late. The whole ridge erupted and then collapsed.

She was falling. Rocks and branches were hitting her. Roots, clods of earth. She rolled herself into a ball, instinctive, no plan, riding it out. Something big hit her, hard, in the left leg.

Her eyes were shut tight against the dust and grit that sprayed all around her, but even through closed eyes she was aware of being surrounded by light. The flickering shadows of falling debris gave little relief from the painfully bright orange glare through her blood-and-flesh eyelids. And then – nothing.

This is it, she thought. The shadowlands.
The bright light had vanished.

Cautiously, she opened her eyes. It was dark. The afterglow had blinded her. She waited. Even as her eyes began to relax and recover, she could not see. She put a hand in front of her face. Nothing.

Her leg hurt badly, where she had been struck.
She did not want to get up anyway.

She was lying on something soft, yielding like a mattress, slippery. Whatever could it be made of? So slippy, slipping. She was sliding. It was gentle, steady, but still – sliding down into deeper darkness and who knew what might be at the bottom?

She put out her hands to stop but could not get any grip on the surface, she glided over it like a fish in a waterslide. She pressed down hard into it, hoping to generate some friction that would slow her down, but the surface bobbled away from her. Wicked. Like a water bed. She’d never seen a water bed – only on the TV.  She imagined they would feel like this.

She was sliding. Could this be real? Everything felt – muffled. Perhaps she was unconscious.

Her mind dislocated and drifted upwards, hovering away from the body that was descending, hell-bound, outside her control. Her mind’s eye looked up, though, not down, and saw a dim light far above. She allowed herself to drift towards it. She was dreaming, or unconscious, or dead. She did not know which. It did not seem important.

And this slide could not go on forever, could it?
She supposed she would stop at some point.
In which case, whispered her tired soul, why worry. Why not just wait for the blackout?

But – the thought of being alone in this dark, sliding to oblivion, no control. Is this what it’s like? The journey into the Abyss? She had not expected it to be like this.
“Hello?” she called. “Is there anyone here?”

“Hello?” Oh, thank the Lord. An answering voice. A man’s voice.
“What’s happening?” she shouted.
“I don’t know!”

“Can you help me? I’m sliding… I can’t stop.”
“I’m sliding too.”

They both started shouting and hello-ing. Fatima was fighting pain and exhaustion but it was worth it because there were replies, real people, out there somewhere. The voices were muffled by the dark, the distance, the thick air.

She drifted in and out of awareness. After a time, she did not know how long, she realised that the slide into oblivion was slowing. Perhaps they had reached the end.

She bumped into something warm, and solid.
“Ow!” it said.

Others were there.  It was hot.

Fatima could make out the very dim outlines of people, indistinct, huddled together at the bottom of – whatever it was. It was a hole in the earth, she supposed. The bottom was rounded, concave, and just as smooth as the walls that curved upward on all sides, further than she could see even in her mind’s eye.

She was coming to terms with the fact that she might be conscious.

It seemed almost as though they were at the bottom of a giant flower trumpet. The kind of flower that catches insects. She had seen them on nature programmes, felt pity for the insects scrabbling to escape. They could not get any grip on the flower’s smooth, waxy walls. She shuddered. Is that what this was? An enormous Venus flytrap?

Fatima could see, far above, that the darkness thinned. What little light there was in the giant flytrap (she could not think of it as anyhing else, now that the image had crossed her mind) seemed to be coming from up there.

And, looking up, she began to see shadows moving. She shuddered again. The shadows looked like – but there were no wolves in England. Zane had said.

“Where are we?” said a voice.
“What happened?” said another.
“I don’t like the dark.”
“How do we get out?”
“What’s that, is that a – ”
“Oh my God, Lena is that you?”
“Is anybody hurt?”
“Who’s here?”
“Can anyone actually see anything?”
“Are we dead?”
“There’s a kid here, unconscious I think. Does anyone know first aid?”
“In the dark?”
“Who’s here?”

“My leg hurts,” she said. “I fell into the hill.” She probed it with her fingers. She could feel scratches, places where the skin was broken and sticky with blood. There was a massive area on her lower leg where she had been hit. It was hot, tender and swelling up like a balloon, but she didn’t think anything was broken.

“We should do a roll call,” said a voice. Fatima thought she recognised Hazel’s voice. “So we know who’s here, and how many of us.”
“Good idea,” said another voice. That was Lena, she thought.

There were others. The man who had been sliding near to her was Ian. There were two teenagers – Fred and Pip, Fatima thought perhaps they were brother and sister but she wasn’t sure. A woman named Karen. And the child, of course. Nobody knew who the child was, but they speculated that it must be Falcon, the lost boy. Ian knew the boy, he said, but it was too dark to be sure it was him.

They totted up their resources – someone had sandwiches, a bottle of water. Someone else had biscuits. Karen had a knitting bag, not much use. But then Fatima had only the yellow hat that she realised she was still clutching in one hand.

“I’ve got a torch!” said Fred, remembering, triumphant.
“Bloody genius,” said the girl, Pip.
Fatima could hear fumbling sounds, he must be trying to find it in his bag.

“Oh, God, look up!” said Hazel, urgently.
They did and they could see that the top of the trap was beginning to glow.

It shone red, green, yellow, silver. The rainbow light shimmered and then formed into something like a droplet, strange, hovering. A blob of nectar, Fatima thought.

Magic!” whispered Karen. There had been too much of that already, in Fatima’s heartfelt opinion.

The drop of light flowed towards them like weightless mercury, shimmering in the dark. It fell, slowly, as though it was not answerable to gravity.  It was bright enough to see, but not bright enough to shed any light on its surroundings. Several metres above them – Fatima only guessed the distance, it was difficult to be sure – it slowed and hovered, forming into a definite shape.

It was a human shape. It began to solidify and descend.
“Helen?” It was Lena’s voice, incredulous, and Fatima realised that she was right.
It was Helen.

Chapter 18: The only way to fly

April 22, 2013

Lena had done good business that afternoon. Browsers, attracted by the drumming, picking up a little something that caught their eye.

“We should team up,” she said to Jono. “We’ve sold masses.”
He laughed. “We ought to charge you for pitching next to us.”
“I can run to a cup of tea,” she said.

She would make a pot as soon as Hazel got back. She glanced around anxiously, at least the tenth time. Hazel had been gone for hours, she should have been back ages ago. She’d only gone into the wood. Lena got her phone and tried Hazel’s number again. Straight to voicemail.

She contemplated leaving a message, waited for the tone. But she never heard it because the world exploded. Brilliant, blinding light filled the sky. There were screams. The light was everywhere but it seemed to be coming from the direction of the trees.

Andy!” she screamed, dropped the phone, ran for the forest.

She wasn’t much of a sporty type at the best of times. Her breath was coming tight in her chest. She pounded on, across the field, hoping she wouldn’t trip and sprain an ankle.

A forest fire?
Her eyes told her no. This light was like a chemical flash. It wasn’t fading.
It was more like a mushroom cloud than an ordinary fire. But since she wasn’t dead, she knew it couldn’t be that either.

She ran.

She was pelting across the field and she knew the forest wasn’t this far. By now she was running so fast, it was as though time was beginning to dilate and stretch and the space between her and the forest was stretching too. This shouldn’t be happening. The wind-speed around her was phenomenal. She was running into the light and against a headwind so strong it snatched away what little breath she had left. If she only leaned into this wind in the right way, it would carry her into the sky and she would be flying.

The air was thick as she pressed through it. Perhaps she was reaching the speed of sound. Any second she might punch through the sound barrier and – BOOM!

Unthinking, Lena stretched out her arms and the wind took her.

It wasn’t graceful. She was tumbling in a swirling vortex that ripped her in different directions, turned her upside down, skirts around her armpits. She was being thrown about like a rag doll in a washing machine. She fought for breath. So much wind, why was it so hard to get any of it into her lungs?

This wasn’t the kind of flying that happens in dreams. It was the kind that happens when a cyclone picks up your house and throws it half way across a continent, the kind that only really happens in Kansas.

It was still impossibly bright, colours and lines whitened, the world reduced to an over-exposed snapshot. Her eyes were streaming and she could barely see.

She caught glimpses of tents, trees, grass, people. A juggler, surrounded by kids. Two old men eating burgers. The forest – a thick dark green sea, billowing in the tremendous wind. The crack of branches snapping. A young couple among the trees, half-naked, clinging onto one another and staring up at her, shocked. She whirled away from them. A wolf. Trees, endless trees.

The distant sounds of the festival were muffled now, barely audible over the deafening wind.

Lena began to see other things caught up in the storm. A branch. An umbrella. A plastic bag. She was afraid something might hit her. Crazy. Fifty or a hundred feet in the air, twisting around, limbs snapping, totally out of control, and she was scared of being whacked in the head by an umbrella?

Her mind went white.

She shut her eyes, shut out at least a part of the terror. But she found that not seeing was worse than seeing. She opened them again – and stared in horror. There was another person in the storm, someone else flying, being tossed about, just like her. It looked like a child.

A part of her knew there was nothing she could do, yet another part of her knew that she could not do nothing.

The boy gave her something to focus on. She stared at him, frozen, grasping for a coherent thought. She tried to swim towards him. Not the up-down elegance of swimming lessons: the desperate strokes of someone drowning in a whirlpool. It did not work very well. It was like being at sea in a round barrel, with only a smooth pole for an oar.

She flailed and thrashed towards him, fighting the currents that wanted to smash her away. She seemed to be getting closer.

He made no move towards her and as she got close she saw that his eyes closed. She had no idea if he was dead or alive. He was flopping about like a wet sock. She reached him, tried to grab hold of him. She missed, more than once, but then managed to get hold of an arm.

She pulled him towards her, got hold of him properly, held on.

Her arms went all the way around him and then – in what seemed like an instant – all the noise and wind disappeared.  Just went.

Lena felt the stomach lurch of knowing that everything had gone terribly wrong. The little death that tells you you’re only just alive. She knew the big death was coming now, as soon as gravity caught up with her. She held onto the boy. He was warm. Could she cushion his fall? Could he cushion hers? Jesus, what a thought to have to think.

But nothing was happening, and it kept on happening long past the time when she should have slammed into the ground and broken her neck.

Panicked, panting, she felt suspended in a moment that might, after all, go on forever.

Her breathing slowed.

She realised that she was not falling.  She was lying on something. Solid, but yielding. She opened her eyes. Blinked. It was not cold any more, but the light was all gone.

Keeping hold of the boy, she reached out one hand to feel the ground. Smooth, slippy. It reminded her of satin. Her fingers touched something hard and she drew them back as though burnt. Then reached out again. It felt knobbly. Maybe a branch?

They must have fallen into the forest. Perhaps that explained the darkness. Unless she had lost her sight altogether. Her mind slipped away from her. She could not think.

The air was very still. It felt almost tropical, full of humidity – but not damp. Just – thick.

The boy was breathing.
“Are you alive?” she asked him, stupidly. Her voice sounded muffled in the dense air.
No answer, but steady breaths. Not dead. That’s something.

Her eyes began to adjust to the gloom. It was not completely dark. She could see shadows around her. Some of them were moving.

“Hello?” she called out. “Is anyone there?”

Intermission: Turbulence

April 22, 2013

I am…. adrift

The essence of freedom.
Invisible
fluid
sailing gaily at windmill pace.

Capricious,
ever-dancing, ever-running –
and the updraft.

Spirals – warm, or cold.
Cumulo-nimbulo-cirro-bobulous.

Mournful wails across the moors –
or gentle summer sigh –
or screeching battle-cry.

The destroyer.

Sharp-forming,
I have sharp-eyed warriors,
and sharp-stinging guerillas.

The stuff of life.

Smoky damp breath,
inhalation
tasting of ice,
or of the warm earthy smell that follows rain.

Noxious.

Something calls:
Air spirits, blow him home.

Blow, blow –
to port, or to reef.

I care not.
It is all the same.