"We had believed it a myth. Had we taken the legend seriously, we would never have gone."
The small hillside shelter, whilst in no way waterproof, was a welcome respite from the blinding rains. The storm hadn't let up in three days; it only seemed to get worse as we ascended the mountain. Soaked, we hurried into the stone hovel and settled down for the night. Ryan lit a fire, Cerys took our coats and hung them in a corner to try to dry them off a little, Scott laid out the bedrolls and I began cooking. We were running short on provisions, but we were less than three hours' steady hike from the summit, and our destination- the Seat of Zann. Legends told that a giant named Zann used the mountain as a seat to gaze at the stars, and those who spent the night on it would disappear, be driven to madness by unspeakable events or achieve enlightenment and brilliance. We had been intrigued, and set out to experience it for ourselves.
Truth be told, I had always been a little hesitant about the supernatural, and when Scott had run the idea by me at first, I was tempted to say no; Scott, as my closest friend, knew how to convince me otherwise. He knew I had been secretly pining over Cerys for a long time, half-convinced I was in love with her but too painfully shy around her to breach the subject. Before we'd started planning this expedition together, I'd hardly even said two words to her. Of course, all he had to do then was mention that she might like me if she knew I was brave enough to go on this trip, and I was already packing my bags. I didn't care that it was a ridiculous notion, any small hope was better than nothing.
Now though, huddled in some run-down old hut in the midst of a fierce storm, with rain running in rivulets through gaps in the walls and ceilings, I was starting to regret my decision. Scott had also failed to mention the presence of Ryan until I was invested in the trip, which I was not happy about. Ryan I knew only by reputation; he lived for this kind of thing. He'd spent a night in a vampire's castle; he'd explored a haunted hospital; he'd slept in a mausoleum and done a ritual to summon a demon. While a useful person to have around, he was a braggart, always spinning some new tale about his adventures. He also had quite the reputation as a ladies' man, and in my head I had already played out all manner of scenarios between Ryan, Cerys and I; none had ended well for me. At least I could cook though; I prided myself in that small comfort, that I had one skill Ryan did not. He had tried, once, and the resulting culinary abortion had made us all quite ill. I'd offered after that and, though not incredible, as a combination of trying to play to everyone's tastes and the meagre resources I had to work with, it was still both edible and nourishing.
I watched as Cerys pored over her maps and books, lost from the outside world in study. She didn't even seem to notice the raindrops that dripped on her hair and shoulders through a small fissure above her.
“Soup's done,” I said, filling bowls and passing them out. We'd been reduced to simple packet soup and bricks of noodles, but I still had a couple of extra sachets of flavourings that had kept, which made it a little more bearable. We ate mostly in silence, the air filled with the howls of the wind and pounding rain, and at that point I think each of us was considering whether this had all been a terrible, terrible mistake.
“This is ridiculous,” Cerys said after awhile. “I checked the forecasts before we came out. It was supposed to be light showers at worst.”
“Well, we're on already, might as well finish the ride,” Scott said with an air of false positivity. I added a non-committal grunt before turning back to my soup. Part of me agreed with Scott, that it would be a shame to turn back now, considering we were a day and a half from the bottom but only three hours from the Seat, but part of me wanted to be wrapped up in a nice, warm blanket in a building that wasn't falling apart around us. A further part of me wanted Cerys to be wrapped up in that nice warm blanket with me...
“Alright,” I said, bringing myself back to reality, “There's a little bit left for anyone who wants. It's still warm...ish.”
Ryan had a cupful, and Scott scraped the noodles from the bottom into his bowl and drained it. I would have liked some too, but my critical lack of assertiveness meant that I'd always back off if anyone else showed the slightest bit of interest.
Thankfully, due to the weather, clean-up wasn't too difficult. I didn't mind having to do it; it was something to keep me occupied that wasn't having daydreams about the unobtainable girl that was less than three metres away from me, or worrying about anything and everything. Scott, to his credit, helped me out.
Coats buttoned and zipped up, he and I stepped out for a second. “Hey buddy,” he coaxed, “She's right there, you know? You should do something. Talk to her, even. That would be a start!”
“I will,” I said, not even trying to sound like I was telling the truth. We both know what would happen. Precisely, nothing; and nothing would continue to happen right up until she was charmed into bed by Ryan or Scott got bored of waiting and decided to go for her himself.
“Listen man, if you want I can-”
“Scott, it's fine.”
“I've seen the way you look at her, you should really do something about it. Just sayin'.”
I said nothing more, and he stumbled off to find a makeshift bathroom.
That night I didn't sleep. My head was buzzing like crazy, over Cerys, Ryan, the whole situation. I watched the dying embers of the fire as the others slept, and thought about the reason we were on the mountain in the first place. Although I was a skeptic at heart, it was still a heart that beat faster in a dark room. If we got to the top and actually found something...
I liked the idea of enlightenment and brilliance. I was a musician, but I had begun that journey fairly late on, and was surrounded by people who had been playing far longer than I had. As such I felt a little overshadowed, but I still loved my music. I carried a set of wooden pipes everywhere I went, even up this ghastly mountainside, in search of inspiration. I loved to play, but the creative aspect had never come naturally; thus, I found myself hoping secretly that the legend was true, and that I'd come out of it an improved man, both in mind and ability. The idea of disappearing also both appealed to and fascinated me. I yearned to travel, another dream that I had long since decided was a good idea in theory, but would probably never happen. If I disappeared, I wondered to myself, where would I end up? I imagined places that I'd like to go in my lifetime: the wild grassland seas stretched under the wide open skies; the sacred mountains on the rooftop of the world; the endless expansive oceans, teeming with all manner of life. Home was too constricting. The world had an image of me, one that I wanted to shed, and I always believed I could change things if I travelled. I could reinvent myself. Finally, I felt myself falling asleep, and took one last look at Cerys, asleep a few feet away, before I closed my eyes. There was the dream, would I ever reach out and grasp it?
I awoke to the sounds of pots and pans clinking together. Somebody was tidying up after last night, packing our things away. At least, I thought that's what was happening, until I looked around, eyes blurry from sleep, to see utter chaos.
At some point in the night, part of the ceiling had collapsed. Large stones were scattered less than a foot away from Ryan's head, and the rain had gushed through the new cavity. I scrambled to my feet, tangling myself helplessly in my sleeping bag as I tried to grab our cooking utensils, which were being swept away by the floodwater and down the slope.
“Guys! Wake up and help me!” I cried, panicked, and the others started to stir. Too late, we watched as the last of our loose equipment was washed away by the rain.
“Shit!” Scott spat, as we surveyed the campsite in dismay.
“What have we got left?” Cerys asked, looking around.
“Looks like we've still got the tents,” Ryan said, pointing to the bags at the back of the shelter. “Sleeping bags are mostly fine, a bit wet though, particularly mine.”
He grimaced. “This really didn't need to happen...”
“Have we still got food and water?” Cerys asked.
I checked my bags and nodded. “Some. Not much, but we didn't lose everything. Mostly power bars left though, mint cakes, energy shit, basically. A couple bottles of water.”
My bags were fine; Cerys and I had been furthest back in the shelter, so we were the least affected. Scott was not so lucky.
'Half of my shit is ruined,” he groaned. “It's soaked, absolutely soaked. Fuck, if I put this on, I'm gonna get hypothermia!”
Ryan and I both divvied up our clothes to help him out. This trip was turning into a disaster, and we hadn't even got to the 'mad, brilliant or disappear completely' bit. It was almost like the weather was conspiring against us, trying to get us off the mountain. Perhaps, I joked, this was the trial we were supposed to undertake. Scott frowned at me and I shut up.
After we had gathered our remaining belongings and repacked our bags, we sat and waited for the rain to lessen. Within a half hour it showed signs of alleviating, and I used the time to bring out my pipes and fill the air with some sort of distraction. To my credit, it did seem to lighten the mood a little, and my playing drew a smile from Cerys that made my heart pound. Her smile had been the first thing I noticed about her, and, in my mind, was the most beautiful I'd seen; now, huddled together in a wrecked stone hovel on a mountainside, far from civilisation and trapped by a seemingly-unending storm, a little bit of light was welcome.
Finally, the storm began to abate. We put on our coats and left the crumbled shelter, heading up the path that snaked up around the mountain. The ground was weakened by the heavy rain; where it narrowed, we had to tread carefully for fear of slipping over the side, and press ourselves into the mountainside for stability.
“Come on guys, we can do this!” Ryan crowed, from the head of the pack. His spirits were high. We had survived the night, and we were almost at the top. Even the weather seemed to be looking up; about an hour into our journey, we saw the sun for the first time since we arrived. We all began to cheer up after that.
“Look up there,” Cerys exclaimed, pointing ahead of us. In the distance was the lip of the crater, and inside that lay the chair-shaped formation of rock we had all come to see. The end was in sight... or so it seemed.
From behind me, I heard a panicked cry. Scott had lost his footing and the ground was giving way beneath him.
Picking our way back down the narrow path as fast as we could, Ryan and I reached him just as the loose sod he was standing on broke apart. Scott jumped and we braced ourselves for impact, landing together in a messy heap as we caught our flying friend. We watched, blood pumping, as the narrow path crumbled and fell away down the mountainside.
“How the hell are we going to get down?” Scott asked, exasperated.
“We'll find another way down. I'm sure there can't be only one way up this mountain.”
Scott sighed heavily. “You know what, fuck this. I want out.”
“What? No, man. We're almost there,” Ryan replied. “You can do this!”
“We're out in the middle of goddamn fucking nowhere, and in case you didn't notice, I almost DIED! The weather is shit, my stuff is ruined… Fuck it, I'm going home.”
“Don't be a-” Ryan started, folding his arms and strutting around, making clucking noises.
Scott saw red. I'd backed up the path a little bit when they began to argue, and from where I stood I could see him beginning to boil.
Scott hated being called chicken. He couldn't stand to seem like a coward in front of others, especially people with a higher social standing than he, and Ryan was something of a small town hero. And he knew this about Scott too; most people did. They'd dare him to do stupid shit, just to see how far he'd go. Last month they'd got him on the roof of the art studio, blasting “Ice Ice Baby” from an old boombox they found in a supply closet. Before that, he'd been caught hiding in the girls' bathrooms, dancing on tables in the cafeteria, and drawing crude pictures on whiteboards; and I'm sure the reason he was here in the first place was because somebody had goaded him into it. He wasn't disliked, by any means; no, rather his stunts brought him a due of fame, or infamy. He was simply 'that guy': the one with the reputation for pulling crazy stunts, and people knew what set him off, so naturally they exploited it. He rarely minded, because he enjoyed the attention.
But me? I'd known Scott way longer, I'd watched him become this guy. But who was I to stop him? It's not that I was unpopular; to be unpopular, people have to know you exist. As far as other people were concerned, I was just 'that quiet guy that Scott knows'. And while he'd always been adventurous, I worried that one day he'd end up doing something really, really stupid, and would get into trouble even he couldn't weasel his way out of. That was part of the reason I agreed to come with him this time. That, a little bit of recognition, and Cerys.
“Ryan,” I said, “Shut up.”
He made no indication of having heard me, so I tried again. My voice came louder than I expected, and I half-yelled, 'Ryan, shut the fuck up!”
He stopped, surprised.
“We've made it this far, and we've got to stick together. Besides,” I said to Scott, “I wouldn't trust that at all. Even if you jump that gap I'm sure the rest of it's weakened too. Especially now. You go off on your own and you might fall again, and we wouldn't be able to help you.”
“Not like you have an ulterior motive to keep going, is it?” he said, bitingly.
“Don't be a dick, Scott.”
“I'm being a dick? Did you not hear that I almost died just now?”
“I know, and if you'd care to remember, Ryan and I saved you.”
He backed down, begrudgingly, and we began to walk again.
The mountaintop was deceptively far, given how close it had seemed when we started- a few more footpaths had become unusable, so we were forced to take the long route around. Finally, bodies aching and stomachs grumbling, we finally crested the caldera. Despite the effort it had taken, we had made it, and a cheer broke out among us. Scott, who just a couple of hours ago had wanted nothing more than to get off the mountain and go home, was grinning from ear to ear. Even Ryan, for whom this was supposedly common occurrence, seemed impressed. The climb had been tough, but now we were moving into his realm of expertise, and the relief was fairly evident on his face. The air was a little thin up here, and crisp like the depths of winter, our breath coming as wisps of smoke as we took in our surroundings. The lush, verdant countryside stretched around for miles, and I couldn’t help but drink it in, climbing up and sitting on a large boulder to get a better view.
“Would you look at that,” Cerys murmured, clambering up the boulder and sitting beside me. “Isn’t that just incredible?”
I nodded, heart beating faster with my stupid little crush, and willed myself to say human words and engage her in conversation.
“I, uh. I think I can see my house from here,” I said, immediately wanting to seal myself in a dark room and never come out. Surprisingly though, she actually giggled.
“You cheese,” she said, smiling. “Honestly I didn’t think this was your kind of thing. You’re always so quiet when I see you in college.”
“Ah, I’m a man of mystery, you see,” I said, “I’m secretly a special agent and I just study for cover!”
“So you’re basically Kim Possible?” she laughed, and I grinned. I liked making her laugh, and I resolved to do it more.
“Nah, but seriously, this is just… wow. I’ve never seen anything like it,” I said. Gloomy weather or no, the view was breathtaking, and sitting with Cerys and taking it all in made everything until then seem worth it.
After finally having a chance to relax, I stepped down off the boulder and headed over to Scott and Ryan. Scott had a shit-eating grin plastered all over his face, and he’d obviously watched me chatting to Cerys.
“Don’t give me that look,” I scowled, not-so-secretly pleased l hadn't made too much of an ass of myself.
Ryan called us all together.
“Lady and gentlemen, we’ve been pitted against the elements in a gruelling test of strength, and come through. Scott nearly fell off a God-damned mountain! But we’re not finished yet! We’re here for a reason, and it’s about time we prepared for that. Let’s find a suitable place to set up tents so we’re ready for tonight!”
The Seat of Zann was, in truth, enormous. Nestled in an extinct volcano, it stretched far wider than I had expected. Rough, sparsely covered ground made up the most part, but at the far end lay a small lake. Whether it was fed by a spring or rainwaters I didn’t know, but it was strikingly beautiful and a stark contrast to the rest of the summit. I’d definitely check it out later, I decided. The rock formation that made up the actual ‘seat’ stretched out wide, and rose high in three places like the back and arms of a lounge chair, and I could clearly see how it earned the name. Zann, the mythical giant who kept this place as a throne, of sorts, must be enormous.
After a few minutes of stumbling around, Scott unceremoniously dropped his tent bag on a flattish stretch of ground, grunted ‘Here will do’, and set to work reconstructing it. It wasn’t quite a pop-up, in that it had reinforced support bars to prevent it being smashed in by the wind, but it wasn’t as difficult as some I’d seen. Mine was similar, although a little flimsier as I hadn’t purpose-bought it for our journey and instead found it lying around at home, back from when my brother had had a camping phase. He’d long since discovered girls and given up on the great outdoors, leaving the tent languishing in a cupboard, which had turned out to be perfect for my plans. With no better places in mind, I pitched it next to Scott’s and laid out my bedroll and sleeping bag. We set to work building a fireplace and the others pitched their tents around it, leaving us all in a tight circle, as if the seeds of fear and thrill that crept upon us all had spread as far as our camping gear.
Supper - the last of the soup, a couple of power bars each - was meagre and unsatisfying, but the nerves we were all feeling meant I could barely eat, and I'm sure the others felt the same. Tonight was the night. Tonight, we would sleep atop the Seat of Zann, and in the morning we would be heroes. Madness, brilliance or disappearing entirely… it spun endlessly in my mind. I hazarded a guess that the others were all thinking the same thing. None of us really believed the stories, but being this close to the source of it all made our normally-rational minds waver just so. The silence lasted long after we had eaten until Scott announced, shakily, that he thought he was going mad already and that we should all play cards to calm down.
The fire burned low as we played into the night. Soon enough there was little more than glowing embers to see by, and when Scott played a confident flush only to realise he was holding junk, we near unanimously decided to turn in.
Four little tents atop a mountain. Four young adults staring upwards as the stars blazed overhead, each wrestling with private contemplation, each half-delirious with excitement, fear and hope. We were kings and queens of our own little world, and at least for now, the world seemed oddly perfect. One by one the others dozed off, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
Try as I might, I couldn’t fall asleep. Given everything we’d been through that day I would have thought sleep would come easily, but thoughts raced in my head, too fast to catch, too busy to allow me to rest. I continued to stare upwards, and as I stared I picked out a particular pair of stars, looming almost directly over where we lay. They were bright, almost too bright, and staring down at us like eyes in the dust of the Milky Way. In that moment I knew I’d never get to sleep so, as quietly as I could, I shuffled into my clothes and got up. Going for a walk might clear my head, I thought, so I left the campsite and set out in the direction of the lake.
The cool night air blew welcomely across my flushed skin and I stood, gazing out across the dark waters. It was wider than I had first thought, stretching for what seemed like miles as it melted into the soft darkness.
As I watched the ripples in the water, lost in my own thoughts, I suddenly became aware that I was not alone. I turned, expecting to see one of the others, only to be confronted with a face I did not know. The stranger was gaunt and withered-looking, like somebody had stretched skin tightly over a skeleton. His eyes, though, were very much alive; piercing and grey as a storm cloud, they near glowed in the starlight as he looked at me - no, through me, even, at something I did not, and had the feeling I could not, see.
The wind grew deathly still.
After what seemed like an age, he spoke.
“Beautiful night,” he said, voice slow and deliberate, like the words had to be chosen carefully.
“It is,” I replied. “I’ve only seen the sky like this a handful of times.”
“City boy, is it?”
“Yes.” I said. “I heard about this place in a story. My friends and I came to check it out.”
Something in his expression changed, softening his harsh features.
“Do you believe the stories? A mountaintop that can inspire madness, brilliance or make you vanish without a trace?”
“I honestly couldn’t say. I was a lot more sceptical before climbing the mountain!” I giggled nervously. “But the idea is a fascinating one.”
I told him that I was intrigued by each concept. I wondered what could be so terrifying to inspire complete madness, and what kind of madness it was, if it was something supernatural or psychological. I wondered about the inspiration, and I told him about my aspirations. Finally, I told him that I was intrigued by the idea of disappearing, and what form it would take. I wasn’t sure why, but the words themselves seemed to trip off my tongue, and the stranger listened with rapt attention, nodding sagely as he followed my train of thought. It was almost difficult not to share my thoughts and feelings with the stranger, and despite having met him moments ago I felt I had somehow known him for my whole life.
“Is it true?” I asked him.
“It’s true enough for some,” he replied, and then he asked me a single question.
”What are you hoping to find?”
“Answers,” I said.
“I hope you find them, city boy,” he said, and stepped lightly away from the lake and into the night.
In that moment, it finally occurred to me that I hadn’t seen any other tents. I turned to raise the point, but the man with the piercing grey eyes was gone. I was alone, save for the stars.
The wind rose, a gentle breeze pulling me toward the campsite. Shaken, I let it tug me slowly along, staring up at the twin stars I had noticed earlier, burning high above the mountain on which I stood. What on earth had I just seen? Who was the man I had just been speaking with, and why had he seemed so familiar?
My chest tightened as the cold wind bit into me, blowing stronger than before, and I hurried towards the campsite. Above me, that same pair of shining stars blinked-
and all of a sudden, my world was plunged into total darkness.
My hands felt for the canvas of my tent, and I pulled myself around it to find the opening.
Around me the wind reached a fever pitch, whipping and howling in my ears like an unearthly beast dragged from some godforsaken plane. I heard shouts, muffled as if from a great distance, and knew the others must be awake.
“Scott!” I yelled, “Ryan! Cerys!”
No reply, save for the same muffled calls from the four corners of the world, until I felt hands grasping, clutching at me like a lifeline. Cerys’ face swam into view, and she mouthed something at me, hair blowing around her face. Though she was right in front of me her voice came from elsewhere, and I finally realised she was calling my name.
Fumbling for the tent flap we crawled in and collapsed together, trembling from the fear and cold that followed us inside like a dog nipping at our heels.
The world expanded, and I could see her more clearly. She seemed to exist in a void, a source of light in the all-encompassing darkness. She was white as a sheet, and I must have been the same. We said nothing, our breath coming raggedly, filling the space between us with all the words we couldn’t say.
Outside we could hear Scott screaming, stretched and distorted by the wind. I needed to help him. He was my best friend, and I needed to help him.
In the darkness I fumbled for my pipes. It was all I could do to steel myself, knowing I had to go back out into hell to find my friend. My hand closed around them and I clutched them tightly, a talisman to keep me safe. It felt silly, but right now anything that gave me strength was welcome.
I steeled myself and reached for the tent flap. Cerys grabbed my arm, but not to stop me.
“I’m coming too. You’re not going out there alone.”
In that moment I was more grateful that I could ever hope to express, and kissed her full on the lips. She kissed me back, fervently, and my stomach somersaulted. I didn’t know whether it was because she was terrified or whether she actually liked me, but finding that out could wait. Right now I felt like her champion, and was ready to face whatever the night would throw at me.
When we stepped outside, the light had returned. Where was Scott? Where was Ryan?
We called their names, over and over, but no reply came save the howling of the wind. I crossed the campsite to Scott’s tent, and opened the flap to see if he had made it inside, but the tent was bare. Cerys checked Ryan’s tent, finding a similar absence.
“We’ve got to find them,” she said. “I’m sure they’re up here somewhere!”
“You’re right,” I said, more to reassure us both than born of any real conviction. “If we made it out, they will have too. Scott’s a fighter, and Ryan… well, he lives for this kind of thing.”
“Let’s go. They can’t be far,” she said. “We’re going to find them, and we’re going to get the hell off this m-“
As she spoke, wraithlike hands rose from the earth and locked at her ankles, pulling her down, down, and I watched her expression turn to horror as she was dragged into the ground before me.
I lunged for her, missing her fingers by inches as she was swallowed up by the earth, her screams cut short as it closed behind her.
I screamed in anger and frustration, and fear. I feared for my friends. I feared for my life. I feared I would never go home, never see my family again. I wished I’d never come to this blasted mountaintop, and I damned my curiosity that had led me to accept Scott’s proposal.
Then I saw him. Through the tears spilling from my eyes I saw the stranger from the lake, and in that moment I hated him.
“What have you done with them? Where are they?!”
He opened his mouth, revealing rows of jagged, inhuman teeth glinting in the starlight. He said nothing, but all at once his face began to elongate and twist, contorting and peeling over itself, no longer resembling the man I had spoken to, or any man at all. He was becoming something more, something monstrous that I had no name for, something more ancient and terrible than I had seen before, and I was frightened, more frightened than I have ever been in my entire life. The light vanished once again, leaving me in a savage, unknowable darkness. All at once I could hear horn blasts, and the bloodcurdling baying of hounds, and the wind, that terrible, cursed wind, screaming around me and sending shivers up my spine.
It was then that I took my pipes and began to play. I did not know where the impulse came from, but in that moment I was sure that it was the only thing that would save my life. I did not know the melody I played, nor where it came from; it was as if the notes were willing themselves through me, and never in my life had I felt less in control. The horns sounded again in my ears, closer, and my fevered melody redoubled. The notes came twisted, hellish to my own ears, unlike any sound I had heard before, or have ever heard since. I felt a sharpness upon my skin, scraping its way up my arms as the wind pulled me in every direction, clawing its way around my throat and then-
A voice, reaching out across the void. Words in a beautiful, incomprehensible language, calling to me. My name, whispered in silvery song.
My head spun and my eyes were flooded with starlight. The wind was still, still as the grave, and Cerys was gazing down at me, worriedly. She was alive - but how?
“I don’t know,” she said. “The last thing I remember is those hands, pulling at me. Then everything went dark and I heard your pipes, from a long way off. Then there was a scream, unearthly, inhuman, like… I can’t describe it, not fully. It was almost like the mountain itself was screaming in pain. And then I saw you, lying on the ground. I thought you’d frozen to death.”
She helped me to my feet, shakily. Her hands were cold, and she was pale as I’d ever seen, but we were alive. I desperately wanted to kiss her, if for no reason then for the joy of being alive after what I thought I had just experienced. Instead I was happy to just pull her close to me, and we held each other until the shaking stopped. That first, feverish kiss lay unspoken between us, a product of the madness we had faced as much as any feelings we shared. Another time, we would talk about it, work out what, if anything, it meant. Another time, when we didn’t have to find our friends, or get off this hell-blasted mountain.
Though the danger seemed to have passed, and the unearthly howling of the wind had faded into memory, we remained on our guard as we picked our way carefully from the campsite. We kept close together, hands clasped for support, ready to leap to each other’s defense at a moment’s notice. My free hand clasped tightly around the pipes that had saved my life, my beloved talisman. The rigid shape pressing into my skin was a welcome reminder that I could still feel, that I was still anchored in some way to reality.
High above, the stars watched. How many others had they seen suffer the same hellish fate?
From beyond a rocky ridge I heard a low groan, like an animal in pain. Gripping Cerys’ hand tightly, we warily stepped towards the source of the noise, hoping it wasn’t something from that other place, come to finish us off.
We were in luck.
There, lying on the stones, naked and shivering in a ball, was Scott. He looked up at me, and his eyes welled up with silent tears.
“Scott!” I said, handing him my coat, “You’re alive!”
His mouth tried to form words but no sound ever came, save a guttural rasp. It was as if he’d forgotten how. I could only hope his voice would return in time, but for now, clothes were a priority. Much longer in his present state and he would be catching hypothermia, so we slung him over our shoulders and got him back to his tent, to sleep through the rest of the night whilst we searched for Ryan.
The hours ticked by as we explored every nook and cranny of the wind-blasted mountaintop, but to no avail. By the time the sky brightened and the stars faded into blue, we were sweat-drenched, exhausted, and still not a hair closer to finding our missing comrade.
Finally as the sun rose we stumbled upon a clue. What we had thought to be a dead end in a tor revealed a narrow pathway between its rocky wall and the cliff face. The path went its way through a narrow gap in the crag, and, as we followed it, the acrid smell of smoke struck our nostrils. As the gap widened and light flooded in from above, I saw the walls were scarred and blackened with claw-like marks slashed into the rock, great gouts of earth torn from the ground as if something had been dragged through forcefully before us. There was no doubt in our mind he had been through here, taken by something from that other place.
We sped up, hoping that we could still find him, that we weren’t too late. Round a bend, the smell grew stronger and stronger, and we knew we were getting close. Round another bend, and the light had all but vanished above us, reduced to a bright blue crack in the ceiling. Ahead of me, Cerys skidded to a sudden halt.
“It’s solid rock.”
“What?” I said, “Are you sure?”
“There’s no seams, no hidden holes, doors or anything. It just… stops. Right here.”
I joined her and ran my hands along the rock face, willing for something, anything to catch, but she was right. The air stank of sulphur and smoke, and the strange, claw-like scars still ran along the tunnel walls, but of Ryan there was no trace.
“We need to call for rescue,” Cerys said, as we returned to the campsite. “They can help us find him.”
I nodded, slowly. “But what do we tell them? If we tried to explain half the stuff we saw tonight, they’d lock us away!”
“We can say we got separated in the dark, and he got lost. Scott too, but we found him,” she said. “It doesn’t feel right to lie, but I don’t know what else we can do right now.”
We sat in Scott’s tent, unwilling to leave him any longer in his current state. He was pale, shivering and murmuring to himself, a slurred, unrecognisable mimicry of human speech.
“It’s alright, Scott,” I said gently, “We’re here. We’re here, and you’re going to be okay.”
He danced upon the edge of his sanity as we huddled in that tiny tent, and I was distressed that I could not do more to help him.
“I’m going to call Mountain Rescue,” Cerys said, extricating herself from the huddle and clawing her way through the tent flap. “I won’t be long.”
After the rustling of tent and bag died away, the world grew still, save Scott’s occasional feverish utterance. Little by little, he began to fall asleep, and soon his shallow breathing was the only sound to be heard. I was alone with my thoughts, and the memory of what I had seen.
Now I had experienced the strange, I could never go back to ignorance. I knew something was out there, something that I could not explain, and if one strange tale was real then perhaps so were many. To my knowledge, I was one of three people in the world who knew the truth – and one was a gibbering, shivering wreck - and the unique loneliness of my situation began to sink in. How could I talk to normal people and pretend that everything was just so, knowing what I now knew?
It was a short wait before Cerys returned, looking somewhat triumphant.
“There was no signal up here, so I walked down the path a ways. I told them it had collapsed yesterday and that we were stuck, that Ryan was missing, and that I was worried Scott might have hypothermia. They said not to worry, sit tight and they’ll be here as soon as they can.”
She sat down next to me, and clasped my hand in her own. For the second time, I was more grateful for her than I could ever put into words. She looked me in the eyes then, and I knew I wasn’t alone, not truly, not as long as I had her.
“Cerys…” I began, and she smiled. “I’m glad you’re here with me. Given everything we’ve seen tonight, everything that’s happened, I’m just so thankful for… you.”
“You’re a sweetheart,” she said, and pecked me on the cheek.
I was exhausted, grimy, and suffering a major existential crisis, but that one little kiss made me virtually glow with happiness. I squeezed her hand and felt her squeeze back and, for the first time since we’d reached the Seat of Zann, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
I only remember fragments of the dream, stuttered images and sounds rushing through my brain like a broken cinema reel in the back of my head. I saw Ryan, bloodied and lifeless and drenched in shadow; I saw myself, desperately fighting against the darkness; I heard laughter. Unearthly, malicious laughter, the sound of all the evil in the world gathered in one place to unleash its will upon four hapless travellers. Gradually the laughter became jarring, mechanical, until I faded into consciousness and recognised the sounds of helicopter blades. They had come for us, and we were finally going to go home. I sat up and saw Cerys, already awake, salvaging what she could from the tent.
“We're going home,” I said. “We're going home.”
She nodded, forcing a brave face, and I could see the relief in her eyes.
“They'll find Ryan,” she lied, and I nodded. “I'm sure of it.”
I threw my things together and went to fetch Scott. He was asleep, clothes and personal effects strewn wildly about the tent, looking bedraggled but alive. His breath came harsh and irregular, but it was there. Outside I heard the blades slow to a stop, and raised voices as the crew of the chopper spoke to Cerys.
“They're here for us, bud,” I said to Scott, waking him. “We're going home.”
After two fruitless weeks they gave up the search for Ryan. The search teams scoured the mountaintop to no avail, finally coming to the official conclusion that he had slipped off one of the broken paths to his death. Though Cerys and I knew differently, we never said a word for fear of being branded insane.
And though it is true that we have both excelled since our return to normal life, our increased aptitude for learning has come with a heavy price: the knowledge that in dark corners of the world lie terrible, inexplicable things, and we can never again feel truly safe. All we know is that sharing this burden of knowledge is better than bearing it alone, and together we are stronger and happier than we would be apart.
So we keep to ourselves and take comfort in the fact that we are with the one person in the world who can truly understand us. And we are, for the most part, happy.
As for Scott, I still look after him where I can, in the hope that one day I'll get my best friend back. He's a shadow of the boy he used to be, and he never did quite recover from his journey into the abyss, but I'm sure that the real Scott, MY Scott, is still in there somewhere.
I sure do miss him.