VII

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I lie there in the hot light of the sun, letting my bones start to warm as the snow softens around me and Iain. What happened?

I replay the last minute in my mind. I was digging at the ice, desperately trying to free Iain before the cold killed us both. My hands had gotten so cold I could hardly move any more. I was certain we were going to die. And then...

The snow had just... stopped.

Like some capricious god had flicked a switch, the blizzard had vanished in an eye-blink and suddenly a bright red sun was beaming down on the both of us. Iain and I were left standing there in a snowdrift, wondering just what in the universe had saved our lives.

I'm still shivering, but I can feel the warmth work its way through my body. It's not long before I can feel my fingers and toes again, and I turn back to help Iain. It's impossible – completely impossible – but who am I to complain?

We're alive. That's all that matters.

Iain chuckles as I free his last hoof. "Close one, huh."

I nod, not as ready as him to make light of the situation. Part of how I've survived this long is due to my tendency to avoid risk of death wherever possible. I've never come so close to it as I have these past few days.

"So," Iain says, as he shakes the snow off his ankles and we survey the landscape together. "What now?"

"We find Hayley," I reply without hesitation.

Iain nods in agreement. "You and I weren't that far apart when we came through. What do you think the chances are of her being the same?"

"From what I know of the rules of this game, I'd say it's practically certain," I tell him. Because this is a game, I know that now. It's being played with lives – our lives – but it's a game nonetheless, and I'm sure as hell going to find whoever's playing it and they're going to give me answers. But for now, we have to play along. We have to find Hayley, and do whatever we must to pass this stage of the voice's tests.

With the blizzard gone, our view is almost completely unobstructed for several miles in each direction, white fields of snow stretching off into the distance all around us, clambering up into rocky grey mountains that lie scattered across the horizon like so many titanic teeth. Perhaps a kilometre ahead of us, down a gentle slope, a small cluster of alpine trees is visible on the shores of a frozen lake.

"We'd see her from here if she were anywhere else nearby," I say, pointing, and Iain agrees. I climb up onto his back, despite his protests of being treated like a pack animal, and we set off at a trot towards the trees.

"Hayley!" I shout every now and again as we ride, my voice bouncing off the landscape in a series of eerie, wraithlike echoes, each more distorted than the last until I hardly recognise the sound. Iain adds the not inconsiderable power of his lungs to my own, but we get nothing back.

We skirt around the frozen lake, its surface glassy and still, with no sign of movement beneath the ice. That's what this whole place feels like, I realise, ever since the blizzard stopped. Still. Too still.

I shout her name once more as we reach the edge of the trees, and I could swear I hear something in response that isn't just my echo.

"Hayley!" Iain roars, and there – it's no clearer this time than before, but it's there. Just on the edge of the last echo, a distant, almost inaudible... chuckle?

The hairs on the back of my neck start to prickle.

"I don't like this," Iain says quietly. "Something's wrong."

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