Chapter One: The Snow.
The snow was still falling in the middle of April. It hadn’t been so bad at first, just a light white dust on the ground, gentle flakes dancing slowly through the air. It had been pretty; a winter wonderland. But for the past four days, it hadn’t stopped raging. The air was thick with furious ice and hailstones, the gale pounding on the windows. Even though it was dark outside now, the blanketed ground was almost luminous, tinged orange with the glow of a solitary street lamp.
It was late, and the house was starting to fill up with a wintry chill. With the pipes frozen over days ago and the embers of the fire barely glowing anymore, we had resigned ourselves to wearing numerous jumpers and wrapping up in layers of wool blankets. I hadn’t turned a page of the book in my lap for nearly an hour; I was just staring out of the window at the storm. The room was quiet, filled with pockets of darkness that the lamplight couldn’t quite chase away. I glanced across to where my sister was wrapped up in a mess of blankets, bent closely over an array of textbooks littering the desk. I smiled fondly. She never stopped working, yet she didn’t need to; she was the cleverest person I knew.
“It’s late, Rose,” I said, “you should go to bed.”
She didn’t even glance up from her book. “Just one more chapter,” she muttered.
“The books will still be here in the morning. Come on,” I stood, prompting her to do the same. She dragged herself up the stairs, one book still trailing from her hand amidst the blankets draped over her. I went into the lounge, where Mum had fallen asleep, with the television on a low volume and a book lying on her lap. I gently shook her awake and told her to go to bed. I checked that all the doors and windows were locked, before finally ascending the staircase myself.
As I passed the stair well, I paused. The wall that climbed up with the stairs was decorated in a mismatched array of frames, photos of various different people and places, from different times. They we all proudly displayed, save for one: a small, dusty frame with a photo of my parents on their wedding day. It was the only one of my father left in the house. Six years had passed since he’d vanished, presumed drowned. It was the only photograph Mum kept on display. And it was always dusty. As if she didn’t want to see even this one picture properly. I pulled my sleeve over the heel of my hand and rubbed at the glass until it was shining again, taking care to remove the dirt from the corners and crevices of the frame. I smiled down at his face beaming up at me. “Goodnight, Dad,” I whispered.
Once in my room, I quickly curled up underneath my duvet and attempted sleep. However, I was restless that night. I was haunted by dreams of an unseen accident at a frozen lake, of a man who fell beneath the ice, and I could feel the cold sting of the water on my own face, in my own mouth and throat.
I woke sharply, jerking upright in my bed. A cold tingle ran down my face, and I touched my cheek to find I had been crying. The wind was howling in my room, and I saw that the cover had fallen loose off my fireplace. Brushing the tears hastily from my face, I clambered out of bed and shut it, blocking the noise and cold of the wind. It was only then that I heard the footsteps.
I froze in my crouched position near the fireplace. Surely it must be Rose or Mum going to the bathroom. But the sound of those steps… I strained my ears, listening intently over the wind that battered the windows from outside. The steps were heavy, from somebody wearing boots. I pulled a cardigan over my pyjamas and tiptoed across my room. I slowly turned the handle on my door, wincing as the hinges creaked when I pulled it open. Gently walking out into the hallway, I hid myself in the shadow of a bookcase, and peered down. The only light came from the street lights, barely illuminating the hallway in their glow. It was all different shades of shadow. I blinked, trying to discern what I was seeing. At the far end there were two shapes outside my sister’s room. One was tall and slim; the other seemed to have very bulky shoulders. Were they thieves? I edged forward, trying to get a closer look. Then they shifted, and I saw that the second of the figures had a third thrown over their shoulder. Long, red hair fell loose, gleaming brightly in the streetlight. It was Rose; they had my sister.
They ran. I hurtled after them, crashing into the wall as I rounded the corner, then went stumbling down the stairs. They were already at the front door; they ripped it open; the rush of freezing air struck me as I pursued them into the snow. My feet were stinging within seconds, and numb soon after, but I continued.
Instead of heading for the road they cut across the garden and went down the side of the house. I stumbled through the snow covered shrubs, the branches scratching my legs, and the ice stinging me anew. The fog of my breath was clouding my vision, I had cuts and sores from the hailstones battering me as I ran, and my feet should have given way from the cold long ago, but as I saw them sprinting down to the forest that backed onto our house, I was spurred on. I was about to lose them if they made it that far.
I raced after them as fast as I could. I was mere metres away when they slipped into the trees. A second later I was there, but skidded to a halt.
It was the strangest thing. The storm still raged, but a cocoon of still air was held within the trees. In the quiet shelter I could see that the intruders had vanished. Their footprints led straight into a dense silver mist. It seemed to glow with energy, and melded perfectly with the snow. If it had been daylight, it would have been unnoticeable. I looked all around, but that was where the footprints ended. Had they gone in to the mist? I reached out cautiously and touched it. It was warm. In fact, it seemed to radiate heat. But the snow around it wasn’t melting.
I looked through the trees once more. There was no one. The only sound was that of the wind battering the trees a few feet behind me. The thick branches and snowfall were undisturbed in every direction. It was silent.
It was impossible that these strangers had vanished into thin air, and my sister with them. But that was the only explanation. All that was left was the strange mist.
I could feel my stomach churning, a wave of adrenalin washing over me, like fear and anticipation. What was this mist? It was so warm; I reached out to touch it again. I had to know. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and stepped into the mist.
It latched on to me, the heat spreading over my skin, almost choking me. I panicked, and tried to move but I couldn’t, then gasped as I realised I could no longer feel the ground beneath my feet, and I was spinning into infinity. I kept on spinning and spinning, and then my world went black.