Wolves at the Door (part 18)

As soon as they stepped under the lintel, Gil was glad to have a hand steadying him. It felt like he was walking down a steep hill, though the ground beneath him remained steady. If it was ground – he still wasn’t sure what he had been walking on all this time.

They advanced slowly, taking a few steps at a time and then pausing. At first it seemed excessively cautious, but Gil was soon glad of the slow pace. The constant sense that he was in danger of falling forward was joined by an out-of-breath feeling that increased with each step forward. The air – if it even was air – seemed to thin as they moved, but each time they paused for a few breaths, it helped, until it almost felt normal and they started moving again.

The thinning air reminded Gil of climbing a steep mountain, while the sensation of almost falling was like descending the same kind of slope. It all gave him the disorienting feeling that if he tripped, he might fall upwards to the peak, or perhaps beyond. Being surrounded by what looked like snow and mist did nothing to lessen the impression.

During the next breathing spell, Gil took the opportunity to look around. There was literally nothing to see, just the same muted white glow in every way he looked. In spite of that, he felt a strong sense of direction. His eyes may have had nothing to tell him, but his other senses were in no doubt. Just as it felt easy – too easy – to move forward, retracing his steps to the stone doorway would have been correspondingly difficult.

When he thought of the doorway, he suddenly realised that he could no longer see it behind them, though they had walked less than a hundred steps since passing through it. The softly glowing mist had not obstructed his vision this much back in the settlement they had just left. His companion’s words came back to him: it is definitely more concentrated out there, beyond the gates. If it was like this, or worse further out, there was no wonder that people got lost.

Then it was time to move again. The frequent stops kept the journey from feeling too arduous, but Gil was unsettled by not knowing how far they had yet to go. He did not relish the thought of the return journey, which would feel uphill all the way. For that matter, he wondered how he had made it the first time. He remembered nothing between seeing Alfvin disappear in the forest and waking up on the other side of the gateway. The young man ahead of him and the wolf pack behind must have been enough to keep him moving despite the difficulty. At least he finally had an answer for why they had not followed him: why expend such effort when they had already chased him out of their territory?

Finally, his eyes were able to distinguish something through the mist ahead. Indistinct at first, it rapidly became clearer with each stilted advance they made. Soon the shape was clear: it was the same as the doorway behind them. As they got closer, he could tell that although it was the same shape, it differed in two other aspects. There were no stones delineating its borders, it was as if the luminescent mist had become solid and had a rectangular hole cut in it. And while there had seemed to be no difference between the view through and around the stone gateway, here the contrast was stark. It was like a world constrained within the oblong frame before him.

Gil had barely had time to process what he had seen before he felt the twigs and leaves of his own world beneath his feet. They had already stepped through the portal.

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