The stark world continues to change.
Each passing day twists it further, pushing the surviving humans closer to the brink of extinction. But, for the first time, there is hope.
Clare and Dorran have set their sights on returning home to Winterbourne Hall. It’s a daunting journey, but vital. Humanity needs more refuges—safe areas where food can be grown without attracting the attention of the hollow ones—and the old gothic manor is their best bet.
But their home is no longer a sanctuary. It’s become a trap: carefully crafted for them, lying in wait for their return. By the time they realize just how dangerous Winterbourne has become, it’s already too late.
The fight for survival is far from over.
Tags: horror, suspense
- Format: ebook, paperback
- Size: 400 pages
- Publisher: Black Owl Books
- Publication Date: 06 October 2020
- Links: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53074317
“YOUR TIME TO SHINE, map reader. Where to?”
The bus’s engine rumbled underneath Clare’s feet. Dorran sat in the driver’s seat next to her, his dark eyes warm as he smiled. Behind them, the Evandale Research Institute’s metal fence rattled in the chill morning air, and ahead, hundreds of kilometers of road separated them from Winterbourne Hall.
Clare held the map tightly, tracing the edges of the worn pages. “We’re about three days from Winterbourne, barring any unforeseen delays.”
“Will we be following the path we arrived on?”
“Only for a few minutes. After that, we’ll be on new terrain.”
Clare could visualize the path in her mind. “It will mean going through the mountains, but it will save us at least two days of driving.” The narrow dirt road ahead of them was cloaked by forest. Mist coiled along the ground, weaving through the exposed roots and playing tricks on Clare’s eyes. She knew there were likely hollow ones in the trees, watching, waiting. As Dorran put the bus into gear and eased them forward, doubts crowded Clare.
Maybe we really should have stayed in Evandale. Maybe we could have made it work.
She swallowed and refocused on the road ahead. They had a purpose: save Winterbourne, if that was possible. Behind them, the Evandale researchers were doing everything they could to reverse the effects of the thanites and destroy the hollow ones;
if that turned out to be impossible, humanity would need safe locations to consolidate and survive. And Clare didn’t know of a location more defensible than Winterbourne.
They just had to get there. And that meant going through the mountains—something Clare wasn’t looking forward to.
The last time I saw Beth, she was traveling toward the mountains.
Clare blinked furiously to clear her mind. The last time she’d seen her sister had been traumatic. Beth, corrupted and ravenous, had nearly killed Dorran—would have if Clare hadn’t intervened. She still had scratches on her throat from that final encounter.
She glanced at Dorran. Like her, he was developing a map of scars across his body. The latest set ran across his arms and his shoulders. He’d earned them while saving Niall, Evandale’s doctor, from a swarm of the monsters, and the following hours had been so tense that he’d never bothered to bandage them. They had already scabbed over. Soon, even those red marks would begin to fade: a gift from the thanites, almost as though tey were apologizing for the destruction they had wrought on the rest of humanity.
Clare was surprised to realize Dorran seemed happy. The emotion stayed reserved, but something bright sparkled in his eyes and the corners of his mouth had lifted a fraction. Clare found the good mood infectious and couldn’t suppress a smile of her own. “What are you thinking about?”
“Oh.” He chuckled, his dark eyes crinkling as he met her gaze. “I can’t hide anything from you, can I?”
“No better than I can hide things from you.”
Dorran turned the wheel, carrying them out of the forest and through the small town of Evandale. “It isn’t much, just that they didn’t think I was strange.”
“The Evandale research team?”
“Yes.” Twisted figures moved through open doorways and broken windows, but Dorran didn’t seem to be bothered by them as he deftly drove through the town. “I never told them about my family or my upbringing, and they didn’t guess. They…didn’t guess.”
He repeated that last phrase as though he was still coming to terms with it. Clare’s heart ached. After all this time, he still thought he wouldn’t belong in the regular world.
She reached over to take his hand. He let it drop from the wheel so he could hold hers, their arms resting in the space between their seats as they passed beyond Evandale’s bounds and returned to the empty rural roads.
“I thought that they would,” Dorran said. “They would hear it in my voice or realize that I didn’t know how to use their television or talk about something I had never heard of before. And I certainly gave them enough opportunities to notice something was wrong. But they didn’t.”
“They couldn’t notice something was wrong,” Clare said. “Because there’s nothing wrong with you.”
A hint of laughter slipped into his voice. “Then you are overlooking many, many flaws.”
“I’m serious. Everyone in that bunker was weird in their own way. Probably everyone left in the world has some oddness about them, including me. Your brand of weirdness is no worse than theirs.”
He made a noise in the back of his throat, and although he stayed quiet, his thumb traced over the back of her hand in small, sweet patterns.
Clare didn’t try to press the point. He was happy. He’d spent most of a week in the bunker without its occupants suspecting his upbringing hadn’t matched theirs. And even though Clare didn’t think that was surprising—or that it would have mattered if they had known—she kept that to herself. It was a victory to Dorran, and she wanted him to enjoy it.
The drive through the rural roads was easy. Clare and Dorran talked occasionally, and the pale sunlight began to look beautiful as it shimmered off lifeless trees and sparse farmhouses. Clare mixed bowls of dried fruit and instant porridge for their lunch.
As the sun passed its zenith and began to descend, the landscape around them changed. Gentle hills and scrubby patches of trees transitioned into rocky forest. The road narrowed and became harder to navigate. Dorran leaned forward, fingers light on the wheel but eyes keen as he watched the road.
The abandoned cars became fewer and then vanished entirely when the road climbed into the mountains. Clare wouldn’t need to use it for another hour, but she maintained her hold on the map, rubbing her thumb across its corner until her skin was raw.
There are no cars because almost no one lived here. With no one living here, there weren’t enough thanites to transform anyone traveling through the area. They would have kept driving, oblivious, until they reached the nearest town.
Much like Clare herself had been oblivious. If she hadn’t crashed inside the forest that surrounded Winterbourne, she very likely wouldn’t be alive at that moment.
She couldn’t stop her mind from crafting a picture of her probable fate: she would have seen the thanites’ effects once she left the forest, but with nowhere to take shelter, she wouldn’t have been able to stop. She likely would have continued on her path, trying to reach Beth’s house, only to become trapped on the freeway as so many other unfortunate souls had. She wondered how long she would have stayed inside her car while the transformed creatures scrambled over it, whether she would have succumbed to dehydration or whether desperation would have
forced her to open her door.
She had turned clammy. The trees surrounding them grew tall and dense, their branches overlapping the road and plunging them into shade. With the sun smothered by the perpetual smog, it felt more like twilight than afternoon.
Just because there had been no humans in the mountains to be transformed into hollows didn’t mean the roads were safe. The creatures traveled, sometimes huge distances, in search of food. They liked dark, cool areas—just like the thick trees provided. Clare’s attention flicked toward every trace of motion—a bobbing branch, a falling leaf, a shadow that might have held eyes. Dorran no longer drove with leisurely patience but kept a steady pace. Hollows would be attracted to the noise of their engine. The faster they passed through the region, the safer they would be.
“Can you tell me what the road up ahead looks like?” Dorran’s voice was just as gentle as ever, but Clare still scrambled for the map.
“The road stays bendy for a while, then straightens as it travels over the mountain for about forty kilometers. After that, we’re back into easier terrain.” She had worked out their path earlier that day. Their journey from Winterbourne to the research institute had been a deep curve; first the trip to Beth’s house, then to the city, had more than tripled the distance to be traveled.
She hated the way the mountain felt, though—as if she didn’t belong there, as if she were a guest in a foreign land.
It won’t last long. One hour, two tops, then we’ll be out the other side and heading toward Winterbourne.
Dorran’s eyes darted to her before reaffixing on the road. “The path is straight?”
“Yeah.” Clare caught herself. She hadn’t considered it before, but now that she looked again, the straight path seemed odd among the squiggles climbing the slope. It makes no logistical sense to have a straight trail through unsteady terrain. Unless… Oh.
“It’s a tunnel,” she said, her mouth suddenly dry.
“Hmm.” Dorran chewed on that for a moment without slowing the bus. “Are there any other routes around?”
Clare flipped through the map, scanning page after page. Her heart quickened, pumping a nauseating dread through her veins.
“Uh…we would have to drive around the range.”
“How far is that?”
“Far.” She tried to picture the distance. “Ten, fifteen hours, maybe. Or more, if we can’t take the main roads.”
“We’d better continue along this path,” Dorran said.
“Are you sure? I don’t mind the extra drive.”
Dorran’s voice was soft, even comforting. “No, I think this is the best route.”
Clare frowned. It wasn’t like Dorran to be so comfortable about choosing a more dangerous path. The thought of what the straight line represented—miles upon miles of enclosed, pitchdark road with no escape on any side—left her cold.
Then she tilted her head back to see into her side mirror. Strange, gangly shapes followed the path behind them. She tried to count the creatures, but there were too many glinting eyes weaving over and across each other to keep track of.
It’s not a choice. We can’t go back. There’s not even the room to turn around before they catch up.
Dorran had seen them too. He took her hand and squeezed it before returning to the wheel. “Don’t be afraid. We will be fine.”
She needed Dorran to be right. Because they had no option except to find out. Warning signs lined the road, cautioning about tight bends with no guardrails and turns only wide enough for a single vehicle. The path wove wildly, and Dorran’s lips set in a thin line of concentration as he fought to keep enough speed to move up
the slope and handle the narrow bends as well.
Something chattered near the back of the bus. The vehicle
stuttered as an unseen force pulled on them.
“Don’t be afraid,” Dorran said, and applied more pressure to the gas pedal. The bus surged forward and the weight disappeared. Clare forced herself to breathe through her nose—deep, slow breaths that wouldn’t let her hyperventilate.
Perspiration dotted Dorran’s forehead. He didn’t try to wipe it away, not even when it trickled toward his eyes. His attention was wholly absorbed by the path ahead.
Then, suddenly, the road turned toward the mountainside. A gaping hole had been carved into the massive, gray rocks. More warning signs flashed past too quickly for Clare to read them. Dorran turned the headlights on as their bus lurched into the tunnel’s opening.
Darcy is the USA Today Bestselling author of Hunted, The Haunting of Ashburn House, Craven Manor, and more than a dozen horror and suspense titles.
She lives on the Central Coast of Australia with her family, cats, and a garden full of herbs and vegetables.
Darcy loves forests, especially old-growth forests where the trees dwarf anyone who steps between them. Wherever she lives, she tries to have a mountain range close by.