Silence in the Shadows
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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.
Release date: October 6, 2020
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 337
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Silence in the Shadows
“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. He smiled, his dark eyes warm. Behind them, the Evandale Research Centre’s metal fence rattled in the chill morning air, and ahead, hundreds of kilometres 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 then, we’ll be on new terrain.” Clare could visualise the path in her mind. “It will mean going through the mountains, but it will save us at least two days of driving.”
Forests cloaked the narrow dirt road ahead of them. Mist coiled along the ground, weaving through the exposed roots and playing tricks on Clare’s eyes. Hollow ones were likely waiting in the trees, watching. 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 re-focussed 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, which Clare wasn’t looking forward to.
The last time I saw Beth, she was travelling towards the mountains. Clare blinked furiously to clear her mind. Her final moments with her sister had been traumatic. Beth, corrupted and ravenous, had nearly killed Dorran. She would have if Clare hadn’t intervened. Clare 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 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 they were apologising for the destruction they had wrought on the rest of humanity.
Clare was surprised to realise Dorran seemed happy. The emotion stayed reserved, but something bright sparkled in his eyes, and the corners of his mouth had lifted a fraction. Finding the good mood infectious, Clare 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 they didn’t seem to bother Dorran as he drove deftly 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 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 that he could hold hers, their arms resting in the space between their seats as they passed beyond Evandale’s boundaries and returned to the empty rural roads.
“I thought that they would,” Dorran said. “They would hear it in my voice or realise 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 gentle hills and scrubby patches of trees around them 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, 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 travelling through the area. They would have kept driving, oblivious, until they reached the nearest town.
Similarly, Clare herself had been oblivious. If she hadn’t crashed inside the forest surrounding Winterbourne, she very likely wouldn’t have survived. She couldn’t stop her mind from crafting a picture of her probable fate. She would have seen the thanites’ effects upon leaving 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, along with so many other unfortunate souls. 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. The branches overlapped the road, plunging the bus 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 travelled, sometimes long distances, in search of food. They liked dark, cool areas… just like the thick trees provided. Clare’s attention flicked towards every trace of motion—a bobbing branch, a falling leaf, or 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 the 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 kilometres. 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. The trip to Beth’s house, followed by a detour to the city, had more than tripled the distance to be travelled. By cutting across the mountains, they could shave days off their journey.
She hated the way the mountain felt, though—as though she didn’t belong there, as though 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 towards 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.
“Hm.” 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 straight line represented miles upon miles of enclosed, pitch dark road with no escape. Just the thought left her cold.
She tilted her head back to see the reflection in 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 without 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 while still handling the narrow bends.
Something chattered near the back of the bus. The vehicle stuttered as an unseen force pulled on it.
“Don’t be afraid.” Dorran applied more pressure to the gas pedal. The bus surged forward, and the weight disappeared. Clare forced herself to breathe through her nose, taking 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 towards his eyes. His attention was wholly absorbed by the path ahead.
Then, suddenly, the road turned towards the mountainside. A gaping hole had been carved into the massive grey rocks. More warning signs flashed past too quickly for Clare to read. Dorran turned on the headlights as the bus lurched into the tunnel’s opening.
Clare clutched the map, her knuckles white. She didn’t need it—wouldn’t need it for more than an hour, until the road deposited them back into the fields on the other side of the mountains—but she held on to it like a lifeline.
Glass light casings glittered across the ceiling, but the tunnel’s power was gone, and the arched passageway was desperately black. The sunlight flowing through the entrance faded within seconds, until the only illumination came from the headlights forming two jostling circles ahead of them.
Clare didn’t like it. The high beams didn’t reach as far as she thought they should have. They revealed patches of the pavement, perfectly straight and seemingly endless. Its diffusion brushed across the ceiling, enough to flash off anything reflective and to tease the shadows in between. But at the speed Dorran was driving, the lights weren’t reaching far enough to show any obstacles and still leave enough time to brake.
Please, please, let the tunnel be empty.
Clare knew that hope was thin. The tunnel’s perfect darkness and moist chill would make it an ideal home for the hollows—even more so than the forest. But the lights skimmed across meter after meter of ground, and still, they were undisturbed.
The bus began to slow. Clare finally tore her eyes off the road to glance at Dorran. His brows were low, casting heavy shadows across his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Clare whispered, even though there was no risk her voice would attract attention when the engine could accomplish the job first.
“They are not following us any longer.”
Clare twisted to see the side mirror. When Dorran tapped the brakes, red light flowed across the tunnel behind them. It was empty.
Clare’s stomach turned. She faced the path ahead again, trying to ignore the prickles growing across her arms. “You weren’t driving fast enough to lose them, were you?”
“No. They could keep up.” He flexed his fingers on the wheel. “They followed us into the tunnel for a while. Then they stopped, almost as though they had been spooked, and turned away.”
What could spook a hollow?
She saw her anxiety reflected in Dorran’s face. The bus continued to coast forward at less than half its previous speed, and he kept his attention fastened on the road. “What do you think? Drive cautiously or as quickly as we can?”
Not knowing what might be in the tunnel made the question impossible. Driving slowly would allow them to be followed, to be anticipated, or to be ambushed. But driving quickly could come to a sudden and unpleasant end if they encountered a blockage.
“Faster than this,” Clare finally decided. “But… not too fast.”
Dorran gave a short nod, and the bus sped up. Their headlights flashed over rock walls, the unmaintained white lines painted across the road, and the dead lights set into the ceiling. Clare craned her neck as they passed an unusual shape. It looked as though one of the lights had been torn out of its socket and was allowed to dangle from two cables. They passed the shape so quickly that she couldn’t get a good look at it.
Something had left score marks on the walls. The rough stone disguised the marring, but the tunnel was old—at least forty years, based on the style of the lights, and very rarely maintained. The exhaust from thousands of vehicles had blackened the old rock on the walls. Long gashes cut through the decades of grime, leaving marks of lighter grey decorating the walls.
Then something small appeared on the ground ahead. At first glance, Clare thought it was a stray rock. Only when it crunched under the bus’s wheels did Clare realise she’d been looking at half of a skull.
“Slow down,” she whispered.
The vehicle’s speed reduced, and Clare saw they were surrounded by bone fragments. The off-white shapes littered the floor, sometimes gathering at the tunnel’s edges like leaves. They had all been broken into fragments, the marrow inside painstakingly sucked out. She didn’t think the bones belonged to humans. Or, at least, they hadn’t been human when they died.
Inside the bus was so quiet that Clare could hear her own heartbeat. Dorran leaned across the wheel, his breathing shallow as he tried to protect them against a threat they didn’t yet understand.
Then a pole-like shape loomed in the shadows ahead. Impossibly tall and thin, it stretched from the ground and towards the ceiling. Clare looked for any semblance of life—eyes, a mouth, limbs, anything—but couldn’t see it. The shape was grey and curved gradually, segmented in two places. It looked more like a street lamp than a hollow.
Dorran hit the brakes, pulling the bus to a shuddering halt.
The shape’s base rose off the floor, seemed to hover as it drifted towards them, then stabbed back down to land on the road. Its base was pointed and looked sharp.
It’s a leg. Clare’s heart skipped. She followed the shape up to where its top nearly vanished among the shadows of the ceiling… to where it merged with a body.
Five more legs descended from the malformed creature. Two of them glided forward, stabbing into the road, bringing the whole being into terrible relief. Legs bent as the body descended. Two heads attached to the distorted torso gaped at them: one near where the shoulder should be, the other in the centre of its chest. The eyes were witless, but the jaws stretched as it moved more of its impossibly long, stick-like legs to pace towards them. It was immense. The tunnel was wide enough for two lanes and high enough to carry trucks, and the hollow filled the entire space.
Dorran barked an involuntary noise, something between revulsion and fear. Colour had drained from his face as his wide eyes stared up at the creature. It raised one of its six legs. The tip looked horribly sharp. Clare had a sudden image of it piercing the roof of the bus, stabbing into them, impaling them. The metal structure was sturdy enough that the regular hollows couldn’t break inside, but something told her the enormous creature could cut through the metal like a can opener.
“Drive!” she screamed.
Clare wanted only to be away from the many-legged behemoth, and as far as her brain was concerned, driving faster would get them away from it. She had no time to reconsider the instruction or think about the fact that the creature blocked the road, because Dorran obeyed as soon as the word left her mouth. The engine roared, and the bus surged forward, ploughing towards the legs with reckless abandon.
He really shouldn’t trust me so much. The inane thought came out of nowhere, and through the haze of panic, Clare had the impulse to laugh. Instead, she reached forward and planted her arms into the dash in an effort to brace herself.
The legs blocked the road, as thick as young trees. Clare knew they had to be made of bone, though. And bone could be fragile if hit hard enough.
The raised leg aimed towards them and began to descend. The bus lurched as Dorran threw the wheel. Rubber screeched as they spun, and the limb stabbed into the place they would have been. A small crater appeared in the concrete as the sharpened tip impacted it.
Dorran swivelled the wheel back in the other direction, checking the bus before it could tip over. They were heading straight for one of the legs. There was no time to correct. Clare put her head down and squeezed her eyes closed. The seatbelt snapped hard into her chest as the impact threw her forward. A horrible cracking sound rattled around them. She saw the leg bend across the bus’s front. The bones splintered like a snapped branch, their shards poking through a thin layer of grey skin.
Then the leg rose, and the bus was charging forward, past the monster. Clare twisted to see behind them. In the faint red glow of their brake lights, the creature toppled. It seemed to move in slow motion, each of the six legs scraping off the floor as its centre of gravity dragged it down. Screams, wrenched out of two inhuman mouths, echoed through the tunnel as the body hit the ground. Clare’s last glimpse was of the sharpened leg tips twitching as they tried to right the body again.
Dorran didn’t make any sound. He sat back in his seat, eyes wide and unblinking, perspiration shining on his face as the odometer rose dangerously high. The bus rattled around them. Part of Clare wanted him to slow down. Another part wanted him to go even faster. Neither thought could be expressed. She had no breath left for anything except feeding oxygen into her racing heart.
Then light appeared ahead of them. The arch-like glow was one of the sweetest things Clare had ever seen.
“Slow,” Clare choked out, grabbing Dorran’s arm.
He tapped the brake, and the dangerous trajectory eased off as they neared the tunnel’s end. They were just in time. The road outside the tunnel curved sharply to the right, and Dorran had to slow to a crawl to handle the bend.
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