Number 772. Nearly there. Robert burst through the door into the next Room to the right, stopped to catch his breath and looked around him.Yes, he thought, this was it! Three three nine. All he had to do was cross to the opposite door that he would need to take him to the Home Room, 884. Easier said than done.
The room was vast. Mist rose up from the surface of a lily covered pond, dotted by interconnecting islands. Everything was overshadowed by ancient, gnarled trees, something like oaks, and the grass leading down to the waters edge was thick with moss and dotted with small white flowers. The entire place felt ancient, and he had disturbed it. Beautiful as it was, there was almost certainly something sinister here. At least the thing biting at his heels would not follow him in.
Robert started forwards towards the shallow bank of the pond. The water was still apart from the odd ripple, and he could see his reflection looking back at him from the depths. He had the sleight build common to Runners, and his light brown hair was ruffled back from his recent pursuit. His sharp features marked him out as his father’s son; Conner Logan, the living legend. Robert wore the same symbol of a running man with winged feet on his sleeve, singling him out as a scout.
A noise from the undergrowth snapped him out of his reverie and he snapped to his senses. He had to find the outbound door, and quickly. Who knows what was lurking in the depths of 339.
The next bit of land was a short distance across a stretch of the black, brackish water. Robert took a quick look around, a few steps back and without another thought ran and leapt across to the far bank. He cleared the jump with room to spare, landing lightly on the soft mossy ground and ran on into the woodland. Dim light streamed in faint beams between gaps in the branches above; mistletoe and hanging moss trailing down with it. He had always wondered where the light came from. Nevermind that now, he thought, just keep moving. His eyes roved around as he sped past the trees, searching for any sign of previous visits to this configuration.
Then, as he dashed past a particularly large trunk, he spotted it. A blaze. Skidding to a halt, Robert quickly knelt down to take a better look at the markings at the base of the tree. While to an untrained eye the marks would appear random, it was actually a type of shorthand that could be quickly marked out using a Runner’s knife. It gave a time and date of when a Runner had been there, the runner’s name and division, and where the room configuration had been.
There were only three blazes already made. Two was clearly very old, and the tree had begun to grow over and obscure the marks. The only thing he could make out was the configuration from one, and nothing from the other. This room had materialised at number 293 for somebody. But it was the more recent blaze that interested him. The date marked it as about forty years old, and the room configuration was the same as it was now. Number 339. The name was one he knew off by heart. Two short horizontal slashes, topped by a diagonal from left to right and a single heavy vertical line striking through all. His father’s mark.
So this room stayed within a small bound of configurations, Robert thought. That usually meant it would be stable. Good. He was just about to leave, when his hand brushed against a patch of lichen growing on the bark, and some of it fell away, revealing two more symbols after his father’s blaze. He gulped. A circle and a square, both with vertical strikethroughs. Danger within the room, and an uncertain exit. Things were about to get a lot harder.
He had been making his own blaze as he read the symbols of his predecessors, and now, straightening up, he wished he had paid more attention to his surroundings. A rustle came from behind him, and turning, slowly, he watched as a beast, something not unlike a wild boar, emerged from the bushes. This could only go badly.
The boar creature stared at him through gimlet eyes, shrunken behind hard muscle and clogged with mucus and dirt. Stalemate. Robert suddenly realised it had four tusks. Muscle and sinew was bunched around its legs and body. It seemed poised; ready to charge at any moment. He felt himself wanting to panic, to run, but knew if he did that he was dead.
He moved his eyes left and right, searching for something, anything that could help him. He’d need some sort of weapon, something with a reach to keep it away from him. He took a step back, feeling for a steady footing behind to give him a head start. His foot hit the tree. As far as he could go. There, a branch. Small enough to pick up, but long enough to avoid the tusks. He lunged.
The boar moved at lightning speed for such a large creature. As Robert dived sideways into a sprint, it put its ugly head down and charged, emitting a terrible, and deep half snorting, half roaring sound as it rushed towards him. The tusks missed, but its shoulder caught him on the leg as he moved and sent him into an awkward roll. He hit the ground hard, but sprang quickly to his feet, grabbing the branch, to see the boar had charged past the tree and hit another. Somehow, he thought, it looked angrier than before. And even as it did, the light coming through the leaves changed from a deep green to a murky orange, like at sunset. The rooms numbers were about to change. He had to get to 884 before they did. And that gave him seven minutes.
As the boar lined itself up for another wild charge, Robert began to circle towards the water, branch held out. The boar was between him and the way out of the area by land. He would have to jump for it again. The boar charged again, but this time he deflected its rapid attack with a swipe of his branch. The dead wood snapped in his hands, but it clattered off the boars tusks causing the beast to turn aside. He didn’t waste any more time, and dashed the last twenty metres to the pond’s edge and launched himself into the air. Unfortunately, the far bank was a long way further than before.
Robert plunged into the murky water to find that it was indeed very deep. And cold. He struck for the surface, breaking through and gulping for air. Treading water, he could see the boar on the bank, breathing heavily. It did not attempt to follow him into the water. He felt his leg get tangled in a lily stem and gave it a shake to free it. At the same moment, the boar gave a squeal, as if scared, and turned tail, loping quickly into the undergrowth. Another lily stem tangled around his leg, and he kicked out against the water. It didn’t come free. Without a second thought, he dove back below the surface to untangle his leg, willing to ignore the cold in the light of having escaped the Room’s apparent danger.
It wasn’t a lily. A tendril, no, a tentacle was wrapped around his lower leg, and slowly entwining itself higher and higher. Twisting around in the dark water, he grabbed and ripped at the black appendage in horror. It wouldn’t budge. A cloud of red suddenly burst from his hand, billowing out into the water. Then he felt the pain. He screamed, bubbles streaming from his open mouth, then the sound of his voice as he broke the surface. The tentacle had small barbs which had cut into his skin, and the throbbing of his hand made him think they were also poisoned. He had to get out of here.
Still treading water, and trying to fight off the terror of the thing gripping his leg, he scrabbled at his belt for the knife that all runners carried. yanking it out, and spluttering as his actions and the pull from below nearly submerged him again without warning, he took a deep breath and sank back beneath the water. Swinging as fast as he could against the pressure of the water, he hacked into the tentacle where it emerged from the dark depths and met his leg. Some thick, black liquid leaked from the wound he inflicted, and the strange thing let go its hold and retreated downwards.
Breaking the surface again, he quickly began to strike out for the far bank, knife still in hand and trailing a small stream of blood. And then a pulse. A wave of force that became a sort of whooshing noise as it left the water, and made the trees on the bank sway. It came from the deep, and Robert now knew where the real danger in this ancient forest was. A beast far greater than the boar. It really was time he got out of there.
Speeding up his stroke, he reached the bank and was hauling himself out as three more tentacles, three times the size of the one that had grabbed his leg crashed onto the bank around him. They dragged back into the water, searching him out and trying to drag him back in, but he ducked one and jumped the others as deftly as he could with his heavy and sodden clothes. Shivering, he began to do the one thing he knew might save him. Back to running.
There, the door! At the far end of the long thin island, the exit to the room. The distance was closing, and as he ran he could hear the thud and drag of massive tentacles slamming into the ground behind him, but he didn’t dare look back to see how close they were to him. Only getting out mattered. Nearly there, he thought, nearly there. But with only ten metres to go, a shadow came over him, and he found himself looking up into the maw of a gigantic creature, gnarled, scarred and hideously old.
As the razor-toothed mouth came crashing down, more and more of its tentacles sliding out of the water and onto the bank and between him and the door, Robert made one final leap. He soared through the air, over the tentacles and landing on the final one, squirting out more of the black liquid that seemed to be its blood. Barbs cut into his leg, but he ignored the pain and wrenched open the door, hurling himself through, slamming it behind him. Silence.
He sank to the ground, breathing heavily and sliding against the blank, white wall for support. Eight eight four at last. The control spike glowed red in the centre of the room, before settling back to its normal serene white aura. He had made it out just in time before the Rooms had changed configuration. The spike prevented the Home Room from changing location, and protected the outer door from being breached by any of the unspeakable creatures that roamed the rooms. Or at least in theory. They were normally stopped before they reached the Home Room. A comforting thing about the 884 was that it was actually a room; a long white walled gallery with the upside down conical device known as the control spike dominating the space.
He was back. Crawling to the spike, he pressed the button on the pedestal that held it, and spoke into a mesh grid situated above.
“This is scout Robert Logan, reporting in from a reconnaissance mission to an unusual configuration that recently materialised directly off number 884. Requesting immediate exit and medical assistance. I may have taken a few hits out there.”
He waited a few moments before the blessed reply broke the static. He broke into a smile and laughed as the duty guard hailed him back.
“We hear you, Logan. They’ll have you patched up in no time. I’ll open the outer door now. Oh, and welcome back.”
Note about the story:
The Runners is an idea for a world that I came up with two years ago on holiday in Spain. The basic premise is that it is a world very similar to ours, except there are doors that open into a sort of meta dimension, a world between worlds. It sort of doesn’t exist or occupy any space, even its own, except that it kind of does.
In it are what are known as rooms, which all have numbers. A series of doors interconnect the rooms, but the doors do not always lead to the same room. The room numbers shift in complex patterns, and each time they change their configuration, their content alters. The links between the numbers are easier to track than what will be in them, and changes less often. This leaves the numbers to be thought of as separate from the rooms: the environment that occupies 339 in the following story could appear in a different room at another time, and seems to exist somewhere at all times, as time continues at the same rate within a room.
Rooms can have all sorts of strange modifiers, like altered time, gravity and other physics changes. They can appear to be outside areas, inside, blank rooms, your own home. And they are all dangerous. There are dangers within the rooms, then there are the intelligent and malevolent creatures that roam between them. They once escaped the rooms and entered the real world, wreaking great havoc before being defeated and forced back into their non-dimension. The Runners exist to prevent anything like that from happening again, and to guard the exits into the world, of which there are three. Two in control of the Runners, and one in control of a group known to Runners as the Harpies.
The rooms also yield various useful substances and sources of research, and so part of the job of Runners is to locate, extract and study these things, as well as studying the rooms themselves and mapping and maintaining a database of their workings. It’s a dangerous job.