Michelle drove and I dozed in the passenger seat as the little car climbed steadily through increasingly mountainous countryside. ‘chelle was far from a patient driver and she wasn’t about to let the fact that we were approaching dangerous terrain deter her. I listened to the engine protesting and Michelle tutting every time she was forced to slow down, and several times I jolted awake as we veered sharply round a bend. For a time I drifted off into a hazy and chaotic dream in which our wedding – long-planned but still unrealised – was invaded by ninjas. Finally I awoke to find the car stationary.
“I think we’re lost,” Michelle observed.
We were parked in a narrow passing place on a steep incline. The thin strip of road that ‘chelle had been navigating wound its way ever higher into the hills just ahead. I looked out of the passenger window and my heart trembled at the sight of a vertiginous drop not three feet from the car. It plunged several thousand feet down to the sunlit lowlands from where we had set out that morning. Evening had fallen and sunlight reflected off a river far below.
“I’ve been driving for hours,” Michelle said. “We should’ve been in Hampton at least ninety minutes ago. There’s no sign of the place – and this road just goes up and up, see?”
I barely had time to register the fact that the lane did indeed climb to still greater altitude up ahead, disappearing between high rocky peaks into cloud-covered territory. Michelle opened up the map and spread it across the entirety of the dashboard and windscreen. She scrutinised it and her frown soon intensified into a scowl.
I’m not much good with maps but it didn’t take me long to discern that either the map was vastly outdated or alternatively we were nowhere near where we were supposed to be. I traced my finger back to Middlehurst, where we had stayed the night before.
“West from Middlehurst along the B253,” I muttered, “all the way to Lower Densley…”
“We had lunch there,” Michelle said.
“Then you drove,” I remarked.
“And it all went downhill from there,” she shrugged.
“Bad choice of metaphor,” I replied. “We carried on all the way to Lexley…here’s the crossroads at Walton Well…” I hesitated. “Then where did we go?”
“You mean where did I go?” Michelle peered at herself in the mirror and scowled some more. She tapped the map defensively. “Right at the crossroads and straight on to here. I didn’t even see any turnings after that, actually.”
I studied carefully. “Well it doesn’t look like more than thirty miles to Hampton, so we really should have arrived…”
“At least an hour and a half ago like I said.” Michelle opened the driver’s door and swung round in her seat to stretch her legs.
I lowered the map and looked around. To my left the land fell away to reveal some fifty miles of valleys and meadows on the way back to civilisation. To the right, a sizeable stretch of austere moorland vanished into the distance.
Without making comment, I ran my eye back to the crossroads at Walton Well and studied the other two directions Michelle could have mistakenly taken. Straight on would have skirted the hills and led ultimately to Burnwater Lake, a vast body of water that you couldn’t miss if you tried. Left would have actually returned us to Middlehurst via a roundabout route. Right should have brought us to our destination, a picturesque town in the foothills of the Whyte Mountains popular with tourists.
Michelle was clearly tired and exasperated and her mouth had set in a familiar expression that usually suggested she had run out of patience.
“We can either drive back to the crossroads,” I said, “and at least look for a sign…”
“There aren’t any,” ‘chelle interjected.
“…or carry on and see where we end up, and I’ll drive.”
I turned the radio on low as Michelle settled in the passenger seat and drove on up the road. I was relieved when she dozed off. A beautiful summer’s evening was unfolding behind us, and golden light splashed across the road from the west. But we were heading into the north, climbing rapidly, and I could see it wouldn’t be long before the clouds would swallow us up.
The brief sleep I had snatched earlier had refreshed me considerably, which was fortunate because the subsequent drive up into the mountains demanded all my concentration. I drove for many miles, sandwiched between frequent flashes of abyss to the left and a deep ditch to the right. The road narrowed until it was scarcely wide enough for one car, let alone two – fortunately I encountered no other vehicles. Finally the road swung away from the cliffs and on into the heart of the hills, and the clouds enveloped us. Thereafter I kept the speed at a steady thirty, the headlights cutting a short path through the mists. Rock and shingle crowded the roadside but there was no longer any immediate danger of us falling off the cliff. I kept an eye on the odometer. By eight o’clock I had brought myself and my bride-to-be forty miles into a land of crags and fog. So much for our sunny summer getaway.
Michelle slept on and I was content to let her do so. She had pretty much exhausted herself tying up the loose ends at work before finishing for the holiday. Plus she remained blissfully unaware that, firstly, the petrol gauge was dropping slowly but surely toward the red and, secondly, there was absolutely no signal on either of our phones. The little car kept climbing inexorably until my ears repeatedly popped from the pressure change and I began to wonder how much longer it might be before the avalanche warnings appeared.
Finally, just as the gauge touched red – which I generally reckoned left about forty miles in the tank – the car crested a rise and a sea of lights sparkled in a valley just below. I swore in relief and Michelle woke up.
“Salvation is at hand,” I said. “I was beginning to wonder.”
It made for a welcoming if nonetheless eerie sight: myriad lights hovering in the fog as if attached to nothing and merely set adrift. As I let the car coast downhill, a few rooftops became visible here and there, until we passed a sign indicating that we were entering LOCALLE, with the customary request that we PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY THROUGH OUR VILLAGE.
‘chelle grabbed the map and pored over it, even taking the trouble to check the index.
“Absolutely no reference to it,” she shrugged.
The road led us straight into the heart of the village. We passed a number of small stone cottages and the lights in the windows, plus intermittent streetlamps, served to diffuse some of the cloud. We drove past a tiny filling station – I noted that with great relief – and on past other outlying cottages into a more populated and modern-looking area of houses and shops. The road widened and converged with others; there were cars in evidence – not many – and people on the pavements.
“Back in the land of the living…thank God!” Michelle blurted out. “Find a pub, will you? I need a drink!”
“Can’t argue with that,” I said.
We drove down what appeared to be the high street, passing a succession of pubs: The Golden Lion; The Eagle; The Traveller’s Rest. The last of these advertised a car park and B+B. I pulled off the road. Driving around back, we discovered a car park scarcely bigger than the average back yard. I pulled up in a corner and gratefully switched off the engine. We both sat in silence for a few moments, and suddenly I felt exhausted. ‘chelle looked at me and the sparkle in her eyes indicated that her spirits had lifted.
“Well driven, soldier,” she said.
“Hope you were taking notes,” I said, “because tomorrow you’re on driving duty.”
I got out and stretched and the chill struck me right away. I turned to see Michelle reaching for her cardigan. The air was damp. The sun had long since set and night was all but upon us.
“Strange kind of place,” Michelle said. “Wherever it is.”
She sounded uneasy and I realised that I felt much the same. I took her hand and together we walked round the building. We found a side entrance that led into a narrow passageway lined with black and white photographs of the village. This in turn gave access to carpeted reception area. The place seemed to be completely deserted. There was a bell, however, sitting invitingly on the reception desk and when I rang it a tall, thin man emerged from a nearby office. He seemed surprised to see us and Michelle glanced at me uncertainly.
“Good evening,” the man said. His geniality somehow failed to convince me. “Can I help?”
“We got ourselves well and truly lost in the mountains and I reckon we need a room for the night,” I told him.
“No problem,” the man said. He suddenly seemed brighter and more convivial. “Where have you come from?”
“We’ve actually driven up from Staffordshire,” Michelle answered. “We’re on our way to Hampton…at least, that was the idea.”
“Long way from here,” said the man.
“We think we must have missed our turning somewhere around Walton Well,” I added.
“I can get you back on track,” the man remarked. “But it’s a good sixty or seventy miles to Hampton and unlit roads the whole way…”
I glanced at Michelle. She looked less than enthusiastic. “I think enough is enough for one day,” I replied. “Are you serving food?”
“Yes, absolutely. But let me find you a room,” our host replied. He flicked through a modest ledger. “Shouldn’t be hard,” he added.
He found us a small, comfortable room up at the top of what proved to be a thoroughly pleasant and cosy establishment. It was clearly a very old building constructed from stone and modernised throughout. Climbing the stairs, I got a reassuring sense of the solidity of the place, built to keep out the mountain elements.
We unpacked a few things and Michelle got into the shower. I lay on the bed for a few minutes, trying to unwind. I was keyed up from the drive. The silence really struck me: apart from the sound of water running in the bathroom, the room was filled with a deep and somehow earthy quiet that possessed a presence of its own. It brought solace following the stress and strain of the last few hours.
Michelle emerged from the bathroom. “Ready to eat?” she enquired.
We ate a hearty meal downstairs in the dining room beside an open fire that roared and crackled. We shared the room with an elderly couple that ignored us completely and each other as well.
“Hope that’s not us in fifty years,” ‘chelle muttered.
“More like thirty years,” I said. She looked momentarily appalled and I winked. “All right, thirty five,” I conceded. “Haven’t you heard the song – It’s Later Than You Think?”
“Shut up, Steven,” she said.
The remainder of the evening went by quickly. We were already tired and went up to bed around ten, a pair of proper wild youngsters. I drew the heavy curtains against the thick fog that now blotted out all but the closest lights.
“Is it fog or cloud at this altitude?” I wondered.
“Who cares?” Michelle groaned. “Come to bed.”
I did so and fell asleep almost immediately. But I woke some time after, already feeling that I’d been asleep for some considerable time. I glanced at my phone – there was still no signal – and found it to be ten past one. I lay on my back and stared into the darkened room. It struck me again that the deep silence possessed a life of its own – but there was something more than that. I tensed involuntarily. Suddenly I felt certain that we were no longer alone. It began to occur to me that there was a tall, silhouetted figure standing in the deep shadows a few feet beyond the foot of the bed. The more I strained to see, the more certain I became. Michelle slept silently beside me. I sat up slowly, peering ahead. My heart rate was escalating steadily and I realised that I was holding my breath. I let it go with a shaky sigh.
There was a light switch above the headboard and I was a moment away from reaching up to flick it when light flared in the room unbidden. I gasped in astonishment as the outline of a man lit up at the bottom of the bed, electricity arcing all around him. A pale white corona extended beyond that to fill the room. It became swiftly dazzling, and I was forced to shade my eyes. A tall, imposing male figure clad all in white glared across the room at me. I stared in disbelief and shouted for Michelle to wake up. True to form, she didn’t. I reached across and started shaking her violently. In the meantime, the man pointed towards the curtains with his right arm and an expression of some urgency on his face. The curtains suddenly snatched apart as if flung violently back.
“Michelle, wake up!” I shouted.
“What’s up?” she muttered. “It’s the middle of the night.”
The unearthly apparition continued to point towards the window for a few further seconds and we stared into each other’s eyes. For a moment my mind’s eye was filled with light. Then the man lowered his arm, smiled for a fraction of a second and vanished. The light and electric arcs vanished too and the room fell back into darkness. I was shaking and my breath was ragged and out of control. At this point Michelle finally woke up.
“Whatever is it?” she gasped.
“There was a man in the room!” I practically shouted.
“Don’t shout!” she protested.
Unable to contain myself I jumped from bed and went to the window, and saw at once that the fog had lifted. I stared wildly through the glass, searching for God-knew-what.
“Steve, what is it?” ‘chelle demanded. “Did you have a nightmare?”
I couldn’t speak. My attention was drawn across the rooftops and beyond the lights of the village.
An immensely bright blue diamond floated in the night about a mile distant, out on the moor.
“Come to the window,” I whispered.
I heard the bed creak and a moment later Michelle stood beside me. I didn’t have to point. Together we gazed into the distance.
The diamond slowly changed colour, morphing into amber and red, fading almost to black before returning to the original blue. It shimmered occasionally like a mirage, but was otherwise steady.
“Is it a UFO?” ‘chelle murmured.
“No,” I said, my breath finally stabilising. I knew it instinctively.
Ten minutes later we were dressed and rushing through the streets in the general direction of the blue diamond. It drifted in and out of view as buildings got in the way, but it always appeared again, bright and steady over the moor.
I had finally given Michelle the measure of the visitation. Like me, she was both frightened and exhilarated.
In the absence of fog, visibility was exceptionally clear. We came quickly to the outskirts of Localle and paused trembling on the edge of the moor. The sky was extraordinarily clear and alive with stars. Yet we hardly noticed. Our attention was drawn away from terra firma, away even from the enormous hovering diamond to an enormous mountain that stood shockingly close by, so vast and impressive and clear to the eye that I felt I could have reached out and touched it. It loomed far, far higher than the surrounding mountains and hills, which were dwarfed by its bulk and majesty. Michelle and I turned to gaze wide-eyed at each other, before staring again. My head was reeling from this latest shock. Could it really have been there this entire time, obscured in the fog?
Ahead, the luminous diamond began to drift slowly but steadily closer to the ground. Its tip touched the summit of a rocky outcrop and it promptly disintegrated into a thousand stars. In its place, the figure of a man was distinctly visible some few hundred metres away. I watched him kneel down and moments later flames could be seen rising from the ground.
As I watched, frankly dumbfounded, the man straightened up, faced in our direction and gestured toward us.
“I think he’s beckoning…” Michelle muttered. I swallowed hard. “Come on, let’s go see what he wants,” she continued.
I looked down at her in surprise. There was a strange light in her eyes. It was almost zealous. My head was still reeling as we advanced across the wet grass towards the rocks. The mountain towered hugely, impossibly close by. On the top of the outcrop, the man was indeed beckoning repeatedly, even urgently. My heart trembled as we drew near and began to clamber up the rocky incline. When we got near the top, I looked up and saw him kneeling beside the fire – a fire that burned of its own accord, without wood or any other kind of fuel, on top of the hill.
We reached the summit and stood gasping for breath. The beckoning man wore a plain white robe that contrasted strongly with his flowing black hair. He leaned close to the impossible fire and studied the flames intently. Michelle and I took several uncertain steps forward and the stranger glanced up, his dark eyes wide and confident.
“You have come here for blessing,” he announced, “prior to your ascent.”
We stared at him. The heat from the fire was intense. For a moment I thought I was going to crack up and burst into nervous laughter. The man beside the fire looked at us both and I felt his gaze go all the way through me and out the other side.
“So, you would enter into marriage,” the man mused. His voice grew louder and he stood up, holding out his hands. “Thus would you learn of the nature of love.”
We remained silent, holding hands. “May you discover that love is a sacred fire,” the man continued, “and may you learn to wield that fire, through the words that you speak and through the very flesh of your hands.” He came closer. “May you both gain access to the Forbidden Stair, that leads beyond this Earth and even the stars themselves to the Radiant Heart and the Blessed Ground.”
Michelle suddenly stifled a sob. The man appeared mildly amused. “Tears?” he remarked more gently. “Be neither sad nor fearful in the presence of the mountain. You may go now and leave me to my reverie,” he said.
He turned and knelt once again, contemplating his fire. I dutifully turned to go, but stopped in mid-movement. The mountain to which he undoubtedly referred stood dead ahead. Michelle turned also and gasped. A wide series of steps was clearly visible even at this distance, hewn into the mountainside. It climbed from ground level all the way to the summit, narrowing to a barely discernable streak and eventually becoming invisible to the eye as it ascended. Figures of light could clearly be seen climbing, glowing with some kind of supernatural radiance. There were several hundred if not more at various stages of the climb, from near-ground up to many thousands of feet where they appeared as nothing more than tiny sparks.
I stared speechless, disbelieving.
“Dear God,” Michelle said.