It’s been one year since sisters Kira and Romy escaped the twisted realm of Whiteland. Desperate and lonely, Kira has no one to talk to, or to convince her that she’s not crazy, and that everything in Whiteland really did happen. Worse, Romy remembers nothing and Kira just can’t bring herself to make her sister remember.
On New Year’s Eve, Kira agrees to go with her friends to a nightclub, where she hopes to finally forget everything and start fresh. Instead, she runs headlong into her past. Callum is there. He’s alive and his memories of Whiteland are intact.
But Callum isn’t the only thing that left Whiteland. A huldra has escaped, too, and it only has three things on its mind: punishment, revenge, and hunting down the trio that escaped.
Now the three friends are on the run in the real world. Little do they know that the farther they go, the closer they are heading into madness.
The only thing worse than going into Whiteland is when it comes out after you.
From author Rosie Cranie-Higgs comes a masterpiece of psychological horror and suspense set against the snowy and stark Swiss Alps. Deftly mixing Scandinavian folklore and dark fairy tales, Rosie’s creepy and atmospheric Whiteland series “takes readers down a terror-filled rabbit hole…” (Publishers Weekly) to a realm that is impossible to leave.
Excerpt from Karliquai
The forest is dark; this is the first thing. The second is the knowledge that she can’t make it light.
Freya blinks. Nothing changes; nothing but herself. It melts into her skin, creeping through her being and knocking rudely on her bones. It doesn’t wait for an invitation, and soon she’s awash with it. Soon, she’s shivering. Soon, she’s new.
She turns, but the forest is endless. Row after row of trees, a stretch of marching black. No sign of where she came from. No indication that, even if she wanted to, she could get back. Taika’s fires, the wailing wife, the echoes and the dead. They’ve faded into nothing.
She turns back and mild bewilderment jolts. Where the night was impenetrable, now there’s a road, quiet and glinting with snow. The edge sweeps past her bare toes. The middle is churned and choppy, deep, trampled by many feet. It’s as if she’s been stood here for years.
Move. Like a whisper through the trees, the word curls around her. You’ve been taking too much time.
Swatting at the voice, Freya shakes her head. Soon the women will be strong, and not easily dislodged, but now…she can’t help staring at her feet, at the ground. Covered with the pine needles scattering the snow, they’re as speckled as river-bird eggs.
As speckled as river-bird eggs? Freya frowns. Never in her life has she thought such a thing. Ørenna only knows why she thinks it now. Maybe the change stopped her knowing anything; maybe she’ll never know anything again. Maybe this is how Anneliese became who she was—how she was—what she was—in the end.
A person, plagued by things she can’t explain? Human? Freya twists her nails into her temples. The sharp, cold pain makes her focus. She’s not losing herself; she’s adjusting. She wouldn’t be here if it would make her lose her mind. From the way the women talk, by the end of Anneliese’s ice plains pilgrimage, she was as disappointingly normal as anyone.
Looking up from her feet, Freya steps from the snowbank, and sets off down the road. Her legs, her back, her fingertips; even her insides shudder and tingle. Thinning her lips, she looks around.
The road is all there is. Fringed with the unbroken, battle-ready tree lines, there’s no end, either forward or back. A long, straight hill, a moonless night, and a crisp, lifeless silence; this is her eerie welcome to the outside. This is the witching hour, and she is having fun.
Hopefully minus the witches. She may be a monster, but magic scrapes her skin.
Oh, but none of this matters. A breeze blows through her, and suddenly she’s light, the breathy air itself. Her insides thump and settle. A curtain lifts, like the end of a sickness. Freya speeds up. She’s complete.
Almost skipping, almost running, the balls of her feet barely brush the snow. Her toes scrape the crust, flicking powder at her legs. It’s sharp. It’s refreshing. Freedom is a tang; winter ghosts on her skin. The cold hisses oh, how alive.
Alive, and horrifically cold. It hits her like the entrance to Taika’s cave, that icy, smothering suffocation before it lets you in. Freya grimaces. She’d never miss that nefarious dress, but it’s the coldest she’s ever been. Every inch of her is bare. The frosted road needles her feet. Her fingertips throb and freeze, the pain burning, biting, blistering. If she doesn’t move faster, she’ll drop. Fold, collapse, frost over. Numb. As light as the change has made her, her body’s starting to stiffen.
Freya’s heavy lips curl. Her new form is blasphemy. Her old skin was better. Regret twinges through her, and flees as quick. Before, she was so much more suited to the cold. Her skin was coarser. Now, it’s smooth. From what they showed her in the pool, it’s the only change she’ll miss. Her eyes have lightened from violet to glaciers, but that’ll make her blend in. Her tail crept back inside her with the change, and that’ll make her blend in. Her hair is the same. Her shape is the same. Her old skin, though, she could do with, its thickness, shield, warmth. No one would be able to tell.
They would. The voice sighs inside her head, less a whisper, more concrete. Freya ignores it. What bothers her more, snaking in like seduction, is something she hadn’t expected: weakness. Weakness that goes beyond physical strength. Her mind feels dulled and tame. Her hearing is rounded and contained, and her sense of smell, before so wickedly voracious, now hovers close to her head. It leaves her vulnerable. It leaves her weak.
She’s always despised feeling weak.
But that’s it. Rattled by a violent shiver, Freya dredges her mind into focus. She’s going to be vulnerable; she’s going to be weak. She’s going to be human. She is.
Urgency judders through her legs. She pushes them faster, faster. The aching air throws her hair back from her face, rushing, throbbing, electric. A heart-shaped face, a pale face, born of twenty-five years in the forest. A more human face, ever so slightly; the pool showed her that, too. Less unsettling.
A little more tame.
Freya swats this away. If she even contemplates griping, the time in which she has to leave will leave her in time. Being abandoned here, running down a hill that would never truly end, would be worse than never having left. Mathew would pass by and continue to the outside. She’d watch him go, and be stuck. Forever.
She grits her teeth and pushes on. Her chest pounds. She’s abnormally breathless, but she has to keep going, and going, until—
Until the road blurs and evens out. Ending in an unforeseen blaze of light, drenching her limbs and through to her bones, it brings her to a jerky stop. Her feet skid and scratch. Throwing up a hand, Freya shields her eyes. It’s everything she’s never seen.
The moon, wearing an expression as surprised as hers. The stars, behind a dusting of cloud. A strange lamp hanging from the eaves of a cabin, skulking across a grey stretch of ground…and the vivid, unnatural torches of four startled men.
Perfect. Allowing herself the shortest of smirks, Freya stops to wait for Mathew. The men’s mouths are open, their eyes all white. She sleekly recovers her poise and guile. They couldn’t be more perfect…until they’re dead.
In the whispering cold, Freya still waits. The men are silent. Irony twitches inside her; now that all language is different, she can’t make so much as a sound. Not until someone speaks to her, when her lingering otherness is meant to kick in, but when no one says anything at all…
Ah. Peering through the onslaught of light, her bemusement leaps into scorn. They’re men; of course they’re quiet. As the silent seconds pass, their eyes rove her body, two mouths parting and the other faces gormless. She fights to keep her face innocent. She can’t blame them; she appeared in the night like a spectre, powering down the road with not a stitch to wear. White-haired in the moonlight, with her naked curves opaque, their thoughts would be far from conversation.
Good. They regard her as though she’s a tropical creature, a grasslands dancer, a wonder, a gift of the darkness and a far-distant world. It makes everything so straightforward.
Footsteps crunch behind her. Conveniently trembling in the breath of the breeze, Freya flinches. Oh, it’s perfect.
‘Help.’ She mouths the word, taking a quick, halting step. One man jolts. Freya glances back at Mathew. Tall and shadowed, he’s almost here. ‘Please.’
Spinning, slipping, shivering, she widens her face into vulnerability. Considering the bitter night, numbing her feet and hollowing her limbs, it could be a lot more difficult. ‘Please.’ Another halting step forward, another panicked glance at Mathew. Hands in his pockets, he looms behind her, and skittering forward, she hugs herself tight. ‘He’ll hurt me.’ She strangles a sob. ‘I need help.’
They won’t understand what’s happening—even less what’s going to happen—and that’s perfect. They don’t need to. All they need to do is be charmed.
They are. Eyes flitting to Mathew and back, the men shift from astonishment to concern, and as her dim eyes continue to adjust to the light, she’s starting to tell them apart. No longer simply one awestruck mass, they are two tall, one short, two with beards, one with grizzled stubble, one without anything at all. One with a thick, furred hat, one still dreamily smiling. One pushing auburn hair away from his forehead, one with a frown as he works to summon words. And all of them defenceless.
Drawing closer, Freya fills her face with anguish and meets the dreamer’s eyes. One, two seconds. Switch. The second man, third, fourth. They don’t see it coming, and before they can react, they’re frozen. Useless. Stone.
Their eyes can’t leave her. Their legs can’t move. Consternation, confusion, and panic map their faces, but as their minds swiftly falter, it all smooths away. Freya drops her act with a wicked smile. Sliding close enough to the dreamer to hear his brittle gasp, she feels the heat rise to his face, and sees the whites of his eyes take over as she closes her hands around his throat.
The breeze whips her ankles. The men smell strange, of an ugly smoke and something far too sweet. Turning, slowly and carefully, she takes them, one by one. Long fingers, red marks. The rattle of losing breath. One by one, they crumple. One by one, they die.
Pathetic. Freya regards them. Now all their lives have gone, they’re pathetic, indistinct. Kneeling by the smallest body, the wicked smile returns. She’s neither; she’s remorseless. The ability to charm, hypnotise, paralyse should be waning, yet she’s never killed this many at once. Never. Her coldness should thaw into caring, yet her humanity doesn’t squeak. It’s exhilarating. More than that, it’s a comfort.
It will be neither if you freeze. The words hiss into her thoughts. Freya tries to swat them away, but they linger, like the echo of a raven in the forest. They’re getting stronger.
Well, she knew they would. She glances back at Mathew. He’s as mute as the men, but slightly less dead. Can you not make him speak?
The women seem to hum. Not yet, they whisper. Freya frowns, but lets it go. Someone, somewhere, will say something, and give her back her tongue.
Not if she freezes. She tunes her muddy human eyes to the body at her feet. Its clothes will do; they’re fairly atrocious, but they’ll more or less fit, and until she can change them, that’s more or less enough. Beneath the garish winter coat sags a vest, sea-blue and dragged to the knees of a skinny pair of trousers. Oh, the joys of the outside. Shorn hair and too many colours; his companions are even worse.
Clothing herself, Freya appraises them. Them. Mathew. Them. Mathew. If she thinks at him, will he understand?
That one, she tries, because she might as well. The silence reminds her too much of the forest, of shadows and hiding and no way out. Too watchful. Too still. Waving for Mathew’s attention, she waves at the smoky redhead’s clothes, raids as many pockets as she can find, and straightens. Enough of Atikur; enough of Whiteland. She’s outside, and already, she’s so much more herself. She’s kept a part she expected to lose, and it kicks up dirt at the rest.
The outside’s daunting promise. The lack of focus in her vision. The dullness of her mind. None of it feels as bad as it did, and harnessing her drifting senses, she turns from the glinting track. By the forest’s edge, the snowy field sweeps off. Somewhere in its heights sits Karliquai, the old chalet, waiting alone.
Not for long. With sly satisfaction, Freya turns from this, too, to the wide grey curve around the trees. Time to leave.
Fastening her ugly coat, she lifts the ugly hood. At least she’s warm, if smelling unwashed. ‘Ready?’ She mouths the word, waving at Mathew. Extending his newly gloved hands over the four dead men, he nods. The bodies flicker, glittering slightly, and in a blink, they’re nothing but air.
From family father to the Kyo’s plaything, Mathew is their witless marionette. Freya smiles. If she cared, she might pity him, watching him straighten up again with no mind to call his own. As it is, though, she doesn’t.
What matters is that they’re ready.
Slipping into the moon-cast shadows, she begins her path down the mountain. It still smells of pine, of the glass-sharp winter, but she’s out. Every step takes her farther from the cold reach of Whiteland; every step and every second, it recedes. It’s a raging, frozen fire, and it’s losing its flames.
Inside her, the Kyo’s voices cackle. Soon, they’ll grow as strong as they are within Mathew. Freya doesn’t fight. They watch, they spy, they sigh directions; without their voices , she’d be nothing.
Their message is clear as she slips through the night, down the road to the world and away.
Time to make them scream. Time to make them run. Time to make them try to hide, in the hellish veins of nowhere.
It’s time to find the sisters.
Papillon of winter light. Are we dead when we have died?
Romy probably meant it as a comfort. In a strange, morbid way, it is. Icons of snow, a star, the moon; it’s a ghostly, ghastly, cold reminder. On this day a year ago, their parents died.
Kira rarely thinks about it. She rarely lets herself. It’s too liable to drag her down, like fingers from the grave that crave her. When they scrabble through the soil, she silences them. Stamps them out, studies, listens to enough Romy-style metal to feel better, or at least numb. Usually, it works. Today, though…
Today’s different. Kira sets the phone down, Romy’s message on-screen. Papillon of winter light. Are we dead when we have died?
Are they? Maybe not. Hopefully not. Nestled knees-up in the window seat, with fat, lamplit snowflakes floating outside, Kira’s thoughts drift back, back, back. Back a year. Back to horror.
Back to Whiteland.
The wolf took her and Romy to the far side of the plains. Hour after hour of riding, until she saw glittering white wherever she looked and her mind drifted off to nothing. Another distant polar bear crossed their path. Towering crags of ice threw shadows, and the plains traversed a minefield of water holes, but she didn’t see; not really. After what had happened, she couldn’t bear to see, and certainly couldn’t bear to feel. She’d survived Whiteland, and for what?
If she hadn’t come, nothing would have changed. Anna would have given her life for Romy, and in the process, Matt would have died. Kira’s valiance meant nothing. Nothing.
Bumping on the wolf’s back, the word hung in the air. It was in Romy’s sagging head, in her bluish, bony neck. It numbed the nausea that hugging Romy curdled, the knowledge that she killed their father. Nothing. This ruin meant nothing.
If only she’d been faster. If only the wolf had been faster. If only she’d spent less time on the island. A stream of if onlys paraded through her mind, even though they were useless. None of it mattered. She hadn’t been faster, and she hadn’t yanked Romy away in time. Maybe Anna could have done more. Maybe Romy could have fought the Kyo, or Matt could have fought her. Either way, the only thing to come of this was death.
Nothing was bitter and yellow, but death was black and cold. Decaying, putrid, chaotic, a chasm. Her dad’s death. Her mum’s death. Callum’s death.
Callum. All hope of finding him disappeared when the wolf took off, across the ice, to spirit her away. Abrupt and final, it was over. She closed in on herself, like a flower at night, and stayed there. It didn’t matter; Romy didn’t wake. After her moment of crowning glory, Romy did nothing at all.
Kira drifted back to her mind when the wolf slowed to a trot. The ice was becoming powder, tailing into snow-covered woods. Ash and oak and wide-spaced trunks, hints of green through the white. A squirrel scarpered up brittle bark. Kira slipped from the wolf’s back in a haze. How ordinary. How tame, compared to the forest beyond the river. The trees seemed to breathe with life. Normally, it would have been nice.
Normally, her parents would be—
Kira bludgeoned the thought before it formed. With her insides slumping back to dull, she helped her sister to the ground. Romy’s eyelashes were fluttering. Her fingers were starting to flex, and her throat let out a small hum as Kira eased her toward the trees. If she woke up and saw this…
‘Thank you.’ Sparked with heavy urgency, Kira turned back to the wolf.
It was gone. The ice plains were gone; all around them were the woods, as if there’d never been anything else. Kira’s chest panged faintly. There were snowdrifts, and delicate thorns. There were branches bowing low to the snow. Tightening her arm around Romy’s waist, she carried on into the trees.
Small, soft, and sighing, flakes of snow began to fall. Kira let them settle on her hair, on her cheeks. She was tired; so tired.
And then she caught the noise. Her chest panged again, with hope. Somewhere, floating on the air, was music. Somewhere, there was a crowd, laughter, echoing shouts, and static. They must have left Whiteland.
Swept with a bitter relief, she nearly cried. The trees felt like Christmas Day. The air was warming up. Cosy, coddled, comforting, it was atmosphere and life and home. She could have stopped there. She could have sunk to her knees, and surrendered. The strong, aching, whimsical magic was wistfully all-consuming, but following it like a trail of breadcrumbs, Kira dragged herself on.
On, though her feet were white-hot blocks. On, though her arms were tensed and shaking. On, though her eyes were swollen, and her head throbbed, and her mind keened. Heaving Romy through a clump of bushes, beneath branches of feathery snow, Kira dragged herself into a park.
It hit her in a sound wave. Children. Adults. Hook-a-duck stands. The spices of mulled wine, the smell when funfair food combines. Candy floss and popcorn, hot dogs and churros. People everywhere, milling around, waiting for something to happen. A barrier and open space. Music playing, loud bass. Synthesisers. Distortion. Lights sparked in Kira’s eyes, brilliant and blinding. An invisible ride rattled and clanked. Buildings lurked in the dark, far across the white-brushed grass: offices, apartments, restaurants, banks. Cars. Buses. Noise.
It was cacophonous. It was unbearable. Kira’s head swooned hot, and her knees gave out.
Romy cried out as they tumbled down. Kira clapped her giddy hands to her ears. Her hips jarred on the winter ground. The snow soaked her jeans, and she crawled onto her knees, squeezing her eyes tight shut. Too bright. Too loud. A deafening, crackling microphone squawked, announcing the city’s fireworks. Kira heaved her head up. A British woman, loud and brash: were they home?
Ten, nine, eight, the cockney woman crowed. Seven, six, five, four. The illuminated people cheered. Three, two, one, they whooped. Happy New Year.
Fingers gripped Kira’s arm. Black swarmed in butterflies, and Kira jerked around. Romy was propped on one frail elbow, thinning her eyes to focus. Her eyes were bruised with exhaustion. Her peeling lips opened and closed.
Where are we? she asked. The words were dry and small.
Kira shook her head. I don’t know.
The butterflies gathered, whipping up a storm. Romy bobbed in a drunken blur. Did she speak? Did either of them? Kira lowered her forehead to the snow, arms trembling. The noise, the people, the whole of Whiteland… they cracked her skull like a tumble of bricks. Her face burned. Her body was lumpy, dark and untamed.
And people were starting to stare.
Her peripheral vision caught them. Two men, coming toward her. A group of women, red-cheeked, exchanging baffled looks. Panic drove its hands through her chest, squeezing the life from her lungs. This was wrong. So wrong. They shouldn’t be here. Not alone. Not like this. They should—
In a fiery riot, the fireworks burst. Kira flinched away, from the whine and the bang and the crackle and the cheer. Screwing up her face, Romy curled toward her. Kira, she moaned. What’s happening?
One of the women crouched down. Kira twisted away. Don’t tell them anything, she urged Romy feebly. They won’t believe you if you tell them what happened. Just say you don’t remember.
Nose to nose, Romy blinked at her. What am I meant to remember?
On the window seat next to her, Kira’s phone buzzes. It rips her from the park, from the band around her chest, from the moment when, in viscous thumps, her heart fell away. She was the only one who remembered. She was the only one who knew.
Squinting at her phone, Kira swallows the memory, the hopelessness threatening to rise. Did you ever think we’d be lost among this?
Romy. Perfect, bitter timing with the perfect, bitter song. Kira locks the phone. Breathe. Looking back to the window, she fixes on the snow, on the blue-white glow from the moon. Her eyes flicker with afterglow, imprinting the lyric on her eyes. Around her, the room has settled into night.
Romy. Kira thunks her head against the frosted glass. For a while last year, Romy asked what happened. She assumed Kira knew, because she herself didn’t, and although she was right, Kira never let on. All her sister remembered was stumbling off to the woods; as a result, she formed a truncated truth. Romy never returned from the forest. After a couple of days, first Anna, then Matt, then Kira herself went looking…and after that, the story’s a blank.
It’s the tallest of tales, and Romy never seemed convinced. But other than Kira’s niggling guilt, what does it matter? No one in the village ever spoke a word, and everyone else is dead.
Fingers from the grave that crave her. She wasn’t wrong; she’s sinking. Wrapping her arms around her knees, Kira shuts her eyes. She sometimes envies Romy, when they FaceTime. Wouldn’t it be bliss to be oblivious? Her life trudged back to how it was before, and if it was more miserably mysterious, okay. Misery was always her, and she was always misery. All she had to deal with was loss.
All. Kira curls her bare toes in the tasselled cushions.It sounds so callous, so dismissive. It may well be worse for Romy. To have no idea of how her parents disappeared? To not understand how she ended up in England, in the state they were in, alone? Romy bottles it up, but it must be impossible.
Downstairs, a bottle pops open. Eva’s hyena laughter shrieks. Kira keeps her eyes shut, and breathes in the candle, the nutmeg she lit to keep herself calm. Knowledge is both a blessing and a curse. It could help Romy, or it could shred her; either way, it’s not a chance worth taking. The emotions would be as wretched a mess as the worlds.
Hers are enough of a mess as it is. Although she hates it to a raging, blackened bruise, she can’t shake a melancholy ache for Whiteland. It was clear. It was beautiful. It harboured dangers beyond belief, but also so much meaning; so much more than the outside world. It’s more vibrant, more gritty, more acutely alive.
More willing to play with lives. However it tugs at her sometimes, she’ll never forgive what it did to her family, and what she lost when she left.
Her mother. Her father. Her friend. Herself. The stairs creak, and Kira drags herself back, before the huldra-sized rabbit hole yawns. She’ll never understand how her mum was a monster. She’ll never understand why the Whispers, set on vengeance, had to play the whole charade. She’ll never understand why Anna went back. She must have known what would happen.
Did she? Did she not? Or did she not care?
A knock taps the door. ‘Kira?’
Time’s up. Unbending her legs from the window seat, Kira tugs her dress down, moves to the wardrobe, and tries to look like she was rummaging. ‘Hmm?’
The door huffs over the carpet. Heels in hand, she turns.
‘Oh, yes!’ Glowing in the hall light, Macy steps in. The step becomes an instant bounce, her teal dress shimmying up her thighs. She claps her hands. ‘Oh, god, you look amazing. We all look amazing. Are you ready?’
Kira lifts the shoes. ‘Just about.’
‘About time!’ Macy claps her hands again, her beaming cheeks as red as her hair. ‘I’m so ready for this. You have no idea.’
She bounds away. Kira’s eyes drift back to the glass, and she lets her arm droop. She had sat for close to an hour, watching the stars lift over the city. The fallen snow lies picturesque. On the peeking cobbles, the lamps pool amber. The introverted night is calm.
She’d rather stay in and watch it, but she promised she’d go out. Not just to her housemates, but herself; she’d grieve, and then she’d stand up tall, and start the new year strong.
At the very least, she’ll be tall. Wobbling into the mad black heels, she pulls the band from her hair. She’s never been so tall. She’s never been so…tidy. She combs her fingers through her tangles. As an act of goodwill toward Macy, she re-dyed the fading brown, trimmed the ends to bra-level, and put on a skater dress. That was enough. She drew the line at curling her hair, and going out braless.
‘Kira!’ Veronica shouts up the stairs. Grabbing her bag, Kira hesitates. It’s too small to shove a shirt in, but…
‘Kira!’ Eva adds to the chorus. ‘You’re missing all the gin!’
Briefly, Kira closes her eyes. It’s fine. She’ll be fine. Lifting a red-checked shirt from the mirror, she ties it around her waist. Now, she’s more herself.
The tattoo stands out stark on her wrist. She rigs a smile, and breathes. Blowing out the nutmeg candle, she navigates the stairs, surrenders to sarcastic applause, and accepts a mug of gin. Time to be tall. Time to stand strong.
This year can’t be worse than the last.