I was thirteen the first time I came face to face with real Darkness in the waking world. I often liked to walk in the woods behind my parents’ house. It was November, and I had gone walking after school. I followed the familiar path down into the trees, across the creek, and around the bend up to the ridge above the creek bed. I was alone, and knew this part of the woods like I knew the freckles on my arm. The trees were part of me; I had grown up in their shade. I wasn’t afraid to walk there alone, not until I realized everything had gone silent.
I stopped on the path. Lask was not with me on this walk, but I could feel him drawing near as I paused. There was no sound in the woods. The wind had died, and all the birds had gone quiet. No squirrels played in the leaves. The distant barks of the neighbor’s dog had vanished. Even the gurgle of the creek below seemed to have fallen into a hush.
Next to the path where I stood, a swath had been cut through the trees. It was like the trail of a microburst, or small tornado. I could see a clear path of disarray in the trees, but instead of being blown outward, it was like they had all been broken in toward the center of the curving trail. Even stranger, the debris from this swath was not natural. I had seen storm damage before, had seen the ragged edges of snapped branches, twisted trunks the wind had wrung off in its rage, and it was nothing like that. This was purposeful. It was as if someone had hewn pieces out of the trees with a dull axe. The debris was rough, but the edges were straight, as if the pieces that had fallen had been arranged like planks in a walkway to nowhere. None of them overlapped each other. I didn’t know why someone would do it. It didn’t make sense, and there weren’t any footprints.
I felt Lask draw in close behind me. He was as quiet as the forest. My eyes moved up from the makeshift walkway, into the nearly naked boughs of the trees that had been pulled inward toward the fallen path, and found them full of crows; they all perched in the trees in silence, like black foliage on dead boughs. Just as I registered Lask’s presence, my eyes moved downward, back into the trees.
Something inside me plunged into a terrifying free fall when I saw it. I didn’t know what it was. It stood maybe fifty feet away from me among the trunks of the trees. When I first found it, I thought I caught a glimpse of a red flannel shirt and a faded black hunting hat, but as my eyes focused on it, I couldn’t see its details at all. It was big, bigger than the average man, probably close to seven feet tall, and broad. Its shoulders spread wide above its huge chest. It was all black, so dark I couldn’t see its face. It was like an animate shadow. I couldn’t see its feet. As my eyes traveled down its shape, it’s like things blurred at the bottom. There should have been boots, shoes, something, but the figure seemed to dissolve into smoke as it reached the ground. I’d never seen anything like it, but I couldn’t deny that it was there. I saw it as clearly as I could see the path and the birds in the broken trees. I couldn’t see its face, for it was nothing but a mass of darkness, but I knew it was watching me, and it terrified me to be in the gaze of those unseen eyes.
“RUN!” Lask’s voice cut through the haze.
I only glimpsed the figure. It was like I had seen all of it just as my eyes fell upon it. I didn’t get the chance to study it. The moment I saw it, Lask’s voice rang in my head. I didn’t question, I didn’t think to question. I took the order and fled.
I knew there wasn’t time to take the path back. Its meandering, easy curves would not help me now. I turned my back on the living shadow, and ran straight down the ridge. It was steep; it was a miracle I didn’t fall. My sprinting feet didn’t seem to touch the thick fallen leaves long enough to slip. The silence was shattered as I tore through the trees, and behind me, all the dark birds began to caw.
I don’t know what happened in those seconds. I was only aware of running, and of the shrieking birds taking flight, darkening the sky above me as I fled. I could feel the dark figure behind me, watching from the top of the ridge. I don’t know where Lask was in those moments. I don’t know if he shot forth magic to keep the figure from pursuing me, or if he sprinted alongside me. The figure did not run after me, but it watched me. I did not see it again, I did not look back, but I could feel its black gaze on my back as I tore down the ridge.
I sprinted straight at the creek below, straight at the cinderblock dam my grandfather had built there years ago to water his crops. It was the closest place to cross. I ran across the top of the dam. Water rushed over and into my shoes, and I didn’t look into the drop-off on my left. The dam was slick with moss and trapped leaves; I don’t know how I didn’t slip, other than I moved too fast to lose my footing. I sprinted up the hill on the other side, hearing my heart hammering in my ears even over the cawing of the crows.
I saw the edge of the trees ahead, but still felt the ravenous gaze of the creature on the ridge high behind me. I burst out of the woods, into the field behind my grandparents’ house, and sprinted headlong for my parents’. I could see the shadows of the crows streaking over the ground under my feet. I didn’t slow down as I crossed the yard, barely slowed down as I entered the house, taking the steps two at a time up to my room where I slammed the door, and threw myself down to sit breathlessly on the bed. I bent over my knees, putting my head in my hands as I gasped for breath. The terror pulsed through me as if I were sustained on fear instead of blood. My hands shook. I could dimly feel Lask’s fingers in my hair, trying to pull my head up to look at him, but I couldn’t. Suddenly my mother was at the door.
“What in the world, punkin?” she asked, brow furrowed.
Everything seemed to clear suddenly. I lost sight of Lask, registered where I was, and realized I needed to answer my mother fast if I were to convince her I hadn’t lost my mind.
“I saw something in the woods,” I blurted. I hadn’t intended to tell her, but suddenly I had. She came into the room and sat on the bed next to me, as I continued, “I saw something. I thought it was a person at first, but it wasn’t. It was all dark. There was no face, just darkness–”
“Was it wearing a flannel shirt and a hunting hat?” she asked.
My head whipped around to look at her, stunned.
“It was, wasn’t it?” she said. “I saw it once too, a long time ago. I ran like you did just now.”
I listened silent.
“It watched me,” she said. “It was all black, like a hole where there should have been a face, but I knew it was watching me.”
“What is it?” I asked in a whisper.
“Darkness,” it was Lask who answered.
“I don’t know,” my mother replied. “I only saw it the once.”
She brushed my wild hair, and I let myself relax under her touch. When she left me alone, Lask gave me no answers, but I could see him staring out the back window in the study, looking back toward the woods in wary silence. The crows were gone.