The clearing was filled with people lying on the ground around the fires. Some were cuddling together, others lay spread-eagled on the ground snoring loudly. The night had been very long and they hadn’t been able to stay awake. The warm glow from the fires and the late hour had made people drowsy. The lack of anything happening had made them less wary of the darkness. Of course, it had filled them with great unease, but the sleep and exhaustion had won the battle and claimed one victim after another.
A couple of people stood guard with clubs made from table legs. They had just changed watch whilst their comrades settled down to close their exhausted eyes. It didn’t take them long to fall asleep next to the crackling fire they surrounded.
One of the guards went around and fed fresh wood to the fires that were scattered around the camp. The others started to make rounds and to check on the wounded. The emergency services workers lay covered in blood and grime sleeping next to the wounded. Torn packaging of medical equipment lay scattered around reflecting the dancing flames of the fires. The fires themselves crackled and popped with the fresh fuel feeding the flames. The darkness surrounding the camp like an untouchable and impenetrable dome was driven back by the fresh flames rising up.
Briss woke up from the crackling sound of the fire next to her. She sat up wondering for a moment where she was and why she was lying next to a fire. Then her memories came rushing back to her and she groaned. She stretched herself out, sat up, and rubbed her face. It felt warm and puffy on the side that had been exposed to the fire, cold and numb on the other side. She let out a deep sigh and saw a cloud forming in front of her mouth. Great, it’s still freezing cold. Why couldn’t this all have happened in a warm summer? Most of her body felt ice cold. The fire only had heated one side of her, the other side was plain cold. When she had fallen asleep John had been lying next to her, but he must have had to run a shift and hadn’t returned to her when it was over. She’d get him for letting her be cold alone. Or not, she couldn’t really blame him, it wasn’t like that they had a thing. She had built torches that were beneficial for the group. Nothing more nothing less. But it had been nice falling asleep with his warm body to cuddle up to. She remembered feeling sheltered in his arms. It had been easy falling asleep in his arms.
She rubbed her face again and looked around bleary-eyed. Her mouth was dry she was incredibly thirsty. But all water of the catering had been confiscated for the wounded by the emergency service workers. The shadow still surrounded her and all the others. Her hope that it would have gone vanished from her heart. She feared that the darkness would never leave. What would happen if they ran out of fuel to burn? They could hardly burn the entire forest down. They didn’t have the tools to cut down trees and it would put them in jeopardy too.
She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and checked her watch. Ten past eight, it was early morning but still dark. Briss looked around the clearing and saw all the people sleeping, the guards patrolling around and stood up with a stifled groan. Brushing the twigs and dirt off her clothes, she eyed where the wounded were and remembered the trip to the emergency services.
They had followed the path, trailing the cordon lint behind them. She had held the torch and the others had surrounded her facing the shadow as they made their way down the path carefully. They had found the ambulance and the two emergency services workers cowering inside.
They had been relieved to be able to see and hear again when they arrived. When they had been informed of what had transpired at the clearing they had gathered all the equipment they could scavenge and carry from the ambulance. They had made a few improvised sacks from blankets and sheets and divided the equipment, bandages, IV bags and medicine jars among them. The emergency service workers had carried the bulk of the goods. The guards carried only enough as not to limit their movement.
The way back had been just as uneventful as the outward journey but the small light circle had been seriously crowded with the addition of the gear and new people. When they had returned to the clearing the workers had quickly set to triaging and helping people. The people who had been left behind had cheered for them and welcomed them as heroes. Briss hadn’t felt a hero, more exhausted with the tension of being in a small light circle surrounded by darkness where a huge monster could jump out, snatch you and grind you to mush in a second. Her nerves had been wrecked.
But she hadn’t been able to rest just yet. A new problem had arisen when they returned as nature called for people and it became hard to keep it up. A couple of people had set out to dig a couple of holes to be used as latrines. They had joined to help, using the table legs as crude pickaxes to break up the frozen ground. The latrines dug were huge holes, but with two hundred people needing to heed natures call a small hole would have filled up quick. That had been tiring work but had kept her warm.
Briss eyed her fingernails, which had black edges from the dirt she had carried away last night. Her back still felt stiff from the constant bending over and scooping up the liberated dirt. She did her best to suppress the urge to sniff the air if she could smell the latrines.
She did a few stretches and a couple of jumping jacks to get her juices flowing again and hopefully warm up throughout. When she felt warm and awake enough she wiped the sweat that had built up from her brow and walked to the edge of the darkness confidently. The monster hadn't attacked in all these hours, it was unlikely to pose a risk now. If it did it would hopefully be over soon, but frankly, she couldn’t care less at this moment.
Standing a foot length away from the darkness she eyed the wall of dark in front of her. She stretched out her hand and touched the darkness. Her fingers slid effortlessly into the darkness and appeared to stop from existing as if her fingers were cut off. She snipped her fingers but didn’t hear a thing. She pulled her hand out and eyed her fingers. Nothing on her fingers, nothing on her hand that felt off. In the shadow, it was the same cold as in the clearing. She snipped them and heard the sound it made clear. She tapped the bottom of her lip in thought.
“I wonder if I can create darkness if I block the light.”
She looked around the clearing for a suitable spot where she would have only one fireplace behind her. Circling the clearing in her search for a suitable spot for her experiment she had a good look at the sheer number of people that were gathered here. Two hundred didn’t sound like much at a party or event, but seeing them here lying on the ground it did seem like a lot of people. It was a wonder they had been able to keep all the fires burning bright enough to shelter them all. Understandably nobody had wanted to sleep in the darkness where the monster could eat you up. She suspected a lot of people would be buying night lights if the darkness ever went away. She nodded to a guard she passed. He nodded bleary-eyed back and sloughed onwards on his patrol. It was clear he was exhausted and wishing he could lie down, even though he had just woken up. They didn’t even know if it was just this forest that was affected by this ungodly darkness or if it had spread further. They knew it extended at least to the ambulances. Nobody had wanted to explore further than that out of fear not to be able to find a way back to the light.
Several theories had been debated why the fire could beat back the darkness but light from mobile phone flashes not nor could the bamboo torches that had been spread around the party site. The common consensus had been the words John had spoken. But when they had tried to replicate the words they had come up empty. Leaving a lot of people doubting that that was the actual source of why the pyre fire could chase back the darkness but the torches could not.
But when the bamboo torches were put out and relit with the pyre fire they could chase back the darkness. Briss had felt stupid that she hadn’t done that, but then again, the light radius from those torches hadn’t been as big as from her chicken grease torches. It hadn’t been a total waste of effort.
Nearing a sort of point in the edge of the clearing, Briss eyed the fires illuminating this part. One fire was quite far away and another one was nearer. She would be able to block light from one side with her body and the other fire with her hands. It took some maneuvering to block the light from the fireplaces but she was able to make a beam of pure darkness extend from the middle of her hand to the shadow's edge. She marveled at the beam of intense darkness extending at her hand and let her finger slide through it. She felt nothing, no resistance, no coldness, just nothing. As she flipped her hand sideways the light conquered the darkness again making the beam smaller and smaller until it vanished. When she flipped her hand back the darkness beam returned. It seemed to have grown from the darkness to her hand, but that might be a trick that her eyes played on her. She flipped her hands a few times and it did seem as if it grew from the border towards her hand. As if it tried to conquer all possible light and to penetrate as deep as possible.
She moved her other hand through the beam but again she felt nothing as her hand passed through it. She held her hand still in the middle of the beam and looked at the hole of darkness and the black rod that seemed to pierce it. She imagined being pierced by something in her hand and how it looked like. But the darkness was too strange and it had absolutely no sensation. No hot, no cold, no resistance, it was as if it wasn’t there.
She moved her hands closer together, capturing the rod of darkness between her hands as her hands moved closer together. The rod stopped behind her hand as her body didn’t block all light anymore to the shadow’s edge. The shadow was disconnected and trapped between her hands. When her fingertips touched it was as if she was holding pure darkness in her hand free from anything else. She couldn’t see through it or feel it but it seemed as if she held pure nothing between her fingers. She eyed it and tried to pierce the darkness with her eyes, trying to understand how it worked.
A piercing headache shot through her brain and she grabbed to her head. Her vision blurred and her head felt as if it was smashed in with a slice of lemon wrapped in a gold brick. She felt herself fall backward but was unable to stop herself falling, the headache paralyzed her with the pain of a thousand knives slicing through her head piercing her inner self. She hit the ground hard and the air was expelled from her lungs. With her head feeling as if something was tearing and ripping it apart from inside she started convulsing wildly. The pain radiated through her body and filled her every fiber with burning needle pricks. She thrashed around on the ground, wanting to scream with agony, but she was unable to take the breath to fill her lungs that her fall had knocked empty. Darkness filled her eyes but she was able to see. A bright sun welled up in her mind and blinded her with white light. The needle stings faded away and sight slowly returned to Briss.
She gasped a deep breath, sucking in that delicious air her body craved and promptly ended up coughing her lungs out.
She rolled on her side and looked at the fire burning, illuminating the clearing, gasping for air. The fire filled her sight and her eyes followed the sparks that escaped to the sky fading out between the dull stars.
She lay there catching her breath and feeling the headache slowly fading away. She put a trembling hand on the ground and got herself up carefully. She looked around the clearing and saw that nobody had noticed her falling. At least that was something, nobody to make fun of her that she couldn’t remain standing on her two feet.
“What the hell was that all about.”
She looked at her hands and saw that they still trembled. The headache was just a minor headache now. She took a few deep breaths, closed her eyes, and tried to regain her composure. Suddenly she snapped open her eyes and looked upwards. She could see the stars! Dim, but still, she could see them in the sky above the clearing.
She looked down at the shadow’s edge and noticed she could see the trees that had been obscured by the darkness before.
Her eyes turned wide open in wonder and she looked around taking in the views that had been hidden from sight a moment ago, before her headache attack. Looking around the clearing she couldn’t see the monster hiding anywhere in the shadows and felt a wave of relief coming over her. The monster hadn’t played a cruel game with them by hiding and then suddenly attacking when they felt safe.
Briss rushed over to where John was sleeping and shook him wildly.
“Mrrmm wha, is it my shift already? I just got to sleep.”
“John, wake up! You’ve got to see this!”
John got up groggily and looked at Briss uncomprehending.
“Look, the shadow is dissipating, you can see further again!”
John looked over his shoulder to the shadow edge, looked up to the sky and then looked back at Briss with one eyebrow raised.
“What are you talking about? Did they extend the fire circle whilst I was asleep? I told them not to do that as we don’t have enough firewood.”
“No, no, don’t you see the trees and the stars?”
Briss pointed to the trees in the shadow, waved over the sky where the stars stood shining dimly as if there was a layer of smog obscuring them.
“No, all I see is the same cursed black wall.”
John rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn. He looked very exhausted Briss thought. She felt an urge to hug him and tell him it would all work out, but she suppressed it. John got up and stretched himself and let out a big yawn. Briss felt her own yawn coming up and let it out, glaring at John for infecting her with the yawn.
“I’m telling you, I can see the trees and stars. I don’t know why you can’t”
John shrugged and walked to the shadow's edge. As he moved the sleep started to leave his face and looked more like himself albeit a bit grumpy. Briss understood how he must feel, his precious sleep interrupted by this after such an exhausting night.
They arrived at the edge and held there. John eyed the shadow’s edge warily looking for a big hand to pop out to grab him. When that didn’t happen he turned to face Briss and crossed his arms. His coat and jeans were covered in blood, pine sap, and various other substances she couldn’t identify. Somewhere along the night, he had lost his toga. His hair was filled with twigs and needles it had picked up from the forest floor. His face was covered in grime and smears of various origins. He eyed Briss and she saw the doubt battling a glimmer of hope in his eyes. John put his hand in the shadow. She saw he held up three fingers, which seemed to turn grayish in color past the shadow’s edge.
“How many fingers am I holding up.”
John’s eyes grew bigger and he looked her deep in her eyes. She saw hope winning from the doubt in his eyes and liked how it felt when he looked her in the eyes like that. She suppressed the flutter in her stomach and focussed at the task at hand.
“How many now?”
“Live long and prosper.”
John pulled his hand slowly back and eyed her with disbelief and hope.
“You can see? You can see?!”
Johns' voice rose with excitement. Briss nodded and gestured at the shadow that John apparently couldn’t pierce with his eyes.
“I can see the trees behind there and the path passing down there in the distance and the cordon lint we put up there.”
“That’s awesome! I still only see solid darkness, but that one of us can see through is awesome!”
John looked at the wall of darkness and then put his hand in it again and raised his index and middle finger hidden by the darkness.
“Hey, that’s rude!”
Briss smacked John on the back of his head and John winced on the impact.
“Guess I deserve that. I just wanted to make sure.”
He rubbed the back of his head and looked apologetically at Briss. Briss walked into the darkness with an insulted look on her face. She turned around and eyed John who was scanning the darkness in front of him for a sign of her. She stuck her tongue out at John.
“Hey, can you hear me you, rude oaf?”
John didn’t react to her words or her sticking her tongue out. Briss tapped her bottom lip and thought of what she could do that would be a bit more fun. A mischievous grin came over her face. She moved close to the shadow's edge taking great care to remain concealed.
John was looking worriedly now at the shadow and had moved closer. He clearly tried to find her but it was obvious he couldn’t see a thing, even though she stood only at thirty centimeters distance from her.
Briss took a deep breath, steeled herself and stepped forward right in front of John and their noses were basically touching.
John jumped back and tripped, landing him on his behind. He eyed Briss with round eyes in a pale face, filled with shock as he looked up to her.
“How… did you do that?”
Briss couldn't help but to smile as to how easy it had been for her.
“I just walked up. I can basically see everything in that shadow. It’s all dimmed and gray but I can see in it as clearly as I can see here.”
Briss extended her hand to John and helped him up.
“Please don’t spook me like that again. I think I might have trouble sitting for the next few days now.”
John rubbed his ass with a pained expression on his face. Briss grinned at him and mouthed a boo at him, which earned her a sour look back.
“Sorry, it’s been a long night, I needed to unwind a bit.”
John moved back to the shadow's edge and stuck his head in it and pulled it back again.
“Nope. I really can’t see anything in there. When did you notice you can see in the shadow?”
Briss scratched her head and thought back. It was probably after the headache attack she got when she was messing with the darkness.
“I was messing with the shadow and had trapped some between my hands, I tried to study it, got a knock me off my feet headache and then I could see in the shadow.”
“That sounds… not that strange considering we have impenetrable darkness, a monster that ate two people and magic fire that beats back the darkness.”
A sound behind them made them turn around. Somebody was shouting something.
“Look up there!”
They looked up and saw red streaks piercing through the darkness, tearing it apart streak by streak. Cheers rose up from the people that had startled awake at the shout as the red streaks increased in the sky and tore the darkness to shreds. Through the trees, a bright red sliver could be seen making its way through the trees rising slowly but surely. The forest floor was colored red with the light and the trees caught the light making it bounce into every corner, giving the shadow no refuge to hide.
People started clapping and cheering. Shouts of relief and celebration rose up and soon everybody was awake and celebrating along. People were dancing, looking at the sun taking it in. Other people were crying and praying on their knees.
The sun had risen and defeated the darkness. The darkness would not stay forever, which had been the fear of the people gathered. They had survived the longest night and the light had returned.
The disco lights reflected the sunlight in bright red spots on the ground, and the trees were swaying slightly in the wind that had picked up. The generator that had supplied power had run out of fuel somewhere in the dark night, but the sun provided a cheery light that was spread all around and the celebrating people.
It was day and they lived.
Jacob woke up and his entire body shouted in cramped protest. The night on the cold wet cave floor had not done his muscles any favors and they ached terribly under the strain of moving.
He looked down and saw that Paula was snuggled in his armpit, one of her hands resting on his chest. Her breasts were pressing against him comfortably through her winter coat. He liked the feeling of them pressing against them, the pressure increasing and decreasing with every breath she took. He closed his eyes and thought half dreamily back at the night before, not feeling like waking up fully yet.
When that strange moon shadow door had opened everything had gone black in the cave. If Paula hadn’t been trying to help him get loose of the door he probably would have never have found her.
He had tried talking to her but no sound had left his mouth, he hadn’t even been able to hear himself. They had felt their way gingerly in the dark to a dry-ish spot and had settled there, huddled up together in the darkness. They had been unable to communicate except by touch. Paula had tried tapping morse code on his hand but that had been unsuccessful. The only thing he knew in morse was S.O.S. Three long, three short, three long. Or was it the other way around? Didn’t really matter, if you kept going long enough nobody would notice you didn’t know how to start.
First, he had simply pressed Paula’s hand and she had pressed his back in return. But as it got colder and colder as the darkness and the night progressed they had huddled closer. He had wrapped his arm around Paula and she had nudged closer against him. They had fallen asleep together that way, unable to see or hear each other. But they had been able to smell and touch each other, and they had found comfort in each other. Knowing they were not alone in this frightening darkness.
Jacob opened his eyes again and looked at the cave ceiling. The darkness was gone and he could see! A pale cloudy light illuminated the cave and Jacob cast his eye outwards and saw a light drizzle falling outside the cave. He shook Paula gently to wake her up.
“Paula… Paula… wake up. The darkness is gone.”
“Mhh, what? what? It’s gone?”
Paula got up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes and cast a look around. She then put her hands in her back and groaned loudly.
“One out of five stars. The beds are horrible in Merlin’s cave”
Jacob couldn’t help himself and let out a chuckle at the unexpected joke. Paula looked at him and raised an eyebrow.
“Alright, make that two stars, the bed warmer was lovely.”
Paula winked at him and Jacob felt the heat rising up from his neck. Paula seemed to like the effect it had and a glimmer appeared in her eyes.
“Well then, my lovely bed warmer assistant. Now the weird darkness is gone let’s get out of this dank cave to return home to get a shower.”
Jacob nodded and got up. He twisted his torso and stretched his back. He saw that Paula did a couple of more stretches including reaching for her toes right at the moment he was looking at her. His eyes drifted to her behind that was wonderfully accented in that pose before he was able to tear away his eyes and turn away.
He felt the heat creeping up his neck again and decided he’d make himself useful instead of ogling his employer. He made his way around the cave and quickly found the two discarded flashlights. Having daylight was very practical instead of a couple of small cones of light. The cave didn’t look so big now more light was flowing in, and the shadows didn’t enlarge everything.
He caught up with Paula who was at the cave entrance waiting for him with a smile on her face.
“Ah Jacob, look, the low tide has arrived and we are here to enjoy this beautiful English morning.”
She flourished theatrically at the mundane drizzle that poured down steadily. He would have to agree that it was typical weather. Beautiful, he had his doubts, but beauty was in the eyes of the beholder.
He wondered how Paula could be so merry and carefree after the exceptional night they just lived through. He felt scared, shocked to his core, his beliefs thoroughly rattled, mystified by the events. She, on the other hand, seemed to be upbeat, cheerful and normal as if nothing extraordinary had happened and everything was normal.
But everything was definitely not normal. A door had formed out of shadows and it could be touched by shadows. It could be opened and he had opened it, letting out that darkness in the cave which had made it impossible to navigate. Nothing about that was normal and definitely, nothing about that was logical. Shadows should not be able to affect shadows and you should certainly not be able to touch what your shadow was touching. It defied all logic and reasoning. As did that deafening and blinding darkness. What was that stuff that had come out of the door?
So many questions, so many core belief shaking impressions to handle and Paula seemed completely unfazed by what had transpired. That irked him the most. She should have been scared, perplexed, stupefied, wondering anything. Not just get up and be cheery self again as if nothing had happened.
Paula had started making her way back and beckoned him to follow. He kicked a rock and watched it fly and hit the beach sand with a dull sound. He followed the unnaturally cheerful woman and did his best to not let his thoughts wander to the sensation of her lying in his arms. He’d best forget that and focus his willpower on solving the strange phenomena he had experienced the night before.
They walked the walkways up together in silence. Paula had a smile on her face, her hairs unkempt from the night sleep. The locks that had freed themselves from the ponytail she had not remade were matted against the side of her face. That gave her a slightly maniacal look. Jacob followed her sullenly, looking more at the ground and the sea behind him. The sound of the sea resounded around them. The breeze carried the cries of the seagulls that circled above them.
Jacob looked up and opened his mouth in the hope to catch some of the drizzle falling down. It felt as if it fell everywhere except his mouth. He would have to wait until they were at the car before he could drink to lessen his thirst.
Paula stopped suddenly and Jacob almost crashed into her.
“Why did you stop?”
Jacob eyed her gruffly and annoyed at the sudden interruption of their progress. He was extremely thirsty and badly needed a drink. Paula didn’t respond but stood facing the path in front of them, smile firmly planted on her face but her eyes were somewhere distant, drops were building on her eyebrows.
Jacob looked worried at Paula. He waved his hand in front of her eyes but she didn’t respond. Did she have a seizure? Was she epileptic? He readied himself to catch her should she fall.
Paula’s hands started to shake and a tear welled up in her eye. He was pretty sure it was a tear and not rainwater.
A loud sob escaped from Paula's lips and the smile faded as her lips started to tremble. Jacob was about to ask what was wrong when she fell into his arms and started to cry, hot big tears started to flow down her face and she buried her face in Jacobs wet coat and sobbed loudly.
Jacob wrapped his arms around her and let her cry her heart out.