“You must have known that I would not stand by as you attempted to escape, Shari.”
His voice is soft and deadly, its chill invading my skull. It tugs at the fog of my lost memories. Familiar. A voice that promises death, a voice I never wanted to hear again.
The hound at my neck relinquishes his grip. He backs away enough for me to watch him lick my blood from his muzzle. Wincing, I tilt my head towards his master. The Darkness-That-Hunts. I don’t know why the name strikes me, but it fits. Even up close, shadows swallow him and leave only his golden eyes distinguishable. His pupils are unnatural--rectangular like a goat. In the darkness, I cannot distinguish what he wears or even tell the color of his skin. He seems nothing more distinct than the night itself. Slender and tall, his movements toward me are cat-like and precise and with each step my body thrums with malignant energy. Electric static mingles with the thick menace that oozes off him and coats my skin like fetid water. He is not human. He was never meant to walk this world.
Before I can think too much on the revelation, the shadows split, revealing another smile. Beauty that masks danger. I want to scream, but fear immobilizes me.
“My pets were right. Crossing back has addled your mind.” The Darkness-That-Hunts stops barely a yard from me and reaches out. The shadows extending from his wrists in clawed fingers stroke the neck of the hound beside him. The massive dog’s wedge-like tail thumps against the ground as he sits serenely beneath his master’s affection.
It takes a moment of struggle, but I shove aside pain and fear and force my voice to work. “What do you want from me? Please--just let me go.”
I don’t believe he will, but it’s worth a try. Maybe if he keeps talking, I can remember. Already the blockade barring my memories is cracking. Glimpses of a past I’m not sure I want to see dance just beyond sight. The man--creature? Thing?--watches me with a thoughtful expression, if swirling shadows can display a thoughtful expression. At last he speaks.
“You are what I want. You belong to me, pet, and you will do as I command.”
At the word “command” my body stirs. The desire to obey Him is almost palpable and the alternatives for disobedience--
A tableau: Bodies, dozens, a few hanging in grotesque positions. Some skinned, others stuffed, most left to rot on the floor like trash. It is a garden with dead trees naked and white as snow wedged between statues that were once living humans. Screeches echo into the night.
The dead are not dead.
The living are not alive.
The memory ceases as quickly as it began and I’m more confused and terrified than before. Where in the hell have I been? What’s happening to me?
“You will hurry.”
His request leaves no room for debate, no room for defiance. Like a puppet on a string, my body--aching and riddled with pain--hauls itself to its feet and in dumb, shuffling movements follows The Darkness-That-Hunts. The hounds come up to my hips and flank me on either side. The alpha trots before his master, his eyes suspicious. Every few minutes he lifts his nose to the air, tasting its fragrances, searching for what I don’t know.
My body sluggishly moves against my will. I want to fight, to flee, but I can only follow my captors up the hill.
Towards the lake.
I curse myself for not heeding the letter. The warning feels like ice rubbing across my teeth: He is dangerous and must not find you again.
The word pulsates in my head like a mantra. I was abducted by him . . . before. I don’t know how I know, but I know. And I know I’m willing to die rather than go back.
“Hello, can you hear me? Anyone out there?”
The voice is faint, resonating from near the trail. Relief washes through me like a breath of fresh air--and I’m surprised to find I’ve stopped moving. Whatever compulsion I was under has broken. No telling how long my newfound freedom will last. Better make it count.
“Over here!” I alert, pivoting on my good foot. Gritting my teeth against the heat that flares up my right leg, I totter towards the voice. I don’t look back to see whether or not I’m being pursued. Instead I use my rush of adrenaline to break into a mad hobble-scramble down the hill. “Help!”
A bright white light spears through the woods, searching until it lands on me. Tears spring into my eyes and I forget the pain in my calf. I risk a glance over my shoulder, expecting to find jagged teeth inches from my skull. Only rich vegetation greets me. The air is again muggy and warm, the nocturnal birds singing gently from their overhead roosts.
No sign of the hounds, no sign of The Darkness-That-Hunts.
Am I . . . crazy?
“You’re hurt.” The flashlight bobs as the person jogs towards me. We meet up at the sidewalk. His light slides over me and he gasps in horror. I squint against the brilliance, tossing up my hand to shade my eyes so that I can see him. My age, he stands taller than me--from the looks of it roughly 5’10 or 5’11--and is muscular, his body in mint condition.
“Oh, sorry,” he says a moment after examining me. His voice is husky, deep. He angles the light over my shoulder and then lowers it to the ground.
“You’re seriously hurt. What happened?” He speaks slowly, enunciating each word with deliberate care but I have a hard time following. It doesn’t matter. We have to get away, before The Darkness-That-Hunts returns.
“Darkness-That-Hunts? What’s that?” Again the flashlight wobbles through the trees, probing the night. From his expression he notices nothing unusual. My throat burns and I suspect I’ll collapse at any moment. I clutch at consciousness with my fingernails.
“Please,” I croak, inching forward. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck. A thick, murky sensation creeps down my spine. The temperature plummets and hoarfrost grows in the cracks of pinecones. “Oh, God, he’s back!”
I circle, knowing The Darkness-That-Hunts and his giant hounds are somewhere nearby, watching. Perhaps waiting for the perfect time to strike? Again, the boy’s light curls over tree trunks and lush vegetation. The wind bellows, the leaves and pine needles rustle. It is the only sound. No insects, no animals, no birds. Dead silence--as if the forest knows and it is waiting, too.
“Don’t see anything. Look, you need medical attention. Let’s get you to the nurse--“
“No!” I wince at how shrill and harsh my voice sounds. “We have to go--now. Somewhere safe.” I don’t know where that is, but the further away from the lake, the better our chances.
Taking his hand I attempt to drag him away from the feeling of defilement. The boy doesn’t budge or give any indication of sensing the danger I feel, but his attention drifts east towards the tree line surrounding the lake. He edges in front of me, his stance defensive.
“The one who hurt you is out there? A hunter?” he whispers over his shoulder. I press myself against his back, grateful for his presence but afraid nonetheless.
“We must go.”
He hesitates. In the darkness beyond the reach of the flashlight, I finally spot The Darkness-That-Hunts. He reclines against the bole of a tree. Nothing more than a mere shadow to the untrained eye, but I know better. His gaze is electric as it jerks from me to the boy in contemplation. At his hips lurk the hounds, each waiting for their master’s command.
I can't find the spit to swallow much less warn the boy before me. I tug him, a whimper clawing at the back of my throat, but he is as unmovable as a mountain. Sensing my terror, the boy gazes beyond the glow of his flashlight and into the bushes crowding the trees.
“I don’t see anything unusual,” he says slowly, after a moment’s pause. He takes a step closer. “But I feel like something’s looking at me. And over there--an animal, maybe? But the eyes--gold. And pupils are off. Maybe if I can get closer . . .” He’s talking more to himself than me, but I still yank on his T-shirt.
“Please, let’s go.” My grip on reality is slipping. The foulness in the air contaminates me. A foulness that never lessens but waits. Hungers. Adrenaline drains out of me and my legs give out.
“Whoa, there.“ The boy wraps his arms around my waist, catching me. I hiss when I accidently place pressure on my right calf. “You’re right, I need to get you some place safe--“
“No nurse,” I slur. “No nurse, please--“
“Okay, okay.” He shifts and our gaze lifts back to the darkness beyond the light. The eyes are gone and though The Darkness-That-Hunts’ presence lingers, I feel it weakening, receding back towards the lake.
This brings absolutely no comfort.
“I don’t think you should walk with that leg. I can carry you, if you want?”
My attention slowly returns to him. The light from the flashlight casts shadows across his face, but gives me a good glimpse of his features. Full lips, tinted a blush rose. His hair is thick and short and the color of Japanese ink. Messy, but it only emphasizes his attractiveness, his strong square jaw, flat nose, and high cheekbones.
It’s his slanted eyes that distract me. A stormy gray, they roam my face as intently as mine roam his. It’s impossible to tell his thoughts, but my cheeks grow warm and my heart thuds.
I wrap my arms around his neck as he lifts me. I’ve never been carried before, and if it weren’t for the dizziness and fear, it’d seem like a fairy tale, handsome prince and all.
Instead it’s a nightmare complete with a mentally unstable girl who sleepwalks and sees monsters. Purposefully, he follows the paved walkway, cautious of our surroundings but relaxed. He seems at home here in the wilderness.
“What’s your name?” His voice shatters the silence between us, and it takes me a minute to realize he’s speaking to me. Swaying in his arms, my exhaustion is almost upon me.
He nods and manages a small, lopsided smile. “Kamiron--Kam.”Kamiron. The name is comforting, and despite myself I doze.