Into the Darkness
Out of the darkness lives your greatest fears; into the darkness is a place no man will venture.
The gates are always closed before sunset. Minutes before, the rusted iron stakes are driven into place, signaling their warning echo across the village. Until the sun’s rays safely touch the outside world again, we are prisoners within our own walls. Massive torches line stone watchtowers that overlook us while we sleep, though most of us rest during the day. The darkness of the moon’s dress sentences everyone to their homes, blinds drawn, doors boarded, and families trembling in the corners.
The creatures made it through, once. We were careless and left a single torch unattended on the city wall. Half of us were killed that night, staining the cobblestone streets with a nauseating reminder that a second of inattention means death.
I am but a simple baker. I am no fighter, no defender. I prepare all of my food at night, and I must say that I prefer it that way. I like to believe that if they come back, the flames from my stone oven will keep them at bay long enough for me to hide my son.
I didn’t always bake at night. I wasn’t always a widower, either.
On any normal day, I would conjure up a multitude of secret recipes, letting the smell of my wares waft across the city where the townspeople would line up for the next fresh batch. Mine were the only baked goods found in the village; they had little to compare it to and so were impressed. But what happened on this day was anything but normal, and now my baking is known for a different reason completely.
The night they made it through the walls, my son, Thomas, and I were asleep. My wife was at a neighbor’s house, helping to care for a friend’s gravely ill mother. The high-pitched screams of the damned rattled the windows, tearing me from my dreams. I jumped out of bed and stumbled to the front door to make certain that it was locked—I was only brave enough to peek through a slit in our tattered curtains, witnessing friends and neighbors being flung to the ground and dragged into the darkness, their broken screams bidding everyone farewell as they were pulled back over the wall. Behind them I saw my wife sprint up the street, throwing her basket to the side. Her golden hair pressed over her face as she checked over her shoulder with each step. The creature rose behind her, closing the space between them. I leapt from the window and rushed to the door, ramming my shoulder against the frame to check again: it was locked. My wife’s delicate hands pounded the other side, pleading me to open it. Frozen in fear and anguish, I pressed my face against the wood door and sobbed into the grain as I listened to her final screams. Had I not succumbed to my paralyzing fear, perhaps she would have survived. However, my fear drowned any amount of bravery I might have possessed that night.
My head is held low every time I hear that phrase, and I wish to swear back at the ridicule but I know it would be pointless. The guilt drapes over me like a suffocating cloak, refusing me peace of mind. My actions have made my son a victim, as well. I can see it on his face every day when he returns from school. I wish things were better for us, or, at least, back to the way it was, for I knew my son misses her as much as I do. The absence of her warmth next to me left a gaping hole in my crushed heart that could never be filled.
No one quite knows what they look like. On a few occasions, I have ventured into the temple and seen the dark paintings within the old scrolls. They are commonly thought of as cloaked blackness with nothing but white eyes under their hood. It is said that they steal children and raise them to replace their old.
There is a child’s game that I participated in only once which continues to this day. After nightfall, the children will dare each other to stand on the wall and stare into the unknown until the sounds from the other side become too close and they must retreat. The one that stays the longest is victorious.
Needless to say, I didn’t win.
I had forgotten the game entirely, never giving it another thought, until the night my son’s childhood friend came banging on my door.
I had dozed off waiting for my next batch of bread to finish baking. Suddenly, loud banging shook the door, and I fell from my chair. I looked over at the pallet of blankets where my son usually slept to find it empty. I pushed myself from the floor and lunged toward the door and opened it. There stood Edward, the child my son had spent much of his life playing with, tears streaming down his face as he gasped for air and pointed towards the wall. I ran as fast as I could to the gate, where a group of children and soldiers stood.
“What happened?” I cried, pushing them aside.
A shaking boy turned towards me, sniffling as he spoke.
“Thomas… We… We told him he wouldn’t do it… Called him a coward.”
Panic gripped me; I surged forward to the gate, ripping at the chains as if to force myself through the doors.
“Mind yourself, baker!” he said. “You are a damned fool. Everyone back to their homes!”
I stood and ran at the gate again. Lifting his foot, the guard planted it hard on my chest and forced me back to the ground. He unsheathed his sword and brought it to my neck. “You open that gate and we all die.” I panted, aching and already mourning. His blade pressed into my throat. “Get back to your homes!” he ordered, kicking my legs as I stood up. I ran back to my home and slammed the door behind me, collapsing on the pallet where my son had slept and crying into his sheets until sunrise. The acrid smell of burnt bread filled the room.
There is one man who claims to have been outside the walls; however, no one believes him. He’s a blind homeless man that resides under the bridge by the temple. As a means of survival, he drinks water from the creek and gratefully eats the scraps left for him by the priests. I had an idea in my mind, so I decided to take a walk to the bridge with three fresh loaves of my finest bread.
“Smells me some fresh bread, I do, I do.” The old man said, crawling into the sunlight. His pale white eyes glared into nothing as he reached out his hand. I placed one of the loaves in his palm and he snatched it, breaking it in half and stuffing it into his mouth.
“I need you to tell me what’s on the outside of the wall,” I said, kneeling next to him.
He stopped halfway in between bites and looked in my direction, a solemn look spread across his face, before he burst into laughter, spitting bread chunks at my feet. “The baker’s son is gone, now he wants to right the wrong,” he whispered, crawling back into the shadows of the bridge.
“I need your help,” I said, following him and ducking my head under the rock.
He kneeled in silence for a moment before quickly spinning around, almost knocking me over. He slowly crawled over to me, stopping inches from my face.
“Woods… Dark woods… Nasty woods… That’s where they live, that’s where they hide.” He snatched another loaf of bread from my hands and crawled back to the creek, dipping the bread in before taking a soggy bite, smacking loudly.
“Will my son be there?” I asked.
He took the last bite from the bread and slapped both hands in the water. The splash echoed under the bridge.
“The cave… Find the cave. Follow the trees, the bald trees, the dead trees. Follow the death because the death follows them.” He cocked his head back and laughed hysterically.
“What’s in the cave?”
He stopped laughing abruptly and gazed in my direction. “Don’t know… never went in.”
“How did you survive the night they broke through?” My voice shook at the thought of the creatures being inside the walls.
He jumped into the creek, submerging everything but his head. “Water… They can’t smell the water.”
Crawling back over to me, he grabbed the last piece of bread, then disappeared into a hole in the rock, his laughter echoing behind him.
I walked back to my home trembling, haunted by the images of the night my wife lost her life. I locked the door behind me and sat next to my stone oven, the coals still warm. I looked over at the pallet of blankets and began to cry again.
Daybreak rescued my eyes from another night filled with torturous dreams. I got up and went to the back room towards an old trunk. I opened the lid and pulled out my father’s sword.
It had been years since I had touched it. I sheathed it in my belt and left my home, walking directly to the tavern where the guards usually spent most of their days, drunk. I walked inside and made my way to their table where the lot were passing mugs back and forth, talking loudly. I cleared my throat in an attempt to get their attention, but no one noticed.
“I need someone to help me find my son,” I said. My voice was drowned out by the clanking of glasses and laughter. Desperate frustration gripped me; I pulled my sword out and brought it down hard against the table, breaking one of the pitchers. The room quickly silenced.
“Will someone help me find my son?” I yelled.
The room erupted in laughter and one of the soldiers pushed me backwards, knocking me over.
“The coward baker wants to venture outside the walls?” one of them yelled. I stood back up, wiping a tear from my cheek, and picked up my sword that one of the soldiers had ripped out the table and thrown to my side. I left the tavern with the men’s laughter mocking me behind the door.
I stood at the gate and looked beyond the walls. Green pastures invited me out, but fear beckoned me back in. I held firm to the leather hilt at my belt, gripping it tight in reassurance. I took a deep breath, and began to walk.
The blades of grass were green pillows under my feet, encouraging me through the countryside. I almost forgot where I was and why I was traveling as the air whipped through the brush, the aroma of spring advancing me forward. When I came to a small river, I drank the cool water and looked around.
The old man had said to find the bald trees, but I saw none. Just green pastures and berry bushes. I continued to walk by the riverside until the rolling hills started to change, and a small beaten path protruded into the lush forest. Shadows grew taller, reminding me that sunset was near, and the truth of why I had ventured outside the walls started to creep over my skin like a chilling wind. I gripped my sword and started down the path, the sun setting behind me. I hadn’t made it far before the last bit of the sun’s rays started to disappear from the leaves, and owls started to sound throughout the woods.
I unsheathed my sword and my steps became smaller as my trembling legs attempted to keep my body moving forward. Hearing the first scream in the distance caused me to stumble backwards. An owl landed on the branch above me and hooted loudly, either to warn me or mock me. Another scream sounded from down the path, followed by a gust of wind that knocked me down. I looked up and saw the first pair of white eyes jumping through the trees—another scream followed. Without thinking, I jumped up and ran as fast as I could in the direction I thought the river was, leaving my sword on the dirt path. My arms swatted thorny branches aside, causing others to whip back and tear into my face. The screams of the damned seemed to blow over my shoulders like the blast of an explosion. Blood and tears covered my shirt and I thought I might vomit until my legs collided with a large stump, flipping me down a steep hill and landing me face down in a body of water. I felt my whole body submerge and I forced myself to stay still. I could hear the high-pitched screams echo above me. I held my breath until I thought I would fall unconscious, then slowly peeked my head through the ripples, praying the old man was right.
I saw white eyes dart across through the trees, their dark figures illuminated by the moonlight. I heard one more ear-piercing scream and the figure disappeared. I dared not exit the water. The night dragged on like a bad dream; screeches filled the countryside, blowing through the trees and rolling over the hills.
After hours of waiting in tense stillness, the screams began to fade out as the sun finally decided to show itself; its eerie red light glowed lightly through the branches. Silence took over the wood and I brought myself to the water’s edge, carefully pulling myself out. My bones ached from the frigid water and my knees almost buckled as I slowly regained my balance. Climbing up the slope, I went back to the path, where my sword lay exactly where I had left it. I kneeled and wrapped my palm around the handle with a sigh, standing up and preparing to make the trip back to the safety of the city walls. As soon as I turned around, I stood face-to-face with one of the creatures, its eyes staring into my soul, its breath cold and rotten. My body was frozen—I lost all breath I thought I had. It screamed and stormed toward me at an ungodly speed. On instinct, my hands lifted my blade and thrust it forward—I felt the aberration collide with it, and I was knocked to the ground with inhuman force. Landing hard on my side, I felt my stomach drop.
I covered my head and waited for the inevitable; it never came.
I opened my eyes. The creature lay on the ground, not yet slain, the sword impaled in its midsection. It let out pained rasps as its breathing slowed and, finally, stopped. It lay motionless as I stood and gripped the sword’s hilt, and it did not stir when I ripped the weapon from the wound. Gray blood dripped from the blade.
I had killed one.
I felt myself smile as I wiped my blade clean on the nearby tree. I looked back down the path where the slain creature lay. If I continued down, it would lead me out of the woods. I could return home to my bakery, to the safety within the walls. I stood there momentarily as the sun’s rays showered through the leaves. I thrust my sword back into my belt and turned around, marching deeper into the woods.
The trees changed slowly and the leaves disappeared, as well as the sound of the river. The twisted branches spiraled upwards, reaching towards the sun. I quickened my pace to a slow run. The smell of rot and death filled the woods. I rounded a bend and I could see the dark opening of a cave retreating into the depth of a mountain, jagged rocks discouraging entrance. I placed a hand over my nose and mouth as I stood at the cave entrance—the smell was so overpowering that it made my eyes water. The darkness devoured everything inside the cave, leaving my path unknown. My heart was a war drum beating in my chest, forcing my feet to keep moving.
A bend in the tunnel rendered my eyesight useless and I was forced to sheath my sword and feel my way further inside. The stone was cold under my feet; the only sound was the faint dripping of water further down into the abyss.
I pitied the blind man, for this is how he spends every day: feeling around to find his way. Unsure of what lies in front of him, taking a gamble on each step. My head bumped rocks, my toes stubbed walls, and I began to think that going forward was the wrong decision until a hint of light peeked around a corner. An opening in the top of the cave allowed the sun to penetrate the darkness and show an open room where cages lined the walls. Bones and corpses laid in most of them. I made my way around the cages, stepping lightly and carefully looking into each one. The bodies were old and smelled of decay. My wife had always told me I was the clumsiest man she knew, which is a bad trait for a baker. It was an even worse trait to have for a man in my current situation. I tried to be as quiet as I could, but I tripped over a raised rock and fell hard onto one of the cages. The sound bounced against the stone wall and continued deep into the cave. I sat in silence, waiting.
My head snapped towards the voice, and I saw my son. My beautiful son, grabbing onto the bars of his own cage across the room. I sprinted over to him and cupped his face through the bars, trying to draw him close. “Let’s get you out of here,” I said, holding back my tears. I raised my sword high and brought it down on the cage, rattling the walls with the impact. I raised my sword again and swung with all I had at the cage that held my son hostage, the sound again bouncing off the walls and into the darkness. My blade raised once more and just before I brought it down, I heard screams come from deep within the cave.
I looked at Thomas, whose eyes were wide and fearful, fixed to the unknown. I brought my hands down one last time, and the corner of the cage gave way—I slid my steel between the bars and pried it open. “Let’s go!” He crawled out and I grabbed his hand; we felt our way quickly back through the tunnel, slamming into the stone walls as we went. The screams got closer and I feared we had gone the wrong way until I saw a spot of daylight on the other side of the bend. I could hear the creatures’ breath coming fast behind us and I flung my sword backwards, throwing it as hard as I could. We were almost in the sunlight when I felt a strong tug at my hood. I shoved my son forward, where he landed safely in the light, and twisted against the pull. I slid from my hood, falling backward into the daylight with my son.
Three pairs of eyes paced back and forth in the darkness. Their infuriated screams cursed us from the safety of their cave. I felt as if I was watching myself act; my fist gripped my son’s shirt tightly, dragging him to his feet, and we stormed the opposite direction down the path.
We couldn’t put enough dirt under our feet. The screams of the damned flooded behind us, swearing revenge. I looked at the sun; it was past midday. We exited the woods at a full sprint, finally back into the green pastures, when my son collapsed, wheezing heavily. I scooped him into my arms and continued running. The sun was setting in the distance, casting its last light across the land. My legs burned and my feet ached as they slapped the earth.
I could see each torch alight in the distance from the city walls as the last bit of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon. The screams rang behind us and my son held my neck tightly.
“Open the gates!” the words burned my throat as I got closer. I could see the guard in the tower motion towards the ground. I ran at the gate with full force and kicked it—a snap within my leg dropped me to my knees, sending Thomas to the ground in front of me. “Open the damned door!” I heard myself demand.
I could hear the chain being unlatched behind the wood. Behind us was an army, a battalion of the creatures; their eyes gleamed in the coming moonlight, and I could swear the screams were now like a dirge, haunting and melodic. “They’re coming!” I pleaded.
The door swung open and I pulled my son behind me, collapsing on the other side. The sound of the chains and locks brought a smile to my face. I lay there believing I would never regain my breath again, but I didn’t care. If I were to die at that moment, it would have been happily.
“All torches are lit—make sure of it!” I heard a guard yell. The screams from the outside of the walls became louder and numerous guards scattered.
I lay on the ground, my son in my arms. Two guards looked on, one extending his hand to help me up. I slapped it away. Groaning, I got to my feet, and my son helped me limp back toward our home, leaving the two guards speechless behind us.
I opened my door and fell on my son’s pallet. He followed, and we held each other in silence. Soon, I couldn’t help but laugh.
Out of the darkness lives your greatest fears, and into the darkness is a place no man will venture.
No man except me.