Shadow and Ash

You have been walking for weeks, or at least that’s how it seems. Your feet hurt, your back hurts, your heart hurts. More than anything you want to stop, but the sense of something behind you drives you ever onwards. It’s not a higher purpose propelling you forwards, but a presence, some malign entity, just out of sight when you glance behind. Nonetheless, you know it is there.

You’re not sure how long it has been following you, you only know that it has been days, many days now since you first became aware of it. Constant, too far away to perceive with your physical senses but close enough to feel in your very bones. You don’t know what it wants but it cannot be anything good.

You have passed through several villages, but you don’t dare to stop, even for a single night. It wouldn’t be safe. You can’t say quite what you fear would happen, but you know in your heart that something dreadful would happen, maybe to you, maybe to those who shelter you. And so, you keep walking.

It, whatever it is, grows closer every day. You still can’t see it, but you know. You can’t escape its presence but still, you keep moving. There is nothing else to do. A few times the notion of sitting and waiting for it occurs to you–it might be better than this inexorable forward motion–but your mind shies away from what might happen if you were to come face to face with it. And so you walk.

One morning, perhaps the fifteenth day, or the fiftieth, as the sun rises in the sky towards noon, you come to a stand of ash trees. Very old, they are. They were here before this road, for it swings to the side and arcs around them.

As soon as you step into their circle you feel it. Life. There is such life here. It is ancient, and it is deeply rooted and strong. So strong. It seeps into you and pushes the fear that you only now realize has been consuming you out to the edges of your consciousness. Your resolve strengthens and you feel certain if there is anywhere you can make your stand it is here, in this ring of trees.

You sit on the grass, your back against one broad trunk, and close your eyes and for the first time in an age, sleep comes easy. You do not dream, or if you do you hold no memory of them, and when you awaken the afternoon shadows are lengthening and the sun is low in the cloudless sky. Your mind feels rested, and yet you are acutely aware of the aching of your body. Muscles, bones; every joint is a complaint.

You pull yourself to your feet and as you do the wind catches the trees and a cascade of seeds rain around you. Tiny winged keys sail down, joining those that already litter the ground. One lands softly in your outstretched palm and you curl your fingers around it, solid and yet so fragile.

You slip the seed key into your pocket and look around. It feels safe here, inside this cluster of trunks, and yet somehow you know that once you step outside the feeling of dread, of pursuit, will return. And you have wasted so much time here already, resting. You wonder what you can possibly do to end this, for you cannot continue this way for much longer.

As the sun sets and the shadows stretch out long fingers, your eyes come to rest on a crack in the bark of the tree opposite you. Unbidden, your hand returns to your pocket and you draw forth the seed. The key. The crack is a dark hole in the trunk, a fissure, small and deep. The seed key slips into it as though the two were made for each other. Although it feels brittle in your fingers, you trust that it will not break as you turn it clockwise and feel, rather than hear, a click within the tree.

Nothing changes. Nothing that you can see. The trees loom around you, as they must have for hundreds of years. The darkness continues to descend. But you feel it again. Life, swelling and swirling and flowing around you. It enters you, fills you, invigorates you. The aches and pains that seemed all-consuming recede, replaced by a sense of well-being and happiness that you have not felt in who knows how long. Light–not visible, but a feeling of lightness–surrounds you.

And that’s when you see it; billowing over the horizon and bearing down on you with unimaginable speed, for the first time you actually see it. Black and nebulous. More shadow than form. A cloud, a patch of shade, with no more than a hint of limbs and body and head. There are no features that you can make out but you feel its gaze nonetheless. You feel its desire.

You ought to feel fear, now, at last, seeing it there in front of you. But you don’t. The feeling of lightness that you unlocked from the trees is still with you, sustaining you. You gaze at your shadow, revealed finally in the twilight, and, eyeless, it gazes back.

Some instinct tells you that the light of the trees can hurt it if you can only find a way to use it. It takes you a moment, but when realization strikes it is so obvious you almost laugh. The trees are strong and sturdy, but any wood has deadfall and this one is no exception. It doesn’t take you long to gather a small pile and a matter of moments to call forth a spark from your flint and steel.

The flames leap up from the dry heap you have prepared, dancing and twisting and bright, so bright. Your shadow, whatever it is, recoils from the glow. You shore up your little fire, feed it, nurture it. Give it all your attention so you don’t feed the dark spirit that watches you without a face. The circle of light you have created grows and expands, and the shadow throws back its featureless head and lets out a howl, like nothing you have ever heard.

As the sound dissipates, so too does the creature itself, blown like smoke on the wind, like wisps of fog in the morning. And the feeling of dread that has been squatting in the back of your mind goes with it, and you feel free for the first time in a long time. You lie down by the side of your fire, and let its warmth seep into you, and sleep.