A SHADOWY COMPANION
A cold wind swept across the narrow ridge. On either side of him, a sheer drop fell away into darkness. Unsure of how he had gotten there, Jason sensed that something was deeply wrong. He had to hurry. Crouching low enough to almost touch the rocky ground with his fingertips, he moved forward, choosing his steps with care, trying to remain in the center of the jagged spine, despite the buffeting gusts.
From one side came a monstrous roar, like an approaching landslide. A mighty blast of wind lifted Jason off his feet and hurled him to the edge of the ridge. He landed roughly, with his legs dangling over the void, desperately hugging the rugged ground as a flood of wind rushed over him.
As the gust relented, Jason pulled himself forward, swung his legs up, and got to his feet. His torso and the underside of his arms ached and burned with bruises and scrapes. Returning to the center of the knifelike ridge, he staggered forward, currents of air rising and falling, swirling and whistling.
The fierce wind lashed at him with increasing violence. To keep his balance, he leaned into the gale, which suddenly switched directions, and his own effort helped the new gust shove him toward the dizzying brink. He fell to the unforgiving ground time after time, trying to grip with his entire body to avoid being flung to his doom.
He wanted to lie still and wait until the raging windstorm abated, but he had to press on. What was he doing here again? Was something after him? Was the storm going to worsen? He did not understand the logic of his need, but an innate sense urged him to hurry.
He got to his feet and shuffled onward, unpredictable currents thrusting him in different directions. Ahead, through the dimness, he saw where the ridge ended. At the extremity of the rocky spine awaited a table with one empty chair and an occupied seat.
Shouldering his way against a persistent gust, Jason stumbled to the empty chair and sat down. The other person at the table was Rachel! The wind did not seem to touch her, although it continued to half blind and half deafen Jason.
“Why have you returned?” Rachel asked. He could hear her soft words despite the howling gale. “You should have stayed home. You don’t belong here.”
“I couldn’t just leave you behind!” Jason yelled. “What are you doing here?”
“You should not have come,” she whispered, her expression neutral. “You have condemned the both of us.”
Jason could hear the sound of the wind rising, louder than ever. He knew it was about to hit them like an avalanche. He stood and shoved the table aside. “We have to go!” He took her hand, shocked by how icy cold her skin felt.
Rachel rose. She stood significantly taller than him. Her hand gripped his firmly, so cold that it burned. Her eyes were black—no whites, no irises. “Stay away from me.” She released his hand, and at the same moment, the wind hit, like a tsunami.
Jason tumbled helplessly off the ridge and into the stormy void, arms pinwheeling, legs thrashing. Powerful updrafts slowed his fall, then heaved him sideways and upward. A succession of unpredictable gusts thrust him in various directions, as if he weighed nothing. Had he dropped into a tornado? With wind screaming around him, Jason fell and flew, flipping and twisting, his orientation so disrupted that he lost all instinct for up and down.
Each time he opened his mouth to cry out, wind rushed into his lungs, drowning his protests. Questions surfaced through his panic. How high was the ridge? When would he hit the ground? How hard would he hit it?
The wild fall continued until Jason finally managed a shout. At that instant, his eyelids flew open, and he found himself on his back, beside a path, beneath a sunlit sky. A dark, featureless figure towered over him.
The events of the previous evening returned all at once. Using his heels and elbows, Jason scooted away from the shadowy form without taking his eyes off it. The figure did not move.
After putting a few yards between himself and the dark entity, Jason paused. Fear lingered from the nightmare. His heart raced. Everything had felt much too real. Jason checked his arms, expecting to see scrapes and bruises from the stony ridge. There were none.
He detested that the shadowy figure had been standing over him as he slept. He wondered if the creature had gotten even closer. He wondered if it might have touched him. The thought made him shudder.
The events of the dream left a foul aftertaste. Jason found his hands trembling. There had been other nightmares before the stormy ridge. He could almost remember them. What had they been about? The details dissolved under scrutiny.
Taking a steadying breath, Jason arose. The featureless figure held still, its surface perfect blackness, even under the sunlight, like a void in the shape of a man. Jason had hoped dawn would have driven the apparition away, like a vampire or something. But the inky creature appeared indifferent to the brightness.
Wiping sleep from his eyes, Jason hesitantly approached the creature. “What do you want?”
The tenebrous being offered no indication of understanding.
“Why are you following me?”
Jason circled the creature, scrutinizing its smooth shape. They stood about the same height, roughly six feet. The face had no contours to suggest ears or eyes or a mouth. The hands had fingers, but no fingernails or other details. The feet lacked individual toes. The being was like a man reduced to his simplest geometric form.
No matter how Jason positioned himself, the flawless surface of the figure reflected nothing. It was a black that should have been impossible under the light of day. What material could absorb light so completely? Did it have any more substance than a shadow? Maybe that was how it moved so silently.
“I’m not going to harm you,” Jason soothed.
He extended a hesitant finger toward the being’s shoulder.
Would it feel spongy? Hard? Would his finger pass through the surface?
The instant before his fingertip would have made contact, the figure moved in a blur, seizing Jason by the wrist and shoulder and flinging him through the air. Jason sailed off the path, turning a three-quarter somersault and landing on a bush.
Stunned, Jason lay quiet for a moment. Would the creature pounce? Follow up the attack? He rolled over, rose to his knees, and saw the figure standing on the road, fifteen yards away, as if nothing had happened. His wrist ached from here it had gripped him. The dark hand had been ice cold.
Jason waded through undergrowth back to the path. “I get it,” he said, brushing leaves from his shirt. “Hands off, right? You don’t need to tell me twice.”
As usual he received no acknowledgment. Jason felt angry. He wanted to strike the calm figure, if for no other reason than to earn a reaction, but he had a suspicion that if he attacked, the shadowy entity would knot him into a pretzel.
“Did you give me those bad dreams?” Jason asked, rubbing his wrist. “Was that you impersonating my friend? You both have really cold hands.”
As usual, the being gave no reply.
“Are you a lurker? A torivor? A creepy puppet? Can you speak? Can you understand me?”
“Nod if you can understand me. You just chucked me into the bushes. You must have a brain. Wiggle a finger if you understand. Tap your foot.”
Jason sighed, exasperated. “Well, looks like I can’t talk to you and I can’t beat you up, and the sun doesn’t bother you. I guess you’re going to tail me for as long as you want. Don’t expect me to smile about it.”
Jason took out a protein bar and finished the water in his canteen. He then set off to the north, determined to distance himself from the giants. The dark figure followed less than ten paces behind.
The groomed path dwindled to an indistinct trail, but continued northward. Jason filled his canteen when he crossed a brook, and ate trail mix. He wondered if his parents were freaking out back home. This time witnesses had seen him get swallowed by a hippo. Everyone would think he was dead. He hoped they wouldn’t
blame the animal.
Where was Rachel right now? Safe? On the run? Captured? He wished he could know that he wasn’t too late to help her.
What about Tark? If the shadow creature was chasing Jason, hopefully that meant Tark had escaped with his vital message. As he munched on raisins and nuts, Jason wished he had packed a wider variety of food. Maybe next time.
Not long after the path began to run parallel to a little brook, Jason finally spotted a bubblefruit tree. He hungrily devoured some fruit, grateful for something fresh and juicy. Ferrin had once claimed that a watchful wanderer could survive in the wilderness on bubblefruit alone.
Standing near the trunk of the tree, Jason wondered if the shadow creature ever ate. How could it survive otherwise? He watched it. How could something capable of movement remain so perfectly stationary? It didn’t seem to breathe. Maybe it absorbed air through its icy skin. Maybe it absorbed food. Maybe it was magical and didn’t need air or food. Jason decided to try to get some answers.
Holding up a bubblefruit, he approached the dark figure. “Do you eat? I haven’t seen you eat. These are pretty good. Want to try one?”
The figure did not stir.
Jason pantomimed taking a bite of the fruit. “I know I’m supposed to be terrified of you, but I started to wonder whether you might be hungry. Here’s some food. I’d hate to have you pass out and then stop following me.”
Jason held out the transparent fruit. When the dark being made no move to accept it, he tossed it underhand. The graceful creature stepped sideways, caught the clear fruit in one hand, and, quick as a blink, flung it back at Jason. There was no time to react. The bubblefruit splatted squarely against Jason’s forehead, spraying his face with juice and sending him reeling onto his side. He remained on the ground for a moment, stunned, his head smarting from the impact and his eyes stinging from the juice.
Clenching his fists, Jason calmed himself. If he attempted to retaliate, he knew the creature would dismantle him. In fact, that could be precisely what the creature desired.
“I don’t get you,” Jason growled, getting up and using his shirt to wipe juice from his face. “If you want to beat the snot out of me, why don’t you just do it? I can tell you could.”
As expected, the being offered no response.
“Seems like you only react if I invade your space. Don’t worry, I won’t try to give you anything ever again. I’ll leave you alone. I wish you’d return the favor.”
The trail flanked the brook for the rest of the day. By the evening the brook joined a larger stream. Near the intersection, Jason found another bubblefruit tree. He offered nothing to his eerie escort.
By sundown, Jason could smell the sea. He felt exhausted after the long day, and curled up near the creek. After getting comfortable, he raised his head to look at the dark figure.
“You keep away from me while I sleep. Don’t even think about hijacking my dreams. I’m going to be ready this time, just in case. Fair warning.”
Jason rested his head on his jacket and tried to prepare his mind to dream about happy things. He pictured Rachel excited to see him instead of possessed and warning him that he should have stayed away from Lyrian. He told himself that coming here was the right decision, that he would make a difference, that he wouldn’t die alone in the woods. And he promised himself that if he had another bad dream, he would recognize it and take over.
Jason stood on Zuma Beach in Southern California. He had been here once before, a few years ago while visiting his brother for a long weekend. But today the beach was deserted, including the light-blue lifeguard stations spaced evenly along the sandy expanse. Low gray clouds muted the sun and made the sea look grayer than he remembered it.
A helicopter came up the coast, flying directly toward him. It hovered loudly above, and a male voice called to him through a loudspeaker. “Sir, you do not belong here. The evacuation has been in force for hours. Your life is in danger.”
A rope ladder unfurled from an open door, and the helicopter came closer to the ground. Jason ran forward, the sand hampering his strides. The ladder dangled almost within reach. He squinted as the wind from the rotors blew particles into his eyes. Suddenly the helicopter rose, along with the flimsy ladder. Charging hard, Jason jumped, but barely missed the last rung.
“We’re sorry,” the voice informed him. “We’re too late. We have to climb now or none of us will make it out.”
Jason gazed out to sea and saw the horizon curl upward, steadily rising as a mountain of water like he had never imagined approached the shore. Awed by the sight, everything inside of Jason seemed to drop, and despair filled the emptiness.
Turning, Jason recognized that there was no escape. At best he might make it to the parking lot. Looking back at the sea, the leaden water continued to ascend. This wave would break over not just the beach, but the coastal mountains as well. He doubted whether the swiftly rising helicopter could escape it.
Still, he ran away from the oncoming tsunami, panting as he plodded across the sand. Could he possibly ride it out? Hold his breath and hope he might somehow make it to the surface before drowning? No, not through miles of water. This would be like having the whole ocean fall on him.
When Jason reached the parking lot, he turned to look back. The great wave was almost to the shore, curling up so high that the top disappeared into the overcast sky. The water before it had receded dramatically, turning the coastline into a sloping desert of moist sand.
“Not the best way to go,” said a gravelly voice at his side.
Glancing over, Jason found Tark beside him, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sandals. Otherwise he looked exactly as Jason would have expected.
“How’d you get here?” Jason asked, panic giving way to curiosity.
Tark shrugged, staring up at the looming wall of water. “Serves us right, you know. This is what happens when you bite off more than you can chew.”
“We can run,” Jason said. “We can try.”
Tark grasped his arm, his hand so cold, it burned. “Better to accept the inevitable.”
Jason tugged and pulled, but couldn’t break his grip. For the first time Jason recognized that Tark’s eyes were entirely black.
“Wait a minute,” Jason said, the realization hitting him hard. “This is a dream. You’re not really Tark. I’m not really here.”
Tark grinned darkly. “Tell that to the wave.”
Looking up, Jason saw the wave curling over him—over the entire coast—the wave to end all waves, falling forward, stretching so far beyond Jason and the little parking lot that he could hardly imagine a place beyond its reach.
The sound was like being at ground zero during an atomic blast, so loud that Jason knew he would never hear again. Then he was tumbling helplessly through turbulent water that surged with unfathomable power. He immediately lost all sense of direction and found it impossible to keep the salt water from painfully invading his nose and mouth.
Jason woke up screaming, eyes squeezed shut, drenched in sweat, his body curled into a defensive ball. He opened his eyes and found himself staring at a faceless black head, inches beyond his nose, and screamed again, recoiling as best he could. The dark figure that had crouched beside him stood upright, took a step back, and held still.
Jason rolled away from it, deeply shaken, grateful that predawn light had begun to illuminate the forest. “I knew it was a dream,” he panted, trying to let go of the terror that had owned him. He was on dry ground. He could breathe. “It was horrible and realistic, but I called it. I knew it was you. I couldn’t stop it, but I knew what 1 was up.”
The shadowy figure remained still. Jason found it infuriating to think that this voiceless, motionless creature was getting inside his head and manipulating his dreams. He despised the thought of it following him sedately all day, only to attack him mentally when he was at his most vulnerable.
Seething, Jason lurched to his feet. The creature did not twitch, but Jason reminded himself how quickly it could move when attacked. If he tried anything physical, he would only get hurt. Jason stalked over to the figure and stood close, glaring at its blank face. “You’re a coward!” he yelled. “Stay out of my dreams!
If you’re going to kill me, let’s get it over with. I’m serious. What’s your point? Why are you here? To make nightmares? Or is that just extra credit?”
The figure withstood the tirade without flinching.
“Are you trying to make me doubt my friends? To make me sorry I came back to Lyrian? Are you trying to provoke me into attacking you? Are you a spy? All of the above?”
The figure gave no acknowledgment of Jason’s presence.
Disgusted, Jason turned away. Why was he wasting his breath? It was like complaining to a mannequin.
Torn by worry and frustration, Jason kicked a small rock into the bushes. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to do,” he murmured bitterly, “but I think it’s working.”