GARDEN OF DARKNESS prologue
A dank breeze rose from the ground like one long exhaled breath. It lifted fallen leaves and swirled them up into the night sky. The leaves moved as if they knew where they were going, as if they had a destination. They flew past open windows where children were tucked in bed, hushed words snatched from sweet mouths and replaced with new ones.
“Where does the wind begin?” one child asked another.
“The Tuonela River,” the other child replied.
“What’s going on up there?” a mother called from below.
The children looked at each other in fear. “Nothing.” But they felt strange. Had a soft hand caressed them? Just a brush down the cheek, leaving a trail of goosebumps behind?
Sweet, sweet babies.
He drew nearer and inhaled their soap scent, and his breath stirred the fine hair on their heads.
Time was different here.
He could smell the river: wet driftwood, shells and bones gleaming on the shore. In the black mud of the river bottom, giant catfish slept the deep sleep in filtered light that was bent and reshaped. Never surfacing, the catfish waited patiently for prey to come close enough to catch and swallow whole.
Sweet, sweet life.
The damp night wind was tinged with sorrow and loss and longing.
Oh, to be complete, to be whole.
Some people said he was bad. But that was like saying a bear was bad when it caught a fish. It was like saying a cat was bad when it ate a bird. It was all about survival and nature. The bear wasn’t bad. The cat wasn’t bad.
He wasn’t bad.
Two places called to him, the old and the new.
For a moment he was confused. In his mind the two places meshed and he couldn’t separate them. Time moved forward and backward and the passage of a hundred years seemed like hours. Time unfolded and turned in on itself and his loss became something that hadn’t yet happened, and the strength and power he’d once known could possibly be found again.
He left the children and soared from the house, up through the roof but not as far as the stars. He joined a flock of night birds as they moved out of town, shifting and changing, blocking the moonlight.
On the ground far below, a man walking his dog felt the curious movement of air. He looked up, his face a white oval. He seemed to shrug and dismiss the sudden heaviness. But when the dog whimpered, he turned and hurried home.
Something was coming. Something had been coming for a long time. Something big. Powerful. Something that would shake the residents of Tuonela.
To the old place.
Over the house built from native stone. Over the bare, rolling hillside that met dark woodland. Through the trees, silent and secret.
A light in the night.
A lantern and the sound of a shovel striking rocky ground.
This must be what it was like to astral project. To find yourself watching yourself. Because the man below was him, but not him.
The dead – they were everywhere. He could see their faces in the bark of the trees and the patterns made by the twisting leaves. Like him, they were looking for bodies to inhabit. Unlike him, they would take any vessel. He wanted one and only one.
The man on the ground seemed unaware of the dead surrounding him. He remained focused on his digging, never looking up. His heart pounded from exertion; steam rose from his shoulders.
The coaxing command seemed to come from the faces in the bark and the faces in the leaves. Who were they?
Don’t you remember us?
Don’t you remember your followers?
One face in particular became more distinct, the voice seeming to separate from the singsong chant of the others.
The scent of sage and lavender invaded his head. And somehow he could feel the softness of her skin under his fingertips.
Come inside, Richard.
Richard. That’s who he was. Richard Manchester, the Pale Immortal. And this was his land -- the land of the dead.
The man below stabbed the shovel into the ground, then released it and straightened, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.
The night birds were gone. They had done their duty by bringing him here, and now they were asleep in the trees, heads tucked beneath black wings.
Richard hovered above the man with the shovel. Foolish person. Digging for secrets on the ground when the secret is above you. When the secret is in you.