by AJ McCall
After a near-death encounter in the woods with the Darkness, Dava returns home shaken and seeks answers, but she's afraid it'll raise suspicion.
The run home was a blur.
Dava could barely feel herself, moving, running. The nighttime’s dark blue hung over her like the trepidation of the Darkness following her.
She told herself it was all a dream— a nightmare cooked up to scare her, inspired by her grandmother’s stories. But a part of her wouldn’t believe it.
The door of her house loomed into view, the mahogany resembling a giant in the shadows as she slipped inside.
A flurry of footsteps followed the voice as two women rushed toward her. Firm arms wrapped around her sore torso, and she flinched against her aunt’s crushing grip.
“We were so worried!” she exclaimed. She ran her hands down the girl’s arms and back up again until she noticed the slashes across her skin.
Her brows furrowed and her gaze flicked back to Dava’s face, her hand reaching up to touch the bruises along her chin. “What happened?”
Before Dava could think of a reply, another voice spoke.
“What were you doing?”
The second woman, her aunt’s older sister stood beside her, glaring. Her look was something between disappointment and betrayal, the shimmering emerald locks around her shoulders shaking angrily.
Dava didn’t know what to say.
The desire to tell what she’d seen burned in a silent agony behind her lips. The desire to tell the truth— or what she hoped was just her imagination. If she told them… then what? How would they react? Would they even believe her?
Finally, she forced her mouth to open.
“Nothing.” A lump formed in her throat at the lie, threatening to choke her.
Nothing? The confusion in her aunts’ eyes seemed to echo back.
She swallowed back the guilt. “I was just... wandering the wood. That’s all.”
The women shared a glance before the younger sister, sighed, almost despairingly.
“You know your uncle wouldn’t want you out there.” her sister interrupted.
Dava felt her jaw tighten and frowned at her.
“I promised Uncle Slade that I would wait for him in those woods—”
“And be safe! How do you think he’d feel if he knew you were coming home late because you spend every waking moment of your life waiting in that place, expecting something that won’t ever happen?”
The words struck her like a blow. She should’ve expected the jab but the words struck like a blow. No matter how many times this conversation came up, she couldn’t believe how her aunt had given up so easily on him, her uncle. He had promised that nothing would keep him from returning. Nothing. She blinked back the burning feeling behind her eyelids.
“You can believe that,” she said quietly.
Her aunt opened her mouth to reply but decided against it, eyes shining hard like sapphires. But they were never confident enough to meet her niece's eyes for long. A second barely passed before the woman fidgetted under her stare and turned, avoiding her gaze.
“Who’s that I hear?”
The voice split the unsettling silence and a flicker of movement caught Dava’s eye as a woman entered the room. Like her aunts’, emerald strands fell in thick waves around her shoulders but were grizzled with silvery streaks. Her face creased into a wry grin that made her want to forget everything.
“Seems you had quite an adventure, Sapling.” she chuckled softly.
“Indeed.” Her elder aunt interjected with a hint of sarcasm but Dava ignored her as the woman continued.
“I hope you brought back souvenirs.”
The girl shook her head, managing to give her a small smile. “Sorry, no souvenirs, Nana,”
The sound of her nickname was almost like a ghost from the past. Her family rarely called her Sapling now, except for her grandmother. Her uncle had too, but those years seemed long ago.
Before she knew it, her grandmother closed the distance between them in a few swift steps, sweeping a hand under her bruised chin.
A slight frown creased her forehead as her examination led down to her sweater and then the hole, something her aunts had overlooked.
“What’s this?” Leathery hands fingered the hole in the pullover.
“Got caught on a tree,” Dava pushed the guilt to the bottom of her stomach as she spoke.
“A dead tree?” her younger aunt asked, sounding confused. Her sister only crossed her arms, glaring again.
Dava didn’t answer and turned to look. Ripped fragments dangled from her sweater, the pieces shriveled up like the wilted remains of a flower.
A touch from death, her thoughts whispered. But she buried them and looked away, focusing on the dirt and mud caking her shoes.
“I had to yank away in order to get my sweater free. ” Another lump formed, this one determined to stay, and she was glad it was there because she had nothing else to say.
Dava was quickly led up to the bath, stripped out her clothes, and thoroughly scrubbed by each of the three women to ensure that no infection had set in. Then the balms were applied— lavender, tea tree, aloe— rubbed into her skin until her flesh tingled feverishly and smelled of soap. The scratches and bruises on her face were left for her grandmother to address while her aunts cleaned her clothes.
The scents of the ointments tickled her nose as her grandmother’s fingers started at the bruises on the side of her face, dabbing and smearing without causing even a flash of pain. Her gentle touch moved down to her face, to her jaw then her chin, tracing over the small scrapes there.
Although she faced the woman, Dava kept her gaze lowered, studying the dark, curved lines of her palms.
The Darkness doesn’t exist… she told herself.
“You saw it, didn’t you?”
The question caught her off guard, and she blinked, frowning. “Nana?”
“The Darkness... do you remember the stories I told you about it?” she asked, her words carefully chosen.
Dava nodded slowly, unsure of whether she should look up and meet her eyes or not. Why was her grandmother asking her this? She couldn’t possibly know… but the woman did have the strange sense of knowing things without being told.
“The Darkness is an ancient adversary,” she began in a somber tone. “as old as time itself. It has been growing since Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, in power and malice."
The spite in her words almost felt real and seemed to take control, but her eyes twinkled like stars, with the spark of a storyteller.
"It devours its enemies, ambushing them from the shadows, existing in them. Waiting for a moment to strike.”
Dava shivered against her touch circling the bruise on the tip of her chin where it hurt most.
“To dismantle the prophecy.”
“Yes.” Her grandmother nodded as if reading her thoughts, her finger ow dabbing at the underside of her jaw.
Dava hesitated before she asked. “A prophecy of... what?”
It was a moment before her grandmother answered.
The words sounded strange to her. In the stories, the goliaths lived among the woods as protectors of the forests, hidden in plain sight. When the ground shook or trees fell, it was a result of them engaged in secret battles, the surge traveling for miles on end. But giants didn’t exist, and neither did the Darkness… until today, until now.
She bit her lip, thoughts tumbling over each other.
“Sapling.” Her grandmother’s tone softened as she let her hand fall away from her face, eyes locking onto Dava’s.
“I need you to understand, The Prophecy of the Giants is the only thing that stands in the way of the Darkness. And the Darkness will do anything to keep it from happening, even going out to attack giants in other realms. I—” Her breath hitched sharply and her voice stopped as Dava saw something dark flit behind her eyes, behind the warmth and sparkle. Shadows moved in, the woman’s gaze focused on an invisible specter.
She seemed frozen, held in place by something she couldn’t see.
“Nana?” Dava placed a hand on top of hers.
Her fingers twitched, then curled around the girl’s as she blinked. In an instant, the elderly woman’s eyes returned to their normal gleam, alive again.
Dava mentioned nothing about the strange event as she reached up and brushed a stray lock of blue hair back behind her ear, knuckles brushing against the birthmark across her cheek. Warmth tickled her skin.
“You’ll be ready,” her grandmother said softly, wrinkles forming a smile, but fear was etched deep in her words.