Chapter 1 – Winter Solstice (excerpt)
Breathing a sigh of relief, that was only marred by his lingering misgivings, Seraphus unpacked the wooden block and took some time to visualize the shape he wanted to carve. When he’d finally decided, he rummaged through the hut before finding his father’s obsidian knife – the same knife that had carved Serena’s flute. Now it would help create a sacred totem that could be part of the flute’s ornamentation. He smiled at the thought.
Propping the block of pine against his knee, Seraphus started slicing it. The first cuts were large and deep. Like the pounding drums that had begun the ceremonial Moon Dance beyond the palisades. But as the morning stretched into afternoon, as flutes and chants intertwined with the drums, the cuts became smaller, more precise. Seraphus thought about Winter and Spring, about The Darkness and The Sickness, about Eliana’s rituals and the wounds of his world. He wondered about his mother’s final words and her eternal hope for the future.
But he was no closer to an answer.
By late afternoon the music had stopped and yellow wooden shards littered the cold, brown-black dirt floor of his family’s hut. In his hand, Seraphus held an almost-complete sun-symbol totem. The image recalled warmer days and brighter times and would be a perfect gift for Serena when she returned from celebrating the last light of the Winter Solstice with her friends. The thought of Serena’s smile brought him some comfort. And, if nothing else, the symbol of Brother Sun would be a ward against The Darkness.
But Seraphus was still no closer to understanding his mother’s words. Worse still, the sense of unease was back, stronger than before. He felt apprehensive and tense. His skin crawled and prickled. A feeling of aggression clawed into him. His hands shook and he gouged the fledgling totem, slicing a livid, dark gash through the heart of the sun-symbol.
Seraphus suddenly felt afraid – as though a deadly dance was underway. He thought of the final act of the Moon Dance that was to begin with the setting sun. But this was different. This was the lethal dance of hunters and hunted – the cold certainty of death – fear laced with desperation. Something lurked in the Great Forest beyond the palisades and was poised to strike.
Serena. Where was Serena?
Seraphus stared at the animal-skin flap to his family’s hut as though he expected his sister to return at any moment. To come bounding in, blinding him with her enthusiasm for life. After all, the sky, visible through the smoke hole at the top of the hut, was fading. The first stars were asserting themselves against the night. Brother Sun was bleeding light into red-violet clouds. Darkness was gaining a foothold.
Serena did not return.
Struggling to ignore the aggression and fear, Seraphus returned to the carving, trying to convince himself that, even if there were trouble during the Moon Dance, the village Hunters would protect his sister.
But the gash glared at him, magnifying the emotions swirling around him. They coiled through him, squeezing his thoughts until all that remained was Serena.
How far away could she have gone? Was she in danger? Would the village Hunters even know if she was?
Could he just sit there, do nothing, and hope for the best?
Could he actually confront the growing darkness on the longest night of the year?
A moment passed.
With every heartbeat, emotions pulsed and thudded through him. Like the thunder of drums.
Tossing the carving aside, Seraphus jumped to his feet, threw on his winter furs and moccasins, bolted out of his hut, and raced toward the village entrance. The Hunters on guard gave him an uncertain glance as he passed, but Seraphus ignored them. Sprinting by the ceremonies of the Moon Dance, he followed the emotions beyond the snow-covered fields, past the burial mounds, to the edge of the woods.
Seraphus stopped short. Would Serena really have been foolish enough to go in there? To go that far from home?
Dusk gathered. Darkness expanded between the trunks of the trees. Behind him, the last rhythms of the Moon Dance were beginning to echo into the twilight. Ahead, snow draped the forest in a deathly silence. Seeing a cacophony of tracks on the ground, Seraphus knelt, placed a hand on the chaotic impressions in the snow … and understood.
The girls had gone to a distant clearing to pick winterberries. The wolves had stalked them. And were very close now. Desperation exploded into terror.
Hunters and the hunted.
Seraphus leapt into the blackened forest. Branches lashed at his face and his moccasins filled with snow. His long, nimble strides covered large distances through the trees and frozen underbrush. Pumping his arms and gasping for air, he ran faster. His legs throbbed. His feet turned numb. His lungs ached.
Seraphus realized he would have to distract the wolves, allowing Serena and her friends a chance to escape. Why hadn’t he thought to bring his spear? Racing through the trees, he grabbed at the branches. Bark peeled skin from his fingers. He tried again. And again. Until a branch broke off in his bloody hand.
With one last effort, Seraphus extended his stride and accelerated his pace. He gulped the frozen air into his burning lungs. The brown-grey trees parted. A frozen meadow opened before him. He was in a bone-white clearing, lined with bushes adorned with blood-red berries.
Six wolves encircled three girls.
Yelling wildly and brandishing his stunted, makeshift spear, Seraphus hurtled at the wolf pack, screaming at the top of his lungs.
At the sound of his voice, the wolves froze and their eyes glazed. At first, the girls hesitated, unwilling to make a move. Seraphus shouted again. The girls darted into the forest. Into the deepening night. The sound of snapping twigs woke the wolves from their trance. Seraphus took a step toward the trees, but the wolves cut him off. They surrounded him. His heart beat faster and he struggled to catch his breath. His legs felt weak and sweat cooled rapidly on his skin, making him shiver. The wolves grinned eagerly. Their fur stood on end.
In desperation, Seraphus waved his branch at the pack. The wolves held their ground.
I’d have been safer in my hut, Seraphus thought.
The last of the light turned the sky a vivid black and purple blue. Brother Sun was gone. Sister Moon had not yet risen. Seraphus froze. The snow under his moccasins crunched. In the distance an owl hooted. The sound comforted Seraphus. Owls couldn’t fend off wolves. But at least he wasn’t completely alone.
Then, a chill cascaded through him and a wolf leapt toward him. Sensing the cold precision of the attack, Seraphus tried twisting out of the way.
A claw scraped his shoulder. Seraphus dropped the branch.
The wolves hesitated.
Before he could he recover and sprint into the woods, or even stoop to pick up the branch, two more wolves attacked. One struck him in the back, sending him face-first into a patch of icy snow.
His lip bled. The cold knifed through his skin.
Then pain seared through his right knee and calf.
A stiff breeze swept through the clearing.
He felt colder still.
The wolves closed in.
Flailing his arms and screaming hysterically, Seraphus fought against the pack, pounding his fists against their snouts, kicking his legs violently.
The snow and ice around him grew red.
His knee was attacked again.
Teeth punctured skin, muscle, and sinew.
Jaw against bone.
The world swam.
The owl soared over the clearing and out of sight, leaving him alone with the ravenous wolves.
The sky turned black.
The night roared.
In his mind he heard a deep, gravelly voice say, I am looking forward to meeting you.
Darkness took him.