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Darkness Shall Fall
By Alister McGrath
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Alister McGrath
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow far will it spread?" Gregory asked. Peter Grant didn't take his eyes off the monstrous black cloud billowing from the volcano over the island of Khemia. "I don't know," Peter said. "Maybe it will cover the whole sky."
The two friends stood on a slight rise in the forest, gazing beyond the trees, across the island, at the volcano. An orange glow marked its mouth, where lava still spewed in a slow, torrential flow. Above the volcano the haze of spreading darkness was evident even in the moonlight, like an ink stain spreading across the night sky, blotting out the stars.
"Scientists believe that a cloud like this wiped out the dinosaurs," Peter said, his eyes mesmerized by the ever-growing dark haze of ash rising above the volcano. "Only it wasn't from a volcano, but a massive asteroid that struck the ocean just off the Yucatan Peninsula sixty-five million years ago. Gregory, are you even listening to me?"
But Gregory's gaze had drifted toward the ground where he was busy foraging. "I'm trying not to," he said.
Peter stepped down off the ridge and joined Gregory's search of the forest floor. "Well, you should listen. Science is what separates us from the lower mammals."
"Hopefully I am the only one listening to you," Gregory hissed. "Keep your voice down, already."
"Right," Peter whispered, scanning the moonlit forest as if Gul'nog might swarm them any moment. "I forgot." Before his transport from London to the mysterious world of Aedyn and the island of Khemia, he'd never had to worry about such things.
Gregory pointed. "There!"
Peter ducked. "You see one?" In the darkness, the outline of Gregory's arm was barely visible. "At least one," he said. He strode forward and knelt beside something on the turf.
Peter's heart thumped in his chest. A Gul'nog? Here? Before Peter had time to react, Gregory pulled his small knife—and sliced at the dirt. Peter almost laughed in relief. It wasn't one of the horrible, eight-feet-tall creatures ready to tear their limbs off. Gregory had found a fungus. Fungi.
Mushrooms, to be exact. "Bring me your bag." Gregory cut the mushrooms with his small knife and dropped them into Peter's canvas sack. He wiped the blade and slid it back into the leather scabbard on his belt.
"How many, Gregory?" Peter was still spooked, so he kept his voice soft in his companion's ear.
Peter's shoulders dropped a little. "All right," he said. "Let's find the others. Maybe they've had better luck."
They rose and went back the way they had come. They knew these woods—knew how to pass through without being heard. They knew how to move with the shadows, slipping in between the branches of the trees like wraiths. They knew where it was safe to step and where a misplaced foot might suck a man into a hidden bog. They had wandered these woods every night for two months.
The shadow—the volcano cloud—spread every day, nearly reaching the horizon, growing thicker and blacker. Even in the daylight it blocked out the sun, leaving the landscape an ashen, dirty gray. Not that they'd seen it in daylight lately. It had been weeks since they had been outside during the day.
A twig snapped, and Gregory put out an arm, stopping Peter in his tracks. They waited, trying not to breathe. Peter prayed they were downwind of anything that could sniff them out.
Another snap, and another. Something was out there. And it was getting closer.
Only two steps away from Peter stood a great tree, its trunk so thick that both he and Gregory could not have reached around it. Peter crouched low and curled himself tightly into a ball, nestling himself between two of the massive tree roots. Though Gregory made no sound, Peter saw that he had done the same.
They waited there, Peter hardly breathing, willing his heart to stop pounding. But the footsteps grew closer.
Whoever or whatever it was moved slowly—too slowly just to be passing by. It must have been searching for something. Or someone.
Peter risked a peek. There, not more than twenty feet from the place where they crouched, a creature of Shadow lifted its head and drank in the stale air of the forest. It listened, sniffing, breathing in the scent of man. With dread sinking deep into his stomach, Peter realized the truth: it was a Gul'nog, and it knew they were there.
In the dark months since Peter had first come to Khemia, he had grown to fear these monsters more and more. They thrived on the stale, acrid air of the place, growing stronger as the days pressed on. The Gul'nog were monsters out of some nightmare—their skin marked by welts and scars, their massive limbs the size of small trees. Peter sometimes thought they looked like gnarled old trees themselves.
The Gul'nog were the reason for these midnight raids. Peter and a small band of men went out each evening, foraging for food and unspoiled water for those who had lived through the volcano blast. Not one of the refugees ever forgot that the only reason they were still alive was that the Gul'nog had not yet discovered their hiding place.
But the monsters knew they were still on the island—knew that some of them had survived the eruption—and so they searched.
Peter willed himself to become smaller as he shrank back into the tree's roots. The bark cut into his skin. It was always this way when the Gul'nog were near—always this paralyzing fear.
Peter watched in horror as the monster's head turned toward them. The Gul'nog's lips curled up in a snarl as it started forward. Heaven help him: the monster had picked up their scent. It was coming for them.
Should they wait here to die or try to run? Peter had escaped from a Gul'nog once before by staying hidden in the trees and then ducking into a cave, but the only cave nearby—the only cave he could get to in time—was the cave where Peter's sister, Julia, his step-sister, Louisa, and the remnant of the people of Aedyn were hiding. Peter squeezed his eyes shut tight and prayed that death would be quick.
Then the Gul'nog was upon them.
It reached Gregory first. Its fist came out and gripped Gregory's arm in a death vice, squeezing until he cried out in agony. Peter could hear the bones crunching.
A strange thought leapt into his mind: Leave Gregory! The thing will start eating him, and you'll have time to get away.
He pulled his feet beneath him and actually sprang up to flee.
The Gul'nog whipped around to face him, surprised. But it quickly recovered and snarled at Peter.
His moment to escape was gone. Whether it was an act of heroism or because he had no other choice, Peter leapt forward and lashed out at the monster. It dropped Gregory and squared off against Peter.
This was it. He was going to be ripped to pieces and eaten by a—his thoughts cut off suddenly as there came a low, rumbling bellow. Peter felt the sound as much as he heard it. It reverberated inside his skin, shaking him to his bones, and he dropped to the ground. It was an alien noise, foreign to his ears, and he shuddered at its force.
At the sound, the Gul'nog lifted its head, and answering some call that only he seemed to understand, turned from Peter and ran through the trees the way he had come.
Peter's pulse raced, and more than a few moments passed before he could breathe again.
"Peter?" Gregory's whisper was so quiet it might have been a leaf quivering on the wind.
"It's all right now," Peter said, dizzy with shame at nearly leaving his friend to save himself. Was he becoming just as bad as the evil creatures who hunted them? "Thought we were done for."
"And I thought—ow!" Gregory grabbed at his shoulder and dropped to his knees.
"Your arm!" Peter stood, brushed the broken bark and twigs off his clothing, and reached out a hand.
"Broken, I think," said Gregory, biting his tongue between his teeth. "I'll be all right. We have to get back—find the others."
Peter grasped Gregory's good arm and helped him to his feet.
"Don't forget the mushrooms."
"Right." Peter grabbed the bag from the ground.
"What made it leave?" Gregory asked through gritted teeth.
"Some sort of horn, I think." Gregory stumbled and Peter grabbed his bad arm, causing Gregory to cry out in pain.
They made their way through the dense forest for another ten minutes. Peter knew Gregory would be going into shock soon—if he hadn't already—though he continued forward. At length, they emerged into a small clearing, on the edges of which waited a group of bedraggled men. The other foragers. They brightened when they saw Peter and Gregory coming in from the trees.
"We heard something in the forest," Orrin said.
"We had some trouble," Peter said, nodding to Gregory. He scanned the group. "Are all returned?"
Orrin nodded. "Not much but leaves, nuts, and mushrooms."
Peter sighed. It had not, he thought ruefully, been a good night for foraging. But no matter about that—the Gul'nog knew their area now. A full search party would probably be arriving soon. They would have to move again. And Gregory needed care. They had to get back to the others.
The ten men walked single file, making their way through the shadows and back to the cave. Peter could hear Gregory panting and hissing, evidently in great pain. But Gregory kept the agony to himself. If only they could all be so strong.
The last move had almost been too much for some of the younger children, and he was loath to attempt another so soon. Peter pushed the thought from his mind as he approached the cave entrance hidden deep in the crags of the cliff. Again he marveled that the cliff face in front of him concealed its entrance. It looked like bare rock to him, with only the occasional spray of vines here and there. If he hadn't already known its location, he never would have found it in the darkness. Peter squeezed sideways through the narrow opening, shimmying between the tight walls of rock that closed him in on either side. In a strange way, it was a good thing they were running out of food. If they'd been feasting every day, they wouldn't be able to get in or out of their hideout. It was some small comfort that no Gul'nog would be able to squeeze through the opening. Though the monsters would probably just toss a few lit torches inside and smoke them out. He tried not to think about that.
Perhaps you've explored a large cave before. If so, you know the feeling of weight that crushes in, around you and over you, especially if you have to squeeze through a tight spot. You get the feeling that if you become stuck, there will be no rescue. It's not like someone can just take the cave walls away to pull you free. That's how Peter felt as he scraped along the passage.
There was a dampness in the tunnel that turned his lungs into a sponge, soaking in the stale, wet air. He held his breath, trying not to think of the word "coffin" as he pushed himself through the passage's twists and turns. Finally, the tunnel opened into a large, open room lit by a fire. Not quite cheery, but warm nonetheless.
The smoke worried them at first. Would it suffocate them? Or waft skyward and signal their location to the Gul'nog? But evidently narrow flues and crannies made the smoke dissipate and carried it far enough away so that it had not revealed their location. Yet.
Peter stepped into the central room and found himself confronted by a young woman, her blonde hair falling around her shoulders and her face flushed red from the great fire in the center of the cavern.
"Well?" she demanded, hands planted firmly on her hips. "What did you find?"
Excerpted from Darkness Shall Fall by Alister McGrath Copyright © 2011 by Alister McGrath. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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