They entered the shadows, seeking a missing child.
Torin swallowed, clutched the hilt of his sword, and gazed around with darting eyes. The trees still grew densely here—mossy oaks with trunks like melting candles, pines heavy with needles and cones, and birches with peeling white bark. Yet this was not the forest Torin had always known. The light was wrong, a strange ocher that bronzed the trees and kindled floating pollen. The shadows were too long, and the sun hung low in the sky, hiding behind branches like a shy maiden peering between her window shutters. Torin had never seen the sun shine from anywhere but overhead, and this place sent cold sweat trickling down his back.
“This is wrong,” he said. “Why would she come this far?”
Bailey walked at his side, holding her bow, her quiver of arrows slung across her back. Her two braids, normally a bright blond, seemed eerily metallic in this place. The dusk glimmered against her breastplate—not the shine they knew from home, but a glow like candles in a dungeon.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Yana has been strange since her parents died in the plague. Maybe she thought it would be an adventure.”
Despite himself, Torin shivered. “An adventure? In the dusk? In this cursed place no sensible person should ever enter?”
Bailey raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Why not? Aren’t you feeling adventurous now?”
“No.” He shook his head vehemently. “Adventure means sneaking out to Old Garin’s farm to steal beets, mixing rye with ale, or climbing the old maple tree in the village square.” He looked around at the shadowy forest, and his hand felt clammy around his hilt. “Not this place. Not the dusk.”
They kept walking, heading farther east, deeper into the shadows. Torin knew what the elders said. Thousands of years ago, the world used to turn. The sun rose and fell, and night followed day in an endless dance. Men woke at dawn, worked until the sunset, and slept through the darkness.
Torin shivered. He didn’t know if he believed those stories. In any case, those days were long gone. The dance had ended. The world had fallen still. Torin was a child of eternal sunlight, of a day that never ended. Yet now … now they were wandering the borderlands, the dusky strip—a league wide—that was neither day nor night, claimed by neither his people nor the others … those who dwelled in the dark.
A shadow darted ahead.
Torin leaped and drew his sword.
A rabbit raced across the forest and disappeared into a burrow.
Bailey stared at his drawn sword, eyes wide, then burst into laughter.
“Protect me, brave Sir Torin Greenmoat!” she said, doubling over. “Will you defend me from the evil Bunny of the Night?”
Torin grumbled and sheathed his blade, cursing himself. He had come of age last autumn, turning eighteen, and he had joined the Village Guard, yet it seemed Bailey would forever mock him.
“Hush,” he said. “It could have been them.”
She rolled her eyes. “They don’t walk this far dayside, if they even exist.”
“How do you know?”
Bailey groaned. “Everybody knows that. It’s still too bright here. The nightfolk only live in the deep darkness.” She lowered her voice. “It’s dark as the deepest cave there, Torin. It’s darker than the soul of a killer, darker than toast burnt in dragonfire, darker than the empty spaces inside your skull. So dark you can’t see your own feet. That’s where they lurk … scuttling, whispering, sharpening their claws…” She inched closer to him and smiled wickedly, the orange light reflecting in her eyes. “When all light is gone, that is where they’ll … leap at you.”
She lunged toward him, clawing the air. Torin muttered and pushed her back.
“This is no time for your games,” he said. “A child is missing. Until we find Yana, I’m keeping my hand on my sword. And you should nock an arrow.”
She blew out her breath noisily, fluttering her lips. “Yana is thirteen, rebellious, and wants attention. We’ll find her long before we hit the true darkness. Let’s keep walking, and do try not to wet yourself.” She winked. “I promise you, no bunnies will hurt you, Babyface.”
He sighed. She knew he hated that name. Even at eighteen, Torin still stood a little shorter than Bailey, and people often said he looked young for his age, his eyes too large, his cheeks too soft, and his chest too smooth. Torin had hoped that joining the Village Guard would make Bailey see him as a man, not a callow boy, but so far his hopes had been dashed. Standing almost six feet tall, preferring leggings and boots to gowns and slippers, Bailey wasn’t easy to impress. Jumping at rabbits wasn’t helping either.
They walked on. Torin didn’t wet himself, but with every step, his heart raced faster and more sweat trickled. As they headed farther east, the sun sank lower behind them. The shadows deepened, stretching across the forest floor like slender men in black robes.
The forest began to thin out. Back in Timandra, in the full light of day, the trees grew thick and lush and rich with birds. Here in the dusk, they faded like receding hair on an aging man’s scalp. The verdant woods dwindled into a few scattered trees, stunted and bent, their leaves gray. The soil lost its rich brown hue, darkening into charcoal thick with black stones. Another mile and the sun actually touched the horizon behind them, casting red beams between the last trees. The air grew colder and Torin hugged himself.
“We should go back,” he said, hating that his voice sounded so choked. “We’ve come too far. We’re almost at the night.”
A lump filled his throat like a boiled egg, too large to swallow. Torin had seen the night before. Like everyone in the Village Guard, he had climbed the Watchtower upon the hill. He had gazed across the dusk, this withered no man’s land, and beheld the great shadow in the east. But that had been different. In the safety of the Watchtower, the daylight upon him and the forest rustling below, it was easy to be brave. Now he walked toward the very lair of the beasts.
“Scared?” Bailey asked, smiling crookedly.
Torin nodded. “Yes and you should be too. They live near here.” He took a shuddering breath. “The people of the night. Elorians.” The word tasted like ash.
Bailey snickered and kept walking, her braids swinging. “If you ask me, ‘lorians are just a myth.” She trudged up a hillside strewn with boulders. “People who live in eternal night, their eyes large as an owl’s, their skin milk white, their souls pitch black?” She snorted. “It’s just a myth to keep children away from the darkness.”
Torin followed reluctantly, though every beat of his heart screamed to turn around, to head back west, to return to the eternal daylight of his home. Bailey could snicker at the stories, but Torin wasn’t so dismissive. If the world indeed used to turn, and day and night would cycle like summer and winter, would people not have lived here once? When the world had frozen, leaving Timandra in light and Eloria in darkness, would the people here not wither into twisted demons, hateful of the light, thirsty for the blood of honest folk?
“Torin!” Bailey looked over her shoulder at him. The low sun painted her a bloody red. “Are you following, or will you run back to safety while I go looking?”
He grumbled and trudged uphill after her. “If I turn back now, I’d never hear the end of it.”
She grinned and winked. “That’s the spirit, Winky.”
He sighed. It was another name he hated. Years ago, while wrestling with Bailey, he had fallen upon a stone and scratched his left eye. Since then his pupil had remained fully dilated, hiding most of the iris. He could see only smudges from that eye now, a blurred world like a melted painting. Folks joked that his eyes were like the world’s halves, one green and good, the other black and dead. To Bailey, he had simply become Winky.
Since his parents had died in the plague ten years ago—a pestilence many claimed the Elorians had spread—Torin had been living with Bailey and her grandfather. The young woman, a year his senior, could always draw him into trouble. Whenever Bailey climbed the Old Maple, she would challenge him to climb too, then laugh as he dangled and fell. Whenever she ran across the fields, she’d challenge him to a race, then tease him relentlessly for losing. Torin had always been a little slower, a little clumsier, a little meeker, and even here and now—old enough to serve in the Village Guard, tracking a missing child through the shadows—she could goad him.