William Davis was four years old when the shadows first embraced him.
On a crisp Halloween night his family was walking through Old Town, en route to meet his grandfather for the first time. Will, laughing delightedly as his brother raced to the street corner and back, latched on to his mother with one hand while the other firmly gripped the wooden sword she had helped him make. He was dressed as a pirate, a dashing rogue with both a mustache and eyepatch drawn on with his mother’s eyeliner. His older brother, Madigan, had chosen to go as Babe Ruth, a Louisville Slugger clutched in his hands and an old Yankees cap atop his head. Halloween was magical, and this one promised the most excitement yet.
Will jumped and pulled on his mom in delight as he imagined meeting his grandfather, finally. Excited by both the promise of candy and the meeting, the trio had set out trick-or-treating while the evening was still new. But by the time they had each filled their small baskets and boarded the train that would take them downtown, night had fallen. When they got off the train, Will knew it was almost past his bedtime, but Mom was letting him stay up extra late. He was big, now, and tonight was special.
Both Will’s and his mom’s eyes were fixed on Madigan as the boy whooped and hollered, waving his cap and baseball bat in the air. He was running at full tilt, hollering “Bambino!” and had just reached the corner when their mom suddenly staggered. Will screamed when he saw the tall man in the big coat hit her again, knocking her head against a brick wall. She slumped to the ground before stumbling to her knees. The tall man snatched at her purse, which she limply offered. Will saw a flash of metal glisten in the streetlights, clutched in the man’s other hand. Will’s mom froze.
Will stabbed the man in the leg with his sword. It didn’t stop him. He stabbed again and kicked the leg as hard as he could. The man spun and backhanded the boy across the face with his mom’s purse, sending him to the ground. Will saw his mom lunge toward him, crying out, and the man thrust his blade into her chest to the hilt. Will watched as she gasped and fell back against the wall, the knife jutting from her body.
Her attacker, momentarily stunned by the sudden change in the situation, did not see the return of the bat-wielding Madigan. Sprinting, roaring, the large boy struck the man below the ear with the Slugger. The man crumpled to the ground, his eyes wide, torn jaw no longer where it should be. Will watched, horrified, as his raging brother smashed the bat onto the man’s skull again and again.
Will, crying and determined, grabbed for his mom. He began prying at the knife protruding from her chest, his small hands unable to grip the slick handle. She grimaced and turned her eyes from Madigan to Will. Through his tears, Will saw that the night was getting darker, that even the streetlights seemed to be going out.
Madigan was still roaring; the sounds of the bat splintering as it came crashing down seemed distant and muted. Will sobbed and the darkness grew. He felt a sudden surge of strength as he worked and worried at the blade in his mom’s chest. She no longer grimaced. She kept blinking and trying to swallow something over and over. She never stopped looking at Will.
The knife came free, loosed by Will’s small hands. The dark shadows converged upon him, twisting and wrapping him while warm blood pooled about him.
And there, wrapped in swirling darkness on a cold Halloween night in Old Town, Will watched his mother die.
* * *
The boys’ grandfather, Jervin Davis, took them in. Although far removed from the years when he had raised his own child, Jervin proved to be everything the boys could have wished for in a surrogate parent. His patience with the two knew no bounds. He had once been a teacher, he told them, and his pension from those years provided for a comfortable, if humble, life. While the relationship between the three of them may have started under awful circumstances, the Davis brothers discovered their grandfather to be a loving, creative man. Together, the three found the means to overcome their grief and loss. Eventually, their home was filled with imagined adventures and laughter each day.
Still, the boys knew enough to realize that their lives were different from the other kids in their new neighborhood. Jervin schooled them at home, a rigorous education of science and history and physical prowess. He explained that he was modeling them after the Ancient Greeks, who strived for balance between mind and body. Jervin didn’t want them to fall prey to other people’s whims and desires; he wanted to ensure that their minds would be their own. The family explored both Eastern and Western myths, reading everything they could in every language they were able. They passed their youth a world apart from the modern age.
In addition to all the stories of the ancient world, Jervin told his own to entertain the boys. He created fantastical tales, tales of magic and impossibility—yet when set against the scope of existing myth, “Are they really so impossible?” he would ask the young minds. Olympus, Heaven, Asgaard, nearly every faith had their kingdom, their mythical dominion of the gods that seemed to be fantasy. But as they traced back the threads of mankind’s history, the lines between myth and reality blurred in every culture.
Jervin spun a continuous story, set in a world he called Aeril. From his imagination he designed a forgotten realm of immortality and adventure, connected to their own world by the mysterious Ways. The Ways, he said, served as a passage between worlds that transcended the scope of human thought. If reality was like a human body, he said, and the known worlds were the organs, the Ways were the blood vessels, connecting and fueling all worlds. Jervin spoke of them as the gateways to endless eternities, conduits that fueled energy into the worlds and the paths through which they were accessed.
With a smile on his face, he crafted tales of Aeril for the wide-eyed youngsters. He told them of the heroes from The Veleriat, an epic clash of good and evil that spanned the first world and shattered it into many. The titular Velier became for them what Achilles had been for the Greeks and Aeneas had been for the Romans: a model of excellence and human ingenuity.
To the boys’ delight, over time Jervin developed darker stories. Stories of the Theros, the cruel afterlife where those damned by the Hesperawn—the Aerillian gods—were cast in disgrace. Seeing the look of thrilled fear on their faces, he created its sister realm, the Nether. Within the Nether, magic flowed pure and unadulterated, an Aerillian heaven. It was the heart of reality, the source of all magic that flowed through the Ways. Only the most devout, the most faithful met their glorious end within its gates. With shining eyes, the boys would laugh and cheer and beg for more.
Jervin obliged, and their new favorite stories became those of the Wars of Dawning. He wound a tale of the Aerillian forces of Shadow and Radiance tearing at the fabric of reality in their pursuits of power. Within those stories he created Dorian Valmont, the Bloodbane, a tragic sorcerer who led the Halls of Shadow into battle. To the brothers’ thrilled horror, the magnificent man succumbed to his own anger and fell in battle against the Hesperawn. As seemingly both man and god in one, Valmont was simultaneously filled with rage and piety, and within each, wildly misdirected.
Combining their love of the tales from The Veleriat with the Wars of Dawning, the Davis brothers took over the fantasy as they grew, telling each other their own stories. Playing during the day, the children would imagine themselves within the Wars of Dawning and defeating the maddened legions of Radiance. Fashioning themselves as both Velier and Dorian Valmont, they would champion the Halls of Shadow to pursue their dreams of power and build their own legends.
Every evening before bed was a new adventure, a tale of deception or bravery. Mystical stories filled their head during the day and set the stage for their dreams at night. But throughout all, Jervin would remind them that every hero was flawed, and that even one of their favorite heroes became the villain of his own story. “A measure in patience and humility,” Jervin would say, raising his eyebrows in conspiratorial knowing. “Everyone is gifted, not only those who seek power.”
And every night, when the boys were safely wrapped in their blankets and dreaming of worlds beyond their own, Jervin would return to the living room and light his pipe. Stoking the dying coals of the evening’s fire, he would seek his own answers to the questions he asked the boys. What is right? What is good? What is justice? Questions that mankind had asked for thousands of years. Questions that he, himself, had asked for more years than his boys could ever imagine. But the question that had been in his mind every night since he brought the boys home was the one that haunted him always—Am I doing the right thing?
That was the dangerous question, the one he found himself most hesitant to turn his attention to. Often, he had thought he was doing the right thing. Often, he had been wrong. He thought he was doing the right thing by taking the boys in. He thought he was doing the right thing when, against his better judgment, he trained his first pupil. He thought he was doing right when he confronted his daughter, Diane, so many years ago before the boys’ birth. He’d been wrong so many times; would this be any different?
His thoughts drifted back to Diane as he puffed at his pipe and watched the coals. He had not seen his daughter since they had had a disagreement when she first became pregnant. He said some harsh words, mainly directed toward the absentee father of the unborn child, and in the pride that only an educated twenty-something can fully understand, Diane cut off contact.
Jervin knew he had overstepped, even if he had been right about “the donor” as Diane later called the father of her children. The man disappeared when she told him she was pregnant. And when he returned one cold winter night nearly three years later, he stayed just long enough to put another baby in her womb. That was the last she ever saw of him, and to Jervin, that was just fine.
Following that initial fight, Jervin made regular attempts to reconnect with his daughter but always let her bear the ultimate decision. Every birthday and every major holiday he sent a card, always signed with his love and regards. He knew she threw the cards away, being too proud and too busy to pay any mind to anyone as old-fashioned as her father. But she was his daughter, with the same stubbornness but also the same dedication to her family. Eventually, she wrote him back. After a smattering of letters and a multitude of phone calls, the burned bridge had been rebuilt.
That was before. He never got to hold her again, to tell her all the things he hadn’t known how to tell her in her youth. To explain. Instead he got a broken heart and two small boys to help put the pieces of it back together. He’d first met them on the night when the world swam with ghost stories and the promise of magic. As the ghosts of his past faded, the boys became his future—his own promise of magic.
Yes, he had often been wrong, but not this time. This time everything was right. The boys were special; he knew that and they knew that. But there was something more. He could see the potential in William, and though he had never seen it manifest, he knew that some things were only a matter of time. There was nothing wrong with his boys, though. They were everything that was good and right in his world and, if everything went according to plan, they would become the same to countless others.
* * *
The second time the darkness came to William Davis, he was twelve. Despite the years of training and guidance Jervin had given the boys, there were still some things that he could not control, and the misplaced rage of preteen males was one of them.
Things had been difficult of late for the young boy, for that is what he certainly remained. While William remained but a youth, his brother had moved into manhood. That had not stalled his grandfather’s training, nor had there been any reprieve for Will when he was paired against Mad, who now towered above his brother. Will’s own movements had grown awkward and imbalanced as his feet grew faster than the rest of him, giving him a clownish gait when he walked and tripping him whenever he tried to do more than that. As such, the days had grown hard for Will.
In response, Will had taken to embracing the solitude of night. He had always been most comfortable in the darkness. It wasn’t that he didn’t love the feeling of the sun on his skin, but he found something refreshing about withdrawing from the brightened glare of the world and relaxing in the shade. He could remember times when, as a young child, in the evenings and even the middle of the night he would venture into the yard on his own to play. Eventually games in the yard extended to the nearby streets, where he avoided the streetlights and darted from one shadow to the next, always in search of whichever space happened to be the darkest. Something about the darkness was comforting, like the first rains of autumn after a summer drought.
While during the daytime Will begrudgingly trained with his brother and grandfather, during the night he was left to his own devices. When Madigan’s growth spurt seemed at its peak, Will used the nights to sneak out and wander the city.
It was harmless at first. He spent his time chasing after cats and avoiding the headlights of passing cars. Eventually, however, he grew bored and progressed to less noble pursuits. He discovered the daring, perverse thrill of shadowing people without their knowledge. He began to test his limits by getting as close to them as he could while remaining out of sight, sometimes barely a breath away. A misstep or a scattered pebble might cause them to whip their head around, but Will found he could sink and fade into the shadows. Freezing, the followed would see nothing, just the shadows of the night playing tricks on their mind. Will felt at one with the darkness, a natural, that’s how good he was—or so he thought.
At twelve, without truly meaning to, he flirted with adding pickpocketing to his skill set. Whether the decision stemmed from frustration or simply a natural progression from stalking, he justified it to himself as something potentially useful. He justified it by promising himself that whatever he might snatch, he would be certain to return. He justified it to himself for all the wrong reasons.
The day of the shadow’s coming had been more rigorous than expected and Will was exhausted, both mentally and physically. For hours, Jervin had drilled him in combatives and Ancient Greek philosophy until Will was boiling with frustration, that anger of youth that has seemingly no cause and no outlet. He snuck out into the night and hit the streets for a distraction.
He wandered without purpose for a time, brow furrowed in frustration. It was late, nearing two in the morning, when he saw a well-dressed man walk out of a 7-Eleven. The man slid his wallet into his back pocket before opening a fresh pack of cigarettes. Will momentarily struggled with an internal ethical debate before hotheaded youth overtook reason. He moved toward the man.
After lighting his cigarette, Will’s quarry began to jaywalk across the street. Will followed, silently closing the distance. As he neared, he prepared to make his move (though he was far from certain how to go about such things), but he wasn’t being attentive to his surroundings. A tinny sound on the blacktop shattered the silence as his foot caught some bit of trash. Will flinched, only inches behind the man, as the metal clattered through the street. The adult whirled to stare at the boy. His brow furrowed and the corners of his mouth turned in a snarl.
Yet, as Will watched, the blood drained from the man’s face. His jaw went slack and his eyes widened. Will stood in shock as the man’s head darted from side to side searching for something. Staring in disbelief, Will realized it was him that the man’s eyes couldn’t locate. Will took a careful step back and looked around as shadows swept the area. Shadows in the night that moved and swirled. Shadows impossibly darkening the street lamps. Coiling and ghosting, tendrils of darkness danced across the blacktop and into the night sky.
What happened next was a perfect storm. As the man stood stupefied, his cigarette turning to ash in his hand, a flash of light split the darkness and Will heard a screech of tires, rousing him from his own shock. A truck, previously unnoticed, was barreling toward them. The wheels locked up as the driver slammed on the brakes. The man, mouth still agape, stood stock-still as his body became illuminated against the night by the headlights.
Adrenaline surged through Will. He lunged forward into the path of the truck, toward the frozen man, and yelled. To his amazement, the shadows moved with him, enveloping the man as Will dove to reach him. The truck was already upon them though. As Will latched on to the man’s arm and pulled him away he felt the shocking tremor of an impact behind him. He heard the crunch of metal colliding.
Will turned around, steeling himself for the horrific vision he was sure to see. Yet he found the man on the ground alive, completely unscathed. The truck was stopped, the front quarter panel ruined by the force of impact. Will’s mind raced. Impact upon what? He crept back toward the sidewalk as the man emerged from his shock, frantically looking around.
“Hey, buddy! Are you okay? You alive over there?” Shouting, the driver of the truck had emerged and was running toward them. “Sweet Jesus, buddy, please be alive!”
The driver reached the man as he was struggling to his feet, thumbing his broken cigarette and glancing about. “The kid, where is he? Where’s the kid?”
The driver was staring in disbelief at the unharmed man. “There was a kid? Jesus, I never saw a kid, oh Jesus.”
“He just vanished, right in front of me.” The man was babbling now. “Where is the kid?”
“There was only you, man, only you and you flew!” The driver was shaking his head, still staring. “You flew and my truck stopped! I thought for sure I’d hit you and you’d be dead! How did you do that, man?”
But the man wasn’t listening. He just shuffled a few steps and kept on looking around, more than once staring straight at Will. “The kid…where’s the kid…he just disappeared…”
The darkness continued to envelop Will as he backed away step by step, abandoning the pair to the night. He was stricken, terrified. The swirling shadows were a twisting cloud. He felt faint and cold as the world spun around him. He stumbled aimlessly, one street at a time, until he suddenly realized that the darkness surrounding him had vanished. He spun, searching for any trace of whatever it had been, but it was gone.
Will trekked home in a daze. The crisp night sky was just starting to lighten as he arrived. The house was still dark, but he could see the flicker of firelight from the windows and smoke rising from the chimney. He made his way to his window but stopped before climbing through. His trembling hand rested on the windowsill. His knees bent and he dropped to the ground, shivering as he rested his head against the house. He stared at the ground. Something had happened, something he couldn’t explain. Something terrifying and something shocking. Something he desperately needed to uncover the truth of.
His grandfather was awake already, the smoke told him that much. Grandda with his fantastical stories. Grandda with his exhausting lessons. Grandda with his ceaseless knowledge. Will glowered in the darkness. His grandfather knew something about this, he was sure of it. Steeling himself with the self-assured confidence that only a twelve-year-old can muster, William stood up and marched straight in the front door.