Fiction from Kara Dennison
Solada and the Deep Dark
SOLADA WOKE IN A COLD SWEAT, panting and gasping for breath. Beside her, her goat stirred, let out an annoyed bleat like to a child’s yell, and got up to go for a midnight trot.
“Stop asking,” she muttered to people no longer present, pressing a hand to her face, waiting for the images of her dream to fade. “Stop asking, stop asking, I can’t help you…” She looked up through the open back door; the goat was gnawing thoughtfully at a patch of grass, the reflection from its slotted eyes glinting through the dark. It paused briefly to yell and have a look around, then wandered off to another patch.
Solada’s stockinged feet hit the floor as she shuffled over to turn on the gas lamp on the far wall, dragging her tasseled blanket after her. She’d fallen asleep on the tattered couch in the front room, apparently, but she couldn’t remember how she’d managed to get there. What had she been doing before? Maybe that was why she’d had the awful dream again—exhaustion. That could do it, right?
Though when it was the only sort of dream she could ever remember having, she wasn’t sure she could classify it as “bad.” She had nothing else to compare to.
The goat yelled a few more times, and Solada got up to have a word with it… then stopped short as she saw what it was yelling at.
The Dark. It was here.
“Get away!” she shouted, running to throw her arms around the goat and narrowly missing the patch on the ground as she did. The two of them tumbled backwards, the goat pawing at her with sharp hooves.
“Stop it,” she hissed. “Stop, I’m trying to help you!”
Solada looked over her shoulder at the blackened patch on the ground. A field mouse sniffed at it, darted around the perimeter curiously, and set a paw inside it. All the color vanished from the little creature’s fur, and it went rigid in the space of a heartbeat, flopping over lifeless onto the ground.
“You see?” she snapped at the goat. “He barely touched it, and look. I’m not having that happen to you.” The goat gave a small, weak shout in response, wrestling itself free of her grasp and trotting well around the blackened spot on the ground to return to the house.
The Deep Dark was nothing new, but it had never manifested this close to home. She knew it had infected areas of the land far distant from her—a few patches at first, but spreading day by day, killing everything in its path. What it was, how it started, how to stop it… she had no idea. She had no idea who else had been affected or where it was safe to go. For all she knew, she was alone. Just her and her goat, watching the Deep Dark paint them into a corner.
She looked at the patch on the ground. The grass didn’t look “dead,” really—just absent of life. Monochrome, dark, and somehow almost two-dimensional. As if everything that made it alive had been drawn out of it. The little mouse, too. It didn’t have the loose, bag-of-bones look that dead animals tended to have. It was simply as though it had frozen in place and stopped being alive.
The worst part was Solada couldn’t actually get close enough to examine the grass or the mouse. If she touched the Deep Dark, even a hair, even a shred of something attached to her, she’d more than likely end up just the same—she’d never ventured close enough to figure out, but she didn’t care to risk it. That was the only thing she could observe about it, was the effect it had on other things—and unfortunately, that kept her from observing anything else about it.
“You all right, Goat?” Solada walked back into the house, retrieving her blanket from where she’d dropped it on the floor.
“Bleh.” The goat snorted.
“All right, then.” She sat down again, patting her knee. The goat trotted up and propped its chin on her knee, and she scratched gently behind its horns.
Between the nightmares and the Deep Dark literally ending up in her back garden, Solada was starting to feel very small and very threatened. And very alone. Her hand stilled on the goat’s head; it nibbled at her skirts until she started petting again.
“A smart person,” she said to the goat, “might start to assume that the nightmares and the Deep Dark are related. They’ve both started invading at around the same time.” She lowered her head. “But that would depend on whether or not anyone else was having nightmares, you know? And I don’t know where anyone else is.”
Solada nodded. “It’s almost like we’re alone out here. I wonder how many people the Deep Dark has taken.” She laughed. “Or there’s the other possibility: I’m the only one having the dreams.”
She turned it over in her head for a moment.
“Tell me, Goat, have you been having nightmares?”
The goat snuffed and leaned forward to headbutt her gently. Doesn’t matter, silly girl, just keep the scratchies coming.
“Right. Listen to me. We should go back to sleep, shouldn’t we? Things will seem better in the morning, I’m sure.”
But as she lay back down on the couch, she found she couldn’t close her eyes. Any sleepiness she’d felt earlier was gone now. She was wide awake. Scared. Worried.
What if the nightmares came back?
What if the Deep Dark swallowed her in her sleep?
She sat back up, wrapping her blanket around her.
“Goat. Have you heard of the Listener?”
The goat made no response.
“Legend has it she’s a wise woman who lives at the foot of South Hill. People have gone to her for years and years in times when they’re being tested, and she helps them. Maybe she knows what’s going on. If she’s a wise woman, she probably does, right?”
“Shows what you know.” Solada ran for the front door, where her one pair of boots was propped, waiting for feet. She tugged them on over her stockings, then ran back into her kitchen to pack some food. She couldn’t remember what was still there, but fortunately it seemed as though everything she’d been wanting was still in supply: bread, cheese, some fruit, some dried meat, and a few cloth napkins. All of these went into a small shoulder bag.
“We’ll go and we’ll ask her,” Solada yelled over her shoulder to the goat, which was standing in the middle breezeway of the old house, looking generally baffled by its master’s behavior. Solada swept off to the bedroom next, packing a few necessities around the food in her shoulder bag. “We’ll go ask her, and even if she doesn’t have an answer, we’ll be far away from the Deep Dark, won’t we?”
Though, when she said that aloud, she wasn’t even sure. Maybe it would follow her. Maybe it was already everywhere. Maybe—she shuddered—maybe she was all that was left.
Maybe there was no point.
The goat yelled and stomped around the breezeway a bit before hopping to Solada’s side. She sighed. Sure there was a point. As long as she was still alive and able to act, there was a point. Surely there were others out there. And if she could find out how to stop the Deep Dark, or at least how to avoid it, then she could stop being afraid. And if the nightmares were connected? She could put an end to those, too.
“I don’t know how far it is, I’m afraid. It could be a lot of walking. Are you ready?”
“That’s good enough for me.”
She didn’t lock the door behind her, or take a key, or give the house a final check at all. Why? Who was there to steal from her? Besides, no lock would keep out the one thing she was actually worried about. With the Deep Dark in her own back garden, she might come home to a house she couldn’t even touch. Somehow, though, the thought didn’t terrify her as much as it probably should have.
If I’m that detached from my fate, she thought solemnly, kicking a rock up the path ahead of her, so be it.
The moon told her the time, and the stars told her which way was south—and the path from her door led conveniently north and south. Girl and goat took to the path, and walked.
Night wore on—or, at least, it felt as though it did. Solada’s feet ached. The goat grew increasingly bored, insisting on more and more stops by the path to eat or relieve itself or yell. After what seemed to be several hours, Solada stopped to sit on a nearby log, slipping her boots off to rub her aching feet. She squinted at the sky, munching on some bread and cheese she’d retrieved from her bag. The moon remained fixed in the same spot it had been when she set out.
No… that couldn’t be right.
“Goat. When did we leave home?”
The goat was too busy staring down a small toad crouched by the roadside to respond.
“Maybe it just seems like longer because we’re alone.” Solada looked back over her shoulder, but her house was no longer in view. And ahead to the south… still nothing yet. No hills, certainly, just flat plains with a few scattered trees.
Her feet ached; her back felt as though she’d been stood straight-spined against a wall for ages. She stretched herself out on the log, trying to relieve the tension in her back, as the goat trotted off after its new friend. Briefly, very briefly, she closed her eyes.
And her breath was crushed out of her.
Solada opened her eyes in a flash, but doing so afforded her nothing: everything was still black. She attempted to raise her arms, but nothing would move. It was as though she was crushed between two hard walls, the air forced out of her lungs. She struggled, wiggling against her invisible prison, fighting for air as she tried to free herself. She felt her forehead knock against something hard, then her knee, then her legs. She kicked and pushed with what little room—perhaps an inch at best—she had, feeling herself grow faint from lack of air.
Was this it? Had the Deep Dark found her? Was this what it felt like to touch it? She felt tears spring to her eyes. This wasn’t how it was meant to end. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. She had to make it to South Hill, had to find out what was causing all this. She had to…
Whatever was in front of her echoed whenever she hit it. Beyond it were muffled voices—the voices from her dream. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was them. They were back. She didn’t have enough breath in her lungs to shout them away, so she just kept bashing at the wall in front of her with what little strength she had left.
Finally, something gave.
There was a crashing, tinkling sound.
She felt herself falling…
And woke up with a start, still stretched out on the log.
She gulped in a lungful of air, then another, sitting up and clutching at her throat. Her heart hammered in her chest. Slowly, her pulse evened out, and she became aware of her surroundings again.
The moon still hung in the same spot in the sky. The stars still refused to turn. And a few feet away, the goat had begun bleating frantically.
Solada looked at the ground around the log. Save for a small circle just around it, the grass had gone flat and monochrome. Within reach was the toad the goat had been chasing earlier, rigid and lifeless.
The Deep Dark hadn’t touched her—but it was close.
Carefully, Solada stood on the log, putting her arms out for balance. The Dark was wide, but not necessarily too wide for her to leap to safety. She walked carefully to one end of the log, where she gauged the distance to safe ground was shortest. A breath, a small prayer, and a leap…
And she hit the ground shoulder-first, wincing as she rolled across the grass. When she finally stopped, she lay still, her face buried in (living, thankfully) grass and undergrowth.
For long moments, she lay where she was. Her left shoulder—the one that had hit first—throbbed and ached. But her goat eventually trotted up and nudged her gently with its nose, letting out small bleats of concern.
“I’m all right,” Solada muttered, pushing herself up to her knees. She kneaded her left shoulder with her right hand, as though trying to squeeze the pain out of it. On the bright side, this new pain distracted her from the pain in her feet and back.
Solada looked back at the log. Her boots were on the other side of the Deep Dark—and so, rather irritatingly, was her bag of food and necessities. With a sigh, she tugged off her stockings. Better to go barefoot than risk getting her stockings snagged and unraveled along the way.
“Come along, Goat. No more resting for us, I think.”
Fortunately, the path remained relatively smooth as they walked—dusty and a bit warm, but free of rocks or jagged bits. The night wore on, long into what should have been dawn, but the moon and stars remained stationary.
“I do wonder,” Solada said aloud, grazing a hand over the goat’s head as they walked, “if maybe I’m at home and dreaming.”
“Or perhaps I’m still on the log. Do you think you dream in the Deep Dark?” She looked around her. The Dark was becoming more evident as they progressed: trees stood lifeless and frozen alongside the path, some with branches bent as though they’d been infected in the middle of a strong breeze. Patches extended past the edge of the path, and soon Solada had gathered her heavy skirts up in both hands, watching her bare feet carefully as she trod around the encroaching blight. The goat fell in line behind her when the usable path became too narrow to accommodate them side by side.
Then, suddenly, everything stopped. Literally.
The path, the scenery, everything cut off along the straight line of what looked to be a glossy wall of midnight blue. Except the “wall” didn’t appear to be solid so much as just… the end? There was no sky, no land, no nothing beyond it—and when she looked left and right, the same was true for as far as she could see.
Was this more of the Deep Dark?
“Goat. What do you think?”
The goat took a few steps back, and Solada nearly did the same. But she knew that what she wanted was here… somehow. But wasn’t the Listener meant to be at South Hill? They hadn’t encountered any hills, and it seemed there was no way to go farther south than this.
Perhaps everything farther south had already been absorbed by the Dark. Perhaps this was the end of things, after all. Perhaps her journey truly had been futile.
But then she heard something past the wall of nothing. Footsteps, shuffling, what sounded like a door opening and closing.
And then, a man’s voice.
“So,” the voice said, as though from a room away, “you’re here to see the Listener.”
Solada’s heart jumped into her throat. “Yes!” she cried out, but her voice seemed to echo off the void back at her.
“Well,” said the voice again, “take a look for yourself.”
Suddenly, the wall of darkness turned a blinding white. Solada squinted against it, shielding her eyes with an arm. When she looked again, though, there was no woman standing in front of her. Instead, she seemed to be looking through a giant window into a cluttered study, where a well-dressed man and a severe-looking woman wrapped in a shawl stood looking at her—but not at her. Almost through her.
“There she is,” said the man. “Technically it’s called Girl and Goat, but the students nicknamed her the Listener. The expression on her face, I suppose. It was donated about ten years ago by the artist’s daughter—probably our most famous alum. Usually it hangs in the lobby of the South Hill dorm. Mostly juniors and seniors there.”
The woman regarded Solada, or something in her general direction, thoughtfully. “I’m not familiar with the artist. It’s… a bit amateur, isn’t it? And odd shading. I know it’s meant to be a night scene, but…”
The man shrugged. “He painted it while he was here, apparently. As you’ll note if you examine his later work, he improved vastly going forward. But it’s an important piece to the school in a lot of ways.” He turned away from Solada, facing the woman again, and laughed. “You know the tradition around it, right?”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Ah. No idea how it started, but at some point it became good luck to, er, vent to the Listener during exams. She’ll listen to your other problems so you can focus on your schoolwork.”
The woman nodded thoughtfully. “Typical student stuff, then.”
Solada looked down at her hands, then at the two people, who seemed almost projected on the void in front of her. “What are you talking about?” she whispered. “Who are…” Her voice trailed off as she scrutinized her right hand. There was a blemish on it. A grayish mark, just on the pad of her thumb.
“The problem,” the man’s voice went on, “is that it also became tradition to touch the painting. This is unvarnished acrylic and… well… you can see what’s happening. It’s even gotten onto the girl.”
The Deep Dark.
Solada’s breath stuck in her throat as she stared at her hand. When had it happened? How had she not noticed? And why? Why hadn’t it taken her over yet?
How long did she have?
“Funny thing…” The man went on. Solada wanted to scream at him to be quiet, or at least to address her personally, or maybe (best of all) start making some sense, but words failed her as she stared straight ahead. “We would never have noticed, except the painting started just randomly dropping off the wall at night. Students usually came down and re-hung it, but someone finally noticed the damage being done.”
The woman made a few quiet, thoughtful sounds. “Put it under glass?”
“We tried. It came crashing down again. Glass everywhere.” A long pause. “A couple of the students claim the way the glass was spread around makes it look as though it broke from the inside… take that how you will.”
The woman’s mouth barely twitched into what could potentially be a smile. “Maybe she couldn’t breathe.”
Solada flinched. “Look,” she shouted at the figures, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but please… please, fix this!” She held her hand up; their gazes didn’t seem to alter, though they remained interested.
“Is the family all right with me doing some touch-ups?” the woman asked.
“They’ve given me license to choose. And really, you’re the only one I trust not to… embellish, I suppose?”
“Of course. Just fix the damage and give her a bit of varnish, and then you can put her back where she belongs.”
The man nodded quickly. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” He walked out a door in the back of whatever room they were in. The woman pulled up a chair and sat down opposite Solada, reaching for a nearby suitcase.
“Well,” she said, and her severe face softened into a smile. “It sounds as though you very much want to be saved.”
Solada bit her lip. The dream. The voices telling her things she couldn’t understand or help with. The only dream she remembered having…
She couldn’t even remember how or when she’d fallen asleep on her couch.
No. It was worse than that. She couldn’t remember anything before that. There was nothing before the moment she woke up and came looking for help. She was just there—knowing about the Deep Dark, knowing about South Hill and the Listener and needing to save herself and her home.
And somehow, she’d gotten their attention.
“Now, let’s see. Who made you?” The woman looked down and to the left. “Roderigo Solada. All right, then, Solada. Let’s do something about this mess.”
The scene before her faded.
Solada looked back down at her hand. The gray blemish was beginning to fade back into her normal flesh tone. She ran the fingers of her other hand over it experimentally.
“It’s all right… I’m all right.”
She looked down at the ground around her feet. Slowly—visibly, but slowly—the Deep Dark was receding. The goat, who had been sitting quietly for the whole exchange, began investigating the newly rejuvenated ground.
The air itself seemed to lighten somehow, as did Solada’s nerves. Instinctively, she turned her back to the wall of darkness and began racing down the path toward her point of origin, the goat galloping after her. As she ran, she saw the patches of Dark fading back into life, brush stroke by brush stroke. And as she ran home under the light of the motionless moon, she remembered.
My sister and I went to our grandparents’ house in the country one summer. There were goats everywhere. She said she wanted one as a pet, even though we all warned her that keeping a goat isn’t necessarily like keeping a dog or a cat. That’s the house in the background—our grandparents’ house. The girl… well, I wasn’t very good at likenesses yet. So I suppose she’s her own person: a girl sitting in the moonlight, with a goat as faithful as a dog.
The walk out took hours, perhaps days, under an unchanging sky—but the run home seemed to happen in the blink of an eye. And when she burst through the door of her house, the lamps were lit, a fire was burning in the fireplace, and the couch was made up with brand-new fluffy pillows and a quilt she could lose herself in.
Solada bedded down on the couch and closed her eyes, the goat taking up its station next to the couch on the floor.
And the Listener slept once more, her ears still open to those who needed her.
Kara Dennison is a writer, illustrator, and presenter from Newport News, VA. Working out of a converted NASA lab, she has turned out everything from new Sherlock Holmes mysteries (Associates of Sherlock Holmes, Titan Books) to paranormal romance (the Owl’s Flower series). She is also a regular contributor to Crunchyroll news and has written localizations for a variety of anime and video games. She tweets @rubycosmos and blogs at karadennison.com