Dry twigs cracked beneath her feet, the only sound which permeated the deathly stillness of the night. She walked slowly, deliberately. She’d been preparing for this night since her midnight walks in graveyards. When she drew deep from cigarettes, wishing she could disappear with the tendrils of smoke as they drifted off into the night. Still a wave of fear washed over her, smothering, threatening to drown her. A soft breeze picked up the scent of decaying leaves and damp mud, a heady perfume which stung her eyes, making the path ahead more difficult to see. A sliver of moonlight peered through the treetops, her only guide through the dimly lit cavern. She had never travelled this path before, the journey could only be made once, yet she knew which turns were true and that the end was drawing near.
The trees thinned and grew sparse; untangling the dense canopy and opening a window to the sky. The moon appeared brighter as it cast long, looming shadows which intertwined to make a rich tapestry of beautiful darkness. She could see that the path widened to a clearing, the centre of which housed a cave. She approached the mouth, footsteps slowing with trepidation, peering through the darkness with all her might, hoping to see signs of life. Her eyes began to strain, so she didn’t notice part of the black moving, pouring out of the mouth, blending into the night until its full departure from the cave announced its presence. She had never seen darkness like this thing. The moon did nothing to illuminate it, yet she could see it in its full ethereal glory. She should have been scared, but all anxiety dissipated as she took three deep breaths, the last she would have in this world, and approached the mouth of the cave; the gateway to The Otherworld.
Before she could enter, the darkness surrounded her. It permeated every fibre of her being, and would not permit her to go any further. It spoke. Not with a voice, but with its very essence; the words imprinting directly onto her conscious:
‘I am Senka, gatekeeper of The Otherworld, the original shadow. Before any may enter, they must reveal what brings them most shame, what they kept hidden from others, driven into the depths of the soul by fear. Tell me, Ava, what did you hide from the world?’
Ava paused, enveloped in the dark that was Senka. This was all wrong, this was not what she had meticulously planned. The stories proclaimed by her spiritual teachers spoke of being greeted by a beautiful man, who would sing as he led her to bliss. She was expecting to be welcomed into a warm embrace, and instead she was shrouded by darkness so deep, exuding a gelidity which penetrated her core.
‘I hid nothing from the world, and lived openly and honestly. What do you want from me? Where is my bliss? Is nothing I was taught true, was I fool to believe it?’
‘No-one may enter until they have faced their shame. Ava, you must discard your glamour; remove your faces. Only then can you shed those demons which prevent you from achieving freedom. Freedom is the key, the only way you may pass through the gates.’
‘I told you, I have nothing to hide! This is my face, my only face. I can’t remove it, I was born with it. It is part of me. It can’t be discarded.’
‘Those who have discarded their glamour do not walk through the darkness; they have already embraced their shadow. Their path is bright, for they are fully awake in the dream you call life.’
Ava was freed from her shroud as Senka poured back into the mouth of the cave. The mouth closed, and Ava was alone. She sat on a fallen tree and wept. The moonlight turned her tears to silver as they rolled down her face, so pale it was almost white. She gripped the ground with both hands to stem a feeling like falling. The earth worked its way under her fingernails, and freshly fallen leaves crumbled to dust. Ava realised she had been holding her breath, and began to race the rising panic for air, knowing that whoever won would steal every drop leaving none for the other. She closed her eyes, forcing new tears from their wells to the ground, and started to breathe. With each inhalation she noticed how the sweetness of late honeysuckle was barely discernible over the rich earthen aroma of ivy, discarded leaves, and eroding bark. As Ava sat concentrating on her breath, she didn’t notice the shadows, once hidden amongst the trees, moving to the foreground. Watching. Waiting.