Darkness

PROLOGUE

Darkness wrapped around Amelie Coulton like a funeral shroud, and only the sound of her own heartbeat told her that she was still alive.

She shouldn’t have come here—she knew that now, knew it with a certainty that filled her soul with dread. She should have stayed at home, stayed alone in the tiny shack that crouched only a few feet above the dark waters of the swamp. There, at least, she would have been safe.

She would have been safe, and so would the baby that now stirred restlessly within her body, his feet kicking her so hard she winced with pain.

But Amelie hadn’t stayed at home. Now, huddled silently in the darkness, she could feel danger all around her, danger she knew her baby could feel, too.

Eyes were watching her, but not the eyes she was used to, the eyes of the animals that roamed the swamp at night, searching for food among the reeds and mangroves, creeping through the darkness, ever vigilant for other creatures even hungrier than themselves.

Amelie was used to those eyes. Ever since she’d been a child, the creatures of the swamp had been her friends, and when she was growing up, she’d loved to sit in the darkness of her mother’s house, staring out through the glassless window frame, watching their bright eyes glimmer in the moonlight.

Often she’d wished she could slip out into the night with the possums and raccoons, joining them in their wanderings through the wetlands. But she never had, for always she had known that it wasn’t only the animals who hunted the swamp at night.

The children of the Dark Man lurked in the shadows.

Amelie had never been sure who they were, but she’d known they were there, for her mother had told her about them, cautioned her to stay away.

“Dead—that’s what they be,” her mother had warned her. “An’ if’n you git too close, they be takin’ you, too, an’ givin’ you to the Dark Man.”

So Amelie had always stayed in at night, never venturing outside, where unspeakable terrors waited in the darkness.

Until tonight, when her husband had silently left the house. She’d asked George where he was going, but he’d said nothing, only staring at her with his flat blue eyes—eyes that sometimes frightened her, sending shivers down her spine the same way it did when someone walked across your grave.

She had waited until he was gone, then turned the lantern down low and slipped down the ladder into her canoe.

Amelie had known how to follow him, for his boat left a stream of ripples over the still waters of the swamp, and her ears had picked up the sound of his squeaking oarlocks above the soft droning of the frogs and insects.

She hadn’t known how far she’d gone before she saw the light of a fire in the distance, but when its flickering glow had first pierced the darkness, her instincts made her turn the canoe toward the shore, to creep silently forward in the deep shadows of the trees that overhung the water’s edge.

Other boats had come, and she’d seen the people in them, though they had not seen her.

They were the Dark Man’s children, prowling silently in the night.

They hadn’t seen her, for as they passed her they’d looked straight ahead, their eyes fixed on the fire that had sent her into the shelter of the trees.

But after they’d passed, and she’d seen their boats pulling up to the shore of the island on which the fire burned, she’d crept forward again, and now she could see them clearly.

They stood in a semicircle around the fire, black