The night crowed, sharp and crackling, and the following silence yawned menacingly. It wasn’t only that the darkness could produce such sounds, but the opposite and distinct nature of them that was truly terrifying. Pulling the hood closer around his face to keep it from catching in the breeze and exposing the sensitive flesh below, the man stepped away from the pool of light around his front door. There were things out there, beyond his sight, that he needed to fear, but there were also things that feared him justifiably. Even apex predators could be prey in the right circumstances. It was the manner of the world.
The eyes of the night weighed upon the man, a burden he reluctantly shouldered, as he carefully walked the dirt path. The intelligence behind those vibrant pupils marked his progress with trepidation and hunger. He noted their distance and appetite, preparing for the inevitable. Some would come, he knew. Some always did. His journey was worth the risk of battle, though. The success of his mission was more important than any injury he might sustain from the beasts in the darkness.
A low growl hanging in the air, punctuated by the harsh snap of a grounded branch, were not enough to cause the man to change his calculated pace. Each step along the path had to be taken with the utmost care to avoid entanglements with the vines and bushes that ventured over the edge of the hard-packed surface. Hurrying would embolden those hunting him and make it harder to defend himself when they sprang at him. The nearness of the danger, however, weighed on him and he shouldered the added burden with a grunt. It was one more thing to carry along with his concerns, his provisions, the necessity of his task, the treacherous conditions, and the oppressive darkness.
The breeze stilled in anticipation and the air grew acrid with the stench of decay. The man stalled his progress and steadied his feet, balanced in his stance and senses. He felt the small shift in the air around him, instantaneously giving him the speed and direction of the attack, and brought his staff up to deflect the assault before the creature could sink its claws in him. The crack of impact thundered against his ears, but he didn’t care as an approving smile spread across his lips. The beast had been sent tumbling back into the darkness and the man had come through completely unscathed.
He began walking again. There were still miles to go that night and his purpose could not be unduly delayed. A single victory was meaningless against the adversary he faced, but the load he carried somehow felt lighter all the same. The man knew that each subsequent victory would reduce the heavy weight from his heart and mind, and each step brought him closer to saving the one he loved.