He lived in the dark places.
He'd always lived in the dark places, for as long as he could remember. He wrapped night around himself and wore it like a coat. He traveled though shadow and swam through the darkness just beneath the world. He took physical nothing and shaped it into a suitable place for him to rest. Never thinking, never questioning, he simply was.
* * * * *
Todd was lost.
He kicked a small rock away and scowled indiscriminately at the trees surrounding him. The worst bit, he thought, sitting down on a nearby stump. The worst bit was that it was his own damned fault.
People had told him not to go into the woods.
"You're too young," they said. "There are bears out there," they said. "You'll get hurt."
His mother had been particularly taken with the last one.
"They'll eat you," she'd said. "They'll tear you up and eat you whole."
"But if they tore me up, I wouldn't be-" His mama smacked him upside the head and told him to go help his dad with the woodpile.
It had struck Todd as fundamentally unfair that his father could go into the woods as often as he liked, but that he had to stay and do chores. He helped pile the wood, didn't he? He helped clean the branches, stack them up, and cover them with clay, didn't he? He even got to help start the fire, once. That meant he was as good as an official collier!
So he'd struck out. He'd packed his little bag, told his mama he'd be with the other boys playing by the orchard, and set off.
Now he was lost, wandering around in the woods with no idea which way home was.
Well, he thought, If I just go straight, then eventually I'll hit something. Forest doesn't last forever, there's gotta be a house or something.
He sighed, picked up his walking stick, and then set off. He didn't need the walking stick, in fact he thought it was a bit troublesome and only used it to poke things from a safe distance. But his father always took one with him, so Todd figured there must be some use to it. He probably just wasn't using it right.
At first, he enjoyed it. Sure, he was lost, but at least he was out and about, not cooped up stacking wood. Then his back and legs started to ache and he got a little more irritated. How big was this place, anyway? Whose bright idea was it to plant a forest this big? What would anyone need with all these darn trees, anyways?
Then the sun started going down and the irritation slowly but surely morphed into worry.
What was it everyone had said? Bears. The place must be crawling with them. He looked nervously around at the trees, wondering if he'd see a bear coming. They were supposed to be big, weren't they? Something so big would have to make a lot of noise, right?
An owl hooted somewhere behind him. Todd kept walking. A wolf howled somewhere in the distance. He grasped his stick a little tighter, but kept on. Something in the bushes behind him began to stir.
He threw the stick at the bush and ran deeper into the forest.
* * * * *
He roused from sleep in stages. First came the hazy notion that something, somewhere nearby was moving. Even eight-tenths asleep he found the idea ridiculous.
Nothing here moves, he thought.
Then came an unfamiliar feeling of unease. He woke a little more.
What was that? he thought.
He shot up. It happened again! He tried to clear his. . . his what?
Mind, came the word. It came from the same foreign, enclosed place all the other words had come from. Somewhere just outside his dark place.
What is this? he thought.
Alien concepts washed through him, some with an accompanying word, most without. He tried sinking back deeper into the shadows. It had always been safe there.
Had always been. Time. The words poured in. Things happen and then they don't and the ones that happened are the past and the ones that haven't are the future and there is no now because the now is already in the past like that and that and that-
His new, focused mind hurt thinking about it. He swam backwards and tried desperately to turn it off.
Trying not to think about not thinking making more thoughts to not think about while thinking about not thinking those thoughts-
It wouldn't stop! What if it never stopped? What if he was stuck like this forever-
Forever. Eternity. All of the future without running out of presents and pasts. Nothing lasts forever, everything ends-
It seemed to him that out of all these new thoughts, fear was behind a disproportional number of them. At the root of everything was fear. Hanging a level above the fear was the question: why? Why had this happened? The answer was out there, walking around on the surface of the shadows.
The fear rose up. He shrank away. Whatever was out there could hurt him. The fear told him so. He'd never felt pain before, but the fear told him it was to be avoided at all costs. The fear wanted to protect him.
There were noises. They reverberated sluggishly through the liquid dark. Whatever was out there was moving. The source of all these new thoughts was moving, getting closer. It wanted to hurt him.
Worse, whispered the fear. It wanted to end him.
It didn't matter that a half hour ago he had no concept of existence, let alone his own self preservation. Whatever was out there was going to destroy him. The fear twisted itself into hatred.
With a noiseless howl heard only in his own mind, he left the shadows.
* * * * *
He had run for what felt like forever, certain that every wolf, bear, and monster in the world was after him before he'd finally found the cave. He hadn't thought about anything already living in the cave, he'd just seen a place to hide for the night. By morning, he figured, his parents would already have a search party out for him. He could just waltz out of the cave like nothing and find someone to take him home. All he had to do was make it through the night and things would be fine. He was sure of it.
But. . .
The cave was silent. Eerily so.
Todd frowned. Someone had told him once that caves were supposed to be full of bats and bugs and bears and things. This place didn't have any of that. What bit of ceiling he'd been able to see earlier had been clear. Same with the floor. No bugs or guano or anything.
I wonder what scared them away?
He immediately regretted thinking that and tried to think of something else.
Ma and Da were probably worried. Maybe they were out looking for him right then. Maybe any moment now, his father would come into the cave with a lantern, calling his name and telling him he was needed at home.
He squinted towards the exit, trying to see through the dark. His eyes had adjusted slightly since he'd come in, but it was still useless. For a moment, he considered calling out to see if anything was there. He took in a breath and was just about to shout when it occurred to him that if there was something out there, he didn't want to get its attention. His jaw snapped shut.
Slowly, Todd tucked his knees beneath his chin.
I wish I'd held onto the stick, he thought.
He wrapped his arms around himself and tried to keep warm.
I want to go home.
* * * * *
He was set to destroy. The fear and hatred had given birth to anger, and now he was ready to kill. He rose up out of the deep pools of shadow and slid along the surface, flitting from rock to rock, wall to wall, looking for the intruder.
There. He found it: a lumpy little thing made of meat sitting on the ground. He shrieked to himself in triumph, and the anger shrieked with him. He would finish this now.
But. . .
The creature was small. That threw him off. In his mind, the fear had been building up some horrific monster intent only on his destruction. This thing was small. Inoffensive. It gave off the impression of helplessness and a strange smell he couldn't quite make out. And nestled inside the creature, floating just under its skin and burning more strongly at its core, was a light.
The fear didn't leave entirely, but it quieted. He moved closer for a better look. He'd never seen light before. It was so different, so new. The closer he moved towards it and the creature, the stronger the strange sensation became.
The thoughts were getting clearer, just by being in close proximity to the creature. When he was only a few feet away, he began to see more clearly, as well.
Once blurry lines sharpened. No longer were things simply surfaces where his shadows could rest, they were individual objects with their own dimensions, with their own textures and a strange new notion the thought-voice called color. He could feel his mind stretching out to accommodate the new information. Instead of being painful and frightening, the sensation was exhilarating.
The little creature wasn't hurting him, it was improving him.
I wonder if it's doing his on purpose? he thought.
He moved closer, and the strange feeling intensified.
Warmth, said the thought-voice. Warmth.
He'd never felt warmth before. He'd never realized he was cold.
Without thinking, he dove forward and wrapped himself around the light in a hug. The fear was completely gone, now, replaced with what the thought-words assured him was love.
He loved the light. He love love loved it, and he loved the little creature that brought it to him. The light was beautiful. He wanted the light to last forever. It could stay and be warm and bright and he could take it to the shadowed places where it would seem even brighter. It was his light, now. He loved his light.
The little creature wriggled in his grasp.
It's trying to play, he thought. His little light-creature wanted to play.
He loved the little noises it was making. He loved the warmth it gave off. He loved the light it held inside. Even when the creature abruptly stopped wriggling, he loved it.
It tired itself out, he thought.
Then, without warning, the light flickered and went out.
For a long moment, he still held it, waiting for the light to come back on. Nothing happened. He shook it slightly. The light didn't return.
Slowly, he released his grip on the creature. It fell limply to the floor.
Hello? he thought at it. Are you asleep?
He nudged the creature. Wake up.
It rolled limply onto its side, and the fear came roaring back.
I broke it, he thought. I broke it. My light, it's gone and it's not coming back and it's all my fault. It's broken, I killed it-
Fear told him to run. Other senses, new ones that sprouted off the fear, told him to hide. To melt back into his shadows and never come out. To pretend there was no light and no creature and to go back to sleep. The feelings ate away at him from the inside out.
A new thought rose up. It wasn't sprouted from the fear, though fear helped it grow by virtue of being the only alternative.
Maybe it can be fixed.
He grasped onto the thought.
Yes! He could fix it! Or if not, he could find someone else to fix it!
Were there others? As far as he know, this was the only one. . .
No. there had to be others. At the very least, he had to look.
Quickly, he scooped the light-creature up and left the cave for the first time he could remember.
* * * * *
It took him ages to find more of the flesh creatures. There were thousands of them in the forest, but most were much too small, with lights barely the size of a grain of rice. The larger ones were all the wrong shape. His light-creature didn't have horns on the top of its head, or a long snout and tail.
Eventually, he found them. More of the light-creatures wandering around the woods, carrying small, dull fires trapped in jars to guide them. They, too, had lights inside, but they were all much bigger than his light-creature's had been. They were also shouting things, though he couldn't understand what.
"Todd! Todd? You out here? Todd-"
Pure gibberish. Ah well, maybe it's what they did for fun. He appeared before a group of them and lay his light-creature on the ground, then waited for the verdict.
"Wh-what is that, Dave?"
"It's like fog-"
"-shimmers like water-"
"Who's that at its feet?"
"I'm gonna be sick-"
One of them screamed. "It's the charcoal burner's boy! The thing's killed him!"
Just noise. He was glad his light-creature hadn't been so loud.
Why aren't they fixing it? he thought. He picked his light-creature up and moved it closer to them. They all backed away from him, a few waving their lanterns.
Aww, he thought. They like me.
Good. That meant there were no hard feelings, meaning they probably could fix his light. It was obvious, though, that they weren't going to do it while he was around. Ah well, probably some secret way of turning the lights on. He melted away into the shadows of trees, giving them their space.
He watched happily as they swarmed around his creature and, after much more noise, carried him away. Relieved, he made his way back to the cave, leaving them to get to it.
Maybe he'd go take another nap. Perhaps the torrent of thoughts would calm down if he slept.
Maybe they'll have my light fixed by the time I wake up.
He perked up at that. It was something to look forward too.
With a small, satisfied sigh, he allowed himself to sink into the shadows and go to sleep.