[Needs a touch or three of re-drafting]
There were four figures sat close around the fire. It was small, burning hard and with a sour smell. Just bright enough to keep the flickering shadows at bay. Shadows that seemed to reach out to them with eager, grasping fingers, and then flit purposefully away.
The four had spent the day travelling through the city, picking their way across street and square towards the heart of it. Still distant, yet sparkling with the only power seemingly left in the land. The four now gathered to await the morning – not that a one of them would sleep. So it was that they smoked and spat, mumbled and muttered, sharing notes of their journeys thus far. They’d happened to meet at the outskirts, driven out of the wilds by unknown forces. Forces that now reached out from the shadows to pursue every man, woman and child. There was much to speak of, though nothing to tell. None knew what had changed, only that it had.
From amongst the chatter one of the younger two sat up. He’d been perched atop a palisade when they’d found him, balancing in the dawning sun and every muscle a-trembling. He’d been with others until that night, but he never spoke of them. He preferred to talk of the times before, hiding in them as a child might its mother’s skirts. Upon that whim he spoke now.
“And you, kindred,” he said to the eldest of the four, “What of the place you came from? How is it that your travels began?”
They were sharing tales of their journey beginnings. Some were true and some less so. They were, after all, the oldest stories – the tales of the traveller.
The eldest looked up and for a moment they thought he would simply look away again, quietly. He had little to say, on the whole, his sparse form seeming to fit his sparse speech. When he did converse it was with a murmuring voice, one that seemed to muse to itself more than to those who might listen to it. But this time he lifted his chin to the firelight, and began to speak.
“Can I tell you, of what I found? Of what I saw, from the hour when it all began. When…” He faltered, and paused. Drawing a deep breath, he appeared to make up his mind, and he continued.
“It was such a clear night. I was up above the pass, standing upon the hardened high ground. I’d found an old outpost, aged wooden buildings that stood tall and narrow. They were graced by leaf fall here, and night dew there. A sharp scent rose and lingered, the sort that catches your nose and its bright musk clears your senses.” He paused, nodding in the moment of reverie. His voice had taken on a clear, singsong tone, and it carried on.
“I remember looking up at a wall of weathered white boarding. There were silhouettes, fragmented and soft in cast and colour. Faintly they patterned the faÃ§ade with their shifting star-shapes – the last of the season. This decorated wall holding in one corner my darker figure, then scattered about it a number of empty, black, unseeing windows – all bar one. At the very top in a corner, against the still cooling night sky, a single amber square held clear against the rest. An eye out of the storm, a light out to the sea. “Come here,” it seemed to whisper, “Come here when you tire, and wish to sleep, and the patterns have faded from your eyes.” I stood there and wondered what this place might be. I seemed half-lulled by the light, and by the quickening shadows on the wall. It seemed almost as if they were awakening, even as I slipped towards dream.”
“I turned about, the shadows all about now fascinating me. Furtive whispers came from the treetops, ever heaving in their breezy rustlings. To this incessant chant I fell as if charmed, seeing the world now in only shadows and light. I called it light in my mind that was no longer quite my mind, gazing as it flowed and split about a tree. But there its usual semblance ended, as it merged into glows and half-tricks that catch our sight but are not really there at all. They seemed as a new being, sprung up between fire and the very absence of it.”
They moved closer then, to the fire, looking about at the edge where its radiance ended. The elder continued.
“A brief place where every shape lives as two, in form and as its own shadow, true light having no place. The world was changing swiftly around me, this outpost transforming into something that had me in its thrall. On the short sward before me a hundred tiny little blades stood stiffly, and each one carried with it a dark counterpart that crept up from underneath. Stripes coursed over the ground and curved away, flowing to corners that lay only in my memory. It was growing darker.”
“There was a sudden clatter, and I spun around. It came from the shadows deep, and remained undiscerned. This night-time world was awakening, but not in any way I’d seen before. There was a hunger to it. In the shiver of leaves ever sounding I recalled the amber haven that lay not too many steps away. Upwards and inwards, but not yet – not yet! Whatever was happening, I was drawn to watch it – compelled to take it in. Overhead there were a few scant fronds catching a brightness from source unseen, and they trembled and danced in this, their final time. A sharper gloss to the laurel leaf, standing wet and proud as it would try to bear the winter where its comrades could not. Through the beech leaves then, where among their crisp angled poises flowing with shadow form lay glimpses of a warmer-toned sky.”
“My city. My city lay beyond these shadows, far away from that little whispering corner caught between the dark and the half-light. Then it was I ran for the amber light, a lone refuge from the suddenly wild night. Undershadows and overshadows mingled to forms and tones that would bewitch, but they held no friendliness in their grasp.”
“Yet even now, when I’ve ventured far from there, to this city and its lights, these shadows do not leave me. They do not leave you, and slide between the partitions in your mind. Only our will keeps them from us, out in the wilds and the dark corners from whence they first arose. But all it might take is one power flux, one outage, one small lapse of concentration, and they will swarm to the forefront – like so!”
The elder suddenly, loudly, snapped his fingers. One of the two younger ones shrieked, and then threw her hands to her face. The younger boy, who’d asked for the tale, looked a little frightened and turned his attentions to comforting her.
“A pretty tale,” drily remarked the fourth of their group – a tall, wiry man of few words. “I see you favour fancy over fact.” Drawing his cloak close, he settled back. The elder man smiled a little, but not with much humour.
“They’ve awoken,” he answered a little cryptically. “They’ve awoken but none can seem to see them, hear them.” The other three were no longer listening to him, though. One reclining and appearing to be at least resting his eyes, and the younger two were carefully conversing in short, earnest tones. They didn’t look to the elder man for more of the tale, nor refutation of it so far. So it was that they did not hear the voice whisper out of the dark,
“We were waiting, to form the world anew. We were waiting and now we’re here!”
Shadows rise and writhe, the elder man adds more wood and blocks to the fire. They’re kept at bay, for now. But these dark counterparts have awoken, and they are hungry.