“Once upon a time…”
A clichéd phrase, used as the opening to a countless number of tales, all the while its truest meaning becoming lost with each exhausted use.
I will not be so arrogant as to claim to know the very age in which this story takes place. Nor do I believe such a phrase accurately depicts this particular period in time. For you see, this is a story that takes place even before “once upon a time”, a time well before we, of the current era, ever established the concept of time—or at least, what we perceive time to be.
In a time before time itself, in an ancient and faraway land devoid of all light there was an age of stagnant decay. It was a time in which the world had been devoured by the great darkness; a calamity brought about by man’s lust for power and knowledge. From every corner of the planet, a thick shroud of malevolent gloom blanketed the land, obscuring all light and leaving the world a ruined and desolate husk.
From within this darkness, shadows emerged—beings that were manifestations of the great darkness itself. Humanoid in shape with dark bodies, glowing red eyes, and clawed hands. These shadows wandered the land like mindless drones, shuffling about with no real purpose.
It was a stifling existence, one which seemed par for the course to all but one shadow in particular. A shadow that, by some manner or another, adopted a notion of awareness.
Such a vast and empty world, he often thought. Is there nothing more to this dull existence? Are we to simply wander the land until time’s end?
These are but a few of the many thoughts that plagued the aloof shadow. It was a gnawing emptiness, driving him to seek more, to seek something different. Something… interesting.
Perhaps it was this very drive that eventually led him to the light of another. Or perhaps it was destiny itself, acting as playwright to this tale—a tale of an unlikely friendship and a wish that would change the world.
The black cloud of darkness hovered above the ever desolate landscape. The slicing winds violently howled, kicking up dirt and gravel in its wake. A terribly bleak setting of gray and black tones, encroached upon the depleted world of barren soil, scorched and peeling away like ash in the dry air. Amidst these sullen wastes, a lone shadow shuffled along.
How long have I been walking?
How many days?
How many hours?
To the shadow it seemed like an eternity of endless roaming in a world that, to him, felt stagnant and dull. The shadow looked up at the shrouded sky. The looming black cloud ensnared the world, stretching out for miles on end, disappearing just over the horizon.
The shadow sighed in frustration. Looking around, he could see his fellow shades scattered about. Some stood motionless, staring up at the sky with blank expressions. Others walked around, searching under rocks and boulders for something—anything—to devour.
“Wasting their time,” the shadow grunted.
It was a notion that seemed to have only been realized by him and him alone. There’s nothing left in this world. It’s pointless to search for more to devour when the darkness has already laid claim to all.
Why was it he alone grasped this?
Why did the meaningless existence of a shadow bother him so? And for that matter, why did he care?
These questions baffled the shadow. Questions that did not seem to be of any real concern to his mindless brethren. Like mindless puppets, they moved without any reason or purpose.
This is all so very dull.
Whether by chance or some act of divine power, lightning struck the earth that day. It split the sky, briefly parting the everlasting gloom and immediately catching the shadow’s attention. The bolt struck off into the distance, lighting up the sky for but a brief moment before vanishing completely. A few seconds later, its thunderous impact echoed through the air, rumbling the very earth.
The shadow looked around. None of his kin reacted. It was as if only he had caught sight of the phenomenon or even cared for its occurrence.
What was that strange light that fell from the sky? the ever quizzical shadow thought. It looked familiar somehow. Without a word, the curious shadow walked in the direction the lightning had struck.
Hours went by before a ruined tower appeared in the distance. It was a tall, daunting structure piercing the blackened sky above.
It left the shadow awestruck. In his endless wanderings, he had come across many ruins of the world that once was, the world that fell before the great darkness, but never in that time had he seen a structure so intact. A black tower built entirely of stone, standing ominously in an already ominous world.
As the shadow reached the tower, its size became all the more daunting. Taking a step forward, he noticed the soil beneath him was soft. He reached down and could feel its moisture.
“How very strange,” the shadow whispered, moving the fertile earth in his claws. It was a far cry from the charred, dried soil that made up the entirety of his world. Merely touching such soil would result in it crumbling away into the wind.
Most peculiar of all, the fertile earth he stood upon was only surrounding the proximity of the tower and no further.
The shadow looked up and noticed smoke billowing out of the tower’s peak. Ever curious, he proceeded inside.
The interior—although fully expected—was in a sorry state. Debris strewn about, broken tables and crates lined the floor and cobwebs inhabited every nook and cranny of the room. Amidst the disarray, an ascending staircase came into view. He proceeded up the steps.
As he walked, a dim white glow began to flood the stairwell. With each step, the glow grew brighter and brighter still.
What is this light? the shadow wondered.
After much time, the shadow finally reached the top floor of the tower, where a wooden door blocked his path, light streaming through its wooden planks. He pushed open the door and stepped into a brightly lit room. There were numerous large iron cages all collapsed along the floor, shackles and bearings hanging from the stone walls. It appeared to be some kind of dungeon, perhaps used before the world was consumed.
“Is that really all there is up here?” the shadow asked with a disappointed sigh.
“Hello…? Is someone there?” A tiny voice suddenly pierced the quiet.
The shadow looked up. Hanging from the ceiling was a large bird cage with light beaming out of its interior. From within, a little girl stepped forward, her small hands grasping the iron bars of the cage. She had porcelain white skin, glimmering blue eyes, and long, shimmering platinum hair. She was barefoot and wore only a plain white dress.
It was a dazzling sight. The light that illuminated the room all came from this child—a little girl that sparkled radiantly. Intrigued by this discovery, the shadow stepped closer.
“You are quite interesting,” chuckled the shadow.
“Who are you?” replied the girl.
“Me? I have no name. What about you?”
“I… also do not have a name. Or if I do, it is not known to me.”
There was a stillness in the air as both beings stared at each other in wonder. The little girl looked around curiously at her cage.
“Mr. Shadow, will you let me out of here?”
“Heh heh. Where would you go? The entire world is swallowed up by darkness. A tiny light such as yourself would not last very long.”
“I don’t care. I have a wish I want granted. I may be able to see it fulfilled if I venture out into the world,” she replied.
The shadow’s head tilted to one side, his curiosity peaked. “What is your wish, little one?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because it intrigues me,” replied the shadow.
“It is a secret. I will not tell you.”
“Tell me, and I shall free you.”
The shadow stared at her for a moment more before turning away and heading back down the steps. The girl sighed and slumped onto the floor of her cage with a pout.
At that moment, her cage shook and slowly descended. The shadow came back up the steps. Once her cage was grounded, the shadow swiped his claw against the cage’s lock, breaking it off entirely. He opened the door, gesturing for her to exit.
“I do not understand, why free me?”
“This wish of yours intrigues me. If you truly believe you’ll find it out in the world, then I will simply follow you and bear witness to its fulfillment,” he said, holding out his claw.
The little girl hesitantly took it, and was led out of her cage.
“That is, assuming the other shadows don’t devour you before then,” he said with a cackle.
As her feet touched the cold, stone floor, it lit up with color, changing from a muddy gray to a clean white surface, and back again once she stepped off.
“Oh… how fascinating,” the shadow whispered, watching the girl take a few more steps, each time leaving a touch of vibrant color that vanished soon after.
With one last look at the cage that once confined her, the little girl turned to leave, venturing out into an unknown world.
The ever curious shadow followed closely behind.