“So, kid, why are you afraid of the dark?”
The speaker was there, but not quite there. Aido blinked sleepily, looking at her from where his head rested on the pillow.
“What?” he asked groggily. The woman smiled, but it was a humorless smile.
“Just asking a simple question.”
“What are you?” the boy demanded, sitting up on his bed to get a better look at her. She wasn’t pretty, but she certainly wasn’t ugly. She was tall, and rather skinny, and extremely pale—that was easy enough to see even though she was see-through. Her eyes stared straight into his own blue ones, and her short blond hair was unkempt.
“I’m Momo. Female, age eighteen, bringing you greetings from the Halls of the Spirit of the Grave,” she said cheerfully, swinging her long legs up to sit cross-legged at the end of his bed. Aido stared.
“This is a dream,” he stated firmly. He began to lie back down. “When I wake up, you’re going to be gone, and it will be time for school…”
Momo laughed. “Kid, I know that you hate school and skip it whenever you can. Besides, it’s the weekend tomorrow.”
Aido paled. He covered his head with his blanket. “I’m not listening to you!” He heard Momo sigh.
“I just wanted to ask a question.”
“Well, ask it and leave!”
There was a momentary silence. “You mean you weren’t listening?”
“I don’t pay attention in dreams. It happens, then it’s over.”
Momo chuckled a little. “You’re reminding me why I hate socializing. I’m very real, you know. As real as you, just not made of the same stuff.”
“Obviously,” Aido grumbled. He had seen straight through her body and into the wall! That was far from normal, and clearly a dream. “So what was your question? Tell me now, or I’m going back to sleep.”
“I said, why are you afraid of the dark?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
“Which means you know how to answer it.”
Aido lifted the covers to glare at Momo. “I don’t know. It’s not like I sit around, thinking about darkness.”
“That’s what I do.”
Aido stared at her. She had to be crazy, which wasn’t such a bad idea. Anyone who didn’t have a real body but was still talking had to be crazy.
“Want to hear my theory?”
“Well, you know how most people associate death with the color black? The color black is the color of darkness, shadows… And people are scared of death. Therefore, since the dark reminds them of death, they hate being in the dark. They hated shadows, so now nobody has them anymore. It’s all because the dark is unpredictable. It’s all because they don’t want to die.”
Aido stared at Momo. It made sense, in an odd way. “Why are you telling me this?”
“To tell you what a selfish action it is, to be afraid of the dark. It’s all about being scared for your own self—there’s no practical reason to be afraid,” she told him. She smiled slowly. “Sometimes, people take their own fears and force them upon everyone else.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Momo gave him an odd look. “You’ll see what I mean someday. In the meantime…” She winked. “It’s dark out. Shouldn’t you be cowering in fear?”
“I’m not afraid of the stupid dark!” Aido protested. “Besides, it’s not really dark. I’m dreaming you up.”
“Really, Aido?” she asked, smiling.
“Yes,” he told her more confidently than he felt. The more she spoke, the less he thought it was a dream. But it had to be! People weren’t see-through in real life! Momo, however, shrugged.
“Whatever you think, kid. Well, anyway, it’s almost dawn. Which means that I have to go away for a little while. And you need to get back to sleep. But don’t worry, my dear little friend Aido, I will most certainly come out to visit again.”
Aido shook his head, and pulled his blanket over his head again. He didn’t want to look at her. “No, I don’t want you ever to come back. You’re a dream, and you’re going to stay that way!”
There was no response. Experimentally, he peeked an eye over the top of his blanket. Momo was gone.
“Get up, Aido! Your friends are all here, and they want you to go with them to the fair!”
Aido groaned. “No, stay away,” he grumbled, still thinking it was Momo. He balled himself up under the blanket. Sighing, his mother pulled it off of him.
“Up. You don’t need to be laying in bed all day,” she grunted, throwing his blanket on the floor. “Make your bed and get dressed before coming out.”
“Yes, Ma,” he grumbled. So, he was right after all. That Momo was a dream. The sun was high. A perfect, cloudless sky, as they often were in his shadowless world. He let out a small sigh of relief as he toppled out of bed lazily. After throwing his blanket back onto his bed in his attempt of “making” it, he rushed over to the mirror to comb out his curly blond locks of hair. However, he was dismayed to see that he looked absolutely horrible. His large blue eyes had bags drooping under them, as if telling the world about the terrible sleep that he had last night. Pulling on a green tunic and brown pants, he darted out into the main room of the small cottage he lived in.
His aging mother looked up at him tiredly. “Aido, put on a belt, and you’re going to wear boots today if you’re going to be gallivanting around the fair.”
“Ma,” he whined, but she had already thrust his boots at him.
“Don’t you ‘Ma’ me,” she retorted. “Your friend Daris got his foot sliced open on a rock the other day because he was running around barefoot.”
“I’m smarter than him. He still picks his nose,” he shot back, but nonetheless, he sat in a chair and pulled his boots and belt on.
“Can he come now?” he heard one of his friends yelling from outside.
“Yes, he may!” his mother called back. She looked at Aido and smiled. “Well, now, make sure you have fun.”
Aido grunted in reply, and didn’t even bother to say anything else before dashing out the door. She’d probably make him do something that would hold him back longer, like bathe or eat breakfast. Fortunately, she must have known that he was on a very tight schedule. He had just bathed the night before, and he wanted as much room in his stomach as he could hold, so he could eat as many nut-cakes and sweets as he could.
“How come you slept so late?” one of his friends, Taraak, demanded.
“I don’t know. Weird dreams,” Aido mumbled, rubbing his eyes.
“You don’t look like you slept all that much,” another boy, Kitaj, replied.
“Yeah,” he replied, trying to shrug it off. “Anyway, so what’s at the fair?”
“A bunch of animals, a freak show, and a storyteller. The freak show is stupid. Garvie already told us that they basically stuck pillows into this man’s butt to make it look like a tumor or something…”
And so Aido was back in his element. He was one of the followers in his group of friends, enjoying doing what everyone else did. They all had similar interests, so nothing could go wrong.
“But I heard the freak show was good! There was a two-headed snake!” Taraak pointed out excitedly.
“Stupid, Garvie said that it was a dead snake and they just sewed a second head onto it,” Kitaj replied firmly.
The boys laughed. Just as they decided that they would go to the freak show regardless of its hoaxes, they arrived at the open field where the fair was taking place. Aido grinned at all the bright colors. The fair only happened once a year, and Aido looked forward to it all year. At the fair, they sold exotic sweets and brought in performers from all over Inaar. And to think, he would’ve slept through it if his mother hadn’t woken him up!
Thoughts of Momo slipped into his mind again. He was sure that she was a dream, but he couldn’t stop himself from seeing her translucent figure in his mind’s eye. And her words…
“…she was beautiful!”
Aido blinked. “What?” he asked distantly. The boys giggled.
“Stupid. Dreaming?” Kitaj asked with a smirk.
“No!” he protested, even though he knew he really had been.
“Anyway, we’re talking about the musician. She’s beautiful! Her name is Shmee, and she has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen—even more than yours!” Kitaj told Aido dreamily. He raised his eyebrows skeptically.
“She wasn’t beautiful because she’s pale,” Taraak replied, rolling his eyes.
“I’m pale!” Aido grumbled.
“Well, you’re not beautiful!”
The boys all laughed. Because of so much sun, most people were tan. Pale people were often considered zombies by Aido’s group of friends. Thus, Aido was their “resident zombie.”
“I think that girl at the lemonade stand was really cute,” Taraak commented. “And her dress made her body look nice!” Again, the boys laughed.
“But her nose was huge!”
Already, Aido was beginning to drift off again. The heat of the high sun and his exhaustion was taking a heavy toll on the boy. Was Momo pretty? She could have been, but she was far too pale and too thin. Suddenly, Aido shivered. He felt a chill—it was as if Momo could hear him.
“Sorry,” he mumbled unconsciously. His friends frowned.
Aido blinked. “Oh… never mind.”
“You’re awfully weird today. Are you sick?”
“No, no,” Aido dismissed. “Just… oh! Look at the tents!”
They had arrived at the fair, and Aido was enchanted by the brightly-colored tents and clothing. He grinned. Colors were so enchanting to Aido. He stared stupidly at each one in turn. However, he was unnoticed by his friends, who were busy arguing about whether they wanted to eat or go to the Freak Show first.
“I’d rather eat. I saw the Freak Show already!”
“But it sounds so cool!”
“But I’m hungry!”
One tent in particular caught his eye. It was a beautiful shade of light blue, and seemed to stand out from the other tents, even though it was small. Still, the color was stunning. He grinned. “I’ll catch up with you all later,” he said distantly. “I want to go look at something.”
“Sure,” they shrugged, not seeming to care. At least, until Kitaj said, “We’ll meet you at the food tent!”
This elicited another feud from the boys, but Aido was long gone—mentally, at least. Physically, he was already walking toward the blue tent that had captured his attention. It was pretty close to where he already was, so he didn’t have to walk far to get to it. Slipping through the entrance, he squinted to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light.
“Can we have the one about the Spirit of the Hills and the Spirit of the Volcano, please?” he heard a young child ask. Aido blinked and looked around. There were lots of children, and in front of them, on a stool, sat a young woman with dark hair and blue eyes, with a small harp on her lap.
“Of course! You want to hear about anj Saaj ier anth-Ievai and anj Saaj ier anj Dalédain?” the woman asked, a pert smile spreading across her lips. There was a murmur of excitement among the children. That woman was speaking the ancient names of the Spirits of legends. Aido frowned, and peered closer. The woman’s eyes were very blue…
The blue-eyed woman began to strum the harp. “Once upon a time,” she said in a hushed voice, “soon after Time itself was created, seven Spirits strode upon Ékal. They were told by the One to make Ékal hospitable, able to support life. The Spirits put a piece of each one of them into the world. When they were finished, they settled on this very country. Now, who can name all of the places where they are said to live?”
“Lake Dinérva!” one child announced.
“The Grace Mountains and Lorhien Forest!” said another.
“The Eevai Hills!”
“The highest cloud!”
“And in our dreams,” a final girl added in a hushed voice.
For some reason, Aido began to feel slightly queasy. Settling in the back of the group, he continued to listen to the woman’s words. They were soothing somehow—she had some quality to her words that almost seemed to drug him.
“That’s right. Spirits are said to live in those very spots,” the woman said calmly. She surveyed the crowd during a dramatic pause and, for one brief moment, her eyes locked with Aido. Unperturbed, the woman kept on going. “But, like humans, even Spirits have their quarrels. The most famous quarreling Spirits are, in the simple speech, the Spirits of the Hills and of the Volcano.
“When the Spirits began to build up their homes, a loud roar could be heard over the whole world, followed by the long howl of a wolf. These Spirits were fighting! The Spirit of the Volcano had stolen a hill that had been made by the Spirit of the Hills, and she had lit the top of it on fire!
“‘Why did you take my hill?’ the Spirit of the Hills demanded. ‘I created it, so you are not allowed to touch it.’
“‘This hill is larger and further away than your other hills!’ the Spirit of the Volcano replied. ‘It is in my territory. Therefore, it is mine, and I may do with it as I please.’
“The Spirit of the Hills howled again. He was angry. However, the hill was much taller than his other hills, and it was in her territory. He had no choice but to let her have the hill that she had set on fire. She called that mountain Mount Dalédain, or, as it is now known as, Mount Daladane.”
“Is that the only reason they don’t like each other?” a small boy towards the front blurted out. Aido frowned, and leaned in, beginning to be pulled into the story.
“No,” the woman replied, continuing to strum her harp. “You see, the Spirit of the Volcano had hundreds of children.”
“The kitsus!” a girl squealed with glee. The woman chuckled.
“Yes, the kitsus. The fox-children. Her children, you see, were very mischievous. They would always play tricks on the werewolves, who were the children of the Spirit of the Hills. What angered the Spirit of the Hills the most was that their mother would never tell them to stop playing tricks.
“‘Spirit of the Volcano, make your children stop nipping at mine, or I will make mine pluck off one of the tails of yours!’ he told her. This angered the Spirit of the Volcano.
“‘If ever your children rip off the tails of mine, I will blind the werewolf who does it,’ she told him. Do you know what the Spirit of the Hills did then?”
“No,” the children replied in hushed voices. The woman smiled widely.
“He said to his oldest son, ‘Go and rip off one of the tails of the first kitsu you see!’ Faithfully, like any good son would, the werewolf crept up on an innocent young kitsu and plucked off one of her three tails!
“Of course, the Spirit of the Volcano knew of this right away. Angrily, she descended onto the werewolf, and ripped his eyes out. To this day, that same werewolf is without his eyes, and the young kitsu has only two tails instead of three. Of course, each Spirit still think it was the other’s fault. It is said,” the woman said, more quietly, “that if you meet the Spirit of the Volcano, you will be killed by the Spirit of the Hills should you meet him—or the other way around!”
All of the children giggled—except for Aido. The spell she seemed to have over him had broken. He frowned. So, this was a storyteller. Or a musician, since she had a harp. It was disappointing that the person at the blue tent had been a mere storyteller. He hadn’t listened to one since he was a little boy. In fact, he had to be the oldest person in the group! He looked around, turning red as he realized just how self-conscious he was. He had no doubt in his mind that he was the oldest audience member amid a sea of six year olds.
Yet he couldn’t bring himself to leave. Maybe he just liked listening to her speak. Or maybe he was just being polite to the storyteller, who was very pretty. Maybe this was the beautiful woman that his friends had been babbling about earlier. She was pale, and she had beautiful blue eyes, and she was playing a harp… Aido was proud of himself. He had been able to retain all of those details that his friends were talking about! But as his friends would say, he had a very good memory when it came to good-looking ladies. Well, this gave him a reason to listen to her, right? To appreciate her beauty! Still, he wasn’t convincing himself very well, because he kept longing to go back out into the pure sunshine instead of being in the stuffy tent with all of the urchins.
“Now, are there any other requests?” the storyteller asked cheerfully.
“Can you tell us about magic?” The words bubbled out of Aido’s mouth before he even realized what he was saying. As all the children turned his direction, he flushed. They’d probably start talking to themselves about how such a big kid could ask questions to a storyteller! He glared at a couple of youngsters close to him who had started to whisper amongst themselves. The storyteller, on the other hand, smiled brightly.
“Of course! Are you planning on becoming a future inaaran?” she asked, in a slightly teasing tone. Aido scowled, but said nothing. If only he could take his question back! He felt incredibly foolish.
“An inaaran,” the storyteller went on, “is a sorcerer, a magician, and above all, a speaker of the Dal-Lorhien.”
“I can say ‘hello’ in the Dal-Lorhien!” a small girl in the front piped up. “Kailorieé!” The storyteller laughed. Aido, in the meantime, was still wrapped up in wishing that he could sink into the ground. What was he? Was he some kind of little kid, bragging about knowing simple phrases of a dead language? His friends were definitely going to make fun of him if they ever found out.
“Yes, that is exactly it, Kaidie,” the storyteller told the girl kindly. “However, it takes more than that to become an inaaran. In addition to speaking the Dal-Lorhien, an inaaran also needs to have an aptitude for magic. Usually, to see if someone has enough magical aptitude, you bring them to someone that has been touched by a Spirit or the children of Spirits. They will be able to tell by the way somebody talks if they have enough aptitude.”
Aido rolled his eyes, vainly trying to pretend that what she said wasn’t the least bit interesting. The woman caught his eye, and she raised her eyebrow. Nevertheless, she continued on.
“Once a child is determined to have enough aptitude to become an inaaran, they are put through intensive training, to teach them both the Dal-Lorhien and how to apply their magical aptitude into those words. Only then can they make magic.”
Some of the children made excited chatter at this, while others turned back to look at Aido again. Irritated, he stood up. “I gotta go,” he mumbled. He’d had enough of this stupidity. Just what had come over him, to ask the storyteller a question out loud like that? Yet something within him seemed… satisfied. Not enjoyment, he knew, but satisfaction. He wasn’t quite sure why he felt that way, so he ignored the feeling. Skirting around the children, he stepped back into the sunshine, and away from the blue tent. Hopefully, nobody would have seen him leave it, so the only witnesses to that embarrassing detour would be the children and the storyteller herself.
Still… her explanation about magic had seemed to please this odd, insatiable craving within him to know more about magic. He furrowed his pale brows. Did anyone he know have this “aptitude” for magic? Very few children ever left their village to live somewhere else, or meet someone that has been touched by the Spirits. Really, did such people even exist? This thought soothed the logical part of his mind. He, like many others, doubted that magic could even exist. Nobody in his village could do it, after all!
Then it hit him. He did know the story of a child who had magical aptitude. It was an urban legend, more like—nobody in town remembered this child directly. Not even their own parents could recall ever having this child. A long time ago, this child had left the town to study at a secondary school, and then went to university to become an inaaran. However, something terrible had happened there, and it made all of their friends and family had forgotten that the child existed. Only the child’s acquaintances could pass on that chilling tale. That was all that was left of the one child who could make magic.
Lost in thought, Aido didn’t see where he was going. He also didn’t see the people staring at him as he wandered aimlessly to the entrance of the fair. He also didn’t see some people making the symbol against dark magic as they stared at him leaving.
Thoughts, not quite his, slipped through Aido’s mind. He began to see the world around him as if for the first time, through eyes that were almost disgusted with the world. Of course, he didn’t quite understand why—the green leaves on the trees were dazzling, as was the cloudless blue sky. Not a single shadow littered the ground, as they hadn’t done for years. Aido’s mother used to tell him that when she was a little girl, shadows were common, but ever since Emperor Litorel came to power, everyone came to learn the evils of the shadows. Aido, for one, believed that shadows and darkness were evil.
But today, as he walked along the familiar dirt road that led back to his house, he found himself wondering differently. He felt inexplicably guilty for enjoying the luxuries of the long, warm days and short nights. It was almost as if there was a new little conscience sitting on his shoulder, forcing him to reconsider his life.
“Why am I afraid of the dark?” he asked himself out loud, halting in the middle of the road.
Momo’s question had came back to haunt him. He shook his head, and his curly blond hair bobbed around his face. Why was he still thinking about her? She was just a stupid dream, asking stupid questions. He forced his musings about her to the back of his mind, and he firmly trudged forward. He could get home, and—
Why was he going home?! Aido groaned, and looked behind him. He should be back at the fair, watching the freak show with all of his friends. He had wanted to see the two-headed snake… Still, he couldn’t. For some reason, his body was forcing him to go home. He just had this strange desire to go home.
His small cottage rose into view. As he stepped into the small clearing that led to it, he heard his father’s voice.
“How was the fair? You weren’t gone long, eh?” his father asked striding forward. Aido shrugged. He didn’t want to explain to his father why he had come home so soon. Aido didn’t even know why himself.
“It wasn’t very interesting,” he replied flatly. His father chuckled hoarsely and scratched at his gray stubble.
“You could always help me plant more crops, or go fish for a while,” the old man suggested. Aido wrinkled his nose.
“I’ll pass. I have some homework I need to finish.”
“Doing homework without being asked? This isn’t like you,” his father replied, amused. “Are you sick?” Aido rolled his eyes.
“No,” he mumbled. “See you later.”
Going past his father, he went straight for his house, feeling slightly dazed. He felt like he had to be doing something, but wasn’t quite sure about just what it was. Maybe his father was right—maybe he was sick. Or maybe it was just his bad night of sleep…
“Stop right there, mister.”
Aido stopped, and turned to face his mother, who stood from where she sat near the fireplace, with her hands on her hips.
“Why are you back so early?”
“The fair was boring,” he replied uneasily.
“Boring? You and your friends always know how to make it un-boring,” his mother replied suspiciously. “Like smoking illegal weeds behind the tents like last time—”
Aido giggled a little, his blue eyes lighting up with hidden mischief. “That only happened once!”
“Or like when you and your friends set the piglet free from the animal tent—”
“Again, only once!”
“Or like when you and your friends walked around with a limp all day and begged for money!”
At this point, Aido was too busy laughing to remember what had been bothering him in the first place. He loved it when his mother described his antics. “Remember when me and Kitaj covered ourselves in the marsh goop and chased the girls while pretending to be zombies?” he asked, grinning.
His mother chuckled. “I remember the smell more than the trouble you both got in for that, and that’s saying something!” she replied, shaking her head and sitting back down in the rocking chair by the hearth. She closed her eyes, as if in pain.
“You all right, Ma?” he asked with a frown.
“My joints are just acting up again,” she replied softly. Aido chewed his lip. He forgot sometimes that his mother was so old—much older than his friends’ mothers.
“Want me to get you something?”
“No, thank you,” she replied, opening her eyes as she smiled. But Aido could detect just the barest hint of sadness through her smile. She often seemed sad when she looked at him, as if there was a sad feeling associated with Aido that she couldn’t quite remember. But today, the smile and the sadness disappeared abruptly as Aido took a step closer to the fire. “Aido?”
She stared for a minute down at Aido’s feet. Confused, Aido, too, looked at his feet. His eyes widened in horror.
His mother’s rocking chair had no sign of any shadows from the fire light, like normal. Even her old face looked younger than it was in the rich glow of the fire. Aido, on the other hand, was caked with dark shadows. A small puddle of darkness had pooled at Aido’s feet. A shadow in a world where shadows did not exist.
For a long moment, neither Aido nor his mother spoke a word, too awestruck by the sight of a shadow. “By the Spirits,” his mother murmured in horror, making the symbol of protection against dark magic.
“Is… Is that a shadow?” Aido asked softly. He lifted one of his feet, watching his shadow change shape beneath him. His mother didn’t reply. She was too busy staring at his feet. “Ma?”
“I haven’t seen one of those in years,” she finally replied, still staring at it. “I had one of those when I was a very young woman. Then the Emperor destroyed them because they were a sign of evil. A sign of death—”
“I can’t have my son be marked by death!” the old woman began to tremble, and then began to cry. Aido looked away, not wanting to shame his mother by watching her cry. “I’m not going to die, Ma! I’m healthy, I’m twelve, I’m going to live a healthy life, get married, get a job…” Yet the more he spoke, the more panicked he became. Seeing his mother like this scared him, even more than his shadow did. “See, Ma? I’m healthy!” he exclaimed, his voice trembling.
“You’re healthy, but you’re doomed!” his mother cried. Aido backed away from the fire, toward the opposite wall, frightened. Doomed?