The woman’s hands move and the shadows on the cave wall form into shapes behind the flicker of a single spit of fire.
“The dark,” she says, “is not the empty place they have told you of.”
Small shivers, listening to her speak. Watching the circles she creates wind in on themselves.
Somewhere, he hears an infant sobbing and he knows one of them is eating another of his friends. He remembers and doesn’t want to.
The terrible owl creatures, their claws dripping with blood and other things, almost black in the night. The crying sounds they made as they attacked his village.
Who would stay inside their tent after hearing the sound of a babe calling out for help?
They’d taken him and he didn’t know why. Why him? He was not the strongest or the best hunter. He could not weave or do beadwork for his family to sell at the market. He fell over his feet and off horses. Fell into brambles when collecting berries.
His mother calls him He Who Hunts the Dark because she saw a nightbird in the forest when he was born. Everyone else called him Small as though he was only destined to be a pebble at the bottom of a river.
“Before light, we existed. Before dark, we existed. Others too, created their own shapes from absence and cold, eating ash and smoke.”
The shadows on the wall form into monsters. Tall and thin with spikes for arms. Mouths full of sharp teeth. Nails scraping against each other, ripping into flesh. Spraying shadow blood.
“We ate each other too. Such hunger, boy, you cannot comprehend.”
Her face should not be. Her face was kind and young as though someone read her from a storybook. It was not until you saw the yellow of her eyes that you noticed anything amiss.
They glowed, reflecting the fire and the shadow stories she told. She’d caught a small lizard earlier and had eaten it whole. He’d seen the jagged yellow edges of her teeth and heard the crunch of bone and tissue.
His friends had gone the same way. Down into that monstrous owl body as big as any man’s.
“Then came the light,” she says. The shadows part and shrink from the orb that has emerged on the wall. They sink into the ground or flee or hide.
“At first we found only pain. This bright pain that taught us that hunger was not the only thing to fear. But then new creatures emerged. And we ate. And we ate.”
The shadow figures pounced on the man-shaped shadows, devouring them. Were they shrieking? Small could only hear the pulse in his ears.
“We are few though and you are so many. More than we could ever eat. More than we could ever fight.”
The human shaped figures multiplied until they took over the whole wall. The owl woman’s voice was only a hiss now as her hands barely moved.
“Now we are back to the dark. Less than we were. Carrion eaters,” she spat.
The human shadows ran in all directions.
“You, we keep. We teach. Our people die as yours thrive. You will help us hunt. Help us feed. Guard us against the light.”
Small stared down at the single stick on fire before him. The light filled his eyes. He lunged, taking it in his hand even as it burned him. He thrust the pointed end into the owl woman’s left eye as she made those horrifying baby cries.
He wrenched it free and pushed it into her other eye.
Black blood spilled from the space where her eyes had been. She pushed her claws against the holes as though to hold it in but it only spilled past her hands and onto the floor.
He waited until the cries stopped to leave. Waited until he was sure.
Small headed back to his village with the fire he’d stolen. The owl women would not feed as well this night as they’d counted on.