Once in a strange dimension on the other side of the Beyond-o-verse, there lived a tribe of beings called the Nim.
With the birth of each new baby, the tribe gathered to breathe a song into the very spaces between the spaces of its being, singing through its cells with the signature sound of the Nothing-Everything-All vibrating as this special little one.
The babe was then delivered to a cave where it would live in complete darkness for seven years, tended by Seers whose large eyes could perceive in the darkness. When a babe was hungry or in pain, the Seers would sing its song to comfort the child like a swaddling blanket.
The children of the Nim were Nameless and blind, only distinguished from one another by a distinct whistle. As they grew in darkness, the children were taught about the mysteries above ground in the two suns’ light.
The Seers described these things with sensation, texture and sound. The children knew red by chewing juicy berries that burst in their mouths. The softest of cotton taught them clouds and sky. They danced and stomped to know the power of lightning and storm.
The children were also told stories of those who had been snatched away by the treacherous flying Veloryen, and others who had drowned in the icy waters of the Brynedel Sea.
And so, the Nameless children of the dark grew within the cave, tended by the Seers. Their eyes were wide and unseeing, their skin untouched by the kiss of their suns, until on the seventh anniversary of their birth, they were presented with the Great Choice. Would they remain Nameless in the cave, or give up their sacred song to join the Sun Dwellers above?
One day, it was the eve of one Nameless child’s Great Choice, a boy who ventured into forbidden tunnels and rebelled against every command. The Seers could do nothing to tame him.
The eldest Seer hatched a plan to deal with the troublemaker.
“It is his time of Great Choice,” the eldest Seer said. “Let us play to his pride and persuade him to leave us, for the ranks of the Sun Dwellers are dwindling. In this way we may serve those above and rid ourselves of the child forever.”
Many decades had passed since any child had chosen the path of the Named, and the cave was crowded with the blind and Nameless. The Seers agreed that it should be done, and so the child was brought before the council of Seers for his Great Choice.
“You must choose.” The eldest addressed him with a too-sweet tone. “Become one of the Named, forget your song, and walk into the light to know the adventures of color, sea and sky above. For this, you will be blessed as a savior in the Sun Dwelling world. Or…”
The eldest Seer paused, flashing a sly smile at his peers. “Remain here among the blind Nameless and toil in the darkness, harvesting nightblooms from the depths, for the rest of your life.”
The kindest Seer among them worried for the reckless boy. She called out, “If you choose the path of the Named, you will have no song for comfort, and no one to guide you. Once you leave the cave, you may never return. Your choice cannot be undone.”
The Seers drew into a circle around the boy and began to chant: choose, choose, choose.
The bold child knew instantly what he would do. He had long dreamed of escape from the Seers and a chance to prove himself a hero.
“I choose a name,” he said, “and I will join the Sun Dwellers, for I am he who saves the world.”
The Seers smiled to themselves. They began the Ritual of Forgetting. The child was made to drink a bitter potion that induced a deep slumber. While he slept, the Seers burned herbs of sacred smoke, stealing away the memory of his song.
The child awoke cold and afraid with the Seers encircling him. Something was missing, but he couldn’t think what it was.
“Choose your name, child,” the Seers said in unison.
“My name is Darr.”
The Seers strapped a water pouch onto the boy’s waist and wound a cloth over his eyes. They led him up, up, up. The child’s heart beat fast and the sharp scent of Above grew stronger as they neared the mouth of the cave.
Darr felt hands on his shoulders, guiding him forward into the warmer air. The cloth was snatched from his eyes, and he was instantly blinded by the suns’ light. Hands pushed him forward.
“Go now, child.”
Darr stumbled and fell to his knees. Tears filled his burning eyes.
He felt and heard the Seers retreat to the safety of the cave.
Darr reached within for his song, but it was gone. He was alone.
He shivered on the ground, remembering stories of the predatory Veloryn patrolling the skies in search of the weak and lame, swooping down with sharp talons. He was vulnerable in the open.
There were no cave walls to follow, nor echo to help him navigate. Only this blinding openness. Should he feel his way along the ground, crawling?
“No,” he said aloud. “I will stand.”
Darr stood unsteadily, eyes squeezed shut against the pain of the light. He shuffled forward with arms outstretched, feeling the ground beneath his feet. He tripped over something and felt around until he found a stick to use in feeling the way ahead.
“Three days of blindness,” he said. “I am a Sun Dweller now.”
The boy’s progress was slow and painful across the open space until he bumped into a rough surface. It was round and wider than his embrace, extending upwards from the ground.
“A plant. A tree,” he said.
Darr wondered if he might climb and nestle in the branches, like animals did in the Seers’ stories, but panic rose in his chest at the thought of falling. There was no shelter. There was no one. He was left alone here to die.
The boy clutched at his eyes and wept until he could scarcely breathe, spilling his despair onto the ground. When there was nothing left, he lay like a flattened cave slug. His breath slowed. The earth was cooler here than it had been on his walk from the cave.
“The Suns are warm,” he said. “If I follow the cool, I will find shelter where I can hide for three days until my vision returns.”
He withdrew the water bag from his pouch and took a tiny sip. It wasn’t much, but he could make it last three days.
Did the Sun Dwellers know he was coming? Were they looking for him?
Darr stepped deeper into the coolness, feeling his way around more trees and pointy things that pricked his skin. The ground sloped downwards. Strange chirping sounds came from above.
He remembered tales of sweet jems, the feathered beasts who sang in the trees, feeding their young. Darr felt hope stirring in his chest.
“Perhaps the jems will lead me.”
Following the chirps, Darr felt his way from tree to tree until his fingers sunk into the softness of a hole. He probed through crawling things that wiggled away from his touch. The space was large enough to fit inside.
Darr hefted himself up into the hole, drew his legs in tight, and fell asleep.
He awoke to a loud shriek, like a thousand howling winds. Pulling himself out of the hole, Darr reached outside into the warm air.
Suddenly, something grabbed Darr’s arm, yanking him out of the hole. It tossed him in the air, catching him by the shoulders in a pinching grip.
“Help!” Darr’s legs dangled off the ground as up they flew. Currents of air rushed past.
It must be the Veloryn. Was it his destiny to be food for some beast, not even to make it past his second day?
“No!” he spoke aloud. “I will not be eaten. I am he who saves the world.”
“You ought to focus on saving yourself first,” answered the hoarse voice of his assailant. “Right now, it’s not looking so good for you.”
They began to descend, and soon Darr’s feet were resting upon the earth. The claws released their grip on his shoulders and the boy fell forward.
“I’ll kill you!” Darr yelled, scrambling to his feet.
A cackle came from above. “It might help if you could see, boy.”
And with that, Darr was doused with a cool liquid that stung his skin and eyes. He rubbed at them, blinking, and when they opened, to his surprise, he could see.
All the textures, colors and sights he’d never known swirled before his eyes. The sky was vast, more space than he had ever known, the suns were so bright…
“Keep staring up at the suns like an idiot and you’ll lose your sight before you have a chance to enjoy it,” the voice said.
Darr beheld his abductor, a hulking, winged creature with sharp talons. “Blasted Veloyrn,” he said. “I shall never surrender.”
“Veloryn?” the creature cackled again, softer this time. “I am not what you think, though I am exactly what you think.”
“What are you then?”
“I am the darkness that lives within, and that which brings you into the light. You may call me Langor.”
Darr stared into the black pits of Langor’s eyes. The creature’s incomprehensible words made him dizzy. Could he trust this thing?
The boy closed his eyes, wishing for his song to soothe him. There was only silence.
“Show me what you are, Langor. I am done with your words.”
“Ah, there is wisdom in you, small one,” Langor replied. “Climb onto my back and hold tight. You’ll find it more comfortable than a ride in my talons. This time, let your eyes be open to see what you see.”
Darr leapt onto Langor and pressed his face into his feathers, inhaling a scent like coal and moss that was somehow comforting.
Langor raced to the edge of the cliff on spindly legs and launched himself into the air, wings lifting them high above the ground. Darr struggled to comprehend what he was seeing. Is this cloud? Ground? Forest? Ocean? Sky?
Words rushed through his mind, meaningless and tantalizing, as they sliced through the air. Darr tried with all this might to grasp at them, but it was too much.
“Perhaps this is how I die,” he thought. “A life wasted on the back of a beast.”
He considered letting go and allowing himself to fall back to the ground, bringing an end to his suffering. He relaxed his grip.
“Your life is full of choices,” Langor said. “What you choose reveals what you are.”
Darr blinked back tears, thinking of the familiar comfort he’d had in the cave. His every need had been tended, every step determined. How he’d fought and struggled against what made his life so easy! He’d been such a fool.
“What are you?” Darr raised his voice over the wind. “You promised to show me, and all I see is a vast space which I have neither the words nor the knowledge to understand.”
“How can you come to know anything?” Langor asked. “Your experience is the only knowledge. The rest is just a story.”
“Curse your riddles, beast.”
Langor inclined his wings into the current, and they began to descend. The unnamed sights of the landscape below grew sharper and more distinct. Darr gave up trying to identify things as the ground rushed closer, and the images flowed over him.
“That’s it,” Langor said as they jolted onto the ground. “You have spent your life resisting. It is in surrender that you begin to see.”
Darr slid off the creature’s back onto the soft ground. It felt green beneath his feet, alive and nourishing.
“Where have you taken me?” Darr demanded. “Where are the Sun Dwellers? Take me to my new home.”
“This is your home. Look around you.”
Darr saw a world that was utterly foreign. And the space! Above, it was endless. The strange ground sparkled and shone in the suns’ light.
“You lie,” Darr said. “You rip me from my hiding place before the Sun Dwellers can find me and bring me to a place where the ground blinds my eyes like the suns. This is not my home.”
“It is a lake, Darr.” Langor settled onto the ground. “I will teach you the words, but you must stop fighting me.”
Darr lifted his head and howled with all the darkness in his soul, mourning his lost song and the death of everything he had known. He shot a hateful glance at the creature, yearning for something, anything, to comfort him. He looked at the lake and the tall spears of what must be trees. He would find the Sun Dwellers and take his rightful place among them.
He raced towards the trees with all his might, pausing only for a moment at their fringe to look back. The creature was sitting, watching him with a look that might be either sadness or amusement.
The boy spat and turned his back, stepping into the coolness beneath the trees.
“I’m here to inform, when you are ready,” Langor called after him. “You can cast blame, but you cannot turn your back on what you are.”
Darr told himself that he didn’t care if he was alone. No creature would tell him what to do. He would find his own way, as he always had.
Stumbling over the rocky soil and roots, he wondered if that was true. He had always fought against the Seers. It seemed now that they had tricked him into choosing a name and a life as a Sun Dweller. Everything he did was an act of rebellion against something. Even now, stalking away from the creature, he feared that his course was dictated by someone else under the pretense of his own decision.
“There is nothing to do but to keep walking,” he said aloud. “I will find my way somehow.”
Darr walked till his legs shook and he could go no further. He brushed sharp sticks from the ground to reveal the stone beneath, curled up and fell asleep, dreaming of home.
He awoke in the darkness, and for a moment thought he was sleeping on the cave floor beside his brothers and sisters. But no, the howling wind and creaking limbs above his head reminded him that he was alone in the land of the Sun Dwellers, with eyes to see and nothing that wanted seeing, and without a song inside to comfort him.
Darr stood and felt his way through the darkness. He brushed against trees and shrubs, walking simply to enjoy the feel of his muscles and the ferocity of his breath.
After some time, the sky lit up in the light of the first Sun, a pleasant glow that was easy on Darr’s sensitive eyes. How he missed the other children, and even the Seers! Here there was nothing of home; only foreign sounds, smells and sights he could not name. And no song. His song was gone forever.
Crying now, he walked fiercely. His cries became a moan like distant thunder, and it pleased him. He began to hum, exploring the range of his voice from low to high pitch. It wasn’t his song, but it was something.
Darr emerged from the trees, squinting into the sunlight beside a brilliant lake.
“Blasted!” He was back in the clearing where he’d left the creature. He threw himself onto the ground, surrendering to the grief of all he had lost.
When he was spent, he lay still on the earth. A gentle hum filled his ears. Darr sat up and listened.
It was a low, almost inaudible vibration, like the sound of cave beetles during mating season. As he listened, the humming grew louder.
Darr wondered if it was a song. Hands over his heart, he invited the sound inside with the words the Seers had taught him.
“Let this song be known, and known as me. Without a name, this I claim to be.”
The boy closed his eyes and felt the thrumming of his heart. A knowing awoke and stirred within him.
The hum. It had sent the creature, and he had rejected its help, kicking and fighting those sent to guide him, as he always had.
“But the Seers were wrong,” he said. “They lied and sent me here to die.”
The hum in his heart posed a question. Is this true?
Darr didn’t know. He didn’t know anything, really. Only what he’d been told.
The boy was sweating in the hot sun, and the lake looked cool and inviting. The hum urged him forward.
Darr shed his dusty clothes and stepped into the lake. Cool water kissed his feet and ankles. He moved deeper, took a breath and plunged beneath the water. It felt like the crystals he’d touched to know the words light and brilliant.
He held his breath for as long as he could, savoring the coolness, and then stopped. The pressure built in his lungs and his rib cage began to tingle. Without thinking, he opened his mouth to breathe, and instead of choking on water he found…breath. Air. Impossibly, he breathed underwater, exhaling bubbles.
The Seers had told him about what happens when one is immersed in water and cannot breathe, warned him against the dangers of holding the breath too long. In the cave, Darr had tried it himself to see what it was like not breathing, holding his breath until his chest felt as if it might explode.
He supposed there might be beasts who lived in water, but he knew nothing of them.
“What am I?” he thought.
Darr swam underwater, marveling at his ease of movement. He ran his hands over his tingling ribs and felt slits layered with spikes pumping water.
The boy dove deep, down and down to the dark, soft bottom, then up to break the surface. He gasped and blinked in the suns’ light. After a moment of transition, he was breathing air again.
“I am Above and Below,” he declared. “I am.”
Darr floated on his back for a few minutes, then faced downward in the lake, alternating between breathing air and water. A glorious thrill washed over him.
“Whatever this is, whatever I am, I choose it.”
Darr climbed out of the lake and lay on the grass. The slits in his chest disappeared into his ribcage as they dried in the sun.
All his life, Darr had been told what to do, ushered down cave corridors, instructed in his habits, schooled in the meaning of things. And now, there was no one to explain the meaning. He wondered if an explanation was even needed, or if it meant anything at all.
Darr put on his clothes and looked up at the empty sky. The earth began to shake and tremble beneath him. He shrieked as rocks emerged and tilted upwards, splitting the ground.
A fissure cracked open and rippled towards him. The boy backed up and began to run, but the earth opened and took him in.
The dankness of earth and clay consumed him. His hands slid through the soft earth. Darr marveled as his limbs grew long and elastic, penetrating the soil. He slid around rocks and roots, as if he were part of the earth itself.
“What am I?” he thought.
Darr wriggled his way to the surface and back into the suns’ light and lay upon the ground again, exhausted.
A shadow appeared overhead. It was the winged creature, Langor. He landed beside the heaving boy.
Darr sat up and stared. “What am I?” he asked.
“You are what you are,” Langor said. “Will you choose it?”
A bolt of awareness shot through Darr’s body, igniting the hum from within and without.
“I am Darr, one who swims, digs, walks and flies, who is one with Above and Below, darkness and light. This, I choose, as it chooses me.”
As Darr spoke, gorgeous black wings sprouted from his back, bursting through his garments. He stood tall in the suns.
“Now you are ready,” Langor said.
The hum echoed across the clearing and beings emerged from the woods. They were humanoid in shape, some with wings, scales or fur. Others appeared to have bodies more liquid or crystal than flesh.
“Meet the Sun Dwellers,” Langor said. “You will create the world. Together.”
The creature Langor faded, became translucent and finally disappeared.
The Sun Dwellers surrounded Darr, bowing, embracing and kissing him on both cheeks. Welcoming him home.