4 days before the expedition into Everwood Forest, night
On the outskirts of town, there was a figure walking into the forest. An item of clothing was draped over the figure’s shoulder. The figure did not bring a torch, their eyes having adjusted to the darkness fairly easily after years of walking around late at night. No one was around to see the figure, so no one was there to identify the figure as Axel Heronicus. Using the pale light of the moon to guide his way, he disappeared among the cluster of trees. He had no visible destination but walked with purpose nonetheless. He shivered a little as he weaved his way through the trees (it was a fairly cold night), but not once considered putting on the item of clothing draped over his shoulder: a dark blue hooded coat. Was he that committed to his monochrome fashion trend that he didn’t want to wear a coloured piece of clothing? No — it was meant for someone else. Granted, the latter didn’t necessarily mean the former wasn’t true.
Eventually, Axel stopped and frowned. Something wasn’t right. Something should have happened after wandering this far, he thought.
Gazing down, he examined his shadow. It seemed…denser than usual. He swung his free arm around, still observing his shadow. It corresponded with his arm movements alright, but each swing of his shadow’s arm seemed to have more weight to it. But of course, how could the concepts of density and weight be applied to a shadow? Darkness is merely the absence of light, and mass can’t be applied to an absence of something. But in Everwood, there was more to the darkness. Axel realised then that there was something in his shadow.
“Shade, I know you’re there!” he called, staring down at his own shadow. “You only take this long to reveal yourself if you’re intentionally hiding. And if you’re hiding, you’re usually in my shadow so you can try and scare me!”
For a moment, there was silence. Then, a voice came from Axel’s shadow.
“Damn, you’ve figured me out!” the voice complained. “I wanted to pop out of your shadow and scare you.”
“Heh. Right on all accounts. Now get out of there,” he gave a derisive wave, “I got your coat back from the wash.”
Axel took hold of the hooded coat draped over his shoulder and threw it onto the ground. After a moment, darkness appeared to transfer from his shadow to the coat. The darkness concentrated and the absence of light increased in mass. And then something began to take shape inside the coat. It grew, and the piece of clothing raised from the ground. Soon there stood a shadowy figure of a child, its hood drawn. The shadow child had eyes glowing silver and a tuft of red hair. No other facial features were visible. Black fog appeared to emanate from its skin. More puffs of fog appeared from its hood as it breathed. The people of Everwood were half-right with their wild rumours at least; there was something living inside the forest. But Axel didn’t like to think of Shade as a monster.
“So, what’s up?” Shade asked.
“I heard from a friend that some kid saw you — well, the rumoured ‘monster of Everwood Forest’ — eating a bird on the outskirts of town. Normally I don’t pay much attention to rumours, let alone what a kid claims he saw, but he gave a description of the ‘monster’ that matched up with your appearance fairly well. So yeah, someone actually saw you.”
Shade paused to think, then exclaimed, “Oh! So that high pitched noise while I was feeding must have been that kid screaming, then. I thought it was just the bird.”
Axel frowned. “Shade, this is serious!”
“So what if a kid sees me? The plan was for me to become part of the community anyway. You can’t expect me to hide from everyone forever.”
“It’s not about him seeing you, it’s about what he saw you doing — eating animals! That behaviour is what the townsfolk will associate with a monster.”
“But I’m not a monster!” Shade complained. It was a well-worn phrase, one he had gotten very used to saying.
“Yes, I know that, but the others don’t. Their opinion of you has been tarnished by years and years of rumours, myths and urban legends. Kids these days grow up being told there’s a monster in the forest that kills anyone that enters just to stop them from wandering into the forest. Hell, I grew up being told that. Thankfully I realised it was all crap when I actually met you.”
“So they just need to actually meet me, then?”
“…I think it will be more complex than that. These people have been taught to irrationally fear whatever lives in the forest that isn’t your average woodland critter. I don’t think the people of Everwood Town will react too well if they suddenly meet you one day. We have to ease them into it.”
“Why? You were fine when you ‘suddenly met me’ for the first time.”
“Yes, but I’m the odd one out. It was strange of me to not be frightened when you rose from my shadow all those years ago. You’re not normal to these people,” he said. Shade winced at this. “No offense,” he added.
“Some taken,” Shade gave a frail smile.
“Look, I’m sorry for what the town thinks about you. Remember, when I say these things, I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s okay. We’ll change their opinion.”
“Yes. Perhaps you should start familiarizing yourself with the town?”
“Yeah! That sounds like a good idea. I mean, this forest is so devoid of life…I’d love to start hanging around town. Living in the forest with these trees, man…so boring! They go on forever, I swear!”
Axel gazed around him. “These trees…” he uttered, deep in thought.
But Shade shattered his concentration. “Yeah! I’d love to get away from the forest, sheltered in…well, actual shelter for once! I feel like…I feel like…”
“Oi!” Axel yelled. “Shade, what are you doing, breaking into song? Be quiet for a moment.”
Shade obeyed, a bit disheartened, and Axel continued to think. These trees…
Then, deep in his mind, something that had been shifting for the last two days clicked into place.
“These trees, Shade!” Axel shouted, suddenly realising: “I don’t even know what’s beyond them! We were never told!”
“So? I don’t know either, since when was it important?”
“…Since I started making more of an effort to care about things,” Axel uttered, starting to think back to his promise to Jess. “Come on, you’ve been living in this forest forever and you never once thought to see what was on the other side?”
“I could say the same about you humans.”
“Eh. They were too busy being scared by you, I guess,” Axel mumbled. Wary of offending Shade again, he added, “or at least that would have been their excuse. Shade, how long have you lived in this forest?” he asked.
Shade shrugged. “I dunno, I never had a calendar to keep track of the days.”
“Well, put it this way. Think about how long you’ve known me for. Is the time you’ve known me for a big portion of your time spent in the forest overall? Or a small portion?”
And for the record, Axel first met Shade five years ago.
“Uh,” Shade uttered, tilting his head in an effort to think. “A small portion, I guess?”
“I couldn’t give an exact number,” Shade said almost apologetically. “Remember, I didn’t have a calendar…”
Axel sighed. “I don’t need an exact number. And you don’t need a calendar to keep track of time.”
Shade’s insistence on needing a calendar was bugging him.
“Um, very small,” Shade tried clarifying.
“Okay, that’s all I needed. Just an approximation.”
Man, Axel thought, Shade must be old! And yet, he still acts like a child…
Axel began speculating. “Do you think the people in Everwood Town that originally spread the rumour of a monster living in the forest actually had no idea you existed? Like, it was all a coincidence. They fabricated a story to keep their children from wandering into the forest, and you just happened to exist. Or you came to the forest afterwards…” he trailed off.
“Um,” Shade replied with hesitance, “I don’t think those people started those rumours without suspecting that I existed.”
Shade paused. “I just don’t want to think all of this happened through complete coincidence…”
“True. It would suck if it did.”
But if it wasn’t all a coincidence, Axel wondered, that would mean people had interacted with Shade in the past…Did they have a reason to fear him?