Once upon a time…
All the good stories start this way. It’s a time-worn opening, proven to work.
Once upon a time, there was girl.
She was young. She was naïve. She was beautiful. She had all the things that mix together somehow to make a perfect fairy-tale character. She lived a in a bright, colourful world, full of amazing creatures and even more amazing people. This, too, made for a perfect fairy-tale.
This is not a fairy-tale. This is the story of the most feared creature ever to walk the woods and plains of any world.
This is how the Umbra came to be.
This girl, our heroine, was brave and bright and true. She wanted the best for everyone, and strove to make her wishes reality. The people of her village loved her, and she had a steady stream of suitors. All she turned away with a kind word and a regret, leaving them somehow happier than they had been before. They were not what she was looking for in the world.
You see, she had what was a rare thing to these simple village people. She had ambition, and enough of it to carry her to the top in a short time. She was not there yet, but she knew it would be her place, eventually. A bright spark of passion burned inside her.
She could have been great. She could have changed things, if she had been given the chance.
To the despair of the world, she never was.
It was her fault. This, she could accept, and any others would have to too. She had been impulsive, and she had suffered for it. She had let her heart tell her what to do, ignoring her brain, and she had been punished.
She did it for love. Don’t they all, in the end? The downfall of the most powerful warrior in the world will always be love. The great dragon taken down by the princess he couldn’t quite bring himself to eat. The brave knight cursed by a bewitching forest sprite.
She was washing clothes in the clear stream that ran behind the village, near the edge of the woods. At the edge of her vision, she saw a bright flicker of movement.
A boy was sitting nestled in the branches of a tall tree, asleep. Some kind of feathered garment was draped over his lap.
Seeing him, she thought to herself: maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to pursue romance.
She walked beneath the branches and called up to him, asking his name and where he was from. He woke with a start, glanced down at her. Panic spread across his face. He leapt to his feet on the slender branch, drawing the feathered cloak around him. Before her eyes, he seemed to fold down, shrinking until all that was left was a large black bird. He hopped on the branch, once, twice, and then he flew away between the trees.
She stared after him in awe. This was a creature she had never heard of before. She resolved to find him again, to speak to him.
She searched for months. In wind and rain and fair weather, she trekked through the trees, until she knew every plant, every stone, and every leaf by heart.
It was a dark, cold night when she found him again. This time, she promised his safety, told him that she only wanted to talk.
He was hesitant, but he let her speak. She stretched her legs in front of her, her back against the trunk of the tree, looking up at him. He sat on a branch far above her, swinging his feet.
She told him with smooth, faultless words, that she had fallen in love with him.
A young, naïve, beautiful girl who lived in a land of magic, falling in love at first sight with a boy she could never have.
A perfect fairy-tale.
He told her that he could never be with her; that he was cursed. He had been as human as her, once, but now he could only stay in that form for an hour or two at a time. The skin of a crow and the clothes he wore were his only possessions. He was forced to live off the forest, and the forest was his prison, for if he left, he would die.
He wept as he told her his story. He had been a normal village boy, decades ago. Hiding from responsibility in the forest, he amused himself by throwing stones at inquisitive wildlife. Eventually, he hit and killed a crow. He was horrified, not having intended to actually hurt anything, but the deed was done. The crow was a witch’s familiar, and witches tend to hold grudges. She cursed him to never age, to remain in the forest, to never find happiness, to die if he remained human for too long.
The girl listened. And she believed, to an extent. However, she did not think it was impossible for him to find happiness. Rather, she thought that she could be that happiness. Eventually, she persuaded him into thinking the same way.
This continued for a week. They would meet in the forest and talk his time as a human away, until he was forced to pull the skin over his shoulders again. Even then, sometimes she would stay, and he would fly down to perch on her shoulder. She was as happy as she had ever been, and he was hopeful for the first time in many, many years.
The witch didn’t like this.
Those cursed to never find happiness should not try, for fear of bringing pain to those they love the most. This is how it is, and this is how it was for them.
One summer’s day, as they sat together, the witch appeared before them. She offered a choice: either the girl could leave the boy and never see him again, or she would be cursed too.
And this brave, bright, true girl, she was stupid for the first time in her life.
She tried to talk to the witch. To convince her that maybe this boy deserved a reprieve. That maybe – maybe – he had been cursed long enough.
With each word that left her mouth. The witch grew angrier.
And so, she cursed the girl. She told her: ‘You tried so hard to bring happiness and colour to the lives of all around you, but you made a mistake. Now, you pay for it. You will be feared wherever you go, stealing people’s joy, leaving them empty husks, drained of colour. You will bleach the land around you until it dies, and every person who looks into your eyes will find themselves weakened to the point of near-death. Each time you drain a land of everything it has, you will be sent to a new one, and it will all happen over again. Nobody will listen to you. Nobody will believe you. You will be forced to watch as they die.’
The girl broke down in tears, but the deed was done. Already, the area around her was growing pale. The boy ran to her, tried to help her. This action was his last. He looked into her eyes, and it was all over for him.
She cried even harder. Her tears dripping onto his cheeks as he lay dying in her arms.
The witch did not allow even this. She sent the girl to the first world she would destroy, leaving the boy still living. The girl could only imagine he died slowly and alone.
She made her way through world after world after world, draining each one and moving on. The deaths weighed heavy on her shoulders, but there was nothing she could do. Several times, she tried to end it all, to take her own life, but that was against the rules.
Now, years later, she sat in her small cottage in yet another dying world, and told her story for the first time.