It was one of the more curious things about Humanity, our reluctance to allow others see us cry. It could be said that it was a form of defense, of never letting one know your weakness, and perhaps there was some truth to that. After all, hadn’t Humanity kept the Deadly Races at bay for a time by pretending to be strong? That day, however, Intrepidus was not able to hide his weakness by refusing to go home a mess. There was a shadow he had failed to realize did not have a place in this cavern any more than he did, and slowly, ever so slowly, that shadow grew darker and darker and took shape to reveal a small boy.
His skin was pale, his eyes silver, calculating, watching the man crumpled on ground before him. He did not appear to be wearing clothes, only the shadows he had stepped out from, and when Intrepidus finally acknowledged the breathing that was not his own and looked up to find the source of it, the boy stepped back, afraid. They did not break eye contact, the muffled sobs of the man on the ground quieting as he was faced with the terror he had finally begun learning how to ignore.
The boy was not human, it was easy to see that, but the human appearance he took was disquieting, and Intrepidus had to remind himself of all the times as a child his teachers had told him how dumb the Deadly Races were, how inhumane, how much stronger we were than them. The sun had begun to set, and as they stared at each other for what seemed to be hours but was really only minutes the dim light creeping through the tunnel began to turn orange as the sky burst into color. It would be dark, soon, and it was time for the human to retreat.
Stay tonight. ” It was not a request, though it wasn’t quite a command, either. It was unsure, the voice of the boy who had spoken quiet, unused to Humanity’s tongue. Intrepidus almost laughed in that moment, so close to breaking down into hysterics that he had to shut his eyes against the image of the boy to stop himself from doing so. How could a monster be so stupid, so trusting in Humanity’s foolishness to believe that one would stay through the night with a demon just because it had asked?
No, he would not stay that night, nor any other night, and as he slowly raised himself into a standing position he avoided the boy’s eyes. Even if it was a monster, it looked too human to deny it outright. “I cannot. I have a wife to get home to. ” The words were too loud for the cavern, their soun bouncing off the stone and causing the boy who was listening to them to flinch. Humans were loud when they were angry, when they were violent, and though Intrepidus was merely frightened, fear often tends to lead towards behavior that isn’t quite thought out.
And so the boy nodded, stepped back into the shadows, and disappeared. The human who was left alone in the cavern was quick to make his retreat, and though he returned home short of breath he was able to do so before the sun had finished setting. He would not sleep that night, however, mind plagued by thoughts of the savage creature he had met that had seemed much too timid to be part of a Deadly Race. Those thoughts would continue to haunt him through the next day, as well, and when the boy appeared that evening Intrepidus was almost unsurprised, though his unease did not lessen.
Stay tonight. ” The boy’s voice was more confident this time, louder and almost mimicking the tone Intrepidus had used to tell him that he could not last night, and as the human’s fingers curled tighter around the handle of his pickaxe he let his mind race to plan his escape route. “I cannot. I have a pregnant wife to get home to. ” He was not sure why he added the detail about his wife being with child, but he supposed it was to make his story more convincing.
It was the truth, after all, though the monster before him had no need to know that his wife had probably already given up on waiting up for Intrepidus that night. The boy did not shrink back as quickly as he had the previous night, however, though his eyes did soften at the story Intrepidus gave him. Neither spoke a word, the silence stretching out until the tension had almost been worn thin by the quiet, and slowly, oh so very slowly, the boy who was not human stepped back and dissolved once more into shadows.
Intrepidus once more made a hasty retreat, and fell into bed that night with an exhaustion that pulled him under before he could over think what had happened to him twice now. He had been doing work he was not used to for four days now, heavy and grueling work that strained his muscles and dirtied his skin and left blisters that burned at the touch, and he needed the rest, or else he would fear he would be unable to make it through the rest of the week at all. Intrepidus did, however, begin to leave the cavern earlier than he had been before.
Both times he had come face to face with one of the Deadly Races it was at dusk, and so the simplest solution was just to not stay that late. That meant sacrificing time though, precious time he would never get back, and he began to grow more and more restless as the week came to a close. He had found nothing, had not even been close to finding anything, and he began wondering if he should’ve ever worried about fulfilling his father’s dreams at all. He began regretting, began wishing he had been smarter and had decided to spend this last week with his wife, but he was committed now, and he could not give up.
The nights he spent in the cavern once more grew longer and darker, and when the voice that had been haunting his dreams spoke up once more on his sixth night, he pitched forward in defeat. He lay face down on the stone for what felt like hours, the cool stone against his face providing relief from his labor and his muscles protesting at the uncomfortable impromptu bed. He lay there in submission, waiting to be taken, waiting to be killed and eaten, but the boy who had once more asked him to stay the night made no move to come closer to him.
He stayed far, far away, on the edge of the shadows he could retreat back into, and when Intrepidus finally looked up to seek out his supposed killer he found that the boy had not morphed into some hideous creature that would devour him. He was still almost human, still looking at him with what Intrepidus forced himself to believe was false fear and nothing any more real. He had to believe it was fake, that it was a rouse to get him to come close, or else he would give in, and he would no longer be able to think of the boy as a threat.
He had to, though, had to believe in everything he had been taught as a child, because he was cowardly, and he did not want what provided Humanity with confidence to be a lie. After another minute of silence it became apparent that the boy was waiting once more for Intrepidus to answer him, to tell him he had a wife to get back to, and as the human took a ragged breath in to say just that he watched as the boy’s face fell. He looked almost sad, pitying, and for a moment he wondered if the child knew why he was here, why he was searching so desperately for something of value.
And so he did not say that he had to get home, did not avert his gaze and make an excuse as to why he had to leave this dreaded place before the sun sank below the horizon completely. Instead he pushed himself up to stand once more, and he pretended that he was as brave as his name implied. “Show me where I can find precious gems. ” He did not use the same tone the boy had used each night, that tone that made his words neither request nor command, instead making it clear he believed himself to be in authority in that moment. How couldn’t he be?
He was a part of Humanity, a part of the race that had forced all others to submit, so this creature had no right to deny him. That thinking that he had tried so desperately to copy from his neighbors and friends and wife, however, was not really his, and the boy watching him closely heard the way his voice wavered as he spoke. There was a moment of silence, human and monster bound by their eye contact, and then, for the first time, the boy smiled.
He looked relieved, worry washing away though the fear that was always there in his eyes not leaving, and when he spoke his tone was light. Stay the night. ” It was still not a command, but it was very clearly a request this time. He believed he could help if only Intrepidus would agree to spend that night with him in the cavern, if only he got over his human thinking and looked beyond his race, if only he was not afraid. Intrepidus was very afraid. He did not reply to the boy, did not even say goodbye or make an excuse as to why he was leaving.
He simply backed away until he deemed it safe enough to turn and break out into a run, though he was soon halted by the boy’s voice once more. “Please… The word was no longer light, no longer relieved; instead it was heaw and sorrowful, and in that moment Intrepidus truly believed the boy knew exactly what would happen to him tomorrow morning if he did not return with something of value. And then the moment was over, and human instincts came boiling up inside of him, and Intrepidus left before he could convince himself to look back. He was taken that very next morning, his wife sobbing and blubbering to the men who had come to take her husband away that he had done nothing wrong, that she had done nothing wrong, that she needed him.
Her eyes turned to her husband with betrayal and grief, however, when she discovered what he had been keeping from her, a secret that was so much worse than she had believed to be the reason he returned home dirty and tired each night. Intrepidus said not a word to her, did not even meet her eyes, and he was dragged off to repay his debt by working for the Council of the World. His wife would be next, taken away the very next month, and when the pink slip arrived for her she broke down into tears and prayed that whatever work she would be doing it would not harm her baby.
She never went to the cavern to find a source of riches as her husband had, but if she had she would’ve found a boy who had cried the night Intrepidus had left him for the last time, a boy who would have been dead set against anyone else in need leaving before spending the night. She would have found a cavern that lit up with the glow of a thousand precious gems the moment it was bathed in complete darkness, their worth more than most would ever earn in their lifetime, and she would have found that the stones her husband had thought worthless would have been enough to pay her way to freedom.
She did not go to the cavern, however, did not venture near the dreaded mountains at all, and she was taken to repay her debt at the end of the week. Her neighbors never questioned what had happened to her and her husband, because it was not their place to worry. Nothing too terrible could have happened to them with the Council of the World protecting them and everyone else, so somewhere, they believed, they were happy and healthy.
They were simply paying a debt that would have otherwise been paid by their neighbors or friends or family, and so secretly, those who had known them breathed sighs of relief. They did not know why exactly they were so terrified of being taken by the Council of the World, and they did not want to know. No one ever dared to wonder where the Deadly Races were getting their food, no one ever dared to wonder if it was still their government’s job to provide them with it. No one ever dared to speak the truth.