This piece was originally inspired by Here’s the Setup, a podcast where the creators pitch an idea for a story, video game, project, or more in five minute episodes. Episode 19, NEET, features a village of light mages. But one mage in particular, to the great shame of his friends and family, secretly prefers to work in the dark. This idea was a lot of fun, and the discussion in this episode gave me a great jumping off point for this story. Thanks again to Here’s the Setup for the idea!
For the first time ever, my cousin’s house is completely dark.
Light streams out from the surrounding homes, reflecting off the glass in his windows. It’s bright enough I can’t look directly at it without my tinted glasses, but somehow the darkness has a weight to it, an uncomfortable heaviness that prickles the back of my neck. It’s like if I look at it too long, even from out here in the light, there’s a chance it could reach out and swallow me whole.
There’s no sign of Gregor, no visible movement coming from within. The entire town is gathered outside his house, and the air is filled with frantic whispers and half-muttered comments.
“What is he thinking?”
“Is he hurt? Has anyone gone inside?”
“I’ve known his parents for years. Whole family’s been strange.”
“Something, you know, always a little…off.”
I grit my teeth, bury my fists in the folds of my robes. You’d think an entirely self-sufficient village of light mages wouldn’t need to feel threatened by the eccentric behavior of one man who mostly keeps to himself. But that’s the problem with living in a small town. Once people think they know you, they think they have a claim on you. They feel entitled to give you their opinions unasked, and then they blame you for not being grateful.
I mean, I’ll admit it. I think Gregor needs to stop doing his weird experiments with low light levels, needs to get his act together. But if anyone’s going to say it out loud, it should be his family. Not everyone else.
My sister, Abaris, pushes her way through the crowd until she’s standing next to me. She clutches a cup of some glowing potion in one hand and wipes the sleep from her eyes with the other. Her dark brown hair is pulled back from her face but still frizzy, as though she started combing it but then gave up halfway through. Knowing her, that’s probably what happened. “Any news?” she asks, taking a gulp of the potion.
“No.” I wrinkle my nose. Her drink smells like rotting seaweed. “What is that for?”
“Makes you more alert. It’s a new recipe I’m trying.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
She chugs the rest, splutters, and makes a face. “Not great, Ezahl. Not great.”
Abaris shoves the empty cup back into her robes and nods up at Gregor’s front door. His home is a small wooden shack just tall enough to stand in. Two tiny half-moon windows flank the front door, and then there’s one in each wall of the house, and one on the roof. When my family pressed him about adding more windows so he could contribute more light to the village, he babbled something about how he thought filtering the level of light could lead him to a new breakthrough. We all just looked away and shook our heads, except Abaris, who stared at him openly and then laughed.
“Do you think he’s all right?” she asks now, flipping her tinted glasses down to cover her eyes and studying Gregor’s windows.
“Only two reasons a mage’s light ever goes out. One is if he lets it go out on purpose, which is, for most people, pretty unlikely. And the other’s death.”
Abaris’s mouth tightens. “Why has no one gone in yet?”
“Don’t know. It is Gregor.” I try to sound cavalier, but Abaris knows me better than anyone. I can tell from the way her expression softens that she’s not fooled. “Maybe they’re afraid of what they’ll find.”
A crash comes from within the tiny house, followed by sparks. Lights flash and disappear inside like fireflies winking in and out, seeming to come from all different corners of the house.
The murmurs of the crowd swell to a roar. Abaris and I exchange a brief look of relief before the crowd presses in, shoving us closer to Gregor’s door.
“What’s going on in there?” someone behind me shouts.
“What are we waiting for? Extinguishing your light is pure recklessness. Our village depends on light. We can’t let him get away with this!”
“Everyone’s light is important! What if we get attacked? He could be putting us all in danger!”
“Stop it!” I yell over my shoulder, but they surge up and around me like a wave throwing itself against the shore. Abaris and I make a dash to Gregor’s door, slipping past our neighbors and pushing them out of the way when they refuse to move.
“Don’t look!” Abaris hisses at me. I have my eye protection flipped down like she does, but I cover my face anyway. I can see the flash of pure white even through my closed eyelids. The crowd screams, panicked shouts mixing with cries of pain.
When I open my eyes, Abaris still has her hands raised from the spell. Light no longer flows from her fingertips, but she’s clearly giving the crowd a warning.
I swallow hard. Gregor’s parents and ours are meeting with the council right now, and none of our cousins or Gregor’s siblings move to help us. Some of them are even shouting at us with the rest of the villagers, their faces twisted in disgust.
“We’re a bit outnumbered,” I shout to Abaris, raising my own palms.
Her glare wavers. “We can’t wait on the council anymore. Let’s just go in.”
“But that’s—not how things are done here.” Years of ingrained upbringing, lectures and lessons on the importance of the elected mage council war with my fear of the angry faces below me.
“Do you want this crowd to get ahold of Gregor?” She jerks head at the front door. “Break the lock.”
Abaris steps in front of me, showering the crowd with warning flares. She’s one of the strongest mages in our village, full of natural talent she’s never had to work for, something that drove me insane through our entire childhood. But Now, I’m grateful for it. I can sense the crowd’s hesitation. No one is eager to oppose her directly.
I hunch down and turn my back to the crowd while Abaris covers me. I wave my right hand over the locked doorknob and close my eyes, muttering the incantation under my breath. Light flashes, and my eyes pop open just as the doorknob falls to the ground with a crack.
I feel dozens of pairs of eyes on my back as the other mages fall into stunned silence. And then, as if by some unspoken command, they all lunge for the door.
I push the door open and run inside, and Abaris hurries in after me. The tiny flares of light we saw from outside have disappeared, and the only light comes through the open hole where the doorknob used to be.
“I’ll keep them out. You go!” she calls over the shouts of the crowd.
Given how much Gregor values his privacy, today is my first time actually being inside his house. I wave my hand, and a tiny ball of light appears above my outstretched palm. The light casts dim shadows across at least a dozen bookshelves so crammed full of books, you couldn’t remove one without the rest of them tumbling to the floor.
Potted plants crouch atop the shelves, vines creeping down and along the floor. Empty jars, cups and measuring equipment are stacked in piles along the floor. I pick my way around and through piles of parchments, lanterns, and glassware, hiking up my robes to avoid falling on my face.
The building is only big enough for the main room and a tiny bedroom off the side, and neither of them holds my cousin. I’m about to go back to Abaris when I spot tiny beams of light filtering up through the floor in one corner of the larger room. I root through the clutter on the floor until my fingers close around an iron handle.
The trap door opens onto a staircase. The darkness below me is the most complete I’ve ever seen. Even with the light I carry, I can barely see my hand in front of my face.
My heart jumps into my throat. Why would Gregor do this? All he had to do was keep producing light. Was that really too much to ask?
The building’s frame shudders around me, and I realize the other mages are trying to break down the door. Even Abaris won’t be able to hold them off for long.
I close my eyes, focusing on the light in my hand until it swells to be the size of my fist. It’ll take more energy, more than I have to spare after breaking the lock, but it’s better than tripping and falling to my death.
I fly down the stairs and into the darkness, my robes swishing around my ankles. I’m startled when my feet touch cold, polished rock through my thin slippers. A stone corridor stretches before me, leading around a bend and out of sight.
How large is this place? And what could Gregor possibly be hiding down here?
A voice shouts from up ahead, and I’m sure it’s Gregor. I dash down the hallway and around the corner.
And finally, I come face to face with my cousin.
Gregor’s eyes swivel to me. He looks just as he did the last time I saw him, and he’s certainly not injured. His dark hair, streaked with gray, stands up in clumps. His beady eyes squint above dark half-moons, a sure sign he hasn’t been sleeping, and his long gray whiskers are in desperate need of a shave. His robes are too short, and the hems are lined with holes and stains. He blanches at the sight of my light, his eyes going wide. “No, quick, put it out! You’ll scare them!”
“Scare who?” Now that I know he’s all right, my temper flares. Abaris and I risked our safety, and potentially a punishment from the council, by rushing in to save him. And he doesn’t even seem to care. How could he put us in this position? “You’re the one who should be scared. The entire village survives by using light magic, Gregor. We all have to pitch in. You can’t just extinguish your lights without telling anyone.”
He ignores me completely, waving his arms like someone trapped in a burning building. “Put it out! Put it out!”
I glare at him. “Fine! You want to live in the dark and have the entire town at your door? Be my guest.”
I release my light with barely a thought, and the room goes dark.
That’s when I see them.
Tiny creatures, glowing with barely enough light to be seen in the darkness, glide through the air with graceful strokes. It reminds me of the way sea creatures swim through the water. They’re insect-like, but all different shapes, some with long, spindly legs and others with thick, stumpy arms. None of them are bigger than the length of my finger, and they look as delicate as the paper lanterns strung through town during the Spring Light Festival.
Mesmerized, I tilt my head back to follow their path up toward the stone ceiling. One of the creatures swoops in near my face, close enough that my gasp blows it off-course.
Without thinking, I reach out one hand to catch it before it can tumble to the ground. It feels soft, almost like velvet, and the moment it touches my skin, a burst of energy fills me. It’s like I had a full night’s sleep and then drank five cups of Abaris’s potion. I’m awake, aware. Alert.
It’s as if I never used my magic at all.
Gregor is at my side, his hand on my arm. He nods at the tiny creature crouched in my palm, motions tossing it gently into the air. I do as he indicates, and the creature takes off like a baby bird leaving its nest. A little unstable at first, veering easily off course, but then it finds it balance and floats gracefully along with the others.
“You understand now.” Gregor watches the them, his eyes shining with delight in the glow cast by the creatures. “Sometimes it’s not a matter of quantity, but of application. It took me years, but I finally found them. They can only survive in darkness, or in carefully filtered light. They require a carefully moderated environment.” His eyes flick to me. “But if we open ourselves to something, even if it’s scary and new, we can all come out stronger.”
We stay there for a long moment, both of us silent, watching the creatures spin and float in the dark. And for the first time in my life, the darkness doesn’t feel something that’s going to swallow me.
It feels normal. Like the light.