Shoto was a Seeker.
That was the sole thing that gave him comfort as he stood before the forest. It was not the first forest that his profession had forced him to venture into in the dead of night, but it still felt like it was his first. He looked at the dark shadows that lingered in-between the trees and the shapes of birds watching him from the branches and his hand moved to the sword that hung proudly from his belt.
He had been given the blade by his father upon achieving the rank of Seeker and had named it Sun Sword. It had been a proud day, but one with a great deal of sadness. Upon becoming a Seeker, the person in that role was forbidden from returning to civilisation until their job was done, and in the hundred years since the Seeker organisation had first been formed not one Seeker had successfully completed their mission.
Shoto sighed. He gripped Sun Sword and in an almost casual manner drew it from its hilt out into the open air. The Seeker took one last look at the field he’d been standing in. It hadn’t been anything special, dead grass and the corpses of flowers that hadn’t seen sunlight in one hundred years yet still tried to grow, but Shoto had a sneaking suspicion that this might be the last thing he sees. He stared at the field for a few long seconds… and then he stepped in.
Shoto’s goal was the same as any other Seeker. He sought gods.
Just over one hundred years ago humanity had faced an invasion unlike any it had before. Their astronomers had noticed the warning signs first. In the black sky that surrounded everything the stars that filled this dark blanket had started to slowly disappear and fade. It had only been the odd couple at first, but in the next decade astronomers noted that during those years over half of the stars visible from the Earth had completely vanished. What was worse, the disappearing stars had started to get closer.
With no idea what they would be facing, Humanity had prepared itself for the worst it could think of and found its imagination sorely lacking.
It had been the darkness itself that had turned against the universe. Space itself had decided to remove the tumours and boils of life that had spread across its back, and the Earth was merely another target in its billion-year war.
When this darkness had arrived, Humanity had turned to its gods to protect them and they had answered.
Their names were Karskan, Brika and Lurve. Collectively they had been known as The Three, and collectively they fell in a matter of minutes. Their thousand-year long religion crumbling almost immediately as humanity had been forced to face the vast darkness that surrounded it alone.
Considering what it was they were facing Humanity hadn’t done a bad job.
Yet there were rumours that the Three had survived their brief battle with the darkness, that they had fallen back to the planet in their wounded states and gone into hiding in order to recover. Following their battle people had seen three bright sparks thousands of miles away, three objects burning through the atmosphere, and following that there had been rumours of three giant, orange tigers stalking their way through the forest.
It was just as justifiable a lead as any, and it was Shoto’s task as a Seeker to find the Three and bring them back to civilisation. For what? He did not know. In truth the young boy imagined it was some sort of punishment. Humanity had suffered many losses to the vast eternal blackness that surrounded their little world, if the Three were still alive it would mean they had fled the battle like cowards and as such were due harsh punishment the same as any man.
Shoto sighed and averted his eyes from the darkness of the forest. In his heart he knew that he could only put it off for so long, and as such he took a deep breath, closed his eyes and began to march forward in a crisp, smart walk just as his training had taught him. The whole time that he walked he kept a hand on Sun Sword as it hung at his side, he tried to ignore the fact that his whole body was shaking.
As he stepped into the forest – its branches and tall trees quickly engulfing him – he couldn’t help but notice that the light from the clearing behind him had been quickly snuffed out.
This was far from the first forest that Shoto had entered, far from the first batch of darkness he’d willingly entered, but it still felt like the first. Having stepped into his enemy’s territory, Shoto opened his eyes and they quickly darted in-between the trees, searching for movement. There was no wind, so thankfully if anything were to shift or move, Shoto would know for a fact that it was either friend or foe. Though that lack of wind had the unfortunate effect of giving the forest an unnaturally quiet feeling.
Suddenly, a bright lightbulb seemed to flash in the recesses of Shoto’s mind and he cursed himself for a fool! He reached into the satchel that hung around his back, and from it pulled out a small, tar black lantern that easily fitted into the palm of his hand. For a moment Shoto closed his eyes and simply focused all of his mind into lighting the lantern as he’d been taught.
‘” Keep your thoughts pure. And they shall lead you through the dark.”’ He had been told many times during his younger years, and as he’d grown older, he had learned that those words were in fact true.
When his eyes opened again, Shoto found a pale green light emanating from the lantern that was engulfing the surrounding area. The Seeker smiled to himself – satisfied – and quickly began to continue his journey further into the trees.
His smile quickly faded once he saw what was waiting for him.
The creature standing before Shoto stepped out from between the trees. It was a thin yet tall figure that seemed to be constructed entirely out of shadows, save for the creature’s face which resembled that of a round, white fleshy egg.
In surprise Shoto went to ready his sword. Though in his panic the boy’s hands seemed uncoordinated and fumbled with the blade. A feeling of shame filled Shoto as he watched his treasured Sun Sword clatter to the ground as if it were no more than a tool and not some sort of holy relic. The boy’s eyes darted up from his sword on the ground and back to his quarry.
Even though the creature had no eyes it seemed to be staring at him.
‘That’s no way to treat your weapon, kid!’ The creature said in an unearned friendly tone. ‘You need to treat your sword with more respect! Darkness knows what you’ll run into in this place!’
Shoto grimaced. The voice from the creature seemed to be coming from a tiny slit in the centre of its “face” and the creature’s cheek bones were protruding as if the terror was smiling… like the smile a cat would have as it cornered a mouse, if a cat were capable of smiling.
‘G… get back!’ Shoto said, unable to hide the fear in his voice. He went to reach for his blade but before he could grab the hilt, the creature’s foot landed atop it and kept it pinned to the ground. ‘You don’t scare me, monster!’ The Seeker lied.
‘You’re brave coming in here, boy.’ The Darkness said. It took a step forward towards Shoto and the boy instinctively backed away. ‘But you’re not the first.’ As the Darkness spoke several large talons began to grow from its right hand. The talons were quite long, almost touching the ground as the Darkness took another step forward… and another… and another.
‘But I’ll be the last!’ Shoto snapped. A brief surge of bravery filled his chest and in an act of pure defiance he raised the green lantern that he had admittedly forgotten about until this point. The green light covered the creature, but it just stared at the lantern completely unaffected.
It actually seemed somewhat amused by the attempt on its life, and (still smiling) gently brushed the lantern out of the way using one of its talons.
‘You’ve got heart, kid!’ The Darkness said. ‘Too bad I’ve gotta rip it outta ya!’ It gripped Shoto by the neck with a single, lightning fast movement and the boy found himself completely at this foul creature’s mercy.
‘Stay away from me!’ Shoto yelled in vain, his eyes were locked desperately on the blade lying just behind the creature’s foot. So focused was he that his foot knocked a branch lying upon the ground and he fell backwards, landing upon the ground in a heap of pain and embarrassment.
The Darkness paused its approach to watch this. Its head cocked to the side in a display of amusement, and something foul that resembled chuckling echoed through the forest.
‘Come on. You know you can do better than that!’ It said, crouching down to Shoto’s eye level. One of its talons dangled precariously over the artery in Shoto’s leg. ‘Hang on.’ It turned around, black body shielding its actions from Shoto’s view and when it turned back around it was carrying the Sun Sword. The Darkness stared at the sword for a moment, the blade was grasped in its black talons, then its head twitched and Shoto felt the creature’s hidden eyes upon him again. ‘Shame you’re nothing without it.’ It said, nodding to the sword.
The Darkness gripped the sword with its other hand and, upon applying pressure, effortlessly snapped the blade in two. The metal portions of the sword fell to the ground, severed and snapped.
‘Now. What shall I do with you?’ The Darkness placed a strong hand on Shoto’s shoulder, and the boy could do nothing but stare at the creature in horror. The creature’s talons were so sharp that they were actually digging into the young Seeker’s back, drawing cool blood that dripped down his flesh and chilled him to the core. With its free hand the Darkness placed a talon to its chin as if it were thinking. ‘Hmm! Well. I’ve never turned anyone into a wishbone before!’ It placed its free hand upon Shoto’s other shoulder and slowly, began to dig in.
A terrible heat began to fill Shoto. His skin began to burn, he turned bright red and a mixture of blood and sweat began to drip as the Darkness’ talons gripped into his flesh from both sides. It was a terrible, terrible pain and the only thing that filled Shoto’s vision as he screamed was the white shape of the Darkness’ face. The Darkness’ cheeks still seemed as if they were smiling.
‘Oh, come on!’ It said. ‘You can scream louder then that!’ Somehow its talons dug even deeper into Shoto’s back, and the boy’s voice cracked as his vocal cords suffered similar damage.
The Darkness just watched, finding some sick amusement in the torture it dished out. For a moment it unclenched its talons from its prey’s back, and let the young man fall to the ground, blood oozing from the scars that he would bear for the rest of his life.
Somehow the creature was still smiling. Yet that smile quickly faded.
Shoto heard it first, somehow over his sobs he heard it. From the darkness of a forest came the roar of a great beast, and from in between the trees came the beast itself. It was a beautiful creature, a four-legged golden tiger that somehow seemed to shine in the shadows that encircled it. Its green eyes turned to Shoto who’s tears had briefly stopped, and without speaking somehow the tiger managed to say: “Everything will be alright.”
The Darkness turned towards the golden tiger, Shoto had – for the moment – been forgotten in favour of a much more menacing opponent.
‘Not you!’ It snapped, growing larger in height as it did so. ‘I thought we killed you!’
The Tiger did nothing, instead it simply sat between the tree line. From it came a soft purring sound, and as it did this a soft wind began to rise through the forest. Shoto lay upon the ground. His back, his whole body was in agony yet despite this he managed to smile.
The Tiger’s eyes remained locked on the Darkness. Its purr had started to grow deeper, and as the Darkness stared at it, uncertain what to do the tiger began to rise up to its feet.
‘Stay back!’ The Darkness warned. It raised its bloody talons in a futile gesture, but this did nothing to deter the tiger. The Tiger snarled, its teeth were on clear display and they were pointed and sharp. ‘Stay back!’ The Darkness repeated, but once again the Tiger did not listen. It once again let out a mighty roar and this followed it through.
The Darkness screamed as 300 pounds of fur, meat and rage leaped upon it. Shoto watched from his bloody heap and upon hearing the screams slowly began to get back to his feet. He saw the Tiger clawing at the Darkness it had landed upon, it tore chunks of shadow from the creature’s flesh and flung them behind it in a fit of animalistic rage. When the Tiger turned to face Shoto, it had the Darkness’ egg like skull in its mouth.
Shoto stared uneasily at the animal. He was unsure what the creature wanted, though he had his suspicions. His eyes passed from the beast to the remains of his sword lying upon the ground by his feet, he felt a terrible pang of regret in his heart and found that the Tiger was not alone.
He glanced to his right upon seeing movement in the trees and saw not one but two other tigers emerging from the trees!
There were three… three tigers!
One of them moved towards Shoto in a calm manner. It placed a paw on the severed blade of the Sun Sword and almost immediately scooped up the blade in its mouth. It stared at Shoto and waited patiently for the young boy to hold out his hand.
Shoto did as the beast desired, and as the Tiger released its mouth the reforged Sun Sword fell into the young Seeker’s hand. It was as if the incident with the Darkness had never happened, and Shoto gave his blade a practice swing for good measure.
Shoto stared at the Three.
His mission was complete.