A mere second before your plummet to the ground incapacitates you once more you hear a yowl and your fall is greatly slowed. Not enough to keep you from crumpling into the grass when you land, but enough to keep you from paralyzed agony. This fortunate survival is due to the actions of a small winged creature that you can’t quite see, as it has yet to come in to your field of vision definitively, but that you can feel sitting on the top of your head, pulling at your hair.
“Get up, kid! The Darklings are going to get you if you stay here! And trust me, you don’t want the Darklings to get you,” the creature says. It’s not very heavy, maybe ten or fifteen pounds, and evidently isn’t very strong, either, as it is now pulling at your sleeve and isn’t accomplishing anything in doing so. You struggle to your feet and feel it clamber up onto your shoulder, spurring you on with more encouraging words. Your stunned relief at having a chance of survival has taken a great toll on your intelligence, and you blindly stumble forwards, not bothering to think about what’s happening.
“You’re going to have to move faster than this if you want to survive. Come on. Run! I know you can do it, I saw you do it just up in that house and everything,” the creature says, and you snap out of your post-traumatic stupor and begin sprinting through the fields.
“Where do I go?” you ask urgently, tripping over mounds of dirt and rocks in your rush to be away from the monsters following you.
“The river, go to the river. The Darklings hate water. They hate it more than anything.”
You know where the river is. For although there are many twisted perversions in the world you once knew, the geography appears to be the same. As you break from the long stalks of wheat and out onto the dirt and stubbly grass on the flood plain, you hurry to the riverbank. The water, however, appears to be a slough of swirling liquid, Shadows intermingling with luminous light shades you have no name for. The presence of the Shadows in the water halts you at the bank, and your furry companion complains about your hesitation immediately.
“Why are you stopping, kid? You’re crazy, you know that? The Darklings are almost here; I can hear them behind you. Do you want to have your eye stolen? Or is there something wrong with the water? Because I assure you, that golden glowing stuff in it purifies all the Shadows. No reason to be afraid, Shadowseer. Just jump in already before you get caught by the Darklings.”
You look behind you and see a storm of wings and claws coming after you through the field of wheat. Looking back at the water, you decide to disregard the Shadows flowing through it and take your companion’s word that the “golden glowing stuff” makes it safe. It is only after you think this through that something about that phrase strikes a chord with you.
“You can see colors?” you ask, confused. You’d thought the world was a monochromatic place. Evidently you were wrong.
“What? You can’t? You have an awful lot of things wrong with you, don’t you?” your furry escort asks as you tentatively step into the river, the horde of Darklings at your back. You’re halfway in, struggling against the current, and up to your neck in water when they reach the riverbank, and for a moment you fear they’ll jump right in after you. But your companion is accurate in his assumption that they will cease their following of you at the water, and they remain on the other side, screeching in their harsh voices.
When you manage to struggle across the river and emerge onto the other bank, you notice that the little furry being on your shoulder was right about the Shadows– what hadn’t come off when you’d gotten the icky goo stuck on you earlier had remained in the river, cleansing you of the oily sludge. Terrified that the Darklings will suddenly change their minds and follow you across, you tear across the field on the other side of the river until they are far behind and you can run no more, at which point you collapse on the ground, panting.
Your companion leaps off of your shoulder and lands neatly on the grass before turning to face you, and you realize, astonished, that the furry creature is in fact a cat with light-colored wings sprouting from its shoulder blades. It appears to be white with grey– or tawny, you suppose– stripes. It’s an odd-looking creature, and stares at you with open eyes. For a minute you almost tell it that it isn’t real and that you must be dreaming, because cats can’t talk. But remembering the experiences you’d been put through in your short time here, you silence yourself.
“What on earth are you staring at me like that for? I just saved your life, and I don’t even get a word of thanks. How typical of you humans,” it complains, turning its back on you and wrapping its tail around itself poutily.
“I didn’t mean to offend you or anything,” you say softly, leaning your head back against the cool grass and closing your eyes. “I’m just a little confused, I guess.”
“What is there for you to be confused about?”
“I dunno. Why is everything in black and white?”
Your companion sighs and turns back to face you, curling up on the grass with its feline face leaning against its paws. “You’ve only just been born, right?” it asks.
“Yeah,” you respond, supposing “born” is a term for “death”.
“Well, can you remember your past life?” the cat inquires.
You nod. Why shouldn’t you be able to? Forgetting your past life would mean forgetting Jack. Jack. Your purpose, finding him. It all crashes into you at once as you remember what you’d come to this strange other world for. You sit up, startled, and face your escort anxiously.
“Jack. Have you seen him? I have to find Jack,” you say, fidgeting as you eagerly await the cat’s answer.
“Hey now, calm down. Who’s this Jack you’re talking about? I haven’t seen any Jacks,” comes the reply. Your heart sinks and you lay back down.
“He’s my… best friend?” you try, your voice trailing off as you wonder how to define your love for him. It was beyond friendship, and yet it wasn’t. It was worship, on your part, and acceptance on his. It was everything you could hope for in someone, and yet… There were no words for the relationship. It was beyond description.
“How’d he die?” the cat asks, and you wince at the brunt brutality of the question.
“Influenza,” you say, pleased with yourself for remembering the word. The cat only nods in response.
“And you? How’d you die? Say, how’d you live, anyway, to get those messed up wings? And you got the curse, too. I thought it was only a legend, but I guess the Shadowseer really does exist, since you’re here.”
You hesitate, and then say, “I killed myself. I jumped off the watchtower.”
There’s a stunned silence that stretches between you and your inquisitive companion, and you’re scared of what the feline will say, until it stretches in catlike fashion and moves closer to you.
“Why’d you do it?”
You don’t know what to say that would explain it correctly. You only manage to come up with a feeble, “I did it so I could see Jack.”
The cat sighs and flexes its wings, hopping up onto your chest and nestling there, its face close to yours so that it can watch you with its deep, expressive eyes. “You must have really loved him, to do that. Guess that’s why you got that pretty white wing of yours. But that one, on the other hand,” the cat says, motioning to the bat wing with a lazy wave of its paw, “is the sort of wing you only see on the worst kinds of people. Worse than the Darklings, even. It’s for the sinners, the really, truly awful ones. You must have really hurt someone with your suicide act to be cursed with that. But suicide in and of itself’s a pretty bad crime, too. And as for that eye of yours–”
“Eye?” you ask curiously. You hadn’t realized there was anything wrong with it.
“Guess you wouldn’t have noticed, since you haven’t looked in a mirror or anything. And with that colorblindness of yours, you probably wouldn’t even see it, unless you looked really close. Actually, you probably would, since it looks so weird and all. See, kid, your eye’s purple. And it’s got this freaky no-pupil thing going on. All purple, the whole thing. And if you look close, you can almost see these odd little black flecks in it. That’s your Shadowseer eye. See, try closing the other one– I mean, the right one,” the cat says, and you comply, shutting your right eye. You are immediately immersed in a world of white, with nothing around you. This world is completely blank, devoid of anything. And it frightens you immensely. Startled by what you have seen, you open your eyes, and sit up abruptly, knocking the cat off your chest where it rolls on the ground before standing up and shaking, looking at you exasperatedly.
“What was that?” you ask, ignoring the furry creature, your eyes flitting about as if trying to assure your mind that you are still in a physical world.
“I don’t really know,” the cat says, its tone suddenly dropping to be more serious. “There’s this old legend about a Halfling who would someday appear. No definition was ever given for the term, but the Magistrate’s certainly theorized about it. Anyways, with those wings of yours, I’d say it’s supposed to be you. Not that I’m an expert or anything, but I’ve never heard of someone with mismatched wings before. And with that eye– I can’t help but think you’re the Shadowseer. And before you ask, the Shadowseer is the name for the Halfling who’s supposed to appear. Only the Shadowseer’s not supposed to be a hero, or a savior, or anything. The Shadowseer is cursed. They’ve got this ability to see the Shadows, which represent evil, like some kind of tangible aura or something, and ultimately, it’s supposed to drive the Seer crazy and make them die. Plus, that ability’s got a bunch of other unknown perks, which are supposed to be so useful the Magistrate’ll hunt you down for sure if they get the opportunity. I’d find yourself an eyepatch before word gets out. You don’t want to get hunted down by the Magistrate. Trust me on that.”
“So the Magistrate– are they like the… government?” you ask, not really understanding what a government does in its entirety, but remembering your mother tell you that they make laws and things. The cat nods, and you continue. “The Magistrate’s this group of people who want to use me for my unknown special abilities which, if used, will drive me insane and kill me, so I should hide my wings and my eye and protect myself from myself and these Magistrate people. Right?” the cat nods again in response. “That’s fine. As long as I can find Jack, I’m fine with anything. I’ll be cursed or whatever, so long as I can find him. What were you saying about my memories earlier, by the way? I’m not supposed to have them?”
“Not really, no,” the cat says. “There are some people who hold on to parts of their former lives when they die, who had excessively strong attachments. Those people haven’t accepted dying, and retain their memories. Unfortunately, this goes against the peace. The tension between the Whitelings and the Darklings is bad enough already, and memories of or grudges against the dead would only further the tension and cause war. Since no one here can die, as we are all already dead, this would be disastrous. So the Magistrate made this rule that you can’t keep your life memories here. They take the people who have their memories and remove those attachments to their past from their heads. And those people get one memory to live with, so that they’ll have some feel for their purpose. It’ll be the faces of lovers or friends or family or something, so they’ll recognize them when those people die. Even the peaceful dead retain that much, a sense of recognition and some sort of emotion. Anyways, the people who’ve accepted being dead and living here and moved past their life attachments can see in color. People like you, who can’t, are the ones who haven’t given up living yet.”
“But I don’t care about being alive, I just care about finding Jack–” you try, but the cat cuts you off.
“Who you knew in life. I mean, he’s probably here and all, but it’s unlikely he’ll feel anything but a faint sense of recognition if he sees you. And that’s if he didn’t let go of his memories. If he did, the Magistrate will have deleted all of them but one– and it might not even be of you. So don’t get your hopes up, kid. You’ve got enough reasons to have the Magistrate after you on that curse you’ve got. ‘Cause after all, other than you being able to see Shadows, no one has any clue as to what you’re capable of. You better not go telling anyone anything about your life– ‘cause if the Magistrate hears that, they’ll be onto you in a second,” said the cat.
Something inside you breaks when you hear this. You had only wanted to see your Jack, your friend, your beloved, dearest acquaintance. And yet, it seemed as if your death had been for nothing. You should never have hoped for happiness through death. It had been a foolish, immature thing to do, and you would pay for it by ultimately failing in the sole thing that mattered to you.
But you still don’t want to give up, and you tell this to the cat. It shakes its head and struts around for a moment, pacing as it thinks.
“Say,” you say suddenly. “Have you got a name? I need something to call you by.”
“Call me whatever you like,” it says in reply, giving you an odd look. You pause for a moment but can’t think of an appropriate name for your companion.
“I’ll tell you when I think of one,” you say, eliciting an eye roll.
There’s a soft silence that passes between you and the cat, and you, having caught your breath, take the opportunity to stand up and look around.
“Where can I get a cloak and an eyepatch and stuff?” you ask, eager to start the task of finding Jack. Your companion sighs, flutters to your shoulder, and nods to the forest that stretches off into the horizon far across the fields. You begin walking across the stretch of land, thankful you don’t seem to get tired, and hope for the future in this strange, twisted universe.