The old man sat tending the fire at the mouth of the cave when the man stumbled in out of the snow. Naked, covered in bruises and blood not his own, the man collapsed to his knees next to the fire and shivered.
“Who are you?” he asked the old man.
“Who am I?” the old man returned. “Who are you?”
“I’m-” the man broke off as pain roared through his head and he doubled over. “I don’t know,” he sobbed out, holding his head and rocking back and forth. “I don’t know who I am or what I’ve done. Why am I covered in blood?”
“Would you like to know?” the old man asked. “I can show you who you are, what you’ve become.”
“Please,” the man said, looking up at the man with eyes streaming with pain.
The man reached over the fire and laid his hand against the man’s head. The man began to see things, scenes from a life that felt familiar. Living happily with his wife, their small children who began to grow before his eyes. He was a hunter and he was good at it. They traded for things they needed and lived a simple but happy life. And then the winter came. Cold and bitter, it raged around their little home in the woods. Hunting was difficult and their stores ran out long before the snow melted. Every day he would go out and try and find things for his family, to feed the children that were hungry, to quiet the noise in their bellies, but there was nothing to hunt. One day, he found tracks he didn’t recognize and followed them, hoping something had wandered their way.
He never saw what hit him in the heart but he thought he wounded it. Again he went home empty-handed. And again he listened to his family complain about hunger. The rest was jumbled; screams and blood and pain, a ravenous hole in his belly that could not be filled. Once the house was empty of meat, he took to the forest, digging creatures out of their winter hibernations and consuming them until, finally, his body collapsed and the hunger left him. Naked and scared, he’d scrambled for the only light he could see, the only hope of warmth in this endless winter.
“The thing that killed you is in this cave,” the old man said. “And only you can kill it.”
“I’m dead?” the man asked.
“It took your life when it took your heart,” the old man said. “You have only enough time left to kill the beast, if you have the courage to do so.”
“How do I do it?” The man asked.
“You may use anything in this cave,” the old man said. “There are weapons that others have brought and dropped as they died trying to kill the creature. There is magic in the blood that covers you, if you have the courage to use it.”
“Will you help me?”
“I will sit and tend the fire and guard the world from the monster in the cave,” the old man said. “As has been done since the world began.”
The man nodded and stood. He would kill the beast to avenge his family and then join them. This vengeance, he prayed, would be enough to soothe their souls as they cried out for blood. The cave was dark away from the fire but he could see things in the shadows. He found a bone on the floor, a rib he thought, and decided it would do for a weapon.
As he went deeper into the cave, the beast began to whisper to him. Dark, terrifying thing about the beginning of the world and the end. Both were stained with blood, both were infested with evil. Until pure good won, there was a place for evil, there was a need for evil, there was a need for blood.
It wasn’t until he was plunging the rib into the old man’s heart that the man knew what the dark beast had been saying. It was his impatience, his need, that had called the beast from this cave. It couldn’t free itself but instead required a human voice to be brought forth. The cave and the monster deep within it were eternal but there were ways to keep it there, to keep it contained. The light from the fire was part of an age-old spell and it needed to be maintained.
The man watched as the old man’s body dried up to dust and blew away with the snow. He took his place next to the fire and kept the light going.