The horizon was just starting to turn crimson when he opened his eyes and stretched. Three days left. Then he remembered what had happened and bolted up, looking around. No one was here and he let out a sigh of relief. Then he saw his mask on the ground in front of him and his heart skidded to a stop. He held out a trembling hand and picked it up, looking around again. He heard a clopping sound and swiftly put the mask on. Had he taken it off in his dreams? Why wasn’t it on his face? The creature appeared and he sat up, face protected once more.
“There’s no point in wearing that,” the creature said, gesturing to the mask.
“You saw me?” he whispered.
“I was curious. You are intended for me, after all. I should know what you look like. And we don’t have to see your faces to draw you.”
He tensed. “You don’t?”
“No,” the creature said. “It makes it more likely to happen, but some of you are just drawn to us no matter what you do. You would be drawn to me regardless of whether or not I saw your face, and I was curious.”
Jarl shivered. That meant the creature had gotten close enough to take off his mask while he was sleeping. So much for the creature giving him privacy. He never should have trusted him and he would never make that mistake again.
“You humans are quite beautiful,” the creature added. “You especially. I’m glad you’re intended for me.”
“Why does it matter what I look like if you’re just going to eat me?” he asked gruffly, getting to his feet and looking around. The creature smiled.
“I want you to survive,” he said. “I think you might. But I have to go now. You’ll be safe during the day.”
The sun was rising and Jarl realized that the creature of course couldn’t be here once the sun came up. He would have to do as much as possible while he could. The creature got up and headed into the shadows of the woods and Jarl waited until the sun had broken the horizon before going to the edge of the plants to use the bathroom. Then he got back to harvesting and soon his bags were full. He hefted them over his shoulder. The pollen was light but quite bulky and it always took longer getting back. He had calculated that into his plans, though. This might be the farthest patch, but he had never had problems reaching it.
He walked as quickly as he could while the sun was overhead but realized he was exhausting himself. There was no way he was getting home today. He would have to spend two nights out here no matter what he did, so he shouldn’t push himself. He might need energy to fight the creature when it returned. It hadn’t threatened him so far, but it might. Or there might be other, less friendly creatures.
As he walked – at a slower pace – he watched the sun begin its descent and wondered about the creature. Arlen, he supposed, though it seemed strange to give a creature a name. Humans had names, and humans gave names to other things, but other things didn’t have their own names. It wasn’t a common name but it also wasn’t unusual. He would have expected an alien name from such a strange creature. The wind began to pick up as the sun fell and he shivered. It strummed against his ears and he waited for it to invade his mind and lead him to that creature. He blinked. The creature was in front of him on the path. Maybe the wind was driving him.
“I’m glad you stopped pushing yourself,” the creature said, coming to his side. He backed away and the creature looked annoyed. “Haven’t you figured out that I’m not going to hurt you? Let me carry some of that for you. You can still walk for a few hours before you have to rest.”
It was true, but there was no way he would give up the plants to this creature. He remained silent and the bags bumped against his legs as they had been all day. They went that way in silence for nearly twenty minutes before the bags tangled in his legs and he stumbled. It happened frequently but there wasn’t usually anyone to see. The creature sighed.
“If you let me help, that wouldn’t happen,” he said. “I want you to get these plants back to your people. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have let you harvest them. Please, let me help.”
Jarl considered him. The creature could have stopped him easily and hadn’t. But the creature had also snuck up on him and removed his mask. He kept walking.
“I have so many questions for you,” the creature said. “Do you have any for me?”
“You have the chance to talk to one of the creatures of this planet and you don’t want to take advantage of it? I’m a little disappointed,” the creature said. “Aren’t you curious about this place? Aren’t you curious about how humans can learn to live here?”
“How can you possibly feed on me without killing me?” he asked, because he did have a lot of questions and he had a feeling the creature was just going to keep bothering him until he started talking. The creature grinned as if pleased by his question.
“We adapt to the world around us,” he said. “We feed on what is offered to us, but we have no way to connect with you humans except through flesh and your dreams. So those are the only things we can feed on. It’s very limited. There has to be something else we can feed on that won’t destroy you.”
“But you don’t know what it is?”
“When you’re drawn to me, I’ll feed on whatever you offer me,” the creature said, and he shivered. “Most humans offer their bodies because they can’t imagine us wanting anything else. Some offer their nightmares because that’s all they can imagine. If you imagine something different, something that you would survive, then you’ll survive and we’ll learn how to coexist with you.”
“What else would you possibly want?”
“I don’t know. I’m not human,” the creature pointed out. “I don’t know what you have to offer.”
Jarl considered. There were stories of vampires from Earth, of creatures of the night who fed on blood, but he knew the creatures here already did that to some extent. They almost always found the bodies of those who were drawn out into the night, though they sometimes only found bones. Most of the bodies had been eaten, but some were drained of blood. The ones he didn’t like to think about were the ones who seemed perfectly normal except liquid dripping from their ears. Autopsies had revealed that their brains had melted.
He stumbled again and the creature didn’t say anything, just extended his hand. Jarl glared at him, but took a few of the bags from his back and handed them over without a word. The creature smiled and shouldered the bags the same way he held them and they began walking again.
“Didn’t you say you had questions?” he finally asked, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say and it was awkward walking with him without saying anything.
“Will you answer them?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Depends on what you ask.”
“Where did you come from? Why are you here?”
“We came from a planet called Earth,” he said, glancing over at the creature. “The humans there ruined the atmosphere, made it impossible to survive, but we fled before it was completely destroyed. We were looking for a new home where we could live without falling into those destructive patterns.”
“You destroyed your previous home?” the creature asked in shock, coming to a stop. “Maybe we don’t want you here.”
“We know how to avoid it now,” he said quickly, not wanting to make things worse for the humans here. “We learned. Humans learn from their mistakes. That will never happen here.”
The creature narrowed his eyes. “So you say. Why should we trust you?”
“We’re barely surviving here,” he pointed out. “We’re not powerful enough to damage this planet, and we can’t control anything about it.”
“How did you destroy your planet?”
“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “The ancients hadn’t discovered essence power yet, so they relied on energy that required huge amounts of gases to be produced. It unbalanced the planet. We discovered how to fix it but it was too late, and people had to leave. I don’t know any more.”
“You use this energy all the time, don’t you?”
Jarl nodded. “But our energy is sustainable,” he said. “It uses the sun. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it isn’t dangerous.”
“We won’t make the same mistake here,” Jarl promised, and the creature began walking at his side again.
“Why did you choose this place as your home?”
“We didn’t know how dangerous it was at first, so the first colonists took apart the ship that brought us here. Now we can’t put it together to leave, so we’re trapped. Why didn’t you attack us at first? Were you trying to trap us here?”
“We thought you would leave,” the creature said. “But you stayed, and we couldn’t ignore you. Everything on this planet has to work together. There can’t be parts of it that stand alone. That means we have to figure out how to integrate you into this world, but the only way we’ve found so far is quite unsatisfying. You’re like a poison on our surface and we need to figure out what to do with you. It’s quite troubling for us.”
“You’re not the ones getting killed,” Jarl said bitterly.
The creature laughed, to his surprise. “We could do worse,” he said. “We could lure all of you all at once. We’re trying to be as gentle to you as we can while still fulfilling our biological imperative. And I’m trying to connect with you now so that you can survive and teach us a better way to feed.”
“You actually want me to survive? Don’t you like killing us?”
“No,” he said. “If we wanted to kill you, we would. We want you to survive, but you have to become part of our planet. We need to neutralize your poison or find a way to adapt to it.”
“If we’re poison, why do you eat us?”
“Your bodies aren’t poison,” he said with a smile, flashing his fangs. “Your minds are.”
Jarl shivered. The wind picked up and he flinched, looking around. But there was nothing for the wind to do, he realized. He was already walking next to the creature who would devour him. The wind didn’t need to lure him anywhere. He eyed the creature and was again impressed at how handsome he was. And why was his skin so tan when he was a creature of the night? How was he possibly so human? If he were human, Jarl would be quite attracted to him, he realized. The creature glanced at him and smiled, revealing those fangs once again, and he shuddered. No, he was not attracted to this creature no matter how beautiful he was.
They walked in silence as the sunset faded into night, then he looked around. He needed to sleep if he wanted to be able to continue. He would need to walk all day tomorrow, then sleep out here again, but he would be back the next day. He was making good time and didn’t need to push himself right now. He looked over at the creature, wondering if he would leave again or if he would sneak up on him in the middle of the night again.
“You need to sleep,” the creature observed. “Have you seen any good places? There’s somewhere nearby you might like.”
“Where is it?” he asked warily, and the creature gestured off the path.
“It’s in the woods about twenty minutes from here.”
“I’m not leaving this trail.”
“You’ll be able to find your way back. I’ll guide you.” At Jarl’s silence, he sighed. “If I wanted to lure you, you’d be dead. I just want you to have a good place where you can feel safe.”
He wanted to point out that he wouldn’t feel safe anywhere in these woods but didn’t. This was the one time of year when he actually was safe, so he should try to relax. Maybe he did know a good place. He would try it.
He nodded and the creature led him off the path into the dense woods. He paused every so often to carve arrows into the trees and the creature looked amused but allowed it. He did not want to get lost here but he had to admit that if the creature was trying to kill him, there were easier ways of doing it. Then they reached a clearing and he exhaled in wonder.
The trees formed a perfect circle and the moon was perfectly framed overhead. It was a full moon, he realized as he stepped into the clearing and looked up. He had never seen the moon like this. It hung heavy in the sky and he realized he had never studied it before. Night was a time to be feared and the sight of the moon signaled danger, so he had never looked at it. The creature set his bags down and took Jarl’s, who handed them over without protest, still entranced by the moon. Without a word, the creature lay down and crossed his arms behind his head, staring up at the beautiful orb. That was probably a better way to look at it, he considered, and lay down next to him, eyes still caught in the shining white globe.
“You’ve never really seen the moon, have you?” the creature asked softly.
“No,” he whispered. “It’s beautiful.”
There were shadows across the surface and it almost looked like there were two rabbits chasing each other across the lower half, though they had to be craters. There were some who studied the moon, he knew, because the moon had such influence over the world here, but he had never paid attention. The moonlight held no warmth but it illuminated everything perfectly and he was amazed at how perfectly the trees framed it. The creature must have timed this perfectly to get him here right now and he was grateful he had followed.
“The moon is like a second mother to us,” the creature said, still in that soft voice. It was like a seductive whisper. “Our planet cares for us, but the moon guides us. She gives us strength, and wisdom. She counsels us. She is the one who pulls her power back so that you humans can safely travel for this short time each year. She wants to know you.”
“It’s just a moon,” Jarl said cautiously, but looking at the beautiful moon, he did feel something mystical about it. He reached his hand up as if he could touch it and looked at the pale surface beyond his fingertips. His ancestors had traveled past that moon to get here, he thought. Had they found it as amazing as he did? Was that what had convinced them to stay? This gorgeous glowing sphere in the sky? He lowered his hand and noticed the creature looking at him with those ebony eyes. They were alien, but in that face they were nearly as lovely as the moon and he blushed and quickly looked away.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” he said.
“Thank you for trusting me enough to leave your path, Jarl,” the creature said, and he shivered at how the creature caressed his name. “I’ll leave you to sleep. There’s no need to keep your mask on. It can’t be comfortable. No one else will see you. I promise.”
The creature got up and vanished into the ring of trees and he considered. There really was no point and it was uncomfortable. He got up and went to his bag to get ready to sleep and looked around. There really weren’t any good nooks to hide in, but surely nothing would harm him. The moon had moved from the center of the circle of trees but he would like to look at it more. He went back to the center and lay on his back again, arms cushioning his head as he cautiously took off his mask and put it within arms reach.
He could see the moon completely now that the mask wasn’t shielding the corners of his vision, and he let out a sigh of admiration. Was the moon capable of doing things? Was it an entity and not just a chunk of rock? Was it the reason he was safe right now, in the night on this treacherous planet? He stared at the moon for a long time and wasn’t even aware of when he sank into sleep.