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The wind whistled and whined through the trees outside as Mason's heart fell from his chest. He had sworn he had heard -- but no, Jen was at her boyfriend's place, Chris was travelling out of country. There was no one else in the house, that sound was nothing more than a trick on his mind, the play of an old, creaking house. If anything, the sound was a pipe rattling or the foundation settling; there was nothing sinister creeping through the apartment he shared with his best friends, he assured himself.

Mason snorted, his hand wiping sleep from one eye. He was behaving like a child, alone in his room at night, the shadows making him dream of monsters under the bed and serial killers in the closet. The very thought should embarrass him; he was alone at home for a single night, was he really this weak? He wasn't a child anymore, afraid to sleep without a nightlight in one corner breaking the shadows with its dim light. He was a college student now, he thought with a small flash of pride, he could stand on his own two feet, he didn't need to act like the scared child he once was.

He breathed, slowly, his lungs expanding under the pressure. This was absurd, he snorted, the -- there it was again.

Mason paused, his breathing stopped as he listened intently. Was that the creak of a tree or the movement of a floorboard? The whistling of the wind or the silenced breathing of someone in his home? Suddenly, he wasn't so sure.

A shadow in the corner of the room moved and Mason's eyes were on it, his hand grasping for something, anything to defend himself with. He found his keys, turned to grasp them properly, and looked back; it was his dresser, the shadows outside blending with it to create the shadowy image of... it didn't matter, the image was already fading from his mind. Nothing more than an illusion, a trick of the light. Was he really so naïve as to think...

Mason looked down at his hand, the keys cutting into his clenched fist. With a stuttering breath, he tried to steady his heart, his fingers slowly unclenching. His house key was nearly embedded, what was he doing, he should know better.

His bedroom door swung open and with hardly a thought Mason's keys flew through the air. He rolled out of his bed, bursting to his feet, his fists raised in the vague form of a half-remembered self-defence class. His heart was pounding, he could hear the blood rushing through his ears, but he was ready.

His breathing was heavy for one breath, two. He was hyper-aware, now, of the sounds that had played with his mind earlier. The scraping of a tree against the kitchen window -- he would trim that tomorrow -- the far-off sounds of traffic, the sound of what he had known -- he'd known this, he realized, but hadn't accepted it -- was the wind outside. The sound of his breath, of his beating heart pounding again and again.

And he was aware of nothing else. No serial killer silently stalking him, no murderer monster crawling between dark shadows, no other half-forgotten childhood fear. His steps careful, Mason padded through his home, ready to react.

There was nothing. He was alone. It had just been his mind playing tricks on his tired body.

With a shaky laugh, Mason returned his keys to his bedside table and tucked himself under his covers. The terrifying and over-active hallucinations of the human mind, he laughed to himself. It was a wonder any of us ever got a decent night's sleep.

"I know you're there", Mason spoke one night, his voice echoing around his darkened room.

It had been a long time since he'd felt the icy grip of terror as his mind invented shapes in the darkness. He'd long grown past the uncertainty that had assailed him as a young man. He'd done well for himself, becoming the director of an entire division at his company, the sounds of the night hadn't bothered him in years.

But tonight -- tonight something was different. The shadows weaved across the walls, the wind outside whistled just a bit too ominously. He'd woken with a start, his hand reaching to defend himself without him making a conscious effort, before he'd even shaken the haze of a deep sleep enough to form a real thought.

He'd fallen asleep on his couch, a nearly-empty bottle on the side table. He'd taken a final taste after the fear had faded and his heartbeat had settled, finishing off the bottle.

"This feels familiar, it's scripted", he continued, though he knew no one could hear him. "Those shadows, the wind. The house -- groaning!"

A pause, while his eyes search in the darkness, seeking something out.

"My mind isn't playing tricks on me", his voice was assured. "I know everyone feels like this sometimes, when they're in the dark, and alone, and afraid, but it --"

Mason stopped, letting his voice echo around the empty room. He sighed, his body fully relaxed now from the initial adrenaline rush of being surprised from his sleep.

"I don't know who or... or what you are, but I know you're there. And I know you've been there, for me, for everyone I've ever met", he snorted. "Who hasn't had their mind play tricks on them in the night, right? But it's not just their minds, is it? It's you, too..."

Part of him knew it was the alcohol talking, that he was speaking to an empty room. Part of him knew he would wake up the next morning and laugh at this -- if he even remembered it.

"Look. I don't know what the hell is going on here, but -- well, I guess I wanted to thank you. I think it finally clicked. Whatever you are, you watch over us, don't you? You keep us on our toes."

Another part of him, though...

He'd always suspected there was something more to the fairy tales. Monsters in the darkness, that get you when you sleep -- every culture had the same stories, every culture had the same fear of the dark, the same terror at being alone.

But it was more than that, wasn't it? It was the desire to overcome it, to conquer the shadows. The same goal that kept us all working forwards, clawing our way out of the dirt, crawling into new innovations, new technology, all to stand up against our fears.

"That's why you do it, isn't it? You're... helping us? Preparing us? I don't know, but... I don't know. Something about this, something doesn't seem natural. Something seems --" Mason stopped, searching for the right words.

His breath hitched for a moment, as he remembered being held up at gunpoint just hours earlier. Some thug wanted his wallet, had gotten his hand on a weapon and had just enough desperation to go out and wait on a dark street for some unfortunate passerby.

He remembered the terror that washed over him, the fear of the cold metal pushing into his back and the harsh voice of his mugger.

But he also remembered the sense of clarity, the sharpening of his senses, the clearing of his mind. He'd been preoccupied on his way home, his mind elsewhere, but this? This thug that had the audacity to accost him? His mind was immediately focused, weighing his options. Should he run? Fight back? Turn and give his wallet?

In the end, the result didn't matter -- he tossed his wallet behind him and whoever it was ran away, the important thing was that he was safe -- but that clarity of mind, that ability to work through the fear? That was what mattered here.

"I don't know what I'd have done if I wasn't used to getting past that feeling. And fighting the wind, and the shadows, and the, the creaking floorboards?" Mason laughed, running a hand through his hair.

"I get it now. You're a, a guardian angel, or something, and you helped me learn to face terror. You helped all of us, the whole human race. I, just... just, thank you, whatever you are,"

Mason stood, stretching out the kinks from falling asleep in such a poor position. With a groan, he straightened out his back; he'd have Hell to pay in the morning for abusing it so much. He moved to toss the now-empty bottle into the bin when something caught his vision out of the corner of his eye.

Whatever it was, he caught only a flash of it. His eyes burned, his mind twisted at the thought of it. Limbs where there shouldn't be, an uncountable number of eyes, a shifting mass that his brain couldn't comprehend before he spun away with a grunt.

His grip tightening on the bottle in his hand, the sleepiness gone from his mind, Mason turned back to the creature.

It was not a trick of his mind, there was a creature there, but one which had solidified into a form he could actually stand to look at. Even as his breath caught and his eyes widened, Mason shifted his weight to be ready for anything the strange creature might do.

Fascinating, even after all these years, you humans never cease to surprise us. You fear, clearly, and yet you are ready to fight. Do you know how unique that makes you? Nothing we've ever seen does this, no creature, sentient or otherwise. Everything either fears and flees or knows of their superiority and fights.

The thing's voice echoed around the room, the sound not quite originating from the creature in front of him but clearly produced by it, somehow.

"Who are you?" Mason asked, when he could find it in himself to speak.

I am Matsem, and you may consider this your First Contact. Our rules around making ourselves known are somewhat... lax... since we will reveal ourselves to your race in the coming days. Count yourself lucky, Mason Jensen, you happen to be the first human to learn about us.

"Uhm, I'm flattered and all that, but, what are you?"

Well, an alien of course. I'd tell you the name of our race, but to be honest I have no idea how to translate it for you. I'm sure our more formal representatives have some idea of what to tell your leaders but I'm no one nearly important enough to have been informed quite yet.

We've been living alongside you ever since we fled here all those years ago. We had originally planned to make ourselves known, but that bravery of yours I was mentioning? I must admit we were fascinated. And so, you were correct tonight, we helped you cultivate your bravery, your willingness to fight when you would otherwise be cowering in fear.

You're a fascinating species, and we are all in awe of what you could become. What you will become. The Rurh are coming, Mr Jensen, and the knowledge that humanity will be terrified, but will stand and fight anyway? Well, that gives us more strength than we'd thought possible.

The above was inspiried by this /r/WritingPrompts thread. I can't say I'm too proud of the writing, this really brought home just how out-of-practice I am, but that said... well, it feels good to be inspired to write something again.

Not much about this story has anything to do with the prompt, but I guess that's somewhat the point, isn't it? I caught myself wondering exactly how it could be that the "monsters that live under [the] bed and in [the] closet" actually exist, and apparently my most reasonable answer was that phase-shifting aliens, fleeing for their lives, come across humanity, are fascinated by our unique form of bravery, and spend their time trying to help us cultivate it before their enemies reach us.

I know.


Man, I need sleep.

This story was posted to:
- /r/WritingPrompts
- /r/HFY

As always, this article is available on GitHub. Comments (ie. issues) are welcome!