The old man sat next to the fireplace. His eyes were closed as he nodded slowly to himself. Parents hushed their children.
There was stillness in the room, aside from the crackling of wood in the fire and the light drumming of rain against the roof. One of the smaller children tugged on the hem of the old man's robe. A taller child moved to stop the small one, but the old man opened his eyes and gave them all a twinkling smile.
He gently patted the smaller child on the head with a weathered but gentle hand. Then he pulled out an even more weathered looking scroll and softly cleared his throat. His voice was soft, yet somehow it carried well across the whole room.
"Before the beginning, there was the Fade, which is all things and it is nothing. For it has no distinction, and it exists beyond existence. But in the Fade, there can be no Growth, and there can be no Balance. And so it was that the seed of the Tetraverse was planted within the Fade.
"And the seed did take nourishment from the Fade. And from the seed grew two branches and two roots. And the branches were called the Light and the Shadow, and the roots were called the Aether and the Void. And these four Grew together and were Balanced within the Tetraverse."
The old man paused, noticing that the smaller child was rolling her eyes and blowing at a tuft of hair that rested across her face. Others of the children seemed to have grown bored of this part as well. He smiled and touched the handle of his scroll, making the ink lettering change across the page.
"Perhaps a more interesting part then?"
The children perked up at this.
"Long ago, there were four animals living in the wild together. The Eagle, the Spider, the Panther, and the Serpent. And they each had a very important job to do.
"The Eagle flew through the skies above and shone the light of his feathers down to all those below, letting them see their path. The Spider crawled down beneath the ground and pulled on the strings of her web, keeping those above from falling into the sky. The Panther walked on the surface of the ground and gave her breath to all around her, bringing them vitality and passion. And the Serpent swam in the water of the rivers and seas and left swirling dreams in his wake, giving intelligence and creativity to those who drank deeply.
"And so these four great animals lived in harmony with each other. But one day, they met a new kind of creature with a form that was not like anything they had ever seen. They tried to be friends with this newcomer, but it did not have enough Balance; it only wanted to Grow.
"It stole strings from the web of the Spider and wrapped them around its bones to become unnaturally strong. It stole swirling dreams from the Serpent and kept them to itself, unwilling to share. It stole life-giving breath from the Panther, choking all around it. And finally, the creature stole feathers from the Eagle's wings, wrapping them around itself and painting their colors so that it could deceive any who tried to stop it.
"The four animals wept at the loss, but they resolved to stop this selfish creature from hurting others. And so they each gave a part of themselves and created a new kind of being. One that had strength, but also weakness. One that had dreams, but also nightmares. One that had passion and life, but also experienced pain and death. One that sought the light, but could also become blinded by it. A being with Growth, but also Balance.
"This being could be a playful innocent or a terrifying monster. And with all this potential, this new being was able to choose for itself what it would become. And this new being was called Human."
The smaller child raised her hand, and the old man nodded to her. "But... what happen to mean guy?"
The old man smiled, pretending to inspect his scroll.
"Ah yes, the selfish creature that stole from the four animals...
"Well, this creature had been hiding in secret, always growing. And it found a way to make more of itself by stealing from other beings. And soon there was an army of these terrible creatures, and they called themselves the Deep Ones.
"And the four animals were afraid that the Deep Ones would consume and destroy everything they had worked so hard and given so much to create. So they taught their new friends the humans how to forge special weapons to fight the Deep Ones. And the humans that chose to fight alongside the four animals did so bravely, and they pushed back the Deep Ones and trapped them away in hidden places.
"But there were many losses, and the four animals had to rest. The Eagle flew away to his nest in the sky. The Spider crawled back into her hole in the ground. The Panther laid down her head in the shade of the trees. And the Serpent swam down to the bottom of the sea to be with his dreams.
"And the humans chose to take the special weapons they had made and use them as tools to help rebuild and to support one another in new ways. And there was peace for many years to come."
The old man smiled, but there were tears in his eyes. "And I'm afraid that's where the story will have to end for tonight."
There were tired complaints from the group of children gathered around his feet. The fire was burning low now. One of the older children protested, "There's time for one more story!" Others around him nodded enthusiastically, but the younger ones were no longer able to suppress their yawns.
"Oh yes, I suppose there is time," the old man said, earning some questioning looks from the adults in the room. He continued without glancing their way. "You see, young ones, I have all the time in the world," he said with a smirk. "But you, on the other hand, do not. Off to bed with you, and I'll return with an even better story on the next occasion."
The children begrudgingly stood up and began filing out of the room. One of the younger adults walked forward to help the old man out of his chair. "You seem to really believe these stories," he said. "Are they actually true?"
The old man gave a short chuckle that was almost a cough. "What I believe does not matter in the slightest. The only thing that matters is what you believe, and what that belief convinces you to do."
The younger man furrowed his brow at this, but handed the old man his walking stick and led him to the door. The rain outside had died down to a light mist. The old man bid them all farewell and slowly walked out into the night.
Before the younger man could fully close the door, the small child slipped past her mother's arms and ran to stick her head out the door. But before she could yell goodbye to him, the old man was gone.
She frowned, looking down at the mud. Then, perplexed, she tilted her head and asked, "Where his feet go?"
The young man opened the door again to get a better look, and was startled to see there were no footprints at all in the mud. Others came to the door and saw the same thing.
What a strange old man.