Michaelbrent Collings is an internationally bestselling indie author; produced screenwriter; and the only person ever to be a finalist for the Dragon Award (multiple times), Bram Stoker Award (multiple times), and RONE Award. Best known for horror – and one of the top indie horror authors in the world – Collings has written bestsellers in a dozen different genres, and he and his work have been featured or reviewed in everything from Publishers Weekly to NPR to Scream Magazine.

by Michaelbrent Collings


Once upon a time there lived a boy. His name was Hope, and he only wanted one thing.

Little Hope (for that was what his father and mother called him) wanted to be a Great One. The Great Ones were the protectors, the nurturers. It was they who made the world good and beautiful, and it was they who kept the order. All parents secretly hoped their children would be chosen as Greats, and all children secretly wished that one day the Aurora Borealis would appear in the sky over their homes, and they would be chosen.

But none wished as much or as long as did Hope. He prayed for it each night, his little lips stumbling over the words and thoughts that were so much grander than most. He thought of it at school, and raised his hand at every question so that the Greats would know (for they saw all) that he was worthy to be one of them. To be Great.

But year after year, the Days of Choosing would come and go, and the lights would shine over other houses, and not over Hope’s. Other children were taken, but never Hope.

As the years went by, Hope’s desire never changed or ebbed. “I shall be Great someday,” he said to his friends, who would laugh and point and say, “Never. You are not Great now, and never shall you be.”

And Hope – not so little anymore – would burn within himself and then count the days until the next Choosing.

Then came the last time, the twentieth year. Hope stood alone in his house. His parents had been gone for two years, but Hope had kept their home and lived alone in it, waiting and preparing himself to be Chosen.

The twentieth year was the last one. After the twentieth year, a boy became a man, and the Great Ones never chose men to carry on their work. Men did not believe, and the Great Ones had to believe.

Hope stood in his house on the last night that he might be Chosen, and all sleep was gone from behind his eyes as the clock beat its pattern into the night. Moments before dawn, Hope despaired. His head dropped, and his eyes were wet as tears streaked lonely paths down his cheeks.

Then the lights came. The Aurora was shining! The blues and pinks illuminated the night, and Hope’s weeping continued – now joyfully – as he saw the light enter his own home and watched one of the Great Ones descend from above.

But wait! There were two descending now. The first to drop to earth looked not at Hope, but went into the house across the pale meadow, entered it, and came out a moment later clutching a baby in its arms. Screams rang out from inside that house as the mother shrieked in agony.

“My child, my child,” she said, and rushed out after the Great One.

How stupid, thought Hope. She is not worthy to have her child become Great. She is ignorant, and the Great One should give her child back. She doesn’t want her child to become Great.

The thoughts were like bitter pills in his mind as he thought of all the times his mother had knelt before him and pleaded with him to work harder because he was already fifteen “and don’t you know you only have five more chances?”

Give her back the child, thought Hope. You don’t need the child, you need me.

But the Great One stopped, and did not give the baby back to her weeping mother, but instead looked at the grieving woman. The Great One caught her in its gaze, and Hope saw the woman’s face soften and calm.

Hope nodded, caught up in the splendor of what the Great One was doing.

The Heal, thought Hope. This must be the Heal.

For that was how the Great Ones cleaned and sealed the world’s wounds: by taking the fears of others upon themselves, and suffering the mindpains so that none must suffer. None but the Great Ones, and they were honored for it, so that their pains became crowns of fire and light that encircled the Great with bright globes of glory. “Suffer for others,” said The Book of the Great, “and strengthen the feeble limbs of the mindtree. Deep are the roots of pain, and they must be cut away that the tree may be whole.”

Hope was so involved in the scene that he forgot about the other descending figure until he heard a soft footfall behind him, and he spun around to see the Great One who stood behind him, come from the clouds in all his glory.

Hope looked into the Great One’s eyes, and saw more sadness and misery than he had ever seen in his life. The Great One’s eyes were languid pools of misery that became clearer and clearer the longer Hope looked, until at the last they disappeared and Hope saw behind them.

He saw himself, and the image shocked him, for he saw a petty, ugly boy who wanted something that he knew was impossible and forever out of his reach. He saw a child scarred by ambition and envy. He saw a nightmare.

Then the image changed, and Hope saw himself become beautiful. He saw a future that allowed him to be, not Great, but Good. To become the best that he had within him. Hope saw what he could be, and he wept. Half the tears fell because he could be so beautiful, and half the tears fell because he was not already.

Then the vision ended, and Hope looked at the Great One’s eyes and saw that they were sadder and more familiar, too, for the Great One had taken upon himself the pains of Hope’s life in order to heal him.

Thank you, thought Hope, knowing that the Great Ones heard thoughts and not wishing to befoul the air with his speech. Thank you for the Heal. Thank you –

Hope stopped as he realized. The Heal. The Great One had not come to Choose, he had come to Heal. Hope was unworthy, now and forever.

He looked into the sad eyes before him, and his lips curled in bitterness. The Great continued to look at him passively.

Hope spat on the ground before him, and then ran from the house. The Great One watched him go, then walked outside to where his fellow waited, still holding the baby – who was asleep – in its arms.

you have the child.
yes. and the young man?
i tried to heal him, but he rejected the healing.
a psychopath?

And the Great One’s fellow fingered the device that would call down fire upon Hope and burn him to stubble before he could damage the world.

no. there is no need.
a fool, then.

ah, said the Great One’s fellow, and smiled. then we must watch him.

Then the baby awoke, and nuzzled the Great One’s bosom, seeking its mother’s breast, and not finding it. The Great Ones looked at the child, and then each touched its head with a soft hand, and the three were caught up into the light.


It seemed Hope ran forever. In truth, he did not, but he ran longer than he had ever run before, and when he could no longer run, he walked. And when he could no longer walk, he fell to the earth, exhausted, and prayed to die.

He didn’t die, though, and soon his body forced him to move and look for food and water. He found a stagnant pool, and drank from its waters, and fed upon berries from a nearby tree. Then he rested, and when he woke, he sought a place to hide. To hide from the friends who would point and say, “See? You can never be Great. Not you.” To hide from the home his parents had brought him up in.

To hide from the world.

Hope fled to a high mountain, and there he stayed, living alone in its heights. He shunned all human company, and when an occasional woodsman came into the area, happily singing (for all were happy because of the Great Ones…all but Hope), Hope would run as fast as he could to escape.

But one day he was found.

He was asleep, lying cradled between the massive roots of a giant tree, when he heard the weeping. He crept out from between the roots, and saw a woman, bent and broken, whose tears fell on the dirt not ten feet from Hope’s wooden bed.

Crying? thought Hope. Why does she cry? Why to the Great not take her pain?

Then the soft mud upon which Hope stood moved, and Hope fell painfully to the ground. The woman stopped weeping and spun around, and saw him.

What she did surprised him, for she ran up and knelt before him, head bowed in submission.

“I have found you,” she whispered, and waited as Hope awkwardly rose to his feet.

Hope examined her for a moment. She was ugly, it seemed, though it had been long since he had seen a woman. Hope waited for her to leave, but she didn’t so he spoke, his lips stumbling over themselves as long-unused muscles were forced to wake and work.

“Why?” he said, and the woman looked up, startled. Had she not expected him to speak? What was happening?

“I –” she began, but choked nervously, then started again. “I beg you, take my life. The Great Ones have not come to my home. I am worth too little for them to heal me, and I want only to die. Will you help me?”

Hope didn’t ask her what she suffered from. That she suffered was obvious, and so he decided to do what she asked. When he found a rabbit caught in a hunter’s trap, bleeding and in pain, he never asked it how it had come upon the trap. No, he broke its neck so that it would not suffer anymore. This woman asked for the same, and who was Hope to deny her what she wished?

He took her to the highest peak on the mountain, and walked with her to the edge, having decided that pushing her off would be fast and merciful, and when she saw the plateau’s edge draw near, she nodded and said, “Yes, this is good.”

They walked to the very edge, and then the lady turned to him. “When I heard of the beast in the mount, I came to look because I knew that it would do me this service. And I thank you for it.”

From within the folds of the shapeless gray dress she wore, the woman produced a tiny object. It was a piece of wood, taken from a tree and shaped into a tiny hawk in flight. It was beautiful, each wing detailed and each feather carved painstakingly into life.

The woman held out the hawk to Hope, who took it. It was the prettiest thing he had ever seen, and she was giving it to him. He had never heard of the beast in the mount before, but he knew that he no longer resembled much of a human being. His face was covered by a thick beard, his clothes were ripped and torn, his body caked in mud and twigs. No doubt some woodsmen had seen him and told their friends of the fearsome beast they had seen. To hold such beauty in his dirty hand seemed almost a sacrilege.
So beautiful, he thought. So fine.

He held the tiny bird out. “For me?” he asked.

“Yes. I made it myself.”
You made it yourself, he thought. You made it yourself. Never in my life have I seen anything so fine. And you wish me to have it. What have I done to deserve it? Nothing. I am unworthy, in this as in all else.

He tried to hand the tiny bird back to her, shaking his head. But she only smiled and moved closer to the edge of the mountain.

“No. I want you to have it. So the world will remember that I gave my greatest gift to the one who helped me most.”

The words the old lady said seemed to fall into Hope, crushing him like heavy stones. He, who had never given anything, had never done anything, should be the one to fly. Not the old lady with so much beauty locked within her mind and hands.

“Not you,” he whispered, and without thinking he took a half-step toward the edge of the mountain. The old lady guessed his intent, or perhaps she saw it in his eyes, and screamed out wordlessly. She caught him in her arms and held him tightly.

“No!” she cried. She held him, and then he came to his senses again, and pulled away. He pushed the tiny hawk into her hands, and looked deep into her eyes.

“Keep this beauty alive,” he said. “Don’t let it die.”

And then he ran away.

The woman stayed for a long time, fingering her tiny hawk and thinking about what the beast on the mount had said, and then she turned away from the mountain’s edge and began to make her way down the mountain.


The legends changed on that day. No longer did people tell their children that the beast would come and take them away if they didn’t eat their greens; no longer did all but the bravest woodsmen avoid the cursed place. Now people told of a strange being who was not a man but could speak as a man, with a man’s voice. It was a thing that could make a person see his or her light and the beauty that person held inside.

For Hope, all days of solitude were over. The old woman had told her tale, and now people sought him out. He avoided them as much as possible, but somebody always found him sooner or later.

“I need your help,” they would all say, and then proceed to relate their own tales of woe. And when they were done, Hope would shrug and, because he truly did not wish to be with them, he usually asked why they weren’t at home. They would all nod at this, seeming to find hidden knowledge in the question, and then they would leave Hope.

This continued for years and years, until finally Hope was too old to escape from anyone. Now all found him; all came to him with their problems. They built for him a small house so that he could avoid the mountain rains (and also so that he could be more easily found) and came to visit him there.

Hope hated it, but he accepted it as penance; as punishment for his own inherent unworthiness.

I am unclean, he said to himself as the people all milled around him, touching him, saying “help now I’ve waited the longest help me.” I am unclean and I deserve to suffer the pain of having people believe that I am more than I am.

And the years went by and Hope helped all who came to him.

Then one day Hope awoke to find no one inside or outside his house. He didn’t understand why until he realized what day it was.

Ah, he thought. The Day of Choosing.

All would be in their homes on this day and throughout the night, hoping that they or somebody they knew would be chosen. Or, perhaps, like the baby’s mother so long ago, fearing it.

Hope smiled to himself as he realized that today he could do as he wished. It was his one day of freedom, and he wanted only to spend it outside and alone.

He left the house, moving slowly on aged legs that threatened to crack with each step. As he walked outside, he saw blurred figures all around him. But his vision had failed with the years, and he could not make out who they were. They formed a perfect circle around him, cutting him off from his home, and Hope, though not afraid, wondered.

“Who are you?” he asked. “Have you come to see the beast? Do you want me to listen to your stories?”

“It’s true,” whispered one of the figures.

Hope tried to step forward, but his legs didn’t want to move, didn’t want to listen to his brain. In fact, Hope realized he was falling to the ground. His heart was racing, and then it began to slow, and his breathing became labored.

“Have you come for my help?” he gasped. “Make it quick, because I believe I’m dying.”

“No,” said one of the figures, walking to Hope and kneeling next to him. “We are the helpers, not the helped.” Then the same voice sounded in Hope’s mind. we are the great.

Come to torment me?
no. come to honor you.
because you carried our load, and made our burdens seem lighter, for a time. we heard the thoughts in so many of the minds we healed: heard of the beast that saves men from themselves, and we wanted to thank you.
No. Don’t thank me. I will never be Great. I was rejected by you long ago.

Hope’s thoughts were silent then, as he lost consciousness. The Great Ones watched him with reverence for several hours in that small glade next to the smaller house. They watched, and waited, and eventually Hope died before them.

Then, heads bowed, one by one they disappeared into the Aurora that Hope’s eyes had not let him see, until only two were left.

were we right not to burn him?
i think so.
did he harm the world?
no. he helped it.
are you suggesting that he was some sort of a great?
no. he was far better than that.
what could be better?
he didn’t take their pain, as we do. he just showed them how to deal with it.
we are the ones who apply bandages. he showed them how to survive the deep wounds.

The two Great ones were silent then. And then the one who had tried to Heal Hope so many years before looked at his fellow.

he wasn't a saint, you know. i read him then and i read him before he died. he wasn’t perfect.
i know. but then, neither are we. but he was good. he believed in others, if not in himself.
he certainly didn’t know that.
of course. the truly Great never know of their Greatness.

With that, the two disappeared, and the Aurora was gone, leaving behind the body of the beast. When he was found the next day, the world mourned, and the Great Ones smiled, because at last the people were beginning to learn.