He stared at the screen. The cursor blinked at the top of a blank document, mocking him.
"Where is she?" He leaned back in his chair and looked out the window, at the ceiling, the floor; anywhere but at his computer screen. He couldn't face it. Not without her.
He was worried. All it usually took was a blank document, and she'd be there, whispering stories into his ear. He didn't know where she came from, but she always came when he needed her, and left as soon as he finished writing. But tonight, she didn't show.
"Why?" he asked the blinking cursor. "Why has she left me?"
"She didn't leave you," a voice spoke from the shadows. "I killed her."
"Who..." he turned. He hadn't heard anyone come in.
A man stepped out of the shadows into the room. It was him, or at least a close approximation of him. But if it was really him, then he'd seen better days. This version of himself was gaunt, pale and sickly. What little hair it had was thin and greasy, and its face was horribly pockmarked. Its clothes were ill-fitting, dirty and worn, and did not appear to have ever been in style. It limped over to the desk and leaned against it, leering at him.
"Who am I?" it croaked. "I'm fear. I'm insecurity. I'm that sad little voice in the back of your mind that tells you no one really likes you, that they're all just keeping you around until you aren't useful any more." It laughed at him. "I'm every pathetic little secret you've kept locked up inside you: all your lies, your betrayals; and all the dark fantasies that sometimes keep you up at night."
"Why did I kill your muse?" It snorted, then hocked a blackish-green wad of phlegm onto the screen of his computer. "Because she came from inside you too. And she was pure. She was beautiful. She was something that made you believe you might rise from the pit of mediocrity I've dug for you, to a life of greatness you still think is possible." It laughed again. It had a horrible laugh. The laugh of a thousand schoolyard bullies mixed with the sound of a fist hitting his face. He winced at the sound of it. He would never forget what it felt like: the blows raining down, rough hands keeping him from getting up. That high-pitched laughter only the most evil little boys are capable of.
"Of course you'll never forget," it told him. "I won't ever let you." It leaned closer, revealing rows of rotted sharpened teeth. "I will make sure you never become more than an overgrown version of the scrawny little dreamer who was never good at anything."
He tried to stick up for himself. "But... no," he insisted, gesturing at the computer. "I...I can--"
"Write?!" That laugh again. "So what? Without her you have no stories. And I will make sure she never comes back. I will keep your mind so full of all the things you hate about yourself that your dreams will die." It glanced scornfully down at him. "And you know that no one else will care. Your stories won't be missed by anyone but you."
"But... but..." He tried desperately to find justification for himself. He didn't want this to happen to him again. Not again. "But people have read them. They... they tell me they like them. I'm... I'm going to be published," he said meekly.
"They're just humoring you," it said. "And those books won't ever see the inside of a bookstore. There will be some reason given for why they won't be published, but you know the real reason is that they just aren't any good." It loomed over him, and he cowered from it. "You will always fail at everything you try, because you are a wretched, ugly little man-child who's kind to people only because he's afraid of them."
"Don't listen to it," a familiar voice said in his ear. "Its wrong."
His eyes widened and he smiled. It was her! She'd come back!
He looked up and saw her staring it down. She was beautiful, and possessed every quality he found most attractive in a woman. He could see the strength and humor and wit radiating off of her. "You lie," she said to it. "He is kind to people because he wants them to be kind. Not just to him, but to each other. He's done wrong in his life, yes. He's hurt people, told lies, committed acts of betrayal. But no more than any of them have, and usually despite his best intentions."
"Intentions?" it spat back at her. "What good are intentions, if the results are lies and betrayal?"
"Because when they are, he makes amends. And he tries. Tries to be better than he is, to make more of himself than he is, and to treat others better than he has." She lay her hand on his shoulder, and he felt strength flow through him. She was the towering presence in the room now, and it was the wretch cowering in the corner.
"He will become everything he dreams of," she told it, "and on that day, you will have no power over him. Just as you have no power over me." She laughed, and her laugh was the laughter of everyone he'd ever loved. The sound they made when they laughed at his jokes. "You? Kill me? All you succeeded in doing was drowning out my voice for a while, making him blind to my presence." She looked at it with scorn. "And you couldn't even manage that for very long."
She turned from it, and wiped its phlegm from the monitor. "Go away," she said. "He and I have work to do."
And with that, he turned his back on his Shadow, turned his ear toward his Muse...
And began to write.