written by j. leigh and megan o’shea
original publication on deviantart.com: click here
It swirled, in and out, fluid as a current of air sweeping along a velvet cloth. There were stars that disrupted the blackness, but they were distant, faint, barely a dotted pinprick within its endless sea. Na’sheen floated along with the current of the night, for there was a current- it carried her along its undisclosed route, her body no more that a passive passenger to its will. No up, no down, she thought absently, her ermine eyes closed to the dark. Hair merely a shade lighter than the black she floated aimlessly in swirled about her serene face, the strands caressing her solid features no irritant, but more a comforting companion. I wonder, she breathed, then let the thought float away with her cares, slowly ebbing into the black, perhaps one far day to reach the distant stars. I am one.
And yet not.
Her eyes opened. A shining dagger-wound of moon stood outlined against the darkness, its light clear and jarring. Hurtful. Soft fronds of grass brushed feather-light against her bared arms and wind whispered pitiless past her ears. Her body prickled.
Something was wrong; the heaviness in her limbs, the weight bearing down on her chest, this was not supposed to occur. The fluidity faded, gained clarity, and the stars sharpened. Her head ached, a steady, pounding rhythm that hammered with each pulse of her heart.
Have I returned? Her breath caught in her throat. Darker than the sky came ideas of failure, running rampant through her mind, mocking with soft, pitying smiles she had seen before in a time and place that should have had no sway here. She sat up, slow, careful, mindful that the world around her could at any moment shatter like porcelain.
“Someone,” a voice behind her hissed, “hasn’t gotten as far as she might have liked, has she?”
Her blood solidified for a long moment, the confident answer she had hoped to give catching bladelike in her throat.
“No need to answer.” The tone behind her was soft, smug. “The very fact you’re here where I can find you is enough.”
“You are not here,” she whispered, the breath of the statement giving her strength. Clarity began to shiver once more in her body, diffusing the cold fear of the other. Her voice returned, strong this time and with conviction, “You are a merely a memory of what once was. You are gone, exorcised long, long ago. You cannot hurt me, shadow.” Her eyes found their lids again, “That old fear is past.”
“But if I am the past, why then am I here in the present?” The thing answered with heart-sinking strength, a flicker of cold fire gaining might from the small shred of what had been. She could feel it searching her innards, could feel it feeding from that one incident, that time when—
“That was none of my doing.” Resolve to end conversation ebbed as recollections of blood, of screams, of agony, flowed and trembled around them, alive again. A child’s open and sightless eyes stared from the bloody and shredded remains of what had been a face. A woman, ribs white against the great cavity where a heart had been. A man, screaming voiceless to an uncaring heaven while his soul became a plaything…
“War is never the doing of one man—I apologize, of one man or woman, alone.” Relish suffused the being’s observation.
“I was a different person then, as most of my acquaintance were,” she shot back. “If they were capable of overcoming their shortcomings, so too am I.”
“You always were different.” It was interested now and she could feel ethereal fingers brush against her cheekbones. “Always. That’s what makes you special. And therefore, by association, it is also what makes me special. You may have ejected me from feeding directly from you, but I simply cannot go away. No, there’s a lot of entertainment left to be had when I discover my way back, and you, special as you are, will, willingly or no, assist me. That is the way of things and beyond even my own ken to fully comprehend, but I know it to be true. Your battle is not over.”
“Then what I was told is true.” The realization bit deep, keener than she would have liked.
“Indeed it is,” the thing rejoined with a small laugh.
She breathed through her teeth, an ebbing hiss that pushed back her fears again. “I shall not fall to this trap. You won’t get me to invoke you, to confront you. Our battle might not be over, demon, but you shall not glean any more fodder from me.” In her mind, she cut the threads of fear and anger, sniffing its food supply. “You can not have me.”
“No?” Its amusement was a dark, draining current. “If I remember correctly, I assisted in saving your life once—and regardless of what associations you cut away now, the contract has been written in innocent blood. There is no blotter for ink of such ilk, and you and I both know the payment must one day be made. How it will be made, well, you receive some form of choice there, but simply because chains are broken doesn’t mean one can just walk away when one pleases. The shadows remain. You led them, Na’sheen. Right into that village, right into those homes. The woman making supper for her family that night, soup if I recall, you made sure her blood flavored the broth. I watched—I helped you when her husband tried to fell you. You would be dead and damned if not for me, and we both know it.” A fresh ache, an intensifying explosion of pain, reverberated in her skull, causing her teeth to grind together.
Spirit help me, she called out to the night, no longer the epitome of ego that needed to walk on pride and could not call for help when help was needed. Thankfully, it came- a rush of warmth and heat, Angel Guides from across the Veil, their light snapping the darkness.
She heard it hiss and heave, pulling back, but then it laughed a light, snide snicker. “Very well, I’ll give way now. Till next time, my dear Na’sheen- for I know your name, but you never did learn mine. See you soon.”
Light burst through all the blackness as the Guides filled her, their love and radiance chasing away the monster that once cradled her soul.
She snapped awake.
A shaking exhale racked her body as she uncrossed her legs from the now-cramping meditative position, her hands finding their way to her forehead. It was covered in a thin layer of sweat, a stark comfort that she was, indeed, back in the real world. The last tatters of the astral plane faded and she rubbed at her temples.
Damnit, she sighed inwardly, uncertain. Was it just an old fear returning, my subconscious and ego manifesting as that thing, that demon? Or was it…more?
Staring out the window to the night sky marred only by the drifting smoke of the ebbing incense that snaked up from the sill, she did not know. Somewhere in the night’s depths, the winter wind howled, and to her ears, it sounded like a woman’s gurgling wail.
It would be back.
When it returned, she wondered if she would be ready.
Only time could decide.