When the Soul Surrenders
Prithee tramped the crusty trail, oblivious to the breath that barely escaped her lips before becoming icicles on her chinstrap. She was seeking sweet exhaustion in a cold that was beyond frigid. It had been at least 72 hours since her last night of sleep. This was the longest she had ever been awake. She had to concentrate to see the trail, its edges blurred and blended in the sterile, flat surroundings.
It was the reckoning hour, the time between daylight and dark. No human with sound practical judgment would be so bold as to venture out during this dangerous hour. It was the time when long forgotten nightmares lived, and creatures of the shadows began to awaken. This hour belonged to the sleepless person. This hour belonged to Prithee.
She shivered and paused, clamping her legs together. She anxiously looked around and tucked an errant black braid under her heavy fur cap. This was no place to relieve herself. Urgent need increased the chatter of her teeth. She listened carefully as she peered into the semi-darkness. Prithee decided it was better to be vulnerable for a moment, than walk on with wetly frozen pants. She braced to endure the cold as she bared herself. Urine gushed, burning, pungent and she wished she could plunge her hands into the stream and feel the heat, if only for a moment. She started walking almost before she got her pants up, struggling with the intricate knots of her belts. It wasn't safe to stand still and the creatures could certainly smell her now. Self-preservation was a hard habit to break.
In the shadows of the twilight, the carnal creatures stirred. As nightfall deepened, their forms solidified and hunger howled within their breasts. They watched with greedy eyes and drooling orifices, talons gripping the ice as the odor of her waste came to them sharply on the slight breeze. They lifted their collective noses to better identify the scent and at once snorted to clear it from their empty minds. They were momentary creations, yet old as time itself. They held no emotions, no reasoning powers, no memories. They were vessels of instinct, driven by bloodlust and hunger. Prithee's scent was saturated with a raw human emotion nauseating their senses. They preferred the taste of fear. All of their warm-blooded prey tasted of fear: the stag, the hare, the human.
Prithee had been weaned on stories of many-named unnatural beasts and belligerent, ebony shadows. She had parried with a wooden sword while still learning to walk. Her parents were brave guardians for their mid-sized village. It was their job to keep the creatures at a respectable distance. Prithee had fought at their sides many times, had mended their wounds while managing to sustain none herself.
The first stars were struggling to make their presence known. Prithee was many miles from her village. She could barely make out its faint glow on the horizon and felt a slight twinge of homesickness for that warm light. The trail was a familiar one. It led from her home to the only other village within a hundred miles. She was well aware of her circumstances, yet she felt no fear. A constant series of recollections wove vivid pictures through her mind. She watched them with pretending indifference, having relived these memories many times.
Her quest for sleep was far from over, and thoughts of it invaded her every pore. Prithee would have gladly lain on the ice-slicked agate for one short moment of freedom. Her legs moved instinctively, her feet seeking purchase amongst the slippery stones. As she marched onward, her mind was involved in intricate, longing thoughts of sweet, dark, dreamless sleep. Among her thoughts, jealousy and anger lingered…jealousy for the village folk who slept blissfully unaware. And anger at everything and everyone, including herself. This sleep deprivation, this inability to close her eyes, it robbed her of the cohesiveness of life.
The crystallized world around her dissolved as her mind turned inside out and subconscious nightmares became reality. She was on guard duty with her parents, walking the perimeter of the village. Small, hard snow was falling and she could see the faint glow of light globes through the shuttered windows of the nearest bungalow. The moon had risen, a milky marble set among glittering chips of diamond. It was a good and comfortable night. Her father gave the all-clear call and her mother answered faintly from the other side of the village. Now, it was Prithee's turn. She opened her mouth and was silent. Goose bumps shivered their way across her soft belly skin as something touched her leg. It grabbed her, dank and prickly. It lingered, maggoty fingernails digging. She could feel its hot, putrid essence soaking through her furs.
It was the twice-dead lamia, Undina. She was known for her voracious appetite for healthy, well-fleshed humans and she was a sadistic tease who often tortured her prey. Undina spoke to Prithee, her fetid breath a hot whisper, filling Prithee's mind with grisly images of indefinable horrors. The girl warrior was frozen with fear and somewhere in the distance she could hear her father give the all-clear call. Through a gaping, lipless mouth, Undina mimicked it and all hope withered within the girl. The depraved lamia flooded Prithee's soul with her slaughterous laughter.
Prithee stumbled and went down hard on the ice covered trail. Her eyes blinked back involuntary tears as she looked around in confusion, the disgusting laugh still echoing in her head. The memory was two years old and still raw. It had happened the day after her fifteenth birthday, her first day on unsupervised watch. That was the day her insomnia had started. Fortunately for her, the ancient vampire had recently fed and was playing cruel games, letting her know who was really in control.
She struggled to her feet, the wind rushing through a small tear in her fur-lined pants. It felt like an ice dagger, repeatedly jabbing tender flesh. She welcomed the physical pain. It was easier to endure than her thoughts. She slowly walked on and could hear banshees rustling nearby. They did not wail. Their silence was a stark contrast to three days earlier when they had been in a full chorus.
The reckoning hour had expired, and the night was in full bloom. The air was dry and incredibly cold. The only humidity came from Prithee's breath. The night creatures were drawn to the little dot of moist warmth she made on the arid tundra. As always, they were hungry. They approached her noiselessly and stopped, empty eyes gleaming. Like their twilight hour cousins, they would not feast on this human. She was too permeated with disgusting emotions, her blood seething with indigestible visions. The various beasts of shadow and night had no emotions. They slept, they ate, and they lived for the night. The only exceptions were the creatures that had once lived as human, like Undina.
Prithee was in a state of extreme confusion and disorder, her body was pushed beyond endurance. She could hear her blood singing a rhythmic pulse within her brain. Her wearied muscles trembled with exhaustion. Yet still, sleep eluded her. She had a physical awareness of her surroundings but she lived within her mind. She created her own world and sought to destroy it. Her demons were real.
Over and over she fought, side by side with her parents. Her magically blessed sword cleaved many shadow beasts, though oftentimes too late to save the intended prey. The blood of the villagers, her friends and kin, lay thickly upon her blade, mixed with vile monster sputum and gore. The little girl with sweet, apple cheeks, the old woman that they had all called Granny, the smithy boy from next door; they had all reached out to her and begged release. She granted it without hesitation. It was her job, her responsibility, and everyone knew it was better to die cleanly than be devoured alive.
Undina watched from a distance, intrigued with the human's pantomime. She knew that one. She remembered with malicious satisfaction the teasing of that one. She glowered at the girl and wondered why she was so far from her people and why she was so alone in the cold? She was almost salivating at the scent of close prey, especially a victim so fresh and succulent looking. Undina was very hungry and she could see that Prithee had no weapons. Being careful not to touch her sharp hooked toenails to the ice, she crept closer.
Prithee continued her private war, her breathing was ragged, and her lungs were all but frozen. Her sweat soaked furs were starting to freeze but her footing remained sure and her potent sword steady. She felt she could not fail, could not allow another death and she dared not surrender. Too many lives were dependent on her. When she had slain them all: all the shadows, all the creatures, and all the immortals that fed upon her kind, then she would sleep.
In the end, her body was her betrayer. Her arms grew steadily heavier. Though the weight of the sword was imaginary, she nonetheless felt it. She stood in the middle of the trail, dejected, head down, panting and immobile. From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed movement and she waited. A part of her thought death would be welcome release.
The repulsive lamia stopped at the edge of the human's vision. She could easily smell Prithee's sweat soaked clothing. It confused her that though it was an acrid stench, it was also sweet. There was no fear smell in it. Undina hunkered down and watched, waiting for movement. She liked to toy with her midnight meal.
Prithee drew off her cap and shook her damply frozen braids. Her arms were still unbearably heavy, but her breath came easier now. She turned toward Undina and gasped in recognition.
"You!" She vehemently spat. "What do you want?"
"I am hungry, and you smell of death."
"So, what's taking you so long? I stand here defenseless."
"Are you not afraid?"
"Is that what you want? To feed off my fear? I have none. I have seen my greatest fears and am no longer afraid."
"You lie, human."
"Do I? What know you of fear, except to savor the taste of it?"
"I know how it feels, I remember. I know I like the taste of it. It's sublime across my tongue."
"You want to taste my fear, then? Come closer and I will give you what you need."
Undina cackled and scuttled forward, her rotten flesh eagerly reaching, and Prithee opened her arms as if welcoming a long lost relation. To her breast she clasped the putrid flesh of the lamia. Then she began speaking, sharing, giving her fear to the abhorrent creature. Undina sat, powerless, hypnotized by horrors and gore beyond what even she dreamed. Prithee gave without measure to Undina. Word pictures flowed like fresh blood into the lamia's misshapen ears. Prithee told of every drop of life she had witnessed leaking red onto the ice, creature and human alike. She spoke of fear and love and greed and hunger. Then she spoke of her greatest fear.
It had been a night exactly like this one, three days' prior. She had been on watch with her father and mother, marching the perimeter of her village. It was the midnight hour and all was clear and cold. When she heard her mother cry out faintly in the distance, she knew something was wrong. She had yelled to her father, and received no answer. Her feet took flight as she ran through the village toward the ever-increasing screams.
A creature of blackness, steel clawed and with a huge mouth dripping bloody spit, was dragging her mother into the night. Her father was fighting it with mighty hacking blows of desperation. But it was not alone. An identical nightmare flew into the fray and easily overtook him. Her father and mother had managed to grab hands and hold tightly to each other, screaming for Prithee to kill them, kill them quickly. She had run to their sides and raised her sword to cleave the final blows, but she could not. She could only watch as they disappeared into the gloom. She could only listen as their screams grew fainter and fainter and finally stopped.
All of this, Prithee gave freely to Undina, until finally she was empty and the lamia lay lifeless upon her breast. She rocked it back and forth in her arms and spoke the ancient blessing of her people. "Sleep my child and weep no more, sleep and let the soul surrender."
Margaret Williams resides in a small but charming town in Tennessee with her son and family pets. She enjoys traveling the beautiful country roads and finding inspiration for her poetry and other writings. Margaret has published numerous short stories and is an award winning poet. She is currently working on her first novel, a historical western and a book of collected poems titled, "Anatomy of A Middle-Aged Woman."
Margaret loves to hear from her readers.
Reprinted by permission of the author.