The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
The lady of the marshes. I’ve heard too many tales about her for them all to be true, but I know to respect her and keep my distance while also making clear my presence when in the marshlands. Some on the island say she’s a ghost who preys on the souls of children, leeching part of our life force with every glance. Some of the younger ones say she actually drinks the blood of the marsh animals, some kind of woodland vampire. The oldest fishermen say that to look into her face is to curse yourself for life, and they avoid her waters. But I know there are many who don’t believe, and many who can’t see her no matter how hard they look. She chooses who can see her; I don’t know what kind of magic that is. I don’t know how she chooses or why I was chosen. All I know is that she cannot truly be alive, but I have seen her. I think she’s part of the marshes themselves—not the place, but the dark wildness that lives in places like that. In my dreams, I often recall the first time I saw her. It was the first time I was brave enough to go there alone, and I didn’t have an offering because I didn’t expect to see her. I wasn’t special enough. Not for her magic. But I wound through the shallow waters, exposed tree roots, and thick flora anyway. I felt pulled along this path, an invisible string winding its way through endless galaxies and multiverses to bring one world into the next. I noticed that I saw no animals on my way in, but I heard them, somewhere not far from me. I followed the sound. Rounding a tree, my heart stopped in my chest. I saw her island. Painted with flowers, garlanded with lichen and moss, and teeming with abundant life. In the midst of it stood a tall figure in a cloak of reeds and moss, facing away from me. Instantly I knew it was her, and that she was letting me see her. A stark-white hand reached back and pulled her cloak with her as she turned, so graceful she could have been a ballet dancer, or an angel. Inside the darkened hood was a long, heart-shaped face. The structure was skeletal, the skin a translucent green, but it did not frighten me. Her eyes glowed with white fire that told me I was safe. She stared at me for what felt like an eternity, then pulled back her hood and shook out her lichen-entangled hair. More life reached her skin when exposed to sunlight, but her true self was in those shadows. This was merely to comfort me. She reached out a hand and I took it, not realizing I’d been moving closer the entire time. The frogs, toads, and snakes moved out of my way as I approached her, the birds sang quieter, and butterflies alit all over me. Scorpions and spiders gathered close, and even the fish rose to the surface. A huge lizard peered at me from behind a rock. A dark shadow fell over us and I looked up to see a black leopard perched in a tree above us, lazily swinging her tail, eyes sparkling. I sat down beside the lady, still not speaking. Speaking isn’t necessary with her. She whispered my name aloud once—“Elizabeth”—and delicately alit on a tree stump. She deftly pulled reeds from the water, flowers from the vines crisscrossing the canopy above us, and pulled my hair up into a facsimile of the nature she commanded. She drew handfuls of white mud from the shallows and painted my face so it resembled hers, like you could see my skull through my skin. She pulled me to the edge of the water to see my reflection, and it was beautiful. The more I stared at my reflection, the more the human world seemed to fade away. It was so very small. She smiled at her work and motioned for me to wait. She used a stick to carve the outline of a fearsome dragon in the wet sand. My dragon. The dragon of crimson and jade that waits for me beneath the crashing waves beyond the northern cliffs. Her eyes glowed red when they met mine again, her face grave, and I understood; I had always understood. She pulled from her cloak a tiny bird made of blue moss the color of robins’ eggs, and placed it in my outstretched palm, where it fit perfectly.
Waves are illusions. Heights are only relative. To go down into the sea will make you fly one day, little bird. But only when you know the right words. I can always be found in the trees.
With that, she let go of my hand and walked into the water, submerging herself completely even though I knew it wasn’t deep, disappearing like smoke into aether, taking the animals with her but leaving the scintillating ghost of her magic behind. I stayed until the moon was high in the sky that night, and then I went home. My dreams of her have been constant since then. The comforting outline of her luminous skull, the reassurance of her cold, wet hands. She never spoke in my dreams, though, until last night. In the dream, I approached her as I always did, but instead of the usual response, she did not pull back her hood when she turned. She pulled me to her with both hands, eyes burning scarlet, and we crouched in a gathering of fronds. The calm was gone, replaced by a fear of time running out—not just opportunities lost, but worlds gone cold in the vastness of the universe.
The one you seek has already found you, but he is not your friend. Use what you gain in the room of stars, if you make it that far. Then fly, high and hard, to your destiny. For us all. The dragon of jade and crimson comes for us when the days turn to darkness. Be ready to counter this enemy with blood and blades, courage and cunning, for he is Death Beyond.
Before I could ask any questions, I awoke in a cold sweat. The dream was a message, one with a time limit, but would I know the right words? Had I heard the right instructions to save us? Her final words rang in my ears over and over.
Be ready…for he is Death Beyond.
Fiction © Copyright Ashley Davis
Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
Poetry by Ashley Davis can be found featured in the fall 2017 issue of
The Horror Zine