Prompt Short Story: Phobias

Content Warning: many snakes, snake bites, emotional abuse

Trina finished laying the charms that concealed their campsite, and activated traps and alarms if someone or something encroached beyond the outer barrier.

At tonight’s camp, Cherry was setting up their tent and preparing food. Fortunately the concealment was all-encompassing, so there was no danger in lighting a fire or cooking. The dehydrated meals and snacks and tubes of paste they’d been given weren’t terrible, but the luxury of a warm fire and roasting meat was hard to resist.

Of course, Trina could have eaten it raw, her wolf side meant she didn’t have to worry about that, but she much preferred her food cooked, and Cherry was a great chef. Even out in the middle of nowhere, she would gather plants and roots while Trina hunted, and made delicious skewers and stews and casseroles over the campfire.

The last few days had been an exercise in quickly-learned survival skills and frustration. Trina hunted easily, but had to take care to avoid any possible encounters with humans. Even glamoured–she looked like a normal wolf, Cherry told her–it was too much risk. They still needed to avoid any humans even in human glamoured form–again, too much risk.

So they were travelling through forests and woods, to stay hidden, always moving. If they had to leave the safety of the trees, they moved at night; Trina in wolf form, sniffing for danger; Cherry flying above, scouting ahead as far as she could for humans, and for a new place to aim for.

They moved north, into Scottish territory, aiming for the Highlands where they hoped to find somewhere more permanent to stay for a while. The weather was turning, and some mornings the dew was crystalline with frost and their breath plumed out in front of them.

As they moved, they remained mostly silent, alert for danger. When they rested for meals and for sleep, their space hidden, they talked, swapping tales of their lives before meeting the pack, explaining their different cultures.

Tonight, feeling upbeat, with the scent of skewered and seasoned rabbits with mushrooms and roots Trina had no name for cooking on spits over the fire, making their mouths water, Cherry grinned.

“What’s your worst phobia? Not, like, losing someone or something–those are fears. What’s your most pressing irrational, phobic, terror?”

Trina watched the flames for a few minutes, thinking, right elbow on right knee, chip cupped in right palm. After a while she sat up with a rueful smile.

“I guess that’d be lightning. Not rain, not even thunder, but the sight of a flash of lightning just ups my heart rate and adrenaline, every time. When I was young, I’d imagine monsters coming through the window, backlit by the lightning, just giant holes in the world, but holes that were humanoid, but shaped and moving in ways that were totally wrong for humans. I’ve no clue where I picked it up, but it’s been there as long as I can remember. I’m actually kinda dreading getting caught in one while we’re out here. You’ll probably have me clinging to you in terror.”

“That’s OK, love, I’ll do my best to comfort and distract you…” Cherry reached a hand out and gently caressed Trina’s cheek.

Trina smiled and kissed the palm, “What about you?”

Cherry chortled, “Well I got over mine. I say got over…well you’ll see. When I was a child, just at the age we begin our training, and before my foresight showed itself, I was practicing out in the woods just beyond our home. It’s pretty common, there’s various little training spots set up in clearings and stands of trees, to practice just about anything. Anyway, I was practicing climbing and then jumping from tree to tree. It’s one of the ways we travel quickly and quietly–and being above people’s heads means you rarely get spotted, unless alerted folk don’t tend to look up.

“So there I was, prancing around and showing off to myself. I paused to catch my breath, knelt on a branch, and promptly got attacked by an adder. I fell right off the tree, hit the ground with a thump, and just lay there, stunned, until I saw the beastly thing coming down to investigate further.

“Our wings don’t hold us up until we reach adolescence, so I ran–all the way back home–holding the hand that was bitten to my chest like it was about to fall off.

“Adders are poisonous, mostly to their prey and not really to humans. But being a little smaller–both as a pixie, and as a child–it would make me sick if untreated, but wouldn’t kill me. Of course, that part I only found out later. At the time, I was convinced that was it, I was dying. So much so that I didn’t even notice the bleeding from my head, which I’d hit when I landed.

“I got home, and the bite was treated, as was my head, and I was fine. But I was terrified of it happening again. Snakes were now evil and scary and I couldn’t even bear to go outside because the cave is in the woods and these things could be anywhere, waiting for me.

“When others realised what was happening, and when I outright refused to go into the woods, no matter how they yelled and cajoled me, I got in a lot of trouble. And I couldn’t explain to them the heart pounding, mouth drying, adrenaline rushing terror that even the thought of encountering another snake raised in me. Mostly because they weren’t listening. I was a warrior, dammit! And pixie warriors are as fearless as they are feared!”

“Not great at compassion and empathy, are they?” Trina commented with a frown.

Cherry laughed, “It’s not something my kind, especially the warrior class, are known for, no.”

“So what happened? Clearly you got over it somehow.”

“The general–Arissa, the one before Cobalt–picked me up one morning. And I mean literally picked me up, by the scruff of my neck. She held me fast and marched me out into the woods. I kicked and I screamed and got absolutely nowhere. After a few minutes walking, she let go. And I dropped. Right into a pit. Full of snakes. The walls were dirt, so I couldn’t climb out. I couldn’t fly. I was shin-deep in adders and they were already biting.

“Arissa shouted down to me, and dropped this…”

Cherry held out a small leather case and Trina opened the snaps. Inside there was a vial of slightly orange-ish fluid, and a number of syringes.

“She told me this was antidote–the same used on me when I came back bitten–and told me how much to use. Then she dropped some food in a sack, and told me she’d be back.

“I used the antidote right away. That at least would stop the poison already there, and keep me protected for a bit. My entire neck hurt with the effort I was making to clamp down on my screams. The part of my brain that had stored away this terror wanted to become a gibbering, prancing, lunatic, and I knew I would give in to it if I let out a single sound. So I didn’t. I closed my eyes and used my feet as carefully as possible to shift the bodies aside and create space for me to sit.

“I had already internalised the warrior mentality, you see. I was young enough that it couldn’t stop the phobia from forming, but faced with this, and the options I was left with, it was the only one that I could really choose. Lunacy, cowardice, or making my peace with it–I had to do the latter, or I’d be useless as a warrior, letting my fear get the best of me, because if it happened once and I didn’t shut it down, it’d happen again.

“So I sat. And I watch the sun move shadows down in my pit. And I ate when I was hungry. And eventually I found the motion and sound of the snakes soothing. I watched them, even held some, and covered by them, I fell asleep.

“When I woke, it was night, and Arissa was hunkered at the top of the pit, looking down. She smiled and told me she’d been waiting for me to wake. She told me I was brave, a true warrior. And she flew down, picked me up, and left me in the woods to find my way home in the dark.”

Trina stared, “Cherry that’s fucking awful. That whole thing. Who the fuck does that? What the fuck?!”

“For me then, it seemed perfectly natural that Arissa would do that, and it worked. It also made me stronger. But as general phobia cures go, I wouldn’t recommend it…”

Trina pulled Cherry close, “I know I can’t wish things didn’t happen to you, because you’d never be you, but holy fuck. You’re more badass than I even knew. And also more abused. I have to say I’m coming to really dislike pixies. And I know that’s absolutely racist, but other than you I’ve never seen or heard of any nice ones.”

Cherry laughed aloud and sat up to dole out the food, “That’s because you’ve only met the warrior class. I have to admit, I was also growing into an asshole like them, before my foresight showed up. I still trained as a warrior, but they gave me something that training doesn’t–empathy and compassion. And a personality outside of killing things and training to kill things better.”

Trina snorted; a piece of rabbit flew out of her mouth into the fire, “Whoops, gross, sorry.”

Cherry swallowed quickly so she could laugh some more, “I wish I could introduce you to some of the others. The warriors, and honestly a lot of the others, are assholes in various ways, but some of them have better qualities. The leadership is kind of stuck in the past, is the problem. I know that using me the way they did wasn’t popular with a lot of us, for one. I don’t know, maybe with the warriors stuck out here until they fulfil their task, something will happen to change that. I hope so, I’d like to reunite with a better clan than the one I left.”

“It must get lonely, being out here, no other pixies except the ones trying to kill you.”

Cherry nodded, “I miss them. Less so than I did at first. Less so than I did before you.”

Trina smiled, “I’m glad I’m of use.”

“You’re of a lot of use,” Cherry folded herself back into Trina’s arms.

The campfire flickered over their faces as they ate, so close their shadows looked like one person. But somewhere outside of their hidden zone, more shadows moved through the dark.

Feed me coffee so I can write more!

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