Winner of the Alan Place Memorial Short Story Competition July 2014
Nancy grabbed David's arm and pulled. David didn’t resist but he was slow and stumbling. He had never been particularly athletic and the days spent in the forest without food had taken their toll. They followed Nukka and Amka at David’s shambling pace putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the ravine.
They are still in the valley, Nukka said.
What are they? Why do they want David? Nancy asked silently not wanting David to overhear.
They are sprits. They seek the souls of unguided humans. David would feed them for many years.
Nancy’s horror formed a knot in her throat and she clung to a tree to steady herself. ‘Okay,’ she muttered, ‘he’s a spoilt brat, but does that mean I can let a pack of… creatures feed off his soul?’
David threw himself to the ground his breath rasping in his throat. Amka circled above him.
But he’s safe now, right? I mean he has us, we’re guiding him. Nancy asked silently
If we can get him back to the passing-stone before they catch us then yes, he will be safe, Nukka said.
She dreaded the answer but had to ask, And if not?
Then only his own guide can protect him.
‘But he can’t see her!’ she snapped.
‘Can’t see who? Who you talking to, sis?’ David gasped.
Nancy rounded on him. ‘I’ve told you not to call me that. I’m not your ‘sis’. And for your information was talking to Nukka about a pack of sprits, whose only goal in life it seems is to eat your soul, slowly.’ She took guilty pleasure in seeing his watery-blue eyes widen in horror.
‘It seems if we can’t get you back to the passing-stone before they catch up, then your only hope is Amka, who, since you insulted and rejected her, you can no longer see.’
‘Get up and run.’
He did as he was told.
It seemed to take forever to reach the edge of the forest. They paused and she looked up the bare hillside to the place she had met Nukka. It was close and hope swelled. She grabbed David’s arm as he began to sink onto the grass.
‘Oh, no you don’t. Come on, run.’
David leaned over and retched. ‘I can’t,’ he gasped, ‘need to breath, just for a minute.’
Nancy looked about her. The sun shone onto the open hillside. Amka circled in the warm air above them. Nukka, a few paces ahead, looked back at them.
‘Okay, you have ten seconds. Start breathing.’
Before David’s ten seconds were up, Nukka and Amka’s warning exploded in her head. She grabbed David’s arm and tried to yank him to his feet.
David’s breath rasped in his throat. ‘No, Nancy, please, you said ten…’
A wild screeching echoed through the forest behind them.
She thumped him, hard. ‘David if you want to hang onto your miserable soul you had better run.’
He looked up at her, his stricken face purple and slick with sweat. ‘I can hear them. They’re coming; you’ve got to help me.’ His eyes were wide with terror.
‘I’ve told you! I can’t help you, Nukka can’t help you. Only Amka could have helped you. All you can do now is get to the stone and leave.’ She pulled on his arm. ‘Run, you lump of lard.’
David struggled to his feet. After a few stumbling steps he collapsed, sobbing. ‘I can’t, Nancy, I can’t. Please, I can’t run anymore.’
Nancy looked back at the forest. Countless small crouching figures crept from the shadow of the trees. Their shapeless bodies seemed to shift and change in the pall of dark smoke which hung about them. They were cautious now, looking up at the sun and back to the sobbing boy as if calculating their chances. Nukka and Amka put themselves between the creeping forms and David, but the sprits seemed to have no interest in the guides at all.
Nancy pulled harder, ‘David if you don’t get up right this second then you are worse than dead,’ she screeched. ‘If you won’t do it for me then think of Posy. She’ll be upset, really, really upset, believe me, I know.’
Sobbing, David began to crawl. The sprits spread out, surrounding him cutting him off from the crossing-stone. Cold swept through Nancy as the sprits closest to Nukka passed through his body as if he were smoke.
‘Amka, you have to help,’ she yelled.
Amka landed close by.
I can’t help unless David accepts me.
‘Accepts you? How can he? He can’t even see you, you damn stupid feathered…’
‘Amka, Amka help me.’ David’s voice was shrill with fear.
‘At last,’ Nancy said. ‘She’s right here, sitting in front of me. See her?’
The sprits were moving closer as if sensing their moment of victory might be slipping away.
‘David, can you see her,’ she snapped.
David reached toward Nancy with a shaking hand. ‘Yes, yes, I see her.’
‘Then for heaven’s sake tell her you need her. If I can Change to go find you then you can admit you were wrong, damn it.’
Nancy was barely able to hear the whispered, ‘Amka, you were right, please, please help me.’
Furious the sprits dived toward them, Nancy threw herself over David only to be tipped off him a second later when he swore and pushed her away. The sprits’ shrieks of triumph turned into screams of rage as they dissolved in the warm air leaving trails of smoky vapour behind them. Nukka’s triumphant howl filled the hillside. Nancy flopped back onto the grass and flung her arms wide.
‘Damn, David, that was close.’ She sat up and glared at him. ‘Do you realize how close? Can you imagine what it would have been like if I had to go home without you? You have no idea how unbearable your mother has been these past few days. Can I just say, if you are going to be a member of this family you have got to promise you will never, ever disappear again. I don’t think I could stand it if…’
‘Nancy, get a grip.’ David said still engrossed in Amka as if seeing her for the first time. Then not even sparing a glance in Nancy’s direction, he got shakily to his feet and tottered up the hill.’
‘Well, you ungrateful…’
‘And don’t ever try to hug me again.’
‘Hug you? Me?’
‘Are you coming or not, because you know, now I have Amka, you’re sort of redundant.’
Nancy gaped at him, ‘This isn’t over by a long chalk, David,’ she yelled after him. ‘You owe me. I saved your life.’
‘Amka saved me, not you.’
Nancy spluttered in disbelieve at David’s retreating back. ‘Only so your mother can kill you when you get home,’ she screeched after him.
‘With any luck,’ she muttered wistfully.