This poem is spillover from the October 2, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from aoife. It also fills the "rape/non-con" square on my card for the Hurt/Comfort Bingo fest. It has been selected in an audience poll as the free epic for the December 4, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl reaching $250 in donations. It belongs to the series Path of the Paladins, which you can explore further on the Serial Poetry page.
WARNING: This poem deals with nightmares, PTSD, and other aftermath of rape. The action also includes violence and abusive language. If these things are triggery for you, then you might want to read something else.
Shahana's sleep turned fretful, sometimes,
when the shadows of the past crept up on her
deep in the night with her defenses mostly down.
There were haunts, the nightmares that came
to pluck at her memories with clumsy hands,
just wanting to talk, wanting to relive
what had been and would never be again.
It hurt to hear them in her sleeping ears,
voices of friend and foe, echoes of old arguments.
It hurt, but these at least were easy to identify,
and once named they were laid to rest.
Then there were the formless ones,
demons of infernal force that reached in
to hook the threads of her thought,
twisting the warp and weft out of alignment
until nothing ran straight or true.
They took her nightmares and made those their own,
bringing them back again and again and again,
every wrong turn taken and worse word spoken.
They whispered sweet liquor and bitter poison,
sharp knives and the hope of endless sleep --
and that was the worst, for it left Shahana
mistrustful of real sleep, restless even in exhaustion.
This night, there were echoes within echoes,
not all of them even her own,
and it was that which brought Shahana
awake within the dream, fighting
to shake off the haze of sleep
and orient herself in the otherworld.
Ari was out there, somewhere,
mist-hidden and wandering
all innocent of the hazards it held.
Shahana summoned her sword and armor
and set off in search of her novice.
She found Ari still clad for sleep,
stumbling through the shadows and fog.
Shahana clasped the girl to her armored chest,
grateful for the company, and glad
to have found her before the demons did.
"What is this place?" Ari asked.
"Are you in my dream,
or am I in yours?"
"This is a space between dreams,"
Shahana said, "a seethe of chaos
from which the formless ones emerge."
"So it is a land of nightmares,"
Ari said, and Shahana nodded.
"You may see it as such,"
the older paladin said,
"and someone has sent them hunting."
"What do we do?" Ari asked.
"You put on your armor --
call it to you with a thought --
and then we hunt the hunters,"
Shahana said to her.
So Ari concentrated until
her own simple armor appeared.
She stood up straighter and said,
"I'm ready. Let's go hunting."
They moved swiftly, following
the sound of distant voices.
It was their only guide
in this shapeless place.
Sometimes one of the demons
would dart out at them,
only to be driven back
by Shahana's sword.
There were bright things, too,
a gleam of hope glimpsed
only to flicker away again.
Trees rose up around them,
with branches shimmering or shady,
fruit that smelled of flowers or rot.
"Why is everything such a jumble
of shadow and light?" Ari asked.
"This is a borderland," Shahana said.
"It touches Heaven and Hell at the edges."
The terrain grew more familiar,
until Shahana recognized the riverbank
where sometimes, in shared dreams,
Gailah came to her briefly.
"I think that we are not the main targets
of this hunt," Shahana said to Ari.
"Somebody has sent the formless ones
to harry our Goddess."
"They would have to go through us first,"
Ari said grimly.
"They will, you know," Johan said
as he stepped between the trees.
It made sense for him to be there suddenly,
the way things in a dream always do.
His armor was dripping with something
black that smelled of blood and tar.
In his hands he held a long dagger
and a short sword at the ready.
"I see you've found your blades again,"
Shahana said to Johan.
"They found me," he replied.
The formless ones hissed at them,
filling the shadows that lay between the light.
Slut, they whispered, and Asking for it.
One of them snagged Ari by the arm
and she pummeled it to the ground
with armored elbows and knees and fists.
"Well, I guess we know why they're here,"
Johan said grimly. "I'll draw these off,
give you a better chance to get past.
Besides, I don't really belong here."
"Oh, don't you start that again,"
Ari snapped. "Fine, draw them off, but
that doesn't make you any less of a hero!"
Johan glared at her, but then
he turned on the formless ones
and taunted them, warping his voice
into a nasal whine as he repeated
everything they said to him.
"Come on, you cowards," he said,
jabbing at them with his sword.
"You want to fight someone, fight me!"
They followed him as he backed away.
Ari kept her eyes on Johan and the demons,
so it was Shahana who spotted the other pack
of shadows hounding someone else --
someone brilliant and familiar
and utterly beleaguered.
Shahana loped ahead
and pulled the formless ones
off of Gailah with her mailed hands.
They turned on her eagerly,
and Too slow and Too late.
It wasn't anything she hadn't said
to herself on a bad day.
Ari waded in right behind her,
dragging the demons farther away,
because even a goddess could have nightmares
and some of theirs were the same.
So good, they husked in their dark voices.
Scream for us, pretty thing.
One of them jumped on Ari's back.
Uppity, hissed the demon.
"I'll show you uppity," Ari said,
and slung it high into a shining tree
where it hung, pierced by the branches.
Then Shahana and Ari saw
that the last of the formless ones --
surely the one that had dragged down
Gailah in the first place --
was nearly the size of a lion.
The others slunk and circled around them,
darting in to hiss and nip, but that one held on.
Shahana laid about her with her sword
but they dodged away from each swing.
Then Ari held up her hands,
one above the other as if clasping a hilt,
and suddenly blue-white fire
blazed to life between them,
forging a blade of light.
The formless ones cringed away
from the burning radiance.
Ari grabbed the largest one
as the shadows melted from it
to reveal a twisted face.
"I see you, Shame," she declared.
"We are not what happened to us. Begone!"
She shoved her sword through it
and scattered it to flapping black shreds.
Then she attacked the smaller demons.
"Weakness! Bitterness! I banish you too!"
Shahana managed to pin down
some of the remaining demons.
"Regret," she called as she impaled one,
and then, "Guilt! Doubt! Be vanquished."
They burst apart into tatters.
At last the formless ones were all gone,
and there was only the soft sound of the river.
Shahana and Ari put out their hands
and pulled Gailah to Her feet.
The goddess straightened Her robes.
Her hair flowed in soft waves,
streaked in all colors,
red and blond and brown and black
like a field of wild grasses.
"My champions," She said.
"Yes, my Lady," Ari said at once,
"whenever you have need of us."
"You certainly made short work of them,"
Gailah said, looking around
at the remnants of the formless ones.
"Yes, well ... they're easier to see for what they are
when they're coming for someone else," Ari said.
"Sooth," Gailah said with a sigh.
Ari surveyed the carnage.
"Rape doesn't change who you are,"
she said. "We're all walking wounded
in a world run mad with war.
That doesn't mean we have to
let the shadows stop us."
"I chose well,"
Gailah said quietly.
When they woke up,
Shahana and Ari felt more tired
than when they had fallen asleep
in the shabby little cabin by the road.
"We'll stay here and rest today,"
"She was so beautiful,"
"Yes," Shahana said,
"that She is."
"It was worth it,"
Ari said, "to see Her."
"It was worth it to save Her,"
"To save each other,"
Ari corrected, and
Shahana said, "Yes."
Then Ari looked down
at the remnants of the old chemise
that she wore for sleeping.
The bag in which she kept her fallen star
had burnt away, and left a large ragged hole
in the breast of the chemise.
Not a mark nor a smudge
marred her skin, though;
it lay whole and smooth
within the frame of charred fabric.
Ari put her hand through the hole
and said, "This wants patching,
and I need a whole new bag, too."
"I think," Shahana said,
"that it's time for us to find
somewhere sturdier than a bag
to store that star of yours."