Overmorrow (3)

They would use Xantara’s affection for me to catch and kill her.

I was sweating, and were it not against the rules of the gods I served to do so, I would have sworn.

The silence that followed was even more nerve wracking; I dared not get up to retrieve the covers, and the light of my night candle seemed too tenuous and meager to venture. Still, sitting up against the headboard and cowering would serve no purpose either, so after some minutes, where nothing else seemed it was going to occur, and the desire to sleep had fled, I got up.

Snatching covers, then? A rather childish prank.

My pounding heart had begun throb once more, and my breathing evened out.

I ran a hand through my hair, more out of distraction than a need to straighten, and went over to my writing desk, where my brandy decanter sat, and poured myself a healthy dose.

I’ve never had them come to me before. They’re after me now, to get to her.

   Fool! You should’ve known it would only be a matter of time.

That meant the temple was now at risk too, though it was all but abandoned in patronage and congregants, all stragglers really, like me, who, for whatever reason, just didn’t want to let go.

I possessed no certain powers or gifts that they would need, and I realized the childish prank was a message: they could get to me, and when they did, they would use Xantara’s affection for me to catch and kill her.

I will return overmorrow. The day after tomorrow.

We were now into the wee hours of this day, which was all I had to try to send her a message, though I had no way of knowing how to do that.

Find a way.

There was only one way, and it was not an easy one. It was perilous in terrain as well as the occupants in it, but it would be my only chance.

In the hillsides surrounding the temple was a hidden path, stony and steep, that led into the dark woods, known for having little sun and nothing good inside. It was a pestilence on the land, but we’d defeated them long ago, and they remained there, also in dwindling number, being unable to prey any longer on the populace.

A victory the gods of light had won, at great cost.

But their ancient magic still pulsed in putrid waves throughout the woods, corrupting tree and creature and stream, and it seemed they too, were unwilling to let go.

In this, I was fortunate, for now I could seek a Summoner, one of those who were able to bridge the gap between worlds untold and unspeakable, and ours.

For the remainder of the night, I packed for my journey, though I had no idea how long it would take. I was a fair enough horseman, and handy with a crossbow (which for all I knew they could burn in my hands).

While packing, I shook, and mumbled, and drank brandy, but the overall factor was protecting Xantara. I told myself I was not, in fact, running away; if they killed me, I’d have no further part in things, and therefore would not be blamed for the inevitable, even if history branded me a coward.

Still, it felt like I was doing exactly that: no one would know if I left for good, and when they found out, they wouldn’t care.

They scared you off without even touching you.

I ignored that voice, and checked the crossbow to make sure everything was still working. I didn’t hunt often, but I used this when I did; I liked the feel of it, the swiftness of the arrow, the finality of the kill, and the silence of the falling prey, like Xantara’s falling demon.

It was almost graceful the way it fell, until it crashed.

I admit to being surprised the noise of the table breaking brought none of the other clerics running, but when I looked over, the table had been as it always was, so there was no reason to fear.

Leave now, Harkin. You’re conflicted, and trying to put it off with useless memories.

I began to leave, and the sound of footsteps behind followed me to the door.

I stopped and turned, and said to no one visible, “You can’t have her.”

And once again, the laughter, far more low and sinister, rumbling through the soles of my feet, filled the room.

I somehow managed to close the door with my hand shaking.       

 

*******************

The sun was just kissing the edge of the horizon awake when I finally set out.

I would reach the dark woods in the late afternoon; it was doubtful if the horse would go in, or if I could maneuver him if he did, so I’d already resolved to do the last leg of the journey on foot, which meant I would be in the Dark Wood at night.

Since no one had ever explored it to chart it, at least that I knew of, what happened in there at night was even more of a mystery than what happened during the day, but I’d also resolved to make it out alive, otherwise, this undertaking was purposeless.

It would be no mean feat if I survived, but would I be coherent.

I shook my head; too much speculation on the unknown. I’d have to trust myself, and this animal, to deal with whatever came up.

Leaving my thoughts, I gave over to admiring the view.

The hills were yet green, with a tint of autumn in the leaves now, and birdcalls sounded in cacophonous harmonies in the trees, as morning flocks of geese took wing to their feeding places.

The air was sharp, and clean, invigorating me, and I promised myself that if I did live, and remained sane, I would explore the surrounding countryside more frequently.

Duties were binding, and sometimes limiting, and kept one from doing things far more important.

The gods were served were benign, and I would go so far as to say, somewhat ineffective: gods of trees and stones and water, small gods of nature to micromanage what the bigger gods of planets and stars and weather had no time for, or didn’t want to be bothered with.

The people, for a time, seemed to be content with that, and the temple, while not wealthy, prospered well enough until the years of drought, and everything died but the trees of the Dark Wood.

Those brave enough to try and bring out the occupants to help us were never seen again, and the pyres of livestock and people burned high and long during those years.

Those who didn’t get sick, or try to wait things out, packed and left.

With their leaving, the temple, and its useless clerics and ineffective gods, fell from favor, and the offerings dried up along with the crops.

Some of the clerics, like me, who had no other family, simply waited for the end, and lived off the last of the stockpile we’d saved, and somehow made it through the winter.

That spring, the rains returned with a vengeance, and had remained more or less consistent, but the people who trickled in now to try their hand were mostly new farmers, so the land would take some time to turn fertile again for abundant crops; they could still eke meager ones while they worked together to establish themselves.

They were willing to do the hard work in order to claim the land their own, but few had come to the temple to replenish the congregation.

But we had another problem: with the Protectors gone, and the creeping demise of the temple, whose minor gods had now abandoned the faithless, the demons, sensing the absence of power to stop them, were returning.

And with only one Protector left, after they killed her, the clerics were the next line of defense they would take down.

I then recalled the dream of the young boy who’d beheaded Xantara, but whether it was dire prophecy, or just a nightmare, I couldn’t know.

I was on a fool’s mission, to save a world that didn’t deserve it, and to place the burden of that squarely on the shoulders of a young, untried girl who shouldn’t be alive, and trusted me.

You can’t have her, I’d said to the demon that dogged my steps, and even now, was certainly trailing me.

You can’t have her.

And now, I had to make that happen.

At any cost.

 

 

 

Overmorrow (2)

2:

On my walk around the grounds, I met the sexton, who only nodded in that grim way he always had, as if a perpetual crown of thorns in a black cloud burdened his brow.
I smiled, for all the good it did, and continued on.
Satisfied that no one else remained, I retired for the night, and drifting off to sleep by the light of a single candle, I dreamed I saw Xantara’s head taken, not by a demon, but by another Protector, unknown to me, a lad of strength and beauty, who’d captured her heart, only to murder her.
I felt myself tossing, but was unable to wake, when a vision from my youth emerged, as if from underwater, as if I was scrying, as an unclean oracle, or a foaming, raving prophet…

It was late, but the old librarian, the one with the tortoise-shaped head, who seemed as if, also like a tortoise, he would live forever, had taken a liking to me, confessing that I looked like the son he’d fathered on a young girl shortly before coming to the temple.
Given his age, on which I could only speculate, I had no idea how he’d know what an infant would look like in his young adulthood, but I didn’t press, and he didn’t elaborate, and it was of no great matter to me.
I had to study, and he made a pot of his special coffee, which was now thrumming in my veins, and sleep would not be forthcoming tonight.
Finding the compendium I needed, I opened it, perusing casually before I got to my subject; it seemed to contain the history of everything, written twice.
I was about to locate my subject, and turned the page, when an illuminated illustration caught my attention.
It was a picture of a young dark-haired girl, praying at night as she stood in her novice whites, in the middle of a stream, the moonlight bathing her from above, and the water from below.
Above her, in the star-strewn sky, she was circled by fierce, hideous demons, with gore filled grins, and straining jaws filled with rows of teeth made for rending flesh and snapping bone.
Their weapons were as sharp and gruesome as their assorted teeth and claws, dulled with ages of reaping hapless souls.
Grim as their visages and weaponry was, they seemed unable to break the barrier of prayer she’d erected about herself, and as I peered closer, admiring the depth of the detail and time the illustrator had taken, I saw that in their expressions there was something of a hallowed fear, and a dread anticipation…They were ensnared, about to die, and they knew it.
Fascinated, I proceeded to read the text:

These are the Protectors, weaponless watchmen standing guard between the realms of flesh and spirit, the divine and unclean, and the living and the dead.
The origins of their power are lost to time, but in their orisons, they are as lethal as any demon, the latter of which, oddly, gather to hear the prayers that ultimately destroy them.
No one has ever recorded the prayers for posterity, but the language is said to have a sibilant quality that renders it almost as whispered, and therefore as indecipherable as it is incomprehensible.
This compendium has no records of their gods or demons, their names, or when they became Protectors. Once our mutual fates were intertwined, as we relied on their protection, and they relied on us for sustenance; as such we were gradually beginning to understand each other.
They are seemingly by nature reclusive, shy, furtive to the point of sneakiness if their motives were evil.
In what few encounters we’ve engaged, they are affable, but loathe to get close. 

There is an unseen barrier, brilliant in its concealment, that we may not cross despite our best efforts, either by strength of sinew, or power of arrow.
In time, as men do when they are unable to solve mysteries, we decided the difficulty of pursuing any kind of relationship with them any further, possibly decimating the storehouses of our youth in future generations, was not worth the risk.
With the passing of years, since we could not get close, we became suspicious, and such allies as they had among us began to dwindle, and in the winter of their fiftieth year among us, we used our trade with them to gain access behind the shield, driving them out to seek and make their way some other place.
Our clerics, who’d witnessed their powers first hand in matters ceremonial, and it is rumored, in cases of demon attack and possession, advocated that we needed them, and would find ourselves at a disadvantage in their absence.
We did not listen, and when the demons tried again, they found our collective belly exposed.
If you are reading this, know that even now they are here, and my hand grows erratic as I hear the sound of their laughter mingling with the screams of the slaughtered.

And so I end, imploring that if it is at all possible, find them.
Find them soon.

Amid the din of screams and weapons smacking flesh, grunts of effort and groans of misery, pleas for mercy and cruel laughter denying it, my eyes flew open and I screamed.
My scream reverberated in my bedchamber, and something ripped my covers from me, and I scrambled backward to sit up.
At the foot of my bed, a deathly pale hand with short, sharp nails, pulled the covers to the floor, and low laughter, wrought through with ill intent, ascended through the floor.

 

Overmorrow

Kneeling by the light that beamed in a soft corona about her, not quite an aura, setting her prayer shawl and priestess gown alight, hair coiled about her head like an ebon halo, I came through the door and held my breath at the vision.

Above her was a monster, weeping in rage, his muscles bunched, his thick and heavy neck holding up his massive head and horns.

Her whispered fervent prayer was binding him, and the axe just shuddered in his trembling hands.

“Xantara, is this one yours?”

She didn’t turn, or give answer, or acknowledge I was there.

The monster turned its head, regarded me with pleading in his soulless eyes.

“You were going to kill her; I can’t allow that, and you deserve your punishment.”

At my refusal of intercession, it redoubled its effort, but Xantara never wavered; I could hear the reverberating sibilance of her foreign, arcane tongue, long vanished from these walls, long banished from these shores.

No one else knew she was here, for no one else could see her.

The colors in the stained glass windows deepened with the dying light, and the candles flared a little brighter as the power of her prayer began to manifest, and the muscled monstrosity that would have taken her head, and probably mine, seemed surprised to find its neck cleaved clean through, almost as if with the very axe it carried, and the knobbed head tumbled in ponderous slowness, to crack on the black marble floor.

Its body listed like a great old dying tree, and shattered the great oak table where the ceremonial cups and candles were, cracking and splintering it like a ruined spine.

The dust cloud was massive, and dark, acrid, smoking blood seethed across the marble, hissing and pitting it as it puddle and pooled.

She stood up and looked at me, as if the creature she’d just slain was nothing more than a reed blown over in the wind.

“Good evening, Mitre Harkin. I’m…sorry…about the mess. I’ll clean it.”

“It’s alright, Xantara. There’s no one here but the two of us, anyway. It’s no great matter.”

She smoothed her gown as she approached.

“They keep coming after me.”

“I’m afraid they won’t stop; your powers have grown.”

“I’ve thought to renounce them.”

“Your powers? You mustn’t.”

“Why not?”

“We’ve been over this, my child. You are the protector.”

“It’s the job of the gods to protect us.”

I laughed.

“Don’t laugh at me, Mitre.”

“I’m not, my dear. I’m laughing at the innocence of your youth as it concerns the gods; they choose their servants, not always willingly. Truth be told, not even always wisely.”

“Are you now saying—?“

“I’m saying, Xantara, that your role in the events to unfold is irreplaceable, and unfortunately for you, irrevocable.”

She sighed, and even in her forlorn state, was rife with divine sweetness.

“You will help guide me though, won’t you Mitre?”

“I will ever be here for you, Xantara; you have my word.”

She nodded, a tear running from her eye.

I took the corner of my prayer shawl, and dabbed it away.

“I must be going,” she said.

“I understand.” The demons didn’t regard the time of day, and she was tired. Rest replenished her powers, and exhaustion weakened them.

But she hesitated.
“Mitre?”

I inclined my head, inviting her to continue.

“Can you make it so I don’t have to kneel and pray so long?”

I thought it over; that would mean facing the Council, making them aware of her existence, or believing me insane, for which the consequences would be immediate, and final.

“You know I can’t appeal to them without revealing your presence.”

“I know, but I’m tired of hiding. Perhaps I will reveal it to them myself.”

I shook my head.

“Xantara, they will pull you from both sides like quartering horses.”

I put my hand on her cheek, and she leaned into it.

“If rest comes so uneasy to you now, child, imagine it never coming at all. They will use you until your very essence is a husk, and they will toss it in the fire, and forget you, taking the credit for your victory.”

She placed her hand over mine, removed it, but held it.

“My dear Mitre, always so wise.”

I chuckled, and she smiled. It was beatific.

“My innocence again?”

“Yes. Go, my child. The hour grows late.”

She nodded.

“Overmorrow, I will return.”

“I await the welcome vision. Farewell, Xantara.”

She gave a small, endearing curtsy. “Farewell, Mitre Harkin.”

Truth be told, I should have been afraid of such burgeoning power in the hands, heart, and mind of one so untried (for there was no fear in her at all), but I was not, and would have cause to regret it later.

Looking back to where the monster had fallen, there was no trace of severed flesh or steaming blood, and no thick hafted weapon to leave behind the threat of death.

It was as if she’d merely stopped praying, and was now leaving.

I turned back toward the doors.

She seemed to glide down the black marble path, the temple doors parted of themselves, and in the last rays of the sun, she faded like an unfulfilled wish that never came true.

 

 

 

 

When the Broken Dolls are Screaming

She left me here alone with them again.

I asked her not to; I always ask, but she always forgets.

I try not to look at them, but the room is only four walls, and I’ve read all the books in the case now, some more than twice.

I do the, read the books, to keep from looking at them.

They seem whole, serene, even, their painted poker faces never moving.

Dust motes drift in the persimmon light of a dying sun, and there’s an air of expectation, though no one’s here but me.

And them.

Their eyes glitter as they track me aimlessly moving about the dark and stuffy ‘guest quarters,’ for such is my dwelling called.

The days of glory, when it housed royalty, heads of state, politicians, and valued courtesans (two sides of a coin, that), had long past.

It was now little more than a storage room containing forgotten tributes and trinkets of those times, but the dolls took up the most space.

They belonged to Doll Kensington, a woman child with a moue for a mouth and the morals of a…

No…no, I will not brand her a whore; she was voracious in her appetite, and highly skilled at sating them; she enjoyed sex unapologetically, and when expedient, or necessary, charged highly for those skills.

I was a fool to think I could save her

She was a fool for laughing at my foolishness.

Even now, I wonder if her spirit is the one within these dolls; I can fell the heat of the hellfire in their eyes, the longing for revenge.

They are, after all, no different from their namesake: her eyes glittered, but had no life, her limbs were pliant, but without strength, her face was garishly painted, and her red, red lips were cold.

But I never touched her.

 

*********************

I was alone in the bar.

   Life and music, women and smoke, vice and danger all danced around me with the familiarity of tired old couples no longer in love, clinging to a tattered remnant of a happy, fading memory, even as they trampled it underfoot.

   In the bottom of my glass, I saw myself.

  It wasn’t appealing, so I ordered another to drown the face, but it only floated to the top again, and looked at me with sad, defeated eyes.

   “It’s on me,” a voice next to me said, and a pale hand with painted nails slid money across the bar, and an old hand, bristling with white hairs and missing a finger, slid it off and took it to parts unknown.

   I didn’t look up, or say ‘thank you,’ or do anything.

  The pale hand went from the bar to my thigh.

   “I can make it better.”

  “Only for awhile.”

   “It’ll have to be enough, love.”

   I tossed back the whiskey, felt it burn my blood, and followed her out into the abyss.

 

Inner Cage

Inner cage  Outer rage

Kill the people Turn the page

Bleeding in an alleyway

Watching darkness hunt the day

 

We’re the only monsters here

Gods of violence, blood and fear

Rule blue heaven overhead

Die not with me when I’m dead

 

I am dead to faith and hope

Love is but a hanging rope

I’ll not dangle; Best beware

I will roast your heart so fair

 

Toss you like a broken knife

Dare you still to be my wife

 

Break inside the inner cage

Sail the sea of outward rage

Take me safely back to land

with your roughened, gentle hand

 

When your love has calmed the beast

Claim his heart your wedding feast

Ever fast and ever true

In the inner cage

with

you

 

 

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.  2015

 

And Yes, I Still Believe in Love

And yes, I still believe in love
I still believe it’s there
It’s trembling out there somewhere in
the frosty winter air

Or trapped inside a mountain cave
from which it can’t escape
because it fell while running out
and gave its knee a scrape

Or floating on the raging sea
and looking for a light
to guide it safely home to shore
before it’s out of sight

Perhaps it’s on a city street
outside at a café
You didn’t hear it call your name
and hurried on your way

Perhap it’s somewhere crying for
it cannot find a heart
that seems to want to keep it and
not tell it to depart

So when we say we ‘look for love’
that happens to be true
I still believe it’s out there and
it’s looking for us too.