Leiko and the White Wolf

It was raining hard when Ko’s father helped put her straw hat on, and told her they were going fishing.

Ko looked for her mother, but she was cloaked in shadows, cooking something tangy that made Ko’s mouth water, and her stomach growl.

“It’s raining, Father.”

“Yes, I know, but Mother needs fish, and they come to the surface for fresh water when it rains. We’ll catch them quickly, and return. You’re so good at catching them, we’ll be back in no time at all.”

His words of praise warmed Ko to the task, and she eagerly followed him down to where their fishing boat was tied on the aging, rickety pier. Ko used to think it would be fun to fall in, but with the rain and wind, and the high waves out in the harbor, she hoped the planks would hold her and Father’s weight.

It was hard to see with the rain blowing in almost sideways, but Ko was determined, and driven by hunger, to see this through, and have more warm words of love from him.

As they walked, a faint roll of thunder rumbled in the distance, and Ko took her father’s hand. He held it, and smiled down at her, and she took comfort in that.

He would keep her safe.

When they arrived at the harbor, a boat was docked beside theirs, bigger, darker and foreboding, and a man in a wide straw hat with tassels stood on the deck, watching their approach.

Ko slowed down, and her father did too, but then he said, “It’s all right, Ko.”

She relaxed, but didn’t let go of his hand, part of her still wary; the boat was a ferry, and it was unusual that it was such a remote part of the river. This was a land of small farms and local fishermen, and everyone knew everyone, and their business, and their children.

The man on the deck didn’t seem affected by the rain at all, and except for a narrowing of his eyes when they got close, he hardly seemed to acknowledge them.

Her father let go of her hand, and a little thrill of fear and anxiety went through her.

He spoke quickly to the man on the deck, and then their hands touched, so quickly that Ko wasn’t even sure it had happened.

Turning around, he looked at Ko, and beckoned her to come closer.

She went, not knowing what else to do, but felt the sting of tears behind her eyes, and dread in her spirit.

“Are we using this boat to fish, Father?”

“No, Ko. I must fish alone, and you must go with this man.”

He reached for her to bring her by the hand, but she backed away, staring at him, incredulous, and her solid grounding in him turned to soaked mud.

“I will not. I will not!” Ko was turning to run, when she saw the man thrust out his right hand toward her, fingers spread, and it was as if she’d grown roots.

“Father, help me! Why are you letting him…? I can’t move! I can’t move!”

“I’m sorry, Ko. I can’t undo the bargain I struck with him.”

“Bargain? A bargain? I’m to be sold, like some market piglet?!”

The man on the deck called out: “The winds and waves rise, ‘father.’ Is she coming with us, or do we return for you?”

She saw him flinch when the man mocked him.

A realization cold as the river rain settled over her.

“Mother’s pregnant, and you can’t afford me.”

Her father began to cry. “I’m sorry, Ko, so very sorry.”

Ko walked toward the boat, and stopped beside him, but he couldn’t look at her.

She leaned as if to kiss his cheek, and spit in his face; he felt it dribble along with the raindrops that mingled with his tears.

“‘Father,’” she used the same mocking inflection, “I haven’t begun to  make you sorry.”

 

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.