To Whom I Kneel: Nine Kings Episode 2

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Verse 2

Falling, tragedy befallen

Burning wings -- lifeless sun

All taken, a beast awakened

To visceral vengeance succumbed

Thirst for the wild, call of the moon



1.

Her flight to Ukraine was much shorter and easier. Kellerika caught a puddle jumper plane from Kiev to Kharkiv. Elegant columns and an ivory spire that reached into the skies. This airport looked like a museum for the arts, not a terminal for wayward travelers. Kell fetched her baggage from the spinning wheel and made her way to the front doors. A taller man in the traditional dark garb of the Orthodoxy grinned as she approached him.

“Father Andrei?”

He dipped his hat and its veil. “You must be Kellerika Virtanen.” He took her hand between both of his own. “Stazia told me so much about you.”

She kicked a pebble into the storm grate. “I’ll bet she did.”

Father Andrei took the suitcase from her left hand. “Please, allow me to help.” The veil on his headpiece fluttered in the breeze as he strode to a parked car. “Come. I’ll put your things in the trunk.” Having taken care of that, Father Andrei scurried to the driver’s side and fired the car to life. “My church isn’t far.”

“Such a charming city.” She craned her neck to take in her new surroundings.

Andrei guided the car out into town. “We have much to discuss.”

“Your English is a surprise.”

“What?” Andrei made a turn. “She didn’t tell you?”

“That you were fluent? No.”

Andrei chuckled. “Not much to do with my time. I’m also versed in French, Russian, Romanian, and my native Ukrainian.”

“Impressive.” Tall apartment buildings sailed past her window. “Stazia said you had a particular problem that might require our specialized assistance.”

“Quite right.” Father Andrei turned onto a street, then another sharp right into an alley that led to the rear parking lot of his church. “Let’s get inside. I’ll brew us some tea and we can talk.”

2.

The moon hung in the sky like the eyeless smile of the Cheshire cat. Larissa had been forced to run from Belgorod when the orphanage discovered blood and someone else’s hair all over her. That morning had been a flurry of phone calls to police, psychiatrists, and the clergy. Before the ambulance could even take her to the hospital for an exam and labs, Larissa overpowered the headmistress and the security guard. She chased the setting sun with nothing but the clothes on her back to her name. She ran until it dipped under the horizon, then found a forest to make camp.

Wild nightmares haunted her through a restless slumber. She ran through a field somewhere. Birds wheeled against the starlit darkness as she raced across meadows and streams. Something caught her senses from a lower pasture a short distance away. Her swift feet carried her around the side of a knoll and through a briar patch. A flock of sheep bleated and galloped away as she approached. She sped up to a sprint across the pasture. Most of the larger sheep evaded her, but the lamb’s short legs were no match. Soft wool. Torn flesh. The visceral surge of power.

Larissa woke up in a layer of dried sweat. She emerged from her cave and followed high-sailing cumulus clouds that blotted out the sun. Larissa took a short walk to the stream and crouched next to its clear waters. Cupping her hands, she took a refreshing drink.

“Huh?” Larissa leaned in closer to her reflection in the pool. She ran the pad of her finger over light scratches across her left cheek.

Larissa cupped handfuls of cool water over her face and neck. It wasn’t great, but it got the job done. Then, the weight of it all crushed her. She dropped on her haunches, curled up, and cried. Where am I? What happened? How will I get food? A hundred other questions stood in wait behind these, but the battered girl had to deal with matters of survival first.

She wiped her vision clean. “Where we are isn’t important.” Larissa studied her surroundings. “What matters the most right now is finding food, water, and shelter.” Her eyes moved from the stream to the cave. “Water and shelter are covered for now.” She stood and faced the glade behind her home. A gentle wind carried the scent of berries and fruit to her nostrils. “Food’s closer than I thought.”

Larissa took off up the embankment after breakfast. She felt lighter on her feet. Swiftness came to her as naturally as breathing. Speaking of which, she hadn’t struggled for a single breath while in a dead sprint for well over one hundred meters. Her lungs settled into a cyclical cadence that went undetected. Her heart beat fierce and free. Her world had intense clarity. Larissa could duck and dodge limbs and fallen trees before they became hazards. Far off in a large oak, a squirrel chittered and scurried up the trunk toward its home. I’ve never felt this alive and connected in my life!

She raced across the ridgeline, weaving among the trunks and undergrowth. On the other side of the hill, she found the source of the aromas. A grove of apple trees nestled against a blackberry bush. A stone cottage sat in the distant corner of a farm.

Larissa eyed up the cozy cottage, and then the grove. “I’ll have to be quiet.”

She took sure steps down the steep descent toward the prize. Larissa stopped halfway down and glanced at the farm house. Still no sign of anyone home. “Today might have been their day to run into town.”

She kept low to the ground, creeping along the hill’s natural contours until she came to the bottom. One last check of the homestead, and then she made a mad dash for the grove. Larissa plucked an apple from a low-hanging branch and dug into it. The apple’s flesh was tart, like it needed another few months in the sun to ripen.

She shrugged. “It’ll do.”

The ravished girl turned her appetite to the plump berries dangling on the bushes at her back. She picked a handful and popped the fruit into her mouth.

An exhalation of relief. “So much better.”

Larissa removed her flowered shirt and tied its sleeves to form a basket. She filled its bottom with at least a dozen apples and topped off her bounty with as many blackberries as she could fit in it.

She patted her haul. “This should last for a while.”

Larissa picked one last apple for the road and made off back over the ridge for her home.

3.

Father Andrei plugged in his brass mock-up samovar and poured a pitcher of water into its basin. Minutes later, he drew its piping hot water over some tea leaves in both cups.

“How do you take your tea, Ms. Virtanen?”

Kell crossed her legs in the chair in his office. “A bit of sugar, if you have it, please.”

Andrei bobbed his head and fished a spoonful of sugar from its container next to the samovar. He came back to his desk with two cups of steaming tea. “There we are.” He eased his creaking bones into his high-backed seat. “Now, we can have a proper conversation.”

She lifted her cup for a taste. “Thank you, Father.”

He tested his serving with an approving expression. “Not too shabby.” He sat his cup on a paper towel on his desk. “What we have to discuss may be somewhat disturbing to you.”

Kellerika snickered as she set her cup down. “There’s not much that surprises me in my line of work.”

“Fair enough.” Andrei leaned over his desk. “I’ve had several people in my congregation whom have experienced some gruesome…” he searched his thoughts for the right word, “happenings. Farmers have told stories of their herds---cattle and sheep---being beheaded and mutilated.”

Kell eased back into her seat. “Terrible.”

“True,” Andrei said. “I’ve also had a couple of eyewitness accounts of what they described as a dire wolf that ran faster than the winds across their fields.”

“Aren’t they?”

“An extinct species that lived around the time of the saber-toothed tiger.” Andrei relaxed into his chair. “It couldn’t have been one of those, but whatever it was, they knew that it was larger than a timber wolf.”

“Is that what prompted your email?” She blew on her tea.

Father Andrei reached for his cup. “It was. Some of us in this region of the world still hold on to folklore and tall tales.” After his sip, Andrei pulled a squat, thick book off the shelf at his back. “Here we are.” He set it on his desk and turned to a bookmarked page.

Kellerika inched to the edge of her seat for a look, but couldn’t make anything out of the archaic script.

Andrei’s index finger drifted above the lines as he translated them. “This old Russian text speaks of whole villages of people others felt were possessed by the devil himself.”

Kell did her best to keep up.

“Further down,” his finger sailed to the bottom of the page, “here, they tell of what we later called lycanthropes or cryptids. Creatures thought to exist in legend or folklores that we have yet to prove with science.” He looked up from his book. “In our case, a werewolf.” He took another nip from his cup. “That is why I reached out to your organization.” He shook his head. “We don’t have the resources or people qualified around here to confront such a thing.”

“I see.” Kell whetted her drying mouth with a swig. “Any suspects or leads?”

“No,” Andrei said. “The elders in the village have started spinning their yarns. That has led to some blaming and resentment among them, but no solid leads.”

“Would it be possible to pay a visit to this village?”

“That was my plan after we had a bit of lunch in town.” He went back to the book. “One other point that I wanted to share with you first.”

Kellerika hurried to finish her tea. “Of course.”

Andrei flipped to another marked page and leaned over his text. “There are certain methods described here for dealing with such hellish manifestations.” He wiggled his lips as he translated the archaic text through two different languages. “They can be killed with weapons of---”

“Silver?”

Andrei glanced up. “Yes.” He went back to his place. “This also speaks of successful cases of burning the subject alive, decapitation, and cutting out its heart.”

She knocked back the last of her tea. “Does it say anything about a stake to the heart like Dracula?”

“Miss Virtanen.” He sounded offended.

“I didn’t mean it in that way.” She shifted in her seat. “I killed one with a sharp piece of wood through its heart.”

“Ah.” Father Andrei consulted his book. “Nothing here to that effect, but that’s not to say that it’s the final word on all things supernatural.”

She could feel him probing her for her thoughts and intent. “Well,” he said. “This is a nice place to stop for lunch, I think.” He collected her cup and placed them next to the samovar. “How would you feel about accompanying me to a local restaurant for something to eat?” He rubbed the pooch above his belt. “I’m starved.”

4.

After a filling lunch of chicken cutlets and potatoes three ways, Kellerika and Father Andrei were back in his car and on their way to the outlying village with the wildlife problem. The roads narrowed and passed through lush grain fields and rolling hills. At one point, the cracked pavement gave way to dirt and gravel. They carried on for another ten kilometers until they arrived in the hamlet.

Father Andrei hopped out of his car and sat his hat on his head of brown hair. Kellerika rounded the front of the vehicle to join him.

“Let me do the talking.” He straightened out his veil in a passing gust of wind.

“No problem,” Kell said. “My Ukrainian’s a bit nonexistent.”

Andrei met the homeowner on his front stoop. They exchanged handshakes and pleasantries from the sound of it. Father Andrei muttered something to the crooked gent and pointed to her.

Kell brushed off her blue polo shirt. Here we go. Andrei motioned for her to come make introduction. She joined them at the front porch and stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jeans---a non-ripped pair for such an occasion.

Father Andrei listened to the white-haired villager and translated as he spoke. “This is Fyodor Ivanovich. He bids you a warm welcome to their town and his humble home.”

“Thank you.” Kell gave him a shallow bow.

Andrei went on. “Fyodor says, if you have plans to stay in their village for the night, he offers his spare room to you.”

Fyodor’s speech sped up and his oil-spotted hand gestured to his squat house and out over the nearby hills. He had a large bulbous nose, pitted with pock marks and scars. Softened lines and folds of spotted skin sagged around his eyes and lower jaw. Its maroon color and leathery appearance told tales of years of hard labor. Sadness and sacrifice. The joyous sparkle in his brown eyes held triumph over these hardships.

Andrei translated. “He said that it’s just him and his wife, Olya, these days. Their children have all grown and moved away. Their eldest daughter, Nina, went to Kiev. Their middle daughter, Katya, is in college, and their youngest son, Pyotr, joined the Navy.”

Fyodor interjected something else and chuckled.

“Ah,” a laugh from Andrei as well. “He clarified that a bit. He was conscripted into the Navy. So, joined is a loose term.”

Fyodor said something and waved his weathered hand as he hobbled off the stoop and went toward the barn.

“He wants us to come with him,” Andrei said. “He has something to show you.”

The old timer bobbled with each step of his right foot, like one leg might have been shorter than the other. The odors of hay, manure, and diesel. Fyodor limped to the back doors and pushed them. He flicked an arthritic finger back near their positions.

“He says to watch your step,” Andrei said. “Sharp blades and poop.”

Once back out in the daylight, Kell and Andrei caught up to the farmer at his cattle chute. Fyodor propped his bad leg on its lower wooden slat and let his arms droop over the top one.

Father Andrei coughed into his sleeve while Fyodor told his tale. “Forgive my language. I’ll interpret what he’s saying.”

Kellerika leaned on the chute next to Fyodor. “I understand.”

Andrei’s head wagged as he formulated the translation. “It was the damnedest thing.” Another nod. “There was no sounds or crying from my cows the night that it happened.” Andrei winced at something obviously offensive and said, ‘da’. “He says, I came out the next morning to pass out the hay in my fields, and someone or something had torn their,” Andrei’s face wrenched up, “effing heads clean off.” Father caught up to where Fyodor was in his retelling. “He says, never seen anything like it, outside of slaughtering one, of course.”

The farmer pulled a lean cigar from his shirt pocket, his lighter from his green slacks, and lit up. He dropped his leg from the chute and ambled around it toward the gate into his pastures.

Andrei chased after him. “He’s taking us to the scene of the crime.”

“Oh.” Kellerika rounded the chute alongside Andrei. A petite woman in the narrow kitchen window waved as they passed. “Olya seems nice.”

Father Andrei didn’t glance up from where he stepped. “Oh, yes. You’ll find that all of the people here are warm and welcoming. They don’t get many visitors, especially from the west.”

Fyodor led them out to a watering hole one hundred meters from the barn. A couple of tan cows huffed and trotted away as their group stopped at the pond’s edge. Fyodor continued his account, pointing out places around his pasture as he did.

“He found two of his cows here,” Andrei said. “Both had been beheaded, and the one that was found up on that slope also had its entire right side torn to shreds and partially eaten or cut away.”

Fyodor took a drag off his smoke and tapped its spent ashes into the pond.

“The mutilated one,” Andrei said, “was destroyed. The one that was beheaded, they butchered and passed out around the village.” Andrei chuckled. “Better to not waste such a generous gift.”

Fyodor led them back out the gate and to the dirt road in front of his home.

Father Andrei set a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Da.” He glanced to Kell. “He wants us to wait near his barn. He’s going to go round up the others that saw the events and bring them back.”

Kellerika’s brow furrowed. “He doesn’t have to walk all over town. I can go---”

A tractor engine hacked and sputtered to life on the hidden side of the two-story barn. A thin plume of gray smoke snaked over its steep-pitched roof and bent back toward the hills. A minute later, Fyodor bounced in his seat, smiling in the metal bucket seat of his worn blue tractor. A wagon with benches wobbled behind it over rocks and ruts in its path.

“Excuse me for a bit, Father.” Kell took the time to step to the end of the barn for some business with Stazia.

It took several seconds, but the connection went through. “Hello, Kellerika. Made it to Kharkiv, I see.”

Kell leaned against the corner post. “Yeah. I’m here. From what Father Andrei has been able to translate for me, I can make out that several livestock have been mutilated and decapitated.”

“Correct.”

Kell pinched the bridge of her nose between a finger and thumb. “I’m not convinced that this has much of anything to do with us. It could’ve been a wild animal or a hoax for god’s sake.”

Stazia waited for her break in the machine gun account from Kellerika. “Listen. We vetted the lead before we ever sent a hunter on the assignment.” A light sigh. “We handle this sort of situation all the time.”

Kell looked around to make sure Andrei hadn’t wandered closer. “What made this thing pass the litmus test?”

“The pictures we got of the worse of the two cows before they destroyed it held some damning evidence. Claw marks on the neck that are consistent with a werewolf. Bite marks on belly and shanks also confirmed our suspicions.”

Kellerika buried her embarrassment under a hand on he forehead.

“It’s all right,” Stazia said. “You’re not the first to challenge a decision from the Order. In fact, I’d rather have it that way.”

Kell meandered around the side of the barn. “Fyodor mentioned something about offering a place here for me to stay the night.” It came out as a question.

“That’s right,” Stazia said. “These creatures tend to return to the same hunting ground for as long as they can get away with it. I want you to spend the night there and see if you can catch our wolf in the act. Either way, you can prove or disprove the accounts.”

Fyodor’s tractor backfired a short distance away. “Sounds like I should get back to it here.”

A laugh from Stazia. “Sure does. Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Will do. Bye.” Kell pocketed her phone.

The farmer’s wagon wobbled up the road full of townsfolk. Most of the men wore their wide-brimmed hats and the womenfolk wore their hair up in buns of one sort or another. The tractor pulled them in the worn ruts in the grass until the wagon had come up even with Kell. Father Andrei strode around the opposite corner of the barn greeting the other parishioners. He assisted some of the ladies out of the wagon, while husbands of the others did the honors. Fyodor barked sentences at the group.

“We’re meeting in the barn,” Andrei said.

Kellerika merged with the others into the main area of the barn. Fyodor pried the doors apart on its other side to let in the light.

Father Andrei strode to Kell’s side. “I’ll give you the gist of what’s going on.”

Kellerika stuffed her hands into her pockets. “Appreciate it.”

Fyodor asked one of the women to come forward. His rickety voice addressed their distinguished guests and the others.

Andrei bent closer to Kellerika. “He’s asking Ludmila to tell us about what she saw the night in question.” As the round lady spoke through trembling jowls, Andrei translated. “She says she was going out to their barn to tend to their sheep when she saw something moving in the dark beside the stream that flows on their land.” Andrei leaned his head closer to her quiet voice. “It was huge. A shadow on the twilight of the hillside. Its shoulders stood higher than any of her sheep.” The lady showed them with her hand. “Almost twice as tall, in fact. She’s convinced it’s a dire wolf. It snatched up one of her lambs in its mouth and shook it like a ragdoll.”

The graying woman rubbed her round nose and went back into the crowd. Fyodor called up a young girl, not much younger than Kell by her guess. The girl wrung her hands at her waist. Her eyes never left the ground.

“Another eyewitness,” Father Andrei said. The girl recounted her experiences. “She says that she saw the beast as it attacked one of Fyodor’s cows. She was on her way home when something caught her attention out of the corner of an eye. When she turned, she saw a creature on all fours, running fast across the field. It was huge and covered a lot of ground fast.” The young girl twisted the end of her apron. “The thing had a thick coat of fur. It ran down a cow as it tried to escape. This monster stood on its hind legs and swatted the cow’s neck.” The girl wept. “It grabbed the cow in both its front paws or hands, she couldn’t see, and broke its neck. It continued to pull at its head until the thing had ripped it off.” The teen scurried into the crowd in tears. “Quite upset,” Andrei said.

Fyodor extended a hand to Kell and Father Andrei.

Andrei stepped in again. “He’s asking you to come introduce yourself.” He led Kell to the front of the group and addressed them. He then turned to Kell. “Whenever you’re ready, I’ll tell them what you’re saying.”

Kellerika took a breath and surveyed the cluster of worried faces. “Good afternoon. My name is Kellerika Virtanen. I’ve been sent here to help you with your problem. I understand that it’s frightening for all of you, and I appreciate your willingness to assist me and your warm hospitality.” She waited for Andrei to catch up. “With Fyodor’s kind invitation, I’ve agreed to stay the night in your warm town to investigate the occurrences first-hand and maybe even catch the monster.” She bowed. “Thank you.”

Fyodor joined them and said something that lifted their spirits.

Father Andrei crept next to Kell as they followed the crowd back out into the yard. “He said that they’ll start the preparations for a feast in our honor. Grilled beef, lamb, and chicken. Quite an honor.”

5.

The sun had an hour left on its current shift. The air around Fyodor’s farm filled with wood-smoked meats and steamed corn. The weight of the prior meeting had been lifted and replaced with comradery and the warmth of a community cookout. The ladies in the village carted out platters of corn on the cob, kabobs on skewers, grilled flanks, and plates of chicken in a traditional herb glaze. All the villagers stared at Kell.

Father Andrei waved her to the food table. “You’re the guest of honor. They’re waiting for you to go first.”

She held up her hands. “I don’t have to go first.”

Andrei passed her a plate. “They won’t eat until you’ve gone.” He extended his hand to the bounty. “Please.”

Kellerika went around the table and filled up her plate. Soon after, the women of the village filed in behind her and commenced the feast. She sat back on a chair, watching the others interact. The hearty laughter. Genuine kindness among neighbors. Kell didn’t have to understand their language to know family when she saw it.

Father Andrei rubbed his gut and waddled to her side. “Plenty more where that came from. We always tend to make enough to feed an army.”

She waved off his offer. “I couldn’t eat another delicious bite.”

The town elders turned their attention to the setting sun. A trio of women broke off from the group cleaning up and went behind the cottage in a hurry.

Kell looked to Andrei. “Any idea what they’re up to?”

A silent shake of his head.

The trio returned with a pail and handles protruding from it. Kell followed them as they strode to the front of the cottage. Each took a handle and brushed the doorway in blood.

Andrei watched them with her. “Ah. They’re painting all the doorways in lamb’s blood. A tradition dating back to the Old Testament. Saving the firstborn and whatnot.”

Once these ladies departed for the other homes in town, the others stacked up loose branches and wood a short distance inside the gate to the pastures. Fyodor carried a lit branch from the fires they had used for cooking over to the brush pile and lit it. He held the smoldering branch up to another of his thin cigars before tossing it onto the fire. He puffed it to life and walked to Kell and Father Andrei.

He and Andrei conversed, then the Father turned to Kellerika. “He says you’re welcome to go inside and clean up for bed if you like. He and some of the others will keep the fire and the first watch for the beast.”

Kell spoke her words to Fyodor. “Thank you very much. You are kind.”

Andrei converted it into their native tongue.

Fyodor tilted his head back. “Olya!” His wife wandered out, drying her hands on a dish towel. He poked a bent digit at Kell, and Olya motioned for Kell to follow her inside.

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