Disclaimer:  A member of the rodentia class owns them.  I merely commandeer them for a while, promising to return them relatively recognizable.

AN:  This could fit after "Trust Me Still" but before "To Love and Protect", for those of you who have read those, but it shouldn't be necessary to have read either to enjoy this story.  This prologue doesn't have canon characters, but they shall make an appearance in Chapter 1, which I shall post ASAP, promise.

Protector of Life

Prologue

Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula

1549

"My lady . . .Great Mother . . .help me . . .do not . . .forsake me . . ."  The man staggered and fell, lying winded on the forest floor.  He could no longer hear his pursuers, but their strange weapons had already left their mark upon his body.  Trembling fingers reached up and grasped the golden idol that hung from a chain about his neck, smearing the mouth of the statue with blood.  Was it sustenance that she required?  What more had he to give?

The quality of the light suddenly changed around him, not so much brightening as becoming all-pervasive, driving every hint of shadow away.  In this divine light he could finally see his balam, his usually-invisible protector, but the great cat seemed hardly in better shape than he was, the spotted fur matted and blood-streaked, the ears torn.  What forces had rocked the creature as it attempted to fulfill its task, to protect himself and the other members of the hunting party?  What evils did the white man bring that could harm this creature of the gods?

"Oh, my child, my child . . .what ill has befallen our already fallen people . . ."

He smiled despite the pain, turning clumsily and attempting to rise and show proper respect.  His feet seemed unable to accomplish the task, so instead he knelt with head bowed low to the ground, the blood dripping from his chest beating a staccato, even tempo on the leaf litter.  "Alaghom Naom, Great Mother . . .my protector . . .I need . . .your aid . . ."

Hands too gentle and perfect to be of this world lifted his chin, danced lightly across the wounds on his chest and arms, before pulling away.  "I cannot do what you require, child."

Each breath was becoming harder and harder to draw.  Even the balam seemed to grow weaker, the creature now stretched out and panting heavily, dark eyes too intelligent to belong to any beast beseeching the goddess for aid.

"I need . . .you.  Why do you . . .deny me . . ."  She had always been his patron, ever since the old priest had taught him how to harness his own latent talents and call the gods to him.  Why would she deny one that had always been a faithful follower?  What had he done to fall out of her grace?

"My time, the time of my brothers and sisters, is fast passing away.  Already our people were weak, divided and slaughtering each other, and now the white man conquers all in his path.  Sustenance and prayer both are missing, our connection to your world growing thin.  No longer are we permitted to interfere as once we did.  I cannot heal your body, child, and I cannot make them pass you by, but I will stay with you, if you wish, until your time has come."

The mournful cry from the balam articulated the grief he felt far better than any human tongue could have.

"How can . . .this be?  You still . . .part the veils . . .of the world.  You . . .showed me . . .my wife, my child . . .you are still . . .my protector . . .I give you . . .my blood . . ."  As if to emphasize the point, a harsh cough brought blood into his mouth instead of air.

"To part the veils is my gift, as a creator, a mother, to the world.  I showed you what was needed to heal your heart."

"I walked . . .in another . . .place . . ."  Each breath now brought the blood with it.

"You walked across the veil."

The man nodded, raising his eyes to look at his goddess, at her visage that seemed both young and old.  Alaghom Naom turned her face to the sky, placing her hands together and closing her eyes.  When she once again looked down at him, he averted his gaze, the knowledge and power that shone towards him more than he could bear to watch.

"Would you walk across the veil again, child?  Even if the world you entered was one that you did not know?"

"I would."  He would do anything she asked, take any path she found for him.  She was his protector.

Again the gentle hands reached for his face, but this time there was no comfort to be found as she lifted the amulet from about his neck.  She turned now to the balam.  Usually calm and loving in her presence, the great creature instead snarled and backed away.

"I know, my little one.  A cage is not the fate you ever foresaw.  You are weakened, though, just as I am, more so than I am.  You bleed.  Your great strength and speed could not do what you have always done.  You could not protect them, but through this you can.  I will show you how to lift the veils.  Trust me, little one.  Trust me."

The goddess waited patiently as the balam growled low in its throat.

"You will be free when the amulet is gone, granted a special place by my side.  The amulet shall not last long with the white man's greed for gold."

Finally the balam moved forward, head hung low and tail twitching.

"Thank you, child."

As amulet and balam touched, the form of the great cat grew hazy, seeming to be drawn into the golden idol.  With a final howl that sent shivers down the man's spine, the creature was gone.

Alaghom Naom stood with the amulet in hand, speaking too softly for the man to hear.  When finally she turned back to him, he saw with dismay that the youth had faded from her face.  How could a goddess look exhausted?

"You will accept the gift of your protectors?  You will accept life, no matter how we win it for you?"

"I . . .will."

He could do little more than watch with a strange combination of both hope and fear as the chain was lowered around his neck.  For a moment he had a glimpse of the amulet as it dangled in front of his face, and it was no longer simply a depiction of his goddess.  Instead it was a woman with a jaguar head, her right hand extended, offering water, her left clasping a hul-che and arrow, prepared to drive off enemies.

Then the amulet touched his chest, and both the pain and the world faded to nothing.