Teal leapt over a boulder, scrambled up a rocky incline, and frowned at a loud gasp behind him. He peered over his shoulder.
Sterling lay sprawled on the ground like a broken toy.
Turning on his heel, Teal doubled backed, lifted Sterling by the arms, and dragged him to the shelter of an overhanging cliff. He dropped the ragged figure in the shade without ceremony and fell on his knees, heaving gasps of air.
Sterling sat up and rocked back and forth like a frightened child. “I can’t do this anymore. I really will disintegrate.”
Falling back on his haunches, Teal leaned on the shaded rock face, his heart pounding, his mind frozen. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Never.”
Sterling lay spread-eagle and sucked in deep draughts of air. “For once…I can write an interesting report…and I won’t…have to embellish…a bit of it.” He shook his head. His white hair splayed in the dust. “Too bad…it’ll be my last.”
Disgusted, Teal spared him a glance.
Rising with a groan, Sterling sat up, heaved a deep cleansing breath, and clapped his hands free of dirt and pebbles. “We’re not going any further with this study.” He shook his finger at the stone city in the distance. “You saw its power. Bothmal! It could’ve eaten us!”
Clasping his hands steeple-style before his face, Teal stared into the distance. “I don’t think it could sense us as clearly as we could sense it. Certainly, the guards only saw us as men…not Luxonians. I doubt it could know—”
“By all that is good and holy, I’m not about to find out what it knows.” Climbing to his feet, Sterling ran his hand over his hair and smoothed down his rumbled rags. “You saw them…once they lost the chance to toss Obed into that pit, their eyes fixed right on yours truly.” He tapped his chest. “I would’ve become nothing more than an evening snack for that beast.”
Teal rose with a grunt. “Surely, it would’ve spit you out.”
Glaring, Sterling huffed and squared his shoulders. He shimmered and reappeared in his immaculate white tunic and leggings.
Leaning forward, Teal surveyed their desert surroundings. “No one followed. All’s clear.” He glanced back. “We can leave and meet up with the others— Luxonian-style of course.”
Sterling’s eyes drooped to half-mast. “I wasn’t about to tip-toe over that blasted desert.” He shook himself. “I still can’t believe I saw an honest-to-goodness demon.”
A flush worked over Teal’s face. “Honest-to-goodness? You’re delirious. Besides, we don’t even understand what humans mean by a demon. It’s a catch-all term to explain any terrify—”
“Annihilate! Do you deny that fiend was anything but what humans refer to as a demon?”
Startled, Teal drew back. He ran his fingers through his ruffled hair. “I’ll never understand you—sir.” He met Sterling’s gaze. “I thought you considered humans little more than barbarians.”
“Even barbarians can be right sometimes. They happen to be right about demons.”
Rubbing his chin, Teal considered the rock ceiling.
“How would you define it? Spirit energy? Light force? Dark matter? An unreported—?”
“Oh, it’s been reported—by almost every race in the universe. Demons may have different names and come in various forms, but they all inflict the same horror and spread the same destruction.” He shuddered. “You and I wouldn’t have disintegrated exactly—we would’ve become subservient to it. Slaves. Dead to ourselves and all free people.”
Teal closed his eyes. “I’m glad Obed escaped.”
Sterling bobbed his head up and down. “I’m glad we escaped!” He stepped forward. “I’m going to recommend that a quarantine be placed around this planet as soon as possible.”
Teal gripped Sterling’s arm. “But humanity isn’t demonic!”
“You saw those men. They are serving it innocent victims every pitiless day.”
Pounding into the light, Teal faced the sun. “But not all humanity does so. Some people resist evil.” He glared at Sterling. “You said it yourself, Obed escaped. And Ishtar escaped.” He exhaled and folded his arms. “Ungle has a point. We have to find Ishtar and watch what happens when he meets Chai.”
Sterling snorted. “So we can see him get devoured?” He curled his lips in obvious distaste. “I thought blood-sports disgusted you.”
Teal stepped up the rocky incline and pointed west. “As much as any decent being. We can’t defeat evil, but at least we can learn from those who resist it.”
Ark stood at the ship’s helm and hid a spreading grin behind a well-placed tentacle. A bubble of enjoyment tickled his insides as he watched the drama unfold before his eyes.
Zuri swaggered on deck, explaining with chest-thumping pride each and every instrument panel.
Kelesta practically purred, her eyes glued to Zuri’s every move.
Sienna stood near the open bay door, frowning. “Sterling and Teal should return any moment.” She glanced at Ark. “Are you quite done?”
Ark cleared his throat, sending bubbles to the surface of his breathing helm. “Oh, yes!” He turned and offered a generous smile. “Young love—I could watch all day and never get bored.”
Sienna’s gaze shifted to Zuri, roving from his spiked blond hair to his sandaled four-toed feet. “He almost appears human now.”
Ark snorted. “That’s the idea…or rather to look more Old-World Ingoti.”
Sienna crossed her arms and glared at Ark. “So are you going to tell me—or do I have to guess?”
“Zuri’s lady friend likes her mates au-naturale.”
“Zuri has a mate?” Sienna’s gaze darted to Kelesta.
Unconcerned, Ark waved a tentacle. “I don’t suppose it’s terribly serious, considering how much time he spends away.”
Pursing her lips, Sienna frowned. “Some people are faithful no matter the distance.”
A bright light blinked, and Sterling appeared in the middle of the deck with Teal standing behind him.
Zuri turned sharply, and Kelesta tripped, gripping his arm for support.
Without ceremony, Teal glanced around. His eyes stopped on Zuri, and he stepped forward. “Where’s Ishtar?”
With a by-your-leave grin, Zuri slipped from Kelesta’s grasp and met Teal in the middle of the deck. “He saw the ravages of Chai’s conquests and is hurrying home. Why? What’s happened?”
Sterling sauntered closer and shrugged. “We met a demon from hell.”
Ark giggled and flipped a tentacle over his breathing helm, a flush working up his face. “Sorry. Such a blatantly vivid image—”
Teal stomped to an instrument panel and scanned the surface. “Hardly a laughing matter.” He glanced at Zuri.
Zuri padded to the central computer and tapped the surface. A holographic image appeared in the middle of the room.
In colorful detail, Ishtar appeared to be working his way around the coast of a large lake.
Zuri peered up. “He’s near home. The women have hidden in caves. He might run into them or someone from his clan soon.”
Ark shuffled closer, rubbing two tentacles together. “Bet that’ll be fun.”
Teal swallowed. “Where’s Chai?”
Zuri tapped the console again, his slender fingers flying over the flat surface.
A holographic image showed Chai leading a large band of warriors, with a ragged line of slaves struggling behind, north of Ishtar’s position.
Zuri faced Teal. “They’re on an intercept course.”
Sterling leaned forward scowling. “Who’s that coming up behind Chai?”
Teal slapped his forehead. “Oh, the fools. That’s Eoban, Barak, and Obed.”
Ark frowned, his lips pursed into flabby tubes. “They have no idea what they’re about to run into.”
The image blurred, and Teal shouted at Zuri. “What’re you doing?”
Zuri shrugged. “I want to know what happened to the boy—Ishtar’s son.”
Zuri tilted his head, his eyes wide. “What? So I have a soft spot for children.”
The image refocused on Amin. Sweat poured down his thin face as he struggled through a thick forest, brushing thorns and vines out of his path.
Sienna blinked and shook her head. “Poor thing.”
Kelesta squinted at the scene. “There’s something following him.”
Ark, turning green, glanced away. “I can’t watch.”
Sterling snarled at Ark. “You’re a Cresta scientist—you dissect specimens all the time.”
“After they’ve died!” Ark swiveled about, his tentacles flying in all directions. “Get it through your Luxonian filters—Crestas have to study everything. It’s what we do. How we survive. But that hardly makes us cold-hearted.”
Teal tapped his fingers together. “Can we debate this another time?” He turned to Zuri. “Want to split up?”
Kelesta’s eyes widened as she wiggled next to the Ingot.
Zuri peered down at her hope-filled eyes and rubbed his beardless chin. “Fine. We’ll follow Amin.”
Teal swiveled toward Ark. “Take Sterling and keep an eye on Ishtar.”
Ark grinned, his golden eyes gleaming. “It’ll be my pleasure!”
Sterling raised his hand. “When—exactly—did I get demoted?”
Scowling, Teal turned away. “You’re doing what Ungle asked—keeping an eye on Ishtar. There’s no other place for you to be.”
Sienna sauntered over to Teal and wrapped her arm around his. “And we’ll follow the three fools?”
Teal shook his head. “They barely escaped the temple demon, and now they’re bumbling right into Chai.” He exhaled. “I can only pity them.”
Ark stood back and appraised the gathering. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from humans…”
All eyes fixed on the Crestonian.
Ark grinned. “Nothing ever goes as planned.”
Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.~ PRISON CHAPLAIN, A Clockwork Orange
A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.
Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend
OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF
OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)