OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Three

—OldEarth—

Intercept Course

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.”

Everyone froze.

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.”

Ark snorted.

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Two

—Woodlands—

The Heart

Tobia never before realized how difficult it could be to lead a group of distraught, opinionated old people through the wilderness. If he had, he would have insisted more vehemently to be the one to run ahead.

As he led his unhappy flock, he longed for the days of Vitus’ simple obvious insults. These people knew how to provoke each other with color, stealth, and flourish. Olna needled Wael with hints of his past prowess, and he, in turn, badgered the others about their former laziness.

Weary after wandering through summer woodlands, Tobia began to sense a familiarity that made his heart leap. Pleasant memories stirred as his gaze wandered. Like after a spring rain, joy flowered. This was the area he and Vitus had circled when Vitus was trying to expand his trading routes. When they were thoroughly lost, they had retraced their steps to a clan in the area who had treated them with exceptional kindness.

Tobia closed his eyes. Thank God.

Once he found the path into the village, so little had changed that he recognized everything.

The six old people traipsed along behind like bedraggled children, limping and hunch-shouldered, wilting in body and spirit.

Glancing around, Tobia swallowed back embarrassment as a flush crept up his cheeks. This was awkward, showing up again in more desperate need than ever.

Like an old acquaintance, Kamila called his name and raced across the village. She stretched out her hands, her face alight and her eyes sparkling. “Tobia! You’ve come back!” She glanced aside at the old people and her smile vanished. “What’s happened? Where’s your friend?”

Without actually giving her a hug, Tobia managed to clasp her hands and grin in relief so palpable he feared his pounding heart might burst through his chest. “There’s much to tell.” He sucked in a deep breath and waved to the broken assembly. “But first, these are the last survivors of a once noble clan that has been ravaged by raiders.” He peered into Kamila’s eyes. “Can anything be done for them?”

Blinking and turning to Olna, Kamila clasped the old gnarled hands. “Most certainly.” She glanced around. “I’ll call my brother. He’ll know what to do.”

A fresh wave of relief flooded Tobia. “I have a strange story to relate. May I speak with Remy, please?”

Kamila nodded, her face sober, and an apprehensive frown wrinkling her brow. “Of course.” She met Tobia’s gaze. “He’s been ill but getting better.” She glanced at a central hut. “He’d like to see you.”

She led the assembly to the hut, stopped before the door, lifted her hand in signal to wait, then darted inside.

Tobia and the ancients stood in the warm sun, peering aside at the adults setting about their business and at a passel of children chasing each other in the afternoon sunshine.

After a few moments, Kamila returned smiling. “He told me to take the women to my home and arrange for the men to lodge in the storage hut until something better can be arranged. There’s enough room for all, and they’ll be well cared for.”

Tobia scratched his head. Images of the old men eating through Remy’s winter supplies flashed through his mind.

Chewing his lip, he led Kamila aside and dropped his voice. “They’ve been through a great deal…uh…and they tend to…horde things.” He swallowed. “And possibly argue…on occasion.”

Laughing, Kamila patted Tobia’s shoulder. “You underestimate my experience.” She glanced at Wael who was wagging his finger in Olna’s face. “These aren’t the first villagers to be ravaged by disaster. We’ve taken in others.” She grinned. “But thank you for the warning.”

Tobia’s shoulder tingled at her touch. Without thought, he clasped her hand and met her gaze, his heart pounding. “Thank you, Kamila.”

Blushing, Kamila tilted her head toward the open doorway. “You better go in. Remy is waiting.”

As Tobia turned to the doorway, he glanced back.

Leading her charges, Kamila wrapped an arm around Olna and listened with a focused gaze to Wael’s complaints.

A rush of admiration flowed over Tobia. Swallowing, he hurried inside. The dim interior appeared black for a moment. Tobia froze. “Remy?”

“I’m here. Come in.”

As his eyes adjusted, Tobia scanned the room and found Remy sitting on a woven pallet against the back wall. He appeared thinner and his face haggard, but when he smiled, a sparkle in his eyes reassured Tobia.

Remy pointed to another pallet and a folded blanket. “Please, sit. I’ve thought of you often these past months.” He glanced aside. “What happened to your guide—the one who could hardly find his way among the trees?”

With a sigh, Tobia sat against the wall and stretched his legs. He glanced up and met Remy’s gaze. “Do you want the whole story…or just a summary?”

Remy waved his hands to encompass his small abode. “I don’t have much…but I’ve got plenty of time.”

Clasping his hands, Tobia rested his head against the wall, stared up into the rafters, and told everything that had happened from the morning he stepped out of their village with Vitus to this afternoon when he clasped Kamila’s hand.

Never interrupting, Remy sat forward in an attitude of deep thought. After the story, he rested his chin in his hand, his eyes wide with wonder. “You’ve told me the most remarkable tale I’ve ever heard, and I don’t doubt a word of it.” He waved to the door as villagers shuffled passed. “As for the old people, they’re welcome. We always take in those in need, though we’ve become more suspicious of late, as you noticed when you first arrived. We do not suffer fools gladly.” He shrugged. “But ancient rules of hospitality demand that we assist the helpless, especially since sickness and old age haunts all our steps.”

Leaning forward, Tobia ventured to make his next desperate request. “Could you give me directions home? I’m not sure I know the way.”

Remy shook his head. “We’re not travelers, and we only met Vitus that one time.” He struggled to his feet and limped across the room. “No one has come looking for you, if that’s what you hoped. I am sorry.”

After a stretch, Tobia sighed and climbed to his feet. “Well, even if you can’t give me advice, you’ve relieved me of a heavy burden.” He glanced out the door at the setting sun and snorted a laugh. “Now I can make haste and lose my way that much faster.”

Grabbing a pitcher, Remy poured a pink liquid into two wooden bowls. “I never said I wouldn’t give advice.” He grinned and handed a drink to Tobia. “You’re exhausted and confused. Stay with us a few days and regain your strength.” He lifted his drink and both he and Tobia sipped from their bowls at the same time.

Remy wiped his lips. “I’ll speak to my men and see what they’ve heard.” His gaze narrowed. “I want to warn them about the threat you’ve seen.” He pointed a finger. “They’ll want to hear your story themselves.”

Tobia drank the last sip from his bowl and licked his lips, his gaze darting to the door. “I’ve been gone for so long, and I hate to impose—”

Remy waved his hand and poured more refreshment into Tobia’s cup. “There’s no imposing. You’re our chosen friend.” He pressed Tobia’s shoulder. “You did a noble thing, caring for the survivors. Many would’ve let them die.”

Kamila strolled by the open doorway, chatting with Olna and another old woman. She darted a glance inside Remy’s hut.

Remy grinned and glanced at Tobia.

Tobia hurriedly finished his second drink.

Remy pointed to the pallet. Sleep here tonight. In the morning, we’ll talk again.” He stepped to the doorway. “I’m going to see to a few things.” His gaze swept across the village. “You can take your supper outside with the villagers, or rest and eat alone. Whichever you prefer.”

Tobia bit his lip and peered out. “I’d like to join everyone.”

Remy stepped aside, smiling. “I thought you might.”

~~~

Tobia remained with Remy and his people for two days, resting and regaining a measure of his spent strength. Memories of his travels with Vitus haunted his steps as he remembered things Vitus had said and done, his sneering contempt, his impatience, his complete disregard for other people’s feelings. Guilt washed over his mind, clawing at his heart.

Strolling to a large spreading tree by the stream, Tobia hunched his shoulders and bowed his head.

Splashing across the shallow stream, Kamila called, “Tobia?” She stepped to his side. “Why the sad expression?”

Tobia exhaled a long breath and leaned on the tree. “I feel so old now. So many things have happened. I can’t understand…Vitus struck witless and dying in the desert, the nomad family whose sons betrayed their father, the ravaged villagers, and the old ones who nearly worried me to death.”

“You’ve lived lifetimes already. Adventures, some would call them.”

With a shrug, Tobia pushed away from the tree and strolled with Kamila along the shore. “I would say so too, except it was too painful. My heart hurts, and my stomach ties itself into knots.” As Kamila kept his pace, he met her gaze. “And the worst part is yet to come.”

“How so?”

“My friend, Ishtar, was exiled because he offered a human sacrifice—or tried to.”

Kamila’s eyes rounded in horror.

Tobia fluttered his hands. “He’s not that man anymore. His father was—” He shook his head. “Never mind. That’s in the past.” He peered across the stream. “But few will forget—or forgive. They don’t know the man returning to save them from yet another clan of slave raiders.” He kicked a stone. “They’ll only see the outer face and not the inner heart.”

“That’s why you must leave—soon?”

Tobia stopped and nodded. “That’s why I must leave—tomorrow.”

Kamila stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Tobia and stared across the water to the woodland beyond. “I would not have you stay, knowing that your people need you.” She glanced in his direction. “Though I wish it were otherwise.”

Turning, Tobia met her gaze. He clasped her hands. “You’ve offered me what few ever would—true friendship. My mother sees only her son, and Obed sees a useless child. Vitus and Ishtar—”

Kamila shook her head. “Their vision does not define you.” She glanced away. “Not unless you want it to.”

Straightening, Tobia led Kamila by the hand toward the village, his gaze lighting on the horizon. “I do not know what the future holds, but—I want to return.” He turned and met her eyes. “And see you again.”

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ~Lao Tzu

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You Have No Idea

If electrical tape could talk, Shasta was sure the strip she held her in her hand would scream, “I’m not made for this!”

Shasta batted away the hyper-personified thought and executed a swift fix. Only God and her electrician would ever know…and she wasn’t talking to either of them at the moment.

A second razz from her doorbell told her that someone was getting a tad impatient. She eyed her work critically. Black electrical tape on a clear refrigerator shelf, cracked nearly in half, but oh well… She shoved the shelf back into its slot. It works. That had to be enough.

The bell sounded in two short bursts this time. “I’m coming!”

After running her fingers through her hair, Shasta smoothed down her rumpled sweater and figured that no one would notice that her shoes were broken down at the heel. Besides, the only people who came for a visit were salespeople who blatantly ignored the no soliciting sign posted on the edge of town or a couple of elderly religious ladies from a denomination Shasta kept getting mixed up with the local sport’s team: Vandals or Evangelical—something…

She swung open the door prepared to be polite but firm. The answer was no.

“Hi, Shasta.”

There he stood. Tall. Grey-headed. Heavyset. But still handsome. The train whistle in the distance could have carried the entire train with it, rumbled over her front lawn, heading directly for her, and she wouldn’t have moved.

“Jasper?”

She blinked to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. Though she’d lived clean and sober all her life—one heard stories of strange events. Carbon Monoxide poisoning? She sniffed the air. Nope.

“Can I come in for a moment?”

Shasta backed up, opening the door wider, ignoring the cold wind rushing into the room. Good Lord, he looks like mom.

It must’ve been twenty years…no…she tried to calculate. She’d been living in Chicago the last time they’d talked. He’d been drunk and said some things he shouldn’t have. She’d hung up on him…

“A long time, eh?”

Shasta dropped her gaze and considered dissolving into the floor. Her heart pounded, and spots swirled before her eyes. Jasper had gone from being a disturbed kid to a dysfunctional adult. When her mom got the police report that his body had been found in the park, she had grieved, but then relief had—

“I figure it was about twenty-six years ago we last spoke.”

Thank God that good manners ruled society with habitual fluency. Shasta gestured to the couch. “Please, sit.” She reached out. “I can take your coat.”

He shrugged the heavy winter coat off his body and smiled as he handed it over. He wore an impeccable blue shirt with dark pants and gorgeous leather shoes.

Heaven, those shoes alone probably cost more than my monthly rent.

“Uh, you want some coffee…tea?” She only had cheap tea, but her coffee was pretty decent. Something to make waking up in the morning worthwhile.

“Only if you’re having something.”

Shoot. Shasta never had coffee in the afternoon since it would keep her up half the night, so she’d have to offer her bland tea. She eyed her brother again. He looked like he was used to having the best. A drug dealer? She shook her head and started for the kitchen.

“I’ll just put the kettle on. My tea’s not that great, but I can make it nice and hot—”

Jasper settled his large frame onto the couch. “Whatever you have is fine. Don’t go out of your way.”

Hmmm…this did not sound like the Jasper she knew. Her brother had always been wild and demanding. Flighty even. Nothing like this composed fifty-something gentleman making himself comfortable on her shabby sofa.

She slapped her cheek as she turned the fire under the kettle. She had patched a worn spot on the couch cushion with black thread, though the fabric was olive green because, well, heck, who has olive green thread?

She pulled two cups out of the cabinet, snatched a couple tea bags, dropped them into her finest mismatching mugs, and placed a jam-smeared creamer pot dead center. Dang, I meant to wipe that—

Jasper ambled into the kitchen, smiling.

Smiling? Certainly never like that. Shasta leaned on the counter. “Sorry, I’m a little befuddled. You’ve kind of taken me by surprise.”

Jasper leaned on the sink and crossed his arms, his expression grave, but not sad. Just serious. A deep thinker? Jasper?

“I thought about calling, but I was afraid you’d hang up on me.”

Shasta had to give him credit. He didn’t say “again” though the word hung heavy in the air.

Shasta shrugged. “I might have. I don’t know. Usually I try to give people a second chance—”

“Oh, but you did. And a third…a forth…God knows how many. You and mom never seemed to give up. Always took me back in.”

“But then you disappeared. We thought you were dead for a while there.”

Jasper nodded. “That was kind of the point. I wanted to appear dead. Got mixed up with the wrong type of people…” He exhaled a long breath, his gaze on a trail she could not follow.

Shasta’s body trembled. This was what was didn’t want to live with…why she’d been so relieved—

“So, I died. Sort of. Actually, I did time in prison, gave testimony, met an amazing teacher, and started going to Mass again. Then I—” He met his sister’s gaze. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

The kettle began to hum. “Like one of those reborn things people rave about?”

Jasper tilted his head. “That wouldn’t do it justice. I got into a fight while serving my time and didn’t win…if you know what I mean. I should’ve died. But for some reason, beyond everyone’s hopes and expectations, I lived.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me…or mom?”

“I wasn’t going to drag you guys back into my mess. I never gave anyone your names. I wanted to either die or start over.”

The kettle shrieked.

Shasta jumped.

Jasper laughed. “You always were sensitive.”

Shasta poured the steaming water into the cups, a blush working up her cheeks.

Jasper stepped closer and leaned in. “I made you cry more than once, and I’m really sorry about that, Shasta.”

Hot tears blurred Shasta’s eyes. Hot water burned her fingers.

Jasper took the kettle and placed it back on the stovetop. He took both her hands and peered at her. “I was a terrible kid and a nasty man. I choose to tackle hell and take everyone who loved me through it too.”

Her tears overflowed, and Shasta dropped her gaze. She wanted to wipe her face, but he still clutched her hands.

“I’ve made a new life, an honest one. Got married to a terrific lady and have three kids.” He let go of her hands and pulled a wallet from his back pocket. He flipped the picture section open and four attached photos dangled in the air.

A pretty woman with stylishly cut hair and perky blue eyes stared at Shasta. A handsome teen boy dressed in a basketball uniform smiled, while a preteen girl and an adorable baby made up the rest of the family.

Something hideous stabbed Shasta from the inside. Sarcasm dripped like poison from a keen-edged knife. “Great, Jasper! I’m so happy for you. When mom died, I, like the dutiful daughter, managed everything. I even paid for her funeral and cleaned out the old house. The next year, my prince of a husband left me, saying that he’d rather travel the world than pay bills. So, I’ve been slaving away at a dead-end job for sixteen years, and now—” She squeezed her eyes shut, smacked her hands over her face, and bent double under a nameless agony. Uproarious sobs exploded like lava from an uncapped volcano.

Jasper bundled his sister into his arms and held her close, rocking her ever so gently.

She could hear his heart beating through his fine shirt. A spicy cologne scent wafted into her nose. Her shivering body responded to the sudden warmth.

His voice turned husky. Choking on the words. As if he were crying too. “That’s why I’ve come back.”

Shasta pulled away and stared at her brother. “Why? Because you feel guilty? Because you heard that my life isn’t so great? That you’ve succeeded, and I’m a miserable failure?”

Jasper took his sister’s hand and tugged her back to the couch. They sat side by side. He plopped his family photos on the coffee table, never noticing that she had used a brown marker to color in a water stain.

“Last Christmas, my two oldest kids—” he pointed to the appropriate photos as if she didn’t have a brain in her head. “—got into an argument. Mary said some hard things to Dominic, and it got ugly fast. Everything was patched up after a bit…but the whole thing stirred some unpleasant memories.”

Shasta swallowed and wiped the residue of tears off her cheeks.

“I told them that family is forever. But then, Mary pointed at me and asked where my family was. Dom waited, like he wanted to know too.”

Shasta sighed. “Ouch, eh?”

Jasper threw back his head and stared at the ceiling. “I was convicted all over again. How could I tell my kids to forgive…to love each other through—whatever—when I had cut myself off from my own family?”

Shasta raked her fingers through her hair and straightened her shoulders. “You want to make amends?” She shook her head. “I never hated you or anything. It just hurt…that mom died thinking the worst.”

“I will live with that for the rest of my life. But you—” He swallowed and tears rolled down his face. “I don’t deserve to be forgiven. I don’t deserve another chance or the happy life I have. But…Shasta—I want to be able to tell my kids the truth. That family can forgive and love does—”

Shasta stood and waved to the kitchen. “Enough. I’ve cried enough for today. If you don’t mind stale tea, I think I have a package of cookies in the fridge.”

Jasper gave his face a quick rub down and followed Shasta into the kitchen. “What can I do to help?”

“Well, the cookies are in the crisper…” She put the teacups into the microwave and hit the minute button.

Jasper laid the package of Fig Newtons on the counter and smiled. “By the way, I like the black electrical tape on the shelf. Very chic.”

Shasta grinned. “Oh, you have no idea, brother. You haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-One

—Woodland—

My One Blindness

Eoban trudged through the wilderness with Barak on his right and Obed in the lead. He muttered, swapping leaves out of his way. “How does he know where he’s going? Luge only gave me—”

Barak stepped over a log. “Are we going in the wrong direction?”

Eoban shrugged. “Not too much. We might stumble somewhere near it—eventually.” He waved at Obed’s straight, uncompromising back. “He won’t stop to rest…or let us rest. Under the great sky, what put him into such an ugly humor?”

Barak squeezed his eyes shut a moment. “Don’t ask.”

Nudging Barak’s shoulder, Eoban forced him to blink. “Easy for you to say. You don’t have to live under his authority. He’s the leader of my clan, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Obed halted and faced the two men. “I won’t be the leader much longer. As soon as we return, I’m giving up leadership. Any man with the desire may take up my role.” He stared pointedly at Eoban. “Even you.” With a sharp turn, he marched away.

Like an angry stag, Eoban dropped his head, charged forward, and gripped Obed’s shoulder. “Oh, no, you don’t! You were chosen as the leader, and you’ve managed your position well enough except for a few lapses when you’ve contradicted me.” He stuck out his chin and peered at Obed. “Why are you acting like a cat caught in a thorn tree? We” —he gestured toward himself and Barak— “don’t even know what happened.”

As if he had been struck, Obed rotated his chin and rubbed his hand over his face. “Everything has changed—for me.”

Turning his head and glaring out of one fixed eye, Eoban spat his words. “But not for us? You’re going to abandon leadership and hope everything just” —he flailed his hands— “works out?” He snorted as bitterness rose in his throat. “We’re supposed to let you stew in anger while you lead us?” Eoban waved empathically. “Where are you leading us? Do you even know?”

Startled, Obed licked his lips. “Luge said that he lived on the eastern side near a waterfall. You said there was a waterfall above the foothills on the eastern mount.” He glanced from Barak to Eoban. “We’re going in that direction. Right?”

Eoban sighed, shaking his head. “For the most part, but I think we need to start coming down a bit.”

Obed and Barak nodded, and they trudged on in heavy silence.

~~~

Eoban led the way across the rough terrain, but as the sun lowered, Barak waved a limp hand. “I surrender. Let’s rest.”

When each man had drunk their fill from a stream and eaten a few morsels from their bags, Barak slumped under a large spreading tree and met Obed’s gaze. “I’m afraid this has been a doomed adventure. We certainly didn’t find Ishtar, and now you’re thinking of—”

Resting against another tree, Obed raised his hand. “I’ll explain.” He shifted, his gaze sweeping over the ground. “I’ve been wrong…about many things. I don’t know where to begin.”

Eoban plunked down between them and chuckled. “Oh, well, if that’s all—”

Barak kicked Eoban’s foot and glared a silent shut-up.

Shaking his head, Obed staggered back to his feet and paced before the two men.

An owl hooted in the distance and a breeze stirred the leaves.

Obed exhaled a long breath. “You’re right. I’ve always been so sure of myself…so certain—”

Barak rubbed his head. “Just tell us what happened that night.”

Obed swallowed and stared at the ground. “The temple priests assembled for one of their rituals…and they allowed me to stay.”

Eoban shrugged. “That was generous. I wouldn’t have thought they’d let an outsider watch.”

Obed nodded. “I should’ve been suspicious.” His eyes gleamed in the evening light as he glanced aside. “I should’ve had you with me, Eoban.”

Eoban sniffed and rubbed his nose. “Then neither of us would’ve been there.”

Turning away, Obed strangled a laugh. “Right again.”

Barak searched through his bag. “Was it interesting? Did they do anything…?”

“They offered a sacrifice.”

Barak froze and Eoban leapt to his feet. “By God, you didn’t stand by and watch—”

Sucking in a sobbing breath, Obed tottered close and gripped Eoban by the front of his tunic, his eyes bloodshot and glimmering. “They tried to sacrifice me! By all the devils of hell!” He jerked away and pounded to the shadows. “They gave me a drink… it was drugged. I got confused…and weak.”

Obed’s breathing grew labored, and his face dripped with sweat. “Before I knew what was happening, this…thing.” He heaved and bent double. “A shadow…a beast…rose from a pit…strong arms pushed me…I almost got pulled into a damned hole.”

Barak dropped his head to his chest and closed his eyes.

Eoban’s mouth fell open. With a shake, he stomped forward and peered at Obed’s bent head. “How did you get away?”

“I’m not sure.” Obed straightened. “I fought them…and I ran. Like a scared rabbit. I ran out of that stone hell and hid in the woods.” Shuddering, tears ran down Obed’s cheeks. “I’ve never been so ashamed.”

Barak gazed at Obed. “There’s no shame in saving your skin.”

Obed opened his mouth but no words came.

Eoban placed a gentle hand on Obed’s shoulder. A piercing shaft of understanding melted every shred of his anger. “Someone else had to be sacrificed…is that it?”

Dropping his head onto his hands, Obed wept, his shoulders heaving. “God, help me. I knew such things were possible…Neb, Ishtar…Haruz.” He wiped his face and straightened, his whole body stiffening. “But I never really felt the evil before…and saw my own blindness.”

Obed retreated to a spot under a tree and plunked down.

After a few moments, Eoban rubbed his face and chuckled. “Well, if this doesn’t make me happy, nothing will.” He stepped over to Obed, crouched before him, and stuck out his hand.

Obed stared, a perplexed frown crowding his forehead.

Eoban’s hand remained open and steady. “I want to welcome the new man to the clan. You’ll do rather nicely as our leader. Just wish you had turned up ages ago.”

Obed bit his lip and glanced aside at Barak.

Barak grinned.

Obed clasped Eoban’s hand, and Eoban pulled him to his feet. “Now, let’s get something to eat.”

You can best fight any existing evil from the inside. ~Hattie McDaniel

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty

—Woodland—

A Terrible Mistake

Amin sat on a log before a dead fire and watched Luge’s wife, Lydia, trot across the village with an armful of kindling and two children tugging at her skirts.

He whiled away his boredom imagining what he would say to his little brother when he returned home. He pictured Caleb’s surprise—his eyes round and wide—as the boy ran into his arms as he always did. Caleb would want him to repeat his adventures over and over and would probably brag to everyone about Amin’s journey.

Amin shook his head. What do I have to brag about? He stared at the humble village, the rough men and women who hunted and gathered, eeking out an existence from the scrubby wilderness. He closed his eyes and pictured his own well-organized village—the craftsmen’s homes, women chattering as they spun and wove cloth on looms, children leading herds into distant green hills.

Opening his eyes, he sighed; his shoulders drooped in idle weariness. Scanning the crowd, he saw an old woman scrape a hide with a worn paddle, a man hang strips of meat on a line to dry, and children huddle in a circle before an old woman who held at a bowl of nuts in her lap and picked out the shells.

One man attached a sharp stone tip to a long wooden shaft with leather ties. He glanced up and met Amin’s gaze.

Amin looked away, a tightening in his throat choked him.

Striding near with hurried steps, Lydia called. “Come, boy. Eat now.” She pointed to the table placed outside her tent. “We must get everything packed for the move tomorrow.”

Frowning, Amin rose and padded to the table. He peered at the tray piled with roasted meat, nuts, and mixed berries. “How can you leave? Luge isn’t back yet.”

After placing an earthen jug on the table, Lydia wiped the back of her hand over her brow. “I hardly want to.” She glanced aside, her brow wrinkled with worry. “But I have to.”

Amin tilted his head and peered at her, a spark of interest igniting. “Have to…why?”

Stepping closer, Lydia leaned in, one hand shadowing her mouth as if to hide their conversation. “My husband’s brother…” She nodded at a fat, indolent man lying on a soft pallet outside his tent. A man Amin had learned to avoid early on.

“Rueben?” Amin frowned. “He should be helping you.”

Snorting, Lydia turned her back to the village and arranged the tray and the jug in perfect symmetry. “He does not work. It’s not his way. Nor his wife’s.” She glanced over her shoulder.

A tiny woman with a tight, flushed face hovered over her husband, flapping her hands like fans, chattering like a child.

Scowling, Amin stared boldly at the man. “In my clan, if a person does not work, he does not eat.”

Idly scratching her head, Lydia surveyed the village. “You must be a wise and prosperous people then.”

Amin chuckled and shook his head. “If only that were so.” His grin faded as Rueben rolled off the pallet and swayed to his feet, his glaring eyes fixed on Lydia.

Amin straightened, annoyance warring with anxiety.

Lydia backed against the table as Rueben drew near.

“Why aren’t you seeing to the packing, woman?”

Lydia frowned, wringing her hands. “I’ve just finished my morning work and made the rounds, telling everyone your plan.”

His eyes narrowing, disgust enveloped Amin. The man’s stench was unbearable. He flashed a glance at Rueben’s wife, who scurried in the background, still fluttering like a leaf in high winds.

Rueben shook an admonishing finger at Lydia. “You know Luge’s directions were as clear as the morning sun. He said to move at our appointed time, no matter what.”

Amin turned to Lydia. “Why? What harm would it do to wait a little longer?”

Glaring, Rueben grabbed Lydia’s wrist and tugged her toward his tent. “The whole clan will starve if we delay. Once the rains come, the roads will be impassible, and winter will have its way with us.”

Lydia jerked free and returned to Amin, staring into his bright eyes, leaning in as if to emphasize her words. “It’s true. It’ll grow cold here soon, and animals will be hard to find. We’ve already outstayed our welcome.” She glanced at the main path leading out of the village. “I was hoping” —she shook herself— “but there’s no sense waiting now. Luge will follow us. He knows the way.”

Ruben gestured to his wife. “Ulla will help you.” He limped to the outdoor pallet and flopped on the ground with a loud, lingering groan.

Lydia lifted her hands in apparent surrender, her gaze sweeping the interior of the tent. “Don’t worry, Ulla. You take care of your husband. I’ll manage.”

As Ulla scampered to her wifely duty, Amin stepped into the tent behind Lydia. He gasped. Discarded clothes, half-eaten food, dirty cups, and sticky jugs, ornate decorations, a broken spear, three mangled baskets, and an assortment of other detritus lay strewn about in haphazard fashion. “They’re worse than pigs.”

Clamping her hand over Amin’s mouth, her eyes widened. “Shhh! He’s a difficult man when he’s feeling well but now that he’s sick—”

Amin lifted a jug, sniffed, and wrinkled his nose. His voice dropped low. “Sick or stupid?”

Her hands flashing right and left, Lydia straightened the baskets and tossed salvageable goods into them. The rotten food and broken pottery shards, she threw into a central pit. “His bowels bother him…sometimes he writhes in agony.” With a yelp, she jumped back.

Leaning forward, Amin followed her wide-eyed stare and peered in the dark corner where a heap of old clothes lay in a shredded bundle. He gripped the corner and tugged.

Out leapt a litter of rats, which scattered in all directions.

Slapping his thigh, Amin knocked one off his legging and then spat on the ground. “Ugh! Filthy people!”

With a shudder, Lydia grabbed a staff from the corner and swung it at the departing rodents, her own rage flushing across her face. “Luge should never have left me like this! He knows how much I have to do—”

Shocked, Amin froze and stared at her. “He’s looking for your son!”

Lydia exhaled a long breath and began tossing articles in the basket again. “I know what he’s doing.” She glanced at Amin. “But I’m long past such hope.”

Using his feet, Amin nudged garbage into the pit. “Still, the boy—”

“I have more than one child, and I must care for those left to me as best I can.” Straightening, she rubbed her back. “Besides, I have another coming, and Luge knows how Rueben acts. Impossible man.”

For the first time, Amin gazed at the swelling in Lydia’s middle. A memory of his mother’s rounded belly as she carried Caleb flashed through his mind. He rushed to Lydia’s side. “You should be resting. I didn’t realize.”

Lydia smiled. “I have time yet, but it’s too much work for one woman.”

Rueben called from outside. “Lydia, bring me fresh water.”

Lifting his hand, Amin rolled his eyes and stepped outside. He glanced from Rueben’s supine form to Ulla feeding berries to her husband. Closing his eyes, Amin snatched the empty jug from against the wall and strode to the stream.

Lydia’s two children toddled across his path, calling for their mama.

By the time he returned, Amin’s gut churned in fury. He plunked the jug down and perched his hands on his hips.

Lydia stepped out of the tent with one child on her hip, another tugging at her skirt, and a large basket in her other arm. She glanced at Amin. “I need to feed them and then perhaps—”

Amin folded his arms. “I’ll help get everything ready.”

Blinking back tears, Lydia hurried away with her children clinging to her.

Rueben took a long lingering swallow and then handed the jug to his wife.

Amin glared from one to the other. “What kind of a fool leaves his brother’s wife to tend to everything?”

Spluttering, Ulla choked.

Rueben jerked upright, his eyes glassy. He staggered to his feet and towered over the youth. “How dare a mongrel talk to me like that!”

“I’m no mongrel.” Amin flapped an open palm at Lydia’s tent with her children whining at the door. “She’s exhausted, and you don’t lift a finger to help!”

Raising his arm, Rueben swore to the sky. “By the gods, you have overstayed your welcome! Go and do not follow us on our journey.”

Cold fear enveloping him, Amin stiffened. “Luge told me to wait here, so he could find me—”

“Luge is dead, idiot! No one enters the stone city and lives to tell of it.” His eyes narrowed. “Leave now before I see fit to beat you and throw you out.”

Curling his fingers against the desire to shred Rueben’s face with his nails, Amin turned on his heel and stomped to Lydia’s tent. He plucked his spear from the wall.

Lydia frowned. “What’s happened?”

“Rueben has sent me away.” Without another word, Amin charged back into the sunlight, sweeping along the main path toward the edge of the village.

Stepping out, Lydia gasped and peeled herself away from her children. She trotted to Rueben’s side, her tone imploring. “Amin is just a boy! You can’t send him into the woods unprotected.”

Rueben jerked her clutching fingers off his sleeve. “Since my brother is no longer here, I’m the leader. I do what I think is best for the whole clan.” He glared at his wife and gestured to Lydia. “Every moment we waste in idle chatter costs us dearly. Hurry and see to the packing, woman.”

Amin stopped and met Lydia’s frightened gaze. “I’m not unprotected.” He lifted his spear. “I wish I could’ve helped you.” He glanced aside at Rueben. “You’re making a terrible mistake.” Fury twisting his insides, Amin pounded onto the main path that led into the surrounding woodlands.

Once well outside the village, he stopped and considered his options. Back toward home…or to the mountains? He turned and faced the mountains.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Nine

—Mountains and Grasslands—

Madness Will Take Us All

Ishtar ran under a warm sun at an even pace for much of the day, stopping every now and again to rest, gain a view of his surroundings, and get his bearings. He wound his way down a mountainside populated with cedars and pines. The ground, spongy and matted with brown needles, softened the blows to his feet, and the boughs overhead blocked the harshest rays of the sun. The ancient trees comforted him but with a reserved, haughty demeanor.

By late afternoon, the trees, held back by an invisible command, gave way to scrublands and rounded hillsides. When Ishtar reached the top of one, he considered his surroundings and tried to puzzle out where the raiding clan had come from. He glanced back at the distant mountains and frowned. Even if they managed to cross the distance, how would they ever get their slaves home safe? He shook his head. They’d be mad. A stab of fear plunged into his gut.

By evening, he spied a group of stocky, muscular hunters passing into the open grasslands. He followed as they chased a fat stag. After a successful kill, they grinned in mute joy and pounded each other on the back. Sucking in a deep breath, Ishtar straightened his shoulders, rose from his grassy shelter, and approached. He lifted his hands high, signaling his peaceful intent.

Frowning and circling their kill, they huddled close.

Ishtar spoke slowly, gesturing with each word. “I’m Ishtar from the grasslands. I’m returning home from a long journey.”

Allowing him to step nearer, the shortest and thickest man in the group addressed him. “Ishtar, I’m Butros. We come from the south.” He gestured in the general direction, and then swept his hand at the stag. “We return home, too.”

Clasping his hands, Ishtar bowed in a sign of respect. “You are skilled hunters.” He motioned back the way he had come. “I found a village devastated by raiders. My friend is helping the survivors. But I must warn my people.” He stepped closer. “And warn you too. They are a dangerous enemy.”

“We’ve heard of their approach. We hide in the woodlands, and when necessary, we move again. In this way, we keep safe.”

Ishtar nodded. “Very wise. But have no other clans been attacked? Were none of them your friends?”

Butros glanced at his men before fixing his gaze on Ishtar. “We’re too few to fight such a powerful enemy. Their leader is intelligent but mad.”

Stiffening, a cold shock ran over Ishtar. “Why do you say so?”

Butros shrugged. “His success declares intelligence, but his ambition demonstrates madness.”

Rubbing his temple, Ishtar tipped his head. “You are wise indeed.” He glanced toward the setting sun. “I must go and warn my people.”

Glancing aside, Butros nodded to the stag. “It was kind of you to stop to alert us. Take some meat. You must arrive strong enough to fight…if need be.”

Blinking at this unexpected generosity, Ishtar waited while they cut a section of the rump and wrapped it in skin. When he accepted the gift, he bowed low. “If ever the need arises, send a runner to the western grasslands. Call for Ishtar, and I’ll come to your aid.”

Butros smiled. “If ever the need arises.” He titled his head. “I pray it will not.”

Ishtar turned, but Butros called after him. “Beware of their god! It eats men, devouring them whole.”

Bile rising, Ishtar froze, stunned. He glanced back wide-eyed. “You know this?”

“I know the sound of a man in torment, and I have seen the sacrificial fire.” Butros shook his head. “That’s why we stay far from them.” Peering through haunted eyes, he crossed his arms over his chest. “The danger is too great.”

Turning, Ishtar sprinted away.

~~~

Ishtar rose early the next morning from a short sleep and started again. He soon discovered a wide, beaten trail of travelers who had no desire to hide their steps and held in contempt those who might follow. Under a glaring noon sun, he arrived at an abandoned encampment. Stepping around the remains of an enormous blackened ring, he toed the remains of a feast.

He crouched low, frowning. They had enjoyed roasted deer; the bones and hide scraps lay scattered about. But in the fire pit, the bones did not match the meal. Fresh blood stained a circle of blackened stones. Ishtar’s nose curled, and his stomach squirmed. When he found the remains of a hand, his insides revolted, and he retched in the grass.

With sobbing moans, he wiped bile from his mouth and rose on his haunches. Pounding the dirt, he rocked like a child in torment. Lifting his gaze to the sky, he raised his fist. “Oh, God! How could this happen—again? Is there no evil men will not commit?” He staggered to his feet and stared wild-eyed at the scene. “Madness will take us all.”

A huge black raven flew in low, snatching at the remains. In fury, Ishtar swatted the air, flailing his arms and attempting to drive it away. Three more birds arrived, and Ishtar leapt at them, flinging insults and fury.

More birds darted into the pit, and Ishtar, with tears streaming, snatched the hand and what bones he could find. Bundling them in his arms, he ran some distance away, and, using his body as a shield, he dropped the remnant in a heap. He yanked his knife from his belt and scoured the ground, loosening the earth and scrabbling a shallow hole with his fingers. After placing each bone and fleshy piece into the hollow, he covered them dirt and grass.

The birds, unaware or uninterested in his work of mercy, circled above the remaining feast, quarreling for their share.

His hands black and bleeding, his face sweat-and-tear- streaked, Ishtar stepped back and stared from the tiny grave to the angry birds, his mood as black as their feathers.

~~~

Ishtar—exhausted but resolute—loped through the swaying grass and detected a flicker of firelight in the distance. Crouching low, he crept over the uneven ground, his gaze fastened on the assembled throng.

A waning moon rose as one by one, stars blinked into existence. Low clouds spread across the sky like a frayed shawl.

Studying his enemy, Ishtar peered at the beardless, stocky warriors in the bright moonlight. They wore colorful robes dirt-stained and ragged but clear reminders of a proud history.

Sentries paced the perimeter and stalwart guards stood at fixed points before a huddled cluster of wretched women and children. The women clutched babies and small children in their laps, while adolescent girls and boys huddled with their arms wrapped around their middles, crouching low, their eyes blank and unseeing. On the edges, a few male survivors sat hunched-shouldered, bruised and filthy. The guards smacked them without cause whenever they strode near.

A single tent dominated the scene. Two guards, still as stones, stood on either side of the entrance.

As the glowing moon rose higher, Ishtar’s eyes drooped with exhaustion. He dropped his head over his arms, which were wrapped around his knees. His eyes closed.

Suddenly, a commotion jerked him awake. Craning his neck, he peered over the tops of the swaying grass.

A heavyset man, short and broad, with a beardless white face that practically glowed, marched stiff-shouldered from the tent to the center of the assembly. His iridescent robe, thrown back from his shoulders, rippled in the evening breeze. He stood in the center of the assembly and spoke in a confident, commanding tone, all eyes fixed on his face.

Ishtar could not hear the words, but he understood their instructional intent.

The leader pointed, his voice rising.

The assembled warriors lifted their arms, their fists raised to the night sky, chanting, demanding, and affirming. Among raucous sounds, only one resolved itself into a clear word. “Chai.”

Sheltered by blackness, Ishtar half-rose and growled in an undertone. “Chai? You and I must meet.”

Chai turned and peered in Ishtar’s direction, his eyes glowing like a cat’s.

A chill racing through his body, Ishtar turned south and fled.

It is not enough for us to restrain from doing evil unless we shall also do good. ~St. Jerome

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Eight

—Stone City—

Heart Sick

Obed’s mouth fell open as he tilted back his head and stared at the enormous, ornate structure. Guards stood posted at the entrance, letting him, Eoban, and Barak pass through without comment.

Inside, carvings covered the walls and statues populated the corners. Strange forms, various mixtures of human and animal, glared down at them. Murals decorated the ceiling and geometric tiles under their feet dazzled their eyes.

Sucking in a deep breath, Obed savored the experience. “Master craftsmen beyond imagination—”

Eoban tapped Obed’s lower jaw. “You’re drooling. Close your mouth before someone takes you for an idiot.” He nudged Barak. “Come over here. I think I see Haruz’s god.”

Heat flushing over his face, Obed pointedly ignored Eoban and Barak as they strolled out of sight.

As the afternoon sunlight filtered through the elongated windows near the ceiling, Obed wandered from room to room, his attention rapt and his admiration reaching new heights at every turn.

~~~

Barak’s hair prickled as he stared at one particularly grotesque figure, a man’s lower body attached to a scorpion’s upper half. He swallowed back bile and imagined his children’s terror. Murmuring under his breath, he came up beside Eoban. “Thank the stars we didn’t bring Amin to this place.”

Images of Ishtar and Haruz’s failed sacrifice flashed through Barak’s mind. Then, like waves on a stormy lake, memories of every battle he had fought thrust bloody gore before his wide-awake eyes. Shivering, he rubbed his clammy arms. He peered at Eoban. “I need air.” Hoping he didn’t look as terror-struck as he felt, Barak moved from room to room, zigzagging through the maze-like structure. Once beyond the guards and stepping into the bright sunshine, he gulped fresh air.

~~~

Eoban wandered aimlessly. He watched Barak hustle out, glad the man left before he turned any greener. Eoban started for the next interior entrance and hesitated, doubt clawing up his spine. He scowled. It’s not like I’ll get lost. He glanced at the guards wearing long colorful tunics on each side of the doorway. Must say, they dress well. He sighed and peered around. No sign of Ishtar.

Entering the next room, Eoban’s stomach plummeted to his toes. Around the room, larger-than-life stone carvings depicted half-human, half-animal beasts devouring grimacing human victims. Their silent screams sent terror shivering up his spine. His heart hammering, he glanced around. No table. No altar. No weapons. And most importantly, no victims. Eoban closed his eyes and muttered under his breath. “Time to join Barak. Sensible fellow.”

Bumbling passed a guard, he smacked into the wall.

The guard peered at him, irritation drawn across his furrowed brow.

Eoban lifted his hands. “Sorry. No harm done.” He hurried into the bright sunshine and pounded down the steep steps as fast as his legs could carry him.

~~~

Obed meandered in blissful silence, barely noticing the increase in activity and a chant wafting ever closer in a serpentine fashion through the temple. When horns blasted their shrill notes, he stopped and looked around.

The last of the visitors bustled through the doorway leading to the exit. He pursed his lips. An evening ceremony, perhaps?

With his hands clasped behind his back, Obed sauntered to the guard. “Can I stay and watch?”

Saying nothing, the guard merely retreated to a deeper interior.

Unruffled, Obed wandered back to a strange mural on the back wall and studied the interplay of colored stones and paint with the fading light.

Before he was done inspecting the mosaic, a tall elderly man with a thin beard padded toward him. Obed turned, ready to beg leave to watch to the ceremony.

“We’ve noticed your rapt attention and obvious admiration, so though we do not usually admit visitors, we’ll allow you to stay if you will do as you’re told.”

A sensuous pleasure swept over Obed.

The old man motioned ahead, and they paced through a series of doorways and down a long, dark hallway lighted only by torches fastened to the walls. At the end of the hall, a reflection of the setting sun poured into a huge interior room, sending shivers of delight over Obed. Seven men, including the old man, stood around the lip of a stone circle. He leaned forward, but in the fading light, he could not see what was in the center of the circle.

Chiming bells, unrecognizable chants, groans, gestures, flowing robes, and burning incense formed the bulk of a ritual Obed could not grasp. Confusion and weariness muddled his brain. Finally, an ornate goblet was passed and when it was offered to him, he took a tiny sip, swallowing a grimace from its bitter taste.

Unable to account for his reaction, a skin-crawling terror worked through Obed’s body. He shifted a step toward the entrance, panic pounding in his chest.

An undulating shadow rose from the circle, summoning Obed. In a dizzy half-awake stupor, he stepped forward, a deep hole, a cavernous death beckoning. Someone gripped his arm. Sweat dripped down his face. He could hear Jonas beseeching him, calling his name, “Obed!” Jerking, he flailed his arms.

As his grip slipped, the old man demanded, “Obey!”

A searing headache blinded him, but even without sight, Obed knew the distance to the door. He sped through the entrance, crashed against the wall, scrambled upright, and like a wounded animal, limped and clawed toward fresh air.

~~~

Eoban sat on the bottom step, his head in his hands. When Barak plunked down beside him, he sighed. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Barak nodded and peered over his shoulder. “How long before he comes out?”

A sour taste made Eoban wipe his lips. “So long as he doesn’t trip over a guard, turn into a statue, or fall into a black hole…” He shrugged and staggered to his feet, rubbing his back.

Barak rose and pointed to a public well and a cluster of food-sellers. He shuffled through the bag wound about his waist. “I’ve got a little to trade with.”

Eoban nodded. “Food and” —he pointed to a distant tree— “a rest.”

“Will Obed find us?”

Eoban chuckled and started forward. “After I get some sleep…I hope.”

Soon clouds rolled in and rain fell in sheets.

Eoban cursed under his breath and edged closer to Barak who slept peacefully under the spreading oak tree.

~~~

Obed scampered down the temple steps, his heart pounding, and raced across the city, zigzagging through the narrow streets like a wounded animal fleeing for its life. Sweat and rain poured down his face and into his eyes. He collided against a stone wall and fell in a heap. “Oh, God…oh, God.” Rain blanketed him as darkness swept all fear from his mind. Murmuring, he curled into a tight ball and fell into a tormented sleep.

~~~

Eoban, wet and exhausted, opened his blurry eyes and blinked.

Obed stood over him, swaying like a tree in a high wind.

Eoban slapped Barak’s sleeping form next to him. “Look who’s returned from his midnight merry-making with his temple brothers.” Clasping his hands over his knees, he peered up at Obed. “What? No festival leftovers? No tidbits for your hungry, wet, lonely friends?

Obed pointed to the main gate. “Let’s go.”

Groaning, Eoban stood, his mood turning as nasty as a wounded boar. “Couldn’t you even send a short message telling us you would be out . . . or rather in all night? I thought we meant more to you than to be left on the wayside by the first religious ceremony that came along.”

Rubbing the small of his back, Barak climbed to his feet and grimaced through a smile. “Glad to see you alive, Obed.” He shrugged. “I started to worry.”

Eoban rolled his eyes. “I was more worried we’d—”

Obed trotted away. “Ishtar’s not here. If he ever was—he’s dead now.”

Eoban leapt ahead and gripped Obed’s arm. “Wait a moment! We deserve an explanation.”

Glancing back at the temple, Obed shivered. “I have to leave—now!”

Smacking Eoban’s hand off Obed, Barak met Eoban’s gaze. “Let’s go.”

The three men trudged along the outer wall until they came to the main gate. Without ceremony, they passed through with a throng of merchants and herdsmen. As they reached the summit of the first hill, Barak peered over his shoulder at the stone city glinting in the morning sun. He glanced at Obed who had halted, his hand tapping nervously at his side. “They perform sacrifices there—don’t they?”

Obed swallowed and stared ahead. “Yes.” He turned and sprinted in the direction of the mountains.

Barak met Eoban’s gaze, and they started after Obed shoulder to shoulder.

Eoban shook his head as he ran, his eyes burning and his heart clenched tight.

Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. ~Mahatma Gandhi

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Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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