OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Four

You’re Not God

Ishtar entered Jonas’ dwelling and peered through the slanting rays of golden light. His attention wandered from a half-eaten meal of barley bread with roasted fish to a sharp carving knife resting on a piece of wood. No wood shavings littered the floor.

Tobia slept curled up on his pallet, his chest barely stirring, though his bruised face still showed the marks of recent events. The bandages wrapped around his hand and arm told the tale of wounds he took in the battle.

Jonas tiptoed up to Ishtar and lifted a finger to her lips.

With a nod of understanding, Ishtar backed over the threshold.

Jonas followed.

Strolling to the shady side of the house, Ishtar perched on the bench. “Where’s Obed?”

Flicking a glance to the distant hills, Jonas wrinkled her brow. “He’s helping a shepherd who can’t keep track of his sheep.”

Amusement coursed through Ishtar as he remembered his own flock on the other side of the distant mountains. “Sheep are not always as compliant as one might think. There are some…” His gaze drifted away.

Jonas drummed her fingers on the stout framework of the house. “Something is upsetting Tobia.” She jutted her chin toward the hills. “Anxiety weighs him down.”

“Even when we live beyond a trial, the horror still clings to us.”

Squinting, Jonas shaded her eyes from the bright sun. “But you defeated your enemy when you killed your father and again when you killed Chai.” She bit her lip. “Tobia suffers from an enemy he can’t defeat.”

Irritation flushed through Ishtar. “I didn’t defeat my father or Chai. They succumbed to the evil fate they created for themselves. I merely endured their self-destruction.” He rose and paced in front of Jonas. “Tobia faces the same enemy we all face: despair.”

Coming to a halt, Ishtar pointed to fresh grave mounds. “Men died defending us. Women lost their husbands and children lost their fathers. Though slaves were freed, many have no families to return to.” He glanced at Jonas. “Homes and villages can be repaired, but lost innocence can never be found again.”

Setting her jaw in a firm line, Jonas scowled. “You think I don’t know that?” She pointed to the great lake. “I lost Tobia’s father and my eldest son in the battle with the giants. Tobia was there. He’s known both evil and courage.” She shook her head and turned away. “But this time…”

Ishtar frowned. “What about his carving?”

Jonas shrugged. “Obed gave him a new knife and a beautiful piece of wood, but Tobia hasn’t touched them.” She flung her hands in the air. “He seemed so excited when he heard that Remy was here, asked to see him and smiled when they met. But then—”

A sudden memory riveted Ishtar in place—the first time he beheld a beautiful woman. He pursed his lips. “Tobia once mentioned that Remy has a very kind sister.”

Jonas met Ishtar’s gaze. “A woman?”

“Tobia is a man.”

Swallowing, Jonas leaned on the wall and slid onto the bench. “You think—?”

A shout in the distance turned their attention.

Eoban stood between Obed and Barak, calling, “Ishtar, Jonas, come say goodbye to Luge, the man who made our success possible!”

Ishtar held Jonas’s eye a moment and tipped his head.

Sucking in a deep breath, Jonas marched forward.

~~~

Tobia stirred and rubbed his bleary eyes. His stomach rumbled, and as he scratched his head, he became aware that someone else was in the room.

Ishtar sat in the doorway, carving a piece of wood. His piece of wood. Tobia sat up and frowned. “Obed gave that to me.”

Nodding, Ishtar’s gaze fixed on a long wood shaving that curled around the knife. “Jonas told me.”

Tobia bit his bottom lip. He glanced at the dish of bread. “I’m hungry.” He licked his lips. “And thirsty.”

With a shrug, Ishtar continued his work. “There’s wine in the jug and bread on the table.”

Mild complaints issued from his joints as he stood, but Tobia ignored them and hobbled to the food. He swiped the jug from the shelf, pulled out the stopper, and took a long swig. He eyed Ishtar. “What’re you making?”

“A boy.”

After smacking the jug on the table, Tobia ripped off a broken piece of flatbread and took a bite. He talked around a chew and stepped closer. “Why?”

“I am going to replace the son that Matalah lost.”

Tobia stared at Ishtar’s bowed head of shining black hair and snorted. “Matalah won’t laugh at your joke.”

Ishtar glanced up, his eyes wide with wonder. “I’m not joking.”

Tobia scowled and bit off another piece.

“I only want to heal a terrible injury. Is that wrong?”

Dropping the bread, Tobia slapped the wood out of Ishtar’s hand. “You can no more make a man than I can.”

“I made my sons.”

“Not from wood! And you didn’t make them. Your wife conceived them by the will of God.”

Picking up the wood with a disinterested shrug, Ishtar appeared to inspect it for flaws. “After I make Matalah a son, I’m going to make a new Vitus.”

Hot fury flushed Tobia’s face. “Damn you!”

After laying the wood and the knife aside in slow, precise motions, Ishtar stepped into the evening air.

As if pulled by a cord, Tobia followed. His breath jerked at the coolness, and he flushed with hot shame. “I—I didn’t mean that.” He stopped on the threshold. “You don’t understand. Nothing is funny to me. Everything hurts too much.” He closed his eyes. “I’ll never laugh again.”

A hand pressed on his shoulder, and Tobia opened his eyes.

Ishtar met Tobia’s gaze. “You’ll never love again?”

Shoving off the frame, Tobia hobbled across the compound toward the grave mounds by the rolling river.

Ishtar followed at an even pace.

When Tobia halted, a shiver spread over his body. “I’ve died inside. I’m old. Too old. I can’t marry and have children…because I already know how it’ll end. Some invaders will come. I’ll do battle and die. My sons will die. My wife and daughters will become enslaved or die of sickness or starvation—”

Ishtar clapped his hands together and gasped. “Tobia! Stop. You’ll depress the fish in the river, and I’ll want to kill myself before nightfall.” A grin played on his face.

Burning in rage, Tobia flung himself on Ishtar and beat his chest. “It’s not funny! Damn you—I mean it now. How can you joke?”

Ishtar grappled with Tobia. Clutching his arms to his chest and shoving Tobia’s back against a tree, he stilled his raging fury. “I’m not laughing at you, Tobia. Only at the horror that you must leave behind.”

Tobia writhed, attempting to free himself. “It won’t leave!”

“It will—if you let it go.” Ishtar held Tobia’s gaze and tightened his grip.

Gulping air, Tobia calmed into a shaky acceptance. “Let me go.”

“Stop fighting your pain. It’s making you mad. You think you’re doomed because pain blinds you to any other possibility.”

“What other possibility is there?”

“Evil is only one option, Tobia.” Ishtar let go and turned away. “I know what you fear, for I’ve feared it too. Even when I turned from Neb’s evil ways, I could not really succeed because I never accepted the truth.”

Rubbing his arms, Tobia spat his words. “What truth?”

“That there’s more to life than this world and the evil we must endure here. I’ve passed through madness into a new hope. Life does not end there.” He pointed to the grave mounds. “Aram does not live in the dirt. There are more worlds than the ones we see.”

Burning indignation rose from Tobia’s middle. “I never deserved to suffer like I did.”

“And I never deserved forgiveness.”

Tobia’s rage tripped and fell, but questions still pounded his mind. He looked Ishtar in the eye. “And Vitus?”

“How do we know what he deserved?”

Tobia dropped his head onto his chest with a sigh.

“The beginning of wisdom is to realize—God exists—but you are not Him.”

Ishtar stepped over to the doorway and picked up the piece of wood and the carving knife. He held them out.

With the last flicker of his anger dying like a flame in summer rain, Tobia accepted them.

“Darkness is part of this life, but so is light.” ~Millie Florence

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Two

Ishtar By God

Ishtar crawled to the edge of a clearing surrounded by distant trees and stared at the flickering flames of a huge central bonfire. Images of the many fires he had watched flashed before his mind: Neb’s elaborate feasts to celebrate victory, the humble cooking fires he sat around with friends and family, the fire that had reflected his wife’s blood, the fire pit burned to embers outside Matalah’s tent…

Eoban grabbed Ishtar’s shoulder and hissed in his ear. “I said you could come with me, not run ahead and throw yourself at the enemy.”

Ishtar glared at Eoban.

Eoban glared back.

A large ornate tent was pitched before the huge fire and slump-shouldered warriors sat like thick, sallow-faced mounds. They chomped on their rations and murmured a few words back and forth, their gazes glancing nervously at the tent. The surviving prisoners huddled in a ragged line to the west as guards strode along the perimeter, grunting and swearing.

As a figure exited the tent, all conversation stopped. All motion halted. A lone man strode to the fire, holding an ornate bowl above his head. He chanted in a hoarse voice. “Chai calls, spirit. Be our guide. Lead us to victory. Burning flames engulf us; take us! Make us yours. Forever yours.”

Ishtar stood up, a surprising calm embracing his body.

Clawing at Ishtar, Eoban tugged on his tunic. “Get down, idiot!”

Shoulders back and head high, Ishtar stepped into the flickering firelight.

Eoban’s smothered groan followed him.

Ishtar stopped before the fire and peered through the flames at his enemy. “I am here, Chai.”

Roused out of their stupor, every warrior focused on Ishtar, their hands clenching their weapons.

After lowering the bowl, Chai took a slow sip and peered over the rim. He tossed the bowl aside and grinned. “You know me?”

Eoban scuttled forward and nudged between the prisoners as if he were one of them. He slipped his knife from his belt and cut the bonds of the nearest prisoner.

Once freed, the prisoner motioned for Eoban’s knife. Quickly, Eoban slipped an extra knife into the man’s hands.

Glimpsing Eoban’s actions out of the corner of his eye, Ishtar refused to be deterred and focused his attention on Chai. “Lud told me about you.”

“The boy?” Chai laughed. “Did he die with my name on his lips?”

“Lud lives, but the dead cry out.”

A myriad of eyes shifted away from Ishtar and landed on Chai.

Striding around the fire, Chai chuckled. “The dead do not cry out. Their voices are stilled. They are consumed by the spirit who offers us victory and life.”

Ishtar matched Chai’s stride and kept the fire between himself and his enemy. He peered through the flames. “Your spirit offers only lies, not life.”

As if annoyed that Ishtar had matched his pace, Chai stopped and thrust his hands on his hips. “I know the god I worship. He has led me here. He will consume you before the break of dawn.”

“Does your god serve you…or do you serve your god? Pass through the fire, and we will see.”

The watching crowd of warriors stiffened.

Freed prisoners shuffled forward. A child cried out.

Still cutting bonds, Eoban sucked in a deep breath.

His eyes fixed on his opponent; Chai stepped closer to the fire. “Who are you to direct me?”

Ishtar paced away, turned, and crouched low. “I am Ishtar, by God!” He sprang forward and leapt through the flames.

Startled, Chai stumbled and fell on his back.

Landing solidly on his feet, Ishtar stood over Chai, his heart exultant. “I have passed through fire and am not consumed.”

Scrambling to his feet, Chai eyed his men.

In a lightning-fast move, Ishtar gripped his enemy by the arms and whipped him around to the very edge of the flames.

Chai fought and writhed.

Eoban leapt forward and stood at Ishtar’s back with his arms wide, blocking any interference. “Take one step, and he’ll feed your master to the flames.”

A shadow loomed.

The crowd shrunk back from the sight.

Chai called out as he struggled. “My men will follow me to death and beyond!”

Ishtar glanced at the hesitating throng. “Will they?”

Like a dam freed from all restraints, an enraged thickset man barreled in from outside the circle and thrust every person aside, Obed’s knife in his hand. Screaming, he leapt on Chai and stabbed him repeatedly. “My wife! My children dead—to hell with you!”

As if waking from a stupor, a warrior started toward the attacker but two freed prisoners stepping from the shadows held him at bay.

More warriors advanced, shock blanching their faces, but the ragged, inflamed prisoners advanced too. Shrieking, shouting, and darting erratically, the prisoners attacked.

Ishtar caught Chai’s body as he slumped to the ground.

Bursting from the darkness, Barak with Luge and their men pounded into the fray and fought the bewildered, furious warriors who were now backed against the flames.

Nearly collapsing, Ishtar pulled Chai away from the flames. He stared into the unfocused eyes of his enemy…a stark reminder of his father as he lay dying.

Chai’s head dropped onto Ishtar’s arm, like a child cradled in his mother’s embrace. Swallowing convulsively, he stared at the star-strewn sky before riveting his gaze upon Ishtar. “I came to conquer.” He choked and blood trickled from his mouth. “You defeated me.”

Tears filled Ishtar’s eyes. “You gave me little choice. Evil devours itself…in the end.”

Chai shuddered and cried out, clutching Ishtar’s arm. “Don’t let the demon take me!”

With his emotions breaking like shattered pottery, Ishtar gasped. “I have no say over such things.”

“Please!”

Screams and grunts of fighting men and women swirled all around them. A young warrior fell into the fire and the flames flared.

The shadow grew, blocking the moon and twinkling stars.

Chai whimpered and clutched Ishtar tighter. “Not me!”

Ishtar slipped free of Chai’s grip and whipped off his cloak. He flung it on the fire and smothered the flames enough to grab the fallen warrior and pull him free. He bit off his words, glancing at the shadow, “No more—victims—today.”

Eoban ran forward and tossed a bowlful of water on the young man, sending an angry hiss into the air. He shook his head as he stared at the unconscious warrior who was little more than a boy. “What a waste.”

After a last mighty shudder, Chai lay still, his arms flung out, and his eyes glassy, staring sightlessly at the brilliant night sky.

Ishtar watched the defeated enemy shuffle to one side of the smoldering fire and drop their weapons.

Luge strode before them and ordered his men to tie them together.

Kneeling beside the body of Chai, Ishtar wept.

“What is important is not to fight, but to fight the right enemy.” ~Bangambiki Habyarimana

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-One

Ancient Enemy

Obed peered across the horizon in the morning light and pictured his daughter’s face at their parting. Mari had stood tall, her long black hair blowing in the wind and tears streaming down her face.

His son, Onia, had begged to fight at his side, but the expression on Jonas’s face convinced him otherwise. He sent his son to the caves to protect the women and children.

Obed swallowed back fear and hate and looked to his men as they lined up ready for battle.

He had limped alongside Ishtar into the village, and a shout rang out that warmed Obed’s heart. When he realized that as many men were shouting for Ishtar’s safe return as for his own, he had to stifle his irritation. But watching Ishtar work with the men, making plans, calling for weapons, encouraging the fearful and directing the overzealous, soothed Obed’s raw emotions. Ishtar was not the same man who had fallen so far from grace.

Eoban gripped Obed’s shoulder as he stood next to him. “Did I tell you that I’m glad you’re still alive?”

Choking on something between a snort and a scream, Obed peered aside at Eoban. “You said, ‘Told you so,’ and plodded by as if I had simply missed dinner.”

“You acted like an idiot, and I won’t let you forget it.” Eoban’s gaze roamed to the distant hills. “I wish I knew where Barak ended up.”

His stomach tightening, Obed bit his lip. “You should never have left him.”

“Don’t blame me if the man can’t find his head in the dark.” Eoban pointed to the hills. “He probably got confused, circled around a few times, and met Luge. He might’ve decided to rest a few days.”

“Sounds like Barak. A man of leisure.”

“Given time, I’ll forgive him for being an even bigger idiot than you, but this—” Eoban waved his hand at the sight of a massive assembly drawing near. “I’ll never forgive.” He spat on the ground.

A shout rang out.

In the distance, a wall of ragged prisoners appeared on the hillside. Most of them were children, and they scuttled forward, prodded from behind.

Obed’s stomach turned sour, bile rising.

The enemy was using human beings as shields—to be slaughtered in the first approach.

Ishtar trotted forward. “Everyone’s in place.”

Eoban glanced at Ishtar. “Your men will circle around?”

With his gaze locked on the approaching enemy, Ishtar nodded and waved to the assembly behind them. “The central throng will meet these children with tenderness. But Lud will approach from the east with his men, and I’ll lead mine from the west. Between us, we’ll destroy the enemy.” He darted away.

As cold hate penetrated Obed’s body, he leaned forward, ready to leap ahead. To no one in particular, he said, “Once they’re exposed, we rush in and kill them all.”

~~~

Eoban wiped sweat from his eyes, huffed deep breaths, and clashed spears with one of the enemy, a short, stocky man who, like the others, wore a knot of black hair on a shaved head.

Wielding swords and shields with harsh motions and hostile calls, the enemy gained ground. Something aided them that went beyond the realm of mere luck. Most of the children had been spared, but as Ishtar and Lud circled around, the enemy seemed to expect the maneuver and turned with great skill to meet the challenge.

Lud’s men were speared and stabbed like sheep led to slaughter.

Ishtar met with little more success. His warriors were more experienced, but time had blunted their abilities.

Screams and shouts filled the air. Carrion circled overhead, and some even landed on the dead and those not yet dead but wishing to be so.

Swallowing back bile, Eoban stared at the descending sun and pleaded like a needy child. “Please, God! Aram, hear my cry…the cries of your people…your friends.”

A stout figure with moves quick as lightning came from out of nowhere, pounding toward Lud.

Lud no sooner turned than the man’s knife pierced his side.

With a choked breath, Eoban screamed, “No!” and rushed forward, his bloody knife clenched in his hand. Before he made four steps, a new enemy jumped in his path and barred his way.

~~~

Chai chuckled as he stepped back and let the youth fall to his knees before him. This day had been too easy! Tales had been told about this clan, this gathering of clans, and all they had achieved through long years together.

He licked his lips and tasted blood. He peered at Lud, hesitating. “You a man or a boy?”

Grimacing, Lud lurched to his feet and aimed his knife. His hand trembled, and his voice rose to a reedy whisper. “I am Lud, the leader of this clan.”

Chai grinned, tapping his chest. “I’m Chai. Your leader now.” He stepped forward. “Bow before me.”

Lud stumbled backward.

The sound of a ram’s horn tore through the village, stilling the cries and screams in a hundred throats.

Chai frowned, gazing around, puzzled.

A man bounded to a halt on his right. Swinging around, Chai faced the blood-splattered warrior.

Lud screamed. “Eoban! Watch out.”

The ram’s horn sounded again and a dark-haired warrior charged into the confused melee, leading a fresh host of men. A giant man loped alongside at his right hand.

Shock drenched Chai like cold water. Stiffening, he glanced around. His men looked to him for direction, their eyes asking if they should retreat. He shook his head. He never retreated.

Suddenly, a tall, sinewy man with long black hair trailing down his back and blazing eyes turned and stared directly at Chai. Their gazes locked.

Chai blinked. He knew those eyes. He knew that expression. A familiar terror seeped into his bones, and he trembled. He lifted his bloody knife and held it high. “Retreat!”

~~~

Ishtar confronted the mighty invaders, fighting hand-to-hand, stabbing, hitting, and twisting his own body out of harm’s way while other horrors rose in his mind. The sightless eyes of countless victims, his father’s blood on his hands, and the ghostly apparition of his grandfather crowded him like cavorting devils.

When he saw the enemy leader, he knew with uncanny certainty that this man was not merely a battle-hardened warrior or even an intelligent slave trader. An ancient force ruled the mortal before him. Ishtar watched the stalwart leader swoop forward like a bird of prey, his arms outstretched practically enveloping his men in his mighty will—win at all costs.

They retreated now. But they would be back.

~~~

Eoban plunked down on the hard ground before a hut and propped his head on his splayed hands.

An old man fed kindling to a central fire, murmuring a chant under his breath.

A hand pressed Eoban’s shoulder. “Resting?”

Eoban stared at Barak in blank amazement. “I always rest after battle—especially after I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about my friends.”

The old man stepped back from the flickering flames, light chasing shadows across his wizened face.

Barak leaned casually on his spear and shrugged. “I met travelers in the north gathering men to assist us. When Luge heard of our need, he decided to join in. As we approached the village, I saw the danger of a direct attack and decided it was best to come in late and confront the enemy when they were exhausted.”

Eoban tilted his head at the irony of Barak’s thinking.

Barak nudged him in the shoulder with the butt of his spear. “It worked to good effect, don’t you think?”

Pursing his lips Eoban nodded. “Just about killed us, but yes.”

His arm bleeding and his clothes ragged, Obed limped forward. Without a word, he dropped to the ground, leaned against the shed, and shut his eyes.

Ishtar strode up, pointing north. “They’ll hide in the hills for a few days…but they’ll return.”

A man called. “Ishtar! Come!”

Without hesitation, Ishtar sprinted away.

Eoban glanced from Obed to Barak. He waved his fingers airily. “Some of us are much too clean.”

His eyes widening, Barak sat next to Obed. “You think I should’ve rushed in to look heroic and been overwhelmed with everyone else?”

Eoban raised his hands in protest. “I’m too tired to argue. Wait till later.”

Obed groaned. “It’s like being back in the wilderness with you two all over again.”

Ishtar hustled back and stood before them, his eyes grave and serious.

Sitting up, nauseous and weary, Eoban lifted his gaze. “What?”

“The healers can’t stop Lud’s bleeding. We need Jonas and the other women.”

Barak slapped Eoban’s leg. “Let’s go.”

Struggling to his feet, Eoban glanced around. “Where’s Tobia?”

Turning in a circle, Ishtar’s eyes widened in alarm. “Last time I saw him, he was running—” He glanced north.

Obed moaned. “Could he have run into the enemy line?”

Barak shook his head, frowning. “He’s too smart for that.”

Bouncing a glance off Obed, Eoban looked away.

Ishtar stepped aside, gazing at the hills. “He must have had a reason.”

Trying to rise, Obed faltered. “I’ll go after him.”

“Sit still.” Eoban pressed Obed back to the ground. “You need to recover your strength.” Grimacing, he rubbed his back and faced the hills. Night slowly turned light into blackness. “I’ll be back before morning.”

“Barak’s eyebrows rose. “You don’t look too good yourself.”

“I never look good.” Eoban sucked in a deep breath and patted Barak on the back. “You’re a decent man, Barak. Remember I said that. It may come in useful. Besides, you and Obed need to get the women.” He waved his finger at them admonishingly. “No one is to follow me.” Hunch- shouldered and sick at heart, Eoban plodded away.

Ishtar stepped beside Eoban and matched his pace. “Except me.”

Eoban nodded in exhaustion. “Except you.

”We are fighting barbarians, but we must remain human.” ~David Benioff

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty

What Evil Can Do

Obed felt sharp knots chafing his raw skin, burning like fire. Darkness and hot, moaning bodies surrounded him. Dried sweat mixed with dirt stiffened his face into a tight mask. His legs ached and his head throbbed. The hard ground pressed into his buttocks, while pinpricks of stars flickered in a cold, distant sky. He closed his eyes, resting his forehead on his knees.

The stone city and its shimmering temple rose in his mind’s eye, sending a chill over his arms. He thought of Ishtar, images flashing like lightning in a summer storm: Ishtar sitting with Joash around an evening fire, Ishtar standing over Neb’s bloody body, Ishtar helping to evacuate the burning village, Ishtar with crazed eyes holding a knife over Aram’s daughter. Obed’s throat tightened. “Oh, God! Ishtar, what possessed you?”

A woman’s cry startled him into wakefulness. He lifted his head and stared across the motley throng. A limp child lay like a discarded piece of clothing over the woman’s lap. She peered with her head bent low, murmuring soft words.

Another woman leaned in close, attempting to touch the child.

The mother jerked the baby away with a screech.

The child’s head lolled to the side, his eyes unnaturally wide, and his body unresisting.

Obed swallowed a hard lump in his throat.

The second woman made another attempt to rouse the infant and the mother slapped her hand. They quarreled. An interested guard sauntered near. Crouching on his haunches, deep ravines furrowing his brow, he tapped the baby’s cheek. Pursing his lips, he shook his head and muttered sharply at the woman.

She hugged the baby closer, wrapping the ragged cloth tighter around it.

Rising, the guard called to an older warrior who limped over. He scowled at the two women, plucked the baby from the startled mother, and carried it away.

With an animal-like howl, the mother jerked up, but the ropes crippled her. She fell to the ground, screaming.

The other woman, crying, patted the mother’s arm and pulled her into an embrace.

Obed watched the limping man drop the baby beside another unresponsive body and hurry to a cluster of warriors clamoring for strong drink.

The mother crumpled, burying her face in the other woman’s lap.

Curling into a ball, Obed rocked like a child, wishing for the comfort of his mother…or his wife. Or death itself.

~~~

Ishtar perched on the cliff edge and watched the yellow- pink sunrise. His whole body relaxed between the cool morning air and the smooth rock under him. Though his eyes scanned the horizon for any sign of the enemy, gratitude suffused his heart. He replayed the reunion between Amin and Caleb in his mind and smiled at how they both stood awkwardly for a moment before Caleb rushed into his brother’s arms. Nodding, Ishtar applauded his eldest son’s nature, especially when the boy’s sensitive heart broke all restraint and responded to undiluted love.

Ishtar sighed.

Footsteps padded near.

Ishtar waited.

Tobia circled around, plunked down on his right, and stretched out. He sniffed in a long breath and exhaled. “Refreshing, isn’t it?”

A grin bubbled up from Ishtar’s insides. “You’re in a good mood—better than I expected—considering everything.”

Staring straight ahead, Tobia shrugged. “I’m not in a good mood, just accepting things as they are. Mother is sick with worry over me and Obed.” He rubbed his nose. “But there’s little anyone can do until the enemy gets here.” He blinked. “I don’t even know if Obed is still alive, or if I’ll survive…”

Ishtar glanced sharply aside. “You’ll survive. The clan needs you, Tobia.”

Tobia met Ishtar’s gaze and held it a moment. With a shiver, he returned to the sunrise. “I wish they’d come, and we could get this over with.”

“The scouts say they are still almost a full day away. They won’t attack until they’re closer and have had a chance to rest before battle.”

Running his fingers through his hair, Tobia lurched forward. “I don’t know what I’ll do till then.”

With a grunt, Ishtar rose and stretched. “Well, I have something to do. I’ll leave you to coordinate with Lud and the rest of the clans.”

Frowning, Tobia climbed to his feet. “What’re you going to do?”

“Free Obed.”

Tobia choked. “You can’t! There isn’t time. You’ll be caught, and then the clan will only have Lud and me.” He gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Let me go instead.”

Ishtar peered into Tobia’s eyes. “You’ve been prepared through great hardship for this trial. Think, Tobia. Your brother died because he chose what he thought was the braver path. But the bravest path of all is the one ordained through circumstance.” Ishtar sucked in a deep breath and stepped away from the cliff’s edge. “Stay here and be the leader your people need. I must free an innocent man.”

~~~

Ishtar crawled on his belly to the border of the enemy camp. Sweat dripped into his eyes, but he didn’t dare wipe it away.

The sun shone bright but clouds hovered in the west. No hint of wind stirred the surrounding grasses.

Three hundred battle-hardened warriors hitched their gear together and strapped weapons to their belts, lacing them tight against the coming march.

Ishtar nodded, muttering under his breath. “You’ll arrive at twilight. Very clever.” He glanced around.

When his eyes fell on Obed, he sucked in a breath and a whirlwind of emotions struck him: shock, fear, and anger over what had been done to the man. The image of Obed in his prime—a strong and proud warrior—wrestled in his mind with what he saw now. Filthy and hunch-shouldered, Obed sat less than a stone’s throw away from Ishtar, but he would not be easy to rescue. He sat with his legs splayed out, his hands tied behind his back, and a rope strung between him and a line of men, women, and children.

Crawling on his elbows and knees, Ishtar slithered forward.

A man on Obed’s right glanced over, his eyes rounding at the sight of Ishtar.

Ishtar glanced from the guards only a few feet away to the man and lifted a finger to his lips.

The man continued to stare, his mouth dropping open. Without further thought, Ishtar scampered over the broken grass and hard-packed earth, wedging himself between the man and a drooping boy and pressed his knife against the ropes. “Please, make no sound. I’m here to rescue those I can.”

Closing his mouth and swallowing, the man glanced at the boy leaning on his arm. “Him first.”

Ishtar nodded. He scuttled closer and sawed at the boy’s ropes. The man watched, his gaze darting up and around every few moments like a sparrow. When the ropes fell slack, the man grunted and held out his hands. Ishtar gritted his teeth and maneuvered the knife into position.

As the last threads broke, Ishtar gripped the man’s arm, squeezing it hard and hissing his words. “Do nothing just yet. Pretend you’re still tied and don’t watch me. Keep your attention on your boy.”

The man nodded.

Crawling to Obed, Ishtar lifted his knife.

Obed glanced at Ishtar, his eyes widening in shock, and jerked away, pulling the ropes attached to his neighbor tight. Yelps of anger and distress rippled along the line.

His mind nearly numb with fear, Ishtar dropped and flattened his body into the crushed grass.

A warrior sauntered by, grunted, and moved on.

Lifting his gaze, Ishtar met Obed’s anxiety-ridden face. “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to free you. The whole clan is ready for attack.”

Licking his cracked lips, Obed’s eyes narrowed. “What clan?”

A frustrated whimper escaped Ishtar as he clenched the knife tighter and began sawing the rope fibers. “Your clan…my clan…our people.” He glanced at the warriors and then back at Obed. “This must be confusing, but please—by God—trust me and let me cut your ropes.”

Shouts rang through the camp, and the warriors began assembling into groups. Guards marched along the line, kicking the prisoners. “Get up! Time to move on. Hurry, you lazy mongrels.”

Fighting a cramp in his hand, Ishtar sawed the rope around Obed’s waist faster.

As the rope fell free, a warrior stomped by, flailing his arms. “To the fires with you! Get moving!”

Obed and Ishtar rose together, their gazes cast down.

As the guard turned to the next group, Ishtar pressed the blade against the ropes binding Obed’s hands. The prisoners shuffled forward. Ishtar kept pace, his eyes down, working frantically to break the fibers.

They passed over rough terrain dotted with rises and huge rocks. Ishtar cut the last remaining strings and yanked Obed aside, dragging him into the shaded crevice between two boulders.

Obed fell flat on his face and curled up into a ball.

Ishtar crouched close, shielding Obed’s body with his own and prayed for rain.

~~~

Obed started at the sound of drops splattering on the hard ground. He looked up and met Ishtar’s gaze. Then he rubbed his eyes. “I can’t believe—”

Ishtar grunted. “There were a few clouds on the horizon when I came. I’m grateful for the storm; it’ll help hide us…and our footsteps.”

Closing his eyes, Obed groaned, stretched, and rubbed his arms and legs. “That’s not what I meant.”

Darting a glance at the backs of the departing enemy, Ishtar pointed south. “If we head for the cliffs, we can hide in safety, and when they’re taking their rest, we can finish our journey and warn Lud and the others.”

Heavy with sarcasm, Obed chuckled. “Great plan.” With a grimace, he staggered to his feet.

Ishtar scanned the area again and started forward.

Watching Ishtar, memories flooded Obed’s mind: Ishtar holding a knife over Aram’s sleeping daughter, his death struggle with his wife, Haruz, and her bloody body lying in the dirt. Fury flushing through his aching body, Obed gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Wait! I’m not going anywhere until I understand how you, of all people, happen to be the one to rescue me.”

His eyes flashing, Ishtar glared at Obed and waved toward home. “You want me to explain—now? My sons, your wife, and children, Barak’s family—the whole clan is about to be attacked, and you want me to—”

Obed slammed Ishtar against the rock wall, blind fury burying all reason. “By the devil, I’ve been through too much to trust you now.”

Closing his eyes, Ishtar lifted his hands in an attitude of surrender.

Jerking away, Obed faced the rain.

Dark clouds rumbled overhead, but patches of blue broke through in the west.

Opening his eyes, Ishtar shoved off the wall and spoke to Obed’s back. “I slipped into madness, encountered a nomad who cared for me better than I deserved, and regained a sense of decency.” Ishtar shrugged. “Perhaps I discovered a decency in me I never knew was there.”

Curling his lips through a sneer, Obed turned around and stared Ishtar in the face. “You didn’t have to sacrifice anyone?”

“I protected a father from the evil deeds of his sons.”

With his eyes fixed on Ishtar, Obed snorted. “Fate or justice?”

“It doesn’t matter. I did it for one simple reason.”

Obed waited, his teeth clenched so hard his jaw hurt.

“I loved the old man.”

A miserable chill seeped through Obed’s body.

“I understand your mistrust. But you have no idea what evil can do to a man—if he gets too close.”

A sob rose in Obed’s chest. “But I do.” Relaxing his fists, he straightened and started forward. “Let’s go home.”

“…the Dark cannot claim what Light does not surrender.” ~C.L. Wilson

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Nine

An Honest Weakness

Zuri stood on the hilltop and inhaled a deep breath of air, then exhaled slowly. Exhilaration spread through his limbs. Happiness? Joy? Ecstasy? He couldn’t define the emotions soaring like twittering birds through his body. He peered at his tanned, slender fingers. Though they weren’t nearly as strong without the mechanical gloves, their sensitivity sent shivers of delight to his brain. He wiggled his toes and shrugged. Not much joy there. Couldn’t have everything.

Kelesta sauntered close and wrapped her arm around his waist. “The boy is home now, reunited with his papa, so why don’t we do something interesting?”

Peering down at the petite human form, beguiling but deceptive, an image of his previous mate passed through his mind. Jeni used to ask innocent questions when she wanted something. Zuri narrowed his eyes, focusing his lenses. Peering through the human façade, he stared right into the Bhuaci essence.

Kelesta flared and swung away. “If you’re going to take x-rays…you should ask permission first.”

A hot blush worked up into his cheeks. “Sorry. It’s an Ingot defense mechanism.”

“You’re afraid of me?” Kelesta slapped her hand on her chest in exaggerated shock, her eyes unnaturally wide.

“Not afraid…just—” He turned away from Ishtar’s village and stomped down the hill. “After Jeni chose another, I always wonder what she wanted from me in the first place.”

Practically dancing alongside, Kelesta flung her arms out wide like a butterfly, each nimble foot bouncing from one spot to the next. “She’s the one who wanted you to go primitive, right?”

“She said she wanted me to experience life without all the mechanical hindrances. Talked a lot about freedom and unique personal expression.”

“So you do it, and she dumps you?” Kelesta shook her head. “Some beings are brutally cruel.” She glanced aside. “But you’re left rather naked, aren’t you?”

Slipping his datapad from his arm holster, Zuri tapped the keypad. “Turns out, she was doing research. She wanted to gain a position at the Ingoti Magisterium Laboratory. Quite a leap for a fourth tier.”

“So, you were attracted to her mind?”

Zuri frowned as he scanned the area. “No. Her mother was actually a reject that slipped through the system but managed to make good by inventing a better detector so other rejects would be caught at an earlier stage.” He pointed north. “Chai is that way.”

Her mouth hanging open, Kelesta stood frozen a moment before she leapt ahead and grabbed Zuri’s arm. “But then she’d be killing others like herself…the ones who might prove the system wrong!”

Zuri nodded. “That’s why I found her fascinating.” Turning, he stomped northward.

Kelesta crossed her arms high on her chest and scowled as she marched at Zuri’s side. “But you still liked her?”

“Not in the least. Fascination is a different experience altogether.” He slapped an insect on his neck and wrinkled his nose. “Though I do enjoy the myriad of skin sensations and the exhilaration of freedom from certain mechanical bio-ware, I must admit, coverage had definite advantages. ”He held a dead wasp by the wing. “Stings hurt.”

Kelesta stopped short. “So why did you stay with her?”

Halting, Zuri took another scan of the area. “Choose her as a mate, you mean?” He glanced at the flat horizon. “You don’t understand Ingoti culture. Since we are conceived and developed in laboratories, we don’t consider relationships to be anything more than temporary arrangements for emotional, psychological, and physical pleasure.” He snorted. “It’s not like I needed her. Or she needed me. Except…as a test specimen for her lab experiment.”

“You used each other?” Kelesta swallowed and started forward, her gaze sweeping the ground.

Zuri shook his head and paced after her. “Yes. And I don’t see why you’re upset.” He gripped her arm, coming to a standstill. “You’re using me right now.”

Kelesta jerked her arm away, fury flooding her glinting eyes. “How dare you!”

Zuri lifted his arms to the sky beseechingly. “May the Magisterium send me home this very day if I’m wrong. But—” he peered down and zeroed in on Kelesta. “But aren’t you using me to get to Chai? Isn’t that what Ungle asked you to do?”

A hawk soared overhead, and Kelesta followed it with her eyes. “Originally, yes. But I told Sienna the truth. I told everyone the truth. I was being used to get information because I was desperate to protect my people.”

Zuri glanced at his datapad and pointed. “Chai isn’t far.” He shrugged. “When I scanned you, I saw your heightened energy levels. You’re hiding something.”

Kelesta dropped her head onto her chest and closed her eyes. “You’re right.” She peered up and met his gaze. “Even if I tried to explain, you wouldn’t understand.” She sniffed and tapped his naked hand. “Even without all your filters, I wonder if you can ever really love anyone.” She started forward. “Come on! Let’s go study a man possessed by demons.”

~~~

Ark wiped a tear from his eye.

Sitting on a rock ledge, Sterling glanced at the Cresta beside him and slapped his forehead. “If I’d known you were so emotional, I would’ve taken the Ingot. He may have a fascination with children, but at least he can hold himself together at a family reunion.”

Wringing his tentacles in his lap, Ark felt like a chastened pod. “I just didn’t think he had it in him…to be so repentant.” He sighed, his shoulders slumping. “It takes courage to ask for forgiveness.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Ark lumbered to his booted feet, a flash of enlightenment clearing his weary brain. “That may be quite significant!” Waddling down the stony path, he sniffed the air. “There’s water near, and I’m desperate for a dunk.” He peered at Sterling. “I believe a swim would do us both good.”

“Luxonians hardly need—”

A sudden strong wind swirled around them, choking the air with thick dust.

Ark gripped Sterling to keep him upright.

When the air cleared, the two stood frozen, covered in dirt, appearing like mere ghosts of their former selves.

Sterling cleared his throat and wiped grime from his eyes. “Where’s that pool you mentioned?”

~~~

Sterling dropped the second boot and watched Ark lumber into a murky green pool surrounded by tall boulders and flimsy grass stems. He wiped his slimy hands on his tunic and stared at the water. I couldn’t possibly. It’s much too disgusting. Besides, I can just as easily—

“Hurry up! It’s glorious. Don’t be frightened of innocent liquids.” Ark splashed a tentacle as he swished from one end of the pond to the other, flipping like an Ingoti eel at each turn.

Thinks I lack courage—eh? Blast him! Taking short, determined breaths, Sterling tiptoed into the water. He winced at the slimy green surface and wrinkled his nose. “Don’t take offense if I just bathe my toes.” He fingered his long tunic and robe. “I’m hardly dressed for full immersion.”

“Toss your robe next to my boots and slip in!” Ark giggled, watching Sterling’s every move. “You’ll regret being a coward when I tell Teal that you stayed on the edge like a frightened—”

“Oh, shut up!” Sterling flung his robe aside, pinched his nose, and dove into the pond.

Ark rose, his tentacles on his thick middle, his eyes wide, watching bubbles surface.

More bubbles surfaced.

Ark frowned. His tentacles wiggled at his sides.

More bubbles.

Ark’s bulbous eyes widened.

The pond stilled, the surface smoothing to reflect the sky.

Ark took a step and leaned forward, anxiety riding like ridges over his skin.

Sterling broke the surface, laughing. Genuine amusement cascaded throughout his whole body. He stared at Ark’s open mouth. “I saw everything! You were worried about me, poor dear.”

Falling backward and paddling with his arms, Ark maneuvered to the other side. “Was not.”

Sterling stood and wagged a wet finger at Ark, drops of water cascading before him. “Oh, please. For all your talk of courage and cowards, you certainly refrain from admitting an honest weakness.”

Ark banked against the sandy shore and sat up. “What weakness?”

Sloshing out of the pond, water plants trailing behind, Sterling padded to a smooth boulder. He sat down, letting the water drip onto the sand. “I’m not nearly as obtuse as you think me, Cresta.”

Ark leaned back and folded his tentacles over his ample stomach. “Tell me.”

“You think that Ishtar’s strength lies in his ability to humble himself.” Sterling shrugged. “From Teal’s early reports, there does seem to be a pattern.”

Ark’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Sterling.

Sterling clasped his hands together and stared at a flock of birds soaring across the sky. “When Ishtar accepted Eoban’s assistance, he broke free from his father’s stranglehold. When he accepted Pele’s witness, he found the strength to fight the giants.”

Ark nodded. He glanced at the whirl of birds and frowned.

“But when his pride was hurt, and he accepted the glory of wealth and a woman who offered an escape from shame, he fell into madness.”

The birds flew away, becoming mere specks in an endless horizon.

Ark rose and shook himself free of pond plants. “I admire your perception.” He waddled closer and crouched by his boots. Snatching them up, he padded to Sterling. “But that’s not what I meant by courage.”

Sterling stared at the offered boots, pursing his lips, disgust rising from his middle. “What then?”

“When Ishtar met Matalah, he met a new father figure. He could’ve rejected the very idea. After what he’d been through, I wouldn’t have blamed him.” He dropped the boots at Sterling’s feet. “But he accepted Matalah’s kindness and, as we’ve seen, returned to his own sons.” Lifting one of his four-toed feet, Ark balanced himself by gripping Sterling’s shoulder. “It takes great courage to trust again…to risk caring. To allow oneself to be helped…to love and be loved.”

Lifting his gaze, Sterling met Ark’s golden eyes. He swallowed. “By the Divide, you’ve got me beat, Cresta.”

~~~

Teal crouched low in the tall grass and swore under his breath. He fixed his gaze on Obed as he stumbled at the end of a long line of prisoners. Teal turned to Sienna, who crouched next to him and pointed north. “Go and follow Eoban’s trail. See if he found the child and made it home.”

Sienna glanced from the ragged throng of slaves to the marching warriors and beyond to the stalwart figure leading the assembly. She hissed. “I don’t remember pledging obedience to you.”

“Remember your promise to Sterling?” He peered into her eyes. “You told him that you’d do whatever it took to become the best healer Lux has ever known.”

“To do that, I need to stay close to Chai—not chase after a fool who thinks he can save his people through daring exploits.”

“Eoban isn’t that shallow.”

Sienna stared at Teal, widening her eyes alarmingly.

“All right, maybe he is—sometimes. But he’s also brave and resilient. And he knows a thing or two about dealing with injuries and healing emotional wounds. There is a great deal you could learn from him.”

“What I need to learn, only Chai can teach me.”

His colors flaring, Teal bit off his words. “How to succumb to evil?”

“How evil holds a person in its grip.” Sienna shook her head. “Luxonians were once very sheltered. You know what exposure to the outer world has cost us. We’re losing our traditions, our values, our political framework—even our fertility.”

Teal dropped his gaze.

Clasping his hand, Sienna shifted closer. “You’re one of the last of the old guard, a Luxonian with ambition but without guile. You’re so honest, I don’t think you’re capable of seeing Chai and the power that rules him for what they really are.”

“But you can?”

“Let’s just say that I’m more ambitious than you.”

Teal shook his head. “I’m not about to let you get one step closer to that monster. Even Sterling fears the power it wields.”

Sienna sucked in a deep breath. “Have it your way.” She nodded decisively. “Someone should check on Eoban, and someone must keep an eye on Chai.”

Relief surged through Teal’s body, surprising him. He stood and pointed south. “Eoban knows his way around. He probably brought the boy home already. Start at the grassland village and work backward if you have to. If they’re there, stay and wait for me.”

Sienna clasped her hands and winked away.

Teal turned and faced Chai. He took two paces before searing pain crashed into his skull and blackness took him.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemingway

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Seven

You Can Only Endure

Ishtar walked among his people again. After visiting his son, he returned to the village and sat with the five members of the leadership council.

They welcomed him with smiles.

Perplexed by their obvious joy, Ishtar launched into a full recital of his adventures—including his madness—and concluded with a declaration of his healing through the kindness of Matalah.

The council members continued to smile, their eyes twinkling, their backs straights, and their chins up.

Ishtar considered the line of old men. No deceit there. He dropped his gaze and raked his hand through his hair. “Why do you smile?”

The eldest, Amos, grinned and lifted his hand as if in blessing. “We are glad to see you home safe.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing mysterious in a clan welcoming their leader—”

Jerking to his feet with a grunt, Ishtar paced away, his voice falling to a whisper. “But I betrayed you.”

Amos rose and clasped his hands as if in prayer. “Some may see it so…but not all do.” He gazed around the circle and then met Ishtar’s wide eyes. “We are warriors and conquerors, descending from a long line of such men. Your father, though he strayed from decency when he lied to us, maintained a close tie to his heritage. When you offered— ” He cleared his throat and glanced away. “Attempted to offer a child to the gods, you followed not the will of a woman but the call of our ancestral spirits.”

His jaw clenching, Ishtar swallowed and glared. “Spirits I no longer obey.”

Amos tipped his head. “You are now your own man.” When he lifted his eyes, he took one step closer. “Ishtar, we need your leadership. Now, because of the battles you have fought, you’re a stronger, wiser man.” A grin reappeared, brightening his face. “And that’s why we’re glad of your return.”

Peering up at the wide blue sky, Ishtar paused. Finally, he sighed, dropped his eyes, and met Amos’s unwavering confidence. “May you remain so.”

~~~

Ishtar met with leaders from neighboring clans the next day, and they discussed their plans in council with Lud.

Lud approved the plans, and after sending out scouts and closing the meeting, he stared at Ishtar in silence.

Distracted with his plans and anxieties, Lud’s fascination merely brushed Ishtar’s consciousness. But after a moment, he frowned and met Lud’s hard stare. “What’s wrong?”

“I think I know what’s so different about you. Even when you’re worried, you’re controlled. Almost at peace.”

With a snort, Ishtar snatched up his spear and a whetstone. He ran the stone along the spear tip. “I know now that I can survive madness.” He glanced at Lud. “Hope beyond despair is the best kind.”

A figure in the distance jogged toward. Ishtar shaded his eyes with his hand. “Who’s this now?”

Lud frowned and stepped beside Ishtar.

The sweaty, exhausted young man stumbled to a halt, bent over, and gasped heaving breaths.

Ishtar leapt forward. “Tobia!” He gripped his friend’s arm and glanced around. “Where are—?”

Tobia lifted a hand and huffed his words. “They’re with…Remy’s clan…safe. But—”

Lud stepped closer and pressed Tobia’s shoulder. “Catch your breath. There’s no news that can’t wait a moment.” He glanced aside at Ishtar.

Tobia shook his head and straightened with a wince. “The enemy is at hand, and they’ve—”

Ishtar shouted to men in the distance and a crowd hurried near. He drew Tobia forward. “Come, sit. Tell us everything.”

Tobia lifted both hands. “Listen! There’s no time! Obed has been taken. He’s tied like a hog ready for slaughter in the midst of a great host.”

Warriors with weapons in their hands jostled each other as they closed in, grunting and leaning forward, scowls on every face.

Lud blinked, his face draining of all color. “Where are Barak and Eoban?”

Tobia shook his head, a bewildered expression in his eyes.

Ishtar gripped Tobia’s shoulders and stared hard into his eyes. “Where’s Amin?”

Tobia’s eyes filled with tears. “Isn’t he here?”

~~~

Tobia sat before trays piled with bread, fruit, nuts, and berries. He set a bowl of sharp wine aside, feeling bitterness slide down his throat.

After nightfall, Ishtar, Lud, Jonas, Namah, and an assembly of councilmen and warriors huddled in Namah’s home and watched his every move.

Closing his eyes, Tobia sat back and sighed. “I can’t eat…I’m not strong enough yet.”

Namah patted his hand. “Take your time. You’ve been through a great deal.”

Tobia opened his eyes and stared at his mother’s anxious face. “Obed is still alive…that’s the good news.” He sniffed and dragged his fingers down his face. “But how he became a prisoner, I have no idea.” He sucked in a deep breath. “For a moment I thought that all of you had been— ” His lips quivered.

Ishtar nudged the bowl closer. “Take more drink and get some rest. Your descriptions of the host will better prepare us. It’s best we know the truth.” He sighed and met Tobia’s gaze. “I’m glad you made it home alive.”

Staring blankly at the back wall, Tobia shrugged. “I don’t feel alive.”

Namah and Jonas exchanged glances.

Namah rose first. “He’ll never sleep with a crowd watching.” She started for the door. “You’ve done well, Tobia. Surviving is no small thing in this world.” She crossed into the night air.

The councilmen and warriors rose and followed her example.

As Lud stood in the doorway, he turned and glanced back. “Death is like slavery. You can’t stand it, yet you can’t escape it.” He nodded at Tobia. “You can only endure.”

Ishtar climbed to his feet and peered at Tobia. “I’ll be just outside…if you need me.”

Jonas accompanied Ishtar to the door and dropped her voice low. “He told me about your journey together. I thank you for your service. It wasn’t what I looked for—”

Ishtar glanced over Jonas’ shoulder and met Tobia’s eyes. “He’s an extraordinary man.” He peered at Jonas. “God asks much of extraordinary men.”

As Ishtar passed over the threshold, Jonas stood silent, staring at the night sky.

Tobia rubbed his aching eyes. “Get some sleep, mother. We’ll need you fresh in the morning.”

Jonas padded to his side and kissed his cheek. “I’m so relieved you’re home.” Her voice caught. “I know Obed will be too.”

Only the sound of her footsteps fading into the next room told Tobia that he was finally alone. Shoving the trays aside, he pulled a blanket close, bundled it under his head, and curled into a ball. Shuddering in the evening air, he closed his eyes and finally let his tears fall.

“Survival is a privilege that entails obligations.” ~Simon Wiesenthal

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Six

He Ran Faster

Eoban’s legs wobbled. He called for a halt and dropped to his knees before a broken tree trunk and gulped warm, stale water from his skin bag. After wiping his mouth, he glanced from Obed to Barak. “I’m not sure, but Luge’s clan might’ve left for their migration by now. It’s past their usual time.”

Barak guzzled his water, scowled, and tossed his empty bag aside. “It’s past time we went home.”

Eoban frowned and took another long drink.

“I think we’re close enough now. We could go in either direction.” Barak shrugged. “I’m ready to go home.”

Obed stepped forward, wiping his lips as he held his bag in a tight grip. “But what about Amin? Surely, you’re not suggesting that we leave him behind?”

Barak shook his head. “By no means! I want to find him, but I’ve a clamoring in my mind, insisting that I go home.”

Eoban waved Barak’s words away though his stomach twisted, anxiety churning the fluids in his middle. “You worry too much.”

Barak slapped his thigh and looked to the sky as if beseeching the heavens for strength.

Obed raised his hand. “I’ll find Amin. You two return home and make sure everyone is safe.” He raised his eyebrows and tipped his head at Barak. “I’m learning to trust your instincts.”

A relieved grin broke over Barak’s face.

With a dizzy sensation and a feeling that his world was swiftly falling apart, Eoban pounded over to Barak and shook a finger in the direction of Obed. “You really believe that man can find Amin and make his way home again before the season turns?”

Barak met Eoban’s gaze, steady and unblinking. He crossed his arms high over his chest.

Turning, Eoban glared at Obed. “You’ve never traveled alone! You prefer to sit around and think—”

A small stick smacked Eoban on the nose.

Eoban turned and caught Barak’s hard gaze and his fingers still in the flicking position.

Barak dropped his hand and faced Obed. “It’s a workable plan. We’ll split up. You find Amin. I’ll take Eoban, and we’ll meet at home.”

With a quick nod, Obed turned and began clearing a spot for their evening fire.

Eoban threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Oh, of course. I’m talking nonsense, just being difficult as usual.” A flush worked up his face as he indulged in a righteous pout. “I know when I’m not wanted. I’ve half a mind to go off on my own.”

Snorting, Barak bundled kindling into his arms. “And where would you go?”

Eoban ripped into his bag and pulled out a handful of shriveled berries. “I could go anywhere.” He tossed the desiccated fruit into his mouth and chewed vigorously. “I could visit friends. I could find new trade routes. I could —”

Barak looked at Obed. “Take him if you want, or he’s welcome to come with me, but I think you’re right. I can’t ignore this inner turmoil any longer. I must get home.”

“Inner turmoil?” Eoban rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Now I’ll be worried about you, Barak. Obed might get lost, but you’ll make yourself sick.” He blew air through his teeth. “I’ll go with you for Milkan’s sake. She’d be devastated if you perished—even though you’re enough to drive any man mad.”

~~~

Obed rose at daybreak refreshed and ready for adventure. Springing to his feet, he relished the very thought of traveling alone, with its unparalleled level of freedom. Closing his eyes, he sucked in a deep breath of fresh air. At the sound of footsteps, he flicked his eyes open.

Eoban stood three feet away, staring at him through narrowed eyes.

Obed waited, dreading an announcement.

In an unexpected move, Eoban threw his arms out and enveloped Obed in a bear hug. “Since I may never see you again—”

Relief flooding his senses, Obed shoved Eoban away with an awkward laugh. “Likely, I’ll make it home with Amin before you and Barak even get out of this trackless wilderness.”

Eoban lifted his hands in defeat. “If you say so.” He lifted one eyebrow. “I’ve gone over the directions to Luge’s place. Any questions?”

Chuckling, Obed stepped around Eoban and slapped Barak on the shoulder. “Thank you, my friend, for your loyalty to the clan. Best of luck on your return journey.” He glanced aside. “I surely have the easier task.”

Barak dropped his head to his chest and sighed.

Pursing his lips, Eoban clapped his hands. “Enough blathering.” He swung his bag over his shoulder and stomped away.

As Barak trailed after Eoban, he glanced back, met his friend’s gaze, and rolled his eyes.

Obed grinned.

~~~

Obed sauntered over the rough woodland, his arms swinging at his sides, whistling a jaunty tune. Sweat trickled down his back as he swatted insects beyond all possible count. Three times he circled around prickly thickets, and twice he forded meandering creeks and joyfully splashed himself as he went. He reveled in his slow pace and the exuberance of running down an incline with his arms spread wide to catch the breeze. When his stomach rumbled, he stopped to gather berries. By noon, he came upon a large tree with branches hanging low from an abundance of nuts. He pawed through his bag and drew out an empty leather pouch.

He scrambled up the lowest branches and picked to his heart’s contentment. When the bag was bulging, he dropped to the ground, toed through the foliage, and found a rock of sufficient size. After smashing a handful of nuts, he rested against the firm, smooth trunk and enjoyed the crunchy, meaty insides.

The filtered sun speckled the ground around him, light and dark dancing like children at play. Birds chirped and flew from branch to branch overhead. A rodent scampered near, sniffed the broken shells, then rose on its haunches and peered at Obed through tiny black eyes.

Grinning and satiated with simple pleasures, Obed relaxed in weariness and closed his eyes. Pleasurable rest spread through his whole body and cast pretty images of woods and streams in his mind…

Sometime later, strange shuffling, huffing sounds stirred, disturbing Obed’s rest. He rubbed open his eyes, yawned, and climbed to his feet. Glancing at the sky, he squinted at the bright rays of sunlight. He gathered his bag and spear and stumped forward. In bemused exhaustion, he trudged across a wide, meandering stream and circled around large boulders.

By late afternoon, the air grew thick and his feet dragged. He stumbled twice and then stopped to catch his breath.

Speckled sunlight glimmered through the branches before him.

Pursing his lips, Obed craned his neck around.

Twilight descended behind him.

Frowning, he turned and peered at the low, western sun before him. He rubbed his jaw, his confusion ending in a bemused chuckle. Obed crouched beneath a large spreading tree and murmured, “I can’t be lost. It’s too ridiculous.” He pointed at the sun and grinned, wondering if he was drunk on innocent pleasure. “You’re supposed to be behind me.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Maybe I—”

A blurred force of wind and a stone sped by, nicking his face. Confused, he slapped his cheek and glanced aside.

A spear embedded in the tree wavered like an insect tail. Cold shock drenched Obed.
Crashing, pounding footsteps accompanied by grunts and yells drew close.
Without thought, Obed rushed madly into the woods. As the voices grew more distinct, all strength drained from his limbs.

A gruff voice rose behind him, and a sharp pain on the back of his head sent brilliant lights flashing before his eyes. He fell into blackness.

~~~

Obed awoke with a throbbing headache, barely able to recognize the moon shining down from a star-studded sky. When he tried to rub his stinging neck, he found his arms bound tight. Groaning, he realized that he lay among a crowd of people all trussed up like pigs fit for a feast.

His cramped legs ached, demanding a stretch, but when he tried to straighten, his ropes jerked a heat-laden, stinking body close to him.

A groan swelled on his right.

Obed twisted and peered at a scrawny, filthy boy with a rope strung around his neck and waist. When he twisted to the left, his mouth fell open at the sight of half-starved men, women, and children tightly packed all around him.

Sour body odor, stomach leavings, stale urine, and excrement dragged a retching sensation from his stomach. He heaved and realized that there was no place to throw up except upon another person. Squeezing his eyes shut, he fought the upheavals through gritted teeth.

Once he gained mastery over his stomach, he turned his attention to the hot, smothering camp. Flickering flames danced amidst a huddle of armed warriors, who stomped and pounded their spears in rhythm to a low, incessant drumbeat.

In the distance, a whimper rose, followed by a skirmish of shuffling feet and flailing arms.

A murmur flittered among the prisoners, then a gasp and a stifled cry.

The beat grew stronger and more insistent.

A shriveled, ragged figure was dragged before the fire, pleading and whimpering.

A new figure appeared following the first, short-sleeved, muscled, straight-backed, and pointing a glinting knife.

Nausea again erupted from Obed’s middle, spreading acid through his mouth. He dropped his head to his chest, gasping short breaths. Fear closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders against his ears.

A scream tore through the night air.

Arrows of agony ripped through Obed. Everyone stiffened. Even the air held its breath.

The cry faltered, slipped to a groan…and died.

Tears flooded Obed’s eyes and slipped down his cheeks.

~~~

Obed jolted awake as cold water splashed his face.

A giggle passed on and then a cry, a jerk, and another giggle. Obed swallowed back the sour taste in his mouth, glancing at the dripping figure beside him. He wanted to wipe his own face, but since his hands were restrained, he couldn’t reach it.

The man on his left scuttled to a sitting position and wiped his face against his shoulder, peering from the passing guard to Obed. “He generally do like that. Funny he thinks it. Giggles like a maniac every morning. Always the same.” He shook his head.

Obed pictured Luge’s anxious face when he’d mentioned his lost son. He blinked the drips away and met the other man’s gaze. “Where are they from…these slavers?”

Jutting his chin outward, the man glanced away. “Over the mountain some say. Talk of a stone city and glories beyond description.” He shrugged. “Demons of hell more like.”

Obed peered at the well-armed warrior who stalked among the captives drenching the sleepers, kicking those who didn’t budge, and giggling like a fool. Demons of hell…indeed.

~~~

Tobia strode with purposeful concentration, relieved of his burden yet anxious to get home. With his back to the setting sun, he charged ahead with dexterous steps, paying little heed to his surroundings.

As evening fell, a strange silence caught his attention. No birds flittered about, as if an unseen warning held every animal at bay.

Slowing, he turned aside and noticed broken branches and a beaten path across the woodland floor. He crouched low and examined the ground, tracing the prints of feet shod in soft leather and the marks of numerous bare toes.

He rose and rubbed his sweaty neck.

A scream ripped through the air.

Scuttling like a crab, Tobia made his way forward and stopped on the edge of a large assembly gathered around a central fire. His innards twisted into a hard knot.

He circled around the gathering, freezing when the scream rose and fell in torment and finally faded in a pitiful death. After a silent moment, he crawled forward. When his muscles contracted, he stopped before a ragged throng of prisoners. Studying the assembly, his throat tightened and his stomach lurched.

He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Surely his eyes were deceiving him. There, tied to a long line of men, women, and children sat a filthy man with a bowed head. Shadows covered the man’s face, but still, Tobia recognized him. “Obed?”

Tobia tried to swallow. Had Ishtar failed? Had his people been attacked and overcome? Cursing himself for his stay at Kamila’s village, he leaned forward and studied the group. Tears filled his eyes as he frantically searched the crowd for familiar faces.

He frowned even as relief poured over his body. He recognized no one except Obed.

Shaking, he scuttled backward slowly to avoid any undue noise. Stopping some distance away, he crouched on his haunches and considered his options. He glanced back the way he had come. Remy was too far away and unprepared for such a situation. Only the united clans with Eoban and Barak in the lead could hope to make a successful attack.

Scowling, he positioned himself like a man prepared to race like the wind. He turned toward home. A question haunted his mind. What happened to Ishtar?

With narrowed his eyes, he darted ahead, his whole body screaming. Run!

As he picked up speed, tears blurred his vision. He had not saved his first father or Vitus, and most likely Ishtar had come to a bad end. But still, he had a slim chance of saving his second father and his village. His heart hammered against his chest, ready to burst.

He ran faster.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
~Lucius Annaeus Seneca

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Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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