OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Five

We All Make Choices

—OldEarth—

Sienna watched Kelesta out of the corner of her eye as she stood at the control dashboard and tapped the directional sequence for planet Helm. “Would you stop pacing? I’m getting dizzy.”

Kelesta swung around, crossing her arms over her chest. “You don’t have to watch me like a hawk.”

“Not a hawk…more like an interested bystander.”

Clomping forward in oversized sandals, Kelesta shook her head. “Bystander? I hardly think that’s a fit description. Not after you zapped Teal and practically stole a place in the inner ring.”

With a shrug, Sienna stepped to the holograph pad and tapped in new coordinates. A swirling universe appeared before her eyes. She grinned. “I did get a nice view.” She peered aside. “I must say, Ishtar’s daring rivals Teal’s.”

“Teal would probably like to see you evaporate.”

“You mean disintegrate?” Sienna laughed. “He’s angry, but he’ll get over it, and Sterling was seriously impressed. I’ll have no problem getting sixth-year status now.”

“And I thought I was ambitious!” Kelesta stomped to the door. “At least when I use someone, I still care about them. I don’t knock them unconscious to get what I want.”

“Like you used Zuri?” Sienna licked her lips. “He told me all about your interest in his previous relationships and how you feigned personal interest, so he’d take you to observe Chai.”

“It wasn’t feigned! I actually like Zuri.”

“But you like Chai better.”

Narrowing her eyes, Kelesta marched to Sienna, flung her hands on her hips, and stared her in the eyes. “Chai wasn’t really Chai. He allowed himself to become used by a force he couldn’t control. We never actually encountered Chai…we only perceived a man wearing his skin.”

Sienna nodded. “I agree. Though he was a free man when he let it take him.” She swished the hologram around and pointed to a dark sector. “Not to change the subject, but our mysterious friends—the ones who nearly decimated Crestar—have been adding to their black hole.”

Kelesta frowned. “I’m not sure I’m done arguing with you about Zuri and Teal.”

The door swished open, and Sterling swept onto the bridge. “Ah, I thought I’d find you two here. Playing nice, I hope.”

Kelesta met Sienna’s gaze. She whispered under her breath. “I’m not done—”

Sienna waved the comment away and strode around the hologram. She beckoned Sterling forward. “I found something I believe you’ll find interesting, Judge Sterling.”

“Using formal titles, are we? Impressive.” He grinned. “Though I always find you impressive.”

“Except when you’re trying to kill her.”

Sterling flicked a glance at Kelesta. “Especially then.” He focused his attention on Sienna. “What are you so eager to show me?” He stepped closer but kept one hand raised in a defensive posture.

Startled but unwilling to lapse into rude curiosity, Sienna focused on the elongated black hole. “It’s growing. Getting longer.” She bit her lip. “If it keeps going at this rate, it’ll” —she tapped the console and the holographic image reshaped. Now the black hole appeared as a thick black line in space— “divide us from a large portion of the universe.”

“They must be on the other side.” Kelesta glanced at Sterling.

Sterling tilted his head. “Perceptive, my Bhuaci friend.” He glanced from one woman to the other. “I’ll call you Impressive and you Perceptive from now on, so I don’t get mixed up.” He peered at Sienna. “Promise not to stun me, so I can put my hand down?”

Sienna rolled her eyes.

Swinging his arm, Sterling gestured to the door. “Where’s Teal?”

“He’s avoiding me.”

“Wise man.”

“He’s a fool. I would’ve missed seeing the greatest exchange of wills since Arkolopus and Hugunt battled for supremacy on Ingilium.”

“A mere folk tale, nothing more.” Sterling frowned. “As a sixth-year, you should know better.” He strode around the hologram. “Besides, Teal was my choice for guardian on Earth.” He tapped the black hole, and his finger went right through it. “You overstepped the line, and I’m afraid there will have to be consequences.”

A hot flush burned Sienna’s face. “I did what I thought was best for all concerned!” She chortled in his face. “You know what Ungle would’ve done!”

Kelesta shook her head and stepped away. “Ungle was there. Well—as good as.” She tapped the console, and the universe vanished. In its place, the scene between Ishtar and Chai replayed in all its fire-lit glory.

“Zuri informed Ungle when we arrived on the scene, and the wise Cresta insisted on a direct feed.” A grin brightened Kelesta’s eyes. “Zuri’s good about that kind of thing—set it up so no one was the wiser. They thought we were prisoners along with all the rest.”

Sterling snorted. “No one followed directions. You were supposed to watch Amin.”

The door swished open, and Zuri stepped in. He peered from Sienna to Sterling, and then his gaze wandered to Kelesta. With a smile, his attention flickered to the holographic image. “Like it?” He strode forward and waved a hand. “Saved for further study. Ungle’s idea—”

A ka-boom blasted eardrums and fragments of the door exploded through the air. Zuri dropped to the ground, pulling Kelesta with him. Sterling toppled over. Sienna crouched under the main console.

Ark stood in the broken doorway with a Dustbuster held limply in one tentacle, his bulbous eyes huge and frightened.

A gray cloud of dust and tiny debris floated through the air, and a sharp stench curled up Sienna’s nose. Swallowing her disgust, she crawled to Sterling who lay face down on the floor and placed her hand on his back. “Are you—?”

Sterling lifted his head. “Alive…for the moment.” He peered back, and Sienna followed his gaze.

Zuri had thrown himself over Kelesta, protecting her. They both stirred.

Sienna snorted, rose, and wiped her hands on her long dress. “So he does care.”

Sterling stomped toward Ark and snatched the Dustbuster from his tentacle. “What are you doing?”

Ark shuffled forward, his head hanging low. “Ungle ordered me to. He wants you all dead before the sun sets.”

Choking, Sienna yanked the Dustbuster from Sterling’s grip and pointed it at Ark. “Why?”

Ark lifted his tentacles helplessly. “I wasn’t aiming to kill. I shot high so as to make it look good. Though, I’m sure Ungle is monitoring us…” His gaze swiveled around the deck.

Zuri scrambled to the main console, and his fingers flew over the board. He glanced up. “Not anymore!” Crossing his arms, he glared at Ark. “You mind telling us why Ungle wants to kill us…especially after we fulfilled his every request?”

Sterling glanced at Zuri. “I suspect that’s exactly why.” He returned his attention to Ark. “He got what he wanted, and now he’d like to clear the planet of unnecessary elements—perhaps?”

Shuffling to a wide chair, Ark plopped down and dropped his tentacles in his lap. “Truth is, we’re at war.”

His eyes widening, Zuri stepped forward and leaned in toward Ark. “Crestar is at war with—?”

“Ingilium and Lux.” He glanced at Kelesta. “Sorry, the Cresta Ingal do not consider the Bhuaci a sufficient threat to declare war on them. Though if you interfere…they may change their minds.”

Sienna gripped the railing that led to the upper deck. “If we’re at war…then you’re” —she clenched her jaw— “the enemy.”

Sterling stepped between Sienna and Ark. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wish Teal were here.”

“I am.” Taking each step slowly and deliberately, Teal descended to the central floor. “I’ve seen everything.”

Heat worked over Sienna’s body, and she glowed at the edges. “I wondered where you’d got to.”

Sterling cleared his throat as he glanced from her to Teal. “You could’ve warned us about Ark and his dramatic entrance.” He turned and peered at Ark. “I read Ungle’s transmission. You’re a master liar.”

Ark bowed as if accepting a compliment.

Zuri tapped his fingers together nervously. “So are we really at war with Crestar?”

Sterling nodded. “Crestar has sent out a formal declaration that all foreign elements are to leave Earth immediately or be eliminated.”

Sienna flashed a frown at Ark. “Crestonians are as foreign as the rest of us.”

Sterling waved his hands. “That’s beside the point. What Ungle hopes to achieve is more to our interest.”

Ark sighed. “He was severely disappointed with Ishtar— and Chai for that matter. He was hoping that Ishtar would destroy the thing that controlled Chai. But Ishtar not only ignored it, he appeared to grieve the loss of a thoroughly despicable man.”

Zuri wrapped an arm around Kelesta and leaned on the wall, pulling her close. “What did he think Ishtar would do? He doesn’t have a Dustbuster or advanced weapons. Obviously, a force that strong couldn’t be destroyed through primitive means.”

As Kelesta nestled comfortably in Zuri’s embrace, she frowned at Ark. “Bhuaci may not be a match for Crestonians, but we’ll see the annexation of this planet as an act of aggression and fight to maintain our interest here.”

Ark pointed to the hologram. “If you’d be so kind, refigure that thing to focus on the growing Divide between us and our mystery friends.”

Sienna tapped the console and brought up the same image she had used earlier. “It’s still growing.”

“That’s what frightened Ungle and our entire planet into a panic.” Ark rose with a groan. “I don’t agree that abandoning Earth will save us from the evil that beset Chai and almost destroyed Ishtar. That same force can bedevil the heart of every being this side of the Divide…and perhaps the other side as well.”

Sienna shook her head. “So what are we going to do?”

Sterling stepped to the blasted door—nothing more than a ragged frame. “I need to discuss the matter with the Supreme Judges.” He peered from Sienna to Teal. “Make ready to leave as soon as possible.”

Zuri glanced from Sterling to Ark. “You aren’t going to take your enemy as a hostage?”

Sterling grinned. “I don’t see an enemy, do you?” He started to step through the door and shook his head. “By every star in Heaven, I almost forgot…never mind.” With a flick of his hand, he flashed out of sight.

Kelesta peered up at Zuri. “What are you going to do?”

Zuri caressed her cheek and peered into her eyes. “I’m going to do my duty and report home.” His thumb ran under her chin. “Just like you’re going to do when you return to Helm.”

Kelesta’s voice rose in panic. “You’re going to leave me?”

Teal cleared his throat. “Could you two have that discussion somewhere else?”

Sienna glanced at Teal. “We could be having the same discussion.”

Teal shook his head. “No. We couldn’t.” He nudged Ark. “You’ll have to return to Lux with me. I hardly think your misfire today will go unnoticed.”

Zuri glanced over. “We’ll bring Kelesta to Helm first and then swing by Lux and drop you two off before I head home.”

Like a body blow, Sienna suddenly understood what the term heartbreak meant. Her mouth dropped open. “You mean you’re not going to forgive and forget? Like Ishtar? Like Aram and all your wonderful human heroes?”

Teal frowned. “Forgiving doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to reality. I hold no animosity toward you. I just can’t trust you.” He turned away and nodded to Zuri. “I’ll study the Divide phenomena on the upper deck. Call me if you need anything.” He turned and ascended the steps.

Zuri took Kelesta’s hand and led her through the blasted doorway. “We’re going to be—”

Ark waved them on. “I don’t need the details.”

Sienna watched Teal’s booted feet disappear on the upper landing. She plunked down on a chair before the main console.

Ark reached out and wrapped a tentacle around her shoulder. “We all make choices.”

Sienna blinked, her heart falling to the ground. “Apparently, I’ve made mine.

”“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” ~William Shakespeare

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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

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 Neb Encounter (In production)

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 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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A New Heart

My dad turned ninety years old recently. That milestone made me think. I counted up how many of my friends or family are now in their nineties and the number surprised me. Almost two handfuls. And if I add in friends and family in their eighties, the number jumps much higher. Middle-aged friends make up the vast majority of people I know.

Most of these people are active, still drive, and have their wits about them. Yet they can’t live forever, and I know that I’ll be attending a lot of funerals in the future.

One thought led to another…

I don’t see many pregnant women anymore. In fact, if I see a pregnant woman or a woman with an infant, I tend to feel surprised. Why? Because there are so few.

I did some checking and stopped counting after eight Google pages of recent reports stating that fertility rates have dropped drastically in the last few years. Though it didn’t surprise me, it did send a chill up my spine when I remembered how old most of my friends are.

I find it troubling to think that in the most prosperous age in human development where we have the greatest labor savings devices, the best nutrition, the widest variety of entertainment, astonishing medical advancements, the largest food production ever…we also have a rising suicide rate and a declining fertility rate.

In our current world, we tout the glorious possibility of eliminating children and old people…Downs Syndrome children, a baby with health issues, unwanted kids. We tell elderly folks that they don’t have to live sad and depressed lives…they can kill themselves. Legally. And we’ll it progress.

But I wonder. Who are we killing?

Our nation is obsessed with political issues and social causes. We are a nation at war with itself and within itself. But we aren’t an isolated nation anymore. If you haven’t noticed—our problem is the world’s problem. The world’s problem is ours.

We’re in trouble. But we can’t seem to stop screaming at each other long enough to realize that the ship we, and our kids, are on is going down.

I don’t have a family-therapy solution big enough to fit the whole world. Sure wish I did. But then, I’m not sure we need to fix the world. Perhaps…we just need to stop hating the people around us. Even the ones who disagree with us…he ones who drive us crazy with their policies. Hate won’t plug our leaky boat.

I imagine that when Christ told the angels that He was going to become a man, they probably thought He was crazy. Stupid. Irrational. After all, God had angels! What did He need with a bunch of corporeal beings trapped in time with limited intelligence?

So I suspect that the cosmic break wasn’t over belief in God…it was over belief in human beings. After all, the devil knows who God is. But what He doesn’t know…is who we are. Who we are called to become…

Nope. He’s pretty sure we are disgusting beasts who can’t be trusted with anything important.

Question is…who do we think we are?

If we continue to hate each other and kill our children, our elders, and ourselves…the answer is a sad one indeed.

Perhaps we need more than a change of perspective. Perhaps we need a new heart.

One that doesn’t kill.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00