OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Six

A New Light

—Grasslands and Hill Lands—

Tobia sat next to Remy before a glowing fire with Remy’s men, Jonas, Obed, Onia, and his little sister, Mari, seated in a semicircle on the other side.

A full moon rose in the evening sky. Birds sang their goodnight songs from nests built among the swaying grasses as a refreshing breeze swept through.

Laughter erupted between Remy’s men as they discussed their return trip home the next morning. Remy listened and laughed along with them, sampling from various platters of barley bread, roasted quail, wild rice, and early onions. Flasks of thick mead sat within arm’s reach.

After swigging down a bowlful of mead and eating enough to fill his belly, Remy tapped Tobia playfully on the shoulder. “So, when will you come to visit me and my sister, eh?”

“I’m not at my full strength yet.” A blush burned in Tobia’s cheeks. “And my family needs me…”

Remy’s men chuckled, sweeping glances between Remy and Tobia. One man spoke for the rest. “If Remy had his way, he’d race us all home. But since he’s so old and worn out now, we’ll have to carry him the distance.”

Flicking a twig at the man, Remy laughed. “I’ll have had a long night’s rest by the time you stagger in.”

Obed snorted and took a swig from his bowl.

Jonas frowned and turned to her guest. “I want to thank you again for all the aid you gave Tobia. You’ve been a valuable friend. More than we can ever repay.”

A sly gleam entered Remy’s eye as he focused his gaze on Tobia. “Oh, he can repay our kindness any time he wants.”

Obed wiped his mouth, his eyes narrowing. “How?”

Tobia stiffened.

“I happen to have a very beautiful and good-hearted sister…and she’s taken a liking to your son.”

Tobia glanced around and met a dozen eyes staring at him. He sighed, his shoulders slumping as he stared at his scarred hands.

Obed reached over and teasingly smacked Tobia on the shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I hardly know—”

Obed rose shakily and swung his bowl into the air. “I propose that we invite Remy and his sister to return for a feast in three months—”

Jonas tugged on Obed’s legging. “Stop! You can’t do that. It’s rude to ask them to travel here again so soon. They’ve already done so much.”

Obed swayed, his voice slurring. “You’re right!” He glanced at Tobia. “Stand up, son.”

Tobia swallowed back a bitter taste rising in his throat and stood beside Obed.

Obed flopped his arm around Tobia and gazed into his son’s eyes. “She’s beautiful?” he asked, his breath pungent.

Tobia clenched his jaw and looked down as the men around him chuckled and his little sister giggled. “Yes, and kind. And I’d like to see—”

“Then the next full moon, we’ll visit Remy’s village! As your father, I should meet the family.” He nudged Tobia in the chest. “That’ll give you cause to rebuild your strength.” He refilled Remy’s bowl.

Remy rose and saluted Obed, sloshing the mead. “I look forward to that day. The preparations shall begin the moment I get home.” He beamed at Tobia. “Kamila will rejoice.”

Remy’s men stood and cheered, pounding their spears.

Jonas climbed to her feet, gripping Tobia’s shoulder. Her eyes locked onto her son.

His heart tearing in pain, Tobia clenched his hands at his sides and forced a smile.

~~~

Eoban shrugged. “Whatever makes you happy, Jonas. I’ll do my best.” A dead weight settled in his gut as he watched her hurry back to her dwelling in the bright light of a new day.

Heading home, Obed strolled by, glanced in Eoban’s direction, and changed trajectory, intercepting his friend.

A flock of geese flew overhead in perfect formation, honking as they went.

Eoban exhaled, threw back his shoulders, and mentally prepared himself. He muttered under his breath. “Should’ve gone hunting.” He acknowledged Obed’s nod with a nod of his own.

“What did Jonas want?”

“She wants me to go with you to Remy’s village.”

His eyes still bloodshot from the previous night’s revelry, Obed’s jaw clenched as he flashed a glance at Jonas hanging fish on a line. “Why?”

“You know Jonas. She worries.”

“She thinks I’ll get lost or captured?”

Eoban rubbed his neck and wished he could fly away with the geese. “I think she’s worried about Tobia, and that—”

“His father will push him into something he’s not ready for?”

Eoban held his tongue in check.

Obed’s eyes traveled to the hills where dots of black and white sheep grazed and stick-like boys played on the grass. “In that case, I’ll take Onia with me. Perhaps I can be trusted with one of my sons.”

Two emaciated dogs quarreled over a bone, creating a racket.

Eoban frowned and raised his voice. “Listen, Obed. Jonas loves you. She worried the whole time you were a prisoner. She’s a mother too, and she can’t divide her emotions up into reasonable parts. She’s been afraid for so long, it’s become a way of life. Don’t be angry that she wants an extra man to help out in case there’s trouble.” He shrugged. “There could be trouble.”

“Barak isn’t coming?”

“No sane man would ask Milkan to let him go.”

With a snort, Obed nudged Eoban. “You’re right. I’m being unreasonable.”

Eoban dropped his gaze. “Truth is…you and Tobia may behave yourselves on this trip…but I don’t know about Remy.”

Obed scowled. “Why? He’s an exceptional fighter and a strong leader.”

“Yes, but he’s a terrible singer.” Eoban whapped Obed on the back and called over his shoulder as he strolled away. “It’ll be up to you to lead the chant during the wedding ceremony.”

~~~

Tobia woke early on the morning of their departure and forced down a breakfast of roasted fish, rice, and toasted grains mixed with fruit and nuts.

Onia stood near, shuffling from foot to foot.

Tobia swallowed his last bite and wiped his mouth.

“What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you going to eat?”

Onia shook his head, one hand gripping his lean belly. “I can’t.” He glanced toward the hills. “When are we going to start?”

With a bulging bag slung over his shoulder, Obed marched toward them.

Tobia wiped his hands and stood, willing himself strength he did not feel. The thought of Obed meeting Kamila turned his legs to water. One sidelong wink and Kamila would know what his father really thought of him.

Grim-faced, Jonas paced close at Obed’s side.

“We’ll leave soon enough.”

Tobia dropped his tone to a whisper. “You’ll soon wish you were home again.”

Onia frowned and stepped aside.

Obed stopped beside his brother and nodded at the crumb-strewn tray. “You’ll get a stomach ache walking off all that food.”

Jonas squeezed her husband’s arm and peered at her son. “He’s young. He could eat a whole hog and then run till the sun sets.” She glanced from Onia to Tobia. “You’re ready?”

Onia’s legs jiggled in the anxious waiting.

Obed frowned. “Calm down. You’ll wear yourself out before you even leave.”

From the far side of the village, Eoban hustled forward. As he neared, the glint in his eye shone brighter. “Everyone ready?” He jutted his chin at Obed’s bulky bag. “What’ve you got there?”

“Just a few items to trade, if they’re interested.” Obed nudged Onia. “Get that other sack I filled.”

A frown deepened between Jonas’s brows. “I thought this was just a friendly visit?”

“Trade is friendly.” Obed pulled her close, kissed her cheek, and whispered in her ear. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.” He glanced up as Onia jogged forward with the second, larger bag. “Come on; the sun won’t wait, and Remy will think we’ve forgotten our promise.”

Eoban snorted. “Once he sees those bags and Tobia’s smiling face, he’ll forgive any delay.”

All eyes turned to Tobia.

Forcing a grin, Tobia nodded and pointed to the hills. “Let’s go.”

Eoban tapped Onia on the shoulder. “Get in front. Might as well learn how to lead when you don’t know where you’re going. I do it all the time.”

Jonas stared at Tobia, their gazes joined in understanding. She kissed his cheek and let him go.

Tobia stepped forward, glancing back at Obed’s bulging sack, feeling the weight of it on his shoulder. “We’ll take a direct path this time and perhaps we won’t lose anyone.”

~~~

Tobia saw Kamila first. Though the journey had been swift and direct, the return to a site associated with so many painful memories wearied him. Only her smile encouraged his lagging feet the last steps.

Remy sprinted to him, his arms wide in welcome. The whole village surrounded the visitors, grins on every face.

Thrusting his bag into Eoban’s arms, Obed jogged forward and gripped Remy’s hand. “Well met!” He surveyed the crowd and stopped at Kamila who stood at Remy’s side. “This must be the beauty everyone told me about!”

Standing next to Eoban and watching the scene, Tobia clenched his jaw.

Eoban pressed the young man’s shoulder. “Obed is just showing off. Don’t get impatient.”
They waited and watched.

As Obed chatted with Remy, Kamila peered around his shoulder. She met Tobia’s gaze.

A flush worked over Tobia, embarrassment fighting with irritation. He marched to Obed’s side and nodded to Remy first. “Good to see you again.”

Remy laughed and pulled him into a bear hug. “Well met indeed!” He turned to the watching crowd. “Let the feasting begin!”

Tobia’s attention shifted to Kamila, and their eyes met.

Twisting her hands, she blushed and glanced at the villagers. Everyone scurried to attend to food-laden tables and a dressed goat roasting over an open fire pit.

Tobia shuffled in place and bit his lip.

Eoban shoved Onia toward the tables. “Go help out and get me a snack. I’m famished.” He strode to Tobia, nodded at Kamila, and grinned. “You two take a walk somewhere. Find out if there are any enemies ready to attack.”

Kamila’s eyes widened.

Tobia snorted and took Kamila’s hand. “We better go before my father and Remy take notice and—”

Kamila gripped his hand, and they darted into the woods.

~~~

Tobia’s spirits rose to new heights and his full stomach settled in contentment as a full moon rose in the night sky. Kamila grinned at him with her usual confident composure, and Obed had not touched his trade goods.

After helping the women clear the dishes and trays away, Kamila returned and perched on a log next to Tobia. She pointed to three new huts on the west side of the village. “Remy and the men built homes for our new elders. They’ve earned their keep in a hundred ways since they came, watching the children, nursing the sick, assisting new mothers.”

Tobia shook his head in wonder. “I’d never have thought they had it in them to be helpful. They were so anxious and troublesome on the journey.” He glanced at her. “I felt terrible leaving here…just dropping them into your hands for safekeeping.”

Kamila tilted her head, her dark eyes sparkling in the firelight. “You’ve had troubles of your own, Tobia. Too many troubles for one so young.”

Sudden tears startled Tobia. How could she see into his heavy heart and understand his grief? He swallowed and took a firm grip on his emotions. “I’m not young…not really. My mother said I grew old the day my father died.”

Reaching out, Kamila placed her hand over Tobia’s. “I lost my parents at a young age, too. I understand.” She nodded at Remy, who laughed at something Obed said. “He’s been father, mother, as well as brother ever since they died.”

Tobia laced his fingers into Kamila’s. “I’m sorry. I forget that others have lost more than—”

Sliding off the log and sitting next to Tobia, Kamila leaned in. “It’s not like that. There’s no comparison. We all grieve our losses and endure painful trials. But helping others makes us less lonely along the way.”

“Can I help you, Kamila?”

A smile twitched on her lips. “I think so—”

A shout turned their heads.

Onia stood hunched with both trade sacks over his shoulders.

Obed nudged his youngest forward while glancing at Remy. “See what I’ve brought, my friend.” He turned and waved the crowd closer. “Come and see if there’s anything you’d like to trade for. My clan wants to embrace you all as brothers and sisters. Let’s exchange goods.”

Tobia dropped his head to his chest. “By the stars. He’s becoming more like Eoban every day.”

Eoban stepped up and pressed Tobia’s shoulder. “I was never so obvious.”

With a shrug, Kamila laughed. “He’s happy. Making deals and showing off his wares is like medicine to a man. Besides, trade with the wider world will do us no harm. And it’s a natural preparation for the wedding exchange.”

Cold fear swept over Tobia. He glanced at Kamila’s serene face. How does she do it?

Obed’s face glowed, reflecting of the firelight, and Remy laughed uproariously at a joke Onia cracked. Obed clapped Onia on the shoulder and never once looked at Tobia.

Kamila peered through the dim light. “You don’t look well.” She stood and tugged Tobia’s hand. “You need a different kind of medicine.”

Glancing at Eoban, Tobia’s heart jumped to his throat as he climbed to his feet.

Eoban nodded to an empty hut on the edge of the village. “A little hug won’t hurt. Mind you, I said a little hug. Go on. Take your time. I’ll make sure they stay occupied.”

Stepping into the shadows, Kamila grinned and beckoned Tobia to follow.

Tobia halted and glanced from his father and the villagers clustered together, to Eoban who crossed his arms and turned away, to Kamila who waited with one inviting hand extended. Warmth spread over his body, and thunder, like an impending storm, roared in his ears. He gripped Kamila’s hand.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ~Rumi

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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-Three

—OldEarth—

Intercept Course

Teal leapt over a boulder, scrambled up a rocky incline, and frowned at a loud gasp behind him. He peered over his shoulder.

Sterling lay sprawled on the ground like a broken toy.

Turning on his heel, Teal doubled backed, lifted Sterling by the arms, and dragged him to the shelter of an overhanging cliff. He dropped the ragged figure in the shade without ceremony and fell on his knees, heaving gasps of air.

Sterling sat up and rocked back and forth like a frightened child. “I can’t do this anymore. I really will disintegrate.”

Falling back on his haunches, Teal leaned on the shaded rock face, his heart pounding, his mind frozen. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Never.”

Sterling lay spread-eagle and sucked in deep draughts of air. “For once…I can write an interesting report…and I won’t…have to embellish…a bit of it.” He shook his head. His white hair splayed in the dust. “Too bad…it’ll be my last.”

Disgusted, Teal spared him a glance.

Rising with a groan, Sterling sat up, heaved a deep cleansing breath, and clapped his hands free of dirt and pebbles. “We’re not going any further with this study.” He shook his finger at the stone city in the distance. “You saw its power. Bothmal! It could’ve eaten us!”

Clasping his hands steeple-style before his face, Teal stared into the distance. “I don’t think it could sense us as clearly as we could sense it. Certainly, the guards only saw us as men…not Luxonians. I doubt it could know—”

“By all that is good and holy, I’m not about to find out what it knows.” Climbing to his feet, Sterling ran his hand over his hair and smoothed down his rumbled rags. “You saw them…once they lost the chance to toss Obed into that pit, their eyes fixed right on yours truly.” He tapped his chest. “I would’ve become nothing more than an evening snack for that beast.”

Teal rose with a grunt. “Surely, it would’ve spit you out.”

Glaring, Sterling huffed and squared his shoulders. He shimmered and reappeared in his immaculate white tunic and leggings.

Leaning forward, Teal surveyed their desert surroundings. “No one followed. All’s clear.” He glanced back. “We can leave and meet up with the others— Luxonian-style of course.”

Sterling’s eyes drooped to half-mast. “I wasn’t about to tip-toe over that blasted desert.” He shook himself. “I still can’t believe I saw an honest-to-goodness demon.”

A flush worked over Teal’s face. “Honest-to-goodness? You’re delirious. Besides, we don’t even understand what humans mean by a demon. It’s a catch-all term to explain any terrify—”

“Annihilate! Do you deny that fiend was anything but what humans refer to as a demon?”

Startled, Teal drew back. He ran his fingers through his ruffled hair. “I’ll never understand you—sir.” He met Sterling’s gaze. “I thought you considered humans little more than barbarians.”

“Even barbarians can be right sometimes. They happen to be right about demons.”

Rubbing his chin, Teal considered the rock ceiling.

“How would you define it? Spirit energy? Light force? Dark matter? An unreported—?”

“Oh, it’s been reported—by almost every race in the universe. Demons may have different names and come in various forms, but they all inflict the same horror and spread the same destruction.” He shuddered. “You and I wouldn’t have disintegrated exactly—we would’ve become subservient to it. Slaves. Dead to ourselves and all free people.”

Teal closed his eyes. “I’m glad Obed escaped.”

Sterling bobbed his head up and down. “I’m glad we escaped!” He stepped forward. “I’m going to recommend that a quarantine be placed around this planet as soon as possible.”

Teal gripped Sterling’s arm. “But humanity isn’t demonic!”

“You saw those men. They are serving it innocent victims every pitiless day.”

Pounding into the light, Teal faced the sun. “But not all humanity does so. Some people resist evil.” He glared at Sterling. “You said it yourself, Obed escaped. And Ishtar escaped.” He exhaled and folded his arms. “Ungle has a point. We have to find Ishtar and watch what happens when he meets Chai.”

Sterling snorted. “So we can see him get devoured?” He curled his lips in obvious distaste. “I thought blood-sports disgusted you.”

Teal stepped up the rocky incline and pointed west. “As much as any decent being. We can’t defeat evil, but at least we can learn from those who resist it.”

~~~

Ark stood at the ship’s helm and hid a spreading grin behind a well-placed tentacle. A bubble of enjoyment tickled his insides as he watched the drama unfold before his eyes.

Zuri swaggered on deck, explaining with chest-thumping pride each and every instrument panel.

Kelesta practically purred, her eyes glued to Zuri’s every move.

Sienna stood near the open bay door, frowning. “Sterling and Teal should return any moment.” She glanced at Ark. “Are you quite done?”

Ark cleared his throat, sending bubbles to the surface of his breathing helm. “Oh, yes!” He turned and offered a generous smile. “Young love—I could watch all day and never get bored.”

Sienna’s gaze shifted to Zuri, roving from his spiked blond hair to his sandaled four-toed feet. “He almost appears human now.”

Ark snorted. “That’s the idea…or rather to look more Old-World Ingoti.”

Sienna crossed her arms and glared at Ark. “So are you going to tell me—or do I have to guess?”

“Zuri’s lady friend likes her mates au-naturale.”

“Zuri has a mate?” Sienna’s gaze darted to Kelesta.

Unconcerned, Ark waved a tentacle. “I don’t suppose it’s terribly serious, considering how much time he spends away.”

Pursing her lips, Sienna frowned. “Some people are faithful no matter the distance.”

A bright light blinked, and Sterling appeared in the middle of the deck with Teal standing behind him.

Zuri turned sharply, and Kelesta tripped, gripping his arm for support.

Without ceremony, Teal glanced around. His eyes stopped on Zuri, and he stepped forward. “Where’s Ishtar?”

With a by-your-leave grin, Zuri slipped from Kelesta’s grasp and met Teal in the middle of the deck. “He saw the ravages of Chai’s conquests and is hurrying home. Why? What’s happened?”

Sterling sauntered closer and shrugged. “We met a demon from hell.”

Everyone froze.

Ark giggled and flipped a tentacle over his breathing helm, a flush working up his face. “Sorry. Such a blatantly vivid image—”

Teal stomped to an instrument panel and scanned the surface. “Hardly a laughing matter.” He glanced at Zuri.

Zuri padded to the central computer and tapped the surface. A holographic image appeared in the middle of the room.

In colorful detail, Ishtar appeared to be working his way around the coast of a large lake.

Zuri peered up. “He’s near home. The women have hidden in caves. He might run into them or someone from his clan soon.”

Ark shuffled closer, rubbing two tentacles together. “Bet that’ll be fun.”

Teal swallowed. “Where’s Chai?”

Zuri tapped the console again, his slender fingers flying over the flat surface.

A holographic image showed Chai leading a large band of warriors, with a ragged line of slaves struggling behind, north of Ishtar’s position.

Zuri faced Teal. “They’re on an intercept course.”

Sterling leaned forward scowling. “Who’s that coming up behind Chai?”

Teal slapped his forehead. “Oh, the fools. That’s Eoban, Barak, and Obed.”

Ark frowned, his lips pursed into flabby tubes. “They have no idea what they’re about to run into.”

The image blurred, and Teal shouted at Zuri. “What’re you doing?”

Zuri shrugged. “I want to know what happened to the boy—Ishtar’s son.”

Ark snorted.

Zuri tilted his head, his eyes wide. “What? So I have a soft spot for children.”

The image refocused on Amin. Sweat poured down his thin face as he struggled through a thick forest, brushing thorns and vines out of his path.

Sienna blinked and shook her head. “Poor thing.”

Kelesta squinted at the scene. “There’s something following him.”

Ark, turning green, glanced away. “I can’t watch.”

Sterling snarled at Ark. “You’re a Cresta scientist—you dissect specimens all the time.”

“After they’ve died!” Ark swiveled about, his tentacles flying in all directions. “Get it through your Luxonian filters—Crestas have to study everything. It’s what we do. How we survive. But that hardly makes us cold-hearted.”

Teal tapped his fingers together. “Can we debate this another time?” He turned to Zuri. “Want to split up?”

Kelesta’s eyes widened as she wiggled next to the Ingot.

Zuri peered down at her hope-filled eyes and rubbed his beardless chin. “Fine. We’ll follow Amin.”

Teal swiveled toward Ark. “Take Sterling and keep an eye on Ishtar.”

Ark grinned, his golden eyes gleaming. “It’ll be my pleasure!”

Sterling raised his hand. “When—exactly—did I get demoted?”

Scowling, Teal turned away. “You’re doing what Ungle asked—keeping an eye on Ishtar. There’s no other place for you to be.”

Sienna sauntered over to Teal and wrapped her arm around his. “And we’ll follow the three fools?”

Teal shook his head. “They barely escaped the temple demon, and now they’re bumbling right into Chai.” He exhaled. “I can only pity them.”

Ark stood back and appraised the gathering. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from humans…”

All eyes fixed on the Crestonian.

Ark grinned. “Nothing ever goes as planned.”

Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.~ PRISON CHAPLAIN, A Clockwork Orange

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Two

—Woodlands—

The Heart

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

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

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

Tobia closed his eyes. Thank God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Tobia turned to the doorway, he glanced back.

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

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

“I’m here. Come in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remy grinned and glanced at Tobia.

Tobia hurriedly finished his second drink.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How so?”

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

Kamila’s eyes rounded in horror.

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

“That’s why you must leave—soon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To Be Content

Regina would rather face a mob of angry clowns than admit that she wasn’t partial to puppies. After all, what kind of lunatic didn’t like puppies? So, when her friend and (lucky for her brother) sister-in-law, Claudia, asked if she’d watch their puppy while they took a sneak trip to Chicago for a weekend of theater and dancing, who was Regina to say no?

“Suuure—” She tried to toss a happy exclamation mark into her voice, but it cracked at the crucial moment.

Claudia packed in such a hurry she wouldn’t have missed a question mark streaking through the room buck-naked.

“Should I check in on him—her?—a couple of times a day?”

If Claudia had slammed her chest any harder, cardiac arrest would surely have ensued. “Oh, no! That won’t do. Not at all. The Timster needs around the clock care. You’ll take him to your place for the weekend. After all, he’s our little baby!”

At that moment, said baby was snatched from happily chewing a pink slipper on the rumpled bed into mommy’s arms. And rocked.

To its credit, the mutt had sense enough to look sheepish.

“Honey!”

Regina would know her brother’s voice if he was a penguin returning from an iceberg in the frozen north. It was that distinctive. Rog didn’t so much call as bellow. She honestly didn’t understand it. No one else in the family bellowed. Must go back generations. She’d have to ask mom—without sending the woman into fits of my-family-is-perfect hysteria.

Rog’s eyes lit up like a master criminal sizing up a safety deposit box. He even rubbed his hands together. “Hey, Regina! Glad you could make it! We’ll head out before traffic gets crazy! Thanks for taking our little boy!”

Despite the contagion of exclamation points flung into the air, said boy was now transferred to daddy so mommy could slam her bag shut, snatch a faux fur coat off the chair, and toss a kiss in Regina’s direction.

“You’re a lifesaver, dear!”

Rog dumped his four-footed progeny into his sister’s arms before skedaddling out the door.

Regina held the squirming puppy and wondered what it ate besides slippers.

~~~

Safely ensconced in her favorite chair, a novel on her right, a half-finished ghostwriting assignment on her left, a cup of hot cocoa warming her hands, she watched the puppy chase a ball of colored yard across the floor. Regina decided that life—despite a twenty-minute I-will-be-calm-no matter-what-your-mother-says conversation with her dad—was pretty good. For her, at least.

A chime lifted her gaze from the miniature acrobat skidding into her coffee table to the green apartment door.

The rest of the apartment—painted Sahara tan—made the eye-catching door stand out like an oasis in the desert. Maybe that was the point? Dismissing the ever-present conundrum, Regina paced across the floor and peered through the peephole. “Yes?”

“It’s me! Goofy. Let me in.” Doing her signature cross-eyed, tongue out look, Janet wiggled two fingers.

Regina smothered a sigh, considered hiding the puppy in her bedroom, imagined her computer cords chewed to frazzled ends, clutched the door handle and let her friend in. “Hey, Janet.”

“Hey to you.” Janet paraded into the room. The woman simply could not walk normally. Her hips swayed, her shoulders danced, her eyes romped. Sexy coolness personified.

Then she saw the puppy and melted into a puddle. “Ohhhh…a puuupppyyy!!!” She scooped the suddenly terror-stricken critter into her arms.

Fear soon gave way to annoyance. The Timster squirmed like a child on a dentist chair.

“When did you get a puppy? Why didn’t you tell me? I thought I was your best friend—”

“It’s my brother’s and his wife’s. I’m baby—I mean—dog-sitting for the weekend. Don’t tell anyone. I’m not sure how my landlady would react since she enforces a No Pets law throughout the kingdom.”

Janet smirked. “Couldn’t get a date with a guy, huh?”

Regina dangled colored yarn in front of the frolicking mutt, making them both dance.

In an attempt to regain some measure of dignity, the puppy snatched the yarn and ran to the kitchen.

Regina returned to her chair and retrieved her cocoa from the end table. “I’m off the online sites, and I have no plans.”

If prohibition had made a comeback, Janet couldn’t have looked more horrified. “What happened? I thought you liked some of the guys.”

“Liking and making a life together are two different things.”

“So what do you want?”

“A friend first. Then we’ll see.”

“But you already got me.” Janet started for the kitchen. “Well, Tuesday through Thursday.”

Regina drained her cup and followed the swaying hips. “So, what are you doing here? It’s Friday. You should be out on the town with…”

“Yeah. I’m going. I just wanted to ask you something first.”

Regina set the cup on the kitchen counter, faced her friend, and raised her eyebrows

“Gerry asked me to marry him.”

Regina’s heart flipped. Jealous? Nope. Well, maybe. A little. “Yeah? So…?”

“Should I say yes?”

The puppy sauntered across the tiled floor, head up, chest out, clutching the skein of yarn in his teeth like a wolf carrying venison home to the pack.

Regina lifted her gaze to the older woman and for the first time, she really looked. And saw. The too-bright lipstick, the heavy makeup, faint shadows under her eyes, the long-suffering expression.

“What do you want, Janet?”

Janet shook her head. “I want what you got. With puppy. And your books. Work. Your bellowing brother, your persnickety mom and worn-out dad. Your damn—contentment.”

Regina laughed. It felt good to laugh. At her friend. At herself. At the silly puppy. “Goofy indeed, you are rightly named! Tell me, do you enjoy getting hungry?”

Janet turned her head, glaring from one eye. “Generally, before meals.”

“So being fed all the time wouldn’t suit you any more than being content all the time. You just haven’t learned to be content with periodic—”

“Discontent?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Gerry’s not perfect, but he loves me, and I—” The hips relaxed, her shoulders settled, and her eyes softened. “I rather like the guy.”

“Can you make a life with him?”

“We can try. If there’s a will—right?” She looked down as the doggy trotted near. “But what about you—and your temporary little friend?”

The Timster dropped the defeated yarn at Regina’s feet and peered up adoringly.

Regina scooped the puppy into her arms and chuckled all the way back to her chair.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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Your Prayer

Kelog chewed his lip as he watched an oversized gnat circle the room. Why didn’t someone smash the blinking thing into oblivion? He would. Certainly. If it got close enough. But it never did. Fury seethed through his whole system. Gnats shouldn’t be flying about on a frozen December day. They had no right to exist. Not here. Not now.

A gale wind struck the windowpane. Dang! Driving home will be hell. Not as bad as the drive here though. That’s not possible. He wiped sweat from his hands, rubbing them along his jeans. He glared at the fake poinsettia, the cheery signs on the wall with comforting platitudes, the assembly of grey humanity sitting hunched over their phones on lounge chairs that no one ever lounged on. Kelog loathed waiting rooms.

He peered at the doorway. He wanted to be in there. With his wife. But given the fact that he had carried her into the emergency room screaming for help, medics had promptly laid her on a stretcher, and then—in no uncertain terms—ushered him out, he figured he shouldn’t distract them from their primary concern. Laurie. And the baby.

How could such a wonderful day have gone so wrong?

They had snuggled in bed, comforting each other. Calm. Loving. The grey skies only highlighted the red and green decorations hanging in ornamental beauty along the porch railing. Quickly dressed. A strong cup of coffee. A kiss goodbye that hinted of pleasures intended for after work hours.

The day had flown by. “Any day now…” everyone had chanted with twinkles in their hope-filled eyes. And they weren’t talking about Santa and a new train set.

He had come home early. A surprise. He knew how tired Laurie had been, and he wanted to help clean the house before the big family gathering. She had probably done most of it, he knew. But in her condition, she never got as much done as she intended. And he was going to be her knight in shining armor and come to the rescue. He even brought home a new mop!

But after a twenty-minute drive against a roaring wind, parking in the snug garage, whistling his way into the kitchen armed with his playful sword-mop, he glanced around.

Somewhere in the universe, a sorceress plucked a low, vibrating chord. An oddity jumped at him from the corner of his eye. His morning coffee cup sat unwashed in the sink. Perplexity somersaulted right into anxiety.

“Laurie?” He laid the mop with a bow wrapped around it on the kitchen table where she couldn’t miss it. “Hey, honey! Guess what?”

Silence swept over his arms and chilled his bones.

“Laurie?”

He could hear his own footsteps as he pounded upstairs two at a time to their bedroom. Horrible images filled his mind. And then his heart.

She lay in bed, still as stone. Cold to his touch.

Calling for an ambulance never crossed his mind. The hospital was down the street, and his car was warm and close. Without conscious thought, he bundled her into his arms, her snoopy pajamas flaring and her arms flopping to the sides, and he trotted downstairs with the two most precious people in the universe.

“Mr. Jones?”

Kelog peered up. The gnat swirled in the air before him. He stood.

“The doctor will be here in a moment. Have you called anyone?”

Kelog blinked. His mouth dropped open. He knew he looked stupid. He felt stupid. Not idiotic just unable to think. Unable to process her words. “Call? Who?”

The nurse pressed his arm, gesturing back to the chair. As if sitting might help him think. “Your family? Her family? Parents?”

Yes. Of course. He should call someone. But who? And say what? He glanced at the nurse. Her uniform tag said “Beatrice.”

Nothing mattered. Except his wife. And the baby. “How are they?”

Beatrice had perfected the non-committal smile. “I really can’t say too much. The doctor will be here in a moment. I just came to check on you and see if you want me to call anyone. If you need anything?”

An award-winning android could not have moved more precisely. Kelog pulled his phone from his shirt pocket, hit the contacts list, pointed to Nestly Smith, and cleared his throat. “My sister. She’ll know what to do.”

With a compliant nod, Beatrice rose, tapped the phone and put it to her ear. She strolled a few feet away, stopping in front of a crucifix hanging on the wall.

Kelog blinked. I should be praying. I should’ve called mom. I should have…done something.

But nothing mattered. Time had stopped when that dark chord had struck. Life had ceased to exist as he knew it. Was he even breathing?

“Sir?”

Beatrice held out the phone. “She wants to talk to you.”

Kelog pressed the phone to his ear.

“I’m coming. Tom’s getting the car, and we’ll be there in about twenty minutes. Hang on, sweetheart. She’ll be okay. Everything will be all right.”

Tears flooded Kelog’s eyes. A million gnats swarmed around him. “But I didn’t call an ambulance. I forgot to pray. Never thought to call mom…”

“I’ll call mom. We’ll all be there. Soon. Hang on! Don’t give up.”

“She was cold. Really cold, Nes.”

“I’m praying, Kelly. Tom’s praying. Everyone who knows us will be praying.”

“I even brought home a mop.”

Kelog felt the shadow stop before him. The phone slipped from his fingers. He stood and faced the doctor.

“Mr. Smith, your wife had slipped into a coma—but she’s recovering now.”

Kelog heard himself whisper. “The baby?”

“She’s fine. Probably didn’t notice a thing. Just thought her mama was resting all day. Which, in a way, she was. Diabetic shock. It could’ve been worse. But she came out of it, and they’ll both be fine. We’ll just have to keep a close eye on them.”

The rest of the doctor’s words blurred as Beatrice, with a surprisingly firm grip, directed him to his wife’s bedside.

Laurie’s pale face broke into a sheepish grin when their eyes met. “I didn’t follow the doc’s directions last night…you know…I had other things on my mind.”

“Oh, God. I thought I’d lost you.”

Beatrice and the doctor meandered to the far side of the room.

Laurie’s grin widened. “You can’t lose me, love. Your prayers probably saved me.”

The gnat darted in front of Kelog’s eyes. He slammed his hands together, making everyone jump. When he spread his hands wide, a black smear decorated his palms. “Damn bug.” He glanced at his wife. “It distracted me; I forgot—”

A lightning bolt of sisterly anxiety sped into the room and catapulted into her brother’s arms. “I got here as soon—” She glanced over to the bed and shrieked. “You’re okay!” Veering from brother to sister-in-law, Nestly flung herself into Laurie’s arms.

Tom sauntered up and pressed Kelog ‘s shoulder. No words needed.

~~~

An hour later, after a fast-food run, Kelog stepped through the waiting room with two paper bags loaded with a selection that would ‘ve sent his high school health teacher into a panic attack.

Beatrice stood before the crucifix. Staring.

His mood leaping amid moonbeams, Kelog hardly missed a beat as he changed his trajectory and stopped beside the middle-aged woman. “Thank you. For today. For thinking of me and calling my sister.”

Beatrice looked over. She wiped away an errant tear. “I was glad to help.”

Kelog pointed to the cross and shrugged, unable to comprehend his lapse. “I forgot to pray.”

Beatrice shook her head. “No. You didn’t. Your love is your prayer. I only wish everyone prayed as much.”

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/2lWBd0z

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

As Mom Used To Say

Richard wanted to kill someone. It wasn’t his usual state of being, but at the present, it was undoubtedly for the best that he stomp into the wilderness and get some space between him and the rest of humanity.

A squirrel scampered across his path, halted, raised itself on its hind legs, and stared as if considering the possibility between a snack and sudden death.

Richard clenched his hands in his pockets, crunched a snack bar in one and gripped his phone in the other. He pounded forward.

The squirrel high tailed it to the nearest tree and clawed its way to the top.

Richard, who normally enjoyed wildlife, grunted and smacked a branch out of his way.

The branch smacked him right back.

The squirrel, chattering from a high limb and holding a couple of notes longer than usual, warned the entire animal kingdom what kind of man approached.

“To heck with it.” His calf muscles burning and his lungs screaming, Richard aimed for a bench set on the edge of the wooded path. As he neared the resting spot, his joints thanking him profusely for the privilege of living through another day, Richard stopped short. A new sound broke through the air. He peered up.

The treetops, devoid of chattering squirrels and cawing birds, had nothing to add to the faint call or whine that Richard was sure he had heard. An injured dog?

“Awww—hell!”

It was a woman’s voice. A woman in pain, by the sound of it. The term “damsel in distress” crossed Richard’s mind. He swatted it away with the autumn insects.

Heaving his robust frame, a little larger in the tummy than he would like, though he had to admit his legs looked great in shorts, Richard lumbered back the way he had come.

Yep. There she sat, crouched like a kid on the playground when the other girls got mean, holding her ankle and…swearing like a sailor?

Richard scratched his head and glanced up. Really? Retirement had been nothing it was cracked up to be. He traveled for the first six months, took up volunteer work for the next six months, and recently got into a tangle with an idiot from his church who insisted that predestination was part of their faith system and would not allow any new members to join unless they had paid-up life insurance policies.

The woman—somewhere in her late forties—stopped rocking, and thankfully, stopped swearing. With a sudden intake of breath, she lurched to her feet, yelped, and hopped on one foot until she smacked into an oak tree, which managed to hold her in a partially upright position.

Richard snorted and practically pulled out his hair as he ran his fingers over the top of his head. So like something his first wife would’ve done. Stubborn as the day was long.

The woman glared at him. “So glad you’re enjoying my plight.”

“Hey, I would’ve helped you up…” Richard looked around. “You want me to call for… assistance?”

Despite an October breeze rustling through the trees, sweat beaded on the woman’s brow. “Sure. My phone is dead as a doornail.”

Richard’s ears twitched. He pulled his phone from his sweatpants pocket and punched the keypad to life.

The woman lifted her hand. “Hey, stop. Really. It’s not that bad. My car is only a mile or so back. I can make it. I hate to have paramedics come all the way out here. I’d feel like a fool. Besides, they might have someone in real need somewhere else.”

Richard stepped forward and shrugged. “You can use my arm if you want to hop that far.” He tilted his head, peering at her, and offered his elbow.

She shoved off the tree, balancing on her good foot, and listed like a sinking ship. “Thanks. My name’s Sigrid.” She huffed at his quizzical expression and gripped his elbow. “From a Scandinavian author…my parents were literary fools. I forgave them long ago.” She limped at his side. “Like an idiot, I decided to get in shape and start jogging, and look what happens!”

Richard nodded. Her hand felt firm but strangely familiar on his arm. He always went for women in trouble. Soft heart his friends said. Soft mind his mother told him. Good ol’ mom. Richard chuckled.

“Am I still amusing you?”

Sigrid’s tone carried an edge, but when he glanced at her, there was a light in her eye and a smile hovering on her lips.

“No, mam. Sorry. I was just remembering something my mom told me long ago.”

“Care to share? I love a good quote.”

“Well, my mom liked history. Made me something of an eccentric among my peers since I would quote obscure historical facts while throwing together financial plans for my clients. Anyway, she loved to remind me that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Sigrid nodded and stopped, catching her breath. “Just a sec. I’m not trained for the hop-Olympics quite yet.” She leaned more heavily on Richard’s arm.

Richard pointed to a hefty tree trunk lying near the path. “Here, let’s stop a minute.”

Sigrid plopped down on the log and wrapped her fingers around her ankle, wincing. “Dang, but I am such a klutz. My daughters ordered me out of the kitchen because they say I’ll break dinner instead of make dinner.”

Richard snorted. Then, as the mental image washed over him, he laughed outright. It felt so good to laugh again. He peered at her left hand. No ring. “Your husband doesn’t help with the cooking?

Sigrid hooted. “Well, that was subtle!” She lifted her ring-less hand. “Divorced seven years. Then, using air quotes, she smirked. “We’re friends.” With a shrug, she shoved the topic aside. “Two college-age girls and a married son. Their dad sees them when he wants. I keep busy with work and—” She rolled her eyes, “Keeping in wonderful shape.”

Confession time? Richard wondered why he felt like he should order a drink from the bar. “Divorced ten years. Retired one year. Two grown sons who live overseas. Do lots of charity work and slowly losing my mind to boredom.

“Hah! You sound like my ex. Always doing other people a good turn but never satisfied with himself.”

Oh, brother. Richard figured he’d cut this short. “I’m an introvert, Aries, non-denominational Christian, and sleep without a pillow.”

Clapping her hands over her mouth, Sigrid nearly exploded in laughter.

Four birds escaped with their lives from the leafy foliage.

Sigrid stood and beckoned Richard with a sly glance. “Come on, Mr. Aries, you gotta walk me to my car so I can get home in time for dinner and tell my girls that I’ve had the best jog of my life.”

Richard rose and offered his arm. “But what about being doomed to repeat history?”

Sigrid grinned. “Ah. But as my mom used to say, ‘Live and learn.’”

A young squirrel, probably still in adolescence, froze directly in Richard’s path. It rose with a hopeful expectation in its eyes.

“Aw, heck.” Richard pulled the broken candy bar from his pocket, peeled off the wrapping, and slung it at the quadruped.

Duly grateful, the squirrel grabbed the treat and sped away.

Richard slipped the sticky wrapping into his pocket, stuck out his arm, felt the weight her of hand, and strolled back to civilization.

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/2lWBd0z