OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty

What Evil Can Do

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

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

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

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

The mother jerked the baby away with a screech.

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

Obed swallowed a hard lump in his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Ishtar sighed.

Footsteps padded near.

Ishtar waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Free Obed.”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Crawling on his elbows and knees, Ishtar slithered forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man nodded.

Crawling to Obed, Ishtar lifted his knife.

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

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

A warrior sauntered by, grunted, and moved on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obed and Ishtar rose together, their gazes cast down.

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar scanned the area again and started forward.

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

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

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

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

Jerking away, Obed faced the rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I loved the old man.”

A miserable chill seeped through Obed’s body.

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

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seven

—Lake Land—

Make Yourself at Home

Eoban’s booming laugh reverberated through the trees. He stood in front of a new dwelling and watched Gilbreth try to free himself from his two younger siblings who clung to him like creeping vines in midsummer. Eoban stepped closer.

The children’s eyes widened in stark terror.

Loping forward, Eoban scooped Ham into his arms and swung him high into the air.

Screaming bloody murder, Ham struggled for a handhold, using Eoban’s nose for support.

Eoban laughed louder. He flipped the child around to face his mother and father.

Lud smiled and waved.

Dinah held out her hands, ready to receive her baby boy. She grinned as she took him her arms. “Does Eoban the Giant scare my baby?” Standing next to Eoban, she tapped his arm. “He’s a good man.” She kissed the little boy on the nose.

With a new light in his eyes and mad glee in his heart, Eoban strode toward Deli.

The little girl scampered into her brother’s arms in a desperate attempt to flee from the approaching menace.

Lud laughed so hard, he bent double and lifted one hand in surrender. “Deli, don’t be afraid. He’s a friend. He wants to make friends with you.”

The little girl peeked around Gilbreth’s neck and pointed an accusing finger. “He’ll throw me up in the air and drop me!” She nuzzled her head against Gilbreth and murmured into his neck. “You won’t let him get me, will you?”

Gilbreth managed to gasp. “Don’t worry. But please, I can’t breathe!”

Eoban shuffled to a halt and chuckled.

Lud strode over and rescued his eldest son.

Gilbreth offered wide-eyed gratitude as his father pried his sister from his body.

Eoban pointed at Gilbreth. “You have a remarkable son, Lud. Few boys could take such treatment without complaint. I bet he’s as fearless as he is good-natured.” Leaping forward, Eoban grabbed Gilbreth by the waste and then swung him over his shoulder. He peered from Ham to Deli. “See, little ones. I swing children into the air.” He swung Gilbreth around and then placed him gently on his feet. “But I do not drop.”

Red in the face, Gilbreth readjusted his tunic.

Eoban patted Gilbreth on the back, best of buddies.

Lud grinned. “You’re a man of many talents! As I remember, you used to tell entertaining stories, too. Maybe, if my children are very good, you’ll tell a few tales today?”

“To be sure!” Eoban smiled broadly. “Even if they are not so very good.” He stepped forward and waved to the dwelling before them. “So, how do you like the house?”

A rosy sun settling on the horizon, a cool breeze, and evening bird song set a peaceful scene.

“It’s beautiful.” Lud glanced at his wife. “We’d like to build one very much like it.”

Eoban rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Build? This one is vacant, and I know the owners. I’m sure they’d offer a fair deal.”

Dinah’s face lit up. “We’d be neighbors then?” She glanced at her children. “But we might get a bit noisy.”

Eoban ran his fingers through his wild, unkempt hair. “I’m easily bored. I enjoy hearing laughter—or screams—as the case may be.”

Dinah giggled, nestling her baby against her shoulder.

Stepping forward, Lud peered at the framework and slapped a post with a firm hand. “Could you introduce us to the owners tomorrow? We’ll make camp for the night and meet them in the morning.”

“Make camp? Perish the thought. I’ll introduce you to the owners tonight, though” —Eoban jogged a few paces away and waved at distant figures shuffling in the center of the village— “it might take me a few moments to gather them up.” He flung a grin at Lud. “Make yourselves at home. I’ll be right back.”

~~~

Dinah sighed, strode to her husband’s side, and clasped his hand.

Carrying the little ones and with Gilbreth in tow, Lud and Dinah circled the dwelling.

Lud stroked his chin. “It’s new. A few rough spots but generally well-done.” He nudged his wife. “Eoban’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t he?”

Dinah’s gaze roamed over two matching front benches. “I trust him. A man without guile.”

Lud nodded. “Honest to a fault. You’ll never wonder what he thinks.” He glanced at the sinking sun. “It’s getting late. Let’s get supper.”

Gilbreth jumped forward. “I’ll start the fire. Man’s work. Finally.”

Lud unrolled mats, and Dinah pulled provisions from their bags.

A rumble of murmuring voices rose in the distance. Dinah glanced up as Lud turned to face the approaching throng. She edged closer to Lud and gripped his arm.

A crowd of young men ambled forward chattering in high-spirited exuberance.

Eoban led the group, his voice rising above the rest. “Remember your manners. They’re new here, and their children are a bit skittish. Don’t talk too loud or make foolish jokes. Just smile a lot. Understand?”

The assembled heads nodded. One voice lifted above the rest. “Just don’t tell them who made the roof, whatever you do!” Laughter soared like a flock of excited birds.

Eoban tapped the speaker on the head. “You know who’ll be doing all the repair work if there are any problems, right?”

The boys chorused as one voice. “Eoban!” A roar of approval met this comment.

Lud glanced at his wife and grinned.

Eoban and his troop halted in front of the stupefied family. Silence ensued as the two groups stared at one another.

Lud laid a comforting hand on his Gilbreth’s shoulder.

Eoban nudged one young man forward. “Go on, Tannit.”

A handsome, dark-haired lad of fifteen stepped forward, his gaze skittering from husband to wife. “You and Dinah were expected, Lud, and your children too, of course. We wanted to make you feel welcome. It was Eoban’s idea, but he made us feel like it was ours, since we did all the work.” He blushed. “Though he worked, too. He had to tell all those stories!” Tannit grinned. “So, we built you this house. We figured it was something you’d need right away, and it wouldn’t spoil if you were late in coming.” He glanced at the house. “Hope you like it.” Biting his lip, he stepped aside.

Giving Tannit a firm pat on the shoulder, Eoban spoke up. “The boys worked very hard.” He flashed a grand smile.

Lud stood frozen and wondered if his heart had stopped beating.

Dinah smiled, her eyes round with shock.

Attempting to make his mouth work, Lud swallowed and sucked in a deep breath. “You mean…this house is ours? It’s too much. How could we ever repay such generosity?”

A younger, slighter-built youth stepped forward and stared boldly at Lud. “My name is Onia, son of Jonas and Obed.” He brushed a stray lock of hair from his eyes. “Truth is, we’re only paying you back for all you’ve done for us. Didn’t you lead the slave revolt? Wasn’t it you who befriended Pele so she could warn us about the Giants? You helped a whole passel of children during the great fire and brought the vision that stopped Ishtar.” He shuffled his feet, his gaze dropping to the ground. “It seems to me that we’d have to build many houses—and better ones than this—to repay all you’ve done for us. We’re just being grateful…as all worthy people are grateful.” With a little shrug, he stepped back among his peers.

Mouths fell open across the assembled group.

Tears ached behind Lud’s eyes. Straining, he swallowed and clasped his hands together. “I accept your gift then, and my family and I will treasure this house as a warrior treasures his finest weapon.” He glanced from one face to another, finally landing on Eoban. “We thank you from the depths of our hearts.”

His eyes gleaming, Eoban squeezed Onia’s shoulder. “Breeding is in the blood.” He glanced around. “Boys, show Gilbreth around while I help Lud and his family get settled. We ought to celebrate!”

Dinah’s face blanched. “I don’t have enough provisions to feed the whole clan.”

Onia turned on his heel and called back. “Don’t worry. Mother and the other women have been preparing a feast for days. It’s their surprise.”

The troop of boys galloped away, laughing and shouting. Looking like a proud father, Eoban stared after the boys.

Lud took his wife’s hand, and they laced their fingers together. His heart swelled, joy flooding his whole body.

“I want to see!” Ham scampered to the doorway and peered inside with Gilbreth holding Deli on the other side. Lud and Dinah stepped closer and leaned over them, glimpsing the dim interior.

Lud felt a hand on his shoulder.

Eoban nudged him forward, nearly tumbling the whole family. “Go on! It’s your house now. Make yourselves comfortable!”

Before stepping over the threshold, Lud glanced back at the glowing horizon. The same horizon he knew as a boy in captivity. The same horizon he shared with his family in the hills. The same horizon he shared with his wife and children while traveling. Tears slipped down his cheek. Forever, now, this horizon would glow in splendor…just outside his home.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Four

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. A hot sun beat down on them from a clear sky. Propped on his arms and knees, he hovered over the length of her body.

Sienna waited, grinning.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over Sienna’s face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and plopped onto the grass beside her, sprawling out like a broken toy.

Sienna jerked up, pouting. “What’s wrong?”

Teal rubbed his eyes. “You still don’t trust me.”

Yanking herself to her feet, Sienna brushed grass and dirt from her tan leggings. Her long-sleeved tunic rippled to the ground. “You don’t trust me—rather.”

Rolling to his side, Teal peered at her. “I’d like to. By all that is good and holy, I want to.” Rising, he slapped dry stems from his gray tunic.

Sienna’s lips quivered.

Exhaling a long breath, Teal stepped closer and caressed her arms. He tilted his head to meet her downturned gaze. “I’ve never wanted a woman as much as I want you.”

Swallowing and batting back tears, Sienna shook her head. “I’ve never been this—”

Teal quirked a smile. “Vulnerable?” Impulsively, he pulled her into a tight embrace and tucked her head under his chin. “Me too.” He ran his fingers over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced his trembling hand to stop. He lifted his eyes to the setting sun. “We’re in the midst of an interplanetary struggle. No one knows who to trust or what to believe.”

Sienna sniffed and pulled away. “You seem ready enough to trust that Crestonian and Ingot.”

“They’re Crestonians and Ingots. I know their true nature and their peoples’ hopes for this world.”

Snorting, Sienna turned her back on Teal. “Then you can’t trust them at all.”

With a chuckle, Teal glanced aside and froze.

A ragged figure, bent forward, scrabbled down a steep incline, grasping at rocks and tough weeds to keep from sliding.

Teal exhaled a low breath. “Ishtar?”

Racing to his side, Sienna followed his gaze. She clutched his arm. “How’d he get here? It’s well beyond—”

Suppressing even the hint of panic, Teal swiveled around and surveyed the area. With a grunt, he grabbed Sienna’s hand and gestured with his chin. “Over there, under that rocky ledge.”

They scampered forward and hid in the deep shadows.

Ishtar scrambled to the bottom of the incline and turned aside. He padded on bleeding feet toward the desert.

Sienna frowned. “Where’s he going? There’s nothing on the other side but barren lands. He’ll die there.”

Teal stepped out from under the stony ledge and peered at the emaciated figure striding purposefully away. “He’s pursued.”

Sienna’s eyes widened as she glanced around. “By whom?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are here nonetheless.”

With a snort, Sienna tossed the rock to the side. “You’re a regular Bhuaci with all your riddles.”

Teal watched Ishtar stumble. I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through his chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark. Luxonian Guardians should respect our own treaties.”

Sienna huffed and crossed her arms. “It was your idea. Don’t blame me if—”

“Don’t start.” Teal pulled her closer.

Relenting, Sienna placed her hands on his chest and started rubbing in slow circles.

Teal peered down, clasped one of her hands, and examined it. “Never any jewelry. Why?”

With a teasing grin, Sienna slipped away. “I don’t need any. My mother taught me that a woman is enough in herself. My father agreed.” Her gaze softened. “He used to bring me autumn flowers. Said that beauty is fleeting.”

Teal glanced back to where Ishtar had rounded the rocky crevice, his voice dry and distant even to his own ears. “You believe that?”

“Of course. If something lasts—we don’t appreciate it.”

Teal locked his eyes with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

Ark sat on a log next to a rippling stream and slapped his fleshy, three-toed feet into the flowing water. He shivered in delight.

Zuri crouched on a boulder, his black bio-armor including headgear, bodysuit, and hard-toed boots, glinted in the bright sun. As he hunched over a handheld screen, his gaze scrolled over a data-stream.

Ark scratched his neck. “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here without Teal. Cresta Accords are nothing to splash at, especially when they’re backed up by a Luxonian treaty and your Ingoti Magisterium’s seal of approval.”

With a grunt, Zuri scrunched his face and peered closer to the screen. “You gonna tell him?”

“Ahhh!” Ark swung his dripping toes from the water and dropped them on the end of the log, tipping backward precariously. Using two tentacles for support, he leaned further back and stretched out, pillowing his head on two other tentacles. “Perhaps I shall. I really feel I must. After all, he’s our friend. We don’t want to break trust with him.”

Zuri peered at Ark, grimacing. “Friend? What makes you think he’s our friend? He never believes anything we tell him. He always checks our data after the fact. And he reports every bloody word we say.”

“As do I. As do you.” Ark lifted his head and glanced at Zuri’s bent figure. “There’s more to friendship than trust, you know.”

The datapad slipped from Zuri’s grasp and dropped to the ground. “Blast!” He scowled at Ark. “You want to explain what your idea of friendship entails, exactly?”

“Endurance.” Ark groaned and rolled to a sitting position. “No Cresta worth his cranium capacity would ever bother with trust. We’re not like that.” He waved a tentacle in the dim light. “You’ve been reading too many memes on the Inter-Alien bulletin board.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m suspicious of everyone.”

“Even yourself—I hope.”

Zuri smirked. “I just told Teal where we are.” He strode to Ark and stared down at his limp figure. “I contacted him as soon as we arrived and told him that you wanted to follow up on Ishtar.” His eyebrows rose. “How do you like that—friend?”

Ark shifted aside, pulled one of his boots forward, and wagged it at Zuri. “Fine with me.” He grinned, quite pleased with himself. “I told him where we were going even before we left Crestar.” He wagged the boot again. “You know how these things pinch. Do be careful this time.”

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Have a blessed day,

Ann

Seek to become someone’s true friend.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Prologue

—Temple City—

Worthy of Renowned

Chai’s fingers stuck together as he clutched a bloodstained knife at his side. His unruly black hair, muscled build, wide stance, and flashing black eyes proclaimed his dominance. He swept a long flowing cape over his shoulders and watched an enormous shadow slither forward. His heart pounded. The deed had been done.

The body of a young man was lowered into the pit.

For a horrifying moment, Chai stiffened as he beheld a vision: His mother’s face as she lowered him onto his soft bed, cradling his body and crooning in her sweet voice.

Chai froze. The knife slipped from his fingers and clattered on the stone floor.

A circle of robed figures turned toward him.

He raised his head, searching wildly for direction.

The stone carving of his god—a man’s head with the body of a great cat and the wings of an eagle—stood in the center of the cold room staring sightlessly through blood-red eyes.

Chai exhaled a long breath. Squaring his shoulders, he forced himself to look into the pit one final time. A dead body. No personality, no family, no loving mother—no grief.

The shadow followed the body into the black depths.

A servant tiptoed near and retrieved the knife.

Chai grunted, and the knife was slapped into his hand.

He held it aloft, his crimson sleeves flowing in rippled folds down his arms. His heart thudded against his chest. The dazzling fire flared in front of the stone god and burnished the blade a deep bronze.

A new vision framed itself in his mind. He sat on a high seat above every mortal man. Every being on Earth shrunk from him in terror. His will reigned supreme. He could feel a smile creep across his face, but the burning in his heart seared all joy.

As he stared at the stone figure, his vision widened. A wall of impenetrable mountains opposed him. Suddenly, he flew aloft and with a bird’s-eye view, vast rolling hills and open grasslands slid away under him. Clans huddled against the foothills and nestled between the shoulders of the great mountains. Chai caught his breath. A great throng—people from all over the mountainsides, hills, and valleys—gathered. Finally, a conquest worthy of his skill!

He dragged his gaze from the vision and stared at reality. In utter silence, the pit consumed his offering. He lifted his gaze to the blood-red eyes. “I will bring more…and become worthy of renown.”

With a guttural command and a sharp gesture, he ended the ceremony. His quick, sharp steps echoed through the dim temple hall. When he reached the open doorway, he halted on the threshold. Peering into the black night, a sensation so riotous it could not be controlled rose up inside him and demanded release.

He burst into laughter.

 

A new Chapter from my historical fiction/ science fiction novel OldEarth Ishtar Encounter each Tuesday and Thursday. 

Blessings,

Ann

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” ~Mark 19:26

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Anyone But Him

I ordered Anyone But Him from my author friend—Teresa Linden.

My daughter got it first. Grrr…

Anyone but him is a page-turner that kept me up late wanting to know what happens. The crisp clear writing makes the whole story visual, and I felt that I knew the characters intimately. My teenaged daughter read the book, loved it, and passed it along to me. More than the typical romance, there is a bit if a mystery embedded in the story. An enjoyable read. I hope there are more stories involving the West family.

Unable to remember the past three years or understand why she would’ve moved so far from home, Caitlyn can’t believe she willingly married such an overprotective, bossy, and jealous man.

In this emotionally-charged, new adult mystery romance, ANYONE BUT HIM, Caitlyn struggles to solve the mysteries of her amnesia and her marriage.

Suspicious circumstances surrounding her husband tempt her to leave and start life over, but they also challenge her Christian faith and convictions.  

Kindle Copy Anyone But Him

Paperback Anyone But Him

Hardcover Anyone But Him  

Other books by Teresa Linden

Chasing Liberty

Testing Liberty

Fight for Liberty

Life Changing Love

Roland West—Loner

Battle for His Soul

Standing Strong

Last of Her Kind—Novel

Last of Her Kind

Available on Amazon

Prologue

In serene, black-enshrouded silence, Earth turned on its axis, a sharp contrast to the bustling reality on the surface. The gaze of a hidden mind slipped past the blue and white sphere, shifting between burning stars and vast planetary systems, all of which moved according to their own placid, pre-determined paths. His interest focused on one planet, Lux, a world of light beings, luminous in the reflection of their own glory.

On the balcony of the Capitol building, as the sun nestled itself over the horizon, two figures faced each other. Roux, a Luxonian guardian, glowed as a golden brown, humanoid figure, while Sterling, draped in his Supreme Judge robes, shimmered yellow-white, faintly defined by his elderly human outline.

Sterling, somber and erect, turned his back on Roux and faced the Luxonian world gloriously set before him. The sky burst with brilliant colors, while shreds of gray clouds drifted aside and revealed three distinct moons. His voice rumbled. “You understand your role when you return?”

Roux grinned, a mischievous sparkle in his luminous eyes. “I’m your inside man, a guardian and—a spy.”

Sterling pulled his mesmerized gaze from the scene and faced his companion. “You use such colorful phrases, Roux. All I ask is that you stay alert. Watch for an opportunity.”

“For what, exactly?”

“I’m not sure. Humanity won’t survive the coming crisis. But Earth will remain.”

The sparkle faded and Roux’s features hardened, defining his human figure in greater detail. His curly, black hair, sharp chin, and muscled arms clarified his youth but little else. His eyebrows rose. “You’re going to harvest an abandoned planet?”

“Whatever is left. Perhaps more. Maybe the remnant. We need help, too. You do realize that?”

Roux sighed, his broad shoulders slumping. As he strode across the room, his figure gained definition. He snatched up a stack of clothes with a pair of shoes perched on top.

“It’s them or us?”

Spreading his shimmering arms wide, Sterling returned to the setting sun. “Let’s just say that their loss may be our gain.”

In a few steps, Roux retreated behind a partitioned wall. A zipping sound punctuated his grunted words, and shoe thumps pounded against the hard ground. “And Cerulean? You know—how he—feels—about humanity.”

Sterling stepped to the very edge of the balcony, his eyes following the sinking glow. “I’m afraid I do. So like his father. But not like his son. I’ve sent Viridian over, just in case.

Roux reentered the room dressed in jeans, a sweater, and a pair of tan loafers on the wrong feet. He frowned at Sterling. “To take his place?”

Sterling shrugged, stared at the shoes, and then returned his gaze to the horizon line. “We’ll see. Time is running out. Do your job, and we might just survive.”

April

Their Place in the Universe

Bright sunlight flooded the bedroom, casting a glow around Anne, the center of Cerulean’s universe. Unaware of being observed, Anne stared at the white rectangular stick in her right hand. Her left hand moved to her middle as her eyes widened. Her lips trembled. “Damn!” Taking one last look at the stick, she blinked back tears.

Her disappointment surprised Cerulean; she had never given any indication that she wanted children. The last time he had visited, she had made it quite clear that she never wanted children. She had been seventeen then; she was twenty-seven now. Things had obviously changed.

Dropping the testing stick into the trashcan, Anne flushed the toilet, her face pale and pinched. She stepped into her bedroom.

Peering through the open doorway, Cerulean contemplated the wedding photo on the dresser. Had her husband wanted children? Ten years ago, Anne had wanted nothing more than to concentrate on a career and travel. Framed teacher certificates, graduation photos, and vacation pictures now lined the walls. Cerulean had no doubt in his mind; Anne may be established, but she was not happy.

“Stupid!” Anne pulled on her blouse and adjusted her skirt, “Dang it, why doesn’t this skirt ever hang right?” Tugging at the waistband, she adjusted her clothes and then glared at the mirror. She turned sideways, smoothed her hand down her slim figure, eyed her 5’ 6” frame, and then patted a few stray hairs back into place. Her weight was good; her brown eyes were steady, her skin clear and tanned. Wiping away the last vestige of a tear, she pinched her cheeks to add color. Her chestnut hair hung down her back in a thick braid.

Cerulean evaluated the grown woman before him. There was nothing extraordinary about her, but then there was nothing to object to either. To his surprise, Cerulean felt a sensation run through his being, a sensation he thought had died with his wife. When Anne’s brows furrowed as she silently surveyed the room, Cerulean dimmed his exuberance. Could she feel his presence?

Anne looked at the closed door and then the window. The view went on for miles with no interruption in sight. Only the birds flying by could see anything. If they tried. Which they wouldn’t. “Stupid birds!” Anne hurried into her stockings and bundled her nightclothes onto the bed. “Later.”

Cerulean’s gaze shifted as Anne’s husband, Philip, walked into the room. The lawyer tapped his expensive watch. “Do you know what time it is? You’ll be late.”

With an exaggerated sigh, Anne scowled. “Don’t remind me, Philip. I’m never late, and I don’t want to start a rumor that I’ve died or something.” Anne wiggled her foot into her shoe and shook her head. “Fifth grade is precarious enough without giving them that anxiety.”

Slender with sandy blond hair and deep blue eyes, Philip moved across the room in fluid, confident steps. “Anything wrong? You seem a little tense. I could—” His hands opened in a beckoning motion.

Anne stared, daring him to say one more word.

Philip’s hands dropped to his side as he shut his mouth.

Anne waved her finger. “You better stop. I’m in no mood. Now grab me that sweater, and I’ll be out of here.”

Surveying the assortment of skirts, sweaters, and various apparel draped across a chair, Philip gestured. “Which one, the black or the blue?”

“Give me the black one. I feel like I’ve been to a funeral.”

After handing her the sweater, Philip ignored the earlier warning and reached out, putting his hands on her shoulders and gently massaging them. “You going to be okay?”

Anne stiffened as she blinked back new tears. “No, but that doesn’t matter. I’m an idiot. I should have my head examined. Or my heart.” With an unrelenting shrug, Anne moved past her husband. “Sorry, but I’ve got to go.” She rushed through the door.

Philip shook his head as he watched her disappear, her shoes clicking down the steps. A moment later the front door slammed. Walking over to the dresser, Philip swiped up his car keys. He started to whistle and then stopped. The sound of water running caught his ear. Stepping into the bathroom, his gaze fell on the towels lying askew. He frowned.

After jiggling the toilet handle, he snatched up a piece of paper from the floor and bent over to throw it in the garbage. The testing kit caught his eye. He lifted it, examined its single pink line and, with another shake of his head, dropped it into the trashcan. While examining his reflection in the mirror, Philip adjusted his tie with a slight nod of approval to his well-tailored suit. Running his fingers through his hair, he appraised his chin where he had nicked himself earlier. After a final adjustment of his suit coat, he left the room. His footfalls made hollow thumps as he sped down the steps. In a moment, the front door slammed a second time.

***

A brief flash of light illuminated the bedroom as Cerulean appeared with his son at his side. Dressed in jeans and a brown leather jacket, Cerulean had assumed the look of a muscular, middle-aged man. A few streaks of gray in his dark hair and a couple days’ growth of beard gave him a casual but dignified look. His somber, brown eyes bore testimony to a spirit, which had experienced more than words could say. His gaze rolled over his son. “Observe, Viridian: humans have the capacity to lie, even to themselves. We are not allowed that luxury.”

A flash of anxiety filled the youth’s eyes. His bulky figure with brown hair, brown eyes, and tan skin stood hunched in dejection.

Flicking a lock of his son’s hair back into place and examining his human form, Cerulean changed the subject. “I like it. The look suits you. It took me a long time to get used to a human body, but now the transition is easy. I like the sensation: limiting yet strangely safe. I understand them better this way.”

The lock of hair slid back into Viridian’s eyes. “I hate it. Humans don’t admire fat boys. I’m as ordinary as a rock.”

Cerulean nodded. “Exactly. You’re an uninteresting, teenage boy, a boy who will excite no comment and attract no attention. Besides, I like your coloring: variations on a simple theme, so different from our natural state. Light captures every color, but humans, they make do with less. They can find great beauty in mere shades. And you’re not unattractive—plump maybe, but not overweight. In any case, I know what you really look like. Humans would be overwhelmed. As it is now, you won’t excite much interest.”

“Interest? I’m repulsive.” Viridian paced across the room. “Humans will avoid me like one of their plagues! And besides that, I can hardly move. How do they see anything? It’s like being underwater. Everything is so distorted and blurred.”

“You’ll get used to it. True observation is more than seeing with the eyes. Besides, if we are to observe, we must be able to interact, at least sometimes. And we can’t interact well if we don’t at least appear human. Though there are guardians who like to take animal or plant form.” An image of a rodent-guardian he once knew came to mind. Cerulean stifled a shiver. “I don’t enjoy that so much.”

Hunching his shoulders, Viridian stuffed his hands in his pockets. “But what if something happens—something unexpected? What if someone attacks us? Or there’s a storm and the house falls on us, or one of their insane vehicles crash into us? What then?”

“We get out of the way if possible, but if necessary, we die and come back later.”

“Humans will want to know who we are, who our bodies are anyway.”

“Humans face conundrums all the time. Eventually, they just close the file.” Cerulean’s brows furrowed. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were frightened.”

“I am not frightened!” Viridian scowled. “I just don’t like it here. Sorry if this offends you, but humans are pitiful. They’re not like us at all.”

Taking a few steps away, Cerulean folded his arms over his chest. “You’re not here to do a comparative study, just learn your place. You’ll be a guardian when your time comes, and you must be willing to see everything but not judge. Judging is for others.”

Cerulean gazed out the window. His son would have to learn, as he had learned after long years of service. How long ago? It had been centuries. He had followed in his father’s footsteps, as he did his, a long tradition that wound back seven thousand years, for as long as Luxonians had been observing this race. Before that time…. Well, there hadn’t been much to see.

Viridian surveyed the silent room. “So why here? Why this one? What’s so special about her?”

With a deep sigh, Cerulean marched into the bathroom. “It’s an odd thing about humans. They’re surprising. I once heard a well-known, human author declare that no one cares about the man on the bus or the woman in the grocery store. But he was wrong. That’s where I first noticed Anne—in the grocery store. She was with her mother, and though she was only seven, she actually helped. Unlike most children, she knew how to keep to the designated list. Her mother was ill, a frightened woman, terribly frightened. Margaret—that was her name—she saw danger everywhere. She once told Anne that when they drove up a hill, the other side might not be there. Anne learned to cope with fear early on. I could see her strength—even then.”

Stepping over to the trashcan, Viridian pointed inside. “She was afraid today. She was afraid when she thought that she might be pregnant.”

“No, that’s where you’re wrong. You must be more careful. Don’t leap to conclusions. You must not only look at the actions but the motivations.” Cerulean’s eyes darted to the wedding picture on the wall as he moved back into the bedroom. “Why did Anne act as she did? She was not frightened that she might be pregnant; she was frightened when she realized that she wanted to be pregnant. And well she might be.”

Viridian sneered, one eyebrow rising. “Why?”

Pursing his lips, Cerulean strode to the window. A sharp pang of disappointment disturbed his usual equilibrium. With forced detachment, he pointed at the sky. “We can come and go. We know there are more worlds than our own. We’ve been observing various races from time out of mind. But she,” Cerulean turned back to the picture of Anne and Philip on the dresser, “she knows nothing about us, or our kind, or that the human race is not alone. She both fears and craves intimacy, the kind of intimacy motherhood would demand. Humans are often blinded by fear. I have observed for a full year every decade. This is the third time I’ve met Anne, but I never know when it will be the last.”

Viridian bit his lip.

Cerulean patted his son on the shoulder as a brief flicker of hope welled up inside. “It’s time to go. Anne will be at school, and our job is to observe. Let’s see what she’s up to now.” He started forward, but his son stood silent, unmoving. Cerulean heaved a heavy sigh and stopped. “What?”

“How long will we watch them? I mean; will I have to do this my whole life?”

Cerulean tried not to let the question hurt too much. “I don’t know. The human race won’t last forever.”

Gazing up at the sky, Viridian stepped to the window. “Is it a punishment? Their not lasting very long?”

A cloud covered the sun, plunging the room into shadows. “Remember, we don’t judge. We observe. Funny, though. Humans believe their end will come with fire and storm, war and pestilence. But not necessarily. Their end might come slowly, quietly, like a sunset with no sunrise.”

Viridian sucked in his breath and glared at his father. “Should we warn them? What’s the point of observing them if they’re just going to die anyway?”

“That’s not for us to decide. We observe to learn. Eventually, humans will understand their place in the universe, and we’ll watch until they do.”

With one last look around the silent room, Cerulean raised his hand in command. “Let’s go.” He stepped forward.

Viridian hesitated an instant.

With a brief flicker of intense light, they both disappeared.

***

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction Novels

Melchior—Vengeance Is Minehttp://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

What Makes Heroes So Heroic?

Ring, Gold, Middle Earth, Golden Ring

All heroes struggle, but it is their very struggle to overcome their weaker selves that their true heroism is born.

Heroes believe in something beyond themselves and their belief leads to conviction and conviction draws them into action.

Heroes keep faith with faith.

Heroes are capable of deep, enduring love.

Heroes offer and receive spiritual gifts.

Heroes pay a price for their choices.

Tolkien loved and wrote about heroes.  In the process—he became one.

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

Book Review: Ad Limina: a Novella of Catholics in Space

Ad LiminaAd Limina is an excellent book with a very plausible plot. I found myself drawn into a world I have never seen before and could never have imagined in my wildest dreams.

Mr. Jones-Kellett created a very visual setting far in the future where the main character, Bishop Mark Gastelum, has grown up all his life on Mars and as bishop finds that he must return to Earth for the first time for a meeting with the Pope. On the way back to earth he visits other stations and finds his transport ship kidnapped. There are various factions fighting for control of humanity and insisting that they have the best vision for the future. Very significant questions in today’s world! The entire book moves along swiftly with mystery, adventure, and a dose of serious speculation thrown in for good measure.

The story never preaches but silently asks the question, “What if…” I’m going to use this book as a read-aloud for my family so we can discuss the implications of some of the points Mr. Jones-Kellett brings up.

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

Passport A Novel

Passport

A Stunningly Honest Look at Human Relationships

Passport by Christopher Blunt a great book that delves deep into intimate relationships between people—not just romantic relationships but the relationship between brothers & sisters, parents and children, friendships, and acquaintances. This is one of the most honest reflections of romantic love I have ever read. Mr. Blunt does an excellent job of sharing relationship struggles from a man’s point of view. Morality and sexuality, passion and love, all brought together under the guidance of the greatest relationship humanity has ever known—our relationship with the God who made us.

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