Battle of Wills

“You could do something about this.”  Cadwalader’s eyes flashed as they shot to Malach.

The boy’s dissentient nature had surfaced over the last few months, a trait Malach noticed was common among seven year olds.  They stood together at the far edge of a wheat field bordering a village of rock huts and swarming with agitated people.

“You know I cannot reveal my true identity.”

Malach remained still, which allowed him to hide in plain sight.  Any who glanced in his direction perceived the illusion of a boulder or sheared tree trunk.  But the villagers before him weren’t curious about a lad lingering beside a landmark that didn’t exist earlier.  And the Roman soldiers were only interested in their booty.

Earlier today he’d brought Cadwalader here to investigate what other trades the boy might decide to learn beyond the art of war.  The village, although poor, abounded with talented craftsmen.  But shortly after their arrival, where they were viewed as an old man and grandson travelling together, he learned why they were impoverished.

Today was tribute day, when the local centurion arrived with troops to pillage their goods in exchange for protection … more so from the soldiers themselves than roving bandits.  Not content enough with larder and weapons and tools, the commander also claimed a young woman, barely more than a girl, to haul away with them.

“You said evil wins when good does nothing.”  Cadwalader thrust a hand toward the debacle.  “It is winning now.”

The boy had already grumbled about the pilfering of materials.  But the sight of the lass, weeping and pleading, being dragged away from parents who were beaten back by sword-wielding soldiers, made his protestations more insistent.

 “I never claimed to be good.”

“Nor are you evil.”  The boy’s gaze locked on his face even though it was partially concealed by the shadow of the hood over Malach’s head.  “At least I didn’t think so.”

The lad knew him better than any other mere human on this earth, and yet still knew so little.

“If I engage those troops, my identity will be exposed.  That will place both of us in grave danger.”

“Are you a coward?”

That question was a challenge, but Malach was too many centuries old to be ruffled by it, even though he had spent only the last couple of decades trying to lead a different life.

“Unless you can provide an alternative, we must allow these events to unfold.”

Cadwalader stared at him for a few seconds.  Then he turned on his heel and darted into the wheat field.

Well … Malach didn’t expect that.  Adults usually proved to be predictable, fitting within dozens of personality traits that could be exploited.  But children with psyches still developing could sometimes be confounding …  at least, this one did.

Before he took on the responsibility of rearing the lad over four years ago, decisions had been easy.  But then events unfolded that sent him into unfamiliar territory, literally and figuratively.  Cadwalader added another layer of complications.  The boy’s flight was to something, not away from it, and Malach might have to intervene … if he chose to do so.

The child understood he was too small to take on a troop of soldiers, but just what did he believe he was capable of accomplishing?  Malach had taught him to be self-sufficient – sometimes inadvertently – but the boy’s judgment was still questionable.

More than the parents tried to step in for the girl, some even peacefully, but all were struck and kicked and berated.  She was slapped around for resisting the centurion binding her wrists together with the end of a rope.

Movement around the Romans’ steeds drew his gaze from the center of attention.  There was no mistaking Cadwalader’s lithe form as he ducked from horse to horse, hesitating at each just long enough to slip something beneath the blankets, directly below the saddles.

Ah … the lad might actually be up to something clever.

He’d started at the rear of the ranks, where a soldier standing guard beside the commander’s charger didn’t notice him.  But the boy drew closer to the horses up front as the commotion began to settle.  He was in the midst of pushing something beneath the blanket when the guard glanced back in his direction – and sprang toward him.

“Hold it!” The invader barked in Latin, probably figuring his tone could be understood in any language.

He might as well have hollered Run for it in Cymraeg.  Cadwalader darted away like a hare flushed from its briar, the guard lunging after him with the enthusiasm of any baying hound.  A couple of the mounts spooked as the boy dashed beneath their bellies to evade him, but the Roman cut him off before he reached the adjoining edge of the wheat field.

He grabbed Cadwalader’s wrist and jerked the boy to one side.  Malach twitched as the lad bit back a bleat of pain.

The Roman smacked the child’s right cheek with the back of his hand.

Malach’s hand slid to the grip of the sword concealed beneath his cloak.

Cadwalader crooked his arm to the side and twisted it free, an escape maneuver Malach taught soon after he took in the child.  The Roman managed to cuff him as he darted for the wheat again, but this time allowed his escape because the centurion ordered it.  They were ready to leave.

The guard returned to the horse where he’d spotted the boy, and investigated the fittings of the saddle as his comrades returned with their booty.  He must not have seen where Cadwalader’s hand had actually been, and returned to his own mount at the front.

During that time the commander fastened the other end of the rope to one of the front pommels on the saddle.  The girl, still weeping, pulled against it.  Her parents, and other youngsters who must be siblings, held out their hands and wailed back to her.  The centurion yanked on the rope, throwing her off balance, and then barked to the soldiers to mount.

Although nothing more than bandits in metal and leather, this troop of Roman soldiers swung up on their steeds in unison.  After all, it would show off how superior they were.

The chargers’ reactions were not so synchronous, but each horse’s revolt erupted like bubbles breaking the water’s surface as it began to boil.  The more seasoned mounts crab-stepped and reared, but the greener horses bucked and more than a few squealed.  In a matter of seconds most of the troop was in disarray, and soldiers either dismounted or were thrown as the centurion hollered at them.

In those few seconds, Cadwalader darted from the wheat and through flailing hooves.  With the centurion distracted by the fiasco, the boy pulled a knife from his belt and slashed the rope near the girl’s hands.  He grabbed one of her arms and they scrambled back into the wheat.

The corners of Malach’s mouth twitched.  The lad was proving to be quite resourceful even if he was still foolhardy.  Humanity had been promised that thistles would grow among their crops….

He removed his hand from the sword and shifted in his stance.

That was enough movement to break the illusion, and the centurion must have glanced toward his direction at that instant.

“You there!” he barked in Latin, and spurred his horse toward Malach.

In no mood to be either trampled or beheaded, Malach released a long exhale as he drew his sword.  Despite his appearance as an old man to these people, they would still believe he maintained proficiency with a blade.  He wouldn’t have to cut down the commander—

The Roman turned his steed to the side mere paces from Malach.  As it halted, his gaze locked on Malach’s face, or at least what he’d be able to see of it….

There was no mistaking the recognition that rippled through the man’s expression.

A chill coursed through Malach.  How?  There could be only one way the Roman would know what he was.

Hoping he was wrong, Malach pushed his consciousness into the mind of the commander.  He entered easily, and that fact confirmed his suspicion.

Only those who consorted with beings like him, who in their lust for power allowed such creatures to break into their innermost faculties, were forever consigned to have their thoughts invaded by pure will.

And in those few seconds of access to the centurion’s mind, Malach learned the name of the other being this Roman was in league with.

The name meant nothing to him.  Like him, this other he had been aware of was also wandering these lands, and could also be going by a more native moniker.  Unlike him, this one was sticking to their original purpose.  This one wandered among humanity and encouraged them to destroy each other … until there would be nothing left of the race.

Thus far Malach had maintained his secrecy, and this other knew nothing of his presence.  But this commander would most likely tell that being how another like him roved in these mountains.

There was no immediate danger … but if this other realized that Malach had strayed from the original purpose – the proof lay in the fact he had taken on the care of an orphan – then he might decide Malach … and Cadwalader … needed to be destroyed.

So much for keeping his true identity concealed.

The centurion grumbled something that Malach didn’t catch, and urged his steed to gallop back to the soldiers.  Killing the Roman wouldn’t solve his dilemma.  He’d have to slaughter all the troops … and the villagers … to keep rumor from spreading about a pwca, as the local tribes would call him, who travelled with a boy.

The thorny thistles discovered beneath the blankets were promptly discarded, although the soldiers seemed disappointed their commander ordered them to ride out instead of wreaking further havoc on the village.  The Roman knew they stood little chance against Malach….

No sooner were the troops gone from sight than the girl, her hands unbound, sprinted from the wheat and to her family.  With shouts of praise to their gods, they embraced her tightly and kissed her about the head.

And then Cadwalader stepped out from where he’d ducked into the field originally.

“Reckless idea.”  Malach turned to face him, and the red mark on the boy’s right cheek annoyed him more than he would have anticipated.  “But also effective.”

“She is back with her family.  That is what matters.”  Count on an orphan to make such an observation.  “I was surprised they did not come looking for us, however.”

There was no need to tell the lad about his discovery, at least not yet.

“They decided she was not worth the effort.”

“We should help them learn to fight.  We should help them end this tribute.”

Such lofty aspirations for a boy so young … what awaited him when he would actually be capable of trying to attain such goals?

Malach placed a hand on Cadwalader’s shoulder.  “First, you need to learn a craft.”

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So that was this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and this time the prompt word was Tribute.  Be sure you don’t miss out on the other stories that get submitted!

Resolution

War reeked.  As Malach surveyed the broken bodies, the scattered implements, and the ruined huts still smoldering from the attack waged earlier that day, the stench of their remains assaulted his nostrils.

It was an odor that once stirred his blood, but now only gave him pause for contemplation.  There was no mistaking the earmarks of abject evil.  Whatever transgression this village had committed, it was unlikely there had been any real need to slaughter men, women, and children alike, leaving no one to tend to the dead.

And then he heard a moan on the wind.

A mere human ear could have missed it.  But his acute senses caught the small, still voice that trembled from an unknown depth.  The enemy had overlooked one of their quarry.  Malach tilted his head, straining the catch the whimper again and track where it seeped from.

Only the odious breeze remained.  As he listened, he debated why he should even bother seeking the survivor.  He was only travelling through this region and encountered this soiled battlefield by chance.  The injured person was probably reaching the throes of death anyway.  And since death awaited everybody, why should he attempt to delay its claim on another possession?

No, that was his old way of thinking….

He tilted his head in the other direction and concentrated on his memory of the whine.  It must have come from upwind.  Keeping the breeze in his face, he stepped, slowly and quietly, deeper into the morass of destruction.

He hesitated at the edge of one of the smoldering huts and listened more keenly.  Yes, there it was, something other than the feeble hiss of steam that resulted from heat overcoming moisture.  In a corner of the collapsed, blackened debris, a couple of charred poles crossed over a rumpled hump. Toward one end, a broken spear jutted out at a steep angle.

Malach hesitated.  The leather gloves he wore offered protection from the charred ruins, and he’d sworn to refrain from resorting to his craft as a convenience.  But making contact with the corruption before him proved loathsome.

This wasn’t just convenience, it was an act of kindness … wasn’t it?

He concentrated on the heap of debris, squinting even though he didn’t need to.  The poles shifted away from the lump and toward him.  He sensed fragmented coverings, perhaps blankets, over the heap.  With a thought, he ripped the pieces to one side.

The corpse was no surprise, although it was badly burned, and the spear in its lower midriff demanded a dram more resolution to roll it to its side.  Only then could he identify it as a woman.

Two small bodies, one larger than the other, dribbled out from underneath her chest.

Both were filthy, but the larger child, maybe three years old, gasped and coughed and twitched.  The other, an infant, made no more movement whatsoever.

Malach stared at the toddler.  Now what?  He’d rescued it from being smothered like its sibling, although it seemed miraculous the smoke hadn’t snuffed its life.

Miraculous….

He was rarely involved in miracles.  Over the centuries he’d been their detractor, using his power to overturn them in his defiance of providence.  And what sense was there to them, anyway?  Why should this one small waif be the only survivor in a demolished village?  What made this child’s life more precious than anybody else’s?

Why was he the one to discover it…?

The urchin released a raspy squeal when it finally noticed him.  It appeared to be a boy, and scrambled toward the mother’s remains, clasping the limp infant on the way.  With eyes wide and glazed and mouth agape, he squatted near the parental shell and awkwardly clutched the sibling.

Malach studied him for a few seconds.  There was no denying the child’s terror, and yet … there was something defiant in his attitude, in the way he grasped the lost baby as though he could still save it….

This boy possessed a different kind of fight.

Malach kneeled to make himself less imposing.  He pulled back the hood of his cloak so the toddler could see his face.  It was his experience children could be less intimidated than adults upon discovering a creature of myth like him.  Sometimes they were even entranced by his slit pupils and how his brown irises appeared to swirl.

“Do not fear.”  Malach spoke in Cymraeg, the prevailing language of this land.  “I have not come to harm you.”

The boy’s gaze remained locked on his face, and an odd squeak lurched from him.

Malach reached beneath his cloak and grasped a bota of water, shrugging off its strap from his shoulders.  He leaned forward as he stretched his arm over the charred debris to offer the water skin.

“Have a drink.”

The boy’s gaze darted back and forth between his face and the bota.  The care he took letting go of the infant contrasted with the clumsy way he clutched it earlier.  But then he snatched the water skin with near ferocity.  In like fashion he unplugged it and chugged the contents, causing the leather sides to cave in.

 What might he be getting himself into?  Until relatively recently in his long past, Malach wouldn’t have found himself pondering what to do about this urchin.  He would have left it to its ultimate fate, or perhaps torment it briefly as a means of amusement.

The boy gagged and choked, spilling a trickle of water as he raised the bota.  After a short fit of coughing, he latched back on the skin, but this time wasn’t so frantic in drinking.

Malach scanned the devastation again.  He knew that others like him had already journeyed to this land.  And men were eagerly corrupted.  A mere nudge encouraged them to embrace their darkest fantasies.

One of his own kith had encouraged some men to desolate this village.

The plan had once seemed flawless to him:  Get humanity to destroy itself.  Yet over the millennia, despite hordes reveling in abusing their own, individuals joined together to thwart the destruction his kind sought.  It was as though there was a plan greater than what creatures like him could concoct….

Accepting that truth set him on unfamiliar ground in more ways than one.

Malach’s attention returned to the mother, to the woman who died with the hope her children would live.  Unlike all the other mothers who perished with that same hope, one of her offspring did survive….

….the son who, like her, tried to protect when all seemed lost.

Maybe this boy’s life was more precious.  Maybe he was part of a greater plan.

But why should this child wind up stuck with the likes of Malach?  Perhaps he should try to locate someone more qualified to teach this boy how to capitalize on that trait.

The toddler lowered the bota, coughing and sputtering a bit as he did.  His gaze, this time with slightly squinted eyes, locked on Malach’s face again.

“Who you?”  His voice creaked like a limb on a massive tree standing against a gale.

Malach decided to use the name he assumed upon entering these lands, a native nomenclature that would help him blend in.  “I am Myrddin.  And what is your name?”

The child stared for several seconds before finally squeaking out, “Cadwalader.”

Malach nodded.  “We should leave this place, Cadwalader.”

The boy’s eyes widened again.  Clutching the bota near his chest, he studied the body of his sibling lying beside him.  He glanced back at his mother.  When his attention returned to Malach, his lips trembled and his voice cracked.

“Why?”

Malach had no answer for all the dimensions that question could address, at least not here and not now.  If time allowed, the boy could explore them more fully when he was older.  He had survived fire, he had survived water … odds were he could survive everything in between.

Malach reached out again and clasped both the bota and Cadwalader’s hand.  The child cringed, but made no effort to pull away.  He gave the only answer he could offer for the present.

“We have a journey to undertake.”

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So here is my contribution for this month’s #BlogBattle, and the prompt word this round was Myth.  Don’t miss out on how the other stories tackle a rich word like that!

Hootenanny

“It is silent and deadly.”

“I’m glad you used the conjunction and.”  Rhys peered into the inky darkness of the cavernous arena before them.  “It’s those silent but deadly attacks that give me cause for alarm.”

The examiner, a willowy woman whose white hair was more pronounced than the lines in her face, narrowed her eyes.  “Mr. Cadwalader, your irreverent levity contributes nothing toward this assessment of your capability.”

Every time she addressed him by his surname, he suspected Val was on the cusp of striking him from the Tracker program.  Although he saw nothing wrong with a little jocularity to ease any tension, Rhys figured he’d better remove any and all complaints she might use against him.  He was, after all, not a typical candidate, which was why she scrutinized him so closely.

“My apologies.”

Her brow remained furrowed.  “The Owl may seem a mundane descriptor for this simulation, but two-thirds of the applicants fail to neutralize their quarry on the first trial.  And remember, despite your … proclivity, you must rely on the techniques that were outlined in the introduction.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Absolutely.”  Truth be told, he was hanging on her every word.  He was about to enter a test that would challenge his prowess, but even with his physical advantage, anybody with an IQ higher than a rooster that got hit in the head understood knowledge was the real key to overcoming an opponent.

The fact Val reminded him to stick to the techniques did cause him to wonder if she wasn’t as eager to eject him from the program as she usually appeared.  Maybe his quips amused her more than she wanted to admit….

“Then you may proceed.”

That was all the clues she was going to give him?  As unwilling to divulge his agitation as much as she might be to admitting amusement, Rhys responded with a smirk and a shrug.

Ball pistol in hand, but loaded with digital blanks, he took one step into the ancient chamber.  With peripheral vision, he noticed she already started jotting notes on her modern, technological clipboard.

Or maybe she was manipulating the Owl.

 He took another step into the cool yet dry sub terrane.  Dug out millennia ago with hand tools and lined with stone throughout, this vault had been witness to countless training sessions.  It also adapted readily to advances in technology, so was currently outfitted with holographic projectors hidden within the chiseled columns supporting the arched ceiling.

The Owl was only a simulation, so it was guaranteed to strike as silently as Val claimed, but its lethalness was confined to the readouts fed back to her clipboard.  Still, only a third of the Tracker candidates succeeded at their objective on the first attempt, and Rhys was determined to number among them.  After all, he should be very good at this.

He skulked to the nearest column and peered deeper into the chamber.  Sparse flickers of light, the only illumination, teased his imagination with the image of some snickering sprite hurling a swarm of fireflies into this lair to taunt its hunter.

Except the only sprite here represented an abomination, a technological rendering of the result when corrupted flesh bound itself to a beast—

The blow across his shoulder blades sent Rhys somersaulting to the neighboring column.  Part of his response had been evasive maneuver, but this mere simulation legitimately struck him with enough force to shove him forward.

He righted himself at a crouch, this time shoving his back against the lithoid pillar.

No Owl loomed before him.  And this was no time to kick himself for allowing his guard to drop.  That whack had probably been delivered to remind him of exactly that.  If there was any trait abominations and examiners shared, it was tormenting their subjects….

Heck, yeah, this thing was silent, and Rhys remembered his rudimental lucidity, usually triggered by someone’s approach, was incapable of alerting him to a non-living simulation.  He was as “blind” as any other man to its approach … and maybe that had something to do with Val’s instruction to rely on the techniques—

It whirled from behind the column he crouched against.  From the corner of his right eye, he caught a flash of rainbow colors swirling together.

Rhys ducked and rolled to the next support, and heard a whump against the pillar where he’d just been.

These columns offered little protection.  He sprang to his feet and performed a whirling routine of his own as he fired ball blanks into the darkness.  When he hit the closest wall, he pressed his back against it and surveyed the arena.

Exactly what beastie had the trainers created for this little exercise?  Despite his in-depth knowledge of the Nephilim, he didn’t recognize it.  But there was one trait these creatures all had in common, and that was a weakness specific to their kin.

Like fending off a vampire with a crucifix or felling a werewolf with a silver bullet, this Owl had to be susceptible to something—

It unfurled from behind the pillar nearest him.  In two seconds that felt more like two minutes, the beast reared before him, suspended for an instant in its full glory.  In an intimidating way, it was one of the most beautiful things he’d seen.  What first appeared to be multicolored feathers were in reality spiky scales.  It didn’t just pummel.  It could slice.

And could do so silently….

Most other quarry would have frozen at the spectacle, but Rhys leaped aside as he squeezed off another shot.  The Owl’s wings swooped toward him, but struck the wall at the level of his neck.  Another whump was the only noise it generated.

It silently swung toward him as he backed away at a quick clip.

Silence … of course!  The Owl had to be susceptible to noise.  But it would have to be a considerable clamor, or the screams of its victims would be a disadvantage to it—

It lunged toward him, talons and wings outstretched.

Rhys hurtled to the next column.  With his free hand he wrested a digital pad from his belt.  With pure muscle memory his fingers tapped against the keypad and screen.

The Owl swerved and brushed past him as he ducked around the column.  He was pretty sure that pass scored some more injury points for his opponent.

It twisted around and lunged again as he sprang back – but thrust the pad before him.

The cacophony of bagpipes that erupted from the pad was jolting enough, but the fife and drum accompanying them underscored the formidable acoustics of this chamber.

If the Owl screeched, it was drowned out by Scotland the Brave.  It did halt its advance, but began twisting and contorting in a macabre dance, as though thrown into a vat of acid.  It remained suspended, its method of flight not dependent on the aerodynamics of lift.

Rhys took no chances.  He fired digital blanks into its head, chest, and belly.

One or all of those balls made it finally crumple to the floor.  For a couple more seconds he watched its form, confirmed it wouldn’t rise again, and turned off the music player on his pad.  Silence didn’t entirely reestablish itself, however.  There was a slight ringing in his ears.

With a final glance at the Owl, he strode back where he’d left Val.  She hadn’t moved, except this time she was poking at her right ear with her pinky, and her left eye was squinted.

Rhys grinned as he approached.  “I’d say I passed that trial with flying colors!”

She opened her eye to look at him.  “What?”

Repeating the jest would only sap the life from it, so he stood directly in front of her before speaking about the next topic.  “That Owl isn’t real, is it?”

Val’s gaze remained locked on his, and she spoke slowly and distinctly.  “It is a simulation.”

Sometimes he wondered if she really did have a sense of humor, it was just extremely dry.  “The lot of you made up something I wouldn’t recognize, didn’t you?  You purposefully tailored the trial to be more challenging for me.”

“Considering your heritage, working as a Tracker will be more challenging for you.”

She had a point.  It was the same point that hounded him ever since he declared he wanted to be a Tracker.  But did it really make sense to challenge him with trials that directly confronted his … proclivities?

“I still call it cheating in reverse.”

Her gaze locked with his again.  “Nephilim will always cheat.”

He returned the stare.  Val never wavered, her demeanor cool and steely.  During the prime of her life, before he was born, she had waged battles against creatures like the Owl … and others like him.  She had every reason to doubt his sincerity….

His response was not a challenge, but an assertion.  “There are those who were known to play fair.”

Her expression didn’t change for the first few seconds.  And then one corner of her mouth curved upward.

“Which is why you must learn how to cheat.”

Wow, that was the most encouraging thing she’d ever said to him.  “One thing’s sure, if you keep the training this hard for my benefit, actually working in the field will seem easy.”

Her smile deepened.  “And that, son of Cadwalader, is the wisest observation you’ve made in weeks.”

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Here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the prompt word this round was a bit challenging, if I do say so myself:  Owl.  That’s owl, not ow, although that was my first response when I tried to figure out what to do with it….

So be sure to check out the other submissions, and see how creative the other writers got!