Stone Altar

“I still don’t understand why destroying the egg is primary over killing the beast.”  Cadwalader glanced at his companion’s back as they trudged up scattered rocks and boulders that kept their progress to single file.

Since the two of them were alone, Malach wasn’t wearing his usual gloves or hooded cloak.  His tunic and trousers were much like Cadwalader’s, as was the sword sheathed in its scabbard.

“Understanding is not necessary for your task,” Malach replied.

Cadwalader frowned.  Despite living under Malach’s care for over fifteen years of his life, ever since he was a toddler, his companion’s reticence in sharing information always stymied him.  Yes, Malach held to the belief that experience was a more effective teacher than words, but sometimes Cadwalader would like to have more warning … especially when their quarry was a gwiber and its egg.

Except for some reason the egg was considered more a target than the serpent-like beast.  He was familiar with stories of such monsters, but having never seen one, considered their existence might be made-up … even though he kept company with Malach, another otherworldly being.

Interestingly, this gwiber had a name.  “Does Carrog have a weak spot?”

Malach halted and raised one hand, index finger up.  The nails on those fingers were more like claws – short, but still thick and pointed.

They’d reached a cleft in the towering rocks ahead, partially obscured by ferns and lichen growing on the mountaintop.  Malach turned halfway toward Cadwalader as he lowered his hand.

“Aim for his strength.”  At least Malach was going to answer his latest question, sort of.  “Keep your sword down, but if his throat swells, slice it.”

The pit of his stomach trembled.  “What will you do?”

“I will be engaged in slowing his advance, which requires my full concentration.  Also, if he decides to speak Cymraeg, expect deception.  Remember he is a liar.  And the most credible lies grow from a kernel of truth.”

Malach stepped into the crevice before Cadwalader could utter another question.

He followed his mentor, and within a few strides through a tunnel of stones, stepped into an opening of monolithic rocks angled toward the cloudy sky overhead.  Smaller stones littered the ground that was bare of any plant life.  The rocks congregated into a low mound, no higher than his knees, and cradled a mottled egg that would fill a bushel basket.

Malach motioned for Cadwalader to halt.  Nerves taut, he obeyed, and his mentor drew his sword and strode toward the nest.

A whirring rattle, like leather-strap ties humming in a gale, announced the arrival of the beast that soared over the far boulder.  Head like a fearsome lizard; neck long and muscular like a horse; smooth, green wings stretching from a muscular torso; and a thick, spiked tail contributed to its vague appearance of a hairless bat.

Still in the air, and well out of range of Malach’s sword, its throat swelled.  A blast of fire shot from its mouth and upon Malach, engulfing him in swirling flame.

The heat brushed Cadwalader even as he shuffled back, his heart skipping a beat.  Had he not known of Malach’s abilities, he would have surrendered to his urge to flee.

The fire flickered from existence, and Malach, standing with free hand spread open before his face, took one step back.  The gwiber known as Carrog alighted on the craggy nest.  It rested both front … feet … or knuckles … on either side of the egg and folded its wings against its ribs.

It pressed forward, but so did Malach, hand still outstretched, as he closed the gap between them to only a couple of paces.  The creature strained as though attempting to push through the wall of a hut.  But Malach’s ability to maintain an invisible force prevailed, and Carrog stopped lunging.

Cadwalader hoped neither noticed how his legs trembled as he stepped to his companion’s side and drew his own sword.  His attention locked on Carrog’s throat as he aimed the point of his weapon toward the ground.

The gwiber spoke.  It was a guttural, rough language that Cadwalader couldn’t understand.  And Malach replied in a similar manner, only not so gruff, as he lowered his outstretched hand to his chest.

For several minutes they conversed, and nothing in the tone of either suggested there was any friendly aspect in their discussion.  This was surely when Malach was trying to negotiate sparing Carrog’s life if the gwiber wouldn’t try to kill them for destroying the egg.

Cadwalader contemplated the events that brought them here while he waited for the outcome of this conversation.  Malach had learned another being like him roamed these lands.  But this one was trying to hatch a scheme bent on the destruction of Cadwalader’s people.  This Other had discovered Carrog, and encouraged it to join the devastation.

Apparently this plot involved procreating first.  And since there were no females among these otherworldly beings, Carrog had to fly to some distant land, accost a female serpent of enormous size, and bring back the egg that would have split her open as she had laid it.

A rumble that could only be a growl rolled from the monster as it glared at Malach.  Then its attention shifted to Cadwalader, and it spoke in Cymraeg.

“You agree to this?”

What did that question mean?  Cadwalader shot a very quick glance at his companion, but he didn’t want to remove his gaze from the creature’s throat for too long.  Malach’s focus remained on Carrog, offering no revelation.

His attention returned to the gwiber’s neck.  “I am willing to spare your life in exchange for the egg’s destruction.”

A different rumble escaped from Carrog, a deep staccato that was oddly familiar.  Was the gwiber laughing?

But its eyes, with the same swirling irises as Malach’s, still simmered with contempt.  “Is that all this deceiver told you?”

These questions weren’t getting any easier, so he might as well try to verbally parry with one of his own.  “What concern is it to you?”

“The concern is entirely yours.  You did not know you were supposed to sacrifice yourself as part of the bargain, did you?”

Cadwalader’s breath grew thin, but he dared not try to glance at his companion again.  Malach wouldn’t have saved his life all those years ago only to betray him now….

“You lie.”

“Do I?”  That eerie laughter rumbled from him again.  “Has he told you why he is willing to spare my life?”

His stomach tightened.  “Not yet.”

“Then allow me to illuminate you.  He cannot destroy me.  Thus he cannot destroy the egg unless I permit it.  In his grand delusion that he has turned to a lighted path, he has made a bargain with me.  Because he believes stopping Forcas’s agenda is the greater good, he offers me your life in exchange for the egg.”

Was Forcas the actual name of the Other?  But the matter of an exchange was more pressing for the moment, even though it was easy to discredit that claim … at least for the moment.

“Why would my life be considered a fair trade?”

Another ghoulish chuckle sent a chill racing down his back.  Carrog tilted its head to one side, and its lips drew back, revealing teeth like rusty daggers.

“Has the deceiver denied anything I said?”

Cadwalader risked another glance at Malach, who remained focused on the gwiber, the veins and tendons in the back of his hand more pronounced.  He’d said he would need all his concentration to keep this beast at bay.

His companion was always evasive about his past.  Cadwalader knew Malach had been devoted to the destruction of mankind long ago.  But for a reason he didn’t know, Malach had turned.

But had he turned less than Cadwalader assumed?  How much gray lay between darkness and light?  Would Malach really offer him as sacrifice because that was a lesser evil than allowing the Other’s plot to come to fruition?

These two did share a dark and distant kindred, and that was becoming more obvious.  They had the same swirling irises, similar claws, and sharp teeth.  One was called liar, the other deceiver….

Carrog raised its head and tried to lean closer to Cadwalader.  “Abandon this deceiver, for he has abandoned you.  If you believe he has trained you to resist Forcas, then flee to that fate.  We will meet again on the battlefield where you shall die … or you can simply flee, and live.”

And … was his life worth giving if he knew it would contribute to a greater good?  But he didn’t know….

“Determine for yourself what is truth for you.”  Carrog’s throat began swelling.

No more time for contemplation –

Cadwalader lunged forward and swept his sword beneath the beast’s jaws.  The blade ripped open skin and flesh, and a putrid rush of air, reeking like rotten egg, rolled over him as Carrog screeched.  He gagged and threw one arm over his nose and mouth, but stood ready to strike again with the other.

Carrog screeched once more.  It flapped back up into the air, and in the previous language snarled something to Malach.  Then it twisted as it turned away and soared back over the far boulder.

Cadwalader coughed as he tried to fan away the stench.  He turned to face Malach, who lowered his hand slowly as he gazed after the gwiber.

“I presume parts of its claim were true?” Cadwalader sputtered.

Malach glanced at him before returning his attention to the sky.  “Almost everything except sacrificing you to bring about a greater good.”

“You did not offer my life?”

“No, although Carrog wanted it.  I told him you were faithful.”  Malach’s gaze slid back to him.  “That if he didn’t surrender the egg, I could destroy him while you were at my side.”

Cadwalader stared at him.  “That still made me a target.”

“Because I held him back, he could only attack with fire.  You denied him that power by cutting his throat.  Then he believed both of us could defeat him, and his own life was more dear to him than this egg.”

He was finally able to start following Malach’s plan, but it still exhibited a major flaw.  “You could not tell me that before this encounter?  I actually questioned your motive.”

“Your fealty had to be proven.  If Carrog deduced you anticipated his challenge, he would have stood his ground to fight.  Together we are capable of defeating him, but he could still destroy either or both of us.”

Despite Cadwalader’s experience with unnatural creatures, they remained difficult to comprehend.  “Why would my loyalty to you make any difference?”

“My kind understand faithfulness, but do not embrace it.  We are too proud.  That is why we stir rebellion in mankind, to keep you from uniting in truth.  For if you ever did so, that is when our fall will be complete.  This is why Carrog fears your loyalty.”

He stared at his companion.  “You know you took a chance by counting on my fealty?”

Malach’s gaze softened … at least, that’s what it looked like.  Cadwalader questioned what he was seeing.  In his over fifteen years with this being, Malach had always been attentive yet aloof.  Something … that drew upon a connection to humanity … reflected in those enigmatic eyes.

“You underestimate the faith I have in you.”

Also not entirely like Malach … was his time living among mankind beginning to bring out more tender qualities?  “Yet you turned from your path before it crossed with mine.  Why?”

Malach’s attention returned to the egg as he raised his sword again.  “I learned atonement was possible for my kind, but only through the humanity we despise.  Let us finish the job.”

Cadwalader followed his companion’s lead in hacking open the hard shell, but his thoughts kept returning to Malach’s words.  How could mere men, wicked themselves, provide any means for atonement?

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So here is my submission for #BlogBattle, and the word this month is Hatch.  Don’t miss out on all the other great stories!

Peering into the Abyss

“Can one person change the world?”  Cadwalader recognized Malach’s instructive tone as his steward looked up from the sword he was cleaning.

“No, of course not.”

The keening of women now replaced the howl of warriors as gloom settled over the meadow.  Their lamentations clutched his soul.

Earlier today a battle raged here.  Cadwalader kicked a small stone unfortunate enough to be near his foot.  It tumbled haphazardly over the matted grass until it clunked against a bronze torque.

He snatched the neck collar and slipped it into the leather bag hanging from his shoulder.  Clearing the meadow of implements overlooked while removing the bodies offered no distraction from his grief.  They reminded him of the fallen, and especially of a lad his age slain nearer the village.  He turned back to his companion.

Malach, seated upon a boulder, had pushed the hood of the cape he wore off his head.  That was unusual, considering a few villagers still milled about.  With hood up and gloves on, the pooka passed as human.  Perhaps the growing darkness and thickening mist convinced him nobody would notice his slit pupils encompassed by swirling irises.

“Why do you even ask?”  Cadwalader suspected an ulterior motive.  This being, who had taken him in as a toddler a decade ago, did not engage in small talk.

Nor was he forthcoming with condolence….

“Your friend.”  Malach focused on the stained rag he used to scrub the blade near the hilt.  “He was young enough to take shelter, but chose to stand and fight.”

Cadwalader’s stomach churned.  “That was my fault.”

“Did you place a sword in his hand?  Did you push him into the fray?”

“He might have taken shelter if … if we had not filled his head with vanity.”

Malach glanced up.  “We?”

Heat surged through his veins, dislodging some of the bleakness.  Cadwalader clenched his fists and frowned.

“Yes, we.”  Sharing the blame might offer some respite.  “Llyr was intrigued by the techniques you taught me.  He believed his skill was sufficient to secure his safety.”

Malach stopped scrubbing, and this time his gaze settled on Cadwalader’s face.  “He was an excellent sparring partner for you.”

“He was my friend!”  Numbness fled the advance of rage.  “I have so few, with the way you haul me back and forth across different regions.  Is that what you want?  Do you try to keep me from developing bonds with my own kind?”

His attention shifted to Malach’s chin, thickly bearded but trimmed short.  Gazing at those otherworldly eyes for too long proved disorienting.

“You know why we cannot settle too long in one place.”  As usual his demeanor remained detached.

“Because of the other one like you?”  Cadwalader swung one hand toward the desolate meadow.  “The Other had nothing to do with this attack.  This is the work of a rival tribe instead of the Romans.”

That was why the pooka bothered to participate in this conflict.  Local raiders didn’t threaten the same predicament deployed soldiers did.  His propensity to refrain from the affairs of men was, so he claimed, rooted in his unsavory past.

Malach’s attention returned to wiping the sword.  “And that is why I allowed you to fight.”

Those words struck Cadwalader with the force of a club in the gut.  Llyr had seen him grasp the sword and charge into battle to defend the village, which encouraged him to follow. His friend’s death was still mostly his fault.

But Malach wasn’t going to get off that easily….

“You could have done more.”  Heat rose with his words.  “Those raiders were no match for you.  You could have slain most all of them.”

Malach stopped wiping, but didn’t look up.  “There is already enough blood on my hands to fill a lake.  Getting involved in men’s aspirations is the curse of my kind.  The Other embraces it.  I … seek a different path.”

“Then why me?”  Cadwalader’s fists tightened.  “You strike only when I am in danger.  You never defend anybody else.  I am no different from any of them, so why me?”

Malach’s gaze rose to his face.  “Why did your friend join the battle?”

“Can you ever give a straight answer?”

“Why give you that which you already hold?”

He called the pooka something far less savory, dropped the leather satchel, and spun away.  Yet even as he stomped along the line of boulders interspersed with trees, regret over using those words settled over him like the shade in the valley.  Malach was a challenge to interact with, but he was also the only … father … he could truly remember….

Cadwalader halted after a few paces and grasped a low hanging branch of an oak.  Its bark dug into his fingers from the force of his grip, and he gazed the huddle of huts across the meadow.  He drew in a long, slow breath as a couple of inhabitants shuffled among the structures.

His memories of the family he used to have were so distant and murky, more like recalling snatches of a fleeting dream.  Malach encouraged him to cherish all the images and sensations of them he could recall.  That wasn’t always easy when those reflections ended with screams and fire and death.

That encouragement was one example of charity exhibited by an otherwise aloof being.  There were others, such as how Cadwalader’s impudence was never corrected with blows and berating such as those he’d witnessed from some fathers.

Nor did Malach ever use the language Cadwalader just hurled at him.  He knew those words only because he’d learned them from the men.

His steward admitted to being a creature of darkness, but there was no doubt about Malach’s struggle to comprehend the light.  If the pooka had an ulterior motive, it wasn’t to blame Llyr or anybody else for the young man’s death.  He always tried to guide Cadwalader … even though those efforts were often infuriating.

With another deep breath, Cadwalader released the branch and strode back to the boulder where the pooka continued stroking the blade with the tattered cloth.  There probably wasn’t a speck of dirt or blood left on that sword.

“I … apologize.”  He clasped his hands together as he stood before Malach.  “I should not have called you that.”

“That is not the worst name I have been called.”

“I was angry because … you know Llyr thought he could help.”

“Indeed.”  Malach’s attention remained on the weapon.  “But why would he want to help when the village’s men were already there to defend?”

There was no use repeating himself, so he dug deeper for an explanation beyond the obvious.  “He … believed one more person added to our strength.”

“Was he correct?”

Was he?  Cadwalader’s gaze cast out again toward the trampled and bloodied meadow.  The women’s choral mourning trembled through a breeze light enough to mimic the dying’s final breath.  The shadow in the east eagerly followed on the heels of the retreating sun.

“We won the battle.”  The words fell flat as they tumbled from his lips.  “But we could have won … without his loss.”

“And yet you also joined the battle.”

His attention locked on Malach again.  “You taught me to fight.”

“I also taught you to hide.  But when the attack began, you took up the sword.”  His companion sat up as he returned Cadwalader’s gaze.  “Why?”

He stared at Malach’s beard.  “I will never stand back when the welfare of others is at stake.”

“That is what your friend believed.”  He glanced away to set the rag down and picked up the scabbard balanced beside him.  “That is why you were friends.  There was much you shared.  And that is why I share in your grief.”

Cadwalader’s blood pounded in his ears.  “Did you ever consider rendering your aid to him instead of me?”

Malach sheathed the sword.  “You are the one the Other hunts.”

The Other?  That statement rattled in his mind before dropping into his stomach where it lay like a stone.  “What?”

His companion looked up again.  “He does not trail you like a wolf pursuing a hare, but he knows that I, too, roam these lands.  And he has learned I harbor a youth.  You do not threaten him in the present, but if he ever found you, he would destroy you to protect his future.”

This sudden turn in the conversation sent prickles from his chest and through his arms to the tips of his fingers.  Malach always avoided the Other, but Cadwalader thought it was because the two pookas would clash over a major disagreement.

“Why do you tell me this now?”

“Because one day you will have to face the Other, and if you hope to survive, you will need allies.  Honor the memory of your friend, for he was a worthy ally.  But never allow his loss to haunt you, because his will not be the last.”

So this was his ulterior motive.  Did he believe the impact of this revelation would be softened by the despair that already resided within Cadwalader?  He swallowed hard.

“Was this your scheme all along?”

“Scheme?”  Malach regarded the scabbard as though contemplating if he should oil it.  “When I plucked you from that razed village, I was unsure why I even rescued you.  My kind believes we exist to goad humanity into destroying itself.  It should be easy.  The desires your hearts conceive are evil all the time.  But you survive because of a promise.”

He placed the scabbard on his lap and looked at Cadwalader.  “The Other is influencing the Roman outposts to indulge in their worst vices.  When he has gathered enough soldiers to sweep through the land, he will release them upon your people.  This I have learned over the last few years.”

“And … you expect me to stop them?”  He gaped at his companion.  “Wait, are you not meddling in the affairs of men?”

“This time I attempt to defend.  I have come to believe it was not by accident I discovered you.  You have always … stood your ground.  Perhaps for the selfish purpose of seeking my own redemption, I can facilitate that quality within you.”

If this was what it meant for his usually reserved companion to become talkative, Cadwalader liked him better the other way.

“Why are you telling me this now?”

“Because deception is natural to me, and I am attempting to be … unnatural.  Instead of concealing my speculations, I shall attempt to be honest.  And that is why I must also tell you that the hardest thing you will ever have to do is stand back when others are at risk.”

Cadwalader stared at him, and even gazed at those unsettling eyes for a few seconds.  The pooka did possess capabilities regarded as magic, but used them sparingly.  Was he indulging in one that Cadwalader hadn’t known about before tonight?

“Can you also see the future?”

“I have lived enough centuries to determine what is truth for men.”  Malach rose to his feet and began fastening the scabbard back to its belt.  “It will soon be too dark to see.  We should return to the village and turn over the artifacts we found.”

Cadwalader picked up the leather satchel near his feet, and fell into step with his companion as they skirted around the meadow.

There was no doubt this qualified as one of the worst days of his life, and yet this was the occasion Malach chose to inform him it was only going to get worse.  He still wasn’t sure he appreciated his steward’s new openness.  But if the pooka was going to be more candid now, maybe he would answer a question that had perplexed Cadwalader for years.

“Why did you turn from your previous path?”

Malach glanced toward him, and his lips curled down in that suppressed and familiar smirk.

“Can one person change the world?”

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So here is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and the word this time is Gloom.  You’ve got to expect all kinds of great stories from that one, so don’t miss out!

Terminal Bud

If she’d possessed the hard enamel teeth of the men below her, she would have gritted them.  The warm breeze that whispered through the branches offered no consolation.  The rough bark of the limb she’d lighted upon was only a coarse reminder this was not her tree.

Her tree lay upon the ground with many other casualties.  When the half dozen men arrived in this section of the forest, she tricked herself into believing they would not cut down her tree.

It was a beautiful entity, strong and stalwart and among the largest along this mountain slope.  After all, the trees her kind inhabited always grew into magnificent beings.

And at first the workmen focused their predations on her tree’s kindred, which was bad enough.  But then they turned to her abode with their saws and axes, and soon her scream became part of the creak and groan of the wood as her counterpart plummeted to the desecrated earth.

Stripped of her beloved, she sought refuge among these fated branches.  The despicable men beneath her deserved every shred of her ire … but the pittance that was her fault fanned her wrath.

Only a few of their generations ago, humans designated segments of forest meant to be preserved from their own marauding.  She must have strayed outside that invisible boundary when she united with the seed that would become her tree.

Or they might have changed that boundary.  One constant about humanity was their propensity for changing their own rules.

Somebody was going to pay for this….

She chose the largest of the men, the one most instrumental in felling her ally.  Even in her rage, a shudder rippled through her, because the sensation of descending upon him would not be pleasant.

She dropped from the branch and settled on his lumpy shoulders.  Ugh.  If only he could have noticed her, she would have liked to at least send a chill down his spine.

That she didn’t have an exact plan for his chastisement was of no concern.  After all, she was ancient, so waiting for an opportune moment was acceptable even as she despised contact with this goon.

Further back in history, when mankind struggled consistently with devastation and death – and feared it less – they offered supplication upon harvesting a tree necessary to help them struggle for survival.  The intrusion then was still annoying, but tolerable compared to the rudeness of these people, who whooped in profane words and made a variety of foul noises.

The tools of their trade were mostly too complicated for her to influence.  As she perched upon her quarry, the roar of a chainsaw gnawed through her almost as effectively as though she were entangled in its relentless teeth.  A bulldozer occasionally lumbered nearby, rending and crushing the smaller underbrush until they would park it to survey their next killing ground.

Her existence, which began when light was separated from dark, was based on simplicity.  Whenever she occupied a tree while it was a tender sapling, she could preserve it from any beast that might dig it up or trample it or devour it beyond recovery.

But humanity, with whom her kind shared this narrow band of gray between the beings of light and the beings of dark, lost much of their communion with the immaterial as they became increasingly material in their pursuits.  Many no longer heeded her because they no longer listened for any voice whispered from beyond.

Limited in her ability to strike back, she could only wait and watch.  Eventually, surely, he was bound to do something that she could influence.  And then again he grasped the axe.

She’d observed them do this before.  One of his cronies pushed an orange wedge into the notch of a tree and stepped back.  Her corpulent transport stepped forward and swung the axe so the back of its head would drive the wedge deeper into the wound.

Now was her chance.

She shot up the lifeless handle formed from a material that was unnatural and therefore distasteful.  She grasped the heavy metal head as it hurled toward the wedge.

About halfway to its mark, she knocked it free from the handle.

She clung on as it spun, steering it into the hard trunk of the hapless tree.  And as it ricocheted toward her target, she rode it into the angle that aimed it at his forehead, beneath the bill of the hardhat he wore.

He flinched and tried to duck.

Despite the speed of the cool metal, she altered the course of the axe head to match his movement.  When the blade drove above his left eyebrow, she leaped free from the rebound and into the branches of the tree they were assaulting.

More profanity erupted from the other man as her quarry dropped to the ground.  The assistant called to the others as he dashed to the crumpled form.  The others scurried about, mostly to the fallen victim.  One grabbed a red bag from the bulldozer before sprinting to the mob.

She neither knew nor cared exactly how much damage the blow dealt.  For a split second, if she’d possessed the soft fleshy lips of the men below her, she would have smiled.  Her satisfaction evaporated as she contemplated her fallen tree, and she fluttered down to its remains.

As she pressed against the one of the sectioned off portions of the trunk, its cold and silence seemed to seep into her.  No longer did vivacious sap pump through the phloem beneath the bark.  No more did its branches hum softly from the wind’s caress.

She whispered her love to it, said goodbye, and launched herself into the warm breeze.

Everything that had a beginning had an end.  If she did not find another seed to unite with, the wind that carried her now would nibble her away bit by bit, eventually reducing her to her ultimate fate.  Otherwise, there was only one other time she was vulnerable….

As she soared over the green top of the forest, seeking a stand within those protected boundaries humans arbitrarily drew, she remembered her tree.  She yearned for the memory of its life, but the grief of its demise haunted her.

Odd, such events hadn’t disturbed her this much in the past.  Those darn men must have unsettled her in more ways than one.

Odd, recalling the form of the man she struck lying upon the ground was not as satisfying as it initially was … and seemed to deepen her grief….

She found a patch that was lush and promising, and hovered over the ground while sensing for sprouts that might awaken come spring.  A seed ripe with promise caught her attention.

The leaf litter and dirt lightly scratched her as she settled beneath it.  Darkness enveloped her as she settled into the seed and prepared to drift into the sleep that tied her to this kernel.  Its fate became her fate.  She could not influence it at this stage.  If it did not survive, neither would she.

The seed could be her womb … or her tomb.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have acted so hastily against those irritating men.  They did share more than this narrow band of gray.  After all, like them she was born in darkness.  And like them she had the choice of remaining in the dark or embracing the light that reached down to her.

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Here is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and this time the prompt word was Park.  Such a simple word, but it proved to be quite challenging.  So be sure to check out the other stories and see how those writers handled a simple word!

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.”

###

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.”

###

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.”

###

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!