Judgment (Tattooed Angels Trilogy 2)

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938 BC - God Gave Us Land

“Talib,” Hotan’s voice broke his daydreaming as their father’s dying words echoed in his thoughts, you shall be Hotan’s advisor and protector. “What should I do? I can feel it deep down, it’s not a dream, but a warning of what’s coming.”

I remember this day far too well. This is where it all started to fall apart…

“Remember what you told me the day before father passed?” Staring over at Hotan, he couldn’t help but miss the little boy he had been ten years ago. “You had a dream then, and you came to me, like now…”

It all happened so quickly when I look back. There was nothing I could have done to prepare myself for what unfolded.

“But everyone could see he was on his deathbed, Talib. This time is different.” Rubbing the back of his neck, Hotan furrowed his brow, his voice assertive, “The council will not take this lightly if I insist a dark army is coming to burn the village. They will label me mad, and worse, push to remove me as the chief.”

He was right, but what advice could I have ever provided to fix the situation we found ourselves in. Even if we had marched down to the council and screamed the information out across the village, no one would, or could believe something so insane was coming.

“Just in the two years since he has been gone, we have seen the corruption in the council. Father had suspicions, but if he saw the things we do now.” They both tensed, their exchanged glares finishing the crimes they had witnessed. “He left their lives in both our hands, Hotan. You are not facing this by yourself, I would not let you stand alone against such ill-willed men. Which would weigh heavier on your soul; Attempting to bring this up to the council or remaining silent?”

It wasn’t bad advice. He had to make that judgment for himself. I could have easily told him to be silent, but I needed to know how real of a threat he believed it to be. After father’s death, he became eerily quiet, reclusive in comparison to the brotherly relationship we held prior. At this point, I was excited to be asked for advice, yet terrified what was being put on the table. How long had I ignored the signs after father died? Maybe I was partly to blame not pushing for those answers sooner the moment he stopped being himself.

Breaking their stare, Hotan searched the air in front of him. The intensity on his face told Talib he was digging out everything in his own mind to decide the best course of action.

One of those weights was the unborn child in Liora’s belly. It would be their first child, and more importantly, the heir to taking leadership after them. As for himself, he and Saphellia had not been blessed with a child. Not even a miscarriage like he had seen within his own mother growing up which only led to him blaming himself. Far as they knew, they were both sterile. Many of his generation had suffered that same fate, though no one confessed openly to it. A illness had struck the village during their father’s younger years and sadly, the sterile men and miscarriages had been the plague that followed in its wake.

Instead of lingering on this sour note in their lives, they poured their efforts into helping manage the village affairs. The problems within their village had increased as their numbers were dropping. Over the last three months, they had not received anyone for training, let alone heard anything back from the other villages. Something was happening beyond the reaches of the tiny thirteenth tribe of Israel.

If they had heeded father’s advice, perhaps we would have known this was coming. Again, looking back the signs look so much clearer than when I had lived in it. Answers seem so obvious when one is nothing more than a spectator with emotions set aside.

Hotan was pacing the room, the dream still haunting him as he weighed the question he offered. It was amazing how much he had grown into a man. He was almost as tall as Talib, but far more stockier in the shoulders and arms. As for his personality, it had grown away from its innocence and evolved into something beyond intelligence. His ability for seeing through lies was impeccable and it was becoming rare when he needed his advice. Their conversations took a drastic shift when their father passed. It was as if Talib was speaking to the deceased through Hotan, the knowledge he held flowed forth from the unknown. Whether it was a curse or blessing was yet to be seen.

No, it was a curse that will not only plague him, but all that remained. In fact, he became a darker person and would fall ever deeper into that emotionless abyss until it swallowed him whole.

“I will try to tell them.” Swallowing back his concerns, Hotan grabbed his shoulder, bringing his attention back to the present. “But, Talib, they will be removing me. I do not know if they will announce it as a permanent decision, but know that I will not give them the pleasure of hearing you had a hand in this decision. Promise you will feign ignorance to knowing about my dreams.”

“I do not think it woul-”

“Promise!” He barked, his fingers gripping him tight, his muscles aching under the pressure. “Trust me this one time, brother. Do not acknowledge them or we will lose what little ground we have to keep the village safe.”

“Fine, Hotan,” Huffing, he pulled the hand off his burning shoulder. “I will promise.”

Stomping out of the tent, he was frustrated by the demand. In all their years, never had they needed to disregard their actions in one another’s eyes. The question remaining was could he keep his promise. It was his pride in being honest and fair that would be damaged if he followed through. He marched on, heading to the fields where no eyes could see the internal conflict raging inside him. The council had at least acknowledged and praised him on his judgment multiple times, but how could he ever convince them he was unaware of Hotan’s dreams?

All the viable options echoing in his mind would be asking him to break his promise to their father. He was to protect Hotan, even from himself if it called for it. It was admirable for him to want to shield his older brother for a change, but he had given up his childhood for his and their father’s wishes. This was the only form of repayment he felt would justify asking a child to get married, become an adult with their father’s death wavering on the edge for eight agonizing years. Looking to the clouds, he couldn’t decide on a clear answer. None of them were compromises and all of them weighed harder one way or another.

Indeed, I was cornered at that very moment. Amazingly I found an unexpected friend when I needed one most…

“You doing ok, Talib?” It was Jacob, the youngest son of the Shepard who had stumbled on him while walking back home. “Coming out here to clear your head?”

And then Jacob was always there for my weakest moments it seems from this point on…

“You could say that.” Sighing, he realized there was no girl accompanying him as usual. “No lady friend today?”

Blushing, he smirked as his purple toned eyes sparkled, “I am trying to quit that bad habit. Sort of got my eye on a girl these days and I don’t think she cares for me because I have a reputation for lustful behavior.”

“Lustful?” Raising an eyebrow, it seemed odd for Jacob to be so honest about his downfall.

He was handsome with tanned skin and dirty blonde hair. All the girls swooned over him, which fueled the promiscuous habits to the point it had become expected out of him. Often he was caught disappearing into the fields or out of sight of the herds with a girl. Rumors about his passion and taste for women was always on the tongues of the women in the village as well as the angry minds of fathers.

Laughing, he confessed to Jacob, “And I am sure there were a lot of broken hearts to hear this news of your new way of life. So, who is this girl that has brought about such an important change?”

“I rather not say.” He joined him in staring at the clouds, each fighting their own internal battle of judgments before Jacob finished his answer. “Until I clear my reputation, I want to keep her name silent. It’s not fair to drag those we love into chaos we make for ourselves.”

That was the wisest thing I ever learned from him, though he also firmly beloved in protecting and standing up for those you love as well…

He looked over at Jacob’s taut face, his smile gone and his eyes still on the sky. “It is a very valid point. I respect that decision of yours, Jacob.”

“Talib!” A young girl was running towards them, her cheeks flushed as her dark hair stuck to her face. “The council! They are demanding you come at once!”

“He couldn’t have...” His heart felt the tight grip of fear squeezing around it. “Did they say why?”

Panting, she shook her head, “No, just that it was urgent.”

The march back was too short for trying to predict what he would be walking into. Each step tightened his muscles and when he reached the council’s building, he had to remind himself to take a breath before entering. A heated argument went mute as the glares turned to him. Scanning the room, he could see a few of the councilmen sweating from their mental efforts and there were no signs of Hotan.

It all started falling apart so horribly fast…

Standing tall, he took his seat at the massive table in the room and weighed the expressions before him. Some showed fear, others a deep concern, but a select few were nervous. It was the sweaty fidgeting men he paid the closest attention to, since they had made the mistake of showing their disloyalty towards their father after his passing. Something had these men scared.

“Where is Hotan?” Having a meeting without the chief present was considered a taboo, even considered a form of betrayal or rebellion against the village as a whole. “What is so urgent to only have me present?”

“He was asked to leave.” Wiping the sweat from his forehead, it was one of the white-bearded diplomats who had attempted to remove them from power multiple times in the last two years. “Hotan made quite the show of himself before he was forced to leave. We now want to know your involvement in this.”

“Involvement?” Many shuffled and whispered a few words, but his demanding glare ended it as he prodded for more information. “Exactly what was he attempting to do? My brother does not lose his temper so easily over nothing, Elam. What in the world was so important for all of you to discuss without me present? Perhaps my absence was the cause of unnecessary aggression?”

“He accused Elam for making deals with Salah to overthrow-” Elam shot the young diplomat a look of warning to still his tongue.

He leaned forward in his chair, entertained to hear Hotan had addressed the suspicions head on while he was absent. “Salah was exiled by my father for his violence and disregard for women in our village, Elam. It is forbidden to speak to the man, let alone make agreements with him on the village’s behalf.”

“You know nothing, Talib.” He hissed, the sweat sliding down his cheek told everyone the accusations had some truth behind them. “You and your brother were handed a broken heir and now you think you can patronize me. I have travelled outside this village and seen the world and we mean nothing without these agreements.”

“And when did you consult the council of these agreements and what was promised on our behalf, Elam? Does anyone here know what the terms of these agreements are?” The room filled with conversation and panic as they realized what he and Hotan had already known; Elam had made deals for his own protection and had left the village open for attack and manipulation. “No one else knows what was promised on the village’s behalf?”

“This is not about me!” Elam had stood, slamming his fist on the table as his face reddened from his rage of frustrations. “Your brother has gone mad if he thinks we are making a decision on a childish nightmare!”

And here was the first slice of Destiny’s sword that struck me down.

His eyes widened, Hotan had let everything loose; conspiracies, traitors, and even his dream. If he was going to be removed, Hotan wanted to pull all of the dark secrets out of their corners and in a position to be resolved. None of these men could deny what was happening, but his lack of response was aiding him. He had been given a chance to put doubt in any trust the rest had in Elam. The inability to respond to Hotan’s so-called madness from nightmares expressed a lack of awareness to those weighing him against Elam. This was a meeting to decide who would be taking Hotan’s place.

“Did you know your brother was suffering from nightmares, Talib?” It was Tzadok who spoke up, his beard white with age and his voice sincere as he took control of the meeting. “That he sees destruction of the village? He even went on about dreams involving your father’s death, his marriage, and he wept here stating he knows that you will never be given a child. Worse, he sobbed on that he would lose his own child to a raging storm. Has he spoken to you about any of this?”

Ah, the second slice. He had known and spoke nothing to me about it. I wonder if he ever realized the sting I felt at when my own father-in-law had to endure exposing such news to me. It had been speculation that a couple so in love as Saphellia and I should have at least carried a child once, but to be told I was doomed to be sterile was soul shattering. Even then, the heart break Tzadok must have felt hearing it from Hotan about his daughter being unable to ever be blessed with children of her own must have twisted his own soul. Not enough words in the world to express the heartache and betrayal I felt with so many eyes staring down on me, know more of my shortcomings than I had willingly accepted at this stage of my life.

He opened his mouth, but the words failed to make it to his lips as his emotions pulled them back. Hotan never once had spoken to him of predicting such horrible things. The room spun as he tried to grasp at what point had his little brother held such frightening enigmas from him. Knots were twisting in his stomach; a dream had predicted he would be childless, but worse, Hotan was predicting the death of his own child. How long has he endured this curse and were there more predictions he still kept to himself?

Desperate to regain his composure in this moment of judgement, he swallowed and looked Tzadok in the eyes, “This is the first time I have heard anything of it.” Taking a breath, he readied himself for the next words he would take to secure Elam’s failed ascension to leadership, “And I cannot say whether or not my father knew. If I had known, I would have pulled Hotan from his position in fear that his, his madness would put the village at risk. Sadly, I cannot argue removing him immediately, but I can assure you, I would not make backdoor deals with the exiled as Elam has already done. This council makes those decisions, I am simply its voice and the mountain that holds the village’s well-being in place.”

Elam gritted his teeth as he snarled at Talib’s sharp stare. “How can we trust you to see issues if you didn’t see that your brother had gone mad?”

“Then we were all blind to his condition.” The authority in his voice and body had returned as his words made Elam sit back down. “We have all been in this council advising him, not just me. If I am guilty for not seeing it, then you are as well Elam. Lord knows you would have pulled this issue into the light the instant you suspected anything.”

Elam would suffer a fate far worse than this embarrassment created by someone who he thought of as inferior. Far worse…

A wave of rumbling escaped the rest of the diplomats as they all took in his words. Elam had proven he had his own interests in mind, but Talib was blunt, leaving them with no fears of hidden agendas. He should have been listening into the comments being batted between the rest of the council, but all he could hear was the list of Hotan’s predictions. It made him feel detached from his little brother, and worse, blind to the fact he had been suffering for so long. Tzadok’s heavy hand spooked him from his worries as he shook his shoulder.

Looking up, Talib stared up at Tzadok’s furrowed brow as his booming voice washed over him, “Please go see your brother. See what else he is not telling you. As for now, we will need several days before making any decisions on what to do with him, you, or Elam. I’ll do what I can to see that it is kept peaceful, my son-in-law. Just so you know, I will push hard for you to take the lead, especially after doing so well against Elam’s diplomatic attack under so much distress.”

“He’s been hiding something dark from me and I never saw any signs of it, Tzadok.” Standing, the two hugged as they exchanged heavy handed pats on the back. “I don’t know if I will get anything from him. Not once did any of this come out of him and it terrifies me to know I do not know my brother as well as I had thought.”

Elam’s voice shrilled as he cursed the other councilmen who had encircled him. They were trying to pry what agreements he had made with Salah; no longer was this a conspiracy after the angered confession during his bashing on him. The chances of the exiled Levite war general keeping true to his word towards the village’s entire safety was non-existent. It was Talib’s father who had drove the man out, and with him and Hotan in charge, he would rather burn the place to the ground. Salah was the one who pushed to break their agreement with the other twelve tribes, but it was his actions which led to his exile. He was caught forcing himself on one of the girls whom had been sent to be trained as a caretaker for a tabernacle. As their father and several others drove him out of the village, he swore to return. Growing up, he was living with a Salah’s shadow looming over him, waiting to take out his revenge. He remembers apprenticing alongside his father when word reached them that Salah had been given a high position in one of the neighboring armies. This was one of the events which started their father’s suspicions of the treaties starting to fail.

“Go on, go see Hotan and report to us what you make of his state of mind.” Once more Tzadok’s voice had pulled him out of the drowning thoughts. “We will deal with Elam.”

He felt lost as he took the arduous steps towards Hotan’s home. Looking up, the sky was a deep maroon color as the sun began to set and the icy fingers of night scraped itself across his skin as the wind blew over him.

It was as if nature itself was trying to warn me; Death’s chilling breath on the breeze and the sky painted in the color of blood…

Outside the door stood one of the warriors, a man named Geliah. Thick muscled, he was a bull-sized man with dark brown dreadlocks and eyes of an amber yellow, much like a cat. He was a tyrant when he was younger, but nowadays his strength was put to good use serving the village and council. As children, he remembered how Geliah would push him about, yet once he married and took on his title, it all stopped in an instant. Nodding in respect, he did nothing to impede his chore of entering Hotan’s home.

Hard to believe he was once so caring. Once a man is given power, his soul becomes vulnerable to corruption. Geliah would fall ever deeper into a lifetime of corruption.

At this point, nothing compared to the estrangement created in a matter of minutes between him and his brother Hotan. Anger and grief were pulling at one another in his heart as he felt their conversation earlier in the day was meant to be a distraction, not a confession. Even then, Hotan had only revealed a very small portion of what was cut loose to the council in his absence.

Hotan was sitting in a chair, slumped over, his face buried in his hands. Liora’s frowning face met Talib’s eyes and the concern about Hotan’s mental state was made clear. He wanted to say something, but nothing came to mind. Staring down, he watched as his little brother sobbed. Looking to Liora, he wondered how much of it she knew; the dreams, the predictions of her unborn child’s death, and what he had done just a few moments ago. Sitting down in the chair across from Hotan, he waited. There were no words to fix or undo what had been put into motion. Nothing would soothe his own turmoil, let alone the unknown abyss churning within Hotan. The crying man in front of him felt like a stranger and everything he had known about his little brother no longer meant anything.

I remember thinking how the Hotan of our childhood, well, that Hotan no longer exists...

“I’m sorry, Talib.” It was a mumble, but Hotan still held his face with his hands. “I assume they shared all of it with you. It was not my intentions to let you hear all of the things that I have predicted.”

“How long has it been going on, Hotan?” Anger seeped forward as he looked away from him. “When did this all start?”

“As long as I have existed…” The whisper almost failed to reach its destination.

It wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear, so he pressed on, “And did our father know?”

“No.” A heavy sigh escaped Hotan as his voice began to shake, “I tried a few times to tell him, but I already knew what little time was left before he would be bound to his bed. And then I had thought to tell you, tested it with father, but…”

Closing his eyes, he guessed what had ceased it, “You had a prediction involving me.”

“Y-Yes…” Hotan began rocking, his nerves eating at him as he spoke, “I couldn’t tell you. It hurt to know it, and then to watch as each year passed and no signs…” Hotan had choked on his words, afraid to speak them any louder.

His fears were coming to life and to stare me in the eyes was too great of a risk. I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t fear, but the anger and upset brought on to have each year prove the nightmares as being true…

He had no desire to look his little brother in the eyes, not until he could resolve how he wanted to feel. Anger was surfacing more and more as he chewed on everything. An ache in his heart cut through it when a thought ripped across him.

“Does Liora know?” Swallowing, he could not dodge her frightened stare, “Hotan, have you-”

“No,” he breathed, his eyes wide as they pulled his stare away from Liora’s frightened face. “No, I can’t. Don’t… you don’t understand, I… Talib, please.”

Furrowing his brow, he understood. If it were he needing to tell Saphellia, he could not follow through with such a horrible prediction.

Liora fell to her knees in front of Hotan, grabbing his face to demand he look her in the eyes. Tears fell from her chin as she gritted her teeth, her words struggling to climb up her throat and out of her lips. Talib’s eyes widened as he watched her body shake with such ferocity it turned his stomach. There was one person who know how accurate his predictions were and she was scared to think she had been seen in one of his dreams. She shook his head, swallowing, her voice came back to her.

“Tell me, Hotan!” she pleaded, “What horrible fate awaits me, my husband!”

Hotan’s bottom lip quivered, tears streaming down his cheeks as his eyes fell to her belly, betraying his sealed lips. Chills rippled across Talib’s own skin to see the havoc twisting Hotan’s soul. The weight of letting the words escape and reveal the unbearable prediction had deafened the room. Muscles had grown tense between all three as the panic filled Hotan’s eyes, but it broke when someone jerked open the door, the tiny home flooding with the clatter of pandemonium.

“TALIB!” Geliah rushed into the room, “I need to get you all some place safe, now!”

Both he and Hotan paled. They knew what was happening as screams started to multiply to a deafening level. A nightmare had come to life as the sun left the sky. In the cover of night, the other tribes had launched their attack; no longer would they keep their promise nor allow the thirteenth tribe to thrive. From the direction of the chaos, they had hit the council’s house first; Salah would have insisted on such a tactic. Instincts assured him the leader to this massacre was the exiled one, Salah, and his next targets would be Hotan and him. The hunt was on to gain his revenge from being banished from the village. Regardless of how much they knew of the opposing force waiting outside the door, with no army to fight back, they could only run for their lives.

“How long ago did you predict this, Hotan?” Talib pulled Liora to her feet, wasting no time to follow Geliah out the door into the smoke filled darkness. “How long have you known?”

I never did get an answer. Looking back, I can assume it had been years and he knew we were getting close. From the look on his face, I don’t think he thought it would be that very night. Still, he should have told me sooner and just maybe, somehow, we could have stopped this… or so I keep telling myself.

Hotan jerked his eyes away, his jaw tightening as they ran through the houses. Thudding of horse hooves mangled with screams of terror, but they were aiming for Talib’s home. Bursting through the door, he was relieved to see Saphellia. She was digging out his falchion with a pack full of bread thrown over her shoulder; she was never one to waste time. Gripping her hand, he pulled her out as smoke stung in their nostrils, the village glowing with an orange hue. They were starting to set the buildings on fire and cutting down anyone who attempted to stop them as they weaved through the huts and tents.

Saphellia’s fingers dug into his shoulders and he paused, looking back at her panicked face, “What about my father?”

Swallowing, he looked passed her to see horses flying through the houses, the ominous glow of torches bouncing in the darkness. “He was in the council’s house, where the attack started…” Clenching his jaw, he grabbed up Hotan, “You take Saphellia and anyone else you can find and get them far from here. I will see who else I can save.”

“Talib, let me go with you,” he protested.

“No. You are the only one who can lead the others to safety.” Breaking away from the group, he raced through the flaming homes.

The night air was distorted with dancing shadows from the burning structures where the living no longer resided. It goaded his resentment, he hated how everything had crumbled away so fast, so easily. He had managed to make it to what was left of the building where he had left the entire council arguing. Bodies were strewn out everywhere, the foul smell of burnt flesh and the iron sting of spilled blood made breathing nerve-wracking. A lot of the councilmen had their throats slashed while others were still burning under the fallen building. His eyes caught the colored sash he was seeking; Tzadok laid on his back, his throat ripped open, his eyes wide and lifeless. As he thought, they had been the first ones killed off per Salah’s guidance.

Swallowing, he looked away in time to see Hotan sneak up next to him. Before he could scold him, Elam’s voice pulled both of their attentions back to the other side of the massacre. He was groveling on the ground by a horse and its rider, blood soaking the front of his clothes and hands painted red. There was no need for imagination as the glimmer of a dagger lay beside him. Elam had turned on the council to the point that he aided in their deaths. Knots tightened in his stomach. If he had still been there, chances were Elam would have aimed to slit his throat first out of frustration.

“Salah! I have done everything asked of me! I overthrew the chief’s sons, I killed the council! Where’s my land! I kept my promise! Where’s my gold! I did what was asked of me! I earned my place!”

Elam…

These were the desperate pleas of a man filled with regrets as he stared up at the devil holding his soul. Salah laughed as his horse sidestepped away from the broken traitor at its hooves. Tears streamed down Elam’s face, his mistake staring down at him with a wild grin. Talib had warned he would not honor his word with anyone from the village and he had been right. Elam jumped to his feet, tugging at Salah’s leg as he begged to be taken away from the carnage surrounding them.

…you should have known…

“Where are the chief’s sons?” Salah’s smile faded as he scowled down at the pest clinging to him. “Where are they, Elam!”

“I don’t know…” He pleaded, “Please at least give me some of the gold promised…”

“Worthless!” Growled Salah, spurring his horse into a gallop towards a group of his men deeper in the village.

…the Devil never keeps his promises.

“We need to go.” He grabbed Hotan’s arm, but he broke free. “Hotan!”

He scrambled after him but his fingers fell short to grab the back of his shirt. Charging forward, the heat of his anger pushing him, Hotan hit Elam with a thud, tackling him to the ground. Flinching, he heard the crunch of Elam’s nose as Hotan’s fist locked with it, then another, and another. Bewilderment filled him as Hotan punched him over and over again; it was the first time he had witnessed him losing his temper in the outburst of physical violence. Tears streamed down his brother’s face, panting from the explosion of brutality continuing to pour onto the man under him. Hotan stopped as Elam fell limp, losing the drive to take his last swing as his ears heard the rattled shallow breath. He wasn’t dead, but his fate would be left behind with the village he betrayed.

Managing to pull Hotan away, his goal was to catch up with Saphellia. As they ran and dodged through the heaps of fires and what little was left of the buildings, the village had grown thick with warriors from the other tribes. The emblems and styles of armor could not be mistaken for anyone else; their allies had indeed turned on them. He kept eyeing over at Hotan as they worked their way through the maze of chaos. This was not the little brother he thought he grew up with. Instead, he found himself in the presence of a man carrying a curse. Worse, Hotan had made a difficult choice to reveal his prediction and still nothing changed for the better after risking everything. Talib’s anger fell away, replaced with empathy.

I would have been angry still if I had known what his plans were going to be for those who would endure and survive. Just knowing what is to come makes me wish I could scream and shake it out of him… but it would not change the fact we were left with no other option than to flee. Unlike father, we were not trained warriors. We were men who had devoted our lives to being diplomatic and at times, I resent it.

Screeching from a girl nearby brought them to a stop. He gripped the hilt of his falchion, swallowing as he dared a look around the burning building, keeping their presence hidden. Jacob was wrestling with an attacking warrior, his shoulder bleeding as the blacksmith’s daughter Lillianna sat on the ground behind him. Her face mottled with ash and tears as she failed to break her grip on her dead father’s robes. She was torn between the living and the dead. The haze in her eyes told him she could not hear Jacob’s pleads for her to run. Jacob was losing his grip on the blood covered warrior who had sent many to the dark beyond.

Nodding to Hotan, they knew their roles. Sucking in one last stream of air, they broke from their cover. He was aiming for the warrior, praying he had stayed within the man’s blind spot as Hotan served as the decoy. Unarmed, Hotan moved to pick Lillianna off the ground, breaking her hold, forcing her to her feet. Jacob gained an inch in the distraction. The blood thirsty warrior stifled a step back, but his ribs felt the unexpected sting of his blade. Another slice across his knees allowed the muscled brute to fall away from Jacob who gripped his shoulder in relief as he leapt back. Without another word, they left the man howling and gurgling as they weaved through the flames of the place they once called home.

They picked up a few others, whether by saving them or they had been spotted by fellow villagers, it didn’t matter. Survival was the only thing they had in common as the roar of the fires replaced screams. The army’s snapping jaws behind them had announced it had finished its rounds of slaughter and collected the spoils they came to claim. As the glow of the burning village lessened on their backs, they had found Geliah, Saphellia, and Liora with several others waiting in the thin tree line. Fear and shock rattled every face as they looked to one another’s soot and blood splattered forms. There was barely a fifth of the village standing there.

And this was only the start of the deaths we would witness…

Whistles and shouts of celebration broke their thoughts and brought sour looks back to the hell they had escaped from. The wavering shadow of a man on a horse shouted after them, the flaming village looking like the fiery wings of a demon lashing into the night sky. His words were inaudible, but they knew who was warning he would give chase; Salah. All eyes fell on Hotan and Talib where they stood looking back to the primal taunts with furrowed brows. Until he confirmed the sons of his enemy as dead, he would chase them to the ends of the earth. Regardless, they were responsible for what lives had been spared.

“We need to keep moving.” It was a bitter truth as Hotan’s words slammed across the tired and broken survivors who winced. “Salah might humor us with waiting until the morning to chase us, expecting us to rest. We cannot afford to rest until we no longer see them or the smoke of the village.”

“But what about the injured?” An older woman was doing her best to wrap Jacob’s shoulder as she spoke, “They may not be able to keep up, or worse, many of us are young and old. What if they cannot make this journey?”

He swallowed as Hotan’s dejected tone and stare hit them all, “This is an exodus. Lives will be lost whether you stay here or push forward. I recommend you make peace with that reality now.”

It stung to see how easily he could say this, in this very moment, yet back in his home he couldn’t even whisper the truth he knew of…

Saphellia’s fingers weaved themselves with his, squeezing them hard. Her cheeks had prominent streaks down them where tears had washed away some of the ash. Flashes of her father on the ground reminded him why he had broken away from her side during the chaos. His lips were met with her fingers, her frown told him she didn’t need his words to confirm what she already knew. Pulling her into his arms, he squeezed her tight as he watched Hotan and Liora begin walking towards the west. There was no advice he could give to smooth over a harsh truth. If anyone managed to survive the slaughter and remain in the village, they would surely become slaves to the army and the tribes who once saw them as equals.

Worse, they had broken their promise to God while my brother put in action a plan he had already resolved from years of haunting premonitions. I suppose we were doomed from the start.

Salah’s menacing shadow no longer stood between them and the massive glow, but his hatred stung at their heels. No matter which way they chose to flee, they would have to face a grim truth; their tiny slice of fertile land was bordered by harsh desert and hostile inhabitants. Heading west may give them some reprieve, but it would end at the sea. A few had decided to remain in the trees for various reasons. Most of them were too old to take on the journey they knew awaited them while others feared facing a slow agonizing death. He and Saphellia wished these brave souls the best before following the back end of the marching tribe. The exodus had begun.

Those left behind became slaves for the people that took Salah off his leash and gave him the power to destroy an entire civilization. At least this was a better end compared to those who never made it out of the ashes of the village. Eventually as the generations went by, they found their freedom as well as continued their legacy through religion. They had inherited the task of caring for the tabernacle and temples foremost. With this honor, they were able to reserve some of our history… though most of it is still missing within those faithful pages.

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