Pale Rider

“And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

 Ecclesiastes 4:12 (KJV)

PROLOGUE

The creature loomed from above; his grisly form nearly skeletal against the moonlit sky. From a single word carved into his forehead ran rivulets of blood, trailing a path down his thin, leathery skin. Abaddon, it read, and the scarlet lettering stood out in stark relief against alabaster tissue stretched tautly over skull-like features. The name itself was enough to invoke fear, even without the accompaniment of his dreaded title: Pale Rider of the Apocalypse.

Droplets of blood hung suspended on his face, seemingly dry, though still glistening freshly as though from an open wound.  He sat astride a horse similarly devoid of color, in appearance like a faded drawing on parchment, and a faint, nearly indistinguishable pattern etched its hide. Second only to his master in the ability to instill absolute, unquantified terror upon sight, the fearsome mount frothed at the mouth and pawed the ground in his eagerness to give chase. But the hunt had come to an end.

Ari opened his mouth to cry out but there was no sound. His knees might have quaked had he any strength left in his legs. Debilitating fear gripped his heart, paralyzing him until all he could do was stare helplessly at the ghastly duo. He knew that anything he could do would be utterly useless against this powerful adversary. The cause was hopeless. Ari was out of tricks, out of ideas, and out of time.

As the massive equine beast stomped and snorted impatiently beneath his master, Abaddon fixed his prey with a gaze curiously lacking in malice; no trace of hostility could be found there. Equally absent was any other emotion; his features were locked in a cold expression, not betraying any intent. But Ari knew that death had come for him, specifically. It was personal. A whimper escaped his lips as he braced himself for the final blow. If this was to be his end, he prayed fervently, let it be quick. The lightly dappled stallion reared back on his hind legs and beat the air with his hooves. His rider also ascended with the motion, raising an arm in tandem. Ari beheld the gleaming scythe in Abaddon’s hand just before horse and blade came down together. Ari screamed.

PART ONE

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

—John Mason Neale

CHAPTER ONE

A Troubling Visitor

“By the gods!”

The ruler of all Egypt held his head in his hands. His frustrated epithet revealed he was at the end of his patience, and the cause was no secret. His troubler stood before him. Again. Pharaoh had summoned the man, true, but it had not been his pleasure to do so. He’d had no choice in the matter and, as in times past, had greatly repented his decision soon thereafter. But what else could be done? He hoped now to escape his predicament through guile as before and stave off yet another incident. Another plague.

Inwardly, he groaned at the appearance of a man who, like himself, had once roamed these gilded palace halls. They were very much alike in upbringing, he and the visitor. They had been raised to share the same values. Both knew the joys of playing hide and seek among the ornately carved columns of his father’s palace. Home, this man before him would have called it. Once. But that had changed. This same man, now a stranger, forced his hand.

Pharaoh’s aggravated fingers went to drag across his shaved scalp but found the attempt blocked by his headdress. Just as well. His nemes, an indicator of his royal position, served as a reminder that such an action was unbecoming of his station. It would be unseemly. He would not allow this poseur to bring him low enough to react and betray his discomposure. Pharaoh was his father’s son.

To dispel these feelings, he sat more erect on his carved, elaborately painted throne and looked around the room. Depictions of his most famous battles and conquests surrounded him, etched on every wall and urn. The images of defeated foes, now subject to him, served as a potent reminder that the advantage belonged to him. He rolled his shoulders back and expelled a breath. Stretching his neck, he lolled his head on its axis in as casual a manner possible, seeking to relieve his suddenly cramped, tightly clenched muscles. Internally, Pharaoh was a mass of coiled nerves, but he strove to appear as impassive and unaffected as the many effigies buttressing the temple at the Valley of Kings. His kohl-lined eyes squeezed shut as if the sight before him was painful to behold. He rolled the orbs underneath his eyelids, causing them to flutter.

Better, he thought, wishing his tormentor far away. But the man would not be going anywhere, Pharaoh knew, unless forcibly. To put his hands on the man would be to lose the game. Sighing inwardly, Pharaoh opened his eyes.

The fellow seemed relatively innocuous. Tanned with weathered skin, he wore the simple woolen garments of a shepherd. He looked like all the others who toiled, living in poverty; there was nothing about him to suggest he was otherwise. But Pharaoh knew this to be a lie. This man was not like any others. Unlike the despotic ruler, whose own figure revealed his love of excess, the man was lean.

As if he did not have enough food, Pharaoh sneered, mentally. There was always an abundance to eat in the palace and enough beer to wash it down. He was rather proud of his belly, slightly rounded, grown hard, and a witness to this assertion. Pharaoh only just refrained from patting said protuberance. Instead, he satisfied himself with resting his hands upon it and interlocking his fingers. There, he said to himself. He must look very much like a dignified ruler, he decided. Reluctantly, he returned his attention to the sight before him.

Pharaoh’s skin was the deep brown of dark spices, his ancestors being responsible for his melanin-rich hue. His days were spent in a leisurely fashion, mostly away from the oppressive heat and well attended by servants tasked with the duty of cooling off his royal personage. One stood now, off to the side and with a large plume of ostrich feathers in his employ, diligently fanning to create an artificial breeze. As a prince born and bred of Egypt, Pharaoh would never know what it was like to work in the fields or be consigned to hard labor. The anomaly standing in his throne room put that assertion to the test.

By contrast, his offender looked instead like he had earned his darkened skin tone with time devoted to grueling, backbreaking work under the sun’s scorching rays. This much about him was true, Pharaoh could see. Another man stood beside the visitor, looking very much akin to the first. The second man was the elder, Pharaoh knew. Determining which of the two had more humble beginnings was difficult, though, at first glance. They dressed alike, wearing the same rough cloth worn by the slaves, and they worked in tandem. When you saw one, you saw the other.

They looked out of place compared to Pharaoh, whose costly garments of finely twined linen, inlaid with colorful jewelry and precious stones, adorned his frame. Yet, these men in their rough-hewn cloth came to him as equals. In the case of the first, that was somewhat true. Pharaoh’s nemesis had not always spent his time in the fields, though it was impossible to tell that now. And that was the lie of it.

“Do not tell me,” Pharaoh began in a weary voice, picking up the ongoing thread in their conversation, for it was always the same. They had been through this scenario many times, the three of them. Pharaoh couldn’t find it within him to completely bend to their persistent and impossible demands. He could not altogether give in. He must save face, somehow. The man and his ever-present companion remained silent while Pharaoh slathered them with his standard scorn. Pharaoh sighed.

“I must let your people go,” he continued, raising a mocking finger to accentuate. “Or something dire will happen.” His features took on a bored, uncaring expression, though he was very much concerned. But he could lie, too.

“Pharaoh, you must hearken to our God,” the older man began. His voice blared through the great room like a trumpet, needing no magnification. The younger shrank back in what appeared to be passive silence, allowing the elder to speak, as usual. Pharaoh was not fooled. The mouthy one was not in charge; it was the silent partner who pulled the strings. Pharaoh waved the older man off. He had heard all their demands before.

“Or what?” Pharaoh taunted derisively. “Your god will have fruit flies descend upon us again?” He raised his hands in mock horror as if to fend them off. Gods forbid. “I’ve already told you – go! Take your people but you must leave the livestock.” He was tired of these negotiations but that would have to do. Pharaoh was no fool. If they left and took everything, they would have no incentive to return. He would not lose all.

“Pharaoh, it is not enough,” began the mouthpiece but his objection was immediately rebuffed.

“Your god is one of trivial annoyances,” Pharaoh rejoined. “I do not recognize your god,” he announced brazenly, directing a challenging glare at the younger man. Both men bristled at his dismissive tone.

Ah! There it was, minute, though present. A tell betrayed the younger man, distinguishing him as nothing else could. A familiar, fidgeting motion showed his discomfort and was quickly quelled. Pharaoh crowed mentally with that small victory, jubilant as any rooster. He recalled the frequent admonition given to all royalty from childhood. Do not fidget. It makes you look unsure. Leadership had not sat well upon his adversary then. But this man had been groomed to lead even Egypt if need be.

The elder man would likely have jumped eagerly into such an elevated position as the youngest held. His sort craved advancement; maybe even courted it. Pharaoh knew his kind. He orated well, as one who would lead, but he was a follower. The older man had done much of the talking in their early negotiations. Now the younger man had become somewhat more confident as the talks had progressed, even speaking at times. It did not matter which of them spoke as far as Pharaoh was concerned, though the presence of one was far more irksome than the other. But no matter. He had long decided that they were both beneath him. He would not bargain any further with lessers.

“I will not acknowledge your god of contrivance,” Pharaoh announced, imperiously, before either could rebut. Both men gaped in astonishment,  though they should not have been surprised, based on his past acts. Once the threat had been lifted, Pharaoh didn’t need to bow to their demands. Darkness no longer reigned in Egypt; thus, his incentive had been removed. Indeed, today the palace was positively filled with light in an absolute mockery of recent events. It was easy to forget the three days of pitch blackness with nary a hint of it remaining.

Now he could afford to treat both men contemptuously in front of his court as if they were the very pests of the god they claimed to represent. His casual air, however, was a pretense for the benefit of his onlookers. Pharaoh was deeply disturbed by the constant reappearance of these men and he seemed to lose more ground every time they surfaced. He wound up being at their mercy, beseeching them to remove his affliction. The indignity chafed him.

“Besides,” Pharaoh continued to provoke them, “you have not said ‘thank you.’” Aghast, the men were utterly stymied for words, rendered catatonic with speechlessness. They looked perplexed by his claim and altogether unprepared for this tactic. Recovering somewhat, they cast puzzled glances at each other. Both were seemingly lost as to his point. Then Pharaoh pounced on his topic like a man sure of the legitimacy of his claim.

“Where is your gratitude?” he ground out, teeth clenched at their insolence. He had them now. The men’s narrowed eyes did little to suppress Pharaoh’s confidence in his victory. He had given this opinion much thought and was prepared to speak on it at length. As he saw it, Egypt could have very well feasted while the nations around them perished from hunger. He said as much.

“My forefather opened the great and vast storehouses of Egypt to your people, magnanimously choosing to share our surplus harvest with your family and the world.”

And there it was. Pharaoh knew he had his audience enthralled now. Over four hundred years had passed since Yosef’s family had descended on Egypt. Pharaoh’s ancestors had taken them in, saved them, even. A fact sadly overlooked, in his estimation. It was high time he remedied that situation and told the true story of their conjoined history. Mistreatment, indeed!

“Let us be done with the lie of it! Egypt has been good to you!” His voice rose when the older man tried to interrupt, drowning out any opposing argument. Pharaoh held out a hand in the younger man’s direction, quelling any urge on his part, too. He would not brook any rebuttal in this. He was convinced, as were the onlookers, of Egypt’s righteousness as he crafted his tale.

Pharaoh stood then, twirling around with a dramatic flair, and prepared himself to put on a show. He knew he could do it. His audience was already captivated, waiting for his next words. He knew just how he should spin it. Buoyed by the idea of Egypt’s generosity during the famine crisis, he threw his arms open wide and cast a significant look around at the spectators.

“The land of Goshen was bestowed upon your fathers as a gift.” He stabbed a finger in the direction of the two men, for emphasis. “And the inhabitants of that settlement have prospered greatly ever since!”

Their numbers had grown considerably in the interim, so much that his father had been forced to cull their numbers at one time. Pharaoh glossed over that unfortunate incident, deeming it unworthy of mention and beside the point. It had been necessary, and it was in the past. Besides, this fellow was proof that not all the male babes had met the watery end that had been decreed by his father. Despite that proclamation, their population continued to flourish to this day.

Mumbles of agreement arose, and some even applauded. Members of Pharaoh’s court apparently shared this outlook. Egypt had been more than fair; they opined. Pharaoh lapped up their approval as the balm his pride needed. His ego had taken quite a beating at the hands of these two agitators. Their continued demands to leave Egypt and take his workforce with them were a gall and insult to Pharaoh. They were an ungrateful lot, considering all that had been done for the Y’Israelim. It was preposterous that they needed to be “freed” considering their history!

“Your people were provided with a much-needed haven,” he looked beseechingly at his audience for support, “at a time when it was so desperately needed.” Murmurs went up throughout the court. Yes, Egypt had been good to the Y’Israelim, a savior even.

“Let your people go?” Pharaoh turned on the men, his upper lip curled. “Without Egypt, you would have no people,” he spat, leaning on the word. Y’Israel had not been captured and enslaved. The family of Yosef had come of their own accord. They had been welcomed. Now, despite sharing Egypt’s goodness in the subsequent years, they thought to abandon him. Treacherous dogs!

These men represented all that was hated, despised, and now feared by his countrymen. Though elevated in the eyes of all Egypt because of the miracles they’d wrought, they were just dirty, smelly shepherds. Yet, they expected one such as Pharaoh to bow to their demands. Now they had come to deliver yet another directive from the unknown deity they served. To be fair, Pharaoh allowed, it was the same mandate. It hadn’t changed in the many times he had given them an audience. The order had oft been repeated like the refrain of a well-known song:

“Thus, says the Lord, let my people go.”

Pharaoh was tired of hearing it. The Hebrews called it bondage, but he preferred to view it as recompense for Egypt’s countless years of hospitality. Due to his continued defiance, the Hebrew god had supposedly visited nine plagues upon the Egyptians. Pharaoh ticked them off mentally. Frogs, locusts, lice, and fiery hail were among them, culminating in the most recent three days of absolute darkness. That had been the worst.

At the time, Pharaoh wondered: had Ra, the Great Sun God, somehow been captured, forcing his obeisance? If so, all of Egypt was doomed. Now Pharaoh dismissed the thought as entirely implausible, for the sun shone brilliantly through every aperture in his palace – proof of Ra’s omnipotence. He reigned supreme, having prevailed in a battle with the Hebrew god to once again rule the day.

“Do not be impressed by their trickery or sorcery, Great Pharaoh,” his chief advisor had initially counseled. Pharaoh believed his advisors when they’d claimed the man was only a trickster. They’d argued that the supernatural calamities accompanying each pronouncement could have perfectly reasonable origins. After all, locusts were known to decimate crops. His wise men and magicians had assured Pharaoh then, and he remained convinced: these men were charlatans. Had not his sorcerers conjured some of the same acts in his presence? When this man and his helper had summoned a serpent, Pharaoh’s magicians duplicated the feat with their own enchantments, adding more besides.

As the battle between the gods wore on, however, the secret arts of Pharaoh’s magicians had failed, proving to be no match for the Hebrew deity. They theorized that there might be some foreknowledge the shepherd representative held that allowed him to take advantage of naturally occurring phenomena like the darkness. But how could such events be known in advance? Regardless of the means, the Hebrew god’s servant accomplished such feats that far exceeded those of Pharaoh’s court. The magicians recanted as they, too, were struck with boils and blinded in the darkness. This god of the Hebrews was formidable, indeed. Pharaoh hated that most of all. He would not be at the mercy of the deity of these backward, uncouth, uncivilized, and lowborn people. He was royalty. He was king. He was God.

One fact remained inexplicable and indisputable. As each catastrophe rained (sometimes quite literally) on the Egyptians, the Y’Israelim territory was unaffected. Goshen was full of sunlight, while darkness cloaked the land of the Pharaohs. No pestilence visited Y’Israel there; only Egypt suffered. Somehow, their god was able to shield those who served him, directing his wrath specifically towards the Egyptians and their property alone.

At times like these, Pharaoh wondered about this affliction they cried about, for the Y’Israelim honestly had it better than the Egyptians. He smirked at the thought. It was why he’d bid them, therefore, to make bricks without the provender he supplied. To even up the odds, as it were. If their god was so great, then conjuring straw would seem a small thing. Again, where was the injustice?

But it was a small victory, eclipsed by each encounter thereafter. His advisors scrambled to find a solution for this man who proved as bothersome and annoying as the plagues he ushered in. After the last, they threw up their hands and were now united in their appeal. The advice given was heartfelt and straightforward: let the people of this angry deity go free.

However, Pharaoh was determined to outmaneuver this self-appointed leader of the Y’Israelim. While he could not outdo the pair in deeds, perhaps he could succeed in wiles. Maybe this was still a game that could be won. He followed a familiar pattern to wear them down.

Each capitulation was carefully choreographed, then reneged upon afterward. He would pretend innocence, conveniently “forget” his promises, then downplay the wonders exhibited through his adversary. Purposely at his most obdurate after each plague was lifted, he reveled in arrogance and ignorance. It was a gross display, but cunning. He’d always felt debased after resorting to these tactics, though elated that they worked. Such maneuvers bought him more time. Maybe, hopefully, they would tire of the game and go away. He resisted the smile that tugged at his lips at the thought of outfoxing his adversary once again. He couldn’t give in to them. He just … couldn’t.

It offended him at the deepest level. A tender of sheep sent to deliver ultimatums to the son and earthly representative of Ra? He would not have it. Pharaoh would not submit to the whims of a lesser god. Nor would he forget the assault on his person during the plague of boils. His healing sores were a constant reminder of the offense, and he suppressed the urge to scratch his broken skin. He would turn the tables, somehow, and repay every insult to his station and body, with more besides. The opportunity would come; he was sure. He only had to bide his time.

Pharaoh was past caring about what familial or political ties the man had. After all, they were relatives of a sort. His frequent visitor had been rescued from the Nile as a babe by Pharaoh’s kin, no less. Who could have known then what his survival would portend? Of a truth, Pharaoh lamented, it would have been better had this usurper died along with the others of his generation. And the miscreant was a murderer to boot, despite his seemingly rehabilitative experience in the desert. Pharaoh was not buying into it. Before him was a wanted criminal, yet the man dared to come before Pharaoh with his repeated demands! Whereas before the would-be felon had been entertained for various reasons, now Pharaoh was long past any momentary amusement gained and longed to give this traitor the jail time he so richly deserved. Or repay him in kind for his crime with the death sentence his past actions warranted.

 Pharaoh could not do that now though, for the time had since expired. His supplicants feared that Moses (or Moshe, as the slaves fondly referred to him) might very well represent an angry god. The Egyptian populace lived in dread anticipation of what the prophet would do next. Still, Pharaoh had to keep up appearances. His subjects needed to believe that he was a bigger god than that of the Y’Israelim. Though it was unfathomable that he could lose his entire labor force, now even his supremacy was in jeopardy.

Righteous indignation swelled in him as the threat took seed and magnified in his mind. His was a dynasty left to him by his father, and his father’s father – both had been great rulers before him. They’d taught him that Egypt was ruled by the authority of Ra, rendering Pharaoh a deity himself.

I AM GOD, Pharaoh grimly resolved. He would bow to no man.

“I do not recognize your god nor your authority to speak for him.” Though he had told Moses this on several occasions, it was time to prove it. Pharaoh needed to affirm his power as ruler and representative of the gods of Egypt.

“Get out! Get away from me!” he shouted, and his voice thundered through the entire throne room, so vast was his righteous indignation. He extended his crooked staff, the symbol of his authority, and shook it in their direction.

“Never come here again – do you hear me, my troubler?” Pharaoh seethed, and spittle flew from his mouth in his rage. He cast his eyes wildly around the room for effect, making sure he had the attention of all. He would not back down, no matter the power they displayed, or show weakness before his congregants. Pharaoh quaked, though not from fear, but at the effort taken merely to contain the urge to fall upon and choke his enemy. Despite his bold display, he was still reluctant to lay hands on the emissaries of the Hebrew god, else they would have already met the sharp end of his sword. He wanted to cut them down where they stood. Instead, he raged against his feelings of impotence and helplessness, gathering his courage to spew the final insult. He screamed, hoping that it would be enough to intimidate his enemy:

“Take care that you see my face no more, for the day you do, you will surely DIE!”

✽✽✽

His troubler, Moshe, as he thought of himself now, had rejected his former name and incarnation as a product of Egypt and Pharaoh’s court. His previous moniker, Mo-ses, was like their names, Ra-me-ses, for example. That part of him – Moses – no longer existed. That man was buried in the desert with his old life. For this, Moshe was thankful. Once, he had been much like the Egyptians of this court. Even his visage and bearing, his clothes and jewelry, had marked his station as one of privilege. What, except for the sense of entitlement that comes with that life, could ever make him think he could kill a man, even in anger, and not suffer the consequences? Or escape the guilt, he thought. He had been a spoiled member of the elite class, too, until his murderous actions had repealed that status. In killing his former countryman, Moshe had come down firmly on the side of the Y’Israelim – an irrevocable choice.

The Egyptian taskmaster had beaten a Hebrew slave, showing no mercy. The slave’s life shouldn’t have mattered because of his lowly circumstances. But Moshe had found that it mattered very much to him. To just stand by and watch, he’d felt, was to be complicit. Hot rage had burned within him at the injustice, blinding him. When he’d recovered, there was blood on his hands. Though he’d run from the consequences of his crime and the horror of what he had done these forty years, Moshe relived that moment over and again. He’d had plenty of time to mull over his actions since.

Now, he realized that all roads had returned him to this scene, not to face his crime, but his destiny. His whole life came down to this moment. He was meant to be a prince over God’s chosen people and lead them out of Egypt. His murderous rage was a thing of the past and, Moshe hoped, gone forever. Not trusting himself, he kept ever before him the image of the man he’d murdered to check that heated emotion. Vividly, Moshe recalled the taskmaster’s face crumpling in agony with the strike to the head. As he’d fallen, the light animating his cruel features had gone out, but it had not been Moshe’s to extinguish. The subsequent guilt had served to keep him humble and was a constant reminder of his propensity for violence.

Perhaps, if his life had gone differently, had he not killed the overseer, Moshe may have become, or even remained, like Pharaoh. If not for his divine encounter with the God of his fathers, he might also have become proud and unyielding, too. Mayhap, God would be now making an example of him as well. But Moshe had been spared that fate.

Time spent in the desert watching over his flocks had mellowed Moshe considerably, humbling him in a task he’d found detestable in his previous life. He resolved he would not rise to meet Pharaoh’s level of antagonism, though constantly provoked. Moshe was not that person anymore and was no longer given to fits of anger capable of killing a man. He was different now, changed. So, he merely inclined his head at Pharaoh’s vitriolic threat.

“Well said,” Moshe responded calmly, speaking at last. “You will never see my face again.” He meant it. He would not come before the stubborn, stiff-necked ruler again. For weeks he had attempted to negotiate with Pharaoh, to no avail. Didn’t he understand that Moshe wanted a peaceful resolution from which everyone could walk away? Be it upon Pharaoh’s head, whatever came next. Still, Moshe pitied the ruler his pride. It would be the undoing of Egypt. If only he could make Pharaoh see.

“He will not listen.” The Voice came to Moshe, whispering in his ear, unbidden, as always. “Tell him what I will do but he will not listen. I will make him an example because of his pride, the backbreaking work he forced upon My people, and the deaths of My children. He did not relent, and now he cannot repent; else, he will lose face before his subjects. The lives of all the firstborn of Egypt are in his hand. Because he gave himself over to evil and committed egregious acts towards My children, he will now pay with Egypt’s own. I have hardened his heart to show Y’Israel they need never fear any man, even Pharaoh, now and forever. With mighty acts, I will deliver them.” However, Moshe was still determined to try.

“Gr-gre-grea-great Ph-pha-pharaoh,” He began and flushed. His childhood flaw, his stutter, never seemed to altogether leave him. Moshe bit back a frustrated epithet. His damnable tongue tripped him up at the most inopportune moments. Delivered from murderous impulses, yes, but from fear of public speaking? Apparently, not. He had learned to stay away from words beginning with m’sor c’s. Those usually caused him the most trouble. He had meant to speak clearly and elegantly but had rushed into it, fumbling the attempt. Moshe struggled to regain control, but his anxiety only made it worse. Gaping and fishlike, his mouth fought to form simple words. If he could’ve cursed just then, even if only to force his mouth to work and obey him, he would have.

Aaron viewed Moshe’s discomfiture and stepped forward, ever ready to speak on his little brother’s behalf. As God’s chosen spokesman for Moshe, Aaron acted boldly and championed their cause. Before Moshe, there had been no hope for the Y’Israelim. Then Moshe had been appointed by I Am, the One True God, and had returned home to aid them. After a rocky start, the people now believed. Each plague only reinforced their faith that the God of their fathers was, indeed, set on delivering them from captivity. Aaron was always prepared to help with that aim. But this time, Moshe waved Aaron back.

Moshe wanted to make one last effort to get through to Pharaoh, one on one, all theatrics and posturing aside. He had to make Pharaoh understand. Though his speech impediment sometimes got the best of him, he could conquer it with considerable effort. Moshe took a deep calming breath. He began again, speaking slowly and rephrasing so that his tongue did not get tripped up.

“Your pride will lead to your downfall,” Moshe managed to get out without so much as a stammer. “Do you not see?” He then told Pharaoh of all that the Voice had revealed, a death sentence pulled from Pharaoh’s own thoughts. Through it all, Pharaoh’s expression remained closed, shuttered. It was as the Voice had declared. Pharaoh was unmoved, daring Moshe to do his worst. They may well have been discussing a trivial matter, rather than the demise of all the firstborn in Egypt, human and animal. All. This last awful plague would decimate Egypt as had no other and would have no respect for young or old, rich or poor, beast or man. That pride would drive the ruler to be so careless with the lives of his people was unconscionable. Pharaoh’s disinterested gaze told Moshe that the ruler cared only slightly more for his subjects than he had for the Y’Israelim. He considered them all less than himself and, therefore, expendable.

“The firstborn of Egypt will die at midnight, both man and beast,” Moshe said, his tone pleading. Do not make me do this, Moshe thought. Flustered by Pharaoh’s unrepentant attitude, Moshe lapsed again into his stutter. “P-p-perhaps, your fate m-m-may be ch-ch-changed -”

“If your God is so great,” Pharaoh interrupted snidely, “why isn’t he able to fix your speech, O’ twisted tongue one?” He forced the insult through clenched teeth, biting and cruel. As if on cue, the assemblage of people tittered (albeit, uncomfortably), mocking Moshe. It was an underhanded blow, but an obvious opening and a direct hit. Pharaoh chose to ridicule his opponent, instead of dealing with the issue at hand.

“This doesn’t have to be! If you would only listen,” Moshe began, fighting to regain control of his wayward tongue. His face mottled with embarrassment and the beginnings of anger, which he quickly suppressed. Moshe calmed himself; this was not about him. Refusing to take offense and escalate their battle, Moshe extended his arms to Pharaoh. He hoped to appeal to Pharaoh’s better side, for there had to be one. No man could be this stubborn and stiff-necked. But Pharaoh continued to mock Moshe, pointing at him and encouraging the others to join in.

Moshe looked around the court, seeking sanity in any countenance, for this was madness. Though some still suffered from weeping scars, none would meet his eyes. There must be one, Moshe thought, someone in Pharaoh’s court who could understand this was no longer a game of one-upmanship. If he could just convince one, perhaps Pharaoh would listen to that person. It was possible to salvage this. The beginnings of a plan began to form in Moshe’s head. He would intercede with God on their behalf, as before. It could work. Moshe opened his mouth to speak but Pharaoh’s booming laughter grew raucous and loud. The abrasive braying filled the room and intentionally drowned out anything Moshe could say. He tried, anyway.

“My God may have mercy if you repent –”

“Ba-HAH! You offer me, great Pharaoh, mercy?” Pharaoh laughed even more at the idea as if he found this genuinely hilarious. Slapping his knee, he made gasping noises, as if he could not catch his breath. Forcibly composing himself, Pharaoh wiped away the tears of mirth that welled at the corners of his eyes before continuing.

“Away from me with your mercy, Moses. You have none to offer. You are naught but a shepherd with grand aspirations. And a stammering one, at that.” More low chuckles followed Pharaoh’s cutting remark as he had intended. He would give no quarter, show no respect to this god nor his spokesman. Both would have to prove they could oust Pharaoh and take the Y’Israelim from his hand by force.

“You may go,” he said to Moshe with an airy flutter of his hand, as he would to a child, sending him on his way. Moshe opened his mouth to object and took a step forward. Pharaoh’s eyes flicked almost imperceptibly towards his guards, and they began to move forward and away from their posts at Pharaoh’s side. Menacingly, they approached Moshe and Aaron.

Pharaoh turned away from him, his tone bored. “You are dismissed.”

Moshe looked to the guards who stood ready to make a move if he continued with his course. These were Pharaoh’s most trusted and faithful soldiers. They were trained to obey and lay hands on anyone, regardless of his origin, should Pharaoh give the order. The royal guard hesitated before Moshe, seemingly reluctant, perhaps loath because of his history. He was, after all, a member of the royal family. Moshe recognized several faces from his childhood and knew that some were first-born. He was looking at dead men.

His shoulders sagged, quite suddenly, and the energy drained from him. He saw the futility of further rebutting Pharaoh, who was determined not to listen. Moshe wiped his brow with a weary hand and expelled a long, low breath. Whereas before he’d been somewhat invigorated by his exchanges with Pharaoh, now he was beyond tired of the whole thing. The stakes in their game had been raised exponentially. Pharaoh thought to call his bluff and would gamble with his constituents’ lives. Moshe looked at Aaron and gave a resigned nod. They had both turned on their heels to go when Pharaoh spoke again. Moshe turned, expectantly, but his hopes died with Pharaoh’s expression.

“Remember, do not come back again.” He smirked, wagging his finger at them and continued, “Unless you are ready to meet your god.”

The threat was evident as the palace guards ushered Moshe and Aaron out, shepherding them down the great halls of Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh’s mocking laughter accompanied their harried footsteps, chasing and echoing long after they’d left his presence.

“Can you believe …” Moshe heard him say. The rest became lost in the explosion of laughter that followed. Moshe shook his head at Aaron and closed his eyes. Pharaoh had brought doom on Egypt with his arrogance.

As they walked through the courtyard, Moshe passed a bejeweled depiction of Egypt’s winged goddess, Isis. The guards left them at this point and returned to their posts. Moshe halted to admire the image, being reminded of his wife. T’Zipporah, was his winged beauty, albeit in name only. She loved to wear a necklace bearing the imprint of a rising phoenix cast on onyx stone. She always said it was her bird of choice if she had to be one since she’d had no choice in her naming. The brief tug at his lips was for her and his thoughts were momentarily drawn away from the coming events.

As it turned out, her amulet had been a foreshadowing of his life to come. When he’d fled Egypt looking for sanctuary, he’d found it with her and her father. Moshe fancied that meeting had occasioned his resurrection from the ashes of his former life. It had been his rebirth and the beginning of this journey back to Egypt. T’Zipporah was his comforting reminder of all he had gained when he’d left and what he meant to accomplish for his kin: Freedom from this place. The memory stirred him to move again. Thankful that she was not here for this worsening development, Moshe yearned for the day when everything would be over. He could send for his wife, his love. With a sigh, Moshe turned to his brother.

“So be it,” he said to Aaron. His resolve fixed, Moshe and Aaron left the palace grounds to prepare the people for the night to come.

CHAPTER TWO

A Nightmarish Reality

“AGH!” Ari awakened and immediately recoiled from the shadow hovering over him. He scrambled back in terror as quickly as his flailing limbs would allow.

“Be easy,” said a soothing voice. A large brown hand appeared in Ari’s vision, extended in a placating gesture. His alarm dissipated as he discerned the face beyond the palm, dark and familiar, illuminated in the moon’s soft glow.

With considerable effort, Ari calmed himself, and the figure retreated. His brow was slick with sweat and his damp clothing clung to his body, cooling him. My reaction is just a normal physical response to the recurring dream, Ari assured himself. His breathing gradually slowed.

The morning was still far away, and the coolness of the desert night lingered, causing him to shiver. Luminous in the night sky, the moon seemed to provide solace and relief from the nightmare realm from which he’d been recently expelled. But Ari could not be so easily fooled. The giant orb’s illumination could only offer a false sense of security, for the light concealed far more than it revealed. Ari’s eyes bored into the shadows that surrounded him, searching for signs that his folly had, indeed, caught up with him. He longed for the sun’s reassuring warmth, just at that moment. Or home, for that matter. With a resigned sigh, he sat up. Sleep was not a luxury given to him, of late. Abaddon hunted Ari even while he slept.

“Again?” came Mal’s solemn query in the stillness. Ari jumped a little, then quickly relaxed as his panicked gaze rested on the hulking outline of his friend.

To say Mal was big would be an understatement. The descriptor had long been attached to his name, forever rendering him Big Mal to all in his acquaintance. His size was a genetic trait rightfully garnered from his father, one of the few adults who were bigger than Mal. His mother was not far behind. The couple were a matched pair and their neighbors often joked that they were possibly descended from the Nephilim. Somewhat opposed to the giants of legend, Mal was as unlike Goliath and his ilk as anyone could ever be. Never overbearing or bullyish, Mal wouldn’t use his size to intimidate or threaten. Quite the opposite. He had a protective urge and felt it only right that he should look out for those who were smaller than himself.

This also explained why Mal took his watch seriously. There was no slump to his posture; his body was alert for any suspicious activity. When it was Mal’s turn to watch, well, he was watching. His dark eyes missed nothing. More importantly, he was not blind to Ari’s anguish. He heard the piteous moans emitted during Ari’s dreams. Mal always awakened his friend before his agitation grew and his cries became too loud. Mal cautiously laid a huge, comforting hand on Ari’s arm. Mal knew from experience how jittery Ari could be after a nightmare.

The moonlight marked the jarring differences between them: Light for dark, wiry to meaty, but they were alike in spirit and unified in purpose. As usual, Ari’s sandy blond coils stood on end after a night of wrestling in his sleep. His hands always seemed to find his hair whenever he was worried, even as he slept. His gray eyes had difficulty with meeting Mal’s dark gaze in the dim lighting. Ari wanted to shy away from any recriminations he might find there. He wouldn’t be surprised if he did. He blamed himself, too.

Ari wished for stoicism like his companion. Or to be brave like his father, Jules, when faced with death. But Ari felt helpless and out of control about what was happening. He didn’t feel strong enough or brave enough for what was happening. He was scared out of his mind. Even as he berated himself for how he felt, he dared to look up. Ari sighed deeply. He should have known better. There was only concern reflected in Mal’s eyes. Instead of improving Ari’s mood, Mal’s response served to evoke more self-castigation. Mal was a friend and staunch ally. He had proven this time and again. His presence here with Ari was further proof and a reminder if one was needed. Ari felt ashamed that he’d even thought of his friend as less. To Mal’s question, Ari merely nodded. He gathered himself and prepared for the next watch.

Further pursuit of sleep was useless, he knew. He would find no rest there. Nor would he find it in his waking hours, it seemed. Resigned, he shook off the last vestiges of slumber and took in his surroundings. Denied the comfort of lodgings or the warmth of a fire, they sat huddled with their backs to a palm tree. Living on the fringes of society had become their routine in the past days, or had it been weeks? Ari didn’t remember anymore. When you could leap through time, how did you measure a day? Was it when you finally succumbed to overwhelming fatigue and nearly collapsed? He supposed he could count the times they had actively pursued sleep, as they had this evening, taking refuge under the palm trees. That is, if the fog would clear from his sleep deprived brain, he could probably count them. But the dark hollows under his eyes were a silent witness to his futile attempts to attain that state of nocturnal, blissful, non-activity. If Ari could dream normally again, it would be of sleep.

Though the copse of palm trees under which they sheltered afforded little protection against the night, they warded off the chill, somewhat. Not enough, Ari groused to himself. He pulled his cloak up about his neck and hunched back into the fabric. No point in verbalizing that woe either, as it was just one more thing about which he could do nothing.

Martha, their only other companion, continued her sleep uninterrupted, unaware of his torment. Both boys sat relatively close to her instead of starting a fire, as Martha seemed to radiate heat. Her single thick braid had been replaced with smaller plaits that splayed over her caramel skin in disarray. Martha had found her mass of hair much more convenient to care for in smaller sections. Ari much preferred Martha in her current state, peaceful and oblivious. As tiny as Mal was big, her heart matched his for size. Her waking hours consisted primarily of worrying incessantly about their next step, but mostly about Ari. She hovered and clucked like a distraught mother hen, continually racking her brain to solve their dilemma. Now slack with sleep, her expression was free of the cares that normally marred her brow.

Cares that he brought to her, Ari reminded himself. He felt isolated and alone, like he was in his dream, even with his friends at his side. They would help, but the burden fell on him alone.

Patér, Ari thought, his heart squeezing. Thoughts of his father were never far from his mind, immeasurably comforting and simultaneously tormenting. Everything began and ended with his father, Jules.

After his father’s death, Ari and his mother had moved back to their familial home to live with her father and brothers. In the small fishing village of Capernaum, Ari had found it challenging to fit in. His father had been a Roman Centurion, and his mother was of the Y’Israelim. Ari was born a citizen of Rome because of his father’s occupation. He dressed as they did, walked and talked like them, and enjoyed all the benefits accorded his status. In his father’s world, Ari fit in. He made sense. All that had changed when his father died. Uprooted and displaced, Ari floundered in his new home.

For his mother’s sake, he exerted an effort to appear well adjusted to their fortunes. Ari extended that courtesy to his uncles and grandfather, but not his new neighbors. The loss of his patér had still been a raw, gaping wound that would not heal, causing Ari to instantly rebuff any efforts to overcome his inherent awkwardness. Not that there had been very many overtures to that end. The adult residents of the small fishing village had readily left him to his own devices, and their children followed suit. Ari found himself quite alone.

Then one day, a traveling prophet came to their village. Ari’s curiosity had caused him to linger nearby as the townspeople gathered around the Young Master, asking him to pray for their children. When the prophet had seen Ari surreptitiously watching, he’d called to Ari and the cousins, Martha and Mal. The YM (so dubbed by Ari) had held in His reserve a special blessing just for the three of them, altering Ari’s life, once again.

Elemental gifts of water, wind, fire, and cloud had been imparted on the condition that they used their powers for good. When they’d found that they could also travel through time, the trio had happily embarked on their adventures, and their bond was instantly knit. Though they’d readily agreed to the YM’s conditions, that responsibility soon proved a heavy burden. It became increasingly difficult to not use their talents for personal gain. Falling for a ruse, Ari had succumbed to his most base desire.  The trap was sprung when their enemy, the Strange Man (aka, DeMarcus), had dangled a carrot, a promise so enticing that Ari desperately grasped at it.

“I can give you back your father,” he had said.

“No!” said Ari emphatically, though he’d paused. Ari hadn’t meant to listen, but the idea captivated him. He could achieve his heart’s dream. He could travel back in time and save Jules.

“How?” Ari had asked and sealed his fate.

In so doing, Ari had willingly aligned himself with a known evil, and a force credited as the source of all unrest. Although he’d sought to justify his actions as pure and noble, their unlikely alliance placed him in the most despicable position. And DeMarcus’ help also came at a steep price.

“Minuscule details, not worth worrying about,” DeMarcus had assured him.

So, Ari had shrugged off the cost, risking everything. Jules was worth anything.

DeMarcus’ plan had been simple. Although it had meant being duplicitous with his friends, Ari had complied. Time travel required all three of them to function, so he’d needed Mal and Martha to agree. But if they’d known he intended to change the past; would they have? He’d had to convince them. And he did, with copious tears and emotional manipulation. He only wanted to see his father again, he’d told them, laying out his case. He’d left out his intention to bring Jules back to their time alive. Of course, they’d agreed when faced with such pressure. Ari had felt the fool when he’d found himself likewise duped by his erstwhile companion. As it turned out, DeMarcus had only told half the truth, too.

Yes, Ari had been able to see his father again, but thereafter the plan had begun to unravel. To Ari’s dismay, Jules had refused to go with him. After seeing Ari’s future incarnation and what he could do, Jules realized that his son would soon become someone of unfathomable abilities. It was a destiny only made possible by Jules’ absence. So, he’d made his peace with not being there to watch his son grow up and sacrificed himself. He’d chosen a future where Ari could become something more incredible than either of them could have ever imagined. Still, Ari obstinately refused to hear Jules’ objections and had remained committed to his course. Ari had come too far and risked too much to give up. Not when he’d been so close to his objective.

In the end, his attempt to save Jules had been inevitably and tragically unsuccessful, which his former ally had known all along. Ari’s actions had triggered an event of calamitous repercussions – the release of an arcane entity mightier than them all: The Pale Rider. Due to awaken at the end of the world, Abaddon thought that his time to ride was now. His appetite was insatiable. Left unchecked, he would destroy flesh on a scale that the world had seldom seen. DeMarcus knew that Ari’s actions would bring on a premature Apocalypse and make way for the Pale Rider’s entrance. Ari had been manipulated as certainly as he had done to Mal and Martha.

Though he was being hunted now for his transgression, he supposed there was a bright spot in all this. Abaddon’s dogged pursuit of Ari forestalled the inevitable destruction of all humanity. Which only left Ari with the salvation of the entire world on his thin shoulders. Morbidly, he speculated that Abaddon would get around to the rest of them once he was dead. All this because Ari had dared to try to save his father.

He rubbed his scalp as the dark memories rode his mind, and with them came an unerring realization. He’d kept company with DeMarcus long enough to become adept at lying, even to himself. His actions had been more artful than he’d cared to admit then, and were not motivated by good intentions, alone. He’d had plenty of time to self-reflect, since. Lies were what had led to this, his plight. So, now honesty was best, even if only with himself.

He admitted that he’d known he’d been meddling in dark matters and must have understood from the onset. Even with Mal’s and Martha’s cooperation, he’d still needed a foul boost of energy from DeMarcus to accomplish the deed. Ari had felt sullied afterward but immediately dismissed the feeling and stayed committed to his cause. He either had not cared about the consequences at the time or had counted them worth the cost. In return, Ari had pledged the use of his gift in service to DeMarcus. Ari had even stood with DeMarcus against Mal and Martha, before regaining his senses.

When everything had fallen apart, he’d realized that their agreement also meant relinquishing himself to the Strange Man, not just his gift. Their bargain might have meant an eternity of servitude, for all Ari knew. He had just said yes in his eagerness to get back to his father. Not only had he sold himself and betrayed his friends to get what he’d wanted, but he’d also unknowingly bartered the fate of the world. DeMarcus had laughed when the time had come to pay for the foolish bargain. But the YM had mercifully intervened, saving Ari. Afterwards, Ari and his friends had somehow been treated to a glorified version of his deceased father. One last glimpse and then Jules was gone. It had been enough though – more than Ari deserved. The remembrance humbled him.

“Use your gifts for good,” the YM’s words continued to haunt Ari.

Apparently, “for good” did not include changing the past and intercepting his father’s death. It meant something like for the “greater good” or “good of all.” It was apparent to Ari now that although you could do a thing, perhaps it was better if you did not. Rules were there for a reason, even if you didn’t know or understand the reason. Ari fervently hoped there would be another chance to avert the coming disaster and turn this into something beneficial for all, even if that benefit did not extend to him. Everything had gone so wrong, he lamented. He would jump at the chance to make it right.

A soft rustling in a nearby patch of leafy undergrowth gained Ari’s attention, bringing him back to the present. Probably a sand rat. The desert was full of them. The bark of a caracal sounded, accompanied by a hyena’s cackle. Great, he thought, a fight. Not that Ari was alarmed. He and his friends had no need of weapons to stave off hungry predators. They were weapons. Besides, wild animals were the least of his concerns.

Mal’s eyes were still on him. Uneasy with Mal’s kind regard, Ari chose that moment to shift in his seat, seeking a more comfortable position. He abhorred sympathy, but kindness was genuinely his undoing. As Mal continued to stare, Ari realized that perhaps Mal still awaited his answer. So, he answered, again, this time verbally.

“Yes,” he cleared his throat a little to appear more normal and unaffected. He tried again. “It was the same dream.”

Considering Mal had already caught him yelling in terror, Ari felt certain his nonchalant air was unconvincing. Ari feared his friend might push for more, so he fixed a guileless gaze on some far-off point to avoid looking at Mal. Besides, his dreams did not warrant more discussion: same nightmare, same aftermath. Mal would already know the direction his guilty meanderings had taken. They had been through this countless times. Apologies could not begin to express how Ari felt. His greatest regret was not seeking to save his father, but that he had entangled Martha and Mal in his scheme. He didn’t want anyone else to pay for his mistake.

Ari had not known how much he needed friends to ease life without his father until after meeting Mal and Martha. They filled a void he’d known existed but had no clue how to make full again. Together, they formed a triumvirate of unimaginable power, although Ari felt like the weak link in their union. They did not deserve this. The pair had shown themselves as faithful as he could ever hope for in friends, even endangering their lives to save his own. Mal had become like a brother to him, and like any siblings, they sometimes fought. Martha was fiercely protective and nurtured them both. By contrast, Ari felt like the jester he had come to portray to hide his true feelings. His regard for his friends, however, was no joke. Both had come to mean the world to him. He would do all he could to extricate his friends from the consequences of his actions.

Ari expelled a cleansing breath, hoping to avoid another fall into the depths of self-flagellation. It had become a familiar place for him. Once there, he would flail helplessly in the abyss for a time, recounting his poor choices before other thoughts captured his attention. He was thankful for a diversion.

The village across the distance intrigued him. He and his companions were camped near the edge of the settlement and it seemed homey and inviting. Ari imagined that the interior of the mud-brick homes would be much like the ones back in Capernaum. With the dying embers of their cooking fires banked for the night, the residual heat would carry over until morning. The families’ warm bodies were likely tucked in by now and snuggled together cozily in their slumber. Fresh, hot bread would’ve been served earlier with the evening meal, perhaps accompanied by succulent roasted meats. There may have even been cucumbers and leeks, prepared by loving hands. His mouth watered at the images he conjured. How he missed the small comforts of home and family, but Mētēra, mostly. Thoughts of his mother were almost as painful as those of his father. Ari repressed a sigh.

Not for you, he rebuked himself, sternly. Not now.

He knew they could not seek shelter among these residents for the same reason he could not return home. To dwell among the people would risk bringing death to any of these households. He and his friends had to be extremely careful, purposeful, in leading their pursuer to precisely the right place and time. Until then, they harbored on the outskirts of this community, gleaning sustenance where they could, pilfering provisions whenever necessary. Their meager food supplies were long gone, and they’d hunkered down for the night with empty bellies.

However, hope fueled Ari and expanded his growling stomach with the stuff of his imaginations. He conjured a mental picture of a future where Abaddon was no longer a threat and his loved ones were safe. Ari understood now how Yohan, one of the lost boys of his childhood home, had managed to keep such good spirits. Though homeless, hungry, and dirty, Yohan managed to satisfy himself through others, watching them live and eat and drink, imagining himself in their place. He was happy simply because one of his companions got to eat.

Following Yohan’s example, Ari contented himself with soaking up the village’s sights and sounds, so reminiscent of home, and envisioning himself among the residents. Better still, imagining himself back in Capernaum. But that image soon proved too painful for Ari. The best he could hope for at home was life unchanged, with everyone safe from harm.

He recalled the debate among him and his fellow travelers regarding these people. They placed the villagers in danger by their mere proximity, he’d felt. Martha had pragmatically asserted, as was her fashion, that these people were already dead and long gone. No further harm could come to them in bringing Abaddon here. The people could not die twice. Still, that did not convince Ari. He was more concerned with the ripple effect. What if Abaddon killed one of his ancestors? Would he and his family line simply blink out of existence? The responsibility for so many lives weighed on him, continually. His own life. His friends. The world. No pressure.

Although the inhabitants of the softly glowing village had died long ago in reality, they were very much alive now. And Abaddon could kill them all prematurely, creating shockwaves of change with lasting consequences. On this, Martha had agreed. Hence, their need to tread carefully and disrupt as few lives as possible. Ari held his face in his hands. He was so tired. All this responsibility had been laid at his feet before the age of manhood. He’d thought he would have more time for childish endeavors. He should have been skipping rocks across the water or playing sword fights with sticks! Instead, adult, life-changing decisions had been thrust upon him. He couldn’t bear the thought of more lives on his hands.

“When will it end?” Ari asked abruptly, his voice plaintive. It was an old conversation, and he knew the answer. But he was mentally exhausted. Weary of the chase. Tired of being afraid, from wondering: Is it today? Will today be the day that I die? He certainly felt like he could perish from shame, alone. Indeed, it could kill him, this knowledge of the painful repercussions of his selfish deeds. He only wanted this to be over.

Maybe he would just give up. Surrender and let Abaddon have him, be done with it all. But so much was at stake. They had to play this exactly right, or everyone would lose. If giving up would change the outcome, he would do it in an instant. For the greater good, wouldn’t it be worth it? He would not just be throwing his life away, in that case. And he could leave this existence as a hero, rather than die in ignominy. In retrospect, he couldn’t have valued his life very much, to have risked it so wantonly. That much had not changed, at least – the value he placed on his life. He didn’t feel equal to the effort expended by his friends or the YM.

Ari groaned inwardly. Perhaps the earth would open and swallow him whole, sparing everyone the trouble. But experience had shown that he was not that fortunate. A merciful act of providence, it seemed, was not his fate. Living with his actions was to be part of his punishment.

Why not fall on a sword, he often asked himself, and dramatically end the whole sordid debacle? Should such a weapon chance to fall in his hands, he imagined he would grasp it and most vigorously employ the device to bring about his end. Morbid scenes played through his head as he envisioned his demise. Then his eyes fell on the tiny girl who lay nestled between him and Mal, ending his circular argument. The answer was simple and a lot less complicated than his debate over how to best die. He ran for Martha’s sake. She believed his end was not inevitable, that they could save Ari, and with him, the world. Ari entertained little hope of his survival, though, even as he followed her plan.

Daily, he kept his dark imaginings from Martha as he racked his brain for another way. She didn’t need to know that all of this may be in vain. It was better if she believed and was happy, in a fashion, for as long as possible. But the odds were not in his favor. Ari knew he might not make it, home or otherwise. He determined, however, that his friends would survive this, somehow. If not for their steadfast insistence on accompanying him, they would be out of it. He had to do something to change their fate and that of their world.

Mal alone knew something of how he was feeling. Sometimes Mal offered only silent commiseration, as he did now. Having once succumbed to the lure of having so much power at his disposal, Mal had also failed the test and knew the regret that accompanied such actions. He often sat up in the late hours of his watch, keeping Ari company as his small cousin slept nearby. To Mal, Ari confessed all his misgivings but by unspoken agreement, they kept their conversations from Martha.

“You already know the answer to that,” Mal replied laconically. His answer to the question remained ever the same. It was not that he did not care. He just could not do anything about their situation. Though Mal sometimes received prophetic dreams, in this, he had nothing. No foreshadowing of events to come, nor insight into the happenings at home. His parents and sisters, were they well? He would be hard-pressed to say which of his family members he loved more, although the littlest sister was undoubtedly the one who commanded most of his attention.

“Ma-al!” Hannah would often begin, stretching his name out over two syllables. “Why did you leave me for so long?” He formed a mental picture of her stamping a dirty foot in an outward expression of ire as if her stormy face were not indication enough. “And why did you not take me with you?”

In Hannah’s mind, everything was about her. She didn’t object so much to his leaving, but that he had left her behind. She was his spoiled and beloved little sister, ever wanting to be his shadow. Mal didn’t mind indulging her, as did the rest of the family. His brow furrowed, as it often did when he allowed himself to dwell overlong on home. Did they worry about his absence?

Their journeys before had typically brought him, Ari, and Martha back home before an alarm could be raised. Well, mostly. Martha hadn’t been so lucky the last time. When her parents had noted her absence, she’d found herself embroiled in a domestic standoff. Perceiving her freedoms as too much, Mal’s uncle and aunt had restricted Martha’s movements accordingly. She had only been allowed to go out with Mal for brief periods. They’d trusted him implicitly and knew he would take care of his younger cousin. Remembering their reaction to Martha’s absence, he wished with all his heart that his family was not worrying and missing him, too.

Mal protected Martha, but at the same time, he and Ari looked to her for guidance. As Mal saw things, everything hinged on the success of her plan. They had only to land on the right day and deliver Abaddon to the site of one of his most infamous feasts. He would take the bait, hopefully. Then Mal, Ari, and Martha could return home. Easier said than done, but surely doable. Until then, they ran, doing all they could to stay one step ahead of their pursuer. A touch on Mal’s shoulder drew him out of his reverie.

“My turn,” Ari said and turned his face towards the moon. Further sleep would evade Ari; Mal might as well take advantage of it. The giant boy gathered his cloak around himself, wrapping himself protectively against the night air. He shimmied back until he found a comfortable position and stared at the moonlit sky with Ari. The long silence stretching between them warmed him; it felt companionable and familiar. When Ari noticed Mal’s head drooping, he nudged his friend’s shoulder.

“Go to sleep, Mal.” Without further ado, Mal lay down and curled up on his side. His soft snoring followed soon after, which made sense. When your days were spent on the run and moving continuously, sleep was a given. Except for Ari.

✽✽✽

I am Death. He personified this state of un-being, of other than life. Utterly unconscionable, he understood only the driving desire to sate his hunger. His was a primal need, an urge that grew, increasing with each hour spent on this seemingly interminable plane. He would have hated his accursed body for needing, wanting. And each time he was called into service, he would have loathed this infernal existence. If he could feel, he would have.

As he took form, he reached out for that which sustained him and assuaged his need. He did not bother to look down for confirmation. A surge ran through him, and pure power coursed through his being, innervating him for the hunt. Another body slumped at his feet; he knew. His, for the mere taking, simply because he walked the earth. He brought death to everyone he touched and left a trail of corpses in his wake. There was no sorrow over his actions, no grief, no remorse. For this purpose, he existed. Once awakened, only wholesale slaughter could slake this thirst and return him to his rest.

This need was coupled with another desire that gave further impetus to the chase. A specific someone had to be collected before he could fully give himself over to the hunger. It was a distracting call and one of such magnitude that it overrode his duty and instinctual desire. He was a tool used to dispense justice and retribution. Only an epic reversal, an undoing of something preordained and altering destiny itself, could trigger his release. He had been robbed, simply put. It was a thing which no mere mortal should ever be able to do but the boy and his friends had accomplished it somehow. One life could not merely be swapped for another. Still, he had come merely for compensation, not revenge. The injustice of the act tugged at him like a siren’s call, drawing him ever closer. Though he had already claimed the intended victim, the resulting imbalance still left within him a gaping chasm that only more deaths could fill.

Ruthlessly, he tracked his quarry through the ages, detecting that unique signature of power left behind each time the children surfaced. Where and how did they gain such abilities? Likely stolen, too. Thieves. No matter. He would find them. His focus was unwavering and deadly as the arrow he’d sent into the would-be evader’s heart to reclaim his life.

“Jules!” He heard the woman’s panicked scream, quickly followed by another cry:

Patér! NO,” voiced by the boy he hunted.

Still, Abaddon could spare neither pity nor grief for their sorrow. He did not possess those attributes. No one could escape death; few would dare try. If they did, he was bound to hunt them and collect his due. Let them run. They would eventually tire, but he would never. This debt was unavoidable and must be paid…

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