Some things are sacred for different reasons. (WDC Sountrackers Contest)
|Marook checked his charges moving about. His task was perimeter security, and he took it seriously, even if others did not. It had been nearly before his lifetime that there had been an attack, but he had his job, and he'd get it done. He found one sentry about half asleep and rapped him on his helmet with the flat of his sword.
"Look alive, Guardian! Or you won't be one!"
"Yes sir!" Came the reply, and after a stare, he moved on.
Morning was breaking, which would mean the end of his shift, but there was a weekly strategy meeting to attend. They were the most boring part of his existence. It was the same as yesterday, last week, and last month, too. The Head Night Guard settled into his seat, already dreaming about sleep. The rest of the room was filled with people of his kind with higher ranks, and the lords who ruled the territory, and they were all awake. He smelled the aroma of the the grounds they brewed. One of his superiors placed a mug in front of him and said he'd need it. Perhaps this one wouldn't be so boring. He sipped the hot beverage.
They managed to speak a common language, but the lords were a distinct form of life that was not the same as the guardians. They were taller by perhaps a foot or two, with an elongated body and features. The worst part, to Marook, was the translucence of them. It varied one from another, with some having body parts so clear you could read through them. Others, like one of the leading the meeting, was as opaque as any of the guardians. That was a very rare case, though. In fact, one of the lower ranked Sappør almost looked like he wasn't there. The individual levels changed all the time, and it could make it difficult to tell them apart. But this was an unusual meeting, so he asked some questions.
"Why am I just hearing about some alleged spy in the woods just now?" He asked, "My men need to know."
"It only happened a short while ago." The lead Sappør replied.
"In that short while, my charges could be preparing! Has this spy been interrogated?"
"He did not survive long enough to speak."
That was a pity. It would be good to know, for sure, what they were after. "Did they head for Sacred Grove?"
"No. It seemed like they were after a life. Perhaps yours or mine." Another Sappør said, "But we'll not ever know."
"That is a shame."
Marook turned to his aide, "Set a meeting in 10 ticks with the Head Day Guard. They need forewarning."
"Aye, Sir." He stood, and his aide followed suit. "I have duties to attend if there is nothing further," He said to the room. No one spoke and he and his aide snapped a clean turn and exited.
The "Nights" as they'd been dubbed, had the leadership together for only a short time when a messenger came. Their leader read it and told his people to watch every rock and blade of foliage, because it might mean life or death. "Listen to him. They will be back, and you'd better be ready." One of the Night Guards said, as would many others. It wouldn't be long before another one was found, but the Guard who found him first kept him alive. They had him knelt, bound, and hooded when Marook arrived, and he told them to uncover his head.
The one in charge of the prisoner hesitated. "Sir, are you cert..."
"Does he have some giant tusks or fangs to attack me?"
Marook stared at him. "Then remove the hood. If he's a scout, he already knows where he is..."
What he saw next stunned him. The spy they had found was of his species, yet something was different. It was if his brain couldn't process it. He pulled his man to the side and asked him what he thought was happening. His underling said that it appeared the scout was of their same race, but was female. Stunned even more, he turned his head to look at her while his man continued. He hadn't believed it either when she told him, but he explained he had seen certain anatomical differences, which she'd shown him.
"It's true, sir."
"This is impossible!" He bellowed, "We're all male clones!"
"You aren't a clone, you're a prisoner!" She yelled, and a guard moved to strike her.
"Stop!" Marook held up a hand. "Treat this one with velvet gloves."
"Vel... what?" The young man was confused.
"Don't hurt her!" He snapped.
"I need to speak with someone in charge." She said.
"Well, I'm not going to wake anyone, so it's me or nothing."
The Head Night Guard paced around for a bit muttering to himself. She had no weapons nor armor, and even in the dark he could see she was shaped differently. He made a decision and told one of his men to unbind her. His men hesitated, but then did as commanded. As he thought, she didn't run or fight.
"Hungry?" He tossed her a fruit. "Is that what you were after in the Grove?"
"I didn't come to spy or steal, I came to talk to someone." She said, "And those grow everywhere. You should try one."
"Then why the cloak?" He ignored the fruit comment.
"I was hoping that talk would be with someone more... senior?"
He snorted, "Oh?"
"The more I could move in the more senior officer I might find."
"Why would that seem wise? No one makes it past us, anyway."
She explained that the further up she could get without capture could mean the word might spread faster. He asked what that word might be and she began to explain. The devils, she called them, had arrived without warning on a peaceful people. At first, there were many of the indigenous people, but after the destruction of the large cities, they only survived in small clans. Even then, once found, a child or two was stolen and people killed, so they moved on. With the people subdued, they left garrisons and sent many troops on to other places. He stopped her.
"How did you get picked for this?"
"I volunteered, and got a lucky roll." She said.
"Volunteered... for this nightmare?"
"Sir, you are stuck in the nightmare. I'm here to awaken you."
He laughed. She did not. She went on in a quiet voice about the other species they both knew. The change in coloring -- a term she used -- was an indication of how much they fed. It wasn't a matter of meat or vegetable, they lived on the misery of others. She smelled the cool fog of the morning to come. She spoke in a whisper.
"The Sacred Grove is a cemetery. The devils here survive off the old misery there. We would go there to honor the fallen in combat."
He thought a moment to come up with unfamiliar terms, then, "You inter your dead?"
"No, guard of the night... our dead." She stared at him. "These devils raid villages and steal male babies to make them fight their own kind."
She stared at his look, that of a poleaxed cow. "Their hope has always been that through tyranny you would never know the truth."
It wasn't a war, or a battle, it wasn't even a skirmish. The Head Night Guard and his daytime equivalent walked into the meeting with men behind them. Slightly ahead was the Watch Overlord, who told all the Sappør to surrender. They did not, and most were killed quickly, but Marook saw something different. He asked the shimmering man if he wanted to live and he nodded the affirmative.
"Leave this one, it's not like the others!" He didn't know the word empathy, but he felt what it was in his bones. "Second Guard! Gather two hands of men and take this man to a healing tent. I've seen them work. If he's harmed, they answer to me." Plenty of misery to keep him fed, too, Marook thought, even if he was helping people.
After it was over, high guards spoke with their troops. Some remained to guard it for their newly found people, others youngsters were claimed by clans, but many were left alone and puzzled. He felt the same, really. She suggested they just walk, and his troops -- devoid of arms and armor -- followed. They would all find places to work and live.
"These really grow everywhere?" He bit deep into the fruit he'd long been forbidden. "Interesting. It's sweet, but has a tart little finish."
"You have a piece on your face!" She laughed. He swiped at his cheek and missed it. "I'll get it..."
She kissed it off his cheek, and Marook had a very pleasant warm feeling he'd never experienced in his life.
Kiss It Off
One so sad, feeling's painful
You can't deny, there is no peace
Is no love, milk-toasted love
Ain't no velvet glove
You were the child of some electric nightmare
And you could move mountains, the swords of fire
They keep you around to watch their house of gold
Keep the hungry away from the sacred grove
You were holy and you made me wonder how
But you looked like a devil who would seize and shake you down
On the hopes of a tyrant
No one makes it over
There is no peace
Is no love, a milk-toasted love
Ain't no velvet glove
Songwriter: Lowell George