Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
The two men, perched on a steep hillside, watched from a safe distance as an invading army destroyed the city below them. The towering stone wall that protected the city, once strong and unbreakable, couldn’t hold back the onslaught. Even over the sounds of war, the watchers could hear the yells of the invading commanders directing their soldiers. No man, woman, child, or beast was to be left alive. The instructions were carried out with swords and spears, and the slaughter was completed in the space of a day.
The two watchers, Danel and Keret, understood the implications of what they’d witnessed. The destroyed city was not the one from which they hailed. No, their city was the next closest, about a two day’s march away. Nearly a year earlier, along with several other soldiers, the two men had left their city on a mission to escort an ambassador to a faraway land. The mission had soured, and the ambassador was now dead. On the return journey, the other soldiers had become victims of either the desert heat or nomadic attackers. Danel and Keret were the last survivors of the mission, and were on their way home to report the failure of the undertaking. The two men had nearly stumbled, unexpectedly and accidentally, into the army of the invaders. It was an army from a land they weren’t familiar with. Luckily for them, they remained undiscovered, but a return to their own city was beginning to look impossible. Half of the invading army had already marched off, even while the other half continued with the slaughter. Danel and Keret watched as the foreign soldiers headed toward their city, and they could hear the commanders talking their men up for yet another siege. They considered trying to get out ahead of the traveling invaders, so that they could maybe, just maybe, reach their city first to give warning. But the quickest route was through a small canyon, which was the same route the invaders were taking. They knew it would be impossible to follow that course and not be spotted. They chose a longer route, and hoped that the extra distance would be negated by the fact that two lonely men could travel faster than an invading army.
Upon their arrival, they found that they were too late; their city was already surrounded by the first half of the invasion force. Soon, the rest of them would arrive, and the attack would begin. Danel and Keret didn’t have to discuss it, they both knew their city’s fate would be the same as its neighbor. The invaders wanted this land for themselves, and their army was mightier than any they’d seen before. It seemed as if it was guided by an unstoppable force. The walls of their city would fall even faster than those of the city that came before.
The two men found a well hidden position on a hillside, grimly observing the preparations unfolding down below them.
“It’s hopeless, we can do nothing for them,” Keret lamented.
Danel subconsciously rubbed the stone amulet that hung around his neck. It was a movement he made whenever he was deep in thought. Finally he responded, “I won’t leave her there. I can’t just leave her to die with the rest of them.”
Danel looked down upon the doomed city, the city of his birth. He’d served it faithfully. At a young age, he he’d been ripped from his mother and given to its army. He was trained to be a soldier, and he belonged to the city itself. Emotions were beaten out of him. All of his life, he followed pointless orders, he fought in battles, and then he followed even more pointless orders, never questioning his superiors or their motives.
As he surveyed the scene, he wasn’t surprised that, save for one, he felt no concern or pity for the inhabitants he served. He had done all he could for them. Now, at the start of their unavoidable demise, there was no sadness for the city itself, just a stoic acceptance.
Donatiya, his wife, was the only person for whom Danel spared concern. His battlefield heroics had allowed him the privilege of marrying her. Most of the soldiers weren’t given that luxury. She was the only woman he had ever loved, and she was the only person who had loved him. His marriage, and his friendship with Keret, were the only two important relationships he’d ever formed.
Keret spoke and broke Danel’s concentration, “There’s a way in, you know.”
Danel averted his gaze from the city and looked at Keret. He was listening.
Keret continued, “The tunnel, I told you about it before, remember?”
Danel remembered. The ancient and forgotten tunnel ran from a hidden room underneath the one of the city’s temples and exited outside the walls at the base of a hill. Keret and his long-ago friends had explored the narrow space in their youth. Of that group, Keret was the only one still living. As for the tunnel, its outside entrance was hidden by a boulder, but two strong men could budge it just enough to crawl inside. Keret was unsure if anyone else even knew of its existence.
Keret’s voice intensified, “We’ll sneak in tonight. The entire army isn’t here yet, so we should be able to make it past their lines.” He pointed to a spot towards the southern end of the city, outside its wall, “Look there, what luck for us! They don’t have many soldiers in that area. That’s where the tunnel’s entrance is, a small group could easily sneak in and out.”
Both men studied the area, and Keret gave a wide smile and put his hand reassuringly on Danel’s shoulder, “My friend, tonight we shall save your wife, together.”
Danel rubbed his amulet and responded, “Let’s get some rest, we have much to accomplish tonight.” He was grateful that he had Keret with him, but he wondered how workable the plan really was.
At dusk, the two men laid themselves in the dirt, trying to get their first sleep in three days. Their plan was straightforward, they would wake up after the half moon slipped below the horizon and sneak their way to the mouth of the cave. They would quietly move the boulder aside and slip into the city. Once they were inside, nobody would bother them. They would retrieve Donatiya, and slip back out.
Danel’s sleep was fitful, and he dreamed of both Donatiya and a strange figure who stood behind her while she danced. The figure was merely a silhouette of a large man, with no features distinguishable upon its face. Donatiya danced around the figure, and Danel could tell the figure was watching her, even though he couldn’t see its eyes.
Finally, the dark figure spoke to him, “I can help you save her.” His voice made a hissing sound. Donatiya continued to dance seductively, and the figure repeated itself, “I can help you save her, but you must wake up now.”
Danel opened his eyes. It was night, the starry sky and half moon provided the only light. As he sat up, he saw the outline the being he had just dreamt of standing right next to him. He made a grab for his sword.
“No!” the creature hissed. Danel felt an unseen force push his arm back down, away from his sword. “You called me here, and now you will listen to me.”
Danel felt for the amulet laying against his chest, “Who are you?”
“I am the one that you called upon.” The entity remained featureless, even under the moonlight. A black arm extended from the darkness that enveloped the being, and it brushed a finger against the amulet hanging from Danel’s neck.
Danel looked down at his amulet. “You are Baal?”
“Yessss,” came the hissing response.
“I didn’t call you here. I have no need of you, Baal.” Danel was more nervous than his bold statement made him appear.
“Oh, but you did call me here, every time you rub that object around your neck, you call out my name. And yes, you do need me.”
Danel’s hand released the amulet. He’d found the simple stone carving in the dirt several years earlier. At the time, he’d recognized that it was a depiction of Baal, one of the deities worshipped by his people. He began wearing it, not out of reverence, and not out of fear, but simply because it was something to wear, something that would distinguish him from the other nameless soldiers with whom he shared ranks. The truth was, he’d always had very little use for the deities of his people. He didn’t find it necessary to pray to them, and didn’t feel the need to honor them. Before that night, he wasn’t even sure they were real. Yet there he found himself, standing next to a creature that could only be a deity.
The visitor continued, “This plan of yours, to sneak into the city through a tunnel, this plan is foolish.” The scorn in his voice was evident. “It will not succeed, and you will die. Keret will die. Donatiya will die.”
Danel started to feel fear, which was an extremely rare emotion for him. The concept of deities had never made him afraid before, but right then, having one stand directly before him, it was a completely new and frightening experience. The stories about Baal were never pleasant. He didn’t rule with benevolence, but used intimidation and fear to force people towards his will. He reveled in trickery and deceit. He bathed in blood and fed on sadness.
Baal’s voice took a friendlier turn, “But, you don’t all have to die. I can get you into the city, and out again. However, it will require a sacrifice on your part.” With that last statement, he turned and looked at Keret, who was in a deep sleep.
A look of realization slowly formed on Danel’s face. “You want me to kill my friend?”
“I want his heart!” The hissing voice had returned. “You will look him in the eye, then you will cut into him and rip it out of his chest. Then you will give it to me. In return, I will grant you the power to go into the city and safely retrieve one person of your choosing.”
Slowly, Danel shook his head back and forth. “I won’t do it. He’s my friend. My only friend.”
“Do you really think that you’ll be able to sneak past that army? You will all die, but if you walk the path I set out for you, then only he dies.”
Danel agonized over the choice. The more he thought about Keret’s plan, the more he came to believe that it was a fool’s errand that could only end in tragedy. The dark figure stood patiently by while Danel debated himself in torment. Finally, his pragmatic nature, and his training as a soldier, led him to make a difficult decision.
“I’ll sacrifice my friend to you, and I’ll give you his heart, but first, you must grant me three truths before I commit.” Danel couldn’t bring himself to look at the entity as he spoke.
“Three truths. Of course. You would be a fool not to ask that of me.” It seemed as if the figure might’ve smiled as he said those words.
Danel had been well versed in the legends and superstitions of his people, even though he’d never put too much faith in them. The tradition of the three truths stated that a person, when dealing with a deity, could request that three questions be answered truthfully. If the deity agreed to answer the questions, it would be unable to lie. The questions could only be asked in a yes-or-no format, though the deity could provide additional information if it chose to. The priests of Danel’s city swore this to be true, and the man, formerly of little faith, was about to put their teachings to the test.
Danel took a moment to compose his thoughts. He knew there was a good chance Baal was involved in some sort of trickery, and it was possible that nothing he’d said up to that point was true. He had to ask smart questions. A sudden, panicked feeling fell upon him as he thought to himself that Donatiya might have passed away in his absence.
“My first question, is Donatiya still alive?”
Baal nodded his head. “Yes. She is alive. She is healthy. She’s in your home, yearning for you.”
Danel was relieved at the answer, and pleasantly surprised at the extra information Baal had provided.
“My second question, were you honest when you said that you’ll provide me with the ability to enter the city and safely leave with Donatiya?
Again, Baal nodded. “Yes, so long as you give me your friend’s heart. You can leave with Donatiya, or perhaps your father, or maybe your brother. You can pick anyone in the city.”
Danel wanted to smile, but held back. He thought to himself, “Now I understand his trickery. He thinks I care for my father and brother. He thinks I’m going to have a difficult time choosing who to take.”
Baal didn’t appear to know that Danel hated both his father and his brother. His father was the one who’d ripped him away from his mother and sold him into the army. He barely knew his brother, but he did know that he was an awful man who wasn’t worthy of saving. The choice would be easy, very easy, but he didn’t want an emotional expression to betray him to Baal. He forced a look of turmoil upon his face to hide his true feelings.
Feeling more confident in the path Baal had laid out for him, his concern turned back to Keret. He knew that people sacrificed to Baal were often killed in the most excruciating ways possible. “My third question, you told me that you wanted Keret’s heart cut out. That could be long and painful for him. Will you allow him a quick death?”
“That is more of a request than a question… but yes, I will allow you to give him a quick death. You may choose any means of execution, so long as you don’t damage the heart.”
Danel hung his head in relief.
Baal hissed again, “Now stop wasting my time. You have your three truths. Go get me his heart!”
Danel turned and faced the spot where Keret had been sleeping, only to find him sitting up awake.
“How long have you been awake?” he demanded.
Keret didn’t answer the question, but instead made his own inquiry, “What was that thing were you talking to?”
Danel looked to where Baal had been only a moment earlier, but the deity was gone. He turned back and tried to look at Keret, but ended up averting his eyes. “I… I made a deal with him.”
“I’ve seen that thing before. That was Baal, wasn’t it? This is serious my friend, you shouldn’t make deals with him.”
“Yes Keret. It was Baal. He granted me three truths. I can save Donatiya. I know that for sure.”
“But we can do that together, Danel! We don’t need him.”
“No, he told me our plan would fail. He told me we would all die.”
Keret shook his head, “That’s wrong. It’s a good plan. I know we can make it work. I must ask, when he told you our plan wouldn’t work, was that one of the three truths?”
Danel felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. He didn’t answer.
“Danel, listen to me. I’ve lived longer than you, and I’ve traveled further. I’ve learned much, and I know that Baal is no deity, he’s one of the fallen. The pathway of Baal is the pathway to sorrow. He has no loyalty, not even to those who serve him.”
Danel didn’t want to argue with Keret anymore. He saw no point. He knew the truth, he could save Donatiya, and that was all that mattered anymore.
“He wants your heart. I’m sorry.”
A look of rage filled Keret’s face. “He wants my heart? Here, take it if you think that’s what you really need!”
He stood up, pulled his sword out, then threw it to the ground. “Go ahead now, do what you need to!”
Danel drew his sword and shut down his emotions, as he’d been trained to do.
Keret continued with his rage, hitting his fist against his chest. “Take it! I won’t stop you! Just rip it out!”
Danel’s sword lashed out right as Keret finished his final sentence. The very last expression on his face was a look of surprise, as if he hadn’t really expected Danel to strike him. Keret’s head flew off of his body and landed in a ditch several feet away.
For a moment, Danel fell to his knees in sorrow. The pain of his actions nearly overwhelmed him, but he thought back to the lessons of his youth. For one last time, he pushed his personal feelings aside so that he could complete his mission. The emotions weren’t suppressed easily, but none-the-less, Danel regained his focus. Drawing his knife, he sliced into Keret’s belly and up into his rib cage. After several minutes of cutting and tugging, he finally retrieved the heart of his friend.
The hissing voice sounded out behind him, “Make a fire, and blacken the heart. I will tell you when it’s done.”
“I’ll give my location away if I make a fire,” Danel protested.
“Do not worry about that, I will make sure they don’t see you.”
Danel made a fire, as instructed, and place the heart upon it. Behind him, Baal chanted in an unknown language. The heart burned on the fire until well after the moon went down. The night became even darker.
“You may take the heart off the fire now,” Baal instructed.
Danel used some sticks and placed the heart upon a large rock.
Once the slit was made, bright red blood gushed from within and dripped down onto the rock.
“Now, smear some of the blood on your forehead. You will be able to walk into the city undetected. The blood will remain wet. When you select the person you want to bring back with you, smear some of the blood from your forehead onto their forehead. You will both be able to leave safely. Remember, you can only choose one! Do not attempt to bring more than one person with you, or I promise a punishment worse than death for both you and them. The invaders will attack at midday, you must leave the city before then. Now go, and leave the heart here for me.”
After smearing a generous amount of blood on his forehead, Danel walked from the hill towards the city. To take his mind off of the death of Keret, he imagined what his future life would be like with Donatiya. He knew of several cities that would take them in, it was one of the advantages of being well traveled. He imagined them both living in a small house far, far from the invaders. She would give him a son, and his son would grow up with the love and privilege that he himself had never received. They would have many children, and he would no longer be pressed into the service of the army.
As he approached the first set of night watch soldiers, he paused and took a deep breath. Their torches burned brightly in the darkness, but they didn’t seem to notice him walking. As he closed in, they stopped moving entirely, as if they were frozen in place. Walking past them, he turned around and continued to eye them. As the distance between Danel and the soldiers increased, the soldiers slowly started moving again, oblivious to the fact that an enemy soldier had just walked by them.
Relieved, his mind began to wander again. He hadn’t seen his wife in nearly a year. He wondered if she would look different. He thought about how happy she would be to see him, and he smiled at the thought.
He finally reached the main gate of the city. The guards on duty looked down on him from high on the wall, but they had vacant stares on their faces. They opened the gate for him without saying a word. Even though the gate was completely open, none of the invaders seemed to notice. Danel walked into the city, and the gate closed behind him.
His heart beat faster. He broke into a run, trying to get to his small wooden hovel as fast as possible. The people of the city looked worried. They were crying and arguing. Soldiers were busy fortifying their positions along the wall. Nobody gave any attention to Danel as he ran through the alleys. Out of breath, he burst through the door of his house.
Donatiya was awake in bed when he entered. A single lantern illuminated the room.
“Danel!” She screamed out his name in joy as he ran towards her.
She looked exactly as he remembered her.
The embraced and kissed. He held her close for several moments. He couldn’t begin to explain to her how he managed to get there, and she didn’t ask, she just accepted his presence happily.
Danel looked into her eyes, “I came back here to save you. We must leave now.”
“That makes me so happy,” she said, “But wait, there’s something wonderful I must show you!” She moved over to the bed and picked up a small bundle of blankets that he hadn’t noticed earlier. She approached him with a smile as he heard a small cry emanate from within the bundle.
Inside, he saw a baby, perhaps three months old.
“Meet your son,” Donatiya beamed.
Danel looked at the baby, and his heart filled with love and pride. The small child, conceived in the days before he left, and birthed in his absence, had the same color eyes as him. Donatiya handed the bundle to him, and he held his first and only son closely.
However, his smile faded, and his pride quickly turned into horror as he realized the true extent of Baal’s evilness. Looking at Donatiya and the baby, he remembered what Baal had told him, “Remember, you can choose only one!”