“They came, they decimated our inferior technology and sent us hurling back to the dark ages!” ~ Grayson Hawk, Skin Eater
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It was never easy killing babies, unfortunately today it was inescapable.
The hardened leather sheath, housing my machete, pressed into my leg as I leaned into bark. I pulled an arrow from the quiver slung across my back and nodded at John, hiding a few trees away. Shaggy ash brown strands fell across his unshaven face when he jerked his head in the direction of our prey. He made a few hand signals, indicating he would wait for me to set up before following. I acknowledged with a sharp nod.
From behind the solitary evergreen I peeked out. Warm rays broke through the yellowing canopy of birch trees in thick golden beams, lighting up the brown and grey forest floor. An icy breeze from their direction blew a loose lock of pale hair into my eyelashes, but my gaze remained fixed on the mother and babe.
I slithered out, around the trunk. My footsteps made no sound as I crept forward, ignoring the low lying twigs scratching across my exposed forearms. While moving, I nocked an arrow into place. It was good that John waited, with his heavy set muscles he wasn’t the most stealthy of our hunters.
From above, a branch shook, leaves rustled. I ducked into a bush, glancing skywards to a lone bird taking flight. The eagle soared up, gliding across the glaringly vibrant blue sky. High above the hunter a thin path of stray lunar fragments glittered under the midmorning sun, the end of the snaking tail flowing from the broken moon. A constant reminder of the days when we’d lost the title of Earth’s dominant species, of an event that had marked their arrival and changed the planet’s future forever.
Movement brought my attention back to my intended prey. A flash of messy dark curls about forty yards southeast of the target signaled that my regular hunting partner, Dan was in position. John was only here because of a stupid bet they’d made, which was also the reason I held an archaic long bow in my grip. Last night, Dan had gloated that no matter the weapon, I could deliver death with a single shot. The winner got two days worth of the loser’s rations. I was tempted to miss just to teach Dan a lesson, to keep his big mouth shut. On the other hand, it would be satisfying to see the other hunters’ expressions when John declared his loss.
I snuck in closer, lining up the baby deer. If it weren’t for the restrictions our camp leader, Sam had imposed I would kill both to save myself the trouble of coming out again tomorrow. He called it precautionary measures, so we wouldn’t hunt the forest dry and Sam’s orders were law. His reasoning made sense, but in the days before, when my younger brother and I had been struggling to live, planning ahead had been a luxury. After Mom died, I’d learned to take anything, even newborn animals, nothing was spared. The fawn was too young to survive alone, sealing its death sentence.
Cool cylindrical wood slid over the back of my hand—in the dip between index finger and thumb—as I took aim. The long bow creaked under the pressure of the draw. I was one of the few hunters who could use this antique with accuracy.
The doe’s head snapped up. Her ears jerked around, honing in on a sound. A soft hum trickled through the forest. The noise grew, like a swarm of bees heading this way. I held the baby in my sights, aiming at its fuzzy neck. A lower pitch whir joined the buzzing and made the hairs on the back of my neck quiver.
Mother deer bolted. The fawn leaped after her. The whirring got louder, recognizable. Shit. It could be only one thing—Cardinals.
John charged out of his hiding spot, skidded to a stop besides me and stared in the same direction. Through the gaps in the canopy the sky was clear, but our ears didn’t lie.
“Dan,” I called into the wilderness.
A youthful face, half covered by tangled locks, popped up over a brush. He stared up at the vastness above as he stood, mouth gaping.
John cursed and sprung forward towards the youngest in our group. His heavy boots thumped into the ground as he sprinted. I followed a heartbeat later and within four strides flew pass him.
“We gotta split!” I yelled.
Like a statue, Dan stood frozen to the spot and didn’t move even when I was almost on top of him. I couldn’t blame him for being lead legged with shock because Cardinals hardly ever ventured this far away from the cities. The high pitched whizzing got louder, deafening. I’d never heard anything like it before, the vehicle creating the new noise would be visible in seconds.
“Get down,” John warned.
I tackled Dan. We thudded into the ground. A metallic white craft swooshed overhead, casting a brief, long slim shadow. It was unlike any airship I’d ever seen, with glowing blue lines decorating its streamlined hull and sides.
The whirring hum grew to a roar and a moment later, earth’s new dominant species, flying in two gleaming red prowlers—spacecrafts that had ravaged the world—zoomed overhead, after the white ship. Luminous scarlet lights flashed through naked branches. The crisscrossing stripes on one of the prowler’s bulky hull brightened. A second later an energy bolt erupted.
A boom louder than thunder rocked the forest as a swirling crimson sphere shot out, streaking toward the slimmer, more aerodynamic craft. At the last second the white spaceship evaded and the mass of coiling red energy whizzed pass.
Dan’s eyes were so wide I feared they might pop out as he gaped up at the fading sphere.
“What the…” he said, mouth hanging.
The white craft rolled—its top the mirror image of its hull—and looped around, speeding straight at its attackers. Both prowlers fired more pulsating spheres. I flinched as every shot hammered through my eardrums. The new ship dodged left and right, zigzagging in the sky like no human-made aircraft had ever been able to. It regained its original course, zooming towards our enemies.
I clenched my fists as they drew near, sure that I was about to witness the destruction of the mysterious new craft. The three alien ships were nearly on top of one another when the blue stripes along the white ship lit up, shining bright, and fired a blinding silvery sphere.
A whip-like crack, like lightning striking the earth vibrated through my skull. I cupped my ears and recoiled into a crouch, but forced my gaze skywards to witness the outcome.
The swirling, liquid metal-like sphere bursted on impact, consuming the left prowler in a white flare. Shock waves rattled the forest, drowning out our cries. We dove for cover, throwing ourselves to the ground. Hot turbulent air rushed over us. The blast rang in my ears and knocked hundreds of yellowing leaves from trees, sending them fluttering down around us.
A bright blue blur zipped through the puff of smoke, speeding after the remaining prowler. My jaw slackened as I stared up in wonder. Since the invasion ten years ago, the aliens hadn’t lost one vessel. Earth’s inferior weapons had never penetrated their technology. We’d witnessed the most mind blowing event of the century.
“Sky.” John shook my shoulder. “Sky!”
His grey-blue eyes bulged and thin lips hung wide enough to trap a fly. An expression that no doubt mirrored my own.
“That just happened, right?” he asked. Without waiting for a response he continued. “Have you ever seen a ship like that? Or heard of one?”
I shook my head, not needing to ask to which ship he referred.
He shut his mouth and chewed on his bottom lip. We glanced up as a droning hum whizzed by. Dan recoiled, ducking back down. John grabbed the back of the boy’s collar and tugged him up.
“Let’s get out of here,” John said.
I nodded, turning to follow.
“Wait.” He paused. His thick eyebrows furrowed together as he peered at me through droopy eyes. He grunted as if he’d resolved an internal debate. “I know what Sam would say, that white ship… We need to know more about it.”
The muscles in my face tensed as my heart skipped a beat.
Dan gasped. “Are you crazy? It’s too dangerous.” He clutched onto John’s thick bicep. The two were close, John was like an uncle to him.
“We can’t pass this up. Someone needs to stay behind and see if that white craft survives. If it can take out a prowler…” John sighed, tugging his arm free. “The possibilities are immense.” His gaze never left me, there was such intensity behind his eyes, almost as if he was willing me to understand.
“Are you ordering me?” I asked, baring my teeth.
John sized me up, I read his hesitation. He’d never exercised his authority over me, only Sam gave me orders. Physical strength and usefulness helped determine our ranks at camp, which meant I should be at the top, but my lack of people skills kept me out of the fold. Both John and I knew he had every right to expect me to obey, he was after all Sam’s second in command.
A ship sped overhead, making us cower. Dan whimpered, while scanning the sky, his trembling fingers digging into his own forearm.
“Fine. Go. Warn the others,” I said, clenching my fist until my knuckles popped. “I’ll gather what intel I can.”
“No,” Dan cried. “I’ll stay.”
John snorted. “Absolutely not. Sky can look after herself. Your Pa would skin me alive if I left you behind.”
Dan chewed on his lower lip, his dark eyes darting between us. He grabbed my hand. The strength in his lanky arms caught me off guard, he pulled me in for a quick hug. I was used to thinking of him as a boy, not a man. In the last year he’d shot up to my height, an inch shy of John.
“Stay safe.” He gave me the pouty, puppy dog expression he used whenever things didn’t go his way.
John rolled his eyes, before facing me. “Stay alive and be back by tomorrow. If you’re not at rally B by ten… I’ll assume the worst,” he added, then dragged my hunting partner with him, off into the woods.
I blinked after them a few times, fighting off the crawling sensation Dan had left behind. It happened whenever someone touched me, the feeling of a thousand ants scurrying over every section of skin the person had come into contact with. I couldn’t contain the second shudder as I watched their forms disappear behind thick brush. Another burst of energy whooshed overhead, I bobbed instinctively. I needed to move too, these ships wouldn’t stay in the area for long.
Darting in the opposite direction, I sprinted at full speed, dodging low branches and weaving around trees, all while keeping one eye on the sky. I was probably crazy for following John’s command, he even more so for issuing them, but orders were orders, and obeying them had been drilled into me until I’d bled. There was no guarantee I’d be able to observe the rest of the fight. Maybe they would disappear over the horizon or maybe I’d get hit by a stray energy blast, but a ship that could take down a prowler was worth the risk.
The forest began to thin. I skidded to a halt, one step shy of falling into a canyon. A flash of light seized my attention. Below the two aircrafts sped through the winding ravine at velocities I barely comprehended, leaving blurred lines of blue and red. I dashed along the edge in the direction they disappeared, clamoring up a small slope hindering my path. In my haste, I tumbled down the rocky surface on the other side, still desperately searching above and below for the battling ships. I heard the engines whizzing and hissing but couldn’t find them.
An eruption of soil and wood sent me diving for cover. My bow slipped from my shoulder as I slammed into the rocky ground. I rolled, huddling behind a tree. A blast of heat and debris rushed past, sweeping the archaic weapon over the edge. I curled in tighter. A loud whir came from behind. Milliseconds later the white ship—the potential answer to the world’s prayers—sped overhead, discharging two shots, this time coiling masses of electric blue. The prowler fired three. My eardrums reverberated, assaulted by the thunderous blasts. Ruby and sapphire spheres streaked across the sky.
The prowler swooped down, avoiding the first shot, but not fast enough to evade the second. The blue sphere hit the prowler’s rounded wing, flattening on impact. Crackling tendrils spread out, engulfing the crimson craft like a net. The prowler’s lights faded out as it spiraled out of control, plummeting out of the sky. It slammed into the opposite side of the canyon wall. Tremors shook the ground beneath my feet. A black fiery cloud erupted out of the ravine.
I jumped up, frantically searching for the wingless white ship. In the distance I found it, speeding over the forest. It flew evasively, dodging two crimson spheres, but one still gave chase. The streamlined white ship banked right. Luminescent blue stripes, zigzagging its smooth metallic hull, flickered as it pulled up. For a split second the craft stopped short, as if it stalled. The third shot clipped its rear. Flames erupted. Grey smoke snaked out like a gigantic serpent.
Dammit! Not the white ship.
My knuckle ached, and I uncoiled the fists I hadn’t been aware I’d made. It had been a decade since another vessel had flown in the prowler dominated sky. Not since the aliens had descended in their city-sized, sleek mirror ships, changing life as we knew it. Not since they had decimated our air force and claimed it as the Cardinal’s sky. So I should have expected it. Though, for a second, a pathetic glimmer of hope had sparked to life inside me. My imagination had played through a dream scenario of a planet freed from Cardinal Reign, but the reality was, no one was coming to save us.
The craft spun out of control and crashed into the forest. Dirt spewed into the air like a giant fissure erupting, mindlessly I dashed towards it. Wood splinters and grit rained down as I weaved through the trees. The cloud marking the crash site, dissipated by the time I skidded down a small slope and stopped in the middle of an opening. A deep, long path of destruction had been carved into the earth’s surface. I hurried along the trail, hoping the ship would still be intact but my heart dropped when I saw the end.
The tracks led off the edge into the deep gorge below. I dropped to my knees, peering over, expecting to see a burning mess, but instead found nothing. Only the blue river twisting and frothing over boulders. No sign of wreckage. The water couldn’t have swept it away so quickly, I was sure of it. Then where was it? I looked downstream, and again there were no traces of anything alien.
“Uh. Hi there, a little help please.” A strained voice penetrated my ringing ears.
I jerked in surprise and scrambled back, my head snapping left and right, craning in search of the person who’d spoken. But I was alone on the canyon’s edge. The voice rose up again.
“Down here. Hello?”
I slithered back to the edge. My gaze froze, widening until my eyeballs hurt, caught on the deep red sleeve attached to a hand clenching a root.
“Cardinal,” I whispered.
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