Elira darted forward, the long twists of her leather-bound dark braids bouncing up and down on her back as she sprinted toward the plateau. Twisting in a half-circle, she glanced at the heavily armored, mechanical warriors who thundered across the sloping valley on their black robotic horses. The Hunters were not men; they were machines. Their horses were not flesh and bone but—like their riders—they were made of dark, gray steel. They were machines controlled by a trio of mad scientists ten days journey to the west.
Six of them this time. Elira ground her teeth together, pushing herself to run even faster. Over the past few months, the Hunters had been roaming in ever-increasing numbers, pursuing their mission to exterminate every one of her people, the Illyrians, with a vengeance.
One, I could get rid of. Maybe even two. But six?
Elira had only one hope of escaping them now. Her mind spun furiously as she scrambled up the plateau’s sharp incline. It was the only one in the region. Panting, she struggled to remember exactly what she had seen the last time she had been here.
There had been a button—a red, ruby-like button, set inside a large golden coin that was embedded on the ground. Curious, she had pressed it and the entire hill had fractured, exposing a gaping hole that led…
She didn’t know. And right now, she didn’t care. All that mattered was that she reached the top of this hill, hit the button, and send the six Hunters that wanted to kill her into the pit.
Elira threw herself to one side as a blazing bolt of blue energy zipped past her head, gauging out a hole in the turf.
“That was close.” She gasped as she glanced over her shoulder again. A Hunter sighted down the barrel of his wicked-looking fusili, or rifle, aiming it at her head! Elira forced down the panic that swelled in her chest. She scrambled to her feet, her fingers curling around the short dagger that jutted out from the belt on her knee-length, buckskin dress.
“I won’t go down without a fight!” She jerked the knife free, waving it in as threatening a manner as she could while praying they wouldn’t hear the quaver in her voice. Hunters fed on fear. They were drawn to it like flies were drawn to rotting meat. If she showed fear now, they would torture her before she died.
Elira staggered backward as the rest of the horde galloped up, forming a half-circle around her.
Her mouth went dry. There was no hope of outrunning them now. Mama will never know what happened to me.
“Prepare to die, Illyrian scum.” The leader was a hideous giant whose guttural voice sent shivers down her spine. His face was an oblong ball of dark steel, punctuated with protruding metal spikes. His eyes were twin pools of pulsing, electric-blue energy. Atop his head was a black, cone-shaped helmet, plumed with a fluttering blood-red ribbon.
He slid off his stomping horse with a metallic creak then stomped toward her, fusili still ready to fire. Elira thought to run again but she knew it was useless. Despite their bulk, the Hunters were incredibly fast and strong. Besides, one blast from his gun was enough to incinerate her.
He pointed the rifle at her chest, while the others waited on their stomping horses. Elira bunched her muscles. She was about to launch herself at him when something inexplicable happened.
“Captain!” Another Hunter, probably a scout, gestured toward the plateau, in abrupt, choppy movements. “There’s someone up there.” He nudged his horse forward, sniffing the air like a bloodhound. “I smell…” He went rigid in the saddle. “The Old Blood. I smell the Old Blood!”
For a moment, Elira forgot that she was a prisoner about to be executed by a hated enemy. She forgot that she was on a mission to save her people. One thought consumed her mind.
The Old Blood? A chill ran down her spine, but this time it wasn’t sparked by fear. It was excitement. There were no true humans, or people called Old Bloods, left on the earth. There were only her people, the Illyrians, and the other inhabitants of Britannia. Everyone now living had been genetically enhanced by the scientists in Britannia’s capital city of Ru’ahal.
But the Hunters were never wrong about things like this. They were programmed to hunt down everyone who carried even a trace of human blood and hadn’t received the injection mandated by their masters. If there was an Old Blood, or an uncontaminated human nearby, she had to survive!
The captain stepped away, apparently forgetting about her at this unexpected news. “The Old Blood, you say?” The sound of gears whirring in his chest cavity reached her ears. No doubt he was teleporting the information he had just learned back to his scientific masters in Ru’ahal along with satellite images of the area.
A robotic chirp sounded as a blue light glowed from between his ears.
“The masters have just told me their will.” The captain turned his back to her as he spoke to the others. “They want the Old Blood taken alive.”
At this, Elira burst into action. Pulling the knife from her belt, she leapt toward the Hunter and struck at his right leg, hard. Sparks slid along the side of her blade as she cut through wires and jerked the blade free. The captain stumbled to one knee, his arms flailing about as he bellowed his anger. She didn’t know if the robots could feel pain but, if they could, that had to hurt.
Elira darted to one side, swung up into the empty saddle of the Hunter’s horse and spurred it into action. “Move! Move!”
The horse streaked forward, galloping up the plateau at a pace that stole Elira’s breath. She clung to its metal neck, trying to keep her balance on the slippery saddle. Judging by the angry shouts and sound of pounding hooves behind her, it seemed that the other Hunters were not far behind.
Elira leaned left, knowing that their deadly guns would soon go into play.
Energy bolts carved craters out of the ground, missing her by mere centimeters. She leaned forward, urging the horse on. “Hurry!”
Finally, she crested the plateau. She pulled hard on the horse’s reins, stopping inches away from a pale, skinny boy who stared at her as though she were a Hunter herself! He was about her age, wore short trousers that were covered in mud, and was missing a shoe. This… is the Old Blood?
He looked nothing like what she would have imagined. The legends portrayed pure humans as creatures of immense power but this one was small and weak. But if he was who the Hunters claimed, she couldn’t risk leaving him behind.
“Get on!” She held out a hand, while trying to calm the snorting, stomping horse.
The boy remained motionless, shaking his head. He said something, some words that made no sense. Evidently, he didn’t speak her language.
“Maybe you’ll understand this. Get on or die.” Elira shouted at him, pointing to the rapidly approaching Hunters and then to the back of the horse. The pursuers were riding up the hill, she could see the tips of their plumed conical helmets.
But the boy didn’t move.
Desperate now, both to save him and herself, Elira rode closer. She would grab his arm and drag him up behind her. Old Blood or not, he obviously had no idea what was happening here. But at the last moment, just as the first of the Hunters rode over the top of the hill, the boy pivoted, ran to the plateau’s center, and slammed his shoeless foot down… hard.
Immediately the plateau began to crack and crumble. Rocks broke free, tumbling down and crushing the Hunters below who struggled to control their rearing, plunging mounts. Elira’s horse danced forward as the boy dashed toward her, grabbed her outstretched arm, then swung up into the saddle behind her.
She kicked the robotic horse’s sides, still surprised that it responded like the real, flesh and blood horses her own people used. “Shkoj! Go! Go!”
It darted forward, carrying both of them with as much effort as it would a piece of paper. She chanced a look over her shoulder. The sole Hunter who had made it to the top of the hill was backtracking as cracks widened beneath his horse’s feet. His horse reared. He fell backward and was soon buried in a pile of crumbling stone.
Their horse pounded down the opposite side of the hill, slipping and sliding as rocks crashed all around them. Finally they made it to the bottom and Elira let the robotic animal open up its stride as it streaked across the valley, along the coast of the pounding ocean. After about ten minutes, they entered a dense forest and she drew the horse to a shuddering stop.
Sliding down, she landed with a soft thump on the grassy turf. After a few moments, the boy joined her. His brown eyes were wide as he took in her bronzed face, her outfit of deer skin and the white feather that dangled from each of her brown braids, identifying her as belonging to the Southern clan of the Illyrians.
She pointed to her chest. “Elira. My name is… Elira of the Southern forests.”
She didn’t know if he would understand, but he pointed to his own chest and said, “Kit. Kit Benedict.”
Kit. A strange name. She had never heard anything like it. But Kit’s voice was steady, despite the harrowing experience they had just come through and he had been intelligent enough to figure out a way to save their lives in a moment of sheer chaos. But if they were going to stay alive, they needed to be able to communicate.
Elira reached into her pocket and pulled out a smooth, jade-green stone that was attached to a leather thong. An identical amulet hung from her own neck. She held the two stones together, pressing a smooth round-circle in each stone’s center. Kit drew closer, eyes glued to the stones that had begun to glow with a greenish light. After a few seconds, the light faded, and she held one out to him, motioning for him to put it around his neck.
“Can you understand me?” She tilted her head to one side.
A wide grin split his face. “Yes!” He held the stone in his hands, eyes moving from it to her face. “How is this possible?”
“It’s nothing unusual.” Elira shrugged. “All of the Illyrians carry them. My people call it a talking stone. Once it’s turned on, each wearer can understand whatever language is being spoken. It’s the one gift the scientists of Ru’ahal gave to the world long ago before they became evil. I wasn’t sure if it would work with you since…” she paused as a feeling of near-reverence swept through her.
“Since what?” Kit’s eyes were still glued to the stone.
“Since you’re an Old Blood.”
He frowned, glancing at her. “A what?”
Instead of answering, Elira turned and slapped the horse’s flank. “Go home!” It reared then galloped off.
“Wait.” Kit staggered forward, hand outstretched. “Why did you do that?”
“Those things that tried to kill us, they’re called Hunters. Their horses have built-in tracking devices. As long as the horse stays with us, other roving bands of Hunters will be able to easily find us.” Elira paused a moment. “Thanks for what you did back there. It was exactly what I had in mind.”
“Oh,” he shrugged, “it was nothing. I was scared to death actually.”
Her gaze dropped to his feet. He had somehow lost both shoes and now wore only socks that were soaked through. “Well, if we don’t get moving, we will die.”
“You’re going to say that we’ll have to walk through this forest, aren’t you?” Kit let out a dismal groan.
She laughed in spite of herself. “You’ve never walked barefoot through the forest?”
“Absolutely not. I could catch my death of cold!”
“We do it all the time.” Elira folded her arms across her chest. “Wasn’t there a great warrior in the past who stayed all night in the snow with his men?” She crinkled her brow trying to remember the name from the legend. “George… Fuzzington?”
Kit slanted her an irritated glare. “Washington. George Washington. And he was American not British. Americans are the only ones crazy enough to do such a thing.”
“Am-ura-kin.” She struggled to pronounce it. “Bry-tish. I do not know what these words mean. But I do know that other Hunters will soon be sent out to find us.” She tugged at his arm. “If we don’t leave now, we will die. And I can’t let you, the first Old Blood I’ve ever seen, die. Not before I reach the Prophet.”
“What are you talking about?” Kit jerked his arm free of her grasp. “Hunters? Old Blood? Prophet?” He blew out his breath in an exasperated sigh. “Turnips and tomatoes! Where am I? I mean, one minute I’m being harassed by Nick Jaggers and his gang. The next minute, I’m drowning in a bog and, in the next, I’m being chased by some killers in ridiculous outfits over an exploding hill!”
He forked his fingers through his brown hair. “Am I going bonkers or is this all really happening?”
“I will explain but please,” she again tugged at his arm, “we must go now.”
Grudgingly, he pulled off his socks, stuffed them into a pocket in his trousers and trudged forward on the narrow, dirt path beside her. “At least it’s warm out.” Kit turned to her. “Now, tell me what exactly is going on.”
Elira pulled in a deep breath as she strode easily beside him. The pine forest, which marked the foremost boundary of her clan’s tribe, held no terrors for her, only a sense of warm familiarity. “This land is called Britannia by most, but my people know it as Illyria. The legends tell us that, almost a thousand years ago, a great battle called the Battle of Maggedo was fought far from here between the tribes of the world. Humanity was nearly destroyed but a few hundred men and women managed to survive. They divided themselves into tribes based on the languages they spoke and scattered across the planet.”
She paused at the foot of a tall, heavily-laden date tree, picked a handful of dates and offered him some. “Eat. I lost my supplies while running from the Hunters, so we’ll have to eat whenever we can find food.”
“Thank you.” Kit bit into the sweet fruit and chewed noisily. “Then what happened?”
“The battle of Maggedo, which we also call the Great Destruction, was brought on by scientists—men and women who built great weapons powerful enough to destroy other nations. Because of this, those who survived banned the study of anything other than medicine for many years. But the legends of my people say that the hunger for power made some of the survivors want better weapons. And so, the study of science began again.”
“What does this have to do with those,” Kit pointed a grimy hand toward the distant hill then wiped it on his trousers, “those things that were chasing us?”
“They are called Hunters. My mother told me that, by the time she was born, the knowledge of Britannia’s tribes had surpassed even that of the Old Bloods before the Great Destruction. When she was a child, three scientists came to power. They are called The Three: Torig, Malis and Santus.” She spit out a date seed, hating even the sound of the dreaded names. “They forged an empire based on fear. They designed mechanical men and horses, the Hunters, who obey their every command. The Hunters are tireless and merciless.” She grew quiet. “They killed my father.”
Kit came to an abrupt stop. “That’s awful. Elira, I-I’m so sorry.” His eyes dropped to the ground. “I don’t have a father either.”
“Your father died in battle too?”
“I-I don’t know.” Kit let out a deep breath. “I never met him. My mum neither. They didn’t want me, I guess.”
For a moment, Elira just stayed quiet, not knowing what to say. Folklore had always painted the world before the Great Destruction as a happy, prosperous place where everyone had a lot to eat and civilization was at its height. But what kind of world was it in which children weren’t wanted?
She decided to change the topic. “After the three scientists took over, they began to enhance all people in Britannia. At first it seemed to be good. Better sight, the ability to live longer lives, the ability to breath underwater like a fish—they invented things that could help us. But after everyone it became normal to get enhanced, the leaders of Ru’ahal showed their true evil nature.
The Three forced everyone to get injected here.” She touched the base of her skull. “With their needles, they put something inside that allows them to control the people of Britannia’s thoughts and feelings. The entire world is under their control.”
“What?” Kit’s face was incredulous. “And everyone was okay with this?” He shook his head. “And I thought Nick Jaggers was a bully.”
“Anyone who refused was killed by the Hunters,” Elira said. “Only my people, the Illyrians, chose to run and hide in the wilderness rather than lose our freedom. That is why they hunt us. Anyone who resists their will is a threat, you see? They fear that we will rise up against them and so they are determined to kill us all.”
She gestured to the trees around them. “I was born in these woods. For the past twelve summers, my tribe has not spent more than two months in one place. But now, as the Three grow even stronger, we are being driven toward the Great Sea. Soon, there will be nowhere left to hide.”
“What are you going to do?” Kit looked around. “Where are the other people in your tribe?”
“I have left my tribe.” Sadness crept into her voice, sadness laced with determination. “I’ve run away. I am on my way to find the Prophet. They say he lives in the Ga’alan Mountains to the north.”
Kit swung his head back toward her. “Who?”
“The Prophet. He is an old man who, some say, lived before the time of the Great Destruction itself. He is the one Old Blood that not even The Three dare challenge.”
“Hang on a minute.” Kit held up a palm. “Didn’t you say that this… Destruction bit happened almost a thousand years ago?”
Elira nodded, curbing her impatience. “Yes. The Prophet is said to be the wisest man on earth. If anyone will know how to save my people, it will be him.”
“This chap is a thousand years old? Seriously?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met him.” She folded her arms across her chest. “But I’m going to find the Prophet. And you have to come with me.”
“Me?” Kit’s eyes were as round as the stone that hung from his neck. “Oh, no. No, no. I’m going to find a way home. Back to the orphanage in Britain where there are no killer horses, no exploding hills and no crazy scientists!”
“But you don’t understand, Kit! You are an Old Blood. You’re someone from the legends of the past.”
“What is it with you people and having old blood? I don’t even know what that means.”
Elira sucked a deep breath through her nose, trying to calm herself down. How could he be from the past and know so little of the world’s history?
“Kit, most people here live for at least four hundred years but we’re not pure human; we’re what science made us.”
“No one lives that long in my world. I think you lot have the better blood.”
“You don’t understand. Yes, we have longer lives but we are slaves. We’re prisoners of fear.”
Kit slanted her a skeptical glance. “Look, um, Elira. I’m really, very sorry about all this but… what does that have to do with my blood?”
“Everything! The prophecy clearly says that an Old Blood will come to Britannia.”
Elira grabbed his shirt. “The prophecy that one day a man of pure blood will come and rescue us from our enemy.” She was yelling now but she didn’t care. “It’s the only thing The Three fear. Don’t you see? It’s talking about you, Kit! You’ve come from the past to save us all. You need to come with me and find the prophet.”
“Hang on. Just, just hang on, alright?” Kit pried her hands off and took a step back. “Are you saying that I’m… in the future? That this,” he rapped on the rough trunk of the date tree, “is planet Earth in the future?”
“Yes!” Elira gave an emphatic nod. “The Hunters called you an Old Blood which means you have somehow come here from a time before the Great Destruction. Don’t ask me to explain how.”
“Turnips and tomatoes!” Kit clapped a hand to his forehead. “So you’re saying that, when I fell through the bog, I somehow travelled to the future? That the red-button-wotsit on the hill, actually opens up a gateway back to where I’m from?”
“I don’t know.” Elira clapped her hands to her hips. “I’ve never seen that thing until earlier this week and I’ve lived near here my whole life. The fact that it’s shown up now proves my point.” She jabbed a finger against his chest. “Your arrival is no accident. El must have sent you.”
“El? Who’s that?”
“Oh never mind that now!” Elira didn’t bother trying to curb her impatience. “The fact is, you were sent for a purpose, Kit. The fate of this entire world depends on you. Will you come with me?”
What do you think? Will Kit join Elira on her quest?
Find out what happens next in Episode 3: Decisions Decisions