The scrub-land beneath faded to forests which, in turn, gave way to grassland as Wyla made her way towards the capitol. She scanned the northern horizon as sunset melted to nightfall. The mountain range was just beginning to peak over the rim of the world. She leaned back in her seat and sighed to herself. “I’ve got a ways to go, don’t I?” Her hand drifted to her locket as she spoke. “No action either. What a bore.” Her gaze swept to the east, where she found a forthcoming squall. “That’s not good.” The dull surprise in her voice was met by the low drone of her propellers. Turning her attention back north, she saw the twin moons rising over the mountains. “And both moons are full.” She rolled her eyes in frustration. “Lords. Tonight isn’t going to go well.” Her hand floated from her locket and wrapped itself around the tiller with a white-knuckled grip.
As the flyer pushed forward, the cloud bank slowly approached and, before long, they met her above the edge of a small farming town. Wyla kept her eyes front and center as she was enveloped in a thick, swirling mist. She knew she would have to fly under the storm and risk being spotted or else fly blind. She pushed the tiller forward and dipped below the cloud line to found the rain was light. Water sizzled as it gathered on her engine compartment. She’d been running her flyer at full throttle since takeoff, but hadn’t given much thought to her engine heat until now. She backed the throttle to allow the engine to cool and avoid overheating her coal stocks, but, between the rain and the reduced load on the engine, she knew she was at risk of over-cooling the steam pipes and flooding them with water. “I guess I’ve got to walk the line, don’t I?” She kept her focus ahead and tightened her grip on the tiller.
She pushed onward through the rain and took care to listen to her propeller speed. When their tone drifted down, she pushed the throttle and drove them harder. When the rain began to sizzle on her chassis, she would lower it again. In the last, dying rays of the sunset Wyla caught sight of a distant dot at the edge of her vision. “Finally.” She pushed the throttle forward, forgetting the fine line she’d been walking, and darted off towards the distant shape. As Wyla closed in on her prey, she could make out its purple and white paint in the few scattered shafts of moon light that poked through the clouds. It had its tail to her as she lined up her sights and wrapped the trigger cord around her hand. The Royal never knew what hit them as she fired a volley from the cannon under the nose of the flyer. The rounds tore through its left wing and sent it into a rapid spiral downward. A smirk crawled across Wyla’s face as she reached her hand down into the space between her seat and the floor to retrieve a piece of charcoal. Taking her attention off her flight path, she added a tally to a line of fifteen others on the inside of her cockpit.
A cacophonous cracking caused her to jump in surprise as she turned her attention back to her surroundings. A shaft of lightning split the sky ahead of her, racking the flyer with the thunder that followed. “It just keeps getting better.” She touched her locket as she spoke, shaking away her sense of fear in the process. Another flash spit the sky as the moonlight disappeared behind the clouds. In its light, Wyla saw two more flyers in bound from the east. And then total darkness. The sky was completely blackened by the squall. She backed her throttle and listened hard through the sound of her propellers for the two Royals. A burst of lightning revealed all again, but only for a moment. She could tell they were close enough to see her clearly. Wyla pushed her tiller forward and dropped altitude in an attempt to disorient the enemy. “If I keep changing my position, they won’t be able to-” Her words were cut short by a sudden lurch of her flyer. Her engine sputtered and her propellers began to slow. “Lords!” She screamed at the top of her lungs as her flyer began to dive. Quickly removing her hand from the locket, she yanked her tiller back and stabilized the flyer before slamming her throttle forward. “And now my pipes are cooling. Great.”
More lightning exposed her position to the Royals, who dove down and swung into place behind her. She felt the shells rip the air around her as they opened fire. One of them caught her right propeller and tore its blades asunder. Shrapnel and sparks from her wing sprayed her as the twisted metal from the still spinning nub of a propeller ripped into the chassis. A shard of metal clipped her face and split her cheek just below the eye. She winced at the pain and pulled the tiller back in an attempt to keep herself in the air. Another shell connected with her tail and sent a chunk of metal flying forward and through her cockpit. It cut her side and flew into her throttle, locking it forward in the process. She grabbed her side as she felt the blood begin to pour. The wound wasn’t deep, but the pain was incredible. She knew it was time to eject. Wyla probed her hand in front of her seat in search of the emergency lever. The spinning of the broken propeller axle had come to a halt as her engine stalled. She felt her hand tap the lever as her flyer began to drop like a stone. Her seat disconnected from the floor as she lifted the handle and allowed the flyer to fall away from her. The parachute at the back of the chair automatically opened as she hung in the air. A bolt of lightning revealed the fate of her flyer as it slammed into the ground below. The Royals were far past her as she drifted downward. Wyla could tell by the total silence that filled the air. She touched her bloody hand to her locket as she drifted through the blackness.
“Wonderful. I liked that flyer, too.” Her raspy voice was choked with pain. She felt cold rain pound against her face and carry the blood from her cheek down her shirt. She searched the darkness in vein for any sign of where she was headed. “Come on, lightning, Strike.” A flash came in answer to her plea, but it didn’t bare good news. She saw the wall of the barn mere seconds before impact.
Rudolph Valentine lay wide awake in his bed, his blanket wrapped over his head to dampen the intrusive sounds of the storm. The thunder outside had kept sleep at arms length since sundown. Every new boom bounced around his room and rattled its furniture. He sat up and surveyed his surroundings. Lightning revealed his dresser at the far end of his room and glinted off the family photo that rested on top of its oak frame. He reached over to his end table and grabbed the tin cup in which he kept his morning water. After drinking deeply, he returned the cup and flopped backwards on his bed. Lightning cracked the sky outside again, drawing his attention to the storm. Ralph rolled onto his side and stared through his window at the wheat field behind the farm house. A flash of lightning split the sky and revealed a strange sight. Before him he saw what looked like a group of flyers, one in the lead and two more tailing it. Another shaft of light showed the lead plane in a sharp nose dive. He leaped from his bed and pressed his face to the window, straining his eyes through the night. The darkness revealed its secrets as another blot cut the air. He watched as the falling flyer slammed into the ground beyond the farm’s property.. The rain began to pick up as he watched the night with wrapped attention. Light dispersed the dark once again, but all he could see was his family’s field. From the front of the house he heard the sound of cracking wood.
Ralph quickly turned himself around and bolted across his room. He knew it’s layout by heart, having lived in it his whole life. He deftly sidestepped his dresser and pounced on his doorknob. In the hallway, he found his father headed towards the stairs that lead down to their living room. “Ralph,” his father looked worried. “You heard it too?” Ralph nodded and opened his mouth to speak, only to have his father interrupt. “Think it’s a dire-wolf breaking into the turkey coop?” Ralph shook his head and attempted to speak again, only for his father to continue. “What do you think it was?” Ralph took a deep breath inward before he finally spoke.
“I saw flyers above the house.” Ralph’s baritone voice made his father pulled back in confusion. “Three of them. Well, two now. One crashed past the far end of the fields.” He paused and ran a hand through his messy hair before continuing. “I don’t know what happened beyond that.” His father stroked his beard, a thoughtful look in his hazel eyes.
“Maybe the rain had something to do with it?” Mr. Valentine yawned as he spoke. A clock on the wall struck the hour at midnight. It clanked out a mechanical tune as lightning lit the living room. Ralph took measured steps towards the window at the front of the house while his father reached for a box of matches that sat on a roughly constructed table next to a hard lived candle. The sound of his father striking the match was drown out by thunder. Ralph could see nothing through the window, only his father’s face illuminated by the tiny flame. It lit the high points in a golden glow, accentuating it’s lines and valleys with the resulting shadows. His father’s round nose and heavy brow received the lion’s share of the light as he touched the flame to the candle’s wick.
“I’m going to head out front and check the barn.” Ralph’s voice was confident and self-assured. His father lit another candle that stood in a sconce on the wall before turning to Ralph and nodding. Ralph opened the door and saw the storm outside was far lighter than the constant lightning would suggest. Through the darkness, he could make out the outline of his family’s barn down the hill from the house. He stepped out onto the covered porch and took a hooded lantern that hung on a nail next to the door. In a small box on its bottom, below the oil reservoir, he found a few matches. With the lantern lit, he turned its shaft of light ahead and started down the path that lead from the house to the barnyard below.
Rain sizzled and popped as it fell on the lantern's brass casing. Ralph stepped through the mud with a cautious gait. His bare feet felt every rock and twig along the way. Quietly lamenting not thinking of wearing boots, he opened the yard gate and stepped into the feed-yard. The pigs and turkeys in their cages greeted him as he walked across the yard to the barn door and lifted the latch. He placed his hand over the door handle and took a deep breath before pushing the door open.
The light from the lantern was narrow and only revealed a small area at a time. First it fell straight across from him and highlighted a hole smashed into the barn’s far wall. Ralph dragged his eyes from the hole to the chair that lay on its side a few feet away. A large tarp sat in a rumpled heap not far from it, the two connected by a series of cords. As Ralph examined the strange sight, he head a raspy voice mumble something to his left. With great apprehension, he turned the lantern to reveal a grisly image.
She stood with her back against the wall, covered in blood. Her left hand pressed firmly on her side, blood flowing between its fingers. Her right hand aimed a gun at Ralph. She had a deep slash across her right cheek with blood smeared over her face and running in streaks down her neck. She looked more like the walking dead than a living human. Her bony features were twisted into a pained expression. Ralph froze as she took a step forward with her left leg, dragging her right leg behind her as she came closer. She winced in pain as she cocked her pistol and mumbled something inaudible to herself.
It felt like a decade passed in that moment. Transfixed by her green eyes, a cloud of fear enveloped Ralph. She attempted to train her sights on him, but the shaking of her hand continuously misaligned them. She took another step forward and removed her hand from her side. Placing it under her right hand, she steadied her pistol and squeezed the trigger only to have the hammer lock halfway. She turned her attention from the sights to the gun in profile. “Wonderful.” She said as her leg gave out and sent her crashing to the ground with a savage thud. The pistol slid from her hand and landed at Ralph’s feet.
Lightning split the sky as Ralph frantically ran back to the house, his bare feet sliding in the mud. He crashed through the front door, causing his father to jump from his seat on the stairs. “Ralph, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Mr Valentine retrieved his pipe from the floor as he spoke. “What’s the matter?”
“Somebody hurt’s in the barn!” Ralph’s voice was rapid and breathless. His father pushed past him and marched down the path to the barn. Ralph stood in the doorway still holding the lantern, his mind racing.
“Ralph, bring the lantern!” His father’s voice was barely audible above the crash of thunder. Ralph moved quickly, rushing down the path with the same awkward stride that brought him to the house. He found his father standing next to the open barn door. As Ralph grew closer, the light from the lantern drifted inside. His father took a deep breath as Ralph turned the beam of light towards where he had last seen the woman. She still lay in a splattered mess on the floor. Mr Valentine swore under his breath as the lantern light glistened off the blood pools on the floor. Her body slowly heaved as she drew in ragged breath. “Ralph, carry her to the house. Quickly.” His voice did not betray the slightest trace of emotion as he took the lantern from Ralph’s hand.
Ralph did as he was told and scrambled to lift the bloodied woman. The light disappeared as his father left the barn and headed back to the house, leaving Ralph to drape her body over his shoulders in the dark. She was limp and cold from the rain. Ralph struggled to keep a firm grip as he trudged through the mud back to the house. He could feel her warm breath graze his neck in jagged puffs. Suddenly, to Ralph’s surprise, she moved her arm. It was enough to cause lose his footing and drop to one knee. A brief moment of readjustment later, and he was staggering through the doorway to his family home.
As he crossed the threshold he saw his father in the candlelight. He stood at the foot of the stairs and motioned upward. Ralph followed the order and began to climb the stairs slowly, taking them a single step at a time. His father was close behind, readied hands waiting to catch the woman at a moments notice.
Ralph swayed from side to side as he reached the top of the stairs and turned down the hallway. His mother, still in her nightgown, stood at the far end of the hall in the doorway to the guest room. He made small steps towards the room, taking great measures to avoid bashing his cargo against the tables and picture frames that lined the hall. Each step felt like it would slid out from under him. The hard, wooden floor of the hallway was rendered slick by the mix of mud and blood that ran down Ralph’s legs. He slowly passed his mother and entered the guest room, her homely face engraved with a dire expression.
“Lay her down on the bed, honey.” Her voice was calm and soft. It reassured Ralph in this moment of panic. He placed the woman on the bed and took a step backward, colliding with his mother in the process. “Ralphy, you should go down stairs and calm down. You’re pale as a ghost.” Her voice almost brought him to tears. He’d been shaking since the moment he found the woman in the barn. Ralph spun around and rushed past his father, not wanting him to notice the tears forming in the corners of his eyes. His father watched him round the corner and descend the stairs before turning to Mrs Valentine and the stranger that lie bleeding on the guest bed.
The room was lit by candlelight, giving everything an otherworldly glow. The flickering light bounced off the empty walls and dresser, catching only on the bloody floorboards. The broken woman on the bed was gaunt and pale, but still alive. Her ragged breathing caused her blood soaked clothes to rise and fall in uneven rhythms. “Marissa, how bad off is she?” Mr Valentine’s voice still lacked a strong emotion.
“Her wounds are far from fatal.” Said Mrs Valentine, as she opened a box of medical supplies on the bed. “Barely worse than the cuts and bruises the boys would bring home.” She pulled out a small jar of clear gel, a sewing needle, and some thread. “Although, I might need your help to reset her hip. I looks to be dislocated.” Mrs. Valentine stood up as she spoke. “But my main concern isn’t her wounds, she’ll survive those.” She turned to her husband with a look of concern in her blue eyes. “Calvin, she’s wearing a coastal army uniform.”
“Marissa, life need not be wasted.” Mr. Valentine’s voice was barely above a whisper as he took a rag and began to soak up the mix of blood and mud that was smeared across the floor. He looked up at her from under his brow, a knowing glint in his eyes. She nodded and threaded the needle before dunking it in the gel.
Ralph sat in the living room, his head in his hands. He felt a trickle of blood run down his arm and drip onto his foot. His heart was pounding in his chest, forcing blood to flush his face. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Ralph lifted his head and watched the room spin around him. The pictures on the walls, the empty chairs, and the coffee table in the center of the room all became a blur. He felt his stomach rise up to his mouth and quickly pressed his hand against it to suppress the urge to vomit, but the stench of blood overpowered him. He dropped to his knees and emptied his stomach on the floor.
“Ralph!” His father darted into the room, having seen Ralph collapse from the foot of the stairs. Ralph looked up at his father with tears in his eyes. “I know it’s overwhelming. How about you go ahead and use the new shower.”
“But Mom’s been waiting all week to use it.” Mr Valentine chuckled at his son’s protest before picking him up by the collar and facing him towards the bathroom door.
“Don’t argue with your father.” Mr Valentine joked. “You’re covered in mud, blood, and vomit. You need to clean yourself off.” Ralph looked over his shoulder at his father. Mr Valentine shot his sun a warm smile that set his mind at ease. As Ralph walked towards the bathroom, Mr Valentine headed back upstairs.
Mrs Valentine placed her hand on the stranger’s hip and felt for any breaks along the hip joint and found the bone was in tact. A partial separation of the joint was a quick fix in her mind. She lifted the leg and placed her shoulder against the stranger’s hip. In one motion, she popped the joint back together with a sickening click. Mrs Valentine shuddered as she checked her handy-work. She stitched the gash on the woman’s hip and salve had been slathered on all of the cuts and scrapes all over her body.
“You think she’ll make it?” Mr Valentine’s voice caused his wife to jump. She turned around to see him leaning in the door way.
“I told you earlier, she’ll be fine.” Her voice was soft and lyrical. “I think what’s best is to let her rest and get this mess cleaned up.” Mr Valentine nodded and surveyed the carnage in the hallway.
“Oh, I almost forgot. Ralph vomited in the living room.” His voice was almost a chuckle as he spoke. Mrs Valentine sighed and pulled a rag out of her medical supplies. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle the mess up here.” He looked at her and raised his rag in a mock salute. She walked past him and gave him a kiss as she went. Mr Valentine looked out the window as his wife descended the stairs. The storm outside had parted just enough to reveal the twin moons glowering down at the world. They floated moon beams through the window to expose the trail of blood that painted the wooden floor. He turned his attention to the mess, and began to wipe away the horror.