The sun burned her shoulders, but she kept focused on the opponent before her. Advancing was the only thing that mattered, not the ache in her lungs or body. Josh was the last obstacle in her way to claiming the title of War Chief. The cheers from the crowd were deafening. Blood started to drip into her eye as she lunged forward with her fist. Quick as ever, he dodged it with a counter strike that brought her to her knees, gasping for air. The descending shadow in the sand was all she needed to will her body to move.
His foot came crashing down beside her head. Josh’s stance was wide, too broad. He must’ve thought it would finish her—a grave mistake. Kahli kicked his back leg, forcing him into a split, and he wasn’t flexible. He cried out as she gave him a finishing blow to the head.
“Kahli, winner,” the overseer yelled.
Kahli smiled as she glanced up at the stadium. She searched the balcony where her father sat. Her smile slowly disappeared at the empty seat; there was only Lewis, her father’s advisor. He gave a slight nod and left the box. As she left the arena, a group of people surrounded and congratulated her. It took at least a half-hour to make it to a quiet street and head home.
Her house sat on the tallest hill in the city, always keeping watch and protecting the last of humanity. Kahli wiped the blood from her face and adjusted her clothes before knocking on her father’s office door. Her stomach turned when she received the command to enter. He was behind the desk, scribbling away, not bothering to lift his head. She walked around his office, looking at the shelves of books and nick-nacks he collected over the years. Her eyes stopped on the frame that sat between two incenses—dark hair, almond-shaped eyes, and a smile that would brighten the darkest days. She reached for the frame.
“Don’t touch her,” a voice boomed.
Kahli’s hand froze mid-air, and she bit back the bitter pain.
“Do you plan on acknowledging me today,” she asked.
“Shouldn’t you be off playing, soldier? I have work to do.”
“We have work to do. I’m War Chief,” she said.
The pen stopped, and only the wind whistling outside the window could be heard. His eyes stayed on the paper, but the anger rolled off of him like steam from hot water.
“I’ve told you. You’re marrying Stanis’ son. His influence is vital to bring the Deathers on board.”
“He has no influence over me, and I’m not marrying his pig of a son either. We need to fight and stand up to those—”
“Your title of War Chief is hereby revoked and will revert to Josh,” he said, going back to work.
Her heart dropped, “You can’t do that! I earned it.”
“I am in charge of every life here. You as War Chief will kill us all.”
“At least look at me while you snatch my dream,” she said, placing her palms on his desk.
The pen became louder as it scratched the page. Kahli smacked everything from the front of his desk to the floor. He sighed and continued to work.
“Ten years,” she whispered, “You haven’t looked at me or smiled.”
“How can I when you’re a painful reminder? If you want to start to repair what you’ve broken, then marry Stanis’ son. Now, get out of my office.”
Kahli’s hands retreated into fists. The door slammed behind her as she went to her room. The night shift started soon, and she needed to get ready. The Altahans have been closing in. Over the last year, one by one, other cities have fallen, but they won’t. She would make sure of it, even if she had to commit treason.
The streets were still lively as she transversed the crowd. Quick footsteps approached her from behind. She spun around, and arms wrapped around her.
“Don’t scare me like that,” she laughed.
“Congratulations, War Chief,” Samantha said.
Samantha always smelled like fresh-baked bread and always carried a loaf or two. It got her in trouble most times on shift, but she was the best sniper in these walls. Kahli looked around and frowned.
“He’s at the gate already. He had a hot date last night, and the girl lives in the front,” she said, wiggling her brows.
Of course, he did. He just got a new promotion, and Alexi was a prized specimen with words of silk. They continued to the gate and joined the group gearing up. Alexi was off to the side, kissing a girl with light brown hair. Kahli’s eyes almost fell to the ground; it was Stanis’ daughter, Jasmine. Alexi walked over with a big smile.
“Don’t think you’re all that now. I can still take you,” he said, embracing Kahli.
“Stanis and Jamie will have your balls in a jar if they find out,” Kahli said.
“They’re going to hang you up for the Altahans to find,” Samantha chimed in.
“It’ll be hard after we’re married tonight,” he whispered.
Kahli smiled, “The walls must be falling. Never thought I’d see the day. Did you bring what I asked for?”
A special package she ordered from the blacksmith. He became a Deather last year after his son died in a raid.
“Yeah, what is all of this for,” he asked.
“A surprise for our guests,” she smiled.
Kahli pushed to the front of the crowd and looked around at all the faces before her. They were her responsibility now, and she would protect them with her life.
“As you all know, today is my first day in this role. I am honored to be your Chief. It’s also no surprise my feelings about the path we should take, but we will be one outside these walls—Deathers and Survivors together with one goal: Protecting our families and way of life. Let me hear that war cry. Make it so loud that the Altahans think twice about coming out tonight.”
The small patrol group cheered so loud that her head rattled.
Their night so far was quiet as they made their rounds. Kahli split the group into three teams to cover more ground. She had something she wanted to try. The Altahans were intelligent, strong, and fast, but their arrogance would be their downfall. An Altahan’s skin was as tough as metal. They wasted a lot of ammunition trying to take them. With their reserves running low and the enemy taking control of the source, it was only a matter of time. It was the main reason why the Survivors wanted to surrender—-why her father wanted to surrender. To combat that, she set up the special package from the blacksmith.
If it worked, it could change the tide of the war and their minds. They could have the leverage to negotiate their freedom. Kahli stayed in the shadows as she waited. This path always had Altahans on it scouting—a perfect test ground. She didn’t have to wait long when the crunching of leaves and twigs filled the air.
Kahli got on her belly, and the massive frame in the back of the group turned in her direction. She clenched the remote. The moonlight lit up their skin in a beautiful glow, almost like lost stars walking in the forest. If it weren’t for their cruelty and lizard-like eyes, they wouldn’t be so bad. The closer the group got she realized they were just footsoldiers, new recruits.
The veterans wore braids, only cut when they lost a battle. They probably just wanted to make their families and nation proud. Her heart ached. Not on the bones of her race and world. The colossal frame came barreling towards the small group as she pressed the button.
A flash and loud bang filled the air, followed by the whistling sound of titanium shrapnel. The group didn’t have time to cry out or move as the deafening sound of fleshing tearing filled her ears. Bodies began to drop to the ground.
The last human city should be in these woods somewhere. They managed to elude his army for a year, and he let them, opting to find the easier ones first. Most humans took the deal: a life of servitude over death. Shameful if you asked him. They had no pride, well, the majority of them didn’t, and the few that did, he met head-on in battle: a warrior’s death, the greatest honor.
His new recruits were itching to get their claws wet and earn their braids. They continued to push too far forward, breaking formation. He would reprimand them later. Out of the corner of his eye, a shadow shifted in the bushes.
“Slow down, ahead,” Zuco said.
The recruits sensed it too and charged forward. Cursing under his breath, he ran after them. It was like time slowed down as the flash blinded him. Then something hit his side and stomach. Before he could regain his stance, a loud bang filled the air.
Something hit him again, but the force sent him flying into a tree this time. His head rang, and everything was blurry. His side and shoulder were wet and warm. After his eyes adjusted, he realized he was pinned to a tree. Zuco glanced at the recruits, and even from there, he could tell they were dead.
The pit of his stomach got hot. He wouldn’t shame himself and be captured by those weaklings. His second would complete their goal. He reached into his holster and pulled out a knife. Just as he was ready to plunge it into his neck, a gunshot rang out. The shot knocked the knife from his hand.
A dark-cloaked figure appeared from the shadows. Were they trying to capture him? Did they know he would be on this route? They had to, especially with that new weapon.
“Finish me. I have nothing to say to you,” he said.
His English wasn’t the best, but he was proficient in it. Exactly why he was on this mission. The rest of the translators were overseeing the new work camps. If he managed to find the city, he was to offer them a deal or give them notice of their impending doom.
“You tried to save them,” the small voice said.
It sounded like a female. She was short and petite, no match for him or the weakest soldier in their Army. No wonder she resorted to this tactic. It was clever, and he hated to admit it.
“We’re not as cowardly as all of you,” he sneered, “Men abandoning their families. Women smothering their children. All for a chance to save their own skin.”
“Seems you have a lot to say,” she said, coming closer, “Survival is grey and filled with regrets.”
She reached out and pulled at the piece of metal in his leg. Zuco held back the groan in his throat. Was she going to torture him here? The thought evaporated as she pulled it free and tossed it to the ground.
He frowned, “This your first time torturing? You’re shit at it.”
“I’m setting you free. So, try and not kill me this time,” she grunted.
She worked and strained until his shoulder was free. If it weren’t for the blood loss, he would grab her throat, but there was no telling how many more bombs she had set up. It was better to live today then come back another day and crush them all. But something still bothered him.
Who would help their enemy in times of war? He would’ve either gutted her or tortured her for information on the city, but she slaughtered his men and was letting him go? Was it an intimidation tactic? It wouldn’t work. His eyes were cold and lifeless as he stared at her.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“A fucking idiot, but worthy of life.”
Before he could stop himself, he laughed. It was bitter and full of rage, but at the same time, it struck a chord within him. How could someone like her be so proud? Strong? And sure, he wouldn’t just snap her neck. When he looked into her eyes, it gave him the answer he sought. It was just like hers before she died. His Anki.