Thousands of miles away in the Wilderlands, not far from the ruins of the ancient city of Alice Springs, Arora squinted her eyes to focus through the layers of lush forest around her. She was looking for any signs of movement in the trees that would indicate the presence of prey.
The last time the members of her commune had eaten meat was over a month ago when her small team of hunters had ventured out to make a kill in honour of the chief's sixtieth birthday. But today's hunt was different. She was alone.
The morning was passing fast and the unbearable heat of the afternoon meant that she would have to retreat back underground soon and the chance of a kill wasn't looking promising. Her last hope was the bluff, above the river Rye. If she couldn't find a beast, at least there was the prospect of maybe a fish.
As she moved, she recalled the stories the elders told to the children of the commune about a time long ago. In those days they say the Wilderlands were areas of vast desserts where ancient animals roamed alongside the first people. It is said that they called this The Dreamtime and that those animals were the size of mountains.
Then the elders say, the second people came and changed everything. They enslaved the first people and built cities like Alice Springs and bigger cities along the now submerged coasts that polluted the land and air and destroyed the environment, causing the earth's climate to change. They say that entire species of animals were wiped out and that the sea rose and resources became so scarce that people started to kill each other to survive.
And then they say the third people, the builders of the lands in the sea, arrived and colonised the remaining continent, building more cities. These, over time became kingdoms under the rule of the Emperor. Australia – is what they say it was once called in one of the old languages. Its current name Odalya.
As Arora approached the bluff, she could hear the gentle rush of the river. All the rivers on the continent were now waterways of the kingdoms. The chief had warned her to stay away from them in case soldiers came patrolling to look for commune folk. Especially the river Rye, which was also a prime habitat for crocodiles.
Arora wasn't worried though. She had fished in this same spot on the shore many times before, keeping a keen eye on the murky water around her for any signs of something sinister lurking underneath. But something seemed off today. Something had disturbed the natural tranquillity of the area and as she continued towards the shore, she started to hear disturbing sounds. The hum of vehicles, people yelling and women crying.
Her survival instincts immediately kicking in, Arora abandoned her hunt for fish and headed towards the sounds to investigate. If there was trouble in these parts, she would have to warn her commune.
Treading carefully through the forest, she made her way towards a clearing in the trees, below a sandstone cliff with a low wide ledged platform. Camouflaging herself in the undergrowth, Arora watched as uniformed soldiers unloaded and lined up groups of scantily dressed girls, not much older than herself. "MOVE!" one of the soldiers barked loudly, as he used the back of his pin-gun to knock a girl to the ground, whilst the others squealed in terror close to them.
Arora's grip tightened around her own pin-gun as an angry pulse travelled through her veins. Yes, the people of the communes were outlaws of the kingdoms, but it was not a choice they had made. It was the kingdoms that refused to acknowledge them as citizens and treated them like animals.
Inhaling deeply to calm herself before she did something silly, Arora began to retreat back into the forest quietly. "LINE THEM UP STRAIGHT SO THAT WE CAN SEE THEM CLEARLY!" a deep and familiar voice commanded from above the platform.
A chill travelled through Arora's spine as she immediately turned around and returned to her hidden position in the undergrowth. Sure enough, there he was at the edge of the platform in all his pretentious glory – Killian, Grand Prince of Elham – a kingdom on the eastern rim of Middle Sea.
Arora's blood boiled with anger as she watched the man that killed her family and destroyed her kingdom bark at his soldiers. If he was here, there was definitely something sinister going on.
Quietly, Arora began to move again through the undergrowth keeping herself well-hidden as she approached the platform to get a closer look. Killian had trimmed down significantly since the last time she had seen him five years ago. He was a fat teenager, she recalled who at the age of nineteen pompously propositioned her to become his mistress someday. The thought still made Arora shudder and despite how handsome he looked now, that could never compensate for his gross personality.
"I SAY BOYS", Killian yelled out as three other princes came into view on the platform next to him. Despite the years that had passed, Arora recognised all of them. Prince Arran of Whiley, Prince Rhim of Andara and Prince Leigh of Xie.
Odalya originally had nine kingdoms, including her own – now eight. And given that the Emperor no longer had any living sons, all eight first princes from these kingdoms were equal candidates to succeed him. The rule of succession after all was passed down a generation.
"It's a shame they'll all die today", Arora heard Prince Leigh speak gleefully. "But I suppose we'll have to hunt something, if we can't find any beasts", he laughed.
Arora's grip immediately tightened around her pin-gun again as she registered his sick meaning. They were going to hunt these girls for sport. That's why they brought them here. The pulse that ran through her body this time was so hot that it burned her ears and she closed her eyes and took deep and heavy breaths to maintain her self-control.
She wanted to kill them right there and then. She could. She was close enough and no one had noticed her even now. Plus, she was a natural with her pin-gun, her shots fast, seamless and precise from five years of practice. But killing them here wouldn't guarantee the girls lives. The Emperor would not ignore such a provocation and the communes would be purged across the empire.
It was a delicate balance, she learned over the years. Despite being outlaws, the Emperor tolerated the communes as long as they remained quiet and hidden.
Opening her eyes again, Arora retreated slowly back the way she came. But as she went, she heard the first shots of the pin-guns going off and the terrified screams of the girls as they ran into the forest. She tried with all her might to ignore them, and continue back towards her commune – but she couldn't.
Turning around, she positioned herself back in the undergrowth. She might not be able to kill the princes, but she could at least give these girls a fair chance to get away. Lining up her pin-gun precisely on her shoulder, she began to shoot against the pins that came flying from the platform.
One after another, she cut them off from hitting the girls and before long there was confusion from both the platform and the soldiers. "THERE'S A SNIPER!" Killian yelled out to his soldiers. "FIND HIM!"
As soldiers dispersed into the forest, with a handful coming her way, Arora picked up her pin-gun and retreated deeper as fast as her legs could her carry her. "OVER THERE!", she heard a soldier yell out as they spotted her.
Immediately pins came flying her way as she moved through the trees. Her agility to dodge each and every one, a testament to her years of combat training under the Chief. The pins were fast, but she was faster because she could locate them with her ears before they came close enough. But then she heard it – two pins coming towards her from different directions. If she dodged one, the other would still hurt her and before she could make a choice, they both hit her. One from the back and one from the side.
Arora faltered with pain and tumbled over herself, falling hard against a rock. "Look what we have here", she heard Killian's voice above her. As she moved to get back up, Arora felt the tip of a pin-gun against the back of her head and froze. "I wouldn't move if I were you", he said. "I'll make this quick".
But before he could shoot her, they were both suddenly surrounded by a different group of soldiers.
"I believe she belongs to me", Arora heard another voice from behind her. "A sniper in my realm should be in the care of my soldiers".
"Ahh … Grand Prince Kuran", Arora heard Killian address the newcomer with undisguised contempt in his tone. "We are in the Wilderlands, so I'm afraid this isn't your realm. Besides a quick death for a sniper is the best thing".
"Perhaps, the Grand Prince of Elham isn't aware that the Wilderlands is a protectorate of Valencia now", Kuran spoke with the authority vested in him as the ruler of his kingdom. "So, then how am I suppose to interpret your troops on my land?"
Killian stammered at this revelation. He was not aware that the Emperor had granted these lands to Kuran. But then it didn't surprise him given that he was the front runner to be named Crown Prince.
"My apologies, I meant no disrespect. I was not aware of this", Killian cajoled Kuran. "Of course, you can have this sniper if you wish. It makes not difference to me", he moved the pin-gun away from Arora's head and retreated back to the clearing with his soldiers.
As relief flooded through Arora, her head began to spin from both the pain of the pin shots and the nasty hit to her head. But before she could do anything she felt the ground coming up to meet her and the world turned black.
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