THE SKY-FALLEN

by ardavenport

- - - Part 1

Auurrr-uuh heard another distant thrumming rumble. She looked up, listening, staring off into the sky.

It was Rrruuu-uph's call and his clan mates. Another heavy pod had plunged into the plains beyond the sunward hills.

Only mildly interested, Auurrr-uuh listened long enough to identify some of the voices she recognized before turning back to look down at the sky-fell that had come down in her clan's territory. Rrruuu-uph's sky-fell could be the last of the small swarm that had come down. Or there could be more. Sometimes they struck and killed people when they came down, hot and plowing black burned troughs in the packed ground. This time not. So far.

There was movement around the sky-fell below and Auurr-uuh watched. A creature not of the plains was attending the pod, peering and bending toward it, sometimes touching.

The pod itself was well over twice her height and round. The grasses around the long hole it had dug still smoked. She sniffed the air, scenting a little heat remaining from the violent impact. Sky-fell often cooled quickly. Unnaturally so.

Auurrr-uuh descended the rise down to where this sky-fell had come to land. Others of her clan were coming, but for now she had the sky-fallen to herself. She lifted her head above the tops of the grasses, just high enough to watch.

The being was typical of the sky-fallen who sometimes came out of the pods. How they got into them, no one knew. Or asked. Or cared.

It was taller than she, but thin and standing straight up like a plant, on two legs with small round head held highest on top from which hung long, limp brown hair. This one wore a dark brown covering over its whole body and tough coverings over its feet and legs. All parts of it were covered by brown and white, except for the head and tips of its side limbs. It had no claws, no visible teeth, no protective mane, no tail to strike with. Its coverings were thin and easily pushed aside by the breeze.

Auurrr-uuh tensed to spring up out of the grass to charge. Her jaws would easily snap the small head off the top. It would be quick. And satisfying.

The sky-fell's head turned and its tiny eyes, the color of twilight sky, locked on hers. She froze.

Auurrr-uuh's legs relaxed as she lifted her head, no longer concerned about surprising her prey. There was no surprise now. No fear. No panic. This sky-fell had defenses under its flimsy coverings. Probably a flame sting. A careless Rrrraaauuff could be killed instantly with a smoking hole through the skull or down the throat before even getting close to their target. Auurrr-uuh had feasted on the flesh of young fools like that.

The confidence she read in this sky-fell promised a quick, lightning-like death if she attacked.

She began to circle the sky-fallen and feigned only mild interest.

The sky-fell returned its attention to the round pod and feigned no interest in her.

The pod was half buried in its blackened hole. Char and ash obscured the usual scents of soil and grass along with the smell of the sky-fell and the stinging tang of the singed pod. The sky-fell prodded the curves of the pod before jumping down into the hole. It pressed its long body to it. Pressed the side of its head to it. It probed with the thin extensions at the ends of its two arms as it slid around the exterior of the pod.

No Rrrraaauuff had ever found a breach in the strange, smooth hardness of the pods unless it was broken in its fall. But sometimes beings came out of them. Dangerous beings. Not just from the flame stings. A rare few Rrrraauuff had died in agony after consuming their kills. Nothing could be done with them except to burn their carcasses to eliminate the poison. But many sky-fell beings were immensely satisfying kills. This one looked to be of that variety.

Auurrr-uuh had never consumed such, but she had heard that they were as satisfying as feasting on a defeated prime. More so, some said.

Continuing to circle, she heard others of her clan coming. The situation would be different.

The first to arrive was Aaauuurrrf, climbing to the top of a rise over the pod. He called out his kill-cry loud enough to feel it tremor through the ground before charging. No warning stare from the sky-fell being would stop Aaauuurrrf's bloodlust. Three other new arrivals, frenzied by the kill-cry, crashed through the grass after him.

The sky-fell leapt out of the hole and up atop the pod, standing high and visible, a deceptively easy target. A line of straight green star fire appeared, extending from the end of one arm. It hummed like a slow flame sting. Very dangerous. But Aaauuurrrf seemed not to see the danger. He leapt up.

The sky-fell cleaved his head in half.

And whirled about, the green star fire spinning.

Three more corpses fell, burned, slashed and dismembered of heads, shoulders and foreclaws. They slid down around the crashed pod.

The green star fire swept the air around the sky-fell, a final warning before it vanished. It tucked a shiny tool under its brown covering. It stared down at Auurrr-uuh, its challenge now made real.

Lifting her head, Auurrr-uuh loudly thrummed of Aaauuurrrf's and the others' stupidity. Of their lack of control. And pathetic deaths. The others who were coming would feed well on the bodies of those who did not learn to master their instincts. She continued to circle the pod and increased the distance between her and it, an acknowledgment of the decisive victory.

Still mounted atop the pod, the sky-fell crouched down, long strands of hair hanging down, touching the exterior of the pod. It wanted what was inside like a hhhrrrufff digger looking for a lair of Uuurrrsssh kitlings.

The sky-fell froze and tensed at a thumping from inside the pod. It probed more closely at a round indentation on one side.

Auurrr-uuh halted her pacing when the green star fire, straight as the distant horizon, reappeared. The sky-fell touched one place on the round indentation. The unnatural star fire and the unnatural substance of the pod squealed and flared at the point of contact.

A hole appeared in the indentation, then the head of another sky-fell emerged from inside the pod. It looked up.

This sky-fell was smaller and more slender, apparently younger than the first one, with short brown hair on its head and none on its face. They exchanged high-pitched muffled sounds that hardly carried at all in the air before the larger one lifted the other up. Then, carrying the younger one, it leapt up off, high in the air and landed in the grass beyond the burned area. The younger one yipped.

The larger sky-fell lowered the other down into the grass where Auurrr-uuh could not see them, but she could smell the blood. Not much. But it was sweet. The younger one was injured.

Auurrr-uuh remained still, listening to the rustling in the grass. But she did not approach.

The head of the younger sky-fell popped up, shaded by its own covering, brown like soil exposed by a hhhrrrufff digger in the grass. The head of the larger sky-fell, also covered, appeared directly under the other. They stood together, as one, with the smaller one clinging to the back of the larger one who supported the other's legs under its arms.

The larger sky-fell moved away from the pod. Auurrr-uuh moved with them, closing the distance between them.

Blue star fire appeared from the end of one of the smaller sky-fell's arms. The deadly low hum warned of swift death.

Auurrr-uuh moved away, but still paced them. The blue star fire vanished. She was the highest ranking in her clan in the area. She would follow them and she bellowed out to all the others her course. And how these sky-fell killed.

The grass rustled behind them. Others were arriving at the pod. They would feed well on the good flesh of the foolhardy.

Auurrr-uuh followed, moving with them. The tall sky-fell walked steadily, his steps sure. The smaller one remained watchful.

The sun climbed higher in the sky. Fat lazy insects buzzed among the grasses. Auurrr-uuh panted in the growing heat and snapped at a few bugs Fluffing the hair of her back and legs, she flexed her fore claws and clacked them, a warning sound that produced no reaction from her presumed prey.

The large sky-fell walked steadily on, giving easy warning to any small creatures to dart away before them. The smaller one remained watchful.

Auurrr-uuh tested them repeatedly, but she could not come within eleven body lengths of the sky-fallen without the star-fire appearing, no matter what direction she approached from.

Pausing at a stream, they drank separately with one always watching. The smaller one had to sit on the stones and Auurrr-uuh saw a stiff white shell on one leg, covering its injury like a hardened mud pack over a wound. The smaller one could stand but not walk without the other. Switching her tail, Auurrr-uuh drank her fill.

When they were finished, the taller one leapt over the wide stream to the other bank, with the younger one clinging to its back. Astonished, Auurrr-uuh watched them continue on, their direction unerring. She had seen it jump but, even taken at a full run, she doubted that she could have reached the other bank of the stream. She picked her way across the water on shallow stones.

Auurrr-uuh knew that they were heading toward the nearest tower. All the sky-fallen went to the towers. Or tried to. The sky-fallen had lairs there. Safety. From Rrrraaauuff. Burrowing upward, the sky-fallen enclosed themselves in stone just as diggers enclosed themselves in the ground. Rrrraauuff stayed away from unnatural places of no-sky. And any who ventured into the towers were met with stings and burns from dark lifeless depths.

All the sky-fell that came out of the pods and hollow things went to the towers. The remains, opened and unopened, broken and unbroken, were always sucked up by giant grey sky movers. Usually very soon after they crashed to the ground. Sometimes not. This time not.

And if not, the sky-fallen always went to the towers. If they could. This one did, its pace relentlessly steady.

None of her fellow clan mates joined her until the sun was past its zenith in the cloudless sky. She heard them long before she got close to them. They were waiting for their own sky-fallen to emerge from another crashed pod, and they had heard Auurrr-uuh's warning. Their answering thrums told her that they were disinclined to go after a difficult prey. They had fed from a fffrrrraathmm herd kill that morning.

When the tall sky-fell saw the pod with the crowd of Rrrraaauuff lounging around, it stopped. The younger one kept its attention fixed on Auurrr-uuh who continued walking, going to a rise to view the outcome of the confrontation.

The tall sky-fell moved forward more slowly, toward the pod which had plowed its own long furrow in the ground and dug into a bank of soil. The oldest of the group around it, Hrrruuuph, growled a warning. They were not interested in these sky-fell, but a challenge could not go unanswered. The sky-fell advanced closer and closer, its forearm raised and delicate clawless extension outstretched. Hrrruuuph and the others slowly backed away from the pod.

For the first time, Auurrr-uuh wondered if there was some communication from this sky-fell that she could not detect. She felt the warning as if vibrations of it had come through the air and ground. But it had not.

Attackers would die like the others. Be chopped down with flaring straight lightning. And these sky-fell would be a poor prize if caught with thin and tough flesh over too many bones that would leave them unsatisfied and feeling ill.

Auurrr-uuh shook her head, ruffling her mane, pawed the ground with all four legs and clacked her claws..

A challenge should not go unanswered.

The attention of both sky-fell was upon the others. They seemed to have forgotten about her. She circled far enough behind them to get a good start on an attack.

The blue star fire appeared when she had crossed only halfway to her goal. Auurrr-uuh turned aside, loping away from them.

The others watched. None of the Rrrraauuff had higher rank in the clan than her, even Hrrruuuph. They would not attack now. Even the younger ones. They were better disciplined than Aaauuurrrf.

The tall sky-fell went to a circular indentation. It opened to his touch. There were heads inside with horns and tusks and hair and unformed appendages. The sky-fell exchanged their soft, high sounds, so weak they could not stir a blade of grass. The gathered Rrrraauuff tensed, smelling the fear of those inside the pod. But stayed wary.

Hrrruuuph and the others drew together, exchanging low rumbles. Hrrruuuph moaned one inquiry toward Auurrr-uuh, inviting her to join. But she lowered herself in decline and rumbled that she thought this was a very bad idea no matter how many sides they attacked from. Hrrruuuph and the others went back to their conference. Then they separated.

The small noises from the sky-fell grew louder, filling with fear and anger. Taking their positions, Hrrruuuph's group got ready to spin around and run. There were six of them and they would attack in pairs sequentially.

Hrrruuuph snorted.

The tall sky-fell struck the side of the pod. The opening shut, cutting off the angry sounds from within.

Pounding from opposite sides, one lunging low, one high at the last minute, the first two attacked. But they were anticipated. The sky-fell cleaved off the slashing claws. Green and blue singed fur, shot up and down through fang and skull and body. Spinning, the tall sky-fell slammed his back and the smaller one against the pod.

The younger one should have been vulnerable to Hrrruuuph, leaping over the pod to come down on them. Blue star fire split his head in half and sliced down his neck into his chest. The body fell to the ground as the second attacker howled in pain with severed fore-claws by the green star fire.

As Auurrr-uuh had suspected, these two sky-fell were skilled in fighting, defending together. And very, very disciplined. They appeared so deceptively weak and vulnerable, they must need to defend themselves often.

The last two attackers aborted their charges and moaned their surprise as they viewed the carnage.

The Rrrraauuff who was only wounded pulled herself out from under Hrrruuuph's carcass. She got all four legs under her, but her fore limbs were gone. Only stumps remained. A hideous black gash that had narrowly missed severing her neck marked her as if she had been slashed with a single claw of fire. She had.

Auurrr-uuh did not know her name. It did not really matter now.

Insane with pain and loss, she leapt again at the sky-fallen.

The sky-fell ended it cleanly. Quickly.

The echoes of the fight seemed to remain in the air through the panting and shock of the two survivors. Auurrr-uuh's moaned. It had been a good attack. A good tactic. But she had never heard of any sky-fell who were this dangerous. Not even the ones with flame stings.

The two sky-fell moved on, the smaller one still riding on the back of the other. Still moaning, Auurrr-uuh followed. She had the highest rank.

Behind her, she heard the thrums and rumbles of the other two, calling out what had happened. Others would come to drag away and consume the bodies of the defeated. Auurrr-uuh doubted that anyone would take interest in the pod or what was inside before it was scooped up and taken away by the sky machines.

The large sky-fell resumed its earlier pace. Steady. Unchanged. Its legs were long for its body.

Auurrr-uuh paced it. This creature was not fast, but it could go tirelessly, in midday, like a ttthhhhuuurr runner.

The sun began to sink in the sky.

Auurrr-uuh occasionally bellowed out to her clan and others. She continued to travel with them. Others stayed away.

Steadily crossing the distance, they always headed toward the tower.

When the sky-fell finally stopped to drink at another stream, Auurrr-uuh gratefully lowered her head to drink. She was weary. She knew she had enough strength to follow them all the way to the tower. But she had not eaten since the previous night. Her thoughts stalked ways that she might catch the sky-fell by surprise to make a quick meal of them. Even if they were all bones and their meat was tough there still had to be enough to replenish her strength. And the kill would make it sweet.

Auurrr-uuh shook her mane and rumbled to herself about discipline. She glanced toward the sky-fell. She thought she saw weakness in the younger, injured one who sat on the bank and cast quick looks toward her with its small eyes. But the taller one remained proud and disdained her by showing her its back. Auurrr-uuh rumbled louder about discipline.

They moved on. Crossing the shallow stream and then following it until the sun was gone below the horizon.

The splash of stars that filled the sky gave them enough light to travel by. Some sky-fell lost their sight at night. For these two not.

This part of the plain was smooth and flat with few holes or bumps to trip on, her one hope to catch them off-guard. But the older sky-fell never faltered. The night continued on. The glowing clouds of stars slid across the sky. Long past the last distant rumbles of retiring Rrrraaauuff

Tired and sniffing the air for more familiar prey, Auurrr-uuh was surprised by the dark shadow of the tower ahead, a black shape of no-stars. The star spatter above had followed the sun's path. The night was more than half gone.

A challenge should not go unanswered.

Drawing strength from her tired limbs, Auurrr-uuh ran faster, ahead of the sky-fell. She turned and stopped, facing them, positioning herself between them and their intended lair, still in the distance.

Blue and green star fire appeared, unnaturally bright and straight in the darkness. The tiny eyes of the sky-fell, black in shadow, looked past her toward their goad. She loudly thrummed a challenge, but the large sky-fell did not change its pace.

Auurrr-uuh dove aside before the star-fire could touch her and it passed her by.

Raging and anguished, she bolted after them, overtaking them again. She was hungry now. She wanted them. She wanted the kill. Their bones snapping in her jaws. Their blood in her mouth and nostrils.

Again, the large sky-fell did not slow down. She crouched, letting them come to her. She dove to the side and then back at them.

The green star-fire singed her mane. Furious, Auurrr-uuh knew she had only feinted the attack. She would have been cut down if it had been real. She reared up and lunged. The blue star-fire swung close enough to her to feel the rush of air as it went by, under her nose, blinding her. It burned the air in its wake.

Auurrr-uuh hit the ground hard, her jaws slamming shut when her chin impacted the short grasses. The sky-fell's steady footsteps receded ahead of her. The blue and green star-fire was gone.

Stunned, she tried to understand what had happened to her. A pain, shot up into her head. Not a cut or bruise or blow. It was all of those pains, the essence of pain inside her, sharper than any claw. She lifted herself up off the ground and opened her mouth wide, gulping in the cool air.

She ran her rough tongue over the stumps of her fangs and tasted ash.

The pain lanced upward, deep behind her eyes and false lights briefly clouded her vision.

Shocked, she howled and roared, pounded the ground with her feet and dug up clumps of grass with her long claws. Inarticulate rage and challenge burst from her. Nothing else remained for her now. No fangs, no life, no discipline.

She wanted the kill.

She lunged after the sky-fallen. They had reached the base of the tower. Their backs were protected and the tall sky-fell had put the younger one down by that impenetrable barrier and walked away to face her.

The green star-fire appeared. Auurrr-uuh ran faster, pounding on the ground louder and louder. The vibrations of her attack would be sensed from a long way away. She leaped, claws outstretched.

The green star-fire blinded her, bright like a sun filling the whole sky.

- - - End Part 1