Invaders – Bella Forrest

Without the nudus shield to protect us, Gianne’s and Brisha’s fleets surged downward, with nothing standing in their way. A moment later, Fed ships appeared behind them, recovering from their failed ambush to trail the last of the silverand-green vessels, raining blasts upon the queens’ armies. A few of Brisha’s defiant forces turned to retaliate, but the majority followed Gianne’s ships, no doubt eager to cut her off on behalf of their deceased leader. Everyone seemed to be shooting at everyone, and the whole battlefield was a mass of confusion. I supposed the rebels gaining immortality was more important than fighting it out on Vysanthe. Besides, with Brisha dead, her forces seemed intent on chasing down those who’d killed her. If they could take Gianne, perhaps they thought they could claim the victory for their deceased queen. “What is your status? Over!” I yelled into the comms device, screaming at the top of my lungs to be heard over the roar of engines and artillery. “We need to fire on the queens! Once they’re dealt with, we can go back to destroying the rebel base! We have enough soldiers on the ground to hold the rebels!” It wasn’t quite true, but there was no way we could hold off the queens’ numbers combined with those of the rebels. The comms device crackled. “The shield is down. All shield-bearers have been taken out,” Agent Phocida replied, though she was hard to make out. I really wished they’d stop saying that—what did “taken out” mean? What had happened to my friends? I knew they’d have done everything in their power to keep the shields up. The only way they’d have given up was if they’d been forced to… though I couldn’t allow myself to dwell on that right now. I was already surrounded by death; I wasn’t sure I could handle adding my friends to the pile.

No, I wouldn’t believe the worst until someone actually said the words to me. “We must destroy the rebel dome and take out both in one fell swoop!” Agent Phocida barked through the comms device. “We need to focus our forces! Focus on the queens, for God’s sake!” I fired back, glancing at Navan. Stone was bleeding out with every moment we wasted, but there was no such thing as a safe haven here. I looked around for the Rexombran guard who’d gone to deal with the sniper that had shot Stone, but they’d disappeared into the fray. I grimaced, wanting to know who was responsible for cutting him down like this. It had to be someone who knew his value, though I didn’t want to consider what that might mean. It was the same worrying shiver I’d felt, realizing someone must have known about the nudus shield and the locations of the shield-bearers. “We must destroy both!” Agent Phocida repeated, before her voice cut out altogether. “No! Focus your—you idiot merevins!” Through the glimmering transparency of the upper half of the rebel dome, I could see Fed ships settling all around, targeting their fire at the dome itself, eager to break it down.

Behind, Gianne’s fleet was firing on them, and smoke was rising from the Fed vessels, though their barrier technology was doing its best to keep out the worst of the damage. “You won’t get them to listen,” Navan said, pulling Stone gently to the edge of the shipping container. Bashrik hurried up to the container and helped to get him down as I crouched low, staying on high alert, keeping both hands full of knives in case anyone tried to strike at us. The entire base was in chaos, bodies littering the ground in growing piles that made my stomach turn. Everyone was so streaked with blood and grime that it was hard to tell one faction from another. I noticed the blur of Rexombra killing clusters of enemy shifters and coldbloods without them even realizing that death had come to their door—surprise remained on their faces, even as they collapsed. With Stone dangling between Bashrik and Navan, we sprinted across the battleground toward one of the towers. It was the same one from which the sniper had shot Stone, though the sniper had long since been dealt with by the Rexombra; I’d seen them tear the gunman from his vantage point. I scoured the ground for any sign of the culprit, but there were so many bodies tangled together that it was impossible to pick out a specific individual. Frustrated, I followed the others around to the back of the tower and crouched behind a stack of scrap metal.

It was quieter here, tucked away where nobody could see us, though I was still aware that nowhere was truly safe. All around us, the roar of Fed ships and Vysanthean ships pummeling the rebel dome pounded out a heavy percussion, which was starting to give me a headache. “Who’s doing all of this?” I growled. “Who took down our shield? Who knew to shoot Stone? There’s something fishy going on here.” “You think it’s a merevin spy?” Bashrik murmured. In any other situation, I’d have laughed, but this was no time for amusement. “I don’t know, but it’s someone who knows way too much!” Navan frowned. “I imagine one of Orion’s men took out Stone, after realizing what he was doing with the shield.” I shook my head. “No, it can’t be that simple.

Nobody would have known what Stone was doing. They probably don’t even remember that ambakas exist. To them, he would have looked like a guy standing up on a container, doing something kind of weird.” “Aside from the big blue shield, you mean? That made him a pretty obvious target,” Bashrik replied. “Maybe, but I can’t help thinking there’s more to this. It feels more targeted than that.” I glanced down at Stone, sinking to my knees so I could get a better look at his wounds. He was still semi-conscious, his face contorted in pain, his third eye closed of its own volition. “Weren’t expectin’ that, I gotta say,” he hissed through gritted teeth. I smiled at him apologetically.

“I’m just going to check something. This might be a little painful.” “S’already bloody painful!” “Sorry, Stone.” I reached forward and peeled away the sodden strips of uniform I’d used to put pressure on the wound. Every piece was drenched in strange, vibrant orange blood that stained my hands. “Can I lift your shirt?” I asked, feeling a bit embarrassed in front of Navan. He laughed, though it quickly descended into a fit of agonized coughing. “Aye, go ahead. Might as well… show me muscles off… to some lass before I cop it.” “You aren’t going to ‘cop it,’ Stone.

You’ll be fine,” I said reassuringly, though I had no idea whether that was true or not. Still, situations like this called for a bit of wishful thinking. “Didn’t know ye were a doc as well as a captain,” he teased. “I’m a woman of many talents.” “I bet ye—” He paused, flashing an apologetic look at Navan. “Never mind.” With him silent, I pulled his soaked shirt up to the top of his chest, revealing a muscled torso and abdomen covered in intricate tattoos. He had none on his arms, giving no indication that there were secret works of art beneath his shirt. They were some of the most lifelike, beautiful tattoos I’d ever seen, though I didn’t know what any of them meant. Above his hip, there was a family of ambakas with flowers woven in their hair, their third eyes all closed.

There were celestial scenes, too, marking out planets and stars, but it was the image of a young woman that caught my eye. It was in full color, her hair flowing in coppery strands, her eyes turned out, though her third one was closed, too. There, in the very center of her forehead, was the spot where the bullet had entered. The blood around the entry wound was starting to congeal, marring the tattooed face of the young woman, but he’d already lost a lot of it. Carefully, I peered around to look at his back, finding the exit wound on the other side. Fortunately, it seemed to have missed his spinal cord, and since he was breathing well enough, I reasoned his lungs might be okay, too. “How’s it look, doc?” Stone asked. I looked closer, a shiver of dread bristling up my own spine. “You got hit by a human bullet. This wasn’t done by any of the rebels.

” “Could’ve been a human gun they’d stolen from nearby,” Bashrik suggested. “Not when they’ve got coldblood guns at their disposal,” I countered, pulling Stone’s shirt back down. “A human did this. I’m sure of it.” “How can you know?” Navan asked. I flashed him a smile. “I’ve got an idea to prove it, and you’re going to help me.” I looked up at Bashrik. “Bash, keep pressure on this wound until I get back, okay?” “Will do.” He took over, pressing down hard on the spot where the bullet had entered.

With that, I grabbed Navan’s hand and darted back out onto the battleground with him, keeping to the base of the tower as we reached the section of ground where the Rexombra had pulled down the sniper. I’d seen them do it, though I’d been so preoccupied that I hadn’t been able to give them my full focus. Now, however, my attention was entirely on finding that sniping bastard, even if I had to upturn every single body. “He’s in this mess somewhere,” I explained, gesturing at the piles of corpses. Some of the coldblood bodies were already disintegrating, leaving an overwhelming, metallic tang in the air. “You’re sure?” “I saw the Rexombra pull him down. He’s definitely in here somewhere.” As I protected Navan with my knives and the unused pistols at my side, firing at any enemy who dared to come too close, he sifted through the clutter of bodies. I struggled to hold on to the contents of my stomach as I watched him claw through a slick pile of shifter innards, though I knew this was all for the greater good. If I could prove my theory, I understood it would only complicate things further, but I had to know who’d done this—I had to start putting the pieces together in my mind.

“Here!” Navan called, gesturing to a corpse that lay close to the bottom of the pile. There, lying on the ground with glazed-over eyes, was the body of a human soldier wearing a special ops uniform. Even if the black fatigues hadn’t given him away, I could’ve guessed from the military badges he wore on his sleeve. There were dog tags tucked into his collar, too, though they only gave his name: Sergeant S. Barnes. It probably wasn’t even his real name, just a code name to identify him if he fell in battle. “I was right,” I whispered, though it didn’t bring me much comfort. Navan nodded. “And we might be in even more trouble than we thought. Come on, we need to get Stone out of here and keep moving.

” Following in Navan’s footsteps, I shot down a creeping shifter before we rounded the back of the tower, where I could hear Stone’s voice getting louder, his tone desperate. “Where’s Ren? Why ain’t you tellin’ me nothin’? I thought we was pals!” He was gripping Bashrik’s collar, his knuckles white. “We don’t know where she is. We don’t know where Angie is, either. You and me are in the same boat right now. All right?” Bashrik replied, his voice breaking. This seemed to appease Stone, whose hands relaxed on Bashrik’s collar as Navan and I approached. Stone shot me a mournful glance. “Does no one… know where any of ‘em are?” “The only thing we’ve heard is that they were ‘taken out.’ It’s all they keep saying.

I don’t know what that means.” I took a weary breath, forcing away the dark thoughts that threatened to overwhelm me—images of them lying dead on a field somewhere, so far away from home and everyone they loved. I’d seen them dead before, in the visions that Kaido’s weird botanicals had wrought upon my brain. I just hoped those weren’t some terrible prophecy coming true. “And that’s the least of our worries,” Navan added. “We just found a human soldier on the battlefield. Riley thinks he’s the one who shot you, Stone, so we should probably get away from here before someone else tries again.” “Why’d one o’ your lot want to snipe me? I was doin’ yer planet a favor.” “I know that. That’s why we need to get to the bottom of what’s going on here,” I said.

“That soldier taking you out isn’t a coincidence—it has got to be connected to what happened to the others.” Navan pulled Stone’s arm around his shoulder, while the ambaka draped his other arm across Bashrik’s shoulders. I guessed either of the coldbloods could have picked him up like a baby and carried him to safety, but that wouldn’t have been particularly dignified for a thief of Stone’s reputation. “Could it be the US president? He was working with Orion,” Navan noted, as we headed for the dome’s perimeter. We’d be safer somewhere close to the edge, away from the fighting, while we decided on a better plan of action. After all, I couldn’t hear a thing through my comms device anymore. “It doesn’t make sense for the president or Orion to be involved in breaking down the nudus shield,” I replied. “If they saw my broadcast, which the president definitely would have, then they’d have known what the nudus shield was for. The rebels would never have tried to dismantle it, knowing it would allow the queens’ fleets to land here. They wouldn’t put themselves at risk like that.

It worked in their favor to keep it up.” Bashrik shot me a nervous look. “Speaking of the queens’ fleets—what are we supposed to do about them? The Feds seem focused on shattering the rebel dome first. If they don’t retaliate soon, Gianne will have weakened their barrier technology and decimated them before they’ve turned a single blaster in her direction.” “At least Brisha’s fleet hasn’t turned on the Fed just yet,” Navan added. “They seem content to fire on Gianne, for the time being.” I looked up through the glimmering dome of the rebel base and saw that he was right. The silver-and-green ships were firing solely at their red-and-black counterparts, while Gianne’s vessels were firing in all directions. “It’s not much of a comfort,” I muttered, turning back to the others. “Honestly, I have no idea what we’re going to do about Gianne.

I thought the Fed could handle it, but now I’m not so sure.” I didn’t want to say it out loud, but it seemed as though the Fed was more intent on getting to the elixir than defending us from Gianne’s fleet. We’d just reached the perimeter of the dome when a figure emerged from the treeline of the woodland beyond. They were sprinting toward us.

.

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