Friday, July 30, 2010
Challenge results - The Aviaries
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I crept through the trees, stepping carefully to keep the noise down. Surprise was the only thing working in my favor.
I peered around a tree. He was there: still as a stone, propped against a tree, legs splayed out in front of him. His camouflage hid his features, though it didn’t hide him in the forest.
The Hunter faced the path into the woods. This was his third day of watching the entrance to the Aviaries.
The Aviaries housed the kingdom’s greatest treasures—rare birds found nowhere else. The newest hybrid was the glittering ruby of its mother with its father’s gossamer feathers and a great train of a tail that flashed purple and gold in the sunlight. The crown jewel of any collection.
The King planned to present it at his daughter’s wedding; an auspicious gift with which to begin her new life and a symbol of trust in the peace treaty.
But the Hunter clearly had other plans. He had been watching the path for the last three days. I suspected that he was waiting for an opportunity to steal the bird.
I couldn’t let that happen. My life was at stake—it was my job to keep the birds safe. The King tolerated no mistakes.
I knew today was the day he would make his move. The wedding was tomorrow. Today was the Hunter’s only chance.
I settled down behind the Hunter, ready to track him when he moved.
I didn’t have to wait long. As the sun got low in the sky, I saw the scientists and caretakers leaving for the day. The Hunter twitched.
As the voices faded away and the sky grew pink, the Hunter got to his feet. He stretched and looked around him. I watched. My camouflage was perfect—unless I moved, he couldn’t possibly see me. He glanced in my direction but continued to scan and turned away to retrieve a cage hidden in the brush. I stood and followed.
The Hunter moved quietly through the trees, but I could still hear his footsteps and his labored breath as he carried the cage toward the Aviaries.
At the gate, he set the cage on the ground and looked around again. He pulled a small set of tools from a pocket and began to pick the lock.
I cursed myself for letting the King insist on such a paltry lock, but he had demanded free access to the collection, and he would have nothing to do with high-tech security measures.
Within moments, the gate swung open. The Hunter picked up the cage and stepped inside.
Looming before the Hunter was a large, free-standing structure. Inside, I caught flashes of the gem-colored birds that lived there. They were flitting about in the fiery sunset, light reflecting off of their feathers. The Hunter stopped to stare, and I slipped into the Aviaries behind him.
I was weaponless—one of the King’s rules about working in the Aviaries. He didn’t want someone accidentally killing one of the birds. The Hunter, on the other hand, carried a shotgun, so I had to choose my position with care.
I darted behind an observation post—one from which the researchers watched the birds. The hybrid was kept in its own glass-walled enclosure about fifty feet away. I stood near a path of small stones. Thinking they might be of use, I scooped up a handful and shoved them in my pocket.
The Hunter pulled his eyes away from the birds. With a glance to either side, he headed for the glass cage. He set the cage on the ground and inspected the hybrid’s enclosure before he started to pick the lock.
As he knelt before the cage door, I climbed the ladder into the observation tower. From here a catwalk ran to a second flight cage, on the far side of the glass one. The catwalk ran directly over the top of the smaller enclosure.
I crawled along the catwalk, trying to keep a low profile. The setting sun threw an immense shadow on the wall of the Aviaries. I could see my shadow moving and hoped the Hunter didn’t turn around.
When I reached the glass cage, I swung my feet over the side of the catwalk. I lowered myself until my feet hung mere inches from the metal roof. I couldn’t get any closer without dropping.
I heard the click of the lock and a satisfied grunt from the Hunter. The cage door was open.
I dropped to the roof with a clang.
“What the—?” the Hunter said below me.
I threw some stones onto the path behind him, and he whirled around, pulling his shotgun to his shoulder.
He spotted my shadow on the orange-lit wall. He dropped to one knee and fired. But my shadow disappeared as the shot created clouds of dust in the wall.
I threw myself onto his back and wrestled for the shotgun. I was actually more worried that he would shoot a bird than me. Peace in the kingdoms depended on a successful wedding and gift-giving ceremony tomorrow. Dead birds tonight would derail the King’s peace negotiations.
The Hunter rolled to his side, trapping my left arm. I grunted at the impact and a sharp pain shot through my arm, but I held on. I slammed my right foot against his hand. The gun was now pointing at the distant flight cage. Nervous birds were flying in circles, and I knew one would be hit if the gun fired again.
I kicked a second time and heard the gratifying crunch of bone. The Hunter howled, and the birds erupted in alarm calls. The noise was deafening.
I yanked the gun from his injured hand and swung it out of his reach. Then I shoved the end of the barrel against his side. He arched away from it and stopped moving.
“You’re done,” I growled in his ear. I yanked my bruised arm from under his body and kept the gun trained on him as I backed away. Cradling his broken hand, he shifted to a sitting position and gazed past me.
“No,” he said. A slight smile played on his lips despite his grimace of pain. “You are.”
I turned to see that the door to the glass cage stood open, and I caught a glimpse of red as the hybrid flew away.
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