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Claps of Thunder
About 45,000 years ago, humans, also known as the species Homo sapiens, began migrating from the Middle East into Europe, where they encountered Neanderthals for the first time. This human subspecies had inhabited Europe for 200,000 years, but went extinct within 20,000 years after humans’ arrival. This is considered a rapid extinction among the scientific community and debate rages over its cause. Some evolutionists propose that they interbred with H. sapiens, others believe that they were not equipped for a rapidly changing climate, and still others believe that humans outcompeted them for resources. However, it remains a mystery just how complex Neanderthals were and how they faded into history so many thousands of years ago.
The tall grass was bleached from ample sunlight and a long, dry summer, but a chilly wind shivered through it and ominous black clouds rolled tumultuously in the distance, burdened with rain. Summer would soon abandon the earth to autumn, who would in turn betray her for winter.
Crouched in the grass, clutching a crude stone axe with his sweaty hand, was a boy. Though he was only 12, he looked 15. His thick, protruding brow was furrowed in concentration and he pursed his lips, minimizing his large square jaw. He turned the axe over in his palm, attempting to steady his shaky hand. It was his first hunting expedition and winter hovered menacingly upon the horizon.
His eldest brother grunted softly beside him and motioned for him to crouch down further. The boy curled his hand into a fist and bent it at the wrist in affirmation, then sunk lower into the whispering grass.
He and his brother, cousin, and uncle had managed to drive the deer this far; they had spotted her hours ago in the woods which lay behind them and had spooked her into the open meadow by snapping twigs and rustling branches. They had lost her many times, but at last they had her where they wanted her. She had just begun to relax and poke her head into the grass, only to tense once in a while and flick her ears tentatively. If the hunters didn’t strike soon, they ran the risk of their prey escaping into another vast stretch of forest opposite them, about 10 yards away.
The novice’s brother mopped his sweaty brow with the thick fur slung over his shoulder and motioned to the rest of the party to spread out. They obeyed him, slinking in the obscurity of the long blades. The doe lifted her head nervously, scanning her surroundings. The hunters froze accordingly and their prey bowed her neck and resumed munching unsuspectingly.
The boy met his brother’s eyes through the curtain of grass and grunted impatiently; the thunder rumbled threateningly in the distance and he was ready to become a man.
The deer started, alerted of her stalkers’ presence, and bolted gracefully toward the woods. The hunters cried out in anger at their newest member and then tore through the clearing after their prey, engaged in a pursuit that would inevitably be fruitless, but which they never seemed able to resist.
They were slow. Their bodies were top-heavy and awkward; before long, they felt their hearts testing the strength of their ribcages, and they were forced to stop as the doe bounded farther and farther away. The boy snarled and threw his axe down in frustration.
Suddenly, a long, thin, pointed object darted from the grass just along the forest’s border and into the air, finally burrowing itself into the deer’s side. The animal paused briefly and bucked, but before she could regain speed, another projectile, and then another and another, launched from the grass, flew through the air, and penetrated her skin, until she was decorated with long, lopsided poles wedged painfully into her body. At last, the beast surrendered, swallowed by the rolling sea of grass as she collapsed. The boy and his fellow hunters gaped in confusion and shock, glancing at each other and then back at the poles’ launching point, attempting in vain to comprehend how they whirred through the air unaccompanied by a pair of hands, from whence their speed came, and how they were sharp enough to take down the doe.
A smattering of whoops, foreign to the boy, and yet recognizable as gleeful and triumphant, rose from the grass as the Men of Projectiles leapt out of hiding and surrounded their kill. They were so like the boy, and yet he instinctively identified them as vastly superior. Their movements were more fluid and agile, rivaling even the deer’s; they were leaner and quicker; they communicated through a series of rapid, complicated, incomprehensible gestures, utterances, and pitches; and their eyes were unsettlingly clear, full of icy, calculating intelligence as they flashed like the lightning igniting the sky above them.
The boy bent down and picked up his inferiorly crafted stone axe, turning it over and over again in his hand, then gaping in awe at the men’s unrivaled weapons.
One of the Men of the Projectiles felt his stare and he answered it with a pointed look from those chilly eyes. He ran his cool stare over the boy’s entire hunting party, then gripped his long, sharp stick, aimed, and released it into the air. It whistled, then fell silent as it pierced the ground at the boy’s feet, splattering warm blood, still vibrant with life, onto the blond grass. The boy flinched and fled their daunting, horrifying presence, followed by his companions, terror propelling their usually inept, sluggish steps.
A menacing cackling pursued them in the projectiles’ stead, something the men would call laughter, but which the boy’s kind identified as a cry of hostile warning. It was a war cry which they would never have the courage, intelligence, or brutality to answer.