â€œIt happened a long, long time ago,â€ Annissa said. â€œSo long ago no one even remembers.â€
â€œI heard it was like a thousand years ago,â€ Klae, her younger brother added. They were sitting around a campfire outside the old warehouse they called home. The sky was black and stars shimmered brightly in the cool night air. The building was shared by three hundred other children, mostly orphans. Life for them was anything but wonderful.
|From the Ashes|
â€œA thousand years? No way,â€ replied Brody, a boy edging close to manhood. He was nearly eighteen, which meant heâ€™d be moved to the adult camp in a few weeks. As one of the oldest in the group, heâ€™d become the leader. He kept them in line and delivered orders from the faction elders. â€œI heard it was five hundred years ago.â€
Annissa straightened up. â€œThere arenâ€™t any books or history to tell us exactly when it happened, but it did.â€ She was seventeen and had been the subject of Brodyâ€™s affections for a couple of years. As nice as it was having the ear of the youth chieftain, he wasnâ€™t her type, and sheâ€™d managed to resist his advances. Still, it was handy on occasion. Heâ€™d always make sure they got a full ration of food when many were being shorted.
No one knew exactly what year it was. All they knew was a long time ago the earth fell into chaos. A massive war broke out and mankind was nearly exterminated. From the ashes of conflict, those who survived did their best to rebuild a semblance of society. Although it was nothing like years past where industry and commerce ruled. Now the earth was broken into small factions ruled by either one person or a council of elders. Food and resources were far more important than gold and precious gems. For the most part it was everyone for themselves.
â€œI wonder what it was like before it all happened?â€ Klae said. Heâ€™d just turned fifteen and was growing into a fine, strong, young man.
â€œGuess weâ€™ll never know,â€ Annissa pondered as she got up and threw another piece of wood on the fire. Bright embers shot into the air. â€œWhatâ€™s in the here and now is our life.â€
â€œAnd it stinks!â€
Brody wagged a finger at him. â€œDonâ€™t you be sayinâ€™ stuff like that. If any of the elders heard, itâ€™s off to the reclaiming center for you.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think theyâ€™d do that. They need every strong back working in the mine.â€
â€œOh, donâ€™t be so sure of that. I was in the settlement the other day and heard a man speak out against the faction leaders and they arrested him and took him away.â€
â€œWhere did they take him?â€
â€œMy guess is the reclaiming center.â€
Annissa folded her arms. â€œBut youâ€™re not sure?â€
â€œThen quit trying to scare us into compliance. We arenâ€™t doing anything, just talking.â€
Brody sighed. â€œYeah, I know. But I donâ€™t want anything to happen to you.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure Klae and I will be fine. We go to work in the morning, do our job in the mine, and come home to what little food there is.â€
â€œYou know, in a few weeks Iâ€™ll be moving to the adult camp. The food there is better and more of it.â€
â€œIf you were to agree to marry me, I could take you with me.â€
Annissa shook her head. â€œAnd what about Klae?â€
Brody was silent for a few moments. â€œI donâ€™t think the elders would let him be with us.â€
â€œThen Iâ€™ll stay here. Iâ€™m not leaving my brother.â€
He stood. â€œSuit yourself. But once Iâ€™m gone, thereâ€™ll be no one looking out for you.â€ Brody disappeared into the building.
Klae picked up a stick and played in the fire. â€œYou shouldâ€™ve taken his offer.â€
â€œWhat?! No way!â€
â€œI know you donâ€™t love him, but at least youâ€™d be in a better position than we are now.â€
â€œKlae, Iâ€™d never leave you!â€
â€œSis, I can take care of myself.â€
â€œOut of the question. Weâ€™re sticking together.â€
â€œSo what will you do when you turn eighteen and get moved to the adult camp?â€
Annissa put her head in her hands. â€œI havenâ€™t thought that far ahead.â€
â€œYouâ€™re just a year away; you probably wanna consider it.â€
Morning arrived with darkness. The first shift in the mine started at seven. Annissa and Klae were roused from their bunks by Brody. â€œRise and shine.â€
Klae stared out one of the skylights high above him. â€œItâ€™s still dark.â€
â€œClouds are heavy, stormâ€™s coming.â€
â€œOh, great, weâ€™re gonna get soaked on the way to work.â€
â€œNot if you hurry.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s for breakfast?â€
â€œThe same thing as always.â€
Klae groaned and sat up. He looked over and saw Annissa. â€œYou gonna get up?â€
â€œI wish I didnâ€™t have to.â€
Brody sat down on the end of her bunk. â€œThe offer still holds until I move to the adult camp.â€
â€œIâ€™ll still be working in the mine.â€
â€œMaybe not. There might be another job on top you can do.â€
â€œBrody, all Iâ€™ve done all my life is dig stupid black rock. I donâ€™t know how to do anything else.â€
â€œYou can learn.â€
â€œAnd I wonâ€™t leave Klae.â€
He stood. â€œYouâ€™d better hurry so you can get something to eat.â€ Brody walked off without another word.
Annissa crawled from bed. She looked around and saw hundreds of other children doing the same. Their group ranged in age from six to seventeen. The youngest were allowed to stay with their parents until they reached the age of work when they were moved to the youth camp. Orphans were fostered in an elderâ€™s house until they were old enough to move. Rarely, a prominent elder would be able to keep their own child at home, but they were still required to toil in the mine. They worked six days a week, the seventh was for doing chores like laundry and cleaning the warehouse. Most of the children had never known anything else. The mine schedule was broken down into three shifts of eight hours. Adults who were unable to secure work in an â€œup topâ€ profession continued working in the mine until they fell ill, became too old, or diedâ€”usually in a cave-in.
â€œCome on, Sis, letâ€™s hurry so we can get something to eat. Iâ€™m starved!â€ Klae said as he quickly dressed. â€œI doubt Brody will help us anymore.â€
â€œYouâ€™re probably right,â€ she replied, taking her work clothes off the headrail and tossing them on the bed. â€œI know he means well, but I donâ€™t have feelings for him.â€
â€œIs there anyone you do have feelings for?â€
â€œThere was a guy, his name was Timotee.â€
â€œOh, I remember him.â€ Klae pulled on his heavy work boots. â€œWasnâ€™t he killed in a cave-in about three months ago?â€
Annissa stared into space. â€œYeah.â€
â€œAnd thatâ€™s the only guy out of everyone here?â€
â€œThe othersâ€¦donâ€™t interest me.â€
â€œWell, if they donâ€™t interest you, who will you marry?â€
â€œMaybe I can find someone in another faction.â€
â€œAre you crazy?! You know how they feel about leaving one faction for another.â€
â€œBut itâ€™s not forbidden.â€
â€œNo, but frowned upon.â€
Rain poured down in waves as Annissa and Klae ran for the mine entrance. Overhead, thunder boomed and lightning crackled across the sky. When they reached the gaping chasm, there was a crowd of people desperately trying to get in.
â€œOh no!â€ Klae said. â€œWeâ€™re gonna be stuck out here.â€
Annissa knew something was wrong. She pushed her way through part of the crowd. â€œWhatâ€™s going on?â€
â€œMassive cave-in. Shaft number six is gone!â€ replied a man.
â€œYes, but they arenâ€™t sure who.â€
â€œWhen did it happen?â€
â€œAbout an hour ago.â€
â€œBrexa, my friend, she was working last night.â€
â€œDoes she work in six?â€
Annissa turned away. Brexa was probably the best friend sheâ€™d had in years. Now she was presumed dead. Returning to Klae, Annissa guided him toward a small shelter where some mining cars were kept.
â€œWhat happened?â€ he said over the noise of the storm.
â€œCave-in on shaft six.â€
â€œWhat should we do?â€
â€œWait and see if they need our help.â€ She tried to wring water from her shoulder-length sandy brown hair.
â€œDoesnâ€™t your friend work that one?â€
Annissa nodded. â€œYes.â€
â€œYou think sheâ€™s dead?â€
They waited for half an hour before the mine foreman called them to work in their shaft. As they passed shaft six, they saw several covered bodies lying against one wall. Annissa tried not to think about the loss of her friend. In their society, and with the dangers of their work, it was best not to get too attached to anyone.
â€œDo you see your friend?â€ Klae asked.
â€œNo, but that doesnâ€™t mean sheâ€™s still not down there and they havenâ€™t gotten to her yet.â€
â€œI wish we could do something else in life. I hate this black rock.â€
After thirty minutes of hiking down a slope into the mine, Annissa and Klae reached their assigned digging location. The air was heavy with dust and damp with humidity. Darkness surrounded them except for the small lights they wore on their hats. Klae grabbed a pick and began working on one wall. Annissaâ€™s job was shoveling the loose ore into a nearby cart.
They toiled for four hours and then the shaft foreman called for lunch. Klae was about to stop when his pick uncovered something light colored. He got closer and shined his light. â€œWhat is that?â€ he said softly. Taking a hand, he picked and brushed to try to reveal the object. â€œNissa?â€
â€œWhat do you make of this?â€
She came over. â€œDoesnâ€™t look like rock.â€
He poked at it. The object cracked and dust fell out of a void. Klae picked up a piece that fell. â€œDefinitely not rock, itâ€™s not hard enough.â€
Annissa set aside her shovel and began to dig with her hands. More of the object came into view. â€œI donâ€™t know what it is.â€
â€œDo you think we should tell the foreman?â€
She looked over her shoulder at the man. He was probably twenty yards away. â€œMmm, no, letâ€™s dig and see what comes of it.â€
â€œLunch!â€ the foreman hollered. â€œGet it while thereâ€™s some.â€
â€œOh, we better go eat. Long time â€™til dinner,â€ Annissa said.
â€œYeah. After, weâ€™ll dig some more.â€
With their bellies moderately full, Klae and Annissa resumed digging. They worked for another hour before Klae finally had the object clear enough to remove it. Most of it was broken into pieces.
â€œWhat do you think it was?â€ he asked, holding several parts together. â€œA ball of some sort?â€
â€œI dunno.â€ She shined her light into the hole. â€œHey, there looks like more.â€
â€œYeah. Oneâ€™s got a crack, but this other seems intact.â€
â€œThat I can see.â€
Klae used the pick and carefully excavated around the objects. Annissa was able to shovel the black rocks away that her brother knocked loose. She kept a watchful eye on the foreman. He was not a nice man. If he saw them not working, he was more than willing to whip them with a leather strap.
â€œCareful. You donâ€™t wanna break the good one,â€ Annissa said.
â€œGood? We donâ€™t even know what these things are.â€
â€œWell, donâ€™t break it, okay?â€
â€œIâ€™m trying not to.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s going on over there?â€ the foreman bellowed.
Annissa turned. â€œNothing, just hit a hard spot.â€
â€œPut your backs into it, or Iâ€™ll whip â€™em.â€
â€œYes, Sir,â€ she said.
Klae moved over to a new location. â€œBetter get more rocks into the cart or heâ€™ll whip us.â€ Klae swung the pick hard, knocking loose large amounts of ore. Annissa quickly shoveled it into the cart.
When it was full, she turned to the foreman, cupping her hands around her mouth. â€œCart full!â€
He looked their way. â€œAbout damn time.â€
A man with a small pony came over. The animal was hitched to the cart and it began to pull the cart out of the mine. Another cart was brought for them. Klae resumed work. As he swung the pick, his light would occasionally shine in the hole heâ€™d been working on. He could see the light-colored objects a few feet away. Whatever they were, they had him seriously interested.
Toward the end of their shift, Klae decided it was safe to go back and dig out the light-colored balls. He wondered how they got so deep in the earth. Was man down here thousands of years ago? As his pick dug into the rock around the mysterious objects, he saw what appeared to be tiny bones. He stopped and picked one up. â€œNissa?â€
â€œIs this bone?â€ He held the piece in his hand, shining the light on it.
â€œSure looks like it.â€
â€œWhat do you think it was?â€
â€œYouâ€™re asking me?â€
â€œKeep digging. Try to get the good one out.â€
â€œWhat will we do with it? And what if the foreman sees it?â€
â€œWe can hide it in my coat.â€
â€œOkay.â€ He worked to carefully remove the one complete object. When it was freed from the black rock, Klae gently dusted it off. It was about the size of a round loaf of bread and deceptively heavy. One end was more pointed than the other. â€œHere, hide it.â€ He passed it to her.
Annissa quickly took it and wrapped her coat around it. She looked and saw the foreman had his back to them. â€œLetâ€™s get this cart filled. I think itâ€™s near quitting time.â€
â€œGood, â€™cause Iâ€™m so hungry!â€
â€œWe canâ€™t take this back to the camp.â€
â€œSo what are we gonna do with it?â€
â€œHow about hiding it in the forest?â€
Klae shook his head. â€œWhat if an animal finds it?â€
â€œWe donâ€™t have many options. Especially since we donâ€™t know what it is.â€
The foreman sounded a shrill whistle, signaling the end of their shift.
Emerging from the mine entrance, Klae and Annissa stayed with the throng of people as they made their way back to the camps. The rain had long since stopped, but the pathways were a muddy mess. As they passed the entrance to the forest, the twosome broke off and darted into the bush.
â€œCome on, this way,â€ Annissa said, taking the lead. â€œI think I know a good spot.â€
Klae had the object bundled in the coat and held tightly against his body. â€œSo what are we going to do with it?â€
â€œMaybe if we find out what it is, we can sell it for a lot of money.â€
â€œMoney? That has little use here.â€
â€œMaybe we can get out.â€
â€œAnd go where?â€
â€œI dunno. Anywhere you donâ€™t have to dig this black rock.â€
Klae coughed. â€œThat sounds nice.â€
They walked for ten minutes. The sky was growing darker with the approach of nightfall. Annissa stopped at a large fallen tree. â€œHow about you put it in there?â€ She pointed to a hole made by a broken branch.
â€œThink nothing will get it?â€
â€œWe can put some branches against it.â€
He shrugged his shoulders. â€œOkay.â€ With great care he unwrapped the object and placed it in the hole.
Annissa found a few branches and stacked them against it. â€œLetâ€™s make tracks.â€
â€œI bet we missed dinner.â€
â€œSorry.â€ She started the walk back. â€œMaybe I can see if Brody can get us some food.â€
â€œHe wants nothing to do with you anymore, remember?â€
â€œYeah. I donâ€™t love him and I wonâ€™t leave you.â€
â€œMaybe you should love him, itâ€™d probably get you out of the mine.â€
â€œWeâ€™ll get through this.â€
It was Sunday, the one day the youth camp had off. Annissa was busy doing laundry while Klae helped clean the kitchen and prepare dinner. He knew if he did, they would be able to eat first. It wasnâ€™t a job he liked, but he relished a full tummy. After, he had plans to go to the forest to check on their secret stash. He wanted to make sure no one or nothing had found it.
As he went along to the tables and wiped them down, Brody approached. â€œWhereâ€™s Annissa?â€
â€œDid she hear about Brexa?â€
â€œThey found her alive.â€
Klae stopped and looked up. â€œAlive? After nearly a week?â€
â€œSheâ€™s in bad shape though, may not make it.â€
â€œIâ€™ll tell her.â€
â€œYou keep on working, Iâ€™ll tell her.â€ Brody headed off to the laundry area. It was in another section of the warehouse. He opened the door and found Annissa folding laundry. â€œNissa?â€
â€œI have word of your friend, Brexa.â€
â€œOh,â€ she said softly, trying to stay focused on her job.
He walked to the counter and leaned against it. â€œI just came from there. Sheâ€™s not in a good way.â€
â€œSo youâ€™re saying sheâ€™s gonna die?â€
â€œPossibly. But I thought I should bring you the news in case you wanna see her.â€
â€œAre you sure you wonâ€™t reconsider my offer?â€ He put his hand on her shoulder. â€œI know you donâ€™t love me, but itâ€™d be a way out of the mine.â€
â€œIâ€™m not going to marry someone I donâ€™t love just to leave my brother here.â€
â€œWould you consider it if I got the elders to agree to let Klae come with us?â€
â€œTheyâ€™d never do that.â€
â€œIf they did?â€
She paused, putting her hands on the counter. â€œMaybe.â€
â€œIâ€™m not a bad guy, Nissa. Iâ€™ve never done anything bad toward anyone or you. My goals are the same as all the other youth chiefs: to get out of here and get a job topside where I can support a family.â€ He paced in a small circle. â€œBecause Iâ€™m chief, I have the ear of the council of elders. I have some pullâ€”maybe theyâ€™ll grant me a favor.â€
â€œStill, it would be hard to marry someone I donâ€™t love.â€
â€œYou could grow to love me. Whatâ€™s wrong with that? I mean, you donâ€™t really know me.â€
â€œBrody, Iâ€™ve known you nearly ten years. Iâ€™ve watched you chase other girlsâ€”all whoâ€™ve turned you down.â€
â€œNot all of â€™em. A couple died in cave-ins.â€
â€œSee what I mean?â€
He stopped and faced her. â€œWhere am I going wrong?â€
â€œThereâ€™s not much time left. Please promise me youâ€™ll consider it.â€
Annissa nodded slowly.
Brody left and she finished folding laundry. Suddenly, she had no appetite despite her stomach rumbling. All she wanted was to get away from this place. She needed to breathe the fresh air and take some time to think. Brody wasnâ€™t a bad-looking guy, but her heart didnâ€™t yearn for him. Could she grow to love him? Heâ€™d always been nice to her and Klae, taking care of them when times got tough. Marrying him might put her in a better position. Working in the mine was dangerous back-breaking work. She yearned to have an easier job, anything but shoveling ugly black rock.
Bundling the clothes, she carried them back to their bunks. The others were getting in line for lunch. She looked for Klae but did not see him. Annissa grabbed her coat and left the warehouse. She headed toward the forest figuring a walk would clear her head. The sky above was empty, the sun shining, and a few birds singing. A gentle breeze crossed the valley.
Annissa hiked until she reached the tree where theyâ€™d hidden the strange object. As she parted the brush from the hole in the trunk, there was movement inside. She jumped back, afraid something had gotten their treasure. There was noise, little chirps and squeaks along with rustling. Annissa peered into the hole and found a large pair of red eyes peering back.
â€œHello?â€ she said.
The creature uttered a shrill shriek. It hopped down and stood at her feet.
â€œWhat are you?â€
It lifted its head and sniffed her leg. The creature was perhaps two feet long from head to tail and covered with dark slate-colored scales. It stood on four feet, yet had short little wings.
â€œDid you come from that white thing we found?â€
More chirping and squeaking. Annissa wasnâ€™t sure the animal understood her. She took a step back, the beast followed. â€œOh, I need to get Klae, heâ€™s gonna wanna see this.â€ As she bent down, the creature stood up on its hind legs and snapped at her. â€œHey!â€
It growled and sniffed her leg again.
â€œAre you hungry? Is that what youâ€™re trying to tell me?â€ She heard low rumbling coming from the animal. â€œI donâ€™t know what you eat, but Iâ€™ll try to find something. Foodâ€™s kinda precious around here.â€ She started to walk off, the creature followed. â€œNo, no, you gotta stay here. If they see you, theyâ€™ll hurt you, Iâ€™m sure of it.â€
The more she walked, the more it followed. Annissa stopped and cautiously leaned over. â€œYou listen here, the place I live isnâ€™t for things like you. If you donâ€™t stay here, you might end up on the dinner table or sold to some traveling freak show. Stay!â€ She stuck her hand up. â€œStay!â€
It looked at her, then turned around and went back to the hole in the tree.
â€œGood, you stay there, Iâ€™ll be right back with some food and my brother.â€ She hurried off.
Annissa found Klae on his bunk, looking at a tattered book. â€œHey.â€
â€œWhere have you been? You missed lunch.â€
â€œI needed to go for a walk.â€ She ran her fingers through his short brown hair. â€œI had to get away for a bit.â€
â€œSaved you some food,â€ Klae said, pointing to a container on his bed. â€œNot much, but it was all I could get.â€
â€œYouâ€™re not gonna believe this.â€
â€œWhat? Brody told me about Brexa.â€
â€œNo, not her. That thing we put in the forest?â€
â€œSomething came out of it.â€
â€œWhat?!â€ He sat up, his brilliant blue eyes wide open. â€œNo way!â€
She held her finger to her lips. â€œShhhh, not so loud.â€
â€œSorry. Can we go see it?â€
â€œYeah, and I think itâ€™s hungry.â€
â€œHow big is it?â€
â€œMaybe two feet long.â€
â€œWhat does it look like?â€
â€œCome see for yourself.â€ She picked up the container and quietly headed for the door. Klae got his coat and followed. They made sure no one saw them as they slipped into the forest. Both walked quickly, covering the distance in record time. When they reached the tree, Annissa made a noiseâ€”a couple chirps.
The creature hopped out of the tree.
â€œWhoa!â€ Klae said. â€œWhat is it?â€
â€œItâ€™s neat, whatever it is. Looks like itâ€™s supposed to fly.â€
â€œMaybe.â€ She opened the container and placed it on the ground. The beast dove in, eating ravenously.
Klae knelt and watched the creature eat. â€œGonna have to find a way to keep it fed.â€
â€œThat wonâ€™t be easy. You know they only give us barely enough to live on.â€
â€œAnd there isnâ€™t much game in the forest either.â€
â€œWhat are we gonna do? We canâ€™t take it back to camp, theyâ€™d kill it.â€
â€œI dunno. But I wanna keep it.â€
â€œKlae, we canâ€™t. We can hardly take care of ourselves.â€
The creature finished the meal and curled around Annissaâ€™s legs, making low purring noises.
â€œAw, it likes you.â€
â€œOf course, I fed it.â€
â€œI wonder if it will like me, too?â€ He reached down and gave it a pat on the head. â€œIt feels so cold and strange.â€
â€œNever seen anything like it. Not in any of the books Iâ€™ve read.â€
â€œSomeone must know what it is.â€
â€œWe canâ€™t tell anyone. You know whatâ€™ll happen.â€
Klae sat down next to it. â€œCan we give it a name?â€
â€œUh, we donâ€™t know if itâ€™s a boy or a girl.â€
â€œHow about a name thatâ€™s either?â€
Annissa reached down and petted the beast. â€œI suppose.â€
â€œHuh? What kind of name is that?â€
â€œI heard one of the men call the black rock thatâ€¦And since it came from the black rock, why not?â€
â€œDoesnâ€™t sound so fantastic.â€
He stood and held his arms wide. â€œGuail the Mighty!â€
The creature reared up on its hind legs and let out a screechy roar.
â€œSee, it likes it.â€
â€œOr hates it,â€ she said, giggling.
Klae frowned at her. â€œNot funny.â€
â€œWe should get back, itâ€™s getting late and we have to be up early for work.â€
â€œAnd what about Guail? We canâ€™t leave it out here.â€
â€œDonâ€™t have a choice.â€
â€œWhat if an animal comes along and eats it?â€
â€œKlae, we have to leave it here. If it gets eaten, well, thatâ€™s the way life is. If we take it back, someone could take it from us, kill it, or try to sell it.â€ She motioned to Guail. â€œGet back in the tree and stay!â€
It looked at her.
â€œGuail, go back into the tree.â€ She pointed. The creature complied. â€œNow stay there. Weâ€™ll come back tomorrow and try to bring you some food.â€
It squeaked softly a couple of times before disappearing behind the branches.
Klae and Annissa returned to the warehouse. Brody was near the door when they came in. â€œHey, where have you been?â€
â€œUmm, went for a walk,â€ Annissa replied.
â€œDid you see Brexa?â€
He shook his head. â€œToo late, sheâ€™s gone.â€
Annissa opened her mouth to say something, then ran off.
â€œWhatâ€™s up with her?â€ Brody asked.
â€œNissaâ€™s got a lot going on in her head right now.â€
â€œAnd I donâ€™t suppose Iâ€™ve been helping either.â€
â€œWhy do you say that?â€ Klae said, removing his coat.
â€œI keep pressuring her about marriage. She may not love me, but Iâ€™ve always loved her. I want nothing more than to take her away from all this and have a better life.â€
â€œYou know sheâ€™d never leave me.â€
â€œI know, and I told her Iâ€™d talk to the council elders to see if theyâ€™d allow you to stay with us.â€
Brody shoved his hands into his pants pockets. â€œWhat do you have to live for here? The youth camp is nothing but hardship, hunger, and danger. Wouldnâ€™t you like to have a room of your own, hot meals, plenty of food, and even a shower every couple of days?â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry, Brody, but I canâ€™t make my sister love you. Youâ€™re not a bad guy, youâ€™ve always been nice to us, but she has to make that decision on her own.â€
He turned to leave, but stopped. â€œGuess I tried too hard.â€
â€œAre there no other girls in the camp that you like?â€
â€œThere are, but I must be the plagueâ€”none of them want anything to do with me.â€
Klae scratched his head. â€œI canâ€™t see why. Youâ€™re not bad lookinâ€™â€”from my perspective, and youâ€™re gonna be out of here soon. I figure most of the girls here would be clawing over one another to be with you. As a chieftain, youâ€™re supposed to be a hot commodity.â€
â€œYouâ€™d think. But just the opposite. I mean two weeks ago, Laramie hit his eighteenth and he had three girls begging him to marry.â€
â€œI dunno. Iâ€™m not one of those head doctors. I canâ€™t tell what the girls want. But if I was a girl, I think youâ€™d be a good husband.â€
Brody chuckled. â€œThanks for the vote of confidence.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve known Nissa long enough to know sheâ€™s hard-headed.â€
â€œShe wonâ€™t make a decision unless sheâ€™s thought it out long and hard.â€
â€œYeah, I know. But Iâ€™m not sure the council would allow her out after I left. They like to have us married at the time of leaving the youth camp. If Nissa changed her mind, there might be no hope.â€
â€œMaybe thereâ€™s someone in the adult camp thatâ€™ll want to be with you.â€
â€œSome old hag? No way!â€
Klae shrugged his shoulders. â€œI was just sayinâ€™.â€
â€œI highly doubt thereâ€™d be a woman for me. Unless she came from another faction.â€
â€œThereâ€™s always hope.â€
Brody shook his head. â€œWith my luck?!â€
Annissa awoke to find Klae gone. She sat up, looking for him. Hurriedly, she got out of bed, dressed, and commenced searching the warehouse. When that turned up nothing, she sought out Brody, hoping heâ€™d seen Klae.
â€œYes?â€ he replied.
â€œHave you seen Klae?â€
â€œAny idea where heâ€™d go?â€
Annissa didnâ€™t want to tip her hand about the creature. Telling Brody that she might know where Klae was would only get the chieftainâ€™s unwanted attention. â€œUmm, not sure.â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m sure heâ€™ll turn up. If I see him, Iâ€™ll let him know youâ€™re looking for him.â€
â€œThanks.â€ She hurried off, grabbing her coat, and leaving the building. As she ran toward the forest, she kept looking over her shoulder hoping Brody didnâ€™t see where she was headed. It was still fairly early, the sun beginning to creep into the hemisphere.
The trail to the creatureâ€™s hideout was rough. Branches hung low and scratched Annissa as she fought her way through. When she reached the tree, the creature was gone. She stopped, out of breath, resting her hands on her knees. As she caught her breath, she saw a piece of what appeared to be a napkin on the ground. â€œKlae? Klae?â€
A solitary bird chirped in the distance.
Annissa knelt down and picked up the piece of paper. The ground was fairly soft after recent rain and she saw a footprint pointed in the direction of the deep forest. â€œOh, no, you didnâ€™t.â€ She stood and walked along, following the prints. â€œKlae? Klae!â€
No response. The forest was deathly quiet. She continued on, finding a snapped branch and more prints. Her brother had run away with Guail. Annissa stopped and wondered if she should go back to tell someone. She turned and saw she was a long way from the camp. If she went back to report him missing, a search party would be sent. Yes, they would probably find Klae, but theyâ€™d also find Guail. She didnâ€™t want the fate of the little creature on her hands. It would be up to her to find Klae.
Pressing on, Annissa ventured deep into the forest, farther than sheâ€™d ever gone. The hours passed slowly and she had no idea where she was. Her stomach growled and she looked for something to eat.
When day became night, she realized she was losing the light and would have to stop somewhere. Heavy clouds rolled in and a light rain began to fall.
â€œGreat, just what I needâ€”rain!â€
She trudged along, mud forming where the path once was, erasing Klaeâ€™s footprints. However would she find him? The deeper she got into the trees, the harder the rain fell.
When Annissa could go no farther, she curled up under a rotted fallen log and tried to stay out of the rain. She was now lost, as lost as her little brother who was somewhere ahead in the maze and tangle of the forest.
Two more days passed as Annissa continued searching. Sheâ€™d managed to find some wild blackberries growing on a thorny vine and devoured every one that was remotely ripe. A stream on her way provided fresh water. Her stomach still growled, but she had to keep looking. Klae was out there somewhere.
The rain still continued to plague her search effort. She clung to a muddy trail that looked like it had been used by wild game at some point in time. On the evening of the third day, she thought she saw a deer moving through the woods. The stand of timber was so thick it was difficult to tell. But if it was a deer, it meant she was miles away from any faction.
Annissa jumped as thunder boomed above her. The rain was coming down hard and sheâ€™d had no luck finding Klae or some form of shelter. It was getting darker and she was desperately hungry. As she trudged through thick forest, she saw a faint glimmer of light. It was a soft glow emanating from what appeared to be an overgrown structure.
Climbing through a tangle of vines, Annissa discovered an old brick and stone house. The roof was partially collapsed and all the windows broken out, but it looked like the best bet to get out of the downpour and lightning. She found the door and carefully opened it. â€œHello?â€ she said. A small fire was burning in the remains of a fireplace; on a metal rod, hung a pot. Annissa smelled food.
â€œHello?â€ she said again, coming in and closing the door. There had to have been someone about, but she couldnâ€™t see them. A flash of lightning lit up the house. For an instant, Annissa thought she saw the silhouette of a man, but she wasnâ€™t certain. The house was littered with junk so it was hard to tell what mightâ€™ve been human and what wasnâ€™t. â€œIs there anyone here?â€ she said louder.
She approached the fire and held out her hands to warm them. The rain and wind was bitterly cold. Most of her clothing was soaked. All she wanted was to be dry, warm, and fed. The food smelled wonderful and as she reached to peer under the lid, she heard noise behind.
â€œDonâ€™t move,â€ a deep, raspy male voice said.
â€œI donâ€™t mean any harm, I was trying to get out of the storm.â€
â€œDoubtful you could harm me.â€ He appeared in the light. â€œMany have tried and failed.â€
Annissa looked up at him. He was tall, his shoulders broad, and skin on his face darker than most, and he had a heavy black beard and long hair. His clothes were tattered and he didnâ€™t smell particularly good. His dark eyes were intense. She shivered, not so much from the cold, but from what this man could potentially do to her. It wasnâ€™t uncommon to hear about girls running away from their factions only to be caught, raped, and usually murdered by marauders, or those in another faction.
He pulled up a crate and sat down next to her. â€œMy name is Varrian.â€
â€œDonâ€™t fear, child, I donâ€™t wanna hurt you.â€
â€œIâ€™m not a child,â€ she retorted.
â€œCompared to me, you are.â€
â€œHow old are you?â€
â€œOh, forty-something I think.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t know how old you are?â€
He shook his head. â€œI was taken from my faction at a young age.â€
â€œWho took you?â€
â€œAt first it was marauders. They kept me for a while and then got bored.â€
â€œWhat happened then?â€
â€œThey left me on a lonely road to die.â€
Annissa put her hand over her mouth. â€œHow horrible.â€
â€œMarauders are the worst kind. Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ve been told of their savagery.â€
â€œGives me nightmares.â€
â€œI mustâ€™ve been on that road for a few days when an old man found me.â€
â€œWas he kind?â€
â€œHe recognized me for what I was and took me to safety.â€
â€œWhat are you?â€
Varrian pushed up his left sleeve to the elbow. On the inside of his forearm was a brand. It was a triangle with three circles inside. On the bottom of the triangle were two diagonal hack marks. â€œHave you ever heard of a mystic?â€
â€œDo you know what magic is?â€
â€œThe faction elders say itâ€™s nonsense.â€
â€œNo one in our faction has ever seen magic.â€
â€œItâ€™s real, I can assure you.â€
Varrian shrugged his shoulders. â€œNo one knows how magic came about. Some say it happened as a result of the warâ€”chemicals and radiation changed people, made them look different, or have magical powers.â€
â€œBut that happened a long time ago.â€
â€œHundreds and hundreds of years ago. But those people who were changed had children, and some of them were changed, too.â€
â€œYou look like a normal person,â€ Annissa commented.
â€œYes, I look normal, but there are creatures out there who supposedly possess magic that donâ€™t look like you or me.â€
â€œAre they bad?â€
Varrian nodded. â€œThe ones Iâ€™ve run across were.â€
â€œI still think itâ€™s all nonsense.â€
â€œIs it?â€ He closed his eyes and concentrated. Soon, the brand on the inside of his forearm started to glow. The brightness intensified and changed to brilliant blue. Varrian held it for a few moments and then opened his eyes. â€œSo magic is nonsense?â€
Annissa was dumbfounded. â€œHowâ€”?â€
â€œIâ€™m a mystic.â€ He stood and walked around. â€œBut I am a shamed one.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€
â€œI was cast out of the Conclave of Mystics.â€
â€œWere you bad?â€
â€œI was caught practicing dark magic.â€
â€œAnd thatâ€™s a bad thing?â€
â€œVery bad.â€ He went to the pot, took off the lid and stirred it. â€œI bet youâ€™re hungry.â€
Varrian rummaged around and found a bowl and spoon. He wiped the dust off and ladled some stew into it, offering it to her. â€œYou know, you have yet to tell me your name.â€
He smiled. â€œThatâ€™s a beautiful name.â€
â€œIâ€™m looking for my brother, Klae.â€
â€œDid he run away?â€
â€œYes.â€ She shoveled some stew into her mouth. It was thick, warm, and satisfying.
â€œWhat faction are you from?â€
â€œThatâ€™s three daysâ€™ walk to the west from here.â€
â€œHe was mad at me and ran away with Guail.â€
â€œYeah, an animal we found deep in the mine.â€
â€œWhat sort of animal?â€
â€œI dunno. But we found three white ballsâ€”kind of containers. Two of them were broken, but one was still good. Klae snuck it out of the mine and we hid it in the forest. A week later, Guail came from it.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what we call it.â€
Varrian teased his fingers through his beard. â€œCan you describe this animal?â€
â€œIf you have pencil and paper, I can draw it for you.â€
â€œYes, yes, I do.â€ He opened a knapsack and retrieved a well-worn pencil and some tattered paper. â€œHere.â€
Annissa took it, and within a few minutes, had a decent line drawing of Guail. â€œThis is it.â€ She held up the paper.
Varrian studied it. His eyes widening with excitement. â€œThis is exactly what it looks like?â€
â€œWings and all?â€
â€œAnnissa, do you know what this is?â€
â€œNo, silly. I wouldnâ€™t have needed to draw it for you if I knew what it was.â€
â€œI believe thatâ€™s a dragon.â€
She shrugged her shoulders. â€œNever heard of one.â€
â€œThatâ€™s because they were mythical creatures believed to have lived many thousands of years ago.â€
â€œBefore the earth fell apart?â€
â€œWe found this one buried deep in the mine.â€ She held her hands out to signify the egg. â€œThe round container was only this big.â€
Varrian chuckled. â€œThe container is called an egg.â€
â€œE-gg,â€ she said mimicking him. â€œIt came out of the egg when I was there.â€
â€œYou were the first person it saw?â€
She nodded, finishing off the bowl of stew.
â€œBut your brother took the dragon?â€
â€œHe was mad that he found the egg, but when it hatched, Guail loved me more.â€
â€œThe creature bonded to the first thing it sawâ€”and that was you.â€
â€œWe werenâ€™t sure what to do with it.â€
â€œA dragon is a special gift, and a big responsibility.â€
â€œI know it eats a lot.â€
Varrian held up a finger. â€œAnd they grow so very fast, too.â€
â€œI need to find him; Klaeâ€™s never been alone like this.â€
He closed his eyes for a moment. â€œI might be able to help you find him.â€
â€œHow? Itâ€™s rained and I lost his trail.â€
â€œMy magic is weak, but maybe I have enough to do a search.â€
â€œYou can find him?â€
â€œIâ€™ll try.â€ He looked around. â€œI need water, the purest water available.â€
Annissa pointed up. â€œItâ€™s raining, is that pure enough?â€
â€œYes. We must find a fairly large pan or something to collect it. I will use the water as my medium.â€
They rifled through the old house, finally finding a large metal serving dish and several smaller pans. â€œSet those outside in the open to collect the rain,â€ Varrian said. â€œIt might take a while.â€
She complied with his order and came in several minutes later soaked and shivering. Varrian had a thick blanket waiting. â€œWhy donâ€™t you get out of those wet clothes so they can dry by the fire?â€
â€œHereâ€™s a blanket. I will turn my back and respect your privacy.â€
Annissa took the blanket and Varrian turned his back, choosing to sit on an old trunk. She quickly removed most of her clothes and wrapped the scratchy blanket around her body.
â€œAre you decent?â€ Varrian asked.
â€œYes, more or less.â€
He returned to the fire and threw more wood on it. â€œLike I said, I have no interest in harming you.â€
â€œI appreciate it. Iâ€™m of the age that all the men are looking at me.â€
â€œLife is hard, people donâ€™t live long anymore. The urge to marry young has taken over.â€
â€œThere was a guy, Brody, who was after me. Heâ€™ll be eighteen and will leave the youth camp. He wanted me to marry him so I could get out of there.â€
â€œBut you didnâ€™t?â€
â€œNo, I didnâ€™t love him and itâ€™d mean Iâ€™d have to leave Klae behind.â€
Varrian nodded slowly. â€œI believe marriage should be a bond between two who love each other.â€
â€œWere you ever married?â€
â€œJust to the conclave and magic.â€
â€œYou sound lonely.â€
â€œWithout my fellow brethren, I am an empty soul. My magic is failing.â€ He picked up a stick and poked at the fire. â€œItâ€™s getting late, you better get some sleep.â€
â€œWhen can you search for Klae?â€
â€œIn the morning. That little display of magic nearly drained me. I need rest, too.â€
Annissa tried to snuggle into the blanket. â€œI thought people like you would be powerful?â€
â€œWe can beâ€¦Now go to sleep.â€
Annissa woke to find Varrian gone. She got up and went to the door, peering out. She turned and saw his things still sitting by the fire, so she figured heâ€™d left looking for food or firewood. Her stomach growled and she wondered if there was any stew left over from dinner. Whatever it was, it was good stew and she hoped for more.
Taking advantage of his absence she got dressed and wandered around the old dwelling trying to find something to eat. The pot next to the fire was empty, so she went searching through cupboards and closets. Nothing. She went outside and checked the pots and pans sheâ€™d left the night before. They were nearly full of water. A branch cracked in the forest, getting her attention.
Not wanting to attract possible trouble, Annissa retreated to the house and kept watch from a window. Through the tangle of trees, Varrian emerged, carrying a rabbit. Figuring it was safe, she went out to greet him. â€œMorning.â€
â€œGood morning. Did you sleep okay?â€ he asked, holding up the rabbit. â€œI got us breakfast.â€
He looked at the collection of water. â€œCan you bring the water inside? After breakfast Iâ€™ll try to find your brother.â€
â€œSure,â€ she replied, picking up two of the three vessels and taking them inside. Annissa set them on what she thought was the kitchen counter and went back to retrieve the last one.
Varrian was busy butchering the rabbit. â€œSo, how do you like your rabbit cooked?â€
â€œHave you ever had rabbit?â€
â€œOnce, I think.â€
â€œCanâ€™t be sure.â€ She picked up the pan. â€œThey didnâ€™t always tell us what we were eating in the youth camp.â€
â€œIâ€™ll keep it simple and roast it.â€
â€œThat sounds good. Too bad we donâ€™t have any bread.â€
â€œUnfortunately I ate the last of mine two days ago.â€
â€œWere you heading toward a faction to get food?â€
He shook his head. â€œMystics and factions donâ€™t mix.â€
â€œWhereâ€™d you get the bread?â€
â€œAn old woman gave it to me. I helped fix her roofâ€”a tree fell onto her house.â€
â€œWhere was that?â€
â€œAbout a weekâ€™s walk from here.â€
â€œYou cover a lot of ground.â€
â€œSince I have no family, no conclave, and no friends, I wander this world without purpose.â€
â€œAnd youâ€™ve never returned to your faction?â€
Varrian finished preparing the rabbit. â€œI was a mere babe, just beginning to walk when I was taken. I donâ€™t remember the name of my faction.â€
â€œI see. That would create some problems. Canâ€™t just walk into a faction and take up residence.â€
â€œTried that once,â€ he said, pulling his shirt collar to one side, revealing a nasty scar that wasnâ€™t very old. â€œDidnâ€™t work out too well.â€
â€œOh, I suppose not.â€
He headed to the house. â€œNearly died from that wound. Took a lot of my magic to heal it.â€
â€œIs that why your magic is so weak?â€
â€œAnd being away from the conclave.â€ Varrian took the rabbit inside and laid it on the counter. â€œIf they were to take me back, I could live hundreds of years.â€
â€œBut they wonâ€™t?â€
â€œMost likely notâ€¦Granted, what I did was wrong, but I never hurt anyone because of it.â€
â€œAnd they cast you out?â€
â€œYes. Goromor and the Circle of Sages voted to exile me.â€
â€œSeems a bit harsh when no one was hurt.â€
Varrian went to the fire and retrieved the metal spit that hug over it. â€œDark magic has a tendency to affect the user in negative ways. Thereâ€™s a hunger that grows in youâ€”wanting more and more power, taking what you want, harming others, and turning into the epitome of evil. Itâ€™s difficult to stop once you start.â€
â€œSo howâ€™d you stop?â€
He shoved the spit through the rabbit. â€œBy being cast out, the conclave knew my powers would weaken. I have maybe a year or less and I will die.â€
â€œItâ€™s a burden Iâ€™ve brought upon myself. Punishment for my transgression.â€
â€œAnd you accept this?â€
â€œI have no choice.â€ He put the rabbit over the fire and sat down so he could turn the spit. â€œIâ€™ve not found a way to get the conclave to take me back.â€
After breakfast, Varrian went to the kitchen area and poured all the water into the one large metal platter. He placed it on the floor and sat down. Reaching out, he dipped his fingers in the water and rested them on the side of the vessel. He closed his eyes and started to chant.
Annissa sat near him, listening to his eerily melodic song. Goosebumps rose on her skin as she watched the water swirl and change color. Each word elicited a different shade or movement. He held the trance for several minutes and then opened his eyes, staring intently into the water. Annissa was afraid to say anything for fear of breaking his concentration and sapping what little magic he had left. She was desperate to find Klae, and maybe this mystic was her only hope.
â€œHeâ€™s gone east,â€ Varrian said softly. â€œToward the Murdererâ€™s Highway.â€
She put her hand over her mouth in dismay. Annissa didnâ€™t know where that place was, but it sounded bad.
â€œIf he makes it that far, heâ€™ll run into the FÃ¦ people.â€
â€œWho?â€ she said softly.
â€œFÃ¦. Mystical beings.â€
â€œAre they the ones who donâ€™t look like us?â€
â€œKind of. They are masters of ignus fatuus.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s that?â€ she asked.
â€œIt literally means foolish fire.â€
â€œThey lure their unsuspecting victims in with beautiful lights and warmth.â€
â€œAnd then what do they do?â€
Varrian stood. â€œThey kill you.â€
He began gathering his things. â€œWe need to hurry. If the FÃ¦ catch him with a dragon, theyâ€™ll surely kill your brother and take the dragon for themselves.â€
Annissa got up. â€œHow long will it take to get there?â€
â€œMmm, two days if we walk fast.â€
â€œIâ€™ll walk all night if I have to.â€
Varrian took several steps toward the door and wavered. â€œOh, dear.â€
â€œThat little display of clairvoyance sucked a lot of life out of me.â€
â€œWill you be okay?â€
â€œMaybe when we get to the conclave I can talk to them on your behalf.â€
â€œIâ€™d be eternally grateful if you could find a way to convince them to take me backâ€¦But I highly doubt they will.â€
â€œCanâ€™t hurt to try.â€
Varrian took the lead, pushing fallen limbs and branches out of the way for Annissa. The storm had been terrible. He kept on the narrow game path following it toward the Murdererâ€™s Highway. There was no sign of Klae, and Varrian hoped he was on the right track to find him. In all his years of being a mystic, his magic had never failed him. With his weakened state, he was beginning to doubt himself. He could feel the life force draining from his body. If he had to take on the FÃ¦, it might be the end.
He stopped to catch his breath and get a drink of water.
â€œAre you okay?â€ Annissa said. â€œYou look terrible.â€
He offered her the water bladder. â€œThe more I use my magic, the faster I decline.â€
She took a long drink. â€œIâ€™m sorry for making you use it to find my brother.â€
â€œItâ€™s okay. We need to find him and that dragon. Thereâ€™s no safer place for your Guail than the conclave.â€
â€œBut if you die before we find him, or before we get thereâ€”â€
â€œI wonâ€™t,â€ he replied. â€œWhat magic I have left will see me to the gates. Should I die without entering them, it will still be worth the sacrifice.â€ He reached into his pack and pulled out some cured meat. â€œHere, eat, we still have a lot of walking to do.â€
Annissa took the meat and tore off a hunk. It was hard as a rock but at least had a smoky flavor. She gnawed on it as they continued. They walked for hours before emerging onto a wide dirt road. It was nothing but muddy mire from all the rain, but it was better than hacking through the forest.
Varrian stopped. â€œThe Murdererâ€™s Highway.â€
She looked around. â€œSeems pretty quiet.â€
â€œFor now, but things can change in an instant.â€
â€œWhere will this take us?â€
â€œNortheast to the village of Cumberland. There we can barter for some supplies and see if your brother made itâ€¦Along the way, weâ€™ll have to pass the FÃ¦ camp of Totz. Itâ€™s mighty rough up there, the going will be slow.â€
â€œI have to find him.â€
â€œI know, and Iâ€™m going to help you all I can.â€
As darkness fell upon the country, Varrian stopped. â€œWeâ€™ll make camp here tonight. Tomorrow we should be nearing Totz.â€
â€œAnd what if we find Klae with them?â€
â€œIf they have him, and weâ€™re lucky, heâ€™ll still be alive. The FÃ¦ donâ€™t take kindly to outsiders. They find them mighty tasty.â€
â€œTheyâ€™d eat Klae?!â€
â€œYes. Part of their mystical behavior stems from the belief that eating others will enhance their powers.â€
â€œAnd the FÃ¦ are not just one people, there are several, uh, species living and working together.â€ He dropped his pack and began gathering wood for a fire. â€œThere are tiny Fairies who use their light to draw in an unsuspecting person. Then the human-sized Lyren capture and do the fatal deed.â€
â€œOnce the person is dead, the much larger and meaner Tomians take over and butcher the carcass.â€
â€œHow is it weâ€™ve never been told about these beings?â€
â€œMany of the factions are closed societies. No one has come or gone in hundreds of years.â€
â€œThereâ€™ve been a few that left Black Rock.â€
â€œDid they ever return?â€
â€œHow many have come to the faction?â€
â€œSince Iâ€™ve been around, two.â€
â€œWere they allowed to live?â€
â€œThe man was killed, but the woman who came with him was taken by one of the elders to be his wife.â€
â€œSo no one knows whatâ€™s really out there.â€
â€œI suppose not.â€
Varrian piled some wood into a small clearing and worked to get a fire going. â€œI can tell you, that from my journeys, living in a closed faction is probably the safest way. An open faction leaves itself vulnerable to marauders and other bringers of ill-will.â€
â€œBut thereâ€™s little diversity in a closed faction. Many marriages are arranged to keep bad things from happening to the children.â€
â€œWas your marriage to be arranged?â€
â€œNo. I donâ€™t love Brody, I canâ€™t marry him.â€
â€œSo who will you marry?â€
Annissa got closer to the small fire, warming her hands. â€œI dunno. I want to marry someone for love, not status or preferential treatment. So many in the faction have done that, and I can see unhappiness in their eyes.â€
â€œWhat if the elders decide who you will marry?â€ He put some more wood on the fire.
â€œThen Iâ€™ll run away.â€
â€œThat, child, is not a wise action.â€
She sighed. â€œI donâ€™t wanna think about it. I just wanna find Klae and go home.â€
Varrian looked up at the sky. A few stars poked through the thick blanket of clouds. â€œI sense he is near.â€
Klae trudged along in the mud. He was exhausted. Next to him, Guail kept pace. It was nearly dark and Klae was hoping to find some shelter for the night. His stomach growled and he was desperate for a drink of clean water. In the distance he could see faint lights; they appeared to be dancing amongst the trees. â€œLook, Guail, lights. I wonder if theyâ€™re friendly? Iâ€™m so hungry and thirsty.â€
The dragon stopped and sniffed the air. It snorted and backed up.
â€œWhatâ€™s wrong? Arenâ€™t you hungry, too?â€ Klae took a few steps forward. â€œCome on, Iâ€™m starving.â€
Guail refused to budge.
â€œAre you telling me theyâ€™re bad people?â€
Guail growled lowly.
â€œHow do you even know? Youâ€™re just a baby.â€
Guail hissed and smacked its tail against the ground.
â€œAll right, all right, weâ€™ll camp here tonight.â€ Klae moved off the road and began searching for a dry place. All the recent rains left everything damp and mushy. With no dry ground, Klae was forced to take shelter under a large oak tree. Its branches spread far and wide, the trunk gnarled and massive. He placed his pack beside the tree and sat down, leaning his back against it. Guail curled up next to him. The lights in the distant tree continued to dance. Klae thought he saw some moving closer.
â€œI wonder what they are?â€ he said, opening his bag and rummaging for something to eat. â€œIâ€™m so hungry!â€
* * *