From the Ashes By K. Rowe

“It happened a long, long time ago,” Annissa said. “So long ago no one even remembers.”

“I heard it was like a thousand years ago,” 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
From the Ashes 

“A thousand years? No way,” replied Brody, a boy edging close to manhood. He was nearly eighteen, which meant he’d be moved to the adult camp in a few weeks. As one of the oldest in the group, he’d become the leader. He kept them in line and delivered orders from the faction elders. “I heard it was five hundred years ago.”

Annissa straightened up. “There aren’t any books or history to tell us exactly when it happened, but it did.” She was seventeen and had been the subject of Brody’s affections for a couple of years. As nice as it was having the ear of the youth chieftain, he wasn’t her type, and she’d managed to resist his advances. Still, it was handy on occasion. He’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.

“I wonder what it was like before it all happened?” Klae said. He’d just turned fifteen and was growing into a fine, strong, young man.

“Guess we’ll never know,” Annissa pondered as she got up and threw another piece of wood on the fire. Bright embers shot into the air. “What’s in the here and now is our life.”

“And it stinks!”

Brody wagged a finger at him. “Don’t you be sayin’ stuff like that. If any of the elders heard, it’s off to the reclaiming center for you.”

“I don’t think they’d do that. They need every strong back working in the mine.”

“Oh, don’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.”

“Where did they take him?”

“My guess is the reclaiming center.”

Annissa folded her arms. “But you’re not sure?”


“Then quit trying to scare us into compliance. We aren’t doing anything, just talking.”

Brody sighed. “Yeah, I know. But I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“I’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.”

“You know, in a few weeks I’ll be moving to the adult camp. The food there is better and more of it.”


“If you were to agree to marry me, I could take you with me.”

Annissa shook her head. “And what about Klae?”

Brody was silent for a few moments. “I don’t think the elders would let him be with us.”

“Then I’ll stay here. I’m not leaving my brother.”

He stood. “Suit yourself. But once I’m gone, there’ll be no one looking out for you.” Brody disappeared into the building.

Klae picked up a stick and played in the fire. “You should’ve taken his offer.”

“What?! No way!”

“I know you don’t love him, but at least you’d be in a better position than we are now.”

“Klae, I’d never leave you!”

“Sis, I can take care of myself.”

“Out of the question. We’re sticking together.”

“So what will you do when you turn eighteen and get moved to the adult camp?”

Annissa put her head in her hands. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

“You’re just a year away; you probably wanna consider it.”

Morning arrived with darkness. The first shift in the mine started at seven. Annissa and Klae were roused from their bunks by Brody. “Rise and shine.”

Klae stared out one of the skylights high above him. “It’s still dark.”

“Clouds are heavy, storm’s coming.”

“Oh, great, we’re gonna get soaked on the way to work.”

“Not if you hurry.”

“What’s for breakfast?”

“The same thing as always.”

Klae groaned and sat up. He looked over and saw Annissa. “You gonna get up?”

“I wish I didn’t have to.”

Brody sat down on the end of her bunk. “The offer still holds until I move to the adult camp.”

“I’ll still be working in the mine.”

“Maybe not. There might be another job on top you can do.”

“Brody, all I’ve done all my life is dig stupid black rock. I don’t know how to do anything else.”

“You can learn.”

“And I won’t leave Klae.”

He stood. “You’d better hurry so you can get something to eat.” 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 elder’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 “up top” profession continued working in the mine until they fell ill, became too old, or died—usually in a cave-in.

“Come on, Sis, let’s hurry so we can get something to eat. I’m starved!” Klae said as he quickly dressed. “I doubt Brody will help us anymore.”

“You’re probably right,” she replied, taking her work clothes off the headrail and tossing them on the bed. “I know he means well, but I don’t have feelings for him.”

“Is there anyone you do have feelings for?”

“There was a guy, his name was Timotee.”

“Oh, I remember him.” Klae pulled on his heavy work boots. “Wasn’t he killed in a cave-in about three months ago?”

Annissa stared into space. “Yeah.”

“And that’s the only guy out of everyone here?”

“The others…don’t interest me.”

“Well, if they don’t interest you, who will you marry?”

“Maybe I can find someone in another faction.”

“Are you crazy?! You know how they feel about leaving one faction for another.”

“But it’s not forbidden.”

“No, but frowned upon.”

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.

“Oh no!” Klae said. “We’re gonna be stuck out here.”

Annissa knew something was wrong. She pushed her way through part of the crowd. “What’s going on?”

“Massive cave-in. Shaft number six is gone!” replied a man.

“Anyone trapped?”

“Yes, but they aren’t sure who.”

“When did it happen?”

“About an hour ago.”

“Brexa, my friend, she was working last night.”

“Does she work in six?”



Annissa turned away. Brexa was probably the best friend she’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.

“What happened?” he said over the noise of the storm.

“Cave-in on shaft six.”

“What should we do?”

“Wait and see if they need our help.” She tried to wring water from her shoulder-length sandy brown hair.

“Doesn’t your friend work that one?”

Annissa nodded. “Yes.”

“You think she’s dead?”

“I dunno.”

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.

“Do you see your friend?” Klae asked.

“No, but that doesn’t mean she’s still not down there and they haven’t gotten to her yet.”

“I wish we could do something else in life. I hate this black rock.”

“Me, too.”

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. Annissa’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. “What is that?” he said softly. Taking a hand, he picked and brushed to try to reveal the object. “Nissa?”


“What do you make of this?”

She came over. “Doesn’t look like rock.”

He poked at it. The object cracked and dust fell out of a void. Klae picked up a piece that fell. “Definitely not rock, it’s not hard enough.”

Annissa set aside her shovel and began to dig with her hands. More of the object came into view. “I don’t know what it is.”

“Do you think we should tell the foreman?”

She looked over her shoulder at the man. He was probably twenty yards away. “Mmm, no, let’s dig and see what comes of it.”

“Lunch!” the foreman hollered. “Get it while there’s some.”

“Oh, we better go eat. Long time ’til dinner,” Annissa said.

“Yeah. After, we’ll dig some more.”

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.

“What do you think it was?” he asked, holding several parts together. “A ball of some sort?”

“I dunno.” She shined her light into the hole. “Hey, there looks like more.”


“Yeah. One’s got a crack, but this other seems intact.”

“Two more?”

“That I can see.”

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.

“Careful. You don’t wanna break the good one,” Annissa said.

“Good? We don’t even know what these things are.”

“Well, don’t break it, okay?”

“I’m trying not to.”

“What’s going on over there?” the foreman bellowed.

Annissa turned. “Nothing, just hit a hard spot.”

“Put your backs into it, or I’ll whip ’em.”

“Yes, Sir,” she said.

Klae moved over to a new location. “Better get more rocks into the cart or he’ll whip us.” 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. “Cart full!”

He looked their way. “About damn time.”

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 he’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. “Nissa?”


“Is this bone?” He held the piece in his hand, shining the light on it.

“Sure looks like it.”

“What do you think it was?”

“You’re asking me?”


“Keep digging. Try to get the good one out.”

“What will we do with it? And what if the foreman sees it?”

“We can hide it in my coat.”

“Okay.” 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. “Here, hide it.” 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. “Let’s get this cart filled. I think it’s near quitting time.”

“Good, ’cause I’m so hungry!”

“We can’t take this back to the camp.”

“So what are we gonna do with it?”

“How about hiding it in the forest?”

Klae shook his head. “What if an animal finds it?”

“We don’t have many options. Especially since we don’t know what it is.”

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.

“Come on, this way,” Annissa said, taking the lead. “I think I know a good spot.”

Klae had the object bundled in the coat and held tightly against his body. “So what are we going to do with it?”

“Maybe if we find out what it is, we can sell it for a lot of money.”

“Money? That has little use here.”

“Maybe we can get out.”

“And go where?”

“I dunno. Anywhere you don’t have to dig this black rock.”

Klae coughed. “That sounds nice.”

They walked for ten minutes. The sky was growing darker with the approach of nightfall. Annissa stopped at a large fallen tree. “How about you put it in there?” She pointed to a hole made by a broken branch.

“Think nothing will get it?”

“We can put some branches against it.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Okay.” With great care he unwrapped the object and placed it in the hole.

Annissa found a few branches and stacked them against it. “Let’s make tracks.”

“I bet we missed dinner.”

“Sorry.” She started the walk back. “Maybe I can see if Brody can get us some food.”

“He wants nothing to do with you anymore, remember?”

“Yeah. I don’t love him and I won’t leave you.”

“Maybe you should love him, it’d probably get you out of the mine.”

“We’ll get through this.”


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 wasn’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. “Where’s Annissa?”


“Did she hear about Brexa?”


“They found her alive.”

Klae stopped and looked up. “Alive? After nearly a week?”

“She’s in bad shape though, may not make it.”

“I’ll tell her.”

“You keep on working, I’ll tell her.” Brody headed off to the laundry area. It was in another section of the warehouse. He opened the door and found Annissa folding laundry. “Nissa?”


“I have word of your friend, Brexa.”

“Oh,” she said softly, trying to stay focused on her job.

“She’s alive.”


He walked to the counter and leaned against it. “I just came from there. She’s not in a good way.”

“So you’re saying she’s gonna die?”

“Possibly. But I thought I should bring you the news in case you wanna see her.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you sure you won’t reconsider my offer?” He put his hand on her shoulder. “I know you don’t love me, but it’d be a way out of the mine.”

“I’m not going to marry someone I don’t love just to leave my brother here.”

“Would you consider it if I got the elders to agree to let Klae come with us?”

“They’d never do that.”

“If they did?”

She paused, putting her hands on the counter. “Maybe.”

“I’m not a bad guy, Nissa. I’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.” He paced in a small circle. “Because I’m chief, I have the ear of the council of elders. I have some pull—maybe they’ll grant me a favor.”

“Still, it would be hard to marry someone I don’t love.”

“You could grow to love me. What’s wrong with that? I mean, you don’t really know me.”

“Brody, I’ve known you nearly ten years. I’ve watched you chase other girls—all who’ve turned you down.”

“Not all of ’em. A couple died in cave-ins.”

“See what I mean?”

He stopped and faced her. “Where am I going wrong?”

“I dunno.”

“There’s not much time left. Please promise me you’ll consider it.”

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 wasn’t a bad-looking guy, but her heart didn’t yearn for him. Could she grow to love him? He’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 they’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.

“Hello?” she said.

The creature uttered a shrill shriek. It hopped down and stood at her feet.

“What are you?”

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.

“Did you come from that white thing we found?”

More chirping and squeaking. Annissa wasn’t sure the animal understood her. She took a step back, the beast followed. “Oh, I need to get Klae, he’s gonna wanna see this.” As she bent down, the creature stood up on its hind legs and snapped at her. “Hey!”

It growled and sniffed her leg again.

“Are you hungry? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” She heard low rumbling coming from the animal. “I don’t know what you eat, but I’ll try to find something. Food’s kinda precious around here.” She started to walk off, the creature followed. “No, no, you gotta stay here. If they see you, they’ll hurt you, I’m sure of it.”

The more she walked, the more it followed. Annissa stopped and cautiously leaned over. “You listen here, the place I live isn’t for things like you. If you don’t stay here, you might end up on the dinner table or sold to some traveling freak show. Stay!” She stuck her hand up. “Stay!”

It looked at her, then turned around and went back to the hole in the tree.

“Good, you stay there, I’ll be right back with some food and my brother.” She hurried off.

Annissa found Klae on his bunk, looking at a tattered book. “Hey.”

“Where have you been? You missed lunch.”

“I needed to go for a walk.” She ran her fingers through his short brown hair. “I had to get away for a bit.”

“Saved you some food,” Klae said, pointing to a container on his bed. “Not much, but it was all I could get.”

“You’re not gonna believe this.”

“What? Brody told me about Brexa.”

“No, not her. That thing we put in the forest?”


“Something came out of it.”

“What?!” He sat up, his brilliant blue eyes wide open. “No way!”

She held her finger to her lips. “Shhhh, not so loud.”

“Sorry. Can we go see it?”

“Yeah, and I think it’s hungry.”

“How big is it?”

“Maybe two feet long.”

“What does it look like?”

“Come see for yourself.” 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 noise—a couple chirps.

The creature hopped out of the tree.

“Whoa!” Klae said. “What is it?”

“I dunno.”

“It’s neat, whatever it is. Looks like it’s supposed to fly.”

“Maybe.” She opened the container and placed it on the ground. The beast dove in, eating ravenously.

Klae knelt and watched the creature eat. “Gonna have to find a way to keep it fed.”

“That won’t be easy. You know they only give us barely enough to live on.”

“And there isn’t much game in the forest either.”

“What are we gonna do? We can’t take it back to camp, they’d kill it.”

“I dunno. But I wanna keep it.”

“Klae, we can’t. We can hardly take care of ourselves.”

The creature finished the meal and curled around Annissa’s legs, making low purring noises.

“Aw, it likes you.”

“Of course, I fed it.”

“I wonder if it will like me, too?” He reached down and gave it a pat on the head. “It feels so cold and strange.”

“Never seen anything like it. Not in any of the books I’ve read.”

“Someone must know what it is.”

“We can’t tell anyone. You know what’ll happen.”

Klae sat down next to it. “Can we give it a name?”

“Uh, we don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl.”

“How about a name that’s either?”

Annissa reached down and petted the beast. “I suppose.”


“Huh? What kind of name is that?”

“I heard one of the men call the black rock that…And since it came from the black rock, why not?”

“Doesn’t sound so fantastic.”

He stood and held his arms wide. “Guail the Mighty!”

The creature reared up on its hind legs and let out a screechy roar.

“See, it likes it.”

“Or hates it,” she said, giggling.

Klae frowned at her. “Not funny.”

“We should get back, it’s getting late and we have to be up early for work.”

“And what about Guail? We can’t leave it out here.”

“Don’t have a choice.”

“What if an animal comes along and eats it?”

“Klae, we have to leave it here. If it gets eaten, well, that’s the way life is. If we take it back, someone could take it from us, kill it, or try to sell it.” She motioned to Guail. “Get back in the tree and stay!”

It looked at her.

“Guail, go back into the tree.” She pointed. The creature complied. “Now stay there. We’ll come back tomorrow and try to bring you some food.”

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. “Hey, where have you been?”

“Umm, went for a walk,” Annissa replied.

“Did you see Brexa?”


He shook his head. “Too late, she’s gone.”

Annissa opened her mouth to say something, then ran off.

“What’s up with her?” Brody asked.

“Nissa’s got a lot going on in her head right now.”

“And I don’t suppose I’ve been helping either.”

“Why do you say that?” Klae said, removing his coat.

“I keep pressuring her about marriage. She may not love me, but I’ve always loved her. I want nothing more than to take her away from all this and have a better life.”

“You know she’d never leave me.”

“I know, and I told her I’d talk to the council elders to see if they’d allow you to stay with us.”

“Fat chance!”

Brody shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “What do you have to live for here? The youth camp is nothing but hardship, hunger, and danger. Wouldn’t you like to have a room of your own, hot meals, plenty of food, and even a shower every couple of days?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“Your sister!”

“I’m sorry, Brody, but I can’t make my sister love you. You’re not a bad guy, you’ve always been nice to us, but she has to make that decision on her own.”

He turned to leave, but stopped. “Guess I tried too hard.”

“Are there no other girls in the camp that you like?”

“There are, but I must be the plague—none of them want anything to do with me.”

Klae scratched his head. “I can’t see why. You’re not bad lookin’—from my perspective, and you’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, you’re supposed to be a hot commodity.”

“You’d think. But just the opposite. I mean two weeks ago, Laramie hit his eighteenth and he had three girls begging him to marry.”

“I dunno. I’m not one of those head doctors. I can’t tell what the girls want. But if I was a girl, I think you’d be a good husband.”

Brody chuckled. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“You’ve known Nissa long enough to know she’s hard-headed.”

“And how!”

“She won’t make a decision unless she’s thought it out long and hard.”

“Yeah, I know. But I’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.”

“Maybe there’s someone in the adult camp that’ll want to be with you.”

“Some old hag? No way!”

Klae shrugged his shoulders. “I was just sayin’.”

“I highly doubt there’d be a woman for me. Unless she came from another faction.”

“There’s always hope.”

Brody shook his head. “With my luck?!”


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 he’d seen Klae.


“Yes?” he replied.

“Have you seen Klae?”


“He’s gone.”

“Any idea where he’d go?”

Annissa didn’t want to tip her hand about the creature. Telling Brody that she might know where Klae was would only get the chieftain’s unwanted attention. “Umm, not sure.”

“Well, I’m sure he’ll turn up. If I see him, I’ll let him know you’re looking for him.”

“Thanks.” She hurried off, grabbing her coat, and leaving the building. As she ran toward the forest, she kept looking over her shoulder hoping Brody didn’t see where she was headed. It was still fairly early, the sun beginning to creep into the hemisphere.

The trail to the creature’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. “Klae? Klae?”

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. “Oh, no, you didn’t.” She stood and walked along, following the prints. “Klae? Klae!”

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 they’d also find Guail. She didn’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 she’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.

“Great, just what I need—rain!”

She trudged along, mud forming where the path once was, erasing Klae’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. She’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 she’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. “Hello?” she said. A small fire was burning in the remains of a fireplace; on a metal rod, hung a pot. Annissa smelled food.

“Hello?” she said again, coming in and closing the door. There had to have been someone about, but she couldn’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 wasn’t certain. The house was littered with junk so it was hard to tell what might’ve been human and what wasn’t. “Is there anyone here?” 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.

“Don’t move,” a deep, raspy male voice said.

“I don’t mean any harm, I was trying to get out of the storm.”

“Doubtful you could harm me.” He appeared in the light. “Many have tried and failed.”

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 didn’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 wasn’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. “My name is Varrian.”


“Don’t fear, child, I don’t wanna hurt you.”

“I’m not a child,” she retorted.

“Compared to me, you are.”

“How old are you?”

“Oh, forty-something I think.”

“You don’t know how old you are?”

He shook his head. “I was taken from my faction at a young age.”

“Who took you?”

“At first it was marauders. They kept me for a while and then got bored.”

“What happened then?”

“They left me on a lonely road to die.”

Annissa put her hand over her mouth. “How horrible.”

“Marauders are the worst kind. I’m sure you’ve been told of their savagery.”

“Gives me nightmares.”

“I must’ve been on that road for a few days when an old man found me.”

“Was he kind?”

“He recognized me for what I was and took me to safety.”

“What are you?”

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. “Have you ever heard of a mystic?”


“Do you know what magic is?”

“The faction elders say it’s nonsense.”


“No one in our faction has ever seen magic.”

“It’s real, I can assure you.”

“But how?”

Varrian shrugged his shoulders. “No one knows how magic came about. Some say it happened as a result of the war—chemicals and radiation changed people, made them look different, or have magical powers.”

“But that happened a long time ago.”

“Hundreds and hundreds of years ago. But those people who were changed had children, and some of them were changed, too.”

“You look like a normal person,” Annissa commented.

“Yes, I look normal, but there are creatures out there who supposedly possess magic that don’t look like you or me.”

“Are they bad?”

Varrian nodded. “The ones I’ve run across were.”

“I still think it’s all nonsense.”

“Is it?” 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. “So magic is nonsense?”

Annissa was dumbfounded. “How—?”

“I’m a mystic.” He stood and walked around. “But I am a shamed one.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was cast out of the Conclave of Mystics.”

“Were you bad?”

“I was caught practicing dark magic.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

“Very bad.” He went to the pot, took off the lid and stirred it. “I bet you’re hungry.”


Varrian rummaged around and found a bowl and spoon. He wiped the dust off and ladled some stew into it, offering it to her. “You know, you have yet to tell me your name.”


He smiled. “That’s a beautiful name.”

“I’m looking for my brother, Klae.”

“Did he run away?”

“Yes.” She shoveled some stew into her mouth. It was thick, warm, and satisfying.

“What faction are you from?”

“Black Rock.”

“That’s three days’ walk to the west from here.”

“He was mad at me and ran away with Guail.”


“Yeah, an animal we found deep in the mine.”

“What sort of animal?”

“I dunno. But we found three white balls—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.”


“That’s what we call it.”

Varrian teased his fingers through his beard. “Can you describe this animal?”

“If you have pencil and paper, I can draw it for you.”

“Yes, yes, I do.” He opened a knapsack and retrieved a well-worn pencil and some tattered paper. “Here.”

Annissa took it, and within a few minutes, had a decent line drawing of Guail. “This is it.” She held up the paper.

Varrian studied it. His eyes widening with excitement. “This is exactly what it looks like?”


“Wings and all?”


“Annissa, do you know what this is?”

“No, silly. I wouldn’t have needed to draw it for you if I knew what it was.”

“I believe that’s a dragon.”

“A what?”

“A dragon.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Never heard of one.”

“That’s because they were mythical creatures believed to have lived many thousands of years ago.”

“Before the earth fell apart?”


“We found this one buried deep in the mine.” She held her hands out to signify the egg. “The round container was only this big.”

Varrian chuckled. “The container is called an egg.”

“E-gg,” she said mimicking him. “It came out of the egg when I was there.”

“You were the first person it saw?”

She nodded, finishing off the bowl of stew.

“But your brother took the dragon?”

“He was mad that he found the egg, but when it hatched, Guail loved me more.”

“The creature bonded to the first thing it saw—and that was you.”

“We weren’t sure what to do with it.”

“A dragon is a special gift, and a big responsibility.”

“I know it eats a lot.”

Varrian held up a finger. “And they grow so very fast, too.”

“I need to find him; Klae’s never been alone like this.”

He closed his eyes for a moment. “I might be able to help you find him.”

“How? It’s rained and I lost his trail.”

“My magic is weak, but maybe I have enough to do a search.”

“You can find him?”

“I’ll try.” He looked around. “I need water, the purest water available.”

Annissa pointed up. “It’s raining, is that pure enough?”

“Yes. We must find a fairly large pan or something to collect it. I will use the water as my medium.”

They rifled through the old house, finally finding a large metal serving dish and several smaller pans. “Set those outside in the open to collect the rain,” Varrian said. “It might take a while.”

She complied with his order and came in several minutes later soaked and shivering. Varrian had a thick blanket waiting. “Why don’t you get out of those wet clothes so they can dry by the fire?”


“Here’s a blanket. I will turn my back and respect your privacy.”

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.

“Are you decent?” Varrian asked.

“Yes, more or less.”

He returned to the fire and threw more wood on it. “Like I said, I have no interest in harming you.”

“I appreciate it. I’m of the age that all the men are looking at me.”

“Life is hard, people don’t live long anymore. The urge to marry young has taken over.”

“There was a guy, Brody, who was after me. He’ll be eighteen and will leave the youth camp. He wanted me to marry him so I could get out of there.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No, I didn’t love him and it’d mean I’d have to leave Klae behind.”

Varrian nodded slowly. “I believe marriage should be a bond between two who love each other.”

“Were you ever married?”

“Just to the conclave and magic.”

“You sound lonely.”

“Without my fellow brethren, I am an empty soul. My magic is failing.” He picked up a stick and poked at the fire. “It’s getting late, you better get some sleep.”

“When can you search for Klae?”

“In the morning. That little display of magic nearly drained me. I need rest, too.”

Annissa tried to snuggle into the blanket. “I thought people like you would be powerful?”

“We can be…Now go to sleep.”


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 he’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 she’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. “Morning.”

“Good morning. Did you sleep okay?” he asked, holding up the rabbit. “I got us breakfast.”

“Oh, nice.”


“Of course!”

He looked at the collection of water. “Can you bring the water inside? After breakfast I’ll try to find your brother.”

“Sure,” 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. “So, how do you like your rabbit cooked?”


“Have you ever had rabbit?”

“Once, I think.”

“You think?”

“Can’t be sure.” She picked up the pan. “They didn’t always tell us what we were eating in the youth camp.”

“I’ll keep it simple and roast it.”

“That sounds good. Too bad we don’t have any bread.”

“Unfortunately I ate the last of mine two days ago.”

“Were you heading toward a faction to get food?”

He shook his head. “Mystics and factions don’t mix.”

“Where’d you get the bread?”

“An old woman gave it to me. I helped fix her roof—a tree fell onto her house.”

“Where was that?”

“About a week’s walk from here.”

“You cover a lot of ground.”

“Since I have no family, no conclave, and no friends, I wander this world without purpose.”

“And you’ve never returned to your faction?”

Varrian finished preparing the rabbit. “I was a mere babe, just beginning to walk when I was taken. I don’t remember the name of my faction.”

“I see. That would create some problems. Can’t just walk into a faction and take up residence.”

“Tried that once,” he said, pulling his shirt collar to one side, revealing a nasty scar that wasn’t very old. “Didn’t work out too well.”

“Oh, I suppose not.”

He headed to the house. “Nearly died from that wound. Took a lot of my magic to heal it.”

“Is that why your magic is so weak?”

“And being away from the conclave.” Varrian took the rabbit inside and laid it on the counter. “If they were to take me back, I could live hundreds of years.”

“But they won’t?”

“Most likely not…Granted, what I did was wrong, but I never hurt anyone because of it.”

“And they cast you out?”

“Yes. Goromor and the Circle of Sages voted to exile me.”

“Seems a bit harsh when no one was hurt.”

Varrian went to the fire and retrieved the metal spit that hug over it. “Dark magic has a tendency to affect the user in negative ways. There’s a hunger that grows in you—wanting more and more power, taking what you want, harming others, and turning into the epitome of evil. It’s difficult to stop once you start.”

“So how’d you stop?”

He shoved the spit through the rabbit. “By being cast out, the conclave knew my powers would weaken. I have maybe a year or less and I will die.”

“That’s horrible!”

“It’s a burden I’ve brought upon myself. Punishment for my transgression.”

“And you accept this?”

“I have no choice.” He put the rabbit over the fire and sat down so he could turn the spit. “I’ve not found a way to get the conclave to take me back.”

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.

“He’s gone east,” Varrian said softly. “Toward the Murderer’s Highway.”

She put her hand over her mouth in dismay. Annissa didn’t know where that place was, but it sounded bad.

“If he makes it that far, he’ll run into the Fæ people.”

“Who?” she said softly.

“Fæ. Mystical beings.”

“Are they the ones who don’t look like us?”

Varrian nodded.

“More magic?”

“Kind of. They are masters of ignus fatuus.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It literally means foolish fire.”


“They lure their unsuspecting victims in with beautiful lights and warmth.”

“And then what do they do?”

Varrian stood. “They kill you.”

“Oh no!”

He began gathering his things. “We need to hurry. If the Fæ catch him with a dragon, they’ll surely kill your brother and take the dragon for themselves.”

Annissa got up. “How long will it take to get there?”

“Mmm, two days if we walk fast.”

“I’ll walk all night if I have to.”

Varrian took several steps toward the door and wavered. “Oh, dear.”


“That little display of clairvoyance sucked a lot of life out of me.”

“Will you be okay?”

“Hope so.”

“Maybe when we get to the conclave I can talk to them on your behalf.”

“I’d be eternally grateful if you could find a way to convince them to take me back…But I highly doubt they will.”

“Can’t hurt to try.”

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 Murderer’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 Fæ, it might be the end.

He stopped to catch his breath and get a drink of water.

“Are you okay?” Annissa said. “You look terrible.”

He offered her the water bladder. “The more I use my magic, the faster I decline.”

She took a long drink. “I’m sorry for making you use it to find my brother.”

“It’s okay. We need to find him and that dragon. There’s no safer place for your Guail than the conclave.”

“But if you die before we find him, or before we get there—”

“I won’t,” he replied. “What magic I have left will see me to the gates. Should I die without entering them, it will still be worth the sacrifice.” He reached into his pack and pulled out some cured meat. “Here, eat, we still have a lot of walking to do.”

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. “The Murderer’s Highway.”

She looked around. “Seems pretty quiet.”

“For now, but things can change in an instant.”

“Where will this take us?”

“Northeast to the village of Cumberland. There we can barter for some supplies and see if your brother made it…Along the way, we’ll have to pass the Fæ camp of Totz. It’s mighty rough up there, the going will be slow.”

“I have to find him.”

“I know, and I’m going to help you all I can.”

As darkness fell upon the country, Varrian stopped. “We’ll make camp here tonight. Tomorrow we should be nearing Totz.”

“And what if we find Klae with them?”

“If they have him, and we’re lucky, he’ll still be alive. The Fæ don’t take kindly to outsiders. They find them mighty tasty.”

“They’d eat Klae?!”

“Yes. Part of their mystical behavior stems from the belief that eating others will enhance their powers.”

“That’s awful!”

“And the Fæ are not just one people, there are several, uh, species living and working together.” He dropped his pack and began gathering wood for a fire. “There are tiny Fairies who use their light to draw in an unsuspecting person. Then the human-sized Lyren capture and do the fatal deed.”

Annissa gasped.

“Once the person is dead, the much larger and meaner Tomians take over and butcher the carcass.”

“How is it we’ve never been told about these beings?”

“Many of the factions are closed societies. No one has come or gone in hundreds of years.”

“There’ve been a few that left Black Rock.”

“Did they ever return?”

“Mmm, no.”

“How many have come to the faction?”

“Since I’ve been around, two.”

“Were they allowed to live?”

“The man was killed, but the woman who came with him was taken by one of the elders to be his wife.”

“So no one knows what’s really out there.”

“I suppose not.”

Varrian piled some wood into a small clearing and worked to get a fire going. “I 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.”

“But there’s little diversity in a closed faction. Many marriages are arranged to keep bad things from happening to the children.”

“Was your marriage to be arranged?”

“No. I don’t love Brody, I can’t marry him.”

“So who will you marry?”

Annissa got closer to the small fire, warming her hands. “I 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.”

“What if the elders decide who you will marry?” He put some more wood on the fire.

“Then I’ll run away.”

“That, child, is not a wise action.”

She sighed. “I don’t wanna think about it. I just wanna find Klae and go home.”

Varrian looked up at the sky. A few stars poked through the thick blanket of clouds. “I sense he is near.”


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. “Look, Guail, lights. I wonder if they’re friendly? I’m so hungry and thirsty.”

The dragon stopped and sniffed the air. It snorted and backed up.

“What’s wrong? Aren’t you hungry, too?” Klae took a few steps forward. “Come on, I’m starving.”

Guail refused to budge.

“Are you telling me they’re bad people?”

Guail growled lowly.

“How do you even know? You’re just a baby.”

Guail hissed and smacked its tail against the ground.

“All right, all right, we’ll camp here tonight.” 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.

“I wonder what they are?” he said, opening his bag and rummaging for something to eat. “I’m so hungry!”

* * *


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