Chapter 1 - Artis
Five Years Earlier
“Look!” little Tora squealed. “She’s bleeding!”
The Children were picking plums from the ancient trees of an overgrown orchard near the central park of the old city.
Artis glanced down from her perch in the leafy branches of a squat tree. Tora was a bony girl, not more than six, with limp brown hair and green eyes that dominated her pixy face.
Ignoring the girl, Artis directed her gaze to a cluster of plums and reached for fruit on a higher branch.
“She’s bleeding!” Tora squealed again, from her spot on a patch of flattened grass.
Artis peeked through the gap between her knees, below the hem of her torn skirt, and noticed a thin trickle of blood running down her inner thigh. “I just scratched myself!” she shouted, and dropped a handful of dark red fruit into the tall weeds to distract the other Children.
A drunken wasp bumped into her cheek on its way to a cluster of fermenting fruit.
Artis jerked away and pricked her wrist on a thorn. “Ouch!” she cried.
“Don’t freak us, Tora,” Malcolm growled as he stuffed plums into the pockets of his oversized shorts. He was ten with a mane of dirty blonde hair and a face that looked angry even when he wasn’t.
Artis jumped to the ground and wiped her leg with a fistful of dead grass, ignoring the cramps in her belly. The day was humid and her limbs felt heavy. She was almost fourteen and surprised she’d lasted this long.
Bunching her tattered plaid skirt into a pouch, she filled it with plums.
As the Children headed along the rubble-strewn avenues between crumbling high-rises toward their camp, Malcolm whispered to Artis:
“It’s the Change. You gotta go.”
Her cramping stomach churned, and a wave of nausea dragged the blood from her thin cheeks. “Go where?” she whispered, her heart sinking. Malcolm was her friend. She thought he’d stick by her, but even he wanted her gone.
“Anywhere but here,” he told her, his aquamarine eyes resolute. “Be gone by dawn tomorrow, peaceful.” He took a bite from a ruby-colored plum, then wiped the juice off his chin with a dirty sleeve and shifted away.
Artis spent the rest of the day steeped in isolation and denial. She followed her routine, searching derelict buildings and overgrown parking lots for firewood, picking edible greens from the riverbank and exploring office buildings for paper clips, safety pins and other small treasures.
By the wee hours of the next morning, she had reached some acceptance of the situation. Nothing would sway the other Children into letting her stay. Being one of them, Artis understood that. Their intolerance of adults was extreme. Grown-ups were bossy and dictatorial and mean. And they couldn’t be trusted not to die.
Artis grabbed an empty drawstring sack off the dirt floor of her makeshift hut and crept out while the rest of the Children slept.
The campfire had long faded to a pile of cold ashes, like her heart, but the sky glowed with just enough light to see. She navigated the junk piles that littered the camp and said a silent goodbye to her home of five years, before slipping from the blind alley into the derelict streets beyond.
As the day yawned its way to wakefulness, Artis zigzagged through crisscrossing avenues toward the municipal buildings. Nothing she owned was worth taking from this dead city, but there was a book she wanted to check out of the Library.
Up the rusting stairwell to the fifth floor, she ran, to an aisle marked “Natural Science,” where she found a giant clothbound book entitled Medicinal Plants and Herbs. The book had become her medical go-to for the treatment of bee stings, cuts and rashes. The Children were forever hurting themselves, and Artis wondered how they’d manage without her. But they would. They always did.
She slipped the heavy book into her worn sack and hooked the string handles over her shoulders. As she stepped out of the Library’s dilapidated front entrance, she heard a shout.
“There she is!” Malcolm. Yesterday, she’d been his friend; today, she was his enemy. “Get her!” he shouted. These were words she’d heard too often over the past five years. But this time, Artis was the target.
Two or three seasons back, when Camila’s time came, the amber-haired girl had cried and screamed and begged to be allowed to stay.
Artis had decided she wouldn’t go out that way, and she was just as determined about it now as she had been then. She would preserve her dignity.
The swarm of screaming Children raced down the avenue toward her.
The old city was an unrelenting home and the Children a wildly dysfunctional family, but together, they’d been something.
Now, she had neither.
She sped toward the Fun Fair. From there, she’d head down the riverfront to the Metal Bridge and leave the old city. For some who saw the Change, leaving took weeks. Not her. She’d get it over with.
Artis lost Malcolm and the other Children among the falling-down structures of the Arcade. She slipped past the crippled roundabout, with its graveyard of broken circus animals, and slunk into the woods beneath the rotting deathtrap of a towering roller coaster.
Water from a moss-edged pond quenched her thirst. She washed away the blood sliding down her inner thighs and hurried on toward the river.
Her flight was easy. She assumed Malcolm expected she’d get on with it. Artis had never been a procrastinator. She wondered what he would be like when his time came. The same, probably. She’d miss his angry-looking face. Maybe she’d see him on the other side in a few years—if she survived that long.
The Metal Bridge didn’t frighten her, although the river running under it did. She hurried along its center so that she couldn’t see the swirling water. When she reached the other side, she stopped and looked ahead into the Beyond.
Tall grasses led to rolling dunes that stretched into the foothills and cliff faces of the Gray Mountain.
She headed straight for them.
* * *
Artis climbed from the cave entrance, blinking in the intense light, and brushed the dust from her hair. Behind her, a slender shaft of sunlight glinted off the crystalline surfaces of the stalactites hanging from the cavern ceiling.
She‘d been wandering the tunnels for days. Fate had been merciful, and she’d found several underground streams that saved her from dehydration.
The call from the Well had superseded her commonsense.
When Artis first entered the system of passages, she’d been cautious, marking her route on the walls with no intention of wandering far. But the irresistible urge to go deeper had crept over her without notice. It reached inside her: something warm and welcoming, yet unquestionably dangerous in its power to draw.
A counter summons saved her, a higher intelligence inside Artis that seemed to grow stronger the closer she came to the Well. A sense that told her she had work to do, a world to save. The opposing forces had pulled her taut. One drove her toward the Well, the other away. But the inner wisdom to leave the deep passageways and return to the outside world won.
This time, whispered the Will of the Well. Come back when your work here is done.
Caught by the harsh sunlight, the bones in her hands protruded through her pale skin. Artis was half-starved.
An aged woman found her asleep in the long grasses that winnowed in the hot summer wind. Her name was Yeva. She brought Artis food and helped her stay hidden from the Trilittera men.
“The Light has touched you,” Yeva whispered as the sun slipped behind the crags of the Gray Mountain. “Life for you here would be a fate worse than death.”
She glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the mines where her people dwelled. “As soon as you’re strong enough to travel, you must go. Follow the voice that called you from the caves. Find your animal familiars and stay safe until the Cet summons you to fulfill your destiny.”
Three days later, Artis arrived at a wide bridge over the river. A higher sense urged her—the Cet, Yeva called it.
But Artis had no idea what that meant.
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