Chapter 1 – A Cry for Help
Rohen tried very hard not to cry as he watched his mother wash the black stripe off the entrance to their home. He wondered why she was taking off his father’s mourning sign so soon. A month had not yet passed since he drowned.
His sister had tried to explain to him why so many changes were happening so fast. Mama needed to find someone to take care of them. She was lucky to marry so soon. She wanted to make sure everything went back to normal, so they could all be happy once more. His sister had tried hard, but Rohen still could not understand. Papa was gone, nothing would be normal, and he would never be happy again. And why would Mama decide to end Papa’s mourning period when she still cried at night, thinking no one could hear her?
“Rohen, are you ready yet? You need to meet your father at the mesa.” His mother turned to look at him. Her eyes were red and swollen.
He was eight; he should not cry. But he took one look at her sad face and could not help himself.
“He is not my Papa.” He quickly rubbed the tears off his face.
His mother turned and kept scrubbing the door. “Well, he is going to care for you and do all the things your father did before he drowned, so it would be nice if you saw him as your Papa.”
Rohen watched quietly as the sooty mark washed away under his mother’s wet brush.
“But you don’t have to call him anything you don’t want,” she added. “Everything will work out well, I promise. Now go find your sister and get to the mesa.” She looked back at him and smiled.
Her smile made him feel better. She was so beautiful. At least he would always have her and Erria. He ran off to find his sister.
Rohen went to the side of the cottage and picked up his tiny bow and quiver. His father made them for him shortly before he died, and had given Rohen a few lessons. Erria was teaching him now. Rohen loved his bow and arrows. He took them everywhere he went. He threw the quiver over his shoulder and headed to the path leading to the mesa.
He saw his older sister up ahead and ran to catch up with her. “Errie!”
Erria stopped and waited for him. “Why did you bring your bow? We are not going to shoot quail.”
Rohen shrugged. “Why does he want to meet us there anyway? He doesn’t like us.”
Erria ruffled his dark brown hair. “He wants to spend time with us,” she said. “We are his children now, you know.”
“I don’t think he wants us to be his children, Errie.”
“Nonsense. He would not have married Mama if he didn’t want us.”
“I don’t like the way he looks at us.”
“He’s just trying to get to know us, Rowy.” She put a comforting arm around him.
“I wish Papa were still here.” He squeezed his bow.
“We all do, Rowy.” She looked so sad Rohen almost started crying again. “But we still have Mama, and we have each other.”
Rohen wrapped his arms around her waist and hugged her. “I’m so glad you are my big sister, Errie. You will always take care of me, right?” What would he do without her?
Erria laughed and hugged him back. “Soon you will not want me around. Look at you, four years younger than me, and you are already better with the bow than I. You will not need me watching out for you for very long.”
“Sure I will. I will always need you.”
She ruffled his hair again. “Come on, we are wasting time.” She pulled him along.
As they walked, the foliage began to thicken, and the trees became bigger. The path sloped upward for a short distance before leveling off. Soon they walked through a row of trees into a clearing.
The clearing opened up to a stone plateau. The plateau stopped before a wide river, which poured over the side in a huge curtain of water. The sound of splashing water and singing birds made the area calm and peaceful. People usually crowded the popular mesa, but that day there was only one person there. He had his back to them.
“Papa!” Erria called out. She ran over to him.
Rohen made a face. He was not their Papa. He followed his sister slowly, clutching his bow tightly.
Erria jumped into her stepfather’s arms. He hugged her and pointed to a small rise where a person could look over the waterfall. Rohen was too far to hear what he told her. The girl jogged toward the rise.
Rohen turned to join Erria. He noticed his stepfather pick up his bow and some arrows, which were lying on the ground. He took one of the arrows and notched it.
Rohen looked around. There were no birds to shoot at. What is he going to shoot? He stopped walking and watched his sister go up the rise and look over. She was very close to the edge. He looked back at his stepfather. The man aimed straight up at the sky, then lowered the bow and pointed it at Erria.
Rohen suddenly realized what was about to happen.
He had to stop him, before he shot his sister. He whipped out an arrow and fired.
The small arrow lodged into his stepfather’s hand, but not before his own arrow loosed. It streaked toward Erria.
The young girl turned, and the arrow pierced her neck. The momentum threw her off the rise, and she vanished over the waterfall. She was gone before Rohen could finish his scream.
Rohen notched another arrow, but he was crying so hard he could barely see. He tried to get a clear view of his sister’s killer. “Why? Why did you do that?” He blinked the tears out of his eyes and shot again.
His stepfather dodged the arrow. He did not answer Rohen’s question. Pulling the first arrow out of his hand with a grunt, he stood up and growled, “Come here, pup. You’re next!” He drew a long knife and approached the boy.
Help! Someone help my sister! Rohen turned and ran into the forest.
Vitalia stared wearily into her tea. The search for the boy was draining her. Trying to keep one step ahead of Sanguis made it even worse. Three years of fruitless searching had her on the verge of collapse.
The fact that Sanguis did not have any idea where the child was either brought only a little comfort. Up until about a year ago, Vitalia would have been able to confront her if she managed to find the boy first. Now, the constant searching and years of lack of sleep had weakened her to the point of near-exhaustion. She would need months of rest to regain her strength. At this point, she was too afraid to take a nap.
She took a deep breath. She could smell the salt in the air. The sea air always seemed to energize her a bit, somehow. She very much liked the Northern Islands. Poli had said that except for the youngest, all the children were located in the western lands of the planet. Vitalia had assumed that they would all be on the mainland. She had not considered the five-island archipelago. Could he be this far north? This would be the last place to look. She could not continue searching for much longer.
Vitalia took a sip of her tea, and almost choked as a flash of energy shot through her head. What in the world was that?
“Lady, would you care for more tea?”
She smiled warmly at the woman standing in front of her, teapot in hand. She found the accent the Northerners spoke with charming. It was rather fun speaking like them, as well. “No, kind woman. I must be leaving now.” She gave the woman a silver coin and stood up. “Good day, and thank you for the delicious meal.”
Once outside, she stopped and looked around. The public house and adjoining stable faced a large open area between the main street and the fishing docks. She was able to see the ocean from where she stood. People milled about. Vitalia walked around the side of the building where she would not be seen.
The narrow walkway between the pub and the stables was deserted. Vitalia quickly prepared herself for the next flash. As weak as she was, she could not afford to make any mistakes.
Silx had tried to mark the wrong human before he found Milina. Other dragons had several false alarms as well. Vitalia hoped this was not one of those cases.
She had to take the risk. If Sanguis got her claws on the boy before she did…
She felt the flash again. It seemed like a cry for help. She could not waste any more time. She closed her eyes and placed herself as close to the source of the flash as she could.
When she opened her eyes, she found herself surrounded by trees. She saw no one around, but now she could feel power emanating from someone. The emanation was so very strong. And it was completely undeveloped. How can such raw ability be so strong? This was no false alarm!
Vitalia reached out with her mind. It was a small boy, tired and distraught. He was in trouble. Sanguis? No, she would try to make him go to her willingly. Vitalia hurried to find him.
It was very difficult; he kept moving around erratically, circling and turning back constantly. Soon she sensed another presence in the woods. Vitalia pieced together the story as she sensed both minds while she tried to meet up with the boy. When she realized what was going on, she growled with anger.
The boy finally became too tired to continue. He stopped, but his pursuer was close, too close. Vitalia placed herself next to the boy. He was nearby, so her phase would be easier, faster and much more accurate. She blinked…
And looked down at the child she had been searching for. He sat quietly with his back against a tree, his face streaked with tears. Vitalia was shocked at the look on his face. He was ready to die. Vitalia clenched her human jaw until it ached. She was not about to allow that to happen.
He did not notice her until she took a step toward him. He looked up at her and began to cry.
Vitalia crouched down to bring her face level with his. He had to be about eight years old. He had big gray eyes, chestnut brown hair, and very pale skin. In one hand he held a bow, in the other, an arrow. “I can take you far away from here, where that man cannot reach you. Do you want to come with me?”
The boy blinked. He wiped his eyes and nodded.
She smiled at him. “Everything is going to be just fine. Don’t cry.” She put her arms around him and held him close. She thought of her home, and they both vanished.
Vitalia reappeared with her charge inside a cave on another island some distance away. Relieved, she took in the familiar stalactites decorating the cavern and the underground lake nearby. She let go of the child and sat down on the ground. She leaned back against the cave wall. “You are safe now. He will never find you here.”
The boy did not answer. He looked at his surroundings, then faced Vitalia.
“Please help my sister,” he pleaded.
She had not sensed a third presence nearby. And by what she had seen in the boy’s mind… “It’s too late. There’s nothing I can do for her.”
She expected him to cry, but he didn’t. Vitalia was able to see the innocence, the sense of wonder and open trust that young children always seemed to have, fade from his eyes. What kind of effect did something like that have on a child?
“I am Vitalia. What is your name?”
“My name is Rohen. Thank you for saving me, but I must go see my Mama.”
She was going to have to deliver yet another traumatic blow. She hoped she could make him understand. “Rohen, your stepfather will be waiting for you to return to your mother. If you go back, he will kill you. You cannot go back to her.”
Rohen stared at his bow, taking in what she had said. His gray eyes darkened, and he threw his bow to the ground angrily.
“No!” He looked around, and ran toward one of the many cavern openings. “I have to warn Mama, before he kills her, too!”
Vitalia caught up with him and grabbed his arm. “Rohen, you don’t understand. He does not want to kill your mother.”
Rohen’s head whirled around to face her, and his eyes flashed with a silvery light. Vitalia shielded herself just in time to block off a blasting mind attack. Even with her shield, she could feel the power of the attack. Already he is stronger than any human I have ever known. And he did not even realize what he did.
“Rohen, that man did a terrible thing. But your mother is safe. He will not hurt her.”
He stopped trying to pull away from her. Vitalia held him close as he began to cry again. “It will be all right. I will take care of you. I promise.”
“I just want my sister back,” he sobbed. “I want to see my Mama!”
Vitalia picked Rohen up and let him cry on her shoulder. She wanted very much to take a nap. How was she going to get the boy through something like this? What kind of man would he turn out to be now, especially with the gifts he had?
She had found her ward, but Vitalia realized her problems were only just beginning. Pondering what to do next, she carried the crying boy through one of the cavern openings.
Sanguis waited for the Northern man to approach. As he walked by her, she stepped into view, blocked his path and slapped his face hard. Her fingers tingled painfully from the blow; human hands were so very sensitive.
“You were not supposed to play cat-and-mouse with him, you idiot! Why did you let him get away from you?”
“That little brat shot me!” He showed Sanguis the hole in his hand. “The pain slowed me down.”
Sanguis resisted the urge to kill him. She might still need this human. “Well, use that as an excuse for what happened to the children.” She could not remember the ape’s name.
“You know, if the villagers find out what I did, I will be lynched.”
“You will need to come up with a good story, then.” Sanguis raised her hand, and the man flew back into a tree. The trunk cracked from the impact. “There, that should make whatever you come up with seem believable.”
“What do I do with the mother?” the Northerner groaned.
“Whatever you wish,” Sanguis replied, walking off. The man called out to her as she walked away, but she ignored him. She thought of what to do next.
Sanguis smiled. She would wait and see. If the boy showed promise, she would make her move and take him. Vitalia might decide to mark him, but there were ways around that. The boy was young. She had plenty of time.