Chapter 1

Where the Pine Trees Grow

Camellia

I open my eyes and am instantly blinded by the sun. Clear blue sky stretches out above, its color deep and rich and the flaming ball of fire that lights the sky floats directly above. The ground beneath me seems to sway and bob gently, like it is being carried by a person. For a moment, I lay staring at the sky, unable to recall what happened or where I am. Then, I sit up and pause, a smile slowly spreading across my lips.

Wiggling my toes and fingers, rolling my neck, I move every part of my body. Everything works, just like it had before I become ill. I breathe a huge sigh of relief, laughing to myself. I’m well! Father was right! Whatever he gave me made me well! I breathe deeply again, filling my lungs completely and exhaling fully; that was a miracle itself. Hardly able to believe this, I pause to look around.

I am still on the raft in the river. The water is calm now though, gently pulling the boat downstream. The glossy surface reflects the sky of a bluebird day. The shore surprises me; it’s so different from the prairie. Tall, lush grass edges the river, going in for a few dozen paces. Bright flowers and shrubs mingle with the greenness. Where the grass ends, aspens grow closely together. Beyond them, pines rise into the sky with mountains far away in the distance. It’s slightly cooler here as well, the air thicker and fresher, the water and grass hinted with sweet pine and leaves.

Looking back at the raft, I breathe another sigh of relief when I see that my sisters are still on it. I shudder in sad, pain-filled remembrance of Hazel disappearing into the rapids. The last thing I recall is that we’d gone off the waterfall, and I’m thankful that the three of us are still together.

Our raft is like box lid with sides five hands high. Jasmine lies against one of these, her head resting on the wood and an arm trailing in the water. Her long black hair falls down with it, the only other part of her that is wet. Saffron is curled up in a ball on the floor of our raft. Her dark brown hair covers her face completely. I can tell from the gentle rise and fall of their shoulders that they’re alright.

My stomach suddenly rumbles. Hungry! I haven’t been hungry in years! It be another sign that I’m all better.

I glance around again. It’s midday, I have no clue where we are, and I am starving. There is nothing I can do until my sisters are awake, and there is no reason why they need to still be asleep.

Crawling on the floor of the raft, I go over to Jasmine and gently shake her shoulder. “Jasmine,” I say in a hushed voice. “Wake up. I don’t know where we are and I’m starving.”

Jasmine, always a light sleeper, immediately startles at the sound of my voice. She stares at me, shock flaring in her blue-violet eyes. “Camellia!” she exclaims. “You should be resting!”

“No, I’m hungry,” I repeat. “And I’ve been resting for the past four years. I’m fine now.” To prove it, I kick my legs a little.

Jasmine stares more, dumbfound. I roll my eyes and kneel, then move my arms. One hits something soft.

“Let me at ’em!” Saffron shouts, jumping up only to fall down again because of how the raft rocked. She gasps when she sees me. “Camellia! What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, besides the fact that I’m starved,” I say crossly.

“How did you get better?” Jasmine asks, still shocked.

“Father gave me medicine,” I explain. “I had it just before we went off the waterfall. It does seem quite magical, but I really feel perfectly fine now. I’m just starving!”

“O – okay,” Jasmine stammers. “But take it easy. You look better, but you’re still thin.”

“Where are we?” Saffron suddenly asks. Jasmine looks up sharply, then gazes around. My older sisters’ eyes grow wide. Jasmine is the first to snap out of the trance.

“We should get to shore,” she says matter of factually. “There’s no telling where the river will take us and we should get something to eat too.”

Saffron frowns. “What about the tree? Father told us to stop when we came to a really big tree. None of these are larger than the others. We should keep going until we find the right one.”

Jasmine shakes her head. “We need to go to shore first. Let’s get some food, figure out where we are, then we’ll continue.”

“But we lost the oars,” Saffron argues. “We’ll have to swim. Camellia can’t do that. We should stay in the boat.”

“We’ll help her swim. Now come on.”

“Father said to stop when we get to the tree. Going ashore now would be going against his orders.”

I look from one sister to another. They are arguing, and I am getting more upset and hungry by the moment. “Please, let’s just swim to shore,” I cut in. “I remember how and we can get some food. I think we’re all too hungry to think straight right now.”

Jasmine casts Saffron a triumphant glance. Saffron glowers, muttering mutinously under her breath. “I’ll try and tow the boat,” she says, taking back up her position. “You can help Camellia, Jasmine.”

Jasmine sighs, but says, “Let’s jump on the count of three so we don’t upset it. One. Two. Three!”

The three of us jump off the boat, landing with a splash in the river. The water is icy cold, and I can’t feel the bottom. I kick with my legs to keep my head from going under, frantically at first, but slower after a moment as my body remembers how to stay afloat. Soon, I am calmly treading water while Saffron swims around the raft, trying to find a good place to grab on to it. Jasmine floats near me, alternating between watching Saffron and watching me.

Saffron swims back around to us. “It’s no use,” she says, letting go of the boat. “There’s no way I can tow it, even if both of you helped. We’ll have to let it go.”

My throat catches at the thought, and Saffron is frowning, but Jasmine doesn’t react. “Let it go,” she says. “We know how to make another. Now let’s hurry up and get to shore before we freeze in here.”

With my sisters on either side of me, we start to swim to shore. Saffron keeps glancing back, and I can’t help but do the same. Watching our reminder of home float away downstream is painful. I remember the day the raft was made so vividly. Paul was the master designer of it, though we all knew that Father gave him instructions. Everything was so perfect back then, before I got sick, before the flood came….

Saffron finds the bottom first, suddenly lurching upwards into a standing position. Jasmine is standing a moment after her, and they both pull me up out of the mud that sucks my feet back down. Jasmine squeezes the water out of her hair while Saffron picks up a stick and starts off into the grass. It nearly goes up to her hips, and is well above mine. Saffron takes the stick and whacks the tall stalks out of the way, and I follow the trail she made while Jasmine brings up the rear.

We head toward the trees. The tall grass rubs against us on all sides, weaving around our legs like a friendly cat and the flowers seemed to bob their heads in greeting. A cool breeze blows down from the mountains, making me shiver slightly, and I can hear the buzz of busy bees and the cheery chirping of hidden birds. The sun shines warming rays down, and the shade created by the boughs of the green-leaved aspens beckon us onward. There is something welcoming about this place that I like.

After a moment, we stop at the edge of the forest of aspens. Thick grass, now only up to our ankles, covers the ground, and small flowers and weeds are scattered among it. The trunks of the trees are thin, and the bark peels in a few places. Above, the delicate branches gently wave their leaves that grew on the tiniest of stems. We sit down in the grass with our backs against a larger tree, halfway in the sun and halfway in the shade.

“Here,” Jasmine says, handing me a large piece of dried meat. She, Saffron, and Paul all keep food on them at all times. Though this piece is a little wet and tough, it’s better than nothing.

“What about you?” I ask, taking a bite.

She shakes her head. “I’m fine. I have extra. You need it more.”

“But –.” Before I can say anymore, she puts a hand on my forehead and feel it. I can feel it trembling a little as she pulls away. Jasmine smiles at me, tears in her eyes, then gives me a tight hug for a moment.

“This place is bizarre,” Saffron declares, jogging back over to us. She points at the forest. “I just went a couple dozen paces in there. I can hear a stream. I climbed one of the sturdier trees as high as I could, but I couldn’t spot the prairie or any large tree. There’s just forest like this for a little while, then pines and mountains. That’s it. I could go back and look again –.”

“Don’t,” Jasmine cuts in quickly, even though Saffron can probably swim a mile upstream and back in ten minutes. My oldest sister seems stressed enough right now though to have to worry about Saffron running off into the unknown again.

Saffron sits down and pulls out her food, tearing into it like she’s famished. “So what do we do now?” she asks. “We have no clue where we are.”

Jasmine glances up at the sky, then back at us. “We wait,” she says simply.

Me and Saffron stare at her. “Wait?” Saffron asks. “Wait for what? The tree to show up? For Mother and Father or Paul to come and find us?”

Jasmine shakes her head. “No, we just have to wait. There’s no point in going anywhere if we don’t know where we are. We’ll get some rest first. Then, tomorrow, we’ll start searching along the riverbank, but not too far from this point. We need to mark this place so we can work around it.”

Saffron raises her eyebrows. “And if that doesn’t work?”

“We’ll take it one step at a time.”

“But –.”

I look up from all of the sudden. Something flashes at the edge of my vision and catches my eye. Movement. I hear something too. Footsteps. I glance around, but don’t see anything. Am I imaging things? Hopefully I’m not going crazy now that I just got better. This must just be an after affect or something.

I start to look down again, trying to block out the sounds, but now something completely catches my eye. I gaze into the distance, to the forest opposite of the tree we’re under. There’s a figure there, walking. It can’t be a bear. Too slim. Deer? Wait, no. It’s a man, I think. I squint, and my vision seems to zoom in until it looks like I’m just standing a few dozen paces from him, not half a mile. The sounds become amplified too, and it’s suddenly like I’m standing right next to him.

The man is medium height and stocky, very muscular. He has brown hair like Father does, only his is more trimmed and his beard is much shorter. He’s wearing a hat with a brim and a brown jacket. There’s a gun on his shoulder – a riffle, I think. Father has one of those. The man is tromping through the meadow with his bulky boots, breathing hard from the effort of yanking them out of the mud every few moments. He’s stopping. I think he’s seen us. My blood freezes at the thought.

I fly back to the tree I’m sitting under, feeling as though I’ve blacked out for hours. The man had seemed so close a moment ago. He is small enough to fit on my pinkie nail now. But he is definitely there.

I look back at my sisters, still arguing over what to do. “Ah… Jasmine? Saffron?” My voice shakes a little; I can’t help it. I’ve never seen a stranger before. They take no notice. I speak a little louder and more urgently. “Jasmine? Saffron?”

They stop and look at me. “Yes, Camellia?” Jasmine says.

I point out across the meadow. “I see someone. It’s a man.”

Saffron’s face pales and her mouth drops open. Jasmine gives a startled little gasp. They both turn and stare at the man, who hasn’t moved. For a moment, the four of us are frozen. Saffron snaps out of it first. She picks up her stick. “I’ll scare him off,” she declares bravely, standing up.

“Saffron!” Jasmine cries, horrified, pulling her back down. “That’s a man, not an animal.” She stands up and starts waving at him.

I gape and it’s Saffron’s turn to pull our sister back down. “Are you crazy?” she demands. “That’s a stranger!”

Jasmine shakes her off. “I know what I’m doing. He can help us. Father put me in charge, remember?” Saffron glowers again, gripping her stick until her knuckles turn white. The man starts to walk toward us, faster now. Saffron grips tighter. For some reason, I can’t breathe. Even Jasmine looks slightly nervous.

The man comes closer. Jasmine puts her shoulders back and walks forward to greet him. Saffron and I stay right where we are.

The man looks exactly like he did when the weird thing happened to me. Only now I can see his face more clearly. He looks in his forties, and his eyes are gray. And he’s looking at us like he doesn’t quite know what to make of us. Jasmine stops a safe distance from him, polite but wary.

“Hello.”

The man blinks. He glances around as if expecting to see a parent or some other adult nearby. Finally, he looks back at Jasmine. “What are you girls doing out here alone?” he asks.

“None of your business,” Saffron hisses in a barely audible voice.

“We’re lost,” Jasmine explains, and Saffron throws her hands in the air, but our older sister carries on. “We’re looking for a usually large tree. It should be along the shore, but we can’t find it. Would you be so kind to point us in the right direction?”

He looks even more perturbed. “Goliath’s Oak? You’re not in luck, young lady. It’s nearly a hundred miles upstream.”

Jasmine’s mouth drops open. I can’t breathe again, and my heart skips a beat. “A hundred miles!” Saffron blurts out, forgetting to be caution and striding up to the man. “It – it can’t be!” She looks at Jasmine. “It’s impossible to go a hundred miles in one day!”

Jasmine seems lost for words. Finally, she looks back at the stranger. “Um… how far away is the nearest grassland? I mean, a prairie.”

He raises his eyebrows. “The nearest prairie is over three hundred miles away.”

Saffron sits down hard. Jasmine’s hand flies to her mouth. I stand up and sprint over to them, gripping my eldest sister’s arm in despair. Mother. Father. Paul. The house. Over three hundred miles away. I am almost eleven. Crying wouldn’t be right. But I can’t keep a wail out of my voice. “What are we going to do, Jasmine?”

Saffron is the one who answers. “We walk,” she says gruffly, standing up and retrieving her stick.

Jasmine gapes at her. “You can’t walk three hundred miles!”

“Watch me!” Saffron calls over her shoulder, striding toward the river.

“Why, you don’t even know where you going!” Jasmine shouts after her. She releases me and runs after Saffron, grabbing her arm and pulling her back.

I shift nervously on my feet, wincing as I watch them fight in the meadow. I glance at the man. He looks utterly lost, perplexed and disturbed. He’s muttering something, but I can’t understand it. Finally, he looks at me and asks, “Is something wrong?”

I shy away at the sound of his voice and the full concentration he has on me. I can’t help it. When I’d retreated a safe distance, I look back at him, terrified at my first encounter with a person I don’t know. His eyes soften. His voice is more gentle now. “I won’t hurt you, little one. I just want to know what’s wrong.” When I hesitate, he adds, “I just want to help.”

Still uncertain, I take a few steps back to him. “We’re from the prairie,” I said, my voice pitching a little. “We got washed downstream by a flood. Our family is waiting for us at the big tree. That’s why we need to find it.”

He gasps. “So the three of you are out here alone? In the middle of nowhere, a hundred miles away from your parents?” Hearing that aloud hurt. I nod, biting my lip. My voice cracks as I go on.

“And we don’t even know where we are. We had to leave our boat, and we don’t know where to go or how we’ll get here. We’re lost.”

The man looks at me with pity and holds out his hand. I’m feeling so miserable that I take it. His grip is strong and his eyes are friendly, so I feel a little better. “Let me help you and your sisters,” he says gently, drawing my closer. “My wife and I can give you food and shelter until you figure out where you want to go.”

I smile weakly. He reminds me so much of Father. The thought is painful. “I’d like that,” I say softly. “But I need Jasmine’s permission.”

He looks out into the meadow. My sisters are still shouting at each other, and Saffron is braced to run. “Which one is Jasmine?” he asks.

I point. “The taller one with the black hair. She’s my oldest sister. The other one is Saffron.”

“And what’s your name?” he asks kindly.

“Camellia,” I answer.

“Ah, Camellia. A beautiful flower. It’s my wife’s favorite.”

“What’s your wife’s name?” I ask as we start to walk hand and hand into the field. Something about this man makes me know that I can trust him completely.

He smiles. “Mrs. John Burnett, but everyone calls her Margret. My name is John Burnett. I live in –.”

Before he can finish, Saffron and Jasmine suddenly come running up. Saffron looks ready to attack the man, but Jasmine pulls her back just in time, crying, “Really, Saffron? Get a hold of yourself!” She pushes Saffron back, then puts on a stiff smile and looks at the man. “Sorry. We’re lost and tired. It’s been a long day.”

“I can offer you food and shelter,” he says. “I don’t live very far away. My wife and I would be pleased to have you until you go on your way. Camellia here told me what’s going on.”

Jasmine gives me a look that makes my face burn with shame. Then she pauses, contemplating. Saffron snorts. Finally, Jasmine looks back at him. “That would be wonderful. Thank you.” She holds out her hand. “I’m Jasmine.”

“John Burnett,” he says, shaking it once.

“This is Saffron,” Jasmine goes on, gesturing to our sister, who merely grunts. “And it seems that you have already met Camellia. I really can’t thank you enough for your offer, Mr. Burnett.”

He smiles. “John is fine. And nice to meet you girls. Now if you’re not too tired, we can start back right now and make it there in time for dinner.”

Jasmine’s smile is still a bit stiff. Saffron is sulking. I’m slightly nervous. John gestures toward the way he came. “Shall we?”

“Of course,” Jasmine says in a voice that is friendly, but obviously forced. She takes my hand, then brushes the hair off of it. It’s an excuse to feel my forehead, I know, but I let her do it. The only thing that’s making me feel bad right now is how much my sisters are fighting.

John starts off back toward the forest, high stepping over tall stalks that we just push right through. Jasmine has her arm around my shoulder and walks a little behind and to the side of him. Saffron brings up the rear.

“How far is it to your home?” Jasmine asks as we near the trees.

“Ten miles,” John answers. “Should take us about two hours, give or take one if we stop for a rest.” He pauses. “Is that alright?”

“As long as we go slow,” Jasmine says. “Camellia just got well from a bad illness that she had.”

He looks surprised. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear about that. She looks fine to me though.”

My sister’s smile is still stiff, now more from worry than uneasiness. “She wasn’t a few days ago. I don’t want to exhaust her and bring it back.”

I look up at her. “I’ll be fine, Jasmine. I feel great. It will be nice once we get into the shade though.”

We enter the trees. All the leaves of the trees and the bushes are small, and the patches of grass aren’t too tall yet. It still must be early summer. There’s a fresh smell in the air, too. I can hear the sweet birdsong of tiny sparrows and chickadees. Somewhere in a patch of budding flowers, the leaves rustle as a small rodent digs in the ground for food. There must be a stream around that connects to the river we came here in, because I can hear the quiet murmur of it.

The ground slopes up a little bit and the aspens give way to pine trees. I’ve never seen pine trees before until now. They’re much taller than the willows that grow by our house, towering up into the sky. The trunks are thin, but not as much as aspen or willow. There are a bunch of nubs and grooves in the thick bark, and the branches are small. Prickly green needles grow out from them, giving off a smell I’ve never breathed before. A layer of dead pine needles coats the ground with some pine cones. A squirrel quickly drags one out of the way as we walk by and on into more trees.

This terrain is very random. One moment, we’re in aspens with lush green bushes. Then we’re in a full pine forest and the ground is covered in dead, tan needles. The next moment, both are smashed together into one, thin aspens and tall pines growing up from the earth which is covered in grass and bushes and pine needles and pine cones. Slowly though, it starts to stick to the third type of terrain.

We go along in complete silence for a while. Almost. There’s our footsteps – the soft step of Jasmine, the cautious step of Saffron, the soundless step of me, and the not so quiet tramping of John. He has a gun though, so safety isn’t a worry. There’s a lot of birdsong and rustling from animals anyway. I try to figure out what might be causing each sound, and my mind wanders in that. It’s so wonderful to be able to hear like this again.

In fact, all of this is unbelievably wonderful. Seeing. Smelling. Hearing. Walking. That’s the best part. Along with the fact that I’m outside. I’m feeling as giddy as Saffron gets when Father and Paul used to take us on an overnight camping trip.

“I’m assuming that there is a settlement out here,” Jasmine says, finally breaking the silence. I look at her, then back at John, curious. Settlements. Never been to one. I’ve heard a bit from Father though. It’s where a lot of people live together. That’s a strange concept to grasp. Why not live only with your family?

John nods. “There is. Pinelake. My house is right outside of it. Population four hundred, which is smaller than most. It’s nice to have a town this far West though.”

I blink as Jasmine asks, “Self-supporting then, I assume.” Where did she learn all this stuff about settlements?

He nods again. “There’s fields and meadows close by. We grow food there and by our homes. Plenty of supplies to gather from the land around as well. Recently, a mining company has started, besides the trapping and lumber companies that have been around for a few decades.”

Jasmine pauses for a moment. I hear a stick crack behind us, and I turn. Saffron just tripped. She never does that. She regains her balance, and she looks even more like a storm cloud than she did a few minutes ago. Why? I reply the words in my mind. Mining. That was digging in the earth for minerals. Trapping. That was catching animals in snares. Lumber. I think it has something to do with trees. Company. A business that sells thing for money. People can make money for trapping and lumber? That has to be the problem.

There’s a little twinge in my stomach. That always happen when I think of living things dying. Honestly, I can hardly stand the sight of a dead fish washed up by the house. I run and hide when I see things like that, and bury my head under the covers whenever Father brings in a dead bird for Mother to pluck. Jasmine will cringe, like she just did now. Paul will just shake his head. Hazel would cry. And Saffron…. Bold, strong, fiery Saffron of all people won’t react to a dead animal, but will be sick at the sight of one in pain or the remains of one. Mostly the remains. Wherever we’re going, I hope it doesn’t involve seeing stuff like that.

Animals. We love them. Me. My sisters. Paul. My parents. My whole family. We had pets that we let in the house. They used to be wounded, but Jasmine and Mother made them well again, and they would come back from time to time to visit us. Then there was our horse, Paintball. He was Saffron’s best friend. We treat animals like friends, not like random creatures. They have thoughts and feelings, just like we do. Same with plants. Father once told me that plants have more wisdom than a hundred year old man would. I believe that. One day, I’m going to have a conversation with a plant. It will be amazing to hear about all he has seen.

The ground slopes down steeply, and we backpedal to avoid slipping on the slick pine needles.

“Where did you girls live out on the prairie?” John asks.

“Just a little house by the river,” answers Jasmine. “It was just our family. No one else was around.”

John stops, surprised. “No other homesteaders? No town? No settlement?”

Jasmine shakes her head, repeating, “Just our family. It’s been that way for generations.”

He frowns. “Surely that can’t work.”

“Oh, but it does. Our mother was raised in the same house we were. We aren’t sure where our Father came from though. He never told us. He just said that it was far, far away.”

“Hmm.” John lets out a little, confused grunt. He doesn’t seem to understand.

The sun starts to sink and the ground levels out. We leave the pine forest and are walking across an expanse of sagebrush, its sweet smell filling our nostrils. There is a mountain in front of us. It’s tall, and has pines on it. There’s another, closer one on the right and farther away. About a mile in front of us, the trees start up again, another forest. I can tell that that’s where we’re going.

I pause to take in the scenery, looking for signs of life. Oh. Maybe that field of tall grass. It looks like the wheat Father grew. I think I see some figures around it. And a break in the sagebrush, a road, perhaps, which is like a wide path, I think. I look up. The sun is at the point of about five o’clock. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. And I miss home really, really bad. Mostly Mother and Father and Paul… and Hazel.

I look up at Jasmine. She smiles and squeezes my hand. “It will be alright, Camellia,” she whispers softly. “We’ll find them and be home in no time. Just stay close to me in here. We need to stick together.”

I nod, catching the serious mood. But I’m also immensely curious. What will a settlement be like? The people? The homes? I have to listen to Jasmine though and stay close. And Saffron, too.

John catches my wandering eyes and smiles at me. “Ready to see Pinelake, Camellia?” he asks me.

Something about his manner and voice spark excitement, and build trust in him. I smile back. “I think so.”

“Then let’s go,” he says, and we walk forward to the settlement of Pinelake.

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Prologue: The Flood

Where the Pine Trees Grow

I was born and raised on the prairie. Like my brother and sisters, I never knew anything else. Same thing went for Mother, though I’m not sure about Father. He never talked about where he came from. Paul was usually the one to ask about it, being a born adventurer like the rest of us.

“Father,” he would ask during supper. “Where did you grow up?”

Father wouldn’t even answer. He would just turn to Mother and say, “Primrose, explain to the children why they can’t know yet.” When Father called Mother by her full name, Primrose, instead of Rose, we knew this was a serious matter. Mother would always say that we were too young, and that was that.

Mother’s past was no mystery. She grew up in our little willow reed house by the river with her parents and grandparents. It’s on an island, actually, a small one close to the shore. More willows and reeds line the banks and there’s a tiny forest a bit farther downstream. Besides that, it’s just open prairie stretching on forever. As far as I knew, the world was just prairie and sky. And as far as I knew, me and my family were the only people ever to live.

I never saw anyone but my family, never even thinking others did exist. And why did it matter if they did or didn’t? We had everything we needed; water and fish from the river; wheat grown by Father; berries from the shore; meat and clothes from the animals. We had our little house to live in and the whole world as our playground.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing outside. And where else could I? The house was too small. As soon as I could walk, I was following my older siblings around everywhere.

Paul would lead, always with some stick in his hand. Strong and tall like a spring buck, as Mother would say, he was in charge of our safety when we weren’t in the house. Though he’d joke, he would always be careful. I looked up to him as much as I looked up to Father.

Then Saffron would come, darting off every few moments to scare an animal or jump onto a stump. Father always referred to her as the fox of the family, or perhaps a rebellious colt. It didn’t matter how tall the stump was or how deep the water – she’d get past it. Paul had to keep a tight rein on her, though he would want to do whatever Saffron had in mind as much as she did.

I would totter along behind her. Mother and Father hadn’t come up with what sort of animal I was yet. So far, I was the first sparrow of spring, young and eager and innocent and cheery. From how much I hopped around, Little Sparrow was a fitting nickname.

Jasmine would bring up the rear to make sure I didn’t fall behind. There was no doubt that she was most like Mother, quiet and gentle but firm. From the moment she was born Jasmine was water, a softly running stream. Father would fondly call her a doe or a young fawn, as that fit her character perfectly.

Lastly, there was Hazel. She was born three years after me. She took the title of a fawn right away, and Jasmine didn’t mind a bit.

When I turned six, Father and Paul taught me how to swim. It was a tradition in our family to learn to swim at six. Father made the rule because of Katniss. She died in a flood the night Jasmine was born. Father wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. He was very protective of us all around water, especially during flood season. He was most like that to we who couldn’t swim, which was me and three year old Hazel at the time.

Then, right before I turned seven, something happened. I was always so tired and weak and achy. Mother was an excellent doctor, but she couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I had to constantly lie down in the house where Mother took care of me full time. Everyday, she’d stroke my forehead and say, “You are getting better, Camellia – I know it. It will be soon. You will be alright.”

I tried to cling to that hope, but after a year, I knew: I wasn’t going to get better. So what was the point of resting and trying to get well? If I was going to die, I didn’t want to in this stuffy old house. I tried to tell Father that I wanted to go out, but, like Mother, he wouldn’t listen.

“You need to rest to get well, Camellia,” he’d say, stroking his beard thoughtfully. He started to wander the plains a lot in search of a cure for me. He put Paul in charge and wouldn’t even let Hazel outside. Jasmine and Saffron had to argue for days just to get permission to play by the river. I could never understand why they had to be punished because I was sick. It was nothing contagious or in the air that made me ill; it was something else.

I was more worried about Hazel than me.

If Father would have stopped looking at me and seen Hazel instead, he would have shared my concern. Paul, Jasmine, and Saffron were tan from the sun, strong and plump. I was thin and pale, yes, but, being ill, that was normal. I had been more than twice Hazel’s height and weight when I was five though. Even slender Jasmine, being four years older than me, must have been bigger. Standing next to sturdy Saffron, Hazel looked like a tiny leaf. Her eyes and head were too big, her skin too white. Her mousy brown hair was thin and limp. She wasn’t sick, but if she was she wouldn’t have said anything, being so shy and quiet.

I mentioned Hazel’s health to Saffron, but she shook her head, saying Hazel was fine and I wasn’t. Saffron said that I needed fresh air, and no matter what Father ordered, she would get it for me. Saffron’s boldness made up for Hazel’s timidness. Even though Saffron was only ten when I was eight, she acted like the head of the family.

So Paul, Jasmine, and Saffron made a stretcher of branches for me. When Mother was napping with Hazel, they put me on it and carried me outside. They set me down in the shade by the river. Even though my body didn’t feel any better, my mind did. Being outside made the chance of not living much longer easier to cope with. Every day after that, my siblings took me out.

In the year of the summer I would turn eleven, something else happened. Hazel had just turned eight, Saffron was twelve, Jasmine was fourteen, and Paul was sixteen. Before Hazel was born, Paul liked to joke about the “Summer Sisters” because Jasmine, Saffron, and I were all born in the summer. He had to stop though because Hazel was born in late spring.

What happened was that Father came back from his wanderings early – very early. He was normally gone all summer, and now he was back a quarter moon after he left in late spring. He didn’t say anything to us about where he went or what he did, like usual. A day later though, he sent us all outside so he could talk to Mother alone. He never did that.

Paul and Saffron put my stretcher on the hill by our house. The river was wild and angry today and dark clouds loomed on the horizon, accompanied by thunder. Jasmine had little Hazel on her lap, my youngest sister still too small for her age and ghostly pale. No one said a word, not that I could have, being strong enough only to whisper. I felt worse today, but I didn’t bother to tell anyone. We were all thinking the same though: What is wrong? We all knew that something was very, very wrong.

A heartbeat later, there was a scream from the house. We all jumped, but didn’t dare go in. Moments went by.

Finally, Paul stood up. “I’m going in,” he declared, trying to sound brave.

But before he could move, Mother and Father came out of the house. Mother’s face was pure white and her eyes were red. Father looked the same, only a bit more held together.

Saffron immediately shot to her feet. “What’s wrong?” she demanded. “Why was there a –.”

“Paul!” Father barked. “Get the boat ready!” Paul bolted off to where we kept our little raft.

Father turned back to us girls. “A flood is coming,” he said gravely. “A dam broke up North. More water than you can imagine is coming down this river. The island isn’t safe.”

I felt my blood go cold as an image of a head disappearing underwater flashed in my mind’s eye. Katniss!

“So we go to shore then, right?” Jasmine whispered.

Mother’s voice trembled as she spoke. “Look, girls. What do you see?”

I couldn’t turn my head, but I saw my sisters’ faces go pale.

“Wolves! Packs of wolves!” Hazel gasped, eyes wide with fear.

“Shore isn’t safe and nor is here. You girls sail down river together. There isn’t enough room for us all on the raft,” Father told us, looking mostly at Jasmine. “When you get to a big, big tree, you gonna stop. Alright?”

“But – but what about you and Mother and Paul?” Saffron demanded. I’d never seen my fearless big sister look so afraid. And that scared me more. I couldn’t move. What if I drowned?

“We have an extra boat. We’ll follow. Now go get Paul to help you carry Camellia down,” Father ordered briskly.

Father talked to Jasmine while Mother knelt next to me. “It will be alright,” she whispered, tears streaming down her cheeks. “You will be fine. We will find you. I promise.” I nodded, too shocked and scared and sick to cry as she kissed my forehead in goodbye.

Paul and Saffron came running up. Father hugged Saffron tight then came over to me. He pulled something out of his pocket. The rain in my eyes made it hard to see the bottle. What was it?

As he leaned down to kiss my forehead, he tied it around my neck. “This will make you better, Camellia,” he whispered, then he left. I didn’t know what he meant. I had a million questions but my throat was too dry to ask them. How could something make me better? Nothing could.

Paul and Saffron picked up my stretcher and laid me in the raft, slightly tipped up on one of the sides. Being that way made my head spin. Jasmine and Saffron sat on either side, making sure I didn’t move. Hazel was near them. Father and Paul pushed us off. We shot into the rapids, and my last glimpse of them disappeared in the foam.

Thunder rumbled in the sky and lightning flashed. The drizzle had become a steady downpour, soaking us instantly as the river tossed us too and fro and the shore zoomed by at a dizzying speed. The gentle water I’d known all my life had become a white, foaming torment. Rain droplets stung my skin like bees and the chill made me shiver. The turning and twisting of the raft made my stomach sick and head ache. I could only see the dark, angry sky above.

Suddenly, there was a scream, probably from Jasmine. A split-second later, the raft hit something – hard. We bounced off that then hit something else, again and again, jerking us around.

“Hold on, Camellia!” I heard Saffron screech.

A massive wave consumed us completely. The flood! I felt my sisters’ grip my wrists tightly. I didn’t want help though; I didn’t need it. I would probably die from my illness anyway. Hazel needed help. Hazel!

I don’t know how I did it, but I sat up. For the first time in almost four years I could move. My vision cleared just in time to see Hazel slip off the end of the raft and disappear. No!

“Lay down, Camellia!” Jasmine shrieked.

“Get down!” Saffron yelled.

“Hazel!” I screamed. My lungs burned as though I was swallowing fire and broken glass.

My sisters went silent, then began screaming for Hazel. She had never learned to swim though, being too weak. She was gone, just like Katniss. Tears streamed down my face. She should have lived, not me! I cried in my mind.

“Hazel is gone,” Saffron whispered hoarsely. “She’s just… gone.”

I saw Jasmine’s face. It was pale. It was red. It was haunted. She knelt at the back of the raft and stared into the water. “I’m sorry,” she choked, just loud enough to hear. “I’m sorry.”

We were still spinning and going fast. Nothing worse. Maybe –.

“Waterfall!” Saffron screamed. My blood turned to ice. “Hold on!”

My sisters gripped my shoulders, but I didn’t try to hold on. Instead, I remembered what Father had given me. If this was the end, I at least wanted to know what it was. Would it really make me well?

My hands numb and clumsy, I fumbled around on my neck until I found it. Eyes stinging too much to see, I opened it. I managed to swallow it all, relishing the silky taste, just as we went off the waterfall. Air and foaming whiteness swirled everywhere, then disappeared.

The Fire Paragon

Beyond the Last Star
#1. The Fire Paragon
Chapter 1: The Fire Paragon

The long, silver blades flashed in the sunlight. Upon colliding, both burst into a beam of color. The expected metallic ring sounded, but another, stranger noise accompanied it, like that of hot iron in icy water and lightning striking a pole. The only reason for that was the fact that one blade was surrounded in a swirling windstorm, and the other was completely ablaze.

Natasha took a step backwards as the elemental swords clashed again, absorbing the impact well. Azalea’s balance teetered ever so slightly. Nevertheless, she continued to strike boldly at her opponent. Though Natasha’s blocks were strong, she was giving up valuable space to Azalea. Upon reaching the far end of the large courtyard, Azalea had the upper hand.

Taking a full turn to the left, Natasha swung her blade in a whirling storm almost as big as the one her sword was made of. Azalea lunged. She won’t fool me this time, she thought. A small cyclone flew from Natasha’s hand, wrapping around Azalea’s sword. Thinking fast, Azalea let the blade go and ducked down on one leg, using the other to kick Natasha’s sword. The attempt did little as she rolled away to avoid being hit.

Azalea backed up one step. Natasha, now wielding two tornado-swords, was confidently advancing, a smirk on her face. This would be an easy victory by the looks of things.

It won’t be, Azalea retorted in her mind, holding her ground. You can’t beat me, Natasha. You’ll never beat me, because I am the Fire Paragon.

Summoning her powers from every corner of her body, Azalea didn’t move as Natasha charged. Flames burst forth from Azalea’s chest and hands, spreading until they consumed her entirely. But the tunic and pants she wore didn’t burn. The fire in her hands grew though as she whirled her hands above her head, creating a windstorm like that of Natasha’s. The cyclone of flames enlarged by the second, sprouting up nearly fifteen feet into the air. Then, Azalea spun her hands and directed the firestorm at Natasha.

Natasha dropped both weapons immediately, quickly calling on her own element to make a shield. She braced herself, but the force of the fire tornado was too much, and she was flung backwards, falling hard on the stone ground.

Just as quickly as the flames had appeared, they vanished, and Azalea sprung forward, grabbing both swords. Adding a flip, she crossed the swords at Natasha’s throat, both bursting into controlled flames a moment later.

Azalea’s eyes flashed fire. Natasha’s scowl melted into a smile, then a laugh escaped. “Fine, fine. You beat me, Azalea.”

The flames on the swords disappeared, but a red spark remained in Azalea’s otherwise brown eyes. She grinned, setting a sword down to pull her friend up. “I did. If you hadn’t pulled the tornado move again, you might not have lost.”

Natasha brushed dust off the sleeve of her training uniform, pushing a wisp of brown hair out of her eyes.

“Very good!”

Both girls looked up. On the deck of the two-story buildings that surrounded the courtyard, two young women stood side by side. One was shorter and stockier, light brown hair falling to her shoulders, and the other was tall and slender, dark brown hair braided back. Both walked down into the courtyard, and the girls bowed their heads slightly in acknowledgment.

“Very good, Azalea,” the shorter woman said with a nod. “That was a strong counter attack to Natasha’s technique.”

A feeling of warmth spread through Azalea, starting at her chest and tingling. “Thank you, Yvaine. I’ve been working on it. Next time, I’ll try to make it bigger.”

The other woman shook her head, laughing and exchanging a glance with Natasha. “Perhaps next time, Natasha’s counter attack will equal the size of yours. This was suppose to be a sword fighting sessions, not a tornado competition.”

“But battle practice is battle practice,” Azalea argued, swiping the air a few times with her sword. “It’s the same either way. As long as you defeat the enemy, it doesn’t matter how you do it.” She frowned further at as the two mentors didn’t respond.

“How can I make my shield stronger for next time, Senna?” Natasha asked quickly.

Senna looked at her companion. “You’re the windstorm expert here, Yvaine.”

The woman paused, then looked at Natasha. “You need to set your feet more firmly. Firestorms are nearly as powerful as windstorms, so you need to be more prepared for the force they deliver. Extend the shield a little farther up and into the ground more as well so you have extra protection. That’s all the feedback I can think of.”

Natasha nodded, and Azalea beamed. There was no critique for her. That meant that her performance had been perfect. Had this been a real battle, her enemy would have not survived.

“You girls are done here for today,” Senna announced. “Yvaine and I need to talk to Meera. Your next assignment is with Cadence tomorrow, remember. You are dismissed until then.”

“Thank you,” both girls said with a respectful bow, turning and walking up the steps of the temple.

Azalea glanced around as she and Natasha walked along the deck that surrounded the courtyard. Taking a turn to the right, they were suddenly on a walkway at the edge of a cliff. The land dropped off steeply below, a barren valley at the bottom with golden trees. In the sky above, two suns cast beams of the same color, tinting everything, even the red building on the top of the mountain, in yellow. The Guardian Temple of Simul had one of the most magnificent views in the galaxy, and this pathway to the student rooms never ceased to awe Azalea, even after three years of attendance here. Yet there was nothing but miles upon miles of peaceful valleys and mountains.

“I wonder when we’ll get to go to a real battle,” she said, pulling her sword out from the scabbard on her back and making a few swipes at an invisible enemy.

Natasha glanced at her sideways, then sighed and shook her head. “We don’t want a war, Azalea. Trust me.”

Azalea rolled her eyes and put the sword back. “Don’t talk like you’re as old as Master. You’re only fourteen, a year older than me. There hasn’t been a war in our lifetime.”

“Have you ever read the Chronicles of the Ember War?”

“Of course. It’s one of my favorite books. I couldn’t put it down.”

Natasha shook her head. “We don’t need a war. Forces are already rising in the system of Navarion, and Rylad is as bad as it’s ever been. We lost enough regions to the Nandil already, so don’t go wishing for a fight when we’re on the brink of war right now.”

“That’s the point,” Azalea said, pausing to glance at a golden eagle as it flew by. “If the possibility of war is so certain, why are we waiting around for it to happen? The element of surprise will give whoever strikes first the upper hand. The League should take this opportunity to crush the Nandil once and for all. It’s stupid to wait until they make the first move. No amount of negotiating will stop a war that’s been waiting to happen for centuries.”

Sighing again, Natasha said, “Well, if you ever become a Master, then it will be up to you.”

“If I become a Master? Natasha, when I become a Master,” Azalea retorted hotly. “Nothing is going to stop me from being the best Guardian in the universe. Maybe….” She paused, then said quieter, “Maybe I’ll even be a Paragon. The Fire Paragon.”

Natasha smiled at her. “Maybe. You’ve got a good shot. In all of this region, I don’t think anyone can wield fire like you do, Azalea. But don’t tell anyone we’re talking about this. You know what Meera thinks. They’re expecting the Paragons to come from larger, more important planets.”

“Simul is one of the most important temples in the Republic.”

Natasha looked Azalea in the eye. “They mean where you come from, not where you train at. No offense because I don’t believe it, but Kabira….”

Azalea snorted and took a few steps away from her friend. “Then why is it that one of the most skilled Guardians in the galaxy is there full time?”

“He’s an exception.”

“Well, I can be one too. Everybody knows that I have the most fire power in the League. They just won’t admit it because I’m for Kabira. If they think so poorly of my home planet, I’d like to see them come and say that to me in my face.” Azalea’s eyes flashed red for a moment, then she sighed and shook her head. “Sorry, Natasha. You didn’t need to hear that. I just wish that I’d trained here from the start instead of five years on Kabira first.”

“I know,” Natasha said reassuringly. “Enough about that.” Azalea nodded, rolling her shoulder as though loosening stiff muscles to conceal a shudder.

“I heard that there’s some activity over in Fallgriffen. Maybe one of these days they’ll call for reinforcements, and the battle won’t be so intense so we can go get some experience.”

Azalea immediately brightened up, shaking off the unpleasant thoughts. “Yeah. Our mentors haven’t been to a battle for awhile, so maybe they’ll be chosen and we’ll get to go.”

“Who knows,” Natasha added. “That might be what they’re talking to Meera about as we speak.”

 

Senna glanced after Natasha and Azalea, pausing on the second girl. Azalea’s fiery red hair, nearly as bright as her flames, swayed behind her as she walked confidently down the deck. Maybe too confidently.

She sighed and looked at Yvaine. “I still think not.”

Yvaine rolled her eyes. “After that fire show? Really, Senna? Not even a Master can do that.”

Senna shook her head again, walking up the steps of the temple with her companion. “Well, only Meera can decide if we take her to the Capital or not for evaluation.”

Together, the two Guardians walked through the open doors of the temple. Inside, the rooms were airy and open, simply furnished and some areas so bare than it seemed as though no one inhabited them. They paused to knock on a door. When a voice called, “Come in,” they entered.

A long deck was revealed, covered and extending out over the cliffs. Small trees grew in pots, basking in beams of yellow sun. Besides the trees, there was nothing but a large golden mat covering the wood planks the made the floor of the deck. Standing at the far rail, overlooking the valley, was a woman. She turned when Senna and Yvaine entered. The woman looked in her early seventies, but carried herself with the air of an energetic warrior. Her gray hair was in a neat bun, and the sleeves of her dress hung down low. With her hands pressed together, and eyes that had seen the ages, she seemed to be like time itself.

Senna and Yvaine lowered themselves to their knees for a moment, saying, “Mother Meera.”

Meera smiled at the young Guardians. “Arise, my daughters,” she said, walking closer. “We have much to discuss, I think.”

Senna dipped her head, the glare of the suns not bothering her eyes. “Yes. It’s about Azalea.”

“Azalea.” Meera’s voice became slightly animated. “The one my students call the Prodigy of Simul. She’s the girl who came here three years ago, is she not?”

“Yes,” Yvaine replied, stepping forward. “You assigned me to be her new mentor. And over the course of the years, Mother, I’ve seen her skill in the her aspect of fire. It is beyond anything I have ever experienced here –.”

You have ever experienced here,” Meera cut in sharply. “Yvaine, you talk as though you are older than I. There is much you have not seen.”

Yvaine stepped back and dipped her head. “Excuse my boldness, but after studying so long in the Capital under a scholar, I know a future candidate for being a Paragon when I see one.”

“Ah! So you think Azalea is the Fire Paragon, do you? How can you claim this?”

“We just finished a training session with her,” Yvaine answered promptly. “She made a firestorm in seconds, and bested her opponent with ease. It happens every time. She rarely looses a battle.”

Meera’s gaze was a sharp as the eagles that flew above. “Yvaine, you do know that being a Paragon is more about skill in battle.”

“I know,” Yvaine replied. “But Azalea has conquered every opponent. Not even Natasha has such a record.”

“Natasha.” Meera’s eyes grew distant for a moment. “Now that girl is who I think of when I picture a Paragon. She is confident and skilled.”

“So is Azalea. She is more confident and more skilled,” Yvaine pointed out.

Meera shook her head sadly. “Arrogant, more like it. She lacks humility. She knows she can do whatever she wants with her powers, thinks that they don’t have limits, and that is dangerous. Not to mention the fact that she is from Kabira.”

Senna finally spoke up. “My mentor was from Kabira. There is nothing wrong with him.”

Meera turned and looked over the valley. “Hassan has a lifetime of experience in his favor. Azalea is just a girl. She has not proven anything but that she has more skill than most students. If we are on the brink of war and need the Paragons, I’d rather risk sending the wrong person than sending Azalea.”

“Just give her a chance,” Yvaine argued, following the Mother. “Let her prove her skill to the Masters. Let her show them what she can do, then let them decide of she is the Fire Paragon.”

Shaking her head, Meera murmured, “She is not the Fire Paragon. The Fire Paragon is out there somewhere, and we must find him or her.”

“The Nandil are rising quickly, Mother,” Yvaine went on. “There is no time to search the galaxy to find someone who is the Fire Paragon. We must get Azalea ready for battle. The end of peace is near. We cannot wait for someone else to train to be the Fire Paragon.”

Senna stepped forward again, placing a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “May a make a proposal?”

Meera, still gazing down at the valley, nodded mutely.

“Let Yvaine and I go to the Capital,” Senna said. “Let us ask about Azalea. Then, Yvaine can bring her to them.”

“But what if she is the wrong one?” Meera asked.

Senna touched her chest. “I will go and search for a Fire Paragon. I will ask the Masters if I have permission to scour the galaxy.”

Meera paused for what seemed like ages. Senna glanced at Yvaine, who shrugged, frowning skeptically. Senna shook her head. Yvaine had too much faith in her student. The outcome of the approaching war could not rest on whether or not Azalea was the Fire Paragon. There was a large possibility that she wasn’t, and then, with all the time put into training her just to discover that she wasn’t, the war would be hopeless.

Finally, Meera spoke. “Go to the Capital. Speak with the Masters. We will watch over your students while you are absent. The fate of the war depends on this mission.”

Senna and Yvaine nodded, bowing before leaving.

“Where will you look?” Yvaine asked as they walked quickly to their rooms to fetch belongings. “The Fire Paragon could even be someone who is not training to be a Guardian. The Fire Paragon could be anyone, anywhere.”

“I know,” Senna agreed grimly. “I will start in Fallgriffen. Then, I will search the far outskirts of the galaxy.”

“Why so far?” Yvaine asked. “Why not go to the Temples with promising students?”

“I had a dream last night by the waterfall,” Senna said, raising her voice. “I was mediating near the water, like I always do. The Great One spoke to me. He told me that I will have to search in the farthest systems to find the Fire Paragon. I intend to listen.”

Yvaine shook her head. “We cannot wait for you to search far away while a war rages. Azalea will have to do. It’s not worth the risk.”

“But it is,” Senna said, unable to explain the feeling. “I will go to Rylad itself to find the Fire Paragon and free the galaxy from the threat of the Nandil.”

 

“I can’t believe that they left just like that, not even telling us where they were going or why?” Azalea said, kicking the dirt. “It’s so unfair. I always get left behind.”

“Don’t say that,” Natasha said, turning away from where their mentors’ ships had disappeared into the sky. “At least you’re not missing a battle or anything.”

“I just get to do miserable training,” Azalea grumbled.

Natasha sighed. “One of these days, Azalea, you’re going to meet someone who will tell you the real definition of misery, because being left behind to train is not as miserable as life gets.”

Prologue

I remember it all like it was yesterday. The memory is so, so vivid.

It was a completely ordinary day. My whole family was there. We lived in a city whose name means nothing now. Mom and Dad worked in the same company, the same building; that’s how they met. They always promised that my sisters and I could go there one day. And that was the day it happened.

The building was in the middle of the city. Mom and Dad worked on the fortieth floor. Chloe, Emma, and I rode the elevator to the top with them. I think that the time is permanently engraved in my head: April 1st, 2020, at 12:01 pm.

Every worker was leaving for their lunch break, so we could be as loud as we wanted. My little sisters were tugging me in two directions at once. I still hear their excited voices ringing in my ears.

“Look, Claire! Look at this huge rubber band ball!”

“Claire! Claire! Come here! Look how tiny the cars are!”

Mom told Emma not to touch the ball and Dad told Chloe to get away from the windows, even though they were glass. We were all so happy.

I wonder if I was the only one who felt it; the quiet stillness; the bittersweet happiness. I knew I felt it though, the queer little thing in my chest. The sun was shining and it was a cloudless day. The city was as busy as ever and life went on as normal. Everything was perfect, until it happened.

For some reason, I turned away from my family and looked out the window. That’s when it started.

First it was a rumble, a deep, deafening rumble. The ground started to shake, only a little at first but steadily strengthening. Then every water pipe burst and began to flood the streets while flames sparked up in all the buildings. On the first rumble, the city erupted into chaos.

Screams of terror pierced my ears. I thought I heard my family, but I’m not sure as I was screaming myself. The building jerked as the shaking grew stronger and the first sickening sounds of its base breaking began. A skyscraper across the way was already crumbling to the ground and exploding into flames. Then, the on that I was in began to tilt.

At that, I turned and started to follow my family, running against the slanting floor. My sneakers slid on the carpet and there was a horrible creaking. Chairs, desks, and even people tumbled down and out of the glass windows, plummeting to the ground. My family was a bit ahead of me so I pushed harder into the quickly inclining floor. My heart hammered in my chest and blood roared in my ears.

Then there was a great jerk as our building smashed into another, ours shattering into pieces, except for the part that hit the other one. My family was on that part, all reaching for me to grab their hands. But on that shake, I tumbled backwards. Their desperate screams tore my heart. I was sliding down the windows, struggling to avoid broken ones. I couldn’t stop.

Suddenly, our building split into three pieces. One was still on the ground. One was wedged into the other skyscraper with my family. And the one falling to the ground had me in it.

I got a one second glimpse of the world around me. Every skyscraper was shattering and falling. Explosions of fire and water erupted everywhere. Screams of terror and lose filled the air. It was as though the world was coming to an end. And it was. The world as everyone knew it was ending. I had a feeling that it was happening everywhere, not just here.

The earth was being destroyed.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had caught my family’s hands. Would Mom have fainted? Would Dad have cried? When nine year old Emma have laughed? Would eleven year old Chloe have screamed with joy? Would we have all made it – together?

I wondered about that in the moments of falling. Then it all suddenly stopped for me. I could see nothing but blackness, and I could hear nothing but the terrified beating of my own heart.

I didn’t know what the earth had become. Was it still earth? Or had it become something new?