Changelings of the Dark Earth Preview Chapter

With just under two weeks to go until the release of Changelings of the Dark Earth: Awakening, I thought it was a good time to share a preview chapter from the book. The pre-order went live on Amazon over the weekend, but there won’t be a preview available there until the actual book is released. Only the ebook is available so far, but the paperback version should be available on or shortly after the release date.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a sneak peak at the first chapter from Changelings of the Dark Earth: Awakening.

Chapter 1

Tavik remembered the first time his hair moved on its own with remarkable clarity.

At first, he thought a worm or a caterpillar of some sort had wriggled into his night sack. No matter how many times he brushed at the side of his neck, the squirming sensation kept returning again and again. He never managed to get back to sleep, so as soon as the sun rose over the Scarlet Hills, he snatched his mother’s prized mirror from the shelf and rushed out of their hut to inspect his neck.

That’s when he saw it: a single strand of his raven black hair writhing like one of those little eels his uncle pulled out of the cold lake north of the village by the dozens. Frantic, he ran back inside to get a knife.

The hair bled all over his neck when he cut it off at the root, and the spot was sore for a week.

For a long while, he tried to convince himself that he’d imagined the whole experience. That was easy enough during the day since he had plenty of tasks to keep his mind occupied. Nights were harder, though. Lying very still in the quiet dark, he often thought he felt something moving against his scalp.

The dreams were even worse. There was the one time he ran his hand through his hair only to find it wasn’t hair at all, but a writhing mass of black worms. Everyone in town made fun of him. They called him “Wormy Head” and threw him down the well in the center of the village, laughing as he plummeted into the bottomless darkness. In another dream, the hair turned not into worms, but snakes. No one laughed at him that time. They ran away screaming, terrified of the demon in their midst.

Then there was the one where the demon came looking for him. A monstrous thing of flesh and metal, it tore through the village in search of him, slaughtering everyone in its path. But the demon didn’t kill Tavik when it found him. It only laughed when its metal hands closed around his neck and dragged him into the night.

That’s when he always woke up, shooting upright in his night sack while that hideous laughter echoed in his mind.

Sometimes he had waking dreams, images that sprang to mind out of nowhere. Mostly they were nothing more than impressions, but the clearer ones showed him events that later ended up happening. Maybe things didn’t always happen exactly the way he dreamed about them, but the outcomes turned out roughly the same.

He wasn’t surprised, then, when his mother, Gresi, told him to put on his boots and grab a bucket that afternoon. She also needn’t have bothered telling him where they were going.

“Come on, Tavik,” his mother said, calling back to him as she hoisted her woven basket over her shoulder. “You wanted to help, now keep up!”

Tavik tugged at the roughspun cap his mother had knitted for his head. The material scratched his forehead and kept in enough heat to make his scalp sweat. He hated wearing it, but didn’t dare take it off, even now that they were a good two miles from home.

The Scarlet Hills ranged wild a mile east of the village. When the rising sun’s light spilled over the reddish clumps of scrub grass crowning the hilltops, the horizon itself seemed to catch fire. The mirage faded long before evening, when the western sunset left the hills bathed in blood. Up close, of course, the hills didn’t seem all that special. Tavik was a little disappointed the first time he’d hiked there hoping to find the whole area shrouded in a red haze.   

Once every week around midday, his mother set out over the hills in search of the clusters of dark nuts growing near the roots of the grass. While they didn’t look all that appetizing, their hard shells protected the sweetest, juiciest berries Tavik had ever tasted. Cracking the nut open without crushing the fruit inside was a delicate task, but well worth the effort. Most animals ignored them until the fruit became overripe, splitting the shell and oozing juice through the cracks.

On a good day, Tavik’s mother could gather a basketful of the stuff. She knew all the best bushes and had a good sense which nuts contained the sweetest fruit. Tavik tried to learn from her example, but he still couldn’t tell a ripened nut from an unripe one. They all felt the same to him until he tried to crack them open and found the fruit inside solid as a stone. 

But his mother knew. She ranged from one clump of grass to the next, sometimes not even slowing down to do more than kick at the dirt surrounding them. When she found specimens worth her attention, she knelt and inspected each cluster of nuts in turn, leaving some as they were while plucking others from their stems and tossing them into her basket. 

Tavik followed behind her with a separate, much smaller container. Every so often, his mother waved him closer and tossed a handful of nuts into his bucket without explanation. When she’d nearly filled it, she pointed to a clear patch of land some distance to the east.

“Go over there and dump these out onto the ground. Be sure to scatter them around a bit.”

“Dump them?” Tavik asked. “Why’d you bother picking them if we’re just going to throw them out?”

“Because they’re too ripe. Don’t want them splitting open here and drawing the birds’ attention to the others. And anything they don’t eat will hopefully take root over there if we’re lucky.” 


“Hurry up,” she said. “It’ll be getting dark soon and we need to head back home.”

Tavik hoisted the bucket and trundled over to the next hill while his mother carried on picking. When he reached the clearing, he dumped the nuts into a small pile on the bare dirt. It hadn’t occurred to him to ask his mother if she wanted him to scatter them or leave them in a single heap. He gave the nuts a kick, sending dozens of them skittering across the soil. Before turning to go back, he gazed over the hilltops to the east and spotted the black treetops of the Fangnore Forest in the distance.

The sight of the wood made his scalp tingle, and he fought the urge to remove his cap. A vague whispering filled his ears, not quite loud enough to understand, but clear enough to stand apart from the late afternoon breeze.

Something moved in the distance, a dark cloud swirling over the next hilltop like a flock of smoky carrion birds. Tavik watched it take on a more definite shape, vaguely resembling a humanoid figure. His scalp wasn’t just tingling anymore; it was throbbing and itching, almost burning. The whispering grew louder, but no more intelligible. It drowned out every other sound, practically roaring in his ears until his head felt like it might split open like one of the nuts he’d scattered across the ground.

Tavik closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. He was used to the headaches by now, but this one hurt worse than anything he’d experienced before. The pain stabbed at his temples and clawed at the back of his throat. He felt like he was suffocating, smothered beneath a heavy blanket wrapped impossibly tight around his body.

Soft, cool hands pressed against his cheeks, gently caressing his skin. The pain receded instantly, replaced by a chilling stillness.

He didn’t remember his mother’s hands ever feeling so soft. 

Or so cold.

When Tavik opened his eyes, he tried to scream, but his lungs seized up and the sound died in his throat.

She was beautiful. More beautiful than anyone he’d ever seen or even imagined, with skin like smooth pearl streaked through with veins as black as her hair, which left faint dustings of ash upon anything it brushed against. Her amber eyes glistened like drops of honey soaking up the midday sun. A tattered, motheaten overcoat clung to her narrow shoulders and covered a dress stitched together from black fishscales.

“Hello, child,” she said, her voice rasping like dried reeds scraping together. “What’s your name?”

The response tumbled from his lips before he could stop it. “T… Tavik.”

She smiled, her perfectly straight teeth the color and texture of gnarled diftwood. 

“Lovely.” Her ice cold hands moved up the sides of his head, her blackened fingertips slipping underneath his cap. “And what are you hiding under here, dear Tavik?”

Tavik tried to pull away, tried to cry out for his mother, but the woman’s dread presence held him firmly in place. Her eyes widened as she ran her fingers through his hair.

“How much longer can keep your little secret from them, I wonder? Do you really think they won’t find out? What will you do when they come for you?”

She laughed, a thin, humorless sound that began as a dry rattling in her chest.

“I can make it easy, Tavik. I can take you away, take you to a place where you’ll never have to hide again. All you have to do is keep walking. I’m waiting for you.”

A firm hand clamped down on Tavik’s shoulder and shook him fiercely.


He blinked and the deathly woman vanished like ash upon the wind, leaving him standing alone on the hilltop.

Almost alone.

“Tavik,” his mother said, spinning him around to face her, “what’s the matter with you? Couldn’t you hear me calling?”

He tried to speak, but his voice cracked weakly. His mother’s harsh expression faded and she knelt down far enough to look at him straight on.

“What is it, dear? Did you have another waking dream?”

Tavik shook his head. “I… I don’t know. There was someone here.”

“Tavik, there’s no one here but us. Look around. Do you see anybody?”

He didn’t bother to look, instead throwing his arms around his mother and hugging her tightly.

“I’m sorry, Mother. I was going to come straight back, but my head was hurting and—”

“Don’t,” she said, hugging him back. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have sent you off. I shouldn’t have brought you out here at all.”

She pulled away from him and smiled as she tugged at the edges of his cap.

“It’s getting late. We should get back home before the sun starts to set. Come on, you can help me carry the basket, okay?”

Tavik nodded and took his mother’s hand. As he followed after her, he glanced back at the hilltop to the east.

A flock of black birds fluttered overhead, careening toward the forest.

His scalp tingled again and he pulled his cap down tighter with his free hand.

“What did they look like?”

He looked back to his mother. “Huh? Who?”

“This person you said you saw. Was it like the others?”

“No. This wasn’t like a dream. She was there, right in front of me.” He put his free hand on his cheek. The skin felt cool to the touch. “She… she touched me.”

“Really? A girl, was it?” She pursed her lips the way she always did when she was thinking of something clever to say.


“Was she pretty?”

Now Tavik’s skin felt warm. “Ew, no! She was…older.”

“How old? Like Elder Celintha?”

Certainly not that old. Elder Celintha wasn’t just the oldest person in the village; she was the oldest person anyone had ever seen. The children all joked that she’d been there so long she was probably born from the rocks and the dirt.

“I couldn’t tell. She looked weird, though. I think maybe she came from the forest.”

His mother’s humor faded. “Tavik, when we get home, don’t tell anyone about this unless I bring it up first.”

“Like the dreams?”

“Yes, like the dreams. Waking or otherwise.”

They walked in silence for some time before they saw the thin plumes of smoke rising from the village’s fires. Situated along a narrow creek with clean, fast-moving water, the village was home to several extended families and about a hundred people altogether. Not everyone remained there all year round, of course. When the season turned cold, food would become more difficult to come by and most of the tribe would venture southward for a portion of the year. Those who stayed behind would keep their relatives’ homes intact and gather what food they could until the weather broke.

Tavik used to find the journey south terribly exciting, but after celebrating his tenth name day two years ago, his family began expecting more of him, forcing him to carry his share of the family’s supplies. Now he dreaded the long march, which promised arduous travel days loaded down with his weight in provisions followed by nights resting his weary body upon the hard, sometimes frozen ground. His friends suffered similar misfortunes, but as an only child, he couldn’t pass any menial tasks on to his younger siblings. They never failed to remind him that he got better food portions since he didn’t have to share with anyone, but Tavik didn’t find that to be true most of the time.

A makeshift stick fence surrounded the village, standing about four feet high. It didn’t offer much in the way of defense, but combined with the fires burning throughout the village, it kept most of the wild animals at bay. Every few months, rumors circulated about raiders passing nearby, bands of wild men scavenging and thieving. Men and women would stand watch along the fence with spears and axes during the night whenever that happened, but Tavik had never known anything to come of it. He didn’t doubt that such people existed, though. Hana, his second mother, still walked with a limp from a wound she suffered when raiders wiped out her tribe long before he was born.

The sun had nearly set by the time they reached the fence and most of the villagers were busy preparing food as they made their way to their hut. A few people nodded at their passage, but most of their neighbors ignored them. Even some of Tavik’s friends conspicuously ducked out of sight when he and his mother approached.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “Why’s everyone acting so funny?”

His mother shook her head. “I don’t know, Tavik. Maybe Hana and your uncle will know something.”

Tavik’s home resembled most of the village’s buildings, a hut with walls made of sticks and reeds held together by dried mud and clay. A thatched roof kept the rain off their heads while a latticework of sticks covered with animal hides provided a soft, clean floor. The hut housed their small family comfortably, with room for more if Tavik’s uncle ever decided to take a wife. A small fire churned in a stone-lined pit near the entrance and the smell of cooked meat hung in the air. 

Hana stepped outside to greet them, limping toward Tavik’s mother and hugging her tightly.

“Where have you been? Rulig and I were getting worried.”

Tavik’s mother gave her a kiss. “I don’t see why. I’ve been out later than this before.”

“Is there something going on, Mom?” Tavik asked. “Everyone’s acting weird.”

Hana put a hand on Tavik’s shoulder and sighed before looking back to his mother.

“You’d better come in, Gresi. There are too many ears turned to the wind out here.”

The hut’s cozy interior consisted of a single large room with most of the family’s bedding arranged to one side. A series of wicker racks along the opposite wall contained a wide range of trinkets and tools, many of which Tavik’s mother and uncle had discovered during their years spent as scavengers. Aside from the mirror and the metal knife, there was a hat fashioned from some incredibly hard material and an array of metal objects that could be utilized for a variety of functions even though their original purpose remained a mystery. Most of the items were impossibly old, relics from an ancient tribe that once lived in massive villages of stone, metal, and glass. In their youth, Tavik’s mother and his uncle would venture into the ruined remains of those settlements, searching for anything that might prove useful or valuable.

But Gresi’s greatest find wasn’t something she discovered among the ruins, it was something she found on her way back from one of those expeditions: a baby boy nestled in a bed of moss inside a fallen tree. Against her brother’s initial objections, she took the boy home to her lifemate, Hana, and they agreed to raise him as their own child.

They named him Tavik, after her father.

Rulig grunted in acknowledgement when they stepped into the hut and offered them both a trencher filled with cooked rabbit and mash of nuts and berries. 

“About time you’re back,” he said. “Your dinner’s nearly cold.”

Tavik took his trencher and settled alongside his uncle, who had already finished most of his portion. 

“Seems like the food’s not the only thing that’s cold around here,” Gresi said. “What’s been happening out there while we were gone?”

Rulig and Hana exchanged glances while Tavik and his mother took their initial bites.

“The elders have called for a council tomorrow,” Hana said.

“What’s so bad about that?” Gresi asked, picking a bit of food from between her teeth. “Those old fools are always gathering to talk about something.”

Hana nodded to Rulig. “You tell her.”

“Tell me what?”

“They want to talk about Tavik.”

Tavik nearly spilled his food onto the floor. “Me? What have I done wrong?”

“Nothing, dear,” Hana said. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“But there have been rumors,” Rulig said. “Children have noticed things, told their parents stories that have them scared.”

Gresi shook her head. “That’s ridiculous! What kind of things? Tavik’s been nothing but kind and helpful to any of them!”

Tavik agreed. He’d always been mindful of how he treated his friends, never getting into fights or even speaking ill of them. What could they possibly have against him? 

Hana sighed and put her hand on Gresi’s thigh. “We know that, love, but you know how children are. They exaggerate, they tell stories they start to believe are true. And when someone asks them questions, they come up with answers they think the person wants to hear.”

Tavik still didn’t understand what any of that had to do with him.

“Apparently some story found its way back to Elder Legbren,” Rulig said. “I don’t know from where or from whom, but he’s got the idea in his head that Tavik might be a danger to the village for some reason.”

Gresi sneered. “Legbren! That figures. The old ghoul’s always looking for some excuse to make our lives miserable.”

Neither Rulig nor Hana disputed the claim. Tavik knew it wasn’t the first time his family had a dispute with Elder Legbren.

Tavik’s scalp tingled again and he raised a hand to his cap. He thought he felt something move underneath, but it might have been his imagination. The reaction drew Hana’s attention.

“Tavik,” she said, “is there anything we should know?”

He lowered his hand immediately and shook his head. Then, for some reason, he said, “I don’t think so.”

“You didn’t tell anyone about your dreams, did you?”

“No. I mean, not really.”

Hana leaned closer. “What do you mean ‘not really’?”

“Well,” he said, “sometimes I kind of let things slip. Little things, like about things I know are going to happen.”

“Can you decide what you see?” Rulig asked. “Or when you see it?”

Tavik shook his head. Having that kind of control sounded useful, but as it was, the visions came to him randomly, providing sporadic strings of often unrelated images that he could only occasionally make sense of.

His mother glanced at Hana and then stared at him. “Take your cap off, Tavik.”

“What? Why?”

“Do as your mother says, boy,” Rulig said.

Tavik held his breath as he tugged his cap free to reveal his black hair. His uncle leaned closer and ran his fingers through the tangled strands.

“Feels normal,” he said. “I don’t think—”

He let out a sharp cry and yanked his hand away.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Gresi asked, jumping to her feet.

Rulig cursed and shook out his hand. “Something bit me!”

Tavik’s scalp tingled more intensely now. Hana, who’d been staring at him rather than watching his uncle’s reaction, grabbed his mother’s arm.


His mother gasped.

“What’s wrong?” Tavik asked.

“The mirror,” Rulig said, pointing to the racks along the hut’s far wall. “Show him.”

Hana went to fetch the trinket while Gresi sank back down to the floor, tears streaming down her cheeks. When she returned with the mirror, she held it out so Tavik could see his face.

And his hair.

Every strand writhed with a life of its own, slithering and twisting in a tangled mass like a bucket of black eels.

He remembered the dream where a hand yanked his cap away and all the children in the village laughed at him.

“Wormy Head!” 

“Wormy Head!”

That’s what they called him, chanting the name as he tumbled down to the bottom of the dark well. The words echoed in his mind now, coming at him from every direction. He clamped his hands over his ears and clenched his teeth to keep from screaming.

His mother grabbed his cap and pulled it over his head before she embraced him. When the mocking voices began to fade, he removed his hands from his ears to hear his mother’s comforting words. She told him everything would be okay, that they still loved him and would do everything they could to protect him. Hana put her arms around both of them, fighting to hold back her tears. Eventually, even his uncle joined them, patting Tavik on the shoulder and telling him not to worry.

None of their reassurances made much sense. After all, they couldn’t very well stop his hair from having a life of its own, and he didn’t know what they could possibly do to keep the rest of the town from throwing him down a well. 

Tavik had a hard time falling asleep that night. Every sound outside the hut made him twitch, the passing voices of their neighbors most of all. Whenever he heard voices and footfalls approaching, he squeezed the ends of his blanket tightly, fearful that it might be ripped away at any moment. Each time, though, the sounds faded, and eventually he felt secure enough to drift off into an uneasy slumber.

Sleep didn’t provide much respite, for the worst of his many recurring dreams was waiting for him.

The village fell strangely silent for the late afternoon. Reddish orange light peeked through the cracks in the hut’s walls, the same light that coated the Scarlet Hills at sunset. Tavik sat alone on the floor. Of his mothers and his uncle, there was no sign. The silence outside gnawed at his curiosity. He’d never heard the village so quiet, even in the dead of the night.

A heavy, cold feeling in his gut told him to remain where he sat, to pull his blanket over his head and hide.

The hide flap covering the hut’s doorway fluttered, although he neither heard nor felt any wind.

He got to his feet and crept towards the entrance.

When he stepped outside, he found that the reddish orange light came not from the setting sun, but from the fire consuming the village. The flames lit up the black night, nearly blinding Tavik with their fury. Squinting, he took a few steps forward before he tripped over something and fell to the ground.

To his horror, he’d tripped over a body.

Both his mothers and his uncle lay dead a few feet from their hut. They’d been gutted the same way a hunter drained the blood and organs from a deer, their faces frozen in an expression of terror and agony.

Tavik screamed and pushed away from the grisly sight.

Somewhere beyond the raging fires, a shrill voice laughed, like sharpened metal scraping across ice. 

Scrambling to his feet, Tavik spun around and around in search of the voice’s source. 

“Who’s there? Who are you? What do you want?”

He saw more bodies. Friends, neighbors, elders, the entire village dead. Not just dead, butchered and burned. The smell of scorched flesh sent a wave of nausea though him and he doubled over, gasping for breath.

The voice called out again, but this time it spoke to him rather than laughing.

“What a pleasant little find you are, sweet child.”

Tavik looked up in time to see a figure emerge from the flames. Slender and twice his height, the monster’s metal arms dangled almost to its ankles, which ended in metal talons like a hawk’s feet. A pair of arms with snapping pincers rose over its shoulders, probing and snapping in the air as the nightmare strode towards him with unnatural grace, its dark cloak billowing with every step. Only a portion of its face was flesh and blood, the upper half of the right side, with its impossibly blue eye and wispy locks of blond hair. Metal encased the rest, the left eye shimmering like glass and a horn protruding from the forehead before sweeping back along the curve of its skull. A black box with rounded corners covered the mouth, projecting that hideous shrill laughter at a frequency to make his bones shiver.

The monster extended one of its long arms toward him, the razor tipped fingers opening wide enough to wrap around his head.

“Time to come home now.”

Tavik opened his mouth to scream as the fingers closed around him, but no sound came out.

He struggled against the thing’s grip, lashing out and trying to find his voice, but it was no use. The monster’s shrill laughter overwhelmed his senses, deafening, blinding, and numbing him all at the same time.

A distant voice managed to cut through the paralyzing noise. 

“Tavik, stop it!”

Was that his mother?

“Wake up!”

Tavik opened his eyes to find his mother’s hand clamped over his mouth, and his second mother doing her best to restrain his limbs.

“It’s okay, dear,” Gresi said. “You were dreaming.”

He let his body relax, and Hana released her grip on him.

His mother smiled. “That’s good. Now, I’m going to take my hand away, but you have to be quiet, okay?”

Tavik nodded and his mothers helped him sit up. They were dressed for travel, with packs slung over their shoulders. He desperately wanted to ask what was going on, but he’d already given his word to be quiet so instead he got dressed when Hana shoved his clothing and boots into his hands.

Rulig stepped over to whisper into his mother’s ear. “We have to move now, Gresi. We won’t get a better chance than this.”

Gresi nodded and looked over to Hana.

“Are you sure about this?” Hana asked.

She looked at Tavik, who was nearly dressed now, and nodded. “Yes. I’m sure.”

Hana let out a short sigh, then leaned forward to kiss her. “Then I’m with you. Let’s get going.”

She joined Rulig at the hut’s entrance while Gresi pulled Tavik to his feet.

“Tavik, listen to me carefully,” his mother said. “We’re leaving this place. I’m not going to let anything happen to you. Your uncle is going to lead us out of here without being seen. Stay close and keep quiet. Understand?”

He didn’t know how to answer, so he just nodded absently. 

How else could he have answered? A few hours ago, everything had seemed normal. Now his world had turned completely upside down.

His scalp tingled as he pulled his cap down firmly over his head.

As if he needed another reminder…

“Gresi,” Rulig said. “Now!”

She grabbed Tavik’s hand and pulled him along after her. “Come on, then. Let’s go.”

They slipped out of the hut and slunk around behind it before the men on night watch patrolled within sight. Rulig took a turn as lookout a few nights every month, so he knew the routine well enough to keep clear of anyone who might spot them. He led them along a latrine trench that ran behind several huts before veering through a neighbor’s vegetable garden and towards the village’s outermost fence.

Tavik had no idea where they would go once they got outside the village. The nearest village was a good two day’s travel and the people there weren’t exactly friendly to strangers. Were they just going to scrape out a living out in the wild? What would they do when winter arrived? What if someone came looking for them?

Many more questions raced through his mind before his uncle halted abruptly with a muted curse.

“What is it?” Hana asked.

“Somebody’s patrolling the fence with one of the dogs,” he said.

“Is that normal?” Gresi asked.

“No. The elders might have guessed we’d try to make run for it.”

A shout went up some distance behind them, coming from the direction of their hut.

“They know we’re gone now,” Hana said. “Let’s split up. We can regroup once we’re over the fence.”

Rulig nodded. “Right. Head for the lake shore. I’ll try to draw the dogs off.”

He leapt to his feet and ran towards the fence. As soon as he cleared the garden, a dog spotted him and started barking. Rulig turned to run alongside the fence as the dog and the night watchman raced after him.

Hana looked behind them. “They’re coming. Hurry, I’ll help you over the fence.”

They broke away from their hiding place and ran to the fence, but before they could reach it, a pair of young men armed with spears emerged from behind a nearby hut.

“Here! They’re over here!”

Hana shoved Gresi and Tavik back towards the garden.

“Go! Don’t let them take him!”

She drew her hatchet from her belt and rushed screaming at the two men. Tavik heard sounds of a struggle, but his mother jerked him along behind her as she plunged back into the garden and made back towards the center of the village.

“Don’t worry about your mom,” she said, “she can handle herself.”

They managed to avoid a group of villagers searching through the garden and found cover alongside a wood pile. Several people had gathered at the village center, dividing their numbers into search parties. On the opposite side of the clearing, a few rows of huts stood between them and the outer fence.

“Tavik, do you think you can climb over the fence by yourself?”

Children weren’t supposed to play around near the fence, but of course that never stopped any of them from doing so. Climbing over the fence was the first thing everyone did to prove they weren’t little kids anymore.

“Yeah,” he said. “I can do it.”

His mother hugged him tightly. “I’m going to create a diversion. When they see me, I want you to run as hard as you can and get over that fence. Don’t look back and don’t stop for anything, understand? No matter what happens.”

“But what about—”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll come for you as soon as I can. I love you.”

The rest happened so fast Tavik almost couldn’t follow it. His mother leapt out from their hiding place and ran into the clearing, shouting at everyone as she went. When the crowd turned its attention to her, he bolted for the fence, his heart pounding with every step. He didn’t look back and he didn’t stop, just like his mother told him. The fence came into view out of the darkness as he bounded past the last row of huts.

A few more strides and he would reach it.

Then he tripped on something and tumbled to the ground in a heap of flailing limbs.

“Got him! He’s over here!”

His head was still spinning, but he recognized the voice of one of the older kids. There were several of them waiting for him, each one positioned at different points along the fence. One of them ran back into the village, calling out that they’d found him.

Frantic, he tried to get up and run, but somebody grabbed him and flung him back to the ground.

“Where do you think you’re going, freak?”

Hands closed around him as he struggled to get away. In the commotion, somebody’s fingers snagged the edge of his cap and pulled it away.

Then the kids started screaming.

“His hair! It’s full of worms!”

“No, his hair is worms!”

“He’s all wormy headed.”

“Yeah, that’s it! Wormy Head!”

Someone kicked him in the stomach and he dropped to the ground, gasping for breath.

“Wormy Head!”

“Wormy Head!”

The kids pulled a heavy sack over his head and dragged him back into the village.

“Wormy Head!”

“Wormy Head!”

Tavik recognized some of the voices, voices he once thought belonged to his friends.

“Wormy Head!”

“Wormy Head!”

The village didn’t have a well.

But he’d found a place as dark as the bottom of one.


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