Chapter 1

Sally Petune was a Dandy Witch. That was very far from being anything important. Dandy witches had the advantage of being their own lighter, running slightly faster than others, reading signs in nature and silly things like that.

At the very best a Dandy Witch could increase the harvest by two sacks of potatoes.

Being a Dandy Witch was a bit of a joke, and it had come to the point in some of the Safety Areas that one would prefer to just be plain old human.

If you were going to be anything else, people argued, you'd better be something big.

And that was the worst part: letting everyone down.

"How come," the kids at school had asked through her entire childhood, "you're just a Dandy Witch when your mother is a Sorceress?"

Sally usually shrugged the question off. She had no answer and had given up trying to find one. She felt, however, that her mother had stopped looking for a reason a bit too soon.

Nesala was a real, full-blooded witch, born and raised in the wilderness outside the walls of the Safety Area. When she arrived fifteen years earlier with a small child in her arms, declaring that she intended to make a home out of the Safety Area, everybody expected her daughter to be as marvelous a magician as she. They were, of course, disappointed. For years they tested Sally, trying to provoke her 'hidden powers' into action. Everybody but her mother.

Nesala never questioned Sally's weak powers and seemed almost content with the way things had turned out.

To provoke her mother's ambitions Sally read the very scarce collection of books Nesala had brought with her from the wilderness plus the additions that followed through the years. Nesala encouraged this but never tried to make Sally do a single spell.

To encourage herself Sally left their penthouse apartment at random to go to the North Gate and look at the forest her mother had come from. When patrols registered the outside fields as SAFE the gate would open and let her out. When it was too dangerous she had to go back.

She wandered the roads between the potato fields, the appletrees and the vegetable gardens with a friend or two. There wasn't much variation in the landscape – the authorities kept the forest at bay for 5 km in each direction, creating an area of monitored agriculture.

Since she walked the same route every time, and since it was such a particularly dull route, she was lucky that her friend Cornelia often joined her.

Cornelia was a regular human and lived with her father in the same high-class district as Sally. He was a member of the council that had been elected to lead the city. Cornelia's mother moved to another Safety Area after the divorce. Sometimes Cornelia took the train to go see her, but it was rarely safe enough to travel, and when she did go she stayed away for so long that Sally felt like dying. Her other friends were harder to convince to go on one of her trips outside.

It wouldn't be long before Cornelia left again. It was only a matter of time – she would have left already, but the five dragons that moved in up north had delayed the train's departure.

That day was sunny, yet cold, and not a great day to be outside the wall. The gate had let them pass, but at any moment it would call them back. The dragons were hunting.

There was a loud, metallic roar that made them twitch as if it was coming from right beside them.

"See," Sally said, trying to be cheerful, "they have no interest in us whatsoever. They're probably munching on a herd of deer. Of course, it would be nice if they did show just some interest in us, so your train wouldn't get to leave."

Cornelia pinched her arm. "Yeah, you'd like that. Why don't you make it happen with some magic, oh great and powerful witch?"

"You'd better stop it or I'll turn you into something nasty," Sally said.

"Really? Come on, have a go."

Cornelia ran ahead and turned around with arms spread out wide as if saying 'whenever you're ready'.

"Uh," Sally grinned. "You sure?"

Cornelia rolled her eyes and waved with her hands. Come on.

"If your hair turns pink you were warned."

"I was warned," Cornelia agreed and closed her eyes. "My mother will be delighted."

Sally raised her hands and was about to try guiding a cold current of wind into Cornelia's face. That would scare her white. Instead another roar sounded and it was Sally's cheeks that went pale. She bent forward and hugged herself.

"Sally?" Cornelia called, running to her side and putting a hand on her back.

Sally shook her head, but the tingling feeling that something wrong was going to happen wouldn't leave her body.

She sighed.

"Do you remember the Dandy Witch who warned the council a few years back about something dangerous coming?" she asked. "She said she could feel it coming."

"Yeah," Cornelia said.

"I've been having these ominous feelings. Goose bumps, heart racing, sudden sweating. And my legs won't stop shaking!"

Cornelia's eyes darted to Sally's legs which indeed were slightly shaking.

"It's been going on ever since the dragons arrived."

"Did you tell the council?" Cornelia took Sally's hands in hers and gave them a small squeeze. "My father hasn't mentioned it."

"I went to him first," Sally said. "And then to the council. They just said our defenses had already been amped up. Nothing more to do."

"So they did listen to you?"

Sally snorted. "Of course not. Nothing happened the last time a Dandy Witch warned them. But back then they did enhance the defenses, and then nothing happened. Those two things are probably related."

Cornelia nodded and shrugged in a way that implied she didn't totally agree.

Sally glanced towards the forest. Somewhere in that direction the dragons were finishing up their feast, unsatisfied and playful, she could feel it.

"But if the dragons attacked," Cornelia said, "wouldn't your mother protect us, Sally? Your mother and the others are so strong. I mean, I've never seen Nesala put to a task she couldn't solve."

Sally shook her head. "Five dragons. I asked her. She just said 'if we die, we die. I'll do my very best to prevent that, of course.' Something like that."

"Enthusiastic as always," Cornelia said and now smiled. "Maybe we should go back? The gate will probably tell us to, anyway."

Sally nodded, but didn't move. She still stared at the dark pine trees.

"Don't you ever feel helpless?" she asked

"Helpless how? In literature analysis? Sure."

Cornelia laughed and Sally couldn't help smiling.

"Why do you think my mother left the wilderness?"

Cornelia studied her face intently, and Sally felt her gaze stinging her cheek.

"There's a tradition," Sally said, "amongst wild witches. My mother told me of it. When a young witch comes of age there's a time when they leave their family and go into the wild to test their skills. Only the strongest come back."

Cornelia wrinkled her nose and brows.

"How bizarre," she said.

"Yeah?" Sally murmured. "I don't know. Oh, come on." She grinned. "Admit it, it's pretty cool. All witches have got to respect each other since everybody survived that." She nodded in the direction of the forest.

The gate made its loud siren for five seconds, then paused and began again.

"All outside the walls must return to safety immediately," the speakers shouted repeatedly.

Cornelia dragged Sally's hand and the rest of her along towards the gate. Other people emerged from the fields. Sally recognized a few Dandy Witches who looked tired and worn out from spending all of their energy on the crops.

Sally saw her future.

The gate closed behind them and the sky was a bit dimmer inside the big dome stretching above the Safety Area as a shield. Sally and Cornelia found their bikes and rode down the 3 km long, smooth asphalt avenue leading straight to their street. They didn't talk. The speakers disappeared behind them and so did the alarm.

Halfway home they stopped at a grocer because Cornelia was making dinner that evening. She invited Sally along while considering a glass-bred piece of chicken or a glass-bred piece of fish and whether she should buy potatoes from the outside field or the more expensive pumpkin from the southern greenhouses. Sally said she'd rather not join since her mother was off duty that evening.

"I get it. Hey, did you watch the new show from Safety Area Pennsis last night?" Cornelia asked.

"No."

Cornelia took that as an invitation and started explaining the plot of yet another historical show about the time when humans didn't live in safety areas and Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed and even Zeus walked free.

Sally wasn't listening. She was still nauseous after the strange sensation and now felt like vomiting.

Emerging from a shelf of canned beans at the other side of the room was Alexander, a long-haired, slender guy whom she'd had a crush on for almost a year.

"Damn it," she whispered, interrupting Cornelia, "I'd forgotten he lives in this area?"

Cornelia looked up and spotted Alexander.

"Sorry, me too. You okay?"

Sally nodded. "I'll go to the front and wait for you, okay?" she said.

"Sure."

Sally wasn't secretly in love with Alexander. She was very publicly in love with Alexander. She'd declared her infatuation after just three weeks and asked him out; only to find out he'd just gotten a girlfriend like two weeks earlier.

Sally walked faster, imagining a scenario in which his girlfriend had gone shopping with him and in that scenario Sally didn't not act nicely. There would have been burnt hair if the imaginary Sally had the ability to create fire, but Sally figured she probably wouldn't because of the stress.

Just the thought made her feel embarrassed. Of course Alexander wouldn't date a useless Dandy Witch. Had they done it yet? She decided to give her undivided attention to the assortment of chips.

She'd always dreamt of leaving the Safety Area, and sometimes the urge would hit her like a wave crashing around her with bone-chilling effect, hammering the breath out of her lungs.

Then moments like this came, when the thought of leaving felt unbearable. And why? Because of some stupid guy and his plain, human girlfriend. Of course her mother and friends played a role, too, but caring for them didn't vex her. Alexander did.

"Are you going to buy any?"

"Huh?" Sally turned around. Cornelia smiled with pity. Her card was full.

"You look like you could devour the parsley-paprika chips in a mouthful." She put an arm under Sally's and sighed. "Come on!"

It was evening. Outside the lights were turning on and Sally settled into the couch beside her mother. She read a book on different species in the wild and had gotten to something called a Biato. Apparently these people lived in tribes that separated men and women because of the fiery tempers that would otherwise clash. They only met during 'mating season' when the young boys would leave the female camp to live with the men. Sally had found this world disturbing last time she read in the book, but after seeing Alexander there was something tempting about it as well.

Meanwhile Nesala watched a reality show about humans trying to imitate witches. Sally looked up now and then, hoping and fearing that someone would try levitating.

In the middle of a guy walking through fire there came a raging dragon growl rumbling through the foundation of the city.

A cold sensation ran up Sally's spine. She stared out of the window, expecting to see dragon fire kissing the protection dome.

The weight in the couch shifted. Nesala got up.

"Is it bad?" Sally whispered.

Nesala ignored her and went over to the window, folding her hands on her back.

"Mom?"

"Perhaps you should go stay with Cornelia tonight. I don't want you scaring yourself." Nesala turned around with a smile. "You need your sleep."

More goose bumps prickled forth on Sally's skin. The peace on her mother's face only alarmed her more, but she nodded, closed the book and got up.

"I'll go to the mayor and see if they need me," Nesala said.

"Can't you just use the phone?"

Nesala's eyes quickly flickered to the phone and then back to Sally.

"It's broken."

Sally shrugged. "So, use the neighbor's. I mean, it's a long way to go if it's just –"

"Sally, don't you think people can get a bit worked up over this? The phone is probably blocked with callers. No, it doesn't take me any time at all to go there. Come on, I'll follow you on the way to Cornelia."

A dragon roared. Nesala hurried – she never ran, but she walked very fast – into her room where she changed and came back into the living room.

"Ready?" she asked.

Sally shook her head. "I think I'll stay here."

Nesala's expression became determined. "Look," she said authoritatively, "this isn't an argument. You're sleeping at Cornelia's tonight. Grab some stuff and let's get on our way."

Sally looked away, gave a short nod and marched into her room. For a moment she had felt lost. Her heart had raced just a few moments ago but now her body was clear about the situation.

It knew.

She found her biggest backpack and threw some clothes in there, changed into her jogging shoes and found her favorite elastics. There was a small book with practical spells that she threw in there and she also found a map of the surrounding area, which they'd studied in class – the ten closest Safety Areas were marked on it. Finally she squeezed in a blanket. She wondered if she could also sneak in the kitchen knife but discarded that idea.

"I'm ready," she reported and met her mother by the door.

Nesala was skeptical.

"Why do you need all that?"

Sally shrugged.

Nesala looked her over for a moment and then nodded. Sally was sure she glimpsed a smile just as her mother turned away.

Cornelia was grateful for the company. Her father had left the house, so she was alone as well. By the time Sally arrived all of the electricity in the city had been turned off to concentrate on their defenses. Cornelia found some candles but no lighter.

"Sally?" She held forth the candle.

Sally hesitantly lifted a finger to the wick as an amazing sound riveted through the air. It was as if a giant metal sword was swung through the air and now its sharp song echoed and vibrated in the windows and their hearts.

Cornelia shivered. "Try, Sally." Her voice was small.

Sally nodded and pressed her energy into the fingertip, but nothing happened. She concentrated, trying her hardest to make a flame appear.

As the seconds ticked by she breathed heavier and her face became red, but she was rewarded with just enough of a spark to light the candle.

She gasped for air and Cornelia padded her on the shoulder.

Sally looked away in shame. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Cornelia assured her in a tight voice.

They snuggled into Cornelia's big bed and hugged each other under the blanket.

"I can't sleep," Cornelia whispered.

"Me neither," Sally whispered back.

The dragon roars had become louder.

"Sally?"

"Yeah?"

Cornelias voice was low and squeaky, like a mouse. "Do you think we'll be evacuated?"

"I don't know."

"I want to go." Cornelia sounded like she was on the brink of tears.

Sally held Cornelia tighter. "You already have a ticket for the first train out of here. You'll be just fine. Your father wouldn't allow anything to happen to you." As she said it she felt utterly alone, as if she was blinded and naked in a dark room.

"You're right," Cornelia sighed. "I'll hide you in my luggage."

The promise made Sally laugh.

They were silent then, until the cold crept in and made their teeth quiver.

"Do something about it, please," Cornelia pleaded.

"I can't," Sally muttered.

"Yes, you can. Here, take my hand and breathe. Forget about all this. You know you can do it. I've felt you do it tons of times."

Cornelia did take her hand and Sally did close her eyes while taking deep breaths. But the awareness of the dragons did not go away.

However, it didn't have to. Cornelia was right. She had done this a billion times.

Through their linked hands Sally shared with Cornelia the energy only she had access to through the medium of warmth. Cornelia sighed and put her head on Sally's shoulder.

Eventually Cornelia fell asleep.

That was when Sally got up again. With long strides she went into Cornelia's kitchen, opened the knife drawer and tried picking up each of them, cutting into the air and swinging it. She decided for the second biggest one, put it in the backpack and then rummaged through the refrigerator. There wasn't room for much. She realized she should also have taken a book on wild, edible plants with her. She was sure Nesala had one somewhere.

There was nothing to be done about it. If she went back to the apartment she wouldn't be able to leave again, she felt that in her heart.

She went back into Cornelia's room and looked at the silky mane of brown hair and the olive skin.

"Bye," Sally whispered and closed the door with a small click.

That night Sally Petune left the Safety Area. If she was going to die, she decided, she might as well do it the honorable way. Many young witches and wizards went into the wild to be tested. She was one of them. If she was strong enough she'd survive till she got to the next Safety Area. If not it was still better than waiting for a dragon to burn the flesh off of her bones.

This story is the bigger picture that my other story, "Love Thy Captive", takes place in. It starts a few months before that story.

In between these chapters I will be drawing pictures and posting them on my, Deviantart account, which is also Lythya.

Enjoy.