Chapter 1

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Tara had always been allowed to roam, though her parents sometimes debated the wisdom of letting her go without her brother, especially in the summer months. She was the favoured child, however, and good at getting her own way, so today, she was permitted to wander. She walked with little direction, plucking bunches of the small red flowers that grew by the dozen along the roadside. Her steps scuffed up puffs of gravel, the dust settling in the Velcro of her shoes.

"Love me, love me not," she hummed to herself, pulling petals one by one from the bundle of flowers in her hand. A trail of red petals and discarded stems stretched behind her all the way back to the edge of town, to the place where people stopped mowing their miserable excuses for lawns and let nature do as it willed. She had passed the corner store, and waved to Allen on her way by. He would remember this, in the days to come, as he was the last person who saw her before her disappearance. She had passed the Warner's paddock, and for a time had stood beneath the shade of a tree, watching the cows lounging on the other side of the fence, out of the heat. There was a pile of petals about an inch high left here, though the southerly wind of the afternoon scattered it. The people who later followed her trail- first her family, then the local police, would see the flecks of red stuck to the cow's hides.

She'd been walking down a side road for the last few minutes, and now left it, walking through the short grass down to the riverbed. This was the point where others would lose her trail, as from now, she did not drop any more flowers. Her parents didn't know she went this far, and they certainly wouldn't approve. But they hadn't told her not to.

All they had said was "take your drinkbottle, watch out for snakes, and be back before Mackenzie gets home." She held her drinkbottle to her body with one arm; it sloshed, already half-empty, with each loud step. It wasn't that difficult to stay clear of the taller grass- it was mostly short these days, anyway, with how dry it was. And as for returning home before Kenzie... She had only been gone for an hour or two, it felt like. It would be fine to go down by the river, explore for a while, and return home. The river would likely be quite boring, anyway, now that it was dry. She could no longer make boats out of the twigs and loose bark, ferrying tiny, water worn pebbles from one bank to the other. There were only rocks and dirt left- and the scraggly grass creeping from around the bases of the trees to take root in the riverbed itself. Her father said it was going to have to rain soon. The teachers at school said so, too- but Tara wasn't expecting it- certainly not today. The sky above her was blazing blue and empty of clouds.

A lizard scurried away into the brush at the sound of her scrambling down the slope. She considered trying to follow it, but paused to take a drink instead. Sweat had dampened her forehead. The sunscreen that her mother had made her put on, even though she tanned, never burned, was running down and stinging her eyes. Rubbing them only sort of helped, the stems of her remaining flowers brushing against her cheek as she did. Perhaps she could find somewhere to arrange the flowers all prettily- or mash them into a paste, add water from her drinkbottle and try to make face paint. There were many possibilities, for a child who knew how to play- but she would have to use her flowers wisely, there weren't any more growing down here. Which direction to go?

To her right, the river went straight ahead. To her left, however, there were more stones, and the river took a sharp curve out of sight. The dirt-packed banks gave way to rocky walls, steep and sloping. Face paint sounded more interesting, at this point, and she needed good, hand-sized stones for that... so, to the left it was. She began walking again, smiling as she thought of exploration. She hadn't gone down to this precise area of the river before...

The rock walls provided some nice shade, a coolness filling the air. It took a few deep breaths for Tara to realise- it no longer felt so... dry. It had a heaviness to it, a different feeling on the tongue with each inhalation. Certainly not dust. There was moisture in the air, like the afternoon build-up before a storm. She glanced up at the sky once more- was rain on its way? Had the adults been right after all, in their hopes? No, she thought, a frown crossing her face. Still, blue skies. Then why did it feel so... strange?

"Hmm..." Her thoughtful hum sounded loud in the stillness that filled this place. Before she had been able to hear birds, creatures rustling in the grass... Maybe she'd scared them off. It would make sense for the wildlife to be around here somewhere, though- this place was refreshing, as an escape from the heat. Maybe there was even water up ahead! Then she wouldn't have to use her own water to make the paint!

Excited by this thought, she went on. The feeling of cool, wet air grew as she continued- it was not like a storm at all, really. Stormy air had heat to it, this got colder and colder. She stepped from rock to rock, holding her flowers and her drinkbottle tightly. There were gaps in these walls; small ones the kind that snakes might live in. But it was, suddenly, too cold and sunless for snakes to be out and about here. She steered clear of the small spaces anyway, even as they grew larger the further she walked. Now they could fit a rabbit- then a dog. And there- so strangely, to her left, as if out of nowhere, was a cavern. A plunging tunnel into the dark, cut out of the earth and stone. It was large enough for an adult to enter, for two side by side, perhaps... She could see a little way into it- she took a step closer, angled her head to get a better view. There didn't seem to be any movement of creatures inside... just rocks, and dirt, and an unfamiliar green-grey moss growing about the entrance.

But a cool wind blew out of it, pushing her drying hair back from her face. This must lead somewhere, then! Curiosity overwhelmed her. She took another step forward, then another. She didn't even look back for a moment at the world she was leaving behind- she did not know that she was leaving it. One more step- her free hand brushing the cool stone within.

Then she was gone, flowers and all.

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