ElderHeart (Novel)

Here it is, the prologue of my novel. I’ve been work on this novel for quite some time now. It’s about a girl who befriends a dragon and goes on adventures with her new friends. Hope you like it:

Prologue: War

I remember it like it was yesterday; the war that tore our world apart. Countless lives lost, millions of civilizations destroyed. The cause of this apocalyptic war was lost in history, however the outcome was clear: an empty and burden world, left in ruins. The few people who managed to escape being killed settled down and created small hamlets and villages. Some of those small villages became enormous cities. These cities and villages have their own history, their own government, their own society. Not many settlers travel outside of their own settlements and for good reasons; wild eldritch roam the wildness.

The eldritch are creatures whose existence and biological make up defy the laws of nature and physics. They appeared in our world centuries before the war, and in spite of this, not much is known about these new kind of animals. In addition, all records of the eldritch were destroyed during the war. What is known about these creatures are their strange, yet amazing capabilities. Such capabilities ranged from hand-to-hand combat to purifying contaminated water. Legends tell of people capable of developing a “mind link” with one or more of these creatures. These people are called “Whisperers” and the link they share with their eldritch is forever strong.

Now back to the settlements. Each one operates by its own rules; some have little to no contract with other settlements; but one settlement, however, is set apart from the rest. The city of Lost Station, though sounds ordinary, isn’t ordinary. For when the world started to crumble around them, the people in charge developed a simple, yet ingenious way to protect themselves: they built a dome over the city. There it stayed, the glass domed city of Lost Station, for years. Many travelers and refugees enter the city, but rarely do people leave. The location of the city is so isolated and the forest outside the dome is so thick, that other settlements don’t bother to make contact with it. Inside the dome is a reflection of life before the war.

The citizens of Lost Station don’t talk of eldritch and when they do, it was the stuff of nightmares. Their existence was well-known, but for the wrong reasons, and despite the government’s discouragement of spreading hatred and fear, that did not stop some citizens. The legends of the whisperers were myths to the citizens, something of a fairy tale. Yet, some believed it was possible and spend most of their time trying to find a way. Some like my dear friend, Kate Bayne.

Kate and I were wildlife biologists before the war; she was my faithful and kind-hearted assistant. Kate was studying the eldritch and their powers. Once the war began, we took refuge in the city, safe from harm. However, Kate could not continue her research, and this saddened her. She believed that, once the war was over, we could return to our old jobs, and she would return to studying the eldritch. She was prosecuted for her beliefs. Hatred and anger toward her grew, until the city forced her to leave.

I stayed…so to look after her daughter, Laura. She’s a young lady now. Tomboyish, but quiet. Inexperienced, but bright. I should know. I’ve been raising her as my apprentice and had taught her everything she knows. I’m Lost Station’s only veterinarian, and Laura will soon be taking my place, but at the moment she’s fulfilling a promise she made to a friend. This is the story of Laura Bayne and Comet, and their victories, friendships, mysteries, and journeys.

Chapter 1: Lost Station

“Lauraaaaaa!”

A high pitched yell startled Laura awake. A few seconds later another yell was heard.

“Lauraaaaaaaa!”

She sat up, stretched, and yawned in bed, not wanting to get up, however, knowing that she must. Throwing back the dark green blanket, she slowly walked to her bedroom door. Upon touching the doorknob, Laura reflected on this morning. Today was Application Day, the day where the young men and women of Lost Station apply to the major of their dreams at Jackson & Smith University, Lost Station’s only college, dedicated to the famous war hero, General Samuel Jackson, and construction bigwig, Mr. Icarus Smith.

On Application Day, people would apply to the college and in one week, be enrolled in and be one step closer to a life of prosperity. People unlike Laura. The young per-teen girl with short camel hair, hazel eyes, and peach skin is already an apprentice to Dr. Buddy Thorne, Lost Station’s only veterinarian. At the moment, Dr. Thorne is at the university like he reminded her the night before. The doctor would’ve been fine with leaving Laura alone at home, he done so before on Application Day and she didn’t mind. However, this Application Day was a bit different, for all of Laura’s friends were old enough to apply and she was needed for moral support.

She was still tried; her grogginess made her forget about the clean uniform that was hanging on her closet door: A sea foam green blouse with buttons down the middle, knee-length pleated skirt of the same color, and a wide white belt. A pair of white nursing shoes were neatly placed below the uniform. She turned back to door and yelled, “Be right there!”

… … … … … …

The trolley ride was like a trip through history. The old Victorian houses which were home to Laura, Dr. Thorne, and some other residents were located on the far outskirts of town, which was on the outskirts of the city. As the trolley rode along the track, the scenery changed from an almost barren and rural countryside to a suburban area.

Square house after square house filled street after street. All lawns were green and freshly mowed, many of them were decorated with plastic flamingos, garden gnomes, and toddlers’ toys. People were jogging on the sidewalk, washing their cars, and having coffee on their desks. A pre-school had little children playing tag in front of the small building. A community pool was empty, saved for the pool cleaner. A plant nursery with multi-colored flowers and baby trees were ready to be sold.

Pretty soon the houses disappeared and so did the green grass. The city of Lost Station was massive; not only did it take up most of the twelve-thousand-acre land, it also housed most of Lost Station’s residents. Apartments took up many streets. Small businesses, such as cafés, pizzerias, video shops, and clothing stores were everywhere.

The trolley passed by the library. The huge white building with marble stone stairs leading to the entrance and three marble columns on each side of the double doors is the city’s prime source of information. In the distant, the Lost Station’s Power Tower, with a yellow smiling sun painted on the side, could be seen. There, the temperance of the city was kept at a steady warmth, power was sent to every home and business, and the City Council held their meetings.

Many of the shorter building walls were covered with eco posters reminding the citizens to conserve water and not to waste electricity. There were also movie posters, concert posters, and posters about up and coming debates. The taller buildings were mostly glass, most likely office buildings. On them were massive flat-screen televisions. Right now, a news broadcast with an old, yet handsome anchorman and a young, pretty anchorwoman was playing.

Finally, the last stop was the Jackson & Smith University, a huge glass building that was ten stories high. It was in the shape of a U with a glass dome on top, much like the one covering the city. The courtyard had a beautiful three-tier fountain with sparkling water flowing from the top. There were about fifty other kids in that courtyard, some have their parents with them, while other were alone. Laura and her friend, Ashley, step out of the trolley.

Chapter 2: Small Talk by the Fountain

Ashley Baker, the tall, lively, beautiful trendsetter and socialite of the Lost Station secondary school. Well-known and well-admired by the other teenagers. Fine brown hair that reached her midriff, skin that had been tanned by a sunbed, lovely almond-shaped eyes that shine like red rubies, and a body of a supermodel. She was wearing a white, V-strap dressy tank top with bellbottom jeans and wooden wedge sandals. Laura always looked up to Ashley for her beauty and popularity, she always made it look so easy.

As soon as she got off the trolley, Ashley ran towards the fountain with Laura calmly following her. The cool waters of the fountain spilled over each tier and gently poured into the bottom. The sound was equal to that of a babbling brook, soothing to Laura’s ears. Waiting there were Rachel and Chad, two more well-known Lost Station teens.

Rachel King was the rebel. Her hair was black with steaks of red created by hair dye. Her eyes were a light green color. Like Ashley, Rachel’s hair was long, except hers had bangs that covered half of her face. As expected, she was wearing a gray punk-style T-shirt and a pair of ripped jeans.

Chad Franklin was the tennis jock of the group. The city-wide tennis champion for four years in a row. He always had his blonde hair neatly combed back and his eyes were like water on a clear, blue lake. He was wearing a white collared shirt, blue pants, and sneakers.

Ashley, the social butterfly, Rachel, the rebel, and Chad, the jock; the most popular kids in Lost Station. Their status among the youth is what all three of them have in common; their friendship is based on their popularity. The three of them are so famous among the youth, that Laura called them the Mighty Trio.

She always thought it was an honor to be a part of the Mighty Trio’s inner circle. She was only 12 after all, and as one of the only vets in the whole city, Laura was at the bottom of the barrel; often seen as unimportant in terms of survival and growth. She didn’t dislike being a veterinarian’s student, but if she was the apprentice to a guard, or to a farmer, or to a chef, or someone with a more apparent use to the city, she would be more respected in the community.

While at the fountain, Ashley was chatting up Rachel and Chad, excited about their beginning college life. “So, are you guys, like, pump for the coolest day of the year? I mean, like, I already picked the, like, most awesome outfit for homecoming!” Ashley smiled as she said this; Ashley always has a big, happy smile on her face.

“I think I know how you feel.” Laura began to say. “I-”

“Laura?! How can you know how this feels?” Rachel exclaimed. “You’re just a kid! A homeschooled one at that.” Rachel always looked down on Laura because she was homeschooled, or at least that what it looked like. As an apprentice, she worked for knowledge, not money. She didn’t go to the regular schools like the other kids so to everyone, including Rachel, Laura was homeschooled. “Why is the pipsqueak even here?” Rachel turned to Ashley with an annoyed tone in her voice.

“I need her for, like, moral support. Duh!” Ashley said with, again, a big smile. “You know I can’t go anywhere without my little buddy.”

Hearing the name clicked something in Laura’s mind: she wanted to see Dr. Thorne give a speech. She has heard that different speakers will be present at the ceremony. Maybe Dr. Thorne will give a speech, if they let him.

“Did you hear?” Asked Chad. “The mayor’s aide is coming.”

“What?” Asked Rachel.

“The mayor’s right hand man.”

Rachel had her hands on her hips at this point, her face twisted into a scowl. “What? Are we not good enough for the uptight mayor? Where does she gets off, not showing up when she supposed to?”

Summer Ann was the 59-year-old mayor of Lost Station. She knew everything there was to know about the city, having lived in the city for 59 years. She was elected into being mayor 8 years ago and was always very kind to Laura and the doctor, both before she was mayor and while she was mayor. Lately though, no one had been able to get a hold of her. The mayor would disappear a few times during the day without cause.

“I wonder,” Laura started. “Is Mayor Ann planning-”

“I bet she’s just, like, making herself pretty or something.” Ashley interrupted. “I mean; isn’t that what old people do?”

“Whatever” Said Rachel.

“Yeah, whatever.” Agreed Chad. “This city is full of lame, old guys anyways. I need action! Adventure! This place isn’t fun anymore with the old fossils down at the north side.” To the north, south, west, and east side of the large dome, there were guards who worked in shifts, watching the entrances to Lost Station. They surveil the outside area for anyone seeking entry into the city and make sure no one sneaks out, not that anyone ever leave Lost Station…willingly.

“How is that thing going?” Asked Rachel, referring to Chad’s recent part-time job manning the north gate.

“Great, thanks for asking.” He said. “Actually,” He shifted his eyes to the right, and then the left. “I found out something-”

Suddenly, a loud orchestra of horns and drums rang out of a small speaker, no larger than a foot in length, placed above the university’s main entrance. A gentle, feminine voice spoke as the music died down. “May all new students and their families make their way to the auditorium, thank you.”

With that, all of the students and their families headed for the set of double doors. Laura followed them, until she was stopped by Rachel, who had her hand on Laura’s face and pushing her slightly.

“Hey!” Yelled Laura. “What gives?”

Rachel looked at her with a steely glaze. “You’re not going in there.” She said.

“Why not?”

“You don’t go here.” She said this with a subtle corky smile and then headed for the university doors. Ashley and Chad followed suit, Ashley patting the twelve-year-old on the head and apologizing. Soon the other people were gone and it was just her, all alone, by the university door, on the outside.

Chapter 3: Inside Jackson & Smith University

Luckily, she knew another way inside. To the left side of the building, there was a smaller door that, for reasons she didn’t know, was usually left unlocked. She discovered this door when she first visited the university with the doctor. Once inside, Laura worked her way through the university’s dim underground tunnel, lit only by a row of ceiling lamps.

The tunnel, like all of the other tunnels in Lost Station, would lead to the building’s cellar. The tunnels were built for the purpose of leading citizens to bomb shelters during the war. There were tunnels that ran deeper under the city, not that she ever went down that far.

At last, she made it to the cellar. Now she can take the ladder up to the auditorium. She climbed until she was in one of the higher parterre seats; high enough to almost reach the ceiling. She could see the whole auditorium, including the wooden stage with its red velvet curtains, the seats in the orchestra and the pit with the city’s many musicians.

The box she was in was behind the orchestra seats, right in the center for an unobstructed view. The parterre seats were built into the walls, circling the orchestra seats, row after row.

The university’s basement auditorium had an odd look and feel to it. The rest of the city’s décor was very modern, but this place was different: it was old and classical. She liked it, although she thought it could be more green.

The music started playing and the curtains slowly drew open. The mayor’s aide, a thirty-something-year-old man with jet black hair and suit, was standing behind a wooden podium with a microphone attached to it. Behind him were several more people sitting in chairs. She recognized these people as the professors of the university who were supposed to give speeches. Maybe it was because she was so high up, but couldn’t spot Dr. Thorne on stage. She was sure that he was there with the other speakers…wasn’t he?

“Students, faculty, citizens, dear friends,” The mayor’s aide began speaking. “Allow me to first apologize for the mayor’s absences. Though I do wish she could spare a few moments to see the fine young women and men take their first steps into adulthood, I am honored to take her place.” Was he trying to make Mayor Ann look bad Laura thought. Surly it was just her overprotective nature, however could detect a hint of ambition in his voice.

He went on speaking. “Many of you may know who this university is dedicated to. I’m sure to some they are just two old men, but to me…” He placed a hand on his chest, where his heart would be. “they are the proud heroes and founders of our fair city. It was Smith’s resources that helped with the construction of the dome that kept us safe,” He moved his hand from his chest and gestured to the ceiling, referring to the dome outside. “and it was General Jackson’s bravery and leadership that protected the first settlers of the city.” He placed his hand back on the podium. “Together, they created the safe haven that is Lost Station…”

Laura laid her elbows on the railing and cupped her face in the palms of her hands. She soon grew tired of listening to the man; she was hoping to see the doctor and if he wasn’t there then she didn’t want to be there either. She thought about going home, but then thought: I didn’t see much of the university when I was first here. Why not take a tour?

She made her way to the ladder and climbed down. Once she was in the cellar again, she took a left turn down another dim tunnel, which had a spiral staircase at the end. She climbed the stairs and at the top of those stairs was a door. She opened it and a small glass room with brooms, mops, and buckets was revealed, the first floor janitor’s closet. She closed the door behind her and opened the other door in the room, the one leading to the hallway.

Inside of the university, the white tiles floors glimmered like freshly laid snow. The first floor has the treasured emblem of Lost Station painted onto it: a blue circle with the image of three skyscrapers inside, symbolizing growth and futurism. The glass walls revealed classrooms with rows of acrylic desks and rolling whiteboards. As she walked up the glass stairs to the higher floors and looked over the metal railing that ran along the floors, she was amazed to find that the floors resembled balconies of sorts and the stairs resembled winding circles.

Above she could see the inside of the glass dome; it would seem that some sort of garden was up there. Running, she climbed the steep steps leading to the top floor. The garden was lovely; clay pots of many shapes and sizes covered the floor of the large circular room with flowers and plants of many different kinds. Baby trees grew in large pots beside the entrance. Tall sunflowers grew in pots placed near a bench for sitting. Bluebells and foxgloves were placed next to one another along the tiled path. Daisies and forget-me-nots hung from hanging pots. Buttercups and camellias grew near another bench on the other side of the room. There were even birds of paradise blooming in the center of the room, that was where Laura sat.

She examined the bird of paradise’s orange petals along with it’s thin, green stem that led down into the soil in the pot. Beautiful. That was the word used to describe the room, the flowers, the peace and quiet. She was in her element; nature, and all of its beauty.

The sound of footsteps climbing stairs made her jump. She leaped to her foot, ready to get yelled at for being in a place where she wasn’t allowed in. She considered hiding, however there weren’t many places to hide in the garden where she would be easily spotted. She could apologize, but then again the person was usually too busy yelling at her to listen. The footsteps got closer until she could see the tip of the person’s head from underneath the floor and she cringed behind the bird of paradise.

There on the top step, staring at Laura, was Dr. Buddy Thorne. Laura beamed. “Doctor Thorne!” She ran toward him. When she had approached him, she wrapped her arms around his waist. She mentally signed a breath of relief, relieved and happy that it was the doctor in the room with her and not someone else. She couldn’t take another person thinking she was an intruder. She stood there for a moment, before breaking away and looking up at him. “What are you doing here?” She asked.

Chapter 4: Animal Hospital

“They what?!” Shouted Laura as she slammed the palms of her hands onto the long, mahogany table. She and the doctor were inside the dining room of their Victorian home, the doctor sitting at one end and Laura standing at the other end. Their home was large enough to be called a mansion; a two story turret where Laura’s room was located, a dining room able to fit over fifty people, a gourmet kitchen, a master bedroom where the doctor slept, and a grand entryway. Hanging above the porch was a sign that said: “ANIMAL HOSPITAL”. It was a lavish gift to them from Mayor Ann. “Are they allowed to do that?!” She shouted again.

The doctor sat calmly in his seat, his pale, wrinkled hands stirring a cup of tea with a spoon. His grey eyes looked serious while his white hair was combed neatly. He had a strong, athletic build with rectangular shoulders and minor muscle. His curly mustache was trimmed and so was his short beard. He spoke in a deep, firm voice. His white lab coat, clear of creases and folds, was wore over his camel colored shirt. “Afraid so, my dear.” He regarded his apprentice with a cool look. “The City Council is allowed to disbar anyone from the local schools.”

“But…why?!” Asked Laura. “Why fire you?!”

“Because dear,” His calm voice never faltered. “As much as I enjoy teaching zoology at a university, the council decided that animal biology has absolutely no use in here. Plus, it just didn’t appeal to young people anymore.”

“That…” Her voice began to quiver.

“Chin up, dear. All is not loss.” The doctor reassured. “I may not be a professor anymore, but I can still operate.”

“But…Doctor Thorne, you loved teaching!” She exclaimed. “That was the one fun thing you did!” She crossed her arm across her chest. “This isn’t fair.”

“It’s not like we can do anything about it.”

“I know…” She said, dejectedly. She sat back down in her seat, making a face. “But still. Why did Mayor Ann allow this to happened?”

“It’s isn’t her fault, dear. It wasn’t her choice, but the popular choice of the council.” The doctor stood from his chair and made him way to Laura’s side. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s fine to be upset, my dear.”

“What I’m more upset about is our situation.” Laura said, looking up at the doctor. “No one is coming to us for help. What if the city forces us to leave?”

“You must remember that everything gets better in time, Laura. Regardless of whether people think we’re useful, we’ll still be here to assist our four-legged friends.”

She smiled at him and he smiled back. Dr. Thorne was never one to act on impulsive. He was always reasonable and logical. Because of this characteristic, some people assumed his to be aloof, unfeeling, and stubborn, but in reality, the opposite was true. He was warm, caring, and always knew exactly what to say to cheer up Laura. He loved working with young people, almost as much as he loved working with animals. His belief was that all walks of life should be respected and treated with care. Laura never knew her parents, so the doctor was something of a father figure to her.

She exhaled, releasing all of her frustration. “Whatever you say, Doctor.”

… … … … … …

It was late evening when Laura and the doctor finished their dinner. Laura retreated to her bedroom, where she laid out on the seat beside the window, staring out. Outside, she could see the full moon and stars though the glass dome. Below them, was the lush and fast forest. The yellow glow of fireflies danced around branches of the trees in the forest. The forest, clear though the glass dome, looked so close that she could walk up and touch one of the trees. She would often dream about being in that forest.

The garden in the glass dome of the university was the closet she gotten to seeing a beautiful example of nature in months. There wasn’t much natural nature in the city. Lost Station was mostly buildings and houses; any greenery, like the lush-looking lawns in the suburban area, was artificial. The only natural plant life was in clay pots, brought in the plant nursery and taken home.

There weren’t even many animals in Lost Station. That was, there weren’t many animals that were thought as useless to human beings. In Lost Station, only animals that could feed the hungry people of the city or act as a source for entertainment to keep people happy were allowed. One couldn’t have a pet without having the city force it into work.

She groaned, remembering hers and Dr. Thorne’s situation. People in Lost Station didn’t think of nature as a need of survival. That was all they cared about: survival. Despite surviving for many years already, everyone born in Lost Station feared for their lives every single day, and so prohibited anything that might threaten their survival. By chance, if someone was judged useless, they weren’t allowed any form of humanity.

She stared above the trees, eyeing the dark sky, and found herself wishing to be on the outside. Outside of the dome and away from the hateful city. As she was thinking this, she caught sight of a bright blue light racing across the sky, before fading away above the trees. A comet, perhaps? She hoped so, then maybe, her wish would come true.

Chapter 5: North Gate

“Lauraaaaaaaa!”

Laura, drifting lazily upon the clouds of her personal dreamland, was awoken by a high-pitched and shrill shout. She immediately recognized the shout as her friend, Ashley, trying to wake her up.

“Lauraaaaaaaaaa!” Ashley cried out again.

The twelve-year-old girl hurriedly got out of her bed and raced downstairs, not realizing she was still in her green pajamas. She threw the front door open and found Ashley, dressed in a short floral dress, white leggings, and flip-flops, standing on her porch. “Laura!” Ashley exclaimed. Her usual big, cheery smile quickly faded as she eyed the younger girl’s clothes. Her face twisted into a frown “Are you really going out like that?” She asked, pointing at Laura’s pajamas.

Laura quickly looked down at her night clothes and then back at Ashley, confused. “Um, what are you doing here, Ashley?”

The older girl smirked as though she was aware of something obvious. “Duh! Me, you, Rachel, and Chad was going out.”

Laura’s eyes widen. “Ashley, I can’t go out today. I got work to do.” She was, of course, referring to her chores, which were followed by studying.

“Can’t you take the day off or something?” Asked Ashley.

Laura shook her head. “No, I can’t.”

Ashley frowned again. “Oh come ON, Laura! What’s the big deal if you take a day off!” She urged.

“I can’t abandon my chores or my studies. Sorry, maybe another time.” Laura was ready to end the conversation and close the door. Her mind drifted to Dr. Thorne, who was still asleep in his bedroom. She was allowed to leave the house whenever she wanted, so long as the doctor knew when she was going, but she knew that if she left before he woke, the doctor would become extremely worried.

Ashley was beginning to become angry; her eyebrows knitted together. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. I’m surprised at you, little buddy.” She said in a disappointed tone. “And here I thought you were our friend. I guess we were wrong if doing chores are more important to you.” Laura was taken aback by this accusation. Anger swelled inside of her as she thought up of different things to say.

However, she remembered that nothing she could say would make a different, for, on a socially level, she was inferior to Ashley, and if she wanted to continue being friends with the Mighty Trio, she had to do whatever they said. “Fine.” Laura snapped. “Just give me a second, ok?” She went back inside of the house as Ashley’s smile returned to her face. She grabbed a sheet of paper and pen from the study and wrote a note saying she was out with Ashley, Rachel, and Chad. She left the note upon the kitchen counter before heading back to her room and getting dress, hoping she wouldn’t get grounded for doing this.

… … … … … …

Where Ashley told her that they were going to the North Gate, Laura didn’t believe her at first. Yet, there they were. Built on the outside of the dome, the North Gate was stationed in a large rectangular building that bore a resemblance to a cabin. On one wall, was a glass door that connected the cabin to the inside of the dome. On the opposite wall, was a Plexiglas window, which was set beside a door leading to the outside. Having lived inside the dome for her whole life, Laura never thought that she would be so close to the outside world.

“Pretty weird feeling, huh?” Asked Chad, standing in front of the window, speaking to the three girls standing by the door leading to the city. ‘Pretty weird’ wasn’t the words Laura would had used. In fact, she would had used exhilarating, or pulse-quickening, or even frightening.

Rachel stepped forward and began to look wildly around the room. Within the room were three mere fold-out chairs, a wobbly table littered with plastic cups half full with coffee, and a small wastebasket. Yet, by the way Rachel was eyeing them, you wouldn’t think that they were the most amazing things in the world. Granted as one who lived her whole life in a dome, Laura also felt as though this room, this room that was so close to the outside, was amazing.

Rachel’s face wore a giddy grin. “This…” She began to say as her arms elevated in a way as if she was presenting the room like a real estate agent. “This is awesome!”

“I know, right?” Responded Ashley, stepping to stand beside Rachel. “That was, like, just what I was thinking.” She then approached the large window. She began to press her hands on the glass and stare at the trees beyond it.

“Are we even allowed in here?” Asked Laura sheepishly.

Without looking in Laura’s direction, Chad made a small, dismissive, and sardonic noise with his mouth that was just shy of becoming a chuckle “No.” He said bluntly. “But who cares?”

Rachel, her smile growing even wider, gave Chad a high-five. “Nice.” She said as though she was congratulating him on something.

The three of them was clearly enjoying themselves, drinking coffee, exchanging gossip, and staring out of the window. The whole thing made Laura feel uneasy, but she dared not say anything to that effect to the others. Still, she wasn’t completely sure what they were doing was safe. She had heard rumors about the outside; how it was plagued by monsters that would attack and destroy any human beings. If those rumors were true, then they were just standing around with only a thin wall made of concrete as protective, easy pray for one of those monsters.

“Really, the job is a real snooze fest.” Chad complained, after a long exchange of gossip. “All I do is stare out the window and alert the people in charge if a refugee is heading my way.” He signed in disappointment. “Not a single person comes. Not even one cute-looking refugee girl.”

“You’re right.” Said Rachel. “That does sound like a snooze fest.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not surprising.” Said Chad. “Old people can never think of anything fun.” Laura grimaced at the unfair statement. If she had the courage, she would inform he that she and Dr. Thorne would do fun things together all the time, most of which were the doctor’s ideas.

Rachel nodded. She took a sip of her coffee while her eyes shifted to Ashley, who was looking at her refection in the window, admiring herself. She glanced at Laura, who had her back glued to the far wall. Rachel beaned. “I just thought of something fun.” She said.

“Yeah?” Asked Chad.

“Yeah.” Rachel said.

“What is it?” Chad asked.

Rachel turned to Ashley and gestured for her to join them. She does and the three of them began to whisper among themselves, huddled together closely. Meanwhile Laura, still laying against the wall, watched them for a few seconds. She didn’t know why, but she felt scared. She stepped closer to them, pretending to look out of the part of the window that wasn’t blocked by the three teenagers. They were whispering so quietly that she couldn’t hear anything that they were saying; it was as though they expected her to try to listen in and was deliberately making sure that she couldn’t hear. That upset her; feeling left out. She briefly considered joining their conversation, but quickly threw the idea away.

Instead, she just stared out the Plexiglas window and allowed herself to daydream. She didn’t pay attention to the soft laugher of the teens, nor did she pay attention to the subtle sound of footsteps creeping approaching her. Why would she? It wasn’t as though she was a part of whatever the Mighty Trio was doing. So, she just stared out of the window, her arms crossed.

It was then that she felt strong arms grasp her by the underarms. She called out in surprise. “What-?!” She looked up to see Chad holding her tight and lifting her up. She was about to tell him to put her down when she felt another pair of arms grasp her flailing legs. It was Rachel, looking down on the small girl with an expression of malice. Laura, shock and confuse, began to struggle and protest. The two teenagers laughed to themselves, not paying any mind to the young girl’s protests. Suddenly, she heard the sound of a door unlocking and she saw that Ashley was standing beside the now opened door to the outside.

Laura screamed and yelled at them, asking them what they were doing and telling them to put her down. Before she knew it, she was swinging and then flying out the door. The last thing she remembered before hitting her head on the hard ground, was Rachel saying: “Consider yourself banished, pipsqueak.” Followed by the door closing and locking.

Chapter 6: Outside

Her head was still hunting. For a moment, she couldn’t stand up; she just laid still. Then, when the headache subsided, she slowly sat up. She squinted in the sudden and bright light. The ground beneath her was wet and felt as through millions of tiny knives were poking at her skin. She reached out for the nearest object to prop herself up. Her right hand landed on a hard, large, blunt, bumpy…rock? But, there were no rocks in the city. Unless…

She opened her eye fully. The first thing she saw was a tree. Beside that tree, was another tree, and another, and another. She was in shock; utterly in disbelief. Yet even in her shock state, she could tell that these were real trees. Her shock disappeared, replaced with glee. She was outside! Her wish came true! Sure, it was because of a cruel prank by some rowdy teenagers, but her wish came true. She was finally outside.

The ‘tiny knives’ beneath her was actually grass; real, natural grass. She ran her hands through it, feeling the moist dew upon the blades. Her hands quickly went to the rock. She made a fist and knocked against the rock. It wasn’t hollow; it was a real rock! Clumsily, she got on her legs and cautiously stepped toward the tree line. She gingerly reached out and touched the bark of one of the trees; it felt hard and rough. She grasped in surprise at the realization that she was touching real bark! She looked around and saw nothing but trees and other different kinds of plant life; the sight took her breath away.

She looked behind her to find that the cabin that she was previously inside, to her eyes, shrink in size; as if it was farer away from before. It was then that she realized that Lost Station couldn’t hurt her anymore. She was free. Free! A crazed, boisterous laugh escaped her mouth as she fell backward onto the grass. She began to franticly rub her arms and legs against the grass as if she was making snow angels. She continued to laugh as loud as her vocal cords could manage. When her laugher finally died down, she stood from the ground and onto her feet. With her arms waving up and down like a bird and yelling “Wee!” at the top of her lungs, she spun on her heels and ran deeper into the forest.

She ran and ran and ran. She ran until she realized that she didn’t know where she was going…not that she cared of course. As she ran, she hopped over fallen branches and small rocks. Her fingers gazed the bark of the tree as she ran pass them. Her running quickly turned into a skip; she skipped through the forest with glee. She started laughing again.

She went on like this for what felt like hours; laughing and skipping through the woods. Suddenly her right foot get caught on a root and she came crashing to the ground. It hurt, but not too bad. In fact, she welcomed the new sensation. She never thought, in her life, that she would trip and fall in a real forest. She laughed even louder in-between groans. She turned so her back was on the ground. She examined herself. There was a small cut on her left knee that was coated with dirt; likely to get infected if not treat quickly.

She remembered that there was a plant called aloe that could be used to treat wounds. Slowly, she got on her feet, recaptured her breath, and started to look for aloe. I wonder… She thought. Can aloe even be found in a forest like this? She searched behind trees and bushes, but couldn’t find anything that look like aloe. There had to be some aloe around here somewhere. She thought. Maybe I’ll not looking hard enough.

She walked deeper into the forest. All around her were trees with trunks that were as wide as the ocean and as tall as mountains. The sweet scent of wildflowers and evergreens entered her nostrils. The soft, loose soil below her feet was pressed left fresh dirt on her white, polished shoes. Not wanting to dirty your nursing shoes any further, she sat down on a nearby rock and took her shoes and stockings off. The dirt felt warm and moist beneath her bare feet.

She sat there for a while, enjoying the feeling of the soil on her feet. The sky above her was the brightest blue she ever seemed. Large, white, and fluffy clouds partly covered the sun, which seemed brighter when she looked at it from inside the dome. Laura could already feel the sweat on her body being cooled by the gentle breeze that flow in the forest. In the city, it was always warm because more people preferred the warm season. However, there were still people who favored the cold season like Laura. She shivered, but she welcomed the chilly breeze; it her first time experiencing cold weather.

She energetically kicked the dirt around her feet and giggled to herself. This was the happiest day of her young life. She didn’t even care if she was never able to return to Lost Station, in fact, she was almost sure that she never wanted to return to Lost Station. She was so happy that she forgotten her cut knee. She-

A sudden high-pitched cry that sounded like the wild squawk of a parrot mixed with the angry roar of a cat echoed throughout the forest. The cry shocked Laura so badly that she fell off the rock and onto the dirt, tossing her shoes and stockings to the side. She quickly got on her feet again and putted up her shoes and stockings. “What was that?!” She asked aloud.

Another deafening cry rung out; this time it frightened the birds, causing them to fly away. It was then that Laura realized that it must be the cry of a large animal, but what animal on earth cried like that? Her heart skipped a mile a minute as thoughts raced through her mind. What if it was a bear? What if it was a mountain lion? What if it was one of those monsters that she was told about? Her legs became to shake and her body trembled. A sharp, high-pitched shriek cut through the forest. It made Laura jump and she let out an audible yelp.

Laura’s dream quickly became a nightmare. She was panicking; she fell on her knees and, still holding onto the shoes and stockings, wrapped her arms over her head. Suddenly, a thought popped into her head. What if it’s howling that like because it’s injured? It was then that she felt something within her. It felt like something had taken hold of her heart. Her heartbeat was becoming more rapid as she became to take shallow breaths. It wasn’t fear that was overwhelming her. No, it was courage.

Slowly, she stood up. Her heart was still beating, but she felt it grew stronger. She took a long, deep breath and the fear melted away. She suddenly felt stronger, braver, more determined. She was still anxious; however, she wasn’t going to ignore a poor, defenseless, and possibly injured creature like the residents of Lost Station would. If an animal’s hurt, it’s my duty as a veterinarian to heal them!

Another ear-piercing cry rung out though the forest. As much as she tried, Laura couldn’t determine where the noise was coming from. With shoes and stockings will in her hands, she started walking what she assumed to be north. The cry rung out again, this time it sounded louder. She continued to walk north. Another cry echoed; this one sounded closer than before. She began to run. Yet another cry echoed through the forest and it sounded closer than before.

She sprinted through the woods, the cry becoming louder and closer; she knew she was getting close. She came to a stop in front of a vertical drop. She looked down to found that the drop wasn’t too far down. She crouched down, sat at the edge of the drop, and carefully jumped down. At first, she was able to land on her feet, but then she fell onto her stomach. In spite of the pain, she quickly got on her feet and without brushing the dirt off of her clothes, continued following the cry.

She walked further into the woods and the cry was becoming louder and louder. Before long, she came to stop in front of a fallen tree that was as large and as thick as one of the skyscrapers Lost Station; it was ten times the height of Laura, but there were branches sticking out of the trunks that she could use to climb over the fallen tree, which she did. Climbing over the fallen tree made droplets of sweats ran down her head and face, but she paid it little mind. Once her feet reached the ground again, she continued on her path.

She walked and walked until she noticed a large object not too far ahead of her. Thinking that it must be the injured animal, she dashed toward it, careful not to step on any rocks or twigs. The large object came closer into view and Laura could clearly see that it was.

Chapter 7: Dilapidated Playground

The enormous clearing in front of Laura was filled with wreckage and debris. In one portion of the clearing, was a jagged, tangled mess of bent metal poles that jutted from the ground; some poles were taller than others. In another portion of the clearing, there were a broken ladder and tall sheets of shiny metal protruding from the ground. The metal was ripped in half and twisted into a spiral. Not too far from the spiral sheets of metal, there were planks of broken wood. Attracted to them were metal chains of various lengths. A large pile of fine sand was in the middle of the clearing. Near the pile of sand, was an odd structure of bright colors. Laura couldn’t tell what the structure was supposed to be, but she could make out a bright yellow pyramid.

The scene was a strange one instead, but it was nothing when compared to what laid beyond the debris. There, on the other side of the clearing, opposite to Laura, was a three feet tall wall made of crumbling red bricks. Sitting perpendicular to that wall was another wall made of crumbling red bricks, and perpendicular to that wall was another crumbling wall and in the center of the three walls was a massive light blue lump.

That must had been the source of the deafening cries, but what was it? Whatever it was, it was convulsing and trembling. On the creature’s back, two massive appendages that appeared to be wings. The wing appeared to be angelic, however there were no signs of feathers, in fact the skin of the creature appeared as smooth as silk; they flapped up and down in agitated movements. Another long appendage, presumed to be the creature’s tail, came out of the creature’s backside. The tail started out large and thick, then ran into a thin line, and ended in a sort of diamond shape; it slowly moved back and forth across the ground underneath the creature. Dog-like whimpers were emitting from the creature; it was almost like it was crying.

Laura’s bravery faded and was replaced with an overwhelming fear. That must be one of them, the monsters she heard about and if what she heard was true, then the monster will surely grasp her in its teeth, rip her limb from limb, and devour her carcass. She began to take a step backward with the intend to quickly walk back the way she came, but then her foot stepped on a twig and it made an audible snap.

The massive light blue lump stopped trembling and whimpering. Laura stood, frozen in fear, as the creature stood on its thick, trunk-like hind legs, arched its back, and slowly raised its head. Its long, brachiosaurs-like neck was connected to a snake-like head with brown, curved horns, similar to that of a ram, above large, oval, expressive ears. Its eyes were almond-shaped, dark, and they seemed to glimmered with tears. The creature stood and turned its body ninety degrees, its eyes glued to Laura’s. She noticed something large, round, and shiny in the creature’s chest. It was a darker shade of blue compared to the rest of the creature’s body and it reflected the surrounding area like a mirror. It seemed to be a pearl. The creatures came to face Laura. She noticed that its front legs were thinner than its hind legs; like the legs of a lizard.

The creature’s body turned another ninety degree; it was now facing Laura. Its eyes became narrow and it slightly opened its mouth revealing white, sharp teeth. Its wings began to beat lightly against its body in a fluid movement. It raised it right front leg and began to claw at the air. It roared an ear-piercing roar at her; it was almost like the cry of an eagle, except squeakier. It was clear to Laura that the creature was attempting to appear as frightening as possible. She knew of this; she had heard that some animals will try to appear as frightening and intimidating to deter predators or when they feel threatened. She also heard that some animals were more afraid of humans than humans were of them.

She took a closer look at the creature. A tangled mess of webbing was wrapped around its neck. A long and narrow wooden stick was protruding from underneath its right wing. Some scratches were visible on the creature’s body, many them located on the creature’s front legs. It much had been in great pain, evident by how its trembled and whimpered between roars. It struggled to stand on its own feet; it wobbled and staggered, as though as it was about to fall.

A wave of empathy washed over Laura. It was crying because it was hurt! She thought. Many questions ran though her head at once. What was this creature? What was it doing here? How did it got hurt? Finally, she settled one question: Should I help, or should I run? Yes, she did feel sorry for the creature, and yes, in the back of her mind, she did think that it looked kind of cool, however she couldn’t predict how it would react if she got close. For all she knew, it might try to bite her head off!

The creature continued to roar at her. It roared until, abruptly, it stopped. Its body swayed back and forth, as though it was dizzy. Finally, it collapsed onto the grass, it’s wings dropping like cinder blocks, its eyes slowly closing. Without thinking, Laura dashed to the creature’s side. She forcedly opened one of the eyes with her fingers. The eye of the creature looked glazed over and unfocused. “Oh no.” She said softly to herself. “What do I do?” She still considered just leaving, but her conscious wouldn’t allow her to leave the injured creature.

She examined the creature’s front legs. Many small open wounds were letting flesh blood pour out. She then went to examine the underside of the right wing. The long and narrow stick protruding from the underside of the wing had what Laura thought to be fletching, like that of an arrow. She examined the body. There were wider wounds on the creature’s stomach. Laura tried her best to not panic. She back away from the creature and thought long, hard, and carefully. How to fix this. How to fix this. Finally, her mind settled on an answer. Aloe!

She dropped her socks and shoes and ran into the surrounding brush. She searched the ground for any sign of aloe, but it was fruitless; there was no aloe in this forest. She ran back to the creature; it was still laying on the grass. The rise and fall of its back gave Laura reassurance; it was still alive. However, the reassurance was short-lived, for she didn’t have anything to help this creature. She thought for a moment. Perhaps, if she ripped a portion of her skirt to dress the wounds on the legs… But then what about the large wounds on its stomach? She suddenly remembered the small sewing kit she kept in the front pocket of her blouse. Hurriedly, she fished it out. She placed the small rectangular kit on the ground. She set kneeled beside the creature and when to work.

Chapter 8: The Lake

“It’s done.” Laura said, stepping away.

Her skirt and blouse were ripped so much that her thighs and abdominal were now visible. The palms of hands were caked in blood, and so was the needle in her hand. All the string in her sewing kit was gone. She stood beside the resting creature. Its front claws were wrapped in fabric. The large wound on it stomach was inelegantly sewed together. The arrow had been removed from the underside of the wing and the hole that was left in its place was sutured together. Using the tiny scissors in her sewing kit, she had cut the mess of webbing around the creature’s neck and toss it aside. Never had Laura worked so hard before. Exhaustion washed over her and she laid back on the grass, her head resting on the stomach of the creature.

When she awoke from her sleep, she was laying alone in the clearing. Drowsily, she looked around, only to find that the creature gone was. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and stood up. She went to brush the dirt from her skirt, but she was quickly reminded that her skirt was no longer there. She signed, picked up her socks, shoes, and sewing kit, and scanned the area for any clues that would tell her where the creature had gone. That was when she saw the large patches of trampled grass in the shape of a claw.

She followed the trail in the forest, where she found more patches of trampled grass along with broken twigs and branches. As she pushed through the underbrush and low-hanging branches, her ears picked up on the sound of splashing water. She followed that sound, picking up speed as she did so. It wasn’t long before she came to a massive, blue lake. The sunbeams made the tranquil water of the lake sparkle like diamonds. She took in the serenely of the screen in front of her, before noticing the massive blue dragon beside her.

The creature was seated a few steps to the left of her. It was laying on it stomach, it’s front legs folded in front of it, it’s wings folded to its side, and its tail waving from side to side against the grass. It was staring so intensity across the lake that it didn’t notice Laura. It wasn’t until she grasped upon seeing it that it slowly turned it head to look her. She took a step back, mentally debating whether to run or not. The creature turned away from her and stared downward at the water near it’s claws, as if looking at its reflection. It turned back to Laura and lifted one wing.

Laura stood there, confused. She wasn’t sure what the creature was doing. She waited for it to do something else. The creature gestured under the wing with its head. Was it trying to tell her to sit next to it? Though it seemed like a friendly gesture, she was hesitated to go near the creature again. She was unsure if it was grateful for her help or if it understood what she done for it. If it didn’t understand, then it might still attack her. Yet, if it did understand, then this might be its way of thanking her.

The creature gestured underneath its wing again; it was clear that it wanted her to come near it. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know if she could trust the creature. She stared into the eyes of the dragon.  She remembered the doctor saying once that eyes were the windows to the soul. In the dragon’s eyes, she saw the same humanity that she saw in the doctor’s eyes; the same genuine compassion and gentleness that only the doctor could possess. It was those eyes that made her decide that it might be safe to go near.

Slowly and cautiously, she approached the dragon. The dragon’s eyes watched her as she walked closer. She was less than a foot away from the dragon’s arisen wing. The appendage looked to be over fifteen feet in length. She sat cross-legged on the grass and shifted closer to the dragon’s body. To her surprise and disbelief, the wings slowly came down and gently draped over her shoulder, as if it was giving her a hug. The gesture took the breath out of Laura’s throat and she didn’t know how to react.

Suddenly, the head of the dragon slowly came down. It inched towards Laura’s left knee. It inhaled deeply through its nostrils and it blew a warm breath through its mouth. The warm breath blew on her knee, sending the pieces of dirt flying from the skin. It then licked the cut on her knee with its pink tongue. When it was done, it pulled back and stared at her. In that moment, Laura remembered hearing that animals would sometimes lick their wounds. A sudden feeling of gratitude hit Laura in the chest. This unknown and mysterious animal was trying to help her just as she helped it. She stared into the dragon’s eyes and brought her hand to the dragon’s head and petted it. “Thank you.” She said softly.

“Thank you.”

An almost childlike voice echoed through the forest from somewhere. The voice sounded like that of a young boy. Surprised, Laura quickly turned her head to look behind her. She scanned the trees for anyone who might be hiding behind them, however she couldn’t see anyone. “I wonder what that was?” She thought aloud.

he stared into the eyes of the creature.                                                                                    nbb

“That was me.”

The childlike voice spoke again. Laura stood from her sitting position and started walking toward the line of tree. The dragon retracted its wing and looked at Laura puzzlingly. “Hello?!” Laura yelled out into the trees. “Who’s there?”

“I’m here.”

The voice sounded like it was coming from behind her, except this time a soft squeak accompanied it. She turned around, but only found the blue dragon looking back at her. She scanned the lake, but wouldn’t find any signs of human life. She walked back toward the dragon, a puzzling look on her face. “Did you hear that?” She asked the dragon.

“Hear what?”

She immediately jumped back in shock upon hearing the voice again, but this time she knew where it was coming from. The dragon was speaking to her, except its mouth wasn’t moving. Rather, the boyish, childlike voice was being projected from the dragon and into her head like telepathy. To say that Laura was astounded would be an understatement. She was partly in disbelief, but that disbelief quickly faded and was replaced with an overwhelming feeling of amazement.

“You can talk!” She shouted.

“Yeah!” Spoke the dragon, with a nod of its head.

“How?” She asked, partly out of curiosity and partly out of shock.

The dragon made a movement with its shoulder blazes; something like a shrug. “I dunno.” It said.

It was a simple response, but it was enough to send her head spinning. She heard of talking parrots, but beyond that, no other animal that had been recorded in the books and journals she read was known to talk like a human. That was, if one can consider what the dragon was doing as talking. Laura let the silence persist so she could search her brain for an explanation. Then, a memory materialized in her mind. In the memory, she was in her bed, hidden under the blanket. A flashlight was in her right hand and a comic book was in her left. In the comic book, one of the main characters couldn’t speak with their mouth, but could still somehow converse with the other characters. As it turned out, the character has the power of psychic communication; the power to communicate with one’s mind by forming psionic line with a nearby person. At the time, she thought it was only science fiction, however, now that there was a talking dragon in front of her, she believed it to be more than mere fiction.

“Are you ok?”

The voice snapped her out of her stupor and back into reality. The dragon was now sitting with its hind legs while its front legs were straight; much like a dog or a cat. Its long and slender neck was craned downward and its dark eyes were aimed at Laura. Laura looked at the dragon. Wait. Was it a dragon? It looked so much like the dragons in her comic books that she immediately assumed that it was a dragon. Yet, in none of those comic books did the dragons talked or used psychic communication. She eyed the wings of the creature. They didn’t look the wings of a dragon. In fact, they looked like the wings of a bird whose feathers been removed. She knew that dragons had scales like other reptiles. However, when she felt the creature’s body, it’s scales, or whatever they were supposed to be called, were so smooth that they almost felt like skin. She stared at the creature with wide eyes. “What are you?”

It was a rhetorical question; one she wasn’t expecting an answer to. Yet, the creature answered it anyway. “I’m Comet.” It said.

“‘Comet’?” She repeated. The creature nodded its head. Comet. It didn’t sound like the name of its species. Perhaps it was a birth name? Did dragons give their children names when they were born like humans did? The idea of dragons giving their babies names seemed farfetched to Laura. Though, considering what’s now happening, I guess nothing is farfetched anymore. Laura thought to herself.

“What’s your name?” Asked the dragon.

For a moment, Laura didn’t know how to response, for the sudden question took her by surprise. After a moment of silence, she finally registered the question and answered. “Laura Bayne.”

“Lau…ra…” The creature slowly repeated her name, stressing each syllable, like a child trying to learn a new word. “Lau…ra!” It said her name again, but faster. “Laura!” It exclaimed her name and accompanied it with a squeal that sounded as if it came from a dolphin. Its tail lifted off from the ground and it began to wag side to side much like a dog. Laura couldn’t help but giggle at the creature’s tail. Upon hearing her giggle, the dragon started to do its own dolphin-like laugh, it’s tail wagging faster.

When the laughter died down, realization entered Laura’s mind. She realized that she was no longer afraid of this creature–of Comet. It–he–had proven to be friendly. He wasn’t going to attack her, or eat her, or bite her head off her body. In fact, judging by the high-pitched voice, he must be a child like her. Age in the animal kingdom was a topic that Laura was still learning; she still couldn’t decipher the ages of certain animals. She felt awkward asking someone their age, even if was a dragon, yet she needed to know.

She was about to ask her question when the snap of a twig being broken echoed around them. Laura wiped her head around to face the trees that surrounded the lake. After a second of stillness, another twig broke, then another, and another. Ten seconds later, Laura made out a figure among the brushwood; it was large and bulky. It wasn’t until the figure got closer that Laura clearly saw what it was. It was a man wearing camouflaged clothing and carrying what looked like a rifle. A rifle?! She thought was fear filled her body. She was afraid that the man would try to shoot Comet without realizing that he was friendly. Thinking quickly, she spun around, intending to shout at her new friend to ran away. However, just as she was about to speak, Comet was already gone.

“Guys, I found her!” Spoke a masculine voice. She turned back around and saw the man walking toward her. In one of his hands was a walkie-talkie, and he was speaking into it. “By a large source of water, possibly a lake or a pond. Will re-group at the ruins.” The man placed the walkie-talkie on his belt and came to a stop in front of Laura. He looked to be in his thirty and had dark brown hair and eyes. He was of average built, but the armor he had on made his appear bulkier than he really was.

As he kneeled before Laura, he examined the state of her clothes. His expression became a mix of dread and concern. “What happened to you?” He asked. When she didn’t say anything, he stood, took her by the arm, and said: “C’mon, we’re taking you home.”

To be continued in the next update.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s