A glass window let the sunlight pour in like a warm blanket, hitting my face and sending a smile across my lips. I was dreaming again. Finally. I closed my eyes and soaked in the smell of steaming, red peppers and brown rice. And when I opened my eyes again, I saw the table stretching out around me, chairs lined along either side, laughing friends and family smirking and passing bowls of warm food.
A lump crushed the back of my throat as I tried not to let all the shaking sobs slip past my mouth. In this dream, all of them were real. All of them were still alive.
Raciel, dark skin, strong arms, gatekeeper of the Pale Woods and Cassie’s dad, stood at the end of the table from his chair, wiping both hands off on his apron. His words drifted toward me like gently lapping waves. "To family." He raised his glass, and we all copied him.
Glasses clinked together.
Laughter swam through my ears.
And faces I knew were gone smiled at me.
Saltha. My first and only friend from Jedros, where I grew up. Her dark hair hung to one side of her face, and she winked at me like we both knew the joke.
Zinnia. The girl standing where the horse had been. Blinking wide eyes and smiling like the world had never ended. Another swallow. Watching her die after defeating Molduth had been the worst of all. The death that had stabbed my own heart deep enough to break it.
A breeze wafted through the air, and the laughing voices dimmed. I turned slowly and saw a curtain of beads jangle slightly as a dark-skinned hand let them drop back into place.
I pushed through the beads, standing on the back porch of Raciel's house; the ocean twinkled out a song in waving rhythms. A small bluebird circled overhead, tweeting before flapping off to its nest.
And there, standing on an outcrop of rock stretching over the ocean, was Bella. Dark hair tied back in a layer of braids, head turned slightly to the right, a smile curling across her mouth. White light glowed from her skin, and I felt drawn.
"You came back again," she whispered.
I came up behind her, too afraid to touch her. Afraid to make this dream vanish back into the nightmare world I knew was waiting to swallow me again. I shook my head. "I always do."
Bella pivoted to face me, her golden-brown eyes searching mine. "Why do you? This isn't real?"
"It's real enough to me, and that's what matters here." I sat down on the rock, my bare feet dangling over the edge. Ocean spray splashed onto my heels, but I didn't care. I stared at Bella's face and saw the lines of worry etching both sides of her cheeks. "What's wrong?"
Bella sat down beside me, curling her legs under the white dress she wore. "I'm worried about you. You've been running for so long. How can you keep going?"
I sighed and stared at the ocean. How could I keep going? How was I able to wake up and face all of this again? Because the truth was, it would be easier to stay asleep and never wake up.
I swallowed. "I . . ." my words trailed into thoughts. This girl. She's what kept me going. Every night. Coming here. Sitting here. Listening to those same questions and knowing she would ask them. Knowing what I would say. Could say. But never did. I wanted to tell her that I thought she was the most beautiful girl in all five islands. That I would run with her anywhere she went. That I loved her.
But I couldn't say the words. Because somehow I knew, if I said them, all of this would vanish. My one safe place in the entire world was hanging together in my dreams by threads.
"How are you so brave?" I asked. "You faced a queen who tried to literally drain the life out of you. The whole world almost crumbled, and you . . . you just kept standing beside me against horrors."
Bella smiled and reached for my hand. Her fingers draped over mine. "I'm brave because you are."
A cloud appeared on the horizon. My gaze turned to stare as it drifted closer.
"Eric. There's something I have to tell you."
My stomach dropped. This was new. Bella had never said this before in any dream. I kept staring at the cloud. I would not look at her. I couldn't. Everything would shatter.
"Eric. Please." The pang of sadness in her voice made my head turn. Tears streaked her face as she glanced at the rocks beneath us.
"What is it?" I whispered, my lips barely moving.
"Something is coming for you."
I leaned back. "How do you know?"
"This was never just a dream, Eric."
Now my gaze whipped up to face her. "What are you talking about?"
"I didn't know another way to get a message to you."
My mouth went dry. "You've really here? It's really you?"
She nodded. "Yes, Eric. We have a bond unlike any other. It brings us together no matter how far apart we are. I can feel it like a tether, tying me to you. And now, I have to warn you."
"Warn me about what?"
A rumble of thunder echoed across the ocean.
"Warn you that it's coming for you."
A flash of green lightning sparked through the air, zapping into the ocean and swirling it into breakers pounding against the rocks beneath us. A wave of water splashed above us, crashing back down with a vengeance.
Bella's head slumped forward.
"Bella?" I shook her shoulder. "Bella? Wake up! Bella!"
And then her head snapped up, her eyes glowing a dark green color. Her voice dropped an octave, slipping across her tongue like sand. "I'm waiting for you, Eric. I've always been waiting for you. And when I find you, I'll make sure you never forget me."
I scrambled away and stared as the cloud enveloped us. Green lightning arced around my head. Dark haze separated me from Bella. She disappeared from sight. And then two green eyes glowed through the cloud, staring at me, narrowing, and then transforming into two green bolts snaking through the mist and smashing into my skull.
I flew backward, scraping my knees across the rocks. The ocean churned under me, and another blast of lightning hit me in the chest, flinging me toward the edge of the outcrop. I fell over the side, grasping at the rocks with my left hand. My fingers wrapped around a jutting piece of stone. I glanced up and saw the green eyes peering down at me from the dark cloud above.
That same deep voice dribbled over the edge. "Let me in, Eric."
"No!" I screamed, glancing down.
"Nowhere to go but dead on the rocks. Let me in."
"I don't care who you are! The answer is no!" I shouted back.
A rumbling chuckle. "Oh, you know who I am. We know each other well. Just let me in. And then you'll be free of all this pain roiling around inside of you."
"No!" But the shout didn't come from me. It came from a teenager, shouldering his way through the cloud. Wind whipped through his floppy dark hair. His elbow hid his face, and he pressed forward, reaching out with his other hand.
The green eyes shifted from side to side, glancing down at me and then at the boy making his way in our direction. My fingers ached from holding onto the rock for so long. I didn't know how much longer I could keep my grip. I swung my other arm up as the eyes retreated into the dark cloud, and the boy dropped to his knees above me.
He held down a hand. "Eric! Here!"
No. His face unhidden, I knew who this was. He was older. How he was so many years older than before I didn't understand, but I did know one thing. I did not want his help.
"Take my hand!"
I grit my teeth, holding in shuddering breaths and glaring at his face through the ocean spray pelting my face. "Never," I muttered.
He held out his hand. "Just take my hand! I'm right here!"
"No, you're not. This? This is a dream." I let go of the rocks and fell. My stomach lurched upward as I plummeted into the water below.
Water covered my nose, and I shot up coughing and spitting to the side.
The oasis. The pool. Palm trees. I was awake again.
I scrambled around, dripping and staring at the ridge of sand above us. Cereus stood to one side, shaking his mane and stamping both front hooves. Seven figures loomed against the midday sky, their forms hazy and shimmering with heat. They wore green robes that trailed down to their sandaled feet. Hoods covered their heads, with thin beards trailing down their chests. As one, they lifted their gloved hands and pointed at me.
"You have been summoned," they intoned.
Do we run? Cereus asked.
I nodded slowly. "They're Scholars. I didn't know they ventured this far from their mountain though."
"You have been summoned," the Scholars repeated.
"You said that already!" I shouted back.
So run, yeah?
I nodded and snatched up my tabak-toyok, stuffing it into the belt at my waist. Cereus shifted across the water and neighed. I splashed after him and reached the horse's side.
Fire flew across the oasis and landed in a thin line in front of us. It grew taller, circling around us and forming a grid like chain mail. It covered our heads in a dome, flicks of fire raining down every few seconds overhead. Cereus stamped back and forth, looking for a way out. We're trapped! I don't wanna be trapped!
Cereus closed his eyes to shift and opened them a second later. I can't go anywhere! I can't move!
"Moldable fire," I said. "It must stop you from shifting somehow."
The Scholars descended the slope, walked around the side of the pool, and encircled us. I could see grizzled chins poking out of the hoods. Now that they were up close, I could see the scorch marks covering their robes and the long slashes across their sleeves. I swallowed.
"What do you want with us?" I shouted through the fiery bars.
They didn't say a word. As one, they snapped their fingers, and the fire slowly danced across the sand, leaving a trail of glass behind it. We scooted away from the back end of the prison as quickly as possible and fell in step with the silent Scholars as they marched through the sand, taking us with them.
Where are we going? Cereus asked.
I shrugged. There really was no way of knowing.
A Scholar whisked a hand at the row of palm trees in front of us and the fire leapt from his palm, forming into a blazing axe head and chopping through each trunk in a flurry of wood chips. We passed through. Cereus whimpered at the sight of the downed trees.
We marched for another two hours before the Scholars stopped at an open expanse of desert. The sand stretched smoothly in a complete circle that was wider across than five of the rice paddies back on Jedros. One of the Scholars stood at the edge of the circle and produced a staff from his robes, jabbing the end of it into a slot in a red rock at his feet. He spun the staff around three times and then a rumbling sound filled my ears.
Cereus pranced back and forth in the small space, whinnying at the noise. Make it stop, Eric! Make it stop! It's too loud!
I patted his side. "I'm sorry!" I shouted over the din.
A wide, perfectly round, metallic building with rivets running up and down its sides rose from the sand. The grains dribbled off the roof, mixing with the desert below. The rumbling paused a moment later, and a metal door swung open in front of us. The cage of moldable fire glided forward until it melded with the dark metal. The front end of the cage flashed out of sight, and we had no choice but to move into the building or be singed from behind.
The metal felt surprisingly cool to the touch. I kept one hand on Cereus as we stepped into the darkness. The seven figures entered behind us, and then the door shut with a clang. Moldable fire leapt from the cage to sconces hanging around the walls, casting an orange glow around the room.
A ring of twelve chairs sat around a circular, black table in the center of the room. Each chair was made from the same dark metal as the building we stood inside. Rows of bookshelves clung to the sides of the room, crammed with scrolls and old books and a strange menagerie of bones stuffed into the empty cracks.
The seven Scholars strode forward and sat around the table, pausing to stare at each of the empty chairs before turning to face us.
"You have been summoned," they said again.
"We know!" I shouted. My voice echoed off the walls and fell back onto my ears. "What do you want?"
One of the Scholars stood and pulled back his hood.
I gasped and recoiled against Cereus's side.
What happened to him? the horse whispered in my mind.
I didn't know. The Scholar's face had burn marks stretching across it, with two long scars reaching from his left ear down to his chin. One eye had glazed over and stared in the opposite direction of us.
"Much has been happening in the world. And you are much to blame."
"Me? What have I done?" I asked.
The Scholar pointed at me. "You unleashed dark powers you had no right tampering with. Evil things lurk the woods of Castos, devouring anyone who comes in their path. Rumor has it the queen is returning."
I shook my head. "That's impossible. We blasted her to the ocean. No way she could come back from that."
"She is resilient. And stronger than you bargain." The Scholar ran a hand over his bald head, tracing a burn mark with his forefinger. "The threads all lead back to you. The Runner of Golden Light. You aided Molduth's release."
"And capture!" I shouted. I could feel my face turning red. Why were they trying to blame all of this on me?
"The spinewolf you aided awoke after you and your companion left the Scholar's Mountain. It ravaged our ranks. We are all that remain of the Scholars." He waved a hand at the others. They pulled back their robes and revealed burnt faces, scars, and pain etched through every face. "With its dark powers, it made us do terrible things. Drove some mad. Destroyed others. If we had not been quick enough with our moldable fires, we too would have perished in the blaze that consumed him."
"So he's gone?" I asked.
The Scholar nodded. "But not without price. You have defied the laws of physics within the world of Abra. Your clasp was destroyed and yet here you stand. Alive. Only one other has ever survived such an event."
My eyebrows shot up. "Someone else is un . . . The Unclasped," I whispered. "That's what you're talking about, isn't it? The Unclasped! You know who it is!"
The Scholars exchanged uneasy glances.
One of them glared at the standing man. "The Unclasped is not why he has been summoned. You discuss things you shouldn't."
The Scholar who stood nodded. "Indeed. You have a summoning to fulfill. When Molduth was released, other Ancients stirred from their dark slumber. Something slipped through the cracks and emerged here, on the Isle of Uthen. It stalks this land. The Dry Death."
I don't like this, Eric. We gotta run. Like really gotta.
"Agreed," I whispered. Then louder. "And what exactly am I supposed to do?"
"You are the Runner of Golden Light. And you must do what you do to run. The five islands of Abra are on a precipice, ready to fall into the ocean's tumultuous grip with one fell motion. And you are all that stands in its way."
I shook my head. "Never. I'm not going to let anyone control me ever again."
The Scholar crossed his arms. "We don't want to control you. We want you to unleash the controls you've imposed upon yourself and be who you truly are."
"No. Not happening!"
A sad sigh whisked through the Scholars. One of them muttered, "I told you he wouldn't succumb so easily. We must make him use the light again."
"What are you talking about?"
Cereus stamped his hooves. I don't like it!
"Then so be it." The Scholar leaned back and slammed a fist against a round protrusion on the metal wall. It slid back, and a trapdoor swung open under my feet, sending Cereus and I plummeting into the darkness below.
Love what you read then
The Last Runner (Runners of Abra 1)
The five islands of Abra have always been home to Runners -- sent on missions by their owners. When Eric is conscripted as a Runner and discovers an incredible power, he must race against an evil Queen to rescue a mysterious girl who has power of her own.
When Eric was only thirteen, he was taken from his family and the peaceful rice fields on the island of Jedros to become a Runner. Roaming the five islands of Abra, Runners are tasked with jobs -- jobs they must see to the end. Either finish the job or die.
And then a mysterious benefactor arrives with a bag of gold and Eric's first job: find the girl spotted somewhere in the northern islands responding only to the name Bella. Simple enough. But this job is not what anyone thought. Others are searching for the girl. Others who will kill to keep Bella a secret.
But Bella has her own secret to keep. And if it gets out, the very fabric of the known world will change forever.
As Eric goes into hiding on the distant island of Uthen, he discovers a mysterious prisoner who beckons to him for help. Eric embarks on a journey to the Barren Prison, an impenetrable fortress on Uthen while eluding the hundreds of Gratta's runners who are on his tail. Because the promise had been made: release the prisoner and he may be able to free them all from the grip of the clasp.
Available - March 15th, 2019
Audience: Ages 10 to 14
Shaun Stevenson has always loved a good book. Ever since he first picked up his great-grandmother's ancient copy of THE WIZARD OF OZ, he has wanted to take readers on crazy journeys through imaginative worlds where the danger and mystery never stop. He lives in the Great Northwest with his wife, enjoying the coffee, the thrifting, and of course, the writing.