The sun never blazed hotter than the day the Runner took me. Water lapped through the rice paddies and up against my shins. The mud stuck between my toes. I still wonder if I had started somewhere near the back end of the field if I'd been able to get away.
Obviously, I didn't.
Five Runners stood at the edge of the field wearing dusters; wide leather hats tilted forward on their heads; their long hair pulled back into tails behind their necks. Even from where I stood knee-deep in muck, I could see the sunlight reflecting off the metal bands around their forearms. Clasps. Every Runner wore one. Made from silver and inlaid with a single gem glowing a deep orange color.
Saltha's dark hair flung back as she whipped her head up. “Recruiters!” she hissed.
I nodded. I'd seen Runners come recruiting here before. They had taken my older brother two years ago. He'd just turned thirteen. I was eleven then.
So I was ripe for the picking.
Saltha sloshed to the path and slapped the dirt with her hands, hoisting herself up and out. I considered following her. But I also thought about staying right where I was. Letting them take me.
Screams echoed across the rice paddy now as the Runners darted along the crisscrossing pathways that formed a grid around the fields. One of the Runners had a sack slung over his shoulder, clanking with every step. He reached in and tossed clasps to the other four as they snatched the arms of the thirteen-year-olds behind me. The recruiters slapped the clasps onto my neighbor’s forearms with a deafening snap-snap. The teenagers fell to the dirt path, knees streaked with clay, screaming with pain as they rocked back and forth, holding their forearms.
I glanced over at my mother and father. They hadn't even looked up. They just leaned back over, short sickles in hand, slicing at the stalks and gathering them into the wicker baskets tied with a cord to their waists. My mother's dark face shadowed by a wide hat. My father's strong arms hacking at the sheaves.
Maybe they didn't care. Maybe they never would. Maybe they never had.
Saltha raced along the path, looking back at me, fear widening her eyes. She waved a hand and pointed at the mound on the far side of the rice paddies.
A shout behind me. I whirled back around to see another kid – I never did know his name – being yanked out by a Runner and slapped with a clasp on his forearm. The gem in the silver blazed red, then orange, and then rotated through every color on the spectrum. Tears crawled past his mouth, open in a silent cry of pain. It seemed like the clasp was burning him. Red marks drifted from the place the metal touched skin.
Standing by my shoulder, one hand reaching out to me, a blue haze in her dark eyes. “Run, Eric. Don't let them take you.”
I swallowed. My mother had always been frightening. Serious as the grave and stern as a lick of twigs. I dropped down into the muck, crawling toward the path, hoping the Runners hadn’t spotted me yet. I reached the other side of the rice paddy and scrambled up onto the trail a foot above me. A shout echoed across the pathway. I poked my head up to see four of the younger kids pound the dirt back toward the cottages.
Another shout. I glanced back. The Runners had gathered nearly seventeen others from the fields. They were crouching in a huddle by the Runner with the sack. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Some of the adults poked their heads up, saw the Runners and stood idly, almost like a fog had circled through their minds and left them unable to respond to what was happening. Why didn’t they move? Why didn’t they fight back? Why did I--
And then one of them spotted me. He smirked and scratched a scar on his neck. I watched him toss the clasp in his hand into the air once, and then he darted after me.
The panic fueled my legs, and I ran, mud and water dribbling from my bare legs as I pounded across the clay and dirt for the mound. It had been Saltha's idea: make a hiding place. A place the Runners find when they came to recruit. We had spent the last two years in our dead hours digging the tunnel. It wound under one of the hills to the edge of the canyons beyond the cottages.
Saltha leaped over the side of the hill ahead and slid out of sight. I ran up the path, pounding footsteps growing closer behind me. I’d rather die than let that Neck Scar Runner catch me. I had to make it. I had to get away.
I scrambled up the hill, slipping to all fours until I reached the top and rolled down the other side. I flipped open the hatch with a single swipe. The hatch was an old metal shield, that we’d found, covered with brush, and tied over the hole we had dug. From a distance, no one would ever notice it. Even up close, if someone didn't know exactly what it was, they'd walk right past and never blink twice.
The stench of rotting rice wafted up from the hole, but I dove in, head first, tumbling down, hearing the hatch slap closed behind me. Saltha crawled just ahead, and I slammed into her, knocking my elbow against her shoulder. Pain stung across my arm as it went limp.
I nodded. Then I remembered it was dark. “Yeah, I'm here. Just go.”
Light streamed in behind us as the hatch lifted. “You little runnin' scum. Ain't no place we can't find you! The clasps are gonna get you.”
I shoved Saltha ahead and hurried right behind her. Pain ratcheted through my head, seeping into my fingers and leaving the tips numb. The tunnel was closing in on me, and I gasped at the air, trying to breathe. Don't get caught. Don't. Don't.
The tunnel raised upwards, and Saltha bashed her shoulder into the pile of leafy branches we had left piled up at the other end. She flung them aside and light poured into the tunnel, stinging my eyes. I blinked and then watched as Saltha shot up out of the hole, her feet dangling in the air as she screamed.
A Runner had her.
And I was next.
I huddled back in the darkness, listening to the clasp tightening around her forearm, forever marking her as a Runner now. The gem would tie into her lifeforce. A ledger would be forged with her name and an identical stone embedded in the red leather cover. And then she would be forced to run jobs for a bookkeeper. Forced. Enslaved.
I couldn’t breathe anymore. A rough hand burst into the hole and found my foot. I jerked away, but a second hand reached in and grabbed it. They dragged me out, my face smacking against the dirt and bursting into the sunlight.
I hung between two of the Runners. Both of them were male. Strong. Their brown boots speckled with mud. One had a hole in his trousers right at the knee, and I could see a piece of metal like a bolt sticking out the side. I thrashed, swinging my arms, trying to claw, scratch, anything. Neck Scar Runner marched across the dirt, past a log cottage sitting on the edge of the village. The clasp in his hand shimmered in the sunlight.
“No. Please, don't!”
He smirked, leaned over, and grabbed my wrist. He slammed the metal onto my bare forearm. It stung worse than any sting I'd ever had from a locust or hardring. It felt like poison seeping through my veins and racing past every inch of my body until it stopped at my heart. A coldness slipped around it as it beat faster, tying it down as if with a chain.
They dropped me. I collapsed to the dirt, writhing and clutching my arm, my chest, ripping at the white tunic I wore. My vision spotted over, and for a moment, I saw three of the five Runners’ faces, heads shaking, dusters swaying, and the sunlight blurring it all together in one disjointed mass of colors.
I rolled to my side. Saltha lay next to me on the dirt, her back against the edge of a grassy mound, eyes closed, chest heaving.
I tried to whisper her name. I tried to move my lips. I splayed my fingers and reached for her hand, resting so close to mine.
But I couldn't reach.
I couldn't think.
Pain exploded through my head, and the light blinked out into darkness.
The rattling woke me up first. Then the sound of soft cries and whispers.
Stars hung across the sky, framed by the wooden cage over my head. I sat up. Other kids sat around me, huddled together or alone, itching the skin around the clasps on their arms. The Runners had thrown us into the back of a caged wagon, pulled by an auroch with thick longhorns and a body as wide as the cart. It looked like an engorged bull with brown and white spots covering its hide.
The back wheel bumped into a pothole, and I slid up against the cage, grabbing it with both hands and watching the grassy hills roll past us for leagues into the distance. A blue haze covered everything in the moonlight. The clasp on my arm glinted, and I gazed at it. An opaque gem rested in my clasp, and as I stared at it, the light seemed to soak into the stone, swirling around until I could see my face.
I had never seen my reflection this clearly before. There were rumors of a beveled mirror a village over, but I had never seen it. My life circled the rice paddies, where a dirty face stared back whenever I stood in a puddle to try and catch a glimpse of what I looked like, but the muddied water was never still or clear. At least not as detailed as a mirror might be.
Every day our family had gotten up, trudged out into the muck and tended to the plants. Weather on our island stayed comfortable – always warm, with the slightest breeze carried in from the ocean I had only ever heard about from tales told by the elders in our village. Our climate allowed for a year-long growing schedule. Plant rice. Tend rice. Harvest rice. Sell rice to the tradeswomen who marched down the road with pushcarts and little purses of gold. Repeat.
Our village had collected all the money. Kept it together to buy what we needed. Sixty-two of us had lived there the last time I sat on the edge of the paddy and counted heads bent low to collect rice. Eighty-seven people had been in the village last time the Runners had arrived. The full moon had passed us by twenty-four times since then. Since they had taken my brother.
I stared at myself in that clasp. My nose took up too much of my face and dropped to a point at the end. My eyes a dark brown color, like my mother's. Dark hair, tanned skin, and cheeks sunken slightly from living off the rice.
A hand tapped my shoulder from behind.
I turned around and faced her; knees curled up to my chest. Two of the Runners sat at the front, on the other side of the cage, holding the reins and whipping them against the back of the auroch. Two others rode on either side of us on pale gray Palominos, lazily swaying back and forth. And the fifth. He traveled on top of the cage, one leg slung over the side, glancing down at the recruits every few minutes.
“You're awake,” she whispered.
I nodded. “How long was I out?”
“Too long.” She bit her lip and fingered a strand of hair. “What's going to happen to us?”
“I don't know.” I sighed. All I knew was that we would become like the Runners around us.
“Do you think you'll find your brother out there?”
I shrugged. “I don't know.”
Saltha's brow furrowed. “At least give me a little hope here.” Her shoulders trembled, and I put an arm around her and pulled her close.
A stick poked his shoulder from above. “None o' that now!” the Runner above us shouted.
I yanked my arm away from Saltha.
She stood up and shook a fist at him. This close, he looked like he had to be only four, maybe five years older than I was. “Leave us alone!” Saltha shouted. “Haven't you been awful enough already?”
The Runner sneered. “Sure. Always room to be even awfuller.” He snorted and spat off the side of the cage. “Just seein' as the two of you are so cozy, thought I'd warn ya straight up now. Runners ain't allowed none o' that. Stick to the jobs, kids. Stick to the jobs.” He glanced back up, tipping his leather hat back with a finger.
I sat back, my head against the cage. My eyes closed. For the briefest moment, I had thought about wanting this life. Whatever it was called. Running for a bookkeeper. Doing jobs until I finished or died. Could it be any worse than the life he had back at the rice paddy with parents who seemed zoned into another island all the time?
The auroch mooed and abruptly jerked to a halt. We jostled inside the cart, tipping into each other and jumping away from each other as fast as we could. No one else wanted to be prodded with a stick tonight.
I stood up, grabbing the cage above me and holding tight. I had one leather glove with the fingers cut off still on my hand. The other one must have fallen off at some point.
The road ahead wound between two hills, dropping steeply into a canyon ahead. The canyon stretched ahead for some distance, the end of the path lost to its shadows. All five Runners stood up now, hands drifting to their sides where their various weapons hung. One of them curled his fingers around a whip. Another on a thick knife with serrated edges. Two others held bokens, and the last one a thin rapier.
The recruits in the cage started whispering to each other.
“Shush it!” the Runner up above hissed.
The grass swished on the side of the path. Another rustle somewhere at the mouth of the canyon.
I squinted into the gloom ahead. Shadows danced across the canyon floor, and for a moment, I thought I saw something slip to the side of the grassy walls. My gaze focused on the spot. I pushed forward, never taking my eyes away until I was at the front of the cage, peering through the front beams.
One of the palomino riders nodded at the others. “I'll see what it is.” His whip dangled from his hand, trailing in the dust alongside the horse's hooves.
I held my breath. The palomino clopped forward and then stopped, refusing to move forward. The Runner kicked it in the side, but the horse whinnied, steam trailing from its nostrils. “Stupid animal,” the Runner hissed, slipping to the ground. His boots clomped onto the dirt, and he took three steps forward, staring into the darkness between the hills.
He held up his whip, flicking it slightly side to side. Another step. Another. Until the Runner stood between the two hills, slowly spinning in the dark, eyes on every blade of grass, every roll and rise in the earth.
But he didn't see what I saw. Something hung from a small ledge about two meters up the canyon wall. A pale gray hand drifted over his head, long fingers splayed and reaching.
“Above you!” I shouted.
The Runner fell to his back and flicked his whip into the air, wrapping the end around the hand and yanking downward.
A gray humanoid creature fell to the dirt with a splat and then scrambled away from the Runner, hissing and baring a mouth full of sharp, clacking teeth.
“Pales!” the Runner shouted from the ground.
That sent a whisper through the kids in the cage. Every last one of us grabbed the beams and shouted at the Runners to let us out. Except me. I kept my eyes on that canyon. I had heard about pales before. They never hunted alone. Ever.
I reached through the beams and poked the Runner sitting behind the auroch. “Get us away from here!”
The Runner glared at me but thwapped the reins against the back of the auroch. “We'll take the long way!” he shouted, pulling back on the reins and guiding the beast around the left side of the canyon.
A long wail echoed up from the canyon. I watched the pebbles on the path slowly bounce as the thudding of feet and hands shook the dirt. The Runner on top of the wagon crouched down, holding his wooden boken like a sword.
The auroch bounded around the side of the canyon. We drove into the grass, the wheels beneath us bouncing over every gopher hole with gusto. The wagon rattled over the plains. Every recruit in the cage cried in fear and panic.
I reached for Saltha and gripped her fingers. “Stay close.”
“What if they're watching–”
“They have other problems,” I whispered.
A line of pales scrabbled their way out of the canyon leaping from the grassy walls and onto the plains behind us. The things were crouched over, running like dogs over the brush. If they were standing, they probably would have been as tall as me. The Runner on the back of a palomino flicked his rapier back and forth as the pales raced at him, jumping from the ground and tackling the horse and rider to the dirt.
Saltha tightened her grip.
I turned around and watched a line of pales dart toward the wagon. The Runner on top swung his boken as the monsters sprung towards the cage. He whacked pales back to the ground; where they screeched and scrambled back to their feet. The creatures had no eyes that I could see. Somehow they sensed exactly where the cage would be as they raced toward us.
One of them reached the back of the wagon. It leaped and clung to the wooden beams. I let go of Saltha and kicked sideways through the bars at the thing's chest. It wailed and flopped to the dirt behind us as more of the pales trampled it underfoot.
“Nice one, kid!” the Runner up top shouted down.
Twenty pales followed the wagon as it rattled down an embankment toward a flatter section of land. Up ahead I could see the path emerging from the other end of the canyon and leading down to a long bridge that disappeared into a fog bank. It stretched over what must have been the ocean. It was huge – dark blue and glimmering with starlight. The water lapped against a thin strip of coastline. If we hadn't been a swipe away from death, I might have been in awe.
But I never got that chance.
Seven pales shot out of the dark grass beside the wagon and kicked the cage, sending it toppling off the back of the cart. The auroch snapped free of its yoke, and we rolled, banging heads and knees and screaming. The cage slammed onto its side, and one of the kids behind me yelped in pain.
We slid down the hill. Pale hands grasped at us as the creatures used their other three limbs to cling to the beams. The pales grabbed tunics and trousers, yanking the recruits close to the bars and snapping their jaws.
A pale grabbed Saltha and jerked her close as the cage scraped over the path and into the ocean with a splash.
Love what you read then
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.
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.