Pales had darted in and out of my nightmares ever since I had seen one up close on the way to Castos. Their snapping jaws filled with sharp teeth. Their eyeless faces and gray skin with long fingers creeping over the edges of the wagon so they could wail in my face.
I never had thought those creatures might come from somewhere.
That they might have a home.
I glanced at the girl again. She opened her mouth to say something, but before she could get a word out, her eyes closed and she slumped to the crumbled stone dirt, passed out.
The clasp on my hand glowed slightly, and I slapped a hand over it to douse the light. I didn't need to be a beacon for every pale within a league to see through the mist. I clenched the stone in my hand, peeked at the clasp and saw the arrow pointing to the right.
I stared at the girl and swallowed. Those things. What would they do to her? My stomach dropped, and I considered trying to drag her to safety. A rock flew by and smashed into a tree past my shoulder, sending up a cloud of dust. I bolted through the mist, around trees and over large chunks of stone. The arrow turned slightly to the left, and I changed course, keeping one eye on the clasp and the other on the mist ahead of me. I only hoped there wouldn't be another river to tumble into off some unseen cliff.
A wail echoed behind me. Another wail ahead of me responded.
A gray shape flashed into view in the distance. Just for a moment. But long enough to see that it was a pale. It disappeared into the fog, out of sight.
I slid to a halt, gasping for breath and slipping to a crouch behind a tree. Crunching came from behind me. A gray hand emerged from the mist followed by a pale, holding its sightless face up at an angle and sniffing with two slits. I pushed a fist against my mouth. I had to hold my breath. No sounds.
The pale dropped to all fours and sniffed the ground like a dog might. It scampered forward, past my hiding place. I pressed against the stone tree, watching it disappear into the mist ahead of me. The rattling stones clinked against each other as it moved ahead.
Silence fell on the petrified forest. I slowly stood, holding up the stone and took a slow, heavy breath. I stepped forward, willing the rocks under my boots to stay quiet. Another step. No wails. No crunching. No sign of anything.
The pale leaped out of the mist at me, long fingers splayed, mouth open with sharp rows of teeth clacking. I screamed and swung the stone at its head. Contact. The pale whimpered and fell to the dirt, a large blue spot on the side of its face. It curled up, hissing at the stones and clawing at them with both hands.
And then it rolled over, hissing at me and screeching.
My eyes widened. It was time to run.
I shot off through the mist, peeking once at the clasp to see if I was still following the arrow. It shone brighter as if to encourage me to keep going.
A pale sprang at me from the side, and I ducked as it sailed over my head and landed on the stones, skidding around and racing after me. Another pale joined it, and then a third. I chucked the stone behind me and smacked one in the chest, sending it rollicking backward. But a fourth pale joined the chase, running on all fours before leaping into one of the stone trees and swinging from branch to branch until it dropped down ahead of me.
I darted right, and one of the pales behind me collided with the tree-swinging one. They sprawled on the ground for a moment before leaping back to their bare feet. More wails echoed through the petrified woods, bouncing between the stone trees.
The clasp on my forearm flashed. I glanced down and saw the arrow had become a hand, palm held up, like I should stop. I tumbled forward another step and burst through the fog. A stride ahead of me was a deep chasm, gurgling with steaming water. A single stone tree sat on the edge of the cliff, and I reached out to grab one of the branches to stop myself before I plunged headfirst into the water below.
A hiss from behind me, and I yanked myself up onto the tree branch as the four pales shot out of the mist, grappling with each other and flying over the edge of the chasm and into the steaming water below.
I stood on the tree branch and held one hand to my eyes. The sun was close to the horizon in the distance, and I could see a port town on the other side of the chasm, and beyond that, the ocean, sparkling under the orange sun. The chasm stretched in either direction as far as I could see for leagues.
And then I saw the bridge. It was some sort of drawbridge, with one end sticking into the air on the far side of the chasm by a wooden outpost building. The way out of this petrified forest. The bridge was a good five minute run from where I stood. I listened closely to the woods. No more wails from what I could hear.
I shimmied out of the tree and to the ground. I took two deep breaths and then ran. The stone trees whisked past, and the gurgling water below sent up short bursts of spray every few seconds. The steaming water landed on the stones and hissed before evaporating almost instantly.
Two stone posts sat across from the drawbridge. I raced to the first one and grabbed it, waving my arms frantically at the outpost window. “Hello! Please! Is someone over there?”
Except for a wail behind me.
“Please! Help me!”
A face appeared in the outpost window. A man with grizzled hair tied up into a bun on the back of his head. He had a long gray beard that rested against his broad chest. “Who goes there?” he shouted at me in a gruff voice.
“My name is Eric! Please! You have to help me!”
“Anyone on that side of the bridge is cursed with the sickness! We're not letting you back over!”
Another wail echoed in the woods.
I glanced back and then to the man in the window again. “Please! You have to help me!” I held up my clasp. “I'm a runner! Please!”
“Are you on a job?” The man shouted back.
I opened my mouth to answer but found I couldn't say a word about it. I tried to shout back that yes, I was on a job. For Gratta. But the words would not pass my tongue. And then I remembered. My book. I wasn't allowed to tell anybody what I was doing. If I did, that would cause me to fail the job. And die.
“I'm not sick! Just lower the bridge for me! I have to get across!”
The man shook his head. “I cannot, lad. I'm sorry.”
“There has to be something you can do!” I shouted. “There are others over here! A girl! She needs help too!”
The man stepped back from the window, one hand on the sill. He took a heavy breath and then stared at me. “How is she?”
“I don't know!” I said. “She passed out back there!”
“I can't let you across! I'm sorry!”
I leaned forward. He wasn't going to let me across. He was going to let me die. Here on the edge of the chasm with a horde of pales at my heels waiting for their next meal. I peeked back at the mist and the woods.
Wails and footsteps echoed now through the trees. They were coming. For me.
The gem on my clasp flashed again. I glanced at it. Probably it was warning me. Letting me know this was definitely the end of my running career. Eric the Runner. Shined bright for a short time. I supposed there would be no funeral for me. No burial. No carrying of my body back to Jedros for my parents to see one last time.
My remains would be left here in this stone forest. Forever.
A figure stumbled out of the woods. The girl.
Her skin had gone sickly gray, almost. . .
My mouth dropped open. The pales. . . .
They weren't monsters.
They were people.
“Help me,” the girl rasped.
She stumbled into my arms. Her skin was cold, and the blue dress she wore looked torn at the sleeve and hem. Her hair was stringier than even when I had seen her in the forest earlier. She was becoming a pale.
The man in the window. I turned slightly, still holding up the girl.
He leaned out the window, both hands on the sill now. “Cassie! Can you hear me?!”
The girl in my arms nodded slightly. “Papa,” she whispered.
Cassie slipped from my arms and fell to the stones. She lay on her back, her eyes turning a gray color. She was becoming one of them.
The first pale stepped through the edge of the mist. Tentatively at first, and then with more boldness as it sniffed the air and fixed its eyeless face on us. More pales emerged from the fog, thirty of them standing in a ring around us. They licked their lips and crouched low, ready to pounce.
“NO!” the man in the window screamed. “Don't take my daughter! Please!”
The pales leaned back and howled at the darkening sky.
An arrow shot through the air and pierced the chest of one of the pales. The man in the window. This girl's father. He had a crossbow already reloaded. He fired again, and another arrow shot into a pale on my right.
And then the pales lunged.
I dropped in front of Cassie and crossed my arms in front of my face. A wall of golden light shot from the clasp on my forearm and blasted the pales in midair. They slid off the wall and to the ground in a heap, scrambling back up and leaping at us again.
I glanced at Cassie. Her eyes had turned completely gray, and her hair fell from the top of her head. She snapped her mouth open once, and I noticed her teeth sharpening to points.
With my clasped forearm held up, I placed my other hand on her forehead. I couldn't watch her transform into one of those creatures like this. I had to do something to save her. I didn't know if those crystals had zapped all of the strength from the gem in my clasp, but I was willing to try.
Cassie grabbed my wrist with her hands, snapping her teeth. The pales pounded against the golden shield of light beside me. And I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath.
Help me. Whoever you are out there. I've heard your voice before. I need your help now. Because I know you can do it.
My body shook, and I heard a child. A child's laugh. Not a mean, derisive kind of laugh, but a strong, I'm with you kind of laugh. Like two kids playing together and having the greatest adventures their imaginations could dream up.
The laughter surged through me, and I felt my arms trembling with the effort.
Pain rattled through my head and my teeth, and I clenched them, groaning with the energy coursing through me.
A blast of golden light shot out from me, sending the pales flying backward into the mist. I sat back, gasping for breath and feeling blood dripping from my nostrils. I wiped it away and watched as a cloud of golden light surrounded Cassie, enveloping her from head to toe until I couldn't see her anymore.
The light flashed, and I fell back onto the stones.
A groan beside me.
I chanced a look. Cassie sat up, her skin a deep olive color, and her hair a dark brown. Her eyes sparked golden once and then settled into a soft hazel. She shook her head once and stared at me.
“You . . . cured me. How? How did you do that?”
I could only stare. This girl was beautiful. The most beautiful girl I had ever seen. And she kept staring at me.
A rattling noise echoed across the chasm. The drawbridge lowered and slammed onto the ground beside us. The man in the window raced across to the middle of the wooden bridge, holding up the crossbow.
“Get to the other side! Now!” He shot an arrow into the mist and hit a pale reaching out for my foot. The pale flew backward and into the fog.
I scrambled up, grabbed Cassie's hand, and we raced over the drawbridge. Pales roared from the stone forest and burst through the fog, racing at the drawbridge. The man pounded after us as we made it to the other side. He grabbed a lever and pulled it down. Chains clinked through a pulley above us, and the drawbridge cranked upward.
Some of the pales leaped over the chasm and grabbed onto the edge of the drawbridge, yanking themselves up and scuttling down the other side on all fours.
“They're coming, Papa!” Cassie shouted.
“I see them!” The man loaded another arrow and fired. A pale fell off the drawbridge, screeching until it hit the water below.
Cassie raced to the outpost, threw open the door, and disappeared inside. She emerged a second later with two short swords. She tossed one to me, and I caught the handle and swung as one of the pales dropped to the ground beside me. I smacked it and kicked, sending the creature over the chasm edge.
“Shouldn't I try to save them?” I shouted.
The man shot another arrow. “They're too far gone!”
Cassie speared one of the pales, and it toppled to the ground. Two more crawled down, one dropping for the man's face. I leaped up and swung the sword, catching it in the gut before it could make contact.
The man dispatched the final pale, kicking it over the edge.
We turned and saw the other pales screeching and whacking their bald heads with both hands, before howling and slinking back into the misty woods behind them.
Cassie dropped her sword and threw her arms around her father. “Papa! I never thought I'd see you again!”
Papa stroked Cassie's hair and held her close. “Neither did I.” He rested his head on hers and then stared at me. “How did you do it, son?”
I held up my clasp. “I just did. I don't know how exactly.”
“I've met runners before. But none of them can do what you did. Their gems can blink and flash and turn into lanterns, but not heal someone of the pale sickness. Or create a wall of light! You've done wonders no one has seen in an age.”
I swallowed. “I don't know.”
The man held out his hand to me. “I am known to some as Papa,” he winked at Cassie, “but to others, I am known as Raciel. It's well met, Eric. Well met.” He shook my hand in a strong grip and then pointed at the outpost. “It's not much, but this is where I live. Keeper of the drawbridge. Not a pleasant job, but it keeps our town safe from the pales. And the sickness.”
Cassie smiled at me. “Papa, can he stay for the night?”
“I don't think I can stay, actually . . .” I stepped forward but stumbled. The adrenaline rushing through me vanished in a moment, and I would have fallen on my face if Raciel hadn't stopped me first.
“Nonsense,” Raciel boomed. “You will stay here tonight. We have a spare cot you can sleep on. And I make some of the best food in Puerta Vida.”
My eyes closed, and before I could stumble forward again, Raciel had picked me up and carried me inside. I heard him say, “Let him sleep,” before I drifted off, the warm smells of cooking meat filled the outpost and my nostrils.
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.