I didn't have time to gasp for air. Water poured into my nostrils as my arms went limp. I felt like someone had squeezed me harder than a bellows at the hearth. My clasp grew dim in the murky water, and my eyes rolled back. The darkness seeped through my mind, churning with the currents.
A hand latched around my wrist and yanked me upward. The grip was strong, and a breath later, I emerged from the water, taking a long gulp of air.
Bella swam beside me, her dark hair plastered around her face. Her eyes still glowed golden-brown, worry etched on her forehead. “You okay?” she asked.
I nodded. “I feel sick!” I shouted over the wind bashing against the ocean.
“You use your clasp too much!” Bella pointed for the shoreline. We must have drifted farther than I thought. In the dim haze of misty rain, I could see the outline of dark land in the distance. Julian stood on the edge of the rocks, one hand over his eyes, staring after us.
Vomit roiled up through my throat. I turned away from Bella and coughed up a lungful of sea water and what little was left in my stomach. Her fingers trailed down to my hand and squeezed it.
I blinked at Bella and then glanced over her shoulder to see a dark cloud swarming through the water and arrowing at us. The fish.
“Swim! Now!” I shouted.
We flung ourselves forward, chopping at the water with our arms and kicking. Little splashes reached my ears as the school of fish rocketed through the waves, leaping into the air and plunking down beside us. One chomped at my foot. I cried out, thrashing my leg and loosening the thing's grip.
Bella screamed as one of them flopped toward her face. She stopped swimming and swung her arms wide, smacking the fish and sending it flying off into the waves.
More of the fish drove for us, and I held up my already weak forearm and willed the clasp to do something. A thin swath of light zipped through the air in lightning streaks, striking fish out of the water with blasts of smoke. Bella swung her arms at the ones close enough to leap at us, mouths open, sharp teeth snapping. The water dropped behind us, and we plummeted downward to the bottom of the wave. The fish leaped out, careening over our heads and slamming into the side of a large ship poking through the mist.
Bella and I glanced up as two ropes fell down to the water.
A distant shout echoed across the ocean. I grabbed the rope and peeked back, watching Julian wave his arms frantically at us. I swallowed the bile in my throat and pulled myself up on the rope. Bella grabbed onto the other one, and the ropes reeled toward the top.
My feet pressed against the hull of the ship, and I scrambled upward until I had flopped over the railing in a heap. Two men heaved Bella over the side and flung her to the ground next to me. We crouched side by side, peering up at the tall mast flying black flags and the circle of men and women holding long cutlasses at our throats.
The people on deck wore loose vests and billowy shirts tied with dark string around their necks. Leather hats with three corners sat on their heads, some tipped to the side, others with wet feathers plastered against the sides.
Rain pattered onto the deck. I gulped. “Thank you for rescuing us.”
Three short claps rang out. A man with stringy dark hair and a patch over one eye stepped through the ring of deckhands. He smirked at me and clucked his tongue. “Well, fancy that. We meet again, Master Runner.”
My eyes widened. “Bonaventure,” I whispered. “The pirate.”
“Aye, the one and same, lad. I never imagined I'd be findin' ye again.”
“You are the real Bonaventure, right?”
The man squinted his one good eye at me and grimaced. “Someone goin' and impersonatin' the one and only Bonaventure?”
“Not a someone, but a something. A prism. In the woods.”
Bonaventure's eyebrow rose, and his fingers trembled. He waved a hand at one of the men standing over us. “Take them to my quarters. Quickly. And set a course—”
“Take us to Riverfork!” I shouted. “Please! We have to get there!”
The pirate tilted his head to the side. “Riverfork, eh? What 'appens to be waitin' amongst the reeds for ye in that puff of a town?”
I opened my mouth, but the clasp on my arm grew hot, and my tongue stuck fast to the back of my teeth.
“He can't say, sir,” Bella responded.
“So the lass does speak.” Bonaventure held a finger against his nose and sniffed. “Hurry. The quarters.”
One of the pirates grabbed my elbow and yanked me to my feet, dragging me across the deck toward an ornate door with stained glass windows along either side. Each window had the shape of a rose outlined in red glass and small shards poking out where thorns might have been. He flung the door open and shoved me inside, taking Bella's hand from another pirate on deck and giving her a gentler push into the captain's quarters.
The door slammed shut behind us, rattling the roses in the window. I banged on the door. “Let us out! Somebody!”
“Quiet down in there!” I heard a gruff voice shout back at me. “Or I’ll give ye something to weep over!”
I pivoted slowly, taking in the whole room with shaking hands. A lantern hung from a hook in the planked ceiling, an orange glow spreading across the room. Maps had been tacked to the walls with daggers at each corner, blood red trails tracing across the land masses. A red desk sat beneath a sprawling window. Through the beveled glass, I could see the waves churning through the mist.
I took a slow breath and ran a hand across my wet hair. A chill coursed through my shoulders. I needed to dry off. So did Bella.
She stood under the largest map of all, a long yellowed parchment with inked outlines of the five islands of Abra. She leaned on her right foot, tapping out a slow beat on the pleats of a wet dress. “Which island are you from?” she asked without turning around.
I stepped up beside her, tracing a finger around the shores of Jedros. “Here,” I whispered. “What about you?”
Bella stared at the map. “I don't know where I come from.”
My brow furrowed. “What?”
She turned those golden-brown eyes at me. “I don't know where I come from.”
“Like what island you're from? Everyone's from one of these five islands. The whole world. So you must be from one too.” I pointed at the big island. “Castos? That's where the queen lives. And where I'm . . . stationed I guess you'd call it. As a runner.”
She shook her head and twisted her mouth to one side. “No.” Bella spread her hands across the map. “I'm not from any of these places.”
“Another thing you just know?” I asked.
Bella nodded slowly.
I stared at her, watching the way her eyes scanned the map, the way her forehead crinkled as she thought, the slight twitch in her temple. The white glow had faded slightly, but it still emanated from her dark skin.
“Why would I be sent to find you?”
Bella glanced at me. “I already told you. We’re going to change everything.”
“But how? Why? What for?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
I tapped my boot. “Because I need lots of answers.”
Bella slipped into a tall black chair along the wall, pressing her fingertips against her forehead.
I placed one hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “What do you remember?”
“Small visions. Waking up cold on the floor of that shack. And a field filled with blue flowers for miles, stretching up to the base of a mountain. Or maybe a range of mountains. And . . .” she trailed off.
“It’s weird. One of those things you only ever have feelings for, but not the words.”
I shuffled, squinting at her in the gloom. “Try.”
Bella sighed, straightening out her dress, water dripping to the planks. “I feel . . . old. Like I’ve lived for so long I cannot remember a time before I existed.” She shook her head, frustrated and groaning, standing quickly and clenching her fists. “That’s not it. I don’t know how else to describe it!” The glow around her skin brightened slightly, and I took a step back.
“Why do you glow?”
“What?” She glanced down at her hands, eyes widening, and then stared at me. “I don’t know. I don’t know what this is.” Bella rushed to me, grabbing my shirt in two fists. “Eric, what’s wrong with me? Is something wrong with me?”
“I don’t know. Just take a deep breath. Breathe.”
The door flung open behind us. Bonaventure stood in the entry, rain slamming the deck now and streaking his hair down both sides of his face. He rushed in, pulling the door closed behind him. A dagger whipped out of the brown leather coat he wore. He pointed it at me.
“So. How does the rebellion fare?” he asked.
I peeked at Bella. She shrugged.
Bonaventure squinted at us. “I know ye're on a job. Clasped and all. Question is what is it 'xactly? And for whom?” The pirate side-stepped toward us, dagger still pointed our direction. “And my guessin'? Ye can't tell nobody about nothing. Typical of the more secretive job purchasers.” He eyed Bella and stuck out his tongue. She shuffled to the side but stood her ground.
“What do you want with us?” I asked.
Bonaventure leaned close, shadows cascading over his face. “To know what importance ye might have to the queen. The both of ye. Talk's been spreadin'. Talk about a runner with an unusual clasp and unusual . . . abilities might we say.”
He pointed the dagger at my clasp. “Do ye know what a clasp like that would be worth to the right people? Worth it's weight in gold, that it would.”
“What would someone want a used clasp for?” Bella asked, tilting her head sideways.
“Ah, that's a grand question.” Bonaventure backed away, crossed to the desk, and slid open a drawer, keeping his one eye on us the whole time. He pulled out a clasp and dropped it on the desk. “Remember this, lad?”
I swallowed. Saltha's clasp. A flash of her dark hair twisting around her face as she vanished into purple mist shot through my mind. I blinked twice, shook my head, and then nodded slowly, a twinge of pain rippling through my gut.
Bonaventure smirked. “I thought ye might. Precious commodity these clasps are. To the right people. Most assume that once a runner's disappeared in a plume of purple that their last worldly possession is nigh useless.” He traced his chin stubble with the edge of the dagger. “But truth is, there are buyers for such rarities. Buyers on the far side of Vos are always looking for more clasps to take deep into the jungles. Rumor has it there be a fanatical group of clasp seekers, experimenting with the gems and their unusual properties.”
He licked his lips and stared at my clasp. “What they would give for one so valuable as yours is beyond reckoning.” He held out a grizzled hand. “Give it to me, lad. And I'll let the girl live out her wee days.”
I shook my head. “I can't take it off. If I try, I'll—”
Bonaventure splayed his fingers wide. “Disappear into the purple ether. Never seen again. I'm afraid I don't really care too much about that problem.” His arm extended and the dagger point reach out under my neck. “Don't make me spill a drop of yer blood in these fine chambers of mine. I just had the floor swabbed.”
Vanishing into purple smoke. What would that feel like? What would be after that? Nothing? Something? Everything? I didn't know. And from the way my hands shook, I didn't think I wanted to know. I wasn't ready to die. The thought made my breath catch at the back of my throat.
“I can't,” I whispered.
Bonaventure narrowed his eye. “Too bad.”
Bella swung out with her hand, smacking Bonaventure in the side with a fist. He doubled over, dropping the dagger to the planks. He glared at her, at us, and then rushed forward, both hands out. We dove to either side, and the pirate smashed his shoulder against the hull.
Bonaventure stood up and wiped a fist across his mouth. “Makin' a fool of me, are ye? I don't take kindly to that!” He grabbed the dagger from the corner of the map and swung it wide, barely missing my arm.
A shout echoed outside the captain's quarters.
“They're going to come in!” Bella cried. She darted across the floor and latched the wooden door.
“And now you locked us in,” I said, keeping both eyes trained on Bonaventure's dagger. Fists pounded on the door followed by muffle cries.
“I want that clasp!” Bonaventure said, springing forward and slashing with the dagger. I hopped back, missing another swipe. “Even if I have to cut it from ye, I will have it, I will sell it, and then I'll be rich beyond imaginin'.”
I backed against the wall opposite the maps, reached down, and grabbed a long candlestick, and swung it as Bonaventure rushed at me. The candlestick clocked him in the cheek, drawing blood. The pirate stumbled forward, driving the knife toward my face. I grabbed his arm with both hands, trying to push him away. Bella ran over, tackling Bonaventure from the side. The knife clattered to the planks as Bonaventure and Bella rolled into the desk. He struck her across the face, shoving her aside. The white glow over Bella's skin intensified, and I could feel the skin on my arms tightening as the light reached me.
Bonaventure seemed stunned as the glow washed over him. Bella scrambled up, holding out her hands and staring at them. The pirate stared up at her, and his mouth fell open. He mumbled something under his breath, but I couldn't hear it. The stained glass around the door shattered, and a hand with a fingerless glove reached in and unlatched the door.
One of the pirates burst inside, cutlass held out. “Cap'n. We've got problems.”
Bonaventure could not take his eyes of Bella's glowing face.
The pirate in the door followed his captain's gaze and stared at Bella. “It's her,” he whispered, dropping his cutlass, whipping around, and diving over the edge of the ship's railing with a strangled cry.
The rain fell through the open doorway, and I stared out at the deck. A large ship with red flags drifted over the waves beyond the prow of the pirate's boat. A line of female soldiers stood at the railing, spears held up to their shoulders.
“Queen's forces!” a pirate on deck shouted.
My heart felt like it had dropped to the ocean bottom. The queen was here. For me.
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.