Bonaventure rolled onto his gut, pushed off his fists, and stood. “Ready the cannons!” he screamed. He whipped around and shoved a finger at my chest. “Do not let them take her. If the queen finds this girl, nothing will ever be the same again.” He darted out the door, slamming it shut behind him.
I rushed over and flicked the lock.
“Eric!” Bella shouted. “It's happening again!”
I spun around and stared. Bella's skin glowed. Her hair stuck straight up, and her eyes widened with fear. “Close your eyes, and just breathe, okay?”
A cannon blast echoed beneath us. Bella's mouth moved, but I couldn't make out the words. My ears rang as the whole ship rocked to the side. We stumbled to the planks, rolling toward the hull and slamming into a long red chest. The latch popped up, and I spotted a row of swords inside.
I grabbed one and yanked it out, holding it toward the door as it swung open. A female soldier stood silhouetted against a flash of lightning outside. She pointed a spear at us and drove forward; her mouth open in a cry.
I flipped over, jumped to my feet, and swung the sword haphazardly. The soldier's spear clanged against the blade, and she pushed forward, reaching for my hair, and grabbing hold. She yanked downward, sending the blade skittering across the planks as the ship rocked again. Bella swung her fists at the soldier's back. As soon as her hands made contact, jolts of energy raced across the soldier's metal armor, sending her crumpling to the ground.
My ears slowly regained their senses. Shouts mingled with the clangs of spears and swords echoed through the rainfall on deck. The door flapped open, and I could see pirates fighting against soldiers, falling to the swings of their spears. Bonaventure stood near the ship's wheel, one hand on it, while swinging a cutlass at the soldiers storming up the stairs toward him.
A gangplank ran over the water toward the queen's ship, and there on deck, under a shroud of black awnings, was a woman wrapped with shawls from her neck and around to her forehead. No part of her face was visible. She wore a trailing gown of sparkling purple, which seemed to draw all light toward itself. She leaned on a thin rapier like it was a cane, also tinted purple with shards of crystal glinting with every flash of lightning.
“The queen. It's her,” Bella whispered at my side. She reached out and took my hand, and I felt a strange jolt pass over my shoulders. Bella's hair settled back down, a few unwieldy strands stubbornly reaching for the sky.
The queen tilted her shawled head in our direction, pointing through the murk at bothof us. A shriek echoed through the air, and we fell to our knees, clutching the sides of our heads as the scream grew louder. The glass window behind us shattered, sending shards tinkering to the planks.
I yanked Bella forward, and we stumbled ahead as glass lanterns cracked around us. We emerged from the captain's quarters to see Julian standing on deck in front of us; a black sword pointed at our throats.
“No one denies the queen's runners.” The blade poked at my sternum. “Not even you, brother.” He reached into a pocket at his side and withdrew the purple shard.
Light sucked into the shard, and for one swirling moment, all we could see was gold, purple, and white light intertwining together, sucking into the shard before my head rolled to the side and slammed against the deck, leaving only blackness in view.
* * *
A gentle rolling motion lulled me back to consciousness. My eyes blinked open one at a time, and I saw a single fire lantern dangling from the metal ceiling above me. I rolled to my side and scanned the bare room. No exits. No doors. No furniture. No way out. Metal also lined the walls, with a single beveled window to my left. A figure stood behind the window, both palms pressed against the glass. The figure's mouth hovered around a metal grate about the size of my fist.
“Even in such a short time, I've heard many rumors about you.” A woman's voice. Commanding. Every word soaked up my attention like a wet rag. Clothing rustled behind the window. “Do you know who I am?”
“The queen.” I pushed up to my elbows and scurried against the wall opposite her, holding up my clasp.
“Ahh,” she whispered. Her fingers traced a circle on the window. “Such a small thing with so much power. And soon it will be wholly mine.” The woman chuckled. “But I wouldn't bother with that trinket. I've drained your special little gem of its power.” Her hand went to a glowing crystal shard around her neck. She ran a finger along one edge. “Gems are always so unique. Each one glows distinct colors. Each one has distinct properties. But every so often, a gem comes along so unique; it could be considered legendary.”
I held up the clasp anyway, trying to force light from the gem. Trying to force anything to happen at all. I grunted from the effort, feeling sweat trickle down my face. But not a single beam of light escaped my forearm.
She tapped her fingernails against the glass. “You've proved quite elusive to my guards. Even to Julian, my best runner. But now, I've trapped you.”
Julian. My own brother. The queen’s best runner. A strange mixture of emotions flooded through my heart. Fear. Sadness. Betrayal. Hope that Julian might care enough to rescue me. I watched the queen’s gown rustle from side to side, her faceless visage, shawls wrapped loosely around her head, facing me.
“What are you going to do with me?” I held up my forearm. “Sounds like you don’t need me anymore if this is useless.”
“Study you until you die.” She let out a short chuckle. “You did know that was going to happen, didn't you? It's not hard to guess what your running job might be. Collect the girl, bring her to such and such a place. But do you know what happens when a runner fails?”
Her fingernails scraped down the glass, leaving long scratches behind. I threw both hands over my ears and winced. “When a runner fails, they die. Their gem cracks into a thousand pieces, and their souls are consumed by purple light.”
A lump grew at the back of my throat, and I tried to swallow it. “What are you going to do to her?”
“None of your concern. I'd say you have much more pressing things to do, like consider how you wish to spend your last days.” The queen tapped the shard around her neck. “I could make sure you're very comfortable for the end. Or I can make you suffer. Choose to help me discover the secrets of your gem. What exactly makes it so powerful? You? Or the gem itself? Help me, and I'll give you anything you desire. Refuse me, and I know ways to make you suffer you have never dreamed could exist. Do you know what happens when someone’s clasp is pulled from their arm a bit at a time?” She leaned forward to the grate. “Think it over.”
Her footsteps echoed down the hallway outside the cell until they faded out of hearing. I leaned back against the wall and let the tears come. They streaked my face and slipped into my open mouth as I cried out, pounding a fist against the metal floor. How had this happened? I was a runner. I had taken a job. I was so close to getting Bella to Riverfork. I--
Who was I really fooling? Who was I to think I could go up against the queen's runners? Everyone knew they never failed a mission. Ever. Anything she wanted, she got. All she had to do was send out her runners, and it was done. I should have accepted my fate the moment I realized who Julian ran for.
My brother's face filled my mind's eye, hatred seeping past every pore as he held that crystal at me. It had felt like life itself was draining from my skin, pulling at every piece of me until I was nothing but an empty shell.
I glanced at the gem on my wrist. The color was so faint I could barely see a glow. I held up the clasp and squinched my eyes closed, trying to force it to do something. I clenched my teeth together, trying to make anything happen. My forehead hurt from the effort. I gasped, and a weak beam of light dribbled out of the gem and splashed to the floor, dissipating against the metal.
I slumped back. It was useless. Any advantage I’d had was gone. Bella was taken. I would soon be dead for failing the job. I wondered how long it would take before I vanished into a glimmer of purple light. Would it hurt? Would it be fast, slow, like nothing had happened?
I shook my head. I pounded my fists against the metal. I screamed as loud as I could until my voice ran hoarse. None of this was fair. This entire existence didn't seem fair. Born to parents who glanced the other way when I was taken. Slaving in rice fields day after day only to be taken to another form of slavery for a new master: running across the islands of Abra to my death. A meaningless life for a meaningless person. That's all I really was in the end. Meaningless.
“Word of advice?”
I glanced through my tears to see another figure standing behind the glass. A boy older than me with dark hair knotted on the top of his head. Julian.
I rushed up to the glass and pounded a fist on it. “Julian! Let me out of here!”
He smirked through the metal grate where his mouth hung. “Not likely, Eric.”
“Then what are you doing here? Curious?” I spread my arms wide. “Well, here I am! Take a good look already!”
“I'm not here to gloat. I'm here to convince you to listen to the queen. She's a very powerful woman. Do what she says, and it'll make your life easier. At least until you die.”
I swallowed. “How can you let me just die in here?”
“Face it, little brother. One of us had to go. We had the same job. One of us was going to win, and one was going to lose. Too bad it was you.” He paused and sighed. “Actually it really is too bad that it was you. I've heard things, Eric. Good things. Interesting things. Actually, most people have heard about the Runner of Golden Light.”
He leaned toward the glass, one elbow perched against it. “Tell me how you do it. What's your secret?”
I shrugged. “I don't know how it works. But if it did right now, I'd smack you so hard you wouldn't remember.”
Julian laughed. “Nice. At least you've got a fighting spirit.” He brushed a hand across his forehead, pulling back a single strand of black hair. “I take it you're not going to let the queen experiment on your clasp willingly.”
I spit. “I'm not an animal.”
“Oh really? Because from where I stand you sure seem like you're locked in a cage.” He snarled and pounded his fists once against the window. “We're all caught in this cage, Eric.” He pointed at his own clasp. “I'm caught, you're caught, everyone who's ever been clasped with one of these is caught. Playing their games. Running their jobs. All of us. In the same boat. There is no freedom from this. The girl isn't going to help you, that's for sure.”
“Is Bella okay? Where is she?” I demanded.
Julian stuck out his lip. “Aw, you like her, don't you? That's cute. You only met what? An hour ago?”
“What's happening to her?”
My brother shook his head. “Always concerned about the wrong things. Nothing's happening to her yet. But don't worry, she'll be dead too before this is all over.” He sighed and stepped back. “Well, I came to see if you'd be willing to play the game, but apparently you're not. Head stuck on your job. Probably a good quality in a runner. I think I'd have thought less of you if you didn't care so much.”
“Julian, listen.” I took a deep breath. “We're . . . we're family. Doesn't that mean anything to you?”
The air hung between us for a moment. And then Julian smacked his lips. “You died to me the moment I started running for the queen. We're part of new families now. And it looks like yours wasn't strong enough to—”
A boomerang flipped through the air and smacked into Julian's forehead, sending him flying sideways to the ground. I pressed against the glass trying to peek down the hallway. A female soldier rushed up, leaned over Julian for a moment, and then spun a metal wheel by the glass. The whole window slid upwards.
“Well, git out here already!”
I gasped. No one could forget that demanding drawl. “Telisa!”
Telisa rolled her eyes. She wore the same uniform the queen's guards wore, helmet, armor, spear, and all. She slid the helmet off her head, letting her single braid fall free to her shoulder. “Yeah, well, we're gonna have a lotta problems if we don't git out of here on the double! Stupid enough of me to rescue ya in the first place. Hard enough tryin’ ta find ya after splittin’ ways back in the woods.”
I smiled. “I didn't know you cared so much. Should I be flattered?”
Telisa smacked my shoulder. “I don't care. Now git out here!”
I rushed out and stared at Julian's crumpled form on the ground. My brother's purple crystal necklace still hung around his neck. I reached down and snapped it off the chain, sliding it into my pocket.
“What's that?” Telisa asked.
“Not sure. But I think it might help.”
Telisa shrugged. “All right. Let's stick 'im in there and go!”
We dragged Julian's still form inside the cell and rolled him to the back corner, facing the wall before we hurried back out, spun the wheel, and watched the window crash down to the floor again.
“How long do you think he'll be out?” I asked.
“Maybe a few hours. Enough time for us to git a lead on. This ship's in the harbor at Rhinejoon. Queen's been waiting for some special entourage to arrive before she embarks for the castle west of here.”
“Where's Bella? Did you find her?”
Telisa pointed down the hallway at an iron door with a single dark porthole, glowing white from the inside. “There.”
I pounded down the hallway and peeked through. Bella had herself wrapped up in a ball, lying on the floor. I banged on the porthole with a fist. “Bella!”
“Shhh! I hear something!” Telisa hissed.
Footsteps clomped above deck and stomped into formation.
“I think the queen's entourage has arrived. Time to move, kid!”
There were no wheels to spin on this door. A single round hole was right beneath the porthole, etched into the metal doorframe.
I glanced up and saw her face, hair wisping through the air around her shoulders.
“I can't open it!” I shouted at her.
A rumbling sound shot through the hallway. The whole ship rocked from side to side, and I stumbled backward into Telisa. We landed in a heap on the metal floors, watching a seam creak around the whole back wall of the hallways, complete with Bella's porthole and prison. An entire section of the ship dislodged from the side of the boat, and open air streamed into the passage. I could see the ocean rollicking into the distance and a deserted port town with boarded up shops lining the harbor.
Four enormous winged lizards flapped through the air, purple skin glistening in the early morning light. Fire licked out of their nostrils, slipping into the air before disappearing in plumes of gray smoke. Two riders in purple hooded robes sat on the backs of the creatures, clutching long chains that wrapped around the beasts' snouts. The lizards were easily as long as the ship with sharp, black claws scraping at the sky. Long chains hung from their bellies, connecting to four massive rings on each corner of Bella's prison.
And on the very top of the prison sat the queen on a purple throne, surrounded by forty warriors with sharp, two-bladed swords, shawls wrapped around their mouths.
The queen shrieked, and the four lizards swung away to the west, carrying Bella inside her prison and soaring over Rhinejoon, leaving Telisa and me behind, waves crashing against the ship.
Laughter echoed. I spun around and saw Julian pressed against the glass, chuckling darkly. “You're going to die now, Eric. As soon as the queen is through with your friend, you're going to die, and everything you've hoped to accomplish here is for nothing!”
Telisa slapped my cheek. “Don't listen to him. He doesn't know what he's talking about.” She pointed toward the harbor, between two dark buildings. In the shadows, I could see two horses poking their noses into the morning light.
Poinsettia and Zinnia. They were here.
A sharp pain shot up my arm. I winced and grabbed my wrist. A single purple crack had traced across the surface of my gem.
Soldiers marched down the steps behind us, and we both leaped into the open air, splashing into the water, and swimming frantically for the shoreline.
I focused on swimming. One stroke at a time. Because focusing on what else I was thinking was too difficult. But the thought slipped through my mind before I could stop it: I was going to die.
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.