Water splashed against my face. The cage had sunk halfway into the waves, and the recruits around me kicked off the pebbles and reached for the bars overhead. The pales had scurried down the shoreline. Several of them clung to the beams, their gray spindly fingers grasping for ears, hair, elbows; anything they could grab.
One of the pales wrapped its arm around her waist. She kicked and scratched and thrashed, trying to free herself. I leaped over and grabbed the pale's arms, yanking downward. It screeched at me with all its teeth bared. Unphased, I screamed back.
In the confusion, Saltha threw her elbow out, connecting with the monster's face. It howled and released her, flipping off the cage and into the water. Drenched and furious, she stood up and swiped her hair back with both hands. We grabbed the arms of other recruits and pulled them to the center of the cage, safely out of pale reach. Two of them scrambled above us and waved their long fingers through the openings, hissing and clacking their teeth.
“Duck!” I whispered.
We crouched, our chins resting in the warm water.
One of the recruits smirked and punched my shoulder. “They can't reach us. Good on ya.”
I smiled, rubbed my shoulder, and nodded.
The pales hissed, slowly circling the half-sunken cage. Some of them clawed at the beams and then darted backward again.
Saltha ducked lower as a pale sprawled onto its belly and grasped at her hair. “Sure would be nice if some of those Runners showed up!”
I glanced around, searching for the Runners. None of them were nearby. One had been taken down by the pales. Another had been at the front of the wagon but must have fallen off in the scuffle. Where the other three were, I didn't know.
And then the pales threw back their heads and wailed in one long, sad tone. “What are they doing?” I asked.
We watched as the pales jumped from the cage and formed a circle in the water, their hands thrown behind their backs as they wailed in some bizarre ritual. My stomach twisted once and then twice. Something was happening. This was not good.
A distant rumbling echoed down the hill toward the water. A row of pales raced down the grassy slope toward us. They joined with the others and stalked toward the wagon, grabbing the beams and yanking backward. The cage slid as thirty of the creatures wrapped their hands around the wood and dragged it towards the shore. We fell back into the water, slamming into each other.
I fell, waves sliding up my nose. We scraped across the pebbly ocean bottom until the cage was free of the water. The pales circled the cage, grabbed the crossbeams, and pulled. The wood cracked, and I could see splinters flying in every direction as the pales dug their clawed feet into the pebbly shore.
One of the beams snapped off. We huddled together, watching as the clacking jaws of the pales loomed over us.
A spindly hand reached into the wagon. I kicked at it and scored a glancing blow. Then the hand was back, and the creature grabbed my foot and yanked me out of the cage with incredible strength.
Dangling upside down from the creature's hands, I grabbed the pale around the waist and pulled myself close enough to hook one foot around its neck and jerk downward. The pale screeched, let go of me, and grabbed its neck. It fell back into another pale as I tumbled onto the cage.
I sprang to my feet. The horde of creatures stamped their feet, spread their clawed fingers, and screeched at me.
“Eric! Look out!”
I whipped around as another pale grabbed my shoulders and heaved me into the air.
A loud, thundering noise shot across the fields. Something slammed into the pale behind me. It staggered for a moment and then dropped my leg as it fell off the side of the cage.
The other pales shot their heads up and stared in the direction of the fog-covered bridge. A rider on the back of a dark horse galloped out of the cloud, a long rifle in her hands. She wore a duster much like the other Runners, but she had a green, wide-brimmed hat resting on her head. Long silvery hair curled and hung down to her shoulders. She whipped the reins back and forth, steering the horse and wagon. She cocked the rifle again. She rested the stock on her shoulder, aimed, and shot, hitting one of the pales square in the chest with what looked like a burlap sack of rice. The pale flew off the cage with the impact.
“Git away from my recruits, ya filthy vermin!”
The woman charged right up to the wagon, smashing her way through the horde of pales. The creatures wailed and darted away on all fours, screeching as they disappeared over the slope and out of sight.
“Well, then.” The woman reached a hand out to me and smirked. “Already gettin' into the thick o' things, are ya? I like that in a recruit.”
I took her hand and stood. “I guess so.”
The woman lifted the brim of her hat and raised an eyebrow. “That's 'I guess so, ma'am.'”
I nodded. “I guess so, ma'am.”
“You're learnin'.” The woman turned her horse to the side. It stamped a hoof. “Now where are those Runners? Good for nuttin' hooligans. If they're not careful, their gems gonna go off on 'em, and then they'll be right a bit sorry, that they will.”
She pointed the rifle at me. “You. Keep the rest of 'em in line until I git back. Even one of 'em is gone, and the whole lot of you are gonna regret it. Got that?”
“Yes. Got it.”
“That's, 'Yes. Got it, ma'am.”
I blinked. “Sorry ma’am. Yes. Got it, ma'am.”
The woman smirked again. “Good. You'll have it down. Stay put. And yell or somethin' if any of those pales decide on a reunion.” She kicked her heels into the flanks of her horse. “Yah!” The horse trotted away from the wagon and over the edge of the rise.
Saltha scrambled out of the wagon and climbed down to the grass. “Perfect. Let's get out of here.”
I shook my head. “We can't.”
Saltha flicked her hair over a shoulder. “Eric. We have to escape! We won’t get another chance!”
I held up my forearm. The clasp with the gem shone even in the moonlight. “Forget about these?”
She glanced at her arm, the gem in her silver clasp turning as purple as an eggplant. “What about it? We find some way to take it off after we escape!” Saltha grabbed the end of the clasp with her fingers and pulled.
Another boy from the cage shot his hand out. “No! Don't try to take it off!”
Saltha sniffed and scowled. “Why?”
“Because.” The boy climbed to the top of the cage and leaned over the edge. Lodan, from our village. He had long light-colored hair hanging over his face that he pushed back with a scarred hand. “I've heard nasty rumors. Like if you take it off, you die.”
Saltha shook her head. A single tear crawled down her cheek. “I . . . I can't be . . . a slave!”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then I turned to her. “Saltha . . . we were already slaves. What do you think working away our lives in that rice paddy was all about? So we didn't have a clasp on our arms. We were still trapped there. Boss Mandel wasn't going to let us leave.”
“At least our families were there!”
I snorted. “What families? They were ghosts.” I waved a hand at the cart of recruits, their faces pressed against the beams. “This is all the family we have now.”
Saltha dropped her hands to her sides and stared hard at me. Fear trickled through her eyes, and she slowly shook her head. “You . . . almost sound like you want to be a Runner.”
I glanced at the pale footprints covering the grass. “Maybe I do,” I whispered. “Maybe I always did.”
“Wow . . . I would never have thought,” Saltha took a step back. “After what they did to your brother?” Tears fell freely down her face. “I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm leaving.” She darted away from the cage, glancing over her shoulder only once.
Lodan jumped to the grass. “We can't let her leave! You heard what that lady said!”
I swallowed. I wanted to run with Saltha. Leave. Escape. But there was part of me that wanted this life too. Maybe the others thought I was crazy. Let them think that. I couldn't waste the rest of my life farming rice.
Lodan and I raced after Saltha, begging her to return. She had both flats on the passway leading through the fog, over the water, and to another island when she stumbled to the ground. Her face turned purple as we came up beside her.
“What's wrong?” I shouted.
Saltha had both hands at her throat, gasping for air like she couldn't breathe.
Lodan pointed at the clasp on her forearm. The gem was pulsing purple now, light streamed up from the center of the stone and into the air. “It's her clasp! I told you we can't leave!” He threw an arm out at me and pulled me back.
“Wait! We have to help her!”
“We can't,” Lodan whispered.
I shoved him aside and ran to Saltha. “What can I do?”
Saltha stared at me and tried to speak. She groaned, and then the light from the gem intensified, sending a stronger beam into the air. Purple light dribbled around Saltha. Lodan grabbed me from behind, yanking me backward. We fell to the grass. I kicked and thrashed, but Lodan held me too tightly.
“No! We can help her!” I shouted, trying to slide my arms out from his grip.
Lodan interlocked his fingers. “We can't! She's too far gone!”
The purple light formed a ring around Saltha, lifting her into the air. She spun around, faster and faster until the purple light seeped through every inch of her body, shining brighter until she vanished from sight with a spark. Her silver clasp fell to the stones on the passway with a clatter.
Lodan released me, and I crawled forward, reaching out for Saltha's clasp. Smoke rose from the edges of the gem, and I noticed a brief reflection of her face in the stone before cracks raced across the surface and the gem went dark.
Saltha was gone.
“Well, now.” A horse clopped up behind me. The silver-haired woman stood over Lodan and me with a frown. “Too bad. Seemed promising, she did. But then, we'll never know now.”
“What happened to her?” I asked. The woman glared at me, and I cleared my throat. “Ma'am?”
The rider nodded. “Gone. Out of existence. That's what happens when you try to leave old Gratta. So don't.”
“What’s Gratta?” I asked.
“I'm Gratta. And I ain't gonna be happy if the whole lot of you decide vacation sounds nicer than workin' for me.” Gratta directed her horse toward the mangled cage. “All right! All y'all need to climb on down outta that cage!”
The other recruits scrambled out and hurried over to where Lodan and I stood. Three of the Runners who had captured us came bounding over the rise. One had a nasty cut on his arm. Half of his sleeve was missing, but he grasped a whip in his hand, ready to flick. The other two limped slightly; bokens held ready.
“We better go, Gratta,” the one with the cut said. “Loads of those pales in the canyon. Best to put some distance between us and them.”
Gratta squinted at the canyon in the distance. “They won't cross the passway most likely.” She spat. “Probably like the weather out here. Not that I do. The sooner we get back to drier temps the happier I'll be.” She turned her gaze on me. “And y'all don't wanna see me unhappy. Bad times for everybody.”
She spat again and led her horse in front of the group. “I'm y'all's bookkeeper now. I decide on jobs and tell y'all what's what. Try to leave, and, well.” Gratta grabbed a short hook from the tool belt around her waist and flicked it out. A long pole extended from the back end of the hook, and she used it to catch up Saltha's clasp. “Or this is what happens to ya. I don't wanna lose any more potential Runners. Bad for business. Step lively! This passway won't be too dicey.” Gratta turned her horse again and clopped onto the stone bridge. She leaned over and muttered at me, “At least I think it won't.”
I sniffed, glanced one last time at the place Saltha had disappeared in a blast of purple light, and marched into the fog with the rest of the recruits. With every step, I forced the gnawing hole deeper into my gut. Saltha had been my best friend. Had been. Now she was gone.
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.