The pits slowed as I watched that pitter fall toward me, pincers-first, in slow motion.
I had always wondered what it might feel like.
I had always wondered if it would really hurt.
Or if I wouldn't even be aware it was happening at all.
But it was happening.
The pincers snapped toward me, the gullet of the pitter yawning open, sharp teeth lining the insides of its throat, legs a blurry scuttle of movement on either side of the monster.
I didn't want to die.
I wanted to live. I had to live.
As soon as that thought registered in my brain, a voice whispered into my ear. No one was there. Maybe death was talking. Maybe it was my brain. Rattled. But I heard the voice.
"If you want to live, then live. Use the gem."
And then something happened I couldn't explain. A rush of energy surged through my body and focused in on my forearm. The forearm trapped by the wriggling pitter waiting for its brother to mash its pincers into my gut so it could chomp on an arm or a leg for itself.
The gem in my clasp burned hot. Pain ratcheted up my arm as golden light burst from the gem and blazed right through the stunned pitter over my arm. Its eyes glowed golden before beams of light burst through every socket, blazing hotter until the pitter exploded around me, sending monster guts flying through the air and smashing into the other pitter that loomed over me.
Golden light still shot from my gem. I screamed in pain and aimed it at the pitter over my head, blasting a hole right through its midsection. The pitter screeched and fell backward.
A golden haze fell over my world. My arm ached. My neck throbbed. Blood rushed through my head as I pushed myself to a standing position. Screams echoed all around me, shouts, screeches, rumbling as I focused the golden light on the other pitters. The other recruits fell to the ground as I screamed and screamed and shot pitter after pitter, watching them explode with golden light.
"Eric! Eric!" My name wafted to me from behind. I slowly spun around and saw Lodan standing there, eyes wide with fear, watching my face wrench in pain.
"ERIC!" Lodan yelled again.
I dropped my arm to my side. My gem faded back to a milky white color with the slightest golden tinge. The other recruits stood up, staring at me with their mouths open. I stumbled to the side, pain filling my chest. I gasped at the air and saw black spots edge in on my vision.
Lodan placed a hand on my shoulder. "Eric?"
Telisa stood over me, staring with an open mouth.
Pitters lay blasted to shreds all around us. Their legs finishing their final scuttles in this life before growing still. I had destroyed them all. All of them. Every last one was gone.
"Get . . . the flag." I rasped. My throat burned. I coughed and spat on the rock beside me.
"Eric . . . your spit . . . it's . . ."
I glanced down. The splotch of spit was golden. It glowed for a second before fading into the rock.
What was happening to me?
A girl grabbed the flag out of its holder and hoisted it into the sky. "We got it!"
Telisa still hadn't moved. She stood on the platform over the field of pits, surveying the damage, open-mouthed. Rudo and the Runner with the rapier stood on either side of her now. They stared like they could never have supposed anything like this would ever happen.
I glanced up at them.Pain coursed through my head. I shook, curling up on my side as I lay on the rock.
Telisa turned to Rudo and hissed something. A moment later he clambered out of sight. The wooden gate scraped open. Rudo trudged through the opening, sloshing past steaming piles of pitter guts until he stood over me.
I glanced up at him, my face wrenched in pain.
He reached down and grabbed my elbow, yanking me to my feet. I almost lost my balance, but he snapped his fingers at Lodan, who hurried over and threw an arm around my shoulders, propping me up. We staggered toward the entrance, past the stunned faces of the other recruits who watched me pass and shifted back. Pitter guts dripped from their hair, their arms, their pants. The same gunk dribbled down my shirt. We were all too shocked to even wipe it away.
Telisa met us outside the gate, hands on both hips. She narrowed her eyes at me and then shouted over my shoulder, "All of you! Out here now!"
The rest of the group hurried out of the pits and stood a good distance from Lodan and me. A strange silence settled over us. The distant clashing of swords and whinnying of horses echoed across the compound.
Telisa held up a fist. "No one talks about what happened here. Got it?"
The recruits stood behind me, still silent.
"Got it?" Telisa screamed.
"Yes, ma'am!" The others shouted in unison.
Telisa pointed at me. "You. You're coming with me to Gratta. Rudo, Fennier! get the rest of these scums to the showers! They stink like pitters."
Rudo and Fennier nodded and clapped their hands at the others.
"You heard her! Run!" Fennier shouted, waving her rapier at the group. I heard their boots clomp away from us, but I couldn't see them. My head lolled forward. Dust swirled around my legs.
"Let's go," Telisa muttered. In that single mutter, I could hear it. She was afraid. Afraid of me. Afraid of what I had done. I trembled and felt bile rising up my throat. I squinched my eyes shut and forced it back down as Lodan helped me stumble ahead. Footfall after footfall, sand crunching under my boots, stomach roiling back and forth, burning pain shooting up my forearm.
What exactly had I done?
"We're there," Lodan whispered.
I forced my head up. Gratta's ranch house sat in front of us. A green door with bars over a simple round window in the center of it. The house stretched in either direction about thirty feet; I counted four more windows, two on either side, all with bars covering them. The whole house was made from logs like the dormitories, but every log had been painted dark green, like the color of freshly fallen pine needles.
Telisa banged a fist on the door. "Gratta! Open up! It's important!" she growled.
I heard a scuffle inside the house and the door slid open. Gratta filled the doorframe; silver hair fell wild around her head like an untrimmed hedge. Her eyes narrowed. She gazed at Telisa, then Lodan, then me.
She pointed a gnarled finger at Lodan. "That one stays out. Bring the other inside. This had better be important."
Telisa nodded. "It is." She slapped Lodan's hand away from my shoulder and shoved him to the dirt. "Wait there."
Lodan scuttled up against the wall of logs and brought his knees up to his chest.
Telisa grabbed my arm and yanked me through the doorway. We entered a room with wooden floors that shone in the sunlight streaming through a large back window, covered with more bars. A counter ran from one end of the room to the other. Green suede couches sat against the wall facing it and the lines of bookshelves behind the counter. Rows of books with green binding and gold foiling lined the shelves, red ribbons snaking out the tops of every one. A large feather quill rested in an ink bottle on the counter, with one of the books open wide, yellowed pages facing upward.
Gratta pointed at the couch. "Lie down."
I did and closed my eyes immediately, holding my forearm. The burning had subsided a bit, and the pain had dulled to an ache.
I heard the door lock. Footsteps shuffled across the room. Then Telisa spoke. "I've never seen it before, ma'am. His clasp. The gem. It shone golden."
Gratta coughed. "Golden? You sure?"
I opened my eyes now and saw them both staring at me from beside the counter. Gratta's fingers trembled slightly, but she curled them into fists.
Telisa nodded. "Golden." She crossed her huge arms. "Blasted every last pitter with a stream of light that shot out from it. I didn't know they could even glow golden. Didn't think that was one of the colors."
"It's not." Gratta took a deep breath and brushed her silver hair back.
"Maybe we should kill him."
I gasped, choked, and scrambled to a sitting position. "Kill me?"
"Shut up," Gratta muttered. She grabbed a sharp silver letter opener from the counter and flipped it over between her fingers. Light glinted from the letter opener and flashed across my face. My heart pounded, and I could feel a slight tingling around my forearm. "Kill him." Gratta stepped across the room; letter opener gripped in her hand. It looked as sharp as any knife, long, slick, and lethal. "Supposin' the Queen finds out about this. Supposin' she hears a Runner with a golden gem is here."
I leaned back against the couch, feeling the buttons in the fabric digging into my back.
Gratta stood over me now, her shadow falling across my face. "Suppose we just let ya be. See what happens." She held up the letter opener.
The gem glowed brighter. Golden light spilled over my clasp as Gratta raised the letter opener. I held up my arms as she swung. A sheen of golden light formed over my chest. The letter opener bounced against it, and Gratta dropped it clattering to the floor as she stumbled backward. The light snapped back into my gem as Telisa caught Gratta and helped her stand back up.
"Never . . . I've never seen this," Gratta's eyes were wild.
"What's happening, ma'am?" I whispered.
Gratta pointed at the clasp on my forearm. "It's doin' things I ain't never seen a clasp do." She stepped toward me, palms up. "Let me see it."
I shook and held out my forearm. The gem still glowed a slight golden color, but it was quickly fading back to milky white. My head pounded, and golden splashes of light sparked behind my eyelids every time I blinked. Gratta wrapped her fingers around my wrist and traced a finger across the gem's surface.
"Warm," she whispered. She closed her eyes and put a hand on the clasp. Her brow furrowed for a moment, and then she opened her eyes. "Golden light . . ." She stared at me, leaning forward, searching both of my eyes. "Who are you?"
I swallowed. "Eric of Jedros."
"They're simple people–"
She gripped my wrist tighter. "Who are they? Names!"
"Yslin and Hanna. They're simple people. We plant rice and harvest it! I'm nobody."
Gratta squinted at me. "I doubt that. You're somebody. I don't know who. But you are." She glanced at the clasp again. "How'd you do it? The golden light?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. I just . . . did." The voice. The voice had told me to use the gem. For a moment I thought about telling Gratta. I looked at her, my mouth falling open. Should I tell her?
Telisa glared at me over Gratta's shoulder. Waiting.
"Don't." It was such a simple word. But it filled my head. Neither Gratta nor Telisa had said it. But the word was there. Just the same. "Don't."
"Ya mean to tell me, ya go blastin' up my pitters, but ya don't have a tumbleweedin' clue how?"
"I really don't!" That was the truth. I had no idea how it had happened.
Gratta pushed me back against the couch. "Gems only do a couple 'o things. One, is they shine. Whatever kinda job you're runnin' it shines like it. Orange for recruitin', blue for messagin', green for thievin', red for killin', and so on. But there ain't no gold color. Never seen it. Never even heard it possible."
"What do we do with him, ma'am?" Telisa stepped up beside Gratta, glaring at me. "If we can't kill him, what do we do with him?"
"That gem's protectin' 'im. I don't know how, but it is." Gratta spun around and began pacing back and forth, tapping her fingers against her forehead. "Take 'im to the Queen? She'd probably want this. As soon as she hears where he went and what he done, she gonna be descendin' over this compound like a banshee bat. I'm sure she'd love a little army of golden gemmers against the rebellion. Just love it."
"So what do we do?"
"I'm thinkin'!" Gratta snapped. Then she stopped. "I wanna know more about this. It could be mighty useful." She spun around slowly. "As soon as darkness falls, I want you to take 'im, Telisa. Take 'im to the scholars. That'd get 'im away from here for a while and also get us some answers."
"Until then, ma'am?"
Gratta lifted her chin and eyed me. "Until then I want 'im at yer side." With a snap, the old lady wrapped her fingers around Telisa's throat. She dragged the Runner toward her. "Listen close. If he gets away, I'll crack yer gem. If he dies, I'll crack yer gem. If anyone speaks a word o' where he went and what he done, I'll crack yer gem. Ya got it?"
"Got it, ma'am."
"Good." Gratta patted Telisa's cheek and smiled. "Now then. I believe it's feedin' time! So all y'all get outta here and get to the Commons!"
I stood as Telisa stomped to the door and flung it open.
I turned my head to Gratta as she blinked and smiled.
"Just remember, hon. There are more ways to kill ya than with a letter opener. You behave now, ya hear? You're gonna be my little gold digger, I reckon. And Gratta sure likes the sound o' that."
I swallowed and stepped out of the house with Telisa slamming the door behind me.
Lodan scrambled up to his feet, brushing off the backside of his pants. "What happened? Anything wrong? You okay, Eric?"
Telisa shoved Lodan in the chest with a single hand. The boy crumpled backward to the dust. "Shut up. He's fine. Doesn't he look fine to you?"
Lodan made eye contact a second and then nodded slowly. "Sure. Just fine." He stood up, brushed himself off again, and trailed behind as we headed for the Commons.
I couldn't eat. I stared at the plate in front of me, piled high with a slab of meat, green asparagus, and some kind of orange mush I couldn't identify. Telisa sat beside me, stuffing her face like a rabid panda. The other recruits and Runners eyed both of us warily, but I couldn't look back at them. I couldn't even think.
I closed both eyes and took a long, slow breath.
What had happened?
The voice. The voice that had spoken to me. What was that? I had heard it twice now. No explanation. I tried to recall how it sounded. Was it a man's voice? A woman's? A child's? No matter how hard I tried to remember, I couldn't place it.
And all this talk about gold. If gold wasn't a gem color, then how could mine have shone golden like that?
Gratta had said I was somebody.
I wish I knew who that was.
For as long as I could remember, I had always felt like some sort of human shell, rustling between rice paddies and our cottage, digging the tunnel with Saltha, staring at my parents as they stared at the walls in the dark hours of the night.
What did it even mean to be a somebody?
What did it mean to be a Runner? A recruit? A human? An Eric?
A plate clattered to the ground and shattered. My eyes popped open.
Telisa's head shot up from her plate. She jumped up, yanked a knife from her side and scanned the Commons.
A Runner with a duster on pointed at the distant sky. "Shanters! From the Queen's castle!"
Muffled screams rippled across the Commons.
I whipped around to Telisa. "Shanters? What are those?" I studied where the Runner pointed and saw a dark cloud flickering through the air, zagging toward the ground and zigging back up, headed straight for the Commons. I squinted and saw what appeared to be strange, leathery birds, flapping toward us, beady eyes trained on us.
"Get under the table, scrant," Telisa growled. "Do not let them see you."
She jumped up onto the table, knife up. Runners across the Commons raced around, leaping up onto tables. I ducked underneath the table, pulling the bench close and peering out as the shanters zoomed under the Commons awning and flew in a tight circle around the recruits and Runners. A strange, hollow voice echoed out as the shanters flew faster and faster. My hair stood on end, and my collar fluttered as the wind around us grew stronger. One of the benches scraped toward the center of the room.
"Golden light has been spilled," the voice hissed from the shanters. "The Queen knows this. Reveal the Runner."
Telisa held her ground and planted both feet between a tray of orange mush and a platter of steak. "Leave! There ain't no such thing as golden light! Get gone!"
The wind picked up, and the shanters flew faster, claws on the ends of their legs flexing. "Lies! The Queen has felt it! Reveal the Runner of the golden light!"
A shanter ducked sideways and latched both claws around the head of a Runner, lifting him into the air. The things were large, probably wider than a grown man. It dug its claws into the Runner's face as he screamed.
"Tell us!" the shanters screeched.
Another shanter shot out, grabbed a recruit by the shoulders, and dragged her up, kicking and thrashing.
My breath caught in my throat as I watched the shanters pick up four more recruits, yanking them into the air over the tables of food. My tongue ran dry. The clasp on my arm began to burn.
"We will kill them all if you do not reveal the Runner of Golden Light!"
And then one of the shanters grabbed Lodan. The only person I would have called a friend out here. They dragged him into the center of the Commons. A shanter hovered in front of his face, a claw tracing down the side of his cheek.
"Help!" Lodan screamed.
I pushed the bench aside.
And then Telisa cleared her throat. "Fine! You want the Runner of Golden Light?"
"Yesss..." the voice whispered. "Reveal the Runner!"
Telisa glanced at me and smirked. "I'll tell you who the Runner of Golden Light is."
I closed my eyes, wind whipping through my hair. I stood. And waited for shanter claws to dig into my shoulders.
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.