“Here's your Runner of Golden Light!” Telisa spat.
I heard a girl scream.
My eyes flipped open. A girl with a shaved head and gray eyes stared upward as the shanters swarmed around her. They spun faster and faster, three of them digging their claws into her shoulders and back. They heaved her from the ground.
I threw out a hand. “But—”
Telisa spun and slapped me with one of her huge hands. “Shut up. And stay shut up.”
I swallowed and crouched down again.
The shanters dropped the other Runners to the concrete floors and swooped out from under the Commons roof and toward the blue sky. The sacrificed girl had been a recruit. From one of the other islands. I didn't know her name. But I'm sure she would forever remember mine.
Recruits crawled out from under their benches and tables and stared at the cloud of shanters flapping away in the distance. I fixated on that girl's speck of a form until I couldn't see her separate from the monsters that had carried her away.
“All right! Enough gawkin'!” Gratta shouted from one end of the Commons. She marched across the floor, slightly limping, until she stood before Telisa and me. “What in Castos is happenin' out here? Why would the Queen's shanters be flappin' their gums here?”
Telisa nodded at me. “It's him. Golden Boy.”
I held up my hands. “I didn't do anything! I swear!”
Gratta snorted. “Oh, you sure gone and done a lot, hun. A lot.” The old woman rubbed both eyes with her hand. “We gotta take 'im now. We have to know what we've got on our hands here.”
“Right now?” Telisa asked. “Are you sure that's wise?”
“You sure it's wise to be questionin' me about it? Here I thought we could at least wait until it got all dark and spooky in the world, but no. Shanters have to show up on my doorstep!” Gratta spat on a nearby table and pointed at the glob. “Somebody wipe that up!”
One of the recruits grabbed a yellow cloth napkin and scrubbed the spot.
Gratta shoved a finger in my direction. “Now. Git to the armory and the stables and git yer sorry hides to them scholars!” She whirled around. “What are all y'all gaping at? Eat food! It won't last forever! And I ain't feedin' ya no second lunch!” With a swipe at a biscuit, Gratta stalked out of the Commons and back toward her ranch house.
Telisa grabbed my collar and yanked me close. “You've cost me so many recruits today; I'm losing count. The next butt I lose is going to be yours, so walk!” She heaved me forward.
I stumbled to the dust outside the Commons. I peeked at the clasp on my arm. Still there, still milky white. So much trouble over such a small thing. The recruits and Runners under the Commons had shuffled back to their benches and were busily stuffing their faces with food before lunch ended.
Except for Lodan. He stood on the edge of the Commons, watching me, watching Telisa, one hand gently rubbing where the shanter claws had dug into his shoulder. His eyes were wide. With fear? Worry? Shock? I couldn't tell.
Telisa kicked the back of my boot. “I said walk!”
We hurried past the Casket – the building in the center of Gratta's compound where most of the combat training took place. It had a similar roof to the Commons, but long logs stacked high formed the walls. A large barn door painted red had been slid aside. I caught the briefest glimpse of a concrete floor, a set of old wooden bleachers against one wall, as well as straw dummies on long poles for fighting practice.
The armory was a round building with a green cloth roof that came to a point at the top. Tall logs had been placed side by side with a porch circling the entire structure. A railing ran around the edge of the porch with spears, swords, pikes, and maces lined up against it. Telisa stomped through the open front door. I followed.
Inside were more weapons than I ever could have imagined seeing in one lifetime. Whips, daggers, crossbows, metal stars with sharp edges, bokens, katanas, anything and everything. Telisa snatched a crossbow from the wall, a gray quiver stuffed with arrows. She attached two long daggers to the belt at her side. She slung a long broadsword over her back and wrapped a leather scabbard over her shoulder and around her midsection.
“Should I take anything?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “No.”
“But what if those shanters come back? Or pales? Or pitworms?”
Telisa's lip curled. “No.”
“What if the Queen figures out you lied to her?”
“The Queen will assume it was a golden fluke.”
I ran a hand through my dusty hair. “I would feel better with a knife. I can slip it into my boot.”
Telisa grabbed my wrist and held it up to my face. “Seems to me you've got the best weapon any of us could wish for.” My gaze lingered on the clasp. She was right. If I could conjure golden light again, I’d never need a sword or knife or mace. She flung my arm down and stepped back. “How'd you do it anyway?”
I shrugged. “I don't know. It just happened.”
“Nothing ever just happens.” Telisa cocked her head to the side and squinted. “What were you thinking about when it happened?”
“Surviving your 'game’.”
She smacked me across the face. “Don't get smart.”
I clenched my teeth. “I would really appreciate it if everyone stopped slapping me!” My cheek burned. Anger pooled somewhere in my forehead and trickled down my face. “You think you can whisk us around however you like! Like we aren't even people!” I closed my eyes. My head began to throb. The anger slid past my eyes, down my shoulder, slithered the length of my arm until it swirled around the clasp on my arm.
Heat rose from my wrist. My fingers curled into fists. When I opened my eyes, the gem glowed the faintest tinges of gold.
Telisa shuffled twenty steps away with her back to the armory wall. She nocked an arrow and pointed the crossbow at my chest. “Calm down!” she shouted.
I opened my fists. My fingers shook. I slumped to my knees, dropping my head into my hands. Heat from the clasp wafted over my face with every tremor.
“Deep breath!” Telisa said.
I took one, long, deep breath.
Another deep breath. The heat began to subside. My hands stopped shaking. I took a last breath and felt tears streaking down my face. “What is happening to me?” I whispered.
For the briefest moment, I saw Telisa's mask fall. The harsh lines, the rigid forehead, it all dropped. Her eyes registered sadness. For me. A second later, she had her hand on my shoulder, gently this time. “Let's find out.”
* * *
I had never ridden a horse before. Telisa had warned me my legs and backside would ache for days afterward. We sat on a leather saddle, Telisa in the back. I clung to the horn with both hands, a leather guard wrapped around my clasp in case it decided to glow golden again.
The brown mare we rode was Telisa's own horse, Poinsettia. I assumed she named it for the red star on her forehead. Poinsettia galloped through the pines on a narrow dirt path winding away from Gratta's compound. The sun's rays stretched out, and I blinked as we rode west.
We stopped only once around dinnertime. I slid off the back of Poinsettia and wobbled back and forth, steadying myself with one hand on a nearby pine tree.
“Recruits who haven't ridden are always the same,” Telisa muttered.
“What do you expect?”
“Perfection.” Telisa dropped to the dirt and opened one of the saddlebags. She dug out two biscuits, a swathe of butter wrapped in a red checkered cloth, and a small butter knife. With two quick swipes, she had butter lathered across both biscuits and tossed one to me.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, chomping on the biscuit eagerly. My stomach was empty from not eating lunch. The cold biscuit felt like honey sliding down my throat. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and caught Telisa watching me again.
She glanced away and pulled a metal canteen from a clasp behind the saddlebag.
“What?” I asked.
Telisa took a swig of water and glanced back at me. “Shut up.”
“No.” I stepped forward, pointing at her. “What is it?”
She shook her head and shoved the canteen in my hand. “Drink.”
“You keep looking at me funny. Ever since the armory. Almost like . . . ” I trailed off, analyzing the dust by my feet and trying to think. Almost like what?
“We should get moving again.” Telisa eyed the sunlight slipping between the pine branches. “I'd like to be at the scholars by dark. At this rate, we aren't going to make it.”
I held up a hand. “Just wait!”
“Don't yell at me.”
“I remind you of someone, don't I?”
Telisa rolled her eyes. “You think too much. Drink some water, stretch your legs, and then let's ride.”
“I'm right, aren’t I?” I gulped down some water. “Was it my brother? Did he look like me? A little taller? Broader?”
Telisa stomped over, grabbed the canteen from my hand, and capped it. “Will you ever do as you’re told? Or do you want to ask more stupid questions that have no answers? Or should I leave you out here for—”
A rustle echoed from the bushes. Faster than I could shiver, Telisa swung her crossbow to eye level. She slowly pivoted, scanning the dry bushes around us. The ground rose and fell slightly for leagues. Red boulders bigger than Poinsettia poked up from the clay.
I backed up to stand beside the mare. I opened my mouth to ask what was out there but pressed my lips together. This wasn’t a time for questions.
Telisa never turned to look at me. She only whispered, “Mount up.”
I nodded and shoved a foot in the stirrup before swinging my other leg over Poinsettia's back. From on top of the horse, I could see shadows slinking between the boulders beyond the bushes.
A hand wreathed in wisps of shadow crept into the air behind the nearest boulder.
“Telisa! Over there!” I pointed at the hand.
She whipped around and shot an arrow at the hand. It thudded into the palm of the hand before dropping out of sight. Telisa raced back to Poinsettia and scrambled up. “We've got to leave. Now.”
“What was that?”
Sweat trickled down Telisa's brow. “I've never seen them on Castos before. Don't know why they would even venture this direction at all,” she mumbled.
“What was it?”
Telisa handed the reins to me. “You steer. I’ll fight.”
A low moan echoed from behind the boulders. My mouth went dry. Seven pairs of shadowy hands rose into the air, slamming onto seven boulders circling us. The creatures crawled up after the hands. Tall, shadowy people glided to the tops of the boulders and stood with their fingers splayed at their sides. They could have been regular people, except their entire bodies were made from the same wispy shadows. As one, they flicked their wrists. Long spikes appeared where their hands had once been.
Telisa shot another arrow at the closest one. It landed in the center of the creature, sending it flying backward into a nearby pine tree.
“Yah!” Telisa shouted, kicking her heels into Poinsettia's flanks.
The horse shot ahead. I gripped the reins and steered Poinsettia toward the path winding past the boulders and pines. Another low moan echoed behind us. I peeked back to see six shadow people float off their perches, lean forward and fly at us, spears extended.
I screamed. Poinsettia whinnied. Telisa loaded her crossbow and pulled the trigger. This one missed and thudded into a tree as the shadow rolled to the side and moaned.
The path sloped downward toward an open field. A collection of round green buildings dotted the meadow set against a rocky outcrop. A large gate wound around the front of the rocks, with a tall green wall covered in spikes and bowls burning with fires.
“Straight there!” Telisa shouted, letting another arrow fly.
One of the shadows leaned forward and shot up next to me. This one was a woman, her long flowing hair whisking behind her as she flew. She opened her mouth and held back her spear-arm. I ducked as the shadow soared over my head. I grabbed one of Telisa's daggers and chucked it at the shadow's head. It lodged between her eyes. With a moan, the shadow tumbled to the dirt, rolling into a ball, and vanishing in a puff of smoke.
“What are these?” I shouted.
Telisa shot another arrow. This one slammed into one of the shadow wraith's legs. It dropped from the air and hobbled after them. “I'll explain later! Get us to those buildings!”
I leaned forward and slapped the reins. Poinsettia responded by pounding over the earth to the field below. We nearly flew across the grass as the remaining four shadows whipped through the air around us. Telisa shot arrows, but these shadows were too quick. The arrows flew past them.
“Out of arrows!” Telisa said. She dropped the crossbow onto a clasp at Poinsettia's side and drew the broadsword. She swung it as the shadows dipped closer, jabbing with their spears. Poinsettia dodged left as a spear thudded into the ground behind us.
“What do they want?”
Telisa grabbed my clasp with one hand. “These. They want the gems!”
One of the shadows dropped, landing with its legs wrapped around Telisa's neck. She choked, grabbing the legs and losing her broadsword to the dirt. I swung around and punched the shadow in the side, finding it surprisingly firm. I pounded again, this time grabbing Telisa's other dagger and driving it into the shadow wraith. It moaned and glared at me with wide eyes.
I stabbed it again. The creature flipped off the back of the horse.
Telisa gasped at the air. “We're almost there!”
Ahead, I could see the gates, slightly ajar, fires burning. I glanced back. The woods were so far behind us now. How could we have gotten this far? Poinsettia had covered more ground than should have been possible. The red star on the horse's forehead glowed. Her legs were a blur over the ground, propelling us forward.
Two shadowy hands landed on my shoulders. I jerked away as Poinsettia nearly flew through the open gates and into a courtyard. The horse tripped on a loose stone, sending Telisa and me flying off her back and onto the ground. I spun around, dagger in hand as two shadow wraiths circled Telisa. One of them landed in front of me, dark eyes scanning my face. This one was also a woman, long hair flowing unnaturally behind her head. She stared at me expressionless, raising up her spear-arm.
Then I heard Telisa scream.
Two of the shadow wraiths had thrust their spears through her, one sticking through the chest, and one through the back. The shadows reached for the clasp on Telisa's forearm with greedy fingers.
I stopped thinking. I pointed the clasp at the shadow in front of me. The gem glowed golden and a beam of light shot through the shadow's face. The wraith vanished with a moan. I raced over to Telisa, clasp still glowing.
My head throbbed. Heat surged through my arms, my legs, my fingers, my face. I stumbled forward, holding out my forearm.
The two shadow wraiths jerked their heads toward me, took one glance at the glowing clasp, then shot straight into the air and over the spiked wall.
I collapsed beside Telisa. Her mouth hung open; blood trickled down her chin.
I glanced at the large wound in her abdomen. The air grew thick with heat. I leaned over and passed out on the cobblestones of the courtyard.
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.