I tried to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes, some new horror strode through my imagination. Spinewolves, pales, pitters, shanters, pirates from the coast, those shadow wraiths. They swarmed in and out of my mind's eye like an annoying mosquito I could never quite smack.
I sat against the dorm wall, staring at the empty rows of cots, blankets, and flat pillows. Sunlight streamed through the windows above me; dust floating through each streak. For a moment, the world was quiet here. No one shouting. No monsters waiting across the room to devour me. Just the silence and me.
Silence. So many hot days out in the rice paddies on Jedros had been filled with it. People hacking at the rice with sickles. Workers dragging out the rice and piling it into wicker baskets for sale in the coastal towns.
And my parents: the most silent of all.
They had gone silent after my brother left.
My mother had clenched her fingers into fists and dug them into her mouth as the Runners snagged his collar and yanked him to the pathway, dragging him through the dust and slapping a clasp onto his forearm. Hot tears had streamed down his face. He had reached out for us. Screaming our names.
But they were silent.
My father hadn't even glanced his direction.
I had stood frozen in the muck, staring with wide eyes as the Runners had grabbed nine others and escorted them away from the village. I had been silent.
A knock echoed through the still room.
It creaked open, and Lodan poked his head in carrying a cracked plate with food piled high on top. Mashed potatoes steamed from one corner, a slice of ham in the other, and long asparagus stems dangled over the edge of the plate.
“I brought you food. Figured you'd be hungry.”
My stomach growled in response. “Yeah, I'm hungry.”
Lodan handed me the plate, crouched down, and flung his bangs to the side. “So is it happening?”
“What?” I asked past a mouthful of potatoes.
“A job? Are you really going?”
I nodded. “Yes.” I swallowed. “I am.”
Lodan smirked. “I can't even believe it. It's so crazy. They're saying no one this new has ever been on a job before.” He pointed at my clasp. “And it's all thanks to that.”
I didn't know what to say.
“You know, I've been thinking about something.”
“What?” I asked.
Lodan shrugged his shoulders and then tapped his clasp. “These things. Do you ever . . . I don't know . . . see stuff in it?”
The ham in my mouth went dry. I swallowed it down. “See stuff in it? Like what?”
“I dunno. Like stuff.” Lodan hobbled forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Last night, I was trying to sleep and just staring at the gem when I saw something. A face. I couldn't make out any details, but it had its mouth open, and it was saying something.”
A chill whisked across my neck. “What was it saying?”
“I couldn't make it out completely, but I think it was saying, 'Find her.'”
“That's what it said?” I checked.
Lodan nodded. “I think so. Over and over again. What is that? I mean . . . I'll take that it's been crazy the past few days and we've been dragged across islands to get here, so I might have lost it, but . . . still.”
I wanted to tell him about the job. Maybe this “her” was the same girl I was supposed to find on the north side of Castos. But I had been sworn to secrecy. It had even been written into my book. If I told Lodan about it, would that kill me? Because I hadn't followed the instructions completely?
Lodan squinted at me. “What is it?”
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
“Yeah, right. That means something, doesn't it?”
I set the plate down and slid it across the floor to him. “I'm done.” Before he could protest or ask me any more questions, I laid down, closed my eyes, and pretended to sleep.
The stables were in another open pavilion with a wooden slat roof right across from Gratta's house. A plank fence circled the entire structure. Horses stamped and neighed inside their stalls; some munching on the hay shoveled to them by recruits in dusty brown aprons and goggles.
I stepped inside with Telisa; a leather pouch slung over my shoulder. We had already visited the armory where Telisa promptly handed me a short sword—the long ones would be too much for me to handle apparently—as well as two short daggers. The sword went into a strap I clipped over my shoulder, and the daggers slid into sheaths along my belt. Telisa had said any other threats I could probably neutralize with my clasp.
I just wish I knew how it worked exactly.
Telisa pointed at a chestnut mare three stalls down. “Take that one. No one's claimed her yet. And she's a good horse, already all broken in.”
I nodded and stepped up to the stall door. The horse was not as big as Poinsettia was, but she looked strong and had a beautiful, neatly kept coat. A recruit with wild black hair sticking in every direction stood on her other side. He had grime across his face and wore one of those brown aprons. It trailed past his knees because he was so short. But he reached up and brushed the horse's side with a small comb.
“You takin' this 'ere horse?”
I nodded again.
“Right fine mare, she is. Best I seen out 'ere. But then I'm partial to the quiet ones, that I am.” A smirk crossed the boy's face, and he held a hand out to me. “I'm Henryk. And you're Eric. Everyone's talking about you.”
“I picked up on that.” I cleared my throat and pointed at the horse. “What's her name?”
“This 'ere is Zinnia,” Henryk said, patting the mare's side.
The horse whinnied, snorted, and leaned her face my direction. My hand lingered over her nose. Warm air trickled over my fingers, and Zinnia leaned her head forward so both of her purple eyes could see me. She snorted again, and I placed my hand on her nose.
My clasp lit up. A rush of light flooded through my mind, and I felt like I was walking through a field of pansies with Zinnia beside me. Only instead of a horse, it was a young girl, about my age, long chestnut brown hair cascading down her back and flowing impossibly in the wind. She wore a simple white dress and held a flower with a large plume and rings of color exploding from the center in brighter hues than anything I had ever seen before.
She held up her hand and touched my fingers, her purple eyes meeting mine. I see you, human boy.
My eyes went wide. You. . . .
The girl smiled. I am Zinnia. It is nice to meet you. Eric.
How do you know my name? The words flowed from me without my mouth moving even the slightest. What is happening? How is this even possible?
Zinnia stared at the sky, smile still lingering on her face. How does anything happen, Eric? It simply does. We are sharing a memory. A bond few share with each other.
Sunlight streamed overhead, and I felt the warmth trickle through my skin and deep into my bones. The smells of fresh grass and flowers filled my nostrils. The rush of racing across fields and down pathways coursed through every inch of my body. For a moment I felt like . . . how I imagined a horse might feel.
The others will be staring, Zinnia said. And I sense we have a dire mission ahead of us now.
I held her hand tightly. Yes. We do. We might die.
She turned back and stared at me. Then I will die proudly with you.
The light around me sparked. I blinked, backing away from Zinnia and into a wooden plank behind me. I was back in the stable. Zinnia--the horse--stood in front of me, a knowing look resting deep within her eyes.
Telisa grabbed my shoulder and whipped me around. “What just happened?”
“What?” I asked.
Henryk walked in front of Zinnia, holding her lead rope and handing it to me. “You vanished into thin air! One second you were right here and the next you were gone! How'd you do that?”
I took the lead rope and glanced at Henryk, then Telisa. “I don't know.”
Telisa shook her head and crossed her arms. “Your clasp will never run out of surprises. I don't know what happened, but somethin' did. And we had best be moseyin' along. We got jobs to do.”
Henryk bowed, his crazy hair falling over his face. “I take my leave.” He bolted back up, laughed, and then darted out of the stall, hopping and shouting, “Guess what happened! Just guess! You'll never believe it!” before disappearing out of sight.
“Mount up.” Telisa nodded at Zinnia's saddle and marched away to find Poinsettia.
I stroked Zinnia's nose, and she whinnied once. “You want me to take this off?” I fingered the edge of the bridle over her face, and Zinnia nodded, her chestnut hair bobbing around her eyes. I slid the bridle off. Zinnia shook her head, raising her front legs and stamping the ground.
After sliding my leather bag into a pouch at her side, I climbed onto Zinnia's back. I grabbed the large horn in front of the saddle, and Zinnia trotted out of the stall, proudly holding her head high. Poinsettia and Telisa met us at the other end of the stables. She had fit a crossbow over her back, and a quiver of arrows rested against her horse's side along with the saddle bags.
“North,” Telisa whispered.
I nodded, and our horses trotted into the darkening night. The moon hung low and yellow over the horizon, casting a sickly light across the compound. Shouts of fighting still rose from the Casket. Recruits and runners shot their heads up to look in our direction as we arrived at the large gates. Four recruits yanked on the ropes, and the gates creaked open allowing us to slip into the world beyond the fence.
I peeked over my shoulder as the gates closed behind us and saw Gratta standing on the gate ramparts, leaning over the fence, and watching us gallop away. She tipped her hat once, and then spun around, and out of sight.
Telisa and Poinsettia led the way. We followed close behind whipping down the trail in the dark around trees and dusty rocks. Zinnia needed no direction from me. She kept on Poinsettia's tail until we had cleared the tall forests and raced out onto an open plain with gently rolling hills. I shivered once, thinking about those pales attacking the wagon cart on Jedros. Did those things live out here on Castos too?
The ride grew long and tedious, and I wondered just how big Castos was. I had never seen a map of the island let alone been there before now. It seemed like it could stretch forever into the distance, and I would never reach the end.
We passed under some tall redwood trees five hours later. The horses slowed slightly as we wound through the brush, and my eyes threatened to droop closed on me. I shook my head as Zinnia skidded to a halt right behind Poinsettia. Telisa held up a fist and then pointed into the distance.
I followed her finger and saw a white spark and then orange light ahead. A fire. Laughter echoed between the trees. A sharp crack.
Telisa slid off her horse, and I did the same. The dirt felt good under my boots after riding for hours. I yanked out one of the daggers at my side and held it up. Telisa had her crossbow ready. She came close and whispered by my ear, “Let's take a quick look. We may have to go 'round the long way if these are unsavory types.”
I placed a hand on Zinnia's nose. She nodded. She would stay with Poinsettia.
We crept through the ferns and trees careful not to step on any fallen branches or leaves waiting to crunch underfoot. The laughter grew louder, and then I could hear distinct voices shouting back and forth at each other.
“Blew that one right outta the water, we did!” A man's voice. Harsh. “Shoulda seen the Queen's own guards alookin' all scared like they was goin' to be dragged to the bottom with the merfolk!”
A loud chortle across the campsite. “Merfolk? Ye gone and let yer wee head be rattled, now. There ain't no merfolk 'round these parts!”
We crouched behind a fern and saw a ring of five men and three women sitting around a modest campfire, sticks held over the flames with chunks of meat dangling from the ends. Each person wore a hodgepodge of clothing—from tri-cornered hats with tall feathers to deep red coats with missing buttons and white shirts with fluff at the collars.
A deathly serious woman with gaunt features stood up pointing her stick at one of the men. “I seen the merfolk meself. With me own two leftover eyes. Whipped up outta the sea like banshees they did afore dartin' outta sight and rockin' our boat from left to right, left to right, left to right until we was all sea sicker than dogs.” She slowly sat down. “Don't. Count. Out. The merfolk.”
One man with his back to us stood up; long stringy hair hanging in clumps from his head. He turned to the side, and I saw the patch over his eye and nearly gasped. Bonaventure. The pirate. From the crossway.
He wagged a gnarled finger at them all. “Now, the point ain't that the merfolk be draggin' sailors to the bottom of the oceans. The point be that we sent one of the Queen's own ships down to the murk! And that, my fellows, is worth celebrating mightily!” He held up a mug and dark liquid sloshed out. “To the Queen's downfall!”
The other pirates held up similar mugs and cheered, taking long swigs before burping and slapping each other on the back. Bonaventure swiped a sleeve across his mouth and then stared off into the bushes. “Now then, the real downfall of the Queen is comin' from a lad we all met on a bridge betwixt the islands.”
One of the other women chortled and leaned an elbow on her knee. “The lad from the rice fields? Ya think that sorry louse got wot it takes to stand up to the Queen, do ya?”
Bonaventure winked at her. “Aye, that I do, missie. He got powers beyond belief he don't even know about.” And then Bonaventure's head swiveled around to stare back at my hiding spot. “Powers I want for meself.”
The pirate whipped a sword out from his side with a schlink and swung at the brush near me. I ducked back, and Telisa threw a hand over my chest, shoving me backward. She aimed her crossbow at Bonaventure's gut. “Stay back, you filthy deserter!”
“Deserter?” I asked.
Telisa glanced down at me as Bonaventure's shoulders heaved, sword held tightly in his hands. “These running deserters are scum! And if they want you, then they are gonna have to go through me!”
“These pirates are deserters?”
Bonaventure smirked. “She ain't seein' what you see lad.”
I peeked up at Telisa and saw the tear streaking down her cheek. And then I glanced back at the band of pirates around the campfire. For a brief moment, I saw a flash of white light, and the pirates disappeared in the glow of the fire. In their place were eight pearl-colored crystals, perfectly shaped and floating just above the dirt. I blinked, and the pirates were back in view.
“Telisa. . . .” I scrambled to my feet and held my clasp up at the group. “I don't know what's going on, but I don't think those are pirates. . . .”
“No, they're not pirates! They're deserters! They left us during open-ended missions and decided never to return. Thieves and crooks is what they are!”
One of the male pirates aimed his hand at Telisa. His voice dropped into a strange monotone. “Enough of this charade. We know that which we seek.” A blast of light shot from his hand and smacked into Telisa's face. She dropped her crossbow and fell back to the dirt.
“What did you do?!” I screamed.
The eight pirates vanished from sight again, their figures flickering before transforming back into floating crystals. Their voices rang between the trees in a hollow tone. With every word, a bit of light pulsed from inside each crystal.
“We have no use for the human woman. But you we have great use for.” A thin beam of light shot out from one of the crystals. I held up my clasp, and a shield of golden light surrounded me. The light from the crystal bounced away and zapped a tree, which burst into orange flames.
“What do you want with me?”
The crystals hummed together slowly circling around Telisa and me. They spun faster and faster around us, all the while humming and flashing with light. They pressed against the golden shield around me, sending sparks of white light blazing through the air and landing in the dry brush. More flames leaped up around the clearing, licking through wood and branch.
“We seek the power you possess to free us from this state.” The crystals hummed louder and pressed closer, spinning feverishly around us. My forearm burned, and the gem on my clasp glowed brighter.
And then with a loud pop, the shield dropped. The crystal stopped spinning. Eight beams of light shot at me. My back arched, and I screamed as the pain tore through my chest.
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.