Spit fell from Lodan's mouth. Veins popped from his temples, and I could see his face turning redder with each struggle against the ropes binding him. He thrashed against the bars, whacking his forehead on the metal wall. His eyes rolled back, and he slumped to the center of the sphere, eyelids closing with a twitch.
I backed out of the tunnel, feeling my breath catch on my tongue. I stared into the dark. At the bars. At the prison Miksa had locked Lodan into. I swallowed and then felt the numbness seep over my shoulders. How could I have let this happen? How could I have let that boy do this to all of my friends? To the only people who had ever treated me like I was actually a human being?
The image of that little boy, sitting on the balcony above the Scholars’ fortress so long ago flashed through my head. He had led me to all of this. He had tricked me. Used me. And then cast aside everyone I cared about like they didn't matter.
"You know him, don't you?"
I turned around. He had his head tilted sideways. Staring at me. Watching my slow movements. My fingers on the handle of the sword. The heavy breaths that threatened to rip apart my lungs.
"So what's his deal then?" Miksa narrowed his eyes. "And what in the desert does it have to do with you?"
I took one long breath, straight through my teeth, and then leaned against the side of the sphere, letting the air out steadily. "There's a whole compound of them after me."
Miksa frowned. "You important?"
That was an easy question to answer. "No."
"Then why is a whole compound of Runners after you?" Miksa pointed to the desert outside. "I watched two others get swallowed by excavator hordes a couple days ago. Their clasps were red. And they're only red when they're hunting someone." He paused. "To kill them." His staff whipped up, pointing at my chest and pinning me against the metal wall.
Miksa kicked out sideways and connected with my sword hand. The blade clattered to the floor, ringing in my ears. He leaned in close. "So why are they trying to kill you? What did you do?"
"Not good enough." He pressed the edge of the staff deeper, and I could feel it press against my sternum.
"The queen. She wants me dead."
Miksa backed up, eyes wide. "The queen? On Castos? That queen?"
I rubbed a hand across my chest. It would probably be bruised tomorrow. "Yes. That queen. The only one I know of."
Miksa shook his head. "There are other queens. Believe me. Some worse than the Queen of Abra. What did you do to her?"
I glanced to the ceiling. "Listen, Cereus isn't going to last if we sit here talking about the past. I'll tell you everything after we rescue him. Please."
Miksa scrunched his mouth to the side and shook his head slowly. "You're bad news. That's exactly what you are. And I want you out of my city as soon as possible. So let's get your horse and get you out. You can take your friend with you when you go."
I didn't argue. I also didn't know how that was going to be possible with Lodan trying to kill me. Miksa pulled up a large cushion from the center of the floor. A single, metal loop stood out from a square hatch in the bottom of the sphere. Miksa yanked on it and motioned to the metal ladder underneath, sinking deep into the hole below.
I picked up my sword and hurried to the ladder, climbing down two rungs at a time until my boots hit a metal path. The air was much cooler down there. A soft breeze wafted through the tunnel, hitting my skin and sending goosebumps rippling over my arms.
"Catch!" Miksa shouted from above, giving me a breath to glance up and hold my hands out so I could catch the glass jar with green fireflies glowing inside it. The light lit up the tunnel ahead, and I had to blink back the flashes of memory whipping through my brain. Memories of being in dark tunnels outside the queen's palace. Trying to find Bella deep under the castle. All by the light of the clasp on my arm.
I shook my head, and Miksa slid down the ladder, bypassing the rungs completely until he stood beside me, staff in one hand, glass jar of fireflies in the other. A small clasp had been welded to the jar lids. He clipped his jar to a loop on his belt. I followed his example and clipped mine onto the belt around my own waist.
Miksa waved ahead into the gloom. "This way."
"What are these tunnels?"
"Excavators dug 'em out a long time ago I think. Then someone came along and paved 'em up. No idea who. But they're good enough for me." Miksa stepped forward.
"Wait. What about more of those things coming this way?"
"Don't worry so much. Just follow me. I know what I'm doing." Miksa hurried into a light jog; his boots padded over the ground. I fell in behind him, glancing back into the gloom every time I heard a dull clank echo toward us.
The path stayed completely straight, never turning, not even slightly. The green fireflies cast a strange glow on our faces, making us both look sick and ready to let loose what little we had eaten. After about ten minutes, Miksa slowed down and covered the jar with one hand. He held a finger up to his mouth and nodded his head toward a side passage I hadn't seen yet.
I covered my own jar and leaned around him. Down the passage, I could see a dull shaft of light glinting off dozens of cobwebbed lumps dangling from a hidden ceiling by thin strands of webbing. I couldn't see any excavators, but I could see a large, horse-sized lump that had to be Cereus.
"Cereus . . ." I whispered as loudly as I dared.
Miksa chopped at my shoulder with the side of his hand, glaring and throwing his arms wide.
I ignored the pain in my arm and closed my eyes, concentrating. Cereus . . . please, I thought. Answer me.
Was he dead already? Had they killed him?
I crept around Miksa and down the passage. He hurried up behind me as I poked my head into the chamber beyond. And then I heard them. Faint. Soft. The slightest trickling of insect legs rustling overhead. A glance up told me everything. Excavators clung to the ceiling far above us, on top of each other, in a massive swarm and in concentric circles around a center point. I ducked around a hanging lump of webbing and saw an excavator twice as large as the others, but with pairs of translucent wings on its back.
Miksa pulled on my shoulder so I could see him. He mouthed one word, "queen."
I nodded. Somehow we had to get Cereus down and out of these tunnels without disturbing any of the creatures above us. If Cereus would just wake up, then he could shift his way out of here in a blink.
I crouched down and shuffled over to the horse-shaped lump. It had to be him. I took the tip of my sword and make a short slit in the side of the webbing. Through the hole, I could see a patch of gray-speckled white hair. Cereus. I reached out and put a hand on his side, closing my eyes. Cereus. Wake up. Quietly.
A twitch. From above. I froze, listening as what sounded like a single excavator scrambled over another one and then stilled. A sound like the uncurling of silk fell from above me, coming closer to my ear until I glanced sideways and saw a massive, clacking mouth yawning open and facing my direction.
Translucent wings flapped behind the giant insect, and two black eyes stared at me, unblinking, yet intelligent. Too intelligent. The queen hung from a long strand of webbing, legs waggling in the air. A low screech gurgled up from its throat.
I ducked as a glob of cobwebs shot out, slicing through the air and landing with a splat on the far side of the chamber. I spun around with my sword, grabbed one of the Queen Excavator's back legs, and flung myself up and over its back end, slicing along the way. My blade bit through the web holding up not only the queen but also Cereus. Both of them tumbled to the metal floor, and I landed on the other side, crouched, sword out to my left.
The queen scurried around to face me, rising up on its legs. It was as large as Cereus, maybe even a little bigger. She leaned her head forward, mouth open wide, teeth clacking, and let out a deafening screech.
The ceiling came alive with scratching, crawling, and chattering insects, shaking their heads and rousing from sleep. I sliced the sword across the webbing over Cereus and shoved it aside. The queen lurched forward at the same time, and I dove aside as she barreled past me, glancing in both directions, and then turning around, screeching at full volume again.
One more slice through the webbing around Cereus, and the horse plopped to the ground with a thunk. Miksa held up his staff, pointing it at the ceiling as the excavators hovered, waiting for direction on what to do next. The queen screeched loudly, and the creatures scrambled down the walls in what looked like dribbles of golden honey dropping to the floor.
Cereus's eyes shot open. Eric! What's happening? I'm dizzy. Are you dizzy? Because I'm really dizzy. Can we run now?
"Can you shift?" I asked, slicing at an excavator that had crawled toward me. It crunched in half with a snap.
Not sure. My legs feel funny.
"Let's go!" Miksa shouted. He stabbed three more insects with his staff and tossed them aside.
The queen screeched again, scrambling forward. Cereus tried to stand, and I swung the sword and chopped through one of the queen's legs. She stumbled to the side as Cereus got to his hooves and wobbled. I grabbed his mane and yanked him onward. Cereus whinnied and trotted toward Miksa, ducking past him as the insects swarmed at us.
I sliced with the sword the entire way, chopping left and right and listening to the crunches of splattered bugs oozing with orange goo. Miksa ducked out after me, and we hurried into the tunnel.
"How do we get out with a horse?" I shouted.
I smacked Cereus on the side. "Come on, Cereus. Time to fly!"
The horse nodded and trotted after Miksa, keeping his head low. I ran at the rear, swinging my sword behind me as the excavators bubbled out of the chamber and into the hallway. The green glow lit up their faces, making their exoskeletons translucent and their eyes like pits of mud, swirling with anger and hunger.
We ran straight ahead until Miksa threw aside a metal doorway. Bright sunlight blasted into the passage, and I winced, squinting and trying to see what was ahead. Miksa barreled through the opening and leapt to the sand. Cereus flew out of the tunnel and vanished in the light. I followed, dropping to the ground.
"Close the door! CLOSE THE DOOR!" Miksa screamed.
He stood beside me. I could barely see him through my eyelashes. It seemed brighter than ever outside. Almost too bright.
I slammed my shoulder against the metal door as the excavators reached the other side. Scrabbling legs slipped around the round door edge. Miksa and I pushed until we heard a clunk and the snapping of legs as they dropped free from the excavators and wriggled on the sand around us. Miksa spun a large wheel in the center of the door.
"That should hold them long enough for you to get out of the city," Miksa said. "Take your horse and your friend and go."
Friend? Cereus asked.
"Long story. I'll explain later," I said. I blinked again and saw we were standing in a small courtyard with a four-tiered, broken fountain in the center of it. Archways yawned over four exits back to the main streets, and above, I could see the old windows with balconies leaning out from the sandstone walls.
"How far back is your home?" I asked.
Miksa pointed down the alleyway to our right. "That way. Super close. We can be there fast." He darted toward the alley entrance and leaned around it, looking to the street. "Seems clear for now. Those excavators will have to backtrack a ways to catch up to us now."
I turned back to Cereus. "Can you shift yet?"
I can barely walk. I don't think I can shift. Those things bit me. He held out a front leg, and I saw a series of bite marks running down to his knee.
Miksa eyed the horse. "Excavator venom. It can knock you out for hours. And it can be hard to come back from. You're lucky you made it out alive."
"Thank you for your help," I said. "Come on, Cereus. We better go."
We followed Miksa down the alleyway, listening for excavators, but they must have given up the hunt because we didn't hear a single scamper or scratch of a leg anywhere. We reached the spheres again, and Cereus ducked under the shade of a sphere on top of a higher pole. His head plopped to the sand.
I'm thirsty. You got any water?
I spun to Miksa as he threw open the door to the sphere and climbed inside. "Water?"
Miksa poked his head out and sighed. "Yes. Of course I have water. Wait out here." He rummaged around inside the sphere and then tossed out a leather skin brimming with water. I scooped it up and hurried to Cereus, letting him drink as much as he needed before latching the skin to my belt.
A moment later, there was a series of thunks, and the sphere holding Lodan opened down the middle and dumped him onto the sand below. He thrashed against his ropes, eyeing me and frothing at the mouth.
Cereus jumped up. It's Lodan! He's alive still? I thought he was one of the weaker ones actually.
Lodan thrashed again, and I nodded at Cereus. The horse kicked and knocked the boy out. I hurried over and heaved Lodan up, sliding my arms under his armpits and dragging him back to Cereus. With a quick shove, I had Lodan over the back of the horse and tied down.
Now can we go?
"Wait," I said, climbing up the short ladder to Miksa's home. I poked my head into the cool air. "Miksa?"
He sat on the far side of the sphere with his arms crossed, picking at a scab on his forearm. "What?" he asked without looking up.
"You ever heard of the Barren Prison?"
His fingernail froze over the scab. Miksa's head slowly rose. "Maybe. What of it?"
"Do you know how to get there?"
Miksa grimaced. "No one wants to go there."
I took a deep breath. "I do."
"Then you must be cracked in the skull." Miksa stood up and crossed his arms. "You just escaped a quick, painful death down there. Now you want to walk into a place where the living die slowly and painfully every day? What did you ever do to the universe to deserve that?"
I kicked at the edge of a cushion in front of me. Nothing. I had done nothing. But it wasn't the universe coldly dealing out this path. It was someone else. Someone who was supposed to be something different. At least something that shouldn't feel like this.
I opened my mouth again, but before I could say a word, a loud screech shot out above us.
Miksa's eyes went wide, and he ducked low, scooping up his spear and grabbing onto a rung hanging from the ceiling. He held onto it with one hand, using the spear to poke open a hatch overhead. Bright sunlight streamed through a metal grate. I blinked once but then watched as a huge shadow drowned the light out.
"Anka!" Miksa cried.
I dove for the doorway, but Miksa grabbed my arm and yanked me back.
"Don't go out there! That giant bird will eat you in a gulp!"
"But Cereus and Lodan are out there!"
"Then they're dead!" Miksa shouted.
We're okay. There's a huge bird up there, Eric. What do we do?
"Stay away from it if it comes closer!" I shouted.
Miksa glanced up again as three giant talons pierced through the sphere with a loud boom. I fell to the cushions as a gust of wind burst through the grate above, and we swung to the side, ripping from the other spheres. Sunlight pierced the darkness through the ripped open tunnels. And through the open doorway, I could see the ground falling far below as the anka carried us higher and higher into the sky.
I rolled to the side as the cobwebs struck the sand beside me. "Cereus!" I jumped to my feet and raced to his side. The horse neighed, jerking his legs back and forth. He blinked and shifted a few feet away, still tied up with the cobwebs. He shifted again, and I spun to face the ring of thirty people with vacant stares and open mouths standing half a house away.
"Go away!" I shouted.
The people shuffled closer.
I leapt to an old bazaar tent hanging over the street and shimmied up the pole, yanking the orange fabric from its pegs. It flopped in the wind, and I jumped down with it in both hands, twisting until it had been wound tight. A woman with a white robe and pale skin stepped toward me, holding out her hands. I whipped the fabric at her legs, wrapping it around her ankle and yanking it back toward me. She tumbled to the sand with a thud, and instantly the place where the woman had been lying was filled with gray dust pluming up in a cloud.
Two thick spider-like legs emerged from the gray cloud, stabbing into the sand. A cracking noise drifted through the swirling dust, and the legs retreated.
The other people around the square stared at the dust, hissing.
I backed up, winding up the fabric again as a dark shape the size of my torso leapt out of the cloud. I flicked the tent fabric at the creature. It smacked the thing's underbelly and sent it skittering across the square and into the side of the citadel wall with a crunch.
I stared at the spot. Orange goo smeared down the side of the wall, and at the bottom rested a giant insect with a translucent brown head, beady eyes, and a thick black-striped abdomen. The back legs of the thing twitched once and then came to rest.
The hissing around me grew louder. I spun around and saw the people shaking and foaming at the mouth. Their arms were spread wide as the giant bugs crawled out of the people's heads. The bodies disappeared in plumes of gray smoke, and the bugs leapt off their large, back legs and into the square, crawling toward me, hissing and growling.
Cereus snapped the cobwebs off his legs and shifted beside me. We should go. Now.
"Yeah, I think so." I dropped the awning and scrambled onto his back as the horde of bugs darted toward us, leaping and raking their front legs through the air. Cereus shifted backward, and the bugs splatted onto the ground, leaving a trail of orange goo.
Well, that's easy enough.
More hissing drifted down. I glanced up. Thousands of the bugs scampered out of the windows and open doors around us. They leapt to the sand and burrowed under it, trailing toward us and leaving sidewinding mounds in their wake.
"Go!" I screamed.
Cereus shifted. We whipped in the other direction, and Cereus took off, galloping down the street as bugs sprung through the air at us. I saw an old, silver vase resting against the side of a bazaar tent and urged Cereus toward it. We shifted over as five bugs jumped at us, smacking into each other and exploding with goo. As we galloped toward the silver vase, I hooked my legs through Cereus's saddle strap and leaned over, grabbing the vase as we shot past. I whipped back up, swinging the vase as another bug hissed and clawed at Cereus's backside. I smacked the creature, and it burst with a loud splotch!
There are millions of them! Cereus screamed.
"Just keep running!" I shouted back, spinning around so I faced the horde of insects behind us. Cobwebs shot through the air, shooting over our heads as I ducked and swung the vase, smashing bug after bug as they came at us. And then a bug leapt off a sandstone wall, landing on the vase and wrapping its forelegs around and through the handles. I fell sideways, slipping my foot beneath the saddle strap. I hung from Cereus's side. The bug raised a back leg, slicing at my arm and scraping into it with sharp spikes. Blood dribbled down my forearm and splattered the thing in the face. It licked hungrily at its eyes and scrambled forward. It opened a wide jaw, and I saw a ring of teeth clacking together and reaching out for me.
Cereus shifted to the left and right, trying to shake the thing loose. I flung the vase and sent the bug spiraling into the side of a wall where it exploded on impact. I whipped back up to a sitting position on Cereus's back and spun around, leaning forward and holding on.
"How much farther until we're out of the city?"
I don't know! I don't know! Cereus said, the panic rampant in his thoughts.
A thin bridge linking two of the sandstone buildings hung ahead. On either side of the bridge were windows. As soon as I had spotted them, insects burst out, crawling over the tops of each other and hissing and foaming. They turned toward us and spat globs of web in our direction. Each one lurched back, spitting again and again. Cereus shifted back and forth as the webs missed us by fingertips, splotting into the sand with a thud and leaving a trail of pockmarks behind us.
A large web spiraled through the air and wrapped around Cereus's face. The horse tried to shift away but instead smashed into the sandstone wall under the bridge. I flew off as a horde of the insects swarmed over Cereus's side, pinning him to the ground. Cereus shifted away, but the insects moved with him, flopping and snapping.
I rolled into the sand and saw a hand wrapped in leather all the way up the arm reach out to me. I scanned up and saw a human with fading brown leather wrapped around their entire body. Large goggles obscuring the eyes rested on the person's face, and only a thin slit where a mouth would be allowed them to breathe at all.
The person shook their hand at me.
ERIC! Cereus screamed. ER-
Cereus's voice went quiet in my head. I flung my legs around and pushed off the sand. The creatures had covered the horse in cobwebs from nose to hoof. They attached a thicker strand at his tail, and a line of the insects dragged Cereus away from me.
I tried to sprint forward, but the person behind me wrapped a strong arm around my chest and yanked me back.
"Let me go! THAT'S MY HORSE!" I shouted.
The person didn't respond. They just held me and continued yanking me away.
Thirty insects turned toward us and hissed. They scrambled forward, foam trailing across the sand as they came. The person swung around in front of me, brandishing a long staff with thick rope knotted around each end. They spun it between their fingers, knocking through the insects as they scurried forward.
I watched, helpless as Cereus vanished behind a wall of twitching legs and foam.
"CEREUS!" I screamed. More of the insects swarmed from the windows above us, crawling down the walls and clacking their teeth.
The person turned around and pointed back the way we had come. We ran, each footfall aching through my chest. I could not lose another person. I would not. I refused. The anger surged into my lungs, over my shoulders, and down my arms until it pooled at my fingertips. I could blast each one of those bugs into nothing. All I had to do was reach for the power. The light that cried out to me. Begged me to be used. It would be so simple. So painless.
I grit my teeth. But giving in to that power meant giving up everything. I had already tasted the cost of letting that boy control my life. I refused to let him control me. There had to be a way to save Cereus. Had to be.
An angry screech echoed across the city. It pounded through my ears and shook sand from the roofs of the nearest buildings. We slid to a stop, staggering as a giant shadow engulfed the street we stood in.
I peeked up to see a massive talon reaching into the street.
My eyes went wide as the person shoved me aside. The talon raked through the sand and caught up piles of insects as it closed its grip. The creatures screamed and squirted orange goo over the sand.
A flap of wings sent a huge gust of wind through the street, blowing us back against the sandstone. Another loud screech filled my eardrums. The insects around us hissed wildly, sinking into doorways, burrowing into the sand, and vanishing faster than a plate of food back at Gratta's compound.
The person beside me grabbed my shoulder. We pounded through the sand as I fought back tears. I was going to lose Cereus. I knew it. I knew I would. Just like Zinnia. And Saltha. And Bella. And all of them.
I followed the leather-wrapped head of this person who had appeared from seemingly nowhere. We rounded a corner and came to another section of the city. This area seemed newer and yet ancient at the same time. Large, round spheres hung together in clusters like grapes, with wooden ladders trailing up to circular doors. Each one had an awning hanging over the top to keep out the sun. Spikes lined one cluster of the metal spheres, the rotting bodies of insects caught on several of them. We hopped between two spikes and scurried up a ladder with a door hanging open. We rolled in, landing on a bed of cushions placed across the floor.
Another flap of giant wings.
The entire sphere shook, and I slid to one side, noticing a hole that connected this sphere to another one. Light filtered through thin grates all along the sides. The sphere we were in could have fit five horses standing side by side. Some of the other spheres branching off from this one seemed a pinch smaller, and one even wider.
We huddled low on the floor, listening as the giant bird outside circled us. Its shadow loomed over the sandstone buildings nearby every few seconds, and that's when I remembered: the vulture we had seen. It wasn't a vulture at all. It had been some sort of monstrous bird. How high must it have been to seem so small to us up on the ridge above the city?
I spun to the person. "Listen, my friend is out. I have to save him. Can you help me or not?"
The person held up both hands and slowly began unwrapping the leather around their head. Long brown hair fell out down to their shoulder blades. The goggles came off, and the leather around the mouth fell down to their neck.
The first thing I noticed was that one of his ears had been clipped and then healed back over in a mound. How it had happened I didn't really want to know. The skin at the top had been folded down, and his hair covered most of it. He had dark eyes and tan skin, like he had been out in the sun for a very long time. Burn scars trailed down below his ear and onto his neck. He caught me staring at his ear and rubbed a finger over it.
"What? Something look interesting to you?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I just need to rescue my friend."
He closed one eye and sighed. He must have been about my age. But he looked older. Too many long days in the sun. Frown lines arched down from his eyes to the sides of his mouth.
"Any ideas?" I asked.
He stood and crossed to the grates in the wall of the sphere and peeked out. "Seems quiet now. Those excavator bugs are hiding in their burrows. That's where they took your horse."
"Where is that?"
He spun around and glared at me. "You want to die? If it wasn't for that anka out there, we would all be dead."
I held up a hand. "I'm sorry I burst in on whatever sort of gloomy day you were hoping to have, but I want to rescue Cereus. And if you're not going to help me, then stay behind. Otherwise, just get out of my way."
"You don't even know what you're looking for. Or where to find him." He laughed. "You're like all the others from Jedros. Poor as dirt but think you own the world."
I could feel my neck heating up. "How do you know I'm from Jedros? How do you know anything about me? You don't know the first thing about me. You have no idea!"
He shook his head and waved at the door. "Get out of here. I'm not wasting my time with you."
I shuffled over to the door and grabbed the long metal handle. My fingers tapped it and then I sighed. I really didn't know where I was going. I didn't know anything about this island, about this city, about what those bugs even were. I need his help. And as much as he made me want to punch him so hard he fell back and never woke up, I needed him.
"Look," I said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be fighting with you. I should be thanking you."
"Forgiven." Another sigh. "And for the record, the name is Miksa. Don't overuse it."
I turned and nodded. "Thank you. So where do we go, and what do we do? And how long do we have?"
Miksa ran a hand through his long hair. "Excavators like their food fairly fresh, but they also like to let it cool off inside all that gunk they spit out. So I'm guessing we have roughly an hour before they're hungry enough to dig in."
"And where do we find them?"
"The nest." Miksa eyed me. "You a fighter?"
I nodded. "You have weapons?"
"A few." He crawled through a nearby hole and after a series of clanks and thuds, I heard him crawling back. He emerged from the hole with a black sword with a long, narrow blade and notches on the top end, a staff identical to his own, and a long handle with a rope on the end that was attached to a heavy brown ball. "Take your favorite."
He laid them down on a cushion, and I bent over and grabbed the sword almost immediately. I knew swords. I liked swords. And I could fight with one.
Miksa whipped his staff around and smashed one end into my wrists. I dropped the sword and he scrambled to me, keeping my forearms pinned.
"What are you doing?" I shouted.
He yanked back my sleeve and glanced at the marks across my skin. Miksa's gaze drifted up, and he stared at me for a moment. "I could have sworn you were a Runner like the other one. Did you get released?"
"The other one?" I whispered, my eyes darting from side to side. "Has another Runner been here?"
Miksa nodded his head toward the left. "Got him tied up back there. Why? You think you know him?"
My hands shook. Another Runner was here. One of Gratta's? Someone else? "Let me see him."
Miksa pointed down one of the holes into a darker sphere with what looked like a cage door set into the framework. He lifted up the staff, and I crept toward the hole, sticking my head through, waiting, and hearing heavy breathing coming from the sphere behind the bars. I swallowed and crawled forward on my hands and knees until the bars were a hand's reach away from my face. I squinted into the dark and saw a body lying on a single cushion in the center of an empty sphere.
The body was bound with ropes from shoulders to feet, hands tied separately with another length of sturdy rope. A hood covered the person's head.
I wrapped both hands around the bars and raised my head, trying to see if I could spot his face.
A quiet breath passed.
And then the figure rolled over in a blink, smashing into the bars. I yelped and fell back, staring at a cut-up face with a gag in his mouth. Blond hair hung into the boy's reddened eyes. He screamed at me, his face deepening into a shade of purplish blue. He threw his body against the bars again and again, and I sat back, mouth hung open, afraid to say anything except his name.
I gasped and reached for my side, searching for a weapon, anything.
The old woman held out a gnarled hand, fingers splayed. She stamped her feathered staff once, and the beads jangled together. A spasm ricocheted up my legs and into my shoulders as an invisible force pinned me to the crumbling ruin. I leaned against it, trying to twitch even my hand, but I couldn't move.
A wet chuckle drifted across the ruin. My eyes stopped darting from side to side, and I could feel the tears building up beneath them. Her wrinkled face leaned over me. Gnarled, weathered skin stretched tightly around her eyes and mouth. She wore a simple, brown dress, flowing in the slight breeze that wafted through my hair.
Her dark eyes widened, lifting the headband made of feathers melded together in a ringlet on her forehead. Gray hair stuck out from her eyebrows and ears, along with the patches of scorched hair on her scalp.
"Who . . . are . . . you?" she asked, struggling to spit out the words, as if they were strange to her tongue.
My mouth wouldn't move. I strained against whatever held me down, but my jaw wouldn't budge.
The old woman flicked her staff, and my arms shot into the air. She scrambled forward and tugged down on my sleeves, inspecting both forearms. Her fingers traced the scar where the clasp had once been, and her eyes darted to my face.
"So . . . it is you." She closed her eyes and shook her head, tilting it to one side. She spit and then spoke again, the words flowing more freely from her mouth. "The Runner of Golden Light bestows his presence on me? Me?"
She flicked the staff again, and my jaw felt like it had been released from the invisible clamps holding it shut.
"Who are you?" I asked.
The old woman glanced away and then jerked her gaze back toward me. "My name?"
"Yes, your name, what you want with me. All of those things. If you're looking for my power, I don't have it anymore, so don't ask."
The woman smirked. "Powerless now, eh?"
I nodded. "Yes. So if you're going to kill me, do it quick."
The smirk deepened. "Why would I want to kill you when I need your help?" She hopped forward on bare feet and gripped my chin, pointing the staff at my temple. "Redimi needs your help. And since I am Redimi, I need your help."
"Help with what?" I mumbled around her smelly fingers.
"I made a mistake once." Her head lifted. She released my chin and stared off at the stars on the horizon. "I trespassed where I did not belong. And for that, the Dry Death imprisoned me here, in the middle of the desert, never visited, never seen." Her eyes focused on me again. "Until you arrived. The Runner of Golden Light. Here."
"If you've been trapped here, then how do you know about me?"
Redimi's eyes widened. "Everyone has heard about you. The birds whisper about it. The horses think deeply about it. The people talk in hushed tones hoping no one hears their conversations. And the Runner of Golden Light screams it." She ran the tip of her staff down my forearm. She stepped back, her feet curling around the rubble on the rooftop. "Even powerless, the Runner of Golden Light is more powerful than even he knows." She turned away and flicked her staff.
The weight pinning me to the ruins lifted. I leapt to my feet and backed away. Cereus and I needed to get away from this place as soon as possible. I didn't know if this crazy, old woman was dangerous or not, but I wasn't in the mood to be frozen in place when a pack of Gratta's Runners showed up. I scrambled for the hole in the roof and stuck my boot into the first foothold.
"You're leaving?" Redimi called.
"Yes." I stared at the desert below. "Are you going to stop me?"
The old woman sighed. "No. I will not." She paused, and I hesitated. And then she spoke again, and a shiver ran across my shoulders. "You seek knowledge, do you not?"
I swallowed and glanced over my shoulder. "And if I do, how can you tell me anything about it?"
"Like I said, I hear things only the wind whispers about." Her cracked voice rose a pitch. "Even things about the Unclasped."
I whipped around. "What did you say?"
The old woman leaned on her staff, chin resting on a tangle of beads and feathers. "The Unclasped One. You know what I speak of."
I leapt onto the roof and hurried over to her. "What do you know? Please! You have to tell me!"
A thin smile trickled across her lips. "And now you need Redimi's help. How cute."
I grabbed her shoulder. Fast as a lightning bug, she whirled the staff through the air and whacked my hand away. She spread her fingers wide and shoved her palm at my chest. I flew back, landing with a grunt on the roof a horse length away from her.
"Never. Touch. Redimi." The woman dropped her hand to her side.
My back popped as I stood up and wiped dust from my tunic. "Sorry. I didn't mean to. I just . . . please . . . if you know something about the Unclasped, you have to tell me. I'm desperate."
"Desperate drips from you like a wet rag. Anyone could smell it for a league away." Redimi hobbled over to a large piece of sandstone and sat on it, tracing the end of her staff in the dust. "For my knowledge, you must give me your help."
"Fine. What do you want?"
"What do I want?" Redimi glanced at me over a smirk. "What do you want?"
"I thought it dripped off my like a wet rag."
Redimi snarled. "Don't get coy with me. I can easily whisk you off my rooftop before you could blink. Then we'll see how far you run before they catch you."
I sighed. "I just want to know about this Unclasped person. If someone else is unclasped, I need to know how they did it. Because my friends are all trapped in the worst job. I don't know how to help them."
Redimi pointed a gnarled finger at me. "One kills you, the rest die along with you. You die, they all die. You run forever, they run forever, wasting away until they give up and vanish into the purple lights. Quite the dilemma." She paused. "So why don't you just run away?"
The old woman stood and spread her arms wide. "The horizon is open to you. You could run into the five islands, disappear forever, or even travel beyond."
"There is nothing beyond the five islands of Abra."
Redimi clucked her tongue and sniffed. "Shows what you know of the world. You think the impassible mist is really that impassible? You think nothing lies beyond these borders? Kingdoms and worlds rage on out there while we waste away our lives inside this cocoon of mist. Shielded from them. Them shielded from us. And all the while, the world continues spinning. Lives living lives. The running. Always running. From one tragedy to the next. Until we simply can't run anymore."
"I don't have any way of getting off these islands. Gratta's runners are already guarding the only passway back to Castos, and unless you know of another passway, I'm probably not leaving Uthen." I kicked a rock over the edge and heard it thunk into the sand below.
"Then it seems you truly are out of options." Redimi cleared her throat. "And I am prepared to help you. But you must help me."
"I promise. I will."
The old woman smiled at me. "Oh, you will. Give me your forearm."
I glanced at her sideways, hesitated, and then stuck my arm out. She tapped the end of her staff against it, and a thin green light trickled from the feathers and wrapped around my wrist, tying themselves into a neat bow.
Redimi's voice whispered into my ear, "Seek out the Barren Prison. Once there, search for the Crowned One. He alone knows where the Unclasped resides."
"And what am I supposed to do for you?"
All mirth left the old woman's face. "You must free me from these bonds. Bring me the Heart of the Meticulous within nine days, and your debt will be paid. Refuse, and you shall pay dearly. With your life, and the life of anyone you have ever dreamed about." She licked her lips. "Your friends, your family, that girl Bella. Your parents. Juuulian." She cackled.
My eyes widened and my stomach dropped. "Nine days?"
The old woman laughed. "You didn't think I would let you leave without a binding, did you? You are bound to me, boy. Bound! And there is no way to break this binding."
"But I don't even know what the Heart of the Meticulous even is!"
Redimi backed to the edge of the roof and spread her arms wide. "Then it is time to find out!" She cackled and fell backward off the edge of the roof, immediately erupting into a swirl of sand that spun down and into the desert.
I blinked and rushed to the edge of the roof. Redimi had vanished. Nine days. Nine days to find something called the Heart of the Meticulous and bring it back to this crazy, old woman before not only I died, but anyone I had ever dreamed about.
Maybe she was bluffing. It had to be. But how had she known those names? Those people?
A twinge shot up my arm. I glanced down and saw the faint glow of a green ribbon of light swirling around my wrist before it disappeared from sight. It wasn't a bluff. I had been freed from one slavery and bound to another.
Everyone I had ever dreamed about.
All of them would be dead if I didn't deliver the Heart of the Meticulous. I swallowed, and as I climbed back down to Cereus, kept whispering to myself, "At least I have a chance. At least I have a chance. At least I have a chance."
I rushed to Cereus's side and shook him awake.
What? What is it? Cereus's head shot up, his eyes half-open. Trouble? Runners?
I shook my head.
Cereus's gaze drifted to my wrist. What is that? What's on your wrist, Eric? What'd you do?
I swallowed and glanced at the faint green ribbon again. "I made a deal."
With a devil.
"Maybe." I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "But it means we might be able to save everyone. We have to find the Barren Prison. Do you—"
The what? Cereus leaned away and stood, shuffling to one side and stamping his hooves. Breath burst from both nostrils in plumes of white steam. You want to find what?
"The Barren Prison. Do you know where it is?"
Cereus shook his head wildly. No! No! No, I don't! No one wants to know. Because the only people who know are good as dead!
"What is it? I've never heard of it before."
It's a terrible place. Full of terrible people. One of the old horses used to think about it. None of us liked it. Always made me feel like fleas were crawling on my legs.
I stood and clenched my fists. "Well, we have to find it."
Why? Cereus asked.
"Because. If we don't, then I'll be dead in nine days."
Cereus's eyes widened. What WAS this deal you made? It sounds like a bad, bad deal.
"Maybe it was. But we have a chance. It's better than running forever."
But there aren't any more chances once you're dead. I don't want you dead.
I pointed to the distance. "Then we better find someone who knows where the Barren Prison is."
A shiver ran across the horse's back. He spun around in a quick circle, lowered his head, and then snorted. Then get on, Deal-Maker.
The sun trickled over the distant sand dunes, lighting the sky pink and purple. We had traveled throughout the night, and I could feel Cereus losing momentum. We had to stop somewhere or we would both collapse. My eyelids drooped, and I blinked them back open, trying to focus on the horizon.
A distant vulture came into view, circling overhead.
Something's dead, Cereus whispered into my mind.
I nodded. My eyes shot open, and I prodded him forward. "Let's see what it is."
We came around the side of a dune and saw the sand trickle off the edge of a rocky slope. Red rocks jutted in every direction all the way to the bottom of a horseshoe-shaped valley. Nestled into the valley was a sprawling, sandstone town. Old buildings with fresh banners and flags wavered in the breeze below. The faint sound of voices waking to another morning drifted up to us.
Should we go down? Cereus asked.
"Someone down there might know where to find the Barren Prison."
Or they might kill us for asking.
"Try to be at least a little positive," I said with a grimace.
I try to be realistic. That's what I try to do. Okay?
"Fine. Let's go."
Cereus edged his way down the side of the slope, shuffling his hooves down a thin trail that wove between the red rocks. It switched back and forth, taking us deeper and deeper into the valley. The buildings grew larger, some with spires sticking into the sky with bronze poles mounted to their tops. Some of the taller buildings held bells behind sun-shaped carvings through the sandstone. The trail led to a wide, city gate that must have been opened while we were headed down.
We marched through the open gate, and I noticed the faint caw of a vulture above us. But so far, we hadn't seen a single dead thing anywhere. Maybe there was a meat market somewhere inside the city. Almost as soon as I had thought it, the smell of cooking beef wafted through the air and met my nostrils. My chest swelled as I took in the smell.
"That smells delicious," I whispered.
Yuck. Meat. How can you eat that stuff? Give me a good patch of grass any day.
"Then I'll take the meat, and you can have the lawn," I laughed, thinking about the feeling of solid food resting in my stomach after the days and days of eating pieces of cactus rinds and scrubbing around for the thin roots of half-dried vegetables I had pulled out of my sack. Food had been hard to come by so far on Uthen, and wherever I found it, I took it. Cereus seemed like he was able to go for another thousand miles with the barest of meals, but I couldn't live like that. I had to eat. Had to.
We rounded a street, following the noise of raucous laughter and shouting. A marketplace. Had to be a marketplace. And marketplaces had food. My stomach growled thinking about sinking my teeth into a juicy piece of chicken or even a fleshy piece of apple or pear. Anything at this point would have staved off the hunger pains trailing the bottom of my gut.
The moment the bazaar tents came into view was the moment the noise died instantly. I stared ahead through canopies flapping in a sharp wind and saw nothing. No one. Empty stalls covered with sand, dust, and cobwebs.
Um, where is everyone? Cereus asked.
"I don't know. But something tells me that this isn't a place we want to stay in for long."
Cereus trotted through the streets. The wind picked up the farther we went, circling around towering sandstone buildings with open doors and empty windows. Another vulture cawed from above, but down below, we heard nothing but the wind, whipping past us. My dark hair flew back. It had grown longer over the weeks of running. I pulled out a thin piece of rope from the sack at Cereus's side and tied it back into a bun on the back of my head.
I don't wanna be here anymore, Cereus said with a slight whinny.
"Neither do I. Something about this city is wrong. Bad wrong."
And then a young boy stepped out of the open door of a towering citadel standing before us. He had his head tilted forward. His baggy pants were ripped and held up by a red sash around the waist. Long tears sliced through the beige tunic he wore.
"Hey!" I shouted.
The boy stopped moving toward us. He still didn't look up.
Cereus stalled and snorted. I slipped to the sandy street and held up both hands, slowly walking toward the boy. He had to be maybe five or six years younger than I was, swaying side to side in the wind.
I stood about two arm’s lengths away when Cereus spoke up.
Something's wrong, Eric!
I took another step forward and reached out to the boy's shoulder. "Can you hear me?" I asked.
Eric! Cereus shouted.
I gripped the kid's shoulder as his head slowly rose until his eyes met mine. But where the bright, shiny eyes of a young boy should have been was the vacant, far-off stare of something else. Cobwebs trailed from his ear down to his nose. A low hiss erupted from the boy's mouth as his hand whisked up and wrapped around my wrist. I tried to yank my hand away, and as it pulled from his fingers, a trail of cobwebs stuck to my forearm.
I screamed and shook off the webs, stumbling back as low hissing echoed throughout the street corner. I glanced up and saw people hobbling through open door frames, all covered in cobwebs, and all staring vacantly at Cereus and me.
A tall man to my right held up both hands and cobwebs shot from his palms, wrapping around Cereus's legs and dropping him to the sand. And then he turned his hands toward me with a nasty grin. I covered my face as cobwebs zipped through the air straight at me.
Grab my flank! Cereus screamed into my mind.
I reached out as we fell into the darkness and found the horse's side. As soon as my hand made contact, I felt the air vibrate, and we landed on soft sand. A thin shaft of light trickled down from the opening above us. I glanced up and saw the seven Scholars ring the trapdoor as it slowly retracted into place.
"Prove thyself! Use your light!" One of them called as the trapdoor snapped shut, leaving us in total darkness below.
I'm scared. I do not like it down here!
"Neither do I," I whispered. I kept one hand on Cereus's side. The horse stamped a hoof. "Can you get us back up there?"
Cereus snorted. No chance. I can't shift through that metal. I don't know what it is. But it keeps stopping me from getting through it.
"Great." I took a deep breath. It would have been nice to have the clasp on my arm glowing like it used to. But my clasp had been destroyed, just like the Scholars had said. Molduth, the red beast with wings from inside the crystal beneath the queen's castle, had jabbed one of his giant claws right through it and cracked the gem completely. I had been swallowed in purple light and rescued somehow by the boy.
I didn't want to think about him right then. Because I knew the Scholars would not have dropped us into this hole for no reason. They wanted me to use the golden light again, and that meant something was lurking in the darkness with us.
A heavy breath wafted from the corner. It rattled across me, smelling like rotting meat and molding cheese. I slid the tabak-toyok from my belt and held both handles with the rope between spread apart.
"Steady," I whispered, feeling Cereus backing away from the corner.
A pair of pink eyes the length of my entire body popped open. A faint glow emanated from each iris, casting the entire chamber in a rosy hue. The walls ran around us in a wide circle, with no doors or windows visible along its entire length. Sand and dry bones littered the ground between us and the hulking monster in the corner.
It looked like a giant crustacean with long, sharp claws that snapped together slowly in front of two mandibles dribbling with pink slime. A large, pearl-colored shell gleamed even in the dim light, spikes glistening dangerously across the surface of the entire beast. The thing's eyes wobbled on two long stalks. They leaned forward, squinting at us. Pink drool slipped from the creature's mouth and sizzled on the sand.
Cereus and I stepped back. How do we fight that?
"I don't know," I said.
Six spindly legs arched out from either side of the crab, and the beast hoisted itself off the ground. Sand and pink slime dripped to the ground along with a few loose bones. The creature trundled forward a half step and then swayed back and forth. Its claws clacked at the air. A low moan erupted from its jaw. Pink slime sprayed across the sand and sizzled everywhere it landed.
"Get ready," I said, bending forward, holding out the tabak-toyok, spinning one of the handles until it created a whir of motion in front of me.
The crab jabbed forward with a claw and smacked into the tabak-toyok. A tiny piece of hard shell clipped off the end as the weapon met crab. The beast leaned back and roared, yanking its claw close and cradling it against its mandibles.
Cereus raked a hoof through the sand and stuck his head forward. I'm going in. Cover me.
"Cover you?" I shouted.
The horse darted at the crab, neighing and shifting from side to side as he got closer to the beast. A claw swung at him from the left side, and Cereus shifted left. The momentum of the claw carried it until it bashed into the wall. A large chunk of shell fell to the sand. I raced for it, sliding behind it and then darting toward the side legs of the crab. Cereus kept shifting back and forth in front of the angry crab.
As I reached the legs, it spun wide in a quick shift and barreled straight at Cereus. The horse blinked out of the way and landed behind the crab as it smashed into the opposite wall. Another roar went up, rattling my chest.
"Nice work!" I shouted.
And then the crab swiped at Cereus. It closed its claws around his midsection and yanked the horse into the air with a whinny. Before Cereus could shift away, the beast chucked him across the chamber. The horse landed in a heap, his eyes blinking once before he passed out.
"Cereus!" I raced to his side as the crab side-walked back toward the horse, mandibles clacking, pink slime dribbling from its mouth, and hissing with steam. I stood in front of Cereus and swung the tabak-toyok back and forth in a figure eight motion. The crab pulled up to a stop and hesitated, leaning in with its claws tentatively. The claw nicked against the tabak-toyok and yanked back.
The other claw swung over me and scooped me up from behind. My stomach stung as little barbs on the ends of the claw poked through my dusty tunic. The tabak-toyok slipped from my hand and tumbled to the sand. The crab reached its other claw down and swiped it aside until it smacked into the metal walls with a clatter.
The beast let out another soft moan and leaned back on its back eight legs. Its mouth opened wide—wider than I had thought possible. I could see a pink light glowing inside it somewhere. Slime gurgled from its throat, and I kicked and slammed my fists against the hard claw.
A voice echoed down from above. "Only one way to beat it." The Scholars. There was a crack in the trapdoor a few arm’s lengths above me. Three of their faces leaned over the edge, staring down at me with stoic expressions.
"Tap into the light," they said together.
I gritted my teeth. I wouldn't. Because tapping into the golden light meant so many other things. The crab lowered me toward its maw. Sharp teeth popped into view, chomping together in anticipation of a meal well-earned.
Just use the light. . . . Cereus. His voice faint. Slipping through one ear and out the other.
But using the light meant so many things. I would have to face him again. It meant being used. It meant letting someone else control me and everything I did. It meant watching people die around me. Too many people had already died because of that golden light. I wouldn't add to the list of the names. I refused.
The crab had me over its mouth. I felt the claw loosen around me, and I slipped through. I grabbed onto a spine protruding from the bottom of the claw and swung my boots wide, landing on top of the mandibles. They smacked together, and I slid down, my foot crashing into the beast's mouth. It closed around my ankle quickly, and I screamed.
I spun, frantic, feeling pain shoot up my leg and into my chest. My fingernails raked through the soft flesh just above the mouth and grabbed hold. The crab opened its mouth and roared in agony. I jabbed my other hand into the soft part of its face and climbed. It swung both claws at itself, but its elbows wouldn't bend inward far enough to reach me.
"Cereus!" I shouted.
The horse stirred.
"CEREUS!" I screamed louder.
The crab's eyes darted between me and my horse. It roared again, spun sideways, and trundled straight at Cereus.
"CEREUS!" I shouted again.
The horse glanced up as the massive crab loomed over him. It raised a claw and brought it down to smash him. Cereus scooped up a mouthful of sand and blinked out of sight as the claw smashed into the ground.
I scrambled onto the crab's shell, right behind its eyes. Cereus appeared beside me, unsteady as the crab swayed from side to side. He leaned forward and spit the sand right into the crab's eyes. The beast roared and stumbled into the metal wall. A sharp crack ran along its shell. I jumped onto Cereus's back, and together we shifted back down to the sand and across the chamber.
The crab roared again, and pink slime sprayed from its mouth and landed on the metal walls.
I pointed. "Far side! In front of it! Fast!"
We shifted twice and arrived in front of the crab. It saw us, roared, and spit a huge, pink glob at us. Cereus shifted away again as the gunk landed on the metal wall, sizzling a hole through it.
I can get out! Cereus shouted. He ran for the hole. The crab swung its claws and clacked them together, and we shifted out of the chamber as the beast cracked both claws on the metal wall. We landed outside, rolling in a tumble and staring up at the Scholars’ compound. We could hear shouts and roars echoing around inside.
"Shouldn't stay here. We gotta run," I said.
Yes! We get to run! I'm outta here!
Cereus stood, I climbed on, and we raced away, leaving the compound far behind us.
The sand dunes rolled as we raced on. We both wanted a healthy distance from the Scholars and their giant underground crab. I shuddered and lifted up the edge my tunic, spotting the little marks where its spined claws had dug into my skin. They hurt to touch, and I winced as I dropped my tunic back into place.
The sun blazed red on the horizon, lighting the distant hills on fire.
I'm tired, Cereus muttered.
I nodded. I was too. I patted his side. "Let's find someplace to stop for the night."
Cereus slowed to a trot, and we noticed the ground beneath us slowly change from sand to dry dirt with cracks crisscrossing in every direction. Every stamp of Cereus's hooves sent up billows of dust that rattled into the distance before dissipating with a sigh.
We rounded the side of an outcrop of rock and spotted a sandstone ruin resting in the middle of the desert. Five round archways allowed us to see through it to the other side where more desert stretched into nothing. It had a flat roof with a million pockmarks chewed out by sand and wind and time.
You think it's safe?
"I'm too tired to decide it's not." As if to prove my point, a loud yawn escaped my chest.
I slipped off Cereus's back and picked up a jagged rock from the ground. My knuckles ached to hold the tabak-toyok in my hands again. At least with the metal and rope between my fingers, I felt like I stood a chance against any would-be marauders.
I slid up to the sandstone and pressed my back against it, motioning for Cereus to stay quiet. The ruin had a dark corner on one side, and I did not want to be surprised again. I leaned around the edge of the archway and peeked inside. The last light of the sun sent a wavy, red pattern across the stone walls. I held up the rock and stepped in, spinning from side to side.
"Nothing," I called.
Oh good. Cereus trotted into the ruins and sidled up to the far wall with a view of the sunset. He folded his legs under him and sat, leaning his head against the stone with a sigh.
I crossed over to him and sat down, my head against his belly.
How much longer we gotta run like this? Cereus asked. He snorted. Not that I'm sad about running. I'd rather run than be trapped again. No trapping. It's not good.
I shrugged. "I wish I knew." I scanned the horizon ahead and behind us. No sign of anything. No dust. No horses. And then I checked the darkening sky. And no flying pegasi either. I let out a long breath, slid my knees up to my chest, and leaned my chin forward, watching the sun disappear behind the distant rock formations.
This is a hard life, Cereus muttered. And I'm hungry.
My stomach growled. "Me too. I guess we'll just be hungry together."
A pause. You know, if you used your light, we could probably get places and get food.
"No," I said. "I won't use it."
Why not? I mean, I know why not. Because I can see what you're thinking. But why not?
An ache twisted through my chest. Why not? Why not use the light that had gotten me so many places so quickly in Abra? It had gotten me a job as a novice, not even-Runner, but trainee. It had earned me powerful enemies. It had lit the way for so many people to be ripped from my life so quickly. That's why. I didn't want to watch another person die in the purple light. I didn't want to see anyone else dragged into the mist never to be seen again.
But those things aren't your fault.
"Yes, they are," I snapped. "All of them are. If I hadn't started this crazy journey, Saltha would be alive. Bella would be here. Zinnia would be grazing a field happily."
Cereus let out a soft whinny. I always liked Zinnia. She thought I was too crazy.
"You are crazy."
I smirked and almost laughed. But it didn't last for long. Because as soon as one little burst of joy came through me, the faces of all those Runners from Gratta's compound flashed into view. Faces I had doomed to death. Some way. Someday.
I shook my head and stood up, rubbing my elbows as the temperature dropped. "I'll keep first watch. You get sleep. You're the one who has to run us everywhere now."
Yeah, I do run us everywhere. Cereus yawned and rested his head against the wall. Wake me when you're . . . the horse didn't even finish the thought. Gentle snores slipped from his mouth.
I spun around and kicked at a pebble. It skittered across the stone floors and clattered against the far wall and at the base of a series of what looked like handholds leading to a hole in the roof. I glanced at Cereus one last time before darting over and climbing up the side of the wall. My boots stuck perfectly into the holes, almost as if they had been carved out for my feet. I emerged on the roof. Stars lined the skies, and I laid down on my back and gazed at them.
So many stars. I was watching them. And I couldn't help but feel like they were watching me.
The Unclasped. Who was it? And more importantly, how had they become unclasped? Because if one person could do it, why couldn't I somehow unclasp all of Gratta's Runners?
I blinked. My eyelids felt heavy.
Another yawn. Another blink.
And then I saw the old woman, leaning on a staff with feathers tied around the top end, standing at the other side of the roof and staring at me.
A glass window let the sunlight pour in like a warm blanket, hitting my face and sending a smile across my lips. I was dreaming again. Finally. I closed my eyes and soaked in the smell of steaming, red peppers and brown rice. And when I opened my eyes again, I saw the table stretching out around me, chairs lined along either side, laughing friends and family smirking and passing bowls of warm food.
A lump crushed the back of my throat as I tried not to let all the shaking sobs slip past my mouth. In this dream, all of them were real. All of them were still alive.
Raciel, dark skin, strong arms, gatekeeper of the Pale Woods and Cassie’s dad, stood at the end of the table from his chair, wiping both hands off on his apron. His words drifted toward me like gently lapping waves. "To family." He raised his glass, and we all copied him.
Glasses clinked together.
Laughter swam through my ears.
And faces I knew were gone smiled at me.
Saltha. My first and only friend from Jedros, where I grew up. Her dark hair hung to one side of her face, and she winked at me like we both knew the joke.
Zinnia. The girl standing where the horse had been. Blinking wide eyes and smiling like the world had never ended. Another swallow. Watching her die after defeating Molduth had been the worst of all. The death that had stabbed my own heart deep enough to break it.
A breeze wafted through the air, and the laughing voices dimmed. I turned slowly and saw a curtain of beads jangle slightly as a dark-skinned hand let them drop back into place.
I pushed through the beads, standing on the back porch of Raciel's house; the ocean twinkled out a song in waving rhythms. A small bluebird circled overhead, tweeting before flapping off to its nest.
And there, standing on an outcrop of rock stretching over the ocean, was Bella. Dark hair tied back in a layer of braids, head turned slightly to the right, a smile curling across her mouth. White light glowed from her skin, and I felt drawn.
"You came back again," she whispered.
I came up behind her, too afraid to touch her. Afraid to make this dream vanish back into the nightmare world I knew was waiting to swallow me again. I shook my head. "I always do."
Bella pivoted to face me, her golden-brown eyes searching mine. "Why do you? This isn't real?"
"It's real enough to me, and that's what matters here." I sat down on the rock, my bare feet dangling over the edge. Ocean spray splashed onto my heels, but I didn't care. I stared at Bella's face and saw the lines of worry etching both sides of her cheeks. "What's wrong?"
Bella sat down beside me, curling her legs under the white dress she wore. "I'm worried about you. You've been running for so long. How can you keep going?"
I sighed and stared at the ocean. How could I keep going? How was I able to wake up and face all of this again? Because the truth was, it would be easier to stay asleep and never wake up.
I swallowed. "I . . ." my words trailed into thoughts. This girl. She's what kept me going. Every night. Coming here. Sitting here. Listening to those same questions and knowing she would ask them. Knowing what I would say. Could say. But never did. I wanted to tell her that I thought she was the most beautiful girl in all five islands. That I would run with her anywhere she went. That I loved her.
But I couldn't say the words. Because somehow I knew, if I said them, all of this would vanish. My one safe place in the entire world was hanging together in my dreams by threads.
"How are you so brave?" I asked. "You faced a queen who tried to literally drain the life out of you. The whole world almost crumbled, and you . . . you just kept standing beside me against horrors."
Bella smiled and reached for my hand. Her fingers draped over mine. "I'm brave because you are."
A cloud appeared on the horizon. My gaze turned to stare as it drifted closer.
"Eric. There's something I have to tell you."
My stomach dropped. This was new. Bella had never said this before in any dream. I kept staring at the cloud. I would not look at her. I couldn't. Everything would shatter.
"Eric. Please." The pang of sadness in her voice made my head turn. Tears streaked her face as she glanced at the rocks beneath us.
"What is it?" I whispered, my lips barely moving.
"Something is coming for you."
I leaned back. "How do you know?"
"This was never just a dream, Eric."
Now my gaze whipped up to face her. "What are you talking about?"
"I didn't know another way to get a message to you."
My mouth went dry. "You've really here? It's really you?"
She nodded. "Yes, Eric. We have a bond unlike any other. It brings us together no matter how far apart we are. I can feel it like a tether, tying me to you. And now, I have to warn you."
"Warn me about what?"
A rumble of thunder echoed across the ocean.
"Warn you that it's coming for you."
A flash of green lightning sparked through the air, zapping into the ocean and swirling it into breakers pounding against the rocks beneath us. A wave of water splashed above us, crashing back down with a vengeance.
Bella's head slumped forward.
"Bella?" I shook her shoulder. "Bella? Wake up! Bella!"
And then her head snapped up, her eyes glowing a dark green color. Her voice dropped an octave, slipping across her tongue like sand. "I'm waiting for you, Eric. I've always been waiting for you. And when I find you, I'll make sure you never forget me."
I scrambled away and stared as the cloud enveloped us. Green lightning arced around my head. Dark haze separated me from Bella. She disappeared from sight. And then two green eyes glowed through the cloud, staring at me, narrowing, and then transforming into two green bolts snaking through the mist and smashing into my skull.
I flew backward, scraping my knees across the rocks. The ocean churned under me, and another blast of lightning hit me in the chest, flinging me toward the edge of the outcrop. I fell over the side, grasping at the rocks with my left hand. My fingers wrapped around a jutting piece of stone. I glanced up and saw the green eyes peering down at me from the dark cloud above.
That same deep voice dribbled over the edge. "Let me in, Eric."
"No!" I screamed, glancing down.
"Nowhere to go but dead on the rocks. Let me in."
"I don't care who you are! The answer is no!" I shouted back.
A rumbling chuckle. "Oh, you know who I am. We know each other well. Just let me in. And then you'll be free of all this pain roiling around inside of you."
"No!" But the shout didn't come from me. It came from a teenager, shouldering his way through the cloud. Wind whipped through his floppy dark hair. His elbow hid his face, and he pressed forward, reaching out with his other hand.
The green eyes shifted from side to side, glancing down at me and then at the boy making his way in our direction. My fingers ached from holding onto the rock for so long. I didn't know how much longer I could keep my grip. I swung my other arm up as the eyes retreated into the dark cloud, and the boy dropped to his knees above me.
He held down a hand. "Eric! Here!"
No. His face unhidden, I knew who this was. He was older. How he was so many years older than before I didn't understand, but I did know one thing. I did not want his help.
"Take my hand!"
I grit my teeth, holding in shuddering breaths and glaring at his face through the ocean spray pelting my face. "Never," I muttered.
He held out his hand. "Just take my hand! I'm right here!"
"No, you're not. This? This is a dream." I let go of the rocks and fell. My stomach lurched upward as I plummeted into the water below.
Water covered my nose, and I shot up coughing and spitting to the side.
The oasis. The pool. Palm trees. I was awake again.
I scrambled around, dripping and staring at the ridge of sand above us. Cereus stood to one side, shaking his mane and stamping both front hooves. Seven figures loomed against the midday sky, their forms hazy and shimmering with heat. They wore green robes that trailed down to their sandaled feet. Hoods covered their heads, with thin beards trailing down their chests. As one, they lifted their gloved hands and pointed at me.
"You have been summoned," they intoned.
Do we run? Cereus asked.
I nodded slowly. "They're Scholars. I didn't know they ventured this far from their mountain though."
"You have been summoned," the Scholars repeated.
"You said that already!" I shouted back.
So run, yeah?
I nodded and snatched up my tabak-toyok, stuffing it into the belt at my waist. Cereus shifted across the water and neighed. I splashed after him and reached the horse's side.
Fire flew across the oasis and landed in a thin line in front of us. It grew taller, circling around us and forming a grid like chain mail. It covered our heads in a dome, flicks of fire raining down every few seconds overhead. Cereus stamped back and forth, looking for a way out. We're trapped! I don't wanna be trapped!
Cereus closed his eyes to shift and opened them a second later. I can't go anywhere! I can't move!
"Moldable fire," I said. "It must stop you from shifting somehow."
The Scholars descended the slope, walked around the side of the pool, and encircled us. I could see grizzled chins poking out of the hoods. Now that they were up close, I could see the scorch marks covering their robes and the long slashes across their sleeves. I swallowed.
"What do you want with us?" I shouted through the fiery bars.
They didn't say a word. As one, they snapped their fingers, and the fire slowly danced across the sand, leaving a trail of glass behind it. We scooted away from the back end of the prison as quickly as possible and fell in step with the silent Scholars as they marched through the sand, taking us with them.
Where are we going? Cereus asked.
I shrugged. There really was no way of knowing.
A Scholar whisked a hand at the row of palm trees in front of us and the fire leapt from his palm, forming into a blazing axe head and chopping through each trunk in a flurry of wood chips. We passed through. Cereus whimpered at the sight of the downed trees.
We marched for another two hours before the Scholars stopped at an open expanse of desert. The sand stretched smoothly in a complete circle that was wider across than five of the rice paddies back on Jedros. One of the Scholars stood at the edge of the circle and produced a staff from his robes, jabbing the end of it into a slot in a red rock at his feet. He spun the staff around three times and then a rumbling sound filled my ears.
Cereus pranced back and forth in the small space, whinnying at the noise. Make it stop, Eric! Make it stop! It's too loud!
I patted his side. "I'm sorry!" I shouted over the din.
A wide, perfectly round, metallic building with rivets running up and down its sides rose from the sand. The grains dribbled off the roof, mixing with the desert below. The rumbling paused a moment later, and a metal door swung open in front of us. The cage of moldable fire glided forward until it melded with the dark metal. The front end of the cage flashed out of sight, and we had no choice but to move into the building or be singed from behind.
The metal felt surprisingly cool to the touch. I kept one hand on Cereus as we stepped into the darkness. The seven figures entered behind us, and then the door shut with a clang. Moldable fire leapt from the cage to sconces hanging around the walls, casting an orange glow around the room.
A ring of twelve chairs sat around a circular, black table in the center of the room. Each chair was made from the same dark metal as the building we stood inside. Rows of bookshelves clung to the sides of the room, crammed with scrolls and old books and a strange menagerie of bones stuffed into the empty cracks.
The seven Scholars strode forward and sat around the table, pausing to stare at each of the empty chairs before turning to face us.
"You have been summoned," they said again.
"We know!" I shouted. My voice echoed off the walls and fell back onto my ears. "What do you want?"
One of the Scholars stood and pulled back his hood.
I gasped and recoiled against Cereus's side.
What happened to him? the horse whispered in my mind.
I didn't know. The Scholar's face had burn marks stretching across it, with two long scars reaching from his left ear down to his chin. One eye had glazed over and stared in the opposite direction of us.
"Much has been happening in the world. And you are much to blame."
"Me? What have I done?" I asked.
The Scholar pointed at me. "You unleashed dark powers you had no right tampering with. Evil things lurk the woods of Castos, devouring anyone who comes in their path. Rumor has it the queen is returning."
I shook my head. "That's impossible. We blasted her to the ocean. No way she could come back from that."
"She is resilient. And stronger than you bargain." The Scholar ran a hand over his bald head, tracing a burn mark with his forefinger. "The threads all lead back to you. The Runner of Golden Light. You aided Molduth's release."
"And capture!" I shouted. I could feel my face turning red. Why were they trying to blame all of this on me?
"The spinewolf you aided awoke after you and your companion left the Scholar's Mountain. It ravaged our ranks. We are all that remain of the Scholars." He waved a hand at the others. They pulled back their robes and revealed burnt faces, scars, and pain etched through every face. "With its dark powers, it made us do terrible things. Drove some mad. Destroyed others. If we had not been quick enough with our moldable fires, we too would have perished in the blaze that consumed him."
"So he's gone?" I asked.
The Scholar nodded. "But not without price. You have defied the laws of physics within the world of Abra. Your clasp was destroyed and yet here you stand. Alive. Only one other has ever survived such an event."
My eyebrows shot up. "Someone else is un . . . The Unclasped," I whispered. "That's what you're talking about, isn't it? The Unclasped! You know who it is!"
The Scholars exchanged uneasy glances.
One of them glared at the standing man. "The Unclasped is not why he has been summoned. You discuss things you shouldn't."
The Scholar who stood nodded. "Indeed. You have a summoning to fulfill. When Molduth was released, other Ancients stirred from their dark slumber. Something slipped through the cracks and emerged here, on the Isle of Uthen. It stalks this land. The Dry Death."
I don't like this, Eric. We gotta run. Like really gotta.
"Agreed," I whispered. Then louder. "And what exactly am I supposed to do?"
"You are the Runner of Golden Light. And you must do what you do to run. The five islands of Abra are on a precipice, ready to fall into the ocean's tumultuous grip with one fell motion. And you are all that stands in its way."
I shook my head. "Never. I'm not going to let anyone control me ever again."
The Scholar crossed his arms. "We don't want to control you. We want you to unleash the controls you've imposed upon yourself and be who you truly are."
"No. Not happening!"
A sad sigh whisked through the Scholars. One of them muttered, "I told you he wouldn't succumb so easily. We must make him use the light again."
"What are you talking about?"
Cereus stamped his hooves. I don't like it!
"Then so be it." The Scholar leaned back and slammed a fist against a round protrusion on the metal wall. It slid back, and a trapdoor swung open under my feet, sending Cereus and I plummeting into the darkness below.
A swirl of sand whisked past my neck. I slapped at it, imagining tiny sand ticks burrowing their way into my skin. I glanced at the raw mark on my forearm where a clasp had once been. The reminder of my old life. The reminder of everything wrong with the world. The reminder that I was a fugitive from everyone.
I ducked lower behind the jagged rock and peered over the edge. A full harvest moon was on my side this night. It shone across the barren landscape of sand and rocks stretching into the distance for leagues upon leagues until somewhere it reached the edge of this waste of an island. Uthen, the barren isle.
Can you see anything? Cereus asked.
I shook my head. "Not yet."
The white horse threw his mane to one side and snorted. Eric, I'm itching here. I gotta run. Or it's gonna kill me.
"If we run now, we will get killed."
A pack of Runners from Gratta's compound had apparently made some sort of uneasy truce. I had spotted them two days ago, on our trail, but sloppy. They had left too many signs of following us. A campfire left smoldering. Footprints scattered across the sand, with no attempt to cover the tracks. We had circled back a day ago and followed them from behind until breaking off and hiding in the rocks.
But even if they weren't careful, they were determined. We had already escaped four times from new recruit Runners who had tried to kill me before we managed to gallop away. It was only a matter of time before one of them caught up with us.
Fine, fine! Cereus huffed. I could hear his anxious stamping inside my brain. He collapsed forward until his legs tucked beneath his gray-speckled belly. I'm just gonna sit here until you're ready. Which I hope is soon.
A rock skittered to the sand behind us. I whirled around and glanced upward at the red rock face stretching maybe an old tree's height upward. The dust trailed it and drifted outward. I scanned the cliff's edge. There was no way they could have doubled back up there. Because they were clearly out in the desert below. So for someone to--
Eric! Behind you!
I spun, but not in time. A fist pummeled the side of my face. The stars blurred into streaks of white pain, and I fell back to the sand as an older boy hefted a rock the size of a saddlebag over his head. I bit down on my tongue to keep from screaming as the rock swung at me.
A white and gray blur shifted past me, and Cereus zipped through the air. The horse appeared behind the boy and kicked with both hind legs. The boy flew through the air, dropping the rock. I rolled to the side as it smashed into dust beside my head.
Time to run!
"Agreed!" I leapt to my feet and ran to Cereus, jumping and whipping my leg over his back.
The voice stopped me. I glanced over Cereus's gray mane and saw her. The one person I had hoped to avoid since this wild chase had begun weeks ago. Telisa.
She stood there, disheveled, face smeared with dust and grime. Stray hairs clung to the twin braids hanging down from either side of her head. She clutched a long, dark sword in one hand, and a short, leather-handled knife in the other.
I didn't say anything. I stared. One eye on her. One eye on the Runner shaking his head and slumping back to the rocks behind us.
Telisa gritted her teeth, and I saw the red clasp on her forearm glow a faint purple. The veins on her neck stood out, and she dropped her sword and knife to the ground with a clatter. Telisa gasped, clutching her stomach as the purple deepened before evening back to a dull red.
"Eric," she spat. "They're all trying to kill you." A spasm of pain jerked up to her shoulder. "We are all trying to kill you."
Should we shift? Cereus asked.
"Not yet," I whispered.
Telisa's breathing grew ragged. "They won't stop, Eric. They're going to chase you down, make sure you bleed. It won't end unless you're dead. Or we are all dead."
A lump itched at my throat. "I know."
"Then stop running and let one of us kill you. We can't keep going like this." She raked her overgrown fingernails over her frizzy head. "I can't. I'm going crazy. All of us are. You don't know what's happening to them. Some of them couldn't take the pressure. They gave up. They died. Others are . . ." a slight bit of froth slipped from her lips. "Others are maddened. Desperate."
"If one of you kills me, then all the rest of you fail," I said. And I knew what that meant. That meant they would all die. This was their job: kill me. And if one person accomplished it, I would be dead along with every other Runner who hadn't killed me.
A smile snaked across Telisa's face, and her fingers grappled for the knife handle. "I know. So let me kill you, Eric. Don't you want me to live? I'm your old friend. We went through a lot together." She staggered back. "We—" she shook her head. "Eric. Listen to me." Her gaze focused on me. "I can't hold this at bay forever." Purple glowed through her gem. "Soon, I'm going to crack. But there might be a way."
Don't trust her. Cereus stepped back, and Telisa stepped forward.
"Yes!" Telisa held out a shaking hand. "The Unclasped. A way to unclasp all of us. You have to find it. You're one of them now!"
I shook my head. I knew what had unclasped me. And I knew who had done it. I closed my eyes and saw a flash of the boy's face. Tears streaking down his cheeks as he whispered my name again and again, holding out a hand to me. "NO!" I shouted. I knew what that boy had done. He had ripped me from everything. All of this was his fault. The running. The chasing. The killing. It was all on him.
Telisa groaned. "Then we don't have much choice." She dropped to the ground, whipped up the sword, and raced at us, screaming.
Cereus shifted to the side as Telisa ran past, driving the blade at the rock face. I'm gonna run now. The horse pounded ahead, down a steep slope toward the sand below. I glanced back and saw Telisa leaping onto the back of a horse that seemed to step out of the rock wall itself. The horse shimmered in the moonlight, almost like it was translucent.
What? What is it? Cereus shouted in my mind as he leapt over a rock and landed on the other side. I can feel your panic!
"I don't know! Some kind of shiny horse or something."
Oh no, Cereus said. That's bad. And that's not a horse. It's a pegasus.
The shimmering horse leapt over the side of the rocks, and instead of falling it spread two massive, pearly wings to either side, flapping them and sending a downdraft our way. The blast of air slammed into my backside. I flew over Cereus, head first toward the rocks. He shifted sideways, and I landed on my stomach across his back with a grunt. The air whisked out of my lungs, and I hung there trying to catch my breath again.
A second blast of wind pummeled us. Cereus and I fell sideways, sliding into the sand and down the side of the dune. I saw a flash of the pegasus glimmering, and then the dark red glow emanating from Telisa's clasp lit her face. Her eyes narrowed, jaw set, she pointed the sword at us with a scream. The pegasus tucked its wings to either side and dropped toward the desert floor.
Cereus blinked out of sight and reappeared standing up. We have to go! More are coming!
Over his backside, I could see three other Runners on foot, pounding across the sand with glowing red gems in their forearms. They held spears, shouting at the night sky and pointing in our direction.
"He's mine!" Telisa growled, jumping from the back of the pegasus, somersaulting in the sand, and leaping to her feet in front of me. She swung her sword, and I ducked, spotting a tabak-toyok, a weapon I recognized from some of the Boss’s men on Jedros, hanging on Telisa's belt. I wrapped my fist around the metal handle and whipped it from her side. The handle connected to an identical handle by a short rope. The end of the toyok whapped Telisa in the sword elbow. Her sword dropped to the sand with a thud as she gripped the bone and backed away.
A spear flew through the air and skidded to a halt a hands-length from my foot. "Cereus!"
The pegasus flapped in circles as Cereus darted from one position to another, missing the clop of the flying beast's hooves. Cereus shifted upward, landing with all four hooves on the pegasus's back. The weight sent the creature plummeting to the ground along with Cereus. The white and gray horse shifted before hitting the sand right next to me. The pegasus landed with a crunch and a bent wing. It whinnied, arching back its head and closing both eyes.
I swung up onto Cereus's back as another spear flew past us. We shifted left and then back to the right as the third spear whizzed by my ear.
"ERIC!" Telisa screamed. "ERIC!"
I didn't glance back. "Just run. We have to run."
I know, Cereus whispered, adding short shifts ahead to outdistance the four Runners marching through the desert behind us.
I let out the long breath I had been holding. We had gotten away. This time. But how many times could we escape? How many times before we were dead, buried in sand, and forgotten by time? The stars winked at me. The moon blazed yellow. And my resolve crumbled a little more.
Why keep running at all? Maybe it would be better to let one of them take me. If Telisa was the one to finish the job, then she would live.
But what about the others? Cereus asked. Lodan? Henryk, that little sprite.
I leaned forward to the horse's ear. "And that's why I can't do it. There's been enough death."
What was Telisa saying about the Unclasped? What is that?
I ran my fingers across the marks on my forearm. The place where I had once been clasped. Where the metal had singed my skin, forcing me into a life of slavery to a bookkeeper. Running jobs or ending up dead and swallowed in purple light.
I didn't know what the Unclasped was. Part of me didn't care. Or want to care. My gaze settled on the horizon of sand, rolling on and over into the distance until it melded into the night sky.
We rode on for hours until the moon had dipped low, and the sun barely peeked into view. Red rocks scrawled onward, jutting from the sand like fingers grasping at the sky.
I'm tired, Cereus whimpered. We gotta stop soon, or I'm not gonna be able to run another half-trot.
I held one hand over my eyes, scanning the brightening landscape. Everything on Uthen really was desolate. We had passed one border town on our way across the Passway from Castos, but that was weeks ago. Since then, we had found hovels nestled against cliff sides and dug into the caked grounds of the western side of the island, but nothing else.
In all my years growing up on Jedros, I had never heard much about Uthen. Except that it was a place to avoid. All the elders in my village whispered about the dry death that would sneak up on a person traveling that island. A massive wasteland of sand and rock, with few places to water a horse. We had been lucky enough to find a thin stream trickling out of a rock side. We had hidden there for a few days before moving onward.
The faintest glimpse of a palm frond wavered into view over the next dune. I blinked, making sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me. "What about that? Oasis?"
Cereus huffed. Looks real enough to me. He dug his head forward, shifting his way up the sand dune until we could see a pool of water below us. Palm trees, spread at varying heights, shook in the slight breeze of the early morning.
I leapt off the horse and slid on my backside down the sand until I was face-first in the water, gulping it down.
Hey! Wait for me! The air wobbled beside me, and then Cereus appeared, head dunked under, gulping at the pool.
I leaned back, smirked, and whacked his side. "Don't drink it all."
The horse lifted his head; the top of his mane was wet and plastered around his eyes. Sure, sure. Who saved your life back there? Oh. That was me. A few times over. So sit down and relax.
I laid down, the shadows of palm fronds stretching over me. And for a blink of time, I felt the knots twisting my stomach around ease slightly. For at least this moment, we were safe.
Who knew if it would last? Who knew if we would last? Every time I closed my eyes I imagined I would wake up to find myself dead, a Runner standing over me with a red glow circling their forearm.
So far we had made it. But I knew luck wouldn’t last forever.
I closed both eyes, letting the warmth of the day wash over me. And as I drifted off to sleep, two words circled my mind: The Unclasped. Who was the Unclasped? Was it someone like me? Or something different?
Before I could think about it any further, I drifted to sleep, my favorite place to be these days. Because when being awake was a nightmare, there was no other escape than dreams.
The five islands of Abra have always been home to Runners -- sent on missions by their owners. When Eric is conscripted as a Runner and discovers an incredible power, he must race against an evil Queen to rescue a mysterious girl who has power of her own.
I didn't have time to gasp for air. Water poured into my nostrils as my arms went limp. I felt like someone had squeezed me harder than a bellows at the hearth. My clasp grew dim in the murky water, and my eyes rolled back. The darkness seeped through my mind, churning with the currents.
A hand latched around my wrist and yanked me upward. The grip was strong, and a breath later, I emerged from the water, taking a long gulp of air.
Bella swam beside me, her dark hair plastered around her face. Her eyes still glowed golden-brown, worry etched on her forehead. “You okay?” she asked.
I nodded. “I feel sick!” I shouted over the wind bashing against the ocean.
“You use your clasp too much!” Bella pointed for the shoreline. We must have drifted farther than I thought. In the dim haze of misty rain, I could see the outline of dark land in the distance. Julian stood on the edge of the rocks, one hand over his eyes, staring after us.
Vomit roiled up through my throat. I turned away from Bella and coughed up a lungful of sea water and what little was left in my stomach. Her fingers trailed down to my hand and squeezed it.
I blinked at Bella and then glanced over her shoulder to see a dark cloud swarming through the water and arrowing at us. The fish.
“Swim! Now!” I shouted.
We flung ourselves forward, chopping at the water with our arms and kicking. Little splashes reached my ears as the school of fish rocketed through the waves, leaping into the air and plunking down beside us. One chomped at my foot. I cried out, thrashing my leg and loosening the thing's grip.
Bella screamed as one of them flopped toward her face. She stopped swimming and swung her arms wide, smacking the fish and sending it flying off into the waves.
More of the fish drove for us, and I held up my already weak forearm and willed the clasp to do something. A thin swath of light zipped through the air in lightning streaks, striking fish out of the water with blasts of smoke. Bella swung her arms at the ones close enough to leap at us, mouths open, sharp teeth snapping. The water dropped behind us, and we plummeted downward to the bottom of the wave. The fish leaped out, careening over our heads and slamming into the side of a large ship poking through the mist.
Bella and I glanced up as two ropes fell down to the water.
A distant shout echoed across the ocean. I grabbed the rope and peeked back, watching Julian wave his arms frantically at us. I swallowed the bile in my throat and pulled myself up on the rope. Bella grabbed onto the other one, and the ropes reeled toward the top.
My feet pressed against the hull of the ship, and I scrambled upward until I had flopped over the railing in a heap. Two men heaved Bella over the side and flung her to the ground next to me. We crouched side by side, peering up at the tall mast flying black flags and the circle of men and women holding long cutlasses at our throats.
The people on deck wore loose vests and billowy shirts tied with dark string around their necks. Leather hats with three corners sat on their heads, some tipped to the side, others with wet feathers plastered against the sides.
Rain pattered onto the deck. I gulped. “Thank you for rescuing us.”
Three short claps rang out. A man with stringy dark hair and a patch over one eye stepped through the ring of deckhands. He smirked at me and clucked his tongue. “Well, fancy that. We meet again, Master Runner.”
My eyes widened. “Bonaventure,” I whispered. “The pirate.”
“Aye, the one and same, lad. I never imagined I'd be findin' ye again.”
“You are the real Bonaventure, right?”
The man squinted his one good eye at me and grimaced. “Someone goin' and impersonatin' the one and only Bonaventure?”
“Not a someone, but a something. A prism. In the woods.”
Bonaventure's eyebrow rose, and his fingers trembled. He waved a hand at one of the men standing over us. “Take them to my quarters. Quickly. And set a course—”
“Take us to Riverfork!” I shouted. “Please! We have to get there!”
The pirate tilted his head to the side. “Riverfork, eh? What 'appens to be waitin' amongst the reeds for ye in that puff of a town?”
I opened my mouth, but the clasp on my arm grew hot, and my tongue stuck fast to the back of my teeth.
“He can't say, sir,” Bella responded.
“So the lass does speak.” Bonaventure held a finger against his nose and sniffed. “Hurry. The quarters.”
One of the pirates grabbed my elbow and yanked me to my feet, dragging me across the deck toward an ornate door with stained glass windows along either side. Each window had the shape of a rose outlined in red glass and small shards poking out where thorns might have been. He flung the door open and shoved me inside, taking Bella's hand from another pirate on deck and giving her a gentler push into the captain's quarters.
The door slammed shut behind us, rattling the roses in the window. I banged on the door. “Let us out! Somebody!”
“Quiet down in there!” I heard a gruff voice shout back at me. “Or I’ll give ye something to weep over!”
I pivoted slowly, taking in the whole room with shaking hands. A lantern hung from a hook in the planked ceiling, an orange glow spreading across the room. Maps had been tacked to the walls with daggers at each corner, blood red trails tracing across the land masses. A red desk sat beneath a sprawling window. Through the beveled glass, I could see the waves churning through the mist.
I took a slow breath and ran a hand across my wet hair. A chill coursed through my shoulders. I needed to dry off. So did Bella.
She stood under the largest map of all, a long yellowed parchment with inked outlines of the five islands of Abra. She leaned on her right foot, tapping out a slow beat on the pleats of a wet dress. “Which island are you from?” she asked without turning around.
I stepped up beside her, tracing a finger around the shores of Jedros. “Here,” I whispered. “What about you?”
Bella stared at the map. “I don't know where I come from.”
My brow furrowed. “What?”
She turned those golden-brown eyes at me. “I don't know where I come from.”
“Like what island you're from? Everyone's from one of these five islands. The whole world. So you must be from one too.” I pointed at the big island. “Castos? That's where the queen lives. And where I'm . . . stationed I guess you'd call it. As a runner.”
She shook her head and twisted her mouth to one side. “No.” Bella spread her hands across the map. “I'm not from any of these places.”
“Another thing you just know?” I asked.
Bella nodded slowly.
I stared at her, watching the way her eyes scanned the map, the way her forehead crinkled as she thought, the slight twitch in her temple. The white glow had faded slightly, but it still emanated from her dark skin.
“Why would I be sent to find you?”
Bella glanced at me. “I already told you. We’re going to change everything.”
“But how? Why? What for?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
I tapped my boot. “Because I need lots of answers.”
Bella slipped into a tall black chair along the wall, pressing her fingertips against her forehead.
I placed one hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “What do you remember?”
“Small visions. Waking up cold on the floor of that shack. And a field filled with blue flowers for miles, stretching up to the base of a mountain. Or maybe a range of mountains. And . . .” she trailed off.
“It’s weird. One of those things you only ever have feelings for, but not the words.”
I shuffled, squinting at her in the gloom. “Try.”
Bella sighed, straightening out her dress, water dripping to the planks. “I feel . . . old. Like I’ve lived for so long I cannot remember a time before I existed.” She shook her head, frustrated and groaning, standing quickly and clenching her fists. “That’s not it. I don’t know how else to describe it!” The glow around her skin brightened slightly, and I took a step back.
“Why do you glow?”
“What?” She glanced down at her hands, eyes widening, and then stared at me. “I don’t know. I don’t know what this is.” Bella rushed to me, grabbing my shirt in two fists. “Eric, what’s wrong with me? Is something wrong with me?”
“I don’t know. Just take a deep breath. Breathe.”
The door flung open behind us. Bonaventure stood in the entry, rain slamming the deck now and streaking his hair down both sides of his face. He rushed in, pulling the door closed behind him. A dagger whipped out of the brown leather coat he wore. He pointed it at me.
“So. How does the rebellion fare?” he asked.
I peeked at Bella. She shrugged.
Bonaventure squinted at us. “I know ye're on a job. Clasped and all. Question is what is it 'xactly? And for whom?” The pirate side-stepped toward us, dagger still pointed our direction. “And my guessin'? Ye can't tell nobody about nothing. Typical of the more secretive job purchasers.” He eyed Bella and stuck out his tongue. She shuffled to the side but stood her ground.
“What do you want with us?” I asked.
Bonaventure leaned close, shadows cascading over his face. “To know what importance ye might have to the queen. The both of ye. Talk's been spreadin'. Talk about a runner with an unusual clasp and unusual . . . abilities might we say.”
He pointed the dagger at my clasp. “Do ye know what a clasp like that would be worth to the right people? Worth it's weight in gold, that it would.”
“What would someone want a used clasp for?” Bella asked, tilting her head sideways.
“Ah, that's a grand question.” Bonaventure backed away, crossed to the desk, and slid open a drawer, keeping his one eye on us the whole time. He pulled out a clasp and dropped it on the desk. “Remember this, lad?”
I swallowed. Saltha's clasp. A flash of her dark hair twisting around her face as she vanished into purple mist shot through my mind. I blinked twice, shook my head, and then nodded slowly, a twinge of pain rippling through my gut.
Bonaventure smirked. “I thought ye might. Precious commodity these clasps are. To the right people. Most assume that once a runner's disappeared in a plume of purple that their last worldly possession is nigh useless.” He traced his chin stubble with the edge of the dagger. “But truth is, there are buyers for such rarities. Buyers on the far side of Vos are always looking for more clasps to take deep into the jungles. Rumor has it there be a fanatical group of clasp seekers, experimenting with the gems and their unusual properties.”
He licked his lips and stared at my clasp. “What they would give for one so valuable as yours is beyond reckoning.” He held out a grizzled hand. “Give it to me, lad. And I'll let the girl live out her wee days.”
I shook my head. “I can't take it off. If I try, I'll—”
Bonaventure splayed his fingers wide. “Disappear into the purple ether. Never seen again. I'm afraid I don't really care too much about that problem.” His arm extended and the dagger point reach out under my neck. “Don't make me spill a drop of yer blood in these fine chambers of mine. I just had the floor swabbed.”
Vanishing into purple smoke. What would that feel like? What would be after that? Nothing? Something? Everything? I didn't know. And from the way my hands shook, I didn't think I wanted to know. I wasn't ready to die. The thought made my breath catch at the back of my throat.
“I can't,” I whispered.
Bonaventure narrowed his eye. “Too bad.”
Bella swung out with her hand, smacking Bonaventure in the side with a fist. He doubled over, dropping the dagger to the planks. He glared at her, at us, and then rushed forward, both hands out. We dove to either side, and the pirate smashed his shoulder against the hull.
Bonaventure stood up and wiped a fist across his mouth. “Makin' a fool of me, are ye? I don't take kindly to that!” He grabbed the dagger from the corner of the map and swung it wide, barely missing my arm.
A shout echoed outside the captain's quarters.
“They're going to come in!” Bella cried. She darted across the floor and latched the wooden door.
“And now you locked us in,” I said, keeping both eyes trained on Bonaventure's dagger. Fists pounded on the door followed by muffle cries.
“I want that clasp!” Bonaventure said, springing forward and slashing with the dagger. I hopped back, missing another swipe. “Even if I have to cut it from ye, I will have it, I will sell it, and then I'll be rich beyond imaginin'.”
I backed against the wall opposite the maps, reached down, and grabbed a long candlestick, and swung it as Bonaventure rushed at me. The candlestick clocked him in the cheek, drawing blood. The pirate stumbled forward, driving the knife toward my face. I grabbed his arm with both hands, trying to push him away. Bella ran over, tackling Bonaventure from the side. The knife clattered to the planks as Bonaventure and Bella rolled into the desk. He struck her across the face, shoving her aside. The white glow over Bella's skin intensified, and I could feel the skin on my arms tightening as the light reached me.
Bonaventure seemed stunned as the glow washed over him. Bella scrambled up, holding out her hands and staring at them. The pirate stared up at her, and his mouth fell open. He mumbled something under his breath, but I couldn't hear it. The stained glass around the door shattered, and a hand with a fingerless glove reached in and unlatched the door.
One of the pirates burst inside, cutlass held out. “Cap'n. We've got problems.”
Bonaventure could not take his eyes of Bella's glowing face.
The pirate in the door followed his captain's gaze and stared at Bella. “It's her,” he whispered, dropping his cutlass, whipping around, and diving over the edge of the ship's railing with a strangled cry.
The rain fell through the open doorway, and I stared out at the deck. A large ship with red flags drifted over the waves beyond the prow of the pirate's boat. A line of female soldiers stood at the railing, spears held up to their shoulders.
“Queen's forces!” a pirate on deck shouted.
My heart felt like it had dropped to the ocean bottom. The queen was here. For me.
To read the final 10 chapters in The Last Runner you'll need to get the book!
The Last Runner originally ran as a FREE monthly serial. Upon completion of Series 1 - The Last Runner, the remaining chapters 16 thru 25 were removed from the blog. The full book is now available in e-book, paperback, and soon audiobook.
The Last Runner (Runners of Abra 1)
The five islands of Abra have always been home to Runners -- sent on missions by their owners. When Eric is conscripted as a Runner and discovers an incredible power, he must race against an evil Queen to rescue a mysterious girl who has power of her own.
The Last Runner (Runners of Abra 1) - eBook
Secret of the Lost King (Thrones 1)
$16.99 - $26.99
THE ANSWERS ARE IN HIS MEMORY.
NOW IF ONLY HE COULD REMEMBER.
Jack and his younger sister Ellie are all that’s left of their family. And now all Jack wonders is if he will always remain forgotten.
But someone has discovered their secret. Jack, Ellie, and their friend Molly share a dangerous memory. A memory that the Emperor Morogh wants his hands on. As the Emperor’s forces chase them, Jack must find an old enemy of the kingdom, rescue a lost king, and discover the truth about his own memories.
What none of them know is the Emperor is very close to securing an ancient weapon. A weapon that will change the fate of an entire kingdom and unleash the reign of evil forever.
Secret of the Lost King (Thrones 1) - eBook
Wings of Honor (Warriors of Aragnar 1)
$16.99 - $24.99
If everything was taken from you, would you still be able to stand? For many decades, stories of betrayal, darkness, and blood have surrounded the mysterious land of Aragnar. Leagues away, these stories seem quite distant on Whitecliff Island, but not for long. When a young woman is thrust into a dangerous series of events, her destiny is forever changed. The choices she must make will not only alter her life, but those of everyone around her. From the time Maria Fellbane was a young child, she had always known she was different. Scorned and rejected; her people are hated for following and believing in an all-mighty ruler many say does not exist. Haunted by a fiery past and hurt by tragic loss, Maria lives by only one creed; protect her family at all costs and follow the One True King. When the tyrannical King Raveyn seeks to destroy her and her people, their fragile lives are turned upside down in a desperate race to escape the coming storm. When everything she knows and loves is taken from her, Maria must make a choice that will determine her fate and destiny. Will she trust a mysterious band of winged warriors who wish to bring freedom to her land, or will her family and everything they believe in be lost forever? Wings of Honor is a tale of persecution, trials, and courage. It asks a simple question; what would you do if everything was taken away from you? If every mask and lie was stripped away, leaving only who you really are, who would you be?
Wings of Honor (Warriors of Aragnar) eBook
I shoved off from the rocks behind me and pounded across the sand, plunging into the mist curling around the faint glow from my clasp. The sand hardened beneath my feet. Ocean water lapped against my ankles, but a thin stretch of land extended from the beach, into the distant fog.
The beacon of white jerked to the left.
The runner ahead of me kept straight ahead, getting closer and closer to the source of light. I had to catch him. A thought bounced through my mind: what if this was the girl I had been sent to find? What if this runner had also been sent to find her?
But the worst thought of all propelled me forward: if I didn't get to the girl first, I would not have completed the job. And the penalty for an uncompleted job was vanishing into a blaze of purple light, never to be seen again.
My legs churned over the ground. The beacon shifted right.
The runner glanced over his shoulder and spotted me. He slowed, then spun back around, fixing his gaze on the white light ahead and darting forward.
I held up my clasp, and it glowed brighter. “Stop!” I shouted.
The runner didn't respond.
The sand embankment beneath me zagged to the left. I didn't have time to wind through the water. I stared at the waves sloshing against the sand.
“Use the light. . . .” The words whisked through my mind. The clasp.
I flicked my wrist, and a beam of golden light shot out over the waves, creating a glowing path straight toward the beacon of light. I took a deep breath and hoped the bridge would hold. I hopped onto it with a wince and found what felt like solid ground beneath my feet. I shook my head and raced ahead, watching the runner beside me weave back and forth with the path.
A black fish as long as my forearm leaped from the water beneath me and snapped at my fingers. It sunk its sharp teeth into my hand, and I yanked it off as I ran, flinging it back into the surf. Another fish splashed out of the water and flopped onto the golden bridge; its teeth clattered as it squirmed toward me. I hopped over it and kept running.
The water churned around my feet, and I fell back as the heads of a hundred fish rose above the waves.
“You should have stayed on the path!” the runner shouted at me. “And out of my way!”
I grit my teeth and charged forward as the fish flew out of the water, scales glistening with golden light through the mist. Their mouths yawned wide, sharp teeth vibrated in their gums. I ducked, hands over my head, and raced through the cascade of hungry fish.
A fish latched onto my back and dug its teeth in deep. I cried out in pain, slapping at the fish as another one leaped out and bit into my calf. The golden bridge flickered as I stumbled ahead. Grabbing the fish on my leg, I yanked and yelled out as it came loose. I chucked the fish. It slapped against another little beast; both of them flopped back into the waves.
A rocky outcrop came into view ahead. The runner jumped off the sand and landed beside a sharp crag, catching his breath before darting toward the white beacon.
Fish flew all around me. The golden bridge faded, and I raced ahead, leaping as the light vanished beneath my feet. I splashed into the water beside the outcrop and felt more fish biting into my leg and my foot. I kicked and thrashed, pulling myself up to the rocks and rolling over, smacking the fish against the ground.
They dislodged, and I rolled over to my stomach and saw the white beacon. Not too much farther ahead.
I groaned as I stood up and half ran, half hobbled toward the light.
A small shack came into view. Wood planks threadbare and peeling, rusted nails sticking from every crevice. It couldn't have been much more than a room about ten paces across. The white light glowed brighter, shining through the cracks in the planks and illuminating the rocks around us.
The runner skidded to a stop in front of a metal door with rivets running down the sides. The white light shone brighter, and my clasp glowed to match it. Heat radiated from the shack, and I nearly toppled over as it hit me in the face.
The runner's tri-cornered hat flew off as a gust of wind ripped past the shack and the bare rocks. His shoulder length dark hair fell out, and whipped to the side to reveal a sharp scar on his neck. The runner reached a hand toward the door and placed his palm flat against it.
“Wait!” I shouted.
The runner screamed in pain and yanked his hand away from the metal, clutching his palm to his chest. He spun around and dropped to his knees, hair falling around his face. And then I realized how young this runner was. He wasn't an adult. Maybe a couple of years older than I was. Scars ran across his cheeks and forehead and down the front of his neck.
And then he glanced up at me.
I choked on my spit. This runner was my brother.
“Julian?” I whispered.
He glared at me, his brow furrowed. And then he snorted and glanced aside. “It had to be you. The Runner of Golden Light.”
His face flashed through my memories. Screaming, holding out his hands toward us as the runners dragged him away from the rice fields. The tears had streaked his face then. Fear with every drop. I shook my head, and the scared face of my older brother faded into the hardened jawline of this runner.
“Julian . . .”
Julian shook his head. “I'm not talking to you about this, Eric.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Same thing as you,” Julian said. “I'm here for the girl. And I can't let you have her.”
He flung a handful of pebbles at my face, and I stumbled back. Julian leaped up and tackled me to the ground, grabbing my wrists, and forcing them into the dusty rock. I kicked and found purchase with his kneecap. Julian cried out, rolling over, one hand still clutching my clasped wrist. I wrenched my arm away and slugged him in the shoulder.
I scrambled backward on my hands. “Stop it! I'm not going to fight you.”
Julian sat up and wiped a hand across his mouth.
Wind whistled past us, swirling through the mist. The waves splashed against the rocks around us, spraying me in the face. The rocks under us rumbled, and I glanced at the shack, it glowed even brighter than before.
Julian followed my gaze and jumped up, he hurried over to the door again. He grabbed the metal handle sticking from the rivets and screamed as heat sizzled past his fingers. He yanked on the door, opening it with a screech. The white light from inside blasted outward, sending Julian flying backward.
He skidded across the rocks and slid to a stop.
I rushed to his side, stones skittering past my feet. His eyes had closed, and his chest heaved from trying to breathe. A nasty burn mark ran across his hand. I picked it up and held my clasp to the blistering skin. It glowed brighter, and I could see the skin returning to its tan color.
“Eric . . . help . . . me. . . .”
It wasn't Julian.
I peeked over my shoulder and saw a girl silhouetted by white light standing in the doorframe. Her dark hair wisped about her face, and for the briefest moment, I met her eyes. Everything around us paused. Droplets of water hung in the air. The wind held against our faces. The rocks, mid-tremble, hovered fingertip length above the earth. Her eyes glowed golden-brown; a tear cascading down her cheek.
And then she stumbled forward, catching her fall with both hands.
Julian whipped up and grabbed my hair, jerking my head back and slamming it against the ground. He flung his legs over my stomach and pressed his forearm into my throat. I gasped for air, and he glared down at me.
“She's mine. Back off.”
He shoved me down, smacking my head against the rocks. My ears rang, and I cried out. A blast of golden light shot from my clasp. Julian slipped sideways; the tendrils of light burning into his black jacket.
“Eric!” the girl screamed. Her hair stood on end in all direction, and she slapped her hands against both sides of her head as the white light intensified behind her. My eyes burned from the sight, and I squinted at it, struggling to stand up.
Julian beat me to it. He was on his feet, reaching into the inner pockets of his jacket and pulling out a dark purple shard of crystal. The shard lit up, dragging the white light into its core. The girl skidded across the rocks toward the crystal. Julian planted both feet and held the shard in front of him; his hands trembling.
I pushed up and heard only the frantic spraying of waves, rumbling of rocks, and screaming. The girl's screams echoed through my ears.
“Don't let him take me!” she cried.
I stared at Julian. A dark thought slipped through my head. That purple shard looked very similar to the color of cracking clasps. And to the burst of light that always followed someone disappearing into oblivion. With the way all the white light shot toward the shard.
He didn't glance at me. He planted his feet, the air around the shard shimmering. I stood, unsteady. I leaned forward and rushed at my brother, tackling him around the midsection. The shard flew out of his hands, and clattered across the rocks, and through the open shack door.
Julian's eyes widened as all the white light sucked into the shard and with a caught breath, I watched the pause in the universe before the entire shack exploded with purple and white light intertwining and shooting through the mist.
I cried out as the blast flung me through the air, and I splashed into the ocean. Two more splashes followed, and a limp form drifted down from above. I pumped my legs, frantically trying to swim toward the girl falling through the water. I caught her in my arms, and then Julian appeared in the murk, swimming toward us, teeth clenched and brow furrowed.
Before Julian touched us, a golden bubble enveloped the girl and me. The water drained through the bubble's surface, and air filled the cavity. Julian reached the edge of the sphere and pounded his fists against it, screaming through the water at us.
Then Julian kicked upward, broke the surface, and scrambled out of the water.
I laid the girl down on the bottom of the sphere and stared at her. She was so beautiful. I leaned down and took her hand, holding it as the bubble wafted through the water. A wave of nausea ran through my gut, and I wondered just how long we could stay down here before my energy ran out, and we needed to surface.
The girl's eyes blinked, and she sputtered, puking up a mouthful of water and vomit. It dribbled through the bubble and out into the ocean. She stared up at me and smiled slightly. “You found me.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
The girl squeezed her eyes closed and sat up, rubbing one hand across her forehead. A strange white glow emanated from her skin with every movement. Like she was leaving an after image behind my eyes every few seconds.
“My name is Bella. I'm the girl you've been searching for.”
I sat back, carefully leaning into the side of the bubble. For now, it seemed to be sturdy enough. “And my brother was searching for you too.”
Bella reached out a hand. “I'm sorry.”
“About your brother. He's trapped, Eric.”
I took a deep breath. “How do you know my name?”
She shrugged. “I don't know. I just do.”
“Well, what was that light up there all about?”
She shook her head. “I don't know that either.”
I rubbed the sides of my head with both hands. “Then how did you know I was coming for you, and that I was supposed to find you?”
Bella's face fell. “I don't know that either. I'm sorry, Eric. I don't know how I know things. I just do. I pray a lot. And whenever I pray, I find myself knowing things I shouldn't know.”
“You pray? To who?”
Bella smiled. “To Yahweh. He's out there, Eric. I know it. His voice is quiet, but I know He's out there. And He wants to help us.”
My stomach twisted around again, and I felt a dull ache settling into my chest. “Look, we need to get out of the water. And this bubble. And get you to Riverfork.”
“Riverfork? Where's that?”
Now it was my turn to shrug. “I don't know. I didn't have the maps. The other runner with me had them all. But she's . . . gone.”
Bella reached out a hand and touched my forearm. “I don't know why, but Eric, you were meant to find me. And together we need to head for this Riverfork. And then, you and I? We are meant to change the islands of Abra forever.”
I didn't understand. I doubted I ever would. But the words were true. I don't even know how I knew that much. It was more of a feeling. A feeling that Bella was right. Abra needed us.
But even with the reassurance of Bella's hand on my arm, I couldn't help shaking the other thoughts rattling inside my head. Julian had a clasp. That meant Julian was a runner. And if Julian was here, that meant he had been sent by someone to find Bella too. On a job. And the penalty for not completing a job was a cracked clasp. If Julian didn't accomplish his job before I did, then he would vanish into a blaze of purple light.
Finishing this job doomed Julian to oblivion.
Another wave of nausea whirled through me.
And then, the bubble popped.
If you have enjoyed Shaun Stevenson's Runners of Abra, then you will love Shaun's Thrones series. Get a head start and read the first 5 chapters for FREE, but be warned, you'll soon find yourself lost in a deep world with fantastic characters and epic adventures!
Mist curled between my fingers, arching from knuckle to knuckle and slipping away into the vast grayness that spread from the tips of my hands. I stared into that mist. Watching the way it swirled from side to side, sometimes caught in a wind, sometimes dropping with a sudden lurch.
A single crackling leaf drifted past my face. I snapped out to catch it, and for a breath, I held the stem in my fingers. The leaf struggled against the breeze, wavering from side to side before ripping away from my hand and vanishing deeper into the gray.
I must have been dreaming.
It was the only way I could make sense of what I saw. I blinked, and the rice paddies on Jedros faded into view. My mother, working at the fields with sweat dripping down her cheeks. She never glanced my way. Only focused on the rice. The job. Getting things done. My father was no better. The brow of his straw hat hid his face from view. It had always hidden his face. In that moment I realized I had never seen my father's eyes before.
Were they like mine? Seeing things I wished I had never seen?
And then the mist blew, and I saw Gratta's compound—all the recruits and runners fighting each other with blood on their knuckles and bo staffs in their hands, clacking against each other's weapons and sometimes shoulders.
Grayness settled back into view.
A distant pinprick of white light shone through the mist, like a beacon. I stumbled forward, finding movement like trying to slug my way through knee deep rice paddies. The light shone on my chest. I ran my fingers through the beam and hurried toward the source. It had to have a source.
I sludged ahead, feeling sweat plastering down my hair.
A girl came into view. Her back was to me, but I could see she had long dark hair draped over one shoulder and tucked away from small ears. She wore a simple green dress with billowy sleeves and matching flat shoes.
Her face tilted my direction. “Find me, Eric,” she whispered.
“I'm trying. Where are you?”
“I'm not far. Find me before they do. Please.”
“Who else is trying to find you?”
Her head snapped around to face the other direction. “They're coming. You have to hurry. I can't hide much longer.”
“Hide? Hide where?”
“Don't follow your heart, Eric. Hearts are deceitful and tricky. Follow the truth. The truth will always set you free.”
The girl stepped forward. Her foot crunched over something. A blur of motion came at us from her right. I threw my hands up and thrashed as two strong arms grabbed mine and threw me to the ground.
My eyes blinked, and I saw Raciel and Cassie standing over me.
“Dreaming much?” Raciel asked.
I nodded. “Do you have . . .” I coughed. “Do you have any water?”
“I'll fetch you some.” She darted out of sight, and I heard the splashing of water into a stone cup. A moment later she held it out to me. “Drink this. It'll help.”
I gulped down the water, every drop cooling my throat. “Thank you,” I mumbled.
Cassie smiled and took the cup back. “De nada.”
I sat up and shivered.
Raciel crouched down and handed me the scratchy gray blankets that had fallen around my feet. “You're cold. For a time we thought you might be sick. But it seems to have passed.”
I swallowed. “How long have I been asleep?”
“Two days,” Cassie called. “We were about to eat dinner. You hungry?”
As if on cue, my stomach gurgled angrily at me. I suppose I deserved an angry rumble from my gut after depriving it of food for two days. Saving Cassie must have taken a lot out of me. More than I had anticipated. Then again, I had been running for my life for nearly a day before that.
Raciel clapped me on the back. “I suppose that means yes.” He held out a hand to me. I took it and froze. Brown eyes. He had brown eyes under his tightly pulled back gray hair. I shook my head and stood up with the big man's help.
The room was fairly sparse, but somehow it felt warm and cozy at the same time. A wooden table with four crudely carved chairs sat in the center under a three-candled chandelier. A bed had been pushed up against the wall behind me, and I noticed where I had been lying on it was covered in sweat. A rack of spices hung over a wood stove across from the bed. A staircase wound up to the top level of the outpost.
Raciel waved at the chairs. “Please, sit.”
I sat, and Cassie and Raciel placed a pile of food in front of me on thin stone platters. There was flat bread and ground meat and chopped onions and celery and even a splattering of goat cheese. Cassie took the place next to me, and Raciel sat across from me.
The smells of the food wafted up to my nostrils, and I took a long breath and closed my eyes. I had never actually sat around a real table with a real family eating such delicious smelling food before. And for the first time, I felt a strange pang ring through my chest. A feeling that told me all in one breath that this was a moment to savor because it would not last.
I was a runner now. Runners didn't have families and lives and meals around tables. Runners ran.
Raciel reached out a hand to me, and Cassie slipped hers into mine before I could blink. “We always thank Yahweh for what He's given us. Especially . . .” Raciel sniffed back a tear. “Especially now that I have my precious Cassie back.” He smiled at her.
Cassie blushed. “Papa, it's okay.”
The big man squeezed our hands. “I know, I know.”
Cassie cleared her throat and threw back her head with a grin. “Thank You, Yahweh, for this food, for this company, for my family, and for all the blessings of life You've given to us. Let it be so.” She gave my hand a slight squeeze and then rolled up the meat and onions into her flatbread and ate.
I was going to enjoy this meal. Even if it was the only one I ever had with these people like this, I was going to enjoy it.
And we did. We laughed and talked, and Cassie and Raciel told me all about their lives in the village, and about fishing at the local pond, and about the coast just north of the outpost. A strange peace settled inside my bones. A peace I never wanted to lose. Never.
After dinner, Raciel wiped his mouth and told us he had things to care for outside. He excused himself and hurried out the front door.
“Will you help me clean up?” Cassie asked.
“Sure,” I said. We picked up the plates and carried them to a spigot with a pump handle in the corner of the room. I had never seen one before, and Cassie showed me how to crank the handle, and then water would dribble out. It was connected to a well dug underground and outside the outpost. A genius invention, really.
Cassie tossed me a thin rag. “Wipe those down, okay?”
I set to work wiping the dishes.
She smiled at me. “Eric, what were you doing in the Pale Woods?”
“I can't tell you.” I wiped another dish clean and set it on a wooden shelf over my head.
I glanced at the clasp on my forearm. “Because. I'm a runner. I can't talk about it, really.”
“So you really are a runner then?”
Cassie stared at the clasp. “But how could you do what you did? To save me? I never knew runners could do those sorts of things.”
“I don't know.” I cleared my throat. “I was training with other recruits, and it just happened. Everyone . . . everyone kind of looks at me sideways, you know? Like no one knows exactly what to do with me.”
“I think you're a hero,” she said. “And I really can't thank you enough for saving me. What you did was impossible.” Cassie turned back to a bucket of sudsy water and the stone cup in her hands. She traced the rim of the cup with her finger, and a single tear slid down her cheek. “And if you can do the impossible. . . . Can you . . .” she paused and twisted her mouth to the side.
“Can I what?”
She spun to look at me, one elbow leaning against the bucket. “Can you bring back my mother?”
“Bring her back? From where?”
“The Pale Woods,” she whispered.
“Was she a pale too?”
Cassie shook her head. “No. But . . . oh, it's a long, boring story. I shouldn't bother you. I suppose you'll be leaving soon anyway. What with jobs to run for.”
I put a hand on her shoulder. “Tell me. What happened?”
She took a deep breath. “Mother . . . she . . . I don't know how it started, really. One night I heard her. Whispering to the windows upstairs. Papa was asleep and snoring, but I could still hear her soft words, spoken to the open window. She was staring into the Pale Woods, unblinking, saying things I didn't understand.
“I stood behind her and tried to see what she might be staring at, but I saw nothing. The next day, she started becoming more erratic. She would leave right after dinner on 'walks.' I don't know where she went or why. She would just go. Sometimes she'd be out all night long and would stumble back into the house, mumbling to herself and climbing the stairs back to the loft.
“And then I mentioned it to her. She laughed at me, told me she loved me, and then her eyes glazed over with a look like death. Eric, she forgot my name. She couldn't remember it. I would tell her, but the words bounced off her like water on stone.”
“Finally, I caught her sneaking out on a moonless night, telling me she was leaving for good. She lowered the drawbridge and crossed into the Pale Woods before I could stop her. I was only seven. And I stood at the end of that drawbridge calling her name over and over, but she never came back to me. She disappeared into the mist, and I've never seen her since.”
I swallowed. “I'm sorry, Cassie. But if she went into the Pale Woods, then—”
“I know!” She shook her head. “She's probably dead long ago by now. Or become one of those things herself. I just thought . . . if you . . . if you ever found her, you could bring her back to me. Just tell her that her daughter still loves her. That I miss her more than anything. There's nothing I wouldn’t give to see her sitting in that empty chair at the table laughing with us like old times.”
Cassie smiled at me and brushed a hand over my hair. “She would have liked you. Brave. Honorable.”
I nodded, wondering if my parents remembered me. Or if I had become some fleeting thought that disappeared with the setting sun.
The door banged open, and Raciel stood there, panic etched onto his face. He slammed the door closed behind him.
“Papa! What is it?”
Raciel held a finger to his lips. “Eric, you have to leave. Now.”
I jumped up. “Why? What is it?”
“Soldiers in the village. From the queen's own palace. They're searching for runners who may have come by these parts. Runners with unusual abilities.”
The tips of my fingers went numb. Runners with unusual abilities could only mean one person: him. Panic tore through my chest. I had to leave. I refused to let this little family be hurt because I had been here.
Raciel threw a stack of flatbread into a rucksack along with a small block of goat cheese and a flask filled with water. “Take these. Follow the coastline out of town. I don't know where you're heading or what you're about, but don't let them catch you. The queen mostly keeps to herself, but when she's interested in something, that something doesn't escape her notice for long.”
I nodded, feeling a lump catch at the back of my throat. “Thank you both. For everything.”
Raciel clapped both hands on my shoulders. “No. Thank you for saving my daughter.” He pulled me into a hug, and for a moment, I wondered if this was what fathers were supposed to be like. The people who cared about you, hugged you when you needed it, but also kicked you out the door when it was time to go.
Tears ran down Cassie's face, and she hurried up the stairs.
“Goodbye,” I whispered before slipping toward the door and ducking outside.
The moon hung yellow across the ocean in the distance. Mist hung over the waves, and down below in the village, I could see a horde of soldiers on horseback holding torches and tromping through the streets. They really had come for me.
A cough echoed from above. Cassie leaned out the window and smiled sadly at me. “It was too short, Eric. Be safe. And if you see my mother, Ysella, please give her my message.”
“I will. I promise.”
Horse hooves pounded the path winding up from the village. I scrambled around the side of the outpost, and slid onto my side down a rocky crag, and into a narrow ravine at the bottom. The horses stopped outside the outpost, and a deep female voice shouted, “Open up! Queen's business!”
The door creaked open. “Yes? May I help you?” Raciel.
“Have you seen any runners come this way recently?” The female voice again.
“No runners here,” Raciel answered.
I breathed a short sigh of relief and decided not to stick around any longer. I hurried down the ravine until I reached the shoreline. Staying close to the edge of a rocky outcrop that rose just over my head, I ran down the beach as quickly as I could. Sand drifted into my boots. With every few steps, I could feel the grains squishing between my toes.
The night passed, and soon the Puerta Vida faded into the distance behind me. Mist descended over the sand, and I kept one hand on the rocks beside me to make sure I didn't stumble into the ocean.
My feet ached, and finally, I tripped and plummeted to my face. “Ouch . . .” I mumbled, rolling over and staring up until the gray haze above me. Even the moon had disappeared from sight.
I nearly dozed off, but crunching in the sand jolted me awake. I sat up slowly and stared into the mist, watching as a faint yellow glow drifted into sight, bobbing up and down over the beach. I huddled up against the rocks and found a small divot I could nearly sink into.
The yellow light drew closer, and I could see the faint outline of a man trudging in my direction. The man paused a moment and held up his forearm. The yellow light grew brighter.
It was a runner.
I could barely make out the black jacket he wore over a loose black tunic, with equally dark boots. He had a tri-cornered hat on his head, with the front tip dipped over his face. He held out a rough parchment and unfolded it, casting the light from his clasp on it.
“Close,” the man said. His voice carried through the mist, and I held my breath. I didn't need to let anyone else know I was here.
And then I saw a pinprick of white light in the distance. Out in the ocean.
The runner's head shot up and whirled to face the light.
“Find me, Eric. Hurry. He's almost here!” The voice echoed inside my head.
And then the runner broke into a sprint, straight toward the white light and into the ocean.
Pales had darted in and out of my nightmares ever since I had seen one up close on the way to Castos. Their snapping jaws filled with sharp teeth. Their eyeless faces and gray skin with long fingers creeping over the edges of the wagon so they could wail in my face.
I never had thought those creatures might come from somewhere.
That they might have a home.
I glanced at the girl again. She opened her mouth to say something, but before she could get a word out, her eyes closed and she slumped to the crumbled stone dirt, passed out.
The clasp on my hand glowed slightly, and I slapped a hand over it to douse the light. I didn't need to be a beacon for every pale within a league to see through the mist. I clenched the stone in my hand, peeked at the clasp and saw the arrow pointing to the right.
I stared at the girl and swallowed. Those things. What would they do to her? My stomach dropped, and I considered trying to drag her to safety. A rock flew by and smashed into a tree past my shoulder, sending up a cloud of dust. I bolted through the mist, around trees and over large chunks of stone. The arrow turned slightly to the left, and I changed course, keeping one eye on the clasp and the other on the mist ahead of me. I only hoped there wouldn't be another river to tumble into off some unseen cliff.
A wail echoed behind me. Another wail ahead of me responded.
A gray shape flashed into view in the distance. Just for a moment. But long enough to see that it was a pale. It disappeared into the fog, out of sight.
I slid to a halt, gasping for breath and slipping to a crouch behind a tree. Crunching came from behind me. A gray hand emerged from the mist followed by a pale, holding its sightless face up at an angle and sniffing with two slits. I pushed a fist against my mouth. I had to hold my breath. No sounds.
The pale dropped to all fours and sniffed the ground like a dog might. It scampered forward, past my hiding place. I pressed against the stone tree, watching it disappear into the mist ahead of me. The rattling stones clinked against each other as it moved ahead.
Silence fell on the petrified forest. I slowly stood, holding up the stone and took a slow, heavy breath. I stepped forward, willing the rocks under my boots to stay quiet. Another step. No wails. No crunching. No sign of anything.
The pale leaped out of the mist at me, long fingers splayed, mouth open with sharp rows of teeth clacking. I screamed and swung the stone at its head. Contact. The pale whimpered and fell to the dirt, a large blue spot on the side of its face. It curled up, hissing at the stones and clawing at them with both hands.
And then it rolled over, hissing at me and screeching.
My eyes widened. It was time to run.
I shot off through the mist, peeking once at the clasp to see if I was still following the arrow. It shone brighter as if to encourage me to keep going.
A pale sprang at me from the side, and I ducked as it sailed over my head and landed on the stones, skidding around and racing after me. Another pale joined it, and then a third. I chucked the stone behind me and smacked one in the chest, sending it rollicking backward. But a fourth pale joined the chase, running on all fours before leaping into one of the stone trees and swinging from branch to branch until it dropped down ahead of me.
I darted right, and one of the pales behind me collided with the tree-swinging one. They sprawled on the ground for a moment before leaping back to their bare feet. More wails echoed through the petrified woods, bouncing between the stone trees.
The clasp on my forearm flashed. I glanced down and saw the arrow had become a hand, palm held up, like I should stop. I tumbled forward another step and burst through the fog. A stride ahead of me was a deep chasm, gurgling with steaming water. A single stone tree sat on the edge of the cliff, and I reached out to grab one of the branches to stop myself before I plunged headfirst into the water below.
A hiss from behind me, and I yanked myself up onto the tree branch as the four pales shot out of the mist, grappling with each other and flying over the edge of the chasm and into the steaming water below.
I stood on the tree branch and held one hand to my eyes. The sun was close to the horizon in the distance, and I could see a port town on the other side of the chasm, and beyond that, the ocean, sparkling under the orange sun. The chasm stretched in either direction as far as I could see for leagues.
And then I saw the bridge. It was some sort of drawbridge, with one end sticking into the air on the far side of the chasm by a wooden outpost building. The way out of this petrified forest. The bridge was a good five minute run from where I stood. I listened closely to the woods. No more wails from what I could hear.
I shimmied out of the tree and to the ground. I took two deep breaths and then ran. The stone trees whisked past, and the gurgling water below sent up short bursts of spray every few seconds. The steaming water landed on the stones and hissed before evaporating almost instantly.
Two stone posts sat across from the drawbridge. I raced to the first one and grabbed it, waving my arms frantically at the outpost window. “Hello! Please! Is someone over there?”
Except for a wail behind me.
“Please! Help me!”
A face appeared in the outpost window. A man with grizzled hair tied up into a bun on the back of his head. He had a long gray beard that rested against his broad chest. “Who goes there?” he shouted at me in a gruff voice.
“My name is Eric! Please! You have to help me!”
“Anyone on that side of the bridge is cursed with the sickness! We're not letting you back over!”
Another wail echoed in the woods.
I glanced back and then to the man in the window again. “Please! You have to help me!” I held up my clasp. “I'm a runner! Please!”
“Are you on a job?” The man shouted back.
I opened my mouth to answer but found I couldn't say a word about it. I tried to shout back that yes, I was on a job. For Gratta. But the words would not pass my tongue. And then I remembered. My book. I wasn't allowed to tell anybody what I was doing. If I did, that would cause me to fail the job. And die.
“I'm not sick! Just lower the bridge for me! I have to get across!”
The man shook his head. “I cannot, lad. I'm sorry.”
“There has to be something you can do!” I shouted. “There are others over here! A girl! She needs help too!”
The man stepped back from the window, one hand on the sill. He took a heavy breath and then stared at me. “How is she?”
“I don't know!” I said. “She passed out back there!”
“I can't let you across! I'm sorry!”
I leaned forward. He wasn't going to let me across. He was going to let me die. Here on the edge of the chasm with a horde of pales at my heels waiting for their next meal. I peeked back at the mist and the woods.
Wails and footsteps echoed now through the trees. They were coming. For me.
The gem on my clasp flashed again. I glanced at it. Probably it was warning me. Letting me know this was definitely the end of my running career. Eric the Runner. Shined bright for a short time. I supposed there would be no funeral for me. No burial. No carrying of my body back to Jedros for my parents to see one last time.
My remains would be left here in this stone forest. Forever.
A figure stumbled out of the woods. The girl.
Her skin had gone sickly gray, almost. . .
My mouth dropped open. The pales. . . .
They weren't monsters.
They were people.
“Help me,” the girl rasped.
She stumbled into my arms. Her skin was cold, and the blue dress she wore looked torn at the sleeve and hem. Her hair was stringier than even when I had seen her in the forest earlier. She was becoming a pale.
The man in the window. I turned slightly, still holding up the girl.
He leaned out the window, both hands on the sill now. “Cassie! Can you hear me?!”
The girl in my arms nodded slightly. “Papa,” she whispered.
Cassie slipped from my arms and fell to the stones. She lay on her back, her eyes turning a gray color. She was becoming one of them.
The first pale stepped through the edge of the mist. Tentatively at first, and then with more boldness as it sniffed the air and fixed its eyeless face on us. More pales emerged from the fog, thirty of them standing in a ring around us. They licked their lips and crouched low, ready to pounce.
“NO!” the man in the window screamed. “Don't take my daughter! Please!”
The pales leaned back and howled at the darkening sky.
An arrow shot through the air and pierced the chest of one of the pales. The man in the window. This girl's father. He had a crossbow already reloaded. He fired again, and another arrow shot into a pale on my right.
And then the pales lunged.
I dropped in front of Cassie and crossed my arms in front of my face. A wall of golden light shot from the clasp on my forearm and blasted the pales in midair. They slid off the wall and to the ground in a heap, scrambling back up and leaping at us again.
I glanced at Cassie. Her eyes had turned completely gray, and her hair fell from the top of her head. She snapped her mouth open once, and I noticed her teeth sharpening to points.
With my clasped forearm held up, I placed my other hand on her forehead. I couldn't watch her transform into one of those creatures like this. I had to do something to save her. I didn't know if those crystals had zapped all of the strength from the gem in my clasp, but I was willing to try.
Cassie grabbed my wrist with her hands, snapping her teeth. The pales pounded against the golden shield of light beside me. And I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath.
Help me. Whoever you are out there. I've heard your voice before. I need your help now. Because I know you can do it.
My body shook, and I heard a child. A child's laugh. Not a mean, derisive kind of laugh, but a strong, I'm with you kind of laugh. Like two kids playing together and having the greatest adventures their imaginations could dream up.
The laughter surged through me, and I felt my arms trembling with the effort.
Pain rattled through my head and my teeth, and I clenched them, groaning with the energy coursing through me.
A blast of golden light shot out from me, sending the pales flying backward into the mist. I sat back, gasping for breath and feeling blood dripping from my nostrils. I wiped it away and watched as a cloud of golden light surrounded Cassie, enveloping her from head to toe until I couldn't see her anymore.
The light flashed, and I fell back onto the stones.
A groan beside me.
I chanced a look. Cassie sat up, her skin a deep olive color, and her hair a dark brown. Her eyes sparked golden once and then settled into a soft hazel. She shook her head once and stared at me.
“You . . . cured me. How? How did you do that?”
I could only stare. This girl was beautiful. The most beautiful girl I had ever seen. And she kept staring at me.
A rattling noise echoed across the chasm. The drawbridge lowered and slammed onto the ground beside us. The man in the window raced across to the middle of the wooden bridge, holding up the crossbow.
“Get to the other side! Now!” He shot an arrow into the mist and hit a pale reaching out for my foot. The pale flew backward and into the fog.
I scrambled up, grabbed Cassie's hand, and we raced over the drawbridge. Pales roared from the stone forest and burst through the fog, racing at the drawbridge. The man pounded after us as we made it to the other side. He grabbed a lever and pulled it down. Chains clinked through a pulley above us, and the drawbridge cranked upward.
Some of the pales leaped over the chasm and grabbed onto the edge of the drawbridge, yanking themselves up and scuttling down the other side on all fours.
“They're coming, Papa!” Cassie shouted.
“I see them!” The man loaded another arrow and fired. A pale fell off the drawbridge, screeching until it hit the water below.
Cassie raced to the outpost, threw open the door, and disappeared inside. She emerged a second later with two short swords. She tossed one to me, and I caught the handle and swung as one of the pales dropped to the ground beside me. I smacked it and kicked, sending the creature over the chasm edge.
“Shouldn't I try to save them?” I shouted.
The man shot another arrow. “They're too far gone!”
Cassie speared one of the pales, and it toppled to the ground. Two more crawled down, one dropping for the man's face. I leaped up and swung the sword, catching it in the gut before it could make contact.
The man dispatched the final pale, kicking it over the edge.
We turned and saw the other pales screeching and whacking their bald heads with both hands, before howling and slinking back into the misty woods behind them.
Cassie dropped her sword and threw her arms around her father. “Papa! I never thought I'd see you again!”
Papa stroked Cassie's hair and held her close. “Neither did I.” He rested his head on hers and then stared at me. “How did you do it, son?”
I held up my clasp. “I just did. I don't know how exactly.”
“I've met runners before. But none of them can do what you did. Their gems can blink and flash and turn into lanterns, but not heal someone of the pale sickness. Or create a wall of light! You've done wonders no one has seen in an age.”
I swallowed. “I don't know.”
The man held out his hand to me. “I am known to some as Papa,” he winked at Cassie, “but to others, I am known as Raciel. It's well met, Eric. Well met.” He shook my hand in a strong grip and then pointed at the outpost. “It's not much, but this is where I live. Keeper of the drawbridge. Not a pleasant job, but it keeps our town safe from the pales. And the sickness.”
Cassie smiled at me. “Papa, can he stay for the night?”
“I don't think I can stay, actually . . .” I stepped forward but stumbled. The adrenaline rushing through me vanished in a moment, and I would have fallen on my face if Raciel hadn't stopped me first.
“Nonsense,” Raciel boomed. “You will stay here tonight. We have a spare cot you can sleep on. And I make some of the best food in Puerta Vida.”
My eyes closed, and before I could stumble forward again, Raciel had picked me up and carried me inside. I heard him say, “Let him sleep,” before I drifted off, the warm smells of cooking meat filled the outpost and my nostrils.
I held both hands over my eyes as the light continued to pour from the floating crystals and at my chest. The light slipped between my fingers and hit my eyelids, burning a single image into my mind. Eight floating crystals, eight beams of light, trees surrounding us and swaying in the wind, Telisa on the ground, crossbow at her side.
The light burned inside of me, and then I felt something swish away from me as if the air had been sucked right out of my lungs. I dropped to the dirt and glanced up at the crystals above me. They slowly descended to the ground and lodged into the earth. The crystals vibrated, slowly at first, and then faster with each breath.
I shook Telisa's arm. “Get up!” I screamed.
Every movement took more effort than usual. My bones creaked as I slid my arms underneath Telisa's shoulders and yanked her back. I dropped back to the dirt, exhausted after a breath.
A sharp neigh echoed across the clearing.
Zinnia. Her purple eyes flashed, and I could hear her words slip into my head. Run. Now.
“Why?” I shouted.
I crawled to my feet. The crystals shook frantically now, glowing with a golden light. I glanced at my clasp and noticed the gem seemed dimmer than before. Not quite as translucent as it had seemed. Like the light had been sucked right out of it.
A brown shape zipped through the clearing, latched onto Telisa's collar, and then raced away. Poinsettia. The horse dragged Telisa behind a tall redwood and then ducked down, laying her head over Telisa's still form.
Zinnia whinnied and shook her mane. Hurry! They're going to shatter!
I nodded, gripped my fingers into fists, and hobbled toward Zinnia. I threw my hands over her back and hauled myself up, groaning. A sharp pain ripped down my stomach. I cried out and nearly lost my grip. I slid around and slumped over Zinnia, wrapping my arms around her neck. She darted off as I heard what sounded like a thousand windows shattering at once. Shards of glass flew around us, and Zinnia leaped over a fallen log and tumbled to the ground on the other side, sending me flying into a mound of dirt.
The crystal shards embedded themselves in the trunks of trees all around us, some of it tinkling down to the earth, glowing for a breath, and then fading into simple dull stones.
Zinnia’s flank went rigid as she blew hard from both nostrils.
I blinked and stared. A long shard of glass stuck out of her hind leg. Blood dribbled from the spot, and I threw a hand over my mouth.
Help me, Eric. . . .
I dragged myself over to her side, holding my stomach, and feeling the pain shoot through me with every foot forward. I bit my lip and examined the wound. The shard had gone in deep. I wasn't sure whether I should take it out or leave it in or what.
“What do I do?” I whispered.
Zinnia's eyes focused on me. Save yourself above me, Eric. Don't let those creatures catch you.
“What?” I hissed.
I can hear them. They're looking for you.
I gulped and slowly lifted my head over the fallen log. The clearing was a good trot away, but I could see it clearly enough. Where the eight crystals had been were now eight burn marks in the dirt. Standing up from each mark were eight humanoid creatures. They were taller than regular people. Their heads scraped the overhanging branches I couldn't even jump up to grab. Long thin arms swayed at their sides. Their skin glowed like pearls, changing hues every few moments. Flowing white robes covered their bodies, swishing around large bare feet.
Long fingers ran over their bald heads, and two over-sized black eyes popped open above thin slits of a mouth. One of them strode forward, almost gliding over the earth. It spread its arms wide and took a long, deep breath.
“My brethren, we are free to walk these islands once more.”
Another one of the creatures reached up and snapped a branch off a tree above it. “The world has grown since we last walked it.”
“Yes, it appears so,” the leader said. “We must find this one named Eric. I sense his clasp holds more power we could wield.”
The eight creatures spun around, staring into the dark woods. Their bodies gave off a slight glow that lit the dirt and leaves around them. I couldn’t stop staring at them. Each one’s shimmering light drew in my gaze. I wanted to glance away. I wanted to stop staring. A coldness seeped across the clearing and into the trees. I shivered and forced my eyes closed.
“What are those things?” I whispered to Zinnia.
She blinked at me. I do not know their names. But I do know they wish us only ill will. You have to get away.
I leaned into her ear. “Not without you. Or Telisa. Or Poinsettia. We've got to find them.”
I don't know which direction they went. Poinsettia is fast. She can outrun anything.
“Do you have any special abilities?”
I can speak to you.
I nodded and peeked over the log.
“Find the human child!” the leader shouted. It waved a hand in a circle and vanished into a ball of pearly light, hovering over the dirt. The other seven creatures followed suit, waving their thin arms and shrinking into spheres of light. Sparks emanated from each one, zapping the nearby trees and sending blue licks of flame up the trunks.
“We have to move!” I hissed. “How do I help you?!”
I took a deep breath. I was not leaving her. I couldn't do that. I bit my lip and held my hand over Zinnia's flank. I had healed Telisa once. Maybe I could heal Zinnia now. I closed my eyes and concentrated. I felt a tiny surge of energy in my forearm, and my eyes whipped open. A dim spark of golden light slipped from my clasp and onto the crystal shard in Zinnia's leg. I took that as a signal. I grabbed the edge of the shard.
“Sorry.” And then I yanked it out.
Zinnia screamed and snapped her teeth. Thin trails of light zipped around the wound, stitching some of it together, but not all the way.
I peeked over the log again. The eight spheres had heard Zinnia's cry. They whisked through the trees straight at us.
“Get up now!” I shouted.
Zinnia winced and pushed up on all four legs, stumbling slightly on her back right. I can manage! Go! I'll distract them! She darted to the left, neighing loudly. Four spheres shot off after Zinnia into the woods.
I ducked down, and the other four zoomed over my head and swirled around a tree beyond me. I shot up and leaped over the log, almost doubling over from the pain in my stomach. What had those things done to me?
My boots pounded over the dirt, whisking around ferns and bushes. Flames blazed in the canopy over my head, sparking against the black sky. The spheres hummed and flew after me. I slipped around the side of a tree and grabbed the two daggers at my side, gripping the handles and waiting.
One of the spheres hummed past the tree, and I sliced at it as it flew by. A shriek like a sword grinding against stone. The sphere flew at the ground, rolling against the dirt and growing larger before turning back into the strange humanoid creatures. It had a gash in its side with golden light spilling out like blood.
It held up a long-fingered hand, but it was too late. Another sphere shot by on the other side and I sprung from behind the tree, slashing as I went. I didn't know if I made contact or not because I dashed away.
“The human child!”
Golden blood dripped from the daggers in my hands. I wiped them against a fern as I brushed past, ducking between trunks, deeper and deeper into the forest. A flaming branch dropped from overhead, slamming into the ground ahead of me.
A beam of light shot out from behind me, and another long branch fell to the ground. Another beam and another branch. The three flaming branches had boxed me in. I skidded to a stop and whirled around, holding up the daggers.
The leader strode down a small embankment, two of the spheres at its side. The two spheres landed on the ground and transformed into humanoids.
“Nowhere left to run, human child.” The leader spread its thin arms wide. “Give us your clasp.”
“But I'll die!”
“Inconsequential to us.”
I crouched into a fighting position. “I won't let you take it!”
The leader squinted its black eyes at me. “You meddle in affairs you do not understand.” It held up its hands, and two thin beams of light shot at my daggers, superheating them in an instant. I dropped both of them, clenching my hands as they smoked. I screamed, falling to my knees.
“Now then.” The leader glided forward. “Let us end this unpleasantness swiftly.”
Tears slid down my face. Pain wracked my body. My hands felt like they had been thrust into a campfire and held there. My stomach curled over. But I held up my forearm. The gem glowed slightly.
The leader laughed. “We have drained much of that bauble's power. We only wish to take what is left and leave you be. You cannot hurt us with that now.”
A weak beam of light shot from my clasp, but the leader swatted it away like a pesky fly. The beam zapped into a nearby tree, sending more flames racing up its trunk.
“Do not toy with us.” The leader held up a hand. The other two humanoids raised their hands. “Give us the clasp.”
I didn't know what to do. Zinnia was hurt. Telisa passed out. Poinsettia nowhere to be seen. And the clasp I had come to rely on had been drained by these creatures somehow. I glanced up. Where was that voice? Where was that person or thing or whatever it had been who had whispered to me in the Pit?
“Help me,” I said.
And then I saw it. I aimed the clasp up, and a short blast of light soared through the air, smashing into a long, thick tree branch hanging over the three creatures. The branch burst into flames and fell. The creatures glanced up once, and then the branch smacked into their faces, sending all three of them crumpling to the ground, the long branch resting over their midsections. I jumped up, holding my hands close to my chin and raced through the flames behind me. I cried out, feeling the heat sear my skin, my hair, my clothes. I dropped to the dirt on the other side of the flames and rolled to douse the fire.
I rolled sideways, right off the edge of an embankment. I screamed, tumbling through the air and splashing into a river racing beneath the woods. Water cascaded over my head and plunged me below the surface. I somersaulted through the current, kicking my legs until my head broke into the open air. I gasped.
The woods were flaming on the shore, and the spheres of light whisked around the trees frantically. A long branch fell into the water ahead of me, and I bashed into it with an oof! I wrapped my arms around the branch and clung to it. It bobbed along and carried me with it, blackened soot smearing across my chest.
A faint voice echoed in my head. Zinnia. I'll find you, Eric. Head North. Her voice trailed to nothing.
I didn't know what direction I was headed now. Wherever this river decided to take me.
Water dribbled past my ears. Sunlight trickled through misty clouds overhead. I blinked. My head throbbed. Every inch of my body ached. Nothing would have been better than lying down on even the dormitory mattresses back at the compound.
Sometime during the night I had passed out, still holding the branch. The river must have trickled down to a mere stream at some point, because I was sitting in the water, head resting just above the surface. Two rocks had caught the branch and held it fast.
I groaned and sat up. About a day's ride away I could see smoke rising above distant hills. The forest. Zinnia. Telisa. Poinsettia. They were all back there somewhere. I scrambled to my feet, splashing through the water and toppling over on the smooth stones. I crawled to the bank and pulled myself through a layer of muck until I reached a muddy shoreline. All around me were thin, stone-gray trees with no leaves or pine needles.
I coughed, pounding a fist against my chest and trying to breathe. I didn't know how much smoke I had inhaled back in the woods, but my lungs ached like I had sucked in an entire cloud with one gulp.
Another cough. I flopped onto my back and stared up at the clouds shifting above me. There was no grass here. No signs of plant or animal life. Only stark gray trees and block-shaped stones dotted the landscape.
“Zinnia?” I called. “Can you hear me?” I coughed again.
No words filtered into my head.
No birds chirped.
I peeked at the clasp on my arm. The light was still dim. I didn't know if it would grow brighter again or if it had been damaged by those creatures. What were they anyway? I had never seen anything like them before, but then again, nothing over the past week had been like anything I'd ever seen before.
I sat up, and brought my knees up to my chest, wrapping my arms around them and staring at my soot covered hands. Red marks covered my fingers, and some of the skin looked like it was peeling back. I licked the tips of my fingers and tried to clear off the smudges on my hands.
What was I supposed to do now?
My stomach growled. My tongue begged for a drip of water.
I took a long breath and eventually made my way back to the stream, dipping my face under the water and taking a long gulp. The water splashed into my gut and made it ache even more. All of my provisions were gone. All my weapons were gone too; aside from the clasp on my arm, which appeared to be somewhat useless now.
The clasp on my arm glowed slightly. “What do I do now?” I asked it.
Another slight glow. And then I saw a dark brown arrow form against the golden backdrop, pointing through the gray trees.
The arrow grew brighter for a moment before returning to its same dark brown color.
“Okay.” I sighed. “Not much else I could do anyway.”
I took one more long gulp of water and then set off through the trees. I walked for an hour before I grazed one of the trees with my hand. The bark didn't feel like wood. It felt like stone. I stopped and stared at the tree, putting both hands on it and trying to peck at the bark with my fingernail. It wasn't wood. It was stone.
I spun in a slow circle. Every tree was made of stone. Even the dirt looked more gray here than brown. I bent over and felt it between my fingers. It wasn't dirt. It was crushed stones. Ground as fine as a powder.
At some point, the misty clouds above had descended into this stone forest and spread its gray fingers between every tree until everything looked the same. I glanced at the clasp. The arrow still shone dimly, pointing to what I hoped was north. I trudged ahead. I didn't know how long I walked. Maybe an hour. Maybe five. The light in these petrified woods never appeared to change. It stayed the same gray hue as everything else. Even my hands and clothes looked gray now.
I rubbed my eyes with one hand. They stung. I blinked and took a long breath, leaning against the side of a tree for a rest.
A strangled cry echoed between the trees. I stood up, stiffening against the trunk and staring out into the mist.
“Hello?” I whispered.
Another strangled cry to my right.
My head jerked in that direction. I squinted and could see the outline of a person stumbling through the fog and then falling to their hands and knees with another cry.
I swallowed and stepped toward the figure. “Hello?”
The figure's head popped up, and it held a hand out toward me, mumbling something.
I slid an apple-sized stone behind my back if I needed a quick defense and hurried in the figure's direction. “Are you okay?”
The figure came into view. It was a girl. About my age, blonde hair almost gray in the fog. Her face was ashen like she was sick with something, and her eyes were a light gray color too.
“Don't come too close,” she hissed at me.
I stopped. “Are you okay?”
She squinted at me through the fog. “Aren't you sick?”
“No, I don't think so,” I said. “Are you alright? You don't seem well.”
“My family . . .” She curled her lip into a snarl and snapped her teeth. “They banished me to the Stone Woods. Because I'm sick.”
“Sick with what?”
The girl looked at me again. “You really aren't sick?”
“No. I don't feel sick.”
A sharp wail echoed through the trees. We both glanced around, not sure where the sound originated from.
“If you're not sick, you shouldn't be here,” the girl said, her hair falling around her face. “This is where they live.”
“Where what live?” I felt a chill whisk down my back.
Another wail. And another.
And then I recognized the sound. A sound I had hoped to never hear again.
The girl looked at me, and her lips trembled. “Pales. They call them Pales.”
Footsteps padded over crumbled stones in the distance.
“This is where they come from,” the girl said. “And they're coming now.”
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.
The spinewolf's claws wrapped around my throat. Swirls of purple edged into my line of sight. My lungs tightened. The beast's rancid breath wafted into my nostrils. I closed my eyes to focus. I had to blast this spinewolf into oblivion like those pitters.
Something whipped through the air and thudded into the spinewolf's cheek. My eyes shot open. An arrow stuck fast from the creature’s snout. It dropped me, and I stumbled to the stones on all fours, gasping.
Telisa stood in the doorway, letting off another arrow. It pierced the spinewolf's chest. “Use the gem!” she screamed, nocking one more arrow and letting it fly.
The spinewolf's eyes blazed green. It held up the claw with the dark green gem. Telisa dropped her bow and slowly rose into the air, grasping her neck as the spinewolf growled and choked her.
I shook my head to clear my mind, aimed the clasp at the spinewolf's back, and screamed. A thin band of golden light blasted it in the back. It stumbled forward, dropping the gem and sending it skittering across the stones. Telisa fell onto her back, grabbed her bow, and waved at me. “Let's go!”
I hurried toward her and glanced back at the green gem. “What about that?”
“Not now! If you die, Gratta's sure gonna kill me!” She grabbed my collar and yanked me up the first step, shoving me in front of her. She shot two more arrows at the spinewolf, then pounded up the stairwell behind me.
“Run, meine Kaninchen!” the spinewolf howled.
Its claws scraped the stones across the dungeon floor and scratched into the stairs below us. We raced upward and through the open doorway. Telisa slammed her shoulder into the door. It latched shut, but we could hear the spinewolf pounding upwards, not bothering to slow down.
We darted forward as the door splintered outward. The spinewolf landed on its paws in the hallway. Its eyes glowed darker green than they had before. Drool slipped from its snout. Arrows stuck from its chest and face, and the gem gleamed from its paw.
It held up a paw, and both of us slammed into the ground. The scholar should have never released me from my chains. But I fed him all the darkness he wanted while I waited for the moment I needed. And now, I shall not only have one gem of power, but I will rip yours from its clasp as well.
The spinewolf stalked toward us, sniffing at our feet.
Anger surged through my chest. I would not let this thing beat us. I refused to die in a stone hallway in the scholar's fortress like someone's tossed out leftovers. I pushed against the hold the dark green gem had on me and inched my forearm toward my chest.
The spinewolf's eyes glowed. “None of that!” It flipped its paw around, and my entire body rolled over. My nose slammed into the stone.
I'll eat her first.
“No!” I shouted. A blast of golden light shot from the clasp on my forearm, propelling me off the ground and into the spinewolf's chest. I spun the beam around. It lit up the beast's paw with the dark green gem. Its gem exploded, sending a blast of green light through the hallway. The spinewolf shot back, smashed into the stone wall with a sickening thud, whimpered once, then stilled.
I crawled over to Telisa. “You okay?”
She nodded, rubbing a knot the size of a fist on the back of her head. “Just bruised. I'll be fine.”
Padded feet tapped into the hallway. Scholars in their green robes filled one end of the hall, watching us, glancing at the spinewolf, and at the shattered dragon door. One of them stepped forward. “What happened here?”
“One of your own tried to murder us,” Telisa said, standing up and brushing off her trousers. “We are leaving. Now.” She grabbed my elbow. “Let's go, Recruit.”
The scholars held up their hands, but Telisa glared them down. “No. We are leaving. Answers or not. Move away from us.”
The scholars pressed back against the wall as we marched past. I glanced back to see them slowly approaching the spinewolf, sleeves trailing the stones as they reached down to touch the spines protruding from its back.
Poinsettia couldn’t stop nuzzling my shoulder when we found her standing impatiently stamping her hoofs in the stable outside.
“I guess she likes you now,” Telisa muttered.
Poinsettia whinnied and snorted.
I couldn't help but smirk. “At least one of you has good taste.”
Telisa's brow furrowed. “Shut up and mount.”
I swung up onto the horse, and after checking the straps, Telisa followed. “Yah!” she shouted, kicking Poinsettia's flanks. We clopped over the cobblestones, and Telisa eyed the brightening skies. “We better make this fast, old girl.” She patted Poinsettia's neck and glanced at me. “Hang on.”
I wrapped my hands around the horn. Poinsettia flew across the ground, sending the surrounding countryside into a colorful blur, glowing orange as the sun rose over the distant hills. The glow made me think of gems. Orange. That was the color the Recruiter's gems had glowed when they had arrived on Jedros and taken us.
But my gem. It had glowed golden. I traced one finger across it and felt the warmth that radiated even now from its surface. Golden light swirled inside the gem, and for the briefest moment, I thought I saw the outline of a face push through the swirls. Two eyes open wide, and a mouth yawning wider than humanly possible. I blinked. The face was gone.
I definitely needed more sleep. Now I was seeing things everywhere I looked. A sure sign of crazy.
We wound through the woods again, Poinsettia slowed slightly to pass the boulders and tall trees. A cloud of dust followed us as we raced half the day through Castos. The sun blazed overhead as Gratta's compound came into sight. Four recruits waited by the large log gate, heaving it open after one harsh glare from Telisa.
Poinsettia plodded straight to Gratta's ranch house, stopping promptly at her front door.
Telisa jumped to the dirt. “Wait here. And I mean, wait here. No wandering.”
I yawned and nodded.
She stomped up the porch and hurried inside.
I blinked at the harsh sunlight. Other recruits ran around the compound, and the distant sounds of fighting in the Casket echoed toward me. A team of horses pulled a plow through the fields beyond Gratta's ranch house, with two recruits wearing straw hats slapping their whips to make the horses work faster.
I slipped off Poinsettia and saw Lodan peeking around the edge of the ranch house. His long hair hung around his face, and he waved his scarred hand at me. I glanced at the house. All was still silent inside.
Lodan waved his hand again. “Hurry. I have to tell you something!” he hissed.
I sighed and darted over, crouching around the side of the house. “What?”
“Listen, the girl Telisa sacrificed for you? To those bat things?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I remember.” How could I forget?
Lodan brushed his hair back. “One of those shanters brought her clasp back yesterday. Plopped it right in the middle of the Commons like bat droppings. And then one of the royal guardswomen for the queen showed up. Said a bunch of stuff I didn't really understand, but she did say that the queen wants to assure us all that this golden light phenomenon was a freak thing and the queen's handled it. Whatever that means.”
“What's everybody else saying about it?”
Lodan eyed my clasp. “They're pretty much freaked out. Said you're a wizard and stuff. Where did you two go?”
I scanned his face, took a breath, and spilled the whole thing to Lodan. Well, almost the whole thing. I didn't tell him about the boy on the balcony or the strange face in my gem or the fact that I'm supposed to be a forebear of some kind. Okay, so I left out a lot. But I told Lodan most of it. His eyes kept widening, and his jaw kept dropping until I finished with our arrival back at the compound.
“Wow,” he whispered. “That all really happened?”
“I guess it did.”
Lodan pointed at the ranch house. “So one other thing I should probably tell you. There's a buyer inside right now with Gratta.”
“Someone who buys jobs. I don't know who he was. Wearing a mask when he hurried past on the back of a dark horse. Rumor is that he's heard about the runner of golden light. And wants to purchase your services.”
I sat back on the dirt. “But I'm not even a runner yet! I haven't been trained!”
“That's what I thought,” Lodan said.
The door scuffed open.
“Gotta go,” Lodan whispered, slapping a hand on my shoulder. “See you later. Hopefully.”
I nodded and pushed him away before hurrying back to stand beside Poinsettia. The horse whinnied softly again and watched Telisa stand in the doorframe. She raised an eyebrow. “Apparently, Gratta wants to see you. About a job.”
I swallowed, patted Poinsettia, and followed Telisa inside. Inside the house was dark. The curtains had been drawn over every window, and two candles rested on the counter in front of the books. Gratta stood behind the counter with an open book in front of her and a grim expression on her face. A quill was in her hand, hovering over an ink bottle that glowed a slight yellow color. In the corner of the room a man sat on one of the suede couches shrouded in gloom and puffing on a large cigar poking from his mouth. A cloud of smoke drifted around his forehead. He wore a long duster with a wide brimmed hat and a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and lower face. Brown gloves covered his hands, and he tapped a finger against the arm of the couch as he watched me enter the room.
“Is this the one?” he asked with a gruff voice.
Gratta nodded. “That's 'im.”
The man studied me and then fixated on the clasp I wore. “Tell me, boy. Why you?”
Telisa shifted from foot to foot beside me.
“I don't know what you mean,” I said.
“Why you?” He took a long puff of his cigar and blew a ring of smoke into the room. “Why would such a powerful gem fall into your clasp?”
“I don't know.”
Gratta sighed. “Look, if ya wanna hire him for a job, then let's hire him for a job.”
The man waved the cigar around in the air. “I'm coming to that particularity. We have some time.”
Gratta rolled her eyes.
“You want to hire me for a job?”
“Yes,” the man said, leaning back into the couch. “A very important one. One that only someone with your skills might be able to accomplish for me.”
I fingered the clasp on my arm. “I haven’t been to training. I hardly know what’s out there.”
“All I need is for you to retrieve something for me. From what I hear you’re quite capable with that gem of yours.” The man took another puff on his cigar.
I tapped a foot. “No. I am not capable!” I held up my clasp. “I don’t even understand how this thing works!”
“Nothin’ like on the job training, kid. And this job will settle the capability issues you’re havin’.”
I glanced at Telisa, then Gratta. From Gratta’s grim expression and crossed arms, I had a feeling this wasn’t a job I’d be able to turn down. “What even is this job?”
The man leaned forward. “There's rumors goin' about that a young girl's been sighted on the north side of the island.”
Telisa stiffened. “The north side?”
“Yes.” The man took another puff of his cigar. “She's been seen near the impassable fog. Answers to the name Bella. I need you to retrieve her for me before anybody else finds her first.”
“What's so important about her?” I asked.
The man waved my question aside. “Not for you to know. I need you to bring her to the docks at Riverfork as quickly as possible. Unseen. No one is to know about this job. Got that?”
I swallowed and glanced at Telisa, then Gratta.
Gratta threw up both hands. “Look. I've never let a recruit as green as this one outta my sight on a job, but this gentleman here has paid me more than enough to keep us crankin' along for the next five years if we stretched it out.” She patted a leather chest sitting on the end of the counter. “More than enough. So whether you like it or not, you're goin'.”
My eyes widened. A job. I hadn't been trained at all. I had a powerful gem on my arm I barely understood. I was supposed to be some sort of forebear—whatever that meant. And I was dead tired. And now I was wanted for a job. My hands shook. I willed them to curl into fists.
“Okay. But only if Telisa can go with me.”
Gratta raised an eyebrow. “Done.”
The man pointed the end of his cigar at Gratta. “I'm not paying extra for her.”
The old woman waved a hand. “Not to worry. I'm not chargin'. Consider her my insurance policy.”
Telisa straightened her back and nodded. “I'll go.”
“Don't you dare let Eric die. Too valuable if we keep gettin' customers like this!”
The man stood up, snuffed the cigar out on the arm of the couch, and tossed it to Gratta. He marched over to me and put both hands on my shoulders. “Find her,” he whispered, before clapping me on the back and stomping out the door.
Gratta lifted the quill and dipped it into the yellow ink. “Yellow. For retrieval and delivery. You know what happens if you fail, right, kid?”
I swallowed. “What?”
“You die. Gem will crack in half, and you go up in a puff of purple smoke. Or maybe in your case a flash of golden light. So don't die.” She slipped the quill out of the bottle and scribbled it across the open book in front of her. As soon as the tip scratched the paper, I felt a strange warmth on my forearm. The warmth grew into a searing heat, and I gasped, clutching my gem and stumbling to my knees.
Gratta finished with the book, slammed it shut and pulled out another one, scribbling with the same glowing yellow ink on its pages. Telisa grimaced, gritted her teeth, and held out a hand to me.
“Hurts the first time. A lot. You get used to it.”
I took her hand, and she yanked me up.
“Get some sleep,” Gratta said, slamming Telisa's book closed. “You leave at sundown.”
A soft breeze wafted through the open windows, drawing back the thin green drapes. Fires burned along the wall outside the scholars' fortress. Before I slipped under the comforter on the softest bed I'd ever felt in my life; I saw two green-sleeved scholars marching the wall with lanterns.
Watching for the shadows, no doubt.
Telisa had plopped down by the ornately carved doorway, her head resting against the tail of a ten-legged dragon that wound up to the top of the frame. A white dagger sat in her lap, her fingers curled around the hilt.
“Go to sleep,” Telisa barked.
I rolled over to my side and yanked the blanket to my chin. “I'm working on it,” I whispered.
Stars peppered the sky outside.
“What's Gratta gonna do with me?”
Telisa groaned and slapped the dagger against the stone floor. “I don't know, but I know I'm going to stitch that mouth of yours closed if you don't shut it!”
I gripped the sheets in one hand and threw them aside. “I'm sorry I'm such a problem!”
“I'm glad you recognize how much of a problem you are.”
“What's going to happen to me?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “You just don't shut up, do you?”
“Not until you at least make up an answer.”
She kneaded her forehead with one hand. “Honestly? I don't know. You're doin' things nobody's ever thought might be possible. The gem colors? They're specific. They shine when you're doin' different things. If you're goin' belly-up, it turns purple before you flash out of existence. If you're on a run, then it's gonna be a different color depending on the job. Like orange for recruitin', blue for messagin', and red for killin'.”
I swallowed. “Have you had to kill people before? On a run?”
Telisa snorted. “Course. We all have to. Sooner or later. No matter what the run is, once Gratta writes it down in the books, you're bound to finish it. Or die.”
Finish it or die. I did not like the sound of that. I fingered the edge of the thick mattress. What if I was asked to do a job I didn't want to do? What if I couldn't do a run because it was to kill somebody? I guessed dying would be a better way out than finishing something like that. But every time I had seen someone snuffed out, it didn't look particularly fun.
“But gold.” Telisa whistled. “That's a color I've never thought possible. And no clasp is supposed to be able to do what you've done. Bring people back from the dead, blast pitters to the high heavens. None of that.”
“No one's ever done those things before?”
She shook her head again. “Not a single time as far as I'm aware. Probably why the queen's so interested.”
“Have you ever met her?”
Telisa snorted. “What is this? Interrogate the guard? Shut up and go to sleep! And that's the last time I'm warnin' ya!”
I rubbed my eyes and laid down. Telisa's head conked against the carved door again. The low whistling of a sharpening breeze drifted outside. I stared at a jade chandelier dangling from the ceiling. The candles had been snuffed out, but smoke still drifted up from the smoldering wicks. My eyes slid closed, and I forced my brain to quiet down. I was tired of thinking. Tired of worrying. Tired of wondering why my gem glowed golden.
A shuffle echoed in the hallway outside the door. I bolted up and saw Telisa had left her post. Maybe she was hungry. Or relieving herself. Or punching something. That seemed the most likely option.
The door creaked open, and a withered hand poked through the thin crack. Soft lantern light dribbled over the corridor outside, shining enough for me to see a figure in a green hood standing outside the bedroom.
My pulse quickened.
“Come with me,” an old man's voice whispered.
I shook my head. “No! Where's Tel-”
My throat closed. The gem on my clasp glowed dark green. I wanted to shout, “What's happening?” but my tongue fastened to the roof of my mouth and stayed there. My feet slid off the bed and padded across the stone, carrying me through the door and into the hallway.
One of the old scholars stood in front of me; a gem slung around his neck glowing an identical dark green as mine. “Stay close.” He held a trembling finger to his thin lips. “They don't know I'm here.” His hand drifted to his gem, and he tapped it once. I lurched forward, stumbling after the old scholar.
I felt like someone was clawing through my mind, jerking my body left and right down the hallways. We came to an old wooden door with cobwebs tracing its front. The scholar leaned over and blew against a dragon-shaped keyhole. Dust flew past my face. I wanted to cough, but the stranglehold over my body hadn't released yet.
The old scholar produced a jade key shaped like a dragon's head and shoved it into the hole. The door unlocked with a thudding clunk and crept open revealing a straight stairwell leading into the darkness below.
The scholar reached into the lantern. If I could have winced, I would have. But the fire didn't even touch his fingers. Instead, it curled around his hand, hovering an inch away from his skin. The old man blew at his palm. The fire shot into the stairwell, clinging to the ancient stone walls and lighting the way down.
“Moldable fire,” he whispered. “Very useful.” He tapped the green gem and waved me forward.
We descended. The archway overhead opened out into another cavernous chamber. The room was round and bare save for strange circular markings across the stone floor. The circles wove in and out of each other, each one a different color, ranging across the rainbow from red to purple.
The old scholar pointed toward the center of the chamber, holding tight to the gem. Green light folded around his fingers and drifted to my face, slipping up my nostrils. It smelled like dust, trickling past my nose hair and into my mind.
Now we can communicate more easily. The old man's thoughts popped into my head, held for a second, and then faded.
How are you doing this? I demanded.
Through a very special gem. He held up the green stone and flashed the light at me. There are rare stones throughout the five islands of Abra. Some of them have special . . . ah, abilities. This dark green gem allows me to enter the thoughts of any Runner.
Why are you doing this? Let me go!
The old man narrowed his eyes. How do I know you'll cooperate?
Tell me what you want, and maybe I will.
He eyed the gem on my clasp. I believe you have a rare stone indeed. No one has ever seen golden light come from a gem before. I want to study it. And you.
We're not available for study. Leave us alone! I shouted.
The words pushed the old man back slightly. He stumbled against the stairwell, catching the wall with his withered hand. Very intriguing, the scholar whispered. You exert much will over the gems. Most Runners have no control over them, except to use them as a bauble of light. Pah! The potential is wasted on dense Runners.
I pictured my hands pushing the old man aside. The gem on my forearm glowed slightly, and I shoved with my mind. The scholar stumbled backward again with a loud “oomph!” He fell to the steps and grabbed his gem, holding out one hand. Green light poured out of the stone and blasted me in the chest, lifting me off the ground.
Strong indeed. But not strong enough. He made a fist and swung his arm to the side. I flew across the chamber, landing inside an orange circle.
An image of chains appeared in my thoughts. I imagined them snapping in half. The scholar gasped, and I rolled across the floor until I slammed into the wall. The hold the dark green gem had on me broke. I jumped up and held out my forearm. The gem glowed with golden light.
“Stay away from me!” I shouted with my own voice. It felt good to hear words move through my throat again.
The old scholar stood up, one shaking hand on the stone wall. “I want to know the limits of your powers. In order to test them, I need a bigger quarry.” He grabbed a rope hanging by the archway and yanked on it. A stone gate fell from the ceiling and crashed into the floor, trapping me inside.
I darted over to the stone gate and peered through the round window with two metal bars. “Let me out of here!”
The old man's face appeared through the window. “Tell me how the golden gem works.”
I shook my head. “I can't! I don't know how!”
“Then show me how.” The old man held up the dark green gem and rubbed his fingers across it. His eyes closed.
A green light emerged from the shadows across the chamber. I spun around both palms flat against the gate. A door opened across the room. Something green slipped around in the gloom beyond.
“Telisa!” I screamed. “TELISA!”
“She can't hear you,” the old man whispered. “Right now she's standing on the edge of the balcony upstairs, ready to jump off if I will it.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Just a poor scholar, hoping to learn more about the world of gems and clasps. Show me. And I wouldn't take my eyes off it if I were you.”
I sucked in a breath. I had to find a way out of this chamber. If there was one secret door, perhaps there'd be another. I raced over to the stone wall and pounded on it, running my hands over the stones, trying to find anything that might open a passageway.
A growl echoed across the chamber. I shivered, glanced over my shoulder. The green form stalked into the main chamber. It was hunched over like a dog, but sharp spines stuck from its back, clacking against each other. Green drool dribbled from its mouth and sizzled on the stones, leaving a small pock mark on the floor. Sharp claws dug against the ground. But the worst was its face. It looked like a ragged dog with patches of missing fur. Long fangs stuck out around its jowls. It growled again and arched its back.
“What is that?” I shouted.
The old man's eyes widened. “A spinewolf. Watch out for its venom. Kill you in a moment if you're not careful. Be a shame to waste such . . . potential.” He bit his lip and clung to the bars in the window. “I so wish to see something golden. Destroy it before it destroys you.”
The spinewolf scraped a claw against the stones. I covered my ears from the screeching. The creature pounced, leaping across the chamber in three bounds. I dove to the side as it landed where I had stood. Drool splashed and sent up a whiff of smoke. It growled again and swiped a claw in my direction. I rolled back, reached the wall, and shot up.
I had to use my clasp. My head spun just thinking about using the gem's light. The last few times I had managed to blast something with golden rays I had passed out and had to be revived. I didn't know if I could do that again.
The spinewolf turned toward me, hanging its head and snapping its jaws. It opened its mouth wide and shot a blast of green drool from the back of its throat. The drool smashed into the wall beside me, chunking away stone on impact. I dashed left. The gem on my clasp began to glow. I pointed it in the spinewolf's direction and willed a blast of light to shoot at the beast.
“Come on!” I shouted.
“Yes!” The scholar echoed. “Do something! Use your golden light! Send it to oblivion!”
I held up my hands. “I don't know how this works!” I screamed.
The spinewolf darted forward, chasing me around the edge of the chamber. I ducked through the thing's door and tripped over piles of bones littering the floor. I snatched up a long femur and swung it wide as the the beast leaped into the room after me. The bone crashed into the spinewolf's head, sending it tumbling sideways, skidding into the piles of bones.
I backed out of the antechamber, holding up the femur and swinging it back and forth. There had to be a way to tap into the golden light in my gem. Feelings. Every time I had used the light before I had been feeling at the end of my own survival capability. Like all hope had been lost. I peeked at the scholar's gate. His weathered eyes watched me.
I had to do this. Not just to save my skin, but Telisa's too.
The spinewolf crawled out of its nest and breathed deeply, green eyes locked on my face. And then, the creature chuckled. Like a human. It leaned back and slowly rose up, standing on its two hind legs. Its head rose over me, casting a green shadow across the floor. It stood eight feet tall. Its front claws slamming into the entryway beside it.
“Foolish human,” it breathed. “None can stand against me.”
My mouth opened and my heart slammed inside my chest.
“I am born from the darkness of gems, the dark thoughts of beings far beyond your comprehension. When they called me forth, they imbued within me the right to steal, destroy, and kill.” Its green tongue slipped from its mouth. “I have been hungry for some time now.”
It swung its claws wide. I flew back across the room, smacking my head into the stones. The spinewolf raced across the chamber, faster than any human could, and stood over me.
“Not even a gem as consecrated as yours can banish my darkness.”
It reached down and wrapped its long claws around my neck, yanking me into the air. I struggled against it. Darkness pushed into my temples. Air seeped through my nostrils, desperate to get to my aching lungs.
“Use the clasp!” the scholar shouted.
The spinewolf held up its other paw. “Silence!”
“You do not own me or my kind!” The scholar pulled a second rope, and the stone gate flung open. He stepped into the chamber, holding up the dark green gem.
The spinewolf chuckled. “Your gems do not own me!” It held open its paw, and the cord around the scholar's neck snapped. The gem flew through the air and landed in the spinewolf's claws. “I own you!” Its eyes glowed dark green. A wave of light zapped across the chamber, encompassing the scholar's frail body and heaving him into the air.
“Let . . . him . . . go . . .” I choked.
The spinewolf dropped me and turned the gem on me now. The scholar fell to the ground in a heap, conking his head against the stone and passing out. The dark green light surrounded me and shoved me against the wall. I cried out in pain, feeling my bones compressing, shaking, trembling, and threatening to snap.
“You do not understand what you have. You cannot harness its power. You cannot stand to fight the beings that created me. You cannot stand against powers greater than you know!” The spinewolf's eyes gleamed. “And you cannot understand how much I will enjoy feasting on such tender flesh.”
It snapped its jaws and pounced.
Heat singed the back of my neck. I woke up screaming, the world a blazing blur of fire shooting across the courtyard. My head spun. I smacked my neck and felt nothing. No fire. No burning skin. The stones swirled underneath me. I leaned over on both hands, feeling vomit threatening to explode.
A low moan echoed toward me. I peeked up. The shadow wraiths had returned to the courtyard. They hovered over the green walls, their hands replaced with a variety of shadowy weapons from maces to pikes.
Across the courtyard, seven men and five women, all flesh and blood, stood in the courtyard wearing long green robes that matched the walls. They had hoods pulled over their heads, but I noticed several beards poking over their thin frames. Each held over-sized black lanterns in one hand. Green gloves covered their other hands. They scooped up the fire blazing inside the lanterns and chucked it like a ball at the shadow wraiths.
One ball of fire smacked into a shadow boy's chest and spread over his dark form. With a low moan, he darted away from the courtyard.
The hooded figures worked silently, not even grunting from the effort. Shadow wraiths circled low and flew at one of the men on the ground, swiping at his lantern. The lantern fell and shattered on the courtyard. Flames shot up and wrapped around the nearest wraith, engulfing it in fire.
I scrambled over to Telisa, still on the cobblestones. Her head faced the darkened sky. I didn't know exactly how long I had been knocked out, but apparently, the day had left us behind. I ran my fingers over her dark clasp.
Low moans and crackling fire swarmed my ears and faded into a dull tone. My hand wrapped around Telisa's clasp. The gem on my forearm began to glow golden again. Warmth passed through my forehead, down my shoulder, and through my wrist. Light spread from my fingers, a single shaft of golden light surging through each one. The light struck Telisa's clasp. From deep within the gem, a single red light pulsed like a heartbeat. My eyes closed and I felt that heartbeat—my heartbeat, Telisa's heartbeat—synchronizing into one steady rhythm.
A gasp. My eyes shot open, and I saw Telisa staring at me. She wrenched her forearm from my grasp. Her hand trailed down to the place where the shadow wraith had pierced her abdomen. The hole was gone.
Nausea swam through my head. I closed my eyes. Pain shot past my temples, and I cried out, falling back into two strong hands draped in green sleeves.
“He is fading,” a male voice whispered.
“Can you help him?” Telisa.
Heat grew inside my chest. I couldn't control this anymore. I don't think I ever could. It swirled around my heart and clenched my lungs. I gasped for breath. The world turned golden-hued around me. I saw Telisa's face, etched with worry and gold, leaning over me.
“Take his legs.” The male voice again.
Telisa and the man hoisted me into the air. A shadow wraith darted overhead and whisked away as a fireball slammed into its head. We passed under a stone archway into a musty hall with deep orange ceilings. Resin chandeliers hung above me, swaying with a hundred candles. Golden light seeped through my vision. Gold. Everything was gold. Made from gold. Grew from gold. Existed for gold.
My back met soft padding. A cool rag dropped onto my forehead and instantly dried into crust from the heat.
They poured golden liquid down my throat. The world went really strange then. Golden light swirled in hexagonal patterns, melding into shapes of all kinds: a tree, a scaled dragon, a whisk of flame, twelve stars dropping from the sky and smashing into twelve rolling hills. The shapes morphed into a face—a boy—perhaps—a younger man. Kind eyes, but sad at the same time. The face hovered over me, parted its golden lips, and whispered, “Return.”
I jolted up, my eyes wide. The golden colors snapped back to their original hues. I sat on a table covered with thin red mats. Free standing shelves of varying shapes and sizes circled the dais my table stood upon. Bottles of liquids of every color imaginable filled every shelf, sitting alongside scrolls, feather quills, and bottles of ink.
The twelve men and women I had seen in the courtyard stood beyond the shelves, against the walls of the room, their hands clasped in front of them and their heads bowed. Telisa paced the hallway beyond that led to three large doors with orange trim.
“Telisa?” I croaked. My throat scraped with each syllable. Whatever they had poured into my mouth had worked one over on my windpipe.
Telisa's head shot up. “Eric!” She whacked a nearby hooded man in the shoulder. “He's awake!”
The twelve stood at the same time, lifting their heads as one, and unclasping their hands.
One woman stepped forward, gently peeling back her hood and revealing an ebony-skinned face with long dark hair curling down to her shoulders. “So. You have awoken.”
I nodded and blinked. “Please . . . .” I stuck my tongue out. I needed water.
Telisa tossed me a canteen from her side. I caught it and gulped down the water greedily, feeling my throat restoring itself with each swallow.
The woman spread her arms wide. “We are the scholars. Keepers of the moldable fire, and caretakers of the lore of Abra. We saved your life, and you saved hers.” The woman tilted her head toward Telisa.
I slipped both feet to the floor and stood. Shakily at first, but then taking another gulp of water and standing straighter.
Telisa eyed me but didn't step closer. “How did you do that?”
The woman squinted at me. “Yes, we wish to hear how you accomplished such a feat.”
I glanced at the clasp on my arm. “I . . . .” How had I done all this? “I don't know. I just . . . felt it, I guess.”
“Has your clasp exhibited any other shades of color?” the woman asked.
I scratched the back of my head. “No. Only its typical milky white. And gold.”
Telisa cleared her throat. “Gratta wanted us to seek y'all's counsel on this. Shanters from the queen arrived yesterday and demanded to know who the Runner of Golden Light was.”
“Intriguing,” the woman said. “Did the shanters say how they had obtained the knowledge of golden light?”
Telisa shook her head. “Not that I can recall. You?” She studied my face a second.
“I don't remember.”
The other eleven hooded figures eyed me from under their green hoods. Their irises glowed slightly blue even in the gloom. Then they spoke at the same time, their mouths moving in unison. “How the queen heard tell of golden light is beyond even our knowledge. However, there is another story we do know.”
“What's that?” Telisa asked.
The eleven stepped forward, arms raising, fingers pointed straight at me. Their voices echoed through the round chamber in a hollow tone. “When bookkeepers first enslaved the islands of Abra with clasps and gems, expecting the world to run to their bidding, another was spoken off: a forebear, who would emerge shining a path of golden light and leading all to Freedom's Chair.”
A shiver sprinted across my shoulders.
“This would be the downfall of all,” the eleven continued, stepping between the cases and shelves, hands still outstretched, reaching toward me. “Nothing will ever be the same as it once was. Too many cracks, too many gems, too many lost to the lights of purple.” Their hoods fell back. Each face stared my direction with a distant glaze covering their eyes. “It is written that the Runner of Golden Light shall do things no Runner has down before. Shine light in ways no one has conceived. Bear witness to the One who comes still.”
They were inches away now. Their hands reached out and stacked on top of my head, lightly pressing downward. “You are the Runner of Golden Light! You are the Runner of Golden Light!” they chanted, again and again.
I didn't understand. What did all these words mean? I stepped back. Why was I chosen as some special Runner? I peeked at the clasp on my forearm. The gem had returned to a milk color, but golden swirls mixed with the white.
I shoved their hands away and pushed through the ring of hooded scholars. “What does this even mean? What are you talking about!”
The woman who had spoken independently spread her hands wide. “We do not hazard such a guess. What we do know is this: you have a special purpose. One that you must pursue.”
Telisa marched over, grabbed my wrist, and yanked me sideways. “The only thing he's pursuin' is whatever runs Gratta puts him on. He ain't no forebear or what you call it.”
“He must fulfill his purpose,” the eleven intoned.
“He does what Gratta decides!” Telisa shouted back. “Stop fillin' his head with these lies!”
“He must fulfill his purpose,” they repeated.
I darted away from Telisa. The eleven stalked toward me. I had to leave. I couldn't hear another word. It was too much. I spun on my heels and located a short archway with a stairwell winding upward beyond it. My boots pounded over the stones, carrying me up the steps, two at a time. I kept one hand trailing the spiraling center of the passage, climbing up, up, up. I burst through another archway and onto a balcony covered in green ivy and orange flowers lacing through the balustrade.
I leaned over the railing and vomited. It splashed to the courtyard far, far below. But I didn't care. I took a deep breath, trying to still my thoughts, my heart, my trembling fingers. I stared at my hands. “What's happening to me?” I whispered.
All I had wanted was to leave those cursed rice paddies on Jedros, become a Runner, and blend into the world of Abra, unnoticed, going from one job to the next until I was free of the clasp. That was all. Not this. Not to be a Runner with some special purpose. What did I have to offer anyway? These scholars expected me to be someone I wasn't. I just wasn't. How could a stupid kid from Jedros ever think of himself as more than a rice farmer?
I was born a rice farmer. But I would die as a martyr. Probably at the hands of the queen. She'd find me, strangle me, and leave me for dead.
Maybe I didn't want this life.
The clasp rested on my forearm. Saltha had disappeared into that purple haze. Maybe that's where I should go. Maybe I should disappear so no one would ever need something from me ever again. I could be truly free from all of it.
My fingers traced the edge of the clasp. I could rip it off. Wrench it away. Then I'd die. Be gone.
“But do you want that?” a voice whispered across the balcony.
A young boy's face poked through the archway, his fingers curled around the stones. His dark hair hung over his forehead, and he brushed it away. His brown eyes watched me, squinting and widening. He was at least two years younger than me, but his vernacular made me think he was much older.
“I don't know what I want,” I said, wiping a tear from my face.
The boy hopped up the last stair and stood in the archway, dead center. He wore a white tunic tucked into black breeches. His feet were bare and covered with brown earth. I watched him cross the balcony and slide down beside me. He stuck his legs through the balustrade and let his feet dangle over the hundred feet to the courtyard. “You have ideas at least.”
I swallowed and sat cross-legged beside him, watching the sliver of a moon spark in the night sky. “Everyone wants me to do all these things. Mother wanted me to run. Gratta wants me to run. Now, these scholars believe I'm fulfilling some old prophecy or something.” I sighed. “But the truth is, I have this feeling that no matter where I go, I’ll always be a slave.”
“We're all slaves to something,” the boy said, kicking his feet. “Slaves to work, slaves to ourselves, slaves to bookkeepers or scholars.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
The boy smirked. “Me? They call me the miracle child. No one will tell me what that means. They just say I'm a miracle. I don't think the queen knows about me yet.”
I pointed at his forearm. “You don't have a clasp.”
He shook his head. “Wouldn't stick to me.”
“Wouldn't stick to you?”
“No. Some bookkeeper tried to clasp me, but it wouldn't stick. It slid right off.”
I leaned back. “How is that even possible?”
The boy shrugged. “Like I said, the miracle child. Sounds like you're in a similar situation yourself, what with the gold light and everything.”
“You could say that.” I paused, scrunched my mouth together, then tapped the balustrade. “The thing that bothers me most is the way people stare. They stare at me like I'm about to explode. Like I'm . . . .”
“Dangerous?” the boy offered.
“Yes! And to be honest, I feel dangerous. Like I am going to hurt someone. And then I'm going to regret all of it.”
The boy leaned forward, resting his chin in his hands. “Regrets. I don't get those. They seem bothersome.”
What kind of person didn't have regrets? Then again, this kid probably hadn't seen as much in the last few days as I had. I had plenty of regrets. Not running fast enough to get away from the Runners. Leaving my parents. Not stopping Saltha in time. Regrets and I were old friends by now. I could only imagine how well we'd know each other in a year.
The boy tilted his head to the side like he was listening to something. “Your friend is coming.”
“She's not my friend.”
He smirked. “You will be. Soon enough, I think.”
I glanced at the archway leading back into the depths of the fortress. Boots clamped down on the stairs. “Eric! Are you up here?” Telisa.
“Just great—” I spun back to the boy. But he was gone.
Telisa stomped onto the balcony and put her fists on either hip. “They're lettin' us stay the night here. I want you to sleep. But I'm gonna keep watch. I don't trust these creepy monotone scholars. I don't like what they have to say.”
Neither did I.
“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.
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.
I woke up to a boot slamming into my gut. I curled up on the sleeping mat, pain spasming through my stomach. My eyes shot open as I gasped, tossing aside the scratchy blankets and then blinking at the harsh sunlight streaming through the window. The day was already warm. Dry air scraped down my nostrils with each inhale.
“Get up, maggot.”
One of the Runners stood over me. Rudo. He had taken off his duster and wore a white collared shirt with brown suspenders looped over his shoulders. His dark hair hung loose down to his shoulders. His fists were clenched at his sides.
I glanced around. The rest of the dormitory was already empty.
“Everyone's at the morning feed. If you don't hurry, you'll miss out. And Gratta won't like it.” He reached down and grabbed me by the clasp, yanking me up. My forearm stung, and I shook my arm away and backed into the log wall behind me. Rudo pointed to a wooden chest in the corner of the dorm. “Clothes's in there. Change out of those filthy ricelands rags. They stink.”
I scratched the skin around my clasp and limped over to the chest. My entire forearm looked red from the clasp. Around the edges of the silver, it appeared to be fused to my arm, like the metal had sunk beneath the surface and latched around my bones. It would probably never come off. Not that I wanted to try and take it off. Not after what had happened to Saltha. The gem was a milky color again this morning.
Rudo stomped past me, through the door, and outside into the bright sunlight. “Hurry up, recruit.”
“Yes, sir,” I muttered. The clothes in the chest were clean and smelled fresh enough–like pine needles and wood. A better smell than anything back on Jedros. Washing clothes there was a weekly task. People in the village generally stunk. Apparently, Gratta liked her Runners smelling better than that.
I slipped out of my tunic and trousers and slid on a pair of loose brown pants and a white collared shirt like Rudo's. I fumbled with the buttons and the holes, not quite sure if I had done it right. I'd never worn anything this fancy before. The suspenders were the hardest to figure out. The band stretched over my shoulder, and I fumbled with the clasp, trying to get it latched onto the back of my pants. With a harsh snap, it came loose and slapped against my cheek.
Rudo smirked. “Trouble?”
I ignored him, winced, and tried again until it clipped into place. I pulled two black boots out of the trunk and shoved my feet into them. They felt so strange after the flat shoes I had grown up wearing. I felt taller.
A dusty field stretched between the dormitory and one of the large buildings. It wasn’t exactly a building really, more like the top of a barn arching over a pavilion with packed earth, benches, and rows of wooden tables. Rudo walked in front of me, kicking up dust as we marched into the open building.
“This is the Commons where we feed. So sit down and eat, recruit.”
I spotted Lodan and zig-zagged through the tables until I sat beside him. He had a plate in front of him piled with bread, poached eggs, and a tin mug filled with water. Long platters sat in the center of the table with more hunks of bread and eggs and metal pitchers of water. My eyes widened. I had never seen so much food in one place before. The smells drifted up to my nostrils and almost overwhelmed with the sheer variety.
“Eric,” Lodan said through a mouth full of eggs. “Sorry I didn't get you up. They hustled us out here. You slept through the whole thing. Crazy.” He chewed and swallowed.
“Training.” Lodan nodded at a ring of tables on the far side of the Commons. “Those tables is for the Runners who've passed training.”
I stared wide-eyed at the ten tables filled with other recruits–male and female, all dressed the same with white collared shirts, suspenders, brown pants and black boots. There must have been at least a couple hundred of us training, but only about twenty-four Runners.
“So many of us.”
Lodan leaned forward. “I guess that's because they don't expect most of us to live through training.”
He nudged my shoulder. “You better eat. Or you're gonna miss out. They said we have tactical training right after this. What that is, I have no idea. But I'm gonna make it to those Runner tables.”
I grabbed a piece of bread and sank my teeth into it. It was still warm and seemed to melt on my tongue. I was surprised. I never expected to eat so well. Maybe being a Runner really wasn't that terrible. Save the whole might not live past training bit.
Other recruits didn't even glance over at us. They kept stuffing their faces like they had never eaten a thing in their lives. Maybe they hadn't. With every bite, I couldn't help wondering what Saltha would have made of all this. She'd probably still be planning an escape. Her gem glowing purple. I couldn't imagine how this life could be so much worse than working a rice paddy for the rest of my existence.
I thought about my parents for a moment–their dead gazes as they sloshed their way through the rice. My mother's eyes as she told me to run. My father not even bothering to glance my direction as these Runners slapped a clasp on my forearm.
I shook my head. They were in the past now.
A loud ringing echoed across the Commons. Gratta stood on a small stage in the center of the Runner tables, holding up a metal triangle and a hammer. She clanged the hammer against the triangle again, and every head whipped up. Every mouth stopped chewing. We put down our forks.
“Listen up, kids! Welcome to our newest Jedros recruits. We hope you find this a satisfying place to live out your lives. Most of y'all won't make it even a year with us. Some of y'all might die tomorrow in training. Whether you die now or then, just know this: I appreciate each one of ya. Or at least the gold ya line my pockets with!” Gratta laughed and swept her hat from her silver head, smacking it against her knee.
“But seriously.” She cleared her throat and swallowed. “While all y'all are here, you listen to my Runners. You recruits ain't Runners yet. You might become them one day. But not yet. There's a plum-crazy world out there filled with all kinds of stuff that’ll maim ya. Then dismember ya! Then kill ya! I would prefer y'all livin' long enough to finish a few jobs for ole Gratta.”
She stomped her foot. “Telisa! Fork over the rules!”
A Runner sitting behind Gratta stood up. She had long brown hair braided into two ponytails on either side of her head with a neat part down the middle. A deep scar ran across her face, over her lips, and down her chin. She was tall, taller than most anybody else. And she was the most muscular person under the Commons roof. She could probably break me in half with a single snap.
Her voice carried throughout the Commons when she spoke, both hands clasped behind her back. “Listen up! Because I'm only sayin' this one time. You're in Gratta's dominion now. And if you fail to abide by these rules you'll be put on gate duty. Or sent to the maggot hole for a night. And if you really can't listen, then Gratta will crack yer gem.”
Telisa glanced in my direction. “I hear some of you already know what happens when someone's gem gets all cracked up.”
“No one goes in Gratta's house! For no reason! No one takes weapons without permission! No fightin' unless it's organized by me! And you will always listen to a Runner! Disobey one, and I will send you to the maggot hole!” Telisa stepped back.
Gratta smiled at her. “Thank you, dear. Always a pleasure to hear from ya.” The old woman stepped back up onto the stage and smirked. “Now then.” She clapped her hands together and rubbed them quickly. “On to some training! Separate by home island! Jedros out to the pits! Castos on work duty! Vos! You're at the stables! Uthen, get yer sorry hides out to the fields! And Raithan, you're in the Casket! Now move!”
Benches squeaked as the recruits and Runners stood up.
“Where are the pits?” I asked.
Lodan shrugged. “No clue. At least we're all together.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Telisa stalked through the crowd of people until she stood in front of our table. “Jedros! You're with me! The pits are this way!” Her head stood above every other person in the Commons building, so it wasn't hard to follow her braids out into the sunlight, past the girl's dormitories and toward a fenced off area of the grounds. There were twenty of us from Jedros following behind her. It was weird to see everybody from the rice paddies in such strange clothes. There were some I hadn't ever seen before.
Was this where my brother had come when they took him? If these Runners were the ones that took him. Maybe he hadn't lived through training. Maybe he was dead now. Maybe--
“Stop!” Telisa screamed.
She placed a large hand on a wooden gate. The fence was a series of wooden posts, the tops sharpened into pikes. This single gate led through the fence and to what I guessed was the pits. A latch hung across the gate.
Two other Runners had joined our group. Rudo and another one I hadn't seen yet. Rudo had his boken in one hand and the other Runner, another girl, held a sharp rapier with a blue handle. She wore a wide-brimmed hat with a drawstring pulled tight under her chin. They both stood at the back, nodding at Telisa.
“Right then!” Telisa said. “I want you all to listen. I expect at least two of you to be dead by the time the lunch bell rings. You all live, and I'll let you off your work hour tonight. Got it?”
My mouth had gone dry. I glanced at Lodan. His normal calmness had slipped away to the dust somewhere behind us. His eyes looked as panicky as mine must have.
“Put your ears up against the fence. And listen!” Telisa shouted, pointing at the wood.
No one else moved. So I stepped forward and pressed my ear against the wood posts and listened. On the other side, I heard a kind of chewing sound, like something was eating a meal. But I also noticed a sliding noise, like sand dribbling down the sides of rocks. The others joined me up against the fence and listened.
“What you're listening to is the pitters. They're nasty things, and they're always hungry for a new recruit. We're going to see which of you might be smarter than the rest. We need to get rid of anyone who seems weak.” Telisa glanced at each one of us.
“What do we have to do, ma'am?” I asked.
Telisa paused, pursed her lips together, and narrowed her eyes. “Simple enough. Get past the pitters and get the flag at the other end. Work together if you want. I don't care.”
A girl with blonde hair started shaking. “Wh-what if we don't want to?”
Rudo stepped up behind her with his boken raised. Telisa held up a hand. Rudo stepped back.
“You don't want to play this little game, is that it?” Telisa asked.
The girl's lip quivered. She shook her head.
“That's too bad. Because you have to.”
I glanced down at the girl's forearm. The clasp had turned a tinge of purple. “Stop thinking about escaping!” I shouted.
Telisa raised an eyebrow. The girl stared at me; her mouth dropped open. “How d-do you know that's what I'm . . . .”
“Your clasp!” I pointed at her forearm. The gem had grown a deeper shade of purple. “It turns that color when people think about leaving! So stop!”
Telisa crossed her arms. “He's right you know. You keep formulating that little escape plan, and you'll leave all right. You'll be gone in a flash o' purple light. Dead. Your soul cracked in two.”
The girl swallowed and nodded. “I . . . I can't help it . . . I want to leave. I can't do this! I can't!” She turned and raced back toward the Commons.
“I can't do it either!” A boy beside me shouted. His gem glowed a bright purple. He ran after the girl, but before they had even gotten halfway across the field, they stumbled to the dust, grabbing at their throats, coughing, and then rising slowly into the air, glowing with purple light. Their bodies spun faster and faster as tendrils of light wrapped around their legs and arms and heads.
Saltha's face flashed into my head, and I glanced away. I couldn't watch this again. I couldn't.
“Cover,” Telisa muttered. She put an arm over her eyes as the two recruits vanished into the purple light, their clasps cracking and falling to the dust where they had been. Telisa sighed. “Anyone else care to go out in a blaze of glory?” She eyed us and then nodded at Rudo. “Get those clasps to recycling. The Queen'll want 'em.”
Rudo darted off.
“Now then. Back to the game.” She lifted the latch on the gate. “By the way, y'all aren't getting' out of work duty now. Ya lost two. Just like I predicted.”
My hands shook, but I clenched my fingers together. If there was one thing I was about to do, it was win. I was not going to let that happen to anyone else.
Telisa pulled open the gate, and I was the first one through. Staring. A field of pits stretched between the gate and a small mound of boulders with a green flag on a pole stuck into a crevice in the rocks. Sand dribbled down the pits towards a dark hole at the center of each one. Thirty pits stood between me and that flag.
Lodan inched inside the fence with me, and the rest of the recruits followed. We lined up in a half circle a few arm lengths away from the first pit. Sharp pincers slowly rose from the pit, attached to a head covered in eyes with a nasty gullet of sharp teeth. Slobber spilled out the mouth, and every eye latched onto us and widened.
I wanted to back away and run. I glanced down and noticed the faintest purple tinge sweep into the gem on my clasp. I gritted my teeth and forced my eyes to watch the creature emerge from the pit. It looked like a giant millipede longer than Telisa was tall. A thousand tiny red legs scuttled on either side of its thick body. Each segment writhed as sand spilled to the ground. Pitters.
The gate slammed shut. A shadow fell over us. Telisa stood on a small platform, hands clasped behind her back. She saluted and raised both eyebrows. “You've got until the lunch bell rings. If you survive.”
The pitter slithered over the sand back and forth, tapping its legs against the sand. The ground rumbled, and we stumbled back against the fence as fifteen more pitters emerged from their holes, some dark red, some brown, some a deep ivory color.
A girl beside me screamed in terror and collapsed to the sand.
“Get up!” I shouted.
But it was too late. The pitter darted forward, snapping its pincers around the girl's leg and dragging her clawing at the ground back toward the pit as she screamed. I flew forward onto my stomach and grabbed her arm, yanking backward.
Tears crawled down her face as she gripped my hands tightly. “Don't let go, don't let go, don't let go!”
The creature roared and lifted its body into the air, dragging her along with it. She hung upside down from its pincers, now piercing her left leg. She screamed again as the pitter scrambled back toward its hole. I lost my grip on her hand and glanced around for a rock – anything I could throw, anything at all. But there was nothing nearby except sand.
I scooped up a handful and flung it at the pitter's eyes. It blinked at me and screeched. The pitter slipped back into the hole with the girl and a gulp.
I stared at the dark hole. I had lost her.
Lodan slapped me on the shoulder. “No time to think about it. We gotta run!” He pointed at another pitter scuttling toward us, pincers clacking.
We ran. The other recruits darted in all directions, some trying to stay away from the pitters, others scraping at the fence and trying to climb out, and another two sitting down in complete surrender. Their gems turned bright purple, and two more of them vanished from sight, leaving behind their clasps in the sand.
A series of reddish rocks stuck up from the sand. “Maybe we can get across that way!” I shouted.
Lodan spotted the rocks and nodded. “Best idea yet!”
A pitter slid up behind us, and I shoved Lodan to the side. He crashed into the wooden post fence, and I fell back onto the first rock. The pitter screeched and swung its head from me to Lodan, probably deciding who was the easier prey. I scrambled up to my feet as the pincers shot in my direction, snapping closed as I leaped back.
“Get the flag!” Lodan shouted.
Get the flag. I had to get the flag. Then this would be over. Or at least the gate would open. I didn't imagine Telisa and the other Runners helping us. We'd probably still have to get back to the gate.
I hurdled to the next rock, over a pit and a pitter as it shot out of its hole and slammed into the pitter slithering after me. The two monsters screeched, legs scraping against each other before they rolled to the side with a crunch.
My heart slammed against my chest. Panic fueled my legs. The flag was closer. I had to make it. I leaped to another rock as a pitter rose up in front of me. I gasped, falling back to my elbows and staring up at as the thing towered over me. It waved its little legs in the air, every eye glared at me.
Another pitter slowly rose up beside me and slammed its pincers around my arm. It eyed my clasp and the gem, now back to its milky white color. Drool slipped from its mouth onto my shoulder, sizzling in the sunlight.
“Eric!” I heard Lodan scream. “ERIC!”
And then the pitter in front of me dropped its pincers straight at my chest.
Fog lingered over the passway like the stank breath that wouldn't brush out of a mouth. Moss grew over most of this passway, and somewhere down below I could hear the water lapping up against the stone sides.
I marched near the front of the group. The Runner with the missing sleeve marchec out at the very front, whip in hand, feet stepping gingerly over the stones beneath us. He slid along almost sideways, ready to pounce back at us recruits, or leap ahead at unseen enemies in the fog.
Before we stepped onto the bridge, Gratta had shown us how to use the clasps on our arms as a light. If we rubbed the gems fast enough, they would glow for at least a couple hundred steps before we had to rub it again. I glanced at my gem. It was a milky color, still quite opaque, and shining slightly. I rubbed my fist across it a bit more, and the light brightened.
“Best not to let that get too bright there.”
I glanced up to see Gratta leaning over the side of her horse; silver hair tucked behind her ears. She had a silver earring clamped around the whole top half of her earlobe. Her fingernail scratched at the skin around the metal.
I held my hand over the gem. “Sorry.”
“Nah, no need to be sorry just yet. Ya don't know better, that's why I'm tellin' ya.” Gratta sat up and swayed slightly. The horse's hooves clopped over the bridge. I couldn't help wondering why it was so important not to be seen if anyone could hear us coming from a mile away. Gratta clucked her tongue. “Disappoint me, though . . . . Oh, then you'll be real sorry.”
Gratta pulled back on the horse's reins, circled, and clopped to the back of the group.
Lodan scurried up, falling in step with me.
“What do you want?” I asked, glancing away.
“Look, Eric. I'm sorry, but . . . I've heard things.”
“Oh really?” I hissed. “Like what? Like how to be a terrible friend to people? How to let other people die? That sounds great to me.”
“No.” Lodan took a deep breath and peeked back at Gratta and the two surviving Runners at the very back of the group. “Things like if you touch someone when they're . . . .” He swallowed. “You know. Like what happened with Saltha. Earlier. If you touch them, then you get pulled into the light too.”
I sniffed. Not because I was crying, but because my nose was cold. Okay, maybe I had been holding back some tears, but I wasn't about to cry in front of these people. They didn't seem to appreciate weakness.
Maybe Lodan was telling the truth. Maybe he was right.
I turned to face him. “How do you know?”
Lodan leaned forward. “My parents knew a bookkeeper once. He came to their cottage one night before we worked for Boss Mandel in the rice fields. This bookkeeper told my parents about these gems. Drunk as rice roots, he was. And I listened.”
“What else did you find out?”
“Not much. Bits. I was young. Maybe five or six. All I know is the colors on the gems. They mean things. And once you've got one of these,” he held up his forearm. His gem was the same milky white as mine. “Once you got one, you're bound. Can't leave your bookkeeper. Until you finish enough jobs for 'em.”
The sleeveless Runner stopped. He spun around as I bumped right into his whip. “Will you two clam it up? You're gonna learn all kinds of things about these clasps, the gems, the jobs, the bookkeepers. But right now, we might run afoul of other things. So stay silent.”
“I thought this was a passway. Aren't they clear?” Lodan asked.
The Runner snorted and shook his head. “Stupid recruit. You're always stupid. Suppose even I was stupid once. Then you learn things. Like how passways aren't always safe. So shut it.” He spun back around and marched ahead, the orange light from his gem lighting up the fog.
We marched on. The other recruits behind us went between whimpering, shivering, straight-out crying, and plodding ahead in numb silence. Gratta hurried alongside the passway railing, glancing back, ahead, to the side, as if waiting for something. She tipped up her hat and peered into the gloom, almost daring something to fly at us, to try and surprise her.
My feet ached. It felt like my arches were cramping up, and if I took even five more steps, I'd fall over face first onto the stone passway.
The sleeveless Runner held up a fist. The fog ahead cleared, and a soft breeze wafted against my cheek. I shivered.
A stone arch hung over the pass with two turrets on either side. Windows with actual glass panes faced us, and candlelight lit up the right side. There was a wooden door at the bottom, open slightly. The door pushed open with a creak, and a man in a dark tunic and brown breeches sauntered out. A two-barreled pistol hung loosely from his left hand. He had dark stringy hair, a grizzled face, and a scarred eyesocket.
“Well, now.” He slapped a hand against the stone archway. “Look what trolled up here.”
Gratta's horse pushed through the crowd of recruits until she stood at the front of the pack. She slipped off the back of the horse. The back sides of her brown boots had spurs that jangled once as she landed. She held the rifle and her nose, spitting to the side. “We have a right fine bunch 'o business. That's what we have. And none of it is yers, so slip aside, Bonaventure.”
The man smiled and spread his arms wide. “I was just pokin' me nose about, pretty lady. That's all. I didn't mean to get ye caught up unawares. The turrets were long abandoned when I got 'ere, I'll tell ye that much. Somethin' foul's on the seas. And it doesn't take prisoners if ye catch my meanin'.”
Gratta narrowed her eyes. “Move along. And we'll be movin' right along as well.”
“Ah,” Bonaventure snapped his fingers. Five men clambered over the side of the passway with pistols slung at their waists. Four more crept up the other side, and one leaned out the darkened window above, a gold flintlock pistol aimed at Gratta's head.
I stepped back.
“Pirates,” Lodan whispered.
Sleeveless shot us a look and held a finger to his lips.
Gratta patted the horse beside her. “What do ya want?”
Bonaventure raised his eyebrows and smirked. “I want . . . ” he held up two fingers. “Two of yer recruits. I need some Runners in the employ. So who's it gonna be?” He clapped his hands together and stepped forward. His gaze ran over each one of us like we were fresh fruit at the market.
Gratta held up her arm. “None o' these. They're too fresh. Haven't had time to write their names in the books or nuttin'. You go and take on of these, and they'll die in a blast o’ purple faster than you can spit.”
“That's a mighty fine problem. That it is . . . ” Bonaventure tapped his forehead, tracing a finger down the side of his face, through his scarred eyesocket and ending at his chin. “What should we do about that?”
“I got a solution,” Gratta said. “Back off. And back away.”
Bonaventure wagged a finger in Gratta's face. “Ah, but that's not the way business is done, dear Gratta. Ye can't be waltzin' yer way through my seas without a penalty o' sorts. Words tellin' of stirrin's. There's things happenin' out in ole Abra, and I reckon I should have myself a pinch of insurance before it all blinks out like a snuffed lamp.”
He slipped around Gratta and stood beside her horse.
“Ya got no need o' horses out on the seas, and ya know it,” Gratta muttered.
Bonaventure flipped open a pouch on the side of the horse and pulled out a clasp. Saltha's clasp. “This'll do!”
“Drop that!” I shouted. “It's not yours!”
Gratta spun. Sleeveless stepped over and backhanded me across the face. “Not another word!”
I stumbled back with a cry of pain, clutching my cheek.
Bonaventure smirked and dangled the clasp. “This mean somethin' to ye, now?”
I clenched my teeth. My cheek quivered. I wanted to grab that clasp back, shove this scum off the side of the passway, and watch him panic in the water below.
“Ah. So it does.” He tapped a finger on the gem, tracing its cracks carefully. “These are rare finds in Abra. Used clasps. Belonged to a recruit. Who didn't know when to stay put.” Bonaventure stepped up to me. Lodan, Gratta, and Sleeveless all lurched back. I eyed the pistols trained on us, then glanced up at Bonaventure.
He held the clasp in front of me. “Friend o' yours?”
I nodded, one hand still on my stinging cheek.
“Tell me, boy. Do ye know what happens to them when they sees the purple light?”
I shook my head. “I don't. But I do know you should give that back.” My cheek still stung. But I didn't care. That clasp was all that was left of Saltha. It just seemed wrong in this man's hands. Wrong.
“When they sees the purple light, it's 'cause they be thinkin' of runnin'. They wants to run. And not in the direction of any job, mind ye. They's thinkin' of headin' out. Gettin' away from their bookkeeper. Always dangerous to run from a bookkeeper.” He smiled, baring his yellowed teeth and one silver one. “When the gem cracks, so does their very soul. Breaks 'em apart at the deepest o' levels, it does. And once they's broken, there's no bringin' 'em back to the land o' the living.” He tapped me on the head with the clasp. “So yer little friend is dead. Just like you’ll be. Got that?”
I nodded, a single tear slipping down my cheek. Saltha wasn’t just gone. She was erased. Never coming back. My stomach twisted with an ache, and for the first time that day, I realized just how hollow it really was.
“Ah, the poor wee lad's gone and cried over a broken clasp.” And then he leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “And perhaps a broken heart.” He grabbed my shoulder and yanked me closer. The smell of rotting fruit drifted up from his tunic. “Beware the Queen, laddie. I reckon she take a bad sort of likin' to ye. Long live the rebellion.”
Then he whisked backward, pistol waving in the air. He fired once, and the blast rang in my ears. I slammed my fists over both sides of my head and blinked twice.
“Back to the ship, lads! We got ourselves a prize!” He held the clasp up and fired again, laughing and running straight for the side of the passway. He leaped over along with the other nine pirates, who slipped over the side and out of sight. I almost expected to hear splashes, but instead, I saw the fog part around a large white sail fluttering in the breeze. The pirates clung to the side of the sail, slipping to the deck of a wooden ship.
The last pirate wound his way down from the turret above, raced across the passway, and leaped to the sail, sliding to the deck and saluting us back on the passway.
The ship drifted away from the passway. It looked to be about the length of three cottages with a fairly bare deck, save the two harpoon guns lodged on either side, and two women with their ratty hair pulled back into braids. Bonaventure marched up to the ship's wheel and spun it. The ship drifted to the side, turning away from the passway into the fog.
Sleeveless smacked his whip on the stones. “I hate that kinda scum.”
Gratta shook her head. “They only took a broken clasp, not too much to worry about. Save the Queen might take my hide for losin' it.” She put both hands on her hips then pivoted on her heel, glaring at me. “You. Here.”
Lodan nudged me in the back. I stumbled forward, standing up straight once I stood in front of Gratta. She slapped me on the cheek and held a finger up in my face. “Don't ever try negotiatin' when I'm doin' the negotiatin'. I see promise in you, so don't go changin' my mind by doin' stupid things! Git it?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”
Gratta winked. “Good.” She climbed onto her horse and held up her rifle. “Double-time, recruits! I wanna make it to Castos before sunrise! And the sun is a-comin'! So hoof-it!” She pulled her horse around and kicked its sides, sending the brute into a gallop.
Sleeveless cracked the whip again. “You heard her! Let's move! No one passes me, and no one falls behind Harith and Rudo back there! Come on!” He took off jogging at a steady pace, and we all followed suit. My legs were killing me, but I didn’t dare slow down, Runner Harith and his companion Rudo glad to use their bokens on anyone lagging behind.
We ran for what felt like hours until I saw the outline of an island ahead. The end of the passway. Finally. No more running across open seas. No more wondering if those pirates would come back for the rest of us. I couldn't help wondering what Boneventure had meant whispering to me like that. I almost wanted to tell Lodan or even Gratta, but for some reason, it felt secret. Too secret to share. I didn't know anything about any rebellion, but I did know about the Queen.
What we had been told was she ruled over the five islands of Abra and let folks go about their business as long as it didn’t conflict with hers. Some said she was a bit too harsh when she punished thieves and other criminals, but why wouldn't she? If someone had stolen a day’s ration of food from a neighbor, I supposed they should be thrown in stocks for a day. Made sense to me. Her castle was on this island. Castos, the largest island in Abra. Home to most of the bookkeepers as well.
I had never seen it until now. In the pre-dawn light, I could see tall, dry pine trees stretching out of dusty ground, rising up the rocky hills and blocking the rest of the island from view. The coastline didn't look like Jedros. No pebbles here. Just ruddy clay stretching away into haze.
Another archway stretched across the end, two more turrets on either side. Two female soldiers in silver armor with long spears in hand stood under the stone arch. Pistols hung from their belts. They crossed their spears, and each held up a hand.
Gratta's horse stamped the stones. “We're just passin' through to my stables.”
“We know.” One of the soldiers stepped up to Gratta and pointed at the rest of us. “Queen's orders. Every recruit is to be inspected before entry to Castos.”
“That's new. Ain’t gonna be an inspection o’ any kind ‘til I see this official order o’ the Queen’s,” Gratta spat.
A third guardswoman stepped from the wooden door at the base of the turret. She held a rolled up parchment. She handed it over to Gratta, who unrolled it with a flick. The old woman's eyes scanned the page. She shook her head and sighed. “Fine, fine. Make it quick! I'm on a schedule!”
Sleeveless snapped the whip. “Line up!”
We hurried into a jagged line. He snapped the whip again. We straightened it out. The soldier made her way down the line, picking up everyone's chin, poring over every clasp, and passing on to the next.
Lodan turned and whispered to me, “What are they looking for?”
I shrugged. I had no idea.
The guardswoman grabbed my chin with a gloved hand. She craned my head back and stared me in the eyes, squinting. What were they searching for? The woman hovered a little longer then dropped my chin before grabbing my forearm and gazing into the gem clasped there. She rubbed two fingers across the gem. Nothing happened. The stone stayed a milky white color. Just as opaque as before.
She dropped my arm and then hurried down the rest of the line. I let out a breath I didn't know I'd held. “Not here!” she called from the back end by Rudo and Harith.
The other two guards up front stepped to the side. “Welcome to Castos,” they said as we passed by, still in a single-file line. My feet met the clay, and I hoped we wouldn't have much farther to travel. Gratta led us to a path winding through the pine trees and head-sized rocks. The sun had risen over a distant hillside by the time we saw a set of buildings sprawled out over a compound ringed by a tall spiked wood fence below us. The buildings stood thirty feet below, nestled between us and the hills all around.
Sleeveless pointed out two medium-sized structures. “Dormitories. Girls’ on the left. Boys’ on the right. The two bigger ones between them are the Commons and the Casket. And then that little log cabin on the far side is Gratta’s house. Don’t touch it.”
We marched into the compound through two gates made of wooden posts slung together with chains and pulled back by two groups of four Runners, sweating and groaning with the effort. Sleeveless shoved me. “Pray you don't get put on gate duty.”
“Alright!” Gratta shouted as the gate closed back up behind us. She stood on her horse, trotting back and forth in front of us. “You're here at Gratta's stables now. There ain't gonna be no fightin' each other unless it's organized fightin' by my head runners. All y'all are gonna do what I say when I say it, or you'll be on gate duty. Or worse. You got some trainin' to do before I send you out! So move! I'll give y’all a few hours to rest. Trainin' starts today! Now git!”
Harith and Rudo ushered us in the direction of the dormitories, two-storied buildings with bars over every window. The building itself looked made of wooden logs, stacked on top of each other. I stepped toward the dorms, but a hand clamped down on my shoulder.
I spun around and saw Gratta's face leaning into mine as the other recruits hustled into the buildings.
Gratta held up a hand. “Tell me what that pirate said to ya, or I'm gonna knock ya cross-eyed!”
“He . . . ” I swallowed, closed my eyes, and tried to force my brain to bring the words back together. It had been such a long day. I was more worn down than I had realized. “He said something about staying away from the Queen. He also said, 'long live the rebellion,' ma'am.”
Gratta slapped me. “Don't ever say those words. Ever. You hear me? I don't want a swarm o' the Queen's guards descendin' on this place. Git it?”
I nodded. “Got it, ma'am.”
She straightened up and smiled. “You just forget you ever heard nuttin'.” She patted me on the back and shoved me toward the dorms.
“What were those guards looking for?”
Gratta tipped up the edge of her hat. The morning sun lit her eyes like fire. “They was lookin' for someone. Someone they ain't gonna ever find. Now git!”
I turned. And I got. All the way up to the dorm. I found a rough sleeping mat across from Lodan and a hundred other boys. I turned toward the wood walls, pulled the scratchy gray blanket over my head and cried.
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.
The sun never blazed hotter than the day the Runner took me. Water lapped through the rice paddies and up against my shins. The mud stuck between my toes. I still wonder if I had started somewhere near the back end of the field if I'd been able to get away.
Obviously, I didn't.
Five Runners stood at the edge of the field wearing dusters; wide leather hats tilted forward on their heads; their long hair pulled back into tails behind their necks. Even from where I stood knee-deep in muck, I could see the sunlight reflecting off the metal bands around their forearms. Clasps. Every Runner wore one. Made from silver and inlaid with a single gem glowing a deep orange color.
Saltha's dark hair flung back as she whipped her head up. “Recruiters!” she hissed.
I nodded. I'd seen Runners come recruiting here before. They had taken my older brother two years ago. He'd just turned thirteen. I was eleven then.
So I was ripe for the picking.
Saltha sloshed to the path and slapped the dirt with her hands, hoisting herself up and out. I considered following her. But I also thought about staying right where I was. Letting them take me.
Screams echoed across the rice paddy now as the Runners darted along the crisscrossing pathways that formed a grid around the fields. One of the Runners had a sack slung over his shoulder, clanking with every step. He reached in and tossed clasps to the other four as they snatched the arms of the thirteen-year-olds behind me. The recruiters slapped the clasps onto my neighbor’s forearms with a deafening snap-snap. The teenagers fell to the dirt path, knees streaked with clay, screaming with pain as they rocked back and forth, holding their forearms.
I glanced over at my mother and father. They hadn't even looked up. They just leaned back over, short sickles in hand, slicing at the stalks and gathering them into the wicker baskets tied with a cord to their waists. My mother's dark face shadowed by a wide hat. My father's strong arms hacking at the sheaves.
Maybe they didn't care. Maybe they never would. Maybe they never had.
Saltha raced along the path, looking back at me, fear widening her eyes. She waved a hand and pointed at the mound on the far side of the rice paddies.
A shout behind me. I whirled back around to see another kid – I never did know his name – being yanked out by a Runner and slapped with a clasp on his forearm. The gem in the silver blazed red, then orange, and then rotated through every color on the spectrum. Tears crawled past his mouth, open in a silent cry of pain. It seemed like the clasp was burning him. Red marks drifted from the place the metal touched skin.
Standing by my shoulder, one hand reaching out to me, a blue haze in her dark eyes. “Run, Eric. Don't let them take you.”
I swallowed. My mother had always been frightening. Serious as the grave and stern as a lick of twigs. I dropped down into the muck, crawling toward the path, hoping the Runners hadn’t spotted me yet. I reached the other side of the rice paddy and scrambled up onto the trail a foot above me. A shout echoed across the pathway. I poked my head up to see four of the younger kids pound the dirt back toward the cottages.
Another shout. I glanced back. The Runners had gathered nearly seventeen others from the fields. They were crouching in a huddle by the Runner with the sack. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Some of the adults poked their heads up, saw the Runners and stood idly, almost like a fog had circled through their minds and left them unable to respond to what was happening. Why didn’t they move? Why didn’t they fight back? Why did I--
And then one of them spotted me. He smirked and scratched a scar on his neck. I watched him toss the clasp in his hand into the air once, and then he darted after me.
The panic fueled my legs, and I ran, mud and water dribbling from my bare legs as I pounded across the clay and dirt for the mound. It had been Saltha's idea: make a hiding place. A place the Runners find when they came to recruit. We had spent the last two years in our dead hours digging the tunnel. It wound under one of the hills to the edge of the canyons beyond the cottages.
Saltha leaped over the side of the hill ahead and slid out of sight. I ran up the path, pounding footsteps growing closer behind me. I’d rather die than let that Neck Scar Runner catch me. I had to make it. I had to get away.
I scrambled up the hill, slipping to all fours until I reached the top and rolled down the other side. I flipped open the hatch with a single swipe. The hatch was an old metal shield, that we’d found, covered with brush, and tied over the hole we had dug. From a distance, no one would ever notice it. Even up close, if someone didn't know exactly what it was, they'd walk right past and never blink twice.
The stench of rotting rice wafted up from the hole, but I dove in, head first, tumbling down, hearing the hatch slap closed behind me. Saltha crawled just ahead, and I slammed into her, knocking my elbow against her shoulder. Pain stung across my arm as it went limp.
I nodded. Then I remembered it was dark. “Yeah, I'm here. Just go.”
Light streamed in behind us as the hatch lifted. “You little runnin' scum. Ain't no place we can't find you! The clasps are gonna get you.”
I shoved Saltha ahead and hurried right behind her. Pain ratcheted through my head, seeping into my fingers and leaving the tips numb. The tunnel was closing in on me, and I gasped at the air, trying to breathe. Don't get caught. Don't. Don't.
The tunnel raised upwards, and Saltha bashed her shoulder into the pile of leafy branches we had left piled up at the other end. She flung them aside and light poured into the tunnel, stinging my eyes. I blinked and then watched as Saltha shot up out of the hole, her feet dangling in the air as she screamed.
A Runner had her.
And I was next.
I huddled back in the darkness, listening to the clasp tightening around her forearm, forever marking her as a Runner now. The gem would tie into her lifeforce. A ledger would be forged with her name and an identical stone embedded in the red leather cover. And then she would be forced to run jobs for a bookkeeper. Forced. Enslaved.
I couldn’t breathe anymore. A rough hand burst into the hole and found my foot. I jerked away, but a second hand reached in and grabbed it. They dragged me out, my face smacking against the dirt and bursting into the sunlight.
I hung between two of the Runners. Both of them were male. Strong. Their brown boots speckled with mud. One had a hole in his trousers right at the knee, and I could see a piece of metal like a bolt sticking out the side. I thrashed, swinging my arms, trying to claw, scratch, anything. Neck Scar Runner marched across the dirt, past a log cottage sitting on the edge of the village. The clasp in his hand shimmered in the sunlight.
“No. Please, don't!”
He smirked, leaned over, and grabbed my wrist. He slammed the metal onto my bare forearm. It stung worse than any sting I'd ever had from a locust or hardring. It felt like poison seeping through my veins and racing past every inch of my body until it stopped at my heart. A coldness slipped around it as it beat faster, tying it down as if with a chain.
They dropped me. I collapsed to the dirt, writhing and clutching my arm, my chest, ripping at the white tunic I wore. My vision spotted over, and for a moment, I saw three of the five Runners’ faces, heads shaking, dusters swaying, and the sunlight blurring it all together in one disjointed mass of colors.
I rolled to my side. Saltha lay next to me on the dirt, her back against the edge of a grassy mound, eyes closed, chest heaving.
I tried to whisper her name. I tried to move my lips. I splayed my fingers and reached for her hand, resting so close to mine.
But I couldn't reach.
I couldn't think.
Pain exploded through my head, and the light blinked out into darkness.
The rattling woke me up first. Then the sound of soft cries and whispers.
Stars hung across the sky, framed by the wooden cage over my head. I sat up. Other kids sat around me, huddled together or alone, itching the skin around the clasps on their arms. The Runners had thrown us into the back of a caged wagon, pulled by an auroch with thick longhorns and a body as wide as the cart. It looked like an engorged bull with brown and white spots covering its hide.
The back wheel bumped into a pothole, and I slid up against the cage, grabbing it with both hands and watching the grassy hills roll past us for leagues into the distance. A blue haze covered everything in the moonlight. The clasp on my arm glinted, and I gazed at it. An opaque gem rested in my clasp, and as I stared at it, the light seemed to soak into the stone, swirling around until I could see my face.
I had never seen my reflection this clearly before. There were rumors of a beveled mirror a village over, but I had never seen it. My life circled the rice paddies, where a dirty face stared back whenever I stood in a puddle to try and catch a glimpse of what I looked like, but the muddied water was never still or clear. At least not as detailed as a mirror might be.
Every day our family had gotten up, trudged out into the muck and tended to the plants. Weather on our island stayed comfortable – always warm, with the slightest breeze carried in from the ocean I had only ever heard about from tales told by the elders in our village. Our climate allowed for a year-long growing schedule. Plant rice. Tend rice. Harvest rice. Sell rice to the tradeswomen who marched down the road with pushcarts and little purses of gold. Repeat.
Our village had collected all the money. Kept it together to buy what we needed. Sixty-two of us had lived there the last time I sat on the edge of the paddy and counted heads bent low to collect rice. Eighty-seven people had been in the village last time the Runners had arrived. The full moon had passed us by twenty-four times since then. Since they had taken my brother.
I stared at myself in that clasp. My nose took up too much of my face and dropped to a point at the end. My eyes a dark brown color, like my mother's. Dark hair, tanned skin, and cheeks sunken slightly from living off the rice.
A hand tapped my shoulder from behind.
I turned around and faced her; knees curled up to my chest. Two of the Runners sat at the front, on the other side of the cage, holding the reins and whipping them against the back of the auroch. Two others rode on either side of us on pale gray Palominos, lazily swaying back and forth. And the fifth. He traveled on top of the cage, one leg slung over the side, glancing down at the recruits every few minutes.
“You're awake,” she whispered.
I nodded. “How long was I out?”
“Too long.” She bit her lip and fingered a strand of hair. “What's going to happen to us?”
“I don't know.” I sighed. All I knew was that we would become like the Runners around us.
“Do you think you'll find your brother out there?”
I shrugged. “I don't know.”
Saltha's brow furrowed. “At least give me a little hope here.” Her shoulders trembled, and I put an arm around her and pulled her close.
A stick poked his shoulder from above. “None o' that now!” the Runner above us shouted.
I yanked my arm away from Saltha.
She stood up and shook a fist at him. This close, he looked like he had to be only four, maybe five years older than I was. “Leave us alone!” Saltha shouted. “Haven't you been awful enough already?”
The Runner sneered. “Sure. Always room to be even awfuller.” He snorted and spat off the side of the cage. “Just seein' as the two of you are so cozy, thought I'd warn ya straight up now. Runners ain't allowed none o' that. Stick to the jobs, kids. Stick to the jobs.” He glanced back up, tipping his leather hat back with a finger.
I sat back, my head against the cage. My eyes closed. For the briefest moment, I had thought about wanting this life. Whatever it was called. Running for a bookkeeper. Doing jobs until I finished or died. Could it be any worse than the life he had back at the rice paddy with parents who seemed zoned into another island all the time?
The auroch mooed and abruptly jerked to a halt. We jostled inside the cart, tipping into each other and jumping away from each other as fast as we could. No one else wanted to be prodded with a stick tonight.
I stood up, grabbing the cage above me and holding tight. I had one leather glove with the fingers cut off still on my hand. The other one must have fallen off at some point.
The road ahead wound between two hills, dropping steeply into a canyon ahead. The canyon stretched ahead for some distance, the end of the path lost to its shadows. All five Runners stood up now, hands drifting to their sides where their various weapons hung. One of them curled his fingers around a whip. Another on a thick knife with serrated edges. Two others held bokens, and the last one a thin rapier.
The recruits in the cage started whispering to each other.
“Shush it!” the Runner up above hissed.
The grass swished on the side of the path. Another rustle somewhere at the mouth of the canyon.
I squinted into the gloom ahead. Shadows danced across the canyon floor, and for a moment, I thought I saw something slip to the side of the grassy walls. My gaze focused on the spot. I pushed forward, never taking my eyes away until I was at the front of the cage, peering through the front beams.
One of the palomino riders nodded at the others. “I'll see what it is.” His whip dangled from his hand, trailing in the dust alongside the horse's hooves.
I held my breath. The palomino clopped forward and then stopped, refusing to move forward. The Runner kicked it in the side, but the horse whinnied, steam trailing from its nostrils. “Stupid animal,” the Runner hissed, slipping to the ground. His boots clomped onto the dirt, and he took three steps forward, staring into the darkness between the hills.
He held up his whip, flicking it slightly side to side. Another step. Another. Until the Runner stood between the two hills, slowly spinning in the dark, eyes on every blade of grass, every roll and rise in the earth.
But he didn't see what I saw. Something hung from a small ledge about two meters up the canyon wall. A pale gray hand drifted over his head, long fingers splayed and reaching.
“Above you!” I shouted.
The Runner fell to his back and flicked his whip into the air, wrapping the end around the hand and yanking downward.
A gray humanoid creature fell to the dirt with a splat and then scrambled away from the Runner, hissing and baring a mouth full of sharp, clacking teeth.
“Pales!” the Runner shouted from the ground.
That sent a whisper through the kids in the cage. Every last one of us grabbed the beams and shouted at the Runners to let us out. Except me. I kept my eyes on that canyon. I had heard about pales before. They never hunted alone. Ever.
I reached through the beams and poked the Runner sitting behind the auroch. “Get us away from here!”
The Runner glared at me but thwapped the reins against the back of the auroch. “We'll take the long way!” he shouted, pulling back on the reins and guiding the beast around the left side of the canyon.
A long wail echoed up from the canyon. I watched the pebbles on the path slowly bounce as the thudding of feet and hands shook the dirt. The Runner on top of the wagon crouched down, holding his wooden boken like a sword.
The auroch bounded around the side of the canyon. We drove into the grass, the wheels beneath us bouncing over every gopher hole with gusto. The wagon rattled over the plains. Every recruit in the cage cried in fear and panic.
I reached for Saltha and gripped her fingers. “Stay close.”
“What if they're watching–”
“They have other problems,” I whispered.
A line of pales scrabbled their way out of the canyon leaping from the grassy walls and onto the plains behind us. The things were crouched over, running like dogs over the brush. If they were standing, they probably would have been as tall as me. The Runner on the back of a palomino flicked his rapier back and forth as the pales raced at him, jumping from the ground and tackling the horse and rider to the dirt.
Saltha tightened her grip.
I turned around and watched a line of pales dart toward the wagon. The Runner on top swung his boken as the monsters sprung towards the cage. He whacked pales back to the ground; where they screeched and scrambled back to their feet. The creatures had no eyes that I could see. Somehow they sensed exactly where the cage would be as they raced toward us.
One of them reached the back of the wagon. It leaped and clung to the wooden beams. I let go of Saltha and kicked sideways through the bars at the thing's chest. It wailed and flopped to the dirt behind us as more of the pales trampled it underfoot.
“Nice one, kid!” the Runner up top shouted down.
Twenty pales followed the wagon as it rattled down an embankment toward a flatter section of land. Up ahead I could see the path emerging from the other end of the canyon and leading down to a long bridge that disappeared into a fog bank. It stretched over what must have been the ocean. It was huge – dark blue and glimmering with starlight. The water lapped against a thin strip of coastline. If we hadn't been a swipe away from death, I might have been in awe.
But I never got that chance.
Seven pales shot out of the dark grass beside the wagon and kicked the cage, sending it toppling off the back of the cart. The auroch snapped free of its yoke, and we rolled, banging heads and knees and screaming. The cage slammed onto its side, and one of the kids behind me yelped in pain.
We slid down the hill. Pale hands grasped at us as the creatures used their other three limbs to cling to the beams. The pales grabbed tunics and trousers, yanking the recruits close to the bars and snapping their jaws.
A pale grabbed Saltha and jerked her close as the cage scraped over the path and into the ocean with a splash.
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The Last Runner (Runners of Abra 1)
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.
As Eric goes into hiding on the distant island of Uthen, he discovers a mysterious prisoner who beckons to him for help. Eric embarks on a journey to the Barren Prison, an impenetrable fortress on Uthen while eluding the hundreds of Gratta's runners who are on his tail. Because the promise had been made: release the prisoner and he may be able to free them all from the grip of the clasp.
Available - March 15th, 2019
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.