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.
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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.
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.