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.
Love what you read then
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.