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.
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.
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.
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.