Spit fell from Lodan's mouth. Veins popped from his temples, and I could see his face turning redder with each struggle against the ropes binding him. He thrashed against the bars, whacking his forehead on the metal wall. His eyes rolled back, and he slumped to the center of the sphere, eyelids closing with a twitch.
I backed out of the tunnel, feeling my breath catch on my tongue. I stared into the dark. At the bars. At the prison Miksa had locked Lodan into. I swallowed and then felt the numbness seep over my shoulders. How could I have let this happen? How could I have let that boy do this to all of my friends? To the only people who had ever treated me like I was actually a human being?
The image of that little boy, sitting on the balcony above the Scholars’ fortress so long ago flashed through my head. He had led me to all of this. He had tricked me. Used me. And then cast aside everyone I cared about like they didn't matter.
"You know him, don't you?"
I turned around. He had his head tilted sideways. Staring at me. Watching my slow movements. My fingers on the handle of the sword. The heavy breaths that threatened to rip apart my lungs.
"So what's his deal then?" Miksa narrowed his eyes. "And what in the desert does it have to do with you?"
I took one long breath, straight through my teeth, and then leaned against the side of the sphere, letting the air out steadily. "There's a whole compound of them after me."
Miksa frowned. "You important?"
That was an easy question to answer. "No."
"Then why is a whole compound of Runners after you?" Miksa pointed to the desert outside. "I watched two others get swallowed by excavator hordes a couple days ago. Their clasps were red. And they're only red when they're hunting someone." He paused. "To kill them." His staff whipped up, pointing at my chest and pinning me against the metal wall.
Miksa kicked out sideways and connected with my sword hand. The blade clattered to the floor, ringing in my ears. He leaned in close. "So why are they trying to kill you? What did you do?"
"Not good enough." He pressed the edge of the staff deeper, and I could feel it press against my sternum.
"The queen. She wants me dead."
Miksa backed up, eyes wide. "The queen? On Castos? That queen?"
I rubbed a hand across my chest. It would probably be bruised tomorrow. "Yes. That queen. The only one I know of."
Miksa shook his head. "There are other queens. Believe me. Some worse than the Queen of Abra. What did you do to her?"
I glanced to the ceiling. "Listen, Cereus isn't going to last if we sit here talking about the past. I'll tell you everything after we rescue him. Please."
Miksa scrunched his mouth to the side and shook his head slowly. "You're bad news. That's exactly what you are. And I want you out of my city as soon as possible. So let's get your horse and get you out. You can take your friend with you when you go."
I didn't argue. I also didn't know how that was going to be possible with Lodan trying to kill me. Miksa pulled up a large cushion from the center of the floor. A single, metal loop stood out from a square hatch in the bottom of the sphere. Miksa yanked on it and motioned to the metal ladder underneath, sinking deep into the hole below.
I picked up my sword and hurried to the ladder, climbing down two rungs at a time until my boots hit a metal path. The air was much cooler down there. A soft breeze wafted through the tunnel, hitting my skin and sending goosebumps rippling over my arms.
"Catch!" Miksa shouted from above, giving me a breath to glance up and hold my hands out so I could catch the glass jar with green fireflies glowing inside it. The light lit up the tunnel ahead, and I had to blink back the flashes of memory whipping through my brain. Memories of being in dark tunnels outside the queen's palace. Trying to find Bella deep under the castle. All by the light of the clasp on my arm.
I shook my head, and Miksa slid down the ladder, bypassing the rungs completely until he stood beside me, staff in one hand, glass jar of fireflies in the other. A small clasp had been welded to the jar lids. He clipped his jar to a loop on his belt. I followed his example and clipped mine onto the belt around my own waist.
Miksa waved ahead into the gloom. "This way."
"What are these tunnels?"
"Excavators dug 'em out a long time ago I think. Then someone came along and paved 'em up. No idea who. But they're good enough for me." Miksa stepped forward.
"Wait. What about more of those things coming this way?"
"Don't worry so much. Just follow me. I know what I'm doing." Miksa hurried into a light jog; his boots padded over the ground. I fell in behind him, glancing back into the gloom every time I heard a dull clank echo toward us.
The path stayed completely straight, never turning, not even slightly. The green fireflies cast a strange glow on our faces, making us both look sick and ready to let loose what little we had eaten. After about ten minutes, Miksa slowed down and covered the jar with one hand. He held a finger up to his mouth and nodded his head toward a side passage I hadn't seen yet.
I covered my own jar and leaned around him. Down the passage, I could see a dull shaft of light glinting off dozens of cobwebbed lumps dangling from a hidden ceiling by thin strands of webbing. I couldn't see any excavators, but I could see a large, horse-sized lump that had to be Cereus.
"Cereus . . ." I whispered as loudly as I dared.
Miksa chopped at my shoulder with the side of his hand, glaring and throwing his arms wide.
I ignored the pain in my arm and closed my eyes, concentrating. Cereus . . . please, I thought. Answer me.
Was he dead already? Had they killed him?
I crept around Miksa and down the passage. He hurried up behind me as I poked my head into the chamber beyond. And then I heard them. Faint. Soft. The slightest trickling of insect legs rustling overhead. A glance up told me everything. Excavators clung to the ceiling far above us, on top of each other, in a massive swarm and in concentric circles around a center point. I ducked around a hanging lump of webbing and saw an excavator twice as large as the others, but with pairs of translucent wings on its back.
Miksa pulled on my shoulder so I could see him. He mouthed one word, "queen."
I nodded. Somehow we had to get Cereus down and out of these tunnels without disturbing any of the creatures above us. If Cereus would just wake up, then he could shift his way out of here in a blink.
I crouched down and shuffled over to the horse-shaped lump. It had to be him. I took the tip of my sword and make a short slit in the side of the webbing. Through the hole, I could see a patch of gray-speckled white hair. Cereus. I reached out and put a hand on his side, closing my eyes. Cereus. Wake up. Quietly.
A twitch. From above. I froze, listening as what sounded like a single excavator scrambled over another one and then stilled. A sound like the uncurling of silk fell from above me, coming closer to my ear until I glanced sideways and saw a massive, clacking mouth yawning open and facing my direction.
Translucent wings flapped behind the giant insect, and two black eyes stared at me, unblinking, yet intelligent. Too intelligent. The queen hung from a long strand of webbing, legs waggling in the air. A low screech gurgled up from its throat.
I ducked as a glob of cobwebs shot out, slicing through the air and landing with a splat on the far side of the chamber. I spun around with my sword, grabbed one of the Queen Excavator's back legs, and flung myself up and over its back end, slicing along the way. My blade bit through the web holding up not only the queen but also Cereus. Both of them tumbled to the metal floor, and I landed on the other side, crouched, sword out to my left.
The queen scurried around to face me, rising up on its legs. It was as large as Cereus, maybe even a little bigger. She leaned her head forward, mouth open wide, teeth clacking, and let out a deafening screech.
The ceiling came alive with scratching, crawling, and chattering insects, shaking their heads and rousing from sleep. I sliced the sword across the webbing over Cereus and shoved it aside. The queen lurched forward at the same time, and I dove aside as she barreled past me, glancing in both directions, and then turning around, screeching at full volume again.
One more slice through the webbing around Cereus, and the horse plopped to the ground with a thunk. Miksa held up his staff, pointing it at the ceiling as the excavators hovered, waiting for direction on what to do next. The queen screeched loudly, and the creatures scrambled down the walls in what looked like dribbles of golden honey dropping to the floor.
Cereus's eyes shot open. Eric! What's happening? I'm dizzy. Are you dizzy? Because I'm really dizzy. Can we run now?
"Can you shift?" I asked, slicing at an excavator that had crawled toward me. It crunched in half with a snap.
Not sure. My legs feel funny.
"Let's go!" Miksa shouted. He stabbed three more insects with his staff and tossed them aside.
The queen screeched again, scrambling forward. Cereus tried to stand, and I swung the sword and chopped through one of the queen's legs. She stumbled to the side as Cereus got to his hooves and wobbled. I grabbed his mane and yanked him onward. Cereus whinnied and trotted toward Miksa, ducking past him as the insects swarmed at us.
I sliced with the sword the entire way, chopping left and right and listening to the crunches of splattered bugs oozing with orange goo. Miksa ducked out after me, and we hurried into the tunnel.
"How do we get out with a horse?" I shouted.
I smacked Cereus on the side. "Come on, Cereus. Time to fly!"
The horse nodded and trotted after Miksa, keeping his head low. I ran at the rear, swinging my sword behind me as the excavators bubbled out of the chamber and into the hallway. The green glow lit up their faces, making their exoskeletons translucent and their eyes like pits of mud, swirling with anger and hunger.
We ran straight ahead until Miksa threw aside a metal doorway. Bright sunlight blasted into the passage, and I winced, squinting and trying to see what was ahead. Miksa barreled through the opening and leapt to the sand. Cereus flew out of the tunnel and vanished in the light. I followed, dropping to the ground.
"Close the door! CLOSE THE DOOR!" Miksa screamed.
He stood beside me. I could barely see him through my eyelashes. It seemed brighter than ever outside. Almost too bright.
I slammed my shoulder against the metal door as the excavators reached the other side. Scrabbling legs slipped around the round door edge. Miksa and I pushed until we heard a clunk and the snapping of legs as they dropped free from the excavators and wriggled on the sand around us. Miksa spun a large wheel in the center of the door.
"That should hold them long enough for you to get out of the city," Miksa said. "Take your horse and your friend and go."
Friend? Cereus asked.
"Long story. I'll explain later," I said. I blinked again and saw we were standing in a small courtyard with a four-tiered, broken fountain in the center of it. Archways yawned over four exits back to the main streets, and above, I could see the old windows with balconies leaning out from the sandstone walls.
"How far back is your home?" I asked.
Miksa pointed down the alleyway to our right. "That way. Super close. We can be there fast." He darted toward the alley entrance and leaned around it, looking to the street. "Seems clear for now. Those excavators will have to backtrack a ways to catch up to us now."
I turned back to Cereus. "Can you shift yet?"
I can barely walk. I don't think I can shift. Those things bit me. He held out a front leg, and I saw a series of bite marks running down to his knee.
Miksa eyed the horse. "Excavator venom. It can knock you out for hours. And it can be hard to come back from. You're lucky you made it out alive."
"Thank you for your help," I said. "Come on, Cereus. We better go."
We followed Miksa down the alleyway, listening for excavators, but they must have given up the hunt because we didn't hear a single scamper or scratch of a leg anywhere. We reached the spheres again, and Cereus ducked under the shade of a sphere on top of a higher pole. His head plopped to the sand.
I'm thirsty. You got any water?
I spun to Miksa as he threw open the door to the sphere and climbed inside. "Water?"
Miksa poked his head out and sighed. "Yes. Of course I have water. Wait out here." He rummaged around inside the sphere and then tossed out a leather skin brimming with water. I scooped it up and hurried to Cereus, letting him drink as much as he needed before latching the skin to my belt.
A moment later, there was a series of thunks, and the sphere holding Lodan opened down the middle and dumped him onto the sand below. He thrashed against his ropes, eyeing me and frothing at the mouth.
Cereus jumped up. It's Lodan! He's alive still? I thought he was one of the weaker ones actually.
Lodan thrashed again, and I nodded at Cereus. The horse kicked and knocked the boy out. I hurried over and heaved Lodan up, sliding my arms under his armpits and dragging him back to Cereus. With a quick shove, I had Lodan over the back of the horse and tied down.
Now can we go?
"Wait," I said, climbing up the short ladder to Miksa's home. I poked my head into the cool air. "Miksa?"
He sat on the far side of the sphere with his arms crossed, picking at a scab on his forearm. "What?" he asked without looking up.
"You ever heard of the Barren Prison?"
His fingernail froze over the scab. Miksa's head slowly rose. "Maybe. What of it?"
"Do you know how to get there?"
Miksa grimaced. "No one wants to go there."
I took a deep breath. "I do."
"Then you must be cracked in the skull." Miksa stood up and crossed his arms. "You just escaped a quick, painful death down there. Now you want to walk into a place where the living die slowly and painfully every day? What did you ever do to the universe to deserve that?"
I kicked at the edge of a cushion in front of me. Nothing. I had done nothing. But it wasn't the universe coldly dealing out this path. It was someone else. Someone who was supposed to be something different. At least something that shouldn't feel like this.
I opened my mouth again, but before I could say a word, a loud screech shot out above us.
Miksa's eyes went wide, and he ducked low, scooping up his spear and grabbing onto a rung hanging from the ceiling. He held onto it with one hand, using the spear to poke open a hatch overhead. Bright sunlight streamed through a metal grate. I blinked once but then watched as a huge shadow drowned the light out.
"Anka!" Miksa cried.
I dove for the doorway, but Miksa grabbed my arm and yanked me back.
"Don't go out there! That giant bird will eat you in a gulp!"
"But Cereus and Lodan are out there!"
"Then they're dead!" Miksa shouted.
We're okay. There's a huge bird up there, Eric. What do we do?
"Stay away from it if it comes closer!" I shouted.
Miksa glanced up again as three giant talons pierced through the sphere with a loud boom. I fell to the cushions as a gust of wind burst through the grate above, and we swung to the side, ripping from the other spheres. Sunlight pierced the darkness through the ripped open tunnels. And through the open doorway, I could see the ground falling far below as the anka carried us higher and higher into the sky.
I rolled to the side as the cobwebs struck the sand beside me. "Cereus!" I jumped to my feet and raced to his side. The horse neighed, jerking his legs back and forth. He blinked and shifted a few feet away, still tied up with the cobwebs. He shifted again, and I spun to face the ring of thirty people with vacant stares and open mouths standing half a house away.
"Go away!" I shouted.
The people shuffled closer.
I leapt to an old bazaar tent hanging over the street and shimmied up the pole, yanking the orange fabric from its pegs. It flopped in the wind, and I jumped down with it in both hands, twisting until it had been wound tight. A woman with a white robe and pale skin stepped toward me, holding out her hands. I whipped the fabric at her legs, wrapping it around her ankle and yanking it back toward me. She tumbled to the sand with a thud, and instantly the place where the woman had been lying was filled with gray dust pluming up in a cloud.
Two thick spider-like legs emerged from the gray cloud, stabbing into the sand. A cracking noise drifted through the swirling dust, and the legs retreated.
The other people around the square stared at the dust, hissing.
I backed up, winding up the fabric again as a dark shape the size of my torso leapt out of the cloud. I flicked the tent fabric at the creature. It smacked the thing's underbelly and sent it skittering across the square and into the side of the citadel wall with a crunch.
I stared at the spot. Orange goo smeared down the side of the wall, and at the bottom rested a giant insect with a translucent brown head, beady eyes, and a thick black-striped abdomen. The back legs of the thing twitched once and then came to rest.
The hissing around me grew louder. I spun around and saw the people shaking and foaming at the mouth. Their arms were spread wide as the giant bugs crawled out of the people's heads. The bodies disappeared in plumes of gray smoke, and the bugs leapt off their large, back legs and into the square, crawling toward me, hissing and growling.
Cereus snapped the cobwebs off his legs and shifted beside me. We should go. Now.
"Yeah, I think so." I dropped the awning and scrambled onto his back as the horde of bugs darted toward us, leaping and raking their front legs through the air. Cereus shifted backward, and the bugs splatted onto the ground, leaving a trail of orange goo.
Well, that's easy enough.
More hissing drifted down. I glanced up. Thousands of the bugs scampered out of the windows and open doors around us. They leapt to the sand and burrowed under it, trailing toward us and leaving sidewinding mounds in their wake.
"Go!" I screamed.
Cereus shifted. We whipped in the other direction, and Cereus took off, galloping down the street as bugs sprung through the air at us. I saw an old, silver vase resting against the side of a bazaar tent and urged Cereus toward it. We shifted over as five bugs jumped at us, smacking into each other and exploding with goo. As we galloped toward the silver vase, I hooked my legs through Cereus's saddle strap and leaned over, grabbing the vase as we shot past. I whipped back up, swinging the vase as another bug hissed and clawed at Cereus's backside. I smacked the creature, and it burst with a loud splotch!
There are millions of them! Cereus screamed.
"Just keep running!" I shouted back, spinning around so I faced the horde of insects behind us. Cobwebs shot through the air, shooting over our heads as I ducked and swung the vase, smashing bug after bug as they came at us. And then a bug leapt off a sandstone wall, landing on the vase and wrapping its forelegs around and through the handles. I fell sideways, slipping my foot beneath the saddle strap. I hung from Cereus's side. The bug raised a back leg, slicing at my arm and scraping into it with sharp spikes. Blood dribbled down my forearm and splattered the thing in the face. It licked hungrily at its eyes and scrambled forward. It opened a wide jaw, and I saw a ring of teeth clacking together and reaching out for me.
Cereus shifted to the left and right, trying to shake the thing loose. I flung the vase and sent the bug spiraling into the side of a wall where it exploded on impact. I whipped back up to a sitting position on Cereus's back and spun around, leaning forward and holding on.
"How much farther until we're out of the city?"
I don't know! I don't know! Cereus said, the panic rampant in his thoughts.
A thin bridge linking two of the sandstone buildings hung ahead. On either side of the bridge were windows. As soon as I had spotted them, insects burst out, crawling over the tops of each other and hissing and foaming. They turned toward us and spat globs of web in our direction. Each one lurched back, spitting again and again. Cereus shifted back and forth as the webs missed us by fingertips, splotting into the sand with a thud and leaving a trail of pockmarks behind us.
A large web spiraled through the air and wrapped around Cereus's face. The horse tried to shift away but instead smashed into the sandstone wall under the bridge. I flew off as a horde of the insects swarmed over Cereus's side, pinning him to the ground. Cereus shifted away, but the insects moved with him, flopping and snapping.
I rolled into the sand and saw a hand wrapped in leather all the way up the arm reach out to me. I scanned up and saw a human with fading brown leather wrapped around their entire body. Large goggles obscuring the eyes rested on the person's face, and only a thin slit where a mouth would be allowed them to breathe at all.
The person shook their hand at me.
ERIC! Cereus screamed. ER-
Cereus's voice went quiet in my head. I flung my legs around and pushed off the sand. The creatures had covered the horse in cobwebs from nose to hoof. They attached a thicker strand at his tail, and a line of the insects dragged Cereus away from me.
I tried to sprint forward, but the person behind me wrapped a strong arm around my chest and yanked me back.
"Let me go! THAT'S MY HORSE!" I shouted.
The person didn't respond. They just held me and continued yanking me away.
Thirty insects turned toward us and hissed. They scrambled forward, foam trailing across the sand as they came. The person swung around in front of me, brandishing a long staff with thick rope knotted around each end. They spun it between their fingers, knocking through the insects as they scurried forward.
I watched, helpless as Cereus vanished behind a wall of twitching legs and foam.
"CEREUS!" I screamed. More of the insects swarmed from the windows above us, crawling down the walls and clacking their teeth.
The person turned around and pointed back the way we had come. We ran, each footfall aching through my chest. I could not lose another person. I would not. I refused. The anger surged into my lungs, over my shoulders, and down my arms until it pooled at my fingertips. I could blast each one of those bugs into nothing. All I had to do was reach for the power. The light that cried out to me. Begged me to be used. It would be so simple. So painless.
I grit my teeth. But giving in to that power meant giving up everything. I had already tasted the cost of letting that boy control my life. I refused to let him control me. There had to be a way to save Cereus. Had to be.
An angry screech echoed across the city. It pounded through my ears and shook sand from the roofs of the nearest buildings. We slid to a stop, staggering as a giant shadow engulfed the street we stood in.
I peeked up to see a massive talon reaching into the street.
My eyes went wide as the person shoved me aside. The talon raked through the sand and caught up piles of insects as it closed its grip. The creatures screamed and squirted orange goo over the sand.
A flap of wings sent a huge gust of wind through the street, blowing us back against the sandstone. Another loud screech filled my eardrums. The insects around us hissed wildly, sinking into doorways, burrowing into the sand, and vanishing faster than a plate of food back at Gratta's compound.
The person beside me grabbed my shoulder. We pounded through the sand as I fought back tears. I was going to lose Cereus. I knew it. I knew I would. Just like Zinnia. And Saltha. And Bella. And all of them.
I followed the leather-wrapped head of this person who had appeared from seemingly nowhere. We rounded a corner and came to another section of the city. This area seemed newer and yet ancient at the same time. Large, round spheres hung together in clusters like grapes, with wooden ladders trailing up to circular doors. Each one had an awning hanging over the top to keep out the sun. Spikes lined one cluster of the metal spheres, the rotting bodies of insects caught on several of them. We hopped between two spikes and scurried up a ladder with a door hanging open. We rolled in, landing on a bed of cushions placed across the floor.
Another flap of giant wings.
The entire sphere shook, and I slid to one side, noticing a hole that connected this sphere to another one. Light filtered through thin grates all along the sides. The sphere we were in could have fit five horses standing side by side. Some of the other spheres branching off from this one seemed a pinch smaller, and one even wider.
We huddled low on the floor, listening as the giant bird outside circled us. Its shadow loomed over the sandstone buildings nearby every few seconds, and that's when I remembered: the vulture we had seen. It wasn't a vulture at all. It had been some sort of monstrous bird. How high must it have been to seem so small to us up on the ridge above the city?
I spun to the person. "Listen, my friend is out. I have to save him. Can you help me or not?"
The person held up both hands and slowly began unwrapping the leather around their head. Long brown hair fell out down to their shoulder blades. The goggles came off, and the leather around the mouth fell down to their neck.
The first thing I noticed was that one of his ears had been clipped and then healed back over in a mound. How it had happened I didn't really want to know. The skin at the top had been folded down, and his hair covered most of it. He had dark eyes and tan skin, like he had been out in the sun for a very long time. Burn scars trailed down below his ear and onto his neck. He caught me staring at his ear and rubbed a finger over it.
"What? Something look interesting to you?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I just need to rescue my friend."
He closed one eye and sighed. He must have been about my age. But he looked older. Too many long days in the sun. Frown lines arched down from his eyes to the sides of his mouth.
"Any ideas?" I asked.
He stood and crossed to the grates in the wall of the sphere and peeked out. "Seems quiet now. Those excavator bugs are hiding in their burrows. That's where they took your horse."
"Where is that?"
He spun around and glared at me. "You want to die? If it wasn't for that anka out there, we would all be dead."
I held up a hand. "I'm sorry I burst in on whatever sort of gloomy day you were hoping to have, but I want to rescue Cereus. And if you're not going to help me, then stay behind. Otherwise, just get out of my way."
"You don't even know what you're looking for. Or where to find him." He laughed. "You're like all the others from Jedros. Poor as dirt but think you own the world."
I could feel my neck heating up. "How do you know I'm from Jedros? How do you know anything about me? You don't know the first thing about me. You have no idea!"
He shook his head and waved at the door. "Get out of here. I'm not wasting my time with you."
I shuffled over to the door and grabbed the long metal handle. My fingers tapped it and then I sighed. I really didn't know where I was going. I didn't know anything about this island, about this city, about what those bugs even were. I need his help. And as much as he made me want to punch him so hard he fell back and never woke up, I needed him.
"Look," I said. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be fighting with you. I should be thanking you."
"Forgiven." Another sigh. "And for the record, the name is Miksa. Don't overuse it."
I turned and nodded. "Thank you. So where do we go, and what do we do? And how long do we have?"
Miksa ran a hand through his long hair. "Excavators like their food fairly fresh, but they also like to let it cool off inside all that gunk they spit out. So I'm guessing we have roughly an hour before they're hungry enough to dig in."
"And where do we find them?"
"The nest." Miksa eyed me. "You a fighter?"
I nodded. "You have weapons?"
"A few." He crawled through a nearby hole and after a series of clanks and thuds, I heard him crawling back. He emerged from the hole with a black sword with a long, narrow blade and notches on the top end, a staff identical to his own, and a long handle with a rope on the end that was attached to a heavy brown ball. "Take your favorite."
He laid them down on a cushion, and I bent over and grabbed the sword almost immediately. I knew swords. I liked swords. And I could fight with one.
Miksa whipped his staff around and smashed one end into my wrists. I dropped the sword and he scrambled to me, keeping my forearms pinned.
"What are you doing?" I shouted.
He yanked back my sleeve and glanced at the marks across my skin. Miksa's gaze drifted up, and he stared at me for a moment. "I could have sworn you were a Runner like the other one. Did you get released?"
"The other one?" I whispered, my eyes darting from side to side. "Has another Runner been here?"
Miksa nodded his head toward the left. "Got him tied up back there. Why? You think you know him?"
My hands shook. Another Runner was here. One of Gratta's? Someone else? "Let me see him."
Miksa pointed down one of the holes into a darker sphere with what looked like a cage door set into the framework. He lifted up the staff, and I crept toward the hole, sticking my head through, waiting, and hearing heavy breathing coming from the sphere behind the bars. I swallowed and crawled forward on my hands and knees until the bars were a hand's reach away from my face. I squinted into the dark and saw a body lying on a single cushion in the center of an empty sphere.
The body was bound with ropes from shoulders to feet, hands tied separately with another length of sturdy rope. A hood covered the person's head.
I wrapped both hands around the bars and raised my head, trying to see if I could spot his face.
A quiet breath passed.
And then the figure rolled over in a blink, smashing into the bars. I yelped and fell back, staring at a cut-up face with a gag in his mouth. Blond hair hung into the boy's reddened eyes. He screamed at me, his face deepening into a shade of purplish blue. He threw his body against the bars again and again, and I sat back, mouth hung open, afraid to say anything except his name.
I gasped and reached for my side, searching for a weapon, anything.
The old woman held out a gnarled hand, fingers splayed. She stamped her feathered staff once, and the beads jangled together. A spasm ricocheted up my legs and into my shoulders as an invisible force pinned me to the crumbling ruin. I leaned against it, trying to twitch even my hand, but I couldn't move.
A wet chuckle drifted across the ruin. My eyes stopped darting from side to side, and I could feel the tears building up beneath them. Her wrinkled face leaned over me. Gnarled, weathered skin stretched tightly around her eyes and mouth. She wore a simple, brown dress, flowing in the slight breeze that wafted through my hair.
Her dark eyes widened, lifting the headband made of feathers melded together in a ringlet on her forehead. Gray hair stuck out from her eyebrows and ears, along with the patches of scorched hair on her scalp.
"Who . . . are . . . you?" she asked, struggling to spit out the words, as if they were strange to her tongue.
My mouth wouldn't move. I strained against whatever held me down, but my jaw wouldn't budge.
The old woman flicked her staff, and my arms shot into the air. She scrambled forward and tugged down on my sleeves, inspecting both forearms. Her fingers traced the scar where the clasp had once been, and her eyes darted to my face.
"So . . . it is you." She closed her eyes and shook her head, tilting it to one side. She spit and then spoke again, the words flowing more freely from her mouth. "The Runner of Golden Light bestows his presence on me? Me?"
She flicked the staff again, and my jaw felt like it had been released from the invisible clamps holding it shut.
"Who are you?" I asked.
The old woman glanced away and then jerked her gaze back toward me. "My name?"
"Yes, your name, what you want with me. All of those things. If you're looking for my power, I don't have it anymore, so don't ask."
The woman smirked. "Powerless now, eh?"
I nodded. "Yes. So if you're going to kill me, do it quick."
The smirk deepened. "Why would I want to kill you when I need your help?" She hopped forward on bare feet and gripped my chin, pointing the staff at my temple. "Redimi needs your help. And since I am Redimi, I need your help."
"Help with what?" I mumbled around her smelly fingers.
"I made a mistake once." Her head lifted. She released my chin and stared off at the stars on the horizon. "I trespassed where I did not belong. And for that, the Dry Death imprisoned me here, in the middle of the desert, never visited, never seen." Her eyes focused on me again. "Until you arrived. The Runner of Golden Light. Here."
"If you've been trapped here, then how do you know about me?"
Redimi's eyes widened. "Everyone has heard about you. The birds whisper about it. The horses think deeply about it. The people talk in hushed tones hoping no one hears their conversations. And the Runner of Golden Light screams it." She ran the tip of her staff down my forearm. She stepped back, her feet curling around the rubble on the rooftop. "Even powerless, the Runner of Golden Light is more powerful than even he knows." She turned away and flicked her staff.
The weight pinning me to the ruins lifted. I leapt to my feet and backed away. Cereus and I needed to get away from this place as soon as possible. I didn't know if this crazy, old woman was dangerous or not, but I wasn't in the mood to be frozen in place when a pack of Gratta's Runners showed up. I scrambled for the hole in the roof and stuck my boot into the first foothold.
"You're leaving?" Redimi called.
"Yes." I stared at the desert below. "Are you going to stop me?"
The old woman sighed. "No. I will not." She paused, and I hesitated. And then she spoke again, and a shiver ran across my shoulders. "You seek knowledge, do you not?"
I swallowed and glanced over my shoulder. "And if I do, how can you tell me anything about it?"
"Like I said, I hear things only the wind whispers about." Her cracked voice rose a pitch. "Even things about the Unclasped."
I whipped around. "What did you say?"
The old woman leaned on her staff, chin resting on a tangle of beads and feathers. "The Unclasped One. You know what I speak of."
I leapt onto the roof and hurried over to her. "What do you know? Please! You have to tell me!"
A thin smile trickled across her lips. "And now you need Redimi's help. How cute."
I grabbed her shoulder. Fast as a lightning bug, she whirled the staff through the air and whacked my hand away. She spread her fingers wide and shoved her palm at my chest. I flew back, landing with a grunt on the roof a horse length away from her.
"Never. Touch. Redimi." The woman dropped her hand to her side.
My back popped as I stood up and wiped dust from my tunic. "Sorry. I didn't mean to. I just . . . please . . . if you know something about the Unclasped, you have to tell me. I'm desperate."
"Desperate drips from you like a wet rag. Anyone could smell it for a league away." Redimi hobbled over to a large piece of sandstone and sat on it, tracing the end of her staff in the dust. "For my knowledge, you must give me your help."
"Fine. What do you want?"
"What do I want?" Redimi glanced at me over a smirk. "What do you want?"
"I thought it dripped off my like a wet rag."
Redimi snarled. "Don't get coy with me. I can easily whisk you off my rooftop before you could blink. Then we'll see how far you run before they catch you."
I sighed. "I just want to know about this Unclasped person. If someone else is unclasped, I need to know how they did it. Because my friends are all trapped in the worst job. I don't know how to help them."
Redimi pointed a gnarled finger at me. "One kills you, the rest die along with you. You die, they all die. You run forever, they run forever, wasting away until they give up and vanish into the purple lights. Quite the dilemma." She paused. "So why don't you just run away?"
The old woman stood and spread her arms wide. "The horizon is open to you. You could run into the five islands, disappear forever, or even travel beyond."
"There is nothing beyond the five islands of Abra."
Redimi clucked her tongue and sniffed. "Shows what you know of the world. You think the impassible mist is really that impassible? You think nothing lies beyond these borders? Kingdoms and worlds rage on out there while we waste away our lives inside this cocoon of mist. Shielded from them. Them shielded from us. And all the while, the world continues spinning. Lives living lives. The running. Always running. From one tragedy to the next. Until we simply can't run anymore."
"I don't have any way of getting off these islands. Gratta's runners are already guarding the only passway back to Castos, and unless you know of another passway, I'm probably not leaving Uthen." I kicked a rock over the edge and heard it thunk into the sand below.
"Then it seems you truly are out of options." Redimi cleared her throat. "And I am prepared to help you. But you must help me."
"I promise. I will."
The old woman smiled at me. "Oh, you will. Give me your forearm."
I glanced at her sideways, hesitated, and then stuck my arm out. She tapped the end of her staff against it, and a thin green light trickled from the feathers and wrapped around my wrist, tying themselves into a neat bow.
Redimi's voice whispered into my ear, "Seek out the Barren Prison. Once there, search for the Crowned One. He alone knows where the Unclasped resides."
"And what am I supposed to do for you?"
All mirth left the old woman's face. "You must free me from these bonds. Bring me the Heart of the Meticulous within nine days, and your debt will be paid. Refuse, and you shall pay dearly. With your life, and the life of anyone you have ever dreamed about." She licked her lips. "Your friends, your family, that girl Bella. Your parents. Juuulian." She cackled.
My eyes widened and my stomach dropped. "Nine days?"
The old woman laughed. "You didn't think I would let you leave without a binding, did you? You are bound to me, boy. Bound! And there is no way to break this binding."
"But I don't even know what the Heart of the Meticulous even is!"
Redimi backed to the edge of the roof and spread her arms wide. "Then it is time to find out!" She cackled and fell backward off the edge of the roof, immediately erupting into a swirl of sand that spun down and into the desert.
I blinked and rushed to the edge of the roof. Redimi had vanished. Nine days. Nine days to find something called the Heart of the Meticulous and bring it back to this crazy, old woman before not only I died, but anyone I had ever dreamed about.
Maybe she was bluffing. It had to be. But how had she known those names? Those people?
A twinge shot up my arm. I glanced down and saw the faint glow of a green ribbon of light swirling around my wrist before it disappeared from sight. It wasn't a bluff. I had been freed from one slavery and bound to another.
Everyone I had ever dreamed about.
All of them would be dead if I didn't deliver the Heart of the Meticulous. I swallowed, and as I climbed back down to Cereus, kept whispering to myself, "At least I have a chance. At least I have a chance. At least I have a chance."
I rushed to Cereus's side and shook him awake.
What? What is it? Cereus's head shot up, his eyes half-open. Trouble? Runners?
I shook my head.
Cereus's gaze drifted to my wrist. What is that? What's on your wrist, Eric? What'd you do?
I swallowed and glanced at the faint green ribbon again. "I made a deal."
With a devil.
"Maybe." I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "But it means we might be able to save everyone. We have to find the Barren Prison. Do you—"
The what? Cereus leaned away and stood, shuffling to one side and stamping his hooves. Breath burst from both nostrils in plumes of white steam. You want to find what?
"The Barren Prison. Do you know where it is?"
Cereus shook his head wildly. No! No! No, I don't! No one wants to know. Because the only people who know are good as dead!
"What is it? I've never heard of it before."
It's a terrible place. Full of terrible people. One of the old horses used to think about it. None of us liked it. Always made me feel like fleas were crawling on my legs.
I stood and clenched my fists. "Well, we have to find it."
Why? Cereus asked.
"Because. If we don't, then I'll be dead in nine days."
Cereus's eyes widened. What WAS this deal you made? It sounds like a bad, bad deal.
"Maybe it was. But we have a chance. It's better than running forever."
But there aren't any more chances once you're dead. I don't want you dead.
I pointed to the distance. "Then we better find someone who knows where the Barren Prison is."
A shiver ran across the horse's back. He spun around in a quick circle, lowered his head, and then snorted. Then get on, Deal-Maker.
The sun trickled over the distant sand dunes, lighting the sky pink and purple. We had traveled throughout the night, and I could feel Cereus losing momentum. We had to stop somewhere or we would both collapse. My eyelids drooped, and I blinked them back open, trying to focus on the horizon.
A distant vulture came into view, circling overhead.
Something's dead, Cereus whispered into my mind.
I nodded. My eyes shot open, and I prodded him forward. "Let's see what it is."
We came around the side of a dune and saw the sand trickle off the edge of a rocky slope. Red rocks jutted in every direction all the way to the bottom of a horseshoe-shaped valley. Nestled into the valley was a sprawling, sandstone town. Old buildings with fresh banners and flags wavered in the breeze below. The faint sound of voices waking to another morning drifted up to us.
Should we go down? Cereus asked.
"Someone down there might know where to find the Barren Prison."
Or they might kill us for asking.
"Try to be at least a little positive," I said with a grimace.
I try to be realistic. That's what I try to do. Okay?
"Fine. Let's go."
Cereus edged his way down the side of the slope, shuffling his hooves down a thin trail that wove between the red rocks. It switched back and forth, taking us deeper and deeper into the valley. The buildings grew larger, some with spires sticking into the sky with bronze poles mounted to their tops. Some of the taller buildings held bells behind sun-shaped carvings through the sandstone. The trail led to a wide, city gate that must have been opened while we were headed down.
We marched through the open gate, and I noticed the faint caw of a vulture above us. But so far, we hadn't seen a single dead thing anywhere. Maybe there was a meat market somewhere inside the city. Almost as soon as I had thought it, the smell of cooking beef wafted through the air and met my nostrils. My chest swelled as I took in the smell.
"That smells delicious," I whispered.
Yuck. Meat. How can you eat that stuff? Give me a good patch of grass any day.
"Then I'll take the meat, and you can have the lawn," I laughed, thinking about the feeling of solid food resting in my stomach after the days and days of eating pieces of cactus rinds and scrubbing around for the thin roots of half-dried vegetables I had pulled out of my sack. Food had been hard to come by so far on Uthen, and wherever I found it, I took it. Cereus seemed like he was able to go for another thousand miles with the barest of meals, but I couldn't live like that. I had to eat. Had to.
We rounded a street, following the noise of raucous laughter and shouting. A marketplace. Had to be a marketplace. And marketplaces had food. My stomach growled thinking about sinking my teeth into a juicy piece of chicken or even a fleshy piece of apple or pear. Anything at this point would have staved off the hunger pains trailing the bottom of my gut.
The moment the bazaar tents came into view was the moment the noise died instantly. I stared ahead through canopies flapping in a sharp wind and saw nothing. No one. Empty stalls covered with sand, dust, and cobwebs.
Um, where is everyone? Cereus asked.
"I don't know. But something tells me that this isn't a place we want to stay in for long."
Cereus trotted through the streets. The wind picked up the farther we went, circling around towering sandstone buildings with open doors and empty windows. Another vulture cawed from above, but down below, we heard nothing but the wind, whipping past us. My dark hair flew back. It had grown longer over the weeks of running. I pulled out a thin piece of rope from the sack at Cereus's side and tied it back into a bun on the back of my head.
I don't wanna be here anymore, Cereus said with a slight whinny.
"Neither do I. Something about this city is wrong. Bad wrong."
And then a young boy stepped out of the open door of a towering citadel standing before us. He had his head tilted forward. His baggy pants were ripped and held up by a red sash around the waist. Long tears sliced through the beige tunic he wore.
"Hey!" I shouted.
The boy stopped moving toward us. He still didn't look up.
Cereus stalled and snorted. I slipped to the sandy street and held up both hands, slowly walking toward the boy. He had to be maybe five or six years younger than I was, swaying side to side in the wind.
I stood about two arm’s lengths away when Cereus spoke up.
Something's wrong, Eric!
I took another step forward and reached out to the boy's shoulder. "Can you hear me?" I asked.
Eric! Cereus shouted.
I gripped the kid's shoulder as his head slowly rose until his eyes met mine. But where the bright, shiny eyes of a young boy should have been was the vacant, far-off stare of something else. Cobwebs trailed from his ear down to his nose. A low hiss erupted from the boy's mouth as his hand whisked up and wrapped around my wrist. I tried to yank my hand away, and as it pulled from his fingers, a trail of cobwebs stuck to my forearm.
I screamed and shook off the webs, stumbling back as low hissing echoed throughout the street corner. I glanced up and saw people hobbling through open door frames, all covered in cobwebs, and all staring vacantly at Cereus and me.
A tall man to my right held up both hands and cobwebs shot from his palms, wrapping around Cereus's legs and dropping him to the sand. And then he turned his hands toward me with a nasty grin. I covered my face as cobwebs zipped through the air straight at me.
Grab my flank! Cereus screamed into my mind.
I reached out as we fell into the darkness and found the horse's side. As soon as my hand made contact, I felt the air vibrate, and we landed on soft sand. A thin shaft of light trickled down from the opening above us. I glanced up and saw the seven Scholars ring the trapdoor as it slowly retracted into place.
"Prove thyself! Use your light!" One of them called as the trapdoor snapped shut, leaving us in total darkness below.
I'm scared. I do not like it down here!
"Neither do I," I whispered. I kept one hand on Cereus's side. The horse stamped a hoof. "Can you get us back up there?"
Cereus snorted. No chance. I can't shift through that metal. I don't know what it is. But it keeps stopping me from getting through it.
"Great." I took a deep breath. It would have been nice to have the clasp on my arm glowing like it used to. But my clasp had been destroyed, just like the Scholars had said. Molduth, the red beast with wings from inside the crystal beneath the queen's castle, had jabbed one of his giant claws right through it and cracked the gem completely. I had been swallowed in purple light and rescued somehow by the boy.
I didn't want to think about him right then. Because I knew the Scholars would not have dropped us into this hole for no reason. They wanted me to use the golden light again, and that meant something was lurking in the darkness with us.
A heavy breath wafted from the corner. It rattled across me, smelling like rotting meat and molding cheese. I slid the tabak-toyok from my belt and held both handles with the rope between spread apart.
"Steady," I whispered, feeling Cereus backing away from the corner.
A pair of pink eyes the length of my entire body popped open. A faint glow emanated from each iris, casting the entire chamber in a rosy hue. The walls ran around us in a wide circle, with no doors or windows visible along its entire length. Sand and dry bones littered the ground between us and the hulking monster in the corner.
It looked like a giant crustacean with long, sharp claws that snapped together slowly in front of two mandibles dribbling with pink slime. A large, pearl-colored shell gleamed even in the dim light, spikes glistening dangerously across the surface of the entire beast. The thing's eyes wobbled on two long stalks. They leaned forward, squinting at us. Pink drool slipped from the creature's mouth and sizzled on the sand.
Cereus and I stepped back. How do we fight that?
"I don't know," I said.
Six spindly legs arched out from either side of the crab, and the beast hoisted itself off the ground. Sand and pink slime dripped to the ground along with a few loose bones. The creature trundled forward a half step and then swayed back and forth. Its claws clacked at the air. A low moan erupted from its jaw. Pink slime sprayed across the sand and sizzled everywhere it landed.
"Get ready," I said, bending forward, holding out the tabak-toyok, spinning one of the handles until it created a whir of motion in front of me.
The crab jabbed forward with a claw and smacked into the tabak-toyok. A tiny piece of hard shell clipped off the end as the weapon met crab. The beast leaned back and roared, yanking its claw close and cradling it against its mandibles.
Cereus raked a hoof through the sand and stuck his head forward. I'm going in. Cover me.
"Cover you?" I shouted.
The horse darted at the crab, neighing and shifting from side to side as he got closer to the beast. A claw swung at him from the left side, and Cereus shifted left. The momentum of the claw carried it until it bashed into the wall. A large chunk of shell fell to the sand. I raced for it, sliding behind it and then darting toward the side legs of the crab. Cereus kept shifting back and forth in front of the angry crab.
As I reached the legs, it spun wide in a quick shift and barreled straight at Cereus. The horse blinked out of the way and landed behind the crab as it smashed into the opposite wall. Another roar went up, rattling my chest.
"Nice work!" I shouted.
And then the crab swiped at Cereus. It closed its claws around his midsection and yanked the horse into the air with a whinny. Before Cereus could shift away, the beast chucked him across the chamber. The horse landed in a heap, his eyes blinking once before he passed out.
"Cereus!" I raced to his side as the crab side-walked back toward the horse, mandibles clacking, pink slime dribbling from its mouth, and hissing with steam. I stood in front of Cereus and swung the tabak-toyok back and forth in a figure eight motion. The crab pulled up to a stop and hesitated, leaning in with its claws tentatively. The claw nicked against the tabak-toyok and yanked back.
The other claw swung over me and scooped me up from behind. My stomach stung as little barbs on the ends of the claw poked through my dusty tunic. The tabak-toyok slipped from my hand and tumbled to the sand. The crab reached its other claw down and swiped it aside until it smacked into the metal walls with a clatter.
The beast let out another soft moan and leaned back on its back eight legs. Its mouth opened wide—wider than I had thought possible. I could see a pink light glowing inside it somewhere. Slime gurgled from its throat, and I kicked and slammed my fists against the hard claw.
A voice echoed down from above. "Only one way to beat it." The Scholars. There was a crack in the trapdoor a few arm’s lengths above me. Three of their faces leaned over the edge, staring down at me with stoic expressions.
"Tap into the light," they said together.
I gritted my teeth. I wouldn't. Because tapping into the golden light meant so many other things. The crab lowered me toward its maw. Sharp teeth popped into view, chomping together in anticipation of a meal well-earned.
Just use the light. . . . Cereus. His voice faint. Slipping through one ear and out the other.
But using the light meant so many things. I would have to face him again. It meant being used. It meant letting someone else control me and everything I did. It meant watching people die around me. Too many people had already died because of that golden light. I wouldn't add to the list of the names. I refused.
The crab had me over its mouth. I felt the claw loosen around me, and I slipped through. I grabbed onto a spine protruding from the bottom of the claw and swung my boots wide, landing on top of the mandibles. They smacked together, and I slid down, my foot crashing into the beast's mouth. It closed around my ankle quickly, and I screamed.
I spun, frantic, feeling pain shoot up my leg and into my chest. My fingernails raked through the soft flesh just above the mouth and grabbed hold. The crab opened its mouth and roared in agony. I jabbed my other hand into the soft part of its face and climbed. It swung both claws at itself, but its elbows wouldn't bend inward far enough to reach me.
"Cereus!" I shouted.
The horse stirred.
"CEREUS!" I screamed louder.
The crab's eyes darted between me and my horse. It roared again, spun sideways, and trundled straight at Cereus.
"CEREUS!" I shouted again.
The horse glanced up as the massive crab loomed over him. It raised a claw and brought it down to smash him. Cereus scooped up a mouthful of sand and blinked out of sight as the claw smashed into the ground.
I scrambled onto the crab's shell, right behind its eyes. Cereus appeared beside me, unsteady as the crab swayed from side to side. He leaned forward and spit the sand right into the crab's eyes. The beast roared and stumbled into the metal wall. A sharp crack ran along its shell. I jumped onto Cereus's back, and together we shifted back down to the sand and across the chamber.
The crab roared again, and pink slime sprayed from its mouth and landed on the metal walls.
I pointed. "Far side! In front of it! Fast!"
We shifted twice and arrived in front of the crab. It saw us, roared, and spit a huge, pink glob at us. Cereus shifted away again as the gunk landed on the metal wall, sizzling a hole through it.
I can get out! Cereus shouted. He ran for the hole. The crab swung its claws and clacked them together, and we shifted out of the chamber as the beast cracked both claws on the metal wall. We landed outside, rolling in a tumble and staring up at the Scholars’ compound. We could hear shouts and roars echoing around inside.
"Shouldn't stay here. We gotta run," I said.
Yes! We get to run! I'm outta here!
Cereus stood, I climbed on, and we raced away, leaving the compound far behind us.
The sand dunes rolled as we raced on. We both wanted a healthy distance from the Scholars and their giant underground crab. I shuddered and lifted up the edge my tunic, spotting the little marks where its spined claws had dug into my skin. They hurt to touch, and I winced as I dropped my tunic back into place.
The sun blazed red on the horizon, lighting the distant hills on fire.
I'm tired, Cereus muttered.
I nodded. I was too. I patted his side. "Let's find someplace to stop for the night."
Cereus slowed to a trot, and we noticed the ground beneath us slowly change from sand to dry dirt with cracks crisscrossing in every direction. Every stamp of Cereus's hooves sent up billows of dust that rattled into the distance before dissipating with a sigh.
We rounded the side of an outcrop of rock and spotted a sandstone ruin resting in the middle of the desert. Five round archways allowed us to see through it to the other side where more desert stretched into nothing. It had a flat roof with a million pockmarks chewed out by sand and wind and time.
You think it's safe?
"I'm too tired to decide it's not." As if to prove my point, a loud yawn escaped my chest.
I slipped off Cereus's back and picked up a jagged rock from the ground. My knuckles ached to hold the tabak-toyok in my hands again. At least with the metal and rope between my fingers, I felt like I stood a chance against any would-be marauders.
I slid up to the sandstone and pressed my back against it, motioning for Cereus to stay quiet. The ruin had a dark corner on one side, and I did not want to be surprised again. I leaned around the edge of the archway and peeked inside. The last light of the sun sent a wavy, red pattern across the stone walls. I held up the rock and stepped in, spinning from side to side.
"Nothing," I called.
Oh good. Cereus trotted into the ruins and sidled up to the far wall with a view of the sunset. He folded his legs under him and sat, leaning his head against the stone with a sigh.
I crossed over to him and sat down, my head against his belly.
How much longer we gotta run like this? Cereus asked. He snorted. Not that I'm sad about running. I'd rather run than be trapped again. No trapping. It's not good.
I shrugged. "I wish I knew." I scanned the horizon ahead and behind us. No sign of anything. No dust. No horses. And then I checked the darkening sky. And no flying pegasi either. I let out a long breath, slid my knees up to my chest, and leaned my chin forward, watching the sun disappear behind the distant rock formations.
This is a hard life, Cereus muttered. And I'm hungry.
My stomach growled. "Me too. I guess we'll just be hungry together."
A pause. You know, if you used your light, we could probably get places and get food.
"No," I said. "I won't use it."
Why not? I mean, I know why not. Because I can see what you're thinking. But why not?
An ache twisted through my chest. Why not? Why not use the light that had gotten me so many places so quickly in Abra? It had gotten me a job as a novice, not even-Runner, but trainee. It had earned me powerful enemies. It had lit the way for so many people to be ripped from my life so quickly. That's why. I didn't want to watch another person die in the purple light. I didn't want to see anyone else dragged into the mist never to be seen again.
But those things aren't your fault.
"Yes, they are," I snapped. "All of them are. If I hadn't started this crazy journey, Saltha would be alive. Bella would be here. Zinnia would be grazing a field happily."
Cereus let out a soft whinny. I always liked Zinnia. She thought I was too crazy.
"You are crazy."
I smirked and almost laughed. But it didn't last for long. Because as soon as one little burst of joy came through me, the faces of all those Runners from Gratta's compound flashed into view. Faces I had doomed to death. Some way. Someday.
I shook my head and stood up, rubbing my elbows as the temperature dropped. "I'll keep first watch. You get sleep. You're the one who has to run us everywhere now."
Yeah, I do run us everywhere. Cereus yawned and rested his head against the wall. Wake me when you're . . . the horse didn't even finish the thought. Gentle snores slipped from his mouth.
I spun around and kicked at a pebble. It skittered across the stone floors and clattered against the far wall and at the base of a series of what looked like handholds leading to a hole in the roof. I glanced at Cereus one last time before darting over and climbing up the side of the wall. My boots stuck perfectly into the holes, almost as if they had been carved out for my feet. I emerged on the roof. Stars lined the skies, and I laid down on my back and gazed at them.
So many stars. I was watching them. And I couldn't help but feel like they were watching me.
The Unclasped. Who was it? And more importantly, how had they become unclasped? Because if one person could do it, why couldn't I somehow unclasp all of Gratta's Runners?
I blinked. My eyelids felt heavy.
Another yawn. Another blink.
And then I saw the old woman, leaning on a staff with feathers tied around the top end, standing at the other side of the roof and staring at me.
A glass window let the sunlight pour in like a warm blanket, hitting my face and sending a smile across my lips. I was dreaming again. Finally. I closed my eyes and soaked in the smell of steaming, red peppers and brown rice. And when I opened my eyes again, I saw the table stretching out around me, chairs lined along either side, laughing friends and family smirking and passing bowls of warm food.
A lump crushed the back of my throat as I tried not to let all the shaking sobs slip past my mouth. In this dream, all of them were real. All of them were still alive.
Raciel, dark skin, strong arms, gatekeeper of the Pale Woods and Cassie’s dad, stood at the end of the table from his chair, wiping both hands off on his apron. His words drifted toward me like gently lapping waves. "To family." He raised his glass, and we all copied him.
Glasses clinked together.
Laughter swam through my ears.
And faces I knew were gone smiled at me.
Saltha. My first and only friend from Jedros, where I grew up. Her dark hair hung to one side of her face, and she winked at me like we both knew the joke.
Zinnia. The girl standing where the horse had been. Blinking wide eyes and smiling like the world had never ended. Another swallow. Watching her die after defeating Molduth had been the worst of all. The death that had stabbed my own heart deep enough to break it.
A breeze wafted through the air, and the laughing voices dimmed. I turned slowly and saw a curtain of beads jangle slightly as a dark-skinned hand let them drop back into place.
I pushed through the beads, standing on the back porch of Raciel's house; the ocean twinkled out a song in waving rhythms. A small bluebird circled overhead, tweeting before flapping off to its nest.
And there, standing on an outcrop of rock stretching over the ocean, was Bella. Dark hair tied back in a layer of braids, head turned slightly to the right, a smile curling across her mouth. White light glowed from her skin, and I felt drawn.
"You came back again," she whispered.
I came up behind her, too afraid to touch her. Afraid to make this dream vanish back into the nightmare world I knew was waiting to swallow me again. I shook my head. "I always do."
Bella pivoted to face me, her golden-brown eyes searching mine. "Why do you? This isn't real?"
"It's real enough to me, and that's what matters here." I sat down on the rock, my bare feet dangling over the edge. Ocean spray splashed onto my heels, but I didn't care. I stared at Bella's face and saw the lines of worry etching both sides of her cheeks. "What's wrong?"
Bella sat down beside me, curling her legs under the white dress she wore. "I'm worried about you. You've been running for so long. How can you keep going?"
I sighed and stared at the ocean. How could I keep going? How was I able to wake up and face all of this again? Because the truth was, it would be easier to stay asleep and never wake up.
I swallowed. "I . . ." my words trailed into thoughts. This girl. She's what kept me going. Every night. Coming here. Sitting here. Listening to those same questions and knowing she would ask them. Knowing what I would say. Could say. But never did. I wanted to tell her that I thought she was the most beautiful girl in all five islands. That I would run with her anywhere she went. That I loved her.
But I couldn't say the words. Because somehow I knew, if I said them, all of this would vanish. My one safe place in the entire world was hanging together in my dreams by threads.
"How are you so brave?" I asked. "You faced a queen who tried to literally drain the life out of you. The whole world almost crumbled, and you . . . you just kept standing beside me against horrors."
Bella smiled and reached for my hand. Her fingers draped over mine. "I'm brave because you are."
A cloud appeared on the horizon. My gaze turned to stare as it drifted closer.
"Eric. There's something I have to tell you."
My stomach dropped. This was new. Bella had never said this before in any dream. I kept staring at the cloud. I would not look at her. I couldn't. Everything would shatter.
"Eric. Please." The pang of sadness in her voice made my head turn. Tears streaked her face as she glanced at the rocks beneath us.
"What is it?" I whispered, my lips barely moving.
"Something is coming for you."
I leaned back. "How do you know?"
"This was never just a dream, Eric."
Now my gaze whipped up to face her. "What are you talking about?"
"I didn't know another way to get a message to you."
My mouth went dry. "You've really here? It's really you?"
She nodded. "Yes, Eric. We have a bond unlike any other. It brings us together no matter how far apart we are. I can feel it like a tether, tying me to you. And now, I have to warn you."
"Warn me about what?"
A rumble of thunder echoed across the ocean.
"Warn you that it's coming for you."
A flash of green lightning sparked through the air, zapping into the ocean and swirling it into breakers pounding against the rocks beneath us. A wave of water splashed above us, crashing back down with a vengeance.
Bella's head slumped forward.
"Bella?" I shook her shoulder. "Bella? Wake up! Bella!"
And then her head snapped up, her eyes glowing a dark green color. Her voice dropped an octave, slipping across her tongue like sand. "I'm waiting for you, Eric. I've always been waiting for you. And when I find you, I'll make sure you never forget me."
I scrambled away and stared as the cloud enveloped us. Green lightning arced around my head. Dark haze separated me from Bella. She disappeared from sight. And then two green eyes glowed through the cloud, staring at me, narrowing, and then transforming into two green bolts snaking through the mist and smashing into my skull.
I flew backward, scraping my knees across the rocks. The ocean churned under me, and another blast of lightning hit me in the chest, flinging me toward the edge of the outcrop. I fell over the side, grasping at the rocks with my left hand. My fingers wrapped around a jutting piece of stone. I glanced up and saw the green eyes peering down at me from the dark cloud above.
That same deep voice dribbled over the edge. "Let me in, Eric."
"No!" I screamed, glancing down.
"Nowhere to go but dead on the rocks. Let me in."
"I don't care who you are! The answer is no!" I shouted back.
A rumbling chuckle. "Oh, you know who I am. We know each other well. Just let me in. And then you'll be free of all this pain roiling around inside of you."
"No!" But the shout didn't come from me. It came from a teenager, shouldering his way through the cloud. Wind whipped through his floppy dark hair. His elbow hid his face, and he pressed forward, reaching out with his other hand.
The green eyes shifted from side to side, glancing down at me and then at the boy making his way in our direction. My fingers ached from holding onto the rock for so long. I didn't know how much longer I could keep my grip. I swung my other arm up as the eyes retreated into the dark cloud, and the boy dropped to his knees above me.
He held down a hand. "Eric! Here!"
No. His face unhidden, I knew who this was. He was older. How he was so many years older than before I didn't understand, but I did know one thing. I did not want his help.
"Take my hand!"
I grit my teeth, holding in shuddering breaths and glaring at his face through the ocean spray pelting my face. "Never," I muttered.
He held out his hand. "Just take my hand! I'm right here!"
"No, you're not. This? This is a dream." I let go of the rocks and fell. My stomach lurched upward as I plummeted into the water below.
Water covered my nose, and I shot up coughing and spitting to the side.
The oasis. The pool. Palm trees. I was awake again.
I scrambled around, dripping and staring at the ridge of sand above us. Cereus stood to one side, shaking his mane and stamping both front hooves. Seven figures loomed against the midday sky, their forms hazy and shimmering with heat. They wore green robes that trailed down to their sandaled feet. Hoods covered their heads, with thin beards trailing down their chests. As one, they lifted their gloved hands and pointed at me.
"You have been summoned," they intoned.
Do we run? Cereus asked.
I nodded slowly. "They're Scholars. I didn't know they ventured this far from their mountain though."
"You have been summoned," the Scholars repeated.
"You said that already!" I shouted back.
So run, yeah?
I nodded and snatched up my tabak-toyok, stuffing it into the belt at my waist. Cereus shifted across the water and neighed. I splashed after him and reached the horse's side.
Fire flew across the oasis and landed in a thin line in front of us. It grew taller, circling around us and forming a grid like chain mail. It covered our heads in a dome, flicks of fire raining down every few seconds overhead. Cereus stamped back and forth, looking for a way out. We're trapped! I don't wanna be trapped!
Cereus closed his eyes to shift and opened them a second later. I can't go anywhere! I can't move!
"Moldable fire," I said. "It must stop you from shifting somehow."
The Scholars descended the slope, walked around the side of the pool, and encircled us. I could see grizzled chins poking out of the hoods. Now that they were up close, I could see the scorch marks covering their robes and the long slashes across their sleeves. I swallowed.
"What do you want with us?" I shouted through the fiery bars.
They didn't say a word. As one, they snapped their fingers, and the fire slowly danced across the sand, leaving a trail of glass behind it. We scooted away from the back end of the prison as quickly as possible and fell in step with the silent Scholars as they marched through the sand, taking us with them.
Where are we going? Cereus asked.
I shrugged. There really was no way of knowing.
A Scholar whisked a hand at the row of palm trees in front of us and the fire leapt from his palm, forming into a blazing axe head and chopping through each trunk in a flurry of wood chips. We passed through. Cereus whimpered at the sight of the downed trees.
We marched for another two hours before the Scholars stopped at an open expanse of desert. The sand stretched smoothly in a complete circle that was wider across than five of the rice paddies back on Jedros. One of the Scholars stood at the edge of the circle and produced a staff from his robes, jabbing the end of it into a slot in a red rock at his feet. He spun the staff around three times and then a rumbling sound filled my ears.
Cereus pranced back and forth in the small space, whinnying at the noise. Make it stop, Eric! Make it stop! It's too loud!
I patted his side. "I'm sorry!" I shouted over the din.
A wide, perfectly round, metallic building with rivets running up and down its sides rose from the sand. The grains dribbled off the roof, mixing with the desert below. The rumbling paused a moment later, and a metal door swung open in front of us. The cage of moldable fire glided forward until it melded with the dark metal. The front end of the cage flashed out of sight, and we had no choice but to move into the building or be singed from behind.
The metal felt surprisingly cool to the touch. I kept one hand on Cereus as we stepped into the darkness. The seven figures entered behind us, and then the door shut with a clang. Moldable fire leapt from the cage to sconces hanging around the walls, casting an orange glow around the room.
A ring of twelve chairs sat around a circular, black table in the center of the room. Each chair was made from the same dark metal as the building we stood inside. Rows of bookshelves clung to the sides of the room, crammed with scrolls and old books and a strange menagerie of bones stuffed into the empty cracks.
The seven Scholars strode forward and sat around the table, pausing to stare at each of the empty chairs before turning to face us.
"You have been summoned," they said again.
"We know!" I shouted. My voice echoed off the walls and fell back onto my ears. "What do you want?"
One of the Scholars stood and pulled back his hood.
I gasped and recoiled against Cereus's side.
What happened to him? the horse whispered in my mind.
I didn't know. The Scholar's face had burn marks stretching across it, with two long scars reaching from his left ear down to his chin. One eye had glazed over and stared in the opposite direction of us.
"Much has been happening in the world. And you are much to blame."
"Me? What have I done?" I asked.
The Scholar pointed at me. "You unleashed dark powers you had no right tampering with. Evil things lurk the woods of Castos, devouring anyone who comes in their path. Rumor has it the queen is returning."
I shook my head. "That's impossible. We blasted her to the ocean. No way she could come back from that."
"She is resilient. And stronger than you bargain." The Scholar ran a hand over his bald head, tracing a burn mark with his forefinger. "The threads all lead back to you. The Runner of Golden Light. You aided Molduth's release."
"And capture!" I shouted. I could feel my face turning red. Why were they trying to blame all of this on me?
"The spinewolf you aided awoke after you and your companion left the Scholar's Mountain. It ravaged our ranks. We are all that remain of the Scholars." He waved a hand at the others. They pulled back their robes and revealed burnt faces, scars, and pain etched through every face. "With its dark powers, it made us do terrible things. Drove some mad. Destroyed others. If we had not been quick enough with our moldable fires, we too would have perished in the blaze that consumed him."
"So he's gone?" I asked.
The Scholar nodded. "But not without price. You have defied the laws of physics within the world of Abra. Your clasp was destroyed and yet here you stand. Alive. Only one other has ever survived such an event."
My eyebrows shot up. "Someone else is un . . . The Unclasped," I whispered. "That's what you're talking about, isn't it? The Unclasped! You know who it is!"
The Scholars exchanged uneasy glances.
One of them glared at the standing man. "The Unclasped is not why he has been summoned. You discuss things you shouldn't."
The Scholar who stood nodded. "Indeed. You have a summoning to fulfill. When Molduth was released, other Ancients stirred from their dark slumber. Something slipped through the cracks and emerged here, on the Isle of Uthen. It stalks this land. The Dry Death."
I don't like this, Eric. We gotta run. Like really gotta.
"Agreed," I whispered. Then louder. "And what exactly am I supposed to do?"
"You are the Runner of Golden Light. And you must do what you do to run. The five islands of Abra are on a precipice, ready to fall into the ocean's tumultuous grip with one fell motion. And you are all that stands in its way."
I shook my head. "Never. I'm not going to let anyone control me ever again."
The Scholar crossed his arms. "We don't want to control you. We want you to unleash the controls you've imposed upon yourself and be who you truly are."
"No. Not happening!"
A sad sigh whisked through the Scholars. One of them muttered, "I told you he wouldn't succumb so easily. We must make him use the light again."
"What are you talking about?"
Cereus stamped his hooves. I don't like it!
"Then so be it." The Scholar leaned back and slammed a fist against a round protrusion on the metal wall. It slid back, and a trapdoor swung open under my feet, sending Cereus and I plummeting into the darkness below.
A swirl of sand whisked past my neck. I slapped at it, imagining tiny sand ticks burrowing their way into my skin. I glanced at the raw mark on my forearm where a clasp had once been. The reminder of my old life. The reminder of everything wrong with the world. The reminder that I was a fugitive from everyone.
I ducked lower behind the jagged rock and peered over the edge. A full harvest moon was on my side this night. It shone across the barren landscape of sand and rocks stretching into the distance for leagues upon leagues until somewhere it reached the edge of this waste of an island. Uthen, the barren isle.
Can you see anything? Cereus asked.
I shook my head. "Not yet."
The white horse threw his mane to one side and snorted. Eric, I'm itching here. I gotta run. Or it's gonna kill me.
"If we run now, we will get killed."
A pack of Runners from Gratta's compound had apparently made some sort of uneasy truce. I had spotted them two days ago, on our trail, but sloppy. They had left too many signs of following us. A campfire left smoldering. Footprints scattered across the sand, with no attempt to cover the tracks. We had circled back a day ago and followed them from behind until breaking off and hiding in the rocks.
But even if they weren't careful, they were determined. We had already escaped four times from new recruit Runners who had tried to kill me before we managed to gallop away. It was only a matter of time before one of them caught up with us.
Fine, fine! Cereus huffed. I could hear his anxious stamping inside my brain. He collapsed forward until his legs tucked beneath his gray-speckled belly. I'm just gonna sit here until you're ready. Which I hope is soon.
A rock skittered to the sand behind us. I whirled around and glanced upward at the red rock face stretching maybe an old tree's height upward. The dust trailed it and drifted outward. I scanned the cliff's edge. There was no way they could have doubled back up there. Because they were clearly out in the desert below. So for someone to--
Eric! Behind you!
I spun, but not in time. A fist pummeled the side of my face. The stars blurred into streaks of white pain, and I fell back to the sand as an older boy hefted a rock the size of a saddlebag over his head. I bit down on my tongue to keep from screaming as the rock swung at me.
A white and gray blur shifted past me, and Cereus zipped through the air. The horse appeared behind the boy and kicked with both hind legs. The boy flew through the air, dropping the rock. I rolled to the side as it smashed into dust beside my head.
Time to run!
"Agreed!" I leapt to my feet and ran to Cereus, jumping and whipping my leg over his back.
The voice stopped me. I glanced over Cereus's gray mane and saw her. The one person I had hoped to avoid since this wild chase had begun weeks ago. Telisa.
She stood there, disheveled, face smeared with dust and grime. Stray hairs clung to the twin braids hanging down from either side of her head. She clutched a long, dark sword in one hand, and a short, leather-handled knife in the other.
I didn't say anything. I stared. One eye on her. One eye on the Runner shaking his head and slumping back to the rocks behind us.
Telisa gritted her teeth, and I saw the red clasp on her forearm glow a faint purple. The veins on her neck stood out, and she dropped her sword and knife to the ground with a clatter. Telisa gasped, clutching her stomach as the purple deepened before evening back to a dull red.
"Eric," she spat. "They're all trying to kill you." A spasm of pain jerked up to her shoulder. "We are all trying to kill you."
Should we shift? Cereus asked.
"Not yet," I whispered.
Telisa's breathing grew ragged. "They won't stop, Eric. They're going to chase you down, make sure you bleed. It won't end unless you're dead. Or we are all dead."
A lump itched at my throat. "I know."
"Then stop running and let one of us kill you. We can't keep going like this." She raked her overgrown fingernails over her frizzy head. "I can't. I'm going crazy. All of us are. You don't know what's happening to them. Some of them couldn't take the pressure. They gave up. They died. Others are . . ." a slight bit of froth slipped from her lips. "Others are maddened. Desperate."
"If one of you kills me, then all the rest of you fail," I said. And I knew what that meant. That meant they would all die. This was their job: kill me. And if one person accomplished it, I would be dead along with every other Runner who hadn't killed me.
A smile snaked across Telisa's face, and her fingers grappled for the knife handle. "I know. So let me kill you, Eric. Don't you want me to live? I'm your old friend. We went through a lot together." She staggered back. "We—" she shook her head. "Eric. Listen to me." Her gaze focused on me. "I can't hold this at bay forever." Purple glowed through her gem. "Soon, I'm going to crack. But there might be a way."
Don't trust her. Cereus stepped back, and Telisa stepped forward.
"Yes!" Telisa held out a shaking hand. "The Unclasped. A way to unclasp all of us. You have to find it. You're one of them now!"
I shook my head. I knew what had unclasped me. And I knew who had done it. I closed my eyes and saw a flash of the boy's face. Tears streaking down his cheeks as he whispered my name again and again, holding out a hand to me. "NO!" I shouted. I knew what that boy had done. He had ripped me from everything. All of this was his fault. The running. The chasing. The killing. It was all on him.
Telisa groaned. "Then we don't have much choice." She dropped to the ground, whipped up the sword, and raced at us, screaming.
Cereus shifted to the side as Telisa ran past, driving the blade at the rock face. I'm gonna run now. The horse pounded ahead, down a steep slope toward the sand below. I glanced back and saw Telisa leaping onto the back of a horse that seemed to step out of the rock wall itself. The horse shimmered in the moonlight, almost like it was translucent.
What? What is it? Cereus shouted in my mind as he leapt over a rock and landed on the other side. I can feel your panic!
"I don't know! Some kind of shiny horse or something."
Oh no, Cereus said. That's bad. And that's not a horse. It's a pegasus.
The shimmering horse leapt over the side of the rocks, and instead of falling it spread two massive, pearly wings to either side, flapping them and sending a downdraft our way. The blast of air slammed into my backside. I flew over Cereus, head first toward the rocks. He shifted sideways, and I landed on my stomach across his back with a grunt. The air whisked out of my lungs, and I hung there trying to catch my breath again.
A second blast of wind pummeled us. Cereus and I fell sideways, sliding into the sand and down the side of the dune. I saw a flash of the pegasus glimmering, and then the dark red glow emanating from Telisa's clasp lit her face. Her eyes narrowed, jaw set, she pointed the sword at us with a scream. The pegasus tucked its wings to either side and dropped toward the desert floor.
Cereus blinked out of sight and reappeared standing up. We have to go! More are coming!
Over his backside, I could see three other Runners on foot, pounding across the sand with glowing red gems in their forearms. They held spears, shouting at the night sky and pointing in our direction.
"He's mine!" Telisa growled, jumping from the back of the pegasus, somersaulting in the sand, and leaping to her feet in front of me. She swung her sword, and I ducked, spotting a tabak-toyok, a weapon I recognized from some of the Boss’s men on Jedros, hanging on Telisa's belt. I wrapped my fist around the metal handle and whipped it from her side. The handle connected to an identical handle by a short rope. The end of the toyok whapped Telisa in the sword elbow. Her sword dropped to the sand with a thud as she gripped the bone and backed away.
A spear flew through the air and skidded to a halt a hands-length from my foot. "Cereus!"
The pegasus flapped in circles as Cereus darted from one position to another, missing the clop of the flying beast's hooves. Cereus shifted upward, landing with all four hooves on the pegasus's back. The weight sent the creature plummeting to the ground along with Cereus. The white and gray horse shifted before hitting the sand right next to me. The pegasus landed with a crunch and a bent wing. It whinnied, arching back its head and closing both eyes.
I swung up onto Cereus's back as another spear flew past us. We shifted left and then back to the right as the third spear whizzed by my ear.
"ERIC!" Telisa screamed. "ERIC!"
I didn't glance back. "Just run. We have to run."
I know, Cereus whispered, adding short shifts ahead to outdistance the four Runners marching through the desert behind us.
I let out the long breath I had been holding. We had gotten away. This time. But how many times could we escape? How many times before we were dead, buried in sand, and forgotten by time? The stars winked at me. The moon blazed yellow. And my resolve crumbled a little more.
Why keep running at all? Maybe it would be better to let one of them take me. If Telisa was the one to finish the job, then she would live.
But what about the others? Cereus asked. Lodan? Henryk, that little sprite.
I leaned forward to the horse's ear. "And that's why I can't do it. There's been enough death."
What was Telisa saying about the Unclasped? What is that?
I ran my fingers across the marks on my forearm. The place where I had once been clasped. Where the metal had singed my skin, forcing me into a life of slavery to a bookkeeper. Running jobs or ending up dead and swallowed in purple light.
I didn't know what the Unclasped was. Part of me didn't care. Or want to care. My gaze settled on the horizon of sand, rolling on and over into the distance until it melded into the night sky.
We rode on for hours until the moon had dipped low, and the sun barely peeked into view. Red rocks scrawled onward, jutting from the sand like fingers grasping at the sky.
I'm tired, Cereus whimpered. We gotta stop soon, or I'm not gonna be able to run another half-trot.
I held one hand over my eyes, scanning the brightening landscape. Everything on Uthen really was desolate. We had passed one border town on our way across the Passway from Castos, but that was weeks ago. Since then, we had found hovels nestled against cliff sides and dug into the caked grounds of the western side of the island, but nothing else.
In all my years growing up on Jedros, I had never heard much about Uthen. Except that it was a place to avoid. All the elders in my village whispered about the dry death that would sneak up on a person traveling that island. A massive wasteland of sand and rock, with few places to water a horse. We had been lucky enough to find a thin stream trickling out of a rock side. We had hidden there for a few days before moving onward.
The faintest glimpse of a palm frond wavered into view over the next dune. I blinked, making sure my eyes weren't playing tricks on me. "What about that? Oasis?"
Cereus huffed. Looks real enough to me. He dug his head forward, shifting his way up the sand dune until we could see a pool of water below us. Palm trees, spread at varying heights, shook in the slight breeze of the early morning.
I leapt off the horse and slid on my backside down the sand until I was face-first in the water, gulping it down.
Hey! Wait for me! The air wobbled beside me, and then Cereus appeared, head dunked under, gulping at the pool.
I leaned back, smirked, and whacked his side. "Don't drink it all."
The horse lifted his head; the top of his mane was wet and plastered around his eyes. Sure, sure. Who saved your life back there? Oh. That was me. A few times over. So sit down and relax.
I laid down, the shadows of palm fronds stretching over me. And for a blink of time, I felt the knots twisting my stomach around ease slightly. For at least this moment, we were safe.
Who knew if it would last? Who knew if we would last? Every time I closed my eyes I imagined I would wake up to find myself dead, a Runner standing over me with a red glow circling their forearm.
So far we had made it. But I knew luck wouldn’t last forever.
I closed both eyes, letting the warmth of the day wash over me. And as I drifted off to sleep, two words circled my mind: The Unclasped. Who was the Unclasped? Was it someone like me? Or something different?
Before I could think about it any further, I drifted to sleep, my favorite place to be these days. Because when being awake was a nightmare, there was no other escape than dreams.
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.