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.