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.
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.