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.
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.