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.
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.