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.
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.