I woke up to a boot slamming into my gut. I curled up on the sleeping mat, pain spasming through my stomach. My eyes shot open as I gasped, tossing aside the scratchy blankets and then blinking at the harsh sunlight streaming through the window. The day was already warm. Dry air scraped down my nostrils with each inhale.
“Get up, maggot.”
One of the Runners stood over me. Rudo. He had taken off his duster and wore a white collared shirt with brown suspenders looped over his shoulders. His dark hair hung loose down to his shoulders. His fists were clenched at his sides.
I glanced around. The rest of the dormitory was already empty.
“Everyone's at the morning feed. If you don't hurry, you'll miss out. And Gratta won't like it.” He reached down and grabbed me by the clasp, yanking me up. My forearm stung, and I shook my arm away and backed into the log wall behind me. Rudo pointed to a wooden chest in the corner of the dorm. “Clothes's in there. Change out of those filthy ricelands rags. They stink.”
I scratched the skin around my clasp and limped over to the chest. My entire forearm looked red from the clasp. Around the edges of the silver, it appeared to be fused to my arm, like the metal had sunk beneath the surface and latched around my bones. It would probably never come off. Not that I wanted to try and take it off. Not after what had happened to Saltha. The gem was a milky color again this morning.
Rudo stomped past me, through the door, and outside into the bright sunlight. “Hurry up, recruit.”
“Yes, sir,” I muttered. The clothes in the chest were clean and smelled fresh enough–like pine needles and wood. A better smell than anything back on Jedros. Washing clothes there was a weekly task. People in the village generally stunk. Apparently, Gratta liked her Runners smelling better than that.
I slipped out of my tunic and trousers and slid on a pair of loose brown pants and a white collared shirt like Rudo's. I fumbled with the buttons and the holes, not quite sure if I had done it right. I'd never worn anything this fancy before. The suspenders were the hardest to figure out. The band stretched over my shoulder, and I fumbled with the clasp, trying to get it latched onto the back of my pants. With a harsh snap, it came loose and slapped against my cheek.
Rudo smirked. “Trouble?”
I ignored him, winced, and tried again until it clipped into place. I pulled two black boots out of the trunk and shoved my feet into them. They felt so strange after the flat shoes I had grown up wearing. I felt taller.
A dusty field stretched between the dormitory and one of the large buildings. It wasn’t exactly a building really, more like the top of a barn arching over a pavilion with packed earth, benches, and rows of wooden tables. Rudo walked in front of me, kicking up dust as we marched into the open building.
“This is the Commons where we feed. So sit down and eat, recruit.”
I spotted Lodan and zig-zagged through the tables until I sat beside him. He had a plate in front of him piled with bread, poached eggs, and a tin mug filled with water. Long platters sat in the center of the table with more hunks of bread and eggs and metal pitchers of water. My eyes widened. I had never seen so much food in one place before. The smells drifted up to my nostrils and almost overwhelmed with the sheer variety.
“Eric,” Lodan said through a mouth full of eggs. “Sorry I didn't get you up. They hustled us out here. You slept through the whole thing. Crazy.” He chewed and swallowed.
“Training.” Lodan nodded at a ring of tables on the far side of the Commons. “Those tables is for the Runners who've passed training.”
I stared wide-eyed at the ten tables filled with other recruits–male and female, all dressed the same with white collared shirts, suspenders, brown pants and black boots. There must have been at least a couple hundred of us training, but only about twenty-four Runners.
“So many of us.”
Lodan leaned forward. “I guess that's because they don't expect most of us to live through training.”
He nudged my shoulder. “You better eat. Or you're gonna miss out. They said we have tactical training right after this. What that is, I have no idea. But I'm gonna make it to those Runner tables.”
I grabbed a piece of bread and sank my teeth into it. It was still warm and seemed to melt on my tongue. I was surprised. I never expected to eat so well. Maybe being a Runner really wasn't that terrible. Save the whole might not live past training bit.
Other recruits didn't even glance over at us. They kept stuffing their faces like they had never eaten a thing in their lives. Maybe they hadn't. With every bite, I couldn't help wondering what Saltha would have made of all this. She'd probably still be planning an escape. Her gem glowing purple. I couldn't imagine how this life could be so much worse than working a rice paddy for the rest of my existence.
I thought about my parents for a moment–their dead gazes as they sloshed their way through the rice. My mother's eyes as she told me to run. My father not even bothering to glance my direction as these Runners slapped a clasp on my forearm.
I shook my head. They were in the past now.
A loud ringing echoed across the Commons. Gratta stood on a small stage in the center of the Runner tables, holding up a metal triangle and a hammer. She clanged the hammer against the triangle again, and every head whipped up. Every mouth stopped chewing. We put down our forks.
“Listen up, kids! Welcome to our newest Jedros recruits. We hope you find this a satisfying place to live out your lives. Most of y'all won't make it even a year with us. Some of y'all might die tomorrow in training. Whether you die now or then, just know this: I appreciate each one of ya. Or at least the gold ya line my pockets with!” Gratta laughed and swept her hat from her silver head, smacking it against her knee.
“But seriously.” She cleared her throat and swallowed. “While all y'all are here, you listen to my Runners. You recruits ain't Runners yet. You might become them one day. But not yet. There's a plum-crazy world out there filled with all kinds of stuff that’ll maim ya. Then dismember ya! Then kill ya! I would prefer y'all livin' long enough to finish a few jobs for ole Gratta.”
She stomped her foot. “Telisa! Fork over the rules!”
A Runner sitting behind Gratta stood up. She had long brown hair braided into two ponytails on either side of her head with a neat part down the middle. A deep scar ran across her face, over her lips, and down her chin. She was tall, taller than most anybody else. And she was the most muscular person under the Commons roof. She could probably break me in half with a single snap.
Her voice carried throughout the Commons when she spoke, both hands clasped behind her back. “Listen up! Because I'm only sayin' this one time. You're in Gratta's dominion now. And if you fail to abide by these rules you'll be put on gate duty. Or sent to the maggot hole for a night. And if you really can't listen, then Gratta will crack yer gem.”
Telisa glanced in my direction. “I hear some of you already know what happens when someone's gem gets all cracked up.”
“No one goes in Gratta's house! For no reason! No one takes weapons without permission! No fightin' unless it's organized by me! And you will always listen to a Runner! Disobey one, and I will send you to the maggot hole!” Telisa stepped back.
Gratta smiled at her. “Thank you, dear. Always a pleasure to hear from ya.” The old woman stepped back up onto the stage and smirked. “Now then.” She clapped her hands together and rubbed them quickly. “On to some training! Separate by home island! Jedros out to the pits! Castos on work duty! Vos! You're at the stables! Uthen, get yer sorry hides out to the fields! And Raithan, you're in the Casket! Now move!”
Benches squeaked as the recruits and Runners stood up.
“Where are the pits?” I asked.
Lodan shrugged. “No clue. At least we're all together.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Telisa stalked through the crowd of people until she stood in front of our table. “Jedros! You're with me! The pits are this way!” Her head stood above every other person in the Commons building, so it wasn't hard to follow her braids out into the sunlight, past the girl's dormitories and toward a fenced off area of the grounds. There were twenty of us from Jedros following behind her. It was weird to see everybody from the rice paddies in such strange clothes. There were some I hadn't ever seen before.
Was this where my brother had come when they took him? If these Runners were the ones that took him. Maybe he hadn't lived through training. Maybe he was dead now. Maybe--
“Stop!” Telisa screamed.
She placed a large hand on a wooden gate. The fence was a series of wooden posts, the tops sharpened into pikes. This single gate led through the fence and to what I guessed was the pits. A latch hung across the gate.
Two other Runners had joined our group. Rudo and another one I hadn't seen yet. Rudo had his boken in one hand and the other Runner, another girl, held a sharp rapier with a blue handle. She wore a wide-brimmed hat with a drawstring pulled tight under her chin. They both stood at the back, nodding at Telisa.
“Right then!” Telisa said. “I want you all to listen. I expect at least two of you to be dead by the time the lunch bell rings. You all live, and I'll let you off your work hour tonight. Got it?”
My mouth had gone dry. I glanced at Lodan. His normal calmness had slipped away to the dust somewhere behind us. His eyes looked as panicky as mine must have.
“Put your ears up against the fence. And listen!” Telisa shouted, pointing at the wood.
No one else moved. So I stepped forward and pressed my ear against the wood posts and listened. On the other side, I heard a kind of chewing sound, like something was eating a meal. But I also noticed a sliding noise, like sand dribbling down the sides of rocks. The others joined me up against the fence and listened.
“What you're listening to is the pitters. They're nasty things, and they're always hungry for a new recruit. We're going to see which of you might be smarter than the rest. We need to get rid of anyone who seems weak.” Telisa glanced at each one of us.
“What do we have to do, ma'am?” I asked.
Telisa paused, pursed her lips together, and narrowed her eyes. “Simple enough. Get past the pitters and get the flag at the other end. Work together if you want. I don't care.”
A girl with blonde hair started shaking. “Wh-what if we don't want to?”
Rudo stepped up behind her with his boken raised. Telisa held up a hand. Rudo stepped back.
“You don't want to play this little game, is that it?” Telisa asked.
The girl's lip quivered. She shook her head.
“That's too bad. Because you have to.”
I glanced down at the girl's forearm. The clasp had turned a tinge of purple. “Stop thinking about escaping!” I shouted.
Telisa raised an eyebrow. The girl stared at me; her mouth dropped open. “How d-do you know that's what I'm . . . .”
“Your clasp!” I pointed at her forearm. The gem had grown a deeper shade of purple. “It turns that color when people think about leaving! So stop!”
Telisa crossed her arms. “He's right you know. You keep formulating that little escape plan, and you'll leave all right. You'll be gone in a flash o' purple light. Dead. Your soul cracked in two.”
The girl swallowed and nodded. “I . . . I can't help it . . . I want to leave. I can't do this! I can't!” She turned and raced back toward the Commons.
“I can't do it either!” A boy beside me shouted. His gem glowed a bright purple. He ran after the girl, but before they had even gotten halfway across the field, they stumbled to the dust, grabbing at their throats, coughing, and then rising slowly into the air, glowing with purple light. Their bodies spun faster and faster as tendrils of light wrapped around their legs and arms and heads.
Saltha's face flashed into my head, and I glanced away. I couldn't watch this again. I couldn't.
“Cover,” Telisa muttered. She put an arm over her eyes as the two recruits vanished into the purple light, their clasps cracking and falling to the dust where they had been. Telisa sighed. “Anyone else care to go out in a blaze of glory?” She eyed us and then nodded at Rudo. “Get those clasps to recycling. The Queen'll want 'em.”
Rudo darted off.
“Now then. Back to the game.” She lifted the latch on the gate. “By the way, y'all aren't getting' out of work duty now. Ya lost two. Just like I predicted.”
My hands shook, but I clenched my fingers together. If there was one thing I was about to do, it was win. I was not going to let that happen to anyone else.
Telisa pulled open the gate, and I was the first one through. Staring. A field of pits stretched between the gate and a small mound of boulders with a green flag on a pole stuck into a crevice in the rocks. Sand dribbled down the pits towards a dark hole at the center of each one. Thirty pits stood between me and that flag.
Lodan inched inside the fence with me, and the rest of the recruits followed. We lined up in a half circle a few arm lengths away from the first pit. Sharp pincers slowly rose from the pit, attached to a head covered in eyes with a nasty gullet of sharp teeth. Slobber spilled out the mouth, and every eye latched onto us and widened.
I wanted to back away and run. I glanced down and noticed the faintest purple tinge sweep into the gem on my clasp. I gritted my teeth and forced my eyes to watch the creature emerge from the pit. It looked like a giant millipede longer than Telisa was tall. A thousand tiny red legs scuttled on either side of its thick body. Each segment writhed as sand spilled to the ground. Pitters.
The gate slammed shut. A shadow fell over us. Telisa stood on a small platform, hands clasped behind her back. She saluted and raised both eyebrows. “You've got until the lunch bell rings. If you survive.”
The pitter slithered over the sand back and forth, tapping its legs against the sand. The ground rumbled, and we stumbled back against the fence as fifteen more pitters emerged from their holes, some dark red, some brown, some a deep ivory color.
A girl beside me screamed in terror and collapsed to the sand.
“Get up!” I shouted.
But it was too late. The pitter darted forward, snapping its pincers around the girl's leg and dragging her clawing at the ground back toward the pit as she screamed. I flew forward onto my stomach and grabbed her arm, yanking backward.
Tears crawled down her face as she gripped my hands tightly. “Don't let go, don't let go, don't let go!”
The creature roared and lifted its body into the air, dragging her along with it. She hung upside down from its pincers, now piercing her left leg. She screamed again as the pitter scrambled back toward its hole. I lost my grip on her hand and glanced around for a rock – anything I could throw, anything at all. But there was nothing nearby except sand.
I scooped up a handful and flung it at the pitter's eyes. It blinked at me and screeched. The pitter slipped back into the hole with the girl and a gulp.
I stared at the dark hole. I had lost her.
Lodan slapped me on the shoulder. “No time to think about it. We gotta run!” He pointed at another pitter scuttling toward us, pincers clacking.
We ran. The other recruits darted in all directions, some trying to stay away from the pitters, others scraping at the fence and trying to climb out, and another two sitting down in complete surrender. Their gems turned bright purple, and two more of them vanished from sight, leaving behind their clasps in the sand.
A series of reddish rocks stuck up from the sand. “Maybe we can get across that way!” I shouted.
Lodan spotted the rocks and nodded. “Best idea yet!”
A pitter slid up behind us, and I shoved Lodan to the side. He crashed into the wooden post fence, and I fell back onto the first rock. The pitter screeched and swung its head from me to Lodan, probably deciding who was the easier prey. I scrambled up to my feet as the pincers shot in my direction, snapping closed as I leaped back.
“Get the flag!” Lodan shouted.
Get the flag. I had to get the flag. Then this would be over. Or at least the gate would open. I didn't imagine Telisa and the other Runners helping us. We'd probably still have to get back to the gate.
I hurdled to the next rock, over a pit and a pitter as it shot out of its hole and slammed into the pitter slithering after me. The two monsters screeched, legs scraping against each other before they rolled to the side with a crunch.
My heart slammed against my chest. Panic fueled my legs. The flag was closer. I had to make it. I leaped to another rock as a pitter rose up in front of me. I gasped, falling back to my elbows and staring up at as the thing towered over me. It waved its little legs in the air, every eye glared at me.
Another pitter slowly rose up beside me and slammed its pincers around my arm. It eyed my clasp and the gem, now back to its milky white color. Drool slipped from its mouth onto my shoulder, sizzling in the sunlight.
“Eric!” I heard Lodan scream. “ERIC!”
And then the pitter in front of me dropped its pincers straight at my chest.
Fog lingered over the passway like the stank breath that wouldn't brush out of a mouth. Moss grew over most of this passway, and somewhere down below I could hear the water lapping up against the stone sides.
I marched near the front of the group. The Runner with the missing sleeve marchec out at the very front, whip in hand, feet stepping gingerly over the stones beneath us. He slid along almost sideways, ready to pounce back at us recruits, or leap ahead at unseen enemies in the fog.
Before we stepped onto the bridge, Gratta had shown us how to use the clasps on our arms as a light. If we rubbed the gems fast enough, they would glow for at least a couple hundred steps before we had to rub it again. I glanced at my gem. It was a milky color, still quite opaque, and shining slightly. I rubbed my fist across it a bit more, and the light brightened.
“Best not to let that get too bright there.”
I glanced up to see Gratta leaning over the side of her horse; silver hair tucked behind her ears. She had a silver earring clamped around the whole top half of her earlobe. Her fingernail scratched at the skin around the metal.
I held my hand over the gem. “Sorry.”
“Nah, no need to be sorry just yet. Ya don't know better, that's why I'm tellin' ya.” Gratta sat up and swayed slightly. The horse's hooves clopped over the bridge. I couldn't help wondering why it was so important not to be seen if anyone could hear us coming from a mile away. Gratta clucked her tongue. “Disappoint me, though . . . . Oh, then you'll be real sorry.”
Gratta pulled back on the horse's reins, circled, and clopped to the back of the group.
Lodan scurried up, falling in step with me.
“What do you want?” I asked, glancing away.
“Look, Eric. I'm sorry, but . . . I've heard things.”
“Oh really?” I hissed. “Like what? Like how to be a terrible friend to people? How to let other people die? That sounds great to me.”
“No.” Lodan took a deep breath and peeked back at Gratta and the two surviving Runners at the very back of the group. “Things like if you touch someone when they're . . . .” He swallowed. “You know. Like what happened with Saltha. Earlier. If you touch them, then you get pulled into the light too.”
I sniffed. Not because I was crying, but because my nose was cold. Okay, maybe I had been holding back some tears, but I wasn't about to cry in front of these people. They didn't seem to appreciate weakness.
Maybe Lodan was telling the truth. Maybe he was right.
I turned to face him. “How do you know?”
Lodan leaned forward. “My parents knew a bookkeeper once. He came to their cottage one night before we worked for Boss Mandel in the rice fields. This bookkeeper told my parents about these gems. Drunk as rice roots, he was. And I listened.”
“What else did you find out?”
“Not much. Bits. I was young. Maybe five or six. All I know is the colors on the gems. They mean things. And once you've got one of these,” he held up his forearm. His gem was the same milky white as mine. “Once you got one, you're bound. Can't leave your bookkeeper. Until you finish enough jobs for 'em.”
The sleeveless Runner stopped. He spun around as I bumped right into his whip. “Will you two clam it up? You're gonna learn all kinds of things about these clasps, the gems, the jobs, the bookkeepers. But right now, we might run afoul of other things. So stay silent.”
“I thought this was a passway. Aren't they clear?” Lodan asked.
The Runner snorted and shook his head. “Stupid recruit. You're always stupid. Suppose even I was stupid once. Then you learn things. Like how passways aren't always safe. So shut it.” He spun back around and marched ahead, the orange light from his gem lighting up the fog.
We marched on. The other recruits behind us went between whimpering, shivering, straight-out crying, and plodding ahead in numb silence. Gratta hurried alongside the passway railing, glancing back, ahead, to the side, as if waiting for something. She tipped up her hat and peered into the gloom, almost daring something to fly at us, to try and surprise her.
My feet ached. It felt like my arches were cramping up, and if I took even five more steps, I'd fall over face first onto the stone passway.
The sleeveless Runner held up a fist. The fog ahead cleared, and a soft breeze wafted against my cheek. I shivered.
A stone arch hung over the pass with two turrets on either side. Windows with actual glass panes faced us, and candlelight lit up the right side. There was a wooden door at the bottom, open slightly. The door pushed open with a creak, and a man in a dark tunic and brown breeches sauntered out. A two-barreled pistol hung loosely from his left hand. He had dark stringy hair, a grizzled face, and a scarred eyesocket.
“Well, now.” He slapped a hand against the stone archway. “Look what trolled up here.”
Gratta's horse pushed through the crowd of recruits until she stood at the front of the pack. She slipped off the back of the horse. The back sides of her brown boots had spurs that jangled once as she landed. She held the rifle and her nose, spitting to the side. “We have a right fine bunch 'o business. That's what we have. And none of it is yers, so slip aside, Bonaventure.”
The man smiled and spread his arms wide. “I was just pokin' me nose about, pretty lady. That's all. I didn't mean to get ye caught up unawares. The turrets were long abandoned when I got 'ere, I'll tell ye that much. Somethin' foul's on the seas. And it doesn't take prisoners if ye catch my meanin'.”
Gratta narrowed her eyes. “Move along. And we'll be movin' right along as well.”
“Ah,” Bonaventure snapped his fingers. Five men clambered over the side of the passway with pistols slung at their waists. Four more crept up the other side, and one leaned out the darkened window above, a gold flintlock pistol aimed at Gratta's head.
I stepped back.
“Pirates,” Lodan whispered.
Sleeveless shot us a look and held a finger to his lips.
Gratta patted the horse beside her. “What do ya want?”
Bonaventure raised his eyebrows and smirked. “I want . . . ” he held up two fingers. “Two of yer recruits. I need some Runners in the employ. So who's it gonna be?” He clapped his hands together and stepped forward. His gaze ran over each one of us like we were fresh fruit at the market.
Gratta held up her arm. “None o' these. They're too fresh. Haven't had time to write their names in the books or nuttin'. You go and take on of these, and they'll die in a blast o’ purple faster than you can spit.”
“That's a mighty fine problem. That it is . . . ” Bonaventure tapped his forehead, tracing a finger down the side of his face, through his scarred eyesocket and ending at his chin. “What should we do about that?”
“I got a solution,” Gratta said. “Back off. And back away.”
Bonaventure wagged a finger in Gratta's face. “Ah, but that's not the way business is done, dear Gratta. Ye can't be waltzin' yer way through my seas without a penalty o' sorts. Words tellin' of stirrin's. There's things happenin' out in ole Abra, and I reckon I should have myself a pinch of insurance before it all blinks out like a snuffed lamp.”
He slipped around Gratta and stood beside her horse.
“Ya got no need o' horses out on the seas, and ya know it,” Gratta muttered.
Bonaventure flipped open a pouch on the side of the horse and pulled out a clasp. Saltha's clasp. “This'll do!”
“Drop that!” I shouted. “It's not yours!”
Gratta spun. Sleeveless stepped over and backhanded me across the face. “Not another word!”
I stumbled back with a cry of pain, clutching my cheek.
Bonaventure smirked and dangled the clasp. “This mean somethin' to ye, now?”
I clenched my teeth. My cheek quivered. I wanted to grab that clasp back, shove this scum off the side of the passway, and watch him panic in the water below.
“Ah. So it does.” He tapped a finger on the gem, tracing its cracks carefully. “These are rare finds in Abra. Used clasps. Belonged to a recruit. Who didn't know when to stay put.” Bonaventure stepped up to me. Lodan, Gratta, and Sleeveless all lurched back. I eyed the pistols trained on us, then glanced up at Bonaventure.
He held the clasp in front of me. “Friend o' yours?”
I nodded, one hand still on my stinging cheek.
“Tell me, boy. Do ye know what happens to them when they sees the purple light?”
I shook my head. “I don't. But I do know you should give that back.” My cheek still stung. But I didn't care. That clasp was all that was left of Saltha. It just seemed wrong in this man's hands. Wrong.
“When they sees the purple light, it's 'cause they be thinkin' of runnin'. They wants to run. And not in the direction of any job, mind ye. They's thinkin' of headin' out. Gettin' away from their bookkeeper. Always dangerous to run from a bookkeeper.” He smiled, baring his yellowed teeth and one silver one. “When the gem cracks, so does their very soul. Breaks 'em apart at the deepest o' levels, it does. And once they's broken, there's no bringin' 'em back to the land o' the living.” He tapped me on the head with the clasp. “So yer little friend is dead. Just like you’ll be. Got that?”
I nodded, a single tear slipping down my cheek. Saltha wasn’t just gone. She was erased. Never coming back. My stomach twisted with an ache, and for the first time that day, I realized just how hollow it really was.
“Ah, the poor wee lad's gone and cried over a broken clasp.” And then he leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “And perhaps a broken heart.” He grabbed my shoulder and yanked me closer. The smell of rotting fruit drifted up from his tunic. “Beware the Queen, laddie. I reckon she take a bad sort of likin' to ye. Long live the rebellion.”
Then he whisked backward, pistol waving in the air. He fired once, and the blast rang in my ears. I slammed my fists over both sides of my head and blinked twice.
“Back to the ship, lads! We got ourselves a prize!” He held the clasp up and fired again, laughing and running straight for the side of the passway. He leaped over along with the other nine pirates, who slipped over the side and out of sight. I almost expected to hear splashes, but instead, I saw the fog part around a large white sail fluttering in the breeze. The pirates clung to the side of the sail, slipping to the deck of a wooden ship.
The last pirate wound his way down from the turret above, raced across the passway, and leaped to the sail, sliding to the deck and saluting us back on the passway.
The ship drifted away from the passway. It looked to be about the length of three cottages with a fairly bare deck, save the two harpoon guns lodged on either side, and two women with their ratty hair pulled back into braids. Bonaventure marched up to the ship's wheel and spun it. The ship drifted to the side, turning away from the passway into the fog.
Sleeveless smacked his whip on the stones. “I hate that kinda scum.”
Gratta shook her head. “They only took a broken clasp, not too much to worry about. Save the Queen might take my hide for losin' it.” She put both hands on her hips then pivoted on her heel, glaring at me. “You. Here.”
Lodan nudged me in the back. I stumbled forward, standing up straight once I stood in front of Gratta. She slapped me on the cheek and held a finger up in my face. “Don't ever try negotiatin' when I'm doin' the negotiatin'. I see promise in you, so don't go changin' my mind by doin' stupid things! Git it?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”
Gratta winked. “Good.” She climbed onto her horse and held up her rifle. “Double-time, recruits! I wanna make it to Castos before sunrise! And the sun is a-comin'! So hoof-it!” She pulled her horse around and kicked its sides, sending the brute into a gallop.
Sleeveless cracked the whip again. “You heard her! Let's move! No one passes me, and no one falls behind Harith and Rudo back there! Come on!” He took off jogging at a steady pace, and we all followed suit. My legs were killing me, but I didn’t dare slow down, Runner Harith and his companion Rudo glad to use their bokens on anyone lagging behind.
We ran for what felt like hours until I saw the outline of an island ahead. The end of the passway. Finally. No more running across open seas. No more wondering if those pirates would come back for the rest of us. I couldn't help wondering what Boneventure had meant whispering to me like that. I almost wanted to tell Lodan or even Gratta, but for some reason, it felt secret. Too secret to share. I didn't know anything about any rebellion, but I did know about the Queen.
What we had been told was she ruled over the five islands of Abra and let folks go about their business as long as it didn’t conflict with hers. Some said she was a bit too harsh when she punished thieves and other criminals, but why wouldn't she? If someone had stolen a day’s ration of food from a neighbor, I supposed they should be thrown in stocks for a day. Made sense to me. Her castle was on this island. Castos, the largest island in Abra. Home to most of the bookkeepers as well.
I had never seen it until now. In the pre-dawn light, I could see tall, dry pine trees stretching out of dusty ground, rising up the rocky hills and blocking the rest of the island from view. The coastline didn't look like Jedros. No pebbles here. Just ruddy clay stretching away into haze.
Another archway stretched across the end, two more turrets on either side. Two female soldiers in silver armor with long spears in hand stood under the stone arch. Pistols hung from their belts. They crossed their spears, and each held up a hand.
Gratta's horse stamped the stones. “We're just passin' through to my stables.”
“We know.” One of the soldiers stepped up to Gratta and pointed at the rest of us. “Queen's orders. Every recruit is to be inspected before entry to Castos.”
“That's new. Ain’t gonna be an inspection o’ any kind ‘til I see this official order o’ the Queen’s,” Gratta spat.
A third guardswoman stepped from the wooden door at the base of the turret. She held a rolled up parchment. She handed it over to Gratta, who unrolled it with a flick. The old woman's eyes scanned the page. She shook her head and sighed. “Fine, fine. Make it quick! I'm on a schedule!”
Sleeveless snapped the whip. “Line up!”
We hurried into a jagged line. He snapped the whip again. We straightened it out. The soldier made her way down the line, picking up everyone's chin, poring over every clasp, and passing on to the next.
Lodan turned and whispered to me, “What are they looking for?”
I shrugged. I had no idea.
The guardswoman grabbed my chin with a gloved hand. She craned my head back and stared me in the eyes, squinting. What were they searching for? The woman hovered a little longer then dropped my chin before grabbing my forearm and gazing into the gem clasped there. She rubbed two fingers across the gem. Nothing happened. The stone stayed a milky white color. Just as opaque as before.
She dropped my arm and then hurried down the rest of the line. I let out a breath I didn't know I'd held. “Not here!” she called from the back end by Rudo and Harith.
The other two guards up front stepped to the side. “Welcome to Castos,” they said as we passed by, still in a single-file line. My feet met the clay, and I hoped we wouldn't have much farther to travel. Gratta led us to a path winding through the pine trees and head-sized rocks. The sun had risen over a distant hillside by the time we saw a set of buildings sprawled out over a compound ringed by a tall spiked wood fence below us. The buildings stood thirty feet below, nestled between us and the hills all around.
Sleeveless pointed out two medium-sized structures. “Dormitories. Girls’ on the left. Boys’ on the right. The two bigger ones between them are the Commons and the Casket. And then that little log cabin on the far side is Gratta’s house. Don’t touch it.”
We marched into the compound through two gates made of wooden posts slung together with chains and pulled back by two groups of four Runners, sweating and groaning with the effort. Sleeveless shoved me. “Pray you don't get put on gate duty.”
“Alright!” Gratta shouted as the gate closed back up behind us. She stood on her horse, trotting back and forth in front of us. “You're here at Gratta's stables now. There ain't gonna be no fightin' each other unless it's organized fightin' by my head runners. All y'all are gonna do what I say when I say it, or you'll be on gate duty. Or worse. You got some trainin' to do before I send you out! So move! I'll give y’all a few hours to rest. Trainin' starts today! Now git!”
Harith and Rudo ushered us in the direction of the dormitories, two-storied buildings with bars over every window. The building itself looked made of wooden logs, stacked on top of each other. I stepped toward the dorms, but a hand clamped down on my shoulder.
I spun around and saw Gratta's face leaning into mine as the other recruits hustled into the buildings.
Gratta held up a hand. “Tell me what that pirate said to ya, or I'm gonna knock ya cross-eyed!”
“He . . . ” I swallowed, closed my eyes, and tried to force my brain to bring the words back together. It had been such a long day. I was more worn down than I had realized. “He said something about staying away from the Queen. He also said, 'long live the rebellion,' ma'am.”
Gratta slapped me. “Don't ever say those words. Ever. You hear me? I don't want a swarm o' the Queen's guards descendin' on this place. Git it?”
I nodded. “Got it, ma'am.”
She straightened up and smiled. “You just forget you ever heard nuttin'.” She patted me on the back and shoved me toward the dorms.
“What were those guards looking for?”
Gratta tipped up the edge of her hat. The morning sun lit her eyes like fire. “They was lookin' for someone. Someone they ain't gonna ever find. Now git!”
I turned. And I got. All the way up to the dorm. I found a rough sleeping mat across from Lodan and a hundred other boys. I turned toward the wood walls, pulled the scratchy gray blanket over my head and cried.
Water splashed against my face. The cage had sunk halfway into the waves, and the recruits around me kicked off the pebbles and reached for the bars overhead. The pales had scurried down the shoreline. Several of them clung to the beams, their gray spindly fingers grasping for ears, hair, elbows; anything they could grab.
One of the pales wrapped its arm around her waist. She kicked and scratched and thrashed, trying to free herself. I leaped over and grabbed the pale's arms, yanking downward. It screeched at me with all its teeth bared. Unphased, I screamed back.
In the confusion, Saltha threw her elbow out, connecting with the monster's face. It howled and released her, flipping off the cage and into the water. Drenched and furious, she stood up and swiped her hair back with both hands. We grabbed the arms of other recruits and pulled them to the center of the cage, safely out of pale reach. Two of them scrambled above us and waved their long fingers through the openings, hissing and clacking their teeth.
“Duck!” I whispered.
We crouched, our chins resting in the warm water.
One of the recruits smirked and punched my shoulder. “They can't reach us. Good on ya.”
I smiled, rubbed my shoulder, and nodded.
The pales hissed, slowly circling the half-sunken cage. Some of them clawed at the beams and then darted backward again.
Saltha ducked lower as a pale sprawled onto its belly and grasped at her hair. “Sure would be nice if some of those Runners showed up!”
I glanced around, searching for the Runners. None of them were nearby. One had been taken down by the pales. Another had been at the front of the wagon but must have fallen off in the scuffle. Where the other three were, I didn't know.
And then the pales threw back their heads and wailed in one long, sad tone. “What are they doing?” I asked.
We watched as the pales jumped from the cage and formed a circle in the water, their hands thrown behind their backs as they wailed in some bizarre ritual. My stomach twisted once and then twice. Something was happening. This was not good.
A distant rumbling echoed down the hill toward the water. A row of pales raced down the grassy slope toward us. They joined with the others and stalked toward the wagon, grabbing the beams and yanking backward. The cage slid as thirty of the creatures wrapped their hands around the wood and dragged it towards the shore. We fell back into the water, slamming into each other.
I fell, waves sliding up my nose. We scraped across the pebbly ocean bottom until the cage was free of the water. The pales circled the cage, grabbed the crossbeams, and pulled. The wood cracked, and I could see splinters flying in every direction as the pales dug their clawed feet into the pebbly shore.
One of the beams snapped off. We huddled together, watching as the clacking jaws of the pales loomed over us.
A spindly hand reached into the wagon. I kicked at it and scored a glancing blow. Then the hand was back, and the creature grabbed my foot and yanked me out of the cage with incredible strength.
Dangling upside down from the creature's hands, I grabbed the pale around the waist and pulled myself close enough to hook one foot around its neck and jerk downward. The pale screeched, let go of me, and grabbed its neck. It fell back into another pale as I tumbled onto the cage.
I sprang to my feet. The horde of creatures stamped their feet, spread their clawed fingers, and screeched at me.
“Eric! Look out!”
I whipped around as another pale grabbed my shoulders and heaved me into the air.
A loud, thundering noise shot across the fields. Something slammed into the pale behind me. It staggered for a moment and then dropped my leg as it fell off the side of the cage.
The other pales shot their heads up and stared in the direction of the fog-covered bridge. A rider on the back of a dark horse galloped out of the cloud, a long rifle in her hands. She wore a duster much like the other Runners, but she had a green, wide-brimmed hat resting on her head. Long silvery hair curled and hung down to her shoulders. She whipped the reins back and forth, steering the horse and wagon. She cocked the rifle again. She rested the stock on her shoulder, aimed, and shot, hitting one of the pales square in the chest with what looked like a burlap sack of rice. The pale flew off the cage with the impact.
“Git away from my recruits, ya filthy vermin!”
The woman charged right up to the wagon, smashing her way through the horde of pales. The creatures wailed and darted away on all fours, screeching as they disappeared over the slope and out of sight.
“Well, then.” The woman reached a hand out to me and smirked. “Already gettin' into the thick o' things, are ya? I like that in a recruit.”
I took her hand and stood. “I guess so.”
The woman lifted the brim of her hat and raised an eyebrow. “That's 'I guess so, ma'am.'”
I nodded. “I guess so, ma'am.”
“You're learnin'.” The woman turned her horse to the side. It stamped a hoof. “Now where are those Runners? Good for nuttin' hooligans. If they're not careful, their gems gonna go off on 'em, and then they'll be right a bit sorry, that they will.”
She pointed the rifle at me. “You. Keep the rest of 'em in line until I git back. Even one of 'em is gone, and the whole lot of you are gonna regret it. Got that?”
“Yes. Got it.”
“That's, 'Yes. Got it, ma'am.”
I blinked. “Sorry ma’am. Yes. Got it, ma'am.”
The woman smirked again. “Good. You'll have it down. Stay put. And yell or somethin' if any of those pales decide on a reunion.” She kicked her heels into the flanks of her horse. “Yah!” The horse trotted away from the wagon and over the edge of the rise.
Saltha scrambled out of the wagon and climbed down to the grass. “Perfect. Let's get out of here.”
I shook my head. “We can't.”
Saltha flicked her hair over a shoulder. “Eric. We have to escape! We won’t get another chance!”
I held up my forearm. The clasp with the gem shone even in the moonlight. “Forget about these?”
She glanced at her arm, the gem in her silver clasp turning as purple as an eggplant. “What about it? We find some way to take it off after we escape!” Saltha grabbed the end of the clasp with her fingers and pulled.
Another boy from the cage shot his hand out. “No! Don't try to take it off!”
Saltha sniffed and scowled. “Why?”
“Because.” The boy climbed to the top of the cage and leaned over the edge. Lodan, from our village. He had long light-colored hair hanging over his face that he pushed back with a scarred hand. “I've heard nasty rumors. Like if you take it off, you die.”
Saltha shook her head. A single tear crawled down her cheek. “I . . . I can't be . . . a slave!”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then I turned to her. “Saltha . . . we were already slaves. What do you think working away our lives in that rice paddy was all about? So we didn't have a clasp on our arms. We were still trapped there. Boss Mandel wasn't going to let us leave.”
“At least our families were there!”
I snorted. “What families? They were ghosts.” I waved a hand at the cart of recruits, their faces pressed against the beams. “This is all the family we have now.”
Saltha dropped her hands to her sides and stared hard at me. Fear trickled through her eyes, and she slowly shook her head. “You . . . almost sound like you want to be a Runner.”
I glanced at the pale footprints covering the grass. “Maybe I do,” I whispered. “Maybe I always did.”
“Wow . . . I would never have thought,” Saltha took a step back. “After what they did to your brother?” Tears fell freely down her face. “I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm leaving.” She darted away from the cage, glancing over her shoulder only once.
Lodan jumped to the grass. “We can't let her leave! You heard what that lady said!”
I swallowed. I wanted to run with Saltha. Leave. Escape. But there was part of me that wanted this life too. Maybe the others thought I was crazy. Let them think that. I couldn't waste the rest of my life farming rice.
Lodan and I raced after Saltha, begging her to return. She had both flats on the passway leading through the fog, over the water, and to another island when she stumbled to the ground. Her face turned purple as we came up beside her.
“What's wrong?” I shouted.
Saltha had both hands at her throat, gasping for air like she couldn't breathe.
Lodan pointed at the clasp on her forearm. The gem was pulsing purple now, light streamed up from the center of the stone and into the air. “It's her clasp! I told you we can't leave!” He threw an arm out at me and pulled me back.
“Wait! We have to help her!”
“We can't,” Lodan whispered.
I shoved him aside and ran to Saltha. “What can I do?”
Saltha stared at me and tried to speak. She groaned, and then the light from the gem intensified, sending a stronger beam into the air. Purple light dribbled around Saltha. Lodan grabbed me from behind, yanking me backward. We fell to the grass. I kicked and thrashed, but Lodan held me too tightly.
“No! We can help her!” I shouted, trying to slide my arms out from his grip.
Lodan interlocked his fingers. “We can't! She's too far gone!”
The purple light formed a ring around Saltha, lifting her into the air. She spun around, faster and faster until the purple light seeped through every inch of her body, shining brighter until she vanished from sight with a spark. Her silver clasp fell to the stones on the passway with a clatter.
Lodan released me, and I crawled forward, reaching out for Saltha's clasp. Smoke rose from the edges of the gem, and I noticed a brief reflection of her face in the stone before cracks raced across the surface and the gem went dark.
Saltha was gone.
“Well, now.” A horse clopped up behind me. The silver-haired woman stood over Lodan and me with a frown. “Too bad. Seemed promising, she did. But then, we'll never know now.”
“What happened to her?” I asked. The woman glared at me, and I cleared my throat. “Ma'am?”
The rider nodded. “Gone. Out of existence. That's what happens when you try to leave old Gratta. So don't.”
“What’s Gratta?” I asked.
“I'm Gratta. And I ain't gonna be happy if the whole lot of you decide vacation sounds nicer than workin' for me.” Gratta directed her horse toward the mangled cage. “All right! All y'all need to climb on down outta that cage!”
The other recruits scrambled out and hurried over to where Lodan and I stood. Three of the Runners who had captured us came bounding over the rise. One had a nasty cut on his arm. Half of his sleeve was missing, but he grasped a whip in his hand, ready to flick. The other two limped slightly; bokens held ready.
“We better go, Gratta,” the one with the cut said. “Loads of those pales in the canyon. Best to put some distance between us and them.”
Gratta squinted at the canyon in the distance. “They won't cross the passway most likely.” She spat. “Probably like the weather out here. Not that I do. The sooner we get back to drier temps the happier I'll be.” She turned her gaze on me. “And y'all don't wanna see me unhappy. Bad times for everybody.”
She spat again and led her horse in front of the group. “I'm y'all's bookkeeper now. I decide on jobs and tell y'all what's what. Try to leave, and, well.” Gratta grabbed a short hook from the tool belt around her waist and flicked it out. A long pole extended from the back end of the hook, and she used it to catch up Saltha's clasp. “Or this is what happens to ya. I don't wanna lose any more potential Runners. Bad for business. Step lively! This passway won't be too dicey.” Gratta turned her horse again and clopped onto the stone bridge. She leaned over and muttered at me, “At least I think it won't.”
I sniffed, glanced one last time at the place Saltha had disappeared in a blast of purple light, and marched into the fog with the rest of the recruits. With every step, I forced the gnawing hole deeper into my gut. Saltha had been my best friend. Had been. Now she was gone.
The sun never blazed hotter than the day the Runner took me. Water lapped through the rice paddies and up against my shins. The mud stuck between my toes. I still wonder if I had started somewhere near the back end of the field if I'd been able to get away.
Obviously, I didn't.
Five Runners stood at the edge of the field wearing dusters; wide leather hats tilted forward on their heads; their long hair pulled back into tails behind their necks. Even from where I stood knee-deep in muck, I could see the sunlight reflecting off the metal bands around their forearms. Clasps. Every Runner wore one. Made from silver and inlaid with a single gem glowing a deep orange color.
Saltha's dark hair flung back as she whipped her head up. “Recruiters!” she hissed.
I nodded. I'd seen Runners come recruiting here before. They had taken my older brother two years ago. He'd just turned thirteen. I was eleven then.
So I was ripe for the picking.
Saltha sloshed to the path and slapped the dirt with her hands, hoisting herself up and out. I considered following her. But I also thought about staying right where I was. Letting them take me.
Screams echoed across the rice paddy now as the Runners darted along the crisscrossing pathways that formed a grid around the fields. One of the Runners had a sack slung over his shoulder, clanking with every step. He reached in and tossed clasps to the other four as they snatched the arms of the thirteen-year-olds behind me. The recruiters slapped the clasps onto my neighbor’s forearms with a deafening snap-snap. The teenagers fell to the dirt path, knees streaked with clay, screaming with pain as they rocked back and forth, holding their forearms.
I glanced over at my mother and father. They hadn't even looked up. They just leaned back over, short sickles in hand, slicing at the stalks and gathering them into the wicker baskets tied with a cord to their waists. My mother's dark face shadowed by a wide hat. My father's strong arms hacking at the sheaves.
Maybe they didn't care. Maybe they never would. Maybe they never had.
Saltha raced along the path, looking back at me, fear widening her eyes. She waved a hand and pointed at the mound on the far side of the rice paddies.
A shout behind me. I whirled back around to see another kid – I never did know his name – being yanked out by a Runner and slapped with a clasp on his forearm. The gem in the silver blazed red, then orange, and then rotated through every color on the spectrum. Tears crawled past his mouth, open in a silent cry of pain. It seemed like the clasp was burning him. Red marks drifted from the place the metal touched skin.
Standing by my shoulder, one hand reaching out to me, a blue haze in her dark eyes. “Run, Eric. Don't let them take you.”
I swallowed. My mother had always been frightening. Serious as the grave and stern as a lick of twigs. I dropped down into the muck, crawling toward the path, hoping the Runners hadn’t spotted me yet. I reached the other side of the rice paddy and scrambled up onto the trail a foot above me. A shout echoed across the pathway. I poked my head up to see four of the younger kids pound the dirt back toward the cottages.
Another shout. I glanced back. The Runners had gathered nearly seventeen others from the fields. They were crouching in a huddle by the Runner with the sack. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Some of the adults poked their heads up, saw the Runners and stood idly, almost like a fog had circled through their minds and left them unable to respond to what was happening. Why didn’t they move? Why didn’t they fight back? Why did I--
And then one of them spotted me. He smirked and scratched a scar on his neck. I watched him toss the clasp in his hand into the air once, and then he darted after me.
The panic fueled my legs, and I ran, mud and water dribbling from my bare legs as I pounded across the clay and dirt for the mound. It had been Saltha's idea: make a hiding place. A place the Runners find when they came to recruit. We had spent the last two years in our dead hours digging the tunnel. It wound under one of the hills to the edge of the canyons beyond the cottages.
Saltha leaped over the side of the hill ahead and slid out of sight. I ran up the path, pounding footsteps growing closer behind me. I’d rather die than let that Neck Scar Runner catch me. I had to make it. I had to get away.
I scrambled up the hill, slipping to all fours until I reached the top and rolled down the other side. I flipped open the hatch with a single swipe. The hatch was an old metal shield, that we’d found, covered with brush, and tied over the hole we had dug. From a distance, no one would ever notice it. Even up close, if someone didn't know exactly what it was, they'd walk right past and never blink twice.
The stench of rotting rice wafted up from the hole, but I dove in, head first, tumbling down, hearing the hatch slap closed behind me. Saltha crawled just ahead, and I slammed into her, knocking my elbow against her shoulder. Pain stung across my arm as it went limp.
I nodded. Then I remembered it was dark. “Yeah, I'm here. Just go.”
Light streamed in behind us as the hatch lifted. “You little runnin' scum. Ain't no place we can't find you! The clasps are gonna get you.”
I shoved Saltha ahead and hurried right behind her. Pain ratcheted through my head, seeping into my fingers and leaving the tips numb. The tunnel was closing in on me, and I gasped at the air, trying to breathe. Don't get caught. Don't. Don't.
The tunnel raised upwards, and Saltha bashed her shoulder into the pile of leafy branches we had left piled up at the other end. She flung them aside and light poured into the tunnel, stinging my eyes. I blinked and then watched as Saltha shot up out of the hole, her feet dangling in the air as she screamed.
A Runner had her.
And I was next.
I huddled back in the darkness, listening to the clasp tightening around her forearm, forever marking her as a Runner now. The gem would tie into her lifeforce. A ledger would be forged with her name and an identical stone embedded in the red leather cover. And then she would be forced to run jobs for a bookkeeper. Forced. Enslaved.
I couldn’t breathe anymore. A rough hand burst into the hole and found my foot. I jerked away, but a second hand reached in and grabbed it. They dragged me out, my face smacking against the dirt and bursting into the sunlight.
I hung between two of the Runners. Both of them were male. Strong. Their brown boots speckled with mud. One had a hole in his trousers right at the knee, and I could see a piece of metal like a bolt sticking out the side. I thrashed, swinging my arms, trying to claw, scratch, anything. Neck Scar Runner marched across the dirt, past a log cottage sitting on the edge of the village. The clasp in his hand shimmered in the sunlight.
“No. Please, don't!”
He smirked, leaned over, and grabbed my wrist. He slammed the metal onto my bare forearm. It stung worse than any sting I'd ever had from a locust or hardring. It felt like poison seeping through my veins and racing past every inch of my body until it stopped at my heart. A coldness slipped around it as it beat faster, tying it down as if with a chain.
They dropped me. I collapsed to the dirt, writhing and clutching my arm, my chest, ripping at the white tunic I wore. My vision spotted over, and for a moment, I saw three of the five Runners’ faces, heads shaking, dusters swaying, and the sunlight blurring it all together in one disjointed mass of colors.
I rolled to my side. Saltha lay next to me on the dirt, her back against the edge of a grassy mound, eyes closed, chest heaving.
I tried to whisper her name. I tried to move my lips. I splayed my fingers and reached for her hand, resting so close to mine.
But I couldn't reach.
I couldn't think.
Pain exploded through my head, and the light blinked out into darkness.
The rattling woke me up first. Then the sound of soft cries and whispers.
Stars hung across the sky, framed by the wooden cage over my head. I sat up. Other kids sat around me, huddled together or alone, itching the skin around the clasps on their arms. The Runners had thrown us into the back of a caged wagon, pulled by an auroch with thick longhorns and a body as wide as the cart. It looked like an engorged bull with brown and white spots covering its hide.
The back wheel bumped into a pothole, and I slid up against the cage, grabbing it with both hands and watching the grassy hills roll past us for leagues into the distance. A blue haze covered everything in the moonlight. The clasp on my arm glinted, and I gazed at it. An opaque gem rested in my clasp, and as I stared at it, the light seemed to soak into the stone, swirling around until I could see my face.
I had never seen my reflection this clearly before. There were rumors of a beveled mirror a village over, but I had never seen it. My life circled the rice paddies, where a dirty face stared back whenever I stood in a puddle to try and catch a glimpse of what I looked like, but the muddied water was never still or clear. At least not as detailed as a mirror might be.
Every day our family had gotten up, trudged out into the muck and tended to the plants. Weather on our island stayed comfortable – always warm, with the slightest breeze carried in from the ocean I had only ever heard about from tales told by the elders in our village. Our climate allowed for a year-long growing schedule. Plant rice. Tend rice. Harvest rice. Sell rice to the tradeswomen who marched down the road with pushcarts and little purses of gold. Repeat.
Our village had collected all the money. Kept it together to buy what we needed. Sixty-two of us had lived there the last time I sat on the edge of the paddy and counted heads bent low to collect rice. Eighty-seven people had been in the village last time the Runners had arrived. The full moon had passed us by twenty-four times since then. Since they had taken my brother.
I stared at myself in that clasp. My nose took up too much of my face and dropped to a point at the end. My eyes a dark brown color, like my mother's. Dark hair, tanned skin, and cheeks sunken slightly from living off the rice.
A hand tapped my shoulder from behind.
I turned around and faced her; knees curled up to my chest. Two of the Runners sat at the front, on the other side of the cage, holding the reins and whipping them against the back of the auroch. Two others rode on either side of us on pale gray Palominos, lazily swaying back and forth. And the fifth. He traveled on top of the cage, one leg slung over the side, glancing down at the recruits every few minutes.
“You're awake,” she whispered.
I nodded. “How long was I out?”
“Too long.” She bit her lip and fingered a strand of hair. “What's going to happen to us?”
“I don't know.” I sighed. All I knew was that we would become like the Runners around us.
“Do you think you'll find your brother out there?”
I shrugged. “I don't know.”
Saltha's brow furrowed. “At least give me a little hope here.” Her shoulders trembled, and I put an arm around her and pulled her close.
A stick poked his shoulder from above. “None o' that now!” the Runner above us shouted.
I yanked my arm away from Saltha.
She stood up and shook a fist at him. This close, he looked like he had to be only four, maybe five years older than I was. “Leave us alone!” Saltha shouted. “Haven't you been awful enough already?”
The Runner sneered. “Sure. Always room to be even awfuller.” He snorted and spat off the side of the cage. “Just seein' as the two of you are so cozy, thought I'd warn ya straight up now. Runners ain't allowed none o' that. Stick to the jobs, kids. Stick to the jobs.” He glanced back up, tipping his leather hat back with a finger.
I sat back, my head against the cage. My eyes closed. For the briefest moment, I had thought about wanting this life. Whatever it was called. Running for a bookkeeper. Doing jobs until I finished or died. Could it be any worse than the life he had back at the rice paddy with parents who seemed zoned into another island all the time?
The auroch mooed and abruptly jerked to a halt. We jostled inside the cart, tipping into each other and jumping away from each other as fast as we could. No one else wanted to be prodded with a stick tonight.
I stood up, grabbing the cage above me and holding tight. I had one leather glove with the fingers cut off still on my hand. The other one must have fallen off at some point.
The road ahead wound between two hills, dropping steeply into a canyon ahead. The canyon stretched ahead for some distance, the end of the path lost to its shadows. All five Runners stood up now, hands drifting to their sides where their various weapons hung. One of them curled his fingers around a whip. Another on a thick knife with serrated edges. Two others held bokens, and the last one a thin rapier.
The recruits in the cage started whispering to each other.
“Shush it!” the Runner up above hissed.
The grass swished on the side of the path. Another rustle somewhere at the mouth of the canyon.
I squinted into the gloom ahead. Shadows danced across the canyon floor, and for a moment, I thought I saw something slip to the side of the grassy walls. My gaze focused on the spot. I pushed forward, never taking my eyes away until I was at the front of the cage, peering through the front beams.
One of the palomino riders nodded at the others. “I'll see what it is.” His whip dangled from his hand, trailing in the dust alongside the horse's hooves.
I held my breath. The palomino clopped forward and then stopped, refusing to move forward. The Runner kicked it in the side, but the horse whinnied, steam trailing from its nostrils. “Stupid animal,” the Runner hissed, slipping to the ground. His boots clomped onto the dirt, and he took three steps forward, staring into the darkness between the hills.
He held up his whip, flicking it slightly side to side. Another step. Another. Until the Runner stood between the two hills, slowly spinning in the dark, eyes on every blade of grass, every roll and rise in the earth.
But he didn't see what I saw. Something hung from a small ledge about two meters up the canyon wall. A pale gray hand drifted over his head, long fingers splayed and reaching.
“Above you!” I shouted.
The Runner fell to his back and flicked his whip into the air, wrapping the end around the hand and yanking downward.
A gray humanoid creature fell to the dirt with a splat and then scrambled away from the Runner, hissing and baring a mouth full of sharp, clacking teeth.
“Pales!” the Runner shouted from the ground.
That sent a whisper through the kids in the cage. Every last one of us grabbed the beams and shouted at the Runners to let us out. Except me. I kept my eyes on that canyon. I had heard about pales before. They never hunted alone. Ever.
I reached through the beams and poked the Runner sitting behind the auroch. “Get us away from here!”
The Runner glared at me but thwapped the reins against the back of the auroch. “We'll take the long way!” he shouted, pulling back on the reins and guiding the beast around the left side of the canyon.
A long wail echoed up from the canyon. I watched the pebbles on the path slowly bounce as the thudding of feet and hands shook the dirt. The Runner on top of the wagon crouched down, holding his wooden boken like a sword.
The auroch bounded around the side of the canyon. We drove into the grass, the wheels beneath us bouncing over every gopher hole with gusto. The wagon rattled over the plains. Every recruit in the cage cried in fear and panic.
I reached for Saltha and gripped her fingers. “Stay close.”
“What if they're watching–”
“They have other problems,” I whispered.
A line of pales scrabbled their way out of the canyon leaping from the grassy walls and onto the plains behind us. The things were crouched over, running like dogs over the brush. If they were standing, they probably would have been as tall as me. The Runner on the back of a palomino flicked his rapier back and forth as the pales raced at him, jumping from the ground and tackling the horse and rider to the dirt.
Saltha tightened her grip.
I turned around and watched a line of pales dart toward the wagon. The Runner on top swung his boken as the monsters sprung towards the cage. He whacked pales back to the ground; where they screeched and scrambled back to their feet. The creatures had no eyes that I could see. Somehow they sensed exactly where the cage would be as they raced toward us.
One of them reached the back of the wagon. It leaped and clung to the wooden beams. I let go of Saltha and kicked sideways through the bars at the thing's chest. It wailed and flopped to the dirt behind us as more of the pales trampled it underfoot.
“Nice one, kid!” the Runner up top shouted down.
Twenty pales followed the wagon as it rattled down an embankment toward a flatter section of land. Up ahead I could see the path emerging from the other end of the canyon and leading down to a long bridge that disappeared into a fog bank. It stretched over what must have been the ocean. It was huge – dark blue and glimmering with starlight. The water lapped against a thin strip of coastline. If we hadn't been a swipe away from death, I might have been in awe.
But I never got that chance.
Seven pales shot out of the dark grass beside the wagon and kicked the cage, sending it toppling off the back of the cart. The auroch snapped free of its yoke, and we rolled, banging heads and knees and screaming. The cage slammed onto its side, and one of the kids behind me yelped in pain.
We slid down the hill. Pale hands grasped at us as the creatures used their other three limbs to cling to the beams. The pales grabbed tunics and trousers, yanking the recruits close to the bars and snapping their jaws.
A pale grabbed Saltha and jerked her close as the cage scraped over the path and into the ocean with a splash.
Readers I'm excited for you. In the first two chapters of Shaun's The Runners of Abra he captured my attention with fast-paced-action, interesting characters, and very creepy villians. I love what I have read and can't wait a moment longer for you to have a taste, so here you go. Enjoy and be sure to leave a comment for Shaun below!
The Last Runner
Love what you read then
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.
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.