A soft breeze wafted through the open windows, drawing back the thin green drapes. Fires burned along the wall outside the scholars' fortress. Before I slipped under the comforter on the softest bed I'd ever felt in my life; I saw two green-sleeved scholars marching the wall with lanterns.
Watching for the shadows, no doubt.
Telisa had plopped down by the ornately carved doorway, her head resting against the tail of a ten-legged dragon that wound up to the top of the frame. A white dagger sat in her lap, her fingers curled around the hilt.
“Go to sleep,” Telisa barked.
I rolled over to my side and yanked the blanket to my chin. “I'm working on it,” I whispered.
Stars peppered the sky outside.
“What's Gratta gonna do with me?”
Telisa groaned and slapped the dagger against the stone floor. “I don't know, but I know I'm going to stitch that mouth of yours closed if you don't shut it!”
I gripped the sheets in one hand and threw them aside. “I'm sorry I'm such a problem!”
“I'm glad you recognize how much of a problem you are.”
“What's going to happen to me?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “You just don't shut up, do you?”
“Not until you at least make up an answer.”
She kneaded her forehead with one hand. “Honestly? I don't know. You're doin' things nobody's ever thought might be possible. The gem colors? They're specific. They shine when you're doin' different things. If you're goin' belly-up, it turns purple before you flash out of existence. If you're on a run, then it's gonna be a different color depending on the job. Like orange for recruitin', blue for messagin', and red for killin'.”
I swallowed. “Have you had to kill people before? On a run?”
Telisa snorted. “Course. We all have to. Sooner or later. No matter what the run is, once Gratta writes it down in the books, you're bound to finish it. Or die.”
Finish it or die. I did not like the sound of that. I fingered the edge of the thick mattress. What if I was asked to do a job I didn't want to do? What if I couldn't do a run because it was to kill somebody? I guessed dying would be a better way out than finishing something like that. But every time I had seen someone snuffed out, it didn't look particularly fun.
“But gold.” Telisa whistled. “That's a color I've never thought possible. And no clasp is supposed to be able to do what you've done. Bring people back from the dead, blast pitters to the high heavens. None of that.”
“No one's ever done those things before?”
She shook her head again. “Not a single time as far as I'm aware. Probably why the queen's so interested.”
“Have you ever met her?”
Telisa snorted. “What is this? Interrogate the guard? Shut up and go to sleep! And that's the last time I'm warnin' ya!”
I rubbed my eyes and laid down. Telisa's head conked against the carved door again. The low whistling of a sharpening breeze drifted outside. I stared at a jade chandelier dangling from the ceiling. The candles had been snuffed out, but smoke still drifted up from the smoldering wicks. My eyes slid closed, and I forced my brain to quiet down. I was tired of thinking. Tired of worrying. Tired of wondering why my gem glowed golden.
A shuffle echoed in the hallway outside the door. I bolted up and saw Telisa had left her post. Maybe she was hungry. Or relieving herself. Or punching something. That seemed the most likely option.
The door creaked open, and a withered hand poked through the thin crack. Soft lantern light dribbled over the corridor outside, shining enough for me to see a figure in a green hood standing outside the bedroom.
My pulse quickened.
“Come with me,” an old man's voice whispered.
I shook my head. “No! Where's Tel-”
My throat closed. The gem on my clasp glowed dark green. I wanted to shout, “What's happening?” but my tongue fastened to the roof of my mouth and stayed there. My feet slid off the bed and padded across the stone, carrying me through the door and into the hallway.
One of the old scholars stood in front of me; a gem slung around his neck glowing an identical dark green as mine. “Stay close.” He held a trembling finger to his thin lips. “They don't know I'm here.” His hand drifted to his gem, and he tapped it once. I lurched forward, stumbling after the old scholar.
I felt like someone was clawing through my mind, jerking my body left and right down the hallways. We came to an old wooden door with cobwebs tracing its front. The scholar leaned over and blew against a dragon-shaped keyhole. Dust flew past my face. I wanted to cough, but the stranglehold over my body hadn't released yet.
The old scholar produced a jade key shaped like a dragon's head and shoved it into the hole. The door unlocked with a thudding clunk and crept open revealing a straight stairwell leading into the darkness below.
The scholar reached into the lantern. If I could have winced, I would have. But the fire didn't even touch his fingers. Instead, it curled around his hand, hovering an inch away from his skin. The old man blew at his palm. The fire shot into the stairwell, clinging to the ancient stone walls and lighting the way down.
“Moldable fire,” he whispered. “Very useful.” He tapped the green gem and waved me forward.
We descended. The archway overhead opened out into another cavernous chamber. The room was round and bare save for strange circular markings across the stone floor. The circles wove in and out of each other, each one a different color, ranging across the rainbow from red to purple.
The old scholar pointed toward the center of the chamber, holding tight to the gem. Green light folded around his fingers and drifted to my face, slipping up my nostrils. It smelled like dust, trickling past my nose hair and into my mind.
Now we can communicate more easily. The old man's thoughts popped into my head, held for a second, and then faded.
How are you doing this? I demanded.
Through a very special gem. He held up the green stone and flashed the light at me. There are rare stones throughout the five islands of Abra. Some of them have special . . . ah, abilities. This dark green gem allows me to enter the thoughts of any Runner.
Why are you doing this? Let me go!
The old man narrowed his eyes. How do I know you'll cooperate?
Tell me what you want, and maybe I will.
He eyed the gem on my clasp. I believe you have a rare stone indeed. No one has ever seen golden light come from a gem before. I want to study it. And you.
We're not available for study. Leave us alone! I shouted.
The words pushed the old man back slightly. He stumbled against the stairwell, catching the wall with his withered hand. Very intriguing, the scholar whispered. You exert much will over the gems. Most Runners have no control over them, except to use them as a bauble of light. Pah! The potential is wasted on dense Runners.
I pictured my hands pushing the old man aside. The gem on my forearm glowed slightly, and I shoved with my mind. The scholar stumbled backward again with a loud “oomph!” He fell to the steps and grabbed his gem, holding out one hand. Green light poured out of the stone and blasted me in the chest, lifting me off the ground.
Strong indeed. But not strong enough. He made a fist and swung his arm to the side. I flew across the chamber, landing inside an orange circle.
An image of chains appeared in my thoughts. I imagined them snapping in half. The scholar gasped, and I rolled across the floor until I slammed into the wall. The hold the dark green gem had on me broke. I jumped up and held out my forearm. The gem glowed with golden light.
“Stay away from me!” I shouted with my own voice. It felt good to hear words move through my throat again.
The old scholar stood up, one shaking hand on the stone wall. “I want to know the limits of your powers. In order to test them, I need a bigger quarry.” He grabbed a rope hanging by the archway and yanked on it. A stone gate fell from the ceiling and crashed into the floor, trapping me inside.
I darted over to the stone gate and peered through the round window with two metal bars. “Let me out of here!”
The old man's face appeared through the window. “Tell me how the golden gem works.”
I shook my head. “I can't! I don't know how!”
“Then show me how.” The old man held up the dark green gem and rubbed his fingers across it. His eyes closed.
A green light emerged from the shadows across the chamber. I spun around both palms flat against the gate. A door opened across the room. Something green slipped around in the gloom beyond.
“Telisa!” I screamed. “TELISA!”
“She can't hear you,” the old man whispered. “Right now she's standing on the edge of the balcony upstairs, ready to jump off if I will it.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Just a poor scholar, hoping to learn more about the world of gems and clasps. Show me. And I wouldn't take my eyes off it if I were you.”
I sucked in a breath. I had to find a way out of this chamber. If there was one secret door, perhaps there'd be another. I raced over to the stone wall and pounded on it, running my hands over the stones, trying to find anything that might open a passageway.
A growl echoed across the chamber. I shivered, glanced over my shoulder. The green form stalked into the main chamber. It was hunched over like a dog, but sharp spines stuck from its back, clacking against each other. Green drool dribbled from its mouth and sizzled on the stones, leaving a small pock mark on the floor. Sharp claws dug against the ground. But the worst was its face. It looked like a ragged dog with patches of missing fur. Long fangs stuck out around its jowls. It growled again and arched its back.
“What is that?” I shouted.
The old man's eyes widened. “A spinewolf. Watch out for its venom. Kill you in a moment if you're not careful. Be a shame to waste such . . . potential.” He bit his lip and clung to the bars in the window. “I so wish to see something golden. Destroy it before it destroys you.”
The spinewolf scraped a claw against the stones. I covered my ears from the screeching. The creature pounced, leaping across the chamber in three bounds. I dove to the side as it landed where I had stood. Drool splashed and sent up a whiff of smoke. It growled again and swiped a claw in my direction. I rolled back, reached the wall, and shot up.
I had to use my clasp. My head spun just thinking about using the gem's light. The last few times I had managed to blast something with golden rays I had passed out and had to be revived. I didn't know if I could do that again.
The spinewolf turned toward me, hanging its head and snapping its jaws. It opened its mouth wide and shot a blast of green drool from the back of its throat. The drool smashed into the wall beside me, chunking away stone on impact. I dashed left. The gem on my clasp began to glow. I pointed it in the spinewolf's direction and willed a blast of light to shoot at the beast.
“Come on!” I shouted.
“Yes!” The scholar echoed. “Do something! Use your golden light! Send it to oblivion!”
I held up my hands. “I don't know how this works!” I screamed.
The spinewolf darted forward, chasing me around the edge of the chamber. I ducked through the thing's door and tripped over piles of bones littering the floor. I snatched up a long femur and swung it wide as the the beast leaped into the room after me. The bone crashed into the spinewolf's head, sending it tumbling sideways, skidding into the piles of bones.
I backed out of the antechamber, holding up the femur and swinging it back and forth. There had to be a way to tap into the golden light in my gem. Feelings. Every time I had used the light before I had been feeling at the end of my own survival capability. Like all hope had been lost. I peeked at the scholar's gate. His weathered eyes watched me.
I had to do this. Not just to save my skin, but Telisa's too.
The spinewolf crawled out of its nest and breathed deeply, green eyes locked on my face. And then, the creature chuckled. Like a human. It leaned back and slowly rose up, standing on its two hind legs. Its head rose over me, casting a green shadow across the floor. It stood eight feet tall. Its front claws slamming into the entryway beside it.
“Foolish human,” it breathed. “None can stand against me.”
My mouth opened and my heart slammed inside my chest.
“I am born from the darkness of gems, the dark thoughts of beings far beyond your comprehension. When they called me forth, they imbued within me the right to steal, destroy, and kill.” Its green tongue slipped from its mouth. “I have been hungry for some time now.”
It swung its claws wide. I flew back across the room, smacking my head into the stones. The spinewolf raced across the chamber, faster than any human could, and stood over me.
“Not even a gem as consecrated as yours can banish my darkness.”
It reached down and wrapped its long claws around my neck, yanking me into the air. I struggled against it. Darkness pushed into my temples. Air seeped through my nostrils, desperate to get to my aching lungs.
“Use the clasp!” the scholar shouted.
The spinewolf held up its other paw. “Silence!”
“You do not own me or my kind!” The scholar pulled a second rope, and the stone gate flung open. He stepped into the chamber, holding up the dark green gem.
The spinewolf chuckled. “Your gems do not own me!” It held open its paw, and the cord around the scholar's neck snapped. The gem flew through the air and landed in the spinewolf's claws. “I own you!” Its eyes glowed dark green. A wave of light zapped across the chamber, encompassing the scholar's frail body and heaving him into the air.
“Let . . . him . . . go . . .” I choked.
The spinewolf dropped me and turned the gem on me now. The scholar fell to the ground in a heap, conking his head against the stone and passing out. The dark green light surrounded me and shoved me against the wall. I cried out in pain, feeling my bones compressing, shaking, trembling, and threatening to snap.
“You do not understand what you have. You cannot harness its power. You cannot stand to fight the beings that created me. You cannot stand against powers greater than you know!” The spinewolf's eyes gleamed. “And you cannot understand how much I will enjoy feasting on such tender flesh.”
It snapped its jaws and pounced.
Heat singed the back of my neck. I woke up screaming, the world a blazing blur of fire shooting across the courtyard. My head spun. I smacked my neck and felt nothing. No fire. No burning skin. The stones swirled underneath me. I leaned over on both hands, feeling vomit threatening to explode.
A low moan echoed toward me. I peeked up. The shadow wraiths had returned to the courtyard. They hovered over the green walls, their hands replaced with a variety of shadowy weapons from maces to pikes.
Across the courtyard, seven men and five women, all flesh and blood, stood in the courtyard wearing long green robes that matched the walls. They had hoods pulled over their heads, but I noticed several beards poking over their thin frames. Each held over-sized black lanterns in one hand. Green gloves covered their other hands. They scooped up the fire blazing inside the lanterns and chucked it like a ball at the shadow wraiths.
One ball of fire smacked into a shadow boy's chest and spread over his dark form. With a low moan, he darted away from the courtyard.
The hooded figures worked silently, not even grunting from the effort. Shadow wraiths circled low and flew at one of the men on the ground, swiping at his lantern. The lantern fell and shattered on the courtyard. Flames shot up and wrapped around the nearest wraith, engulfing it in fire.
I scrambled over to Telisa, still on the cobblestones. Her head faced the darkened sky. I didn't know exactly how long I had been knocked out, but apparently, the day had left us behind. I ran my fingers over her dark clasp.
Low moans and crackling fire swarmed my ears and faded into a dull tone. My hand wrapped around Telisa's clasp. The gem on my forearm began to glow golden again. Warmth passed through my forehead, down my shoulder, and through my wrist. Light spread from my fingers, a single shaft of golden light surging through each one. The light struck Telisa's clasp. From deep within the gem, a single red light pulsed like a heartbeat. My eyes closed and I felt that heartbeat—my heartbeat, Telisa's heartbeat—synchronizing into one steady rhythm.
A gasp. My eyes shot open, and I saw Telisa staring at me. She wrenched her forearm from my grasp. Her hand trailed down to the place where the shadow wraith had pierced her abdomen. The hole was gone.
Nausea swam through my head. I closed my eyes. Pain shot past my temples, and I cried out, falling back into two strong hands draped in green sleeves.
“He is fading,” a male voice whispered.
“Can you help him?” Telisa.
Heat grew inside my chest. I couldn't control this anymore. I don't think I ever could. It swirled around my heart and clenched my lungs. I gasped for breath. The world turned golden-hued around me. I saw Telisa's face, etched with worry and gold, leaning over me.
“Take his legs.” The male voice again.
Telisa and the man hoisted me into the air. A shadow wraith darted overhead and whisked away as a fireball slammed into its head. We passed under a stone archway into a musty hall with deep orange ceilings. Resin chandeliers hung above me, swaying with a hundred candles. Golden light seeped through my vision. Gold. Everything was gold. Made from gold. Grew from gold. Existed for gold.
My back met soft padding. A cool rag dropped onto my forehead and instantly dried into crust from the heat.
They poured golden liquid down my throat. The world went really strange then. Golden light swirled in hexagonal patterns, melding into shapes of all kinds: a tree, a scaled dragon, a whisk of flame, twelve stars dropping from the sky and smashing into twelve rolling hills. The shapes morphed into a face—a boy—perhaps—a younger man. Kind eyes, but sad at the same time. The face hovered over me, parted its golden lips, and whispered, “Return.”
I jolted up, my eyes wide. The golden colors snapped back to their original hues. I sat on a table covered with thin red mats. Free standing shelves of varying shapes and sizes circled the dais my table stood upon. Bottles of liquids of every color imaginable filled every shelf, sitting alongside scrolls, feather quills, and bottles of ink.
The twelve men and women I had seen in the courtyard stood beyond the shelves, against the walls of the room, their hands clasped in front of them and their heads bowed. Telisa paced the hallway beyond that led to three large doors with orange trim.
“Telisa?” I croaked. My throat scraped with each syllable. Whatever they had poured into my mouth had worked one over on my windpipe.
Telisa's head shot up. “Eric!” She whacked a nearby hooded man in the shoulder. “He's awake!”
The twelve stood at the same time, lifting their heads as one, and unclasping their hands.
One woman stepped forward, gently peeling back her hood and revealing an ebony-skinned face with long dark hair curling down to her shoulders. “So. You have awoken.”
I nodded and blinked. “Please . . . .” I stuck my tongue out. I needed water.
Telisa tossed me a canteen from her side. I caught it and gulped down the water greedily, feeling my throat restoring itself with each swallow.
The woman spread her arms wide. “We are the scholars. Keepers of the moldable fire, and caretakers of the lore of Abra. We saved your life, and you saved hers.” The woman tilted her head toward Telisa.
I slipped both feet to the floor and stood. Shakily at first, but then taking another gulp of water and standing straighter.
Telisa eyed me but didn't step closer. “How did you do that?”
The woman squinted at me. “Yes, we wish to hear how you accomplished such a feat.”
I glanced at the clasp on my arm. “I . . . .” How had I done all this? “I don't know. I just . . . felt it, I guess.”
“Has your clasp exhibited any other shades of color?” the woman asked.
I scratched the back of my head. “No. Only its typical milky white. And gold.”
Telisa cleared her throat. “Gratta wanted us to seek y'all's counsel on this. Shanters from the queen arrived yesterday and demanded to know who the Runner of Golden Light was.”
“Intriguing,” the woman said. “Did the shanters say how they had obtained the knowledge of golden light?”
Telisa shook her head. “Not that I can recall. You?” She studied my face a second.
“I don't remember.”
The other eleven hooded figures eyed me from under their green hoods. Their irises glowed slightly blue even in the gloom. Then they spoke at the same time, their mouths moving in unison. “How the queen heard tell of golden light is beyond even our knowledge. However, there is another story we do know.”
“What's that?” Telisa asked.
The eleven stepped forward, arms raising, fingers pointed straight at me. Their voices echoed through the round chamber in a hollow tone. “When bookkeepers first enslaved the islands of Abra with clasps and gems, expecting the world to run to their bidding, another was spoken off: a forebear, who would emerge shining a path of golden light and leading all to Freedom's Chair.”
A shiver sprinted across my shoulders.
“This would be the downfall of all,” the eleven continued, stepping between the cases and shelves, hands still outstretched, reaching toward me. “Nothing will ever be the same as it once was. Too many cracks, too many gems, too many lost to the lights of purple.” Their hoods fell back. Each face stared my direction with a distant glaze covering their eyes. “It is written that the Runner of Golden Light shall do things no Runner has down before. Shine light in ways no one has conceived. Bear witness to the One who comes still.”
They were inches away now. Their hands reached out and stacked on top of my head, lightly pressing downward. “You are the Runner of Golden Light! You are the Runner of Golden Light!” they chanted, again and again.
I didn't understand. What did all these words mean? I stepped back. Why was I chosen as some special Runner? I peeked at the clasp on my forearm. The gem had returned to a milk color, but golden swirls mixed with the white.
I shoved their hands away and pushed through the ring of hooded scholars. “What does this even mean? What are you talking about!”
The woman who had spoken independently spread her hands wide. “We do not hazard such a guess. What we do know is this: you have a special purpose. One that you must pursue.”
Telisa marched over, grabbed my wrist, and yanked me sideways. “The only thing he's pursuin' is whatever runs Gratta puts him on. He ain't no forebear or what you call it.”
“He must fulfill his purpose,” the eleven intoned.
“He does what Gratta decides!” Telisa shouted back. “Stop fillin' his head with these lies!”
“He must fulfill his purpose,” they repeated.
I darted away from Telisa. The eleven stalked toward me. I had to leave. I couldn't hear another word. It was too much. I spun on my heels and located a short archway with a stairwell winding upward beyond it. My boots pounded over the stones, carrying me up the steps, two at a time. I kept one hand trailing the spiraling center of the passage, climbing up, up, up. I burst through another archway and onto a balcony covered in green ivy and orange flowers lacing through the balustrade.
I leaned over the railing and vomited. It splashed to the courtyard far, far below. But I didn't care. I took a deep breath, trying to still my thoughts, my heart, my trembling fingers. I stared at my hands. “What's happening to me?” I whispered.
All I had wanted was to leave those cursed rice paddies on Jedros, become a Runner, and blend into the world of Abra, unnoticed, going from one job to the next until I was free of the clasp. That was all. Not this. Not to be a Runner with some special purpose. What did I have to offer anyway? These scholars expected me to be someone I wasn't. I just wasn't. How could a stupid kid from Jedros ever think of himself as more than a rice farmer?
I was born a rice farmer. But I would die as a martyr. Probably at the hands of the queen. She'd find me, strangle me, and leave me for dead.
Maybe I didn't want this life.
The clasp rested on my forearm. Saltha had disappeared into that purple haze. Maybe that's where I should go. Maybe I should disappear so no one would ever need something from me ever again. I could be truly free from all of it.
My fingers traced the edge of the clasp. I could rip it off. Wrench it away. Then I'd die. Be gone.
“But do you want that?” a voice whispered across the balcony.
A young boy's face poked through the archway, his fingers curled around the stones. His dark hair hung over his forehead, and he brushed it away. His brown eyes watched me, squinting and widening. He was at least two years younger than me, but his vernacular made me think he was much older.
“I don't know what I want,” I said, wiping a tear from my face.
The boy hopped up the last stair and stood in the archway, dead center. He wore a white tunic tucked into black breeches. His feet were bare and covered with brown earth. I watched him cross the balcony and slide down beside me. He stuck his legs through the balustrade and let his feet dangle over the hundred feet to the courtyard. “You have ideas at least.”
I swallowed and sat cross-legged beside him, watching the sliver of a moon spark in the night sky. “Everyone wants me to do all these things. Mother wanted me to run. Gratta wants me to run. Now, these scholars believe I'm fulfilling some old prophecy or something.” I sighed. “But the truth is, I have this feeling that no matter where I go, I’ll always be a slave.”
“We're all slaves to something,” the boy said, kicking his feet. “Slaves to work, slaves to ourselves, slaves to bookkeepers or scholars.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
The boy smirked. “Me? They call me the miracle child. No one will tell me what that means. They just say I'm a miracle. I don't think the queen knows about me yet.”
I pointed at his forearm. “You don't have a clasp.”
He shook his head. “Wouldn't stick to me.”
“Wouldn't stick to you?”
“No. Some bookkeeper tried to clasp me, but it wouldn't stick. It slid right off.”
I leaned back. “How is that even possible?”
The boy shrugged. “Like I said, the miracle child. Sounds like you're in a similar situation yourself, what with the gold light and everything.”
“You could say that.” I paused, scrunched my mouth together, then tapped the balustrade. “The thing that bothers me most is the way people stare. They stare at me like I'm about to explode. Like I'm . . . .”
“Dangerous?” the boy offered.
“Yes! And to be honest, I feel dangerous. Like I am going to hurt someone. And then I'm going to regret all of it.”
The boy leaned forward, resting his chin in his hands. “Regrets. I don't get those. They seem bothersome.”
What kind of person didn't have regrets? Then again, this kid probably hadn't seen as much in the last few days as I had. I had plenty of regrets. Not running fast enough to get away from the Runners. Leaving my parents. Not stopping Saltha in time. Regrets and I were old friends by now. I could only imagine how well we'd know each other in a year.
The boy tilted his head to the side like he was listening to something. “Your friend is coming.”
“She's not my friend.”
He smirked. “You will be. Soon enough, I think.”
I glanced at the archway leading back into the depths of the fortress. Boots clamped down on the stairs. “Eric! Are you up here?” Telisa.
“Just great—” I spun back to the boy. But he was gone.
Telisa stomped onto the balcony and put her fists on either hip. “They're lettin' us stay the night here. I want you to sleep. But I'm gonna keep watch. I don't trust these creepy monotone scholars. I don't like what they have to say.”
Neither did I.
“Here's your Runner of Golden Light!” Telisa spat.
I heard a girl scream.
My eyes flipped open. A girl with a shaved head and gray eyes stared upward as the shanters swarmed around her. They spun faster and faster, three of them digging their claws into her shoulders and back. They heaved her from the ground.
I threw out a hand. “But—”
Telisa spun and slapped me with one of her huge hands. “Shut up. And stay shut up.”
I swallowed and crouched down again.
The shanters dropped the other Runners to the concrete floors and swooped out from under the Commons roof and toward the blue sky. The sacrificed girl had been a recruit. From one of the other islands. I didn't know her name. But I'm sure she would forever remember mine.
Recruits crawled out from under their benches and tables and stared at the cloud of shanters flapping away in the distance. I fixated on that girl's speck of a form until I couldn't see her separate from the monsters that had carried her away.
“All right! Enough gawkin'!” Gratta shouted from one end of the Commons. She marched across the floor, slightly limping, until she stood before Telisa and me. “What in Castos is happenin' out here? Why would the Queen's shanters be flappin' their gums here?”
Telisa nodded at me. “It's him. Golden Boy.”
I held up my hands. “I didn't do anything! I swear!”
Gratta snorted. “Oh, you sure gone and done a lot, hun. A lot.” The old woman rubbed both eyes with her hand. “We gotta take 'im now. We have to know what we've got on our hands here.”
“Right now?” Telisa asked. “Are you sure that's wise?”
“You sure it's wise to be questionin' me about it? Here I thought we could at least wait until it got all dark and spooky in the world, but no. Shanters have to show up on my doorstep!” Gratta spat on a nearby table and pointed at the glob. “Somebody wipe that up!”
One of the recruits grabbed a yellow cloth napkin and scrubbed the spot.
Gratta shoved a finger in my direction. “Now. Git to the armory and the stables and git yer sorry hides to them scholars!” She whirled around. “What are all y'all gaping at? Eat food! It won't last forever! And I ain't feedin' ya no second lunch!” With a swipe at a biscuit, Gratta stalked out of the Commons and back toward her ranch house.
Telisa grabbed my collar and yanked me close. “You've cost me so many recruits today; I'm losing count. The next butt I lose is going to be yours, so walk!” She heaved me forward.
I stumbled to the dust outside the Commons. I peeked at the clasp on my arm. Still there, still milky white. So much trouble over such a small thing. The recruits and Runners under the Commons had shuffled back to their benches and were busily stuffing their faces with food before lunch ended.
Except for Lodan. He stood on the edge of the Commons, watching me, watching Telisa, one hand gently rubbing where the shanter claws had dug into his shoulder. His eyes were wide. With fear? Worry? Shock? I couldn't tell.
Telisa kicked the back of my boot. “I said walk!”
We hurried past the Casket – the building in the center of Gratta's compound where most of the combat training took place. It had a similar roof to the Commons, but long logs stacked high formed the walls. A large barn door painted red had been slid aside. I caught the briefest glimpse of a concrete floor, a set of old wooden bleachers against one wall, as well as straw dummies on long poles for fighting practice.
The armory was a round building with a green cloth roof that came to a point at the top. Tall logs had been placed side by side with a porch circling the entire structure. A railing ran around the edge of the porch with spears, swords, pikes, and maces lined up against it. Telisa stomped through the open front door. I followed.
Inside were more weapons than I ever could have imagined seeing in one lifetime. Whips, daggers, crossbows, metal stars with sharp edges, bokens, katanas, anything and everything. Telisa snatched a crossbow from the wall, a gray quiver stuffed with arrows. She attached two long daggers to the belt at her side. She slung a long broadsword over her back and wrapped a leather scabbard over her shoulder and around her midsection.
“Should I take anything?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “No.”
“But what if those shanters come back? Or pales? Or pitworms?”
Telisa's lip curled. “No.”
“What if the Queen figures out you lied to her?”
“The Queen will assume it was a golden fluke.”
I ran a hand through my dusty hair. “I would feel better with a knife. I can slip it into my boot.”
Telisa grabbed my wrist and held it up to my face. “Seems to me you've got the best weapon any of us could wish for.” My gaze lingered on the clasp. She was right. If I could conjure golden light again, I’d never need a sword or knife or mace. She flung my arm down and stepped back. “How'd you do it anyway?”
I shrugged. “I don't know. It just happened.”
“Nothing ever just happens.” Telisa cocked her head to the side and squinted. “What were you thinking about when it happened?”
“Surviving your 'game’.”
She smacked me across the face. “Don't get smart.”
I clenched my teeth. “I would really appreciate it if everyone stopped slapping me!” My cheek burned. Anger pooled somewhere in my forehead and trickled down my face. “You think you can whisk us around however you like! Like we aren't even people!” I closed my eyes. My head began to throb. The anger slid past my eyes, down my shoulder, slithered the length of my arm until it swirled around the clasp on my arm.
Heat rose from my wrist. My fingers curled into fists. When I opened my eyes, the gem glowed the faintest tinges of gold.
Telisa shuffled twenty steps away with her back to the armory wall. She nocked an arrow and pointed the crossbow at my chest. “Calm down!” she shouted.
I opened my fists. My fingers shook. I slumped to my knees, dropping my head into my hands. Heat from the clasp wafted over my face with every tremor.
“Deep breath!” Telisa said.
I took one, long, deep breath.
Another deep breath. The heat began to subside. My hands stopped shaking. I took a last breath and felt tears streaking down my face. “What is happening to me?” I whispered.
For the briefest moment, I saw Telisa's mask fall. The harsh lines, the rigid forehead, it all dropped. Her eyes registered sadness. For me. A second later, she had her hand on my shoulder, gently this time. “Let's find out.”
* * *
I had never ridden a horse before. Telisa had warned me my legs and backside would ache for days afterward. We sat on a leather saddle, Telisa in the back. I clung to the horn with both hands, a leather guard wrapped around my clasp in case it decided to glow golden again.
The brown mare we rode was Telisa's own horse, Poinsettia. I assumed she named it for the red star on her forehead. Poinsettia galloped through the pines on a narrow dirt path winding away from Gratta's compound. The sun's rays stretched out, and I blinked as we rode west.
We stopped only once around dinnertime. I slid off the back of Poinsettia and wobbled back and forth, steadying myself with one hand on a nearby pine tree.
“Recruits who haven't ridden are always the same,” Telisa muttered.
“What do you expect?”
“Perfection.” Telisa dropped to the dirt and opened one of the saddlebags. She dug out two biscuits, a swathe of butter wrapped in a red checkered cloth, and a small butter knife. With two quick swipes, she had butter lathered across both biscuits and tossed one to me.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, chomping on the biscuit eagerly. My stomach was empty from not eating lunch. The cold biscuit felt like honey sliding down my throat. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and caught Telisa watching me again.
She glanced away and pulled a metal canteen from a clasp behind the saddlebag.
“What?” I asked.
Telisa took a swig of water and glanced back at me. “Shut up.”
“No.” I stepped forward, pointing at her. “What is it?”
She shook her head and shoved the canteen in my hand. “Drink.”
“You keep looking at me funny. Ever since the armory. Almost like . . . ” I trailed off, analyzing the dust by my feet and trying to think. Almost like what?
“We should get moving again.” Telisa eyed the sunlight slipping between the pine branches. “I'd like to be at the scholars by dark. At this rate, we aren't going to make it.”
I held up a hand. “Just wait!”
“Don't yell at me.”
“I remind you of someone, don't I?”
Telisa rolled her eyes. “You think too much. Drink some water, stretch your legs, and then let's ride.”
“I'm right, aren’t I?” I gulped down some water. “Was it my brother? Did he look like me? A little taller? Broader?”
Telisa stomped over, grabbed the canteen from my hand, and capped it. “Will you ever do as you’re told? Or do you want to ask more stupid questions that have no answers? Or should I leave you out here for—”
A rustle echoed from the bushes. Faster than I could shiver, Telisa swung her crossbow to eye level. She slowly pivoted, scanning the dry bushes around us. The ground rose and fell slightly for leagues. Red boulders bigger than Poinsettia poked up from the clay.
I backed up to stand beside the mare. I opened my mouth to ask what was out there but pressed my lips together. This wasn’t a time for questions.
Telisa never turned to look at me. She only whispered, “Mount up.”
I nodded and shoved a foot in the stirrup before swinging my other leg over Poinsettia's back. From on top of the horse, I could see shadows slinking between the boulders beyond the bushes.
A hand wreathed in wisps of shadow crept into the air behind the nearest boulder.
“Telisa! Over there!” I pointed at the hand.
She whipped around and shot an arrow at the hand. It thudded into the palm of the hand before dropping out of sight. Telisa raced back to Poinsettia and scrambled up. “We've got to leave. Now.”
“What was that?”
Sweat trickled down Telisa's brow. “I've never seen them on Castos before. Don't know why they would even venture this direction at all,” she mumbled.
“What was it?”
Telisa handed the reins to me. “You steer. I’ll fight.”
A low moan echoed from behind the boulders. My mouth went dry. Seven pairs of shadowy hands rose into the air, slamming onto seven boulders circling us. The creatures crawled up after the hands. Tall, shadowy people glided to the tops of the boulders and stood with their fingers splayed at their sides. They could have been regular people, except their entire bodies were made from the same wispy shadows. As one, they flicked their wrists. Long spikes appeared where their hands had once been.
Telisa shot another arrow at the closest one. It landed in the center of the creature, sending it flying backward into a nearby pine tree.
“Yah!” Telisa shouted, kicking her heels into Poinsettia's flanks.
The horse shot ahead. I gripped the reins and steered Poinsettia toward the path winding past the boulders and pines. Another low moan echoed behind us. I peeked back to see six shadow people float off their perches, lean forward and fly at us, spears extended.
I screamed. Poinsettia whinnied. Telisa loaded her crossbow and pulled the trigger. This one missed and thudded into a tree as the shadow rolled to the side and moaned.
The path sloped downward toward an open field. A collection of round green buildings dotted the meadow set against a rocky outcrop. A large gate wound around the front of the rocks, with a tall green wall covered in spikes and bowls burning with fires.
“Straight there!” Telisa shouted, letting another arrow fly.
One of the shadows leaned forward and shot up next to me. This one was a woman, her long flowing hair whisking behind her as she flew. She opened her mouth and held back her spear-arm. I ducked as the shadow soared over my head. I grabbed one of Telisa's daggers and chucked it at the shadow's head. It lodged between her eyes. With a moan, the shadow tumbled to the dirt, rolling into a ball, and vanishing in a puff of smoke.
“What are these?” I shouted.
Telisa shot another arrow. This one slammed into one of the shadow wraith's legs. It dropped from the air and hobbled after them. “I'll explain later! Get us to those buildings!”
I leaned forward and slapped the reins. Poinsettia responded by pounding over the earth to the field below. We nearly flew across the grass as the remaining four shadows whipped through the air around us. Telisa shot arrows, but these shadows were too quick. The arrows flew past them.
“Out of arrows!” Telisa said. She dropped the crossbow onto a clasp at Poinsettia's side and drew the broadsword. She swung it as the shadows dipped closer, jabbing with their spears. Poinsettia dodged left as a spear thudded into the ground behind us.
“What do they want?”
Telisa grabbed my clasp with one hand. “These. They want the gems!”
One of the shadows dropped, landing with its legs wrapped around Telisa's neck. She choked, grabbing the legs and losing her broadsword to the dirt. I swung around and punched the shadow in the side, finding it surprisingly firm. I pounded again, this time grabbing Telisa's other dagger and driving it into the shadow wraith. It moaned and glared at me with wide eyes.
I stabbed it again. The creature flipped off the back of the horse.
Telisa gasped at the air. “We're almost there!”
Ahead, I could see the gates, slightly ajar, fires burning. I glanced back. The woods were so far behind us now. How could we have gotten this far? Poinsettia had covered more ground than should have been possible. The red star on the horse's forehead glowed. Her legs were a blur over the ground, propelling us forward.
Two shadowy hands landed on my shoulders. I jerked away as Poinsettia nearly flew through the open gates and into a courtyard. The horse tripped on a loose stone, sending Telisa and me flying off her back and onto the ground. I spun around, dagger in hand as two shadow wraiths circled Telisa. One of them landed in front of me, dark eyes scanning my face. This one was also a woman, long hair flowing unnaturally behind her head. She stared at me expressionless, raising up her spear-arm.
Then I heard Telisa scream.
Two of the shadow wraiths had thrust their spears through her, one sticking through the chest, and one through the back. The shadows reached for the clasp on Telisa's forearm with greedy fingers.
I stopped thinking. I pointed the clasp at the shadow in front of me. The gem glowed golden and a beam of light shot through the shadow's face. The wraith vanished with a moan. I raced over to Telisa, clasp still glowing.
My head throbbed. Heat surged through my arms, my legs, my fingers, my face. I stumbled forward, holding out my forearm.
The two shadow wraiths jerked their heads toward me, took one glance at the glowing clasp, then shot straight into the air and over the spiked wall.
I collapsed beside Telisa. Her mouth hung open; blood trickled down her chin.
I glanced at the large wound in her abdomen. The air grew thick with heat. I leaned over and passed out on the cobblestones of the courtyard.
The pits slowed as I watched that pitter fall toward me, pincers-first, in slow motion.
I had always wondered what it might feel like.
I had always wondered if it would really hurt.
Or if I wouldn't even be aware it was happening at all.
But it was happening.
The pincers snapped toward me, the gullet of the pitter yawning open, sharp teeth lining the insides of its throat, legs a blurry scuttle of movement on either side of the monster.
I didn't want to die.
I wanted to live. I had to live.
As soon as that thought registered in my brain, a voice whispered into my ear. No one was there. Maybe death was talking. Maybe it was my brain. Rattled. But I heard the voice.
"If you want to live, then live. Use the gem."
And then something happened I couldn't explain. A rush of energy surged through my body and focused in on my forearm. The forearm trapped by the wriggling pitter waiting for its brother to mash its pincers into my gut so it could chomp on an arm or a leg for itself.
The gem in my clasp burned hot. Pain ratcheted up my arm as golden light burst from the gem and blazed right through the stunned pitter over my arm. Its eyes glowed golden before beams of light burst through every socket, blazing hotter until the pitter exploded around me, sending monster guts flying through the air and smashing into the other pitter that loomed over me.
Golden light still shot from my gem. I screamed in pain and aimed it at the pitter over my head, blasting a hole right through its midsection. The pitter screeched and fell backward.
A golden haze fell over my world. My arm ached. My neck throbbed. Blood rushed through my head as I pushed myself to a standing position. Screams echoed all around me, shouts, screeches, rumbling as I focused the golden light on the other pitters. The other recruits fell to the ground as I screamed and screamed and shot pitter after pitter, watching them explode with golden light.
"Eric! Eric!" My name wafted to me from behind. I slowly spun around and saw Lodan standing there, eyes wide with fear, watching my face wrench in pain.
"ERIC!" Lodan yelled again.
I dropped my arm to my side. My gem faded back to a milky white color with the slightest golden tinge. The other recruits stood up, staring at me with their mouths open. I stumbled to the side, pain filling my chest. I gasped at the air and saw black spots edge in on my vision.
Lodan placed a hand on my shoulder. "Eric?"
Telisa stood over me, staring with an open mouth.
Pitters lay blasted to shreds all around us. Their legs finishing their final scuttles in this life before growing still. I had destroyed them all. All of them. Every last one was gone.
"Get . . . the flag." I rasped. My throat burned. I coughed and spat on the rock beside me.
"Eric . . . your spit . . . it's . . ."
I glanced down. The splotch of spit was golden. It glowed for a second before fading into the rock.
What was happening to me?
A girl grabbed the flag out of its holder and hoisted it into the sky. "We got it!"
Telisa still hadn't moved. She stood on the platform over the field of pits, surveying the damage, open-mouthed. Rudo and the Runner with the rapier stood on either side of her now. They stared like they could never have supposed anything like this would ever happen.
I glanced up at them.Pain coursed through my head. I shook, curling up on my side as I lay on the rock.
Telisa turned to Rudo and hissed something. A moment later he clambered out of sight. The wooden gate scraped open. Rudo trudged through the opening, sloshing past steaming piles of pitter guts until he stood over me.
I glanced up at him, my face wrenched in pain.
He reached down and grabbed my elbow, yanking me to my feet. I almost lost my balance, but he snapped his fingers at Lodan, who hurried over and threw an arm around my shoulders, propping me up. We staggered toward the entrance, past the stunned faces of the other recruits who watched me pass and shifted back. Pitter guts dripped from their hair, their arms, their pants. The same gunk dribbled down my shirt. We were all too shocked to even wipe it away.
Telisa met us outside the gate, hands on both hips. She narrowed her eyes at me and then shouted over my shoulder, "All of you! Out here now!"
The rest of the group hurried out of the pits and stood a good distance from Lodan and me. A strange silence settled over us. The distant clashing of swords and whinnying of horses echoed across the compound.
Telisa held up a fist. "No one talks about what happened here. Got it?"
The recruits stood behind me, still silent.
"Got it?" Telisa screamed.
"Yes, ma'am!" The others shouted in unison.
Telisa pointed at me. "You. You're coming with me to Gratta. Rudo, Fennier! get the rest of these scums to the showers! They stink like pitters."
Rudo and Fennier nodded and clapped their hands at the others.
"You heard her! Run!" Fennier shouted, waving her rapier at the group. I heard their boots clomp away from us, but I couldn't see them. My head lolled forward. Dust swirled around my legs.
"Let's go," Telisa muttered. In that single mutter, I could hear it. She was afraid. Afraid of me. Afraid of what I had done. I trembled and felt bile rising up my throat. I squinched my eyes shut and forced it back down as Lodan helped me stumble ahead. Footfall after footfall, sand crunching under my boots, stomach roiling back and forth, burning pain shooting up my forearm.
What exactly had I done?
"We're there," Lodan whispered.
I forced my head up. Gratta's ranch house sat in front of us. A green door with bars over a simple round window in the center of it. The house stretched in either direction about thirty feet; I counted four more windows, two on either side, all with bars covering them. The whole house was made from logs like the dormitories, but every log had been painted dark green, like the color of freshly fallen pine needles.
Telisa banged a fist on the door. "Gratta! Open up! It's important!" she growled.
I heard a scuffle inside the house and the door slid open. Gratta filled the doorframe; silver hair fell wild around her head like an untrimmed hedge. Her eyes narrowed. She gazed at Telisa, then Lodan, then me.
She pointed a gnarled finger at Lodan. "That one stays out. Bring the other inside. This had better be important."
Telisa nodded. "It is." She slapped Lodan's hand away from my shoulder and shoved him to the dirt. "Wait there."
Lodan scuttled up against the wall of logs and brought his knees up to his chest.
Telisa grabbed my arm and yanked me through the doorway. We entered a room with wooden floors that shone in the sunlight streaming through a large back window, covered with more bars. A counter ran from one end of the room to the other. Green suede couches sat against the wall facing it and the lines of bookshelves behind the counter. Rows of books with green binding and gold foiling lined the shelves, red ribbons snaking out the tops of every one. A large feather quill rested in an ink bottle on the counter, with one of the books open wide, yellowed pages facing upward.
Gratta pointed at the couch. "Lie down."
I did and closed my eyes immediately, holding my forearm. The burning had subsided a bit, and the pain had dulled to an ache.
I heard the door lock. Footsteps shuffled across the room. Then Telisa spoke. "I've never seen it before, ma'am. His clasp. The gem. It shone golden."
Gratta coughed. "Golden? You sure?"
I opened my eyes now and saw them both staring at me from beside the counter. Gratta's fingers trembled slightly, but she curled them into fists.
Telisa nodded. "Golden." She crossed her huge arms. "Blasted every last pitter with a stream of light that shot out from it. I didn't know they could even glow golden. Didn't think that was one of the colors."
"It's not." Gratta took a deep breath and brushed her silver hair back.
"Maybe we should kill him."
I gasped, choked, and scrambled to a sitting position. "Kill me?"
"Shut up," Gratta muttered. She grabbed a sharp silver letter opener from the counter and flipped it over between her fingers. Light glinted from the letter opener and flashed across my face. My heart pounded, and I could feel a slight tingling around my forearm. "Kill him." Gratta stepped across the room; letter opener gripped in her hand. It looked as sharp as any knife, long, slick, and lethal. "Supposin' the Queen finds out about this. Supposin' she hears a Runner with a golden gem is here."
I leaned back against the couch, feeling the buttons in the fabric digging into my back.
Gratta stood over me now, her shadow falling across my face. "Suppose we just let ya be. See what happens." She held up the letter opener.
The gem glowed brighter. Golden light spilled over my clasp as Gratta raised the letter opener. I held up my arms as she swung. A sheen of golden light formed over my chest. The letter opener bounced against it, and Gratta dropped it clattering to the floor as she stumbled backward. The light snapped back into my gem as Telisa caught Gratta and helped her stand back up.
"Never . . . I've never seen this," Gratta's eyes were wild.
"What's happening, ma'am?" I whispered.
Gratta pointed at the clasp on my forearm. "It's doin' things I ain't never seen a clasp do." She stepped toward me, palms up. "Let me see it."
I shook and held out my forearm. The gem still glowed a slight golden color, but it was quickly fading back to milky white. My head pounded, and golden splashes of light sparked behind my eyelids every time I blinked. Gratta wrapped her fingers around my wrist and traced a finger across the gem's surface.
"Warm," she whispered. She closed her eyes and put a hand on the clasp. Her brow furrowed for a moment, and then she opened her eyes. "Golden light . . ." She stared at me, leaning forward, searching both of my eyes. "Who are you?"
I swallowed. "Eric of Jedros."
"They're simple people–"
She gripped my wrist tighter. "Who are they? Names!"
"Yslin and Hanna. They're simple people. We plant rice and harvest it! I'm nobody."
Gratta squinted at me. "I doubt that. You're somebody. I don't know who. But you are." She glanced at the clasp again. "How'd you do it? The golden light?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. I just . . . did." The voice. The voice had told me to use the gem. For a moment I thought about telling Gratta. I looked at her, my mouth falling open. Should I tell her?
Telisa glared at me over Gratta's shoulder. Waiting.
"Don't." It was such a simple word. But it filled my head. Neither Gratta nor Telisa had said it. But the word was there. Just the same. "Don't."
"Ya mean to tell me, ya go blastin' up my pitters, but ya don't have a tumbleweedin' clue how?"
"I really don't!" That was the truth. I had no idea how it had happened.
Gratta pushed me back against the couch. "Gems only do a couple 'o things. One, is they shine. Whatever kinda job you're runnin' it shines like it. Orange for recruitin', blue for messagin', green for thievin', red for killin', and so on. But there ain't no gold color. Never seen it. Never even heard it possible."
"What do we do with him, ma'am?" Telisa stepped up beside Gratta, glaring at me. "If we can't kill him, what do we do with him?"
"That gem's protectin' 'im. I don't know how, but it is." Gratta spun around and began pacing back and forth, tapping her fingers against her forehead. "Take 'im to the Queen? She'd probably want this. As soon as she hears where he went and what he done, she gonna be descendin' over this compound like a banshee bat. I'm sure she'd love a little army of golden gemmers against the rebellion. Just love it."
"So what do we do?"
"I'm thinkin'!" Gratta snapped. Then she stopped. "I wanna know more about this. It could be mighty useful." She spun around slowly. "As soon as darkness falls, I want you to take 'im, Telisa. Take 'im to the scholars. That'd get 'im away from here for a while and also get us some answers."
"Until then, ma'am?"
Gratta lifted her chin and eyed me. "Until then I want 'im at yer side." With a snap, the old lady wrapped her fingers around Telisa's throat. She dragged the Runner toward her. "Listen close. If he gets away, I'll crack yer gem. If he dies, I'll crack yer gem. If anyone speaks a word o' where he went and what he done, I'll crack yer gem. Ya got it?"
"Got it, ma'am."
"Good." Gratta patted Telisa's cheek and smiled. "Now then. I believe it's feedin' time! So all y'all get outta here and get to the Commons!"
I stood as Telisa stomped to the door and flung it open.
I turned my head to Gratta as she blinked and smiled.
"Just remember, hon. There are more ways to kill ya than with a letter opener. You behave now, ya hear? You're gonna be my little gold digger, I reckon. And Gratta sure likes the sound o' that."
I swallowed and stepped out of the house with Telisa slamming the door behind me.
Lodan scrambled up to his feet, brushing off the backside of his pants. "What happened? Anything wrong? You okay, Eric?"
Telisa shoved Lodan in the chest with a single hand. The boy crumpled backward to the dust. "Shut up. He's fine. Doesn't he look fine to you?"
Lodan made eye contact a second and then nodded slowly. "Sure. Just fine." He stood up, brushed himself off again, and trailed behind as we headed for the Commons.
I couldn't eat. I stared at the plate in front of me, piled high with a slab of meat, green asparagus, and some kind of orange mush I couldn't identify. Telisa sat beside me, stuffing her face like a rabid panda. The other recruits and Runners eyed both of us warily, but I couldn't look back at them. I couldn't even think.
I closed both eyes and took a long, slow breath.
What had happened?
The voice. The voice that had spoken to me. What was that? I had heard it twice now. No explanation. I tried to recall how it sounded. Was it a man's voice? A woman's? A child's? No matter how hard I tried to remember, I couldn't place it.
And all this talk about gold. If gold wasn't a gem color, then how could mine have shone golden like that?
Gratta had said I was somebody.
I wish I knew who that was.
For as long as I could remember, I had always felt like some sort of human shell, rustling between rice paddies and our cottage, digging the tunnel with Saltha, staring at my parents as they stared at the walls in the dark hours of the night.
What did it even mean to be a somebody?
What did it mean to be a Runner? A recruit? A human? An Eric?
A plate clattered to the ground and shattered. My eyes popped open.
Telisa's head shot up from her plate. She jumped up, yanked a knife from her side and scanned the Commons.
A Runner with a duster on pointed at the distant sky. "Shanters! From the Queen's castle!"
Muffled screams rippled across the Commons.
I whipped around to Telisa. "Shanters? What are those?" I studied where the Runner pointed and saw a dark cloud flickering through the air, zagging toward the ground and zigging back up, headed straight for the Commons. I squinted and saw what appeared to be strange, leathery birds, flapping toward us, beady eyes trained on us.
"Get under the table, scrant," Telisa growled. "Do not let them see you."
She jumped up onto the table, knife up. Runners across the Commons raced around, leaping up onto tables. I ducked underneath the table, pulling the bench close and peering out as the shanters zoomed under the Commons awning and flew in a tight circle around the recruits and Runners. A strange, hollow voice echoed out as the shanters flew faster and faster. My hair stood on end, and my collar fluttered as the wind around us grew stronger. One of the benches scraped toward the center of the room.
"Golden light has been spilled," the voice hissed from the shanters. "The Queen knows this. Reveal the Runner."
Telisa held her ground and planted both feet between a tray of orange mush and a platter of steak. "Leave! There ain't no such thing as golden light! Get gone!"
The wind picked up, and the shanters flew faster, claws on the ends of their legs flexing. "Lies! The Queen has felt it! Reveal the Runner of the golden light!"
A shanter ducked sideways and latched both claws around the head of a Runner, lifting him into the air. The things were large, probably wider than a grown man. It dug its claws into the Runner's face as he screamed.
"Tell us!" the shanters screeched.
Another shanter shot out, grabbed a recruit by the shoulders, and dragged her up, kicking and thrashing.
My breath caught in my throat as I watched the shanters pick up four more recruits, yanking them into the air over the tables of food. My tongue ran dry. The clasp on my arm began to burn.
"We will kill them all if you do not reveal the Runner of Golden Light!"
And then one of the shanters grabbed Lodan. The only person I would have called a friend out here. They dragged him into the center of the Commons. A shanter hovered in front of his face, a claw tracing down the side of his cheek.
"Help!" Lodan screamed.
I pushed the bench aside.
And then Telisa cleared her throat. "Fine! You want the Runner of Golden Light?"
"Yesss..." the voice whispered. "Reveal the Runner!"
Telisa glanced at me and smirked. "I'll tell you who the Runner of Golden Light is."
I closed my eyes, wind whipping through my hair. I stood. And waited for shanter claws to dig into my shoulders.
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.