The spinewolf's claws wrapped around my throat. Swirls of purple edged into my line of sight. My lungs tightened. The beast's rancid breath wafted into my nostrils. I closed my eyes to focus. I had to blast this spinewolf into oblivion like those pitters.
Something whipped through the air and thudded into the spinewolf's cheek. My eyes shot open. An arrow stuck fast from the creature’s snout. It dropped me, and I stumbled to the stones on all fours, gasping.
Telisa stood in the doorway, letting off another arrow. It pierced the spinewolf's chest. “Use the gem!” she screamed, nocking one more arrow and letting it fly.
The spinewolf's eyes blazed green. It held up the claw with the dark green gem. Telisa dropped her bow and slowly rose into the air, grasping her neck as the spinewolf growled and choked her.
I shook my head to clear my mind, aimed the clasp at the spinewolf's back, and screamed. A thin band of golden light blasted it in the back. It stumbled forward, dropping the gem and sending it skittering across the stones. Telisa fell onto her back, grabbed her bow, and waved at me. “Let's go!”
I hurried toward her and glanced back at the green gem. “What about that?”
“Not now! If you die, Gratta's sure gonna kill me!” She grabbed my collar and yanked me up the first step, shoving me in front of her. She shot two more arrows at the spinewolf, then pounded up the stairwell behind me.
“Run, meine Kaninchen!” the spinewolf howled.
Its claws scraped the stones across the dungeon floor and scratched into the stairs below us. We raced upward and through the open doorway. Telisa slammed her shoulder into the door. It latched shut, but we could hear the spinewolf pounding upwards, not bothering to slow down.
We darted forward as the door splintered outward. The spinewolf landed on its paws in the hallway. Its eyes glowed darker green than they had before. Drool slipped from its snout. Arrows stuck from its chest and face, and the gem gleamed from its paw.
It held up a paw, and both of us slammed into the ground. The scholar should have never released me from my chains. But I fed him all the darkness he wanted while I waited for the moment I needed. And now, I shall not only have one gem of power, but I will rip yours from its clasp as well.
The spinewolf stalked toward us, sniffing at our feet.
Anger surged through my chest. I would not let this thing beat us. I refused to die in a stone hallway in the scholar's fortress like someone's tossed out leftovers. I pushed against the hold the dark green gem had on me and inched my forearm toward my chest.
The spinewolf's eyes glowed. “None of that!” It flipped its paw around, and my entire body rolled over. My nose slammed into the stone.
I'll eat her first.
“No!” I shouted. A blast of golden light shot from the clasp on my forearm, propelling me off the ground and into the spinewolf's chest. I spun the beam around. It lit up the beast's paw with the dark green gem. Its gem exploded, sending a blast of green light through the hallway. The spinewolf shot back, smashed into the stone wall with a sickening thud, whimpered once, then stilled.
I crawled over to Telisa. “You okay?”
She nodded, rubbing a knot the size of a fist on the back of her head. “Just bruised. I'll be fine.”
Padded feet tapped into the hallway. Scholars in their green robes filled one end of the hall, watching us, glancing at the spinewolf, and at the shattered dragon door. One of them stepped forward. “What happened here?”
“One of your own tried to murder us,” Telisa said, standing up and brushing off her trousers. “We are leaving. Now.” She grabbed my elbow. “Let's go, Recruit.”
The scholars held up their hands, but Telisa glared them down. “No. We are leaving. Answers or not. Move away from us.”
The scholars pressed back against the wall as we marched past. I glanced back to see them slowly approaching the spinewolf, sleeves trailing the stones as they reached down to touch the spines protruding from its back.
Poinsettia couldn’t stop nuzzling my shoulder when we found her standing impatiently stamping her hoofs in the stable outside.
“I guess she likes you now,” Telisa muttered.
Poinsettia whinnied and snorted.
I couldn't help but smirk. “At least one of you has good taste.”
Telisa's brow furrowed. “Shut up and mount.”
I swung up onto the horse, and after checking the straps, Telisa followed. “Yah!” she shouted, kicking Poinsettia's flanks. We clopped over the cobblestones, and Telisa eyed the brightening skies. “We better make this fast, old girl.” She patted Poinsettia's neck and glanced at me. “Hang on.”
I wrapped my hands around the horn. Poinsettia flew across the ground, sending the surrounding countryside into a colorful blur, glowing orange as the sun rose over the distant hills. The glow made me think of gems. Orange. That was the color the Recruiter's gems had glowed when they had arrived on Jedros and taken us.
But my gem. It had glowed golden. I traced one finger across it and felt the warmth that radiated even now from its surface. Golden light swirled inside the gem, and for the briefest moment, I thought I saw the outline of a face push through the swirls. Two eyes open wide, and a mouth yawning wider than humanly possible. I blinked. The face was gone.
I definitely needed more sleep. Now I was seeing things everywhere I looked. A sure sign of crazy.
We wound through the woods again, Poinsettia slowed slightly to pass the boulders and tall trees. A cloud of dust followed us as we raced half the day through Castos. The sun blazed overhead as Gratta's compound came into sight. Four recruits waited by the large log gate, heaving it open after one harsh glare from Telisa.
Poinsettia plodded straight to Gratta's ranch house, stopping promptly at her front door.
Telisa jumped to the dirt. “Wait here. And I mean, wait here. No wandering.”
I yawned and nodded.
She stomped up the porch and hurried inside.
I blinked at the harsh sunlight. Other recruits ran around the compound, and the distant sounds of fighting in the Casket echoed toward me. A team of horses pulled a plow through the fields beyond Gratta's ranch house, with two recruits wearing straw hats slapping their whips to make the horses work faster.
I slipped off Poinsettia and saw Lodan peeking around the edge of the ranch house. His long hair hung around his face, and he waved his scarred hand at me. I glanced at the house. All was still silent inside.
Lodan waved his hand again. “Hurry. I have to tell you something!” he hissed.
I sighed and darted over, crouching around the side of the house. “What?”
“Listen, the girl Telisa sacrificed for you? To those bat things?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I remember.” How could I forget?
Lodan brushed his hair back. “One of those shanters brought her clasp back yesterday. Plopped it right in the middle of the Commons like bat droppings. And then one of the royal guardswomen for the queen showed up. Said a bunch of stuff I didn't really understand, but she did say that the queen wants to assure us all that this golden light phenomenon was a freak thing and the queen's handled it. Whatever that means.”
“What's everybody else saying about it?”
Lodan eyed my clasp. “They're pretty much freaked out. Said you're a wizard and stuff. Where did you two go?”
I scanned his face, took a breath, and spilled the whole thing to Lodan. Well, almost the whole thing. I didn't tell him about the boy on the balcony or the strange face in my gem or the fact that I'm supposed to be a forebear of some kind. Okay, so I left out a lot. But I told Lodan most of it. His eyes kept widening, and his jaw kept dropping until I finished with our arrival back at the compound.
“Wow,” he whispered. “That all really happened?”
“I guess it did.”
Lodan pointed at the ranch house. “So one other thing I should probably tell you. There's a buyer inside right now with Gratta.”
“Someone who buys jobs. I don't know who he was. Wearing a mask when he hurried past on the back of a dark horse. Rumor is that he's heard about the runner of golden light. And wants to purchase your services.”
I sat back on the dirt. “But I'm not even a runner yet! I haven't been trained!”
“That's what I thought,” Lodan said.
The door scuffed open.
“Gotta go,” Lodan whispered, slapping a hand on my shoulder. “See you later. Hopefully.”
I nodded and pushed him away before hurrying back to stand beside Poinsettia. The horse whinnied softly again and watched Telisa stand in the doorframe. She raised an eyebrow. “Apparently, Gratta wants to see you. About a job.”
I swallowed, patted Poinsettia, and followed Telisa inside. Inside the house was dark. The curtains had been drawn over every window, and two candles rested on the counter in front of the books. Gratta stood behind the counter with an open book in front of her and a grim expression on her face. A quill was in her hand, hovering over an ink bottle that glowed a slight yellow color. In the corner of the room a man sat on one of the suede couches shrouded in gloom and puffing on a large cigar poking from his mouth. A cloud of smoke drifted around his forehead. He wore a long duster with a wide brimmed hat and a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck and lower face. Brown gloves covered his hands, and he tapped a finger against the arm of the couch as he watched me enter the room.
“Is this the one?” he asked with a gruff voice.
Gratta nodded. “That's 'im.”
The man studied me and then fixated on the clasp I wore. “Tell me, boy. Why you?”
Telisa shifted from foot to foot beside me.
“I don't know what you mean,” I said.
“Why you?” He took a long puff of his cigar and blew a ring of smoke into the room. “Why would such a powerful gem fall into your clasp?”
“I don't know.”
Gratta sighed. “Look, if ya wanna hire him for a job, then let's hire him for a job.”
The man waved the cigar around in the air. “I'm coming to that particularity. We have some time.”
Gratta rolled her eyes.
“You want to hire me for a job?”
“Yes,” the man said, leaning back into the couch. “A very important one. One that only someone with your skills might be able to accomplish for me.”
I fingered the clasp on my arm. “I haven’t been to training. I hardly know what’s out there.”
“All I need is for you to retrieve something for me. From what I hear you’re quite capable with that gem of yours.” The man took another puff on his cigar.
I tapped a foot. “No. I am not capable!” I held up my clasp. “I don’t even understand how this thing works!”
“Nothin’ like on the job training, kid. And this job will settle the capability issues you’re havin’.”
I glanced at Telisa, then Gratta. From Gratta’s grim expression and crossed arms, I had a feeling this wasn’t a job I’d be able to turn down. “What even is this job?”
The man leaned forward. “There's rumors goin' about that a young girl's been sighted on the north side of the island.”
Telisa stiffened. “The north side?”
“Yes.” The man took another puff of his cigar. “She's been seen near the impassable fog. Answers to the name Bella. I need you to retrieve her for me before anybody else finds her first.”
“What's so important about her?” I asked.
The man waved my question aside. “Not for you to know. I need you to bring her to the docks at Riverfork as quickly as possible. Unseen. No one is to know about this job. Got that?”
I swallowed and glanced at Telisa, then Gratta.
Gratta threw up both hands. “Look. I've never let a recruit as green as this one outta my sight on a job, but this gentleman here has paid me more than enough to keep us crankin' along for the next five years if we stretched it out.” She patted a leather chest sitting on the end of the counter. “More than enough. So whether you like it or not, you're goin'.”
My eyes widened. A job. I hadn't been trained at all. I had a powerful gem on my arm I barely understood. I was supposed to be some sort of forebear—whatever that meant. And I was dead tired. And now I was wanted for a job. My hands shook. I willed them to curl into fists.
“Okay. But only if Telisa can go with me.”
Gratta raised an eyebrow. “Done.”
The man pointed the end of his cigar at Gratta. “I'm not paying extra for her.”
The old woman waved a hand. “Not to worry. I'm not chargin'. Consider her my insurance policy.”
Telisa straightened her back and nodded. “I'll go.”
“Don't you dare let Eric die. Too valuable if we keep gettin' customers like this!”
The man stood up, snuffed the cigar out on the arm of the couch, and tossed it to Gratta. He marched over to me and put both hands on my shoulders. “Find her,” he whispered, before clapping me on the back and stomping out the door.
Gratta lifted the quill and dipped it into the yellow ink. “Yellow. For retrieval and delivery. You know what happens if you fail, right, kid?”
I swallowed. “What?”
“You die. Gem will crack in half, and you go up in a puff of purple smoke. Or maybe in your case a flash of golden light. So don't die.” She slipped the quill out of the bottle and scribbled it across the open book in front of her. As soon as the tip scratched the paper, I felt a strange warmth on my forearm. The warmth grew into a searing heat, and I gasped, clutching my gem and stumbling to my knees.
Gratta finished with the book, slammed it shut and pulled out another one, scribbling with the same glowing yellow ink on its pages. Telisa grimaced, gritted her teeth, and held out a hand to me.
“Hurts the first time. A lot. You get used to it.”
I took her hand, and she yanked me up.
“Get some sleep,” Gratta said, slamming Telisa's book closed. “You leave at sundown.”
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.