I shoved off from the rocks behind me and pounded across the sand, plunging into the mist curling around the faint glow from my clasp. The sand hardened beneath my feet. Ocean water lapped against my ankles, but a thin stretch of land extended from the beach, into the distant fog.
The beacon of white jerked to the left.
The runner ahead of me kept straight ahead, getting closer and closer to the source of light. I had to catch him. A thought bounced through my mind: what if this was the girl I had been sent to find? What if this runner had also been sent to find her?
But the worst thought of all propelled me forward: if I didn't get to the girl first, I would not have completed the job. And the penalty for an uncompleted job was vanishing into a blaze of purple light, never to be seen again.
My legs churned over the ground. The beacon shifted right.
The runner glanced over his shoulder and spotted me. He slowed, then spun back around, fixing his gaze on the white light ahead and darting forward.
I held up my clasp, and it glowed brighter. “Stop!” I shouted.
The runner didn't respond.
The sand embankment beneath me zagged to the left. I didn't have time to wind through the water. I stared at the waves sloshing against the sand.
“Use the light. . . .” The words whisked through my mind. The clasp.
I flicked my wrist, and a beam of golden light shot out over the waves, creating a glowing path straight toward the beacon of light. I took a deep breath and hoped the bridge would hold. I hopped onto it with a wince and found what felt like solid ground beneath my feet. I shook my head and raced ahead, watching the runner beside me weave back and forth with the path.
A black fish as long as my forearm leaped from the water beneath me and snapped at my fingers. It sunk its sharp teeth into my hand, and I yanked it off as I ran, flinging it back into the surf. Another fish splashed out of the water and flopped onto the golden bridge; its teeth clattered as it squirmed toward me. I hopped over it and kept running.
The water churned around my feet, and I fell back as the heads of a hundred fish rose above the waves.
“You should have stayed on the path!” the runner shouted at me. “And out of my way!”
I grit my teeth and charged forward as the fish flew out of the water, scales glistening with golden light through the mist. Their mouths yawned wide, sharp teeth vibrated in their gums. I ducked, hands over my head, and raced through the cascade of hungry fish.
A fish latched onto my back and dug its teeth in deep. I cried out in pain, slapping at the fish as another one leaped out and bit into my calf. The golden bridge flickered as I stumbled ahead. Grabbing the fish on my leg, I yanked and yelled out as it came loose. I chucked the fish. It slapped against another little beast; both of them flopped back into the waves.
A rocky outcrop came into view ahead. The runner jumped off the sand and landed beside a sharp crag, catching his breath before darting toward the white beacon.
Fish flew all around me. The golden bridge faded, and I raced ahead, leaping as the light vanished beneath my feet. I splashed into the water beside the outcrop and felt more fish biting into my leg and my foot. I kicked and thrashed, pulling myself up to the rocks and rolling over, smacking the fish against the ground.
They dislodged, and I rolled over to my stomach and saw the white beacon. Not too much farther ahead.
I groaned as I stood up and half ran, half hobbled toward the light.
A small shack came into view. Wood planks threadbare and peeling, rusted nails sticking from every crevice. It couldn't have been much more than a room about ten paces across. The white light glowed brighter, shining through the cracks in the planks and illuminating the rocks around us.
The runner skidded to a stop in front of a metal door with rivets running down the sides. The white light shone brighter, and my clasp glowed to match it. Heat radiated from the shack, and I nearly toppled over as it hit me in the face.
The runner's tri-cornered hat flew off as a gust of wind ripped past the shack and the bare rocks. His shoulder length dark hair fell out, and whipped to the side to reveal a sharp scar on his neck. The runner reached a hand toward the door and placed his palm flat against it.
“Wait!” I shouted.
The runner screamed in pain and yanked his hand away from the metal, clutching his palm to his chest. He spun around and dropped to his knees, hair falling around his face. And then I realized how young this runner was. He wasn't an adult. Maybe a couple of years older than I was. Scars ran across his cheeks and forehead and down the front of his neck.
And then he glanced up at me.
I choked on my spit. This runner was my brother.
“Julian?” I whispered.
He glared at me, his brow furrowed. And then he snorted and glanced aside. “It had to be you. The Runner of Golden Light.”
His face flashed through my memories. Screaming, holding out his hands toward us as the runners dragged him away from the rice fields. The tears had streaked his face then. Fear with every drop. I shook my head, and the scared face of my older brother faded into the hardened jawline of this runner.
“Julian . . .”
Julian shook his head. “I'm not talking to you about this, Eric.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Same thing as you,” Julian said. “I'm here for the girl. And I can't let you have her.”
He flung a handful of pebbles at my face, and I stumbled back. Julian leaped up and tackled me to the ground, grabbing my wrists, and forcing them into the dusty rock. I kicked and found purchase with his kneecap. Julian cried out, rolling over, one hand still clutching my clasped wrist. I wrenched my arm away and slugged him in the shoulder.
I scrambled backward on my hands. “Stop it! I'm not going to fight you.”
Julian sat up and wiped a hand across his mouth.
Wind whistled past us, swirling through the mist. The waves splashed against the rocks around us, spraying me in the face. The rocks under us rumbled, and I glanced at the shack, it glowed even brighter than before.
Julian followed my gaze and jumped up, he hurried over to the door again. He grabbed the metal handle sticking from the rivets and screamed as heat sizzled past his fingers. He yanked on the door, opening it with a screech. The white light from inside blasted outward, sending Julian flying backward.
He skidded across the rocks and slid to a stop.
I rushed to his side, stones skittering past my feet. His eyes had closed, and his chest heaved from trying to breathe. A nasty burn mark ran across his hand. I picked it up and held my clasp to the blistering skin. It glowed brighter, and I could see the skin returning to its tan color.
“Eric . . . help . . . me. . . .”
It wasn't Julian.
I peeked over my shoulder and saw a girl silhouetted by white light standing in the doorframe. Her dark hair wisped about her face, and for the briefest moment, I met her eyes. Everything around us paused. Droplets of water hung in the air. The wind held against our faces. The rocks, mid-tremble, hovered fingertip length above the earth. Her eyes glowed golden-brown; a tear cascading down her cheek.
And then she stumbled forward, catching her fall with both hands.
Julian whipped up and grabbed my hair, jerking my head back and slamming it against the ground. He flung his legs over my stomach and pressed his forearm into my throat. I gasped for air, and he glared down at me.
“She's mine. Back off.”
He shoved me down, smacking my head against the rocks. My ears rang, and I cried out. A blast of golden light shot from my clasp. Julian slipped sideways; the tendrils of light burning into his black jacket.
“Eric!” the girl screamed. Her hair stood on end in all direction, and she slapped her hands against both sides of her head as the white light intensified behind her. My eyes burned from the sight, and I squinted at it, struggling to stand up.
Julian beat me to it. He was on his feet, reaching into the inner pockets of his jacket and pulling out a dark purple shard of crystal. The shard lit up, dragging the white light into its core. The girl skidded across the rocks toward the crystal. Julian planted both feet and held the shard in front of him; his hands trembling.
I pushed up and heard only the frantic spraying of waves, rumbling of rocks, and screaming. The girl's screams echoed through my ears.
“Don't let him take me!” she cried.
I stared at Julian. A dark thought slipped through my head. That purple shard looked very similar to the color of cracking clasps. And to the burst of light that always followed someone disappearing into oblivion. With the way all the white light shot toward the shard.
He didn't glance at me. He planted his feet, the air around the shard shimmering. I stood, unsteady. I leaned forward and rushed at my brother, tackling him around the midsection. The shard flew out of his hands, and clattered across the rocks, and through the open shack door.
Julian's eyes widened as all the white light sucked into the shard and with a caught breath, I watched the pause in the universe before the entire shack exploded with purple and white light intertwining and shooting through the mist.
I cried out as the blast flung me through the air, and I splashed into the ocean. Two more splashes followed, and a limp form drifted down from above. I pumped my legs, frantically trying to swim toward the girl falling through the water. I caught her in my arms, and then Julian appeared in the murk, swimming toward us, teeth clenched and brow furrowed.
Before Julian touched us, a golden bubble enveloped the girl and me. The water drained through the bubble's surface, and air filled the cavity. Julian reached the edge of the sphere and pounded his fists against it, screaming through the water at us.
Then Julian kicked upward, broke the surface, and scrambled out of the water.
I laid the girl down on the bottom of the sphere and stared at her. She was so beautiful. I leaned down and took her hand, holding it as the bubble wafted through the water. A wave of nausea ran through my gut, and I wondered just how long we could stay down here before my energy ran out, and we needed to surface.
The girl's eyes blinked, and she sputtered, puking up a mouthful of water and vomit. It dribbled through the bubble and out into the ocean. She stared up at me and smiled slightly. “You found me.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
The girl squeezed her eyes closed and sat up, rubbing one hand across her forehead. A strange white glow emanated from her skin with every movement. Like she was leaving an after image behind my eyes every few seconds.
“My name is Bella. I'm the girl you've been searching for.”
I sat back, carefully leaning into the side of the bubble. For now, it seemed to be sturdy enough. “And my brother was searching for you too.”
Bella reached out a hand. “I'm sorry.”
“About your brother. He's trapped, Eric.”
I took a deep breath. “How do you know my name?”
She shrugged. “I don't know. I just do.”
“Well, what was that light up there all about?”
She shook her head. “I don't know that either.”
I rubbed the sides of my head with both hands. “Then how did you know I was coming for you, and that I was supposed to find you?”
Bella's face fell. “I don't know that either. I'm sorry, Eric. I don't know how I know things. I just do. I pray a lot. And whenever I pray, I find myself knowing things I shouldn't know.”
“You pray? To who?”
Bella smiled. “To Yahweh. He's out there, Eric. I know it. His voice is quiet, but I know He's out there. And He wants to help us.”
My stomach twisted around again, and I felt a dull ache settling into my chest. “Look, we need to get out of the water. And this bubble. And get you to Riverfork.”
“Riverfork? Where's that?”
Now it was my turn to shrug. “I don't know. I didn't have the maps. The other runner with me had them all. But she's . . . gone.”
Bella reached out a hand and touched my forearm. “I don't know why, but Eric, you were meant to find me. And together we need to head for this Riverfork. And then, you and I? We are meant to change the islands of Abra forever.”
I didn't understand. I doubted I ever would. But the words were true. I don't even know how I knew that much. It was more of a feeling. A feeling that Bella was right. Abra needed us.
But even with the reassurance of Bella's hand on my arm, I couldn't help shaking the other thoughts rattling inside my head. Julian had a clasp. That meant Julian was a runner. And if Julian was here, that meant he had been sent by someone to find Bella too. On a job. And the penalty for not completing a job was a cracked clasp. If Julian didn't accomplish his job before I did, then he would vanish into a blaze of purple light.
Finishing this job doomed Julian to oblivion.
Another wave of nausea whirled through me.
And then, the bubble popped.
If you have enjoyed Shaun Stevenson's Runners of Abra, then you will love Shaun's Thrones series. Get a head start and read the first 5 chapters for FREE, but be warned, you'll soon find yourself lost in a deep world with fantastic characters and epic adventures!
Mist curled between my fingers, arching from knuckle to knuckle and slipping away into the vast grayness that spread from the tips of my hands. I stared into that mist. Watching the way it swirled from side to side, sometimes caught in a wind, sometimes dropping with a sudden lurch.
A single crackling leaf drifted past my face. I snapped out to catch it, and for a breath, I held the stem in my fingers. The leaf struggled against the breeze, wavering from side to side before ripping away from my hand and vanishing deeper into the gray.
I must have been dreaming.
It was the only way I could make sense of what I saw. I blinked, and the rice paddies on Jedros faded into view. My mother, working at the fields with sweat dripping down her cheeks. She never glanced my way. Only focused on the rice. The job. Getting things done. My father was no better. The brow of his straw hat hid his face from view. It had always hidden his face. In that moment I realized I had never seen my father's eyes before.
Were they like mine? Seeing things I wished I had never seen?
And then the mist blew, and I saw Gratta's compound—all the recruits and runners fighting each other with blood on their knuckles and bo staffs in their hands, clacking against each other's weapons and sometimes shoulders.
Grayness settled back into view.
A distant pinprick of white light shone through the mist, like a beacon. I stumbled forward, finding movement like trying to slug my way through knee deep rice paddies. The light shone on my chest. I ran my fingers through the beam and hurried toward the source. It had to have a source.
I sludged ahead, feeling sweat plastering down my hair.
A girl came into view. Her back was to me, but I could see she had long dark hair draped over one shoulder and tucked away from small ears. She wore a simple green dress with billowy sleeves and matching flat shoes.
Her face tilted my direction. “Find me, Eric,” she whispered.
“I'm trying. Where are you?”
“I'm not far. Find me before they do. Please.”
“Who else is trying to find you?”
Her head snapped around to face the other direction. “They're coming. You have to hurry. I can't hide much longer.”
“Hide? Hide where?”
“Don't follow your heart, Eric. Hearts are deceitful and tricky. Follow the truth. The truth will always set you free.”
The girl stepped forward. Her foot crunched over something. A blur of motion came at us from her right. I threw my hands up and thrashed as two strong arms grabbed mine and threw me to the ground.
My eyes blinked, and I saw Raciel and Cassie standing over me.
“Dreaming much?” Raciel asked.
I nodded. “Do you have . . .” I coughed. “Do you have any water?”
“I'll fetch you some.” She darted out of sight, and I heard the splashing of water into a stone cup. A moment later she held it out to me. “Drink this. It'll help.”
I gulped down the water, every drop cooling my throat. “Thank you,” I mumbled.
Cassie smiled and took the cup back. “De nada.”
I sat up and shivered.
Raciel crouched down and handed me the scratchy gray blankets that had fallen around my feet. “You're cold. For a time we thought you might be sick. But it seems to have passed.”
I swallowed. “How long have I been asleep?”
“Two days,” Cassie called. “We were about to eat dinner. You hungry?”
As if on cue, my stomach gurgled angrily at me. I suppose I deserved an angry rumble from my gut after depriving it of food for two days. Saving Cassie must have taken a lot out of me. More than I had anticipated. Then again, I had been running for my life for nearly a day before that.
Raciel clapped me on the back. “I suppose that means yes.” He held out a hand to me. I took it and froze. Brown eyes. He had brown eyes under his tightly pulled back gray hair. I shook my head and stood up with the big man's help.
The room was fairly sparse, but somehow it felt warm and cozy at the same time. A wooden table with four crudely carved chairs sat in the center under a three-candled chandelier. A bed had been pushed up against the wall behind me, and I noticed where I had been lying on it was covered in sweat. A rack of spices hung over a wood stove across from the bed. A staircase wound up to the top level of the outpost.
Raciel waved at the chairs. “Please, sit.”
I sat, and Cassie and Raciel placed a pile of food in front of me on thin stone platters. There was flat bread and ground meat and chopped onions and celery and even a splattering of goat cheese. Cassie took the place next to me, and Raciel sat across from me.
The smells of the food wafted up to my nostrils, and I took a long breath and closed my eyes. I had never actually sat around a real table with a real family eating such delicious smelling food before. And for the first time, I felt a strange pang ring through my chest. A feeling that told me all in one breath that this was a moment to savor because it would not last.
I was a runner now. Runners didn't have families and lives and meals around tables. Runners ran.
Raciel reached out a hand to me, and Cassie slipped hers into mine before I could blink. “We always thank Yahweh for what He's given us. Especially . . .” Raciel sniffed back a tear. “Especially now that I have my precious Cassie back.” He smiled at her.
Cassie blushed. “Papa, it's okay.”
The big man squeezed our hands. “I know, I know.”
Cassie cleared her throat and threw back her head with a grin. “Thank You, Yahweh, for this food, for this company, for my family, and for all the blessings of life You've given to us. Let it be so.” She gave my hand a slight squeeze and then rolled up the meat and onions into her flatbread and ate.
I was going to enjoy this meal. Even if it was the only one I ever had with these people like this, I was going to enjoy it.
And we did. We laughed and talked, and Cassie and Raciel told me all about their lives in the village, and about fishing at the local pond, and about the coast just north of the outpost. A strange peace settled inside my bones. A peace I never wanted to lose. Never.
After dinner, Raciel wiped his mouth and told us he had things to care for outside. He excused himself and hurried out the front door.
“Will you help me clean up?” Cassie asked.
“Sure,” I said. We picked up the plates and carried them to a spigot with a pump handle in the corner of the room. I had never seen one before, and Cassie showed me how to crank the handle, and then water would dribble out. It was connected to a well dug underground and outside the outpost. A genius invention, really.
Cassie tossed me a thin rag. “Wipe those down, okay?”
I set to work wiping the dishes.
She smiled at me. “Eric, what were you doing in the Pale Woods?”
“I can't tell you.” I wiped another dish clean and set it on a wooden shelf over my head.
I glanced at the clasp on my forearm. “Because. I'm a runner. I can't talk about it, really.”
“So you really are a runner then?”
Cassie stared at the clasp. “But how could you do what you did? To save me? I never knew runners could do those sorts of things.”
“I don't know.” I cleared my throat. “I was training with other recruits, and it just happened. Everyone . . . everyone kind of looks at me sideways, you know? Like no one knows exactly what to do with me.”
“I think you're a hero,” she said. “And I really can't thank you enough for saving me. What you did was impossible.” Cassie turned back to a bucket of sudsy water and the stone cup in her hands. She traced the rim of the cup with her finger, and a single tear slid down her cheek. “And if you can do the impossible. . . . Can you . . .” she paused and twisted her mouth to the side.
“Can I what?”
She spun to look at me, one elbow leaning against the bucket. “Can you bring back my mother?”
“Bring her back? From where?”
“The Pale Woods,” she whispered.
“Was she a pale too?”
Cassie shook her head. “No. But . . . oh, it's a long, boring story. I shouldn't bother you. I suppose you'll be leaving soon anyway. What with jobs to run for.”
I put a hand on her shoulder. “Tell me. What happened?”
She took a deep breath. “Mother . . . she . . . I don't know how it started, really. One night I heard her. Whispering to the windows upstairs. Papa was asleep and snoring, but I could still hear her soft words, spoken to the open window. She was staring into the Pale Woods, unblinking, saying things I didn't understand.
“I stood behind her and tried to see what she might be staring at, but I saw nothing. The next day, she started becoming more erratic. She would leave right after dinner on 'walks.' I don't know where she went or why. She would just go. Sometimes she'd be out all night long and would stumble back into the house, mumbling to herself and climbing the stairs back to the loft.
“And then I mentioned it to her. She laughed at me, told me she loved me, and then her eyes glazed over with a look like death. Eric, she forgot my name. She couldn't remember it. I would tell her, but the words bounced off her like water on stone.”
“Finally, I caught her sneaking out on a moonless night, telling me she was leaving for good. She lowered the drawbridge and crossed into the Pale Woods before I could stop her. I was only seven. And I stood at the end of that drawbridge calling her name over and over, but she never came back to me. She disappeared into the mist, and I've never seen her since.”
I swallowed. “I'm sorry, Cassie. But if she went into the Pale Woods, then—”
“I know!” She shook her head. “She's probably dead long ago by now. Or become one of those things herself. I just thought . . . if you . . . if you ever found her, you could bring her back to me. Just tell her that her daughter still loves her. That I miss her more than anything. There's nothing I wouldn’t give to see her sitting in that empty chair at the table laughing with us like old times.”
Cassie smiled at me and brushed a hand over my hair. “She would have liked you. Brave. Honorable.”
I nodded, wondering if my parents remembered me. Or if I had become some fleeting thought that disappeared with the setting sun.
The door banged open, and Raciel stood there, panic etched onto his face. He slammed the door closed behind him.
“Papa! What is it?”
Raciel held a finger to his lips. “Eric, you have to leave. Now.”
I jumped up. “Why? What is it?”
“Soldiers in the village. From the queen's own palace. They're searching for runners who may have come by these parts. Runners with unusual abilities.”
The tips of my fingers went numb. Runners with unusual abilities could only mean one person: him. Panic tore through my chest. I had to leave. I refused to let this little family be hurt because I had been here.
Raciel threw a stack of flatbread into a rucksack along with a small block of goat cheese and a flask filled with water. “Take these. Follow the coastline out of town. I don't know where you're heading or what you're about, but don't let them catch you. The queen mostly keeps to herself, but when she's interested in something, that something doesn't escape her notice for long.”
I nodded, feeling a lump catch at the back of my throat. “Thank you both. For everything.”
Raciel clapped both hands on my shoulders. “No. Thank you for saving my daughter.” He pulled me into a hug, and for a moment, I wondered if this was what fathers were supposed to be like. The people who cared about you, hugged you when you needed it, but also kicked you out the door when it was time to go.
Tears ran down Cassie's face, and she hurried up the stairs.
“Goodbye,” I whispered before slipping toward the door and ducking outside.
The moon hung yellow across the ocean in the distance. Mist hung over the waves, and down below in the village, I could see a horde of soldiers on horseback holding torches and tromping through the streets. They really had come for me.
A cough echoed from above. Cassie leaned out the window and smiled sadly at me. “It was too short, Eric. Be safe. And if you see my mother, Ysella, please give her my message.”
“I will. I promise.”
Horse hooves pounded the path winding up from the village. I scrambled around the side of the outpost, and slid onto my side down a rocky crag, and into a narrow ravine at the bottom. The horses stopped outside the outpost, and a deep female voice shouted, “Open up! Queen's business!”
The door creaked open. “Yes? May I help you?” Raciel.
“Have you seen any runners come this way recently?” The female voice again.
“No runners here,” Raciel answered.
I breathed a short sigh of relief and decided not to stick around any longer. I hurried down the ravine until I reached the shoreline. Staying close to the edge of a rocky outcrop that rose just over my head, I ran down the beach as quickly as I could. Sand drifted into my boots. With every few steps, I could feel the grains squishing between my toes.
The night passed, and soon the Puerta Vida faded into the distance behind me. Mist descended over the sand, and I kept one hand on the rocks beside me to make sure I didn't stumble into the ocean.
My feet ached, and finally, I tripped and plummeted to my face. “Ouch . . .” I mumbled, rolling over and staring up until the gray haze above me. Even the moon had disappeared from sight.
I nearly dozed off, but crunching in the sand jolted me awake. I sat up slowly and stared into the mist, watching as a faint yellow glow drifted into sight, bobbing up and down over the beach. I huddled up against the rocks and found a small divot I could nearly sink into.
The yellow light drew closer, and I could see the faint outline of a man trudging in my direction. The man paused a moment and held up his forearm. The yellow light grew brighter.
It was a runner.
I could barely make out the black jacket he wore over a loose black tunic, with equally dark boots. He had a tri-cornered hat on his head, with the front tip dipped over his face. He held out a rough parchment and unfolded it, casting the light from his clasp on it.
“Close,” the man said. His voice carried through the mist, and I held my breath. I didn't need to let anyone else know I was here.
And then I saw a pinprick of white light in the distance. Out in the ocean.
The runner's head shot up and whirled to face the light.
“Find me, Eric. Hurry. He's almost here!” The voice echoed inside my head.
And then the runner broke into a sprint, straight toward the white light and into the ocean.
Pales had darted in and out of my nightmares ever since I had seen one up close on the way to Castos. Their snapping jaws filled with sharp teeth. Their eyeless faces and gray skin with long fingers creeping over the edges of the wagon so they could wail in my face.
I never had thought those creatures might come from somewhere.
That they might have a home.
I glanced at the girl again. She opened her mouth to say something, but before she could get a word out, her eyes closed and she slumped to the crumbled stone dirt, passed out.
The clasp on my hand glowed slightly, and I slapped a hand over it to douse the light. I didn't need to be a beacon for every pale within a league to see through the mist. I clenched the stone in my hand, peeked at the clasp and saw the arrow pointing to the right.
I stared at the girl and swallowed. Those things. What would they do to her? My stomach dropped, and I considered trying to drag her to safety. A rock flew by and smashed into a tree past my shoulder, sending up a cloud of dust. I bolted through the mist, around trees and over large chunks of stone. The arrow turned slightly to the left, and I changed course, keeping one eye on the clasp and the other on the mist ahead of me. I only hoped there wouldn't be another river to tumble into off some unseen cliff.
A wail echoed behind me. Another wail ahead of me responded.
A gray shape flashed into view in the distance. Just for a moment. But long enough to see that it was a pale. It disappeared into the fog, out of sight.
I slid to a halt, gasping for breath and slipping to a crouch behind a tree. Crunching came from behind me. A gray hand emerged from the mist followed by a pale, holding its sightless face up at an angle and sniffing with two slits. I pushed a fist against my mouth. I had to hold my breath. No sounds.
The pale dropped to all fours and sniffed the ground like a dog might. It scampered forward, past my hiding place. I pressed against the stone tree, watching it disappear into the mist ahead of me. The rattling stones clinked against each other as it moved ahead.
Silence fell on the petrified forest. I slowly stood, holding up the stone and took a slow, heavy breath. I stepped forward, willing the rocks under my boots to stay quiet. Another step. No wails. No crunching. No sign of anything.
The pale leaped out of the mist at me, long fingers splayed, mouth open with sharp rows of teeth clacking. I screamed and swung the stone at its head. Contact. The pale whimpered and fell to the dirt, a large blue spot on the side of its face. It curled up, hissing at the stones and clawing at them with both hands.
And then it rolled over, hissing at me and screeching.
My eyes widened. It was time to run.
I shot off through the mist, peeking once at the clasp to see if I was still following the arrow. It shone brighter as if to encourage me to keep going.
A pale sprang at me from the side, and I ducked as it sailed over my head and landed on the stones, skidding around and racing after me. Another pale joined it, and then a third. I chucked the stone behind me and smacked one in the chest, sending it rollicking backward. But a fourth pale joined the chase, running on all fours before leaping into one of the stone trees and swinging from branch to branch until it dropped down ahead of me.
I darted right, and one of the pales behind me collided with the tree-swinging one. They sprawled on the ground for a moment before leaping back to their bare feet. More wails echoed through the petrified woods, bouncing between the stone trees.
The clasp on my forearm flashed. I glanced down and saw the arrow had become a hand, palm held up, like I should stop. I tumbled forward another step and burst through the fog. A stride ahead of me was a deep chasm, gurgling with steaming water. A single stone tree sat on the edge of the cliff, and I reached out to grab one of the branches to stop myself before I plunged headfirst into the water below.
A hiss from behind me, and I yanked myself up onto the tree branch as the four pales shot out of the mist, grappling with each other and flying over the edge of the chasm and into the steaming water below.
I stood on the tree branch and held one hand to my eyes. The sun was close to the horizon in the distance, and I could see a port town on the other side of the chasm, and beyond that, the ocean, sparkling under the orange sun. The chasm stretched in either direction as far as I could see for leagues.
And then I saw the bridge. It was some sort of drawbridge, with one end sticking into the air on the far side of the chasm by a wooden outpost building. The way out of this petrified forest. The bridge was a good five minute run from where I stood. I listened closely to the woods. No more wails from what I could hear.
I shimmied out of the tree and to the ground. I took two deep breaths and then ran. The stone trees whisked past, and the gurgling water below sent up short bursts of spray every few seconds. The steaming water landed on the stones and hissed before evaporating almost instantly.
Two stone posts sat across from the drawbridge. I raced to the first one and grabbed it, waving my arms frantically at the outpost window. “Hello! Please! Is someone over there?”
Except for a wail behind me.
“Please! Help me!”
A face appeared in the outpost window. A man with grizzled hair tied up into a bun on the back of his head. He had a long gray beard that rested against his broad chest. “Who goes there?” he shouted at me in a gruff voice.
“My name is Eric! Please! You have to help me!”
“Anyone on that side of the bridge is cursed with the sickness! We're not letting you back over!”
Another wail echoed in the woods.
I glanced back and then to the man in the window again. “Please! You have to help me!” I held up my clasp. “I'm a runner! Please!”
“Are you on a job?” The man shouted back.
I opened my mouth to answer but found I couldn't say a word about it. I tried to shout back that yes, I was on a job. For Gratta. But the words would not pass my tongue. And then I remembered. My book. I wasn't allowed to tell anybody what I was doing. If I did, that would cause me to fail the job. And die.
“I'm not sick! Just lower the bridge for me! I have to get across!”
The man shook his head. “I cannot, lad. I'm sorry.”
“There has to be something you can do!” I shouted. “There are others over here! A girl! She needs help too!”
The man stepped back from the window, one hand on the sill. He took a heavy breath and then stared at me. “How is she?”
“I don't know!” I said. “She passed out back there!”
“I can't let you across! I'm sorry!”
I leaned forward. He wasn't going to let me across. He was going to let me die. Here on the edge of the chasm with a horde of pales at my heels waiting for their next meal. I peeked back at the mist and the woods.
Wails and footsteps echoed now through the trees. They were coming. For me.
The gem on my clasp flashed again. I glanced at it. Probably it was warning me. Letting me know this was definitely the end of my running career. Eric the Runner. Shined bright for a short time. I supposed there would be no funeral for me. No burial. No carrying of my body back to Jedros for my parents to see one last time.
My remains would be left here in this stone forest. Forever.
A figure stumbled out of the woods. The girl.
Her skin had gone sickly gray, almost. . .
My mouth dropped open. The pales. . . .
They weren't monsters.
They were people.
“Help me,” the girl rasped.
She stumbled into my arms. Her skin was cold, and the blue dress she wore looked torn at the sleeve and hem. Her hair was stringier than even when I had seen her in the forest earlier. She was becoming a pale.
The man in the window. I turned slightly, still holding up the girl.
He leaned out the window, both hands on the sill now. “Cassie! Can you hear me?!”
The girl in my arms nodded slightly. “Papa,” she whispered.
Cassie slipped from my arms and fell to the stones. She lay on her back, her eyes turning a gray color. She was becoming one of them.
The first pale stepped through the edge of the mist. Tentatively at first, and then with more boldness as it sniffed the air and fixed its eyeless face on us. More pales emerged from the fog, thirty of them standing in a ring around us. They licked their lips and crouched low, ready to pounce.
“NO!” the man in the window screamed. “Don't take my daughter! Please!”
The pales leaned back and howled at the darkening sky.
An arrow shot through the air and pierced the chest of one of the pales. The man in the window. This girl's father. He had a crossbow already reloaded. He fired again, and another arrow shot into a pale on my right.
And then the pales lunged.
I dropped in front of Cassie and crossed my arms in front of my face. A wall of golden light shot from the clasp on my forearm and blasted the pales in midair. They slid off the wall and to the ground in a heap, scrambling back up and leaping at us again.
I glanced at Cassie. Her eyes had turned completely gray, and her hair fell from the top of her head. She snapped her mouth open once, and I noticed her teeth sharpening to points.
With my clasped forearm held up, I placed my other hand on her forehead. I couldn't watch her transform into one of those creatures like this. I had to do something to save her. I didn't know if those crystals had zapped all of the strength from the gem in my clasp, but I was willing to try.
Cassie grabbed my wrist with her hands, snapping her teeth. The pales pounded against the golden shield of light beside me. And I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath.
Help me. Whoever you are out there. I've heard your voice before. I need your help now. Because I know you can do it.
My body shook, and I heard a child. A child's laugh. Not a mean, derisive kind of laugh, but a strong, I'm with you kind of laugh. Like two kids playing together and having the greatest adventures their imaginations could dream up.
The laughter surged through me, and I felt my arms trembling with the effort.
Pain rattled through my head and my teeth, and I clenched them, groaning with the energy coursing through me.
A blast of golden light shot out from me, sending the pales flying backward into the mist. I sat back, gasping for breath and feeling blood dripping from my nostrils. I wiped it away and watched as a cloud of golden light surrounded Cassie, enveloping her from head to toe until I couldn't see her anymore.
The light flashed, and I fell back onto the stones.
A groan beside me.
I chanced a look. Cassie sat up, her skin a deep olive color, and her hair a dark brown. Her eyes sparked golden once and then settled into a soft hazel. She shook her head once and stared at me.
“You . . . cured me. How? How did you do that?”
I could only stare. This girl was beautiful. The most beautiful girl I had ever seen. And she kept staring at me.
A rattling noise echoed across the chasm. The drawbridge lowered and slammed onto the ground beside us. The man in the window raced across to the middle of the wooden bridge, holding up the crossbow.
“Get to the other side! Now!” He shot an arrow into the mist and hit a pale reaching out for my foot. The pale flew backward and into the fog.
I scrambled up, grabbed Cassie's hand, and we raced over the drawbridge. Pales roared from the stone forest and burst through the fog, racing at the drawbridge. The man pounded after us as we made it to the other side. He grabbed a lever and pulled it down. Chains clinked through a pulley above us, and the drawbridge cranked upward.
Some of the pales leaped over the chasm and grabbed onto the edge of the drawbridge, yanking themselves up and scuttling down the other side on all fours.
“They're coming, Papa!” Cassie shouted.
“I see them!” The man loaded another arrow and fired. A pale fell off the drawbridge, screeching until it hit the water below.
Cassie raced to the outpost, threw open the door, and disappeared inside. She emerged a second later with two short swords. She tossed one to me, and I caught the handle and swung as one of the pales dropped to the ground beside me. I smacked it and kicked, sending the creature over the chasm edge.
“Shouldn't I try to save them?” I shouted.
The man shot another arrow. “They're too far gone!”
Cassie speared one of the pales, and it toppled to the ground. Two more crawled down, one dropping for the man's face. I leaped up and swung the sword, catching it in the gut before it could make contact.
The man dispatched the final pale, kicking it over the edge.
We turned and saw the other pales screeching and whacking their bald heads with both hands, before howling and slinking back into the misty woods behind them.
Cassie dropped her sword and threw her arms around her father. “Papa! I never thought I'd see you again!”
Papa stroked Cassie's hair and held her close. “Neither did I.” He rested his head on hers and then stared at me. “How did you do it, son?”
I held up my clasp. “I just did. I don't know how exactly.”
“I've met runners before. But none of them can do what you did. Their gems can blink and flash and turn into lanterns, but not heal someone of the pale sickness. Or create a wall of light! You've done wonders no one has seen in an age.”
I swallowed. “I don't know.”
The man held out his hand to me. “I am known to some as Papa,” he winked at Cassie, “but to others, I am known as Raciel. It's well met, Eric. Well met.” He shook my hand in a strong grip and then pointed at the outpost. “It's not much, but this is where I live. Keeper of the drawbridge. Not a pleasant job, but it keeps our town safe from the pales. And the sickness.”
Cassie smiled at me. “Papa, can he stay for the night?”
“I don't think I can stay, actually . . .” I stepped forward but stumbled. The adrenaline rushing through me vanished in a moment, and I would have fallen on my face if Raciel hadn't stopped me first.
“Nonsense,” Raciel boomed. “You will stay here tonight. We have a spare cot you can sleep on. And I make some of the best food in Puerta Vida.”
My eyes closed, and before I could stumble forward again, Raciel had picked me up and carried me inside. I heard him say, “Let him sleep,” before I drifted off, the warm smells of cooking meat filled the outpost and my nostrils.
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.