An ache spread through my chest. Screams filled my ears. Red light wafted over the world, and a dry wind rustled through the branches of trees stripping the pine needles and leaves and crumbling them to dust.
The red beast flapping its wings above us roared. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, back to where ye belong! All living things shall be dead, and all dead things shall rise once more!”
It hovered over the remains of the queen's castle, each blast of air from its wings brushing aside another stone. We backed away from the walls, staring upward and watching the hedges around us disintegrate to ashes. The grass withered under the reddening skies, leaving brown dirt cracking and dry in its wake.
“Eric! What do we do?” Bella shouted above the noise.
I stared at her. I didn't know. I had no answers. I didn't even understand what exactly was happening. A giant purple crystal, bigger than any gem I had ever seen under the castle had unleashed some sort of monstrous creature that was now intent on destroying all living things. Something the Queen had apparently not anticipated.
And here we stood. The golden light had been drained from my clasp, Bella's white light had retreated within her.
She stared back at me, tears crawling from her eyes. “What about me?”
“You have power. Inside you! Use it!”
“I don't know how!”
I grabbed her hand and held it. It felt warm beneath my palm. “Use it. I know you can! Focus it on that beast up there! You can destroy it!”
Bella closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Don't let go of my hand, Eric.”
“I won't,” I promised.
The wind whisked through her hair, and then I saw it: trickles of white light slipping down the sides of her arms and into her hands. Her fingers grew hotter to the touch. I winced but held firm. I had made a promise. No matter what happened. I would not let go.
“Focus your energy on the beast,” I whispered beside her. “Blast it like the cottage out in the sea.”
Her lips trembled, and then the light burned brighter. She opened her mouth in a scream and lifted her hand, palm extended toward the red monster flying above us. A burst of white light shot through her arm and the sky, slamming into the creature's shoulder. The light smoked when it met the red energy crackling over the creature.
It spun its massive head in our direction. “Insignificant. Now die!” It held its hands toward us. Lightning blasted from all ten of its claws.
Bella threw an elbow over her fac,e and a white shield formed in front of us. We both fell back as the lightning pounded against the shield, eating away at its edges. Bella screamed, I screamed, and the shield held long enough to send a burst of white light skipping up the lightning arcs and to the creature's hands.
An explosion rocked the sky as white and red collided. The clouds roiled, and the wind picked up its frantic pace.
The creature roared and leaned toward us. “I hath destroyed countless worlds! I hath brought death to millions of mortals over my time! But none hath stood against me. None! And thou shalt neither!”
Bella's shield dropped. Sweat poured over her head, and she breathed in ragged gasps. “Too much. It was too much. I can't hold it anymore.”
I gripped her hand. “You can do this. I know you can.”
A massive claw dropped from the sky above us and wrapped around me. The beast yanked me away from Bella.
“ERIC!” she screamed.
The beast drew me into the air, and the breath sucked out of my lungs the higher I went. I squirmed, trying to get free, but the monster was too strong. “A runner,” it breathed. He pinched my clasped arm between two giant claws. “A runner with a cracked gem. Shall we finish thee?” It drove the tip of its claw into my clasp.
Red light exploded behind my eyes. Every part of my body shook. My spine arched in pain. I screamed, clenching my fists as the beast drove the claw deeper.
“And now to crack thee beyond reparation.” A blast of dank breath wafted over me. “Die, runner.”
A pinging noise filled my ears. Like the constant buzzing of mosquitoes just out of reach but loud enough to remind me my flesh was not safe. I knew what was happening to me. I was dying. The numbing pain told me that. The ancient beast driving its claw into my arm told me that. And somehow, the world pinged.
A cloud of purple slipped into view. The beast released me, and I floated into the air, the purple light emerging from my hopelessly broken gem. Below, I could hear Bella scream my name over and over again. She would be dead soon too. I would be dead soon. We all would be dead.
And maybe this was the way it was supposed to end. We had fought. We had run. And now we had run our last job.
The purple cloud enveloped me and snapped close to my skin. My eyes closed.
The world had faded from view. And now a new vision filled my gaze. A golden one. Was this death? Had I reached it? Was this the end of all things?
Water lapped my feet. Gentle. Serene. Quiet.
Rice stalks stretched around me for as far as I could see. Golden rice. I almost laughed. Could I trade them at the market for something to eat?
A soft voice. Behind me.
I turned slowly, the water sending ripples through the ride paddy. Saltha stood behind me, her dark hair blowing in a breeze and wisping past her cheek. Saltha. She wore a simple brown tunic, cinched at the waist with a white cord. Scars decorated her face, but not in a horrible way. A peaceful way. An end of everything way.
“Eric, what are you doing here?”
I glanced down at my arms. The clasp was gone. An ugly mold of scarred skin stared back at me from my forearm. Saltha reached over and took my hand, rubbing her fingers across each bump and line. I saw a matching mark on her arm.
“I think I'm dead,” I whispered. “But everything's so golden. Is this what death is?”
Saltha didn't answer me. She took my hand in hers, wrapping her fingers between mine. She tugged at me gently, willing me onward. We waded through the rice paddy in one direction—whether it was north, south, east, or west, I had no idea. I couldn't see a sun in the golden skies above me, but I felt its warmth. All around me. Everywhere I looked.
Other people emerged from the rice. They walked alongside us. Faces I didn't recognize mostly. All people about my age. Each one stared ahead, their faces at perfect peace: no pain, no worries, no jobs to run, just the walking.
The ground sloped upward. We rose from the water and stood on a lush grassy field, the lushest grass I had ever seen. Each golden blade thick and soft. We continued to march up, up, up, until we stood on a knoll overlooking a beach of golden sand. And beyond that, a sea spread like a soft blanket stretching forever into the distance.
Saltha pointed below. “He's been waiting for you.”
I glanced down. A boy sat on a gold log, dark hair grown out past his ears. His white tunic billowed in the soft breeze, and even from up here I could see his bare feet swinging over the edge of the log.
I descended the knoll to the beach. I only glanced up once and saw Saltha and the others had vanished from sight. Was being dead going to be this confusing forever? I turned back and saw the boy tapping on the log beside him. I walked up and stood to one side, following the boy's gaze out to the ocean.
“Water has always been one of my favorites,” the boy said. He spoke as if he were in awe of each wave cresting and falling and sliding up onto the shore. “Changes everything, and yet it's always there. It never leaves. Sometimes the tide is out farther than normal, and we don't see it reach as far as it once did. And sometimes it comes crashing up on you before you even know its been sneaking your way all this time.”
I swallowed and nodded. And then I let the tears burst. They poured down my face, and I dropped to my knees, digging my elbows into the sand and dropping my face into both palms. The sobs wracked my shoulders. And I just cried.
I cried over everything. Saltha, my parents, Julian, Bella, Telisa, Zinnia, Poinsettia, Cassie and Raciel, the world I had left behind. And failed.
“Why are you crying?” the boy whispered.
I looked at him through my watery eyes. “Because I failed. Those scholars said I was a chosen one. I was the one who was supposed to bring freedom or something, but I failed. And instead, I watched all of Castos get swallowed up by a demon from a purple crystal, and somehow I feel like it's my fault. If I had just been able to get Bella to Riverfork, then none of this would have happened. The Queen wouldn't have gotten her and used her, and Telisa wouldn't be missing, probably dead now. Like me.”
The boy tilted his head to the side. “You're not dead.”
“Then how come I feel this way?”
“Because you're alive. And feelings are real.” Then the boy smiled.
I let out a long breath and sniffed back the snot in my nose. “But I’m dead. Aren’t I dead? The clasp, it broke, and the purple ligh . . . everyone it swallows dies.”
The boy brushed back his hair and pointed at me. “Not you. You're the forebear. That's your role in the story, and your story isn't over yet.”
“I don't understand.”
He turned back to stare at the ocean. “Not many people do. This world is broken, Eric. Broken from the moment stolen fruit passed innocent lips. And evil exists. That demon? That creature is evil. Pure evil. Every thought it has is bent on destruction and seeing the world laid waste. And evil hearts seeking their own power unleashed it upon the world of Abra.” His gaze drifted back to me. He put a hand on my shoulder. “But you, Eric. You are the Runner of Golden Light. And your light must shine in the darkness. Because that's what light does.”
“But how? I don't have a clasp anymore. The Queen sucked all my light dry, and besides that, the demon out there cracked my gem.” I shook my head. “I'm useless.”
The boy smiled again, and then a tear slipped down his cheek. “No. You don't need a clasp anymore. Because you can shine. Like Bella.” He paused. “I wish I could change the future for you. I wish I could remove all the pain you're going to face, Eric. But then you wouldn't become the person you're supposed to be. I wish I could change your past too, but to do that would be to undo everything that has made you who you are.”
“I don't understand,” I said.
“You will. Do you trust in me?”
I blinked. Trust in this boy? For what?
He repeated his question. “Do you trust in me, Eric?”
“To do what?”
“To save you. To be the only one who can save you?”
I stared at him. Searched his face. His sad eyes that held back so much knowledge. His tan skin that gleamed under the golden light around us. The way his mouth curled into a smile that communicated so much peace, like everything was going to be alright in the end. I would see.
And then I knew. The voice. The voice that had whispered to me in so many quiet moments. Moments I had stared at death. Moments I had wondered who I was. Moments I had yearned for hope. And received it through a still, small voice, whispering into my ear.
I leaned back. “You. The boy from the scholar's fortress. That's you! And you're . . . the one who spoke to me all those times.” I squinted at him. “Who are you?”
“Do you trust in me, Eric?”
And at that moment, I knew I did. I knew it from the deepest parts of my soul. I absolutely trusted this boy. I would follow him to the end if I had to. “Yes. I do.”
And then the golden world began to fade. The boy smiled at me. “Shine, Eric. Don't forget to shine.”
The ocean, the sand, the knoll, the grass, the log, the boy all faded into darkness. The gentle lapping of waves drifted to the back of my mind like a lost memory, and then darkness filling slowly with a red dread, crimson lightning arcing through my mind and slamming to the ground and leaving scorches of blackness behind.
Sobs reached my ears first. A girl's sobs. Hands held the sides of my face. My eyes fluttered open to see Bella leaning over me. I groaned. White light shrouded us behind her. And lightning struck the outside of the shell trying to break through. In a milky haze, I could see the demon over us, glowering, eyes beaming red, smoke drifting from its maw.
“Eric!” Bella screamed. She wrapped her arms around my head. “I thought you were dead. You had to be dead. How can you be alive? Your clasp. . . .”
I lifted my arm and saw. The clasp was gone. Shattered. A bloody wound remained where the metal had once been, inlaid with a gem. I was free. And alive. Somehow.
“How is this possible?” I whispered.
“I don't know,” Bella said, running her fingers down my face. “But I don't care. Because you're here. Alive.”
A roar echoed across the castle grounds. The demon was still there. Still ravaging the island.
“We have to stop it,” I said.
“How? It's too powerful! And you don't even have a clasp anymore.”
“But you shine light without a clasp.” I sat up. “How do you shine light without a clasp?”
She shrugged. “I don't know. I just always have as long as I can remember.”
“Release the shield, Bella.” I scrambled to a sitting position. We had to stop this demon somehow. And the boy had told me to shine. Maybe I could do what Bella could. Maybe I could shine without a clasp too. Maybe I was the Runner of Golden Light not because of a gem on my arm, but because of something else entirely.
Muffled shouts reached our ears, and the beast above us stopped blasting Bella's shield with red lightning. Its shadow turned, and it spread its wide back toward us.
“Something's happening,” Bella said. She closed her eyes, and the white shield slowly disintegrated around us.
I stood up on dry earth, the wind buffeting our faces and tearing at our hair. On the far side of the castle, a line of troops stood, bows facing the sky. And there, standing on a raised dais above them, was the Queen with a metal umbrella folded at her side and held like a sword, the same purple gown trailing around her feet, the same shawl dangling from the horns on her head and covering her face.
She pointed the umbrella at the demon. “Release volley!”
The arrows flew through the air, sparking with green fire. They peppered the demon and sizzled when they made contact with the red skin.
“Again!” the Queen screamed.
The demon didn't wait for a second volley. It spread its claws wide and zapped the soldiers with red lightning. Cries of pain silenced as soldiers vanished in puffs of smoke and ash. One lightning bolt raced at the Queen, snapping onto her umbrella. The lightning was absorbed by the tip, and the Queen spun in a circle, swinging the umbrella and aiming the top back at the demon. The lightning shot from the tip of the umbrella, zapping the air and striking the creature in the arm. A hole blasted through the skin of the beast, and I could see the dark clouds through it.
A deafening screech filled our ears as the creature leaned back in pain. It held its arm up to the clouds, and a bolt of crimson blasted it, filling up the hole with light.
“We can't fight that!” Bella shouted.
“Yes, we can! We have to try!” I grabbed Bella's hand and hurried over the ashen gardens and to a rampart still standing on the far side. We clambered up a short stairwell and raced along the wall. On the other side I could see the city, fires blazing through buildings, and piles of ash where people had once stood drifting along the cobblestone streets.
We found a spot to the side of the beast and leaned against the wall.
“What are we going to do?”
I locked eyes with Bella. “We have to blast that thing. With everything we have. Use all the light you can throw at it.”
She nodded. “But what about you? You don't have a light!”
I held up my hands. “I think I do.”
Bella closed her eyes and concentrated, white light quickly racing over her shoulders and through her fists. She aimed at the demon and let out two beams of light from both hands. The light smacked into the monster, sizzling against its skin.
“Pestilence! Thou triest to rise once more! None shall avail!” The demon held a hand toward us and let a giant blast of red lightning shoot at us. It struck the rampart, and Bella fell, dropping to the ground below and banging her head on a stone.
I clung to the side of the rampart. “BELLA!”
She twitched once and then stilled.
The demon turned toward me. “You! Still alive!? Impossible! Try to survive if thou canst!” It raised its hand toward me and lightning sparked through the air, straight toward my chest.
The tunnel stretched on until my knees and palms felt raw. The purple glow had not
brightened or grown dimmer the farther I went. Once or twice I eyed the way I had come. The door had faded into a little pinprick somewhere back there.
My mouth was dry, my bones ached, and my shoulder throbbed from where I had fallen.
But I had to keep shuffling forward, one hand and knee at a time.
Weariness overtook me, and I knew I had to lie down and rest, just for a moment. I flopped onto my stomach and rested my forehead on both arms. My eyes closed but still I could see the purple swirling in and out of the backsides of my eyelids.
Purple. Like the flash of purple that had swallowed Saltha.
Like the color of cracked gems that killed Runners who had failed on the job.
Probably like my gem would when I didn't get Bella safely to the docks at Riverfork.
Dreams invaded my mind. Dreams of Julian, my brother, yanking Bella from my hands, laughing at me as I stumbled to my knees and felt the gem and my skin crack from failure. I could hear Bella screaming my name. Or was it Telisa? Or Zinnia? As the clasp snapped off my arm and the purple light formed into the shape of a giant snake, snapping its fangs over my curling body.
And then I was floating. In the night sky, no ground in sight. Only purple stars and dark hands reaching to me with sharp fingers.
The queen swam into view, dangling a purple crystal in front of her shawl-covered face, swaying from side to side and pointing a dagger of a fingernail at me, poking me in the shoulder again and again until it throbbed and--
My eyes shot open. I stared at the smooth stone beneath me, lit in purple. How long had I been asleep? How long had I left Bella at the mercy of the queen? Too long most likely.
A rumble growled through my gut. When was the last time I had eaten? The only thing I
knew was I didn't know.
I sighed. And continued the crawl.
Another door come into view. Square, just like the one behind me. As I inched closer, I could see the same intricate carvings covering the metalwork. Vines traced the edges, swirling together toward the middle, and the mouth of a serpent, tongue sticking from the door with a ring attached. Only this door had something else. I ran my fingers over the eyes of the snake and found a small lever beside each one. I pulled them to the side, and they slid over. Bright purple light shone through both eyelids, beams shooting into the gloom around me.
Voices ahead. Whispers crawling over each other and scrambling to be the loudest hiss. I couldn't tell how many voices came through those open eye sockets. They screamed at low volumes. They shot out strange threats. They spoke words I didn't understand. But then, none of it was understandable because the words flowed into each other, twirling around and spiraling out of control.
I leaned toward the open eyes, pressing my face against the stone, my chin resting on the forked tongue of the stone snake. And I peeked through.
A large chamber with stalactites dangling from the cavern ceiling spread out before me. On the far side of the room a stone staircase cut into the rock trailed upwards. Five sets of chains hung from the walls, circling the room. But what drew in my gaze above all else was the large crystal in the center of the room. It was massive, probably as tall as a Raciel's cottage had been, and just about as wide. Shards protruded from the center in all directions. Light emanated from the crystal in pulses.
I squinted. Swirls of darkness swept through the insides of the crystal, pressing against the sides and then vanishing from sight.
A sense of despair rushed over me, and I slumped against the door. The pulses quickened, and I felt the purple light aiming in my direction, dragging me forward, pushing against the metal door, wanting it badly to open and suck me through the air toward one of the sharp edges of the crystal.
I shook my head.
A footstep. One trailing after another down the stairs. The edge of a purple gown came into view, sparkling with darkness. And then the queen herself descended into the chamber, her hands covered with purple gloves, her sharp nails poking out of the tips of each finger. A black shawl covered her face underneath a sprawling purple headdress with five horns circling the temple. The shawl hung down from each horn, wisping about her face with each step.
She crossed the chamber and stood before the crystal, leaning her head back to stare at the very top. The queen spread her arms wide and rocked left to right. She pressed a palm against the shard closest to her and blackness swirled to the spot, hovering by her fingers.
“So desperate to come out and ravage, are we not?” The queen lifted her shawl slightly and hooked part of it to the horns poking from her forehead, revealing the smirk on her lips. She slowly walked around the edge of the crystal. Her fingers trailed the edges; the blackness followed her every rise and dip.
“Your secrets have long withstood my grasp, but not any longer.” The queen stepped away from the crystal to a wooden box resting against the wall. She lifted the lid and pulled out a long, bronze staff with a circle on the end and an empty notch in the center of the circle. “Because today! I have arrived with a prize.”
She dipped a hand into the folds of her gown and withdrew a gem glowing gold.
An ache settled into my forearm. That was my light. The light she had stolen from me.
The queen set the gem into the empty notch and then slid the bronze staff into a hole in the cavern floor. There was a click, and the staff rotated until the gem faced the crystal. The blackness inside the purple crystal swirled faster, agitated, voices hissing and snapping.
“But this is not all. I have other surprises for you. One I am sure will excite the blood in your veins.” She snapped her fingers, and a female guard with a shawl covering everything except her eyes stomped down the stairs, dragging Bella behind her.
“Let me go, you witch!” Bella screamed, smacking the guard's arm.
The guard didn't flinch. She yanked Bella toward the chains on the wall behind the bronze staff, slapping the cuffs around both of her wrists. Bella yanked against them, trying to escape. The chains pulled tight, and Bella leaned against them, her face glowering with rage.
The queen smirked again and trailed a finger underneath Bella's chin. “Yes, my dear. Fight against them. Bring forth the light I know rests inside you.”
Bella closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “No.”
The blackness pooled on the side of the crystal closest to Bella and the queen.
I had to save her. Something terrible was about to happen, and I had to save her. My fingers went to the chain beside the door, but a shaft of purple light shot through the eye sockets and froze me in place. I willed my fingers to move, but they wouldn't budge. I swallowed, watching as the queen placed an index finger on Bella's forehead and the other index finger on the gem in the staff.
“And now, a conduit I am to harness the power of light and shadow!” the queen shouted.
Bella grit her teeth, glaring at the woman. “You shall never use me for this!”
“Resist,” the queen hissed. “Resist!”
I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell Bella to break the chains and run. I wanted to tackle the queen to the ground. But I couldn't move.
White light drifted from Bella's skin. Her hair stood on end as the white light swirled around the queen's arm and to the golden gem in the staff. The white light hit the jewel in a flash of gold. The cavern shook as a blast of thin golden-white light hit the crystal.
Stalactites cracked from the ceiling and smashed against the purple crystal in the center of the room, not even leaving a scratch. But the light from the gem hit a spot that began to sizzle with smoke.
“It works! It works!” the queen screamed as the earth shook around them.
Bella opened her mouth and screamed a word. One word. A word that belonged to me.
The queen snarled. “Do not speak his name!”
“ERIC!” Bella shouted again.
A blast of white light shot from Bella's fist and hit the door I hid behind. The door cracked, and a gust of wind blasted past me, blowing me back until my head snapped against the stone. The world spun. But I could move. I braced both hands against the sides of the tunnel and sat up.
“HURRY!” Bella shouted. “HURRY!”
The queen's gaze whipped in my direction. “Get the child!”
The guard had stumbled to the side when the shaking began, but she slid her sword out and leaped around the staff and the queen. A pile of rocks rested below the door, and the guard quickly scrambled toward me.
I shot from the tunnel, grabbing a loose rock and chucking it at the guard. She dodged sideways, and the rock bounced off the side of the crystal. I grabbed another rock, and as the guard lurched forward, I threw it at her helmet. It smacked onto the top of her head leaving a small dent. The guard teetered on the pile of rocks, dropping her sword and falling to the side with a thud.
I leaped down, grabbed the sword, and ran toward the queen and the staff.
“NO!” The queen screamed, her teeth a set of daggerish fangs clenching within her mouth.
I swung at the bronze staff and sliced it clean in half with the sword. Instantly, the beam of light ceased, and the gem fell to the ground and shattered. A blast of golden light spread in every direction in a slow ball, expanding until it touched the purple crystal and burst like a bubble.
The white light vanished from Bella's skin, and the queen dropped to her knees, smacking
her fists against the stone.
“You meddlesome urchin,” she breathed. “You have interfered with powers beyond your reckoning. And for that, you shall die!”
Bella slumped against the chains. Her head rolled forward as if she were passed out.
“Bella!” I cried.
The queen stood up. “Do not think you can save your precious princess. Because you must still deal with me, Runner of Light. And without your magical clasp to save you, you cannot suppose to stand against my will.” She reached into her gown and pulled out a glowing red gem. “Legendary gems are so difficult to come by, but this one has always served me well!”
She tossed the red gem into the air. It sparkled and fell back into her hand in the shape of a long broadsword, crackling with red lightning bolts along the blade. The queen laughed and rushed forward with a cry. She swung the sword at me, and I dodged to the side. The blade smacked into the stone, leaving a scorch mark behind.
I stood, holding my sword in both hands and charged with a yell. I swung and met the red blade. Lightning arced across swords and zapped me in the shoulder, sending me flying across the room and rolling into the bottom of the stairs.
“You see, you are no match for my powers!”
I leaned to the side; the pain pulsing in every muscle along my arm. I lost my grip on the sword, and it clattered to the floor.
“And in one swing, our mighty hero has fallen.” The queen took a long breath, smirked, and spun on her heel toward Bella. “If I cannot take what I want by the ways I have been taught, I shall create new ones. The hole has begun! The power can be siphoned!”
She stood in front of a pinprick of a hole in the purple crystal, held the blade high, and shoved the red light into the hole. The blackness spiraled and then shot at the hole. A blast of energy shot out from the crystal, sending the queen flying backward and smacking against the cavern walls. She slumped to the ground, her head leaning to one side.
I winced, stood, and watched as the blackness seeped out of the purple crystal and fused with a swirling ball of red electric light. A foot emerged from the light, red and crackling with lightning, and the size of a horse. It smashed into the floor, three long talons digging into the stone and cracking it. Another foot slid out and landed. The ball of light slowly rose, forming into the outline of a red torso with large, muscular arms with claws for fingers. Wings sprouted from the back of the giant figure, and then the face of a dragon formed at the top, red smoke billowing from its mouth. Its golden-white eyes shot open and narrowed, focusing in on me.
A deep, rumbling laugh shook the entire cavern. And then a growling voice, like stone pillars sliding past each other in the night, erupted from the mouth of the beast. “At last . . . I am freed.” The beast turned around with a stomp and faced the purple crystal, running a massive claw over the top of it. “I am sorry, my brethren that thou couldst not join me. But I trust thou wilt leave me to rule these desolate islands in thy stead!”
I stumbled back, staring at the creature.
“Impossible . . .” the queen breathed. She slid a small leather journal from a deep pocket in her gown and rushed through the pages. Her sharp fingernail stabbed a page. “The Ancients were bound! Bound!” She pushed off from the wall and grabbed a spear. The queen hurled it at the beast. The spear passed through the creature, not leaving even a mark as it clattered against the rocks. The queen backed against the stone walls, head swaying between me and the beast.
It leaned over and picked up the queen with two claws, dangling her in the air. “Foolish mortal. Believing thou couldst harness the power of ancient evil. I shall never be devoured!”
The queen shook her head and leveled her gaze at the monster in front of her. “Your time has been foretold. But your ending has as well. And then, you shall be mine!”
The beast held the queen at eye level. “Thou shalt never have me!” He flung her across the room. She flipped through the air, and landed on the far side of the crystal, out of sight. “Now to be truly free!” The red creature slammed a fist against the ceiling. The stone cracked, and the creature slammed it again. A fissure opened up, and it drove its hands into the opening, tearing it apart. Rocks tumbled around me, and I darted toward Bella, yanking at her chains. A stone smashed into one of them, severing it from the wall.
Bella fell forward into my arms. We fell to the ground as another large stone shot toward us. I rolled to the side, cradling Bella's head. The stone smashed into the floor with a puff of dust. The chain was strung through a loop on each of the manacles around Bella's wrists. I yanked on it and pulled it out, leaving the manacles, but freeing Bella from her tether to the wall.
Her head listed forward and her eyes shot open. “Eric!” And then her gaze drifted up to the massive beast behind me, and she screamed.
It planted one giant foot on the top of the purple crystal and then shoved its way into the opening above us, drawing both wings in so it could slide through the opening. It scrambled up, sending more rocks tumbling.
“What is that?!” Bella yelled.
“I don't know! But we need to get out of here or this entire chamber is coming apart!”
“Where's the queen?”
I shook my head. “Never mind her now! Let's go!” I grabbed her hand, and we swerved around falling rocks as the giant dragon creature climbed to the surface above us, smashing through layers of castle and stone.
We dove for the stairwell and darted up, two steps at a time, leaving the purple crystal, the queen, and the shattered gem that had held my power.
The ground continued to shake around us, and we slipped around a crumbling wall and through a metal door falling off its hinges and into the castle proper. Bella pointed toward an open window. We hurried over and dove through, landing on the ground and staring upward at the giant creature flapping its wings and hovering over the remains of the queen's castle.
We stood in a garden with rows of tall hedges manicured carefully and spreading from us like a spiderweb. But we could see the creature. And the red lightning that shot from its hands and into the sky. Dark gray clouds bubbled around the beast's head and spread slowly, casting everything in a red shadow.
“The worlds of Abra belong to me. All mortals shall perish!” And then the beast spread its hands wide and lightning shot from them, arcing to the ground and scorching the island far from where we stood.
But there was no mistaking the screams of pain that echoed from the city surrounding the queen's castle. The cries of people vanishing in bursts of red light. Never to be seen again.
Holes lined the field, stretching away to a distant run of forested hills. Mounds of dirt clung to the edges of each dark pit, and I couldn't help picturing the massive pitters scrambling their way through each one, spewing dirt, and smacking their pincers together. Each hole looked about fifteen feet across, plenty large enough for us to climb through.
Zinnia shuffled her front hooves. I don't like this place.
“Neither do I.”
Telisa glared at me. “Stay quiet! Do you want to wake up the whole lot of 'em?”
I shook my head. I would stay quiet.
I don't want to go in those tunnels.
Zinnia's eyes were wide and darted back and forth from hole to hole. She shook her mane and stepped back toward the line of trees behind us. I'm staying behind.
“You can't stay behind!” I hissed.
Telisa glared at me.
I leaned up against the horse's ear and whispered, “What if we need you?”
You'll be faster without me.
“But this was your idea.”
Zinnia backed up and stared at me. Take the Old Roads. Survive. Save the girl. I'll see you again. The horse trotted around and galloped away between the pines, the bushes swayed slightly with each stamp of her hooves.
I watched her go until Telisa put a hand on my shoulder and pointed out a pit down the hill and to the left. “That one there. Dirt looks a bit crusty. I bet it's an old tunnel. Maybe not used much anymore.” She slid a dagger from the belt at her waist and tossed the hilt to me.
I nodded, and we sprinted down the hill toward the hole. I shivered and kept my distance from every dark pit we passed, keeping one eye on our entry point, and one eye on the quiet field around us. We reached the edge and peered over the side. The slope curled down into darkness. Crumbs of dirt trickled under the palms of my hands as I dropped to my knees.
“Ready?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “I'll never be ready for somethin' as crazy as this. Can you glow still?”
I stared at the clasp on my forearm. I concentrated. I closed my eyes and thought about the light coursing through the gem and creating a glow to see by. My eyelids squished downward. A slight flicker of pain traced through the tips of my fingers. I glanced down, but nothing. The gem was as dull as before.
“It's fine.” Telisa waved her clasp and yellowish light shot like a beam into the dark. The tunnel sloped for a ways and then rounded a corner, always dropping downward. Telisa swung her legs over the side of the tunnel and leaped in, sliding the rest of the way until she landed on both feet.
I followed her.
We crept through the dark, my fingers curling around the hilt of Telisa's dagger, my feet tripping over loose stones and small piles of dirt. The tunnel turned us left and then zagged back to the right until we came to a wall with a hole leading downward. Telisa pointed down and dropped to her stomach, ear to the ground.
“Anything?” Even my whispers sounded like thunder blasts down here.
Telisa aimed her light at my face. “No.”
I blinked and backed away.
Telisa refocused her light on the hole and pointed at it. “You first, kid.”
I walked up to the edge and looked over. The hole went down a little ways and landed probably ten feet below. I took a deep breath and then jumped. I landed and somersaulted, rolling until I was flat on my back and staring up at Telisa and her light.
“You okay?” Telisa asked.
“Yes. Hurry! It's dark down here.”
“What? You afraid of the dark?” The glow of her clasp lit up the smirk smeared across her face. “Because down here? We all should be.” She waved a hand. “Move outta the way.”
I stepped back and waited.
Silence drifted down from the hole.
“Telisa?” If she was trying to scare me, it was working. I didn't like silence. Or the dark. Or knowing that pitters might be crawling around somewhere behind me, waiting for the moment they could strike and swallow me whole.
No reply came from above.
I peeked into the hole and saw no light. No clasp. No Telisa. Nothing. Darkness deepened around me until it drove purple spots into the edges of my sight.
The hole was too high to climb back up through. Either Telisa had bolted—which seemed highly unlikely—or something had silently taken her—which seemed more likely and much more frightening. My hands started to shake, but I clenched them into fists and stumbled sideways until my shoulder hit the wall of the tunnel. It was smoother than up above, less crumbly, like the earth had solidified into a solid sheen of smooth rock that ran in both directions indefinitely.
I didn't know which way to go. One short breath and then a long one. I had to concentrate. To think. Because otherwise I would be caught by whatever lurked down in these tunnels. And then I would be dead.
But Bella needed me. She needed me to save her. I had to save her. Or I would be dead.
I closed my eyes and called out to her with my mind. “Bella? Can you hear me?”
I waited in the dark and heard no response.
So I walked forward. My boots slipped every few steps on the smooth floor beneath me. The walk seemed endless. The tunnel ran straight. Never turning. Not even slightly. My mind wandered into darkness. What was down here? Anything? Anyone? Would I end up at the castle dungeons? Or out in the middle of Castos somewhere, lost hopelessly?
The steps slogged by. I heard nothing. Not a whisper, not even the faintest whiff of a breeze. The air grew stale, and my tongue felt dry on the roof of my mouth. How much longer would this tunnel continue? How much farther could I walk? What would I find at the end? If I ever found the end?
My mind swirled.
And then the first whisper met my ears.
“What are you doing down here with ussss?”
I stopped walking. A pebble skittered away from the toe of my boot.
“Sssay sssomething. Because we can hear you breathe. . . .” A wet chuckle. “We know what you ssseek in these tunnelssss.”
I sucked in a breath and held it.
“Perhaps he cannot see,” a second voice said.
A murmur of whispers echoed out a faint “Yesss.”
Gray light emerged from the tunnel ahead. My eyes squinted at the light, even though I knew it wasn't very bright at all. I moved forward cautiously, one hand shielding my eyes. The voices tugged at me. Drew me closer with shuffled footstep after shuffled footstep. A tremble slipped across my shoulders. I should be afraid. I should be walking away. But I wasn’t. I couldn’t. A drive to see overcame my senses. I had to see.
“Yesss . . come closer to usss. . . .”
I blinked and saw what appeared to be smooth, black stone beneath my feet, running in a straight line into the gray light. The tunnel above me curved in a perfect arch, without a single notch or crack in the gray stone. And then I saw the inky doorways. There was no other way to describe them. Six ran on one side of the tunnel, and seven staggered across from them. They were the shape of doorways, but instead of wooden or even stone doors, the entrances flowed with what looked like the blackest night of stars I had ever seen.
A single, gray star shone in the center of each door, casting light into the tunnel. I stopped by the first door and stared into it, the stars and pinpricks of light swirled back and forth in different directions as if the stars were spinning overhead at a dizzying rate.
“Ssstep inside. . . .” A voice called.
I inched closer to the doorway, my eyes reflecting the starry entrance. I watched the lights. Stared at them. Soaked each one in. Peace lived in those stars. A peace I could have if I only stepped inside.
“Jussst a bit closer. . . .”
The shape of a hand pressed against what looked like a film separating this side of the door and the other. Another hand appeared beside it, pushing the entrance out as if an arm were outstretched and reaching for me. And then a face appeared, eyeless sockets pushing into the darkness, and mouth opening wider and wider with a groan.
I reached out a hand toward the fingertips, closer, closer--
The voice snapped through my mind like the stamp of a hoof smacking against my skull. It was a different voice—a girl's voice. Her voice.
“Bella,” I whispered.
The voices in the inky doorways stopped instantly.
Eric, I need your help . . . but you can't . . . if . . . turn . . . aside. . . .
The words faded in and out of my consciousness. I raced down the tunnel, the gray light sparking behind me and then blasting back to darkness. My feet pounded over the rough stone. Footfall after footfall, heart and mind focused on finding the source of Bella's voice.
She was close. I could feel it in my forearm. A slight pulse, right underneath the cracked gem on my clasp.
The blackness descended over me again. I plunged forward blindly, one hand tracing the wall. Another step and my hand met emptiness to the right. I stumbled sideways, landing on my shoulder with a smack.
“Ouch,” I muttered. I sat up, closed my eyes at the pain shooting through my arm, and scrambled back up.
I stopped when I heard the growl. Fifty pale blue eyes blinked into sight one by one. They glowed, pupils narrowing and widening and then focusing on me. The slight blue glow lit up the creature's two pincers stretching to either side of the tunnel. It opened its mouth; two long drags of saliva dribbling to the rocks.
I watched it rise up until it bumped its head on the rock ceiling and sent a shower of dust to the ground. It roared at me and lunged. I darted backward, around the corner of the tunnel as the pitter careened forward, slamming its head into the far wall. Another roar was all it took to send me running down the passage as fast as my legs would go. I hobbled slightly, clutching my shoulder with each step.
The pitter's eyes lit the path ahead of me. I dodged around rocks and stalagmites as the giant worm slithered around the walls behind me, snapping its jaws, and clacking its pincers. I doubled down, pumping my legs and feeling tears wet the corners of my eyes. The worm snapped at the air behind my heels as I dove over a large boulder.
The creature slammed into the rock and smashed it to dust with a roar.
Up ahead, I could see the tunnel narrowing to a small square door about the size of my torso. I lurched toward it, slipping on a loose stone and crashing to the ground. The pitter bit the air over my head and then glanced down at me. It drove its head downward. I scrambled, wrapping my fingers around a large stalagmite and yanking myself ahead. The pitter's face smacked into the dirt where my legs had been a breath before.
I half-crawled, half-tumbled toward the square door. It was made of metal and carved over in swirling vines with a single large snake mouth sticking from the center. A ring hung from the snake's fangs, and I grabbed it. The door squeaked open an inch, a waft of foul air blasting into my face.
I peeked back. The pitter shook its head and crashed through a stalactite and then slithered forward. It stretched out its long head to reach me, pincers snapping at the dirt right behind my feet. The tunnel was slightly too narrow for the entire beast to fit into the space right by the door. It pounded its forehead against the stone again and again, sending rocks crackling to the cave floor.
I screamed, leaning back with the handle in my hands, and feeling the pain rip through my shoulder. The door creaked open a little more, cobwebs stretching away from the seams. “Come on!” I yelled, giving one more pull.
The pitter burrowed toward me. One of the pincers scraped my back, and with the encouragement of its prey being so tantalizingly close, it shoved forward and wrapped both pincers around my midsection. It flung its head back, and I gripped the handle, gritting my teeth and screaming from the pain. I kicked back, landed a foot on the beast's closest eye. It let out a roar and dropped me.
One last yank on the door, and it was open enough for me to scramble inside. A pincer shot forward into the small tunnel I had discovered. A rusty chain hung on the wall by my head. I pulled it, sending the door slamming down on the pincer and chopping it clean off.
The pincer wiggled twice and then stilled on the cavern floor beside me.
I leaned against the wall and cried, not even trying to stop the tears flowing from my dusty face. I ran a hand over my eyes and sobbed, the cries heaving against my chest. My body felt numb from the running, the pain, the weariness.
How much longer was this going to go on? Near death after near death? I took a deep breath and calmed my chest one slow inhale and exhale at a time. I had to focus. I had to stay in the game. I had to finish the job. Because everything was at stake for this. Everything.
A soft purple glow lit up the tunnel. It was entirely square shaped, with completely smooth walls—smoother rock than I had ever seen in my life. It almost felt like glass to the touch. I had to stay crouched over because the ceiling was so low in here.
And then the thought trickled through me: What was this tunnel? And where in Castos did it lead?
I swallowed. And crawled forward, away from the door and the pitter on the other side, and straight toward the source of the purple light leaking into the passage.
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.