A field of pansies faded into view. The flowers stretched to the horizon in every direction, except there was no bright blue sky overhead. The purples and oranges of a darkening sunset filled my sight. I squinted, hobbled forward, and saw the girl.
She was lying on the dirt, crushing a ring of flowers beneath her. Chestnut brown hair spread from behind her head, purple eyes open wide. She wore a simple white dress with no sleeves, but in the center of her dress was a dark spot. I glanced away.
Her breathing came rapidly.
“Eric . . .” she gasped.
Zinnia held out a human hand toward me. Tears built beneath my eyelids. I crouched down on my knees and took her small hand into mine. My fingers wrapped around hers. “Zinnia, I'm sorry.”
“It'll be okay.” Her eyes closed. “I'll miss you, Eric. You're brave. And strong. And I know you can face anything that comes next.”
I shook my head. “No. . . . No I can't. Everyone around me is getting hurt and dying.” I stared at the horizon. “So many people are dead now,” I muttered.
Zinnia's hand clenched mine. “Don't blame yourself. This world is at war, Eric. I'm a small part in the story, but you . . . you are the Runner of Golden Light.” Her eyelids fluttered open, and she stared into me. “You are the forebear.”
“How do you—” I paused. “Can you read my mind?”
A kind smirk crossed the girl's mouth. “Always could. Your thoughts are intriguing. Most would not understand you. Most won't. But you can know that I always have.”
“Well that's embarrassing,” I chuckled. But then my face dipped back into a frown. “Zinnia, you can't die. It's not fair!”
“Nothing was ever fair.” Then Zinnia wrapped her arm around my neck and pulled herself to a sitting position. She groaned and winced, one hand over her wound. Then she leaned in to me and kissed my cheek. “Stay safe, Eric. Goodbye.”
And then she slowly fell onto her back, closed her eyes, and stopped breathing. The sky drifted into darkness, stars poking into view like the pinpricks poking into my chest. I couldn't breathe. My lungs felt tight, like the air was squeezing them closed. I fell onto my palms, hitting the dirt and letting the sobs erupt from deep in my gut.
“No!” I screamed. “No! No!”
I glanced back toward Zinnia's still form. Tiny plumes of blue smoke sifted through the soil around her, swirling over her face and body until she was completely covered. A gust of wind rushed across the pansies behind me, blowing the smoke away and into the stars above. And where Zinnia had been lying was a pack of blue and yellow flowers with swirling petals in the shape of a horse.
I buried my face in both hands and wept. Wept for Saltha and Zinnia and the countless numbers of people who had been slaughtered by Molduth in the castle city. I wept for myself; the emotion and tension of the past few weeks rushed over me.
And then a gentle hand fell on my shoulder.
Warmth pressed through me, and I lifted my head to see the boy. Tears filled his eyes, and his chin trembled as he slowly dipped down and ran a hand over the patch of flowers where Zinnia had once been. He let his tears fall onto the petals. They soaked into the blues and yellows making them even more vivid than before in the growing moonlight.
I leaned back on my heels and brushed my greasy hair away from my face. I rubbed both eyes with fists and then sighed, long and loud.
“Why is all of this happening?” I whispered.
The boy didn't respond. He merely looked at me with sad eyes. A gentle breeze blew through our hair.
“Why won't you say anything? You seem to know something!” I stood up. “Who are you? Really? Are you a runner? Or something else? You told me to trust you, and I did. And the golden light came through me without a clasp. What does any of this mean? You have to give me some answers.”
He studied the flowers and pulled one from the ground. Not in a harsh way, but with the greatest gentleness, pulling up the roots and all. He held the flower toward me. “Flowers are more important than most people realize. They can bring life where it was waning. They can restore memories where they were lost. They can remind us of things long forgotten. And then they can tell us the stories we're afraid to hear.”
“That doesn't make any sense,” I said.
“But it does. It makes all the sense. This flower for instance. It tells part of your story.” He pointed to the blue edges of the petals. “This world is dark, lost in chaos, wondering when relief will ever come.” His finger moved down to the roots. “But all along, something has been brewing deep beneath the surface. Something that will change everything and bring new life to people who have lost all hope.”
The boy pointed at the yellow middles of the petals. “And this?” His gaze lifted to me. “This is the golden light that has come into the world to shine in the darkness. Not that this light is The Light. This light points to something greater. Something coming. Something that will bring hope. But first, this point of golden light must shine. And ready the way.”
He stared at me. “You are that light, Eric of Jedros. Runner of Golden Light. There will be sadness on this journey. As there is now. And there will be times you wish more than anything to quit, and then there will come the end. But not before hope has been restored. And freedom has come.
“Molduth was only the beginning. A weaker ancient than many others. And believe me, more will come. And ravage these islands. You must stand and fight against them and shine with the light that is inside of you. Freedom is coming, and together, we must show them the way, the truth, and the life.”
The boy's words swam in my head, stroke after stroke. Ancients, freedom, fighting, hope. I still didn't understand all of it. I wanted to. I wanted to know. To have it sorted through and organized within my own mind in a way that made sense.
“What do I do now?” I asked.
“Finish the job. You are no longer bound by the slavery of runners. You are free, Eric. But Bella is important. Take her to Riverfork. And then go back to Gratta. There are others that must find the same freedom you've found.”
“But how do I do that?”
“You will know the way. Trust me.”
I took a deep breath and knew the only response my heart had was yes. So I nodded. And on the third nod, the field of pansies drifted out of sight, replaced by a rolling stretch of dirt filled with thousands of holes and piles of red ashes where pitters had once squirmed.
The sky had darkened. How long had I been . . . wherever I had been?
Zinnia's body had vanished.
So had Molduth. He was gone. Where he had once stood was a simple purple necklace, now glowing red and purple and floating at eye level. I blinked. Tried to focus on one of the colors. But my eyes wouldn't take it in. The necklace was wholly red and wholly purple at the same time. I reached out for the thin metal chain and brushed a finger against it. The necklace floated back slightly, and I reached out and grabbed it, drawing the chain into my hand and slipping it into my pocket.
I almost thought I heard a faint roar from within the crystal, but I shook my head. I had to get back to Bella, and I had left her--
My head shot up. Red smoke plumed in the distance. The castle. The Queen. Bella. The fires. I closed my eyes and felt the golden light build inside of me. It closed around my body, and I lifted into the air. “Take me to her,” I whispered. My arms whacked to my sides, and I blasted forward, leaving a fading trail of golden light behind me. The trees zipped by underneath. The path to the castle and the city snaked its way through the brush until I burst out from over the forest and through plumes of smoke rising from the burning city. The handful of people who stood below held a hand over their eyes, pointing into the sky as I soared overhead.
The ruins of the castle loomed into view. Piles of boulders and the broken ramparts from where Molduth had snapped through circled the main structure. Towers had toppled; ashes lay throughout the once green rows of hedges. And there, on the dirt, was Bella. Her hair was splayed beneath her prone form. And standing over her, the Queen, metal umbrella held at her side, and other hand stretched over Bella's forehead.
White light streamed from Bella into the queen's hand, and the woman leaned back, shawls covering her face, but I could see the light trickling from her skin.
I leaned forward and dove with a shout, smacking into the queen's side. We tumbled across the dry dirt, through the ashes, until we rolled to a stop. The Queen shoved me away and kicked her feet up, jumping to a standing position. White light flowed from her fingertips as she swayed from side to side, facing me.
“You are the boy of impossibilities, but impossibilities I will soon conquer.” She held a hand to the sky, and a stream of white light shot into the air. “I have siphoned enough of the girl's powers to match your own.” She held her palm to the side, and white light shot from her hand like a rope, wrapping itself and tying around a large stone boulder. She yanked on it and flung it toward me.
I dove to the side, the boulder clipping my back as I went. I cried out and held up both hands. Golden light shot from my palms and blasted into the stone, shattering it into pieces.
The Queen dropped the white rope, and it dissipated into nothingness. She rubbed her hands together, white sparks drifting from fingertip to fingertip. “Impressive. But let's see how you really fare against me.”
She whipped out the metal umbrella and tapped the tip of it. White light pooled on the end, and she held it back, firing blasts in rapid succession at me. I ducked and dodged, holding up my forearm so a shield of golden light formed over my torso. Some of the white light blasted against the shield, pinging away and burning into stones and dirt around us.
A company of seven soldiers clomped up the cracked steps behind the Queen and stood at attention, lowering their spears toward me.
“Stay back!” the Queen screamed, holding up a glowing hand toward them. She sent a blast toward them, which smacked into the soldiers and sent them flying through the air with screams.
“Stop!” I shouted. “You're hurting people!”
I could see the queen's mouth beneath her shawl flip into a sneer. “Stop hurting people? I have only begun to show you pain!” She jerked the umbrella, and a large ball of white lightning shot at me, breaking through the golden shield and smacking me in the chest. I screamed and fell backward, sliding through the dirt until I had reached Bella's side.
Her mouth moved slightly as if she were asleep and trying to speak. I rolled back over and stood up, the necklace falling from my pocket. I grabbed it up. The necklace. It had seemed to absorb Molduth's red light into itself. It had been absorbing light back when Julian had been using it on the rocky outcrops in the ocean to the north. It snapped together in my head like bolts fitting into door frames. The crystal on the necklace was purple. And the only thing purple light seemed to do was soak light into itself. Molduth had been born from a purple crystal and been amplified by the red gem the Queen had held. And now red and purple co-existed inside this single necklace. Maybe I could use it to absorb the queen's light and stop her.
I stood and held by the chain, extending my arm until it hung between the Queen and myself. “Stop!” I shouted.
The Queen pulled back her umbrella. “Julian's necklace. How thoughtful of you to hold onto it for him. And now I shall hold onto it for both of you.” She held out her hand, and thin streams of white light slipped across the distance, wrapping around the necklace chain like fingers and yanking it out of my grasp.
“Yes,” the Queen hissed, catching the necklace from the air. “Foolish boy! You think you can manipulate the light better than I? I have studied lost arts for hundreds of years. One stupid son of Jedros could not hope to match me.” She eyed the necklace. “And now it appears you've added a little something extra to it. My red gem. Returned at last.” She slipped the necklace over her head, maneuvering it past the horns until it rested against her gown.
She laughed and then snarled. “Now that I have three strands of light, nothing can stand against me until I collect the spectrum and subjugate every soul in this wretched world unto my will!”
“I won't let you,” I said, planting both feet, but feeling my hands tremble in betrayal. “Freedom is coming, and not even you can stop it!”
“Been listening to children recently?” She leaned in. “I'll fill you in on a secret. The voices are only in your head.”
“No! He's real!”
The Queen held up both hands like claws. Three lights swirled in each palm, a red one, a purple, and a white. “There is no reality but the one I shape. And in my reality, you don't even exist. Such a pity. You could have joined my ranks as a powerful Runner. But there will be others. I will clasp every human throughout these islands and then extend my reach to the lands beyond. None shall stand before me!” Light blazed behind the shawls where her eyes would be. She took a step back, and her mouth dropped. “And now, die.”
Six streams of multicolored light zapped through the air. I threw my hands across my face, and a half-shield of golden energy formed in front of me. The streams of light shoved me back. I bent my knees, leaning in and holding my hands out until golden light rushed through my fingertips and met the Queen's blast.
The lights slammed against each other. Sparks sprouted from where the streams intersected. We pushed against each other; the lights shoved us back and forth as my stream grew brighter and then the queen's.
The Queen leaned forward with a screech. Every muscle in my body tensed, veins on my neck pressing against my skin. I stomped forward, one foot at a time, watching the golden light overtake part of the queen's red, purple, and white beams. My shoulder and leg ached, my face throbbed, my hands shook, and I felt a wave of darkness threatening to suck me under and into unconsciousness.
“You can't last for long!” the Queen shrieked.
I squinted in her direction and saw her calmly standing with both hands outstretched. Light shone beneath her shawls and her gown, creating a thin shield around her body. I lost concentration for a moment as my eyes rolled back. The golden light snapped out, and purple, red, and white shot over my body. My skin burned as the Queen cackled, the light lifting me into the air. I squirmed around, screaming.
“You shall not survive. None shall survive!” The Queen bent a knee and sent another wave of light coursing over me, brighter than before.
And then I saw a figure rush from the side and tackle the Queen to the ground.
The light dropped from the Queen's hands, and I fell to the dirt with a thud. A crack erupted from my arm, and I felt a shock of pain rush to my head. I cried out, rolling side to side, clutching my broken arm with my other hand.
Telisa punched the Queen in the side of the face and landed one good blow before the woman held up her hand and blasted Telisa with purple and red light. It swirled around her like a rope, lifting her into the air.
“Now, where were we?” the Queen muttered, blasting me with her other hand. White energy wrapped around me, and I screamed as it pressed in on my body, squeezing my arm and the burns.
“Where were we? We're done!” Bella stood, fists clenched, facing the Queen. Her dark hair stood on end and cracked with white light. She held up her hands and yelled, sending white light blasting through the air and slamming into the queen's chest.
She grunted, lost her hold on Telisa and me, and stumbled backward.
I hobbled over to Bella's side. “Let's take care of this Queen.” I held up my one good hand, my other arm hanging limp at my side. I shoved out a burst of gold, and as white and gold mixed in the air, it blasted against the Queen, sending her rocketing into the air, farther and farther away until she was nothing but a pinprick on the distant horizon.
The world slowed to a crawl. I saw the zagging stream of light zipping toward me, closer, inch by inch, sapping the energy from the air around it and channeling it at me.
I raised my arm. I had to shine. I had to shine. I had to shine.
I closed my eyes, grit my teeth, and imagined golden light streaking from my arms. It had to work. I had to shine. To save everyone. To stop this beast. To save a world otherwise destroyed.
My eyes opened one at a time. No light shone. Not even a glimmer.
I dropped stomach down to the stones, and the lightning struck the air over my head and popped. I scrambled forward as the demon blasted again. This one scorched the rampart a foot ahead of me. I clambered back. Another blast. I jerked my leg away as it struck stone.
And I saw Bella, lying still on the dirt below.
And I saw Saltha, embalmed in purple light.
And I saw Telisa, vanishing without a trace.
And the boy. His face. Staring into mine. And whispering, “Trust me.”
I closed my eyes again.
How did you trust someone? How was it supposed to work? How did I let go and just trust?
I took a deep breath and stood up. “I can't do this alone. I never could,” I whispered.
Light glimmered over my fingertips. Golden light. A surge of energy rushed over me. I clenched my fists and then slowly rose into the air as the light enveloped me from foot to head. I kept rising higher until I hovered across from the demon's smoking snout.
It turned to look at me, cocking its head to the side. “Impossible,” it muttered.
I held out both palms, and golden light blasted from my hands, streaking at its mouth. The beams sliced through the front of its snout, a puff of red smoke billowing to the clouds where it had once been. The mangled demon roared and swiped at me with a clawed hand.
I dove to the side, golden light growing brighter around me. A haze of gold covered the world. Red molded with gray and into white light shimmering from city rooftop to castle ruins. The demon swiped at me again, and I shot up through its claws, two golden swords appearing in both hands. I swung downward and sliced through two of the demon's fingers. Both fell to the ground and vanished in a plume of red smoke.
The demon stumbled backward. Its legs crashed into the castle behind me. A tower fell to the side and slammed into the earth sending up a cloud of dust. It stared at me and with garbled words said, “Runner of Golden Light, thou dost not comprehend what thy eyes see nor what thy hands do. Nor whom thou standeth against! I am the Ancient called Molduth, Destroyer of All the Living! And I shalt destroy thee!”
It leaned back its head. The Adam's apple on its throat warbled, and red creatures swarmed into the air from deep within its chest. The creatures looked like red locusts with tails like scorpions. Sharp stingers glistened with red lightning on the tip of each tail. Claws emerged from their abdomens, and each face lifted up to reveal the visage of a human male. They opened their mouths at the same time and roared, sharp fangs chomping with saliva.
My eyes widened, and I dropped a full man's height in the air. There must have been nearly a hundred of the locusts flapping translucent wings. They swirled around Molduth’s head. The larger beast’s eyes darting past them to me.
Molduth shoved a claw in my direction. With a synchronized screech, they darted in my direction in a swarm. I flipped over in midair, pressing both hands to my sides and rocketing forward, diving over the ramparts and into the city below. The swarm followed, clipping the sides of buildings and leaving chunks of stone debris in their wake. I slipped under trellises and balconies and flew around the corner of a main street to see a handful of people weeping on the cobblestoned streets.
I stuck my legs out in front of me and started running in the air until my heels touched down on the ground. I spun around, golden swords in hand and crossed them. The locusts at the front of the swarm snarled, tucked their legs in to their sides, and aimed their stingers at me.
“Run!” I shouted over my shoulder to the men and women in trousers and bland tunics behind me. I heard the patter of boots across cobblestones and swung to meet the first of the locusts. I chopped through a scorpion tail and stabbed upward into its belly, sending it careening into the side of the building beside me. Another locust jabbed at me with its tail from the left. I swung up and sliced through the beast, breaking it clean in half. Both halves shriveled and hit the stones.
I swung both blades, pounding into the middle of the swarm, spinning and swinging and stabbing again and again and again. I lost myself in the swirling gold, the light shining through my skin, powering the fervor channeled through the swords in my hands. Locusts dropped in steaming piles of mucus and muck around me in plops.
A roar drifted down from the hill above me. The demon parked both hands on the ramparts, claws digging into the stone. I glanced up and saw that the entire horde of locusts lay in pieces around me, littered throughout the streets. My shoulders heaved, and I gasped for air. Had I actually done this? Beaten my way through a swarm of lightning red locusts?
No. I hadn't done this alone. Something else—no, someone else was powering me. Shining through me. The boy. Whoever he was.
Molduth roared again.
I pointed a sword at him. “Leave this island! Go back to wherever you came from!”
Smoke poured from Molduth's dismembered mouth. And then a flame of dark red fire exploded from its throat. I threw my hands up, and the swords vanished in a cloud of dust and reformed into a half-shield over my face. The fire blazed around the golden shield, trickling off into the cobblestones and leaving melted slag in its wake.
The blast ended, but not before a second one took its place. The fire burned through part of the shield, and I flew backward from the force of it, landing on my back on the street. Molduth leaned back and heaved another shot of fire at me. I scrambled away as it exploded into the road beside me. Heat wafted over my face and sent blisters bubbling to the surface of my cheek. I screamed and clutched at my face, rolling until I bumped into a gutter. Fire blazed up the street from Molduth's maw, cutting into the stones until it caught the bottom of my foot, burning through my boot. I screamed again, yanking my leg away and crawling out of range into the doorway of the nearest building.
Molduth blasted the two-story shop with fire. The wood erupted in flames and burned rapidly toward me. I jumped away, hobbling up the street, ducking beneath awnings and into doorways as Molduth blasted shop after shop behind me. Fire ripped through the street and spread, sending clouds of crimson smoke billowing into the air.
I stumbled to the ground. Pain boiled over my foot. Blisters had covered the top of it and left behind charred skin. I winced, holding back the tears.
“Help,” I rasped.
My throat felt raw from the smoke filling the street.
“Nowhere to hide thyself, Runner. All mortals perish before the Flames of Molduth!” The demon laughed, leaning over the rampart. I watched another crimson glow brighten within its throat.
I cradled my face, and the golden light that had surrounded me faded. I couldn't fight this. I had tried. I had put up a good fight. But it wasn't enough. Molduth was too powerful. Too strong. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't face it.
I am coming, Eric.
The voice whipped through my mind like an old friend coming around the corner with no warning. Zinnia. The horse emerged from the red smoke, throwing her mane to the side. She leaned into her gallop, gaze set on me.
Molduth loosed another blast of fire. I rolled away, hopped to my feet, and reached out for Zinnia's neck. She kicked her legs to the side and slid on two hooves toward me until I could yank myself onto her back. The fire slammed into the ground behind us. I clung to Zinnia's neck, feeling the tears drip down my face as pain coursed through my leg. She raced through the streets of the city, a nameless row of shops and homes slowly burning to ashes. Molduth shot at us with streams of fire, blazing through cobblestones as Zinnia leaned left and right to avoid being hit. She seemed to see and know when each blast would strike.
My eyelids drooped. “Bella,” I rasped.
Where is she?
I pointed a weak finger back up the hill. “Castle grounds.”
On it, Zinnia said. She neighed and swerved to the right down a side street. Fire blasted over our heads, slamming into the thatched roofs.
How do we stop that thing?
I shook my head. “Too strong.”
There has to be a way.
If there was, I didn't know what it would be. Molduth was something old. From an ancient time, trapped inside that purple crystal for thousands of years probably. And now, here it was, unleashed on the world and ravaging the island of Castos. And who was I really? A boy from a rice farm on Jedros. A boy who had come to stand against evils in many forms, from pales to pitters to--
My eyes shot open. “Zinnia! How far are the pitworm holes from here?”
Not too far on horseback.
“Take us there! As fast as you can! And try to be obvious about it!”
What about the girl?
“We can save everyone if we just get to those pits!”
Zinnia whinnied and darted back onto a main street. Molduth spotted us and sent another blast of fire our direction. It blasted into the ground ahead of us leaving a trench of molten cobblestones in its wake. Zinnia leaped into the air and sailed over the slag. She landed on the other side with a clop.
Molduth roared behind us. “How doth thou escape mine own grasp?”
I spun around on Zinnia's back, facing Molduth's towering figure leaning on the ramparts. “Come get us!” I screamed as loud as I could.
Rage burned through Molduth's eyes. It flapped into the air and cast a red shadow across the burning city. The world blurred slightly as I turned back around, clutching Zinnia's neck as she raced through the flaming city gates and onto the dirt roads beyond. Trees whipped past us, disintegrated as Molduth flew behind us, zapping the ground with red lightning.
The clouds had spread into the horizon. I squinted, trying to see where they ended and blue sky began once more. But all I could see was red. My face stung from the burn, and I grazed it slightly with my fingertips. The skin felt folded over. Char covered my fingers. I winced and shook my head. I couldn't think about it. I had to concentrate on what we were about to do.
I had one plan in mind. One that was insane enough to maybe work. I couldn't fight this beast alone. I had to have some kind of help. And it didn't need to be the good kind of help either.
Zinnia shot through the forest. Fire swept along behind us, reducing the pines to ash and dust. A cloud of smoke roiled across the ground, nipping at Zinnia's back hooves. And Molduth flew ever closer. Wind gusted through my hair and Zinnia's mane.
And then I saw it ahead. The field of pitter holes. I pointed. “There!”
Zinnia shot off the path and down the slope toward the field of holes.
“Straight through! And make noise!”
I screamed, rawness raking through my throat. Molduth flapped ahead and slammed into the ground, its shadow falling over us. His taloned feet dug into the earth and churned it. He swiped down with his claws at Zinnia. She darted sideways, but not quickly enough. One of the claws struck her in the back leg. I flew to the side, tumbling through the dirt and landing on the edge of a pitter hole. Zinnia fell to her side, kicking all four legs.
“Hold on!” I shouted. I stood up and raced to her side, placing both hands on her neck.
“Foolish mortals. Playthings of the Ancients. Thou hast run far enough!” Molduth leaned back to heave another blast of fire at us.
And then the ground rumbled.
Molduth glanced down and watched as a thousand pitters rose out of their holes and squirmed across the earth toward the largest thing in sight: Molduth. They opened their mouths, leaned back on the tail ends of their bodies, and hurled through the air, latching onto Molduth with all their teeth in tow.
The demon roared as pitter after pitter shot at it. It wrapped each hand around one of the giant worms and yanked, trying to pull them off with no success. The worms had sunk their fangs into the red flesh, tail ends wobbling in midair as their bodies lurched, eating away at the monstrous beast. Darker blotches of red spread across Molduth. The demon gripped its head with both clawed hands and then leaned back, stretching its arms to the clouds.
“Enough!” Molduth roared. Lightning sparked from the sky and drove through its body, zapping every pitter to dust. Lightning drove into every hole in the ground. Screeches echoed from the earth followed by billows of pitter dust.
I stared with an open mouth at the remains of so many pitters drifting through the air and swirling into the distance. We had failed. Maybe an Ancient was too much to fight. Maybe they weren’t meant to be destroyed. Only trapped. But I knew I had no ideas on how to capture something so monstrous and shove it back into the crystal beneath the castle. My hands shook, and I leaned back toward Zinnia. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Molduth leaned over Zinnia and me. “Thou hast fought bravely. But alas, bravery doth not earn thee life.” It swiped a hand down and wrapped around Zinnia, lifting her into the air.
“No!” I screamed, clutching onto Zinnia's neck and dangling in the air beneath her as she rose higher and higher.
Eric! I'm scared!
Molduth lifted us to its mangled snout, leaned its head back, and opened wide.
I closed my eyes and whispered, “Help us . . . please. . . .”
But no golden light came to my fingertips this time. No course of energy through my body. Only the dry heat rising from Molduth's gullet. The beast laughed.
I swung sideways and felt something drop from my pocket. I glanced down and saw Julian's purple necklace falling through the air and straight into Molduth's throat. Rays of purple light shot from it and pierced straight through Molduth's skin. The demon slammed its mouth shut, and held us out from two claws, dropping us through the air.
Zinnia and I fell toward the earth. I screamed and felt a cushion of golden light swirl beneath us. Before we pounded into the dirt, the golden light caught us and set us down gently. I stared up and saw Molduth stumble backward, clutching its stomach with both claws.
“What hast thou done? Dost thee not know that purple crystals are poison to the Ancients?”
Shafts of purple light broke through Molduth. The beams of light slowly spiraled around Molduth, picking up speed until the entire beast lifted into the air, spinning like a tornado. The clouds sucked downward into the red and purple vortex, clearing the way for blue sky to emerge. Wind blasted over us. I shaded my eyes and watched as the purple light consumed Molduth, rose into the air in the shape of a massive sphere, and then exploded outward. The light pressed into the sky, through the blue, and sparking into the distance like a star twinkling out for the night.
I fell back onto Zinnia's side and felt the warmth under the back of my head. A sticky warmth.
I sat up and glanced down.
A deep wound pierced the horse's side from where Molduth had gripped her.
I'm dying, Eric.
She neighed softly. Meet me in. . . .
My eyes closed and the field of dead pitters vanished from view.
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.
Spears peppered the water behind us as we hauled up the pilings to the dock. I ducked my head as another spear flew past me and landed with a thud into the planks. Telisa grabbed my elbow and yanked me sideways as a spear clattered beside us.
Soldiers raced down the gangway to the dock, pounding over the wood.
Zinnia and Poinsettia raced out of hiding and galloped toward us, skidding to a halt as we jumped up their stirrups and onto their backs.
Nice to see you again, Zinnia said with a neigh.
I nodded. “Good to see you too. Ride!”
“To the horses!” one of the soldiers behind us shouted.
Tied to one end of the dock were a pack of gray horses, stamping their hooves and snorting wildly. Twenty soldiers dashed to the horses, whipping out their ropes and slinging themselves onto their steeds.
Stone and mortar houses whizzed past us as Telisa and I rounded a corner. The thunder of horse hooves rose as the soldier galloped around seconds later.
“We can lose them in the streets! Follow me!” Telisa shouted back.
I nodded, leaning forward and hanging on to Zinnia's neck as Poinsettia's legs blurred. Zinnia neighed and struggled to keep up, darting down alleyways as the soldiers chased. I ducked under a low hanging wooden sign announcing shoe repairs and skidded around an abandoned flower cart in the middle of the street.
Right side! Zinnia screamed.
I spun to the right and saw a soldier pulling back her fist and swinging at me. I jerked left and the soldier lost her balance, toppling to the cobblestoned street with a clatter. Behind me a row of soldiers on horseback galloped side by side, pounding after me, frowns on their faces.
Ahead, Poinsettia and Telisa slid to a halt as another row of horses clopped around the corner, soldiers holding out spears at us.
Telisa waved a hand at me. “Use yer clasp!”
I shook my head. “It doesn't work anymore!”
“What?” Telisa slid a double bladed sword from the strap on her back. “Never mind. Talk to me later. Poinsettia!” Telisa whistled as the horse nodded. She dropped to the cobblestones and swung the sword back and forth. “Come git me!” she shouted, spreading her arms wide.
Two soldiers rushed at her as Telisa swung the blades, matching both of their weapons. Sparks shot into the air. Telisa whacked them both in the helmet, leaving a dent, and kicking one of them over as she shoved the other to the ground.
Telisa backed toward me, eyeing the horses and soldiers hemming us in on either side of the street. Zinnia whinnied. Hold tight.
Poinsettia stamped her hooves twice as more soldiers disembarked and marched toward us, more cautiously now. The horse started running in a tight circle around us, her red-starred forehead beginning to blur as her legs pumped faster and faster. Dust whisked up around us. The horse became a blur of brown and crimson light. Tendrils of ruby-colored lightning licked the stones, zipping across the street and smacking into the approaching soldiers. Their armor lit up red, sending them flying through the air and smashing through boarded up windows and doors on either side of us.
My eyes widened. This was definitely a new trick.
A few spears flew at us, but each one bounced away from the whirlwind surrounding us.
The other soldiers backed away, but Poinsettia ran faster. The lightning grew thicker, zapping through the air and sending crackles of energy snapping past us. The red light shot the soldiers in the stomach. The queen's horses bucked, toppling some of the soldiers to the ground. Poinsettia let out a loud neigh that rocked the mortar on both sides of the street. Dust trickled down to the stones, and the ground shook beneath us.
The pack of horses whirled about and galloped away, leaving their riders to race after their horses in panic until the street was empty.
Poinsettia ground to a halt, tongue to the side, and fell over promptly, panting loudly.
Telisa hurried to her side and stroked her mane. “Good work, girl. Good work.”
The horse turned its face to us and then I saw it: the spear sticking out of Poinsettia's side.
No . . . Zinnia whispered.
Telisa tightened her fingers to a fist and held it to her mouth. She placed her palm across Poinsettia's red star and let the tears drip down. The horse whinnied in pain, legs twitching slightly.
I held a hand to my mouth, feeling the bile ripple up my throat until I couldn't hold it back. I threw up onto the stones.
Poinsettia tried to lift her head one last time, but instead, she slumped to the stones, still.
Telisa cried out, clenching her fists. “Curse you! Curse you all!” Her face reddened, and then she stood, backing away with one fist held to her forehead. “You ran well, Poinsettia. Ran well indeed.” Telisa wiped a hand across her face and hurried toward Zinnia and me. She swung up behind me and didn't say another word as we galloped down the street and out of Rhinejoon for good.
* * *
Trees whirled past me, blending together in blurs of green and brown. Zinnia's pace remained steady enough that the rocking slowly lulled me towards sleep. Telisa wrapped both arms around my waist. She didn't have to say a word. I knew I could sleep.
So I let sleep wash over me.
Light flashed through my dreams. Bursts of orange, gold, green, white, racing past my line of sight and into a distant purple horizon. A line of mountains grew into the skyline, dark silhouettes with tinges of purple glowing over each frosty peak.
I stood in the middle of a large, grassy field, every blade bent in the wind and pointing away from me. My feet dragged across the dirt, leaving long gouges in the grass.
Dark laughter echoed from behind the mountains, and I turned around, planting both feet and desperately trying to march away from the growing light in the distance, purple fingers reaching over the edges of the mountain on thousands of luminescent hands, all reaching for me, clamping down on my shoulders and yanking me backward.
I fell to the dirt and flew toward the mountains, a silent scream etched across my face as rocks dug into my shoulder blades.
As I reached the base of the mountains, rough hands reached out of the grass—human hands—grabbing my shoulders and holding me steady.
My eyes opened.
The dream faded.
And I saw Telisa, a hand over my mouth, one on my shoulder, crouching over me. A row of thorny bushes sat behind her, and beside me, Zinnia had dropped to sit.
“You was hollerin' in yer sleep,” she whispered.
Zinnia nuzzled my shoulder. Soldiers. On the road. They're looking for something. Probably us.
I nodded, leaned up, and whispered back. “How close are we to the queen's castle?”
Telisa leaned her head up to look over the bushes. “Closer than we was. But not close enough.” She grabbed my clasped wrist and held it up. “And ya didn't tell me about this!” she hissed, poking a finger at the cracks lining my gem. There were more now. Zig-zagging their way across the entire surface of the jewel. One smack, and it would probably crash apart, sucking me into a purple vortex I would never return from.
I swallowed. “It's worse. I didn't think it was that bad already.”
“Well, it is bad. Mighty bad. You don't realize what happens when your gem cracks do ya?” She leaned forward and dropped my wrist into my lap. “Ya die.”
“I know!” I scrambled up to a sitting position and pushed her away. “You don't think I know?” I stood.
“What are ya doin'?” Telisa asked, brushing aside her ponytail.
“I'm taking a breather.”
“I will, all right?” I snapped. My fingers tensed and shook.
Zinnia ducked her head away and down to her forelegs with a huff.
I ducked around the side of the tree and marched a few steps down to a rock and a thin stream trickling its way through the woods. The Castos Island dust rose with each footfall, and I plopped onto the rock, dipped my fingers into the water, and splashed my face with both hands.
A strange coldness had settled onto my shoulders, dropping down my spine, and into my gut. I shivered, staring at my warbled face reflected back on the water's surface. What had happened to me? I could barely recognize my own self. Dark purplish bags hung under my eyes. My dark hair had grown out a bit and hung over the tips of both ears. I looked sick: thin, scraggly, ready for death to swallow me up with a single gulp.
The clasp on my arm felt heavy. What if I just took it off? What would happen to me? What really would?
I thought about Saltha. Vanished into purple light what seemed ages ago now. Was she really dead? Gone forever? Is that what happened when we died? The loneliness I had felt here on these islands magnified forever? Or would I stop remembering everything altogether?
I dug my fingers beneath one edge of the clasp and paused. I stared, breathing hard. I tugged at the edge of the clasp and felt a shot of pain race up into my brain.
I wavered there for a moment, my head listing forward, my fingers still dug beneath the clasp.
The voice. Out of the water? Out of the clasp? Out of my own delusion? I didn't know.
But the words were unmistakable: “Stay in the fight.”
My eyes snapped open. I wrenched my hand away from the clasp and took a long breath. The same cracks were there. The same multi-faceted reflection of my face. But a slight glimmer around the edges of the gem glowed for a moment and then faded.
Eric! We have to go!
I took a quick gulp of water from the stream and hurried back to Telisa and Zinnia. Telisa had her double bladed sword in hand, peeking above the edge of the thorn bushes. She saw me and her eyes widened. I ducked up alongside her and glanced through. Five of the queen's soldiers on horseback trotted past, thick broadswords at their sides, jangling against the metal armor covering their legs.
Four of the soldiers stopped beside the thorn bush. They scanned the surrounding woods before slapping the reins to catch up with the fifth rider ahead. We held our breath, watching the road through the thorns until we couldn't hear their hoofbeats any longer.
“What do we do?” I asked.
Telisa leaned away from the bush and lowered her sword to the ground. “We have to get to the queen's castle to get that girl.” She glanced at my clasp. “And if we don't hurry, you'll be good as dead.”
“Don't remind me,” I whispered. “If the soldiers are watching the road, how do we get there?”
Telisa closed her eyes. “Queen's guards gonna be all over the countryside by now. Along with depictions of our faces. And without Poinsettia—” her throat caught, but she shook her head and continued. “Without Poinsettia, we can't speed our way there.”
The Old Roads.
I glanced at Zinnia. “The what?”
“What's she sayin'?” Telisa asked.
The Old Roads. Telisa will know of them. Not safe. But our best chance of making it to the castle undetected.
“Zinnia says we should try the Old Roads.”
Telisa's eyes widened. She scowled at the horse. “You plum crazy? We'd do better to take our chances with the queen's guards than take the Old Roads! We'll be dead within a night!”
“I don't think we have much time either way,” I said. Another slight crack traced over the gem on my forearm. “I'm dead if we stay here much longer. What are these Old Roads?”
Telisa sighed. “The Old Roads was carved out by pitters a long time ago. Under the ground. And they is dangerouser than dangerous. Every wicked evil thing lives down in those tunnels.”
But some say there is a path to the castle dungeons. It's worth a try.
I stood up. “Okay. This is my job.” I glanced back at the stream down the hill. “And I say we keep trying. Until we're dead.”
Telisa shook her head. “This is crazy.”
“How do we find these Old Roads?” I asked.
“We just have to find ourselves a pitter. And seein' as we're near the holin' grounds, that shouldn't be hard. We drop in, find the roads and carry on our merry way to certain death. That's all.”
I swallowed. “Let's go then.”
Bonaventure rolled onto his gut, pushed off his fists, and stood. “Ready the cannons!” he screamed. He whipped around and shoved a finger at my chest. “Do not let them take her. If the queen finds this girl, nothing will ever be the same again.” He darted out the door, slamming it shut behind him.
I rushed over and flicked the lock.
“Eric!” Bella shouted. “It's happening again!”
I spun around and stared. Bella's skin glowed. Her hair stuck straight up, and her eyes widened with fear. “Close your eyes, and just breathe, okay?”
A cannon blast echoed beneath us. Bella's mouth moved, but I couldn't make out the words. My ears rang as the whole ship rocked to the side. We stumbled to the planks, rolling toward the hull and slamming into a long red chest. The latch popped up, and I spotted a row of swords inside.
I grabbed one and yanked it out, holding it toward the door as it swung open. A female soldier stood silhouetted against a flash of lightning outside. She pointed a spear at us and drove forward; her mouth open in a cry.
I flipped over, jumped to my feet, and swung the sword haphazardly. The soldier's spear clanged against the blade, and she pushed forward, reaching for my hair, and grabbing hold. She yanked downward, sending the blade skittering across the planks as the ship rocked again. Bella swung her fists at the soldier's back. As soon as her hands made contact, jolts of energy raced across the soldier's metal armor, sending her crumpling to the ground.
My ears slowly regained their senses. Shouts mingled with the clangs of spears and swords echoed through the rainfall on deck. The door flapped open, and I could see pirates fighting against soldiers, falling to the swings of their spears. Bonaventure stood near the ship's wheel, one hand on it, while swinging a cutlass at the soldiers storming up the stairs toward him.
A gangplank ran over the water toward the queen's ship, and there on deck, under a shroud of black awnings, was a woman wrapped with shawls from her neck and around to her forehead. No part of her face was visible. She wore a trailing gown of sparkling purple, which seemed to draw all light toward itself. She leaned on a thin rapier like it was a cane, also tinted purple with shards of crystal glinting with every flash of lightning.
“The queen. It's her,” Bella whispered at my side. She reached out and took my hand, and I felt a strange jolt pass over my shoulders. Bella's hair settled back down, a few unwieldy strands stubbornly reaching for the sky.
The queen tilted her shawled head in our direction, pointing through the murk at bothof us. A shriek echoed through the air, and we fell to our knees, clutching the sides of our heads as the scream grew louder. The glass window behind us shattered, sending shards tinkering to the planks.
I yanked Bella forward, and we stumbled ahead as glass lanterns cracked around us. We emerged from the captain's quarters to see Julian standing on deck in front of us; a black sword pointed at our throats.
“No one denies the queen's runners.” The blade poked at my sternum. “Not even you, brother.” He reached into a pocket at his side and withdrew the purple shard.
Light sucked into the shard, and for one swirling moment, all we could see was gold, purple, and white light intertwining together, sucking into the shard before my head rolled to the side and slammed against the deck, leaving only blackness in view.
* * *
A gentle rolling motion lulled me back to consciousness. My eyes blinked open one at a time, and I saw a single fire lantern dangling from the metal ceiling above me. I rolled to my side and scanned the bare room. No exits. No doors. No furniture. No way out. Metal also lined the walls, with a single beveled window to my left. A figure stood behind the window, both palms pressed against the glass. The figure's mouth hovered around a metal grate about the size of my fist.
“Even in such a short time, I've heard many rumors about you.” A woman's voice. Commanding. Every word soaked up my attention like a wet rag. Clothing rustled behind the window. “Do you know who I am?”
“The queen.” I pushed up to my elbows and scurried against the wall opposite her, holding up my clasp.
“Ahh,” she whispered. Her fingers traced a circle on the window. “Such a small thing with so much power. And soon it will be wholly mine.” The woman chuckled. “But I wouldn't bother with that trinket. I've drained your special little gem of its power.” Her hand went to a glowing crystal shard around her neck. She ran a finger along one edge. “Gems are always so unique. Each one glows distinct colors. Each one has distinct properties. But every so often, a gem comes along so unique; it could be considered legendary.”
I held up the clasp anyway, trying to force light from the gem. Trying to force anything to happen at all. I grunted from the effort, feeling sweat trickle down my face. But not a single beam of light escaped my forearm.
She tapped her fingernails against the glass. “You've proved quite elusive to my guards. Even to Julian, my best runner. But now, I've trapped you.”
Julian. My own brother. The queen’s best runner. A strange mixture of emotions flooded through my heart. Fear. Sadness. Betrayal. Hope that Julian might care enough to rescue me. I watched the queen’s gown rustle from side to side, her faceless visage, shawls wrapped loosely around her head, facing me.
“What are you going to do with me?” I held up my forearm. “Sounds like you don’t need me anymore if this is useless.”
“Study you until you die.” She let out a short chuckle. “You did know that was going to happen, didn't you? It's not hard to guess what your running job might be. Collect the girl, bring her to such and such a place. But do you know what happens when a runner fails?”
Her fingernails scraped down the glass, leaving long scratches behind. I threw both hands over my ears and winced. “When a runner fails, they die. Their gem cracks into a thousand pieces, and their souls are consumed by purple light.”
A lump grew at the back of my throat, and I tried to swallow it. “What are you going to do to her?”
“None of your concern. I'd say you have much more pressing things to do, like consider how you wish to spend your last days.” The queen tapped the shard around her neck. “I could make sure you're very comfortable for the end. Or I can make you suffer. Choose to help me discover the secrets of your gem. What exactly makes it so powerful? You? Or the gem itself? Help me, and I'll give you anything you desire. Refuse me, and I know ways to make you suffer you have never dreamed could exist. Do you know what happens when someone’s clasp is pulled from their arm a bit at a time?” She leaned forward to the grate. “Think it over.”
Her footsteps echoed down the hallway outside the cell until they faded out of hearing. I leaned back against the wall and let the tears come. They streaked my face and slipped into my open mouth as I cried out, pounding a fist against the metal floor. How had this happened? I was a runner. I had taken a job. I was so close to getting Bella to Riverfork. I--
Who was I really fooling? Who was I to think I could go up against the queen's runners? Everyone knew they never failed a mission. Ever. Anything she wanted, she got. All she had to do was send out her runners, and it was done. I should have accepted my fate the moment I realized who Julian ran for.
My brother's face filled my mind's eye, hatred seeping past every pore as he held that crystal at me. It had felt like life itself was draining from my skin, pulling at every piece of me until I was nothing but an empty shell.
I glanced at the gem on my wrist. The color was so faint I could barely see a glow. I held up the clasp and squinched my eyes closed, trying to force it to do something. I clenched my teeth together, trying to make anything happen. My forehead hurt from the effort. I gasped, and a weak beam of light dribbled out of the gem and splashed to the floor, dissipating against the metal.
I slumped back. It was useless. Any advantage I’d had was gone. Bella was taken. I would soon be dead for failing the job. I wondered how long it would take before I vanished into a glimmer of purple light. Would it hurt? Would it be fast, slow, like nothing had happened?
I shook my head. I pounded my fists against the metal. I screamed as loud as I could until my voice ran hoarse. None of this was fair. This entire existence didn't seem fair. Born to parents who glanced the other way when I was taken. Slaving in rice fields day after day only to be taken to another form of slavery for a new master: running across the islands of Abra to my death. A meaningless life for a meaningless person. That's all I really was in the end. Meaningless.
“Word of advice?”
I glanced through my tears to see another figure standing behind the glass. A boy older than me with dark hair knotted on the top of his head. Julian.
I rushed up to the glass and pounded a fist on it. “Julian! Let me out of here!”
He smirked through the metal grate where his mouth hung. “Not likely, Eric.”
“Then what are you doing here? Curious?” I spread my arms wide. “Well, here I am! Take a good look already!”
“I'm not here to gloat. I'm here to convince you to listen to the queen. She's a very powerful woman. Do what she says, and it'll make your life easier. At least until you die.”
I swallowed. “How can you let me just die in here?”
“Face it, little brother. One of us had to go. We had the same job. One of us was going to win, and one was going to lose. Too bad it was you.” He paused and sighed. “Actually it really is too bad that it was you. I've heard things, Eric. Good things. Interesting things. Actually, most people have heard about the Runner of Golden Light.”
He leaned toward the glass, one elbow perched against it. “Tell me how you do it. What's your secret?”
I shrugged. “I don't know how it works. But if it did right now, I'd smack you so hard you wouldn't remember.”
Julian laughed. “Nice. At least you've got a fighting spirit.” He brushed a hand across his forehead, pulling back a single strand of black hair. “I take it you're not going to let the queen experiment on your clasp willingly.”
I spit. “I'm not an animal.”
“Oh really? Because from where I stand you sure seem like you're locked in a cage.” He snarled and pounded his fists once against the window. “We're all caught in this cage, Eric.” He pointed at his own clasp. “I'm caught, you're caught, everyone who's ever been clasped with one of these is caught. Playing their games. Running their jobs. All of us. In the same boat. There is no freedom from this. The girl isn't going to help you, that's for sure.”
“Is Bella okay? Where is she?” I demanded.
Julian stuck out his lip. “Aw, you like her, don't you? That's cute. You only met what? An hour ago?”
“What's happening to her?”
My brother shook his head. “Always concerned about the wrong things. Nothing's happening to her yet. But don't worry, she'll be dead too before this is all over.” He sighed and stepped back. “Well, I came to see if you'd be willing to play the game, but apparently you're not. Head stuck on your job. Probably a good quality in a runner. I think I'd have thought less of you if you didn't care so much.”
“Julian, listen.” I took a deep breath. “We're . . . we're family. Doesn't that mean anything to you?”
The air hung between us for a moment. And then Julian smacked his lips. “You died to me the moment I started running for the queen. We're part of new families now. And it looks like yours wasn't strong enough to—”
A boomerang flipped through the air and smacked into Julian's forehead, sending him flying sideways to the ground. I pressed against the glass trying to peek down the hallway. A female soldier rushed up, leaned over Julian for a moment, and then spun a metal wheel by the glass. The whole window slid upwards.
“Well, git out here already!”
I gasped. No one could forget that demanding drawl. “Telisa!”
Telisa rolled her eyes. She wore the same uniform the queen's guards wore, helmet, armor, spear, and all. She slid the helmet off her head, letting her single braid fall free to her shoulder. “Yeah, well, we're gonna have a lotta problems if we don't git out of here on the double! Stupid enough of me to rescue ya in the first place. Hard enough tryin’ ta find ya after splittin’ ways back in the woods.”
I smiled. “I didn't know you cared so much. Should I be flattered?”
Telisa smacked my shoulder. “I don't care. Now git out here!”
I rushed out and stared at Julian's crumpled form on the ground. My brother's purple crystal necklace still hung around his neck. I reached down and snapped it off the chain, sliding it into my pocket.
“What's that?” Telisa asked.
“Not sure. But I think it might help.”
Telisa shrugged. “All right. Let's stick 'im in there and go!”
We dragged Julian's still form inside the cell and rolled him to the back corner, facing the wall before we hurried back out, spun the wheel, and watched the window crash down to the floor again.
“How long do you think he'll be out?” I asked.
“Maybe a few hours. Enough time for us to git a lead on. This ship's in the harbor at Rhinejoon. Queen's been waiting for some special entourage to arrive before she embarks for the castle west of here.”
“Where's Bella? Did you find her?”
Telisa pointed down the hallway at an iron door with a single dark porthole, glowing white from the inside. “There.”
I pounded down the hallway and peeked through. Bella had herself wrapped up in a ball, lying on the floor. I banged on the porthole with a fist. “Bella!”
“Shhh! I hear something!” Telisa hissed.
Footsteps clomped above deck and stomped into formation.
“I think the queen's entourage has arrived. Time to move, kid!”
There were no wheels to spin on this door. A single round hole was right beneath the porthole, etched into the metal doorframe.
I glanced up and saw her face, hair wisping through the air around her shoulders.
“I can't open it!” I shouted at her.
A rumbling sound shot through the hallway. The whole ship rocked from side to side, and I stumbled backward into Telisa. We landed in a heap on the metal floors, watching a seam creak around the whole back wall of the hallways, complete with Bella's porthole and prison. An entire section of the ship dislodged from the side of the boat, and open air streamed into the passage. I could see the ocean rollicking into the distance and a deserted port town with boarded up shops lining the harbor.
Four enormous winged lizards flapped through the air, purple skin glistening in the early morning light. Fire licked out of their nostrils, slipping into the air before disappearing in plumes of gray smoke. Two riders in purple hooded robes sat on the backs of the creatures, clutching long chains that wrapped around the beasts' snouts. The lizards were easily as long as the ship with sharp, black claws scraping at the sky. Long chains hung from their bellies, connecting to four massive rings on each corner of Bella's prison.
And on the very top of the prison sat the queen on a purple throne, surrounded by forty warriors with sharp, two-bladed swords, shawls wrapped around their mouths.
The queen shrieked, and the four lizards swung away to the west, carrying Bella inside her prison and soaring over Rhinejoon, leaving Telisa and me behind, waves crashing against the ship.
Laughter echoed. I spun around and saw Julian pressed against the glass, chuckling darkly. “You're going to die now, Eric. As soon as the queen is through with your friend, you're going to die, and everything you've hoped to accomplish here is for nothing!”
Telisa slapped my cheek. “Don't listen to him. He doesn't know what he's talking about.” She pointed toward the harbor, between two dark buildings. In the shadows, I could see two horses poking their noses into the morning light.
Poinsettia and Zinnia. They were here.
A sharp pain shot up my arm. I winced and grabbed my wrist. A single purple crack had traced across the surface of my gem.
Soldiers marched down the steps behind us, and we both leaped into the open air, splashing into the water, and swimming frantically for the shoreline.
I focused on swimming. One stroke at a time. Because focusing on what else I was thinking was too difficult. But the thought slipped through my mind before I could stop it: I was going to die.
I didn't have time to gasp for air. Water poured into my nostrils as my arms went limp. I felt like someone had squeezed me harder than a bellows at the hearth. My clasp grew dim in the murky water, and my eyes rolled back. The darkness seeped through my mind, churning with the currents.
A hand latched around my wrist and yanked me upward. The grip was strong, and a breath later, I emerged from the water, taking a long gulp of air.
Bella swam beside me, her dark hair plastered around her face. Her eyes still glowed golden-brown, worry etched on her forehead. “You okay?” she asked.
I nodded. “I feel sick!” I shouted over the wind bashing against the ocean.
“You use your clasp too much!” Bella pointed for the shoreline. We must have drifted farther than I thought. In the dim haze of misty rain, I could see the outline of dark land in the distance. Julian stood on the edge of the rocks, one hand over his eyes, staring after us.
Vomit roiled up through my throat. I turned away from Bella and coughed up a lungful of sea water and what little was left in my stomach. Her fingers trailed down to my hand and squeezed it.
I blinked at Bella and then glanced over her shoulder to see a dark cloud swarming through the water and arrowing at us. The fish.
“Swim! Now!” I shouted.
We flung ourselves forward, chopping at the water with our arms and kicking. Little splashes reached my ears as the school of fish rocketed through the waves, leaping into the air and plunking down beside us. One chomped at my foot. I cried out, thrashing my leg and loosening the thing's grip.
Bella screamed as one of them flopped toward her face. She stopped swimming and swung her arms wide, smacking the fish and sending it flying off into the waves.
More of the fish drove for us, and I held up my already weak forearm and willed the clasp to do something. A thin swath of light zipped through the air in lightning streaks, striking fish out of the water with blasts of smoke. Bella swung her arms at the ones close enough to leap at us, mouths open, sharp teeth snapping. The water dropped behind us, and we plummeted downward to the bottom of the wave. The fish leaped out, careening over our heads and slamming into the side of a large ship poking through the mist.
Bella and I glanced up as two ropes fell down to the water.
A distant shout echoed across the ocean. I grabbed the rope and peeked back, watching Julian wave his arms frantically at us. I swallowed the bile in my throat and pulled myself up on the rope. Bella grabbed onto the other one, and the ropes reeled toward the top.
My feet pressed against the hull of the ship, and I scrambled upward until I had flopped over the railing in a heap. Two men heaved Bella over the side and flung her to the ground next to me. We crouched side by side, peering up at the tall mast flying black flags and the circle of men and women holding long cutlasses at our throats.
The people on deck wore loose vests and billowy shirts tied with dark string around their necks. Leather hats with three corners sat on their heads, some tipped to the side, others with wet feathers plastered against the sides.
Rain pattered onto the deck. I gulped. “Thank you for rescuing us.”
Three short claps rang out. A man with stringy dark hair and a patch over one eye stepped through the ring of deckhands. He smirked at me and clucked his tongue. “Well, fancy that. We meet again, Master Runner.”
My eyes widened. “Bonaventure,” I whispered. “The pirate.”
“Aye, the one and same, lad. I never imagined I'd be findin' ye again.”
“You are the real Bonaventure, right?”
The man squinted his one good eye at me and grimaced. “Someone goin' and impersonatin' the one and only Bonaventure?”
“Not a someone, but a something. A prism. In the woods.”
Bonaventure's eyebrow rose, and his fingers trembled. He waved a hand at one of the men standing over us. “Take them to my quarters. Quickly. And set a course—”
“Take us to Riverfork!” I shouted. “Please! We have to get there!”
The pirate tilted his head to the side. “Riverfork, eh? What 'appens to be waitin' amongst the reeds for ye in that puff of a town?”
I opened my mouth, but the clasp on my arm grew hot, and my tongue stuck fast to the back of my teeth.
“He can't say, sir,” Bella responded.
“So the lass does speak.” Bonaventure held a finger against his nose and sniffed. “Hurry. The quarters.”
One of the pirates grabbed my elbow and yanked me to my feet, dragging me across the deck toward an ornate door with stained glass windows along either side. Each window had the shape of a rose outlined in red glass and small shards poking out where thorns might have been. He flung the door open and shoved me inside, taking Bella's hand from another pirate on deck and giving her a gentler push into the captain's quarters.
The door slammed shut behind us, rattling the roses in the window. I banged on the door. “Let us out! Somebody!”
“Quiet down in there!” I heard a gruff voice shout back at me. “Or I’ll give ye something to weep over!”
I pivoted slowly, taking in the whole room with shaking hands. A lantern hung from a hook in the planked ceiling, an orange glow spreading across the room. Maps had been tacked to the walls with daggers at each corner, blood red trails tracing across the land masses. A red desk sat beneath a sprawling window. Through the beveled glass, I could see the waves churning through the mist.
I took a slow breath and ran a hand across my wet hair. A chill coursed through my shoulders. I needed to dry off. So did Bella.
She stood under the largest map of all, a long yellowed parchment with inked outlines of the five islands of Abra. She leaned on her right foot, tapping out a slow beat on the pleats of a wet dress. “Which island are you from?” she asked without turning around.
I stepped up beside her, tracing a finger around the shores of Jedros. “Here,” I whispered. “What about you?”
Bella stared at the map. “I don't know where I come from.”
My brow furrowed. “What?”
She turned those golden-brown eyes at me. “I don't know where I come from.”
“Like what island you're from? Everyone's from one of these five islands. The whole world. So you must be from one too.” I pointed at the big island. “Castos? That's where the queen lives. And where I'm . . . stationed I guess you'd call it. As a runner.”
She shook her head and twisted her mouth to one side. “No.” Bella spread her hands across the map. “I'm not from any of these places.”
“Another thing you just know?” I asked.
Bella nodded slowly.
I stared at her, watching the way her eyes scanned the map, the way her forehead crinkled as she thought, the slight twitch in her temple. The white glow had faded slightly, but it still emanated from her dark skin.
“Why would I be sent to find you?”
Bella glanced at me. “I already told you. We’re going to change everything.”
“But how? Why? What for?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
I tapped my boot. “Because I need lots of answers.”
Bella slipped into a tall black chair along the wall, pressing her fingertips against her forehead.
I placed one hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “What do you remember?”
“Small visions. Waking up cold on the floor of that shack. And a field filled with blue flowers for miles, stretching up to the base of a mountain. Or maybe a range of mountains. And . . .” she trailed off.
“It’s weird. One of those things you only ever have feelings for, but not the words.”
I shuffled, squinting at her in the gloom. “Try.”
Bella sighed, straightening out her dress, water dripping to the planks. “I feel . . . old. Like I’ve lived for so long I cannot remember a time before I existed.” She shook her head, frustrated and groaning, standing quickly and clenching her fists. “That’s not it. I don’t know how else to describe it!” The glow around her skin brightened slightly, and I took a step back.
“Why do you glow?”
“What?” She glanced down at her hands, eyes widening, and then stared at me. “I don’t know. I don’t know what this is.” Bella rushed to me, grabbing my shirt in two fists. “Eric, what’s wrong with me? Is something wrong with me?”
“I don’t know. Just take a deep breath. Breathe.”
The door flung open behind us. Bonaventure stood in the entry, rain slamming the deck now and streaking his hair down both sides of his face. He rushed in, pulling the door closed behind him. A dagger whipped out of the brown leather coat he wore. He pointed it at me.
“So. How does the rebellion fare?” he asked.
I peeked at Bella. She shrugged.
Bonaventure squinted at us. “I know ye're on a job. Clasped and all. Question is what is it 'xactly? And for whom?” The pirate side-stepped toward us, dagger still pointed our direction. “And my guessin'? Ye can't tell nobody about nothing. Typical of the more secretive job purchasers.” He eyed Bella and stuck out his tongue. She shuffled to the side but stood her ground.
“What do you want with us?” I asked.
Bonaventure leaned close, shadows cascading over his face. “To know what importance ye might have to the queen. The both of ye. Talk's been spreadin'. Talk about a runner with an unusual clasp and unusual . . . abilities might we say.”
He pointed the dagger at my clasp. “Do ye know what a clasp like that would be worth to the right people? Worth it's weight in gold, that it would.”
“What would someone want a used clasp for?” Bella asked, tilting her head sideways.
“Ah, that's a grand question.” Bonaventure backed away, crossed to the desk, and slid open a drawer, keeping his one eye on us the whole time. He pulled out a clasp and dropped it on the desk. “Remember this, lad?”
I swallowed. Saltha's clasp. A flash of her dark hair twisting around her face as she vanished into purple mist shot through my mind. I blinked twice, shook my head, and then nodded slowly, a twinge of pain rippling through my gut.
Bonaventure smirked. “I thought ye might. Precious commodity these clasps are. To the right people. Most assume that once a runner's disappeared in a plume of purple that their last worldly possession is nigh useless.” He traced his chin stubble with the edge of the dagger. “But truth is, there are buyers for such rarities. Buyers on the far side of Vos are always looking for more clasps to take deep into the jungles. Rumor has it there be a fanatical group of clasp seekers, experimenting with the gems and their unusual properties.”
He licked his lips and stared at my clasp. “What they would give for one so valuable as yours is beyond reckoning.” He held out a grizzled hand. “Give it to me, lad. And I'll let the girl live out her wee days.”
I shook my head. “I can't take it off. If I try, I'll—”
Bonaventure splayed his fingers wide. “Disappear into the purple ether. Never seen again. I'm afraid I don't really care too much about that problem.” His arm extended and the dagger point reach out under my neck. “Don't make me spill a drop of yer blood in these fine chambers of mine. I just had the floor swabbed.”
Vanishing into purple smoke. What would that feel like? What would be after that? Nothing? Something? Everything? I didn't know. And from the way my hands shook, I didn't think I wanted to know. I wasn't ready to die. The thought made my breath catch at the back of my throat.
“I can't,” I whispered.
Bonaventure narrowed his eye. “Too bad.”
Bella swung out with her hand, smacking Bonaventure in the side with a fist. He doubled over, dropping the dagger to the planks. He glared at her, at us, and then rushed forward, both hands out. We dove to either side, and the pirate smashed his shoulder against the hull.
Bonaventure stood up and wiped a fist across his mouth. “Makin' a fool of me, are ye? I don't take kindly to that!” He grabbed the dagger from the corner of the map and swung it wide, barely missing my arm.
A shout echoed outside the captain's quarters.
“They're going to come in!” Bella cried. She darted across the floor and latched the wooden door.
“And now you locked us in,” I said, keeping both eyes trained on Bonaventure's dagger. Fists pounded on the door followed by muffle cries.
“I want that clasp!” Bonaventure said, springing forward and slashing with the dagger. I hopped back, missing another swipe. “Even if I have to cut it from ye, I will have it, I will sell it, and then I'll be rich beyond imaginin'.”
I backed against the wall opposite the maps, reached down, and grabbed a long candlestick, and swung it as Bonaventure rushed at me. The candlestick clocked him in the cheek, drawing blood. The pirate stumbled forward, driving the knife toward my face. I grabbed his arm with both hands, trying to push him away. Bella ran over, tackling Bonaventure from the side. The knife clattered to the planks as Bonaventure and Bella rolled into the desk. He struck her across the face, shoving her aside. The white glow over Bella's skin intensified, and I could feel the skin on my arms tightening as the light reached me.
Bonaventure seemed stunned as the glow washed over him. Bella scrambled up, holding out her hands and staring at them. The pirate stared up at her, and his mouth fell open. He mumbled something under his breath, but I couldn't hear it. The stained glass around the door shattered, and a hand with a fingerless glove reached in and unlatched the door.
One of the pirates burst inside, cutlass held out. “Cap'n. We've got problems.”
Bonaventure could not take his eyes of Bella's glowing face.
The pirate in the door followed his captain's gaze and stared at Bella. “It's her,” he whispered, dropping his cutlass, whipping around, and diving over the edge of the ship's railing with a strangled cry.
The rain fell through the open doorway, and I stared out at the deck. A large ship with red flags drifted over the waves beyond the prow of the pirate's boat. A line of female soldiers stood at the railing, spears held up to their shoulders.
“Queen's forces!” a pirate on deck shouted.
My heart felt like it had dropped to the ocean bottom. The queen was here. For me.
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.
I held both hands over my eyes as the light continued to pour from the floating crystals and at my chest. The light slipped between my fingers and hit my eyelids, burning a single image into my mind. Eight floating crystals, eight beams of light, trees surrounding us and swaying in the wind, Telisa on the ground, crossbow at her side.
The light burned inside of me, and then I felt something swish away from me as if the air had been sucked right out of my lungs. I dropped to the dirt and glanced up at the crystals above me. They slowly descended to the ground and lodged into the earth. The crystals vibrated, slowly at first, and then faster with each breath.
I shook Telisa's arm. “Get up!” I screamed.
Every movement took more effort than usual. My bones creaked as I slid my arms underneath Telisa's shoulders and yanked her back. I dropped back to the dirt, exhausted after a breath.
A sharp neigh echoed across the clearing.
Zinnia. Her purple eyes flashed, and I could hear her words slip into my head. Run. Now.
“Why?” I shouted.
I crawled to my feet. The crystals shook frantically now, glowing with a golden light. I glanced at my clasp and noticed the gem seemed dimmer than before. Not quite as translucent as it had seemed. Like the light had been sucked right out of it.
A brown shape zipped through the clearing, latched onto Telisa's collar, and then raced away. Poinsettia. The horse dragged Telisa behind a tall redwood and then ducked down, laying her head over Telisa's still form.
Zinnia whinnied and shook her mane. Hurry! They're going to shatter!
I nodded, gripped my fingers into fists, and hobbled toward Zinnia. I threw my hands over her back and hauled myself up, groaning. A sharp pain ripped down my stomach. I cried out and nearly lost my grip. I slid around and slumped over Zinnia, wrapping my arms around her neck. She darted off as I heard what sounded like a thousand windows shattering at once. Shards of glass flew around us, and Zinnia leaped over a fallen log and tumbled to the ground on the other side, sending me flying into a mound of dirt.
The crystal shards embedded themselves in the trunks of trees all around us, some of it tinkling down to the earth, glowing for a breath, and then fading into simple dull stones.
Zinnia’s flank went rigid as she blew hard from both nostrils.
I blinked and stared. A long shard of glass stuck out of her hind leg. Blood dribbled from the spot, and I threw a hand over my mouth.
Help me, Eric. . . .
I dragged myself over to her side, holding my stomach, and feeling the pain shoot through me with every foot forward. I bit my lip and examined the wound. The shard had gone in deep. I wasn't sure whether I should take it out or leave it in or what.
“What do I do?” I whispered.
Zinnia's eyes focused on me. Save yourself above me, Eric. Don't let those creatures catch you.
“What?” I hissed.
I can hear them. They're looking for you.
I gulped and slowly lifted my head over the fallen log. The clearing was a good trot away, but I could see it clearly enough. Where the eight crystals had been were now eight burn marks in the dirt. Standing up from each mark were eight humanoid creatures. They were taller than regular people. Their heads scraped the overhanging branches I couldn't even jump up to grab. Long thin arms swayed at their sides. Their skin glowed like pearls, changing hues every few moments. Flowing white robes covered their bodies, swishing around large bare feet.
Long fingers ran over their bald heads, and two over-sized black eyes popped open above thin slits of a mouth. One of them strode forward, almost gliding over the earth. It spread its arms wide and took a long, deep breath.
“My brethren, we are free to walk these islands once more.”
Another one of the creatures reached up and snapped a branch off a tree above it. “The world has grown since we last walked it.”
“Yes, it appears so,” the leader said. “We must find this one named Eric. I sense his clasp holds more power we could wield.”
The eight creatures spun around, staring into the dark woods. Their bodies gave off a slight glow that lit the dirt and leaves around them. I couldn’t stop staring at them. Each one’s shimmering light drew in my gaze. I wanted to glance away. I wanted to stop staring. A coldness seeped across the clearing and into the trees. I shivered and forced my eyes closed.
“What are those things?” I whispered to Zinnia.
She blinked at me. I do not know their names. But I do know they wish us only ill will. You have to get away.
I leaned into her ear. “Not without you. Or Telisa. Or Poinsettia. We've got to find them.”
I don't know which direction they went. Poinsettia is fast. She can outrun anything.
“Do you have any special abilities?”
I can speak to you.
I nodded and peeked over the log.
“Find the human child!” the leader shouted. It waved a hand in a circle and vanished into a ball of pearly light, hovering over the dirt. The other seven creatures followed suit, waving their thin arms and shrinking into spheres of light. Sparks emanated from each one, zapping the nearby trees and sending blue licks of flame up the trunks.
“We have to move!” I hissed. “How do I help you?!”
I took a deep breath. I was not leaving her. I couldn't do that. I bit my lip and held my hand over Zinnia's flank. I had healed Telisa once. Maybe I could heal Zinnia now. I closed my eyes and concentrated. I felt a tiny surge of energy in my forearm, and my eyes whipped open. A dim spark of golden light slipped from my clasp and onto the crystal shard in Zinnia's leg. I took that as a signal. I grabbed the edge of the shard.
“Sorry.” And then I yanked it out.
Zinnia screamed and snapped her teeth. Thin trails of light zipped around the wound, stitching some of it together, but not all the way.
I peeked over the log again. The eight spheres had heard Zinnia's cry. They whisked through the trees straight at us.
“Get up now!” I shouted.
Zinnia winced and pushed up on all four legs, stumbling slightly on her back right. I can manage! Go! I'll distract them! She darted to the left, neighing loudly. Four spheres shot off after Zinnia into the woods.
I ducked down, and the other four zoomed over my head and swirled around a tree beyond me. I shot up and leaped over the log, almost doubling over from the pain in my stomach. What had those things done to me?
My boots pounded over the dirt, whisking around ferns and bushes. Flames blazed in the canopy over my head, sparking against the black sky. The spheres hummed and flew after me. I slipped around the side of a tree and grabbed the two daggers at my side, gripping the handles and waiting.
One of the spheres hummed past the tree, and I sliced at it as it flew by. A shriek like a sword grinding against stone. The sphere flew at the ground, rolling against the dirt and growing larger before turning back into the strange humanoid creatures. It had a gash in its side with golden light spilling out like blood.
It held up a long-fingered hand, but it was too late. Another sphere shot by on the other side and I sprung from behind the tree, slashing as I went. I didn't know if I made contact or not because I dashed away.
“The human child!”
Golden blood dripped from the daggers in my hands. I wiped them against a fern as I brushed past, ducking between trunks, deeper and deeper into the forest. A flaming branch dropped from overhead, slamming into the ground ahead of me.
A beam of light shot out from behind me, and another long branch fell to the ground. Another beam and another branch. The three flaming branches had boxed me in. I skidded to a stop and whirled around, holding up the daggers.
The leader strode down a small embankment, two of the spheres at its side. The two spheres landed on the ground and transformed into humanoids.
“Nowhere left to run, human child.” The leader spread its thin arms wide. “Give us your clasp.”
“But I'll die!”
“Inconsequential to us.”
I crouched into a fighting position. “I won't let you take it!”
The leader squinted its black eyes at me. “You meddle in affairs you do not understand.” It held up its hands, and two thin beams of light shot at my daggers, superheating them in an instant. I dropped both of them, clenching my hands as they smoked. I screamed, falling to my knees.
“Now then.” The leader glided forward. “Let us end this unpleasantness swiftly.”
Tears slid down my face. Pain wracked my body. My hands felt like they had been thrust into a campfire and held there. My stomach curled over. But I held up my forearm. The gem glowed slightly.
The leader laughed. “We have drained much of that bauble's power. We only wish to take what is left and leave you be. You cannot hurt us with that now.”
A weak beam of light shot from my clasp, but the leader swatted it away like a pesky fly. The beam zapped into a nearby tree, sending more flames racing up its trunk.
“Do not toy with us.” The leader held up a hand. The other two humanoids raised their hands. “Give us the clasp.”
I didn't know what to do. Zinnia was hurt. Telisa passed out. Poinsettia nowhere to be seen. And the clasp I had come to rely on had been drained by these creatures somehow. I glanced up. Where was that voice? Where was that person or thing or whatever it had been who had whispered to me in the Pit?
“Help me,” I said.
And then I saw it. I aimed the clasp up, and a short blast of light soared through the air, smashing into a long, thick tree branch hanging over the three creatures. The branch burst into flames and fell. The creatures glanced up once, and then the branch smacked into their faces, sending all three of them crumpling to the ground, the long branch resting over their midsections. I jumped up, holding my hands close to my chin and raced through the flames behind me. I cried out, feeling the heat sear my skin, my hair, my clothes. I dropped to the dirt on the other side of the flames and rolled to douse the fire.
I rolled sideways, right off the edge of an embankment. I screamed, tumbling through the air and splashing into a river racing beneath the woods. Water cascaded over my head and plunged me below the surface. I somersaulted through the current, kicking my legs until my head broke into the open air. I gasped.
The woods were flaming on the shore, and the spheres of light whisked around the trees frantically. A long branch fell into the water ahead of me, and I bashed into it with an oof! I wrapped my arms around the branch and clung to it. It bobbed along and carried me with it, blackened soot smearing across my chest.
A faint voice echoed in my head. Zinnia. I'll find you, Eric. Head North. Her voice trailed to nothing.
I didn't know what direction I was headed now. Wherever this river decided to take me.
Water dribbled past my ears. Sunlight trickled through misty clouds overhead. I blinked. My head throbbed. Every inch of my body ached. Nothing would have been better than lying down on even the dormitory mattresses back at the compound.
Sometime during the night I had passed out, still holding the branch. The river must have trickled down to a mere stream at some point, because I was sitting in the water, head resting just above the surface. Two rocks had caught the branch and held it fast.
I groaned and sat up. About a day's ride away I could see smoke rising above distant hills. The forest. Zinnia. Telisa. Poinsettia. They were all back there somewhere. I scrambled to my feet, splashing through the water and toppling over on the smooth stones. I crawled to the bank and pulled myself through a layer of muck until I reached a muddy shoreline. All around me were thin, stone-gray trees with no leaves or pine needles.
I coughed, pounding a fist against my chest and trying to breathe. I didn't know how much smoke I had inhaled back in the woods, but my lungs ached like I had sucked in an entire cloud with one gulp.
Another cough. I flopped onto my back and stared up at the clouds shifting above me. There was no grass here. No signs of plant or animal life. Only stark gray trees and block-shaped stones dotted the landscape.
“Zinnia?” I called. “Can you hear me?” I coughed again.
No words filtered into my head.
No birds chirped.
I peeked at the clasp on my arm. The light was still dim. I didn't know if it would grow brighter again or if it had been damaged by those creatures. What were they anyway? I had never seen anything like them before, but then again, nothing over the past week had been like anything I'd ever seen before.
I sat up, and brought my knees up to my chest, wrapping my arms around them and staring at my soot covered hands. Red marks covered my fingers, and some of the skin looked like it was peeling back. I licked the tips of my fingers and tried to clear off the smudges on my hands.
What was I supposed to do now?
My stomach growled. My tongue begged for a drip of water.
I took a long breath and eventually made my way back to the stream, dipping my face under the water and taking a long gulp. The water splashed into my gut and made it ache even more. All of my provisions were gone. All my weapons were gone too; aside from the clasp on my arm, which appeared to be somewhat useless now.
The clasp on my arm glowed slightly. “What do I do now?” I asked it.
Another slight glow. And then I saw a dark brown arrow form against the golden backdrop, pointing through the gray trees.
The arrow grew brighter for a moment before returning to its same dark brown color.
“Okay.” I sighed. “Not much else I could do anyway.”
I took one more long gulp of water and then set off through the trees. I walked for an hour before I grazed one of the trees with my hand. The bark didn't feel like wood. It felt like stone. I stopped and stared at the tree, putting both hands on it and trying to peck at the bark with my fingernail. It wasn't wood. It was stone.
I spun in a slow circle. Every tree was made of stone. Even the dirt looked more gray here than brown. I bent over and felt it between my fingers. It wasn't dirt. It was crushed stones. Ground as fine as a powder.
At some point, the misty clouds above had descended into this stone forest and spread its gray fingers between every tree until everything looked the same. I glanced at the clasp. The arrow still shone dimly, pointing to what I hoped was north. I trudged ahead. I didn't know how long I walked. Maybe an hour. Maybe five. The light in these petrified woods never appeared to change. It stayed the same gray hue as everything else. Even my hands and clothes looked gray now.
I rubbed my eyes with one hand. They stung. I blinked and took a long breath, leaning against the side of a tree for a rest.
A strangled cry echoed between the trees. I stood up, stiffening against the trunk and staring out into the mist.
“Hello?” I whispered.
Another strangled cry to my right.
My head jerked in that direction. I squinted and could see the outline of a person stumbling through the fog and then falling to their hands and knees with another cry.
I swallowed and stepped toward the figure. “Hello?”
The figure's head popped up, and it held a hand out toward me, mumbling something.
I slid an apple-sized stone behind my back if I needed a quick defense and hurried in the figure's direction. “Are you okay?”
The figure came into view. It was a girl. About my age, blonde hair almost gray in the fog. Her face was ashen like she was sick with something, and her eyes were a light gray color too.
“Don't come too close,” she hissed at me.
I stopped. “Are you okay?”
She squinted at me through the fog. “Aren't you sick?”
“No, I don't think so,” I said. “Are you alright? You don't seem well.”
“My family . . .” She curled her lip into a snarl and snapped her teeth. “They banished me to the Stone Woods. Because I'm sick.”
“Sick with what?”
The girl looked at me again. “You really aren't sick?”
“No. I don't feel sick.”
A sharp wail echoed through the trees. We both glanced around, not sure where the sound originated from.
“If you're not sick, you shouldn't be here,” the girl said, her hair falling around her face. “This is where they live.”
“Where what live?” I felt a chill whisk down my back.
Another wail. And another.
And then I recognized the sound. A sound I had hoped to never hear again.
The girl looked at me, and her lips trembled. “Pales. They call them Pales.”
Footsteps padded over crumbled stones in the distance.
“This is where they come from,” the girl said. “And they're coming now.”
I tried to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes, some new horror strode through my imagination. Spinewolves, pales, pitters, shanters, pirates from the coast, those shadow wraiths. They swarmed in and out of my mind's eye like an annoying mosquito I could never quite smack.
I sat against the dorm wall, staring at the empty rows of cots, blankets, and flat pillows. Sunlight streamed through the windows above me; dust floating through each streak. For a moment, the world was quiet here. No one shouting. No monsters waiting across the room to devour me. Just the silence and me.
Silence. So many hot days out in the rice paddies on Jedros had been filled with it. People hacking at the rice with sickles. Workers dragging out the rice and piling it into wicker baskets for sale in the coastal towns.
And my parents: the most silent of all.
They had gone silent after my brother left.
My mother had clenched her fingers into fists and dug them into her mouth as the Runners snagged his collar and yanked him to the pathway, dragging him through the dust and slapping a clasp onto his forearm. Hot tears had streamed down his face. He had reached out for us. Screaming our names.
But they were silent.
My father hadn't even glanced his direction.
I had stood frozen in the muck, staring with wide eyes as the Runners had grabbed nine others and escorted them away from the village. I had been silent.
A knock echoed through the still room.
It creaked open, and Lodan poked his head in carrying a cracked plate with food piled high on top. Mashed potatoes steamed from one corner, a slice of ham in the other, and long asparagus stems dangled over the edge of the plate.
“I brought you food. Figured you'd be hungry.”
My stomach growled in response. “Yeah, I'm hungry.”
Lodan handed me the plate, crouched down, and flung his bangs to the side. “So is it happening?”
“What?” I asked past a mouthful of potatoes.
“A job? Are you really going?”
I nodded. “Yes.” I swallowed. “I am.”
Lodan smirked. “I can't even believe it. It's so crazy. They're saying no one this new has ever been on a job before.” He pointed at my clasp. “And it's all thanks to that.”
I didn't know what to say.
“You know, I've been thinking about something.”
“What?” I asked.
Lodan shrugged his shoulders and then tapped his clasp. “These things. Do you ever . . . I don't know . . . see stuff in it?”
The ham in my mouth went dry. I swallowed it down. “See stuff in it? Like what?”
“I dunno. Like stuff.” Lodan hobbled forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Last night, I was trying to sleep and just staring at the gem when I saw something. A face. I couldn't make out any details, but it had its mouth open, and it was saying something.”
A chill whisked across my neck. “What was it saying?”
“I couldn't make it out completely, but I think it was saying, 'Find her.'”
“That's what it said?” I checked.
Lodan nodded. “I think so. Over and over again. What is that? I mean . . . I'll take that it's been crazy the past few days and we've been dragged across islands to get here, so I might have lost it, but . . . still.”
I wanted to tell him about the job. Maybe this “her” was the same girl I was supposed to find on the north side of Castos. But I had been sworn to secrecy. It had even been written into my book. If I told Lodan about it, would that kill me? Because I hadn't followed the instructions completely?
Lodan squinted at me. “What is it?”
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
“Yeah, right. That means something, doesn't it?”
I set the plate down and slid it across the floor to him. “I'm done.” Before he could protest or ask me any more questions, I laid down, closed my eyes, and pretended to sleep.
The stables were in another open pavilion with a wooden slat roof right across from Gratta's house. A plank fence circled the entire structure. Horses stamped and neighed inside their stalls; some munching on the hay shoveled to them by recruits in dusty brown aprons and goggles.
I stepped inside with Telisa; a leather pouch slung over my shoulder. We had already visited the armory where Telisa promptly handed me a short sword—the long ones would be too much for me to handle apparently—as well as two short daggers. The sword went into a strap I clipped over my shoulder, and the daggers slid into sheaths along my belt. Telisa had said any other threats I could probably neutralize with my clasp.
I just wish I knew how it worked exactly.
Telisa pointed at a chestnut mare three stalls down. “Take that one. No one's claimed her yet. And she's a good horse, already all broken in.”
I nodded and stepped up to the stall door. The horse was not as big as Poinsettia was, but she looked strong and had a beautiful, neatly kept coat. A recruit with wild black hair sticking in every direction stood on her other side. He had grime across his face and wore one of those brown aprons. It trailed past his knees because he was so short. But he reached up and brushed the horse's side with a small comb.
“You takin' this 'ere horse?”
I nodded again.
“Right fine mare, she is. Best I seen out 'ere. But then I'm partial to the quiet ones, that I am.” A smirk crossed the boy's face, and he held a hand out to me. “I'm Henryk. And you're Eric. Everyone's talking about you.”
“I picked up on that.” I cleared my throat and pointed at the horse. “What's her name?”
“This 'ere is Zinnia,” Henryk said, patting the mare's side.
The horse whinnied, snorted, and leaned her face my direction. My hand lingered over her nose. Warm air trickled over my fingers, and Zinnia leaned her head forward so both of her purple eyes could see me. She snorted again, and I placed my hand on her nose.
My clasp lit up. A rush of light flooded through my mind, and I felt like I was walking through a field of pansies with Zinnia beside me. Only instead of a horse, it was a young girl, about my age, long chestnut brown hair cascading down her back and flowing impossibly in the wind. She wore a simple white dress and held a flower with a large plume and rings of color exploding from the center in brighter hues than anything I had ever seen before.
She held up her hand and touched my fingers, her purple eyes meeting mine. I see you, human boy.
My eyes went wide. You. . . .
The girl smiled. I am Zinnia. It is nice to meet you. Eric.
How do you know my name? The words flowed from me without my mouth moving even the slightest. What is happening? How is this even possible?
Zinnia stared at the sky, smile still lingering on her face. How does anything happen, Eric? It simply does. We are sharing a memory. A bond few share with each other.
Sunlight streamed overhead, and I felt the warmth trickle through my skin and deep into my bones. The smells of fresh grass and flowers filled my nostrils. The rush of racing across fields and down pathways coursed through every inch of my body. For a moment I felt like . . . how I imagined a horse might feel.
The others will be staring, Zinnia said. And I sense we have a dire mission ahead of us now.
I held her hand tightly. Yes. We do. We might die.
She turned back and stared at me. Then I will die proudly with you.
The light around me sparked. I blinked, backing away from Zinnia and into a wooden plank behind me. I was back in the stable. Zinnia--the horse--stood in front of me, a knowing look resting deep within her eyes.
Telisa grabbed my shoulder and whipped me around. “What just happened?”
“What?” I asked.
Henryk walked in front of Zinnia, holding her lead rope and handing it to me. “You vanished into thin air! One second you were right here and the next you were gone! How'd you do that?”
I took the lead rope and glanced at Henryk, then Telisa. “I don't know.”
Telisa shook her head and crossed her arms. “Your clasp will never run out of surprises. I don't know what happened, but somethin' did. And we had best be moseyin' along. We got jobs to do.”
Henryk bowed, his crazy hair falling over his face. “I take my leave.” He bolted back up, laughed, and then darted out of the stall, hopping and shouting, “Guess what happened! Just guess! You'll never believe it!” before disappearing out of sight.
“Mount up.” Telisa nodded at Zinnia's saddle and marched away to find Poinsettia.
I stroked Zinnia's nose, and she whinnied once. “You want me to take this off?” I fingered the edge of the bridle over her face, and Zinnia nodded, her chestnut hair bobbing around her eyes. I slid the bridle off. Zinnia shook her head, raising her front legs and stamping the ground.
After sliding my leather bag into a pouch at her side, I climbed onto Zinnia's back. I grabbed the large horn in front of the saddle, and Zinnia trotted out of the stall, proudly holding her head high. Poinsettia and Telisa met us at the other end of the stables. She had fit a crossbow over her back, and a quiver of arrows rested against her horse's side along with the saddle bags.
“North,” Telisa whispered.
I nodded, and our horses trotted into the darkening night. The moon hung low and yellow over the horizon, casting a sickly light across the compound. Shouts of fighting still rose from the Casket. Recruits and runners shot their heads up to look in our direction as we arrived at the large gates. Four recruits yanked on the ropes, and the gates creaked open allowing us to slip into the world beyond the fence.
I peeked over my shoulder as the gates closed behind us and saw Gratta standing on the gate ramparts, leaning over the fence, and watching us gallop away. She tipped her hat once, and then spun around, and out of sight.
Telisa and Poinsettia led the way. We followed close behind whipping down the trail in the dark around trees and dusty rocks. Zinnia needed no direction from me. She kept on Poinsettia's tail until we had cleared the tall forests and raced out onto an open plain with gently rolling hills. I shivered once, thinking about those pales attacking the wagon cart on Jedros. Did those things live out here on Castos too?
The ride grew long and tedious, and I wondered just how big Castos was. I had never seen a map of the island let alone been there before now. It seemed like it could stretch forever into the distance, and I would never reach the end.
We passed under some tall redwood trees five hours later. The horses slowed slightly as we wound through the brush, and my eyes threatened to droop closed on me. I shook my head as Zinnia skidded to a halt right behind Poinsettia. Telisa held up a fist and then pointed into the distance.
I followed her finger and saw a white spark and then orange light ahead. A fire. Laughter echoed between the trees. A sharp crack.
Telisa slid off her horse, and I did the same. The dirt felt good under my boots after riding for hours. I yanked out one of the daggers at my side and held it up. Telisa had her crossbow ready. She came close and whispered by my ear, “Let's take a quick look. We may have to go 'round the long way if these are unsavory types.”
I placed a hand on Zinnia's nose. She nodded. She would stay with Poinsettia.
We crept through the ferns and trees careful not to step on any fallen branches or leaves waiting to crunch underfoot. The laughter grew louder, and then I could hear distinct voices shouting back and forth at each other.
“Blew that one right outta the water, we did!” A man's voice. Harsh. “Shoulda seen the Queen's own guards alookin' all scared like they was goin' to be dragged to the bottom with the merfolk!”
A loud chortle across the campsite. “Merfolk? Ye gone and let yer wee head be rattled, now. There ain't no merfolk 'round these parts!”
We crouched behind a fern and saw a ring of five men and three women sitting around a modest campfire, sticks held over the flames with chunks of meat dangling from the ends. Each person wore a hodgepodge of clothing—from tri-cornered hats with tall feathers to deep red coats with missing buttons and white shirts with fluff at the collars.
A deathly serious woman with gaunt features stood up pointing her stick at one of the men. “I seen the merfolk meself. With me own two leftover eyes. Whipped up outta the sea like banshees they did afore dartin' outta sight and rockin' our boat from left to right, left to right, left to right until we was all sea sicker than dogs.” She slowly sat down. “Don't. Count. Out. The merfolk.”
One man with his back to us stood up; long stringy hair hanging in clumps from his head. He turned to the side, and I saw the patch over his eye and nearly gasped. Bonaventure. The pirate. From the crossway.
He wagged a gnarled finger at them all. “Now, the point ain't that the merfolk be draggin' sailors to the bottom of the oceans. The point be that we sent one of the Queen's own ships down to the murk! And that, my fellows, is worth celebrating mightily!” He held up a mug and dark liquid sloshed out. “To the Queen's downfall!”
The other pirates held up similar mugs and cheered, taking long swigs before burping and slapping each other on the back. Bonaventure swiped a sleeve across his mouth and then stared off into the bushes. “Now then, the real downfall of the Queen is comin' from a lad we all met on a bridge betwixt the islands.”
One of the other women chortled and leaned an elbow on her knee. “The lad from the rice fields? Ya think that sorry louse got wot it takes to stand up to the Queen, do ya?”
Bonaventure winked at her. “Aye, that I do, missie. He got powers beyond belief he don't even know about.” And then Bonaventure's head swiveled around to stare back at my hiding spot. “Powers I want for meself.”
The pirate whipped a sword out from his side with a schlink and swung at the brush near me. I ducked back, and Telisa threw a hand over my chest, shoving me backward. She aimed her crossbow at Bonaventure's gut. “Stay back, you filthy deserter!”
“Deserter?” I asked.
Telisa glanced down at me as Bonaventure's shoulders heaved, sword held tightly in his hands. “These running deserters are scum! And if they want you, then they are gonna have to go through me!”
“These pirates are deserters?”
Bonaventure smirked. “She ain't seein' what you see lad.”
I peeked up at Telisa and saw the tear streaking down her cheek. And then I glanced back at the band of pirates around the campfire. For a brief moment, I saw a flash of white light, and the pirates disappeared in the glow of the fire. In their place were eight pearl-colored crystals, perfectly shaped and floating just above the dirt. I blinked, and the pirates were back in view.
“Telisa. . . .” I scrambled to my feet and held my clasp up at the group. “I don't know what's going on, but I don't think those are pirates. . . .”
“No, they're not pirates! They're deserters! They left us during open-ended missions and decided never to return. Thieves and crooks is what they are!”
One of the male pirates aimed his hand at Telisa. His voice dropped into a strange monotone. “Enough of this charade. We know that which we seek.” A blast of light shot from his hand and smacked into Telisa's face. She dropped her crossbow and fell back to the dirt.
“What did you do?!” I screamed.
The eight pirates vanished from sight again, their figures flickering before transforming back into floating crystals. Their voices rang between the trees in a hollow tone. With every word, a bit of light pulsed from inside each crystal.
“We have no use for the human woman. But you we have great use for.” A thin beam of light shot out from one of the crystals. I held up my clasp, and a shield of golden light surrounded me. The light from the crystal bounced away and zapped a tree, which burst into orange flames.
“What do you want with me?”
The crystals hummed together slowly circling around Telisa and me. They spun faster and faster around us, all the while humming and flashing with light. They pressed against the golden shield around me, sending sparks of white light blazing through the air and landing in the dry brush. More flames leaped up around the clearing, licking through wood and branch.
“We seek the power you possess to free us from this state.” The crystals hummed louder and pressed closer, spinning feverishly around us. My forearm burned, and the gem on my clasp glowed brighter.
And then with a loud pop, the shield dropped. The crystal stopped spinning. Eight beams of light shot at me. My back arched, and I screamed as the pain tore through my chest.
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.”
A soft breeze wafted through the open windows, drawing back the thin green drapes. Fires burned along the wall outside the scholars' fortress. Before I slipped under the comforter on the softest bed I'd ever felt in my life; I saw two green-sleeved scholars marching the wall with lanterns.
Watching for the shadows, no doubt.
Telisa had plopped down by the ornately carved doorway, her head resting against the tail of a ten-legged dragon that wound up to the top of the frame. A white dagger sat in her lap, her fingers curled around the hilt.
“Go to sleep,” Telisa barked.
I rolled over to my side and yanked the blanket to my chin. “I'm working on it,” I whispered.
Stars peppered the sky outside.
“What's Gratta gonna do with me?”
Telisa groaned and slapped the dagger against the stone floor. “I don't know, but I know I'm going to stitch that mouth of yours closed if you don't shut it!”
I gripped the sheets in one hand and threw them aside. “I'm sorry I'm such a problem!”
“I'm glad you recognize how much of a problem you are.”
“What's going to happen to me?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “You just don't shut up, do you?”
“Not until you at least make up an answer.”
She kneaded her forehead with one hand. “Honestly? I don't know. You're doin' things nobody's ever thought might be possible. The gem colors? They're specific. They shine when you're doin' different things. If you're goin' belly-up, it turns purple before you flash out of existence. If you're on a run, then it's gonna be a different color depending on the job. Like orange for recruitin', blue for messagin', and red for killin'.”
I swallowed. “Have you had to kill people before? On a run?”
Telisa snorted. “Course. We all have to. Sooner or later. No matter what the run is, once Gratta writes it down in the books, you're bound to finish it. Or die.”
Finish it or die. I did not like the sound of that. I fingered the edge of the thick mattress. What if I was asked to do a job I didn't want to do? What if I couldn't do a run because it was to kill somebody? I guessed dying would be a better way out than finishing something like that. But every time I had seen someone snuffed out, it didn't look particularly fun.
“But gold.” Telisa whistled. “That's a color I've never thought possible. And no clasp is supposed to be able to do what you've done. Bring people back from the dead, blast pitters to the high heavens. None of that.”
“No one's ever done those things before?”
She shook her head again. “Not a single time as far as I'm aware. Probably why the queen's so interested.”
“Have you ever met her?”
Telisa snorted. “What is this? Interrogate the guard? Shut up and go to sleep! And that's the last time I'm warnin' ya!”
I rubbed my eyes and laid down. Telisa's head conked against the carved door again. The low whistling of a sharpening breeze drifted outside. I stared at a jade chandelier dangling from the ceiling. The candles had been snuffed out, but smoke still drifted up from the smoldering wicks. My eyes slid closed, and I forced my brain to quiet down. I was tired of thinking. Tired of worrying. Tired of wondering why my gem glowed golden.
A shuffle echoed in the hallway outside the door. I bolted up and saw Telisa had left her post. Maybe she was hungry. Or relieving herself. Or punching something. That seemed the most likely option.
The door creaked open, and a withered hand poked through the thin crack. Soft lantern light dribbled over the corridor outside, shining enough for me to see a figure in a green hood standing outside the bedroom.
My pulse quickened.
“Come with me,” an old man's voice whispered.
I shook my head. “No! Where's Tel-”
My throat closed. The gem on my clasp glowed dark green. I wanted to shout, “What's happening?” but my tongue fastened to the roof of my mouth and stayed there. My feet slid off the bed and padded across the stone, carrying me through the door and into the hallway.
One of the old scholars stood in front of me; a gem slung around his neck glowing an identical dark green as mine. “Stay close.” He held a trembling finger to his thin lips. “They don't know I'm here.” His hand drifted to his gem, and he tapped it once. I lurched forward, stumbling after the old scholar.
I felt like someone was clawing through my mind, jerking my body left and right down the hallways. We came to an old wooden door with cobwebs tracing its front. The scholar leaned over and blew against a dragon-shaped keyhole. Dust flew past my face. I wanted to cough, but the stranglehold over my body hadn't released yet.
The old scholar produced a jade key shaped like a dragon's head and shoved it into the hole. The door unlocked with a thudding clunk and crept open revealing a straight stairwell leading into the darkness below.
The scholar reached into the lantern. If I could have winced, I would have. But the fire didn't even touch his fingers. Instead, it curled around his hand, hovering an inch away from his skin. The old man blew at his palm. The fire shot into the stairwell, clinging to the ancient stone walls and lighting the way down.
“Moldable fire,” he whispered. “Very useful.” He tapped the green gem and waved me forward.
We descended. The archway overhead opened out into another cavernous chamber. The room was round and bare save for strange circular markings across the stone floor. The circles wove in and out of each other, each one a different color, ranging across the rainbow from red to purple.
The old scholar pointed toward the center of the chamber, holding tight to the gem. Green light folded around his fingers and drifted to my face, slipping up my nostrils. It smelled like dust, trickling past my nose hair and into my mind.
Now we can communicate more easily. The old man's thoughts popped into my head, held for a second, and then faded.
How are you doing this? I demanded.
Through a very special gem. He held up the green stone and flashed the light at me. There are rare stones throughout the five islands of Abra. Some of them have special . . . ah, abilities. This dark green gem allows me to enter the thoughts of any Runner.
Why are you doing this? Let me go!
The old man narrowed his eyes. How do I know you'll cooperate?
Tell me what you want, and maybe I will.
He eyed the gem on my clasp. I believe you have a rare stone indeed. No one has ever seen golden light come from a gem before. I want to study it. And you.
We're not available for study. Leave us alone! I shouted.
The words pushed the old man back slightly. He stumbled against the stairwell, catching the wall with his withered hand. Very intriguing, the scholar whispered. You exert much will over the gems. Most Runners have no control over them, except to use them as a bauble of light. Pah! The potential is wasted on dense Runners.
I pictured my hands pushing the old man aside. The gem on my forearm glowed slightly, and I shoved with my mind. The scholar stumbled backward again with a loud “oomph!” He fell to the steps and grabbed his gem, holding out one hand. Green light poured out of the stone and blasted me in the chest, lifting me off the ground.
Strong indeed. But not strong enough. He made a fist and swung his arm to the side. I flew across the chamber, landing inside an orange circle.
An image of chains appeared in my thoughts. I imagined them snapping in half. The scholar gasped, and I rolled across the floor until I slammed into the wall. The hold the dark green gem had on me broke. I jumped up and held out my forearm. The gem glowed with golden light.
“Stay away from me!” I shouted with my own voice. It felt good to hear words move through my throat again.
The old scholar stood up, one shaking hand on the stone wall. “I want to know the limits of your powers. In order to test them, I need a bigger quarry.” He grabbed a rope hanging by the archway and yanked on it. A stone gate fell from the ceiling and crashed into the floor, trapping me inside.
I darted over to the stone gate and peered through the round window with two metal bars. “Let me out of here!”
The old man's face appeared through the window. “Tell me how the golden gem works.”
I shook my head. “I can't! I don't know how!”
“Then show me how.” The old man held up the dark green gem and rubbed his fingers across it. His eyes closed.
A green light emerged from the shadows across the chamber. I spun around both palms flat against the gate. A door opened across the room. Something green slipped around in the gloom beyond.
“Telisa!” I screamed. “TELISA!”
“She can't hear you,” the old man whispered. “Right now she's standing on the edge of the balcony upstairs, ready to jump off if I will it.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Just a poor scholar, hoping to learn more about the world of gems and clasps. Show me. And I wouldn't take my eyes off it if I were you.”
I sucked in a breath. I had to find a way out of this chamber. If there was one secret door, perhaps there'd be another. I raced over to the stone wall and pounded on it, running my hands over the stones, trying to find anything that might open a passageway.
A growl echoed across the chamber. I shivered, glanced over my shoulder. The green form stalked into the main chamber. It was hunched over like a dog, but sharp spines stuck from its back, clacking against each other. Green drool dribbled from its mouth and sizzled on the stones, leaving a small pock mark on the floor. Sharp claws dug against the ground. But the worst was its face. It looked like a ragged dog with patches of missing fur. Long fangs stuck out around its jowls. It growled again and arched its back.
“What is that?” I shouted.
The old man's eyes widened. “A spinewolf. Watch out for its venom. Kill you in a moment if you're not careful. Be a shame to waste such . . . potential.” He bit his lip and clung to the bars in the window. “I so wish to see something golden. Destroy it before it destroys you.”
The spinewolf scraped a claw against the stones. I covered my ears from the screeching. The creature pounced, leaping across the chamber in three bounds. I dove to the side as it landed where I had stood. Drool splashed and sent up a whiff of smoke. It growled again and swiped a claw in my direction. I rolled back, reached the wall, and shot up.
I had to use my clasp. My head spun just thinking about using the gem's light. The last few times I had managed to blast something with golden rays I had passed out and had to be revived. I didn't know if I could do that again.
The spinewolf turned toward me, hanging its head and snapping its jaws. It opened its mouth wide and shot a blast of green drool from the back of its throat. The drool smashed into the wall beside me, chunking away stone on impact. I dashed left. The gem on my clasp began to glow. I pointed it in the spinewolf's direction and willed a blast of light to shoot at the beast.
“Come on!” I shouted.
“Yes!” The scholar echoed. “Do something! Use your golden light! Send it to oblivion!”
I held up my hands. “I don't know how this works!” I screamed.
The spinewolf darted forward, chasing me around the edge of the chamber. I ducked through the thing's door and tripped over piles of bones littering the floor. I snatched up a long femur and swung it wide as the the beast leaped into the room after me. The bone crashed into the spinewolf's head, sending it tumbling sideways, skidding into the piles of bones.
I backed out of the antechamber, holding up the femur and swinging it back and forth. There had to be a way to tap into the golden light in my gem. Feelings. Every time I had used the light before I had been feeling at the end of my own survival capability. Like all hope had been lost. I peeked at the scholar's gate. His weathered eyes watched me.
I had to do this. Not just to save my skin, but Telisa's too.
The spinewolf crawled out of its nest and breathed deeply, green eyes locked on my face. And then, the creature chuckled. Like a human. It leaned back and slowly rose up, standing on its two hind legs. Its head rose over me, casting a green shadow across the floor. It stood eight feet tall. Its front claws slamming into the entryway beside it.
“Foolish human,” it breathed. “None can stand against me.”
My mouth opened and my heart slammed inside my chest.
“I am born from the darkness of gems, the dark thoughts of beings far beyond your comprehension. When they called me forth, they imbued within me the right to steal, destroy, and kill.” Its green tongue slipped from its mouth. “I have been hungry for some time now.”
It swung its claws wide. I flew back across the room, smacking my head into the stones. The spinewolf raced across the chamber, faster than any human could, and stood over me.
“Not even a gem as consecrated as yours can banish my darkness.”
It reached down and wrapped its long claws around my neck, yanking me into the air. I struggled against it. Darkness pushed into my temples. Air seeped through my nostrils, desperate to get to my aching lungs.
“Use the clasp!” the scholar shouted.
The spinewolf held up its other paw. “Silence!”
“You do not own me or my kind!” The scholar pulled a second rope, and the stone gate flung open. He stepped into the chamber, holding up the dark green gem.
The spinewolf chuckled. “Your gems do not own me!” It held open its paw, and the cord around the scholar's neck snapped. The gem flew through the air and landed in the spinewolf's claws. “I own you!” Its eyes glowed dark green. A wave of light zapped across the chamber, encompassing the scholar's frail body and heaving him into the air.
“Let . . . him . . . go . . .” I choked.
The spinewolf dropped me and turned the gem on me now. The scholar fell to the ground in a heap, conking his head against the stone and passing out. The dark green light surrounded me and shoved me against the wall. I cried out in pain, feeling my bones compressing, shaking, trembling, and threatening to snap.
“You do not understand what you have. You cannot harness its power. You cannot stand to fight the beings that created me. You cannot stand against powers greater than you know!” The spinewolf's eyes gleamed. “And you cannot understand how much I will enjoy feasting on such tender flesh.”
It snapped its jaws and pounced.
Heat singed the back of my neck. I woke up screaming, the world a blazing blur of fire shooting across the courtyard. My head spun. I smacked my neck and felt nothing. No fire. No burning skin. The stones swirled underneath me. I leaned over on both hands, feeling vomit threatening to explode.
A low moan echoed toward me. I peeked up. The shadow wraiths had returned to the courtyard. They hovered over the green walls, their hands replaced with a variety of shadowy weapons from maces to pikes.
Across the courtyard, seven men and five women, all flesh and blood, stood in the courtyard wearing long green robes that matched the walls. They had hoods pulled over their heads, but I noticed several beards poking over their thin frames. Each held over-sized black lanterns in one hand. Green gloves covered their other hands. They scooped up the fire blazing inside the lanterns and chucked it like a ball at the shadow wraiths.
One ball of fire smacked into a shadow boy's chest and spread over his dark form. With a low moan, he darted away from the courtyard.
The hooded figures worked silently, not even grunting from the effort. Shadow wraiths circled low and flew at one of the men on the ground, swiping at his lantern. The lantern fell and shattered on the courtyard. Flames shot up and wrapped around the nearest wraith, engulfing it in fire.
I scrambled over to Telisa, still on the cobblestones. Her head faced the darkened sky. I didn't know exactly how long I had been knocked out, but apparently, the day had left us behind. I ran my fingers over her dark clasp.
Low moans and crackling fire swarmed my ears and faded into a dull tone. My hand wrapped around Telisa's clasp. The gem on my forearm began to glow golden again. Warmth passed through my forehead, down my shoulder, and through my wrist. Light spread from my fingers, a single shaft of golden light surging through each one. The light struck Telisa's clasp. From deep within the gem, a single red light pulsed like a heartbeat. My eyes closed and I felt that heartbeat—my heartbeat, Telisa's heartbeat—synchronizing into one steady rhythm.
A gasp. My eyes shot open, and I saw Telisa staring at me. She wrenched her forearm from my grasp. Her hand trailed down to the place where the shadow wraith had pierced her abdomen. The hole was gone.
Nausea swam through my head. I closed my eyes. Pain shot past my temples, and I cried out, falling back into two strong hands draped in green sleeves.
“He is fading,” a male voice whispered.
“Can you help him?” Telisa.
Heat grew inside my chest. I couldn't control this anymore. I don't think I ever could. It swirled around my heart and clenched my lungs. I gasped for breath. The world turned golden-hued around me. I saw Telisa's face, etched with worry and gold, leaning over me.
“Take his legs.” The male voice again.
Telisa and the man hoisted me into the air. A shadow wraith darted overhead and whisked away as a fireball slammed into its head. We passed under a stone archway into a musty hall with deep orange ceilings. Resin chandeliers hung above me, swaying with a hundred candles. Golden light seeped through my vision. Gold. Everything was gold. Made from gold. Grew from gold. Existed for gold.
My back met soft padding. A cool rag dropped onto my forehead and instantly dried into crust from the heat.
They poured golden liquid down my throat. The world went really strange then. Golden light swirled in hexagonal patterns, melding into shapes of all kinds: a tree, a scaled dragon, a whisk of flame, twelve stars dropping from the sky and smashing into twelve rolling hills. The shapes morphed into a face—a boy—perhaps—a younger man. Kind eyes, but sad at the same time. The face hovered over me, parted its golden lips, and whispered, “Return.”
I jolted up, my eyes wide. The golden colors snapped back to their original hues. I sat on a table covered with thin red mats. Free standing shelves of varying shapes and sizes circled the dais my table stood upon. Bottles of liquids of every color imaginable filled every shelf, sitting alongside scrolls, feather quills, and bottles of ink.
The twelve men and women I had seen in the courtyard stood beyond the shelves, against the walls of the room, their hands clasped in front of them and their heads bowed. Telisa paced the hallway beyond that led to three large doors with orange trim.
“Telisa?” I croaked. My throat scraped with each syllable. Whatever they had poured into my mouth had worked one over on my windpipe.
Telisa's head shot up. “Eric!” She whacked a nearby hooded man in the shoulder. “He's awake!”
The twelve stood at the same time, lifting their heads as one, and unclasping their hands.
One woman stepped forward, gently peeling back her hood and revealing an ebony-skinned face with long dark hair curling down to her shoulders. “So. You have awoken.”
I nodded and blinked. “Please . . . .” I stuck my tongue out. I needed water.
Telisa tossed me a canteen from her side. I caught it and gulped down the water greedily, feeling my throat restoring itself with each swallow.
The woman spread her arms wide. “We are the scholars. Keepers of the moldable fire, and caretakers of the lore of Abra. We saved your life, and you saved hers.” The woman tilted her head toward Telisa.
I slipped both feet to the floor and stood. Shakily at first, but then taking another gulp of water and standing straighter.
Telisa eyed me but didn't step closer. “How did you do that?”
The woman squinted at me. “Yes, we wish to hear how you accomplished such a feat.”
I glanced at the clasp on my arm. “I . . . .” How had I done all this? “I don't know. I just . . . felt it, I guess.”
“Has your clasp exhibited any other shades of color?” the woman asked.
I scratched the back of my head. “No. Only its typical milky white. And gold.”
Telisa cleared her throat. “Gratta wanted us to seek y'all's counsel on this. Shanters from the queen arrived yesterday and demanded to know who the Runner of Golden Light was.”
“Intriguing,” the woman said. “Did the shanters say how they had obtained the knowledge of golden light?”
Telisa shook her head. “Not that I can recall. You?” She studied my face a second.
“I don't remember.”
The other eleven hooded figures eyed me from under their green hoods. Their irises glowed slightly blue even in the gloom. Then they spoke at the same time, their mouths moving in unison. “How the queen heard tell of golden light is beyond even our knowledge. However, there is another story we do know.”
“What's that?” Telisa asked.
The eleven stepped forward, arms raising, fingers pointed straight at me. Their voices echoed through the round chamber in a hollow tone. “When bookkeepers first enslaved the islands of Abra with clasps and gems, expecting the world to run to their bidding, another was spoken off: a forebear, who would emerge shining a path of golden light and leading all to Freedom's Chair.”
A shiver sprinted across my shoulders.
“This would be the downfall of all,” the eleven continued, stepping between the cases and shelves, hands still outstretched, reaching toward me. “Nothing will ever be the same as it once was. Too many cracks, too many gems, too many lost to the lights of purple.” Their hoods fell back. Each face stared my direction with a distant glaze covering their eyes. “It is written that the Runner of Golden Light shall do things no Runner has down before. Shine light in ways no one has conceived. Bear witness to the One who comes still.”
They were inches away now. Their hands reached out and stacked on top of my head, lightly pressing downward. “You are the Runner of Golden Light! You are the Runner of Golden Light!” they chanted, again and again.
I didn't understand. What did all these words mean? I stepped back. Why was I chosen as some special Runner? I peeked at the clasp on my forearm. The gem had returned to a milk color, but golden swirls mixed with the white.
I shoved their hands away and pushed through the ring of hooded scholars. “What does this even mean? What are you talking about!”
The woman who had spoken independently spread her hands wide. “We do not hazard such a guess. What we do know is this: you have a special purpose. One that you must pursue.”
Telisa marched over, grabbed my wrist, and yanked me sideways. “The only thing he's pursuin' is whatever runs Gratta puts him on. He ain't no forebear or what you call it.”
“He must fulfill his purpose,” the eleven intoned.
“He does what Gratta decides!” Telisa shouted back. “Stop fillin' his head with these lies!”
“He must fulfill his purpose,” they repeated.
I darted away from Telisa. The eleven stalked toward me. I had to leave. I couldn't hear another word. It was too much. I spun on my heels and located a short archway with a stairwell winding upward beyond it. My boots pounded over the stones, carrying me up the steps, two at a time. I kept one hand trailing the spiraling center of the passage, climbing up, up, up. I burst through another archway and onto a balcony covered in green ivy and orange flowers lacing through the balustrade.
I leaned over the railing and vomited. It splashed to the courtyard far, far below. But I didn't care. I took a deep breath, trying to still my thoughts, my heart, my trembling fingers. I stared at my hands. “What's happening to me?” I whispered.
All I had wanted was to leave those cursed rice paddies on Jedros, become a Runner, and blend into the world of Abra, unnoticed, going from one job to the next until I was free of the clasp. That was all. Not this. Not to be a Runner with some special purpose. What did I have to offer anyway? These scholars expected me to be someone I wasn't. I just wasn't. How could a stupid kid from Jedros ever think of himself as more than a rice farmer?
I was born a rice farmer. But I would die as a martyr. Probably at the hands of the queen. She'd find me, strangle me, and leave me for dead.
Maybe I didn't want this life.
The clasp rested on my forearm. Saltha had disappeared into that purple haze. Maybe that's where I should go. Maybe I should disappear so no one would ever need something from me ever again. I could be truly free from all of it.
My fingers traced the edge of the clasp. I could rip it off. Wrench it away. Then I'd die. Be gone.
“But do you want that?” a voice whispered across the balcony.
A young boy's face poked through the archway, his fingers curled around the stones. His dark hair hung over his forehead, and he brushed it away. His brown eyes watched me, squinting and widening. He was at least two years younger than me, but his vernacular made me think he was much older.
“I don't know what I want,” I said, wiping a tear from my face.
The boy hopped up the last stair and stood in the archway, dead center. He wore a white tunic tucked into black breeches. His feet were bare and covered with brown earth. I watched him cross the balcony and slide down beside me. He stuck his legs through the balustrade and let his feet dangle over the hundred feet to the courtyard. “You have ideas at least.”
I swallowed and sat cross-legged beside him, watching the sliver of a moon spark in the night sky. “Everyone wants me to do all these things. Mother wanted me to run. Gratta wants me to run. Now, these scholars believe I'm fulfilling some old prophecy or something.” I sighed. “But the truth is, I have this feeling that no matter where I go, I’ll always be a slave.”
“We're all slaves to something,” the boy said, kicking his feet. “Slaves to work, slaves to ourselves, slaves to bookkeepers or scholars.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
The boy smirked. “Me? They call me the miracle child. No one will tell me what that means. They just say I'm a miracle. I don't think the queen knows about me yet.”
I pointed at his forearm. “You don't have a clasp.”
He shook his head. “Wouldn't stick to me.”
“Wouldn't stick to you?”
“No. Some bookkeeper tried to clasp me, but it wouldn't stick. It slid right off.”
I leaned back. “How is that even possible?”
The boy shrugged. “Like I said, the miracle child. Sounds like you're in a similar situation yourself, what with the gold light and everything.”
“You could say that.” I paused, scrunched my mouth together, then tapped the balustrade. “The thing that bothers me most is the way people stare. They stare at me like I'm about to explode. Like I'm . . . .”
“Dangerous?” the boy offered.
“Yes! And to be honest, I feel dangerous. Like I am going to hurt someone. And then I'm going to regret all of it.”
The boy leaned forward, resting his chin in his hands. “Regrets. I don't get those. They seem bothersome.”
What kind of person didn't have regrets? Then again, this kid probably hadn't seen as much in the last few days as I had. I had plenty of regrets. Not running fast enough to get away from the Runners. Leaving my parents. Not stopping Saltha in time. Regrets and I were old friends by now. I could only imagine how well we'd know each other in a year.
The boy tilted his head to the side like he was listening to something. “Your friend is coming.”
“She's not my friend.”
He smirked. “You will be. Soon enough, I think.”
I glanced at the archway leading back into the depths of the fortress. Boots clamped down on the stairs. “Eric! Are you up here?” Telisa.
“Just great—” I spun back to the boy. But he was gone.
Telisa stomped onto the balcony and put her fists on either hip. “They're lettin' us stay the night here. I want you to sleep. But I'm gonna keep watch. I don't trust these creepy monotone scholars. I don't like what they have to say.”
Neither did I.
“Here's your Runner of Golden Light!” Telisa spat.
I heard a girl scream.
My eyes flipped open. A girl with a shaved head and gray eyes stared upward as the shanters swarmed around her. They spun faster and faster, three of them digging their claws into her shoulders and back. They heaved her from the ground.
I threw out a hand. “But—”
Telisa spun and slapped me with one of her huge hands. “Shut up. And stay shut up.”
I swallowed and crouched down again.
The shanters dropped the other Runners to the concrete floors and swooped out from under the Commons roof and toward the blue sky. The sacrificed girl had been a recruit. From one of the other islands. I didn't know her name. But I'm sure she would forever remember mine.
Recruits crawled out from under their benches and tables and stared at the cloud of shanters flapping away in the distance. I fixated on that girl's speck of a form until I couldn't see her separate from the monsters that had carried her away.
“All right! Enough gawkin'!” Gratta shouted from one end of the Commons. She marched across the floor, slightly limping, until she stood before Telisa and me. “What in Castos is happenin' out here? Why would the Queen's shanters be flappin' their gums here?”
Telisa nodded at me. “It's him. Golden Boy.”
I held up my hands. “I didn't do anything! I swear!”
Gratta snorted. “Oh, you sure gone and done a lot, hun. A lot.” The old woman rubbed both eyes with her hand. “We gotta take 'im now. We have to know what we've got on our hands here.”
“Right now?” Telisa asked. “Are you sure that's wise?”
“You sure it's wise to be questionin' me about it? Here I thought we could at least wait until it got all dark and spooky in the world, but no. Shanters have to show up on my doorstep!” Gratta spat on a nearby table and pointed at the glob. “Somebody wipe that up!”
One of the recruits grabbed a yellow cloth napkin and scrubbed the spot.
Gratta shoved a finger in my direction. “Now. Git to the armory and the stables and git yer sorry hides to them scholars!” She whirled around. “What are all y'all gaping at? Eat food! It won't last forever! And I ain't feedin' ya no second lunch!” With a swipe at a biscuit, Gratta stalked out of the Commons and back toward her ranch house.
Telisa grabbed my collar and yanked me close. “You've cost me so many recruits today; I'm losing count. The next butt I lose is going to be yours, so walk!” She heaved me forward.
I stumbled to the dust outside the Commons. I peeked at the clasp on my arm. Still there, still milky white. So much trouble over such a small thing. The recruits and Runners under the Commons had shuffled back to their benches and were busily stuffing their faces with food before lunch ended.
Except for Lodan. He stood on the edge of the Commons, watching me, watching Telisa, one hand gently rubbing where the shanter claws had dug into his shoulder. His eyes were wide. With fear? Worry? Shock? I couldn't tell.
Telisa kicked the back of my boot. “I said walk!”
We hurried past the Casket – the building in the center of Gratta's compound where most of the combat training took place. It had a similar roof to the Commons, but long logs stacked high formed the walls. A large barn door painted red had been slid aside. I caught the briefest glimpse of a concrete floor, a set of old wooden bleachers against one wall, as well as straw dummies on long poles for fighting practice.
The armory was a round building with a green cloth roof that came to a point at the top. Tall logs had been placed side by side with a porch circling the entire structure. A railing ran around the edge of the porch with spears, swords, pikes, and maces lined up against it. Telisa stomped through the open front door. I followed.
Inside were more weapons than I ever could have imagined seeing in one lifetime. Whips, daggers, crossbows, metal stars with sharp edges, bokens, katanas, anything and everything. Telisa snatched a crossbow from the wall, a gray quiver stuffed with arrows. She attached two long daggers to the belt at her side. She slung a long broadsword over her back and wrapped a leather scabbard over her shoulder and around her midsection.
“Should I take anything?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “No.”
“But what if those shanters come back? Or pales? Or pitworms?”
Telisa's lip curled. “No.”
“What if the Queen figures out you lied to her?”
“The Queen will assume it was a golden fluke.”
I ran a hand through my dusty hair. “I would feel better with a knife. I can slip it into my boot.”
Telisa grabbed my wrist and held it up to my face. “Seems to me you've got the best weapon any of us could wish for.” My gaze lingered on the clasp. She was right. If I could conjure golden light again, I’d never need a sword or knife or mace. She flung my arm down and stepped back. “How'd you do it anyway?”
I shrugged. “I don't know. It just happened.”
“Nothing ever just happens.” Telisa cocked her head to the side and squinted. “What were you thinking about when it happened?”
“Surviving your 'game’.”
She smacked me across the face. “Don't get smart.”
I clenched my teeth. “I would really appreciate it if everyone stopped slapping me!” My cheek burned. Anger pooled somewhere in my forehead and trickled down my face. “You think you can whisk us around however you like! Like we aren't even people!” I closed my eyes. My head began to throb. The anger slid past my eyes, down my shoulder, slithered the length of my arm until it swirled around the clasp on my arm.
Heat rose from my wrist. My fingers curled into fists. When I opened my eyes, the gem glowed the faintest tinges of gold.
Telisa shuffled twenty steps away with her back to the armory wall. She nocked an arrow and pointed the crossbow at my chest. “Calm down!” she shouted.
I opened my fists. My fingers shook. I slumped to my knees, dropping my head into my hands. Heat from the clasp wafted over my face with every tremor.
“Deep breath!” Telisa said.
I took one, long, deep breath.
Another deep breath. The heat began to subside. My hands stopped shaking. I took a last breath and felt tears streaking down my face. “What is happening to me?” I whispered.
For the briefest moment, I saw Telisa's mask fall. The harsh lines, the rigid forehead, it all dropped. Her eyes registered sadness. For me. A second later, she had her hand on my shoulder, gently this time. “Let's find out.”
* * *
I had never ridden a horse before. Telisa had warned me my legs and backside would ache for days afterward. We sat on a leather saddle, Telisa in the back. I clung to the horn with both hands, a leather guard wrapped around my clasp in case it decided to glow golden again.
The brown mare we rode was Telisa's own horse, Poinsettia. I assumed she named it for the red star on her forehead. Poinsettia galloped through the pines on a narrow dirt path winding away from Gratta's compound. The sun's rays stretched out, and I blinked as we rode west.
We stopped only once around dinnertime. I slid off the back of Poinsettia and wobbled back and forth, steadying myself with one hand on a nearby pine tree.
“Recruits who haven't ridden are always the same,” Telisa muttered.
“What do you expect?”
“Perfection.” Telisa dropped to the dirt and opened one of the saddlebags. She dug out two biscuits, a swathe of butter wrapped in a red checkered cloth, and a small butter knife. With two quick swipes, she had butter lathered across both biscuits and tossed one to me.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, chomping on the biscuit eagerly. My stomach was empty from not eating lunch. The cold biscuit felt like honey sliding down my throat. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and caught Telisa watching me again.
She glanced away and pulled a metal canteen from a clasp behind the saddlebag.
“What?” I asked.
Telisa took a swig of water and glanced back at me. “Shut up.”
“No.” I stepped forward, pointing at her. “What is it?”
She shook her head and shoved the canteen in my hand. “Drink.”
“You keep looking at me funny. Ever since the armory. Almost like . . . ” I trailed off, analyzing the dust by my feet and trying to think. Almost like what?
“We should get moving again.” Telisa eyed the sunlight slipping between the pine branches. “I'd like to be at the scholars by dark. At this rate, we aren't going to make it.”
I held up a hand. “Just wait!”
“Don't yell at me.”
“I remind you of someone, don't I?”
Telisa rolled her eyes. “You think too much. Drink some water, stretch your legs, and then let's ride.”
“I'm right, aren’t I?” I gulped down some water. “Was it my brother? Did he look like me? A little taller? Broader?”
Telisa stomped over, grabbed the canteen from my hand, and capped it. “Will you ever do as you’re told? Or do you want to ask more stupid questions that have no answers? Or should I leave you out here for—”
A rustle echoed from the bushes. Faster than I could shiver, Telisa swung her crossbow to eye level. She slowly pivoted, scanning the dry bushes around us. The ground rose and fell slightly for leagues. Red boulders bigger than Poinsettia poked up from the clay.
I backed up to stand beside the mare. I opened my mouth to ask what was out there but pressed my lips together. This wasn’t a time for questions.
Telisa never turned to look at me. She only whispered, “Mount up.”
I nodded and shoved a foot in the stirrup before swinging my other leg over Poinsettia's back. From on top of the horse, I could see shadows slinking between the boulders beyond the bushes.
A hand wreathed in wisps of shadow crept into the air behind the nearest boulder.
“Telisa! Over there!” I pointed at the hand.
She whipped around and shot an arrow at the hand. It thudded into the palm of the hand before dropping out of sight. Telisa raced back to Poinsettia and scrambled up. “We've got to leave. Now.”
“What was that?”
Sweat trickled down Telisa's brow. “I've never seen them on Castos before. Don't know why they would even venture this direction at all,” she mumbled.
“What was it?”
Telisa handed the reins to me. “You steer. I’ll fight.”
A low moan echoed from behind the boulders. My mouth went dry. Seven pairs of shadowy hands rose into the air, slamming onto seven boulders circling us. The creatures crawled up after the hands. Tall, shadowy people glided to the tops of the boulders and stood with their fingers splayed at their sides. They could have been regular people, except their entire bodies were made from the same wispy shadows. As one, they flicked their wrists. Long spikes appeared where their hands had once been.
Telisa shot another arrow at the closest one. It landed in the center of the creature, sending it flying backward into a nearby pine tree.
“Yah!” Telisa shouted, kicking her heels into Poinsettia's flanks.
The horse shot ahead. I gripped the reins and steered Poinsettia toward the path winding past the boulders and pines. Another low moan echoed behind us. I peeked back to see six shadow people float off their perches, lean forward and fly at us, spears extended.
I screamed. Poinsettia whinnied. Telisa loaded her crossbow and pulled the trigger. This one missed and thudded into a tree as the shadow rolled to the side and moaned.
The path sloped downward toward an open field. A collection of round green buildings dotted the meadow set against a rocky outcrop. A large gate wound around the front of the rocks, with a tall green wall covered in spikes and bowls burning with fires.
“Straight there!” Telisa shouted, letting another arrow fly.
One of the shadows leaned forward and shot up next to me. This one was a woman, her long flowing hair whisking behind her as she flew. She opened her mouth and held back her spear-arm. I ducked as the shadow soared over my head. I grabbed one of Telisa's daggers and chucked it at the shadow's head. It lodged between her eyes. With a moan, the shadow tumbled to the dirt, rolling into a ball, and vanishing in a puff of smoke.
“What are these?” I shouted.
Telisa shot another arrow. This one slammed into one of the shadow wraith's legs. It dropped from the air and hobbled after them. “I'll explain later! Get us to those buildings!”
I leaned forward and slapped the reins. Poinsettia responded by pounding over the earth to the field below. We nearly flew across the grass as the remaining four shadows whipped through the air around us. Telisa shot arrows, but these shadows were too quick. The arrows flew past them.
“Out of arrows!” Telisa said. She dropped the crossbow onto a clasp at Poinsettia's side and drew the broadsword. She swung it as the shadows dipped closer, jabbing with their spears. Poinsettia dodged left as a spear thudded into the ground behind us.
“What do they want?”
Telisa grabbed my clasp with one hand. “These. They want the gems!”
One of the shadows dropped, landing with its legs wrapped around Telisa's neck. She choked, grabbing the legs and losing her broadsword to the dirt. I swung around and punched the shadow in the side, finding it surprisingly firm. I pounded again, this time grabbing Telisa's other dagger and driving it into the shadow wraith. It moaned and glared at me with wide eyes.
I stabbed it again. The creature flipped off the back of the horse.
Telisa gasped at the air. “We're almost there!”
Ahead, I could see the gates, slightly ajar, fires burning. I glanced back. The woods were so far behind us now. How could we have gotten this far? Poinsettia had covered more ground than should have been possible. The red star on the horse's forehead glowed. Her legs were a blur over the ground, propelling us forward.
Two shadowy hands landed on my shoulders. I jerked away as Poinsettia nearly flew through the open gates and into a courtyard. The horse tripped on a loose stone, sending Telisa and me flying off her back and onto the ground. I spun around, dagger in hand as two shadow wraiths circled Telisa. One of them landed in front of me, dark eyes scanning my face. This one was also a woman, long hair flowing unnaturally behind her head. She stared at me expressionless, raising up her spear-arm.
Then I heard Telisa scream.
Two of the shadow wraiths had thrust their spears through her, one sticking through the chest, and one through the back. The shadows reached for the clasp on Telisa's forearm with greedy fingers.
I stopped thinking. I pointed the clasp at the shadow in front of me. The gem glowed golden and a beam of light shot through the shadow's face. The wraith vanished with a moan. I raced over to Telisa, clasp still glowing.
My head throbbed. Heat surged through my arms, my legs, my fingers, my face. I stumbled forward, holding out my forearm.
The two shadow wraiths jerked their heads toward me, took one glance at the glowing clasp, then shot straight into the air and over the spiked wall.
I collapsed beside Telisa. Her mouth hung open; blood trickled down her chin.
I glanced at the large wound in her abdomen. The air grew thick with heat. I leaned over and passed out on the cobblestones of the courtyard.
The pits slowed as I watched that pitter fall toward me, pincers-first, in slow motion.
I had always wondered what it might feel like.
I had always wondered if it would really hurt.
Or if I wouldn't even be aware it was happening at all.
But it was happening.
The pincers snapped toward me, the gullet of the pitter yawning open, sharp teeth lining the insides of its throat, legs a blurry scuttle of movement on either side of the monster.
I didn't want to die.
I wanted to live. I had to live.
As soon as that thought registered in my brain, a voice whispered into my ear. No one was there. Maybe death was talking. Maybe it was my brain. Rattled. But I heard the voice.
"If you want to live, then live. Use the gem."
And then something happened I couldn't explain. A rush of energy surged through my body and focused in on my forearm. The forearm trapped by the wriggling pitter waiting for its brother to mash its pincers into my gut so it could chomp on an arm or a leg for itself.
The gem in my clasp burned hot. Pain ratcheted up my arm as golden light burst from the gem and blazed right through the stunned pitter over my arm. Its eyes glowed golden before beams of light burst through every socket, blazing hotter until the pitter exploded around me, sending monster guts flying through the air and smashing into the other pitter that loomed over me.
Golden light still shot from my gem. I screamed in pain and aimed it at the pitter over my head, blasting a hole right through its midsection. The pitter screeched and fell backward.
A golden haze fell over my world. My arm ached. My neck throbbed. Blood rushed through my head as I pushed myself to a standing position. Screams echoed all around me, shouts, screeches, rumbling as I focused the golden light on the other pitters. The other recruits fell to the ground as I screamed and screamed and shot pitter after pitter, watching them explode with golden light.
"Eric! Eric!" My name wafted to me from behind. I slowly spun around and saw Lodan standing there, eyes wide with fear, watching my face wrench in pain.
"ERIC!" Lodan yelled again.
I dropped my arm to my side. My gem faded back to a milky white color with the slightest golden tinge. The other recruits stood up, staring at me with their mouths open. I stumbled to the side, pain filling my chest. I gasped at the air and saw black spots edge in on my vision.
Lodan placed a hand on my shoulder. "Eric?"
Telisa stood over me, staring with an open mouth.
Pitters lay blasted to shreds all around us. Their legs finishing their final scuttles in this life before growing still. I had destroyed them all. All of them. Every last one was gone.
"Get . . . the flag." I rasped. My throat burned. I coughed and spat on the rock beside me.
"Eric . . . your spit . . . it's . . ."
I glanced down. The splotch of spit was golden. It glowed for a second before fading into the rock.
What was happening to me?
A girl grabbed the flag out of its holder and hoisted it into the sky. "We got it!"
Telisa still hadn't moved. She stood on the platform over the field of pits, surveying the damage, open-mouthed. Rudo and the Runner with the rapier stood on either side of her now. They stared like they could never have supposed anything like this would ever happen.
I glanced up at them.Pain coursed through my head. I shook, curling up on my side as I lay on the rock.
Telisa turned to Rudo and hissed something. A moment later he clambered out of sight. The wooden gate scraped open. Rudo trudged through the opening, sloshing past steaming piles of pitter guts until he stood over me.
I glanced up at him, my face wrenched in pain.
He reached down and grabbed my elbow, yanking me to my feet. I almost lost my balance, but he snapped his fingers at Lodan, who hurried over and threw an arm around my shoulders, propping me up. We staggered toward the entrance, past the stunned faces of the other recruits who watched me pass and shifted back. Pitter guts dripped from their hair, their arms, their pants. The same gunk dribbled down my shirt. We were all too shocked to even wipe it away.
Telisa met us outside the gate, hands on both hips. She narrowed her eyes at me and then shouted over my shoulder, "All of you! Out here now!"
The rest of the group hurried out of the pits and stood a good distance from Lodan and me. A strange silence settled over us. The distant clashing of swords and whinnying of horses echoed across the compound.
Telisa held up a fist. "No one talks about what happened here. Got it?"
The recruits stood behind me, still silent.
"Got it?" Telisa screamed.
"Yes, ma'am!" The others shouted in unison.
Telisa pointed at me. "You. You're coming with me to Gratta. Rudo, Fennier! get the rest of these scums to the showers! They stink like pitters."
Rudo and Fennier nodded and clapped their hands at the others.
"You heard her! Run!" Fennier shouted, waving her rapier at the group. I heard their boots clomp away from us, but I couldn't see them. My head lolled forward. Dust swirled around my legs.
"Let's go," Telisa muttered. In that single mutter, I could hear it. She was afraid. Afraid of me. Afraid of what I had done. I trembled and felt bile rising up my throat. I squinched my eyes shut and forced it back down as Lodan helped me stumble ahead. Footfall after footfall, sand crunching under my boots, stomach roiling back and forth, burning pain shooting up my forearm.
What exactly had I done?
"We're there," Lodan whispered.
I forced my head up. Gratta's ranch house sat in front of us. A green door with bars over a simple round window in the center of it. The house stretched in either direction about thirty feet; I counted four more windows, two on either side, all with bars covering them. The whole house was made from logs like the dormitories, but every log had been painted dark green, like the color of freshly fallen pine needles.
Telisa banged a fist on the door. "Gratta! Open up! It's important!" she growled.
I heard a scuffle inside the house and the door slid open. Gratta filled the doorframe; silver hair fell wild around her head like an untrimmed hedge. Her eyes narrowed. She gazed at Telisa, then Lodan, then me.
She pointed a gnarled finger at Lodan. "That one stays out. Bring the other inside. This had better be important."
Telisa nodded. "It is." She slapped Lodan's hand away from my shoulder and shoved him to the dirt. "Wait there."
Lodan scuttled up against the wall of logs and brought his knees up to his chest.
Telisa grabbed my arm and yanked me through the doorway. We entered a room with wooden floors that shone in the sunlight streaming through a large back window, covered with more bars. A counter ran from one end of the room to the other. Green suede couches sat against the wall facing it and the lines of bookshelves behind the counter. Rows of books with green binding and gold foiling lined the shelves, red ribbons snaking out the tops of every one. A large feather quill rested in an ink bottle on the counter, with one of the books open wide, yellowed pages facing upward.
Gratta pointed at the couch. "Lie down."
I did and closed my eyes immediately, holding my forearm. The burning had subsided a bit, and the pain had dulled to an ache.
I heard the door lock. Footsteps shuffled across the room. Then Telisa spoke. "I've never seen it before, ma'am. His clasp. The gem. It shone golden."
Gratta coughed. "Golden? You sure?"
I opened my eyes now and saw them both staring at me from beside the counter. Gratta's fingers trembled slightly, but she curled them into fists.
Telisa nodded. "Golden." She crossed her huge arms. "Blasted every last pitter with a stream of light that shot out from it. I didn't know they could even glow golden. Didn't think that was one of the colors."
"It's not." Gratta took a deep breath and brushed her silver hair back.
"Maybe we should kill him."
I gasped, choked, and scrambled to a sitting position. "Kill me?"
"Shut up," Gratta muttered. She grabbed a sharp silver letter opener from the counter and flipped it over between her fingers. Light glinted from the letter opener and flashed across my face. My heart pounded, and I could feel a slight tingling around my forearm. "Kill him." Gratta stepped across the room; letter opener gripped in her hand. It looked as sharp as any knife, long, slick, and lethal. "Supposin' the Queen finds out about this. Supposin' she hears a Runner with a golden gem is here."
I leaned back against the couch, feeling the buttons in the fabric digging into my back.
Gratta stood over me now, her shadow falling across my face. "Suppose we just let ya be. See what happens." She held up the letter opener.
The gem glowed brighter. Golden light spilled over my clasp as Gratta raised the letter opener. I held up my arms as she swung. A sheen of golden light formed over my chest. The letter opener bounced against it, and Gratta dropped it clattering to the floor as she stumbled backward. The light snapped back into my gem as Telisa caught Gratta and helped her stand back up.
"Never . . . I've never seen this," Gratta's eyes were wild.
"What's happening, ma'am?" I whispered.
Gratta pointed at the clasp on my forearm. "It's doin' things I ain't never seen a clasp do." She stepped toward me, palms up. "Let me see it."
I shook and held out my forearm. The gem still glowed a slight golden color, but it was quickly fading back to milky white. My head pounded, and golden splashes of light sparked behind my eyelids every time I blinked. Gratta wrapped her fingers around my wrist and traced a finger across the gem's surface.
"Warm," she whispered. She closed her eyes and put a hand on the clasp. Her brow furrowed for a moment, and then she opened her eyes. "Golden light . . ." She stared at me, leaning forward, searching both of my eyes. "Who are you?"
I swallowed. "Eric of Jedros."
"They're simple people–"
She gripped my wrist tighter. "Who are they? Names!"
"Yslin and Hanna. They're simple people. We plant rice and harvest it! I'm nobody."
Gratta squinted at me. "I doubt that. You're somebody. I don't know who. But you are." She glanced at the clasp again. "How'd you do it? The golden light?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. I just . . . did." The voice. The voice had told me to use the gem. For a moment I thought about telling Gratta. I looked at her, my mouth falling open. Should I tell her?
Telisa glared at me over Gratta's shoulder. Waiting.
"Don't." It was such a simple word. But it filled my head. Neither Gratta nor Telisa had said it. But the word was there. Just the same. "Don't."
"Ya mean to tell me, ya go blastin' up my pitters, but ya don't have a tumbleweedin' clue how?"
"I really don't!" That was the truth. I had no idea how it had happened.
Gratta pushed me back against the couch. "Gems only do a couple 'o things. One, is they shine. Whatever kinda job you're runnin' it shines like it. Orange for recruitin', blue for messagin', green for thievin', red for killin', and so on. But there ain't no gold color. Never seen it. Never even heard it possible."
"What do we do with him, ma'am?" Telisa stepped up beside Gratta, glaring at me. "If we can't kill him, what do we do with him?"
"That gem's protectin' 'im. I don't know how, but it is." Gratta spun around and began pacing back and forth, tapping her fingers against her forehead. "Take 'im to the Queen? She'd probably want this. As soon as she hears where he went and what he done, she gonna be descendin' over this compound like a banshee bat. I'm sure she'd love a little army of golden gemmers against the rebellion. Just love it."
"So what do we do?"
"I'm thinkin'!" Gratta snapped. Then she stopped. "I wanna know more about this. It could be mighty useful." She spun around slowly. "As soon as darkness falls, I want you to take 'im, Telisa. Take 'im to the scholars. That'd get 'im away from here for a while and also get us some answers."
"Until then, ma'am?"
Gratta lifted her chin and eyed me. "Until then I want 'im at yer side." With a snap, the old lady wrapped her fingers around Telisa's throat. She dragged the Runner toward her. "Listen close. If he gets away, I'll crack yer gem. If he dies, I'll crack yer gem. If anyone speaks a word o' where he went and what he done, I'll crack yer gem. Ya got it?"
"Got it, ma'am."
"Good." Gratta patted Telisa's cheek and smiled. "Now then. I believe it's feedin' time! So all y'all get outta here and get to the Commons!"
I stood as Telisa stomped to the door and flung it open.
I turned my head to Gratta as she blinked and smiled.
"Just remember, hon. There are more ways to kill ya than with a letter opener. You behave now, ya hear? You're gonna be my little gold digger, I reckon. And Gratta sure likes the sound o' that."
I swallowed and stepped out of the house with Telisa slamming the door behind me.
Lodan scrambled up to his feet, brushing off the backside of his pants. "What happened? Anything wrong? You okay, Eric?"
Telisa shoved Lodan in the chest with a single hand. The boy crumpled backward to the dust. "Shut up. He's fine. Doesn't he look fine to you?"
Lodan made eye contact a second and then nodded slowly. "Sure. Just fine." He stood up, brushed himself off again, and trailed behind as we headed for the Commons.
I couldn't eat. I stared at the plate in front of me, piled high with a slab of meat, green asparagus, and some kind of orange mush I couldn't identify. Telisa sat beside me, stuffing her face like a rabid panda. The other recruits and Runners eyed both of us warily, but I couldn't look back at them. I couldn't even think.
I closed both eyes and took a long, slow breath.
What had happened?
The voice. The voice that had spoken to me. What was that? I had heard it twice now. No explanation. I tried to recall how it sounded. Was it a man's voice? A woman's? A child's? No matter how hard I tried to remember, I couldn't place it.
And all this talk about gold. If gold wasn't a gem color, then how could mine have shone golden like that?
Gratta had said I was somebody.
I wish I knew who that was.
For as long as I could remember, I had always felt like some sort of human shell, rustling between rice paddies and our cottage, digging the tunnel with Saltha, staring at my parents as they stared at the walls in the dark hours of the night.
What did it even mean to be a somebody?
What did it mean to be a Runner? A recruit? A human? An Eric?
A plate clattered to the ground and shattered. My eyes popped open.
Telisa's head shot up from her plate. She jumped up, yanked a knife from her side and scanned the Commons.
A Runner with a duster on pointed at the distant sky. "Shanters! From the Queen's castle!"
Muffled screams rippled across the Commons.
I whipped around to Telisa. "Shanters? What are those?" I studied where the Runner pointed and saw a dark cloud flickering through the air, zagging toward the ground and zigging back up, headed straight for the Commons. I squinted and saw what appeared to be strange, leathery birds, flapping toward us, beady eyes trained on us.
"Get under the table, scrant," Telisa growled. "Do not let them see you."
She jumped up onto the table, knife up. Runners across the Commons raced around, leaping up onto tables. I ducked underneath the table, pulling the bench close and peering out as the shanters zoomed under the Commons awning and flew in a tight circle around the recruits and Runners. A strange, hollow voice echoed out as the shanters flew faster and faster. My hair stood on end, and my collar fluttered as the wind around us grew stronger. One of the benches scraped toward the center of the room.
"Golden light has been spilled," the voice hissed from the shanters. "The Queen knows this. Reveal the Runner."
Telisa held her ground and planted both feet between a tray of orange mush and a platter of steak. "Leave! There ain't no such thing as golden light! Get gone!"
The wind picked up, and the shanters flew faster, claws on the ends of their legs flexing. "Lies! The Queen has felt it! Reveal the Runner of the golden light!"
A shanter ducked sideways and latched both claws around the head of a Runner, lifting him into the air. The things were large, probably wider than a grown man. It dug its claws into the Runner's face as he screamed.
"Tell us!" the shanters screeched.
Another shanter shot out, grabbed a recruit by the shoulders, and dragged her up, kicking and thrashing.
My breath caught in my throat as I watched the shanters pick up four more recruits, yanking them into the air over the tables of food. My tongue ran dry. The clasp on my arm began to burn.
"We will kill them all if you do not reveal the Runner of Golden Light!"
And then one of the shanters grabbed Lodan. The only person I would have called a friend out here. They dragged him into the center of the Commons. A shanter hovered in front of his face, a claw tracing down the side of his cheek.
"Help!" Lodan screamed.
I pushed the bench aside.
And then Telisa cleared her throat. "Fine! You want the Runner of Golden Light?"
"Yesss..." the voice whispered. "Reveal the Runner!"
Telisa glanced at me and smirked. "I'll tell you who the Runner of Golden Light is."
I closed my eyes, wind whipping through my hair. I stood. And waited for shanter claws to dig into my shoulders.
I woke up to a boot slamming into my gut. I curled up on the sleeping mat, pain spasming through my stomach. My eyes shot open as I gasped, tossing aside the scratchy blankets and then blinking at the harsh sunlight streaming through the window. The day was already warm. Dry air scraped down my nostrils with each inhale.
“Get up, maggot.”
One of the Runners stood over me. Rudo. He had taken off his duster and wore a white collared shirt with brown suspenders looped over his shoulders. His dark hair hung loose down to his shoulders. His fists were clenched at his sides.
I glanced around. The rest of the dormitory was already empty.
“Everyone's at the morning feed. If you don't hurry, you'll miss out. And Gratta won't like it.” He reached down and grabbed me by the clasp, yanking me up. My forearm stung, and I shook my arm away and backed into the log wall behind me. Rudo pointed to a wooden chest in the corner of the dorm. “Clothes's in there. Change out of those filthy ricelands rags. They stink.”
I scratched the skin around my clasp and limped over to the chest. My entire forearm looked red from the clasp. Around the edges of the silver, it appeared to be fused to my arm, like the metal had sunk beneath the surface and latched around my bones. It would probably never come off. Not that I wanted to try and take it off. Not after what had happened to Saltha. The gem was a milky color again this morning.
Rudo stomped past me, through the door, and outside into the bright sunlight. “Hurry up, recruit.”
“Yes, sir,” I muttered. The clothes in the chest were clean and smelled fresh enough–like pine needles and wood. A better smell than anything back on Jedros. Washing clothes there was a weekly task. People in the village generally stunk. Apparently, Gratta liked her Runners smelling better than that.
I slipped out of my tunic and trousers and slid on a pair of loose brown pants and a white collared shirt like Rudo's. I fumbled with the buttons and the holes, not quite sure if I had done it right. I'd never worn anything this fancy before. The suspenders were the hardest to figure out. The band stretched over my shoulder, and I fumbled with the clasp, trying to get it latched onto the back of my pants. With a harsh snap, it came loose and slapped against my cheek.
Rudo smirked. “Trouble?”
I ignored him, winced, and tried again until it clipped into place. I pulled two black boots out of the trunk and shoved my feet into them. They felt so strange after the flat shoes I had grown up wearing. I felt taller.
A dusty field stretched between the dormitory and one of the large buildings. It wasn’t exactly a building really, more like the top of a barn arching over a pavilion with packed earth, benches, and rows of wooden tables. Rudo walked in front of me, kicking up dust as we marched into the open building.
“This is the Commons where we feed. So sit down and eat, recruit.”
I spotted Lodan and zig-zagged through the tables until I sat beside him. He had a plate in front of him piled with bread, poached eggs, and a tin mug filled with water. Long platters sat in the center of the table with more hunks of bread and eggs and metal pitchers of water. My eyes widened. I had never seen so much food in one place before. The smells drifted up to my nostrils and almost overwhelmed with the sheer variety.
“Eric,” Lodan said through a mouth full of eggs. “Sorry I didn't get you up. They hustled us out here. You slept through the whole thing. Crazy.” He chewed and swallowed.
“Training.” Lodan nodded at a ring of tables on the far side of the Commons. “Those tables is for the Runners who've passed training.”
I stared wide-eyed at the ten tables filled with other recruits–male and female, all dressed the same with white collared shirts, suspenders, brown pants and black boots. There must have been at least a couple hundred of us training, but only about twenty-four Runners.
“So many of us.”
Lodan leaned forward. “I guess that's because they don't expect most of us to live through training.”
He nudged my shoulder. “You better eat. Or you're gonna miss out. They said we have tactical training right after this. What that is, I have no idea. But I'm gonna make it to those Runner tables.”
I grabbed a piece of bread and sank my teeth into it. It was still warm and seemed to melt on my tongue. I was surprised. I never expected to eat so well. Maybe being a Runner really wasn't that terrible. Save the whole might not live past training bit.
Other recruits didn't even glance over at us. They kept stuffing their faces like they had never eaten a thing in their lives. Maybe they hadn't. With every bite, I couldn't help wondering what Saltha would have made of all this. She'd probably still be planning an escape. Her gem glowing purple. I couldn't imagine how this life could be so much worse than working a rice paddy for the rest of my existence.
I thought about my parents for a moment–their dead gazes as they sloshed their way through the rice. My mother's eyes as she told me to run. My father not even bothering to glance my direction as these Runners slapped a clasp on my forearm.
I shook my head. They were in the past now.
A loud ringing echoed across the Commons. Gratta stood on a small stage in the center of the Runner tables, holding up a metal triangle and a hammer. She clanged the hammer against the triangle again, and every head whipped up. Every mouth stopped chewing. We put down our forks.
“Listen up, kids! Welcome to our newest Jedros recruits. We hope you find this a satisfying place to live out your lives. Most of y'all won't make it even a year with us. Some of y'all might die tomorrow in training. Whether you die now or then, just know this: I appreciate each one of ya. Or at least the gold ya line my pockets with!” Gratta laughed and swept her hat from her silver head, smacking it against her knee.
“But seriously.” She cleared her throat and swallowed. “While all y'all are here, you listen to my Runners. You recruits ain't Runners yet. You might become them one day. But not yet. There's a plum-crazy world out there filled with all kinds of stuff that’ll maim ya. Then dismember ya! Then kill ya! I would prefer y'all livin' long enough to finish a few jobs for ole Gratta.”
She stomped her foot. “Telisa! Fork over the rules!”
A Runner sitting behind Gratta stood up. She had long brown hair braided into two ponytails on either side of her head with a neat part down the middle. A deep scar ran across her face, over her lips, and down her chin. She was tall, taller than most anybody else. And she was the most muscular person under the Commons roof. She could probably break me in half with a single snap.
Her voice carried throughout the Commons when she spoke, both hands clasped behind her back. “Listen up! Because I'm only sayin' this one time. You're in Gratta's dominion now. And if you fail to abide by these rules you'll be put on gate duty. Or sent to the maggot hole for a night. And if you really can't listen, then Gratta will crack yer gem.”
Telisa glanced in my direction. “I hear some of you already know what happens when someone's gem gets all cracked up.”
“No one goes in Gratta's house! For no reason! No one takes weapons without permission! No fightin' unless it's organized by me! And you will always listen to a Runner! Disobey one, and I will send you to the maggot hole!” Telisa stepped back.
Gratta smiled at her. “Thank you, dear. Always a pleasure to hear from ya.” The old woman stepped back up onto the stage and smirked. “Now then.” She clapped her hands together and rubbed them quickly. “On to some training! Separate by home island! Jedros out to the pits! Castos on work duty! Vos! You're at the stables! Uthen, get yer sorry hides out to the fields! And Raithan, you're in the Casket! Now move!”
Benches squeaked as the recruits and Runners stood up.
“Where are the pits?” I asked.
Lodan shrugged. “No clue. At least we're all together.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Telisa stalked through the crowd of people until she stood in front of our table. “Jedros! You're with me! The pits are this way!” Her head stood above every other person in the Commons building, so it wasn't hard to follow her braids out into the sunlight, past the girl's dormitories and toward a fenced off area of the grounds. There were twenty of us from Jedros following behind her. It was weird to see everybody from the rice paddies in such strange clothes. There were some I hadn't ever seen before.
Was this where my brother had come when they took him? If these Runners were the ones that took him. Maybe he hadn't lived through training. Maybe he was dead now. Maybe--
“Stop!” Telisa screamed.
She placed a large hand on a wooden gate. The fence was a series of wooden posts, the tops sharpened into pikes. This single gate led through the fence and to what I guessed was the pits. A latch hung across the gate.
Two other Runners had joined our group. Rudo and another one I hadn't seen yet. Rudo had his boken in one hand and the other Runner, another girl, held a sharp rapier with a blue handle. She wore a wide-brimmed hat with a drawstring pulled tight under her chin. They both stood at the back, nodding at Telisa.
“Right then!” Telisa said. “I want you all to listen. I expect at least two of you to be dead by the time the lunch bell rings. You all live, and I'll let you off your work hour tonight. Got it?”
My mouth had gone dry. I glanced at Lodan. His normal calmness had slipped away to the dust somewhere behind us. His eyes looked as panicky as mine must have.
“Put your ears up against the fence. And listen!” Telisa shouted, pointing at the wood.
No one else moved. So I stepped forward and pressed my ear against the wood posts and listened. On the other side, I heard a kind of chewing sound, like something was eating a meal. But I also noticed a sliding noise, like sand dribbling down the sides of rocks. The others joined me up against the fence and listened.
“What you're listening to is the pitters. They're nasty things, and they're always hungry for a new recruit. We're going to see which of you might be smarter than the rest. We need to get rid of anyone who seems weak.” Telisa glanced at each one of us.
“What do we have to do, ma'am?” I asked.
Telisa paused, pursed her lips together, and narrowed her eyes. “Simple enough. Get past the pitters and get the flag at the other end. Work together if you want. I don't care.”
A girl with blonde hair started shaking. “Wh-what if we don't want to?”
Rudo stepped up behind her with his boken raised. Telisa held up a hand. Rudo stepped back.
“You don't want to play this little game, is that it?” Telisa asked.
The girl's lip quivered. She shook her head.
“That's too bad. Because you have to.”
I glanced down at the girl's forearm. The clasp had turned a tinge of purple. “Stop thinking about escaping!” I shouted.
Telisa raised an eyebrow. The girl stared at me; her mouth dropped open. “How d-do you know that's what I'm . . . .”
“Your clasp!” I pointed at her forearm. The gem had grown a deeper shade of purple. “It turns that color when people think about leaving! So stop!”
Telisa crossed her arms. “He's right you know. You keep formulating that little escape plan, and you'll leave all right. You'll be gone in a flash o' purple light. Dead. Your soul cracked in two.”
The girl swallowed and nodded. “I . . . I can't help it . . . I want to leave. I can't do this! I can't!” She turned and raced back toward the Commons.
“I can't do it either!” A boy beside me shouted. His gem glowed a bright purple. He ran after the girl, but before they had even gotten halfway across the field, they stumbled to the dust, grabbing at their throats, coughing, and then rising slowly into the air, glowing with purple light. Their bodies spun faster and faster as tendrils of light wrapped around their legs and arms and heads.
Saltha's face flashed into my head, and I glanced away. I couldn't watch this again. I couldn't.
“Cover,” Telisa muttered. She put an arm over her eyes as the two recruits vanished into the purple light, their clasps cracking and falling to the dust where they had been. Telisa sighed. “Anyone else care to go out in a blaze of glory?” She eyed us and then nodded at Rudo. “Get those clasps to recycling. The Queen'll want 'em.”
Rudo darted off.
“Now then. Back to the game.” She lifted the latch on the gate. “By the way, y'all aren't getting' out of work duty now. Ya lost two. Just like I predicted.”
My hands shook, but I clenched my fingers together. If there was one thing I was about to do, it was win. I was not going to let that happen to anyone else.
Telisa pulled open the gate, and I was the first one through. Staring. A field of pits stretched between the gate and a small mound of boulders with a green flag on a pole stuck into a crevice in the rocks. Sand dribbled down the pits towards a dark hole at the center of each one. Thirty pits stood between me and that flag.
Lodan inched inside the fence with me, and the rest of the recruits followed. We lined up in a half circle a few arm lengths away from the first pit. Sharp pincers slowly rose from the pit, attached to a head covered in eyes with a nasty gullet of sharp teeth. Slobber spilled out the mouth, and every eye latched onto us and widened.
I wanted to back away and run. I glanced down and noticed the faintest purple tinge sweep into the gem on my clasp. I gritted my teeth and forced my eyes to watch the creature emerge from the pit. It looked like a giant millipede longer than Telisa was tall. A thousand tiny red legs scuttled on either side of its thick body. Each segment writhed as sand spilled to the ground. Pitters.
The gate slammed shut. A shadow fell over us. Telisa stood on a small platform, hands clasped behind her back. She saluted and raised both eyebrows. “You've got until the lunch bell rings. If you survive.”
The pitter slithered over the sand back and forth, tapping its legs against the sand. The ground rumbled, and we stumbled back against the fence as fifteen more pitters emerged from their holes, some dark red, some brown, some a deep ivory color.
A girl beside me screamed in terror and collapsed to the sand.
“Get up!” I shouted.
But it was too late. The pitter darted forward, snapping its pincers around the girl's leg and dragging her clawing at the ground back toward the pit as she screamed. I flew forward onto my stomach and grabbed her arm, yanking backward.
Tears crawled down her face as she gripped my hands tightly. “Don't let go, don't let go, don't let go!”
The creature roared and lifted its body into the air, dragging her along with it. She hung upside down from its pincers, now piercing her left leg. She screamed again as the pitter scrambled back toward its hole. I lost my grip on her hand and glanced around for a rock – anything I could throw, anything at all. But there was nothing nearby except sand.
I scooped up a handful and flung it at the pitter's eyes. It blinked at me and screeched. The pitter slipped back into the hole with the girl and a gulp.
I stared at the dark hole. I had lost her.
Lodan slapped me on the shoulder. “No time to think about it. We gotta run!” He pointed at another pitter scuttling toward us, pincers clacking.
We ran. The other recruits darted in all directions, some trying to stay away from the pitters, others scraping at the fence and trying to climb out, and another two sitting down in complete surrender. Their gems turned bright purple, and two more of them vanished from sight, leaving behind their clasps in the sand.
A series of reddish rocks stuck up from the sand. “Maybe we can get across that way!” I shouted.
Lodan spotted the rocks and nodded. “Best idea yet!”
A pitter slid up behind us, and I shoved Lodan to the side. He crashed into the wooden post fence, and I fell back onto the first rock. The pitter screeched and swung its head from me to Lodan, probably deciding who was the easier prey. I scrambled up to my feet as the pincers shot in my direction, snapping closed as I leaped back.
“Get the flag!” Lodan shouted.
Get the flag. I had to get the flag. Then this would be over. Or at least the gate would open. I didn't imagine Telisa and the other Runners helping us. We'd probably still have to get back to the gate.
I hurdled to the next rock, over a pit and a pitter as it shot out of its hole and slammed into the pitter slithering after me. The two monsters screeched, legs scraping against each other before they rolled to the side with a crunch.
My heart slammed against my chest. Panic fueled my legs. The flag was closer. I had to make it. I leaped to another rock as a pitter rose up in front of me. I gasped, falling back to my elbows and staring up at as the thing towered over me. It waved its little legs in the air, every eye glared at me.
Another pitter slowly rose up beside me and slammed its pincers around my arm. It eyed my clasp and the gem, now back to its milky white color. Drool slipped from its mouth onto my shoulder, sizzling in the sunlight.
“Eric!” I heard Lodan scream. “ERIC!”
And then the pitter in front of me dropped its pincers straight at my chest.
Fog lingered over the passway like the stank breath that wouldn't brush out of a mouth. Moss grew over most of this passway, and somewhere down below I could hear the water lapping up against the stone sides.
I marched near the front of the group. The Runner with the missing sleeve marchec out at the very front, whip in hand, feet stepping gingerly over the stones beneath us. He slid along almost sideways, ready to pounce back at us recruits, or leap ahead at unseen enemies in the fog.
Before we stepped onto the bridge, Gratta had shown us how to use the clasps on our arms as a light. If we rubbed the gems fast enough, they would glow for at least a couple hundred steps before we had to rub it again. I glanced at my gem. It was a milky color, still quite opaque, and shining slightly. I rubbed my fist across it a bit more, and the light brightened.
“Best not to let that get too bright there.”
I glanced up to see Gratta leaning over the side of her horse; silver hair tucked behind her ears. She had a silver earring clamped around the whole top half of her earlobe. Her fingernail scratched at the skin around the metal.
I held my hand over the gem. “Sorry.”
“Nah, no need to be sorry just yet. Ya don't know better, that's why I'm tellin' ya.” Gratta sat up and swayed slightly. The horse's hooves clopped over the bridge. I couldn't help wondering why it was so important not to be seen if anyone could hear us coming from a mile away. Gratta clucked her tongue. “Disappoint me, though . . . . Oh, then you'll be real sorry.”
Gratta pulled back on the horse's reins, circled, and clopped to the back of the group.
Lodan scurried up, falling in step with me.
“What do you want?” I asked, glancing away.
“Look, Eric. I'm sorry, but . . . I've heard things.”
“Oh really?” I hissed. “Like what? Like how to be a terrible friend to people? How to let other people die? That sounds great to me.”
“No.” Lodan took a deep breath and peeked back at Gratta and the two surviving Runners at the very back of the group. “Things like if you touch someone when they're . . . .” He swallowed. “You know. Like what happened with Saltha. Earlier. If you touch them, then you get pulled into the light too.”
I sniffed. Not because I was crying, but because my nose was cold. Okay, maybe I had been holding back some tears, but I wasn't about to cry in front of these people. They didn't seem to appreciate weakness.
Maybe Lodan was telling the truth. Maybe he was right.
I turned to face him. “How do you know?”
Lodan leaned forward. “My parents knew a bookkeeper once. He came to their cottage one night before we worked for Boss Mandel in the rice fields. This bookkeeper told my parents about these gems. Drunk as rice roots, he was. And I listened.”
“What else did you find out?”
“Not much. Bits. I was young. Maybe five or six. All I know is the colors on the gems. They mean things. And once you've got one of these,” he held up his forearm. His gem was the same milky white as mine. “Once you got one, you're bound. Can't leave your bookkeeper. Until you finish enough jobs for 'em.”
The sleeveless Runner stopped. He spun around as I bumped right into his whip. “Will you two clam it up? You're gonna learn all kinds of things about these clasps, the gems, the jobs, the bookkeepers. But right now, we might run afoul of other things. So stay silent.”
“I thought this was a passway. Aren't they clear?” Lodan asked.
The Runner snorted and shook his head. “Stupid recruit. You're always stupid. Suppose even I was stupid once. Then you learn things. Like how passways aren't always safe. So shut it.” He spun back around and marched ahead, the orange light from his gem lighting up the fog.
We marched on. The other recruits behind us went between whimpering, shivering, straight-out crying, and plodding ahead in numb silence. Gratta hurried alongside the passway railing, glancing back, ahead, to the side, as if waiting for something. She tipped up her hat and peered into the gloom, almost daring something to fly at us, to try and surprise her.
My feet ached. It felt like my arches were cramping up, and if I took even five more steps, I'd fall over face first onto the stone passway.
The sleeveless Runner held up a fist. The fog ahead cleared, and a soft breeze wafted against my cheek. I shivered.
A stone arch hung over the pass with two turrets on either side. Windows with actual glass panes faced us, and candlelight lit up the right side. There was a wooden door at the bottom, open slightly. The door pushed open with a creak, and a man in a dark tunic and brown breeches sauntered out. A two-barreled pistol hung loosely from his left hand. He had dark stringy hair, a grizzled face, and a scarred eyesocket.
“Well, now.” He slapped a hand against the stone archway. “Look what trolled up here.”
Gratta's horse pushed through the crowd of recruits until she stood at the front of the pack. She slipped off the back of the horse. The back sides of her brown boots had spurs that jangled once as she landed. She held the rifle and her nose, spitting to the side. “We have a right fine bunch 'o business. That's what we have. And none of it is yers, so slip aside, Bonaventure.”
The man smiled and spread his arms wide. “I was just pokin' me nose about, pretty lady. That's all. I didn't mean to get ye caught up unawares. The turrets were long abandoned when I got 'ere, I'll tell ye that much. Somethin' foul's on the seas. And it doesn't take prisoners if ye catch my meanin'.”
Gratta narrowed her eyes. “Move along. And we'll be movin' right along as well.”
“Ah,” Bonaventure snapped his fingers. Five men clambered over the side of the passway with pistols slung at their waists. Four more crept up the other side, and one leaned out the darkened window above, a gold flintlock pistol aimed at Gratta's head.
I stepped back.
“Pirates,” Lodan whispered.
Sleeveless shot us a look and held a finger to his lips.
Gratta patted the horse beside her. “What do ya want?”
Bonaventure raised his eyebrows and smirked. “I want . . . ” he held up two fingers. “Two of yer recruits. I need some Runners in the employ. So who's it gonna be?” He clapped his hands together and stepped forward. His gaze ran over each one of us like we were fresh fruit at the market.
Gratta held up her arm. “None o' these. They're too fresh. Haven't had time to write their names in the books or nuttin'. You go and take on of these, and they'll die in a blast o’ purple faster than you can spit.”
“That's a mighty fine problem. That it is . . . ” Bonaventure tapped his forehead, tracing a finger down the side of his face, through his scarred eyesocket and ending at his chin. “What should we do about that?”
“I got a solution,” Gratta said. “Back off. And back away.”
Bonaventure wagged a finger in Gratta's face. “Ah, but that's not the way business is done, dear Gratta. Ye can't be waltzin' yer way through my seas without a penalty o' sorts. Words tellin' of stirrin's. There's things happenin' out in ole Abra, and I reckon I should have myself a pinch of insurance before it all blinks out like a snuffed lamp.”
He slipped around Gratta and stood beside her horse.
“Ya got no need o' horses out on the seas, and ya know it,” Gratta muttered.
Bonaventure flipped open a pouch on the side of the horse and pulled out a clasp. Saltha's clasp. “This'll do!”
“Drop that!” I shouted. “It's not yours!”
Gratta spun. Sleeveless stepped over and backhanded me across the face. “Not another word!”
I stumbled back with a cry of pain, clutching my cheek.
Bonaventure smirked and dangled the clasp. “This mean somethin' to ye, now?”
I clenched my teeth. My cheek quivered. I wanted to grab that clasp back, shove this scum off the side of the passway, and watch him panic in the water below.
“Ah. So it does.” He tapped a finger on the gem, tracing its cracks carefully. “These are rare finds in Abra. Used clasps. Belonged to a recruit. Who didn't know when to stay put.” Bonaventure stepped up to me. Lodan, Gratta, and Sleeveless all lurched back. I eyed the pistols trained on us, then glanced up at Bonaventure.
He held the clasp in front of me. “Friend o' yours?”
I nodded, one hand still on my stinging cheek.
“Tell me, boy. Do ye know what happens to them when they sees the purple light?”
I shook my head. “I don't. But I do know you should give that back.” My cheek still stung. But I didn't care. That clasp was all that was left of Saltha. It just seemed wrong in this man's hands. Wrong.
“When they sees the purple light, it's 'cause they be thinkin' of runnin'. They wants to run. And not in the direction of any job, mind ye. They's thinkin' of headin' out. Gettin' away from their bookkeeper. Always dangerous to run from a bookkeeper.” He smiled, baring his yellowed teeth and one silver one. “When the gem cracks, so does their very soul. Breaks 'em apart at the deepest o' levels, it does. And once they's broken, there's no bringin' 'em back to the land o' the living.” He tapped me on the head with the clasp. “So yer little friend is dead. Just like you’ll be. Got that?”
I nodded, a single tear slipping down my cheek. Saltha wasn’t just gone. She was erased. Never coming back. My stomach twisted with an ache, and for the first time that day, I realized just how hollow it really was.
“Ah, the poor wee lad's gone and cried over a broken clasp.” And then he leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “And perhaps a broken heart.” He grabbed my shoulder and yanked me closer. The smell of rotting fruit drifted up from his tunic. “Beware the Queen, laddie. I reckon she take a bad sort of likin' to ye. Long live the rebellion.”
Then he whisked backward, pistol waving in the air. He fired once, and the blast rang in my ears. I slammed my fists over both sides of my head and blinked twice.
“Back to the ship, lads! We got ourselves a prize!” He held the clasp up and fired again, laughing and running straight for the side of the passway. He leaped over along with the other nine pirates, who slipped over the side and out of sight. I almost expected to hear splashes, but instead, I saw the fog part around a large white sail fluttering in the breeze. The pirates clung to the side of the sail, slipping to the deck of a wooden ship.
The last pirate wound his way down from the turret above, raced across the passway, and leaped to the sail, sliding to the deck and saluting us back on the passway.
The ship drifted away from the passway. It looked to be about the length of three cottages with a fairly bare deck, save the two harpoon guns lodged on either side, and two women with their ratty hair pulled back into braids. Bonaventure marched up to the ship's wheel and spun it. The ship drifted to the side, turning away from the passway into the fog.
Sleeveless smacked his whip on the stones. “I hate that kinda scum.”
Gratta shook her head. “They only took a broken clasp, not too much to worry about. Save the Queen might take my hide for losin' it.” She put both hands on her hips then pivoted on her heel, glaring at me. “You. Here.”
Lodan nudged me in the back. I stumbled forward, standing up straight once I stood in front of Gratta. She slapped me on the cheek and held a finger up in my face. “Don't ever try negotiatin' when I'm doin' the negotiatin'. I see promise in you, so don't go changin' my mind by doin' stupid things! Git it?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”
Gratta winked. “Good.” She climbed onto her horse and held up her rifle. “Double-time, recruits! I wanna make it to Castos before sunrise! And the sun is a-comin'! So hoof-it!” She pulled her horse around and kicked its sides, sending the brute into a gallop.
Sleeveless cracked the whip again. “You heard her! Let's move! No one passes me, and no one falls behind Harith and Rudo back there! Come on!” He took off jogging at a steady pace, and we all followed suit. My legs were killing me, but I didn’t dare slow down, Runner Harith and his companion Rudo glad to use their bokens on anyone lagging behind.
We ran for what felt like hours until I saw the outline of an island ahead. The end of the passway. Finally. No more running across open seas. No more wondering if those pirates would come back for the rest of us. I couldn't help wondering what Boneventure had meant whispering to me like that. I almost wanted to tell Lodan or even Gratta, but for some reason, it felt secret. Too secret to share. I didn't know anything about any rebellion, but I did know about the Queen.
What we had been told was she ruled over the five islands of Abra and let folks go about their business as long as it didn’t conflict with hers. Some said she was a bit too harsh when she punished thieves and other criminals, but why wouldn't she? If someone had stolen a day’s ration of food from a neighbor, I supposed they should be thrown in stocks for a day. Made sense to me. Her castle was on this island. Castos, the largest island in Abra. Home to most of the bookkeepers as well.
I had never seen it until now. In the pre-dawn light, I could see tall, dry pine trees stretching out of dusty ground, rising up the rocky hills and blocking the rest of the island from view. The coastline didn't look like Jedros. No pebbles here. Just ruddy clay stretching away into haze.
Another archway stretched across the end, two more turrets on either side. Two female soldiers in silver armor with long spears in hand stood under the stone arch. Pistols hung from their belts. They crossed their spears, and each held up a hand.
Gratta's horse stamped the stones. “We're just passin' through to my stables.”
“We know.” One of the soldiers stepped up to Gratta and pointed at the rest of us. “Queen's orders. Every recruit is to be inspected before entry to Castos.”
“That's new. Ain’t gonna be an inspection o’ any kind ‘til I see this official order o’ the Queen’s,” Gratta spat.
A third guardswoman stepped from the wooden door at the base of the turret. She held a rolled up parchment. She handed it over to Gratta, who unrolled it with a flick. The old woman's eyes scanned the page. She shook her head and sighed. “Fine, fine. Make it quick! I'm on a schedule!”
Sleeveless snapped the whip. “Line up!”
We hurried into a jagged line. He snapped the whip again. We straightened it out. The soldier made her way down the line, picking up everyone's chin, poring over every clasp, and passing on to the next.
Lodan turned and whispered to me, “What are they looking for?”
I shrugged. I had no idea.
The guardswoman grabbed my chin with a gloved hand. She craned my head back and stared me in the eyes, squinting. What were they searching for? The woman hovered a little longer then dropped my chin before grabbing my forearm and gazing into the gem clasped there. She rubbed two fingers across the gem. Nothing happened. The stone stayed a milky white color. Just as opaque as before.
She dropped my arm and then hurried down the rest of the line. I let out a breath I didn't know I'd held. “Not here!” she called from the back end by Rudo and Harith.
The other two guards up front stepped to the side. “Welcome to Castos,” they said as we passed by, still in a single-file line. My feet met the clay, and I hoped we wouldn't have much farther to travel. Gratta led us to a path winding through the pine trees and head-sized rocks. The sun had risen over a distant hillside by the time we saw a set of buildings sprawled out over a compound ringed by a tall spiked wood fence below us. The buildings stood thirty feet below, nestled between us and the hills all around.
Sleeveless pointed out two medium-sized structures. “Dormitories. Girls’ on the left. Boys’ on the right. The two bigger ones between them are the Commons and the Casket. And then that little log cabin on the far side is Gratta’s house. Don’t touch it.”
We marched into the compound through two gates made of wooden posts slung together with chains and pulled back by two groups of four Runners, sweating and groaning with the effort. Sleeveless shoved me. “Pray you don't get put on gate duty.”
“Alright!” Gratta shouted as the gate closed back up behind us. She stood on her horse, trotting back and forth in front of us. “You're here at Gratta's stables now. There ain't gonna be no fightin' each other unless it's organized fightin' by my head runners. All y'all are gonna do what I say when I say it, or you'll be on gate duty. Or worse. You got some trainin' to do before I send you out! So move! I'll give y’all a few hours to rest. Trainin' starts today! Now git!”
Harith and Rudo ushered us in the direction of the dormitories, two-storied buildings with bars over every window. The building itself looked made of wooden logs, stacked on top of each other. I stepped toward the dorms, but a hand clamped down on my shoulder.
I spun around and saw Gratta's face leaning into mine as the other recruits hustled into the buildings.
Gratta held up a hand. “Tell me what that pirate said to ya, or I'm gonna knock ya cross-eyed!”
“He . . . ” I swallowed, closed my eyes, and tried to force my brain to bring the words back together. It had been such a long day. I was more worn down than I had realized. “He said something about staying away from the Queen. He also said, 'long live the rebellion,' ma'am.”
Gratta slapped me. “Don't ever say those words. Ever. You hear me? I don't want a swarm o' the Queen's guards descendin' on this place. Git it?”
I nodded. “Got it, ma'am.”
She straightened up and smiled. “You just forget you ever heard nuttin'.” She patted me on the back and shoved me toward the dorms.
“What were those guards looking for?”
Gratta tipped up the edge of her hat. The morning sun lit her eyes like fire. “They was lookin' for someone. Someone they ain't gonna ever find. Now git!”
I turned. And I got. All the way up to the dorm. I found a rough sleeping mat across from Lodan and a hundred other boys. I turned toward the wood walls, pulled the scratchy gray blanket over my head and cried.
Water splashed against my face. The cage had sunk halfway into the waves, and the recruits around me kicked off the pebbles and reached for the bars overhead. The pales had scurried down the shoreline. Several of them clung to the beams, their gray spindly fingers grasping for ears, hair, elbows; anything they could grab.
One of the pales wrapped its arm around her waist. She kicked and scratched and thrashed, trying to free herself. I leaped over and grabbed the pale's arms, yanking downward. It screeched at me with all its teeth bared. Unphased, I screamed back.
In the confusion, Saltha threw her elbow out, connecting with the monster's face. It howled and released her, flipping off the cage and into the water. Drenched and furious, she stood up and swiped her hair back with both hands. We grabbed the arms of other recruits and pulled them to the center of the cage, safely out of pale reach. Two of them scrambled above us and waved their long fingers through the openings, hissing and clacking their teeth.
“Duck!” I whispered.
We crouched, our chins resting in the warm water.
One of the recruits smirked and punched my shoulder. “They can't reach us. Good on ya.”
I smiled, rubbed my shoulder, and nodded.
The pales hissed, slowly circling the half-sunken cage. Some of them clawed at the beams and then darted backward again.
Saltha ducked lower as a pale sprawled onto its belly and grasped at her hair. “Sure would be nice if some of those Runners showed up!”
I glanced around, searching for the Runners. None of them were nearby. One had been taken down by the pales. Another had been at the front of the wagon but must have fallen off in the scuffle. Where the other three were, I didn't know.
And then the pales threw back their heads and wailed in one long, sad tone. “What are they doing?” I asked.
We watched as the pales jumped from the cage and formed a circle in the water, their hands thrown behind their backs as they wailed in some bizarre ritual. My stomach twisted once and then twice. Something was happening. This was not good.
A distant rumbling echoed down the hill toward the water. A row of pales raced down the grassy slope toward us. They joined with the others and stalked toward the wagon, grabbing the beams and yanking backward. The cage slid as thirty of the creatures wrapped their hands around the wood and dragged it towards the shore. We fell back into the water, slamming into each other.
I fell, waves sliding up my nose. We scraped across the pebbly ocean bottom until the cage was free of the water. The pales circled the cage, grabbed the crossbeams, and pulled. The wood cracked, and I could see splinters flying in every direction as the pales dug their clawed feet into the pebbly shore.
One of the beams snapped off. We huddled together, watching as the clacking jaws of the pales loomed over us.
A spindly hand reached into the wagon. I kicked at it and scored a glancing blow. Then the hand was back, and the creature grabbed my foot and yanked me out of the cage with incredible strength.
Dangling upside down from the creature's hands, I grabbed the pale around the waist and pulled myself close enough to hook one foot around its neck and jerk downward. The pale screeched, let go of me, and grabbed its neck. It fell back into another pale as I tumbled onto the cage.
I sprang to my feet. The horde of creatures stamped their feet, spread their clawed fingers, and screeched at me.
“Eric! Look out!”
I whipped around as another pale grabbed my shoulders and heaved me into the air.
A loud, thundering noise shot across the fields. Something slammed into the pale behind me. It staggered for a moment and then dropped my leg as it fell off the side of the cage.
The other pales shot their heads up and stared in the direction of the fog-covered bridge. A rider on the back of a dark horse galloped out of the cloud, a long rifle in her hands. She wore a duster much like the other Runners, but she had a green, wide-brimmed hat resting on her head. Long silvery hair curled and hung down to her shoulders. She whipped the reins back and forth, steering the horse and wagon. She cocked the rifle again. She rested the stock on her shoulder, aimed, and shot, hitting one of the pales square in the chest with what looked like a burlap sack of rice. The pale flew off the cage with the impact.
“Git away from my recruits, ya filthy vermin!”
The woman charged right up to the wagon, smashing her way through the horde of pales. The creatures wailed and darted away on all fours, screeching as they disappeared over the slope and out of sight.
“Well, then.” The woman reached a hand out to me and smirked. “Already gettin' into the thick o' things, are ya? I like that in a recruit.”
I took her hand and stood. “I guess so.”
The woman lifted the brim of her hat and raised an eyebrow. “That's 'I guess so, ma'am.'”
I nodded. “I guess so, ma'am.”
“You're learnin'.” The woman turned her horse to the side. It stamped a hoof. “Now where are those Runners? Good for nuttin' hooligans. If they're not careful, their gems gonna go off on 'em, and then they'll be right a bit sorry, that they will.”
She pointed the rifle at me. “You. Keep the rest of 'em in line until I git back. Even one of 'em is gone, and the whole lot of you are gonna regret it. Got that?”
“Yes. Got it.”
“That's, 'Yes. Got it, ma'am.”
I blinked. “Sorry ma’am. Yes. Got it, ma'am.”
The woman smirked again. “Good. You'll have it down. Stay put. And yell or somethin' if any of those pales decide on a reunion.” She kicked her heels into the flanks of her horse. “Yah!” The horse trotted away from the wagon and over the edge of the rise.
Saltha scrambled out of the wagon and climbed down to the grass. “Perfect. Let's get out of here.”
I shook my head. “We can't.”
Saltha flicked her hair over a shoulder. “Eric. We have to escape! We won’t get another chance!”
I held up my forearm. The clasp with the gem shone even in the moonlight. “Forget about these?”
She glanced at her arm, the gem in her silver clasp turning as purple as an eggplant. “What about it? We find some way to take it off after we escape!” Saltha grabbed the end of the clasp with her fingers and pulled.
Another boy from the cage shot his hand out. “No! Don't try to take it off!”
Saltha sniffed and scowled. “Why?”
“Because.” The boy climbed to the top of the cage and leaned over the edge. Lodan, from our village. He had long light-colored hair hanging over his face that he pushed back with a scarred hand. “I've heard nasty rumors. Like if you take it off, you die.”
Saltha shook her head. A single tear crawled down her cheek. “I . . . I can't be . . . a slave!”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then I turned to her. “Saltha . . . we were already slaves. What do you think working away our lives in that rice paddy was all about? So we didn't have a clasp on our arms. We were still trapped there. Boss Mandel wasn't going to let us leave.”
“At least our families were there!”
I snorted. “What families? They were ghosts.” I waved a hand at the cart of recruits, their faces pressed against the beams. “This is all the family we have now.”
Saltha dropped her hands to her sides and stared hard at me. Fear trickled through her eyes, and she slowly shook her head. “You . . . almost sound like you want to be a Runner.”
I glanced at the pale footprints covering the grass. “Maybe I do,” I whispered. “Maybe I always did.”
“Wow . . . I would never have thought,” Saltha took a step back. “After what they did to your brother?” Tears fell freely down her face. “I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm leaving.” She darted away from the cage, glancing over her shoulder only once.
Lodan jumped to the grass. “We can't let her leave! You heard what that lady said!”
I swallowed. I wanted to run with Saltha. Leave. Escape. But there was part of me that wanted this life too. Maybe the others thought I was crazy. Let them think that. I couldn't waste the rest of my life farming rice.
Lodan and I raced after Saltha, begging her to return. She had both flats on the passway leading through the fog, over the water, and to another island when she stumbled to the ground. Her face turned purple as we came up beside her.
“What's wrong?” I shouted.
Saltha had both hands at her throat, gasping for air like she couldn't breathe.
Lodan pointed at the clasp on her forearm. The gem was pulsing purple now, light streamed up from the center of the stone and into the air. “It's her clasp! I told you we can't leave!” He threw an arm out at me and pulled me back.
“Wait! We have to help her!”
“We can't,” Lodan whispered.
I shoved him aside and ran to Saltha. “What can I do?”
Saltha stared at me and tried to speak. She groaned, and then the light from the gem intensified, sending a stronger beam into the air. Purple light dribbled around Saltha. Lodan grabbed me from behind, yanking me backward. We fell to the grass. I kicked and thrashed, but Lodan held me too tightly.
“No! We can help her!” I shouted, trying to slide my arms out from his grip.
Lodan interlocked his fingers. “We can't! She's too far gone!”
The purple light formed a ring around Saltha, lifting her into the air. She spun around, faster and faster until the purple light seeped through every inch of her body, shining brighter until she vanished from sight with a spark. Her silver clasp fell to the stones on the passway with a clatter.
Lodan released me, and I crawled forward, reaching out for Saltha's clasp. Smoke rose from the edges of the gem, and I noticed a brief reflection of her face in the stone before cracks raced across the surface and the gem went dark.
Saltha was gone.
“Well, now.” A horse clopped up behind me. The silver-haired woman stood over Lodan and me with a frown. “Too bad. Seemed promising, she did. But then, we'll never know now.”
“What happened to her?” I asked. The woman glared at me, and I cleared my throat. “Ma'am?”
The rider nodded. “Gone. Out of existence. That's what happens when you try to leave old Gratta. So don't.”
“What’s Gratta?” I asked.
“I'm Gratta. And I ain't gonna be happy if the whole lot of you decide vacation sounds nicer than workin' for me.” Gratta directed her horse toward the mangled cage. “All right! All y'all need to climb on down outta that cage!”
The other recruits scrambled out and hurried over to where Lodan and I stood. Three of the Runners who had captured us came bounding over the rise. One had a nasty cut on his arm. Half of his sleeve was missing, but he grasped a whip in his hand, ready to flick. The other two limped slightly; bokens held ready.
“We better go, Gratta,” the one with the cut said. “Loads of those pales in the canyon. Best to put some distance between us and them.”
Gratta squinted at the canyon in the distance. “They won't cross the passway most likely.” She spat. “Probably like the weather out here. Not that I do. The sooner we get back to drier temps the happier I'll be.” She turned her gaze on me. “And y'all don't wanna see me unhappy. Bad times for everybody.”
She spat again and led her horse in front of the group. “I'm y'all's bookkeeper now. I decide on jobs and tell y'all what's what. Try to leave, and, well.” Gratta grabbed a short hook from the tool belt around her waist and flicked it out. A long pole extended from the back end of the hook, and she used it to catch up Saltha's clasp. “Or this is what happens to ya. I don't wanna lose any more potential Runners. Bad for business. Step lively! This passway won't be too dicey.” Gratta turned her horse again and clopped onto the stone bridge. She leaned over and muttered at me, “At least I think it won't.”
I sniffed, glanced one last time at the place Saltha had disappeared in a blast of purple light, and marched into the fog with the rest of the recruits. With every step, I forced the gnawing hole deeper into my gut. Saltha had been my best friend. Had been. Now she was gone.
The sun never blazed hotter than the day the Runner took me. Water lapped through the rice paddies and up against my shins. The mud stuck between my toes. I still wonder if I had started somewhere near the back end of the field if I'd been able to get away.
Obviously, I didn't.
Five Runners stood at the edge of the field wearing dusters; wide leather hats tilted forward on their heads; their long hair pulled back into tails behind their necks. Even from where I stood knee-deep in muck, I could see the sunlight reflecting off the metal bands around their forearms. Clasps. Every Runner wore one. Made from silver and inlaid with a single gem glowing a deep orange color.
Saltha's dark hair flung back as she whipped her head up. “Recruiters!” she hissed.
I nodded. I'd seen Runners come recruiting here before. They had taken my older brother two years ago. He'd just turned thirteen. I was eleven then.
So I was ripe for the picking.
Saltha sloshed to the path and slapped the dirt with her hands, hoisting herself up and out. I considered following her. But I also thought about staying right where I was. Letting them take me.
Screams echoed across the rice paddy now as the Runners darted along the crisscrossing pathways that formed a grid around the fields. One of the Runners had a sack slung over his shoulder, clanking with every step. He reached in and tossed clasps to the other four as they snatched the arms of the thirteen-year-olds behind me. The recruiters slapped the clasps onto my neighbor’s forearms with a deafening snap-snap. The teenagers fell to the dirt path, knees streaked with clay, screaming with pain as they rocked back and forth, holding their forearms.
I glanced over at my mother and father. They hadn't even looked up. They just leaned back over, short sickles in hand, slicing at the stalks and gathering them into the wicker baskets tied with a cord to their waists. My mother's dark face shadowed by a wide hat. My father's strong arms hacking at the sheaves.
Maybe they didn't care. Maybe they never would. Maybe they never had.
Saltha raced along the path, looking back at me, fear widening her eyes. She waved a hand and pointed at the mound on the far side of the rice paddies.
A shout behind me. I whirled back around to see another kid – I never did know his name – being yanked out by a Runner and slapped with a clasp on his forearm. The gem in the silver blazed red, then orange, and then rotated through every color on the spectrum. Tears crawled past his mouth, open in a silent cry of pain. It seemed like the clasp was burning him. Red marks drifted from the place the metal touched skin.
Standing by my shoulder, one hand reaching out to me, a blue haze in her dark eyes. “Run, Eric. Don't let them take you.”
I swallowed. My mother had always been frightening. Serious as the grave and stern as a lick of twigs. I dropped down into the muck, crawling toward the path, hoping the Runners hadn’t spotted me yet. I reached the other side of the rice paddy and scrambled up onto the trail a foot above me. A shout echoed across the pathway. I poked my head up to see four of the younger kids pound the dirt back toward the cottages.
Another shout. I glanced back. The Runners had gathered nearly seventeen others from the fields. They were crouching in a huddle by the Runner with the sack. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Some of the adults poked their heads up, saw the Runners and stood idly, almost like a fog had circled through their minds and left them unable to respond to what was happening. Why didn’t they move? Why didn’t they fight back? Why did I--
And then one of them spotted me. He smirked and scratched a scar on his neck. I watched him toss the clasp in his hand into the air once, and then he darted after me.
The panic fueled my legs, and I ran, mud and water dribbling from my bare legs as I pounded across the clay and dirt for the mound. It had been Saltha's idea: make a hiding place. A place the Runners find when they came to recruit. We had spent the last two years in our dead hours digging the tunnel. It wound under one of the hills to the edge of the canyons beyond the cottages.
Saltha leaped over the side of the hill ahead and slid out of sight. I ran up the path, pounding footsteps growing closer behind me. I’d rather die than let that Neck Scar Runner catch me. I had to make it. I had to get away.
I scrambled up the hill, slipping to all fours until I reached the top and rolled down the other side. I flipped open the hatch with a single swipe. The hatch was an old metal shield, that we’d found, covered with brush, and tied over the hole we had dug. From a distance, no one would ever notice it. Even up close, if someone didn't know exactly what it was, they'd walk right past and never blink twice.
The stench of rotting rice wafted up from the hole, but I dove in, head first, tumbling down, hearing the hatch slap closed behind me. Saltha crawled just ahead, and I slammed into her, knocking my elbow against her shoulder. Pain stung across my arm as it went limp.
I nodded. Then I remembered it was dark. “Yeah, I'm here. Just go.”
Light streamed in behind us as the hatch lifted. “You little runnin' scum. Ain't no place we can't find you! The clasps are gonna get you.”
I shoved Saltha ahead and hurried right behind her. Pain ratcheted through my head, seeping into my fingers and leaving the tips numb. The tunnel was closing in on me, and I gasped at the air, trying to breathe. Don't get caught. Don't. Don't.
The tunnel raised upwards, and Saltha bashed her shoulder into the pile of leafy branches we had left piled up at the other end. She flung them aside and light poured into the tunnel, stinging my eyes. I blinked and then watched as Saltha shot up out of the hole, her feet dangling in the air as she screamed.
A Runner had her.
And I was next.
I huddled back in the darkness, listening to the clasp tightening around her forearm, forever marking her as a Runner now. The gem would tie into her lifeforce. A ledger would be forged with her name and an identical stone embedded in the red leather cover. And then she would be forced to run jobs for a bookkeeper. Forced. Enslaved.
I couldn’t breathe anymore. A rough hand burst into the hole and found my foot. I jerked away, but a second hand reached in and grabbed it. They dragged me out, my face smacking against the dirt and bursting into the sunlight.
I hung between two of the Runners. Both of them were male. Strong. Their brown boots speckled with mud. One had a hole in his trousers right at the knee, and I could see a piece of metal like a bolt sticking out the side. I thrashed, swinging my arms, trying to claw, scratch, anything. Neck Scar Runner marched across the dirt, past a log cottage sitting on the edge of the village. The clasp in his hand shimmered in the sunlight.
“No. Please, don't!”
He smirked, leaned over, and grabbed my wrist. He slammed the metal onto my bare forearm. It stung worse than any sting I'd ever had from a locust or hardring. It felt like poison seeping through my veins and racing past every inch of my body until it stopped at my heart. A coldness slipped around it as it beat faster, tying it down as if with a chain.
They dropped me. I collapsed to the dirt, writhing and clutching my arm, my chest, ripping at the white tunic I wore. My vision spotted over, and for a moment, I saw three of the five Runners’ faces, heads shaking, dusters swaying, and the sunlight blurring it all together in one disjointed mass of colors.
I rolled to my side. Saltha lay next to me on the dirt, her back against the edge of a grassy mound, eyes closed, chest heaving.
I tried to whisper her name. I tried to move my lips. I splayed my fingers and reached for her hand, resting so close to mine.
But I couldn't reach.
I couldn't think.
Pain exploded through my head, and the light blinked out into darkness.
The rattling woke me up first. Then the sound of soft cries and whispers.
Stars hung across the sky, framed by the wooden cage over my head. I sat up. Other kids sat around me, huddled together or alone, itching the skin around the clasps on their arms. The Runners had thrown us into the back of a caged wagon, pulled by an auroch with thick longhorns and a body as wide as the cart. It looked like an engorged bull with brown and white spots covering its hide.
The back wheel bumped into a pothole, and I slid up against the cage, grabbing it with both hands and watching the grassy hills roll past us for leagues into the distance. A blue haze covered everything in the moonlight. The clasp on my arm glinted, and I gazed at it. An opaque gem rested in my clasp, and as I stared at it, the light seemed to soak into the stone, swirling around until I could see my face.
I had never seen my reflection this clearly before. There were rumors of a beveled mirror a village over, but I had never seen it. My life circled the rice paddies, where a dirty face stared back whenever I stood in a puddle to try and catch a glimpse of what I looked like, but the muddied water was never still or clear. At least not as detailed as a mirror might be.
Every day our family had gotten up, trudged out into the muck and tended to the plants. Weather on our island stayed comfortable – always warm, with the slightest breeze carried in from the ocean I had only ever heard about from tales told by the elders in our village. Our climate allowed for a year-long growing schedule. Plant rice. Tend rice. Harvest rice. Sell rice to the tradeswomen who marched down the road with pushcarts and little purses of gold. Repeat.
Our village had collected all the money. Kept it together to buy what we needed. Sixty-two of us had lived there the last time I sat on the edge of the paddy and counted heads bent low to collect rice. Eighty-seven people had been in the village last time the Runners had arrived. The full moon had passed us by twenty-four times since then. Since they had taken my brother.
I stared at myself in that clasp. My nose took up too much of my face and dropped to a point at the end. My eyes a dark brown color, like my mother's. Dark hair, tanned skin, and cheeks sunken slightly from living off the rice.
A hand tapped my shoulder from behind.
I turned around and faced her; knees curled up to my chest. Two of the Runners sat at the front, on the other side of the cage, holding the reins and whipping them against the back of the auroch. Two others rode on either side of us on pale gray Palominos, lazily swaying back and forth. And the fifth. He traveled on top of the cage, one leg slung over the side, glancing down at the recruits every few minutes.
“You're awake,” she whispered.
I nodded. “How long was I out?”
“Too long.” She bit her lip and fingered a strand of hair. “What's going to happen to us?”
“I don't know.” I sighed. All I knew was that we would become like the Runners around us.
“Do you think you'll find your brother out there?”
I shrugged. “I don't know.”
Saltha's brow furrowed. “At least give me a little hope here.” Her shoulders trembled, and I put an arm around her and pulled her close.
A stick poked his shoulder from above. “None o' that now!” the Runner above us shouted.
I yanked my arm away from Saltha.
She stood up and shook a fist at him. This close, he looked like he had to be only four, maybe five years older than I was. “Leave us alone!” Saltha shouted. “Haven't you been awful enough already?”
The Runner sneered. “Sure. Always room to be even awfuller.” He snorted and spat off the side of the cage. “Just seein' as the two of you are so cozy, thought I'd warn ya straight up now. Runners ain't allowed none o' that. Stick to the jobs, kids. Stick to the jobs.” He glanced back up, tipping his leather hat back with a finger.
I sat back, my head against the cage. My eyes closed. For the briefest moment, I had thought about wanting this life. Whatever it was called. Running for a bookkeeper. Doing jobs until I finished or died. Could it be any worse than the life he had back at the rice paddy with parents who seemed zoned into another island all the time?
The auroch mooed and abruptly jerked to a halt. We jostled inside the cart, tipping into each other and jumping away from each other as fast as we could. No one else wanted to be prodded with a stick tonight.
I stood up, grabbing the cage above me and holding tight. I had one leather glove with the fingers cut off still on my hand. The other one must have fallen off at some point.
The road ahead wound between two hills, dropping steeply into a canyon ahead. The canyon stretched ahead for some distance, the end of the path lost to its shadows. All five Runners stood up now, hands drifting to their sides where their various weapons hung. One of them curled his fingers around a whip. Another on a thick knife with serrated edges. Two others held bokens, and the last one a thin rapier.
The recruits in the cage started whispering to each other.
“Shush it!” the Runner up above hissed.
The grass swished on the side of the path. Another rustle somewhere at the mouth of the canyon.
I squinted into the gloom ahead. Shadows danced across the canyon floor, and for a moment, I thought I saw something slip to the side of the grassy walls. My gaze focused on the spot. I pushed forward, never taking my eyes away until I was at the front of the cage, peering through the front beams.
One of the palomino riders nodded at the others. “I'll see what it is.” His whip dangled from his hand, trailing in the dust alongside the horse's hooves.
I held my breath. The palomino clopped forward and then stopped, refusing to move forward. The Runner kicked it in the side, but the horse whinnied, steam trailing from its nostrils. “Stupid animal,” the Runner hissed, slipping to the ground. His boots clomped onto the dirt, and he took three steps forward, staring into the darkness between the hills.
He held up his whip, flicking it slightly side to side. Another step. Another. Until the Runner stood between the two hills, slowly spinning in the dark, eyes on every blade of grass, every roll and rise in the earth.
But he didn't see what I saw. Something hung from a small ledge about two meters up the canyon wall. A pale gray hand drifted over his head, long fingers splayed and reaching.
“Above you!” I shouted.
The Runner fell to his back and flicked his whip into the air, wrapping the end around the hand and yanking downward.
A gray humanoid creature fell to the dirt with a splat and then scrambled away from the Runner, hissing and baring a mouth full of sharp, clacking teeth.
“Pales!” the Runner shouted from the ground.
That sent a whisper through the kids in the cage. Every last one of us grabbed the beams and shouted at the Runners to let us out. Except me. I kept my eyes on that canyon. I had heard about pales before. They never hunted alone. Ever.
I reached through the beams and poked the Runner sitting behind the auroch. “Get us away from here!”
The Runner glared at me but thwapped the reins against the back of the auroch. “We'll take the long way!” he shouted, pulling back on the reins and guiding the beast around the left side of the canyon.
A long wail echoed up from the canyon. I watched the pebbles on the path slowly bounce as the thudding of feet and hands shook the dirt. The Runner on top of the wagon crouched down, holding his wooden boken like a sword.
The auroch bounded around the side of the canyon. We drove into the grass, the wheels beneath us bouncing over every gopher hole with gusto. The wagon rattled over the plains. Every recruit in the cage cried in fear and panic.
I reached for Saltha and gripped her fingers. “Stay close.”
“What if they're watching–”
“They have other problems,” I whispered.
A line of pales scrabbled their way out of the canyon leaping from the grassy walls and onto the plains behind us. The things were crouched over, running like dogs over the brush. If they were standing, they probably would have been as tall as me. The Runner on the back of a palomino flicked his rapier back and forth as the pales raced at him, jumping from the ground and tackling the horse and rider to the dirt.
Saltha tightened her grip.
I turned around and watched a line of pales dart toward the wagon. The Runner on top swung his boken as the monsters sprung towards the cage. He whacked pales back to the ground; where they screeched and scrambled back to their feet. The creatures had no eyes that I could see. Somehow they sensed exactly where the cage would be as they raced toward us.
One of them reached the back of the wagon. It leaped and clung to the wooden beams. I let go of Saltha and kicked sideways through the bars at the thing's chest. It wailed and flopped to the dirt behind us as more of the pales trampled it underfoot.
“Nice one, kid!” the Runner up top shouted down.
Twenty pales followed the wagon as it rattled down an embankment toward a flatter section of land. Up ahead I could see the path emerging from the other end of the canyon and leading down to a long bridge that disappeared into a fog bank. It stretched over what must have been the ocean. It was huge – dark blue and glimmering with starlight. The water lapped against a thin strip of coastline. If we hadn't been a swipe away from death, I might have been in awe.
But I never got that chance.
Seven pales shot out of the dark grass beside the wagon and kicked the cage, sending it toppling off the back of the cart. The auroch snapped free of its yoke, and we rolled, banging heads and knees and screaming. The cage slammed onto its side, and one of the kids behind me yelped in pain.
We slid down the hill. Pale hands grasped at us as the creatures used their other three limbs to cling to the beams. The pales grabbed tunics and trousers, yanking the recruits close to the bars and snapping their jaws.
A pale grabbed Saltha and jerked her close as the cage scraped over the path and into the ocean with a splash.
Readers I'm excited for you. In the first two chapters of Shaun's The Runners of Abra he captured my attention with fast-paced-action, interesting characters, and very creepy villians. I love what I have read and can't wait a moment longer for you to have a taste, so here you go. Enjoy and be sure to leave a comment for Shaun below!
The Last Runner
Love what you read then
When Eric was only thirteen, he was taken from his family and the peaceful rice fields on the island of Jedros to become a Runner. Roaming the five islands of Abra, Runners are tasked with jobs -- jobs they must see to the end. Either finish the job or die.
And then a mysterious benefactor arrives with a bag of gold and Eric's first job: find the girl spotted somewhere in the northern islands responding only to the name Bella. Simple enough. But this job is not what anyone thought. Others are searching for the girl. Others who will kill to keep Bella a secret.
But Bella has her own secret to keep. And if it gets out, the very fabric of the known world will change forever.
Audience: Ages 10 to 14
Shaun Stevenson has always loved a good book. Ever since he first picked up his great-grandmother's ancient copy of THE WIZARD OF OZ, he has wanted to take readers on crazy journeys through imaginative worlds where the danger and mystery never stop. He lives in the Great Northwest with his wife, enjoying the coffee, the thrifting, and of course, the writing.