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.
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.
Heat singed the back of my neck. I woke up screaming, the world a blazing blur of fire shooting across the courtyard. My head spun. I smacked my neck and felt nothing. No fire. No burning skin. The stones swirled underneath me. I leaned over on both hands, feeling vomit threatening to explode.
A low moan echoed toward me. I peeked up. The shadow wraiths had returned to the courtyard. They hovered over the green walls, their hands replaced with a variety of shadowy weapons from maces to pikes.
Across the courtyard, seven men and five women, all flesh and blood, stood in the courtyard wearing long green robes that matched the walls. They had hoods pulled over their heads, but I noticed several beards poking over their thin frames. Each held over-sized black lanterns in one hand. Green gloves covered their other hands. They scooped up the fire blazing inside the lanterns and chucked it like a ball at the shadow wraiths.
One ball of fire smacked into a shadow boy's chest and spread over his dark form. With a low moan, he darted away from the courtyard.
The hooded figures worked silently, not even grunting from the effort. Shadow wraiths circled low and flew at one of the men on the ground, swiping at his lantern. The lantern fell and shattered on the courtyard. Flames shot up and wrapped around the nearest wraith, engulfing it in fire.
I scrambled over to Telisa, still on the cobblestones. Her head faced the darkened sky. I didn't know exactly how long I had been knocked out, but apparently, the day had left us behind. I ran my fingers over her dark clasp.
Low moans and crackling fire swarmed my ears and faded into a dull tone. My hand wrapped around Telisa's clasp. The gem on my forearm began to glow golden again. Warmth passed through my forehead, down my shoulder, and through my wrist. Light spread from my fingers, a single shaft of golden light surging through each one. The light struck Telisa's clasp. From deep within the gem, a single red light pulsed like a heartbeat. My eyes closed and I felt that heartbeat—my heartbeat, Telisa's heartbeat—synchronizing into one steady rhythm.
A gasp. My eyes shot open, and I saw Telisa staring at me. She wrenched her forearm from my grasp. Her hand trailed down to the place where the shadow wraith had pierced her abdomen. The hole was gone.
Nausea swam through my head. I closed my eyes. Pain shot past my temples, and I cried out, falling back into two strong hands draped in green sleeves.
“He is fading,” a male voice whispered.
“Can you help him?” Telisa.
Heat grew inside my chest. I couldn't control this anymore. I don't think I ever could. It swirled around my heart and clenched my lungs. I gasped for breath. The world turned golden-hued around me. I saw Telisa's face, etched with worry and gold, leaning over me.
“Take his legs.” The male voice again.
Telisa and the man hoisted me into the air. A shadow wraith darted overhead and whisked away as a fireball slammed into its head. We passed under a stone archway into a musty hall with deep orange ceilings. Resin chandeliers hung above me, swaying with a hundred candles. Golden light seeped through my vision. Gold. Everything was gold. Made from gold. Grew from gold. Existed for gold.
My back met soft padding. A cool rag dropped onto my forehead and instantly dried into crust from the heat.
They poured golden liquid down my throat. The world went really strange then. Golden light swirled in hexagonal patterns, melding into shapes of all kinds: a tree, a scaled dragon, a whisk of flame, twelve stars dropping from the sky and smashing into twelve rolling hills. The shapes morphed into a face—a boy—perhaps—a younger man. Kind eyes, but sad at the same time. The face hovered over me, parted its golden lips, and whispered, “Return.”
I jolted up, my eyes wide. The golden colors snapped back to their original hues. I sat on a table covered with thin red mats. Free standing shelves of varying shapes and sizes circled the dais my table stood upon. Bottles of liquids of every color imaginable filled every shelf, sitting alongside scrolls, feather quills, and bottles of ink.
The twelve men and women I had seen in the courtyard stood beyond the shelves, against the walls of the room, their hands clasped in front of them and their heads bowed. Telisa paced the hallway beyond that led to three large doors with orange trim.
“Telisa?” I croaked. My throat scraped with each syllable. Whatever they had poured into my mouth had worked one over on my windpipe.
Telisa's head shot up. “Eric!” She whacked a nearby hooded man in the shoulder. “He's awake!”
The twelve stood at the same time, lifting their heads as one, and unclasping their hands.
One woman stepped forward, gently peeling back her hood and revealing an ebony-skinned face with long dark hair curling down to her shoulders. “So. You have awoken.”
I nodded and blinked. “Please . . . .” I stuck my tongue out. I needed water.
Telisa tossed me a canteen from her side. I caught it and gulped down the water greedily, feeling my throat restoring itself with each swallow.
The woman spread her arms wide. “We are the scholars. Keepers of the moldable fire, and caretakers of the lore of Abra. We saved your life, and you saved hers.” The woman tilted her head toward Telisa.
I slipped both feet to the floor and stood. Shakily at first, but then taking another gulp of water and standing straighter.
Telisa eyed me but didn't step closer. “How did you do that?”
The woman squinted at me. “Yes, we wish to hear how you accomplished such a feat.”
I glanced at the clasp on my arm. “I . . . .” How had I done all this? “I don't know. I just . . . felt it, I guess.”
“Has your clasp exhibited any other shades of color?” the woman asked.
I scratched the back of my head. “No. Only its typical milky white. And gold.”
Telisa cleared her throat. “Gratta wanted us to seek y'all's counsel on this. Shanters from the queen arrived yesterday and demanded to know who the Runner of Golden Light was.”
“Intriguing,” the woman said. “Did the shanters say how they had obtained the knowledge of golden light?”
Telisa shook her head. “Not that I can recall. You?” She studied my face a second.
“I don't remember.”
The other eleven hooded figures eyed me from under their green hoods. Their irises glowed slightly blue even in the gloom. Then they spoke at the same time, their mouths moving in unison. “How the queen heard tell of golden light is beyond even our knowledge. However, there is another story we do know.”
“What's that?” Telisa asked.
The eleven stepped forward, arms raising, fingers pointed straight at me. Their voices echoed through the round chamber in a hollow tone. “When bookkeepers first enslaved the islands of Abra with clasps and gems, expecting the world to run to their bidding, another was spoken off: a forebear, who would emerge shining a path of golden light and leading all to Freedom's Chair.”
A shiver sprinted across my shoulders.
“This would be the downfall of all,” the eleven continued, stepping between the cases and shelves, hands still outstretched, reaching toward me. “Nothing will ever be the same as it once was. Too many cracks, too many gems, too many lost to the lights of purple.” Their hoods fell back. Each face stared my direction with a distant glaze covering their eyes. “It is written that the Runner of Golden Light shall do things no Runner has down before. Shine light in ways no one has conceived. Bear witness to the One who comes still.”
They were inches away now. Their hands reached out and stacked on top of my head, lightly pressing downward. “You are the Runner of Golden Light! You are the Runner of Golden Light!” they chanted, again and again.
I didn't understand. What did all these words mean? I stepped back. Why was I chosen as some special Runner? I peeked at the clasp on my forearm. The gem had returned to a milk color, but golden swirls mixed with the white.
I shoved their hands away and pushed through the ring of hooded scholars. “What does this even mean? What are you talking about!”
The woman who had spoken independently spread her hands wide. “We do not hazard such a guess. What we do know is this: you have a special purpose. One that you must pursue.”
Telisa marched over, grabbed my wrist, and yanked me sideways. “The only thing he's pursuin' is whatever runs Gratta puts him on. He ain't no forebear or what you call it.”
“He must fulfill his purpose,” the eleven intoned.
“He does what Gratta decides!” Telisa shouted back. “Stop fillin' his head with these lies!”
“He must fulfill his purpose,” they repeated.
I darted away from Telisa. The eleven stalked toward me. I had to leave. I couldn't hear another word. It was too much. I spun on my heels and located a short archway with a stairwell winding upward beyond it. My boots pounded over the stones, carrying me up the steps, two at a time. I kept one hand trailing the spiraling center of the passage, climbing up, up, up. I burst through another archway and onto a balcony covered in green ivy and orange flowers lacing through the balustrade.
I leaned over the railing and vomited. It splashed to the courtyard far, far below. But I didn't care. I took a deep breath, trying to still my thoughts, my heart, my trembling fingers. I stared at my hands. “What's happening to me?” I whispered.
All I had wanted was to leave those cursed rice paddies on Jedros, become a Runner, and blend into the world of Abra, unnoticed, going from one job to the next until I was free of the clasp. That was all. Not this. Not to be a Runner with some special purpose. What did I have to offer anyway? These scholars expected me to be someone I wasn't. I just wasn't. How could a stupid kid from Jedros ever think of himself as more than a rice farmer?
I was born a rice farmer. But I would die as a martyr. Probably at the hands of the queen. She'd find me, strangle me, and leave me for dead.
Maybe I didn't want this life.
The clasp rested on my forearm. Saltha had disappeared into that purple haze. Maybe that's where I should go. Maybe I should disappear so no one would ever need something from me ever again. I could be truly free from all of it.
My fingers traced the edge of the clasp. I could rip it off. Wrench it away. Then I'd die. Be gone.
“But do you want that?” a voice whispered across the balcony.
A young boy's face poked through the archway, his fingers curled around the stones. His dark hair hung over his forehead, and he brushed it away. His brown eyes watched me, squinting and widening. He was at least two years younger than me, but his vernacular made me think he was much older.
“I don't know what I want,” I said, wiping a tear from my face.
The boy hopped up the last stair and stood in the archway, dead center. He wore a white tunic tucked into black breeches. His feet were bare and covered with brown earth. I watched him cross the balcony and slide down beside me. He stuck his legs through the balustrade and let his feet dangle over the hundred feet to the courtyard. “You have ideas at least.”
I swallowed and sat cross-legged beside him, watching the sliver of a moon spark in the night sky. “Everyone wants me to do all these things. Mother wanted me to run. Gratta wants me to run. Now, these scholars believe I'm fulfilling some old prophecy or something.” I sighed. “But the truth is, I have this feeling that no matter where I go, I’ll always be a slave.”
“We're all slaves to something,” the boy said, kicking his feet. “Slaves to work, slaves to ourselves, slaves to bookkeepers or scholars.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
The boy smirked. “Me? They call me the miracle child. No one will tell me what that means. They just say I'm a miracle. I don't think the queen knows about me yet.”
I pointed at his forearm. “You don't have a clasp.”
He shook his head. “Wouldn't stick to me.”
“Wouldn't stick to you?”
“No. Some bookkeeper tried to clasp me, but it wouldn't stick. It slid right off.”
I leaned back. “How is that even possible?”
The boy shrugged. “Like I said, the miracle child. Sounds like you're in a similar situation yourself, what with the gold light and everything.”
“You could say that.” I paused, scrunched my mouth together, then tapped the balustrade. “The thing that bothers me most is the way people stare. They stare at me like I'm about to explode. Like I'm . . . .”
“Dangerous?” the boy offered.
“Yes! And to be honest, I feel dangerous. Like I am going to hurt someone. And then I'm going to regret all of it.”
The boy leaned forward, resting his chin in his hands. “Regrets. I don't get those. They seem bothersome.”
What kind of person didn't have regrets? Then again, this kid probably hadn't seen as much in the last few days as I had. I had plenty of regrets. Not running fast enough to get away from the Runners. Leaving my parents. Not stopping Saltha in time. Regrets and I were old friends by now. I could only imagine how well we'd know each other in a year.
The boy tilted his head to the side like he was listening to something. “Your friend is coming.”
“She's not my friend.”
He smirked. “You will be. Soon enough, I think.”
I glanced at the archway leading back into the depths of the fortress. Boots clamped down on the stairs. “Eric! Are you up here?” Telisa.
“Just great—” I spun back to the boy. But he was gone.
Telisa stomped onto the balcony and put her fists on either hip. “They're lettin' us stay the night here. I want you to sleep. But I'm gonna keep watch. I don't trust these creepy monotone scholars. I don't like what they have to say.”
Neither did I.
“Here's your Runner of Golden Light!” Telisa spat.
I heard a girl scream.
My eyes flipped open. A girl with a shaved head and gray eyes stared upward as the shanters swarmed around her. They spun faster and faster, three of them digging their claws into her shoulders and back. They heaved her from the ground.
I threw out a hand. “But—”
Telisa spun and slapped me with one of her huge hands. “Shut up. And stay shut up.”
I swallowed and crouched down again.
The shanters dropped the other Runners to the concrete floors and swooped out from under the Commons roof and toward the blue sky. The sacrificed girl had been a recruit. From one of the other islands. I didn't know her name. But I'm sure she would forever remember mine.
Recruits crawled out from under their benches and tables and stared at the cloud of shanters flapping away in the distance. I fixated on that girl's speck of a form until I couldn't see her separate from the monsters that had carried her away.
“All right! Enough gawkin'!” Gratta shouted from one end of the Commons. She marched across the floor, slightly limping, until she stood before Telisa and me. “What in Castos is happenin' out here? Why would the Queen's shanters be flappin' their gums here?”
Telisa nodded at me. “It's him. Golden Boy.”
I held up my hands. “I didn't do anything! I swear!”
Gratta snorted. “Oh, you sure gone and done a lot, hun. A lot.” The old woman rubbed both eyes with her hand. “We gotta take 'im now. We have to know what we've got on our hands here.”
“Right now?” Telisa asked. “Are you sure that's wise?”
“You sure it's wise to be questionin' me about it? Here I thought we could at least wait until it got all dark and spooky in the world, but no. Shanters have to show up on my doorstep!” Gratta spat on a nearby table and pointed at the glob. “Somebody wipe that up!”
One of the recruits grabbed a yellow cloth napkin and scrubbed the spot.
Gratta shoved a finger in my direction. “Now. Git to the armory and the stables and git yer sorry hides to them scholars!” She whirled around. “What are all y'all gaping at? Eat food! It won't last forever! And I ain't feedin' ya no second lunch!” With a swipe at a biscuit, Gratta stalked out of the Commons and back toward her ranch house.
Telisa grabbed my collar and yanked me close. “You've cost me so many recruits today; I'm losing count. The next butt I lose is going to be yours, so walk!” She heaved me forward.
I stumbled to the dust outside the Commons. I peeked at the clasp on my arm. Still there, still milky white. So much trouble over such a small thing. The recruits and Runners under the Commons had shuffled back to their benches and were busily stuffing their faces with food before lunch ended.
Except for Lodan. He stood on the edge of the Commons, watching me, watching Telisa, one hand gently rubbing where the shanter claws had dug into his shoulder. His eyes were wide. With fear? Worry? Shock? I couldn't tell.
Telisa kicked the back of my boot. “I said walk!”
We hurried past the Casket – the building in the center of Gratta's compound where most of the combat training took place. It had a similar roof to the Commons, but long logs stacked high formed the walls. A large barn door painted red had been slid aside. I caught the briefest glimpse of a concrete floor, a set of old wooden bleachers against one wall, as well as straw dummies on long poles for fighting practice.
The armory was a round building with a green cloth roof that came to a point at the top. Tall logs had been placed side by side with a porch circling the entire structure. A railing ran around the edge of the porch with spears, swords, pikes, and maces lined up against it. Telisa stomped through the open front door. I followed.
Inside were more weapons than I ever could have imagined seeing in one lifetime. Whips, daggers, crossbows, metal stars with sharp edges, bokens, katanas, anything and everything. Telisa snatched a crossbow from the wall, a gray quiver stuffed with arrows. She attached two long daggers to the belt at her side. She slung a long broadsword over her back and wrapped a leather scabbard over her shoulder and around her midsection.
“Should I take anything?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “No.”
“But what if those shanters come back? Or pales? Or pitworms?”
Telisa's lip curled. “No.”
“What if the Queen figures out you lied to her?”
“The Queen will assume it was a golden fluke.”
I ran a hand through my dusty hair. “I would feel better with a knife. I can slip it into my boot.”
Telisa grabbed my wrist and held it up to my face. “Seems to me you've got the best weapon any of us could wish for.” My gaze lingered on the clasp. She was right. If I could conjure golden light again, I’d never need a sword or knife or mace. She flung my arm down and stepped back. “How'd you do it anyway?”
I shrugged. “I don't know. It just happened.”
“Nothing ever just happens.” Telisa cocked her head to the side and squinted. “What were you thinking about when it happened?”
“Surviving your 'game’.”
She smacked me across the face. “Don't get smart.”
I clenched my teeth. “I would really appreciate it if everyone stopped slapping me!” My cheek burned. Anger pooled somewhere in my forehead and trickled down my face. “You think you can whisk us around however you like! Like we aren't even people!” I closed my eyes. My head began to throb. The anger slid past my eyes, down my shoulder, slithered the length of my arm until it swirled around the clasp on my arm.
Heat rose from my wrist. My fingers curled into fists. When I opened my eyes, the gem glowed the faintest tinges of gold.
Telisa shuffled twenty steps away with her back to the armory wall. She nocked an arrow and pointed the crossbow at my chest. “Calm down!” she shouted.
I opened my fists. My fingers shook. I slumped to my knees, dropping my head into my hands. Heat from the clasp wafted over my face with every tremor.
“Deep breath!” Telisa said.
I took one, long, deep breath.
Another deep breath. The heat began to subside. My hands stopped shaking. I took a last breath and felt tears streaking down my face. “What is happening to me?” I whispered.
For the briefest moment, I saw Telisa's mask fall. The harsh lines, the rigid forehead, it all dropped. Her eyes registered sadness. For me. A second later, she had her hand on my shoulder, gently this time. “Let's find out.”
* * *
I had never ridden a horse before. Telisa had warned me my legs and backside would ache for days afterward. We sat on a leather saddle, Telisa in the back. I clung to the horn with both hands, a leather guard wrapped around my clasp in case it decided to glow golden again.
The brown mare we rode was Telisa's own horse, Poinsettia. I assumed she named it for the red star on her forehead. Poinsettia galloped through the pines on a narrow dirt path winding away from Gratta's compound. The sun's rays stretched out, and I blinked as we rode west.
We stopped only once around dinnertime. I slid off the back of Poinsettia and wobbled back and forth, steadying myself with one hand on a nearby pine tree.
“Recruits who haven't ridden are always the same,” Telisa muttered.
“What do you expect?”
“Perfection.” Telisa dropped to the dirt and opened one of the saddlebags. She dug out two biscuits, a swathe of butter wrapped in a red checkered cloth, and a small butter knife. With two quick swipes, she had butter lathered across both biscuits and tossed one to me.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, chomping on the biscuit eagerly. My stomach was empty from not eating lunch. The cold biscuit felt like honey sliding down my throat. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and caught Telisa watching me again.
She glanced away and pulled a metal canteen from a clasp behind the saddlebag.
“What?” I asked.
Telisa took a swig of water and glanced back at me. “Shut up.”
“No.” I stepped forward, pointing at her. “What is it?”
She shook her head and shoved the canteen in my hand. “Drink.”
“You keep looking at me funny. Ever since the armory. Almost like . . . ” I trailed off, analyzing the dust by my feet and trying to think. Almost like what?
“We should get moving again.” Telisa eyed the sunlight slipping between the pine branches. “I'd like to be at the scholars by dark. At this rate, we aren't going to make it.”
I held up a hand. “Just wait!”
“Don't yell at me.”
“I remind you of someone, don't I?”
Telisa rolled her eyes. “You think too much. Drink some water, stretch your legs, and then let's ride.”
“I'm right, aren’t I?” I gulped down some water. “Was it my brother? Did he look like me? A little taller? Broader?”
Telisa stomped over, grabbed the canteen from my hand, and capped it. “Will you ever do as you’re told? Or do you want to ask more stupid questions that have no answers? Or should I leave you out here for—”
A rustle echoed from the bushes. Faster than I could shiver, Telisa swung her crossbow to eye level. She slowly pivoted, scanning the dry bushes around us. The ground rose and fell slightly for leagues. Red boulders bigger than Poinsettia poked up from the clay.
I backed up to stand beside the mare. I opened my mouth to ask what was out there but pressed my lips together. This wasn’t a time for questions.
Telisa never turned to look at me. She only whispered, “Mount up.”
I nodded and shoved a foot in the stirrup before swinging my other leg over Poinsettia's back. From on top of the horse, I could see shadows slinking between the boulders beyond the bushes.
A hand wreathed in wisps of shadow crept into the air behind the nearest boulder.
“Telisa! Over there!” I pointed at the hand.
She whipped around and shot an arrow at the hand. It thudded into the palm of the hand before dropping out of sight. Telisa raced back to Poinsettia and scrambled up. “We've got to leave. Now.”
“What was that?”
Sweat trickled down Telisa's brow. “I've never seen them on Castos before. Don't know why they would even venture this direction at all,” she mumbled.
“What was it?”
Telisa handed the reins to me. “You steer. I’ll fight.”
A low moan echoed from behind the boulders. My mouth went dry. Seven pairs of shadowy hands rose into the air, slamming onto seven boulders circling us. The creatures crawled up after the hands. Tall, shadowy people glided to the tops of the boulders and stood with their fingers splayed at their sides. They could have been regular people, except their entire bodies were made from the same wispy shadows. As one, they flicked their wrists. Long spikes appeared where their hands had once been.
Telisa shot another arrow at the closest one. It landed in the center of the creature, sending it flying backward into a nearby pine tree.
“Yah!” Telisa shouted, kicking her heels into Poinsettia's flanks.
The horse shot ahead. I gripped the reins and steered Poinsettia toward the path winding past the boulders and pines. Another low moan echoed behind us. I peeked back to see six shadow people float off their perches, lean forward and fly at us, spears extended.
I screamed. Poinsettia whinnied. Telisa loaded her crossbow and pulled the trigger. This one missed and thudded into a tree as the shadow rolled to the side and moaned.
The path sloped downward toward an open field. A collection of round green buildings dotted the meadow set against a rocky outcrop. A large gate wound around the front of the rocks, with a tall green wall covered in spikes and bowls burning with fires.
“Straight there!” Telisa shouted, letting another arrow fly.
One of the shadows leaned forward and shot up next to me. This one was a woman, her long flowing hair whisking behind her as she flew. She opened her mouth and held back her spear-arm. I ducked as the shadow soared over my head. I grabbed one of Telisa's daggers and chucked it at the shadow's head. It lodged between her eyes. With a moan, the shadow tumbled to the dirt, rolling into a ball, and vanishing in a puff of smoke.
“What are these?” I shouted.
Telisa shot another arrow. This one slammed into one of the shadow wraith's legs. It dropped from the air and hobbled after them. “I'll explain later! Get us to those buildings!”
I leaned forward and slapped the reins. Poinsettia responded by pounding over the earth to the field below. We nearly flew across the grass as the remaining four shadows whipped through the air around us. Telisa shot arrows, but these shadows were too quick. The arrows flew past them.
“Out of arrows!” Telisa said. She dropped the crossbow onto a clasp at Poinsettia's side and drew the broadsword. She swung it as the shadows dipped closer, jabbing with their spears. Poinsettia dodged left as a spear thudded into the ground behind us.
“What do they want?”
Telisa grabbed my clasp with one hand. “These. They want the gems!”
One of the shadows dropped, landing with its legs wrapped around Telisa's neck. She choked, grabbing the legs and losing her broadsword to the dirt. I swung around and punched the shadow in the side, finding it surprisingly firm. I pounded again, this time grabbing Telisa's other dagger and driving it into the shadow wraith. It moaned and glared at me with wide eyes.
I stabbed it again. The creature flipped off the back of the horse.
Telisa gasped at the air. “We're almost there!”
Ahead, I could see the gates, slightly ajar, fires burning. I glanced back. The woods were so far behind us now. How could we have gotten this far? Poinsettia had covered more ground than should have been possible. The red star on the horse's forehead glowed. Her legs were a blur over the ground, propelling us forward.
Two shadowy hands landed on my shoulders. I jerked away as Poinsettia nearly flew through the open gates and into a courtyard. The horse tripped on a loose stone, sending Telisa and me flying off her back and onto the ground. I spun around, dagger in hand as two shadow wraiths circled Telisa. One of them landed in front of me, dark eyes scanning my face. This one was also a woman, long hair flowing unnaturally behind her head. She stared at me expressionless, raising up her spear-arm.
Then I heard Telisa scream.
Two of the shadow wraiths had thrust their spears through her, one sticking through the chest, and one through the back. The shadows reached for the clasp on Telisa's forearm with greedy fingers.
I stopped thinking. I pointed the clasp at the shadow in front of me. The gem glowed golden and a beam of light shot through the shadow's face. The wraith vanished with a moan. I raced over to Telisa, clasp still glowing.
My head throbbed. Heat surged through my arms, my legs, my fingers, my face. I stumbled forward, holding out my forearm.
The two shadow wraiths jerked their heads toward me, took one glance at the glowing clasp, then shot straight into the air and over the spiked wall.
I collapsed beside Telisa. Her mouth hung open; blood trickled down her chin.
I glanced at the large wound in her abdomen. The air grew thick with heat. I leaned over and passed out on the cobblestones of the courtyard.
The pits slowed as I watched that pitter fall toward me, pincers-first, in slow motion.
I had always wondered what it might feel like.
I had always wondered if it would really hurt.
Or if I wouldn't even be aware it was happening at all.
But it was happening.
The pincers snapped toward me, the gullet of the pitter yawning open, sharp teeth lining the insides of its throat, legs a blurry scuttle of movement on either side of the monster.
I didn't want to die.
I wanted to live. I had to live.
As soon as that thought registered in my brain, a voice whispered into my ear. No one was there. Maybe death was talking. Maybe it was my brain. Rattled. But I heard the voice.
"If you want to live, then live. Use the gem."
And then something happened I couldn't explain. A rush of energy surged through my body and focused in on my forearm. The forearm trapped by the wriggling pitter waiting for its brother to mash its pincers into my gut so it could chomp on an arm or a leg for itself.
The gem in my clasp burned hot. Pain ratcheted up my arm as golden light burst from the gem and blazed right through the stunned pitter over my arm. Its eyes glowed golden before beams of light burst through every socket, blazing hotter until the pitter exploded around me, sending monster guts flying through the air and smashing into the other pitter that loomed over me.
Golden light still shot from my gem. I screamed in pain and aimed it at the pitter over my head, blasting a hole right through its midsection. The pitter screeched and fell backward.
A golden haze fell over my world. My arm ached. My neck throbbed. Blood rushed through my head as I pushed myself to a standing position. Screams echoed all around me, shouts, screeches, rumbling as I focused the golden light on the other pitters. The other recruits fell to the ground as I screamed and screamed and shot pitter after pitter, watching them explode with golden light.
"Eric! Eric!" My name wafted to me from behind. I slowly spun around and saw Lodan standing there, eyes wide with fear, watching my face wrench in pain.
"ERIC!" Lodan yelled again.
I dropped my arm to my side. My gem faded back to a milky white color with the slightest golden tinge. The other recruits stood up, staring at me with their mouths open. I stumbled to the side, pain filling my chest. I gasped at the air and saw black spots edge in on my vision.
Lodan placed a hand on my shoulder. "Eric?"
Telisa stood over me, staring with an open mouth.
Pitters lay blasted to shreds all around us. Their legs finishing their final scuttles in this life before growing still. I had destroyed them all. All of them. Every last one was gone.
"Get . . . the flag." I rasped. My throat burned. I coughed and spat on the rock beside me.
"Eric . . . your spit . . . it's . . ."
I glanced down. The splotch of spit was golden. It glowed for a second before fading into the rock.
What was happening to me?
A girl grabbed the flag out of its holder and hoisted it into the sky. "We got it!"
Telisa still hadn't moved. She stood on the platform over the field of pits, surveying the damage, open-mouthed. Rudo and the Runner with the rapier stood on either side of her now. They stared like they could never have supposed anything like this would ever happen.
I glanced up at them.Pain coursed through my head. I shook, curling up on my side as I lay on the rock.
Telisa turned to Rudo and hissed something. A moment later he clambered out of sight. The wooden gate scraped open. Rudo trudged through the opening, sloshing past steaming piles of pitter guts until he stood over me.
I glanced up at him, my face wrenched in pain.
He reached down and grabbed my elbow, yanking me to my feet. I almost lost my balance, but he snapped his fingers at Lodan, who hurried over and threw an arm around my shoulders, propping me up. We staggered toward the entrance, past the stunned faces of the other recruits who watched me pass and shifted back. Pitter guts dripped from their hair, their arms, their pants. The same gunk dribbled down my shirt. We were all too shocked to even wipe it away.
Telisa met us outside the gate, hands on both hips. She narrowed her eyes at me and then shouted over my shoulder, "All of you! Out here now!"
The rest of the group hurried out of the pits and stood a good distance from Lodan and me. A strange silence settled over us. The distant clashing of swords and whinnying of horses echoed across the compound.
Telisa held up a fist. "No one talks about what happened here. Got it?"
The recruits stood behind me, still silent.
"Got it?" Telisa screamed.
"Yes, ma'am!" The others shouted in unison.
Telisa pointed at me. "You. You're coming with me to Gratta. Rudo, Fennier! get the rest of these scums to the showers! They stink like pitters."
Rudo and Fennier nodded and clapped their hands at the others.
"You heard her! Run!" Fennier shouted, waving her rapier at the group. I heard their boots clomp away from us, but I couldn't see them. My head lolled forward. Dust swirled around my legs.
"Let's go," Telisa muttered. In that single mutter, I could hear it. She was afraid. Afraid of me. Afraid of what I had done. I trembled and felt bile rising up my throat. I squinched my eyes shut and forced it back down as Lodan helped me stumble ahead. Footfall after footfall, sand crunching under my boots, stomach roiling back and forth, burning pain shooting up my forearm.
What exactly had I done?
"We're there," Lodan whispered.
I forced my head up. Gratta's ranch house sat in front of us. A green door with bars over a simple round window in the center of it. The house stretched in either direction about thirty feet; I counted four more windows, two on either side, all with bars covering them. The whole house was made from logs like the dormitories, but every log had been painted dark green, like the color of freshly fallen pine needles.
Telisa banged a fist on the door. "Gratta! Open up! It's important!" she growled.
I heard a scuffle inside the house and the door slid open. Gratta filled the doorframe; silver hair fell wild around her head like an untrimmed hedge. Her eyes narrowed. She gazed at Telisa, then Lodan, then me.
She pointed a gnarled finger at Lodan. "That one stays out. Bring the other inside. This had better be important."
Telisa nodded. "It is." She slapped Lodan's hand away from my shoulder and shoved him to the dirt. "Wait there."
Lodan scuttled up against the wall of logs and brought his knees up to his chest.
Telisa grabbed my arm and yanked me through the doorway. We entered a room with wooden floors that shone in the sunlight streaming through a large back window, covered with more bars. A counter ran from one end of the room to the other. Green suede couches sat against the wall facing it and the lines of bookshelves behind the counter. Rows of books with green binding and gold foiling lined the shelves, red ribbons snaking out the tops of every one. A large feather quill rested in an ink bottle on the counter, with one of the books open wide, yellowed pages facing upward.
Gratta pointed at the couch. "Lie down."
I did and closed my eyes immediately, holding my forearm. The burning had subsided a bit, and the pain had dulled to an ache.
I heard the door lock. Footsteps shuffled across the room. Then Telisa spoke. "I've never seen it before, ma'am. His clasp. The gem. It shone golden."
Gratta coughed. "Golden? You sure?"
I opened my eyes now and saw them both staring at me from beside the counter. Gratta's fingers trembled slightly, but she curled them into fists.
Telisa nodded. "Golden." She crossed her huge arms. "Blasted every last pitter with a stream of light that shot out from it. I didn't know they could even glow golden. Didn't think that was one of the colors."
"It's not." Gratta took a deep breath and brushed her silver hair back.
"Maybe we should kill him."
I gasped, choked, and scrambled to a sitting position. "Kill me?"
"Shut up," Gratta muttered. She grabbed a sharp silver letter opener from the counter and flipped it over between her fingers. Light glinted from the letter opener and flashed across my face. My heart pounded, and I could feel a slight tingling around my forearm. "Kill him." Gratta stepped across the room; letter opener gripped in her hand. It looked as sharp as any knife, long, slick, and lethal. "Supposin' the Queen finds out about this. Supposin' she hears a Runner with a golden gem is here."
I leaned back against the couch, feeling the buttons in the fabric digging into my back.
Gratta stood over me now, her shadow falling across my face. "Suppose we just let ya be. See what happens." She held up the letter opener.
The gem glowed brighter. Golden light spilled over my clasp as Gratta raised the letter opener. I held up my arms as she swung. A sheen of golden light formed over my chest. The letter opener bounced against it, and Gratta dropped it clattering to the floor as she stumbled backward. The light snapped back into my gem as Telisa caught Gratta and helped her stand back up.
"Never . . . I've never seen this," Gratta's eyes were wild.
"What's happening, ma'am?" I whispered.
Gratta pointed at the clasp on my forearm. "It's doin' things I ain't never seen a clasp do." She stepped toward me, palms up. "Let me see it."
I shook and held out my forearm. The gem still glowed a slight golden color, but it was quickly fading back to milky white. My head pounded, and golden splashes of light sparked behind my eyelids every time I blinked. Gratta wrapped her fingers around my wrist and traced a finger across the gem's surface.
"Warm," she whispered. She closed her eyes and put a hand on the clasp. Her brow furrowed for a moment, and then she opened her eyes. "Golden light . . ." She stared at me, leaning forward, searching both of my eyes. "Who are you?"
I swallowed. "Eric of Jedros."
"They're simple people–"
She gripped my wrist tighter. "Who are they? Names!"
"Yslin and Hanna. They're simple people. We plant rice and harvest it! I'm nobody."
Gratta squinted at me. "I doubt that. You're somebody. I don't know who. But you are." She glanced at the clasp again. "How'd you do it? The golden light?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. I just . . . did." The voice. The voice had told me to use the gem. For a moment I thought about telling Gratta. I looked at her, my mouth falling open. Should I tell her?
Telisa glared at me over Gratta's shoulder. Waiting.
"Don't." It was such a simple word. But it filled my head. Neither Gratta nor Telisa had said it. But the word was there. Just the same. "Don't."
"Ya mean to tell me, ya go blastin' up my pitters, but ya don't have a tumbleweedin' clue how?"
"I really don't!" That was the truth. I had no idea how it had happened.
Gratta pushed me back against the couch. "Gems only do a couple 'o things. One, is they shine. Whatever kinda job you're runnin' it shines like it. Orange for recruitin', blue for messagin', green for thievin', red for killin', and so on. But there ain't no gold color. Never seen it. Never even heard it possible."
"What do we do with him, ma'am?" Telisa stepped up beside Gratta, glaring at me. "If we can't kill him, what do we do with him?"
"That gem's protectin' 'im. I don't know how, but it is." Gratta spun around and began pacing back and forth, tapping her fingers against her forehead. "Take 'im to the Queen? She'd probably want this. As soon as she hears where he went and what he done, she gonna be descendin' over this compound like a banshee bat. I'm sure she'd love a little army of golden gemmers against the rebellion. Just love it."
"So what do we do?"
"I'm thinkin'!" Gratta snapped. Then she stopped. "I wanna know more about this. It could be mighty useful." She spun around slowly. "As soon as darkness falls, I want you to take 'im, Telisa. Take 'im to the scholars. That'd get 'im away from here for a while and also get us some answers."
"Until then, ma'am?"
Gratta lifted her chin and eyed me. "Until then I want 'im at yer side." With a snap, the old lady wrapped her fingers around Telisa's throat. She dragged the Runner toward her. "Listen close. If he gets away, I'll crack yer gem. If he dies, I'll crack yer gem. If anyone speaks a word o' where he went and what he done, I'll crack yer gem. Ya got it?"
"Got it, ma'am."
"Good." Gratta patted Telisa's cheek and smiled. "Now then. I believe it's feedin' time! So all y'all get outta here and get to the Commons!"
I stood as Telisa stomped to the door and flung it open.
I turned my head to Gratta as she blinked and smiled.
"Just remember, hon. There are more ways to kill ya than with a letter opener. You behave now, ya hear? You're gonna be my little gold digger, I reckon. And Gratta sure likes the sound o' that."
I swallowed and stepped out of the house with Telisa slamming the door behind me.
Lodan scrambled up to his feet, brushing off the backside of his pants. "What happened? Anything wrong? You okay, Eric?"
Telisa shoved Lodan in the chest with a single hand. The boy crumpled backward to the dust. "Shut up. He's fine. Doesn't he look fine to you?"
Lodan made eye contact a second and then nodded slowly. "Sure. Just fine." He stood up, brushed himself off again, and trailed behind as we headed for the Commons.
I couldn't eat. I stared at the plate in front of me, piled high with a slab of meat, green asparagus, and some kind of orange mush I couldn't identify. Telisa sat beside me, stuffing her face like a rabid panda. The other recruits and Runners eyed both of us warily, but I couldn't look back at them. I couldn't even think.
I closed both eyes and took a long, slow breath.
What had happened?
The voice. The voice that had spoken to me. What was that? I had heard it twice now. No explanation. I tried to recall how it sounded. Was it a man's voice? A woman's? A child's? No matter how hard I tried to remember, I couldn't place it.
And all this talk about gold. If gold wasn't a gem color, then how could mine have shone golden like that?
Gratta had said I was somebody.
I wish I knew who that was.
For as long as I could remember, I had always felt like some sort of human shell, rustling between rice paddies and our cottage, digging the tunnel with Saltha, staring at my parents as they stared at the walls in the dark hours of the night.
What did it even mean to be a somebody?
What did it mean to be a Runner? A recruit? A human? An Eric?
A plate clattered to the ground and shattered. My eyes popped open.
Telisa's head shot up from her plate. She jumped up, yanked a knife from her side and scanned the Commons.
A Runner with a duster on pointed at the distant sky. "Shanters! From the Queen's castle!"
Muffled screams rippled across the Commons.
I whipped around to Telisa. "Shanters? What are those?" I studied where the Runner pointed and saw a dark cloud flickering through the air, zagging toward the ground and zigging back up, headed straight for the Commons. I squinted and saw what appeared to be strange, leathery birds, flapping toward us, beady eyes trained on us.
"Get under the table, scrant," Telisa growled. "Do not let them see you."
She jumped up onto the table, knife up. Runners across the Commons raced around, leaping up onto tables. I ducked underneath the table, pulling the bench close and peering out as the shanters zoomed under the Commons awning and flew in a tight circle around the recruits and Runners. A strange, hollow voice echoed out as the shanters flew faster and faster. My hair stood on end, and my collar fluttered as the wind around us grew stronger. One of the benches scraped toward the center of the room.
"Golden light has been spilled," the voice hissed from the shanters. "The Queen knows this. Reveal the Runner."
Telisa held her ground and planted both feet between a tray of orange mush and a platter of steak. "Leave! There ain't no such thing as golden light! Get gone!"
The wind picked up, and the shanters flew faster, claws on the ends of their legs flexing. "Lies! The Queen has felt it! Reveal the Runner of the golden light!"
A shanter ducked sideways and latched both claws around the head of a Runner, lifting him into the air. The things were large, probably wider than a grown man. It dug its claws into the Runner's face as he screamed.
"Tell us!" the shanters screeched.
Another shanter shot out, grabbed a recruit by the shoulders, and dragged her up, kicking and thrashing.
My breath caught in my throat as I watched the shanters pick up four more recruits, yanking them into the air over the tables of food. My tongue ran dry. The clasp on my arm began to burn.
"We will kill them all if you do not reveal the Runner of Golden Light!"
And then one of the shanters grabbed Lodan. The only person I would have called a friend out here. They dragged him into the center of the Commons. A shanter hovered in front of his face, a claw tracing down the side of his cheek.
"Help!" Lodan screamed.
I pushed the bench aside.
And then Telisa cleared her throat. "Fine! You want the Runner of Golden Light?"
"Yesss..." the voice whispered. "Reveal the Runner!"
Telisa glanced at me and smirked. "I'll tell you who the Runner of Golden Light is."
I closed my eyes, wind whipping through my hair. I stood. And waited for shanter claws to dig into my shoulders.
Love what you read then
When Eric was only thirteen, he was taken from his family and the peaceful rice fields on the island of Jedros to become a Runner. Roaming the five islands of Abra, Runners are tasked with jobs -- jobs they must see to the end. Either finish the job or die.
And then a mysterious benefactor arrives with a bag of gold and Eric's first job: find the girl spotted somewhere in the northern islands responding only to the name Bella. Simple enough. But this job is not what anyone thought. Others are searching for the girl. Others who will kill to keep Bella a secret.
But Bella has her own secret to keep. And if it gets out, the very fabric of the known world will change forever.
Audience: Ages 10 to 14
Shaun Stevenson has always loved a good book. Ever since he first picked up his great-grandmother's ancient copy of THE WIZARD OF OZ, he has wanted to take readers on crazy journeys through imaginative worlds where the danger and mystery never stop. He lives in the Great Northwest with his wife, enjoying the coffee, the thrifting, and of course, the writing.