Holes lined the field, stretching away to a distant run of forested hills. Mounds of dirt clung to the edges of each dark pit, and I couldn't help picturing the massive pitters scrambling their way through each one, spewing dirt, and smacking their pincers together. Each hole looked about fifteen feet across, plenty large enough for us to climb through.
Zinnia shuffled her front hooves. I don't like this place.
“Neither do I.”
Telisa glared at me. “Stay quiet! Do you want to wake up the whole lot of 'em?”
I shook my head. I would stay quiet.
I don't want to go in those tunnels.
Zinnia's eyes were wide and darted back and forth from hole to hole. She shook her mane and stepped back toward the line of trees behind us. I'm staying behind.
“You can't stay behind!” I hissed.
Telisa glared at me.
I leaned up against the horse's ear and whispered, “What if we need you?”
You'll be faster without me.
“But this was your idea.”
Zinnia backed up and stared at me. Take the Old Roads. Survive. Save the girl. I'll see you again. The horse trotted around and galloped away between the pines, the bushes swayed slightly with each stamp of her hooves.
I watched her go until Telisa put a hand on my shoulder and pointed out a pit down the hill and to the left. “That one there. Dirt looks a bit crusty. I bet it's an old tunnel. Maybe not used much anymore.” She slid a dagger from the belt at her waist and tossed the hilt to me.
I nodded, and we sprinted down the hill toward the hole. I shivered and kept my distance from every dark pit we passed, keeping one eye on our entry point, and one eye on the quiet field around us. We reached the edge and peered over the side. The slope curled down into darkness. Crumbs of dirt trickled under the palms of my hands as I dropped to my knees.
“Ready?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “I'll never be ready for somethin' as crazy as this. Can you glow still?”
I stared at the clasp on my forearm. I concentrated. I closed my eyes and thought about the light coursing through the gem and creating a glow to see by. My eyelids squished downward. A slight flicker of pain traced through the tips of my fingers. I glanced down, but nothing. The gem was as dull as before.
“It's fine.” Telisa waved her clasp and yellowish light shot like a beam into the dark. The tunnel sloped for a ways and then rounded a corner, always dropping downward. Telisa swung her legs over the side of the tunnel and leaped in, sliding the rest of the way until she landed on both feet.
I followed her.
We crept through the dark, my fingers curling around the hilt of Telisa's dagger, my feet tripping over loose stones and small piles of dirt. The tunnel turned us left and then zagged back to the right until we came to a wall with a hole leading downward. Telisa pointed down and dropped to her stomach, ear to the ground.
“Anything?” Even my whispers sounded like thunder blasts down here.
Telisa aimed her light at my face. “No.”
I blinked and backed away.
Telisa refocused her light on the hole and pointed at it. “You first, kid.”
I walked up to the edge and looked over. The hole went down a little ways and landed probably ten feet below. I took a deep breath and then jumped. I landed and somersaulted, rolling until I was flat on my back and staring up at Telisa and her light.
“You okay?” Telisa asked.
“Yes. Hurry! It's dark down here.”
“What? You afraid of the dark?” The glow of her clasp lit up the smirk smeared across her face. “Because down here? We all should be.” She waved a hand. “Move outta the way.”
I stepped back and waited.
Silence drifted down from the hole.
“Telisa?” If she was trying to scare me, it was working. I didn't like silence. Or the dark. Or knowing that pitters might be crawling around somewhere behind me, waiting for the moment they could strike and swallow me whole.
No reply came from above.
I peeked into the hole and saw no light. No clasp. No Telisa. Nothing. Darkness deepened around me until it drove purple spots into the edges of my sight.
The hole was too high to climb back up through. Either Telisa had bolted—which seemed highly unlikely—or something had silently taken her—which seemed more likely and much more frightening. My hands started to shake, but I clenched them into fists and stumbled sideways until my shoulder hit the wall of the tunnel. It was smoother than up above, less crumbly, like the earth had solidified into a solid sheen of smooth rock that ran in both directions indefinitely.
I didn't know which way to go. One short breath and then a long one. I had to concentrate. To think. Because otherwise I would be caught by whatever lurked down in these tunnels. And then I would be dead.
But Bella needed me. She needed me to save her. I had to save her. Or I would be dead.
I closed my eyes and called out to her with my mind. “Bella? Can you hear me?”
I waited in the dark and heard no response.
So I walked forward. My boots slipped every few steps on the smooth floor beneath me. The walk seemed endless. The tunnel ran straight. Never turning. Not even slightly. My mind wandered into darkness. What was down here? Anything? Anyone? Would I end up at the castle dungeons? Or out in the middle of Castos somewhere, lost hopelessly?
The steps slogged by. I heard nothing. Not a whisper, not even the faintest whiff of a breeze. The air grew stale, and my tongue felt dry on the roof of my mouth. How much longer would this tunnel continue? How much farther could I walk? What would I find at the end? If I ever found the end?
My mind swirled.
And then the first whisper met my ears.
“What are you doing down here with ussss?”
I stopped walking. A pebble skittered away from the toe of my boot.
“Sssay sssomething. Because we can hear you breathe. . . .” A wet chuckle. “We know what you ssseek in these tunnelssss.”
I sucked in a breath and held it.
“Perhaps he cannot see,” a second voice said.
A murmur of whispers echoed out a faint “Yesss.”
Gray light emerged from the tunnel ahead. My eyes squinted at the light, even though I knew it wasn't very bright at all. I moved forward cautiously, one hand shielding my eyes. The voices tugged at me. Drew me closer with shuffled footstep after shuffled footstep. A tremble slipped across my shoulders. I should be afraid. I should be walking away. But I wasn’t. I couldn’t. A drive to see overcame my senses. I had to see.
“Yesss . . come closer to usss. . . .”
I blinked and saw what appeared to be smooth, black stone beneath my feet, running in a straight line into the gray light. The tunnel above me curved in a perfect arch, without a single notch or crack in the gray stone. And then I saw the inky doorways. There was no other way to describe them. Six ran on one side of the tunnel, and seven staggered across from them. They were the shape of doorways, but instead of wooden or even stone doors, the entrances flowed with what looked like the blackest night of stars I had ever seen.
A single, gray star shone in the center of each door, casting light into the tunnel. I stopped by the first door and stared into it, the stars and pinpricks of light swirled back and forth in different directions as if the stars were spinning overhead at a dizzying rate.
“Ssstep inside. . . .” A voice called.
I inched closer to the doorway, my eyes reflecting the starry entrance. I watched the lights. Stared at them. Soaked each one in. Peace lived in those stars. A peace I could have if I only stepped inside.
“Jussst a bit closer. . . .”
The shape of a hand pressed against what looked like a film separating this side of the door and the other. Another hand appeared beside it, pushing the entrance out as if an arm were outstretched and reaching for me. And then a face appeared, eyeless sockets pushing into the darkness, and mouth opening wider and wider with a groan.
I reached out a hand toward the fingertips, closer, closer--
The voice snapped through my mind like the stamp of a hoof smacking against my skull. It was a different voice—a girl's voice. Her voice.
“Bella,” I whispered.
The voices in the inky doorways stopped instantly.
Eric, I need your help . . . but you can't . . . if . . . turn . . . aside. . . .
The words faded in and out of my consciousness. I raced down the tunnel, the gray light sparking behind me and then blasting back to darkness. My feet pounded over the rough stone. Footfall after footfall, heart and mind focused on finding the source of Bella's voice.
She was close. I could feel it in my forearm. A slight pulse, right underneath the cracked gem on my clasp.
The blackness descended over me again. I plunged forward blindly, one hand tracing the wall. Another step and my hand met emptiness to the right. I stumbled sideways, landing on my shoulder with a smack.
“Ouch,” I muttered. I sat up, closed my eyes at the pain shooting through my arm, and scrambled back up.
I stopped when I heard the growl. Fifty pale blue eyes blinked into sight one by one. They glowed, pupils narrowing and widening and then focusing on me. The slight blue glow lit up the creature's two pincers stretching to either side of the tunnel. It opened its mouth; two long drags of saliva dribbling to the rocks.
I watched it rise up until it bumped its head on the rock ceiling and sent a shower of dust to the ground. It roared at me and lunged. I darted backward, around the corner of the tunnel as the pitter careened forward, slamming its head into the far wall. Another roar was all it took to send me running down the passage as fast as my legs would go. I hobbled slightly, clutching my shoulder with each step.
The pitter's eyes lit the path ahead of me. I dodged around rocks and stalagmites as the giant worm slithered around the walls behind me, snapping its jaws, and clacking its pincers. I doubled down, pumping my legs and feeling tears wet the corners of my eyes. The worm snapped at the air behind my heels as I dove over a large boulder.
The creature slammed into the rock and smashed it to dust with a roar.
Up ahead, I could see the tunnel narrowing to a small square door about the size of my torso. I lurched toward it, slipping on a loose stone and crashing to the ground. The pitter bit the air over my head and then glanced down at me. It drove its head downward. I scrambled, wrapping my fingers around a large stalagmite and yanking myself ahead. The pitter's face smacked into the dirt where my legs had been a breath before.
I half-crawled, half-tumbled toward the square door. It was made of metal and carved over in swirling vines with a single large snake mouth sticking from the center. A ring hung from the snake's fangs, and I grabbed it. The door squeaked open an inch, a waft of foul air blasting into my face.
I peeked back. The pitter shook its head and crashed through a stalactite and then slithered forward. It stretched out its long head to reach me, pincers snapping at the dirt right behind my feet. The tunnel was slightly too narrow for the entire beast to fit into the space right by the door. It pounded its forehead against the stone again and again, sending rocks crackling to the cave floor.
I screamed, leaning back with the handle in my hands, and feeling the pain rip through my shoulder. The door creaked open a little more, cobwebs stretching away from the seams. “Come on!” I yelled, giving one more pull.
The pitter burrowed toward me. One of the pincers scraped my back, and with the encouragement of its prey being so tantalizingly close, it shoved forward and wrapped both pincers around my midsection. It flung its head back, and I gripped the handle, gritting my teeth and screaming from the pain. I kicked back, landed a foot on the beast's closest eye. It let out a roar and dropped me.
One last yank on the door, and it was open enough for me to scramble inside. A pincer shot forward into the small tunnel I had discovered. A rusty chain hung on the wall by my head. I pulled it, sending the door slamming down on the pincer and chopping it clean off.
The pincer wiggled twice and then stilled on the cavern floor beside me.
I leaned against the wall and cried, not even trying to stop the tears flowing from my dusty face. I ran a hand over my eyes and sobbed, the cries heaving against my chest. My body felt numb from the running, the pain, the weariness.
How much longer was this going to go on? Near death after near death? I took a deep breath and calmed my chest one slow inhale and exhale at a time. I had to focus. I had to stay in the game. I had to finish the job. Because everything was at stake for this. Everything.
A soft purple glow lit up the tunnel. It was entirely square shaped, with completely smooth walls—smoother rock than I had ever seen in my life. It almost felt like glass to the touch. I had to stay crouched over because the ceiling was so low in here.
And then the thought trickled through me: What was this tunnel? And where in Castos did it lead?
I swallowed. And crawled forward, away from the door and the pitter on the other side, and straight toward the source of the purple light leaking into the passage.
Love what you read then
When Eric was only thirteen, he was taken from his family and the peaceful rice fields on the island of Jedros to become a Runner. Roaming the five islands of Abra, Runners are tasked with jobs -- jobs they must see to the end. Either finish the job or die.
And then a mysterious benefactor arrives with a bag of gold and Eric's first job: find the girl spotted somewhere in the northern islands responding only to the name Bella. Simple enough. But this job is not what anyone thought. Others are searching for the girl. Others who will kill to keep Bella a secret.
But Bella has her own secret to keep. And if it gets out, the very fabric of the known world will change forever.
Audience: Ages 10 to 14
Shaun Stevenson has always loved a good book. Ever since he first picked up his great-grandmother's ancient copy of THE WIZARD OF OZ, he has wanted to take readers on crazy journeys through imaginative worlds where the danger and mystery never stop. He lives in the Great Northwest with his wife, enjoying the coffee, the thrifting, and of course, the writing.