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.
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.