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.
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.