The world slowed to a crawl. I saw the zagging stream of light zipping toward me, closer, inch by inch, sapping the energy from the air around it and channeling it at me.
I raised my arm. I had to shine. I had to shine. I had to shine.
I closed my eyes, grit my teeth, and imagined golden light streaking from my arms. It had to work. I had to shine. To save everyone. To stop this beast. To save a world otherwise destroyed.
My eyes opened one at a time. No light shone. Not even a glimmer.
I dropped stomach down to the stones, and the lightning struck the air over my head and popped. I scrambled forward as the demon blasted again. This one scorched the rampart a foot ahead of me. I clambered back. Another blast. I jerked my leg away as it struck stone.
And I saw Bella, lying still on the dirt below.
And I saw Saltha, embalmed in purple light.
And I saw Telisa, vanishing without a trace.
And the boy. His face. Staring into mine. And whispering, “Trust me.”
I closed my eyes again.
How did you trust someone? How was it supposed to work? How did I let go and just trust?
I took a deep breath and stood up. “I can't do this alone. I never could,” I whispered.
Light glimmered over my fingertips. Golden light. A surge of energy rushed over me. I clenched my fists and then slowly rose into the air as the light enveloped me from foot to head. I kept rising higher until I hovered across from the demon's smoking snout.
It turned to look at me, cocking its head to the side. “Impossible,” it muttered.
I held out both palms, and golden light blasted from my hands, streaking at its mouth. The beams sliced through the front of its snout, a puff of red smoke billowing to the clouds where it had once been. The mangled demon roared and swiped at me with a clawed hand.
I dove to the side, golden light growing brighter around me. A haze of gold covered the world. Red molded with gray and into white light shimmering from city rooftop to castle ruins. The demon swiped at me again, and I shot up through its claws, two golden swords appearing in both hands. I swung downward and sliced through two of the demon's fingers. Both fell to the ground and vanished in a plume of red smoke.
The demon stumbled backward. Its legs crashed into the castle behind me. A tower fell to the side and slammed into the earth sending up a cloud of dust. It stared at me and with garbled words said, “Runner of Golden Light, thou dost not comprehend what thy eyes see nor what thy hands do. Nor whom thou standeth against! I am the Ancient called Molduth, Destroyer of All the Living! And I shalt destroy thee!”
It leaned back its head. The Adam's apple on its throat warbled, and red creatures swarmed into the air from deep within its chest. The creatures looked like red locusts with tails like scorpions. Sharp stingers glistened with red lightning on the tip of each tail. Claws emerged from their abdomens, and each face lifted up to reveal the visage of a human male. They opened their mouths at the same time and roared, sharp fangs chomping with saliva.
My eyes widened, and I dropped a full man's height in the air. There must have been nearly a hundred of the locusts flapping translucent wings. They swirled around Molduth’s head. The larger beast’s eyes darting past them to me.
Molduth shoved a claw in my direction. With a synchronized screech, they darted in my direction in a swarm. I flipped over in midair, pressing both hands to my sides and rocketing forward, diving over the ramparts and into the city below. The swarm followed, clipping the sides of buildings and leaving chunks of stone debris in their wake. I slipped under trellises and balconies and flew around the corner of a main street to see a handful of people weeping on the cobblestoned streets.
I stuck my legs out in front of me and started running in the air until my heels touched down on the ground. I spun around, golden swords in hand and crossed them. The locusts at the front of the swarm snarled, tucked their legs in to their sides, and aimed their stingers at me.
“Run!” I shouted over my shoulder to the men and women in trousers and bland tunics behind me. I heard the patter of boots across cobblestones and swung to meet the first of the locusts. I chopped through a scorpion tail and stabbed upward into its belly, sending it careening into the side of the building beside me. Another locust jabbed at me with its tail from the left. I swung up and sliced through the beast, breaking it clean in half. Both halves shriveled and hit the stones.
I swung both blades, pounding into the middle of the swarm, spinning and swinging and stabbing again and again and again. I lost myself in the swirling gold, the light shining through my skin, powering the fervor channeled through the swords in my hands. Locusts dropped in steaming piles of mucus and muck around me in plops.
A roar drifted down from the hill above me. The demon parked both hands on the ramparts, claws digging into the stone. I glanced up and saw that the entire horde of locusts lay in pieces around me, littered throughout the streets. My shoulders heaved, and I gasped for air. Had I actually done this? Beaten my way through a swarm of lightning red locusts?
No. I hadn't done this alone. Something else—no, someone else was powering me. Shining through me. The boy. Whoever he was.
Molduth roared again.
I pointed a sword at him. “Leave this island! Go back to wherever you came from!”
Smoke poured from Molduth's dismembered mouth. And then a flame of dark red fire exploded from its throat. I threw my hands up, and the swords vanished in a cloud of dust and reformed into a half-shield over my face. The fire blazed around the golden shield, trickling off into the cobblestones and leaving melted slag in its wake.
The blast ended, but not before a second one took its place. The fire burned through part of the shield, and I flew backward from the force of it, landing on my back on the street. Molduth leaned back and heaved another shot of fire at me. I scrambled away as it exploded into the road beside me. Heat wafted over my face and sent blisters bubbling to the surface of my cheek. I screamed and clutched at my face, rolling until I bumped into a gutter. Fire blazed up the street from Molduth's maw, cutting into the stones until it caught the bottom of my foot, burning through my boot. I screamed again, yanking my leg away and crawling out of range into the doorway of the nearest building.
Molduth blasted the two-story shop with fire. The wood erupted in flames and burned rapidly toward me. I jumped away, hobbling up the street, ducking beneath awnings and into doorways as Molduth blasted shop after shop behind me. Fire ripped through the street and spread, sending clouds of crimson smoke billowing into the air.
I stumbled to the ground. Pain boiled over my foot. Blisters had covered the top of it and left behind charred skin. I winced, holding back the tears.
“Help,” I rasped.
My throat felt raw from the smoke filling the street.
“Nowhere to hide thyself, Runner. All mortals perish before the Flames of Molduth!” The demon laughed, leaning over the rampart. I watched another crimson glow brighten within its throat.
I cradled my face, and the golden light that had surrounded me faded. I couldn't fight this. I had tried. I had put up a good fight. But it wasn't enough. Molduth was too powerful. Too strong. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't face it.
I am coming, Eric.
The voice whipped through my mind like an old friend coming around the corner with no warning. Zinnia. The horse emerged from the red smoke, throwing her mane to the side. She leaned into her gallop, gaze set on me.
Molduth loosed another blast of fire. I rolled away, hopped to my feet, and reached out for Zinnia's neck. She kicked her legs to the side and slid on two hooves toward me until I could yank myself onto her back. The fire slammed into the ground behind us. I clung to Zinnia's neck, feeling the tears drip down my face as pain coursed through my leg. She raced through the streets of the city, a nameless row of shops and homes slowly burning to ashes. Molduth shot at us with streams of fire, blazing through cobblestones as Zinnia leaned left and right to avoid being hit. She seemed to see and know when each blast would strike.
My eyelids drooped. “Bella,” I rasped.
Where is she?
I pointed a weak finger back up the hill. “Castle grounds.”
On it, Zinnia said. She neighed and swerved to the right down a side street. Fire blasted over our heads, slamming into the thatched roofs.
How do we stop that thing?
I shook my head. “Too strong.”
There has to be a way.
If there was, I didn't know what it would be. Molduth was something old. From an ancient time, trapped inside that purple crystal for thousands of years probably. And now, here it was, unleashed on the world and ravaging the island of Castos. And who was I really? A boy from a rice farm on Jedros. A boy who had come to stand against evils in many forms, from pales to pitters to--
My eyes shot open. “Zinnia! How far are the pitworm holes from here?”
Not too far on horseback.
“Take us there! As fast as you can! And try to be obvious about it!”
What about the girl?
“We can save everyone if we just get to those pits!”
Zinnia whinnied and darted back onto a main street. Molduth spotted us and sent another blast of fire our direction. It blasted into the ground ahead of us leaving a trench of molten cobblestones in its wake. Zinnia leaped into the air and sailed over the slag. She landed on the other side with a clop.
Molduth roared behind us. “How doth thou escape mine own grasp?”
I spun around on Zinnia's back, facing Molduth's towering figure leaning on the ramparts. “Come get us!” I screamed as loud as I could.
Rage burned through Molduth's eyes. It flapped into the air and cast a red shadow across the burning city. The world blurred slightly as I turned back around, clutching Zinnia's neck as she raced through the flaming city gates and onto the dirt roads beyond. Trees whipped past us, disintegrated as Molduth flew behind us, zapping the ground with red lightning.
The clouds had spread into the horizon. I squinted, trying to see where they ended and blue sky began once more. But all I could see was red. My face stung from the burn, and I grazed it slightly with my fingertips. The skin felt folded over. Char covered my fingers. I winced and shook my head. I couldn't think about it. I had to concentrate on what we were about to do.
I had one plan in mind. One that was insane enough to maybe work. I couldn't fight this beast alone. I had to have some kind of help. And it didn't need to be the good kind of help either.
Zinnia shot through the forest. Fire swept along behind us, reducing the pines to ash and dust. A cloud of smoke roiled across the ground, nipping at Zinnia's back hooves. And Molduth flew ever closer. Wind gusted through my hair and Zinnia's mane.
And then I saw it ahead. The field of pitter holes. I pointed. “There!”
Zinnia shot off the path and down the slope toward the field of holes.
“Straight through! And make noise!”
I screamed, rawness raking through my throat. Molduth flapped ahead and slammed into the ground, its shadow falling over us. His taloned feet dug into the earth and churned it. He swiped down with his claws at Zinnia. She darted sideways, but not quickly enough. One of the claws struck her in the back leg. I flew to the side, tumbling through the dirt and landing on the edge of a pitter hole. Zinnia fell to her side, kicking all four legs.
“Hold on!” I shouted. I stood up and raced to her side, placing both hands on her neck.
“Foolish mortals. Playthings of the Ancients. Thou hast run far enough!” Molduth leaned back to heave another blast of fire at us.
And then the ground rumbled.
Molduth glanced down and watched as a thousand pitters rose out of their holes and squirmed across the earth toward the largest thing in sight: Molduth. They opened their mouths, leaned back on the tail ends of their bodies, and hurled through the air, latching onto Molduth with all their teeth in tow.
The demon roared as pitter after pitter shot at it. It wrapped each hand around one of the giant worms and yanked, trying to pull them off with no success. The worms had sunk their fangs into the red flesh, tail ends wobbling in midair as their bodies lurched, eating away at the monstrous beast. Darker blotches of red spread across Molduth. The demon gripped its head with both clawed hands and then leaned back, stretching its arms to the clouds.
“Enough!” Molduth roared. Lightning sparked from the sky and drove through its body, zapping every pitter to dust. Lightning drove into every hole in the ground. Screeches echoed from the earth followed by billows of pitter dust.
I stared with an open mouth at the remains of so many pitters drifting through the air and swirling into the distance. We had failed. Maybe an Ancient was too much to fight. Maybe they weren’t meant to be destroyed. Only trapped. But I knew I had no ideas on how to capture something so monstrous and shove it back into the crystal beneath the castle. My hands shook, and I leaned back toward Zinnia. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Molduth leaned over Zinnia and me. “Thou hast fought bravely. But alas, bravery doth not earn thee life.” It swiped a hand down and wrapped around Zinnia, lifting her into the air.
“No!” I screamed, clutching onto Zinnia's neck and dangling in the air beneath her as she rose higher and higher.
Eric! I'm scared!
Molduth lifted us to its mangled snout, leaned its head back, and opened wide.
I closed my eyes and whispered, “Help us . . . please. . . .”
But no golden light came to my fingertips this time. No course of energy through my body. Only the dry heat rising from Molduth's gullet. The beast laughed.
I swung sideways and felt something drop from my pocket. I glanced down and saw Julian's purple necklace falling through the air and straight into Molduth's throat. Rays of purple light shot from it and pierced straight through Molduth's skin. The demon slammed its mouth shut, and held us out from two claws, dropping us through the air.
Zinnia and I fell toward the earth. I screamed and felt a cushion of golden light swirl beneath us. Before we pounded into the dirt, the golden light caught us and set us down gently. I stared up and saw Molduth stumble backward, clutching its stomach with both claws.
“What hast thou done? Dost thee not know that purple crystals are poison to the Ancients?”
Shafts of purple light broke through Molduth. The beams of light slowly spiraled around Molduth, picking up speed until the entire beast lifted into the air, spinning like a tornado. The clouds sucked downward into the red and purple vortex, clearing the way for blue sky to emerge. Wind blasted over us. I shaded my eyes and watched as the purple light consumed Molduth, rose into the air in the shape of a massive sphere, and then exploded outward. The light pressed into the sky, through the blue, and sparking into the distance like a star twinkling out for the night.
I fell back onto Zinnia's side and felt the warmth under the back of my head. A sticky warmth.
I sat up and glanced down.
A deep wound pierced the horse's side from where Molduth had gripped her.
I'm dying, Eric.
She neighed softly. Meet me in. . . .
My eyes closed and the field of dead pitters vanished from view.
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.