A field of pansies faded into view. The flowers stretched to the horizon in every direction, except there was no bright blue sky overhead. The purples and oranges of a darkening sunset filled my sight. I squinted, hobbled forward, and saw the girl.
She was lying on the dirt, crushing a ring of flowers beneath her. Chestnut brown hair spread from behind her head, purple eyes open wide. She wore a simple white dress with no sleeves, but in the center of her dress was a dark spot. I glanced away.
Her breathing came rapidly.
“Eric . . .” she gasped.
Zinnia held out a human hand toward me. Tears built beneath my eyelids. I crouched down on my knees and took her small hand into mine. My fingers wrapped around hers. “Zinnia, I'm sorry.”
“It'll be okay.” Her eyes closed. “I'll miss you, Eric. You're brave. And strong. And I know you can face anything that comes next.”
I shook my head. “No. . . . No I can't. Everyone around me is getting hurt and dying.” I stared at the horizon. “So many people are dead now,” I muttered.
Zinnia's hand clenched mine. “Don't blame yourself. This world is at war, Eric. I'm a small part in the story, but you . . . you are the Runner of Golden Light.” Her eyelids fluttered open, and she stared into me. “You are the forebear.”
“How do you—” I paused. “Can you read my mind?”
A kind smirk crossed the girl's mouth. “Always could. Your thoughts are intriguing. Most would not understand you. Most won't. But you can know that I always have.”
“Well that's embarrassing,” I chuckled. But then my face dipped back into a frown. “Zinnia, you can't die. It's not fair!”
“Nothing was ever fair.” Then Zinnia wrapped her arm around my neck and pulled herself to a sitting position. She groaned and winced, one hand over her wound. Then she leaned in to me and kissed my cheek. “Stay safe, Eric. Goodbye.”
And then she slowly fell onto her back, closed her eyes, and stopped breathing. The sky drifted into darkness, stars poking into view like the pinpricks poking into my chest. I couldn't breathe. My lungs felt tight, like the air was squeezing them closed. I fell onto my palms, hitting the dirt and letting the sobs erupt from deep in my gut.
“No!” I screamed. “No! No!”
I glanced back toward Zinnia's still form. Tiny plumes of blue smoke sifted through the soil around her, swirling over her face and body until she was completely covered. A gust of wind rushed across the pansies behind me, blowing the smoke away and into the stars above. And where Zinnia had been lying was a pack of blue and yellow flowers with swirling petals in the shape of a horse.
I buried my face in both hands and wept. Wept for Saltha and Zinnia and the countless numbers of people who had been slaughtered by Molduth in the castle city. I wept for myself; the emotion and tension of the past few weeks rushed over me.
And then a gentle hand fell on my shoulder.
Warmth pressed through me, and I lifted my head to see the boy. Tears filled his eyes, and his chin trembled as he slowly dipped down and ran a hand over the patch of flowers where Zinnia had once been. He let his tears fall onto the petals. They soaked into the blues and yellows making them even more vivid than before in the growing moonlight.
I leaned back on my heels and brushed my greasy hair away from my face. I rubbed both eyes with fists and then sighed, long and loud.
“Why is all of this happening?” I whispered.
The boy didn't respond. He merely looked at me with sad eyes. A gentle breeze blew through our hair.
“Why won't you say anything? You seem to know something!” I stood up. “Who are you? Really? Are you a runner? Or something else? You told me to trust you, and I did. And the golden light came through me without a clasp. What does any of this mean? You have to give me some answers.”
He studied the flowers and pulled one from the ground. Not in a harsh way, but with the greatest gentleness, pulling up the roots and all. He held the flower toward me. “Flowers are more important than most people realize. They can bring life where it was waning. They can restore memories where they were lost. They can remind us of things long forgotten. And then they can tell us the stories we're afraid to hear.”
“That doesn't make any sense,” I said.
“But it does. It makes all the sense. This flower for instance. It tells part of your story.” He pointed to the blue edges of the petals. “This world is dark, lost in chaos, wondering when relief will ever come.” His finger moved down to the roots. “But all along, something has been brewing deep beneath the surface. Something that will change everything and bring new life to people who have lost all hope.”
The boy pointed at the yellow middles of the petals. “And this?” His gaze lifted to me. “This is the golden light that has come into the world to shine in the darkness. Not that this light is The Light. This light points to something greater. Something coming. Something that will bring hope. But first, this point of golden light must shine. And ready the way.”
He stared at me. “You are that light, Eric of Jedros. Runner of Golden Light. There will be sadness on this journey. As there is now. And there will be times you wish more than anything to quit, and then there will come the end. But not before hope has been restored. And freedom has come.
“Molduth was only the beginning. A weaker ancient than many others. And believe me, more will come. And ravage these islands. You must stand and fight against them and shine with the light that is inside of you. Freedom is coming, and together, we must show them the way, the truth, and the life.”
The boy's words swam in my head, stroke after stroke. Ancients, freedom, fighting, hope. I still didn't understand all of it. I wanted to. I wanted to know. To have it sorted through and organized within my own mind in a way that made sense.
“What do I do now?” I asked.
“Finish the job. You are no longer bound by the slavery of runners. You are free, Eric. But Bella is important. Take her to Riverfork. And then go back to Gratta. There are others that must find the same freedom you've found.”
“But how do I do that?”
“You will know the way. Trust me.”
I took a deep breath and knew the only response my heart had was yes. So I nodded. And on the third nod, the field of pansies drifted out of sight, replaced by a rolling stretch of dirt filled with thousands of holes and piles of red ashes where pitters had once squirmed.
The sky had darkened. How long had I been . . . wherever I had been?
Zinnia's body had vanished.
So had Molduth. He was gone. Where he had once stood was a simple purple necklace, now glowing red and purple and floating at eye level. I blinked. Tried to focus on one of the colors. But my eyes wouldn't take it in. The necklace was wholly red and wholly purple at the same time. I reached out for the thin metal chain and brushed a finger against it. The necklace floated back slightly, and I reached out and grabbed it, drawing the chain into my hand and slipping it into my pocket.
I almost thought I heard a faint roar from within the crystal, but I shook my head. I had to get back to Bella, and I had left her--
My head shot up. Red smoke plumed in the distance. The castle. The Queen. Bella. The fires. I closed my eyes and felt the golden light build inside of me. It closed around my body, and I lifted into the air. “Take me to her,” I whispered. My arms whacked to my sides, and I blasted forward, leaving a fading trail of golden light behind me. The trees zipped by underneath. The path to the castle and the city snaked its way through the brush until I burst out from over the forest and through plumes of smoke rising from the burning city. The handful of people who stood below held a hand over their eyes, pointing into the sky as I soared overhead.
The ruins of the castle loomed into view. Piles of boulders and the broken ramparts from where Molduth had snapped through circled the main structure. Towers had toppled; ashes lay throughout the once green rows of hedges. And there, on the dirt, was Bella. Her hair was splayed beneath her prone form. And standing over her, the Queen, metal umbrella held at her side, and other hand stretched over Bella's forehead.
White light streamed from Bella into the queen's hand, and the woman leaned back, shawls covering her face, but I could see the light trickling from her skin.
I leaned forward and dove with a shout, smacking into the queen's side. We tumbled across the dry dirt, through the ashes, until we rolled to a stop. The Queen shoved me away and kicked her feet up, jumping to a standing position. White light flowed from her fingertips as she swayed from side to side, facing me.
“You are the boy of impossibilities, but impossibilities I will soon conquer.” She held a hand to the sky, and a stream of white light shot into the air. “I have siphoned enough of the girl's powers to match your own.” She held her palm to the side, and white light shot from her hand like a rope, wrapping itself and tying around a large stone boulder. She yanked on it and flung it toward me.
I dove to the side, the boulder clipping my back as I went. I cried out and held up both hands. Golden light shot from my palms and blasted into the stone, shattering it into pieces.
The Queen dropped the white rope, and it dissipated into nothingness. She rubbed her hands together, white sparks drifting from fingertip to fingertip. “Impressive. But let's see how you really fare against me.”
She whipped out the metal umbrella and tapped the tip of it. White light pooled on the end, and she held it back, firing blasts in rapid succession at me. I ducked and dodged, holding up my forearm so a shield of golden light formed over my torso. Some of the white light blasted against the shield, pinging away and burning into stones and dirt around us.
A company of seven soldiers clomped up the cracked steps behind the Queen and stood at attention, lowering their spears toward me.
“Stay back!” the Queen screamed, holding up a glowing hand toward them. She sent a blast toward them, which smacked into the soldiers and sent them flying through the air with screams.
“Stop!” I shouted. “You're hurting people!”
I could see the queen's mouth beneath her shawl flip into a sneer. “Stop hurting people? I have only begun to show you pain!” She jerked the umbrella, and a large ball of white lightning shot at me, breaking through the golden shield and smacking me in the chest. I screamed and fell backward, sliding through the dirt until I had reached Bella's side.
Her mouth moved slightly as if she were asleep and trying to speak. I rolled back over and stood up, the necklace falling from my pocket. I grabbed it up. The necklace. It had seemed to absorb Molduth's red light into itself. It had been absorbing light back when Julian had been using it on the rocky outcrops in the ocean to the north. It snapped together in my head like bolts fitting into door frames. The crystal on the necklace was purple. And the only thing purple light seemed to do was soak light into itself. Molduth had been born from a purple crystal and been amplified by the red gem the Queen had held. And now red and purple co-existed inside this single necklace. Maybe I could use it to absorb the queen's light and stop her.
I stood and held by the chain, extending my arm until it hung between the Queen and myself. “Stop!” I shouted.
The Queen pulled back her umbrella. “Julian's necklace. How thoughtful of you to hold onto it for him. And now I shall hold onto it for both of you.” She held out her hand, and thin streams of white light slipped across the distance, wrapping around the necklace chain like fingers and yanking it out of my grasp.
“Yes,” the Queen hissed, catching the necklace from the air. “Foolish boy! You think you can manipulate the light better than I? I have studied lost arts for hundreds of years. One stupid son of Jedros could not hope to match me.” She eyed the necklace. “And now it appears you've added a little something extra to it. My red gem. Returned at last.” She slipped the necklace over her head, maneuvering it past the horns until it rested against her gown.
She laughed and then snarled. “Now that I have three strands of light, nothing can stand against me until I collect the spectrum and subjugate every soul in this wretched world unto my will!”
“I won't let you,” I said, planting both feet, but feeling my hands tremble in betrayal. “Freedom is coming, and not even you can stop it!”
“Been listening to children recently?” She leaned in. “I'll fill you in on a secret. The voices are only in your head.”
“No! He's real!”
The Queen held up both hands like claws. Three lights swirled in each palm, a red one, a purple, and a white. “There is no reality but the one I shape. And in my reality, you don't even exist. Such a pity. You could have joined my ranks as a powerful Runner. But there will be others. I will clasp every human throughout these islands and then extend my reach to the lands beyond. None shall stand before me!” Light blazed behind the shawls where her eyes would be. She took a step back, and her mouth dropped. “And now, die.”
Six streams of multicolored light zapped through the air. I threw my hands across my face, and a half-shield of golden energy formed in front of me. The streams of light shoved me back. I bent my knees, leaning in and holding my hands out until golden light rushed through my fingertips and met the Queen's blast.
The lights slammed against each other. Sparks sprouted from where the streams intersected. We pushed against each other; the lights shoved us back and forth as my stream grew brighter and then the queen's.
The Queen leaned forward with a screech. Every muscle in my body tensed, veins on my neck pressing against my skin. I stomped forward, one foot at a time, watching the golden light overtake part of the queen's red, purple, and white beams. My shoulder and leg ached, my face throbbed, my hands shook, and I felt a wave of darkness threatening to suck me under and into unconsciousness.
“You can't last for long!” the Queen shrieked.
I squinted in her direction and saw her calmly standing with both hands outstretched. Light shone beneath her shawls and her gown, creating a thin shield around her body. I lost concentration for a moment as my eyes rolled back. The golden light snapped out, and purple, red, and white shot over my body. My skin burned as the Queen cackled, the light lifting me into the air. I squirmed around, screaming.
“You shall not survive. None shall survive!” The Queen bent a knee and sent another wave of light coursing over me, brighter than before.
And then I saw a figure rush from the side and tackle the Queen to the ground.
The light dropped from the Queen's hands, and I fell to the dirt with a thud. A crack erupted from my arm, and I felt a shock of pain rush to my head. I cried out, rolling side to side, clutching my broken arm with my other hand.
Telisa punched the Queen in the side of the face and landed one good blow before the woman held up her hand and blasted Telisa with purple and red light. It swirled around her like a rope, lifting her into the air.
“Now, where were we?” the Queen muttered, blasting me with her other hand. White energy wrapped around me, and I screamed as it pressed in on my body, squeezing my arm and the burns.
“Where were we? We're done!” Bella stood, fists clenched, facing the Queen. Her dark hair stood on end and cracked with white light. She held up her hands and yelled, sending white light blasting through the air and slamming into the queen's chest.
She grunted, lost her hold on Telisa and me, and stumbled backward.
I hobbled over to Bella's side. “Let's take care of this Queen.” I held up my one good hand, my other arm hanging limp at my side. I shoved out a burst of gold, and as white and gold mixed in the air, it blasted against the Queen, sending her rocketing into the air, farther and farther away until she was nothing but a pinprick on the distant horizon.
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.