I woke up to a boot slamming into my gut. I curled up on the sleeping mat, pain spasming through my stomach. My eyes shot open as I gasped, tossing aside the scratchy blankets and then blinking at the harsh sunlight streaming through the window. The day was already warm. Dry air scraped down my nostrils with each inhale.
“Get up, maggot.”
One of the Runners stood over me. Rudo. He had taken off his duster and wore a white collared shirt with brown suspenders looped over his shoulders. His dark hair hung loose down to his shoulders. His fists were clenched at his sides.
I glanced around. The rest of the dormitory was already empty.
“Everyone's at the morning feed. If you don't hurry, you'll miss out. And Gratta won't like it.” He reached down and grabbed me by the clasp, yanking me up. My forearm stung, and I shook my arm away and backed into the log wall behind me. Rudo pointed to a wooden chest in the corner of the dorm. “Clothes's in there. Change out of those filthy ricelands rags. They stink.”
I scratched the skin around my clasp and limped over to the chest. My entire forearm looked red from the clasp. Around the edges of the silver, it appeared to be fused to my arm, like the metal had sunk beneath the surface and latched around my bones. It would probably never come off. Not that I wanted to try and take it off. Not after what had happened to Saltha. The gem was a milky color again this morning.
Rudo stomped past me, through the door, and outside into the bright sunlight. “Hurry up, recruit.”
“Yes, sir,” I muttered. The clothes in the chest were clean and smelled fresh enough–like pine needles and wood. A better smell than anything back on Jedros. Washing clothes there was a weekly task. People in the village generally stunk. Apparently, Gratta liked her Runners smelling better than that.
I slipped out of my tunic and trousers and slid on a pair of loose brown pants and a white collared shirt like Rudo's. I fumbled with the buttons and the holes, not quite sure if I had done it right. I'd never worn anything this fancy before. The suspenders were the hardest to figure out. The band stretched over my shoulder, and I fumbled with the clasp, trying to get it latched onto the back of my pants. With a harsh snap, it came loose and slapped against my cheek.
Rudo smirked. “Trouble?”
I ignored him, winced, and tried again until it clipped into place. I pulled two black boots out of the trunk and shoved my feet into them. They felt so strange after the flat shoes I had grown up wearing. I felt taller.
A dusty field stretched between the dormitory and one of the large buildings. It wasn’t exactly a building really, more like the top of a barn arching over a pavilion with packed earth, benches, and rows of wooden tables. Rudo walked in front of me, kicking up dust as we marched into the open building.
“This is the Commons where we feed. So sit down and eat, recruit.”
I spotted Lodan and zig-zagged through the tables until I sat beside him. He had a plate in front of him piled with bread, poached eggs, and a tin mug filled with water. Long platters sat in the center of the table with more hunks of bread and eggs and metal pitchers of water. My eyes widened. I had never seen so much food in one place before. The smells drifted up to my nostrils and almost overwhelmed with the sheer variety.
“Eric,” Lodan said through a mouth full of eggs. “Sorry I didn't get you up. They hustled us out here. You slept through the whole thing. Crazy.” He chewed and swallowed.
“Training.” Lodan nodded at a ring of tables on the far side of the Commons. “Those tables is for the Runners who've passed training.”
I stared wide-eyed at the ten tables filled with other recruits–male and female, all dressed the same with white collared shirts, suspenders, brown pants and black boots. There must have been at least a couple hundred of us training, but only about twenty-four Runners.
“So many of us.”
Lodan leaned forward. “I guess that's because they don't expect most of us to live through training.”
He nudged my shoulder. “You better eat. Or you're gonna miss out. They said we have tactical training right after this. What that is, I have no idea. But I'm gonna make it to those Runner tables.”
I grabbed a piece of bread and sank my teeth into it. It was still warm and seemed to melt on my tongue. I was surprised. I never expected to eat so well. Maybe being a Runner really wasn't that terrible. Save the whole might not live past training bit.
Other recruits didn't even glance over at us. They kept stuffing their faces like they had never eaten a thing in their lives. Maybe they hadn't. With every bite, I couldn't help wondering what Saltha would have made of all this. She'd probably still be planning an escape. Her gem glowing purple. I couldn't imagine how this life could be so much worse than working a rice paddy for the rest of my existence.
I thought about my parents for a moment–their dead gazes as they sloshed their way through the rice. My mother's eyes as she told me to run. My father not even bothering to glance my direction as these Runners slapped a clasp on my forearm.
I shook my head. They were in the past now.
A loud ringing echoed across the Commons. Gratta stood on a small stage in the center of the Runner tables, holding up a metal triangle and a hammer. She clanged the hammer against the triangle again, and every head whipped up. Every mouth stopped chewing. We put down our forks.
“Listen up, kids! Welcome to our newest Jedros recruits. We hope you find this a satisfying place to live out your lives. Most of y'all won't make it even a year with us. Some of y'all might die tomorrow in training. Whether you die now or then, just know this: I appreciate each one of ya. Or at least the gold ya line my pockets with!” Gratta laughed and swept her hat from her silver head, smacking it against her knee.
“But seriously.” She cleared her throat and swallowed. “While all y'all are here, you listen to my Runners. You recruits ain't Runners yet. You might become them one day. But not yet. There's a plum-crazy world out there filled with all kinds of stuff that’ll maim ya. Then dismember ya! Then kill ya! I would prefer y'all livin' long enough to finish a few jobs for ole Gratta.”
She stomped her foot. “Telisa! Fork over the rules!”
A Runner sitting behind Gratta stood up. She had long brown hair braided into two ponytails on either side of her head with a neat part down the middle. A deep scar ran across her face, over her lips, and down her chin. She was tall, taller than most anybody else. And she was the most muscular person under the Commons roof. She could probably break me in half with a single snap.
Her voice carried throughout the Commons when she spoke, both hands clasped behind her back. “Listen up! Because I'm only sayin' this one time. You're in Gratta's dominion now. And if you fail to abide by these rules you'll be put on gate duty. Or sent to the maggot hole for a night. And if you really can't listen, then Gratta will crack yer gem.”
Telisa glanced in my direction. “I hear some of you already know what happens when someone's gem gets all cracked up.”
“No one goes in Gratta's house! For no reason! No one takes weapons without permission! No fightin' unless it's organized by me! And you will always listen to a Runner! Disobey one, and I will send you to the maggot hole!” Telisa stepped back.
Gratta smiled at her. “Thank you, dear. Always a pleasure to hear from ya.” The old woman stepped back up onto the stage and smirked. “Now then.” She clapped her hands together and rubbed them quickly. “On to some training! Separate by home island! Jedros out to the pits! Castos on work duty! Vos! You're at the stables! Uthen, get yer sorry hides out to the fields! And Raithan, you're in the Casket! Now move!”
Benches squeaked as the recruits and Runners stood up.
“Where are the pits?” I asked.
Lodan shrugged. “No clue. At least we're all together.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Telisa stalked through the crowd of people until she stood in front of our table. “Jedros! You're with me! The pits are this way!” Her head stood above every other person in the Commons building, so it wasn't hard to follow her braids out into the sunlight, past the girl's dormitories and toward a fenced off area of the grounds. There were twenty of us from Jedros following behind her. It was weird to see everybody from the rice paddies in such strange clothes. There were some I hadn't ever seen before.
Was this where my brother had come when they took him? If these Runners were the ones that took him. Maybe he hadn't lived through training. Maybe he was dead now. Maybe--
“Stop!” Telisa screamed.
She placed a large hand on a wooden gate. The fence was a series of wooden posts, the tops sharpened into pikes. This single gate led through the fence and to what I guessed was the pits. A latch hung across the gate.
Two other Runners had joined our group. Rudo and another one I hadn't seen yet. Rudo had his boken in one hand and the other Runner, another girl, held a sharp rapier with a blue handle. She wore a wide-brimmed hat with a drawstring pulled tight under her chin. They both stood at the back, nodding at Telisa.
“Right then!” Telisa said. “I want you all to listen. I expect at least two of you to be dead by the time the lunch bell rings. You all live, and I'll let you off your work hour tonight. Got it?”
My mouth had gone dry. I glanced at Lodan. His normal calmness had slipped away to the dust somewhere behind us. His eyes looked as panicky as mine must have.
“Put your ears up against the fence. And listen!” Telisa shouted, pointing at the wood.
No one else moved. So I stepped forward and pressed my ear against the wood posts and listened. On the other side, I heard a kind of chewing sound, like something was eating a meal. But I also noticed a sliding noise, like sand dribbling down the sides of rocks. The others joined me up against the fence and listened.
“What you're listening to is the pitters. They're nasty things, and they're always hungry for a new recruit. We're going to see which of you might be smarter than the rest. We need to get rid of anyone who seems weak.” Telisa glanced at each one of us.
“What do we have to do, ma'am?” I asked.
Telisa paused, pursed her lips together, and narrowed her eyes. “Simple enough. Get past the pitters and get the flag at the other end. Work together if you want. I don't care.”
A girl with blonde hair started shaking. “Wh-what if we don't want to?”
Rudo stepped up behind her with his boken raised. Telisa held up a hand. Rudo stepped back.
“You don't want to play this little game, is that it?” Telisa asked.
The girl's lip quivered. She shook her head.
“That's too bad. Because you have to.”
I glanced down at the girl's forearm. The clasp had turned a tinge of purple. “Stop thinking about escaping!” I shouted.
Telisa raised an eyebrow. The girl stared at me; her mouth dropped open. “How d-do you know that's what I'm . . . .”
“Your clasp!” I pointed at her forearm. The gem had grown a deeper shade of purple. “It turns that color when people think about leaving! So stop!”
Telisa crossed her arms. “He's right you know. You keep formulating that little escape plan, and you'll leave all right. You'll be gone in a flash o' purple light. Dead. Your soul cracked in two.”
The girl swallowed and nodded. “I . . . I can't help it . . . I want to leave. I can't do this! I can't!” She turned and raced back toward the Commons.
“I can't do it either!” A boy beside me shouted. His gem glowed a bright purple. He ran after the girl, but before they had even gotten halfway across the field, they stumbled to the dust, grabbing at their throats, coughing, and then rising slowly into the air, glowing with purple light. Their bodies spun faster and faster as tendrils of light wrapped around their legs and arms and heads.
Saltha's face flashed into my head, and I glanced away. I couldn't watch this again. I couldn't.
“Cover,” Telisa muttered. She put an arm over her eyes as the two recruits vanished into the purple light, their clasps cracking and falling to the dust where they had been. Telisa sighed. “Anyone else care to go out in a blaze of glory?” She eyed us and then nodded at Rudo. “Get those clasps to recycling. The Queen'll want 'em.”
Rudo darted off.
“Now then. Back to the game.” She lifted the latch on the gate. “By the way, y'all aren't getting' out of work duty now. Ya lost two. Just like I predicted.”
My hands shook, but I clenched my fingers together. If there was one thing I was about to do, it was win. I was not going to let that happen to anyone else.
Telisa pulled open the gate, and I was the first one through. Staring. A field of pits stretched between the gate and a small mound of boulders with a green flag on a pole stuck into a crevice in the rocks. Sand dribbled down the pits towards a dark hole at the center of each one. Thirty pits stood between me and that flag.
Lodan inched inside the fence with me, and the rest of the recruits followed. We lined up in a half circle a few arm lengths away from the first pit. Sharp pincers slowly rose from the pit, attached to a head covered in eyes with a nasty gullet of sharp teeth. Slobber spilled out the mouth, and every eye latched onto us and widened.
I wanted to back away and run. I glanced down and noticed the faintest purple tinge sweep into the gem on my clasp. I gritted my teeth and forced my eyes to watch the creature emerge from the pit. It looked like a giant millipede longer than Telisa was tall. A thousand tiny red legs scuttled on either side of its thick body. Each segment writhed as sand spilled to the ground. Pitters.
The gate slammed shut. A shadow fell over us. Telisa stood on a small platform, hands clasped behind her back. She saluted and raised both eyebrows. “You've got until the lunch bell rings. If you survive.”
The pitter slithered over the sand back and forth, tapping its legs against the sand. The ground rumbled, and we stumbled back against the fence as fifteen more pitters emerged from their holes, some dark red, some brown, some a deep ivory color.
A girl beside me screamed in terror and collapsed to the sand.
“Get up!” I shouted.
But it was too late. The pitter darted forward, snapping its pincers around the girl's leg and dragging her clawing at the ground back toward the pit as she screamed. I flew forward onto my stomach and grabbed her arm, yanking backward.
Tears crawled down her face as she gripped my hands tightly. “Don't let go, don't let go, don't let go!”
The creature roared and lifted its body into the air, dragging her along with it. She hung upside down from its pincers, now piercing her left leg. She screamed again as the pitter scrambled back toward its hole. I lost my grip on her hand and glanced around for a rock – anything I could throw, anything at all. But there was nothing nearby except sand.
I scooped up a handful and flung it at the pitter's eyes. It blinked at me and screeched. The pitter slipped back into the hole with the girl and a gulp.
I stared at the dark hole. I had lost her.
Lodan slapped me on the shoulder. “No time to think about it. We gotta run!” He pointed at another pitter scuttling toward us, pincers clacking.
We ran. The other recruits darted in all directions, some trying to stay away from the pitters, others scraping at the fence and trying to climb out, and another two sitting down in complete surrender. Their gems turned bright purple, and two more of them vanished from sight, leaving behind their clasps in the sand.
A series of reddish rocks stuck up from the sand. “Maybe we can get across that way!” I shouted.
Lodan spotted the rocks and nodded. “Best idea yet!”
A pitter slid up behind us, and I shoved Lodan to the side. He crashed into the wooden post fence, and I fell back onto the first rock. The pitter screeched and swung its head from me to Lodan, probably deciding who was the easier prey. I scrambled up to my feet as the pincers shot in my direction, snapping closed as I leaped back.
“Get the flag!” Lodan shouted.
Get the flag. I had to get the flag. Then this would be over. Or at least the gate would open. I didn't imagine Telisa and the other Runners helping us. We'd probably still have to get back to the gate.
I hurdled to the next rock, over a pit and a pitter as it shot out of its hole and slammed into the pitter slithering after me. The two monsters screeched, legs scraping against each other before they rolled to the side with a crunch.
My heart slammed against my chest. Panic fueled my legs. The flag was closer. I had to make it. I leaped to another rock as a pitter rose up in front of me. I gasped, falling back to my elbows and staring up at as the thing towered over me. It waved its little legs in the air, every eye glared at me.
Another pitter slowly rose up beside me and slammed its pincers around my arm. It eyed my clasp and the gem, now back to its milky white color. Drool slipped from its mouth onto my shoulder, sizzling in the sunlight.
“Eric!” I heard Lodan scream. “ERIC!”
And then the pitter in front of me dropped its pincers straight at 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.