A soft breeze wafted through the open windows, drawing back the thin green drapes. Fires burned along the wall outside the scholars' fortress. Before I slipped under the comforter on the softest bed I'd ever felt in my life; I saw two green-sleeved scholars marching the wall with lanterns.
Watching for the shadows, no doubt.
Telisa had plopped down by the ornately carved doorway, her head resting against the tail of a ten-legged dragon that wound up to the top of the frame. A white dagger sat in her lap, her fingers curled around the hilt.
“Go to sleep,” Telisa barked.
I rolled over to my side and yanked the blanket to my chin. “I'm working on it,” I whispered.
Stars peppered the sky outside.
“What's Gratta gonna do with me?”
Telisa groaned and slapped the dagger against the stone floor. “I don't know, but I know I'm going to stitch that mouth of yours closed if you don't shut it!”
I gripped the sheets in one hand and threw them aside. “I'm sorry I'm such a problem!”
“I'm glad you recognize how much of a problem you are.”
“What's going to happen to me?” I asked.
Telisa shook her head. “You just don't shut up, do you?”
“Not until you at least make up an answer.”
She kneaded her forehead with one hand. “Honestly? I don't know. You're doin' things nobody's ever thought might be possible. The gem colors? They're specific. They shine when you're doin' different things. If you're goin' belly-up, it turns purple before you flash out of existence. If you're on a run, then it's gonna be a different color depending on the job. Like orange for recruitin', blue for messagin', and red for killin'.”
I swallowed. “Have you had to kill people before? On a run?”
Telisa snorted. “Course. We all have to. Sooner or later. No matter what the run is, once Gratta writes it down in the books, you're bound to finish it. Or die.”
Finish it or die. I did not like the sound of that. I fingered the edge of the thick mattress. What if I was asked to do a job I didn't want to do? What if I couldn't do a run because it was to kill somebody? I guessed dying would be a better way out than finishing something like that. But every time I had seen someone snuffed out, it didn't look particularly fun.
“But gold.” Telisa whistled. “That's a color I've never thought possible. And no clasp is supposed to be able to do what you've done. Bring people back from the dead, blast pitters to the high heavens. None of that.”
“No one's ever done those things before?”
She shook her head again. “Not a single time as far as I'm aware. Probably why the queen's so interested.”
“Have you ever met her?”
Telisa snorted. “What is this? Interrogate the guard? Shut up and go to sleep! And that's the last time I'm warnin' ya!”
I rubbed my eyes and laid down. Telisa's head conked against the carved door again. The low whistling of a sharpening breeze drifted outside. I stared at a jade chandelier dangling from the ceiling. The candles had been snuffed out, but smoke still drifted up from the smoldering wicks. My eyes slid closed, and I forced my brain to quiet down. I was tired of thinking. Tired of worrying. Tired of wondering why my gem glowed golden.
A shuffle echoed in the hallway outside the door. I bolted up and saw Telisa had left her post. Maybe she was hungry. Or relieving herself. Or punching something. That seemed the most likely option.
The door creaked open, and a withered hand poked through the thin crack. Soft lantern light dribbled over the corridor outside, shining enough for me to see a figure in a green hood standing outside the bedroom.
My pulse quickened.
“Come with me,” an old man's voice whispered.
I shook my head. “No! Where's Tel-”
My throat closed. The gem on my clasp glowed dark green. I wanted to shout, “What's happening?” but my tongue fastened to the roof of my mouth and stayed there. My feet slid off the bed and padded across the stone, carrying me through the door and into the hallway.
One of the old scholars stood in front of me; a gem slung around his neck glowing an identical dark green as mine. “Stay close.” He held a trembling finger to his thin lips. “They don't know I'm here.” His hand drifted to his gem, and he tapped it once. I lurched forward, stumbling after the old scholar.
I felt like someone was clawing through my mind, jerking my body left and right down the hallways. We came to an old wooden door with cobwebs tracing its front. The scholar leaned over and blew against a dragon-shaped keyhole. Dust flew past my face. I wanted to cough, but the stranglehold over my body hadn't released yet.
The old scholar produced a jade key shaped like a dragon's head and shoved it into the hole. The door unlocked with a thudding clunk and crept open revealing a straight stairwell leading into the darkness below.
The scholar reached into the lantern. If I could have winced, I would have. But the fire didn't even touch his fingers. Instead, it curled around his hand, hovering an inch away from his skin. The old man blew at his palm. The fire shot into the stairwell, clinging to the ancient stone walls and lighting the way down.
“Moldable fire,” he whispered. “Very useful.” He tapped the green gem and waved me forward.
We descended. The archway overhead opened out into another cavernous chamber. The room was round and bare save for strange circular markings across the stone floor. The circles wove in and out of each other, each one a different color, ranging across the rainbow from red to purple.
The old scholar pointed toward the center of the chamber, holding tight to the gem. Green light folded around his fingers and drifted to my face, slipping up my nostrils. It smelled like dust, trickling past my nose hair and into my mind.
Now we can communicate more easily. The old man's thoughts popped into my head, held for a second, and then faded.
How are you doing this? I demanded.
Through a very special gem. He held up the green stone and flashed the light at me. There are rare stones throughout the five islands of Abra. Some of them have special . . . ah, abilities. This dark green gem allows me to enter the thoughts of any Runner.
Why are you doing this? Let me go!
The old man narrowed his eyes. How do I know you'll cooperate?
Tell me what you want, and maybe I will.
He eyed the gem on my clasp. I believe you have a rare stone indeed. No one has ever seen golden light come from a gem before. I want to study it. And you.
We're not available for study. Leave us alone! I shouted.
The words pushed the old man back slightly. He stumbled against the stairwell, catching the wall with his withered hand. Very intriguing, the scholar whispered. You exert much will over the gems. Most Runners have no control over them, except to use them as a bauble of light. Pah! The potential is wasted on dense Runners.
I pictured my hands pushing the old man aside. The gem on my forearm glowed slightly, and I shoved with my mind. The scholar stumbled backward again with a loud “oomph!” He fell to the steps and grabbed his gem, holding out one hand. Green light poured out of the stone and blasted me in the chest, lifting me off the ground.
Strong indeed. But not strong enough. He made a fist and swung his arm to the side. I flew across the chamber, landing inside an orange circle.
An image of chains appeared in my thoughts. I imagined them snapping in half. The scholar gasped, and I rolled across the floor until I slammed into the wall. The hold the dark green gem had on me broke. I jumped up and held out my forearm. The gem glowed with golden light.
“Stay away from me!” I shouted with my own voice. It felt good to hear words move through my throat again.
The old scholar stood up, one shaking hand on the stone wall. “I want to know the limits of your powers. In order to test them, I need a bigger quarry.” He grabbed a rope hanging by the archway and yanked on it. A stone gate fell from the ceiling and crashed into the floor, trapping me inside.
I darted over to the stone gate and peered through the round window with two metal bars. “Let me out of here!”
The old man's face appeared through the window. “Tell me how the golden gem works.”
I shook my head. “I can't! I don't know how!”
“Then show me how.” The old man held up the dark green gem and rubbed his fingers across it. His eyes closed.
A green light emerged from the shadows across the chamber. I spun around both palms flat against the gate. A door opened across the room. Something green slipped around in the gloom beyond.
“Telisa!” I screamed. “TELISA!”
“She can't hear you,” the old man whispered. “Right now she's standing on the edge of the balcony upstairs, ready to jump off if I will it.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Just a poor scholar, hoping to learn more about the world of gems and clasps. Show me. And I wouldn't take my eyes off it if I were you.”
I sucked in a breath. I had to find a way out of this chamber. If there was one secret door, perhaps there'd be another. I raced over to the stone wall and pounded on it, running my hands over the stones, trying to find anything that might open a passageway.
A growl echoed across the chamber. I shivered, glanced over my shoulder. The green form stalked into the main chamber. It was hunched over like a dog, but sharp spines stuck from its back, clacking against each other. Green drool dribbled from its mouth and sizzled on the stones, leaving a small pock mark on the floor. Sharp claws dug against the ground. But the worst was its face. It looked like a ragged dog with patches of missing fur. Long fangs stuck out around its jowls. It growled again and arched its back.
“What is that?” I shouted.
The old man's eyes widened. “A spinewolf. Watch out for its venom. Kill you in a moment if you're not careful. Be a shame to waste such . . . potential.” He bit his lip and clung to the bars in the window. “I so wish to see something golden. Destroy it before it destroys you.”
The spinewolf scraped a claw against the stones. I covered my ears from the screeching. The creature pounced, leaping across the chamber in three bounds. I dove to the side as it landed where I had stood. Drool splashed and sent up a whiff of smoke. It growled again and swiped a claw in my direction. I rolled back, reached the wall, and shot up.
I had to use my clasp. My head spun just thinking about using the gem's light. The last few times I had managed to blast something with golden rays I had passed out and had to be revived. I didn't know if I could do that again.
The spinewolf turned toward me, hanging its head and snapping its jaws. It opened its mouth wide and shot a blast of green drool from the back of its throat. The drool smashed into the wall beside me, chunking away stone on impact. I dashed left. The gem on my clasp began to glow. I pointed it in the spinewolf's direction and willed a blast of light to shoot at the beast.
“Come on!” I shouted.
“Yes!” The scholar echoed. “Do something! Use your golden light! Send it to oblivion!”
I held up my hands. “I don't know how this works!” I screamed.
The spinewolf darted forward, chasing me around the edge of the chamber. I ducked through the thing's door and tripped over piles of bones littering the floor. I snatched up a long femur and swung it wide as the the beast leaped into the room after me. The bone crashed into the spinewolf's head, sending it tumbling sideways, skidding into the piles of bones.
I backed out of the antechamber, holding up the femur and swinging it back and forth. There had to be a way to tap into the golden light in my gem. Feelings. Every time I had used the light before I had been feeling at the end of my own survival capability. Like all hope had been lost. I peeked at the scholar's gate. His weathered eyes watched me.
I had to do this. Not just to save my skin, but Telisa's too.
The spinewolf crawled out of its nest and breathed deeply, green eyes locked on my face. And then, the creature chuckled. Like a human. It leaned back and slowly rose up, standing on its two hind legs. Its head rose over me, casting a green shadow across the floor. It stood eight feet tall. Its front claws slamming into the entryway beside it.
“Foolish human,” it breathed. “None can stand against me.”
My mouth opened and my heart slammed inside my chest.
“I am born from the darkness of gems, the dark thoughts of beings far beyond your comprehension. When they called me forth, they imbued within me the right to steal, destroy, and kill.” Its green tongue slipped from its mouth. “I have been hungry for some time now.”
It swung its claws wide. I flew back across the room, smacking my head into the stones. The spinewolf raced across the chamber, faster than any human could, and stood over me.
“Not even a gem as consecrated as yours can banish my darkness.”
It reached down and wrapped its long claws around my neck, yanking me into the air. I struggled against it. Darkness pushed into my temples. Air seeped through my nostrils, desperate to get to my aching lungs.
“Use the clasp!” the scholar shouted.
The spinewolf held up its other paw. “Silence!”
“You do not own me or my kind!” The scholar pulled a second rope, and the stone gate flung open. He stepped into the chamber, holding up the dark green gem.
The spinewolf chuckled. “Your gems do not own me!” It held open its paw, and the cord around the scholar's neck snapped. The gem flew through the air and landed in the spinewolf's claws. “I own you!” Its eyes glowed dark green. A wave of light zapped across the chamber, encompassing the scholar's frail body and heaving him into the air.
“Let . . . him . . . go . . .” I choked.
The spinewolf dropped me and turned the gem on me now. The scholar fell to the ground in a heap, conking his head against the stone and passing out. The dark green light surrounded me and shoved me against the wall. I cried out in pain, feeling my bones compressing, shaking, trembling, and threatening to snap.
“You do not understand what you have. You cannot harness its power. You cannot stand to fight the beings that created me. You cannot stand against powers greater than you know!” The spinewolf's eyes gleamed. “And you cannot understand how much I will enjoy feasting on such tender flesh.”
It snapped its jaws and pounced.
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.