I held both hands over my eyes as the light continued to pour from the floating crystals and at my chest. The light slipped between my fingers and hit my eyelids, burning a single image into my mind. Eight floating crystals, eight beams of light, trees surrounding us and swaying in the wind, Telisa on the ground, crossbow at her side.
The light burned inside of me, and then I felt something swish away from me as if the air had been sucked right out of my lungs. I dropped to the dirt and glanced up at the crystals above me. They slowly descended to the ground and lodged into the earth. The crystals vibrated, slowly at first, and then faster with each breath.
I shook Telisa's arm. “Get up!” I screamed.
Every movement took more effort than usual. My bones creaked as I slid my arms underneath Telisa's shoulders and yanked her back. I dropped back to the dirt, exhausted after a breath.
A sharp neigh echoed across the clearing.
Zinnia. Her purple eyes flashed, and I could hear her words slip into my head. Run. Now.
“Why?” I shouted.
I crawled to my feet. The crystals shook frantically now, glowing with a golden light. I glanced at my clasp and noticed the gem seemed dimmer than before. Not quite as translucent as it had seemed. Like the light had been sucked right out of it.
A brown shape zipped through the clearing, latched onto Telisa's collar, and then raced away. Poinsettia. The horse dragged Telisa behind a tall redwood and then ducked down, laying her head over Telisa's still form.
Zinnia whinnied and shook her mane. Hurry! They're going to shatter!
I nodded, gripped my fingers into fists, and hobbled toward Zinnia. I threw my hands over her back and hauled myself up, groaning. A sharp pain ripped down my stomach. I cried out and nearly lost my grip. I slid around and slumped over Zinnia, wrapping my arms around her neck. She darted off as I heard what sounded like a thousand windows shattering at once. Shards of glass flew around us, and Zinnia leaped over a fallen log and tumbled to the ground on the other side, sending me flying into a mound of dirt.
The crystal shards embedded themselves in the trunks of trees all around us, some of it tinkling down to the earth, glowing for a breath, and then fading into simple dull stones.
Zinnia’s flank went rigid as she blew hard from both nostrils.
I blinked and stared. A long shard of glass stuck out of her hind leg. Blood dribbled from the spot, and I threw a hand over my mouth.
Help me, Eric. . . .
I dragged myself over to her side, holding my stomach, and feeling the pain shoot through me with every foot forward. I bit my lip and examined the wound. The shard had gone in deep. I wasn't sure whether I should take it out or leave it in or what.
“What do I do?” I whispered.
Zinnia's eyes focused on me. Save yourself above me, Eric. Don't let those creatures catch you.
“What?” I hissed.
I can hear them. They're looking for you.
I gulped and slowly lifted my head over the fallen log. The clearing was a good trot away, but I could see it clearly enough. Where the eight crystals had been were now eight burn marks in the dirt. Standing up from each mark were eight humanoid creatures. They were taller than regular people. Their heads scraped the overhanging branches I couldn't even jump up to grab. Long thin arms swayed at their sides. Their skin glowed like pearls, changing hues every few moments. Flowing white robes covered their bodies, swishing around large bare feet.
Long fingers ran over their bald heads, and two over-sized black eyes popped open above thin slits of a mouth. One of them strode forward, almost gliding over the earth. It spread its arms wide and took a long, deep breath.
“My brethren, we are free to walk these islands once more.”
Another one of the creatures reached up and snapped a branch off a tree above it. “The world has grown since we last walked it.”
“Yes, it appears so,” the leader said. “We must find this one named Eric. I sense his clasp holds more power we could wield.”
The eight creatures spun around, staring into the dark woods. Their bodies gave off a slight glow that lit the dirt and leaves around them. I couldn’t stop staring at them. Each one’s shimmering light drew in my gaze. I wanted to glance away. I wanted to stop staring. A coldness seeped across the clearing and into the trees. I shivered and forced my eyes closed.
“What are those things?” I whispered to Zinnia.
She blinked at me. I do not know their names. But I do know they wish us only ill will. You have to get away.
I leaned into her ear. “Not without you. Or Telisa. Or Poinsettia. We've got to find them.”
I don't know which direction they went. Poinsettia is fast. She can outrun anything.
“Do you have any special abilities?”
I can speak to you.
I nodded and peeked over the log.
“Find the human child!” the leader shouted. It waved a hand in a circle and vanished into a ball of pearly light, hovering over the dirt. The other seven creatures followed suit, waving their thin arms and shrinking into spheres of light. Sparks emanated from each one, zapping the nearby trees and sending blue licks of flame up the trunks.
“We have to move!” I hissed. “How do I help you?!”
I took a deep breath. I was not leaving her. I couldn't do that. I bit my lip and held my hand over Zinnia's flank. I had healed Telisa once. Maybe I could heal Zinnia now. I closed my eyes and concentrated. I felt a tiny surge of energy in my forearm, and my eyes whipped open. A dim spark of golden light slipped from my clasp and onto the crystal shard in Zinnia's leg. I took that as a signal. I grabbed the edge of the shard.
“Sorry.” And then I yanked it out.
Zinnia screamed and snapped her teeth. Thin trails of light zipped around the wound, stitching some of it together, but not all the way.
I peeked over the log again. The eight spheres had heard Zinnia's cry. They whisked through the trees straight at us.
“Get up now!” I shouted.
Zinnia winced and pushed up on all four legs, stumbling slightly on her back right. I can manage! Go! I'll distract them! She darted to the left, neighing loudly. Four spheres shot off after Zinnia into the woods.
I ducked down, and the other four zoomed over my head and swirled around a tree beyond me. I shot up and leaped over the log, almost doubling over from the pain in my stomach. What had those things done to me?
My boots pounded over the dirt, whisking around ferns and bushes. Flames blazed in the canopy over my head, sparking against the black sky. The spheres hummed and flew after me. I slipped around the side of a tree and grabbed the two daggers at my side, gripping the handles and waiting.
One of the spheres hummed past the tree, and I sliced at it as it flew by. A shriek like a sword grinding against stone. The sphere flew at the ground, rolling against the dirt and growing larger before turning back into the strange humanoid creatures. It had a gash in its side with golden light spilling out like blood.
It held up a long-fingered hand, but it was too late. Another sphere shot by on the other side and I sprung from behind the tree, slashing as I went. I didn't know if I made contact or not because I dashed away.
“The human child!”
Golden blood dripped from the daggers in my hands. I wiped them against a fern as I brushed past, ducking between trunks, deeper and deeper into the forest. A flaming branch dropped from overhead, slamming into the ground ahead of me.
A beam of light shot out from behind me, and another long branch fell to the ground. Another beam and another branch. The three flaming branches had boxed me in. I skidded to a stop and whirled around, holding up the daggers.
The leader strode down a small embankment, two of the spheres at its side. The two spheres landed on the ground and transformed into humanoids.
“Nowhere left to run, human child.” The leader spread its thin arms wide. “Give us your clasp.”
“But I'll die!”
“Inconsequential to us.”
I crouched into a fighting position. “I won't let you take it!”
The leader squinted its black eyes at me. “You meddle in affairs you do not understand.” It held up its hands, and two thin beams of light shot at my daggers, superheating them in an instant. I dropped both of them, clenching my hands as they smoked. I screamed, falling to my knees.
“Now then.” The leader glided forward. “Let us end this unpleasantness swiftly.”
Tears slid down my face. Pain wracked my body. My hands felt like they had been thrust into a campfire and held there. My stomach curled over. But I held up my forearm. The gem glowed slightly.
The leader laughed. “We have drained much of that bauble's power. We only wish to take what is left and leave you be. You cannot hurt us with that now.”
A weak beam of light shot from my clasp, but the leader swatted it away like a pesky fly. The beam zapped into a nearby tree, sending more flames racing up its trunk.
“Do not toy with us.” The leader held up a hand. The other two humanoids raised their hands. “Give us the clasp.”
I didn't know what to do. Zinnia was hurt. Telisa passed out. Poinsettia nowhere to be seen. And the clasp I had come to rely on had been drained by these creatures somehow. I glanced up. Where was that voice? Where was that person or thing or whatever it had been who had whispered to me in the Pit?
“Help me,” I said.
And then I saw it. I aimed the clasp up, and a short blast of light soared through the air, smashing into a long, thick tree branch hanging over the three creatures. The branch burst into flames and fell. The creatures glanced up once, and then the branch smacked into their faces, sending all three of them crumpling to the ground, the long branch resting over their midsections. I jumped up, holding my hands close to my chin and raced through the flames behind me. I cried out, feeling the heat sear my skin, my hair, my clothes. I dropped to the dirt on the other side of the flames and rolled to douse the fire.
I rolled sideways, right off the edge of an embankment. I screamed, tumbling through the air and splashing into a river racing beneath the woods. Water cascaded over my head and plunged me below the surface. I somersaulted through the current, kicking my legs until my head broke into the open air. I gasped.
The woods were flaming on the shore, and the spheres of light whisked around the trees frantically. A long branch fell into the water ahead of me, and I bashed into it with an oof! I wrapped my arms around the branch and clung to it. It bobbed along and carried me with it, blackened soot smearing across my chest.
A faint voice echoed in my head. Zinnia. I'll find you, Eric. Head North. Her voice trailed to nothing.
I didn't know what direction I was headed now. Wherever this river decided to take me.
Water dribbled past my ears. Sunlight trickled through misty clouds overhead. I blinked. My head throbbed. Every inch of my body ached. Nothing would have been better than lying down on even the dormitory mattresses back at the compound.
Sometime during the night I had passed out, still holding the branch. The river must have trickled down to a mere stream at some point, because I was sitting in the water, head resting just above the surface. Two rocks had caught the branch and held it fast.
I groaned and sat up. About a day's ride away I could see smoke rising above distant hills. The forest. Zinnia. Telisa. Poinsettia. They were all back there somewhere. I scrambled to my feet, splashing through the water and toppling over on the smooth stones. I crawled to the bank and pulled myself through a layer of muck until I reached a muddy shoreline. All around me were thin, stone-gray trees with no leaves or pine needles.
I coughed, pounding a fist against my chest and trying to breathe. I didn't know how much smoke I had inhaled back in the woods, but my lungs ached like I had sucked in an entire cloud with one gulp.
Another cough. I flopped onto my back and stared up at the clouds shifting above me. There was no grass here. No signs of plant or animal life. Only stark gray trees and block-shaped stones dotted the landscape.
“Zinnia?” I called. “Can you hear me?” I coughed again.
No words filtered into my head.
No birds chirped.
I peeked at the clasp on my arm. The light was still dim. I didn't know if it would grow brighter again or if it had been damaged by those creatures. What were they anyway? I had never seen anything like them before, but then again, nothing over the past week had been like anything I'd ever seen before.
I sat up, and brought my knees up to my chest, wrapping my arms around them and staring at my soot covered hands. Red marks covered my fingers, and some of the skin looked like it was peeling back. I licked the tips of my fingers and tried to clear off the smudges on my hands.
What was I supposed to do now?
My stomach growled. My tongue begged for a drip of water.
I took a long breath and eventually made my way back to the stream, dipping my face under the water and taking a long gulp. The water splashed into my gut and made it ache even more. All of my provisions were gone. All my weapons were gone too; aside from the clasp on my arm, which appeared to be somewhat useless now.
The clasp on my arm glowed slightly. “What do I do now?” I asked it.
Another slight glow. And then I saw a dark brown arrow form against the golden backdrop, pointing through the gray trees.
The arrow grew brighter for a moment before returning to its same dark brown color.
“Okay.” I sighed. “Not much else I could do anyway.”
I took one more long gulp of water and then set off through the trees. I walked for an hour before I grazed one of the trees with my hand. The bark didn't feel like wood. It felt like stone. I stopped and stared at the tree, putting both hands on it and trying to peck at the bark with my fingernail. It wasn't wood. It was stone.
I spun in a slow circle. Every tree was made of stone. Even the dirt looked more gray here than brown. I bent over and felt it between my fingers. It wasn't dirt. It was crushed stones. Ground as fine as a powder.
At some point, the misty clouds above had descended into this stone forest and spread its gray fingers between every tree until everything looked the same. I glanced at the clasp. The arrow still shone dimly, pointing to what I hoped was north. I trudged ahead. I didn't know how long I walked. Maybe an hour. Maybe five. The light in these petrified woods never appeared to change. It stayed the same gray hue as everything else. Even my hands and clothes looked gray now.
I rubbed my eyes with one hand. They stung. I blinked and took a long breath, leaning against the side of a tree for a rest.
A strangled cry echoed between the trees. I stood up, stiffening against the trunk and staring out into the mist.
“Hello?” I whispered.
Another strangled cry to my right.
My head jerked in that direction. I squinted and could see the outline of a person stumbling through the fog and then falling to their hands and knees with another cry.
I swallowed and stepped toward the figure. “Hello?”
The figure's head popped up, and it held a hand out toward me, mumbling something.
I slid an apple-sized stone behind my back if I needed a quick defense and hurried in the figure's direction. “Are you okay?”
The figure came into view. It was a girl. About my age, blonde hair almost gray in the fog. Her face was ashen like she was sick with something, and her eyes were a light gray color too.
“Don't come too close,” she hissed at me.
I stopped. “Are you okay?”
She squinted at me through the fog. “Aren't you sick?”
“No, I don't think so,” I said. “Are you alright? You don't seem well.”
“My family . . .” She curled her lip into a snarl and snapped her teeth. “They banished me to the Stone Woods. Because I'm sick.”
“Sick with what?”
The girl looked at me again. “You really aren't sick?”
“No. I don't feel sick.”
A sharp wail echoed through the trees. We both glanced around, not sure where the sound originated from.
“If you're not sick, you shouldn't be here,” the girl said, her hair falling around her face. “This is where they live.”
“Where what live?” I felt a chill whisk down my back.
Another wail. And another.
And then I recognized the sound. A sound I had hoped to never hear again.
The girl looked at me, and her lips trembled. “Pales. They call them Pales.”
Footsteps padded over crumbled stones in the distance.
“This is where they come from,” the girl said. “And they're coming now.”
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.