Hunted, p.1

Hunted, page 1



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  Map of Erdas

  For Victoria and William

  — M.S.

  Wolf Emblem

  Greencloak Letter

  Title Page

  Map of Erdas










































  Online Game Code

  Sneak Peek

  Spirit Animals Game


  1: Bile

  THE FOREST WAS DARK AND FULL OF ANIMALS. THE NIGHT between the trees clicked and growled and fluttered.

  In the small light of a lantern, a man and a boy stood and stared at a tiny flask. Although the flask itself was unimpressive, the solution inside was remarkable: a powerful substance that could force a bond between a human and a spirit animal.

  “Will it hurt?” the boy, Devin Trunswick, asked. He was handsomely dressed, and there was an arrogant, cruel tilt to his chin that fear couldn’t erase. A lord’s son, he would never admit he was afraid of the dark. Even if there was plenty to be afraid of.

  The man, Zerif, pulled back the embroidered blue hood of his cape so the boy could see his eyes more clearly. Holding up the flask, he said, “Does it matter? This is a privilege, little lordling. You’ll be a legend.”

  Devin liked the sound of that. Right now, he was the opposite of a legend. He came from a long line of Marked individuals — people who had bonded with spirit animals. But when his turn had come, he had failed, breaking a chain that was generations long. At his Nectar Ceremony, the event where children who came of age drank from the Greencloaks’ Nectar of Ninani and hoped for the appearance of a spirit animal, he had summoned nothing.

  As if that wasn’t bad enough, his own servant, a lowly shepherd boy, had called up a wolf. A wolf. And not just any wolf. The boy had summoned Briggan the Wolf, one of the Great Beasts.

  Devin was stung by humiliation.

  But that humiliation was going to end. Now an even more powerful animal would be delivered to him. He had prepared his whole life for this — it ran in his blood. This destiny had only been delayed, not destroyed.

  “Why is it called Bile?” Devin asked, his eyes on the flask. “That doesn’t sound great.”

  “It’s a joke,” Zerif replied tersely.

  “I don’t see what’s funny about it.”

  “You’ve tasted the Nectar, right?”

  Devin nodded, his face sour despite memories of its exquisite taste.

  “Well,” Zerif said, nose scrunching, “you’re about to taste the Bile. Then you’ll get the joke. I promise.”

  The boy looked hurriedly over his shoulder as a growl muttered from the trees. Beside him, a spider with a hard, shiny back lowered itself down on a thread. He tried to stay out of its path.

  “Whatever animal I call will have to listen to me, right?” he asked. “It will do whatever I say?”

  “Bonds with the Bile are different from bonds with the Nectar,” Zerif informed him. “The Nectar might taste sweeter, but the Bile is more useful. We can control much more of the process. For instance, you don’t have to worry about bonding with that spider you’ve been so desperate to avoid.”

  Devin bristled, annoyed that Zerif had noticed his terror. Loftily, he said, “I’m not worried.”

  But his eyes darted to the covered cage that waited for them. Beneath that cloth was the animal he would bond with. He tried to guess what it could be from the size of the enclosure. The cage was large, up to his chest. Occasionally he could hear scratching noises from underneath it.

  This was the animal he’d spend the rest of his life with. The animal that would make him triumph.

  Zerif handed the flask to the boy. His smile was as wide and encouraging as a jackal’s. “Just one sip will do it.”

  The boy wiped his sweaty palms on his shirt. This was it.

  Nobody would ever question him again.

  Nobody would ever doubt his strength.

  He was not the Trunswick family’s first failure. He was its first legend.

  Through the open top of the flask, the Bile smelled dreadful. Like hair burning.

  He remembered the glorious taste of the Nectar, like butter over honey. It had been so remarkable, until it had gone wrong.

  Now he raised the flask to his lips, and without another thought, gulped down the Bile. He had to fight hard not to gag — it was like drinking death itself, and the ground that death was buried in. But within that blackness, he felt something coming alive within him — something vast and strong and dark. His body could barely contain the thing that grew inside him. In that instant, he felt no terror. He only felt that he could create terror.

  Still smiling, Zerif whisked the cover off the cage.

  2: Greenhaven

  “I’M NEARLY THERE, URAZA,” ABEKE SAID, slipping a bracelet over her slender brown hand. Her words were directed at the leopard that paced the floor of her room. Because the room was much too small for a leopard, or because the leopard was much too large for the room, the big cat could only take a few steps in each direction before she huffed and twisted the other way.

  Abeke could sympathize.

  In just a few short weeks, their world had shrunk from their home in wide-open Nilo to a tangled training camp, and then shrunk again to this island fortress: Greenhaven, the headquarters of the Greencloaks, guardians of Erdas. Abeke supposed that the fortress was impressive — a sprawling stone castle built on top of a waterfall — but both she and Uraza were of the mind that the forest surrounding it looked more appealing.

  Outside the window, a bell sounded from a distant tower. Three tolls: the call to training.

  Uraza paced even harder, making low, grunting sounds.

  “All right, we’ll go!” Abeke tightened her bracelet so it wouldn’t slip off. Although its strands looked like wire, they were actually boiled elephant tail hair. Four knots in the strands symbolized sun, fire, water, and wind. Her perfect sister, Soama, had given it to her as she’d left home. It was supposed to bring good luck.

  But Abeke wasn’t sure if good luck was really what she had been having since she left Nilo. She’d summoned a Great Beast as a spirit animal, which seemed like good luck. But almost immediately after that, she’d been recruited by people who were secretly in cahoots with the Devourer, enemy of the known world. Definitely bad luck.

  The Greencloaks had agreed to take her in once she’d discovered her mistake; Abeke knew that she was probably supposed to consider that as good luck. After all, they hadn’t had to let her switch sides. But it didn’t feel very lucky at the moment. She’d made one friend since this whole thing began — Shane — and he was still on the other side, with the Conquerors. She’d traded her only friend for three kids who didn’t trust her.

  Really, Abeke would settle for the good luck of not getting lost in the giant Greencloak fortress again.

  As she opened the door, she donned the green cloak that meant she had sworn to defend Erdas. The dim ha
llway was full of sound. A monkey screamed a laugh somewhere out of sight, and a man’s voice rumbled low beneath it. A donkey brayed. Something like hoofbeats or pattering footsteps resonated through the stone walls. Abeke ducked as a bird the color of a banana soared overhead.

  At the sight of the bird, Uraza, however, leaped skyward with a gleeful and rather threatening growl. The banana-colored bird shrieked. Just before the leopard slapped her paws together, Abeke grabbed her tail. The leopard’s leap was brought up short with a yowl.

  Uraza spun. For a moment her teeth were instinctually bared and menacing.

  Abeke’s heart stopped.

  Then the leopard realized it was Abeke’s hand on her tail. Her lips lowered. She gave Abeke a deeply wounded look. The bird flapped away.

  “I apologize,” Abeke said. “But that was someone’s spirit animal!”

  One would think a Great Beast would understand why it wasn’t right to eat someone else’s spirit animal, but with Uraza, sometimes the beast part outweighed the great part.

  “Maybe we should do this,” Abeke told Uraza, holding out her arm as a request. All spirit animals had the ability to enter a dormant form. If Uraza chose to enter it now, she would become a tattoo on Abeke’s skin until they got to training. And tattoos had never eaten anyone else’s spirit animal.

  But Uraza was tired of being cooped up. She considered Abeke’s outstretched arm for one long moment, and then she turned and stalked down the hall.

  Abeke didn’t press the issue. They were going to be late. As she hurried down the hallway after the leopard, various Greencloaks waved and greeted her by name. Abeke felt bad that she couldn’t return the favor, but they all knew her more than she knew them. All four of the newcomers at the fortress — Abeke, Rollan, Meilin, and Conor — were well-known. The four kids who had somehow summoned the Four Fallen.

  Uraza made a curious trilling sound as she leaped down a circular stairwell in front of her. At the bottom, both Abeke and Uraza hesitated. They faced two identical halls, each with plaster-white walls and exposed timber ceilings. Only one led to the training room.

  “Uraza?” Abeke asked. Uraza’s violet eyes darted from the floor to the ceiling, her long tail thrashing slowly.

  Suddenly, Abeke didn’t think she looked so much like a leopard deciding which way to go. Instead, she looked like a leopard about to —

  Uraza lunged. She was a muscled blur of gold and black as she pushed off the wall. A thrumming, heart-chilling growl burst from her. For one moment, Abeke just thought, What an amazing animal!

  Then she realized that Uraza was on the hunt. The leopard’s unlucky prey crouched on a notch in the plaster wall. It was a small, squirrel-like animal with pink feet, a striped back, and large eyes. Abeke thought it was a sugar glider.

  Uraza thought it was delicious.

  “Uraza!” Abeke snatched for the leopard’s tail again, but missed. The sugar glider leaped toward the opposite wall. As it flew, its tiny limbs stretched out from its body. There was skin webbing between all its legs, making its body into a furry sail.

  Uraza pounced. The sugar glider darted out of her way. The two of them careened down the hall. The sugar glider soared onto a side table. Uraza knocked the furniture over. The sugar glider scrambled up a tapestry of Olvan, leader of the Greencloaks. Uraza clawed the fabric from the wall. Tatters of Abeke’s dignity fluttered to the ground.

  Helplessly, Abeke ran after them. She managed to get ahold of Uraza’s back leg, but the leopard tugged free easily. Abeke was left with a handful of black and yellow hairs.

  The chase hurtled on. The three of them crashed through the hallway into a small eating room Abeke hadn’t seen before. People filled the benches. Abeke took the long way around the diners as the sugar glider and Uraza tore across the long table. Plates flew. One man got a faceful of his oatmeal. Another diner shut her eyes against an onslaught of fruit.

  Outrage had just been added to the breakfast selection.

  Abeke felt the Greencloaks’ eyes. She wanted to shout: It’s her fault, not mine! But she knew what their responses would be.

  It is up to you to control your spirit animal.

  Can’t you control her?

  This is your responsibility!

  This is your failure.

  Maybe you don’t belong here after all.

  There was no time for her to apologize or clean up the damage. She panted after the animals as they darted and clawed through several twisted hallways and a large room full of chairs, ending up in a foyer with an arched doorway on the other side. The sugar glider was making panicked, pitiful noises that sounded like a squeaky rocking chair.

  Abeke was gasping too. Back in Nilo, she could track animals for hours without feeling she had taken a breath. What was this castle doing to her?

  “Uraza,” she said, grabbing a stitch in her side. “We are supposed to be here to save the world . . . so save your appetite!”

  This made Uraza pause. The sugar glider had just enough time to hurl itself to the safety of the chandelier. Both Abeke and the sugar glider breathed a sigh of relief.

  Uraza circled below, but the chase was over.

  Now, Abeke thought with dismay, we are really lost.

  Being lost wasn’t the worst consequence either. Being late was. Not because it came with a steep penalty — her instructors were fairly understanding. But she knew her tardiness would only deepen the problems between her and the other three kids. They had begun their training together, while Abeke had still been in the clutches of the Devourer. She was not only the outsider, she was the suspicious ex-enemy. She could only imagine what they thought she was doing right now — spying somewhere in the castle. Sending secret messages to Zerif, the Conqueror who’d taken her away after her Nectar Ceremony. Letting Uraza eat someone else’s spirit animal.

  She had to get to that training room.

  Maybe there was someone inside that arched doorway who could help her find her way. Even if the room was empty, there was something tempting about the curved entry. Although it surely led to another room, something about it felt as if it led to the outside instead. Abeke couldn’t quite explain the sensation to herself.

  Cautiously, she pushed the door open. Inside was a dim room she’d never seen before. It was cluttered with musical instruments, mysterious pieces of art, and mirrors. There was a pile of drums as tall as Abeke, a piano-like instrument the size of a dog, and a bin full of flutes and recorders. A portrait of a girl smiled at her from one wall, while a mural of a man leading dozens of unfamiliar animals through a field covered another. The room smelled like dust and wood and leather, but also, to Abeke’s delight, like the outdoors, though, again, she couldn’t explain why.

  A single man stood inside, partially turned away.

  It was possible his spirit animal was in its passive state, but Abeke realized quickly that she wouldn’t be able to tell. Apart from his face, every inch of visible pale skin was covered in tattoos: inked mazes, circles, stars, moons, knots, stylized creatures. The mark of his spirit animal wouldn’t stand out from the rest of the designs all over his body.

  Abeke was suddenly impressed. Whether it was the man’s intention or not, he had very cleverly hidden the identity of his spirit animal.

  Even though what she could see of his face seemed young, his hair was gray. Nearly white.

  He didn’t seem to have noticed her silent entrance. His eyes downcast, he continued whispering to himself. Abeke couldn’t quite make out the words, but it sounded like coaxing. She suddenly felt like she’d interrupted something quite secret, almost sacred. And in that dim, mirrored room, it was also just a little eerie.

  She backed out. She’d find her own way back to training.

  In the foyer, Uraza waited, her tail curled tidily around her own feet.

  Abeke didn’t have to tell the leopard she was upset with her. Uraza knew.

  Without a word, Abeke held out her arm. And without a moment’s hesitation, Uraza became a t
attoo on her skin. It only stung for a second. Abeke started on her way. Back in Nilo she had been known for her tracking skills, hadn’t she? She would find the training room. And she would make it her business to not get lost again.

  The training room was the second-largest room in Greenhaven Castle. It was bright and inviting and had a dazzlingly tall peaked ceiling for the high-flying spirit animals. One end of the room was devoted to weapons’ storage — spears, maces, slingshots. Anything you might hope to find, so long as it would leave a mark. Stained-glass windows lined the walls, each one featuring a different Great Beast.

  As she stepped in, Abeke was uncomfortably aware of suspicious eyes on her. Rollan, the scruffy orphan who had summoned Essix the Falcon, frowned at her. Meilin, standing near the panda Jhi, kept her striking face intentionally expressionless. Only Conor, the blond boy with pale skin who had summoned Briggan the Wolf, offered a faint smile in Abeke’s direction.

  Tarik, the Greencloak who was in charge of their training and their futures, stood in front of a folded fabric screen. His weathered, lean face was only a little lighter than Abeke’s. Right now it wore a perplexed frown. “Abeke, didn’t you hear the training bell?”

  There was no point blaming it on Uraza. She knew what Tarik would say: You’re going to have to learn to work with Uraza in far more difficult situations than our hallways. And she didn’t want to give the others more reasons not to trust her.

  Abeke said, “I’m sorry. I got lost.” She hurriedly released Uraza from her arm.

  “Lost?” Meilin rolled her eyes. She turned to Tarik. “Now can we start? Every minute we stand here doing nothing, a city in Zhong falls to the Conquerors.”

  “That’s a lot of cities,” Rollan interjected. “Do you mean eleven cities have fallen while we’ve stood here? How many do you think fell during breakfast? That was nearly twenty minutes! How —”

  “Rollan, that is no joking matter,” Tarik said. “And Meilin is right. Time is precious. But I think it will be more efficient if we train together. Today, you’ll engage in hand-to-hand combat with other Greencloaks.”

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