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Part One On the Run
And Then There Was One

By M. Shawn Petersen

When Stella’s eyelids flickered open, she was looking up at blue sky, floating on her back in a sea so tranquil that, for a moment, she thought she might be dreaming. As she lifted her head, it took her aching body but a moment to help her remember—she was in a small boat with a few inches of standing water in the bottom. Clutching the side, she hauled herself up and peered out across a vast ocean that disappeared into empty sky at the horizon. Devoid of wind, sound, or signs of life, Stella found herself completely alone.

Stella alone at sea

Stella had set out in the dinghy with her parents, but now they were gone. She whirled around in a panic, causing the boat to rock. Sloshing water broke the silence as she searched for any sign of her parents. She called their names, but there was no response. Not even an echo out on the open water. Her voice seemed to die in the open flatness. Ripples undulated from the small craft across the glassy surface of the water until they dissolved into a loneliness unlike anything Stella had ever experienced in her eleven years of life.

Everything was murky in Stella’s mind. She tugged at her long golden locks—a habit she had when thinking—trying to somehow knock loose the memories of her last moments before she had lost consciousness; she was sure they were floating around in her head somewhere. Then, in a flash, she remembered: her father, Arago, was rowing furiously through frothing mountain-sized waves, working to keep the dinghy from capsizing. Her mother, Andri, suddenly crying out, “The lighthouse!”

Shaking her head, Stella came back to the present, certain her mind was playing tricks on her. But the evidence sat right in front of her: the oars in their brackets, her father’s knapsack, the food basket packed by her mother, and, of course, her parent’s absence.

The impact of her situation soaked in slowly like light drizzle on a dry sponge. Then another snippet played out on the screen of her mind—Andri yanking her arm out of Stella’s desperate grasp and standing up at the exact moment the dinghy crested a wave, plunging down the other side of a steep wall of water. Andri plunging into the sea and disappearing, as if a mouth had opened and swallowed her up. Stella springing to her feet in an attempt to save her mother just as the dinghy crested another wave. Stella flying backwards, stars exploding across her vision, her head striking the bench with a crack. The last thing she saw was Arago releasing the oars, rising to his feet, and calling out Andri’s name. Then everything faded to black.

Tears glistened her cheeks, “Are they really gone?” she wondered aloud. What had happened to her father? She’d seen the horrified look on her mother’s face before she was catapulted overboard, and now her father’s absence . . . had he dived in to try to save her? Or was he swept over by a wave as well?

This is what I get for wanting to run away from them, she thought. This was the thirty-first time in her short life her family had moved, and Stella had wanted to stay behind, even if that meant her parents leaving without her. They had lived everywhere, from the deserts of Arid, where food was scarce but gold jewelry plentiful, to the outskirts of the bustling metropolis of Ilya, where nobody would talk to them or give her father work, even when he begged. When Arago had found employment mining for diamonds on Viola Island, Stella hoped they were finally home.

Stella loved the quaint Violan house perched on the grassy hill where she and her parents lived. She fondly remembered its gently sloping slate roof, wide, well-supported elmlock timber eaves, and the open-air pavilion under which she would daydream as thunderstorms blew through causing the blue starcrester flowers to dance with the lightning; she imagined that she was finally home. But the inevitable occurred, like it had every other time—Andri shook Stella awake one night, helped her climb out the window, and said, “Run, run, run—meet us at the old tree.” And like every other time, it was her parents and her against the world—a terrible pattern to live by—running from every place she’d ever settled without ever knowing why.

The initial shock of climbing out of her own window wore off when Arago and Andri joined their daughter at the old tree. Stella could hear explosions and see the orange glow of houses on fire in the distance as she and her parents covered their mouths and noses with wet handkerchiefs to keep from breathing in the thick smoke. They snuck through thorny underbrush that tore at their clothes and scratched at their skin as they made their way to the port. Stella protested when Arago booked immediate passage from Viola Island on the cargo ship Emprezza, and protested even more when, several days into their journey, her parents pilfered one of the lifeboats to steal away—once again—in the middle of the night. When Meriwether, the captain of the ship, came upon them lowering the dinghy, Arago knocked him out with a single, expertly placed strike. Stella had never seen her father attack anyone before, and it frightened her.

I don’t want to do this anymore, she thought as the dinghy pulled further and further away from the cargo ship they had left behind. Maybe I’ll just stay.

Without uttering a word, Andri responded, But we’ve already left, sea star. Where are you going to go—into the water to swim back? You don’t know how to swim.

As far as Stella knew, she and her mother were the only ones who could communicate telepathically. As she’d gotten older, it wasn’t always a welcome gift, and she’d learned how to shield her thoughts from her mother when she needed to.

Stella’s emotions were a tangle as she thought about the events of the past few nights, but her physical needs were starting to overtake her racing thoughts. Her head hurt, her tongue felt as dry as petrified wood, and her stomach rumbled fiercely.

When they first boarded the dinghy, Stella had been so seasick she couldn’t even bear the idea of food. But her father slid a bracelet from his wrist and onto hers. “This’ll make you feel better, angel,” he said, “and protect you.” The bracelet had sent an electric current prickling along her skin, and soon her head stopped spinning, but her appetite hadn’t returned until now.

Stella spotted the food basket still lashed to her father’s bench. Inside, was her father’s jacket, which she set aside to get to the foodstuffs beneath. After gulping down some water from the waterskin, she used her teeth to rip a hole in one of the waterproof sheaths and pulled out a loaf of pearlgrain bread and a slab of smoked silver fin.

She devoured them as the sun climbed higher in the sky and began to burn her face. She reached for her father’s jacket and held it up to give herself some shade. In the buttoned breast pocket of the jacket, she could feel a lump that she knew was Arago’s special timepiece, something he always carried.

Thinking of her father, Stella looked at the bracelet still hanging from her wrist. She pulled it off and examined it. Why had it made her feel better? Was it a special bracelet to prevent seasickness? It looked too fancy to be anything other than an adornment, with its wing-and-sword design. The sun hit it and the bracelet gleamed iridescent. The longer she stared at it, the angrier she got. Maybe at one point it had made her feel less nauseous, but it certainly hadn’t protected any of them from the sea. And the bracelet wasn’t going to help her find more drinkable water or food or reach land. What was she going to do? At that moment, all she wanted to do was throw the bracelet as far away from her as possible, or break something, or let out a primal scream . . . anything to relieve a little of the frustration and grief she felt. But to what end? Taking a moment, she paused, took a deep breath and held it.

With a sigh, she realized that her anger wasn’t going to get her anywhere, so instead of chucking it into the water, she slid the bracelet back into her father’s jacket pocket, stuffed her fists into the oversized sleeves and rolled them up to her elbows. The ear-piercing squawks of sea dunkers rang in her ears. She looked up and tracked the flock circling over her head, and she then realized—birds were a sign of land nearby. Scanning the horizon, Stella spotted a shadowed speck of land. I’m not in the middle of nowhere anymore. I’m near land! The birds chased each other through the sky, and she felt a small, determined smile tugging at her mouth. It occurred to her that she could survive this disaster no matter how insurmountable the circumstances might appear. All survival would require of her was action on her part. She took up a position on the bench with the intention of rowing to land.

With her peripheral vision she registered movement in the water. Her left arm instinctively went up to block the unexpected attack. White-hot pain blinded her as a small shark clamped its razor-sharp teeth into the flesh of her forearm. She let out a cry as the shark’s jaws set, pulling her off balance. Tasting blood, the shark went wild, nearly causing the little craft to capsize and sending the food basket and her father’s knapsack overboard. Stella braced her feet against the side of the dinghy and fought the creature’s tugs. Blood ran down her arm into the standing water at the bottom of the boat, turning it pink.

Without stopping to think, Stella threw a punch much like the one she’d seen her father throw at Captain Meriwether back on the Emprezza. Instead of landing on the side of the shark’s head, though, it hit the shark squarely on the snout. The surprised predator released her arm, and Stella tumbled backward, again finding herself on the bottom of the dinghy. Dazed, she reached for the bench with her good arm and pulled herself upright, staring in fascination at the bite marks that were leaking blood.

I’m okay, she assured herself. Just stay clear of the sides and get to land as fast as you can without getting attacked again.

A frenzy of sharks circled the dinghy. They’re being drawn by the scent of blood Stella thought. Hadn’t there been sharks circling the dinghy before she’d lost consciousness? Squeezing her eyes shut, she rejected that disturbing memory and wouldn’t allow herself to think of what that might mean for her parent’s survival. Instead, she focused on finding a weapon to fight them off with. She scrambled to release an oar from its bracket and set to battering the frenzied creatures, who were becoming more aggressive and numerous by the second.

As she swung the oar, she felt the weight of her father’s bracelet thumping against her leg. She reached into the jacket pocket, grabbed it, and slipped it on to be sure she didn’t lose it. No sooner had it touched her skin than an electric current surged up her arm, and she found herself enfolded in a globe of light. As the globe glowed brighter, it seemed to generate an energetic barrier that the sharks ricocheted off of.

What the . . . ? She panted, collapsing to her knees and peering at her wounded arm. It was clotting, the blood slowing to a seep, but she was acutely aware of how much the limb was throbbing. The boat was sprinkled with debris from the aggressive sharks leaping and nearly overturning the dinghy. She grabbed a long length of seaweed and managed to bandage the wounds—a folk remedy her mother had shown her when she was young. Lightheaded from the loss of blood, but possibly also from whatever the bracelet did, she collapsed onto the bench. She took a few moments to rest and then grabbed the oars.

Right. Time to get out of here. Despite the pain and fatigue, she snapped the oar she’d used as a weapon back into its bracket and plunged them both into the sea.

As the oars broke the water’s surface, the sharks resumed their frenzy, but the globe of light pulsed, shielding her from further attack, and sending any would-be attackers twisting and spinning back into the sea.

Looking skyward, Stella shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t know where you got this bracelet, and I don’t know where you are,” she said aloud, “but thank you, Dad.” And with that, she started rowing.

Stella and the Timekeepers book

Stella and the Timekeepers

Villainous forces are gathering to strike against the Laws of the Universe and the Timekeepers who spin the Thread of Life. In this epic battle between good and evil, Stella and her friends must defend against the powers of Lord Sylvain or see the realms of land, sea, and sky plunged into chaos. Get your copy.