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Chapter One

Everything felt on fire, like someone had replaced Gemma’s blood with molten metal. Memories jostled and tumbled over each other in a dizzying cascade—Holding out her first lost tooth for her dad to admire; A knife spinning through the air; Cuddling on her mom’s lap as they roasted nuts over a campfire; Andrea demanding Gemma move out of the way; Sadness radiating from a pulsing red jewel; Burning her hand on the stove; A knife leaving Andrea’s hand and slamming into Gemma’s shoulder; Pain, so much pain she felt consumed by it. In the distance, a woman’s soothing voice echoed through the memories. “Gemma…I will always love you…”

     Little by little, the memories slowed, until her childhood home bloomed into view. Rich soil pressed into her hands and a small pebble dug into one of her knees. She looked up at the wooden fence creating a large circle around her, then her eyes settled on her dad.

     He smiled and held a hand out for her. “What do we do when we fall off?”

     Her eyes stung from crying, but she reached out to her dad. “We get back on.”

     “That’s right. We get back on.”

     He helped her stand to trembling legs and led her to the grey mare eyeing her lazily. He patted the mare’s back. “Don’t fear, my girl. You’ll get the hang of it.”

     She mustered a small smile. “I’m not afraid as long as you’re with me.”

***

Brayden knelt on the frost-encrusted ground, sliding his sword across the grass to remove the deep red blood dripping from it. He shook his head and grabbed a fistful of brown grass to scrape off the rest of the cooling stains. Another bandit attack, this time before the sun rose. He didn’t know exactly where in Elefrisia he and his companions were, but these woods were crawling with more bandits than fleas on a stray dog.

     It had been four days since the knife had slammed into Gemma’s shoulder. In those four days, including the last attack, bandits had ambushed five times. To make matters worse, Gemma had developed a fever within the first two days. Her health declined so badly that she spent most of her time languishing in a fevered sleep. The red skin around her wound developed thin crimson lines snaking out like tiny rivers. Serania spent every moment glued to her youngest sister’s side, doing everything she could to fight the infection, but to no avail. She’d confided to Brayden that without her medical supplies, Gemma had no hope of recovery. They couldn’t even rely on wild herbs, since winter had already claimed them.

     Between the ever-increasing cold, the constant attacks by bandits, and the never-ending worry about Gemma, the group spent their days in a muddled, exhausted state, allowing the bandits more of an upper hand. Nights were the worst. Each night became colder than the last, to a point Brayden considered sharing a lean-to with the three sisters. He wasn’t that desperate yet, but winter would only get worse. Kalami spent her nights in her own lean-to, refusing the kind offer Serania had made to share with the rest of the women. Brayden couldn’t blame her. The Henathian warrior seemed as comfortable with solitude as Brayden was.

     A branch snapped, and Brayden jerked around in time to see another bandit, lit by the early light, dashing through the trees. He leaped to his feet, the forest floor flying beneath him as he pursued the intruder. He didn’t know about the politics of bandits, but the last thing they needed was one escaping to call for reinforcements.

     The forest blurred around Brayden while his well-trained legs navigated the many fallen trees, boulders, and holes. Despite Brayden’s experience, the bandit soon gained ground, moving with the assurance of one who knew the area well. Moments later, the bandit disappeared into the vast expanse of tall trees and leafless shrubbery. Brayden cursed and slowed to a stop. He could track the bandit, but that would take him hours away from Gemma and the others, and he couldn’t waste any more time.

     A painful whirl of worry and puzzles buzzed through his mind during his trudge back to the small clearing where the rest of the group remained. They had to find a town with a healer if Gemma had any hope of surviving, but none of them knew this area. Even if they found a healer, their meager coin wouldn’t be enough to pay for Gemma’s care or the mass of winter gear they all needed to survive the rest of the journey. Every battle and each mad dash for their lives had claimed a portion of their supplies, and they were now precariously low. If they didn’t find a town before the bulk of winter hit, none of them would survive more than a few days in the cold.

     Brayden shook the ominous thoughts away as he entered the clearing. Kalami stood near the tree line, polishing her sword with half-lidded eyes. A fist of red-hot anger lodged itself in Brayden’s chest at the casual stance of the tall Henathian. She hadn’t lifted a finger to help the group since joining them. Even during the many bandit attacks, she only wielded her sword if any bandit came too close to her. Brayden couldn’t fathom why Gemma felt the need to recruit Kalami, or even how she’d done it. No matter how much Gemma trusted the tall warrior, he couldn’t shake the feeling the Henathian would be nothing but trouble. He’d caught Kalami more than once looking at Gemma like a wolf gazing upon a wounded bird. He suspected the Henathian hoped the infection would take Gemma so she could steal the jewel and make a run for it.

     Andrea jogged over to Brayden while she tucked a coin bag into one of her pockets. “Anyone left out there?”

     “One, but he’s long gone.”

     Andrea’s mouth flattened into a thin line. “I told you I should have gone after them.”

     Brayden reined in the hot retort burning on the tip of his tongue. His patience wore thinner with each passing day. Not only did he have to quell the spats between Kalami and Andrea, but he also had to keep the peace between Andrea and Serania. Serania blamed Andrea for the state Gemma was in, Andrea blamed Kalami for showing up, and Kalami blamed Gemma for recruiting her in the first place. The only one in the group that didn’t make Brayden’s life miserable was Theo, and that was because Brayden knew little of the Scruff language. What I wouldn’t give for another man to talk to.

     He took a slow, calming breath, releasing some of his anger. Letting his emotions rule wouldn’t help anything. “I needed you here to protect Gemma.” He made a show of glancing toward Kalami.

     Andrea pursed her lips and dipped her head. Brayden and the young bounty hunter had little in common, and they rarely got along, but one thing they both agreed on—they couldn’t leave the Henathian alone with Gemma.

     Brayden made his way to the lean-to where Serania knelt beside Gemma. He pulled on every ounce of calm that he could before kneeling beside her. “How’s she doing?”

Serania sat on her heels, wiping her brow with the back of her hand. “She’s getting worse by the hour. If we don’t get her to a healer…” Her throat worked as she fought back tears.

     Brayden squeezed her shoulder, fighting the tightness in his chest. He’d promised Gemma’s dad he would keep his daughter safe. If Gemma died, not only would he be breaking that promise, but he would lose someone who was becoming a friend. For most of his life, Brayden had been alone. After his siblings’ deaths, his mother withered away. Years after his mother’s death, his father followed, leaving Brayden to face life by himself. Friends were always in short supply. Even though he and Gemma didn’t start off on the best of terms, he felt closer to her now than anyone else.

     His gaze drifted to Gemma’s clammy face. Her eyes fluttered underneath her eyelids, locked in some invisible battle for life. The thought of losing Gemma created a strange hollow ache in his gut, the likes of which he’d never felt before. He cleared his throat. “We’ll find help for her. The Creator won’t abandon us.”

     A small lump wriggled underneath the blanket covering Gemma. The only blanket the group had. Theo’s muffled squeak emanated from the moving lump.

     Brayden knew enough of Theo’s tones to guess the Scruff agreed with him. Somehow, Gemma would make it through; she had to.

     A ruckus of rattles and thuds pierced the quiet behind Brayden, and he turned to see Andrea holding her huge backpack upside down. She shook it, and items clattered to the ground.

     Brayden’s brow creased as bulkier and heavier items crunched rolled papers beneath them. Other than the one blanket and some bags of food, Andrea hadn’t divulged the contents of her backpack. Looking at the hodgepodge pile, Brayden understood why; she had grabbed nothing useful. Unless enough daggers and throwing knives to supply a small army counted as useful. “Drea, what are you doing?”

     The young bounty hunter flipped the backpack up, glanced inside, then turned it over again, giving it another shake. “In Baiya’s house, while you were busy arguing with Gemma and brooding in the corner, I was searching every room I could find.” She tossed the backpack aside as she rummaged through the pile. “You should have seen it. Maps covered an entire room, even the ceiling. Most of them looked made up, but I found a handful of Elefrisian maps as well.”

     Serania’s face slid into a hard scowl. “And you’re just now pulling them out? We could have used those days ago.”

     Andrea shrugged as she knelt. “Excuse me for forgetting things while fighting off groups of murderers.”

     To Brayden’s relief, Serania clamped her mouth shut, returning her attention to Gemma. Brayden scooted to the pile, plucking up the nearest rolled paper. Maybe I was too quick to judge. As he unrolled the yellowed paper, his hopes plummeted. Instead of Elefrisia, a foreign land adorned the page. Fantastical creatures surrounded the edges, their details penned so intricately, they seemed ready to leap into existence.                            Unrecognizable letters swooped and swished across the map in faded golden ink. The map was beautiful. He had to hand Andrea that. Whoever created it must have been not only a master cartographer but also a master artist. However, fantasy maps did little but take up space. “Drea, this isn’t Elefrisia. I don’t think this place even exists.” Despite his annoyance, he gingerly rolled the paper and placed it to the side while he chose another from the pile.

     Andrea glanced up from her perusal, tossing a few items back into the backpack as she searched. “I figured maybe we could sell some of them to a story maker. You’d be surprised what some of them will pay for something like that.” She rolled up her current paper, tossing it into the backpack before unrolling another. “I wish I had a way to show you the room. One map covered half a wall. Another was painted on a ball and attached to this odd contraption so you could spin it.” Her hands fell to her lap as her face scrunched. “Although, for the life of me, I don’t understand why anyone would want a map on a ball. You’d never be able to cart that huge thing around. Entirely impractical.”

     Brayden arched a brow at the young bounty hunter as he re-rolled yet another useless map, tucking it inside the backpack. This coming from the woman who didn’t pack any winter gear or dried food into her backpack. If he had been the one to find the pack, he would have stuffed it full of blankets and whatever else he could find to help the group survive the winter. “Impractical? Like a huge battle axe too large to be of much use to anyone but Kalami?”

     “That is not the same thing.” Andrea snatched up the battle axe, caressing a hand across its shining blades. “This baby is worth it. Besides, I’ll get stronger as I use it.”

     Brayden bit back a sarcastic retort as he returned his focus to the pile. Arguing with Andrea was useless. Once she set her mind on something, she clung to it like a terrier to a fresh bone. How such a petite woman hauled around all the weight in the backpack along with the axe, Brayden couldn’t guess, but that was a riddle for another day.

     Andrea plucked another rolled-up paper at random as she eyed Kalami. “You know, this would be a lot easier if you could just lead us to the nearest town.”

     Kalami sheathed her sword before brushing dust from the front of her shirt. “I already told you; I know as little of these parts as you do.”

     “I find that hard to believe.” Andrea’s voice dipped low in a growl while her hands tightened into fists. “This is your side of the Cattaway.”

     “Do you have any idea how large Elefrisia is? I was born and raised in Henathia—the place you know as the Verlasian Lands.” Kalami scoffed. “In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s nowhere near here.”

     Andrea’s hands fell to her lap, and she glared at the Henathian. “Right. And we’re supposed to believe one of Skotadi’s main minions knows nothing about the land he rules over?”

     Brayden held a hand up when Kalami’s eyes narrowed and her hand inched to the hilt of her sword. “Cut it out, you two.” He turned his focus to Andrea. “We can’t waste time fighting. Gemma needs every second we can give her.” His shoulders loosened once Andrea snapped her mouth shut and continued her search for the correct map. Kalami’s hand relaxed at her side a moment later.

     For what must have been the thousandth time, Brayden whispered a prayer for patience. When Gemma decided the group needed to search for the rest of the jewels, Brayden knew the journey would be long and arduous. He’d spent years of his life gleaning as much information about the seven song jewels as he could. One thing all the books agreed on; the jewels were scattered across Elefrisia. With the Henathian, they now had three jewels in their possession. Through the use of the Cornerstone, they learned that the next jewel lay thousands of miles away on the west coast of Elefrisia. To make it there, they had to first cross the wide Cattaway river. But among the thousands of miles, winter’s harshness, and the many creatures he was sure they would face, he hadn’t factored in the lack of trust and friendship within the group. Having the Henathian thrown into the mix wasn’t helping anything, even with her adding another jewel to their count.

     “Aha!”

     Andrea’s loud exclamation snapped Brayden out of his irritated thoughts.

     “Got it!” She smoothed the map out on the ground, weighing down the sides with a couple of stones.

     Brayden dropped the map he’d just unrolled and scooted to Andrea’s side. Kalami edged close enough to study the paper, receiving a scowl from Andrea.

     Large, sweeping brown letters read Northeast Elefrisia above a map not as intricately penned as the fantasy map from before. The yellowed paper wasn’t as dark or brittle as a few of the others. If it had been created before the uprising twenty years ago, many of the towns might not exist anymore. During that brutal war, nearly a quarter of the towns across Elefrisia had been razed in the chaos. Many more fell in the civil skirmishes afterward, and even more were abandoned once their population dropped too low to sustain them.

     “Please tell me there’s a town close by.” Serania’s exhausted, red-rimmed eyes zeroed in on the map as she worried her already bleeding lower lip.

     Andrea’s eyes swiveled from the map to the far-off distance and back. “Hang on. I’m trying to figure out…aha! Yes!” She flicked a spot on the map. “I remember this mountain range from when I climbed the tree before the giant joined us. It was southwest of our location. With the progress we’ve made, we should be…here.” Her finger stopped, and she tapped on the nearest town with her other hand.

     Brayden bent his head to get a closer look. They’d been traveling south for the last few days after finding out the location of the next jewel. They had to find a way across the Cattaway. The wide river splitting Elefrisia in half didn’t have many safe crossings without a boat. A few bridges had survived the uprising, but bandits and Skotadi’s followers kept watch on those. To make things harder, a long mountain range ran north for hundreds of miles. Unless they wanted to risk traveling up and over the icy mountains while winter made its debut, they had to head south before striking west.

     Brayden said a silent ‘thank you’ to the Creator, seeing that the choice to head south brought them closer to the only town for miles. He leaned in, reading the name out loud. “Kapür.” Out of the corner of his eye, Kalami stiffened, but she kept her face schooled into a neutral expression. Brayden narrowed his eyes at her. “Does that name mean something to you?”

     Andrea rolled up the map, proceeding to toss her collection of items back into the backpack with no semblance of order or care for whether anything ended up damaged. She glared at the Henathian. “It shouldn’t if she was telling the truth about not knowing the area. But then again, I’m sure lying is second nature to someone in Skotadi’s good graces.”

     “I wasn’t lying. And I’m no longer in his good graces,” Kalami snapped. When Andrea and Brayden continued to glare, she clenched her jaw. “I’ve lived in Skotadi’s stronghold for two decades. Throughout the years, I sneaked into his office a few times. On those occasions, I read anything I could find, hoping to discover something useful to defeat him. I remember reading about Kapür quite a few times. They’re Skotadi’s biggest supplier of lumber.”

     “Meaning they’ll be loyal to him.” Brayden rubbed a hand across his chin as Kalami nodded. They’d known their chances of finding a trustworthy town on the east side of the Cattaway were slim, but he’d hoped to avoid any of Skotadi’s strongest supporters. “We have no choice. Gemma can’t wait for us to find another town.”

     With a pinched face, Serania finally peeled herself from Gemma’s side to join the others. Her shoulders drooped as she shuffled toward them. “How long do you think it’ll take us?”

     “If the cartographer was any good, maybe a day—day and a half,” Brayden answered while he helped throw the last of Andrea’s items into her pack.

     Andrea snatched up a strange, small white cube about the size of a cricket with black dots painted on it. “Huh, I forgot I grabbed this. I don’t know why I did; this thing won’t be useful.” With a shrug, she threw the cube over her shoulder before tossing more items into the pack.

     Serania shook her head, pressing her lips together before glancing back at Gemma. “What are we going to do about transporting her? You can’t carry her the entire way; it’ll be too hard for you and too jostling for her.”

     “We can put together a pull-sled. It won’t be much easier on us, but it’ll save her body from some of the abuse.” Brayden jerked his chin towards the bulging backpack. “Did I see rope amongst that mess?”

     Andrea plunged her hands into the pack and a moment later pulled out a long coil of thick rope, which she tossed to Brayden.

     At least she gathered a few useful items. Brayden strode toward Kalami, locking his gaze with hers. “Gemma trusts you. For the life of me, I don’t know why, but she does. I’m expecting you to betray us at the first opportunity. If I’m wrong, and Gemma’s right, then prove it.” He held the rope out to her. “This will go faster if we all help.”

     After a couple of breaths, she rolled her eyes and took the rope.

     “All right, let’s get to work.” Brayden marched away to begin the search for the proper materials, praying they hadn’t already wasted too much time.

     By the time they finished strapping together their makeshift sled, heavy clouds hung low in the sky, hiding the sun and making it hard to determine how much daylight remained before nightfall. Brayden judged they might have a couple of hours before noon. If all went well, they’d only spend one more night in the open before Kapür.

If all went well. He laughed darkly under his breath. So far, they had a track record of having everything go wrong. This wasn’t the first time Gemma’s life hung in the balance, and he feared it wouldn’t be the last. Every morning, he prayed they would finally have a reprieve from all the chaos, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that things would continue to decline.

     As if the world had heard his thoughts, a snowflake drifted to the ground in front of him. A moment later, dozens more followed. Brayden turned his face to the sky. If he’d been alone, he might have shouted at the Creator. Instead, he hissed between clenched teeth, “Would it kill you to hold off the snow for one more day?”

     A flurry of snowflakes fell in answer.

     With a frustrated huff, Brayden finished tying the rope to the front of the sled and transferred Gemma over to it, Theo remaining pressed to her stomach the entire time.

     Serania glanced at the snowy sky, her shoulders drooping even farther as the snowfall increased. With her lips pressed tight, she tucked the edges of the blanket under Gemma. “We’ll have to keep a closer eye on Gemma with the temperature dropping so low. Even with her fever, she can still freeze. And since she’s unable to move, she’ll be more susceptible to the cold.”

     Andrea shrugged on her pack, making sure the axe remained accessible at the top. “Have I mentioned how much I hate winter?”

     “We all hate winter,” Serania mumbled as she pulled her arms closer and shivered.

Theo squirmed his way to Gemma’s chest so he could peer out from under the blanket. His black nose twitched back and forth before he covered it with his tail. Brayden patted the little Scruff’s head under the blanket as his resolve hardened into an impenetrable wall. He would get her to a healer, even if it meant plowing through mounds of snow in the middle of the night.

     Brayden pulled the rope over his head so that it rested in his palms across his chest and took one last glance at his companions. At some point, he’d become the leader of this odd group of misfits. He didn’t know when things shifted, but even Andrea now let him take the reins. It fell on his shoulders to bring them to a haven, to find Gemma a healer, restock their supplies, and devise a plan to traverse across Elefrisia. Their lives depended on him, but he wasn’t sure he was deserving of their trust. Creator, don’t allow me to let them down.

     Straining against the rope, it took a moment before he found enough momentum to move forward with relative ease. “Drea, take point. The last thing we need is another ambush.”

     Andrea adjusted the straps of her backpack and slid her two short swords free. She grinned and saluted as she jogged ahead.

     Brayden stared while the young bounty hunter melted into the trees. He couldn’t believe how quickly she had responded to his order. Not long ago, Andrea would have scowled at an order given by anyone but Serania and sometimes even at those.

     Brayden glanced at the Henathian. She held her shoulders back and her chin high as she strode with long, determined steps. Between arguments, the tall warrior kept quiet, spending her time watching the surroundings and studying the group. Brayden didn’t know what to make of the woman, but as much as he hated to admit it, she was one of the group’s best fighters. “Kalami, I need you to watch our backs.”

     To his surprise, Kalami nodded and fell back to guard their rear.

     Serania swung her bow from her back, nocking an arrow and holding it loosely in front of her while she scanned for any signs of trouble. “Brayden, even if we find a healer, how will we pay them?”

     He tightened his grip on the rope as he picked up the pace. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” They fell silent as the day stretched before them. Brayden fixed his gaze ahead, sending a constant stream of prayers to the Creator. They were running out of time before Gemma would be beyond any help. They needed to make it to Kapür as quickly as possible. Around him, snow collected on the ground. If it continued to fall at this rate, it would hinder their travel. Another run-in with bandits would stall them even more. The Binthrell Lions, which Andrea talked about, should be in hibernation, but if one still roamed for food…he shoved the thoughts away. Worrying about it all wouldn’t stop it from happening. One step at a time. Just one step at a time.

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