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PROLOGUE: BEGINNING

“SIRE, YOU’RE RUNNING out of blood.” Eleazer’s voice quivered as he addressed the only other occupant in the royal chamber. He tried to veer his eyes from the King’s bruised arm but could not pull his gaze away.

The young King grunted a response, his attention focused on the red words whispering out of his plumed pen.

Glancing at his cupbearer, he said, “I am aware, Eleazer.” His velvet lapels caught the golden gleam flickering from the lanterns hung on the columns and gave it a rich burgundy sheen.

“Perhaps the wine will help?” Eleazer poured scarlet juice into a goblet and held the fluted stem out, his eyes drawn to his Highness’ pale wrist. His master’s pallid face sent a shiver up his spine, and a knot of worry formed above Eleazer’s brows. Palm clammy, he set the goblet next to his master’s arm.

The room was dim despite the golden sparkle of the dragonfly lanterns hooked to the four columns of alabaster that flanked the two draped windows. Books, their golden spines atop each other, were stacked on the mahogany table. Copper wires forming two “X”s upon each spine bound the leaves of the magnificent Books.

“The new star,” the King said, “will be birthed tomorrow, so I must finish writing the Sacred Tomes.” He paused and shot Eleazer a smile. “Why don’t you bind this remaining stack? You can include this end page I am finishing later.” He waited for Eleazer to reply, but the servant only stared at the floor. “My instructions are in the Master Books, but you must inform the others to keep the matter to yourselves.”

“I know—Gehzurolle must not find out.” “More importantly, do not let him deceive you.” “I promise.”

“You are a most faithful servant—friend, Eleazer. Thank you.” “It has been my honor, Your Highness. I should thank you.”

Eleazer wanted to say more but his throat strangled the words. He swallowed hard a few times and bowed, as a sigh slipped from his lips.

“Do you comprehend my wishes?” The King’s eyes rested on Eleazer’s face.

“Completely.” Eleazer dared not add anything further lest his voice break entirely. His hands busied with the binding of the closing chapters, whilst his master penned the final paragraphs.

All those books, yet not a single ink pot on that writing desk or on any other furniture in that library. Too soon Eleazer would have to bid his master adieu. What if he failed the King?

“Master, I wish you didn’t have to d—”

 “Don’t start this again, Eleazer—no other way exists. You must trust me. If all of you heed the words, you will end up better off.”

Without looking up, the King said, “Once you’ve completed the binding you must leave me alone. I am almost finished.”

Afraid he might forget the Majesty’s visage, Eleazer’s eyes flitted to the King’s face and drank in the dark brows, the high cheekbones, the soft lips. He opened his mouth to say something, but only shook his head, bowed a fraction, and exited through the double doors.

Alone in the chamber, the King pierced his bruised vein a last time and completed the closing paragraph.

1 – ONE NIGHT

 

THE LAST THING Jules Blaze thought of before he closed his eyes was how he, how anyone, could undo the curse his people were under. He was in the middle of a dream, a nightmare as far as he was concerned, begging Grandpa Leroy and Grandma Bonnie not to leave, when someone banged on their front door, shaking their entire tree house.

 Who’d be crazy enough to disturb them at this hour? He sat up on his bed and cocked his head. His mother’s soft tread tap-tapped on the wood floor.

“Who’s there?” her muffled voice asked, harsh and whispery from sleep.

The banging stopped.

“Erin, open up.” Saul’s voice, gruff and loud, jolted the last fog of sleepiness from Jules. He peered over at his brother sleeping noiselessly in the bunk below him, and quietly slipped down the ladder. On tiptoe he sneaked to the trapdoor opening that led down to the living room where Saul stood dripping from the rain.

“Is everything okay?” Erin said.

“Would I visit now if it were?” Saul said. Then in a gentler voice he added, “I’m sorry. Please, let’s take a seat, Erin.” He nodded at Jules who’d slipped down the pull-down ladder to join them. “Jules.” Jules thought about his father at the war front and swallowed a lump in his throat. Was this why Dad hadn’t sent any word to them for the last months? Because he couldn’t?

Saul held Erin by the arm. He led her to the dining room chairs behind the sofa covered with knitted shawls and afghan throws.

Jules trudged to the window and peered at the branches outside. The arm of the oak tree grew so thick they could easily live in it, although getting up there could be a problem, especially since he was afraid of heights. These days they didn’t even live in stone houses, or even wooden ones, unless living under a tree counted as a wooden home. Elfies lived in trees, or burrowed under rocks, in the forest of Reign.

“Take a seat, Jules.” Saul locked eyes on him for an instant. “I just received word from the riverfront patrol—Leroy and Bonnie’s boat capsized in the storm. They’re searching for the bodies, but it doesn’t look good.”

Erin let out a gasp and brought a fist to her mouth. “No!”

“Boat? How can they be sure it was them?” Jules leaned forward in his chair.

“Some of their belongings floated to shore, and I identified the wreck—the pieces drifted to the bank.”

Erin looked at him blankly.

Saul said, again, “The boat…was a wreck.”

“Boat?” Erin said.

“I’d loaned it to them.”

“Why?”

Saul looked at the ceiling. “They’d wanted to get across to Handover.”

“Handover? That’s preposterous. After telling us never to cross the river and saying how dangerous Handover is?” Erin’s voice sounded angry amidst her sobs.

 

Saul pushed his chair back and stood. He reached into the cloak of his pocket, brought out a few items and laid them on the dining table. “Some things to remember your folks by.” And with that he turned and stalked back out into the dripping night.

Jules stared at his grandpa’s pocket watch, the green felt hat the old man always wore, especially on damp days, and his grandma’s silk scarf she donned when the wind ruffled her snowy white hair. Erin sobbed more violently, and Jules stood behind his mother’s back, leaned over and hugged her trembling shoulders.

  2 – TWO WEEKS LATER

 WHEN JULES BLAZE peered out his living room window, the sky was still dotted with a million stars. He craned his neck out farther and stared at the branches that cast dark shadows upon each other like black bones crisscrossing. Out of the corner of his eye a shadow passed, but it swooped so fast he couldn’t say what it was.

He’d planned this too carefully to let anything spoil it. He couldn’t believe Grandpa had died. Just like that. Swept away, some Elfie neighbors had said. Or maybe they were on the Handover bank. Surely a sixteen-year-old could go to Handover to seek answers?

But should he leave his mother and his younger siblings? Like this? Without him could they fend for themselves? Especially with the rumors he’d heard? But he wouldn’t go for long, he promised himself.

Between the foliage, tearing the darkness, a bright line whizzed in the inky sky. It was as if someone had drawn a silver line across the expanse.

Was it lightning?

But when he strained to hear the rumble of thunder that should follow only the whispers of the forest came. Jules blinked several times and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands. Had drowsiness made him see things?

Without another thought he whisked his cloak off the peg by the front entryway, grabbed his pouch of jeweled stones by his feet and headed for the outdoors. Before he crossed the threshold he glanced at the closed door to his mother’s room. What would she say when she found him missing? Ralston would have to take charge, at least until he got back.

Jules was about to step off the porch when the whole sky lit up and a golden glow brightened the deep forest. And then everything darkened again, as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

What was that? Jules’s heart quickened, and he steadied his breathing as he sprinted down the pebbled path away from his home, one hand clutching the pouch of stones over his shoulders. When he rounded the corner of the last spruce, the one that had burned into a charred stump and marked the beginning of the meadow, crunching footsteps stopped him in his tracks. Who was awake this late? Following him?

He crouched and, hiding between the blades of grass, slowly turned to face the sound. The steps hurried toward him, quick and frantic, as if unafraid of detection. Jules was sure his pursuer had circled to get behind him, but just as he readied to spin around and hurl a rock, two arms pounced upon his shoulder and grabbed his neck.

“Jules!” his captor shrieked.

“Tippy?” He swung around and dragged his two-year-old sister from behind his back, relieved he had not flung the stone. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Tippy’s brown eyes were round with fear.

He had a strong urge to smack her little arm, but bit down on his tongue instead. “Tippy, you shouldn’t be out here.”

“Like you?”

“Don’t be sassy.”

“I was following you.”

“You can’t. Go back. Now.”

“Are you running away, Jules?”

“It’s none of your beeswax.” He stood, straightened his cloak, grabbed his pouch, and took a step forward. But something made him turn around. Tippy still crouched where he’d placed her. Even in the dark he could sense her pout. Her outline in the dimness looked small, even vulnerable.

He stared beyond her dark form and noticed from where they stood he could hardly see the oak tree that held their home.

“Come on, now.” He pulled Tippy to her feet and half dragged her home.

On the walk home, his little sister in one hand, Jules wondered about that bright flash. But as they were about to enter their front porch an acorn fell, missing his head by a hair’s breadth. He leapt back and turned to check on Tippy.

“That was close,” she said. The acorn was of normal size, yet it measured about half of Jules’s height and weighed probably twice as much.

Jules always found issue with his inconvenient stature. And even though those of his race, the Fairy Elves, or Elfies as they were more commonly called, had suffered the effects of the curse for centuries and had adapted to their surroundings, he always regretted his size more than anyone he knew. If only I could reverse this curse!

Inside his home Jules quietly shut the front door and placed his cloak exactly as he’d found them on the peg. Reaching into one of his pockets he brought out a tattered booklet, the size of his palm. The thought of placing it back where he’d found it earlier crossed his mind, but he felt Tippy’s eyes watching his every move. It wouldn’t do if his mother found it.

“Bed now, Tippy.” He pointed to the narrow staircase that led to her attic bedroom, where his two other younger sisters slept. But Tippy just blinked at him. So, he slid the booklet back into the cloak pocket. He trudged to the hearth and hid his pouch of stones behind a loose brick to the right of the hearth. “And don’t tell Mom about me, either, or I’ll snitch on how you went out all by yourself.”

Tippy yawned and slunk up to the attic room she shared with her two slightly older sisters. Before she climbed the first rung, she turned and faced

Jules. “Will you be here tomorrow?”

“Go—to—sleep,” Jules said.

“Promise?” She padded up the spindly steps.

“Go.” But he smiled at her.

As he stood by the window and watched the night sky, the blonde hair on the nape of his neck suddenly prickled. A shadow sifted past the bough above his window and a soft whoosh made him step back.

What was that light? That glow in the sky? A bomb? Lightning?

He gripped the rough window sill and leaned out to see what could have caused the shadows to move, but he saw nothing suspicious. If Grandpa was here he could’ve asked the old man, but that was out of the question now. And his mother never had the right answers. Even his father could have helped him, but that too was out of the question.

Jules climbed the stairs to the attic and to his bed on the upper bunk, cautious not to rouse his brother, Ralston, below, who, fortunately for Jules, could sleep through a tornado.

If I can convince Mom to let us outside tomorrow, I can find answers to that strange light. Some had rumored that the war was coming closer.

****************************

 Outside in the cool, breezy night a pair of eyes spied on the Blaze home. Through the open window he saw the candle flickering on the dining table but no boy. Whisperer glided from branch to branch, a swirl of darkness hiding a face with a beaked nose and twisted lips, and landed on the lowest branch on Jules’s tree.

 “If you can lure them out I can check out the place,” a muffled voice said.

“Beta, you’d better pass this test.” Whisperer weaved himself in and out of the foliage around Beta, but Beta didn’t move or show signs of fear.

“I’ll get it one way or another, but you must be patient.”

The leaves on the oak rustled softly and a couple of late fall acorns already loosened by the season dropped as Beta swung from the tip of the branch to an adjacent tree.

3 – THE SOUND OF TROUBLE

NEXT MORNING, JULES couldn’t have thanked his lucky stars more when his mother agreed—after much arguing on his part—to allow him and his four siblings to play in the backyard.

“Since you’re already going out, watch for more precious stones. I need those aquamarines so I can buy some trout from Mr. Saul.”

Tippy jumped up and down and clapped her hands. “Fish!”

The thought of flaky white fish melting in his mouth made Jules’s stomach rumble. He’d almost forgotten the texture of fresh trout, baked with butter and sprinkled with chopped cilantro. A whole fish would mean a feast for at least three days. This was one advantage of their size, since practically every other animal had not altered with the curse.

“Daydreaming again?” His mother’s sharp voice rose.

“The blue stones seemed pretty scarce there. But I can get embers and moonstones easy enough.”

“Whatever you can get your hands on. But be back before supper. I’m making potato soup and hazel cream butter.” She nodded at him and he rushed toward the front door, his mind on the flash that ripped the sky.

Was it a stray bomb from the war? Since his father had left for the war, he was expected to be man of the house. Take care of his four younger siblings.

Bitha, his ten-year-old sister, yelled from behind. “Wait up, Jules.” She pushed her jet-black hair away from her pixie face.

Their home under the oak was narrow but long, the kitchen situated at the back end, the dining room sandwiched in the middle and the living room to the front where the only entrance to the home stood. Supposedly his father’s ancestors who built the home considered this a necessary security feature.

Jules turned and waved at Bitha as he stepped off the porch and shrugged into his cloak. It still smelled fresh from the pine soap Mother used and didn’t give her clues that he’d sweated in it trying to run away the night before. He heard his mother’s muffled voice from the kitchen and wanted to say good-bye but reconsidered. She might change her mind and keep them in again. Paranoia.

Behind him Bitha said, “Don’t worry, Mom. Jules is with us.” She flicked her long black hair over her shoulders, and winked at Jules, her emerald eyes sparkling.

Jules scowled and rushed down the path, pine needles crunching under his swift feet. Just then several acorns dropped, narrowly missing his head. “Whoa!” What’s with the acorns? Death by acorn will not look good in my obituary.

He scanned the branches above. For a split second he considered warning his mother, but what if she stopped them from leaving? So he brushed aside the urge.

His three sisters, Bitha, Tst Tst, which sounded like Sit Sit, (she’s otherwise, also known as “Miss Big Words!”) and Tippy, scrambled to keep up, but he just turned and gestured with his head for them to hurry, his dark blonde hair flopping on his forehead with each quick jerk.

Jules had just rounded the corner where the marker spruce stood tall when another acorn dropped close to him and he hopped back. What the…? Was someone up there?

“Wait up, Jules!” Ralston, his thirteen-year-old brother, hollered as he tucked a sheath of papers he’d meticulously hand bound into a sketch pad into his khaki green cloak.

Jules couldn’t help but shake his head when Ralston finally caught up. Mr. Slow himself. “If you keep lugging your sketch pad everywhere, you’ll always be last.”

“You have your stone collections, and I have my art.”

“You can buy things with my gems. Grandpa said it’s a worthy pastime.” He nudged Ralston and rushed down the pebbled path pushing stray grass that had encroached onto the pathway with his arms.

Jules looked at the patch of blue between the foliage above, seeking signs of a pending storm, but even though there were clouds sailing by he didn’t think it looked like rain. Was it possible the bright rip in the night sky was just lightning? Maybe it had burned a tree?

He wasn’t sure what he was looking for exactly but he meant to get to the bottom of things. A burnt patch of grass or a toppled tree trunk might tell a story. Something. He noticed a piece of ametrine by his foot and slipped the quartz of purple and yellow into his pocket. He hoped Mr. Saul might accept it in exchange for fish, though he doubted it. The old man was enamored with aquamarines. Before he could search further, an ear splitting howl broke his concentration. “Tippy!” In trouble? Already?

Weaving between the tall blades of grass swaying in the breeze, he ran toward the screaming. Behind him, Bitha’s panting came in short bursts, her steps quick and short.

Thud, thud, thud.

“What’s happening?” She flicked her jet-black hair out of her eyes and kept up with Jules.

A few steps ahead Tippy stood stamping her feet. Through the crisscross of her leather strapped sandal Jules saw the side of Tippy’s foot had turned red.

“You’re bleeding!” He squinted at a projecting object Tippy kept pointing at with her hurt toe. A colored pebble stuck out from the mossy ground.

Bitha pushed her hair behind her ears, and pulled Tippy away. “Stop. You’re hurting yourself.”

But the little girl kept digging at the reddish stone with her foot.

Before Jules could assert himself, Tst Tst plopped herself next to Tippy.

“What, perchance, are you doing?” Tst Tst’s bobbed hair looked darker than its usual brown, possibly because it was matted with sweat.

“Perchance?” Jules tried not to roll his eyes but couldn’t help himself. Where was she learning these words? Miss Big Words! He shook his head in disbelief and knelt next to Tippy.

With the palm of his hand, he rubbed off the caked dirt on the bit of the red stone sticking out. “It’s a common sardius, a crystal some call carnelian. I have enough in my collection, so you can have this one, Tippy.” He thought about his precious stones behind the hearth and hoped he’d hidden them well enough. His grandpa and he had spent hours picking those stones.

Jules was about to stalk off when their pet dragonfly, Fiesty, whizzed by, pitching its head back and forth. “Watch out! Why’s Fiesty trying to bite us?”

Tst Tst had found Fiesty when it was a wee of a nymph, and the children had nursed it till it was grown. Attempts to free Fiesty always failed for it simply came back, and so the children considered it a family member.

As the dragonfly somersaulted and spun in the air, like a kite caught in a whirlwind, Bitha tilted her head, her pixie face in obvious confusion. “Has Fiesty gone mad?”

When Fiesty came toward her she reached out at it, but it jerked violently and she toppled backward. It kept flying to a distance toward the forest and returning. Back and forth, like the needle of a metronome. Its wings buzzed a hundred beats a second. But, finally, as if giving up, the pet whizzed off into the woods.

“He’s gone,” Tst Tst cried.

“Let him be.” Jules frowned at the pet as it disappeared between the tall blades of grass. Things were getting more and more bizarre, and he couldn’t understand why the nape of his neck prickled.

Better get them home.

If he could persuade his mother to show him the Book he might find some sort of explanation. His mind wondered about the acorns. Should he have warned her?

 “Are you hurt, Bitha?” He reached for his sister’s hand and glanced up.

The sky held a bright glare, which meant the sun was setting, almost faster than he’d expected. “Mom wants us back before supper. And where’s—where’s Ralston?”

“What’s wrong?” Breathless, Ralston poked his head from behind a tall dandelion, his brown eyes in a squint.

“We have to leave, Rals,” Bitha said. She grasped Tippy’s elbow but the little girl twisted free and plopped herself next to her new found sardius.

Tippy said, “I—want—my—gem!”

Before Jules could give her a piece of his mind a shadow swept over them. The air felt still and the usual swishing of the blades of grass stopped. Something about the shadow seemed familiar, and it sent chills up his spine.

 

“I vote,” Jules said, “we leave this crystal here. It’s too embedded.”

 

The fine blonde hair on his arms stood on ends for reasons he couldn’t understand.

 

He hated it when these feelings overcame him.

 

“I’m—not—leaving—without—it.” Tippy wailed, again. “It’s not fair.”

 

Ralston yanked Tippy by the arm. “Tippy, do you want to be grounded for life?”

 

“I’ll give you one of mine,” Jules pleaded. “One of the rare ones Grandpa found.”

 

But she glared at him and the corners of her mouth drooped dangerously.

 

“Let’s just dig it out,” Bitha said.

 

But that was easier said than done. To get the sardius out, the boys struggled long. A dark shadow flitted past them again. It was only a slight shift of the light upon the vast lawn but Jules’s senses told him to beware, and now his heart pounded wildly.

 

Stuffing his pad into his cloak pocket, Ralston said, “Was that a passing cloud?” He shielded his eyes with one hand and peered in the direction of the dark forest some hundred feet ahead.

 

A blood-curdling scream pierced through the cold evening air and all five children jerked and stared at each other. The scream appeared to have come from the dark forest. Was someone in trouble? Or was it just someone trying to scare them?

 

“Wh-–at was that?” Bitha grabbed Tippy’s hand and tugged at her, but the little girl, her face indignant, squirmed and pulled away.

 

“No–o!” A series of ear splitting protests came from Tippy and she shook her head vigorously. Her eyes, the rims red, locked with Jules. “I want the gem! It’s mine!”

 

Arms on her hips, Tst Tst said, in a sinister whisper, “If we don’t leave now, Gehzurolle will kill us!”

 

Tippy slumped her shoulders, let out a sob and opened her mouth as if wanting to protest but at the last minute she only stepped aside. “All wight!”

 

“We’ll give the stone another try. Ralston, you wedge it with that stick and I’ll pull.” Jules glanced at the sky and thought he saw a dark blob in the blue far away. Must get away quickly. The meadow is too bare for a good hiding spot.

 

Nausea swelled up from the pit of his stomach and a shiver crept up his back. The last time he had such a feeling was right before his grandpa left on that trip. “Rals, hurry! Pull!”

 

How to get this useless stone out?

 4 – HUNTERS

 

“RALS, YOU CARRY Tippy.” Jules tucked the sardius inside his green cloak, relieved it finally broke free from the mossy ground, but he couldn’t help the uneasy feeling.

 Somebody’s watching. But who? And why? Must bring them to safety. Jules glimpsed at his sisters. He tiptoed to peer over the tall grasses. Nothing but the dark blob far away. How was he to plan for his secret getaway to look for Grandpa like this?

Horrifying pictures of Scorpents invaded his mind. He joggled his head a few times to dispel the images. But even as he quickened his steps something told him his troubles had just begun.

What was that verse from the Book about fear Grandpa taught him? “Perfect love casts out all fear.” He repeated it several times under his breath hoping the feeling would disappear.

But when he gazed at the sky again he spied something else: the blob had turned to four patches, as black as the night, contrasting against the blue background. He stopped and pointed, his eyes in narrow slits as he tried to understand the meaning of this latest mystery.

The others halted, too, and stared at the objects until the four dark blobs came close enough.

“A flock of birds with impressive wingspans.” Tst Tst pointed at the fowls.

“Mrs. Lacework warned Mom,” Bitha said, “about the rise of savage birds.”

“She claimed,” Tst Tst lowered her voice, nodding a few times, her hazel eyes wide. “They’re after Elfies.”

As the birds came closer the sheen of the dark bluish feathers glistened in the sun.

“They’re just ravens.” Jules tried to sound convincing. “Hunting for food.”

“We,” Tst Tst said, and gulped, “could qualify as food.”

Jules glared at her and gestured at his brother, some twenty steps behind. “Hurry, Rals.”

The ravens circled directly above them now. When the black birds flapped their massive wings, gusts of wind billowed the children’s cloaks.

Jules, standing ahead of everyone, noticed the dirty talons on one of the ravens opening, as if the bird had already decided on its prey. Then it hit him.

“Ralston! Duck! Duck—” he yelled. He’s so slow!

Still battling with Tippy’s weight in his arms, Ralston, brown hair disheveled, looked up and Wham! The talons dug into his shoulders and he dropped Tippy.

Within seconds, Bitha and Tst Tst, screaming, dodged the onslaught of other talons swooping at them. The girls dived behind a large mushroom in a nick of time. At first, Jules just stared at the bird, eyes round, mouth open like an O.

“Rroankk-rroankk.” Ralston’s captor seemed to signal to his accomplices. Within seconds, the murder of ravens thrashed their four feet span of wings and headed for the blue sky, with the very still Ralston as their ransom.

“Ralston! Ralston!” the girls screeched at the top of their lungs, their arms waving in frantic motions above their heads.

“We must get Ralston back,” Jules shouted to Bitha, wondering, the moment he said this, why he’d used the word “we” when he knew he’d have to try alone. He ran to a large boulder and clambered to the top.

 

Tippy was nowhere to be seen but Bitha and Tst Tst shadowed him. For a fleeting second he worried about Tippy, but he had to save his brother before it was too late. Once on the rock, the children swung their hands above their heads and screamed at the ravens.

 Then Jules groped for Tippy’s sardius he’d concealed within his cloak and waved it above his head. He angled the stone this way and that in the direction of the ravens. The crystal caught the sun’s rays and shimmered bright and red.

“Come back! Come back!” Jules and his sisters cried.

Their voices may have dissipated in the wind, but the glint from the red stone burned bright and must have attracted the birds, since they did return. Their scraping rasps intensified as they descended toward the three children on the big rock.

“Oh, no! They’re going to attack again.” Bitha jerked Jules’s arm back and forth.

“What do we do?” Tst Tst shook her fists as if she was shivering.

“Hide, girls! Hide!” Now what?

They slid from their perch and lay prone on the ground, panting heavily. Tippy, who must have been hiding behind the boulder, slipped herself between Bitha and Tst Tst.

Steadily, the deafening screams from the approaching flock heightened as the hunting party swooped toward the boulder again. Jules could hear their cries, but he also thought—although he couldn’t be sure—the wind whispered, “It’s the other boy, you stupid fowl.” He looked over his shoulder but saw no one except his sisters.

“Let’s stick together,” Bitha pleaded, and she tugged at his cloak. Her eyes shone with tears, and she wiped the sweat upon her brows.

More than anything Jules wanted to hide with them. He swallowed the sour taste rising up his throat a few times and placed his forefinger to his lips. With his free hand he motioned for the girls to stay put, and he crawled on scraped knees and elbows to another rock.

Two ravens now roosted on the boulder. The birds’ beady eyes flitted from spot to spot on the ground, as if searching. A third hovered nearby, flapping its large wings vigorously.

When Jules spotted Ralston his fist shot to his mouth involuntarily and he shuddered. He wanted to scream, but his voice snagged in his throat. The lifeless body of his brother lay in the grip of the fourth bird circling close to the mossy spot where Tippy had stubbed her toe. Jules racked his brain for a plan.

Is Ralston alive? Can I save him?

Slowly, he stood and dashed in and out of the sweeping blades of grass toward the mossy plot. Quiet at first, his lips pressed into a determined line, he made sure not to snap a twig as he threaded through the tall grasses. He ran so fast that the edge of a blade cut his forehead. As he neared the fowls he yelled at the fourth crow in hoarse madness.

The bird’s yellow eyes flitted to him. It squawked and in three big flaps its beak honed in on him, talons still clenched onto Ralston.

Staring the bird in the eye, Jules flung the red stone at the black bird’s beak but the stone struck its eye instead. Better than he’d expected.

“Yes!” Jules shouted and beat his fist in the air in triumph.

The raven dropped Ralston, almost on top of Jules, who swerved away just in time.

The other three birds swooped to the mossy spot and made a ruckus, as if scolding the fourth. Jules braced himself for another attack but something else caught his eye.

A cloud of dark mass was flying in their direction. The droning hum the dark mass made reverberated and filled the air.

Jules clapped his ears shut. What was happening?

He’d heard of mutated insects the Handovers had experimented with, but they were supposed to only inhabit Handover. Not here in Reign. Could they be invading now? After all, the Scorpents had started coming. But when one from the mass broke away he saw he’d been mistaken.

Fiesty!

As Fiesty flew over Jules’s head the mass became identifiable: a swarm of dragonflies. More than a hundred of them whizzed in and out, targeting the ravens’ eyes and nostrils. In obvious fury the afflicted ravens thrashed their massive wings at each other.

Kneeling beside Ralston, Jules sucked in his breath, hardly daring to breathe. “Ralston,” he whispered at last.

Getting no response, he shook Ralston vigorously. “Hey, wake up!”

But still, his brother didn’t stir. He pounded on Ralston’s chest, hard.

“Breathe, Ralston! Breathe!”

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