The Hespyrian West is a place for legends and lawless men. Here, Jae Oldridge works as a bounty hunter, getting by with her wits, her magic map, and not much else. At seventeen, she hunts not for money or glory, but to find her missing father-kidnapped by ghost riders three years back.
When a saloon brawl brings Jae to the enigmatic Harney gang, she feigns interest in assisting them, hoping to turn them in later on. Survivors of the Arrowwood War, the gang pillages silver, without interest in much else… and no one knows why. The gang is led by two brothers: the stern, commanding Halston and headstrong, fiery Hodge. Joining them is an aristocrat-turned-outlaw, a rugged, snake-skinned Azmarian, and a young storyteller with a mysterious past.
Trekking across the wilderness, the group encounters warlocks, monsters, and gunfights in the service of Sterling Byrd: the gang’s crooked boss. Jae learns that the gang is not what they seem. They also stand on a razor’s edge; not just with the law, but with Sterling himself. Jae finds herself growing closer to the Harneys… especially Halston.
Staying with the gang could lead Jae to a noose’s end, but Halston harbors a secret that could change her life forever. It is then Jae learns that her loyalties-wherever they may lie-do not come without a price.
Targeted Age Group:: 13-18
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I grew up in the American Southwest, and I've been in love with the incredible and seemingly mystical beauty of the desert landscape. It inspired me to write a fantasy-Western fusion adventure novel.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
For the leads, I knew that I wanted to play with the dynamic of a bounty hunter and an outlaw forced to work together. Jae and Halston's backstories and personalities unraveled fairly naturally from there. Adventure stories are the perfect backdrop for found families. I knew that I wanted my characters to have that dynamic, so I tried to create them as parts of a whole. They've all got their own quirks and unique strengths that help drive the story. It's a tough world they live in. Ultimately, they're all just trying to get by.
Summer was over. With the mountains behind them, the Oldridges began their ride to the Mesca territory. There, they’d sell the pelts Pa had snared over the summer, then wait out the northern winter in the desert haze. Jae rode behind her father, whose gaze flicked between his compass and the surrounding pines. Their horses trotted steadily, the dust clouding around their legs.
A chill crept across Jae’s neck. She tugged her patched-up jacket around her shoulders. “How much farther?”
“Six miles or so, I reckon,” Pa answered. The sun was below the treetops now. “We’ll eat supper, then stop somewhere for the night. It ain’t wise to ride in the dark.”
The woods had grown foggy with the setting sun. Jae shuddered, squinting at the winding trail before them. It was loopy as a diamondback’s tracks. The trees’ branches knit together in a knotted canopy and shrouded the road in shadow.
“It’s a shame our usual route flooded,” Jae said.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Pa said with a snort. “I’ve been on this trail before, though. It’s a tad crooked, but it’ll get us where we need to go.”
Pa studied the road carefully, which made his face lengthen an inch or two. People always told Jae she looked like her father, but she wasn’t so sure that was true. Pa wore buckskins and furs like a proper mountain man. He sported a shaggy goatee, and his brown hair was even shaggier. It was long enough to mostly hide the puckered scar on his neck—the remnant of a wound from a grizzly’s claw. His brown eyes were steady, never straying from what lay ahead.
Jae’s own blue eyes were prone to wandering. Often, she reckoned that she looked too small for the world around her, with her baggy clothes sagging from her thin limbs, her hat sitting crookedly on her head no matter how many times she pushed it back in place. Pa’s years had hardened him, and she always felt awfully delicate by his side.
Soon, a clearing opened up on east side of the trail. The patch of grass was small, about half the size of their cabin. Wildflowers decked the ground, surrendering their colors to the cooling air, wilted and tired. The trail cut through a steady incline, and the ground sloped steadily on either side.
Pa gestured for Jae to dismount. She hopped to the ground, then he passed her a flask of lukewarm tea. She sipped the strong, earthy liquid as Pa counted their bales of furs for the thousandth time. Beaver, marten, nutria.
“We should sell the furs in Kalstira one of these years,” Jae said. “We could see the ocean. And those redwood trees you told me about.”
Pa replied without looking up from his furs. “I don’t think there’s a market for furs in Kalstira. People don’t need beaver hats down there. Too balmy.”
Jae rubbed a bit of warmth back into her stiff fingers. “Must be nice.”
Pa’s laugh was soft. “I’ll take you there, one day. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll always prefer the woods to the sea.”
Maybe that was true, but the difference between the woods and the sea was that she’d never seen the latter. Jae leaned against a ponderosa tree, smiling into the darkening woods, at all she could not see. “I swear, when I’m a Ranger, I’m going to ride from coast to coast. I’ll see every bit of the Outlands.” Apart from Banderra, Mesca, and the road between them, there was little in this world that she’d actually seen.
Pa loaded the pelts back into his saddlebags. “I hate to break it to you, Jae, but the Rangers don’t have much of a say in where they go. Most of the time, your captain will assign you a case and you’ll go from there.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Is that why you left them? To go exploring by yourself?” She’d heard droves of stories from his days as a Ranger, but she never grew tired of them. One day, she hoped to have stories of her own.
Pa chuckled. “Nah. Well, maybe a little.” He gazed off into the distance. “Ten years in the depths of the Outlands. I came back much crazier.”
“Because of the things you saw?”
“That, and because I had a daughter.”
“Sorry, sweetheart.” His dark eyes brightened. “Couldn’t resist.”
“Still,” she said. “I want to see it all. The wilds. Sometimes I can almost feel them calling me. Like they’re whispering my name.”
Pa laughed again, then took a step away from his stallion. “You’ve got enough spark in you to light a wildfire. I wish I had that much spirit left in me.”
“I think you do,” she said. Grinning, she lifted her chin. “Do you miss it? Being a Ranger?”
“Sometimes. I was a wild one when I was younger. It’s a painful thing to be too careful. But being reckless ain’t any better.” He smiled. “Besides, I’ve got everything I need right here, and fewer worries than I did when I was young. It’s a simple life.”
Jae did not want a simple life. She wanted to hurry down a long, winding trail and leave a string of tales behind her.
“You ready to go?” asked Pa.
“Just about.” She straightened her hat, and began walking back to her mare.
Before Jae could saddle up, her horse trotted forward, then stopped at the eaves of the forest. She pawed at the ground, tapping her hoof as if she was trying to stamp out a fire.
“Whoa, girl.” Jae stroked her mare’s neck. “Easy. We’ll rest soon.”
“Yep.” Pa adjusted his stallion’s reins. “It’s getting mighty chilly out here. Before long we’ll have to…”
His voice trailed off.
Jae’s lips parted. “Pa?”
He raised a hand to quiet her. His face turned blank as he stepped away from the horse. He ran toward a mound of brambles, then dove arms-first into the gnarled branches and pushed them apart to clear a window into the mist-veiled woods.
Jae stepped in Pa’s direction, hoping to glance over his shoulder. A cold gust sliced through the air like an arrow. The sharp wind stung her eyes and gripped at her face and neck. Her fingers went numb.
Something rumbled across the earth, like rain splattering on rock. The air chilled her throat as she opened her mouth, but no sound came from her lips.
A voice drifted over the air. “Oldridge.”
At first, she thought she’d imagined it. Then, her father leaped away from the bushes and ran like he’d just glimpsed hellfire. His hands seized her waist and swept her off the ground.
She squirmed and began to protest, but he shut her up right away. “Jae. Quiet. Not a word.”
Pa hurried into the trees, weaving around upright trunks and fallen logs. He brought Jae to a circle of pines and tucked her into the shadows. Her feet stumbled over the roots, trying not to fall. “What’s happening?” she asked, biting back tears. There was a flame in Pa’s eyes that she’d never seen before.
Pa swallowed, then placed his compass in her hand, the metal cold against her palm. There was a sad, kind look on his face. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” It did not sound like a promise. He slipped away.
Jae dared to move a little and found a gap to peer through. Pine needles grazed her chin. The fog and branches obscured her line of sight, but she could make out Pa’s figure at the clearing’s edge. Somewhere deeper in the woods, a few horses snorted. Then came a faint, raspy laugh.
“You’ve come back.” The words hung in the fog.
Pa trembled but did not run. He waited. The silence was unbearable. Just as Jae was about to dash down the hill and join him, two-dozen faces emerged from the fog before him.
The riders surfaced from the trail’s western border, passing through the trees as if they were made of steam. They wore buttoned uniforms as soldiers did, but their clothes were stained and glassy, like soiled hailstones. Fog circled the bluish bodies of the men and their horses. There was no warmth in their faces, and their eyes were too wide, like someone had ripped their lids clean off. Their mouths were cracked and smeared with what Jae could only guess was blood. They moved like feathers on the wind, their bodies wispy as smoke.
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