The Taste of Ash

Kaia breathed in the smoky air, wishing the scent of scorched flesh wasn’t so familiar. They’d been chasing the scattered mobs of Idriel’s Lost army for weeks, but no matter how many she burned, there were always more ravaging their way across Okarria. Her muscles ached from so many days in the saddle, and her vision blurred from too many sleepless nights, but neither were as draining as the never-ending death that had started to eat away at her.

Sunflash, her roan Dalteek, cantered up the grassy hill toward the trail of smoke coursing through the dawn-streaked sky. Farther up the slope, Gus ran ahead, his tongue lolling out to one side and his chest pumping beneath his shaggy red fur. They were close now, but no sound carried on the warm summer wind—no screams or cries. It could’ve been the tranquility of peace, if the taste of ash didn’t thicken the morning breeze.

She drew in a shaky breath, dread needling her as Sunflash crested the rise. Pulling Sunflash to a gentle stop, she took in the blackened scar amid the golden plain below, and her stomach sank. She ran a hand across her sweat-slicked face, the exhaustion she had fought off through the night crashing into her with a vengeance.

“We’re too late,” she murmured, pushing her chestnut hair with its lone copper braid away from her sweat-dampened face. “There’s nothing left.”

Klaus pulled Stormshade alongside Sunflash, leaving just enough space between the Dalteek to keep their antlers from tangling. “Odriel’s teeth. That’s the third in the last month. Are the Lost still here?”

Kaia’s eyes combed over the smoldering ruins. There was nothing left but the skeletons of charred buildings that hadn’t yet crumbled away. “No. Not a trace. Just like the others.”

“Nothing we can do now except take a look.” Klaus urged Stormshade forward, the dappled grey coat of the mount shining in the weak rays of the still-waking sun.

“I don’t understand what’s driving them. There doesn’t seem to be much out here.” Kaia nudged Sunflash down the hill, her gaze drifting across the flat plain.

Klaus nodded, his hazel eyes tense. “I’ve been wondering the same thing. I lived not far from here as a boy, but there are few people out here to feed them and definitely no yanaa.”

Weaving through the plain, they stopped their Dalteek on the edge of the ruins and dismounted. Smoke wafted from the still-warm ash, and Kaia covered her nose and mouth with her tunic, resisting the urge to pull it up over her eyes and hide from the destruction. She always imagined the fresh ghosts eying her from the wreckage, full of withering reproach. Gus whined and pawed at her leg, echoing her unease.

She understood the need to inspect the wreckage for clues of the Lost they chased, but the devastation and the death threatened to choke her with rotting fingers. It was her duty to burn the Lost—to keep Okarria safe from their insatiable bloodlust. And yet, no matter how fast the Heirs tore across the land, the creatures pulled just out of reach.

Klaus grabbed her hand, fatigue hooding his eyes and worry pulling a frown across his stubbled jaw. “You don’t have to, you know. I can do this part alone.”

Kaia shook her head, heavy with weariness. “We do it together.” She squeezed his broad palm, the callouses familiar against hers. “Always together.”

Then, side-by-side, they began their search. They called out for survivors they knew weren’t there, hunted for any Lost corpses that might hold clues to a necromancer—new or old—and searched for weapons that might tell a story of the struggle that preceded the flames. And, just as before, they stumbled out of the wreckage with little to show for it but sorrow.

The summer sun leered at them, hot and bright, by the time Kaia and Klaus made it back to the Dalteek. Klaus grabbed his canteen from Stormshade’s saddle, uncorked it, and held it out to Kaia.

She accepted it with a tired smile. “So where do we go from here?” She swished the warm water in her mouth, hoping it would help purge the taste of ash.

“I guess we keep going west. We’ve got to catch up with them eventually.” Klaus ran a hand through his bristly dark hair. “But perhaps we should rest first. It’s been a long night, and we’ll need our strength when we finally find them.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Kaia looked west over the golden fields. Though she heard the wisdom in his words, with every second they delayed, they fell farther behind. The Lost never slept. “Not here though.” She handed the canteen back to Klaus. “I’d rather be out in the open than sleep here.” With the ghosts. As if she needed anything else to haunt her already crowded nightmares.

Gus leaned against her leg as if to reassure her. I am here, my girl.

Klaus took a swig of the canteen and wiped his brow. “We can go a little farther, but out here it’s better to rest while the sun is—”

The distant thunder of hoofbeats drew their attention to the north, and Kaia stiffened. At least twenty riders galloped toward them across the plain, their naked swords gleaming in their hands. She glanced at the ashes behind them. They think I did it. She shoved the thought away. After she and Klaus defeated the demon necromancer, Okarria’s fear of her had eased, but… Old habits died hard.

She dug deep for a scrap of optimism. “You think they could be survivors coming back?”

Sighing, Klaus stashed the canteen in his saddle and drew Odriel’s Tooth, his midnight blade. “It’s probably the Western Guard. They protect these towns on the edge of the wild country.”

Kaia walked out in front of him, in plain sight of the approaching horses. “Friendly?”

“I suppose that depends on who you ask.” Klaus twirled his blade in one hand with a half-smile. “But hopefully they let us get a word in before they decide to run us over.”

“Best let them know who they’re dealing with then.” Flames sprouted from Kaia’s palms, flowering into hot blooms. “You think they scare easily? I don’t want them to run off before we talk to them.”

“Nah, what could possibly be scary about you, Firefly?”

Kaia arched a brow at him, but couldn’t smother a smile as she stepped toward the charging horses. The riders were almost in shouting distance now but showed no signs of slowing. Drawing the yanaa from her core, she let the fire churn from her hands, and then pulse into the sky in one hot crackle of flame.

The horses pulled up a stone’s throw short of the blaze with a chorus of protesting whinnies. They reared and shrieked while their riders yanked at the reins, but the leader held fast. Slowing his stocky horse to a trot, he approached cautiously, his face betraying no emotion while his riders regrouped behind him. Though he sat tall on his painted stallion, Kaia couldn’t read his expression with the black wide-brimmed hat shadowing his eyes and a short dark beard roughing his jaw. He dismounted, the haze of dust kicked up by his horse’s hooves settling around him, but kept his distance from the flames still encasing Kaia’s body.

“Definitely Western Guard,” Klaus muttered, almost too low for her ears.

“Greetings, Dragon Heir,” the man called. “What brings ya so far west?”

Kaia let her flames recede but kept her fists alight. She jerked her chin at the destroyed village. “The Lost.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Are ya sure? Or is it you that brings them?”

A chill ran through Kaia. Not many knew that the Heirs’ yanaa attracted the Lost. Still, this man’s shoulders were relaxed as he regarded them. He was shrewd, yes, but unafraid.

Klaus rolled his eyes. “Oh come now, Madoc, you know—”

“I don’t believe I was speaking to you, Thane.”

Kaia’s flames flickered with surprise as she turned to Klaus. “You know him?”

“I may have had a run-in or two with the Western Guard when I was younger,” Klaus said, not taking his eyes from Madoc. “But it’s been at least five years.”

Madoc’s gaze narrowed on Klaus. “Hard to forget a troublemaker like you.”

Kaia had to stifle a smile. She could only imagine the mischief Klaus had gotten himself into growing up on his family’s remote buffalen farm. And while she didn’t know much about whatever had passed between him and Madoc, she’d known Klaus as a boy, and she could certainly attest to the obnoxious larks he was prone to. Whatever the story was, she certainly wanted to hear it.

“And here I thought you’d have enough on your plate without those petty bygones.” Klaus crossed his arms, and though his words rang with confidence, Kaia didn’t miss the flutter of concern as he glanced at her. Yes. She definitely needed to hear that story.

“But if you’re just here to reminisce, we’ll be on our way,” Klaus finished.

Madoc held out a placating hand, silvery tattoos scrawling up the back of it into his shirt sleeve. “Keep yer knickers on, Thane. I’m not here for you.” His riders gathered behind him, each clad in light leather armor, their curved swords now hanging from their saddles. He turned pointedly to Kaia. “We had a few survivors straggle into the Direfent stronghold early this morning and rode out to see if there was anything worth saving… or killing.” He spat in the direction of the ruins. “There’s more to say, but if it’s all the same to you, we prefer not to linger in the open.”

Kaia shared a look with Klaus. He gave the smallest of shrugs, and she nodded in agreement. After a month of sleeping on the bare earth, it would be nice to have a bed and four walls around them. Sensing her decision, Gus ventured forth to snuffle curiously at Madoc and his riders. Madoc offered the huge ragehound a tattooed hand to sniff before ruffling his ears.

Madoc’s hard gaze stuck closely to them, but for whatever reason, there was something about him that brought a smile to Kaia’s face.

She let her flames go out. “Lead the way.”

Thanks so much for reading! New chapters posted Mondays and Thursdays! Also, if you’ve found a typo, please feel free to give a shout, and I’ll be sure to correct it. Thanks again!