Burning Shadows: Chapter Seven

A Choice

The sun rose without any sign of Klaus, and Kaia’s frustration wilted into fear in the afternoon heat. Her eyes strained for any sign of movement or inexplicable parting of the yellowed grass. Her skin itched for an invisible touch, the lightest brush of the unseen. But there was nothing.

By the time the sun reached its zenith, she had made her decision. She dozed through the late afternoon and took her dinner with Madoc and his men, but from there, she walked through the dusk straight to the armory. Swords, spears, bows, and daggers lined the wooden racks along the walls in the otherwise bare room. She selected a light sword with good balance and belted it around her waist to replace the one lost to the river.

“Going somewhere?” Madoc tipped up his wide-brimmed hat to look at her.

“I’m going to find Klaus.” With the reassuring weight of the sword settled on her hips, she turned to where he blocked the door.

Madoc crossed his arms with a smirk, silvery tattoos trailing up his corded muscles into his short sleeves. “Do ya really need me to tell ya that’s not a good idea?”

“Sometimes bad ideas are all we have left,” Kaia replied, straightening under his mocking gaze.

Madoc chuckled to himself. “I s’pose I see where Klaus has gotten his sudden brash streak, but still, I think he’d put steel to my throat if I let ya go into Rastgol territory.”

“I thought you liked getting under his skin?”

Madoc threw his head back with a laugh. “Well, I s’pose yer right about that. But, I’m losing my ace here. I really don’t see how I’m coming out of this on top.”

“We’re bringing back information on the Rastgol which will help your cause, and we might even torch their Lost army while we’re at it.” Kaia crossed her arms in a mocking imitation of him. “I’m really doing this for you, Madoc.”

He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “That’s if ya come back.”

“I’m the Dragon Heir.” Kaia let an orb of flame spin in her open palm. “We’re either coming back, or I’ll burn the whole place down trying.”

Madoc’s grin widened, his teeth starkly white beneath his dark beard. “I do like the sound of that. But I thought ya wouldn’t use your fire on the Rastgol.”

Kaia rested a hand on the hilt of her blade. “I know this may shock you, but I do know how to use this.”

“Is that so?” He ran a hand through his beard and cocked his head toward the courtyard. Out in the deepening dusk, Madoc pulled his saber from its sheath. The steel glinted in the light of the flickering torches that lined the stone walls. “I’ll tell ya what then, Dragon, ya best me in a duel, and I’ll let ya go on yer merry way.”

Kaia shrugged and drew her blade. “If you insist.” Madoc was a head taller and at least seven stone heavier than her. Judging from the way he had fought at the bridge, he obviously knew how to use his size to his advantage and preferred to be on the attack. “To first blood?”

“Or yield,” he offered.

Kaia smothered a smile. Once, being underestimated might’ve annoyed her, but now she saw it for exactly what it was. An advantage. She held up her blade. “Shall we begin then?”

“After you.”

Kaia sprinted the distance separating them and let her short sword blaze to life. Eyes widening, Madoc raised his saber to defend himself. Kaia smashed her blade against his again and again, the steel ringing out across the square. As an Heir, Kaia was twice as strong as a man, but it was easy to forget when she looked like a normal blusheep girl. She drove Madoc around the grassy arena mercilessly, the sweat beading on his temple as he strove to parry her blows.

In another swirl of fire, she set her empty hand ablaze with a twist of flickering light. Letting her sword extinguish, she thrust her burning hand toward his face and in a knee-jerk reaction, Madoc lifted his blade to parry it. Taking advantage of the opening, Kaia lifted her still steaming blade and nicked Madoc’s neck, just above the collar.

Not just first blood. First blood could have been taken from a finger or a knee. Both easier to reach than the soft, protected neck. This had been to prove something. She had more skills than just her fire. She didn’t need to burn someone alive to take their life. And she was not to be taken lightly.

Chest heaving, Madoc stumbled back on his heavy feet. He brought his fingers cautiously to his neck and observed the red drop of blood on them, gleaming in the light still flickering from Kaia’s palm. Then, he tossed his head back and roared with laughter.

His booming laugh cracked the quiet of the night air until tears ran down his cheeks, and Kaia couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, Dragon, I deserved that.” He sheathed his saber. “I s’pose Thane’s not the only Heir half decent with a blade.”

Kaia shrugged and sheathed her sword. “Someone’s got to keep him on his toes.”

“Right ya are.”

“And since I won, can I ask a favor?”

Madoc opened his arms wide. “What would that be?”

Kaia’s smile faded, and she nodded to where Gus waited patiently in the corner of the courtyard, his tail wagging as she looked at him. “Look after Gus while I’m away.” She kicked the dust with the toe of her boot. “He seems rather fond of you.”

“Ah.” Madoc straightened, his expression sobering. He whistled sharply, and Gus ran to his side as if he’d belonged to him all along. “I can do that.” He tousled Gus’ ears, and the ragehound’s furry tail wagged earnestly. “And I won’t stop you from going after Thane. But… have you considered what’ll happen if Okarria loses both Heirs? If you’re sworn to protect the land, can you take the risk?”

 “Even if we were to fall, more Heirs would rise in our places.” Kaia twisted the flame in her hands into a long stream, twisting it into an infinite loop in her palm. “To go or not to go is just as risky. There is never a choice without sacrifice. If I burn a man, I could save another. But what would happen to me? To my soul? Would I even be worthy of Odriel’s gift to use it for something so base?” She let the fire twist around her wrist, sending it along her shoulder and down her other arm. “And for Klaus… if I go, perhaps I will be dooming both of us, leaving Okarria in the hands of the Western Guard and its madcap Captain.” She flashed a grin at him, but it fell away under her heavy words. “But if I stay, then I’ll sacrifice the piece of myself that I love the most, and the one person that makes all of my sacrifices worth making.” She let her fire grow into a flower in her palm, its petals blossoming in the night. “So I’ll not burn a man, but I’ll run into flames for the sake of this one.”

Madoc pulled his hat from his head and put it to his chest. “Hell.” For a moment, he looked at the dirt, as though gathering his words from the grass-littered dust. “I see I’ve underestimated ya in more ways than one.” He pointed his hat at her. “When I first heard the stories of you Heirs and what happened in the south, I have to say, I thought it was a sack of bosh. No two people could defeat an army. They’d have to be stupid to try. Although, I s’pose that made sense in Thane’s case.”

Kaia laughed and Madoc chuckled along with her before he stabbed his hat in her direction again. “But yer certainly blessed by Odriel, Guardian Dashul, and regardless of whether ya return, I’m glad to have met ya.” With that, he lowered his head in a short bow.

“And I, you, Madoc,” she said, bowing back. “But since I do plan on returning, I have one more favor to ask.”

He straightened and replaced his hat on his dark hair. “What else can I do for ya?”

She smiled. “When you see the flames, I’ll need your men ready to fight.”

“Oh yeah, and why’s that?” he asked, crossing his tattooed arms.

“Because two Heirs are all well and good, but I too prefer the strength of numbers.”

“A wise Dragon Heir.” Approval glinted in his navy eyes. “Klaus Thane is a lucky man.”

The smile fell from Kaia’s face. “Let’s hope so.”


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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Six

A Long Night

Kaia stalked Direfent’s wide parapet in the dark of night, glaring at the river below her. Swirling fire between her fingers, she wrestled with the tangles of worry that snarled her thoughts. He had actually left without her. She should’ve gone with him. There were only two of them after all. They didn’t have to be invisible to go unseen, and the western border was so vast, they could’ve taken their time and circled around. Maybe Madoc would’ve wanted to come with his men to get a better idea of the Rastgol’s defenses. There were so many options.

The sentries on either of the corner battlements gave her a wide berth, but Gus’ worried eyes followed her as she paced, his long muzzle opening in a wide yawn.

Torches lined the walkway, throwing her shadow back and forth across the path. Did he have to make a decision so quickly? Couldn’t he have waited for them to get a better sense of the situation? Especially after yesterday’s battle. What if the Rastgol attacked Direfent again? What if the Lost raided another village? She gripped the edge of the battlement, her palms heating the stone as she bit down on a scream of frustration.

“Couldn’t sleep, Dragon?” Madoc walked along the wall to gaze out at the west beside her.

“I’ve slept plenty.” Kaia looked at him from the corner of her eye. Though he had a good-natured manner, there was obviously no love lost between him and Klaus. “Did you send Klaus across the river to spy on the Rastgol?”

Bracing his arms against the smooth stones, Madoc chuckled deep in his throat. “I wish I could take credit for such an excellent idea.” He clicked his tongue. “Get information on the enemy and get Thane outta my hair? If he hadn’t come up with the idea himself, I would’ve said it was a stroke of genius.”

“Did he say why he wanted to go?”

“Something about wanting to see if these were Idriel’s dead or if there was another necromancer he needed to take care of.”

Kaia’s fingers tightened into fists. “It isn’t like him to do something so reckless.”

 “Perhaps not, but I’ve noticed Thane is quite different from the last time I saw ‘im.” Madoc shrugged, a smile peeking out from beneath his beard. “Less restrained, lighter, less insufferable… and perhaps a bit more impulsive.” His grin deepened in his weathered face. “I suppose someone must be having a positive influence on ‘im.”

Kaia blushed at the words, looking quickly away into the night. “Well, if it’s my bad habits he’s picking up, then I suppose I’m partly to blame.”

“Enough of that.” Madoc dismissed it with a wave. “Thane is grown and capable of making his own decisions.” He turned to her. “As are you.”

“Oh, am I now?” Kaia humored him with a narrow-eyed grin.

“Ya know, we could use your gifts here, ‘gainst the Rastgol.” He gestured to the river. “After decades of war, we could finally safeguard the border.”

Kaia shook her head. “I’m just one more sword. I’ve told you before, I don’t use my fire on the living.”

“Even after ya saw the Rastgol don’t share yer reservations?”

Kaia flinched as the boy’s screams echoed through her thoughts, the stink of burning flesh singeing her nose. “My flames are meant for the dead, and the dead alone. It takes a lot of yanaa to burn even one man alive.”

“Bosh,” Madoc snorted. “I’ve seen yer power, and Valente Conrad told me what ya did to his old man.”

Kaia froze. “Valente Conrad was here?”

Madoc nodded. “Not two weeks ago. Seems like a better man than his father. He agreed to lobby the Faveno regent fer more men.” His smile had faded into a glower. “We’re always short these days.”

“I… I see.” A chill swept away Kaia’s heat. She could only imagine what Valente Conrad thought of her now.

“You saw the village,” Madoc said, his voice low and urgent. “Think of how many ya could save. Not just soldiers, but innocents too. There are even rumors that they accept human sacrifices in exchange for a reprieve from their raids.” He spat over the battlements as if the words left a foul taste in his mouth.

Kaia nodded. “The Rastgol are horrific, but…” The memory of Conrad’s screams as she burned him alive branded her with a visceral agony. She swallowed, voice shaking. “If I were to turn my fire against them… I think it would kill me too.”

Madoc paused at that, the frown smoothing from his lips. Sighing, he straightened. “I suppose yer right. I guess I must be desperate if I’m asking one girl to fight an army’s battles,” he scoffed. “No offense, Dragon. Yer certainly an ace up the sleeve, but even that’s no replacement for a good hand.”

Kaia nodded, squeezing her laced fingers. “Klaus and I could never have taken on Idriel’s army without Okarria’s warriors at our back.” She glanced into the empty courtyard. “But now there are so few of them left.”

Madoc crossed his arms. “That there are. The Guards of the State-cities stay close to their homes, and the hands we get here are all fresh off the farm. By the time they’re trained enough to fight, we’ve got more empty bunks to fill.” He tapped his fingers against his thick bicep and leaned against the far wall. “Ya know, fire or not, we could always use a couple more good fighters here if ya’d like to stay on.”

“Even Klaus Thane?” Kaia’s smile widened with mischief.

He grimaced, his face folding comically under his beard. “I was talking about you and yer wolf. But I suppose if he’s part of the deal, we could stomach him.”

Kaia laughed. “I do appreciate the offer, but I’m afraid our duties don’t let us stay in one spot for long.”

“I suppose I should be glad that someone else is watching our backs in the east while we’re facing west.” He shrugged. “Regardless, ya’ll always have a bunk here should ya ever need one.”

His words stoked the warm flames in Kaia’s belly. “Thank you, Madoc.”

“That said, you go back to that bunk, Dragon.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Yer Shadow will return with the dawn whether ya stay up all night worrying or not.”

Kaia chuckled. “Is that an order, Captain Madoc?”

Turning away, Madoc glanced over his shoulder at her. “Only a fool would give orders to a Dragon.”

Grinning, Kaia returned to her room anyway. But despite his reassurances, sleep did not find her. And in the morning, neither did her Shadow.


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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Five

Shadows

Though Kaia’s body bent with weariness, she couldn’t coax herself back to sleep with thoughts of the Lost raging through her splitting head. She hugged Gus to her chest as the image of the Rastgol breaking the seared boy’s neck replayed itself over and over again in her mind. Surely, there must’ve been something she could’ve done to save him. She should’ve seen it coming sooner—burned the bridge as soon as he hurt the boy. Why did she just stand there? But then would the boy have survived the river with his hands bound? Almost certainly not. But at least then she would’ve given him a chance.

Gus licked her cheek with his smooth tongue. It’s over, my girl. Rest now.

“It’s not over, Gus,” she whispered. “If the Rastgol are collecting the Lost somehow, what are we going to do about it?”

Gus laid his head in her lap with a huff, his long furry body taking up most of the bed. I don’t like it when you worry.

She sighed and shifted him away, moving her feet to the floor. Outside, the sun had begun to lighten the sky with swirls of pink and orange. “Maybe I can go find that mender since just laying here isn’t—”

A soft knock interrupted her. She rose to answer it, but the door opened of its own accord before closing with a quiet click.

Kaia crossed her arms. “Didn’t Madoc say you weren’t supposed to be up here?”

“As if he could stop me.” Klaus blinked into view, his smirk only inches from her own.

 “Besides,” he pulled a waterskin and what looked like a bundle of bandages from his shirt, “the menders were busy, so it looks like you’ll have to put up with me as a nurse instead.”

“Is that a needle and thread?” She groaned. “I’m doomed.”

“Don’t tell me the Dragon Heir is frightened of a few stitches?”

“I think I’d rather just wait for the mender,” Kaia said, edging toward the door.

 “First of all, you shouldn’t be on your feet.” Klaus put an arm around her shoulders and guided her back toward the bed. “Secondly, I’m actually very handy with a needle, I’ll have you know.”

Kaia slouched onto the bed, trading a doubtful glance with Gus. “That’s fine, I’ll let you know the next time my breeches need a patch.” She scooted away as he sat on the bed next to her. “Just keep that needle away from my head.”

“Shh… keep your voice down.” Klaus took her cheeks gingerly in his calloused hands, his face leaning close as he examined the wound. “If Madoc finds me in here, he’s liable to throw me out of the window.”

“Would it save me from the stitches?” Kaia whispered.

“Nope.” Klaus thrust the waterskin into her hands. “Drink this first.”

“What’s in it?” Kaia raised it hesitantly to her lips, a sharp, sour smell tickling her nose.

“What’s wrong? Don’t you trust me by now?”

Kaia narrowed her eyes at him. “Maybe.”

His gaze softened with a smile, and he squeezed her knee. “It’s for the pain.”

Kaia nodded and took a swig, bracing herself for the worst. The rancid drink burned her throat from her stomach to her nose, and she spluttered into her elbow. “Odriel’s teeth, Klaus. That tastes like cheap spirits.” She took another swig nonetheless and wiped her mouth, anything to get rid of the pounding between her temples.

“That’s because it is.” Grimacing, he took the skin from her. “It’s all they had left.” He poured some onto the cloth bandages in his hands and pressed it to the side of her head.

A fiery pain lanced through her scalp. “Ach! That stings,” she hissed. “I thought you were supposed to be helping.”

He sighed. “I know, but I have to clean it first. Here,” he handed her the needle, “I need you to heat this too.”

“Where’s Fiola when you need her?” Kaia whined, warming the needle like a match until it glowed red.

Klaus reached out for it, and she pulled it just out of reach. “Firefly…” He rubbed an exasperated hand over his smooth jaw. “I need that.”

“It’s still hot,” she protested with a cheeky grin, a blessed lightness leeching the pain from her skull. “I don’t want you to get burned.”

“Is that it?” Klaus leaned closer, his golden-flecked eyes boring into hers. “Is it the spirits or the head wound that has you acting ridiculous?”

Kaia’s eyes flicked to his lips and back up to his eyes. A warmth spread through her belly, making her heart stutter. “Maybe neither,” she breathed.

“Hmm…” Leaning forward, he plucked the needle from her hand. “Well, regardless, you still need stitches.”

It took another half hour of coaxing and spirits and whining before Klaus finally stitched her wound together. By the time he finished, Kaia’s head still swam, but with the blissful absence of pain instead of the agony of earlier.

Kaia ran her fingers along the side of her head, where Klaus’ neat row of stitches sat just above her ear. “Does it look terrible?”

“It looks perfectly fine.” Klaus took her fingers in his own and kissed them. “Now, you really should get some rest.” He grabbed the flask and the bandages and moved to rise.

“But where are you going?” Kaia tightened her grip on his hand, trying to wade through the spirits that dulled her thoughts. “Can’t you stay awhile?”

He smiled at her wearily, the shadows a dark purple beneath his eyes. “You want to tempt fate? It’s only a matter of time before Madoc busts down the door.”

“He won’t,” Kaia whispered, lying back on her pillow, her head heavy and her senses muffled. “Besides, since when do you follow the rules? What’s really bothering you?”

With a sigh, Klaus lay down beside her, propping his head up on an elbow. Just as he had done nearly every night for the past three months. “I talked to Madoc… about the Lost.”

Kaia’s eyes snapped open. “What did you say?”

He tucked her braid into place, brushing her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “I’m going to cross the river tonight—to try to figure out what’s going on.”

Kaia rubbed her palm against her forehead. “So soon? I guess we really do need to get some rest if we have to leave tonight.”

Licking his lips, Klaus shook his head. “No, Firefly, not we.”

She sat up. “What do you mean ‘not we?’ We do everything together, Klaus. You know that. We’re too vulnerable when we’re separated.”

“Shhhh, relax,” he whispered, coaxing her back to her pillow. He cupped her cheek with his palm, and she leaned into his hand. “It’s just a quick scouting mission. No one will ever see me, and I’ll be back before dawn breaks.”

“So you’re spying now? Where’s Shadmundar when we need him?” Kaia half-joked, wishing that the cat had come with them instead of returning to his magus’ service.

Klaus smiled, but the shadows in his expression deepened. “The Rastgol have eyes and ears everywhere. I’m the only option.”

Kaia pressed his hand against her face, the image of the Rastgol breaking the boy’s neck scraping through her thoughts. “I don’t have a good feeling about this, Klaus. Those people were…”

“I know,” he murmured, kissing her forehead. “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.”

“I won’t forgive you if you don’t come back.” Her heavy eyelids blinked slowly even as she fought to keep them open.

“So harsh,” he said, flashing a smile.

She pulled on his shirt, the fabric warm against his chest. “I mean it.”

“I’ll come back, Firefly.” He brushed the softest of kisses on her lips. “I promise.”

She curled into the solid safety of him, her exhaustion drawing her into unconsciousness. “Stay for at least a little while.”

“Okay, Firefly.” He wrapped an arm around her, kissing her brow once more. “But just for a little while.”

***

Twisted dark yanaa warped her nightmares, dragging her worst memories from the darkness and weaving new ones to take their place. Her father pulling the dagger across his own throat, Mogens plunging his blade into Klaus, and Conrad burning alive at her hands. And still there were more. She’d seen the images dozens of times, and yet they still managed to claw fresh wounds. The misshapen faces of the Lost morphed into Klaus’, his eyes filled with that same blackness of death, and as he lunged at her with his black blade, all she could do was scream.

Kaia thrashed, trying to will herself awake, but couldn’t quite swim past the heavy exhaustion that chained her to the nightmare. Warm arms encircled her instead, and the familiar smell of soap and leather calmed her pounding heart. Tangled in the blankets, Klaus’ black eyes still haunted the space between dreaming and waking.

“Klaus…” she mumbled, her arms flailing against the nightmare.

“Shh Firefly, I’m right here.” His hands encircled her wrists, and he brought them against his chest. “It was just a dream, I’m right here.”

The words blew the dark images away like a sharp breeze, and Kaia drifted into a peaceful sea of rest.

But when she finally awoke… he was gone.


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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Four

Blood

“Cut the bridge!” Madoc bellowed, drawing his sword.

Along the western bank, dozens of warriors leapt from the night to charge the bridge.

Before Kaia could process what was happening, the Rastgol launched across the gap between them, his short sword cleaving down on her. Madoc parried the blade and slashed his torch toward the giant man’s face. The Rastgol grabbed his arm instead, locking them together.

“Cut the bridge!” Madoc yelled again, crumpling under the Rastgol’s superior strength.

But the Direfent warriors on the bank were already locked in their own struggle with the dripping Rastgol warriors charging up from the river’s edge.

“They can’t,” Kaia shouted over the clashing steel, Madoc’s straining body too close to draw her blade.

Something yanked Kaia back and brushed past her. With a whistle of air, a gush of blood oozed from the Rastgol’s throat. But as soon as he fell, another Rastgol surged forward to take his place.

“Get back to the bank!” Klaus shouted, felling another Rastgol in front of him.

Kaia looked behind them to find the Rastgol already coming down the bridge from the other end, battering away at Madoc’s soldiers.

Wresting his torch arm from the dead Rastgol, Madoc hacked at the hefty ropes with his sword. “If they take the bridge, their army will be at our walls in seconds.”

Kaia nodded, finally grasping the situation. “Klaus, hold on to something!” She shoved past his invisible body, practically barreling into the solid mass of the next attacker. The Rastgol stumbled back, his eyes blazing as he rushed toward her once more. But before he could take another step, Kaia ignited the bridge in an explosion of fire. The crackling flames chewed through the wooden planks in an instant, and the Rastgol fell away.

Kaia’s stomach flew into her throat as her body dropped through the air with the corpses, the Rastgol, and her companions falling somewhere around her. Then she was underwater, the cold of it shocking her overheated body as the current dragged her under. With fumbling hands she unbuckled her belt, letting her heavy blade sink into the river. Lighter now, she kicked against the undertow, fighting to the surface. But as she gasped for air, a pair of huge hands pushed her under again.

She kicked and clawed at him, but his grip held firm. Finally, she landed a kick and pushed herself away, only for another hand to find her throat. Blinded by the murky water and desperate for air, she pulled the heat from her core till the water boiled around her, and at last the hand yanked free.

Breaking through the surface, Kaia sucked in air with a hoarse gasp, trying to get her bearings through stinging eyes. The current had taken her west, and several Rastgol warriors cut through the water toward her with strong, efficient strokes. Heart drumming, she kicked away from them toward the eastern bank and the clash of steel on steel. The Direfent soldiers struggled to beat the Rastgol back into the river while Madoc pulled himself onto the bank to charge straight into the mob. She hacked at the water with her arms, her gaze searching for Klaus in the chaos, but there was no sign of him. Was he still in the water?

She was almost midway when something crashed against her head. Pain cracked through her skull, and black edged her vision as she went under. Blinking sluggishly, Kaia forced herself to keep kicking. She bobbed up again to see the Rastgol brandishing the plank once more and raised her arms to protect her head. The wood slammed against her arms, another fist crashing into her face. Black spots threatened her vision once more, and she sucked in a lungful of the river. Ears ringing, she coughed and choked as she struggled to gather her senses.

The Rastgol brought the plank up again, and then fell limp into the water. Klaus appeared in front of her, water dripping from his dark hair. “Firefly, are you okay?”

“I-I’m… okay.” Her words slurred together and Klaus’ grimace doubled in her vision.

Klaus wrested the plank from the dead Rastgol. “Just hold on to this and I’ll bring you in.”

Kaia kicked as he dragged her through the water. At last, the cool river mud rose up to meet them, and he pulled her onto the shore, his chest heaving.

“Watch out!” Madoc yelled from the bank above them, pointing to a trio of Rastgol charging down the slope from the battle. Klaus slipped a knife from his belt and disappeared.

Kaia had to do something. She wouldn’t use her fire on people, especially when her allies could get caught in the blaze, but there had to be something she could do. They were here for her after all.

Her head still spinning, she stumbled to her feet, concentrating every ounce of yanaa into her hands. She might not be able to kill them, but she could at least distract them. She thrust her arms into the air. “Madoc! Klaus!” she yelled. “Shield your eyes!”

With that, she released the blaze within her in an explosion of volcanic flames. The column of fire shot into the sky, driving the dusky clouds of darkness from its heat. Focusing her yanaa, Kaia let the fire burgeon across the night, blotting out the stars in a tidal wave of fiery tongues. Dozens of Rastgol turned toward her, their murderous gazes prickling her skin. Good. She could only hope Madoc’s men had the sense to cut them down while their backs were turned.

Returning her focus to the blaze, she fed the eruption, sending another pulse of flames across the sky. The heat of it in the summer night slicked her skin with sweat, but she kept on, pouring every last drop of yanaa into the spectacle. How long she burned, she didn’t know. Until at last, completely spent, she fell to her hands and knees, her last burst of fire fizzling into the dark.

Her chest heaving and her fingers squelching in the mud, she surveyed the battle. The dead and wounded littered the ground, but from what she could tell, Madoc’s men now far outnumbered the few Rastgol still fighting on. Taking a deep ragged breath, she staggered to her feet, head throbbing. If she was going to help now, she would need to find a weapon. But her legs turned to jelly as she walked, and her stomach revolted against the movement. Kneeling, she drank in deep breaths of the still scorched air, trying to keep herself from vomiting.

A rough hand hauled her up by the elbow, and her stomach flipped again. “Steady on, Dragon, lemme look atcha.” Madoc pulled a torch close with a low whistle. “Someone got a good smack at yer head there. But a dozen stitches and you’ll pull through just fine.” Kaia swayed as he pulled her up the slope. “I must say I always thought Odriel a fool fer thinking three warriors could take on an army, but I’ll admit ya got me impressed.”

“Where’s… Klaus?” Kaia mumbled, her words muddied with pain and fatigue. “And are the Rastgol…” She stopped, her gaze stuck on the dozens of pairs of glowing green eyes staring from across the river. “The Lost.”

Madoc grunted, passing off his torch to a passing soldier. “I told ya the Rastgol were attacking with the Lost. It’s a good thing ya torched the bridge, or we would’ve had an even bigger problem on our hands.”

This time, Kaia couldn’t quell the nausea, and bending down, she heaved into the grassy bank.

Gathering her long hair at the nape of her neck, Madoc patted her back. “Definitely a nasty blow to the head. Get it all out there.”

Kaia straightened, and he passed her a flask of water. She poured some into her mouth and spat out the foul taste of bile.

“I do wonder though why ya didn’t just burn through the Rastgol on the bridge.”

A shiver racked Kaia’s shoulders. “Because then I’d be the monster.”

“Ah, come now, don’t be naïve,” Madoc chuckled. “We’re all monsters on the battlefield.”

His words sloshed in her ears, and Kaia shook her head slowly, wincing at the movement. “I think I just need… to lie down.” She sagged from his grip onto the grass, resting her head on her knees.

“Firefly!” Klaus jogged through the soldiers helping with the dead and wounded. “Are you all right?”

Kaia raised her head, the tension sloughing from her shoulders in a flood of relief. Fatigue lined his eyes and mud coated his clothes, but she could see no visible injuries. “Klaus,” she breathed with a weary smile.

“She’s fine, Thane.” Madoc waved him off. “Just a bit of a head wound thickening her tongue.”

Klaus knelt beside her, taking her face gingerly in his hands.

“I’m fine. You’re fine. It’s… fine,” Kaia whispered, closing her eyes to stave off the dizziness.

“Why didn’t you get her to the mender?” he snapped at Madoc.

Madoc raised an eyebrow. “My my, quite the mother hen now, aren’t we?” He shrugged, a shadow of a smile crossing his face. “Well, if ya insist.”

He bent down and scooped her up like a child, striding off toward the fortress.

Kaia groaned at the rocking motion, her stomach turning.

“Wait—that’s not what I meant.” Klaus’ face flushed as he strode beside them. “You’re going to make her sick doing that.”

Madoc ignored him, a smile growing under his beard. “My menders are a touch busy at the moment, so I’ll deliver her straight to her bed and send one by later.” Nodding at the guards, he ducked into the courtyard, and Gus bounded to his side, nosing and huffing at his feet. “In fact, since I’ve got her taken care of, why dontcha run along and make yerself useful. The lady could use her rest.”

Klaus’ voice rose, even his ears turning pink now. “Madoc, you can’t be serious, you know she’s—”

Madoc kicked the keep door shut on the spluttering Klaus, barring it with a smug grin. The door shuddered as Klaus banged on it from the other side, his angry shouts muffled through the solid wood.

That done, Madoc set Kaia on the ground with a deep chuckle. “Sorry ‘bout that, Dragon, I just couldn’t help myself.”

“Couldn’t help yourself with what?” Kaia asked, the pain in her head nearly blotting out everything else.

“Never mind.” He guided her up the stairs with a gentle hand on her elbow. “Let’s just getcha to yer room. Everything else can wait.”

Kaia couldn’t agree more.


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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Three

A Parley

A sonorous clanging woke Kaia from a string of nightmares filled with burning villages and the keening Lost. She bolted upright in the dark room, her heart thumping and her clothes damp with sweat. Sleep still fogging her senses, her blurry gaze roved the blackness. Where was she? Where was Klaus? And who was ringing a bell in the middle of the night?

Then two paws and an insistent wet nose found their way into her lap. It’s okay, my girl, we’re okay.

Tangling her fingers into Gus’ thick red fur, Kaia’s eyes focused, and she took in the simple spartan room around her—a narrow bed, a round wooden table, a hearth, and the night peeking through the window. Oh yes. Direfent fortress. She wrapped her arms around Gus and buried her face into his neck with a groan, as if to escape the clanging. She could’ve really used a few more hours of sleep, even with the dreams. A harsh rapping at her door jerked her head up once more.

Still fully dressed in her tunic and leggings, Kaia’s stocking feet padded across the cold stone floor and opened the door.

Madoc stood in the hall, his face stern. “Come on then, Dragon. I think you’ll want to see this.” Not waiting for her response, he turned and strode down the hall.

Frowning, Kaia yanked on her boots, belted on her sword, and raced after him. Her mind still churned sluggishly as he led her down the stairwell and into the courtyard.

“Is it the Lost?” she asked. Drawn to yanaa as they were, it wasn’t unusual for them to trail after the Heirs.

“The bell rings when the Rastgol approach the river.” He turned through an archway, and a mob of armed soldiers straightened, already assembled to greet them.

“Oh.” Kaia’s shoulders relaxed. The Rastgol may have been a threat, but at least it wasn’t her fault everyone had been roused from their beds. This wasn’t her problem to fix. “Do you think they’ll attack?”

“No, they’ve asked fer a parley. And they’ve brought hostages.”

Kaia’s eyebrows shot up. “Does that happen often?”

His dark blue eyes caught hers, unreadable in the torchlight. “Never.”

Klaus shouldered his way through the crowd, covering a yawn with a hand. “Your scout tells me he saw only four Rastgol. I didn’t realize the Western Guard was so skittish these days.” Matching Kaia’s strides, he fell in beside her. He nudged her shoulder with his own before bending down to scratch behind Gus’ ears.

She smiled, the sight of him smoothing the tense lines of worry from her brow.

Not looking at Klaus, Madoc scowled. “The Rastgol are a shrewd and bloody-minded people. Ya can bet there are more of ‘em out there in the dark.” Madoc’s men parted before him as he strode through their ranks. He gestured to a handful, and they trailed along behind them. “If they even smell weakness, they’ll ford the river faster than ya can piss yer pants.”

Kaia glanced over her shoulder to see four warriors bristling with weapons bringing up their rear. “Is that what we’re here for? A show of power?”

“Guess again.” Madoc’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “After all, we’ve been doing plen’y fine without yer help so far.” He paused at the small wooden door in the outer wall and turned toward them. His gaze skated across the Heirs to the soldiers behind, and he raised his voice. “Now listen. The Rastgol haven’t asked to speak with us in years, but be on yer guard. It could be a ploy. We’ll meet ‘em on the bridge, and if there’s any sign of aggression, the bridge’ll be cut. Keep yer wits about ya or you’ll find yourself floating down the river. Understood?”

“Yes, Cap’n,” the men chorused.

“And we’re only allowed to bring four on the bridge, so you,” Madoc pointed at Klaus, “will not be seen.”

Klaus gave a mocking salute. “Yes, Cap’n.”

“What of the hostages?” Kaia asked.

Madoc snorted. “Don’t worry about them, girl.” He turned and opened the door. “If they die, it’ll be a better fate than what the Rastgol have planned for ‘em.”

Swallowing, Kaia felt the blood drain from her face. She hesitated as he strode out into the open, his men close on his heels.

Klaus bent toward her ear. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Firefly.” He squeezed her hand. “You won’t see me, but I’ll be right next to you.”

 “It’s not me I’m worried about.” Licking her lips, she put a hand on Gus’ head. “Stay here, Gus.”

Gus whined, his feet pawing anxiously at the ground, but did as he was told. Come back soon, my girl.

His eyes soft, Klaus squeezed her hand once more before disappearing into the night air. “No need to worry,” he whispered again. The soft press of his unseen lips against her brow prompted a reluctant smile.

Then with a slow, deep breath, Kaia stepped out of Direfent’s protective arms. The fortress balanced not twenty paces from the edge of the steep embankment, and a long rope bridge stretched across the lazily flowing river dividing the dark sea of grass.

Two of Madoc’s men waited to either side of the bridge posts, blades already drawn and ready to cut the lines at the whiff of trouble. Madoc stood with the other two on the suspended planks of the narrow bridge, wide enough for only two to walk side by side. Kaia’s gaze followed the bridge across the broad river to the torch held aloft on the other end. Even from a distance, she could make out four broad-shouldered figures towering over two frailer ones kneeling on the ground.

A shiver crawled along her spine. Two hands squeezed her shoulders, and a warm breath tickled her ear. “Come on, Firefly.”

With a nod, Kaia strode off toward the bridge. She filed in behind Madoc’s two soldiers, but he pointed to his side. “Nope. Dragon, I want ya here next to me.”

Kaia’s brow wrinkled as she obliged. “You know, I’m all right with a sword, but without any Lost here, I would’ve thought you’d prefer a soldier.”

“I figured ya’d want to be here.” Madoc lifted his torch higher and waved it back and forth, its flames blurring. A figure on the other side did the same and started forward across the bridge. “Since they want to talk about you after all.”

Kaia’s stomach sank as she followed Madoc across the creaking bridge. A gentle summer breeze flowed along with the sloshing river beneath them, and Kaia kept one hand on the taut rope that held them in. The bridge swayed as the Rastgol strode across it, dragging two poor souls behind them.

“They’re huge,” Kaia whispered.

Madoc nodded. “They force their kiddies to kill the smaller, weaker ones, so yer typical Rastgol is a head taller than a big Okarrian.”

Kaia’s hand moved to the hilt at her waist. “Is that all?”

Madoc snorted, his face hard. “Not even close. The scars on their faces boast their kill tallies, and they believe that drinking the blood of their slain enemies grants ‘em their strength.”

Her stomach sank a little deeper with his every word. She never dreamed of a day when she would prefer to face the Lost. “So, what do you want me to do?”

“Don’t get close. Don’t let yer guard down. And don’t ever underestimate ‘em.” Madoc halted several paces shy of a white flag tied to the thick rope railing. “I’ll talk, and we’ll leave as quick as possible.”

Kaia nodded and glanced over her shoulder at the two other soldiers once more, wondering if Klaus stood unseen behind them. But what good could he be back there on such a narrow bridge?

Facing forward again, her gaze caught on the hulking warrior now standing at the white marker, and she got her first good look at a Rastgol. He stood at least two heads taller than her, the torch in his meaty hand illuminating his ruddy, freckled scalp. Small sharpened bones pierced his earlobes and hung around his neck and ankles. Dark brown eyes glared from heavy eyebrows, and muscles bulged from every inch of his body underneath the furred hide of his armor. His bulk took up nearly the entirety of the rope bridge, hiding his companions behind him. But perhaps the most striking thing about him was the legion of scars that marked every inch of his exposed skin. The small white strikes covered his cheeks, forehead, neck, and even the backs of his fingers.

This man was a killer.

And he was proud of it.

“My name’s Madoc, Cap’n of the Western Guard,” Madoc called out. “What do ya wish to discuss?”

The Rastgol’s words were slow but clear as a mountain stream, fanged with the sharp burr of a strange accent. “To offer you t’safety from our god-pleasing raids.”

Kaia cocked her head. He wished to discuss peace? That didn’t sound like the war-hungering barbarians Madoc had described.

Madoc laid a hand on the hilt of his sword. “In exchange fer what?”

The Rastgol’s gaze slid to Kaia. “We want t’fire-bringer.”

Kaia tensed, biting her lip. They must have seen her blaze at the village yesterday. But why would they want her?

“She’s not fer bargaining,” Madoc replied calmly.

“Of course, you would t’say that.” The Rastgol reached behind him and yanked their two hostages forward.

Nausea roiled in Kaia’s belly at the sight of them—a boy and a girl only a few years younger than her, their hands bound behind them. They stared at the ground, shaking in the Rastgol’s shadow, their angular bodies sharpened with obvious starvation.

“Would you prefer t’slaves in exchange instead? These t’are but a sampling. You could name your number.”

“She’s not fer bargaining,” Madoc said again.

“Ah, but t’perhaps she is not so selfish?” The Rastgol turned his ice-chip gaze to Kaia. “What of it, Fire-bringer? Would you t’like to save twenty lives? That would t’please your god, no?”

Madoc turned to her, everything about him relaxed, as if they were bartering for trinkets at a summer market instead of lives in the dark of night. “They’re gonna try to drink yer blood to get yer Dragon fire.” He gestured to the bones hanging from the Rastgol’s neck. “And he might even wear yer finger bones around fer good luck.”

She looked at the children trembling in front of her with hollow eyes, and Mackie’s dead body blazed through her mind. Mogens brandishing her father’s mutilated face in a similar bargain flashed through her thoughts. From behind her, Klaus’ invisible hand squeezed her wrist. She’d been a fool once, but she would not make the same mistake twice.

Kaia swallowed, sweat beading on her temple. “I will not go.”

The Rastgol nodded. “We will have you t’one way or the other. But since these slaves are not worth t’saving…” The Rastgol raised his foot and planted it on the boy’s back, pinning him to the bridge. “I suppose it is t’best to be rid of them.”

With that, he took his torch and dug it into the boy’s back. The boy’s tortured squeal shattered the night air, turning Kaia’s blood to ice. “Stop!” Kaia stepped forward, but Madoc grabbed her shoulder even as Klaus’ hand tightened on her other wrist. The scent of burning flesh assaulted her senses, and her jaw clenched. They couldn’t just stand by and do nothing.

The Rastgol lifted the torch, but the boy continued to scream in agony. “Ah, did you have a change of t’heart?”

Before Kaia could find her words, Madoc answered instead, “If that’s all ya wanted to discuss, this parley’s over.” Madoc took a step backward, pulling Kaia along with him, his eyes never leaving the Rastgol.

The Rastgol cocked his head. “So t’is.” Lifting his huge booted foot, he brought it down on the boy’s neck with a crunch. “Then let t’blood flow.”


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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Two

Direfent

Kaia’s muscles cramped as Madoc pushed them hard across the empty plains, the dusk giving way to night before they arrived at the fortress of Direfent nestled into the crook of the wide Faveno river. A dense thicket of brick houses and shops grew up around the broad stone walls that surrounded the inner compound. A handful of square, sturdy buildings glowered in the night from above the walls, with higher towers overlooking the narrow rope bridge that ran across the sluggish water. Faveno’s far bank marked the beginnings of the wild country, but it looked much the same as western Okarria—fields of long golden grass peppered with the occasional stubby tree.

With a yell and a whistle from Madoc, the iron gate creaked open before them to reveal the torchlit courtyard—a rectangle of grass hemmed in by the stone buildings. In moments, a gaggle of eager young hands swarmed around them, offering to take their mounts. Dismounting, Madoc barely paused to toss his reins to a waiting stable hand before striding away.

“Come on then,” he said in his rough voice, waving a hand in their direction. “I ‘spect yer hungry.”

Gus ran after Madoc with a happy bark before Kaia even had a chance to get her bearings. “Does he ever take a second to catch his breath?” Kaia dismounted and rewarded Sunflash with a piece of dried periapple from her pocket.

“Madoc? Certainly not,” said a nearby stable girl, taking Sunflash’s bridle with an admiring smile. “He’ll leave ya behind if ya don’t hurry.”

Leaving Sunflash in the care of the girl, Kaia turned to where Klaus waited beside the door Madoc had disappeared into. Though exhaustion pooled in deep shadows beneath Klaus’ eyes and travel had rumpled his dark clothes, he stood tall with Odriel’s Tooth hanging from his belt. He beckoned her with a tilt of his head, a worn smile playing on his lips.

But even with his solid presence to ground her, Kaia’s eyes trailed up the towering structures of the fortress, feeling small and brittle beneath their stolid walls.

“So, have you been here before?” she asked.

A muted ruckus of laughter and talk filtered through the thick wooden door out into the night air.

“My father brought me here to train often when I was young.” Klaus followed her gaze around the still bustling courtyard. “And then I might’ve come back later to… test my skills.”

“No wonder Madoc is so fond of you.”

“It’s hard not to be.” Klaus opened the door for her with a smirk, and the noise unfurled like a cloak in a stiff wind.

Kaia’s stomach twisted at the sound of the crowd. “Do we have to go in?” She would just as soon have followed Sunflash into the stable and curled up on the hay.

“You mean you don’t want to go into a crowded hall filled with rowdy soldiers after riding for two days without rest?” Klaus leaned against the door jamb, playful sarcasm slicking his words. “But you were always so popular.”

“And you wonder why they don’t like you.”

“It’s a jealousy thing.”

“I’m eager to hear Madoc’s side of it.”

Anxiety rippled across Klaus’ brow. “You don’t want to hear about that. Besides, the more he talks, the longer you have to stay.”

“Hmm… you might be right there, but it’s going to come out sooner or later.” She smiled as he squirmed. “Let’s get this over with already.”

“That’s the spirit.” Klaus gave her a mock bow, gesturing with a hand. “After you, my lady.”

“Oh stop.” Kaia ruffled his hair and walked past him into the hall. The room was even bigger than she expected, with a dozen mismatched tables scattered from one end to the other. Soldiers crowded at each one, eating, knocking mugs together, or gathering around a hand of cards. Earthen steins decorated the walls above the bar at the far end, and the sizzle of a kitchen hissed through the adjacent batwing doors. The glow of firelight crackled around the room from torches, lamplight, and three separate fireplaces, while a handful of young servers darted in and out with platters and steins. A trio of gruff voices sang to a fiddle’s lively strings somewhere in the corner, and the smell of frying meat and tart cider saturated the room.

But even in the cheerful chaos, it didn’t take long for the Heirs to attract attention. A ripple of murmurs and nudges flowed through the noise as the sea of eyes turned toward them. Kaia stiffened, memories of acid-tongued villagers tensing her muscles. But before she could say anything, Madoc was beside them.

Stepping between the Heirs and the crowd, he waved at the rest of the hall. “Mind yer own business, ya sorry busybodies,” he called, baring his teeth in a broad smile.

With a chorus of husky chuckles, the soldiers called Madoc a few good-natured names of their own before returning to their chatter.

Madoc turned back to Kaia. “Don’t mind ‘em, we don’t have many pretty young lasses among our ranks, so don’t be afraid to tell ‘em to stuff their eyeballs back in their heads… or anywhere else.”

A blush heated Kaia’s cheeks as she looked at the soldiers once more and saw that Madoc might’ve been right. They had more curious grins on their faces than the furtive glances of fear or awe. Relief eased the tension from Kaia’s shoulders—this she could handle—she might even call it a pleasant change of pace.

With a small cough, Klaus took a step closer to her, placing his hand gently on the small of her back. She had to suppress a smile at the gesture. Though she and Klaus had been together for some time now, they rarely found themselves in the company of others, and especially not a crowd of strangers. This was new territory for them.

Madoc ushered them to a table in the corner already set with a trio of plates and mugs. Beneath one of the benches, Gus already gnawed on a buffalen bone the size of his head.

They had hardly sat down when Madoc got right to the point. “So ya followed the Lost here?”

“That’s what we said, isn’t it?” Klaus countered, taking a bite out of a hunk of bread.

Madoc took off his wide-brimmed hat, and Kaia was surprised to see he was younger than she had first thought him to be—maybe seven or eight years older than her own nineteen years. He regarded them with stormy blue eyes below his mop of dark waves. “That’s what ya said. But I’m thinking ya could be driving them west on purpose.”

“Why would we do that?” Kaia asked.

“Because no one lives out in the wild country. It seems like it would be the perfect place for them without having to go through the trouble of actually killing ‘em.” A husky edge in Madoc’s voice challenged her to contradict him.

“That’s a load of bosh,” Klaus said flatly.

Kaia narrowed her eyes. “When the Lost are raised, the worst part of the person’s soul is raised with it. The dark yanaa compels them to kill and destroy. Even if we drove them out, they would return.”

“Dark yanaa?” Madoc drummed his thick fingers on the table, releasing a long sigh. “So that’s why the Rastgol want them.”

“The… what?” Kaia turned to Klaus, her brow furrowed.

“You probably know them only as the barbarians,” Klaus explained. “A blood-worshipping, cannibalistic clan, they’ve mostly stayed on their side of the river after the monarchy defeated them in our grandparents’ time. But they still harry our borders with their raids.” Klaus gestured to Madoc dismissively. “Hence the Western Guard.”

Madoc nodded with hooded eyes. “They breed for strength, are mercilessly brutal, and are obsessed with yanaa. As ya’ve witnessed yerself, their raids have increased lately, and we suspect they’ve been… collecting the demons.”

Klaus’ mouth tightened. “But how could they control them? Do they have a necromancer?”

The blood drained from Kaia’s face as the memory of Lord Conrad driving his army of Lost across these very plains scorched her thoughts.

“With force? I don’t know. In their last raid, they set a score of them loose on a village, and then slaughtered the villagers as they tried to escape.” Madoc leaned back, crossing his muscular arms. “But perhaps Odriel sent ya here to burn two matches at once.”

With Gus snuffling at her side, Kaia reached down to pet him. “Two? The Lost and—”

“The Rastgol, of course,” Madoc finished for her.

The image of Conrad burning at her fingertips swirled with Mogen’s flame-scarred face. “The Dragon’s Rage was a gift to burn the Lost. I don’t use my fire on the living,” she murmured.

For a moment, Madoc stilled, arching an eyebrow at her. Underneath the table, Klaus squeezed Kaia’s knee.

“A… noble notion.” Something like amusement glinted in Madoc’s eyes. “But all the same, perhaps ya should stay a few days. At the very least, we could use yer help with the Lost streaming across the border, and we could provide sturdy walls, warm meals, and a soft place to sleep.”

Klaus and Kaia shared a glance, their exhaustion sitting between them like an unwelcome guest. Klaus gave her a tepid shrug. Though she much preferred just the two of them, if the Lost were here, this is where they needed to be.

Kaia turned to Madoc and nodded. “Just a few days.”

“Excellent.” Madoc clapped his hands together and stood, motioning to the nearest server. “Have a room readied for the lady, and a spot in the barracks for her companion.”

Klaus’ eyes slid to Kaia’s with the whisper of a smile. “Well, we really don’t need separate—”

Barracks.” Madoc pointed a stern finger at Klaus as he stalked away. “And that’s only because I’m feeling generous today, Thane.”

Kaia stifled a snort. “So are you going to tell me what you did to the leader of the Western Guard or do you want me to hear it from him first? I bet he has the better story.”

Klaus ran a sheepish hand through his dark hair. “I might have entered the Western Guard dueling tournament under a false name, slightly cheated in the final, and then turned down the prize of a kiss from Madoc’s younger sister.”

Kaia nearly spat out her cider, choking on a laugh. “Oh is that all? How did you turn her down?”

“Well, she was leaning toward me…” He winced. “And I didn’t terribly like what I was seeing so I… disappeared.”

Holding her sides, Kaia gasped with laughter. “No wonder he hates you.”

“I was only fifteen,” Klaus protested with a scowl.

Wiping the tears from her cheeks, Kaia nodded. “I can’t even blame him. Fifteen-year-old you was maddening.”

“Oh?” Klaus leaned toward her until his lips were only inches from hers, the smell of sweet cider tickling her nose. With slow, careful fingers, he tucked the copper braid hanging down her cheek back behind her ear. Golden flecks gleamed in his hazel irises as they glided from her eyes across her freckled cheeks, to settle on her lips. “And how am I at two and twenty?”

Suddenly breathless, Kaia’s face burned with heat, her pulse rippling under her skin in quickened beats. “Still maddening,” she whispered.

“Good.” He leaned back with his usual smirk and took another bite of his bread.

Kaia missed his closeness as soon as he drew away, still heady with his scent and warmth. Gus’ begging nose leaned into his lap, and Klaus ruffled his fur with a grin, his gaze always coming back to her in their endless dance.

“Definitely still maddening,” she breathed.

But it was a good madness.


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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter One

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!