Raging in fire,
the Dragon scattered foul ashes
And roared for more.
the Shadow slicked steel with judgment
And danced with death.
With more life to give,
the Time mended mind and flesh
And bore their pain.
– The Heir’s Way, Chapter 3, Passage 21
Aza didn’t want to kill anybody, but she would if she had to. The forest’s branches rustled around the moon-washed clearing, empty save for the small cabin slouching in the night’s embrace, as if trying to shrink away from her. With only a thought, Aza drew her yanaa from her center and let her shadows flow over her body. In a heartbeat, the color melted away from the world around her, and Aza disappeared from sight.
From deeper in the darkness, a familiar whisper called her from the Shadow Plane. “Azaaaaaaaaa.”
Her lips pressed into a firm line.
“Azaaaaaaaaaaaa,” the voice beckoned again, running like an icy wind through her thoughts.
She shook her head, ignoring the ethereal call as she walked toward the crumbling cabin and drew her black daggers. Each as long as her forearm, their weight sent a surge of adrenaline tingling through her fingers. No fear. No doubt. Only a cold anticipation sharpening her senses.
Ears straining, she could make out the rise and fall of heavy breathing from within. Outside, the horses shuffled nervously, sensing Aza’s unseen presence. They had the elegant height of purebred Faveno racers, and the fine leather saddles gleamed in the low light—nothing like the mulish, hungry mounts of the drunken highwaymen she normally dealt with. These belonged to hired blades.
Her gaze ran over the building’s rotting wood one more time. Two boarded windows scarred each side, with another higher up—probably indicating some kind of loft. But with no easy exit, the highwaymen wouldn’t have bothered going up there. Judging from the mounts, there were four swords inside—three asleep and one on watch, but they wouldn’t see her coming.
The prisoner would be bound, gagged, and shoved in a corner, like the other three they’d rescued in the past weeks. Aza rolled her shoulders, still stiff from nights of little sleep and the hard ride to catch up with these thugs. The pull of yanaa rippled through her muscles as she maintained her invisibility. Her gaze darted back to the tree line that hid the only eyes that could penetrate her Shadow Step. She could almost feel them boring into her shoulder blades—searching for her weaknesses.
She straightened, determined to give nothing away. Even to him.
The splintery door sagged to one side, as if already resigned to what she was about to do. While she detested making the obvious move, the element of surprise was too precious to waste, especially when there was a hostage involved. With one solid kick, the lock on the old door splintered with a crack as she burst into the dark room.
A dim lantern flickered in the corner, revealing a spartan room and a cold hearth. But instead of a watchman and three groggy thugs startled from sleep, a dozen pairs of eyes glinted in the weak light. Something soft and loose shifted beneath her boots, revealing her position. Odriel’s Teeth. They’d scattered ashes over the floorboards. A muffled yell drew her eyes upward just in time to see the net drop. Aza dove forward into the feet of one of the men, knocking him over. Heart thrumming, she stabbed a dagger into his leg, his scream cutting through the night.
Two of the men grabbed at the net while she ducked and buried her other dagger in a nearby belly.
She threw a knife just as another tackled her from behind. She wrenched him over her back into the other net man. Ripping her daggers free, she punched the steel into each before letting them fall.
Three, four, five.
Aza’s hot breath came fast and heavy, leaving only ashen footprints and blood in her wake as she whirled through the room. The highwaymen swung wildly, trying to hit a weaving shadow too fast for their steel.
“Don’t move!” a voice called from above. A bearded man shoved a wide-eyed little boy to the edge of the loft. “I’ll—
Aza flung her dagger at the man, finding his eye.
A man swung his sword where her blade had appeared, and she rolled closer to him, thrusting a knife into his thigh.
Another scrambled up the ladder toward the hostage, and Aza sank a blade into his calf before throwing him to the floor.
With most of their party dead or bleeding, one called the retreat. “Forget the job—that’s a demon.”
The men stumbled for the door, but one had the mind to grab a lantern on his way out. “If it’s a demon, let it burn like one.” He smashed the light against the wooden floor in the doorway, the flame catching easily on the dry-rotted wood and scattered straw.
Curses rattled through Aza’s thoughts as her only exit filled with fire. Racing up the ladder, she yanked her dagger from the dead thug’s eye and let her veil drop. The young boy jumped at her sudden appearance, his chest heaving with panic.
She cut away the gag and the ropes that bound his hands before sheathing her blades. “I’m here to help.”
He flinched as she grabbed him with a gloved hand. Coughing, she pulled him toward the boarded-up window, the black smoke already stinging her eyes and throat. Six warped boards crossed the shattered glass. She pushed the kid aside and drove her heel through the planks, once, twice, three times. Coughing now, she pulled the broken wood away and glanced down. No sign of the highwaymen, but she needed to move quickly before they had a chance to regroup.
She grabbed the boy again, raising her voice over the growling flames and his deafening fear. “Can you climb out?”
The boy didn’t move, sweat rolling down his cheeks and his chest pumping with erratic gasps. Not waiting for a response, she lifted his small frame carefully over the shattered glass on the sill, pushing his legs out the window first. Holding his wrists, she let him dangle for a moment, the sharp glass splinters pressing into her leather vest. “I’m letting go now. Roll when you fall, and you’ll be fine.”
Without giving him time to think, she released him. He landed with a yelp but scuttled away from the building. The structure shuddered, warning of its collapse. Turning around, Aza gripped the edge of the sill, glass shards cutting into her leather gloves, and back-flipped away from the cabin. She landed on her feet and rolled just as the building toppled in a shower of crackling sparks.
Panting, Aza looked for the child. Her roving eyes stilled on his pale face, whimpering in the paws of one of the thugs, a knife at his throat once more.
“Don’t you dare reach for that blade.” He dug his glinting steel into the boy’s skin, drawing red pearls.
Aza raised her hands—slowly, purposely reaching for the throwing spike hidden in the spool of her dark hair.
The man licked his lips. “Now, you’re going to—” With a sudden grunt, he sagged forward, blood seeping from his temple. The boy shrieked and scurried out from under the unconscious brute.
“I thought you wanted to do this on your own.” A shadow in black leather armor materialized from the darkness behind the boy. He sheathed his obsidian blade.
Aza crossed her arms, looking out into the billowing smoke. “I had it, Papa.”
He shook his head and reached out for the trembling child. “It’s all right now.”
“W-w-who are you people?” The boy looked from one to the other.
“I’m Guardian Klaus Thane, and this is my daughter, Aza.” Aza nodded, jaw still set, and Klaus flashed a wolfish grin, his hazel eyes glinting in the still-raging fire. The same eyes he had passed on to her. “We’re the Shadow Heirs.”
The boy swallowed, his voice but a whisper. “Odriel’s Assassins.”
♦ ♦ ♦
In the stillness of the deep night, Aza and Klaus sat at their fire while the boy snored gently on Klaus’ blanket roll. The forest trees crowded around them, the spring buds on their spindly branches not quite blocking out the winking stars above.
They’d bound the surviving cutthroats, and Klaus had sent a harehawk with a message for the Road Watchers to collect them. The Watchers were responsible for keeping the roads between the State-cities safe, but they were always asking the Heirs for aid. Aza stretched an arm across her wiry body and leaned her neck from side to side. After days of riding and the scuffle in the cabin, she could definitely use a rest, but the call from the Shadow Plane still needled her.
“You lost the advantage when you beat down the front door,” Klaus said, interrupting her thoughts.
Aza bristled. “What option did I have? The windows and the back were both boarded.”
“You could’ve made a distraction to draw them out.” He crossed his arms and leaned against a fat tree trunk. “If you had a scrap of patience, you could’ve waited to learn more.”
Aza stretched out her legs and leaned forward, touching her nose to her knees. “I thought they’d be asleep.” It had been a miscalculation, yes, but one that hadn’t mattered in the end. And she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. She never did.
“You assumed that an unknown enemy would be stupid.”
“In my defense, they usually are,” Aza replied with a shrug.
“Hubris is a weakness. There’s no reason to work alone if you don’t have to. You put the boy at risk for nothing.”
Aza straightened with a laugh. “Pot, kettle. Apple, tree, et cetera, et cetera.”
“I’m serious, Aza.”
Aza rolled to her feet to stretch her back. “So am I. We got the kid, and it all turned out sunny.”
Her gaze flicked to the sleeping child, and she thought back to his parents’ plea for his safe return. The villagers had said the boy was well known for his uncanny knack for spotting a lie. The last child they’d rescued could see in the dark, and the one before that could predict the weather. All children born with rare gifts—blessed by Odriel himself, people said. As a girl, Aza’s mother, Kaia, had known one of these Odriel’s Blessed, a boy who could speak to animals, but Aza had never met one herself. Their yanaa, that Odriel-gifted energy nestled within them, was weaker than the Heirs’, but it was unpredictable.
“Speaking of—this is the third kidnapping of an Odriel’s Blessed this season.” She absently ran a thumb over the long scar that streaked down her cheek like a tear stain. “What do you think is going on?”
“It could be anyone trying to collect power.” Klaus leaned back against his tree and closed his eyes with a sigh. “But I fear it has something to do with the Rastgol.”
A violent shudder shook Aza’s shoulders. The Rastgol clan bred for strength, craved battle as a religious experience, and often decorated themselves with the bones and other body parts of their enemies. The parts they didn’t eat, that is. With their unnatural stature and cruelty, sometimes it was hard to believe they were even human. Though they hailed from the lands west of the Faveno river, they constantly harried Okarria’s border with their barbaric raids.
“Why?” she asked, her voice a touch hoarse.
“The Rastgol believe they can consume the power of their enemies through their blood.” Klaus grimaced. “They hunt out the Odriel’s Blessed.”
Aza fingered the belt of throwing knives that crossed her chest. “But the Western Guard keeps the Rastgol from crossing the canyon, and we haven’t encountered any Rastgol.” Now, that would have been a real challenge.
“So, someone could be selling the Odriel’s Blessed to them.”
“Perhaps we should’ve waited and followed them back to the source.”
“And let the child suffer?” Klaus’ brow furrowed, his eyes flashing with sharp disapproval. “That’s not our way. We’re protectors first, Aza, not killers.”
Aza turned away so he couldn’t see her roll her eyes. He could call them whatever he wanted, but the two walked hand in hand. Wasn’t that one of the first lessons he had taught her? The path of the Shadow Heir was dark for more reasons than one. Sometimes, you had to take a life to save one. It set them apart from the Dragon and Time Heirs, and it was one of the reasons the Dragon Heirs never accompanied them on these tasks. Odriel had forged his Shadows with a different metal.
Klaus shifted against the tree. “We’ll check our ears in the cities for any rumors. Every predator shows its teeth eventually.”
Aza shrugged and sank down onto the grassy forest floor. No use arguing with her father when he had that hardened tone, but she’d be sure to ask her own sources. With that thought, her mind drifted back to the Shadow Plane—to the voice that called her.
“You should get some rest, Aza.” Klaus threw a branch on the fire. “I’ll take first watch.”
Aza nodded and laid her head on her saddle. She’d need some rest to be able to cross into the Shadow Plane later.
Not that she’d tell her father that.
Thanks so much for reading! The Idriel’s Children ebook is scheduled to launch in July and is available for preorder here. Or you can add it on Goodreads here. If you’re interested in a free ARC copy, feel free to drop me a line! And just a reminder, Burning Shadows, the follow-on novella to Odriel’s Heirs, will be published serially here at the end of the month. Thanks again for your support!