Book Review – Essence of Stone


The Essence of Stone by Haley Rylander is a sweeping, epic fantasy with intricate world-building and political intrigue. The plot essentially follows a city of elves as they try find the source of the strange, destructive earthquakes attacking their city and their source of Vierstone, the magical foundation of their society and their race. Simultaneously, they must navigate an alliance with the neighboring human kingdom, which promises them another source of Vierstone in exchange for their support in battle.

The story spans a wide cast of elven characters and dives deep into the politics and history of Vierstone, their world, and their people. The characters are likable and the writing was detailed and flowed with a rich, fantastical feel. However, the romantic elements were light for me, and the pacing for this epic felt a bit on the slow side. Of course, my general preferences lean toward a hearty helping of romance at *breakneck* speed, so if you’re looking for a lush world of elves and men, political maneuvering, and an interesting magic system with a sciency, hard set of rules, I recommend you give this one a look!

Thanks to the publisher for the free ARC in exchange for an honest review. Essence of Stone launches on May 14, 2022.

⭐⭐⭐1⁄2

Mmm. Books. Nom Nom. Tula says give me another!

Thanks for reading!

Audiobook Review – A Bad Day for Sunshine


Holy crap, I loved this book. A Bad Day for Sunshine follows Sunshine Vicram as she starts her first day as sheriff of the strange town of Del Sol.

It’s funny, the characters are amazing, the slowburn romance might kill you, the mystery elements keep you guessing, and even the quirky town of Del Sol comes to life.

As soon as I finished this audiobook (which is also fantastically narrated), I immediately put myself on the waitlist for the sequel as well as the author’s others books. Honesty, I’m so thrilled I don’t have to think about what my next audiobook is going to be for awhile, because it’s totally going to be Darynda Jones

Six brilliant stars, and I’ll probably be recommending this one to just about everybody.

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The only real problem with this book is it makes me want to stop everything else and just read!!!

Thanks for reading!

Audiobook Review – The Starless Crown


This one’s a little tough to review, because I’m sure there are a LOT of people that will love this book. It’s a well-written, expansive, multi-POV epic fantasy, with tons of detailed world-building and plenty of action to move along the 22 hours of well-narrated audiobook.

The Starless Crown follows a cast of characters as they unearth old magics and traverse their dangerous world in a bid to prevent the apocalypse amid kingdoms on the brink of war.

But I just couldn’t get into it. I had trouble connecting to any of the numerous characters. Although they were all likable enough, they all felt rather one-dimensional to me, and the relationships and dialogue between them felt a bit flat. So from that indifference, it was really hard to get invested in the plot. And in the end it just felt… long.

Honestly, if I hadn’t gotten this from Netgalley I think I would’ve DNF’d it around 25% … 22 hours is a pretty big time investment. I kept hoping to get drawn in, but this just wasn’t for me. If you’re a fan of the author and sprawling epic fantasy, then I’d definitely still recommend giving it a look though.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the free ARC

⭐⭐⭐¼

I was stuck at home with a mild case of COVID this week, so I definitely needed a book to escape into. But this one just… wasn’t the one I was looking for.

Thanks for reading!

Book Review – The Canary That Sang to the World


The Canary That Sang to the World is the fourth entry in The Panagea Tales and an excellent conclusion to series. This book finishes the epic saga in an intense, high-stakes closer. The crew is back together this one, and once again, it’s lovely to see these multifaceted, lovable characters banter and take on the world. I loved seeing the legendary bamf, Kazuaki, take center stage once again, and their final battles are a fitting, satisfying conclusion to the series.

However, I will say… *possible light spoiler ahead* 

If you’re looking for a feel-good, happily ever after ending… I might beware. This book is as heavy as the third entry. Death, loss, and grief play a prominent role, and the ending is firmly in the bittersweet category.

Absolutely recommend this book to anyone looking for a beautifully written steampunk epic featuring a cast of colorful characters in a dark, detailed world and heavy themes that take a bittersweet bite. I would definitely read more by McKenzie Austin in the future!

 ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 

A solid end to an intense series!

Thanks for reading!

Book Review – The Serpent that Swallowed Its Tail


The third book of The Panagea Tales, The Serpent That Swallowed Its Tail, follows Kazuaki’s crew after the climactic showdown at the end of the book 2, but I’ll keep this review short to try to avoid spoilers.

With the crew spread out, one prominent character noticeably missing, and Panagea, itself, trying to rearrange in the face of new world, Book 3 definitely takes on a slower, more morose tone than the last two books. This book tackles some heavy themes head on, and builds even further on the intricate world-building of the first two entries. The characters are more spread out here, and although they eventually connect in the end, their narratives feel much more independent in this book. Still, the story retains the epic scale and beautiful prose that makes the series stand out. I will say I did miss a certain missing character in this book, and I missed some of the crew interactions and comradery I loved in the first two.

A solid entry in the Panagea Tales that I would definitely recommend to fans of the first two, and one that definitely left me curious for Book 4!

 ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 

Epic, dark, and unique. Let’s see what book 4 brings!

Thanks for reading!

Book Review – The Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)


Okay, so to review.
Book 1: I thought the first half was boring, and the second sucked me in. 4.5 stars
Book 2: Totally got me with the side characters, the enemies-to-lovers romance, and the plot. 5 stars
And now here we are at book 3.

So… I jumped right into this book from Book 2, excited and ready, and for about the first 30% I was riveted… and then we ran into some problems. First, the romance seemed to overwhelm the plot, which isn’t super problematic, but the MCs were square in the honeymoon phase for pretty much the whole book. Their relationship didn’t seem to grow, and the smut was honestly kind of repetitive. The inside jokes that were cute in book 1 and book 2 (Miss Willa’s diary and Poppy’s neverending questions) felt stale here, and the plot as a whole just seemed to stall with lots of talking and not much doing. There were also a few plot points (won’t give away without spoilers) that also didn’t really work for me.

I actually hesitated reading this book with #4 not out yet since I thought I would be dying to get my hands on it. As it is, I think I’ll read it once it comes to the library, but I’m really hoping it has more to it then this one.

 ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 

There’s always hope for the next one!

Thanks for reading!

Book Review – A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire


Okay, so I had mixed thoughts on the first book (specifically I thought the first half was boring, and the second half was awesome), but it left off on a bit of cliff-hanger so I decided to give book two a try, and I was NOT disappointed.

I INHALED this book. Book two successfully intensified everything I enjoyed from book one. Although once again, I did think the start was a touch slow, I wasn’t bothered too much because I was already so invested in the characters. And the side characters really showed up here too in the best way. I absolutely loved Kieran. And this time, I loved learning about the world. The world-building definitely fleshed out and deepened here, but it was more seamlessly woven into book two.

It’s darker, it’s steamier (kind of veering into the weird, but this is a world of essentially vampires and werewolves so… you know), and in general, it’s just more awesome. Cas and Poppy are borderline dysfunctional and absolutely violent, but they seem so suited to each other, and their dynamic just totally works. If you’re unfazed by sex, violence, and language, and you enjoyed the second half of book one, then I wholeheartedly recommend. On to Book 3!

 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 

Modern day Wolven reporting for duty here.

Thanks for reading!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Ten

A Place to Rest

Intent on their quarry and blinded with bloodlust, the Rastgol flew into an ambush of raining arrows and flashing steel. But wounded and head-sore as she was, Kaia took in almost none of it. In seconds, two of Madoc’s men had her and Klaus by the arms, dragging them to the safety of the short bluff before jumping back into the slaughter. Though one-legged and bruised, Klaus still leapt to his feet with his blade drawn, ready to cut into any Rastgol that made it over their small ledge. But they didn’t have to wait long before the cheers of Madoc’s victorious soldiers echoed down the river, with no other casualties to be seen besides the battered Heirs.

At last, Klaus collapsed beside her, his bravado crumbling with an exhausted sigh. Scrapes and scratches covered his face and arms after his tumble from the horse. Still, he looked at her with a widening smile on his face. “Okay, so tell me, how did Madoc know to be waiting for you?”

Dizzy with pain and relief, Kaia squeezed her head with her hands in a vain attempt to keep it from spinning off of her shoulders. “You don’t think the huge smoke signal was enough warning?”

He chuckled and laced his fingers in hers. “Now he’s never going to let me live this down.”

“Ya got that right!” Madoc’s rough voice shouted gamely as he crested the ledge. “But at least tell me ya took care of our Lost problem while ya were on yer lil holiday.”

Kaia nodded. “They were Idriel’s Lost the Rastgol managed to shepherd together somehow.” She lifted her chin at the smoke curling in the horizon, the image of Mogens still burned into her mind. “But they’re gone now. So if you see any freshly raised, that will mean a new necromancer we’ll need to know about.”

“I must say, Dragon, I didn’t know if ya’d actually deliver on yer promise.” He gazed around the battlefield. “But torching an army of dead and cutting down the Rastgol cavalry on the same day?” He nodded approvingly. “And you even had time to drag Thane back with ya.”

Klaus picked up a pebble and threw it at Madoc, hitting him square in the chest. “I would’ve made it back if not for my busted foot.”

Madoc waved him off, swaggering in the glow of his victory. “Sure, Thane, whatever ya say. Just when ya go, be sure to leave the dragon here with us. We’ll take right good care of her.” He spread his arms. “After all, a dragon with an army atter back? Okarria could be no safer than that.”

Turning to Kaia, Klaus’ brow furrowed. “Did he ask you to stay?”

“He—” Kaia started, but a happy bark broke through her thoughts. Across the river, a red blur ran out of the castle walls, tearing down the bank.

“Oh no, Gus, wait there!” Kaia called.

But he would wait no longer. Gus hesitated for only a moment before plunging into the river, his legs beating the water furiously as he swam across. My girl! My boy!

Kaia started to stand to go after him, but Klaus put a hand on hers. “It’s okay, Firefly, he’s making it just fine.”

And sure enough, a few moments later, Gus ran up the near bank, whimpering with giddy joy. He leapt from Kaia to Klaus, wriggling and licking their faces. You’re here, you’re here, we’re here!

“There’s my Gus.” Kaia laughed as he shook off his thick red fur and sprayed them with river water. “Thanks for looking after him, Madoc.”

“We got along just fine, the pair of us. Seemed to make himself right at home,” Madoc said with a wink.

Klaus’ eyes narrowed.

“Enough, Madoc.” Kaia held up a hand, a stab of pain piercing through her skull. “Do you think you could spare a mender this time?” She glanced at Klaus with a weak smile. “My usual nurse looks a little banged up.”

“I s’pose ya’ve earned that much.” He gestured to Klaus with a dismissive hand. “And I guess we can let Thane in too.”

“Madoc, as soon as my foot heals, I want to see you in the training square,” Klaus said.

Madoc straightened. “You’re on, Thane.”

Klaus and Madoc continued their bickering while Kaia laughed and hugged Gus’ neck, soaking in the brief moment when they were safe, if only for a little while.

***

Kaia awoke at midday and made her way to the mess hall. Her sore muscles protested every movement, while her arm hung in a loose sling, but for the first time since they’d arrived, her feet were light and her mind was clear. The curving stairwell echoed with the boisterous shouts of the soldiers still celebrating their victory with food and music and cheer. But when she stepped into the cavernous dining hall, a wave of quiet whipped through the crowd as all eyes turned to her.

Madoc approached, his booming voice echoing across the silence. “Guardian Dashul, what ya did for us yesterday will not be forgotten. Here in Direfent we have a tradition—once ya’ve proved yerself in battle we say ya’ve earned your ale.” A boy handed him a red earthen mug already filled to the brim. “As such, yer mug will always hang over our fire, to show yer blade will always be welcome here with a hot meal and a stout drink.”

He thrust the mug into her good hand, and Kaia fingered the letters carved into the side, taking a moment to make out the word: Dragon. She chuckled softly.

Madoc raised his own mug. “To our very own Dragon, Odriel protect whatever fool dares challenge us now!” The soldiers raised their steins in a rumbling cheer, fists slamming their tables with wild abandon. “Drink up, Dragon.” With that, Madoc crashed his mug into hers, and she raised the drink to her smiling lips, trying not to spit out the foul concoction.

“You know it’s tradition to drink the whole thing,” Klaus said, leaning on a wooden crutch with a smile.

Kaia hid her grimace behind her mug. “You’ll help me right?”

“Not a chance,” he laughed.

She wrinkled her nose at him. “You’re just jealous you didn’t get a mug.”

Madoc held out a hand and took her by the elbow. “Now, my lady, I do believe there were a few things ya wanted to discuss.”

But Klaus knocked his hand away with his crutch. “You mean, my lady.”

Kaia’s eyes crinkled as she tried and failed to smother a grin.

“Oh, is that right? Last time ya tried to win a lady, I recall ya changed yer mind.” Madoc rubbed his beard with a bemused smirk. “And ya know, now that Guardian Dashul has met a room of real men, perhaps she’ll be changing her mind.”

Laughing, Kaia switched her mug to her sling hand, and looped her arm in Klaus’. “He speaks the truth, Madoc. We are a pair, the two of us.”

“So you say.” He shrugged, mischief still gleaming in his eyes. “But I haven’t seen any sparks between the two of ya, perhaps you’ll find—”

Then Klaus’ crutch was clattering to the floor, and his arms were around Kaia, his mouth on hers, and her back bending as he dipped her low in a deep kiss. Her arm wrapped around his neck as another wild cheer went up over the crowd—the whistling, banging whoops almost as loud as the first.

By the time Klaus let her up, Kaia had to hide the breathless blush of her smile against his chest. He curled his arm around her casually, pulling her tightly to him. “We are a pair,” he said, looking from Kaia back to Madoc. “So if you don’t mind, I’ll have the honor of escorting her to our table.”

Madoc threw his head back and laughed, long and deep. “Perhaps ya grew up all right after all.” Stooping, he picked up Klaus’ crutch and handed it to him.

Klaus accepted it and pressed his lips to Kaia’s forehead. “I may have had some help.”

Madoc’s grin glided to Kaia, and she smiled back.

***

Their food tucked away and the music faded to a dull roar, Kaia leaned on Klaus’ shoulder in a wash of contentment, her fingers stroking Gus’ long ears beside her. She looked up as Madoc slid into the chair across from them.

“Okay Dragon, this is my last deal. You can have the whole castle to yerself, and we’ll make you Cap’n—Cap’n Dragon! Doesn’t that have a ring to it?” His third stein sloshed in front of him, the other two showing themselves in the pink of his cheeks and the pitch of his voice.

Kaia laughed. “We already told you, Madoc, we’re only staying until we’re well enough to ride.”

“Bah!” Madoc waved his arms in the air. “Ya can’t say it wasn’t nice having some real muscle to back up just the two of ya.”

Klaus exchanged a glance with Kaia. “Of course it was, Madoc. But we can’t spend all of our time here. You and your soldiers protect the west. We have the rest of Okarria to cover.”

“I know it.” Madoc sighed. “You’re right of course, but sometimes I do miss the strength of a real Okarrian army, ya know?”

Kaia leaned forward in her seat, the seed of the idea that had been taking root finally flowering. “Exactly.”

Madoc and Klaus both looked at her. “Exactly?”

Kaia met their questioning gazes one at a time. “Two Heirs are all well and good, but we need more. When it comes to war, we’re lost without a real army at our backs. An army that doesn’t exist, because Okarria barely has enough soldiers as it is.”

“Right, but what do you want to do?” Klaus asked.

“I want to build a school. A place where people can train to defend Okarria should the time come. Just like when we were young, Klaus.” A wistful smile played on Kaia’s lips. “A Triennial for all, every year. Taught by you, and me, and the Dracour. We’ll teach them to fight and then send them on their way.”

Madoc let out a low whistle. “Ya think you could spare some of those swords for me?”

Kaia nodded. “If they’re looking for a place to do good, we’ll send them here, or to the Guards of the State-cities. That way, when we need warriors, we’ll know where to find them.”

“It’s a good idea.” Klaus bent his head closer to hers. “Is that what you really want?”

She squeezed his knee under the table. “We’ll still wander and aid where we can. But with a school, we’ll have a place to go back to. A place where we can rest and be safe for a time, while still helping our people.” She paused, biting her lip. “What do you think?”

“A damn good idea,” Madoc said, pounding the table with a large hand. Another soldier called to him, and he staggered to his feet, still waving a finger at Klaus. “I still have no idea how a woman like that puts up with a man like you.”

Klaus waved him off, his gaze still on Kaia’s. “I’m in.” He took her hand in his and kissed the inside of her wrist. “When do we start?”

Kaia’s eyes flashed. She could already see the stone walls of the school take shape in her mind. It would be their place of rest—their home. Nestled in the Naerami mountains, a short ride from her fierce Dracour teachers, they would attract students from the land over. They would come to learn from the Heirs, and they would leave with knowledge and strength and purpose.

She cocked her head at him. “Think we can have it ready for the next Triennial?”

“Well, you know I kind of have a standing date for the Triennial, so I might be a little distracted.” He tickled her side with a smirk.

“Oh yeah?” Kaia laughed. “Well, you better watch out, because your date might just catch you by surprise the next time around.”

“She always surprises me.” He pulled her closer. “In the best ways.”

And there, on the edge of the wild country, surrounded by steins of awful ale and the tuneless warbling of raucous soldiers, Kaia’s heart filled with the warmth and safety of love. With a love like this, they could raise mountains.

And they would.


Thanks so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed Burning Shadows. If you have time to leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your favorite book site, I would be so grateful to any words you’d be willing to leave. Even just a line or two can make a huge difference. Reviews are vital for any author, but as an indie author especially, encouragement from readers like you keeps me going and gives these stories wings. If you’re interested in reading more, you can find the first chapter of Idriel’s Children here. You can also connect with me on Twitter or Instagram @HayleyReeseChow.

Burning Shadows: Chapter Nine

Light the Match

The early dawn light crept across Nathollus’ thick red walls, lighting them in a fiery glow amidst the endless plain of brittle yellow. Kaia moved swiftly through the shoulder-high grass in the morning quiet, the cattle pen before her filled with at least a thousand of Idriel’s dead. With their armor, weapons, and the green sheen of yanaa swirling around their clean-picked skeletons, their origins were easy to identify. The dead raised by human necromancers were usually shabbier, poorly armed with their bodies still rotting. These were the progeny of the demon Idriel, the children he had meant to avenge him.

But still, the question arose, how had the Rastgol drawn them here? How were they controlling them? Even as Kaia asked the questions, she knew the answer somewhere deep inside of her. Mogens had called them. She had always thought Conrad was the only one with the power of necromancy, but perhaps she had been wrong. There had always been something deeply unnatural about Mogens… but if he had really survived her dragon fire, then it was not too far a stretch to believe he had some power of necromancy.

She shook her head. That would have to wait. She didn’t have time for guesses. If new Lost rose after they destroyed these, then that would be a new problem—provided they survived this one.

First, she needed to steal two horses while drawing as little attention to herself as possible. And the easiest way to do that was to unseat two riders. Inwardly, she cursed the buffalen that had mangled Klaus’ foot. Stealing was definitely on the Shadow Heir’s list of duties—not hers.

Her gaze skated to a nearby clay outbuilding where smoke rose from the chimneys. A giant smokehouse judging by the scent of roasting meat on the wind. She cocked an eyebrow. An easy place to accidentally catch fire.

Pulse thrumming in her ears and her ribs aching, Kaia crept toward the smokehouse with a careful eye on the Rastgol guards. Two patrolled the Lost paddocks while another was stationed at the door to a smokehouse that faced the pens. Although the building looked to be built with some kind of clay bricks, the door and the roof were both made of wood. Still, she needed to be fairly close to start the fire, or else she’d give away her position. She could send a blaze through one of the fireboxes piped into the building, but they were out in the open, in full view of the guards.

Still searching for options, Kaia gave the smokehouse a wide berth and approached from the rear to find a conveniently unguarded back door, albeit one with a heavy lock. She breathed a sigh of relief. Locks she could do. Moving to the door, she produced a hot blue flame from one of her fingers and melted the heavy iron. The blaze had to be big enough to attract attention. Setting the wooden roof on fire from the inside would be her best bet.

She opened the door, and the scent of smoke and meat flooded out. Kaia let the flame in her hand grow, ready to thrust her fire into the ceiling, when she caught sight of the meat hanging from the rafters. Nausea wrenched her stomach. Where she had been expecting legs of buffalen to be hanging from the ceiling, full human bodies dangled instead, their faces frozen in horror. Men, women, children… hung naked and hairless in the smoke like raw specters, their skin charred and red.

Kaia retched, the horror nearly paralyzing her as tears pricked her eyes. This was the worse fate that Madoc had mentioned. She tore her eyes away.

These truly were monsters.

Gagging again, Kaia sent her gush of flames into the rafters, enveloping the Rastgol’s victims with it. At least she could provide them this dignity, however small. With that, she swung the door closed, using every bit of her self-control not to slam it—not to blast this building into cinders.

She sucked in deep gasps of clean air as the image burned itself forever into her mind. Another gruesome memory that would haunt her nightmares for the rest of her life. Another one she’d never be able to erase. Breath rattling in her chest, she wiped her eyes. She had to stick to the plan. They had to get out of here.

Behind her, the smokehouse was already crackling to life. She had only a matter of seconds to find cover before the guard raised the alarm. Swallowing her revulsion, Kaia ran toward the tall grass just as the first guard shouted, “Fire in t’smokehouse!”

Kaia looked over her shoulder, trying to gauge the response… and nearly ran straight into a trio of Rastgol riders. Odriel’s teeth.

For a moment, Kaia wasn’t sure who was more surprised, she or the Rastgol. But they recovered first.

“An escaped t’slave,” said one, drawing a curved sword.

“Must be the t’one that set fire to the smokehouse,” said the other.

And that was all Kaia had time for. Now that they’d discovered her, she had no choice but to play her hand. Kaia lifted two palms and released a crackling gush of flames into the air. The horses screamed, their eyes rolling. One bolted, another reared, and the third, shockingly, snapped at her with its strong teeth. The one on Kaia’s left flailed so violently it fell onto its back, the rider beneath it. But the one on the right pawed at the ground, its rider drawing his sword.

Kaia dodged as the steel sliced down on her and grabbed the arm of the Rastgol. Wrenching her body, she threw him out of the saddle into the dirt.

He rolled to his feet in a breath, sword slashing. Kaia ducked and weaved, her fingers finding the knife at her belt. She let the Rastgol take another slash and darted inside his guard, burying the blade in his middle before ripping it to one side, just like she had practiced with Klaus so many times. Still, disgust wriggled through her bones as the blood dripped from his belly. She freed her blade and let the man crumple to the ground.

Turning quickly, she grabbed the reins of the strangely stolid horse, its ears pinned peevishly as it pulled against its halter.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Kaia said breathlessly, even as its rider lay bleeding out behind her. The other groaned on the ground while his mount shied away from him. She ran over and grabbed its reins too. “I’m not going to hurt you.” She patted her breeches for something, anything, she could use to win the horses and found the dried periapple slices she usually kept for Sunflash. “How about a treat, huh?”

The shy one took the offering immediately, but its eyes were still wide with nervousness. Still pulling at its halter, the braver one eyed her suspiciously while Kaia continued to stroke its neck. This was the one she needed. She grimaced at the spur scars gouging its flank. “I’m going to get you out of here, okay, brave girl? I just need a ride.” Kaia closed her eyes, trying to communicate with every fiber of her being that she meant no harm.

Perhaps the horse understood her, or perhaps luck was on her side, but the mare lipped the periapple from her palm. With a shaky sigh of relief, Kaia climbed into the saddle, still holding the reins of the other gelding. She tugged on them to make sure he would follow.

Shouts rang through the air in earnest now as the Rastgol tried to extinguish the burgeoning fire with shovels of dirt. Time was running out. Kaia leaned down and patted the mare’s neck. “We’ll have to be fast.”

With a sharp yell, she urged the mare into a gallop straight toward the Lost, the gelding racing along close behind. The gazes of the Rastgol turned to her, and a few arrows began to whistle down from the ramparts. The time for stealth, or her attempt at stealth anyway, was over. And strangely, the realization brought a wash of relief, rinsing the tightness from her muscles.

Now she could do what she did best. Guiding the mare as close to the pens as she dared, she coiled her yanaa within. The Lost churned toward her, whatever power that held them cracked by her presence as they overflowed the paddock, crawling out like a mass of furious mud ants. She thought of the burned village, and the Direfent soldiers, and the bodies in the smokehouse. With those images roiling behind her eyes, she balled all of her worry, anger, and sorrow, into a burning inferno of emotion. And then she unleashed it.

The blast cascaded out from her hand in an explosive tidal wave, devouring the Lost in its path. The gelding whinnied behind her, but still it ran on. Kaia screamed as she pressed even more into her flames, channeling every scrap of yanaa she could and letting it surge from her fingers as the mare charged along the fence line, all eyes on her as she set the Lost ablaze. The fire caught on the dry grass and licked up the clay walls of the fortress, incinerating the dark eyes, the gaping toothy mouths, and the last skeletal bodies crumbling in its heat. Only then did she let her hand drop.

As the mare sped her away from the crackling wildfire, Kaia chanced one last look at the carnage she had caused. The Lost burned and the Rastgol ran frantically this way and that, unsure whether to deal with the fire or the girl that had caused it, but amidst all of the smoke and flame and chaos, one figure stood stock still. Staring at her. Skin festering, eyes growing green, and mouth gaping in a lipless grin. Bile bubbled up Kaia’s throat, her mouth sour with the metallic tang of fear. Even as he shrank in the distance, Kaia knew his rotting form, fresh from her nightmares.

Not Lost. Not Rastgol.

Mogens.

Another volley of arrows rained down just behind Kaia, and she whipped forward, her heart pounding. She glanced back once more but Mogens was gone. Had she imagined it? Should she go back? But she couldn’t spare another thought as a handful of Rastgol riders charged across the plain toward her.

No time. She had to get Klaus and get out of there before—

Another torrent of arrows whizzed by her ear, and she held up a flat shield of protective fire. A line of riders streamed out of the main gate, scores of warriors cutting across the grass toward her.

She grimaced, trying to judge the distance between the riders and the tree where Klaus leaned against the trunk. At this rate, they would intercept her before she could reach him. Apparently, a stable full of burning dead wasn’t enough chaos for them.

She sucked in a deep lungful of burning air, sweat already pouring from her brow, and held out her heavy hand once more, the yanaa sucking the energy from her muscles. Pointing her fingers away and to the rear, she let fire gush into the dry yellow grass.

The blaze continued as she charged straight for the riders, but they did not flinch at the walls of flames that wound behind her. In fact, judging by the metal plating on the front of the mounts, it looked as though the riders were prepared to ram straight into her. They thundered closer under the rising sun, and sweat stung Kaia’s eyes as she took them in. Grins split their scarred faces and the freckled skin of their heads gleamed in the early light. Underneath the vibrations of hooves, the clacking of their bone necklaces punctuated the cacophony.

Kaia gritted her teeth. Almost… there.

“Kaia!” Klaus’ shout nearly cut through her concentration, and she turned the mare sharply across the Rastgol front lines, dragging her sheet of flames with her. As well trained as the Rastgol horses may have been, even they wouldn’t run straight into a sparking screen of fire. They pulled up short, rearing, shrieking, and snapping at the sudden heat.

Kaia allowed herself a small victorious smile. They were cut off. The blaze wouldn’t hold them forever, but it would buy them time. Though she was panting now, Kaia continued dragging her flaming barricade even as she turned toward Klaus. The more fire between them and the Rastgol, the better.

Finally, four horse-lengths from Klaus, she released her fire and slowed the horses.

“Don’t stop,” Klaus shouted, hobbling on one foot out into the grass. “There’s more behind you.”

Kaia barely had time to argue before she was upon him. Grabbing the saddle of the still running horse, his muscles tensed in his arms and shoulders as his good foot found the stirrup and he swung his bad leg over. In a breath, he was astride the beast, still racing away from the flames.

“Well, that was impressive,” Kaia gasped, her chest still heaving as she threw him the reins.

“The perks of growing up on a buffalen farm.” Klaus looked over his shoulder, worry still etching his face. “It’s nearly a half day’s ride back to Direfent, I’m not sure that’ll hold them for long. Even if we make it to the river, we won’t make it across in time.”

Kaia twisted in the saddle, her clothes damp with sweat, to ensure their buffer of flames still churned behind them. “We just need to make it to the banks. If they get too close, I still have flames to spare.”

But two hours later, Kaia could not say the same. She had driven the Rastgol back over a dozen times, her horse shook beneath her, and her body weighed like lead in the saddle.

“It’s just up ahead, Firefly,” Klaus urged. “I can see Direfent from here.”

Sweat dripped from Kaia’s hair as she followed his gaze to the stone walls in the distance. They just had to make it to the banks.

Klaus peered over his shoulder, and his gaze hardened. “But we have another two dozen riders coming in from the north.”

Kaia turned in the saddle, her throat raw from her heavy breathing. “You go on ahead. I’ll take care of it. These will be the last ones.”

“Don’t get too close,” he yelled as she peeled off toward their attackers.

Her energy fading fast, but with Direfent in the offing, she only had to buy a few more minutes. Holding out a hand, she gathered the fire within her. Thoughts of Klaus, injured and fleeing behind her, fed the flames crackling through her veins. She released the blaze in an explosive blast, the hungry roar of the dragon fire tearing through the grass and knocking the riders from their screaming horses.

The horses scattered, and Kaia quenched her flames. They had done it. Now they just had to make it the last—

A figure leapt through the wall of fire in front of the mare, and the horse collided with the man in a sickening crash of muscle and bone, vaulting Kaia from the saddle.

For a moment, the wind whistled in her ears, and then her body slammed into the ground. Air flew from her lungs as pain jolted from her head to her fingers, and black edged her vision. But the panic kept her tethered to consciousness. Ears ringing and vision still blurry, Kaia stumbled to her feet. My… horse. Where’s… the horse?

But there was only a tangled mass of bodies on the ground. The man’s sword had gone straight into the horse’s neck, but it hadn’t saved him from the crush of the beast’s momentum.

Kaia tried to lift her hands to her face, but only one moved. Her other shoulder hung at an odd angle, and pain screamed through her with every movement, scattering her thoughts. Fire snapped at her back along with the hoofbeats of horses and the yells of men. It wouldn’t be long before the Rastgol found their way around the flames.

East. She had to go east. Back to Direfent. Madoc was waiting for them.

She staggered toward the hope of Direfent, and agony shot from her shoulder through the rest of her body. At this rate, she’d never be able to cover the ground in time. Was there somewhere she could hide? How long would it take Klaus to—the sound of hoofbeats was suddenly too close. Kaia turned to meet her new opponent, fire filling her good hand.

But then Klaus’ familiar form came into focus as he slid from his saddle, and she let the fire wink out in a flash of relief. He limped toward her, his worried face filling her doubled vision. “Are you okay? I saw you fall.”

“My… shoulder,” Kaia rasped.

Klaus put his hand on it, and a rattle of pain ricocheted through her body. “Yeah, I’ll have to pop it back in.”

Kaia’s eyes widened. “You have to what?”

“Don’t move.”

“Wait!”

But Klaus had already yanked, and Kaia screamed as her vision flashed black with pain once more. His hand steadied her as she swayed on her feet, but surprisingly, the pain had subsided to more manageable levels.

“That’ll do you for now.” With hands at once urgent and gentle, he helped her onto his blowing horse. He pulled himself into the saddle behind her just as a volley of burning arrows flew through the blaze. Klaus covered Kaia’s head with his arms, and the horse took off with a terrified scream.

More arrows fell around them as the gelding raced toward the river. The poor beast made it within sprinting distance of the banks before an arrow found the mare’s flank. The horse bucked and reared, sending Kaia rolling into the dirt once more, vision spinning, and head splitting. But this time Klaus was right there beside her, and with the Rastgol pounding across the field, the adrenaline blotted out Kaia’s pain.

“We’ll have… to run,” she said through heavy breaths, already rising to her feet.

“We should stay and fight,” Klaus countered, balancing on his good foot as he reached for his blade.

“No.” Kaia pulled his arm over her shoulders and half dragged him across the grass. “We can make it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Klaus’ eyes gleaned the landscape, even as he hobbled along beside her. “And what if they have scouts waiting for us?”

“They won’t,” Kaia choked out, her vision swimming as she tried to focus on keeping herself and Klaus upright. “Madoc will be there.”

“I don’t see Madoc.” Klaus looked behind them. “Odriel’s Teeth. There are at least a hundred now.”

“Just keep going.” Though Kaia’s muscles screamed disobediently, pain lancing from a dozen different places, she kept on, Direfent rising taller and taller among the grass. The hush of the river tickled her ears now. Madoc had better be there.

“Kaia, they’re almost on us!” Klaus yelled over the war drum of so many hooves, the dust of it staining the air. He pulled against her, trying to get her to stop, to turn, to fight.

With one last burst of energy, Kaia threw them forward into the grass, the sharp hooves of the horses only seconds away. “NOW MADOC!” she screamed.

And in a raucous war cry, the soldiers of Direfent rose from the grass and answered.


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 Eight

Into the West

Kaia jogged through the rustling shoulder-high grass, her gaze scouring the landscape as she cut west. Urgency lent strength to her legs as she waded through the early dawn. Stubby trees dotted the sun-streaked expanse while waves of rolling hills loomed in the near distance. A dry breeze rustled the morning’s early hush through the stretching plain, but it carried no clues of Klaus’ whereabouts.

She had crossed the river to the south of Direfent, and Madoc had pointed her along the fork in the river, down the stream to the Rastgol stronghold of Nathollus. The same way he’d steered Klaus. But that was all the guidance she could get. It had been two days since she’d last seen Klaus, and even on foot, he could cover a lot of ground.

She adjusted the small pack on her shoulders, a clammy sweat clinging to her forehead as she considered what she would do if the Rastgol scouts discovered her. Would she run? Fight? How many could she handle on her own? And what if the Lost found her? If she burned them, the Rastgol were sure to find her.

Her only option was to move as quickly as she could, and get out of there even faster. Letting her feelings and thoughts dry up with scant morning dew, Kaia focused on putting one boot in front of the other, stooping low to stay under the cover of the swaying blades of grass. The plains swelled into low hills, and she skirted a herd of gazelbras leaping in flashes of gold and brown stripes.

She tried not to think about what she would do if she didn’t find Klaus. How long would she look before she was forced to turn back empty-handed? Her heart clenched at the thought and her boot slid into the river shallows, startling a flock of pink-horned storks from their nearby bed of reeds.

Her hands balled into fists with another wave of anger. How dare he leave her alone like this without even the common decency to return when he promised? He better have a good excuse for staying out here, at least. She was already mulling over the choice words she would say to him when she finally found out what had kept him—no matter how long it took. She would search for Klaus until she found him… alive or dead.

Night was falling again before Kaia found Nathollus, and any worries she had of missing it were completely washed back down the river. It was easily twice as large as Direfent. The fading sun cast long shadows from the thick red walls of clay that surrounded the compound. Fires burned from every towering guard post as if to announce its presence to the stars, and even from a distance, Kaia could make out the silhouettes of hulking guards walking behind the turrets. The buildings must have been small though, for Kaia could only see the walls and their warriors. But from what she knew about the Rastgol, perhaps that’s all they wanted her to see—the defenses, the warriors, the arms. Maybe that’s all they were—muscled creatures of death that strode out of the hills fully formed.

That was all well and good, but where was Klaus?

Kaia knelt in the mud, searching in vain for tracks in the failing light—as if Klaus would be clumsy enough to leave tracks in the first place. She, on the other hand… Kaia’s gaze swept along the soft river banks toward the way she had come. Well, she had kept to the shallows the best she could and would just have to hope for the best.

Because she needed to get closer.

Her stomach twisted, but she could see no way around it. If the Rastgol had captured… or killed Klaus, surely the gossip would fly from tongue to tongue. She just needed to get near enough to hear it. And not get caught. If she had to use the dragon fire for any reason, the Rastgol would be on her in minutes, chasing her back to Direfent. But she couldn’t leave without Klaus. There was no room for mistakes.

Squeezing the smooth iron hilt of her sword for reassurance, she moved toward the Rastgol torches beckoning to her in the night. Glancing over her shoulder, she quailed inwardly. Now that she was leaving the safety of the water at her back, she could be ambushed on all sides. And there were sure to be Rastgol sentries hiding in the dark.

Luckily, the years of training with an invisible Shadow Heir had sharpened her other senses. She pressed her ears and nose to the wind, sifting through its contents for anything out of the ordinary. The shuffle of a small animal, the croak of another, a faraway grunt of a larger creature. The scent of smoke, river mud, and below that… yes she could just faintly smell it… the rancid stench of rot—of the dead.

She quickened her pace. The Lost were almost certainly drawn to Klaus. If she could find them, they would lead her to him. She just needed to find them before the Rastgol found her. Stifling a groan, she wiped the sweat from her forehead with a sleeve. What a ridiculously awful plan. This was why they didn’t split up. Klaus was the one with the plans.

The winds shifted ever so slightly, and a deep rumbling carried across the plain. Thunder? Kaia crouched lower, straining her ears, but when she put her fingers to the ground, she felt it instead—a trembling of the soil. Which could only mean something was moving… a big something.

Though she could barely see anything above the grass, her head swiveled as she sensed its direction. A barrage of grunting rumbled through the air, and she gasped with sharp realization—it was not just one something. It was a herd of big somethings. And they were carving up the river bank with the furious drumming of many feet.

Swearing under her breath, Kaia turned and raced through the long grass, the blades lashing at her arms and legs. So much for stealth now. She could only hope that a Rastgol would have the sense not to be in the path of whatever was stampeding her way.

The deep brays drew nearer, and Kaia caught her first look at the creatures. Her eyes widened. While she had gotten a glimpse of the bulky buffalen from afar, this one was massive. The line of its back was nearly a head taller than her, and its large eyes darted to and fro as its thick legs tore through the grass. Even more concerning were the four long horns that protruded from its bulky head—two long and reaching and two curving closer to the short black curls lining its hide.

It veered in her direction, jabbing with its sharp points. Kaia pulled up short, letting it cross in front of her while the rest of the herd crowded up behind. Adrenaline squeezed her heart. If she didn’t get off the ground soon, she would be crushed, or gored, or both.

A wild shout somewhere in the darkness drew her gaze, then another and another. The Rastgol were here. Were they after her? Sweat ran down her cheek as the buffalen pressed together in a solid wall of muscled meat around her. Please, Odriel, at least let the beasts hide me.

Then, she caught sight of a rider still far off in the distance with a torch in her hand. She let out a series of high-pitched shrieks as her horse galloped alongside the herd, and Kaia realized this wasn’t a stampede. The riders were herding these creatures toward Nathollus. Breath rushing out in sharp bursts, she whipped her head around and counted five other torches in the night before dodging another bucking steer. If the Rastgol managed to pen her in with the rest of their cattle, they would almost certainly spot her from up on the walls.

Her heart hammered in her chest as she frantically searched for her escape—a boulder, a hut, a tree… anything. But even the stubby trees couldn’t withstand the onslaught of animals, bowing down under their weight as their hooves crushed the willowy trunks.

One of the animals knocked into Kaia’s shoulders, and she almost fell to the ground. Another butted in on her other side in a sudden crush, knocking the air from her lungs with an audible crack of her ribs. Gasping for air and panic blinding her, she heated her hands just a touch and pressed them against the beasts like a cattle brand. They separated instantly with wild grunts.

Dragging in desperate breaths, Kaia staggered diagonally away from the fortress, providing whatever heat necessary to spur the buffalen out of her way. But she could only go so far before the torches swayed too close.

“Hey, what t’be that?” one of them called in the dark.

Kaia nearly froze. She had to get out of here.

“T’beastie?” another called out.

Finally, Kaia saw it, the buffalen dodging around a tree just sturdy enough to part the stream of their bodies. She raced for it.

“Looked t’human,” said the first.

Weaving through the cattle, Kaia’s legs burned and her ribs ached. A sharp horn tore across her back, and she clamped her teeth down on a cry.

“Where ‘tid go?”

Finally, Kaia reached the pathetic excuse for a tree and pressed herself against the lee side. The shrubby branches fanned out less than an arm’s length above the buffalens’ heads, and the trunk was only half as wide as her shoulder blades, but it was better than nothing.

Another horn raked her arm, and Kaia gritted her teeth through a silent scream, crouching down low. Above all the thundering, her ears still strained for the voices.

“I don’t see t’anymore.” The torch edged closer, somewhere on the edge of the crush of animals.

Stinging sweat mixed into Kaia’s blood, and the dust of the stampede coated her slicked skin. Don’t stay. Move on. She tightened her grip on her hilt. Even if she could take them down without her flames, they were too close to the walls for their absence to go unnoticed, and the herd was starting to thin. Soon they would be able to see her. Keep riding.

A companion torch drew alongside the first. “Eh t’was probably one of those dead’uns.”

Laughter cut across the fading hooves. “Well, if t’wasn’t dead before, t’is good and dead now.”

“You’d think Goldie t’would keep a better eye on ‘em.” A steer swerved away from the herd and the rider broke away to turn it back with a shrill cry.

Time stretched as Kaia crouched at the base of the tree. Trying to quiet her rasping, painful breaths, she counted the torches passing ahead of her in the darkness until she could see all six trailing after the straggling cattle. She waited another few breaths, her back and arm still burning and the right side of her ribs already swelling.

She sighed. This was a setback. While she could still draw her sword, this definitely put her at a disadvantage, and she wouldn’t be able to cover as much ground this way, much less flee with any kind of speed. The odds of this already far-fetched rescue were slimming by the minute. She’d have to be more careful.

Kaia was about to push herself to her feet when someone whispered from up in the branches. “Not yet—stay down.”

All the fear and disappointment suddenly clogged Kaia’s throat in a knot of hopeful recognition.

“Klaus?”

“Shh! They always have a far-rear scout, and their ears are sharp like you wouldn’t believe.”

Kaia ducked lower, her heart thudding once again in her chest, but this time with joy. The wounds didn’t matter, her weariness didn’t matter, Klaus was here. And now they could leave. Odriel must’ve been looking out for them.

She was about to let out a breath of relief when the flicker of a torch caught her eye. Kaia froze as the horse trotted up not fifteen paces from where she sat.

She resisted the urge to sink farther, keeping her body as still as possible. The woman was already close enough to see the stark white scars peppering her ruddy skin. Her head was bald just like the men, with the same bulging muscles filling out her buffalen-hide vest and her hard, feral eyes glinted in the torchlight.

Kaia had almost thought the Rastgol woman had passed them by when she pulled up short and looked back toward them. She raised her nose to the air as though sniffing it, and Kaia’s stomach twisted. What did she smell? Blood? Sweat? The rations in Kaia’s pack? Surely she couldn’t smell any of that through the lingering odor of the buffalen.

She took another step closer, and Kaia tensed. Would she have to kill this woman?

Then, a shout rang out from the herd, and the woman turned. She spared one last glare for the darkness behind before turning her mount once more and cantering toward her companions.

Kaia waited until she was nearly out of sight before she spoke again. “All clear?”

“We have two hours,” Klaus whispered from somewhere in the dark. “Then the next herd will be by.”

Kaia stood and peered into the branches. She could just barely make out the outline of his body stretched in the crux of the tree, his dark clothes melding with the shadows. “The next herd? How many are there?”

“At least three dozen and they keep two of them running around the walls at all times. It makes for a tight guard.”

“Please don’t tell me you’ve been sitting here counting cattle for two days.” Kaia pulled a knife from her hip and dug into the bark, using it as a foothold to pull herself up the tree. “I’m not sure that’s the kind of information Madoc was hoping for.” She paused, her voice lowering as she found her next handhold. “You’re not hurt, are you?” Her chest tightened at the thought of how she had once found him bleeding and hanging from a cell.

“As intriguing as buffalen are, especially ones this size, I have to say I got my fill of herding them around as a boy.”

Kaia hauled herself onto the branch next to him and peered into his face in the dim light of the moon. Exhausted yes, but still in one piece. “You’re okay,” she breathed, the all-encompassing relief swamping through her in a light-headed rush. “Thank Odriel.” She let her forehead sink onto his shoulder, and then slapped him half-heartedly. “You nearly drove me half-mad with worry.”

“As much as I do love driving you mad,” he pressed his lips to her forehead with a chuckle, “I really didn’t mean to worry you.” He pressed another kiss to her temple.

He stroked the line of her jaw with the back of his hand, and she looked up into his face. “So why didn’t you come back?”

He frowned. “I was thinning the sentries when a bunch of them jumped me. They ran me into the stampede, and I nearly got trampled. Luckily I got out with just the busted foot, and I’m pretty sure they think their hell cows finished me off.”

Kaia’s eyes widened, and she followed his gaze down to where his right boot lay propped up on another branch. At first glance, it didn’t look so bad. No bones poking out, nothing bending the wrong way… but that didn’t mean his foot wasn’t broken. Kaia gingerly prodded it with her fingers, and Klaus let out a low hiss. She felt his good leg to compare. His foot and ankle were at least twice their normal size, swollen tight against the leather of his boot. She wasn’t sure they’d even be able to get the boot off.

Wincing, Kaia drew her hands away. “Can you walk on it?”

He made a face. “Not well. I was going to rest here for another day before trying to hobble my way back.”

Kaia snorted. “Walking for a full day on a foot like that?”

“What choice did I have?”

Kaia settled next to him again in the cramped space, wincing at her tender wounds. “Well, you could’ve not gone off on your own, for one.”

“I could say the same for you.” Klaus’ fingers moved along the gashes in her arm and her back. “Looks like the buffalen didn’t let you escape either.”

She folded her arms. “Well, in case you’ve forgotten, I have extensive experience in saving you, so there really wasn’t a better choice.”

He chuckled at that.

“And now,” she continued, “we can get you out of here and back to Direfent.”

“Not yet.” He wrapped her fingers in his. “Madoc was right, the Lost are here.”

Kaia turned to stare at him, the dark hazel of his eyes intent on hers. She let out a long breath, turning to look at his busted foot once more. “We’ll get you to Direfent first, and then I’ll return for them.”

He shook his head. “That’s too risky and you know it.”

“Then we wait for you to heal and then we come back and take care of it,” she said stubbornly.

“And how many villages will burn in the meantime? How many more Lost will swell their army?”

Kaia hid her face in her hands with a suppressed groan. The plan had been to torch the place, and then run like Idriel himself were on her heels. But with Klaus’ leg, there was no way they would make it.

He peeled her hands away from her face. “Firefly, it’s going to be all right. We can do this.”

Kaia pressed her lips together. “The Lost. Where are they?”

“They have them locked up in some buffalen pens outside the walls, on the other side of the Nathollus fortress.”

Kaia nodded, her mind churning through the changes in the plan. “I burn the dead. Steal some horses. And we ride back to Direfent.”

Klaus raised an eyebrow at her. “With the Rastgol army on our tail? Not exactly the stealthiest of plans.”

“Not even a little.” Kaia poked him in the shoulder with a smirk. “You had a chance to do it your way. Now we do it my way.”

His smile widened, and he took one of her long brown locks between his fingers. “I’m really glad you’re here, Firefly.”

Kaia glanced around their cramped perch. “In this squat little tree in the middle of Rastgol country, about to set a match to the barn while we’re still in it?”

He shook with silent laughter. “And here I thought we were done risking our lives in impossible situations.”

“No,” Kaia whispered, her voice falling. “It won’t ever be done, will it?” Her mind flashed to the nightmares that haunted her—the clawing fingers of the Lost and Mogens’ eyes in the dark. She thought of all the Heirs whose lives had been cut short. Their grandfathers, their parents, the Time Heirs… She thought of Madoc pleading with her to stay and fight with them. “It’ll always be the two of us risking our lives against the world. Finding the most dangerous places in Okarria and rooting out whatever abomination lurks there. Will there never be peace for us?”

Klaus swallowed, his thumb rubbing across the back of her hand. “I don’t know if there will ever be a time when we’re not fighting, or in danger, or you know, in a tree trying to avoid cannibals.” He chuckled, his gaze meeting hers. “But while I can’t promise I’ll always be right next to you,” he squeezed her hand, “I can promise that you’ll never be alone in this. That, no matter what might happen to us, I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.” He trailed his fingers down the braid of copper lying against her cheek. “And that, no matter where I am, my thoughts will always be of getting back to you.”

With that, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers. Her heart bursting in her chest, and his heat twisting with hers, Kaia could not have dreamed more perfect words.

But even such love could not banish the pall of death that lay over them. The fear that soaked them. The pain and exhaustion that followed them wherever they wandered. She wanted more for their lives than that.

Even if she had to banish it all herself.


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!