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.
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?”
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!