The Kingdom of Ambrosia
For my dad, who read it first…
And then a hundred more times until I finally got it right.
The brave, burning with fire,
Harnessed the dragon’s rage.
The cunning, veiled from the world,
Stole the shadow’s step.
The gentle, blessed with life,
Healed like time itself.
-The Heirs’ Way, Chapter 2, Passage 36
Burning with fire
Kaia Dashul wove a ball of fire between her fingertips, feeling the rage simmering beneath a tangle of excited nerves as she watched the festival from the shadowed wood. Bright, fluttery decorations tied to tents of every color greeted the mountain folk coming from miles around to shop among the wares of silks, candles, fireworks, and other goods. The competitions of strength, speed, and skill were held on the other side of the clearing, but the laughter and applause carried over the crowd like a ray of sunlight.
An acting troupe readied a traveling stage closer by, joking and smiling in their outrageous costumes as they hung the backdrop and arranged their props. The smell of caramelized sugar, baking bread, and roasting meat swirled through the crisp mountain breeze. Kaia inhaled the sweet air. Her fingers tingled with exhilaration, but still, beneath it, she was acutely aware of the Dragon’s Rage smoldering within her.
Her ragehound’s wet nose snuffled up into her side, his big eyes questioning. All ok?
Kaia let the fire in her hand dissolve into the air before reaching out to pat the shaggy red fur of her enormous dog.
“It’s fine, Gus.” She stroked one of his bat-like ears. “I’m just nervous is all.”
She pulled at the sleeve of her borrowed dress, a lovely remnant of her mother’s past as a noblewoman in the old monarchy, before her father and the other Heirs brought it crashing down. The deep blue of the hooded dress suited her tanned complexion, but it was still tight around the shoulders and about a hand too short, revealing her craggy leather boots. She hadn’t been able to find any matching shoes in her mother’s closet.
She took a deep breath and fingered the side braid pulled back above her ear, a rope of copper-red nestled in her brown locks. “I’m just going to walk out there like a normal villager.”
“This isn’t a good idea.” Her 12-year-old brother, Layf stumbled through the brush behind her, panting slightly after chasing her down the slope on his short legs.
Kaia rolled her eyes. “Then stop following me and go home.” She pulled the hood up over her coiled chestnut hair before stepping out into the field towards the tents.
Layf wiped his forehead with a sleeve as he trailed behind her, Gus close on his heels. “C’mon, Kaia, you know Papa said you’re not allowed to go into town.”
“But Papa’s not here.” She took in the bright blue tent on the edge of the field filled with ceramic pottery of strange shapes and designs. A slim young man gestured wildly with his hands as he engaged a customer. Gus’ nose twitched eagerly towards another tent selling sizzling skewers of hedge hens further down the row.
“He’ll find out when he gets back.”
If he gets back. Kaia opened her mouth but then closed it, her agitation seeping out in a sigh instead. They hadn’t gotten a letter from Papa in months. She pushed the dark thought away. Not today. Today, she was going to enjoy the festival.
She paused in the back of a crowd gathered to watch a juggler toss gold rings into the air, not quite daring to enter the throng yet. Her heart hammered at their closeness. What if the locals recognized her?
Layf caught her hesitation. “You don’t think something’s happened to Papa, do you?”
“No.” Kaia glanced at her brother’s face, creased with worry as he eyed the mass of mountain folk swirling in front of them. She sighed again, her shoulders falling. “But something big must be happening to keep the other Heirs away.” The juggler performed a backflip before catching his rings once more, and Kaia clapped along with everyone else. “No one’s missed a Triennial before.”
The Triennial, after all, was the only opportunity for all the Heirs to meet and practice tactics, skills, and swordplay. Fourteen at the last Triennial, she had been the weakest fighter by far, but she had trained fiercely for the last three years and had been sorely disappointed that she hadn’t gotten the chance to redeem herself.
“But if it were something big, he would’ve taken you,” Layf said, eyeing his sister carefully.
Kaia winced as the sting of her father’s abandonment slapped her once more.
Oh, how she had begged and bargained to accompany her father on his journey. After all, she would take his place as Dragon Heir one day. She had a duty to check in on Klaus and Jago, her Shadow and Time Heir counterparts. Her father claimed she was too young still, but Klaus had been patrolling the land since he was fourteen! Her row with Papa over it had shaken the house before he left.
Gus whined and gave her palm a lick. Let it go.
Kaia scratched his ears and cast about for another distraction. Her eyes landed on a small puppet booth, and she moved towards it.
“Kaia!” her brother hissed as she walked into the crowd. He shadowed her so closely she almost tripped on him. “Remember what happened last time?”
Her fists clenched. It had been five years since she had last tried to sneak into the village, but she could still hear their voices spitting hate—devil’s spit, witch wart, demon bastard. Full grown men had reached for rocks to keep her at bay, but their hands had been trembling too badly to hit their mark. Kaia’s palms itched, but she suppressed the urge to allow them to flame.
“Of course, I remember, Layf,” she snapped. Exiled by the people she was sworn to protect—the unfairness of it rubbed her raw. “But it’s my turn to dance in the Eventide this year, and I’m not going to miss it.” It was a tradition in Arimoke for the new adults of the town to kick off the Eventide dance at dusk. Kaia had often daydreamed of the town cheering her name as she stepped onstage and a handsome suitor stepped forward to lead her into the dance.
“You honestly think they’re going to let you dance?” a deeper voice said from her other side.
Kaia jumped at the sound of her twin brother’s sudden closeness. “How’d you find us?”
Bram ruffled Gus’ fur roughly. “It’s hard to miss a ragehound.” Gus’ tongue lolled out in pleasure.
She sniffed. “No one else seems to mind.”
Bram crossed his arms, annoyance and amusement mixing on his face. “Yet.”
Kaia's lips twitched. “I can at least watch the dance.” Her voice sounded weak even to her own ears.
Layf pulled on her arm. “It’s not worth it, Kaia. It’s just a boring old dance anyway.”
She looked down at her little brother. With freckled cheeks and almond-shaped eyes, Layf looked just like her, but he was a world apart. Of course, the dance bored Layf. He went to the spring festival every year. He went to school in town and had more friends than she could count. But all of those things were foreign to her. The Dragon’s fire only fell to the eldest child. An honor she had stolen from Bram by six minutes.
A booming voice drew her eyes to the puppet show once more. She smiled humorlessly at the familiar tale. The legend of how three ordinary men had stepped forward to confront Nifras, the demon necromancer, and his army of the Lost.
The puppeteer lowered a wooden hawk into his small set. “And then the high spirit, Odriel, blessed them with great gifts to pass down to their Heirs. To the bravest, he gave the power of the Dragon—of fire.”
Kaia could feel the embers churn within her at the very mention of it.
“He cloaked the cunning in shadow—to walk unseen. And to the kind, he gave his healing touch.”
A little girl in front of Kaia leaned towards the stooped old woman next to her. “Where are the Heirs now, Gama?”
“They were banished after they turned on the royal family, my love.” The woman’s voice creaked with age. “Who knows where they ended up.”
On distant mountainsides, along the southern border, and remote buffalen farms, Kaia thought. Keeping watch on the legendary magi’s yanai barrier that protected the world from Nifras’ return. Bringing down the lawless gangs that roamed between the three State-cities. Secretly. Thanklessly.
“But won’t Nifras come back?” The little girl edged closer to her grandmother.
The old woman chuckled. “Of course not, my dearie. He hasn’t been seen or heard in thousands of years.”
Kaia grimaced. That didn’t stop the Lost from squeezing through the yanai barrier in the south every now and then. Nothing Guardian Brigg and Jago,
the Time Heirs, couldn’t handle, but the Lost weren’t creatures to be taken lightly.
A strong hand clamped down on Kaia’s shoulder, snapping her out of her thoughts. “What in Odriel’s name are you doing here, Kaia?”
Kaia groaned as she turned to face her mother, her accusing glare practically burning a hole into her head.
“And is that my dress?”
She winced. This day wasn’t going at all like she’d planned.
Her nine-year-old sister, Eleni, shrugged apologetically from behind her mother’s muddied pants. “Sorry, Kaia, it slipped out.” Her blusheep lamb bleated by her knee, a shiny first-place medallion tied around its cerulean neck.
“Well, I....” Kaia started, grappling for some pardonable excuse. She looked at her brothers for inspiration. Bram looked at Kaia with a poorly veiled smile on his lips, and Layf carefully averted his eyes.
Gus looked up his long nose at her. You knew this would be a short visit.
Kaia threw up her hands. “I just wanted to look around for once, Mama. I’m not causing any trouble.”
“Kaia!” Her mother seized her elbow, guiding her back towards the edge of the festival. “You know you’re not supposed to be here. And today especially, I don’t have a good feel—”
An inhuman screech pierced through the air, followed by another, and another. As one, the family pivoted toward the cries. The sound froze Kaia’s already scattered thoughts and a spike of panicked adrenaline shot through her limbs. For a brief, tense moment, the clamor of the festival fell quiet.
“It can’t be,” Kaia’s mother whispered. “Not this far north already.”
And in that moment, Kaia knew the Lost had arrived in Arimoke.
A blood-curdling human shriek sliced through the silence, and the crowd erupted. Screams of panic and terror shredded what was left of the festive air, and in a wave of shouts and cries, the crowd turned to flee. Kaia stood, frozen in shock with Layf clinging to her arm, as the crowd buffeted them about in their eagerness to escape the unknown terror.
Her mother shook her by the elbow, “Kaia, snap out it!” she yelled, still clutching a frightened Eleni. Her mother’s eyes locked on her daughter’s. Two identical sets of russet eyes boring into one another. “This is what you’ve been trained for.” She gave Kaia’s elbow another squeeze before reaching out to pull Layf away from her. “Now go!”
A jolt of adrenaline shot through Kaia, breaking through the ice of fear, and she picked up her leaden feet. Gus barked excitedly and ran in front of her toward the screams, encouraging her to move faster. The crowd avoided the ragehound as he tore through the throng with Kaia following close behind, grateful now to be in her boots. When they finally broke free from the mob, Kaia skidded to a halt, taking in the nightmarish scene before her.
A swarm of animated corpses had infested the festival. The creatures wore damaged armor and carried rusted swords. Dead, gray skin dangled from their bodies and faces like a half-peeled, rotted fruit. Where their eyes should’ve been, black holes stared out from long stringy hair that hung limply from their scalps. A green aura of yanaa curled around the white sheen of bone that glimmered through patchy, decaying flesh. Blood already smeared their jagged teeth from the victims they had caught unawares, and the nauseating stench of graveyard rot was almost unbearable.
These could only be Nifras’ corpse soldiers—the Lost.
The creature’s movements were jerky as if they were not of their own volition, but they lurched quickly in a shambling run after the living.
Kaia pitched forward as something ran into her from behind. She leapt to her feet, her dress ripping along the shoulder seams and fire springing to her hands, only to see Bram brandishing a tent pole. “What are you doing? Use your fire!” he yelled, before charging to the defense of a bleeding woman trying to fend off one of the creatures with a butcher’s knife.
Kaia nodded and focused on the yanaa within her, nestled in the ball of rage she nursed in the core of her being. Her heart careened around her ribcage as she remembered her training. She glanced at Gus standing next to her, and the dog seemed to nod at her. Control it.
As the fire grew in her hands, the dead turned towards her, drawn to her yanaa. Their red-stained limbs, orchestrated by a vicious, unseen puppeteer, jolted into motion as they whipped towards her. Suddenly, they seemed all too close, and Kaia released her blaze in a rush. An uncanny, high-pitched keen rang across the field as the dead burned. Still, they came. A second volley of fire launched through the first while still burning corpses stalked towards her. One of the creatures collapsed into a nearby tent, setting the canvas alight.
Kaia spooled more fire into her palms faster than she thought was possible, her hands shaking with adrenaline, and unleashed the blaze again. Her vision narrowed as she focused. Another volley. And then another, until the whole field seemed to be on fire, and the smell of burning flesh and hair stung her nose.
She scanned the ground for more, but a strange gurgle from behind her caught her off guard. She turned to find a corpse tilting towards her at full speed—its leering eye sockets and unnaturally grinning smile only a few paces away. Suddenly, from beside her, Bram heaved his makeshift spear, impaling the creature through the neck and knocking it to the ground.
Kaia shook herself from her surprise and dispatched the creature with a quick burst of flame. She clamped her hands to her ears as its death screech rent the air.
Her eyes swiveled once more around the field, hunting for stragglers. The festival tents were still alight, but the Lost had already burned down to a fine ash, scattering in the mountain breeze. Sweating and out of breath, Kaia turned to her brother with a broad smile, her eyes gleaming with triumph.
But his face darkened as his gray eyes studied her, looking like the spit image of their father—the spit image of the Dragon Heir. “Six minutes,” he whispered. “And it would have been me.” With that, he turned and strode away.
Kaia’s face fell, and she looked to where a crowd had gathered a safe distance away. Still, she could hear them.
“That witch led those demons right to us.”
“She set the festival on fire.”
“Don’t get any closer, we don’t know if she can control herself.”
The ecstasy of her first victory drained away, and once again Kaia could feel the Dragon Rage bubbling within. Gus yipped beside her, lifted up his front paws to rest on her shoulders, and licked her cheek with his big sloppy tongue.
“Gus,” Kaia protested.
He snuffled her neck affectionately. Don’t let it get to you.
Kaia smiled ruefully and shoved the big brute away. “Thanks, bud.”
But as she walked back up the mountain slope in her ripped dress, the festival still smoldering behind her, Kaia couldn’t help but notice the townsfolk shrinking away from her.
“Hellspawn,” someone hissed as she passed.
Six minutes, she thought. If only I could have waited six minutes.