Knight of Fire

an excerpt

Chapter One

Torran lowered to one knee, brushing his fingertips over the grass, dirt, and dead leaves. He looked back the way they'd come, then forward again. "The trail's gone."

An annoyed huff broke over the soft birdcalls of the forest. Torran didn't need to look to know which of his companions the impatience came from.

"It can't be gone," Zain said. "The bloody thing burns its way across the ground. Those sheep it killed and ate were about as cooked as if they'd been spitted over a fire."

Torran glanced at Zain. Dressed in his usual black to blend with the shadows, Zain reclined on the trunk of a large tree. Waves of ebony hair spilled past Zain's shoulders, two braids at his temples ending with silver beads that glinted in the fading sunlight.

If he was going to put a bet on anyone throwing shite at him for losing the trail, his coin would've gone on Zain. Torran motioned with his hand to the surrounding forest. "Do you see any burned ground? The trail vanished back at the stream, as if the damn thing disappeared or took to the sky." He turned on his knee to see Bryson. "The things don't fly, do they?"

His earthy brown eyes scanning the area, Bryson shook his head. "I don't know. All that I've read on Nightmares hasn't said they have that power, but not much is known about them. Very few of them have ever crossed over from the Underworld and I'm pretty sure anyone who's seen them in the Underworld hasn't come back."

As Bryson was a witch and Gatekeeper between two worlds, Terra and Earth, Torran more than trusted his knowledge of such things.

His voice soft and musical, Larkin spoke up. "As a creature of the Underworld, if Nightmares are akin to demons, then maybe they can disappear and manifest anywhere they want. Once they're in this world, that is. The spiritual boundaries between this world and the Underworld keep them there, unless they're given permission to cross through summoning."

If there was one other in their group who'd have even more knowledge of demons than Bryson, it'd be Larkin. While Lark had the most beautiful gift with his voice and skills as a minstrel, he was equally cursed with his second-sight, which allowed him to see and speak to the dead. Small in build, exquisitely beautiful in his young face, eyes of dark blue, and hair so black it had a bluish sheen in the sunlight, Lark's physical appearance seemed far too delicate for him to carry such a heavy gift. Yet he bore it without one. It kept Lark from being with the man he wanted.

"Fucking Gethin," Zain spat out. He bent down, scratching his silver fox companion, Kit, behind one ear. "He got what he deserved when the bloody thing killed him."

Lark sat on the ground, pulling Ghost onto his lap and stroking the white cat. "You know I always argue with you that no one deserves to be killed, but on him I have to agree."

Zain ran a hand over Lark's hair. "You know it makes me happy when you agree with me."

"Aye, because it's such a rare occurrence."

Soft laughter moved through the group.

Torran brought his gaze to Aleric, the newest in their band of misfits, as he liked to call them all. Even when Aleric laughed or smiled, sadness still haunted the elf's eyes, as though it never fully left him. And it probably didn't. Aleric had turned his back on his family, his society, his position as a prince among elves, all to search for his lost lover. "What do you think, mate? Any elvish lore on how to hunt a Nightmare?"

Aleric tipped his head back, looking to the sky. "I'm afraid not, dear Dragon Speaker. Elves, unlike humans, are intelligent enough to not summon such things."

Zain flipped a hand toward Bryson. "If that bastard warlock, Gethin, could summon it, why can't you summon it to a place already set up for us to trap it? You're a lot stronger than he was."

Bryson slowly brought his gaze to Zain. "Because I can't send out a summoning spell hoping it latches onto the Nightmare we want, instead of bringing over another one."

"I say you give it a go. If you do call up the wrong one, then send it back."

Bryson rolled his eyes at Zain. "It's not fishing. If I catch one I don't like, it's a little trickier than tossing it back into the water."

Garrett stepped forward, his blue eyes focused on the ground, his handsome face concentrated. Same as Bryson, Garrett had been born in the other world, Earth, though he felt Garrett spent more time in Terra than on the other side these days to be with Bryson.

Garrett ran his fingers through his golden blond hair in a thoughtful gesture. "When horses gallop, for a split second between strides they have all four feet off the ground. They're flying over it. What if when the Nightmare gallops, it does the same thing, but stays hovering? Or maybe skimming the ground?"

Bryson slipped his arm around Garrett's waist, kissing him on the cheek with smiling lips. "I love how since you've spent more time here, that beautiful mind of yours applies what you know from the other side to Terra."

"Aye, he's bloody brilliant," Zain said, sarcasm thick in his voice. "Now if only his pretty little mind could figure out where the beast ran off to, then we'd be getting somewhere."

Garrett fixed Zain with a glare. "I apologize, I was giving you the chance to track it, since you said you'd be able to find it by high sun. And now, the sun's setting."

Zain lifted his chin with a defiant tilt. "I was letting Tor do the tracking, because --"

"Shh!" Torran snapped his hand up.

Underneath Zain's and Garrett's bickering was...silence. Far too much silence for the forest.

Torran looked at King, the black unicorn stallion and perhaps the only creature the Nightmare feared. The stallion stood motionless. Only King's ears and nostrils moved as he listened and scented the air. Torran gazed through the forest. To his right was a small clearing. The forest all around was thick, but not as dense as in spring and summer. With it now early winter, many trees had lost their leaves and the vegetation was going dormant.

He turned in a slow circle. His senses alert, sensitive to the slightest movement and sound. He knew this feeling. Having spent his life wandering forests and mountains, he knew how to read changes in the animals and land and at that moment, his skin tingled in warning.

Birds burst from the trees, screaming in frantic, startled cries. Loud chirrups, similar to those of the birds, rose over them, but as they came through Torran's ears they translated into words.

Her long, serpentine neck stretched out, rainbow feathered wings tight to her body, Rose dove from the sky. At her side, the little white dragon, Wynn, kept pace.

"It's coming! From the south!"

Torran pointed out to the forest. "There!"

Bryson grabbed Garrett's hand, dragging him into a run as he sprinted forward. "Get across the clearing! We'll use the space to trap it!"

Torran raced with the others. King cantered behind them to guard their backs.

A high-pitched roar echoed through the forest. The unearthly sound sent a jolt of cold fear through Torran's heart. From behind, branches and brush snapped and cracked.

Halfway across the clearing, Torran stopped and spun around.

King slid to a halt, flipping his head in silent demand for Torran to run with the others.

Torran flung his hand back toward his companions. "I can't shoot the arrows from there! Go with them! Guard them!"

King hesitated, then charged after the group.

Reaching back to his quiver, Torran yanked out one of the arrows Bryson had made. He lifted his bow, nocked the arrow, and aimed for the far left corner of the clearing. He willed his hands to be steady, prepared to fire...and froze.

Its body formed as a horse, the Nightmare crashed out of the forest. Smoke and flames blew from its nostrils. Its mane and tail whipped orange and red with the wind, moving as raging fire. Never, not even on the darkest night, had Torran seen anything so black as the Nightmare's coat. It seemed to absorb all light that touched it. As suspected, with the speed the Nightmare galloped, its smoldering hooves barely skimmed the ground. Speed that was going to bring the creature upon him in only a handful of his rapid heartbeats.

Torran snapped himself to the task at hand. He released the arrow. As it took to the air, hidden runes shone silvery-blue with the warding spell Bryson had imbued within it. Torran only took the blink of time he needed to know the arrow would land where he'd intended and had his second nocked and shot. He had to get all four in the ground--north, south, east, and west--to trap the Nightmare.

"Torran, get back!" Bryson yelled.

Torran put the third arrow to the bow.

The Nightmare screamed again.

In his peripheral vision, Torran saw it open its mouth to reveal its sharp teeth. Its pure red eyes were locked on him. It lowered its head, large horns curling off the sides similar to a ram's.

Steeling himself, Torran shot the third arrow and reached for the last.

Twin blazes of fire blasted down from the sky, Rose and Wynn aiming at the Nightmare. The demon steed charged through the dragon fire.

Torran's breath rushed from him. Dragon fire hadn't stopped the nether being. Hadn't even slowed it. In the span of a heartbeat, he had to make a decision, shoot the last arrow or dodge the Nightmare and risk not only letting it go free, but it attacking his friends.

Torran shot the arrow.

The wet snap of his right arm filled Torran's ears over the Nightmare's roaring. He flew through the air and crashed, tumbling, rolling over the ground. Torran came to a stop on his back and tried to shove himself up on his left arm. The Nightmare charged for him again.

Through his pain, a vision flashed to the front of Torran's mind-- a knight, his armor radiant in the sun, a royal blue cloak billowing out behind him. The knight's black hair moved with the wind, a few strands drifting near his brilliant green eyes. Tall, strong, and a face so beautiful, Torran's heart ached at nothing more than the thought of it.

Sir Karrick Brenton. Why in these final seconds before being trampled and ripped apart by the Nightmare was he thinking of the Thirteenth Legion Captain?

A fierce equine cry of challenge rang through the clearing.

Hoof beats pounded behind Torran. King sailed over him in a powerful jump. The black unicorn landed between him and the Nightmare, rearing to full height. Silver light spiraled up his white alicorn.

The Nightmare slid to a halt, half-rearing and twisting away. It galloped back the way it had come. His ears pinned, King gave chase. The Nightmare reached the edge of the barrier and slammed into it, as if hitting an invisible wall. The nether steed fell half to its side, but scrambled up. Frantic, it began galloping again.

Relief surged through Torran. It was trapped. The wards on the arrows had worked.

His relief was short-lived as his pain demanded to be known. His vision blackened with the force of it. Torran dropped back to the ground. The thunder of hoof beats and desperate cries of the Nightmare filled his ears. It might trample him yet, but even if it did, his mates were safe. Bryson would find a way to banish the nether beast now.

Strong hands grabbed him. A deep voice shouted orders Torran didn't comprehend.

Torran opened his eyes, seeing only a ring of shining armor around him. A face moved over him, taking over his field of vision. Beautiful. So achingly beautiful. Ebony hair framed the handsome face and eyes the color of spring leaves focused on him.

"Sir Karrick?"

A smile broke over Karrick's lips. "Aye. Quite the mess you've gotten yourself in, Dragon Speaker Torran."

His vision clearing, Torran saw it was Karrick's knights surrounding him, shields braced before themselves in a steel wall, swords drawn and points sticking out.

Karrick moved to Torran's left side. Taking Torran's arm, he tossed it around his neck. "I need to get you outside the barrier."

"I can walk."

"No, you can't. You don't realize the extent of your injuries yet." One arm behind Torran's back, Karrick shoved his other under Torran's legs and lifted him. "Knights! Fall back!"

Pressed against Karrick's cool, hard armor, a sense of safety began to overcome Torran's fear.

Karrick moved toward the edge of the clearing, the knights walking with him and keeping formation. He passed over the barrier to the edge of the forest and gently set Torran on the ground.

Zain stood beside Karrick and jabbed his index finger down at Torran. "You're a damned fool! Brave as fuck and just as stupid!"

Aleric moved in front of Torran. "Fools usually are brave. They don't have the sense to get away from danger."

Lark knelt beside Torran, resting a hand on Torran's left shoulder. "We can talk about his foolishness later. He needs help."

Torran struggled to sit up and once again, Karrick's hands were on him, lending strength to him. "Worry about me later. Where's the damn Nightmare?"

Lark pointed to the far corner of the clearing. "King has it pinned in a corner of the barrier. Now Bryson and Garrett are taking over."

Torran looked to where Lark pointed. King had his head lowered, his horn aimed at the demon steed. The Nightmare snorted and stomped. It made a desperate leap to the right. King cut in the same direction, blocking it.

Bryson and Garrett walked toward it. Garrett carried the tall, knotted wood walking staff that Bryson had enchanted with wards of protection. Ranger, Garrett's big, scruffy, grey hound, walked at his side. Wynn streaked out of the sky, landing on Bryson's shoulder.

More movement above caught Torran's eye. He glanced up as Rose slammed into his chest. Slightly smaller than Wynn, about the size of a cat, he wrapped his left arm around Rose, holding her to him. "There, now. Don't be upset. I'm alive. Just a bit banged up."

Wearing a pitying look, Zain shook his head at him. "More than a bit, judging by that bone sticking out of your arm."

Torran moved his head to his right, but Karrick had already wrapped his royal blue cloak around it.

Karrick touched him under the chin, tipping Torran's head up to meet his gaze. "I don't think you want to look at it."

Torran gazed into Karrick's eyes. What Karrick had said moments ago, that his mind and body didn't realize the extent of his injuries, couldn't have been truer. He tried to flex his left leg. Pain stabbed through his knee. He buckled forward, clenching his teeth against crying out, but a growl still escaped him.

Karrick pulled Torran against him. "Try not to move much. You don't want to hurt yourself further. Bryson will be able to help you."

Zain snorted. "Providing our dear witch doesn't get himself killed first."

Aleric sighed. "That hope might not have much chance, given what he's doing."

Zain looked toward Bryson. "What the bloody fuck is he doing? Trying to make friends with it?"

His hands raised before himself, Bryson walked slowly toward the Nightmare. "Easy, now. We don't want to hurt you. We want to help you."

The Nightmare snorted and shook its head.

Bryson and Garrett stopped beside King, Bryson resting a hand on the unicorn, his gaze still on the Nightmare. "I know you're confused and frightened. You don't understand this world. You were ripped away from your home and abused by that warlock. But I want to help you get back to your home."

The flames of the Nightmare's mane and tail burned lower.

Bryson turned toward two nearby trees beside each other. He pulled his wand from its narrow leather case on his left hip. He knelt and smoothed a hand over the dirt. Hovering the tip of his wand over the dirt, he began flicking it in quick, short movements.

Though he couldn't see what Bryson was writing, Torran knew Bryson was etching runes in the ground to prepare for sending the Nightmare back to the Underworld.

Bryson reached in the pouch belted around his waist, going for the casting herbs Torran had watched him prepare before they left on this venture. Bryson explained the blend contained valerian, cedar, rosemary, and acacia, all anointed in patchouli oil. He didn't really understand what it all would do, but he'd learned years ago he didn't have to understand how Bryson's magic worked. It worked. That's all that mattered.

Bryson scattered a handful of the herbs over his markings on the ground and tossed two more into the air between the trees. He held his hands outward and flames burst to life before the two trees, sparkling in the air as the herbs ignited. Their sharp, pungent scent spread through the clearing. The space between the trees became hazy, as if looking toward the horizon on a burning hot day.

Bryson faced the Nightmare, pointing toward the trees. "Think of your home and walk toward these trees. Once you cross over the runes, the spell will read your thoughts and open a path back to your home."

The Nightmare took a step forward, but stopped and glanced at King.

The unicorn backed up, giving the nether steed more space.

The Nightmare moved with cautious steps. It neared the line of runes and stopped. Its nostrils flared as it scented the area.

Torran wondered if it could smell the difference between good magic and evil.

Staring at the space between the trees, the Nightmare crossed the line of runes. As its front hooves passed over, the scenery between the trees shifted. Rather than the forest, craggy cliffs met a black and red sky. Steam rose from crevices in the cracked ground. A bubbling stream flowed through a valley of grayish grass.

The Nightmare let out a rough whinny, the closest to a mortal sound Torran had ever heard from it. It looked back at Bryson and bowed its head.

Bryson nodded his head once. "You're welcome."

The Nightmare launched between the trees. Rather than pass through them, it disappeared. At least, from Terra. It ran across the gray valley, head high, flaming tail flagged.

The image of the Nightmare running free wavered and receded until it was gone, leaving only the forest and trees as before Bryson had cast the spell. Bryson sagged to the ground, breathing hard, sweat shining on his face. Garrett dropped instantly beside him, wrapping his arms around Bryson.

Seeing Bryson's exhaustion in using his power and knowing everyone was now safe, Torran couldn't hold back his own pain. He started to lay back, Karrick guiding him down. "Bloody...damn...shite...fuck..."

Zain motioned down to him. "There we go, now. The excitement's over and he's feeling his injuries."

Torran glared at him. "You can stop being so all-knowing about my damn injuries and do something to help me!"

Zain held up his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "Sorry, mate. Not much I can do. And the one who can looks as though he drained himself sending that thing back to where it belonged."

Leaning on Garrett and making his way toward them, Bryson called out, "I just need a few minutes. I'll be fine."

Lark's slender brows drew closer in a look of concern. "I've never seen you so affected by a spell."

Bryson offered him a strained, half-smile. "That's because this was a triple casting. A psychic spell to look into the Nightmare's mind to locate its home, a banishing spell to take it from this world, and a sealing spell to close the pathway. It took a lot of energy to support it all." His gaze went to Torran and he rushed forward the last few steps. He slid to his knees, carefully pulling Karrick's blood-soaked cloak from Torran's arm.

Torran glanced toward his arm. "How bad...?" His last word trailed off. His stomach churned as he looked at the piece of bone which had ripped through skin. He dropped his head back to the ground, the bump sending lights flickering behind his closed eyelids.

Karrick rested a hand on Torran's sweaty forehead. "I warned you not to look."

"That's just how he is," Zain said. "He always does the opposite of what he's told."

Torran grimaced as another wave of nausea and pain washed through him. "Stop it, you damned arse. I'm too close to passing out to argue with you."

Bryson laid a hand on Torran's chest. "You're wasting too much energy and breath arguing with him. You'll have plenty of chances to set him right later." He looked up at Zain and Lark. "I need you two to get some solid, straight sticks so I can brace his arm. I'm going to try to get the bone set, or as close to set as I can out here. I'll probably have to reset it at the Gate. But I need to get the bleeding to stop."

Lark grabbed Zain by the wrist, pulling him to follow. "We'll be back as fast as we can."

Bryson looked at Aleric. "Hand me the water skin, please."

Aleric moved to Bryson's side, pulling the strap of the heavy water skin over his head. "What else can I do to help?"

"I was going to rinse the blood away, but you can do that. But hold on for a moment..." Bryson reached for the satchel Garrett carried and opened it. He pulled out a wooden cup. "Fill this, then you can use all the water you need to rinse the wound area." He turned back to digging in his bag.

"Is there anything my men or I can do?" Karrick asked.

Sorting his herbs, Bryson asked, "Do you have horses nearby?"

Karrick nodded. "We left our mounts at the stream with some men to rest while we scouted the area."

"Hopefully they're still there and didn't break away when the Nightmare ran through. If you could, send some of your men back to bring a horse. He's not going to be able to walk out of here and we came on foot."

In response, Karrick began issuing orders to some of his men.

Torran forced his eyes open, gazing up at Karrick, still wondering if he was truly looking upon the knight or if Karrick was a figment in a dream. His voice left him ragged, pain lacing through him. "What're you doing here?"

Karrick glanced down at him. "I got word that the Nightmare had attacked more livestock and gathered my men to see if we could finally hunt it down. When we went to where it'd attacked, I learned you gentlemen were already on the move tracking it. We arrived as you were shooting the arrows." A warm smile rose to his lips. "That was a very selfless act on your part."

"At this moment I'm more inclined to agree with Zain on it being a stupid one."

"And yet if you had to do it again, I have a feeling you'd do the same." Karrick cupped Torran's cheek. "Now enough talking before you get scolded again from the Master Witch."

"Right now, I want to know what the Master Witch is doing."

Bryson held the mug in his hand, swirling the contents inside. "I'm mixing some herbs to put you in a deep sleep and spare you the pain of resetting the bone." His voice quieter, he added, "You saved us."

"King would've protected you all."

"He did make sure we crossed the clearing safely, but you stopped the Nightmare from being able to reach us completely."

Garrett lightly squeezed Torran's shoulder. "You're too damn humble. Take the credit for saving our asses."

Despite his pain, Torran smiled.

Bryson shifted closer to him. He slipped a hand under Torran's head, helping him to sit up slightly, and put the mug to his lips. "Here. Drink it all."

Torran forced all the bitter liquid down. Bryson gently laid him back with Karrick helping. Torran could feel his muscles loosening, all tightness unraveling from his body. His pain began to yield as drowsiness spread through him.

Rose sat beside him, her long neck curved as she stared down at him.

Torran looked into her golden eyes. "I'll be fine, dearest. Don't worry."

She let out a few soft chirrups. "I'll worry until you wake again."

His words came slower and slurred. "I know you will. Thought it was worth telling you not to."

Bryson rested a hand on Torran's cheek. "Relax, now. Try to think of something that makes you happy. It might help you to have good dreams."

Torran managed a single nod. His gaze moved away from Rose to Karrick. A hand grasped his--strong, rough, callused from countless hours of holding a sword. Torran's eyes began to close on their own and he clung to Karrick's image as he was pulled into unconsciousness.