A Knight Adrift: Chapter One

A Knight Adrift is the creative project that keeps me dreaming, writing, and drawing. Three years ago, this dark fantasy tale was just a way to pass boring lunchtimes at work and escape the mundane world around me. But before I realized it, I was hooked. A nondescript knight found a name - "Aveline" - and her story became a sprawling creation I can't go a day without imagining.

I turned my first take on the story into a podcast and breathed life into Aveline's world, learning so much about writing and myself along the way, but now I am ready to pursue my true passion. I want to create a book. Below is the rewritten first chapter of A Knight Adrift. Keep your eye out for more; Aveline's quest has just begun!

A Knight Adrift: Chapter One

Aveline gasped awake from a nightmare of blood and shadow to the sound of a clanging bell. Green eyes aching, pale skin flushed, the young woman raised her weary head from her desk and glanced at the fluttering line of light beneath the wall of her canvas tent.

Nearly dawn, Aveline reckoned. She swatted a stuck piece of paper from her face with ink-covered fingers and pushed herself up from the wooden table. The thin square of paper tumbled down to reveal a half-finished sketch of a man’s face, black eyes staring up at her. The name "Ethan Mailer" and a date two days past were printed in her careful script beside the portrait. Aveline sighed, stretched her stiff arms, and then combed a mess of hazel hair back behind her ears. Scattered among the paper on her desk, flameless candles were little more than waxy puddles, expired bulwarks against the long night of the mountain. Again the chime reverberated through the morning.

Too early for first bell. Aveline's head throbbed with a dull pain as remnants of restless sleep fled her groggy mind. Like her breath in the cold, the nightmare that had seemed so real, so grim, evaporated in the hazy seconds since awaking. But looking down at Ethan, Aveline could not forget its cause. Outside, the persistent thud of boots and a cacophony of barked commands grabbed at her attention. Horses squealed, armor clattered.

"Something’s wrong," Aveline whispered to herself, eyes closed while she listened. Where is Lark? Emma? Why has no one fetched me?

Then it came like thunder: a bestial roar, its deep bass echoing through the morning louder than any bell. The rumbling sound drowned out all others and in its wake followed a moment of stunned silence. Aveline’s eyes snapped open in astonishment. Her pulse quickened and her skin prickled with goosebumps, body knowing before her mind what the dreaded tone meant.

"Perimeter breach!" A man shouted frantically to the short-lived quiet outside.

"Damn," Aveline spat. She kneeled to lift a steel breastplate from the ground where it had been discarded and quickly cinched its leather straps to her arming coat. From atop a tall weapon leaning against the desk, she snatched a cloak the color of deep blue sky, its edges stitched with silver lines, leaves, and points of shimmering light. She fastened the cowl around her neck and moved to charge away, but Ethan Mailer caught Aveline’s gaze. She traced the line of the man’s incomplete jaw, her own face frowning as her eyes fell on the stack of pages beside him. Another face peered back at her, an older woman’s eyes warm above a toothy grin. "Beryl Atwood. 5th of Verris, 940."

Not again, Aveline swore to herself. She scowled at the pages she had spent countless guilty hours illustrating. As if challenging her conviction, another loud roar suffused the camp. The young woman shivered, but steadied herself and breathed deep. Chin down, lips set in a solemn line, the knight grabbed her sword and rushed into the frigid morning. 

Aveline emerged from her tent into a storm of activity. Everywhere she looked, men and women adorned in armor hurried back and forth on the mountain, indifferent to the white flurries falling slow from the sky above. None spared time to mutter words of greeting; none paused to welcome the sun over the horizon’s distant edge. What few rays of sunlight that managed to pierce the haze caught the edges of swords, spears, and shields. Chilled breath drifted upward, through the skeletal tree branches that flexed like bony fingers. Over the commotion, lieutenant captains barked orders loud enough to drown each other out, but still one voice rose above the rest.

"No! No! No!" A man of near sixty years shouted as he jogged toward Aveline. Adorned in silver robes, his tall, formidable figure cut through the disorder. A craggy scar stretched from his forehead to chin, tracing a canyon amid the weathered, frowning contours of his face. Steps behind him, a bored-looking girl of fifteen years sauntered along, her golden hair a stark contrast to the short blue cape draped upon her shoulder. The man held out his hands. “Situation’s under control, knight-commander. There ain’t need for you to engage.”

"Lark, what’s going on? Is it Ixiel?" Aveline demanded. She turned her smoldering eyes on the girl. “Emma, why didn’t you wake me?”

"Aye, it’s the wizard’s work," Lark said, his voice somber.

"He told me to leave you," Emma pouted as she brushed a mote of dust from the shield clenched tight in her hand.

"And it seems I was right to do so," the old man gestured toward the sword resting on his commander's shoulder. Aveline looked away, ignoring the comment. 

From the western edge of the army's encampment, the frightful scream came louder than it had before, echoes of fear mixed with sonorous fury. A group of warriors strode past Aveline, stopping only a moment to nod in salute. Ignoring her advisor’s protest, the knight fell in behind the men and women, eager to see for herself. With every crunching step of her leather boots, puffs of early winter snow blew up from the frigid ground. Campfires, tents, and surprised faces flashed by in Aveline’s periphery, their surprise at her station still plain despite her months of leadership. Some fifty yards off, she slowed to a stop, stunned by the sight before her. Amid the gathering of soldiers ahead, a gloomy form reared up on its hind legs, raised its head, and howled a deafening scream. A sea of birds vaulted into the slate-colored sky, blacks, browns, and reds swirling in chaos. The sound tore through the forest, shattering ice and forcing hands to ears. 

A possessed greatbear? The knight’s mind raced. Five, no, maybe six men tall? Damn you, Ixiel. 

The creature was draped in a cloud of roiling shadow that billowed like smoke from the black crystal that consumed its flesh. What brown fur that remained was sparse and thin, overtaken each second by more of the jagged obsidian. Splashes of glistening red decorated its teeth and claws. Aveline gaped when the beast raised a massive paw and cries of warning erupted from the melee. The beast fell to four huge feet and charged at the nearest group of defenders, swiping at any in its path, casting armored bodies back like fragile dolls. Steel screeched, bones crunched. The low mutterings of the bloodied healers ebbed like a steady current beneath the churning sea of screams.

"Lark!" The knight called over her shoulder, voice urgent and commanding. In a moment her advisor stood by her side. Aveline regarded him with a withering stare. "THIS is under control?"

"Won’t have you charging off to die in your first campaign, little one. Roland taught you better. Aye, this beast is big, but..." Before Lark could finish his thought, Emma leapt forward and raised her broad shield high. With a loud clang an airborne sword collided with the shield and ricocheted to the dirt, its blade buried deep in the frost. Lark gasped, Aveline narrowed her eyes in frustration. A dismembered hand, crimson flesh torn at the wrist, still clung to the weapon.

"Less talking. More fighting," Emma pronounced. The knight nodded her thanks.

"In six months we haven’t seen its like," Aveline growled. "And so close to dawn… Where are the company captains on watch? I count only one on the line."

"The other was killed in the first attack. His lieutenant is useless," Lark said. As he spoke, he pulled a reflective baton from the belt of equipment cinched over his shoulder. The weathered man peered at Aveline, waiting. "What are your orders, knight-commander?”

The knight took a deep breath, glanced down at the dismembered hand, then up at the catastrophe unfolding ahead. Ethan Mailer's dark eyes and half-finished face flashed in her mind.

"Find the shield captain and get his company over here. We'll need a wall and spears if we're going to even try to bring that monster down," Aveline said rapidly. “And burn what can be spared – let’s hope a scrap of the bear’s fear remains.”

Aveline hefted her sword over her shoulder. Contrary to its appearance, the weapon’s blade was as light as one a third its size and in the dim of morning appeared to glow. The knight glared back at the old man, emerald eyes alight.

"What are you going to do?" Lark asked.

"Everything I can."

* * *

Aveline flew on toward the battle, Emma close behind like a shadow.

"Remember Churchman’s Crossing. Set the trap and stay with Lark," the knight explained between breaths.

"I belong at your side," the squire protested, pulling her sword from the scabbard at her waist. The words echoed in Aveline’s mind as her own from a time not long past when she was another's apprentice.

"You belong where we need you most," Aveline said, repeating the advice she had once heard in reply. Three long strides passed before Emma slowed to a stop. Grumbling, the girl turned back toward camp. 

"Clear a path and rally to me!" The knight screamed at the surging mass of soldiers huddled at the outer edge of the battle. With a vicious cry, she thrust her sword overhead, the long, shining blade a beacon amid the madness. One by one the men and women of the vanguard turned to see their commander waiting behind them. Swords, spears, and shields parted as the knight strode forward to meet her enemy. Wherever Aveline looked, steam rose from splashes of blood, broken bodies littered the frozen ground. Noticing the knight's approach, the monster hesitated in its flailing attack. One eye hidden beneath a crown of obsidian, the other burning with rage and fear, the creature turned its monstrous head toward Aveline and regarded the young woman as a predator would its prey.

"Sapphire... Knight?" the beast growled, its wavering voice strange and distant like that of a man shouting across a lake.

It... knows me? Aveline flinched. Never before had she heard a daemon speak. It drew its face nearer to the dirt, crouching low to take the measure of the knight. For a moment all was quiet while the creature seemed to contemplate the situation. Aveline’s mantle drifted on the breeze as she brought her blade to bear on her enemy.

"What do you want with me?" The knight asked.

"Sapphire Knight," the creature muttered, its good eye transfixed on Aveline’s blue raiment. Within her leather gloves she could feel her hands begin to sweat. The daemon’s void maw snapped open again and again to reveal a line of glittering crystal teeth, like broken fence posts guarding the darkness inside. Feverish and tense, the daemon shook its head back and forth before it spoke again. "Saphphire Knight. Sapphire Knight! SAPPHIRE KNIGHT!"

Aveline leaped backward as a blur of knife-edged fingers reached out for her. Frenzied talons slammed down, rending trenches in the frosty gravel. Instinctively the knight swung her sword, the weapon’s bright edge cutting deep into the creature’s outstretched fingers. An anguished scream burst from the depths of its twisted form as it pulled the paw away, black shards cracking, falling, evaporating into wisps of shadow. Aveline danced back from the daemon and circled behind it, pulling its attention toward the forest. Anxious gasps erupted from a handful of warriors eager to help in the fight, but Aveline raised a halting hand. Emma pushed through the crowd, mouth agape, eyes wide. One foot stepped forward, then another, the girl’s weapons raised and ready.

"Stay back!" The knight shouted as she dashed from a crushing blow. The beast howled in frustration.

Aveline turned from her army and ran, uncomfortably confident that she had seized her assailant’s attention. She bolted past the last guard post, then scrabbled over a fallen tree trunk into the dim forest beyond. Seconds later the frozen wood exploded in a shower of splinters and ice. The creature's hot breath blew like a summer wind from behind, black claws raking at the air a hand's length from her cloak. Aveline planted her feet and swung her sword in a wide slash, spinning and screaming as its edge found its mark. The beast cried out. The knight resumed her escape.

Have to lead it away. Have to buy them time.

Desperate to hide her breath, Aveline pressed her mouth close to her cloak and ducked behind a massive tree trunk, its wide expanse cold against her back. Blood pounded in her ears, her heart rumbled like a drum in her chest. Drops of sweat chilled on her brow as her eyes darted in one direction and then the other, watching the shadows and listening for movement. For a brief moment, the forest was beautiful, patches of frost glittering in the early morning sun as a gust barreled through the bare trees, but some invisible distance behind, the creature’s colossal body trampled through icy brush and branches.

Calm down. Calm down. Calm down, Aveline demanded of herself. One deep breath filled her lungs fast, but she managed to exhale slow before the creature was upon her again.

"Move," Aveline hissed as the daemon slid around her refuge, its slavering jaws hung open, empty and wanting. The knight cried out and thrust her gleaming blade, but this time its target was ready. One claw caught the sword and batted it away as the other swiped at the young woman’s head. Sharp crystal touched the flesh of her cheek and sliced deep like a skinner’s knife. Aveline screamed, unashamed at the pain, but mortified at her misstep. Drops of red fell hot to the ground and the creature paused to savor its small victory. Aveline shook her head and thrust her body against the tree, rolling around it away from the beast.

Like an arrow through paper, a welcome sound pierced the cloud that had consumed her senses. Two long blasts of a war horn called Aveline home. Despite her fear she pushed on, legs searing. When Aveline emerged from the forest, she forgot her pain and smiled. A half-circle of tall shields waited ahead, the scarred slabs of metal set like stone and bolstered each by the strongest men from across Valerius. Beside bonfires burning at the far edges of the formation, groups of soldiers stood by with barrels of oil, ready to spread the flames. Behind the shields, a familiar form trotted on horseback among the lieutenant commanders, barking orders and waving his baton. Aveline’s eyes met Lark’s and although she could not hear his words, the frantic waving of his arm spoke volumes.

Faster, Aveline commanded her legs, boots striking dirt hard and quick. Ahead a single shield lifted up to allow her passage. Three feet before the wall, she dove to the churned mud, sliding into shelter beside a tall, dark-haired young man who nodded a furrowed brow.

Alexander Boone, Aveline thought ruefully. Without a word, Alexander slammed his shield down and pressed his body against it. A metal leg clanked down from within the shield and dug into the earth, a miniature buttress to strengthen the barrier. From the crowd of infantry gathered around her, Emma bounded forward to hold out a hand.

“Welcome back,” the squire offered, grinning. Aveline took the girl’s hand and vaulted to her feet.

“You’ve been busy,” the knight remarked before turning on her heels to see the daemon charging out from between the line of trees toward Aveline and her comrades. A relentless avalanche of shadow and crystal, the creature’s mass rose and fell, growing larger with each pounding stride. Its face obscured by a mask of branching obsidian, the daemon no longer resembled any natural creature of the mountain woodland. Jets of shadowy steam poured off the black form as the creature lowered its glassy brow and accelerated toward the wall of waiting steel.

“Brace!” Lark shouted, his voice booming over the battle like a thunderclap. Aveline held her breath amid a moment of expectant silence. The creature leapt into the air and then descended with a deafening clash of metal and energy. Sharp, frenzied shadows tore at the shields, slicing, gouging, crushing. Undeterred, the men and women on the line ground their heels in the dirt, pushing back against the beast that clamored for their death.

“Hold, boys, hold!” Alexander yelled to a chorus of whooping affirmation. Some raised their fists. Some only laughed, but the exclamation was all it took to draw the monster’s attention. Though its eyes were obscured, the blank, terrible visage turned on Alexander. For Aveline, the world slowed to a crawl as she watched the young man’s head disappear from atop his broad shoulders in a flash of darkness. Red droplets rained on his shield and the men beside him.

“Lark! The fire!” The knight turned and waved her glimmering sword, desperate to catch the old man’s attention. His face a narrow-eyed grimace, Lark raised his signaling baton. Once, twice, three times he chopped vertically before cutting the blustery air with a horizontal swipe. As though he had conjured them like a sorcerer, flames burst from the river of oil behind the creature and spread their flickering fingers up to the gray sky. The greatbear bellowed at the light and heat, its animal brain usurping the daemon’s control and briefly forgetting its wrath. Groaning in dismay, the massive creature brought its limbs up and stumbled back on its heels.

“Spears! Spears! Spears!” Aveline screamed, eager to seize the opportunity. Lark thrust his fist forward and a volley of spears launched over the far sides of the shield wall, long lines of rope trailing behind them as they cut through the air. Howls of pain erupted from the colossal body as the javelins fell and pierced the daemon’s black armor. Arms, legs, chest; those spears that found their mark exploded crystal and penetrated flesh. Ghastly shrieks tore through the morning. Terrified, panicked, the creature turned from its attackers to flee toward the forest, but the fiery blockade cut off its retreat. One by one the soldiers of Aveline’s army piled on the tethers, drawing the lines taut.

“Heave! Pull the thing down!” The knight cried, her words redoubled a second later by Lark’s vociferous tones. The monster crashed to the dirt, clawing frantically at the entangled ropes. The elite soldiers of the vanguard descended upon the fallen creature like wolves upon wounded prey. Dozens moved in close, stabbing and chopping wherever they could find an opening to shatter the dark crystal. The daemon’s anguish echoed beneath the hollering vengeance of the warriors’s blades. Black splinters rained to the ground. Blood streamed from countless wounds. Aveline rushed forward to join the frenzy, dodging past exhausted fighters to leap onto the daemon’s arm.

Sure-footed and bold, the knight scaled the creature’s back and raised her sword high. But when she looked down at her foe, Aveline hesitated. The burning eyes fixed on her were filled with nothing but piteous pain. 

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. The sword’s edge sliced down into the beast’s neck amid a horrible scream and split its massive head from its body. Deformed arms lashed out in a frenzy, tossing Aveline away as the creature crumpled to the ground within a torrent of fog and shadow. Aveline stumbled away from the ruin, her tired legs trembling beneath her, but before she could catch her breath a crush of jubilant faces pressed close. The heat of the battle, the fire, and their bodies was suffocating as Aveline tried to push them away.

"The Sapphire Knight!" The soldiers cheered. Aveline cringed at the name. Behind her, fragments of black crystal evaporated from the daemon’s form to reveal the mutilated greatbear beneath. "Aveline! Aveline!"

Emma pressed into the crush to shield her master, thrusting her shoulder against those who wouldn’t part. Embarrassed, Aveline simply nodded at the girl, but felt her heart swell with gratitude. With one last glance at the bloodied corpse of the bear, she wrapped her arms around her sword and pushed through the crowd behind her squire. After a moment, the words of praise dissolved in Aveline's ears into an unintelligible din. Fluttering snowflakes began to fall and slivers of sunlight were blotted out by a new line of foreboding clouds.

Beyond the excited group, the knight could see corpses strewn across the path she had first taken out of the camp. Healers dressed in tattered white robes kneeled to administer what help they could, but Aveline knew most injured were lost. Blood pooled on the ground, unable to soak into the frozen earth. Lark and Emma hovered at her side, their faces pale.

"How many?" Aveline asked, her voice quiet. The memory of Alexander's last moment seared her mind.

"20, 25 dead," Lark sighed, staring down at a small notebook in his hand. "A dozen or more wounded."

"Too many," the knight muttered as she stepped past her companions. Foreboding clouds charged over the mountain and snuffed out the waning dawn. Thick snowflakes began to plummet from the sky in earnest as the wind began to pull at banners and bite at skin.

“Should I bring fresh ink? Collect their names?” Emma asked solemnly. Despite her earlier bravado, the girl would not lift her eyes from her boots. Aveline hesitated in her stride and brought a hand up to her already numbing cheek. She stared at her red fingertips, considering the question. In a moment the knight continued forward as she pulled her cloak tight around cold armor.

“No. Assemble the captains. It's time we end this.”