Get a sneak peek at Forged in Fire through this small excerpt (prologue):
As the old rusty gates creaked in an attempt to crawl up and let Ciaran in, a realization hit him like a ton of bricks—this was it, the last second he would be allowed to breathe.
With each inch his life rushed towards an end, but skidded to a sudden halt at the sight of an open entrance. He knew he had to go in. He had traded his soul for the lives of three innocent babies, yet now his legs turned wooden, as if rooted into the ground, unable to move. Worse still, his hands shook, and fear gripped his heart.
Ciaran swallowed hard, and took the scariest step he’d ever taken. He stopped just behind the boundary line, and without glancing back waited for the iron monstrosity to seal him in.
He didn’t have to wait long. Almost instantaneously he heard a deep rumble, the rattle of chains, and finally the explosive sound of the impact, which reverberated through his bones. And then, silence. An utter darkness.
No way back now, the verdict echoed in his head, and it felt like something had died inside. Everything went still. A second later, the creature he had come here with clapped his hands twice, and torch after torch lit, illuminating a huge cave.
Ciaran’s breathing quickened, and the desire to jump out of his skin consumed his senses. He couldn’t help but glance back. He didn’t know why he needed to see the gates he’d passed through, but he did. Desperately.
He squinted his eyes, then blinked, but no matter how hard he tried, it was simply gone. The wall of solid, unyielding rock stood in its place, mocking his attempts to calm himself down. The longer he stared at the wall, half convinced he was hallucinating, the faster his heart raced; and before Ciaran knew what was happening, rocks began to move, closing in on him.
His lungs froze, refusing to accept the air he so desperately needed; yet the beat of his heart only accelerated, until his pulse thudded like a sledgehammer in his ears.
“Breathe, just breathe,” he uttered from under his nose, ordering himself to snap out of this.
“It’s too late for second thoughts.” The demon all but laughed at Ciaran’s childish reaction. The mocking tone fueled Ciaran’s anger. His emotions clashed, and finally the choking grip the fear had on him loosened.
“Well, if you stopped quaking in your boots, I would rather we proceed.” The words only added insult to the injury.
Ciaran gritted his teeth, cursing the need to draw the reins on his temper when every cell of his being demanded retribution. Usually, if he had an urge to punch someone, he just did it. But it wasn’t the knowledge that Dazlog would wipe the floor with him that stopped Ciaran. Nothing but pain awaited him anyway, and at least he would have had the satisfaction of swinging a punch.
No. What made him swallow his pride were the consequences for his nephews if he was to fight. So for the first time in his life, Ciaran clenched his fists and let the words slide.
It felt like sandpaper going down his throat, and he had to force himself to count to ten to keep his calm.
“Good boy,” the demon said, picking up the pace. “A piece of advice, and this one’s for free”— Dazlog stopped abruptly—“if you want to keep your skin on your bones, count to a thousand.”
Ciaran’s eyes flared wide, but before he could form a single thought, the ground under his feet disappeared, and he went down so fast he forgot how to breathe altogether.
Once again he was in an utter darkness, falling from a cliff he would have known didn’t exist if his mind had only stopped for a second, but all it could think about was what awaited him below; and how long till his brains got splattered on the rocks.
Moments stretched into minutes, minutes into hours; and still his body remained in the air. Ciaran relaxed a bit. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and finally he noticed a figure by his side—stretched on his back, hands folded to support his head. He seemed to be floating. And maybe he was, Ciaran thought, as pale amethyst-green eyes flashed at him. After all, only one of them was falling into a pit of Hell to be tortured.
The torture might not have been mentioned in their deal, but Ciaran wasn’t naïve. It wasn’t him Dazlog really wanted, and the only way the demon would get it was if Ciaran ran. Deluding himself about the method to achieve that was pointless. Probably as pointless as entertaining an idea of sprouting wings to make the same way back.
The only hope he had was to survive till Amira’s children grew up to defend themselves, but until then … he took a fortifying breath and focused on the landscape below.
Soon, shadows transformed into shapes, and before his eyes a city appeared and grew to an enormous size. The buildings resembled temples built by the humans above, except the tall walls, domes and pillars seemed somehow grander. Rivers of fire flowed, bathing the structures in an orange-red glow. The view was mesmerizing, and it almost made him forget his destination. Then his fall changed course, and a foul stench invaded his nostrils.
“You didn’t think you would be living in a castle, now did you?” Dazlog asked, the moment they began slowing down.
Ciaran didn’t bother answering. His eyes remained fixed on the vista, as the city gave way to a rocky, cracked terrain which seemed to sputter and growl. With each explosion he witnessed, dirt and liquid burst out of the ground, washing over a line of meat prepared for cooking on a spit. Only when screams tore from the bleeding throats did Ciaran realize it was a line of humans tied up, impaled and hoisted like pork, not animals. Suddenly, he wanted to throw up at the sight of convulsions and the acrid smell of blistering flesh.
“Welcome to the Underworld.” Dazlog chose the moment to interrupt the piercing sound of some poor soul screaming its guts out. And Ciaran realized that somehow, while he was distracted by the gruesome sight, he hadn’t noticed how they had both landed on their feet.
“These mines are going to be your new home,” Dazlog continued, as Ciaran trailed his gaze across the plains, trying not to contemplate his fate. The options seemed bleak at best.
He turned and froze.
Two huge dogs, each the size of an elephant, were guarding the entrance to the cave. Big and black, and strangely leathery looking, they bared their canines—impressively scary, dagger-sharp fangs—and zeroed in on him. Ciaran didn’t know how he was holding it together. Those canines were five feet long, and only three feet away. Saliva dripped from their mouths, forming puddles, and their eyes—obsidian, without an inch of white—looked soulless. One wrong move and he would be shredded.
“Oren, you lazy bag of fleas,” Dazlog suddenly yelled, “lift your bony ass and let us through.”
One of the dogs growled low in his throat, approached the demon, and all but ground his huge wet nose into Dazlog’s.
“Stop your slobbering, you big baby.” Dazlog reached behind the dog’s ear and scratched.
Ciaran couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows at the exchange.
“Bribery won’t help,” the other dog said in distorted human voice. “No one steps inside without the council’s decree.”
“No one?” Dazlog folded his hands on the chest and stared the dog down. The beast actually flinched.
“Alright, but just this once. And I mean it.” The dog howled, lifted his head and closed his eyes. Oren yapped, and before following the other one, licked Dazlog’s face.
Ciaran could barely contain his laughter at the sight of Dazlog cleaning his drooling face with the hem of his sleeve. Probably a good thing, as otherwise he would be nicely roasting—like the unfortunates behind his back.
They stepped into what appeared to be a diamond mine. Gemstones the size of his fist sparkled all around—walls, ceiling, floor—wherever he looked.
“It is not the stones that give this mine such value,” Dazlog said as a matter-of-fact without elaborating further. He would probably find out, Ciaran thought, especially if he was to stay here.
“A few simple rules,” the demon spoke again. “Listen to the wardens, do your work, and the whip won’t sting. Much. Oh, and not a word about how you got here. To no one.” Dazlog emphasized the last words, and swiped his hand through the air in front of Ciaran.
Cold settled in his bones, the chill resulting in a puff of breath each time he exhaled.
“And one more thing…” Dazlog stretched his hand to the wall where a trickle of burning river ran, brushed his fingers through it, and before Ciaran could move, pressed the dripping lava-coated fingers into his chest.
The cold suddenly disappeared.
Ciaran jumped back, ripping the front of his shirt in two and saw a spider’s web being drawn on his exposed chest. Inch after inch the miniature lava rivers spread through his skin to his arms, his neck, behind his belt. The sight of it made him want to peel his skin off. And then, after covering him with millions of red interconnected branches, it began seeping into his skin, flowing under it.
The stinging sensation intensified. It sharpened, until pain more excruciating than he had ever known before assaulted him. A scream bubbled in his throat as his insides began melting—yet no sound came from out of his mouth.
“You’ll thank me one day.” He didn’t know how he heard Dazlog’s voice through the noise ringing in his head, didn’t know how he managed to lift said splitting head; but Dazlog was no longer there. Ciaran was alone, in the land of the dead. He was in Hell. And he was burning.