Below is the first chapter in the ongoing tale of A Knight Adrift. To read more, visit The Archive.
Chapter 1: A Knight's Resolve
Decades ago, during the Last Great War of Valerius, mankind fought for its very survival against evil creatures summoned from the abyss by corrupt human servants. The leader and most powerful of these betrayers was the Archwizard Ixiel. A foul sorcerer consumed by hatred and a lust for immortality, Ixiel dispatched his minions to abduct countless humans and sacrifice them in service of his fiendish magic. He believed that smothering the world in darkness would herald the return of Tyrannus: an ancient demon once repelled centuries ago, but still determined to exterminate humanity and feast on its souls.
Young King Aurleon, presumptuous leader of men and ruler of the Kingdom of Valerius, decreed that for his heinous acts, Ixiel must be stopped and his work destroyed so that no one could again threaten mankind. The Knight Aveline, renowned for her skill in battle and most chivalrous of all the realm’s warriors, was chosen to lead an army of an unprecedented 30,000 soldiers from every domain in a final attempt to eradicate the sorcerer Ixiel. Though naturally talented in the arts of war, Aveline feared she may fail and reluctantly agreed to undertake the mission. The future of mankind depended on her success.
For several months, the noble quest fared well. The Knight Aveline carved a path through leagues of dangerous wilderness and cunning enemies, leading the way for King Aurleon’s united army to follow. Each village and city they liberated from the oppression of Ixiel rejoiced to find that heroes still existed. Many sang the praises of the fearsome "Azure Knight," ever clad in her blue cloak and wielding an invincible sword. Aveline’s legend grew.
Finally, in the dead of winter, the righteous crusaders discovered Ixiel’s last bastion, the fortress city of Monticolus. Huddled together around massive bonfires in sight of the city walls, the Knight and her advisers made preparations to march on their objective. The hunters’ prey was finally in reach. They made their way up the mountain, and though the horses occasionally slipped on snow or ice, resistance was light and the vanguard was never pushed back. But a shadow of fear crept within the Knight’s heart as the army approached the walls of the Archwizard’s stronghold.
Aveline’s fear was amplified when, contrary to her expectations, the army was not showered with arrows and sorcery and torment. Instead, the enormous fortress gate was lifted before them by an unseen power, as if to welcome the army inside. No riders emerged to treat, no servants appeared to make excuses. No twisted creatures summoned from the void barred the Knight’s path. Suspicious of Ixiel’s behavior and expecting a trap, the Knight selected several of her best scouts, paired them with a contingent of soldiers, and sent them to report on the state of the fortress and its inhabitants.
Hours passed, but nothing was heard. None of the scouts nor any of the soldiers returned. The great Knight Aveline was uncertain how to proceed. Without a clear idea as to what resources Ixiel had access or forces he still commanded, Aveline knew the best course of action was to lay siege to the fortress. Marching into mysterious circumstances put the loyal men and women of her army in peril. But the winter only strengthened its cold embrace on the soldiers, who were eager to see their mission completed. There was no telling how long the season might last. Time, with the quest’s potential for success, was quickly dwindling.
The Knight’s advisers implored her to rush the fortress while the army was still able and willing. If the Knight and her army did not succeed here and now, there would be no obstacle left in Valerius to halt Ixiel. The sorcerer's mad attempt to summon Tyrannus would go unchallenged. Although she feared executing such a reckless strategy, it seemed there was no other way. Who knew what torments awaited humanity should they turn tail now? The Knight instructed her advisers to ready themselves and their men for the next day’s battle. The soldiers sharpened their blades, feasted heartily, and prayed to their gods for strength.
The snow fell hard as Aveline mounted her horse at daybreak. Starting at the rear of the column, she made haste to ride through the ranks and join with the vanguard. A glimmering example of endurance and fortitude, the Knight's grim calm and stoic demeanor inspired awe in the gathered warriors as she passed. She could feel their eyes on the armor she’d spent the night polishing, the enchanted sword she’d honed to a razor edge. Her azure, fur-lined cloak billowed in the wind and her indomitable mount breathed steam as it stamped impatiently.
Less than 10,000 warriors remained, brought together despite politics from across Valerius's fractured domains and linked to one another like siblings in their common goal. Though they had faced monsters before, there was no way of knowing what fate awaited them in Ixiel’s keep. Treacherous wraiths responded to Ixiel’s every command and spells of unimaginable power could be conjured in such an evil place. Walls appearing innocent could be inscribed with hidden magic, floors riddled with undetectable traps. Without any information, countless unforeseeable horrors could be lurking.
The same uncertainty that afflicted Aveline was magnified ten-fold in the hearts of her soldiers: It could all end here, nothing more than a ruinous error of judgment. But so long as the Knight Aveline rode before them, the soldiers would fight with honor. And so long as the soldiers followed her, the Knight would lead them to the glory they deserved. She made this pledge aloud to the army gathered before her and the soldiers eagerly whispered the words to one another. For a fleeting moment, Aveline wondered how many could survive the unknown within?
She found her answer in the collective, booming war cry of her army. Shouts echoed off the bastion’s walls and back down the mountainside. Men and women, all hardened fighters, gave in to exuberance and thrust their weapons overhead in salute. Never had Aveline heard or seen them so resolute and jubilant. With that frenzied acclamation, she vowed that whatever the outcome, each of them would live on as legends. She would survive, if only to sing songs of their steadfast bravery.
The Knight turned from her men, pointed at the fortress city, and shouted to advance.
The army marched forward into the realm of Archwizard Ixiel, carried in spite of fear by faith in the Knight Aveline. For her part, Aveline did her best to maintain the appearance of effortless poise beneath the low, silver sky. Shield-bearers, armed with heavy enchanted shields, were deployed to the front line and protected the vanguard as a walking wall. Hawk-eyed archers strode behind them, glancing in every direction for signs of attack.
The fortress of Ixiel had once been a bustling mountain city. Still loyal to the Kingdom, it overlooked the eastern-most port in Valerius from high atop tall coastal crags and proved an enduring center for ocean-borne commerce. But now, ancient stone walls once filled to brimming with mongers and hawkers and merchants were home only to blinding snow. Beautiful statues, carved from the mountain, were overgrown with dead weeds and bore witness to lonely winds and the echoes of arms and armor. From what Aveline could tell, the great city of Monticolus was deserted, bereft of the living.
Suddenly, the shield-bearers stopped in their tracks and brought the column to an immediate halt. Ten meters ahead, tall obsidian slabs stood scattered in the abandoned city street. Each about the height of a man, their faces were as smooth as glass and appeared as though poured on the spot and polished to perfection.
The Knight Aveline had little doubt the blocks were conjured by Ixiel for some nefarious purpose. She dismounted and removed her helm. The shield-bearers parted as she approached the mysterious objects. Transfixed for a moment by their stark beauty, Aveline moved her gloved palm toward one. A strange heat emanated from within. Neither snowflakes nor light found purchase on these statues. Around the base of each, the frigid snow melted faster than it fell. Bare cobblestone ringed them all. And no matter how one squinted, nothing reflected on their featureless darkness.
Aveline commanded the gawking legion not to touch the blocks under any circumstance, but the warning was unnecessary. A repellant, foreboding aura emanated from each of the black statues. Their presence made Aveline and her soldiers even more uneasy. As she returned to her horse, she could see many among the ranks glancing nervously at one another. The Knight shouted to continue the march.
The shield-bearers advanced and the soldiers picked their way through the obsidian blocks. Minutes passed, then hours, and as the Knight’s army continued on toward the heart of the city, the blocks grew more numerous.
Finally, the crowded streets gave way to an enormous courtyard. In the center of the wide expanse stood a single, peculiar structure: a massive, obsidian cube, composed of the same mysterious material as its smaller companions. Hundreds of the statues surrounded the ominous building. In its face, two giant doors were thrown open to the elements. No light shown within.
The raging snow storm buffeted the army as Aveline peered into the darkness. A whisper of intuition assured her their quarry waited inside. Small squads of soldiers were deployed to encircle the building, while the vanguard, composed of Aveline’s most loyal combatants, drew close and awaited her command. Aveline ordered hundreds of torches be launched ahead of their advance into the obsidian structure. The small lights flickered in the dark, revealing black space on every side. The Knight gave the word and her division advanced into the cube.
After the steady cold outside, the warmth inside was deceptively inviting. Aveline warned her followers not to be lulled by the cunning comfort of this place. She implored them to remember her pledge and the heroic sacrifices of those who had fallen.
But not a moment after these words were spoken, a monstrous roar reverberated off the walls. From out of the gloom stepped a gigantic creature, its figure draped in swirling gray shadow. Obsidian armor was illuminated from within by an incandescent human form at the center of the monster’s chest. Six glowing red eyes dotted the dark head atop its colossal body. Together the group had faced many of Ixiel’s abyssal servants, but none as imposing as this one.
With another rattling cry, the beast dropped to four clawed feet and charged the 2,000 seasoned fighters of the vanguard. There was no time for commands, but the Knight was confident the army would hold. The torches on the ground were extinguished as the behemoth hastened forward.
Aveline drew her sword and watched as the shield-bearers moved into defensive formation before her.
The most skilled archers in Valerius let loose their bows and hundreds of arrows whistled through the air. The beast howled, confirming their accuracy. But two fast volleys later and the monster was upon them. It crashed through the first line of shields and into the center of the company. The Knight Aveline was desperate to provide her soldiers a chance to recover and stepped forward to confront the beast.
The monster paused and seemed for a moment to recognize her, then resumed its vicious attack. Possessed by unshakable resolve, Aveline deflected the monster’s frenzied talons with her legendary sword, Durendal. Shards of obsidian rained to the ground as her magic blade did its work. Shield-bearers, swordsmen, and spear-wielders dispersed and encircled their furious quarry, waiting for any chance to strike.
Frustrated by the Knight’s defiance, the monster roared again. It lashed out in every direction, intent on wounding as many as possible with each swing of its long arms. Aveline leaped backward as knife-edged fingers reached for her. Archers continued to empty their quivers, and when those were exhausted, arrows deflected by armor were collected from the ground.
Healers rushed among the melee, administering what aid they could to the wounded, chanting prayers and wrapping injuries. Keen howls of pain were smothered by discipline and pride among the riotous cacophony of combat.
The shadows that enveloped the creature filled the space like smoke. The heat of the battle was overwhelming. When a fighter fell, reinforcements from outside the crucible joined the fray. There were no screams of despair, no sobs of fear. Only shouts of command and lamentations of failure. Chaos reigned, but every warrior knew their responsibility to see the task was done.
Though the army fought valiantly, the Knight Aveline feared the mystical beast could very well outlast them all. She devised a plan and called for spear-wielders and shield-bearers.
Within seconds one hundred of each stood before her. She informed them of her plan and deployed them to opposite edges of the cavernous space, where they took position to either side of their enemy. As the shield-bearers set their bodies like stones behind their armaments, the spear-wielders hammered long spikes into the obsidian floor. To these, they tied the long ropes attached to each of their majestic spears.
The dark beast seemed bemused by this change in tactics and paused in its destruction. For a better opening, the Knight Aveline could not have asked. At her ferocious command, the shield-bearers parted and spear-wielders threw their weapons harder and faster than they had ever thrown before.
The hundred spears struck true and pierced the monster’s shadow legs. A deafening, anguished scream burst forth as it attempted to retreat, but escape was impossible. The spears’ tethers held fast and in its frantic urgency, the monster crashed to the blood-soaked floor. Her comrades breathed relief, but the Knight Aveline knew the fight was unfinished. Even now the murderous demon, its six eyes burning with rage, sliced at the restraints.
Aveline looked to her spear-wielders and signaled to attack again. New spears launched into both arms of the beast and as it struggled against the humans, hundreds of soldiers piled onto each line. Hundreds more of those remaining moved in close to continue the attack, stabbing and chopping wherever there was an opening between the obsidian plates that covered its body.
The Knight Aveline joined in the frenzy. Her legendary sword shattered obsidian and cut deep into shadow. Sure-footed and bold, she leapt onto the beast’s incapacitated arm and ran upward onto its heaving back. The soldiers erupted with elation and cheered for their hero. Darkness writhed beneath her feet and wherever she stepped, it rose like smoke. But Aveline would not be deterred from her mission.
Her heart heavy with the trust of her honorable compatriots, the Knight Aveline raised Durendal high above her head. Without hesitation, she brought the blade down with all of the strength she could manage. It was enough. The sword’s indomitable, enchanted edge sliced into the beast’s neck, then parted its head from its body. Glowing eyes were extinguished, arms and legs were still. After hours of fighting and untold casualties, the beast was dead.
Aveline gave silent thanks to her father and teacher, Great Knight Roland.
The massive body of the beast began to evaporate into shadow, but before the soldiers could enjoy victory or attend the wounded, a new mystery emerged from the dark. When the last shard of obsidian fell away, the Knight Aveline gasped. In the demon’s place, a bloodied, unconscious King Aurleon now lay.
The Knight was stunned by the sight before her as the last remnants of the shadow beast faded into darkness. Obsidian armor cracked and shattered and homeless spears clattered to the floor. King Aurleon, once so youthful and radiant, now lay bloodied and unconscious. The bright white robes he first adorned as a symbol of hope were grey and tattered, the ruined clothes draped on his body like a shroud.
Confused by the mysterious appearance of the leader for whom she had tirelessly fought, Aveline could not be certain her eyes were not deceived. Her heart, already pounding with the exertion and tumult of battle, managed to beat even faster in her chest. This man had charged her with the safety of the kingdom! She tore her gaze away from the King to gauge the reactions of her comrades.
Around her, each face was twisted in an expression of exhaustion and disbelief. Crestfallen thoughts of betrayal already brewed in the minds of those who still stood. The loud cries of the wounded and quiet ministrations of the healers suffused the scene with boiling tension. With sword still in hand, the Knight bid the disquieted soldiers stand guard as she approached the fallen monarch. Her forceful words shook the men from their reverie.
When she drew near Aveline could see the young man’s eyes frantically swiveling beneath closed lids. Unkempt hair lay plastered to a furrowed brow, covered in sweat. Shallow, ragged breaths quickly issued forth from his cracked lips. Countless wounds covered his body and blood seeped through the shreds of his red-stained raiment. Despite her youth, the Knight had seen many grisly conflicts and many dying men. Never had she seen one survive so many injuries.
But even more curious, Aveline noticed an ornate, glowing symbol on the back of Aurleon’s hand. Its peculiar design called to her and she reached out to touch it. At that moment, a shard of obsidian darted through the air and stabbed into Aurleon’s hand. Blood flowed from the fresh wound. The young king’s eyes shot open and he screamed in pain. A strange voice pierced the black abyss of the chamber and shocked all who could hear it.
“That’s enough, little bird.”
Ixiel stepped out of the gloom. The Archwizard wore a tattered black cloak over a body covered in glowing symbols. Arms outstretched, eyes blazing, he strolled casually toward Aveline and her remaining army. The body of Aurleon writhed on the floor between them. The Knight leapt back and brought her sword to bear. With the goal of her quest in sight, Aveline’s palms began to sweat inside her gauntlets. She could hear the rustle of arms and armor as her men made ready to attack. All of them could sense Ixiel’s shadowy aura, even more dangerous and oppressive than that of the vanquished beast.
“Look at you, ‘the Azure Knight.’ Having played the hero so valiantly, I suspect you almost believe your own legend. These here certainly do.” Ixiel dismissively gestured toward Aveline’s comrades. The soldiers grimaced and looked to Aveline for guidance. But anticipating an attack at any moment, the Knight stood transfixed, every muscle taught and ready to react. Her jaw ached, her eyes strained. Aveline felt a cold fear creep out from her heart to smother her will. She knew she was outmatched.
When finally near Aurleon’s body, Ixiel stopped and looked down at the broken form. As the Archwizard spoke, his voice shifted in the air then evaporated like smoke. “I commend you on disabling my student. But don’t fret little bird.” At this, he laughed. The sound was hollow and stilted. “Your treasonous King will rise again.” Aurleon’s eyes opened and within seconds, the silent King stood beside his ally. The strange crest on the back of his hand glowed intensely.
“To have your quest end here in ruin is such a shame. But then, you were never meant to lead. Where is your father? Where is the Great Knight Roland? I would love to have made his acquaintance.” Ixiel sneered. “But it seems he has abandoned you, with little more than that shining trinket and blind faith in this one’s empty promises.”
The Archwizard cocked his head toward Aurleon, who seemed to have regained his composure and abided the insults with downcast eyes. Aveline was astounded at the young King’s recovery. Only the bloodied shreds of his once elegant robes indicated he had suffered any injury in their battle.
The Knight grit her teeth, ignored Ixiel, and addressed Aurleon directly. “My King, on your honor and for the sake of all those who died for your dream, I bid you speak. Please dispel this fiend’s madness.” The King could not bring his gaze to match that of the Knight’s. “Please, my lord. My friend.” Aurleon remained silent. Aveline prepared to attack.
Ixiel stepped in front of his young pawn, his entire body now emanating some dark energy. “Young Aveline, I am not without sympathy. You are brave and bold and skilled – a beautiful flower on the field of battle. In honor of your pedigree, I will make you an offer.” The evil Archwizard held the bony claw of his hand out to Aveline. “Pledge loyalty to the demon, Tyrannus, and become my wife. Do so, and your soldiers will live. Defy us, little bird, and you will all suffer a fate worse than death.”
The Knight brandished her sword and glared at the sorcerer with fury in her eyes.
“I will never submit.”
The Knight’s soldiers awaited her command, but with the King’s astonishing appearance, she knew not how to proceed. The fate of Valerius depended on her next actions.
“You think you can win through strength of arms... But the truth is you are alone in the dark, powerless. Nothing more than a weak, frightened child playing at heroics.” Ixiel sneered in seething rage and pointed at Aveline. “Humanity is but fuel for the fire that will cast my lord’s endless shadow over this land. And you, little bird, will burn brightest of all.”
The vile sorcerer threw his cloak back over his shoulders. Glowing symbols covered his bare body. Ixiel uttered another hollow laugh, then joined his palms and set to muttering a spell. Aurleon stepped back from his master with a horrified look on his face.
Ixiel’s chants grew more fervent as he filled the air with the otherworldly language of demons and his body was suffused with light. Looming behind him, a mass of swirling shadow gathered in a titanic form, even larger than the gloom beast of Aurleon. Whatever the sorcerer planned, Aveline was certain it would be beyond her army’s ability to combat. The Knight knew the moment to strike was upon her.
Aveline crouched low, then launched forward. With all of the speed she could muster, she ran at Ixiel. Her blue cloak flapped and her blade thrust ahead, as straight as her will was resolved. Those soldiers nearest her cheered. The Knight would spare her people whatever cruel fate the Archwizard planned, even if victory meant her death. Aveline thought of her father and shouted with ferocity as each step brought her closer to her enemy.
But history is so rarely forged by the righteous.
As the Knight Aveline moved within striking distance, she pushed her magic sword forward and focused on her target, determined to strike a single, decisive blow. In a flash, Aurleon appeared between her and Ixiel. With no time to stop, the brave Knight’s blade pierced the King’s chest, its sharp edge stabbing deep into unprotected flesh and through his back.
Horrified, Aveline halted her attack and withdrew Durendal. Blood poured from the grievous wound. A wide grin spread across Ixiel’s face as he continued to recite his spell and his eyes shimmered with a sickening ruby gleam. The traitorous King Aurleon gasped, then fell to his knees, clutching his chest. For the second time, he had been cut down. The Knight was overwhelmed by disbelief.
At the same moment, a wave of screams exploded from outside the cavern, louder and more frantic than any Aveline had ever heard. The Knight spun away from Aurleon and Ixiel to assess the situation behind, but she could not see beyond the gathered soldiers. When Aveline looked to the army she had blindly led here, she saw dread and despondency on even the most hardened faces.
From the unseen fray, individual voices were extinguished as suddenly as they had been raised. The cries of tormented souls became disturbingly quiet. Aveline commanded her forces to retreat, but it was too late. Any semblance of martial discipline evaporated. Through the chaotic escape attempts, she saw a wall of darkness consuming her forces. Before long, the true terror of the Archwizard’s plot was made clear.
As the Knight watched, each of her soldiers was consumed by obsidian. Black crystals of shadow grew from the floor and creeped upward until the struggling victims’ bodies were encased. Smooth, soundless blocks glowed where brave warriors had stood but seconds before. Aveline realized the fate of the city’s inhabitants, and the disastrous fate of humanity should she fail here. This had been a trap all along. She turned back toward Ixiel, intent on slaying the fiend.
But before the Knight could take a step, her feet were frozen in place by the shadows. Within moments, cold darkness began to spread up her legs. Aveline was aghast. Her enchanted armor slowed the obsidian’s progress, and Durendal destroyed what it could, but the spell was impossible to stop. She desperately searched her memories and experience for an answer. Against all hope, she called to the bleeding King at her feet.
“My King! I beg you, stand and stop this madness!”
Aurleon spat a mouthful of blood, but brought one knee up, and then the other. Amidst the tempest, he rose with a quiet composure, the symbol on his hand glowing brightly. His tear-filled eyes finally met Aveline’s. “I am sorry, my Knight. What little hope I had has died. I thought your sacrifice would mean salvation. But the scourge of Tyrannus is upon us and I have failed you. How can men stand against such power?” Behind him, Ixiel was immersed in darkness, cackling. Aurleon looked at the sigil on his hand, then back at Aveline. Her grime-covered face was streaked with tears.
“But perhaps there is still a way.” Aurleon held his hand out to Aveline. The Knight clutched it desperately as the obsidian grew around her waist. The blood-covered King closed his eyes and began to speak in the demon’s tongue. “Sigillum aeternitatis tibi assigno. Tuum fatum daemon, Tyrannus, adligatur aeternaliter. Dum ardet, simul scintilla animae ardebit.” The symbol on his hand exploded in light and disappeared.
Aurleon opened his eyes and looked again at the Knight. “Our hopes go with you.” He smiled, then collapsed. The King was dead.
Aveline had no words and little hope. The Knight clenched her fist tight around her sword as the void washed over her...
To read more, visit The Archive.