Chapter 3

On the Path, Part 5

Shadows wrapped like shrouds around the trunks of the looming trees, suffusing every crevice with darkness. The last embers of daylight glowed beyond the edge of the mountain. Having abandoned the dead stag, the Knight’s empty stomach ached with hunger. Somewhere to the west a wolf’s lonely cry echoed through the forest and Aveline hoped the distant predator would give both her murders meaning.

On her back, Aveline felt the young girl, Faolan, shift. No matter how meager, any movement was reassuring. With the silver spear clenched between her tired arms, the Knight had walked the forest path for more than an hour with the unconscious girl carried behind her. The sigil had done its wicked work to repair the Knight, but still she felt on the verge of collapse herself. Uncertain of the terrain, Aveline hoped she was walking in the right direction; toward the nearest town and hopefully, the girl’s home.

When she stirred again, a low groan accompanied Faolan’s feeble movement. The Knight looked back over her shoulder. An ashen face, sullen with half-closed eyes, stared at the ground. She’d never had a talent for conversation, but Aveline attempted her most amiable tone.

“Good morning. Or, rather, good evening.” The Knight grinned.

When Faolan had fallen beside the evaporating, crystalline corpse of their abyssal enemy, the Knight had feared the worst. No amount of shaking, threats, or pleas would wake the brave girl. Exposed to the mountain cold and bleeding heavily, the situation was dire. Aveline tore a strip of the warrior’s mud-caked cloak and tied it tight around her companion’s red soaked torso. She had collected the silver spear, hoisted the girl onto her back, and made haste toward the path she’d abandoned.

Even now, Faolan offered no response; not even the disgruntled growl with which Aveline had become so familiar during their brief encounter. The Knight was prepared for energetic protest, but the unexpected silence took her by surprise. She cleared her throat and gave conversation another awkward try. After a long pause, she spoke again.

“Are we on the right path?” The Knight kept walking. One, two, three steps later Aveline asked, “Home?”

Faolan nodded without a word. Finally, she spoke in an accusatory monotone. “What’s left of it.”

Aveline considered this, then started. “You know, I’m not—“

“I know. Mother told me about the Knight Aveline – worshiped you since you led your army up the mountain…” Faolan trailed off, seemingly caught up in a memory. Her voice was weak and quiet, but steady. “Everyone thought you dead. But your wound, your youth… The demon said you bear a sigil. If you’re not a witch, then how?”

Aveline sighed and considered her strange tale. “It’s a long story; one I’m not sure I’m ready to share. You'll just have to trust me, I suppose.” Faolan snorted by way of response. Aveline looked ahead and said nothing for a long time, thinking about the time that had passed since last she walked in Valerius. Most everyone she had ever known was old or dead. The Knight’s heart grew heavy and cold beneath her sturdy armor. It was still too much to comprehend. She tried to change the subject. “About ‘Selene…’”

“Long story,” Faolan muttered sarcastically, a combative edge creeping into her harried voice. She shifted back, as if to dismount and escape the Knight’s care. A bolt of agony and an uncharacteristic cry of pain immobilized the young warrior. A crowd of previously silent ravens suddenly erupted in shock and took wing. Wincing, she admitted, “Hurts more than I expected.”

Aveline stopped below the creaking tree limbs and grinned. “With your injuries, I doubt you can walk.” She adjusted her grip on the spear and rebalanced the weight of the small girl on her back. As the sun set in the east, the cold would only intensify. With any luck, conversation would keep Faolan conscious and alive long enough to find help. Aveline remembered how the healers would speak with genuine interest to even the most irreparably wounded. "Words are life," they would intone, as if the sentiment should be self-evident.

Aveline continued. “You must have tracked that fiend a long way. I wouldn’t mind a story to pass the time, what with all of this work I’m doing.”

Faolan closed her tired eyes, breathing as shallowly as possible to avoid putting pressure on her ribs. The Knight kept walking. It was more than a dozen plodding paces before Faolan spoke. “In spring I was a daughter. By fall, an orphan." Here, she paused for a long time, then said, "My mother never said ‘no’ to anyone. A guardian’s responsible for the people. Those people, they loved her. Thought the world of her. When Ixiel rose and darkness spread, she fought to protect everyone she could. Built the walls stronger, trained the willing. She was fierce and skilled and taught me everything she knew, as her father'd done for her; said I’d one day pick up where they left off.” Faolan sniffed and wiped at her nose. Aveline need not look back to know tears were welling in the girl’s eyes.

The Knight tried to interrupt. “I’m sorry to have—“

The young warrior shook her head. “Stop. If I pass beyond the veil, she’d never forgive me not sharing our tale with her hero.” Faolan took a moment to recompose herself and continued, this time stronger and in the defiant tone Aveline knew, as if fueled by a bitter rage. “A strange woman appeared at the gate, begging for sanctuary. Threw her life upon my mother’s mercy, claimed she could help. Anyone with someone to protect was desperate for allies, for power. Beasts at our door and the witch knew things. She got food and shelter in exchange for knowledge, and for a time, things went well. But my mother was betrayed – kindness repaid with murder at Ixiel’s word. My mother survived long enough to protect me, but the witch laughed and disappeared. If only I’d been—”

"—Stronger?" This time, Aveline interrupted her injured charge. The Knight thought of the soul trap and the void; her frustration and despair. She knew too well the dangers of such thoughts and the impenetrable walls they could quickly erect. Aveline stopped walking and then spoke in the strong tone Roland had always used when she was at her most disheartened. “Your mother sounds like an excellent guardian. She obviously taught you well. I would have been honored to meet such a formidable warrior.”

Faolan wiped water from her eyes, unwilling to cry in front of the Knight. Aveline walked on. “The cowards she loved abandoned the guardianship, thought Selene and her kin marked by Ixiel. I guess we were. In less than a year, they forgot my mother’s example, her sacrifice. None would step forward to serve, so come veil and void, I took the job and here we are.” The girl tried to chuckle, but her pained breath caught in her throat.

“And where is here?” Aveline's heart broke with every of Faolan's words. She felt responsible, like she should say something more chivalrous and noble, but the words would not come. On her back, she could feel Faolan start to shiver as the last light was consumed by the horizon and knew her injured companion could not survive long in the dropping temperature.

Between chattering teeth, Faolan muttered, “Beyond this bend.”

The pair stepped out of the desolate forest onto a stony precipice. Below them, the flat expanse of a plateau stretched between two tall mountains, dotted here and there with patches of dead grass and trees. On the edge of the plateau, a square of wind-worn stone walls had been built around a small gray village. The corner closest to the Knight appeared destroyed, the rubble fresh and dusty. Around the walls, a handful of ragged farms were barren in the last days of autumn. A few goats grazed on meager vegetation, but most were huddled together for warmth in simple wooden shelters. 

Past the village, a modest quarry had been carved into the opposite mountain and provided the materials for the town. More than two dozen low structures filled the space inside the walls and among them, small flames of candle light were igniting in response to the coming dark. Thatched roofs covered most of the homes, and out of a few, plumes of smoke rose to the gloomy twilight sky. At the center of the village, a foreboding obelisk – identical to the one destroyed earlier – stood isolated. Far taller than any other structure, it seemed to watch over the hamlet with a threatening air.

As Aveline looked at the place beneath them, tiny flecks of white began to fall before her eyes. A blast of uninhibited wind tore across the space, pelting the weary travelers with flurrying snowflakes. The sunset's ephemeral aura vanished and night descended in earnest. The black blanket of the overcast sky blocked out all starlight and covered the mountain in deepening darkness.

Faolan tapped on the Knight’s shoulder. “Welcome to Stone. Put me down. Won’t be carried like a child among those here.”

Aveline dropped the girl to the ground. Faolan landed with a small, muffled cry. Doubled over with hands on her knees, she took a short breath and then stood as straight as possible. The girl gripped her side tightly as she flipped her long, rust-colored braid of hair over her shoulder. On her back, the large silver shield glimmered through smears of dirt and mud, faintly reflecting what little light penetrated the clouds.

Aveline held out the silver spear, aware now of how much it meant to the girl. “Your mother’s?”

Faolan nodded, took the beautiful weapon, and leaned on it. After some seconds, she muttered, “Thank you.” 

The Knight smiled and stretched her arms, the etched plate on her shoulders clattering. Her own weapon, the long sword, Durendal, hanged at her side. She touched it and thought again of Roland and the things every person carried from people long past.

Without explanation, Aveline removed her warm blue cloak and wrapped it around Faolan. Aveline held the brash young warrior's shoulders, looked at her face, and explained. "My mother's." 

Faolan blushed, but did not protest. Beads of cold sweat dotted her pale forehead. The Knight grinned again and hoped her eyes did not betray her own sadness. Side by side, she and the Guardian started down a set of precarious steps carved into the mountain, toward the cold village of Stone. 

Chapter 3

On the Path, Part 4

Streams of shadow poured from the demon’s severed limbs and rose like smoke into the cold evening air. The massive obsidian body, terrible in its impenetrable negation of light, twisted in the grass and churned up the stony soil. For a long, awkward moment, Aveline and Faolan watched their enemy struggle until finally, the creature ceased its feeble writhing with a grumbling whimper.

It sat very still, assessing its minute opponents with a smooth, featureless face. Seconds, passed, then words formed in the void of the demon’s open jaws.

“A blue cloak. An enchanted sword. A human bearing a sigil…” The Knight raised an eyebrow in surprise; her young companion looked on in indifference. The creature’s voice was possessed of an ethereal listlessness, as if it were indifferent to the violent trauma it had sustained. It tilted its head to one side and extended a grotesque, glassy neck to sniff the air nearest the Knight. Aveline stood her ground and endured the thing’s wretched breath. It stank of death and rot. She gazed into the crystalline visage, where Faolan’s silver spear was still embedded, surrounded by a spider’s web of dark cracks. She thought of abandoned, snowy streets and dreadful, obsidian statues.

“The Knight Aveline, indeed,” the demon casually remarked.

“What do you know of me, fiend?” Aveline readied her still-shining blade again, eager to threaten the arrogant creature with further injury. She raised it to point at the creature’s face and spread her feet wider in case she need strike. “What do you know of Ixiel?”

The creature retracted its neck and opened its black mouth to utter a loud, thundering peel of laughter. Any animal that remained in the vicinity would surely have fled at the sound of such mirth. The monstrous rack of antlers atop its head rocked back and forth, the lattice of dark, matte surfaces drinking in the dying light of the day.

“Know of you? Of Ixiel? So many things.” Like liquid smoke, the sounds of the demon’s voice suffused the atmosphere. It turned its expressionless head to the east to look past the trees, toward the sky, where the setting sun dropped below low, grey clouds. For a brief time, bright rays of unfiltered light pierced through the gloom. The demon seemed transfixed, face aimed at the incandescent globe, as if committing the image to memory. “I know I couldn’t care less about your posturing and threats, but that one there, she doesn’t look good.”

The demon nodded languidly toward Faolan. Reluctant to take her eyes off her opponent, Aveline glanced at the girl. Waiting on one knee with eyes narrowed, breath ragged, body heaving, the young warrior appeared to be in tremendous pain. Dark splotches of blood soaked one side of her green cloak and a smattering of cuts covered her face. With few resources at her disposal, the Knight knew a healer’s skills were required. For a brief moment, Faolan met the Knight’s gaze. Though Aveline nodded in assurance, the girl turned away in defiance.

Exhausted and starving, the Knight sighed. “Your concern does us a great honor.”

“Ha, yes. Sarcasm. At a loss already, brave knight? So worried, so uncertain. You play at courage, but fear consumes you. How you managed to escape a soul trap is beyond me.”

Aveline’s mouth dropped open with a start, before she caught herself and snapped it shut, but the lapse in control did not go unnoticed. “Ah, I know all about that. As do all the void-bound. A young knight, alone in the darkness and cruelly sustained by the Sigil Immortalitas. It’s enough to make one such as I cry! Or laugh.” The creature’s body shook again with a rumbling chuckle.

“But my sympathy has its limits. You see, when this animal’s body dies, I’ll return to the shadow of the abyss, exiled again to the darkness you escaped. Sure, it’s my home, but it’s so… empty. A lifeless reflection of this earth humans take so for granted. You understand. You’ve been there.” There, the demon paused. When it spoke again, its voice grew more agitated by the word. “But in your arrogance, you stole this from me. For Ixiel and Tyrannus and their nonsense, I bear no love. Some of us just want to watch the sun set! But I’m told to kill the knight and like a good soldier, rush out to have MY LIMBS HACKED OFF!” Its mouth snapped open again and again with violent fury. The heaving obsidian body reared back ineffectually on its hind claws in frustration.

The Knight stepped between the creature and Faolan, ready to deflect an attack. Aveline addressed the beast in the most confident tone she could manage. “Your master knows of my escape and my whereabouts?” The worry in her voice was nearly impossible to conceal. Had Faolan not arrived moments earlier, Aveline was sure her death was all but assured, regardless of the sigil.

“Oh yes, knight. Oh yes. You are known. And so long as you bear that sigil, you are bound to the shadows of the abyss. My kind will track and find you wherever you roam. There will be no rest. There will be no home. Our teeth and claws and hatred will dog you until the end of your days." There were no lips to curl on the creature’s expressionless face, but even so, a biting sneer was evident in its words. "And those appear to be endless, so I bid you good luck in the hunt. Tell me – and this I’ve always wondered – do you think good king Aurleon was trying to help or hurt you?”

Aveline was speechless. Roland had not mentioned any of this. Perhaps he had not known, but how could the Knight make it across a continent in the face of such circumstances?

“And you, little one, what do you think will happen to your precious village, should you assist our enemy? The same fate that befell your pathetic mother awaits you, child. Betray the knight now and save yourself the heartache, guardian.” Uttered by the beast with searing disdain, the last word seemed to stir something within Faolan.

Roused from her injuries by the thing’s threats, the girl controlled her breathing and raised her head to stare with unyielding intensity at the monster. Her eyes smoldered with hatred, the pupils two shining black pinpricks. Rays of yellow sunlight bounced off the pristine, polished surface of her shield to illuminate a head of auburn hair that blazed like fire.

Aveline sensed control of the encounter slipping away and feared the outcome should the creature recover and Foalan be goaded. She strode toward the black, featureless face and grabbed the young warrior’s silver spear embedded there. In one hard pull, the Knight wrenched it from the obsidian, twisting the shaft in her hand so as to inflict even more discomfort and damage. Howls of pain exploded from the black jaws. Aveline tossed the spear to Faolan, who stood and caught it. Without a word of gratitude, she propped herself up with the weapon.

But despite its pain, the beast would not relent in its mockery. Between agonized roars, it continued.

“What was her name again? ‘Selene,’ or some nonsense?” As the demon spoke, the young warrior’s spear trembled, clenched tight within her fist. The weapon towered over her, much longer than she was tall. She stood perfectly still, as if her body resided outside of time, completely engrossed in the empty chiding of the dark creature. Aveline knew not of whom the demon spoke, but the very mention of the name seemed to transform the girl. Bravado and grace had been replaced by silence and seething. Her face was a stern mask of placid disinterest that did a poor job of hiding the turmoil in her heart.

“Faolan, pay this fiend no mind. Let’s be done with this.” The Knight brandished her sword and stepped toward the girl to rest a comforting hand on her shoulder, but the impenetrable quiet of her companion immobilized her. The Knight knew exactly the pain and anger that now tormented the girl.

The void dweller continued its barrage. “Well, whatever it was, she died.” The creature chuckled again. “Poorly, as I recall.” Its grating simulation of laughter grew to a bass thunder that shook the enormous obsidian body. Puffs of steam rose into the evening air to swirl among the plumes of shadow.

Faolan had heard enough. Tears welled in eyes the color of night, darkened by the dying light of the day. Face twisted by unbridled rage, the straight line of her lips became a stark grimace. Without a word of response to either the demon or Aveline, Faolan buried her spear point in the cold soil, drew her short sword again and approached the dismembered creature. Within three paces, the thing opened its mouth to no doubt utter some taunt, but before it could, she was upon it in a flash.

With almost invisible speed, the young warrior ducked below the demon’s head and sliced up, into its unnaturally long neck, screaming with determination as she did so. The short, silver sword cut far deeper than it ever had before. Black shadow burst from the wound and a rain of crystal sprinkled to the grass. With its mouth still agape, the creature’s head tilted to the left, then tumbled down. The twisted rack of antlers atop its head crashed and splintered as the last breath of life escaped the demonic creature. 

The creature lay motionless and silent. Aveline watched as the crystalline skin evaporated to reveal the headless body of a disfigured elk. Once proud and beautiful, it had been transformed by the soul-invading demonic shadow. Above the skeletal forest canopy, the sun continued its slow descent below the horizon.

An icy wind tore through the demolished glen and the Knight shuddered to remember the long-dead prey that had brought her there. Beside her, Faolan surveyed her handiwork and struggled to catch her breath. A sly grin of satisfaction played on her lips. Aveline breathed deep and moved to address the brave, headstrong girl who had saved her life, but a step away, the green-cloaked warrior collapsed to the ground beside her disintegrating enemy.

Origins of Evil, Part 5

Editor's Note: This entry was submitted by contributing writer Mauricio Wan. It is the fifth in a series exploring the origins of A Knight Adrift's antagonist, Archwizard Ixiel. To read previous entries, visit The Archive. Enjoy!

Ixiel the Loyal. Ixiel the Corrupt. What songs do they sing of thee? What epics recited in the lonely night's caterwauls, what is sobbed in the downward torrents of heaven's tears? What do they chant in graveside requiems?

Aren was a fool.

Ixiel reminded himself of this fact as he stormed through the castle fortress, late night urgency calling him from his studies. The King was a fool, lost in wine and women and the lazy dissipation of those who acquire power despite their flaws, whose only achievement in later life was the appointment of a young and somewhat impertinent Archwizard. In days past, he had been renowned for his sword arm and defended his throne in single combat against a rebellious brother and two cousins. But if any remnant of that man remained upon his death, Ixiel had not seen it.

Aren was useful. He was a tool through which great works could be accomplished.

Ixiel dismissed the voice with a flick of his hand. “Vreni. The wine?”

His apprentice looked up at him. She was good and loyal, if not overly smart, and about the only person Ixiel could say he trusted. “I added the sleeping powder, the guard should be fast asleep.”

“Good. Go to the barracks. Remember as I taught you. Make sure the doors are not breached.” Vreni bowed and scurried off, shrouded and mouse-like, disappearing down a stairwell. Hand-picked by Aren’s brother, Gerwald, the guards could not be trusted. It was better if they were removed from the fight.

Killing them is the only way to be free of their treachery.

Ixiel had no time for the voice’s second guessing and abhorrent directions. As he rounded a corner he nearly crashed into a liveried servant whose frantic pace was slowed only by the weight of the stolen silverware he carried in his arms.

“Where's the chief steward?” Ixiel demanded, grabbing the man by the collar. Goblets and candlesticks clattered to the floor.

“He—he—he fled. Some hours after sunset.”

“Is there no man still loyal to his king?” Ixiel fretted aloud with a hint of sneering sarcasm as he flung the servant to the floor.

The Archwizard met Great Knight Roland in the hall outside of the throne room.

“What do you want, sorcerer?” he asked brusquely.

“I stand with the King, Knight.”

Roland snorted at the suggestion, but Ixiel let it pass with a look of stoic indifference. Behind the King's most trusted warrior, he found but three retainers who had not forgotten their charge.

“Only four?”

“With you, wizard, we are five.”

“And our enemy?” Ixiel asked.

“The guards at the gate permitted Gerwald and a dozen of his men into the grounds. Along with the palace guard he could-”

“They are… occupied. Vreni has seen to it.”

Roland gave him a long, steady look, but did not voice any objection. “Unfortunate for them.”

“And what of the King?”

“He waits with his nurse on the throne.”

“It would not do to leave him alone. Few as we are, he should know that there are men still loyal to him.”

“Aye,” Roland agreed with uncharacteristic acquiescence. He nodded to his men, who then opened the door.

A six-year-old boy sat on the throne, shaken and confused. He was framed by a throne many sizes too large for him, feet dangling a foot above the ground. A crown sat in his lap rather than on his head. The long night had turned the once happy countenance of the boy into the wearied stare of a small man. His nurse glanced up from where she had been whispering lullabies and sweet stories and seemed to understand immediately that the boy's protectors were too few. The grim look of acceptance passed quickly and a soft expression more soothing took its place.

“Look, my lord. Great Knight Roland arrives.”

“Fear not, my king,” Roland boomed. His echoed loudly off torchlit stone walls. “Where few warriors stand after many flee, victory is but assured.”

Ixiel bowed formally before taking his place at the boy king's left side.

“We are at your service, my king.”

“Shall we bar the door?” one of the men asked, little more than a squire himself, of russet colored hair and few whiskers.

“Nay. They would sooner burn us out than surrender so easily. Nor do we hide from them. We will face the traitors and force them to dare meet eyes with us,” Roland commanded.

They were not long in waiting. Gerwald and his son charged into the room surrounded by his retinue, taking bold strides as if the keep were already his to command. A look of surprise wilted his fierce mask but for a second—no doubt he was confused as to how the king's guard had not already subdued a small child and his few supporters—though ruthless arrogance returned with doubled conviction.

“Stand aside, Roland, my quarrel is not with ye,” late Aren's youngest brother spoke. Fitting it was that he would seek to avoid coming to blows now, having laid low the last king with poisoned spirits.

“My sword arm stands for the king. It does not yield to pretenders.”

“'Tis your grave!” Wybert proclaimed boldly.

“Come boy, let us see who is destined for the coffin when you are not shielded by eleven better men.”

Gerwald stepped forward, his words were low and sharp like an assassin's dagger.

“We will cut you down, Roland.”

“So you say,” the Great Knight countered, unsheathing his sword and taking bold steps forward. Durendal, legendary in its own right, seemed to hum with the anticipation of combat. The conspirators retreated a step for each he took towards them. The other three prepared for a fight, their stiff bearing of fidelity giving way to a feline looseness akin to prowling lions. The boy king looked up at Ixiel, who was still dressed in preternatural calmness.

“Worry not, young Aurleon, brave men take up your cause. Our righteousness is your shield, our loyalty your sword.”

“Hold your blade, Roland,” Gerwald warned, “This is not your fight. I lay down challenge to the king under the Rite of Authority. He cannot rule by your prowess, but by his alone!”

“You snake,” Roland scoffed, “You low dog. You would challenge a six year old boy to single combat?”

“Boy? There sits no boy. You and your puppet sorcerer have contrived to make him a king. Thus he is a man by the law of the land and he is not above challenge from a worthy heir to the crown.”

Roland did not yield.

“I swear I will strike you dead before you engage in such mockery of our customs.”

“'Tis you who have turned the old ways into a farce, Roland.”

Ixiel looked at the boy. He wore his office with quiet dignity and a stoicism far beyond what any mere child could muster. Indeed, it was kingly dignity. Beneath his face was fear, anxiety, the confusion of one who does not understand the whys and wherefores of the world but is willing to submit to them nonetheless because that is what his station called for. Yes, this child brave, resolute, already a man of great character though his body would take years to grow into sturdy frame of his soul. More importantly, he had aptitude. Ixiel gave him a friendly wink.

Give me strength, old friend, Ixiel prayed, I need you now, Kerlan.

“Come now,” Ixiel said, walking forward with a step so light it was as if he floated. Underneath his cloak, a dark crystal began to glow, “Gerwald of Dunmarch, would you really sully your honor over such trivial interpretations?”

“I warn ye, witch, back from me or I will have your head.” Gerwald growled as he drew his sword.

“A would be king so brave he would challenge a child to combat shrinks before an unarmed man?” Ixiel mocked, “Surely, the taverns will be awash with tales of your bravery.”

“How dare you!”

“Keep barking,” Ixiel laughed though the blackness filling his eyes and sternness of his face betrayed his seriousness, “Like any dog unsettled. In the end, you will roll over and submit.”

“Back, I say!”

Ixiel cocked his head at the usurper.

Make him bow to you.

“Kneel before your king.”

Gerwald's sword hand trembled. His knees began to buckle.

“Kneel and swear fealty before your rightful lord.”

In his soul, Ixiel stood at the shores of a great dark lake. From beneath their still waters resonated power old and deep. As he drew from it a portion greater than he had before, he could sense an ancient hunger that was equal, if not greater, than the thirst he was about to quench.

Gerwald fell to his knees.  Presenting his sword before him on two uplifted hands, he bowed his head.

“I, Gerwald of Dunmarch, brother of Aren, King, and son of Leogriff the Valiant, do hereby pledge my sword to King Aurleon, rightful ruler of Valerius.”

A dozen men gasped in unison. Roland looked askance at Ixiel and hissed.

“Fool, what are you doing? You cannot settle this with magics!”

“I settle nothing,” Ixiel responded placidly, “The Lord of Dunmarch has merely had a change of heart.”

“Hellfire take you,” Wybert cried, “We will not surrender to you!”

“Surrender?” Ixiel asked, fixing his gaze upon the presumptuous warrior. “Have you no respect for your vows? Do you presume yourself a better man than your father?”

Wybert bowed his head and shook it curtly. Unsheathing his sword, he made himself prostrate on his knees before the king.

“I, Wybert, son of Gerwald of Dunmarch, cousin to the king, do also hereby pledge my sword to King Aurleon, rightful heir of Aren, King.”

Confused stares were exchanged by the standing retinue. An awkward air filled the room. Roland's soldiers shot amazed looks towards their master, whose face had become a dyspeptic grimace. The tension was broken by one of Gerwald's men, taking a knee behind his master.

“You have my sword,” he pledged.

“And mine,” said another.

“My shield for Aurleon.”

“Long live Aurleon.”

Before a minute was out they were all pledged to Aurleon, the boy king. Ixiel stood over them, arms at his side, looking down on them as one might toys that cluttered a playroom.

“Praiseworthy is your loyalty, Lord Gerwald, when friends of the king are ever few in these dark hours. Go forth and spread the word. Aurleon is High King of Valerius, by his right and his uncle's sword.”

A bitter frown warped Gerwald's face and tears pooled at the corner of his eyes.

“So be it. Long live the king,” he proclaimed. Sheathing his sword he stood and walked out through his obeisant men, who followed him quietly out the door. Only Wybert was so brazen as to cast a murderous look back at the king before he left. Even then it was a hollow gesture. In few moments the men mounted their horses and left the keep with its ruler still on his throne.

“You should take rest, Aurleon,” Ixiel advised, returning most - but not all - of the dark water to the lake. “You are safe for today.”

Roland's face was stern but betrayed nothing beyond loyalty. He nodded to his men who escorted the king and his nurse to the royal bed chambers. Once they were alone in the throne room, Roland turned on Ixiel.

“What have you done? What menace have you wrought?”

“He is but a boy, Roland. Are you so cruelly beholden to tradition that you would see him cut down before he can even wield a sword?”

“Cruel? Your trickery has bought us but one night. What happens when Gerwald returns with his own magics?”

“He will not return.” The Archwizard traced the throne's arm with his fingertips.

“And of the council?” Roland challenged.

“Worry not of the council,” Ixiel dismissed. “I will convene them in the morning. They will be brought to heel and made to understand that such backwards custom cannot be perpetrated on a child. He will be of age in a decade. Let the pretenders seek to challenge him when he may defend himself as is proper and fitting of a king.”

“Proper and fitting?” Roland seethed. “You pompous simpleton. And what happens for ten years while the kingdom roils under the rule of a boy installed by illegitimate means? Do you think there will be no challenges? No rebellion?”

“You will leave the court to me, Roland,” Ixiel said softly. “For that is the will of Aren. I will protect the lad from the intrigues of courtiers and teach him the ways of a ruler. You will protect him on the field. They will respect him for his deed. That boy was born to kingship. The lords and serfs of the land alike will come to see it.”

“Defend him in the field? And with whose blood shall I do that? And how much shall I spill before he is respected?”

“And what would you have done, Roland? Sent the boy to his doom to preserve the honor of an orphan and the uncle who saw to it that the king choked his last breath writhing in agony? All in the name of averting rebellion, which you and I both know is inevitable. You would willingly let the noble lamb to slaughter? Would you be so callous if it were Aveline in his stead?”

The Great Knight did not respond, but instead grabbed Ixiel by the throat and thrust the smaller man against the stone wall. Roland's eyes were wide with fury. Ixiel did not avert his narrow gaze.

“Keep the girl out of your slitherings, serpent. I'll not have you demean the child with your forked tongue.”

Ixiel's face remained tranquil though the breath was squeezed from him.

“Do not be simple, Knight,” Ixiel rasped. “We are unified in cause if not in means. I am not your enemy, nor that of the child or King. I know my place.”

Roland remembered himself and released Ixiel. The wizard massaged his neck. It was sure to bruise. Roland turned from the man and marched solemnly toward the chamber's exit.

“So arrogant you are,” Ixiel continued. Roland stopped but did not turn to face him. “How many campaigns did you lead for Aren? How many kingdoms subdued? Did you pay no mind to the fields that you burned? Do you not recall the farmers who starved as their meager stores were levied for your armies? Aurleon is a good child. He will be a better man and King than his father and maybe even bring peace to the land. For that, Great Knight, what cost is too steep?”

Roland did not answer as he left the room.

He cannot be trusted. He will seek to betray you, the shadows whispered.

“He will not,” Ixiel responded. He allowed himself a small grin of triumph. “I have him in the two things most precious to him. His daughter and his king.”

On the Path, Part 3

Before Aveline could speak, Faolan disappeared from her side and dashed toward the staggered beast, swift and silent as a wolf without a pack. The wounded Knight was captivated.

The girl was fast. Very fast. Aveline noticed that her small-statured savior wore no armor apart from the shield and wondered if madness or bravery were behind such reckless actions. She knew well how fine a line separated the two in the heat of battle.

The Knight tried to flex the fingers around her sword’s hilt, but to little effect. The right hand would not hold. With a groan of frustration, she grabbed Durendal in her armored left hand. Vision swimming from blood loss and hunger, she gathered her legs beneath her weary body and propped herself up with the weapon. A wave of cold shuddering washed over her. Before now the Knight had never been so grievously wounded and in that moment was made painfully aware she had in the past relied too often on her comrades for safety.

Beneath her gauntlet the sigil glowed more sickeningly bright than ever before. Aveline felt her mangled arm slowly repairing itself, the sensation bizarre and unsettling. She looked from the bloody wound to the young girl ahead and the dark enemy beyond. For the first time since the bleak nightmare of the void, the Knight was genuinely glad to have been so cursed. She parted her lips and gave quiet thanks to those whose souls restored her. Despite the girl’s obvious determination, Aveline would not allow anyone to face such a formidable foe alone.

The obsidian creature struggled to disentangle itself from Faolan’s trap and grew increasingly frenzied with each passing second. Wherever the line touched crystal skin, it seemed to burn, eliciting teeth-rattling shrieks of pain. Clouds of grey shadow rose from multiple points of contact and Aveline realized with surprise that Faolan’s wire was enchanted. Who was this girl, to be so armed?

Thin limbs cloaked in darkness swiped at their bonds. Great ditches were riven where claws thrashed. As the monster twisted and crawled, it rolled mindlessly around the clearing, trampling grass until it smashed into the tall, forgotten monolith at the center of the glen. Cracked blocks of time-worn stone thundered to the ground in a heap of ruin and dust around the creature. Finally, it righted itself and pulled against the spear anchored in the tree. A mass of roots exploded out from the soil as the tree toppled and the spear was dislodged from its home with a burst of tiny wood splinters. The beast celebrated with a roar.

The battle had truly begun.

Faolan raised her sword and shield and danced between the demon creature’s tall legs. She seemed possessed of unusual cunning, striking only when opportunity allowed, dodging and ducking when necessary. The small silver blade rent deep gashes in her enemy’s gloomy hide. And though the beast had the advantage of size, it was nothing compared to the young warrior’s speed. Where Roland had trained Aveline to exercise brutal efficiency, Faolan’s movements were beautiful; her body in harmony with the ebb and flow of the violence around her. 

Still, the Knight wondered how long she could sustain the attack before fatigue took its toll. No armor slowed her, but none would protect her if the tide turned for the worst. Aveline focused on clearing her vision and mending her arm, hoping she would not be too late to make a difference.

“Retreat and gather yourself!” The Knight shouted.

Faolan danced away from a thunderous blow that sent the frustrated beast sprawling. The young warrior moved to the edge of the melee and without turning responded. “Run and hide? Never. Expect as much from a witch.” The girl spat with disgust onto the trampled grass.

Aveline was taken aback and gaped in surprise. She muttered under her breath as Faolan advanced on her quarry with the swagger of confidence only the foolish can manage.

The dark creature and the callous girl engaged again in their brutal ballet. And though she acted the aggressor and her attacks were accurate, Faolan seemed to inflict no lasting damage. Each wound, too shallow to last, was in a short while regenerated beneath a swirling cloud of shadow. Cracked obsidian was quickly replaced by a dark glassy surface. And though the change was subtle, it was obvious the girl's strength was flagging, just as the Knight had feared. A grimace of frustration undermined her steely countenance. From one moment to the next her once graceful movements were slower, her reactions less harmonious, her breathing more ragged. White puffs of exhausted breath took shape around her head.

The beast grew impatient of the game and reconsidered its tactics. It turned its smooth, eyeless face toward the tiny human and backed away, lowering its great horned head. Jets of steam shot from its abyssal mouth as the creature dug its taloned limbs into the ground. A low avalanche growl reverberated from deep within it. Alarmed by this sudden shift, Aveline recovered herself and stood. Injury be damned, she could no longer sit idly by.

The creature charged. The Knight ran.

Faolan brought her shield up in time, but it was not enough. Long, black obsidian antlers struck polished silver with immense, unavoidable force. Like Aveline before her, the young girl was thrown backward and tumbled head over heel before sliding to a stop in the mud, the beauty of her battle but a memory. The girl did not move. The beast stamped and brayed in apparent victory before lowering its head to charge again.

Aveline needed time. She launched past Faolan to stop several yards ahead of the obsidian creature. There in the dirt, as she had hoped, the girl’s silver spear waited like a misplaced treasure. As the enormous monster trampled toward the Knight, she flicked the weapon up with her foot to catch it with her wounded hand. With no time to wonder if the arm had strength enough to throw, Aveline snapped the spear forward at the encroaching enemy. The enchanted javelin embedded itself with a crack in the twisted creature’s face. Shards of obsidian rained down as the monster howled in pain and frantically struggled to dislodge the weapon.

From behind the Knight, a small voice admonished her. “Don’t need your help. Leave me be, witch.”

A bolt of relief shot through Aveline’s heart, but she had had enough of this nonsense.

“You fight bravely, but I am no witch.”

Possessed now by a volcanic rage, the howling creature charged again at the Knight and the young warrior. Within striking distance, it reared up on its hind legs and thrust its talons as it had before. But this time, Aveline twisted aside to evade the blow, deflecting sharp obsidian with the flat plane of the sword’s blade. Her arm held fast against the onslaught.

“I am the Knight Aveline of the Kingdom of Valerius!”

She lifted Durendal and let the momentum of the weapon spin her body, blue cloak billowing behind her. Faolan watched in awe despite her misgivings. As the beast retracted its thin, crystalline arm, the Knight brought down her sword with a bold shout and a confident grin. Now was her chance.

The long sword glowed silver and white, the air around it hazy with the energy of her intent. Black crystal cracked and split. With one powerful slice, forearm was separated from body. The demon creature bellowed at the Knight, its frenzied jaws snapping open and hot breath spewing forth. The heat of the thing was overwhelming. Shadow gushed from the wound. The creature staggered, then crashed to the ground in a mess of dirt and darkness. Before it could recover, Aveline sprinted to the thing’s left arm and severed it as well.

Incapacitated and made vulnerable by the loss of its appendages, the creature stumbled backward away from the Knight, dragging its torso in the dirt. It seemed incapable of regenerating such trauma. Though she and Faolan were victorious, pity and regret flickered in Aveline’s heart, for it was not in her nature to inflict such cruelty.

But all thoughts of sympathy soon evaporated when the creature opened its mouth to speak…

Origins of Evil, Part 4

Editor's Note: This entry was submitted by contributing writer Mauricio Wan. It is the fourth (and a direct continuation of the third) in a series exploring the origins of A Knight Adrift's antagonist, Archwizard Ixiel. To read previous entries, visit The Archive. Enjoy!

Kerlan started every day the same: he found a decent-sized rock and just before sunrise sat on it until inspiration struck him. Together, he and Ixiel crisscrossed all of Valerius from rock to rock, going south one day, then east the next, before taking a northwest tack to catch a trail they did not seek. They never traveled the same direction. They never turned back.

"Ixiel, come," Kerlan shouted giddily in a dark dank cave. Ixiel appeared over his companion’s shoulder. "Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?" Clutched in Kerlan’s hand was an onyx crystal, so impenetrable a black that it seemed to suck the light from their meager lanterns and exist in a darkness deeper than shadow. 

"What is it?"

"A battery. Ancient magics. As old as the Sages themselves. This one’s been lost to us for... hundreds of years? More, maybe.” Kerlan turned the crystal over in his hand. He never took his eyes off it. “Incredible."

Ixiel was perplexed. Battery was something done to another with fists, or to the door of a keep with a ram.

"Come," Kerlan beckoned. "I will explain."

At their campsite, Ixiel’s companion was anything but forthcoming, staring deep into the dancing firelight. Ixiel was deeply curious, but respected the need for silence. He busied himself with a stew made from a winter rabbit coaxed from its burrow by a gesture and his will. While much of "Isidore" had been discarded, it was difficult to resist eating well. Ixiel ate heartily, watching the other man tinker. After leaving his stew untouched for a near quarter of an hour, Kerlan finally spoke.

"You remember the rhyme they taught you?"

Ixiel nodded and began to recite. "In the beginning there was--"

Kerlan waved him off.

"I remember it, gods how I remember it. I know it better than my own name. That's how hard it was beaten into me. No, you remember the part about the Sages’ battle with Tyrannus?"

Ixiel nodded.

"You ever wonder how the old ones were able to channel such powerful magics? The primordial demon is fueled by generations of hatred for man. It draws strength from our blood, our suffering, from our very souls. Today you can light a fire or snare a rabbit with your tricks, but you could not face such a foe."

Kerlan leveled a stare at his friend. He held up the crystal and continued.

"Not without a battery. In deep caves in the southwest there grows a crystal, reddish pink in color. The people of that land call it ‘heart crystal,’ a corruption of an old name. It is something closer to 'soul house' in our tongue. It is deeply magical, receptive to being imbued with even the most minor properties. Walkers who find it usually turn it into a light, or if they have talent with fire a sort of crystal flame they carry with them on cold nights.”

"But with powerful magic, there are great uses. I know you have felt it, when you are drawing on your power. You are standing at the edge of a great reservoir. Taking your finger you draw a small rivulet in the sand, just enough for you to taste and call forth whatever you need. You fear that if you draw too great a stream your soul will drown in its power…" The fire’s orange light flickered in the mage’s eyes.

Indeed, that was how it felt to Ixiel to call forth magic. When he first did it, he did not know how. He scooped into a well just enough to recreate a symbol he admired. It was only under Xiomendes' tutelage that he understood just how dangerous it could be to conjure magics by whim.

"That power, that thread, it fuels Tyrannus as well. He drinks from the same trough. For a man to fight him, he'd be killed trying to draw a fraction of that power. But many men together, drawing forth at the same time, could access a power at least equal to that of the demon. So, the Sages took all the heart crystal they could find and they imbued it with a thirst for magic. Each Sage carried a piece with him on the field of battle. As he fell, his essence filled the crystal and trapped his soul, so that a surviving comrade could draw from not only his own power, but that of his former allies as well.”

Kerlan smiled ruefully.

"You ever wonder why the Sages just disappeared after the battle against Tyrannus? It's because hardly any survived. They kept harvesting from one another until one of the last – who knows who that was – drew enough strength to overwhelm the demon and obliterate everything near. You been to the Avendar Wastes in the East? That place is still blighted from the magics used that day.”

"While it's true that magic allowed Tyrannus access to this world, it was also the only thing that could send it back. The wizards that saved Valerius should have taught the survivors that study and meditation and knowledge – not endless, pointless, barbaric duels – are the means of salvation. But only a few Sages remained; apprentices and those too weak for battle. They were hailed as heroes for a time, but never strong enough to ascend to true power. Even though we mend the veil of shadow between human and demon, we're consigned to wander like hermits and beggars, searching desperately for the old knowledge to make us fearsome again. Only a few are lucky enough to set up shop somewhere, and only then if they bow and scrape their way into a lord's court, paying flattery to the king and those of noble egos. The lauded chair of the Archwizard is but a joke. An empty ‘honor.’ This," he said, holding the crystal aloft, "is one of the few things I've ever seen that proves it wasn't always like this."

"So, there's a dead wizard inside?" Ixiel asked.

Kerlan looked at the crystal and pursed his lips.

"I'm not really sure, Ix. Could be any one, I guess. The only difference between a wizard and a commoner is that a wizard knows how to tap the reservoir. Some people can be taught the way, most cannot, but everyone can drink. It could be anyone in here, or maybe no one anymore. This could be all that's left of some used up someone."


For years the two scoured Valerius for more evidence of the crystal and how it was made. Though he was naturally weary of crowds, Kerlan led his companion through more and more towns, buying up the heart crystals that were sold as mundane love charms. Ixiel watched and absorbed, eager to glean what he could.

Kerlan grew obsessive. He read daily on the words of binding, trying to unlock just which combination might make a crystal receptive. At first he experimented with small game, plants that had deep roots and little feeling. Finding their essence insufficient, he quickly graduated to domestic breeds, catching cats and dogs and telling Ixiel in turns of the accidental nature of their death and then the righteousness of their sacrifice. Ixiel grew wary of his comrade, whose deep knowledge and offhand brilliance was increasingly tinged by the madness of his quest.

The madness ended ungracefully in a secluded barn. Kerlan stood over a small girl, holding a heart crystal and her father's hand axe. He was coaxing her with gentle words, promising immortality, when Ixiel found them. 

Ixiel was not aware just when the decision was made. Barely had he recalled a hiss and tremor of surprised laughter. He wasn't even sure he had acted until he felt warm blood pooling around the knife hilt thrust into Kerlan’s back. Ixiel collapsed forward with his friend, whose last rasping soliloquy filled the room with unintelligible lyrics. 

The knife that had culled so many rabbits had taken the life of a man. Ixiel crouched next to the corpse, dumbstruck with grief and disbelief. 

His vision swam and his stomach churned. His mouth hanged agape. For too long the air was thick and empty of thought. Finally, he looked up at the girl, who trembled visibly, but had yet to move. "You should leave," Ixiel told her quietly. He did not watch her go as he began to collect the remains of Kerlan.

Ixiel lit the pyre for his companion on a rock at the bend of a road. With firm resolve, he gathered the belongings that the mad wanderer had accumulated and pitched them into the fire. He picked up the heart crystal, the one Kerlan had held in his hand when he died. It was black and pulsing with vibrant energy. Ixiel could feel a soul stirring within. In that moment he felt it too cruel to condemn his friend to a second death. 

You can use these things. Better than him, a small voice promised from the dark.

Ixiel gathered up the scrolls and artifacts. Where his friend had sought power he would seek peace.