Chapter 1

A Knight's Resolve, Part 1

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.