Chapter 1

A Knight's Resolve, Part 2

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 had 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.