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.”