Aveline awoke from her restless slumber with a start, the air around her still and cold. The hairs on her neck stood on end and her skin flushed with terror. Having emerged into gloom, the Knight was for a moment possessed of an unshakeable certainty that escape had been an illusion; that she had been dragged back into the void and her time with Roland was nothing but a dream, conjured by that evil place to compound her suffering.
A cloud of milky breath, given form by the cold, drifted upward. Aveline’s eyes adjusted. The long moment of panic subsided. Illuminated by hazy sunlight from behind her, hundreds of black statues stood silent, crowded and inert. They looked down on her like tall, crystalline coffins.
After an endless season of dark imprisonment, the Knight was free.
Aveline arose from the floor and collected herself. She sheathed Durendal in its scabbard and checked the contents of her pockets and pouches, hoping to find something that would satisfy a painfully empty stomach. To her surprise, a handful of hazelnuts had survived the ordeal, miraculously preserved. Without a second thought, Aveline devoured them with joyful abandon.
The space was suffused with a frigid temperature that set the Knight’s bones to shivering. She gathered the once-celebrated blue cloak and wrapped herself tightly. Beneath the gauntlet on her left hand, the sigil glowed, pulsing in time with the rhythm of her heart. Aveline remembered the late King Aurleon and looked for his body, but no sign of it was to be found. No bodies remained, even those who had died before Ixiel sprang his trap.
As she walked between the stone coffins of her comrades toward the sun-lit entrance of the obsidian tomb, water welled in Aveline’s eyes. So many spirits quelled, voices silenced. She thought of the men and women’s families and wondered what had become of them. Did they know what fate had befallen those here? Did they know of the King’s betrayal? The Knight blinked back tears and kept moving, uneager to dwell.
At the edge of the obsidian cavern, she reveled in the light. The sun hung low in the sky, half-hidden behind shadowy wisps of fog and cloud. But what few rays escaped to touch Aveline were revelatory. Surrounded by the remains of boundless misery, the Knight drank in the light as if her humanity depended on it. Her armor warmed, her face brightened, she felt alive and was grateful.
The Knight breathed the crisp air and assessed the dead city of Monticolus before her. Everywhere she looked, countless flat-faced black monoliths cluttered the square and streets, reflected by small pools of gathered rain water. An oppressive shroud of quiet seemed draped over everything, disturbed only by the intermittent howling of chilly mountain winds. The decaying scent of autumn lingered on the air. Indecipherable flags, shredded and obscured by time, flapped on wind-worn poles. Arrogant vines, untamed by human hands, grew up between cracked cobblestones and covered many of the eroded walls. Homes, stores and houses of worship, once loved and oft-visited, stood empty and decrepit.
There were no signs of humanity. No evidence of beast or bird. As Roland had warned, it seemed decades had passed and this place abandoned to its cursed fate.
“West, he said.” Aveline had seen enough. She nodded to herself, then made her way down the steps and into the street. She walked slowly to avoid the obsidian blocks, back the way her army had come so many years before. Abandoned by frightened soldiers in the turmoil, a smattering of weapons littered the ground. Most were broken and useless, except for a polished blackwood shortbow that decades later seemed in perfect condition. The Knight gave thanks to the craftsman and collected it, as well as a quiver and a handful of arrows.
Accelerated by the stone walls that guided the streets, gale after gale screamed through Aveline. The blue cloak wrapped around her shoulders flapped violently as she grasped the hilt of her sword for stability. She grimaced and kept walking.
As she passed the city walls, the Knight silently renewed her pledge to the faithful warriors who had entered the city never to return. Should she walk free when so many had fallen, their sacrifice would not be in vain. The gift of life would not be wasted. As her father had counseled, despair and guilt and grief were of little use to her now. For the sake of Valerius and the humanity of its people, Aveline vowed that Tyrannus and its puppets would be driven back into the lightless void from whence they came.
Ahead of her, the mountain path was overgrown. Razor-sharp tall grasses and leafless gray branches twisted together, a mass of foreboding forest. Enormous trees loomed, ominous and covered with bark like weathered slate. No light seemed to penetrate the dense canopy. Swaying shadows awaited within. The Valerian wilderness had always been perilous and unforgiving. What unnatural, unspeakable horrors now lurked in the dark?
In the distance, from somewhere inside the dark forest, a wretched roar tore forth. Flocks of black birds took wing and quickly disappeared in a cloud of panicked squawks. As she watched the animals flee, Aveline gripped her sword more tightly. What foul creatures would be so unfortunate as to stand in her way? The Knight grinned and strode with purpose into the untamed forest. The journey had begun.
Unbeknownst to the Knight, a white fox watched her with preternatural interest. Sitting impassively at the edge of the city, its small, black eyes observed her every move. As Aveline mustered her resolve and stepped into the forest, it waited a moment, then darted off on some mysterious business.