Everywhere Aveline looked, tall trees the color of ash stretched to the gloomy sky. Their massive trunks formed a nigh-impenetrable wall through which she caught occasional glimpses of shifting shadows. She wondered if she was being watched, being followed by some dark minion, but upon consideration realized she didn’t mind. It was not the sigil that quelled her worries. Though she would not seek a fight, the Knight knew her troubled heart longed for the chance to exercise its sorrow.
As Aveline walked, threads of dusty sunlight caught in her eye for a fleeting moment and then vanished. Bare, skeletal branches tangled above like a lattice of bony arms, creaking and groaning with each frigid gale. The decomposing leaves of autumn gathered on the edges of the overgrown path where the once-trampled grass had regrown and flourished. If anyone had been this way since her imprisonment, it had not been for some time.
Again, the piercing howl of a fell beast reverberated through the lonely mountain forest. The Knight stopped to listen and judge the distance, but in the ominous quiet thought better of lingering. She brushed a strand of wind-blown hair from her eyes and continued walking.
Hours passed. Her stomach growled. Aveline had never been one for herbalism, but even to her untrained eye, the vegetation seemed inedible. She spotted the silhouette of a plump owl and smiled at her luck, but by the time she prepared her bow, the creature had flown. She resolved to walk with bow in hand, arrow nocked and at the ready. To silence her armor was Aveline’s most ardent wish, but she knew that in the wilds of Valerius, abandoning it even to hunt was unwise.
At each junction, the Knight plumbed the depths of her murky memory and struggled to remember the path that would take her west toward more familiar lands, toward “home.”
Between her true parents and the surrogate fatherhood of Roland, the battlefields of Valerius were the only home she had ever known. Young as she was despite her age, Aveline could not help but think of muddied fields and loyal horses. The common bond of brothers- and sisters-in-arms, echoed in battle cries and laughter alike. Fires as tall as greatbears lit up the nights and reflected in blades sharpened before the morning’s skirmish. Days were filled with hunting and training and learning and fighting. And though Aveline was raised in the shadow of hardship and horror, she could think of no better home. She missed her comrades, her parents, and the regimented, simple life she came to master. The Knight shook her head and pressed on.
An errant elk startled her from her reverie. Upon spotting it, Aveline froze. A solemn kinship momentarily warmed her chest. It grazed alone, rack of majestic antlers atop its head, with a serene calm that seemed curiously out of place in the dismal forest.
Aveline feared the loud, monstrous voice of her exasperated stomach would frighten the creature away. Her mouth began to salivate as she raised her bow and shifted her feet. Having always preferred the blood-warming dance of close combat, the cold calculation of archery was never the Knight’s calling. She hoped now that her mediocre skills had not degraded yet further since last she practiced. She thought of Roland and his effortless draw and casual release. Aveline breathed in, pulled the string back, and attempted to mimic the smooth motions her father had demonstrated time and again.
Tensed arms trembled with hunger. The Knight focused her eyes and loosed the arrow. It sailed aimlessly past the stag and sank its sharp point into a nearby tree. Alarmed, but too proud to know better, the beast raised its head in confusion and glanced from side to side, trying desperately to deduce what was happening.
Aveline cursed herself quietly and crouched low. She nocked another arrow, breathed deep, and with as little thought as possible, stood to shoot again. The second arrow blinked through the air to lodge itself in the elk’s chest. The beautiful, horned animal squealed in surprise, a jet of steam erupting from its mouth. Blood poured down its legs.
As it bounded into the forest screaming in terror, Aveline tossed the bow over her shoulder and ran after her prey. The elk leaped through thorny bramble and over decayed branches, leaving a bloody path in its wake. Aveline sprinted as fast as she could, but could hardly overcome the impairment of armor and malnourishment. Twigs snapped beneath her boots. Leaves scattered behind her stride. Within minutes, she lost sight of the creature among the column-like trees and was forced to track it by a vibrant trail of red droplets.
Subdued by distance, but closer than before, another thunderous roar issued forth. Aveline picked up her pace, hoping to make camp and restore her strength before she need face the cry’s source.
Almost an hour into the pursuit, the elk’s desperate escape led the tired Knight into a clearing. Leafless trees stood like sentinels around the edges of the well-defined forest circle. At the center of the unnatural space, a grey stone monolith had been erected. Weathered, cracked, and covered on one side in grey-green moss, it seemed the statue had long occupied the space, but at some point been forgotten.
Beyond the monument, at the far edge of the clearing, the elk lay on its side, still and dead. Wisps of steam rose into the cold air from its overheated body. Fearful of jealous predators, Aveline assessed the clearing before moving into the open. The Knight approached the monolith. Etchings that may have once been names were illegible, scoured by age and neglect.
Without warning, a loud commotion stirred in the forest behind. A herd of near-hysterical elk trampled between the trees and into the glade, galloping heedless past the Knight and the statue. Aveline pressed as close to the grey stone as she could, hoping to find temporary sanctuary among the torrent of crazed animals. She wondered with grave concern what would cause them to behave in so reckless a manner.
She need not wonder long.
Branches snapped and cracked like lightning amid an oncoming cacophony. An enormous, obsidian demon several times taller than a man burst out of the wilderness, sprinting on four thin, spider-like legs. Sharp, crystalline claws dug deep into the soil and tossed clumps of mud and grass with each dreadful step. Atop its head, two large horns extended far out over a jet-black body, a grotesque mockery or dark mutation of the proud elk Aveline had hunted.
The Knight stepped out of the shadow of the monolith and drew her sword. An eyeless face turned toward her. Shocked to see the human, the demon immediately abandoned its primal chase. The last of the elk disappeared into the forest. With a loud, familiar roar, the monster reared up on its hind legs and launched at the Knight. The demon was fast and Aveline too slow. She had barely enough time to raise her weapon and blunt the vicious attack. The blade absorbed much of the blow, but like razors, the creature’s talons raked her sword arm, slicing the flesh. The Knight cried out and tumbled back across the space, thrown like a stone by the force of the impact.
Though her hand still clutched Durendal, the arm would no longer respond to her panicked commands. Bright blood poured from the deep gash onto the grass. It was the most grievous wound she had ever suffered and could not decide what hurt more: the raw injury or her shameful ineptitude. As the exhausted Knight struggled to stand, the shadow-born behemoth howled and charged again. In a moment, it was nearly upon her.
Suddenly, a short spear launched out of the shadows at the edge of the clearing. The javelin embedded itself in a tree with a wood-splintering thud and a thin line attached to the weapon snapped up, taut and ready. Before it could stop its assault, the demon stumbled over the ambush and toppled to the ground. Its mess of dark, crystal limbs crashed together as the creature muttered a furious howl.
“Who?” The Knight looked around through bleary eyes. A small hooded figure, clad in armor and carrying a small shield, appeared beside her. “So…short?”
“The name’s Faolan. Tall, short, whatever, I’m swifter and smarter than you.” Faolan threw back the green hood to reveal the face of a young girl, no more than 14 or 15 years old. A condescending smirk spread across her lips. The long braid of her brown hair swayed on the breeze. With a start, the girl looked close at Aveline’s wounded arm, where the skin and tissue were already reknitting themselves. A vibrant red glow emanated from beneath the Knight’s gauntlet where the sigil did its work.
“Watch and learn, witch.” Faolan secured her shield on her forearm and whipped a blade out from a slightly oversized scabbard strapped to her hip. Dumbstruck and perplexed, Aveline watched as the brave girl sprinted with abandon toward her tangled foe.