It was almost impossible to look at Roland given how much time Aveline had spent in the gloom. His radiance drove back the dark. Aveline’s eyes took time to adjust and after an impatient moment of waiting, she managed to look at the figure. The strange circumstances aside, she had never been so pleased to see her father.
“Hello, Aveline. It’s been… too long.” Roland’s voice sounded hollow and far away. As if heard across the distance of a lake, it lacked the forceful warmth with which Aveline had once been so familiar. The apparition returned her smile with his lips, but his eyes were impassive and expressionless. The Knight worried her father’s appearance was some new torment, specially crafted by Ixiel to magnify her suffering.
Roland towered over Aveline, and though he carried himself with his usual confidence, she could see his once resplendent armor was battered and torn in places. He looked tired, worn out. But here, in her lowest moment of shame, she wanted nothing more than to impress him and hide her failure. She struggled to maintain her smile and match Roland’s presence, but as the shock of his appearance subsided, she found her elation crumbling to embarrassment. A thousand questions raced through Aveline’s head. It was difficult to start.
“How is this possible?” Aveline moved closer to Roland and held out a hand. Roland grasped it firmly. Tears welled in Aveline’s eyes. The Knight struggled to regain her composure. Her heart beat rapidly in her chest. “Seeing you here, I can hardly believe it. Your presence revives me.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Years of wandering this soul trap fearing the worst, and I finally find you healthy and whole. A welcome surprise. ” Roland’s grin expanded across his face and he chuckled. “Thanks to an excellent teacher, no doubt.”
“I don’t understand. So much has happened. Ixiel, the crystals, Aurleon…” Aveline stepped away from Roland and turned her back to him. She looked at the few soldiers who still remained, huddled together in the dark. They seemed on the brink of madness. A cold weight pressed down on the Knight’s heart. She knew she may soon be alone in this place. “I’ve failed, Roland.” She admitted this with a forlorn sigh of frustration.
“Where did you go? Why did you leave us? Leave me?” Aveline’s voice wavered with accusation.
“I know the hardships you’ve suffered. I’m sorry.” The Great Knight Roland stepped behind Aveline and touched her shoulder. His smile disappeared, his voice lowered almost to a whisper. “There is much you must know. Much still left to do. Please, let’s sit and talk like we used to.” He gestured to the obsidian floor and crossed his legs as he sat. Aveline looked again at her withering comrades. For their sake, she hoped this was not some foul deception. Trembling fingers wiped water away from her weary eyes. She would shed no tears in front of this man. The Knight turned and lowered to the floor within striking distance of the apparition. Durendal, unsheathed and ready, lay close by her side.
The two sat in silence for a time, before Roland finally began. “I see my sword has served you well.”
Aveline reached out and touched Durendal’s hilt. “How do I know you are who you appear to be?”
Roland thought for a moment. “Soon after I became your guardian, you woke me late one night. I swatted you away, exhausted by the day. Before long, you returned, and told me you couldn’t remember the faces of your father and mother. I looked into your bloodshot eyes. You were too young to be so racked with torment and guilt. I was a knight, not a parent. But I searched desperately for the right words and settled on these: ‘Aveline, time has made memories of many, but you won’t be one of them. Wherever you go, I will always be with you.’ I hugged you then. I’d never had cause to hug anyone before.” Roland paused, chuckled, and added, “And, well, here I am.”
Aveline lowered her head, as if meditating on his words. She wondered then if this were her own madness given shape, but shook her head and dismissed the thought, caught up for the moment in the memory of a time long past. Fingers crossed in front of her, she looked at Roland. A somber smile lifted her lips. “Tell me everything.”