Roland spoke. “Before you were of an age to care, King Aren – Aurleon’s father and a slothful waste of a man – was assassinated. This extraordinary event sent the sovereign’s administration into hysterics. Aren’s predecessors had transformed the Rite of Authority into a farce, but Aurleon was still too young to legitimately compete and no one was keen to kill the child of a murdered monarch.” The tired, brilliant Knight sighed. “Ixiel persuaded the council that given the unusual circumstances, the burden of ruling should stay with Aurleon and his advisors until he was of age to defend his position. This blatant an inheritance of power was unprecedented.”
“Fate smiles on the fiend,” Aveline muttered sarcastically. The sorcerer’s influence was plain.
“Yes. Apparently Aren had considered this possibility, undoubtedly at the urging of Ixiel himself. And though the King depended on my skills for military success, he resented my personal popularity. Decades on the war fronts gained me a reputation among the soldiers and the people, but little in the way of respect from this man. When he deigned to look at me, I could see fear behind his eyes. It brought me no small measure of joy.” At this, Roland laughed to himself. For a moment, Aveline forgot her mounting anger and smiled at her father.
“Aurleon was six years old – the same age as you when we first crossed paths – and according to the King’s will, Ixiel was charged with the boy’s tutelage. Though I considered Ixiel’s appointment the crowning achievement in the long history of Aren’s mistakes, honor left me no choice but to abide by his wishes.” Roland rose from where he was sitting and paced back and forth, weary to recount what came next.
“As I raised you to knighthood, Ixiel raised that boy to servitude. Before Ixiel assumed control, Aurleon was a vigorous, confident child, who displayed a surprising aptitude for magic. But in each encounter with him since Ixiel became his tutor, it was more and more apparent he was suffering. A marked decrease in energy. A sallow, drained appearance. I had always been skeptical of Ixiel and his meritless appointment to Archwizard, but over the years, as the man gained more unbridled influence, my suspicions grew. I dispatched spies to track the man. The disturbing reports that returned spoke of nights alone and chats in darkened corridors with unseen collaborators in a foreign tongue.
“I tried desperately to counteract the Archwizard’s foul influence by tutoring Aurleon myself when I could, requesting his presence on the field whenever possible. But my duties as Great Knight called me far away from the capitol. There were military campaigns to manage and you to train.
“I hoped the King was not beyond reason. Ixiel was subtle and determined in his corruption, but his pupil had not yet been fully compromised. For this Aurleon had his kind-hearted sisters to thank. After more than a decade of waiting for the right opportunity, a chance finally presented itself. An empty attempt at diplomacy called Ixiel away and a voracious storm had delayed his return. I thought the fates smiled on my endeavor. We talked long into the night, me espousing tales of war, him asking after you.” Roland grinned at Aveline.
She blushed and looked away. “Get on with it, old man.” Roland sat back down, only a few feet from his daughter. When he spoke again, his voice was possessed with vehemence.
“I told the King I was troubled by a sensitive topic. A skilled magician in his own right, Aurleon assured me our conversation was safe from observation. Even so, we spoke in quiet, conspiratorial tones. I told him that I believed Ixiel was possessed of dark magic, and that after countless hours of observation, I suspected the primordial demon Tyrannus was Ixiel’s benefactor. I feared dismissal, but to my surprise, Aurleon responded in earnest. He confided that although he had learned much from the Archwizard, he also wondered about Ixiel’s intentions of late.
“Suddenly, Aurleon stopped talking. His mouth hanged open and his eyes were dark. A voice issued forth from frozen, motionless lips.” Roland paused. He thought for a moment, then shook his head and continued. “The voice was Ixiel’s. A grating laugh was followed by a cryptic warning: ‘Step lightly, Great Knight.’ I’d heard whispers of powerful magics, but this was a realm apart. Ixiel relinquished his control and Aurleon returned to himself. In that moment, it was clear: Aurleon’s rule had come to an end. Ixiel now controlled the fate of Valerius.”
Roland spoke rapidly, clearly distressed. “Despite his protests, I took my leave of the young King and fled the city. I knew there was nothing more I could do in Valerius. My hands were tied by my position. Uncertain of what time remained before catastrophe, I made arrangements to travel west immediately, where I hoped I would uncover a means to thwart the Archwizard. Unfortunately, this meant leaving you on the war front.”
Aveline interrupted. “I didn’t know what had happened to you. When Durendal arrived by messenger, I feared you were dead.”
“After years of training you, watching you grow into a formidable Knight, I had absolute faith in your abilities. You are the best I’ve ever seen. Perhaps even better than myself, unbelievable as that is.” Roland chuckled, saw Aveline was not amused, and cleared his throat. “I knew the weapon would serve you better than it would me.”
The Knight Aveline was overwhelmed by emotion. Betrayal, shame, and resentment flushed her cheeks and rushed her heart. “But why didn’t you explain? Alert me to the danger? Surely I could have helped you! When the King informed me of your disappearance, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that you would flee when we needed you most.”
“I had no idea what Ixiel was capable of, only that his power was surely beyond us. I feared for your safety and thought the less you knew of Ixiel’s machinations, the less of a threat you might be. I never anticipated you would be chosen to pursue the betrayer and lead the army. I’m uncertain if the choice was even Aurleon’s or Ixiel’s.”
“You suspect my command was orchestrated, perhaps as retaliation against you?”
“I don’t know. It’s easy to imagine the puppet master’s meddling – his long fingers reaching out to corrupt everything with their touch. Luring an army of thousands into a hopeless trap would be an inarguably effective means of clearing a path to unchallenged control. When word spread of your defeat, Aveline, I was devastated.”
“I tried to do what you would have. Be who you were – a legend, a hero.” At this, Aveline grew pensive. “And look where those efforts left us.” She looked around her, but there was little to see in the darkness. The few remaining soldiers muttered to themselves, distraught over everything they heard. Aveline could barely recognize them. It wouldn’t be long before they faded into oblivion like the rest. She wondered what fate awaited her, and whether Roland had a plan.
“I’m sorry, Aveline.”
The two knights fell silent. Aveline cast her gaze down at the floor between her boots. She absentmindedly traced the hilt of her sword with her fingertips. Roland sat cross-legged, watching Aveline.
Without explanation, the Knight removed her gauntlet and showed Roland the back of her hand. The mark bestowed by Aurleon glowed more brightly than ever, as if determined not to be outshone by Roland’s incandescence. The withered soldiers shuffled back toward the warm, familiar red light. “And this mark. What do you make of it?”
Roland’s collected demeanor was undone with a gasp. He grabbed Aveline’s hand, examined the symbol, then peered deep into his daughter’s eyes. His face was transformed by emotion, his melancholy tone abruptly infused with energy. Roland smiled and said, “Hope is borne from sorrow, young Aveline.”