The Knight struck the obsidian floor again. The enchanted blade of Durendal clanged against black stone and sent a tiny splinter of it flying into the dark. A drip of sweat splashed on her gauntlet. The harder she worked, the more pressure the void seemed to exert, weighing down every movement as if she were submerged in mud. Aveline's confidence began to wane.
“You must let go of your guilt, your anger. Durendal can amplify your will, but if you fight against yourself, there’s no way you’ll break free of this place.” Roland admonished his daughter. When Aveline stabbed downward again with a low growl of frustration, he shook his head. “Circumstances may seem dire, but what are you so afraid of?”
“That I am a monster. That I’ll fail again. That outside this prison awaits nothing but suffering.” The Knight raised her sword and swiped toward her feet. “That I’ll be trapped for eternity, useless and alone.” The sword ineffectually struck the floor again and rattled in her weakened grip. Exhausted, Aveline leaned over, then dropped to one knee, struggling to catch her breath. The gloom of the soul trap pressed ever closer to her as Roland’s aura continued to fade.
For a long time before Roland’s appearance, Aveline imagined that the true horror of the void was the stagnant nothingness. That the whispers in the dark were her own mind’s conjuring and that her comrades who withered or disappeared were taken by madness and decrepitude. But with Roland’s revelation, she knew the place was alive. Sentient and hungry, it preyed on the weakness of those trapped within. With each useless strike, Aveline was reminded of her failure and those doomed to suffer because of it.
“When I was trapped long ago as you are now, I knew not what fate awaited me. All hope had fled. But a void walker came upon my sorry soul and explained that the darkness could bind me only if I allowed it. It seemed so simple. In despair I had imprisoned myself.” Roland stood beside his daughter and put a steady hand on her shoulder. “No man or woman among your comrades would wish you the shame you heap on yourself. Your fears, your guilt… There is much I don’t know, but I can say with certainty they are of no use to you.”
The Knight considered her father’s words and wondered at his past imprisonment. Deep in her heart, a wary hope took hold that she would one day hear his story. She opened her mouth to respond, but no words came to her. Why should she survive where others had fallen? And what efforts could possibly satisfy the souls of the lost?
“I’m sorry, but our time together is at an end. If I don’t leave soon, there will be little of me left to greet you on the other side.” Roland offered a melancholy smile. The bright brilliance of his form had faded to a dim translucence. “Beware of Ixiel. The Kingdom is his. Enemies lurk everywhere, but friends can be found if you look for them.”
Fearful of parting, Aveline felt much younger than her nineteen years. “But if I cannot escape this place… What becomes of me? And if I do, what then?” She paused. The Knight could hear the childish anguish in her selfish questions and was ashamed.
“Look to the West. If I yet live, you’ll find me in Mare. You’ll figure out the rest.” Roland grinned, his form now little more than a shadow. Still, his eyes shimmered with pride. Aveline raised herself up, straight and true. “And no matter what happens, Aveline, remember this: Neither fear nor guilt spurred me to search the void for you. I searched because I believe in you. You are my daughter. You are a Knight. I know you will succeed. Farewell.”
Where a moment before the Great Knight had stood, his phantom evaporated into nothing. She looked around her, but even the remaining soldiers had disappeared. Like water rushing into a vacuum, Aveline was quickly filled with a sudden sense of isolation. If she let it, she knew the solitude would transform into despair. Instead, she remembered Roland’s final words, his pride, and his faith. The Knight closed her eyes and breathed deep.
In her hands, Aveline felt the hilt of Durendal, the sword’s familiar weight tensing the muscles in her forearms. Her feet shifted against the obsidian floor until they were as steady as stone beneath her shoulders. Cloak and armor fit close like a second skin, separated from her body by only a thin layer of sweat. The Knight recited the tenants again, spurious bravado this time replaced with solemn resolve.
“Move with purpose. Steel your heart. Guard against injustice.”
She thought of Roland, of the men and women to whom she had pledged her life, of the parents she lost before the Great Knight became her only family. They all believed in her, confident in her promise and potential. Their example and guidance had fostered the person she was proud to be. Most were dead and gone, but their memory lived on in her. In that moment, the Knight Aveline knew in her heart that as a daughter, as a leader, as a knight, responsibility demanded her bravery and action.
The Knight breathed in deep again and raised her sword above her head. Beneath the gauntlet on her left hand, the sigil glowed, its soft red light illuminating a peaceful countenance. Relaxed and ready, the trembling tension that suffused her before had dissipated. With a confident shout that rejuvenated her tired soul, Aveline struck the floor again.
The void shattered around her.
In the dark cavern at the center of the Monticolus, an obsidian block exploded violently in a blinding blast of white light. Shards of black stone disintegrated against the smooth, untouched faces of the hundreds of blocks that still stood. The Azure Knight stepped out of the smoldering shadows, transformed and drained. Finally free, Aveline smiled, then collapsed to sleep.