Chapter 3

Chapter 3

On the Path, Part 5

Shadows wrapped like shrouds around the trunks of the looming trees, suffusing every crevice with darkness. The last embers of daylight glowed beyond the edge of the mountain. Having abandoned the dead stag, the Knight’s empty stomach ached with hunger. Somewhere to the west a wolf’s lonely cry echoed through the forest and Aveline hoped the distant predator would give both her murders meaning.

On her back, Aveline felt the young girl, Faolan, shift. No matter how meager, any movement was reassuring. With the silver spear clenched between her tired arms, the Knight had walked the forest path for more than an hour with the unconscious girl carried behind her. The sigil had done its wicked work to repair the Knight, but still she felt on the verge of collapse herself. Uncertain of the terrain, Aveline hoped she was walking in the right direction; toward the nearest town and hopefully, the girl’s home.

When she stirred again, a low groan accompanied Faolan’s feeble movement. The Knight looked back over her shoulder. An ashen face, sullen with half-closed eyes, stared at the ground. She’d never had a talent for conversation, but Aveline attempted her most amiable tone.

“Good morning. Or, rather, good evening.” The Knight grinned.

When Faolan had fallen beside the evaporating, crystalline corpse of their abyssal enemy, the Knight had feared the worst. No amount of shaking, threats, or pleas would wake the brave girl. Exposed to the mountain cold and bleeding heavily, the situation was dire. Aveline tore a strip of the warrior’s mud-caked cloak and tied it tight around her companion’s red soaked torso. She had collected the silver spear, hoisted the girl onto her back, and made haste toward the path she’d abandoned.

Even now, Faolan offered no response; not even the disgruntled growl with which Aveline had become so familiar during their brief encounter. The Knight was prepared for energetic protest, but the unexpected silence took her by surprise. She cleared her throat and gave conversation another awkward try. After a long pause, she spoke again.

“Are we on the right path?” The Knight kept walking. One, two, three steps later Aveline asked, “Home?”

Faolan nodded without a word. Finally, she spoke in an accusatory monotone. “What’s left of it.”

Aveline considered this, then started. “You know, I’m not—“

“I know. Mother told me about the Knight Aveline – worshiped you since you led your army up the mountain…” Faolan trailed off, seemingly caught up in a memory. Her voice was weak and quiet, but steady. “Everyone thought you dead. But your wound, your youth… The demon said you bear a sigil. If you’re not a witch, then how?”

Aveline sighed and considered her strange tale. “It’s a long story; one I’m not sure I’m ready to share. You'll just have to trust me, I suppose.” Faolan snorted by way of response. Aveline looked ahead and said nothing for a long time, thinking about the time that had passed since last she walked in Valerius. Most everyone she had ever known was old or dead. The Knight’s heart grew heavy and cold beneath her sturdy armor. It was still too much to comprehend. She tried to change the subject. “About ‘Selene…’”

“Long story,” Faolan muttered sarcastically, a combative edge creeping into her harried voice. She shifted back, as if to dismount and escape the Knight’s care. A bolt of agony and an uncharacteristic cry of pain immobilized the young warrior. A crowd of previously silent ravens suddenly erupted in shock and took wing. Wincing, she admitted, “Hurts more than I expected.”

Aveline stopped below the creaking tree limbs and grinned. “With your injuries, I doubt you can walk.” She adjusted her grip on the spear and rebalanced the weight of the small girl on her back. As the sun set in the east, the cold would only intensify. With any luck, conversation would keep Faolan conscious and alive long enough to find help. Aveline remembered how the healers would speak with genuine interest to even the most irreparably wounded. "Words are life," they would intone, as if the sentiment should be self-evident.

Aveline continued. “You must have tracked that fiend a long way. I wouldn’t mind a story to pass the time, what with all of this work I’m doing.”

Faolan closed her tired eyes, breathing as shallowly as possible to avoid putting pressure on her ribs. The Knight kept walking. It was more than a dozen plodding paces before Faolan spoke. “In spring I was a daughter. By fall, an orphan." Here, she paused for a long time, then said, "My mother never said ‘no’ to anyone. A guardian’s responsible for the people. Those people, they loved her. Thought the world of her. When Ixiel rose and darkness spread, she fought to protect everyone she could. Built the walls stronger, trained the willing. She was fierce and skilled and taught me everything she knew, as her father'd done for her; said I’d one day pick up where they left off.” Faolan sniffed and wiped at her nose. Aveline need not look back to know tears were welling in the girl’s eyes.

The Knight tried to interrupt. “I’m sorry to have—“

The young warrior shook her head. “Stop. If I pass beyond the veil, she’d never forgive me not sharing our tale with her hero.” Faolan took a moment to recompose herself and continued, this time stronger and in the defiant tone Aveline knew, as if fueled by a bitter rage. “A strange woman appeared at the gate, begging for sanctuary. Threw her life upon my mother’s mercy, claimed she could help. Anyone with someone to protect was desperate for allies, for power. Beasts at our door and the witch knew things. She got food and shelter in exchange for knowledge, and for a time, things went well. But my mother was betrayed – kindness repaid with murder at Ixiel’s word. My mother survived long enough to protect me, but the witch laughed and disappeared. If only I’d been—”

"—Stronger?" This time, Aveline interrupted her injured charge. The Knight thought of the soul trap and the void; her frustration and despair. She knew too well the dangers of such thoughts and the impenetrable walls they could quickly erect. Aveline stopped walking and then spoke in the strong tone Roland had always used when she was at her most disheartened. “Your mother sounds like an excellent guardian. She obviously taught you well. I would have been honored to meet such a formidable warrior.”

Faolan wiped water from her eyes, unwilling to cry in front of the Knight. Aveline walked on. “The cowards she loved abandoned the guardianship, thought Selene and her kin marked by Ixiel. I guess we were. In less than a year, they forgot my mother’s example, her sacrifice. None would step forward to serve, so come veil and void, I took the job and here we are.” The girl tried to chuckle, but her pained breath caught in her throat.

“And where is here?” Aveline's heart broke with every of Faolan's words. She felt responsible, like she should say something more chivalrous and noble, but the words would not come. On her back, she could feel Faolan start to shiver as the last light was consumed by the horizon and knew her injured companion could not survive long in the dropping temperature.

Between chattering teeth, Faolan muttered, “Beyond this bend.”

The pair stepped out of the desolate forest onto a stony precipice. Below them, the flat expanse of a plateau stretched between two tall mountains, dotted here and there with patches of dead grass and trees. On the edge of the plateau, a square of wind-worn stone walls had been built around a small gray village. The corner closest to the Knight appeared destroyed, the rubble fresh and dusty. Around the walls, a handful of ragged farms were barren in the last days of autumn. A few goats grazed on meager vegetation, but most were huddled together for warmth in simple wooden shelters. 

Past the village, a modest quarry had been carved into the opposite mountain and provided the materials for the town. More than two dozen low structures filled the space inside the walls and among them, small flames of candle light were igniting in response to the coming dark. Thatched roofs covered most of the homes, and out of a few, plumes of smoke rose to the gloomy twilight sky. At the center of the village, a foreboding obelisk – identical to the one destroyed earlier – stood isolated. Far taller than any other structure, it seemed to watch over the hamlet with a threatening air.

As Aveline looked at the place beneath them, tiny flecks of white began to fall before her eyes. A blast of uninhibited wind tore across the space, pelting the weary travelers with flurrying snowflakes. The sunset's ephemeral aura vanished and night descended in earnest. The black blanket of the overcast sky blocked out all starlight and covered the mountain in deepening darkness.

Faolan tapped on the Knight’s shoulder. “Welcome to Stone. Put me down. Won’t be carried like a child among those here.”

Aveline dropped the girl to the ground. Faolan landed with a small, muffled cry. Doubled over with hands on her knees, she took a short breath and then stood as straight as possible. The girl gripped her side tightly as she flipped her long, rust-colored braid of hair over her shoulder. On her back, the large silver shield glimmered through smears of dirt and mud, faintly reflecting what little light penetrated the clouds.

Aveline held out the silver spear, aware now of how much it meant to the girl. “Your mother’s?”

Faolan nodded, took the beautiful weapon, and leaned on it. After some seconds, she muttered, “Thank you.” 

The Knight smiled and stretched her arms, the etched plate on her shoulders clattering. Her own weapon, the long sword, Durendal, hanged at her side. She touched it and thought again of Roland and the things every person carried from people long past.

Without explanation, Aveline removed her warm blue cloak and wrapped it around Faolan. Aveline held the brash young warrior's shoulders, looked at her face, and explained. "My mother's." 

Faolan blushed, but did not protest. Beads of cold sweat dotted her pale forehead. The Knight grinned again and hoped her eyes did not betray her own sadness. Side by side, she and the Guardian started down a set of precarious steps carved into the mountain, toward the cold village of Stone. 

Chapter 3

On the Path, Part 4

Streams of shadow poured from the demon’s severed limbs and rose like smoke into the cold evening air. The massive obsidian body, terrible in its impenetrable negation of light, twisted in the grass and churned up the stony soil. For a long, awkward moment, Aveline and Faolan watched their enemy struggle until finally, the creature ceased its feeble writhing with a grumbling whimper.

It sat very still, assessing its minute opponents with a smooth, featureless face. Seconds, passed, then words formed in the void of the demon’s open jaws.

“A blue cloak. An enchanted sword. A human bearing a sigil…” The Knight raised an eyebrow in surprise; her young companion looked on in indifference. The creature’s voice was possessed of an ethereal listlessness, as if it were indifferent to the violent trauma it had sustained. It tilted its head to one side and extended a grotesque, glassy neck to sniff the air nearest the Knight. Aveline stood her ground and endured the thing’s wretched breath. It stank of death and rot. She gazed into the crystalline visage, where Faolan’s silver spear was still embedded, surrounded by a spider’s web of dark cracks. She thought of abandoned, snowy streets and dreadful, obsidian statues.

“The Knight Aveline, indeed,” the demon casually remarked.

“What do you know of me, fiend?” Aveline readied her still-shining blade again, eager to threaten the arrogant creature with further injury. She raised it to point at the creature’s face and spread her feet wider in case she need strike. “What do you know of Ixiel?”

The creature retracted its neck and opened its black mouth to utter a loud, thundering peel of laughter. Any animal that remained in the vicinity would surely have fled at the sound of such mirth. The monstrous rack of antlers atop its head rocked back and forth, the lattice of dark, matte surfaces drinking in the dying light of the day.

“Know of you? Of Ixiel? So many things.” Like liquid smoke, the sounds of the demon’s voice suffused the atmosphere. It turned its expressionless head to the east to look past the trees, toward the sky, where the setting sun dropped below low, grey clouds. For a brief time, bright rays of unfiltered light pierced through the gloom. The demon seemed transfixed, face aimed at the incandescent globe, as if committing the image to memory. “I know I couldn’t care less about your posturing and threats, but that one there, she doesn’t look good.”

The demon nodded languidly toward Faolan. Reluctant to take her eyes off her opponent, Aveline glanced at the girl. Waiting on one knee with eyes narrowed, breath ragged, body heaving, the young warrior appeared to be in tremendous pain. Dark splotches of blood soaked one side of her green cloak and a smattering of cuts covered her face. With few resources at her disposal, the Knight knew a healer’s skills were required. For a brief moment, Faolan met the Knight’s gaze. Though Aveline nodded in assurance, the girl turned away in defiance.

Exhausted and starving, the Knight sighed. “Your concern does us a great honor.”

“Ha, yes. Sarcasm. At a loss already, brave knight? So worried, so uncertain. You play at courage, but fear consumes you. How you managed to escape a soul trap is beyond me.”

Aveline’s mouth dropped open with a start, before she caught herself and snapped it shut, but the lapse in control did not go unnoticed. “Ah, I know all about that. As do all the void-bound. A young knight, alone in the darkness and cruelly sustained by the Sigil Immortalitas. It’s enough to make one such as I cry! Or laugh.” The creature’s body shook again with a rumbling chuckle.

“But my sympathy has its limits. You see, when this animal’s body dies, I’ll return to the shadow of the abyss, exiled again to the darkness you escaped. Sure, it’s my home, but it’s so… empty. A lifeless reflection of this earth humans take so for granted. You understand. You’ve been there.” There, the demon paused. When it spoke again, its voice grew more agitated by the word. “But in your arrogance, you stole this from me. For Ixiel and Tyrannus and their nonsense, I bear no love. Some of us just want to watch the sun set! But I’m told to kill the knight and like a good soldier, rush out to have MY LIMBS HACKED OFF!” Its mouth snapped open again and again with violent fury. The heaving obsidian body reared back ineffectually on its hind claws in frustration.

The Knight stepped between the creature and Faolan, ready to deflect an attack. Aveline addressed the beast in the most confident tone she could manage. “Your master knows of my escape and my whereabouts?” The worry in her voice was nearly impossible to conceal. Had Faolan not arrived moments earlier, Aveline was sure her death was all but assured, regardless of the sigil.

“Oh yes, knight. Oh yes. You are known. And so long as you bear that sigil, you are bound to the shadows of the abyss. My kind will track and find you wherever you roam. There will be no rest. There will be no home. Our teeth and claws and hatred will dog you until the end of your days." There were no lips to curl on the creature’s expressionless face, but even so, a biting sneer was evident in its words. "And those appear to be endless, so I bid you good luck in the hunt. Tell me – and this I’ve always wondered – do you think good king Aurleon was trying to help or hurt you?”

Aveline was speechless. Roland had not mentioned any of this. Perhaps he had not known, but how could the Knight make it across a continent in the face of such circumstances?

“And you, little one, what do you think will happen to your precious village, should you assist our enemy? The same fate that befell your pathetic mother awaits you, child. Betray the knight now and save yourself the heartache, guardian.” Uttered by the beast with searing disdain, the last word seemed to stir something within Faolan.

Roused from her injuries by the thing’s threats, the girl controlled her breathing and raised her head to stare with unyielding intensity at the monster. Her eyes smoldered with hatred, the pupils two shining black pinpricks. Rays of yellow sunlight bounced off the pristine, polished surface of her shield to illuminate a head of auburn hair that blazed like fire.

Aveline sensed control of the encounter slipping away and feared the outcome should the creature recover and Foalan be goaded. She strode toward the black, featureless face and grabbed the young warrior’s silver spear embedded there. In one hard pull, the Knight wrenched it from the obsidian, twisting the shaft in her hand so as to inflict even more discomfort and damage. Howls of pain exploded from the black jaws. Aveline tossed the spear to Faolan, who stood and caught it. Without a word of gratitude, she propped herself up with the weapon.

But despite its pain, the beast would not relent in its mockery. Between agonized roars, it continued.

“What was her name again? ‘Selene,’ or some nonsense?” As the demon spoke, the young warrior’s spear trembled, clenched tight within her fist. The weapon towered over her, much longer than she was tall. She stood perfectly still, as if her body resided outside of time, completely engrossed in the empty chiding of the dark creature. Aveline knew not of whom the demon spoke, but the very mention of the name seemed to transform the girl. Bravado and grace had been replaced by silence and seething. Her face was a stern mask of placid disinterest that did a poor job of hiding the turmoil in her heart.

“Faolan, pay this fiend no mind. Let’s be done with this.” The Knight brandished her sword and stepped toward the girl to rest a comforting hand on her shoulder, but the impenetrable quiet of her companion immobilized her. The Knight knew exactly the pain and anger that now tormented the girl.

The void dweller continued its barrage. “Well, whatever it was, she died.” The creature chuckled again. “Poorly, as I recall.” Its grating simulation of laughter grew to a bass thunder that shook the enormous obsidian body. Puffs of steam rose into the evening air to swirl among the plumes of shadow.

Faolan had heard enough. Tears welled in eyes the color of night, darkened by the dying light of the day. Face twisted by unbridled rage, the straight line of her lips became a stark grimace. Without a word of response to either the demon or Aveline, Faolan buried her spear point in the cold soil, drew her short sword again and approached the dismembered creature. Within three paces, the thing opened its mouth to no doubt utter some taunt, but before it could, she was upon it in a flash.

With almost invisible speed, the young warrior ducked below the demon’s head and sliced up, into its unnaturally long neck, screaming with determination as she did so. The short, silver sword cut far deeper than it ever had before. Black shadow burst from the wound and a rain of crystal sprinkled to the grass. With its mouth still agape, the creature’s head tilted to the left, then tumbled down. The twisted rack of antlers atop its head crashed and splintered as the last breath of life escaped the demonic creature. 

The creature lay motionless and silent. Aveline watched as the crystalline skin evaporated to reveal the headless body of a disfigured elk. Once proud and beautiful, it had been transformed by the soul-invading demonic shadow. Above the skeletal forest canopy, the sun continued its slow descent below the horizon.

An icy wind tore through the demolished glen and the Knight shuddered to remember the long-dead prey that had brought her there. Beside her, Faolan surveyed her handiwork and struggled to catch her breath. A sly grin of satisfaction played on her lips. Aveline breathed deep and moved to address the brave, headstrong girl who had saved her life, but a step away, the green-cloaked warrior collapsed to the ground beside her disintegrating enemy.

Chapter 3

On the Path, Part 2

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.

Chapter 3

On the Path, Part 1

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.