Bard Tales

The Founding of the Paragons

My name is Father Humfrey Ignatius. For thirty years I have served Estereal in this, perhaps the smallest of his shrines in the town of Hadden. Neither a great warrior nor possessed of a great intellect, I was content to copy the stories of the gods and the saints in my own careful hand, and to tell those stories to the faithful. A poor scribe, my father had raised my brothers and me on tales of the saints and their devotion to the gods. I had never imagined, after all my reflection upon the saints, that I would live to meet one. But that is what happened on the fourth day of Railos in the Hurvan year 242. As The One is my witness, I swear to you these words are true.

It was early in the day, and I was returning from the home of Shem the miller. His aunt, Maude, was too old and feeble now to leave her bed. Before her illness had gotten the better of her, Maude had attended every one of our services since long before I'd come to the shrine. My brother priests and I missed her voice during the hymns. Even now, when death loomed so near, Maude sang as sweet and clear as the sparrows that greet the morning sun.
Caught up in my own mournful thoughts, I was the last one to notice him. I saw young Molly gasp and put a hand to her heart. Ciaran's twin daughters stopped their game of bakshi and stared. I looked up, wondering what was amiss.
The man riding toward me on his proud, white stallion could not have been more than twenty. He was quite a sight, sitting tall in the saddle, his armor gleaming in the morning sun. More villagers arrived to stare, for Hadden did not see many visitors. I noticed that the young women all blushed prettily. The young man was exceedingly handsome; his well-muscled figure, wavy black hair and chiseled features were all that any bard could wish for in his hero. He wore red and black. I wondered if he might be a priest of Azkal.
I found myself joining the gawkers as this extraordinary, young man rode closer. I did not recognize the crest upon his shield, nor the golden talisman hanging from his neck. Whoever could he be?
“Greetings,” I called. I waved at the man, hoping to make him feel welcome in our town. I could not believe, by his manner and bearing, that his intentions were aught but good.
“Welcome to Hadden, young sir. I am Father Humfrey of Estereal.”
He reined in his horse before me and dismounted. I was astonished when he kneeled in the dusty rode and bowed his head before me.
“Father, I am Sir Enjolras. Divine will has led me to this place. I am at your service.”
I was baffled by his declaration. The lad conducted himself like a holy warrior, but the talisman around his neck was no holy symbol I recognized.
“Rise, my son. Please, explain your words. Are you an Azkalite?”
“No, good father. I am a paladin.”
“In service to what god? That is not Estereal's symbol you wear.”
“I am acquainted with Estereal, but I am not His paladin. I serve the Six, and I honor all the good gods.”
I looked into his eyes, then. It was like looking into the ocean; they were as blue as the sea and as deep. Ageless, those eyes, and full of wisdom beyond anyone I had ever known. Standing there before him, I felt as if Enjolras saw beyond my physical shell and looked upon my very soul.
He smiled at me then, and I felt myself uplifted. Unbidden came the memories of all the good I had done, all the children I'd taught and the good people who had called me friend. The weariness of the morning vanished. I felt proud and strong. I felt young again.
“Who are you? From whence have you come? ” I asked, my voice an awed whisper.
“Father, forgive me,” said Enjolras. “I can not tell you from whence I have come, only that my destination is in the gods' hands.”
I frowned at him. Secrets did not sit well with me. Sensing my discomfort, Enjolras put strong hands upon my shoulders.
“Have faith, Father Humfrey. We are but the tools of the gods. At times their ways defy mortal understanding. We can but perform the tasks for which we were made.”
“Your words are wise, young man. Come, let me take you to High Priest Songan. I am sure he will have many questions --”
“Father, I am sorry, but there is no time. I must speak to Maude before it is too late.”
I looked at him in surprise. “You know old Maude?”
“No father, I do not. Yet I must speak with her.”
I knew then that Sir Enjolras was either a mad man, or touched by divinity. Reason told me to take him to Songan, and let the High Priest, whose wisdom was far greater than mine, decide what must be done.
The look in his eyes changed my mind. This was a soul at peace with itself, something most of us only achieve after death. A rational man might call this madness, but a priest must be guided by faith. I took him to see Maude.
I was surprised when I walked into the old woman's sick room to find that she had a visitor. A bearded man sat on the chair beside her bed. He wore a tattered cloak and a broad-rimmed felt hat. Dirt and grime so covered him that I could not guess his age, yet he did not reek of unwashed flesh, as the sight of him led me to expect.
Maude was sitting up in bed, conversing with her visitor. Seeing me, she gave me a toothless smile.
“Father Humfrey, how nice to see you. This is my cousin Granger. Haven't seen him nigh on forty years now.”
I looked curiously at the visitor. Maude had spoken often to me of her relatives, for family was her favorite subject, and the old lady had many amusing stories. I could not recall her ever mentioning a cousin named Granger.
“How nice of you to come and comfort your cousin in her time of need. Where are you from, Granger?”
“Oh, I travel about,” he said in a thin, reedy voice.
I did not like his evasive answer. Too often I had seen con artists come to take advantage of the old and infirm. But then, Maude had no wealth to tempt such creatures. Perhaps the strange events of the morning had unsettled me.
“What brings you, Father?” Maude asked.
“I have a visitor for you, Maude. A young knight, named Sir Enjolras, who claims that the gods have sent him to speak to you.”
Sir Enjolras had waited in the hallway until given leave to enter Maude's sick room. A more polite young man I'd never seen -- he behaved for all the world as if Maude were the Queen of Hurva, and not some peasant woman from a backward country village.
Maude smiled knowingly. “The man of my dreams,” she said, chuckling.
“I beg your pardon?”

“Just kidding ya, Father. Send the lad in. It's high time I spoke to him.”
When I called to him, Sir Enjolras came in and kneeled beside Maude's bed. He took her hand and kissed it respectfully. I looked at Maude's cousin, trying to convey that we both should leave and not intrude upon this meeting. But Maude sensed my intention and intervened.
“No, Father, I'd like you both to stay. I've been waiting a long time to meet this young man. It's a heavy thing I've got to be saying to him, and I'd just as soon have you both with me.”
Maude smiled then, and her cheeks took on the rosy hue of a much younger girl. She patted Sir Enjolras on the head with affection.
“My, my, but you're a fine-looking lad. Don't you go pining after your lost love for too long, now. One day, you'll meet a fine lady with a white rose in one hand, and a sword in the other. Mind you give her a chance.”
I could not have been more astonished if Maude had suddenly sprouted an extra head. Our old Maude, a prophet? I felt suddenly weak in the knees. Granger took my arm and helped me to sit down on the cedar chest by the window. I had the uncanny feeling that the old man was trying not to laugh at me.
Seeming unsurprised by Maude's words, Sir Enjolras gave the old lady a sad smile. “My heart still pains me, Madame, but I will endeavor to remember your words.”
“That's a good boy. But that's not the message you come for, I'm knowing that. Are you ready to hear what I've got to say? It'll be the last thing these old bones have the strength for, but I'm not minding. I'm ready to be going now.”
Sir Enjolras took the old lady's hand and held it, as if trying to share his strength with her. Indeed, Maude suddenly seemed healthier. She sat straighter against her pillows and gave the knight a smile.
“I am ready,” he said.
Maude gave a nod, and took a deep breath. Then her eyes rolled back in her head, leaving only the whites visible. I stared in astonishment. Old Maude a priestess of Torodin. How could this be?
I remembered then, High Priest Songan saying how she'd come here long ago, with money enough to buy a farm and folk to work it for her. It was during the time of persecution, when so many Torodinites had been killed and their temples burned. Maude must have fled that terror, and kept her secret until this day.
Maude spoke then, her old voice strong and clear as she related her vision. “I see a crown, with a black serpent coiled around it, and many swords surrounding it. The crown is the king, and the serpent his would-be assassin. The swords are the paladins, the chosen warriors of god. You, Enjolras, must unite them to save the king.”
Maude's eyes returned to normal. She looked up at Enjolras. “The stars warn of deception, for The Raven flies high in the night sky. Yet you have a trusted friend to guide you, for Ivor the Hunter has united with The Noble Warrior, who again does battle with The Fiend. I have read the cards for you as well, my son. The hanged man dominates your future -- you must make a sacrifice to achieve your goal. The Six of Wands -- victory and success. The card resonates with a vision I have received -- a vision of you, Sir Enjolras, the champion, crowned with a laurel wreath and waving to the king's people. Succeed in this holy quest, and the people of Hurva will be forever grateful. The gods are with you, my son.”
Speaking thus, Maude closed her eyes and breathed her last. Sir Enjolras prayed for her soul, and pulled the bed sheets over her still form. The paladin stayed long enough to attend Maude's funeral. He left the next morning. After speaking to High Priest Songan, I was asked to go with him.
Maude's cousin, Granger, went with us as well. He claimed some skill as a guide and a diplomat, and said that he wished to aid Sir Enjolras in honor of his departed cousin. I had my doubts, but kept them to myself. After the astonishing things I had just seen I had come to realize that things, and people, are not always what they seem.
Our journey took us east, towards Palk. Sir Enjolras did not speak of our destination, and I assumed that we would head straight to the castle, since Maude had foreseen that the paladins would save the king. The Cathedral of Estereal seemed a likely place from which to gather the paladins of Hurva, although I could not imagine how even Archbishop Carey would accomplish such a feat. The blessed warriors traveled all across Hurva and the surrounding lands in their service to the gods. Few claimed allegiance to a particular shrine or temple. How in Estereal's name would we find them all?
I longed to put these and many other questions to Sir Enjolras. But he remained silent as we rode, and something in his demeanor made me reluctant to disturb his thoughts. It was as if he communed inwardly with beings the rest of us could neither see nor hear. Given what I have learned of his nature, perhaps that is exactly what Sir Enjolras did.
Granger, however, proved to be a far more loquacious companion. He told amusing stories of Saint Enjolras, the legendary slayer of the fiend for whom our companion had been named, and when we would stop to rest he showed me an impressive array of maps that he had collected from all across Hurva. Many had been done in his own hand. Granger was pleased when I praised his skill, but only chuckled when I pointed out that many of his maps detailed areas that were dangerous for an old man to be traveling.
“Those were done in my younger days,” he told me. “Quite an adventurer I was in my youth. But those days are long gone. Long gone.”
I had my doubts about that. Though he made much of his age, in truth Granger had far more energy than I. The long hours we spent in the saddle made my bones ache, and even sleeping out of doors seemed a hardship after so many years in my cozy shrine. The life of a scribe had not prepared me well for our journey.
Thus it was with great joy that I spied the small shrine at the crossroads on our fifth day of travel. It was nearing dusk -- time for camping.
“What is that?” I cried with joy. “Why, those are Oghma's symbols.”
I was greatly pleased. Priests to the god of knowledge are famous for welcoming weary travelers. In return for their hospitality, guests are asked only to share some measure of their knowledge with the priests, and to speak no falsehood within the sacred walls of the church.
“We are camping here for the night then?” I asked, since Sir Enjolras was leading us in that direction. I tried to sound calm, but in truth I believe I would have wept like a child if he had said no. I was that tired.
“Not just for the night. It is from this holy place that we shall summon my brothers in arms.”
“But how?” I asked. The priests of Oghma are concerned with gathering knowledge, not warriors. I knew of no power they possessed that could accomplish such a feat.
Novices came to take our horses then, and Sir Enjolras did not answer me. I was surprised when he called to the boy leading his white stallion, stopping him long enough to remove a heavy saddle bag. It would seem that he had brought gifts for our hosts. I assumed he thought to donate coins, or food. The priests could certainly use both. Gathering and maintaining the rare texts for which Oghma's church is famous is a laborious and costly endeavor.
As we approached the front door of the humble shrine, a priest robed in black and white came to greet us. He was middle aged and slender, with pale hair and green eyes that sparkled with curiosity as he examined us.
“Greetings, travelers. I am Father Gabriel. Welcome to Oghma's shrine.”
Sir Enjolras bowed. “Father Gabriel. May I introduce Father Humfrey Ignatius of Estereal, and our guide, whom we call Granger. I am Sir Enjolras.”
Father Gabriel greeted us all warmly, but I was astonished when he bowed to Sir Enjolras. “We have long awaited your coming. Please, enter and be welcome.”
Father Gabriel and his brother priests saw to our comfort and served us a hearty meal. After the hardship of travel, a warm meal beside a roaring fire seemed luxurious beyond belief. When we had finished our supper, Father Gabriel led the three of us to a small sitting room.
“As is our custom, I must ask each of you to add something to the knowledge of our shrine. Sir Enjolras wrote to me of your skills, and I am pleased to understand that you will be staying with us for several days.”
I stared at the paladin in astonishment. How had he known this, and why had he not shared this knowledge?
Unaware of my inner confusion, Father Gabriel asked if I would record some of the more obscure tales of Estereal's saints, and Granger was asked to share his maps of Hurva. Both of us agreed quite willingly.
“Sir Enjolras,” Father Gabriel continued, “I have a more personal request of you. I would like you to tell me your history, from your childhood to the present day.”
Sir Enjolras nodded. “As you ask, Father. But I must insist that my words be for your ears alone.”
I could not help but wonder what secrets Sir Enjolras felt he must keep. Father Gabriel accepted, on the condition that he be allowed to make a record of the knight's tale, to be kept in his safe keeping and passed on to a trustworthy successor. Sir Enjolras agreed.
“Father Gabriel, I have brought additional gifts for your shrine.”
We all watched curiously as Sir Enjolras opened the heavy bag. First he brought forth a sack of coins, which did not surprise me, and a box of fine paper, which was a thoughtful gift, indeed.
“I have brought with me several items, which were sent by the Oracle of Meda at Pylum for your safe keeping. I am told that this box names its owner.”
Sir Enjolras lifted a small bundle wrapped in soft linen. He unwrapped the cloth to reveal a small, locked box of polished mahogany. Something had been engraved into the silver plate fastened to the lid. The language was one I did not recognize. Father Gabriel reverently accepted the box, but he did not attempt to open it.
Sir Enjolras then reached into the pouch and withdrew several scroll cases. They were all quite different, made of everything from leather to ivory to silver. Some were quite plain, while others had ornate designs carved into them. All bore some sort of writing, and this, too seemed to be in an arcane language.
“These are for the guardians. I was told no more than this.”
Father Gabriel nodded. “The servants of Meda are not wont to explain themselves. I have faith that all will be made clear in time, though perhaps not in our time. Thank you, my son. And now, I have a gift for you.”
From the folds of his robes, Father Gabriel withdrew a tiny, golden whistle. He placed it carefully in Sir Enjolras' open palm.
“This will summon your holy brothers in arms. You must use it at dawn, when the first rays of the sun reach over the horizon.”
We all slept well that night. Sir Enjolras awoke before dawn. He said his prayers, then stepped outside to blow the whistle.
I am not sure what I had expected. A mighty trumpeting? The rumbling of the earth? All that resulted was a moment of pure silence, interrupted by nothing, not even the rustle of the wind or the calls of the birds.
Then the whistle crumbled into dust.

Over the next few weeks, while Sir Enjolras withdrew for a time of fasting and prayer, the paladins came. They traveled from all across Hurva, a few from places I'd never even seen on a map. Most served Estereal or Soltana, but we met many paladins in service to Arienh, Avidor, Natanael, Pholtos, Ranevskaya, Salome, Shilah and Tritherion. (There were over a dozen young men in service to the god of justice and vengeance -- they were rather a boisterous lot.)
Their ages varied, from adolescents even younger than Enjolras to a few who exceeded my advanced years. They were an impressive group, each and every one of them claiming ties to a noble family or wealthy merchant house. Most were younger sons of landed nobles who'd chosen to serve the Church. With such illustrious backgrounds, it was only natural that the Esterealans far outnumbered the others, and I was honored by many paladins asking for my blessing. They came to me with questions, also -- who was this Sir Enjolras, and what did he want of them? What was this strange compulsion that had brought them here? I urged them to have patience. When the last paladin arrived, Sir Enjolras would reveal his purpose.
Most respected my authority and, with some reluctance, accepted my answer. At my suggestion, they began organizing training and prayer sessions among themselves. Many of them had not had the opportunity to so much as converse with another paladin, and I encouraged them to take advantage of this rare chance for fellowship. The paladins of Arienh went so far as to raise funds and volunteers to build a bell tower for the shrine. Oghma's holy scholars clearly had no use for such a structure, but they accepted with grace and decorum. (Privately, I suspected the Oghmans assumed that their enthusiastic benefactors would forget about the tower when they embarked upon their quest. If so, they were disappointed. The paladins did return to complete the tower -- a lofty structure made of white marble that is quite at odds with the simple shrine it adjoins. I am told that the priests use the tower to house guests. They've gotten many a curious visitor since those days, and of course every paladin must stop to pay his respects at the spot where his order was founded. Rumor has it that the bells are only rung when there is a paladin in residence.)
Over the next few weeks, so many paladins arrived that the small shrine could not host them all. The paladins and their servants pitched tents upon the grounds, which soon resembled a tourney field.
One would imagine that a group of holy warriors could assemble in a peaceful and orderly manner, but this was sadly not the case. The paladins had many questions for Enjolras, who had given strict orders that his private meditation should not be interrupted for any reason. Becoming discontent with prayer and weapons practice, for a paladin must have his quest, many of the warriors began to grow irritable. They began to quarrel with one another over religious and personal differences. A paladin of Tritherion actually knocked a young Soltanite unconscious when the lad intervened in a quarrel between the Tritherionite and a paladin of Natanael. I healed the young paladin and chastised others for their unseemly conduct, but my words had little effect. I knew not what to do, and I had no helper to advise me. The priests of Oghma would not involve themselves in such disputes, and my companion, Granger, seemed to find the whole situation amusing.
Six more days went by with tempers slowly growing more volatile, and minor incidents increasing in number. The paladins now numbered in the dozens, if not the hundreds. A goodly number, to be sure, but was that all of them? As far as I knew, the Church did not keep records of the paladins' names and church affiliation, as it does for priests. I was about to consult the priests of Oghma when Earl Geris approached me. One of the older and higher-ranking Esterealans, Geris had appointed himself as the group's leader.
“Father Humfrey, this has gone on long enough. There are 137 paladins at this shrine, and they did not travel here from far and wide to sit around waiting while this Sir Enjolras prays. We have other duties and lords to whom we must answer. I demand that you fetch Sir Enjolras right now, or I shall drag him out here with my own two hands.”
Earl Geris had accosted me in the courtyard. The sun had nearly set and a few novices who were lighting the lanterns seemed to take no notice of us. Granger stood beside me -- for once, he did not seem amused. Many of the paladins had gathered around. A few glared at the Earl, clearly appalled that he had spoken to me in such an insubordinate manner. But most nodded their heads in agreement with Geris. They were tired of waiting.
“Please,” I urged. “You must have patience. Have faith that all will be revealed in due time.”
“The time is now, Father.” Earl Geris stepped closer, looming over me. “Stand aside.”
I looked up at him, horrified by his demanding tone. In all my years as a priest, no one had ever spoken to me in such a way. This man was a paladin, bound to serve the church. Obviously, discipline had been growing lax among our holy warriors.
Earl Geris stepped closer, but I did not move. Surely the man would not be so bold as to push me out of his way?
Granger did not give him a chance. The old man stepped between us, hands fisted. “Mind your manners, sonny. This is Estereal's priest you're talking to. Don't want the uptight one getting mad us now, and taking away those nifty paladin powers, do ya?”
Geris' face reddened. Without warning, he grabbed Granger by the collar and lifted him off his feet. He held the old man and glared at him, their faces just inches apart.
“Peasants should respect their betters. Who are you, old man, that you would dare to question a member of the nobility?”
“He is my good and loyal companion. And you, Earl Geris, will put him down. Now.”
There were gasps of astonishment from the crowd. Geris' eyes widened. As he put Granger gently down, I turned around to see that Sir Enjolras had stepped into the courtyard. He looked as dignified and otherworldly as ever I had seen him. He had dressed in full battle gear and carried a shield bearing what had to be his family crest. In the deepening night, we could all see that Sir Enjolras softly glowed, as if with Estereal's own light. The paladins gasped because this was the first time any had seen the divine gift of Estereal's light. Geris' eyes widened because the glow revealed the very angry expression on Sir Enjolras' face.
Geris bowed. “Your pardon. I meant no offense.”
Enjolras stepped closer. His expression had not softened.
“It is not my pardon you should be asking.”
Geris stared at him for a moment, then he turned to me. As Sir Enjolras came to stand beside me, I could see that the Earl's cheeks were red with embarrassment.
“Father Humfrey, forgive me. I--”
“On your knees!”
Sir Enjolras' shouted command rang throughout the courtyard. Geris, and even Granger and I flinched. We had never heard Enjolras raise his voice.
Awkwardly, the Earl got to his knees before me. “Father, I apologize for offending you, for speaking to you without the respect you have earned. In Estereal's name, I beg your forgiveness.”
“My son, Estereal understands that we, his servants, are imperfect, for even the gods make mistakes, and we are but mortals. The One asks only that we strive to do right, and to mend the error of our ways. Rise, my son, and be forgiven.”
“Thank you, Father.” Earl Geris got slowly to his feet and faced Enjolras.
“I am Earl Geris, paladin of Estereal. Pray, tell us your name, and why you have summoned us here.”
Sir Enjolras looked at Granger, who shrugged. The old man didn't care if he got an apology or not.
Enjolras frowned at Geris. “I am Sir Enjolras D'Cheval. I come here from a distant land in service to Estereal and His heavenly allies.”
Still glowing, he moved into the center of the crowd. Each and every paladin stared at him in awe. That unearthly presence, a sense of divinity if you will, that seemed to emanate from Enjolras was stronger than ever now.
“I want to thank you all for coming to this holy place. The gods have summoned us all, each and every paladin among us, for a most noble quest. If we succeed, this world will be forever changed for the better, for we shall light a torch for the cause of justice and mercy that will burn forever, even in the darkest of times. If we fail, the kingdom you know as Hurva shall descend into tyranny and evil for generations to come.”
The paladins looked at one another in amazement. “What shall we do?” asked one eager young paladin of Avidor.
Sir Enjolras smiled. “The first thing we must do, now and forever, is put aside our differences and work together.”
His gaze rested upon the paladins of Tritherion and Natanael who had been fighting. Both hung their heads in shame.
“We come from many different faiths,” Enjolras continued. “There will be times when the beliefs we hold dear will cause conflict among us. There will be times when the gods will ask us to make choices that will anger even those of our own faith. But we, as paladins, the paragons of mankind, must remember that we are all brothers in service to one holy Church. Throughout eternity, Estereal, Azkal, Wajen, Jvelto, Soltana, Torodin and the gods who serve them have put aside their differences to combat the evil of Othniel and Athelstan. If they had not, we would have no Church, no paladins, no brotherhood. The people of Hurva would have no faith, no justice, no hope.
“Brothers, I ask you to use the stories of the gods as your example. Serve your Church, defend the good, and uphold one another in the name of those beliefs we all hold in common. True, we all have our differences. But if we are to call ourselves paladins, if we are to become one brotherhood, we must put our faith first and foremost in those beliefs that we all hold in common. In the name of the gods you serve, I charge you and all paladins who come after you to uphold these duties: Defend any responsibility, even unto death. Let your word be your law -- never speak falsely. Show honor to those above your station, especially to the priests of the good churches of Hurva. Earn respect from those below your station. Be courteous to all good folk, especially to women. Bring death to those who raise their weapons against your brothers and against those whom we protect. Above all, choose death before dishonor.
“My brothers in faith, will you uphold these duties with which I have charged you?”
“We will!” The paladins' voices rang out in unison. Then, as one, they kneeled in the courtyard and swore to the gods they held dear that they would uphold these duties as long as they lived. Enjolras had won their hearts and uplifted their spirits. Looking at their faces alight with hope, I vowed to serve my church by recording Enjolras' words. Let his speech that so inspired these paladins today become the gospel that would guide paladins for generations to come.
Their prayers done, the paladins got to their feet and cheered. Enjolras called for silence.
“On this day, the gods themselves have called us together. They have not revealed all to me. We must trust that faith will lead us down the right path as we fight for justice. For it is justice that we seek to preserve. More than that, we seek to preserve the faith of all Hurvans, by saving the king whom Estereal has chosen to rule among mortals -- a king who honors the Church and allows his subjects the freedom to worship as they please.”
“Save the king?” bellowed a burly paladin of Tritherion. “Who dares threaten the king of Hurva?
“I just came from Palk,” added a confused Soltanite. “The king addressed the people on Princess Namira's birthday. The king was alive and well, and under no duress that I could see.”
The paladins began to mutter confused questions and comments until Enjolras called for silence.
“I know not who or what threatens the king. That there is danger, I do know. The gods have sent me visions. I have consulted a priestess of Torodin, and these good priests of Oghma. I can tell you that someone practicing treachery and deceit means to murder the king, and that a sacrifice will be needed to set things right again.”
“But have you proof?” asked Earl Geris. “How can we go to the king with omens and riddles. He will have us locked away as madmen.”
Enjolras shook his head. “We are not to go to Palk. I received word from the Oracle that we must travel to Whispering Oaks. Beyond that, I have faith that the gods will reveal all in due time. My brothers, the gods have called us to Whispering Oaks. Will you ride with me?”
Silence fell. The paladins were ready to risk life and limb for the good of the people. But, unlike Enjolras, they were not comfortable relying upon omens and prophecy to guide them.
Then, Earl Geris walked up to Enjolras. He bowed deeply, surprising us all.
“Sir Enjolras, we will follow you, even if it be to the gates of the Abyss and beyond. Will you lead us?”
Enjolras smiled. “Yes, my brothers. As long as I still breathe, I will lead you.”
The resulting cheer was nearly deafening. With Sir Enjolras to lead them, the paladins of Hurva, who would become known as The Order of Paragons, were ready to begin their first and greatest quest.
By dawn the next day, they had gathered their mounts and their gear and prepared to ride out. I caught Enjolras frowning in dismay at those whose ´gear' included servants, banners and all manner of extravagance.
“Enjolras,” I asked him privately, “do you disapprove of their regalia? You can order them to leave their servants behind.”
“No, Father. I have learned to admire humility and selflessness in those who serve the gods, and I have come to prefer a simpler life than my means would have allowed. But I did not always understand these things. Once I was reckless, headstrong, even arrogant. Faith, the patience of good friends, and the will of the gods have taught me wisdom. Others must come to their own truths in their own time, for some things can only be learned by experience.”
I shook my head in wonder. “You are wise beyond your years, my friend. These noble warriors are fortunate in their leader. Already I hear talk of an academy, an order of paladins dedicated to training new recruits and to serving the Church. I am sure they will ask you to stay on as their leader, after this quest has come to an end.”
“That is not my destiny.”
I stared at him in astonishment. “Have the gods revealed what lies in store for you?”
He gave me a rueful smile. “Only that it will not be my place to guide the Order. Do not look so glum, Father. I swear to you, I will return one day, when I am most needed.”
His speech made me uneasy. I had other concerns as well, and I felt it my duty as a priest of Estereal to mention them to Enjolras.
“My son, are you sure of your path? I cast no aspersions upon The Oracle, or upon the church of Torodin. You know that Maude was a friend to me. But these are not faiths which place value in the law, or upon truth. Can you rely on visions and dreams from such questionable sources to lead these paladins?”
“Father Humfrey, the gods themselves tell me that I can. I understand your fears. But heed my words -- I was warned by the gods that the Church's greatest dangers will arise not from threats without, but from division within. It is my fond hope that these paladins who are gathered here today will become a force for Church unity. The gods must rely upon their priests to protect mankind, and there will be times when they choose the vulnerable and the weak to face the greatest evil. As the priests protect Hurva from evil, it is my hope that the paladins will in turn protect those priests from harm.
“Be strong Father, and put aside your questions for now. This is the time for faith, and for courage. The gods willing, we shall not fail.”
With that, Enjolras mounted his white stallion and rode to the front of his assembled warriors. He was an impressive sight, with his armor gleaming in the sunlight and his red cape flapping in the breeze. His dignity was marred only by the sight of Granger standing behind him, rolling his eyes. Some people do not understand the importance of grandeur.
The paladins bowed, and Enjolras smiled at them with a fond expression. “My brothers, I am honored to lead you in this, our first and greatest quest as one order. Today we ride to save not just a king, but to preserve justice, faith and hope for the people of Hurva. In this, as in all things, we serve the gods. Father Humfrey, will you lead us in prayer?”
I blinked at him in astonishment. Though honored by the request, I wished that Sir Enjolras had warned me, so that I could have prepared a complete and eloquent prayer worthy of the occasion.
But I could not refuse. I caught Granger smirking at me as I moved to stand beside Enjolras. I raised my hands in benediction over the assembled paladins.
“My children, today you ride into great danger and uncertainty. Remember that you are the gods' chosen warriors, paragons of virtue and courage. Do not fear the darkness, for Estereal lights your way. Defend one another, for Soltana blesses your loyalty. Above all, be guided by your faith. In the names of all the gods you serve, may you remain, now and forever, one holy order under the Church, indivisible, with goodness, justice and mercy for all. Amen.”
With that, we departed for Whispering Oaks. Enjolras set a hard pace, and we reached Whispering Oaks in just a few short days. During that time, the enthusiastic paladins made plans for their new order, The Order of Paragons. Earl Geris offered to build the academy upon his estates, and he began to write a code of conduct for all paladins to follow. (He also asked for my transcript of Enjolras' Charge to the paladins. I hope that he will not alter it overly much.) Many others offered both wealth and property to support the cause. Plans were made to obtain the approval of the churches involved, and I was honored when they asked me to speak to the Archbishop on their behalf. Me, a poor scholarly priest of common stock and modest ability, speaking to the Archbishop! Who would ever have thought that I could be part of such grand events?
Our arrival in Whispering Oaks caused quite a stir. It was a small town, little more than a village. The people gathered in the streets to gawk at these brightly clad warriors, who waved and smiled and tossed coins at the children as if they were on parade.
We were soon greeted by a small group of concerned citizens who introduced themselves as the town council. Their leader shuffled forward, nervously introducing himself as Orman, proprietor of the town's tavern, general store and boarding house (all one structure, it turned out).
“Welcome to Whispering Oaks, good gentlemen. Tell me, what brings you to our fair town. Not trouble, I hope?”
Enjolras dismounted and bowed to the old man, a gesture that set Earl Geris and many of the other nobles to frowning. They did not feel the need to show such respect to a commoner, town elder or no. I could not share their disapproval, being a peasant myself. And Orman's speech was uncommonly eloquent. I wondered if his background were more illustrious that it seemed. Perhaps he had been raised elsewhere?
“Good day, sir. I am Sir Enjolras. My companions are Father Humfrey Ignatius, and Granger. These warriors are paladins in service to the good and righteous churches of Hurva. Upon my honor, the good folk of Whispering Oaks have nothing to fear from any of us.”
Orman did not seem terribly reassured. I was not surprised. Any simple peasant would find the presence of so many armed warriors unnerving.
“Sir Enjolras, I would offer you lodging in our town. But I regret that no place in our small town has room for so many. Will you be staying long?”
“In truth, I do not know. But do not concern yourself for our sake. We are not unaccustomed to camping out of doors. We shall endeavor to choose a spot that will not inconvenience your people. Perhaps you could spare a guide?”
The old man was looking more and more annoyed. Most of the gawkers had drifted off, now that the paladins had stopped throwing coins. He shared a whispered exchange with his fellow council members, then turned back to Enjolras with a strained smile.
“Certainly. We'll send Orrick's nephew, Aimil to assist you.”
“Thank you, good sir. Tell me, does your town host a shrine? We could await Aimil within.”
Orman brightened. I have seen that look before. The folk of simple towns are often eager to foist difficult or unusual visitors upon their priests.
“Of course, of course. Brother Vilem runs a modest shrine to Chilaili, goddess of nature. I don't suppose any of you are familiar...?”
“Nature!” Earl Geris glowered at Orman. “We are paladins and noblemen. Why should --”
A quelling look from Enjolras stopped his outburst.
“We are unfamiliar with the church of Chilaili,” said Enjolras. “But we will be honored to pay our respects to the priests, as is our duty.”
Orman seemed unconvinced, for most of the paladins failed to look honored. But he gave us directions to the shrine, and the paladins followed Enjolras there without complaint.
The shrine's appearance did little to reassure the noble warriors among us. It was a plain, wooden structure with a thatched roof and tiny, unadorned windows. A picket fence surrounded the structure and the adjoining garden.
Earl Geris scowled at the orderly rows of vegetables. “They call this a shrine? It looks more like a farmer's shack.”
Many of the paladins muttered their agreement. The Arienhites clutched their holy symbols and regarded the shrine with apparent fear.
Sir Enjolras turned to Earl Geris with a frown. “A shrine to Estereal in this condition would be shameful, but to those who serve other gods, it is right and proper. Just as Estereal tolerates, even values the different natures of His heavenly allies, so, too should Estereal's followers respect the differing beliefs of their servants. Earl Geris, your lack of tolerance for the faith of others does not do you credit.”
“Sir Enjolras speaks wisely,” I added.
“Sometimes,” I heard Granger mutter.
Earl Geris bowed stiffly. “I will think upon your words.”
It was not quite an admission of wrong, but Enjolras seemed satisfied. While the other paladins waited outside, he led Granger, Earl Geris and myself into the shrine.
We were greeted by a young man wearing torn breeches and a stained tunic. His face was smeared with dirt, and his hands were filthy. I took him to be a worshiper until he introduced himself as Brother Vilem.
Sir Enjolras introduced us. “Good day, Brother Vilem. Several paladins have traveled here with us, and we wish to pay our respects to Chilaili and the good priests of this shrine.”
Brother Vilem looked outside and whistled. “Several, you say? That's a heaping lot of paladins.”
Granger chuckled. Earl Geris looked annoyed.
“Well, you all welcome to pray in the sanctuary. I don't hold services during spring planting season, so there's plenty of room, if some of you don't mind standing. I'll have to ask you to leave your weapons here. Can't have ´em anywhere in the shrine.”
Enjolras nodded. “Thank you, Brother Vilem. We will do our best to be quiet and orderly. We have no wish to disturb you.”
“Oh, don't worry yourself about that. I'm fixing to go visit one of my parishioners. You're welcome to stay as long as you like.”
Granger stopped the priest just as he was about to leave. “Say, that's a big garden you've got out there. Mind if I take a look?”
Brother Vilem shrugged. “Suit yourself. Good day, folks.”
He left us without, I noticed, bothering to wash his hands. Enjolras summoned the paladins into the sanctuary to pray, but Granger went to look at the garden. He seemed troubled when he returned.
“Is something wrong?” I asked him.
“Probably not. I just thought it was a little odd that Brother Vilem didn't want to show off his garden. He's the first gardener I've met who didn't bore me to tears with the grand tour.”
“Perhaps he sensed that you weren't really interested.”
“Maybe. So, are you holy folk done praying?”
I frowned at him. “Prayer is not just for “holy folk,” as you put it. Have you no prayers of your own to say?”
“Why sure, Father. But I like to save them for a crisis.” He had the nerve to wink at me, the impudent rascal.
I went to join the others in the sanctuary, expecting Granger to follow me. But the old man wandered over to the door to Brother Vilem's living quarters. I hurried over.
“Granger, what are you doing?”
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “Just looking around.”
“You were not invited to look around. It would be disrespectful for you to enter the priests' private quarters without permission.”
“Can't anyway. Door's locked.”
I sighed. “Granger, perhaps you and I should have a long talk. I believe a few lessons on etiquette might be helpful to you.”
His eyes widened in alarm. “Well, I'd love to, Father. But look over there -- a young man just walked in. Must be Aimil. I'd better go say hello.”
Foiled in my attempt to civilize Granger, I went to tell Enjolras that our guide had arrived. The sanctuary was quite a shock to me, even after having seen the rest of the shrine. Burlap sacks filled with hay provided the only seats on the dirt floor. A wooden crate covered with a ragged piece of wool appeared to be the altar. A breeze from the open window brought the distinct odor of manure.
Many of the paladins stood, clearly uneasy despite their attempts to pray. Others followed Enjolras' example and kneeled upon the burlap sacks, praying with eyes closed.
I found Enjolras near the altar. The paladins were pleased when I announced Aimil's arrival, and they hastily filed out of the sanctuary to met the young lad.
If Aimil found the presence of so many warriors unnerving, he gave no sign of it. With perfect manners (better than Granger's, mind you), he graciously introduced himself to everyone.
“Charming lad, isn't he?” I remarked to Granger.
“Hmph. Aimil must charm his way through life. Not a callous on his hands. And this a town of hard-working farmers.”
“Honestly, Granger. The boy is here to help us. You should be grateful.”
He shrugged and said no more on the subject. I chalked it up to an old man's jealousy of a young and handsome boy.
Aimil led us to a large, open field. It was a bit far from town, past some farms and an apple orchard. But it seemed a nice enough spot for camping, with a stream running nearby and a hill to block the wind.
“Josiah Brown used to graze his cattle here,” Aimil told us. “But he up and died. Left everything to Brother Vilem, who sold the cattle. Brother's gonna plant corn here. Good spot for it. But first he had to say special blessin's and such. Won't be able to plant ´til next season.”
“How fascinating,” Earl Geris snapped.
Enjolras frowned at him. “Perhaps you should direct the others to set up camp? We've only a few hours until dusk.”
Earl Geris took to this task readily. He was quite adept at assigning jobs to others. Aimil chuckled as the earl strode about, barking commands at the paladins.
“I've seen his type before. He's good at tellin' folks how things ought to be done, but not so good at doin' the work.”
“Lived here all your life, Aimil?” Granger asked.
Aimil smiled. “Why, sure. So how about you folks? You on some kind of quest? I hear that's what paladins do best.”
“Yes, we are,” said Enjolras. “But I am afraid that we may not speak of it.”
“Oh? Well now, that's kind of odd, ain't it? Paladins don't keep secrets.”
“Known a lot of paladins, have you, Aimil?”
The boy frowned at Granger. “Well, no. Not in these parts. But I hear stories. We all have. Everybody knows paladins can't lie.”
“That is true,” I intervened before Granger could make another offensive remark. “But at times even paladins must keep secrets. They have enemies, you understand.”
“If you say so, Father. Did these paladins come from far off? There's an awful lot of ´em. I never knew there was so many.”
“It looks like more than there are,” said Granger. “They move around a lot.”
Aimil's eyes narrowed, betraying his annoyance. But the boy recovered with a broad smile. “Right. Well, I'd best be going now. You folks send for me if you need anything. Brother Vilem will know where to find me.”
We thanked Aimil, and Enjolras gave him a few coins. After the lad had departed, I attempted to lecture Granger on his rude behavior, but the old man avoided me by joining the hunting party. The paladins of Arienh took it upon themselves to direct the cooking and setting up what they declared was a proper table. It was really rather impressive. They carried long tables with them that could be easily disassembled and packed for traveling, as well as tablecloths, napkins, plates, and even glasses. Some of the other paladins thought it was all rather silly, and not fitting for a camp site of paladins on quest, but the Arienhans would not be dissuaded. No one complained after we sat down to eat, for the paladins of Culture are notoriously fine cooks.
Relieved I was to say my prayers and seek my bed roll that night. Between weariness and a good meal, I was soon fast asleep.
The screams woke me. My eyes flew open and I looked around me, confused and frightened. Darkness surrounded me, unbroken by moon or stars. Only the light of our camp fires, which seem meager and weak, allowed me to see paladins with weapons drawn, stabbing or clubbing at the ground.
At the ground? I moved to sit up, anxious to learn the nature of our foe. Before I could so much as twitch, hands shot up from the very earth and grabbed my arms and my legs. I struggled, but their grip held me firm with bruising force. I turned my head, straining to get a glimpse of my tormentor.
The hands which held me fast were naught but bone! I screamed in terror and frustration as they began to pull me into the soil.
“Estereal, defend us from this evil,” I prayed.
I would have called upon the power of The One to vanquish the horror that beset me, but my arms were pinned. I could not move. And the crushing pain of that skeletal grip left me unable to concentrate. I thought myself doomed.
Then, a glowing figure appeared beside me.
“Back, spawn of Hell. In the name of The Six, I command thee.”
The skeletons released me. A gauntleted hand helped me to my feet. I stood face to face with a glowing Sir Enjolras, who healed my wounds.
Around us, chaos reigned. Paladins battled skeletal warriors or struggled to save comrades who were even now being pulled beneath the soil. Just as Enjolras finished healing me, I heard the heart-breaking cry of a young Soltanite when his brother in arms was pulled from his grasp.
“Estereal preserve us,” I prayed. Never in all my years as a priest had I witnessed such horror. I stood as one transfixed.
Sir Enjolras grasped my shoulders and shook me. “Father Humphrey, you must be strong. We need you.”
“Yes, yes of course.”
“Father, the darkness that engulfs us so completely was born of magic. Can you dispel it?”
Later I would wonder how he came by such knowledge. No paladin before or since possessed the ability to detect the aura of magic. At the time, I knew only that Enjolras spoke the truth. Calling upon the favor of Estereal, I held my holy symbol against the night and attempted to banish the darkness.
At once, the moon and stars appeared. Our camp fires grew brighter. Night remained, but now there was light enough for us to see well. More than light, there was hope, for the unnatural darkness had brought with it an equally unnatural fear that had weakened us and made our warriors slow to act.
Now the tide of battle began to turn. Skeletons shattered and fell as our holy warriors struck them with blade and with mace. Prayers to the gods uttered with joy by triumphant paladins rang all around me.
The battle ended quickly. I joined the Soltanites tending the wounded, while Sir Enjolras and Earl Geris led the effort to retrieve the bodies of those who had been pulled into the ground. Twelve of our brave, young paladins had choked to death in this horrible fashion. Three others we did not recover. The Azkalites might have sung of the honor of such a fierce battle, but all I could see was the tragedy of young lives and good men lost.
As the only priest, it fell upon me to say the last rites. In all my years as Estereal's servant, it was the most difficult ceremony I had ever performed.
Afterwards, I gathered my tools for the long process of preparing our dead, so that they might be returned to their families for burial. As I did so, I was approached by an angry Earl Geris and a worried Enjolras.
“This foul place is an abomination,” the earl bellowed. “Skeletons do not rise up from the ground of their own accord. ´Tis evil magic at work here. Father, you must tell us who is responsible so that we may visit the gods' wrath upon them.”
Many of the paladins who overheard his remarks cheered the Earl's words. They longed to avenge the deaths of their comrades.
“Earl Geris, I am not a priest of Torodin. I've no more ability to uncover secrets than you.”
The earl scowled. “Then I shall track down that boy Aimil and beat the truth from him.”
Enjolras grabbed the Earl's arm before he could depart on such an unworthy mission.
“Geris, we are the gods' warriors. We do not harm the innocent.”
“The boy led us to this accursed place. He is not blameless in this.”
“Perhaps not. But suspicion alone is not just cause for retribution. We must be certain of our cause ´ere we act. It is a far greater sin to punish the innocent than to let the guilty go free.”
Earl Geris frowned. He was not a man to admit an error, or to take orders from one of lesser rank. His next words surprised me.
“Sir Enjolras, I beg your pardon. ´Tis anger and grief speaking. Your words are those of a wiser, cooler head than mine. Strange it seems, that one of your tender years should have acquired such wisdom. I'll wager you can not be more than twenty. Were you taught by a sage, or priest of renown?”
“I was taught first by my father, who was neither a sage nor a man of renown, but a great man just the same. ´Twas he who taught me that life's lessons can be learned from every soul I meet. I have found that the greatest lessons can be learned from the poorest and the humblest. A paladin, Earl Geris, must honor those of faith and courage above those of high rank.
“I understand your anger, but we can not afford to act rashly. Please, go you and speak to the others. I must have a private word with Father Humphrey.”
While the good earl set about calming those who might be carried away by the lust for vengeance, Enjolras spoke to me of his concern for our guide.
“Father, I have not seen Granger for some some, neither before nor during the battle.”
“The One have mercy.” I'd forgotten about the irascible, old man. Surely he would have been easy prey for our unnatural foe.
“He lives,” said Enjolras. “But he is in great peril.”
I stared at the paladin in astonishment. “How can you know such a thing?”
“A gift from Soltana. I can sense danger to those I love.”
A gift from the Lady of Mercy? Enjolras had already displayed one power granted by Estereal. Never had I heard of a paladin granted powers by more than one god. And how could Enjolras love Granger, when true friendship takes time to grow, and he'd known the man but a few weeks.
Or had he?
I stared at the man before me in awe as an amazing thought struck me. Amazing -- and miraculous.
“Neither you not Granger are entirely what you seem. Are you?”
“Please, Father. There are some questions I may not answer. My history must remain a secret until the day it is made known to one of my descendants who is my equal both in faith and in courage. This I was told by the Oracle of Meda.
“The Oracle revealed one thing more. When the guide is lost, the light shall know where to find him. I believe, Father, that you know where Granger is.”
“I? But how?”
“Think, Father. We have little time. There must be something you saw or heard that others did not notice.”
I thought on his words. At first, nothing came to mind. Then, Estereal blessed me with insight. I recalled Granger's curiosity at Brother Vilem's shrine, where I'd cautioned him against invading the priest's private quarters.
I told Enjolras what I knew. “That man has the restraint of an Azkalite and the curiosity of one of Torodin's own. I suspect he went back to investigate. Though I can not think what danger could threaten him in Chilaili's shrine.
“Remember, Father, that Maude warned us of deception. Things may not be what they seem. We must hurry.”
Sir Enjolras summoned Earl Geris. “I believe that our guide is in some peril. I require three of our best warriors to assist myself and Father Humphrey. While we are gone, you must organize the men and get them ready to leave this place. We will ride as soon as we return.”
Earl Geris did not question his orders. He sent three of the senior paladins to assist us -- Lord Giles Weiland of Estereal, Sir Lachlan of Soltana, and Jaesem of Tritherion. All were strong, experienced warriors and eager to follow Sir Enjolras.
We rode at a gallop to the shrine. The sun had just begun to soften the darkness of night, so I called upon Estereal's favor to light our way. All was quiet as we reached the shrine and tethered our horses. Sir Lachlan closed his eyes and held Soltana's golden rose toward the church. He sank to his knees, biting his lip to keep from crying out in pain.
“I sense great evil,” he whispered hoarsely.
Glowing with pure, white light, Enjolras drew his weapon -- a broad sword whose hilt was edged with silver and the blade etched with words in some language unknown to me. The other three paladins drew their own weapons and looked to him for direction.
“Father Humphrey, we need your guidance now, more than ever. It is not for mere paladins to pierce the magical veil of deception and see the truth beyond. Can you help us?”
“Yes, my son.”
I called upon The One's favor to help me see beyond illusion and perceive things as they truly were.
The shrine itself appeared no different. But I gasped when I gazed upon the garden.
“What is it, Father?” asked Lord Giles.
“The plants in the garden are naught but illusion. Only bare earth lies within the fence.”
“Let us search this false garden,” Enjolras said grimly. He opened the gate and we followed him inside.
We searched for many long minutes without finding anything. Then Sir Lachlan discovered a patch of loose soil. Jaesem helped him to clear away the dirt.
“There's a door here, flush with the ground.”
“Wait --” Enjolras cried.
But his warning came too late. Jaesem had already grabbed the handle of the door and pulled. He released it abruptly to find his hand sticky with a viscous, green fluid.
“What?” He gasped then, and fell the ground, where he writhed in silent agony. I hastened to his side and cast a spell to cure the poison that afflicted this brave paladin.
Thank The One, I acted in time. The poison was truly deadly, for it took several healing spells to undo the damage and bring Jaesem to full awareness. The paladin thanked me, but seemed a bit embarrassed by his reckless behavior.
Lord Giles broke off a rail from the fence and slipped it through the door's iron handle, allowing him to open it safely. Steep stairs, lit only by the glowing Enjolras, spiraled down below us.
“Follow me, quickly.” With his blade drawn, Enjolras all but ran down the steep stairs. The rest of us followed as quickly as we dared. Coming last, I soon fell behind the younger and more agile men. I re-cast my light spell to see my way.
The sound of rhythmic chanting reached us as we descended. The four paladins quickly reached the bottom and raced ahead. I soon heard a crashing sound, followed by the clash of steel,
Cursing my old bones, I finally reached the bottom. I stood at the end of a long corridor lit by glowing stones in the ceiling. The sounds of combat came from the end of the passage, where a wooden door hung precariously on one hinge.
Calling for Estereal's blessing, I ran for the door. The room beyond was a large chamber built of dark stone. At the far end a man in black robes held a dagger in one hand and chanted over the figure of a man bound to a stone altar. He had his back to the door. Behind him, my four noble companions battled twice as many warriors dressed in green and russet and wearing broken wheels, the symbol of Athelstan.
In the corner of the room, I spied Granger lying slumped upon the floor -- alive or dead, I could not tell. I wanted to run to his aid, but my instincts warned me that the man in black must be stopped. As I stepped through the doorway, he'd completed his chant and now anointed the chest of his victim with oil from a glass vial. I wondered that he did not stop to aid his defenders, but some magical rituals lose their power if the priest breaks his concentration, even for a moment. The man spared not a glance for any but his victim.
The paladins struggled fiercely with the Athelstani priests, and could not spare a moment to either aid Granger or attack the black-robed priest. It was up to me to disrupt the ritual and, hopefully, to eliminate the evil priest entirely.
I pulled a precious topaz from my pocket and prayed for Estereal's guidance. I would only get once chance at this, for gems of this quality were rare, and I had only the one.
I called upon Estereal's power to infuse the topaz with the power of the burning sun. Then I hurled it at the evil priest. It struck the dagger and exploded in a blinding flash of light. The priest fell back, screaming in pain. His dagger and his left hand were gone. Fire blazed around him.
Staggering, the priest turned around to face me. His eyes burned with hatred, and the silver skull hanging around his neck still glowed with the heat of my spell. The priest could barely stand, but he ignored the pain of his own wounds in his need for vengeance. With his remaining hand he pointed to me and cried, “Decay!”
From an onyx ring upon his finger issued a malefic, pulsing band of darkness. It spread outward, reaching toward me like the outstretched fingers of the Soultaker, Himself.
I stared in horror as death approached. Transfixed by some power of the evil magic, I was powerless to move.
A cry of rage sounded above the clashing steel of battle. The sigh of peril to one of Estereal's priests infuriated the brave Lord Giles. Pushing aside his opponent, he leaped in front of me with his shield raised, as if to ward off the evil spell.
Alas, mere armor could not defend him. Lord Giles screamed in agony as the band of darkness flowed around the shield and encased his body like a chrysalis around a caterpillar.
But the transformation wrought upon the paladin was far from wondrous. Before my very eyes his flesh decayed. Maggots burst from his rotting flesh, blood flowed from his mouth and eyes. His skin shriveled to reveal the organs and muscles beneath.
I reached out, trying to dispel this horrible magic. But I was too late. Just before I could touch him, Lord Giles Weiland fell at my feet, a lifeless skeleton.
Enraged, I drew my battle axe and prepared to avenge his death or die trying. I'd not seen combat for thirty years, but I'd kept in practice, as any good Esterealan should. Heedless of the danger, I rushed among the battling warriors.
But I was too slow. The evil priest slipped through a hidden door before I could reach him. I could not spare the time to pursue. The helpless prisoner gasped and writhed upon the altar as much as his bonds permitted. Doubtless the evil priest had poisoned him before fleeing. I hastily cast a spell to cure the poison, and was relieved when the man's struggles ceased, and his breathing became even. That he slept still was likely the cause of yet more magic, but as he seemed unharmed I hastened to check on Granger.
The poor man had been beaten nearly to death. ´Twas a pitiful sight to see. He still breathed, but only just. Thanking The One for projecting Granger, I called upon His heavenly power to heal the wounded man.
Sir Enjolras and Sir Lachlan defeated the last of their opponents just as Granger opened his eyes. Jaesem, sadly, had been wounded beyond my power to save him. ´Twas a high price we paid for victory.
While I said prayers for the souls of Lord Giles and Jaesem, Sir Enjolras cut the bonds of the evil priest's would-be victim. He awoke as I prayed, and I was astonished, when I'd finished, to find my companions kneeling before him.
I stared at the man. Though bruised and dirty, there was an unmistakable air of command about that face. It was an oddly familiar face, with a square jaw, a neatly trimmed beard, and a proud, straight nose. Dark brows framed a pair of clear, green eyes. Sir Lachlan had given up his cape, which the erstwhile prisoner wore over tattered clothing.
He smiled when he saw me watching him with confusion.
“Father, your King thanks you. You have saved my life.”
“Your Majesty!” Awed, and shamed that I had not recognized the royal profile that adorned so many coins and seals across the land, I kneeled before his Royal Majesty, Telford, King of Hurva.
“Rise, noble warriors. You have saved my life, and in so doing you have saved Hurva. I would know the names of those to whom I owe so great a debt.”
Sir Enjolras bowed to our liege.
“If it please Your Majesty, may I introduce Father Humphrey Ignatius, priest of Estereal; Sir Lachlan, paladin of Soltana; and our guide, whom we call Granger. I am Sir Enjolras.”
The King greeted each of us in turn, then walked over to the bodies of our fallen comrades. To my surprise, he kneeled beside them on the bloody floor. His Majesty appeared sorely grieved.
“Tell me, Sir Enjolras, the names of these good men who have given their lives so bravely. They shall have a hero's funeral, and their heirs will be remembered by the Crown.”
Sir Enjolras told His Royal Majesty of Lord Giles and Jaesem. Then he asked the king how he'd come to be a prisoner here so far from his royal home.
“Right gladly will I tell you,” said His Majesty. “But let us away from this foul place ´ere I begin my tale. I would not endure the scene of my torture another moment. Nor, I am sure, would Granger, who nearly paid with his life for finding me here. We must make haste, if we are to stop the treachery that still threatens the kingdom. I fear we shall need all of your prayers, Father Humphrey, for the enemies of the crown are many, and we are but few.”
“Begging Your Majesty's pardon,” said Enjolras, “but we are not so few. All the paladins of Hurva are gathered not far from here. They await Your Majesty's command.”
“All, you say? How can this be?”
Granger coughed loudly. “I'm an old man, but I'm sure I heard somebody say something about hurrying on out of here.”
I stared at Granger in alarm. The king could have a commoner flogged, or worse, for daring to interrupt him. I was both surprised and relieved when His Majesty only chuckled.
“Right you are, my good man. I would meet these paladins, and I may explain what is afoot whilst we ride.”
We gathered the sad remains of our fallen and quickly fled that evil place. Those of us not carrying the dead kept our weapons drawn, and all of us remained alert. We were very much aware that His Majesty was still in great danger, especially since the priest of Othniel had escaped.
The gods watched over us, for we rejoined Earl Geris and the paladins without incident. His Majesty was overjoyed to see so many noble warriors gathered on his behalf. He vowed that, when time permitted, he would meet each and every one of them personally and command the Royal Bard to compose songs in their honor.
But now was not the time for bards. The paladins outfitted His Majesty with a horse and with arms and armor worthy of his royal station. Pausing just long enough for Earl Geris and Sir Enjolras to seek His Majesty's approval for both the route and His Majesty's protection, we set off for Palk with all due speed.
His Majesty gathered us together when we stopped to rest the horses. The king had an incredible story to tell.
“Mine is a sad story, my good friends,” the king said as we gathered around the fire. “Betrayal is always hard to stomach. But how much worse when it comes at the hands of a trusted advisor -- a man I thought of as my closest friend.”
Earl Geris' eyes widened. “But, Your Majesty, Surely, you can not refer to Lord Darragh?”
The king nodded sadly.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty. But, how can this be? Conor Darragh has served you for years. I fought under his command at the battle of Oldenburg. He's a hero.”
“Aye. That he was. And a friend to me, or so I believed. Conor and I played together as children -- did you know that? I loved the man like a brother.”
“What happened, Your Majesty?” Enjolras asked gently.
“We went hunting on Mojag's Day. Just myself, Conor and a small guard. It's been a tradition with us for years, now. Conor hand-picked the guard, choosing men he wanted to honor with the privilege of hunting with the king. Or so I believed until one of them shot me with a poisoned arrow. I awoke in a rat-infested cell, chained like some common criminal.
“I must have been asleep for days. My clothes were filthy, my beard had grown, and there were cuts along both arms for which I could not account. I knew not what had happened to me, nor what was happening to my kingdom. Furious, I struggled against my chains and called down curses upon Conor's name.”
The king rubbed his arms, as if remembering his imprisonment. Granger handed His Majesty a flask of wine, from with the king drank gratefully.
“Hours passed, and my cries were ignored. Then, they came for me. Priests of The Torturer - nine of them. I tried to fight them, but I was but one man, weakened by my imprisonment and without a weapon. My struggles only amused them. I swore that my people would find and punish them, but they only laughed. They bragged to me then, about a spell they had cast while I slept. Using my blood, they had created a powerful spell, allowing Conor to assume my face, my voice. My throne. A temporary spell, but a powerful one. The ritual you interrupted would have made the spell permanent. They'd planned it for a very long time. Something they said about the stars and their alignment... I did not understand them, nor did I care to.”
The king took another long swallow of wine. Those of us sitting close to him could see that his hands were shaking, but none were so bold as to remark upon it.
“They tortured me then. I need not describe it to you. We are men of war. Survival is what matters. I survived. While they tortured me, they bragged about how Conor would bed my Losana.”
Roaring with anger, His Majesty tossed the wine skin towards the fire and leaped to his feet. Granger caught the wine flask just in time. He scooted back, giving His Majesty a wounded look. The rest of us stood with the king. All of Hurva knew how His Majesty adored his new bride, the gentle and lovely daughter of Duke Gottfrid. The paladins understood and, to some degree even shared the king's fury.
“I will haul that traitor from my throne and break his neck with my own two hands,” the king vowed.
Many of the paladins shouted in agreement and saluted the king with their weapons. The paladins of Tritherion cried out for vengeance, while others swore to die to save Queen Losana. A sharp whistle stilled the uproar. All looked down at Granger, who removed his fingers from his mouth and got slowly to his feet.
“Begging Your Majesty's pardon, but how do we know that you're not the impostor?”
“How dare you --” Earl Geris began, but His Majesty intervened.
“Be at ease, Earl. Our good friend, Granger is quite correct.” He smiled wryly. “I must appreciate his candor. I, of all people, would not have you willing to murder a man who appears to be your king without strong evidence. Fortunately, we have such evidence at our disposal. Father Humphrey, if you would be so kind?”
Normally, I would never have presumed to detect lie upon my king. But at His Majesty's command, I held forth my holy symbol.
“Are you His Royal Majesty, Telford of House Kensington, King of Hurva?”
“I am.”
My holy symbol remained cool to the touch. “He speaks the truth,” I informed the others. “He is our true and lawful king.”
“Amen!” Earl Geris shouted. “My fellow paladins, let us ride to save our country, and our queen!”
The paladins cheered, but Enjolras called for silence.
“My friends, your enthusiasm is admirable, but we can not charge the castle without a plan. We know that the true king is with us, but the castle guards do not. They are innocent victims, believing that they only do their duty. We can not simply slaughter them.”
“Sir Enjolras is right,” said the king. “I would have my guards spared. They are good men. Many of them have families. We must find a way to reach the traitor without harming them. There are escape tunnels from the palace which very few know of. But we can not get in that way without help from someone already inside.”
“Perhaps we could sneak inside?” one young Soltanite suggested distastefully. The other paladins frowned at him.
Granger chuckled. “Sneak? Over a hundred paladins in shiny armor? Even the blind beggars would notice that. Begging Your Majesty's pardon, but if you've someone in the palace you can trust, I can get a message in.”
The king frowned at the old man. “How?”
Granger winked. “The less said on that, the better.”
“You can trust him, Your Majesty,” Enjolras assured the doubtful king. “I do. I have known Granger for a long time.”
I stared at the old man in amazement. How could this be? Who was this Granger? He noticed me staring and grinned at me. Impudent rascal.
“Very well. You must find Morela. She was my nurse, when I was a boy. She's retired now, and lives in the castle with a servant of her own. No one would think to watch her, but she's as sharp as they come. She will help you, and she'll know how to let us in. Come, I will tell you how to find her and what to say to convince her of our plight.”
The king took the old man aside, and explained as quickly as he could. Granger rode off with a jaunty wave to Sir Enjolras.
“He's a cocky one,” Earl Geris said disapprovingly.
“With reason,” said the king. His Majesty exchanged a look with Sir Enjolras. What communication passed between them, I know not, but I suspect that the king learned something about Granger of which the rest of us were unaware. I was curious, but knew better than to ask. It is not for a humble priest to question his king.
“The secret entrance we will use is in a rather... unusual place,” the king told us. “But it is run by those I trust completely. We can reach it without attracting attention, and we can wait as long as we must. But it might be best if you tried to appear like common soldiers. You'll fit in much more readily.”
The paladins looked at each other in confusion.
“But, Your Majesty,” said Earl Geris, “ we are warriors.”
“Aye,” said the king. “But I'm afraid that you're much too clean.”
Now, I am not a crass Jveltoan nor yet a mischievous Torodinite. But, I must confess that watching the paladins deliberately muss their hair and dirty their clothing was quite entertaining, even when I had to join them. I thought the poor Arienhites were going to faint. Enjolras confessed that his powers would not allow him to remain dirty, and had to settle for covering himself with a hooded cloak. I believe the other paladins were quite jealous.
We rode with all due haste towards Palk. It was nearing dark as we approached the king's city. The king led us without fanfare into the less reputable part of town. I am not sure which astonished our company more -- the nature of our hiding place, or the greeting our noble liege received.
“Boopi!” the ladies cried excitedly, recognizing His Majesty at once. (I use the term ´lady' quite loosely, for no true lady would work in a house of ill repute.) A well-endowed blonde woman threw her arms around the king and kissed him full on the mouth. We were all shocked, but the paladins were distracted by the scantily clad women who draped themselves over their handsome visitors.
The king freed his lips from the blonde woman, but did not push her away. Instead, he smiled fondly at her and patted her on the rump.
“Olimpia, my dear, it is good to see you again. But you forget yourself. I'm a married man now.”
The blonde pouted prettily. “But, Boopi, that doesn't mean we can't still be friends? Other kings have mistresses.”
“I am not other kings. I love my Losana.”
Olimpia sighed. “The queen is a lucky woman.”
This remark elicited a warm chuckle from an olive-skinned woman whose inky, black hair spilled down her back like a waterfall. She put her slender arms around Sir Enjolras, whose face turned crimson.
“We're all lucky women,” she purred, “if Boopi's friends are planning to stay. Hmm? How about it, handsome?”
She whispered something in Enjolras' ear. His eyes widened in astonishment, and he pulled away from her.
“Madame, please. We are here on business.”
She laughed. “I was talking business.”
The king exchanged an amused glance with Olimpia. I do believe His Majesty was shamelessly enjoying the paladins' discomfort. I, too, felt out of place, but my age shielded me from unwanted attention. There are times when it's a blessing to be an old man.
“I'm afraid Sir Enjolras is right, Taqiyah,” the king told the dark-haired woman. “There is treachery afoot, and we've no time to dally. Olimpia, my dear, will you take us to the back room?”
At once, the woman was all seriousness.
“Of course. Gentlemen, follow me.”
We followed Olimpia and our liege out of the parlor to a chorus of disappointed cries and lewd offers. The paladins all but tramped on one another in their haste to escape, but the noises issuing from the rooms we passed in the garishly decorated hallway did little to calm their nerves. Olimpia led us down a stair case and down another hall which led to a door. She unlocked it, kissed our liege farewell, and left us. The king smiled fondly at her retreating form, his eyes on Olimpia's shapely rear.
“Your majesty?” Sir Enjolras prodded gently.
The king cleared his throat.
“Ah, yes. Duty calls. Follow me, gentlemen.”
Great was our surprise when the king led us into a spacious and tastefully decorated chapel. Beside the altar stood a marble statue of the goddess, Sharess. It was carved with such astonishing skill that one could imagine the knowing look in the lovely goddess' eyes, and picture those full lips curving further into a full smile.
“My father had this place built,” the king explained. “Both the shrine and the brothel. He was quite, er, devout in his worship of Sharess. The brothel has always been carefully staffed by those loyal to the crown.”
None of us knew quite what to say to that. As a priest, I admire devotion to all the good gods. But a brothel? Honestly, such an establishment hardly seemed worthy of a king's interest.
“I'll ask you to keep silent about this place,” said the king. “For many reasons. Not the least of which is that the queen mother is unaware of its existence. And shall remain so.”
“Certainly, Your Majesty,” said Enjolras. “The secret entrance to the palace -- is it here in this chapel?”
The king smiled. “Almost. Observe.”
His Majesty approached the statue of Sharess. He spoke a word in a musical language I did not recognize. Then he placed his lips against those of the statue.
We heard the sound of stone grating upon stone. The altar slid back to reveal a steep stair case. His Majesty bid us take some of the lanterns which illuminated the chapel and led us downward.
We found ourselves in a dark, unfurnished basement. The king led us towards the far wall, where strange, softly glowing glyphs had been carved into the very rock.
“Stay back,” the king warned. “Only a member of the royal family may touch those glyphs and live. Have patience, now. It will take me some time to dispel the magic. I will require your silence.”
Enjolras bowed. “Of course, Your Majesty. We will use this opportunity to pray that the gods guide and protect us in what lies ahead.”
All of us kneeled upon the dirty floor and prayed with devotion. For myself, I begged Estereal to guard these young men who were so ready to risk their lives in service to their king. Already, we had lost several. I prayed there would be no more deaths.
As we prayed, his majesty placed his hands upon the glowing glyphs and began reciting words in the same lilting tongue he'd employed in the chapel. The words were meaningless to me, but they had the pleasant, sing-song quality of verse. His Majesty finished just before we'd completed our prayers. We could see that the glyphs no longer emitted their soft glow.
“It is safe to approach,” the king informed us. “Now we must only wait until Granger and Morela arrive to let us in. Assuming they have not been discovered.”
“Estereal for fend,” I prayed.
Hours passed, during which we grew ever more fearful. I prayed for Granger's safety, and I am certain that Enjolras did as well. The king wisely distracted us from our anxious waiting by drawing a map in the dirt. He showed us where we would enter the castle, where we would go to find the queen, and where we were likely to find guards. Again, His Majesty reminded the paladins to subdue the guards, and not kill them. He would not countenance the sacrifice of his loyal servants.
After several long hours, a door suddenly appeared among the glyphs on the wall. It opened, and Granger stepped through, followed by an old woman. The tiny, white-haired lady ran straight to the king, who enfolded her in his arms and lifted her off the ground in a fierce hug.
“I knew you'd not let me down,” the king said, as he gently put the old woman down and kissed her cheek.
“Now that's my boy,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “When you didn't come visit old Morela for days... Well, I thought you'd forgotten an old woman.”
“Never,” the king insisted. He looked at Granger. “Did anyone see you? Did you have any difficulty?”
“None at all.”
Morela chuckled. “This one's got more tricks up his sleeve than a skilled pickpocket. Not one of the guards suspected us.”
“Excellent,” said the king. “Morela, I want you to stay here. You'll be safe.” He handed her a rolled parchment. “If I do not return for you, go upstairs and find Olimpia. Tell her this letter must reach Father Lambert in Stonemarche. He'll know what to do.”
Morela frowned up at the king. “I'll take the letter. But you'd better come back to me, my boy.”
The king kissed her forehead. “The gods willing, I shall.”
His Majesty turned to face us. Drawing his sword, he raised it above his head. “I call upon you now to pledge your lives to save my queen, and to destroy the traitor who wears my crown. Are you with me?”
“We are!” came the unanimous cry.
“May the gods grant us victory.”
The secret tunnel through which we traveled led us in through an equally secret wine cellar far below the castle kitchens. The king led us through several more wine cellars, into the root cellar and finally up into the kitchen, where the palace servants were astonished to see their liege passing through in the company of so many paladins. The king's stony glare all but dared them to question us. Wise in the way of servants, they merely bowed and made no remark in our presence.
The gods blessed us, for we traveled through much of the palace in this manner, without being challenged. Indeed, I should not have been surprised. The king's fury was apparent to all we passed. Servants bowed hastily and scurried off on errands of sudden and immediate importance. Guards saluted and remained silent. One young courtier opened his mouth to speak as his majesty strode angrily down the hallway. Then, seeing the king's grim countenance, he wisely bowed and retreated.
It was not until we approached His Majesty's own quarters that we ran into trouble. The guards stationed outside the king's chambers knew their liege to be within, and they were stunned to see him striding towards them in the company of armed warriors.
“Your Majesty,” said the elder of the two. “I.. How is it...?”
“Stand aside, Brychan,” the king bellowed.
“But, your majesty --”
“Stand aside!”
The king pushed the astonished guard out of his way. Seeing his intent, several of the paladins grabbed the warriors and deprived them off their weapons. Roaring with fury, the king kicked in the chamber door. The hinges shrieked, the frame cracked, and the door itself went flying into the anteroom.
Enjolras, Granger, Earl Geris, and I were close on His Majesty's heels as he burst into the bed chamber. The other paladins followed us, though some were detained by the struggle with the guards. All who entered stopped and stared in astonishment at finding the impostor in bed with Queen Losana.
“You will die for this!” the king roared.
Our poor, confused queen stared from her lover to her husband and fainted. The impostor, however, took one look at the true king and vanished.
With a cry of rage, the king ran to the bed. He plunged his sword into the spot where the traitor had lain, but his blade sliced only the mattress. Feathers flew into the air, and the king bellowed in rage. I picked up the poor queen, both to minister to her and to protect her from being inadvertently harmed by her distraught husband.
“He went this way!” Granger cried. We turned to see that the old man had lifted up the edge of a tapestry hanging behind the bed. A door stood open beside him.
The king raced through without delay, waving his sword and screaming with rage. Enjolras, Geris, Granger and the other paladins began to follow. Leaving the queen in charge of several Soltanites whom I ordered to stay behind and guard her with their lives. Then, pausing only to cast a spell upon myself so that I could see things (and invisible traitors) as they truly are, I raced after the king.
The door behind the tapestry led us along a narrow corridor and into a large, circular chamber with a vast array of shields and weapons hanging upon the walls, and an altar to Azkal erected in the corner. This was where the king, so renowned for his prowess in arms, practiced his sword play. As the king and the others looked about them in confusion, I spied a tall, dark-haired man who wore no clothes raising for the door beside the altar.
“He's over there!” I cried, pointing. “Heading for the door.”
The king, Enjolras, Geris and the others raced quickly for the door. But Granger was quicker. He drew a tiny, hand-held crossbow (Where he'd kept it hidden, I knew not.) and fired along the path I pointed. Surely Azkal Himself must have guided that shot. It struck the traitor in the leg. He cried out, and fell.
Earl Geris and several other paladins blocked this door, while others guarded the remaining exists. There was no escape.
“Show yourself, traitor!” the king bellowed.
Knowing the vile impostor would refuse, I called upon Estereal's favor and dispelled his invisibility. He cringed as the king stepped forward, raising his sword to strike the death blow.
“Your Majesty,” Enjolras cried, “think what you do. Would you not rather arrest this man? He has earned a traitor's death, to be sure. But what of his accomplices. Would you not learn their identities?”
The king hesitated.
In that moment, while we all regarded our king, the vile traitor uttered the words of spell. A shimmering gate appeared beside us.
“What is this?” the king cried. “He pressed his blade against the traitor's throat. “Banish this thing you have summoned or die.”
The impostor laughed. “I am already dead.”
Then, with no word or gesture at all, the traitor died. “No!” cried the king, furious at being deprived of his vengeance. He slashed down with his blade, chopping off the man's head. It rolled along the stone floor, spraying blood in its path while the lifeless eyes stared out at us.
But the spell did not die with him. From beyond the glowing gate, a hot, sulfurous wind came howling into the room. We were all of us forced back as a demon the size of ten men stepped through the gate. The thing had the body of a dragon, its thick hide covered with fiery red scales. A long, sinuous tale ended in a wicked barb, and black claws on its four legs dripped venom. The creature's round, wyrm like head rested atop a long neck and boasted long black horns and bulbous, yellow eyes. The demon opened its maw and hissed, revealing long, wicked teeth.
First to act as the gust of wind eased, I held forth my holy symbol and approached the foul creature.
“Demon of the Abyss,” I cried, “in the name of Estereal I command you -- go back to whence you came.”
My command had no effect upon the foul creature. With a ululating cry of unholy joy, the demon lashed out. It would have bit me in two, but Granger hurled himself at me, knocking me out of the way. We both landed on the floor in a heap.
The paladins charged the beast then, in seeming abandon. But their zeal had a purpose, for at least two of them always managed to place themselves between the king and the demon. Try as he might, our frustrated liege was never able to approach the beast. The paladins were determined to keep their king safe, no matter what the cost.
Oh, but the cost was high. One paladin after another fell, sliced by venomous claws or savaged by those wicked teeth. I did what I could to heal them, but my efforts were far too little. In a few short minutes, a dozen brave paladins lay dead. The demon sprayed blood with every move, yet it showed no sign of growing weaker. How many more must die before the foul thing was vanquished?
I knew that I must banish this evil beast before it was too late. Though it pained me to leave our wounded unhealed, I backed away from the battle and began casting a spell that would dispel the evil creature and the gate from whence it had come. The spell was long and difficult. As I called upon Estereal's favor, I could only watch as the demon killed a young paladin of Soltana, then turned and snapped Earl Geris' left hand off at the bone.
Undaunted, that brave man lashed out with his sword, catching the beast in the foreleg and causing it to stagger.
I was almost ready to unleash the spell.
Enjolras stepped up beside Earl Geris, allowing the wounded man to fall back. The demon lashed out, raking Enjolras across the chest with its wicked claws. Enjolras staggered, but swung his broad sword at the beast. The blade caught on the creature's scales and was pulled from the paladin's hand. Enjolras fell to his knees. The demon roared in triumph.

“In Estereal's name, I banish thee!” I cried, unleashing the force of my spell.
A great roaring sound came from the gate, as if a whirlwhind pulled at the beast from behind. The demon screeched, a cry of rage and anguish that shook the very walls of the palace. It dug its claws into the stone floor, fighting in vain against the force that pulled it backward. The stones beneath the demon cracked, denying it purchase.
The tail end of the demon had been pulled through the gate. We had triumphed. With Estereal's aid, we had defeated the creature. The paladins began to cheer. Granger reached forward to help Enjolras to his feet.
He was too late. In one final, desperate act of vengeance, the demon lashed out with its whip-like tail. It curled around Enjolras' waist, the barbed end sinking into the flesh and causing that brave man to scream in agony.
“Enjolras” Granger cried. He reached out, but grabbed only empty air as both Enjolras and the demon were pulled back through the gate.
The gate vanished.
All was quiet.
Sir Enjolras was gone.

It was one week later when I spoke to Granger again. In the aftermath of the battle, I had stayed to heal the wounded and bury the dead. But I could not forgive myself for the loss of Sir Enjolras. These paladins had lost their leader, and I was to blame. Grief-stricken, I withdrew for one week to the room the king had given me, there to pray and seek atonement for my sins.
On the seventh day, as I finished the last of my prayers and vowed to devote the rest of my life towards helping these paladins found their new academy, a knock came at my door. It was Granger.
“You are still here at the palace?” I said in surprise. I had not communicated with anyone, and had assumed that most of the others had departed by now.
“Didn't want to leave without saying goodbye.”
“That was kind of you.”
The old man shrugged. “You haven't missed much. Lots of speeches. The paladins, or should I say The Paragons, will be the king's official bodyguard from now on.”
“Really? That is an honor.”
“Yep. Sir Enjolras will be proud.”
I looked at him sadly. “You mean he would have been proud.”
Granger leaned towards me. “Don't write him off just yet, Father. Enjolras has died before, you know.”
I stared at Granger in astonishment. His voice, as he'd spoken just now, had altered completely. It was not the voice of an old man.
“What do you mean? Who -- who are you?”
He winked at me. “Just a meddling old man,” he said, in the elderly voice I'd come to know. “You take care of yourself, Father. And look after those paladins.”
He opened the door.
“Wait. You're not going to leave now? Aren't you going to explain yourself?”
“It's not my habit,” he said. Grinning, he walked out the door.
I never saw him again.
The impudent rascal.