A young paladin is sent out to investigate evil doings in a forest far from the throne.
|(author note: 1986 word count per WDC, 2000 per Scrivener)
"Marshal Niacean, reports of abominable acts have reached the King's ear about..." The High Marshal took a deep breath, running a hand over his weathered face. "Jennifer, listen, I'm sorry, but someone has to be pulled from the war effort to go check these stories out. When the King heard of little children being gathered up off the streets of one of his towns and carted out to Melza wood at the edge of his lands to appease some monster and save local lives..." The man's steel grey eyes locked with hers. "He might have only thought of you because of kids, send a woman, but..."
Jennifer Niacean shrugged, "Not the first woman's errand I've been sent on, High Marshal." She said evenly.
The High Marshal nodded once, "There is one other thing, Marshal Niacean."
Jennifer waited patiently while the head of her order worked to find the correct words.
"You were specially requested." He finally said.
When he paused as if that alone explained things, she asked, "By whom, High Marshal?"
His voice dropped, "The four-winged Guardian."
Jennifer had stared at him. Oh yes, she had had other special requests from Guardians. These things sometimes happened as a paladin of The Light. But, to get a request from Her...
One did not turn down the living Avatar of a god, much less the patron goddess of your Order. The fact That Guardian asked for Jennifer by name, meant this was a task specifically necessitating a paladin, not just any Knight of the Dawning Glory. And the High Marshal, though a senior knight and veteran of many campaigns, was like the vast majority of the Knights of the Dawning Glory: not a paladin. Moreover...
Most likely Jennifer at twenty-two winters was currently the senior, living paladin.
The war against the Dark Lord of Anghast at times seemed a war directed against paladins. So many had been brought down on the battlefield, dragged into dark places, and then returned as nightmarish perversions of their former selves. Many across the remaining free lands had come to view paladins with a mixture of joy and fear. Because what was an ally today, could comeback to wipe out your family and loved ones tomorrow.
The war had been raging since before Jennifer's birth. For the first few years it had been a steady extermination of one people after another. The Dark Lord had power and forces at his disposal few could counter, and most of those he had slain first.
Then, when she was a little child, the Guardians had come. Not in great numbers. They did not march as some vast host, but the units one or two marched with became heavily resistant if not immune to even the darkest powers of The Enemy.
And then three winters ago, She arrived. The four-winged Guardian. The living Avatar of the Goddess of Light. Jennifer's patron Goddess. Few away from the front-lines knew of this Guardian. She flew no special banner nor demanded any special treatment, and was a force of nature on the battlefield. Jennifer had only once personally witnessed the Avatar in combat, and that day...
The day a Goddess inspired Jennifer to become more than she could ever have hoped for on her own. The day she just had to do Something. She just could not stand-by, again, and watch, regardless of personal cost. The day a junior knight felt this need well up within herself, and hacked her way to the side of a beleaguered, surrounded on all sides, Guardian and made sure none attacked that Guardian’s flanks.
That happened a mere ten seasons ago. Before that she had only served in two campaigns with the Knights of the Dawning Glory, as a foot soldier with promise. Jennifer had good battlefield sense. Knew where to put herself for best effect, and for how things flowed around her in combat. But since that day, she no longer lingered over personal doubts, particularly when she knew what had to be done, no matter how-- Distasteful. The battlefield was an unforgiving bastard. One moment of hesitation and...
Since then, she had stood toe-to-toe against a demon half the size of a cottage, faced a horde of skeletons, fought a pack of ghouls after they had paralyzed and begun eating her companions. She had seen some... Unpleasant things in her five winters in the field.
The sight of Melza Wood in the distance brought her back to the here and now.
As they rounded the last bend in the disused road and came out from the hills below the Grey Mountains, Jennifer could see the gap in the Mountains ahead where Melza Wood was nestled. Hard, weathered stone rose high on either side above the trees, and the woods went up into the narrow valley that pierced deep into, but not through the mountains. It was not a pass through the Grey Mountains or the King and High Marshal would have been far more concerned. The Grey Mountains were one of the few natural features that stopped the Dark Lord's progress into the heartland of the free lands.
From here they were only an hour, two at the most from the tree line, and as her eyes scanned over the countryside between here and there, broken ground, rocky terrain, except for the vague roadbed dug right into the land, and went straight up to Melza Wood.
Her investigation back at the seat of local power, Tanor, a town of four, five hundred with a wooden stockade providing a modest perimeter, had confirmed the High Marshal’s report. The town elders claimed something had moved into Melza Wood, and that for whatever reason found being sent a half dozen street waifs to eat each full moon, good enough reason to not drag random town folk nor outlaying farming villagers screaming from their beds in the middle of the night and leave a gory trail for all to see in the morning.
Jennifer's nose and brow creased just thinking about this callous description of the situation. Defenseless orphans, children with no one to stand up for them, bound single file, lead into some foreboding Wood, and left to never be heard from again. All to save the lives of those with families, money, power, from mysterious forces no one could confirm ever having seen.
Moreover, something nagged at the back of Jennifer's mind. Something about orphans, why she had been sent personally by her Goddess, and the rumors of sightings of some shadowy, female figure seen standing with the Avatar. It unnerved many of the men after decades of war with the Dark Lord, and his unholy, eldritch minions. Rumor said The Goddess had defeated then enlisted it into Her service against the forces of darkness.
That nagging feeling gnawed at the edge of Jennifer’s mind, growing worse as the two week journey to Tanor and then onto Melza had progressed.
Once again, as she had done many times during the journey, she forced her face to relax. No need to accelerate the onset of wrinkles that age would soon enough give her, nor linger over worries she couldn’t put her finger to.
With the sun low in the sky behind her, she stopped twenty meters outside the tree-line. Dismounting her Bae mare, she turned to the three sergeants riding behind her. "We will camp here and go in at dawn."
Thirty-six infantry and the handful of supply train men started the process of making camp and setting watches. Meanwhile, Jennifer, still holding the reins of her mount stood at the edge of her forces, eying the dense wood before them.
Then Jennifer heard it. In the distance. A child's voice. Then others. As if drifting to her via some errant breeze, the words lost to distance.
A moment later dozens of naked, pale skinned, slouched figures erupted from the forest's edge, racing straight at the armed force.
"Ghouls!" Jennifer cried out, reaching for the sword at her hip.
A jolt of pain arced up Jennifer's spine. She briefly heard the cries of surprise and pain from the men behind her before a second jolt rocked her entire body, leaving her seeing stars and struggling for breath.
She staggered forward trying to escape whatever the source of the assault, intent on wheeling around once she got a step or two of distance, but at the first step, her body froze.
The cries of surprise turned to screams of agony, and then to the sickening sounds of feasting as the ghouls swarmed past her.
Then from above, "Those not held are for the ghouls to feast upon, leave them." Cut through the pain overwhelming her senses.
A robed figure descended into her line-of-sight as the pain fogging her mind faded and her vision cleared. Flowing folds of gold and red settled as the figure lighted before her. Arcane glyphs snaked along every edge of the fine material.
"Good work, my children." It said in a now clear, nasally, high pitched voice. The kind she had heard too many times in her short career.
The unnatural voice of the Undead.
Standing at arm’s distance from her, she could feel its fear aura reaching out to her. But it could find no purchase within her pounding heart. Though the lich’s spell held her limbs, her eyes roved over the skeletal visage before her, seeking opportunity to strike it down.
"At last we meet Lady Marshal, Jennifer Niacean." The lich's fleshless skull looked her up and down. "Though you are hardly worthy of that title at your age." Two burning points stared out from its empty sockets. "But soon you will be so much more. You will make a wonderful junior General in the Dark Lord's newest army."
It reached a skeletal hand into its robes and brought forth an iron mask. The mask’s demonic aura washed over her. Her eyes widened as the mask moved towards her face. Her heart hammered in her chest and ears, deafening her to all but the mask of iron coming towards her.
As metal so cold it burned pressed against her cheeks, nose, forehead, and jaw, the lich said, “You are young, this will not take long, my General.” Once its task complete, it walked past her, out of her line-of-sight.
Voices whispered into her mind. The certain knowledge it was all over, her troops wiped out, hope lost. Then all pain evaporated from her body, replaced with a gentle euphoria. A floating sensation...
"Jennifer Niacean." Voices demanded, and Jennifer’s eyes snapped open. Through the eye slits of the demonic mask she saw children just outside the tree-line. Children staring her straight in the eyes. Hope poured into her. It was a courage aura. And the children were the source.
They were future paladins!
In her mind's eye, the young paladin saw that day again. The day of the Avatar in combat. Felt her power, her strength, and her firmness of purpose. But this time the Avatar turned, eyes blazing with Glory, and looked into her soul.
"Let There Be Light." From deep within Jennifer’s soul poured forth righteous rage.
She saw The Light reflected in the children’s eyes, and shine off the broken land about her. Cheery red embers floated away from her face a moment before turning to blackened ash, then carried away on the wind. And the magic that held her and justice at bay, washed away.
Jennifer smiled as her shield and unsheathed sword came drifting before her. As her hand grasped the hilt, her sword blazed with white flames. Her shield did the same as she slipped her arm through the first strap and gripped the second.
Turning, she saw ghouls crumpling to the ground or fleeing. The turncoats who had been hidden amongst her troops, staggering, shielding their eyes. And the lich...
Glared at her.
“The Goddess of Light sends her regards.” And Jennifer charged...