A Week Later

Mesa, Agruzel

The town of Mesa was still reeling from the chaos that had ensued the week before. Most of the guards had died in the scuffle, leaving the town relatively unprotected. The city of Andrias has promised to send a few members of the Order as temporary protection within a week's time. Till then, the men in the town had taken turns every night to stand guard in case of another attack. It wouldn't have mattered if such an event were to occur again but leaving the town completely defenseless was also not an option. The news of the attack had spread across the nearby town, and by extension to the traders making their way through these towns. The last week had seen a sharp drop in business, but that was a concern of lower priority.

Anniese welcomed the unusually quaint and tame bar scene for the last week. She appreciated the change in aroma of the tavern, the smell of vomit and strong alcohol was never a welcome experience for her. Like the last few days, Rustic Maiden had a slow day, the tavern not even at half occupancy. She idly mopping up the floor while the other barmaids leisurely went about their business, serving and emptying tables. Her father had been worried the next morning of the attack and had instructed her to stay inside or at the very least nearby the tavern. He had the barkeep double his salary for the month, with the stipulation that he spend the remaining month in the tavern itself, giving him a bed in the cellar. She approached the lumbering giant behind the counter and handed him her mop.

"I'll be taking a little break Jed. look over things for me till then 'kay," she said, running upstairs.

Jed nodded in response, keeping the mop aside. Despite his outward appearance, he was actually a gentle and naïve individual, Anniese treated him like a little brother. Anniese made her way upstairs, the upper floor contained the rooms guests could use for a night's stay. Five rooms were present on the floor, placed along a long corridor. Two rooms each on either side of the corridor, and one at the opposite end of the stairs, each room had a bed, a night stand and a small window. Anniese walked towards the room at the end of the corridor, the old floorboard creaking with her every step. She hated that. She opened the door, greeted by a sight she had become accustomed to over the last few days.

A familiar woman, her blonde hair tied up in a bun, and bandages wrapped around her head and the left side of her body, was standing up, swinging a mop in an arc in front of her. Putting force behind each slash, she practiced her swings with fierce determination. Her night stand was medicine, salve and bandages.

"You know wounds can open up again. Ease up on the mop there Reina," Anniese said, holding Reina's right arm.

"You didn't see what I saw. I can't sit by idly while the world goes to shit," Reina said, looking at Anniese. Determination was mixed with fear in those emerald eyes.

"I still find it hard to believe that the nice pastor is a Dza Vho like the rest of those savages. You must have been delirious from all the blood loss," she said in response, sitting Reina down on the small bed present in the room.

"I know what I saw, and I don't intend to let it be," Reina said, putting the mop aside.

"Also, a mop is made for cleaning floors, not bashing Dza Vho heads. By Zil, your room has seen better days," Anniese said, picking the mop up as she traversed the room, cleaning it up a bit.

"Did you talk to that scholar? He was the last person to talk to Malcolm before he disappeared," Reina said, lying down on the bed. Despite her fierce resolve, she was still a subject to her body, a body which wanted to rest.

"He said the preacher was looking for some manuscripts, details about exorcism, old Zohian scriptures. The scholar sent him to Cimmer, A town few miles west of here," Anniese said as she continued with her task.

"Well that's where I'm going next then," Reina said, staring at the ceiling.

Anniese kept the mop aside with a thud, startling Reina who got up from the bed. Irritation and anger were visible on Anniese's face, who was staring intently at Reina, both her hands at her hips. Reina was visibly scared, a dumb smile on her face as she awkwardly stared at the barmaid. She feared very few things, and one of those was Anniese's anger.

"You'll do no such think you numb-skulled woman! Rest up and get to full health. You almost died trying to protect this town, no one is gonna be there out on the road to patch you up if you fall to pieces. Besides, didn't the Paladin-Commander explicitly state that you were to be the protector of this town," Anniese said, pursing her lips as her anger only further grew.

Reina raised her hands defensively, her smile only getting more awkward as her teeth started to show. Waving her hands about, she said, "you needn't worry, the commander has sent another Paladin, they can look over while I'm gone."

That was the last straw. Explosive anger was about to come out of Anniese, when suddenly a barmaid entered the room. She looked around the room, spotting the paladin sitting on the bed.

"Umm, some people claim to be form the Order of the Radiant Solstice. They said to call you, they are outside waiting in front of the tavern," the barmaid said somewhat anxiously.

Reina got up and picked her armor.

-x-x-x-x-x-

The smell of the morning air was a relaxing sensation. The fresh air, rife with smell of grass that had been recently munched on by farm animals. Mesa was still in shambles, but over the last week the townsfolk had cleared up the debris and patched up the still standing buildings enough to be able to safely work again. A small crowd of onlookers had formed near the Rustic Maiden. Six men, dressed in armor of the Order, were standing in front of the tavern. The armor of all six individuals was puffed up, glowing lightly. Five men were standing in a line, their armor a darker shade of silver than that worn by a Paladin. On the back of each of these five warriors, two small vertical blue strips in the middle of the back plate, the symbol of a Second-Grade Knight of the Order. The sixth man stood in front of them, staring at the tavern door. His armor was a brighter shade of silver, and on his back plate a four-point star was made. He was a Paladin. His skin was a pale wheatish color, indigenous to the plains of Arguzel, named so for the belief that Zil, the god of Valor, resided in this land. The Paladin's hair was dark ginger, his face had a square jaw and an intense look to it, with a voice to match. His pupils were dark as obsidian.

The tavern door opened, and a bandaged-up Paladin emerged from within. The blonde paladin stood at attention, raising her right hand. Placing it over the Radiant Solstice symbol on her cuirass, she spread her palms out over the symbol.

"Let my arms reach as far as the valiant rays of the brave sun and banish all evil," she shouted.

The five Knights in front of her repeated the action, shouting 'Yes Ma'am' in response. The Paladin standing in front of them also repeated the salute, not saying anything however. They stood in this position for a few more seconds, before returning to their relaxed state.

The male Paladin finally spoke, "you've seen much better days Reina. Good to see at least your armor is functional."

"Well this is my backup set, my current one is, well…in bits and pieces. It's good to see you again Castor, its been to long. Last I remember you used to stand behind me just like those Knights," Reina said, smiling as she went in to hug the Paladin.

"Well I have you to thank for that. I learnt whatever I know from you," Castor said, returning the affectionate embrace.

"It feels so nice hugging someone who isn't trying to squeeze the life out of you," Reina remarked, as she broke off the embrace.

Castor looked at her worriedly, before speaking, "was it that bad? The attack that happened last week."

"I'm lucky to still be alive. What I saw I still can't forget, it raised more questions about this world than I'd like," Reina said, a hint of fear in her voice.

"Well don't worry. We are here till you are all healed up and we have ascertained the threat of Dza Vho coming back. Rest Reina, Zil knows you need it. We'll talk in detail about what happened that night after you are all healed up," Castor said.

"Before we do that, there's something I'd like you to do," Reina said.

"What's that," Castor asked, puzzled.

Reina looked behind the male Paladin. Scanning the five Knights still standing in attention, she spoke, "you five, take a seat in the tavern. Make yourself comfortable, the ambience in there is amazing. Castor, come with me, there's someone we need to meet."

-x-x-x-x-x-

The town hall was perhaps the building worst hit by the chaos from that night. It's a surprise that the building was still standing. Half the structure had collapsed on itself, leaving it in shambles. From outside, the building was made differently than the normal variety of houses in Mesa. In its original appearance, the town hall was made largely of stone, bricks made from the locally available mineral Iliovarch, a light grey mineral believed to be created by Zil himself, a piece of the sun brought to the Agruzel plains. Planks of the Agruzia tree were interspaced between the stacks of the mineral bricks. Solid pillars made of the mineral were used to support the building at its four corners, along with a large flat slab at the base. After the events of last week, the outward appearance had drastically changed. The right wing of the building had completely collapsed on itself. Bricks in various states of breakdown were strewn about the floor of the town hall, the wooden planks broken and jutting out of the walls in an uneven fashion. The left pillar at the back of the building had completely collapsed, while the other left pillar, supporting the entrance of the town hall, was showing cracks and now stood tilted. The inside of the town hall was now receiving fresh sunlight. Of the various wooden benches inside the hall, arranged neatly in two rows, many were broken up, with their steel supports sticking out. The podium at the back of the hall however was mostly intact.

An old man was standing near the podium, overseeing the cleanup of the hall. Age had not been kind to him. Much thinner than the average person, his skin was wrinkled heavily. His skin's once smooth light wheatish complexion was darker now, with various patches of brown skin showing. He sported a long beard, reaching up to the tip of the religious necklace he was wearing. The necklace itself featured the symbol of the Radiant Solstice, which also denoted devotion to the god of valor, Zil. The old man had piercing eyes, one with brown pupils and other gone completely white due to blindness. Two people, dressed in the Order's armor, entered from the now redundant front door.

"Gotta say I like the new look of the place, really matches you," Reina said, teasing the old man.

"By the way you are limping young one, I'd reckon you'd lack the energy for snarky quips. How goes your healing girl," the old man said, moving in to give the young Paladin a firm hug. The old man had a deep but comforting voice.

"Now, now, don't get all sentimental on me old man, emotions make you appear too human," she said, a playful smile on her face.

The other Paladin stared awkwardly at the two, feeling out of place. The old man and Reina stared for a moment at the third member of theirs.

"Does he speak," the old man asked.

"I do sir. It is only manners to let two acquaintances finish their conversation before butting in," Castor said, standing at attention.

"He's a little…uptight, but a good guy all around. His name is Castor, he's a Paladin just like me," Reina said, looking at the old man.

The old man looked at Castor for a moment. Stretching is hand out, he spoke, "hello there young one. My name is Menelaus Leventis, I'm the mayor of this town."

Castor firmly shook the mayor's hand. It was a surprising revelation for Castor, most mayors he had seen lived and dressed in a more lavish manner. The old man was dressed in a long light grey overcoat, reaching till his calves with sleeves for his hand. Underneath, he was wearing black pants with light brown boots. The light grey overcoat matched the disheveled hair on his head and chin. Menelaus seemed more modest than his status would warrant.

"It is good to meet you sir. I assure you the Order will remain here till everything is under control. In Zil's name we will drive the Dza Vho back," Castor said, saluting the man in the standard posture of the Order.

"Castor don't forget to say our war cry Cas," Reina chimed in, poking the male Paladin.

Castor looked confused for a moment, before suddenly opening his mouth, "Let my arms reach as far as the valiant-"

"No need to boy, she is just messing with you. Mischievous as always, Reina," Menelaus said in a tired tone, Reina too busy snickering to notice.

"Well, he might be simple. But, I assure you old man, Castor here is one of the best we've got. He'll make a perfect replacement while I'm gone," Reina said, pointing at the young Paladin.

"Wait what? I wasn't informed of anything along these lines by the Order," Castor said, looking at Reina in disbelief.

"I might have left it out when we sent a message for reinforcement in Andrias. Then again, I don't think they would have approved in the first place," Reina said, scratching her head.

"Of course, they wouldn't have, your duty is to protect the town. Even if I could replace you at this time, and I definitely can't, you are in no condition to go around galivanting off into the sunset. What do you plan to do anyways," Castor said, irritation in his voice matching the intense look in his eyes.

"You are a really impulsive girl Reina, I would have thought you'd at least inform your own brethren about your plans," Menelaus said in a disparaging tone.

"I have my reasons. There is something I need to do. As a member of the Order I took an oath to drive out the Dza Vho from this land," Reina said, her defensive tone replaced with resolve.

"Your duty is to also protect the common folk, and you also an obligation to not get yourself killed. Look at yourself right now, you almost died a week ago, and now you want to hit the road. No one would come to rescue because no one would be there," Castor said, irritation replaced anger.

"There were things I saw in that battle, things that I can't explain. The implications are dire. I saw a Dza Vho who could use Imperen and appear like a human. I need to find him and learn whether more of his kind exist," Reina said, coming face to face with Castor, her hand on her sword. She was ready for a fight if she needed to.

"Tell the Order that. They'll handle the situation on their end, no need to get yourself killed," Castor said, nervously touching his sword's hilt.

"It'll be too late by then. It's already been a week since he left, the only lead I have will be useless if I wait any longer. If you intend to stop me, know I won't hold back," Reina said, a faint blue glow covering her.

While this confrontation was going on, the old man casually moved to a nearby wall. Running a finger across the wooden plank embedded in the wall, Menelaus saw his finger had collect a lot of dust. The air was thick with dust from constantly moving debris around, slightly suffocating. Turning around he looked at the two Paladins, ready to fight it out in the dilapidated town hall.

"You two," he shouted, causing both of them to turn their heads towards him.

Looking at the wooden plank for a moment, he began to speak, "Do you know why we call the tree this timber comes from Agruzia?"

"Not the best time to give a lesson on plant life right now old man," Reina said, slight derision in her tone.

Menelaus cleared his throat, before continuing his thought. He said, "as I was saying, Agruzia translates into Agruzel's roots, the roots of this land. It is said to hold the land together, a conduit for Zil's power to seep into the world and heal it. That's why its also called Zil's Duke sometimes, it is believed to be the hand of the great god Zil himself, a gift given to us."

Menelaus moved towards the young Order members, standing in front of them with his hands behind his back. He continued, "it also serves as a reminder. In the face of overwhelming dread, Zil fought the void. Against insurmountable odds, he risked his life to bring light into this world. Just like him, we all need valor in our life. Sometimes it may feel like what we are about to do is foolhardy, but it is the fools who change the world."

Moving towards Reina, Menelaus kept his hand on the young Paladin's shoulder. He said, "if you really feel this is something you have to do, then I support you. You are the dumbest and most thick-headed person I know, which is why I have faith. Faith in Zil that he will guide you on the right path, and faith in you."

Castor opened his mouth to speak, "but it's a suicide mission. It's a very foolish-"

"Boy, I have forgotten more than you have experienced in life. I have seen the world, and I can tell you that this girl will not back down. Have faith," the old man said, cutting off Castor.

"Can't pass up a chance to insult me even when showing support can you," Reina said, tightly hugging the old man.

"Be careful child, and may Zil guide you on the true path," Menelaus said, tears welling up in his eyes as he returned the affectionate hug.

-x-x-x-x-x-

Next Day

A gentle breeze in the morning, and a comfortably warm sun just woken up from its slumber. Anniese and Castor stood near the exit of Mesa. A road leading towards Andrias, it was empty during these early hours, an almost eerie quaint ambiance to it. A large, healthy brown horse stood beside Castor, equipped with a black saddle. The young Paladin was gently caressing her mane, the horse making an affectionate bray in response.

Reina, now in relatively lesser number of bandages covering her body, slowly walked her way to the two people standing in wait. She instinctively went in to hug Anniese. Though still angry, Anniese returned the favor.

"Well, I know you don't agree with my decision. So…I promise I'll stay safe. I won't forget to change my bandages, and I'll keep my wounds clean, well as clean as I can," Reina said, smiling awkwardly at the young woman.

Anniese looked into the distance, facing away from Reina. Trying to hold back a few tears, she spoke, "you are too stubborn for your own good. Make sure you come back in one piece."

Reina turned her attention to the other Paladin in the group, busy keeping to his horse. The horse was braying gently, she liked having her mane stroked. Reina looked at the Paladin for a few moments, a sort of peace on his face.

"What's she doing here," Reina asked, looked at the horse.

"I don't really trust you to be careful, but I can't come with you can I. Her name is Whirlwind, she a responsible girl, much more responsible than you. She agreed to accompany you," Castor said, his sights still locked on the brown horse.

"Well I appreciate the gesture, but I doubt I'll be able to care for her," Reina said in skepticism.

"Oh I know. Don't worry, she's worked with individuals a lot more irresponsible than you. She once spent two days alone in the wilderness and came back with Dza Vho ichor stained hooves. Come say hi, she won't bite," Castor said, stretching his hand towards Reina. In his outstretched hand, he held Whirlwind's leash.

Reina took the leash with hesitation. The horse looked at the young woman for a while, scanning her. She stood upright and anxious as the horse approached her. Whirlwind moved her face closer to the young Paladin and licked her cheek in approval. Reina patted the horse's mane in return.

"See told you, she's just a peach," Castor said, smiling at Reina.

"Thanks, I'll take good care of her. You take good care of this town while I'm gone, and if there is a scratch on this girl I'll show you how much worse I can be compared to Dza Vho," Reina said, grabbing Anniese by the shoulders and lightly shaking her.

"Take care Reina. Just remember if things get bad you can visit any town on the way, chances are someone from the Order will be there," Castor said.

"Look at you, I remember when you first came to me, a fresh Knight. They grow up so fast," Reina said teasingly.

Reina got on the horse, and with a crack of the leash, the horse began traversing its path. Reina waved goodbye to the two as the horse went off into the distance. With Reina gone, Anniese burst into tears, leaving a slightly confused and befuddled Castor to comfort her.

-x-x-x-x-x-

Three Days Later

Somewhere on Artemidoros Passage

Artemidoros Pasaage was a simple, yet robust and reliable marvel of construction. A broad path which was essentially compacted soil, bare on the top, a sandy gold color. The surroundings of the path were also mostly bare, covered in a thin coat of grass, and a few trees strewn about. At regular intervals, slabs of Iliovrach were burrowed into the ground, a number etched into them, denoting distance. From afar one would think the route was made by piling soil on it, but on closer inspection one could find that the soil found on the path was different. Mixed with minerals from all over the kingdom, the route had stood the test of time and seen 500 years of usage, weathering a sea of changes. Built during the rule of the fifth king of the Arktos Empire, Artemidoros Arktos, the trade route was the single most important symbol of the power of the current rulers of this land, Arktos Dynasty, and their goodwill towards the people. One of the most prolific kings to have ruled the kingdom, Artemidoros was considered even by his detractors to be an influential, kind heart and brave king, an embodiment of everything the deity Zil stood for.

Malcolm didn't care about all that. What he did care about was that there were no trees near him, and it was noon. Zil was a brave god, but he made the sun too damn hot. Walking for the past few days had been a stressful affair. There weren't any major towns since he had left Mesa, a few huts and shanties along the way with sometimes friendly occupants was all he had received in terms of respite. He could have asked for passing Order members for a little help, he certainly had the gold to hire them on the off chance they would ask for payment. But, after the events that took place in that forsaken town, Malcolm had been wary of any holy warriors. The last few miles had been deserted, completely devoid of human life. Malcolm was happy at first at the prospect of being alone, but it soon got boring and happiness was replaced with irritation.

Malcolm leisurely made his way on the route, not out of choice, but necessity. He was getting tired in the sun, without a horse traversing the trade route had been a mistake, a mistake he was sorely regretting. Walking for a while, Malcolm finally decided to take rest, sitting down at the edge of the path, supported by his hands. Taking a long breath, he reflected on the events that transpired in Mesa.

"Your guilt befuddles me, human. One would be elated to have saved a town, not down trodden like your pitiful state."

A familiar, bone chilling voice came inside Malcolm's head. Malcolm got tense, sitting upright. Collecting his thoughts, Malcolm spoke, "the ends don't justify the means, and taking your help are means I would gladly die before submitting to."

"So high and mighty, how long has it been now? 5 years, does it not get tiring? Resisting the temptation. You only hear my voice when you feel at your weakest. We have been talking a lot more now than we used to before. You would be a fool to lie to yourself, if you think you are any close to ridding yourself of my influence. How long will it take for you to give up, to give in? Your tenacity can only carry you so far."

"If it comes to that, I'll gladly take my life before giving into you," Malcolm said, anger and resolve in his voice.

The entity suddenly went silent. Malcolm took it as a sign his moment of weakness had passed. Getting up and dusting himself off, he grabbed the pendant through his vest, gripping it tightly. He closed his eyes and said a quick prayer, before continuing on with his journey.