Authors: David Dalglish
Keziel grabbed his arm and pulled him inside. The hallway was cramped but the ceiling was incredibly high. Torches decorated both sides, lighting the place well. The priest turned and hurried past a few doors to a sharp right turn. The place rapidly expanded into a great room. A fire roared in a giant oven, and various rugs made of animal skins lined the floor. Sitting on one before the fire, turning pages to a small book, was a man dressed in platemail. Upon seeing Lathaar, he startled to his feet and grabbed his mace, which rest next to him against the wall.
“Draw your sword,” the man said, flicking his head so his long red hair did not block his vision.
“What nonsense is this,” Keziel shouted. “Put that down!”
“I said draw your sword,” the stranger insisted. His free hand reached back and grabbed a handle on the shield that hung from his back. Lathaar grabbed the hilt of his sword and drew it, holding it before his eyes so that the blue glow illuminated the features of his face.
“It is drawn,” he said. “Now what is it you wish from me?”
To his surprise, the stranger suddenly relaxed, and he lowered his mace.
“Ashhur be praised,” he said. “It’s been so long.”
“What’s going on here, Keziel?” Lathaar asked. He remained still as a stone, tensed for a trap.
“This is all just a misunderstanding. Jerico, did you have to get him all riled up?”
The man Lathaar assumed to be Jerico pulled his shield off his back and held it before his chest.
“Lathaar, paladin of Ashhur,” he said, a huge smile overcoming him. “You are no longer alone.”
And then his shield flared with the light of Ashhur, as equally bright as the glow that surrounded Lathaar’s sword.
“Your name,” Lathaar said, his mouth dropping open in shock.
“Jerico of the Citadel, paladin of Ashhur. The more attractive of the two last paladins.”
Lathaar was still too stunned to argue as his mind tried to wrap around the joyous fact that he was no longer the last.
o how did you survive?” Lathaar asked once the two were seated comfortably before the fire. Lathaar’s armor was piled into one corner, waiting to be cleaned. Jerico’s was beside it, with the square shield propped atop. Each held bowls of warm soup that Keziel had brought them.
“I dreamt of the Citadel falling,” Jerico explained in between sips from the bowl. It tasted of potatoes and broth, and he loved the warmth down his throat. “It was too real to be just a dream. I would have thought it a warning from Ashhur, but it was too sad, too…final. I wasn’t far from Mordeina at the time, and I assure you, that was not a good place to be. All the priests and paladins for Karak came out in force, in far greater numbers than you’ll ever see in Neldar.”
“I’ve fought plenty,” Lathaar said, blowing against the steam that hovered above his own bowl. “I spent much of the past two years either with Tarlak or the priests here. I’ve got quite a tale for you, once you have the time to hear it.”
“I have a few of my own,” Jerico assured him. “But Keziel has already told me much of what you’ve done. Slaying Darakken, eh? And what’s this nonsense I hear about an Elholad?”
Lathaar grinned and pulled out his sword. At his command, it shone pure white, so bright and powerful that the metal seemed to vanish away within the glow. When he sheathed the blade Jerico gave him a few joking claps.
“It seems Ashhur had a plan sparing the two of us, although I cannot claim such amazing exploits as you. I returned to the Citadel after six months, just to be sure no dog of Karak waited for me. It was there I found Bonebreaker.” He pointed to his mace. “Do you remember Jaeger? Big guy, hair redder than mine? That was his mace. I found it just laying in the grass, abandoned. I took it and then fled to the Vile Wedge. Killed a few orcs, maimed a few goblins, and just roamed. Didn’t know why, or what I was waiting for, but then a young paladin of Karak mentioned your name before I killed him.”
“I’ve become something of an obsession for them,” Lathaar said, a bit of joy leaving his eyes. “Especially one in particular. But that is for another time.” He slurped down the rest of his bowl. “For now, I need sleep.”
“Amen to that,” Jerico said. “I’m glad you arrived, though. Ashhur brought us here for a reason. I hadn’t seen Keziel since the Citadel fell, and when I return, you show up within days of my own arrival.”
“I’m not sure I want to imagine why,” Lathaar said, grinning. “I’ve seen what he’ll throw at just one of his paladins. What does he think the two of us can handle?”
“I’ll pray for both of us. Good night, Lathaar.”
“You too, Jerico.”
Jerico left for the only spare room while Lathaar curled his blankets tighter and scooted closer to the fire. After the month of riding, he finally felt at home. Still, sleep proved elusive. His mind kept drifting back to Tessanna, black wings arching out her back as she howled in the rain. He had seen that face before. He had seen it on Mira. Come the morning, he planned on finding out just what Keziel knew.
rayer dominated all the morning rituals of the Sanctuary, and the sound of worship to Ashhur was constant. Keziel, being the eldest, attended the youngest at the prayers, and counseled those who were troubled. Lathaar remained patient, letting him complete his rounds before he would take him aside to talk. To pass the time, the two paladins sparred.
The ground was rough and cold but relatively flat on the north side of the Sanctuary, so they scraped a rough circle into the dirt. Lathaar wielded his longsword and shortsword, while Jerico twirled his mace while his shield remained on his back.
“Been a long time since I sparred with a paladin,” Lathaar said, stretching his arms. “Brings back plenty of good memories.”
“You were Mornida’s pupil, weren’t you?” Jerico asked. “Thought so. I remember hearing all this nonsense about prodigy and whatnot, some whelp of a kid five years younger than me that Lolathan died healing.”
“He was not punished by Ashhur,” Lathaar said.
“Easy there. Didn’t say he was. But I remember the whispers.”
Lathaar grabbed his ankle and stretched.
“Going to ready your shield?”
Jerico shrugged. “I don’t tell you when to draw your swords, do I?”
Neither wore their armor at Lathaar’s insistence. It was just a harmless sparring match, not a competition, and he trusted each other to be skilled enough with their weapons. With a nod, they began.
Lathaar slashed with his longsword, keeping his shorter blade back and ready. Jerico parried it aside, grinning as he did. When the shortsword thrust in, straight for his gut, he had already stepped to the side. As it passed his exposed skin, he slapped it away with his mace.
“So you survived all those fights how?” he asked. “Surely not battle prowess?”
Lathaar stepped closer, swinging both blades in a high arc. Jerico blocked the first with his mace, angling the hilt of his weapon to push the second hit down so that it passed harmlessly before his leg. When the shortsword cut back and thrust, Jerico finally pulled down his shield. The fine edge turned against the brightly glowing surface. If he had been of evil nature, Lathaar’s arms would have jolted in pain, but instead he felt just a mild push at the contact.
Jerico placed the shield before him, covering all but his feet and the top of his head. Lathaar could not see, but he knew the way the paladin’s eyes were glinting that he was smiling.
“I may not be the best fighter,” Jerico said from behind his shield. “I’m probably not even good at it. But I’m harder than the abyss to kill.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Lathaar feinted twice, and neither time budged the giant shield. He thrust both his swords from one side, hoping to curl around the right edge of the shield. Jerico shifted, smashing away the swords as if they were nothing. Lathaar felt his arms pushed back from the contact. He gave his opponent no rest. Again his swords slashed out, this time from either side. Again the shield pushed them away, batting left and right. His swords accomplishing nothing, he tried a new tactic. He slammed his entire body against the shield, hooking the hilts of his swords against the edge. His body shook with the contact. He spun off, pulling with his swords to toss Jerico’s shield out and wide. Finally, his opponent was exposed.
And so was he.
The two were so close that Lathaar had no time to react before the ridged edges of Jerico’s mace rested against his neck.
“You were doing so well,” Jerico teased. “And then you had to do something stupid.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Lathaar said, pushing the mace away with his fingers. “I’ve never seen anything like what your shield has become.”
“No one has. I asked Keziel, as well Lolathan and Mornida at the Citadel. No paladin has been given the blessing that I have. It’s always the weapon we hold that projects our faith and gains Ashhur’s blessing. I guess for me, I’ve always viewed my shield as my greatest weapon.”
“I’d never outlast you,” Lathaar said, spinning his swords. “And you’ll never make a mistake. That’s how you lived all these years, isn’t it?”
Jerico kicked the dirt and blushed a little.
“You make me sound so much better than I am. I have a big shield and Ashhur’s made it glow. Let’s not get carried away here.”
Lathaar smashed his swords together, showering sparks to the ground.
“Again. I’ll figure out how to beat you. I just need some time.”
“You’re welcome to try,” Jerico said, hoisting up his shield so that his eyes just barely peered over. “Ashhur knows it’s been awhile since I had some competition.”
Lathaar tensed, thinking over several routines for attack, when suddenly Jerico lunged, his shield leading. Before he could move, the gleaming object slammed against his arms. He braced his legs to stop, but he was off balance and Jerico knew it. The shield lowered, and too late Lathaar understood why. A foot swept underneath, taking out Lathaar’s legs. The paladin hit the ground, gasping as the air was knocked from his lungs. Jerico stood over him, grinning.
“That’s to make sure you don’t get comfortable,” he said. “Don’t think I’m going to sit here all day letting you hack at me. Understood?”
He clipped his mace at his belt and offered his hand. Lathaar took it, shaking his head as he stood.
“I thought we’d practice, and maybe I’d teach you a thing or two. Guess it’s going to be the other way around, isn’t it?”
Jerico tapped his forehead with his forefinger.
“I had five years of training at the Citadel beyond what you were given. And don’t think you’ve fought any more, or suffered any worse, than I have since the Citadel fell. Normally I’d try to be gentler about this, but we’re the last. We have no chance for error and no room for pride. The next time we spar, we wear armor. Understood?”
“Yes, master,” Lathaar said, doing his best to swallow his bruised pride.
“Come on, now,” Jerico said, smacking him on the arm with an open palm. “No pouting, and no master, or teacher, or whatever else you can think of. I’m your brother in Ashhur and that’s more than good enough for me.”
Lathaar stood, sheathing his swords and then brushing off the dirt from his clothes.
“You going to be alright?” Jerico asked him.
“Yeah, yeah.” He bowed to the other paladin. “I just expect a bit more maturity from myself. We’ll spar again tomorrow, and it’ll be far closer than today, I assure you.”
Jerico grinned. “Now that’s more like it.”