Paladin

“Perhaps the young ladies should leave,” Ernst suggested. His own voice sounded too loud for this relatively quiet corner of the room.

“The ladies stay,” the pale man said, his eyes flicking briefly to Ernst. The acolyte felt a chill brush through his bones. The man’s pupils were gray and milky.

Marike relaxed slightly, cocking her head. “What is your name?” she asked.

“I am Lucian! Please, sit.” He held up the bottle of wine, but received no acknowledgement from the serving maids.

To Ernst’s astonishment, Marike shifted a chair away from the table slightly with her foot and sat, placing her sword on the table. The women watched the sword while Lucian kept his gaze on the Marike’s face.

“My friend is correct,” Marike said. “The ladies really should leave.”

“But they’re having a very good time,” Lucian said with a pout.

Ernst crossed his arms. Marike’s fingers danced along her sword’s hilt.

“Lucian,” she said. “We both know my sword, a simple weapon of steel, won’t hurt you. However, it will prove quite uncomfortable for these ladies.” Ernst resisted a smile—even a devout of the goddess of truth could lie.

Lucien’s face grew cold. “That would be a most unfortunate waste of good flesh.”

Ernst watched the women, but they continued to cuddle and coo over their would-be killer, only occasionally sparing a glance toward the sword or Marike. By the truth, this fiend had them under a potent thrall!

Marike’s eyes roamed over the women. “I agree. Surely you can give them a break. Let them refresh themselves.”

Lucien draped his arms over his companions’ slim shoulders and let his grin break out anew. “I think they’re quite…feisty and well rested as they are, Lady Marike of Mojca. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’ll be testing the limits of their enthusiasm later. For now, however, perhaps we can see just how committed your young friend is to the cause.”

Lucien’s eyes drifted to meet Ernst’s, and he froze. Ernst couldn’t tear his gaze free, but found himself lost in those pale depths. In a flash, a veil was lifted and Ernst saw the brutality of the past few weeks. He saw women with Lucien, heard them crying out in ecstasy and then agony. He saw blood and torn skin. He saw Lucien, standing triumphant and naked over pale corpses. By what right did Marike interrupt the natural order of things? What injustice had they brought to this town in their quest to deprive it of this glorious being? Anger bubbled up from deep within, his vision blurred and shook.

He looked to Marike, his face twisting with rage. He’d spent so many years of his life on a quest for the truth of things and it had all been a lie. Marike looked up at him, her mouth pressed into a firm line. His hand found the grip of the hammer over his shoulder.

She was faster than him, though. She scooped up her sword, sliding it from its sheath and sweeping it in an arc around the table in a single fluid movement. Ernst grimaced as it passed through his heart without slowing. The woman to Lucien’s right cried out and cringed as the blade went through one shoulder and out the other on its path. Lucien’s eyes went wide with shock as the sword sliced through his neck, and the woman to his left ducked as the blade clipped harmlessly through her skull.

Lucien’s head toppled forward to roll across the table. Marike caught it with her free hand.

Ernst’s world snapped back into focus. The anger – the righteous fury! – in which he’d felt so confident just a moment before drained away, leaving him exhausted. On the table, Lucien’s mouth gaped and worked soundlessly. His eyes jerked to look at his own body as it crumbled into ashes. The two young women screamed.

All activity in the bar ceased as the two women pitched themselves from their chairs, shaking off the remnants of the late Lucien and fleeing as fast as they could for the door. For a few silent seconds, all eyes in the tavern were on Marike and Ernst and the disembodied head on the table. Then the barkeep yelled for last call, and everyone turned back to their carousing.

Ernst eased himself, shaking, into one of the vacant chairs. “Blessed Mojca!” he swore. “So sorry about that, Lady. Don’t know what came over me.”

“I’d say this fellow came over you,” Marike said with a smirk. Her voice shook slightly, but firmed up as she spoke. She tapped the top of Lucien’s skull, which now lay still, eyes and mouth agape but mercifully no longer twitching. There was no blood, of course. A dusty grey film appeared at the finely sliced edges of the neck and began to creep upward, giving the appearance that the head was sinking into a pile of dust on the table. Soon there’d be nothing left of the creature but what the barmaid swept up in the dustbin.

Ernst studied Marike’s face. She smiled, but it was a tired, weary smile. There were a few more age lines etched around her mouth and crinkling around her eyes. Though she was only a few years older than Ernst, she looked over a decade his senior. It had been necessary in his case, as he’d been ready to attack her if the spell had not been lifted, but it was a shame the girls had been in the way. No harm to them, of course, but the blade took a toll on Marike whenever it was used on living beings.

He reflexively reached for her hand, which seemed thinner and paler than it had earlier, but she withdrew and stood to sheath her sword.

“We’ll sleep here tonight,” Marike said. “Assuming there are rooms available. Tomorrow we’ll go home.”

Ernst hesitated to stand. “Are you all right, my lady?” he asked, keeping his voice low.  A puff of smoke rose from Lucien’s crumbling eye sockets.

“I’m fine, Ernst,” she assured him, because even a devout of the goddess of truth could lie.