Summary: Phandalyn of Baldur's Gate meets a party containing evil members. As a paladin, he finds it his duty to fight them. No paladin's a perfect archetype. Branwen bears witness.
A/N: Phandalyn's that knight in that tavern in the south-east of the city. He attacks any evil characters.
A quote is lifted from the North American Medical and Surgical Journal 1826, 2(3), from Project Gutenberg.
Warnings: rating ~PG-13. Violence; brief mention of sexual violence.
One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one's life has meaning, that one is needed in this world. —Hannah Senesh (or Chana Szenes)
I have no desire to make windows into men's souls. —Elizabeth I
Good to be back. Prudence of Candlekeep brushed a speck of the city's dust from her chainmail, shined especially for the meeting with Scar. They had saved Therella's son Dalton from Durlag's tower, fought their way through—and what the Iron Throne would decide to throw at them... They were equipped, ready, and far closer to functioning as a team than they had been. She remembered Skie bringing down the chessboard's king with a fiery arrow, the black-and-white squares collapsing to dust; Shar-Teel wielding the power of the World's Edge against the demonknight; Eldoth's fireballs conjured from a need for self-preservation. Hurgan Stoneblade's dagger still lay buried in Branwen's pack; Xan's divination spell and the fact it burned her hand when she touched it (evil, definitely evil) suggested a need to ask some fairly searching questions when they'd the chance to return it.
The venture had met with more success than the shipwreck disaster, certainly. Delainy—
Officer Scar had seemed reasonable enough. Investigate the Seven Suns. We'll find more of this story of the Iron Throne, got out of that slavery charge— Proving themselves to the Flaming Fist; and the story of uncharacteristic behaviour in a trading rival of the Iron Throne might well form some piece of the puzzle. Xan, resplendent in new mage's robes, accompanied her; a Greycloak.
The inn they had chosen stood some distance south of the Fist compound, a quiet place not far from the city's southern wall. Skie and Eldoth had left upon an errand to use some of the gains from the tower (or, hopefully Skie would use some of the gains from the tower and not practice her sleight of hand); Branwen's supply expedition had been for potions, clerical supplies.
She ran through the possibilities; the information available was apparently little. "Not themselves—that could mean shapeshifting—" The doppelgangers they had fought in the tower were a very recent memory. "—illusion, mind-affecting spells, or just possibly plain bribery, persuasion, or impersonation. We could follow one leaving the place, and then you'd be able to narrow that list down," Prudence suggested.
"If we are not led into an ambush," Xan replied.
"Well, we could also investigate by impersonating merchants ourselves—no doubt Skie could play that—or by simple burglary. But asking a few magically prompted questions seems less risky." There was an argument that it didn't qualify as burglary if given a deputisation by a local authority; but moral dilemmas aside, she'd little aptitude for such a task.
"I'd say those Fist bastards just shoved you out of it. They're ineffective as much as they're pathetic men." Shar-Teel's mended breastplate was strapped to her back; she'd had it beaten back to shape this morning at a weapons establishment she seemed familiar with. Probably as well that she'd stated a disinclination to meet with Scar.
"And you hold a grudge," Xan said sharply.
"Doesn't stop me noticing what's there," Shar-Teel said.
"If this doesn't turn out to be more trouble than we think, I'll give a combat handicap next time we spar," Prudence said.
"That is inevitable, and would be a fool's bet," Xan muttered.
"Beat you even further into the ground?" Shar-Teel said—which would probably indeed be the outcome. "You turned rescuing some spoilt boy tied to his mama's apronstrings into scrapping with a thing from the Nine Hells. Just don't delay too long with the bastards setting that price on your head."
"No," Prudence said. Slavers; bandits; would-be monopolists; and she still did not know the precise reason why the Iron Throne'd such a personal interest in her. Walking into a situation unknowing troubled her (or would it be knowing that caused more trouble?), but surely they had deciphered enough of its correspondence by now—
They had reached the inn; Shar-Teel was first inside the door. A man in full plate had been seated at a table in the far corner, a third of the way finished with a meal of dark soup and a slab of bread ragged through dipping into the substance. Then he stood. He took up the long spear resting beside him.
"I cannot allow your evil to threaten the good people of Baldur's Gate."
Shar-Teel's sword was drawn in an instant; "Try it, male. I've not opened enough of your kind today—"
Then Prudence met the stranger's eyes, and knew what lay behind them.
"Paladin—" His eyes might have been blue in their usual state, but shone an unyielding white. "—Good afternoon, I suppose—" She had felt the same recognition upon meeting Ajantis Ilvastarr: impossible to mistake. She stepped between him and Shar-Teel, facing the other paladin.
"You are in the same service as I—" he said. "But do not tell me you are accompanied by this evil."
"Shar-Teel is my companion."
"Then that is a violation of all we stand for—" the paladin said softly; Prudence could feel the censure in his eyes, his judgement. Shar-Teel was loyal to the word she had given when Minsc had outduelled her; she fought with courage and skill, and after all they had faced together Prudence could call her friend— "Stand aside, if you will not aid me in destroying her. You ought to know that it is our duty to end all evil."
Xan, in the corner of Prudence's sight, had his hands beginning to move. It would be possible for him to cast some sleeping or charming spell, if it succeeded to suspend the paladin long enough for the party to quietly vacate their rooms—
"Please don't do that, Xan," she said. "A theological disagreement—"
"I'll gladly—" Shar-Teel began.
"You too, Shar-Teel," Prudence said. Shar-Teel could overpower her by force of arms if she chose to do, but she shaped her voice to persuade her. "This is my concern." The other paladin bore the symbol of Helm proudly blazoned upon a green surcoat above his well-polished armour; he was as clearly convicted of their role to fight for good as she, and yet the look in his eyes showed that this ought to be done—
If this is righteous, then I do not know what ought to be.
"You'll have to go through me if you wish to attack Shar-Teel, I'm afraid," Prudence said; she could feel her connection to the good that empowered her still. "She has destroyed bandits; defeated a powerful mage overseeing many slaves; slain a demonknight in a quest to save a boy—"
"Because that's where the killing was," Shar-Teel said. Not a helpful interjection.
"I see her inherent nature. I hear those words from her mouth. I purge evil; my years of obedience to Lord Helm rank me above you in our service, and by this authority I call upon you to aid me—" the paladin said.
"These are exceptionally foolish acts; from all of you suicidemongers—" Xan said.
"No," Prudence replied to the paladin. "I will stop evil when it is witnessed; when just law demands it; but I will not fight on the grounds of your divination only. I refuse your command." She was almost surprised at how easily the words flowed, the arguments against a paladin higher in the service. "What is your name?"
His white eyes burned as bright as ever into hers; she felt her own ability responding independent of her command, her senses uncoiling at the base of her eyesockets. In Shar-Teel he truly saw— "I am Phandalyn Albaier," he said. "Your act encourages evil to flourish. I order you to stand aside, if you will not aid me."
"And I shall do neither," Prudence said. "You and I must settle this; is it true that you attack any you divine—?" She was beginning to see it in his eyes; she barely needed to ask her question in words, and his answer also became readily apparent.
"The All-Seeing Eye grants me the vision to see truly, and the strength of arms to stand against the evil that must be purged. I destroy all evil that Lord Helm directs to cross my path; I complete my duty; and I fear that you are sadly derelict. How shall I address you, young woman?"
"Prudence of Candlekeep," she said swiftly, "and I should rather err on caution's side and avoid the misuse of our seeing. For the judgement to attempt to end another's life is grave, and I believe that we must resist too facile a use of the potent ability the gods grant us."
"Whom do you serve, Prudence?" he rapped out.
"I serve the cause of good and the law. I pay my respects where I ought. One of Helm I once counted as a mentor; and one of Eldath." In Candlekeep; from which she had been absent as of four tendays now.
"Then in Helm's name, I offer you a final mercy: stand aside lest you face lethal consequences. I do not relish fighting one like myself; but by Helm's own word of vigilance at all times, you will not shift me from it."
"Stop the damned talking and fight," Shar-Teel said.
"There's also—fairness as well as diligence in the conduct of our orders," Prudence said, quoting Helm's dogma. "And the Triad's teaching—justice must be tempered by mercy, obedience by what is right. And I call upon Lady Eldath's ideal of good, though I fail to fully honour it: work violence only to defend; swear to take no thinking life except in direst need. I believe your choice is badly flawed; I do not understand how the gods bear it; you must not attack bar upon the field of battle, bar when there is proof that would stand under the law. I'd offer you a covenant: admit that the way you describe travels beyond excess; honour just law; and cease this...apparent vigilantism." Almost, she added a please to the statement; but that frivolous ornament would have been bootless.
"You know already that I will not yield to such as you, or ought to know," Phandalyn said. The light did not cease to shine from his eyes. "I am a knight of Helm; his law justifies me. I will allow you to live if I can, but if I must end your life to prevent your evil companion from harming the good citizens of Baldur's Gate, I will do my duty by my god."
"Yes," she said, not moving from his path. "This is a matter for our gods to decide; and I think we must seek that in our dispute."
He paused, understanding her. "To duel, then, and allow that result to show which of us is truly in the right," he replied. "The innkeeper will allow me usage of the courtyard outside this tavern. —Firstly, your arms—"
"My mail is enchanted; it seems that your plate is not. Shall we fight without, for a quicker result?" She stripped her gauntlets from her wrists; handed them to Shar-Teel. The fighting edge she was granted by them was quite slight, but they were a valuable weapon. "These bear a spell on them for the increase of quickness of action, so for fairness' sake I shall not use them against you. I also bear an enchanted belt that I surrender. Let it be truly the will of the gods which of us shall win."
"I would agree to those terms you describe," Phandalyn said. "But you are a woman; by the codes of chivalry you may—"
She stood scarcely short of his height, but she lacked his muscular build, tall and lanky set against his broader frame; "I am equally a paladin to you. Please, do not concern yourself with that."
"As you request. Then weapons," he said. "My mastery lies in the spear; this weapon I bear is once-enchanted. You carry a Calishite blade, seemingly magicked. My reach will exceed yours—"
"I believe I can find a spear to match your own," she said. A lightly enchanted spear Eldoth had originally taken from the Cloakwood mine. She had found little aptitude for the weapon in her studies at Candlekeep, and felt that much of her knowledge of it came from Eldoth himself; but to have a fair fight, armed with close enough weaponry— "Show me the arena you name."
A square, approximately; a relatively broad area. Phandalyn began to mark it off into a carefully geometric shape, and she aided him. The ground would be bare; the yard had been recently swept, and was smooth and regular in its texture.
"The innkeeper is an old friend," Phandalyn said. "Many times I have kept his tavern quiet through punishing malefactors. He will not intervene."
"Good," Prudence said. "Phandalyn; I have sensed what felt as evil nature in children, the frightened apprentice of a slaver mage and a young priestess of Umberlee with her mother murdered. To your—seeming theology, before we try to kill each other I still wish to ask—"
"We are to protect the weak, poor, injured, and young," Phandalyn said heavily, reciting a phrase of his dogma. "I perhaps understand your sentiments, misguided though they are. But an apprentice is not enslaved. A servant to an evil goddess will only grow in her powers to cause harm. No person gains that taint of corruption without reason. I would smite such as you name, knowing that the cause of righteousness would benefit from fewer evil mages and priests."
"I had...hoped you would not say such a thing." Yet his consciousness of his own truth was pure; and her own head had begun to ache with the knowledge. His pale eyes summoned that same sight belonging to her, and the currents of thought about them swirled thickly, pressing upon her mind. "I should like to suggest terms. If I am the victor, then you will dedicate your healing services to the temple henceforth, and swear an oath that you will not fight save in direct self-defence or defence of others. If the gods grant you the victory... Then I'm afraid you'll have to kill me," she said. "I simply can't allow you to attack my comrade while I watch. A shame; I do so hate dying. Are those terms acceptable?"
"I would regret causing your death, but all acts of the Vigilant One serve a purpose. I accept your terms."
"This is ridiculous," Shar-Teel said. "Wake me when it's over."
"Do not go anywhere," Phandalyn said. "After I defeat your leader, I will end your evil."
"I've heard that before. Make it good and I'll use your innards for a dustmop instead of feeding them to dogs."
Prudence laid the last of the marking of the duel's ground, kneeling. Two people approached. She did not look behind; she knew them both, not by the sound of their steps, but by what her senses showed. Eldoth's foulness—
"Eldoth, I'd like to borrow that spear of yours," she said; —lightly enchanted it was; originally found in the Cloakwood.
"I suppose if you must, oh gracious leader," he replied; Phandalyn too knew what Eldoth was, and Prudence saw it reflected doubly in his eyes. "Skie, run upstairs and fetch it, will you?" Eldoth said. "Even you couldn't fail to find it. A stick almost as tall as you, pointy metal end..."
"Yes, of course—but what's wrong?" Skie's voice said. "I don't understand—Prudence, are you going to fight that...that man?"
"I am going to purge this party of evil," Phandalyn said; and Prudence heard Skie gasp and step back.
"Thank you, Skie," she said. "Don't worry. It's going to be all right, I promise."
"Charming. A duel," Eldoth said flatly. Prudence felt him, also, move back; taking his presence a further distance away—
"Surely you must know what he is," Phandalyn hissed; his voice was still as unyielding as granite.
Now I do.
She stood. "Yet I cannot allow you to attack him," Prudence said. "Skie—she is his fiancee—"
It is better for her to be here than alone with Eldoth, or so Prudence's reasoning took her; she had asked Skie alone whether she wished to return to her home, and Leave Eldoth? No! Besides—I think I'm getting better at this—had formed her reply. (She was, truly; a good eye for traps, a talented archer, as long as she was away from the principal action—)
"At the least, that appears an impropriety," Phandalyn said.
"It is...their choice in life." She had tried to give mild advice to Skie, feeling atrociously hypocritical.
"A typically foul mind from the so-called holy," Eldoth said.
"Be quiet, Eldoth; walk away," Prudence tried to order him.
"Compared to the woman: he may seem not so bloodthirsty; yet it is plain that he is vilely corrupt," Phandalyn said.
"My, such tedious insults," Eldoth said. "Are you fighting for my honour, sweet Imprudence? If 'twas a lady in this gentleman's raising of cause against me, my plea is guilty: guilty of showing her the traits of a more potent masculinity than—"
"Think of it as for your life," Prudence snapped at him.
"Do not attempt to cast debased innuendo upon my sisters. I know you not, but the Vigilant One knows of all your sin," Phandalyn said to the bard.
"Ah, yes, Helm, mighty deity of voyeurism," Eldoth mocked. "Does the Vigilant One crave to watch such a humble bard? No doubt my life makes a far more entertaining portrait than your own. Do you beg me for technique on how to draw his eye into your own knightly boudoir? I ought to—"
"That's much more than enough, Eldoth. I said, walk away," Prudence said; and this time she must have sounded firm enough, for she felt his presence slightly recede.
Skie emerged again from the inn; "Eldoth? What are you saying—?"
"Thank you for bringing that, Skie," Prudence said. Skie gave her the spear: solid oak, neatly crafted and overlaid lightly by magic, the balanced metal tip sharp and ready.
"You—shouldn't really be fighting like this, should you?" Skie said anxiously. "Who are you? Are you a knight?" she asked Phandalyn; who wore the symbol of Helm's eye upon a war gauntlet over his plain white tunic, stripped of armour.
"I am a knight paladin of Helm's temple, milady," he said gently to Skie, "and you have nothing to fear from me. I sense no great sin in you."
"If you're...sure," Skie said; she was nervous, Prudence thought, although Phandalyn was entirely right about her. Skie was an innocent, despite the battles they had endured. "I still don't understand," Skie continued desperately. "Prudence is a knight too. In a way. Not, er, officially, she's not a noble, but..."
"Skie, it's obvious the gentleman understands that, why don't you leave the rationalising to those more talented than you?" Eldoth interjected. "I await the outcome with...interest."
"You should wait inside the inn," Prudence asked Skie. Her paling vision showed her the patterns about Skie's spirit, her concern, her uncertainty, a greying weave behind there that seemed to be self-bound guilt; It is not mine to see this, she told herself. Better to reserve the divination. But Phandalyn's holy vision ignited her own, and in the distance behind them Eldoth was dark and rotten. Shar-Teel was worse. "Whatever happens, don't worry."
"Helm's judgement shall triumph," Phandalyn said. "I would not my younger sisters witness me destroying evil, and you are not tainted yourself; go from here, maiden." His voice was strong, and Skie inarticulately nodded, some sound half-forming in her throat; she retreated to the inn, her hood blowing behind her.
"Thank you for that," Prudence said. She held out the spear for him. "Is this weapon a satisfactory comparison for yours?"
"It has been touched by evil," Phandalyn said, laying a hand across it. "You ought not to bear to lift it."
"Most of our weapons have been." But watching the spear now, in this state, her senses open—
Branwen's hammer, taken from a deranged Cyricist cleric's body. Xan's enchanted darts, taken from she had forgotten precisely which bounty hunter chasing after them. Her shield, purchased with gold stained by various bloods; Rashad's Talon, concealed behind basilisks.
Phandalyn lifted the spear up and down, briefly, then quickly returned it to her. She felt what he had seen: Eldoth had used the weapon, and before that it had been employed to keep slaves in the Cloakwood. Wood and iron were not evil of themselves, but the recency of the usage clung like the smell of death. Yet it could be turned to good purposes; had been, even in Eldoth's hands, none of their quests evil of nature—
"It is not the weapon, but the hands that wield it," she said. She told herself to focus; refuse to allow the consciousness of it to cause distraction, fill her mind with the important matters. This ability overwhelmed her; all paladins had different experience of it, and for her it was a piercing pain in her head that overwhelmed with its visions— She could not help looking into Phandalyn's eyes, watching him judge her in return.
"Beyond that matter: I am no man to guess at magics, but the heft of it seems equal enough to mine," Phandalyn said. "If you say truly that it is once-enchanted, then I accept it."
"Truly as far as our wizard identified it," Prudence said. "Shall we begin?"
"Of course," Phandalyn said. He took a place at the right-hand corner of the square, opposite to her; "Step out of the duel's marked confines, and whoever does so shall forfeit," he reminded. "Otherwise: until our gods have proven which is righteous."
Or chance, or fate, or strength, crossed Prudence's thoughts; but she banished that. Prayers echoed through her mind, the visions of white light behind her eyes, divinely granted sight taking her at Phandalyn's presence. Whether Candlekeep's intellectual pride governed her or no, she felt true cause to fight upon the principle—
Phandalyn started from his position, and for the first time their weapons met.
I feel that killing you would be an evil deed, Phandalyn; but it may take no effort upon my part to ensure that I will not—
Branwen returned to her comrades. 'Twas Tymora's temple she had chosen, to replenish potions and the herbs of this southern land; a flighty goddess compared to her Tempus, but the priestess Agnasia seemed a wise enough woman.
Baldur's Gate was a full city, above five times the population of her own isle entire. She favoured the fresh smell of the sea or the wilderness above the close-built streets teeming with softened folk; but their wyrd and their quest had taken them to this place. By Tempus' dogma she must never turn from a fight, and Prudence would undoubtedly lead into many.
She approached the inn, and saw indeed a battle; one for which Eldoth, Shar-Teel, and Xan stood to watch only.
The girl fought without armour, carrying a spear, against a man similarly prepared; it seemed he'd the best of it, bearing upon her with great strength. Then Prudence stepped aside, under him, raising her spear quickly in a clash between them. To Branwen it looked as if his weapon pierced her deeply, and her attack failed to cut him—she felt urge to leap to her comrade's defence, though this seemed an honourable fight. No, not only one injured; both withdrew slightly and raised blue-tinged hands to heal themselves, though Branwen would swear to it that Prudence's healing had taken more from her—
"Explain what affair of combat appears here," she asked of the three of them; "and if or when my healing skills shall be required for our leader—"
Xan sighed to explain. "She fights to her death on misguided principle," he said. "The human man is another of her ilk; he believed it was his duty to attack Shar-Teel, and she intervened. If only fate had caused him to encounter Eldoth alone, since his suicidal drives seem to take equal offence to that stench; but alas, we are never so fortunate."
The man's movements were strong and steady, forcing Prudence to the edge of the arena marked out for the combatants. She handled the spear with none near his surety, Branwen noticed, and only at the last moment stepped from him. Branwen knew well that the girl was fairly quick on her feet, particularly if unencumbered by armour; but neither was her opponent slow, and with greater strength he advanced again upon her, her spear only narrowly fending against his attacks—
"She's a cursed fool," Shar-Teel said simply. "Think I'll have a beer while I'm waiting, or some of that Maztican corn if they've got any. Coming?" She turned contemptuously upon her heel; Branwen moved immediately to block her. Shar-Teel's spirit was mismatched to her valiance in battle; but this particular offence Branwen would not let pass—
She gripped Shar-Teel by the shoulders, preventing her. "Does our leader not offer her life in your stead? That is a blood debt in my homeland! By Tempus, at the very least you shall—"
Shar-Teel only laughed. "Ha! Tell me this, priestess; would I slay that man easily, or would I not?"
Branwen saw the fighting man running through his tactics. Few humans could match Shar-Teel for strength, and she had witnessed the woman battling ogres; she was fiendishly agile even with her heavy plate; and the man facing Prudence was clearly good in his way...
"I...I suppose, perhaps," Branwen said, "I can imagine you doing so; but nevertheless—"
"I'd spit him within the minute at most," Shar-Teel said. "Have fun doing it, too. I'm better than her, and all the times she asks me to beat her hollow in a spar it's not like she doesn't know it." It was true, Branwen knew; when Shar-Teel faced the paladin it was rare that the latter tasted victory. "No. It's those sweet precious scruples she's saving against killing another like her."
Branwen took her hold from Shar-Teel, shocked; "You would argue that she is saving him?" she demanded.
"Yeah." Shar-Teel smiled unpleasantly. "I keep telling her, a woman's got to kill what she's got to kill. What can you say? She's a slow learner. She wins, he gets to live, most likely. He wins, she dies, she's promised nothing on my part, so I get to kill him." She jerked a thumb at the two fighting; Prudence still bore under a sequence of hefty blows, but they looked to be exhausting her. "Even easier after she's softened him up a bit. Then we drag her to the nearest temple. Or try to claim that price on her head."
"A tedious march to what our elf is about to call the inevitable conclusion," Eldoth said.
"If we're lucky," Shar-Teel said, "the tinbrain'll spit the swine second."
The attacks of a spear were similar to those of a staff. Phandalyn's attacks Prudence recognised as on the Cabonrri pattern, and when she tried an approximate Venessan's defence, he returned with—that must be the Fragonza thrust, a part of her mind returned. Done exceptionally well, she felt; it easily slipped through her defence and to escape the spear's point she stepped dangerously close to the edge of the grounds. He fought in a style closer to the ways she had learned at Candlekeep than Shar-Teel's highly effective but informal techniques; what one would expect of a paladin joined to a formal Order. Given that he was better at the style than she, it wasn't a disadvantage.
The spear's thrust aimed at her neck; Phandalyn's hands slipped lower on the haft of it to give it reach. Prudence raised her own spear as if it were a staff to deflect the blow; his control had been lessened by his grip just enough for her to slip away from the attack. She stepped more safely within the arena again, defending as best she could. Perhaps, if she could last long enough—and that seemed no mean goal—she might learn enough of his patterns to find the counter...
"Helm sees all. Know that, and be judged," Phandalyn said; his eyes were white as the part of the sun that burned the most brightly, that was impossible to look upon. She breathed, and watched it with the same power granted to her. He attacked again. "What do you pretend gives you the authority?"
He moved—no, that was a feint. She read it in his eyes; blocked the true attack, with some difficulty. "A feeling that I'm right. —An argument that I'm right, rather."
If she had allowed Xan to avoid this conflict through enchantment, that would have had Phandalyn continue on his path while they escaped. That was rather less than honourable, but battles fought in the realms of reality were also rather less than honourable. Yet: I would smite such as you name; Tenya and Stephan. That theory was worth fighting against.
But if—; then Shar-Teel will—
The sight the gods granted spilled from behind her skull. Phandalyn's certainty; beyond that, she saw— He fiercely attacked. Cabonrri again. d'Arthos variant, used for the long spear. Fragonza.
Defence is a strength, for to protect others can be seen as our purpose, she had been told in Candlekeep. Defence is also a weakness; for a strong initiative may take you quickly, or you may prove unable to hold indefinitely; and both of those can be your weakness, Prudence—
She had endured Phandalyn's first rounds, and she could see him beyond human vision: the towering consciousness of his righteousness, the white-hot furnace of his prayers. She felt his intention to end her as he would any obstacle; she responded to his moves as he found them, and it became almost a dance between them. She saw what he wished to do. The unrelenting gaze held.
"I would not accept you as a squire," he lectured. "You are inexpert in this weapon, and your attacks lack power." Upon the Barrathil mode, at her left flank; a wise enough exploit, she saw, but in a second he was going to shift to his d'Arthos for greater strength, and in that moment—
Bearing no armour, it was easy for her to dodge under his attack, half-somersault, and aim at his right shoulder while he'd yet quite to bring his weapon about. No. Miscalculated. He was already into the counterattack she had expected, but she'd committed herself. She grazed him; but he cut more deeply, and in near-flawless unison they raised blue-tinged hands to themselves whilst they spun apart again.
"You fail," he said almost gently; in his pale eyes her soul was judged, and his in hers in a tide of reflection that dazzled her. "You have failed; confess, if you will—"
She tried attacks of her own, initiative; she read the formal moves in him, his strong defence and fast reprisal. "True enough," she said. "I have lost." Gorion. Minsc: dead by hobgoblin's poison, beyond restoration. Her sister Imoen: sent away with Jaheira, Khalid, and Dynaheir, to keep her safer than she had been under Prudence's leadership. Delainy, the door to the warrens slamming closed: I will stay; once you are gone my former friends may calm— "Despite it—in the mercy of those who grant me these abilities—there are duties left to complete." She panted while speaking; he struck high as she tried to lean back, a slash to her shoulder. She did not yet move to heal the light cut.
"Your associations have been evil," Phandalyn said; and she had estimated Eldoth poorly, believing his claimed affections for Skie to share the initial charm of his manner. Or Xzar, whom she'd parted from after Nashkel, for certain differences in goals;
You'll turn to Blackguard someday, Rue—
Not if I don't choose it—
Phandalyn's body and soul, trying quick jabs, similar to Thalidorn's manual of attacks; she foresaw some of his actions through the vision they shared, sidestepping. Forced to the defence again. "I—flatter myself that I've erred on the side of giving people a chance; of taking joy in the world we fight for. I don't know how much selfish whim but—"
"Any tolerance of evil permits it to flourish. Any planted weed will strangle a garden," he said.
She would not murder Eldoth out of the divination, though the real choice there was not between that and doing nothing. She would not have allowed Xzar and Montaron to come to harm. Delainy was none to blame for the werewolf matter, that too-recent thought especially painful—
"Yes. Anything can be taken to excess..." she agreed, although Phandalyn did not seem to perceive her implication. In the light of their pale vision she read his intent to counter with Arralucia's blocks. He was about to feint again; she met him, and to her astonishment it caught him off guard enough to push him a step back. A single stride taking her away from the dangerous edge of their grounds, but enough;
We see each other through our divine sight alike; but I can read him faster— Proving it, she held both Barrathil and Fragonza in mind, alternating in her forms before at last choosing; and his synchrony lacked, his defence slower than she had anticipated him—
Very little of an advantage. He was still a master of this form of combat fighting one far less experienced. She could see clearly the patterns he favoured, and yet from that glimpsed no chance that would find weakness in him. Whether she surprised him or no, his long-practised reflexes would see him win.
"You have sisters—" she asked; how much of the human was below the fanatic's zeal that crafted Phandalyn's unwavering purpose? As Imoen to her—
Yes. Love for his family within the light of his pale eyes, untainted. Not even for their sake did he fear death in his quest to purge the world. "Two, both much younger than I. I have pledged for their sake to do my part to rid this city of evil."
Carrying a laughing young girl around a wide and flowering garden on broad shoulders in the sunlight, a brown-haired maiden cutting roses into a basket, deep warmth and affection surrounding them all— Phandalyn's eyes were polished steel, reflecting a hundred thousand memories and instincts in the white that covered them. It pounded into her head like a storm of hailstones. Brother, take care; brother, come back to us after—
"What has happened to you?" This attack was too strong for her to directly block; she could only retreat. What shapes you, Phandalyn? Still I feel that if you are right to attack all uneasy in your vision whether cause or no, I should not wish to continue on—
"Happened to me?" It seemed he'd greater powers of endurance than she; her will and not her body kept her fighting. The torrent of awareness filled her. "In the past I have defended the city against sahuagin, against brigands; of late I was sent by my church to the east against the armies of a foul demon-dealing wizard," he said.
Demons with too many limbs swarming him and his fellow knights. The shapes of them extended into planes impossible to comprehend by a human mind, clambering over it was not a dead bird— She felt herself wrenched from that, Phandalyn's prayers banishing the memory from himself.
He has done duties, served for years—achieved far more than I have, truly—
Creatures from the Nine Hells, and the evil within them—was it different to humans; or simply the same along a continued line? The hilt of the demonknight's dagger outright burned her palm, but people were far more complicated; and even demons supposedly had personalities, though in that case it hardly made a difference— Or at least, that distinction had been the case in her view. In Phandalyn's it was not.
"You have some natural insight," he said; the spear met her own with a formidable crack. "Use it to reconsider your path."
In a way, she was. Within Phandalyn: There were demons who would destroy the earth; there are evil people who would do the same if allowed to flourish; here in my homeland I do my duty— Yes. She could see him through the eyes of a paladin searching for aura and soul. She hated the headache it gave her. He was clear and bright as the blank white pages of an open book. She saw his path.
And so that is how—
She laughed, not with humour. In that moment's distraction, he wounded her deeply, and she called on her prayers. Blue soaked from both her shoulder and thigh to rebind her flesh. She neared her limits, and breathed in a prayer.
"I never thought of that loophole—" she said. Her spear crossed his, holding the block. "I don't think I tried to think of that loophole. Funny. I thought of others—"
Impossible that the girl should be laughing. Branwen saw her using her healing from her gods, blue melting around her form. As if trying to display that she was still favoured, that she continued to do right; she was certainly no Tranzig, even if Branwen did not find all of her actions those of warrior born. A few passers-by had begun to observe.
"It seems as if 'twill end soon," Branwen said. Two gods' servants, battling each other for favour; the outcome would be ill for Prudence if she lost. When, as perhaps it shaped to be.
"She requested that we..." Xan said, and shook his head in what looked to be surprise. "Asinine and deservedly doomed. She insists upon committing suicide, and because she asked it, I have not..."
"Yeah." Shar-Teel patted the crossbow at her waist. "I'd end it, except she'd kick up a fuss and start it over again."
"You shall not interfere in a matter of honourable battle," Branwen said. Were the respective deities watching? 'Twould be most foolish as well as dishonourable to disrupt such a duel, as much as she prayed that the resurrection of their comrade would be possible. Shar-Teel cared little for honour, and Xan thought such principles death-seeking and foolish; likely it was only the girl herself keeping them back. That—keen presence; even now she seemed to be speaking to the other paladin as though she sought to take him from his path by that means alone. Yet he had much the same compelling trace about him, that gift of their vocation that called others to follow.
"You are delightfully poetic, priestess. Some would call it a simple street brawl begun by a woman of dubious repute against a knight of the city," Eldoth's poisonous words dripped from his venomed tongue. "I speak only of realism, of course."
"If our repute concerns you then it would befit you to get killed in the next battle, Eldoth," Xan said.
"Alas, should I perform that particular starring role, I would feel it wasted upon such a dismal-faced audience."
"They wouldn't be dismal," Shar-Teel said. She and Xan shared a glance, in that odd sympathy between violent warrior and morose Greycloak; a balance against each other.
"'Watch," Branwen told them; in her own connection to the divine she felt the spirals turning and twisting about the paladins both, the sight and power seething from them as a tempest. Torrents of spinning cycles surrounded their bodies, as if pale and roiling clouds bent and wrenched each other, in some constructed vision of the powers that guided the two. It could only end soon. She could not hear what Prudence was saying, amidst the clash of weaponry; but she saw the girl ragged on her feet, barely blocking each strike.
"There ought to be bloodshed shortly," said Eldoth. This time something close to avidity lingered upon his face as he watched the battle; as though what he longed to observe was the killing blow. "A self-righteous paladin sending a second to her grave; if only all their orders were so obliging to provide such fodder for entertaining tales."
"I wouldn't bury her yet," Shar-Teel said, almost absently. "I'd hate to think all the times I've bothered to teach her a lesson were a complete waste. Aside from the latest bout of idiocy."
"She's young," Xan said; and no doubt to an elf they all were in years, but Branwen had left her home in the service of her deity nine years ago now, and she would wager Shar-Teel had fought for still longer. Sometimes it was hard to remember that the girl who crafted most of their battle-plans had wandered Faerun but a slight time more than young Skie.
Branwen could remember the days of her homeland, the male priests of Tempus who had driven her from her home in return for her ambition. Faith without tests was worthless. Her service to Tempus had taken her along many difficult paths, each casting learned from her deity a lengthy struggle to understand; and when she had met the girl trained in Candlekeep she had seen the contrast. Prudence had laboured for her goal, but she had gone unquestioned in pursuit of it. The challenges posed by those of one's own order oft proved the hardest to meet.
Branwen, from your healing expertise: Srevarta, here—the example is how he treated a wound six hours after its infliction; three inches by a hand dagger's blade, in a transverse direction in the abdomen; causing the protrusion of stomach, colon and large omentum detached, one perforation through the peritoneal coat and the second through all coats. He says he used a physical ligature to the puncture prior to casting and—
I don't understand your phrasings. I did not learn to heal from scrolls and lore as you did, because I was cast out from home for wishing to be a priestess—
That's awful. I knew female priestesses were uncommon in the north, but—
And yet you see that it has granted me skill. Focus like I showed you; sometimes I use material bindings, but you can also construct one out of the casting; somewhere inside you know without being told what the healthy limb must be—
Branwen could remember teaching the girl something of her own approach to the castings granted by the gods; of sparring with her and likewise instructing in battle-skill. Yet there were times when Prudence was not simply the long-limbed girl paging through a book in the firelight as if it were wizardly and not warrior's arts she practised; running through the woods and sharpening her steel against Shar-Teel in training that seemed nigh to exhaust her if not for her spirit; explaining in overmuch words and with sweeping gestures a new scheme for managing foes of a particular type—
When she, like Branwen, shouldered the responsibility of their connection to forces beyond. Still the Candlekeep girl, laughing and bantering in taverns, fussily scribing the results of their adventures on balance-sheets, claiming her ideals: Protect people; as long as I can—fighting on a matter of theology. Still a paladin.
The girl Skie came rushing from the inn. "I couldn't stay and be quiet and wait—" she said, wiping a hand across her face; "I had to find out; Prudence—is she—"
"So you were fortunate," Prudence said. She blocked against a thrust in the direction of her ribcage. "In a manner of speaking."
His advance was smooth, but in the blinding flashes across her eyes she read it before he completed it; he tried to draw her into a committed block, Thalidorn's third form on offence. She attempted a disengagement, a careful flow of steps between his attacks.
"You killed people because you divined. They—happened to belong to gods of ill intent." It was all terrifyingly clear to her; as if she'd placed an ioun stone to sear the space behind her eyes. She hated seeing it. She attacked him, a dead-centre aim; he deflected it quickly. "Lucky. Or fated. But that won't always be the case—"
"That foul wizard must have done many evil deeds before—I gather you have understood before what," Phandalyn said. Demons. "Nigh two hundred dead. Thirty-eight knights of my own order perished against the ultimate evils of the Nine Hells brought into being by one of greatest wickedness—"
Prudence remembered the demonknight; the fragments of shattered mirror; the boy who screamed even after reaching safety. A human who might bring such into mortal planes— That had changed his path.
"When there is sign of evil, I act that further evil shall not follow. Would that a paladin had destroyed that particular wizard in the name of what he was before he accomplished his chief harm. Can you say the same...against the wizards you have known?" Phandalyn said.
A well-directed hit; as she tried to block, the spear's blade cut lightly through her forearm. She was indeed tiring. What she had left of her divine healing sustained her.
"I'd not kill without cause. Even only a chance of later choices of redemption." There were those she had found intensely—likeable; that dwarven assassin, before he'd tried to collect the bounty; Xzar's strange intelligence and insight; Shar-Teel's amazing talent for a fight; even Eldoth, at one time. Her own flaws— "For you it is luck," she repeated. Children—no; Phandalyn's divination had never placed him in the path of the likes of Tenya. "That your casting was never deceived. That it was never a better deity. Even your Lord Helm—he stands for law and at times it is lawless more than evil deeds that cause him to turn his face—"
"Evil will always flourish without the strong hand of law." Phandalyn attacked in a downward thrust, d'Athos lower. "Can you say that your own—what you call luck—will cause no evil to flourish in the wake of your choices?"
"No." That was true. She deflected his spear, forcing his point upwards; Pontius defence. "But I can say that you won't continue what you do."
Phandalyn was completely sure of himself still, she knew. Neither of them had committed acts of evil; neither had betrayed their order, not yet. It requires more of a paladin than to fail to commit evil acts. She saw vividly the faces of some he had killed: a Cyricist priestess, an elven man paid to assassinate, a powerful red-robed necromancer and a fallen paladin of Tyr—
Skie had returned, she felt against the corner of her eye. She did not wish on Skie the obligation of witness; she'd responsibility for her.
You're nice, Prudence; in some ways you're like Eldoth— Skie had said, camping on the road of their journey back to the city.
Oh, I really don't think that I—
You can talk to people, like him. You convince others—
"Loophole," she said. "Kill, and if it's one of those gods and they have done deeds you have technically not done evil—but it's still murder—" Had Phandalyn been guided by Helm to cross only the paths of true evildoers? She could imagine it, reading into the pale light within him, Helm channelling his devout conviction against all evil to times and places where he would do good in effect if not means— She blocked again; ducked under his attack to escape the fringe of their arena.
"You place your ideas above mine? Arrogant. Do you truly believe that the gods intended you to face me?"
Phandalyn was deservedly confident; he gave a flood of attacks in the Vergeril manner, each fast and sure. Her experience of the gods was in dreams and prayer; it was not that she had been personally directed by an avatar with glowing eyes to challenge Phandalyn's ways. At the least, she was failing to convince him by speech. "No—"
"Then it is by individual pride? You overstep our bounds by far." A wild swing of hers actually caught him, leaving a slight line upon his cheek; he healed it. As if it was the last, he spoke. "I will spare you from the pain of Falling. I will spare the world from the foul harm you would do."
He struck, and though he did not cut her he flung her to the ground, almost to the opposite border of the arena. In his soul she read sureness of victory atop his righteousness; no time remained for talk between them. She struggled to stand again.
No. It is not by direct divine guidance. But there is enough of healing and sight in me to know that I am a paladin. My conscience and choice lead me to this, and through fair duel our gods will certainly decide—
But is it true that he would spare me from that—?
She was on her feet again, at the last possible moment. She healed herself one last time, against a graze that the paving-stones had left upon her shoulder. This would be the end of it.
Prudence read him. Careful footwork; passes arriere, retreating from him in a path she had decided upon. Her vision showed him attacking, all but triumphant. In his reflection she saw that he knew already what was in her, and in him she gleaned his intent. His back was turned to the front boundary of the arena; she faced him.
There were no weaknesses in the polished surface of his defence. Indeed; there was but one way she could see to get close to him. It was necessary to be certain of what he saw in her; she had found her way through the ten thousand points of the painful awareness within her, and navigated to the point of what he expected from her—
She—the other paladin; that which stood in his true path—was almost defeated, her blocks barely keeping with him. And there was a natural opening, one that to him marked the end of the battle without time for suspicion while her mind raced forward, in anticipation—
It was a very good move of his. She wasn't, quite, as fast as she had hoped to be. His spear pierced below her ribcage to the left, a gut wound through her side and out her back. The pain and shock were more than she could have prepared for; but she had expected it through their paled vision. She lunged forward. The aim of her spear while his was so occupied was truer than his: dead centre, up and under the ribs. One way she could see to get close to him.
She dropped to her knees, but he fell backward and beyond the line. He lay with half of his body out of the arena, his arms spread out as if he pleaded to Helm above. His eyes had closed. The reddish stain they had used to mark the ground darkened his white tunic, not the only substance to do so.
Is it the gods' will?—Or fortune, or the fact that I used our insight, I planned— Her head spun; the tatters of vision swarmed her. No greatly resonating voice from the heavens announced that she had been right, or wrong.
Phandalyn was bleeding to death at a faster pace than she was. She had to fix that. She bent over him; she'd scarce any of their capacity for prayer left, but there was the other power she shaped. Sorcery or not, it had saved lives before. A casting for healing, quickly sent to stabilise him; Prudence laid her right hand near his heart and began—
Phandalyn's eyes opened once more, blazing white. A strong hand suddenly gripped her wrist, twisting it violently away from him—
"Unnatural harlot. How dare you use that evil upon me," the paladin said clearly; and lapsed again into seeming unconsciousness, his eyes closing once more. She seemed no longer able to use that hand, for the time being—
"No one has to die," Prudence hissed; the spear through her affected concentration. She knew she lied. She hadn't been able to save Minsc, somewhere in the Cloakwood mines she'd lost count of the number of people she'd killed herself. She prayed, as best she could; reached her left hand to Phandalyn and begged the gods for what divine healing remained in her. Patched the rip through the greater aorte, in the abstract answer she received from them; he still bled.
"Branwen. Heal him," she commanded; and blood murder blood ran through her head. Branwen had come, always there always loyal, bent down next to both of them; "Heal him," she insisted, pointing vaguely to Phandalyn, knowing the duty—
She really ought not to be bleeding yellow, especially of that shade, she thought, trying to stem her own wound with her bare hand, to hold the odd amber sparks that seemed to flicker from it like fireflies escaping. And heard the whispers of its taint.
Heal him—and because the cursed stubborn paladin was so desperately adamant, Branwen muttered the words of her healing as fast as she dared. Tempus did not require aiding a fallen foe.
Usually, Prudence's eyes were a dark brown. They shone an unrelieved white, neither iris nor pupil visible, nothing of it natural in how far it could see. She was far from blind. That gaze held no fears for Branwen, but there were others that it ought to do.
Skie had rushed forward when the fight had reached an ending, but in her uncertain way had stopped short when Branwen had gone on to heal. She looked into the paladin's eyes, and took a hesitant step back;
"I didn't mean to—I'm sorry, so lazy, so selfish—I'm sorry—" Skie cried out.
"There is nothing to be, Skie," Prudence might have whispered hoarsely. Then: "Shar-Teel—you're killing them all—I see it, the red field, the one in the east, the fallen blue banners and the trampled grain still smouldering—they surrendered first, lying down and then you killed—"
"Like you didn't know already what I am—" Shar-Teel snapped back at the girl, baring her teeth.
"Xan—" Prudence said next. Branwen's casting finished on the male paladin; she started it for their comrade. Tempus' healing came from her; she sharply thrust the spear from the wound, held the girl's organs in their proper place, and began the words of her spell. She could see there was something very wrong with the way the girl bled, the greatly abnormal yellow, but she'd no time to think further on that; healing her would be sufficient.
The elf flung some glowing dust about himself from his spell components, crafting a shimmering shield that would not block physical weaponry. "I have nothing to hide; but this is not your right to view," Xan said.
"Eldoth," Branwen heard the paladin say, her eyes widening. "Poison. You're good with poisons. You're going to murder them, I see you mixing it into the wine. A poisoner—" Her voice cracked; Branwen was almost finished with her healing, weaving the body together again. "And that girl. I can't see her name. She's so small, shorter than you and so frail, and when it was you who drugged her—"
"Witch," Eldoth muttered; Branwen saw him retreating out of the corner of her eye, one arm thrust in front of himself as if trying to protect from the sight.
"That's no," Prudence was saying to herself; the effort of speech cost her, and her voice trembled. "I don't understand. I know what this is, but I don't understand how anyone could. Can't you notice that she didn't want you? It hurts; you know it's hurting her and you didn't stop. The taint wouldn't mind, but you ought to. It's never supposed to feel like this. Tearing up inside and— There's something wrong with me as well."
Prudence had started to sob, without any kind of restraint; thick tears ran freely from the corners of her white eyes. It wasn't comparable to Skie's ladylike handkerchief dabbed to her face: a more primal cry from something in deep hurt, a beast who saw in shades of good and evil. "Branwen—please, help me—" she begged, turning her face to one who had ever been dutiful to her god.
(Mine is a path of greater justice than mercy—)
The healing spell was completed; Prudence would live through this. Branwen placed her arms about the weeping girl as best she could, calming her vision, and tried to comfort her near the still-breathing body of the man.