The Sleeping Hound Inn was located no more than a few days’ ride from the surrounding towns and villages, not to mention the grand city of Freeport. It had grown greatly over the years, building four stories for guest rooms alone and an impressive two-tiered dining hall. The inn catered to travelers of all different shapes and sizes. Humans and half-elves were the most common sight, followed by halflings and a sampling of wood elves, gnomes, and dwarves. Sometimes there was an ogre or a dark elf, but they generally stayed away from the crowds per the insistence of the inn’s bouncers. Orcs were shot on sight.
The inn’s dining hall was packed. Waitresses hustled from one table to another as tempers flared back in the kitchens. Minstrels did their best playing jovial tunes over the din, and patrons rearranged tables and chairs as they saw fit. A cacophony of different languages, accents, and dialects filled the hall.
At a table in one of the quieter spots in the hall sat three members of the Knights of Truth, each eating their simply but hearty meals in relative silence. The Knights of Truth was a paladin order based in nearby Freeport, serving the will of Mithaniel Marr the Truthbringer, god of valor and divine champion of justice, honor, and charity. The order’s members all swore to various oaths during their training, abiding by increasingly strict tenants. It was taught that the oaths freed its members, and that oaths of sobriety and maintaining a sense of decorum enabled a paladin to better be ready and able to combat any evil that may arise.
Janus Kamaren was the leader of the group. He was a tall, strong human with medium-length brown hair neatly parted at the middle. His dark blue surcoat was pressed and straightened. He was generally a reserved individual, and his expression was normally one of utmost seriousness or even irritation, even when he didn’t feel as such.
Across from Janus was Tyria Elarra, a high elf. High elves were rare in Freeport, but nevertheless she had been born and raised there. Her parents were jewelers, and Tyria had inherited their love of finely crafted, beautiful things. She had altered her surcoat to flatter her lithe figure, and had also hand-stitched golden embroidery into its hems. Many Knights of Truth considered her luxurious fashion to be frivolous and unbefitting of a paladin, but she had excelled in her training and thus was generally left alone about her clothing.
Next to Tyria sat Elliot Dayson, a human with messy black hair and striking ice-blue eyes. Unlike Janus and Tyria, Elliot had not yet taken his vows as a paladin. He had trained for the same time as his companions, but he had repeatedly gotten in trouble for public brawling, injuring sparring partners, and generally being a poor representative of the order.
“Oh, hey, there’s some Militia sitting over there,” said Elliot. Janus turned around and, sure enough, there were six members of the Freeport Militia, all strong, human men clad in crimson red tunics.
Janus sighed as he returned to his food. “Just ignore them, and maybe they’ll ignore us.”
Elliot rolled his eyes. “Do you just see the worst in everyone?”
“You know they’re not our friends.”
“Oh, come off it. They’re not all the same any more than we are.” He hugged Tyria around her shoulders. “Right?”
“You’re right.” Tyria lightly patted Elliot’s hand. “But it still pays to be cautious.”
“It’s not like they’re orcs or something,” Elliot said. “They can be reasoned with.”
“Their leader is a fallen paladin,” said Janus. “He murdered a fellow knight—”
“—he murdered a fellow knight and now tries to act like we betrayed him. No, I’m not inclined to trust them.”
“Well, I’m going to go talk to them and decide for myself.” Elliot stood up. “Care to join me, Tyria?”
“No, thank you. I’ll stay here with Janus.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“No, Elliot.” She smiled. “Go enjoy yourself.”
“Don’t tell them we’re heading to Greenfall,” said Janus as Elliot passed him. “I’d rather not make the trip worrying about a knife in my back.”
Tyria cocked her head to the side. “You seem tense.”
“I’m fine.” He quieted for a moment. “Okay, maybe a little tense.”
“Scared of teaching novices in Greenfall?”
“Scared of Elliot helping us teach novices in Greenfall.”
“We’ll be fine,” Tyria said. “I doubt he’ll do much more than stare out the window.”
Janus returned to his food. “Hopefully he’ll fall off his horse and spend the entire trip in an infirmary.”
“—so he tells the paladin, ‘Hey, no wonder I can’t get it in, there’s a stick in your hole!’” Elliot grinned as the Militiamen laughed. They were largely confused when he joined them, but had gradually warmed up to him over the course of drinks and crude jokes they hadn’t heard before. Elliot was feeling happier, himself.
“You’re rather unusual for a Knight,” said Daks, the leader of the band.
“Still a squire!” Elliot downed another tankard of beer. “I can’t stand all the sanctimonious types I run into in the order. And trust me, they’re the majority.”
“So why did you even join?”
“My first reason was to get my parents to shut up. They’re devout worshipers of the Marr twins, and they were paying for it, anyway.”
“Why Mithaniel, then?” asked Daks. “Erollisi Marr is all about love, which I respect. I’ve seen some gorgeous priestesses at her temple. Even considered joining their order myself because of that.”
“Trust me, they’re prudes. Both Marr twins seem to have something against casual sex, or so the clergy tells me.”
“You sound like you don’t care much for your patron deity.”
Elliot grinned and laughed. “What gave it away?”
“Why remain with the Knights?”
“The benefits. Paladins are generally trusted, with no questions asked. The order also has access to high quality arms and armor, and Marr grants some blessings to anyone who swears an oath to him.”
“Such as healing myself or someone with the touch of a hand.”
“All paladins can do that,” said Daks, “but only once every full day. Explain that.”
Elliot chuckled. “You should see the priests fumble over themselves when you ask that. They argue about it, saying that the gods are limited by an ancient, supernal pact or a lack of worshipers.”
“Seems like a lot of work for little payoff. Just hire a cleric.”
“Well, the healing is just one benefit. My personal favorite blessing—” He swatted a passing half-elf barmaid on her bottom. “—is immunity to disease!”
The men laughed as the barmaid glared at Elliot. The squire shrugged and smiled at her, joining in the laughter when she stormed off.
“Lad makes a strong argument, I’ll admit,” said another Militiaman.
Elliot raised his drink in reply. “I’d say it’s all worth a few prayers.”
“So,” said Daks, glancing over Elliot’s shoulder, “why don’t your companions join us? They the sanctimonious types?”
“Our leader most certainly is.” Elliot snorted. “You should have heard his whining when I said I was going to come over here. Luckily Greenfall’s not too far away, so I won’t have to listen to him on the road for too long.”
“You’re headed to Greenfall?”
Elliot laughed. “I said that, didn’t I? Sir Jackass over there thought me telling you that would be some kind of security risk.”
Daks chuckled and shook his head. “Greenfall’s a nice place. But no, he doesn’t have to worry about us. We’re returning to Freeport.”
“Well, I might suggest to him he’s being followed, anyway.”
“What about the elf? It’s rare to see high elves around these parts.”
Elliot’s muscles tensed. “She grew up here.”
“Gorgeous, isn’t she?”
“She took an oath of chastity.” Elliot looked Daks in the eye. “She’s not about to sleep with anyone.”
“Not at all. She just wants to be married first.”
“Oh, I’ve heard that one before,” Daks said with a laugh. “Every woman who’s told me that just needed some encouragement. Everyone has needs, and there’s nothing wrong with a little fun.
“Save my seat for me, boys,” he said as he rose from his chair.
Elliot clinched his fists. “Where are you going?”
“Seriously?” asked Daks. He thrusted his pelvis forward with a grin.
Elliot knocked his chair over as he sprang in front of Daks.
Daks looked down on Elliot. “Easy there, squire.”
“She’ll say no.”
“Isn’t that up to her?”
“I know her better than you.” Elliot’s fists trembled. “And the answer is no. Don’t waste your time. Or hers.”
“Hey, I’m doing you a favor. I’ll loosen her up tonight, and then you can have her as much as you want.”
Elliot’s vision went red as he drove Daks to the floor, punching him in the face again and again. Every voice and sound was muffled, and he felt nothing from the return blows. Exhilaration spread through Elliot as Daks’s soft throat collapsed beneath his fist. The squire’s ice blue eyes flashed with malice as he raised his fist again.
Something grabbed him from behind, lifting him from the ground and slamming him into the wooden wall.
“—is wrong with you?” the assailant asked, his tone furious.
Elliot swung blindly at his attacker, hitting nothing and being shoved to the floor. Elliot’s hearing and vision cleared as he was pinned on the ground, and finally he saw his attacker’s blue surcoat.
It was Janus. Behind him, Tyria was placing her hand on Daks’s cheek, a blue glow emanating from beneath her palm. Daks gasped for breath once, then breathed freely as his injuries faded as if they had never been there.
“Stay down.” Janus stood up and turned to the furious Militiamen. Elliot remained on the floor, his own hurts finally becoming apparent.
He watched Janus and Tyria argue with the Militia. Elliot couldn’t make out everything they were saying, but Janus’s raised hands with palms forward told him all he needed to know. Elliot growled. Once again, Janus was refusing to fight, not even to protect his companions.
It wasn’t long before the bouncers came to break them up. Tyria helped Elliot off the floor, and the three Knights of Truth left the Sleeping Hound Inn’s dining hall.
Tyria sat quietly, her eyes traveling around Elliot’s inn room. His belongings were unceremoniously dumped on the floor and dresser. Elliot himself sat at the end of his bed, shirtless. He had angled himself to give Tyria an eyeful of his muscles, constantly glancing at her as he inspected his bruises.
Her eyes went to Janus, who was hunched over in his chair. His hand covered his face as he silently rubbed his temples.
Elliot cleared his throat. “So, are you—”
“Quiet,” Tyria said, though a tad harsher than she had intended. Healing someone with a mere touch, or “laying hands” as it was often called, always left her feeling empty inside. It was as if she gave away a part of her own soul every time she did it, and she never quite felt whole again until the next day.
Janus finally sat up straight.
“Okay,” he said. His face was serious, but not angry. “What happened?”
Elliot continued examining his arms. “Just setting a lecher straight.”
“And you couldn’t have done so in any other manner?”
Elliot finally looked at Janus. “He was treating Tyria like a whore, and I’m not about to let that pass by.”
“I appreciate the concern,” Tyria said, even-toned, “but your response was excessive.” Part of her wondered what exactly the Militiaman had said about her, but she brushed it aside. Regardless, Elliot added more detail.
“He said he was going to make you bed him, oath or not.”
Tyria shook her head. “He’s not the first tavern-goer to try, nor will he likely be the last.”
“Well, someone needs to stick up for you, because that’s not right.” Elliot turned to Janus. “And our fearless leader apparently has a problem with that.”
A glint of anger flashed on Janus’s expression. Tyria bit her lip and silently urged him not to take the bait.
Janus spoke slowly, his voice tinged with anger. “You’re on probation already. A stunt like this could end your training.”
Elliot laughed. “But that’s not up to you, is it? All you can do is cry about it to the Lord Marshall.”
Janus was silent for another moment. Tyria bit her lip harder, glancing between the two humans.
“You nearly killed a man tonight, Elliot,” Janus said. “That would have—”
“And how many bandits and orcs have you killed in your career?”
“Those were under entirely different circumstances.”
“Ah, so you’re the almighty judge of who needs killing?”
Tyria’s eyes were on Janus, whose hands had balled up into fists. She silently pleaded for him to calm down, but he didn’t look back at her.
“Walk away,” Janus said. “Learn to walk away from needless fights.”
Elliot laughed loudly, slapping his knee. “Oh, that’s great coming from you.”
Tyria’s face paled as she recognized the wild gleam in Elliot’s eye and realized what he was about to say.
“You do remember that walking away from a fight was what got your father killed, right?”
Tyria sprang forward as Janus and Elliot stood up, pushing them back from each other.
“Elliot, that’s enough!” she said.
Elliot smirked at Janus. “Set me straight if I’m wrong, or walk away if I’m right.”
“Elliot!” Tyria glanced back to Janus, whose eyes were screaming for blood.
“Am I wrong or right? Show me.”
“We’re done here,” Janus said, stepping back. “We’re done. We leave in the morning.”
“I thought as much,” Elliot said as Janus passed him and went out the door. “Glad we had this talk, Janus!”
Tyria followed, but stopped when Elliot touched her shoulder.
“Wait,” he said, “you don’t have to leave.”
“Yes, I do.”
She looked him in the eye. “Because I’m walking away from this fight, too.”
She left before Elliot could get another word out. She traveled the corridors and staircases of the Sleeping Hound Inn, finally stepping outside. The late spring air was pleasantly cool, and the sun setting behind the distant Serpent’s Spine Mountains covered the land in brilliant shades of orange and purple. After admiring the sight for a moment, Tyria continued down to the inn’s main grounds.
The Sleeping Hound Inn offered an expansive training ground with enough room for individuals and small squads to practice a safe distance from each other. The east side had an archery range, while the west was dotted with six-foot posts called pells.
It was at one of the pells that Tyria found Janus venting his frustration. He was striking it with a longsword waster, but stopped abruptly as Tyria approached.
“Don’t let me stop you,” the high elf said. “Go on.” Janus had always excelled at swordsmanship, and Tyria enjoyed watching him, both for the entertainment and the chance to learn something new.
The wooden sword became a blur as Janus resumed his practice. He stepped with each strike, moving forward, backward, and diagonally. He utilized both of the waster’s edges and struck from varying angles, low and high, right and left, circling the pell as if it were an opponent. For a minute straight Janus exerted himself as much as he could, throwing all of his intensity and power into his movements.
Tyria applauded lightly as Janus struck the pell as hard as he could, the resulting crack echoing in the early evening air. He sat down against the pell, wiping sweat from his brow and breathing heavily.
“Nice job,” Tyria said as she handed him his water flask. She sat next to him as he guzzled the water.
“Thank you,” Janus finally said as he leaned his head back and exhaled heavily.
“You broke the waster, though.” She pointed at the thin crack running down the middle of the blade.
Janus sighed. “Great.”
“On the plus side, that definitely would have killed someone.” She looked at him, frowning softly at his furrowed brow. She nudged his shoulder. “Hey, it’s all right.”
“Yeah, I can pay for it.”
“No, I mean …” she bit her lip. “I mean the discussion back there.”
Janus sighed. “I shouldn’t have gotten so worked up.”
“I don’t blame you for getting mad. Gods know I was getting angry, myself.”
“It’s just that when we were given this assignment, I was specifically asked to help get Elliot back on the right track, and it’s like he’s worse than ever under my watch.” He sighed again. “I can’t get through to him, and I don’t think I like him enough to really give it an honest try, either.”
Tyria said nothing.
“And his remark about my father—”
“Was cruel and uncalled for.”
“But he was right.” Janus looked at her. “Pa turned away, and both he and Ma died for it.”
Tyria threw her arms around Janus’s shoulders and squeezed, resting her head against his.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Janus,” she said. “What happened with your parents was not at all the same as what happened at dinner. You made the right choice tonight. You know you did.”
Janus sighed and nodded.
“Elliot just hates authority,” Tyria said.
“No, he doesn’t. Neither of you like each other, sure, but that isn’t hate.”
“I don’t know, we dislike each other quite a bit.”
“Would you let him die, if given the chance?”
Janus closed his eyes and, after a moment, shook his head. “No.”
“And ultimately, I don’t think he would let you die, either.” She smiled. “If anything, he’d save your life and never let you forget about it.”
Janus chuckled. “That sure sounds like him.”
She released her hug and looked into his green eyes.
“Thank you,” said Janus.
They both stood, brushing grass off of their clothes.
“You don’t think …” Janus said, looking over the cracked waster. “I’m not unreasonable, am I?”
“How do you mean?”
“I know I’m stubborn, not to mention a stickler for the rules.” He looked up at her. “Am I unreasonable?”
“No, far from it,” Tyria said, “but you do take things too seriously sometimes. I worry you don’t have enough fun.”
Janus shrugged, and then smiled at her. “Would you remind me to loosen up now and then?
“I’m going to start now. I hear this inn has the best cobbler outside of Rivervale, and we need to find out if that’s true.” She smirked. “Knights of Truth, after all.”
Janus groaned and rubbed his brow as he followed Tyria.
The bouncers, two burly humans armed with clubs, both raised an eyebrow when Janus and Tyria came again to the dining hall, but said and did nothing to stop them. The dining hall was quieter than earlier, but there were still a handful of groups spread out among the tables. Janus and Tyria found themselves a corner and were soon enjoying delicious cobbler. Janus wasn’t so certain it was the best outside the halfling city of Rivervale, or worth the ridiculous asking price of two silver pieces. Regardless, Tyria seemed to be enjoying her slice, so Janus kept his thoughts to himself.
Janus and Tyria looked up to see Freeport Militiamen standing by their table. Four of them, all muscular. Unarmed and unarmored, but glowering dubiously. The bouncers watched the two groups closely.
“Can I help you?” asked Janus. He had a fork in hand, plus a ceramic mug nearby. His chair was light enough to wield and strong enough to feasibly hold off an attacker or two, especially until the bouncers inevitably got involved.
“Where’s your attack dog?” asked the lead Militiaman.
“Not here,” Janus said. “What do you want?”
“How’s your throat?” asked Tyria.
The Militiaman’s hand went to his neck, and his expression and tone softened. “Much better. Thank you for your help.”
Tyria returned to her cobbler. “You’re welcome. I’m sorry our attack dog made it necessary.”
“Well, if you’re sorry—” The man returned to Janus. “—you can repay me for the trouble.”
Janus raised an eyebrow, and Tyria continued with her dessert.
“Your friend told us you’re headed to Greenfall. I have a cousin just on the way, and you can repay me by delivering a letter to him. You ever take the north road before?”
Janus stopped himself from sighing at the mention of their destination.
“I’ve heard of it,” the paladin said, “but I’ve never been on it.”
“My cousin lives in a small settlement right on the north road, not far from Greenfall. You can’t miss it.”
Janus was quiet for a moment, regarding the Militiaman’s words. Something seemed off about the request, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“It’s fair enough,” the paladin said, “but I’m curious why a Freeport Militiaman would ask a Knight of Truth to do it.”
“You’re a paladin.” The Militiaman placed the letter on the table. “I’ve never cared for your type much, but I do respect your honesty and sense of duty. I know that if you say you’ll do it, you will.”
Daks made a gesture to his companions, and they returned to their own table. The bouncers finally took their hands off their clubs.
Something inside Janus kept screaming warnings at him, but beyond dealing with a Militiaman, he couldn’t see why. He’d been wrong about people before, after all.
He placed the letter in his pouch. “I appreciate your vote of confidence. I’ll deliver it to him. What’s his name?”
“Also Daks. Our family names the first child Daks, son or daughter. Makes reunions confusing.”
Janus tried to think of a reply, but none came.
“And if I may,” Daks said, sitting next to Tyria, “I’d love to spend an evening with this lovely young woman.”
“I’m so sorry,” Tyria said sweetly, “but I already have a man.”
Janus silently applauded Tyria’s lie as Daks flashed the fakest smile he had ever seen.
“Your man isn’t here,” the Militiaman said.
Tyria took another bite of cobbler and reached across the table. She took Janus’s hand, interlocking her fingers with his. Her hand was warm, not to mention soft for someone who trains with a sword. Janus cursed the blood rushing to his cheeks.
“Oh,” Daks said. He looked between the two and stood up. “Thank you for fixing my throat, and please try to keep your dog on a leash.”
“Will do,” Janus said as Daks left without another word. The bouncers finally took their eyes off them.
Tyria squeezed Janus’s hand. “Your face turned really red.”
Janus chuckled quietly as Tyria released his hand and returned to her cobbler, smiling wider than she was before.
A gray sky covered the land the next day. Light fog floated in the air and gathered in clouds at the ground. The temperature would normally be considered pleasantly cool, but the three paladins’ hauberks quickly grew cold. The chain mail wasn’t cold enough for them to shiver, but neither was it warm enough to be comfortable. At the very least, it was peaceful and quiet, save for the sounds of their nickering horses.
The silence broke with Elliot’s pained groans, at least the fifth one in the last half hour. Taking advantage of being in the lead, Janus rolled his eyes. Elliot had been complaining all morning, his injuries from the previous day finally taking their toll. His face had swollen, more bruises had appeared, and his movements were stiff. It certainly didn’t help that he had stayed up late and woke up hung-over.
Janus tried not to take too much pleasure in Elliot’s suffering.
“I can’t stand this anymore,” Elliot said from the back of the line. “Could one of you lay hands or something?”
“No,” said Janus.
“You’re going to ignore a person in need and still call yourself a paladin?”
“Yes,” said Janus. Tyria stifled a laugh.
“Tyria? Please?” asked Elliot.
“I can’t heal anyone until this evening,” Tyria said. “I told you that already.”
Elliot sighed. “Will you at least do it then?”
“No, because you’re not dying.”
“I’d always lay hands on you if you asked for it.”
Janus tightened his grip on the reins. He wasn’t certain what annoyed him more: Elliot’s awkward pass at Tyria, the likely chance he was using a blessing of Mithaniel Marr as an innuendo, or that he was using the oldest innuendo in the book.
Aside from Elliot’s periodic moaning, the journey continued without bother for another two hours. The north road was rarely used these days. Not two miles away to the north was the edge of Nektolus Forest. The trees of Nektolus Forest reached far and wide, allowing very little sunlight through. Dangerous creatures, both living and undead, made their homes in the dark crevices and ancient ruins that dotted the forest. Worst of all, Nektolus housed the entrance to Neriak, the city of the dark elves.
“Tyria,” said Janus. Tyria rode up alongside him, Elliot close behind.
“We’re only a few hours away from Greenfall, right?” Janus asked.
“I believe so.”
Janus frowned. “Shouldn’t we have reached the village by this point? I haven’t seen any signs of life on this road at all.
“He did say that it was a small settlement.” Tyria bit her lip. “I don’t like it.”
Elliot rode up ahead the two of them. “Don’t be so scared, Janus.”
Janus shot an annoyed look at Elliot, but then his eyes widened at a heavy amount of brush in the road.
Elliot’s horse shrieked as the brush gave way to a deep pit. Janus and Tyria dismounted and rushed to the hole, calling Elliot’s name.
“I’m all right.” Elliot groaned and coughed. “Horse is dead.” His face went white as he finally noticed the sharp stakes in the pit floor, in particular the one just by his groin.
“A little help here would be appreciated.”
Janus and Tyria went back to their horses for some rope. As Janus rummaged through his saddlebag, he glanced up at Tyria. She was staring down the road, eyes wide and face pale. Janus slowly followed her gaze.
Orcs of the Deathfist tribe stared them down, gnarled bows drawn. They were tall and broad with dark green skin and squashed faces. Their beady red eyes glared at the paladins, and the orcs snarled, bearing savage yellowed teeth.
All wore crude armor of bronze scales, save for one orc. Its rough clothing was adorned with colorful feathers and jewelry made of bones and skulls. The crooked staff in its hand was similarly decorated. Its top glowed as the orc muttered words in some harsh tongue.
Pain seized Janus’s temples as the orc continued its chant. He fell to his knees, clutching his head and shouting in pain. He could hear nothing but the muffled screams of his companions and the pounding of his own heart. His vision blurred as the pain grew worse, the orc’s chant echoing in the paladin’s mind.
Then everything went black.
Tyria awoke first, but soon wished she hadn’t. She was shoved or punched for every sound or unauthorized move she made. Hands tied behind her and a rope around her neck, she followed the band of orcs through Nektolus Forest. She looked around for Janus or Elliot, but took a punch for her trouble.
They soon arrived at an old stone fort. It was dirty and many of its features had long since crumbled, but the etched designs still showed through. They were flowing, flowery, and beautiful. Tyria guessed it was made by her own people, centuries or even millennia before, when they still made their home on this continent. In any other situation she would have gladly visited the ruin.
They marched through the front doors and into the main hall. It was large enough for at least two hundred people, though the tables and chairs suggested it rarely went above twenty. Thick pillars dotted the room. The walls were lined with barrels and boxes, leopard skins hung from the rafters, and a large section of the hall at the opposite end rose a step higher than the rest of the floor.
Tyria snapped back into reality as three spears pointed at her face. She stood still as her bonds were cut. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Janus and Elliot, still unconscious, being dropped unceremoniously onto the stone floor. Behind her was the rustling and clanging of orcs rummaging through their belongings.
Her eyes widened when an orc undid her belt. She jerked away, but a snarl and the spearheads coming closer to her head made her stand still. She closed her eyes as the orcs removed the rest: her surcoat, chainmail, under-padding, clothing, and even her boots. The orcs thankfully stopped short of her underclothes. She still wanted to hug and cover herself, but thought better of it when she remembered all of the earlier punishments for moving out of turn. At least the orcs weren’t leering at her as others would. In fact, they seemed almost disgusted by the sight.
An orc shoved her forward, and the march continued. They went through a side door, and Tyria immediately jumped with a soft yelp as she stepped on sharp rock. The guards snarled and urged her forward, but after a few more rocks, one finally threw her over its shoulder and continued through the twisting halls. Tyria allowed herself an irritated sigh.
They were carried down some stairs and finally left in a prison cell. Elliot and Janus, both as undressed as she, were again dumped on the floor. The orcs tossed in a bundle of clothing and slammed the door shut, finally leaving the three paladins alone.
Tyria went through the bundle, finding the light blue skirt she had packed, along with its matching top and a pair of slippers. She quickly put them on, and as she laced up the back of her strapless top, she was relieved that Elliot was still out cold.
Janus groaned softly. Tyria pulled her friend’s black tunic and brown pants from the pile and laid them on top of him, after she involuntarily stole a quick glance of his toned physique.
“Hey,” she said, gently shaking his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Janus answered with a pained moan and reached to his head.
“Me, too,” said Tyria, tossing the remaining clothes over to Elliot. She helped Janus sit up, averting her eyes as he put his clothes back on.
“Where are we?” asked Janus. “Nektolus?”
“On its outskirts, I think. I don’t know. I’ve counted about twenty orc warriors so far. There’re a handful of servants, and then that shaman.”
The Deathfist tribal structure was very simple: an orc that fights well is an orc that lives well. All orcs were created by Rallos Zek, the god of war, and the Deathfist tribe embodied their creator’s lust for conflict, even among each other if needs be. Weak orcs were demeaned with jobs unrelated to fighting, though they might gain a modicum of respect if they were exceptionally skilled in their work.
Deathfist shamans were the exception. Magic required study, time, practice, and most of all, patience. An orc who learned to wield it was respected not only for their power, but for their tenacity to stay alive for so long while studying.
Janus sat next to Tyria. “What are the Deathfist doing in Nektolus?”
“I don’t know.” She hugged her knees.
“Hey,” Janus said, placing his hand on her bare shoulder. “We’ll be okay.”
She took a deep breath and nodded silently. Off to her side, Elliot groaned and stirred.
“What are our options?” asked Janus.
“They took our equipment in the main hall. There were several tables set up, and I thought I saw some ale barrels and a cauldron. If they’re feasting tonight, they’ll fight each other for our gear afterward.”
“Feast?” Elliot thankfully had his clothing mostly on. “What do they serve at an orc feast?”
A chill ran down Tyria’s spine.
The cell door creaked as the orcs returned. They shackled the three companions’ wrists behind their backs. Janus locked eyes with Tyria, his expression calm and encouraging. Tyria tried to feel the same way.
“We’re going to die,” Elliot said quietly. An orc punched him in the face.
Janus kept an eye out as he prayed for any sort of divine help. The halls were in disrepair, with piles of rubble shoved off to the side, leaving just enough room for one orc to pass. Down a side hall, two orcs were in each other’s way and were locked in an escalating shoving match. Janus couldn’t help but stare, but a push and a barked order kept him moving.
They finally reached the main hall. Immediately he spotted their equipment on the opposite wall, along with small piles of gold and platinum coins and semiprecious stones. Their hauberks and longswords were prominently displayed.
They finally stopped at the end of the hall, just ten steps away from a cauldron large enough to squeeze in a handful of adults. Steam rose from the water inside as the flames beneath it did their job. Janus’s eyes widened.
“Welcome guests! Welcome!” A dark elf stood up from a nearby bench. He grinned widely, revealing perfectly set teeth as white as his long hair. Like others of his race, his skin was dark blue. He wore an expertly crafted long coat of red and gold, left open to display his muscular torso.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” he continued. “I am Xen of House D’vol, shadowknight of Innoruuk, the Prince of Hate, and liaison between Neriak and the Deathfist tribe.”
He motioned toward the orc shaman, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor with closed eyes.
“I believe you have already met Claw. He’s what passes for leadership around here.”
Claw said nothing, nor did he react in any manner. Magic required a tremendous amount of mental will, and Janus wondered if Claw was recovering from his—Janus found it difficult to call a creature with a name “it”—earlier spell. If so, how much could he do now?
Xen shrugged. “He’s not the most hospitable of sorts.”
“Enough games,” said Janus. “What are you doing here? Who told you we were coming?”
“Oh, come now, paladin, I’m sure you know already.” Xen waved Daks’s letter in Janus’s face. “I don’t know what you did to anger this man so much, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m just surprised you were dumb enough to trust your order’s sworn enemy.”
Tyria swore under her breath, and Elliot glared at Janus. “You idiot!”
Janus ignored the squire and focused on the dark elf. “So, what happens now?”
Xen smiled widely. “Well, you’ll stay here for dinner, of course. The choice morsels will go to Claw and me, while the rest of the tribe will fight over the remaining meat.
“Of course, there will be plenty for them to share, as I will not eat very much. Orc cuisine leaves a lot to be desired.” He gestured to the steaming cauldron. “The water will fuse your flesh and clothing together in little time. It gives the meat a rather nauseating taste and disgusting texture, but the orcs enjoy it.”
Janus’s heart pounded.
“My fare,” Xen continued, “will be much more elegant.” He stepped up to Tyria and placed his hand on her cheek. The orcs held her still as Xen ran his hand down her neck.
Elliot and Janus protested and tried to pull away from their captors, but were quickly beaten back into place.
Tyria’s breath grew deep. “Don’t—” she said, glaring, “—touch me.”
The high elf squirmed as Xen ran his hand down to her bosom, cupping the top of her breast and pressing his palm over her heart.
“We rarely get high elves around here,” said the shadowknight, “and high elf hearts have always been one of my most favorite dishes. You, my dear, are a delicacy.”
“Please stop!” Elliot cried.
Raising an eyebrow, Xen released Tyria’s breast and took a closer look at Elliot.
“Finally, some manners. What’s troubling you, my dear boy?” He reached inside the neck of Elliot’s tunic placed his palm on the squire’s heart. “Are you afraid of death? Pain? Both?”
“I don’t want to die. I don’t want Tyria to die.”
Janus didn’t like where this was going.
“Tyria,” said Xen, removing his hand. “This one here? Lovely name for a lovely maiden. Tell me, child, what will you do or say for me to spare you and your precious girl? Mind you, I have not eaten a high elf heart in quite some time.”
Elliot looked him in the eye. “Janus could tell you secrets about the Knights of Truth.”
“Elliot, no!” Tyria shouted. An orc slapped its hand over her mouth.
Janus growled and clenched his fists, now more angry at Elliot than Xen. He wasn’t sure if the fact that he had no secrets to give made it better or worse.
“So,” said Xen, “you, Elliot, and dearest Tyria go free, while Janus here is hauled off to the torture chamber to tell us things about an enemy who isn’t much of a threat to us all the way out here. Is this what you’re asking?”
Elliot tried to look away, but Xen grabbed his chin.
“Answer me. Do you offer him in exchange for her freedom and yours?”
Janus’s face paled as Elliot remained silent. Tyria looked like she was on the verge of tears.
Elliot mumbled an answer.
“Louder, boy,” said Xen.
“Yes,” Elliot whispered.
Mithaniel Marr would not approve, but Janus wanted nothing more than to tie Elliot up and shove him down a flight of stairs.
“It’s a good start, I suppose,” Xen said, shrugging and letting Elliot’s face go. He grunted a few Orcish words to the orc holding Janus in place. It nodded and pulled the paladin away from the group.
The last thing Janus saw before being taken from the main hall was Elliot staring at the floor and Tyria’s pleading eyes.
Right turn. Third left. Or was it the fourth? Another hall. Past the prison cells. Left. Left again. Right. Down the stairs.
The path to the torture chamber was much shorter than Janus would have preferred. The chamber’s rusty metal door opened with a loud creak, letting out a whiff of rot and decay.
The chamber itself was small and lit by torches. On one wall was a rack of various saws, barbed whips, and other small torture devices. In the center of the chamber was a large torture rack. Its previous victim, a male human, remained, its flesh rotting off and its torso stretched far too much for the spine to remain intact. The corpse wore a Freeport Militia tunic, likely part of the price for Daks and his friends meeting Xen and Claw and walking free.
The orc shoved Janus into the chamber, hard enough that Janus tripped and hit his head against the end of the torture rack.
Beside the rack was the torturer, a scrawny orc, sitting on a stool. The burly orc that had led Janus there barked an order at the scrawny one, who sneered and yelled something back. The burly one kicked Janus off to the side and continued its argument with the scrawny orc.
A rusty knife lay by Janus’s head, but his hands were shackled behind his back.
He thought of Tyria. An image of Xen carving her heart out came to mind.
Janus pushed the thought away. There was a chain between his shackles. But was it wide enough to work around?
The orcs continued arguing. The burly one’s fists quivered as the torturer taunted it. Tyria might be being boiled alive right now.
Janus bent his right knee, searching for the shackles’ chain with his foot.
The burly orc slammed its fist on the rack’s victim, breaking the shin in two.
Janus’s right foot cleared the chain. They might be taking their time with Tyria, cooking her piece by piece.
He gritted his teeth, silently praying to the Marr twins. He asked Mithaniel to grant him and Tyria the valor needed to fight and escape, and Erollisi to protect the woman he cherished so much. Janus couldn’t bring himself to ask anything for Elliot.
He bent his left knee, glancing at the rusty knife just inches away from his face. The burly orc left the chamber, swearing and slamming the door shut.
Janus’s left foot was almost past the chain. The torturer hopped off its stool.
Its beady eyes met Janus’s. Then it glanced at the paladin’s work with the chain.
Janus shifted as the torturer lunged for him, the chain awkwardly stuck between his legs. He rolled under the rack, grabbing the rusty knife. The torturer stuck its head beneath the rack, and Janus stabbed at its face.
The angle was awkward and there wasn’t nearly enough force to pierce the skull, but it was enough to cut the orc and scare it. As it screamed and clutched at the wound on its cheek, Janus finally got the chain in front of him. He grabbed the knife again.
Finishing the orc was brutal and bloody, but quick and efficient. Janus always made a point that if he had to kill someone or something, he would do so as quickly as possible, while minimizing the risk to himself. As the Lord Marshall of the Knights of Truth had always taught, there was a difference between honor and tactics.
Janus grabbed the key ring off the dead torturer’s belt. After a few tries, he found the key to his shackles.
Just as he released his left hand, the door opened to reveal the burly orc, spear in hand. It took a step forward, but stopped as it saw the dead torturer. It grinned at the corpse.
The orc barely got its spear up as Janus lunged. The paladin swung his loose shackle into the orc’s face, ignoring the sharp pain in his side. He wrapped the shackles’ chain around the orc’s neck, snapping it with a sickening crunch.
When the orc slumped to the floor, Janus winced and clutched his side. Blood stained his torn tunic and ran through his fingers. The paladin closed his eyes, quietly praying and invoking the power and authority given him by his deity. His hand glowed blue, and the pain dissipated as his wound closed. All other hurts and injuries disappeared as well.
The usual empty feeling that came with using this power filled him, and he wanted to rest. He ignored the urge. There could still be hope for Tyria. He grabbed the orc’s spear and rushed out into the narrow hallways.
“As little as I may care for the company of high elves,” Xen said as he examined the hem of Tyria’s skirt, “I must confess that I’ve always admired your people’s fashions. This is pure silk, isn’t it?”
Tyria said nothing.
“It’s quite lovely, although I’m fairly certain the disciples of Mithaniel Marr frown upon such extravagance. I applaud your rebellion against your god.”
Tyria still said nothing, but Elliot was certain she was glaring at the dark elf. The ropes bit into Elliot as Tyria pulled at their restraints. The two of them were now tied to a column. The orcs had been dismissed, leaving Tyria and Elliot alone with Xen and Claw, the latter still silent and unmoving.
“You told me—” Elliot said slowly, “—that you would let us go.”
“He lied, Elliot,” Tyria said sharply.
Xen gasped. “That was uncalled for, my dear. I did not lie. I said that I would consider letting you go, and I am still doing that.”
Elliot grimaced. Janus was lost, but he could still get Tyria out of there. He simply needed to bribe the shadowknight further.
“I could serve you, Xen,” he said. “Squire, slave, you name it. Just let the two of us live. I’ll go to Felwithe and bring you back a high elven family if you wish.”
Tyria let her breath out slowly. He couldn’t quite see her face, but he had a clear view of her tightening fists. He would apologize for the offer later and make her see why he had to do it.
Xen laughed. “You are simply too much, Elliot. Too much. Tell me, what do you think would be the result if I let you go?”
“I would be useful to you.”
“Yes, you’ve addressed that, but I’m asking what you think will happen between you two. You and Tyria. What will happen?”
Elliot said nothing, and neither did Tyria.
“Do you think that she’ll sing your praises? Call you her hero? Visit your room at night and beg you to make love to her?”
“Shut up.” There was a low growl in Elliot’s voice.
He had indeed fantasized such things about Tyria, but his feelings for her were much more than that. He wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, to pledge themselves to one another for all eternity. He wanted to be hers, and her to be his.
“I know that you can’t see her face right now,” Xen said, “but I wish you could. The glares she’s made every time you’ve spoken. Or even better, the way she was so close to tears when you had Janus taken out of the equation.”
Elliot thought of Janus. Everyone had to die, and Janus would die in service to his god. If anything, he had done the man a favor, not to mention exchanged one life for two. He could comfort Tyria with this later.
Xen continued. “Her accusation against my honesty is the only thing she’s said to you for a while now. She hasn’t shown any concern for you since you had your brave commander dragged off to the rack.”
Tyria failed to stifle her gasp. Xen smirked as he turned to the elf.
“In fact,” he said, “I believe she fancied him.”
“Shut up!” Elliot shouted. Tyria had always shown interest in Elliot. She would always hug back whenever he hugged her. They would eat meals together, just the two of them. They would talk and laugh together.
“Is that not the case, Tyria?” asked Xen.
Elliot always initiated their hugs, but Tyria would sometimes initiate them with Janus. His meals with her only happened whenever Janus was otherwise detained. They had talked and laughed together, but Tyria always had much more to talk and laugh about when Janus was around.
Tyria spoke through gritted teeth. “That’s not your concern.”
Elliot’s heart sunk. It wasn’t a definite yes. It wasn’t a no, but at least it wasn’t a yes. She just didn’t want to give the dark elf information of any kind. That was all.
“Of course. Forgive me for asking something so personal,” said Xen. “In any case, Elliot here seems quite taken with you. How do you feel about that?”
No answer. Elliot’s heart pounded and his breath shortened.
“I’ll bet—” Xen’s voice quieted as he leaned close to Tyria’s face. “—Janus has stretched a few inches by now. Our torturer is very good at his work. He doesn’t even need magic or potions of any sort to keep his clients alive as long as we ask.”
Elliot felt a little nauseous. He might have done things differently had he known how long Janus would be tormented.
“He will be dead in a few days, or a week, or even a year if we wish it,” said Xen. “But every hour, he will wish he were dead. He will break in every way. He will feel his flesh rip and his bones snap. If he loses consciousness, he may very well wake up to find that he is missing an appendage or two.”
Elliot listened quietly as Tyria sniffled. Her breath quivered.
“And when he finally dies,” Xen whispered, “he will already have long been unrecognizable.”
Tyria finally cried out. Elliot would have reached for her if they weren’t so tightly bound. The dark elf simply smiled as Tyria wept.
“Not a word, Elliot?” asked Xen. “Did you enjoy my description of your rival’s suffering? After all, I upset Tyria quite a bit."
Elliot looked to the floor.
“You didn’t even try to help her. Tsk.” The dark elf shadowknight shook his head. “It’s no surprise she doesn’t love you.”
“You worship hate.” Elliot’s fists trembled. “Don’t talk to me about love.”
“You seem to hold a lot of hate, yourself. I’m actually tempted to take you up on your offer of service. You could be a decent shadowknight one day.
“Still,” he said with a sigh, “I do love high elf hearts, and I just can’t let this one go. Not when I haven’t had one in, by the gods, years at this point.”
Elliot pulled against his restraints, eyes narrowing.
“If you’d like,” Xen said, “you can cut her heart out for me. It’s your last shot at ever feeling her breasts. She wouldn’t be able to stop you from touching other places, too.”
Spit flew from Elliot’s mouth as he screamed in fury. He wanted nothing more than to kill Xen. Break his jaw. Gouge out his eyes. Tear off his pointed ears. Cook him piece by piece, and feed him those pieces.
Make him hurt. Make him pay. Make him fear. Make him die.
Sharp pains stung Elliot’s wrists as the rope bit into his flesh. His breath slowly returning, he stopped pulling at his restraints. A small amount of blood dripped from his left hand.
Xen stared at Elliot, mouth partially open and eyes wide in amazement.
“A simple ‘no’ would have sufficed,” he said.
The dark elf had to die. He had to. Elliot would kill him and escape with Tyria. They would work things out, and without Janus’s interference, she would finally see why they should be together. It would all work out. It had to.
“Xen,” grunted Claw. Elliot had forgotten the shaman was even there. The orc’s expression was graver than usual as he muttered something in Xen’s ear.
“And what makes you think that?” asked Xen. Claw pointed to his glowing staff.
“Assistance. Dungeons,” said Claw. “Now.”
Xen scowled. “Let’s go.” Not bothering with another glance at their captives, the shadowknight and shaman left the hall.
Tyria’s sobs turned to angry grunts of exertion as she resumed her efforts at escaping.
“Can you move at all?” she asked, fury lacing every word.
“Maybe—” Elliot said slowly. It was a long shot, but he had to take it. “—maybe you should offer to serve him, too.”
Tyria stopped her struggles. “I will die before I kneel to Innoruuk.”
“Then fake it or something! What other options do we have?”
“Pray for a miracle.” Tyria resumed trying to wiggle out of the ropes. “And keep trying to escape.”
Elliot scoffed. “That didn’t work out so well for Janus.”
He knew that was the wrong thing to say when Tyria stopped again, breathing slowly.
“Don’t,” Tyria said. “Don’t you dare.”
They both stood quiet, and the boiling water in the cauldron became the only sound in the hall.
Elliot choked, and his voice shook. “Did you love him?” he asked quietly.
Tyria didn’t answer as she returned to her struggling. Elliot closed his eyes and hung his head.
Janus hit the floor yet again, sliding into a closed door. A massive orc stood above him, a disgusting smile on its green face. It grabbed the haft of Janus’s spear. The paladin got to his feet, desperately clinging to his weapon. Nevertheless, it fell from his hand as the orc rammed its shoulder into Janus’s stomach and lifted him from the ground. Roaring triumphantly, it threw Janus into the door, breaking it into pieces.
Dazed, Janus barely recognized the room. Tables, vaulted ceiling, pillars. He had made his way back to the main hall.
“Janus!” Tyria cried from the other end of the hall, a wide smile on her face. With the orc appearing in the doorway, Janus couldn’t help but find Tyria’s tone far too happy for the situation.
“Behind you!” she called. Janus turned, discovering the orcs’ trophy table. Lying past the pile of gold and jewels, just out of reach, was his sword.
Janus grabbed a handful of coins and threw it at the oncoming orc. The beastly humanoid snarled, briefly turning away to protect its face.
It was all the time the paladin needed, and his blade easily sliced the orc’s neck open. As the orc slumped over, Janus tucked Elliot and Tyria’s swords under his arm, also grabbing his dagger from the table.
“Are you all right?” he asked Tyria as he cut the two of them loose. She nodded, at a loss for words and still beaming a relieved smile at him as she took her sword. Elliot didn’t look Janus in the eye as he took his weapon.
“Incoming,” said Tyria, raising her weapon as armed orcs entered the hall. If she was scared, she was hiding it perfectly. Her tone was even, her eyes intensely focused on the enemies ahead. The smile had been replaced with a determined glare. Elliot whirled his sword around, his face red with fury.
“Can you lay hands yet?” Janus asked Tyria.
He shook his head. “Let’s just try to not get hurt.”
Janus didn’t let himself think as he met the enemy. His muscles moved on their own, following the lessons he’d taught them through hours of training. The first orc was no different from a pell. He cut through the next like the many animal carcasses he had sliced open in his classes. Another orc was just an overly aggressive sparring partner.
Tyria moved just as Janus did. She went from one enemy to the next, preventing them from attacking her in unison.
Something glowed just at the edge of Janus’s sight. The piercing headache returned, and he barely countered an orc’s attack.
Claw raised his staff in the air, chanting and staring intently at Janus. The paladin staggered, as did Elliot nearby. Janus’s vision darkened slightly as another orc raised its sword. He struck at the orc, but his cut was awkwardly angled, weak, and utterly ineffective.
The pain evaporated and Janus’s vision cleared. As he finally cut down the orc in front of him, he found Tyria where Claw had been, dealing with two more orcs as others dragged the wounded shaman out.
“Xen!” Elliot shouted. The dark elf had returned, clad in a full suit of fine steel plate armor, longsword in hand. Sighing in resignation, he closed the skull-shaped visor of his helmet and gracefully wound his way through the chaos.
Elliot roared furiously as he charged the shadowknight. He swung as hard as he could, his sharp blade crashing into Xen’s armored shoulder. The sword slid off harmlessly.
“That was your chance,” said Xen, grabbing Elliot by the throat. “You wasted it.” He threw the squire to the floor. Elliot tried to move, but the dark elf stomped on his head, rendering him unconscious. Xen lined his sword’s edge up with Elliot’s neck, and Janus knew that try as he might, he couldn’t get there in time with orcs in the way.
Xen barely dodged Tyria’s attack. She continued her onslaught, attacking with her sword’s hilt and moving in and out of the dark elf’s reach. She was faster than him, but only by a little, and the continuing effort of protecting Elliot, fighting orcs, and now a heavily armored Xen was wearing her down.
Tyria whirled her blade all around her, keeping every orc at bay, save for the one that came too close and lost its nose. Janus felt some relief in the dwindling number of orcs.
Then Tyria screamed in pain. Janus didn’t see how it had happened, but Xen had moved in while she was focused on the orcs, his armor protecting him from her swings. He had caught her right arm, her dominant one, and snapped it at the elbow. Janus watched in horror as Xen pinned Tyria to the ground.
The dark elf’s hand glowed red, and he clutched Tyria by the face. His palm muffled the high elf’s scream. She spasmed in pain, finally falling limp as Xen released her. It had lasted less than a second, but Tyria’s scream echoed in Janus’s mind. He had to get to her.
Three orcs stood in his way. Janus raised his sword into a high guard.
Xen opened his visor, grinning malevolently. He raised a dagger. “I will have that lovely heart of yours now, my dear.”
Doubled cross strikes at the head. Two orcs left.
Tyria closed her eyes and laid her head back as Xen pressed the dagger between her breasts, stopping just shy of piercing the skin.
Crooked cut followed by a thrust through the heart. One orc left.
Xen grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her head back up.
This last orc did little more than defend itself. It couldn’t survive long with that strategy, but it was keeping itself between Janus and Xen.
“No!” said Xen. “No, Tyria, I want you to see this.”
Janus rushed the orc, their swords binding together.
Xen lifted his dagger.
Roaring at the top of his lungs, Janus shoved the orc backward. They crashed into Xen, the paladin’s sword and the shadowknight’s dagger ending the orc.
Janus and Xen got to their feet. Both breathed heavily as sweat ran down their faces. Xen glared with sheer hatred. Janus kept one hand on his sword’s hilt and placed the other partway down the blade.
Xen growled. “I loathe paladins.” He shut his visor.
The shadowknight swung first, the paladin receiving the blow with the flat of his blade. In that instant he turned the edge toward Xen’s, leveraging around the dark elf’s blade and thrusting at the gaps in his armor. It was all Janus could do to stay standing. He was tired, and he was already hurt from several glancing blows. Xen was fresher, and his armor gave him extra weight and power in their struggles.
Janus kept moving, not wanting to be stuck too long within Xen’s reach. The paladin’s grip on his blade allowed him more leverage and more precise thrusts, but it greatly lowered his reach. The shadowknight had no such disadvantage.
Anger tore at Janus’s mind. Anger for falling for Daks’s trap, anger for Elliot’s betrayal, anger for having Tyria involved in all of this, and anger at the thought of her not surviving. He wanted to unleash all his rage and hatred on the dark elf.
The paladin ignored these feelings and focused. Xen was just another enemy, one of countless, and he deserved no thought save for his neutralization. He was no more than a steel practice dummy that fought back.
Their blades bound together again, and Janus’s leg grew warm from the cauldron behind him. Xen pressed down, and Janus stepped aside. The dark elf’s armpit was exposed.
Xen’s cry was muffled by his helmet as Janus’s sword ran through the armpit and shoulder, stopping only at the armor’s spaulder. The shadowknight swung wildly with his other arm, completely missing Janus. The human shoved him back against the cauldron. Xen swung once more just as he tipped back over the rim.
Janus stepped back, shielding his face from the splash of scalding water. Xen screeched, his horrific cries echoing throughout the hall. Squealing and wailing, he desperately thrashed at the rim and finally caught hold of it.
Xen never emerged from the water. His screams silenced, and his hand slid back into the cauldron. Steam hissed from the boiling water.
Janus ignored his body’s urge to collapse on the floor. He looked out into the corridor, seeing and hearing nothing. He looked out one of the main hall’s windows, and sighed at the sight. A small band of orcs was escorting a wounded Claw away from the fort.
Elliot groaned and rolled over, spitting blood on the floor. “What happened?”
“It’s safe for now, but they might come back. Get up and collect your gear.”
Ignoring Elliot’s pained moans and profanity, Janus knelt by Tyria’s side. She was beat up and her arm was bent at an unnatural angle, but she was breathing normally.
“Hey,” he said softly, gently brushing hair from her face, “it’s time to go, Tyr. Wake up.”
She opened her eyes slowly, smiling softly as she met Janus’s gaze. She wrapped her good arm around his shoulders, pulling him close so the crowns of their heads touched. Elliot stared despondently.
Tyria weakly squeezed Janus. “I thought you were being tortured.”
“They didn’t get the chance.” He pulled away slowly. “Let’s get your arm taken care of and get out of here.”
The three companions gathered their gear and helped themselves to the orcs’ treasure. Tyria did what she could in spite of Janus’s insistence that she take it easy. Even when she couldn’t help, she stayed close to Janus. Elliot kept his distance from the both of them.
Janus’s and her horses were still alive, likely due to Xen’s influence. They were well-bred and trained, and would fetch a high price in any market. Tyria insisted Elliot ride her horse, and he did so with no argument, only a silent nod. She rode with Janus, clutching him with one arm and falling asleep against his back.
They traveled south, reaching the edge of Nektolus Forest just before sunset, arriving back on the north road and finding Greenfall already in view.
Everything afterward was a blur for Tyria. They were passing the gate, then they were at the church, then they were taken to the hospital wing, then she was left with a couple of nurses, then she was being stripped down and having her injuries inspected and treated …
Then cold water was dumped over her head. Tyria shrieked and swore.
“Sorry,” a nurse said sheepishly. “But Mother Adressa insisted.”
“Better than waiting for the water to heat up while you stew in your own filth!”
A halfling woman in humble religious vestments stormed into the room. She was a little taller than Tyria’s waistline, yet somehow the middle-aged priestess made her feel small.
“Mother Adressa,” said the second nurse with a curtsey.
“Get back to work!” said the halfling. “I’ll not have our patients fouling up our linens more than necessary!”
Tyria tried to space out from the situation, but cold water, scrubbing, bandaging, and setting her arm kept shocking her back into reality. The priestess came and went several times, but always reappeared just when Tyria noticed she had left.
Finally she was clean, dry, and somewhat warmer. She was given a dose of very strong wine, dulling the pain in her arm and making her sleepy. The nurses led her to a small bedroom, where she found a modest bed and her belongings collected on a side table.
The nurses helped her slip into her nightgown and get into bed, leaving her arm as comfortable as was possible. As Tyria drifted off to sleep, Mother Adressa griped something about how short nightgowns were these days and what on Norrath does a paladin need with all these extravagant clothes?
Tyria fell into a dreamless sleep in the middle of Adressa’s complaints.
She woke up earlier than she would have liked. There was some commotion just outside her door, and finally she heard Mother Adressa’s voice.
“Out of the question! How is this not clear to you? … Oh, it’s important? Oh, do forgive me, I didn’t realize you were special and the rules don’t apply to you! … No! Go away! Begone, or you’ll have only bread and water for breakfast!”
The halfling entered the bedroom, the nurses timidly following behind.
“The nerve.” Adressa kept grumbling to herself as the nurses inspected helped Tyria out of bed and inspected her injuries and bandages. Tyria couldn’t help but feel that the priestess was glowering at her nightgown’s low neckline.
“How are you feeling today?” asked a nurse.
“Sore and stiff,” Tyria said, “but better than last night.” She didn’t bring up that she could still feel Xen’s hand on her face, as well as his hand and dagger at her breast.
The nurses continued their inspection, but Tyria waved them away. Her hand glowed blue.
Adressa was at her side in an instant, slapping her on the hand.
“Absolutely not!” the halfling said. “As priestess of Marr, I will not allow you to violate the tenants of your order. This isn’t an emergency, so no healing magic!”
Tyria grumbled. “With all due respect …”
“What, I’m not part of your order? I am still a priestess of Marr, and I will not stand idly by while you wantonly break your oaths to our god!”
Tyria was about to correct her that that particular rule was purely secular and not at all a part of her oaths, but figured it wasn’t worth the argument.
“No magic!” Adressa said again. “Also, I want you to stay in bed all day today.”
“No buts! Nurses, see to it that the patient gets plenty of rest.”
She stomped out of the bedroom.
Tyria rolled her eyes. “Is she always like this?”
A nurse winced. “This is actually her in a good mood.”
“When does she go home?”
“She lives here.”
“She does take an hour for herself about sunset, though,” said the other nurse.
Tyria nodded and lay back down. Sunset couldn’t come soon enough.
Janus tried to visit Tyria shortly after waking up, but a halfling priestess would hear none of it.
“What, you, too?” she asked. “Let her rest, boy! She’s fine! Besides, she’s indecent—in more ways than one, I might add—and I’m not about to dress her up just so you can say ‘hi.’”
Janus couldn’t help but imagine for a second what Tyria might or might not be wearing. He chided himself for those thoughts, and politely excused himself from the priestess.
After breakfast, Janus slowly made his way out of the hospital. Greenfall was a fairly busy town, but nothing like the packed streets of Freeport. True to its name, its grass was emerald green, contrasted by blue creeks and tiny waterfalls. There were inns and general goods merchants, some smithies, and several tanners, the last of which provided most of Greenfall’s income.
The local Knights of Truth chapter met in an old, small manor just down the street, and he was grateful for the short distance. He had no idea where Elliot was, but he didn’t particularly care by this point.
When he entered the manor, he received some troubled stares, followed by endless questions.
“I’m fine,” said Janus. “Got in a fight with some Deathfists. Stay off the north road. I am taking it easy. No, I don’t want to go back to the hospital, anything but there.”
Janus sat in on their meetings and classes, offering his own insights and experiences on battle, religion, and a paladin’s vows. When the students went to the courtyard to spar with wasters, Janus tried to join in. He was denied outright, due to his condition and difficulty with something as simple as standing up. Janus sighed and observed the bouts, offering suggestions and compliments to various fighters.
Elliot stopped by in the afternoon. He was leaving a message with an attendant at the entrance, but Janus walked in during their conversation.
“Here he is, sir,” the attendant said. “You can tell him yourself.”
Elliot looked like he was about to refuse, but then he nodded silently. They stepped outside, Elliot staring at the ground the whole time. Janus noticed that the squire’s injuries were completely missing. He figured he had paid a cleric somewhere in town.
Janus finally broke the silence. “Need something?” He meant to sound neutral, but couldn’t keep the edge out of his tone.
Elliot finally looked him in the eye, his expression like that of a child awaiting discipline. “I thought I should let you know that I’ll be staying at an inn instead of the church.”
“All right, it’s your money. Anything else?”
“That’s all.” Elliot started to walk away, but stopped after a few steps.
“Are you going to report what happened?” the squire asked, not looking at Janus.
“You know I have to.”
Elliot nodded, his lips tightening. “You would have done the same to me.”
Janus sighed and shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t have. It’d be wrong.”
Elliot started to say something, but quieted. He turned away.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He left without looking back. Janus shook his head and went back inside the manor. He had been taught all about forgiveness, but it was much easier in theory than in practice. He’d have to give it time.
The hours passed, and as the sun set, only a handful of Knights of Truth associates remained. Janus stood alone in the manor’s courtyard. He picked up a waster and faced a lone pell. His body screamed for mercy, but he ignored it as he struck the pell again and again, stepping around it, attacking different spots, using both edges of his blade.
“It seems like I always find you in places like this.”
Janus dropped the waster as Tyria entered the courtyard. She wore an elegant blue dress made of fine silk, contrasting with the cotton sling on her arm, not to mention the bandages, scratches, and bruises all over her.
Janus chuckled. “You had that dress in your saddle bag the whole time?”
“Of course I did.” She smiled sweetly.
He looked her over. The dress hugged her hips and waist. It was sleeveless, and the neckline teased the tiniest hint of cleavage. With her brown hair falling halfway down her back, she looked gorgeous, even with all the marks of battle.
He hugged her gently. “You look beautiful.”
Tyria sighed happily into his chest, and they sat down on a nearby bench.
“How are you feeling?” Janus asked.
“About as well as you, I imagine.” She looked somber. “I can’t get the feeling of dark elf hand off my face. Or elsewhere, for that matter.”
She glanced at him, eyebrow raised in confusion. “For what?”
“For everything that happened.”
“Hey, don’t be like that. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I had a feeling that something was wrong with Daks’s offer, but I ignored it. You wouldn’t have gotten hurt if—”
“Stop,” Tyria said firmly. “Don’t do this to yourself. You don’t owe anyone an apology. You got us all out alive.”
Janus sighed and nodded. He looked back to her, remembering how Xen had hurt her.
“You still feel him?” he asked.
“I do.” She took his arm and smiled softly. “But I’ll heal, okay? We all will.”
They sat quietly for a moment.
“How’s your arm?” Janus finally asked.
Tyria grumbled slightly. “I’ll live.”
“Want me to lay hands?”
Tyria grinned at him coyly. Janus shook his head. He hated that joke so much.
“You know what I mean.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tyria said with a laugh. “Mother Adressa—you know, the high priestess?—reminded me again and again that it’s not an emergency, so I don’t need magic.”
She sighed. “I swear that people outside of the order care about the rules more than Mithaniel Marr does.”
“It certainly feels like it sometimes. Adressa’s a big reason I didn’t stay at the hospital today. I tried to check up on you, but she wouldn’t have it.”
Tyria giggled. “I figured you had stopped by. She said something to me about young knights trying to see me in my ‘disgraceful’ nightgown. Wait, what are you—”
Janus’s hand glowed blue as he rested it on her shoulder. Tyria’s bruises and scratches disappeared in less than a second. She moved her arm without any trouble.
“Thank you,” she said quietly as she removed her sling and stretched her arm. She set to work removing all of her other bandages. “I didn’t want to get you in trouble, though.”
“You only got hurt because you were protecting Elliot,” Janus said. “It was your arm or his life, and you made the right decision. If Mother Adressa has a problem with that, she can yell at me.” Janus felt the usual emptiness that came with invoking that blessing, but having Tyria with him made it easier.
“Well, she’s already going to have a conniption over my leaving the hospital.” Tyria smiled and threw her arms around Janus’s neck, her hand glowing. She kissed his cheek as his injuries disappeared, smiling at him when he blushed.
“You’ve had that coming for a while now.” She scooted closer, bumping her hip against his and laying her head on his shoulder. Janus wrapped an arm around her, idly caressing her arm with his thumb.
Their eyes met, and they quickly looked away. Slowly they turned back to each other. Tyria bit her lip, her breath quickening as she placed her arms around Janus’s neck. He took hold of her waist.
Her eyes fluttered closed as her pink lips came closer. He closed his eyes and leaned toward her. Her face was very warm their lips brushed together. The kiss was over after a fleeting moment, but it was quickly followed by a second, longer one.
As their lips broke away, Tyria smiled brightly and nestled her forehead against Janus’s.
“Wow,” Janus said, smiling as he caught his breath.
“Yeah,” Tyria said, grinning brightly. “We’ve been more than friends for a while now, haven’t we?”
Janus pulled her closer. He leaned in for another kiss, but she stopped him with a light push on his chest.
She met his eyes. “I want you to court me.”
“I want that, too,” he said, “but I don’t think Mother Adressa will approve.”
Tyria laughed, and they kissed again.
Elliot stood at the window of his inn room, tears threatening to fall. He had returned to the manor after learning that Tyria had left the hospital. His body quivered as he continually reenvisioned what he had seen in the courtyard. Janus and Tyria hadn’t seen him. Elliot wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse.
“Does something trouble my lord?”
Elliot’s hired bedmate—he had already forgotten her name—massaged his shoulders, pressing her ample bosom to his back and kissing his neck.
“I can be whoever you want me to be,” she said. “You have but to ask.”
Elliot grabbed her, pushing her into the wall as he forced his tongue into her mouth. She gasped as he finally released the kiss, his hands roughly exploring her body.
“Easy, love, I’m only human.”
He grabbed her by the shoulders, his ice blue eyes wide.
“Tonight,” he said, “you are a high elf woman.”
“Your name is Tyria.”
“I am all that you want in life. You would do anything to have me. I am your protector and your savior. You can’t live without me. Do you understand me?”
The woman nodded silently.
“Good.” He eased his grip and kissed her tenderly. “What’s your name?”
“No!” he shouted in her face, shaking her by the shoulders. He took a deep breath and released his grip once more. “No. That’s not your name tonight.”
“Sorry, it’s … it’s Tyria.”
“Good.” He let her go and turned back to the window. “Now blow out the lights, Tyria. Remove all of your clothing, and wait for me on the bed.”
“Yes, my lord,” she said in a somewhat exaggerated high elf accent. Tyria herself spoke like the predominately human people of Freeport, but Elliot found he preferred this more exotic fantasy.
The room went dark, lit only by the moon. The rustle of a falling dress and a small creak from the bed frame told him she was ready. He removed all of his clothes and turned around to look at her.
He closed his eyes, envisioning the real Tyria before him. Straight brown hair, not blonde and curly. Lithe and athletic, not voluptuous. Sapphire blue eyes, not jade green. Thanking him for rescuing her from Xen, for protecting her virginity from the orcs, nearly crying as she begged him to take her.
Elliot threw himself onto her, whispering Tyria’s name all through the night.
Janus and Tyria met in the chapel the next morning, smiling to themselves as Mother Adressa somehow connected disregard for medical advice to hellfire and damnation. Afterward, they checked nearby inns for Elliot, but he was nowhere to be found. Returning to the church, they found that their shares of the orcs’ treasure were missing, as was Janus’s horse.
The only signs that Elliot had ever been in Greenfall were an injured tavern wench and a Knights of Truth surcoat lying on Tyria’s bed.