gruesome creaking of wooden muscles flexing beneath living bark was
barely audible above the sound of rustling leaves. If the subtle sound
of a Daemonwood on the move were not so unnatural or so evil, the lone
Paladin might have been taken completely by surprise. The woods through
which she traveled were tainted by evil, and ominous, gnarled trees
were plentiful. Even the most experienced adventurer could have failed
to notice the monster hidden among them until it opened its wicked glowing,
glaring eyes and its arms descended from its foliage, claw-like fingers
curling in rage.
Dar-Karyn's innate sensitivity to evil alerted
her a split-second before she was attacked. While young and unproven
in combat, it was clear that her training had served her well. Narrowly
dodging the monster's wild swing, she landed a powerful chop with her
sword, its honed edge cleaving into the Daemonwood's wooden body. But
without the strength and fine weaponry that experience provides, Karyn's
blow only seemed to enrage the monster. The creature's second swing
crashed heavily against the young Paladin's armored body and sent her
sprawling. Vicious scratches glistened from within deep dents in her
Suddenly, wisps of shadow encircled the tree-creature,
and it recoiled as if in pain. Karyn glanced to see a ribbon of darkness
arcing away from the monster, streaming into the end of a staff held
aloft by a figure at the edge of the clearing. This new ally, cloaked
in crimson and black, had apparently approached from behind the Daemonwood,
unseen by both combatants.
Karyn took the opportunity to strike swiftly.
Raising her greatsword high, she delivered a slaying blow to the Daemonwood's
twisted face. With the sound of splintering wood, the monster fell,
crashing stiffly against the ground. The evil enchantment that had animated
it had been dispersed.
The mysterious figure approached, inspecting
the withering wooden remains of the creature. Karyn recognized her cloak
and cowl as the trappings of a Priestess of Krypta and labored to suppress
a frown. Krypta and the Paladin's own deity – Dauros, the god of Law
– were rivals, steeped in philosophical opposition. In addition to the
conflict between their gods, Karyn bore her own contempt for the goddess
of death and the sinister practices of her devotees.
"That was… enjoyable," the priestess said,
an unsettling cheer in her voice. Her voice was ageless, and her hood
and heavy facepaint hid the age of her features. She looked up at Karyn.
"I am Sister Everdark."
Karyn bowed shallowly but politely. "Dar-Karyn
of the Righteous Blade. What brings you into these woods, far from your
town and temple?"
"The same as you, I suppose," Everdark replied,
"To find the goblins that have been murdering your townsfolk and destroy
"We should travel together for our mutual
safety," Karyn suggested, "And combine our strength when we reach the
Everdark nodded silent approval, and the two
set off together.
"I assume you are after the reward that my
Sovereign has offered," Karyn said after they had been travelling in
silence for a short while, "I would think you, a follower of Krypta,
would be in favor of the death the goblins bring."
The Priestess scowled. "The reward certainly
influenced me," she said, "But the destruction of the goblins is a task
that needs to be done. Death is the providence of Krypta. An avoidable,
ignoble death without purpose or meaning is a grievous offense to her.
This is the goblins' crime, and for it they must pay."
"But if you worship death itself, which is
inevitable," said Karyn, frowning, "What should it matter to you or
your goddess how it arrives?"
"You worship the god of law," the priestess
supposed, "An evil ruler could create an evil law, mandating slavery
or the murder of innocents. Would you, by your faith, be bound to defend
such a law, only because it was a law?"
The Paladin paused for a moment, considering
what Sister Everdark had said. "It is not an issue that has ever arisen,
nor do I think it shall," she replied, "But… no. There are laws above
those set by man to which I am accountable. I would have to fight for
what was fair and just."
Everdark's black-painted lips curled into
a smile. "In a sense," she said before continuing to walk, "So do I."
"The laws I serve may or may not be enforced,
but you serve death itself," Karyn said, her voice still characteristically
calm and even but flavored by contempt. "Death is utterly inescapable
-- there can be no fairness nor justice in it."
The priestess stopped in her tracks, frowning.
"It is just the opposite! Life is inherently unfair and unjust, wrought
with inequity. From the moment each of us is born, we each have different
fates and fortunes. But death comes to us all, and in death we are all
the same. Kings and peasants, you and I. Can you not see the beauty
in that? In the final, ultimate equality that death brings?"
A thin sound distracted Karyn before she could
speak her reply. Everdark had heard it as well, and the two listened
carefully. It came again: the distant sound of a rowdy argument and
rough, inhuman laughter. The sound was too weak to make out what words
were said, but the rough tones of the language made clear its origin.
The goblin camp was near.
"So," smiled Sister Everdark, "Be it by law
or by death, it seems we shall each have the opportunity to serve our
gods sooner than we imagined."
The two adventurers strode forth, ready to
bring the wrath of two gods to bear upon the goblins.