Sword and Shield
Day 1: A Paladin is a Sword
"I stand honored."
"I stand honored."
"I stand honored."
"I stand honored."
I step to the front of the line. The proctor looks me over once, then down to a very small list placed next to the weapons rack. "Victor, you are to report to Professor Moore for your weapon." I smile as I nod. I didn't think the old man would actually take part in ceremony, but I'm glad to know that his favored student would be the exception.
The only problem is that I have no idea where his office would be here. This complex is ridiculous; there are no maps and the corridors and complexes stretch for three miles in every direction. If I had two years to get to know the place I'd be fine, but-
"Hey Vic, wait up!" Ember's voice catches up to me, followed shortly by Ember. Her sword is hanging from her waist and bounces noisily against her armor as she runs, and then as she stands while she sways her hips left and right. Rodrick's lumbering after her at a walk, his sword kept over the shoulder - like a soldier.
They both smile at me like idiots. I smile back at them like an idiot.
"So," Rodrick starts, "how in the hells did you do that?"
"And where's your sword," interjects Ember.
I smile further at the opportunity to let Rodrick stew in his curiosity. "I need to get it from professor Moore, but I have no idea how I'm supposed to find-"
Ember practically jumps in place. "Oh, so the librarium offices? Cool, I'll go with you." And then she sets off at a walk, and I follow after.
"You know the layout of this place?"
"Yeah, I saw an overhead map once."
I turn to look at Rodrick. He shakes his head, "I've given up on figuring out how she does what she does. I've moved on to trying to figure out your bullshit."
While we walk I give them my spiel to all of the appropriate ooh's and ah's. "I still can't believe it," Rodrick sighs.
"That it was just laying there?"
"No, that you were reading." He steps out of the way of my responding elbow.
"And here we are!" The two of us come to a somewhat startled stop. Ember froze in front of a pair of thick bronze doors on an otherwise completely unmarked wall.
"Are you sure," Rodrick asks.
I answer, "Well, it makes sense. We think the libraria were originally constructed by one Linnaeus Bronzecaster."
They both turn and give me the look they always give when I show off my good subject. "Thanks, teacher's pet."
I wave them off when I step through the doors. The offices are separated from the sprawling levels of books that fill the building. I pass down another long hallway, this one filled with gleaming brass doors that have each been marked with a name. I stop at one of them, and knock.
It opens to the face of my favorite professor. He's apparently let his hair "down" in that it's flared back out into its usual state. He grins and claps his hands together when he sees me, "Yes, excellent! Come in, come in, we've got so much to talk about!" The giddy older man moves back around the cluttered office to his desk. Pieces of antique paladin history fill the room, from scrolls filling the cases and shelves to books and scraps of armor that completely cover the walls. The room itself is dimly lit with a yellow, dusty haze from the one light that occasionally flickers to indicate its age. He quickly shuffles a pile of scrolls and papers from off of the center of the desk, simultaneously giving us a clear view of each other when we sit and increasing the size of the piles of scrolls elsewhere.
"Come, sit. There's much to discuss." I look around the room and almost miss the chair in the corner that's surrounded by other, less readily identifiable wooden supports. Moore starts talking before I've even lifted it. "So, as you've guessed there were a few issues with you knowing one of the the sentinel orders' secrets before ever entering into one - but don't worry about that, it just needed a bit of smoothing over and, well, I'll hope that you'll forgive me but I promised them that you'd be joining just such an order soon enough and so really the only issue is that you just happened to learn one of them a wee bit earlier than you usually would."
He blinks for a moment after his meandering train of thought comes to an end and searches for the start of another one. His face lights up, "Oh, right, that reminds me! Congratulations, young man; let me shake your hand." He half unseats himself so to shake my hand before we both take our seats. "Great accomplishment; nearly top of your class! And to think, those tight-asses were trying to fail you - and half the other kids!" His face darkens in consternation, "I swear; because we need fewer paladins out there, right?"
Just as quickly, he claps his hands together and he's smiling again, "But where was I?" He looks to me for an answer and then immediately interrupts me when I start, "Right. You! The man of the hour. Well, you and two others, but you're the most relevant right now." He pauses again, this time to turn from his desk and bend down. He pops back up holding a small but long cherrywood case, a service seal, and the large metal ring that I've been working toward for the past three years. My stare lingers particularly over the ring - the Shield of Saint Rylan. Lines of red fill the few creases of the black iron band and give it a subtly menacing feel.
He places the items on the table before him and clicks the case open, revealing its contents to himself and hiding them from me. After that he simply looks through the contents for a while.
I decide now's as good a time as any to actually say what's been on my mind for a while. "I was surprised to see you were one of the proctors."
He looks up with a start. "Oh, yes, well, I would've told you sooner but secrets, secrets, you know." He stops, looks confused for a second, and then returns to his box.
We wait like this for another long minute before I interrupt his pensive stare with "Anything interesting?"
"Yes," he answers flatly. "Did you know, while rebuilding part of the eastern campus we found a single burial chamber, one which had been sealed off for the better part of five millennia." My eyebrows raise. He nods and draws a handful of pictures from the case, placing them in front of me on the desk. "By all means, have a look. We've been trying to decipher the script for weeks, but so far we've gotten nowhere." I pick one of them up, then another, scanning through the images.
The old walls are actually rather simple, at least compared to the stonework of the main hall now. It was unadorned and brown, with no metal or embossing. That changes in the center, where a large mural covers the wall before a raised stone coffin. The mural depicts a single man in platemail, carrying a shining sword and wearing a horned helm in mimicry of his foes. Each part of the mural shows his strength, skill, and tenacity in battle, backed by the masses of onlookers that cheer for his victories. On the lower side of the engraving it shows a long column of text in ancient runes, with the first three words always remaining the same. "A list?"
"That's what we're guessing. We also found something other than a mural in there."
He takes a deep breath, turns again, and pulls a pair of calipers off of the antiques case behind him. He stands up, grabs hold of the handles, and reaches into the case with the calipers producing a light clinking of metal on metal. He then lifts a sword out of it, and places it on the desk in front of me. It's plain iron, unadorned from flat, open pommel to blunted tip. Old, ragged leather wraps the handle and everywhere the metal is pitted.
And then he stares at it as though it were going to explode. He nods to me, "Well, there you go then, pick it up."
I raise an eyebrow and smile at the ridiculousness of what just happened. "Is it safe," I jokingly ask.
He shakes his head, "Nope."
I stare at him incredulously. "It's a sword." I pick it up, and discover something else. "It's a poorly balanced sword at that."
He lets out a loud, protracted sigh as he slumps back in his chair. "Oh good, that's a relief. Thing took off the last guy's fingers." He reaches over to the phone on his desk, "Won't be needin' ya, Erick."
"Well gosh," answers the speaker, "that's a new one. Let me recover from the shoc-" A swift press to the appropriate button silences the speaker, and Moore leans back, covers his face with his hands, and lets out a sigh of relief.
I stand stock-still, slowly shifting my gaze from the professor of antiquities to the sword that has caused him so much concern. "Sir, is there something I should know about this?"
He looks back to me, bolts back up in his chair and straightens his shirt. "Well, yes. It is your sword, after all." I raise my eyebrows and he nods quickly in response. "Unfortunately, we know essentially nothing about it. Our mages have gone over every inch of it, but all they've discerned is that it's got more magic than a box of pixies." He coughs into a hand, "Now, we've been getting hounded to find out what, exactly, this magic does, but until now it hasn't let anyone touch it. Poor Henry's still being treated for the burns."
That makes all of this make significantly more sense. "So I'm testing it?"
"That's right, my boy. I've been given special dispensation to find out how and with what the old paladins enchanted this by any means available, and right now that'd be you. Just- just use it, and let me know if anything interesting happens."
I stare at the pitted, ancient, and apparently magical blade for a moment before grasping the handle and pommel with both hands and bowing my head. "I stand honored." I lift it up and am about to slide it into its sheath when I stop.
"Oh, right! Yes, right." Moore hops up and begins scanning around the room. He finally darts toward one of the dustier shelves and pulls a completely untouched sword and sheath from it. "Here, I'll tell them I lost mine," he says as he pulls the sheath from it and hands it to me. I'd feel honored if I thought that this gesture was anything but pure convenience on his part.
"Sir, if I may. Why me?"
He shrugs, "Just a hunch. When I think of the paladins of old, I think you have quite the resemblance."
For that, far more than anything else, I'm genuinely honored.
He walks back over to his desk, smiling to himself. "Yes, excellent, now for the other things." He scoops up the black ring of metal and his expression darkens. "Ghastly thing, not sure why you'd want it, but I trust your judgment. There are two things you'll need to know before you put this on. One, the imperator expects service from you for this. Have you ever heard of Min before?"
I nod once, "A port city, I think."
He points a knotty finger at me, "That it is, and you'll be going there. It's the closest dock to Lescatie and the rest of Araterre, and the imperator wants a powerful presence there to deter the flood of immigrating monsters from upsetting the human population. We fear that we'll need to write it off as a demon realm soon, but until then our presence is required."
I nod. Wearing this will make me a reminder of the forces that slaughtered them wholesale. Of course the imperator would want me to be out there on the front lines, making them think twice about doing anything untoward. "Of course sir. I gladly accept."
He hesitantly places the ring down in front of me and looks down to his clasped hands. "Well, that's good. Now, the important bit-"
He looks back up to me. I stretch my neck out; it's not terribly uncomfortable, but there's the minor irritation of feeling the weight of cold iron resting on the base of my neck. He furrows his brow and his mouth slowly opens, though he appears too bothered to actually say anything. I'm sure I'll get used to the weight soon enough, though. Besides, there's the incredible comfort of knowing that I am utterly safe from any monster's assault.
The professor finally finds his voice again and half-whispers "The important bit is that it won't come off for a year."
"I knew that," I answer.
His brow lowers even further, "And you can't," he pauses, then continues more quietly "touch yourself, while it's on."
"I would never abuse myself, sir."
He sighs with some mixture of relief and concern. "You know, when you say that I actually believe it." He shakes his head again, "You're something else, Victor. I'm glad I chose you. Which reminds me," he starts as he immediately snatches up the service seal and holds it so that its symbol faces him. "Have you found an order yet?"
"Not yet, sir. I've considered petitioning the Order of Excision."
He quickly shakes his head, "Nonsense, boy, you have too sharp a mind." I'm about to refute that, but he continues without me. "You want an order that places more emphasis on thought, on history. And to that end," he begins, building up steam as he places the service seal down in front of me, "I've already petitioned my order on your behalf. The offer is made, if you'll accept it."
I stare down at the seal, still carrying the small, magic-infused dob of steel on the back to allow it to be pressed into a breastplate and permanently sealed on. The front of the seal carries a symbol that I've only seen once or twice before: a silver shield bearing the image of a palm tree. A small strip of treated parchment hangs beneath, informing me that the wearer has taken on the righteous charge of restoring the arts and ways of the paladins of old.
I look back up to my mentor, suddenly realizing that I actually know nothing about his order or his service prior to the Reconciliation. "The Order of Reclaimers. It was always small, but always vital. We have been eternally tasked with seeking out the mysteries of the paladins of old so that they may be used against our enemies. However behind-the-scenes we may be, we are still an illustrious order." He straightens his back and sits at his full height, as though to prove his point. "And, as you might notice, also not all that into ceremony."
I hold the seal for a moment, looking down at the symbol. There's a flicker of hesitation; I'd be part of this order for life, and I know practically nothing about it. Professor Moore is proud of it, however, which means that I can rest assured that it would be a noble charge. It would also be something I could do with my knowledge of history rather than just point to it as the one subject I excelled at that had nothing to do with killing monsters. And besides all of that, to take back the history of our order and restore the ancient rites, weapons, and magic that belonged to our forebears is a weighty and noble task.
I exhale, breathing out my hesitation. "I stand, once again, honored."
He beams at me.
I position the back of the seal over the tiny, almost unnoticeable depression on my breastplate and press the two together. A tiny red dot appears on the front as the steel melts together, and then it fades just as quickly.
He reaches over again to shake my hand, and I do the same. "It's damn good to have you. I'd introduce you to some of the other members and all that, but the imperator was rather clear that you were to be on your way at once. There'll be time later, of course."
I raise myself to my full height and get ready to leave. "Of course, sir. I look forward to it."
He smiles further, "You know, you don't have to call me 'sir' anymore."
I smile back. "I know, sir."
Ember is a wizard. It's the only possible explanation. I take a turn down the eightieth identical hallway and try to look like I know what I'm doing. The other people working here no longer pay me any mind; I don't stick out anymore. I slow down, and think of this as a kind of tour. I'm just getting to know the layout of the most important of our halls.
Another turn and I find myself almost running into a familiar face. James grins the instant we both stop, "Lost?"
"Hells no, I'm just going for a stroll."
His gaze lingers on my neck for a while. "Yeah, well, so are we." He gestures to a small group of other newly-passed sentinels following him. "Care to help us poor lost souls look for the exit-" His gaze stops at my breastplate and he pauses before grinning further. "A knight reclaimant. Gonna be damned if you aren't putting that score in history to use?"
"You don't seem surprised."
"No more than that Marcus got picked up by the hospitallers."
The blades of mercy. Fitting.
We walk down the corridor where they were headed, certain that by process of elimination we have found at least the direction of the exit. James chats it up while we walk. "So it seems I'm on light duty for a year or two. Basically letting me do what I want until I've got my bearings and some seniority."
"Sounds nice. I'm shipping off to Min."
He makes a face like he just smelled something. "Seriously? Min? I heard that place was crawling with monsters looking for prey."
"And that's why I'm going there."
I feel a friendly punch to my shoulder and look over to see James' shit-eating grin. "That's my fuckin' Victor. Goin' off to put the fear o' the gods in 'em?"
"Something like that."
A couple of hands reach over from behind and jostle my shoulders, accompanying some encouragement. "Well, you be sure to keep yourself busy. I don't want to go over there and hear that the one guy who beat me in combat scores hasn't racked up any kills."
We turn before I can tell him not to worry and find ourselves at the entrance hallway. Beyond is the gleaming jewel of Megalos, reflecting golden sunlight in a thousand rays as the sun sets. Come tonight I'll be on a train heading south, and after that I'll lose the chance to see such purity for however long I'm stationed away from here. I wonder what I'll have done when I return.
I wonder just what sort of hellhole I'm diving into.