Initiate Alysandra of the Order of the Silver Star shifted uncomfortably, deep in Reviere. Even after six years, the neatly-stacked bunk beds where her fellow human Initiates slept made her uncomfortable. It was normal and natural for humans to lie horizontal as they rested, she knew, but seeing them do so in the half-light of the dormitory still reminded her of endless rows of bodies. Worse still, there were none of the faint, rhythmic noises of a pair of Initiates snatching a moment of pleasure together before the endless cycle of prayer, meditation, and combat training that made up their daily lives began again.
Memories and visions swirled around Alysandra, flowing into each other. The stark stillness and darkness of the dormitory carried her back to her third year as an Initiate. Each year, the Order of the Silver Star tested their initiates, allowing only those who showed true devotion and ability to advance. The third-year tests had been brutal; over a third of the initiate class had failed out, including two of Alysdandra’s friends.
But worse than the night before the third year tests had been her first night in the dormitories. In the intervening six years, Alysdanra had learned much. Her scant experience in the Feaine Glaeddyv style had grown into full-fledged mastery of the blade, and she could even, in the proper environment with supervision from a ranked Paladin or Church Patron, produce minor miracles. But that first night, she had sat alone on her bed, knowing nothing of the life she had chosen, and knowing that she could never return home to her family.
There. In the darkness of the dormitory. The visions and dreams of the past faded as her Reviere ended, bringing her senses once more to the here and now. There had been movement, and (now that she was fully awake) noise. Footsteps, extremely faint.
She breathed. Mock-assaults on the dormitory had mostly ceased by the fourth year, but Alysandra knew that she was approaching the end of her seventh year now. Soon it would be time for her final test, the last test, the test that would decide once and for all if she was worthy to join the Order of the Silver Star as a Sister, or if she would be forced to leave in disgrace.
An eldritch green light sprung up above her bed. “Wake, Initiate Alysandra.” called the silent walker. It was Church Father Stanley, he saw. He carried what looked like a wisp candle, which should have cast phantom-illumination only he, it’s bearer, could see. Apparently, he had adjusted its magic to include her.
“Dress yourself silently, then follow me. Do not wake your fellow initiates.” Alysandra nodded, slipping soundlessly out of her bed and pulling on her breeches.
“Leave your sword and sword-belt.” whispered Father Stanley when she reached for them. “You will not have need of it for what is to come.”
Alysandra paused. It was the duty of a Paladin (or Paladin-Initiate) to be ever ready and vigilant to defend against evil…but it was also their duty to obey, and Church Father Stanley, though he might look unassuming to the uninitiated, thrummed with holy power to her trained senses. Any dangers he could not face would not be thwarted by a barely-trained initiate with a sword. Besides, she did have her boot-knife, so she was still keeping her oath to her mother never to go off alone with a human male unarmed.
She hesitated again, taking a look at her bed. The standing orders for Initiates were to keep their beds in perfect order before morning inspection. Father Stanley had told her to follow once he was dressed, but hadn’t mentioned the bed specifically. Was this part of the test?
“Leave the bed as it is.” said Stanley, with a faint cough that might have concealed a chuckle. “The state of your bed in the Initiate’s Dorm will not be your concern after tonight, one way or the other.”
Alysandra followed Church Father Stanley, her heart pounding in her chest. This was it. No one knew what the final test was until it was given. They said it was different for each initiate. They said that every Paladin who had taken it was sworn to secrecy. They said that they conjured a demon and let it possess you and only the pure of heart could drive it out on their own.
For a group whose tongues were meant to speak truth and holiness only, Initiates gossiped a great deal, Alysandra thought, then swallowed, mentally castigating herself for her uncharitable thought about her fellow initiates. She had participated in gossip herself, after all.
Church Father Stanley lead her down a staircase, her path illuminated by the not-light of the wisp candle. The stairwells were as dark as the dorms; her elven eyes could see clearly on a moonless, cloudy night with nothing more than the faint ghost of starlight, but true darkness still blinded her. Still, she had walked these stairs enough times that she could have followed the route blindfolded. Down the second floor landing, down the first floor landing, down to the basement…
Church Father Stanley paused there, clutched the holy symbol, and began a singsong chant. Alysandra had learned enough magic to know it was an illusion spell from its cadence, but it was far above any spell she had been trained to recognize. What was the Church Father doing?
Father Stanley then strode to a section of the basement landing and spoke another incantation, and a secret passage opened in the wall. He turned back to Aysandra and blinked.
“Initiate Alysandra.” he spoke, in normal tones. “Breathe. Your test has not yet begun. I will inform you when it has. And I have faith that you will pass it, with colors flying.”
He gave her a friendly smile, and Alysandra tried to force herself to relax. She had trained for this. She was prepared for this. She would face this test, and overcome it, and become a Paladin of the Silver Star.
She followed Father Stanley down further. The well-scrubbed stone and tile of the barracks had given way to slick magically-shaped stone. Great magic had carved this staircase out of the earth itself, she knew.
At the bottom of the secret staircase was a door, made of thick oak and reinforced with iron bands, with a large, intimidating lock, dwarven-made by its devices. Father Stanley paused, and started digging through a pouch at his neck.
“Tell me, Initiate Alysandra. Which virtue is greater; justice, or mercy?”
Of course there would be surprise questions before the Test proper.
“Church Father Stanley, Brother-Lieutenant Helanthis wrote in the Cantos of Duty, chapter two, verse six through sixteen that justice and mercy defined each other, and that one could not exist without the other!”
Father Stanley pulled a heavy iron key out from his neck-pouch, and unlocked the door.
“Well-quoted. Tell me, do you agree with Brother-Lieutenant Helanthis?”
Alysandra paused. What manner of question was that? No one, in her past six years of training, had asked her her opinion on anything.
Obviously it was a tactical question, meant to see if she would be confused, or blurt out an untruth if confronted with an unusual situation.
“Church Father Stanley, yes. I agree with him.”
“We shall see.” he responded, and opened the door.
Bright light (of the Continual Flame spell, placed on a transparent glass bead within a rounded mirror cover to intensify the light, Alysandra recongized) overwhelmed the false-light of the wisp candle as the door opened. In the room on the other side was a heavy post, studded with iron shackles. Slumped against the post, with his back to the door, illuminated by the Continual Flame spotlights, was an orc, or an unusually bestial orc-blooded human. He was naked from the waist up, and had (judging from the appearance of his trousers and the stench in the room, which made Alysandra’s nose wrinkle) been shackled here for some time. Some merciful soul had also placed a bag over the orc’s head, so that the bright light would not offend his sensitive eyes.
“Take heed, Initiate Alysandra, for your final test as an Initiate is about to begin. The man before you is a criminal. He was given information that ensured he would enter a particular house at a particular time, and find certain items of gold and jewelry freely available to him. He was found in that house by the constables, along with the corpse of the house’s owner upstairs.”
“The local law believes the orc to guilty of murder. He has professed his innocence of everything, despite being caught with stolen gold in his hands, and no one, save for us, wishes to look deeper, and pursue the true killer. This orc must confess to entering the dwelling and stealing the gold, or he will be hanged for murder falsely, and the true murderer will escape justice.”
“Didn’t do it!” called the orc. His voice, though distorted from the bag and slurred by his tusks, was a perfectly intelligible high thin whine, very different than the bass growl of most orc voices.
Alysandra took a breath and let it out, letting her negative judgements of the orc flow away the same way she had done for her fellow initiates earlier. It was wrong to judge an orc for being an orc. After all, Brother-Captain Klaru was of orcan blood, and none doubted his valor and zeal in the pursuit of evil.
“Through the trial, we have attempted begging, pleading, cajoling, reasoning, and one very ill-fated attempt at an enchantment spell. Nothing has worked.”
“Then how am I to-” Alysandra stopped as Father Stanley strode to the side of the room, and unlatched a cabinet there. Obviously it was her task to identify what her true task was, and to execute it-”
Alysandra gaped as Father Stanley withdrew a whip from the cabinet, padded slowly back, and placed it in her hand.
“Your test now begins, Initiate Alysandra. In order to save his life, you must persaude this orc, with force and with the necessary amount of pain, to confess to his crime before sun rises this morning, that we might save his life and bring justice to an innocent slain.”
“I…” her voice trailed off as Father Stanley’s warm expression faded to a cold, impartial glare. “I trust that you will find it within yourself to do what you know must be done. If so, you had best begin quickly. You do not have many hours of night remaining.”
How can you pin my hopes and dreams of being a Paladin on the cooperation of an orc? Alysandra wanted to scream. She bit back the rage, and breathed it out.
“Didn’t do it!”
“-you have doubtless heard our conversation, and you must know that-”
“Didn’t do it!”
“-I will not hesitate to do what must be done-”
“Didn’t do it!”
“Listen to me, damn you!” she snapped, then bit her tongue. Apparently she hadn’t gotten rid of her anger at all. She shot a glance at Father Stanley, but his cold, stony glare remained.
She looked down at the whip in her hands. It wasn’t an animal whip, nor was it one of the cruel tools of the Southland slavers. It had a broad strip of leather at its tip, presumably to slow down and deliver impacts that would welt and bruise, but not injure. She breathed again. Many gave and received blows from devices like this entirely voluntarily. There would be no actual harm done to the orc. And from the many scars on the orc’s back, he had doubtless taken worse many times before. He was no innocent, that was certain.
“Orc, I entreat you, by the stars above and whatever gods you find favorable, confess your crime.”
“Didn’t do it! Swear it!”
She breathed again, and turned to Father Stanley, meeting his glare with one of her own. “Church Father Stanley, are you certain-”
“Certain? No. It could be that I was befuddled by an enchantment that none of my bretheren detected. It could be that we are still now in a complicated web of illusion. But to the extent that I trust my senses, Initiate Alysandra, then yes. I am certain that this orc was found tresspassing in a broken-into manor house, in possession of a sack of stolen gold and jewelry.”
That was it, then. There was no way out there. The whip in her hand was short, she saw, only a little longer than flail-length. She had trained to fight with flails.
She cracked the whip, and watched the arc of the leather tip carefully.
“This is your last chance, orc. For both our sakes. Please. Confess.”
“Didn’t do it-” moaned the orc again.
Alysandra raised her hand, and cracked the whip. She yelped in surprise as the tip impacted her outstreched palm. It had hurt, but it had been much less than any of her serious training accidents.
She took another breath, then another. Another quick glance at Father Stanley revealed that he was looking at her in bemusement.
“I will not inflict a fate on any helpless being a punishment I do not know.” she snapped, only remembering to add a belated “Church Father Stanley.” He did not correct her, however, and his gaze did soften a notch. It also, however, turned inexorably back to the orc.
She had the measure of the whip now. She lay it out sideways, and the leather tip lashed against the orc’s back, overtop his left shoulder blade. He squeaked, sounding more like a goblin than an orc.
Surprise, not pain. I need more… She delivered another blow, than another, then another, concentrating them all on the same spot, drawing a trio of squeaks.
“Confess!” she barked.
“Didn’t do it! Didn’t do it didn’t do it didn’t do-”
Her arm lashed out, and she laid a welt on the base of the orc’s spine. Another blow took the orc low on the ribs, then another onto the reddening spot on his shoulder blade, then another there for good measure, the last two drawing moaning cries.
“Confess!” she shouted again.
“Didn’t do it!” wailed the orc.
She delivered another dozen punishing blows. Shortened and slowed, the whip was still an effective tool for punishment, when used correctly. She studied the orc’s back, trying to identify any places where he had reacted unusually, when she realized that the orc was now whimpering softly.
Suddenly appalled at what she was doing, she turned back to Father Stanley. The glare was gone; he was now looking at her with something like pity.
“Continue.” he said.
“I…Father Stanley, I…”
He raised his hand, and a bubble of magic fizzed around the two of of them. This was a Selective Silence spell; it would let them speak for a few moments without the orc hearing anything.
“There is no glory here, Initiate Alysandra. To face an enemy on the battlefield, to stand endless watches against the darkness…even to toil in a hospital to help those poor souls who can be healed…there is glory there. But not here. Here there is only that which must be done. And I will tell you this, Initiate Alysandra. If you had reveled in this, if you had gloried in the infliction of pain, then you would have failed your final test. But it is not enough not to love this. You must hate that this must be done, and have the strength to continue regardless.”
The Selective Silence spell terminated abruptly. “I said continue.” repeated Father Stanley, his voice cold once more. Alysandra let out a shuddering breath. Even as she appreciated that Father Stanley was doing everything he could to help her cow the orc, she couldn’t help but think about the sun slowly rising, and the fate of both her and the orc being slowly sealed.
“I have been lenient with you.” Alysandra hissed at the orc. “That ends now. Confess or you will suffer.”
The whip arced up, impacting heavily with the orc’s sensitive armpit.
“You did it!” she shouted back. “Say that you did it, and this ends! This will all end as soon as you confess!”
The whip landed heavily on the back of the orc’s head, knocking him into the pole.
“Don’t you dare deny it one more time. Don’t you dare! Speak the truth!” Alysandra screamed. There was something within her rising, something wild and different than what she had felt on the practice fields or in the temple grounds at prayer. Was this what it felt like to be a Paladin?
The orc let out a sob, and his whole body cringed. Alysandra found herself leaning forward, willing him to confess, hearing his next words in her head, anticipating them, needing to hear them-
“Didn’t do it-”
The tip of the whip rose upwards and struck with all the force Alysandra could muster, between the orc’s legs, producing an agonized scream.
She pulled the whip back. The tip was wet, she suddenly noticed, with sweat or filth from its last blow or…
Or blood. Her assault had drawn blood from the orc’s back. It flowed only in tiny trickles, but it flowed regardless.
To draw blood from a captive…
The whip dropped from her hands.
The Selective Silence spell surrounded her again.
“You must continue, Initiate Alysandra.”
“Father Stanley, I cannot. I…I cannot do this.” She closed her eyes, and felt his approach more than heard it over the hiss of the spell.
“Initiate Alysandra.” said Father Stanley. His voice, surprisingly, was kind. “Seven years may be little among your people, but it is a great deal of time to us. And in that time, you have shown valor, courage, piety, obedience, fortitude…every virtue of a Paladin. You have spent the last seven years of your life, climbing a mountain few dare to attempt. And I tell you this, Initiate Alysandra; you have the strength within you to finish this. The end is in sight, Initiate Alysandra. I beg you not to throw yourself from the mountain when you are so close to ascending it. Breathe, Alysandra. Breathe. Then pick up the whip, and continue.”
“Pick it up, Initiate Alysandra.”
He placed his hand on her shoulder, and pressed downward, and Alysandra found herself folding downwards into a crouch. Father Stanley might have been old for a human, but he was so woven with wards and protections that he could outfight any six initiates, and had.
Alysandra felt like she was drugged, or back in Reviere. She could count each heartbeat as it raced by. She had no home, and nowhere to go but the Order of the Silver Star. It could only be this way.
She breathed, and breathed, and breathed again. Father Stanley’s hand, it’s strength enhanced by his magics, squeezed her shoulder, firmly but (not yet) painfully.
“I said to p-” began Father Stanley, and that was what she was waiting for. Uncurling like a loosed bow, she snatched the dagger from her boot and rammed it into Father Stanley’s mouth opened around the sound of his command. His shielding magics clung to him, skin-tight, and did not deflect the dagger until it had grazed his palate, and he lurched back, gagging but unharmed, pulling her with him. There was a shock from her shoulder, quite painful, but she was beyond that now. She pressed into him using his arm for leverage, pushing him further into his stumble, then pulling him suddenly sideways as he tried to recover. He dropped her and swung at her with both arms, delivering two clumsy blows that would have broken bone if either had connected-
There. Seven years of arms training, another sixteen of Feaine Glaeddyv, all the horror and frustration of this night, and whatever fragment of divine spark she had left all came together in one moment, and with infinite calm and perfect precision, she stepped between Father Stanley’s arms, drove the knife into a weak point in his armoring spells, pulled upwards, pressed forward-
Father Stanley stopped moving abruptly, pinned against the wall, Alysandra’s knife pressed against his throat. He could strike her dead with one spoken spell, but would never be able to complete the spell before Alysandra opened his throat. There was a strange, unfamiliar look in his eyes.
“How dare you.” she said. “How dare the voice that sings praises to the Silver Star, that teaches children the Cantos of Duty, bring me down here and ask of me this? To demand of me this? How dare you speak of mercy, and order atrocity?”
She had been aiming to imitate his cold tone, but something else was creeping into her voice, some great passion altogether distinct from the wild fury she had felt when beating the orc, and she was not inclined to resist it.
“You would have me beat this orc half to death…for what? So you can preserve your relationship with the town watch? Because it would be too inconvenient to demand that they perform a true investigation when the only one to be saved is a lowly orc!?” She spat, furious. “You monstrous hypocrite! I curse the day I ever dreamed of joining your putrid order!” She pressed against him, heavily, adjusting the position of the knife.
“Take heed, Father Stanley.” she snarled. “We are leaving.” She jerked the knife, and felt him flinch, but she had only cut the string on his neck-pouch, which she had grabbed with her other hand. “We are leaving this town and this order. If you try to stop us, I will kill you. If you do not, then I will gag you, bind you, and shackle you to this pillar. And when we are free, I will send word that you are here, so that you will be released, and doubtless pursue us. And you will suffer no indignities between now and then. Do you know why, Father Stanley? Because you, for all that you are a loathsome, vile blight on all that is pure and good in this world, deserve better. No one deserves to be bound and interrogated and beaten. No one. No one!”
The room echoed with her words. Stanley must have lost control of the Selective Silence spell during the fight, Alysandra realized. But there was another sound. A rattling of chains, and a dull, repeating thud…
She wrapped her free arm around Father Stanley and pulled him from the wall, keeping the knife in place at his neck, looking for hazards. Had one of his cronies followed them down here?
Apparently not. The room was still empty save for them and the orc-
Who was standing upright now, and…applauding?
As she watched, the orc suddenly brought his hands down suddenly. There was a loud, crunching crack as the manacles that had been embedded several inches deep into aged oak were suddenly pulled loose, and then a spang as the orc, with apparent casualness, pulled the chain apart. Then the orc twisted his wrists, grasped a manacle in either hand, and twisted, and with a shriek of tortured iron, the ruins of the manacles fell to the floor. Then the orc pulled the sack from his face, revealing the beaming and squinting face of Brother-Captain Klaru.
“Well said, Initiate Alysandra. Well said indeed.” he said.
“Brother-Captain Klaru?” The wave of pure, righteous wrath that had been propelling Alysandra inexorably forwards stopped like a sparrow hitting a window. Her reflexes and combat training were will working, however, and so, without any actual intervention from her brain, Alysandra found herself droppping the pouch, transferring the knife from hand to hand, and saluting.
Brother-Captain Klaru returned the salute. “You may release Church Father Stanley whenever you choose, Initiate. I can assure you that he is no longer a threat to any defenseless captives. Although if you wish to keep ahold of him for a while longer and inspect the premises-”
Father Stanley let out a long, aggrieved sigh.
“What is going on?” asked Alysandra. She could feel the cool of the wall behind her, the warmth of Father Stanley’s body against hers, and could taste the tang of adrenaline’s leavings in her own mouth, so this couldn’t be Reviere-delerium, and was almost certainly not illusion. This was really happening, and had happened. But that meant…
“You…Father Stanley. You lied to me.”
“Of course I lied to you.” snapped Father Stanley. “I’m a Church Father, not a Paladin. We lie all the time.”
“But you…if you…”
“What?” asked Brother-Captain Klaru. “I didn’t do it.”
I just flogged Brother-Captain Klaru between the legs. There no word for how much trouble I am in.
“I…Brother-Captain Klaru!” Initiate Alysandra pushed Father Stanley aside, and quickly re-sheathed her knife in her boot. “I’m sorry-that is, I apolo-I formally beg forgiveness for-”
“Peace, Initiate.” he said, raising a hand. “Take a moment, compose your thoughts. I’d tell you to breathe, but given how that worked for yon Father, I’d as soon let you turn blue and pass out if that’s you’re desire.”
Initiate Alysandra burst out laughing, not from the joke as from the insane absurdity of the fact that she was being jesting with at all.
“I…Brother-Captain, I hurt you.”
Brother-Captain Klaru’s face turned grave. “Yes.”
“I…I wasn’t forced, I wasn’t coerced. I didn’t even argue. Gods preserve me, I didn’t even say no! I…I withdraw my application to-”
“No, Initiate Alysandra.” interrupted Church Father Stanley. Idly, he drew a hand across his neck, healing the long, shallow cut left there, then looked at Brother-Captain Klaru, who shook his head.
“You have entered the final test of the Paladin of the Silver Star, Initiate. It is not your judgement that decides what happens now. And I judge you to be…imperfect. Yes, imperfect! You did not immediately act with perfect knowledge and perfect virtue! Shame! Five demerits!” His voice rose to a creaky parody of Church Father Thrurfun’s querulous mutter.
“Perhaps a little decorum is called for, Father-”
“I will not be decorous! I have spent the last three nights praying for forgiveness because of what I would have to do to her, to make her do, and now-”
“I…you…” said Alysandra. Of course he’s not a monster, it was a test, he had to to test me, to prove that I…
“That’s it. That’s the final test. The test to become a Paladin is…to see if we can stop wanting to become a Paladin.”
“You have the right of it, Initiate. We are granted power by the good gods, but virtue? On that, we are on our own. And many can resist evil when it comes snarling and dripping with poison, and some will stand fast when it whispers seductions and promises in our ears…but when evil clothes itself in the guise of virtue? Of the greater good, delivered to ones who deserve no better?”
“Is it like this? For every Paladin?”
“That you will not know, unless you are called to participate in the testing of an Initiate yourself. And in that case, you will swear not to speak of what transpires to those who were not present, just as we sworn and you will swear.”
“Ah, yes, thank you for reminding me! Well, just to make sure, and because I don’t think it was actually said; you pass. Bow thy head for the final time, Initiate Alysandra. Father Stanley, if you please?”
“Ng.” Here? Now? With your trousers still stinking?
But, she realized, it could only be this way. Because the duty of a Paladin was not performed on the parade ground, or the great cathedral. It was down in the dark, in the muck, that a Paladin’s virtue was test, and it was there that it was proven.
“We speak to the gods of good and the forces that stand for light in the darkness.” intoned Father Stanley. “In your sight, Initiate Alysandra offers her oath.”
The words were there, and flowed out of her, in time wit Brother-Captain Klaru’s own.
“I swear on my faith, in the sight of all good gods and all who serve them…”
“…that I will, now and forever in the future…
“…that I will defend innocence from wickedness, stand against evil, speak the truth, live with virtue, fight with valor, and when I die, die with honor.”
She felt the words echo within her. There was no awakening of magic, no rush of divine power within her. But then, there didn’t need to be. As she raised her head and met Brother-Captain Klaru’s gaze, she knew exactly who she was.
Brother-Captain Klaru rushed forward then, and embraced her, and she embraced him back, filthy trousers and all.
“Welcome to the Order.” he said, his voice choked with sudden emotion. “Welcome…Sister Alysandra.”