A Paladin’s Tale

Tyeric Mitchell

The sound of his greaves sinking into muck tells him everything he needs to know.

“This is the place,” Paladin Istvan says aloud, right hand moving to grasp his weapon’s hilt. The morning star hung from his belt, swinging as a light breeze brushed past him. Dark clouds above blocked the light of the sun, making the dreary surroundings all the more ominous. There were two trees in front of him, one on his left and one on his right. Both were missing their leaves and their bark was cracked beyond repair. Istvan’s left hand moved up to caress the cross on his plate armor for comfort and safety, muttering a prayer as he moved forward. His mail skirt jangled as he stomped forward, helmet obscuring any facial features from prying eyes.

His steps took him toward a dilapidated wooden building. It only had a single story to it, with two windows to the right and left of the ajar front door. The door was bent at an odd angle, the remaining hinge barely holding it in place. The rest of the structure wasn’t any better. The left side had begun sinking into the muddy earth. Bubbles rose from the muck and popped as gradually sank down.

Istvan frowned at the state of the building but kept his eyes focused forward. He reached behind his back with his left hand, grabbing the straps of the metal buckler that sat there. The wooden boards of the landing creaked as his armored boot came down on them. He pulled the shield off his back, holding it at chest level as he walked through the destroyed door. The inside wasn’t any better than the outside. Floorboards sticking up, walls falling to pieces, multiple holes in the ceiling. Saying the place had seen better days was an understatement.

However, Istvan only had eyes for the woman ten steps away from the front door. She was kneeling with both her hands clasped in front of her face. She wore a tattered white dress stained with red from head to toe. The back of the dress had been ripped open, revealing the pale skin beneath. Her long red hair fell all the way to her waist, keeping her face hidden from view. Sitting on a counter in front of her was an effigy of some kind. It was a doll filled with straw with a human body, but curved horns coming out of its head. The horns were made of whittled down wood similar to the bark of the trees outside.

Istvan moved forward until he was five steps away from the woman. She didn’t even react to him, her head hanging low and preventing him from seeing her face. Istvan felt the tension in the air, but he did not panic. He remained calm and kept his stance as neutral as possible. He spoke to the kneeling woman, his gruff voice echoing in the silence of the building, “Sister Gretchen.”

The woman’s body tensed. Her hands remained clasped before the effigy, her knees remained kneeling, but her head began to move. Her shoulders flexed as she lifted her head, bones cracking as if they hadn’t been used in days. When her back was straight, she finally spoke. Her voice was hoarse and dry, as if she hadn’t had water in a long time, “Brother Istvan. Is that you?”

“It is,” he confirmed, head moving to the left and right. His eyes scanned the area for anything out of the ordinary, catching sight of a raised part of the floor a few feet to his left. Hastily placed wooden boards acted as covers for the hole. When he didn’t see anything similar in the rest of the building, he stepped to the right side while keeping Gretchen and the hole in his line of sight. He kept his voice calm so as not to startle her, “I have come at the behest of the people of Velex. They say you have done them a disservice.”

Gretchen didn’t turn to look at Istvan as she spoke, “I see. What have they accused me of?”

“Kidnapping five children. Three boys and two girls. All had been known to come visit you while their parents were working in the fields. They disappeared the same night you did.”

“Hmm. If that is the case, then how did you find me? I did attempt to cover my tracks.”

“Sister Gretchen,” Istvan knelt so that his face was level with the woman’s, “You know that when one is possessed by Sin, it is impossible to keep evidence of its passing hidden from those steeped in Virtue.”

Gretchen chuckled. It was a dry sound, completely devoid of mirth. She began to stand, her long red hair keeping her face hidden from view. Istvan rose with her, keeping his eyes focused on her shoulders. She stood on wobbling feet while her hands remained clasped together, “Did I ever tell you what my greatest desire was Brother Istvan?”

Istvan took one step back to put some distance between the two of them. His shield went up while his voice remained steady, “No. You did not.”

“It was to have children,” Gretchen said as she lowered her hands to her stomach, “To have a family of my own. To have people to love and care for. To give someone the childhood I could never have. I wanted this so badly.”

Then her arms fell to her sides as she looked toward the ceiling. Her tone became melancholic, “But when I turned twenty-five, I was involved in a terrible accident. I survived…but I soon discovered I could no longer conceive. The healers of my birthplace told me that one of the injuries I sustained was too severe. Even if I did manage to conceive a child, I would likely perish soon after the pregnancy. My one desire in life had been taken away from me. I felt lost. Four years later, I joined the Clergy, hoping to find a purpose to replace the one I could no longer fulfill.”

She cupped her face in her hands as tears began to fall from her eyes, “It didn’t work. No matter what I did, this feeling of emptiness never left my heart. And with each passing day, it grew more and more. I thought that coming to Velex and taking care of the children here would help. But it didn’t. It just got worse. And one night, when I was at my wits’ end, I heard its voice. It told me that I could still have a family. That I could fill the hole in my heart. The children I wanted could still be mine. All I had to do…was take them for myself.”

Gretchen turned until she was facing Istvan. She used her hands to push her hair out of the way, giving him a full view of her gaunt face. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in days and her eyes were red from crying. Yet her dry lips were still curled into a happy smile. The upper left side of her dress was torn, revealing a symbol to the open air; Two clawed hands cupping a flaming heart.

“The Crest Of Lust,” Istvan intoned as he took his mace from its place on his hip. He spaced his legs apart while preparing himself for battle, “It doesn’t have to be like this, Sister Gretchen. Just take me to the children. Please. Their parents miss them.”

“You heard her, Chosen,” a voice like fire hissed from nearby. Istvan’s eyes turned to the effigy as it started to twitch. A second later, two elongated arms burst from within the object, crashing into the ground with a loud crack. The claws gripped the ground as the demon pulled itself from within the effigy. A horned head with one half of its face male and the other half female, sickly purple skin that hugged its skeleton enough that he could see its ribs. Two black wings flared out of its back as its torso and legs came free of its confinement. Cloven feet crashed into the wooden earth as it took up position behind Gretchen. A long black tongue fell from its lips as it stared at him with burning red eyes, “You don’t have to worry about the children anymore. We’ll be great parents for them. Won’t we, Gretchen?”

Gretchen nodded but she refused to look at the demon as it stood behind her. It laughed before flicking its tongue out at Istvan, “See? So get out of here. We have family bonding we need to get to. Unless you’d like to join us? The children will need a father.”

The demon cackled, its body shaking with each exhalation. Istvan stood still, helm slowly moving from the demon to Gretchen and back. Only when it seemed like she wasn’t going to deny the demon did he act. He shook his head with a sigh, “So be it. Join me, Usiu, Angel of Temperance.”

The demon stiffened and Sister Gretchen gasped as a golden halo appeared just behind Istvan. In a blinding flash of light that banished the dreariness of the building, Usiu appeared in its full glory. Its body was a horizontal disc that floated in the air, its skin made of marble with angelic symbols carved within. A singular eye sat in the center of the disc, its upper and bottom halves covered by long, white, floating sheets. It floated behind Istvan, an angelic defender that heeded the call of its Chosen.

Istvan held his mace in front of him. His voice was steady and echoed as he spoke, “Sister Gretchen. You have fallen to the temptation of Lust. And thus, on this day, I, Paladin Istvan, shall be the one to judge you.

“Mama! Papa!”

Istvan watched from afar as the children found their parents. Families were reunited as tears of happiness fell from tired eyes. The people rejoiced as their homes were made whole once again. Istvan nodded to himself, glad to see wrongs made right.

However, he knew his task was far from done.

He turned around and gently pulled at the rope in his hands, “Come along, Sister Gretchen.”

The Sister walked forward with her head held low. The mark on her chest was still there, but the hands were now locked in chains. And the demon was nowhere to be seen. Gretchen’s eyes were blank as she walked forward with nary a word.

Istvan nodded, “Good. We’ll be heading out soon. I need to get you to the nearest Holy Order as soon as possible. There they’ll be able to perform a proper exorcism.”

“And after that?” Gretchen finally spoke, voice still hoarse and filled with sadness. But her words carried a challenge with them, “What am I to do after they cleanse me?”

“You will likely be put in jail for a time. There must be punishment for your transgression, after all,” Istvan said calmly and confidently. He started to walk, making sure that Sister Gretchen was right by his side as he did. Gretchen didn’t respond, her shoulders slumping even more than they already had. After a few steps, Istvan spoke again, “But before then, I will take you to the nearest city so that you may be healed.”

“…What?” Gretchen’s voice was barely above a whisper, her eyes widening in shock at the Paladin’s words.

Istvan nodded, “You said it yourself. Your wish is to have children, but that opportunity has been denied to you. However, if this is the cause of a physical injury, then I’m certain a powerful healer could fix it. You’d be able to fulfill your dream.”

“But…such a thing would be extremely expensive.”

“Indeed. Which is why I will take from my own coffers to pay for it.”

“…But…but why?”

Istvan tilted his head to the side, “I am a Paladin.”

Sister Gretchen blinked. Then she started to laugh. A genuine, cheerful laugh that made tears of joy fall from her eyes. She managed to speak through her tears, “Yes…Yes. You truly are.”