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Introduction:

A young paladin on sabbatical gets involved, woe is he.
The Paladin

* * * *

Father,

I will have to assume my invitation to the graduation and ascension ceremony was lost along the way and hope that this letter reaches you. I suspect that the clerics at the Cloister forbade our letters from leaving the grounds lest we be distracted and they did not tell us of such, but that may have also been shoddy courier service. We all remember the Dunkals who could scarcely deliver a letter across town, much less the countryside. No matter.

By the time you read these words, I will be leaving the training Cloister for my sabbatical to visit mother's grave. The priests and order of paladins, of which I can now claim membership have asked me to seek out counsel in the quiet places between forgotten moments, to reflect on the lessons of the past and apply them to the fights to come.

To you, I know this must sound as the ramblings of a pretentious youth, but I find comfort in the thought that one day I might prove myself worthy of the auspiciousness of our family name. My training has honed my body to an edge and as mother so often wished of us both, I shall use the gifts Alaecon has granted me to uphold the honor of your legacy and, perhaps one day sit at your table.

My thoughts and prayers go with you as they always have; may you live in plentiful times with a strong heart, warm hearth and even temper. I hope my cat hasn't been a bother, I will collect her as soon as I can.

Your son,

Caldion Lemaine

[Scribed by, Jasolyn Miquee, of Govida's Scribes and Things. Use the enclosed coupon to get 25% off your next letter or book!

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* * * *

The cold kiss of rain fluttered across Caldion's face as he squinted into the gloom, parting the trampled grass with a shaky hand. The mud was sunk in deep around a boot print easily the size of his entire head but there was no sight of the loathsome orc anywhere nearby. If he hadn't forgotten his lantern he wouldn't be in his mess in the first place, but standing on the edge of a forest trail trying not to sink into the slippery mud himself, he had no choice but to push on.

He hefted his rucksack, keeping to the shadow as best he could. Someone at the Cloister had said orcs had fantastic night vision but these were the same young men that had said that the females had special bathing privileges and sleeping arrangements too-- of course that was a lie. They worked every bit as hard as their male counterparts--

If he didn't believe orcs could see in the dark, why was he shaking?

Adrenaline. It was just adrenaline. Caldion sucked in a breath, tightening his grip on the longsword as he pushed forward another few steps. Paused. Listened. The woods were alive with the sound of rustling leaves and branches knocking against one another, some small animals trying to hide from the storm-- at least he imagined so-- and the soft crunch, crunch, crack of someone heavy and graceless.

Ahead of him in the thicket of brambles and clustered trees he heard the crunching, ripping branches. His heart slammed against his chest as he undid the strap on his pack, set it down as quietly as possible, and removed a white rabbit's foot tied to a lanyard from under the flap. The idea was to make the pack easier to find when he came back for it, but to anyone looking on, it would probably have looked ridiculous.

He was wearing little more than soft arming leathers and a single pauldron, having had almost no time to prepare for the orcs before they'd tried to ambush him, yet he felt every bit as comfortable as though he was in his heavier armor, more so, even. The extra mobility made it easy to slip through the shadows and slip he did. His soft soled boots were worn from weeks on the road and every ten steps or so he seemed to find a particularly wet patch.

Caldion kept low with his sword just slightly behind him so he didn't bump into anything, stalking forward towards the patch of brambles. What if orcs could see in the dark? No. That was stupid. Like shower faries and bathing nymphs. Orcs were humanoid only in appearance, they weren't intelligent and they didn't have fucking night vision!

The young paladin winced inwardly, paused for just a second and looked to the brightest star in the sky, whispering a prayer of forgiveness to Alaecon. The Master of Night and Dreams would understand. He always had. . . But if his father had known, that could have been a problem.

He steadied himself and stalked forward until he came to the edge of the woods. The thicket was torn away roughly-- massive gouges of ivy lay broken off at angles and deep boot treads lapped a path through the muddy gloom and into a clearing surrounded by, of all things, a broken wooden fence. Within the fence were dozens of rows of corn and a massive trench where someone larger than Caldion had stumbled through at a trot.

At the far end of the farm was a single story house. He swallowed as he stood and edged closer to the clearing, keeping an eye out for ambushes. He couldn't shame his father by dying on his first real combat. The other orcs had already abandoned the runt of the litter when they saw the fight was lost, and now, he'd finish what was started. He wouldn't get ambushed. He wouldn't screw this up. He was trained. Prepared.

Caldion strode towards the field. Slipped in the mud, clawing at the air on his way on his way down. He slammed full force on his back with a grunt. Prepared. . . He was prepared for something, all right.

It took him a moment to catch his breath and recover himself but when he was up, he slunk low through the gloom between trampled corn stalks and trudged forward through the field until he saw the outline of the single story wood cabin. A flickering candle inside cast a ghostly specter of light through the one dirty window near the door. The door itself was strangely intact. Had the orc come through here? Had he somehow gotten around Caldion? Gods, the thing could see in the dark.

He paused, looking between the footprint streaked dirt and the house, uncertain if he should announce himself to the occupant. The foot prints he found were those of a woman or very small man and a dog, neither of which could stand up to the orc. Yet, if he did, he'd be giving himself away and may in fact endanger the occupant. His training demanded he announce himself, but it also demanded he protect this home owner-- which was right?

Propriety must be upheld. Caldion sighed, stood up and set his blade against the wall. He was just about to knock on the door when something crashed in the darkness to his left where the fence came near the house. It had to ha ve been the orc.

Caldion grabbed his sword and sprinted past the window, towards the sound. Blade raised to attack, he slipped in the mud-- mid fall he saw the orc spin at hearing the sound. He turned away from the sheep he'd been about to cleave into with his axe and, upon seeing Caldion, he launched off at a run.

Son of a bitch, what a way to die.

The orc bore down on him with his foot but Caldion was too quick, he pivoted his weight, smashed his heel into the grey-green skin of the towering creature and shoved off, sliding on the wet mud even as the orc was thrown off balance. Caldion tumbled backwards feet over head and shoved off into a combat crouch. The massive orc lunged at him swinging his axe wildly.

Caldion had that split second to make a choice. He braced his hand against the flat of his blade, closed into the orc's reach and used the blade to deflect the edge of the axe. He slammed into the tower of muscle, bowling them both into the dirt. The orc thrashed out and punched Caldion in the ribs, blasting the air from his lungs.

In the moment of confusion and pain, the orc took advantage of the lapse and hooked his axe handle across the back of Caldion's neck, yanking him down as he struggled to breathe. Gods, not like this. I don't ask for much. Caldion braced a hand on the orc's throat, trying to push up as the orc pulled him down. His breath reeked of rotting meat, tusks gleaming in the dark as he opened his mouth in a silent agonizing scream.

Caldion struggled to get leverage with his sword and hefted forwards. He was going to die. There was no way he could out last the brute. He wasn't nearly as strong, he didn't have a lifetime of combat reflexes to keep him alive. Caldion tried to slip the brute's grip only to get locked down into the monster's muscled chest. The orc continued to apply pressure to the haft of the axe, shoving the young paladin's neck at an ever increasingly painful angle. He wasn't just going to die, he was going to fail his first oath- he wasn't going to be able to protect the owner of the house-- he was going to fail his father by being too weak.

No.

A surge of adrenaline raged though him as the orc growled and snapped his rotting teeth at his face. Caldion let go of the sword and pushed both of his hands into the orc's biceps. He focused his will into drawing on Alaecon's power. Channeling it. Shaping it into a lance of divine power that started in the base of his spine and carried throughout his body. He raised one muddy fist, surging back against the orc's axe and his primal strength. They met eye to eye and Caldion snarled aloud; “I smite you in the name of Alaecon!”

His fist crashed into the orc's upturned snout, shattering the bone with a sickening pop as it gave. The orc tried to howl in pain but Caldion shoved his knee into the creature's throat, killing his scream. Another flail from the orc and it grabbed for his face. A massive hand that threatened to crush his skull in one go. Caldion jerked away, grabbing his sword as he rolled off.

He stood, panting and covered in mud. The orc was trying to staunch the flow of blood as his yellow eyes bore into the paladin with such primal hate that even in the dark he could feel the anger radiating off the misbegotten creature. He'd won. They both knew it. Caldion spit to the side as rain pelted him. He'd bested his first real opponent and now. . . Now he had to do what had to be done.

Caldion hefted his sword, booted the orc over on his back when he tried to rise. He put his foot to the creature's throat and narrowed his eyes, steeling himself. Yes. He could do this. He spun his blade to loosen up the muscles He could.

His logical mind switched off as he hefted the sword and then plunged it into the massive chest of the barbaric orc. The orc clawed ineffectually at the blade but it was too late. It was a solid blow. There was nothing left to do but wait for death. And that is exactly what they did.

It took minutes for the big creature to really die. A few spasms here and there but none of them were as telling as that last breath that emptied his lungs for the final time. Caldion stood in numb awe, looking down at the creature that should have been his death. He slumped to his knees, offering a prayer to Alaecon that he had acted honorably and won fairly. Silently thanking Him for the courage to carry on.

After he was done, he stood on shaky knees and wandered towards the house. The window's light had dimmed a bit and for a moment, Caldion was concerned he had scared the owner. However, he soon found out why.

There was a woman-- a teenager, really, barely into her early adult years. If that. Her silhouette was cast in an awkward glow by the flickering candle as she lay on a tousled bed naked with a robe in a heap beside her. In the single room cabin, she was the first, last and only thing Caldion could-- wanted-- to see.

Her firm, shapely chest heaved up and down while the hand between her legs worked furiously to bring her to climax. She was curvy, feminine, an exotic western skin color that looked caramel in the dim light. Caldion found himself transfixed by the girl's beauty, even the coy whimpering as she arched her back in beautiful surrender to her carnal desires. She cried out, loud, hard. Several words of a strange language that sounded western-- it ended with a name. “Sarah!”

At the sudden outpouring of emotion from the girl, Caldion caught himself staring and turned away in shame. Even his raging hard on began to subside while he mulled it over; while he reprimanded himself for violating this girl's farm and her sanctity. Even so, he snuck a glance back before he tromped over towards the orc and hauled him off. Women who called out women's names was something new to him.

# # # #

Caldion wandered through the merchant district amidst the calls of vendors and the constant press of unwashed people going about their lives oblivious to his presence. Their sheer number, even this early in the morning, set his hackles on edge as he made his way through them to get to the southern gate. He felt pinched in between the teeming throngs of market goers, sweat beaded up between his shoulders while all around him people vied for the attention of merchants or customers.

These people he was supposed to protect, he reminded himself, but some part of him recoiled at the idea. There were so damn many of them. How could he possibly be expected to uphold his oaths when it came to a city like this?

Someone bumped into him. Another shoved him when he jostled into them, ignoring his apology. No, cities were no place for a man like him. He needed to be rid of this place as soon as possible.

Having lost his backpack wasn't bad enough, no, he had to make his way through the sea of shit laden cobbles and people as averse to soap and water as they were to goblins. This was not how he was supposed to serve his god. Who'd take a paladin without armor seriously, anyway?

Caldion tromped down the street in a morose haze, following his direction sense until he eached the end of a boulevard that lead to the gate he was looking for. There were dozens of carts lined up alongside the street with city guards inspecting their cargo and impatient merchants talking amongst themselves or ranting at the provision inspector who sat behind a table under a sign.

Beside the sign was a billboard plastered in a coating of notifications of one sort or another and a woman. She was draped in a neutral tan robe, with the hood pulled up, in the middle of affixing a note to the board. The only reason she stood out at all was the beautifully rendered dragon on the notice.

It was reared back, about to breathe fire in front of a small town that was already engulfed in flames. A bold headline announced the purpose of the note in runes that Caldion hadn't ever seen before-- it was never important where he had been, but in cities everything revolved around these damnable runes. The image alone, though, conveyed the meaning and everything he needed to know.

He was just about to approach her when someone caught his attention in the shadow of one of the horse stalls. He was an ugly man in black leathers with several prominent scars making a cross-thatch pattern against his jaw and cheek. His eyes were fixed on the woman and in that look, Caldion could see murderous anger.

Caldion glanced between them, broke off from his staring and stepped around the wagons towards the man. He turned, sensing Caldion's presence and gave him a quick once over. His posture changed into someone preparing for a fight, sliding his foot back as he reached behind his back. So far not so good.

Caldion held up his off hand in greeting, keeping his blade hand ready in case. His father had not raised a fool. “Hail, traveler, forgive my interruption of your thoughts but I was wondering if you might spare a moment of your time. . .” the young paladin put on his best smile. He couldn't lie, but he could be banal. “I'd like to share the word of Alaecon, if you'd hear me.”

The man looked him over once more, trying to decide whether or not he was serious. His accent was rough and unfriendly. “I got things t'do. Save yer god talk for someone who cares.”

“But sir, surely your dreams are worth protecting. My god--”

“Git, boy!” He turned back towards the stalls and, upon seeing that the woman was gone, he muttered a curse and shot Caldion a pissed off glare. “Gods-be-damned. Move.” He shoved roughly past. Caldion grabbed his arm and quickly found a blade to his throat. “I said git.”

Having no real reason-- or power-- to detain him, Caldion did the only thing he could do. He let the man go.

The angry man wandered off into the throng of merchants milling about waiting for their cargo to be inspected and in mere moments he faded from view. Caldion grabbed the papersheet the woman had been putting up and turned to one of the merchants, politely asking him to translate the runes on the page into meaning.

“Ah, a foreigner, huh? It says that a great red dragon has been spotted far to the west, a terrible scourge on the lands that raized city after city and now the. . . ” The man mouthed his translation, not quite sure about it. He made an 'aha' expression and continued. “Isiran Herself appeared before a group of adventurers and demanded they vanquish this evil for the good of all the land. It's a holy quest lead by. . . Members of an interfaith and interracial council. Bring your equipment and yourself to the temple of Isira and they will make history together.-- er. You. 'we'. Do you understand?”

“I do, thank you. . . Now, if I can impose once more? Where might I find the Isiran temple?”

The man gave him directions to one of the more run down parts of the merchant's district and gave him a description of a house. As Caldion turned away, the man added. “It's going to be busy, ever since the Goddess made an appearance. Don't be surprised if you can't get in!”

“Wait-- a goddess manifested here? Here of all places?” He winced inwardly. “Ah, forgive my insolence, I didn't mean it like that. But did I hear you right? She personally manifested here?”

“She did! Right in the temple! It was a miracle of beauty and magic, to hear it told! She came down from the heavens on a chariot with a flaming sword and told them to seek out and smite this vile creature!”

“I. . . see.” Caldion furrowed his brow. “I. . . Forgive my ignorance, but I've never heard of this Lady Isira. Can you tell me about Her?”

“She is a goddess of pleasure, sir, good food and wine. Music and women. Or. . . men.” He eyed Caldion for a moment. When the young paladin shook his head, the man relaxed and nodded. “She is the leader of all things in comfort.”

Caldion mused aloud, “and handing out holy quests to kill dragons, apparently.”

The merchant laughed. “So it would seem!”

“Thank you for the information,” Celdian inclined his head. “Gods bless.” In the ten minutes it took him to find the 'temple', he didn't catch sight of the man in black leathers. Something told him that if he wasn't so skittish he probably would've seen him again, but in the immediate short term, finding this woman and warning her of the potential danger seemed more appropriate.

Just like the market had been, the space outside the moldy, run down house was packed with onlookers and faithful telling stories about Isira's appearance and what it might mean for the city as a whole. A lot of them were dressed barely in rags and stand even worse than the regular commoners. But there was something different in their eyes. Hope.

Women of various descriptions carried lyres or other stringed instruments that Caldion had never seen before, playing-- albeit very poorly-- and singing the praises of this pleasure goddess. More than a few glanced his way as he strode up to the building and carefully stepped inside. Not knowing the exact protocol of how to acknowledge the spirit of the goddess, he lowered his head, murmured an entreaty to the gods and continued in.

A number of paintings lined every square inch of the walls and the stench of mildew and. . . something much sharper, more primal, lingered in the air. For a moment it reminded him of an animal's mating scent but it was even muskier than that. Gods what kind of temple was this?

As Caldion considered the question, a stunningly attractive woman came down the rickety stairs. Her copper hair hung lazily aside sharp, exotic features and full, pouted lips upturned into a coy little smile. But what struck him the hardest, what got him the hardest he'd been since that night at the farm, was her curves. She wasn't fat, but she had a healthy body and reveled in it-- high quality silks sheathed her body like a second skin and by the roll of her hips, the sultry, commanding sway with which she walked, she knew that she was the one in control.

For a moment. Just one. Caldion thought he might have been staring at the goddess's avatar, but then he noticed the silver rimmed glasses and the pointed ears-- a half elf. But gods, she was something beautiful. As she got to the bottom of the steps, Caldion realized he was staring at the short woman and looked away.

“Well, hello there.” Her tongue rolled over each letter as though it were its own entity. Her voice carried a western accent that set his already hard prick at firm attention. What else could she do with those lips. . . that tongue. How would she sound as she climaxed?

Caldion coughed into his hand, looking away when she caught his eye again. “My apologies, my lady, I. . . did not mean to stare.”

The short woman stopped at the banister and laid both hands atop the rail, grinning at him playfully. When she spoke, her voice was smoother than any wine Caldion had ever tasted. “Shall I take that to mean you have good taste or no manners, then?”

“Ah. . .”

The half-elven beauty chuckled. Caldion's cock ached in his leathers as a reminder of what he shouldn't be thinking about.

“You're blushing.” She said with that same salacious grin. “Any darker and you'll be as red as my hair, dear boy.”

“Begging your. . . pardon, my lady.” Caldion forced himself to meet her gaze and smile as best he could. Even as he did, he saw her gaze lingering on places it shouldn't have in polite company. None the less he refused to show his self-consciousness. Propriety in all dealings.

The woman leaned forward, pressing her ample chest into her forearms. Her breasts strained against the blouse and the silk vest she wore over it, drawing Caldion's gaze ever so briefly. She was smiling again. “We've only just met and I have you begging? My, it would seem I've not lost my touch even as I get on in my years.”

This one he was ready for. Caldion smiled. “My lady, were the stars to speak of your beauty, they would do so for decades to come.”

That drew a smile but there was a subtle flicker of something in her jade eyes; challenge. “But then what will they say about yours I wonder, my good man? Forsooth, nothing nearly as flattering as is filling my mind at this very moment, surely.”

Caldion stared at her for a moment and this time her gaze wandered him deliberately, unashamed and completely fearless. She eyed his crotch, flicked her gaze up to his eyes and smirked. His cock betrayed him and so did the heat that burned his face. Some paladin he was turning out to be. One look at a strong woman and he was hard as stone and blushing like a kid. He exhaled his frustration in a huff, got his shit together and looked her in the eye. “I'm here to help you kill a dragon.”

“Mmmmm,” the sound rumbled in her throat like a purr. “Are you now?”

“You are a priestess of this. . . temple, are you not?” He held up the papersheet. “These are your fliers?”

The half-elf smiled a crooked little grin. “I am going to disappoint you, but alas! Your princess is in another temple. I do not serve the Lady, though I do enjoy Her teachings.” She leaned forward more, arching her back. “Perhaps you would care to learn of them, hm?”

“I-. . .” Caldion closed his eyes for a moment. “With due respect, my lady, I--”

“You've the look of a warrior about you, I think we could use your talents-- but please tell me you've more armor than this?”

He was momentarily caught off guard by the sudden frankness in her tone. She was eying him with scrutiny that belied a cold, calculating mind behind those eyes. She had the look of Caldion's father in that moment and it immediately raised his hackles. “I'm afraid I do not. Though, I will not ask for compensation, I will earn my own keep and work in whatever way must be done so that we are successful.”

She gave him another appraising look and abruptly smiled. “I do love a man that's not afraid to get his hands dirty.” She offered her slender hand with the back facing up so he could kiss it. “Might I know the name of the man who's name I may be screaming out in times of intense emotion?”

He didn't hesitate. Looking up to her eyes from the slightly supplicate pose, he said, “Caldion Lemaine, my lady, a paladin of Alaecon.”

The woman's facade of charm and merriment burned away like early morning fog, leaving her exotic features a mix of emotions. “I'm sorry, what did you say you did for a living?”

“I'm a paladin, my lady. . .?”

“That's what I thought.” She withdrew her hand, rubbed her temples and murmured something in lyrical elven. “Always the cute ones.”

“My lady?”

“You can see yourself out, dear, I've things to do.”

“B--”

“This is not a polite suggestion,” suddenly she was pointing a strange wooden device with a small metal pipe built into it at his face. Her finger was wrapped around something that looked like a crossbow's trigger. “You can see yourself out or be carried out.”

And that's the moment Caldion's life became irritatingly complicated.
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