I'll let you decide which version goes into the final book. Enjoy!
Highshield © 2017 Randolph Lalonde
Highshield Chapter XXX
Haffor never thought he’d be taken alive, especially by a group of what the Brigth Ones’ followers called Paladins. They were inferior in every way, he had defeated an uncountable number of them in battle, but it didn’t change the fact that he and his people were overwhelmed by their force. After they expended every trick and resource they had on defending the peasantry against the undead and those who commanded them, the Bright Ones’ Paladins – the Morning Guard – took advantage of the situation. With a fresh company of Paladins, they surrounded Haffor and his six. He knew it was pointless to fight, but the seven remaining Eventide Paladins there did just that, and killed twenty one Morning Guard Paladins before Haffor and two of his fellow paladins were taken captive. The other four were killed. They were lucky. That was how Haffor found himself strapped to a makeshift altar in an old bathhouse.
His jaw, forehead, the top of his head and his neck all throbbed. The Morning Guard didn’t beat him one on one, or take him honourably. No, when at least thirty Bright One Paladins overwhelmed him at the end, they beat them with cudgels and immobilized them with heavy nets. It was cowardly, but he understood it. They wanted sacrifices for their God, and he didn’t plan on letting them have it.
His throbbing head and neck weren’t the worst part of getting captured. Even the disgrace of it wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t live with it, though that was terrible. No, the worst part of being captured was the chanting. Some incomprehensible old human language that sounded like; ‘olm-ru-las-foooo-sha’ over and over again for hours. When one group of robed men and women grew too tired to continue, another group took the next shift.
If he fell asleep, someone rapped him on the forehead with one of those damned bags. They were little bags filled with pebbles and sand that were tightly packed, and a pop on the head with one of those was enough to make Haffor sore, angry and wide awake all at the same time.
He cursed at them, tested his restraints, even defacated on the table as rudely and forcefully as was possible. They ignored the curses easily enough, the silver plated shackles held his considerable strength and the increased power he had from his tattoos in check. When he messed himself and the table, they cleaned him up immediately. He managed to aim and fire a stream of piss into a priest’s eye from half way across the room, which brought him a moment’s mirth but didn’t accomplish anything else. Even the chanting went on. “‘Olm-ru-las-foooo-sha, olm-ru-las-foooo-sha, olm-ru-las-foooo-sha,’ bloody ‘olm-ru-las-foooo-sha,’ what does it mean?” he asked.
“It is the phrase of calling,” said a priest in a pristine white robe as he entered the room. Haffor wished he hadn’t spent all his urine in one burst. “The Bright One will observe our sacrifice.”
“I’m guessing my people have already been knifed in the belly,” Haffor said.
“No, my dear Captain, we’re starting with you so our God knows to observe,” the priest said. His ears had been cut off, and he had a long scar running down each cheek. “This is how we honour our enemies.”
“We honour our enemies by giving them a good fight,” Haffor retorted, testing his arm and leg restraints again. They held fast, there was no escape. “Put a sword in my hand and a few of your little paladins in front of me. Let’s see how many of you whoresons I can kill before you put me down.”
“What terrible language. They told me you were ill mannered, and I had trouble believing it. The Captain of the Eventide? Shitting himself and cursing at his captors? I had to see for myself. I am Datho Umbra, the Justice and Diviner. I represent the Bright One’s balance and light in this world.”
“Then you might be able to answer my question,” Haffor said. “Why does it seem that the Bright Ones Order stood by while chaos and necromancy tore this city apart?”
“This was not our fight. It was the final test for the Eventide and the citizenry of this city. If you won, it would have been a sure thing that this is your place, your domain, but it is a pile of cooling cinders, and the best company in your order has been reduced to only a few.”
“You realize that the Temple Guards will emerge eventually and kill every member of the Bright One Order they find. You should spend this time running like the cowards you are, not gloating like children.”
“My sources tell me that the Miradu Temple Guards won’t emerge for another two days. They watch over the Temple itself while the Grand Matron turns the entire Order over to Wydu, a situation the Bright One finds favourable.”
Haffor spat at the priest, landing a great gob up his nose. “That’s what I think of your God.”
“Crude,” the priest said, recoiling and snatching a hand towel from the shelf behind him.
“Let my paladins go, and that’ll be the last you see of us in this city. It’s heart is corrupt, I’ll have no part of it,” Haffor said.
“They would carry tales of your bravery back to your home, and they would erect a statue to you in Forge Hin,” the priest finished wiping his nose and threw the towel at an acolyte. “An army would form and march here. I don’t need to be a Diviner to know that. No, I’d rather spread tales of the cursing, spitting, pissing and shitting dwarf on the sacrificial altar.”
“My manners reflect the quality of my hosts,” Haffor said, struggling for a fart and filling the air with a sharp trumpet sound. “There we go.” If he could keep his captor talking, he could gather his thoughts and begin concentrating on his last resort.
“You can’t still believe that your Goddess is worth fighting for? One half of your pantheon has turned on the other, all our oracles confirm it. Wydu and all the Gods he keeps chained to his throne have won the city, won the temple, even your Grand Matron.”
“Forge Hin will always follow Miradu,” Haffor said.
“But will you?” asked the priest. “I’m offering you a place amongst our paladins. The Morning Guard would take you with open arms.”
“That’s not a real offer, is it?” Haffor asked. His concentration was elsewhere. He recalled halls of stone, the sights of home, and the shrine to Viis in Forge Hin. Behind her shrine were high painted walls that celebrated the founders of Forge Hin, the First Masons, and told the story of Miradu coming to their aid during a long famine.
“This certainly is a real offer. You could walk free today, become a member of our Order. We’d require a sacrifice from you first, to show that you are truly willing to become one of us, but most of us don’t miss our ears, or a nose. It’s a small price to pay for standing in the light of the Bright One for just a moment.”
“Let me consider,” Haffor said, closing his eyes and holding an image of Viis in his mind. She stood tall, in heavy armour with a shield on one arm and sword in her hand. Irenick was at her side, stoic and strong with the shadow of a great black dragon above them. Then he felt it, the presence of Miradu and Irenick. He’d felt it before, when he took his vows as a paladin, when he stood in front of Nethanga The Depthwalker and nearly died before taking his head, and when he first met Tadrin and Oria. “I have served my Goddess and her God children for nearly a century,” Haffor said quietly. “I will not abandon them. I give them my knowledge, my power, my worldly possessions, all the moments of my life and my life itself.”
“Bring my clamps, and my blade! Now!” the priest shouted. “This dwarf is up to something, I can sense it.” A pair of lesser worshippers in rough spun robes rushed from the room. “When they get back I will cut your tongue out unless you tell me something useful.”
“For Miradu, Viis, Irenick and all those who serve I lay my sword down, surrender my shield, and put myself in your care.”
“Tell me, dwarf; does Forge Hin guard a passage? A hidden way to the lands the Ondi escaped to? Everyone knows the Ondi-Ne are dwarf kin, you must have known them. Where have you hidden them?”
The line of questioning surprised Haffor, but he maintained his concentration and a chant of his own. “Miradu the merciful, bringer of the great harvest. Viis the defender, champion of the weak. Irenick the virtous, champion of justice. I commend…”
The priest covered Haffor’s mouth with his hands hurriedly, trying to clamp the dwarf’s jaw shut. Haffor forced the last words through, and even though they were muffled, he managed to finish. “…my being into your hands.”
The acolytes returned with wooden cases. Their master opened one hurriedly. As he rummaged through it, Haffor’s sight was filled with a distant field. He could feel cool grass under his feet, a dark blue sky overhead and golden wheat all around.
The clamp on his tongue seemed like a distant thing, as did the shouting of the Bright One Priest. “We need your strength, Haffor,” said a strong female voice. He had never heard it before, but knew it was Viis. “Take my brother’s hand and you will be spared suffering.”
He turned to see them both in full plate armour. “What of my fellow paladins?”
“You will have to help us retrieve them. Most did not make it here,” Irenick said. He extended his hand. “Some are caught in the Black Mire, others believe they’ve been lost in the Void, while still more have found realms of hate or are pursued by predatory spirits who may capture them for Gods, a few of them ancient, and many more who are new.”
“Like Wydu?” Haffor asked. “He hunts for the spirits of my fallen paladins?”
“He does so more than any other entity, yes. You can help us defend them, guide them back here.”
The blade sliced into the back of his tongue as the priest pulled on the clamps. He was half choking, struggling to turn away.
Haffor took Irenick’s hand and his suffering ended. A glance over his shoulder revealed a grisly scene – his body turning grey, the priest savagely pulling his tongue loose from his head – and he couldn’t help but smile at how the priest cursed at his subject dying before he could be properly sacrificed.
“Come, don your armour, pick up your shield and sword,” Viis said. “In your lifetime you fought many things, delivered justice to the weak, and defended the helpless. Now I would take you to battlefields where we slay demons, liberate trapped souls, and guard the borders of this paradise. It will not be easy, but it is the ultimate calling for a Paladin.”
“What about Rendiran, Tadrin and Oria?” Haffor asked.
“Rendiran has been walking the path he’s on for centuries, over more lives than we have lived combined,” said the voice of Drikson. “He will once again pursue a path to power, as he has in so many previous lives, but this time he will do so as a guardian.”
Haffor embraced the tall human. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again, old friend.”
“I knew it was only a matter of time, but then, I have certain advantages as I watch things go on from this side. For example, it seems a mistake you made is going to be very frustrating to your captor;” with a gesture, Drikson sent a vision to Haffor. He was back in the makeshift sacrificial room with that ear-less priest. “Where is his sword?” he was asking, looking through Haffor’s possessions. The pile on the floor was lacking a scabbard.
“The paladins only gave us his hammer, High Priest,” an acolyte replied, offering Haffor’s heavy hammer to him as though it was precious.
The priest picked it up and closed his eyes. After a moment he attempted to throw it across the room and only managed to hurl it a few feet. “Nothing but enchantments against the risen dead! Where is his sword? The Sword of the Eventide?”
“We’ll search his things and the gatehouse again, High Priest.”
The vision faded, Haffor was back with Drikson in the Fields of Miradu. “I left it on my horse,” Haffor said with a grin.
“Something you’ve been known to do often enough,” Drikson added with a nod. “It didn’t go unnoticed by Marjay, who used your mare to spirit Oria and Tadrin away. It’s on his belt now, he’s covered it, and will guard it until he reaches Forge Hin.”
“Cunning bastard,” he chuckled.
“Fortune favours us,” Drikson said. “So it’s a good time to travel to strange realms and free our friends.”
“Are you both ready?” Irenick asked as he strapped his shield to his arm. “The sun sets here, and realms are most easily traversed as twilight approaches. Your grandfather, Zaffor, leads the Third Legion into the darkness of Camor, on the boarder of the Wandering Wood.”
“The Wandering Wood? I was there as a boy,” Haffor said. “I swear I remember being there.”
“You were,” Viis said. “Back then it was closer to the realms of the living. Now it is larger by far, more dangerous than ever, and more difficult for the living to visit.”
“So, there’s a way back. A way back to the realms of the living.”
“You worshipped Miradu, Viis and me all this time but didn’t believe we could ever return?” Irenick asked, amused.
“I believed in your values, in your blessings,” Haffor replied with reverence. “That you could emerge from a shrine whole and alive again? That seemed impossible until only a little while ago.”
“When your Tadrin and Oria come to full maturity, you’ll see the path of the Gods open. I look forward to seeing your astonishment,” Viis said. “For now, we have members of your Eventide Order to rescue and assemble. Shall we?”
Haffor realized only then that he was in full armour, a hammer so well weighted in his hand that it felt like a part of his arm. “Lead the way.”