Lost in Perception, Gained in Perspective
"This is a duel, is it not," Gin-Jun raised his sword, "And this duel is not over." He struck with all the precision of Azure City's best Samurai. O-Chul had a fraction of a second to appreciate the katana's keen edge so close. Then half his vision went dark.
Walking along O-Chul's sighted side, Hinjo pointed out: "We have really good clerics on staff, you know. They can probably fix your eye."
"Much appreciated," O-Chul said. "Your uncle has already offered the services of his best cleric. However, there are better uses for such powerful spells than restoring a single organ."
"Oh. Right. Yeah," Hinjo looked down.
"Besides, it is crucial that the Sapphire Guard remember the depths to which their former commander sunk, to ensure they do not lose sight of their duty. I cannot imagine a more effective reminder."
"Wow. You're willing to be half-blind for the rest of your life to keep a group of other people on the straight and narrow?"
"Not only them. I am a member of the Sapphire Guard now, too."
"You can't possibly think that you'll end up like Gin-Jun."
"If I assume that there is no way that I could, I surely will."
'If you are to be a paladin, you can practice riding,' Commander Haruna had declared, so O-Chul now patrolled mounted. They had a point. Muscles O-Chul didn't know he had protested, but he kept going without complaint. He wasn't sure about taking a mount into battle, even if—should the being fall in battle—he could simply summon it again from the celestial realms, whole and healthy. Aside from the clop-clop of hooves, there was only peace and the sounds and smells of a small village much like his childhood home. He kept his remaining eye on the wilder lands.
"Oh, hello Captain!"
He turned to face them, waving at familiar faces. "Is everyone well?" He asked and dismounted.
"Oh nothing to complain about. Some of the other villages, they lost everything. So many people gone, so many homes gone." O-Chul lowered his gaze. While he had defended one village's people successfully, how many more had suffered? "Nothing wrong here that can't be rebuilt." The voice broke through his dark thoughts.
"I am so sorry," he bowed.
"Not at all, not at all, if not for your valiant defense…how are your people?"
"Nguyen is recovering, though it will be some time before he is able to work again. Zhou Bo is as well as can be, though she must take medicine for the rest of her life."
"Ah, poor girl, that can get expensive. But if any of your people need any help, please let us know."
"It is our honor and duty to protect you. Its why you pay taxes after all."
Everyone in hearing laughed. "Guess I can't complain about paying them anymore," one person said, shaking their head, "What a pity." More laughter.
"May the twelve gods bless your families and your harvest," O-Chul said.
"May they do the same for your work."
O-Chul mounted and continued. The crop fields were the worst off, needing re-plowing and planting but he passed rows of new green buds poking their way through dark soil. The village itself bustled with activity and humanity. Already new houses were being built. No doubt people from neighboring villages seeking shelter with their nearest relatives.
He turned his mount toward the mountains, moving along a faster route now that he knew the way. He needed to check another village.
Alongside the cliff-top, O-Chul was able to see into the valley below. The sight was pitiful. Where the village he'd saved was small but bustling, this one was larger, yet terribly empty. Many houses had been turned to kindling and few people dared work in the open. Those who did moved fugitively, fearing another attack. Many were noticeably smaller. Children. O-Chul carefully rode toward the valley, taking pains to keep in clear sight. He could hear the moment a lookout spotted him. A horn blew and the few people he could still see bolted away, deep into the village.
"Wait. Wait! I am not here to harm you. My apologies for disturbing you." O-Chul called, yet dared not speed up his pace. The sight of his new uniform was bad enough. If he urged his mount faster, he could be mistaken for a charging enemy.
By the time he neared the village gates, or where they'd once been, several people had filled the gaping hole, ready to greet him with spears and clubs. Two were clearly injured, using their weapons more as crutches. They were the best fighters of the lot. Others held their weapons in ways that made O-Chul legitimately worry for their comrades. The new paladin dismounted and bowed. "I am so sorry for the disruption. Is there anything I could do to help?"
That got him five sets of bared teeth. "There is nothing you can do to us that has not already been done," one said, tears running down red cheeks.
O-Chul bowed again, "I will remove myself, if you so wish. However, it would be fitting for me to help rebuild, would it not?"
While one clearly wished to help him leave with a spear up the ass, cooler heads prevailed. "So long as you surrender all weapons before entering our village."
They were cautious, as befitting people who had been assaulted by the Sapphire Guard not too long ago. The town, already too large for too few people, sounded like a ghost town now. Not a child was in sight. No doubt hidden somewhere, if not outright evacuated. O-Chul used his mount to help haul new gates into position. One by one, the others continued their tasks. Even with the rest of the day spent working, until long after the last light was gone, they had only gotten the gates to the city repaired.
"My apologies, I can no longer see what I am doing. If I may light a torch, I can assist you further."
"You are a strange human. Do not expect us to be grateful for this. You tore these gates down. You…" a swallow, "So many died and all that death was not enough."
"I know," O-Chul said. He might not have slaughtered this specific village, but he had joined the group who had. "If you can bear my presence tomorrow, I would assist you further."
He did not need light to see the suspicious glances given to him. They began speaking in gobbledegook, arguing really, by the tone. "Only you. No other humans."
The next day, he returned with just himself and as many war-horses as the guard could spare.
"Brother O-Chul, not that I discourage your diligence to a much needed and neglected skill, but why do you require so many war-horses?" Commander Haruna asked.
"Many raided villages have been torn apart and burned, the inhabitants slaughtered. I am doing what I can to help repair them."
"If the commoner wants to do commoners work, let him," Sneered one Paladin. "This is why letting such people in is a mistake. They do not understand our greater duty."
Another protested, "Those are valuable war-horses, exquisitely trained. They should never dig in the dirt like common farm nags."
Commander Haruna resisted the urge to face-palm. "That is commendable, however O-Chul, there are others whose duty is to repair those villages. That duty is not ours and is no longer yours."
O-Chul bowed, "Begging your pardon, but it is my duty as an Azure Citizen and especially a Sapphire Guard, to pay restitution to those the Sapphire Guard has wronged. Without the ability to raise those murdered and slaughtered or pay another to do the same, I can only rebuild."
Commander Haruna was the first to put the pieces together. "Perhaps, brother O-Chul, we may continue this conversation in private."
"What are you talking about?"
"Who has the Sapphire Guard so wronged, brother O-Chul?" Miko asked.
"All the villages assaulted for a Crimson Mantle they never had and a Gate they never threatened."
"The hobgoblins, you mean," someone else finally put two and two together and got four.
"I am certain we had our hand in decimating more than hobgoblins, but yes," O-Chul said.
The outburst that followed was such that not a single voice could be distinguished among the cacophony. Commander Haruna had to use a spell to silence the rest enough to speak. "Brother O-Chul, while your devotion to the ideals of good is commendable, these hobgoblins could use the very labor you have provided to continue their evil ways. Furthermore, if the Sapphire Guard owes them restitution, they in turn owe us restitution for their raids against our villages."
This was followed by a burst of agreement and the occasional insult before things quieted down enough for O-Chul to speak. "I have not lent my aid building anything offensive and, I would rather offer restitution for my wrongs than withhold it waiting for another to correct their wrongs first."
"None of us have murdered goblin children. All the paladins who Fell have been dismissed from the Guard."
"And what terrible punishment that is," O-Chul snarked.
"The point is that we only raised our blades against warriors who raised their weapons against us."
O-Chul considered his fellows. "While Zhou Bo and Saha Kapoor and I were investigating, we came across a two-headed Ettan with a most unusual conundrum. Each head was in control of one-half of the body. The left head was a raging madman who tried to slay us with his club. The right head was an eloquent speaker, who committed no violence upon our persons and insisted he should not be punished for the actions of the left side, which he had no control over."
"True, the right head and arm and leg held no weapon. Nor did the right head or arm or leg attempt to smash or squash us, and yet the right side of the Ettan did nothing to restrain the left side of the Ettan. The right head could have used his right arm to seize the club of the left and throw it away. He could have directed his passionate arguments toward his more violent half, rather than against we who were being assaulted. He could have even done nothing, not moving his right leg and allowing all the left head's targets to escape."
"The right head did none of these things. When Mrs. Kaapor decapitated the Ettan's left head, the right head used his right arm to pick up the club and tried to kill her in turn."
"So the brute was evil all along, so what?"
"My point is that I will not follow the example of the right head and move in the same direction as Gin-Jun. I choose restitution."
This time, there were fewer protests.
"Fine. But you shall not use the warhorses to do so," Commander Haruna said.
"Not use the warhorses of the fallen paladins, who Fell because of their—"
"Fine. Fine. But you have other, more important duties. Those come first."
"Of course, Commander Haruna," O-Chul bowed, "Thank you."
A figure in blue and white paused at the top of the same cliff O-Chul had. He took a moment to appreciate the picture of the village being re-built. The children playing. So few…and fewer adults. Orphans. His face fell and he guided his donkey downwards.
"Sapphire Guard!" Yutrin shouted.
O-Chul twisted his head, glancing at the approaching trio, then turning back to the people rounding on him. "You traitor, I knew this was only to lure us into compliance."
"That is Hinjo." O-Chul said. "He is not a part of the Sapphire Guard and, his increased diligence in training aside, he is no warrior."
"Hello, I mean you no harm," Hinjo spread his hands out. A foolish move, considering he still carried a blade on his donkey.
"This is a trick."
"If I meant to slay you and your warriors," O-Chul said, "I would not have called forth three who have never drawn blood in battle."
"That…is a point," Ziraphax admitted.
"What do you want boy?"
"Ah, I heard about what O-Chul was doing and…" he looked around, "I want to help."
"Does your uncle know you are here, this time?" O-Chul asked.
Hinjo ducked his head, "I think all the Azure City nobility knows I'm here. There was some discussion of your words in a Sapphire Guard meeting and I announced my intentions to all of them."
"If you want help, take this rope." O-Chul handed off one of the ropes he was holding to Hinjo. "And pull."
"Um, actually I brought some…" but the rope was in his arms before he could finish the sentence, introduce any of his servants or point out their work animals. Then the full weight of the log strained against the rope and he had no breath to speak.
Hours later, Hinjo carefully flexed bloody hands so stiff they barely moved, trying to force some life back into them. "Twelve gods, I really need a healing potion now."
"Come here," O-Chul set water to boiling, "Let me clean them out and wrap them. They will harden into callus eventually."
"But…I have a healing potion."
"Yes, and if you use it and continue assisting, your hands will only bleed again tomorrow. If you don't use a healing potion and let your body get used to the work, your hands will grow callused and you won't bleed or need a healing potion."
After a night camping outside the hobgoblin village, Hinjo groaned like he was being raised from the dead. "Healing potion," he croaked. The padded cushions he'd brought hadn't softened a single rock and, despite Yi-Lan and Fai Zhang sweeping the ground smooth before arranging his bedding, it still felt like sleeping on gravel. Sharp, pointy gravel. And every muscle felt like it had been dunked in molten metal and left to harden. He strained to move and every movement brought fiery pain.
Captain O-Chul helped him stagger outside. "Stretches will serve you better. A healing potion will undo everything and you'll feel just as awful tomorrow morning."
"I'll feel worse if I don't. I need that potion. I've never felt this bad in my life."
"It doesn't feel like it now, but your body will grow used to the work, just as your hands will, if you do not take the potion. Here, stretch like this."
Hinjo whined but waved away the potion Zhang brought him and began mimicking O-Chul's movements, much as they hurt. More shouting erupted and an alarm drumbeat echoed through the valley. Startled, Hinjo flopped to his knees. Twelve Gods, if someone was attacking he would be beyond useless.
"Hey, um…I mean no harm," a Sapphire Guard raised her hands, carefully dismounting as she did so.
"The insanity is spreading." Yutrin commented, eyeing this fifth human.
"Better this insanity than the kind they had before," Ziraphax said.
The Lord of Azure City stared down from atop his throne at his newest Paladin. "Congratulations O-Chul, this time a whole dozen guards have resigned in protest. At this rate we may have to make the Sapphire Guard public just to recruit."
"My lord, would it be so bad if we did?" Before Lord Shojo's eyes could more than bulge, O-Chul explained, "The true purpose of the Sapphire Guard must not be known, lest we invite the most terrible of enemies to our doorstep, yet the secrecy of the Sapphire Guard's existence did help corrupt us. And, as you said, it would make recruiting easier."
"And reformation," Lord Shojo added. O-Chul bowed but Azure City's leader waved a hand, "No, no, I approve of change." O-Chul raised his head. "In the meantime, since you have cost me twenty-one guards, it is only fair that you bear the responsibility of recruiting more."
"My lord is most generous," O-Chul bowed again.
A tiny boat fairly skimmed over the open ocean toward the massive ship looming ahead. Beside it swam a shark. "Slavers," Lien clung to Razor's back, her harpoon in both clenched fists. "Why does it have to be slavers."
Over the ocean's roar, O-Chul said. "In a world made hungry for gold, it's a potent lure to evil."
"Surrender and be sent to jail or fight and burn in devil's hail!" Koryn shouted.
The slavers, emboldened by so few enemies, armed themselves with spears while others grabbed crossbows and aimed them at the approaching paladins. Lien shook her head, "Clearly, they like the devil's hail option."
"Yes, sadly we must fight."
"We're almost on their stern, so what's the plan to give them what they've earned?" Koryn asked as she guided the ship closer.
"I will board," O-Chul said. "Lien, can you disable the ship while I am distracting them and Koryn, our ship is your best weapon."
"The situation still looks dire. Do you need some cover fire?"
"That would be most helpful." O-Chul heaved himself onto the side of the ship, sinking a dagger deep into the hull and making his climb. Lien and Razor dove beneath the waves while Koryn launched the first of their ship's weapons against the slavers lining the side of the larger ship.
Stab by stab, O-Chul pulled his way up the wooden sides, heedless of the arrows hissing overhead. Slightly less headless of any impacts to himself. The ship rocked and shuddered, either because of Lien's attacks Koryn's cover-fire.
O-Chul grabbed the first spear aimed at him and twisted, flinging its owner over the side. Before he could fall as well, he caught the edge of the ship's hull with the spear's head and pulled himself aboard, keeping his blind side to the sea. Alongside the awaiting crew was a handsome man with an arrogant grin. "A wise man would drop that weapon. Especially when we haven't attacked anyone that didn't deserve it."
As O-Chul lunged for the captain, screams echoed off the starboard side. Lien's voice added her own smites to the pirates. The ship suddenly jerked like a fish on the line. More people retreated from Koryn's assault as she joined them onboard the enemy ship.
"Ran out of ammunition and none is retrievable." She drew her Wakizashis. "Smite evil!"
They put the slavers to justice.
"Not such terrible odds," Koryn panted as the last slaver fell, "Thank the twelve gods." She wiped her forehead, which only painted it red. Both her blades dripped with blood. "Well I'll be deviled, I gained a level. O-Chul?" She looked up.
The senior Paladin hadn't moved from where he stood, overlooking the cargo hold. His voice was the tranquil calm of a hurricane eye, "I know why they didn't need many fighters."
Lien peered over his shoulder and clenched her hands to fists. "That's…they're…"
Koryn took a look, "Children," she whispered.
Some so young they couldn't feed themselves. The eldest was still less than half Koryn's age, though she was the youngest Paladin. All of them chained and collared in conditions illegal for animals in Azure territory. O-Chul was the first to approach and kneel before them. "It is alright," he said soothingly, revealing a key, "I am here to free you."
The children shrank away from him. Goblin children. Doubtless raised on horror stories of blue and white clad humans before bedtime. One child, bolder than others, stepped between the other children and him. "Will you poke our eyes out?"
O-Chul pressed a fist to his heart and bowed. "I promise, on my oath as a Paladin, none of us will poke your eyes out or do you harm." Lien and Koryn followed his lead.
"Yeah," Lien added, "It's the guys up here who should get their eyes poked out."
Several children craned their necks eagerly, "Did you poke their eyes out?"
"As naughty as they're being, they need a lot more than an eye-poking," Koryn said.
The paladins freed the children and used the chains to wrap the slavers up. After repairing the damage, Lien steered this ship toward the children's village, their own boat hitched behind. O-Chul guarded the slavers, sword unsheathed, with a solid promise of much worse than eye-poking in his glare. Koryn, a bard by background, entertained the children with stories of 'Snidely Whiplash'.
"…And then the Owlbear broke out with a roar and Snidely Whiplash would whip it no more," Koryn finished the tale with a flick of her wrist and a trill on her lyre as the children shrieked with glee.
The sight warmed O-Chul's heart. Redemption always did.
"The Paladins are coming! The Paladins are coming!" The watcher's cry was taken up by everyone who heard. Djirik's left eye twitched with remembered pain. He wept at the injustice. After breaking free of the terrible lich, turning his back on his last living family to do so; after building a new village, a new family, Paladins came again to take it all away again in death and fire.
No time to weep or curse. "Call the other fighters to arm themselves. Anyone who can't fight or is too young must retreat with…with the remaining children."
Once, Djirik had been impulsive. Once, the only family he'd had was his responsible older brother. Now (Dark One save him) he not only had a family, but a whole village—one he was the elder for! He, who'd once thought living to twenty was right out. But he'd made plans. His village would not be slaughtered wholesale by Paladins. As his eldest child left with the younger, more virile generation to escort the remaining children, his wife took up a spear. He took down his old ax and gave it a last-minute sharpening. They joined the rear guard.
The most experienced fighters of the entire village stood in a mis-mash of old or hastily made shields, farm implements, heirloom weapons and the best armor—mostly tough clothing—they could find. They would make a stand while everyone else escaped. They would buy their children and grandchildren time: with their lives. He took his place in the lead. "Where are the Paladins?"
"By sea Elder. A whole ship."
The massive ship loomed toward their tiny, new dock like the shadow of a dragon landing. Only worse. Dragons could be reasoned with. Even slavers only took so much, but paladins? This was his death day. No doubt about that. His knuckles paled. He'd be damned if he died in vain. For his village. For his children. The ship drew up beside their dock.
"Hi daddy!" His youngest daughter bounced up just behind the ships rim, waving both hands with every leap. His heart leapt in his throat when a blue-cloaked silhouette appeared behind her. No sound escaped his mouth as the paladin leaned down and grabbed his precious, precious daughter.
His heart didn't know what to do when the paladin set her on its shoulders. With a gleeful smile, she waved frantically, shouting, "Daddy! Mommy!" at ear-splitting volume. He hardly noticed the swarm of other children, stolen away to a horrific fate, now happily crying out as they recognized family. He was fixated on the sight of his own daughter riding the shoulders of that Paladin.
Numbly, he waved back.
The ship docked efficiently and barely was the plank down when they were flooded with young children and younger grandchildren. The Paladin gently set his daughter down and was joined by two more of his kind who, for now, stood back and merely watched the reunions. "Sir? Elder?"
"They're behaving strangely," Djirik said.
"Strangely? If I hadn't seen this I wouldn't believe it. Human paladins saving our children? Has the world turned upside down?"
The paladins seemed content to watch, so Djirik headed their way, hesitantly holstering his ax. It would do him little good against the powerful warriors and less good to antagonize people who weren't attacking. The paladin who picked up his youngest, an older fellow with a bristle of ugly hair around his mouth and an eyepatch over one scarred eye also stepped forward and bowed. "Are you the leader here?"
"Yes, Village Elder Djirik." Never again would he go by that humiliating designation 'right eye'.
"I am O-Chul of the Sapphire Guard." The name pricked the skin over his spine. This whole reunion was a lie. A ruse. The paladins were only pretending to return the children and would swarm out of the ship and slaughter them all. "Are all these children of your village or do we need to deliver some of them elsewhere."
Some of the children were clearly from neighboring villages, but Djirik dared not reveal a single person to the terrors of the Sapphire Guard. "All the children have family here," he said. It wasn't a lie. Didn't Paladins have 'detect lies'? It couldn't be detect evil or they'd surely realize the truth about themselves.
"So long as they are safe," and the Paladin—O-Chul—actually gave him a considering look. As though he was the danger to the children here.
"I'm surprised they were safe with you," Djirik said. Boldly, given the forces against him. "I've met the Sapphire Guard before," he tapped his eyepatch, "I was lucky enough to get away with only a lost eye. Most of my village…your guard slaughtered them all."
One of the other paladins looked to their leader's lost eye. "A lot of that went around, huh."
Djirik wasn't great at reading human expressions, but this one seemed genuinely sad. Or he was a very good liar. "I am sorry for your loss and sorrier still that my guard was the cause. While we cannot bring the those so long dead back to life, if there is anything we can do for you now…?"
"Just…leave us. Leave us in peace."
Before the Paladins left, another Paladin held out a crystal. "Just in case. This will contact us. You lost your birth family and village to us. It would only be fair for us to save your second family and village."
"The world isn't fair."
"No, its not," the Paladin agreed, "That's why I shove some fairness up its ass."
The Paladins took not the large ship, but another small boat, one that he hadn't noticed until it detached and sailed away. The larger ship stayed in their harbor. It was a very nice ship.
"The world turned upside down," Djirik said, "Anyone here know how to sail a ship?"
Djirik hadn't planned to use the crystal. It was a Paladin thing. He'd escaped his second encounter with the Sapphire Guard life and village intact. No need to push his luck a third time. His first instinct was to get rid of it entirely. Maybe it was a spying tool. He'd hidden the orb, surrounded by padding, in a box, and tried contacting buyers. Magic items were worth a lot of gold, usually. His village could always use more. Especially if their unity plan would work out. With the children's safe return, the conflicts threatening to break the blood ties between half a dozen villages calmed. Now, the six separate villages were pulling down fences and merging boarders, becoming one.
Gobbletopia, as his elder brother had always preached, just might be a reality in his lifetime. No world-devouring abominations needed.
Then Xykon returned. Following his brother like a curse. Calling him right-eye. Demanding his whole city become slaves or die horribly. Passing out torches to burn their homes like it was a game. Djirik felt bile in his throat. Yes, the city itself was only mortar and brick, straw and wood, but it gave them peace and prosperity. They hadn't been attacked at all since the slavers. They had trade agreements, using the ship that had once stolen their children to move goods. His eldest, oh Dark One, might have that chance at being a wizard in their first school.
All turning to ash. "Right-Eye, you lose an ear too? Have this lot ready to march before we set up the flame-throwers." Xykon shrugged, "Or not and we have a show." The lich turned away. Djirik stormed into his home, teeth bared as, distantly, low-level clerics cried out 'cure wounds' in futile finality. Xykon would do it. Burn down the city. Enslave every person here and throw lives away like the living throw away shit.
"You can't do this brother," Djirik hissed. "Look at what we've built. Fight for it. For our family."
His elder brother bowed his head, "I'm sorry brother, I'll keep him from harming our people," Clearly he was deaf to the screams, "But Xykon is still our best shot and he has a lead on another gate. If we don't go with him, the whole plan will not only die, it will be in the hands of him."
"I see," Djirik turned away icily. He took out the box and ripped through the padding, grasping the crystal ball. The world had surely turned upside down. But if his own brother wouldn't help him, maybe former enemies would.
He activated the orb. "Lich attacking my village. I repeat, Undead Lich attacking village Gobbletopia. Enslaving us for evil army. Burning the city. Please help." They would arrive too late. His peaceful home would be ashes by the time the first Paladin scouts came by. But Djirik could only hope someone had a rank or two in track. That somehow, even if he died, what remained of his family. At this point Djirik was willing to take any chance in hell. Or heaven.
"Confirmed undead attack on a city. Enslaving them. Sapphire Guard report for duty. This is not a drill!"
Paladins leapt out of bed, buckling on armor, summoning steeds, sheathing swords and taking up polearms as they rushed to the front gate. An attack on a city by undead anywhere was call for the Sapphire Guard to assemble. One close enough for an Orb of Sending to reach? Teleportation specialists were being yanked to the assembly still in their sleeping robes.
"We've tried calling back but a response we lack," Koryn reported.
"It may already be too late."
"Are the teleporters here?"
"Thirty shall stay to guard the Sapphire," commanded Lord Shojo. "You know what this attack could mean." Thirty people, their duty already selected, saluted solemnly and fell back to the throne room. The rest of the guard saluted them back. "The rest, with O-Chul to battle. Wizards, begin teleportation just outside the city."
Minutes after Djirik called, the first Paladins landed on the outskirts of the newly named Gobbletopia.
The first sign of something off was the lack of working flamethrowers. Redcloak mentally breathed a sigh of relief, but still wondered what was going on. "What was that?"
"Dunno." Xykon swooped from the sky and hovered over the flame throwers, all of which were blazing merrily. "Hey, what's the big idea? You're supposed to light the village on fire, not yourselves."
Three glowing arrows struck him, two in the eye-sockets and one where his heart had been. The lich swore. "What the hell." He yanked them out and glared in their direction. "Oh, Paladins."
Redcloak's worst nightmare had come to life. Rank after rank of blue-cloaked Sapphire Guards appeared out of nowhere, charging yet another helpless goblin village. His brother had spent so long uniting the villages and expanding his new city that the fool had no defenses. Now they would all pay for that folly. "No," Redcloak stepped forward. "Not again."
His brother stopped him with a harsh, clawed grip. "No. Not again." He said calmly.
Xykon was already flying out of reach, laughing, "Alright, let's see how many Paladins I can hit. Join my army goblins and you won't get trampled into sludge." But to both the lich's and Redcloak's shock, the goblins of the city began rushing forward, men, women and children alike. It made no sense. "Are you lemmings? Aww hell, meteor swa—argh." A Paladin riding a Griffon flew by and both talons and sword smote him, interrupting his concentration. She was only the first.
They were all dead, Redcloak thought. Maybe if Xykon could concentrate on the main body of paladins on the ground rather than the few swarming him in the air like wasps, they would have a chance. A chance paid in goblin lives, but that was always Xykon's way. Better some die than all. Speaking of which, "What are you doing brother?"
"I didn't think they'd get here so fast," his brother was crying from his remaining eye.
"Well they have and unless you want to lose your other eye, you'll run."
The Paladins on the ground had reached the first ranks of goblins. Redcloak tried another spell, a futile one against such numbers but if he could just inflict a few wounds on the steeds, maybe…but again his brother stopped him. "What is wrong with you?"
Redcloak heard nothing but the thunder of hoofbeats. After a moment, he realized the lack of screams. Then the Paladins were upon him.
Only they didn't attack. Not a one. They flowed around him and his brother and his brother's family like water around rocks. Not a single spear or sword lowered. Not a single person was getting scratched. The Paladins were letting them go. They charged straight for Xykon's undead army. Then spears lowered. Then Paladins bellowed as one: "Smite Evil."
He swore he could feel the power in his teeth. Ranks of undead crumbled. "What is going on?" Redcloak asked Djirik.
It said something about the whole situation that Xykon figured it out before Redcloak. "You traitor. You're in bed with the Paladins."
Djirik was already swinging his ax at another undead. "Better than being in bed with you." He turned to Redcloak. "Well brother? The Paladins are not the ones about to burn Gobbletopia to the ground. They're not trying to enslave us. They aren't killing us," Djirik jabbed a claw up at Xykon, who faced half a dozen paladins on winged mounts, "…not anymore. He is."
"You…them…allying?" Redcloak stuttered.
"I've had to grow up. I've had to let go of old grudges." A smirk, "Though they let go first. Several years ago they saved my nephew and daughter and many other children from slavery."
"But why? How?"
"Because the Sapphire Guard changed too." Djirik slew another undead. "That's what living is about brother. Change. Who will you support?"
Redcloak hesitated. He looked to Xykon, who knew about the gates, who was the arcane caster he'd put all his bets on, who was their only hope for a better life. Then he looked around, where some human paladins were sheltering children and teleporting them away. He looked to his people, many cheering on the Paladins.
Zriersrakth powered up a spell and flung it in the air, "Mass cure wounds."
The last undead died again. Enslaved ogres were freed and those willing easily turned away from their former allegiance. Those fallen in battle were resurrected if they could be and given funerals if they could not. Xykon would never rise again. An impromptu feast broke out, courtesy of a Hydra being turned into an 'all you can eat' buffet. "How did that happen?" he asked.
It was a rhetorical question, but the paladin next to him, an ugly looking fellow who, like his brother, was missing an eye, answered. "Redemption."
Zriersrakth growled, "My people do not need redemption."
"I was referring to the Sapphire Guard," the Paladin said. "We are doing good where once we did evil."
"And you think saving one village," City, but technicalities, "Wipes away the crimes of your guard? I lost my whole village…and my brother lost his eye to a Paladin's Katana."
"Not even a single life saved can make up for a single life lost." He took a sip of soup, "But better to spend a life in restitution than another day in evil."
Zriersrakth rolled his eyes, an expression lost on his neighbor, as the paladin's blind side was to him, "How did you lose your eye? A hobgoblin warlord?" he sneered.
"A paladin of the Sapphire Guard."
At first, Zriersrakth swore he hadn't heard right. "What?" But clarification revealed his hearing wasn't fading and after losing his eye, the human had joined the Sapphire Guard. "Why?"
The human faced him with both working and blind eyes. "My lord could not disband the Sapphire Guard. It needed reforming. What else could I do?"
Zriersrakth looked away and fiddled with the Crimson Mantle. Later that night, he prayed to the Dark One for guidance, but amid this growing city…surely The Plan could wait? Just a little while. He could always put the cloak back on, after all.
"Equality first," the Dark One demanded, "Or the deal's off."
"Now wait just a minute—"
"—Told you we should have waited for another god—."
Loki stepped out from the bickering crowd toward their newest divine member, "What my colleagues mean is we would like some reassurance that you will keep up your end—"
"Equality first," Thor agreed. Several gods glared at him, but the thunder god remained unmoved. "It is not as though we have to destroy the world to do an update," he glanced around the room. "And then we imprison the Snarl forever." He held out his hand.
The Dark One scowled, "I haven't forgotten your first reaction to me," he said and held out a reluctant hand. "But you have a deal."
A/N: I really wanted a happy ending for both the goblins and the Sapphire Guard.