The Noble Academy of Bahamut was known throughout the continent for training Paladins of Bahamut. Throughout the nation of Wynneth, Paladins of Bahamut were counted as nobility. In fact, they were the only acknowledged nobility in that nation. In other nations, the elite inherited their titles merely by merit of birth, but Wynneth's nobility were meant to be skilled, loyal servants of the populace.

The Academy had been Azalea's home for the past four years, since the age of thirteen, and she was finally nearing graduation, pending a final field test for herself and the other four top students. Presuming she passed successfully, she would then be partnered with a cleric companion, whom she must devote her life to protecting. And the two of them would need to decide where to settle, find a town to protect and call her home. Azalea knew a lot of the paladins hoped to settle in the Shattered Lands, a place outside of Wynneth's proper borders, still largely uncivilized due to frequent attacks by hobgoblins and other monsters.

Few Halflings had graduated from the Academy. Their small size made becoming a Paladin a challenging goal for Azalea's people. She only knew of four to have ever graduated from the academy at all. If she passed her test, she would be the first Halfling female to do so in the Academy's history.

Azalea and the other top students would leave on their separate missions in a week's time. She was fairly certain she was ready. Azalea had every confidence in the training she'd received. She ran her fingers over the meager belongings she kept in her small dorm room. Because of her small stature, she only carried a short sword, although most of the other paladins opted for larger weapons. Anything larger would be too unwieldy for her to manage it along with a shield. The skills she pursued relied more on presence and force of will than on brute strength.

The room's wooden door was flung open suddenly. Azalea's head snapped up, but then she immediately broke into a grin at the sight of her dorm mate and dearest friend, Avery.

"I know what our test is going to be!" Avery grinned impishly, obviously waiting for Azalea to ask more. Her red-gold hair was coming away in wisps from where she'd pinned it in place, and her face was flush. She looked out of breath, as if she'd run the entire way there.

"Are we allowed to know that?" Azalea was a bit more nervous about meticulously following the rules. As an orphan, if she got into trouble or failed from her schooling, she had nowhere to go. Avery, however, was the King's daughter. She could afford to be a bit more forceful and push some of the limits.

"Don't worry. It's posted in the common area. And, it looks like we're both being sent to the same town. So we'll be able to help each other pass our tests. Well? Do you want to know where we're going?" Avery grabbed a chair and plopped herself down in it so she didn't tower over Azalea quite so much. Standing next to one another, Azalea only came to Avery's chest level.

"All right. Where are we going?"

"It's a little mining town in the Shattered Lands called Black Valley. They want us to clear some zombies out of there."

"Oh." Azalea's heart sank a bit. This mission sounded as though it would rely mainly on the brute strength in which she lacked. "Well, that sounds fairly simple, I suppose. Are there any other details?"

Avery shook her head. "I'm afraid not."

"Are we meant to find out where the zombies are coming from? Zombies don't just show up in mines for no reason, right? Maybe there's someone controlling them. If that's the case, just clearing them out isn't going to solve the problem, now, is it?" As Azalea spoke, she started to feel a bit more interested in their mission.

Avery looked up toward the ceiling, thoughtfully. "Maybe it's not such a simple mission, then. Can we be sure someone is always directly responsible for creating zombies? I think some places can develop foul energy, after a catastrophic event, for instance. Like a bad mining accident, for instance."

"Or maybe someone was using them for manual labor or something and lost control of them. Could we be over-thinking this? Maybe we'd better go look them up."

"Sure. Any excuse to visit the library, right?" Avery rose to her feet. "Shall we?"

Azalea rolled her eyes at the remark, and followed her friend out the door, and through the facility, down to the library.

"Oh, how convenient. Olver's here today," Avery whispered.

"He is an authority on things like fighting the undead," Azalea pointed out. At least, in theory Olver was an authority on that. It had been part of his studies. None of them had any true field experience as of yet, of course.

Olver sat behind the library's desk. His dark blond hair was wavy and partly obscuring his brown eyes, and his wide mouth broke into a smile at the sight of Azalea. Despite Avery's teasing, Olver was like a brother to Azalea. He was just a year older than she was. They'd grown up in the same village and had been orphaned together. When Azalea came to the Academy to study and to live, Olver was taken in by the temple of Pelor.

"What can I help you ladies with today?" he asked them.

"Zombies. We need to know everything we can find out about zombies," Azalea told him.

"Well, you came to the right person."

Olver listened as Avery explained what they were going to be doing. "You more or less have the possibilities covered. Someone could be sending these zombies to attack the mines and essentially cripple the town. Or someone could have had them for some personal use that I really don't have the stomach to speculate on, and maybe they died or had control wrested away. Or, someone could have died in the mines and risen again as a result of residual necrotic energy that may be there for any number of possible reasons."

"We'll definitely want to try to investigate the cause," said Azalea. "I think the first thing we'll want to find out is if the zombies are their miners or other citizens, risen from the dead, or if they're coming from somewhere else."

"I should go with the two of you," said Olver. "It's a good idea to have a Priest of Pelor around, when you're dealing with the undead."

"Are you allowed to come with us?"

"'A good Paladin is never too prideful to accept help offered to him when it's for the protection of innocents,'" quoted Avery.

Azalea grinned. "Well, that sounds clear enough to me! We leave in a week," she told Olver. "Will you be able to get away? We'd love to have your help."

"Absolutely, you'll have it."

When the week was up, Azalea, Olver and Avery made the journey to Black Valley. They borrowed horses for part of the way, which they had to return when they reached the patrol station at the edge of the Shattered Pass. They'd been warned that goblins roamed the area, and often attacked loan travelers, but the journey was thankfully fairly uneventful.

Black Valley was a small town in the Shattered Vale, a region that was dry, rocky, and hot. Azalea thought it must be utterly miserable to live here. Nothing grew. The town had to rely entirely on imports in order to function at all. It seemed like a place that the gods had never intended people, or anything living, to inhabit.

It took about a week of travel to arrive at Black Valley. Azalea's small party was met on the road outside of town by the militia, a ragtag, scruffy looking group of human men wearing piecemeal armor who looked as if they hadn't slept in days.

"Identify yourselves," said the leader, who was tall, with dark blond hair and a day or two's growth of beard on his cheeks. He couldn't have been older than his mid-twenties.

Azalea began, "We were sent by the Academy of Bahamut—"

"Are you fucking shitting me?"

Azalea flinched.

"I sent a request for help weeks ago. We've been losing men in these mines and have had to shut them down completely. Because they run in a circle, we haven't been able to clear them out, because we haven't enough men to split them up in there, so the damn zombies just circle around behind our men. And this is our livelihood. More people desert the town every day. We need an army. And they send kids? How old are you? Do you even have any experience at all?" The man's face had turned redder and redder as he spoke.

Azalea and Avery were both seventeen, but Azalea thought it would be best to ignore that part and address his last question. "The Academy of Bahamut provides excellent training. I assure you, we're capable of handling the situation." She hoped she sounded confident, but wasn't sure she did.

"So, in other words, you don't have real-life experience. You've never had to fight for your lives." He sighed. "They sent three inexperienced child paladins."

"Well, Olver here is a Priest of Pelor."

"A Battle Priest," Olver corrected helpfully.

"Right. A Battle Priest."

The man ran his hands through his hair, looking up toward the cloudless sky. "Well, then, at least they aren't completely without any sense. That might actually be useful to us." He looked over the three of them. "I'm Zin. Follow me. I'll introduce you to the people whose lives are depending on your inexperienced asses."