The path to the manor of Mornas looked desolate, a few crows and some twisted trees bordered the road. Five horsemen were riding at a slow pace, the sight of them was impressive, mounted on battle steeds and wearing robust suits of armours made of steel. Bearing the arms of the Knights of the Westmarch, they were heading towards Mornas, an ancient haunted place where no life had been seen for fifteen years. But lately, the neighbouring and thriving city of Nism has experienced a spate of strange phenomena, missing persons, terrifying screams at night, bloody paintings on the walls and an unnatural fog from dusk until dawn. This was enough to convince the Paladins of Westmarch to inquire about the situation. According to their archives, the manor of Mornas located ten miles north of Nism, was the most suspicious place. Ancient books mentioned that the last known owner, the Marquis of Orclard, was a vicious man renowned for his taste for libertinage and debauchery. It was said that orgies involving demons were common until fourteen years ago. Since then not a single piece of news had been heard from the manor. Everyone just assumed that something must have gone wrong and that the servants of the Burning Hell had taken their revenge. This was a normal assumption for local folks to make; it was common knowledge that to treaty with the evil forces would always turn to your disadvantage sooner or later...
Even in broad daylight, the atmosphere was tense and the horses were starting to be reluctant to carry on marching. Suddenly, a newly found confidence boosted their spirits and they accelerated the pace to reach their goal, the massive decrepit wooden doors of the manor.
'Good thinking Brother Ducarin, your use of your empathy talent is a wonder.'
'I thank you for your praise Captain Leotard, you are as discerning as usual.'
As they dismounted their horses, the well-respected Captain observed his knights and issued his orders with authority:
'Sandoval, Christian and Alaric with me, Brother Ducarin, you are to remain alone with the horses. If we are not back by dusk, ride back to Bramwell and send word from us to the Commander. Understood?'
All the Paladins' eyes surveyed the sturdily built forty year-old Captain, his big brown moustache and his grey hair atop a severe face earned him a great deal of affection and respect from his peers. He was a friend to some and a father figure for the younger ones in the group.
All agreed without discussion, only one voice did not echo his orders: Alaric's. Leotard shook his head and smiled, he recalled perfectly having punished the young man with a three days vow of silence for his foul-mouthed tirade on Paladins naivety, and all that whilst he was under the influence of wine. It was Alaric's first assignment with Leotard, but in the space of a week, the captain, usually a good judge of character, could not decide if Alaric was the kind-hearted open-minded philanthropist type or just trouble. Christian on the other hand was the epitome of the Paladin order; some found him to be a genuine paragon of virtue others would say that it was nothing but an act. Sandoval was quite the opposite of these two; a tall strong man with a limited intellect, compensated for by his pious reading of the principles and ideas of Zakarum. To every difficult question, his answers were always a quote from the Holy Scriptures.
One by one, they started to pick their equipment and weaponry. The classic combination of both a long sword and a large shield was Christian's favourite. He then put on his long chainmail and adjusted the mirror plate on top. Sandoval, who was well over six foot tall, picked up his long double-axe and threw it on his shoulders with ridiculous ease; one could wonder how much iron was used for his immense full plate armour. Alaric was wearing a thick brigantine covered by finely crafted and decorated lamellar armour. His shield was his most precious asset, more than the shield itself, it was the heraldry painted on it which meant so much to him. An azure colour covered by a single golden fleur-de-lys. He then equipped himself with his bastard sword and readied himself for anything he may come across after passing through the doors of the manor. All four men were wearing blue capes with the Coat of Arms of Westmarch, solid greaves, thick spaulders and comfortable vambraces, except for Sandoval with his impressive gauntlets. Sandoval opened the door with brute force; pieces of wood were falling heavily on the ground as a result. All the windows of the manor were covered by curtains; the main hall was pitch black and nothing seemed to be alive inside the walls of the edifice. Leotard whispered:
'Draw your swords and hold your guard tight. Alaric, find a ladder and remove the curtain from the rose window, we shall see better what we are about to face.'
Alaric sighed, he quickly realised that there was no ladder available, and he resigned himself to pile up pieces of furniture as an improvised scaffold to reach the curtains. After a quiet minute spent at his task, Alaric reached the cornice of the rose window where the dusty curtain had laid untouched for years. He violently pulled down the piece of fabric and the light pierced through the darkness, revealing a dreadful scene. Whilst a few Fallen were running away scared by the sudden surge of luminosity, the Paladins observed in silence a pile of dead bodies covered in flies and dried blood. All the corpses were those of women. There was nothing more appalling to a knight bred for virtue and defence of the fairer sex, than to see dozens of "damsels in distress" butchered with such cruelty. Confronted by this horrendous vision and an unbearable smell, the Paladins felt their guts turning upside down, only Alaric and Leotard managed to maintain their cool. Sandoval was shaking with fury, eager to destroy every last remnant of evil in the place. Although trained to be tough, nothing could have prepared them for the scene. Christian let loose and belted out with rage:
'Demons! You can beg, you can crawl, you can hide and pray for Diablo himself to show up, but nothing, you hear me, nothing will prevent you from being slain on this day!'
His powerful voice echoed throughout the galleries of the main hall, if there was still any evil asleep in that place, it would have been awoken by now. So much for a surprise attack, thought Alaric. Captain Leotard was overwhelmed with both tactical thinking and trying to bring his two men to reason. A Paladin should always keep his calm and remain cold blooded, but how on Sanctuary could he blame them? He tried to empathise with them by releasing an aura of tranquillity, urging his fellow companions to come back to their senses and to focus on the situation.
Coming from the great staircase, fully armed Goatmen started pouring into the main hall and Fallen spearmen started to climb the walls, things were looking bad, they were outnumbered. Before the captain could say a word, Christian and Sandoval led a devastating charge into the demons' ranks. The taller man was swinging his double-axe with raw power, erasing every Goatman unfortunate enough to be in his path. When Sandoval's attacks became too predictable, he switched to an upward swing that split open another demon. The servants of Hell grew weary of the fight and responded by circling him and ducking when the double-axe was flying in the air, the hits became rarer... In the meantime Christian quickly realised he made a mistake, lunging onto the demons and thrusting his sword into their chests up to the hilt, was impressive at first, but he realised that he had never faced so many opponents at the same time, and his long shield skills were far inferior to his fencing. As he was slicing the arm off a Goatman, he felt a hit on his back and a cut to his elbow. Carefully adjusting his shield position and his footing, he understood that he was not in an enviable position at that instant.
Captain Leotard was facing numerous enemies coming from the left hand side of the hall, yet he was calmly falling back towards his foolhardy companions making sure their back was covered. Fully aware of the situation, Alaric assessed his options and decided not to draw his sword, her heaviness might throw him unbalanced off the cornice and he would be of no use with a broken leg. He put his shield in front of him and waited for a Fallen to approach; these tiny creatures were renowned for their utmost cowardice and he had a plan in mind. He suddenly dashed forward and leaned on his left foot to crouch and unleashed a violent blow to the Fallen's head sending him flying, landing four metres below. The impact made a terrifying sound, the cheekbones of the demon cracked noisily when encountering the shield's iron. His next opponent witnessed the scene and immediately turned around to flee. He then collided with one of his friends and the both of them fell to the ground as well, this rain of Fallen immediately attracted the attention of the Knights struggling underneath. Alaric tore apart another curtain and the sudden light blinded the Goatmen giving an opening to his friends to slay a few more, but also an opportunity to escape this helpless situation. Alaric shouted:
'Run towards the corridor and then turn left, I saw a small door, there, we can barricade ourselves in that room! I will open you the way!'
Taking advantage of the demons' confusion, the three Paladins cut their way through and started running, Alaric was always one step ahead, ripping down all the curtains he came across. He offered his friend safe passage to the end of the main hall. He then jumped on some barrels stored against the wall and landed with the ease of a cat on the stone floor. He rushed to the door and opened it quickly. His heart would not stop pounding; he could feel no presence in the room. Sighing with relief, he walked towards a heavy oak cupboard and waited for the others. One by one they reached this refuge and helped him barricade the door with everything they could find while Sandoval held it closed. After five minutes, the outside noise ceased. Alaric checked the other entrance and found to his satisfaction that it was locked and that the key was on their side, they could really do with a bit of luck. Annoyed, he shouted:
'Are you two out of your minds? You nearly got us killed! Oh what a spirited tirade Christian, you... '
'Enough!' thundered the strong voice of Captain Leotard,
'May I remind you that all of you are still apprentices! A mistake was made, but Alaric's fast and forward-thinking saved us. We shall not argue nor blame anyone but proceed and work together in order to achieve what we came for!'
Nobody dared say a word, but the three young men knew that the Captain's fierce and clear-minded management of the rear-guard had played a big part in their survival.
They gathered themselves and rested for a bit, everything was awfully quiet. Sandoval and Christian's attitudes were very apologetic. Unable to calm down; Alaric was walking round in circles when he thought he heard a sound from the other side of the other door. Everybody froze; he put his ear against the wood and started to listen.
He heard a distant voice, that of a woman. He could grasp that she was arguing with someone else. It seems that several warriors were with her and that they were trying to break something, judging by the repetitive banging noises. Were they attacking a potential ally? Without hesitation, he shared his thoughts with his companions. Christian was the first to react:
'We should go immediately and help!'
'We should not be so hasty this time!' answered Leotard with a cold voice, but Alaric carried on:
'The enemy of my enemy is my friend. We might lose a helping hand by waiting!'
This remark made sense but was risky, but one thing was sure; they needed to act straight away or they could lose a potential ally. Alaric silently turned the key and managed to open the door slowly. A small corridor with several doors was now in view. Only two men could stand shoulder to shoulder in such a narrow space, quite a strategic asset for them. One after another they quietly advanced with caution until they could see well. Alaric had now in sight a small force composed of half a dozen Goatmen busy with trying to shatter a door with their axes, and a woman ordering them around. Her skin was hideously tainted with patches of green putrefaction and her overall dark tone left no doubts, she was corrupted by Evil. Her stance reminded him of the Sisters of the Sightless Eyes that Alaric had studied as a teenager, mainly thanks to a little flirt with one of their kind. He hid when she spoke:
'Oh come on, Nywell! Give back the key you have stolen and the Marquis will spare you. Why delay the inevitable? You will end up serving him like I do anyway.'
Alaric stepped back and whispered his report:
'Four at the door, two idles and a corrupted rogue.'
The Captain acknowledged the situation by nodding his head; he closed his eyes and focused for an instant. Alaric and the others felt an incredible confidence growing within themselves, as if their skills were razor sharp and their senses acute. His words were simple:
'Charge and let none of them escape alive.'
Bolting from the blue, screaming Paladins with drawn swords rushed forward to engage a very much-surprised foe. Christian stepped in faster than Alaric for the sole purpose of granting himself the right to face the rogue archer, a far more worthy enemy than yet another Goatman. Alaric grinned under his helmet; the haughty Paladin was really getting on his nerves. He then swiftly moved to his right and with a very calm and calculated downward blow of his finely crafted bastard sword, he sent a demon's forearm flying up in the air. After a quick step backward to regain his balance, the young Paladin set his sword at shoulder-height and plunged the blade right through the chest of his now one-handed opponent. Taking his shield to the dead body, he quickly removed his weapon and took a defensive posture as if he knew what was about to hit him. A distinct metallic sound rang out half a second later, a strike landed on his iron shield. Although his arm shook a little, he was able to withstand the relentless assault of his new adversary. With outstanding precision, he deflected every blow, waiting for an opening whilst the raw power of the beast slowly faded away.
Alaric sagged on his feet and lowered his centre of gravity in order to strike; he aimed at the enemy's leg and cut open a large wound on his thigh. With his opponent's mobility reduced, things became more manageable.
In the meantime, Christian was bursting with anger; the feline rogue archer was dodging everything he threw at her. Her graceful movements were highly irritating and he could not land a single hit. Worse, more enemies were to interfere in his duel, that and the distant prospect of a quick finish added more pressure onto the young man. Slightly overwhelmed, he feigned another head on attack to the rogue before a last minute switch and jabbed his sword in the throat of a very much surprised Goatman. The corrupted Sister jumped back, strung her bow with an arrow covered with rust and blood. Christian was wide open as he was trying to get his sword out of his previous victim, and paralysed by the fear of an upcoming death, he could not move a single muscle. The situation was tense and all eyes were on both of them. As the arrow flew, everyone tried to reach him to pull him out of the projectile's path; Alaric arrived first and shoved him away violently. The piercing arrow which had been aimed at Christian's throat landed in his shoulder instead, passing through the heavy plate armour, skin and flesh. Falling on the ground, Christian screamed in agonising pain; this was his first wound in battle. A demon went to finish him as he laid disarmed on the floor, but Sandoval was faster and a wide swing of his double-axe disembowelled the opportunist.
Captain Leotard was biting his lip; this was their baptism of fire. His mission was specific; he was here to assess their competence, not to assist them. All he could do was to support them with his auras and his charismatic presence. He had three novices in front of him and he was to determine who was worthy of the full title of Paladin, and so far, one certainly was.
The rogue archer was now about to fire three arrows on Alaric and almost at point-blank range. Carried away by his attempt to save Christian, Alaric rotated nimbly to allow this new opponent only his profile. He hoped one arrow would miss, his shield standing firm would take the second, but the third would most probably end his course in his groin. Determined and ready to commit this sacrifice, he stepped forward for his enemy to be within the reach of his sword. Everything happened as he had planned. As he felt a sharp pain in his lower body, he brought down his arm with strength drawing a deep furrow starting from the shoulder to the ribs of the corrupted Sister of the Sightless Eye. Dead on her feet, she could not move before he next plunged his sword right through her dark heart. Without their leader and with half of them slain, the remaining Goatmen fled in terror. Captain Leotard attended Christian's injury, and Sandoval banged on the massive door to start his plea:
'In the name of the High Heavens, open this door! We are Knights of the Westmarch, we have come to rescue you and we have some wounded. We mean you no harm; please allow us safety within these walls!'
The quavering voice of an old lady answered after a little silence:
'Swear that none of you will hurt me!'
'I swear on my knight's honour!'
Another silence punctuated their conversation and the door unlocked itself. Without hesitation, the four warriors rushed in to the safety of a luminous bedroom packed with furniture. In front of them stood a tiny hooded silhouette, still with his sword in hand Alaric shouted:
'You swore not to hurt me, remember?'
'Do as I say!'
A gloved pair of hands slowly removed the hood and to their astonishment they realised that the person they just saved was nothing but a grey-haired old, decomposing Lich. Christian, who was resting on Sandoval's shoulder, could not contain his disappointment:
'I almost died for the purpose of saving that old wretched undead? Fate is ironic sometimes.'
'Strangely enough Christian, I do feel the same way, believe me, I really do.' added Alaric.
Not really knowing what to do, the four men felt dazed and confused. Only the loud sound of the door closing and locking itself awoke them from their torpor. Their new ally explained:
'Not to worry, Knights of the Westmarch, this area is sealed with magic, none of the Marquis' minions can enter, you are safe for the time being."
Alaric looked at Leotard and asked simply:
'Shall I slay this thing, Captain?'
The creature started to shiver in fear and slowly stepped back, but Sandoval answered:
'I swore on my honour that we will not hurt her.'
'Let's hear her story first, if there is anything I dislike, you might have to sit on your pride Sandoval.' warned Captain Leotard.
He then took a red potion out of his pouch and gave half of it to Christian and the rest to Alaric, although further complications would be avoided, the two men were not cured instantly and Christian's wound also required bandages and more than a few days' rest.
Leaning on her magic staff, the tiny silhouette grabbed a chair and cleared her throat. Her voice was high-pitched and quivering, the sound of it was rather unpleasant, and painful, but she started;
'My name is Nywell and I am one of the Zann Esu, we commonly go by the denomination sorceress. I grew up in an orphanage near the city of Duncraig. At the age of seven, at my first encounter with the Zann Esu envoy, I was noticed for my outstanding acumen with magic and was offered an apprenticeship. For fourteen years, I trained and learned the way of elemental magic, always a step ahead of the others, always accomplishing with zeal things that had been deemed impossible for me, I exceeded all expectations. Upon my graduation at twenty-one, I left to seek and fight evil, as reports of the dark wanderer were haunting Sanctuary, I was successful in my quest until...'
'Hold on, the saga of the Dark Wanderer took place more than fifteen years ago, are you trying to...' said Alaric.
'Seventeen years exactly, young man and in my quest I ended up facing evil in this place and I failed.'
She took a break to look down and sighed as to express the remembrance of painful memories, then she carried on:
'While resting in the nearby city of Nism, I overheard strange stories about the Marquis of Orclard. Knowing of his obsession with young and beautiful women, I decided to gain ingress to one of his lavish parties. This is when I met Cornelia, the rogue archer you just killed. She was on the side of good and we decided we could work together. But during the party our drinks were spiked and as the alcohol took effect we let our guard down for a second. We were caught in a fight by surprise and it turned out that the both of us greatly underestimated the Marquis. Although I nearly got him, he won the battle and imprisoned us. Impressed by our skills, he asked us to marry him and to enjoy an eternal life of lust and carnal pleasures by striking a pact with the demon. We refused and he subjected us to physical torture and spiritual torments in order to break us down. But we remained strong and defiant until he came up with a dreadful plan; he stole our life essences and trapped them in crystals which he locked in a magic chest, transforming us into the things we hated the most: undeads. After a month Cornelia became insane and could take it no longer, she pledged to serve him in exchange for her humanity to be returned. She came back and freed me, encouraging me to do the same as her; she did not realise that she was already corrupted. I lied and pretended to change my mind so to confront him one more time. Using all of my remaining magic, I managed to wound him and stole the key to the chest.'
She grabbed her necklace and lifted it to show a golden key attached to it and ended her story:
'For fourteen years I have lived like this, playing cat and mouse with his minions, growing weaker by the month, hoping desperately for help and for an opportunity to restore my humanity and avenge my persecution.'
She sighed again and added with a broken voice;
'I know my appearance tells you not to trust me, but I beg of you, help me to defeat him and to regain my life!'
This was quite a moving story and the Paladins were speechless. After a long silence interspersed with Nywell's sobbing, Alaric asked abruptly:
'Fourteen years is well enough to invent such a polished story, how do we know you are telling the truth?'
'Sorry Captain, I would rather be safe than sorry...'
Filled with doubts, Alaric took off his helmet to take a deep breath, unveiling in doing so, such a gorgeous mane of long dark hair and a pair of brown inquisitive eyes, and a finely trimmed goatee. His handsome face expressed the grave disposition of a true man trying to protect all, portraying, in that instant, the beauty of the mature and responsible man despite his youth. His companions copied him, hoping to feel more at ease by sharing concerns through their facial expressions. Christian was a charismatic blond with short hair and blue eyes. Sandoval was noticeably bald and his square face, embellished by with green eyes was the trademark of a kind but fierce giant. The lich removed her coat, she was wearing an old dress full of holes and the sight of her rotten flesh and protruding bones was hardly bearable. The Paladins averted their eyes and whispered to each other so softly that Nywell could not hear a thing. She, on the other hand, was staring with insistence at Alaric, as if she was scrutinizing him with envy. Out of the four Paladins, he was by far the most attractive in her eyes;
'There is no harm in observing what is deemed aesthetic after all! If only I could make him mine, how funny would that be to enslave such a proud man to my will?' she thought.
Nywell turned her back and searched for an old book, maybe she could find a way...
For an hour the Paladins rested and attended their wounds and the lich read peacefully, Leotard stood up, stepped forward and hailed her;
'We have agreed to provide help but you will remain under Christian's constant guard until you prove yourself worthy of our trust. Now, I would like to hear how is it that you wish to proceed?'
She closed her book and answered with the same annoying and unpleasant voice;
'I know of a secret passage that will lead us straight into the Marquis' chamber, he is always there fornicating day and night. Only a few of his underlings camp in his bedroom, usually five or six of them. I have enough power to cast a few spells and with your help, we can slay that monster and access his treasury.'
'Your plan sounds satisfying enough, Christian will guard you, Alaric will take care of the minions and Sandoval and I will deal the decisive blow, agreed?'
'Agreed!' echoed three voices,
'Very well then, get ready, we are leaving!'
Everyone began gathering their equipment and adjusting their armour, Christian carried only his sword with his left hand as he could not use his right arm. Before putting his helmet back on, Alaric noticed Nywell's persistent staring, their eyes met and he warned in an unfriendly tone;
'Beware miserable undead witch, at first sight of anything suspicious, rest assured that my sword will not miss.'
'Not to worry Sire, I am on your side.'
She bowed down as a sign of courtesy and smiled. Alaric's head slipped into his helmet as he was snorting with his discontentment. She rejoiced herself with the prospect that she had quite a surprise for him in the aftermath of the fight to come. Christian, who seemed to have learned his lesson from recent events, tapped her shoulder with his glove as a sign for moving on; the Burning Hell was eagerly awaiting the return of one of his kind.
Nywell guided them through obscure passages and narrow corridors, after an hour they arrived without a hitch at the secret door of the Marquis' chamber. They held their breath and after counting to three they broke into the room. They were met by a roar of laughter; a ten-foot tall Goatman, ridiculously muscular and impressive, was standing in front of them with another fifteen demons. He welcomed them in with these words;
'Welcome to your last resting place, fools. I see that you have made the mistake of trusting Nywell, her story touched you! What pitiful heroes you are to fall into such an obvious trap!
'No, no! This is a lie. I am not with him, I swear I...' begged Nywell,
'Treachery!' shouted Alaric.
Christian began to move towards Nywell but she placed her staff against his breast plate and stunned him with an electric charge. She then ran a few meters away and carried on saying;
'This is a lie, he is toying with us!'
Alaric, who had expected to be betrayed, was furious but clever enough to let her escape so as to address the more pressing issue of the demons surrounding them. Nobody except Captain Leotard noticed that something changed in Alaric, the aura he was releasing and filling himself with was scarily powerful. As soon as a Goatman came within range, Alaric's movements reached a whole new level; fast, accurate, graceful and fluent; his arm slackened and his sword flew freely in the air before slicing the enemy's throat. This was a statement of his real talent, inspiring his companions and warning his foes, the battle could now fully begin.
Captain Leotard used this time out to issue his orders with a clear and concise voice;
'Alaric, take the left flank and repel the enemies. Sandoval, protect Christian and for the High Heavens' sake stop your massive swings and keep your strength! And you lich, if you are truly on our side, you had better show it now!'
She heard him loud and clear and started to cast a spell, she then raised her hand and pointed a finger toward Alaric. She froze the surrounding humidity and fired an ice bolt in his direction; the accumulated magic crossed the room and passed over Alaric's shoulder to hit a Goatman in the chest. A blue coloured stain started to spread on his body, tiny ice crystals were penetrating through his skin to slow down and damage his muscles along with solidifying his blood. The pain seemed excruciating and the merciful Paladin ended his suffering with an elegant backhand slash ripping apart his lower body. Sandoval was barely able to maintain his opponents at a respectable distance and Christian was lying unconscious on the floor. Leotard put up a fight to the best of his abilities; his strikes were astonishingly precise and deadly, although not as impressive as Alaric's, his blows had what was lacking from the younger man; efficiency. One could easily understand why he was such a respected captain, saving his stamina through minimal gestures and calculated moved, he was handling the Marquis' minions with a great display of sword skills. Alaric on the other hand was on the defensive, holding off about five Goatmen at the same time was draining him of his energy, yet he showed no signs of exhaustion. The gigantic Marquis was grinning with amusement; he was growing impatient as he enjoyed the spectacle and wanted to be a part of it. As if fate was answering his wish, Nywell whispered an incantation and pointed her magic staff in front of her;
A deafening thunder roared throughout the whole of the bedroom while a powerful flash of electricity roamed in a straight line, streaking from demon to demon, leaving only death and the smell of burned flesh behind. A path to the owner of this forsaken place was now cleared for Leotard; this opening was a fantastic opportunity. Without thinking twice he dashed forward and readied his sword in preparation of a powerful strike. The Marquis swung his right arm at an inhumane speed, his enormous open palm whacked Leotard with such force that he was sent flying through the air across the room. He painfully rebounded against the wall and landed heavily on the ground with a few broken bones. The Marquis' face was bursting with anger as he screamed in suffering; a two meter long ice spear was now lodged in his thigh. Nywell was out of breath and severely weakened but she felt so relieved that her attack had not failed; this clean hit could mean a lot. Leotard struggled to stand up, and at the cost of a great effort, managed to reach the lich's position, immediately after Alaric shouted;
'Sandoval, grab Christian and regroup with the captain, I will buy you some time!'
Alaric was giving everything he had, he was hitting swift and hard and his footing allowed him to dodge many blows, like a wall, he was tirelessly standing and not losing any ground. While fighting he was wondering if they still had a chance to win, in fact he was wondering why he was on the verge of tears. Why was he so powerless? He was overwhelmed by a complexity of feelings that he could hardly contain, he just knew he had to keep it all in or else, everything was lost for good.
As Sandoval, carrying Christian on his back, was reaching the others, the Marquis shouted:
'Step aside minions, I shall finish them myself!'
Upon these words, a black orb of pure evil energy appeared in his hand; suddenly a dark ray burst out and went passed Alaric's head to strike Sandoval. He fell on the ground as if he was a lifeless puppet and then a powerful shock wave shook the whole chamber knocking everyone to their knees. Alaric's helmet rolled on the floor, he was stunned, and confusion and despair held court in his mind but anger and rage were attempting to overthrow them. He was holding back as much as he could and while the Marquis was preparing another of his devastating spell, Alaric muttered to himself;
'Nobody can die under my watch... This is unthinkable...'
He stood up and walked in order to place himself in front of his comrades, not daring to take a look at the wounded. He seemed absent; his mind was somewhere else, in deep questioning of himself;
'Why? Why do I feel like I am about to lose it? All these dark and vile emotions, anger, blind rage, absolute hatred of what stands before me, am I a demon or a Paladin? Experiencing such impure and destructive feelings, I desire nothing more than to protect and take care of my beloved ones, yet I am overwhelmed by the idea of mercilessly erasing all my opponents. I cannot allow this frenzy to control me, I will be doomed. I stand to protect and free Sanctuary from Evil, but why is my blood flowing so rapidly? Why are my nerves so itchy and my muscles so tense? I am holding out but yet I see no way out... Almighty Tyrael, please offer guidance to one of your servants.'
Without realising, he raised his shield and anchored his feet on the ground in a solid posture, ready to take on the next ray of darkness. Lost in his mind, a majestic voice answered him;
'Why are you trying to control it young Paladin? What I see, I gazed upon with amazement. Humans heart are made of an equal amount of Light and Darkness and what you are about to do is the very reason why I so desire to preserve Sanctuary. You are about to fuel the Light by using the Darkness inside of you, like the brightest of all flames born from the blackest charcoal, you are about to do what is right even when overwhelmed by negative feelings. You are experiencing the anger of the Just, the only ones who can convert Darkness into Light."
The voice faded and Alaric lifted his head, the Marquis' dark ray was moving towards him. When his shield was hit, he let the flow of his emotions run freely inside of him. Like the brightest of all flames, a luminous aura emanated from him. His skin started to shine and his feelings evaporated out of him, materializing into golden rays floating around him. A halo of Light was now all that the demons could see. Alaric stepped forward, convinced that the ideal of peace on Sanctuary could only be achieved by mercilessly slaying Evil. Fearless, doubtless, blessed by all holy warriors, he became immune to the Marquis' magic, empowered by the Light he calmly walked towards him. The beast roared with rage and stretched his arm to push out his sharp claws, with all the power and the strength he was able to use, the Marquis attacked him. Alaric sent his shield bearing arm straight towards the claws using all his force, the shock was titanic but the Paladin stayed still, absorbing the impact thanks to his legs. The claws had pierced Alaric's elaborately decorated shield and blood dripped from his forearm. With a lightning strike, he raised and brought down his blade to cut off the arm of the beast. As part of his assault, he ducked closer and after anchoring his right foot on the ground he sent his most powerful hook and hit the demon's ribs with the pointed end of his shield. His sword quickly flew in a perfect half-circle from the ground to his shoulder, flying deep in to the Marquis' throat. Alaric lowered his sword and the Light started to dissipate, the whole scene lasted not even three seconds. Covered in demon blood which was raining from the falling dead body of the manor's owner, the young Paladin stared at the remaining enemies who fled in absolute terror after seeing their lord being slain so easily. Alaric smiled, in his previous state, using the Light, he had perceived that Sandoval was not dead. Although barely alive; he would be able to recover. Christian was still useless and Leotard leaned against the wall in pain, which left only a frightened Nywell and her undeadly secrets. Alaric asked her calmly;
'So Nywell the undead witch, there is just you and me still standing. Are you really a human or just a powerful evil in disguise?'
The Paladin walked towards the tiny golden chest located on the bedside table, he threw his useless shield on the ground and seized it with care before saying emotionless;
'I have the chest and you have the key, how shall we proceed lich?'
Nywell answered with a broken voice;
'You are unworthy of your title, are you taking pleasure in torturing me? Fourteen years I have hoped for this chance to come, fourteen years I resisted Evil and his temptations. And now a stupid arrogant Paladin stands between me and my long awaited freedom. Put yourself in my place Alaric, how on Sanctuary can I convinced you that my story is true?'
The two characters were slowly getting closer, magic staff and bastard sword were ready for anything, the Paladin answered harshly:
'By killing yourself. How can you live like that? You are an abomination, you are an undead, and your presence in this world is no longer allowed. You failed fourteen years ago; this is when your life should have ended!'
Nywell could see she was getting nowhere; she gathered her last magical forces and announced;
'I am sorry to resort to that but you leave me no choice...'
The lich pointed her staff towards Alaric and a lightning bolt covered the distance between them in a flash. Upon the impact of his lamellar armour, the metal deflected the electricity and conducted it throughout his whole body, damaging his nerves and impeding his movements. Alaric fell on his knees and the chest dropped. He tried to lift his sword but could not. Nywell rushed to pick the case off the floor and with great haste she opened it using her golden key. Finally, after all this time, she was now holding the crystal containing her life essence; she put it in her mouth and swallowed it as fast as she could. Alaric was standing on his feet and with all his remaining force launched a clumsy attack when suddenly a bright blue light blinded him. It felt like a storm entered the room, raw magical powers were blowing in powerful winds; he closed his eyes and waited. A hand grabbed his forearm and a delightful womanly voice told him;
'Enough with this madness Alaric, in your current condition you are no match for me. I wonder if you could ever become one really.'
The Paladin could no longer feel his muscles; he was paralysed by a magical cold and dropped his sword on the ground. As he opened his eyes again he saw her, or what she has become. He opened his mouth as if in stupor, unable to speak; he could not believe what was standing before him. An absolutely stunning silver long haired beauty with a ladylike manner and expression had changed places with the wretched, old and putrefied lich. He could only observe the handsomeness of her facial features as her pair of lightly purpled lips moved gracefully;
'You see, I am neither your enemy nor a liar.'
She gently let go of his forearm as she walked toward a mirror, her enchanting voice sounded again;
'Oh my! My youth is back, I still look the way I was fourteen years ago, this is extraordinary!'
She started to touch her face and her body to be sure that it was all real, she whirled in front of the mirror and chuckled gracefully. As she was scrutinizing herself Alaric still could not move even if the spell's effects had vanished, her beauty was ineffable, he was lost in contemplation. She was almost surreal, if beauty had a name and perfection a face, they would have been both hers. Even with an old dress full of holes and covered in dirt, she looked like an empress, her wasp-waisted silhouette and attractive figure were beyond amazing. She turned around to face him; with majesty she stared at him and approached him. Her clear blue-grey eyes were cold and betrayed her anger at Alaric; with a cold but still pleasant voice she accused him;
'You mocked my ordeal Alaric; you distrusted me solely on my appearance. You are a despicable individual; your behaviour towards me brought nothing but shame on the Knights of the Westmarch. Yet you bravely fought and slayed the Evil of this place. My rule is never to take a human life but from your behaviour today you deserve to be the exception. Out of gratitude I will spare you on this day, but, if our paths ever cross again, I shall erase you from the surface of Sanctuary.'
Placing her hand onto her heart she bowed down and smiled with a fake look of kindness adding with irony;
'Now peasant turned Paladin, I beg you my leave.'
She grabbed her staff and steadily walked towards the open door. Overwhelm with guilt, Alaric painfully followed her to present at least an apology for his appalling behaviour. She ignored him until they reached the great staircase; a few demons were running like headless chickens, looting everything they could before fleeing the place. Nywell spoke softly;
'Alaric stay where you are. If you carry on following me, my generous offer will become obsolete and you will die within minutes. I will grant you the privilege to admire my powers, after that you will disappear from my sight, understood?'
'I understand, I just wanted to say that I unreservedly apologize to you.'
'Apology denied.' She retorted and went down the stairs to face the remaining minions of the Marquis. Some sort of blue flames were emanating from her, her hair wreathed in the air because of the magical power she was accumulating into her body. She was moulding it, bending the element to her will; she was scary to look at, but also so beautiful. Demons were paralysed in fear and upon reaching the centre of the main hall; she put the end of her staff onto the ground and whispered;
Then she unleashed all of her Mana and screamed;
The whole of the huge hall was covered in a layer of ice, ten inches thick, shaped in the form of waves, trapping into frozen coffins all who she deemed were enemies. The ambient temperature was below zero and some Goatmen were glued to the walls as if they were insignificant mosquitoes. She looked at Alaric and smiled before finishing her incantation, her cold voice echoed;
Deafening explosions happened everywhere there was a demon trapped in the ice, body parts and ice shards filled the Great Hall, everything was asunder. This mayhem was her way to say goodbye and finish what she has started fourteen years ago. As she put her feet forward she staggered and stopped immediately, resting on her staff. Her vision became blurry and her left eye was bleeding, a violent migraine was battering her brain, she felt terribly weak and muttered to herself;
'Oh silly, silly me. I should not have done that; I should have gone a little easier on using magic.'
'Do you need help' enquired Alaric kindly.
'Oh you, I will kill you as soon as I feel better!'
'To be honest I think I deserve it, but I still can help you first.'
'Don't act so noble all of a sudden, I will make you suffer greatly and I...'
As she pointed an accusative finger toward him she fainted and fell against him, he gently grabbed her before she could hit the floor. Brother Ducarin entered through the door in what now seemed like an ice cavern, he asked:
'Your Grace, Prince Alaric what on Sanctuary happened in this place?'
'What... A Prince... What is...' before sinking into the depth of unconsciousness.
'That is a long story Brother Ducarin, a long story' answered Alaric with unease.