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I wasn't too late. Not this time. Stark thinks to himself as he watches over the unconscious body of the young woman. The shuriken has been removed from her chest and the poison cleansed from her body, but the bleeding continues. A simple enough wound to bandage up, but one that shouldn't be ignored. "Forgive me my lady, but I must bare your chest to apply the bandage. I give you my word, my intentions are honorable," he says gently has he uncovers her chest.
Suddenly, an arrow tears past his ear, piercing the ground in front of him. Nightshade!
"Away from her!" commands a voice from behind.
Rather than finding himself facing the return of the thief, Stark looks up at an armored noble returning from a hunt. With magnificent antlers attached to his helmet and ornate longbow drawn, he sits atop a masterfully trained nightmare. Its eyes are as focused as its master's, and is poised to trample Stark with its hooves or breath fire upon him the instant the command is given. However with an arrow aimed at his heart, the noble obviously will handle the situation himself.
"Step away from my scribe," he says coldly.
"Silence!" Stark backs away.
"Who are you? You're no Guard. They no longer patrol beyond the walls. Do you have any idea what they do to anyone those impersonates them? And to rape a woman! You will answer me or you will wish the Fires of Truth are all you will have to face." The scribe stirs. "Better yet, she can condemn you right here and my shaft shall remove yours." The arrow's aim moves from heart to groin, and it seems as if he's ready to charge as his antlers lower.
"Melfina. What happened," the noble speaks with the same voice of command to the recovering girl as he did to Stark, himself.
"Tell me what happened, so this may be finished."
Stark freezes as his heart races, fearing any word from him might loose the lord's wrath before matters were clarified.
"What? No... He didn't attack me," she says to Stark's relief. He fought off a thief, and somehow cured the poison."
"Cover yourself up," he says. "Is that what you were doing?" he directs back towards the paladin.
"The poison is cleansed, but the wound needs to be bandaged," Stark presents the bandage in his hand.
"Then finish. Melfina, stay still." The noble finally relaxes the tension in his bowstring.
"If I may," asks Stark of the scribe, happy to move about. Melfina nods.
"What happened?" hears Stark, as he begins to apply the bandage.
"A thief. He must have followed me home. The Guard had him cornered but the thief poisoned me. He let him escape to save me."
"You sound upset by that," says the lord.
She timidly replies, "He destroyed a book," as she looks at the ground.
"Enough with your books," he says sharply. "It's almost time for payment. Take care of that before your hobbies. You will pay, or you will go, and then everything belongs to me. Including your books. I might use them for a bonfire to celebrate."
"Yes Lord Luna," she says through her teeth, then sets sets her dress back over her shoulders after Stark finishes.
"Good," he says, matters settled. He turns to Stark. "Paladin. I am the Lord of West Luna. Tell me your name and why are you outside the walls and on my land."
"My name is Stark, my lord, and I was performing my Final Rounds."
A Luna Guard is given orders to make his Final Rounds of the city only if he committed a gross neglect of his duties. They are sent to patrol the city beyond the walls, spiraling outward until the city was no longer in sight. This was to remind them of the privilege it was to serve Luna, and show them one last glimpse of the place they can no longer return to once their rounds are completed. It was not a remnant from the days when the Luna Guard would regularly patrol beyond the walls, defending more than just the city itself, like some believed.
Lord Luna frowns in disapproval. "Why?"
"My failure in South Luna," Stark says quietly.
"The Dungeon Slaughterer."
"Yes, my lord. I see you've heard," he says, voice becoming steadily quieter. "Almost all were slain, guards and prisoners alike. A lone thief is the only one unaccounted for."
"The same thief who was here," says the Lord of West Luna.
"No sire. Some inconsequential thief. I cannot remember his name. My captain thinks it was him but I don't believe so. The slaughter was done by more than one person. It had to be. The carnage was..." Stark shakes his head. "This Nightshade who attacked here is more capable than that one."
"I was the first to arrive. I invoked the Gifts and I gave of myself all that was possible, but there were too many in need, the damage was too extensive. I passed out..." he clenches his jaw, eyes beginning to sting. "When I woke... most were lost. A few survived, but have yet to awaken. The Dungeon Slaughterer escaped, and I was given my final orders."
"You were punished for trying to save them!" Melfina exclaims.
"He was punished for wasting time."
"But he tried to save lives!"
"Tried," said Lord Luna. "While the murderer remains free, able to kill again. Maybe not prisoners this time, nor guards, but innocents. Customers of Luna's shops and the merchant vendors themselves. This paladin here might have prevented that."
"You can't believe that!"
"Watch your tone," Lord Luna warns. "Save your energy. I am telling you what they believe, not I. Dead guards don't require pay. While he may have followed a fresher trail and captured the murderer. Instead, the murderer remains free, and will create fear and doubt. Faith is lost in the fabled Luna Guard. A loss of faith may have little effect, or it may build to a loss of faith in the entire city. The flow of profit into the city could dry up."
"If money is all that matters, saving guards could still have saved the city the money needed to train new guards," Melfina argues stubbornly.
"You should know better than that. Have you been away from Luna that long? Or you just never cared enough to learn about those who protected you. Training to be a Guard is no different than any other profession. You pay a dowry to enter any apprenticeship, including the Guard. Only once someone is officially sworn in, does the city pay them at all. Profits, and only profits, direct all aspects of Luna." Lord of West Luna notices a look on Stark's face. "Speak paladin."
"My Lord, you only speak half the truth."
"So the Guard chooses to challenge me, like he did his captain."
"Yes, Luna is concerned with profits," he proceeds cautiously. "But without profits, Luna would fall. Those profits are used to maintain the Guard, maintain the city, and it is used to send paladins out into the land to spread the Light," defends the Guard.
"Spoken like a true resident of Luna. But if you think it's important to send paladins out into the land, why did you choose to become a Luna Guard? I assume they are so rare because of what you have just said. There hasn't been a paladin Guard in at least a generation."
"I go where God guides me," he says simply.
"And did he guide you to into your Final Rounds as well?"
"He must have, for I am here," Stark says with confidence. "And in being here, I have saved your scribe. Lord of West Luna, your goods are used and praised by many residents of the City of Light, and you have the respect of many within for what you provide. By saving her, I help you, and in doing so, I have helped Luna."
"And preserving Luna is God's will of course," the lord finishes. "And what will you do when your Final Rounds are complete?" he says finally amused by the guard.
"I am already finished, my lord. I was doing an extra loop when I heard her cry out."
"How thorough of you."
"And I will do what I have always done. Go where God guides me."
"And you believe he guided you here and now."
"While I do not have your faith, this is what I see. What you did at the dungeons was the only thing you should have done. You have proven your abilities as a paladin, both in combat and in healing, just moments past when you fought off the thief that poisoned my scribe. You seem to seek perfection in all your duties, and are willing to give counsel when you think one above your station is wrong," he pauses, "Not that I am wrong about Luna."
The Lord of West Luna continues, "And as you saw for yourself, walking West Luna is more dangerous than walking in the City of Light." He looks intently into Stark's eyes, "I am in need of a Guard of my own, to defend my lands. And it must start with one who is well versed in such duties. I wish to take you into my service. Do you accept," he offers.
"I do," he answers without hesitation.
"I, Stark, of the Paladin Order of Light, do hereby swear before God and on all the Gifts of Light, to do all within my power to defend your lands and all within, until my service ends, through loss of rank or loss of life. With all my Courage, in the spirit of Love, spoken with Truth, this I swear."
"Rise Stark, Guard Captain of West Luna."
* * *
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