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A weary Paladin faces his obligations.
The Paladin knelt down, his foot just inches from the last seal, and clasped the jewel-encrusted hilt of his sword. He grimaced at his reflection in the blade as he lowered the tip to the stone floor.
In nomine Patris
His heart rate steadied at long last after buzzing erratically through battle like a lost bee, pounding in reflection of the clashing of sword on spear. Gaile was behind him, close enough that he could hear her panting breaths no matter how she was fighting them. He spared her a brief look and a briefer smile, which she did not (or could not) return. Her eyes darted around the chamber like startled birds, grasping for any sign of movement, bowstring taut and ready.
He had traveled with her long enough now to know that she wouldn't break the silence. In strict adherence to her training, she had maintained a companionable distance throughout their journey, as loyal to him as she was to her nimble bow and her quiet resolution.
She might have been quite pretty in a different life. As it was, any beauty was long scarred over, all radiance dimmed by the cruel nature of her profession. But her eyes were clear and bright as they were hard, and her rare smiles retained an innocence that left his head swimming with a haze of sweet dreams and deep regrets about those vows of knightly chastity.
He lowered his head, closing his eyes for the first time in ages, or so it felt.
Her stakes in all this were perhaps greater than his. Her home had been violated, her friends destroyed in ways too horrid to imagine. They had encountered many of her former comrades, faced down their hollow eyes and thrusting spears. Her eyes might have flashed with recognition but her arrows never wavered.
Vengeance is not the right sort of calling for a Paladin. He had come because it was his duty to play the savior. Glory and honor were his by vocation, desirable but ultimately unnecessary. In this battle there was nothing more imperative than his victory. A thing required, but never assured.
Now he was mouthing the words to his prayer. It was something he did whenever he forgot himself.
Et Spiritus Sancti
Earlier he had approached Tyrael for a final blessing, which the angel had granted with somber grace. He had stood still, listening to the angel's words, lips moving in a silent echo. He couldn't be certain if that had been hours or minutes ago. He tried to recall the enveloping comfort of Tyrael's gentle radiance. He felt that he needed it now as he tried to steel himself for a terror that had not quite descended.
He opened his eyes and stood, pausing to gaze at the light playing its way across the stone, shining through in mimicry of stained glass. Without so much as a deep breath to calm himself, he stepped onto the seal.
The chamber shook with violent laughter, reverberating from the stone walls.
The orange light flickering across his closed eyelids went dark. The air was still heavy with that lurid heat, but he could no longer feel it drifting through his armor and permeating his skin. It was floating nearby, and if he moved his fingers just a little he was sure he would feel it there pulsating like a swarm waiting to dive down and smother him. He twitched, slightly. He could not reach out, even if he wanted to.
His limbs were heavy, weighed down as though his veins had been stuffed solid with all the gold he'd lost on the way to this black and dismal sanctuary.
No mourners, no last rites, no falling on swords. No waiting valkyries, no answering angels. Just voices teeming above him amidst the encroaching heat. They were loud and soft by turns; he could pick out the more distinct ones if he listened hard, but the messages eluded him.
Akara grasped for him in a soft, desperate moan, crumbling away like her beloved monastery. Still pregnant with hope and leaden determination, she was filled with first missions; glorious and thronging with expectations.
Deckard Cain was a lengthy hum; encouragement bubbling in a cauldron of advice, faint as a teacher's lecture from ages past. Cain could have been the quintessential mentor, if the Paladin had sought or accepted his aid. He droned steadily on, an untapped resource stewing in a cerebral landfill.
Tyrael's voice was as filled with somber radiance as it always was. Tyrael at least would understand. Angels were built on forgiveness. He must have, because his bleak tones were flat with a resignation as ancient as the first sin. Each syllable burned thick with its concentration of sorrow.
Gaile splintered into the throng. She pierced through, loud and intermittent, with the mad howls and whimpers of a cornered dog. She was possessed by a fresh clarity not present in the others, for she was more than a disembodied fragment of memory. If he let his mind drift and stretch through the darkness he could feel her there. The force had broken through the enchantments on her bow. It lay beside her charred frame, their ashes intermingling.
There were many more phantoms there in the darkness. He could hear them in the depths of his consciousness, muzzy figures hovering on the edge of corporeality. Whispering, moaning, pleading, crying out in desperation.
He realized it was his own voice he was hearing. He blinked once, disgusted, but saw nothing. For now his world was made of laughter.
There was Laughter in the air all around him. Laughter. High, sharp, and cold. Laughter, seeping into his lungs with each haggard breath, filling him with that piercing white heat. There were claws digging into his scarred flesh, drawing him closer in the mocking imitation of a final earthly embrace. Breath like fuming sulfur caressed his face. The darkness smirked. With a distinctly satisfied edge the Laughter dropped him into an abyss of light. Light, ancient and pure, a solemn comfort in its silence.