A Paladin armored himself for battle alone, when he could. He had to do so out of respect, for both his patron, and his arms. The specific patron in question rarely mattered: some do their work in private.
Axiopistos, scion and Chosen of Ryaire, clasped his chest armor in place and relaxed the leather straps. The metal plates set against his chest padding shifted a bit. They would be more comfortable for traveling now, and travel was in his future.
The little armory of the chapel of Ilmater, his patroness’s master, was empty now. Every other Paladin, every War Cleric, every Invoker and mercenary and Theurge was on the march. All of Ilmater’s allies, servants, and divine partners was gearing up for war.
Not without good reason. The Cult of Bane was active once more, and this time they meant to finish what others had started. There had been so much tumult in the north, of late. The resurgence of Thay turned out to be the least of the world’s new problems. There was the sudden onslaught of the Halaster statue and Tarrasque in Waterdeep, his home; the rise of the dragon scourge and the cult that worshipped Tiamat; the subtle attack by the Elemental cults. After that, the rise of thousands of demons in the Underdark, and the disappearance of hundreds of adventurers into the mists of the Demiplane of Dread, with only four returning. Just a few months ago, a three-way brawl had erupted between tribes of giants, several ancient dragons that had stayed neutral in Tiamat’s war, and two northerly adventuring companies.
Now, it was Bane’s turn. The many years of nonstop violence and the destruction of several Underdark communities had more than demonstrated the Sword Coast’s weakness. Hundreds of Bane cults had emerged across the coast, taxing the Lords’ Alliance to its limits. Several cities had had to quit the Alliance to see to their own defenses. The Cult was attacking whole towns, setting them on fire, and retreating after killing as many guards as they could, in the hope that the destitute and unprotected refugees would flood the cities and cause much fear.
That was Bane’s role in the world, after all. Quite literally: the God of Hate sought chaos and destruction wherever he went, and his followers hoped to be rewarded for what they did in his name. Of course, as with many evil religions, its practitioners were among the least likely to know anything about the Banehold.
Axio finished his armor and buckled on his belt. His magic longsword – a gift from the High Cleric of Ryaire, his grandfather – clattered against his thigh before he secured the scabbard. He wasn’t particularly fond of killing, but he had a gift. Ryaire had vastly enhanced his strength when she had made him her Chosen. Now he was capable of feats that would have stunned him in his youth. His eyes were different, he had noted one morning. They were green before, like his father’s eyes. Now they were blue. Just like Ryaire’s.
Clad for battle, he left the armory, with the rest of his weapons and gear secured on his back. He wasn’t traveling alone, not by any means. An entire caravan of merchants, refugees, soldiers, and religious sorts were making for the City of Splendor. He was one among many.
The friar in the building’s foyer beamed. “Paladin Axiopistos, we’re sorry to see you go. I wish you could stay, we were better for your help.”
The young Aasimar returned the smile. “I wish I could stay too, brother, but I can’t. The faith calls me to war.”
“I know,” the friar said ruefully. “I will pray for your safety.”
“Thank you, brother, and I know Ilmater is listening,” Axio said warmly. He clasped the other man’s hand and strode out the door.
The road beyond the temple was a riot of activity. Hundreds of people lined up in wagons and carts, with horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen hitched to larger vehicles. A few coaches were present, too, for the wealthier travelers, with more than a few armored horses in the rearguard. Whole platoons of infantry were with them, and supply horses by the dozen. This was a caravan of war logistics as much as it was a commercial venture.
Axio walked up to the nearest wagon and hopped in, setting his bag down on the wooden floor. There were a few other people present, mostly human refugees, who naturally looked askance at the big, imposing warrior in his bright blue and steel armor.
“Going to Waterdeep, soldier?” one woman asked carefully.
Why else would I get in the convoy going to Waterdeep? Axio asked in his mind. Aloud, he said, “I am, yes.”
“Are you going to kill those cultists?” one wounded refugee spoke up.
“If I must, yes. I’d rather take them alive,” Axio said. He looked at the man’s wounds. A laceration on his left arm, a deep one, though mercifully not infected. “What happened to you, sir?” he asked. “That needs treatment.”
The man shook his head. “Crushed my arm, helping to fix a broken axle on the cart,” he muttered. “Can’t afford to get it healed.”
“Nonsense. I’m a healer, sir, may I help you? It will cost you nothing,” Axio promised.
The man looked at him oddly. “You?”
Axio held out his hand. The man slowly extended his own, and with a thought, Axio began his spell. The others in the wagon stared as the cut flesh knit shut in moments.
The man retracted his arm and stared at the pink, bare skin. “I… thank you, sir,” he finally managed. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Thank Ryaire in your prayers, that’s all I ask,” Axio said with a grin that flashed white behind his helmet. “She healed you when I asked.”
“Who’s Ryaire?” a tiny voice asked from beside the first woman. Axio peered over. A brutally scarred half-eladrin child withdrew beneath the woman’s arm when Axio made eye contact.
The Paladin sat back. “Well, child, Ryaire is the demigoddess who gave me my powers. She serves Ilmater, and I serve her. And you know something? She takes care of children of you.”
“She does?” the child asked.
“She does. She looks after the souls of children who don’t make it to adulthood, and she gives people like me the power to help them while they’re alive, too,” Axio explained. He realized that that was perhaps not the most comforting thing for the child to hear and stuck his hand out. “Want me to take care of that scarring on your face? It won’t hurt,” he promised.
“Can you?” the kid asked. He rested his cold metal fingers on the little boy’s head after checking for the mother’s nod. Again, he felt Ryaire’s magic flow. The boy’s face knit back together with an audible sliding sound, and he gasped.
“It’s…I have…” the boy broke down, burying his face in his human mother’s side and sobbing. “Thank you, thank you,” he managed, his back heaving.
Axio swallowed tears of his own as the other people in the cart leaned over to slap his back. “My pleasure, child.”
“Well, this Ryaire has my thanks,” the mother said, wiping her own tears. “Why have I never heard of her?”
“She ascended to true demigoddess status only a hundred and fifty years ago,” Axio said. He settled back in his seat and thought to his history lessons. “She descended to mortality during the Avatar Crisis, just like everybody else, and left again afterward.” He smiled to himself. “She stayed long enough to wed and birth, though.”
The adults looked at each other. “Gods can have children with mortals?”
“In their mortal avatars, yes,” Axio said. “She wasn’t the only one. When she got her divine power back, she brought her husband with her to act as her exarch, and left her baby with a priest of Ilmater.”
“Such a thing, being wed to a goddess,” the formerly wounded man said, still massaging his arm.
Axio decided not to overwhelm these people any more with stories of his ancestors. Nor, for that matter, make them feel like they needed to worship him or some other nonsense. “Mmm,” he said instead.
The kid sniffled. “Does Ryaire care what race you are?”
“No,” Axio said. “She loves all children.”
“Even my sister?” the kid asked, his voice shaking.
Axio’s heart bled. “Of course, little man. All children.”
“The madmen took her,” the kid said with a sniff. “She was eight.”
The Paladin’s glove sparked as he clenched his fist. “They’ll be brought to justice,” he said levelly. “I’ll do it myself.”
“Thank you.” The kid looked up at his mother for a moment, and then moved over to sit between her and Axio. Axio started, looking up at the mother for a sign of her approval or disapproval, and then gingerly rested one huge, armored hand in the child’s lap, fingers up.
“What was her name, child?” Axio asked.
“Lyafe,” the boy said sadly.
“And what’s yours?”
“Well, Aresh, my name is Axiopistos, but nobody says it right, so everybody calls me Axio,” he said. “Is this your mother?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said quietly. He was clearly overwhelmed. “Can you…”
“Aresh, don’t bother the man,” his mother chided gently.
“It’s no bother, ma’am,” Axio hastened to say. “Really. It’s a thirty-six hour journey to the outskirts of Waterdeep. I’d love to answer questions.” He smiled down at the boy. “Can I what?”
The boy hesitated. “Well… where’s Lyafe now?”
The adults mumbled unhappily at the question, but Axio answered. “The Arbor of Innocence. Do you know what that is?”
“Is it heaven?” Aresh asked.
“Oh, yes, my friend, it is. It’s a wonderful place.” Axio thought back to his own time there. “It’s a huge forest, deep and misty, full of shade and quiet. There’s pools of water everywhere, and you can bathe there without being cold or afraid. There are specters of nymphs who will come and play if you want, or you can just walk around alone, without being bothered by anybody. And if you’re a child, well, you get to go somewhere even more special.”
Aresh blinked. “Where?” At least he wasn’t crying now.
“In the very center of the forest, there’s a great hole in the ground, and inside it is the most wonderful playground you can imagine,” Axio remembered. “There’s secret rooms, there’s slides and ladders, there’s swings and rungs, there’s sandboxes and ponds, there’s great trees that grow from the walls and ceilings… anything you could want.”
The other passengers watched as Axio slowly sat back in his chair. Aresh hugged his hand and listened, spellbound. “There are mighty angels… do you know what those are?”
“They patrol the place, keep it safe, break up arguments. They guide the children there when they die. They work for Ryaire, and serve her.” Axio smiled. “Just like me.”
“Are… you’re not an angel,” Aresh observed.
Axio fell silent. “No… just an Aasimar.”
“Doesn’t that mean angel?” one of the passengers who hadn’t spoken up yet – a scholar by the look of him, not a refugee – asked.
“No, that’s aasimon. An Aasimar is a person with… well, with celestial blood. Like a Tiefling with a good outsider instead of an evil one,” Axio explained. “I’m no angel, my friend,” he said to Aresh. “Just a man who serves Ryaire.”
“Have you been to this… what was it called?” Aresh asked.
“The Arbor of Innocence,” Axio supplied.
“That. Have you been there?”
“He’s never died, Aresh,” the mother said.
Axio coughed. “There are other ways to go.”
Everybody’s head spun around. “What?” the scholar asked, suddenly focused sharply. “You’ve been through a gate?”
Axio winced. “Uh, well… I have, yes. Five years ago. Before I finished training.” So much for that. Once again, he wished he had stopped talking.
“Why? How?” the scholar demanded. The others reacted defensively as he leaned forward, but nobody moved to stop him. Before the scholar could say more, the wagon lurched, and they were off to Waterdeep.
“That’s of a certain, personal nature, sir,” Axio said.
The scholar’s eyes narrowed. “Wait… wait a moment. You said Ryaire gave birth. Now you serve her, and you’re an Aasimar… are you her grandchild?”
Axio glared. “That is a very personal question, friend. I’ll ask you to stop pestering me.”
“But…” the scholar started, trailing off as the other passengers glared.
“The difference between you, sir, and Aresh here, is that Aresh is not annoying,” Axio said acidly. Aresh looked around, clearly confused and unhappy. The cart fell into silence as the group rolled off to the City of Splendor, and Axio sat, fuming. He mustered his training and forced back his displeasure. He would not lose his cool in front of the boy. He would not.
|The tale of the Holy Opposites ||
|Arc 1: | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 |
Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10
|Arc 2: | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 |
Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20
Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25
|Arc 3: | Chapter 26 | Chapter 27 | Chapter 28 | Chapter 29 | Chapter 30|
|Arc 4: | Chapter 31 | Chapter 32 | Chapter 33 | Chapter 34 | Chapter 35 |
Chapter 36 | Chapter 37 | Chapter 38 | Chapter 39 | Glossary