Seeing Grey

Feb. 5th, 2016 05:24 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
First year Paladins face lofty expectations--after all, every mentor and upperman is a paragon of divine strength.

Rodrick Posthaste brushed his fingers through the scraggly stubble of hair on his head while staring at Mentor Loma’s brilliantly bald dome. Could level of baldness be a measure of holiness? Rodrick wondered, recalling then that some uppermen had flowing, silky locks. It was probably more like a personal choice. Realizing then that the mentor never touched his own head, let alone to thoughtfully stroke it, Rodrick abruptly jerked his arm down, accidentally scratching his face. Rodrick’s quirks and fidgets probably damned him to a life as a cleric or a monk--something less than a “holy warrior”--but he tried hard to overcome his habits.

When he was in training, individuality was stamped out. All personal habits were rolled into one militaristic, thoughtless drone, and that drone had to pass an application test if it wanted to become a Paladin. As soon as Rodrick passed the tribunal--a terrifying exam conducted orally using a foot-long, divinity-assessing tapeworm--he entered the school and was overwhelmed by the vast differences between his new peers and himself. It was too much to adjust to at once.

Mentor Loma’s grin broke Rodrick’s train of thought. Oh my God! thought Rodrick, even though it was blasphemous to think one of his lords’ names vainly, he caught me staring at his head! The Mentor’s grin was as devastating as a thunderbolt called from the heavens. The bald man’s small lips curled genially, and his eyes shut softly, leaving delicate webs of delighted crow’s feet around the edges of his face; if it was the expression he used when he gave a loaf of bread to a starving child, it was also the expression he used when he drove his sword through the heart of a hill giant.

The Mentor let his focus and silence linger for a moment and then returned to speaking. Rodrick did not breathe again that session.

Maybe the key to being a good and godly Paladin was to have a sincerely scary and unpredictable face.

*****

The best predictor of a young Paladin’s success at Castlemont, or Paladin school, was his ability to sense evil, Rodrick later learned.

It was a hunt. Ragnalis, the ferocious and foul dispositioned upperman, was leading his team--which, due to upperman obligations, included Rodrick--through a moonlit forest on a hunt for a marrow-walker, a half human creature that could take blood from any man, woman, or child and would assume their appearance for a day. It never needed much blood to perform its magic, but there was a fear that it could spread bloodborne disease; therefore, when it attacked a young boy who was afflicted with Trask’s Bloodblight, the local communities called upon Castlemont to resolve the issue.

Also, nobody really liked waking up in the morning with a swollen arm or shoulder due to blood extraction. It was uncomfortable.

“Steady lads!” Ragnalis roared, “the fiend is close at hand.”

When they surrounded the thin visage of the boy they had seen earlier as it was shrugging off layers and layers of false flesh, no one needed to hold it still while Ragnalis uttered the invocation for discerning evil. A pearly aura lit up his glistening, black armor before bouncing in a spear of light to the marrow-walker. As soon as it touched the marrow-walker, the aura shifted so black that it could shut out the stars.

Then, oddly, it lit up again, becoming bright once more.

A complicated look of brief confusion, followed by annoyance, followed by outrage crept into Ragnalis’ face.

“Who dares?” he howled.

Rodrick realized then that he had uttered the same invocation at the same time Ragnalis had, out of habit. He always repeated everything Ragnalis said. Ragnalis was nearly an ascended Paladin, ready to serve beyond the school’s confines, and Rodrick worshipped him.

And yet, the auras disagreed. The invocation to “Discern Evil” was an absolute judgment given by an absolute God. If the aura was black, the creature was evil. No one could dispute a Paladin’s decision to slay a living thing if the aura was black--it needed to happen. Paladins were the ultimate force for keeping political malfeasance in check because they simply needed to call upon their abilities in order to suss it out.

If the aura was white, however, no wrongdoing existed. Even the most dangerous Paladins would be forced to seek a nonviolent resolution if the invocation gave a target a white aura. Rodrick’s invocation overlapped Ragnalis’, making it impossible for a Paladin to attack the creature.

The marrow-walker peeled back the false boy’s face from its own skull, tossing it into a hedge, seemingly unaware of the men standing nearby. It couldn’t see the aura around itself, since only Paladins could perceive the effects of the invocation unless they chose to let the effects be seen by others.

Ragnalis turned to face Rodrick. It was the first time Ragnalis had ever looked upon him directly. Even in the darkness of the forest, with his back illuminated by the aura of the marrow-walker, Rodrick could see the fires of malice smouldering in the eyes of the upperman.

Then, Rodrick could see and hear the upperman’s sword click loose from the scabbard. Ragnalis slowly drew out the colossal blade, letting it gently scrape the scabbard as he raised his arm. When Ragnalis finally held the blade aloft, someone else’s invocation finished, the pearly white aura behind Ragnalis vanished again, and without breaking eye contact, Ragnalis turned and sliced cleanly through, from right collarbone to left thigh,the marrow-walker.

As he resheathed his sword, Ragnalis let out a faint sigh, broke eye contact, and signalled the group to follow him back to Castlemont.

Rodrick seared with pain where he felt the sword eviscerate him rather than the marrow-walker. He followed behind, blinking and wondering when the school would decide to send him home.
It would surely be soon.

*****

Weeks passed, and Rodrick could not shake the fear that he had committed a grave offense. None of the people who participated in the hunt would talk to him. Of course, they never had talked to him in the first place, but Rodrick felt the burden of their silence many times more than he had when he started.

To prevent further mistakes, Rodrick practiced. He walked through the city streets, uttering the invocation to every living thing that he came near. He looked like a madman, wearing his old farming attire, lips constantly twitching with the soft words of his order. Orphans were white, rats were white, cats were white, dogs were white, fathers were white, ducklings were white, spiders were white, and mothers were definitely white. To Rodrick’s view, the whole street was an illuminated mass. He was glad he chose to do the check during the day time, or else Castlemont would certainly have seen the lights.

Finally, just as he was getting ready to head back, a man at the corner of Rodrick’s eye became a blob of shadow. The twisting nexus of darkness that enveloped him reached high into the alleyway and licked the gutters on roofs.

Rodrick had not considered the possibility that he could actually see something evil. He started to draw his sword, but then the man changed to a white aura. Rodrick looked over his shoulder and found himself staring at Mentor Loma’s visage as it smilingly sauntered up to him, lips twitching with an invocation Rodrick knew just by watching the movements.

“Having a bit of a crisis, son?” the mentor asked.

“No sir,” Rodrick replied, not failing to notice that all of the auras on the street that he had previously walked were not white anymore but were black instead.

“I can see your handiwork from a mile or two away, and you have not been very communicative since you joined our order this year. What seems to be the matter?”

“H-how did you do that?” Rodrick blurted.

“Do what?” the mentor smiled.

“Change what my God said about this man and all of the other people I looked upon today.”

“Oh, it’s a simple trick. Watch,” the mentor beckoned before speaking the intonation again. Sure enough, the man who Rodrick had just marked as an evildoer was again an evildoer. Then the Mentor spoke again and, with a sound that was not unlike grains of sugar being dropped into a porcelain bowl, the street was filled with only good people.

Rodrick’s jaw felt dislocated. The entire Paladin order depended upon this absolute truth.

“Young Posthaste, the point of being a servant of a God is to do what?” the mentor asked, his grin vanishing from his face.

“To serve,” Rodrick replied, quoting the words over the threshold of his dormitory.

“What makes you so surprised that part of your service includes the rendering of a judgment? Do you think your God incapable of changing his or her mind?”

“If we can change the verdict of our God’s judgment through our intent, how can we pass it off as an absolute?”

“We can because we must,” the old mentor replied, setting a gentle hand on Rodrick’s shoulder. “Being steadfast is part of our service. When you saw the marrow-walker, you saw a being that lived as it did through necessity. If it attempted to step into one of our local towns in broad daylight, it would be killed--it had no choice but to pose as a human. Am I correct?”

“Yes, sir,” Rodrick replied.

“And yet, it cannot reason as well as we would like it to, as it is only half human. In order for it to retain its lifestyle, it would need to also afflict anyone it came into contact with with Bloodblight. Are you committed enough to your duties to your God that you could also ignore the word of your God if that very word would bring desolation and despair to your community?”

“I am not…”

“It is a matter worth considering. Sometimes our duties require deviance. Sometimes they require us to look at a good man and see only the darkness in his heart. The words of the invocation are the same, but our choices are not. The heavens are a fire, and each of us is only the lens in a looking glass aimed at the sky. Judgments may vary.”

The old mentor smiled again. “Do you feel this resolves your concern at all?”

Rodrick mustered his courage to ask it. “Is the invocation just a formality then?”

“No. It is a result of your collaboration with your God--the synchronicity of your wills made into a commitment. When you see the goodness in a being, you must not strike. You must act on your own judgment, regardless of the outcome.”

At this, the mentor’s smile changed as he turned toward Rodrick to look at him directly. The intent was different.

“Ragnalis could turn your aura black with a moment’s thought. He merely has to utter the invocation in your direction in order to give himself any license he needs to do… whatever he needs to do. Am I clear?” the mentor asked.

Rodrick felt the cut again, though it could just be heartburn brought on by intense, sudden dread.

Roderick nodded.

“Good.”

It was going to be very difficult to survive as a first year Paladin at Castlemont.

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