“What is this important mission that Duke Solomon has for me?” asks a tall man in shiny platemail. The towering warrior stands in the middle of a clearing with the remains of a large campsite scattered around him. A gray stallion quietly grazes nearby while the shuddering messenger uses the beast’s saddle as an awkward chair. The messenger is incredibly pale and his bloodshot eyes rarely blink. It is clear that he has barely slept since escaping from Rodillen. He makes sure to take several deep breaths before handing a scroll to the Paladin.
“That scroll has a sketch of the person you are to protect,” the messenger says as the Paladin unrolls the scroll. “It’s a terrible picture, but all of the important features will be recognizable. I am sorry that I cannot go into any more detail out loud. We don’t know who or what could be listening, so I must be vague, sir.”
The Paladin turns to the messenger with a stern expression. “Who is this person? Has some vile villain captured him? I will use all my powers to rescue him and make sure that he is safely returned to your lord. You have my word as a Paladin of Ram. The god of war does not allow the weak to become his devoted, so you can rest assured that I am one of the strongest warriors in these parts.”
The messenger stares at the shiny warrior with a tired, numb expression. “I will take your word for it. I have another scroll that explains your mission. Again, I do not wish to speak of the particulars here. All I can say is that the life of Duke Solomon’s heir is in danger. You will be going to a military academy as a guest instructor. Nobody in the academy will be aware of your true mission and it must remain that way for the heir’s safety.”
“I excel at secret missions. There was one time that I pretended to be a guard for a treasury in order to apprehend a great guild master. That thief did not have the slightest idea that a Paladin was waiting for him,” the Paladin gloats, tucking the picture into an armor compartment. “Also, I have years of experience instructing young warriors in the ways of combat. Many of my students have died a hero’s death in the thick of battle, which is the sign of a great battle teacher. I promise that during this mission I will be watching out for this young man and protect him with my life. That will be both my first and second priority. Is there anything else of importance?”
The messenger takes a drink from a waterskin before getting to his feet. An old heron suddenly bursts from the forest, startling the jittery man. His loud shriek echoes throughout the forest while he scurries behind the Paladin. He gets his composure back as he watches the bird fly toward the distant lake.
“My apologies, sir, but this mission has done great damage to my nerves and I am only too happy to hand it over to you. Between you and me, I wish you would take this mission with less bravado,” the messenger requests, struggling to choke down his fear. “I regret to inform you that a persistent Lich is trying to capture the heir. We have been able to hide the location of the heir for some time, but this creature is closing in on the academy. We do not know what kinds of agents he uses to get his information, so you must be cautious. Are you willing to take on this mission with such a monster in the shadows?”
“Ha!” the Paladin exclaims. He picks up an enormous broadsword and a shield with a rearing bull emblazoned on it.
“A Lich is nothing compared to the denizens of the Chaos Void that I have defeated in my time,” the Paladin declares in a booming voice while swinging his sword in mock combat. “There was one time when I came across a masterless Spurge. The bulbous demon was attacking a pig farm just outside of Gods’ Voice when I happened to be passing by. It took me days to defeat that demon because I had no way to minimize its regenerative abilities. I eventually managed to trap the monster in a nearby cave and slew it before it could escape. Then, I sealed the cave to make sure nobody could revive the demon. Let me tell you that it was a fight worthy of my title.”
“I guess I should give you the other scroll, so you have more information on this mission,” the messenger says, trying to hold back his nervous laughter.
The man hands the second scroll to the Paladin moments before another noise cuts through the natural sounds of Visindor. The noise reminds both men of shoveling dirt, but it is much louder and coming from below their feet. The two men look around in time to see the stallion dragged underground by decaying hands.
“Oh no! They found me! We have to hide!” the messenger cries before he clambers up the nearest tree. From the hole that the stallion was pulled into, several rotting corpses rise to shamble toward the Paladin.
The Paladin is less than impressed by his enemies. “Ha! They are just zombies. Their rotting flesh and their stench of the grave have no effect on a warrior with my experience and courage. I have slain thousands of them in my lifetime. There is not a zombie in the world that could defeat a seasoned Paladin of my caliber. Take this!”
The Paladin lifts his broadsword over his head and a searing blast of light erupts from the crossguard. Three of the zombies burst into white flames while the others turn away until the light is gone. A low snicker can be heard from the forests, but neither of the men can locate the origin of the noise.
The armored warrior stares at the zombies, his confusion growing. “This is not right. My power should have destroyed them all. These are not normal zombies. So, I suppose more basic tactics are in order. Charge!”
The Paladin leaps into the moaning cluster of zombies. He hacks and slashes away while the monsters beat dents into his shiny armor. The messenger watches from the tree branches until he feels the tree suddenly lurch to one side. He looks down to see a pair of zombies trying to knock the tree down.
“I hate my life,” the messenger mutters as the tree begins to fall. Luckily, his tunic gets caught on another tree, tangling him in its branches. The zombies follow their prey and attempt to knock this much thicker tree down.
The Paladin continues to hack and slash at the undead when he hears a horse neighing behind him. With a hopeful smile on his face, he turns to see the bleeding corpse of his loyal stallion galloping out of the ground. His face turns white as the undead horse stops at the edge of the gaping hole and stares at its former master. Blood oozes out of its open throat and chunks of flesh are missing from its belly and hindquarters.
“This is not possible!” the Paladin shouts in frustration. “Nothing can create a zombie so quickly. What dark magic is at work here? Show yourselves, foul demons!”
The Paladin turns to defend against the charge of the zombie horse when a stabbing pain hits him in the back of his neck. He drops his shield in order to reach behind him, feebly grabbing whatever punched through the chainmail protecting his armor’s weak point. He feels a long, wooden shaft and sharp feathers sticking out of his neck. The Paladin can feel his blood begin to churn inside him, magically being expelled from his body.
“This is not possible! I am a Paladin!” he screams, blood spewing from his eyes. The Paladin is unable to see the stallion charging at him. Within seconds, he is crushed to death by his once loyal steed.
“Cessia protect me. Cessia protect me,” the messenger whimpers as the tree falls to the ground. He bounces off a flexible branch and lands unharmed on the soft ground. The zombies are almost on top of him when a flash of motion cuts their heads off from behind. Both bodies fall on the messenger who scrambles away from the foul-smelling remains.
“Are you hurt?” Luke asks as he steps over the twitching bodies. Stiletto is busy quietly watching the other zombies feast on the Paladin. He barks as soon as the monsters get to their feet and turn toward Luke.
“Run into the forest and I’ll find you!” Luke yells as he calmly moves toward the zombies. “Watch over him, Stiletto! I’ll be fine!”
The undead horse is the first to reach him, managing to knock Luke into a large oak with a swing of its bloody head. The half-elf flips onto a low branch and leaps onto the back of the horse, ignoring the mild pain in his back. Luke slices its head off before leaping toward the other groaning zombies. He spins in mid-air, hacking two of the zombies down. He gracefully lands in a crouch in front of the others.
“No time for showing off here,” Luke whispers, his sabers rapidly cut through the remaining undead. Every fluid move that Luke makes smoothly melts into the next until all of the zombies have become twitching pieces in the blackening grass.
“His speed and agility are incredible for someone so young,” the messenger says, watching the short battle. “It’s like he is made out of water or is one with the air around him.”
Luke is about to turn and yell at the lingering messenger when he sees a shadow move on the other side of the clearing. He is ready to chase it when the shadow fires a black arrow at him. The arrow is barely deflected by his sabers, landing in a nearby tree with an echoing thud. Only Stiletto is watching when the bolt burrows into the tree and all of the leaves begin to turn black. By the time Luke reaches the far side of the clearing, the shadow is gone, leaving a deep sword gouge in a boulder.
Luke sprints back to the messenger, his senses still focused on his surroundings. “This is a very dangerous place. We have to go now before something worse than zombies arrives. Come on.”
“I whole-heartedly agree, young man,” the messenger says, obediently following Luke.
A silent hour passes in the clearing before one of the decapitated zombies explodes and the Lich rises out of the bloody mist. He can barely believe what he saw through his scrying. He carefully inspects the area and smiles at the carnage around him. The zombies quickly rot at his touch as he checks their fresh injuries.
“The Hellfire Elf did well against the Paladin, but this forest tracker’s intrusion is something that I did not foresee. I should have told my pet to remove all threats instead of naming specific targets,” the Lich whispers as if he is talking to an invisible ally. “No matter. This warrior is just a boy who stumbled into the area. Cessia must have used him to save her follower. Still, if the boy continues to get in my way, I will have my assassin take care of him. The heir of Duke Solomon will be ours, but for now I will simply watch events continue and let my pet do his job.” He rips the cracked skull of the Paladin out of the trampled corpse and pockets it before sinking into the ground.