I've been trying to get back into writing stories again and decided to start with a story about an NPC from my D&D game. In the game there is a city called Pelor's Light that is almost completely populated by Paladins of Pelor whose mission it is to keep the undead in a nearby swamp (The Eldritch Bottoms) from escaping and ravaging the rest of the land. The adventuring party went into the swamp a few days before this story takes place. While there they unwittingly unleashed an undead horde. The horde, much larger than ever before overwhelmed the paladins at Pelor's Light. This is the story of one of the Paladins dealing with that aftermath and before the adventurer's return from the swamp.
Hope you enjoy it. Feedback is appreciated:
A Knight of Pelor
Splintered bones mucked with slime. Drooping flesh that reeks of putrescence. Horrors pass over the wall like a wave and Guenevere shouts. Fear. Anger. Righteous wrath as her arm rises and falls. Glory rises and falls in her hand and with it the shattered bits of skulls and ribs rain around her.
At her back, the comforting pressure of Cassandra presses against her then slams into her. Guenevere stumbles, rolls, turns. Cassandra looms above her, protruding tusks crimson with blood. She pitches forward on top of Guenevere, eyes pale and unseeing, mouth open wide.
“Cass,” Guenevere whispered, opening her eyes.
Her tunic, her hands, her face were all smeared with blood. None of it hers. The sound of dying and wounded rang in her ears. The smell of blood and the tang of the alcohol the medics used burned her nostrils. Two hundred seventy nine civilians were in the keep. One hundred seventeen bore wounds of some kind. Of the knights only twenty seven lived, three of them trained as medics.
“Major?” Markul Groensit, an initiate with a purple bruise across his face questioned her.
“Sorry, Markul, my mind wandered for a bit. It’s been a long night. Tell Inaros to dress the wounds in bandages cut form the drapes.” He saluted with the sign of Pelor and was off.
Too many of the wounds were in places that could be not be dressed. Too many had lost friends and family.
Guenevere pushed a stray lock of sweat-stiff hair behind her ear. Don’t think. Just do.
She passed Clara, weeping in the hall and stopped to wrap arms around her. She didn’t talk, didn’t say it would be alright. It would never be alright, ever again.
Grunt found her there moments later, his lips taught against his tusks, his captains rank torn from his surcoat. “It’s nearly dawn.”
Guenevere nodded. “Come, see the sunrise,” she said to Clara and led the way up the stairs to the rooftop.
There were exactly one hundred forty three steps up the spiraling staircase to reach the roof of Pelor’s Keep.
Gathered on the roof were the survivors, those well enough to climb the stairs. She looked at them huddled in small groups, too few in bloodied armor. They all looked scared, relieved, haunted.
Guenevere passed among them, wordlessly, on her way to the eastern parapet.
She faced the east as the first fingers of sunrise began to push back the blanket of night and she made the sign of the rising sun.
“We greet you lord; and by your word; your light will hold us fast; in your glory no evil thing can last.”
Guenevere heard the others repeat the words. Their voices echoed around her, a chorus of solemnity. The words echoed in her mind, she had said them every morning at dawn for nine years seven months and thirteen days.
This morning she was silent. Her mouth moved, no sound passed her lips.
Why have you forsaken us?
At the doors of the keep Guenevere turns back. Clara, the gardener’s wife is running towards them, two small children clutched in her arms. Behind her, James, the gardener, is gardening, reaping the undead. His hoe lifts and chops and sweeps back and forth. Guenevere raises her shield and charges toward them. Using it as a ram she slams herself into the undead near Clara.
She screams, and points at the keep. Where is Glory? Lost somewhere in the battle? Discarded? James is cut down like a weed, buried under a pile of corpses.
Guenevere backs away, smashes away a looming skeleton, bashes away a leering zombie. Then she grabs one of the children from Clara and runs with her to the doors of the keep.
They rush through the doors as Crunch and Grind slam them shut. Jalinda, the butcher, and Marco, the glass blower, lift the huge wooden bar and slam it into place.
Bodies thump against the doors. Bones rattle against the walls.
People weep. Others slump in shocked silence. Guenevere hands the child to her crying mother.
General Crunch nods to her once, his face ashen and then he crumples to the floor. The wound on his ear already spreading veins of infection along his face.
The morning ritual finished Guenevere passed through the crowd again, their faces hopeful, looking to her for guidance, for peace, for absolution. She could give none.
“Guen… Major, we need to talk, to make plans.”
She did not slow, let the captain fall in behind her. His armor clinked as she went down the stairs.
“I am going to see the general,” she said, “gather the captains and meet me in the Sunset Room in one hour.”
The clinking stopped.
Guenevere did not.
She counted the steps to Crunch’s door.
The door seemed solid as stone, dark with age, the wood grain smooth from use. It had three bronze hinges. Guenevere paused before opening it. General Crunch, her mentor, her friend, her hero, lay dying within. Her fingers closed on the black iron latch and she bit her bottom lip, leaned her forehead against the door.
You can’t take him from us, we need him. “I need him,” she whispered, “I can’t lead them myself.”
Crunch Gorblek-chov lay on a cot, his eyes glassy with fever, his tusks dry and yellowed. Did his gray skin have a greenish tint?
Guenevere stood inside the door for several seconds, her hand still on the latch. He hadn’t seen her.
His eyes rolled toward her, slowly, two marbles finding a resting place.
“It is the dawn,” Guenevere said, moving toward him at last. “You’ve lived through the night.”
“But not another, I think,” he spoke softly, his voice scratchy.
“You will live. You must.”
“You can lead them,” he said, patting her hand, “you will.” He tried to smile and she looked away, seeing in his familiar grin the gaping maw of Cassandra.
Guenevere and Crunch, student and mentor. They move as one. The ridges on Crunch’s morningstar sing just before crunching through bone. Glory whistles in Guenevere’s hand.
The ogre is undead, rotten and wet. Its strength matches its stench.
Crunch slides under its bowed legs striking upward. Guenevere takes the opening. Glory rings as the ogre batters her away. She ducks its swinging arm, comes up hammering. Crunch already batters its legs.
The ogre picks up a fallen knight and slams the body into Crunch, sending him sprawling backward.
With a shout of holy anger Guenevere calls upon Pelor’s might and sunlight erupts from Glory as she smashes the head of the hammer through the ogre’s skull, dropping it to the ground.
She pulls Glory free. Crunch rolls to his feet, helmet missing, but seemingly unhurt.
He salutes her and bares his tusks in a smile. Something dark and rotten hits him from behind and bites down on his ear. Blood spurts. The zombie falls dead with the spike of Glory buried in its skull.
Crunch touches his mangled ear. “Probably alright.”
It’s probably alright.
The Sunset Room had a burgundy carpet and seven mahogany chairs. It took one hundred nineteen steps around the curving corridor of Pelor’s Keep to pass from the door of General Crunch’s cell to the door of the Sunset Room.
One hundred nineteen steps that felt like one thousand. One million.
You always hoped to be General one day.
“Not like this,” she said. She put on her calm face before entering.
Two captains had survived the fall of Pelor’s Light. Two captains, three lieutenants and one major.
Captain Janella Strifelaughter and Captain Grind Antonk-ovich saluted her with the sign of Pelor when she entered. Their backs straightened, stiffened.
“At ease,” she said.
“Major,” Grind said. He relaxed his stance just slightly. His face bore a long line of stitches across his eye. “What are we going to do? Janella and I think we should pursue the undead, it is our job to destroy…”
“It was our job to keep them inside,” Guenevere interrupted, “we failed. Now we must tend to those who still live.”
“What’s the point if the rest of the world falls to rot and ruin,” Janella said, she held a twist of cloth in her hands and acted as though she were trying to throttle it. Her lips pursed and her eyes squeezed taught.
“I will not abandon those in this tower who are helpless.”
“Will not leave the walls to fight, you mean,” Janella said, her sneer made her face ugly. Her eyes passed once over Guenevere, uninjured, unarmed.
Guenevere crossed the distance between them in two quick steps. Her hands gripped the chain mail of Janella’s hauberk. She shoved the taller woman back, so quick and fierce that Janella took two steps away.
“You will not speak to me that way again or you will be stripped of rank and I will find another to take your place.”
Janella lowered her gaze, “Yes, Major Claremonde.”
Guenevere looked at Grind. He returned her gaze, eye wide. Fear hid just beneath the surface. His gaze flicked to Janella and back.
“Find any runners who are well enough. Send them out along the wall, bring in the patrols. We need to know if this is the only place they got through, or if it’s even worse.”
She turned to Janella, “Find those who are skilled and able. We will need food and water. What can be salvaged?”
“Yes, Major,” they said. They left to carry out her orders.
Shove with her shield, swing Glory, wide and hard. Her armor rings as verdigris swords squeal across the surface. Rotten hands with blackened fingernails pry at the plates, slide off. Skeletal hands wielding tarnished weapons push at her.
She stands alone in the horde, and not alone. The Knights of Pelor are scattered about like stars in a sky of undead. She can hear their shouts of righteous anger rising above the din. She can not reach any of them.
Then General Crunch steps from the chaos around her, tall, broad and glowing with holy light.
“There’s an ogre broke down part of the south wall,” he shouts as his morningstar shatters skulls around him.
She nods. Nothing more need be said.
She moved among the people inside the keep. A hand on a shoulder and a word of encouragement. A quick hug. A crouch to comfort a child. A word of reproach to some bickering civilians.
Guenevere occupied her day with helping, leading, teaching. Keep the memories at bay. Keep the battle outside. Exhaustion tugged at her, pulled her down but she shrugged it off and soldiered on.
There were fifty-two children in the keep. Forty seven children had lost at least one parent. Seven had lost both.
There was food in the keep but only enough for a few weeks and who was to cook it? Clara was a skilled cook but who would look after her two small children? Master Starbright, a retired paladin, loved children but then who would record the history of the castle? And so it went, each person filling in where others had vacated a needed spot until nobody was comfortable.
But they will be fed and rested and safe.
The Knights of Pelor are Broken.
While the rest of the survivors gathered in the Hall of Sunrise to feast on whatever Clara had prepared Guenevere found herself outside General Crunch’s cell once more. The door was made of eight planks of wood banded tightly with iron bands.
She brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. She smoothed her tunic over her armor. She took a deep breath. She bit her lip and opened the door. The hinges creaked softly. The door turned smoothly.
Crunch’s head turned, jerked, as if a twitch had suddenly taken him. His eyes, bloodshot and wet struggled to focus on her.
She knelt at his side and touched his hand, cold, like death. His skin looked pallid and stretched, taught across his bones.
“Kill me,” he whispered to her, “Kill me before I become one of them.”
Guenevere looks at the ground, churned with blood and littered with fragments of bone. She looks at the surging swarm of undead flowing over the wall. She looks at her hands, at the blunt head of glory caked in blood. She looks at Cassandra lying at her feet, head caved in where Glory made its mark.
Even now Cassandra twitches and her teeth clack together as whatever turned her to undeath tries to make her rise.
Guenevere turns away, shield up and screams into the sky as she charges into the nearest waves of undead. Holy light shines from Glory’s head. She swings again and again, anger drowning the tears that mix with sweat as they drop from her face.
From the sounds in the Hall of Sunrise the people were enjoying the meal of parched corn and stewed beans that Clara prepared. Perhaps not enjoying, the sound was subdued and more of a low hum than a raucous feast.
But people were eating and talking. Perhaps laughter would come.
Guenevere did not enter. Crunch’s face, his voice, his eyes haunted her. His toothy scowl of pain loomed in her mind like the rictus of death.
Before I become one of them.
She couldn’t do it. Not again. Not to him. Not even for him.
In the eastern wing she entered the Dawn Chapel, shaped like a rising sun with stained glass, triangular alcoves facing east along the curve of a half circle. Five alcoves. Five precepts of Pelor.
There were forty two flagstones placed in the floor between the door and the altar in the center. Forty two steps up the steepest mountain.
At the altar she knelt and clasped her hands. Her forehead touched the top of the altar and a tear dripped on the white marble.
Where are you? I can’t lead. Not now. Not ever. I’m not ready…
As she prayed tears came. Tears that she had kept to herself all day. Tears she had hidden while she dried those of others. Head bowed to the altar she spoke to Pelor and she cried. She told him of her fears, her traumas, her hopes and her nightmares.
She prayed until the tears dried, stiff on her cheeks. She prayed until the dawn’s light lit up the stained glass rays of the chapel.
Then she stopped. She breathed in deeply and raised her head.
Footsteps echoed behind her, paused, then continued. A cleared throat, and then a voice, “Major Claremonde,” Captain Grind said, “The adventurers are returning from the Bottoms. Should we have them arrested?”
Guenevere pushed herself to her feet. Her knees ached where she had spent the night kneeling. Her eyes felt grainy and dry. “No,” she said, “I will go meet them. Perhaps one prayer will be answered.”