Editor’s Note: we are stoked once again to welcome guest author Geoff Bottone, a founding member of SlugFest Games and one of The Red Dragon Inn’s original designers!
Serena refused to retreat. Paladins of Korash never retreated.
She swung the pommel of her holy sword into one of the bandit’s jaws. He let out a very satisfying gurgle—Korash forgive her—and went down in a heap. That still left seven of them, and even taking into account all of her training, the strength of her faith, and the fact that they were just puny humans, they had her well and truly outmatched.
One of the bandits drove the point home, both figuratively and literally, with an expert thrust of her knife. Serena’s armor plates, and the mail beneath them, prevented it from being a lethal thrust, but it still hurt. She recoiled, baring her tusks and letting out a roar of agony that rang off of the rocks of the canyon. The bandits retreated from her a half-step, and that gave Serena the moment she needed.
Perhaps, she thought, as she fled back the way that she had come, this was what the Lord Marshall meant when she talked about ‘strategic withdrawal.’
She sheathed her brightly-glowing sword and devoted all of her energy to scrambling up the steep canyon pathway. Her wound continued to bleed and, by the time she had reached the top, its pain was so great that she was reduced to crawling along on all fours.
To her very great surprise, the bandits did not follow her, though their mocking catcalls, along with the occasional low moan, echoed off of the rocks behind her. The blood rushed to Serena’s cheeks at the sound, and she was sure that her green skin was now a flushed and vivid brown. Grumbling with shame and gasping with the pain of her wound, she pulled herself to the top of the canyon and behind the shelter of a dusty boulder.
Serena took a deep breath and whispered out a prayer to Korash. The pain in her side ebbed and the blood flow slowed to a stop.
Her new armor was bloody and dusty, scuffed in places where she had dragged it along the rocks. Her sword was still well-honed, though she was far enough from the bandits that it no longer glowed. The scroll case that Baroness Tyia had entrusted into her keeping remained safely tucked into her belt.
She thanked Korash that she still had it. This was her first mission as a paladin aspirant and, if she had lost it or let it fall into the wrong hands, the career that she had been working her whole life towards would be over almost before it had begun.
Serena consulted the sky. There were still a number of hours of daylight left, which meant that she still had some time to reach the neighboring lands of Baroness Janessa, inconveniently located on the opposite side of the canyon. The sheer number of bandits made the direct route all but impossible, and Serena saw no bridges or other ways across. Going around the long way would be safest, but as Baroness Tyia had repeatedly told her, all would be lost if her message was not delivered by sundown.
There had to be some way through. Sneak through the bandit camp? No, with her size and armor, she probably wouldn’t be able to manage it. Use guerilla tactics to pick them off one at a time? Tempting, but extremely dishonorable. What, then?
Serena wasn’t sure, so she did what she did best whenever the way ahead seemed unsure. She prayed.
A few minutes after she began her prayers, the bandit down in the canyon finally stopped moaning.
Something huge and heavy crashed through the nearby trees. Serena wrapped up her prayers as quickly as she could without being rude. She arose and drew her sword as whatever it was drew nearer to the tree line and the lip of the canyon, snapping branches and stomping through underbrush. Serena had little knowledge of forest lore, having spent the majority of her life studying in the temple and wasn’t sure what it could possibly be. A moose, maybe?
No. Not a moose.
Serena was used to being the tallest person in the room, but the humanoid that shoved his way out of the forest was at least a head-and-a-half bigger than she was and a good deal wider. His face was rough and had a greenish cast, sporting curved, yellow tusks larger than hers. He wore mismatched armor covered in chains and spikes and was armed with a stout cudgel that looked for all the world like someone had pulled a half-burned log out of a fireplace and driven nails into it.
“Hello!” he said, raising a hand in greeting.
Serena glanced down at her sword. It wasn’t glowing.
“Well met,” she said, sliding her sword back into its sheath. “I am Serena.”
“Gog,” said the huge thing, his smile widening.
“Your name is Gog?” said Serena, not quite understanding.
He nodded vigorously. Then he looked over Serena, much more closely this time, and the grin disappeared from his face. “You all right?”
She looked down at the now rusty stain on her side. “Yes. It was just a scratch and it’s all healed now.”
Gog’s toothy smile returned. “Good, good!”
“I should warn you,” said Serena, gesturing to the path that led down into the canyon, “you may risk receiving scratches of your own, or worse, if you plan to travel that way.”
Gog shook his head vigorously, whipping his long, ropy, braided hair every which way. “Gog not go that way. Gog go along canyon to high road. Gog take high road to Blue Creek. Blue Creek home village.”
“Oh,” said Serena. “Visiting family?”
“Yes! Gog finish first adventure! Gog take share of treasure home to give to Father. Well, not magic ring that Gog find. Ring cursed. Ring turn Gog into ficus for…” Gog paused to count on his fingers. “Three days.”
“My condolences,” said Serena.
“It all right,” said Gog. “Zot fix Gog. He even let Gog keep pot. Zot nice wizard.”
Unsure of how to respond, Serena chose to nod politely.
“What about Serena,” said Gog. “You have sword and armor. You also adventurer?”
“Sort of,” said Serena. “I’m a paladin of Korash. I am on a holy quest.”
“Oh!” said Gog. “Is that why you get stabbed?”
“Yes,” said Serena, “you see…”
Gog placed his massive hands on his belly and let out a low, rumbling chuckle. “Gog make funny!”
Gog chuckled again. “Holy mean religious and it mean full of holes. That why it funny!”
“That is…rather funny,” said Serena.
“Then why you not laugh?”
“My apologies, my friend. I’m just a little distracted,” said Serena. “I need to get this scroll across that canyon by the time the sun sets, otherwise I will fail my mission and dire peril will befall the baroness. I’m just not sure how I’m going to get past the bandits down there and…”
Gog’s smile vanished. His eyes narrowed. “Bandits?”
“Bandits,” said Gog, “like thieves?”
Gog cracked his knuckles. “Gog not like thieves.”
In that moment, Serena wondered if perhaps Korash, who had been remarkably silent this day, had answered her prayers after all.
“Gog,” she said, feeling her own smile spread across her face. “I wonder if you would mind assisting me with something…”
The last of the bandits hurled through the air in a flailing mass of arms and legs. He crashed into one of the camp’s makeshift tents, smashing it into a flattened mess of shattered poles and moth-eaten fabric. Serena waded through the wreckage after him, slamming her knees down on his chest and forcing her blade up underneath his chin.
“I pray that Korash has taught you a lesson today,” said Serena.
The bandit’s eyes rolled in their sockets as he tried to focus on the razor sharp edge of the glowing sword.
“Um,” he said.
“You and your friends will clear out of here and find something productive to do with your lives.”
“Yes,” said the bandit, who seemed to be fighting the urge to nod.
“If I find that you have resumed your thieving ways, I will come after you. When I do, pray that Korash will be merciful, because I will not be.”
“Very…” the bandit swallowed carefully. “Very generous terms. Yes.”
Serena cuffed him on the side of the head, removed her sword, and stood up. A moment later, the bandit rolled out of the wreckage of the tent and, with a hand clasped over his throat, ran off after his cohorts. Gog waved as he departed.
“Thank you for your help,” said Serena, sheathing her sword. “You are a righteous…person…who walks in the light of Korash.”
“Half-ogre,” said Gog, smiling and thumping his chest.
“Ah, that explains it.” Serena shielded her eyes and consulted the sun. “Alas, I must be going. I will need to travel with all speed if I am to reach the baroness’s manse in time.”
“Gog go with Serena,” said Gog.
“I don’t want to keep you from your family.”
“It all right,” said Gog. “Blue Creek not far. Maybe Serena find more bandits or other things on way. Gog not want Serena to fail mission.”
Serena smiled. “Thank you. It’s this way.”
She jogged off across the remnants of the camp to the far side of the canyon. Gog followed after her, easily keeping pace with his loping gait.
They reached Baroness Janessa’s manse just as the sun touched the horizon. The guards on the perimeter wall shouted warnings at their approach, taking aim on them with their bows.
“This happen to Gog a lot,” said Gog, a touch wistfully.
“Me, too,” said Serena.
They exchanged smiles as a heavily-armored man appeared atop the wall overlooking the gatehouse. “Turn back, monsters, or be destroyed.”
Very slowly, Serena reached into her belt and withdrew the scroll case. “I am Serena, aspirant paladin of Korash, and I…”
“What about him?” said one of the archers, gesturing at Gog with her nocked arrow.
“Gog!” shouted Gog. Several of the archers ducked in response.
“He is my traveling companion,” said Serena, failing to keep the irritation from her voice.
After a moment of furtive whispering, the armored man cleared his throat. “That will be more than enough of that, is that understood?”
“Yes, sir,” said the archers, though they continued to hold their bows at the ready.
The armored man leaned over the parapet. “I am sorry for the hostile greetings, lady paladin. I am Kelek, captain of the baroness’s personal guard. What business brings you here?”
That was more like it. “I bear an important missive for Baroness Janessa from Baroness Tyia of Bellhaven.”
This caused quite a stir atop the gate. Serena thought she heard one of the archers say, “she’s sending paladins now?”
Captain Kelek motioned the archers to silence before saying, “you and your companion are both welcome in the baroness’s house. Please do me the courtesy of meeting me in the courtyard. I will be down shortly.”
Serena waited patiently as the portcullis lifted up before proceeding through the gatehouse into the courtyard. Gog followed along after her, smiling broadly up at the archers watching from the parapet.
The captain descended the steps from the wall and hurried over to join them, pausing to bow deeply as he approached. “I hope that you found the roads here to be easy.”
“There were bandits in the canyon that gave us some trouble,” said Serena, “but Gog and I were able to take care of them.”
Gog popped his neck amiably, causing the captain to flinch a little.
“If you should require rest, food, or the attention of a healer,” said the captain, “I would be happy to provide them for…”
Serena shook her head. “My only wish is to fulfill the terms of my most holy quest, bringing honor to my order and grave tidings to the baroness.”
She held out the scroll case to Captain Kelek, who bit his lip and looked down at the paving stones.
“May I present this missive to the baroness,” said Serena, “or do you wish to take it yourself?”
The captain swallowed and took a deep breath before lifting his eyes to Serena’s. “I am sorry that you have been dragged into this, lady paladin. It was bad enough when the baronesses were sending messengers and sellswords through the canyon, but now that they’re sending paladins, well…”
Captain Kelek coughed into his fist. “Do you think you and your companion could move quietly and with some discretion?”
She and Gog shared a glance. “It will be difficult, but I think we can if the need is great.”
Captain Kelek flexed his fingers and took the scroll from Serena’s outstretched hand. “If you will follow along about ten paces behind me and say nothing, I will do you the honor of arranging for a proper explanation.”
They were at one end of a hallway decorated with thick tapestries. Captain Kelek was some distance ahead of them at the far end of the hall, by a finely-carved wooden door. He raised a finger to his lips before tapping the scroll case on one of the panels.
“Enter,” came a voice.
The captain obeyed, leaving the door partially open. Through it, Serena saw a well-appointed suite with many high windows. An older, human woman in a dress of green brocade sat by a game table and sipped wine from a goblet. Serena made out the carved pieces of some game or other standing beside the woman’s elbow.
“My lady,” said the captain as he took a knee. “Baroness Tyia has sent a paladin to deliver her latest missive.”
The baroness looked off to her right, letting the red rays of the setting sun pour across her face.
“Well, she’s certainly waited until the last possible moment,” she said, taking the scroll case from her captain. “After all this waiting, we do hope that this missive proves to be more interesting than the last one.”
As the baroness opened the case and unrolled the scroll, Captain Kelek cleared his throat. “My lady, forgive me. I’m not sure if you heard, but I did say that a paladin brought the baroness’s missive.”
The baroness looked down her nose at the scroll. “Give them the usual fee for their troubles and send them back to Baroness Tyia. We are certain that they should be able to reach her fiefdom by morning light, if they hurry.”
“My lady, I…”
“Ha!” The baroness arose with such speed that the startled captain stood up as well. She turned to face the game board and moved one of the white pieces a few spaces. “Ha! Ha-ha!”
“What she doing?” muttered Gog.
“I don’t know,” said Serena. “But I’m not entirely sure I like it.”
“All this time and that’s the best she could come up with?” The baroness lifted another piece, setting it down in a different position on the board. “Pitiful! We don’t know why we bother. Playing her isn’t even remotely a challenge. She may as well forfeit now, for all the good that this move does her. Captain, inform the scribes that they are to prepare a response for our dear baroness. Tell her that she will lose in two moves. Have the paladin…”
“The paladin” had heard just about enough. Serena pounded down the length of the hallway, the soles of her hobnailed boots ringing out against the tiles. She kicked the door open the rest of the way, sending it against the wall with a satisfying crash. The baroness scurried away from the table as she entered. Serena wondered if her own visage caused the baroness’s retreat, or if Gog, who had to duck down to enter the room behind her, was responsible.
“I am Serena, aspirant paladin of Korash,” roared Serena, her holy sword in her hand. It was not glowing as powerfully as she would have liked, but the aura was nevertheless present.
“Well met,” said the baroness, her voice a squeak. “You have discharged your duty nobly, oh paladin, and we are…”
Serena whacked the game board with the flat of her blade, scattering the pieces. “Silence!”
“All right,” whispered the baroness.
“You and Baroness Tyia have wasted my time. You have wasted the time of your previous messengers. You have put us all into dire peril. You have distracted my friend here from an important trip to visit his family…”
“Gog not mind,” said Gog.
“…all so that you can play this game?!”
“When you put it that way,” said the baroness. “It does seem rather…frivolous.”
“This ends now!”
“Yes.” The baroness gave a birdlike nod. “Of course.”
“I will make a full report to the paladins at my temple. We will be watching you and the Baroness Tyia from now on. If I ever hear of either one of you doing something this wasteful ever again, both of you will lose!”
To punctuate the warning, Serena hurled the game board through the nearest window. The captain covered his head to shield himself from the glass shards, but even though she was at the highest point of her dudgeon, Serena detected the ghost of a smile on his face.
“You are welcome to stay the night,” said Captain Kelek as he escorted them both to the gates.
Serena shook her head. “No. Your offer is generous, but I am certain that the baroness no longer wants me around. I will not stay any place that I am not welcome.”
“Fair enough,” said the captain. “I should also warn you that, when she recovers herself, she will not have kind things to say to your superiors.”
“I am aware of that,” Serena sighed. “I sometimes worry that I am far too prone to violence to be a proper paladin.”
“Gog not think so,” said Gog. “Serena good paladin. Serena help make people better. Baroness need extra help. That why Serena need to yell and throw things. Baroness will remember lesson from Serena.”
She chuckled. “Thank you, Gog. Now do me the honor of allowing me to return your favor and escort you to Blue Creek.”
“That sound fun!” said Gog.
Captain Kelek regarded them with a bemused expression. “Safe journeys.”