"Oh good. Another paladin." The words were delivered in a disinterested monotone, and the girl who spoke them had stopped sweeping the entryway just long enough to look them over. She was small and slim, dressed in black leggings and tunic, with the symbol of Amun worked in silvery embroidery on the front.
Laina glanced at Tarric, but the older paladin just rolled his eyes and continued on. Werendril didn't even seem to hear, which couldn't possibly be true. The elf heard everything.
Curious, Laina asked: "What makes you say that?"
The girl had started sweeping again. "Those two," she said, in the same nothing-really-matters-at-all tone of voice. "And you walk like you belong with them."
Laina nodded. "Well, you're not wrong," she said, and started away.
"I know," the girl said from behind her.
* * *
The graveyard was down behind the temple, on the far side of the hill from Caristhium. A smooth marble path wound its way down, but gave way to dirt and gravel when it reached the gates. Narrow walkways traced their way between the graves, and high stone walls -- probably cut from the hill itself -- surrounded the whole area. This was sacred ground, an extension of the temple above, but heavy with a quiet melancholy that was almost peaceful.
It bothered Laina that she could feel that just by stepping across the threshold, but she was slowly getting used to it. Eighteen years of living in Aldpond had not prepared her for this. But Tarric had encouraged her to explore in the empty hours between the evening meal and the fall of night, so here she was.
"The dead welcome their own," said a soft voice behind her, and Laina only barely managed not to shriek. She turned, and saw the same girl who'd been sweeping the entry when she first arrived. Her hair was a bloody crimson now, and she'd put something on her lips to match the color; between that and the tight black tunic that emphasized the pallor of her skin, she looked like another damned vampire.
"You're not dead," she observed. No true undead would be standing so calmly in a place like this. "Neither am I."
The girl made a dismissive gesture with her free hand -- she was holding a shovel in the other. "Not yet."
A hint of a grin creased Laina's lips, and she sniffed in a way that was almost a chuckle. "True. You never know."
The girl nodded an acknowledgement. "I'm done now," she said, and started to walk past Laina and out the gate.
"Wait," said Laina.
The girl stopped, but didn't look back.
"What's your name?"
There was a brief hesitation. Then the girl said, "Raven."
"I'm Laina. I make tea sometimes, if the thought of drinking the juice of dead leaves appeals to you."
The girl's shoulders twitched; then she walked off.
Laina moved further into the graveyard, tracing the paths until she found the open grave that the girl had evidently been digging. There was something beside it... a small scrap of parchment tucked under a rock. Frowning slightly, Laina bent down, picked it up and unfolded it.
Life is a lie. Death is truth. No one can hide from the truth forever.
Laina considered that, then tucked the note into the pouch on her belt. She missed wearing dresses sometimes, but the simple pants-and-tunic combination was better for a lot of the physical training that Tarric and Werendril -- and now Anica and Akkora -- had her doing. She'd always been a bit of a tomboy, but this was something else again. On her own, she'd have been happy to stick with her silvered bread knife, but the half-orc armsmistress and the other paladins seemed determined to teach her the use of every possible weapon in the shortest possible time. She spent her days training, her evenings exploring the temple and its environs, and when night fell she collapsed into bed with a feeling of gratitude that was frankly embarrassing.
Then she got up in the morning and did it again. No one can hide from the truth forever. It was a good reminder.
* * *
"Tell me what you want from me," said Laina. "Fucksake, give me some kind of guidance or I swear to You that I'll go back to serving tea somewhere." Tea, at least, had always been there when she needed it.
She was in the Chapel of All, a small room in the northeastern corner tower of the Temple of Amun. It was sanctified, but not dedicated; a place for the worship of other gods, aside from Amun. The priestess Aesa used it when she wanted to offer praise to Corellon; so did Werendril. The armsmistress Akkora used it to offer praise to Gruumsh. There were probably others who used it as well; Archon Le'Straide hadn't prepared her for the idea that a god might not mind the worship of other gods, let alone that one might encourage it. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like Helios might just be a massive asshole.
Whatever. Not her problem. "Come on," she said. "Give me something. I'll learn the weapons if you want, I'll help whomever I can, but you can't seriously expect me to wear full plate armor. I looked ridiculous, and I was ready to fall over after the first five minutes. And yeah, that's kind of shallow, but I am kind of shallow."
"Why did you even call me to your service? Vampires? Why not just help the boys directly? You didn't need me for that. You took me away from everything I knew... for what? Is there some grand purpose to all this, or was I just... convenient?"
Laina turned, ready to leave the chapel, and that was when her goddess nudged her eyes towards the chapel door. The woman in the doorway wore white robes trimmed with bronze; together with the willowy figure and the calmly amused expression, she was unmistakable. This was the Abbess Hilda. And Laina had been imprecating her own goddess in front of her.
"You have an interesting approach to prayer," the older woman said.
Laina felt her cheeks redden, and looked down. "Sorry," she said.
"Don't be. It's good for them, I think, when mortals argue back. And from what I understand of the Order of the Scales, Nepthys often chooses reluctant, recalcitrant champions to serve her."
Laina was still feeling irritated, so she raised an eyebrow and asked: "Order of the Scales? Am I going to turn into a dragon?"
"The other sort of scales," answered the abbess, unperturbed. "Think of weights and measures."
"Fine." Laina drew a breath, sighed, and gave in. "So why does Nepthys want to... recruit... people who don't want to work for her?"
"I don't know," answered the abbess, "but I think it keeps her honest. And I put a word out when you arrived, and one of our people in Brightland answered. There were a pair of clerics of Nepthys there, and they've agreed to come here and teach you what they can. We're still looking to see if we can find one of her paladins, but they are..."
"Incredibly fucking rare?"
"...incredibly fucking rare." The abbess nodded, and turned away. Then she paused, and Laina frowned, watching her. "Take care with Raven. She's more delicate than she seems." Then the abbess vanished down the hallway.
For a moment, Laina just stood there. Then she looked around the Chapel of All, and thought: How did this get to be my life now? Then she sighed, and went outside to practice with more weapons.