En Shevil noticed Seanque nodding as he stepped forward. “I can sense in her a great evil, but it’s something she’s fighting.”
“But…” Todi began.
Seanque cut him off gently, shaking his head. “She’s not a criminal, and has no reason to be punished.”
“All the same,” said an older liontaur woman, “we do not know fully that we can trust her.”
“The word of Rasha Rakeesh sah Tarna should be enough for that!” another said indignantly.
“Let her soul be weighed by Sekhmet,” suggested a third, the youth who had asked for someone to speak for En Shevil.
“No!” cried the liontaur with the pointed red headdress. “That law has been broken once too often!”
“This is a great matter,” said another gravely, “as was the first. Perhaps a judgement of her soul is in order.” This one wore a blue headdress with a pentagram over her brow.
“Her destiny is caught up with that of the Prince of Shapier,” Rakeesh put in. “If he was allowed to be tested, so should she be.”
There was thoughtful silence for a moment, and En Shevil wondered what Achim had gotten himself into here. Then the king spoke. “Let the human’s soul be weighed. If she is judged unworthy, let justice be meted to her.” He stood, and the other liontaurs stood with him. A guard advanced and took En Shevil’s arm, though not roughly, and guided her towards the door.
“En Shevil, are you all right?” Elsa asked as the maruroha came out of the Judgement hall.
“I’m fine, Elsa; nothing’s going to happen to me.”
“What are they doing to you?” She gestured to the guards at the other woman’s sides.
“They’re just taking me up to their temple to be judged, or something.”
“This is not your concern, human,” said Red-headdress haughtily as she emerged.
“En Shevil is my friend,” Elsa replied hotly. “What happens to her is my concern.”
The warrior from the Council Hall separated Elsa and En Shevil. “You are forbidden to enter the temple. Her fate will be decided there.”
En Shevil was taken around a corner and up the very long flight of steps to the dark doorway. The warrior liontaur took her place beside it, gesturing the other guards away, and Red-headdress, whom En Shevil guessed to be a priestess, indicated that the human should enter. None of the other Council members had come with them besides the young warrior.
Inside, En Shevil was taken to face a massive statue of a six-pawed leonine creature of strange, inexplicable beauty. A priest was called forth from some inner chamber, and the ceremony, if that was what it was, began without preamble.
“Hear me, your priestess, oh Sekhmet, Mother of Tarna. There stands before you one who shall be judged. Her soul shall be weighed against the Feather of Truth, and the future shall be revealed: whether life in honor or death in justice.” From the altar-like table before them the liontaur took a large cup full of swirling black liquid. “Drink now, soul that shall be weighed. May you balance the Feather of Truth.”
En Shevil took the cup in both hands, feeling its weight as she looked at the dark contents. With a deep breath she took a sip, not sure exactly how much she was supposed to drink, and in an instant was dizzily toppling to the ground. Her vision failed.
When she awoke, or that was how it felt, she was floating bodiless in a strange landscape of shifting greens, pinks, and blues. The eerie colors hurt her eyes, and she tried to close them but could not. A voice spoke.
It was the priestess, and it said, “Choose that which you were.”
Immediately a number of hazy objects appeared floating before her, all gilded and heavily shadowed. A heart, a key, a pentagram, a sword, a cup, and an ankh all beckoned to her, each seeming to cry out that she should choose it. But there was no doubt in her mind as to which she wanted, and she reached out mentally for the ankh. The voice spoke again.
“As you enter a town, you see a group of people gathered around a crude gallows. A badly injured man with a noose around his neck calls out to you for help and says that he is innocent. The crowd shouts, ‘Murderer!’ What do you do?”
En Shevil would have frowned. “I would…” she began, thinking. “I would defend him from the crowd until I could discover the truth.”
The objects faded, to be replaced by a second set. “Choose that which you are.” From the hourglass, key, yin-yang, ring, infinity symbol, and fist arrayed before her she chose the ring; it was not much of a choice, as once her nonexistent eyes laid hold of it they would not let go. “You are battling a powerful dragon and both of you are near death. The dragon offers you half its treasure hoard if you will let it live. What do you do?”
“Why am I battling this dragon?” En Shevil almost demanded, at once and with a feeling of shock.
“It has been terrorizing the kingdom,” answered the priestess after a moment’s hesitation.
En Shevil thought hard. “The treasure hoard doesn’t matter to me, but I won’t kill it. I will use its treasure to bargain with it, and make it leave the country.”
There was a short silence; then the priestess intoned, “Choose that which you shall be.” This time ankh, candle, pentagram, sword, cup, and ring were the items presented. En Shevil was suddenly at a total loss, for none of them spoke to her. In her mind was everything dead silent, and she had no idea which to choose. All was clouded, and the brilliant colors behind the objects commanded her attention more than the objects themselves. Finally she chose randomly, and found that she had again selected the ankh. It looked bigger than before.
“Three huge stone statues stand before you,” the priestess said. “One is of a lion, one of a falcon, and one of a snake. Each of the statues speaks to you, saying, ‘Choose me and I shall guide you.’ What do you do?”
“Guide me where, I wonder,” En Shevil said rhetorically.
The priestess answered her anyway, “I cannot say.”
“I would choose the falcon, I think.”
All went black for a moment, and when the colors returned they bore before them the image of the head of the goddess-statue in the temple. It spoke. Such was its voice that En Shevil trembled and marveled, for it was at once compassionate and cruel, ancient and ageless. It was the voice of the goddess Sekhmet. “Thy soul has been weighed. Thou hast chosen thine own path, and by that path ye shall be judged.”
The ankh appeared. “The first is that which was: peace. The Ankh is life, wisdom, the union of male and female. It is the doorway to enlightenment. It is inner knowledge. With the Ankh within, you have harmony. With the Ankh within, you respect all living things.”
The ring displaced the ankh. “The second is that which is: desire. The Ring is Purity and Perfection. It is without beginning or end. It is wealth, the sign of authority, the oath of honor. It is a token of love, a pledge of faith. To choose the ring is to reveal the need for things ungained, and a yearning for that which is not.”
Again the ankh appeared. “The third is that which will be: greater peace. Again the Ankh is life and enlightenment. In the future it is greater than in the past; it is greater harmony and it is greater respect for living things.”
A yin-yang appeared, shimmering. “That which you are and that which you should be are not the same. Your life has been lived in apathy and darkness, but your desires and actions belie this. Your soul is in conflict, but it is only because you are greater than what you have allowed yourself to be.”
“Thou hast been judged worthy.”
En Shevil abstractly breathed a sigh of very real relief, and then realized that the ceremony was not over.
“You have gained darkness, but may tread the path of greater light. Cast aside you indifference and the comfort of the darkness; face your fears and learn what you should know. Only thus can you become what you should be.
“Do not rely on your friends for more than knowledge, for they have their own paths. Gain from them all the knowledge you can, but hinder them not in their ways. It is through learning that you may grow.
“Above all, remain diligent. In apathy lies not a return to your former self but a return to darkness. Death is not your way, but neither is a life in vain. Work for the future and the self you should become.
“This is that which might yet be. Thy path is thine own to follow or not. Go forth freely now, mistress of the darker night.”
In warmth and comfort she awoke again–then sat up, startled. Looking around in shock she found herself in the room at the Welcome Inn. A bitter taste was in her throat, and she felt light-headed. Elsa spoke from behind her. “They brought you down from the temple and gave you into my keeping. I was very glad to hear that you are not to be executed.” En Shevil did not speak, only got to her feet and stretched. She felt deliciously rested. “You have slept for several hours,” Elsa continued. “An angry canine followed me all the way to the door of the inn, shouting curses about justice all the way. Another man had to restrain him.”
En Shevil smiled wanly. “Just like that girl in Spielburg,” she murmured sadly. “I’m glad too that I’m not going to be executed. Have you talked to anyone here yet?”
“I visited the money changer and settled our business here. I bought some SPIM in the bazaar, but I have mostly been waiting for you to awaken.”
“He was invited to walk through the liontaur section of the city; he will be back before nightfall.”
“Well, I want to find Rakeesh. He probably saved my life back there. Come with me?”
Elsa nodded, and together they left the room.
Across the plaza at the doorway under the pentagram, En Shevil was unsure of what to do. After moments of hesitating, peering into the dimness, she was startled by a woman’s voice calling her. “You may enter, En Shevil.”
“Ah, thanks,” she said, and did so, followed by her friend.
Within stood Rakeesh and one of the liontaur Council members; it was the one with the blue headdress and the pentagram. “Greetings, En Shevil,” said Rakeesh. He appeared to be smiling. “I understand your judgement with Sekhmet was satisfactory.”
“Yes… well… yes.” En Shevil knew she should be happy that she’d not been condemned to death, but still wished she understood the goddess’ words a little bit better. “Rakeesh, this is my friend Elsa von Spielburg — Elsa, this is Rakeesh.”
Elsa made a manly bow to Rakeesh, who responded, acknowledging her in the style of Tarna. “It is my honor to know you,” Rakeesh said. “I have heard much of your heroics in your father’s kingdom.”
“And from En Shevil I have heard much of you,” Elsa said.
“This is Kreesha, my lifemate and friend,” Rakeesh said with a gesture.
“We are glad to meet you,” Elsa said.
Rakeesh then turned to En Shevil. “I guess you have come to Tarna because of Achim?”
She nodded. “We wanted to find him. What can you tell us?”
Rakeesh sighed, shaking his head. “He defeated a very powerful Demon Wizard, but a week later he disappeared. I was with him at the time — he simply vanished, and I sensed some evil involved in his taking.”
“I fear it may have been some kind of backlash from the Demon Wizard,” said Kreesha. “The spell which removed him came and went so quickly that I can find no trace of it, and cannot tell what sort of magic it was. Since, I have attempted to locate him, as has the archmage Erasmus and the enchantress Aziza. But none of our spells can find him.” En Shevil folded her arms and looked at the floor. Kreesha hastened to add, “That is not definitive, however. If you will but remain here for a while, we may receive news of him.”
The Shapierian looked back up at them, sorrow in her face. “I guess I have no other choice,” she said sadly.
“I am sorry,” said Rakeesh, remembering how he had once comforted Achim on a very similar point in this very room. “Perhaps you would like to go hunting on the savanna with me. We could speak.”
Kreesha looked at her husband with slight surprise, and En Shevil’s expression was quizzical. Rakeesh must have something specific to say to her, and it couldn’t hurt to listen to him. Maybe he could help her with Sekhmet’s prophecy as well. “All right,” she said.
At that moment another liontaur entered from another chamber. She was younger, and bore a resemblance to Kreesha. “Ah, Reeshaka,” said Rakeesh, “come and meet our guests.”
Reeshaka advanced and greeted them. “I am Reeshaka dar Kreesha, a warrior of Tarna.”
“I am En Shevil, or Deathscar,” said the maruroha unfalteringly with her hybrid-bow.
“And I am Elsa von Spielburg.”
“I am honored to know you.” Reeshaka did not react in the slightest at En Shevil’s ‘other name,’ and the Shapierian hoped that maybe she had not heard the rumors. “Do you go hunting with my father?”
En Shevil looked at Elsa questioningly, and the other said, “En Shevil shall. I shall remain in the city and relax.”
“My kind hunt by night,” said Rakeesh to En Shevil with a tone that was somewhat challenging. “Is this all right with you?”
En Shevil gave a half-smile — she was too depressed to grin — and nodded. “Sunset at the gates?” she said.
“I shall be there,” Rakeesh replied.
“Then we’ll just go now,” En Shevil said with a sigh, and turned to leave. “Thanks for the information.”
“Thank you,” said Elsa, smiling at the liontaurs before she joined En Shevil out the door.
Outside, En Shevil immediately forsaw trouble when she observed the canine and his Paladin companion approaching them. The Paladin looked troubled.
“If you weren’t under the protection of the Council,” the canine growled, baring his teeth at her, “I would shoot you through the liver.” He called her something very uncomplimentary in company with a rude gesture. She looked away while Elsa hung back. “You killed my family,” he said in a tone of anguished rage.
Heart threatening to rend, En Shevil faced him once more. “I’m…” She simply could not find the words. “I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, thanks,” he spat. “That makes it all better.”
“Is there anything I can…?” It sounded stupid.
“You can die.”
She sighed, tears rolling from her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said again, this time because she did not intend to die. “I’m sorry.”
Todi clenched his fists, teeth still gleaming openly, and turned sharply to walk away. “Justice,” he shouted. “Where is justice?”
En Shevil also turned, heading swiftly towards the inn, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. “There is something you can do for him,” Seanque said from behind her. She faced the Paladin. “A generation ago, a great treasure was stolen from Todi’s… late… grandfather. It was a book, listing all the genealogies of the royal families of Punjabi and Avva’rel for more than a thousand years. It was very valuable, and very precious to his family. No one knows where it is now. If you happened to find it on your travels, and returned it to them, perhaps that might alleviate your suffering somewhat. It would probably not help with theirs, but at least you would know that justice had in part been served.”
“Thank you,” she said, truly grateful.
He nodded, and walked away.
Elsa looked as if she wanted to say something but did not know the right words. En Shevil smiled briefly at her, grateful as usual for the friendly sentiment, and continued towards the inn.
That evening at sunset, En Shevil was at the gates as she had promised. Wordlessly she and Rakeesh set out into the savanna as the light faded and both pairs of eyes switched to night-vision. “We will go to the north-east,” he said, “and find some zebra.” She nodded, and for some time they jogged in relative silence.
Finally Rakeesh remarked, “You have changed much since I knew you in Shapier.” En Shevil only nodded. “Tell me what has happened.”
She sighed and began to explain about Bandis, Ytsomo Kwai, and her maruroharyu training. “Then I killed a man. I didn’t find out until a long time later that it was that that made me go crazy. It was because I killed him in anger, and it woke up the dragon blood in me; Orono says my body and mind can’t handle that, so I went crazy.”
“I know what happened then.”
“No, you don’t. You only know the outside. But… I became something so… so evil…” She was frustrated that she could not adequately explain.
“I do know,” Rakeesh said quietly. “That was specifically why I wanted to talk to you: it left a mark on your aura, and anyone who can read auras will be able to sense it.”
“What is it?” En Shevil asked in horror.
“I fear that you have rediscovered the Way of the Avigilante.”
“The Avigilante Way was rarely taught, but many found it on their own. It is the natural opposite of a Paladin, a Dark Paladin if you will. Their powers are as diverse and mighty as are those of a Paladin. It is lucky for you that you were healed when you were, else you might have been tainted with the dark powers for life.”
“But you said I was tainted already!”
“Not irreversibly, however. The Way of the Paladin, being the natural opposite, can erase the evil of your past.”
“How could I ever become a Paladin?”
“The Way of the Paladin welcomes any who choose to follow it, for it brings happiness to one’s life whether it is followed in completion or not. Though, as I have said, your aura may be tainted for life, you can never be so far removed into darkness that the light is beyond your reach. As great an Avigilante warrior as you were, even greater a Paladin may you be.”
She shook her head. “I still don’t understand how I can just forget what I did, especially if I want to go with all this Honor stuff.”
“Sadly, it is often impossible to forget the dishonorable actions of one’s past,” Rakeesh told her. “I would guess this to be the case with you. However, a Paladin’s power is based on the Honor if his or her heart and soul, and the strength of his or her Will — not by the deeds of his or her past. If you still cherished the evil as you did in your madness — if you still desired to kill as you once did–then I would say Paladinhood was beyond you. But you have put those things behind you. Though while the implanted evil within you remains you may never gain the great powers of a Paladin, it is the intent and the purity of your heart that will drive you towards the road of light.”
“I think I understand,” En Shevil said slowly. “If I want to be good, and I continued to deny the part of me that’s evil, my Honor will be based on that desire and the part of me that is good?”
“Exactly,” Rakeesh replied with a smile. “If you strive with all your Will to resist the evil within you and build to a greater good with what you have, you will be on the road to Paladinhood already.”
“And how can I know if I’m on the right path?”
“You will feel it, when you do right and when you do wrong.”
She nodded. “But one more thing,” she said, stopping him. “Something feels wrong about hunting for my own food.” Something deep also felt right, but that only heightened the human sense of wrongness. “Can your Paladin Way fix that?”
Rakeesh was inwardly overjoyed: such a question proved that En Shevil was prepared to hear anything he had to say. “I shall explain,” he said, “as we run.”
The Welcome Inn was beginning to glow in the light of dawn, ruddy and friendly, as En Shevil returned from the savanna. To her surprise, Elsa was sitting at the table in their room and looking as if she had not slept at all.
“I have been thinking,” she said. “A messenger arrived by magic while you were gone and brought me this letter.” She held up a fine-looking parchment of off-white. “I shall read it.”
“To the renowned and honorable Elsa von Spielburg,
“It may have reached your ears that King Justinian of Silmaria has been assassinated. Rather than claim the kingship as would be my right as a descendent of Silmaria’s kings of old, I have pressed for a more democratic method of decision. Through the time-honored Rites of Rulership, seven tests of valor and virtue, the new King of Silmaria will prove himself and ascend the throne. Having urged so vehemently for these Rites to take place, I have now been called open to produce and sponsor a contestant. There are several reasons I have chosen you.
“The first is that I believe it is your desert. You are in your own right a princess, daughter of a man who is king in all but name. However, you have been cheated out of your heritage by the dated concept of primugeniture, and have been forced to give way to a brother whose worth as king is dubiously based on his greater age. I would provide for you a surrogate birthright by giving you a chance at the Silmarian kingship.
“The second reason is that I have a strong belief in your ability to win these Rites, as well as to proficiently head the kingdom once you have done so. I would choose neither a bureaucrat incapable of performing the tasks demanded by the Rites, nor a mindless hero incapable of ruling the country after he had won it. Your expertise in governing the brigands of Spielburg while under enchantment impressed me, but your brilliant actions in driving them out once disenchanted proved to me fully your capability of both winning and successfully maintaining the kingship of this land.
“My third and last cause for choosing you arises from a more metaphysical concern for Silmaria. The kingdom being settled on a group of islands, we are quite often cut off from the rest of the world. Thus we are late to receive and accept many of the developments of modern times. One such idea is that of women adopting roles that are, in Silmarian tradition, reserved for men. Two such positions are warrior and king, and that your being one could lead to your being the other would certainly come as a shock to the people, but would be to their greater enlightenment as they were forced to recognize and applaud your proficiency at both.
“I cannot pretend that what I am asking of you would be in any way easy. The Rites themselves are designed to prove the worth, physically, mentally, and spiritually, of the competitors, and not to be simply completed; besides this, we know that there is an assassin loose somewhere in the kingdom — two have fallen to his poisoned blade, and more may yet be killed before he his found. I am, in essence, asking you to risk all for a country you may never even have seen. However, when you consider the stakes and set them to balance against the rewards, you may find that this venture is worth your contemplation.
“My messenger will return to you in three days’ time, drawn by magic to the seal on this letter. If you would be so kind as either to tell him of your refusal or to accompany him to my home on the island of Minos — which lies near to Marete, primary island of Silmaria–I would be infinitely grateful. I offer you board in my house and access to all the vast resources a rich and powerful Silmarian counselor can provide, if only you will come and aid us in our time of need. You are as a light in the darkness of a troubled time; therefore I ask not for myself, but for my country.
“Yours most sincerely and respectfully,
“Minos, Counselor to the Kings of Silmaria”
There was silence for some time while the two women looked at each other. “Just when things were looking up,” En Shevil finally said in a rueful tone. “You’re going to go, aren’t you?”
Elsa nodded. “It was not an easy decision. My search for the Prince of Shapier cannot be lightly abandoned, nor do I wish to part from you my friend. However, since you will be carrying on that search and will understand my reasons, I feel I can do this. They need me in Silmaria, and I need them. I cannot help feeling that I should have been the ruler of Spielburg after my father.” She shook her head. “I feel that fate has placed this opportunity in my hands, and I would be a fool not to take advantage of it.”
“I do understand,” En Shevil said with a sigh. “I’ll miss you, though.”
Elsa smiled. “And I will miss you. Perhaps you may come and visit me some time.”
En Shevil had never been a creature of much patience. After Elsa left, the diminutive joys of life in Tarna–sparring with Reeshaka, discussing magic with Kreesha or Honor with Rakeesh, and wandering the savanna — soon dwindled to barely-endurable pastimes that did little to keep loneliness in check. For one thing, she did not like Reeshaka much, and was coming to be so proficient with the katana (with Rakeesh’s tutoring) as to beat her solidly every time. She still did not feel comfortable with all the talk of magic, and feared that she often alienated Kreesha with her distancing and withdrawals. Lastly, talk of Honor and the Paladin Way suggested to her restless mind more fixedness than she was prepared to suffer at the moment. She did not have the patience to remain in Tarna and become a Paladin or anything of the kind. She needed to get out, go adventuring, experience new things. She needed to retrieve a book and vanquish a dragon. She needed to forget her past and build a new future.
But mostly, she needed to find Achim.
She remembered the last few times she’d left her brief place of residence and set out for unknown adventures. She smiled as she thought that none of them seemed, in her mind, as bright as this departure. Perhaps, she reflected, the world was not so dark because the mirror in her room was not so dark.
“I am sorry I have no news of the Prince,” Kreesha said as En Shevil prepared to leave. “I will send you word immediately if I hear anything.”
“Maybe we can have a rematch sometime,” Reeshaka commented, though without much hope.
Rakeesh put his hand on the human’s shoulder. He was smiling his fierce, friendly leonine grin. “I am proud of the strength with which you act,” he said. “Your destiny is brightening every moment you tread the right path. Do not forget the Way, and eventually you will do no wrong. I wish you good fortune in your search, Sekhmet’s guidance in your travels, and Honor in all your dealings. Farewell, En Shevil.”
So, with the promise of her destiny brightening and Sekhmet’s good will upon her, En Shevil set forth again, head high, towards a light in the distance that only she could see, whose name was perhaps death, perhaps happiness, but with it always Honor.