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Tar'vid's sword whistled through the air, years of training had made his strokes fluid as he moved effortlessly from defence to attack under the gaze of his mentor Tar'son.
“Excellent Tar'vid, your movements are perfect” Tar'son commented, never taking his eyes from him.
He finished his last series of strikes before his blade stopped just inches from Tar'son's face.
“Your control is remarkable, with your mastery of swordsmanship every trial has now been passed” his mentor stated, smiling broadly.
“Do you think I'm ready for the judgement now?” he asked of his mentor, brushing strands of his long hair from his eyes.
“It matters not Tar'vid, you turn eighteen today and your judgement is inevitable” Tar'son replied, his own long brown hair hanging loose as he held Tar'vid's gaze with his crisp blue eyes. Tar'vid had hoped he would be granted more time, the judgement was his final test, a final judgement of whether he was worthy to represent the order in the wide world.
“What happens if I fail?" he asked a little nervously, placing his sword back into the rack on the chamber's far wall.
Tar'son shifted his stance, a slight movement, but one Tar'vid noticed was certainly out of character for the usually calm Paladin.
“I cannot tell you Tar'vid... though I wish I could. Some traditions the saints make immutable”
Tar'vid knew his mentor was conflicted, he had been Tar'son's only student for so long now that Tar'son regarded him almost a son, and Tar'vid felt him to be the father he'd never had.
“Perhaps read over the chapters of Tar'mine... verses six through fifteen” Tar'son ventured cautiously. It was a little to go on at least he thought, mentally noting the information for later.
Tar'vid bowed, Tar'son clapping him on the shoulder.
“Try not to worry, I'm sure you'll be fine”
“If you say so, how many even pass the judgement?” Tar'vid asked, straightening up.
“The right amount” Tar'son responded, before leaving him in the large training room.
Tar'vid removed his britches and shirt before going to the shower in the far corner of the small room, turning the iron lever carefully and letting the water run over him. He knew that it should be cool, but he couldn't feel such sensations as hot or cold and hadn't done so in years, a side effect of his body having gradually and repeatedly undergone rituals and concoctions during his Initiate training. Such things were conducted on all the Initiates, though many did not survive the process. Whilst he knew this was a necessary step to strengthen his body for the path ahead, he often wondered whether the benefits were truly worth the loss of sensations it brought.
Tar'vid turned off the shower and dried himself off, preparing to meet Tar’son later for the Judgement. He dressed in a plain white shirt, britches and calf length leather boots. Leaving the training room he strode through the keep of Whitecliff. He could hear the clamour of the nearby market now, sellers of all kinds attempting to offload their autumn wares before the chill of winter closed in. He moved through the keep quickly, knowing its halls like the back of his hand after living here for so long. He nodded greetings to the guards he passed, gaining one back in response with a smile. Rumours often spread around the keep like wildfire, tales of Tar'vid facing the judgement had caused a clamour within the fortress, especially since it had been some years since any Initiate had emerged from it, he only knew of three successes in his lifetime.
He made what could be the last visit to his own dwelling, a small and humble room containing the essentials he required to live. Tar'vid took a large leather bound book from his chest, the old wooden box creaking open stiffly. He flicked through the pages slowly and carefully, the old book seeming delicate, yet it was nearly a thousand years old. Tar'vid found the verses Tar'son had told him of, they were of purity and virtue before judgement... perhaps his fate was already decided. He placed the book back into the chest, going to the basin and looking at himself in its still water. He now stared at the reflection of a man, no longer the boy he had felt first thing this morning. Tar'vid had often thought of cutting his hair short, but had kept it long instead like Tar'son's, he remembered overhearing people mention how alike they were... like father and son. He had often received a gentle knock on the head in his younger days when Tar’son caught him looking at his reflection for too long. Tar’vid sidestepped a blow to his head quickly, hearing Tar’son’s usual bellowing laugh follow suddenly.
"Never could get you out of that habit, at least you're always prepared now!" he chuckled, his morose mood seemingly gone now.
“Come Tar'vid, it's time," Tar'son told him, his tone serious now.
Tar'son tossed a bundle to him, Tar’vid raising his eyebrows at the contents.
"Your tabard" Tar’son said. "You're going to be a journeyman of the order soon Tar'vid, you should look the part".
Tar'vid gave his thanks, pulling the tabard over his head, allowing the garment to flow over him, its blue cross of Tor'Dorvan emblazoned on the chest and back.
"Have to say, I do look good" he smirked, admiring the pristine garment with pride.
Tar'son clipped him round the head with a smile, handing him a long sword sheathed in a plain leather scabbard, the pommel of the blade inset with a small iron cross.
They walked side by side, down through the corridors with their boots echoing off the stone tiles.
"What happens if the saint's find me unworthy of their blessing... if I fail the judgement?" Tar'vid asked again, airing his growing nervousness.
Tar'son merely smiled.
"I have no doubt you will be found worthy, you honour the saints, and most importantly," Tar'son stopped, placing a hand on Tar'vid's shoulder, "your heart's in the right place... and the saints will appreciate that."
They continued walking in silence as they left the barracks, passing through the saints cloisters where the other Initiates were being taught the sword forms he had mastered long ago... though only a half dozen were there now training. The Paladin numbers had dwindled greatly from their levels in the heydey of the order, with the plague ravaging the country, only a handful of full brothers and sisters were garrisoned at Whitecliff now, with new recruits a rarity in recent years.
Tar'vid could see the great gates of Whitecliff castle were closed, the gates normally opened to allow petitioners to enter and request the aid of the Paladins, yet there were so few around now that most petitioners were turned away.
They entered a small chamber inside the great keep, guarded by two brother Paladins. They both nodded to Tar’son, his standing in the order without peer. The Paladins opened the doors for them without a word and they entered the chamber together.
Inside the chamber Tar’vid looked upwards, spotting five round stained glass windows set into the walls, depicting heroes of old, the sheer artistry of the glass work awed him. He had never been inside this chamber before with it being forbidden for Initiates to enter, and though he could have sworn they were at the centre of the keep now, light still beamed in through every window.
"When you're ready Tar'vid, step onto the dais," Tar'son told him, indicating the platform in the centre of the room.
It was made of solid marble, a soft white light emanated from the centre. Tar'vid started feeling the nerves of before re-emerging.
"Not going to wish me luck?" Tar'vid asked his mentor, trying to deflect his nerves.
"You don't need it, Sah'ravel guides you and Tar'mine protects you" Tar’son replied dispassionately, standing by the door like a guardian.
Tar'vid slowly walked around, stepping onto the dais cautiously with his heart pounding in his chest.
"So, how do I start?" Tar'vid asked, reaching the centre of the dais and throwing up his hands.
Blue flames erupted around him as he spoke, trapping him inside and instinctively he crouched down to avoid the flames that now engulfed him.
Tar'vid’s eyes went wide, the blue fire fading away quickly as he stood up slowly. As his eyes adjusted to the now pristine white light, he found himself staring out over thousands of kneeling figures clothed all in white, each with a sword pointed blade down to the ground, heads bowed obscuring their faces.
"Greetings Tar'vid, it is time for you now to face judgement" spoke a female voice, that at once seemed familiar, yet wholly unknown.
Tar'vid turned to look upon the speaker, then fell to his knees at once, somehow instinctively knowing this was Saint Sah'ravel, the matriarch of the order herself. She was more beautiful than anyone he had ever seen before, wearing flowing white robes and baring a gleaming golden sword. The light that had once been emanating from the marble floor below now shone from within her, yet at a far greater intensity, he was hard pressed to even look upon her.
"You come to us Tar'vid, to be judged as the order deems fit" spoke a male voice, the speaker appearing beside Sah’ravel. The voice belonged to Saint Tar'mine who appeared in the same spectral form as Sah’ravel, though he wore gleaming battle plate, his golden sword sheathed at the hip.
Tar’vid now understood why nothing had been told to him of this place, the room was a place of direct contact with the Saints, and such a place must remain secret.
“I have” he answered, far more confidently than he felt, “Who are these others surrounding us though?”
The saints looked around them proudly, casting their eyes upon each kneeling figure.
“They are those who failed the judgement Tar'vid and now safeguard our order. Should you fail, your fate will be to guard the order for all of time alongside them” Sah'ravel said without emotion.
The two saints flowed gracefully towards him, raising their blades in unison, they placed the points upon on his shoulders, then a moment later slashed down across his chest, and though the strikes left no wounds they instead produced a flood of his memories, spilling out around him like water from a fountain. Tar'vid noticed the kneeling figures look up... their eyes burning with a blue flame. He saw himself in his early years standing up to boys from the village, when he was quick to violence and remembering the beatings he'd both taken and given. Tar'son had saved him from that dark path and the memories caused him to rub at the scar on his temple. Other memories came forth and he realised they were flowing into a scale now held by Sah'ravel, who never broke her gaze from him. Tar'vid knew this was his judgement, with his deeds being weighed.
He saw his life playing out before his eyes, feeling like an eternity had passed by until finally, the flow of memories stopped.. the scales heavily weighted to one side.
"The judgement is complete" Sah'ravel declared, her stare still fixing him in place.
"You have a troubled past Tar'vid... however, you have within you an unyielding desire to do good, and though your soul is... purifying still, We have rendered our verdict," Sah'ravel told him, looking over to Tar'mine, a brief glance flashing between them.
The scales vanished and she held her sword once again, the point held to his heart. He froze, unsure if this was to be the day of his death and new role as a guardian.
"You are worthy Tar'vid... now go forth upon the path, for our blessing will be with you" Tar'mine told him proudly, placing a hand on his shoulder as Sah'ravel lowered the blade, somewhat reluctantly he thought. Tar'vid noticed a ripple of movement from the kneeling figures.. though a glance from Tar'mine stilled them. The flames engulfed him once more and as the scene before him faded away the world started to swim, shaking him violently and making him vomit. Tar'son came up the steps quickly, handing him a cloth.
"Intense was it?" Tar'son asked with a relieved laugh as Tar'vid wiped his mouth clean.
"Huge, huge understatement" he replied with a croak, Tar'son pulling him to his feet unsteadily.
"I don't think I ever want to do that again," he said shakily, steadying himself on Tar'son who kept him balanced.
"We all go through this judgement Tar'vid, though many don't return. Many lack your heart, and in my view that counts for a lot” Tar'son told him with pride, helping Tar'vid down the steps.
Tar'vid groaned at the pain crippling his whole body as Tar'son helped him back to his chambers.
Dusk was beginning to set in when they finally arrived and Tar'vid wondered how much time he would have before setting off on his path. Being in the presence of the Saints had taken a great toll on his body and he needed time to recover.
"Get some sleep Tar'vid, then gather your things and meet me at the fortress gates by midnight, your path begins tomorrow," said Tar'son gently, closing the chamber door behind him.
It would seem this was his last night in Whitecliff.