“A spiritu dominatus, domine, libra nos…”
A mist of incense hung heavy in the air, scattering the light of the setting sun in rainbow patterns across an alter bearing a golden sunburst over a steel cross. In the main part of the chapel, cleared out and refurbished within hours of the army’s occupation, the evening litany continued.
“From the lighting and the tempest, oh Aethon, deliver us…”
Lani knelt down in what had once been the vestry, setting down a small canvas bag. Dressed in a homespun tunic and trouser and with no visible weapons, nobody had given her a second glance as she moved through the camp to this place. The litany was a comfort, a daily occurrence for the common soldiery that she had previously visited incognito in order to escape from the more boisterous worship of the Light Undying. Unfortunately her current visit had a more shameful reason, and she had felt uncomfortable joining with the rest of the congregation. Nor did the Aethonite sects of the Church practise confession as the followrs of Tyaus and Vaitera did, hence this small and private worship.
“From plague, temptation and war, Oh Aethon, deliver us…”
Carefully, she opened the bag and removed its contents. As the litany continued she set them in place: a broken sword, a small bag of cheap pine incense, a clay bowl, a scrap of white cloth, two candle stubs, a small dagger and a piece of flint. Last of all, and handled with great care, came a small gold-and-silver sunwheel pendent, which was draped over the sword hilt.
Piling up some of the cleaner stones from the rubble around the room she laid the cloth over it, then filled the bowl with incense. The candles, held in place with small stones, were placed on either side. A few scrapes down the dagger blade with the flint lit both them and the pile of incense, then the broken sword was placed upon the stones, leaning against the wall. The pendant clinked against it, throwing back the weak light as its larger counterpart in the chapel proper did.
Lani knelt before the makeshift altar, bringing her hands together in prayer, trying to ignore the heavy feeling of sickness in her stomach as she did.
“From the scourge of the Legion, Oh Aethon, deliver us.”
“A spiritu dominatus, domine, libra nos. Oh lord Aethon judge rightly, I have sinned against you and others.” No no, this was wrong, why state the obvious? Too late now. “I have committed the sins of blasphemy and of heresy. I have deceived others and myself. I have had impure thoughts. I have broken my sworn oath. Let your light shine upon me, for my faith has faltered and I am lost….”
Lani trailed off, suddenly aware of how false and trite the by-rote phrases sounded. Impure thoughts? Lies? She had sold her soul. Further sins compounded her shame, but reeling them off in the standard prayer of confession seemed superfluous.
“From the blasphemy of the Fallen, Oh Aethon, deliver us….”
And yet… yet it seemed that if these sins were so troublesome even now, they must be important. She nodded to herself, unclasping her hands and assuming a meditative position, still kneeling before the altar. Perhaps a different approach was needed. Taking a deep breath, Lani started a different prayer.
“From the begetting of daemons, Oh Aethon, deliver us….”
“I have failed… quite a lot of people.” The pain of this truth cut through her like a knife, but a truth it was and it needed to be said. “Not just you. I mean, that would be bad enough, but there’s the Light Undying as well. Now they have two fallen knights as a stain on their history. And my family, my parents… they’ve raised a heretic. When they find out that will hurt them more than anything. The Outriders have four demon-sworn in their ranks now, on my watch, and after all the work we’ve done and Asher has done to build a reputation for ourselves. We’ve killed dragons and demons and whatever that satyr creature was that Everard’s old lord was corrupted by, and now it’s for nothing.”
A knot twisted in her gut as she carried on. “I’ve failed everyone really. The reason I was sent back was to be a figurehead a, a hero. And I couldn’t even get that right. I ducked out of it because I was afraid, and then after I was forced to start acting like I was supposed to I went and sold my soul. I was supposed to set an example and bring people hope, and I failed.”
“From the curse of the Change, Oh Aethon, deliver us….”
“I repeated an unforgivable mistake as well.” As she clasped her hands before her, Lani’s eyes grew distant. “Believing one demon was bad enough, two hundred people died for that mistake at Veirhaven. But now another? If I die again to make up for this one, I’ll have gotten off far more lightly than I deserve. A paladin that is so easily led by demonic lies is no paladin at all…”
Lani shivered as the doubt was finally given voice. I am no paladin at all. The Order at least might see to it. In addition to being stripped of her rank as a Warhound they had put her on what was essentially a form of probation. Now she existed in a sort of limbo, awaiting their verdict. It might be penance, it might be expulsion. It might even be death; she had served another for the same mistake with beheading herself.
A small, cynical part of her though found it unlikely that it would come to that. Though they would have denied it the Light Undying lived in the political realm as well as the spiritual, and denouncing or executing one of their own whom they had sworn to be god-touched would only bring more scorn upon them. Even an empty symbol was better than none.
Perhaps she should take the decision into her own hands? What she had done would be enough to damn anyone, and paladins were held to a higher standard. Were there worse punishments than damnation?
Yes, and I will live it. There can be no forgiveness, only repentance.
“A morte perpetua, domine, libra nos…”
Now it was time to come to the crux of this. “I had no faith. I have had no faith, truly, since the Fall. After Ellia and Kai… after everything really. Even when I joined the Order, it was more out of hope. Faith isn’t the same as hope, it’s supposed to be more solid. Mine never was.”
The words are terrible, blasphemous, but she forces them out. “I couldn’t forgive you for what happened to them, even after Veirhaven. I couldn’t forgive you for the Legion, or for what happened to father. Sometimes it felt like I could truly believe, but other times everything just seemed so… so wrong. And then I was chosen, and I had no faith in that choice as well. I hid…”
She trailed off, a new thought occurring, and blurted out “I lacked faith in my friends as well. I misjudged them sorely, and made a contract based on that misjudgement. One I thought too power-mad to refuse such an offer turned out to be my better, and one I thought too aloof to agree did so, for the same reasons I did. Had I more faith in them and you, it would never have come to this. Had I more faith, I might be worthy of being called a paladin.”
“That thou wouldst bring them only death, that thou shouldst spare none, that thou shouldst pardon none, we beseech thee, destroy them.”
The last words of the litany died away, leaving only silence broken by the bustle of many feet leaving. Lani sighed closing her eyes. It seemed inescapable that she should leave the Order, and in some ways the sacrifice of her only great dream for herself was a fitting punishment for what she had done. Yet there was a feeling, deep in her gut, that Aethon would not see it in such a way and rightly so.
Running away was not a fitting solution to this. Mistakes could not be erased, only paid for.
There can be no forgiveness, only repentance.
Lani shifted her weight, now in a position of prayer, and bowing her head began the Litany of the Warrior.
“I am the Sword, I am the right hand of Aethon, the mail about His fist, the edge of His spear, the shield of the innocent, the fire of His wrath…”