Original blog posted here. Reprinted with permission from the author, Lady Isyris.
"Travel to the town of Southshore, in the Eastern Kingdoms. Seek out a crusader named Raleigh the Devout. Give him this letter of commendation bearing my seal and he will escort you to a place of honor in our Scarlet Monastery."
Hellen smiled, feeling herself fill with pride as she remembered the priest's words. Finally! She'd worked so hard for this, at times not even certain she'd ever be allowed into those hallowed halls. She was young, she knew, and inexperienced in the eyes of some... a frown crossed her face at that thought as she recalled the humiliation she'd suffered a year ago, when she'd volunteered for service with the Argent Dawn.
She'd fought her way through the Plaguelands on foot, eyes sharp and ears pricked for any hint of danger, nearly falling a dozen times as the cursed land seemed to spring to life--unlife--around her. Murderous ghouls, screeching bats, and grubs of tremendous, unnatural size all appeared to block her path, but she'd never faltered, never even considered giving up. Once, from a distance, she'd seen what could have been nothing other than the type of undead called an 'abomination', a massive conglomeration of rotting, oozing corpses sewn together. She had not then dared to get a closer look, but even from the hilltop where she lay waiting for it to pass out of sight, she'd been able to smell it. That scent...
And when she'd at last reached the tiny chapel, so much smaller than Stormwind's grand cathedral, bustling with all manner of warriors and adventurers, and hurried to the nearest commander, eager to prove herself, to join the cause, spilling out the contents of her satchel so the runes she'd collected lay in a glittering heap before him--
She growled angrily to herself, the sudden sound eliciting a snort from her placid bay mare. The girl stretched out a gloved hand and patted the beast's neck in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. If speed was not important here, she would much rather have stuck with her own two feet. Especially since riding gave her far too much time to think.
Too young. No use at all. Was that ill-fitting mail her older brother's armor? And they'd laughed, given her a bed for the night, and sent her back to Northshire on gryphonback the next morning.
She hadn't given up, though. She'd set to work, training hard, honing her skill with the sword until she had proven first to herself, and then to her masters, that she was ready for more. She'd begged the paladins for training, too, wanting to learn more of their Light, the power that made them such a potent force against the undead. By that time Stormwind itself had come under attack, and everyone who could lift a weapon was needed. Yet when she'd asked, pleaded with them, each paladin had frowned and shook his head. The Light, they said, was not merely a weapon to be used, and its blessing was not to be given carelessly. She was too reckless, too stubborn, and too bloodthirsty, and the inner fury that drove her was incompatible with their vows.
Then she'd found the Crusade. Here were people who took her seriously, who could teach her what she longed to learn. She'd set to doing their holy work with a calm happiness that she'd found nowhere else. She slew undead, they encouraged her, and not a word was said of inexperience, or rash behavior, or the dangers of letting hatred overwhelm all else. And now, at last, all her efforts were coming to fruition. Finally, she would become a full member of the Crusade, and then... well, Brother Anton had told her that the Scarlet Crusade had its own order of paladins, and that they were not so peculiar about who they allowed to join as those of Stormwind.
She smiled again, reaching to touch the letter she had tucked carefully under her armor. It was a good day. And in another day's ride she would reach the port town of Auburdine, where she could find a ship to take her to Southshore, and then, well, she'd just have to see how things turned out. It was unwise to let her hopes run off with her, after all.
. . . . .
She stood straight and mostly still as the balding paladin read through the letter, muttering to himself and occasionally going over a line twice before moving to the next. She fidgeted a little, nervously, hoping he wouldn't notice. Hellen wished she knew what the letter said. Even if she'd been able to read more than a few words herself, though, it had been sealed, and it would have been a dishonorable start prelude to her entry into the Crusade if she'd sneaked a look at it. And she did trust Brother Anton, really she did, it was just that this was so important, and even he didn't really know how much it meant to her...
Silly girl, she scolded herself, and forced her hands to stop fiddling with the buckles on her bracers. He wouldn't have sent the letter if you needed more training, after all. He's proud of what you've done, and he thinks you're ready. This is it, this is what you've been waiting for.
Raleigh coughed, and she realized he had finished. Hoping she did not show the worry she felt--there was nothing to worry about, after all!--she examined his lined face, trying to get a hint to what he was thinking. The letter could hardly be less than a glowing report of her efforts, so why was he frowning?
He sighed. "By the Light! This is not good." Setting the unfurled letter down on the table--she could see now that it was covered in narrow, curly script in a dark red ink--he began sorting through the books and papers surrounding it, looking for something. "You see, Hellen, there's something you don't understand."
Her green eyes narrowed as she rapidly tried to think of anything she might have forgotten, might have misplaced. Brother Anton had only given her the letter, but maybe there was some sign, some gesture, something... or was this another test? One to measure her composure in the face of the unexpected? She quietly took in a deep breath to calm herself. That had to be it, this was just one of the more subtle challenges her mentor had hinted at. If she showed shock now, or surprise, she'd be showing weakness.
Now the paladin had found what he sought--a small, round firestarter. It made a rasping noise as he gripped the handles, grinding the stone and steel together until sparks leapt from it, dropping onto the letter and quickly igniting the dry hide.
I must not show surprise. I must not appear concerned. He was her superior, presumably there was some reason behind this, and she shouldn't question it. He would explain everything that she needed to know, and anything else was not her concern.
But then he opened his mouth, and the words he spoke were almost too much for her practiced calm.
"I once served the Scarlet Crusade with honor, loyalty and pride. I believed their cause to be a noble one..."
But no more, it seemed. He rambled on about horrors he claimed to have seen, injustice meted out in the name of righteousness, a thousand different lies, each more blasphemous to her ears than the last. For almost an hour he spoke, pacing the small room, waving his hands in great gestures, at times almost shouting. It astounded Hellen that Brother Anton did not know of this, had not even suspected...but he must, else why would he have sent her here?
Raleigh was watching her now, forehead creased, measuring her reaction. Her silence and intent gaze satisfactory, he lowered his voice and continued. "Do you understand, Hellen? The Scarlet Crusade must be crushed in the name of the Light. You must destroy the deranged regime!"
She nodded, face impassive. "I do understand. And..." She paused, searching for the right words. "I thank you for telling me this."
He sighed, relieved, seeming to shrink a little as he relaxed after his impassioned sermon. "You'll do it, then?"
"I will do what must be done."
The coldness in her voice was the only warning she gave, but somehow he managed to get his hammer up in time to block her swing as she unsheathed her sword and leaped at him. Hiding her frustration she repositioned herself, quickly taking a step back and shoving the heavy table to one side, clearing the center of the room, scattering papers and ashes onto the floor. She readied her weapon again.
"You're just like the rest of them, it seems." She wasn't sure if it was disappointment in her or in himself she heard, but the disgust in his voice was clearly only for her. "I was a fool."
With the last word, he swung. She was ready, and parried with her sword, but the heavier weapon jarred her arm, and she realized that she would have to dodge aside next time. If she stood toe to toe with him, he could wear her out easily.
"Traitor!" she countered, turning a little to give herself more room. "You would have us fight among ourselves, weaken our forces while the Scourge devours all."
"And do you truly believe that there will be anything left to save if the Crusade has its way?"
This time she stepped aside as the hammer blurred past. He was older, a little weaker perhaps, but still fast. Very fast.
A good test.