Sir Galbrecht, paladin of the goddess Miseria liked to think he always had the empire’s best interests at heart—or, more to the point, that of its people. Sometimes, the two could be difficult to discern, or even at odds. He hated it even more, when the orders from the church were in conflict with either of the other two.


He’d once thought the church was supposed to mediate when the other two came into conflict. Galbrecht shook his head, remembering how naïve he once had been. Fortunately, their new quest aligned the interests of the empire, its people, and the church—rather than the interests of those entities being in conflict.


To be honest, it happened more often than he liked. But he was no stranger to conflict. One couldn’t become a level twenty in any combat class without it. Struggle was a part of life. Meditation, prayer, and charitable work could only carry you so far. If you wanted to gather enough experience to reach his level, you had to get out there and live.


Even his title as the Shield of Mercy didn’t exempt him from that. In fact, he had won his place as the top paladin of Miseria, the goddess of healing, by being willing to take those chances. That’s why this latest mission was one he could get whole-heartedly behind.


Galbrecht sat on the top step of Miseria’s temple in the imperial city. It was a grand structure, but he had come outside for some fresh air and to wait for his companions. Well, almost all of his companions.


One of them was already here. He expected to hear her voice at any… and there it was. She’d tracked him down again.


“Why do you always have to wander off? It’s like you have no patience. You show your face in the chapel for the time of prayers, but then disappear as quickly as possible.”


Galbrecht stood. It was the proper thing to do before a lady with such high a rank as stood before him now. Lady Lisella Marconi had status, both as the youngest daughter of a king and as one of the chief priestesses of Miseria. He rendered a short bow to her which she waved off as he said, “There’s a reason I chose to be a paladin rather than a priest.”


She giggled at that. She was only half his age, a true genius to have achieved her level so young. Although, to be fair, being a royal had many advantages, too.


“You always make me laugh Galbrecht. I’m glad to have you with me. Not all of our companions will be as noble as you are.”


He closed his eyes for a moment and then sighed. “Magus Serius can be a bit single minded, but he is a competent mage to have in the field. Too many mages reach his level and prefer to forget the adventuring that got them to that point. And Liam is quiet, but he knows his job and won’t step out of line.”


She gave him that long-suffering smile that said she knew he was avoiding the obvious. “I don’t worry about the mage or ranger.”


Galbrecht whirled around his hand going to his sword as his danger-sense called to him. It wasn’t a dire warning, but that it activated at all within the city—let alone on this holy ground—was serious enough.


A laughing figure stepped out from the shadow holding her hands up. “Easy there, big boy. The Princess here is talking about me.”


Galbrecht took in the fifth member of their team. He had worked with Modessa before. She was a skilled rogue when it came to locks and traps. She also knew how to strike an enemy to put them down when the time came. The problem he had with the woman was with her extra-curricular activities.


The woman was a rogue, so Galbrecht knew she didn’t have clean hands. But did she have to flaunt stolen jewelry in front of him? Or kill a foe in the act of surrendering?


She never outright broke the law in his presence, but gave plenty of hints at what she had done when he was not there… or bent the rules till they screamed. The worst part was that it always came off as though this was all a game to her. Still, she was level eighteen the last time he had scanned her, and that was no mean feat.


The last two members of their party appearing in a circle of light forestalled any conversation they might have. Serius was wearing his normal gray robes with black trim. It was an enchanted robe and different from the ones he wore when teaching at the Magi Academy. Behind him was the only non-human—well, half human—in their party. Liam was a skilled tracker and archer. Both were skills that would come in handy for this task.


Galbrecht wouldn’t hold the man’s half-elven heritage against him. It wasn’t his fault who his parents were. The goddess always judged a man or woman by their actions, not their heritage—and even then, there was still mercy.


“Greetings Serius and Liam. How fare you?”


The ranger simply nodded but the magus said, “Better, now that I see you’re all in one place and I won’t have to go tracking you down.”


Lisella frowned. “I thought we weren’t leaving till tomorrow?”


“This is an important opportunity,” Serius rumbled. “We can’t afford to let it go to waste.”


Modessa laughed again. “He has his dress all in a bunch at the chance to capture a blue. No one has done that yet.” She smirked at the wizard. “It must be that, or he felt a draft up his robes.”


The mage stared at her as though he could see straight through her. Galbrecht chuckled to himself at that observation. With a wizard of Serius’ level, what was to say that he couldn’t? Still he didn’t want this to become an issue.


“Lady Lisella and I are only coming because of the good this can do,” the paladin said. “The dragon knights were a bulwark against our enemies and the basis for imperial power in the past. But there haven’t been many dragons born or captured recently. This nest is supposedly full of dragons young enough to be controlled and who reports indicate are more powerful than the ones which are normally used. None of those who work with the dragons now even have the class of dragon rider. If this works, it will be a great boon for the empire.”


Liam broke his normal quiet reserve as he muttered, “With what’s coming, we’re going to need it.”


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Sean Oswald David Burke


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