Valeria (LG Aasimar Paladin)
Inanis (LE Human Rouge/Assassin)
Pinn (CN Half-Elf Bard)
Arcto (N Human Wizard)
Inanis’ statement hung in the air like a troglodyte’s stench. One sentence. A simple statement. That’s all it took.
“What did you say?!” Valeria said through gritted teeth, her golden eyes flashing dangerously.
By this point, everyone in the party had grown accustomed to Valeria’s objections to views divergent from her own. She was not one to hide her opinions on matters of morality or ethics, a subject she brought up with increasing frequency as of late; specifically, since their most recent companion joined them.
Pinn looked at Inanis and shook his head. “Now you’ve done it,” he said in a sing-song voice.
Inanis ignored him, his eyes not leaving Valeria’s stern gaze from across the table. His lips twitched into a barely perceptible smile. “Why does that shock you?” he replied in a soft voice.
“I have never been more offended!” shouted Valeria, her voice resonating throughout the empty tavern. “The mere suggestion that we have ANYTHING in common disgusts me to no end! How DARE you insinuate such a thing!”
“It’s true,” Inanis responded in a flat voice. “If you take the time to think about it.”
“That is absurd!” Valeria retorted indignantly. “How could anyone look at us and come to a conclusion so ridiculous? I feel that I have to keep an eye open as I sleep just so you do not slide a dagger into our chests and loot our corpses! No one has that fear from me!”
Inanis’ smile disappeared and his eyes hardened. “I am no thief.” He spoke slowly, emphasizing each word.
Valeria laughed. “Oh, look at that! Are you trying to show that you have honor? Do not make me laugh!”
“Could you keep it down?” interrupted Arcto from a few tables away, his face still hidden in his spellbook.
Valeria lowered her voice. “We have all seen your ‘skills’, Inanis. The way you pick locks, the manner in which you move about unseen and unheard, how you scale walls with ease…Why else would one be so skilled if not for larceny?”
“You presume much, paladin,” Inanis responded.
“I have a name, you know.”
“You have a role, paladin. Just like me. Just like the bard. Just like the wizard.”
“This again?” said Valeria with exasperation.
“As I said before, your role in this group is far more important to me than your name. Besides,” Inanis added with a hint of sarcasm, “if I use your name, I might get attached, and attachments can be used as weapons against me.”
Valeria’s only response was a disgusted noise.
“I am not a taker of things, paladin,” Inanis continued. “I am a taker of lives. Sometimes those lives are behind locked doors. Other times, they need to be taken silently. And other times, they lie at the top of towers.”
Valeria’s eyes narrowed. “And how is that better?”
“I didn’t say it was,” Inanis said matter-of-factly. “But that does bring me back to my original point.”
“We are NOT alike!” yelled Valeria.
“Ahem!” Arcto’s stern gaze peered over his book.
“I am sorry, Arcto,” Valeria said in a much calmer tone. “But I cannot allow such claims to go unchallenged.” Arcto grunted dismissively and returned to his book.
Valeria tuned her attention back to Inanis. “You cannot compare what I am to what you are. You are simply a trained killer.”
Inanis gestured to Valeria’s longsword. “And you’re not?”
Pinn suddenly stood up. “I’m, uh, gonna get a drink. Anyone else want one? No? Okay, then. Bye!” He hurried off to the bartender on the other side of the tavern hall.
Valeria put her hand on the hilt of her sword, ignoring Pinn’s attempt to defuse the situation. “I was not trained to be a murderer like you. This sword is a tool I use to bring justice to those that harm the innocent and seek to bring evil into this world. My cause is holy and my motives just. How can you claim any similarities to that?”
Inanis drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “So you are saying that you would not hesitate to, for instance, smite a foe that consorts with fiends, regardless of why?”
“Absolutely not!” Valeria said with a hint of pride. “Such an evil person would no doubt use that power to nefarious ends, no matter his intentions. Many lives and souls would be spared from the machinations of such beings if my blade put an end to it.”
“So that person deserves to die, in order to preserve those that might be adversely impacted?”
“I would say so, yes.”
“So, as long as the threat is neutralized, what does it matter how it came to be? Be it a battle with swinging steel and spells flying, or a silent blade in the ribcage while he sleeps, dead is dead.”
“I was trained to fight with honor. There is no honor in what you do.”
“I was trained to get results. There are results in what I do.”
Valeria grinded her teeth. “Simply saying we have objectives and missions to carry out does not mean we are the same! That is about as profound as saying dragons and butterflies are the same because they both fly! You are saying nothing. Is that not right, Pinn?” she called across the room to him.
Pinn put his hands up. “Hey, leave me out of this!”
Valeria turned back to Inanis. “We have choices in this life, Inanis. I chose the path of righteousness and justice. You chose to be a knife in the dark.”
Inanis’ expression turned cold. “Again, paladin, you presume much.”
“I do?” Valeria retorted with mock interest. “Enlighten me.”
Inanis tightened his fist, struggling to keep his emotions in check. Whether intentional or not, Valeria had struck a nerve.
“You come from a prominent family, paladin. Everyone knows that. You have celestial blood in your veins that your family has used for generations to solidify your place as philanthropists and do-gooders. You had the world handed to you on a golden platter and you chose to become a holy warrior from a veritable bounty of opportunities. You had your family backing you every step of the way.” Inanis leaned forward, his voice dripping with venom. “I had none of that.”
Valeria scoffed. “Being poor does not justify being a murderer for hire. I have known many people from all walks of life that had a kind and giving heart when being selfish and hateful would have been far easier. What is your excuse?”
“I never asked for justification from you, paladin,” Inanis said. “And I will not bore you with my life’s story; I get enough judgement from you as it is.”
Valeria took a breath and composed herself. “I am sorry if I seem overbearing at times. But that is only because I am concerned for the well-being of my companions. So, if you are going to be travelling with us, we need to be able to trust you.”
Inanis remained silent.
Valeria spoke with measured tones. “How can we be sure you have the group’s best interest at heart when you so readily murder for money? What is stopping you from accepting on contract on our lives from our enemies?”
Inanis simply looked at Valeria with a blank expression.
“Well?” prompted Valeria.
Inanis sighed. “I don’t expect you to trust me. You would be a fool to do so.”
Valeria’s eyes widened, clearly taken aback by such a bold statement.
“But,” Inanis said quickly, “I will tell you this: I am travelling with you because it suits my needs at the moment. For as long as it continues to do so, my skills are at the disposal of the party. But if I find the need to move on from you, I will do so without hesitation.”
“That does not answer my question, Inanis,” Valeria replied, her eyes narrowing once again. “Would you accept a contract on any of our lives for the right price?”
Inanis thought for a moment. “I doubt it. But that depends on you more than me.”
Inanis leaned back in his chair. “Back in my early days in this profession, I would be part of a team, much like we are now. Every member had a role to fill. We had to rely on each other to do their part for the mission to succeed. If anyone failed, we could all die…or worse.” He noticed he had Valeria’s full attention. Her expression was one of curiosity rather than condemnation.
He continued. “Loyalty to one another was paramount. We had to trust each other. To do otherwise would be fatal. So, to answer your question, paladin…” he paused. “As long as I can trust you, you have nothing to fear from me. For any amount of gold.”
Valeria was quiet. “Do you trust me?”
“I do,” he replied immediately.
Valeria’s golden eyes widened again.
“Don’t look so shocked,” Inanis said with a dismissive gesture. “You are a paladin, are you not? Your own code of honor prevents you from lying, even to me. Also, if you were going to ‘smite’ me, you would have done so by now.”
Valeria stammered, stunned by this revelation.
Inanis looked right into Valeria’s eyes. “I am aware of the powers you possess, paladin. I know you can look at someone and see the darkness in their souls. I know you see the darkness in me, a darkness whose existence I have never denied. I am willing to sink to levels unfathomable to you in order to achieve my objectives, or simply to survive, be it stabbing an unsuspecting foe in the throat, using a poisoned crossbow bolt, or using a scroll to animate my fallen foes’ corpses to fight for me. I don’t expect you to accept that.”
Valeria shuddered. Inanis had done all of those things on their last excursion. She suddenly came to her senses, her stern expression returning. “I do see the darkness in your soul, Inanis. But that, more than anything, proves that we are not the same! You have done nothing but prove the opposite of your claim!”
Inanis closed his eyes and took a steadying breath. After a moment, he leaned forward on his elbows. “Let me tell you a story, paladin.”
Pinn suddenly appeared at the table. “Ooooh, a story!” He plopped heavily back in his chair. Inanis and Valeria simply stare at him. “Don’t mind me. Please continue.” The assassin and the paladin rolled their eyes simultaneously.
“Anyway,” continued Inanis, “once there was a goblin named Hechik. He lived in a lair with the rest of his tribe in an abandoned mine. Hechik was not like the other goblins. He was smart, comparatively, and he had new and innovative ideas that the other goblins dismissed as pointless or impossible. He deduced that the reasons their tribe, and others like it, were constantly preyed upon by the bigger, more powerful races was that they were too self-centered. He wanted to convince the tribe that the best means for survival would be to advance their culture and become allied with their foes: gnomes, humans, elves, other goblinoids…pretty much every race nearby.”
Inanis stopped for a moment. He noticed that he had Pinn’s and Valeria’s rapt attention. He glanced over at Arcto; his head was still in his spellbook. Nothing comes between him and his studies, it seems, thought Inanis. He continued.
“There is no word for ‘ally’ in the Goblin tongue, so it was quite difficult for Hechik to get his point across to his clanmates. It took him years to finally convince the chieftain to let him try this new method to bring prosperity to them.
“One day, Hechik was preparing to make the trek to a nearby human outpost. He worked diligently trying to learn the language enough to write a simple letter to hand to the humans expressing their intentions. But this was not to be. The alarm was raised, indicating an attack on the clan. The goblins fought bravely, but they were no match for the more powerful humans.
“Hechik was one of the last to fall. He begged for his life, but, in his panic, he forgot to speak the language he was learning, and shouted his pleas in his native tongue, a language the humans did not understand. He was cut down with impunity. As his life drained from him and his vision faded, he watched in horror as the humans systematically cut the ears off his fallen clanmates and stuff them in a bloody sack.”
Inanis let those last words hang in the air. Pinn’s and Valeria’s expression had become pallid. He tried to hide his smile. Just a few weeks back, the group had been tasked with clearing out a goblin den … and bring back their ears for extra gold.
“And why did these people kill all those goblins intent on making peace with them?” Inanis reached into his pocket and pulled out a single gold coin between two fingers. “For this.” He flung the coin at Valeria. It hit her breastplate with a metallic sound before falling on the table. She didn’t react to it.
Inanis stood up. “As I said, paladin…We’re not so different, you and I.”
As Inanis turned to walk off, Valeria suddenly stood, slamming her hands onto the table, drawing another irritated sigh from Arcto. “That is not what happened! Those goblins had been terrorizing the villagers for decades!” She picked up the coin and threw it at Inanis, who caught it effortlessly without turning around. “I smite the evils of this world to make it a better place for the good of all! How can you sleep soundly at night with all the terrible things you have done?!”
Inanis stopped suddenly. He looked over his shoulder at the fiery gaze of the paladin. Valeria’s anger blinded her from seeing the fatigue in his eyes. His thoughts drifted to the crudely written letter folded in his pocket, full of misspellings and grammatical errors, a letter he hid from the rest of the group while they had been collecting goblin ears in a dank abandoned mine.
“Once again, you presume much.” He turned back around, heading to his room. “Good night…Valeria.”