Tales from the Dragonsong War - What Remains of a Knight

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Ser Vaindreau de Rouchemande, the Very Reverend Archimandrite of the Heavens' Ward, was a man plagued by doubt.
Now well into his seventh decade, his body had long since begun a daily protest against the physical demands of his office. Yet it was not the constant aching of his knees nor the niggling twinge in his back that troubled the knight, but his faith in the man he had sworn to protect. For the first time in over forty years of service, Ser Vaindreau questioned the righteousness of the archbishop.

It had all begun a month before, on a morning like any other. He had been standing guard at the entrance to the Vault's inner courtyard, a haven of tranquility where His Eminence Archbishop Thordan VII was wont to meditate in solitude. The elderly warrior had kept many such vigils whilst the archbishop communed silently with the divine, and was thus startled when he caught the faint murmurings of conversation from the gardens within.
Praying aloud, Ser Vaindreau reasoned. But at the sound of a distinctly different voice, his hand found the hilt of his sword. Only the fear that he had somehow misheard prevented him from charging into the courtyard there and then. Cursing both his failing hearing and stubborn pride, he opted instead to edge forward as quietly as his clanking plate would allow.
Craning his neck to see past the flowering creepers, he sought about for an intruder, and all but lost his balance when he espied his master in hushed conference with a man in black robes.
A Paragon.

First Inquisitor Charibert Courcillan had never been a patient man. Though his was a divine calling, he could not help but curse the sparsity of heretics upon whom to practice his craft. The unannounced entrance of his most incompetent apprentice did little to improve his mood. The boy shuffled in startingly, his body seemingly in disagreement with his feet, shooting nervous glances about the chamber as he came. Finally, after fixing his gaze somewhere below Charibert's chin, he gingerly proffered an envelope.


"And this is?"
Plucking the missive from the novice's quivering hand, Charibert noted that neither the parchment nor the featureless wax that sealed it bore any hint as to the identity of the sender.
"A man in black robes gave it to me. He offered no name…"
And you did not think to ask, he observed silently, his lip curling as he imagined how he would punish the boy. Still staring at him, Charibert extended his index finger towards the seal and conjured a tiny tongue of flame, melting the wax but leaving the parchment unsinged; a reminder of his skill as a pyromancer - and torturer - not lost on his apprentice.
When the heat had done its work, he drew forth the letter with a flourish, his severe expression gradually giving way to one of unholy glee as his eyes danced back and forth across the page. A divine calling indeed.

Gazing out over Ishgard from the highest battlements of the Vault, Ser Vaindreau scarcely felt the icy sting of the night air upon his cheek. For what felt like the hundredth time, he asked himself what it was to be a knight of the Heavens' Ward…only for the rote reply to chime in as it always did.
We are the champions of the Holy See. We embody the virtues of the knights twelve who fought alongside King Thordan against dread Nidhogg. We are the chosen guardians of the archbishop, keeper of the one true faith. The Fury's shield and Her spear both…
But the creed said naught of an archbishop who consorted with the servants of chaos! He had heard the man discussing the finer points of a summoning ritual - intent not on calling forth Halone, but another. And although the exact nature of this blasphemous deity had escaped him, he knew that even to contemplate such an act violated the Church's most sacrosanct law.
There was naught else for it: he would confront the archbishop with the truth of what he had witnessed. And though he be condemned for heresy himself, he would hold Thordan to account.
Turning his back to the sleeping city and the last of his doubts, Ser Vaindreau descended into the deserted depths of the Vault, arriving all too soon at the doors to the papal residence, where Ser Hermenost stood watch.
"I must speak with His Eminence on a matter of utmost import."
"The hour is late, Archimandrite. What dire tidings are these that cannot wait until -"
Ser Vaindreau silenced the younger man with a gesture of his hand, indicating his unwillingness to speak further with a single shake of the head. And though entry was strictly forbidden to all, Ser Hermenost stood aside - for this was no interloper, but the archimandrite of the Heavens' Ward. Closing the doors behind him, the old knight let out a quiet sigh of relief, and after pausing to clear his thoughts, pressed on into the silence of the entrance hall. As he neared the gloomy doorway beyond, however, his eyes made out the shape of a hooded figure.
"Who goes there!?"
Though he barked the perfunctory challenge, his every fiber screamed the answer - the Ascian! - and he squared up to the shrouded phantom, barely conscious of having drawn his sword.
"'Tis past your bedtime, ser knight. Whither art thou bound with such haste?"
The figure threw back its cowl, revealing features split by a twitching smirk. Marking the man's tightly tied-back hair and predatory gaze, Ser Vaindreau needed only a moment to identify the intruder.
"I will ask the questions, First Inquisitor. Your office does not permit this trespass!"
Though relieved that it was no Paragon that stood before him, Ser Vaindreau did not relax his grip on his weapon. Charibert was a man of sinister reputation, and the knight instinctively gauged the distance he would need to cover to put the grinning mage within sword's reach.
"You know of me, Archimandrite? I am honored!" Charibert replied, his unctuous tone eliciting a wince of distaste from Vaindreau. "As for the matter of my 'trespass,' why, that is easily explained," he continued. "The inquisition received certain intelligence that a heretic would seek to pass through this very hall on this very night, and thus was I granted leave to lie here in wait."
At this revelation, Ser Vaindreau's grim expression grew darker.
"You imply that I am suspected?"


The knight knew not how his actions had been anticipated, but there could be only one reason the man he had served faithfully for four decades would invite such a viper into his house: the archbishop wished him dead.
Though his tired mind reeled at the revelation, Ser Vaindreau was nevertheless one of Ishgard's finest warriors. When the flames came, he was already hurling himself away from their blistering heat. He rolled to his feet with a clatter, and barreled forward with shield upraised.
Charibert, a seasoned war mage himself, clucked his tongue in annoyance, and calmly intoned another spell.
"Burn, heretic!"
A fiery sphere burst forth from the tip of the inquisitor's ornate staff and exploded against Vaindreau's shield. With reflexes honed by a lifetime spent battling dragons, the veteran flung aside the rapidly melting lump of metal and lunged with his blade in one fluid motion.
"Hmph. For all your creaking, you do your order proud, old man." Though a timely backward leap had saved his eye, Charibert bled freely from a cut running down his right cheek.
"You think to claim a knight of the Heavens' Ward with such feeble fires!?" Vaindreau raged. "A clean kill may be your intent, but you spare the stones a blackening at your own peril!"
The inquisitor had indeed been holding back, meaning to boil the aged warrior inside his armor without leaving a mark on the marble. And now it seemed his miscalculation would prove his downfall - the last exchange had left him with his back against the wall. He would have no time for lengthy incantations. Yet even though every advantage now lay with his opponent, he could not help but smile.
"How fine it is to fight a wolf after so many sheep," Charibert purred. "I shall remember you with fondness, Ser Vaindreau."

The following morning, somewhat earlier than was his wont, His Eminence Thordan VII emerged from his chambers. Beyond the entrance hall, a sleepless Ser Hermenost yet stood at his post, while Ser Vellguine de Bourbagne waited patiently to accompany the archbishop to morning mass.
"Ser Vaindreau came to me last night to announce his retirement," Thordan announced in a quiet voice.
"Beg pardon, Your Eminence? He said naught of- The archimandrite has resigned?"
The archbishop nodded gravely. "As a man past the prime of life, he confessed the burdens of knightly service had begun to take their toll. We spoke at great length upon this and many other things until the small hours of the morning…" Thordan glanced back towards his residence. "Ser Vaindreau now takes his rest in the antechamber, and I would not have him disturbed. We old men need our sleep."
Emotions warred across the faces of both Ser Hermenost and Ser Vellguine as they contemplated how such a decision must have pained their pious commander. Of any knight living, Ser Vaindreau had been the staunchest advocate of the Heavens' Ward and its sacred duty. But what was done was done. Leaving their comrade to his most well-deserved rest, the two knights took their places at the archbishop's side and departed for the cathedral.

Some few days later, the Holy See officially announced the retirement of Ser Vaindreau de Rouchemande from the Heavens' Ward, and introduced Ser Zephirin de Valhourdin as the order's new archimandrite. Addressing Ser Vaindreau's conspicuous absence at the anointment ceremony, the archbishop explained that the knight had begged leave to depart on a pilgrimage - a final wish for peace and solitude that the Church could hardly deny.
And thus did the Heavens' Ward lose its last true champion, his passing marked by little more than a faint scorching that yet mars the cold stones of the papal residence's entrance hall floor.

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