Camon shuddered, and his eyes shot open. He immediately glanced around the room, panting. He noticed it was morning, and the light was streaming in through the small window over his bed. Camon sighed as he felt his heart pounding in his chest slow. He sat up and wiped the sweat from his brow. He pulled back the covers, and the frosty morning air hit the sweat on his tunic, giving him chills. He tore off the tunic, dried himself off, dressed in dry shirts and pants, put his boots on, and walked over to his washbasin.
Camon looked in the mirror at his aged face and almost white hair. He splashed some water from the basin in his hair and pushed it back, and he washed his face and hands in the basin and dried them with a towel. He ambled over to a wardrobe, opened it, and removed a heavy, brown monk’s robe. He put it on over his other clothes. The old man girded his waist with a length of rope and pulled the hood over his head. He picked up a chain off a small table near the wardrobe with a heavy medallion and put it around his neck.
Camon left the room and entered the adjoining hallway, now with a few occupants. As he walked down the hallway, many other monks greeted him as they passed by. Camon nodded at each familiar face, not speaking. Many of them were his students that had come through the monastery to train as priests. Others were his colleagues that, like him, lived there to teach those who studied in the priestly arts. He came to the end of the hallway and walked through a set of doors and into the refectory with dozens of long wooden tables lined up with benches. The room was abuzz with activity. Young monks were sitting around eating their breakfast and enjoying one another’s company.
Camon strolled to the kitchen next to the refectory, and the cook greeted, “Good morning, professor. Are you having the usual?”
“Yes, I think so. But add an extra egg if you don’t mind,” Camon replied.
“Sure thing,” the cook said as he cracked eggs into a skillet and stirred them for a minute. He threw in some bacon and chopped vegetables and scrambled the mix, and slid it on a plate. The cook handed the plate to Camon, “There you are!”
“Thanks, as always,” Camon said.
He turned and left the kitchen into the refectory, past several tables and past a large, open hearth with a bright fire that warmed the entire room. Camon found an empty table and sat down with his plate and ate his eggs, not taking time to savor the flavors. He stared out the window near him at the bare trees overhead.
“Mind if I join you,” a voice called from behind him.
Camon jumped, then shuttered. He turned and saw an older man standing there with a monk’s robe smiling at him. “Chak. Please, do.”
“You were deep in thought,” the old man said as he sat down across from Camon.
“Hardly. I was in a daze more than anything,” Camon replied. He looked down at his plate and realized that his eggs were only half-eaten and were cold.
“You’ve been pensive as of late, keeping to yourself and not talking much. You don’t look well either. Are you sick?”
“No, not sick. Just not sleeping well, that’s all.”
“This cold will do it to you, but I can tell that’s not what is keeping you awake. It’s more than that, isn’t it?”
“I guess I have a hard time hiding it.”
“You’d be a lousy card player if you did such things.”
“I don’t pretend to think that I am one.”
“Tell me,” Chak encouraged. “What’s on your mind?”
“You’re right. I’ve been dreaming.”
“Achara? What does she want with you? You haven’t seen her in years.”
“I saw her right before I came here, so what? Two or three years now? I’ve lost track.”
“What’s she trying to tell you?” Chak inquired.
“Do you remember what happened when she destroyed the Gray Elf all those years ago?”
Chak started eating his breakfast. “Not exactly, but fill me in.”
“The whole reason we embarked on that crazy quest out west and into the ruins was to figure out who was behind a demon that attacked a seer up in Neuasut. The seer was a young woman named Ratana. She was the one that I saved from the corruption, and we later learned she was pregnant. She later had a son, and she has been living up in Neuasut ever since that time.”
“So, what does that have to do with you then?”
Camon took a few more bites from his plate. “Well, I kept tabs on Ratana and her family for a few years after that from a distance. Her husband, Rune, was never too fond of me. When it looked like everything was going well for them, I let them be. I haven’t seen or heard from them in years. But Ratana and Achara share a bond like those that the seer women among Gypsies have.”
“I thought Achara was a Gypsy now.”
“Well, she is. Achara now leads her own encampment. Ratana is not a Gypsy, but she did help me locate and find Achara after the Gray Elf captured her. I can only suspect that they still talk to one another through their bond.”
“You still haven’t told me what that has to do with you, though.”
“That’s what I don’t understand. Achara can’t talk to me like she can talk to Ratana. But we share a bond that allows her to enter my dreams. She did that years ago. Ever since she rescued me from that ledge in the Pustos Wastes, we’ve had some kind of connection I can’t explain. But she keeps putting images of Ratana into my head, and it’s almost nightmarish. I’ve been waking up in cold sweats. It keeps me up at night.”
“What type of images?”
“Pain. Suffering. Hurt. It’s just images. It’s not a narrative, but I can’t get her out of my head sometimes, even in the waking hours.”
“Why would she do that to you?”
“She wouldn’t do it if she didn’t have a reason. But all I can do is interpret the dreams. And based on the images, I can only assume that Ratana is in trouble, and Achara is telling me this.”
Chak took a drink from his cup. “If it’s bothering you that much, the only logical course of action would be to investigate.”
“I would if I could, but getting to Neuasut this time of year is almost impossible, assuming that she’s still there. I would have to wait for the snowmelt. And there are my duties to the monastery. I can’t simply abandon my post here.”
“Your post here was always provisional,” Chak reminded. “Your first duty is to your order.”
“I’m getting too old for that, Chak. You know I came here to find my protégé.”
“And find him or her, you may yet. But there’s also another pressing matter that requires your attention beyond these walls.”.
“What kind of matter?”
“Looking for me?”
“Not you. But someone like you,” Chak said.
Camon leaned forward over the table and looked Chak in the face. “Who? What?”
Chak smiled. “I thought that might get your attention. Word has reached my ears out of Rhatneua of a rising problem amongst the Inquisitors. Apparently, they have been tracking another one of your order in the west. He keeps popping up on their scrying maps every so often, as if he is trying to get their attention. The Inquisitors have sent almost half a dozen men into the west, but not a single one of them has returned. They suspect that whoever is drawing them is doing it on purpose, taunting them. It’s grown to be more than a nuisance for them.”
“And you think I should investigate it?” Camon asked.
“I’m not suggesting you should do anything; I’m merely the messenger,” Chak said with a smile. “What you do with this information is your prerogative. But if I know you, you won’t let it go until you know what is going on.”
“Out west, though…” Camon moaned. “Chak, I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.”
“Too old? Look at me! I’m twenty years your senior, and I’m still going.”
Camon laughed. “But walking down to the library, giving lectures, and training priests does not require traveling across the continent on the back of a horse in search of a whim.”
“I can tell you this, though, that whatever is out there is not a whim for the Inquisitors. The word is, they are sending their best that way to hunt him down and dispose of him.”
“Ever since you surfaced those sixteen years ago, the Inquisitors have been raising a new specialization in their rank specifically designed to deal with your order. They couldn’t handle you last time, but they have sworn that they won’t fail again.”
“If they only knew I was sitting right under their noses, how that would make them feel?”
“Foolish, I’m sure,” Chak chuckled. “But they can only respond when you are actually being what you are. And lecturing students is hardly going to get their attention.”
“I was hoping to keep it that way. And there’s also the matter in the north with Ratana. And besides, the more I think about it, why should I care about Inquisitors?”
“Because is it not a part of your commission to police your order?”
“Yes, but how do I know whoever that is has malintent?”
“You can’t unless you investigate it.”
Camon scratched his head for a moment. “I just don’t know… I mean… Achara is one thing, but another Paladin in the west is another. I would hope to help Achara because I owe it to her and Ratana if she is in trouble. But beyond that, I’m not up for it…”
“Well, at least you can help your friends—that’s what a priest would do, anyway. Why not take a leave of absence and come back once you have sorted out these matters with them?”
“I can’t quit in the middle of a term!”
“Camon, you can sit here and make excuses to me, but I know you altogether too well. I get it; you like the comfort of your books and the predictability of your life here. It’s what you’ve always wanted. And now that you have it, you don’t want to give it up. Sometimes, we have to lay aside what we want to take care of the duty is set before us. But don’t do this begrudgingly. You won’t make it past the front gate moping like that.”
Camon looked up at Chak and pushed the now empty plate in front of himself away. “I’ll try not to drag my feet too much. Besides, if I did, you would be right there behind me to poke me along.”
“Thanks for the tip.” He stood up and picked up his plate and left Chak at the table. He carried the plate back to the kitchen and handed it to the cook, who nodded at Camon. Camon wandered out of the refectory and back down the hall to his room. He slipped into the room, walked over to the wardrobe, and removed the hanging contents and items stored on the bottom. Camon felt around the edges of the back of the wardrobe. He struck it with his fist, and a board popped out of place. The old man removed the board and reached into the gap that was revealed, searching for something as he groped around in the hidden compartment. When he found it, he lifted it and removed it from the wardrobe, revealing a sword in its sheath.
Camon unsheathed the sword, and it glinted in the light that was still coming in through his window. The blade’s mirror finish cast light into the walls around the room. Camon swung the blade, and it whispered in high shrills as it passed through the air. The old man gripped the hilt with two hands, bowed his head, and put the blade flat on his forehead. He whispered to the blade, and it glowed before returning to its neutral state. He let the heat from the blade warm his head as it cooled. He thought about the visions he had been having. They weighed on him. Chak was right, and he knew it. He at least needed to figure out what was going on, but going to Neuasut after the snowfalls was not at the top of his list of things to do. Any sane person would discourage him from going, but he felt he had no choice under the circumstances.
Camon exhaled, smoothing out his robe with his free hand. He replaced the blade in its sheath, put it back into the compartment, put back the board hiding the compartment, and repacked the wardrobe's contents. He closed the doors and looked out the window at the bare trees overhead. “Achara, I hope I’m not reading this wrong. But whatever is going on up there, I hope I’m not too late.”