The next day, Camon walked into Chak’s office, this time not in his robes. He dressed in his traveler’s cloak, wool pants, and a heavy wool shirt with his sword at his waist. He came into the office without even knocking. As he entered, Camon looked around the room, familiar with its contents. Books and knickknacks lined the walls. A large oak desk sat facing the door, and Chak sat in a high-back chair behind it. Situated away from the desk was an ornate fireplace with a warm and inviting fire with some high-back chairs. Camon briefly recalled the many conversations he had in this room with Chak sitting next to the fire. He came in and stood in front of the desk, and Chak looked up from his work.
“Come to say goodbye?” Chak asked.
“Yes. I told my classes I was leaving for a while. Some teaching assistants will finish the term for them. Nobody seemed too disappointed,” Camon remarked.
“Have you decided where you will go first?”
“To Rhatneua to see if I can ferret out any more information about what you told me, and then up to Hubkeaw. I should be able to hire a passage to Neuasut from there. It won’t be a simple trip, though.”
“It never is this time of year. Even getting to Hubkeaw won’t be easy. A blizzard could blow in from the north at any time.
“True indeed. I must try my luck, though.”
“Seems you live by it.”
“We all do. It’s pretty obvious when our luck runs out.”
“Great. Take a horse from the stables.”
“I’ll go on foot. It wouldn’t be fair to the horse to only take me to Hubkeaw. Perhaps I can hire transport from Rhatneua to Hubkeaw. Coaches run that way, even in the winter.”
Camon reached into a satchel at his side, removed his chain and medallion, and held it out for Chak. “I’m also here to surrender my commission.”
Chak rose and walked around the desk. He then reached out, took the medallion, opened Camon’s hand, put it back in, and then wrapped Camon’s hand around it. “Keep it. Your work here isn’t done,” he said with a warm smile. He clapped his arm on Camon’s shoulder. “You’re not just a colleague. You’re a confidant and a friend and must come back to us.”
“Good luck,” Chak said. “May the Light guide your way.”
Camon gave the old man a firm handshake, turned towards the door, and walked out. He walked down the hall and into the refectory. The room was empty except for a young monk who was preoccupied with sweeping the floor. Camon walked through the room and into an atrium at the front. He opened the door, and a blast of cold air struck him in the face, blowing back his hair. He slipped out, closed it behind him, pulled the hood of his cloak up over his head, and started down the walkway towards a stone arch gateway. The Paladin passed through the gate onto the road and turned east, following it towards a bridge that crossed the river. He crossed over on the bridge and turned east towards Rhatneua.
Camon hurried along the road towards the city. The exercise helped ward off the cold, but powerful gusts of wind would cut through his clothes and remind him he was outside in the dead of winter. The bare trees whistled and swayed against the gale out of the north. Even though it was cold, the sky overhead was blue and clear. He passed through several villages along the road, and by midafternoon, Rhatneua came into view. The towering white cathedral with its gleaming glass windows glowed from its perch atop a hill. Its spire towered hundreds of feet above the surrounding terrain and supported a sculpted hand holding a torch-lit with a brilliant flame visible even in the bright daylight. Camon paused a moment to admire the building as he almost always did, but today it did not seem as brilliant.
The old priest passed over the plain leading up to the city for the better part of the afternoon. The road continued south of the city but north of the river that flowed east. A broad avenue forked off the road to the north into the city at a wide roundabout. Another route traveled south across the river, and the main highway continued east. Camon took the broad avenue up through the city gates and ascended the hill through the lower city with its crowded streets towards the upper city that housed the provincial government buildings and the lavish cathedral. The streets bustled with activity even on the wintry day, but nobody seemed to notice him. Camon walked down a side street before reaching the upper city and entered a nondescript tavern.
He pulled the door behind him, and the wind pushed it closed and caused the entire building to shudder. There were no patrons in the tavern, just neatly arranged chairs and stools. Lights hung from the low ceiling, most of them not yet lit. But two burned, flickering as the wind from the outside circled the room. The room was nippy with no fire in either of its fireplaces to warm the building. Camon made his way back through the tables and chairs, but before he reached the back, a man emerged from a door. “Who in the blazes slammed—” he paused. “Camon? Is that you?”
Camon smiled, “Behar, my old friend! It is indeed!”
Behar came around the bar dressed in a ragged apron and balding on top. He thrust out his arm, and Camon clasped it and greeted, “How are you? It’s been ages since you’ve been in here.”
“Work has kept me away for some time now, but I was in the neighborhood. I wanted to stop by and check in on things.”
“Business as usual for me. The life of a barkeep never stops even when folks are down on their luck.”
“Good to hear.”
“Tell me, what have you been up to? It’s been how long since you’ve been in here?”
“Too long, but truth be told, I have been up the road for the last couple of years. I took a teaching position at the monastery there. I have gotten out only a little since that time, though. Monastic life is pretty solitary.”
The barkeeper’s eyes widened. “A teacher? Hah! That doesn’t seem to suit you well. If you aren’t off trekking across the Empire, I would assume you would be sick or dead. And you’re not dead, so you must be sick!”
“The only sickness I have is old age, my friend. All the years of travel and adventure have caught up with me. I’m not as spry as I once was.”
“But that you’re here can only mean one thing, though. Something got your attention, and you’ve got back on the road again.”
“Unfortunately, yes. Actually, two things. One in the north and another in the west.”
“The north? What in the blazes could have drawn your attention there? There’s nothing up there this time of year but snow, ice, and Imperials.”
“That’s more of a personal matter. But the news out of the west is something I was hoping you could help me out with.”
“There’s a lot going on out there. Can you be more specific?”
“Those self-righteous pricks!” Behar declared. “Yeah, I hear all about that. They come in here every now and demand ale for free, as if they deserve it for sitting around and doing nothing. I can’t do much about it, though. Trouble with them is trouble for my business, which I can’t afford to lose right now.”
“So, they’ve been talking?”
“Give them a few rounds, and they will go on and on about whatever they aren’t supposed to be talking about. I get an earful of nonsense every time they walk through the door. Most of it is bragging about some sort of exploit or job they did in the service to the Church. Rubbish if you ask me.”
“About the west…”
“I was getting there. Care for anything to drink?” The barkeeper asked.
“I’m always up for something. Whatever you have.”
“Ale. Mead. Wine. Something stronger if you want that.”
“I need my wits, so I’ll take the mead.”
“Suit yourself,” Behar said as he walked back around to the bar. Camon took a seat at the bar, and Behar produced a mug and poured amber mead from a large ceramic jug into the mug. He passed it to Camon, who took a swig and set it down.
“That’s some good stuff!”
“It’s from the meadery in Rhatclang. I’ve had it since last summer. I like it myself! Now, about the west…” He paused for a moment and lowered his voice. “Those dimwits were going on and on about something. I didn’t believe it at first, but the more they started talking, the more I realized they were probably telling the truth.”
“Which is…” Camon beckoned.
“Paladins. A Paladin has surfaced. It’s been over a decade since the last I heard so much buzz about them. But this one is strange. They were saying it was beyond the West Watch in the western kingdoms. I didn’t think Paladins traveled that far out, but nevermind that. What’s interesting is that those blockheads were going on and on about how this one was provoking them. He’s sent messages to them. And supposedly, he sent the head of one of those guys back in a box!”
“Beyond the West Watch?” Camon asked.
“Yes, that’s what they said. But if you asked me, and I know you haven’t, I’d say those pricks deserve to be brought down a peg or two. Who better to do it than a Paladin?”
Camon rubbed his chin, “Seems odd for a Paladin. They aren’t usually ones to carry a vendetta.”
“How would you know that?”
“History,” Camon replied.
“It’s hard to believe that another one has surfaced. That’s twice in one lifetime.”
“It could be the same one, could it not?”
“Maybe, but this one seems like he wants to be known. The Inquisitors can hardly resist the bait. He knows for certain they will keep coming until he’s captured or dead.”
“Getting beyond the jurisdiction of the Empire improves his odds of staying alive for sure. I’m surprised that the Inquisitors would send someone that far out of their way to go after him.”
“Yeah, but they are desperate after what happened last time. They had one in the bag and were taking him down from Neuasut to Rhatneua, and they lost him. He disappeared, and no one has seen or heard from a Paladin until this one shows up. They are looking for a chance to redeem themselves. It’s not that the Empire or the Church really cares, though. Well, maybe the Church does a little. Paladins are heretics in their eyes. But the legitimacy of the Inquisitors has been called into question many times since then. The Church spends a lot of money on them with little to show. Many have called to replace them with local security forces and disband them altogether. But there are those in the Church that like to have a military arm of the Church to do their bidding.”
“True enough. I can’t say I keep tabs on them very much. My interest is more in training the priest than the Inquisitors.”
“You still haven’t told me your interest in the Inquisitors, though,” Behar said.
“You confirmed the rumors I heard–it’s the Paladins more than the Inquisitors. Most of what we know about Paladins is hearsay. I would like to meet one or at least talk to someone who has. If the Inquisitors get one, I would be interested in speaking to the Paladin or at least the man that caught him.”
“I can put in a word for you if you’d like. They come in here often.”
“Thanks, but I’ll keep my distance until I know for sure that they have been west and lived to tell about it. Making that trip might be more dangerous than meeting a Paladin himself.”
“How ya figure?”
“Well, there’s the journey to the West Watch, which isn’t that hard. But when you get there, you must cross the desert. Then from there, you are in a land that, from all accounts I’ve heard, is nothing like the relative safety offered by the east.”
“I’ve never been there, so I wouldn’t know,” Behar said as he made himself more comfortable.
“I’ve read memoirs,” Camon said. “And most of them all talk about the dangers.”
“Well, the one the Inquisitors are sending next is the best that they have. He specializes in Paladins.”
“How can they specialize in something they hardly understand?”
“Don’t know. But the one they are sending comes in here from time to time. He’s all business. He drinks alone, talks to no one, and is always watching. The Inquisitor as cold as the winter snow, and he makes no apology for being that way.”
“Does he have a name?” Camon asked, sipping his mead again.
“I’ve never spoken to him before. Not even the other Inquisitors know much about him.”
“Fascinating. Well, if he’s the one that they send and who returns, I guess he will be the one I have to pry words out of. It sounds like I have my work cut out for me then. But I won’t have to worry about that for a while if they haven’t even dispatched him yet.”
Camon picked up the mug of mead and downed it. “Well, I hate to cut this short, but duty calls. My errand to the north cannot wait.”
“Well then,” Behar said, standing up straight. “Don’t be a stranger, okay?”
“I’ll try to make it a point to come by when I’m in the area.”
“Take care of yourself,” Behar said. He extended his arm to Camon, and Camon grasped it. The two had a firm farewell, and Camon turned to leave. He replaced the hood on his head and walked out into the cold air that swirled around him as he opened the door.
Outside, the late afternoon sun was casting shadows about the building on the street. Camon turned and trudged uphill towards the upper city. As he approached a gate, beggars lining the street called out to him, asking for alms. Camon set his eyes on the gate, but the guard stopped him.
“What’s your business in the upper city?” the guard asked.
“I’m going to the cathedral. Is that a crime?” Camon answered.
“No. Vagabonds and riff-raff may not go up there by order of the prefect.”
“Seems odd to keep those in need away from the Church, don’t you think?”
“I don’t make the rules. I enforce them. If you have a problem, take it up with the prefect.”
“No problem here.”
“Good. You don’t look like a vagabond, so I suppose you can pass. But don’t let me catch you begging!” the guard warned.
Camon nodded and walked past the guard up the hill into the upper city. The upper city was a stark contrast from the lower city with its clean streets, manicured landscapes, and ornate buildings. Camon paid no mind to the people on the avenue. He marched right up to the plaza surrounding the cathedral, paved with dark, reflective stones that made it almost mirror-like. The cathedral up close made Camon feel small, with its spire reaching hundreds of feet into the air, and the building’s size alone could house thousands of people.
Camon went to the side of the cathedral with a large basalt alms box that was as tall as he was. Camon approached the vault and placed himself between it and the cathedral. He walked up to the box and placed his hands on it, and chanted in low tones. The box glowed ever so slightly, then produced a rumbling sound. Camon got a bag out from his satchel and placed it under a slot in the vault as several coins fell out of the box. Camon repeated this several times before he had enough, and he placed the bag back into his satchel.
“The box is full, and people are starving,” Camon muttered.
Camon glanced all around. No one was paying him any mind, so he turned and walked back across the plaza to the street he had come in on, but exited through another gate. But before he did, he found his way back down the avenue, and turned down a side street and scanned the signs on the outside of the buildings. He found what he was looking for, a sign that read, “Minster of Charity.”
Camon pulled the door to the building, entered a dim room, removed the hood of his cloak, and pulled the door closed behind him. The room was bare with simple wood furniture and not much in the way of decorations. A young priest sat at the table writing on paper, and he turned to look at Camon. “May I help you, sir?”
“Yes,” Camon replied. “Where can I find the Minister?”
“He’s not here, but may I tell him who called?
“Unnecessary, but perhaps you can help me.”
“How might I be of help?”
“Can you tell me why there are so many people out by the gates asking for alms?”
“The drought last year hit many people hard, including the Church. Almsgiving has been down, and the Church isn’t doing much in the way of charity. It’s a tough time for everyone.”
“Indeed. I represent someone interested in donating to help those people. How much would it take to feed them for a day?”
“Food is expensive, but if I had to wager a guess, I’d say about one gold piece.”
Camon went to his satchel, counted out some coins, and placed them on the table next to the priest. “Then we would like to provide food for them for a month. Can I trust you to arrange that?”
The priest gaped at the pile of money. “Um, eh… yes.”
“Good. I’ll be back in a few weeks to check on progress,” Camon said, turning to leave.
He put his hood back on and was about to open the door when the priest called out, “Who can I say this donation is from?”
Camon pulled the door opened, then looked back over his shoulder at the priest. “Tell the minster that it is from the Paladins.”