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Achara and Camon woke the next day with the monks to help with tasks around the monastery. They followed the monks’ customary pattern, who spent the morning doing chores around the monastery and attending classes and studying in the afternoon.

After studies in the afternoon, there was an evening vesper followed by dinner. The night was filled with games, storytelling, musing, and general merrymaking by the monastery’s residence. Achara found work in the stables caring for the animals there. Her voice had a calming effect on the animals as she fed and groomed them with brushes. Even the regular monks were surprised at how well they responded to a stranger. Camon found work in the library with Krii cataloging books, letters, maps, and other documents in the library and checking the accuracy and updating older catalogs. He enjoyed the work as much as Krii did. During the afternoon, while the monks studied, they spent time in the library or around the monastery learning from the instructors or reading books. They ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the monks. They participated in the homilies with the evening vespers in the monasteries chapel. They continued this routine for six days after arriving.

On the morning of the seventh day, Camon went to Chak’s office and entered, but Chak wasn’t there. His page came by, and Camon inquired about Chak’s whereabouts. The page said he was off running errands around the monastery and left. Camon just stood in the office for a long time, staring at the large desk, then back at the fireplace, and then back at the desk. Achara came in a few moments later. Camon jerked upright when she opened the door, “You startled me.”

“What were you doing?” she asked.

“Reminiscing, I guess. I spent a lot of time in this office back when I studied here.”

“Because you were in trouble all the time with the abbot?” Achara asked.

Camon laughed, “No, but that would seem fitting, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, I guess so,” Achara commented. “It just doesn’t seem like you to have nostalgia.”

“I wouldn’t call it nostalgia,” Camon replied. “But so many moments that changed the direction of my life happened in this room. It feels almost sacred to me. Like when I came here to stay at the monastery. Like you, I tried to find something to do that wasn’t stealing or panhandling as a youth after leaving home. I didn’t want to go to an orphanage because technically I wasn’t an orphan, so somehow I ended up here at the monastery. I hid for several days until they discovered me. When they found me, they brought me here. I begged the abbot at that time to let me stay. I told him I would do anything. He said I could, so they made me work in the scullery. I slept on a cot in one of the storage rooms and worked long hours every day. It was hard, but it was safe.

But as a boy, I became fascinated with the priestly arts while I was here, so I would learn what anyone would teach me. I made friends with the librarian at the time, and he would loan me books. I read as much as I could. The librarian saw my love for knowledge. He brought me to this room again and made a case before the abbot to let me work in the library, which I did until I was old enough to enroll. I spent hours combing through the stacks reading about history, philosophy, geography, lore, and anything else I could find.

By the time I was old enough to enroll, I again stood in this room before the abbot. I made a case for my enrollment as a monk to train as a priest. I was able to breeze through the training in my time as a student. I even served as an assistant instructor in many of the courses. I loved that life: teaching others about all that I had learned. I felt destined to return as an instructor after my internship as a priest. And I stayed, until another moment in this room ended that…” Camon went back to staring at the desk again and sighed.

“Based on this, I can only assume it wasn’t good.”

“Good? Well, in hindsight, I can see it, but at the time it was hard to accept.”

“Becoming a Paladin?”

“Yes.”

“What happened?”

“One day, when the Paladin that became my mentor showed up. I didn’t know it at the time, but he came through here. We met and shared meals before he left. He returned every couple of months, and we would talk about all things we both enjoyed. I loved to hear about his adventures, and he told me about his travels here and there.

On the day that I was supposed to receive my commendation from the abbot for the priesthood, I came in here sure that I would get it and walk out. I had passed all my courses with the highest marks and had received a unanimous recommendation from the faculty here. I was so sure of it. But when I came in, the abbot was sitting behind that desk right there. It was turned the other way facing the door at that time, not the window. I sat down at a chair across from him. He looked up at me and said, ‘I’m sorry, Camon, but I cannot give you a commendation for the priesthood. I think that you should choose another path.’ He then stood up and walked past me and out the door. I was speechless and stunned, trying to understand what just happened. Then the man that became my mentor walked in, and asked me, ‘Have you ever heard about the Paladins?’”

The next day, I left without any pomp, without as much as a farewell from anyone. I left the home of my youth, and that was it.”

“Hallowed ground, eh? More like cursed.”

“Well, I guess it depends on how you look at it, but the abbot knew something about me that I didn’t realize at the time. He somehow knew that I loved the independence, and being an instructor that had to teach the priestly dogmas would go against that.”

“In other words, he knew you were a rebel,” Achara said.

“In not so delicate terms, yes,” Camon said with a smile.

“But that all happened in the past. I came here to get some advice from the abbot about what to do next. It seems that we’re at a dead end with any resources here about understanding or uncovering anything else about demons.”

“He should be back in a moment. I think I saw him down in the hall where we came in before I got here,” Achara said.

“Speak of a demon, and it will appear,” Chak said as he walked in behind Achara.

“If only it were that easy,” Camon said. “I’d love to interrogate one right about now, but the last one we saw lost its head before I got a chance to ask it some questions.”

“So, what is it you needed from me, Camon?” Chak asked.

“I’ve spent the better part of the week here looking for stuff in the library, and as you suspected, nothing shed any light on the demon,” Camon answered. “We could go west, but that’s months out of the way.”

“If there’s anything to be found, surely you could find it there, but there may be a closer option,” Chak commented. “There’s a man who calls himself a ‘Prophet’ in Rahtclang to the south that might be able to help. He’s a bit eccentric, and most people think he is crazy. He spends his days on the streets rambling on about the end of the world. When he’s not doing that, he locks himself in his room and scribbles on the wall. I’ve met him once or twice in my travels there. While I think his ‘prophecy’ is generally nonsense, his knowledge of lore and history about the Dark is impeccable. I’ve asked him questions about trivial details of things I’ve read about in books, and he was always able to answer them. I’m not sure if he can help you, but given that I can’t think of anything else close by, he might be your best shot.”

“Where can I find him there?”

“He lives in the south quarter in a tenement house there. As I understand it, he has a family there that takes care of him. If you ask around, I’m sure you’ll find him.”

“So it looks like we’ll be going south to Rahtclang then,” Camon summarized.

“Sounds fun,” Achara commented.

“You can avoid Rahtneua by traveling a little further west,” Chak suggested. “There’s a new road they cut that goes south and then back east and connects back to the highway south. Inquisitors and Imperials will still undoubtedly be looking for you.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Camon said.

After a few more words and a drink, Camon and Achara left Chak to his work. Camon spent the remainder of the day prepping his gear and mending his clothes. The monks at the monastery helped him resole his boots and provided them with travel rations for their journey south. Achara likewise prepared for the trip making sure her clothes and shoes were in good order.

After a good night’s sleep and goodbyes to Chak and the monastery friends, they set out on foot early the next morning under the bright sky. They worked up body heat to ward off the cold as they followed the path up and out of the monastery to the highway and turned west away from Rahtneua. A few miles down the road, they found the newly cut road and turned south. The road passed through the forest and occasionally met up with a field or meadow that opened up so they could see the sky overhead. They followed it for the rest of the day, and when it was evening time, they came upon a village composed of structures with thatched roofs and muddy streets from the recent rains and snows. The road passed through the town and connected with the north to south highway out of Rahtneua. They saw no presence of Imperial soldiers in the village, so they decided to stop for the night. They checked into the local inn without raising any suspicion and stayed the night there.

The next morning, Camon bought two horses from a local stable, and he and Achara started to ride south along the highway.

Did the horse seller have names for them?” Achara asked as they rode along.

“I am on Appon, and you are on Soam,” Camon said.

“Appon and Soam,” she said as she patted Soam on the head. “I’m pleased to meet you.”

“Speaking to horses now?”

“Well, there’s something about it that makes them more personable.”

Camon smiled, then went back to staring down the road. They rode up and down hills, keeping a steady pace as they passed through more forest that was interrupted by farms and villages along the way. The weather was generally clear but cold. Occasionally they stopped in a town for a day or more along the way to let a snowstorm blow through. But they kept to the road, riding as long as they could through each day.

It was late one afternoon and overcast when they came to a city where the road crossed the Great River, Camon announced, “Krunglek. It’s smaller than Rahtneua, but it’s probably the economic hub of the North. Trade comes through here from the South.”

“Are there Inquisitors here?” Achara asked.

“Maybe a few, but I doubt we have to worry about them. The Church’s presence here is limited.”

“That’s good to hear.”

They rode into the city seated in a valley between two hills that formed the river’s western and eastern banks. They passed many of the buildings that sprawled outwards from the city center outside the walls, then through the wall, which was much smaller than the one that surrounded Rahtneua. Everything was built from gray stones hewn from large deposits visible in the form of outcroppings along the way.

Camon and Achara rode into the city down one of the main avenues that passed by the central fortification and then to a wide bridge that crossed the river to the other side. Before reaching the bridge, though, they turned south down a road marked with an arrow pointing south that read, “Emporer’s Way.” It followed the river south towards Rhatclang and was much busier than other roads they had encountered in the Empire. It was much broader and well-worn.

“Looks like we might be getting some more snow tonight,” Camon observed. “We should probably find a place to get comfortable for the next few days as the storm passes.”

Achara was in a daze and didn’t hear Camon at first, but then shook her head, “Oh, yes, a place to stay. Snow. Yeah, that’s a good idea.”

Alongside the river, they found an inn with a cozy stable and checked in for the night. Just as they did, the snow began to fall. Camon found a comfortable chair in the inn and settled in, watching the snow drift down outside. He was glad that he was not out traveling in it for once.

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