A crowd gathered around to watch, coming out from inside buildings and hiding places. Achara stood and came over next to Camon, who had since lowered his sword, no longer flaming. He sheathed it and exhaled heavily, still panting. His face was covered in sweat, and his hair was matted to his forehead. No one spoke as the last of the carcass disintegrated and was carried away skyward.
A horn sounded, and out of the keep came a portly man still in his sleeping clothes but was wrapped in a fine fur robe and surrounded by a patrol of eight lightly armed Imperial soldiers. “Make way for his eminence, Constable Sukhon!” called the corporal leading the company. The company and constable marched over to the crowd that had gathered, who were now all staring at Camon and Achara. They both were assessing their bumps and bruises but were otherwise unscathed from the battle.
Camon looked up at the constable, then to the woman who was still clinging to the stele. Her face was paralyzed with fear. Many men who had been a part of the phalanx fell in behind the constable and his company. The crowd parted as they approached. Camon, however, did not move or pay the company much mind.
The constable studied Camon and Achara and the crowd, then broke the silence, “What’s the meaning of all this?”
Camon still did not look at him when he asked, but after he finished inspecting himself, he finally looked and acknowledged the constable with a stare, then looked at the woman on the stele. “Maybe you should start there,” he said, pointing at the woman. The constable hadn’t noticed the woman, then gave some of the Imperials a command to go help her down. They went and fetched a ladder and gently helped her off the stele. They brought her down, then helped her over to the constable and the gathered crowd. They set her down, but she was still unable to stand still shaking with fear.
The constable looked at her. She was a young woman with the look of a typical northerner with fair skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. She wore plain clothes that were otherwise clean and well mended. “What’s your name, girl? Are you not Ratana, daughter of Somchai?” he asked. She looked up at the constable, still unable to speak. “Go on, tell me,” he said gently.
She finally calmed down some, “I’m… yes… I am Ratana.”
“Tell me, Ratana, what happened?” the constable asked.
She managed to get out another sentence, “I… I… I don’t know. I was walking home from the brewery after we had closed. Then…then that thing… came down the avenue through the west gate. I ran. I screamed… before I could think, I was…on the stele. Please forgive me, my liege.”
“No fears, my child. Tell me, who is he?” the constable asked, pointing to Camon.
“I…I don’t know. I just know that he’s the one that…that slew that…m-m-m-monster,” she quivered.
“Monster?” he said. The Imperial captain that led the phalanx came forward and recounted his point of view, retelling the screams and commotions before the battle, how he marshaled his men, and how the beast made quick work of the company. “The beast overpowered us, and our losses could have been worse…much worse,” he concluded.
“How many?” the constable asked.
“One recruit. A brave lad. He hadn’t been here for more than two months,” the captain answered.
“So a monster came out of nowhere, chased this woman up the stele, your phalanx attempted to intervene, the monster decimated you, but this man who stands before me single-handedly dispatched the beast?” the constable summarized.
Camon looked at the constable and then at Achara, “Not single-handedly. I had help.”
“Tell me, sir… who… no, rather what are you?” the constable implored.
“My name is Camon, and I’m a man,” Camon replied sarcastically.
The constable was not amused with the sarcasm in Camon’s voice. He asked again, “How did you kill that… whatever it was?”
Camon pointed to the sword at his side, “With this.”
Again, the constable was not amused by Camon’s lack of directness. He then turned to the crowd, “Did any of you see him kill that beast?”
A murmur rippled through the crowd. One brave soul volunteered, “The sword. It ignited like fire and lightning. It was blinding.” Another answered, “Yes, it was the sword.”
“A magic sword, eh?” the constable led, looking back at Camon. Camon was not paying attention to the constable; instead, he looked at the shaken woman who was still quivering. He walked over to her and knelt, and he took her hand. He placed it on the hilt of his blade and whispered in her ear, and she stopped quivering and breathed easier. Camon stood and looked at the Imperials, the constable, and the crowd that had gathered around. He then turned and walked away back towards the inn. Achara followed as the crowd parted to let them pass.
“You, sir Camon… I wasn’t finished asking questions!” he shouted as Camon walked away.
Camon answered while not looking back, “I’m not the one you should be asking questions to.”
“Then who should I ask?” the constable inquired.
“I’d start with your local priest,” Camon answered.
Camon and Achara walked back to the inn and entered in. They went back up to a room, where Camon shut the door.
“You certainly didn’t make friends with the constable,” Achara remarked.
“The less the Empire knows, the better off they will be,” he surmised.
“What was that thing?” Achara asked.
“The short answer? A demon. But the question isn’t really what, but why? Why now? Why her? That beast could have slain hundreds of people, but it avoided it. The only reason the poor Imperial recruit lost his life was that the Imperials interfered with it. Not that I can blame them – they are charged with the hold’s protection, and clearly, the beast was a threat.”
“If that thing was a demon, then that would imply darkness…” Achara remarked.
“Demons come and go. While not common, they are not unheard of either and occasionally appear. But usually, they are mindless and will destroy anything or anyone they meet until the magic they feed on dissipates or something destroys them, usually the former. But this demon had a purpose, and we tracked it halfway across the Empire from The Pass through the wilderness northeast of Maenamsam, and then north of Rahtneua to here for the last three months. It didn’t bother a soul along the entire route, rather choosing to avoid being seen. And it has lingered here for the better part of the last month. Without a doubt, this demon was not acting alone – something or someone was orchestrating the whole thing.”
“So demons are wild, but this one had intent. That still doesn’t explain where it came from, though,” Achara remarked.
“How demons are made is no mystery. They are the offspring of corruption. Darkness can corrupt the living – plants, animals, even people. Once corrupted, the offspring of the living will be a demon with a form similar to its parent, but the essence of pure magic. They need magic to survive. If you can destroy their constitution or cut off their magic supply, you can destroy them.”
“So you destroyed it’s constitution then?” Achara asked
Camon raised his eyebrows, “Yes, but the telltale sign was that the corpse dissipated once the beast was slain. I suspected it might be a demon, but wasn’t sure until I saw that.”
There was a moment of silence, then Achara asked further, “Is that why you told the constable to inquire with a priest?”
“In a manner, yes.”
“The woman… when you whispered to her, what did you tell her?”
“Nothing she could understand, but I helped calm her fears. Once she’s had some rest, we’ll need to seek her out and learn her story. It might give us a clue as to what that thing was looking for or why it was after her specifically.”
“But we can’t linger. You know the Inquisitors have undoubtedly been alerted to our presence here and will have most certainly have dispatched some to find us,” Achara noted.
“It will take them the better part of a month to get here from Rahtneua if that’s where they’re coming from,” Camon said.
“Yeah, but we can’t assume that. The sooner we leave, the better.”
“No argument there, but we need to get answers first. I wish this was the end of this wild goose chase, but it appears that we’re only getting started. As soon as we have talked to the woman, we’ll track overland, skirt northwest of Rahtneua, and pick up the Pilgrims Way to the West Watch. But for now, I think I am going to rest awhile.”
With that, Camon left the room, crossed the hall, and went to his quarters where he removed his book from his beltline and then wrote in it. He tucked it away, then removed his cloak, belt, shoes, and sword before laying down. Before he could even begin to think about what had happened, he drifted off into sleep.
When Camon awoke, it was well past sunrise, and the light was streaming in the window of the small room. He sat up and stretched his arms and legs. He could feel the soreness in his muscles from the previous night’s battle with the demon. His back also ached from being pummeled by the beast. He could see the bruises on his chest and back from the impact, but he was grateful that nothing was broken and even more so still alive. He had not expected the beast to be so massive. It hadn’t left as much as a track on the entire journey for Camon to even begin to estimate its size before encountering the beast.
Camon rose and put on his belt, shoes, and sword before finally wrapping himself in his cloak. He left his room and went out into the hallway and went downstairs to the common room. It was empty, save Achara sitting at a table near the large fireplace that occupied a wall opposite a bar. He made his way over and quietly sat down next to her. She had changed her clothes from the loose-fitting garb she had worn the day before into something brighter and had altered her hair.
“Been outside yet?” Camon started.
Achara didn’t answer at first, but then looked at him, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t see you there. But no, I haven’t. I’d rather avoid being seen in public after last night’s ordeal. Regardless though, I didn’t sleep a wink.”
“Can’t say I had that problem,” Camon replied. He raised a gesture at a staffer who was walking by and signaled her over.
Camon ordered a breakfast of eggs and toast with a cup of coffee. The meal came a few minutes later. The staffer was a middle-aged woman with a round face. She wore an apron over her woolen dress and her hair up neatly in a bun on top. Her voice was jolly as she asked if they had heard all the commotion from the night before. Camon and Achara acted oblivious to the events, asking questions attentively as the staffer explained how the beast had come into the village and how the battle ensued, “Rumor has it, the beast was from the north beyond the mountains. And we were so lucky that there was a Paladin among us who slew it!”
“Paladin?” inquired Camon, “You don’t seriously believe those legends, do you?”
“Until last night, I was not sure,” said the staffer. “But now, I’m quite certain of it. Why, who else could do such a thing or would carry a sword of such power?”
“Well, I suppose you have a point,” he said.
“Well, dearies, duty calls. Thanks for the chat. Enjoy your breakfast,” she said as she left them and went about her work. Achara and Camon ate in silence. After they finished their meal, they got up.
“So far, nobody suspects anything,” Achara remarked.
“Let’s hope it stays that way. The woman remarked last night that she worked at the brewery. That’s in the northwest quarter.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to go poking our heads around there. That might raise suspicion. Perhaps we should try a tavern or other place and inquire about the local brews,” Achara suggested, “That will set us on the right track to where she lives and where we might visit her.”
“Good thinking,” Camon commented.
With that, they left the common room and went out onto the avenue, looking up and down the broad street. The town was bustling with activity, as there was a natural surge of people in town for the holiday and the trappers and hunters coming out of the wilderness with their wares to be processed by the army of tanners. There were wagons heavy laden with the skins of beavers, bears, wolves, coyotes, minks, muskrats, and rabbits to sell to the merchants and traders who would be starting their tracks south in the coming days. Camon and Achara walked through the bustling crowd towards the central plaza, where the night’s events before had unfolded. The plaza was filled with merchants and buyers, all dealing in the fur trade. If they hadn’t known better, they would not have suspected anything out of the ordinary had happened the night before.
Staying clear of the main crowds, Achara and Camon avoided making eye contact with anyone. They worked their way around the east side to the north end of the plaza, then down the avenue. They had visited a tavern up this way a few days ago. It was a little early in the day to start drinking. Still, the pubs were opened earlier than usual for the holiday season, so Achara and Camon could enter without much suspicion. Even so, the place was still patronized by a few customers, mostly off duty Imperials who were somber in their conversation, still feeling the effects of the battle the night before and their fallen comrade. Camon and Achara sat down at a table away from the soldiers.
A tall barmaid came over. She was dressed in stained plaid clothes with no apron with her hair loosely back with a bandana. Without as much as an introduction, she asked, “What’ll it be?”
“What do you have that’s local?” Camon asked.
“From a local brewer? We have a dark ale, spiced with local sassafras with a hint of juniper. It’s a local favorite and even has been demanded in the courts of the Emperor himself,” she remarked.
“Is it aged well?” Achara asked.
“Yes indeed, missy. You won’t find a better ale anywhere else in the province,” the maid exclaimed.
“Well then,” said Camon, “I reckon we’ll have a round of that then.”
The maid went off to fetch the drinks and came back with two large flagons with a nice head on each one. She set one in front of Camon and the other in front of Achara. Camon picked up the flagon and raised it, then sipped the drink, “Mighty fine. I can’t say I’ve had anything this good in a while. Who makes it?”
“A local family that runs the brewery, although after what happened last night, I wonder if they will stay around in town for much longer.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Camon.
“Do you not know?” the maid asked with a bit of a surprise on her face.
“Know what?” Achara asked.
“About last night. The lass and that…thing…whatever it was that chased her,” said the maid. “The poor girl is the daughter of the brewmaster himself.” The maid recounted her recollection of the events, talked about how she heard screaming, watched the phalanx charge, and then saw Camon and Achara slay the beast.
“Quite a story,” Achara said.
“Thing is, missy, it’s all true. Saw it with my own eyes, as did all those fellas over there,” she said, glancing at the soldiers.
“Is the girl okay?” asked Camon.
“Ratana? Don’t know. She usually delivers a few kegs here early in the morning, but I didn’t see her. Given that she was scared lifeless, I doubt we will be seeing her much. And besides, she probably doesn’t want everyone and their mother circling her to get her story. Not much exciting happens in these parts, you know. Just simple folks and all trying to make a living,” said the maid.
“Indeed,” Camon said. He sipped his ale again.
“Well, don’t mean to be rude, but I need to check on the men over there,” said the maid as she turned and left Achara and Camon and attended to the soldiers across the tavern. Camon and Achara drank in silence, observing the soldiers and the barmaid. Occasionally, the soldiers would glance their way and go back to their drinks. Finally, one got up and approached Camon and Achara. He was an older man with salt and pepper hair. Even though he was off duty, he still wore his uniform belt with his Imperial sword about his waist. He walked by their table, inspecting them.
Camon nodded at the soldier, “Officer.”
“You two wouldn’t happen to know anything about the battle last night, would you?” he asked.
“Not much, other than what I’ve been told. Seems a lot of folks around here are mistaking me for some sort of hero,” Camon said.
“Hero?” the officer asked.
“You know – the man that slew the beast. The barmaid was telling me all about it.”
“He was about your age if I recall,” he said. He then looked at Achara, “and his companion was a girl about yours. Where were you last night?”
“We’ve been staying at the inn of the south avenue,” Camon answered.
“What’s your business here?” the man asked.
“Prospecting,” Camon answered, “I came up here to check out the scene. I represent a trading company back south in Rahtclang. We have heard about all the action up here this time of year, and we wanted to get some samples to bring back to the company to see if the investment of sending a trade caravan north next season would be worth it.”
“There are no finer pelts anywhere else in the Empire,” the soldier answered. “The demand for furs from the north is a booming business back south, so I’m told. Judging by the recent increase in visitors this year, I believe it.”
“It is indeed,” said Camon.
“Well, you folks stay safe. If you’re looking for a merchant, check out my brother, Kringsak. He’s got a stall on the south side of the plaza. Tell him I sent you. He can supply you with a fine set of pelts.”
“Thanks,” Camon answered. The soldier went back to his table. By now, Camon’s flagon was half empty, but Achara had finished hers. Camon gulped down the rest of the ale and left a silver piece that would more than cover the drinks on the table and exited the tavern.
“Prospectors?” Achara remarked.
“I had to think fast. I hadn’t thought of a cover story. We’d probably better pick up some pelts just to make it look legitimate. I don’t know much about this business, but I could probably get something of quality in any case if I promise that I will bring back a caravan next year,” Camon explained.
“We didn’t get any new information from the escapade. But we did get some excellent ale,” Achara said with a smile.
“Indeed. Best I’ve had in a long time,” he added.
They walked out of the tavern and back on to the avenue and started making their way back towards the plaza. As they made their way through the crowds of buyers and merchants, a commotion began to stir in the crowd. Achara and Camon turned about to investigate. The crowd parted as an elderly woman was helping another younger woman along. The younger was convulsing and heaving, occasionally falling to her knees to vomit. Her skin was pale, and her eyes sunken. Camon recognized her. “There she is,” he said to Achara.
“What’s wrong with her?” Achara asked.
“Corruption. The demon must have infected her.”
“Is there anything you can do for her?” Achara asked.
“Best to let the priest handle it.”
The elderly woman started screaming for help, but nobody knew how or what to do. Camon then looked at some standers-by, “Is there not a priest in this village?”
“Beats me,” one said.
“Camon, you need to do something…” Achara implored.
Camon waited a moment longer. He then rushed over to Ratana’s side, then looked at the elderly woman and asked, “Are you her mother?”
The woman managed a “yes” through her incessant sobbing.
“Please, tell me what happened,” Camon insisted. The woman could speak no words. She only lifted the pants leg on Ratana, revealing her leg. It was blackened and covered with boils with puss coming out.
Camon turned and shouted to the crowd, “Is there a priest here?”