The north end of the docks was ablaze with fire from the explosion, and thick smoke filled the air. It swirled about Camon blocking the further view south where he had left his companions. Camon’s pulse was pounding as he stood over the two fallen wizards, and his body was dripping with sweat from the heat of the inferno and his fights. He had no idea where the third man was, but he didn’t think much of it. Achara and Jorn appeared through the smoke, and soon Katima, the warden, and the deputy came as they all stood looking at Camon and the two fallen wizards.
Camon knelt and felt the pulse of the one man he had stomped with his boot. The man’s face was severely bruised from Camon’s heel. Camon patted him down, looking for weapons or artifacts of any kind, and he found nothing but a belt about his waist under the man’s tunic. He examined it carefully as he removed it. There were nine stones in all, each a different color. They were clear and embedded into the belt with gold. They seemed iridescent with a light of their own.
“Is he still alive?” Jorn asked.
Achara pointed her crossbow at his head and fired a bolt into his skull. The man did not move when the bolt struck, but Achara announced, “Not anymore.” A death-like silence fell as everyone looked on. Camon stayed on the ground next to the fallen men with his head down. He placed his hand on the man’s neck again and checked his pulse and then for breath. Camon then looked up and swallowed hard with a distraught look in his face.
“Why did everyone have to die? And you. You personally managed to kill all three of them, Achara.” If his gaze would have been a fire, it would have burned a hole right through her.
“They are dead, right?” the warden said.
“Yes,” Camon said. “Dead. All except two of the brutes right over there.”
“Those men, whoever they are, were too dangerous to be left alive. There’s no prison in the entirety of the Empire that could hold them. You saw what they could do. It’s pure, wanton destruction. There’s no one safe as long as the likes of them were around,” the warden surmised.
“Warden’s right. Better off dead. And they wanted the girl. She’s got the right to defend herself.” Katima said.
“Yes, she does…” Camon muttered. “But killing a man who is clearly incapacitated and isn’t attacking her isn’t self-defense.”
“Look, we can debate this later,” the warden interjected. “I first need to understand this whole thing. I’m Pasdee. My deputy is Rohng.”
Camon nodded, “Pasdee. Rohng.”
“All I have now is Katima’s word that I can trust you. Given the circumstances and that she didn’t have time to explain, I had no choice but to trust her. Now we’ve blown the docks half to hell, and we have three dead brutes and three dead whatever those are. I need answers, so please start explaining yourself. Who are these guys? What do they want? Why are they after the girl? What’s your business here?” the warden enquired.
“It’s a long story, but suffice to say, we came here to go to the ruins, as most expeditions from the university do. Why I came, though, is layered. We were seeking out evidence for a particular legend that I believe someone is trying to exploit to plunge the entire human world into war. These men, I believe, are part of that plot. They have been tracking us across the continent for months now. We know they were after Achara because she somehow plays a part in their ploy. Katima got to witness some of this being played out in the swamp where undead monsters attacked us.”
“He called you a Paladin. I’ve only heard legends about that. That can’t be what you are, can it?” Rohng asked.
“Yes, it’s what I am,” Camon mumbled. “But sometimes I wish I wasn’t…”
“Legends. Wizards. Paladins. Monsters… If I hadn’t witnessed these men, I would have a hard time believing any of that,” Rhong said.
“That’s pretty typical, I think. I don’t expect you to take everything I say at face value. You are a man of the law, and you demand evidence. But I will also add that we’ve been taught that these things aren’t true or are not very believable. But these three men are unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard about. They aren’t elves, but they wielded elven magic for sure, but more like a human would.”
“Those mages and their thugs are evidence enough to justify your actions, but even so, what’s the difference?” Pasdee asked.
“Elves focus on long term effects, while humans focus on shorter-term effects. They were using magic as a weapon, while elves would put the magic into weapons. My sword, for instance, was forged by elves and imbued with magic.”
Camon held up the belt he had removed from the man. “I suspect that this has something to do with their abilities, though. It’s inlaid with stones, not unlike those used by priests. They’re used for channeling magic.”
“But where are they from? They don’t look like they are from anywhere in the Empire.” Jorn asked.
“Sea folk,” Katima said. “They trade upriver from islands in the sea. But the clothes – not from there. And they came downstream in a riverboat. Odd for the sea folk. They use ships.”
“The cloth is elven silk,” Camon commented. “It’s not as common in the Empire as it once was. But theirs are sown like uniforms. They had to have gotten that from somewhere outside the Empire.”
“So, they are in league with elves,” Jorn said. “I thought you said elves were benevolent.”
“I said, generally speaking, but they can be misguided. But this kind of magic is not like anything I’ve ever read about in anything I’ve encountered with elves. It’s elven in essence, but not elven in form. Something is off about it. It’s like it’s been hacked up or something.”
“We should probably clean this mess up and search their ship and see if there’s anything of note there,” Pasdee suggested.
They split up. Camon and Pasdee searched the boat, and the rest worked on cleaning up the docks and the mess made by the battle. Camon went to the dock where the boat was moored and lit a candle. He and Pasdee stepped onto the gangplank and into the boat. The boat itself was thirty feet in length with a ten-foot beam. It featured a small poop deck and cabin at the rear. Camon inspected the cabin while Pasdee looked around on and under the forecastle in the ship’s bow. Camon found three hammocks in the cabin and many clothes made of elven silk, but nothing else of note. Pasdee found a cache of weapons and armor but found nothing of note.
“I was expecting to find something like a journal or written material,” Camon said. “But they’ve got nothing here. Just clothes and weapons from the looks of it.”
“My guess is they were operating on a need to know basis without a paper trail. They were intent on abducting someone. Any sort of order to that end would have been incriminating if the Empire inspected them, even if they were written in some sort of code. That would have been even more suspicious.”
“True,” Camon agreed. “Katima said they were from the islands though and that this boat isn’t an ocean-going ship. They had no coin, so either it was stolen, given to them, or they spent their last to get it.”
“My guess is stolen,” Pasdee said. “Those thugs might have some answers. Probably not as many as the mages, but even so, some information is better than nothing. They’re all yours if you want to interrogate them.”
Camon went back up onto the docks from the boat and found the two men that Katima, Pasdee, and Rohng had subdued tied up brooding and watching as the others went about gathering debris and the bodies of the fallen. Camon stood over the two men looking at them, but they did not return eye contact.
“Where did you come from?” They didn’t answer. “Who is your employer?” Again, they didn’t answer. “Look, if you don’t tell me, then we can find ways to get it out of you. Recall that beating you threatened me with? I can think of much better ways to torture you.”
“Do your worst,” one of them retorted.
“I would prefer not to have to,” Camon coaxed. “Just tell me what I want to know, and I’ll spare you the pain.”
“No,” the man said plainly.
“Defiant. Well, perhaps a day or so without food and water will convince you otherwise. Pain is easy to ignore. Hunger and thirst… not so much.”
“You’re too civilized to do that. You mourn your enemies and prefer prisoners over death. You don’t have it in you to starve us,” one of the men said.
“I may not, but I know someone who does. And I think he would be eager to plunge his sword into your guts too.”
“Pst! He could hardly defend himself against one of us. He’s weak. Just like you.”
“Don’t tempt me. Regardless, you won’t be seeing anything but the inside of a cell for some time. So get used to it.”
Camon left them and went and found Pasdee again. “They don’t want to play nice. I don’t believe they are mercenaries, though. A mercenary wouldn’t be so stubborn with the prospect of going to rot in a cell and not get paid.”
“Good point,” Pasdee said. “I doubt that they are in the know, anyways. The mages would have had information that would be useful. I’m not sure what to do with them, though. The Empire won’t be through here for a while, and that explosion ripped our holding cell to shreds along with the docks and half of Katima’s tavern. But, we’ve seen worse.”
“Flooding. If the river rises high enough, it washes away the docks and can even wipe outbuildings that aren’t anchored well. It’s one reason we don’t put much effort into trying to make this place much more than functional because we know eventually the river will have the final say.”
“Then why stay out here?”
“Because trade is good. Everyone here makes a handsome living off providing services to the Empire and travelers. Katima is about the only one who is semi-native. She grew up on the river and knows these swamps through here.”
“We could take those guys back upstream to another outpost and turn them in there. I’d need a signed affidavit from you, though, given you’re the warden.”
“You’d do that?”
“You helped me. It’s the least that I can do.”
“But your charter left,” Pasdee said.
“Either they come back soon, or I could make use of that boat if I have to. We’d be short-staffed to go back upstream, but I think we could manage it. It looks to be in good order. Once we’re back in Rahttaay, I’ll turn it over to the local authorities or sell it there. I imagine it came from that region anyway.”
“I’d otherwise impound it, but given that you can use it for a prison transport and need a way back upstream, you can have it.”
“Thanks,” Camon said.
Jorn came up with a hand full of items that they had found on the corpses. “We found the remains of the first one Achara dropped burnt to a crisp. Oddly enough, his belt was the only thing that wasn’t burnt and is in remarkably good order. The other wizard had his belt too. The dead brutes had nothing but armor and weapons.”
“No coin? Anything written?” Camon asked.
“They are keeping this operation tight-lipped.”
“Ghing came back to the docks a few minutes ago,” Jorn informed. “Achara filled him in on what went down.”
“Good. He’s the one we must keep safe going back upriver. We’ll wait here for another day to see if Thawbai returns, and if not, we’re taking that boat back upstream to Rahttaay.” Camon said, pointing to the craft left by the mages.
“Sounds like a plan then,” Jorn said.
The last of the fires from the explosion had been extinguished, and the bodies of the deceased were gathered and prepared for cremation. They built a pyre on the river with debris, broken timbers, thatch, and anything else that was flammable. They placed the corpses on the pyre and then lit it ablaze. They waited for the fire to grow from the spark to an inferno, then they pushed it away from the docks with long poles, and the current took the pyre downstream. Camon gave rites to the deceased as the pyre floated away. After the rites were given, the group who had gathered went back to the boardwalk. Camon stayed at the end of the docks long after everyone else had left, watching the pyre until it was out of site down past a bend in the river before going back.
When Camon came back to the boardwalk, the others were gathered on the boardwalk, retelling the outpost residents what had happened from their points of view. The audience was captivated. Camon did not bother to join them but instead went and found Katima, who was still busy cleaning up some of the mess.
“Thanks for all your help out there and here today. There’s no way we could have done this without you.” He reached into his tunic and removed another purse full of coins. “For your troubles. I know you lost your tavern, and it will take time to rebuild.”
She refused to accept it, “Keep it. I’ll be fine. Been paid enough to rebuild twice. What you’re doin’ – all that stuff. It’s for the good of us all. This is gettin’ to you. All this death. I don’t understand it, but don’t lose heart. The world needs you.”
“Thanks,” he said. “The university will almost certainly be sending follow up expeditions to inspect Ghing’s findings.”
“More money for me. See, you’re already helpin’ me.”
“Glad to know I can be of assistance,” Camon said as he turned and walked away.
The group on the docks continued discussing things for quite a while. Camon could feel the effects of the grueling march across the swamp and the battle were having on him. His muscles ached. He was battered and bruised. He felt sleep creeping upon him. He didn’t bother trying to arrange sleep for anyone. He walked around the docks until he found a quiet corner, where he sat down. He leaned back against the wall of the building on the boardwalk. He looked out over the river again, watching the moonlight dance on the water to the music from the orchestra of insects and bullfrogs. The song rang out through the night air and drowned out all the cares in the world. It was peaceful, natural, and soothing, just the way Camon wanted the world to be at that moment. The sounds lulled him away from the world of consciousness, and he started to dream before he drifted into a deep, well-earned sleep.