They left the university, and Camon opened the pouch and split the money three ways, giving a portion to each of the travelers, then he took his portion and gave half of it to Jorn. “There, as I promised, you get a bonus for being Ghing’s bodyguard.”
Jorn looked at the money with large eyes, “I told you the Empire paid.”
“Indeed, they do.”
“I need to get in the business of escorting scholars. This is lucrative, even for a guy that can’t walk well.”
“You’re free to leave, even though you said you want to be my muscle.”
“I’m going with you. You can’t get rid of me that easy.”
“Suit yourself,” Camon said. They then walked back to Thirak’s inn in the afternoon sun. Walking through the thick air felt more like swimming, but they had grown accustomed to the hot weather, sweating all day on their return trip.
At Thirak’s inn, the three companions took a long nap for the remainder of the afternoon on a real bed, something none of them had done in months. Later that evening, they all arose and went downstairs, where Thirak had set a meal on the table for them, and they seated themselves and awaited Thirak. She came down a few moments later. Her elegant movement flowed with her formal attire made of blue silk with her hair tied up in a bun on top of her head held together with a matching blue silk scarf. She strolled to the table, seated herself, and then rang a bell. The staff came in and set before the guest a spread of vegetables, smoked meats, and fruit of all kinds. She then had her staff pour wine for her guest in tall crystal glasses, and she then offered a toast, “To your safe return!” Camon, Achara, and Jorn raised their glasses and drank the wine in response.
“Now tell me of your trip,” Thirak started.
“I’m not sure where to begin,” Camon replied.
“How about the beginning.”
“The beginning, then…” Camon launched into a monolog describing the trip down the river in the boat, finding the ruins, finding the battle site, fighting the undead, finding the artifacts, the journey back, facing down the mages and brutes on the docks, and the journey back to Rahttaay. It took him the better part of an hour to retell everything, with Jorn and Achara filling in the details. All the while, Thirak listened intently, staring at Camon.
“Well, if I hadn’t said so, that’s quite a story. Camon’s adventures are never dull.”
“He’s been pretty grumpy because of it too,” Jorn commented.
“If Camon’s not sleeping, he’s grumpy,” Achara added.
“That much is true,” Thirak said. “Don’t be too harsh on him, though.”
Camon smiled, “Grumpy or no grumpy, thanks for the meal.”
“Even his smile is grumpy,” Thirak said.
“You all just won’t let up,” Camon said. “Better me than anyone, I guess.”
“Where are you off to next,” Thirak asked.
“Muangnoi on the Great River at the other end of the East Highway.”
“Camon wants to travel as pilgrims,” Jorn said.
“Pilgrims? He’s getting stingy. You had a charter to take you downriver, at least.”
“He’s paying for it though this time. The university paid for the charter,” Achara commented.
“That’s what you get for hanging out with a homeless vagrant. You’re always welcome here when you’re in town, though, if you want a break from the drifter’s life.”
Camon grinned at the remark, then finished eating the food on his plate. He had never stopped talking long enough to take a bite. When he was finished, they all left the dining room and went to a sitting room to enjoy more wine and company as the evening past into night. Achara and Jorn eventually retired and went to their respective rooms, leaving Camon and Thirak.
“You’d think I would be the first one to go to sleep,” Camon commented. “I’m the old man of the bunch.”
“You’re also the one who shoulders the burdens of both of those kids. You may as well be their father.”
“Jorn would never see it that way. He thinks himself grown.”
“Most boys do. Achara is different, though. She is grown but doesn’t want to be. She wants to be a girl again. I can tell.”
Camon set his glass down on a table and rubbed his head. “She was robbed of her childhood when her father passed away. She had to grow up fast, and she has had to take care of herself in many ways ever since that time.”
“Father or not, the role suits you.”
“I would like to think I can help both in their ways. But I’m just not sure I can. Achara…she’s got a gift I barely understand, so I cannot really offer her much help there. And Jorn, well, he’s got to want the help first before I can get through to him. I’ve seen progress, though. Putting a sword in his hands was risky, but he’s shown himself willing to fight. I just hope I can get him to fight for the right reasons.”
“You will. You chose this life to help people.”
“You know things might have been different if I had not,” Camon said.
“I know. One day I hope that maybe you’ll retire.”
Camon laughed, “There’s no retirement from what I do. The only way out is in a long wooden box. How much did you infer from dinner?”
“If half of what you said is true, then the world is at great risk. I have no idea about what you are up against, but you gave me enough that the potential danger is enough to change life for everyone.” Thirak paused for a moment then started again, “The damnedest thing is that the world doesn’t even know or appreciate you or what you are doing.”
“I don’t do it for the fame.”
“Well, maybe you should. Maybe people would listen.”
“If I do it for fame, then it endangers those who I care about. It’s not worth risking you or anyone else over. The legends keep my memory alive, even if my name is not attached.”
“It’s not fair. You don’t get to have a chance at an ordinary life.”
“I know. But I chose this path. You remember it well.”
Thirak put her glass down and then stared at the ceiling and mumbled, “Yes, I do.”
“I think it’s time for all of us to go to sleep. I’m wiped, and we’ve all had too much to drink.” Camon stood and helped Thirak to her feet. She could not stand, so she fell back down on the sofa where she had been seated. Camon watched her as she laid back on the sofa. He found an afghan nearby and covered her with it and left her on the couch and went back up to his own room to sleep.
The next morning when everyone had awoken, no one felt well from too much merrymaking and revelry the night before. Thirak was not on the couch but was nowhere to be found, either. The staff said they found her when they came in that morning and helped her to her room. Camon, Achara, and Jorn ate breakfast wordlessly, and all drank stiff coffee with hopes that it would perk them up. Camon finished one cup and got another and quickly downed it. “You two can stay here,” Camon said. “I’m going to go figure out when the next pilgrimage leaves and what we need to do to prepare for it. Neither Achara nor Jorn volunteered to go and gladly returned to their rooms after breakfast.
Camon left the inn and worked his way through the city towards the middle of town, where two broad avenues met in the middle of a sprawling plaza with numerous enormous fountains bubbling in the warm, humid morning. At the northeast corner of the plaza was the city’s cathedral with a large portico on the front with massive marble columns holding up a vaulted ceiling and spire that towered hundreds of feet above the surrounding area. At the top of the spire was the hand bearing a torch. This one, like the other cathedrals, burned with brilliance even in the bright sunshine.
Camon entered the cathedral and found an acolyte cleaning the foyer’s floors that led up to the main sanctuary. “Where can I find out about pilgrimages?” Camon asked.
The acolyte was startled by the question, “Oh, yes. Pilgrimages. The public affairs administrator can help you with that. The office is in the adjacent compound at the back of the cathedral.”
Camon went through the foyer into the sanctuary, which was brightly lit in the morning sun as light streamed through the frosted glass windows that lined the walls. He went around the sanctuary’s edge rather than parade up the center aisle and then into a vestibule at the front of the sanctuary, then out a side door that brought him into a courtyard surrounded by buildings. He found the office mentioned by the acolyte and entered. He was greeted by a young monk, “Good morning, sir. May I help you?”
“I’m looking for someone who can help me find out about pilgrimages.”
“You are in the right place. We are responsible for arranging these. Are you seeking to sponsor one or go on one yourself?”
“Both, I guess. Two companions and myself.”
“Alright. Going on a pilgrimage takes many months, potentially a full year, depending on how fast it goes. The expense covers the cost of food and accommodations along the way. The Church pays for the guides and the escorts along.”
“When does the next one leave?”
“In three days.”
“So, what do I need?”
“You can choose to ride in a coach that we will provide. You may bring your own animal if you wish. Choosing to ride is more expensive naturally. You will need to bring your personal effects like clothing and anything for hygiene. We provide you with robes and other things. The caravan will have the coach as well as a chuck wagon for food and supplies for camps. The experience is communal, so everyone is expected to help with cooking, cleaning, and maintenance.
“Understood. We have our own horses. Do I pay you now or later?”
“Now or later.”
Camon reached in the bag at his side and pulled out the appropriate amount of gold and gave it to the young man who took down Camon’s name and his companions’ names. He then gave Camon three vouchers. “We will meet in the plaza in the morning three days from now. Present these vouchers to the priest who will be guiding you on your journey. Come packed and ready to go.”
“Fair enough. Thank you, and we will see you then.” Camon left the office with the vouchers, and he placed them in his bag, and this time he walked around the cathedral rather than through it. He went back to the inn where he met Thirak, who had just eaten breakfast. She sat at the table with her head facedown.
“Rough night, wasn’t it?”
“Remind me to never drink like that again,” she said.
“I hear you. We will be leaving in three days towards Muangnoi.”
“I hope that they don’t serve you drinks on your trip. Traveling like this would be miserable.”
“I wholeheartedly agree.”
Jorn and Achara did not come out of their rooms until almost noon. When they did, Camon found them and told them the plans. The next three days they spent preparing for the trip by cleaning and mending their clothes, repairing any tack that they needed for their horses, and purchasing any supplies that they might need for the journey.
On the morning of the third day, Achara and Jorn both were less than eager to leave Thirak’s inn’s comfort. Even so, they both dutifully got up and saddled their horses and loaded their gear. Camon had already done so with Appon. After a fond farewell to Thirak, the company walked the horses through town to the plaza.
Off to the side of the plaza near the cathedral, they saw two large wagons with teams of mules already harnessed to the wagons. About twenty people had congregated around the wagons along with horses and baggage of all sorts. Camon, Achara, and Jorn went and joined the throng, standing at the back and not speaking to anyone.
A few moments later, a priest and two Inquisitors emerged from the cathedral and went over to the wagons. The priest climbed up onto the pilot box of the rear wagon and faced the crowd.
“Greetings, pilgrims in the blessed warmth of the Light! I am excited that all of you have chosen to embark on this once in a lifetime opportunity to see the holy places and experience life in a way you’ve never experienced it before. I am Khumah, and I will be your guide on this journey. I am joined by my friends and colleagues, Tahaan and Nakroh, who will be assisting me and providing us with protection along the way.
This journey is not for the faint of heart, and we expect everyone here to play their part. There are no privileged few on this trip. No one is rich, and No one is poor. No one is in charge of the one standing next to us. We are all equals. So, we share in the work, and we share one another’s burdens along the way. Some of us are for sure to get sick. Some of us will get hurt. But that’s all part of the journey. We will share in the truth of the Light and experience brotherhood as it was meant to be.
Our first order of business is to ensure that everyone who is going has vouchers, and we will load our personal gear onto the wagons. Once this is done, we will share our first meal and get to know one another better. You are all complete strangers now, but you will be as brothers and sisters by the end of this journey. Now please, form a line, and we will begin our check-in.”
The mob formed a line as they were instructed, and one by one, the priest assisted by the Inquisitors collected the vouchers. They were all handed a set of white robes and instructed to put them on over their clothes. They all ate a meager meal of dried fruit and crusty bread with water. Camon, Achara, and Jorn mingled with the other pilgrims getting to know names and faces. After the meal, the priest gave the command, and they all loaded onto the coach or onto their respective animals. Each Inquisitor took the reins of one of the wagons, and they set out from the plaza down one of the broad avenues which met up with another avenue that went out the east gate of the city. The caravan rolled away from the city through farmland and countryside, leaving behind the city, its occupants, and its comforts.