The caravan went east along the road for many days following their departure from Rahttaay. The terrain east of Rhattaay was hilly, but the road was straight and efficient without bending around hills. The Empire had cleared a wide swath of the forest surrounding the road to make way for the pavers and give plenty of view ahead for anyone who traveled along the road. The weather turned rainy and drizzly for a few of those days, but the paved highway kept the travelers moving, albeit not as fast as Khumah would have liked them to move. When the rain finally passed, the roads dried up, and they could cover more ground.
The priest set the schedule for each day as they traveled, with a list of things that had to happen each morning. Some prepared food for the morning and afternoon breaks while others took down tents when they camped. Others cleaned dishes and organized supplies. Everyone helped with the tasks no matter who they were or what station they had. Even Khumah and the Inquisitors helped. At noon, they all stopped and ate the food they had prepared that morning before setting out again. In the evenings, about two hours before sunset, they would stop and pitch a camp and prepare a meal. They would eat at around sunset and afterward enjoy one another’s company. One of the travelers had brought a lute and offered a nightly performance of familiar folk songs, and some even danced if they were feeling spry.
Camon, Achara, and Jorn generally rode towards the back of the caravan together, but occasionally mingled with the others to not make anyone suspicious. Camon of all the travelers was the quietest, but he occasionally enjoyed a drink with one of the other pilgrims.
One morning two weeks into the journey, Camon, and Jorn were riding together as they went east.
“I’ve been wondering something ever since we left Rhattaay,” Jorn started.
“Yeah? And what is that.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but what’s with you and Thirak? If I didn’t know better, I’d think that you two were lovers or something.”
Camon chuckled, “Thirak is an old friend of mine. We’ve known each other since we were barely old enough to be out on our own.”
“So, you don’t deny that you were?”
“Whatever relationship I have with her is platonic. She’s a good friend of mine. Yes, I care deeply for her, but my interest in her is not romantic.”
“She’s not your type anyway. She’s rich and crusty,” Jorn said
“She wasn’t always rich. She was a farm girl.”
“So how did she make her money then?”
Camon sat up straight in his horse, adjusting his position. “She’s an entrepreneur with a knack for spotting a good deal. That, and she’s brilliant. Put those two together, and all kinds of things can happen. She worked for a while and saved some money, then made a few purchases of properties that she invested in and then sold. She repeated that a few times, growing her wealth each time. She’s done well for herself.” Camon paused and smiled, looking towards the sky. “But if you must know, she is my type.”
“Even with the way she insults you?”
“There’s a lot more to her than she lets on. The fancy composure and sharp tongue are more of a façade for her than anything. She’s learned to project herself in a way that is intimidating to many people, especially to men.”
“Intimidating to men? Hah!” Jorn said. “I could take her.”
“No, not like that!” Camon balked. “Within the gentry class she interacts with, she intimidates men. It’s a world dominated by men who measure their worth by their intellect and wealth, not their brawn. And she’s a single woman who has both intellect and wealth. No man wants to be seen as her lapdog, so she doesn’t have many suitors. And even if she did, I doubt she would take an interest.”
“Is that why you aren’t with her?”
“Not at all. In a different life, things might have been different. When we were younger, she saw where I was going and the life I would lead. She knew that there was no way we could be together, so we never pursued a relationship like that. I think deep down inside, she still hoping that one day I will retire and perhaps be with her. What about you? Did you ever have anyone?”
“Nah, not me. I’m the eternal bachelor,” Jorn said. “Maybe a fling here or there, but nothing more than that. Working as a caravan escort wasn’t very conducive for a steady relationship anyways.”
“So maybe you understand why I’m not with Thirak in a small way then.”
“Yeah, sorta. You do travel around a lot.”
“You’ve been pretty far with me already.”
“Yeah, in more ways than one,” Jorn said somberly.
“What do you mean?” Camon asked.
“Well, you remember back at the Gypsy camp when you talked about all that nonsense about justice and second chances?”
“Well, I still think a lot of it is nonsense, but even so, I’ve never felt like anything I ever did before meeting you mattered. It was all for me and money.”
Camon furrowed his brow, “What’s that got to do with what I said?”
“You said that what you did wasn’t about you. You did it for others, not for money or the recognition, so it matters.”
“There’s nothing wrong with making a living. A life well lived always matters.”
“Well, my life was not well lived. I lived for me and my pleasures. But what we’ve been doing makes me feel like, for the first time, I’m doing something that matters. When I got my sword back in Rhattaay, I thought I would use it like I always had. But I used it to help defend helpless people on the river and fight against those who would have taken Achara. It feels good.”
Camon frowned, “Wanting to be a hero because it makes you feel good? That wears off after a while, I promise.”
“You sound disparaging. Why?”
“Helping people because it makes you feel good won’t keep you motivated for long. Eventually, you burn out. I’ve been there many times.”
“Then how do you keep doing it then?”
“It’s a sense of calling. It’s a purpose for being. If you don’t have that, then it won’t last. Generally, folks are nice, but there are many folks out there who don’t appreciate you even when you lay down your life for them. They are ungrateful, and even sometimes hostile. When you encounter folks like that, you lose heart, and you want to give up. But in every case, you go back to the calling to reassure yourself that you’re doing the right thing even though those around you don’t see it.”
“You make it sound like you’re a martyr.”
“I try to avoid that extreme too because it’s just as bad. There would be those who would try to throw themselves into every conflict out of a sense of righteous duty to do so. So much so, that unless they die fighting someone’s battle, they feel as if they wasted their life.”
Jorn’s face looked confused, “How’s that any different than affirming a calling?”
“I celebrate the victories and mourn the losses, but I don’t live for either. I don’t seek fame, fortune, or accolades. It’s not the results that matter, and that’s the difference. None of that can make what I do worthwhile.”
“I don’t know how you do it, then,” Jorn said as he cocked his head.
“I don’t either. It’s a day by day thing. But I don’t do it alone. Everywhere I go, I have help. You and Achara have been helpful. Thirak, Ghing, Prawadi, Katima, Pasdee, Laoren, Yiew, Maeshen… They are just the most recent ones.”
“In the world I came from, you couldn’t trust anyone. The folks with you on one journey might be your enemy on the next. That’s the way of the world out west.”
Camon retorted, “Yet tucked right in the middle of it all, right under your nose there was a little library with men from the east and west living in harmony with one another, helping one another.”
“You’ve got a point there. I have to say, you have opened my eyes to a world I didn’t even know existed.”
“And there’s so much more. Like your gifting.”
“My gifting? You mean the blasted enchantment those mages put on me?”
“Yes, that. You said that you might want to learn to use it. Is that still true?”
“Can I do it without trying to kill you?”
“I’ve been thinking about that possibility. I have a theory that I think will work. Those mages wore belts that were inlaid with stones on them. Those belts are what I believe gave them the ability to channel their elven magic in such a way that they could control it. One even used a lightning spell, not unlike the one you used on me. You have been enchanted with a spell that controls you, but it also gives you extraordinary abilities. The belt might be what subdues the controlling effects and puts you in control.”
“So, you’re saying that they were cursed like me?”
“Cursed is a strong word, but in a way, yes. I don’t think it was exactly the same. But, whatever gave them the ability to use elven magic gave you the ability. And it’s just a matter of controlling it.”
“I’ve heard you reprimand Achara about control,” Jorn said.
“I have, for good reason. And the same would apply to you if you still want to learn.”
“I don’t know….”
“Trust me, if you want to be about the same kind of work I do, then having every tool that you can muster at your disposal will be of the essence. And one as powerful as yours would be potent indeed.”
Jorn shrugged, “So when can we start?”
“How about now?”
“You can start by learning to concentrate on nothingness.”
“How does that help with magic?”
“All magic – elven magic, human magic, natural magic, Paladin magic, seer magic – to be effective requires perfection in form and purity in essence. Everything about what we say, do, think, and feel affects it. When one calls on magic, one tries to focus on the reality of the magic and magic alone so that none of these other things can contaminate it.”
“What’s form and essence?”
“Think of it like pottery. The essence would be the clay. It’s the essential ingredient for all pottery regardless of what the vessel is for. Better quality clay with unwanted inclusions means that the vessel will form better and not break so easily. The form would be the vessel itself formed by the clay. It can take on multiple shapes for different purposes. With magic, you want the essence of your magic to be pure like the clay and the form of the magic to be true so that the desired effect happens.”
“Okay… Sounds a bit vague, but I’ll go with it.”
“You’ll understand later.”
So what’s the purpose of the stones then?”
“Stones act as a focal point and a filter.”
“But I thought you were supposed to focus on the magic, not the stones.”
“Yes. When you learn to use the stones, you think about them as magic, not a chunk of rock in your hand. We’ll get to that part later.”
“So, how do I focus on nothingness?”
“Simple. Close your eyes and imagine emptiness. Drown out the world around you. Don’t see. Don’t hear. Don’t touch, taste, or smell. Don’t even see yourself. Just imagine a void of nothingness with no up or down, left or right. And when you see it, hold it for as long as you can without as much as a thought or whisper in your mind. The more you can clear your head, the better your form and essence will be. This is where you can find magic.”
“So, just close my eyes and let my mind go blank?”
“Basically, and try not to think about me or anything else around you.”
“I think I can do that.”
“It sounds easy, but it’s not.”
“I’ll try then…” Jorn closed his eyes and tried to drown out the world around him. The horses sway almost lulled him to sleep as he did it, but he kept his conscious mind present as he tried to remove any thought other than a blackness in his mind. He started by imagining a small sphere of darkness, and he let himself enter into the sphere. The walls then grew out from around him in every direction, leaving him in the middle until there was nothingness about him. He then tried to remove himself from the image. The space was timeless without any sense of dimensions. The silence was deafening to him, and the blackness blinded him. There was nothing to it. He truly felt the void, cold, dark, and barren.
He then opened his eyes and realized that it was almost lunchtime when he did. “How long was I in a trance for?” he asked.
“About two hours,” Camon said. “I thought you had gone to sleep or something on Tangmaw.”
“It felt like a dream state. I was there, but then I wasn’t. It was nothingness. I can’t explain it other than by what I didn’t see, hear, or touch.”
“That’s where you want to be with magic. In that state, nothing can interrupt the flow. The difficulty that you will face with magic though is trying to keep one foot in reality and one in the void because magic has to come from one into the other for it to have effect.”
“And I suppose this comes with practice too?” Jorn moaned.
“Yes. Lots of practice. It will seem monotonous for many people because folks tend to get caught up in one extreme or the other. Or they can’t quiet their mind enough to experience the void at all. For me, it was the latter.”
“Because you’re always thinking about something, aren’t you?” Jorn remarked.
“It’s what I do. Like trying to figure out how to help you summon your magic or help Achara better understand hers.”
“How is Achara doing with hers?”
“She’s mastered her gifts in short order, but she’s got a knack for magic. It comes easily to her. For others like myself, it took practice and a lot of frustration. But once you get it, it becomes easier.”
“How long do you reckon it will take me?” Jorn asked.
“I have no idea. But the fact that you found the void so easily your first attempt is promising,” Camon said. “But as long as you are willing to learn, I am willing to teach you. You have to be willing to let me do that, though.”
“If I’m ever going to use this, then I don’t see any other way…”
“Well then, keep practicing on reaching the void and coming back, and we’ll work on other things as you grow.”