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After the Imperials finished their inspection, Rune paid a tax, and they were on their way out of Hubkeaw. They started down the highway and stopped briefly in front of a tavern. Rune went in, and out came three men who unloaded some kegs of ale from the wagon. They paid Rune, who then gave the word to the driver, who whistled, and the mule team started south. Camon and Achara fell in behind the wagons plodding. Rune led them along the road as they rolled past the remaining bright colored buildings. They were spaced further apart until finally, they gave way to harvested fields. They continued to work their way south for a few more hours before the fields gave way to the forest, and they started an ascent out of the valley along the road. At the top of the hill, Camon turned and looked back at the town. It looked much the same from the south side as it did the north, but under the afternoon sun, the bright colored buildings glowed against the otherwise browning landscape. The travelers then traveled further south for another hour, passing a few more farms and other travelers. Rune fell back to walk with Camon and Achara. “That’s the first time I’ve ever met an Inquisitor before,” he said.

“There’s not that many of them,” Camon said. “They probably number in the thousands spread out across the entirety of the Empire, so you can imagine they are spread thin. Most of them, however, congregate around the cathedrals. Their headquarters for the Northern province is in Rahtneua.”

“You seemed a bit nervous around him,” Rune noted.

“Yeah, maybe a little,” Camon said with a grin. “I’m at the top of their most wanted list.”

“What’s the deal with Inquisitors and Paladins anyways? Did you do something to hurt them?” Rune asked.

“Personally, no,” Camon said. “There’s a long history there. I could bore you with details, but I won’t.”

“It’s not like there’s anything else to do,” Rune said. “And besides, it would shed a little light on what you are other than a legend.”

“If you insist,” Camon said. He sighed, then inhaled a long breath, “The animosity between the Inquisitors parallels the Church’s history itself. As you probably know, the Church was founded after the Great War as a way to guide people in the Light.”

“Actually, I didn’t know that,” Rune said.

“Really? I thought that was pretty common knowledge, but I digress. Under the elves’ tutelage, the Church flourished, and the priestly orders sprang up too to serve the Churches that were established in most cities and towns and eventually villages such that they became practically ubiquitous. But the Church was a victim of its success. It was hard to keep tabs on all of them, and there wasn’t much structure within the Church networks themselves. It was hard to tell if what they were doing and teaching was indeed what the original Churches intended.

So, some of the more influential churches got together and decided to call a conclave. They invited all the priests from across the Four Kingdoms (the Empire didn’t exist then) to a meeting in Rahtsaan in the East. The conclave decided that there needed to be some way to govern the Churches spread across the Four Kingdoms, so they established the Papacy. The carved the world into parishes, and each would elect bishops. The bishops would handle the administration of the Churches and represent the parishes at future conclaves. They would also vote to elect one priest as the Huanah, the head of the Church for life. This is what is typically called the First Reformation.”

“That I did know,” Rune interjected with a smile.

Camon continued, “The elves, however, did not like the idea of having a strong hierarchy to govern the Church. The conclave listened to the reservations of the elves. It proposed that the Church also create and order that would operate outside the authority of the Church. They would act as a sort of check for the Church hierarchy, and thus the Paladins were commissioned.

The elves forged fifty swords, which would serve as the symbol of the office of Paladin. The Church went through the process of finding and appointing fifty men to fill the new order. The order was to have no leader and be self-policing. Each Paladin was to be self-determined. He could go where he pleased and serve where he saw fit – a sort of knight errant for the Church. They would root out any threat to the Church, either from within the Church, within the order, or from the outside.

This system worked remarkably well. The Church was able to move into a time of relative prosperity despite the tumultuous political landscape that was forming. Not long after the First Reformation, Rahtclang, the central kingdom, waged war against Rahttaay in the south, which it quickly subdued. After the conquest, Rahtneua of the north and Rahtsaan of the East created a mutual defense pact against the central kingdom’s aggressions. However, it wasn’t long before the central kingdom invaded the east and north on two fronts. It quickly subdued the east, but the North held out for what became a prolonged stalemate. To end hostilities between the warring political states, the Church stepped in and attempted to resolve the matter. It pointed to the success it had had with the hierarchy. It proposed that they cease hostilities and unite under a unified government that represented all kingdoms with an elected Emperor who would reign for life.

The East and the South thought it was a great proposal, but the North would have nothing. So after many months, the North was able to come to terms of peace only if the newly formed government would grant voting rights to the Church. The Church had a stronger affinity for the North and East, so it would help create a balance of power.

So, the Imperial Charter was signed, an Emperor was elected, and everything was fine, at least on paper. The unified government quickly became an oligarchy. It rapidly militarized to seek out and remove anyone or anything that would challenge the new authority. The Church, being in league with the government now, followed suit. They created the Inquiry Courts and Inquisitors, disbanded the Paladins, and consolidated the priestly orders under the College of Priests. As you might expect, most of the Paladins resisted. The very thing the Church was doing was what the Paladins were supposed to stop. So, the Church gave the Inquisitors their first task: hunt down and arrest all the Paladins. They were hugely successful. Those they didn’t capture went into hiding. Nobody is sure how many they got, but best guesses estimate over forty.

After they rounded up the Paladins, the Inquisitors got busy going on witch hunts looking for anything and anyone the Church deemed a threat all in the name of orthodoxy. The use of magic was severely restricted. The Inquisitors received the task of rounding up artifacts and confiscating them. They also rounded up anyone that was said to be a magic user and put them in prisons. They destroyed entire libraries of books that the Church deemed to be heresy. And they shut down any order that was not of Inquisitors or the official priestly order. The creation of the Inquisitors and great purge is what has been called the Second Reformation.

Since that time, though, the Inquisitors have been rather mundane, acting as the security force for the Churches and occasionally responding to incidents like the one in Neuasut.”

“So basically, they don’t like you because of something that happened thousands of years ago?” Rune asked.

“Basically, yes,” Camon replied. “And most people are like you were before I told you: not knowing.”

“I’ve never been a fan of the Empire, for sure,” Rune said. “The taxes are high, and they are always sticking their nose in other people’s business.”

“Can’t say I don’t blame you,” Camon added.

“How is it that you can continue to do what you do even though you live under the constant threat of the Empire and Church?” Rune asked.

“It’s not easy,” Camon replied. “But I believe that what I’m doing matters. Also, I’ve found that even though the Church might not be ideal, It’s not as bad as it seems.”

“How is that possible when they want to kill you?” Rune asked.

“Well, over the years, I’ve seen, for the sake of simplicity, two kinds of people in the Church, which has huge ramifications on how the Church works. The first kind is what I think is the stereotype for a priest, that is one who uses the Church for personal gain and power. He makes his way through the hierarchy of the Church. Then he lords over his domain. Then, there’s another kind of person I’ve met in the Church. These are the ones who want to serve the Light, so they do it through the Church because it’s the only option unless, of course, you choose a more clandestine path as I did. They pay lip service to the dogmas and policies to keep those in authority off their back. However, in practice, they help people – even those that the Empire or Church says they shouldn’t, such as myself. My mentor told me that a Paladin’s wisdom is to understand what one can change, and one can’t change and then tell them apart. I might not be able to overthrow the Empire, but I can help one or two people at a time, which makes all the difference, I think.”

“I see,” said Rune.

“And even so, I don’t hold the Church today accountable for the sins of their fathers, or the Empire for that matter,” Camon said. “Granted, I have no love for the Empire, either. But I do think some of the benefits of the Empire are undeniable. Like this road we’re walking on – they built thousands and thousands of miles of roads that facilitate trade. And they patrol the roads to ensure safe travel all over the Empire. It makes my job easier. And it gives you access to markets that you wouldn’t have otherwise. It seems that you’ve benefitted greatly from such things. And there’s been other signs of progress, such as when they banned slavery and the slave trade within the Empire’s borders. They made owning land or a business possible by incentivizing people to establish new frontiers. All these farms we’ve passed were once homesteads on the Imperial frontier not even that long ago.”

“That’s fair,” Rune commented. “Somchai’s grandfather was one of those early frontiersmen when he left his father’s business in Rahtneua to start his own brewery. The Empire paid him to move up to Neuasut and establish industry there, and he did. Now Somchai is running one of the most successful breweries in the province despite its remote location.”

“And from the looks of it while we were there, the whole region is exploding with growth,” Camon added.

“It’s seasonal, but yeah, you’re right,” Rune said. “The pelt business and the influx of farmers have helped put Neuasut on the map. We’ve benefitted from it for sure as we supply most of the ale for the locals as well.”

“Yeah, but when are they going to get you a priest?”

“I don’t know. The cathedral in Rahtneua has promised one for a while. They granted us parish status rather than mission status, which means that the cathedral is supposed to supply a priest. I guess it’s hard to find someone that wants to spend a winter in Neuasut. I did many winters before marrying Ratana, and it is pretty miserable. About all there’s to do is drink and sit by the fire. It’s also why so many people leave after the holiday. Even Somchai shuts down for the winter.”

“It’s hard to brew anything when it’s frozen,” Camon joked.

“Pretty much,” Rune said. “There are ways to keep stuff from freezing, but how do you deliver it once you’ve made it? The road south gets buried under waist-deep snow towards the end of next month. And it’s insanity to attempt to keep it cleared. So now that the Inquisitor has given us a free pass into the Healers in Rahtneua, I’m feeling a little torn about what to do once we get there,” Rune commented.

“If you’re asking me, I would follow through with it – they are going to ask for a deputation once you get there after you present the bill that he gave you. You’ll have to report to the Inquisitors, and they will also want to talk to Ratana too,” Camon said.

“What should I tell them, then?” Rune asked.

“That’s up to you,” Camon said.

The remainder of the day, the travelers continued south. The farms became more spread out, and the undisturbed forest more prevalent. They pitched camp off the main road on a low grassy knoll. They built a fire, and after eating a meal of fresh vegetables and meat for once, the crew was much less ornery than usual. The ale also made them much more relaxed and happier. One of the footmen produced a lute and performed some classic songs of the heroism of legends of old. The night was relaxed, even for Achara and Camon. They had also enjoyed the food, drink, and entertainment. After a few hours of that, they all turned in for the night to prepare for the next segment of the long journey ahead.

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