Murmurs went through the spectators as they looked at Camon. Camon was facing Khumah and Tahaan with his bruised and swollen face. The Inquisitor was doing his best to stand while wearing the white robe stained with blood on the front from the bandit.
“That’s impossible!” the Inquisitor cried. “Paladins have been extinct for centuries!”
“Not so,” Khumah said. “There have been rumors that a Paladin surfaced in the north recently. They have reached my ears. I’m not talking about the rumors of the kind that somebody spotted one, rather that he surfaced north of Rahtneua, and then again in Rahtneua not long after that. The source of these rumors was none other than another Inquisitor.”
“Then why haven’t I heard of it?” The Inquisitor asked.
“Because you’re relatively new to this,” Khumah reminded Tahaan.
“If it’s true that he is, then he’s the most wanted man in all the Empire,” Tahaan declared.
“You should be so lucky to actually meet him.”
“And the Paladin should be so unlucky that I am the one that has to arrest him and put him in prison.”
“You and what army?” Jorn interjected.
“Who are you?” the Inquisitor asked.
“The man you’ll have to come through to get to him, that’s who,” Jorn scorned.
“Jorn…” Camon said calmly. He then pointed to the prisoner Jorn was holding, “Look, you aren’t going to arrest anyone except this man. You’re in no condition to challenge or enforce anything. I’m not your enemy. Suppose you want to debate the merits of this, fine. Just find someone who cares. Because I don’t. And from the look of it, nobody here does either. Your best course of action is to bury the dead and move on from this place and pray that no one else along here tries a stunt like this.”
“This isn’t over, Paladin,” Tahaan insisted.
“It is for now,” Camon then walked over to the bound bandit, grabbed the man’s hair, and pull his head back, and looked down at him. “You’re a survivor. But that’s twice we’ve beaten you. You should probably consider a new occupation that doesn’t require fighting.”
“Curse you,” the man said. Camon threw his head forward and walked away from the entourage towards the horses in the grass. He found his horse and tore off the robe and then removed his sword from the horse and put it at his side, and he walked back over to the crowd.
Khumah looked at Camon, not knowing what to say. Camon gestured to him, pointing at the onlookers. “Do as the man says,” Khumah said.
Camon bit his lips, then turned to the people, “Gather wood and bring the dead.”
The onlookers went and found fallen deadwood and stacked it as Camon oversaw the construction of a pyre. They brought the three fallen bandits and Nakroh the Inquisitor and laid them on the pyre. Camon then gestured to Khumah to give rites, but he refused. Camon took the commission from Nakroh’s neck and handed it to Tahaan, who just snatched it from Camon’s hand. Camon instructed that the pyre be lit, and he gave rites to the dead as the fire consumed the pyre and the smoke billowed high into the air. The gathered watched for minutes in silence as the flames devoured the wood and commended the dead to their final rest. Camon then instructed that they hitch the wagons, and he delegated one of the travelers as a driver for the fallen Inquisitor. He gave the word, and then they continued east along the road towards Muangnoi. The journey was somber. No one said a word for the rest of the afternoon. The only sounds were the clopping of hooves and the creaking of the wagons as they marched east.
Towards the evening, they stopped, and Khumah resumed command, instructing the pilgrims through their daily routines of setting camp and preparing food. Even so, the usual mood of comradery was sullen as they went about their tasks.
Later that evening, Camon went over to Khumah, who was sitting a way off from the fire by himself. Camon sat next to him and watched the fire in silence.
“In all my years of doing this, this has never happened,” Khumah said. “The Inquisitors were supposed to be a deterrent, not protection.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve known of pilgrimages to be attacked in the past. That’s the reason that the Inquisitors started posting escorts along for the journey,” Camon said.
“I failed back there. It should have been me to lead the rites. I’m supposed to be the spiritual advisor on this journey. But how did you know them?”
“I studied to be a priest, but I never received my commission.”
“Because I chose otherwise…”
“You mean be a Paladin.”
“I’ve only ever heard of your kind. Honestly, I don’t know much about Paladins other than the legends and, obviously, the hate that Inquisitors have for you. But still, the magic.”
“Priests and Paladins share a common origin. Paladins were once considered as a priestly order before the Second Reformation. The magic is similar. But after the Second Reformation, the magic for priests was tied to localities, unfortunately,” Camon explained.
“You mean the tables.”
“I hear some of the journeys West though are using portable versions now.”
“This journey isn’t supposed to have death and darkness, though. It’s supposed to be an enlightening trip.”
“The threat of darkness can unite people who would otherwise be enemies,” Camon said.
“This is true. I just fear that this incident may have ruined the takeaway for many people.”
“There would be no shame in turning back, but I think you should give it a few days before asking anyone about what they want to do. Maybe some rest and relaxation at the next post would be in order. Moments of weakness don’t show you’re a failure; it shows you’re human. You’re only a failure if you choose to let this overcome you.”
“You’ve seen death before, but this is a first for me,” the priest said.
“Yes, but coming to grips with it will help us live our lives more fully because it confronts us with our mortality,” Camon said.
“It’s one thing to say that, but another to believe it,” the priest said. “But you’re right – I can’t let this overcome me. Tomorrow I’ll give a homily after breakfast. And I know that the Inquisitor would have your head, but seriously, thanks for what you did back there. Your deeds won’t go unnoticed despite dogmas against your kind.”
“It’s what I do.”
Camon went over to Jorn, who was sitting next to a fire by himself with a stick in his hand, poking it. He watched the embers spark up into flames to only die down again back into the fire. Camon sat down next to him, and for a moment, neither spoke.
“The fire,” Jorn said.
“What about it?” Camon answered.
“It’s like fire in the night,” Jorn said. “The magic. You find the darkness so you can see the fire. When all is dark, cold, and still, you see the fire burning, warm and inviting, but it’s also hot and destructive without proper precautions. “
“I’ve never heard it put that way, but yes.”
“This morning, when the bandits attacked, I was in the void. But I was awakened at the sights and sound of danger. I saw it in the darkness only for a second, but it was there like the fire in the night.”
“From what I’ve seen, I would think it’s what you do instinctively,” Camon said. “You’re a guardian, a protector of a sort. You sense danger.”
“How does that connect to magic, though?”
“Most folks see magic as some kind of ‘otherness.’ But it’s as much a part of this world as the air we breathe. It reacts and interacts with the world, just like everything else does. Sensitivity to it starts at the core of our being. That’s why we start with the void because it removes everything from our conscious mind so that when magic comes to us, we can see it, and many times it comes from our natural predispositions. For me, it’s a desire to know. Achara has deep empathy for others. For you, I believe it’s a desire to defend.”
“I’ve never been too introspective. I guess I never had the time, but ever since we left Rahttaay, I’ve been trying to figure out this void thing. The introspection has come as a byproduct of that.”
“That’s kind of the point in some ways. It helps us see and understand ourselves as much as it helps us connect to magic. When you better understand who you are, then it helps you filter and focus the magic. But even so, that’s a marker of progress. It means that you have been able to keep yourself connected to reality at some level. When you can call upon reality in the void, then we will be ready to introduce you to magic.”
“How do I do that?”
“Even now, think of the void, but do it with your eyes open. Watch the fire, then close your eyes and see if you can watch the fire by feeling its warmth in the void.”
“Help me understand something else, though,” Jorn went on. “Today, when you were fighting those men you did not hesitate to use lethal force. Why?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because it’s what I would have done, but it seems so out of character for you.”
“Truthfully, I am still not sure I did the right thing, but even so, I’ll try,” Camon said. “When I saw who they were, it came to me as no surprise that they were together. What did take me by surprise was that they were organized and intent on taking slaves, which can only mean that they have a buyer somewhere close. But they were in Imperial custody, which implies that either the slavers broke them out of a prison transport or someone within the Imperial ranks who let them go. Slaving this deep within Imperial territory would be insane, so I am guessing that their buyer is the Imperial who let them out. And an Imperial who controls the prison transports would have a way to get them out…”
“Corruption at its finest,” Jorn said.
“Yes. And the soldiers under his command are probably none the wiser.”
“So justice failed, and you took it upon yourself then?”
“Something like that,” Camon said.
“Needless to say, I’m a bit surprised, though. I didn’t expect that from you. But isn’t taking our prisoner back to the Imperials just going to be the same thing?”
“I don’t know. If we can get him to another constable or jurisdiction, that might help. The priest’s testimony should be more than enough to put him away.”
“But what about the Inquisitor?”
“I don’t know what his next move is. Have you seen Achara?”
“No. She is probably off by herself talking to animals or something.”
“Be careful of your spite for her. She is capable of more than either of us will ever be able to do. Besides, I thought you might appreciate her uncompromising style in battle.”
“That she does do well. She was the one that took out all those mages, and she’s wicked with knives and bows. Not my style, but I’ll be sure not to cross her.”
“Good,” Camon said as he stood up. He went about the camp looking for Achara. There were a few other fires lit with the travelers circled about them. Eyes glanced at Camon as he passed. He pretended not to notice, but when he did look back, the onlookers would quickly turn their attention away. Camon found Achara sitting on the seat of one of the wagons alone, holding a small lantern with a candle reading a book. She looked up and saw Camon, then closed the book and blew out the candle.
“Don’t stop on my account,” Camon said.
“Hard not to. Usually, when you come around like this means that you want to talk to me about something.”
“I can wait.”
“It’s best to get it out in the open,” she said.
Camon climbed upon the seat and sat down next to her, “Truthfully, I don’t have anything profound to say. I was just making my rounds.”
“Just making your rounds? I saw you talking with Khumah a minute ago.”
“I spoke with Jorn too.”
“You shocked us both when you rammed that stick into the man’s gut. We thought for sure you were just going to let him beat you mercilessly while you did nothing.”
“You’ve talked to him about it already, then?”
“Only briefly. Having a conversation with him is like talking to a troll.”
“I’ve never talked to a troll, so I don’t know what that’s like,” Camon quipped.
“Neither have I. I just imagine that they are brutish and dull.”
“There’s more to him than he lets on.”
“That’s what Laoren said about him.”
“He’s progressing well with magic,” Camon said. “It’s more than I expected, I have to admit.”
“Are you sure teaching him to use magic is the wisest thing?”
“He’s come around quite a bit. He’s a natural protector, and he’s beginning to see beyond himself, I think. The introspection needed for magic will help him with that.”
“Yeah, even so. I just worry that he might use it for ill. Or money.”
“I’m an optimist,” Camon turned more towards Achara. “But, I appreciate your skepticism.”
“What surprised me, though even more was when you were forthright with the priest. You just came out and told everyone who you are. What changed?”
“The Inquisitor was trying to make a scene out of the whole thing, not unlike the constable in Neuasut. But maybe the context was different. I’m not really sure why I did it, but I, for some reason, don’t regret it either.”
“You should have seen that Inquisitor’s face. He was sure that you were about to turn him into minced meat once you revealed that.”
“It certainly dispelled some of the dogmas though about Paladins.”
“I think you should do it more often,” Achara said. “Good riddance. Just saying that word in the presence of an Inquisitor makes them scared. And everyone else in this entourage saw it too.”
“My goal isn’t to scare people.”
“Mine neither, but sometimes doesn’t it just feel right?” Achara exclaimed.
“Feelings are not a good indicator of rightness in my book.”
“Same old Camon,” she smiled. “It’s dissonance for you, but for me, it resonated loudly. I wanted to cheer in some ways. That Inquisitor means you ill, though. It’s all over him, and he isn’t very good at hiding it.”
“I am kind of expecting it. I don’t intend to be around when it happens.”
“You mean that we’re going to part company with the caravan.”
“At some point, we will. It may be sooner than later now. We’ll have to once we get to Muangnoi. By the way, I haven’t seen the Inquisitor all afternoon. Have you?”
“No, but I haven’t been paying much attention to him either,” she said.
“I should probably go figure out where he is if he’s a threat. We need to keep an eye on him…” Camon hopped down from the wagon and went about the circumference of the camp, looking at the lit fires looking for Tahaan. He made two passes then made his way back to Achara, who was still on the wagon. “No sign of him. Can you tell if he’s near or far?”
Achara closed her eyes and probed for him. She reached out locally, then went further out then back in as she had done before. She then opened her eyes, “I’ve got nothing…” she said.
“Odd,” Camon said.
“I’ve missed others before, though. He could be right under our noses.”
“I’ll go check with Khumah and see if he knows.” Camon went and found Khumah sitting at a fire with some of the pilgrims. He caught a glimpse of Camon, who gestured for him to come over, and he did. “You haven’t seen Tahaan lately, have you?”
“No, why are you asking?”
“Because I just looked for him and didn’t see him.”
“Do you suspect something?”
“Hard to say. But if he’s not in the camp, then where else would he have gone?”
“I don’t know. He’s usually mingling with the pilgrims.”
“Yet he’s not…”
“If he’s not back in the morning, then we’ll know something is up,” Khumah said. “It’s best not to mention this to anyone. We don’t want to raise alarms.”
“I concur,” Camon said.
Camon left Khumah and went back to Jorn’s fire. “We’d best keep our own watches tonight. The Inquisitor is up to no good, I think. Achara sensed malintent on him, and he’s nowhere in the camp.”
“I’ll take the first,” Jorn said.
Camon waited at the fire for some time, and eventually, he retired under a tarp nearby to sleep as others were doing the same. Achara took the second watch, and they all woke the next morning. The first thing Camon did in the morning light was search for the Inquisitor, who was nowhere in the camp. He then counted the horses and noticed one was missing, and he immediately went to Khumah.
“He’s not here, and a horse is missing,” Camon said. “I should have checked that last night.”
“Then he’s gone for sure,” Khumah said. “But why?”
“A vendetta against me, for sure.”
“Shades,” Khumah said. “I said that the Inquisitors were supposed to be a deterrent and not protection. They did offer some of both, but now I have neither.”
“We’ll keep an eye out for danger until you can replace them,” Camon said.
“You’re putting yourself at risk by doing that, especially from the Inquisitor, who will know exactly where to find you.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Camon said. “But leaving you out here in the wilderness unprotected is the greater sin.”
“I appreciate it. Again, thank you. You’ve proved yourself worthy, Paladin. I don’t know what the Inquisitors have against you.
“That’s another discussion for another day. Best we focus on today. It would be a good time to give that homily, I think…”
Khumah called the pilgrims together as they were going about preparing breakfast and picking up the camp. He spoke of solidarity amid death, talking from his own feelings about what had happened. He assured them that they would continue despite what happened, using it as a metaphor for life. He also mentioned Tahaan’s desertion and publicly acknowledged Camon, Achara, and Jorn as their protection along the way. After the speech, the congregants went about their tasks. Some of them personally stopped by to thank the three for what they had done the day before in defense of the travelers. Within the hour, the entourage was packed and ready to move. Once back on the road, they set their sight eastward towards the journey ahead.