Camon entered the cottage with Achara and Jorn, and they sat down in the room on the sofa and chairs and relaxed for a moment. Not long after they got back, there was a knock at the door, and Achara answered it. The young monk came in with a tray of refreshments and set them on a low table in the middle of the room.
“Thank you,” Camon said.
“It’s an honor to serve,” the young monk replied. He performed a bow and left the three in the room.
Camon was the first to partake in the refreshments. He removed the lid from the tray, revealing cut fruit, vegetables, cheese, and some slices of bread. He took some of each and ate it, and Jorn and Achara followed soon after. Camon finished his refreshments and got out his notebook.
“If only we could tell what we were looking at…”
“As you said, we know the ones in Muangnoi are most likely mages,” Achara said. “But what I felt there in the scrying room where three practically identical presences. I think it is safe to assume then that they are all mages.”
“And I wonder how many there are?” Camon pondered. “Even so, I am not sure that pursuing them is going to change anything because encountering mages isn’t going to uncover something useful. I was hoping that we could get a read on whoever was behind all this and then make a move against them.”
“More questions than answers, that’s for sure,” Achara said.
“Is there any way to probe deeper with what you have learned? Can you differentiate the presence of one or multiple mages, or if they even are mages?”
“I could try, but so far, I have only been able to detect their presence a relatively close distance. I would have to be close to get much more than that.”
“Give it a go,” Camon said.
Achara closed her eyes and stilled her breathing, and the room was silent. Camon could hear the blood flowing through his ears while they sat waiting on Achara, who looked like a statue. She then opened her eyes and spoke, “I don’t know what to make of it. I was able to reach the other reading we had in the scrying tower to the north, and it was…different. I couldn’t detect intent on it. It just felt, ‘there’ if that makes any sense at all.”
“There, as in a presence but no intentions like you have been able to detect?”
“Right. It felt sterile…almost feral in the way.”
“Interesting,” Camon said.
“We could root out whatever is Muangnoi and make them talk,” Jorn said.
“Except we are outmatched,” Camon said.
“We did it at the outpost. Why not here?”
“We had lots of help there. There were five of us against them, and we blew up half the outpost to take them out. Doing that to Muangnoi would have collateral damage that I fear would undermine everything we’ve fought to achieve this far.”
“Why are you always so cautious?” Jorn asked.
“I’m cautious because it pays to be patient and not take unnecessary risks when we can find other ways to do things.”
“If you’re worried about being no match for them, unleash me on them. We were desperately outnumbered in the swamp, but you triggered what was inside of me, and it wasted dozens of those undead creatures.”
“We’ve been over this before, Jorn,” Camon said. “That’s simply out of the question. We have to find another way.”
Jorn stood up, “I grow tired of your patronizing nonsense. You’re trying to hold me back to protect yourself and keep me under your boot.”
“I don’t keep anyone under my boot. You’re free to leave at any time,” Camon said.
“You keep saying that,” Jorn fumed. He pointed his finger at Camon, “But you keep saying that you want to help me and you’ll give me only a morsel that I chew on for weeks. I know I can do more.”
“Jorn, I told you that you are learning and making great progress. I don’t know where this rage is coming from. But I do want to help you.”
“Then why not trust me then?”
“Because what you are asking is not just dangerous, it’s crazy. I wouldn’t do it on myself even if I thought I could control that magic.”
“You had no problem letting Achara attempt to use the scrying machine.”
“Is that what this is all about?” Camon asked.
“I’m just saying, you let her waltz in there without as much of an objection.”
“That’s not even remotely comparable with what you’re asking. And I did object to it. And Achara’s magic is much more mature than yours is. And besides, I encouraged you to use the belt, which is an apparatus that greatly improved your craft, did I not?”
“What does she do? Talk to animals? Read my mind? More mature? That sounds more like nonsense to me.”
Camon sat up straight and placed his arms out, “What would you have me do, Jorn? Drop everything I’m doing to help you find a way to unlock what your gifting is? Trust me; I want to help you as much as I can. And maybe when this is all over, we can dedicate some time to help you understand it. But right now, our focus is on the problems at hand.”
“If you would just unleash me, this would be over in seconds. You know what I am capable of doing. I think you’re just scared.”
“You’re right,” Camon said. “I am scared. And you should be too.”
“Fine. If you won’t help me, then perhaps those mages will.”
“Jorn, you can’t be serious,” Achara said.
“What are you going to do to stop me? Camon can’t use his magic on me. And we all know that he won’t kill me. I think they would be glad to help me. They are the ones who made me, after all.”
“Are you expecting me to call your bluff, Jorn? Because if you do that, you are aiding in something that has the potential to incite a war for decades to come and destroy everything you hold dear.”
“Who’s to say that I won’t just use it against them? I could do what you refuse to do.”
“Come to your senses, Jorn.”
“Come to yours!” Jorn screamed. “I’m sick of all this waiting. All this cloak and dagger. All of this sneaking around and looking for answers and clues. If you want answers, find the man and slap him around, and he’ll talk.”
“Jorn, you saw what they are capable of. We are no match for them.”
“No! You are no match for them! If what you’re saying is true, then I could be.”
“Jorn, I won’t do it. I can’t do it.”
“Fine, then I’m out of here,” Jorn said. He snatched up his things and started for the door.
“Jorn, wait,” Camon said.
“I have been waiting, and I’m done. Goodbye, Paladin,” he said, walking out of the cottage.
Camon stood up to go after him, but Achara grabbed his arm. “Let him go,” she said.
Camon fell back into the chair and laid his hands in his lap and bit his lips as he shook his head. Camon’s face was expressionless, and he simply stared into the floor for at least ten minutes. Achara was waiting by his side for him to say something, but she dared not speak. Camon finally turned to her and said, “I failed him, Achara.”
“No, he failed you. You had nothing to do with that. He’s impetuous, impatient, and pig-headed. You’ve been gracious and patient with him in ways that I never could.”
“Do you think he will go to them?”
“If he’s desperate enough. He wants the power badly and apparently will do anything to get it.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. I made him, and now that he wants it badly, he’s destined to complete it. But He’d be a weapon against us, not someone to help us.”
“Camon, it’s not your fault. You were trying to help him be a better person. All he wanted was power, but he didn’t want to change himself to get it, though.”
“Yeah,” Camon said. “Which means that we have to get to the bottom of this. And do it before he has a chance to do anything about it. And if he does go to them, then he knows everything.”
“We need answers then,” Achara said. “Jorn may have been right about rooting them out in Muangnoi. I think I agree with him in principle, but not in his tactics.”
“I’m out of ideas,” Camon said. “But I’m out of time too. All I want to do right now is feel regret, but I can’t.”
“Camon, put that behind you for now. Focus on what we need to do, not on what you could have done differently.”
“If we can get close enough, I think I could pinpoint where they are, and maybe we could at least use the element of surprise on them.”
“That could work. They are extremely dangerous, though. If we could isolate one, then perhaps we could take him.”
“Then let’s get to Muangnoi,” Camon said. “Which way did Jorn go?”
“I don’t know, but I can find out. He can’t be that far.”
Achara closed her eyes again and went still for only a matter of seconds then opened them, “He went north. Odd.”
“That means we don’t have to deal with him then,” Camon said. “Let’s move.”
Achara and Camon left the cottage and went to the stable to retrieve their horses. At the stable, they noticed Jorn’s horse, Tangmaw, was still there.
“He didn’t take the horse,” Camon said.
“I guess he wanted a clean break. It’s your horse, after all.”
“He still walks with a limp. He’s going to want it in a few miles.”
“Leave it then?” Achara asked.
“I don’t think he wants her. He knows his leg is bad, and he would’ve taken if he did. We’ll take her with us.” Camon summoned the stable boy, who brought the three horses out and helped them saddle and mount them. Camon and Achara then rode away from the old stone buildings back out onto the road southeast back towards Muangnoi in the afternoon sun. They rode with purpose, covering ground as quickly as possible without looking as if they were racing back to the city. When they got closer, they slowed to a canter and stopped, where Camon inconspicuously removed the priest robes and commission and disposed of them behind a house. He then remounted his horse, and they went back towards the city, approaching it as evening drew closer.
“We should make a move tonight,” Camon suggested.
“I concur. But we need to figure out where they are first.”
“How do we do that?” Camon asked.
“Well, if they are here, I should be able to pick up on them by spot-checking for them in different parts of the city.”
Camon got out his notebook and sketched the city’s outline with the river and the central citadel, then drew X’s on the places in roughly the four quarters of the city.
“It’s going to be hard to isolate them in the city because of all the other people here, but I think I can. They are pretty distinct.”
“Good. Let’s get to work,” Camon said.
They rode back to the inn and checked in for another night and boarded the horses there. They then went to the first X north of the citadel near the river as they looped eastwards around the city. Achara sat down on a bench in a public square there and started her ritual. She spent some time probing the area, and after fifteen minutes, she opened her eyes again. “I think they are more towards the southeast side of the citadel. If we go to the east or south next, I think that would be enough to get a more precise reading.
“Sounds like a plan. East it is.” They set out from the park in the north and went to the east side of the city down from the citadel at the waterfront. They were near the shipping docks, and the place was buzzing with activity as sailors, dock workers, and others were closing up business for the day. Achara found a place in front of a store that sold shipping supplies, and she again reached out with her magic. She again spent fifteen minutes in her catatonic state before she opened her eyes.
“They are in this area. I’m certain of it. I would think about two or three streets to the south, in a tavern having a round of drinks. It was pretty busy in there, so I think we should be able to spot them without raising an alarm.”
“Let’s do it then,” Camon said. He checked his sword at his side and rested his hand on the pommel. “Just be careful.”
They walked away from the docks towards the southwest down a street that wove through the buildings. It intersected another that went back southeast. They followed the street to the southeast, weaving through buildings and homes back downhill towards the river. They rounded a turn and came to a bustling, well-lit tavern with an open front, full of patrons sitting around barrels, tables, stools drinking ale, gambling, talking, and all sorts of merrymaking. Camon slowed their walk, and they scanned the crowd for anyone that they might think was suspicious. Then Camon spotted someone in the same charcoal clothes that they had seen before sitting at a table with another man dressed in a crimson traveler’s cloak made from the same silk. The man turned to glance over his shoulder, and Camon whipped his head around not to make eye contact with the man.
“They are definitely here,” Camon whispered. “Two of them. One like we saw at the outpost and another with him in a red cloak.”
“We can’t make a move here,” Achara said. “We have to wait them out.”
“That could take a while, but it’s necessary. I would say separate, but we need to stick together. If they move, then we need to stay with them.”
“But where without raising alarm?”
“The tavern would be a good place to start. Just stay sharp, and try not to make eye contact with them.”
“You’re playing close to the fire here,” she said.
“I know, but we need to see how many there are, and what we are up against.”
“I agree. Let’s get something to drink.” They went into the tavern and ordered some drinks from the bartender, who handed them two tall steins of ale. They found a table out near the street, and they drank the drinks quietly while they waited. Camon occasionally glanced towards the men, and it wasn’t long before they both got up and walked towards the street. They passed within five feet of Camon’s table, who froze stiff as they passed. Achara did much the same, but the men paid no mind as they turned and walked back into the city towards the northwest. About a minute later, Camon stood and took another drink, and he left, and Achara followed. They made tracks down the way and were able to see the two men walking side by side, talking to one another. They followed them back into the city towards the citadel. They then turned again back to the south down another street and went into a hotel.
Camon and Achara stopped about one-hundred feet from the hotel. It was a posh establishment with ornate gargoyles decorating the building with a guard posted at the door.
“How do we get in there without raising an alarm?” Achara asked.
“They have expensive tastes for accommodations. Since we’re right on top of them, is there any way to figure out where exactly they are in the building?”
“I could try,” Achara said. And without a command, they went closer towards the building, and she used her magic to reach out towards the facility. She did not spend more than a minute before she opened her eyes. “That place is hardly occupied. I’m almost certain they are on the top floor in the penthouse.”
“That’s four floors up,” Camon said. “But I think it will make getting there easier.”
“What are you suggesting?” Achara asked.
“We’re not going to get past that guard without raising an alarm, not looking like this anyways. I suggest we climb as we did back on that fretful night back in Rhatneuau.”
Achara’s face frowned, “Yeah, I just hope that this night doesn’t turn out to be fretful like that one.”