Achara and Camon left the Ministry of Healers and descended out of the upper city. After leaving the gates, they walked down a broad avenue until they came to a small market where they perused the wares, not looking for anything in particular. After a while of doing that, they left the market and walked down to the lower city’s southwest quarter. The quarter was a labyrinthian network of alleys, streets, byways, walkways, small markets, tenement houses, and shops crammed into a tighter space than anywhere else in the city. It was not exceptionally clean like the upper city or even the northeast quarter where they had been staying.
“What are we doing here?” Achara asked.
“I got a tip from a friend I visited yesterday,” Camon answered. “He said that someone was looking for persons that matched my description. I don’t usually care about these things. However, the character asking down here was noteworthy enough to make the taverns’ gossip lines take note. Given that he’s noteworthy and the description matched me, I should follow up on it. It’s probably nothing, but it doesn’t hurt to check.”
Camon asked a local where they could find the tavern, who told them to take a few lefts and rights down a few different alleys and would then find it near the south gate. After navigating the alleys, Camon found the place he was pretty sure was the one Behar had mentioned. It had a small presence on the street with a single window and a narrow door and a sign over the door that simply read, “Tavern.”
“It’s probably best that I go in here alone,” Camon said. “I don’t want to rouse any suspicions, and it is still pretty early for drinking. “
Camon entered the tavern. While there was only a single window and narrow door, it opened up into a sizable room with a low ceiling. Camon navigated around two dozen rugged wood tables with short stools to a long bar across the back. He took note of the only decoration, a large, mounted bear’s head over a large fireplace against one wall. Its details were hard to make out from the low light coming from the only two lit lanterns of the six hanging from the ceiling. Camon did not see anyone else as his steps clumped on the wooden floor. He intentionally took heavy steps trying to get the attention of anyone that might be in the place. About thirty seconds later, a burly man with white hair with dirty clothes and a soiled apron came out of a door behind the bar at the back of the room and looked at Camon.
“Little early to be drinkin’. You lost?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” Camon answered. “It did take some effort to find this place.”
“You came lookin’ for this place?” the man asked incredulously.
“Yeah, actually I did,” Camon answered.
“If you came lookin’, it’s either because every tavern in Rahtneua is out of beer, or you need to ask me somethin’,” the man surmised.
“Rahtneua isn’t out of beer, so I reckon I’m here for the questions then,” Camon said. “But, I will take something if you’re serving.”
“Son, if you got the coin, I got beer. I don’t care what time it is,” he said.
“Then I’ll take a round,” he said, “a local variety if you have anything like that.”
“This isn’t the high-falut’n places like they got up there on the north side. Everything is local. None of that high-priced imported stuff either. Gotta serve what the folks around here can afford, which ain’t much,” he said as he went off to get Camon a drink. He came back with a stein of beer. Camon accepted it and sat down at the bar to drink it.
“So tell me, whatcha need to know?” the man asked.
“Do you know Behar?” Camon asked as he sipped his beer.
“Know him? Practically raised the boy,” the man said. “He the one that sent you here?”
“Yeah, well kinda,” Camon said. “He mentioned that you saw a strange man come through here some time ago.”
“That’s what you came here for?” the man asked. “Didn’t figure something as trivial as a strange man would warrant a visit from another strange man. No offense.”
“None taken,” Camon asked. “I admit it’s odd coming in the middle of the morning asking about something that came in on the rumor mill.”
“Yep,” the man retorted. “But I’ll tell ya anyways. I like you. And a friend of Behar is a friend to me, especially if he buys something. Here’s what happened. The stranger came in here just about a week ago. He was an oily kind of guy, out of place for my regular ruffians that come through here. Well dressed, but in some kind of material, I could not tell. Looked like silk but not so shiny. All gray clothes. No wrinkles and clean. He was short and was balding on top with beady eyes. I could tell he was up to somethin’.”
“That’s presumptuous, you think?” goaded Camon.
“Son, if you’ve been doin’ this as long as I have, you know when someone is up to somethin’. You know. And this guy was. I can tell you that. Don’t know what he was up to, but he came in here. Didn’t order anything. He just sat there. After a while, I went up to him. Asked him if he wanted anything. He said just information. I told him it wasn’t free. So he gave me a coin that I’d never seen before. Silver coin. Kept it because I thought it was odd. It’s here in my pocket.” He pulled the coin out of his pocket and laid it on the bar.
“Mind if I look at it?” Camon asked.
“It’s layin’ there, ain’t it?” the barkeep said. Camon picked it up and looked at it, studying both sides of the coin intently before putting it back on the counter.
“Strange indeed,” Camon noted. “I haven’t ever seen anything like that around here. It’s real silver in any case. So it’s worth something.”
“Yep,” the barkeep noted. “Asked if I’d seen a man about your age and your description. Wanted to know if he’d been seen with a young girl.”
“That’s what Behar told me,” Camon said. “The description he gave of the man matched my profile. What did you tell him?”
“Told him I hadn’t seen anything like that,” he answered. “No new faces. Just regulars.”
“He then asked me to keep an eye out for anyone. Said he’d be back in a few days. That was over ten days ago. Then he stood up and walked out.”
“And that’s it?” Camon asked.
“Yep. Not a word more.”
“Strange indeed. Any other news from beyond the city you’ve heard?” Camon asked.
“Just the stuff coming out of the north. ‘Bout the Paladin. Everyone knows about that, though. Been a long time since that kind of news.”
“Yes, I’ve heard all those rumors, too,” Camon said.
“Well son. Got work to do. If you need anything, holler.”
Camon took a few big gulps of the beer, left the stein on the bar and a silver coin, and shouted, “Thanks for the tip.” The barkeep came out and waved, and Camon left the tavern. He walked aways and spotted Achara waiting nearby.
“That was quick,” she remarked.
“There’s not much to tell. The only thing that I found out that Behar didn’t tell me was about something the barkeeper had – an elven silver piece. That’s not something you see every day in and around Rahtneua or even the Empire. Elven currency used to be more abundant, but ever since the elves quit coming to this part of the world some years ago, the currency has become scarce. All we see of them is diplomatic missions once every decade or so.”
“Not much to go on, but do you think the guy was working for the elves?” Achara asked.
“Not likely,” he said. “The elves are legalistic, and they have adopted as a matter of policy not to interfere with human affairs. Moreover, for them to run a clandestine operation where they send out human spies would be even more unlikely. But one thing is for sure; this is most certainly out of place. If he is looking for us, I suspect he will return and find out we were here.”
“Then why inquire at all, then?” Achara asked again.
“Because to attract the hunter, you spring the trap. If whomever he is, wants to get us, time will reveal him. But for now, we should carry on with what’s at hand.”
“Speaking of what’s at hand,” Achara said, “Ratana is awake.”
“Your connection to her is strong if you can feel her waking and sleeping.”
“Well, it’s because she wasn’t in my head that I surmised that she must be awake,” Achara noted.
“Yeah, I guess that much is so. We need to lay low for a few more hours to give her time with her family. Since we’re on the topic of elven lore, need to go back up to the upper city, and have some time, there’s something I want to show you.”
“What?” asked Ratana.
“I hope you’re not afraid of heights.”
“The spire of the cathedral?”
“Yes, indeed,” he said. “Follow me.” Camon led the way back out of the southwest quarter to one of the main avenues straight up to the upper city. They passed the wall surrounding the upper city and back up into the courtyard with the Ministry of Healers and the great cathedral. Achara and Camon were both a little winded from the uphill hike, so they stopped to catch their breath. Camon then led them up the stairs into the cathedral.
As they entered the cathedral, Achara’s eyes followed the towering arches running from the doors up to a priest’s table. Her gaze rested on the priest’s table, which was much more massive, more ornate, and had larger stones than they had seen. Behind the table was a large lectern that appeared to crown it. Camon led her up the left aisle between the three sections of pews, one on the left flank, one on the right side, and one in the middle that ran back to front. Light streamed in through the clear glass windows that ran just about the western and eastern walls’ full length, making the need for artificial light unnecessary. It felt as if they were outside almost. Their footsteps echoed through the great hall even though they tried to walk as reverently as possible.
Camon whispered, “The stairs to the spire start in the vestibule off to the platform’s left at the front of the building.” They entered the vestibule and noticed the disarray on low shelves with a wide array of books and some miscellaneous furnishings used by the priests during rituals. Camon was careful not to touch anything, and then he came to the stairs. Next to it was a small collection box. “Customarily, we’re supposed to drop a coin in this collection box before ascending the spire,” he noted as he dropped a silver coin in. “The spire has become somewhat of an attraction for visitors passing through, so the cathedral figured they would capitalize on it.”
“It’s not very busy then,” Achara noted.
“This time of year, not usually. When you get to the top, you’ll see why,” Camon said. “Also, something else. It’s important that you bury your magic here. Try to suppress any urge.”
“Why is that?” Achara asked.
“You’ll understand that too when we get to the top,” Camon smiled. At that, they started to climb the stairs. The stairs began in the vestibule but left the vestibule and went through several switchbacks before they started up into the spire. They wrapped helically around the inside of the spire. Achara and Camon climbed with great effort. While they were used to traveling long distances day in and day out, they weren’t used to climbing vertically up hundreds of feet in a short amount of time.
After about fifteen minutes of climbing, the stairs emerged into a platform below the sculpted hand holding the torch. Several openings enabled a view of the surrounding lands. At the center of the room was an opening with a pully and a winch used for hoisting loads from below up to the spire. A cold wind blew in from the north. At first, it was refreshing after building up a sweat from climbing the stairs, but after a few moments of cooling down, it was bone-chilling and damp. “I can now see why people don’t come up here this time of year,” she commented.
But she quickly forgot the cold as she observed the surrounding city from above. She went to look out the windows and looked over the city in every direction. It was a clear, bright day, and she could see for miles. She saw the river winding from the west to the east like a silver ribbon across the valley as it passed south of the city. She could see a twin span set of bridges that crossed south of the city and then a large roundabout where the east-to-west highway intersected the north-to-south route. Traffic covered both roads and the roundabout, moving away from and towards the city. She could see all of the quarters of the city and the upper city from the height. And beyond the city and the immediate surrounding she could see farm fields, villages, houses, barns, byways, and ultimately forests to the horizon.
“This view is amazing,” she said. “But what does this have to do with elves?”
“There’s more to this spire than a view and a sculpture,” Camon noted. “Place your hand on the wall and close your eyes. Feel the wind and try to see the city and the surround in your mind’s eye.”
Achara did as she instructed. At first, she just felt the cold wall and its texture under her fingertips and the cold wind blowing on her face, but as she drug her fingers across the wall it went from cold to warm to the touch. She imagined the city in her head, and then she felt a rush run through her fingers and arm and all over her body. It was warm like the sun on a hot summer afternoon but on the inside, and it flowed through her recursing from her feet to her head, then back again. The sensation grew more intense the longer she held on. After a few minutes, the intensity backed away then faded to where she only felt the cold textured surface beneath her fingertips again.
“Wow…” she stammered, “That was…intense.”
“That,” Camon said with a pause, “is why they built this cathedral.”
“Exactly. This building is ancient, as is its purpose. It was a beacon for the Light with help from the elves as a talisman of gargantuan proportions. It’s not unlike the tables or the stones the priest use – only much more remarkable. Before the Second Reformation, highly skilled priests could use the cathedral to create blessings for the entire realm. What you felt were some of the remnants of those blessings still at work. The blessings helped bring prosperity and life to the whole region and served as a bulwark against the Dark. Moreover, they designed the city’s entire fortification so that if forces of darkness were to lay siege to the city, the cathedral itself could defend against the Dark.
Sadly, after the Second Reformation, this whole building has become little more than a monument to the Light. By suppressing magic, no one has developed the skill to use the cathedral since that time. This cathedral and the one in Rhatsaan are more symbols of power now than instruments of blessings. The elves saw what the Church was doing to itself by suppressing magic and more or less left men to their own devices.”
“What would happen if someone tried to use it again?” Achara asked.
“It’d probably kill them,” Camon speculated. “To use magic of this magnitude, one would have to study his or her entire life to use it maybe just once or twice. The level of control and precision needed is immense. Much like the stones, the entire structure is designed to focus and filter magic, then amplify it. If the magic is even an iota off, then it would likely backfire and kill or severely injure whoever was trying to use it.”
“So now, I understand why you told me to suppress my magic,” Achara said.
“Yes, indeed,” Camon said. “But we’ve tarried here long enough. There’s an art museum adjacent to the Ministry of Healers. We can peruse that for a while before we check back in with Ratana.”
With that, they started the climb back down the stairs, out of the spire, and into the vestibule. They then retraced their path back down the aisle and exited the cathedral into the courtyard. After crossing the courtyard, they entered the art museum, where they enjoyed looking at the displays of paintings and sculptures.