"Make sure to sweep," Reiter's father said weakly. A coughing fit shook his frail body. He clasped both hands over his mouth, but Reiter could still see phlegm leaking through the gaps between his bony fingers. "Inn... clean..."
"I will, Father. Finish your soup," Reiter said.
"Can't... don't like the taste..."
"Bea made it especially for you this morning," Reiter said with more patience than he felt. "You need your strength. Finish it all."
He closed the door firmly and went back to the common room. The midday meal had been served hours earlier, and there were only three customers left at the tables: the two tired merchants, discussing the prices of Westmarch wine, and the religious fellow, quietly paging through a thick book. Reiter walked behind the counter. His wife was sharpening one of the cooking knives.
"Would you mind taking my father some more tea?" Reiter asked. "He's not doing well today."
"Spare a little honey for him?" Bea asked with a sympathetic look.
Reiter sighed. Honey had grown expensive over the past few months. The merchant from Tristram was late. Reiter hoped he would be back by next week, but if he wasn't, the Oasis Inn would run out soon.
"I don't think so." At her disapproving glare, he quickly added, "If we don't have enough honey, our customers will be unhappy and our reputation might suffer. My father wouldn't want that." Bea's expression grew darker. "I'm sure he would tell you himself to skip the honey if he knew the situation. This inn is everything to him. It's his legacy." Reiter fidgeted for a moment, then held up his hands in surrender. "Fine. Give him the honey. A little bit."
If anything, her glare grew even more heated, but she made the tea—with a generous dollop of honey—and disappeared up the staircase.
Reiter sighed again. Even though he had given in, he was sure she would bring it up later. She seemed to delight in making him feel low for no reason.
The door of the inn swung open. Footsteps echoed through the common room. Reiter let his gaze linger on the staircase a moment longer and then began his welcome speech. "Welcome to the Oasis Inn, good sir. Can I help you?"
"'Good sir'? At least that's better than 'madam,'" an amused female voice said.
Reiter turned. The new visitor was clad in heavy armor, the same heavy armor he had seen maybe eight or nine years ago. Helm, chestplate, shield, flail, white tabard embroidered with a Zakarum symbol—it was her. His mouth fell open.
The crusader? "I... my apologies, madam," he said without thinking.
She chuckled easily. "'Madam.' My name is simply Anajinn."
"My apologies... Anajinn," Reiter said. Had that been her name? She looked different than he remembered. Her hair was lighter and longer, her jaw more defined, her nose a bit smaller. Strangely, she also seemed younger.
He could feel the stares from the others in the common room. It was a little comforting to know he wasn't the only one intimidated by her appearance. "Do you need a room? Is your apprentice staying with you?" Apprentice. His stomach clenched. Images of a flipped table and a troublesome stain surfaced in his mind. Embarrassment welled up, and he banished the memory quickly.
"I'll only need a room for one. I have not yet found an apprentice," she said. "I would also like to revisit your library."
Reiter led her out of the common room, toward the library. "Certainly. We have the finest library in..." He trailed off with a frown. Not yet found an apprentice? Anajinn had one when she last visited. Then again, Reiter seemed to be remembering the entire ordeal incorrectly. He dismissed the thought. "Finest library in Kehjistan. Outside of Caldeum, of course."
Anajinn kept pace with him, armor clanking heavily with each step. "I've been to nearly three dozen outposts around this desert, and I believe you and your father are right," she said. "You do have the largest library I've ever encountered outside of a big city. In fact, I've never seen its like in a town like this."
"My father's idea," Reiter said. "Caldeum's Rest is small, but almost everyone heading to and from Caldeum along the southern route stops here. The oasis, you see. Last chance for water before you cross the nasty part of the desert. My father noticed that there were plenty of academics and scholars and religious pilgrims who didn't want to stay at the tavern down the road, so he created something inviting for them." A waste of time and effort, Reiter didn't add. There was far more coin to be made in wine and spirits than in providing a quiet study room for destitute students. "He let merchants know he was willing to buy any books they had."
"Your father. He is well?"
"He is dying," Reiter said.
Anajinn inclined her head in sympathy. "Is there something I can do to help? Can I see him?"
"He isn't lucid these days. I wouldn't want to upset him with any old memories."
Anajinn looked at him for a moment. "As you say." The library door was just ahead. "Are many of the books new since I last visited?"
"I think so," Reiter said. He hadn't read any of them himself. He held the door open. "Here we are."
"Thank you," she said.
As she stepped back, a bit of her hair brushed Reiter's hand. A bit of her blond hair, he realized. It all rushed back to him in an instant—the master, the brown hair, the name.
"You... you're not Anajinn. You're the apprentice!"
He got a wry smile in return. "Not anymore," she said.
"But... the armor... You said your name was Anajinn!"
"That is my name," the woman said.
Reiter's confusion turned to anger. It felt as if she was having a laugh at his expense. Again. "That was your master's name!"
"And it is my name." She still smiled. "Is it really so strange?"
"You—!" Reiter lowered his voice. "You talk like you are her," he hissed. "Were you trying to trick me? Didn't you embarrass me enough last time?"
"I meant no disrespect. I am a crusader. I am Anajinn," she said. "As my master was. As her master was before."
"You were all named Anajinn?"
"When I took up my master's shield, I took up her cause and her name," she said.
"Took up her shield? Why? What happened? Is your master..." Dead? Reiter suddenly didn't want to know. He hurriedly changed the subject. "Are you still looking for books about the city of Ureh?"
"No," she said. "I'm seeking information on the lost memoirs of Tal Rasha."
"I... see." Reiter didn't. "I'll leave you to it, then." He hastily made his exit and returned to the common room.
Bea was waiting. "A new guest?" Reiter nodded stiffly. "Who was she?" Bea asked.
"She visited here a few years ago. I think she might be insane," he whispered. Bea gave him a skeptical look.
Reiter cleared away the dishes from the merchants and took a fresh pitcher of water to the lone man sitting at another table. She is crazy, Reiter thought, filling the man's glass to the brim. Nobody sane takes someone else's name and tries to live their life. It's not reasonable. Coldly he wondered how long it would take to sell off all the books in the library after his father died. It might be best if this crusader never had reason to return.
A severe voice interrupted his thoughts. "Innkeeper." It was the man whose glass he had just filled. The religious fellow. "Who is that woman? The one in the armor."
"I'm honestly not sure," Reiter said. It was the truth. "She is a strange one."
The man firmly closed his book. On its cover was one of the familiar symbols of the Zakarum faith. It was remarkably similar to the sigil the crusader bore. Come to think of it, this man had arrived wearing armor of his own, not entirely dissimilar to Anajinn's. "She's been here before?" the man asked.
There was an edge to his voice Reiter didn't like. "Once. Years ago. I was just a child," he said, hoping he sounded dismissive. "She seemed odd to me then. Not terribly reasonable, but harmless." Then he wondered if he had misjudged this man's intent. "Is... is she a friend of yours?"
"No." Ice was warm compared to his tone. "Not reasonable, though. Interesting. What about you, innkeeper? Do you consider yourself reasonable?"
"I suppose so," Reiter said.
"Really? Why would a reasonable man shelter a heretic?"
Reiter stepped back. "What?"
"I saw the symbols on her armor. On her tabard. Those signs are not meant to be decorative trinkets." The man stood up, giving Reiter his first look at his powerful stature. "I am a paladin of the Hand of Zakarum. I root out corruption and heresy wherever I find it." He jabbed a finger into Reiter's chest. The innkeeper nearly fell over. "I do not sense the Light within her. I sense something else. She cannot be allowed to dwell within your inn if you serve the faith. Do you, innkeeper?"
"Yes, yes, of course," Reiter squeaked.
"Then why do you tolerate her presence?" the paladin said.
Reiter quaked beneath the looming man. He had never seen a paladin so angry before. "I give courtesy to all who claim the Light's favor. How could I have known what she is?" An idea occurred to him. "She called herself a crusader. I assumed she was faithful to your order. Forgive me," he said, dropping to his knees, prostrating himself. "I fear my ignorance has led me to grave sin. Can you forgive me, good sir?" He held his breath.
There was a long, long pause. "A crusader?" Reiter stole a quick glance upward. The paladin wasn't even looking at him. "Why does that name...?"
"Say the word, and I will have her removed from my inn immediately, good sir," Reiter breathed.
The paladin seemed lost in thought. "Yes. Tell her to meet me out front. I will examine her intentions myself. And if need be, I will deal with her." He strode up the stairs, taking his book with him.
Reiter stood uneasily, wiping sweat off his forehead. This is good, he told himself. Anajinn could sort out her own issues with the paladin. Outside. As far away from the inn as possible. He could hear the paladin stomping around upstairs. The clanking sounds meant he was putting on armor. Reiter shivered.
But he didn't want Anajinn to know how scared he was. She had already seen him humiliated at the hands of a little water and blood. No, he decided. He would simply tell her to leave. The rest was unimportant. This was Reiter's inn—or it would be, once his father died—and he wanted her gone. That was reasonable.
Anajinn was reading through a thick tome when he entered the library. "Anajinn, or whatever your name is, you need to leave now." She glanced up at him and turned a page, tracing along the text with her gauntleted fingers as she read.
"I heard some angry words out there," she said.
"There's a man... a paladin. He says you're a heretic," Reiter said.
She laughed. "I suppose he would." Her eyes never left the book. Reiter stammered incoherently for a moment. "Did he threaten to kill me?" she asked.
"Well, not... Yes." Reiter tried to make his voice firm. "I think he means to kill you. He's waiting outside for you now."
"Nice of him to send you to warn me."
She continued to read. Reiter shifted uncomfortably. "Aren't you going to... face him?"
"Eventually. If he's still there," she said. "He might be waiting a while. I have a lot of reading left. Maybe he'll find something better to do."
Reiter felt utterly helpless. Dragging her out seemed like a bad idea. Still, he pressed forward. "Anajinn, I want you to leave my inn. Right now." She didn't immediately respond, and Reiter exploded. "What is wrong with you? What is in that book that's more important than a man trying to kill you? Why in the Hells have you come back to my inn?"
Anajinn sighed and set down her book, sitting up straight. Her armor clacked together lightly. "Your father asked my master—"
"The real Anajinn? The first one?" Reiter interrupted without thinking.
She didn't seem to take offense. "Her, yes. But she wasn't the first. Anajinn began her crusade a couple centuries ago," she said. Reiter blinked at that, but she moved on. "Your father asked all about our crusade. He didn't share that with you?" Reiter shook his head, lips pressed together. "Then I'll be brief. I'm searching for something to save my faith."
Anajinn's smile was sad. "Decay. Corruption."
"So why does this paladin hate you so much?"
"Would you be happy to have someone tell you your faith is flawed at its core? Doomed to rot and cause untold suffering and pain?" She sighed. "I don't think this paladin outside is of high rank. Knowledge of the crusade is suppressed to all but the leaders of his order. If he were one of them, he would not wait patiently."
"What would he do?"
"He would level your inn to kill me." Anajinn's expression hardened. "I don't know whether I can talk sense into him. If I can't, I'll likely need to leave town. So until I'm ready to leave, I'm going to finish my reading."
"But he threatened to kill me too!" There. It was out.
A pause. "Did he?"
"Well, not in so many words..."
Anajinn cut him off. "But you felt threatened." It wasn't a question. Anajinn closed her book. "Then I will leave immediately. I don't want you to feel at risk because of me.
"But this book," she said, holding it up. "Would you be willing to sell it? I can pay a fair price."
Reiter stared at her.
Amphi could feel his patience slipping away with each passing heartbeat, like grains of sand tumbling through the neck of an hourglass. Wind whipped through the road in front of the inn, grinding sand against his armor.
"Crusader," the paladin muttered. He could not recall where he had first heard the name. Perhaps he had read it? Studied it as an acolyte in Kurast? No. He was certain of it. So why did the name trouble him so? Crusaders were not friends of Amphi's order. He knew that much, but even that knowledge felt incomplete. The symbols on her armor were carefully, reverently rendered. No obvious blasphemy. She was not a clown, nor was she one of the actors who painted Zakarum symbols on their bodies and pranced around in low taverns.
Cennis. That was a name Amphi hadn't thought of in many years. One of his best friends in the Travincal temples, the boy had had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Maybe that was it. Cennis had snuck into the study of one of the Hand of Zakarum's elders one night and stolen a book. He had excitedly told Amphi about all the things he had learned, things the students had never been taught. He was even a little frightened. He had found hidden knowledge, lost crimes. Fractures within the faith. Strangely, Cennis disappeared soon after, and Amphi...
What had happened to Cennis? Amphi grew angry. It was a familiar feeling. Every time he thought back to his childhood, hatred and rage flowed into his mind. It was as if the memories were buried in a toxic cesspool, covered in vileness. Soon, his curiosity faded in a whirlwind of fury and—
The crusader. Amphi could feel his patience slipping away with each passing heartbeat like grains of sand. He pressed his hands to his head and blinked. What had he just been thinking about? A childhood friend? That was it. He put it out of his mind. There were more important things to focus on.
"You wanted to speak with me?" The voice brought Amphi back to the present. There she was.
Amphi spotted people darting indoors up and down the street. Travelers and inhabitants alike were taking cover. Wise of them, Amphi judged. He abruptly realized that the woman was giving him a strange look, her head cocked to one side. "Are you feeling well, paladin?" she asked.
"Tell me your name," he said harshly. "Tell me who you are, if the evil that compels you—"
"My name is Anajinn. I'm a crusader." She raised an eyebrow. "And I'm hoping we can have a calm conversation."
"I don't negotiate with evil. I smite it where I find it," Amphi snapped.
"Good," Anajinn said cheerfully. "Then we have something in common. But I believe there's no need for smiting today. What troubles you?"
Amphi drew his sword in a swift motion. Her gaze didn't waver, which only angered him more. "You are a heretic, are you not?"
"I am not," she said.
"You claim my faith?" he roared. "You claim obedience to Zakarum?"
"Not in the way you mean," Anajinn said. Pausing, she regarded him with sympathy. "We have much in common, paladin. Much in common. We both want the same things."
Amphi spat on the ground. Why were this woman's words gnawing at his insides? He could barely keep himself from attacking her here and now. The urge only grew stronger, yet he resisted, pressing on in a tight voice. "Those symbols you wear. They are sacred. You have no right to wear them."
The crusader shook her head. "That is not what troubles you, is it? Tell me what you know of me."
"You desecrate my faith," he said.
"I... don't... know," he growled.
"Here's what I know," Anajinn said. "I know that evil can thrive anywhere. Anywhere at all. Even among those who claim virtue and justice. Especially if they are not watchful."
"Be quiet," Amphi whispered. His anger was slipping away.
"I know that the path that led you to where you are is filled with regrets," she continued. "I know that you value righteousness, and I know you've come to suspect that something is wrong within the faith. I know that you've struggled to understand it, and most importantly, I know that you are strong, because you've not truly succumbed to evil yet."
"Please stop talking," Amphi begged. She was right. About all of it. There were endless moments when he questioned the actions of his order. His thoughts were in a tumult.
"I know you've felt the Light's glory, or else you would have discarded your oaths," she said. "And I know that you've felt it in the fields, among the world, among its people... but never in Travincal. Never in the temples of your order. And I know that you know why. Deep in your heart, you know. Even if the answers have been hidden from you."
Pain blazed between his eyes. He silently lowered his head. A storm raged within. He sank deep in its fury and looked for truth.
What he saw was a stone. Darkness surrounded it.
Something gave way. His turmoil vanished in an instant.
Hatred. Hatred took its place. Pure, naked hatred.
Amphi pointed his sword at the crusader, feeling clarity of purpose for the first time since laying eyes on her. He raised his hands above his head and summoned the power of the Light. "I am done with words, heretic. Die!" he roared.
Anajinn simply nodded. "So be it." She smiled sadly as Amphi cast his might down on her.
Reiter couldn't make out the paladin's words, but there was no mistaking how the expression on his face turned ugly. The innkeeper's son continued to peer through the front window of the inn. A moment later, Bea joined him.
"Get back," he hissed. "It's not safe."
"You first," she said. Reiter glowered at her, but a flash of light drew his gaze back to the street.
Bea inhaled sharply. Reiter flinched. The paladin had summoned... something... that glowed like the midday sun. The man held it above his head, shouted at Anajinn, and then cast it down on her.
Just before it landed, Reiter saw Anajinn smile.
There was a tremendous sound, and a great, billowing cloud of fire flared where Anajinn had been standing an instant ago. Of the crusader, there was no sign.
For the briefest moment.
Light crashed down from above, a bolt of pure power and radiance. Anajinn crashed down with it. The paladin didn't see it coming. And then he saw nothing at all.
Reiter shouted in fear and stumbled backward, throwing up his arms to shield his eyes from the blinding light. When he lowered his hands, the sharp purple shape of the bolt still danced in his vision. Blinking fiercely, he squinted. Anajinn stood alone, calm, flail slowly swinging at her side.
Of the paladin, there were signs. Many of them, scattered across a great distance. The sand surrounding Anajinn seemed damp.
Reiter felt himself beginning to tremble. Bea stood with her hands clasped over her mouth. Reiter stared numbly as Anajinn carefully placed the flail's shaft in her armor's securing loop, and then with one final look toward the inn, Anajinn walked west, down the road and out of Caldeum's Rest, with the setting sun as her guide.
She was accompanied by total silence. The town watched her go with bated breath.
Reiter heard noises from upstairs. From his father's quarters. Reiter sprinted to the second floor and opened the door. "Father, are you well?"
His father hadn't been so alive in months. He was staring out the window, eyes following Anajinn as she vanished into the desert. "She's the one, right? From years ago! I wish she had come up for a visit. I knew she had salt. She took proper care of that bastard, eh?"
"I suppose so," Reiter said.