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"I am not a heretic. I've walked in the faith my entire life." Reiter fought to keep his voice steady. Three impassive faces stared back at him. He couldn't tell if they believed him. "I am but a humble servant who hopes to live by the words of the wise prophet Akarat. I'm sure I stumble from time to time, but I—"
The smallest of the paladins, a thin, balding man with a pinched face, interrupted him. "That is precisely our concern. You seem to have stumbled," he said, shoving the innkeeper back. "You knowingly gave shelter to an enemy of the faith, and one of the righteous died trying to rectify that. One of our brothers."
"No, no!" Reiter gasped as the paladin slammed him against the wall. The wooden slats creaked under the impact. "When your brother asked for my help, I gave it to him. Without hesitation!"
"With Amphi dead, we only have your word for that," the second paladin said. "But what we do know is that, of all the buildings in this Akarat-forsaken outpost, the heretic chose to rest at yours."
"I cannot see what is in a person's heart when they step through my door," Reiter pleaded. The first paladin's hand squeezed his shoulder. Hard. Reiter squawked in pain. "I've not held anything back! I've told you everything I remember about her, and she's not returned for years!"
The third paladin broke his silence. "He did tell us her name," he said. "Anajinn. That is more than we knew before."
The first paladin shook his head. "I still think he's hiding something." He kept Reiter pinned against the wall with one hand and lifted his other in front of the innkeeper's face. A shimmering light danced between his fingers. "I want him to understand how serious I am." Reiter fruitlessly tried to squirm out of his grip. Sparks leaped from the paladin's fist. One landed on Reiter's nose, and he screamed as pain stabbed through his skull.
"Enough, Cennis," the third paladin said. "If the reports are true, if the crusader is in the area, we will find her. She can't hide in the desert forever without visiting this oasis. There's no need to torment this poor fool any longer."
"Do not question me. I am in charge." The first paladin slowly pushed his hand closer to Reiter's face.
The second paladin firmly gripped the first's arm. "Enough." The two stared at each other for a long moment. Reiter, blinking away tears, feared they would turn on one another. This was far less frightening than the thought of both turning on him.
"Fine," the first paladin said, and he released Reiter. The innkeeper dropped to his knees, clutching his left shoulder and wheezing, snot dripping from his nose to the floor. "Perhaps you're right. The news out of Travincal, the temples... Maybe I am a bit hasty, but I will not apologize."
"There is no need," the second paladin said. "He did give her shelter, however unwittingly. I assume he won't repeat that mistake."
Reiter shook his head desperately. "No, never."
"Good," the first paladin said. "And if you catch a glimpse of that foul being ever again, you will inform us without hesitation." He leaned down, placing himself nose to nose with the innkeeper. "Do you understand?"
All three of the paladins turned together and left the inn. There were no customers in the common room. Reiter was alone, gasping and weeping.
A hesitant voice spoke. "Are you all right, Father?"
Reiter gave one final sniff, wiped his eyes, and turned to face his daughter, Lilsa. "Of course. I'm fine. Just some sand in my eyes. Makes me look like a fool sometimes." He stood up and forced himself to smile. She was barely four, though she often seemed smarter than most children twice her age. "Those nice men decided to stay somewhere else for the night."
She bit one of her thumbnails before answering. "They didn't seem nice to me."
Reiter made himself laugh. "I suppose they weren't." He wiped his eyes again. "Where's your mother?"
"Out back with the nice ladies wearing the shiny metal," Lilsa said.
Her words, delivered with total innocence, made him freeze in mid-step. Reiter felt all of the blood drain out of his face.
It wasn't possible. It couldn't be.
Quickly he knelt down, getting face to face with his daughter. She flinched back at his expression, and he tried to smile again. "What nice ladies, Lilsa?" She drew away from him. Maybe his smile hadn't been terribly convincing. "Which ladies, Lilsa? It's important," he repeated.
Her eyes were wide. "Two ladies. I think one of them's hurt," Lilsa finally said.
Reiter gently picked Lilsa up and strode through the storeroom, opening the back door. The blistering desert sun assaulted his senses, but there was no mistaking what he was seeing. Three women sat together on the long wooden bench behind the inn.
Sitting on one side was Bea, carefully handling a damp cloth. On the other side sat a teenage girl Reiter had never seen before. In the middle was...
"What are you doing back here?" Reiter hissed in a panic, setting his daughter down.
"She's injured, Reiter," Bea said firmly. "Be calm."
"I don't care! My inn was just invaded because of her." Reiter turned on Anajinn, who had her head lowered and was breathing slowly. "You have brought your enemies down on my inn, crusader, and—" Reiter went silent with a frown. The dirt underneath the bench was wet. Blood dripped from beneath her armor. "What happened?"
The younger woman, the teenager, answered. She was about as old as Anajinn—this Anajinn—had been when Reiter first met her. "We ran into a bit of trouble out in the desert yesterday, and Anajinn forgot to dodge." She carefully removed the crusader's chestplate. Reiter gasped. An angry, gaping tear reached from one side of Anajinn's abdomen to the other. "Wounds from demons' blades don't close easily."
Reiter felt his daughter clutch his leg. "Demons?"
Anajinn spoke in a slurred voice. "You don't need to worry about it. It was taken care of."
The younger woman snorted. "You were almost taken care of. I need to try healing you again." She knelt in front of Anajinn and opened a thick book, an old tome written in ancient script. The apprentice marked out a place on a page and showed it to Anajinn. "Should I start here?"
"Yes," Anajinn said. "Focus. Concentrate. Reach out with your faith."
Reiter looked between the two with confusion. "I don't understand; what are—" Bea's hand sliced through the air. He quieted.
The crusader said nothing further. Her apprentice began to speak, reciting an old law of the Zakarum faith. Reiter frowned. What would a sermon accomplish here? Though he had to admit, the words of hope weren't unwelcome. The day suddenly seemed a bit brighter, a bit warmer. Inviting. Reiter lifted his gaze in wonder. It was as though the Light was shining down on them all.
The apprentice finished the passage and closed the book. "Done," she said. Anajinn raised her head and stood up. She wobbled on her feet for a moment but waved off the apprentice's offered hand. She rolled her shoulders and stretched. Her shirt was still stained red, but there were no signs of fresh blood.
"Well done," Anajinn said. The apprentice beamed.
Reiter blinked. The crusader's wound was gone. As though it had never existed. "Did... what...?" He gathered himself. "It doesn't matter. You need to leave right now."
"Reiter," Bea said in a warning tone, but he shook his head and went on.
"I have a daughter; I have a pregnant wife; and I have an inn to protect," he said. "There are three paladins—I hope only three!—in town, and they know you're in the area. Leave my inn in peace. Please."
Reiter expected an argument. He expected Anajinn to object. But she simply nodded and wearily strapped her chestplate back on. "I'm sorry they've troubled you. Most of their hearts used to be in the right place, but in the past few weeks, they have grown truly lost." Her apprentice handed her a sheathed sword and her flail. The weapons hung naturally off her armor, and finally, Anajinn picked up her shield. "Be very wary of anyone who hails from Travincal. Something dramatic has happened there. They may be unstable."
"I know that, crusader," Reiter snapped. "One of them was a heartbeat away from taking my head off. They blame me for what you did! They hold me accountable for that other paladin's death."
Anajinn stopped moving. "Do they?"
"Yes!" Reiter leaned toward the woman, his face growing red with anger and embarrassment. "You came to my inn. Not anybody else's. Mine. They think that makes me guilty. They told me they thought I was hiding something."
"Where are they now?" Anajinn asked quietly.
"They're someone else's problem. It sounded like they wanted to search the rest of Caldeum's Rest." Reiter pulled back, satisfied at the look on her face. "So. You've caused me enough trouble. I want you to leave my inn. Now."
Anajinn and her apprentice exchanged unreadable glances, and then the crusader let the edge of her shield slide back onto the sand. She shook her head. "We can't leave."
"Good," Bea announced. "You two need to rest before going anywhere."
Reiter's mouth fell open. "Bea!"
She gave him a challenging stare. "We have plenty of room. We have no customers. We can keep them safe for a couple nights of sleep."
"What about them? They left," Bea said. "These two came in from the south. The desert, not the main road. Nobody saw them. We'll set up cots in the second storeroom and pile boxes of turnips and dried beef in front of the door. If the paladins return, they won't know there's a room there. You can even invite them to search. That's what we did when the bandits showed up last year. You thought it was a great idea then."
"There's a bigger problem," Anajinn said. Bea and Reiter both turned to look at her. "The paladins will return, and it won't matter whether they see us."
"What? Why?" Reiter asked.
"They already blame you." Anajinn's voice was cold. "They are not in their right minds. There is a very high chance that when their search of the town yields nothing, they will take out their anger on you. Or others. They are fueled by hatred, not divine purpose. You and your family are in danger, innkeeper."
"Because of you!"
"Yes," she said. "And I will not leave you and your town to their mercy. If you don't want me to protect your inn directly, my apprentice and I will set up camp in the desert, out of eyeshot. If we hear or sense—"
"Oh, don't be absurd. You'll be fine in one of our storerooms," Bea said. She cut off Reiter's splutters of rage with a sharp look. "It won't be trouble. Let me talk with my husband for a moment."
Reiter allowed her to lead him and Lilsa back inside, out of the crusader's earshot, before erupting in harsh whispers. "Are you out of your mind, Bea? Those paladins will kill us!"
Bea waited until he finished. "Lilsa, can you go up to your room for a minute?" she asked. The girl disappeared up the stairs. Bea rounded upon Reiter, her tone filled with contempt. "That's what you want your daughter to see? Her father sending two people—one of them wounded!—into the desert because he's scared of what three strangers will think?"
"That's completely unfair," Reiter said. "Anajinn has brought death on our heads, and no matter how much those men hate her, they wouldn't possibly kill us just because she stayed here six or seven years ago. Not unless they actually did find her here. Think of Lilsa. Think of the one on the way." Reiter laid a gentle hand on Bea's swelling stomach. "Our children need Anajinn to leave. Now. Be reasonable."
Bea looked down at his hand and then raised her gaze to meet Reiter's. "So you're willing to believe those paladins over Anajinn?"
"As I said, I'm sure Anajinn is just overreacting," Reiter said.
She removed his hand from her belly. "Those men threatened to kill you. She has been nothing but kind and honest." Her eyes narrowed. "I don't know why you dislike her so much, but I believe her. If the paladins might still harm us, we need her here. To protect our children. How's that for reasonable?" She turned but offered a final parting shot over her shoulder. "Whatever your father's faults, he was not a coward. He would be ashamed of you right now." She stepped outside to speak with the other women.
Reiter felt sick. She doesn't understand. She'll get us all killed. He could hear armor rattling outside; the crusader was preparing to enter. He fled to the common room. He didn't want to see her. He needed to think.
My father would be ashamed? Reiter frowned. His father certainly once had a fondness for charity, which Reiter had never shared, but above all he was a practical man. A reasonable man.
Though Reiter had to admit Bea was correct about one thing: the paladins might come back. He shivered.
Maybe, just maybe, Anajinn and her apprentice could stand against them. He had seen what she had done to that other paladin all those years ago. Reiter hadn't understood it, but he'd seen it.
But she had been healthy that day, he reminded himself. Rested. Confident. Today was different. She was near death only minutes earlier. No matter how powerful her apprentice was or how effectively they fought together...
She can't beat them, Reiter decided. All it would take was one surviving paladin, and his family would suffer the consequences.
Inform us without hesitation, the paladin Cennis had told him.
Reiter stood up. That was the way out, he realized with a rush of hope. The paladins might be unreasonable until they found Anajinn, but once they did, they would undoubtedly calm down. And if Reiter was the one who led them to her, they'd know he was sincere about not wanting to help her. They'd probably even praise him for his forthrightness.
But Anajinn... she and her apprentice would die. Better them than my family, he told himself firmly. He quietly slipped out of the inn.
Caldeum's Rest was not a large place. Reiter was confident he could find them. He strode west. Inform us without hesitation. His calm strides quickened. Then he began to jog.
Soon, he was running.
The blacksmith didn't slow his stroke on the anvil. "I understand, good sir." Sparks flew each time his hammer landed. "If a woman in strange armor enters—"
"If any woman enters," Cennis snapped. "The heretic may try to disguise herself. She would seek to trick you and lead you into sin."
"Yes, good sir," the blacksmith said. "If any woman enters, I should come find you or one of your brothers." He picked up the thin slab of red-hot metal with tongs and examined it closely. With a grunt, he laid it back on the anvil and began hammering the edges again. "Was there anything else you needed, good sir?"
Cennis's fingers twitched. "Look at me when I'm talking to you, blacksmith," he said softly.
"Of course," the blacksmith said. He gave the paladin a cursory glance and went back to work. "Whatever you say, good sir."
There wasn't an ounce of mocking in the man's voice, but Cennis felt anger bubbling up anyway. He stepped closer to the blacksmith. "Am I distracting you? Am I keeping you from your important work?"
"No, good sir, I'm listening," he said. He met Cennis's eyes again and blinked, seeing something dangerous there for the first time. With a heavy sigh, he tossed the steel haphazardly into the nearest quenching barrel. Steam rose with an angry hiss. "I apologize. What else do you need to know, good sir?"
"What were you making?" the paladin asked lightly.
"A barrel scraper," he said. "The innkeeper down the road needs one."
"The owner of the Oasis Inn?"
Cennis nodded calmly. "I understand." He truly did. He understood more than this fool would ever suspect. This entire town is close-knit. They live in sin together. They deserved punishment together.
A wonderful idea occurred to him. He glanced around; his fellow paladins were elsewhere, interrogating other people. Good. "And if you had already seen the heretic, you would tell me, right?"
"Of course, good sir," the blacksmith said.
"I don't believe you."
The blacksmith frowned. Cennis casually raised his right hand, as though inspecting his gauntlet. Wiggling his fingers, he leaned over the anvil. The blacksmith took an instinctive step back. Afraid of a servant of the faith? What are you hiding?
"I want you to know how serious I am," Cennis said. He clenched his fist, and the Light filled him. A glowing shape appeared between the two men. "I'm sure you make fine barrel scrapers. What do you know about hammers?"
The blacksmith stumbled backward. Even his sinful eyes could not mistake the hammer of pure Light suspended in midair. Oddly, the man's gaze darted around the room. Cennis followed his look but saw nothing of interest. Maybe the shadows seemed a bit strange. Growing and shifting. Cennis remembered when a blessed hammer of Light would banish all shadows. That felt like a long time ago. A lifetime ago. When he was a boy.
Cennis held a hand to his forehead and frowned. His head hurt. The hammer wavered and vanished. Thinking about his childhood brought pain and interrupted his concentration. He grimaced and shook away the notion. A lifetime ago. Not relevant now. The hammer reappeared.
"Good sir." The blacksmith's voice trembled. "I—"
Cennis lightly swung the hammer. The anvil exploded away from him. The blacksmith clutched his middle and fell, screaming, a piece of metal lodged in his guts.
"I'm sorry, good sir," Cennis said. "You were saying?" The look on the other man's face was delicious. Total helplessness. Total fear. Cennis held the glowing hammer mere inches from the blacksmith. "Why don't you tell me what you really know about the heretic?"
The blacksmith begged. He wept. He swore he knew nothing. He cried out for Akarat's mercy. A little late for that. What sort of lost creature would continue to lie? What had he seen with his eyes that he refused to mention? Cennis hesitated. Perhaps stronger measures were needed. He reached out, just a bit, toward the blacksmith's face, and...
The other man's cries went silent. His eyes, wide open, reflected the hammer's Light in an interesting way. In a pure way. Unblemished by iris or pupil.
Then red crept in, ruining the perfectly white orbs, pooling beneath the man's eyelids. Cennis watched, fascinated. Twin pops, unexpectedly loud, sent crimson flowing down his cheeks, joined by tiny streams of white fluid. Still, the man didn't scream. His tongue was paralyzed by sheer terror.
Cennis abruptly realized what he had done. This man would likely be unable to answer questions for hours, if not days, he chided himself. A waste. Shaking his head, the paladin reached out with the Light and removed the blacksmith's tongue with a quick tug. He didn't even need to use his hands. The pink flesh flopped onto the sandy floor, and finally, the blacksmith screamed, a tortured, wordless sound. Cennis let him. This was a fine idea. The crusader was in the area; he was certain of it. But what sort of shelter could she find if the entire town was filled only with the blind and the mute? It was no less than they deserved for harboring a heretic years earlier. Yes, he decided, he would go door to door—
"Akarat save us." A breathless whisper at the smithy's entrance. Cennis turned calmly. The innkeeper. That innkeeper. He stared at the blacksmith, who continued to wail.
"Akarat cannot save you," Cennis told the innkeeper. "Nobody can."
"I..." The innkeeper's eyes jerked between Cennis and what remained of the blacksmith. "I came to tell you... as you commanded... without hesitation..."
"Oh, I doubt that," Cennis said sadly. He hooked his finger, and a shimmering loop of Light encircled the innkeeper's throat. The paladin cinched it tight, very tight. The innkeeper began to choke. "The woman returned, didn't she? And you waited to tell me. I know your kind. You waited." He hooked his finger again, and again. More loops of Light cinched tightly, pinning the innkeeper's wrists together, pinning his elbows together. The gasping turned into whispered screams.
Cennis stepped outside, tugging the innkeeper along. "Brothers!" he called out. "Brothers, the sinner is here!" After a moment's thought, he raised his hands again and showered sparks across the smithy's roof. Smoke rose instantly, tiny flames joining together into large sheets of fire. He nodded with satisfaction. His fellow paladins sometimes felt squeamish about treating evil as... decisively... as Cennis preferred, so he would ease their minds of the knowledge. Fire was wonderful for cleaning up loose ends.
The innkeeper was forcing words through his constricted throat. "Family... mercy..."
"Hush now," Cennis said.
"Honey, don't touch the nice lady's shield," Bea said gently, lifting Lilsa into her arms. Patting her daughter on the back, Bea frowned down at Anajinn. "You're not planning to sleep in that armor, are you?"
The crusader raised her head off the bed and smiled. "Looks silly, doesn't it?" With a deep sigh, she lay back. Her apprentice sat on a stool at the foot of the bed, pouring tea into three cups. Anajinn shifted her weight, and the armor softly clinked together.
It did look silly. Bea suppressed a grin. "I'm pretty sure you'll sleep better if you take it off," she said. Lilsa giggled into her ear. "See? My daughter agrees."
"She's probably right," Anajinn said. Her smile looked sincere, but fatigue pinched her eyes. Bea suspected this wasn't the first time she had been close to death recently. "But if those gentlemen return, I may need to act quickly."
Bea went quiet. Lilsa was staring in fascination at the way the lamplight was playing off the armor. "I cannot believe that they would actually mean us harm. Serious harm." But the paladins' words to Reiter had carried through the inn's walls. She had heard their anger. Could she really be sure what they were capable of? "I grew up here. I've seen all sorts of people come and go. Paladins weren't rare. They always seemed so nice when I was a child. In recent years, they seem..." She hesitated. "Do you know what's happened? Why they're so troubled?"
The apprentice gave Anajinn a questioning look. Anajinn was silent for a moment. "Their darkness has come to the surface. That darkness is what drives my crusade," she said.
"You hate paladins?" Bea said.
"Not at all," Anajinn said. "Our faiths share the same roots. I see them as brothers and sisters. Lost, but family." The apprentice handed her a cup of tea. She sipped it before continuing. "Centuries ago, a very wise man noticed that the core of the Zakarum faith had been corrupted. Infected. It was subtle, but elements of evil had crept deep into our foundations. Judging by the news out of Travincal, that evil is no longer creeping but has been leaping and shouting openly for the past few years. It has literally become the home of Hatred. Whoever destroyed that place did the world a favor."
Travincal had been destroyed? Bea shifted uncomfortably on her feet. She hadn't heard that news, had heard only that something terrible had happened there.
"There are good people among their order. But those inclined toward evil have overwhelmed the righteous, I fear," Anajinn said. "The destruction of their haven might unbalance the rest."
Bea accepted a cup of tea from the apprentice. Her hand trembled only a little. "And your crusade is to eradicate them?"
Anajinn shook her head. "My crusade is to eradicate the evil that corrupts them. To search for something that might cleanse the faith. I thought it was out in that desert a few days ago..." A tired smile appeared. "We cleansed something, to be sure. It wasn't the faith."
"My bowels, maybe," the apprentice mumbled.
Bea was shocked at the language, but the crusader simply laughed. "Seeing a few demons leap from the shadows is an excellent way to cleanse those. We took care of the stronghold, and that's never a waste of time. I'm not sorry we made the trip." Anajinn frowned as though something unpleasant had just occurred to her. "Where is your husband, Bea?"
"Probably sulking upstairs in his study," Bea said in a mischievous whisper. "He does that when he doesn't get his way."
Anajinn did not smile back. "I haven't heard any footsteps upstairs. Or anywhere else in this inn. Can you find him, please?"
"I suppose so," Bea said. Still holding Lilsa, she stepped out of the small room. "Reiter?" she called.
Lilsa's voice joined hers. "Faaaaaather!"
There was no answer. Strange. Bea wandered into the common room and called Reiter's name again. Silence. "Where do you think your father is?" she quietly asked Lilsa. The girl shrugged her shoulders. Bea walked back to the crusader's room. "I guess he left for a moment. Anajinn, why—"
The crusader was already on her feet, gripping her shield and flail. Her apprentice shucked a short sword out of its sheath.
"I fear," Anajinn said, "your husband has made a terrible mistake."