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The cord of Light—or whatever it was—around his neck didn't ease a hair when the paladins forced him to stop. Reiter could hear his skin beginning to sizzle from its heat. His hands scrabbled in vain behind his back, bound by the wrists.
His eyes... his eyes. Akarat, my eyes! Darkness everywhere. The paladin had crooked a finger at him, and pain had blazed through his head and destroyed his vision.
Reiter was blind. Utterly blind.
"It is good that you came to us with your sin as quickly as you did," the lead paladin whispered in his ear. "We will send you to the judgment of Zakarum without too much pain. At least you have given me extra practice. Your eyes will remain in your head." A hand shoved Reiter to his knees. He wheezed helplessly, only able to suck a tiny thread of air down his throat.
He could hear the three paladins spreading out in the street. Reiter desperately tried to choke out some final plea—spare my family; take the crusader, but spare my family—but all that escaped from his mouth were incoherent rasps. He fell onto his side. He strained his ears, hoping to hear a door or a window open anywhere down the street. No, he realized. There would be no help. Not from anyone else in this town. It wouldn't be reasonable to step into this fight.
The lead paladin called out in a clear, strong voice. "Heretic!" After a moment, he tried again. "Heretic! The one named Anajinn! I am Master Cennis. In the name of the Zakarum faith that you choose to defile, surrender immediately for judgment."
Heavy footsteps sounded from the inn's wooden balcony. Reiter could see nothing but darkness, but he could clearly hear her. She was stepping out of the door without hesitation.
"Innkeeper, know this," Anajinn said. "I will do what I can to ensure your family's safety." Her voice was filled with pity and sadness, not with the anger and recrimination he expected.
"A waste of time," the lead paladin spat. "Anyone who harbors a heretic—anyone—must face the same fate as the heretic," he added with a leering grin.
Doors and windows slammed shut up and down the road. Other than that, there was no sound anywhere else in Caldeum's Rest. The whole town held its breath.
Anajinn eyed the three paladins. The one in the middle, the one standing above Reiter, seemed to be in charge. The other two stood ready, but she thought she could see hesitation in their eyes. It was to them that she spoke.
"Your leader is speaking of murdering an innkeeper, his wife, and a young girl. And the wife is bearing another child," she said. Contempt dripped from every word. "Master Cennis would kill them without a moment of regret. Have you truly fallen so far? Have you truly sunk to his level of evil?"
That sparked another torrent from Cennis, angry words about justice and righteousness and heresy, but she didn't listen. She watched the other two. They stole glances at each other.
They knew who Cennis was. They knew what kind of monster he had become. They almost certainly never admitted it to each other or to themselves, but they knew. They knew, deep within their bones, that what was about to happen was wrong.
But as she watched, she saw the expression of one harden. The second soon followed. Only hatred remained in their eyes. Anajinn bowed her head. They did not like the idea; they did not relish the idea; but they would obey. They might regret their actions; perhaps this would even be the moment that could one day lead to their redemption. But the price of that redemption would be the lives of innocents.
The paladin continued to rant. Anajinn took in a very, very deep breath, allowing the air and the Light to fill her completely. It did not erase her fatigue. Exhaustion seemed embroidered across every inch of her body.
But the Light gave her strength. As it always did. As it always would, until she reached the end of her journey.
"So be it," she said, and charged.
And the Light whirled around her.
A terrible and wonderful tone rang out. Bea flinched. Lilsa listened in silence, mouth open with awe. New noises arose, the sound of unearthly fury. Of battle.
"Reiter, oh no, Reiter," Bea breathed.
The apprentice led them behind the buildings along the town's single street, taking them away from the confrontation. Her short sword was in her right hand, point up. Her left hand had a firm grip on Bea's. "Keep moving," she whispered. Other residents of the town were fleeing into the desert, in ones and twos and small groups. They looked prepared to take their chances in the barren wilds rather than stay a moment longer.
"My husband, is he...?"
She shook her head. "Anajinn will not let him die as long as she lives." Another deep, echoing noise cascaded over the buildings. "And she still lives."
A tremendous crash cut off any further comment. Something—someone—smashed through the back wall of the inn, tumbling through the sand. Bea's breath caught in her throat. Someone had been thrown through the entire inn. Pieces of the roof began to collapse. It looked as if the building would soon follow. The figure skidding to a stop in the desert wasn't Reiter, but who—
"Into the alley," the apprentice said. "Quietly, now."
Bea allowed herself to be herded into the tight alley between two adobe walls. "Who was that? Are they dead?"
The apprentice stole a glance back around the corner. "It was one of the paladins, and no, he's not." And reluctantly, she added, "He's heading around the side. Trying to sneak around the fight, to strike Anajinn from behind." She looked down at her sword and then at Bea.
"Do you need to help her?" Bea asked.
The apprentice hesitated. "She told me not to leave you."
"We will stay out of harm's way," Bea said. Still the apprentice didn't move. "Will these men stop at killing your master? At killing my husband?"
"No," the apprentice said softly.
"Then go," Bea said.
Anajinn raised her shield and let the hammer glance off. The impact shook her to her bones. She spared a quick look through the hole in the inn. The paladin she had blasted away was beginning to rise to his feet. Not dead. She was more fatigued than she had realized. The blow should have put him down for good.
The other two paladins advanced relentlessly. The lead paladin, the one called Cennis, spun hammers of the Light at her again and again, while the other sent a continuous barrage of shimmering, bright bolts. She kept her shield high, intercepting each attack. When the second paladin rushed to within three paces, she lowered her shoulder, braced against her shield, and pushed.
A solid wall of power, of Light, met the charging paladin. Red mist expanded outward. When the Light faded, crimson hung in the air. Bones, only bones, cracked and fractured and dry, fell to the sand. Even the man's clothes had been scattered like dust.
Anajinn did not exult in his death. She simply turned toward Cennis and swung her flail. With a startled, angry cry, he leaped backward, flinging another hammer, which caught her across the right shoulder. Agony erupted, but she coldly ignored it.
The paladin hissed and squinted at what remained of his brother. "You filthy, interfering murderer. Spawn of evil."
"It'll be more pleasant for everyone if you stop talking," Anajinn said.
She suddenly dropped into a crouch and pushed against her shield again, but the paladin reacted faster than his brother had. He raised his arms and parted her blast with one of his own. His counterattack rattled her shield, but she was already moving forward, flail whirling over her head. He called another hammer to meet her weapon, but the crusader let her shield lead the way, focusing the Light in front of her as she stormed through his attack and bowled him over into the sand. Then she lashed out with her flail, and pure, bright power leapt forth like lightning.
The paladin snarled and lifted his hands. Caught the lightning. Sent it back at her.
She didn't even bother dodging. She let the Light skip across her head and armor without flinching.
"Devil." The paladin cursed. "Demon. Damned."
"The Light does not harm the righteous," Anajinn said, a cold smile touching her lips. "Can you say the same for the power you use?"
Enraged, he scrambled to his feet and flung himself toward her. Her flail and his hammer collided. The shock of the impact shattered glass windows along the town's main road. Anajinn stepped forward, ignoring her growing tiredness and—
—she was in the dirt, face down. Gasping. Her shield was no longer in her grip. Rolling onto her back, she swung her weapon, sensing rather than seeing the follow-up blow coming. The spiked weight of her flail landed solidly on Cennis's right leg, in the gap between his armor. His hammer vanished only inches above her head, and he stumbled backward, bleeding and screaming.
Who had blindsided her? And with what? She tried to push herself to her feet, but her arms and legs trembled and gave way, and she flopped back into the sand. This is bad, she thought. Scorch marks crawled up her left side, and every breath scraped her throat. Burned on the inside. Burned from the inside. She swore she could actually feel her guts turning crispy.
Well, she thought. That's new.
Gritting her teeth, she strained to stand upright, ignoring the pain, the fatigue, the weakness. "You chose this life," she reminded herself out loud. Her voice sounded guttural to her own ears. "Embrace it. Curse it. Just don't regret it." Her master had told her that, long ago. Keep moving. She hefted her shield again and squinted down the road.
Bright lights clashed and sparked about a hundred paces away. The wounded paladin, Cennis, was gesturing wildly. The other surviving paladin, the one Anajinn had hurled through the building, was there. So that's who blindsided me. He was flinging power at someone else now, someone without armor and carrying a sword...
"Oh, you fool girl," Anajinn muttered. Her apprentice had a tendency to disobey orders. Just like I did, she thought wryly. But the teenager wasn't stupid. Inexperienced, but not stupid. If she hadn't joined the fight, Anajinn likely would be dead. The second paladin would have finished her off.
Anajinn saw the innkeeper, lying helplessly on the ground, bound by the paladin's power, and very near to suffocating, judging by the purple hue of his face. She knelt down and dispelled the bindings with a casual gesture.
Deep, hoarse gasps erupted from Reiter's throat, and he opened his eyes.
Anajinn flinched. His eyes had gone pure white. Blinded. Smoke rose from much farther down the street—the smithy, she guessed, shaking her head. She could only imagine what Cennis had wrought there. It was a problem for later.
"You're fine," Anajinn told Reiter. I wish I could say the same for myself. "If you can, stand up. You need to get out of the street." She looked up. Her apprentice was still holding her ground. Cennis was injured, and the other paladin was probably rattled from his trip through a building. They both fought unsteadily. Her apprentice was nearly dancing circles around them.
A smile tweaked Anajinn's lips. "Hurry, please." The innkeeper tried to speak, but the words emerged as frightened huffs. I'm sorry, he was trying to say. Anajinn patted him on the shoulder. She could see his guilt written on his face, even in his blank eyes. "They will not be kind if they find you. Hide well," she said. Finally, he was able to push himself into a lurching, unbalanced run, his hands splayed out before him.
"Hide well," Anajinn whispered. She had not told him to flee the town. She knew as well as any that most sane people wouldn't dare try to walk across the Kehjistani desert without a fully supplied caravan. A blind man, a newly blind man at that, wouldn't have a chance.
To keep Reiter and the rest of the town safe, the paladins had to die.
She could see Cennis limping as he bore down on the apprentice. The girl was darting in and out of the paladins' range. She had no armor, and she used her nimbleness to her advantage, scoring a small wound on the second paladin's arm while throwing up a wall of power to stop his attack.
Anajinn staggered into the fray, smiling grimly. What kind of master would she be if she let her apprentice have all the fun?
"This way, Lilsa," Bea said. It was an effort to keep her voice calm, but she managed. They slid along the side wall of the trade house, edging toward the road. "Just a little farther."
Lilsa clung to her hand and looked scared, but she wasn't crying or shouting. "Is the crusader going to beat the bad men?"
"Absolutely," she said with more confidence than she felt. "Let's go find your father." She had seen Reiter stumbling toward the other side of the street. Fear boiled in the pit of her stomach; he had looked badly hurt and incoherent.
A thundering roar overwhelmed everything. It was a long, drawn-out crash, filled with the sounds of snapping wood slats and crumbling walls. Bea froze until the din subsided, leaving only the fury of battle in the air.
She peeked around the corner, and her breath caught in her throat.
The Oasis Inn, her home, as well as the new apothecary next door, lay in ruins. A massive blow had taken them both off their foundations. Bea whispered a prayer. She thought she had seen the doctor and his wife flee the apothecary earlier. She hoped they had.
Across the street, through an alley, Bea saw someone stumbling around, feeling his way along the walls. Reiter. To get to him, Bea and Lilsa would need to cross the street in full view of the combatants.
They're going to wreck Caldeum's Rest if this goes on for much longer, Bea told herself. It seemed hiding behind a building would be no protection at all, judging by the power they were slinging around. Going was likely not much more dangerous than staying put.
She took a deep breath and scooped Lilsa into her arms. "Ready to go meet your father?" she asked. Lilsa nodded.
"Then let's go," she said, sprinting into the road.
Snarling, Cennis continued to throw hammer after hammer at the two heretics. Again and again, the armored one blocked his blows and the younger one danced out of the way.
The girl suddenly stepped in and slashed. Her sword clanged off the plate on his forearm. Only by sheer luck did she miss taking his arm off at his exposed elbow. He let her jump back out of his range and formed another hammer. Behind her, this time.
The apprentice spun and raised her hands to ward off the attack, but Cennis let it fizzle and threw another hammer straight from his chest. She twisted her sword, and the hammer struck steel instead of flesh, but the impact launched her dozens of paces back. With a smile, Cennis turned his full attention on the crusader. Anajinn. She still fought hard, staring at both paladins with cold determination, but the power of her blows was weakening. As it should. As all enemies of the Hand of Zakarum inevitably did when confronted by righteousness. She swung her flail once, twice, three times, missing by a couple paces.
"Time to die," he said.
"As you say," she replied. And suddenly there were two crusaders... three... four... charging...
With a yell, Cennis lashed out wildly as two misty, translucent figures converged on him, each swinging a flail that whistled through the air. His attacks found both, and they disappeared like smoke in a breeze.
The other paladin wasn't so quick. Two more Anajinns swung their flails, and pieces of the man went in different directions. The mist vanished, and there was just one Anajinn again. She leaned on her shield, exhausted but flashing Cennis a small, savage grin.
"Tell me, paladin," she said. "Did your elders have to drag you into the clutches of evil, or did you go willingly?"
Cennis stared at her with wild eyes. The apprentice was returning to the fight, slowly, in pain, but surely. For a few moments, he simply stood. Then he turned and fled, limping, bleeding.
He heard Anajinn groan. "Don't make me chase you," she called. He bared his teeth, fury and fear battling within his mind. Got to get away. Got to kill her. Got to... got to...
Down the street, a shape moved into an alley. Cennis followed it.
Anajinn waited for the apprentice to catch up. "That could have gone worse," the crusader remarked with a pained smile.
The apprentice was out of breath. "The paladin... innkeeper's wife..."
Anajinn's smile disappeared. "Where?" The apprentice pointed toward an alley up ahead. Cennis vanished into it.
Somehow, they found the strength to run after him.
"Reiter," Bea said, her hands clasped on his cheeks. "What did they do to you?"
His white eyes rolled around in his head. "I can't see," he said. His voice was strained. He gripped her wrists as though terrified she would let him go. "He took... I can't see. Are you hurt? Lilsa? Is she here?"
"I'm here," Lilsa said. The child's eyes were wide and shiny with tears.
Reiter crouched down, not quite looking in the right direction, reaching blindly. "Lilsa?" Finally his hands found her, and he pulled her close. He rocked back and forth, eyes turned upward as though trying to meet Bea's gaze. "I'm sorry," he croaked. "I'm so sorry."
"Doesn't matter now," Bea said as firmly as she could. "I think..." She listened for a moment. The sounds of battle had ceased. "I think the fight is over."
"Who won?" Reiter whispered.
Bea opened her mouth to say, I don't know, but another voice cut her off. "The Hand of Zakarum always wins, filth."
The scream was unmistakable. A child. "Go around the side," Anajinn said softly.
The apprentice shook her head. "I'm not leaving you."
"And I'm not asking. Go around the side." The crusader's voice was no longer soft. The apprentice reluctantly nodded and limped around the building, a cooper's shop, by the looks of it.
Anajinn hoped the innkeeper and his family had already fled the area. But she never relied on hope. "Paladin!" Anajinn called out. "Are you truly planning to bring innocents into our fight?"
A shadow appeared at the edge of the alley. "In this town, there are no innocents," a furious voice said. "Not when it shelters the likes of you."
Anajinn set her jaw and raised her shield. She suspected appealing to his mercy would be less than useless. Stoking his pride, however...
"Do you hide in the darkness, then?" She needed to draw him out, needed to give her apprentice a chance to flank him. "Is that how the servants of the faith fight?"
With a feral snarl, he stepped out. Anajinn's heart sank. His left arm was around Bea's throat. His right fist hovered an inch away from her ear. Worse, Lilsa was in Bea's arms. The girl clutched her mother's abdomen, staring at the man holding them both hostage.
Sparks flew from the paladin's right fist. Bea didn't flinch, even when the sparks found her flesh. Good, Anajinn thought. Show him nothing. Show your daughter nothing.
"How proud would the elders be to see you now?" Anajinn asked. "How proud would the congregation in the Travincal temples be to see a champion of their faith cowering behind a pregnant woman and a child?"
Cennis laughed, a desperate sound. "There is no congregation. Not anymore. Travincal... I don't believe I have any elders, either. But I will do the task they assigned me."
"And what task is that?"
"Heretics. There's always so many heretics. I know what you are." His half-mad laughter echoed through the street. "Few in my order do. But I know. You think we are corrupt. Damned. But you are the ones who left, crusader. You and your kind, you ran. You faced nothing. You scuttled away into the swamplands to hide. We stayed behind to deal with the problem."
"Is that what your elders told you? They lied."
It was as though he didn't hear her. His expression twisted from anger into horror in mere heartbeats. He was staring a thousand miles and twenty years away. "Why did you run? Why did you leave me?" Tears fell from his eyes. His voice seemed to turn childlike. "The things they did to me... the things they made me do... Why didn't you help? Did you know? Did you know what was waiting for me? They made me hate. They filled me with hate." His fist trembled but didn't move away from Bea's head.
"We knew enough," Anajinn said softly. "Evil had already claimed the foundation of Zakarum. We couldn't save it. Not on our own. So we looked for something that could."
"Did you find it?" That child's voice again. Hopeful.
"Not yet," Anajinn said.
"Then it was for nothing. All for nothing." Cennis seemed close to weeping for a moment. Then, the child vanished, and the paladin returned. His gaze hardened. "Put your weapon down, crusader. Put your shield down. Cast your armor aside. Or I will kill them." His arm tightened around Bea's throat. Her eyes met Anajinn's, silently pleading, not for her life but for Lilsa's.
Reiter crawled out of the alley, head swiveling, staring at nothing. "No," he cried. "My family. Mercy. Please. Mercy!"
"Do it, crusader!"
Anajinn could see her apprentice peeking around the corner of the cooper's building, behind Cennis. She could also see the apprentice shake her head slowly. Anajinn exhaled. Her apprentice could do nothing, not with the paladin in full armor and clutching hostages. Any attack strong enough to eliminate him would eliminate them all.
A sense of peace fell upon her. She let the shaft of her flail slip from her fingers. It tumbled to the ground.
"I want you to know something, Cennis." She firmly stuck her shield into the sand. It stood upright on its own. "I want you to have hope." Her gauntlets hit the sand next. Then her chestplate. The simple woven shirt she wore underneath was still stained with blood and sweat. "I did not find what I was looking for. Neither did my master, or her master before her." Her shoulder plates fell. Then her leg guards. "But despite that, I have no regrets. Someone will find what we need. The faith will be cleansed. And no matter what you do to me"—her boots she kicked off carelessly—"I have not yet reached the end of my journey. My crusade will continue."
Anajinn saw a child's hope flash across Cennis's face. The moment passed quickly. Only cold murder remained. The paladin extended his right arm, and a glowing hammer leaped toward her.
She kept her eyes open and smiled to the last.
Bea shut her eyes tight. A moment later, the sound died away. The man's arm slipped from her throat.
"Don't you dare move, woman," the paladin growled into her ear. She nodded, but he had already stepped away toward Anajinn.
Toward what remained of her, anyway. Bea held Lilsa close, keeping her from turning her head and seeing. Tears leapt to her eyes.
"Looks like the end of your journey to me," the paladin sneered. He kicked the crusader's chestplate. "Looks like your search is over."
Bea and the paladin turned together toward the voice. The apprentice stood with her sword in hand. With a roar, the paladin flung a hammer at her.
There was a tremendous crash of sound and fury, and a great, billowing cloud of fire flared where the girl was standing an instant ago. Of the crusader's apprentice, there was no sign.
For the briefest moment.
Light crashed down from above. The apprentice crashed down with it. The paladin saw it coming. And a childlike look of relief passed over his face.
And then it was over.
The apprentice knelt down next to her master and whispered something Bea couldn't hear. But there was no mistaking the glints of light falling to the sand. Tears.
The teenager stood up. Picked up Anajinn's shield.
"Bea?" Reiter croaked. "Bea? Are you hurt?"
Bea ran over to him. "I'm fine. Lilsa's fine."
"Anajinn?" His voice trembled. "Is she—?"
"I'm here," the apprentice said. Bea looked at her with confusion.
Reiter cocked his head. "A-Anajinn? Is that you?"
"Yes," the apprentice said. She strapped on the last of the crusader's armor and stepped over to the blinded man. Carefully, she laid a hand on his forehead and opened Anajinn's book of laws. She softly began to recite a different passage. Reiter blinked repeatedly. His head swiveled back and forth. His eyes were no longer pure white. His restored pupils darted around. The apprentice sighed. "That is all I can do. Are you well?"
Reiter looked directly at Bea. "I can... It's not... It's blurry," he said, squinting. He looked at the girl. "Thank you, Anajinn." There was still uncertainty in his voice. Bea realized he could see the shape of her armor and not much else. "You sound different."
"I suppose so," she said.