Waking up in Matsumo’s arms was unlike anything I have ever felt. All of my past field experiences have been matters of simply sharing body heat to ward off the cold, but this…somehow meant more. I pondered Matsumo’s sleeping face for a while, forced to rethink my time as a paladin. I had treated it as my experiences as a monk, making no friends and seemingly many antagonists, missing on the opportunities of life through the false belief my oath kept such things from me. Feeling the urge to rise, I kissed Matsumo lightly at the corner of his mouth and brushed his hair back. No sooner had I done so than Matsumo began to fade away!
He was awake and now incorporeal, but he still heard my cry, “By the Twelve, what is this?!”
His strong voice came clearly through dawn, “It is by the Twelve that I am here at all, Miko. Like you, I died defending our beloved city and the gate. When another mission presented itself I did not choose out of duty…I chose to be the one to come back despite the rewards of the afterlife. For you, Miko. The Twelve Gods see your heart and soul and know that you have taken in much. The value of life for life’s sake, and of friends. I only regret I can do no more for you…”
The cry tore itself from me like a striking katana, “Matsumo!!! Why would they send you to take you away?! Why be so good to me only to steal you away?”
He had nearly faded completely, and his voice was misty…but somehow I caught every word, “Not all that we wish to be can be, Miko. Learn your heart and live your life, seek me again when it is your time…”
I had to watch as Matsumo faded to so much mist, all of his possessions and his mount as though they were never there. I had to feel his warmth draw away from me until at last even the impression of his arms was gone. I held to that memory fiercely, with the fire of conviction. I had been cared for, and if I had been better I would have cared in return. The warmth of Matsumo’s arms and his smile, as well as the chill of absence and sorrow in his eyes at departure, will never leave me now.
I forced myself to make ready, forcing back unfamiliar tears of frustrations I had never let myself know. As the sun truly rose from the horizon I was mounted and on the road once more. A new resolve burned within me, stronger than my former convictions to my oath. The goblin and the cursed lich had taken lives, destroyed families and homes, had broken those who had done nothing to deserve it. For them, for Matsumo, and for myself I would work to stop them!
It was nearly noon before I saw another soul, and in this case many. A caravan had pulled to a halt, unusual indeed. Why had they not taken provision on the move? I heard the heated words and rode to the edge of their caravan, letting my armor and presence declare myself without words. An older man, clearly the head of the caravan, was arguing with a much younger woman in a group of five rather…eccentric characters. Adventurers serving as guards, then.
The woman spoke to me first, direct and demanding, “You’re a paladin from Azure City, surely you can settle this for us! Tell this old fool to pay us what he promised…”
I remembered my promise to myself and avoided rebuking her insolence off-hand. As a member of the Guard I was bound to arbitrate the law when a magistrate could not be found, a duty I rarely performed. I spoke slowly so I could keep my voice calm and even, “Explain the nature of this dispute, and once I have heard from each of you I will do what is within my power.”
I heard each of them out and pointedly ignored their inflammatory elaborations on the facts. They had run afoul of bandits, all captured now, and the adventurers were demanding gold for their protection. The merchant was insisting their original agreement covered all of this, and an additional fee for the encounter was extortion. I made each of them explain the original agreement, but there were discrepancies as well. Such irritating rabble!
I cut to the heart of the matter by asking if each thought this was a ‘standard guardian/travel agreement’, to which both agreed. I then got the troublesome adventurers to agree that such did not involve extortionist ‘encounter fees’ to the merchant. Before the merchant took on his own airs, I finished by stating that everything in possession of the bandits that had not been stolen from the caravan was theirs by right of acquisition, not the caravan’s by right of proximity. Neither side seemed particularly happy, but they agreed to the arbitration and I traveled with them to prevent further altercation. Adventurers are notoriously untrustworthy, after all, and who knew what the merchant might try to take?
I was glad none of the group came near me for the ride, as I had much to think about. Everything from yesterday and this morning weighed heavily on my thoughts, and trying to stay alert for subtle trouble was difficult. I didn’t even realize that a female wizard with the party had ridden astride of me until she spoke, “You did a good thing there.”
I started, barely keeping from stepping my horse a few widths away from this caster. I was unable to hide my suspicion, “It was lawful and fair.”
The woman rolled her eyes in exasperation, but it did not seem to be at me, “Yes, but Nicole just doesn’t know when to let well enough alone. I was afraid I’d never talk sense into her, she just wanted the whole package, and so did our benefactor.”
Why would an adventurer perpetrate their own unsavory reputation so? I spoke carefully, “Yes, I am glad conflict was avoided. The caravan need not worry about more bandits, and hopefully neither will you.”
She nodded her head happily, colorful robes flowing, “Indeed! What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, after all. So what is weighing on you so?”
I started at that, unable to reply at first. Had it been that obvious? For some reason I felt I could share with this woman, her an exception to all the others, and let out some of my feelings, “A former…friend…died in the line of duty. It took me until this morning to realize how much I missed him.”
This strange, overly-friendly woman commiserated, sharing a tale of a past adventuring group. Something was disarming about her, and I found myself venting some of my frustrations with someone to listen, oddly happy to hear her own venting in return. Could it be that adventurers were not just agents of chaos and possible evil? Such a thought was pure ridiculous fantasy, and yet this Karla did not meet that expectation. That handsome Roy certainly wasn’t, if he really wasn’t an agent of Xykon…
How could the Twelve let me live with such a wrong idea, then? How could they love us and let us make such mistakes? It was something I must think on, and night is already falling. I shall spend tonight with this caravan and the strange Karla to see what the Twelve have in store, then. My own fire is slightly apart from the others, but Karla indeed makes herself welcome with strange stories and curious insights. She is perhaps the strangest person I have met in my wide travels, yet she has such odd wisdom none-the-less…
I do not realize how close Karla is until we are well done with the provision and most of the others are in their bedrolls. Should I be disturbed that her touch does not bother me? For now, it does not matter. Tonight is cold, the sentries using cloaks often reserved for winter. I help Karla to disrobe and stow her belongings in return for her help with my own. Her fingers seem to find every excuse to touch me, yet I find it not unpleasant at all. And her shift! It is shameless, a clingy material that does nothing for her modesty even if it covers what it must.
I lay next to her, soft and warm, and feel her hand caress the back of my thigh as she nuzzles into my neck. It is good, but…I have never had such a pillowmate, and simply do not feel ready for this so close to Matsumo’s departure. I take her hand in mine, pressing my lips to her fingers once to show I do not truly mean rebuke before pulling her close. Karla nods in understanding, does not protest or press and simply holds me. And this behavior from an adventurer! They are unruly, boisterous, lewd, and yet here is Karla, kind and affectionate, understanding and insightful, present and real. Was handsome Roy so as well, when I was not so swift to act and make rash of myself?
I bury my face in her downy blonde hair, letting the warmth of Karla lull me to sleep as Matsumo’s did. I do not fear for my modesty or my safety this night, as though the Twelve themselves stood guard over me. I know this day I have made a real friend, even if tomorrow we part forever. This thought is my last before peaceful oblivion…