“How did I get myself into this,” Talya muttered. She had just returned to her position near the door after explaining, again, to Lord Bouhuma that he wasn’t to leave the room under any circumstances. Telling him no was getting a bit tedious though and she glared at him to reinforce the message. The nobleman had not made a good impression on her so far, and she did not expect her opinion of him to improve.

Back home a man with this little character or integrity would never have made it to the rank of Hunnertman, and if by accident he had she, or another of her order, would have been sent to deal with him. She was created to deal with heretics but the Mage Priest was not above sending her against threats to His rule, and incompetents were, in His divine opinion, a long term threat.

Sadly, Talya did not think that executing the man would solve their immediate problems, though it would undoubtedly create plenty more. She also did not feel like dealing with Brandt and his obnoxious sense of superiority. Not over a nobleman in another country so far from her home and her duties.

A sharp tug at her soul, agonisingly in its intensity, reminded her where her duties truly laid. And she was reminded of both the cost of failure and of even thinking about breaking her vow.

Suppressing a shudder of pain she set back to her job of looking menacing and sharpening her dagger. The lord looked outraged, but his men looked at her properly cowed. She’d thoroughly put them down when their lord had first tried to get past her after giving in to his fear for contamination. She hadn’t been as polite in her refusal as she probably could have been — Brandt’s angry glare at her had indicated as much — but she hadn’t been actively rude either. Her “Don’t know you, don’t care to”, had made him purple faced with outrage. The two burly servants he had ordered to move her aside had looked vaguely embarrassed but determined. Talya glanced at them but they refused to meet her eye. Embarrassed still, but for entirely different reasons now.

She slowly let her gaze sweep over the room. Some two dozen guests were cowering as far away from the bar as they could get, after Brandt had scared the fear of Darkness in them, and after the old man had reinforced his warning in a more measured and less thundering tone of voice. They had at least had the common sense, and fear, to stay out of the corners of the room. After this many house Talya didn’t need to concentrate on seeing the Unseen any longer to be aware of the shadows clinging and roiling there. At least it wasn’t growing any more nor sending out crawlers.

Talya looked at the other end of the room where she suspected, no knew, the reason for that lack of activity could be found. She grudgingly admitted to herself that the tall blonde woman had stamina and strength to spare. She’d been kneeling for hours now and showed no sign of discomfort. Only the same stone faced determination she’d shown all night. Across from her, obscured by the endlessly reflected glare of candles and a light that was only visible to Talya and presumably Melissa, was the strange bronze-tanned short man who had appeared by magic. She couldn’t see him but she heard him scuffling about. He was not as stoic as the woman, and his breath came raggedly, which indicated he was in some pain.

And she was herding spineless idiots to prevent them from interfering with the brilliant and desperate plan. Back home ignorant cowards like these would have been herded in a cellar until more competent servants of the Mage Priest had dealt with the crisis. Sadly, that wouldn’t work here, and it tied in to the answer to her own rhetorical question. She knew exactly how she had ended up in this position. She just couldn’t figure out how she had ended up taking orders from an arrogant common soldier like Brandt.

And much as his manners grated on her, she had to admit he was unexpectedly skilled. To be sure, not the level of competence the fear and devotion for the Mage Priest inspired in his officers, but that couldn’t be expected from barbarians and unbelievers. It was disconcerting to find this much competence in mercenaries. It wasn’t always that the regular army was more competent than the mercenaries it employed, but this Brandt might be evidence that this Kingdom was a more dangerous adversary than even the Mage Priest had anticipated. Or he knew and her doubts were heresies. Or perhaps he simply didn’t care because this kingdom was too far away from his realm to be a consideration at this time.

Talya glared at the cowering servants and noblemen alike for one more long moment and then caught Brandt’s eye. He was doing much as she was doing. Only — with his arms crossed and taller and broader in the shoulder than any other man in the room — he looked impossibly martial and imposing. He also was looking at her.

“Time?” she asked him.

He started to shrug in reply, then stopped. “Should be close to dawn,” he said, finally. “Or maybe it already is past it. Hard to tell in this windowless box.”

Talya pondered the answer. “No street sounds.” She offered.

“Aye,” Brandt conceded. “Not sure if those would be audible this deep inside either.”

They both knew that the only times they had been in this room in the past two days it has been noisy enough that a riot on the street would have unnoticed.

“Sun’s fire in sky is.”

The voice was so unexpected that everybody looked around wildly to see who had spoken.

Talya was the first to recognise Melissa. “You mean sun’s up?”

Without waiting for an answer she looked at the corners of the big room, only to see the shadows still roiling there, clinging to the walls and floor and ceiling.

Despair gripped her for a moment. They had gambled on somehow the morning delivering them from this unexpected attack, but it hadn’t worked.

“Black stone…” Melissa hesitated, apparently groping for words. “Black stone of fire and dark is. Sun not passing. More time, sun higher, light us reaching.”

Talya sighed with relief. “The black stone. Of course. I should have seen it,” she muttered.

“It’s okay,” She said loudly. “Melissa just reminded us that it takes a little longer for the sun to climb over these forsaken black walls they’re so fond of in this city.”

The old singer started up a song he’d used several times throughout the night to calm tempers and to steady fracturing nerves. It sounded religious in nature but not something Talya was familiar with. She’d never been expected to operate this far south outside the Mage Priest’s domain so she hadn’t been taught anything about their heathen beliefs. It made it unexpectedly hard to blend in, though almost inconceivably to her, there appeared to be many different faiths and few people having any devotion at all.

Talya grimaced inwardly. Her mission increasingly got the air of a desperate gambit that rapidly was going terribly wrong. Not at all the methodical way the Mage Priest normally ruled. Even the traitors to his reign were carefully cultivated and only allowed to rebel when they could not otherwise be made useful. Except as a bloody example when they ended up ‘miraculously’ dead.

Some of the cowering crowd joined tremulously into the song. The wording was probably ancient, certainly too different for her limited grasp of the local language for Talya to make out much of the meaning of the sung phrases. Something about mercy or a lady of mercy, she thought. She then dismissed the entire subject as irrelevant for the immediate purpose of survival.

Unlike Brandt she didn’t believe the situation was going to remain peaceful. Once the paralysis of panic wore off these people were going to demand answers, and considering themselves rich and powerful — even nobility if she understood the concept correctly as it was used by these barbarians — and they weren’t going to be content with the non-answers that were all they were able to give them. She had consented to playing Brandt’s enforcer to instill the notion that he was more powerful than them still. It wouldn’t last, but she was confident it had bought her enough time to get one companion out of the city.

The question was … who should she pick? She was fairly certain that Keri was the one she was sent to protect, but both Melissa and Oboru also fit the sketchy parameters that had been burned into her soul by the Mage Priest. Though Oboru had not been present in the Inn while she was directed to it, and Brandt had been. This didn’t entirely disqualify the former nor did it necessarily mean that the later was also a possible candidate. There was too much magic swirling around them all to be certain of anything and the amulet that would have given her certainty had all but ceased functioning for her. Only knowing that her soul was forfeit if she guessed wrong had kept her from making a run for it already with Keri. That, and the practical consideration that she was not strong enough to climb over the walls unseen, with an unconscious and shadows infested women across her shoulders.

Talya felt it immediately when the sun finally cleared the walls surrounding the inn.

It was a feeling as if something that had been stretched out unbearably suddenly snapped and released her. And only in the moment that it snapped did she finally realise just how it had constricted around her.

She took a deep breath, revelling in the fact that she now could do so again.

“It is morning,” she whispered reverently.

“The chains of darkness are unravelling,” Melissa said, and finally eased out of her crouch that she had maintained for hours.

Talya whipped around to look at the corners of the room. For a moment she thought the clarity of vision that she had attained throughout the night had escaped her again, but looking from the edge of her vision she found no difference in what it looked like to her. The shadows were dissipating quickly. Not like normal shadows would, fading as the light got stronger, but like her clothes had. Turned to ash and blown away on an incorporeal wind. Leaving nothing behind.

“It’s working. Thanks be to the Lord of Night, it’s really working,” she whispered.

Brandt had hurried towards the victims piled closely together in front of the bar.

“Keri, is she … recovering?” he asked anxiously, kneeling by her still form.

“Ow. My knees are killing me. Or maybe my head is.”

“Oboru, can you tell if she is out of danger?”

“I think I’m going to find a corner and pass out for a couple of weeks”, the foreigner groaned.

“Not the corners!” Brandt and Talya exclaimed simultaneous.

Their only reply was a dull thud as Oboru collapsed.

“Crap,” Brandt said. “Now we’ve another unconscious body to deal with.”

Talya muttered her curses silently, seeing the last of her slim opportunity vanish to escape before things got even more ugly.

She deliberately stepped away from the door she was guarding. “You can flee,” she said curtly to nobody in particular. “For all the good it will do you.”

She figured if most of the guests and staff cowering in the room were leaving the building, it would be much easier to keep the rest under control. Not that she wouldn’t be able to keep them under control, but it would get bloody and no doubt Brandt would strongly object to her making an example, a messily dead example, of a couple of them. Killing so openly would call too much attention to herself and invite retribution. She was confident she could kill any single man sent at her, but the town had a guard force and sooner rather than later they would overwhelm her as she tried to protect Keri and Melissa and Oboru. And even Brandt, much as it galled her.

And then she would have failed and she would face the Lord of Night.

She was once again reminded how her being sent on this mission could have been an act of desperation. She was Nachtgren, not a guard, not a soldier. She wasn’t meant to operate so openly, so … unplanned and unmethodical. She was the invisible Hand of Dark, not an executioner. A whisper from His, the Lord of Night’s, domain.

Talya turned away from the crowd, she had to ascertain for herself that the others were going to recover.

Kneeling next to Melissa she asked urgently but softly, “Will she get better?”

Before the tall blonde could answer Brandt bent down, looming over them and asked the same question a lot more anxiously.

In answer Melissa plucked a scrap of cloth off what was all that remained of Talya’s clothing and put it on Keri’s face. After a moment she pulled it away and dropped it to the floor.

Everybody held their breath while they waited for it to turn to ash and blow away to nothingness.

By the time Brandt took an explosive breath it was still there. But the victims were all still unconscious and greyish pale, barely even breathing.

“Sunlight,” Talya exclaimed


“Help me carry them into the garden. Or at least into our room. It has a big drafty door. Sunlight burns brighter than any fire doesn’t it?”

“Mercy,” Brandt breathed. “You’re right.”

Without waiting for their reaction Brandt pushed Talya and Melissa aside and picked up Keri with a grunt of effort.

After a moment of watching him stagger away with his burden Talya looked at Melissa. “We carry the next one together?”

Melissa nodded.

They picked the smallest victim they could find, a dried out old woman, but it was still hard for the two of them to navigate her through the wide door and the narrow corridor into the room they had rented.

“Cold pain is,” Melissa declared to Brandt as he tried to leave the room before their entering it. “Light more need.”

Talya shrugged in response to his questioning look.

“There’s a lot of snow outside,” she commented. “Doesn’t feel so cold any more though.”

Getting the door open was a bit harder though, as the snow turned out to be piled high against it. With Brandt and Melissa both pushing against it they managed to get it open far enough that Talya could put her arm through the opening and started to scoop the snow away. It was cold work, of course, but she was used to far colder in the Mage Priest’s domain.

“Brandt, get back to the main room. Melissa and I can handle this. We need you to keep them from getting stupid … more stupid there.” After a pause where she strained to reach a clump of snow that prevented the door from opening further, she added. “Maybe you can get some of the spineless sheep to help carry the rest of the victims here.”

“Should have used the front door,” Talya groaned some time later as she stretched her arm painfully as far as it could be squeezed through the narrow opening.

“Front dark is” Melissa answered as she strained to keep the door open for Talya.

“One … more … chunk”

Talya withdrew, rubbing some warmth back into her fingers while Melissa pushed with all her weight and strength against the door to make it open a little further.

Brandt had brought a third victim in while they were working. From the sound of voices that echoed distorted down the hallway he was now trying to argue some of the others into helping him carrying the rest, without much success.

She tried squeezing through the opening. “Can you push it a little further?”

Melissa grunted with the effort of pushing even harder, and after exhaling as much as she could Talya squeezed through the narrow opening they had created. She lost much of the tattered remains of her shift and no small amount of her skin in the process.

“I’m through,” she called out, needlessly. “I can clear the snow from here easily. Can you go help Brandt carrying people? After you toss me something to wear?”

There was no reply, but then she didn’t expect any from the tall woman who seemed to prefer to say as little as possible. The leather coat that was pushed through the door on the other hand was most welcome. The storm of the previous night had faded away, but it still was freezing cold outside as well as inside with the thick layer of snow covering everything. The sky was a clear, harsh blue, and the sun, only barely clearing the black walls that criss-crossed the city was not nearly hot enough to make much of a difference.

After she wrapped herself up as tightly as she could clearing the remainder of the snow from in front of the door was a matter of moments.

Talya was in the process of putting on a second pair of woollen socks and trying to stuff her feet back into her suddenly too tight boots, when Brandt and Melissa came back in with the fourth victim. They were followed by the old bard, Syts, who was helping a dazed Oboru to stay upright enough to make his way to the same tiny and by now extremely crowded room. Looking at him critically she wasn’t at all convinced that he was really conscious of what he was doing. His eyes were unfocussed and his skin tone was an unhealthy pale with faint pink spots. He also needed the old man’s help to move his legs at all, appearing to do little more than fall forward in a barely controlled manner every time the bard took a wavering step. Talya quickly vacated her corner of the crowded bed for the bronze skinned easterner to fall onto.

“Good thinking,” she said to the bard, who simply nodded in acknowledgement.

Catching Brandt’s attention she told him, “I’m going to find blankets in the guest rooms upstairs. Maybe some thin mattresses if I can get them here.”

He nodded in reply, “any idea how long they will need to stay in the sun.”

Talya could only shrug, “I’m not even certain that sunlight will actually help at all.”

“Help will,” Melissa interrupted them, with more confidence than Talya, and apparently Brandt, felt.

Talya turned and ran. Anything she could do to help Keri recover from this Darkness she had to attempt. It wouldn’t appease the Lord of Night if she failed. Or at least she had not been given any indication that He was inclined to forgive or forget failure. Still, on the off chance that it helped she would put Keri out there in the bright sunlight.

Having bullied the other guests and their servants into carrying the victims downstairs the previous evening she had a good idea where to find blankets. Or rather, blankets that weren’t turned into ash blown away to nothingness.

Dragging four of them down at a run was no challenge and took her less time than Brandt and Melissa needed to carry the fifth victim out of the main room.

Syts was looking at Oboru with a look of concern on his craggy face. “Something is wrong with him,” he said, concern evident in his voice. “Is it … the shadow you four, five, keep talking about?”

Talya knelt in front of the unconscious man, opening his eyes to see widely dilated pupils. She could feel a feverish heat coming from him, which explained the pale and clammy skin, and the odd splotches of colour on his race.

“Mage burn,” she said, forgetting for a moment that these people didn’t know or believe in magic.

“He’s a mage?” the old man asked her.

Talya looked at him sharply, not able to entirely hide her surprise. He was the first person she’d met in this land that didn’t scoff disbelievingly at the notion of magic, and, thinking back at the previous evening where Keri and Brandt, mostly, had talked to him about what had happened on the forest path, he hadn’t been all that disbelieving or surprised then either. He’d managed to fake his disbelief more convincingly though.

“Claims to be one anyway,” Talya said curtly. “From the looks of it he may have a right to the claim too.”

“A mage,” Syts sighed. “Will he recover you think?”

She shrugged, “Possibly. Probably. Will take a long while though. Might want to find some medicines for fever and headache. And get lots of fluid in him.”

Talya didn’t wait for an answer, or further questions, realising that he had deftly made her confirm she knew about magic herself. She was too tired to keep herself from revealing things she needed to keep secret, so the best thing she could do was to make herself scarce from his probing mind and curiosity. And she had another job to do anyway.

Finding more blankets and wrestling a mattress down took more effort, but she managed to do all that just before Melissa and Brandt carried the final victim out of the brightly lit main room, where only now the lanterns were flickering in the draft, or perhaps because they were beginning to run out of oil.

On Talya’s insistence Keri got the mattress and a blanket to cover her, while the rest of the victims had to make do with a blanket being wrapped around them. She didn’t care much about the others. Only that they survived. If they lost a couple of fingers or toes to frostbite that wasn’t her concern.

Soon as they had the victims settled to Brandt’s satisfaction Melissa checked on Keri. Her relieved smile was all the reassurance Talya needed at that moment.

“It is working?” Brandt asked the strange blonde as she came back inside the room, closing the door behind her in a vain attempt to make the room not quite as freezing as it was outside.

She nodded.

Talya silently praised the dark, and the Lord of Night in particular.

“Thank Mercy,” Brandt said quietly. “It’s over.”

Talya shook her head, reluctantly. “We need to find out if there are other victims in other buildings. They need to know about the sunlight, and how bright light slows down the infestation during the night.”

The old bard grimaced, “City guard came by, asking about plague victims. Told him we had it under control.”

Brandt uttered a heartfelt curse. Something about the dark and something else that she didn’t quite catch. “We can safely assume that it is throughout the entire town then.”

“Brandt,” she said quietely, catching his attention. “The people here need to be told to put the victims in the sunlight. But …” she paused for emphasis. “If there are dead, they need to be burned right away. Or put in a tomb so deep and dark that not even the air stirs down there. And then even the memory of those tombs needs to be erased.”


“Remember the … darkwalker? In the forest?”

Brandt paled, “you mean it was trying to turn Keri into that?”

Talya nodded, “Keri and all the other victims. Throughout the entire city.”

Brandt couldn’t pale any further, but it was clear from his expression that he would have otherwise.

“Why are you telling me?” he asked finally. It was obvious to everybody present that he knew why though, and that he resisted the authority out of habit. Not out of fear, Talya judged.

“Who here would listen to Melissa or I?” Talya said simply.

The big mercenary looked helplessly at the old bard, who looked back at him sternly, and managed to put a hint of disapproval into his gaze.

“This falls to you, your Highness.” he said.

Brandt winced, “I cannot lay claim to any such title.”

This was answered with raised eyebrows.

“I left,” Brandt retorted the implied criticism. “No, I ran. Father won’t lightly forgive me that. Usurping his power here, after what I did? That’s treason. At the least.”