“Why?” It was really the only question that Syts needed to ask the pale woman.

“They’ll never stop,” was the simple reply. “And get enough together…”

“And they make a hole in the world too big to repair,” Oboru finished for her, getting involved in the discussion for the first time. Syts and Brandt looked startled, the black haired man had been so quiet they had almost forgotten about him.

“I see how that would be bad, but … destroy the world?”

“Your … the gods can’t restore a hole if it is too big. That’s what the myths say. They need to start anew.”

“Destroying this world in the process,” Syts breathed, noting but ignoring Talya’s slip.

Talya nodded stiffly.

Brandt frowned, “That’s a lot of faith to put in out-Kingdom fairy tales.”

Talya stiffened marginally and her tone of voice dropped several degrees towards chilly. “These are myths from stories older than time. The translation is inaccurate at best.”

“We can’t get to the mayor with this,” Brandt stated with finality.

Talya shrugged, “then we’ll all die and become darkwalkers.”

Syts had to admire her acting skills, that she could say that without showing her terror. “Story or not. Myth or not, it is what we have Ger … Brandt.”

“Talya correct is. Sister not am, why is lot not told. About world before world told. World from first tree grew. Light gods …” Melissa fell silent.

“Words not know,” she said, frustration clear in her voice, after a long moment. She added a long sentence in her own musical language, but of course nobody had any idea what she was saying.

“Tree in world not is. Opening to Destroyer,” she finally continued. “Lady tree hides. Grow new not do. All of sacred story I know is.”

“It’s still only an out-Kingdom story,” Brandt said stubbornly.

“Destroyer,” Oboru mused, having looked at Talya’s expression rather than at Melissa during her halting speech. “This name is familiar to you.”

Talya hissed, “It is anathema.” She refused to say anything more, or to look at the others, instead turning her attention at the garden and the people gathered around the fire.

Without a word she opened the door and went outside to put more wood on the fire.

Oboru said in the uneasy silence that followed, “I think I can complete the picture.”

Brandt looked at the man from the far east, his expression still thunderous.

“I am not well versed in religion,” he warned, holding up his hand in caution. “in the empire we have many beliefs. Too many to know them all. I studied some, because there is magic in faith too.”

Looking at Brandt he could see that he was taking too long to explain, going into details that would make sense for another mage, not for the barbarian mercenary.

“There is a similarity between many of the religions I studied. The people of the Yellow Plane believe that when the God-Emperor created the world there was a force of darkness trying to undo his creation.” He paused briefly. “Force of creation locked in eternal battle with force of destruction.”

“That,” the old bard said to Brandt, “is something you can tell the mayor about. Lady of Mercy and the Lord of Death.”

The big man reluctantly nodded in agreement. “He won’t toss us out immediately at least,” he admitted.

“I know nothing of relevance of out-Kingdom faiths,” Syts admitted. “But I know about the faith of this town.”

“Are you a believer uncle?” Keri asked. She weakly pushed away from his chest, and he let her. If she was strong enough to want to keep a more proper distance he meant to let her.

“No, dear. I only made it a point to study … religions.”

Oboru was intrigued by the exchange. The old man and woman were not family. He didn’t even need to use his burned out magic abilities to be certain of that. At the same time there was a closeness to them that spoke of family nonetheless. The trust with which she had let him hold her close to his body for support and comfort was evidence of that. And now she was embarrassed by that same closeness, the way any adult woman would be in the arms of her father.

Before all this he could have created with barely more than a thought a dome of warmth for the woman and the other victims outside who were huddling close to the fire under the stern instruction and supervision of Talya. Another enigma that intrigued him and that he meant to resolve, though this one was far too deadly to try without his magic restored and at the front of his mind. Now he could do nothing but use what tiny strength he had left to keep the crippling headache at bay.

“There are some cushion left undamaged. I can arrange them so that she can lean against them,” he said gently. “We could all move a bit further from these doors,” he added. “I admit I am beginning to feel the cold myself.”

And he was, he knew, more than just feeling cold. By all rights he should be in warm bed in a magically induced trance for as long as it took for his body and mind to recover. He’d barely even begun to heal from the damage he had done to himself in the void. Damage done to stay alive, or as alive as he still was. He wasn’t certain that all of him had escaped. No, more than that, he was certain that parts of him were still scattered and lost somewhere. And because of those gaping holes in him he couldn’t heal properly and his strength was draining away.

He was dangerously close to passing out into a coma. That he could’t allow to happen, because he knew deep in his heart that if he lost that much of himself again the darkness that was stalking him would find him and never let him go again. The result of that would be far more deadly than a darkwalker.

It was why he had slept far less these past seven days than his exhausted state had required. He couldn’t be certain that even merely sleeping would loosen his grip on his self and let the dark swallow him. But his strength and control was almost at an end, tonight’s spell casting, a mere cantrip by any mage’s estimate, had tore at his mind, burning him almost to a cinder. The thought of magic was now enough to send pulses of pain through his head.

He desperately needed expert help, but there was none to be found in this barbaric land where no magic was to be found and where the notion of it was scoffed at.

Briefly he considered that his lack of magic was, in itself, a mixed blessing. It might deprive him of expert help, but it also meant an ambient that was utterly devoid of magic. Magic that in his depleted and wounded state might have set him ablaze in a figurative and quite possibly also literal bonfire.

Oboru betrayed none of this to his companions in word or gesture or expression. He knew that one of them would kill him without hesitation if she knew how close he was to letting the dark in. And at least on other was ruthless and pragmatic enough to let her if he ever got convinced of the danger he now posed.

And Oboru knew that he would let them, if not for the utter certainty that his death posed the greatest danger of all.

He finished fluffing up the cushion and a half — that were all that remained of the original bedding — and watched how the old singer carefully eased his ward against them so she could sit more or less upright comfortably. When he had wrapped the blanket around the woman’s shoulders and upper body to his satisfaction he sat down next to her. The mattress was not as well stuffed as it should have been, the grass in it more straw than fresh now, and the whole thing probably fetched in haste from the servant’s quarters once they agreed to rent these two summer rooms.

“Keri dear, can you pull up your legs?” the old man murmured in her ear. “Then I can tuck the blanket around them and …” he blushed a little, “there isn’t much left of your nightgown. I don’t know much about most of your companions, but I wouldn’t want to give them inappropriate ideas.”

The brown haired woman peeked down at her legs, that were bare and uncovered by the blanket from mid thigh down. Flushing she pulled them close and let the old man adjust the blanket to cover her up fully.

None of the others paid attention as far as Oboru could tell. Though in the case of the big man, Brandt, it clearly was a studious form of not paying attention. He too blushed slightly and it was clear, to Oboru at the very least but to Syts as well, that he looked away because such formality was trained into him from a young age. It had that feeling of conditioned behaviour to keen observers.

Talya of course was outside, waiting for the snow and time to cool her temper. Melissa, Oboru noticed when he briefly glanced at her as he walked to the other side of the bed, looked curious at the interaction but clearly did not understand the intricacies. Then again, Oboru mused, she obviously came from a culture that was even stranger to these people than his own. Where Talya, in his brief observation of her, had clearly shown she understood clothes to be a tool and a weapon, being the only one of the visitors who had dressed in clothes suitable to disappear in a crowd, the tall woman seemed to have some trouble with the concept of clothes. Oboru had travelled extensively, though nowhere near the entire length and width of the empire, but nowhere had he encountered even a rumour of a culture that shameless.

Pursing his lips as he took another second to look at her, he amended that opinion. She understood clothes, had even worn practical, if by Kingdom standards outrageously tight, clothes perfect for disappearing in a forest, but she was lacking something else that he couldn’t quite place on such short acquaintance as they’d had. She was still wearing the tattered sheet that Brandt had draped around her shoulders as she kneeled to start, praying, he guessed. She wasn’t wearing it as clothes though.

She was, Oboru realised, literally without shame. The notion suggested such an inhuman culture that he had trouble wrapping his head around the notion of it. He was reminded of something, but the particular memory it tried to spark didn’t come. Whether that was because it was ripped out with other pieces of him or because it was beyond some of those holes, he couldn’t tell. It might even be that the memory was so vague that it never properly formed and this notion he should remember was nothing but a mirage.

It didn’t matter he guessed as he let the notion slip. Either the memory returned to him or it didn’t. For now it was enough that he understood that the three who were from this land had the common human need to cover themselves up and regulate the interaction between male and female. The empire was so big and encompassed so many peoples and petty kingdoms and tribes that, even with his limited study in that direction, he knew this was the most common, but that for some cultures the rules were different. The pale and deadly Talya seemed to come from such a culture, as did he himself, and this would help him interact with her when he felt he had the strength to try to understand her better. Most importantly the true reason why she was here with them. And Melissa, she seemed to be from a culture so alien to everything he had learned and witnessed, that it might be almost inhuman. That too taught him something that might come of use at some point when he had recovered enough of his strength to not fear being consumed by he darkness.

Sitting down at the other side of the bed of Keri and Brandt with a sigh of relief that he managed to hide almost completely he brought his attention to a small detail that had caught his attention with the slight hesitation that preceded it.

“You mentioned you studied religions, master bard. I got the impression that this is unusual for somebody in your position? Certainly something your … ward considered unexpected?”

The old man had a sharp wit and a keen eye, something old men in Oboru’s experience were wont to possess, but for a singer of songs this was, in his opinion, indeed unusual.

“And your presence here perhaps not, entirely, a coincidence?”

The old man threw him a sharp glance, realising that he wasn’t the only one in the room who was an astute observer.

“I also couldn’t help notice that where Keri and Brandt strongly disbelieved in the existence of magic, and to an extent still do, you were ready to accept it,” he finished softly.

Schooling his expression into a neutral mask, as much to hide the headache that was pounding in his head as to give nothing further away until the old man had revealed some of his secrets such as were relevant to the situation they had all found himself in.

In the silence that followed the door opened and closed quietly after Talya. Her sharp glanced between Syts and Oboru.

“The victims have enough dreams of darkness that they fear it, and are inclined to stay outside so long as the warmth of the sun and the fire holds. I warned them if they lost feeling in their feet or fingers they should come inside no matter how scared they are.” she said to nobody in particular, studiously not looking at Brandt as she all but made her report. Taking up her position near the door and as far away from Brandt as possible she too folded her arms in front of her and waited.

In the silence the old bard was the first to break. He sighed deeply and said, “no, it is not entirely an accident that I am here. My reasons are my own, but part of them is that I had a small hope of meeting Keri, the daughter I adopted in my heart, who is known to visit the last week of the Autumn fair of Glivenr.”

He smiled fondly at the woman. “They’re not quite putting your name on the announcements my dear, but you have become a bit of a draw for some who want to hear you perform. You have the skill of a master, and not everybody is comfortable with the talent.”

Keri blushed and looked at her knees, tucked up almost below her chin and covered with the soft blanket that now warmed everything but her toes.

Oboru just looked at the old man, aware that he had chosen to reveal too much in answering one of the questions posed to him. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid answering the other.

Taking his time to come to a conclusion Syts suddenly took a deep breath and said, “The last two years or so stories have reached Kingstown of people, entire villages really, suddenly finding a strong faith. Stories of priests who found a new and strict dogma. This is not against the King’s Law, but it is unusual in the rumoured numbers.”

“And you thought to investigate?”

“Investigate is too strong a word. I thought that as I travelled to Glivenr I could keep an ear open for the stories behind the rumours,” he smiled disarmingly. “Stories are the bard’s trade after all.”

Oboru didn’t need Keri’s startled, and immediately suppressed look at the old man, to know that he had again kept out details, hidden secrets behind a story they might believe. Would pretend to believe if they planned on being polite about it.

‘My reasons are my own,’ he had warned at the start, and Oboru thought he could fill in some of the missing details without demanding the old man to become yet more creative in his choice of words. If this land was like any other, it would have a spy master, and he was sitting in the presence of one of his spies. Entire villages changing their faith at once would indeed be too unlikely, unless some mind control was involved. And this country without belief in magic would be more than usually vulnerable to an unscrupulous mage. The spies were right to be concerned he agreed.

Oboru nodded briefly, willing to drop the subject. For now anyway, and unless it became necessary to get it more in the open. He would keep his own secrets closer to his chest though, as some of them might get him executed if this spy, or his master, would believe him a danger to this land. Which, to be fair, he was.

“Magic?” Brandt asked before a silence could fall. This clearly was a subject that had consumed him for some time now. “I have seen things I can not explain, yet. Least of all a man seemingly appearing out of thin air,” this was accompanied by a distrustful glare in Oboru’s direction. “But magic? Are we now to believe in fairy tales?”

“Brandt,” the old man said softly but forcefully. ” I have been out-Kingdom. I have seen magic. I have felt it to be real.” He paused, gathering his thoughts. “In the Kingdom there is no magic, and if you try to think about it too much the thought of it will somehow be stolen from you. As mine now undoubtedly will be.”

Oboru’s eyes widened at that revelation. That would be a feat of magic of … epic proportions, he thought to himself. An act of power so vast that he could almost call it god-like. Somewhere, far too close for his comfort, had to be a grandmaster adept. Someone like the mythological First Emperor, who according the oldest stories of the empire had created an entire continent for his Chosen, altering the world to make it fit. Even if that was almost certainly all gross exaggeration and a blatant hagiography of the First Emperor, it still suggested that some mages were capable of miracles. And that here there was a mage of such immense stature that he could drain the magic of an entire country, somehow without killing every living thing in the process, and then made them forget what was being done.

It suddenly didn’t surprise him that his power was unnaturally slow to return. And he was certain as anything that he did not want to draw the attention of a mage of such immense stature. He swallowed nervously as he struggled to bring himself under control again, glad that everybody was looking at the old man instead of at him.

“What about mages,” Oboru couldn’t help himself asking.

“I can not remember any was willing to cross the border. There is no story, at all, about one doing so,” the old man replied. Then, looking sharply, “you claim to be a mage?”

“I am, but my recent ordeal has left me completely drained.”

“It might be wise if you remain drained.”

Oboru couldn’t tell if it was a warning or a thinly veiled threat, but found himself in agreement regardless. He nodded slightly to show his assent with that statement.

Then it was his turn to answer a sharp, if politely formulated, question, “this … ordeal. You mentioned it last night. What can you really tell me, us about it?”

Oboru nodded at him, trying to organise his thoughts. This was not idle curiosity, but a demand by one of the representative of the ruler of this land to determine the danger he presented. As such he couldn’t say too little. But he also couldn’t afford to reveal too much.

“I stepped in a trap,” he began. Making it clear from the start that his arrival was not of his own free will. “There is a greater magic of what we call a ‘Moving’, though the uninitiated call it a ‘Gate’. Only a few mages have the strength to attempt it and they either succeed or die.”

“And do you?”

“I know not,” Oboru admitted. “I never had the courage or the desperation, to try.”

It was a bit of a sore point with him, that he wasn’t convinced of his strength to do this, even if almost none of the Kian-Yulan had dared either. He also had to go against some of the strongest conditioning his teachers had instilled in him, to reveal even the small details he was about to.

“For a moving you first mark a place in such a way that it is separate from what surrounds it. Then you must now in your mind and in your heart, exactly where you are. If you have done that, you must then do exactly the same with the place you want to go. It must be a true place and you must know it as exactly as you know the place you are.”

This, he knew from experience, was the point where most masters gave up. Their certainty of place not absolute enough for their own confidence.

“After that, the mage must make the one place he is in exactly the place he wishes to be. He must make the two distinct places one. As he does this he is rapidly drained of … everything. Of life. The more distinct the places start as being the longer it takes to make them truly one. The larger the places and the more is present in them, the longer it takes. And once set on this course the mage can not turn back. They succeed or they fail and are drained of life until they die. If you succeed you can walk in and out of the merged place as if there is no difference between them. The moving will continue to drain you though and even the strongest of mages can maintain it only for seconds. They can however now safely untangle themselves from the magic. By passing out if necessary.”

“And this happened to you?” the bard asked.

“No. There is another way, of which I will not speak any further for it is utterly evil, and because even admitting this much is against the reason my Order exists.”

He shuddered, as much from the memories of his master’s Task, as from the compulsion that punished him from revealing this small part of the secret.

“I can only say even this little because I know that the knowledge of the magic will be taken from you soon.” he didn’t add ‘and likely from me as well’, instead opting for, “the trap was that a starting place was created for me, in such a way that I did not instantly recognise it. As I entered the trap started the seeking of the other place only … there wasn’t one. It was meant to destroy me utterly but … instead I was sucked into the void between places.”

“And what is that?” Talya asked unexpectedly. There was the slightest hint of eagerness in her voice.

“Theory,” Oboru admitted. “And it may be theory still for my memories are fading and I have trouble separating what is true and what is imagination of my being trapped.

He held up his arm to forestall Talya from asking for clarification, “The theory is that the world is not a flat disk under the dome of night, but that it exists as places that the gods anchored in a greater emptiness even as they made them into reality out of the emptiness. There would then be a void between the places that we think of as the world, and a Moving is possible by moving one place to another through that void.”

“And it drains the mage because to move such place they must open themselves to the nothingness of the void,” Keri completed him breathlessly.

Oboru nodded, then cautioned, “it is but one theory and not the most commonly accepted.”

Keri said softly, “but it is the one you hold to be true.”

Talya looked at him in a way that could only be described as awestruck. “The Outer Dark,” she whispered. The pale woman began to kneel. “You have been greatly blessed, or cursed, but I’m honoured to be in your presence great one.”

Oboru, along with everybody else in the room looked at her with equal measure of confusion and discomfort as she finished kneeling and bowed her head to the ground.

Then she got up and resumed her position as if nothing strange had just happened.

“Uhm …yes,” Brandt said.

The silence was uncomfortable, to say the least, and Oboru didn’t know how to continue after the Talya’s completely unexpected obeisance.

Before he could figure something out that he could reasonably say that didn’t sound totally inane — and her forbidding posture and expression made asking her what she had just done something unthinkable unless he wanted her to start murdering people — there was a loud banging on the front door of the inn that shattered the silence.

Somebody ran to the door and there was raised voices that were just short of shouting.

Syts sighed deeply and got up on his feet, “This one is for Brandt and me I’m afraid. You four stay here and try to think what we should do next, while we try to appease the town guard and talk reason into the town mayor and his councillors.”