Being forced to wait, sitting on an uncomfortable bench, was meant to unsettle them, Syts understood, but he considered it an unexpected gift. He could look around the ready room at the guards returning from their rounds and the ones getting ready for theirs.

The degree of hostility at the arrival at the guard-house had surprised him, especially after the casual friendliness of the three who had escorted them from the inn. Not that those hadn’t been suspicious at the start, but he had been able to smooth down some feathers before Brandt arrived and raised the tension again.

The man had surprised him though, by how he had almost subconsciously calmed the guards. It didn’t match with the reports of the man he’d read over the years. Those hadn’t exactly been negative but certainly subtly dismissive. Syts filed the thought away for later consideration.

He looked around without showing, paying specific attention to the guards arriving after them. The men held their faces pretty much expressionless. This by itself already told the old bard that those men had seen something and they didn’t want it to be known that it affected them strongly. After a life long of studying audiences, and looking for secrets people were keeping, he’d gotten very good at reading expressions. While they were trying hard to hide it, several of the guards had come back scared of something. Some of the guards getting ready to go out were hiding a touch of fear. Or maybe not fear so much as wary concern.

That they were now treated as dangerous suspects also told him that this lieutenant, just like the guards he commanded, believed they were somehow involved with these troubles they had experienced.

Syts guessed he should be grateful they hadn’t decided they were responsible or they would not now be sitting here unmolested. Taking great care to keep his expression pleasant, he heaved a deep purely internal sigh. After staying awake all night he really did not have the energy and strength to verbally dance around a suspicious town guard officer.

His companion made him apprehensive, too. Brandt might not be the person the reports about him had painted, but he was stubborn and more than a touch arrogant. Or more charitably he was domineering and commanding as a result of his officer training. Syts didn’t know how he would react to being treated as a suspect. He had the potential to ruffle feathers the wrong way and make everything take much longer, or be stopped outright. Or cause a major incident that would take weeks, months or years to sort out in this secretive city. He would equally have to verbally dance around the big man too unless he was very lucky.

Brandt began to fidget as they were made to wait even longer. Syts ignored him as well as he could — keeping only an occasional eye on him in case he had to run interference — while he looked casually at the comings and goings. It wasn’t long before he noticed more interesting details. Most of the patrols coming back in where four men strong, rather than the usual pair of guards. The town was running with doubled patrols, meaning that they likely had recalled every available guard to do double shifts. No doubt that accounted for some of the unhappy expressions on those guards readying themselves to go out into the cold.

A single member of each of these squads entered the room behind the door Brandt and he were waiting besides on a bench that was getting less comfortable by the minute. Presumably to report. The men looked grim, but not, Syts decided after seeing more of them from a closer distance, too worried. Most of the reporting guards saw them sitting on that bench, under close guard. They kept their distance and their expressions were guarded, but they did not become more hostile. So whatever had kept them under guard was not widely known by the rank and file of the town guard. That was a good thing, Syts decided, because it meant he had to worry about changing the opinion of only two or three men rather than the entire guard force.

The other peculiar thing he realised after observing the guard-house, was that there were no people being brought in. With a near riot going on in front of the guard-house he had expected by now the guard would have brought in the ones most likely to spark off the violence, to let them cool off.

Something even stranger was going on than he already suspected, and Syts was itching to ask the guards about it. Only their angry expressions and their hands on their cudgels kept him from it. He probably would have talked anyway, he had to admit to himself, and only the presence of Brandt and uncertainty that he would not react poorly to angry responses by the pair of guards, kept him quiet.

To pass time, and to make clear he wasn’t intimidated, the old Bard began to softly sing a tavern song of questionable lyrics. The two guards scowled at him, and clearly wanted to tell him to shut up, but the rest of the town guards, in particular the ones who had come in from their freezing cold patrols grinned in appreciation. Syts grinned back at them, reminding everybody present that even if he was getting old and his voice was long past its prime, he still was better than most and that he was the Court Bard by the King’s appointment for more and better reasons than politics. He didn’t Push the mood in the room though. Without knowing what caused the generally sour mood Pushing it in any direction was dicey at best. Not to mention that the Law took a dim view on bards using their ability frivolously or for getting themselves out of trouble. In addition to that the Conservatory had its own rules and laws that were even more strict against such actions.

He was three verses into the light-hearted song about couples playing fast and very loose with their promises of fidelity with varying degrees of humorous and explicit misfortune as a result, when the door next to them opened without first having admitted one of the patrols. The biggest and grimmest of their personal guards looked up and then said, “the lieutenant has time for you now. Get up and no sudden moves.”

Brandt bristled for a moment but almost immediately settled into a complacency that Syts knew was false. The young man, Syts could tell, was more than a little annoyed and was leaning heavily on cursory Court training to prevent letting it show. For his part the bard had learned to act as young as he had learned to play his first instrument, and he had never let the skill slide. If, like now, he wanted to appear harmless, few would think him different for the impression he created. It helped of course that he was too old to be a realistic threat to the two powerfully build and well-trained town guards. And that Brandt could not fully suppress the air of dangerous competence. It was no surprise really that he could walk through the door quietly while Brandt was closely guarded, almost jostled, through.

The lieutenant was, as Syts already expected, a career officer who had come into his rank through his noble birth. Lesser local nobility, if he was to guess, and not someone who had bought his rank. More telling was that the man, about halfway between the ages of Brandt and Syts, appeared to be competent and serious. His hair was regulation length which made it difficult to guess the colour and if it was thinning or not. He sat behind the desk with the posture of someone who regularly did his drills and patrols. Brandt, Syts noted, subconsciously reacted to the man’s authority and military bearing. He’d been trained by, and served under, officers just like this lieutenant.

The officer nodded and one of the guards behind Syts closed the door.

Another nod, this time at Brandt and him, gave them permission to sit down on the uncomfortable wooden chairs in front of the desk.

“Brandt Athelson,” the lieutenant began, once they were seated and he had taken a long moment to study them. “Mercenary with good standing. Registered with the guild based in Garnford. Currently employed with Captain Nemis and the Bright Blades company.”

He switched his sharp gaze to Syts, “and Master Bard Lonwellyn. I admit to being surprised seeing you here. The issue does not seem to concern you?”

There was a slight raising of the voice at the end of that sentence, turning it into a question should Syts choose to interpret it that way.

“I expect my presence here will turn out to be necessary,” was all he allowed for an answer. He would not commit to more until he got a better idea of what was going on and why Brandt was all but arrested and put under heavy and angry guard.

The lieutenant nodded slightly in acknowledgement of Syts’ response, or lack thereof, before turning his attention back to Brandt.

“Gate guard noted that Captain Nemis planned to travel to Hillford to see if he could pick up another caravan to guard, or to winter in that town. He did not expect to return before another ten days, or after first thaw in spring.”

He paused, pretending to gather his thoughts, “you are here early and there is no record of the Bright Blades arriving at the gate. Yet you arrived in a company that was unusual enough that the gate guard decided to sent a message here.”

He leaned forward, steepling his fingers together. “It seems to me there is a story here. And right now, I do not like the notion of strange stories happening in my town.”

“Sir,” Brandt replied neutrally, further betraying his extensive military background.

From the slight tightening of his eyes, Syts could tell this had not escaped the notion of the guard officer either.

“So,” the lieutenant said, almost drawled, after another long pause in which he sharply studied the young man. “care to tell me why Innkeeper Gunnarsunnu accuses you of vandalism and threatening him with bodily harm, but failed to accuse you of being drunk and disorderly?”

“Is that the only accusation?” Syts found himself asking.

The lieutenant did not quite mask his surprise at the interruption but quickly covered it by actually answering, “No, but, it doesn’t have to get any more unpleasant than this.”

That was unusually phrased, and a hint that the innkeeper had somehow accused Brandt of being responsible for the strange events of last night.

Before Syts could make up his mind how much he could tell the guard officer, Brandt replied. “I did not damage anything. All I did was move the Innkeeper’s precious mirror from behind the bar to in front of it. I assume it is still there, without so much as a fingerprint on it. I did however warn him that he would regret further obstruction. That was not a threat, though, but a warning and a promise. We were in danger and I did not have time for his hysterics.”

Where are you going with this‘? Syts thought at Brandt, but the young man of course did not pick up unvoiced thoughts.

The lieutenant allowed himself the faintest of smiles at the description of the Innkeeper having hysterics. If he had met the man, as was likely, he probably thought the description was particularly apt. Syts certainly appreciated the candid observation.

“A danger, you say,” said the lieutenant, in a deceptively calm and casual way.

Careful Brandt,” Syts thought, not being able to give warning in speech or look, without clueing in the officer across the desk from them, that there was something to be careful about in the direction this conversation was taking. He could not, right now, interrupt Brandt without raising suspicion. He had no idea where Brandt was going with his comments either, not having had the time to coordinate their stories and how much they should tell the town guard.

“This would be why Master Lonwellyn is here,” Brandt replied equally casually. “But from my witnessing I was woken up because some of the guests at the inn had fallen victim to a strange illness. They could not be woken and anybody touching them would feel weak and faint, and for an hour or more would lose most feeling in their hand. One guest kept contact for more than a few moments and full ill too.”

He hesitated, “This sounds fantastical, but … anything these victims touched, clothes, linen, wood, burned to ashes and blew away. Without a fire.”

The lieutenant looked more than sceptical but had the grace to look at Syts for confirmation.

“I can confirm this. The sleeve of my sleeping robe was half burned away when I merely brushed over one of the victims. The blankets we used to carry the patients in all vanished the moment we laid them down on the tiles in the main room of the inn. As did the larger part of the beds we lifted them out of.”

The old bard could not quite suppress a shudder at the remembered atavistic fear, “it was strange and terrifying and we didn’t know what to do at first.” When the lieutenant didn’t react and kept his face impassive, Syts continued. “We were lucky. There was a …” He paused, searching for the best words, for once, knowing that the lieutenant noticed his hesitation. “There was a nun staying at the inn,” he finally decided on. “She recognised it as a curse by the Darkness. The Lord of Decay.”

The lieutenant could not quite keep the expression of disdain from showing on his face for a moment. Syts did not blame him for doubting. After all True Faith was almost as rare in the Kingdom as was True Magic.

“Truth of fancy,” Syts continued, allowing the lieutenant his doubt. “She told us to light as much fires around the victims as we could, for light would keep the darkness at bay.”

He paused and then said simply, “she was right.”

“How does vandalising the innkeeper’s mirror, the very expensive mirror, factor in?”

“Another of his, our, companions, came with the idea to use mirrors to double and redouble the light of the candles. By putting the victims and the candles between two rows of mirrors.”

Brandt added, “there weren’t enough mirrors in the inn. And the keeper was not reasonable about the one mirror that would make a difference in saving all those lives.”

The guard’s gaze sharpened as it fell on Brandt, “so you threatened him.”

It wasn’t a question.

“I warned him,” Brandt replied stiffly. The lieutenant refrained from openly pointing out that the innkeeper had not seen any difference. “I never meant to threaten him.”

You should have kept it to the first statement, Syts thought. By sounding so defensive Brandt had all but confessed his guilt to the lieutenant, but he couldn’t correct the younger man in front of the officer without making things even worse.

The guard smiled slightly, knowing he had enough of a handle on Brandt to get him talk himself into a confession.

Seeing the smile turn predatory Syts quickly interfered, “can we return to the more pressing matters? People getting infected by some kind of evil and light curing them of it?”

The lieutenant’s eyes tightened in anger, replacing a flash of another emotion that the Bard didn’t catch in time to recognise. Thinking very quickly Syts gambled, “you had somebody infected by the darkness and then get up…”

The lieutenant didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. The bard could see the truth on his pained expression.

“Yes,” the guard finally ground out.

Syts sighed, exaggerating a little for the sake of effect, “listen lieutenant. We can keep dancing around each other playing our little turf wars. Or we can start over and accept that you are protecting the city from something bad and I am likely going to report to the King. I might even be the one who tells the King that you’re going to need help dealing with something straight out of a children’s tale.”

The lieutenant turned pale, then red. “You’re not.” He broke off abruptly.

“I’m not? Are you willing to bet everything that I’m not? Because I assure you that I have the ring of a King’s councillor should I choose to exercise that authority.”

Giving the lieutenant three heartbeats to get nervous again, he pressed on. “Now you will tell me your name and exactly what the situation is, so we can make proper plans. Most of daylight has already gone with all this nonsense. And if our … nun is right daylight is all that can save us.”

“Lieutenant Aernema,” the officer ground out, clearly caught between equal measures of anger and worry. “Sir.” The honorific was almost bardic in how much disdain it managed to pack in a single word. Syts decided not to get angry at it.

“We had several civs coming to the guard-house in a panic with fantastical stories about family members surrounded by black clouds and blankets and furniture disappearing.”

Syts nodded for him to go on as that much they already knew from experience.

“The watch corporal decided to send a patrol to one of the nearby houses. One of them came back, scared out of his mind. The others had tried to shake awake the unconscious man and had fallen asleep themselves.”

Syts nodded again. At the inn this had happened to only one man, but only because Melissa and Talya had warned of the danger in time. The one victim was big and stubborn and convinced his unconscious wife could somehow be beaten into submission. Turned out she couldn’t. Melissa had warned to be extra careful of him. She hadn’t explained why though and given that she had been doing something, praying she called it, non stop he had not pressed for answers. In hind sight he probably should have.

“Captain Lageinga ordered a quarantine of all known cases.”

Brandt nodded, “good plan. Would have done the same.”

“Didn’t quite work out though,” Syts hazarded, speaking over Brandt’s tactless remark.

Aernema grimaced, “no. Mostly it worked well. The patients are still unconscious but nobody else got … sick.”

Syts waited.

“… except for two. Butcher Eilar and,” the lieutenant almost choked on the rest, “and corporal Jaipek.”

Syts swore, remembering the dire warning Talya had issued about those people were taken over by the darkness. Next to him Brandt turned ashen.

“You have seen this.” The lieutenant’s tone was accusing.

Brandt hesitated, “We ran into … something … on the way here. It chased us with nightmares. When it found us,” the young man shuddered at the memories, “it was a man. But blacker than anything you could imagine. Everything it touched it destroyed. Some things quicker and some things slower. I cut him, it, in two, Lieutenant. Over and over again. It didn’t do anything. It just grew back together.”

The guard both seated before him and standing behind him scoffed, though the lieutenant had the grace not to make a sound. Or not too much of one.

“But you managed to kill it anyway.”

“It isn’t dead. We buried it in a rock slide but that only slows it down.”

“You cut off a man’s head he’s not going to get up again,” the burlier guard said mockingly.

Brandt stiffened at the implied insult. Syts quickly interfered, “what did your possessed do lieutenant Aernema?”

The man’s expression turned even more sour than when he had to admit one of his own men had turned. “I don’t know. They’re gone. The houses are in ruin.”

Syts sighed, “I suspect that most of the furniture and curtains are missing? That what isn’t destroyed?”

“You knew?”

“We had the same happening in the inn,” Syts reminded him. “Only without the getting up and walking away.”

“Because Melissa had us put candles and mirrors all around them,” Brandt said.

Syts mentally groaned. “Melissa would be the nun. The other people in those houses?”

“Gone too.”

Dead, or worse, the bard thought, remembering Talya’s warnings about the dangers of the darkness. He didn’t tell this to the lieutenant, not wanting to antagonise him any further than he already had done by pulling rank.

“You can’t find them,” Brandt stated baldly. “And there isn’t a reason why you shouldn’t be able to.”

“What would you know about it?”

“Sir,” Brandt said — and Syts silently applauded him for it even if it likely was unconsciously done — “whether you believe it or not, the thing that was chasing us could make us see things that weren’t real. It made it pitch black when the sun was up. It made us walk up and down the same ten meter slope for most of the morning. We ran away from it, from something, in mindless fear until we were too tired to run. So, no sir, I am not at all surprised that your men can’t find them. They wouldn’t even realise they’re fleeing from some place.”

Syts smiled in triumph. “Have your patrols verify the places they are certain they checked. Better yet, have a patrol accompanied by an observer who can see which place they avoid.”

“We can find them,” the lieutenant breathed.

“And if you find them, what will you do? The one we encountered couldn’t be killed by any weapon. And it could infect anything it touched with the same darkness that had consumed it.”

“Fanciful children’s tales,” the guard waiting at the door scoffed. The other added, with scorn colouring his voice, “common mercs are known to be superstitious.”

Brandt ignored them with a supreme effort of will.

“Tell me lieutenant Aernema,” Syts said mildly. “What haven’t you told us? Did the two missing patients kill? Destroy? Maim? All in inexplicable ways?”

“What makes you think that?” the guard officers said with sudden cold tension.

“I have eyes,” the bard said, still keeping that deceptively mild tone of voice. “Your guards came in too tense. Far too tense for being unable to find two missing patients. You’ve doubled the patrols and they aren’t out in front dealing with the riot that’s brewing there.” Letting his voice drop to cold certainty he continued, “Something happened that upset seasoned guards. They’re trying to hide it but it is easy to see if you know to look.”

The lieutenant stared hard at him for a long moment.

In the silence Brandt spoke softly, “I can guess, Master Bard. They saw nightmares that left them gasping for breath. They saw dead bodies that weren’t simply run through but had large parts just gone. They saw a darkness that denied thought until all they could think of was to flee or to curl up and die. They saw the deepest hells and something in the dark looked back at them. I know, because I spend a night just like that.”

The lieutenant transferred his hard stare to the mercenary before shuddering, “sweet Mercy, you did.” He paused the asked, “your whole fairy story. It’s true then?”

Brandt nodded, “it’s all true. I wish by all that is merciful that it wasn’t.” He smiled ruefully, “I did not want to believe it either, sir. Tried my best to. Much to the annoyance of some of my companions I’d wager.”

The lieutenant heaved a deep shuddering sigh, “al right. Say I do believe you, what can we do against a … fairy tale?”

The lieutenant looked at Syts, who in turn, pointedly, looked at Brandt for answers.

“S … Brandt? You actually fought one.”

“Dense undergrowth slowed it down. We used that to gain distance,” Brandt began.

“That’s not going to be much help here,” the guard officer commented.

“No, but if you can lure them out of the city it might save your men’s lives. Their souls,” Brandt retorted.

“Arrows slowed it down too, but not much. And the arrows disappeared. We only had one longbow, and not many arrows, but it kept the thing back when it could have come in touching distance. Crossbow bolts may do better with damage, but their rate of fire is pretty bad. Hitting it with my sword also slowed it down. It took a few moments for it to knit itself together. We were draining the blackness away slowly.”

Brandt held up a hand to stop the lieutenant from seizing on that detail, “but when I had cut away enough that I could, just, recognise the person who was possessed by this … this. It stopped moving forward and did something to restore itself. I can not describe it, but there is a place not far from where the forest road reaches the Black Forest where the ground and even the air is faded. The life and even the substance is leached out of the sand. It wasn’t quick, but it wasn’t slow either. It gave us just enough time to make a run for it before it resumed the chase. We couldn’t outrun it sir, even though it moved at a slow walking speed. It kept find ways to slow us down even from a distance.”

“How did you defeat it, then?”

Brandt sighed deeply, “I do not know that we did sir. We sure thought so when we left, but hearing your story I’m not so certain that your troubles and mine aren’t related. But as to how we defeated it, we climbed a steep cliff and when it reached us we caused part of it to collapse, burying it under enough rock to build a house with.
It isn’t destroyed though, that much we could all feel. It is just so diminished that it will take a long time for it to dig itself out. Lifeless rocks, formed from the mountains themselves, I could see it had difficulty destroying. It moved much more slowly over them and they were not as affected as was sand or soil. Same was true for the dense undergrowth.
But soil and wood and clothes, that it can destroy very quickly indeed. Anything that was once alive. And humans for some reason are easily and quickly affected.”

“I can’t really go about and collapse houses,” the lieutenant mused. “And most of them are wood anyway save for the outer walls.”

The burlier guard made a disbelieving sound.

“If it were me I would lure them to the mines and collapse the shaft on them,” Brandt said.

The lieutenant hesitated.

“Sir, the thing we fought had possessed one of my comrades. I could see that clearly at one point. But I could also clearly see that it was only his body inside the black shroud. There was nothing living in it. Whatever is haunting your city now, it is no longer your guardsman.”

“Very well, you have given me much to think about, and much to plan for. You two will return to the inn and stay there. I can’t have you running around and I may need to be able to find you in a hurry.”

Brandt angrily drew breath to voice his disagreement, but it was the lieutenant’s turn to forestall him with a hand gesture. “I can also have you locked up here, if you prefer. The guard escorting you will make clear to the innkeeper that in the light of this greater crisis, the matter of you threatening a well-respected and influential citizen is held in abeyance but not dismissed.”

Syts shook his head, “I’m afraid I can not agree to this Lieutenant. I must insist on speaking to the Mayor, and in all probability the Kingsman as well. I judge that the danger we are facing here extends beyond the walls of this city, and runs deeper than keeping order.”

Lieutenant Aernema looked at the old bard, frowning in thought. “You have the authority to make such a demand Master Lonwellyn. Though I can scarce spare the men, I will provide you with an escort to the Council hall. They will wait for you there and escort you to the inn after you have concluded your business there.”

Syts smiled, “that matter can be easily solved. Brandt can escort me to both, leaving your men free to chase down this unnatural danger.”

The guard officer shook his head, not without regret. “While you have the authority to demand an audience with the Mayor, you have no such power of the town guard. Mercenary Athelson is charged with serious misdemeanours and while I choose not to immediately detain him, he is still under my authority until such time as his case can be seen to by the magistrate.”

Brandt said wearily, “It’s alright Master Syts. I need to speak to the Magistrate anyway. And it probably is best if I do not leave the others alone any longer.”

Syts, his anger momentarily slipping through his control, replied, “Gyrubrandt. I need you at the meeting with the Mayor too.”

The lieutenant jerked back at the mention of that particular name, and Brandt could see recognition, and horror, dawn behind his eyes before he schooled his expression in a neutral, if rather fixed, mask.

He also knew that officer Aernema decided not to get involved when he asked not the first question that had to come to his mind but, “why would you need to see the Magistrate?” The question lacked the honorific, but was spoken with a lot more deference than he had shown Brandt during the interview.

“One of my companions is possibly an escaped slave in possession of goods stolen from her captors. Having travelled with her for some time now, I am no longer convinced this is the case, but I certainly made the claim when I first encountered her at the Halfway Inn.”

“And your reasons?”

Brandt grimaced, “she is the bowman I mentioned, and she is weapons trained.”

“So she is either a slave or a foreigner,” the lieutenant concluded.

“Indeed, and in either case I must report her presence to the magistrate, and get her a pass so she can use the caravans.” He sighed, “and somehow find somebody who understands her well enough to find out where she is from and can see her home.”

“She doesn’t speak?”

“Western trade language, but it’s only barely understandable one word out of two at the best of time. And only simple words. When she gets excited or angry,” Brandt turned to the bard, “you heard her speak a few words of her own language, I do not think they were any more familiar to you than they were to Keri?”

Syts shook his head and reluctantly admitted, “wherever she is from, it is from a place both far away and entirely different from the Kingdom. She doesn’t understand how to behave properly.”

Brandt didn’t add the obvious things, trusting that the old bard could understand those without prompting. That the innkeeper might be inclined to throw out his suddenly very unwelcome guests, should any opportunity for needing their rooms present itself, nor that at least Talya and possibly Melissa and Oboru as well, would react unfortunately to being thrown out in the cold at night.

Syts seemingly lost several centimetres in height as he admitted the logic of Brandt’s arguments, both he spoken and unspoken ones.

He got up, and so did Brandt.

Brandt wasn’t done though. “Syts, I can not help you convince the Mayor that he needs to order the entire population into the temples, and to get the temples to light every candle they have, as soon as the temperature drops so suddenly again and a blizzard blows down from the mountains with unnatural speed. You’re the one with words. He’s not going to be impressed by me waving my sword around.”

Catching the old man’s eyes he held them for several seconds before adding, “and my name is just Brandt.”