The Concord

The view from where the highland gave way to foothills and the vast plains beyond was spectacular in the light of the setting moon. To the south the narrow plateau quickly gave way to taller and taller mountains. They were near invisible against the black sky but for the fact that they blotted out the stars. Earlier that night they had blocked the moonlight too, leaving the entire world near pitch black and the plains could have been mistaken for an abyss, starting just meters from the feet of the six men.

Travelling through a desert in spring and then crossing the world spine mountains in summer had left their once pristine clothes caked with dirt and tattered at the hems. Huddled in their cloaks against the lightless dark they were nearly indistinguishable from the boulders that had rolled down the slope from the mountain behind them.

This was not a coincidence. Even though the Hands of the Concord could not sense anything alive nearby that was big enough to be a danger to them, they still took no chances. For as they travelled further north, away from the domain where the Lord of the Sun and the Concord of Faiths reigned supreme, His ability to grant them His sight was slowly diminishing. They had been warned from the onset that this would be happening, that the lands they were travelling to had been abandoned by all Gods. It was another thing entirely to experience it.

After they had crossed the high pass from the desert into the mythical northern realms their ability to sense their surroundings had been reduced to only those times they were directly touched by the Divine Light of the Sun. For the first time they entered service as Hands they were truly blind. It had cut down the speed with which they could travel across the unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. It had cost them precious months they could ill spare to complete their mission before the world could be cast into an age of darkness by the messenger.

The six Hands were acutely aware now what that age of darkness would mean. They already lived through it every night now they had left the realm were the Lord of the Sun was ascendant. When His sigil dropped below the horizon they were stuck in a lightless void until the night had passed. And so, they knew, it would be for every living being. The light of the sun would be barely illuminating the world during the day, and at night there would be no light at all. Except for the minions of Darkness, who according to the scripture needed neither light nor warmth, and resented it in the living.

This was the reason why the Hands had, even this far removed from every living thing, had kept a watch of two at all time while the others took brief rests. They had agreed that as they were informed by their God of the message, so must have been the servants of the darkness. And if the Lord of the Sun had sent his chosen Hands to the north, so must the Darkness have sent a large force of enemies to counter them.

Here in the cold and remote mountains would be the most logical place to ambush them. There were few passes through the mountains, and their secrets zealously guarded by the desert dwellers and the handful of trade caravans regularly crossing between the northern and southern lands. It also would not be hard to find their warmth and the sunlight that suffused them in these barren lands.

That they hadn’t been attack so far was something of a disappointment and a bit discomfiting. It always was difficult dealing with enemies who didn’t act rational.

“If our enemies do not come to us, we should leave as soon as possible,” one of the Hand whispered in the stillness of the early pre-dawn.

With the sun once again near the sky, something outlined the world around the Hands in a faint bluish glow. It was enough for them to, if not quite navigate by, at least to get a sense of what lay ahead of them. In its ghostly way it was as spectacular an experience as the world in the splendour of the Sun Lord’s glory.

Two more of the Hands stirred to greater awareness and took in the effect that was like a faint reflection of the Sun Lord’s Grace that replaced their burned out eyesight.

“We’ve been Blessed,” whispered one of them in awe.

“It may also be an admonition to make greater haste,” said the informal leader of the small group. “As we have fallen well behind our schedule with the slowness of first crossing the desert and then the mountains.”

They all bowed their heads and breathed a prayer for forgiveness. While it had been difficult to avoid the delays, they still were delinquent in their duty to the Sun Lord.

“We can move, if we are careful,” the oldest of the Hands, the one who often acted as adviser to their leader, spoke up. “There is no excuse to delay.”

Hands rarely travelled or operated together, there were too few of them to make that feasible, but when they did it was always like this. With consensus rather than command. While it made them a little slower to get moving, once they did it was with absolute certainty and terrifying speed. Seconds after agreeing on the course of action, the six of them were on the move.

As they picked their way down the rocky slope that was only barely perceivable by them, and in the shadowed areas completely absent from their awareness, the leader asked for opinions on the next leg of their journey.

“What do we know of the lands we are entering?” he asked. He of course had his own ideas and opinions but he kept quiet on them so as not to bias the others.

“The trade caravan we followed for a while spoke of flat lands and men on horses,” came the reply after a considerable amount of time had passed that they had spent crossing a stretch of land they had to navigate mainly by touch.

The light of dawn was well and truly lighting up the sky on the horizon of the foothills and flat plains beyond, and was beginning to overwhelm the ghostly awareness of the land, when the next memory was voiced. “They were not scared but …”

“There was a wariness. As if they did not quite trust them.”

The other Hands thought it over and one by one agreed with this interpretation of the snippets of conversations they had spied on.

It was approaching noon when their leader finally weighed in on the fragmented conversation. Having passed through the same crucible of relentless training and complete dedication to the Sun Lord little words need to be actually spoken between them. They could hold much of their conversations in their minds, knowing what each of them would say as certainly as they knew their own minds on a subject. It was only when they couldn’t be certain each had the same information, or if there were several possible and likely courses of action that words actually needed to be exchanged.

“Our maps are inadequate at best,” the leader said in the stillness of a treeless land preparing for the summer heat. There was almost no wind rustling the grass and low shrubs dotting the mountain slope that they were descending with the same confidence of a man who could see where he was going. Few small animals and birds made a noise, leaving only the droning of invisible insects to break a silence that would otherwise have been oppressive.

“but combined with what we heard the traders speak of, we must assume that these are the last lands and people we must pass before we reach the northern barbarians and must begin our Search in earnest,” he continued, taking care to project his voice in such a way that it did not carry far beyond the small group.

“From what little we have gathered it is a long way still down the mountains across the foothills and vast plain north of us, but we dare not slow down.”

The oldest of the Hands spoke up in the silence the leader had let fall. “If our opposite numbers have not met with us here where we are most vulnerable, we must assume they have rallied around the Messenger.”

They all mulled over that observation for the next two miles before the leader voiced his assent. “We might want to know more of these horse riders that the traders are wary of. If we can do so without delaying our mission,” he said.

“Allies?”

“Allies. Or arrows,” the leader said, correcting himself almost as an after thought. “An arrow does not need to know who holds and looses the string. Only the target it must strike.”

One by one the others expressed by the smallest of sounds their appreciation of the plan. Unlike the regular army the Hands were not above expediency and if they could pit one set of heretics, heathens or unbelievers against another, so much greater the glory of the Sun Lord over that battlefield.

“But for now we must search our hearts and souls for any clue His Glory has given about the nature of this Message. We only know that in his Hands it can renew and era of Brightness while left unchecked the gods of evil intent will use it to bring about an era of Darkness,” he surprised them by saying next. “The more we know of the message the better we can predict where it will be headed and the better chances we have to intercept it without having to carve our way through an entire country full of barbarians and heathens.”

Advertisements

Melissa

Most of the day Melissa had slept, or at least dozed off before a sudden movement or loud noise briefly woke her up again. Keri and Oboru had been speaking quietly throughout the afternoon, though Keri too had been sleeping much of the time. Occasionally Talya added her opinion, and that was mostly when the discussion grew more heated and startled her out of her restless slumber.

The small amount of strength she’d left after spending the entire night had worn out shortly after Brandt and Obure left and the inn grew quiet again. Maybe it was the fact that the place had grown quiet that allowed her to feel her exhaustion fully. The other had called what she’d been doing ‘praying’. If she understood the meaning of that word correctly it was not really what had been done, but trying to explain that she had kept the presence of her Goddess close to her had been too much effort for her dazed state of mind. She had stirred herself to try and keep track of the discussion the others were having after the victims of the Dark had been placed in the sunlight and Keri had finally thrown off the taint.

The discussion that she had slept through probably had been important but only now, when she felt the sun drop below the world, did her lassitude fall away as well. She was still more tired than she had ever been, but at least clear enough to pay attention to what was going on around her.

Scooting up till she was sitting half reclined against the remains of the headboard, Melissa opened her eyes and looked around.

“Back with the living?” Keri asked her kindly.

Melissa didn’t answer the question as she didn’t understand what the brown haired human, no woman, she had to get that straight, wanted to know.

Keri shrugged and grinned, “never mind. It will take too long to explain. It is good to see you awake again. Oboru and Talya have told me that you saved my life and soul last night. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Melissa answered, remembering the proper reply.

Before anybody else could confuse her she said, “Dark is”

Oboru, who was sitting leaning against the wall next to Keri, nodded and said, “I know. I felt it too.”

The tanned man looked tired. Melissa thought it was as recent as her own sudden alertness.

“I felt it return. About the moment I saw you wake up Melissa,” he confirmed her suspicion. “The moment the sun went down it was freed from whatever hold the light has over it.”

“It looking is,” Melissa breathed. Her sudden alertness was, had to be, a gift from the Goddess. And that could only mean that trouble was coming, and soon.

“You found?” she asked hesitantly.

“I … don’t know.”

Melissa and Talya both immediately looked at Keri, who sat leaning against the wall, looking tired but alert.

“She’s not being attacked either,” the short northerner stated the obvious.

Oboru sighed and slumped even more. “It’s like a big black cloud is smothering everything,” he said. “But it isn’t like before.”

“In what way is it different?” Talya asked in a clipped tone of voice.

Melissa thought she suspected something, from the sudden tension in her posture.

It was Keri who answered though, “I don’t feel it so strongly as Oboru does, I think. Last night it was like my mind was being squeezed tight. Now, it only is thick in the air.”

Oboru thought it over a moment. “It is here, but is looking for something else.”

Talya swore in her guttural native language.

Melissa got it a moment later, from a flash of insight that might or might not have been inspired by the Goddess.

“It has a darkwalker in the city.”

Talya nodded, “almost certainly.”

“That’s good,” Keri asked. “For us anyway?”

“Not so much Keri,” Talya said sharply. “We’re trapped in this city. Once it has the Darkwalker it will come for us.”

“Well …” came a voice through the half ruined door from the corridor. “It sounds like you are still plotting.”

The innkeeper stepped up to the door, preceded and followed by a burly man in rough leather. Both looked like they killed easily, and if Melissa could be a judge of these humans, they had killed already.

Talya’s eyes narrowed and her hand casually strayed to her dagger. Melissa found her own hand do the same, only her belt and dagger were missing. Then she remembered they had been digging uncomfortably into her side and she had put it on the ground next to her bow. There was no way now to arm herself without being obvious, and the first man at least was near enough that he could easily rush her.

Goddess forgive me, she thought not quite a prayer.

“I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave my inn,” the innkeeper told them smugly and clearly not at all apologetic. “This room is needed by somebody else.”

With practised ease both thugs moved into the room, clubs at the ready. Their grins made clear they were hoping there would be resistance.

Talya tensed, but before she could make matters worse Keri said wearily, “they saved your life and your inn last night, and now you want to kick them out into the night?”

The innkeeper’s expression grew ugly in reaction, “they just admitted to causing it.” He glared at Keri, “I knew I shouldn’t have let you beggars in to my inn. You probably brought your filthy disease with you and endangered my honoured guests.”

Keri glared back at him. She opened her mouth but he spoke over her, “and your big thug is already locked up. I would have the lot of you tried and executed for witchcraft along with him, but for now I just want you out of my inn.”

Melissa grinned broadly at him, falling just short at outright laughing him in his face. The innkeeper and his two men looked at her, confused.

“Better think, you want,” Melissa told them.

“What?”

“She means that rumours of my arrest are vastly exaggerated.”

The innkeeper whirled around to face Brandt. “You!”

The big mercenary stood in the hallway, apparently calm, but Melissa could tell this was a deception. He was still carrying his big sword, but it was strapped to his back. The hallway was much to narrow to use it anyway, so that made sense. But he had has hand casually on the hilt of his straight dagger. Melissa had never seen him use that weapon, but she figured he would be as proficient with the three hands long blade as he was with his giant sword.

Another men stepped into view, crowding Brandt from behind. This one was not only armed but armoured in a boiled leather jerkin. Something was painted on the leather outfit that looked too deliberate and stylised to be a spill or accident. Clearly it meant something to the innkeeper, though Melissa could only tell so from the way he tensed, as his face was now turned away from her.

The two thugs involuntarily took a step back at the sight of that second man, further into the room they had moments before threatened. A step closer to Talya too, who suddenly had a knife in her hand. Melissa rolled off the remains of the bed, grabbing her own dagger on the way down. She came up in a crouch, using the bed as cover so that the big men had to climb over it get to her.

She grinned, the fight was already over and neither of the two men had even started to realise this. Talya, equally crouching by the garden door, showed a similar grin at the back of the two men.

“There’s no need for violence,” Brandt said sternly. He was looking directly at first Talya and then Melissa. Clearly he had seen their expressions too, and correctly interpreted them.

“We spoke to the guard lieutenant. He wants us to stay here for a little longer while the guard deals with a more pressing problem than petty complaints and superstition.”

That startled everybody, but the innkeeper turned red in the face from outrage.

“His … the mercenary is correct,” the armoured man said. “Until the captain, the mayor, the council or is highness the King says otherwise, you will all stay here. The master bard has put his word on your promise to obey this bondage. He will join you once his meeting with the mayor is concluded.”

Melissa looked impassive, she understood hardly any word of the formal sounding speech. The others looked a bit more impressed. She didn’t need to understand these humans most of the time, she had come to accept that. As long as the Goddess kept her at their side, that was enough for her. At some point she would meet the subject of her Hunt. To be fair, she had been surprised that her ritual marking hadn’t faded when the dark being was destroyed. When the darkness had attacked Keri as well as other humans in the stone and dead wood construct she had understood that her Hunt was not over and she would stay with the humans longer.

She did not let up her guard though, and briefly wished she could risk grabbing her bow, even if it wasn’t as suitable to the cramped space as was her knife. She’d learned to have a healthy respect and concern for the strength of these humans. Being a half-blood she was tall and strong, but some of the humans were tall and strong too, and massive in addition to that.

Melissa had seen Brandt train and exercise most mornings they were not fleeing for their lives through the Dark. She had no illusions that she could fight him and come out the winner, unless she would use her bow from a distance. She’d kept her own rituals and exercises secret from the humans for that reason. She wanted to have a small element of surprise to slightly improve her odds should it ever come to violence. Not that she expected it, but the Goddess taught Her daughters to be prepared for any possibility. This was even more true for the border guards who had to deal with both invaders and the beings coming out of the deep forest.

She stifled a sigh. She had seen stranger and deadlier things than any of her sisters ever had, and none of her training had prepared her for it. While the thought bordered on the blasphemous, she could not help wondering anew why the Goddess had chosen her of all half-breeds and Sisters to be Her emissary and huntress. At least she could not help having doubts about the sense of proportions.

Melissa did not take her eyes off the tense stand off between Brandt and the innkeeper though. That was a fight waiting to happen, and in such a confined space she would need all the advance warning she could get to know which way to jump. The two big humans that had accompanied the innkeeper looked uncertain, from their postures anyway, but might be drawn into a fight anyway.

Something tugged at her awareness as she looked on sharply for the tiniest muscle movements that might herald the start of the fight. Something important that she should have noticed. Brandt shifted minutely, drawing Melissa’s attention as well as Talya’s, both women tensed in automatic reaction to his lead. Clearly the big man had picked up the tightly leashed violence in the innkeeper too. He was making room to defend himself, in as much as the first was possible. The second, Melissa had no doubt, he was quite capable of.

The much smaller innkeeper mirrored Brandt’s movement. Melissa had seen Talya move like that, in the fight against the darkwalker. She knew she might move like that if she was ever stupid enough to let herself be lured in a fight against the big human who matched her in reach and outclassed her in strength and his ridiculously large sword. She felt a moment of pride in remembering the human word for knife, but it was swept away by a chilling realisation what this implicated.

“Shaiontûh!” she spat, cursing in her native language.

Without further thought she reached for her bow, for the danger now was beyond what she reasonably handle without her blessed bow. It came to her hand readily, one tug from being braced. Melissa was certain she had not set aside her weapon this combat ready the previous night, but did not quibble with her luck. Or with the Goddess’ blessing and warning. Grabbing an arrow, she always had at least one out of her quiver so that was no surprise, took less than a second. By the time everybody had fully shifted their attention to her, including the ones who had to partially turn around, she had an arrow nocked and ready to loose. From the wide-eyed stunned expression on some faces she had shown them what kind of speed she was capable of in need. Not quite a disaster, but she would have to deal with the implications of that later. After the immediate mortal danger was dealt with.

The innkeeper moved slightly but Melissa had no problem tracking his eye that she was aiming for. Pulled like this she could hold her arrow ready to loose without straining herself as long as it took the sun to move a hand span across the sky dome. Her accuracy would suffer after a while but at this range she did not need accuracy. If she straightened her index and middle finger the smaller human’s head would be nailed to the wooden panelling and she already had a second arrow in her hand for a follow up shot.

The only reason she had not already done so was because she didn’t know exactly how humans regarded killing. It was not a subject she had wanted to bring up with Keri, beyond the one warning that morning, hampered as it was by fumbling around a language neither of them was fully conversant with. And so far she had only mixed signals from Brandt regarding the subject.

“Keri, translate!” she said urgently. “Small man from here place, he darkened is. As Brandt fighting is, but not as Brandt training. Not him touch let.”

Keri’s eyes widened even further. She also began to speak with the same urgency that Melissa herself felt.

The innkeeper slightly moved again, possibly to see if she could still easily track him. The rapidly darkening room posed no obstacle for Melissa though, she could see almost as well at night as she could in daylight. Only the brightest noon sun and the blackness of a moonless and heavily clouded night hampered her ability to see.

Keri looked at her expectantly, clearly having posed a question and waiting for an answer. Melissa had missed the question, focussed as she was on the deadly threat of Dark, but could guess what it was anyway.

“We know Dark humans took. Like Brandt training have. In first human place we were. With him. One buried in rocks is.”

“Are you saying that this darkness is using my … friends to control the innkeeper?”

Melissa waited for Keri to repeat the question more slowly and in words she better understood. Her aim nor her eyes left the innkeeper for even a moment.

“Do!” was her terse reply when she finally got the gist of the question.

“Move. Die,” she warned the innkeeper who had used what he thought was a moment of distraction to inch closer to Brandt.

“Whoah, wait,” the human behind Brandt exclaimed. “Nobody’s killing nobody.”

This made him Melissa’s second target. She knew with divinely inspired confidence that the innkeeper posed a threat to her and her mission. Even if he was not the target of her Hunt, he was now closely associated with it. Had he been the actual target he would have been dead already and Melissa would have been assessing if she could safely retrieve her arrows or if she should set them on fire along with the human den.

Talya tensed minutely, and Melissa knew as if she was one of the other border guards that the pale woman would take out the two big humans who were still in the room, from their expression trying and failing to make sense of what was going on around them.

The innkeeper tensed too, trying not to show that he was doing so. The tight trousers however showed the muscles flexing ever so minutely and Melissa began to straighten the two fingers that held her arrow back.

Then the darkness that held the innkeeper in its grip let go. Talya and Oboru felt it too, the moment that the oppressive tension in the room broke. The others seemed oblivious though.

Melissa swung her bow up so as not to accidentally shoot the innkeeper now that his darkness was lifted and he no longer was an immediate danger. She kept her arrow nocked and the string at full tension. She had no idea how quickly the Dark could reassert itself and was not about to be caught unprepared again.

“Danger over is,” she said.

Talya added, “for now.”

The innkeeper looked dazed, the guard however was clearly angry. “What in the name of Mercy and all that is holy, is going on here?”

Brandt sighed wearily but he too kept his eyes on the innkeeper. “The reason why your lieutenant chose not to lock me up. And the reason why you are pulling double and triple shifts,” he said.

“The fair? What has that to do with”

Brandt interrupted him, “The Darkness attacked several guests here last night, including Keri. Same as with your civs and your fellow guards. If not for the help of Melissa and priestess Talya you would have not two but nine darkwalkers loose in the city.” there was only the slightest of hesitations before he attributed a title to Talya.

“Two of them?” Keri cried out in alarm. “We barely survived one and that was mostly luck.”

Brandt said, “best you don’t mention luck when you get around to writing your epic songs about all this.”

Keri grimaced but refrained from voicing her obvious doubts.

Melissa shook her head. From what she had grasped from the rapid exchange between Keri and Brandt she figured it was not what she needed to tell the others. “Human in danger is. Light needs have.”

The innkeeper looked alarmed at that. The guard looked first startled then unhappy. Brandt too looked unhappy.

“What does she mean?” the innkeeper asked, of all people, Brandt.

De big man glanced sideways at Keri, who shook her head minutely in reply.

“Let me answer that question,” came the voice from the old Bard from the hallway. “The dark that Melissa mentions is, near as we can tell, the touch of the Dark Lord of Decay. You, master Stonesmith, likely touched one of the infected or the cloth they were covered in, last night, and it has spread very slowly over the day. After night fell it spread much faster.”

This clearly alarmed the innkeeper, and Syts hurried on with his explanation. “Thankfully, as priestess Melissa proved last night, the Light of Mercy keeps the darkness at bay, and sunlight burns it away entirely.”

The bard turned towards the guard and said “The mayor has ordered the Cathedral to be open all night, and all necessary candles to be lit. The guard is to escort anybody there who may have had contact with the darkness.”

He looked at Brandt pointedly and said, “we are to stay here. Because the mayor also ordered the city sealed until this crisis is dealt with.” After a bardic pause he added, “by the guard.” It was clear even to Melissa that he was not happy about any of it.

“What?” Brandt exclaimed.

Syts gave a meaningful look at the innkeeper instead of answering.

The big mercenary glared but clamped his mouth shut, crossing his arms for added emphasis.

It didn’t take long for the guard to get the message. He did’t look pleased about getting his ordered from a bard, no matter how others fawned over the old man. But, he had seen the deference with which his lieutenant and he clearly was not inclined to anger his officer for treating the bard any less respectful.

“Come master Stonesmith,” he said to the innkeeper. “Under the circumstances it is better that you and your … Let’s get you all to the cathedral for the night. I’ll talk to the captain about getting a guard stationed here to keep an eye on things.”

He had his hand on his club as he said it, though. The two thugs certainly noticed it, as well as the nocked arrow still on Melissa’s bow and the knifes in Talya’s hands. Exchanging a quick glance the two carefully lifted their own hands from their own weapons in unison.

“We’re coming,” one of them said. “we’re not meaning any trouble.”

“Keep that thought,” the guardsman advised them, “so we won’t have reason to ask questions why you two were here in the first place.”

Outnumbered, and no little confused — not to mention escorted by both the guard and his two hired thugs — the innkeeper finally relented and followed the guard out.

Only when they were out of the building did Syts step into the crowded bedroom and closed the door behind him.

Brandt finally exploded, “we have to get out here and find those darkwalkers.”

“Are you mad? We have to get out here while we still can!” Talya exclaimed.

“The guards can not hope to handle a darkwalker, never mind two!”

“And what makes you think the five of us can? We didn’t so great ourselves when we faced one.”

Melissa ignored the angry outbursts between the two. It was spoken too rapidly in whatever language these humans used among themselves and she didn’t understand a word of it anyway. Instead she watched the old man as he turned around. Facial expressions, she had found, were not so different between her kind and the humans. The old human, she noticed, was furious and he was no longer bothering to hide it.

“Are you two quite finished?” Syts said. Despite speaking softly his voice cut through the angry argument Brandt and Talya were having. The anger vibrating in his words made everybody look at him in surprise.

Melissa felt something pluck at her, and from the way Oboru narrowed his eyes at the old man in interest rather than in surprise, he had felt it too.

“Good, now I have your attention,” the bard said. “We can’t leave as we made a promise we wouldn’t.”

“That’s nonsense,” both Brandt and Talya exclaimed.

“We’re stuck with it,” Syts ground out. “Because I couldn’t convince the mayor. And I couldn’t convince the mayor or his council because at the end of the day I am only a bard who occasionally speaks with the King.”

Brandt shrugged, which only angered the old bard more. “I needed you there Gyrubrant. But you chose to turn your back on your duty.”

Keri smothered a cry of dismay with both hands, and turned almost as pale as she had been that morning when she was carried out into the garden to soak in sunlight.

Brandt and Syts ignored her in favour of glaring angrily at each other. Finally the mercenary said, eerily coldly, “I’m not going to usurp power. Not here. Not anywhere.”

“Are you willing to let the town be destroyed?”

“No. I am willing to fight to defend it.”

“And it didn’t cross your mind that you could do so better by assuming command?”

“That would be treason,” Brandt retorted angrily. “I believe you were present for the council that decreed I should be kept away from the court and away from command?”

“I wasn’t present for that. And if I had been, I would have argued against it.”

The mercenary snorted his disbelief.

The bard chose not to be offended. Instead he said, “you can still do what is right, your highness.” With considerable sarcasm he added, “unless of course it is your informed opinion that the mayor is treating this danger in the best possible way.”

Brandt let out a deep breath and some of the tension left his body. “No, it isn’t,” he admitted. “But me wading in now would only confuse things. It would not have worked had I come with you either. We would still be arguing who I would claim to be.”

Unable to counter that logic, Syts deflated too. The anger draining out of him, leaving behind an exhausted old man.

“Can we now discuss how we’re to get out?” Talya demanded.

Melissa noticed that the small pale woman cast an anxious quick glance at Keri while she said that.

“We can’t get out,” Syts reminded her.

“We can’t stay either.”

Everybody, with the exception of Brandt, agreed to that sentiment.

Syts sighed. “I’ll have to break my bond. One of us needs to travel to Kingstown and inform King and Council.” He looked questioningly — clearly without much hope — at Brandt. The big man shook his head minutely.

The bard nodded slightly and continued, “I guess that will have to be me then. What will you be doing in the mean time?”

“Find and destroy the darkwalkers,” Brandt replied at the same time as Talya said, “Getting far away from this place.”

Melissa found herself compelled to speak up, interrupting the incomprehensible conversation. She didn’t know where the compulsion, and the certainty came from. Or rather, she knew but had believed her entire life that such direct influence from the Goddess was only for the Sisters and not for half-breeds like her.

“Goddess to me speaking is,” she said, mangling the words more than usual as she suddenly found it hard to concentrate on the foreign language. “Visit untouched forest I need. Or Her no speaking” Pressured by a sudden sense of urgency that almost got her running out the door she added, “Soon be. Little little time have.”

At the other side of the room Talya looked startled as she fumbled for something hidden under her dress. “Melissa is right,” she said, wonderingly.

Brandt shook his head, “there is no ancient forest here. The nearest is … the black forest. I don’t think it is a good idea returning there.”

“Tomorrow. When Sun highest is,” Melissa interjected stubbornly.

Syts, who until this moment had largely ignored Melissa now looked at her sharply. There was something speculative in the way he looked at her, as if he was considering and pondering something.

Finally he said, “there … is another forest that you could reach by noon tomorrow.”

Brandt and Keri alike looked disbelieving.

“It is a well hidden secret,” Syts appologised. “And it seems that unless you need to find it you can’t.”

“Uncle, are you claiming there is a magic forest here?” Keri asked.

The bard grimaced but didn’t deny.

Keri laughed, albeit a little shakenly, “this I must see.”

“No song, Keri dear, no story,” he cautioned her. “This forest is secret for a reason.” He held up a hand to silence her, “Remember that I kept it a secret for longer than you’ve been alive. As did my … mentor before me. All the way back to the days of King Jiurrytt.”

Coming to a conclusion Syts said, “everybody dress warm and dark. It’s going to be another cold night, even without a snowstorm, and I’m not familiar enough with the weather here to be certain there won’t be one of those either.”

Pausing at the door he said, “wait for each other at the front door. And hurry.”

Within short order they were all gathered, dressed for night and snow as well as they could with the small amount of clothes some of them had left. The old bard surprised Melissa by coming down the stairs in clothes that were about the opposite of the flamboyant colourful things he had been wearing. Instead he was dressed in something that resembled Talya’s outfit, if with a looser fit. He also was carrying nothing but a small pack and an instrument case.

“Once we’re out of the city I will give you what directions I can. I would prefer to guide you myself but it appears that I must travel to Kingstown with all haste.”

Syts turned to Brandt, “your identity will come up your highness. There’s no escaping that. I can not tell how your father will react to this news. He has not encouraged speaking about you these past two years.”

Brandt grimaced but did not otherwise comment on what appeared to Melissa to be unwelcome news.

“And Keri, love, for you I have this.” He handed her a small silk wrapped package. “Do not under any circumstance open it before you reach the heart of the forest. Let it guide you where you need to go tonight, and do not give in to temptation.”

Syts

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.”

Brandt

Brandt bit back a curse when he heard the pounding on the door and the running footsteps of the innkeeper. He had pushed the man too far with the mirror and everything, he knew it at the time but he hadn’t been able to contain his fear for Keri. And now his lack of self control had come back to hurt them all.

Exactly like Aeldrich, the weapons master, had warned him.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself he pushed away from the doorpost he was leaning against, and nodded to Syts.

“Will there be time to dress appropriately?” he asked.

The old bard thought it over carefully while he got off the be and on his feet with more difficulty. “If you hurry,” was the eventual reply. “I can stall them for a little.”

Brandt nodded and left the trashed bedroom, hurrying into the room he’d shared with Oboru.

“No armour,” Syts called after him.

Brandt raised is hand in acknowledgement.

The bard’s admonishment made sense, Brandt had to agree, but he didn’t like to make himself so vulnerable. If talking to the guard was going to turn ugly, he needed his armour and his swords to have a chance to get the others out of the city. He had to admit though that even a poorly trained standard squad of city guards would have little trouble cutting him down if it came to violence, and that the old man’s warning to be non-threatening would significantly decrease the chance of things getting out of control.

Even if he himself did not want to lean on unearned respect, the bard had earned all the respect he got, and more. Last night, before everything turned into a nightmare, again, he’d listened to Syts and Keri playing and singing together. The old man was as good as his master’s robe proclaimed him to be, and having listened to several masters, including this one, he was by no stretch of imagination the lesser to any of the younger masters.

The big surprise had been Keri though. Since their first meeting she’d presented herself as a common wandering minstrel, but the way she’d matched Syts note for note, belied that suggestion. And now the court bard showed up and they just happened to know each other. There was a lot behind that unpresuming façade she presented.

Kind of like himself, really.

We’re a company of secrets, he thought with wry amusement, and a little chagrin. The first question really is not what we’re hiding but why.

Shrugging off the distraction he grabbed his pants and leather jerkin and hurriedly put them on. The jerkin was meant to be worn over his mail so it fit rather loosely over his under-shirt. There was a tightly knitted woollen jumper somewhere in his pack that would give a better civilian impression, but it had been so long since he’d last worn it that it probably was in need of the services of a tailor before he could wear it again. Assuming he could dig it out in the short time he’d given himself to get ready to face the town guards.

Giving it up as a loss of time he didn’t have to spare, he stuffed the rest of his clothes back in his pack, grabbed his mail and sword, and headed out. He had no idea how he was going to be received and he did not feel like leaving his gear in the inn. Not with an innkeeper who had called for the town guards over his earlier behaviour. If the guards were to be unreasonable he’d likely not see his gear back if he left it behind.

The old bard winced at seeing Brandt coming up to the front door, where he stood shivering in his night clothes, not actually armed and armoured, but carrying evidence of his mercenary profession in his arms.

“Guards,” he acknowledged them politely. He didn’t feel particularly polite, but he had learned to at least convincingly hide his true feelings, and there was no reason to antagonise these guards who were only doing their job. Hands crept closer to sword hilts as he came into view.

“Ah … Brandt,” Syts said. “Good of you to join us.”

“Finally,” the leader of the three man squad said coolly. “Let’s go.”

“Excuse me?” Brandt said, allowing some of his annoyance to show through. “Would you drag Master Bard Lonwellyn through the snow like a common criminal?” He didn’t add the warning that the King would hear of such a thing and would be royally displeased with the insult paid to his personally appointed court composer and musician. From the way the guard blanched he didn’t have to.

“He doesn’t have to come with us,” the squad leader said, still coolly,

“Yes he does,” Brandt replied with equally cool finality. “He can much better explain what happened here last night. And I would be greatly surprised if it will be somebody else who brings word to the King.”

Syts looked annoyed at Brandt, but did not contradict him.

“Of course master … Lonwellyn … if you would please hurry to dress into something more appropriate for the weather,” the guard said, throwing a poisonous look at the innkeeper who was hovering nearby. “There have been some concerns, and we would like to ask you and your … companion some questions.”

The old man nodded his head graciously, “of course. I will take only a moment to get ready.” Belying his polite words he did not hurry off, walking up the stairs at an ordinary, almost sedate, pace.

“Are you his bodyguard?” the squad leader asked Brandt.

He replied sourly, “I should be. His appointment as court bard was meant to be both an honour to his skill, and to keep him from finding more trouble.”

“Trouble?” The guard became even more alert at the one word question. No doubt they had a night that had been at least as stressful as Brandt’s had been.

“The Countess candle,” Brandt replied shortly. “And The bandits of Graystone Ford.”

“That was him?”

He nodded, “rumour has it. Along with other … acts that aren’t sung about by half the Kingdom.”

The guard swore under his breath.

Brandt felt that about summed up the situation quite neatly. He could practically see the moment the guardsman decided to hand this problem off to somebody with a higher rank than him.

It was the same moment the suspicion hardened in the guards, that it was no coincidence that a master bard had arrived at the same time as inexplicable events. Brandt shared some of those trepidations and suspicions. The old man had not told them much about his motivations, not even when pressed by Oboru, though he had seemed to be talking a great deal.

“Does the master need much guarding?” There was a slight pause in the question that suggested the town guard had initially meant to call Syts by another title, probably one not quite so respectful. His question also made clear that he had decided not to believe Brandt’s denial about being a bodyguard.

“Not as much as is feared,” Brandt admitted, as much to himself as to the guard. “But more than he himself thinks he does.” He didn’t disabuse the guard of his notion, as being thought a bodyguard would give him both a measure of anonymity and of protection.

The guard clearly was curious, but he kept quiet. In his mind the problem was now political and he, as rank and file guard, wanted nothing to do with it. That was left to they younger sons of the minor nobility and the rich who bought into the town guard as officers. He was now only going to escort the old bard to the headquarters, politely, and keep a close eye on him. Brandt heartily wished he could pass off involvement in this mess as easily.

Syts was true to his word that he would get ready quickly, though he walked down the stairs as calmly as he had ascended them. With a silent nod he told the town guard that he was ready.

Without a further word they set out, two guards in the lead and one following them. This made it appear much more like they were escorting an important visiting dignitary than they were arresting a suspect.

Initially Brandt stuck close to the bard, close enough that he could whisper a question, “why didn’t you tell them who you were?”

Syts smiled enigmatic. Long enough for Brandt to feel his annoyance solidify in a scowl, before finally answering, “I’m not here in an official capacity.”

“That explained exactly nothing,” Brandt said to himself. Rather than risking to show more of his annoyance, he fell back, as if he was the fourth guard escorting the bard. If the old man wanted something else from him, he should not be so mysterious. Brandt had avoided politics as much as he was allowed his entire life, and if he wanted he could play the dense warrior just as competently as any career officer.

Outside the inn the streets were freezing, as was to be expected given that the snow was pile up knee high in places. Still, given how they had been driven inside the previous evening from heavy snow and storm wind there was much less snow than Brandt expected. The temperature was also higher than he had thought it would be. The pale winter sun was already dropping below the black stone walls and equally black buildings in places. It couldn’t possibly have been strong enough to warm up the air from the lethal cold of the night.

Whatever freak weather was blown down from the dark mountain, it is gone, he thought. It begged the question if the cold and the dark had been related. Brandt had no idea, and he couldn’t ask the self proclaimed mage, nor the even more mysterious and unsettling Talya. Or he could but not without causing a whole host of new and worse problems for them all. After all three of his four companions he had to keep as far away from authorities as he could, and Keri was in no condition to deal with officious men of high rank and low common sense.

On their way through the town they passed several crews of poorly dressed men, guarded by alert town guards with weapons at the ready.

Noticing his glance the second time they passed such a street cleaning crew, the town guard walking next to him explained, “anybody arrested at the fair for misdemeanours and minor crimes gets to pay off his fine by working for the city.”

Brandt looked at the thin clothes the miserably looking men were wearing and shivered in sympathy. “Never run out of people?”

The guard grinned, “there’s always more stupid folk to replace the ones who learned their lesson.”

“And the rich?” Brandt hazarded.

“Used to buy themselves out of gaol, but the Mayor decided a couple of years back they should do their hours too,” the guard’s grin was bordering on vicious. “Made him real unpopular with the merchants, but the town folk love him for it.”

Brandt grinned in reply, despite himself. The notion was a good one, and he felt the King would do well to enforce it in the entire country. He had to wonder though how long the merchants would hesitate to exact their revenge the moment the Mayor seemed to stumble. Probably not long from what he knew of the rich merchants. They were even more viciously political than the high nobility.

With that little exchange the town guard relaxed ever so slightly, and Brandt knew he had become accepted as alike to them, a soldier working for his supper and who earned his rank and skill instead of having bought into it. He hadn’t set out to do it for that reason, but it would make his position with the town guard a little less complicated. Assuming of course the officer in charge wouldn’t toss him in goal and make him work off his debt to the innkeeper by shovelling snow in his linen under-shirt. One of them or not, these town guard were professional. Far more so than most of the guards he had met during his time as a mercenary, first on his own and later with ‘s troop.

When they reached the guard’s headquarters at the main square of the town the mood again shifted subtly. The guard hung back half a pace, creating a slight difference between them once more. Not enough to demote him from ‘one of them’ to ‘prisoner’, but enough to make it clear that he was being escorted to this place, and not entirely voluntarily so.

There was a fair crowd of people clamouring in front of the guard house, no doubt spooked by the unnatural happenings of the night and seeking reassurance or protection.

“What do they expect the guard to do about people who won’t wake up?” Brandt muttered, not meaning to actually say it out loud. He felt more than he could see the attention sharpen of the guard who was escorting him.

The squad leader stopped short of the crowd and turned around, “my apologies Master Bard for the lack of accord, but we’ll use the back entrance rather than try to force our way through that.”

Syts laughed, “I’ve been a travelling bard for far longer than I’ve been appointed to the court. Don’t worry about my inflated ego. I get enough fawning from obsequious innkeepers and minor nobles telling me how great and important I am. Truth is that it used to be I entered guard houses from the back door, so it’ll feel quite ordinary to me. Besides, that looks like a riot waiting to happen.”

Brandt fully agreed with the last statement, and so did the squad leader despite his misgivings at bringing in the King’s bard like a common criminal. Brandt didn’t know Syts well enough to offer an opinion regarding how accurate his assertion was about having a sordid past and no ego that was easily bruised. He’d avoided Court as much as he could, a state of affairs that everybody seemed to have been more comfortable with.

Reaching the back door was not a matter of cutting through an alley, because of the labyrinthine design of Glivenr, but other than the one narrow street where the snow seemed to have piled on waist high, both streets and alleys — and in the city there was less difference between the two than in any other in the Kingdom — they could walk easily. It was a flat black door in a wall of the same dull dark grey, nearly black, stone blocks that most the city and all of its walls were made of. The result was particularly forbidding even in a city as gloomy as Glivenr.
The back door of course was cleared of snow, since that was where the groups of forced workers had started. It also was guarded and barred. The street itself was empty, nobody wanted to hang out near this particular gate and the town guard discouraged loitering. Probably with nightsticks and an invitation to shovel snow for a couple of weeks.

Approaching the door the squad leader held up his hand, and the guard next to him moved to stop Syts and Brandt from following, while the leader approached the door guards alone. They spoke softly for some time before he returned and the door guard approached the door, again alone. Brandt couldn’t see what was happening but he presumed he spoke to somebody at the other side.

After that they had to wait long enough for the sun to drop below the houses and the street turning from chilly to distinctly cold. The door did open eventually and they were escorted inside.

There was a small antechamber, a sensible precaution against the cold in a mountain town, where two more guards were waiting for them. These two looked a lot less friendly than the three that had escorted them from the inn. They didn’t quite have their clubs out, but their hands were resting on the handle and they looked eager to use them. Instinctively the three original guards tensed up and dropped their casual pose. Even the guard next to Brandt dropped further till he was fully behind

Things must have been worse than I thought, Brandt thought. He couldn’t see the expression on the old man’s face, but he imagined it was the same concern he felt. The bard didn’t give the impression that he missed much of anything that was going on around him.

This was going to be a worse interview than he imagined, and he hadn’t set his hopes high stepping out of the inn.

Brandt dragged an expression up that he hoped wasn’t too unfriendly, but he knew his face was better suited to looking commanding than to looking friendly and harmless, courtesy of his great grandfathers ancestry.

Past the antechamber was a short corridor in the same featureless black stone blocks with a black door at either end. With both doors closed and barred it would be impossible to see a thing, though Brandt expected that the guards could open up the ceiling from the second floor, should ever an attempt to free prisoners make it past the back door. Glancing up ever so briefly he noticed the outline of a trapdoor in the ceiling, confirming his suspicion.

It didn’t make Brandt feel any better realising that the guard house was protected by such defences as if it would need them. He should have at least heard some rumours about such degree of unrest in one of the Kingdom’s major strongholds that justified this level of defence in a guard house. Granted it had kept him oblivious of many things that he had never paid much attention to events. He had in fact been subtly discouraged from getting involved with politics. It had taken a long time for him to realise just how much he was controlled by those he thought of as his friends.

“Wait here,” came the curt order,interrupting his thoughts.

Brandt looked around, finding himself in the ready room. Several tired looking town guards were sitting on uncomfortable chairs, a couple more were getting into their uniforms. To one side there was a door to a hallway with cells on either side. To the other side were two closed doors with a bench between them. A final door led to the front of the guard house, he presumed. It too was closed.

“The Lt will call for you when he is ready.”

None of the guards made any move to leave though. That was a bit excessive, all things considered. He had given over his sword before entering the guard house and had made no move to either resist or flee. And the old man looked like he shouldn’t be able to walk without the aid of a walking stick, though Brandt knew that was clever acting on his part. They clearly weren’t going to walk out of a guard room full with actual guards. Having five guards looming over them was completely unnecessary, even more so with two of them looking more than ready to club them into submission without provocation.

“What happened here?” Brandt whispered into Syts’ ear after the were seated.

“Shut up,” the burlier of the two angry guards snarled.

Since he now had his club in hand Brandt shut up.

Oboru

“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.”

Keri

The tense stand-off between Brandt and Syts was interrupted by figures stirring outside on the snow out in walled garden. Much to Talya’s chagrin, though she quickly controlled her expression before anybody in the room could notice.

Melissa was leaning against the far wall, knees tucked up under her chin and eyes closed. She looked to be asleep. Considering the night they had all had she probably was the smartest of the little group, trying to get what little rest she could find before what was promising to be another insane day.

Talya was alerted to the motion outside and her sudden turning away from listening to the contest of wills between the men, drew their attention.

Without a word Brandt pulled open the door and all but jumped through, gathering Keri in his arms and carrying her inside, out of the cold.

The brown haired woman was stirring feebly, as if the initial movement had exhausted what little strength she had left. Or perhaps it was the sunlight that had lent her the strength, and being brought inside had cut it off.

“Keep her in the sunlight,” Talya hissed. “She’s only barely recovering.”

Brandt glared at her but did as she told.

He was staring at the other victims, still outside. They were pale with the cold, close to blue, but showing some signs of waking up.

“I’ll get her outside if I have to,” Brandt said impatiently. “But not before she warms up. If she gets any colder all the sunlight in the world will not help her.”

Talya shrugged but kept quiet, for once not baiting the big man.

Melissa had slept through the commotion, or pretended very convincingly to do so.

“Brandt?” Keri whispered.

Instantly the old bard was on her side as well, his eyes tearing up in relief. “Keri,love. You’re alive.” he whispered, his voice breaking.

“I don’t feel so well uncle,” Keri croaked.

“I reckon you don’t dear, it’s been a terrible night.”

Keri closed her eyes, breathing laboriously.

“She’s running a fever,” Brandt said urgently, after lightly touching her forehead, which was developing a faint sheen.

“Fever is good,” Syts said. “It’s her body fighting the infection.”

Talya looked up sharply at that comment, but after a long moment looked away again to the people still out in the garden, pretending to not pay attention. Syts caught her look and returned his own. He too kept quiet though, whatever was going on between them left unvoiced.

“Will she be alright?” Brandt asked, oblivious to the exchange. Glancing briefly at the garden he amended, “Will they all be alright?”

Syts looked troubled, “I don’t know. I would like a real healer to see to them but … I don’t think any healer knows what exactly this is? Would they?”

“They wouldn’t,” Talya admitted from her position near the window, back still to the others. “We need to get the others out of the cold soon.”

As an attempt to change the direction of the conversation it was a poor one. It also was undeniably true.

“This is the only room with windows big enough.”

“We could get a big fire started in the garden,” Talya suggested.

Brandt winced, “That might work. It’s going to be expensive.” He didn’t need to add that they didn’t have the money for expensive. Staying in this inn they could only really afford because their rooms would have been closed up for the winter otherwise. The big doors were leaking freezing air, and there was enough of a gap under them that snow had blown into the room during the night.

“There’s some beds upstairs that have been all but demolished by the Nothing,” Talya said unexpectedly “If you can put your girl in the old man’s arms for a bit you can help me get down enough wood to get a decent fire going.”

“She’s not my …” Brandt stammered. He stopped, eyeing her impassive expression and narrowed his eyes in a glare.

“Let’s hurry,” he said, his voice frosty with irritation.

Before much longer there was the sound of crashing and of splintering wood coming from upstairs, followed shortly by running steps and shouting. Syts knew he should pay attention but found he couldn’t. He was sitting on the bare mattress, which was all that was left of the bed that Keri had slept in, the sheets and blankets completely consumed by that strange darkness. She had a new blanket wrapped about her of course, to protect her against the cold, and he held her close to the warmth of his own body as well.

Looking down he saw tiny drops of sweat pearl just below her hair line, and with a gentle finger he wiped them off.

My nightmares have returned, he remembered she had said. When she had come running into his life over a decade ago she’d suffered from terrible nightmares and only managed to catch fitfull bits of sleep wrapped in his arms like this. Of course, she’d been fourteen years old at that time and escaping more nightmares than the ones that had followed her into the trainee dormitories and when the extent and fragility of her talent was discovered, into his daughter’s bedroom.

Softly he crooned the children’s sleeping song he had sung for her then, now even more inappropriate than it had been when she was fourteen and fifteen. It also was the right sing to do because his voice had been one of the few things that could drive the nightmares away. Other than potions so strong that the healers were extremely reluctant to leave them with him because, they had warned him over and over again, they were killing her a little bit each time she used them.

He mostly ignored Talya as she passed through the door with her arms full of splintered lengths of wood and what looked to be the remains of a mattress. The deathly pale woman did something that set the dry grass inside the mattress on fire, he had not seen a tinderbox on her but assumed it must have been hidden behind the bundles of wood. Then she methodically set a fire around the rapidly burning grass.

And if Talya thought it odd he was singing a song usually used to get fractious babies to sleep to the obviously mature Keri, she kept that opinion to herself. Silent as a ghost she passed through the room, carefully closing the doors to keep as much of the meager heat in the room as she could.

Eventually the healers had been able to use the knowledge found by the bards in the oldest and most decrepit parts of the library, long pre-dating even the founding of th e Kingdom, to cure Keri of the nightmares. But they had taken her talent with them, leaving the girl as nothing but a talented musician instead of the master bard she could have become.

He wondered what the price would be this time, for her winning free of the nightmares that were the consequence of her true and terrible talent. A talent buried so deep that there was not even a mention of her nightmares in the archives. He’d personally made sure of that after she had recovered from those final treatments.

“Uncle?” Keri said weakly, her voice barely a whisper. A rather croaked whisper. She hadn’t had anything to drink of course, and the fever she was running couldn’t be helpful for her parched state either.

Carefully the old bard dripped a few drops of water in her mouth, looking carefully if she would swallow them of her own.

“Hush dear,” he whispered. “No talking until you are stronger.”

Keri swallowed painfully. Her throat was so dry and raw that even swallowing down a few drops of water sent spikes of pain through her. Her head was feeling worse still. But there also was a memory in it. Painfully bright in its immediacy and urgency, but fading rapidly.

Weakly she pulled at his arm to draw his attention.

“Must … say … now … or … forget,” she croaked. Each word painful to get out.

He dropped more water drops in her mouth and she swallowed them. The moisture at least would make her throat feel better, though nothing could help her head other than something far stronger and far more sinister than the strongest willowbark tea.

“Was in … granary,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut against the headache and the flashes of blinding light it set of behind her eyelids.

Syts bent closer to tell her to stay quiet and rest a little longer but she found the strength to stop him.

“Was on fire … cold … so cold,” she shuddered at the strength of the fading memory of the intense cold. “clothes burned … away … was naked.”

The old bard tensed because, other than the cold she had complained of, this was much like what Keri and the other victims had suffered from. Melissa and Oboru had been wearing little more than tattered and charred rags by the time they had brought Keri into the brightly lit main room. And he himself had lost a large part of the sleeve of his nightgown when he had accidentally brushed it against one of the victims. It had just shrivelled up like parchment in a fire and then the ashes had blown away with a wind that nobody could feel.

“the grain burned … tried to warn … people laughed … ashamed … ”

Syts could feel Keri’s strength begin to flag now that the urgency of telling about her nightmare was past. Keri, who was more a daughter to him than his own flesh and blood, closer to his heart than the woman who had inherited none of his talent and loathed his love for music.

“It’s okay little song bird, I understand.” His murmured assurances calmed her down and she fell asleep again, breathing easier. The fever would start to break soon, he knew from experience. Not that she had ever been feverish when recovering from her nightmares that he could recall. Only that telling somebody about them always calmed her down and allowed her to recover.

And he did understand what the nightmare was about. It was so obvious now Keri had pointed it out to him. The darkness had consumed the clothes of the victims, the bedlinen, and according to Talya even the wood of some of the bed, but not the stone tiles of the floor they had lain the victims on. All of those things that had vanished were plants once, and so was the grain Keri had foreseen. It would have taken only a single guard in the granary to be affected by that darkness the way Keri had to make it all inedible. Or maybe even make it vanish entirely. The town could have a famine on its hand halfway through winter.

Talya and Brandt came in, both carrying a load of broken bed. Brandt dumped his load in the snow, leaving it to Talya, who already was kneeling by the small fire, to build it up further. From the rigid posture Syts could tell that she was angry about something. Brandt, just then turning around from closing the garden door, looked angry as well. Syts wondered what was going on between the two. He didn’t think he should pry though, tempting as it was.

He waited till Talya got back in, then said quietly, “We may have a bigger problem.”

Brandt looked at him sharply. Talya leaned against the wall looking impassive. She probably would have tried for bored if Brandt had been paying more attention to her.

“What problem?”

“Keri woke up for a moment, she reminded me that the towns granaries are at danger.”

“What?”

Syts ticked off on the fingers of his hand he used to support Keri with, “Clothes. Sheets. Blankets. Wood. All disappeared. It’s all things that were once alive.”

He couldn’t resist pausing for dramatic effect.

“So is grain.”

Brandt looked stricken. Talya said something in a strange language that nobody would have any trouble recognising of a curse word of sorts. It was the second time Syts noticed that she had let slip something that suggested that she was from out-Kingdom too, like Melissa and Oboru who made no effort to hide that fact.

“You have to warn the Mayor,” he told Brandt.

“Warn him of what?” was the blunt reply.

The old bard realised that they didn’t actually have anything that the mayor of this, or any, town would accept. All this talk about shadows from the Black Forest sounded like magic, which he would dismiss like any sensible citizen of the Kingdom. Stories about disappearing clothes and bed linen would make him scoff and, at best, suggest a far more prosaic reason for people losing them. At the same time, having seen the effect this strange darkness had that Melissa and Talya mentioned — in fact having witnessed its effect on his own clothes — he knew that the danger was real. Whatever had given the Black Forest its bad reputation had broken free and was now endangering the entire town of Glivenr.

His sudden tension transferred to Keri, who stirred awake. Her eyes were still unfocussed with fever and her voice not much better than it had been before. The old bard dropped a few more drops in her mouth, and then repeated it several times more till she could swallow more easily.

“You can’t drink too much at once,” he whispered at her. “Or you will loose it again.”

Keri tried to speak, and after a few tries her voice came out more or less normally if weakly. “I came here to ask bards about the oldest stories of the Black Forest. Other than the Cursed Carpenter.” she said. “Forest road and Inn were there before the first King.”

She closed her eyes and sagged against Syts, gathering strength while his mind raced. “The hill folk may have old stories about the Blue People,” he said.

“Pol is here?” Keri asked, referring to the bard who was considered to be a bit of an expert of the old myths and stories that were shared by the sheep herders in the hills south and east of the Black Forest. When they had arrived in the wake of the first King’s army and made their homes in those hills there had still been a few small tribes of the Blue people left, and the hill folk were rumoured to have had a wary truce with them as they slowly died out.

Syts shook his head and said regretfully, “he’s not here, no, but I can get a message to him quickly if you have a specific question?”

“Ask Talya. She knows more of this darkness. Understood the Carpenter.”

Both Brandt and the bard stared at the pale woman, who stared back at them expressionlessly. Melissa got to her feet too, adding a third pair of eyes.

“The dark figure Keri mentioned,” Syts said slowly, “the one that chased you through the forest. You gave it a name.”

Talya was silent for a long time. Her eyes betrayed that she was thinking very quickly.

“Yes,” she finally admitted.

“Care to share it with us?” There was a lot of menace in Brandt’s voice all of a sudden, a lot of the steel of command too he had to have learned before he … left. He hadn’t drawn his big sword, but that possibly was because that was by the door, leaning against the wooden post, just out of easy reach.

More silence. Everybody waited for the woman to explain herself. She wasn’t looking around furtively, trying to find an escape. She just looked back at them with that same expressionless eyes that she mostly showed between the rare glimmers of interest and expression.

“Darkwalkers. They are a … myth or my people. They’re not supposed to be real.”

“And what would these … darkwalkers … do? In your myths?”

“Unmake.”

“You mean … kill?” Brand asked.

Talya shook her head slowly and Syts, having made a life long study of facial expressions to gauge his audience and tailor his music, would have sworn to Lady Mercy herself, that the woman was scared. She hid it extremely well, but it was clear to him from the slight narrowing of her unusual eyes betraying her tension.

“No. Unmake. The world.”

Brandt sighed explosively.

Keri said softly in the silence that followed, “It killed all plants that it touched. Even the sand was … less.”

Talya nodded slowly, hesitantly. “Less than a hole, it leaves a trail where … nothing can /be/.”

Keri sighed, eyes still closed. “I think I understand, Talya, but I don’t think I can really explain either.” Grasping for words she attempted it anyway. “If you dig a hole in the ground, the hole is still real. Still part of the world. It can be filled again. This thing that chased us, it leaves behind a nothing that can never be filled again.”

Talya added, “Rock and metal are very solid. Very real. The core of this world. Darkwalkers unmake them slowly. Living things they … make themselves. Difficult to unmake too. But dead things… not strong, and already disappearing. They are easy to unmake.”

“Was that what they tried to do to Keri?” Brandt asked.

“Yes,” Talya replied, after a tiny hesitation.

Syts looked sharply at here and said coldly, “That’s not true. Or it is not the whole truth.”

“Not this thing was,” Melissa said from her corner of the room. “Anchor for thing make.”

Keri as usual tried to explain the odd speech pattern of the tall out-Kingdom woman, “She means to say that something was trying to get /into/ me. I think,” she swallowed, “I think it tried to turn me into one of those things.”

Talya shrugged, “probably yes.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Brandt’s voice was full of suspicion.

“These are myths. Nobody believes in them any more. Why scare everybody with ancient children’s tales?” There were a lot of lies in those three sentences, but she had herself under control now that she knew how astute the old man’s observations were. She believed in the myths, as did the Mage-Priest and his acolytes. And most of the people in his lands.

Syts pursed his lips while thinking, ignoring Brandt glowering at Talya, and the pale woman haughtily ignoring him.

“You mentioned the … darkwalker was slow and you could easily outrun it. It also couldn’t push through undergrowth easily. What makes it so dangerous?”

“Terror,” Keri shuddered. “We ran away as fast as we could until we were too tired and had to rest. And then it would catch up.”

Stories say,” Talya said, putting a lot of emphasis on the first word, “that they can infect a person with a slight touch.”

Both Brandt and Syts looked dubious. “You said it could not unmake living beings?”

Talya narrowed her eyes at Brandt. She plucked at her linen shirt, the skin of her hand, held up a strand of hair. “All dead. Easy to unmake. Then the Darkwalker clings to you and slowly unmakes you as well. Burrowing deep into you till you die. And become another darkwalker.”

“Is that happening to Talya?” he asked, his tone stricken.

“No. Life and light protected her. It was the.” She cut off abruptly and looked away from the others.

“It was the what?”

“To speak of it is anathema,” she stubbornly refused.

Brandt flexed his muscles in anger.

“Brandt,” Keri whispered, but it cut through his temper. “She meant the previous world myth. It is what she believes. And … the myth says that the gods that were left behind were destroying the worlds while our gods brought those they could reach to a new world.”

Brandt looked mutinous, and while Keri couldn’t see him, pressed against Syts as she was, she seemed to know that. “You’re asking her to speak the name of the Dark Ones.”

The old bard smiled down on the feverish woman he thought of as his daughter in his unguarded moments. “You always were smarter than any other bard,” he whispered fondly.

Melissa drew a sharp breath but, after a long moment slowly expelled it again. Almost as if, Syts thought, she had been about to say something and then thought better of it.

In the silence that followed Keri asked, her voice a little unsteady, “So … what happens? While I be?” she let her question trail off into silence.

“I don’t know,” Talya admitted, and it was clear that it cost her. Stranger still, Syts could see that she could not entirely hide the fact that she was scared by something.

“Light burns,” Melissa said, as if that settled the question.

Brandt grimaced, “You can protect Keri. But what about the townfolk?”

Talya had smoothed over the mask she was wearing, hiding the tiny cracks through which Syts had glimpsed some of her real emotions. “Bright fires will protect the living from this dark. For the dead and dying… burn them, and then burn the ashes again till nothin remains. Or put them in a tomb so deep in the mountain that not even air can reach there, seal up the tomb and erase even the memory of it. Kill the ones who did the burying and burn them to ashes too.”

Everybody was shocked at the cold ruthlessness with which she spoke.

“Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Syts asked.

“No,” came her reply with a cold finality. “It may not be enough to protect this world from being consumed like the first.”

Talya

“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

“Huh?”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.”