The Dark never showed him the man's face, no matter how frequent the dreams. The sword was clear, yes, but the Dark saw things much as the gods saw them, and that included people. There was a sense of great strength, and skillful movement, but those were the only hints as to the man's outward appearance, as the Dark cared nothing for that. Sydney knew that he sheltered important secrets, hidden so deep that even he himself did not know, and that his soul was... detached, in a sense, such that he simply did what needed to be done, without personal conflict or regret. He was complex, multi-layered, but above all else he was competent. Otherwise, the Dark would not have shown him to Sydney.

It was frustrating that the Dark would not show him something that he could know to look out for. Flashes of his soul, of a swordhand that had an immediate, intimate knowledge of any weapon it touched, were not things which Sydney could spot in advance. He could pray for clearer images as the time approached, and occasionally he had received a glimpse of shadowed eyes or a sleek, muscled back - but these were not much better. The Lady, last time she had come, had told him with a laugh that some had not even known in advance that such a person existed. The fact that he had the assurance of knowing the person when the time arrived was, she claimed, a luxury.

Even so, he prayed, often as he did now, in the ruins of the old temple in the center of the city, where the Dark ran strongest. Although he had to concede that Hardin was right - he did feel much better after having slept, and even had managed a bit of the previous night's fruit before leaving the bedroom - even then, he could feel the hourglass draining. The prophecies were beginning to be fulfilled. They didn't have much longer.

The sword flashed in the light, drawn in an arc by a steady hand. Muscles flexed, and steadied...


He sat up abruptly, startled at the frantic cry and the sudden sense of pain that accompanied it. Not terrible pain - it was not yet time for that vision - but something unexpected and swift.

Sydney rose to his feet, and then vanished.

Perhaps his suggestion of what to do about the Blades' intrusion had been less than ideal, Hardin thought. Less than ideal in many ways.

A few days past, he would have been grateful for an excuse to keep his distance from Sydney. After the events of the previous night, he was somewhat more worried - but also somewhat more hopeful. It was a combination that left him more reluctant to leave Sydney's side, though he was still grateful that he would not have to face the curiosity of everyone who had seen them the previous night at dinner. The task of keeping watch over a passageway which very few knew of, on the other hand, left him far too much time to think the matter over.

To make matters worse... Hardin had grown accustomed to the underground tunnels and caverns beneath Leá Monde, seeing as it was often a quicker way to get around the city than trying to pick out a way through the broken streets and buildings above ground. He'd never been fond of spending much time below ground, though, a fact which he'd forgotten when he volunteered for this task. It was impossible to forget, now that he was stationed just inside the wine cellar, alone with little to do but wait and sternly remind himself that this time he could leave whenever he wished.

It helped that his task was to scrye, and his focus was to be on an area far less reminiscent of his old prison cell. Not far away was the staircase that led above ground, to the mainland across the channel from Leá Monde. There, the colors were vivid in the bright sunlight, and he could look out to sea, all the way to the horizon. A part of him stood there on the hill, nothing more than a ghost to ordinary men, watching the waves and admiring the trees, steadfastly trying to ignore the fact that his body remained in a small, roughly-cut stone chamber lit only by dim torchlight.

Perhaps fortunately, he didn't have to wait long before something happened.

He'd nearly forgotten, at that point in the afternoon, that he was not physically on the hill. He was therefore a bit startled when, upon turning at the sound of approaching footsteps, a man walked right past him without pause. He did stop at the top of the staircase, and Hardin followed to find him regarding it with a thoughtful expression. "Hmm..."

The man did not look like one of the cardinal's knights. He wore none of their armor or insignias - in fact, no insignia whatsoever, though he did wear minimal armor and a sword. The way he moved told Hardin that he was quite accustomed to having it there.

Everything else about the man said that he was no knight. The piercing in his lip, for one thing, and... it wasn't as if Hardin had never seen a cold, calculating expression in the eyes of one of the cardinal's men, but this man wore it differently, without a hint of virtue. Already Hardin was certain that he did not like the newcomer.

The man considered the staircase for a few moments longer, then shrugged and began to descend. "Down we go, I suppose," he murmured to himself, and Hardin once more followed, invisible and silent.

At the bottom of the stairs, the man took only a quick glance around before heading straight for the small metal gate that marked the way into the cellar proper. He seemed to have no uncertainties as to where he was going, Hardin observed, and a great deal of confidence, for not only did the man not hesitate before entering into the path that would take him into a city long rumored to be crawling with evil creatures - he even closed the gate behind him.

Hardin's eyes narrowed as the man hummed idly to himself, picking his way over the broken flooring and around fallen rubble as if unconcerned. Either this man believed he had nothing to fear from Leá Monde, or he did not intend to leave anytime soon. A particularly foolhardy thief, perhaps, after the valuable wine that had been buried in this tunnel after the earthquake? A skeptic determined to see for himself, to prove the superstitious wrong? Perhaps mad - seeking his death in a more creative way than the usual methods...

Whatever brought the man to seek out Leá Monde, he wasn't especially fazed by the large bats that abruptly swooped low over his head, annoyed at their slumber having been interrupted. He merely cursed, momentarily startled, and brought up his sword to slash at them. When they flapped away, screaming and wounded, to another chamber, he looked after them and then replaced his sword in its scabbard. "...Hmph."

The man continued on his way, unwittingly shadowed by Hardin, who recognized that very soon they would come to the room where Hardin had positioned himself for the surveillance. Ending his scrying, he physically got to his feet and readied his sword. He'd not intended to challenge any intruders, only slow them down, which was why he'd come alone - but this was not the sort of intruder he'd expected to enter the cellar. If it had been the Blades, their motivation would have been obvious; since it was not, Hardin wanted to know why he had come well before he managed to get to the city. And preferably ensure that he would not return. Something about the man left him extremely wary.

Flattened against the wall beside the door, Hardin listened to the footsteps as they approached, and tensed to move as the latch clicked. An instant after the man had stepped through the doorway, Hardin had the man's swordarm pinned to his side, and Hardin's sword was at his throat. "Why have you come?" Hardin growled in his ear.

To his surprise, the man somehow twisted and slipped from his grasp, drawing his sword and backhanding Hardin across the face in a single motion, and turning to look Hardin in the eye. This was not an ordinary thief - nor was he on the level of most of the Blades. No, he was much better, Hardin realized in alarm as the man whirled his sword and charged.

Hardin was also better than most, however, and blocked instinctively as he cast a simple degenerative spell on his opponent. Feeling the magic wash over him, the man's eyes widened, and he backed up a few steps. "Hold!" he exclaimed. "You're... one of Sydney's, aren't you?"

Hardin remained in a defensive stance, regarding the man with suspicion. "And whose are you?"

Evidently that was close enough to an affirmative answer, for the man lowered his sword and began to place it back in the scabbard. "I'm my own, at the moment, but I'd been considering changing that. I've heard of a prophet who performs true miracles... and I would very much like to meet him."

"So you shall," spoke a voice from the shadows, and Hardin breathed a relieved breath as Sydney stepped forward. "You've taken a great risk, coming here," he continued, coming to stand beside Hardin, who finally lowered his sword. Was it Hardin's imagination, or did the man's eyes widen strangely at his words for some reason? "Have you not heard the tales?"

"I have - of both the creatures of Leá Monde and the prophet said to walk its haunted streets, and this is why I've come. Sydney Losstarot..." he said slowly, with a wondering look. "You could be none other..."

"You place yourself in danger, attempting to enter the city without notice," Sydney observed, regarding the man shrewdly. "Not only from the Dark and the creatures that there dwell, but from my followers. We've been having a certain number of unwelcome visitors of late; my second, Hardin, might have slain you had he believed you were one of their number."

"Quite understandable," the man said with a nod. "No harm done, now - Hardin, is it?" he added, turning to Hardin and taking a step forward to extend his hand. "My apologies for surprising you."

Hardin still was quite sure that he did not like the man, but he grudgingly accepted. "As you said, no harm done. And you are...?" he inquired. The fact that the man still hadn't given his name didn't make Hardin any more inclined to like him.

"Rosencrantz - Jan Rosencrantz. A pleasure, meeting the both of you." Hardin had the feeling that the curious way in which Rosencrantz was regarding him was the same way he'd regarded the stairs down into the cellar. He didn't like that one bit.

"Indeed," said Sydney, sounding vaguely skeptical in his agreement. "Now that introductions have been made - Hardin, go on ahead, back to the city. I'd like to speak to our new visitor alone for a moment."

"Of course," Hardin agreed gruffly. He didn't like the idea of leaving Sydney alone with a stranger, particularly not one who made him feel so uneasy. When he glanced at Sydney, wondering what insight his talent for reading hearts might have offered, he found that Sydney's expression was far too neutral. Well then - so Sydney was wary as well.

He obeyed nonetheless, casting another glance over his shoulder as he left. He may contradict Sydney in private, but before others? He would not dare question Sydney's authority.

Sydney considered the man in silence for a bit longer after Hardin had gone. Very strange, this Jan Rosencrantz. One thing in particular...

"You've already been touched by the Dark," he observed.

"Yes, yes, I have," Rosencrantz acknowledged with a brief, polite nod of his head. "You truly are a seer, as they told me."

Sydney ignored the obvious flattery. "How did this come to pass?"

"Ah, but as you are a seer," Rosencrantz suggested cheerfully, "you must be able to read the story in my heart, can you not?"

"I would like to hear the story as you would tell it, rather than as the Dark would tell it," Sydney stated. "Seeing as you've come unannounced into our city, I suggest that you obey."

Rosencrantz's face fell slightly, taken aback, but he did so. "Very well - I had thought to pass along the information as a gesture of good faith anyhow, if you had not already been made aware. ...There are other pools from which the Dark flows, through which one may be baptized into its power. None so powerful as Leá Monde, but the cardinal has been making use of them, for his men."

Sydney nodded; he'd suspected as much. However... "You are not one of the cardinal's men."

"No, but I spent some time among them," Rosencrantz explained. "While working for the VKP, who were curious as to what had the Crimson Blades behaving so oddly."

"And the cardinal allowed a relative newcomer, one untested, who had taken no vows, to partake of this secret - a secret which would destroy him and his church if word was to get out."

This pointed skepticism had the desired effect, for Rosencrantz licked his lips, looking suddenly sheepish. "Well, not... allowed, as such, no..."

"I see." Did this fool have any idea, Sydney wondered, what he'd been meddling with, and what could have happened? Or perhaps he was no fool at all. That was an even more disconcerting thought. Particularly because...

"Fight fire with fire, I say," Rosencrantz was saying. "I had done my research - I know that the power they wield is not the true power, but it is dangerous if misused even so, and they will misuse it. That is why I came to seek you, Sydney - the true power of the Dark, the power they seek, is here in Leá Monde, among you and your followers."

Sydney pondered a few moments longer, then offered the man a gentle smile. "Your tale is less muddled when spoken aloud in so many words."

Rosencrantz bowed respectfully. "If you need any further clarification, you have but to ask."

"That will not be necessary," Sydney assured him. "Not for the time being. Come now - as it seems you are to be our guest, I will show you to Leá Monde."

"Excellent - not many have walked her streets since the great quake. I feel privileged to be one of the few so honored."

"If you continue to show such respect for her," said Sydney, as Rosencrantz fell into step close behind him, "I expect that she shall show you her finest."

Though their lot was often considered eccentric, or at the least unusual, Sydney found Rosencrantz to be especially strange. Despite the man's flattering words, and the fact that his story added up with what Sydney sensed of him, Sydney didn't trust him in the slightest, and for several reasons.

First and foremost was the fact that although Sydney could clearly feel the flow of the Dark all about him, swirling and swarming - it didn't seem to touch him at all. The most disconcerting result of this by far was that this meant Sydney could not read his heart. This had many implications, few of which had anything positive to be said about them. On the other hand, the ones that did...

It was unlikely, Sydney reminded himself. He had the strength, the speed, the sure skill - he could see it in the way Rosencrantz moved, and in the lines of his body. But if that was all that mattered, it could have been Hardin, or a few others among their number. One thing none of them had was the sword.

Rosencrantz was somehow... unique, however. Whether this proved to be a good thing or a bad thing remained to be seen.

Keeping that in mind, Sydney only took him in as far as the first magic circle inscribed in the ruins, rather than showing the man the entire route. It wouldn't do for Rosencrantz to be able to run off before Sydney had a chance to puzzle him out.

One mystery was answered when Sydney used a teleportation spell to send the two of them instantly to the keep. So he could be touched by magic... though another mystery deepened. What made the difference?