The minutes passed slowly to the sound of Tera's recital. She chanted the syllables in a strong, confident voice, completely assured of her purpose. The candles flickered, tossing shadows across the walls and furniture, and more than once Janyn flinched as it seemed one moved unnaturally, in ways the light should not have sent it. Paul had the same reactions, though less often--not knowing the darkside's nature from experience, his fears were not so acute.

Brent, though, was clearly affected. Whether it was because he could actually sense some reaction within himself to the exorcism ritual, or just his imagination at work, he'd gone ashen pale and his body quivered with faint tremors. Watching him just made Janyn's nervousness worse, like fear was a disease that could be passed from victim to victim.

He supposed that it was.

The wax tapers began to dip as five minutes turned to ten, ten to fifteen, each candle resembling a twisted, abstract sculpture from the way the night breezes had shaped their melting. Only Tera showed no signs of change, no hint in her voice of any reaction to the mounting tension. Janyn would have sworn he saw a kind of haze clinging to Brent, as if the forces being pulled from his soul were being physically released.

He hoped not.

"Master Brent, Mama wanted to know if you and your guests were going to have dinner or--"

Janyn and Paul almost jumped out of their boots at the boy's high-pitched voice. They'd been so fixed on what was happening in front of them that the door opening on its well-oiled hinges had gone unnoticed.

"Damn it, Luka!" Brent screamed, rounding on the servant boy. "Can't you see that something important is going on!" Spittle flew from his lips as he shrieked, enraged, while all the while Tera's chanting never missed a beat. "Get out of here before I flay you alive!"

Luka flinched, then scuttled backwards, reaching for the door.

It was already too late.

If Janyn had not seen how the darkside animated at the Red Dog--and if, truth be told, he had not been half-expecting its presence--it might have been over at once. As it was, he pulled his sword free just as it rose up from the shadows on the floor, and his own blade interrupted the descending stroke.

The darkside's attention was barely on him; Janyn was an obstacle to the living shadow, nothing more. The object of Brent's stress-maddened rage was the boy. It left the creature distracted, not taking basic steps a human combatant would be aware of, and Janyn used the opportunity, freeing one hand from his sword-hilt to hurl a Foi technique against the darkside. Tera's Wats hadn't stopped it before, but perhaps fire had a better chance than ice.

The creature made no sound as the firebolt struck home; its body seemed to shimmer a bit in reaction, fading slightly into translucence at the point of impact, but it regained its shape at once, and Janyn was forced to parry two more strikes aimed at the boy. Luka had slumped to the floor, whether in a faint or because he'd met the darkside's paralyzing eyes, so running was not an option.

Then Paul was there, hurling himself into the fight. His heavy sword slashed down at the darkside's shoulder, the blade penetrating then slowing to a stop as if it had delivered a blow to flesh and bone. This impression was broken, though, when the shadow figure's arm rippled crazily and seemed to snap, thrusting the sword out of the instantly closing wound with such force that Paul staggered back a couple of steps.

Heat from the burning sword washed over Janyn as he fought the darkside desperately, even while almost certain it meant nothing in the long run. He'd learned from the battle in the inn, making certain not to meet the shadow creature's gaze. In truth, it was little handicap; he'd been taught to anticipate an enemy's reactions from posture, stance, and movement but the darkside didn't fight that way. Though humanoid in shape, it didn't have to follow the rules of ordinary matter, moving and bending in ways normal people with bones and joints weren't able to. Attacks came from nowhere and everywhere; the only constant was the flashing, burning brand of its sword.

Over the creature's shoulder he saw its source, Brent. The trader had shrank back against the wall, cowering in gibbering fear. If Janyn had ever doubted that the darkside was truly independent of Brent's will those doubts were now purged. The darkside may have carried out the wishes of his hatred, but it had done so on its own, the dark, secret dreams of Brent's soul brought to life without any moral force to hold them in check.

Tera, meanwhile, did not join the fight, but continued her chanting with only the faintest quaver. Was she truly unaware of the manifestation, Janyn wondered? Or was it something else--that her best way to help was to try and finish the exorcism, destroying the darkside forever? It made sense, given that she'd been unable to defeat it at the Red Dog the previous night. Why waste effort on a course doomed to failure?

Not, Janyn thought, that this course was any more promising. He and Paul were trying their best, but there was no way they could hold back the darkside for more than a couple of minutes at best, and it could be ten times that before Tera finished.

He struck out, seizing an opening, and sliced his own blade through the darkside's abdomen. Janyn could feel the increased drag on his arms as the shadow-stuff seemed to cling to his sword as it passed through. Like the injury Paul had given it, the gash Janyn cut seemed to heal over at once. Had he hurt it at all, depleted its supernatural reserves by some tiny amount with the attack? Or was it as truly ineffectual as it appeared? He couldn't know; he and the sergeant beside him could only fight on as best they could for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, "as long as possible" proved not to be so long at all. Paul thrust hard through the darkside's torso, but had trouble trying to free his sword, the shadowy flesh seeming to cling to it. Janyn lunged to protect him, but the darkside bent its sword arm at an impossible angle to deflect the hunter's sword with its elbow while slashing down with the burning blade. It seared a gash from shoulder to waist, cutting through the sergeant's armor and sending him reeling away from the fight. Janyn's heart sank, and his momentary shock and worry proved his undoing. The darkside slashed at him, while striking with its free hand, and while he blocked the burning sword he was knocked back, stumbling over Luka's body and crashing to the floor in an almost seated posture. More than one candle was tipped and extinguished as his sword went flying; Tera gave a quick gasp and ceased chanting, apparently sensing that the ritual was broken.

The darkside's blade swept up, ready to descend on the boy. It could kill helpless victims tortuously and slowly, but as it had shown with Crain could also kill quickly.

One of Janyn's daggers flashed past the shadow as its sword swept down. The blow never fell; the darkside simply ceased to exist in mid-swing, its shadow substance dispersing like vapor.

Janyn's aim had been true; the thrown weapon's hilt jutted macabrely from Dolan Brent's pierced eye socket.

The hunter's wordless howl echoed in the room, a pale reflection of what he felt.

-X X X-

The night was still and quiet as Janyn stepped out of the inn, his travel-pack slung over his shoulder. By all rights there should have been wind, a sandstorm, perhaps even thunder, but nature simply passed on. What did the skies care, after all, for the petty human dramas played out beneath them? Why, he thought, should the world at large care?

The innkeeper had been surprised at his request; nine at night was an hour more suited to checking in than out, but Janyn wanted nothing more to do with Morova, not for comfort's sake or any other reason. Better to start his journey now, and sleep clean under the stars.

"You're leaving?"

It was Tera's voice. He turned his head to see the magistrate approaching from the direction of the guardhouse. Apparently she and Sergeant Paul had completed their report on the case. Janyn admired the local guard's courage; though the burning sword's cauterizing effect had stopped him from bleeding so his would could be healed by a dose of Monomate, to immediately plunge back into work without any pause to rest took fortitude.

Maybe, like Janyn, he just wanted to be done with things.

"What's left for me here? There's no fee to be had; I killed my own client," he answered without really answering.

"You stopped the killer."

"I killed an innocent man."

"To save an innocent child!" she snapped back. "You killed a man whose soul was full of rancor, whose anger and hate would have continued to seek out victims until the darkside was exorcized. You had the power in your hands to make a choice, and you accepted the responsibility of choosing. Would you have preferred to let Luka die to save Brent?"

"I'd have preferred not to kill anyone!"

"That," Tera said matter-of-factly, "was not one of your choices."

"Do you think it's that easy?" he shot back at her, but Janyn knew it was a foolish question even as it left his lips. Of course she thought it was. Tera's world was one of devotion to her duty and faith in her Holy One. She believed in bright-line answers, right choices and wrong ones. To her it was that easy.

That wasn't what she said, though.

"The burden of choosing is always hard," she told him softly. "To exercise your power by your will and determine an outcome is hard. Many people refuse that duty, abandoning their will to another. It's easier to be in my place, only watching the choice made and not having an opportunity to act."

"It shouldn't have happened at all! The darkside emerged every other night to kill. Why this and only this time did it strike two nights running?"

Tera sighed.

"I don't know that, Janyn. It might be that Brent's emotions grew more and more out of control, and being stronger they could more easily give form to the darkside. Perhaps the exorcism, by trying to pull the dark magic from out of Brent's spirit, made it easier for the darkside to manifest while it was in progress. Or perhaps it's simply that corruption of any nature is like that, the farther along that path one is, the faster one travels. For whatever reason, it happened, and you had to deal with that reality."

He stared at her, and it was if the sheer force of her confidence reduced him, stripped away layers of pretense until he said in a voice very much like a child's, "It isn't fair, Tera. Where was the justice?"

Tera returned his stare, her eyes wide and enigmatic, then at last reached out and pressed one emaciated, long-nailed hand to his chest, over his heart.

"The world has betrayed you again, hasn't it? I don't know how it has in the past, but it is not the first time."

"Your Zio said that," Janyn recalled.

"Come with me to Kadary," she invited.

"I don't have your faith."

She shook her head.

"Not to the church. Come and stand as a magistrate." While he was still adapting to the idea, she rushed on. "Your mind, your strong arm, your skill would be an asset to us...and for you, I think it would do you good to work daily beside others like yourself who believe in doing what's right, to know that even though the world is unjust there are those of us who truly want to make things better and will try our best for it. Mercenary work as a hunter is not enough for you any more; you know that."

Oh, Janyn knew it. He'd known it when he first took the job. He'd been hiding from this kind of work in ordinary monster-hunting tasks because he couldn't resist the appeal when it was before him--as he couldn't resist Brent--and he couldn't deal with what he encountered along the way.

"Ideals alone aren't enough," Tera said earnestly. "They have to have hope to stand on. If you cannot believe in a creed, then at least let me show you that there are other people in this world you can have faith in."

"Why?" he asked. "Why do you care so much?"

She blinked in apparent confusion.

"You are a good man in need," she said simply.

Perhaps she was right. Perhaps the answers were that easy. Perhaps it was Janyn's own doubts that complicated things.

In truth, he envied it, the peace Tera's faith brought her. One thing was certain: he had found nothing but pain and lonely despair on his own path.

Perhaps, Janyn thought, it was time to follow another for a while.