I gave the old man the biggest smile I could as we approached, not that I was entirely sure that he saw it.
“Mind if we join you?” I said in the friendliest tone I could muster.
He looked up. If he was surprised that a stranger from the far end of the bar and the bard were together, he didn’t show it.
He didn’t say anything. I didn’t give him a chance.
“Thanks,” I said as I slid onto the bench opposite him. He looked up from his mug and held out a hand.
“Sorry. No – I want to be alone.”
“Ah,” I finished sitting down anyway. My brother slid in beside the old man. There was still no discernible emotion on his face, despite my scrawny brother’s best attempt to look intimidating.
Now that he was pinned in against the wall, I leaned in close and held his gaze. I deliberately spoke in hushed tones.
“We know who you are.”
Finally, a hint of panic. “You do?”
I nodded, my brain scrambling for my next move behind my poker face. I could tell him the truth. That we thought he had some link to our father – and his stories of treasure hidden the night the mages were wiped out.
But we needed him to co-operate. If I told him the truth, wouldn’t he just kill us and go back for the loot?
Wait. Poker. My eyes flicked over to the guards playing cards in the corner. An idea hit.
“We’re spies for his majesty the king. We’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Why?”
I tried to lean in closer. It was hard with the table, but I still think my aborted little move still had the desired conspiratorial effect.
“You know what for. Now are you going to come quietly with us, or will we have to enlist the help of our backup over there?” I nodded casually towards the guards in the corner.
The old man followed my gaze and turned back to me, slowly.
If I didn’t know better, I could see tears welling in his eyes.
“It wasn’t my fault, you know. I-” he wavered. I could see my brother fighting the urge to comfort him. “I couldn’t control it.”
Shit. I had a confession to who-knows-what and an old man in serious risk of breaking down and crying in front of us.
Focus on the treasure.
“We have been granted special permission…” It was enough to stop him sniveling. “To…” To what, genius? I shifted on my seat to buy me a second to two, laying it on thick by looking around for prying ears. “What do you know about the night the mages disappeared?”
He took a deep breath. “There was a demon. It slaughtered everyone at the tower. Mages. Apprentices. Everyone.”
He looked me in the eye. “Except me.” It was obvious he wished he’d died that night.
“And one apprentice.”
“What?” His lip started quivering. His hands began to shake. It looked like he was on the verge of breaking down.
I glanced at the innkeeper to see if anyone else had spotted this old man starting to shake. The convulsions became violent.
“Everything was laid to waste.” His eyes clouded over, his voice breaking and buckling under the strain of… something. “Nothing survived. Nothing. I was the…” He was struggling. “The only one with the power.”
My brother tried to grab the old man’s hands to stop them shaking. “To what?”
“Hold him in-” The words became a scream.
I called for help as the old man fell forward over the table, shaking horribly. We tried to hold him still as the guards, the innkeeper and the handful of other people in the inn all came over. Some tried to help, some simply watched.
None of us really knew what to do.
Suddenly, he stopped. He looked up at the ceiling. His eyes were black. “I’m so tired. I have no power left.” His voice was eerily calm. “Run.”
In an instant, the air seemed to ignite around him. The force of centuries of dark magics that had been bottled up erupted from the old mage with such ferocity that we couldn’t hear any screams.
For a second, I wondered if bards would ever sing songs about this.
Dad was sat in the chair in the far corner of the room as I woke. My brother was standing with him. He looked ashen.
Dad smiled. I recognised it from a long time ago. I hadn’t seen it since I was ten.
He took a deep breath. “Well, I have good news and bad news.”
“Yeah?” I sat up, struggling to work out if I knew the room. I felt light.
“Yeah. Bad news first?”
“Right. Well, the bad news is that I was lying about the treasure. Sorry. But you were young and… well… I thought it made for a fun story.”
“Good news is that it wasn’t all a lie.”
“How’s that good news?”
“I really was there on the night, and I really did escape. The head of the order was unable to destroy the demon. Instead, he had to lock it up within himself. You just had the shitty luck of being there when his ancient body finally gave up and the thing got out again. Could have happened to anyone.”
“Well, I admit. The universe does have a funny way of making these things come about sometimes…”
I knew what that tone meant. He’d always maintained that he’d be watching over us after he’d died. I had never actually belived him. I looked at my brother, who was being oddly calm about all this. I shook my head, still unable to feel anything. “Sorry, Dad. I’m failing to see how that’s good news.”
I looked at my brother, who was being oddly calm about all this. I shook my head, still unable to feel anything. “Sorry, Dad. I’m failing to see how that’s good news.”
He smiled again. “I wasn’t going to tell you that bit of the story, was I? You were kids. It’s scary. Anyway, I’m getting to the good bit. With the head of the order gone, there’s no mages left. He was the last. So I’ve had words with-” He pointed upwards – “’upstairs’, and we think we’ve got a solution to bottle this thing up again.”
I knew my stomach should be telling me something was wrong. “Uh-huh…”
“Ours is the only line that didn’t get cut the night the mages were wiped out.” He slapped my brother on the shoulder. “So we’ve got our new vessel, right here.”
My brother gave me the most sheepish wave I’ve ever seen.
“Right. So my little brother is going to have some hellspawn locked up inside him?”
“Yeah. Should buy us all a bit of time to sort out a more… permanent solution.”
“Right. Sorry, again – how is this good news?”
“Oh, yeah – you get to go back and look after him.”
“Good, isn’t it? Your old man had friends in high places.”
I gave him a slightly cheesed-off smile. “Yeah. Thanks, Dad.”
“No problem. Right, been lovely seeing you both, but now off-”
“-Wait!” I held out a hand to stop him finishing his over the top gesture to send us back. “What if we die and the last line gets cut? What then? You can’t honestly expect us to bring lives into the world knowing what we know now, can you?”
“Hmmph… Good point. Leave it with me. Now off you pop-”
Instantly, I awoke in a crater of ash, sitting bolt upright and heaving acrid air into my chest. A vicious cough made my head feel like my brain was trying to burst out of my skull.
The inn was gone. Homes and roads had been destroyed. The nearby trees had been blasted back. The sun was just starting to come up, giving the destruction a harsh light, despite the thick smoke hanging over the ashes.
Nothing had survived. Yet, by some miracle, I was still in my clothes. My brother was sat hugging his knees a short distance away. He, too, was unscathed.
He looked distant as I scrambled over to him. “Are you alright?” I wheezed.
“Yeah,” was all he murmured.
“Dad’s dropped us right in it.”
It all came flooding back to me. It wasn’t a dream.
I sat next to my brother, desperately trying to summon some words of comfort.
“Take that bard hat off. It looks stupid.”
He breathed a laugh and removed the hat. Flakes of ash were still falling all around us. Everything was silent, without even a breeze to provide some respite.
My brother sighed. “Do you have a plan?”
I thought about lying to him, like I normally did.
I smiled. “No.”