A dark figure carefully picked its way through the forest. It blended in with the darkness and the autumn colours so well that not even the forest itself was aware. Which was of course the intention. The rain that had been falling steadily all day was finally abating, though gusts of wind still brough sheets of it down, and shook fat drops from the soaked branches. Anybody walking in the forest could not possibly get any wetter though, and the dark figure was no exception.

High above the world the thick cloud cover broke and moonlight momentarily lit up the forest — all the brighter for its contrast with the blackness of night under the dark trees. Had there been anybody to witness he would have seen the dark figure that he might not even have noticed before resolve into the figure of a woman wearing thick waterproofed clothing and an even thicker cloak wrapped tightly around her. Even in the moonlight it was difficult to make out any detail, other than a flash of a pale face mostly obscured by the hood of her cloak.

Talya paused near the tear in the fabric of the forest that was the muddy road to get her bearing. She had long left the road itself, as the entire day of rain and snow had made it all but impassable and in parts it more resembled a muddy brook than a road. The forest itself was not that much better, mud-wise, but it had not been worn away by a century or more of travelers so most of the rain had run down to the road after it had saturated the forest floor. It left the forest barely passable. That was, if one could avoid attracting the attention of the forest.

The cloaked woman could feel the forest as a presence, so vast that it was almost incomprehensible. It was like anger hung like a permanent dark cloud over, and through, the forest. She kept herself as inconspicuous as she could manage, for she felt that if the magic of the forest would ever be awoken the consequences would be terrible. Whatever the mysteries of the forest were, she wished to know nothing of them. She breathed a prayer of thanks to the Night Lord that this was not her mission, and that she could leave be whatever was imprisoned in and by these dark trees.

Still, the sleeping magic of the forest made her job harder. Its presence kept intruding on her meditation, as it had in fact done just moments before. She needed to focus her attention and instead had found her thoughts wandering to the heart of the darkness. She smiled grimly to herself and thought ‘this forest probably leads a lot of people astray each year, searching for the darkness at its heart.’ She deliberately did not dwell on the question what they might find if by chance they survived long enough to reach it. The forest had too much of a grip on her already and she need not open her mind to more through speculation. Besides, it was unlikely that there was a place where this darkness and anger originated from — except from the forest as a whole, torn in two by this magical road that ran right through it.

At any rate, Talya knew she was given to a different service and that the forest could not claim her for its own. Not unless her true master gave up his hold on her. Distance might have lessened the freezing cold of its claws in her soul, but it was present nonetheless.

Waiting patiently for the cloud cover to restore itself and the darkness to return — her connection was strongest in the dark — she went over her mission again. Not that she needed the reminder for her latest mission was as always seared in her mind and soul; nor did she need to distract herself while waiting. She had been trained almost from birth in many abilities, and waiting with all her attention focussed on her target was but one of them. The memories of her true purpose here would strengthen her resistance against the pull of the forest, and thus could be considered necessary at this time and place.

Months before she had been summoned into the presence of the Mage Priest, which was common enough as was for any of his high-ranking and specialised servants. He was not to whom her soul had been promised, but he did hold the leash of her loyalty. She lived and acted by His will alone. He had many lesser servants and her specific skills were but infrequently required in His realm. When the summons had pulled her out of her daily practice, she had thrown her cloak over her damp and stained tunic and made her way at a clipped but unhurried pace to His throne room. Being sworn to the Night Lord gave her that much grace, that she was compelled to show that she was ultimately not His servant but the Night Lord’s and that He was forced to acknowledge it. If only in privacy. She would naturally not survive an open show of rebellion.

The room was, as always, black as the Night Lord’s realm. This was of necessity for it held the statues of the eleven Gods of the Outer Realm, whose likeness was the destruction of the merely mortal. About once a year a servant newly elevated to the inner temple had difficulty believing the truth of the visages of the eleven Gods and brought a lamp into the throne room. Their agonised screams as their souls were torn apart reaffirmed the conviction of the rest of the servants. It could take days before the screaming became weak enough that ordinary servants no longer were aware of them.

After she had abased herself long enough before His seat — to remind her that displays, even necessary ones, of insolence would be tolerated only so much — he bade her to rise.

“Through meditation and sacrifice I have received a Vision” came His voice out of the utter darkness.

Talya waited. She was one of the Night Lord’s Talons, and it was not her place to understand religion. Hers was a service to the Mage Priest.

“At the fall of the sun below the Encompassing Mountains and the start of Winter, a messenger will start to travel in the heathen lands far, far to the south. This message will set in motion the ascension of the Eleven. Their ancient enemies know of this as well and will send their own emissary tasked to stop this message at any cost, so they may ascend once again.”

There was a brief pause, where the Mage Priest gathered his thoughts. “This world is closed to the Gods, because of Magics laid in its creation. So the Eleven, too, must act through an emissary. This understanding was long and costly in the obtaining, but it is now clear that of all of their servants, you are the one who must venture to the south and ensure this message reaches its destiny.”

A hand colder than winter reached out invisibly and swept aside her cloak. Then it ripped away her tunic, leaving trails of frozen skin where its nails brushed against her. Talya did not flinch. She did however immediately close her eyes as she realised that the pendant that hung between her breasts was beginning to glow ever so faintly. The Night Lord might protect her from the consequences of her seeing him, but she was not about to gamble on that. And the other Ten were not required, nor likely, to extend that protection against her seeing them.

Talya would have braced herself, if it were possible to brace yourself against what she knew would happen next. Without any warning the hand of ice grabbed her pendant and then reached through her to rip pendant and soul away from her.

She existed in a black nothingness for an eternity, and for a second, and then without any ceremony she was returned to herself. The pendant burned against her frozen skin and she could see, through her closed eyelids, that it was shining brightly for a moment longer before fading. And with the light her old life began to fade as well, her soul overwritten by a new task that started her new life.

In that new life she knew things the Mage Priest could not say out loud. The magic that protected the world against the return of the Old Gods, had been stronger than all attempts to divine the exact place the messenger would start his or her journey, and even more resistant against attempts to find out more about the identity of the messenger. In the end, as the breach into the Outer Realms created by the sacrifices had begun to heal, all the Mage Priest had been able to do was bind a tiny fraction of the prophecy in her pendant, so that it would know when it was getting close to its realisation. Even doing that much had not been possible without the aid of the Eleven.

Talya carefully kept her face neutral. She did not know if the Mage Priest was aware of how much of His memories had slipped into her pendant. She did know that it was dangerous to know that He was not all-powerful, and that He would not hesitate to destroy who could expose such weakness. It was likely that He knew and that she would not survive her return, but on the small chance that exhaustion had caused him to make this mistake she kept quiet.

Her eyes still closed she had bowed her head touching the cold stone floor and said “I will do Your will, Master”. That was, after all, the extent of her existence.

In the present — slowly opening eyes that she could not remember having closed — Talya could feel the connection with her pendant once again. It hummed in her mind with some urgency and it felt warm against her skin. Her target was nearby, and the first part of her journey was almost complete. Crossing the Encompassing Mountains and the Shifting Ice Plains was beyond difficult even at the end of the summer months, and would be impossible till mid summer thawed out the hidden passages and the shelters against the storms that raged five days out of seven even during the least cold months. It had been a race against time even for her to make it out of those deadly lands before escape became impossible and she had lost her sled dogs making that escape. The spy master she had reported to in his hidden stronghold in the mountains of the southern barbarians had not been pleased with the news of that loss, but he could hardly find fault with her, when the first of the winter blizzards had been howling outside the heavy wooden door.

He had known enough to demand on seeing her pendant — which was still glowing ever so faintly though it by then required almost absolute dark to see that — instead of the choker and pendant of the Mage-Priest that most peasants mistook for her badge of service. While Talya had never been outside His realm, she had been well-trained and was not surprised when the spy master insisted on taking all her clothing, gear and even the choker, and instead supplied her with local clothes more suited for these lands, and not incidentally also for blending in better. The Mage-Priest had a lot of spies in the southern lands, and did not want any of them being able, even by accident, to reveal His existence to the heathens. And though Talya was no spy, the spy master considered her subject to his rules in every aspect but for her mission, of which he knew nothing than that it had been ordered directly by the Mage-Priest himself. If he was curious he knew far better than to reveal it to a Nachtgren. He had spent the time she had needed to recover drilling her in what little was known of the far south so that she might blend in better. She had not been able to provide more than a general direction of where she needed to travel, and most of the far south was beyond his network of spies, so the information had been scant enough for the lessons to be concluded when the blizzard quieted down and travel once again became possible.

Talya shook herself when she realised that she was getting lost in her memories. She frowned in annoyance, as this should not have been possible. She had been trained too well for such inattention. Deliberately she lowered her hood and looking up. The next gust of wind drenched her face with freezing cold water. The shock of it shattered the subtle magic that had been trying to affect her and she grinned at the darkness underneath the trees.

‘Nice try’ she mouthed as she pulled up the hood again to hide her pale hair and even paler face, and made herself once again all but invisible.

She followed the gentle pull of her pendant, letting it guide her towards her target. It steered her deeper still in the black forest, but Talya did not mind. She was not a feeble-minded farmer to be led astray so easily. And if she herself was not a mage, her pendant was, in a sense. At least when it came to making her aware of magic, and to hiding her from casual magic. As long as she maintained her connection to the pendant she would be all but invisible to the forest.

She picked her way through the forest with care, no point in giving herself away by stepping on a fallen branch. But whatever awareness existed in the darkness under the trees, it had lost her and was no longer trying to find her. To something as vast as a forest Talya thought she was too insignificant to be found easily and, like a dream, faded away once the forest stopped thinking about her. All she had to do was to remain unobtrusive while she continued her journey.

It was only a couple of hours later when she realised she had caught up with her target. The almost subconscious pull of her pendant — in the space of perhaps four dozen paces — changed from pulling her forwards to pulling distinctly to her left. Following the pendant’s lead, as she had done during the entire journey south, she made her way through an increasingly dense screen of trees. She actually had to force her way through them, breaking a couple of branches in the process. The forest stirred itself as the damage, however slight, focussed its attention on where she was. The sudden surge of anger made her hurry a bit more. And when the trees stiffened in resistance, she hurried a lot more.

With a grunt of effort she forced her way through the barrier, then turned around to grab her backpack that had not initially made it through, before it could disappear in the darkness. But the magic of the forest had vanished the moment she left it, and her pack made no sign of disappearing. Even the trees that had almost prevented her from leaving the forest no longer stood close together. Her pack was in fact just lying there in the mud. She snatched it up quickly anyway and pressed it to her chest, staring at the forest.

It took a while for her heartbeat to slow again. She had badly underestimated the power caught in the forest. Or perhaps she had overestimated herself. Whatever the case, she had escaped with a much narrower margin than she had imagined.

Only when she was getting chilled did she turn away from the wall of trees — now looking completely harmless — and turned towards the building in the middle of the clearing. It was far bigger than any house she had ever seen, both in the Enclosed Lands and in her journey south. It was too dark, even for her, to see much in the way of details or colour, but she guessed that there was not much of either in the light of day either. The building gave the impression of old age and long years of neglect. Of course her interest in buildings was limited only to getting in and out of them silently, but in her limited experience age and neglect did not go together with finely detailed woodwork or paint.

Her pendant pulled her towards the building, and that really was the only sensible place for anybody to be this night in this forest. Anybody who had made it this far through the rain and snow probably had been swimming through mud in places, the forest road was that bad. Or more likely they had taken one look at the weather this morning and decided to stay indoors.

Talya had to take a detour to reach the door. In front of the building was not a lawn but a small lake that was beginning to freeze over now the rain had mostly stopped falling. The clearing was empty. Nor were there any animal sounds, but that was to be expected at a night like this. The only sound was the rustling of leaves and branches as the wind gusted through the forest broke the stillness.

It made stand out all the more the crashing sound of wood and angry shouting coming from inside the building.

Muttering a curse Talya grabbed one of her fighting knives and ran inside. It just would not do if her target was killed by her Adversary moments before she arrived.