Trapped in an infinite and timeless black. Not the blackness of the void that would still and freeze. This was a nothingness that would howl like a raging storm if sound were actually possible, and tried to scrape the skin off.

Oboru felt like he slowly rotating in place while he was slowly being picked apart and scattered into the infinity, infinitesimal bit by bit. No time was passing, so there was no telling how long the torture had already lasted, nor how much longer it could go on before there was not enough left of him.

This place he found himself trapped in was unlike anything his magical training had prepared him for, nor was there any mention of something remotely like this in all the obscure tomes he had pored over. He was lost in a literal and a figurative way. If only he could concentrate on how he got here he might be able to figure out how to get out again, but like his skin so too were bits and pieces of his thoughts snatched away.

There had been a trap, he remembered that much if he concentrated. A trap laid for him. By … somebody. Or was it something? He was a mage. He should be able to figure this out. His mind … it was … His mind was highly trained. There had been a trap. And he had walked into it. Because … there was a trap. No. Because it had been where he didn’t recognise the magic. That was it. The place had been safe and no … what was the word … signature, yes that word. Only signatures he knew and trusted. That meant something important, if only he could keep it in his mind.

His frantic attempts of keeping his thoughts coherent were interrupted by something else. Not the stealing away of bits and pieces, but of another presence in there distracted him from working out how he got in this nothingness.

Every now and again he had a flash of a feeling of being in a forest.

Because it was something to fill the emptiness he tried to hold on to these moments with all his strength. And when it left as inexplicable as it came, he waited for it to return because it was something to do, something as close as it could come to measuring time in the emptiness.

With every eagerly anticipated return of the sense of being in a forest, a few more tiny details became clear. Most of them were slipping away in the nothing as soon as the awareness passed, but ever so slowly the experience became clearer and more real.

It was as if, Oboru decided, he was clawing his way through the emptiness to another place in it where something else was as trapped as he was. Holding on to the presence was a harder task than he’d ever faced as the emptiness constantly stole away every little bit of progress he made, and more times than he actually could remember probably he’d had to start over as a moment of loss of concentration wiped out all but the most tenuous hold to this other presence.

He couldn’t tell how long he had been trying, nor how many attempts he had made, but eventually he got enough of a grip on the memory of being in a forest that it no longer vanished completely, but merely faded for some time before he could reclaim his hold and add another detail or two to his remembered construct.

And as the forest became more real to him, Oboru became aware that something else was part of this forest. Trapped with it, not like he was, entirely lost in the nothing, but caught on the border between two existences unable to go in either direction.

The faintest brush of awareness with this other presence made it clear to him that he did not want to be any closer, neither physically nor metaphorically, to what appeared to Oboru as a gaping hole in reality. An intelligent and malevolent antithesis to all things real and living, forced into a shape that it could not shed.

Worse was that the slight brush of contact that he’d had with the entity had made it vaguely aware of him as well, and as he had used the memory of the forest to get close, so now was the enmity finding his way closer to him. He had to find a way out, and quickly, before he could be sucked through the hole at the heart of all reality and be utterly lost.

Frantically Oboru tried to find something to hold on to in the memory of a forest as it was caught between the reality of an actual forest and … whatever this place was he’d found himself trapped in.

There was something curious about the memory, he realised as he tried to examine every little detail of it that he could find before the emptiness of the place could steal them away again. A part that the memory shied away from and where the nothingness ruled supreme. Finding that place made the sensation of having his body and thoughts being torn away fraction by fraction infinitely worse, but it also kept the malevolent presence at bay because it could bear the sensation even less than he could.

Perfectly balanced between equally strong instincts to avoid the nothingness and the presence in the memory he’d so painstakingly built, he had a mere moment to notice a sense of warmth, caught like him in the nothing that at the same time denied and anchored in place the presence of the forest. As he became aware of it and tried to think of what it might mean, the flow in the emptiness reversed. Instead of feeling being ripped apart, the pressure on him began to increase. Slowly at first but quickly it became worse and then almost unbearable.

Reality tore apart with a sound like lighting striking centimetres from him. A tearing sound so loud and massive that it became a deafening boom that could be heard from dozens of kilometres in all direction and that had the strength to flatten trees and shatter buildings.

Oboru found himself in a perfectly circular clearing perhaps a ten meters across. Trees were still toppling and a booming shock wave was shaking violently the crowns of trees in an expanding circle around him. His skin felt raw, worse than the worst sunburn he had ever suffered and thin smoke rose from him for a few moments longer before dissipating. Slowly he sank to his knees, as his legs didn’t have the strength to hold him up, and then he toppled, face first, into the ploughed ground.

Something had happened, something important, but the memory of it was fluttering away. It was too fragile and could not exist in this place and time. Before he could hold on to the thought, it was gone.

Only slowly did his strength return enough to lift his face out of the mud. Aching muscles, a painful burning of his skin and a pounding inside his skull were his body telling him how much it wanted to stay flat on the cold wet ground

Groaning he managed to roll over, so he could at least get a view of where he had ended up. The cracking sound of shattering trees crashing into each other had subsided and what was left was mostly silence. Just the sound of rustling leaves in a strong wind and a strange noise that he only recognised as the soft whickering of nervous horses after he had time to think about it. At first his attention was fully occupied with the two suspicious people who had sharp weapons aimed at his face and were clearly wondering if they should use them right away or first give him a chance to explain himself.

Their facial expressions were a bit hard to read in the rapidly deepening gloom though, and Oboru allowed that his initial impression might be not quite correct given the way the darkness cast unflattering shadows on their faces.

Still, rigorous training and forceful habits were impossible to overcome and he gathered his magic to him so he could defend themselves in case his initial impression was the correct one after all. To his dismay he found his reserves all but drained. He was as exhausted magically as he was physically. Worse, when he tried to open himself to the surrounding magic to draw in some of the natural strength of the plenitude of living things around him, it set off blinding white lights and spikes of agony inside his head. Equally instinctively he slammed down on the openings he had allowed in the walls around his mind.

It took a while before the echoes of light and pain stopped reverberating through his skull and he felt it safe to open his eyes again. During that time the two had apparently decided he wasn’t a threat and they had lowered their weapons, though Oboru noticed they hadn’t put them away.

They also were in a heated discussion with a woman he could not see but whose voice held a sense of urgency that was strong enough to draw the attention away from him. The two hadn’t quite forgotten about him, but had turned their heads far away that they could cast quick looks at somebody further back, invisible in what was now nearly full night.

“Tell you do. Trees. Many the trees, wounded are. Bleeding is. Bleeding is black dark, not blood. Leave must we. Hurry.”

“It’s just a bunch of trees that got knocked over” the woman with the wicked looking long daggers replied. Not quite dismissively but close to it.

Oboru recognised the language as coming from the barbaric western lands and said a silent thank you to the linguistics teacher who had forced his much younger reluctant self to master the rudiments of the language of those traders who rarely made it to the Empire. Knowing which language was being spoken also allowed him to untangle the words of the unseen woman. Personally he agreed with her urgent warning, but he kept quiet as he didn’t think his opinion would hold much weight at this moment. If anything it would bring back up those sharp weapons and tensions were high enough that it was likely that they would not stop until after they had stabbed him. He wasn’t in a position to stop them, so he felt it best to not remind them of his presence.

“I think she’s right, Talya,” said yet another woman, who also was hidden from him by two bodies, one of them very big, and the general lack of light, “she knew about this … arrival before any of us and kept the horses from bolting. I’d say if she is warning about further danger we should heed her. Besides, there’s plenty of stories about this forest, and the old ones that are more fact and less fantasy all hint at there being an evil in its heart.”

Oboru felt there was some significance to that remark, but whatever it was his knowledge of it had been stolen along with many other memories. The fragments of memories left to him made him inclined to agree with the claim that there was something evil in the forest around him. With his magical senses effectively neutered, hopefully for the time being only, he couldn’t tell for certain, and he also had no idea how or why he had this belief about further danger. It was frustrating that he couldn’t examine his feelings, but under the circumstances he could only assume there was a reason for them and that they actually were in danger.

“I’m not saying I believe much of this evil forest stuff and magic and spirits,” the big man said, at last weighing in his opinion “but I’d say we best move away from this place.”

“Why? It is all but night now and we all agree that trying to travel along the path in the dark is stupid. We’ve a perfectly good clearing here to spend the night and nobody is accidentally wandering off into the forest. If we hobble them that includes the horses.” replied the woman with the daggers, who apparently was named Talya.

“The horses are getting more scared, not less.” was his dry reply.

“We still don’t have any light and trying to follow the path and avoiding breaking our legs on the rocks is going to be impossible.” she countered.

“I have” Oboru tried to say, but it came out as “Ungggh”.

The weapons were at his face in the blink of an eye.

After working some moisture into his mouth and briefly wondering how he had managed to get a sunburn on the inside of his mouth, from the feel of it all the way down to his stomach, Oboru tried again.

“My pack? It has a lantern.” It still came out more croak than voice, but it was barely understandable this time.

His pack also had a mage light or two, but he didn’t think those had fared any better than he had when it came to retaining their magical charge. And, come to think of it, his amulets were now also useless, as was his enchanted ritual dagger.

There was some hesitation about the idea of searching him and his pack, but an ominous creaking sound from the forest all but set the horses in a panic. It also lent some urgency to the task of finding his lantern. Lighting the lantern took more rummaging through his packs, something that Oboru wasn’t happy with but he wasn’t in a position to prevent it either.

When the tiny light of the burning oil soaked wick behind its cracked glass, another victim of the loss of magic, finally lit up the clearing, the horses were in a state of near panic and only keeping cloaks and blankets over their eyes had kept them from bolting. The light also revealed why the horses had been so scared. Countless splinters — some shorter than the width of a finger, others as long as a leg, and most somewhere in between — and were rotating slowly around plumes of dark smoke that were seeping out of the broken stumps of felled trees. There was something quietly ominous about the sight and all lingering resentment about the thought of marching through a forest in a pitch black night evaporated instantly. When some of the downed trees began to shiver seemingly of their own, the cause of the creaking sound they had heard earlier as well, there was a renewed sense of urgency.

Oboru found himself unceremoniously hauled across the back of the largest horse he’d ever seen, but other than biting back a cry from the pain of overstretched muscles and burned skin, he didn’t complain. He too wanted to get away from what was rapidly becoming a very creepy place indeed, and there was no way he was going to do so on his own two feet. Any resentment he felt about the disrespectful treatment was more than balanced by his gratitude for not being left behind. He didn’t need his magical senses to know that whatever was happening in the clearing would be bad for anybody stumbling into it.

His lantern allowed the group of his rescuers to make, if not great then at least somewhat decent, speed at leaving behind the clearing his arrival had caused. Nobody was inclined to look behind them to see if trouble was following. Oboru quickly understood why there had been a real reluctance to press on into the night by at least some of the group. Even with the lamp to provide some light, the path was narrow, bordered by a wall of tree and undergrowth that put the hairs in the back of one’s neck stand up and it was bad enough that even in daylight travelling it would be difficult. The path also made sharp twists and turns, and occasionally became narrow enough that going single file was the only option. If that happened the last in the line could almost not see the hazards on the ground and tripping and falling into the undergrowth was difficult to avoid. That undergrowth looked too dense to be able to get through without the use of several soldiers armed with felling axes, or a couple of mages burning it all to ash, but Oboru had the lingering feeling that its resistance against passage went only one way: back out of the forest. From the care the two women took who had at first been only voices to him, they felt the same. When the male in the group, whom he had learned was named Brandt, complained they both had told him to stuff it.

After what felt like half the night — he might not be required to walk, but riding a horse felt endless with all its ceaseless bouncing and shaking, and was in his current condition as close to torture he had ever come, both in the suffering and in the witnessing it inflicted — the tall woman walking before him, the one who had only a tenuous grasp of the language, suddenly perked up and said “Safe now is. Looking stopped for us.”

A handful of minutes Oboru felt it too, the lessening of a pressure weighing down on him. A pressure he hadn’t even realised was there until it was lifted. He couldn’t stop himself from letting out a sigh of relief.

After another much longer handful of minutes Brandt signalled a halt. They had reached a stretch of the path that looked particularly bad. A steep climb half cutting into a hill side. It was strewn with pebbles and small boulders in the small part of it that Oboru could see, and it more than anything resembled a shallow brook with the way water was pouring over it from the forest on the high ground. What ground wasn’t invisible underneath the water flowing over it, was glittering and looked more than a little slippery.

“This is a bad place to camp,” he said “but unless you can tell me that we’re out of the forest after we make that climb I’m not going to try. Not tonight, and maybe not even tomorrow if the road doesn’t improve. Keri? You know the road best of all of us?”

“I only made the trip a handful of times,” Keri — who was the one who had supported the mysterious woman in her desire to flee the clearing earlier — replied, her tone of voice apologetic “And I think you made it more recently than I did, coming from this direction two, three? days ago.”

“Well, yes, I wasn’t paying attention to the road or the forest much. I remember this bit though because we almost lost two horses on it and that was in much better weather.”

“Sorry,” Keri said “my best guess is that it is an hour, hour and half, in good weather, from the top of this, till we are out of the black forest properly.”

“We’re camping here then. Two guards awake at all time, staggered duty cycles and battle march conditions. I’ll take the first full watch, Melissa you’re the first half watch with me as you’re the one who seems to be sensitive to whatever it is that is going on in this cursed forest.”

Keri managed a tired laugh “Can you translated that to those of us who didn’t have training in the King’s Army?”

“Uhm” Oboru could hear the embarrassment in the man’s non-word, though he couldn’t currently see his face, which he presumed was reddening nicely.

“Sorry about that. Old habits and everything. I mean that each guard changes halfway through the other’s watch so we’ve a fresh one at all time and one who is accustomed to the darkness and the sounds. And we don’t have a set time for each watch. Instead if you’re too tired to be fully alert you wake the next watch. We may have outrun whatever the dark abyss that was that our new friend brought with him, but I am not going to gamble that it isn’t following. It’s not like we can go any other place than following this mud road. Even a moon child can manage to track us.”

The word friend was pronounced with enough sarcasm, Oboru noticed, to cut a thicker skin than his. Once they were out of danger, he was going to face some pointed and uncomfortable questions from the big man.

It would have been nice if he had answers to those inevitable questions, as well as the ones he’d been asking himself the past several hours.