Brandt had resigned himself to another sleepless night. It had been a long time since he’d suffered through those — one of the advantages of running with the mercenaries — and he quickly found memories back of how uncomfortable they were. The others had grumbled a bit about the schedule he had set, but he had put his foot down.

He had no idea what had happened back there, with the easterner arriving out of thin air in an explosion that somehow shattered trees but left the four of them unaffected, except for a persistent ringing in their ears. The smoke columns and flying shards had been creepy rather than inexplicable. Or rather they had been both, as had the downed trees moving seemingly on their own, though he was inclined to believe that thing was simply the effect of branches breaking under the weight of the tree trunks.

Still, Brandt might concede he had no idea what had happened, but he had enough campaign experience to listen to his instincts, and those were clamouring that trouble was stalking them. He would have preferred to travel through the night, but no amount of urgency would get them, let alone their horses, up that steep stretch of road with its thin layer of mud over rock. He had also learned early on, from grizzled veterans, not to exhaust his squad trying to ignore reality. The road was impassable, all his instincts told him to expect trouble this night, and they had to have enough of an advance warning to get ready to defend themselves against whatever form that trouble was going to take.

His initial plan had been to have all four of them taking turns at watch as well as keeping an eye on the easterner, who had told them his name was Oboru and that he had no idea how he had arrived in this forest. Brandt had his doubts about that last claim but there hadn’t been an opportunity to question him more closely. The man had genuinely been injured and all but unable to answer questions coherently. His clothes had been worn away to threadbare in many places, but in other places it was still a rich silk. More than that he had lost a lot of fluid and his skin was rubbed raw and bleeding from hundreds or thousands of tiny wounds, each amounting to little more than a deep pinprick or a tiny paper cut. Taken together it meant he was in a bad state. What little strength he had found immediately after his arrival, had ebbed away quickly and left him unconscious, bordering on delirious.

Keri had taken it on herself to look after him. Brandt agreed with the necessity, but it meant they were down to three watchers who would have no more than two or three hours of sleep. And that came on top on the previous night where none of them had slept much either.

He had just taken over the watch from Melissa, who looked far more frazzled by these early evening events than he had expected but refused to talk about it, and was now standing a short distance from Talya. Both of them were looking back down the path. Or at least it was the direction that Brandt believed the path was, since it was pretty much pitch black under the trees. He could barely see Talya in her dark grey and brown clothes except for her pale face, and he had resorted to facing in the same direction that she was. It would be humiliating to fail to notice the attack because they were staring in the wrong direction.

Brandt considered asking Talya if she knew what she was looking at, but decided after a moment’s consideration that it would make him look weak, especially in the eyes of the pale woman who had not yet really accepted his experience.

Instead he whispered “It is unnaturally quiet in this forest.”

After a long pause she whispered in reply “There’s no night animals. I wasn’t sure if it was because they kept away from us.”

Brandt listened intently but there was nothing to hear. Even the wind that had rustled the leaves earlier that night had almost completely died down. The air was like a heavy blanket, cold and wet, that pressed down on him and smothered all sounds. He wasn’t much of a forester, but he had spent enough time travelling through the heavily wooded parts of the Kingdom to realise the usual small sounds were absent of animals rustling through fallen leaves and needles, the little cries of the night animals communicating with each other.

“It feels like … a thunderstorm,” Brandt mused. That was what it felt like to him most of all. The hour of smothering heat and tension before a thunderstorm finally arrived. Only, while he felt smothered it was far from hot, quite the opposite in fact, the temperature was dropping rapidly. And there was the issue of the missing distant rumbling of the approaching storm.

Talya did not deign that comment with a reply, which far fair enough to Brandt because he did not think it was that good an analogy now he had thought about it for more than a second.

Brandt found himself with his big two-hander unhooked from its carrying harness on his back. The blade was too long to carry in a scabbard and could only carried in his hand, tied to his horse or hanging on his back from a special hook. What was mildly worrying was that he couldn’t remember readying his weapon.

“Have you just lost some time?” he whispered with some urgency.

No response.

Suddenly certain that he was facing the wrong direction and that he was about to be attacked from the right, Brandt swung out his sword. It whistled through the air, but hit nothing, if only barely. The path here was wide enough that he could fully extend arms and sword. He could not also step out at the same time or he would cut into the undergrowth that formed a dense wall of green on either side.

Just for good measure, and on the off-chance that he had been mistaken and the attack was coming from the left he pivoted and slashed the heavy blade past the impenetrable green on his other side.

Still nothing but Talya whispered from the darkness a little ahead and, now, to his right “What in the name of the … what are you doing?”

Brandt could feel his face heat up. He had never until now, during a night watch been spooked by the darkness.

He sighed, so much for his reputation of competence. “I don’t really know,” he admitted, much as it galled him.

“Somehow I lost the my sense of time. Then you didn’t answer and … I suddenly was certain there was something in the forest right besides me.”

There was another long pause. This time, though, Brandt didn’t have in the silence a sense of inattention but of discomfiture.

“You did a sentry check?” came the whispered question.

Brandt turned to face where Talya’s voice came from.

“In a way, yes” he said. It wasn’t technically true, and he could have lied to safe face, but right now the woman’s tone of voice made clear that there was something wrong and politics had to take a very distant third or fourth place when faced with a more immediate threat.

“Shhhh,” Talya hissed. It was as if she was starting a word but never got around to finish it.

Without thinking Brandt lunged forward and stabbed the point of his weapon in the darkness. He could only hope that he would not hit the pale woman. He couldn’t really tell why he made the crude attack. Closest to understanding that he could come — while putting his whole weight behind his instinctive lunge — was that the voice he’d heard might have started as human but towards the end of that hiss had drifted off into realms no human nor human voice had any business visiting.

He hit something. At least a meter beyond where his memory told him Talya should have been standing and at the far end of his attack. It did not feel like anything he had ever pushed the tip of his sword into, and he had an amount of experience with how stabbing things felt that made him worry at the state of his soul on long introspective evenings.

There wasn’t the clang of metal on metal, nor the deflection of his thrust, that hitting armour would have caused. It didn’t feel at all like boiled leather nor like the smothering friction of a padded doublet like a gambeson. And it certainly was nothing like the feel of pushing his sword into a living body. For which he spent a briefest moment of gratitude.

If anything it felt like something grabbed his sword and held on to it. Not keeping it immobile but rather, from the feeling of scraping against things, uncomfortably like guiding his thrust past somebody’s ribs. Except that these ribs were not spaced out with room for his sword to slide between, but rather they felt thrown together haphazardly, twisting his sword this way and that as he finished his thrust, causing it to quickly lose strength.

Not knowing what he was facing — it still was pitch black — he pulled back and swung, as soon as he judged he had enough room, in a devastating diagonal cut. It was the kind of strike meant to cleave right through poorly armoured arms, or deep into a hapless outlaws side, and that could break even a leg in heavy plate armour if it fully connected. The kind of strike the heavy sword was meant for, to break enemy ranks strike fear in the hearts of poorly trained troops.

Whatever was hidden in the darkness had followed his retreat, as Brandt had gambled, and his diagonal cut bit deep into his side, with a cracking sound and the horrible feeling of shearing through ribs and heavier bones travelling through the blade and up his arms all the way to his skull.

He backed up another two steps to pull his sword out along the cut he had made, which was far too deep to free his sword in any other way. It also made the terrible wound even deeper but Brandt already knew that whoever was in the dark was dying, and quickly. Still, dying was not the same and dead, and dying enemies could still take you with them if you gave them the chance. By his retreat he gave himself room for another diagonal cut, this time from the other side. After that the fight would be over one way or another. He was almost with his back to Keri’s horse and could not sidestep them. The horses blocked the path and kept guard over Keri and Oboru who were resting between them.

However, as he made his quick two short step retreat, his invisible enemy shrieked in pain. If there had been any doubt about Brandt accidentally having attacked Talya, those were now laid to rest. There was nothing human in that agonised cry as it deafened everybody in a radius of several miles and threatened to flatten trees with its sheer volume.

The cry, and the accompanying blinding flash of light, were too much for Keri’s normally docile horse. It lashed out with both hind legs, and caught Brandt in the back. By the time he had picked himself off the ground he’d had ample time to be grateful it hadn’t been his own horse and that he’d been too close for Snowflake to put his full force behind the kick, or he likely would never have gotten up again, even if he’d survived.

The whole fight had lasted perhaps half a dozen heartbeats, and picking his face out of the mud took maybe five times as long, so Melissa and Keri were only now getting to their feet, same as he in fact though not in as much pain as he was.

Talya was standing to the side, not quite where he thought she would have been but close, and Brandt felt a moment’s surge of anger at her inaction. She had been close enough that she could have helped him out or even prevent the fight entirely. But then he noticed that she was frozen mid step, with her dagger out and readied for a quick cut or stab.

Only then did the realisation dawn on him that Keri and Melissa weren’t looking stunned because of the fight, that neither of them had witnessed, but because the light from that flash that had momentarily blinded him was still illuminating the path. It clung to the trees and undergrowth like a thick viscous fluid. A bit like honey would, only this was distinctly less pleasant. In fact it made him feel a little nauseous just for being standing in its gleam.

Of his opponent there was no sight, and Brandt would have bet any amount of money that he had killed him with either of his attacks. He wasn’t sure he had cut deep enough to severe the spine, but there should have been a corpse with its intestines spilling out regardless. Instead all he could see was a scattered pile of kindling.

While he was staring, as dumbfounded by the sight as Keri and Melissa, Talya fought off her paralysis. What started as a long drawn out groan of effort seamlessly transited in a string of curses in a language he didn’t know or understand, but that he sympathised with anyway.

“What — happened?” Keri asked.

Brandt would have loved to be able to answer her question, but despite having fought, and presumably killed, whatever caused all this, he had never seen anything and had no idea what it had been. The strange light, if light it was, uneasily made him think of magic. Like all citizens of the Kingdom he had a healthy dose of scepticism when it came to accepting the reality of magic. But unlike almost all citizens he had seen enough from out-kingdom visitors to grudgingly accept that all so-called magic was done by cracks and frauds and that somehow, somewhere, magic could exist. It just was not supposed to exist in his kingdom.

Staring at the evidence to the contrary did not make him feel a whole lot better. It also made him feel a lot less sanguine about Oboru who had, among other things, claimed to be a mage of some small amount of skill.

It was obvious that Talya was not going to answer, she was too busy not to fall over from the after effects of her paralysis, and Brandt was inclined to believe a fast acting poison over more magic, to pay much attention to whatever else was going on around her. Brandt grimaced because he was, for the second time this night, be forced to admit his ignorance “I have no idea. Someone in the dark attacked us. At first I thought I was talking to Talya but he sounded off. When I … defended us, well, there was this noise and light and then … this.”

From his position between the horses Oboru croaked, his voice was still showing evidence of being too many days without water “Watch … Watcher … in … the dark … darkness.”