It took the better part of a minor candle mark for Talya to shake off first the paralysis, and then the pins and needles feeling over her entire body. After the first minute she had given up any pretence of dignity and sank to the muddy ground. Regaining control over her limbs had also resulted in losing all strength in them.

What had happened troubled her far more profoundly than she dared show to her travelling companions. She was by no stretch of imagination immune to magic. The Night Lord was not exactly the type of god who valued his devotees, not even the ones who had their souls pledged to him. But he was a jealous god and because of that simple magic had difficulty finding purchase on his promised.

She had considered, had to consider, that she had been hit by poison. The speed by which she had succumbed though made that unlikely. Poison needed to enter the veins before it could affect the body and mind, and it would take seconds before it started to affect its victim. More than long enough to be aware of being hit. Theoretically she could have lost some memory of the seconds before as well — any poison that was strong enough to stop her mid stride would have seriously messed with her head as well — but it just did not make sense. She had felt some kind of presence rushing towards her and started to lash out. The next thing she remembered was being unable to move from her pose, her arm half extended for a throat strike.

According to Brandt she had lost enough time for him to have a short conversation with somebody he thought had been her, and there was some lingering suspicion from his side about that. She couldn’t really blame him, in his place she would have been suspicious too. But there was no denying that he had been fighting something, and that something had not been her. She would be dead otherwise. She might not particularly like the man but she recognised competence when she saw it. If he said he had hit something with a horizontal strike, she knew that he had actually killed it with that big sword of his.

That there was no body being done bleeding out in the mud was another troubling fact. That too spoke of magic. Being paralysed and unconscious might account for her missing whatever magic could make a body disappear, but the same could not be said of the other four, one of whom by his own account was a mage.

Not that the mage had been much help. He had managed to croak out a cryptic message before lapsing back into his feverish unconsciousness. ‘Watcher in the darkness‘ or maybe ‘Watch the watcher in the darkness‘. It made sense in some way, given how they had been attack by something blending in with the absolute darkness of a forest that had certainly earned its name of ‘Black Forest’. Yet at the same time it made no sense at all in that it was an apparent warning that explained nothing at all.

And of course there was the greatest mystery of all, the liquid light that slowly dripped from the trees, and even more slowly dissipated. Most of it was now pooled by the undergrowth that made an apparent impenetrable wall at both sides of the road. Talya’d had ample time to look at it as she was unable to turn her head initially and some of it was mere centimetres from her face. It wasn’t a liquid, whatever it was. It was never bright enough that she couldn’t look at it, and there was no substance to it that she could see. It had splashed all around their camping place, but it had only touched the trees and the undergrowth of the forest. Some of it must have travelled through her, but neither her clothes nor she herself had light dripping off. Being so close to it also made her want to cringe away from it, and before this night Talya would have sworn that nothing in the dark could make her feel sickened any more.

Most of the light itself was gone now, and what remained was so weak that it could easily be mistaken for cave lichen that also could glow with a light of its own in the deepest and blackest caverns of the north. Talya didn’t know if the others were familiar with it, and was not about to bring it up. Her mission came first, and she was no closer to determining which of the three she had initially met that she was expected to protect, and who to protect her, or him, from. All she could tell that it was one of the three. In the morning, while waiting for the mercenaries she had deliberately put some distance between herself and either group. It had been only the faintest sense of direction that had returned to her, and it had vanished again almost completely as soon as she had followed it. The direction was clear enough, if only barely. Her target was one of the three, not one of the men who had left muttering angry curses.

She had expected trouble to come from that side and agreed with Brandt that they should set a double watch when it became clear they could not continue, even if it meant they would all go short on sleep. It couldn’t have been them though. Ordinary men would have left a body, and it was obvious those mercenaries were ordinary men. If they had access to the kind of magic that could make corpses disappear, could paralyse her and make light act like drops of honey, they would have used it last night already.

Whatever had just happened was unlike anything she had experience with, nor ever heard of from obscure religious tomes or feverish rumour. Which was a humbling experience altogether and not something she could feel happy about. The only slightly bright side to it was that Brandt was no less unsettled and was much less able to conceal it. Maybe he would lay off the superior attitude for a bit.

Still pathetically weak Talya got to her feet. It made the lingering pins and needles feeling flare up but she had suffered worse pain both during training and during missions — recovering from frostbite was far worse than this — so she ignored it, taking great care that her face did not show how much discomfort she was in.

Keri was tending to the easterner, Oboru, trying to get his fever down. She had said she knew some herb lore, though she was no healer herself, but lacked the herbs themselves to do much. Without a fire there wasn’t a way to create a tincture or tisane so she was forced to waste most of her supply of fever herbs in cold water in an attempt to extract sufficient of its healing agents to be useful. From the look of it, that wasn’t enough, though getting liquids into a fever patient had never harmed anybody either. The strange man wasn’t running a dangerously high fever, again according to Keri, but he was close to delirious all the same when he wasn’t unconscious.

Considering he was a mage — something which neither Keri nor Brandt seemed willing to really consider — and the manner of his arrival, Talya figured he was suffering from backlash shock. She wasn’t a mage herself of course, and never had much dealings with the few the Mage Priest employed, but she knew enough of the symptoms to be confident about her diagnosis. What she didn’t know was how to treat it. All her teachers had cared about was using it to quickly kill a mage who was otherwise too dangerous to engage directly. Magic-free rest probably was the best approach though, same as with every other form of exhaustion. What Keri was doing wouldn’t hurt him and was likely to be at least somewhat beneficial. Trying to get involved would mean having to explain what she knew, and to lie about the why of it, which she didn’t feel like doing.

Brandt had returned to his interrupted watch, and though it probably would have been better to try to figure out just what had happened, Talya felt better for knowing he was watching out. She also wanted to kick herself for on the one hand being annoyed by his high-handed and unconscious arrogance, and on the other hand be grateful for it.

Melissa, though, was interesting now that Talya had a chance to better look at her. Nominally she was sharing watch duty with Brandt, since clearly Talya herself was currently unable to do more than lean against a back and, well, watch. The tall woman was not paying much attention to the forest, nor to the path where it got lost in the darkness beyond the circle of faint illumination. Instead her gaze was drawn to the splintered wood that had appeared on the path. More than that, every time it did she got that horrified expression, after which she quickly looked away again.

Melissa didn’t seem aware of what she was doing.

Looking at Keri, Talya could see that she too was avoiding to look at the wood. Though in her case it was harder to be certain because she was paying most of her attention to her patient. Still the way she focussed on Oboru and barely looked at anything else was not quite normal.

Brandt was standing stiffly, as far away from the scattering of splintered wood as he could and still be within the faintly illuminated circle, and looked determinedly at the dark.

Feeling a sick suspicion solidifying into certainty Talya tried to look at the wood. She had been too eager to look at anything else, now she thought about it. And even as she made the determined decision to look she found her attention waver, and with it her gaze. Much as she consciously wanted to look at it, unconsciously she shied away from it.

The Outer Dark take me,’ she thought viciously and in her native tongue. ‘Why isn’t there a corpse?

Answering herself since there was nobody else to reply to a question she never asked out loud, ‘Because it was there all the time but we couldn’t look at it. Couldn’t even think about it.’

“Brandt, Melissa,” she called out urgently.

Both instantly turned to her “You wondered why there is no corpse?”

Talya gestured at the area they all had been avoiding “It was right here, but we didn’t recognise it.”

“The splinters?” Brandt asked, without comprehension. “You’re talking about bits of wood?”

Melissa gasped and paled.

Growing more certain that she was right Talya talked right over Brandt’s disbelief “You said you hit something but it didn’t feel like flesh. Oh, don’t give me that look, I was paralysed not sleeping. I think you mentioned feeling something grasping at your blade? But thinner?”

Talya gave him a moment to think “Like twigs perhaps?”

Brandt shook his head “You’re talking about magic.” His tone of voice conveyed the disbelief his neutral choice of words didn’t.

Exasperated Talya shot back “We can’t look at the darkness cursed things for more than a few seconds. We can’t even think about them. How much more magic do you want? Glowing lights?”

Melissa muttered something under her breath.

Talya couldn’t hear the words but from the tone and cadence of them she thought it was a prayer. ‘Great, at least one believes me,’ she thought ‘but prayer isn’t going to help.’

“Well, it is dead, right?”

“Want to bet your life on that?” Talya replied to Brandt’s reluctant admission “The magic is still active or we wouldn’t have trouble being near it.”

Haltingly following the thin thread of logic she added “I think … that the light” she gestured at the faint patches of light that still puddled around their improvised camp “It was the … magic, or whatever, that was binding the … wood? When you destroyed the body the magic scattered.”

Talya hated how she sounded so defensive and uncertain when she more than ever before needed to sound confident and knowledgeable.

Before Brandt could voice his objections that he had drawn breath for she interrupted him, again. “The light is fading, yes, but I don’t think the magic is… I think it is returning to the ground and when the darkness returns …”

She let the last comment hang in the silence like the question it really was.

Keri was the first to break the silence “Oh Mercy. It is just like the story of Jacobi and the Spirit of the Forest.”

Everybody turned around to look at her, with varying degrees of incomprehension on their faces, though it was getting hard to tell, the remaining light was now so faint that even faces were beginning to fade into the gloom.

Keri blushed, at least that was the impression Talya got “Oh, forget it. It is just an ancient story from the south. From … around here actually…”

“Explain. Quickly” Brandt commanded and Talya had to spent more effort than she cared for to stop herself from rolling her eyes.

“It is an old song that nobody sings any more. I only found it in the Bard’s library in Kingstown looking for … something else. The song is about a forester who got greedy and cut down a tree that was sacred to the spirit of the forest despite being thrice warned against it. The spirit was greatly angered and manifested a golem from the wood chippings and stripped branches of the tree.”

At that everybody for a moment looked at the splintered wood, just to make sure it was still there.

“The golem attacked Jacobi and no matter how many times he cut it down, it reformed again and again.”

“How did he defeat it?” Brandt asked, but it clearly was the question on everybody’s lips. He just had been the first to ask.

Keri sighed and her voice got a tinged with a hint of panic “The story doesn’t tell. Only that Jacobi was killed in the end and dragged into the depths of the trees, and that the golem kept wandering around, killing everybody who got close.”

“Well,” Talya said “that’s not good.”

Everybody looked at her “The story neither but I mean that.”

She pointed at the biggest pile of kindling that wasn’t exactly stirring, but looked restless with a dark vapour curling and dancing in the air above it.

There was only a moment to take it in. Then the last of the light faded away and the complete darkness returned.

“Shit.” said Brandt.

That about sums it up.’ Talya thought.

The big man was answered by trees creaking in the forest all around them.