Keri

She didn’t know why she had mentioned the story of Jacobi, but Keri had just repeated the thought when it popped in her head. That wasn’t something she was used to doing, quite the opposite in fact as words were a big part of her trade, but nothing about this past day and night had been normal in any way or sense. She might come out of this with material for some great songs, but only if she survived it. And the strangeness of the events she had witnessed made her consider the odds of both survival and of composing popular songs about it.

Of course mentioning a song so ancient and obscure that she doubted it had been performed — or even removed from the dusty shelf — in generations, required her to explain it, if briefly. Just the retelling of the plot of the song had made her feel weird about it. The song had all the hallmarks of being a fairy tale, except for the fact that it was clearly not written with children in need of educating in mind.

Talya’s “Well, that’s not good” confirmed her opinion that mentioning the song had been silly, but the next moment she was distracted by the stranger who had arrived in such a spectacular and unsettling manner crying out softly in pain.

The last of the light faded away completely and she had to return to the man’s side by feel, much like she had been attempting to tend to him for most of the night, except for the time when the spooky light had emanated from some kind of liquid splashed over the trees and undergrowth.

Keri was worried about the stranger. She wasn’t the greatest healer by any stretch of imagination, and her herb lore was second-hand for the most part, but she knew she was skilful enough that in emergencies actual healers could, and would, call on her to assist. She hadn’t been able to examine him properly, they had been moving quickly and the light of the lantern wasn’t the best, but she figured he’d been suffering from severe sunburn, abrasions and dehydration. It didn’t really make sense that he was also running a high fever, he had none of the symptoms of being diseased. Still, she had dripped water laced with fever herbs into his mouth all evening and she was certain she had gotten enough liquid into him that he should be getting better, not worse. The burns should be hurting him, true, but he should be getting more aware steadily instead of less.

For a while Keri had thought she was winning her battle against his ailments, but he’d relapsed. Shortly before Brandt had done … whatever it was that he had, and the strange light had appeared. She wondered if the two were related, but couldn’t think of a reason why. And now that light was gone completely he had gotten still worse.

She felt of his pulse and winced as she felt the prickle of, what she knew to be, tiny drops of blood on her finger tips. Those abrasions had been so minor they should have scabbed over hours ago but, like the fever, they refused to heal and kept seeping drops of blood. Counting carefully she found his pulse weak but steady. That was a good thing, but baffling at the same time. Severe blood loss and dehydration both would cause her pulse to speed up dangerously. She had been taught to look for that and warn a proper healer should she notice it in a patient. As there was no proper healer within a week or more of travel it was a good thing she didn’t have to warn one. Keri wished, though, that she understood what ailed her patient and how she could help him. She was close to start praying for answers anyway.

Keri wasn’t paying attention to what was going on around her, counting two different heartbeats at the same time was difficult after all. But the swoosh of Brandt’s big sword was unmistakable. She’d never considered the sound swords made while they were swung, but after hearing — and seeing — it in action she didn’t think she would ever get rid of the nightmares. It was worse that the swing was overhead of here, and from the sound of it not that far overhead either.

At the end of the second swing there was a dull thud of the sword hitting something solid. Keri winced, but there was no follow-up cry of pain, not even a grunt, to indicate somebody had been injured, or worse, killed. She dove for the ground when she heard the sword whistling towards her even closer to her head, and ended up with her face smooshed to Oboru’s chest.

Brandt grunted with the effort of the force he had put behind his swing and when it connected again, there was a sound of something, many things, snapping with a sharp crack.

Keri kept her head down as much as she could and was reduced to hoping that she was not about to become an accidental casualty of the big man’s attacks. Not that she would accuse him of being careless, but whatever it was they were facing in the pitch black of the forest, took up all his attention just to fight it, and he could not see what he was doing.

Somewhere in the dark Talya did cry out sharply in pain. She smothered the sound almost immediately, clearly not wanting to reveal any weakness to their invisible opponent. Keri heard something else whoosh overhead. Something that was not Brandt’s sword but … she had actually no idea what kind of sound it was. Rather it was something she felt would be the sound hundreds of hands would making reaching blindly for something. She didn’t need to think to realise that being found by whatever it was that made that unsound would be very bad for her.

Incongruously, juxtaposed with the sound of the thing, or things, seeking for her was the voice of Melissa, praying. Keri briefly got the impression that the sound of her unintelligible words was like a balloon being blown up, filling the entire clearing and driving away the groping presence.

Light burst in the clearing, blinding everybody for a moment, coinciding with another dull thud of Brandt’s sword striking heavily against something solid and the sound of a tree being felled and finally losing the battle with gravity.

When Keri had blinked the tears from her eyes and the black and white spots had receded enough for her to see somewhat she recognised a familiar scene.

Brandt was standing a short distance away from her, breathing heavily. Talya wasn’t paralysed this time, and was standing in a fighting stance, arm and dagger extended towards a target that should have been between her and Brandt. Her dagger was smoking faintly, as was Brandt’s big two-handed sword. Talya was also pressing her free hand against her side, and from her stance Keri could see that she was injured, perhaps not severely but certainly painfully.

There also was a scattering of bits and pieces of broken wood, like there had been before. The strange liquid light was back as well, but this time it hadn’t been splattered nearly as far. In fact, almost nothing had made it all the way to the undergrowth that hemmed them in on two sides. There was a little of it dripping slowly from the lowest leafs and sprigs of grass, but by far the most of it had fallen a little short. Considering that the path was not terribly wide and had not grown any wider in the past hour, this was not comforting news Keri thought. That there was considerably less of the strange light this time was even more alarming in her opinion.

Brandt spoke, between panting for breath “We can’t keep doing this.”

Talya half replied, half made her own observation “I don’t think we’ll have as long this time before it returns. Whatever it is.”

For some reason both turned to look at Keri.

She first checked on Oboru, now she could see him and more accurately estimate his condition. He was getting weaker, though, and she was increasingly certain that whatever ailed him was related to whatever was attacking them from the darkness.

Keri didn’t like to bring up her suspicions, because she had a good idea how Talya and Melissa would react to it. At the same time she understood that unless they were to meet Jacobi’s fate they had precious little time to come up with something.

“It is tied to … Oboru,” she said reluctantly “He collapsed after arriving, but he was getting a little better until we stopped. Then he got worse again slowly. And with both attacks he got a /lot/ worse right away.”

Talya studied the unconscious and feverish man, her eyes narrowing suspiciously.

Before she could speak up though, Brandt said “He isn’t causing this, and he may yet be able to explain to us what it is. He seemed to recognise this … thing, whatever it is.”

Talya frowned “Or … he brought it with him as he blew up half the forest.”

“It doesn’t matter. Talya, you’re wounded. Let Keri at least bind you up. No telling when we’ll have to fight again. And if it keeps getting stronger …”

He didn’t complete that thought, but it was clear from their expressions that they all understood exactly what he meant. They might have half a candle mark, if that, before the darkness reasserted itself, and where the first fight had been relatively easily, this one had been anything but. It was likely that the third time would be harder still.

Talya wasn’t happy about having Keri play healer, but if she made that clear by her expression and posture, she also recognised the common sense in Brandt’s curt order. They were in the calm between two battles, and she needed to be as ready for the inevitable next round as she was going to be.

There was a nasty tear in the pale woman’s clothes, and some of the medallions of boiled leather had been ripped away with great force. It had left a ragged tear in her side as well and the blood had soaked into the silk. It wasn’t a deep wound, or she would have bled out already, but it was deep enough that it couldn’t be left alone either.

“I’m going to have to stitch that up,” Keri told her hesitatingly “and you will want to have a real healer have a look at it before it heals all wrong.”

She didn’t mention the risk, no almost certainty, of infection, and Talya didn’t bring it up either. Stitches would keep her alive for now. Infection wouldn’t kill her for days now, but being slow and bleeding in a fight against something she couldn’t see would kill her within the candle mark.

Grimly Keri set herself to the task, not having anything that she had seen the healers use on wounds bad enough to need stitching.

While she set up her tiny spool of cat gut thread and a curved needle, Brandt said to her “While you’re busy try to think of any detail about that song you mentioned.”

“Jacobi and the Forest Spirit?” she asked.

“Assume it was once an account of something just like this,” his gesture encompassed their improvised camp and the entire forest surrounding it “its words and meaning garbled over time.”

Keri frowned, both in thought and from trying the thread the needle, “Whoever wrote it must have survived the meeting.”

Brandt nodded “There must be something in the song that tells us what to do.”

Keri grimaced “In the original version. Perhaps.” She put her mind to the vaguely remembered wording she had read only once from a badly faded and smudged scroll, and to the even more faded notations made in the margins of that ancient document.

The man paid her no further attention, but turned instead towards Melissa, who as kneeling some distance away, head bowed and still muttering her prayer endlessly.

“Why didn’t you help?” he accused her “Twice now you let us fight.”

Her tanned face, framed by her pale gold hair, came up, a sign that she had heard him, but she continued her muttering.

Brandt growled in frustration.

Before he could take more than one step towards her, and around the faintly glowing broken sticks and kindling, she pulled up her bow with a swift and sure movement. Not to draw back the string of her strange-looking weapon, but to study it intently.

“Keep away cannot” she said in her broken trade tongue. “Sister maybe but not belief so.”

Taken aback Brandt rocked to a halt “What?”

“Dark all eating,” Melissa explained “Where light cannot be dark.”

That didn’t explain anything to Brandt but Keri found herself groping towards an understanding.

“Light have, but …” clearly frustrated by her lack of words the tall women cupped both her hands and put them together, forming a little hollow in which something fragile might be kept. Then looking at Brandt intently she brought her hands together, squashing whatever it was that could have sheltered inside them. “Small am, I”

Keri had to look away from the strange interaction, as she needed her concentration to stitch up the ragged tear in Talya’s side in the slowly fading light that didn’t seem to illuminate much that wasn’t itself.

“I don’t know how to explain it Brandt but,” she said while she worked “while you were hacking away at it, I felt like something was looking for me. And” she hesitated because she didn’t think the man would take it any better than she would have even an hour ago “Melissa’s — prayer drove it away.”

She had to give him credit for he didn’t scoff audibly at her words. Keri couldn’t see if his expression was as polite, but she didn’t really want to know anyway.

Talya said, her voice laced with pain of both her wound and of Keri sticking her needle into its edges over and over again, “If we can’t get rid of it by getting rid of this Oboru,” her tone of voice made clear what she thought of that notion, “it is at least obvious that those bits of wood are what carries this … curse.”

“You mean … ?”

“We’ve light enough for a tinderbox. We couldn’t make a fire earlier because, the forest, but there’s plenty of firewood right here. Let’s see how well it can attack us if all this wood is gone up in smoke.”

“No!” Melissa cried out “Fire bad. Bad bad bad!”

Keri had to look over her shoulder at the naked alarm in her tone of voice. She was surprised to see the tall woman stand between Brandt and the bits of wood on the ground. Standing even in its rough circle with one foot for there was that little room for her. She had her hand on her dagger but hadn’t drawn her weapon.

“Fire ash leaves,” she pleaded “Ash also … cursed?”

Keri couldn’t see the big man’s expression and Talya’s hiss of pain above her jerked her attention back to what she was supposed to be doing, instead of jerking too hard on the thread she was stitching Talya up with.

“Sorry,” she muttered. Talya ignored her, attention focussed on Brandt and Melissa.

“Explain,” Brandt said in his most rumbling voice Keri had yet heard him use.

“Know what do,” Melissa said urgently “Move all piece to forest. In ground put.”

She said more in what Keri presumed was her native language, a waterfall of liquid syllables that seemed to consist mostly of vowels. Apparently frustrated beyond the point of wanting to keep her origin a secret.

“The Spirit of the Forest!” Keri gasped.

Brandt whipped around to glare at her instead.

“The song,” she explained “said it all along.” Inappropriately she felt a moment of recognition of a rhyme she might be able to use later, if she could get around to composing a popular song about all this.

“Cut a tree and it damages the forest. The spirit seeps out. The chippings are part of it so it sticks to them.”

“Return the wood, return the spirit.” Talya supplied from above Keri.

She couldn’t see what Melissa was doing, but imagined the tall woman was probably nodding her head off.

“Fine,” Brandt said, after a long hesitation “We try to return the glowing sticks of wood.”

Melissa said “Not safe you. I safe am. Maybe. Think I be.”

And after another pause, during which Keri tied up the second thread she had stitched Talya’s wound with, Melissa continued “Pale hunter safe maybe. Safe in shelter was. Now, not. Maybe.”

“Hurry must. Hide all before dark. Or nothing hidden. Three you everything find I hide.”

Keri looked at the odd light and guessed it had lost half its strength while they figured out what to do about it. Hurry indeed. She had no idea how many broken twigs and chips and splinters there were, but there were far more than she could easily count.

Without waiting for their reply, or their consent, Melissa snatched up the biggest piece of wood she could see. She winced in pain as its glow briefly enveloped her hand before slouching off and falling to the ground at a far greater speed than it had moved before.

She dashed through the undergrowth that parted for her as if it wasn’t really there, or perhaps not real at all. Keri had been loathe to touch the growth, but at times the path had been so narrow that it had been inevitable to brush against the plants, and they had felt plenty solid to her then. Even unforgiving resistant against her pushing a single leaf out of its place.

Even more disturbing was how Melissa just vanished the moment she crossed the barrier of plants, and the light wasn’t yet so poor that it could be attributed to that. It was as if between one moment and the next she ceased to exist.

Brandt made a move to follow her but Talya said, her voice unnaturally loud in the hushed silence that had fallen over the forest “Don’t, Brandt. She’s right about it being dangerous. For us. I felt it last night. The forest is … seeking.”

“And it almost found us” Keri whispered.

“It’s just trees.”

“Not this forest,” Keri whispered “not this one.”

When Melissa returned some twenty anxious heartbeats later it wasn’t nearly as her to leave the forest as it had been to enter it. There was no warning of her arrival, just stepping out of the undergrowth, still as if it wasn’t really there for her. The second half of her body however would not follow as easily and she had to strain against something, almost as if the invisible door through which she had stepped had snapped shut and caught her like a vise.

Outwardly calm, the strange tall woman picked up the next piece of wood and repeated the procedure, disappearing into another part of the forest.

Galvanised into action Keri, stumbled forward and picked up a small piece of wood she could see half buried in the mud. She had to fight through her revulsion to make her fingers close on the wood, and she gasped in pain as its sting jolted from her fingertips all the way up to her shoulder.

How does Melissa stand this? she thought to herself, but she forced herself to pick up the next chip of wood she could see gleaming in the mud.

After that there wasn’t much room for thought. With each additional bit of cursed wood she picked up the numbness spread further. She couldn’t remember any more why she did this, only that she had to comb through the cold mud for every sliver of wood she could find. At first the pile she built seemed only to grow, but after a while it began to shrink, along with the unnatural light coming from within it.

Eventually Brandt stopped her with a surprisingly gentle hand on her shoulder. “You can stop now Keri” he said

She looked up at him. It took a while for her to comprehend who he was and what he was saying. He looked filthy and dishevelled, much like she suspected she herself did. Across from them Melissa sat, slumped. She looked terrible, exhausted and sweat-drenched, her face scratched and gashed, and her clothes in tatters.

“We can only wait now,” Brandt offered “Melissa doesn’t have the strength to try any more. Talya and I had to drag her out of the forest the last time and she was unconscious before we got her leg free.”

“Did we … Did we get them all?” Keri asked him, her dry throat making it painful to speak.

“I don’t know. I hope so.” After a long uncomfortable pause he added “We have to.”

There was no need to state the obvious, that none of them was in a condition to fight the thing in the darkness, that she now thought of as the Spirit of the Forest. Even though that sounded far too benevolent for the evil she had sensed as she touched slivers of it.

“We can only wait now. The light’s almost gone.”

“Help me to Oboru?” she asked because she wasn’t certain that she had the strength yet to make it that far on her own feet without help. Keri figured that if Oboru was affected by this darkness he might breathe easier if it was gone from their camp, and getting worse if it was about to return.

The man wasn’t better, or if he was it was so slight that she couldn’t detect a difference. But at least he wasn’t getting worse either.

Together the four of them watched the last of the light drain away. Keri held her breath and was certain she wasn’t the only one to do so though she didn’t doubt the others were unwilling to admit to it.

All around them the forest swayed and groaned as if lashed by the worst storm in the history of the world, the leaves a hurricane of sound. Keri yelped in fear, not that anybody could hear it over the thundering noise. But as she all but jumped up to run away the ‘storm’ spread out and weakened as it covered more and more of the trees, finally disappearing into the distant dark by the sound of it.

“Mercy,” Keri breathed “We did it.”

Brandt and Talya were equally relieved. Melissa was inscrutable. Or perhaps too exhausted to be happy.

Then a thought struck Keri and she was jolted with fear.

“I don’t want to spoil the celebration,” she whispered “but … did anybody count how many of those strange smoke columns there were, back you know were? How many broken trees?”

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