Keri’s question was met with a shocked silence. At least everybody was momentarily holding their breath, which only emphasised the unnatural stillness of the forest. An evil laugh, in a creaky tree kind of sound, would have perfectly fitted the scene, but the forest was not that obliging, and the need to breathe reasserted itself before too long.

Melissa was chagrined to realise she had been too preoccupied to spend enough attention on the destroyed trees. The magical arrival of the man — and it had to be magic in her opinion no matter how much the others were trying to ignore the possibility — had appeared to be a greater threat at the time. Even the only threat if she were honest to herself. And now her failure to understand the danger the forest posed made things that much worse.

It was Talya who said “There were maybe ten trees. That I can remember.”

Melissa figured that was about right. She hadn’t counted and wasn’t that good at recalling something she’d seen only briefly in perfect detail later when it came time to reporting. She’d never seriously worked on learning because she preferred not leaving anything behind that she needed to report on that she could not count at her leisure from the corpses.

Brandt asked “Are you counting only the trees or do the shrubs count as well?”

“We’re guessing here, big time,” Talya sighed deeply “but that’s the smoke columns that I am reasonably certain I saw. There may have been more in the dark, or fewer because they sort of twisted together in the gloom”

“Ten,” Brand mused and he turned towards the path again, “We’ll have to assume they’re coming for us.”

Reluctantly Melissa said “Too tired am I. Meditate need I.”

She didn’t like to expose her weakness, but in this case there wasn’t a way out of it. She was the only one who could enter and leave the forest with some small degree of safety because she could blend with it. But doing so had drained her because the forest and its trees were that strange, and that hostile, that it had taken a great deal of effort to align herself close enough with it. And yet more effort to untangle herself again upon leaving. The others, she knew, had seen and interpreted it as the undergrowth clinging to her, but she knew better. It had been her own reluctance to leave the forest again after becoming so much a part of it.

The mad rush to bury almost five dozen pieces of wood had drained her physically to the point of collapse, but worse was that she was unbalanced. She could still feel the pull of the trees, and her desire to lose herself in them. Where before she had the best protection, such as it was, now she was the most vulnerable until she could ground and centre herself in a healthy forest and her natural existence.

Oboru moaned feverishly and Melissa’s eyes narrowed. ‘He is probably more vulnerable‘ she conceded to herself. It wasn’t a thought that needed to be spoken. Certainly not until after she understood better what was going on. Her first reaction to the man’s arrival had been wanting to dispose of him, for the wrongness she could still feel clinging to him. She was beginning to believe that killing Oboru would have been a disastrous mistake. Where that belief came from Melissa didn’t know, but she had been trained by the Sisters to trust her instincts, especially if they were that different from common sense, because more likely than not they were Goddess born. She recognised in Talya another hunter, and knew that the woman had similar ideas about how to deal with the problems the unconscious man represented. No, until she understood the situation better she would not speak of anything that might cause the pale woman to act in a way that could not be undone.

She tuned out Brandt and Talya bickering in hushed voices over what to do next, and Keri fussing over the unconscious man, and concentrated on what she knew.

He was a mage, that she was willing to agree on, and even argue for against Brandt’s dismissal of all things magic. Melissa never had met a mage, of course, but this Oboru had all the signs of being one. Had she been patrolling the borders of the Forestheart she would not have hesitated to call for help to deal with him. This one, she judged, wasn’t going to be doing any magic, or any thing really, for a while yet. That gave her time to consider her next step.

From the manner of his arrival Melissa figured that Oboru had not travelled voluntarily, but if he had fled from something in desperation there was no sign of it on him, or his clothes. They were worn, not torn up. What that meant, though, she couldn’t say.

She had the mounting suspicion that he had arrived by the tree paths, something he was clearly not supposed to be able to. If her hunch was correct that would explain a few things that had her wondering since arriving inexplicably in this dark forest. If Oboru had somehow forced his way into the tree paths, that could be how she herself had slipped through them without noticing. The mage must have weakened the barriers which allowed him, and her, and the darkness at the heart of this forest, to slip through. Or explode through in the case of Oboru, because he clearly had no idea how to use those paths quietly.

The effort had cost the mage, though. Something clung to him, some kind of connection between him and the forest. Melissa didn’t think it was good that it was there at all.

‘Lady,’ she said silently ‘if You sent me here, You have an exaggerated idea of my abilities.’

It wasn’t quite a prayer, more a silent plea for divine common sense and perhaps a bit of assistance that was actually schooled in magical things. Her own training regarding magic was more along the lines of how to avoid it and very little of understanding any of it. It also was an admitting that she was in a situation that was well beyond her ability to deal with.

Melissa also began to doubt that she was here by her Goddess’ will, which was something of a minor crisis of faith in the midst of the much larger crisis of survival. If the stranger could have forced the tree paths, then it was possible he had caused more damage, as far away as the Forestheart, and that she had accidentally slipped through. Something, Melissa felt, the Goddess should have been able to foresee and prevent.

Even if that was true, though, that didn’t alter the fact that she was on a Hunt here, and that she now better understood what she was hunting. Not human defilers but something far worse. She would therefore stay with these humans because it was clear that they needed her as much as she needed them to survive in these strange lands.

With that decision made she felt free to make another and enforce it against the others. The stranger was at the root of the problems, and while it was impossible to tell if he was the cause or the result, they would still need him to understand and ultimately to deal with the thing that now stalked them from the dark.

“Leave now, need we.” she said when Brandt and Talya both drew back from their confrontation. She wanted nothing to do with their fight for dominance, but preferred they had their little contest at a safer place and at a much later time.

Keri chimed in, “Melissa is right, again. Talya is wounded, Oboru is unconscious, Melissa is exhausted. I’ve no idea what attacked us, but it found us here and if there are more of those …” she faltered briefly while grasping for the best word, before settling on “things, as we all believe there must be. Well, we’re in no condition to fight off even one. And it sure feels like it knows exactly where we are now.”

It wasn’t quite pitch black, the way it had been during the two attacks, but it was still far too dark to recognise Talya and Brandt as anything but two slightly less dark spots. Melissa couldn’t say how they reacted to the dressing down they’d received from the least assuming member of the little group. Probably not too well, so she broke in before either could react angrily.

“Man, human?” despite Keri spending some time while travelling to explain, she still didn’t have the names straight for the different types of this highly varied species “Oboru heart of problem is.”

“That was what Brandt and I were arguing about,” Talya all but growled from the darkness, “In case you hadn’t noticed”

“Need living. Him. Explain can happening is.”

“We need to leave him here and let the forest take him back.” was the cold reply coming from the gloom beyond even Melissa’s range of vision. For a short moment she wondered if it had actually been Talya who spoke those words. But it was clearly the pale woman who wanted the problem man gone. Not that Melissa hadn’t entertained the same notion, but she had taken the time to consider the situation and come to a different conclusion.

Keri gasped, apparently she, too, hadn’t paid attention to the discussion.

“No.” Melissa said, “Dark want him. Dark want bad for us is. Opened path did he. Path close can he.”

Brandt spoke up “Keri, you have been closest to this Oboru. What do you think?”

Keri hesitated for a long time before answering “This all is straight out of a children’s tale. The kind with magic.” There was a lot of derision and disbelief dripping from the way that last word was pronounced, though not quite as much as Brandt had whenever he was required to talk about magic.

“Oboru was coherent when he — arrived. Exhausted and injured but I’d say he knew what had happened. Then he collapsed and I couldn’t rouse him even to drink the water he desperately needs.” She paused, gathering her thoughts “He was getting a little better all night while the lamp lasted. But when we stopped, he got worse again.”

She was close enough to Melissa that she could see the woman turning her attention back to the unconscious man “He got a lot worse just when we were attacked … he hasn’t gotten better now we, I mean Melissa, got rid of that cursed wood. ” The word cursed was also expressed with a lot of distaste, as if considering the possibility of curses was difficult for her.

Keri sighed “Either this place is bad for him. Or the thing that is hunting us is getting close again.”

Talya and Brandt broke out in another round of whispered disagreement. Melissa ignored them because something had occurred to her that she wanted to work out in her head first before bringing it up.

Oboru moaned weakly, drawing everybody’s attention.

Melissa used the momentary silence to bring up her thought, even if she wasn’t all that confident she was actually right. She just had the feeling about this place that, now she had acknowledged it to herself, was solidifying into a certainty even in the absence of solid facts.

“Place. This place much dark is. Should less dark.” Frustrated by her limited vocabulary she slipped in her native tongue for a moment.

“Time… sun! Day should be. Or near. Dark make black here. Trap is. For us.”

Keri translated “You mean that you think it should be close to dawn and it is darker here than it should be to keep us from moving on?”

Melissa nodded. She hadn’t actually understood all the words the woman used, but she thought it was close enough to what she meant. Of course nobody could see her move her head.

It wasn’t necessary to be seen though as Brandt exhaled explosively “Whatever this spirit from your story is, we know it can take away the light. It did when it attacked us.”

Wasting no further time Brandt resumed his habitual ordering around “Talya, you lead Keri’s horse up that slope. Be mindful of its footing.”

“His” Keri muttered, but nobody paid attention to her correcting Brandt’s unintentional snub of her beloved animal.

“I will lead my own as he his battle trained and won’t accept anybody near its hooves. Keri?”


“We’ll load Oboru on your horse and you have to take care of him as we walk. Melissa, you’ll have to be our rear guard. It seems you are least affected by this forest of us all.”

That wasn’t something Melissa would agree with right there and then, but her sense of unease was getting worse and if she was still strongly feeling the pull to lose herself in the trees, it wasn’t the time to mention that problem. They needed to get away from this place, and had to for hours now. Certainly for longer than they had wasted recovering and arguing over their course of action.

“Hurry” was all Melissa said.