‘This is getting ridiculous,’ Talya said sourly, and silently, to herself. ‘Half of us are now incapacitated, and here I’m propping up the cause of our troubles.’
She briefly considered slipping Oboru poison — it wouldn’t take much to kill him — and claim he’d just died from whatever ailed him. A knife would be too obvious, and right now the only reason she stayed her hand was that she was neither convinced that she wouldn’t be found out and, more importantly in her opinion, the others at the very least would stop fleeing from the forest trying to figure out why exactly the useless mage had died. She certainly had argued too loudly for leaving him behind, or outright killing him, for the others not being suspicious if he should die while in her care.

Talya wanted to scream and had to resist the sudden urge to just toss him off the horse.

That urge made her pause. She wasn’t normally impulsive. In fact she had been trained endlessly to be patient and study every angle of a situation so that she could finally strike decisively and in the blink of an eye. Ending any fight before her opponent even knew it had begun.

This … wasn’t her. And now she started to think about it she became aware of the faintest of buzzing in her ears.

‘Light the darkness,’ she cursed. ‘It’s trying to affect me still.’

And after a couple more tired paces from her horse, while she struggled for control over her hands, she began to think about the why of it.

Talya didn’t know much about the forest itself. It hadn’t figured in her studies, at all. Not that her studies had included more than a cursory mention of the most important aspects of these lands. They were after all too far to the south to be of more than the remotest interest to the Mage Priest. A spy was sent this far away only once every long while, and then only to ascertain that the initial verdict of irrelevant was still valid.

So she knew enough of the language to make herself understood, though she stuck to the trade language to avoid showing just how much she understood of the conversations around her. Melissa did the same, though in her case Talya was not convinced the ignorance of the local language was entirely feigned. She had some local coins that had seen her through the journey here, but would not entirely cover the journey back even if she started right away. She knew the political situation in as far as the Mage Priest’s spies cared about it. And she knew the three major cities.

A remote forest of no strategic value with a bad reputation certainly had never been considered important. Something she now realised had been too careless. In a country that collectively denied the reality of magic, despite all evidence to the contrary, any place that had rumours of magic persisting to be attached to it should have been of the greatest interest.

Somebody, several somebodies really, had failed to see the bigger picture, and now here she was paying the price for that lack. She knew nothing of this forest that was threatening her and, more importantly, her mission. With her amulet inactive and unable to shield her from casual magic, she reluctantly was forced to admit to herself she was in trouble. Neck deep and sinking as the proverb went. Though the Pledged like her had another, darker, way of phrasing the sentiment. They kept that one to themselves though.

Enough of things I can’t change, she admonished herself. Time to consider what I do know, and what I can do.

For that, she accepted, she needed more information. Normally she would scout the location until she found a pattern that she could slip through. Here, unfortunately, she did not have the luxury of time. Whatever was stalking her, and threatening her mission, was frightfully persistent and clever. A bad combination in any opponent, and double so in an unknown opponent.

Unfortunately the only information she could find was from some old children’s songs, only — by her own admission — poorly remembered by a woman who had just fainted. A woman who also professed not really believing in magic, despite the fact that it was all around her. She wasn’t as stubborn about it as the annoying big oaf, the male one that was, who still pretty much rejected that it existed as more than parlour tricks that could easily be explained as sleight-of-hand.

It was enough to make an honest assassin want to scream with frustration. An urge she had been spending a lot of effort to suppress the past hour.

“Keri? Anything else you can remember about this forest? I mean, anything?” she asked. She didn’t have to raise her voice. The road, or path depending how uncharitable you wanted to be about it, currently wasn’t currently wide enough to ride side by side, but it was only a horse length between them, and the forest was silent enough that even a whisper would have carried that short distance. In fact, something about the silence suggested to Talya that the forest was silent because it was listening, if not to them then for them. It had grown this still before and never had it been a good thing for them when it did.

Before she could pay attention to that notion Keri’s reply interrupted her thoughts. “I told you, it’s just an old song that nobody has sung for, oh, centuries.” There was a definite note of irritation in her voice.

“Yes, yes,” Talya replied, a bit of irritation creeping into hers as well. “You also said it was believed to be about teaching children to obey the rules. But I think we both now believe it was more literal than that. Even Brandt here now agrees there is truth in your old tale.”

Brandt made a non-committal noise that did nothing but to further increase her irritation. With him, and with the situation she had found herself in.

“No need to bite my head off.” Keri said sharply from behind her.

Talya refused to apologise, feeling that the other woman had started. She did manage to not say so out loud. Instead she made her own wordless noise of acknowledgement and waited.

Keri didn’t like silence, and the silence hanging over the forest was so oppressive as to almost be a presence of its own, and before too long pondered the question she had been asked.

“I can quote the song for you if you like? I can even sing it, though I can not vouch for the accuracy of my score as there was no music sheet with the song any more,” she hesitated. “If there even was one to begin with. The lines do rhyme, but even when I idly studied the words, I felt they scanned poorly. As if it was a translation rather than a composition. I dismissed the notion because the histories of the Kingdom are clear that these lands were uninhabited when we first settled them.”

Talya ground her teeth at the annoyance of being treated with a treatise on musical theory and history, neither of which she had the slightest interest in. Thankfully Brandt managed to more gently put the woman back on track.

“Keri, I think we should discuss the origins of this song at another time?”

“Yes, but it’s important you see? If it is not a song but a translation it may be from an entirely different part of the world.”

Talya sighed, not quite silent enough not to be audible, “Maybe so, but the people who lived here thought it was about their forest, or they wouldn’t have translated and kept the song?”

Keri huffed a little at the criticism, and Talya spoke over whatever reply she might have wanted to make, “History of these lands? Anything you can tell us about the people who live here? Maybe stories about this road, or the inn that seems immune to the forest?”

The other woman was quiet for a long time, but she made a little humming noise that suggested deep thought rather than silence.

Talya waited it out while the horses tiredly slogged along, hopefully getting them ever closer to the edge of the forest and safety. She had to draw on her lessons in patience to wait quietly, and found it harder than it should be. She didn’t dare sink in a meditative trance. Not with the forest trying to get into her head. Losing track of her self and her sense of place and time would all but guarantee that the forest would succeed. But that was only the easiest way for her to wait, not the only, and those other methods were hard to execute right now.

The urge to do something, anything, grew and Talya stubbornly resisted.

As the pressure mounted she eventually ground out between clenched teeth — it galled her that much to have to admit a weakness to Brandt “I think the forest is trying to influence me.”

Keri’s stories about the forest would have to wait.

She wasn’t happy with the implications of why the forest attacked her first, instead of the other two who should have been easier targets without the mental conditioning she had. Still, should the forest change its target, it was better if they had some warning of what was happening. She didn’t doubt that the forest would succeed with either of them when it realised that she was too strong to be turned to do something she didn’t want.

None of the two responded, something that caused a fresh surge of irritation in Talya. Melissa was still a silent ghost trailing them, which did not help her mood either. Which was a bit unfair as the tall woman hadn’t done anything to annoy her, but Talya didn’t feel the need to be reasonable. She was tired, hungry and hurt. And she was forced not to deal with the cause of their problems.

Twice Talya began to remind Keri of her question, but she stopped herself before she had done more than open her mouth and draw a deep breath. Even feeling unreasonable she understood that pressuring the woman would not get her to answer more quickly, or more accurately.

Screaming appeared to be more attractive with every passing minute.

From behind her Melissa spoke out, “Out of forest now.”

She had to speak more loudly than the near whisper that had been sufficient to overcome the dead silence of the past several hours. Looking around Talya noticed that for the first time since they had left the inn, she could hear birds. The trees where rustling in a gentle breeze and the sunlight could be filtering through the trees.

Talya was certain the forest had been dark and silent until the moment Melissa spoke.

Brandt voiced the confusion they no doubt all felt “What in the name of light happened?”

Melissa didn’t bother to explain. Talya was barely willing to agree that the answer was obvious. For a measure of obvious that she could only call magic and didn’t entirely understand. And certainly wasn’t going to admit to.

“That cursed forest was still affecting you,” she said, her voice a little too sharp. “Until Melissa reminded you that the forest had no hold on you anymore now we’re out of its boundaries.”

Her sense of victory for scoring one over Brandt was diminished by his mostly ignoring her barb.

Instead he simply continued with his annoying tendency of assuming he knew best and could order everybody around him to jump on his say so. “Next convenient place we set up camp. We all need to rest.”

“We need to put more distance between us and that forest,” she said. “If it could affect some of us here, it may do so again if we stop now.”

“If we fall over from exhaustion it might get at us too. We stop at the first spot.”

Talya recognised the note of exhausted finality in his reply but couldn’t stop herself from pushing “Why do you think you get to decide for all of us?”

“Because I know best,” Brandt ground out.

Talya drew a breath to deliver a scathing reply but Keri was first to answer. “Talya, please. We’re all exhausted. The horses need a rest badly or they’ll flounder. And Melissa is barely keeping up with us.” She hesitated a moment before plunging on, “And I really should take a look at your stitches now I can properly see them.”

With a deep sigh Talya admitted defeat. She knew deep down that pausing this close to the forest was a unneccesary danger, but while she could get annoyed with Brandt easily, Keri was a lot more difficult to stay upset with. It wasn’t that the woman didn’t have her own share of arrogance. She just didn’t flaunt it, and didn’t act like being good at one thing made her better than everybody else. Brandt irritated her because he just presumed he was better than everybody around him and never questioned his own failings. Which were, in her opinion, many.

She found herself steering towards the first clearing slightly off the side to the road without thinking about it. Before she could work up being properly angry about how she had given in again to Brandt, she noticed how the others all but collapsed on the ground. Even the horses seemed to deflate as soon as their riders slid off their backs. And, much as she hated to admit it she herself was not exactly in fighting condition either. Her legs felt a little wobbly and she had trouble hiding the slight trembling of her hands.

As Brandt and Keri all but collapsed, Talya took it on herself to hobble Keri’s horse — not Brandt’s because she wasn’t about the handle the legs of a battle trained horse. While she was doing so, Melissa stumbled into the clearing. Objectively Talya had to admit that the tall woman looked terrible and in urgent need of rest. She could feel her eyebrows rise involuntarily when Melissa unceremoniously stripped out of her clothes and kneeled at the edge of the clearing, where the light of the lowering sun would disappear last behind the trees.

Keri muttered a ‘what’ and Brandt grunted something wordless. Everybody however refrained from commenting. Whether that was because they were too tired to work up a moral outrage or because she was too strange to be overly surprised by anything she did, Talya decided she did not care enough either. She found herself a tree to rest against and briefly closed her eyes.

She opened them moments later when she became aware of a voice whispering at the edge of her hearing. If there were words she couldn’t make them out, but Talya didn’t have the impression that there was any language in the sounds. Or if there was it wasn’t anything that made sense to a human mind. As soon as she opened her eyes the sound faded away, along with most of the memory of having heard it, leaving behind only a sense of unease and urgency of having forgotten something important.

More time had passed than she had thought, but they weren’t in danger of losing all sunlight yet. The sun was considerably lower but still a candle mark away dropping below the tree tops. That she had lost time however did worry her. It meant that the darkness at the heart of the forest could still reach out to them and cloud their perceptions.

Keri and Brandt were deep asleep, both reclining against the trees.

Melissa was … interesting. The woman appeared faintly translucent to Talya’s eyes, still kneeling between the loose undergrowth at the edge of the clearing. Looking more closely it seemed as if the leaves were clipping through her, though that obviously had to be a trick of the light. The yellow-haired barbarian also had her eyes open and, as Talya was studying her, awareness slowly crept back into them. Equally slowly she turned her head to look Talya straight in the eyes and, slow as a glacier, she nodded. The effect was regal, but that was accidental. The tall woman did not understand the meaning of the word dignity.

Talya wondered what the other woman meant. What was going on with her really. In one long moment she had gone from odd to mysterious. And as a consequence to being dangerous as well.

She tore her attention away from the other woman — who was still staring at her with wide and bright unnaturally green eyes — towards Brandt and Keri. She had a lingering certainty that they were all under attack by the forest again, even though they had crossed its borders.

Waking up Brandt seemed the logical thing to do, but that would only mean he would show his typical arrogance and Talya decided that she couldn’t stand it. No doubt would she have to bear it before too much longer, but right now she wanted some distance between them just to find her equilibrium again.

Turning back to Melissa she said “Wake them up.”

Something was sniffing on their back trail, that she was now convinced of, and of all four, no five, of them, she was the one best suited to find out who, or what, it was. After all, she had overcome the whispering that had enthralled the others, showing that she had broken the hold the darkness at the heart of the forest had over her throughout the night. Melissa was protected too, she was willing to concede that, but right now she was apparently almost paralysed. Talya thought the forest had a greater grip on the tall woman than she had previously thought, but, and that was a worrying thought in and of itself, she had enough divine protection to try to fight it off.

“I’m going to check our trail,” she explained to Melissa. “I expect that I was right all along and we will have to leave in a hurry.”

Without waiting for a reply that would not be coming any time soon, she slipped out of the clearing and into the forest, running parallel to the path. She wasn’t as at home in these lands as she was cities and buildings, but she could move more slowly and remain undetected by all but the most determined guards. Whatever was hunting her was perhaps determined — that it was still after them was testament to that — but not attentive. It had failed to kill both her and Brandt when it caught them unawares the first time. That did not strike her as a sign of her enemy possessing a great deal of attention to detail.

She could use that to her advantage.

A cautious walk back to the edge of the bad part of the forest, close enough to the trail that she could see it without being seen. It wouldn’t take half a candle mark and then she could show Brandt who was right all along.

Talya noticed the drop in temperature first, and because she was in full stalking mode she noticed it early. A quick glance over her shoulder showed that the sun was still above the tree tops and that it wasn’t the early onset of night chill.

‘well, what do we have here,’ she said to herself, indulging in a small amount of smugness. Her voice was barely above the sound of her breathing. She was stilling that too, now, as she crawled even more cautiously towards the edge of the black forest. She realised had recovered a small measure of her connection to the Lord of Night. The edge of the forest that was barely visible to the eye, was looming large and menacing in her awareness of magic that her medallion granted her.

And within the black wall that was cresting higher and higher like a monstrous wave, there was a blacker spot of … nothing … that was getting closer. Not physically, because Talya could see a figure standing still just inside the forest. Her bond with the Lord of Night was shrilling in alarm. Without conscious thought she found herself backing away, just as she now realised she had been pulled towards this place earlier. The figure was yet trapped in the forest, but it was pushing through the boundary that was keeping it in. And while it was moving slow, it had come from an immeasurable distance and was so close now to breaking free.

Fighting against every instinct Talya forced herself to crawl closer. She needed to get a close look at the figure that was trying to escape its prison. Something so inimical that even her bond to the Lord of Night was repulsed by it.

She had to get almost within touching distance to clearly see the figure. It was emanating a darkness. No, Talya thought it is sucking in everything. Even light.

She gasped when she finally got a close look. The figure did not notice her, even though she was standing within two meters of it and no longer trying to hide in the undergrowth. Whatever it was seeing it was not the same things Talya did.

The dark figure at the edge of the forest was a human, one she had seen riding away barely a day ago looking murderous at her. Brandt no doubt knew what his name had been. She had never been introduced.

On close inspection Talya realised that he had been a human, because while the shape might be human, there was nothing living in the thing standing there, straining against the edge of the forest.

Talya had heard of this kind of thing. Only myths told by the priests of the Lord of Night. Not exactly scripture nor approved liturgy, but at the same time not fatally disapproved of either. Not for the Pledged. The Mage-Priest was reviled in other lands, for worship of any of the Lords of the Outer Dark was seen as worse than blasphemy by the ignorant who could not understand that for Light to exist there also had to be Darkness, and that the Lords were an essential part of the world.

There was however one Lord who was not spoken of, who found no worship even among the most depraved of mages or the most fanatical of priests. A Lord who had no name and rarely was spoken of, and if so then only as banished.

And Talya was looking at one of its servants. Trying to break through the barriers that the Lords of the Outer Dark had created to banish him from the world they wanted to claim for their own.

“The Light take me!” she cursed and then turned and fled.