Getting back was hard. The hold the forest asserted over her was even stronger than Melissa had expected. By the time she realised there was something wrong, something was interfering with her, she had been in so deep that she barely felt a connection any more. Melissa had her eyes open but all she could see was the Forest.
Only slowly did she notice a ghost of a figure coming into her existence. It was not that she herself was slow, just that she was sucked into a place that changed at a pace with the mountains, if even that. Time passed strangely for her.

It should have alarmed her — and on some level it did — because she wasn’t a Sister and had no idea how to get in or out the Primal Forest. But at the same time she felt at home like she never had before. If she was in danger, she couldn’t find it in herself to worry about it.

The slow intrusion of Talya in her retreat shifted her mental balance towards alarm and she found herself pulled away from the forest and towards the reality that the woman represented. There was a darkness in her that clashed with the Forest, and that made it easier for Melissa to find her self back. Easier was not fast though. Talya was barely a ghost to her after all, and one that she instinctively recoiled from.

“Wake them,” came the whisper.

Melissa thought it was Talya saying it, but she could not be certain it was not the Goddess talking to her.

It didn’t matter though, she thought. Waking up the others was a good idea. There was a blackness over the outer edge of the Forest, no, it was a tear through it. Somehow it was getting closer too. It was an attack of sorts, she had come to realise as she mentally wandered, lost, in the Forest.

Melissa had believed Keri’s explanation of what the forest was, and when she had crossed its invisible but real border she had felt its oppressive presence fall away. Exhaustion and hope had won over suspicion. Good thing she wasn’t in the Forestheart for she would never hear the end of it that she had made such a trainee’s mistake. She would have kicked herself over it if she had the attention to spare. But in that moment, or so it had seemed to her, of inattention Talya’s ghost had vanished again. She had left behind the connection to reality that Melissa could use to claw herself free from the Forest.

Finally she tore herself free, and the veil of the Primal Forest tore with a sound that Melissa felt in her soul. She also understood that it was the other way around as well at the same time. The veil of reality settled over the Forest again, hiding what had to remain invisible. It really made her head hurt to try to think all those conflicting things at the same time.

Shaking off the last remnants of her paralysis Melissa got to her feet. Testing her limbs she found them all responsive and not affected too much by the long period of time she had spent kneeling in meditation. She also tested her Goddess bond and found it not exactly restored, but present again. The time she had spent lost in meditation had done a lot to restore what had been drained by the darkness in the forest. She was by no means recovered, but she could at least run, maybe even be helpful should it come to a fight.

No, she decided. There was no should about it. Given what both Talya and she had faintly sensed approaching there was going to be a fight, and soon.

It was time to do what the voice had told her to do. She slipped into her clothes and headed over to Brandt, who was slumped against a tree, eyes half closed and deep asleep.

The first thing Melissa did was ascertaining that there was not some sort of connection between the man and the tree he was leaning against. He was solidly present though, almost depressingly so.

That made it safe to wake him but when she said sharply, “Wake! Attack comes!” He gave no indication of having heard. Nor did he respond to her touching his shoulder, first gently and then shaking him more firmly.

Muttering a curse under her breath Melissa paused to try and understand what was going on. Brandt was not meditating, that she was certain of, as he did not seem to understand the meaning and concept of the word. He was not connected to the Forest either. That, she felt, she would have sensed when she touched him. He wasn’t asleep either. Not that some people didn’t sleep more heavily than others, but Brandt did not strike her as somebody who would be this oblivious to what was going on around him. Sleep of course wasn’t exactly something Sisters and half-bloods like her dealt with much, though Melissa had done it on occasion, and she certainly had no contact with the rare human visitor to the Forestheart who was welcomed there with greetings instead of arrows. But she had heard the stories from those who had escorted them deep into the Heart. Humans slept, every night, and regardless what particular subspecies Brandt was, he did too. But he equally clearly had received rudimentary training and would not allow himself to be this vulnerable that anybody could simply walk up to him and cut his throat.

Melissa gingerly touched the tree the big man was resting again but her senses told her it was just an ordinary tree. A bit on the young side and struggling against the rocky ground and inadequate water for its roots. It was too small for her, in every sense, but it was a safe tree to touch, and safe to Touch as well.

Breathing a prayer that she was doing the right thing she grabbed Brandt firmly by the shoulders and tried to heave him up. He didn’t move much. Not because something was tying him down but because he was taller still than she, and perhaps almost twice as heavy with dense muscles. She simply didn’t have the leverage to move him.

Adding an impatient curse to her prayer she got behind him, the forest’s façade in this place neither a hindrance nor a danger, though it was a drain on her strength she felt she could ill afford to split her presence this much. Grunting with the effort of it she used the strength of her legs to push him up and away from the tree. It worked but she had of course no way to control him, overextended as she herself was. As soon as Melissa had Brandt mostly upright he kept moving in the direction she was pushing him and toppled over, crashing more or less face first into the ground. That was going to leave bruises. That also proved without a shadow of doubt that something was keeping him asleep, for even hitting the ground face first did not wake him up. Admitted, the ground was soil covered with grass, but it was not so soft that it didn’t hurt to hit it with your face.

Toppling him sideways Melissa quickly checked that the still sleeping Brandt had not broken or damaged anything. It was only cursory examination, but there didn’t seem anything amiss. No blood, no damage to the eyes or nose, and while the skin was reddening Melissa figured that was natural enough.

Leaving Brandt, who would not be woken, alone for the moment, she turned her attention to Keri. The man was in much the same condition as Brandt, though moving her away from the tree she was resting against was much easier. Keri was both smaller and lighter than Melissa, so pulling her up from her reclined position was still an effort but one she could manage. Being made to stand up did not wake up Keri either though.

Momentarily at a loss for what to try next Melissa let down Keri to the ground again. She could no stand around bearing what was still a considerable dead weight. In doing so she got a glance of Brandt that froze her for a moment. The human she had left on his side, more or less stretched out only a minute or two before had drawn up his knees halfway and was leaning back, still on his side on the ground. He had assumed, Melissa realised, the exact same pose he had held before she had pushed him against the tree. She could mentally draw a line for ground and tree trunk that exactly matched the actual ground and tree trunk he had reclined against. Next to her Keri was doing the same, slowly taking the position she had been sleeping in.

Not knowing what else to do Melissa kneeled and prayed to the Goddess. She rarely answered of course. All who lived in the Forestheart knew that She wanted Her children to do everything themselves and only when all other possibilities had been tried and failed would She on occasion lend Her aid. She did not frown on prayer for strength or guidance, but rarely felt the situation was so dire that it required Her interference.

Through her prayer Melissa felt drawn closer to Her. Warmth and the golden light of a perfect summer afternoon enveloped her. This was as close to having her prayers answered as a half-breed like her was ever going to get, an affirmation that she was finding favour in the Goddess’ eyes.

Opening her own eyes again, certain in the knowledge she was doing something right, Melissa found that the golden light she had felt in prayer continued to surround her quite literally. She was actually glowing. This was something new entirely. and the implications chilled her to the bones. Not only had her prayer been heard, it had been answered. Something that had not happened, as far as Melissa knew, in the memory of any of the living Sisters, or their predecessors. And certainly never, ever, to a half-breed.

Dire didn’t even begin to describe the situation if the Goddess felt compelled to turn on its head to his degree the natural of order of things.

The glow emanating from her skin did not wake up Keri, though Melissa did notice she was breathing a bit faster and there was the faintest movement of muscles under her skin, as if deep in dream she was struggling against something that kept her paralysed.

She did not check on Brandt, expecting no different reaction to the soft glow from him. Instead her attention was drawn to the fourth person in the clearing. The one whose presence had been all but driven from her mind, even though she had practically stepped over his prone body on her way from Brandt to Keri.
Here, finally, the golden light allowed her to see true. He was a man, clearly, though in body type somewhere between that of a human like Brandt and the woman back in the stone dwelling. Possibly they interbred, somehow. Shaking her head to clear it from such distractions, which her new found divine clarity revealed to be imposed on her from outside, she paid at last close attention to Oboru. The one whose arrival had started the disastrous events. No, it’s not that, Melissa thought. He only revealed. The forest was already awake when I arrived.

Oboru was also the human — Melissa decided to classify him with Brandt, because he appeared to share many of the qualities of that hive defender, despite his slender built — they had mostly ignored throughout the entire night. Unless Talya had drawn attention to him. Then Brandt and Talya had bickered for a bit only to forget about him again.

With her new, borrowed, sight, Melissa could see that while his body was fully present, the human in every other meaning of the word was only connected in the most tenuous of ways. There was something there still, but it was faint and pulsing slowly to almost non-existent only to spike briefly to its faint presence. Melissa intuitively understood that the human’s presence had been slowly eroded away all night, and that this was the cause of what Keri had complained about that she did not understand, but that kept him from responding to her attempts to treat his affliction.

She could also more clearly see now, that the wide, and widening gap, between body and what was almost entirely absent now, allowed something else to seep through. She could sense it as wisps of smoke emanating from him. Or not exactly from him, but she had no words to understand where it came from and how it intersected with the gap that was between Oboru’s body and … spirit, she supposed.

Still, she had held a light against the darkness before, when it had been seeking out Keri. It had exhausted her then since she wasn’t a sister. This time, she had help as one of the Sisters might.

Kneeling at Oboru’s side, at a respectable distance so that she could not accidentally touch him and she was confident that she could evade him should he try to touch her, she reached into that deep pocket of certainty that was her Bond with the Goddess.

She started to speak the words to focus her attention. It wasn’t a prayer nor was it magic as such. The closest Melissa had come to understand what she was doing, and this was only the second time she had used this outside of the scant few lessons she had received on using the Bond, was that it was a form of meditation. One that not sought strength, but that moved her self out of the way as much as possible, leaving her an empty slate for the Bond, and through it the Goddess Herself.

The soft glow from her skin flared and expanded from her like a sphere of bright light, taking with it her breath and almost all her strength.

Where the sphere passed the wisps of smoky shadows could not exist. They burned away in the harsh light but they pushed back, hard, almost halting the expansion of the sphere. Melissa pushed too, straining to pour even more of her strength She the light. Her vision began to darken at its edges and lack of breath made her chest constrict, but she kept at it until, a few seconds that felt like forever, later the resistance of the smoke broke and it all burned away. The light expanded to the edge of the clearing and beyond, fading away as it grew.

Oboru’s eyes opened and he said something in a language Melissa didn’t know, but that she understood to express gratitude.

She could see his face only in a small spot of vision that was left to her, a spot that seemed to recede as the black tunnel through which she was apparently peering grew. In moments he was gone entirely and there was only black. And then there wasn’t even that.

* * *

Melissa opened her eyes to Keri’s anxious face. “Thank Mercy! You’re alright!”

She tried to sit up, but almost instantly decided that it was a good idea to remain flat on the ground for a little longer.

The dark haired woman noticed of course and gently pushed her hand down on her breastbone. “Best rest a little longer. I’m not sure what happened but I was afraid you had caught whatever Oboru suffered from.”

She paused to gather her breath and her thoughts before plunging on with her explanation, “He’s awake too but … we can’t talk to him. Brandt is anxious and about to try and use that big sword of his on him. Oh, Talya is missing too.”

Melissa waited till the pretty glowing dots in her vision disappeared again before answering, “Think, I Talya …”

She realised she had gotten trapped in the convoluted language these men used and broke off to try again. “Uncertain am I. Talya attack fears. Looking for attack she is.”

Keri’s eyes rounded, “Did she return to the Black Forest? Is she insane?”

“Possible,” Melissa agreed, who wasn’t entirely certain that her understanding of the word insane was the same as Keri intended. “Correct is she too. Wake you could not I.” She hesitated long about what to tell next and how to phrase it, mentally cursing that she had to communicate in a language this primitive and unfamiliar, that she was barely competent in. What she had to tell to Keri to explain what happened was something she did not want to reveal, at least not in full. She was smart and inquisitive, and she knew enough to piece together the small bits of information being revealed into rather more than Melissa felt it was prudent for an outsider to know about the Forestheart.

Seeing no way out of it, and the language making it impossible to be subtle about it, Melissa continued, “Magic broke I. Wake up you then. Tired was I then. am”.

“Are you saying you broke some magic?”

“Dark here was. Where light is dark not is.”

“I see,” Keri hesitated “You did what you did in the forest to protect me? with the praying and everything?”

Melissa had to think about what the man had said, to work around the unknown and unfamiliar words, but decided that it was safe to agree.

“Yes. More of it.”

“Oh … and you say it also woke up Oboru?”

Before Melissa could answer Talya came running back into the clearing. Melissa had heard her running for a bit already but with Keri still pushing her down and too dizzy to try and fight her over it did not see a point in drawing attention to that fact. The pale man was running, so there was some danger, and she would arrive soon enough to explain what that danger would be.

“We’re in trouble!” she cried out as she broke through the thin screen of plants that separated the clearing from the actual road. “We’ve got to run.”

Brandt whipped his big sword around and pointed the tip of it at Talya, who was digging in the small pile of belongings for her pack.

“Explain,” he said tersely.

“Didn’t you hear me?” Talya bit back, “By the Dark that binds, we don’t have time for this.”

“Explain quickly,” Brandt said menacingly, stepping closer.

“Is the end of the world quick enough for you?”

Keri gasped. Brandt scoffed “No point running from that.”

Talya slowly turned around, her backpack half in place and drew her dagger. “Something’s coming for us that looks human but isn’t. It kills what it touches. It destroys what it stands on. It can’t be killed. It unmakes.”

“Everything can be killed,” Brandt replied coldly, settling his sword more easily in his hands.

“Only if it lives,” Talya retorted. Now, are you done and can we start with the running away? Before it, oh, finds us here standing around like a bunch of village idiots?”

While the two argued Melissa, too, had gotten to her feet with some difficulty and no small amount of nausea. Her bow was lying on the ground nearby, where she must have dropped it as she lost consciousness. With a sigh of relief she retrieved it. As always just touching it made her feel better.

She could see the reason why Keri had said she couldn’t speak to Oboru. He had not moved from the place she had last seen him, but he was sitting cross legged on the ground, back rigidly straight and with eyes closed and hands on his knees. He was also surrounded by a tight translucent shell, almost like an egg that he only just fit in, that was almost but not completely translucent, with a faint bluish sheen that wavered like air above sand on a particularly hot summer noon.

Pulling a single long arrow from her low slung side quiver, she nocked and sighted it. Pulling the bow took a lot of strength but once drawn she could keep it at a ready for a long time if need be without arms or fingers wearing out. She had no idea what had Talya so terrified, but she could clearly sense it as a hole in the forest. With her sense of the forest restored Melissa could trace it back as a tear in the forest, not unlike the one she had felt in the Black Forest, though less deep and not as absolute. It wasn’t moving fast, but it was close now. And it left a trail of deep damage to the fabric of the forest in its wake.

A black shadow that coincided with the place where she felt nothing was visible through the undergrowth and distant edge of the road.

Melissa’s bow barely twanged as she loosed her arrow. One moment the arrow was on her bow, the next it was halfway the hundred meters that separated her from her target. Before the target even was hit she had drawn and nocked another arrow.

“Late are we,” she said simply. “Run can not we.”

Both Brandt and Talya whipped around to face her, then again to try to see what she had shot at.

The dark figure cleared the undergrowth and stepped on the road.

“You missed,” Brandt said.

“Did not,” Melissa calmly informed him. At such a short range and against a slow target, there wasn’t much of any chance that she would miss. She’d aimed for the centre of the body, and there should be an arrow half buried in a twitching corpse. Instead there was no arrow and the dark figure was still walking — no, it was moving too unsteadily to be called walking — was shambling towards them.

Mostly to shut up Brandt Melissa sighted again. This time she aimed for the head. She did not normally like head shots. While they were certain kills if they hit, it was hard to get an arrow to pierce the skull. More would simply be deflected, leaving no worse than a deep and painful gash. The figure made more speed though than its graceless gait suggested and was now less than fifty meters away. Close enough for her to be almost certain of hitting the eye.

This time everybody could see the arrow strike true. The dark figure staggered as the arrow hit, the point of it sticking out the back of the head and the fletching a good lower arm length sticking out the front. Then the arrow fell apart and disintegrated into flakes of what might be ashes. It was gone before anything could hit the ground.

“Maybe we should listen to Talya,” Keri said in a squeaky, fear laced tone of voice.

“Too late for that,” Brandt and Talya said in unison.

Melissa had her third arrow nocked but didn’t loose it. There didn’t seem to be a point against anything that could shrug off a direct hit through the head.

“Plan have you, yes?” she asked Brandt.