Brandt stepped away from Talya. There wasn’t any point right now to aim a sword at her. Whatever she had to say — and he threw a dirty look in her direction that promised they would have a long and unfriendly conversation afterwards — it had to wait. He found it hard to believe what he had seen, but the light had not been poor, nor the distance too great. Melissa’s arrow had hit the figure in the head, and then the arrow had just fallen apart. Everything that he had seen and learned told him that it was impossible to survive such a hit, and a hit it had been for the figure had staggered back under the force of the impact.

It could have been a hallucination, they had after all walked half a day believing it was still the middle of the night, but there didn’t seem a point to that under the circumstances.

Or perhaps. He turned to Melissa, “It made us see things before. Can it show this so it can come from another direction?”

She looked at him helplessly.

“Trade language, Brandt,” Keri reminded him.

Talya answered him, though, which earned her a sharp look from Keri, “I doubt it. We would notice it destroying the trees. Besides, it is coming straight for Mr. Trouble there sitting on the ground.”

Brandt grunted his acknowledgement. He didn’t know if he believed it, but armed with a long two-hander he wasn’t ideally armed to focus on more than one direction, so he had to take Talya’s claim on faith.

He began to warm up his arms and wrist by swinging his sword in a pattern his old sword master had called ‘the butterfly’, keeping the hilt in place and letting the tip do the work. It kept his arms from tiring out as quickly and was a decent enough defence and offence, though it was meant to be used in a line of swordsmen, all advancing or retreating slowly while chopping up pikes and shorter swords with their heavy blades.

“Stay behind me,” he commanded. He was the only one dressed for combat. Keri was wearing travel leathers that had seen better days. Melissa in some thin cloth. Keri at least had leather discs sewn in her clothes which would offer some minimal protection, though not against a sword. And Oboru was just sitting there, apparently not even aware that they were about to be attacked.

“Your sword won’t stop it,” Talya could not help herself from saying.

“You have fifteen meters to explain.” Brandt answered. He had the training to keep swinging his sword, but it took an effort to control the blade, so the words came out breathless and a bit chopped.

“I don’t know,” was her reply. “This was supposed to be a myth. As in … belonging to a previous age when the gods still walked the world.”

Keri cried out, almost making Brandt lose his rhythm. “You’re talking about the world below? That the old gods were trapped in when the younger gods led the living to sanctuary of a new world?”

When Talya didn’t answer, Keri added, “But nobody believes that tale. It’s just a fancy story from the deserts in the south and …” she paused “and the north.”

“Twelve meters, Talya,” Brandt warned.

Hurriedly Talya said, “There’s nothing about fighting them, or killing. It was more one of those ‘in a time before time’ tales about the servants of a nameless god, that was archived in the temple scrolls.”

The pale, now chalk-white, woman paused a moment to gather her thoughts. “When the servants of … the unnamed god walked creation their touch was death and the living fled from it. And the land withered under their thread as even the ability to bear live fled from their presence lest it was absorbed and cast into the nothing.”

After another brief pause she concluded, “There was some more that I can’t remember. About other gods and about dragons.”

“Dragons,” Brandt scoffed.”I see why you don’t trust that story.”

The dark figure reached the undergrowth, and Brandt could see why Talya had insisted they would know if it came at them from another direction. The figure brushed the plants and staggered back. Not recoiling from the touch, but as if the plants were solid as a brick wall that it had run headlong into. After several long moments it moved forward again, straining against the undergrowth.

If the figure had to exert a lot of effort breaching the thin shield of brushes barely chest high, the plants were faring far worse. Their leafs withered as if it had become the end of autumn, colouring brown and black and falling away to the ground. And as the plants withered the figure seemed to find purchase and renewed strength to push itself through.

“Time’s up,” Brandt said grimly, for the destruction of the plants was entirely silent and there was no need for shouting.

With the dark figure, and it did not seem to be lit by the lowering sun, almost on the clearing a flood of insects and ground dwelling animals spilled into the clearing, fleeing from the figure.

“Keri, saddle your horse. Try to get Oboru on your horse and if you see an opening make a run for it.”

“I’m not,” she began but Brandt cut her off. “If Talya is right then this … thing is following him. If you flee it may leave us alone, and it is not fast. You should be able to outrun it.”

“Brandt,” Talya cautioned him.

The last of the plants in the way of the dark figure had died away to rotting branches and there was nothing stopping it now, not even a barrier as flimsy as a couple of shrubs that even a child could have pushed its way through.

“It takes the form of the living, but everything about it is a lie. If it touches you it will try to destroy you, and fill the void with itself.”

Brandt stepped up to the figure before it could step on the clearing. Apparently forcing its way through the undergrowth had been unnaturally difficult for it, so he planned to drive it back and make it repeat that effort, again and again if necessary.

“Melissa, you go with Keri if she flees. Protect her.” he didn’t add that the tall woman was all but useless in this fight. Her arrows had already proven ineffective, and long knives weren’t exactly helpful against something that could rot away plants with its touch.

Suddenly letting the weight of his sword drag his arms forward, lengthening his reach, Brandt let the ‘butterfly’ cut twice into the figure. One shallow cut across the chest, a deeper one that severed the right arm at the elbow.

Pulling his sword back in, while still maintaining the butterfly pattern, Brandt took a half step back, increasing the distance between them again. His opponent still hadn’t produced a weapon and the advantage of reach therefore overwhelmingly was to Brandt.

Just as had happened when Melissa had hit him the figure staggered back. Black smoke curled up from the diagonal cut, but … nothing else. The cut hadn’t been intended as anything but a probing. Even a shallow wound should have bled, and lacking chain mail protection, it should have bled profusely. However, as the smoke faded away in the air, all that was left was a line, black like charcoal, across the figure.

Worse though was how the same black smoke curled around the arm his second swing had severed. Instead of falling to the ground, crippling the figure, the arm was held in place by billowing, grasping pillars of smoke emanating from both wounds. It took a little longer but only just enough that Brandt could see what was happening. By the time that smoke, too vanished, there was a second black line drawn across the figure, this one where the sword had passed through its arm.

Brandt cursed explosively.

Just to make certain he had seen what he had, Brandt made another deep cut, to the same effect. Wisps of smoke escaped from the cut and appeared to knit it back together.

The force of the blow staggered the figure, but Brandt did not dare risk a full body blow. That certainly would knock back the figure, but it would also get him in grabbing distance, and he had not forgotten what the figure had done to the plants that were in his way.

Stalemate for the moment. Brandt could keep the figure at a distance as long as he could keep his sword swinging. Unfortunately, strong as he was, that was not for terribly long. The heavy two-handed sword was meant to be used to break formations, not for prolonged duels. Even conserving his strength as he was, he would not be able to keep up this effort for more than ten minutes, fifteen tops. That might be enough if all that smoke would somehow drain the figure of its own strength, but so far it had taken four lethal wounds ad did not appear to be slowing down at all.

Another deep cut, this time to the neck, as the figure started to move forwards again. It staggered back a little, but less than it had gained. Brandt realised that there was another way this fight would end, even before he would run out of strength. He was driven back, half a step at a time if he did not time his counter attack perfectly, and the clearing was not that big. He would trip over Oboru before he was too tired to use his sword. And then whatever bad thing would happen that the dark figure had chased them for all night. Brandt couldn’t imagine it would be anything good.

“Keri! Get out of here!” he shouted.

Somewhere from behind and to his right he heard Keri pleading, “Please Snowflake, behave yourself. I am trying to get you out of here.”

From the sounds the horse was making he would have nothing of it. As Brandt kept trying to prevent the dark figure from advancing the horse make increasingly frantic and panicked sounds.

Brandt ground his teeth in frustration. The dark figure was like a snow drift. It was relentless in how it pressed forward. You could keep it at bay, but every opening you left it used to advance. It wasn’t even looking for an opening, it just pushed and pushed and pushed. Normally he would have ordered a retreat. In fact he had done so, but nobody was listening to him. Keri should have been long gone by now, but was arguing with her horse instead of loading Oboru on top of it and running for her life. It locked him into a rear guard action that he could not see a way out of.

“The dark curse it, Keri,” he shouted in frustration. “Drag Oboru out of here if you have to.”

Just that moment Talya choose to cut in front of him to deliver two quick stabs at the figure’s eyes.

Not that Brandt noticed because he had to sidestep to avoid cutting the woman in two. He cursed her ancestry loudly as he recovered his momentum. For once the dark figure didn’t take advantage of his lapse though. It’s entire head was wrapped in smoke as it undid he damage Talya had dealt.

Brand idly wished he had one of those big metal shields the army shock troops used, for this seemed the perfect moment to bash the figure back several meters. Then he mentally kicked himself and step into weapon range to deliver several lethal blows to the figure while it seemed immobilised by Talya’s suicidal gambit.

That almost proved fatal as the figure stepped into the third blow Brandt dealt it. It apparently had figured out that swords wouldn’t kill it. Brandt had to jump back to avoid its grasp, rolling back on his feet almost on top of Oboru. Who, he noticed with no small amount of irritation was still sitting on the ground and not on Keri’s horse.

He also could see Talya, darting in and out of reach of the figure, keeping it occupied with trying to catch her.

“What in the name of all that’s unholy were you thinking?” he shouted.

“You weren’t getting anywhere,” she shouted back, as she dove under the figure’s outstretched arms, coming up behind him and dragging her long knife across its throat.

It whipped around but it was slower by far than Talya.

Brandt could admire the skill the woman displayed — and ask himself what use she put them to — but he could see she had the same problem he had. Nothing she did could even slow the thing down, but sooner rather than later she would run out of strength and slow down. And if what she had told him was true, and the part about it being indestructible certainly was, it would take only one mistake to end the battle.

Brandt could see the figure was criss-crossed with black marks, most of them representing a lethal wound, that hadn’t yet killed it. He could also see that a wide swathe of ground, from where it had broken through the undergrowth to where it was now trying to catch Talya, had been destroyed. It was a totally inadequate term though for what had happened to it. Not only was the grass and soil covering it gone completely, but somehow what had been left had been drained of all colour, even its substance. It looked like Talya and the dark figure were churning up insubstantial sand.

He also noticed that the darkness shrouding the figure was substantially less thick. It now mostly resembled streaks of smoke swirling around it, revealing the human figure underneath by bits and pieces.

“We’re draining it,” He cried out.

Talya did not respond, but she had her hands full with trying to not get killed.

With the thing’s attention on the woman, Brandt closed the meters separating them and levelled a horizontal stroke that decapitated it.

As before smoke curled up from the wound, preventing the body from falling apart. But now he could see it flowing from the darkness swirling around the figure towards the grasping tiny fingers of smoke that closed the wound.

“Palo?” he stammered, having recognised the figure when the darkness obscuring the face drained down towards the neck. It was one of the mercenaries that had ridden to the east the day before. Not exactly one of his friends but, until the events the night before, not somebody he thought was his enemy. In any case it was one of his comrades, and they had kept each other safe through several vicious battles.

“Don’t you recognise me? It’s Brandt,” he pleaded. “We were in the company together.”

“Will you move your fat behind!” Talya screamed, just in time for Brandt to notice how much danger his inattention had put him in.

He barely managed to avoid the sweeping grasp that he had failed to notice while trying to speak to Palo.

“It’s not real. It’s not your friend.”

Brandt wanted to believe Talya, but couldn’t. Not entirely. He wanted it to be true that somewhere underneath all that darkness Palo could still be saved.

“Maybe we can drain all the darkness away,” he said stubbornly.

He thought he could see Talya roll her eyes, but she was moving so quickly that he couldn’t be certain. He probably should be grateful for that one less reason to be annoyed with her and her recalcitrant ways. He didn’t have time to dwell on it though, as taking turns to dart in and out of range they tried to keep the figure, no, Palo, occupied and wounded so that the darkness would be drained away and Palo could be restored.

Just when Brandt thought they might pull it off, Palo turned away from Talya and him and walked into the undergrowth. Ignoring all stabs and cuts it sets to destroy plants instead.

Brandt and Talya cursed explosively at the same time as they saw the criss-crossing black lines fade away quickly and then being absorbed in the same smoke that thickened to an armour of black nothingness. They saw all their progress of the past twenty or so minutes wiped out, along with a couple of shrubs.

It didn’t stop with recovering the ground it had lost though. It moved on to the nearest plant, which happened to be a tree and pressed its hands against it. Immediately the tree’s leaves began to darken and droop.

Brandt and Talya exchanged a glance and in that split second they agreed. They had a few seconds where the darkness that had stolen Palo’s body was occupied with absorbing the tree. It wasn’t a quick process with small shrubs or the grass and soil, and the tree was obviously putting up more of a resistance. But the tree was fading away both figuratively and literally, and all that darkness was beginning to go, not in the thickening shell, but in clouds swirling about it. Soon getting close enough to it to damage it was going to be impossible.

“Run!” they said to each other simultaneously.