Oboru

Everybody whipped around to stare at the easterner. He had his eyes open, seemed to be actually seeing them and, most importantly, he was no longer surrounded by the barely visible heat shimmer.

Actually, Oboru reconsidered, that probably wasn’t the most important thing right now. Finally being anchored enough to stay in this body was the most important thing that had happened. By far.

Oboru tried to feign calm, a nice non-threatening calm, while attempting not to check out the other people gathered around him too obviously. The other four, one man and three women, were not so successful at concealing their curiosity and unease. One pale women gave it a decent try though.

There was a difference between them though. While he had only seen, and ‘seen’ was an almost unforgivably inaccurate phrase for how he had perceived them, these four in brief confusing flashes of consciousness when he managed to find himself back in the chaotic storm for mere fractions of a heartbeat, they had carried him around for what must have been hours at least, possibly days.

It was dangerous for a mage to admit gratitude out loud, and infinitely more dangerous for him in his current position. He said it anyway, for he felt compelled by something larger and more important than politics of the empire and the mage clans.

“Thank you,” he said in formal trade language. “You protected me at great danger to yourselves. I owe you a debt that I may never be able to fully repay.”

He even made a formal bow, to the bemusement of the others.

The other man, a big hulking brute of a western barbarian, looked as if he was about to demand answers, but Oboru could sense the lesser darkness dogging their footsteps. It was far enough that it couldn’t cost him his equilibrium, and they had travelled far enough from the greater darkness in the forest that it no longer threatened to pull him in. As long as he concentrated. He didn’t know how his shielding would hold under a close proximity of the darkness, and was even less inclined to stay around to find out what would happen should they touch.

“I am sorry,” he interrupted “I understand the need for introductions and,” he paused momentarily to carefully select his words, “explanations as I may, of the how and why of my presence.” Another pause, “We are being pursued by something, a … darkness, and I think we should keep as much distance as we can.”

He sighed, and it pained him on some level to be forced to admit it, although his training had long ago shown him the futility to rail against the inevitable or to deny the truth.

“I am only barely … anchored again in this here and now. There is not a much that I will be able to do to aid without risking a greater darkness. Other than flee from this danger.”

The big man grunted an affirmative, taking command not so much by force of personality, though he had that as well, but by the automatic assumption there could not be another leader than him.

“Fair enough,” he said. “Name’s Brandt. There’s time for introduction of the others later. Keri?” He looked at one of the three women, the one who had been studying with the most open curiosity, “You’re the most exhausted of us. Take Oboru’s place on the travois and try to rest.”

Oboru did not recognise the man’s accent. It was recognisable the trade language, but apparently from much further west than the Empire had contact with that he was aware of. Of course he wasn’t a court mage, so his knowledge of the trades and envoys was not as expensive as it could have been. He had spent some of his time as apprentice to master Kotu at court and he thought he would have recognised an envoy speaking with this particular accent.

That could only mean he was beyond the edges of the maps of the empire where accuracy petered off and gave way to ‘we do not really care about the barbarians living here’. It had never occurred to Oboru that this might be unwarranted complacency, but the Empire was set in its ways, and for over a thousand years it had never had any reason to question its unassailable position as the supreme power of the entire world.

The tall brown haired woman eased herself on the carrying device as soon as he had got to his feet. Apparently that was Keri, and watching her as she came close enough to him to get a good look despite the quickly falling gloom, he could see that she was exhausted, physically and mentally.

Oboru could sympathise with that. He might have been carried around for a day or more, but he’d barely been holding together, metaphysically running from danger to a safe spot that he never managed to reach. He was drained too, his reservoirs of magic painfully empty and hollow. He could manage to walk though. His forced physical rest had achieved that much.

Brandt said, “Talya, scout ahead. We can’t afford misdirection. Melissa, you bring up the rearguard as you seem least affected by this thing.”

Keri spoke up tiredly as she wiggled around a bit on the travois, “Talya doesn’t know the road. She wouldn’t know if a split should be there or not.”

Brandt hummed as he mulled that over, “Good point. Talya, the road should be not split for quite a distance, but it should take a corner every couple hundred paces at most. If you’re uncertain wait for us to catch up or come back.”

Oboru watched the two women take up the positions they were ordered to. They both had unnaturally coloured hair, one pale as a corpse, the other a light colour he couldn’t quite make out in the dark. Where the palest woman had normal length, the other was tall as a giant. Sometimes, rarely, barbarians from distant vassal lands were allowed to send envoys into the Imperial Court. Usually after the Emperor’s armies had crushed a rebellion and the new leaders came grovelling at the lowest floor before the throne. Yet even the tallest of these barbarians — and they frequently felt their greater stature was evidence of their superiority over the people of the Empire despite all evidence to the contrary — would have been towered over by this woman.

The horses wearily followed the pale woman, Keri, as she took the lead. Even the animals seemed to feel the urge to flee before the encroaching darkness at their backs.

The first part of their flight — if moving at the moderate pace that the exhausted horses could manage could be called fleeing — passed in grim silence. After a while the brown haired woman and the big barbarian male began to speak softly in a language Oboru didn’t understand. Presumably the tongue of this land. Idly and without paying much attention to it he memorised the words. It had been drilled into him that no knowledge was ever wasted, and if he didn’t understand the words yet, the more he heard the sooner that would change.

By the time true night had fallen they caught up with Talya who stood waiting for them impatiently.

“Felt something crawling around my mind. And I began to see paths that weren’t there,” she explained tersely, as if angry with herself. “Good thing you caught up. I was about to come looking if the thing had eaten you after all.”

Oboru couldn’t tell if she was making a joke or not. He guessed she was serious.

“What’s this … thing?” he asked tentatively. He could feel a presence pulling faintly at him, and he associated it with the nothingness from his hallucinations. He didn’t know if that was the same thing the others were talking about, and evidently fleeing from.

Brandt sighed, “We don’t really know. Some ideas, but it’s all from things we don’t understand.” Oboru could tell from the way that last word was spoken that it galled the big barbarian to have to admit ignorance.

He continued, “And much of what we think we know comes from ancient children’s stories and magictales.”

The word magic was spoken with a large dose of disgust and disbelief. Or perhaps not disbelief. It was hard to be certain, with the accented speech, the simplified language and the darkness hiding all facial expression but the broadest strokes. Oboru did feel that Brandt not so much disbelieved magic existed as well as subconsciously wished he could still do so.

Oboru simply waited him out, certain that the silence would be too much to bear as they wearily put more distance between themselves and the danger that stalked them.

It didn’t take too long, but it was Keri who picked up the tale.

“It started when you arrived,” she said, eyes closed as far as Oboru could tell and ignoring Brandt’s scoffing noise “Actually, it started before you arrived according to Melissa and Talya and, I guess, according to the tales, but your arrival tore up the forest path and,” she hesitated for a long moment, “my guess is that something escaped that is trapped in that forest.”

“Escape not,” the freakishly tall woman said in almost impenetrable accent and mangled syntax. “Escape trying.”

Oboru nodded to himself. The last comment made sense to him, and more importantly, it fit with his hallucinations which he knew hadn’t really been hallucinations but rather a fragmented reality that he had been jumping between, precisely to escape the infinite nothing he had sensed grasping for him. He kept quiet though as he first wanted all the information these people could give him before he might pollute their narrative with his poorly informed notions.

“We had … trouble leaving the forest,” the prone woman said quietly, her voice thick with unease. “We were seeing things that weren’t real, so we wouldn’t defend against what was. Real, I mean.”

She sighed audibly “When we finally got out it was around noon already, even though moments before we would all have sworn it was just before dawn. And we were tired. Very very tired. So when we found a clearing we thought ourselves safe and rested.”

She paused again, not happy with this part of the story in the way Brandt had been unhappy with admitting ignorance and magic.

“You woke up briefly but then fell in a trance and … some kind of invisible fire surrounded you. And we were tricked again. If it hadn’t been for Talya we would have all slept until … it … caught up with us.”

She showed extreme reluctance to even mention what was stalking them by such a general moniker as it.

“Palo,” Brandt broke into her narrative. “Or what was left of him. He was a colleague of mine until we had a disagreement and parted ways, the morning before you arrived here. He wasn’t like the thing that attacked us in the night, that was broken bits of a tree. Palo was wrapped in darkness, was darkness. But when we fought it arrows turned to ash, sword stroke went right through him and, for a moment I could almost see the face of Palo.” Brandt’s explanation petered off into silence.

Talya for the first time said something, in a language that Oboru recognised as one of the oldest still being recorded. Rumoured to date back to the earliest of religions, at the dawn of time and the creation of the world. That claim was certainly nothing but myth and grandstanding of a long dead culture, but it was a language that was ancient and preserved unchanged from long before the Empire was founded, and that had been thousands of years ago.

Oboru couldn’t claim to speak the language, not even understand it with any reasonable degree of competence. Only a handful of fragments of it had survived to this age, and those were preserved mostly because they were old, and hinted at the origin of magic. Somehow he understood the words Talya was speaking as if the speaking created the meaning in his head, from the embers of understanding he had gained in his half-hearted study of a useless dead language.

“It was a servant of the Unspoken, banished to the nothing that was all that remained after it unmade the first world. And only a handful of the first-born could escape to the sapling of the next world”

“What?” Keri and Brandt said in unison.

“Nothing,” she shrugged off the question. “Just half remembered inscriptions.”

Oboru didn’t believe a word of the deflection, but Talya wanted to keep her knowledge of prehistoric languages and religions secret for some reason, and he was inclined to let her. He also decided to keep secret the fact that he had understood her words. He didn’t know these people and their interactions. They had all the coordination of a group thrown together trying to flee a war. And kept secrets instead of trying to cooperate.

He grinned mirthlessly, grateful that the gloom hid his expression as well. Of course he was acting no better. Keeping his own secrets while trying to figure out who these people were. Where he was. And what they were fleeing from.

Gingerly Oboru reached inward with his senses to where his sense of magic should be. As before, the slightest probing of that place — though place was not the best word for it, it was more a state of mind — awakened screaming pain that reverberated through his head. His internal injuries had not started to heal any more than the countless minute abrasions and burns had. He was no longer freely bleeding tiny drops of blood, but with every move some of the cuts opened again painfully for a while.

The slow, almost non-existed, healing probably was linked to the thing, the force, that was following them. It might well be the reason why it could follow them anywhere, Oboru mused. Then he shoved the thought aside. It didn’t matter right now. Until he could grasp his internal magic there was nothing he could do about magical contamination and retarded healing. Putting distance between him and the thing weakened its hold on her, and it figured that getting closer again would reverse that.

Dragging his attention back to the subject before he had allowed himself to be distracted by Talya’s muttered words. “There’s a … human, caught in the darkness?” he asked to verify.

Melissa and Talya both shook their heads emphatically, the tall woman spoke first though. “Not living was.”

“A … construct?”

Brandt and Keri looked non-comprehending, Talya did know the magical terminology. “Not a construct,” she said. “Not a possession either. I have no idea what it was but Brandt cut off head and limbs with that big sword of his. I cut its throat and Melissa there shot it through the eye, twice.” She winced, “the arrows just turned to dust and the limbs did not even fall, they just reattached themselves. It was like cutting smoke.”

Oboru blinked in confusion. This was like nothing he had ever heard of. He would, if pressed, admit he did not know everything, but he knew that if something like that was possible it would have been used, and discussed in the tomes he had read, and not just the most esoteric ones either. In those tomes there was plenty of presumed eyewitness accounts of ancient battles and feats of magic too fantastic to believe.

He considered it being a summons, but those were either quite physical, to affect the world, or little more than hallucinations that were a little more believable than usual. He figured that his name would end up attached to an unbelievable story in a tome. If he survived. Which he could not see any way of happening.

“We need to keep moving,” he finally said. “I think we needed the rest, but while we are standing the thing is catching up to us.” Oboru did not like to use such an imprecise term, but short of making something up on the spot — and he was tempted to do just that except for the cautionary tales about totally inappropriate names getting stuck to the ridicule of the hasty name giver — it was all he had.

Brandt grunted a non-committal, and unhappy, affirmative.

“Feeling better Keri?” the big barbarian asked the woman who was still resting on the travois behind the horse.

She nodded, or seemed to in the darkness, and answered, “I could walk again if somebody else needs the rest?”

The tone of her voice suggested that she hoped the others would not take her up on that offer. Brandt seemed to consider it anyway while the group started to move again, keeping much closer together after Talya’s warning that some … thing had been trying to crawl into her mind.

“Rest a little longer,” the big man finally said. “I’ll keep an eye out for the horses.”

After that there was little talk, and most of it was whispers that excluded Oboru. That suited him just fine as he had to struggle to keep moving and not let out how much pain he was in. He also needed the time to think. About what he had experienced while the others had thought he was unconscious. About the darkness that he could still feel pulling, weakly at his being. Not his mind, for it went deeper than that. He figured others might think it pulling at his soul, but his faith did not have place for something as improbable as that, and thousands of years of magical knowledge that he had access to had never found any evidence of something like that existing. And there were many schools that combined magic and religion that had been looking very hard indeed. Some of the studies that had been conducted came with dire warnings, magically locked tomes and were some of the more important reasons why the Yulan school existed.

Oboru considered that the thing that was chasing them had a lot in common with some of the remote secluded valleys that the Imperial Guard and the Yulan mages worked very hard to keep locked away. There was a certain similarity he decided, even if the match was not perfect. Far from perfect really, but it was a starting point to begin to understand the danger that was stalking him, and the others by association.

At some point during the night Keri got up and stumbled along with them. ‘To help her horse’ she explained, and would not hear anything from Brandt when he tried to order her back on the travois. Talya, the pale woman, helped her dismantle the simple construction with an amount of glee that Oboru thought was inappropriate. Grumbling Brandt eventually relented and lashed the long branches and partially burned blanket to the side of the war horse that suited his size.

By the morning’s first light they were all stumbling, about to fall over.

With a voice inflictionless with exhaustion Brandt asked, “How far ahead are we?”

Oboru had no idea how to answer the question. They had gotten farther ahead, as the even weaker pull indicated, but how far that was, or how long they had, he could not tell.

Talya shrugged and replied “No idea really. My hair is not trying to stand and my back is not feeling like I’m about to be stabbed in it, so that’s good I guess.”

Melissa frowned in concentration and wordlessly put her hand on the bark of a tree. Then, to everybody’s considerable surprise, her hand sank into the tree as if it was nothing but a mirage.

Emotions played over her face, happiness, relief, concern, fear and finally pain.

With a cry she pulled her hand back and cradled it with her other. Oboru thought he could see faint wisps of smoke rise from the fingers and back of the injured hand.

“As falcon fly,” she began, then grimaced. “Time word not know.”

Well, that is inconvenient, Oboru thought, realising that he, too, had no idea how these barbarians measured time. Probably by nothing as sophisticated as a water clock.

Keri however came to the rescue, “Is it close?” was her first question, which clearly was the most critical one that Brandt or Oboru should have been asking.

The unnaturally tall yellow haired woman shook her head.

“Good,” Keri said. “Do you know how the traders divide the day in fifteen parts from sunrise to sunset?”

Melissa visibly parsed the, for her, complicated language. Then nodded.

“Good, now, is it more than such a period, or less than one?”

Melissa’s eyes narrowed as she did some careful mental calculations. This took some time.

“We’re going too slow to gain any more,” Oboru muttered to Brandt, not wanting to disrupt the tall woman’s concentration. He had no idea, at all, what the woman just had done, pushing her hand into a tree like that. He knew of several ways to achieve that effect, but the woman had done so without any preparation and not a twinge of magic setting off painful fireworks in his head. It was humbling to be confronted in one day with several magical impossibilities after his years of study and belief that he was a master.

“Less than period such,” Melissa finally said, her voice the definition of hesitation. “half of it. Then half of it.”

It was Keri’s turn to do some rapid mental calculations. She took less time for it though and after a quick clarification of “A falcon you say? A fast one?” she finally pronounced “Best guess is that it’s a two candle-mark walk behind us.” She made a helpless gesture, not saying out loud hat this estimate was based on a woman who touched a tree and based on that pronounced to know how far behind their pursuer was. And who didn’t know much about timekeeping either apparently.

“Take half a candle-mark off for safety when you plan,” was all she could say about her estimate.

Melissa shook her head “Distance as falcon flies. Darkness slow much by trees is. Double road is or slower walk.”

“We really need to teach you better western trade language,” Keri muttered under her breath before saying out loud, “You’re saying we have twice that time or more, depending on how it decides to follow us?”

Melissa nodded.

“Four candle marks,” Brandt mused.

“Three,” Keri cautioned. “And that is using some pretty big assumptions”.

Brandt nodded, his mind clearly not on the correction.

“Not enough time to truly rest, but,” he mused “maybe we can set a trap of sorts.”

Talya, not unreasonably, voiced the doubts that Oboru also silently bore. “Trap it how? We tried to hack it to pieces and it ignored us.”

“What else can we do?” Brandt asked, voice tinged with a little irritation. “We clearly can’t outrun it and if we try to put more distance between us we flounder the horses and knock ourselves out with exhaustion.”

Melissa spoke up softly, all but ignored by the argument that threatened to erupt between Talya and Brandt, “Kill not did. Push back do.” She paused then added as an afterthought spoken with real hatred “Destroy forest for recover.”

Oboru looked between Brandt and Talya whose tension between them was a hair from coming to blows. No doubt the exhaustion and days of stress overcoming the remnants of common sense. Then to Melissa who, with her contribution to the discussion made, seemed entirely uninterested in what happened around her.

Keri shrieked.

That made everybody stop and stare at her.

“Thank you,” she said in a more reasonable volume, though still sounding shrill. “Now if you would please stop falling for that thing’s tricks. Again.” The last word dripped with sarcasm.

If the others bridled at her tone of voice they hid it well. Which was probably a good thing under the circumstances.

Keri paused to glare at everybody, daring them to interrupt her. When nobody did, she nodded to herself in satisfaction. “Good,” she said. “Now Melissa here gave the solution to our problem, and you two bigheads were too busy shouting at each other to even notice.” She glanced at Oboru, trying to seize him up and see where he was standing in the group.

Oboru shrugged. He had heard what the freakishly tall woman had said, and managed to parse her mangled syntax for its meaning, but, he was chagrined to admit, he had not bothered to consider the woman’s words.

Everybody was now staring at Keri. A few mouths might even be hanging open a bit in surprise.

“We can affect this thing. And Melissa said that doing so depleted it somehow.”

She paused for dramatic effect, a flair of performance creeping into her speech, “And when it got drained so that Brandt here could recognise the man it possessed, it … absorbed plants and trees.”

Oboru blinked twice and felt his eyes widen as he understood where the brown haired woman was heading with her show. The others were less quick on the uptake and Keri, watching them expectantly huffed a sigh.

“We need to find a barren spot and then … bury it under rocks.” She explained.

Talya gasped a little, “It will destroy it and it won’t have anything alive to recover with.”

Brandt muttered something under his breath that Oboru could not quite catch but he thought was ‘I can not believe I am doing this’.

Oboru had no idea what exactly had the big man upset as his next, spoken out loud, words were innocuous enough.

“Melissa, can you find us a bit of rocky ground, preferably a cliffside?”

“What this cliffside is?” The counter question was not promising.

Keri sighed audibly and set to explaining the concept in simpler terms.

The two women huddled together and spoke too softly to overhear without putting too much effort in, which Oboru didn’t bother with. Instead he concentrated on the magical ambient. It made his eyes water with pain at even the lightest brush against the undefinable part of him that made him a mage. He was used to work around pain, though admittedly that was physical rather than mental or magical.

All that pain and self control about not showing any of it to the others was for nothing though. He could not feel any magic inside him or out. Just … nothing. He knew that he had burned himself out badly, of course, but the thought that it might be permanent almost had him hyperventilating.

Before he could quite panic Brandt’s shout shook him out of his contemplation. Apparently Melissa had done her not-quite-magic thing and they were moving again. Or rather, the others were moving and he was not.

Cursing under his breath he forced protesting muscles to move. Even this short break had made them tense up.

He was panting heavily by the time he caught up, and was slightly mollified noticing that the increased pacing had the others panting, and limping, as well. The horses were protesting against being forced to walk, and Keri looked worried about the uneven gait of her horse. Brandt had to lead his big horse by its halter, and everybody else kept well clear of the obviously cranky war horse.

Oboru was content to follow the big man as he set a clipped pace that the others, with the partial exception of Melissa, were struggling to keep up with. The tall woman was guiding Brandt, though, to whatever goal she had somehow sensed. He had missed the discussion and planning, if there had been any, and now nobody had breath to spare to explain things to him. He hadn’t breath to spare to ask either.

The sun was well up when Melissa suddenly lead them off the road and into the rapidly thinning forest. By that time Oboru felt he could hardly lift his feet any more and he would trip over a fallen branch. Given that they were now slogging across uneven forest ground this was rapidly getting more likely.

By noon it was no longer a matter of possibility. Keri had stumbled twice and had some nasty bruises and cut on her forehead to pay for it, and now leaned heavily on Talya to stay upright. Oboru stumbled several times as well but had managed, barely, to stay on his feet.

They had however at last reached the place they had aimed for. Oboru found himself at the foot of a rockslide. Above the actual slide a sheer rock face towered. He stared at it in awe, realising that if the thing chasing them was as the others had surmised and they could lure it here, they could utterly crush it.

That was a lot of ifs that he had no answer to, and no magic to find out or make come true.

“Oboru!” Brandt barked to get his attention. “Can you still tell where … it is?”

He nodded and closed his eyes, turning to where he felt the tug at him the strongest. When he almost took a step in that direction his eyes flew open and he shuddered. Either the thing was closer than he had estimated, or its pull was stronger than he cared to contemplate.

Brandt noticed where he was pointing and nodded to himself before turning to the brown haired woman with much less of a shout, “Keri, take the horses to the, uhm, west, well out of sight. Find them some grass and tether your horse there.”

Brandt eyed her speculatively and she bristled, “I’m not going to hide like a shirking flower.”

The big man sighed but nodded, “Of course not. Come back as quickly as you can though. We don’t have much time to get prepared.” He didn’t add that if she returned too late she just might end up at the foot of the landslide rock-slide along with the darkness. But then he did not really have to be that obvious

“Talya, you take Oboru up that cliff and find a way to drop as big a pile of rocks down as you can manage.” Dryly he added, “something the size of a house just might be big enough.”

Talya nodded grimly and gestured at Oboru to follow her.

Melissa asked “What I do?” as Oboru turned towards the slide and cliff face behind it that suddenly had become even more daunting knowing now that he would have to climb it.

Brandt sighed deeply and wearily, “You and I are going to move shrubs to encourage that thing to go where we want it to.”

Turning his attention to the climb before him Oboru tuned out everything else. He was too exhausted to under normal circumstances even consider to do something as dangerous as climbing a nearly vertical rock face. From her sagging shoulders, before she straightened herself, he could tell that Talya was feeling the same.

Feeling scared didn’t help though. They still had to do this and more if they were to have a chance surviving the nightmare they had found themselves in. He knew a small part of how he had gotten trapped, but little about what all of these inexplicable things meant. He wanted to know more about the stories of his companions, about how they had gotten involved, even entrapped, in this situation. But, that too would have to wait until after they survived.

The climb was every bit as gruelling as he had feared it would be. It also was way slower than he liked and by the time they paused, halfway up the cliff side, he could feel the thing had gotten much closer. Not desperately close yet, but certainly too close to try to make a break for it. If they still had the strength to even make the attempt.

The cliff was far from smooth, in fact it was beyond craggy and they had to test each handhold carefully before trusting their weight to it because most came loose the moment any pressure was applied to them. They had added a fair few rocks to the pile at the bottom, ranging from fist sized to well bigger than their heads.

Catching their breath on a narrow ledge, just big enough for both of them to squat on, Oboru asked Keri the question that had been weighing on him whenever he had breath and concentration to spare from climbing, “how are we going to do what the big man wants?”

The pale woman grinned, “I have some flash powder. I figure if we stuff it in a crag underneath that big outcropping over there, it just might come crashing down.”

She added after a moment pause, “otherwise, I guess we’ll have to resort to throwing down rocks.”

Oboru snorted a little at the ridiculousness of that image. “Let’s aim for dropping a giant rock on it. I don’t see the other option end up well for us.”

“No, I guess not,” she agreed.

“What can I do?” Oboru asked, echoing Melissa’s question earlier.

“Nothing,” Talya replied laconically. “If you still had magic you’d already used it by now. You don’t look like you can make your way to where I need to put my flash powder.” She hesitated, “though, if you have a way to create fire from a distance, that would be useful.”

Oboru had to admit his complete impotence, much as it galled him. “Sorry. nothing in the way of magic.”

Talya nodded absently, “There’s not much ambient magic around here anyway. It’s the strangest thing really.”

Before Oboru could respond to this casual, and probably not quite intentional, remark , the pale woman turned towards the slightly overhanging rock face she had to cross to reach the building size boulder that was partially jutting out.

Not going to make that climb, no,’ Oboru admitted to himself, and settled in to wait with a mixture of chagrin and relief. The one thing he could do was trying to keep track on how close the thing was to him and warn the others when it was coming too close in his estimate. Or guess, as he had no idea at all how to gauge the vague sense of something pulling at him into actual distances or travel times.

Slowly the pressure on him mounted as he sat there, resisting the urge to flee or to throw himself off the ledge to face the danger head on.

When the pressure became almost unbearable he opened his eyes and shouted, “Time to run. It’s almost here.” He didn’t add out loud ‘I think’.

Way below him three tiny faces looked up and saw him waving his arms. As one they dropped what they were doing and made a run, or rather a stumble, to the rockslide and the cliffside beyond. Oboru gestured them to the far side, figuring that if Talya had to release the boulder early they had a slightly better chance at avoiding being crushed if they kept to the western edge.

His three companions were frantically scrambling up the rockfall when his attention was drawn to the forest. A tree not far away began to lose its colour. Slowly at first, but picking up speed quickly. By the time almost all colour had been leached from it, the forest giant simultaneously toppled over and faded away.

“Hurry!” he shouted, but the others didn’t need further encouragement. They couldn’t see what was happening, nor did there seem to be any sound to the destruction of an entire tree in seconds. But they didn’t need to, if the feeling of dread and horror approaching was even half as strong for the three down below as it was for him.

Melissa and Brandt were helping Keri up the first handholds of the cliff face. Somewhere to his left Talya shouted, “Oboru, everybody, climb higher! Brandt, I’ll need a five seconds count before the debris must hit!”

A black figure stepped into the opening.

It was vaguely humanoid, and not particularly bigger than a human being. Black smoke, or something that looked like it, curled up in twisting columns that faded away some distance above it. There were also more solid tendrils snaking out from the figure, groping for things around it before, after a while, fading away again to be replaced by new tendrils. Where the tendrils touched plants they recoiled and faded away more quickly.

As if sensing his attention the figure stopped and looked up at him. Even from over a hundred meters away the gaze bored into Oboru and made him turn away in blind panic and scramble up the cliff side.

After that, everything got confused.

It lasted till Oboru thought he heard Brandt shout something and there was a sharp crack, immediately followed by a deafening thunder of sound that made the entire cliffside shake, and almost made him lose his grip.

While the crashing and rumbling went on and on there was a popping sensation and suddenly all the dread and mind numbing horror vanished.

Gulping in big gasps of breath Oboru clung to the cliff side until it stopped bucking and shaking. He was sick to his stomach and had an unpleasant metallic taste in his mouth and he was shaking so hard with the aftermath of the stress that he felt it was a wonder he hadn’t lost hold and fallen to his death.

“Keep climbing,” a woman’s voice shouted from below and, numbly, he did.

It wasn’t far to the top. In his panic he had made it most of the way up there. That also meant that, once he made it over the edge he had plenty time to ponder how out of the five of them he — the experienced battle mage with a dozen major operations and even more duels behind him — had panicked and fled like a raw recruit.

One by one the others made it to the top and he hauled them over the final edge.

Sagged to the ground, eyes closed and face drawn with exhaustion, Keri said “Thank Mercy, it’s over.”

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