Morning couldn’t come soon enough for Keri. She had spent one of her most miserable nights shivering in a hole in the ground created where a tree had been blown over. Brandt’s horse blanket had kept the rain out, or most of it anyway, but not the cold wet wind. They’d huddled together to find a small degree of warmth, and Keri’s as well as Talya’s blanket had helped there, though not nearly enough to be comfortable.

So they had mostly all slept fitfully, but towards the end of the night the wind had picked up and driven the rain off. Unfortunately it had also grown much colder as a result, and by now she was sitting, knees tucked under her chin, with chattering teeth. Too cold to sleep. She had only managed moments snatched here and there, and most of the time she had spent leaning back against Brandt — who had managed to sleep through all of it — with either her eyes closed or looking for signs of the sky lightening with the approach of dawn.

‘It was good,’ Keri mused, ‘that Melissa had taken one look at the tent they were expected and declared she did not need shelter.’ She felt guilty about her gratitude for the odd woman to make herself miserable, but there was not even enough room for the four of them, and throughout the night water had gathered at the lowest point of the hollow so they could not even use all of what little room there was. At least not without sitting the freezing water.

“Still,” Keri whispered, just to hear if she could still speak despite being chilled to the bone. “as little as it was, we are all better for the sleep we got.”

Oboru murmured from across the puddle that, Keri noticed, had a skin of ice forming over it, “That may be an exaggeration. I do not think I can feel my toes any more.”

“Fire would be nice,” Keri agreed. “Didn’t you claim to be a mage or something?”

Oboru sighed deeply and said with a little more force and volume, “I am a mage.” Then, reining in to a volume that was less to wake up the others. “I am also badly injured, and until I heal I cannot even hold on to my innate strength long enough to summon a spark of light.”

“Convenient,” Keri muttered, being reminded of the charlatans of Kingstown who had claimed to be mages and made the strangest of excuses why they were unable to do more than sleight of hand tricks. That was before the church had stamped out the practice of course. Most of that had happened before she was even born, but she had arrived at the bardic conservatory at the tail end of the conflict between bards and church, where the later had demanded the former to stop performing all songs that even hinted at magic. The bards hadn’t taken kindly to being ordered what to do, nor to being threatened with excommunication.

Not that most bards were particularly religious, or even adherent to the doctrine of the Benevolent Sunlords. Which in itself was too minor a faith for the king to overlook the trouble it was making. Keri didn’t know what exactly the king had done. It was all hush-hush and she privately thought the conservatory didn’t know either but didn’t want to admit to that. The king couldn’t just go out and openly censure a faith unless it was calling for its congregation to break the king’s laws, and there was nothing the king could to legally protect people who were pretending to be a fantasy figure. At least as long as the church didn’t openly call for violence.

Keri hadn’t studied the affair in any great detail, figuring that it was mostly over now that the church mostly had gotten its way without having to break the law themselves, using the fanatics as a convenient scapegoat for their purge. She also thought the whole thing had backfired as the charlatans now pretended to be faith healers rather than mages. It certainly hadn’t stopped any of them from bilking the clueless and the desperate of their money.

‘Except,’ Keri thought to herself, thinking back at the past two days, ‘it seems magic is not too much a fantasy after all.’ She frowned, ‘and I have to wonder, now, how much is real about the gods.’

She grimaced. “I’m sorry Oboru. I shouldn’t doubt you.”

He remained silent. Keri knew she hadn’t spoken so softly that he could possibly have not heard her. So the silence had to be deliberate.

“It’s just that until … yesterday? … I believed magic was just from children’s tales. And I still have a hard time believing that it is real.”

That drew a startled “You think magic isn’t real?” out of him.

“There are no mages around here,” Keri replied. “At least not real ones,” she amended.

It was too dark for her to see his expression but she didn’t need to know he looked like he’d been pole-axed. It was that type of stunned silence he was now projecting. And if saying he created silence was a weird expression, it nonetheless seemed applicable considering how pervasive the silence had become.

As the silence stretched on Keri closed her eyes and tried to calm down enough to fall asleep again, or at least get some more rest. If only she could get her shivering under control.

It must have worked somehow, too, because next she was startled back to awareness by Brandt moving behind her and she almost toppling over backwards.

“Gack!” she exclaimed.

“Good morning sleepy head,” Brandt said.

“You kept me awake all night with your snoring,” she retorted, though without heat.

“I don’t snore,” Brandt said, equally without heat.

“You do, sorry I say,” Melissa said out of nowhere, startling everybody.

Keri was certain the tall woman had not been in front of their little shelter a moment ago. And from the suddenly sharp stare of Talya next to her, so was she.

Turning around to get a better look, and to get out of the cramped and damp shelter, she got rewarded by cold water drenching her, and from the cries of dismay, the others as well.

Melissa, Keri noticed, was dry and looked better rested than anybody.

“How,” she began, then, thinking better of it, “Never mind. Next time we have to camp out you can all show us your dry spot.”

Melissa shook her head regretfully before opening her decidedly damp backpack and pull her clothes out of it. The clothes, too, were a lot drier than they had any right being.

‘And when did she take off her clothes last night?’ Keri pondered for a moment.

Her pondering of the mysteries of the tall blonde was interrupted by her saying “Do that I not can.”

Melissa eyed Oboru with undisguised suspicion, “He may can. But not should. Forest paths he broke.”

Oboru grimaced and actually bowed, “I know not what I broke. But, priestess, it was not voluntary by me. An enemy I thought vanquished trapped me in a portal and collapsed it around me. In the formless void there was this tiny spark of warmth and life that drew me. More irresistible than ever a moth was drawn to a flame”

That was more explanation than Oboru had been willing to give since he had been coherent enough to talk. Neither Keri nor Brandt really understood what he was talking about. Not the words of course, they were clear enough, but what they meant in the context of his story.

Melissa did, clearly, at least somewhat understand him.

As did, to Keri’s considerable surprise, Talya. More than that, the pale woman was stunned and slack-jawed by Oboru’s mysterious revelation.

“You were trapped in the outer dark?” she squeaked at the same time that Melissa exclaimed “Priestess not am. Sister not am. Half-blood border guard all am.”

“What,” Keri asked forcefully, “are these … forest paths? And do they have anything to do with … what happened? To us?” The last part was laced with more than a bit of angry suspicion.

Three of the others looked at her with surprise. Melissa looked away. Not quite guilty but close as far as Keri could interpret her facial expression.

No answer seemed forthcoming but Keri was prepared to wait out the silence. Her sudden burst of anger was keeping her warm unlike the tall blonde who still had to get dressed and was showing goosebumps all over her skin.

Keri pushed away curiosity about how Melissa had managed through the night and rain when a few minutes was already visibly chilling her. There was time to question her about that later. Right now she wanted to know what information she had kept from them.

Under the not quite foot-tapping glare of Keri, and the freezing wind, Melissa broke first.

“Explain I not can,” she said finally. Wilting further under Keri’s indignant huff she elaborated, “Priestesses is this know … knowing. I of know. Not how know. Only guard I am.”

Melissa looked back in the direction of what Keri assumed was the Black Forest.

“Forest whole is,” she finally said, after another long silence. “One place all place is.” This didn’t explain much to Keri, but from the slight widening of his eyes that he couldn’t quite keep under control, it did for Oboru.

“Dark place broken is … before arriving was?” Melissa continued. “Forest dark trees is but not whole is. Is place that no place is.”

“Every place is no place in there,” Oboru gasped. “It’s a prison!”

“Word prison not know,” Melissa complained.

Keri was startled into explaining, “it is a place where you lock up criminals.”

That clearly did not make things in any way clearer for the tall blond.

Keri grimaced, “It’s a place for evil people.” She decided to keep it in simple black and white morality since the barbarian woman didn’t seem to have that firm a grasp of legal systems. “They can not leave that place so they can not do more evil.”

It sounded a bit lame to her own eyes, and Melissa obviously had more than a little trouble understanding the why of it. She probably was of the line of thought that dead enemies did not do anything, evil or otherwise, ever again.

“That leaves the question, who, or rather, what, is imprisoned in a forest?” Brandt asked. He did not look at Melissa for answer though. His gaze was firmly fixed on Talya.

The pale woman was about as uncomfortable being put on the spot as Melissa had been moments earlier. She was better at dodging the pressure though.

“I know very little, and even less with any certainty,” she cautioned. “I will tell what I know. But,” She held up her hand, “we need to distance ourselves from the forest and that … and we need to find proper shelter and a healer. Half of us are wounded and if we try to spend another night in the open like this, the other half of us will fall ill too.”

There was a word, or words, unspoken in that brief pause that made Keri doubt Talya’s assertion that she was going to talk. Brandt nodded though and said, “True. If we travel due east we’ll cross the Mountain Road. There’s inns along that way and at the end of it we’ll reach Glivenr, where we should be heading anyway. The town will have some healers as well.”

Talya looked east and said, “That’s hard terrain to cross.”

“I’m not certain if we’re north or south of the Black Forest Trail. If we guess wrong we waste days and get trapped in even worse terrain,” Brandt replied, in a tone that brooked no further argument, to her implied criticism.

To underscore his take control attitude he pulled down the improvised tent and, after shaking it out vigorously, rolled it up and strapped it behind the saddle of his unhappy and grumpy horse. Everybody else kept well clear of the animal, and in particular out of reach of his huge ironclad hooves. Nobody, not even Brandt, was stupid enough to stand in front of the animal where he might take a big chunk out of anybody within easy reach.

He didn’t even wait for Melissa to scramble back into her clothes before setting out. East, as he had already issued the marching orders.

‘Feeling a bit the army commander again?’ Keri said to herself. She kept quiet though. Whatever had put Brandt in such a bad mood suddenly, she didn’t feel like poking at it to find out. Today’s march probably wasn’t going to be any fun. Unless they managed to strike ether the trail or the road early. With the way their luck had been running, she didn’t expect that to happen.

Though we did get very lucky with taking that darkness thing out, she thought. So maybe we should take the rest of the bad luck as payment for the big piece of luck we needed.

Luck didn’t work that way of course, she knew full well, but it was a more pleasant thought to start the day with than considering all the ways it could get event worse than it had been since her arrival at the Halfway Inn.

Walking next to Melissa, and a fair distance behind Brandt and his angry warhorse, she asked quietly, “What do you think happened when Oboru arrived?” She wasn’t ready to ask how he had arrived. Keri couldn’t delude herself any longer that magic didn’t exist, but the consequences of magic being more than a children’s fantasy were too frightening. She didn’t want to dwell on it. At least not yet. Maybe later when she had some quiet time away from it — in the safety of the conservatory — could she try to make some sense of it all and sort out her feelings.

“In the no place a place he made,” was Melissa’s simple reply.

Keri mulled that answer over in silence for quite some time. Melissa appeared to be content to follow in equal silence. The tall blonde woman was fully alert though, and every bit the border guard she claimed to be in her focussed attention on the forest around them. There was some additional tension to her that Keri hadn’t noticed before they set off to follow Brandt.

“You know Melissa,” she finally admitted, “I begin to understand why you said you can’t explain. All this talk about places and places that are not a place, and a place within the not a place … every time I think I begin to understand it only makes my head hurt worse.”

Melissa chuckled wearily, “Same for me, is.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you —” Keri hesitated, wondering if she was going to be too rude completing the question.

She was saved by having to decide immediately when Melissa admitted not understanding most words Melissa had used. Of course it was even more embarrassing to have to explain everything and there was no way she could get out asking the actual question.

“— when you arrived at the inn, that first night you did something…” Keri gestured vaguely at her face.

“I not fingered moved,” Melissa replied seriously. “Vow I made.”

“A vow?”

“To Goddess. Vow Her Will do.”

Keri took a while to process that.

“What will you do?” she asked of the tall blonde.

“I not know,” came the cheerful reply. “Understand I will, if happen.”

“You made a vow to do something without knowing what it is?” Keri asked incredulously

Melissa twitched her shoulders in what might be construed as a shrug.

“Need there is.” She cast a meaningful look over her shoulder. “Goddess brought me. Enough for me knowing.”

“Huh.” Keri rarely was at a loss for words, but Melissa had managed to achieve just that.

“It’s not over, is it?” Keri asked, finally

Melissa hesitated visibly, before nodding.

There didn’t seem to be much to say after that. Nothing at all, and way too much to say. She remembered vividly the terror of a night spent in utter darkness. Of being chased by something so utterly alien that she had no words for it, nothing even to start to relate to it. Only the effect it had on all of them. She’d her own nightmares and terrors but this somehow had felt different. The dreams that used to wake her up in the middle of the night at the edge of screaming in fear had been … hers, for lack of a better way to phrase it. The darkness had been nothing of the sort.

If I ever can put this into words I have a tale that will turn the hair white of brave men. She thought. It is a miracle that ours isn’t. White.

And she remembered that there were at least a dozen of those strange swirling smoke columns. They had stopped one of them. Sort of anyway. It wasn’t right now chasing them to exhaustion, but … it also wasn’t really stopped. Only trapped for a little while, if what Talya had told them was true.

“No, it really isn’t,” she admitted. “Over. I mean.”

Shortly after Brandt called out from ahead “We’ve reached the road. We’ll be sleeping in a real bed tonight.”

He waited till they had all caught up with him at the paved road, “I don’t know how far the inn is though, so we may have to walk into the night.”

Keri saw Melissa wince as she set foot on the road, but she hid it well from the others who had spent less time than she had with the strange woman. The tall blonde closed her eyes for a moment, a frown of concentration on her face.

“There’s a lot of dead wood and stones about an hour hard walking that direction.”

She pointed north, and without asking how she knew Brandt set out in that direction. He probably thought as Keri did, that the lowering dark clouds over the distant mountain ahead of them promised more rain, or even snow. If the inn was an hour away at what the Melissa thought was a quick walk, the rest of them would have to hurry indeed to make it in an hour and a half. And it didn’t look like it was going to stay dry that long.

“We shouldn’t make a habit of arriving at an inn in freezing rain.” Keri muttered.

And on cue the first drops of rain began to fall.