Wild Guides

Year 337 FW, Early Autumn, Inland

Tiger the Wanderer is a cartoon.

He lives in a simple square box, on one corner of the back side of our guild newsletter, Wild Shots. Every few weeks, in a single sketchy panel, our striped protagonist is drawn, perched, zen-like, on top of some totally ridiculous situation that he’s resolved in some highly improbable way. Every comic is captioned with a pithy bit of wisdom, and every time it’s labeled as the ‘First Rule of Adventuring.’

Today, Tiger calmly roasts his dinner on the end of a long pointed stick, over the burning back of a fire-sprite, who for their part joyfully eats the rest of Tiger’s adventure gear.

It’s not the funniest joke ever, and even the caption is an old standby they’ve used a few times before: “First Rule of Adventuring – no plan survives a brush with the wilds.”

Still, whoever draws this cartoon, they’re my hero.

They found a way to make a living as both a tiger and a wild guide.

I’ve been a tiger my whole life, a wild guide for a few years now, and I still haven’t gotten a good stride on it.

I was born the son of a silver miner, in a backwater nowhere of the inland frontier. As a kit, my options for a life seemed to be: follow my family into the cold dark mines, or run away to be a sun priest. But in my own improbable twist of fate, somehow I ended up graduating from a prestigious school for mages.

It was an out-of-body, this-can’t-be-real experience when a shiny new sigil was inked over an old scar on my inside left wrist. The blue figure-eight mark declares me a legitimate crafter, and advertises that I can manipulate elemental water with my will.

I have a few other tricks too, but moving water around is my best.

After that, what I should have done was become a trade-mage. I should have found some nice town in the heartlands and taken some dumb, but stable, government job. Aqueduct maintenance, maybe.

But being a large frontier cat stuck among mostly not-cats deep in settled lands, I felt too out of place to do any of that. Instead, I signed up with the Guild of Wild Guides and headed back inland as fast as I could get there.

I was certain I’d be a fantastic guide. I grew up halfway in the wilds, after all. Also, since only about one guide in twenty is a mage, my skills should be in pretty high demand.

The plan was simple: I would take quests and adventures for coin, all while growing my talents. Then some mythic quest would come along, I’d really make a name for myself, and retire early and rich, somewhere warmer than the windy mountain village of my childhood.

Two cold winters and a blustery summer later, those dreams seem so naive.

I’m presently sitting in a guild hall, in a town I don’t even know the name of, somewhere in southern Purna. I’m flat broke again and have no goals.

Shoving the newsletter across the tiny wooden table I’m sitting at, I glare around for anyone I might be mad at.

Every table in the common room is empty except mine. Even the guildmaster left his bar untended to busy himself in his office.

Red-tinted late-afternoon sunlight streams through the glass-glazed window in the opposite wall. Small lamps, unlit, decorate every table in preparation for the evening crowd, who will all come in soon. Sounds of the cook getting ready rattle from the open archway of the kitchen.

It smells like the stew tonight is mutton, not that I can afford any. Even my guild tab is just about maxed out.

Up the stairs in the corner is a hallway, and the first door down leads to the shared bunk room. My travel pack is dropped across one tiny cot therein. Ghost, my mount and most expensive part of my life, is outside in the stockyards, where the hall boy should be feeding him the bucket of vegetables I’d bought right before investing my very last coin in some catnip.

That catnip helped me have a single pleasant moment while I read the guild newsletter, or at least the important corner of it.

Staring forlornly at the now-empty palm-sized pipe in my hand, I muse once again that it’s not too late to go be a trade-mage. I would just have to find a city I could make myself live in, and collect enough coin to be there long enough to find a position.

Muttering under my breath at the futility of all things, I shove myself to my feet and stalk off towards the cork board in the corner, to find some dumb job.

The board shows me the same two bounties as last time I checked, both with the same marks indicating they shouldn’t be chased without a full team. All four of the other posted jobs are courier work.

I pick the card where the client has a fancy last name and tag it with my mark and today’s date. I bother the guildmaster long enough to get an address. Then, after using the little mirror by the door to smooth my whiskers, I head out to go get interviewed.

The guildmaster’s directions lead to a grand old house outside of town. When I find it, the place has its own private ward wall, meticulously maintained, and it’s surrounded by at least an acre of grass, healthy green despite the fading summer. I can’t even imagine how much water goes to keeping it all alive in these arid foothills. I should be working here on the garden, not running messages.

A butler greets me at the door and stares at me suspiciously for a long moment, then relents, and I’m led to sit across from an old human lady. A tea cup is set by my hand. Pungent, pee-colored liquid is poured in.

Silence builds. I dutifully touch the tiny teacup to my lips and inhale the herbal scent, but there’s no way I’m going to embarrass myself trying to drink from it.

That was the right move though, because the lady launches into her questions. Her voice is stern, like someone used to being obeyed. I give my standard replies, then ask about the job. I can better say how I’m useful if I know what she needs done, I explain.

She says she needs someone to carry a package to a tiny town called Rusty Creek, somewhere in the Firevine Hills.

I don’t know Rusty Creek itself, though I wouldn’t rule out that I’ve been there – I’m real bad with names. This is the south end of Purna and the Firevine Hills are in the north, so it’s a few days ride. It’s all on the settled side of the great lux wall, but this part of the wall has only stood for about a generation, hence everyone still maintains wards. The Hills are off the beaten path though. The only people who live there are half-crazy folk who dig relics out of the ground and hope those artifacts don’t blow up when disturbed. It’s more wild up there than down here.

But now that she’s told me the job, I get to play up my skill with water. It’s the Fire-vine hills, and all the darklings there run hot, right? Water is absolutely the best talent to face off against threats of fire.

I even make a small demonstration and levitate the odorous tea out of my tea cup, rather pleased now that they’d given me a prop to play with.

I really hate this part. But First Rule of Adventuring: the interview is where the money is made. So suck it up, tiger. Smile. Don’t smile too wide or I show teeth, and that scares a lot of folks. Smile a half smile and try to talk up the fee.

The butler watches me disapprovingly the whole time. The lady’s expression is unreadable.

But I win the job and I’m allowed to depart with a small, cloth-wrapped sack. A rune band on the bag will show if I tamper with it. The thing is a worthless present, she reassures me, a trinket for her granddaughter. I leave her house, bowing deeply and still faking my best half-smile.

Ghost is right outside the walls of her estate where I left him.

Ghost is a guy’ram, a big, flat, warm-blooded lizard with fine grey-green scales. Of all riding stock, guy’rams are the best for guides. They have great endurance, they can almost run along a cliff face, and they rarely wander far from where you drop them.

I learned early I could either own a mount or play games of credit with the farrier’s guild. I’d saved every coin I could, borrowed from both of the people who loved me, and bought a sturdy, middle-aged boy named Ghost. I thought about changing his name, but the big friendly beast with his dumb wedge-shaped head seemed to almost recognize it once, so I just kept it.

My travel pack is strapped on top of his rump and I open it long enough to tuck away my contract. I find a tiny silver teaspoon also somehow ended up in my pocket, and I tuck that into my pack too – way too late to return it to that ass of a butler now.

One third of my delivery fee is now coin in my purse, and the contract is payable for the remainder at any wild guide hall after the job is done. Standard terms.

I give Ghost a familiar pat, then use the lizard’s knee as a step to boost myself onto his back. He tastes the air and shifts his weight, knowing that break time is over.

Two minutes later, the estate has fallen behind us.

By sundown I’m in the open country. A gentle breeze has picked up and I’m already feeling better about the whole thing.

I load my pipe with a tiny nug of catnip that I’d somehow squirreled away from myself earlier, then spark it with a little bit of lux energy. In the next village I’ll buy some more nip, and I certainly need to get some food too. But for now, there’s plenty of light for a cat to see by, and I’m not stopping until the scent of town has blown off my fur.


It’s a quiet morning. The early autumn air is clear and smells are sharp. I’d broken camp at sunrise to ride the last dozen miles towards Rusty Creek. There’s nobody else on the narrow two-track road.

As the distance unwinds, I slowly begin to wonder why I’ve seen nobody else on the road this morning.

By the time I approach the village gate and I’m hearing birds but no people, I know something is seriously wrong.

The gate is open and unguarded. I pass through.

Houses and shops around me are ramshackle, built half out of reclaimed materials dug from the sands around. This is typical construction for the Firevine Hills. What’s not typical is that large chunks of walls, wagons, or other structures have been rusted or rotted away, with otherwise unmarred material surrounding it on all sides. The edges of each splotch of decay fester, like the rot is a burning growth that’s still struggling to consume fuel.

“Rot-spawn,” I mutter to myself.

A couple different kinds of darklings throw rot. A catalog of their names circles in my head. More urgent, I wonder how they got here, and how the village wards were passed. The walls looked intact, and the gate was merely open, not broken.

I start to pick my way down the single street toward the village’s center square.

There, I find a few corpses.

The’ve been laid out respectfully, under a communal blanket that’s weighted down with stones on the corners, like someone meant to tend them soon but didn’t come back.

I un-tuck a corner of the covering to look underneath, then swear an oath. All four folk laying here prone are desiccated mummies inside clean, unmarred clothes.

Forget darklings, this kind of decay is only caused by demons.

I’ve never run into demons. I’ve never been the first person to find a destroyed village either. I’ve responded to disasters, even been part of the team that hunted down the guilty monsters once. This deep inland, ward walls be-damned, this kind of thing sometimes happens.

But being the one to stumble into the remains of a slaughter is a whole different pile of feels.

The feels I’ve got now feel mostly like I’m terrified and have no idea what to do about the situation.

Demons are a lot nastier than darklings. A lot smarter, for one thing. Demons come in forms lesser to greater. The lesser ones cause problems, the bigger ones try to take over civilization. All of them, it’s said, can eat people just like this, sucking the life energy right out of you.

It’s late morning, sun high in the sky, but yeah, I’m really spooked. I make myself breathe slow and deep, squinting at the sun.

Probably, I should ride hell-bent back the way I came and rally the next village over.

But since there’s no obvious demonic hoard facing me, I also could try to learn a little more about what actually happened here first.

Shoring up my courage, I leave Ghost in a sunny corner, muttering a little prayer to Celestial that the big dumb lizard stays safe. Most predators won’t touch a guy’ram – they’re too big to take down – but demons probably don’t care about things like that. Demons won’t face the open sun though, ever, so he should be fine.

With a last pat on his shoulder, I start exploring the silent village on foot.

The place is completely deserted.

Until very suddenly it’s not.

I’m reentering the town square when a soft sound catches my ear. Being on edge, I twist around instantly and see a bundle of laundry blowing at me. Grey, silk-like. Then there’s a flash of reflected sunlight and I realize a weapon is coming my way.

I grab that reflection with my will. Light is absolutely a fluid, kind of like super-thin water, most folk don’t appreciate that. While I’m jumping backwards, I fold the light on itself a few times to build it up, then throw it back at my attacker. There’s a hiss from the direction of the cloth and suddenly we’re both still.

They’re facing me, sword low but ready.

It’s a beautiful sword, long, lithe, with a slight curve to it. The warrior, equally lithe, is fully covered in silk from ears to tail, even a veil, and even a sleeve for their tail. But they have a feline body inside all that, or I don’t know my own.

Their outfit is all shades of grey, overlapping layers and flowing trails. It would – it did – distract the eye and give no sense of the fighter’s position as they moved. Clever. Their sword is brilliant, sharp, and held completely steady in a casually light grip.

With my will I pull lux energy from the stones in my pockets and use it to gently ease a column of water out of the town’s well, holding it ready, just out of sight, just in case. I turn the sigil on my wrist outwards, the mark of elemental water blazing because of the energies I’m holding.

My opponent gracefully dips one shoulder, their silks sliding down the exact measure needed to reveal a sigil on their neck. Like me, they keep their fur trimmed short over the mark to make it easier to read. The symbol is clearly a sword. The fur it’s under ranges from cream to tawny gold.

“Hi!” I try.

“Hello,” they reply amicably enough. Sounds like a lady cat’s voice I think, and my ears perk.

“Friends?” I propose, hopefully.

Silence.

“Well, not enemies then?” I smile, a real smile. Whiskers out, tail arched, projecting not enemies every way I know how.

Still silence. Completely frozen.

I wonder what’s going on inside this warrior’s statuesque head?

“I didn’t bring the demons,” I try.

Their posture relaxes just a little at that. Then they answer, “I did not too.”

I can’t help but curl my tail. “There we go. My name is Tuan.”

“Fiora.”

I run out of things to say. My rising hope starts to fade again as as we continue staring at each other. I really don’t want to keep fighting, so I try asking a question. “Do you know who did this?”

“Demons, you said?” the other cat asks. She seems to have an accent, like the trade-tongue is not her main language.

“Yesss? I mean, it really looks like demons.”

Fiora puts away her sword then, suddenly, in one perfectly graceful move sliding the shining blade home into a black sheath that hangs low behind one hip.

I exhale gently with relief and release the power I’d been holding. The water splashes back down in the well and I fold an ear, embarrassed, realizing I should have let it go a lot quieter.

Fiora glides closer then, surprising me, and I’ve stepped backwards before I decide that everything threatening about her posture has gone. Somehow she’s even dropped her veil, and I see her face is light gold with dark spots and a bright pink nose.

Fiora slows for my benefit and holds out her hands in greeting. I return the gesture, touching palms gently, then we smell each other’s breath. Fiora smells like grassy fields and sunbeams, with sweat and honing oil on top. She does not smell like demons nor bad intentions, which is what matters. We each step back a quarter step and turn a shoulder, in the way of cats.

“Are you also a guide?” she asks, suddenly holding out a gloved hand with a small piece of decorated leather, the sunburst wild guide sigil stamped into the middle of it.

“Yes, I’m here on hire, even,” I answer, whiskers forward, not quite sure which pocket on my bag my own crest is in.

“For this?” she gestures around, tucking her crest away again inside the odd layers of her clothing. Her tawny face and black sheath with a deep-red, cord-wrapped sword hilt above it are the only marks of non-grey in her appearance and I find myself distracted all over again by the ensemble.

“Oh. No. I didn’t expect this,” I reply, lost.

“Neither did I,” she says sadly, and sounds broken-hearted.

I snap back to the moment and ask again, “do you know what happened?”

“Demons,” Fiora says with certainty and no hesitation, sounding like she witnessed it.

I eye her sideways, quite sure I’m the one who just told her that.

Ultimately, we do what any two guides who want to impress each other might do. That is, we start tracking which way everyone went.

The village isn’t large, there couldn’t be more than a dozen families that lived here. Add in surrounding mine claims and I’d posit there should be half a hundred people around to tell us what happened.

We find two more demon-eaten people inside one building. Then out the town’s back gate and a short way up a tiny, single-track trail we find seven more. Unlike all the first bodies, these folk were armed for fighting, wielding mining axes, a man catcher, and a couple heavy clubs. But they all lay where they fell, in the open road, flesh dried and withered.

We rob houses to get enough sheets to wrap around each of the bodies, then follow the narrow tract upward.

The long unused path leads into steeper terrain. The sun rises toward noon and the desert heat rapidly reaches uncomfortable levels. I strip my vest off completely after a while, and even Fiora doffs her head cover in deference to the temperature.

Her face is so regal, I muse to myself. I’ve never met someone jaguarkind before, but I’m guessing that’s what she has to be. They say all jaguars live in the jungle country of Condor, and I wonder what brought her out.

Fiora turns her gaze at me as if aware I’m picking her apart with my mind. Her eyes are unnerving and I try to find something else to think about.

“This end of the Firevine Hills should be called the Crumbling Clay Bluffs,” I go with. Our trail is winding across high fractured hills, the clay colored with swirls of reds, yellows, and even some blues, all textured and shadowed by the bright sun overhead. The scenery is really something worth noticing.

Fiora immediately produces a map, studies it a moment, then tells me the place we’re heading is marked as “Rusty Spring Monastery – abandoned.”

We take turns trying to keep the conversation going. We speculate on what the label might mean, and whether the town below will also soon be marked abandoned. We hope not, but it feels like we both know it probably will.

With that thought, our conversation dies again.


We reach the monastery by late afternoon.

The last leg of the road isn’t wide enough for both our guy’ram, so I’d yielded the lead to Fiora. She tops the rise before me and makes an anguished cry, rushing suddenly forward. I spur Ghost and follow, readying for attack.

There’s no attack, just an awful sight. The old monastery is cobblestone walls, half fallen. Some parts are just rubble. But in front of this lay rows of bodies. Next to those, there is a pile of excavated clay and rock, and next to that, a flock of dirty human children are digging a very large hole.

They all come to a slow, dumb, stop and stare as Fiora rushes upon the scene. One stands up taller than the rest and I realize he’s actually an adult. He’s grey-haired, uncharacteristically plump for a priest, but nevertheless wearing dirt-smeared sun-priest robes.

Fiora jumps off her mount. I follow behind. They’re all talking by the time I get there. A brief count shows almost thirty adults laid out awaiting burial, all of them demon-slain. Everyone still living is a child, except the priest, though he can’t be much older than me.

The rotund sun brother’s name is Bacon. Usually I can’t remember names, but despite the circumstances that one can’t help but stick. A few strips of bacon have stuck to him too, I think.

A part of my mind that’s floating above all the death around me just marvels that I can be so morbid.

We join their grisly task and everyone resumes work on the mass grave. Some small children sit numb, just tapping their makeshift spades against the dirt.

“They came from everywhere at once,” brother Bacon begins to explain. “By when I got to the bell to raise a cry we already had lost.” He stalls, his thoughts turning inward.

Then suddenly he gives the best impression of a snarl I’ve ever seen a human make. I offer a grimace of my own in respect.

“They herded us! I mean, everyone. From the whole county, they brought us all together.” He pauses again.

Then he sags, hugging himself in misery. “Mostly they pushed us, ya know? Led us like we were just sheep.”

“SHE came then,” he snarls again and I understand this is someone critical, even if I’m not sure of the when or where. “Cold, walked like the demons weren’t there. And the demons? They bowed, and they scraped, and they all jumped out of her way, like servants for their queen.” He’s sneering and talking half through his nose by the end, miming the words as he makes them.

Then he shudders visibly and hugs himself tight. One of the kids attacks and clings to his hip and Bacon drops a hand to their head protectively, if absently.

“Who was she?” I prod.

He actually hisses at me. “Witch,” he answers.

“That makes sense,” I reply, totally unsure it does. A witch is leading demons? Also, we’re very far from anywhere known for witches. Witches are wetland creatures. This is deep inland, and desert.

Brother Bacon glares at me, and when I say nothing he turns his back, exchanges words with the child, then they both return to digging.

I return to work as well and time goes on. After enough of it he resumes talking, from behind me.

“She kept the children separate. Anyone who fought back died, except our kids. She wanted every one of our kids. Brought them up here.”

“She was shocked we followed, I don’t ken that. But she’d figured out which two she wanted by then, I guess. Pater and Lisa. She took Pater and Lisa and ran. Makes sense those two. But she left most her demons here to keep us busy.”

He sighs a terrible sigh, stopping to lean against the mining pick he’s been using to soften the hard clay. I consider that pick. The townsfolk must have come armed with whatever tools they had at hand.

“Why those two?” I ask, trying to stay with the thread of the story.

Bacon looks back at me, as if surprised I’m here.

“Oh! Their ma was… she was someone proper.”

He squirms a bit. He seems to have forgotten digging. So have most of the kids, standing numbly.

Speaking of numbly, I realize Fiora’s been letting me do the talking for both of us. She digs half-heartedly, taking all this in.

Bacon jumps back into events. “Then we attacked. Well, I didn’t, I swore my oath of peace just last year. So I tried to help our kids. I packed in our strongest ward and got all of us under it. We carried it into the walls there, where we were out of the way.” He waves vaguely into the fallen rubble of the ancient monastery.

He looks sharply at me. “We made it!” he claims defensively. Then he sags, eyes shifting to the rows of his fallen flock. “They dinn’t.”

One of the children starts crying and the priest drops his tool in an instant to be with the young boy. I stop pretending to work too.

“It’s going to be dark again soon,” I have to say, as nobody else seems to be paying attention to the sky. “If the demons broke off their attack for sunrise, then they’re still here. They’re going to come back at sunset. We need to get you all out of here.”

The priest looks up, fierce negativity in his face. Fiora looks at me too, like I’d grown another pair of ears or something. I’m not sure what I said that was so wrong.

“We have to go rescue Pater and Lisa,” Fiora explains.

The priest is nodding like this is obvious and I’m slow.

“Oh,” I say.

I think about this. It doesn’t settle well.

“No,” I have to tell them. “That’s dumb. We have to get these kits somewhere safe,” I say again, somehow facing only Fiora.

One of those kits chimes in for themself. “We are safe. Lisa and Pater aren’t,” he declares.

I look directly at him. Most adults whither under my full-on tiger glare. This young child is totally unfazed. I add a grimace and it seems to change nothing. “You are not safe. This place will be crawling with demons in about two marks,” I try to explain, carefully.

“Then we’ll spark the ward again,” he counters.

I wonder what kind of self-powered ward can work more than one night in a row and and still be light enough for one man to carry.

“You can help us with the warding, sir?” Bacon asks. The sir catches me off guard and I don’t at first understand that he means me.

“You can make wards, Tuan?” Fiora echoes, to make it clear.

I look around and everyone’s eyes are looking back at mine. I nod slowly. “Yeah, I can draw wards,” I admit. Crap, they want me to what? Warding a camp against drams is one thing, this is a whole different level.

Nobody says anything, still staring at me.

“All right, yeah, there’s enough time to ward this place,” I eye the crumbling stone walls around me, doubtfully.

“The we can go rescue,” Fiora prompts me.

“Then we can go do an impossible rescue,” I give in.

We make a bit of a ceremony of it, Fiora and I accepting the job and all. The kids need something to hope for, I guess. Really, she takes charge. We make up some formal thing where the kids and priest give us a quest and we accept it on behalf of the wild guides. I don’t understand, but it seems important to everyone else.

Then on to warding. Fiora resumes helping dig the big grave while I start drawing runes on the temple walls.

It isn’t long before I realize I have a helper. The same kid who’d argued with me is lingering nearby, watching me work.

“Hi,” I challenge.

“Hello,” he counters.

“I’m Tuan,” I pose.

“I know,” he ripostes.

He adds nothing and I choose not to either, and keep working.

And keep working.

It’s a bleeding large area to ward, especially when I start spilling substructure to my rune net into all the halls and rooms around. I don’t know how many demons they may be facing but I’m not going to quit until someone makes me.

I find the ward stone they’d used the night before. It must have been the town’s one and only emergency supply or something. A stone like that is pretty much just a slow-burn lux bomb. It’s super-effective against darklings, and I guess demons too, but very limited range and duration.

Despite the kid’s bravado, their ward stone is totally burned out and dead. It’s high summer now and the nights are short. They had that going in their favor, but they’re still sparking lucky the thing lasted all the way through until morning.

It is reassuring the demons were actually blocked by the ward stone, I decide. It suggests we may be facing low-level demons after all. This witch sounds potent, but low demons we might be able to handle.

I pick a different spot for everyone to make tonight’s stand, someplace a little deeper in the ruins, with more square walls. Walls that face each other flat-on are good for rune nets because you can reflect a charge between them. The more precise you align them, the more the charge amplifies.

I keep working and the kid is still watching me. On a hunch, I draw the wrong rune and go on like I hadn’t.

The human kit seems to get really, really, uncomfortable.

After a few minutes I go back and silently erase then correct my mistake. We look at each other and nod.

I have a ward crayon in my bag, a self-powered thing for use in emergencies, in case I’m ever out of other lux and need to make a net in the wilds. I leave it with the kid when Fiora collects me to head out.

We follow a broken path through the evening and into the night. The moons are up, working to our favor. The witch must still have some fair number of demons with her, because they’ve left a pretty broad trail. Thankfully it’s a trail of flash-dried foliage and an occasional feral mouse, not flatfoot corpses.

Fiora turns out to be one hell of a tracker. I grew up in the woods, but she’s way better at this than me. After a while, I realize my job is just to hold an occasional red light above our ears, low towards the ground, or wherever she points.

Light is a liquid, after all, and it’s pretty easy to conjure one from even just a trickle of lux. At least I’m useful for something here.


We find our quarry sometime before dawn.

The hills have steepened into a canyon again, jagged sandstone cliffs on all sides. We’ve been angling up the basin of a pretty big creek, still flowing despite the late summer, and it makes gentle noises nearby. The thick firevine clumps have failed to overtake this canyon, and instead we’re in a sparse forest of stubby, aromatic evergreens.

At the end of the canyon is a big mound of earth, out of place in the otherwise flat, clay-filled basin. The top of the small hill is ringed with rocks like some castle turret, sharp against the night sky.

Whatever hoard of demons were attacking the kids last night, they seem to be here tonight. A veritable army of little winged imps surround the rock-topped hill. Even if they’re all low level demons, there are a flaming lot of them. Hundreds. Many hundreds. We are far, far outmatched.

Tiger the Wanderer’s First Rule of Adventuring: Choose Your Battles.

So we wait, and watch.

Our vantage is from the tops of two adjacent trees – the best we can do. We can’t see much of the hill’s top except that there is some kind of bonfire up there, inside the ring of stone. Someone shaped like a person lingers near it. Around the fire, the swarm of little winged imps are dancing and gyrating, celebrating some dark ritual.

We wait more.

The bonfire slowly burns out, but nothing else is happening. The witch seems to just be waiting like we are.

Fiora and I whisper back and forth, proposing the witch must need daylight for her next move. Odd, given her demonic hoard, but we’ll take whatever boon we can get.

Finally, dawn begins to crest, and the demons start receding into dark crannies rather than face the sun.

The witch seems to be starting her ritual. As soon as we think we can handle the number of imps that still remain, we drop ourselves to the ground, then start our charge.

Fiora moves faster than me. She fairly dances up the hill while I steam up behind, vowing to take down more nevertheless. I pause to throw a light bomb I’d improvised while we waited. The flash of its detonation is followed by a satisfying chorus of demon screams. The imps caught most directly by it seem to evaporate completely.

Fiora flows like water, tumbling an acrobatic if erratic course up the hill. Her grey silks make her shapeless, but for a razor-thin edge, an edge which splits demons on every side.

Damn, but her sword is sharp if it can bisect an imp. These things are made more of lux than they are physical stuff.

I rip and shred as I follow, tangles of light woven onto my claws. Demons don’t die, but they jump back, severely burned. Sometimes I get to rip whole limbs or wings off.

We approach the top of the hill. The host opposing us is torn between pursuit and avoiding the dawn. Ultimately, they fall back.

The witch has noticed our coming, of course. She stands now between us and a rune-covered stone altar that we can now see. The altar has two struggling human children held by bonds of sticky lux.

I ready all my magic and I’m not left disappointed.

The witch greets me with a wave of pure hate and it decays everything it touches. I block and get pushed physically backwards by her power. She’s throwing rot-spawn, I realize, surprised. And here I’d been sure she was human.

I snarl and charge straight at her again, my claws at full. She doesn’t expect that and casts an arc of midnight towards me. I roll sideways and rise to continue my press.

Unfortunately the dark wave she threw gave the imps a conduit into our fight. It’s like a thin hallway, curving over the hill. Demons surge into that crescent of night, claws reaching. I burn more light on my claws and shred the ones that get too close. The hallway of night begins to dissipate, and the rest flee again.

Fiora has engaged the witch by now. She can’t get close, but she’s not losing ground either. Fiora slices apart each of the witch’s castings before it can fully manifest, her amazing curved blade shredding lux like it’s something solid. She’s a swirl of liquid movement as the witch screams and tosses arc after arc of dark. Little sparks of pure night fly from their clash like a blacksmith pounding at some unholy forge.

While the witch is distracted I start a meditative form. My bloody sigil is elemental water, and while water doesn’t do much against a demon it should do just fine against a witch. Let’s test what she’s really made of, shall we?

The hills are dry but the nearby creek has thrown a little mist into the air. I draw all the lux I’ve got left and collect the water from that air, the ground, and the dawn’s morning dew, as it clings to those waxy little berries on the trees.

The witch must notice my build-up then, because she casts a bigger attack. A sudden bomb of liquid hate rolls out from her, all directions at once.

Fiora is blown backwards. I’m a little farther away and can see it coming. It sucks a chunk of the strength out of what I’m doing, but I’ve got momentum at this point, and her lux slips past like a distraction. Three beats later it’s gone.

The witch pools darkness between her hands, readying some potent action or another.

A maelstrom of water and ice rages around me. I look up at the sky and see a ribbon of clouds along the horizon, brilliant and gold in the morning sun. Snagging a strand of light from those clouds, I coil it into the storm and condense the whole thing into a ball of fury between my own claws. With a snarl, I charge once more.

The witch casts a dense ball of nothingness at me. I release a chunk of the storm power that I hold, straight into the ground. It flings me upwards, above the attack, above her head. I make a controlled flip and come down, leading with a comet of ice and sleet and sunlight. The witch scrambles to raise one last defense but it’s too late and I blast through it like paper. She flies backwards from the impact, clawing furiously at the air, her lux crafting scrambled.

The witch lands on her ass.

She raises her head to focus on me and that head is neatly clipped off by Fiora’s sword.

Fiora and I look at each other. The dawn suddenly seems very silent. Any remaining demons are hiding in shadows.

A sound from the altar pulls our attention back. The two kids are sitting up. Their bonds evaporated at the witch’s death, I guess.

“Hi!” I say, as all friendly-like as I can pretend.

The kids stare at me blankly.

I force my claws to sheath. This might go better if there weren’t a headless body at my feet and imp ichor evaporating into dark smoke on all sides of us.

By now Fiora has cleaned and put away her sword and to my immense relief she swoops in to check the kids and take over the talking role. I start searching the witch’s body for clues while listening to their conversation.

The story they give us is jumbled and makes little sense. The witch had been very upset they say, and kept yelling at the children for all her plans going wrong, but it seemed she never mentioned to them what her plans actually were. From what they describe it sounds like she had been talking with her coven in the fire when we attacked. Pater blurts out that they had all been arguing about whether to keep he and Lisa alive or not.

Fiora stops grilling them for info after that. Ultimately we just collect what we can as evidence, then start making our way back to the monastery.

We get there by noon. To our great relief, everyone we left is safe.

We had massively underestimated how many imps were in the area though, and they tell us they’d faced a hoard here at least as large as the one we had. But they made it through, thankfully.

At that point I just kind of collapse from total exhaustion.

We all stay at the monastery that night. The kids wake me in time for nightfall and I redraw my wards. Then we just sit and watch imps claw at the walls all night long. We keep a big ol’ fire burning for the cheer of it. The demons give up halfway through the night, suddenly losing motivation and beginning to disperse. Well before dawn, not one imp remains within reach of our light.

They tell me the demons had almost broken through the night before. But that one boy ran out and started reinforcing. He says he’s never been taught runes and he was just retracing my lines. I’m not sure I believe him.

One way or another, he probably saved them all. I write him a note of introduction to my old master at University, for whatever good that might do him. With only one sigil, I’m technically a journey-mage, not a full mage, so I’m certainly not qualified to actually recommend anyone to the school yet.

In the morning we go back to town. A second funeral for the remaining family under the sheets, then a quiet vigil through an undisturbed night.

The Firevine Hills are a spiderweb of little roads and tiny settlements. The next village over turns out closer than the one I would have picked if I’d backtracked instead of seeing the adventure through. There, enough of the kids have family to catch the whole group of everyone, at least on the short term. Longer term, they would all have to make their way to relatives where they had them, or find means.

It turns out the girl singled out by the witch, Lisa, was the one I needed to deliver the package to, to finish my hire. The package was a little bone dragon toy that showed a rich grandma’s love. That girl was going to be much better off than most.

Fiora wants to keep escorting the group until the last child gets to their farthest destination, but brother Bacon and I have a grown-up conversation about the cost of hiring a pair, or even a single, wild guide for that many days.

I think Bacon is more shaken than he’s trying to let on. He makes a joke about going back to his order after that and swearing reclusion, and I’m not sure he’s totally kidding.

Regardless, what I tell him seems to confirm what he already knew and eventually he gently declines our escort. Instead, he gives us a sealed statement then sends us on our way.

Fiora is crushed but acquiesces. I’m pretty sure I see tears in her eyes as we leave the village gates.

Our path takes us the next day into a full-sized town where we find a magistrate to turn brother Bacon’s statement into coin. I muse out-loud that “The day they pay you is the only day governments feel like good things” would make a great new First Rule of Adventuring. Fiora doesn’t seem to get the reference though.

Our own guild also credits us the standing bounty for the head of a witch, a head which we’d carried all this way in an improvised sack, a gruesome thing that I had been obligated to re-freeze two or three times each day, every day. But despite that gross effort, the witch turned out to be totally unknown. As such, the bounty was not large.

It all seemed to sum up nice anyway, but then Fiora and I split it even and it turned out to not pay much more than a handful of messenger jobs would have.

Oh well. We survived, and I would have enough coin to buy catnip for a while.

Sucks a lot though that a whole town had to die for me and my companion to eat for the next few weeks. Frontier life is rough.

They try to give us some notoriety in the guild hall. They call us heroes and raise a toast because we’d brought the kits home safe. But Fiora seems to have even more misgivings on the whole thing than me. What I’m feeling is a lot of guilt. We had won, which means we could have handled it. We had just gotten there one day too late to really make a difference.

The two of us have the whole “where are you going next” talk at our table in the common room. Then we collect our things and quietly slip out the back door. We saddle our guy’rams and set course for Rikaria, the home of most witches.

Someone has to know who our witch was and what she was up to. It seems we both are interested in finding that out.