A Day Too Late

Year 337 FW, Inland

As a freedom-loving cat with neither a good sense of home nor much idea of what to do with myself, in my early twenties I joined the Guild of Wild Guides.

I had little to offer but the sigil stamped on my wrist that advertises my abilities as a mage. The mark is a curling, blue symbol that shows my control of elemental water. That is, given sources of lux energy, I can push fluids around with my will. It’s a pretty useful talent.

When I started, I had high hopes I’d be a wonderful guide. I’d take quests and adventures for coin, all the while growing my talents as a mage. I’d easily make a name for myself, then retire early and rich, somewhere warmer than where I grew up.

Two years later those hopes have mostly evaporated.

I’m currently sitting, bored, in the common room of some guild hall, in some unknown inland town. All the guild halls in all the frontier towns are built to the same design, so they all kind of blend after a while. The very last coin from my last job is invested into the catnip I’m smoking in my tiny pipe.

Upstairs, my travel pack is dropped across one tiny cot in the shared bunk room, and the price of such lodgings are being added to my guild tab. In the stock yard outside, my mount – and by far most expensive possession – is hopefully being fed the leftover vegetables I paid for right before I got myself the ‘nip. Through the large front window I watch town life unfold on the unpaved street outside.

My daily hope is that some rich client comes bursting through the door, anxious to hire guides for an exciting, but not-too-scary quest, with a large reward.

Nobody seems to be coming through the door with any level of excitement today.

Nobody ever does.

Truly, I don’t even know what kind of quest pays well and offers a reasonable chance of coming back all at the same time.

So eventually I give in and go claim some dumb posting off the job board. I pick one where the client has some fancy last name. The job is messenger service. That’s about as glorious as work from the board ever gets. I tag the posting with my mark, then get the address from the guild master and head out to go be interviewed.

Their address leads me towards a grand old house outside of town that’s wrapped in at least an acre of grass. The wealthy estate is protected by a private ward wall, and I notice with professional interest that the runes on the wall have been meticulously maintained.

A butler greets me at the door and sits me with tea across from an old human lady. I dutifully touch the tiny teacup to my lips once, but there’s no way I’m going to embarrass myself trying to drink from it in front of them.

The lady asks some basic questions and I give my standard replies, then ask about the job. I can better explain how I’m useful if I know what she needs done, I justify.

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

Now the Firevine Hills are on the settled side of the Wall, but that’s only been true for a generation or so. It’s still kind of a rough place, mostly tiny mining villages, with half-crazy folk who survive by unearthing the relics of past civilizations and hoping the artifacts don’t blow up in their faces.

But knowing this, I really play up my skill with water, because the darklings in the Firevine Hills all run hot and a water talent is the best talent against hot things, right? I even make a token demonstration by levitating the tea out of my tea cup, suddenly pleased that they’d given me a prop to play with.

It’s a good test of my game face, truly. There really aren’t many darklings left in the ‘Hills. But an 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 most folks. Smile a half smile and try to talk up the fee.

The lady’s butler watches like a hawk the whole time. It feels like he believes I’d run off with the furniture if he lets me out of his sight.

I win the job. The lady lets me 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, and still half-smiling.

My mount is right where I left it. I learned early as a guide you could rent mounts, play games of credit with the mount merchants, or own one. So for a while I’d saved every coin I could, borrowed from both the people who loved me, and bought my own.

I ride a guy’ram: a giant, oversized lizard. Of all common stock, guy’rams are the best mounts for guides. My mount’s name is Ghost. Ghost came with the name Ghost. I thought about changing it, but the beast seemed to almost recognize it once, so I just went with it.

A tiny silver tea-spoon has somehow ended up in one of my pockets, and I secret that away in my travel bag before climbing onto the lizard’s back. One third of my delivery fee is now coin in my purse, plus I have a note for claim on the rest, payable at any guild hall with proof of delivery.

Standard terms.

Two minutes later I’m leaving the estate and by sunset I’m in the open country. A gentle breeze has picked up and I’m already feeling better about the whole thing.

I find a tiny nug of catnip I’d saved from before and load my pipe, reminding myself to buy more nip and some food in the next village. Food for sure. I didn’t eat today. But for now, there’s plenty of light for a cat to see by, and I’m not stopping until the scent of town is blown off my fur.

My first sign that something’s not right comes a couple dawns later.

I’d found the road to Rusty Creek, then broken camp at sunrise for the last short crawl into town. I’m just riding along wondering why it’s so quiet. It’s well into mid-morning and so far there’s been nobody else on the path.

By the time I cross the village gate and I’m hearing birds but not much else, I know something is seriously wrong.

Buildings are ramshackle, half built out of reclaimed materials dug from the sands around. Typical construction for the ‘Hills. What’s not typical is the main street is deserted. Worse, signs of attack are everywhere. Large chunks of walls, wagons, or other structures have been rotted away, with otherwise unmarred material surrounding it on all sides. The edges of the decay fester, like the decay is a burning growth that’s still struggling to consume fuel.

“Rot spawn,” I whisper the name out loud to myself.

A couple different kinds darklings throw rot like this. 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 look intact, the gate merely open, not broken.

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

There, I find a few corpses. They are laid out respectfully, under a blanket, like someone meant to tend to them soon but didn’t come back. I lift the blanket to look underneath, then swear an oath. The four town folk laying here prone have mummified flesh inside unmarred clothes.

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

I’ve never run into demons. I’ve never been the first person to find a destroyed village either. We’re deep inland, you hear about things like this happening with sad regularity, but being the one to stumble into it is a whole different pile of feels.

The feels I’ve got now mostly feel like I’m scared.

Demons are much nastier than darklings. 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 spooked. I make myself breathe slow and deep.

Then I dismount and leave Ghost in a sunny corner. Most predators won’t touch a guy’ram – they’re poison to eat – but demons probably don’t care about things like poison. Demons do fear sun, they say. I mutter a little prayer that the big dumb lizard stays safe then start sneaking around the rest of the village on foot.

The place is completely deserted.

Until very suddenly it’s not.

I’m reentering the town square when a sound catches my ear, maybe?

I twist around and a bundle of laundry is blowing at me. Grey, silk-like. Then there’s a flash of reflected sunlight from inside the cloth and I realize a weapon is coming my way.

I grab that reflection with my will – light is a fluid, 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. A concealed warrior, equally long and lithe. They’re fully covered in thin, grey silk from ears to tail, even a veil, and even a sleeve for their tail. But they have a feline body inside that, or I don’t know my own. My ears perk with interest.

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 move. Clever. Their sword is brilliant, sharp, and held completely steady in a casually light grip.

I pull energy from the stones in my pockets and gently ease a column of water out of the town’s well and hold 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.

“Friends?” I propose, hopefully.

Silence.

“Well, not enemies then?” I smile, a real smile. Ears up, 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 a bit of an accent, like the trade-tongue is not her first language.

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

Fiora sheathes her sword then, suddenly, and perfectly graceful. I exhale gently with relief and release the power I’d been holding. The water splashes back down in the well and I flick an ear, realizing I should have let it go quieter.

Fiora glides closer then, surprising me, and I’ve stepped backwards again 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 guild crest, stamped inside a small folding piece of leather.

“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 hers away inside her odd layers of grey clothing. Her orange face and black sheath are the only marks of non-grey in her appearance and I find myself distracted by the ensemble again.

“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 attacked,” Fiora says with certainty and no hesitation. She sounds 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 search the town for clues, then start tracking which way everyone went.

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

We find three more corpses inside the various buildings, all of whom have been eaten by demons. Then out the town’s back gate and a short way up a tiny, old road we find seven more. Unlike all the first bodies, these folk were armed for fighting, with miner’s axes, a man catcher, and a couple heavy clubs. They’re all laying where they fell in the road, flesh dried and withered.

We rob some sheets from a house to pull over the bodies, anchor them with rocks against the wind, then follow the narrow tract upward.

The long unused path leads into steeper terrain. The sun rises toward noon and the desert heats to 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’ve never met someone jaguarkind before, but I’m guessing that’s what she has to be. They say all the jaguars hunt in the jungle country of Condor, and I wonder what brought her this way. Then again, she’s a guide, and we all wander all over.

“This end of the Firevine Hills should be called the Crumbling Clay Bluffs,” I mutter to anyone who will listen as we carefully cross a washed-out section of the trail.

Fiora immediately produces a map, studies it a moment, then declares our road is heading up into the hills toward a dot marked “Rusty Spring Monastery – abandoned.”

It’s enough to get a moment of 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.

We reach the monastery by late afternoon.

We ride up the last leg of road cautiously. It isn’t wide enough for both our guy’ram, so I’d yielded the lead to Fiora. She tops the last 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. Out front 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 muddy 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 people 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 dire circumstances that one is awesome enough it can’t help but stick. A few strips of bacon have stuck to him too, I can’t help but think. Some part of my mind that’s floating above all the death around me just marvels that I can be so morbid.

“They came from everywhere at once,” the brother Bacon begins to explain. “I rung the bell, but we were already 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 everybody together.” He pauses again.

“Some of us died where we stood.” He sags, hugging himself in misery. “Mostly they pushed us, ya know? Led us like we were 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 toward here.”

“She was shocked we followed, I don’t ken that. But she’d figured out by then which exact two she wanted, I guess. Pœter and Lisa. She took Pœter and Lisa and ran off. 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 dig. 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… I don’t know. She was someone proper, I guess.”

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’m sworn violence. I tried to help our children. 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 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. Nobody else seems to be paying attention to the sky. “If the demons broke off their attack for dawn 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 Pœter 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 kids chimes in for themself. “We are safe. Lisa and Pœter aren’t,” he says.

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 here 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 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 a herd of 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, the 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 till morning.

It is somewhat reassuring the demons were blocked by the ward stone, I decide. It suggests we may be facing mostly lower 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. 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 boy seems to get really, really, uncomfortable.

After a few minutes I go back and silently erase then redraw 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 sources 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’re leaving a pretty broad trail. Thankfully it’s a trail of mangled foliage and not bodies.

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 over our ears, low to the ground, or wherever she points at.

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 has failed to overtake this canyon yet and instead we’re in a forest of stubby, pungent trees.

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. We are far, far outmatched.

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 there’s some kind of bonfire up there, inside the ring of stone. Someone shaped like a human 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 too.

Fiora and I whisper back and forth and propose 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 breaks and the demons begin to recede into dark crannies for the day. They seem very grudging to do so, like they want to stay. But no demon ever can face the open sun.

We move before it’s safe. As soon as we think we can handle the number of imps that still remain, we charge. The witch is starting her ritual.

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.

Fiora flows like water, tumbling an 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.

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

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 down 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 evaporate, 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 was something physical. 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 kata. My bloody sigil is elemental water, and while water doesn’t do much against a demon it should do 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 pungent 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 wave 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 craft scrambled.

The witch lands on her ass.

She raises her head to glare at 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.

The story they give us is jumbled and makes no sense. We ultimately just collect what we can of the witch as evidence then start making our way back.

We get to the monastery by noon. To our great relief, everyone there 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 is the next place to go. There, enough of the kids have family to catch the whole group of everyone, at least on the short term. Longer term, they’d all have to make their way to relatives where they had them, or find means. Frontier life is hard.

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 of them.

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 seem to be telling him nothing he doesn’t already know and eventually he gently declines our escort. Instead the priest 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.

The next day we get to a full-sized town and find a magistrate to turn brother Bacon’s statement into coin. Payday is the only day governments feel like good things.

Our guild also credits us the standing bounty for the head of a witch, a head which we’d carried back with us in an improvised sack, and 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 few messenger jobs would have. Oh well. We survived, and I would have enough coin to buy catnip for a while.

They try to give us some notoriety in the guild hall. They call us heroes and raise a toast that we’d brought the kids home safe. But Fiora seemed to have as many mixed feelings on the whole thing as I did. We had won, which meant 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 mounts 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 would like to find out.