Seven years later...
Tabri put all her concentration into the potted wildflower before her. Hands cupped around the plant, she focused on her breathing. Regular breathing helped the magic flow more easily.
She spoke. "Daughters of pistil and sons of stamen, I compel thee to grow."
With that utterance, her spell took root in the soil. Magic surged through her palms, enveloping the wildflower in a shimmering haze. Before her eyes, the leaves drew in the energy and the plant exploded into sudden growth, blooms sprouting and overflowing the pot.
She laughed at her own success.
"Excellent, Tabri, excellent," said Ozaika, "I knew in time we would make a great witch of you."
Tabri idly twisted her talisman, a pale purple quartz crystal on a leather thong.
"Thank you, Master. I owe it all to your tutelage."
In the seven years since joining the coven, the Xurean maid had soaked up every lesson Ozaika taught her and grown into a skillful spellcaster. She possessed raw talent back in Xur, but time and practice had honed it. Now, with the proper tools and training for channeling magic, she was far from the abandoned teenager who couldn't even conjure a fire.
"I believe you may be ready to take the next step in your education. Time has come to make your Patron's Pact."
"A Patron's Pact?" asked Tabri.
"Yes dear. To cast stronger spells you must pledge yourself to a powerful magical being, a God or a Vesper. Once in their service, new avenues will open up for you," explained Ozaika.
"Intriguing. Do you have any suggestion which God or Vesper I should pledge myself to?"
The Coven Mother patted her pupil on the shoulder. "We'll discuss it during your next lesson. You're almost ready for your final test as my student."
"My final test..." Tabri clenched her fist, sensing the warm sparks of magic surge through her skin, and reflected on her growth with pride.
"But for now, I believe there are other things you need to attend to."
"I can't think of-" the apprentice witch paused mid-sentence as she remembered her duty. "The totems. Six months have passed. Time to recharge them."
"There you are dear."
Tabri rose to her feet in the smoky temple sanctum. "Better get to it then. I'll tell Damné you're well."
"Yes, your devil. Has he been... behaving oddly at all?"
The 21-year-old spellcaster rolled her eyes at her mentor. Seven years and the witches still didn't trust her infernal companion.
"No, Master. He hasn't been whispering to me to kill you all in my sleep. Good day."
She slipped out the beaded curtain and into the village center. The passage of time had been good to Tabri, transforming her from a foreign exile into a confident member of the coven. Dressed in the rough black flax garments of the Witchfolk, no one would guess her to be a lost child of Xur. She hated to say so, but being lashed to that tree might have been the best thing to happen to her.
Well, that or meeting Damné.
She walked through town to her and the devil's hut, waving to her fellow coven members as she went. They politely waved back, but grew scarce the closer she got to home. Her roommate made her neighbors wary. Arriving there, she pulled aside the curtain door to enter.
"Damné? I'm home."
"Welcome back Tabri."
The devil sat on the floor, molding something out of wet clay. He too had changed in the years since their first meeting, growing from the size of a toddler to that of a prepubescent. On occasion, his wings would flap errantly. Often left alone and without friends besides Tabri, he spent his time sculpting. A good hobby when one can be one's own kiln. The wolftooth amulet still hung around his neck.
"Your pottery is coming along well."
"Thank you." Damné twitched as he spoke, a pleasant shock running through him from the words.
"The Coven Mother reminded me to go recharge the totems around the village. Would you like to come with me?"
"Of course. Just give me a moment here."
He took a deep breath and exhaled a gout of flame from his mouth, baking the clay.
"That should hold it for now."
Seeing him show his more Fiendish side drew a chuckle from Tabri. She knelt to let Damné climb on to her back. He may have grown, but she still let him ride piggyback.
Among the coven's many rituals, keeping the totems charged was vital. Without their wards, spirits with ill intent, Fiends and those little better, could wander into their village unimpeded. Such Vespers were common in the Old Wood and drawn to centers of strong magic. But though important, the task was also time-consuming. Each one needed to be recharged by hand and dozens might hang from a single tree. The witches did the work in shifts and Tabri scolded herself for forgetting hers had been changed.
Once she and Damné arrived at the village's borders, Passing through the surrounding wall, her chore proceeded swiftly enough. The strange hazy sun of Hauntergast, as the Witchfolk called the country, arced overhead as the witch by adoption moved from tree to tree, cupping each totem in her hand and casting a simple spell on them, even hanging a few new ones. Several hours passed as Tabri worked, with Damné providing her company all the while.
Upon finishing, she stepped back and admired her work, hands on her hips. "Well, that covers everything I was assigned. I think I should be fine to end early."
"Oh Tabri, again?"
"You didn't have to come with me, you know."
Her devil sighed, knowing what was coming. "Very well, lead the way."
Tabri smiled at her small victory and headed into the forest. After all this time, she had learned the path through the undergrowth well and soon found her favored tree, climbing its trunk to her usual perch. Damné followed behind. Up there, one could see for miles around but a spellcaster like her could do even better.
Clutching her talisman around her neck, she focused her magic on her eyes and intoned, "Falcons and condors, hear my plea. Lend your sister your sight."
She blinked twice as the energy tingled on her eyelids, her vision improving with each blink, becoming telescopic. From her treetop, the young spellcaster gazed across the canopy to spy on her former people, the lost children of Xur, their quant settlement on the plains, and on the Deacon and his zealous minions.
Damné showed more interest in the caterpillar inching along his claw. "I still don't understand why you bother checking on them Tabri," he said. "They cast you out, left you to die in the woods because of their fear and prejudice. Why do you care about their well-being? I'd think you'd hate them."
"I hate the Deacon, Damné, not all my people. They didn't all want to tie me to a tree, like Alinka and her parents. I may be one of the Witchfolk now, but I'm still bound by my roots in Xur. So their welfare is important to me. And perhaps one day, after that awful preacher dies and is being torn apart by beasts in the Netherwild like he deserves, they'll realize they were wrong about what they did to me."
Her devil shrugged. "Perhaps. But if I were in your position, I doubt anyone in the Fiendlands would change their minds much about me."
"Yes, but Fiends also consider altruism and compassion a sign of madness."
Damné tilted his head, acknowledging the truth in that statement.
Scanning the settlement, Tabri was impressed by how well the Xureans were doing in spite of Hauntergast's harshness. Crops were growing in the farms and rustic wooden houses were being built. Sadly, or not, the Deacon's chapel was hidden by the cluster of conical roofs and the hamlet's short protective wall. Imagining what twisted sermons he was delivering within turned her stomach.
"Would you go back to them, if you could?" Damné asked her.
"I..." The erstwhile Xurean was uncertain how to answer. She should have said no, but it wouldn't sound truthful. Gazing out at her people's new hamlet, a familiar homesickness, or something of the like, ached in Tabri. She missed her countrymen more than she let on.
Before she said anything, a pained scream from the forest snared Tabri's attention, dissolving her sight spell. Wasting no time in reacting, she leapt from her perch to the ground and sprinted toward the scream's source. Damné bounded along behind her in the canopy above.
A stone's throw from the village's border of totems, she found Salaska leaning against a tree. Blood dripped from a deep gash in her thigh.
"Salaska! What did this to you?"
The ranger threw up a hand. "Stay back Tabri! The thing might still be about."
Both women looked around, searching for any threat, nerves alight. A horrible echoing howl sliced through the trees, riding an ill wind straight toward them, a cyclone of dead leaves caught in its wake.
Salaska cried, "It's come back!"
Tabri turned to face their foe. An anguished ghost met her, cloaked in swirling green mist, its eyes only pitiless black pits. The specter thrust out gossamer talons and wailed from a mouth of broken teeth, speeding forward at the head of the wind.
It hit the witch apprentice like a sledgehammer to the ribs, knocking her back. She winced. The creature of fog somehow ripped her clothes and cut her skin, drawing blood.
As it came around to strike again, she pulled a few of the charged totems from her pockets, holding them up just before her spectral assailant could ram into her.
It howled at the sight of the wards and Tabri lobbed one at its grotesque face. To her surprise, her throw actually made contact, burning a hole through the specter's misty form. This time, it screamed in pain.
Salaska shouted to her, "Tabri, while it's injured, run. Don't worry about me, just run!"
"Salaska, what is this thing?"
"Its..." The ranger groaned from her wound and was only able to say, "Fiend!"
The specter howled and raised a huge talon to claw Tabri. In her shock, she reacted a second too late. The blow slashed her back, raking open her flesh. The young spellcaster stumbled and the Fiend battered her with a hard gust of wind.
Still reeling, Tabri's mind tried to find any defense.
"A spell. I must have some spell for hurting Fiends. Any spell will do," she said in her panic.
She clutched her quartz crystal talisman in desperation, cycling through every spell she knew. On instinct, she cast the first the one she could think of.
With an out thrust palm, she called out, "Bind this beast!"
Thick vines, ropes as strong as spider silk, shot out of the ground at her command and snared the Fiendish phantasm. The magic in them trapped it despite its foggy form. For a moment, Tabri relaxed.
But her hostage wailed and another cyclone spun through, sending the witches' hanging totems dancing in the wind. The enchanted vines snapped and the Fiend dove at her.
She gasped and braced for the assault.
A black shape blurred past her vision. Damné had launched himself from a branch overhead, landing on the howling attacker. It fought against him, screaming in his face, but the devil pinned the foul thing down. He screamed back, embers flying from his mouth.
"You shouldn't have left home," he said to the specter. Before it could howl again, he clenched its withered nose in his teeth and ripped the Fiend's ghostly face off. He ate the hazy flap of flesh in one go, and then devoured the rest.
Tabri watched her companion, rapt with grim realization. For all his calm curiosity and domesticity, she often forgot Damné was still a Fiend. He might keep it buried, but he still had savagery in his heart.
Putting that truth aside for now, she checked on her injured friend.
"Salaska, are you alright? The wound looks deep."
"I'll be fine," said the ranger pushing her away. "Nothing that can't be healed back at the village. Just grab a few leaves for a salve to stop the bleeding."
"Yes, of course."
Tabri hunkered in the undergrowth to gather the needed silver-edged plants. Everything happened so fast; her mind was only beginning to catch up.
"That Fiend... Why didn't the spell I cast on it hold?"
"Your magic wasn't strong enough," said Salaska, "Without making your Patron's Pact, your spells won't so much as scratch something on that level."
"Oh, so this is my fault." Embarrassment washed over Tabri. Here she thought she'd become a competent spellcaster.
"Don't beat yourself up about it Tabri. Give me those."
The ranger pressed the leaves against her wound, gluing them in place, and wrapped them with a torn piece of her cloak. She grunted in pain as she fixed the makeshift tourniquet.
"I'm not exactly thrilled about being rescued by your pet devil, but at least he finished the job. The Fiend is dead."
"Unfortunately, it's not," said Damné.
Sound seemed to drop out of the world at his words. Fear coiled in the two witches' spines.
Tabri asked, "Damné, what do you mean?"
"That wasn't the true Fiend, merely a minion made from its essence. Like your twig dolls in a way. Its master likely separated off a bit of itself to act as a scout, to probe the village's defenses."
"So the real thing will be even stronger?" asked Salaska, one hand on her injury.
"Without a doubt."
Picking up her bow, she slung it across her back and limped toward the village. When she wobbled, Tabri tried to give her a shoulder to lean on, but the proud ranger refused. Her demeanor took on that of a military commander.
"Tabri, did you finish recharging all the wards in your assigned area?"
"Um." In all the excitement, she couldn't remember if she had recharged every hanging totem before her peeping act. She believed so, but this sudden threat clouded her memory with doubt.
"Yes. Yes, I did."
"Good. We'll have to work through the night to finish the rest and secure our warding circle. The Coven Mother needs to be told about this at once."
Salaska soldiered on, but her injury took a heavier burden than she first thought. She stumbled and almost fell as they crossed through the sea of totems. Eventually, the ranger relented and accepted Tabri's shoulder.
"Here, let me help as well," said Damné.
"No, thank you. Having one Fiend touch me is more than enough."
The two witches pulled ahead of him. The devil said nothing else as they continued on, but his hollow eyes betrayed the slow calculations of his thoughts.