Night did not fall easy on the Witchfolk's village. Members of the coven worked in the darkness to recharge every last totem and ward, the women weaving their spells and the men providing torchlight. Salaska and her rangers stood on guard, ever vigilant for the Fiend's return. No threat came though and as dawn broke, they retreated behind their barrier still frightened.
A mood of confinement settled over their homes. In her own hut, Tabri breathed in the stifled air. Dread clung to her skin like errant spider-webs and dull heat weighed on her. Damné, emotional epicurean that he was, sensed her anxiety.
"Tabri, your temperament is so sour. Take my hand, please. I hate to see you in such a state."
Gently, they clasped hands and her devil guided her down to the floor by his side. The two embraced and Tabri's loving gratitude eased his palette and mind.
"Thank you, Damné. This Fiend just has me so on edge."
"If I know my kind, this pervasive fear is what it wants. The flavor is irresistible. As for what the Fiend will do next, it'll wait for someone to make a mistake. Something that will give it an opening. Then it will swoop in and destroy us."
"But why? What does it gain?"
Damné shrugged. "Any number of things. The despair it would create would be a magnificent feast. Or it may be trying to perform a grand act of cruelty to earn itself a name. Fiends don't think in mortal terms Tabri, human or witch. It might be scaring the wits out of us for its own amusement."
She thought back to Damné's bout of cannibalism in the woods and let her hand slip out of his grasp. "I often forget that you are a Fiend too," she said, barely louder than a whisper. "Yesterday, you asked me if I would go back to my people if I could. But what about you? Would you return to the Fiendlands Damné?"
She rolled away, turning her back to him. The hurt was obvious in his eyes, and she regretted the question, but she needed to an answer all the same.
"I told you, seven years ago that-"
"I know what you said seven years ago. But things have changed since then. You're smart enough to realize that. None of the coven trusts you, even after all this time, and I'm your only friend. You must be just as alienated here as you were in the Fiendlands. So would you go home if you could?"
Damné stood at his full height and sat Tabri up, putting them eye-to-eye. Resting his hands on her shoulders, the devil said, "No, I wouldn't, and you yourself said why. You may be my only friend Tabri, but that's still one more than I ever had in the Fiendlands. Through you, I've experienced things no Fiend has, kindness, camaraderie, and love. I love you, and being with you is the only home I need."
The girl and her devil hugged again, warmly and tightly, and she told him, "I love you too."
He purred. "Mmm, a sweeter taste than any cruelty."
Their embrace was broken by the bellow of a horn. The village had been breached. Without a word, Tabri and Damné left their hut to discover the intruder's identity, and do battle if necessary.
The rest of the villagers appeared to have the same idea. Witchfolk thronged in the torchlight of not quite dawn; eager to see why the horn had blown. Tabri fought her way forward, meeting Ozaika at the wall.
"Master, did the Fiend attack our border again?"
"I'm not sure Tabri. The rangers have caught something, that is all I know."
A frightful scream echoed behind the barrier, followed by carried voices. The Witchfolk muttered amongst themselves, not recognizing the language. Damné jabbed a finger into the darkness.
Salaska limped in through the magic opening; pulling off her hood, bow at rest.
"Salaska, what happened?" asked Ozaika.
The ranger held up a hand to calm the crowd. "Everyone relax. We didn't find the Fiend. But we did catch something out there." She whistled behind her.
Two other rangers, cowls still up, dragged in their quarry, a human woman dressed in beige peasant garb. The gathered masses all backed away in confusion and disgust at the intruder. Salaska's comrades threw their captive to the ground, keeping their arrows trained on her, and the woman frantically scrambled up, begging to the witches in words none of them spoke. None but Tabri.
Ozaika nudged her apprentice with her walking staff. "Tabri, speak to her. Ask why she is in our woods so late."
"Oh, of course Coven Mother."
She put Damné down and approached the foreigner, a fellow child of Xur. The woman was nearly hysterical. Tabri needed a minute to make sense of her words, being so long since she'd used them herself.
"Be calm!" she said to the woman, "Be calm, you won't be harmed here."
Understanding dawned on the woman's face, then confusion. "Tabri, is that you?"
Tabri raised an eyebrow. "You know me?"
"Yes, it's me. Alinka."
"Alinka?" Sorting through the cobwebs of seven years' memories, Tabri registered her old friend's name. "Alinka! By the gods, I didn't even recognize you."
"I could say the same thing." She said, gesturing to Tabri's witch dress.
Examining herself, clad in rough spun black and feet bare and filthy, Tabri had to admit she looked nothing like she did back in Xur.
"Rumors were going around that witches lived in the woods," said Alinka studying her captors, "I had no idea you were living with them. I had no idea that you were alive at all."
"Very much so, my old friend. More alive than I ever was with the Deacon."
Salaska gave Tabri a soft tap on the butt with her moccasin to get her attention.
"Why is she here?" the ranger asked her in Witchspeak.
"Oh, yes." Tabri switched between the two languages. "Alinka, what are you doing in the Old Wood? This place isn't safe for the Children of Xur. Especially now."
The frightened woman grabbed her by the shirt. "Oh Tabri, it was terrible. Some... monster, some... thing attacked our village. A howling ghost made of green mist. It dragged people away, bit into their necks and drained them of... of... life. We looked for the Deacon to protect us, but he'd vanished too. Most of us fled without thought of the direction. I wasn't even thinking about the woods' danger when I ran this way."
Tabri's pupils shrank to pinpoints at the description, dread obvious on her face. The assembled Witchfolk murmured at her reaction. Ozaika stepped forward, trying to maintain the calm, and asked her student, "Tabri, what did this woman say?"
Slowly, Tabri turned her head to her Master. She looked to Damné for support, and he gave her a nod. After a hard swallow, she told them all in Witchspeak, "The Fiend has attacked the foreigners' settlement. Many of them have fled. It's coming this way."
Captive silence held sway for mere moments as the words left her mouth. Then, pure panic seized the Witchfolk. Men and women alike burst into screaming and scrambled for shelter. Ozaika, Stoic and resolute, fired off a loud spark from the end of her staff. The crowd quieted as it popped and fizzled over their heads.
"Everyone, remain calm! We have prepared for this. The wards around the village still hold. We are still safe."
"But Coven Mother," said someone from the gathered throng, "The Fiend is on its way. Our totems may keep it out, but it won't leave. That monster will wait for any opening it can get."
Or it will attack the settlement again, the Deacon be damned, Tabri thought to herself. She clutched Alinka's hand, offering comfort and a friend's smile, as her fellow Xurean was lost and confused among the witches.
"What are we to do?"
"We will do nothing," Ozaika addressed them, "All of you, return to your homes. I shall go and face this foul spirit alone, and banish it back to whence it came for good. In my absence, heed the Rangers' words. They will protect you."
Mollified but still frightened, the Witchfolk withdrew back to their huts. For them, this Fiend was a storm, an obliterating hurricane, and they had little choice but to wait the ordeal out. Tabri, having seen what a fraction of this specter could do first hand, was keen to follow suit.
Alinka tugged on her arm, still terrified within an inch of her life. "Tabri, what were they saying? What's going on? What will happen to me now?"
"You're going to be fine, Alinka. You're going to have to stay in the village for now, but don't worry. No one is going to hurt you here. Forget anything the Deacon may have said about witches. These are very kind people."
"But will I be safe from that thing?" She pointed at Damné.
Tabri loosed a melancholy sigh. With him not giving much care to it, she sometimes felt like she had to shoulder her devil's sadness for him.
"Don't worry about him. He's with me."
Cautious relief filled Alinka's face. She stood but fidgeted, uncertain of what to do.
"Okay, um, where am I supposed to go?"
"Oh, uh..." Tabri looked around for someone to help her friend. She whistled and a group of male Witchfolk, diminutive with scarf-wrapped mouths, scrambled over to her. In Witchspeak, she told them, "Take our guest somewhere safe. Give her some food and new clothes. And one of the Coven Mother's speaking vegetables. Treat her well. Understand?"
The men nodded in unison and, unable to speak, took Alinka's hand to lead her on.
"Go with them, Alinka. I'll come find you later."
"Um, alright. If you say so."
The male witches tugged on her dress to get her moving.
"Yes, I'm coming you... strange little men."
As they departed, Tabri cupped her face in her hands, sudden exhaustion hitting her. A Fiend attacking the Witchfolk was one thing, a horrible prospect but one her adopted people were prepared for with their magic and ancient knowledge. But a Fiend attacking the settlement was another thing entirely. The refugees of Xur were defenseless against such a threat, their fear and trauma turning them away from the only means of defense. The Gods only knew the Deacon's cheap zealotry would be useless.
She sank to her knees and longed for this nightmare to pass. Astute to Tabri's emotions as usual, Damné rejoined her. Light from his hollow head blaze tickled against her eyelids. Opening them, the silhouette of the devil's smile eased her anxiety.
"Tabri, a question. Why are you so distressed? This is about more than the Fiend stalking beyond our borders. Don't lie please, I can sense the truth in your feelings."
"It's Alinka, Damné."
"I would think being reunited with an old friend would make you happy. Isn't that why you've been spying on them? Granted, the circumstances are not the best."
"Those circumstances are why. I lost one home to rogue, malicious magic. But I managed to find another one, and my people did too. Now both are under attack from this monster and I just feel so..." Tabri searched in vain for the right description. When the word finally came to her, and all her inadequacy along with it, it slid off her tongue like an iron weight. "... Helpless."
Damné's jack-o-lantern face remained unmoving following the statement. Only the twitch of his flame bore evidence that he hadn't become a statue.
After a few concerned moments on Tabri’s part, he said, "Then do something."
"Oh right, what should I do?"
The devil gazed over at Ozaika. If he'd had eyebrows, he might have waggled them. She took his meaning at once.
"All students eventually have to put what they've learned from their teachers into practice, right?" he said.
Damné was proposing a bold and reckless idea, one that both thrilled and terrified Tabri. She'd joined this Coven for shelter, but also to learn to be a better spellcaster, to master her magic. Time to see how much of a master she'd become.
Ozaika didn't hear the motley pair rush over to her; she was too busy directing the rabble. The old witch barely gave a glance as the girl and her devil approached her.
"Master, I have a request." Tabri said.
"Not now, Tabri," she said without looking at them. "The village is still on a knife's edge. Your old friend has done us no favors this night, and there may be more intruders yet. If that weren't enough, I must now prepare to face this demon."
The Coven Mother moved away at a brisk pace, attending to her leadership duties, but the young spellcaster and her piggybacking devil simply followed after her.
"That's what I wanted to ask about. Let me face the Fiend. I'll banish it back to the Fiendlands."
Her request stopped Ozaika in her tracks. The elder witch could only turn and regard Tabri with a look of utter disbelief. Shaking her head, the same way an exasperated parent would at their child, she headed toward the temple.
"Don't be foolish," she said, "Your spellcasting is nowhere near potent enough to deal with this threat. Salaska told me what happened in the woods."
Tabri demurred, the sting of her failure still sensitive, but pressed on.
"I'll be ready this time. Almost everything I've learned about magic I learned from you. Teach me to perform the banishing ritual on this Fiend. You said yourself that I needed a final test of my abilities in the arcane arts."
"Yes, but this ridiculous Tabri. It would be suicide!" The Coven Mother threw aside the temple's curtain, ready to withdraw within, but lingered on the threshold. She had one last point to make. "For earth's sake, you haven't even made your Patron's Pact yet."
"Then I'll make my Pact."
Ozaika scoffed. "With whom?"
"With me," said Damné.
Stunned silence hit both women.
He continued, "Tabri needs an advocate to the spirits of the world to increase the strength of her magic. No one knows her better than I do. I would be honored to be her Patron."
Ozaika's eyes turned from Damné to match gazes with Tabri. The light in the younger woman's expression said that she would take the devil as her Patron without hesitation.
"Could it be done?" her apprentice asked.
"I don't know," said Ozaika. "No witch has ever made a Pact with a Fiend before. In theory, it is possible. But... No. No, you're moving much too fast. Both of you. A Patron's Pact is binding for life. This is not something you just do on a whim."
She tried to enter the temple and leave them, but Tabri stopped her by the shoulder.
"Master, please let me do this. I lost one home when Xur fell, I can't lose another."
Ozaika considered her student's aura. She found resolve there, and passion. In a way, she was proud of how far Tabri had come from the untrained, abandoned maiden who couldn't conjure a candle's worth of fire. Then there was Damné. The Coven Mother had never trusted him, but she couldn't deny how close he was to Tabri. As Patrons went, her student would find none as devoted.
Perhaps the best way to fight a Fiend was with another Fiend.
"Damné," Ozaika said to the devil.
"You used my name."
"If you were to become Tabri's Patron, what price would you have her pay? What would you ask of her in exchange for your Patronage?"
Damné tilted his eyes down, as if in thought, and took his companion's hand. He squeezed and she squeezed back. And though he spoke to the elder witch, he looked only at her.
"I would only ask for that which she's already given me. Companionship, insight, and love."
"Do you swear by the name she gave you, Damné?"
Blushing, Tabri smiled at her devil.
"Very well. Then you have my permission to make your Pact. Do so, and then we will discuss dealing with the matter of the Fiend. Good night you two."
Beatific acceptance beaming on her face, Ozaika slipped into the temple. For her, and for the pair she left outside to make their arrangements, a cool breeze had just cut through the dull claustrophobic heat of dread. Morning was on its way.