I waited just outside the Summoner’s door as once again the yellow, green and blue eyes of the night creatures flecked the darkness as they came to watch me and wait for the ideal opportunity.
In time, as they eyes crept closer and closer, Jirus appeared at the top of the rise; his eyes were still that pale blue.
At his greeting, the eyes began to recede into the trees.
I walked up the rise and he took my hand.
“Vilus is back at the camp, and the meat is cooking. Did you do what you needed?”
“I did.” I stopped, and since he held my hand, he stopped with me.
“I may need your help later. I’m afraid that the Dark Wood won’t be spared this time.”
He nodded. “I didn’t think it would be; with the departure of so many, there are holes in its protection, and what magic remains has faded, or weakened, to the point where we’ve been vulnerable for some time.”
We began walking again.
“We’ve been relying on reputation to keep out intruders for some time. The truth is, Mitre, you wouldn’t have been able to get as far as you did if everything was still intact.
“The original barrier prevented travel through the last of the hill country, and you were very lucky to survive.”
That was a sobering thought, but I let it pass.
“So no, we won’t be spared, and we’ll help in any way we can.”
This time, he stopped, and looked up at me with a rather fierce expression.
“But I’ll not put Vilus in harm’s way for you.”
I was taken aback, and said so. “I would never ask you to do that.”
We started walking again. “War makes men do all sorts of things they’d never do.”
I had no answer for that either.
We arrived at the camp, and Vilus ran up to me and hugged me.
“Were you able to help her, Mitre?”
The most expedient thing to do in the moment was lie, one of the first things I vowed never to do when I donned the temple’s robes. Already what Jirus told me was proving true.
“Yes Vilus, I was.”
“The food’s ready,” Jirus called.
As we ate, they regaled me with some of their more dangerous hunting stories, and while they weren’t exactly feral children, if their exploits were true, they were relentless in their pursuit, and brutal in their killing.
They said nothing of their family, or how they came to be alone, much less survive, in the woods all these years, and nothing of how they gained their hunting prowess, and why the animals feared them so.
Something told me that if I asked, I would lose them, so I didn’t.
That’s a tale for another day.
It was what my father often said to us when we’d ask him for another bedtime story because we didn’t want him to go, and we didn’t want to go to sleep. Sometimes he’d indulge us, but when he didn’t, that’s what he’d say.
I felt it applied here.
Soon time and quiet exacted their price, and the light in the children’s eyes was flickering as their lids closed as they too, fought sleep; but as the fire died, their stories trailed off into light snores
Knowing I was safe as long as I stayed close, I watched the unfed fire dance across the embers, and darken, and took what rest I could in the remainder of the night.
In the morning, Vilus woke me.
“Mitre Harkin, it’s time to go.”
I woke up, rubbing my eyes, my face, as I looked about to see Jirus not in the camp.
“Where’s your brother?”
“He got your horse.”
“He found it alive?”
She smiled. “Yes, and it’s already saddled for you.”
She took my hand.
“It’s not dark, Vilus.”
She gave my hand a little squeeze.
Jirus held the reins as I mounted, and I gave the bag with the rest of the gold.
“That’s very generous, Mitre.”
“You’ve more than earned it. I only hope you find it of some use before the demons come, before their masters gain more power.”
“I wish we met under better circumstances.”
“Well, we have a chance to make them better before we meet again.”
“I’d like that.”
“Me too,” Vilus said. She handed me my crossbow.
“Thank you. Both of you.”
“Until we meet again, right, Mitre Harkin?”
“That’s right, dear Vilus. That’s exactly right.”
I turned the horse, who took off at a gallop, eager to be back on familiar ground.
I didn’t bother turning around this time, because I didn’t want to see the empty space.
The sun was rising.
Overmorrow had now become today.