Toadmila flew as high as the broom would take her. She coughed and wheezed in the cold, rarefied air. Her head was spinning from the quick change of air pressure. Clutching her broom with frozen fingers, she began her descent, slower this time, circling round the bright spot of the burning hut below. From above, the forest looked different. A dark patch of dead, leafless trees surrounded the hut, and a dark trail of equally dead trees made its way into the heart of the forest. But all around the dead trees, even in darkness, she could discern the bright colors of autumn leaves. Not all of Grimwood was dead.
Toadmila flew in circles that were wider and wider, until she spotted an opening among the trees. She had assumed it was another clearing, but as she flew above it, she felt heat rising from the dark space below her. She flew lower still. She was far enough from her hut now, and entirely shielded from view by the trees. The heat increased as she descended, and she could feel steam rising from below, filling the air. Unclutching her wand hand from the broom, she produced a wisp of blue light and set it afloat. It landed gently on the surface below, revealing a stretch of translucent water. Toadmila lowered a finger cautiously into the pond. The water was warm, growing hotter as she advanced. A gurgling sound ahead of her marked the place where an underground stream reached up to fill the pond with hot water from the depth of the earth. Backing away from the source of heat, Toadmila searched for the edge of the water, and found it not far from the trees. She landed gently on the ground and found it covered in colorful leaves. Above her, sprightly branches displayed their lavish ornaments of gold, copper and ruby leaves. This didn't look like Grimwood Forest anymore.
Toadmila leaned her broom against an old tree. In the distance, she could still hear the villagers shouting, and the air smelled of burned hay. For a moment, she was sorry that she'd left her cup of tea behind. But only for a moment.
She remembered the procedure for setting up camp. She'd practiced it so many times at the Academy that her hands seemed to move on their own, spreading out warding spells in rapid succession. Her safe zone covered a round space, twenty-five yards in diameter, with a good portion of pond in it. When she was done, she gathered dead leaves with one sweeping motion of her wand, and fashioned them into a bed. She sat on it to test its softness and scowled at the results of this experiment. She missed her red blanket. In the distance, she could hear the villagers shouting still. So this was what her studies had brought her to, what her brilliant career was going to amount to: a house made of dung and noisy neighbors with torches and pitchforks. For the hundredth time in the last two days, she wished she'd studied less. Then exhaustion overcame her and she was fast asleep.