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Buzz. Buzz. Chirp!

Amity flickers awake; groaning as the light of the sun’s rays hit her in the face just so. And then another groan from her as she rolls over and grabs her scroll off her nightstand, her eyelids heavy as she blearily reads the message chittering away on her scroll. 

Hello, little one. I’m sending Asa on his way to you. 

The fog of sleep is abruptly lifted; replacing it a horror as she comes to realize she only has ten minutes to get ready. This, Amity decides, sets the tone of the day not running as smoothly as she might’ve thought. Tackle on the fact Amity fell asleep with her wet hair piled at the top of her head, one can imagine the frustration Amity Blight was experiencing this morning. Noon, actually. She jumps out of bed; something inside her, something very quiet, clicks unhappily, and she feels unsettled, on edge. 

The unintended curls of Amity’s hair flow down her shoulders like a waterfall; it’s a disastrous mess the witchling just didn’t have the time to straighten out. A quick run through with her brush helped a little to smooth out the flyaway, but the sight of the unruly waves still left Amity fretting. She momentarily stalled to consider the option to pull it all back into the hair tie. If said hair tie could be relocated. By Azura, I swear I just had it in my hand! I don’t have time for this today.

With her hair left to its fate, a toothbrush is shoved in her mouth, a pair of black leggings in hand, with one foot prepped to slide in, when she’s interrupted by the buzz of her scroll. Don’t tell me it’s already here?! I still have four minutes! With that thought, Amity abandons her leggings and leaps onto her bed, body bouncing off slightly, and snatched up her scroll; she swiped her thumb and opened the message. 

Okay, I lied. He might be a little longer. I’m running a bit behind with a few of my patients and am in need of his assistance. 

Amity let out an oof around her toothbrush, quickly typing out her response before setting her scroll down on the bed. Now faced with the knowledge she was granted a bit more time to get ready, Amity felt the familiar sense of foreboding gnawing at the pit of her stomach ease a fraction. She got her legs into the leggings, found some black ankle boots, and dug through her closet for a maroon sweater; then she left her room to finish brushing her teeth in the bathroom just down the hall from her bedroom. A glance in the mirror has her reconsidering leaving her hair as it is.

It was funny, in a bitter way. Because as Amity stares, really stares at the reflection gazing back at her, she’s not all that surprised to see the similarities in her features to that of Elara Rime: the same high cheekbones and button nose and hue of gold in their eyes. When Amity’s thoughts veer towards Luz, her smile is almost identical to the healer’s, except Elara’s soft smiles aren’t anchored down by the expectations the Blight name chains Amity with. All things considered, one could easily mistake them for mother and daughter; their most defining difference being the shade of green in their hairs, Elara’s the Blight’s classic forest green, while Amity’s the dyed mint shade. And, well.

Hatred reared its ugly head at the thought of it. 

Amity hadn’t always hated it, but she can’t remember what it felt like to ever not feel the doubts and disgust and dread that hit her like waves crashing on the shore when she looks in the mirror and sees that despicable shade of warm brown coming in. Her father’s hair; not a Blight’s. It made her stomach twist itself into knots; the sight of it alone always left Amity feeling off. The only reason she can meet the reflection in the mirror today is because her roots had been touched up a few days ago; there’s nary a brunette strand in sight amongst the softly shaded mind locks. 

“I think it’s time you’ve touched up your roots,” uninhibited, the thought filters in. “Don’t you, Amity dear?”

Oh. The way her mother phrased it could’ve been interpreted as a mere suggestion to anyone else, a mother’s nurturing nature. That is, anyone not a Blight. With Odalia Blight -with any Blight- it isn’t; never has been. A Blight shouldn’t be seen as anything less than perfect; something as simple as Amity’s roots -her natural hair color- showing is an imperfection Odalia will not tolerate for long. And though Amity doesn’t mind the color -it’s the one occasion her mother’s ever agreed to a compromise with her youngest child- she doesn’t care for the reason behind why she has to dye it. (“It’s nothing to fret over, Amity dear. It would just so please me if you’d match your siblings. Would you do that for me?”)

And like the foolish child she was -still is- Amity believed her then, too ensnared by the cunningly sweet tone her mother instilled to realize she was being manipulated. She was a child who just wanted her mother’s approval. Still wants it -even now- when she knows -oh, she knows- the real reason her mother wanted her to dye her hair green. How could she have been so blind as to not see it at the family gatherings, the Blights’ golden hued gazes flicking over her as if she isn’t even in the same room as them; never bothering to acknowledge her existence. An immense sense of loneliness setting in as she watches them fawn over Edric and Emira, wondering what she did so wrong to earn such complete disregard. 

Why do you hate me? How can I earn your approval? 

How do I prove I am a Blight to you?

For sixteen years, Amity has lived with the pressure of striving to be perfect: the perfect student, the perfect witch, the perfect daughter, the perfect Blight. Amity’s had to work so much harder than the twins to get where she is now, and in the eyes of her mother...it simply isn’t enough, because Amity isn’t gifted like Edric and Emira -the twins are so, so naturally talented at magic. But Amity. Amity had to fight to earn even a smidge of her mother’s praise. Just one little sign Amity’s doing something right for once. 

Because Amity has already failed her. With her hair. 

Because the Blights go as far back as the ages of the first witches, when magic was wild and free; a time when superstitions were so ingrained in the lives of the nine families they saw them as law. One such is the age old tale that if a mother’s first carriage isn’t to a set of twins ...well, the child is slaughtered and the family’s ties to the Blight name are severed in an instant. Because twins are always the firstborn children, whether the mother herself is a Blight, or her chosen spouse is; there were no exceptions to this. Another, a Blight isn’t to be born with their other parent’s coloring, and if they are, they’re seen as nothing more than a cheap knockoff among a room of originals; inheriting the distinct Blight coloring meant inheriting the power of one’s ancestors. To her family, Amity’s nothing more than a cheap knockoff. And maybe they’re right, because she certainly hasn’t proven them wrong yet. 

“I think it’s time you’ve touched up your roots. Don’t you, Amity dear?”

Amity abandoned any thoughts of touching her hair and darted out of the bathroom. She arrives back to her room to find several new notifications lighting up her scroll. One is from her mother, informing her she’s taken the twins to be fitted for their formal wear to next week's gala and won’t be back till later in the evening. Explains why they didn’t come storming into my room to wake me up. The other has her feeling an odd sort of way. 

I hope you’re a fan of chocolate; nothing quite settles the nerves like a sweet treat!

Amity just stares at the screen, considering her response for a minute. With a Blight, such common courtesy always came with a price, but was the renowned healer that sort of Blight? Amity chose to simply not respond, locking her scroll and placing it in the bag she swings over her shoulder. She strolls over to her bed and reaches under her pillow to grab the healer’s scroll, tossing that into the bag as well before giving the room a last minute sweep to be certain she has everything she needs; then Amity is out the door. 

Her hurried pace has her halfway down the grand hall when something catches her attention out of the corner of her eye. She stalls, her hands tightening around the strap of her bag. Don’t do it, Amity. Today’s the day you won’t look. But, like always, she’s powerless to stop herself.

She looks.

Amity met the golden hued eyes of her mother, mocking her in the way her lips curl in a smile fit for a snake, from the family portrait hung proudly on the wall in the grand hall of Blight Manor. She embodied everything Amity couldn’t be; what she wanted to be once upon a time. Proud, arrogant, dismissive, self-serving. A Blight. Beside her, her husband stood as impassive as a statue, and Amity felt a stirring of resentment and bitterness in her chest at the sight of him. Because why couldn’t he care about his children? Why did Amity have to inherit his coloring?

Why was everything Amity did wrong in her mother’s eyes?

Why was Amity wrong?

Amity kept her gaze solidly fixed on the portrait, years of pent-up indignation and hatred coursing hot, almost toxically, through her veins. Will I never be good enough for you? Do you even love me?

“I think it’s time you’ve touched up your roots. Don’t you, Amity dear?”

“Of course, mother.”

The vibrations at the bottom of her bag jolted her out of her head; Amity breathed in sharply, trying to reign in her emotions. Emotions are a weakness, Amity; a Blight isn’t weak. A creeping deadness in her chest blooms and infects the rest of her, pumping cold poison into her bloodstream in sync with the rhythm of her heartbeat. All the viscous searing of her emotions are frozen over and a neutral expression flits over Amity’s face. They’ll be back, Amity knows, so she scurries away before they can swallow her whole, the buzz of her scroll grounding her, reminding her what she has to do today. Who she has to face. 

There’s Luz, of course, and her idiotic need to play savior to everyone, even to those who don’t deserve her selfless kindness; then there’s the whole spiel with the healer. Amity doesn’t like that Luz doesn’t realize what Blights are capable of, and at first glance, Elara Rime seemingly appears to be as sincere as she depicts herself, but she’s still a Blight. And Blights are notoriously known for their painted smiles and false senses of securities. Snakes. All of them. Amity isn’t dumb enough to trust her yet. If ever. 

Amity knows firsthand how it feels to have one’s privacy invaded, and though it went against everything she stood for, the witchling let the side of her that is her mother surface, let the Blight in her research late into the night on anything she could find on the Rimes. Any dirt. (“Everyone has skeletons in their closets, Amity dear. Secrets to expose. Weaknesses to exploit. No one is infallible; one just needs to know where to look.”) All she needed was a piece of proof Elara Rime could not be trusted with Luz. 

And, well.

Amity can’t say if it’s frustration or bafflement she felt when she found nothing; either the Rimes are influential enough to cover up their transgressions, or -for once- those that carry Blight blood in them are actual, genuine people. Amity doesn’t know for certain, but what she does know is the Rimes are a family of seven, consisting of a mother, father, and their five daughters. The mother, once known as Primrose Blight, owns a bookshop with her husband, Joseph Rime, here in Bonesborough; surprisingly, Amity’s never been, though The Blooming Rose was fairly well known. Amity tried looking up to see what branch of family she hailed from; unsurprisingly, her existence has been erased from the family history.

Nothing showcased where Primrose lies magically, if she’s a gifted caster or average at best; Amity’s leaning towards average. No one owns a bookshop unless they’re weak. Her children, on the other hand... well, Amity’s curious nature is further piqued as to why her mother lies her hate squarely on Elara when Primrose is the one Amity would find fault with if she cared enough about the Blight reputation. 

Primrose Rime gave birth to two sets of twins. Two powerful sets of twins. Elara and her sister, Mira, are the eldest, and are by far the most powerful in the family. Elara is considered a prodigy healer on the Isles, her knowledge and prowess vastly superior to those in her profession. There are over a thousand clinics in her name, several hundred apprentice healers studying under her, and though all of her students have proven under her tutelage to be quite gifted in the field, they’re still nothing compared to Elara herself. An article even stated Elara’s magical reserves were so astronomical she could heal the Titan itself and still have magic to spare. Aside from her questionable healing practices, Amity found no trace of malpractice or fraud amongst the articles practically singing sonnets of Elara’s accomplishments. No one’s infallible, but she seems pretty faultless to me.

The same could not be said about Mira Rime, Elara’s opposite in every sense of the word. Elara’s chosen path led her to heal others, while Mira Rime’s led her to break others; if any of the Rime’s catered to the possibility of dirt on their person, it was bound to be Mira, but it was solely due to her position rather than actual choice. As a member of the High Council -okay, scratch that earlier thought, this is who Odalia should hate- Amity could already surmise the other Rime twin was exceedingly powerful, because one had to be in order to win Belos’ favor. Mira is an illusionist on a whole other level to any that has ever existed; no one’s ever seen her scribe a spell circle, and her most powerful spell is lethal enough to leave anyone within a ten kilometer radius of her brain dead.   

Amity’s not so confident that’s someone she’d want traveling with Luz in The Ribs or not. On the one hand, Luz would assuredly be safe from outside threats; on the other, she’d be dead in seconds to a threat she didn’t see coming. 

Though all of the High Council’s roles and missions are classified and its members files locked down tight enough not even Amity’s parents have access to them, it hasn’t completely hidden what the High Council deals in; what they’re capable of unleashing on Belos’ command. Mira has a scarily impressive body count on her. Funny how one twin saves lives, while the other destroys lives. 

Amity had to pause. Didn’t Eda once consider herself the most powerful witch on the Isles? With the full extent of her magic backing her, could Eda take on Mira and win?

Amity also found something of interest on the first set of Rime twins. A similar pattern is followed in various reports, stating one shouldn't look them in their eyes if you value your life. The healer’s a creepy knowing you from the inside out; Mira’s a surefire way to be dead where you stand

Is there something special about their eyes? Or is it just paranoia born out of fear of such powerful witches?

The other set of twins, born two years after Elara and Mira, are certainly gifted witches in their own rights, but they’re nowhere near the same league as their elder siblings. One followed Elara’s path as a healer, working alongside her sister at her clinics and teaching apprentice witches her sister’s way. If anyone comes a smidge close to Elara’s expertise in the field, it’s her little sister Poppy. I wonder if she feels like she’ll never compare to her sister? To think Poppy was confident enough to follow the same path as a sister she’ll never catch up to; brave enough to stand against the judgement she must face daily. Or she’s just stupid. Poppy has a wife and two daughters; Amity glosses over them. 

The other, Emilia, joined the Emperor’s Coven, and rose through the ranks as fast as lightning to become a commander at the southern border. Before Lilith’s rise to head of the coven, Emilia had been on a squadron with Amity’s ex-mentor, serving as her lieutenant. If Amity had been the Emperor she’d have chosen Emilia over Lilith as her left hand. I suppose cursing your sister earns you brownie points, huh. Emilia has a husband, two sons, and one daughter; again, Amity glosses over them.

Which leaves the youngest of the Rime children; not much is there on Serene Rime, as she’s the same age as Amity. Amity had to resort to penstagram to learn anything about her; she attends St. Epiderm, just as her sisters before her had. She’s bright, friendly, and apparently very popular amongst her peers. Amity had to click away before she torched her scroll. Aside from Mira, are all the Rimes seemingly friendly faces? 

To recap, Amity hadn’t found anything of suspicious nature with the Rime family, and she’s still confused as to why her mother has placed her ire solely on Elara, because Primrose gave birth to perfect Blights. All of her children inherited the Blight’s distinct coloring and power, even her children’s children are perfect. And next to Mira, Elara doesn’t compare in terms of raw magical ability. Realistically, if it was about who was the better witch her mother was having an issue with, Mira ought to be the one she despised. She’s on the High Council, for Titan’s sake. A position the Blights would kill for. 

Is it personal then? Amity wonders. Did something happen in their younger years that’s carried over into their adult one?

Amity’s still pondering it over as she takes the grand staircase two steps at a time, arriving at the last step just as the sound of careful taps echoes in the silence of the manor. She halts the servant she spies out the corner of her eye with a wave of her hand, making her way to the door and swiftly exiting before anyone can see what’s on the other side. The last thing Amity needed was her mother finding out that what she considered to be a pest was anywhere near the manor. 

The soft click of the door was the nail in the coffin, so to speak. A swell of dread threatens to drown Amity; there’s a sudden realization that she’s actually plotting behind Luz’s back. She’s essentially betraying the human she’s come to love more than anyone. What am I doing? Amity has half a second of reconsideration briefly flash through her mind. What if this is it? One false move and I’ll lose Luz for good. But shouldn’t it be worth it if it keeps her safe?  It all grinds to a stuttering halt when she turns around and comes face-to-face with Elara Rime’s palisman. 

Snakes. All of them. The thought was beyond unsettling so Amity refused to dwell on it. Why am I not surprised it’s a snake, she thought, her eyes as wide as saucers as she locks gazes with the cobra calmly peering back at her. Unlike her mother’s -a snake, of course- that lies dormant and quiet, Elara’s palisman remains animated -even now- its body coiled around the smooth, dark wood of her staff. (“Unfortunately, I can’t enter Bonesborough without my presence being detected by the Clawthornes, but if you don’t mind traveling by staff, Asa’s perfectly capable of bringing you to Knetwell around noon.”) Amity had agreed to this; she was regretting it now. 

The palisman flicked its tongue at her. Even without touching it, Amity can feel the thrum of the magic Elara has infused within it, and as it shifts and hisses at her, Amity notes how eager it is to return to its mistress. Besides Owlbert and Eda, Amity’s never caught such a bond between a palisman and their witch. She called it a he, didn’t she? And she gave it a name.

Amity’s hand reaches out. She hesitates. It’s not the staff itself; she’s traveled on her parents’ alone before, and she knows it will be in full control of their flight. So no, it’s not potentially falling to her death that’s halting her; it’s that she is indirectly placing her trust in a stranger, someone she doesn’t want to trust in the first place. Amity’s going to meet someone she’s only talked to for a few hours at her home in Knetwell. A Blight. A Blight with a sister on the High Council. And not a single person has been made aware of it. I could very well die today...and no one would know. How long until my parents start questioning my whereabouts? Would they even look for me?

Well, when you put it like that…

But it’s for Luz. 

 

//

 

“It’s here. It has to be here!”

It was with a depleting sort of patience that Eda lifted the couch cushions up and tossed them aside to spare a lackluster look within its depths. It’s the fifth time; she isn’t all that shocked to find nothing has changed since Luz asked her to check two minutes ago. Unsuccessful again, Eda huffed, replacing the cushions haphazardly. She was too worn down to bother straightening them, which was probably for the best, as Luz nosedived at the cushions the second they were reintroduced to the couch, half of her body disappearing under them. 

Eda spared herself a moment to snort at the sight of the kid wiggling around. Luz was surprisingly springy for someone ready to keel over into dreamland. Or dreamless land, whatever. Eda was much too grumpy for semantics this morning, saving those for Lilith, who was bound to be just as ill-tempered as Eda by now. 

“Kid,” Eda scrubs a hand over her face. “You gotta tell me what I’m looking for ‘cause I’m running on fumes here.” 

Her words fell on deaf ears as Luz pops out of the cushions like a weasel, twisting around so her upper-body drops to the floor to search underneath the couch. “It’s here. I know it’s here,” is repeatedly tumbling from her lips. Sometimes in English; sometimes in Spanish. 

So Eda grits her teeth and moves over to the kitchen to make herself something strong enough to keep her awake until Luz's lost item is found. A very loud part of her just wants to go to bed, but the vast majority of her won’t rest until she’s aided her kid, even if her patience is wearing thin on the whole matter. How does she expect me to find something if I don’t even know what I’m looking for?  The house was in shambles, every square inch torn apart, but there still hasn’t been any sign of it. What she wouldn’t give to return to her nap. From yesterday. 

“Edalyn?” asked Lilith, her voice smokier than usual beneath the layers of exhaustion. She was hunched over the breakfast table, arms pulled over her head like a shield. “Has she found it yet?” 

“No,” Eda whined, flouncing over to give her sister a couple firm slaps on the back. It was hard enough to make Lilith buckle in her seat, her hands shooting out to grip the table. Then Eda slung her arms over Lilith’s shoulders, resting her chin on the top of her sister’s head. “Please tell me you have an idea of what it is, Lily, ‘cause I’m dying here.”

Lilith snorted, ducking and moving her head to the side so Eda’s chin dropped onto her shoulder. “If I knew,” she drawled, hand reaching up to tug on the locks of her sister’s hair that spilled over her. “I’d have used a locator spell already.” She paused, sighing. “She needs to sleep, Edalyn. It’s harder for her to stay in control when she’s tired like this.”

Eda mulled it over. “I know,” she said. “But she won’t rest until she finds it.” She snorts. “Must be top secret if you don’t even know about it.”

Lilith froze, like a shameful secret had been exposed. Which was completely opposite of the truth, since all of her secrets have long been revealed. At least, Eda hopes there aren’t any more life altering secrets Lilith’s still carrying around with her. 

So Eda hums, waiting for an answer, even as shaky hands push her away. Too soon, Eda thought as a wounded Lilith shoves the chair back and rounds the table to create some distance between the sisters. Those same trembling hands rake through the tousled curls of her hair. “I know,” she mutters, more to herself than Eda. “What could she want to hide from us though? From me?”

Eda’s brows lift, realizing it’s not her who has hurt her sister. It’s Luz. Oh, how the tables have turned. “She’s a teenager, Lily,” she tries to console her sister, plopping down in Lilith’s previously occupied chair. “It’s practically ingrained in them to keep secrets. Remember when I wouldn’t tell you who I was crushing on for an entire year? This is perfectly normal.” 

“You’re joking,” Lilith rounds on her, an unimpressed look on her features. “You think Luz is on the warpath because of some crush? That is the most ridi-” She stops, her eyes widening. “You don’t think it’s…”

Eda leans back in the chair, amused. “Think it’s what?” Oh, this is got to be good.

Lilith opens her mouth. Closes it. A flush erupts on her cheeks; then she scowls. “You know,” she vaguely gestures with a hand, as if Eda could understand her. 

“No, Lily, I don’t know,” Eda says with a gleeful smile. “You’re going to have to spell it out for me.” 

“You are so-” Lilith cut herself off with a sigh, bringing a hand up to pinch the bridge of her nose; Eda has to hide her smirk in the palm of her hand. Her sister was just too cute when she’s frustrated. “Something intimate,” she grits out, aware of her sister’s enjoyment of her mounting embarrassment. “You know.”

“Oh,” Eda snorts. “So, what are we thinking? A disgustingly sweet note? A poem singing sonnets of their love?” She raises an eyebrow. “Or do you think it’s something more adult? Maybe a raunchy picture? A gift?

At first, Lilith’s unimpressed look deepened to an annoyed glower with each utterance of her sister’s words; then her face scrunched up like she just licked something sour. “Edalyn. Must you? ” Her fingers twitched at her side. “This is not something I want to think about. She is still a child.”

“Hey, you’re the one who suggested it,” Eda retorts, a salacious smile on her face. 

“That’s not what I meant!” 

“Then what did you mean?”

“Please stop,” Lilith buries her face in her hands, her words muffled. “It’s much too early for you to be you.”

But Eda was only just getting started. “Ah, come on, Lily, you can handle a little chat about sex,” she basked in the deepening red on her sister’s cheeks. “Luz isn’t much older than I was when I lost my virginity. You couldn’t have been either. Unless.”

Lilith fidgeted, hands lowering. “Unless what?

A sly grin crossed red lips. “Don’t tell me you’re a virgin, sister dear,” at that, she tapped her chin with a forefinger and pretended to fall into deep thought. “It would explain a few things about you. Oh,” she snickered. “I could name a few people who’d be delighted to be the first to defile you. Ha.”

Lilith didn’t react the way Eda expected her to. She didn’t simmer in her embarrassment, flushed to the tips of her ears. Not one bit, and the reaction she did receive from her sister had Eda’s heart plummeting in her chest, because Lilith looked forlorn. Rejected. Like something -or someone- had broken a part of her sister.

Lilith struggled to find her words. “It’s compl-no, I’m- It’s just…” in the end, she settled for, “No, I’m not a virgin,” she tugs on a sleeve of her sweater, shoulders slumping with a weary sigh. “I just can’t-”

She doesn’t let her sister finish that sentence; the cursed form howls, and Eda is out of her chair in a flash, wrapping her sister up in a bone-crushing hug, squeezing as much love and reassurance as she can into it as she knocks their foreheads together. “You don’t gotta defend yourself here with me,” she breathes out. “I’m sorry, Lily. I didn’t mean to pry on your intimate life.”

“As if,” Lilith scoffs, fingers fidgeting with the sweater Eda favors to sleep in. “You’re always prying, Edalyn.”

“Okay, yes,” Eda agrees. “But not when it’s such a sore subject.”

Lilith’s quiet. “It’s fine,” She says after a beat, though it sounds rushed and forced. She slowly withdraws from Eda; her expression hardens, the ice in her eyes cold enough to burn. “If what Luz is looking for is in that nature, then whoever gave it to her is as good as dead.”

The rumble in her throat was all Eda needed to know her sister wasn’t joking, and she felt the cursed form respond to it, its claws scraping on the bars of its cage to defend its owlet from an outside threat. 

“Oh, sister,” She bared her teeth. “I couldn’t agree more.”

That’s when Luz came scampering into the kitchen, a sleeping King on top of her head and one of the couch’s cushions squished in her arms. “Guys,” she says, frantic. “I need to call Elara. I need to call her right now.” Then Luz frowns at the sisters.

The color has drained from Lilith’s face, her eyes wide, while Eda turns thoughtful, a look of I get it on her face as she nods her head.

“What?” Luz asks, blinking. “Did I say something wrong?” 

 

//

 

It’s for Luz, yes; yet Amity wants to turn around from the moment her feet land lightly on the pavement. I can’t do this. It’s making her antsy, just the mere thought of being alone with the healer on the other side of the door. What if it’s true what mother says about her? She clutches the staff close to her chest, Asa uncoiling from around it to slink down onto her shoulder, his tongue flicking at her cheek. His head swivels to and fro, restless on her shoulder as he peers behind her; whether it’s to the call of his mistress’ magic stirring him, or a different matter entirely, Amity can’t say. 

I can’t do this. This was stupid; Amity can’t go through with it. Her chest is throbbing now, a dull roaring pain that sits on her lungs and keeps her from breathing too deeply, keeps her from regulating it to calm her racing thoughts. She sets the staff next to the door; she tries -emphasis on tries- to lift the palisman from her shoulder. It’s as if he were psychic; he’s coiled the length of his body around the witchling’s neck, tightening just enough to make it exceedingly difficult for Amity to remove him. He’s hissing straight into her ear what sounds like a warning, but Amity isn’t listening.  

The hissing grows louder, no longer in her ear but-

An arm snakes around Amity’s waist from behind, pinning her arms at her side, as a firm body collides with her, the scent of roses and lavender clinging to them. Amity fought the hold, wiggling enough to loosen their grip so she could drive an elbow into their gut. They don’t even flinch, hefting her up like she weighed nothing. She was flipped over, her back slamming with a resounding thud against the wood of the door, and Amity’s distorted vision latched onto the visage of… I knew it.

Elara Rime.

Asa hisses and lunges at his mistress, but he’s thwarted by a blur of motion that Amity can’t decipher; whatever it is connects with him and all Amity can hear is the sound of scuffling on the pavement somewhere beneath her. Is he okay? She can’t see past the hand hooked around her neck, nails bearing down hard enough Amity has to tip her chin up to get air into her lungs. 

The healer wasn’t pinning her anymore, but Amity was paralyzed nonetheless. My arms. I can’t move my arms. They lied limp at her sides, unresponsive to her commands. Why can’t I move my arms? Was it a binding spell? No way. There’s no way she casted! 

Elara trilled. Gone was the warmth. Her eyes are chilly and hard, a deep and frigid cold that cuts across any icy wasteland of emotion. “What an impudent, little Blight,” her lips curl into a sneer; her voice almost toneless, dead. “Does anyone know you’re here?”

A searing pain flared at the back of Amity’s head, stars bursting behind her eyelids as a wounded sounding keen is blocked by the hand pressing down on her throat. No. The word was anguished in her mind, denial trying to shut out all her other emotions, and she was falling, spinning, crying, screaming inwardly, all at once. She’s vaguely aware of the healer’s voice trying to penetrate the cries of denial, and another sharp, searing pain shot through her skull. 

Amity’s agonized cry pleased the healer, her smile as sharp as knives. “It’s fine if so, little Blight,” she tilts her head. “I’ll return you as a warning to the others to not to mess with what’s mine.”

The scream never rose past her throat. The pain in her head bloomed white hot, reaching a level so intense -she can’t. A sudden lack of coherent thought; all she can do is slam her own head back against the door, repeatedly, because that seemed infinitely better than this. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth, some part of her registering that she’s bitten her tongue. Please, she begs. Please, make it stop. Someone help me!

She can’t pull in air. It hurts. It hurts. Mom! She’s gasping, trying to get her lungs to start working again. Please. But she can’t breathe past the sheer agony. HELP ME!

“Amity!” Someone howls. 

And at that moment, all faded to black, and Amity knew no more. 

 

//

 

“Depends, kid,” Eda nodded absently; she didn’t elaborate further though. Lilith looked ready to faint on her, and Eda took a subtle step closer to her sister to catch her if she succumbs to it. “Want to run by us why you need to call shortstack?”

Luz hugged the cushion closer to her. “It’s private,” she mutters, her eyes averted from them, constantly ping-ponging around the room. “Please, Eda? It’ll only take a second, I promise.”

Eda covered her sister’s sudden, uncharacteristic weakness in her knees by letting her hand splay out on Lilith’s lower back, anchoring her long enough for her sister to safely slump back into a chair. “And why do you need it to be private exactly?” She asserts, keeping her sights on Lilith out of the corner of her eye. She was still so pale, her eyes glued to the ground. Honestly, Lily. It can’t be. Elara’s too googly eyed over you. 

Luz tipped her head up to look her in the eyes, and she took on a grumpy expression that was so damn cute Eda wanted to laugh. Instead, she kept her face as neutral as possible. “It’s important, okay? Just, please, let me call her. I just need to make sure of something.” Luz said with a hint of pleading in her voice. 

“Does it have to do with what’s missing?” Asked Lilith casually. At least, she tried to come off as casual, but the creeping of ice in her voice in response to Luz’s pleading one singled her intention out. The does she know your secret went left unsaid. 

Pursing her lips, Luz chose to say nothing. 

Then they all remained in silence, the only sound their breathing and King’s soft snores from his perch on Luz’s head. Tension rose between them, Eda could feel it creeping into her muscles, tightening them almost painfully. Okay, enough of this. 

“Kid, I gotta ask, and I won’t be mad at your answer,” Eda finally said. She rested her hand on her sister’s back, under the fall of her soft, dark hair. She felt Lilith shudder at the contact and began kneading the muscles under her fingertips. “But, uh, does your lost item...maybe might have… something, I don’t know, intimate evolved around it?” 

“Intimate?” Luz repeated, mouthing the word several times as she’s momentarily confused. It clicks after a second; then she reeled on them, a look of horror twisting her features. “NO!” She screeched, snapping King awake from his nap at the shrill sound of her voice. “I-” she choked on air, shaking her head frantically. “It’s not like that! Why would you- no, I don’t want to know!”

"Well, what else are we supposed to think, kid?!"

"Not that!" Cried Luz, still so horrified. "I mean, don't get me wrong, Elara's pretty. Very pretty. But it's an appreciative kind of pretty for me, not an attractive one! Jeez, Eda."

“Oh, thank the Titan,” Lilith muttered low enough for only Eda to hear, and she rests her forehead in the palm of her hand, shoulders sagging; while Eda wanted to cackle at the absurdity of it all. Then Lilith spoke louder, “Then why can’t we know what you need to discuss with her? You know the Orbuculum isn’t a secure channel.”

“I know,” said Luz, eyeing Lilith strangely. She frowned. “I just need to see her face, okay?”

Eda tilted her head. “Kid, what aren’t you telling us?” Yeesh, what is with this family and secrets?

“I-” Luz opened her mouth only to snap it close. Her gaze dipped down, uncertainty flickered across her face. “Do you know abou- no.” She snapped her mouth close again. “Actually, forget I said anything. I’m going to go clean up my mess, bye!” The words were rushed, like the teenager herself as she made a mad dash out of the kitchen; King barely holding onto her.  

Eda watched her go, a frown on her lips. “Okay, she’s definitely hiding something from us.” She turned to face her sister. “On the bright side, it’s not a secret love affair with a woman older than her.” She chirped in good cheer. “Shame it couldn’t have been that kind of picture. Eh, Lily?”

“All you need to do is ask, Edalyn. I’m sure Elara would give you one,” Lilith muttered distractedly, her eyes locked on the doorway. “Something is telling me we shouldn’t let Luz out of our sights today.”

I meant for you, you idiot, but can’t say I wouldn’t turn one down. Eda put her hands on her hips and cocked her head in the direction of the doorway. “Think she’s up to something, huh?” We’ll discuss your love life later, Lily. Kid comes first. 

“You don’t find it a little suspicious she gave up so easily?” Lilith raised an eyebrow. “After keeping us up all night looking for whatever it is that clearly Elara knows about, just to stop when we start questioning her? Doesn’t add up when it comes to Luz.”

“Guess you’re right,” said Eda, shrugging. “What do you want to do?”

Lilith sighed, raking a hand through her hair. “Shifts?” She questioned, rising from the chair. “You’re exhausted, Edalyn. I’ll take the first one.”

“You sure, Lily? You look pretty dead on your feet to me,” Eda replied, her eyes raking over her sister’s profile. The deep set bags under her sister’s eyes were darker, and her face was drawn tight in exhaustion. Everything about Lilith screamed let me sleep. “I can take the first one if you want some shut-eye.”

“I’m fine, Edalyn,” Lilith said with a faint smile, though Eda wasn’t buying it in the slightest. “I’ll tackle Luz’s mess and get her into bed before she starts thinking that couch cushion is King again.” 

“Fine,” Eda relented. “But I better not hear you complaining about it in a few hours.”

Lilith smirked. “Duly noted.”

 

//

 

“Amity? Amity! Little one, please.

“It’s far too late. The spell-”

“Don’t.”

Everything was pitch black. There’s a wordless snarl in her ear that cuts off as the voices amplified and faded on the edges of Amity’s awareness. Familiarity nagged at her, but she struggled to place a name with the sounds. She thought she was dead until a burning, grating ringing in her ears told her she was still alive. It was white noise edged with an encroaching pain as she tipped in and out of consciousness. 

“Healing her will only harm you in the process, Elara.”

I don’t care. She’s just a child, Mira!”

Wha … Amity’s head rolled back on her neck as she’s lifted into a pair of arms, eyelids fluttering out of sync with the subtle shifting of her body. Whoever held her had one arm hooked under the bend of her knees; the other behind her shoulders, her head instinctively gravitating to a warm shoulder to rest on. They were nervous, she noted, their grip on her trembling as they tightened their hold on her. They were scared for some reason, but Amity’s thoughts were too scattered for her to determine said reason why

“A child has attempted to kill you before! A Blight at that. Let. Her. Die.

“No.”

The familiar, frantic voice pulled Amity back. Her eyes blinked open, then slammed close as a bright light stabbed through her retinas. “Mom?” The word was thick on her tongue, and Amity wasn’t sure she spoke it aloud, but there’s a misstep from the one holding her, a sharp inhale resounding in Amity’s skull. “Mom...it hurts... it hurts.

“... Amity? ” 

Mom. Help me...make it stop... I’m sorry.

The steps quickened, their voice a constant reassurance in her ear. Up until Amity felt a fresh jolt of pain as her head was jostled, a soft sorry uttered in her ear. As careful as they tried to be to deposit her on the soft surface, nevertheless, her eyes rolled back and a brief wave of vertigo washed over her. Stiffly, she rolled onto her side, struggling to get her bearings back. She pulsed with pain, a throbbing in the back of her head that radiated across her forehead and down her jaw, and her thoughts wouldn’t line up like they should. 

“Easy, little one,” was softly hummed. A careful hand is placed behind the back of her head; it’s warm and probing in a gentle, knowledgeable way. The pain, soothed by the gentle press of fingers against her scalp, distracts Amity as she shudders into the affections. “Just take deep, even breaths for me; I’ll handle the rest.” There is something tender in the voice; Amity wants to curl up in a ball within it and never leave. 

Elara, ” a static of cold, vicious magic surges in the air. It promises infinite pain, and Amity whimpers under its force. “Don’t be a fool, sister. You can’t heal her.” The voice is jarring; Amity’s instincts scream to flee. She grasps fistfuls of whatever soft material she’s lying on, her hot face pressing into something cold as she settles on her stomach, a groan escaping her. Get away. I need to get away. RUN. “You know the dangers of unraveling my spells; they’re not meant to be.”

“So be it, Mira. I’m a healer; this is what I do. Let this be a lesson to you the next time you decide it’s perfectly fine to harm an innocent child in my presence.” A flood of warmth banishes the cold in Amity’s veins, the whole space submersed in an aroma of roses and herbs. “I will not let another child’s life be cut so short. Not again. ” The fingers press down at the source of her pain, but instead of blooming white hot under the touch, it’s just gone. 

The pain yielded to a tingling, numbing sensation, and Amity’s mind continued to tread through the murky waters of wakefulness. “Mom?” She whispered as her eyes fluttered open, her vision blurry. 

“Quiet now, little one,” A set of soft, trembling hands encouraged her to roll on her back; one moved to cradle the side of her face, a thumb stroking under her eye. “You’re safe now. I’m here.” A breath shudders in a pause. “Asa? I’m in need of you, darling,” the hand shifted, a cold left in its absence, to prod at the back of her head. “Sleep now, Amity.”

When they tried to leave though, Amity made a quiet sound of protest, suddenly clutching an arm in a vice-like grip. 

“You..” Amity blinked blearily up at the face above her. Her heart sank in her chest; it wasn’t her mother. She knew every faucet and distinguishing feature of Odalia Blight’s eyes, and the pair gazing down at her shimmered with a love her mother has never graced her with. “You…you saved me. Why?

Elara looked like she’d been slugged in the gut. “Oh, Amity,” her voice is still so soft, her smile sympathetic and understanding. 

She was a vision, the very embodiment of a healing aura; so unlike before. When there was pain. The braided tresses of forest green hair swimming in her memories were gone; it now fell in soft waves. Amity realized even the lengths were different, because it'd been much longer before, but now the ends of the hair just brushed the collarbone. She was no longer shrouded in dark colors, the black sweater and dark pants and leather boots switched for a cream blouse layered atop a maroon, lace up suspender skirt. Wait, that’s...

...blood. Amity’s eyes looked at the blotches of crimson staining the healer’s cream blouse. Is that my blood? Amity reached out to touch, and the healer caught her wrist in a gentle grip, lowering it back down on the... bed, she realized. I’m on a bed.

Reality settled in. Her vision focused. Then she remembers. 

...one twin saves lives, while the other- Amity’s head swivels. 

Mira Rime. Standing stock-still and wordless in the doorway, watching her sister warily and appearing afraid to enter the room. No, not afraid. She can’t. A protection spell was casted over them, Amity realized, the mauve orb keeping the other Rime twin from interfering with the healer, but Amity still recoiled, or tried to, but Elara’s careful hold on her kept her firmly in place. Her eyes still lacked any warmth, though a play of despair and guilt and anguish flitted in the gold of her irises. 

The same face as the healer stood before her, but Amity couldn’t see a speck of similarities between the twins. 

Mira’s eyes bore a cold, empty stare; Elara’s a familiar liquid warmth and soft reassurance Amity didn’t know she needed until it was suddenly gone. If she smiled, Mira’s was as sharp as knives; Elara’s smile was far more potent in person, so soft and real Amity can’t possibly understand how the Blight in her doesn’t temper its radiance. Amity can’t feel Mira’s magical signature with the orb preventing its entry, but she remembers the cold of it; Elara’s weighed down on Amity like a heated blanket, her eyelids drooping under its lulling effect, but she can’t sleep yet. 

“Do you feel any more pain, little one?” Despite the subtle pinch in her features, the softness never left Elara’s tone. “Do you remember what happened?”

Yes. N-no-” Amity said, brow furrowing, her head tilting back slightly. Her thoughts were still scattered. “My head feels...are you okay?” You look sick is what she wanted to say, but the words get jumbled on her tongue. Her entire head still felt fuzzy; her emotions sedated under the effects of Elara’s magic. 

“Just breathe for me,” said Elara, running her fingers around Amity’s skull. “You’ve suffered from blunt force trauma, alongside an illusionist’s spell designed to make the brain feel a pain so intense... hm, I don’t think you want to know the gory details.” It was a clinical assessment, but Elara had a talent for delivering the news as if she were discussing something as simple as the weather. “My magic is still healing the last of it; sleep would be preferable, as any further stimuli could tamper with the healing.” 

Amity shuddered, her eyelids growing heavy. “That wasn’t real?” She slurred. 

“Sleep now, my love,” was the last thing Amity heard. Something slithered next to her cheek, a soft hum letting sleep claim her in its entirety. She welcomed the dark. 

 

//

 

Luz’s eyes traveled around her room.

Her skin was crawling, a cacophony of voices snarling in her head. She felt hyperaware and lethargic at the same time. She sighs and moves closer until she has her head pillowed on Lilith’s shoulder, with her heated forehead pressing against the cool, smooth skin of the older woman’s neck and a slender arm wrapping around her in response. She is aware of what Lilith’s up to, but she can’t say she’s complaining. Hidden agenda or not, Luz Noceda does not turn down cuddles from someone who’s as prickly as a cactus. Bonus points if said cactus-like witch reads her favorite book series to her. The Great Witch Azura!

“Azura was down on her knees, the fight in her burnt down to embers,” Lilith’s voice is saying; she sounds like she’s only half-awake. Which is true, and it’s only a few lines into the next page when Lilith slips into a dreamless sleep -Luz might have dosed her tea when she wasn’t looking with one of Elara’s sleep remedies- and her head drops back on the pillow; the book lies opened and facedown on her chest.

“Lilith?” Luz asks in a quiet whisper. No response comes, so Luz carefully extracts the book from Lilith’s hand and closes it, setting it on her nightstand. Next, she slowly moves Lilith’s hand from around her, inching out of the bed. With Luz, the sleep remedies knock her out cold, but the curse tends to overwhelm them for Lilith; no one ever knows when the elder Clawthorne will suddenly awaken. And Luz can’t chance her waking up just yet.

Luckily, Luz is able to leave the bed without waking Lilith. She quietly scoops up her shoes and her bag, tiptoeing out of her room. She’s easing her door closed when a quiet hoot nearly scares the life out of her. A glance down reveals it’s Owlbert; right beside him is Eda’s staff. 

Luz kneels down. “So you already knew, huh?” She keeps her voice hushed, mindful of other occupants sleeping in the house. Occupants that would stop her at all costs. “You know what I’m asking you to do, right?”

Owlbert nods, nudging the staff closer to her; Luz takes in a steady grip, scooping Owlbert up as she rises to her full height. “Let’s do this.”

I’m sorry, but you left me with no choice. 

 

//

 

“My dear?”

It’s a soft noise, a tone Mira has never permitted another outside of Elara to hear; most of the time, she melts at the sound of it, utterly blindsided by the sheer amount of love Mira has for her twin when she talks like that. Today, it fell on deaf ears. Or maybe she does hear it, just for a second; then disregards it as background noise. Her attention is solely focused on the witchling resting next to her, the mingling of their body heat a constant reassurance Amity is alive. Safe.

She places a careful hand on Amity’s neck, fingers tracing the bruises before a small burst of her magic erases them from existence. Even when she sleeps, Amity has a tiny frown on her face, almost cautious. Asa assures her the physical wound on the back of her head is completely healed, not even a scar left, and he tucks himself under Amity’s neck, the magic infused in him repairing the last of the damage of Mira’s spell. 

If I could save just one… Elara’s seen far worse in her lifetime; she has witnessed the ruthless slaughters and the torture and the pleas of help me -knows the maliciousness her sister has mastered in her spells from her own extensive research into the functions of the mind; all in the name of the Emperor. To remain in his good graces so Elara stays out of his clutches for one more day. Elara’s seen it, yes, but her sister has never attacked unprovoked like this; in a sense, she’s still reeling from the shock of her sister attempting to kill a child in cold blood. And with a spell meant to make one suffer.

It’s maddening, a searing heat that never ceases. It’s not real, though knowing that as fact doesn’t help matters much. Mira’s spell tricks the brain itself into believing the pain is real, and Elara’s never attempted to repair the damage done before, as Mira’s spells were designed with Elara’s healing in mind, and if they can’t be unwound by Elara’s hand, they can’t be by anyone. But, oh, the mere sight of Amity’s face contorting in that oh so familiar pain shattered something in Elara, and she could not let her become another victim of Mira’s senseless killing. So instead of wasting her time attempting to heal what she knows she can't, Elara simply shifted the spell upon herself. 

And what was it all for? Because she’s a Blight? If only she could see what Elara has of Amity’s soul. The witchling is so far removed from her Blight heritage, not a speck of the corruption in sight in the depths of her soul. If Elara didn’t know any better, she’d say Amity was a Rime.  

My fault, she closes her eyes. It’s all my fault this has happened. Again. 

“Are you okay, Elara?” 

I’m sorry is laced in the soft noise; Elara doesn’t want it there. I don’t want to forgive you. Because it’s not her forgiveness that’s needed here. It’s Amity’s. Though, in the end, she knows she’ll forgive her; she always has. Except -this time- there are repercussions for Mira’s actions, as it’s hitting a little too close to the one person that rivals the bond they share. Mira is her sister, her twin, and they’re intertwined to the other in a way that can’t be replicated with another, but Lilith comes so close that it’s enough.

Oh, Lilith. All it took was one look; suddenly everyone else was shades of gray, while Lilith’s a kaleidoscope of color. There’s an inherent warmth in being around someone you love in all the ways one can love another, Elara decides. It’s in her voice -in the look in her eyes- that just makes Elara feel so pleasantly warm from the inside out that it makes it easier to live this life of bloodshed and tears and secrets. Eleven-year-old Elara didn’t yet know that someday her life would be turned upside down -all she was certain of then was that Lilith was it; there could be no other for her- but the Elara of now couldn’t be more appreciative of the flood of dopamine that’s released by the mere thought of the other woman. 

For Lilith, Elara is selfish, which isn’t all that fair to Mira. It is, after all, her fault Mira’s in this life or death situation in the first place. 

(“When I give the command to your sister, Miss Rime, I want you to save them all. You’re the most powerful healer on the Isles, no? Succeed and you’re both free to walk out of here; fail and you wear my mark and cement your dear Mira’s fate as mine. So what will it be?”) She snips the memory in the bud before it can fully bloom behind her eyes, because it isn’t going to do her any favors here. She always says dwelling on the past halts any progress moving forward, and though she stands by it, even Elara has moments where she stumbles on her path, when she realizes it’s starting to wear her down; wondering how much longer she can keep taking it one day at a time. But there are so many on the Isles who need her; so many who are suffering in a way she can’t ever hope to fathom. She has failed many in her life, but she’ll atone their deaths by saving another in their place. Because Elara can’t save them all, but she won’t lose them all. 

“Don’t go silent on me, Elara. I don’t like it.”

Elara rubs her neck; it’s oddly stiff, her fingers brushing the raised skin there. “Mm,” she breathes out before swinging her legs over the side of the bed, wavering slightly. “I don’t know what you want me to say, Mira.” She replies, swaying. Her head was splitting open; Elara pinched the bridge of her nose to abate the pain a little. She almost doesn’t notice it when Mira twitches from her place in the doorway, the need to be closer to her sister not lost on Elara. She couldn’t not notice her sister if she tried; Mira was the silence in a room full of noise. And as much as she ached to be as close to her sister as Mira to her, Elara would not allow her anywhere near Amity. 

“My-” Mira stopped and shook her head. “Talk to me. How bad is the pain? How far have you pushed yourself already today before this little stunt? Let me-”

“No.” The word stung, not only for Mira, but herself. She releases her nose. “Touch her in any capacity again, and I swear, Mira, I will-” she made to get up, but wavers dangerously. That was a mistake. The room started spinning and a wave of nausea brought her close to losing what little she had in her stomach. Her knees buckle, and in the blink of an eye, Mira stands before her. 

In her lack of concentration, the orb had been dispelled. 

In one fluid motion, Mira slid her hands underneath and around Elara’s body, lifting her up into her arms as if she’ll break if she isn’t careful. “You did,” Mira hisses, and Elara unconsciously presses her face into her shoulder. “Why bother worrying over the Emperor, when you’re digging your own grave all on your own.”

“I’m fine.” Elara was not fine in the slightest. She was light headed and dizzy and every inch of her head was throbbing, but Amity had suffered far worse than her. Will still suffer for it. “Put me down. I can walk on my own.” 

“I’d like to see you try,” instead of following through with her words, Mira cradled her closer. She carried her twin out of the bedroom as quickly as she could manage, mindful of her steps down the stairs lest she wanted to lose her balance and slip the rest of the way down. She brought her into the living room where she carefully hovered her over the leather, wingback chair.

“Here,” Mira said, lowering her down onto the seat and quickly rushed over to the kitchen, the sound of running water grating in Elara’s ears. She pinches the bridge of her nose in another futile attempt to cease the pain hammering away in her head. Mira certainly does not play around with her spells. 

She doesn’t hear her sister’s return, her steps hushed on the floorboards, but her magic gently prods at Elara’s in the familiar way it always has. Mira’s scent clings to the air as she sweeps closer and brackets her arms on either side of Elara, lowering down to look directly at her face. Elara doesn’t need to look to know her sister’s attempting to pick her apart. 

Elara releases her nose and draws her palm under Mira’s jaw. She opens her mouth, but in the same way she knows her sister, Mira knows her. 

“Don’t.” In a flash, Mira reaches for the hand under her jaw, her fingers curling around her sister’s wrist, and shifts closer until she has her forehead pressed against Elara’s. “Don’t say what I think you’re going to say,” she breathes out sharply. “Do you even realize how scared I was? My spells aren’t to be trifled with, Elara. They could very well kill you. Why would you do that?

Elara sighs. “I did what I had to,” it’s a truth, though her sister still eyes her with skepticism. “I don’t know,” a sort of lie, because she can’t quite put into words what she felt from the moment her eyes caught sight of Amity Blight, but there was the maternal affection of my child blended in that Mira would not understand. “She’s just a little girl, Mira. A little girl in desperate need of love. Harmless.

Mira knocks her forehead sharply against her sister’s. “Have you taken one too many blows to the head, sister?” She questions, a snarled edge in her words. “Need I remind you it was a seemingly harmless child who fooled you into dropping your guard once before?”

“Mira,” Elara warns. Don’t go there. But her sister isn’t listening. 

No, Elara, you don’t get to keep doing this,” Mira clenches her jaw tight enough for Elara to feel the muscles twitch beneath her fingertips. “I almost lost you. Do you know what that did to me, to see you so close to death?” She shook her head, clearly trying to sort through her emotions. “To watch you mourn over the one responsible?” Elara’s frown didn’t stop the flow of words from her sister. “To look at me like I was the enemy when all I was doing was protecting you.” 

Elara blinked back the tears that were suddenly in her eyes as she tried to draw in a breath. “Protecting me? Is that what we’re calling it?” She manages to gasp out between clenched teeth. Stop, this isn’t me. I’m not this person. But wasn’t it? “You played judge, jury, and executioner before she could even defend herself.” Her body felt paralyzed, numb, cold. She didn’t notice the trembling in her hands until Mira clasped them both in hers. “You took her choice away; almost did the same to Amity, so if anyone doesn’t keep getting to do this it’s you.”

Mira’s gaze never wavered. “You’re too soft,” she said, looking angry and hurt. Scared. “The Isles’ secrets are written out for your eyes to see, but you’re so damn blind where it matters. Useless. Ignorant like the rest of them.” She squeezes Elara’s hands like they’re her lifeline. “I do this because you can’t. I keep you alive, because one of us has to.”

“I don’t want to keep living if it means a stack of bodies follow me for the rest of my life,” Elara smiles thinly. “Her life mattered; Amity’s life matters. Children are the future of the Isles, Mira; I’m soft for them because I’ve seen what this world has done to them; how it’s turned them into weapons for the Emperor by the very hands meant to cherish them, love them. No one should have the power to decide who lives and who dies, like one life is worth less than another. Because all lives matter. ”

“If all life matters,” Mira blinks, now lost entirely. “Then shouldn’t you want to live? Your life matters. You’ve single-handedly altered the course of the healing arts; uprooted its very foundation and planted a new growth into the soil. You. None of that would have come to fruition if others hadn’t died in your place.”

Oh,” a false laugh rang out. “I highly doubt that, my dear. There will always come someone better; there’s going to be a day a witchling comes along and suddenly I will be in their shadow. And I welcome the thought with open arms, because it means the Isles’ future is a bright one.” 

“You can’t mean that.”

“But I do.”

It’s not reassuring, Elara thinks, the way Mira’s lips thin; watches her, uncomprehending, but keeps Elara’s hands in hers. She came to a conclusion of her own; her only response: “Did you want to keep her? Keep this Blight?” Like their pets. She released a hand and brought it up to brush a lock of hair behind her ear, fingers lingering on her twin’s cheek. “If it’s children you want, my dear, I can find you one much better suited for you. Just give me the word.”

(“I’m numb inside; I don’t feel things like I know I should, and the only time I do feel something it’s because of you. I might be your silence, but you’re my noise.”) Right. Elara tilted her head back, dislodging Mira’s hand from her cheek. “That’s not what I want, Mira,” She knitted her brows together in frustration. She hated the anger pulsing under her skin; it wasn’t in her nature to succumb to it, but there was something about Amity that flipped a switch in her. A roaring in her that called to protect. 

Mira frowned, still so lost it physically hurt to see. “Oh.”

“Besides, my life isn’t exactly fit for children, now is it?” She felt a smirk nudge itself in place, unable to help it. “Well, unless Lilith decides she wants them. Then, by all means, I’d give her as many as she wants.” Because Lilith makes me want things I can’t have. Selfish in ways everyone else can freely be. 

Mira lowered back down, the palms of her hands resting on Elara’s knees. “Lilith makes a fool of you, Elara,” She huffs. “More than you already are.” One hand abandons its perch to reach for a wet cloth Elara failed to notice before. “A number of suitors were lined up for your hand; you could’ve been married by now, with kids of your own; happy,” she takes hold of Elara’s hand, the one caked in dried blood. Amity’s blood. “Instead you chase after someone I’d sooner bury in the ground than ever find suitable as a mate. Why even bother? She’s hurt you.”

You hurt me as well,” Over and over again. Elara’s voice was soft, almost gentle, as she asserted, “As I have hurt you, because sometimes we hurt the ones we love. It’s just in our nature, but we also forgive.”

Mira brushes the cloth against Elara’s skin, the sure, gentle administrations at odds with the confusion etched into her features. “Do I even deserve your forgiveness?” She questions; hesitates as she trains her eyes on the floor, steadfastly refusing to meet Elara’s gaze. “You form such attachments to the people in your life, and I know I’ve hurt you by taking so many from you. But the only attachment I have is you, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep you safe.” 

“Oh, Mira,” Elara breathes, her smile sad. I know. That’s what hurts me. 

Mira lifts her eyes, a hard glint reflecting in the golden hue. “If it came down to you or them, it’s you, without question, every single time. I’ll hurt you a thousand more times for it, I know it.” She pauses, deliberating. “I’m almost glad I can’t love anyone else; it’s just a weakness to be exploited, and I’m compromised by you as it is.” 

Weak. He’s done that to you. Elara stared at Mira intently, watching the flicker of emotions reflect in her sister’s eyes. She pursed her lips together in silent deliberation. You’d be free if it weren’t for me. “I love you,” Elara said, taking a hold of her sister’s hands, the cloth squeezed between their palms. “And loving someone isn’t a weakness, my love. It’s those who’d use it against us that are weak.”

Mira leveled her with a cold, glassy stare, studying her carefully. “You’re my equal, Elara,” she said quietly, almost clinically. “I’ll end all life on the Isles if I lost you.” She pauses, separating their hands, her eyes downcast. “And it may very well come to that.”

What? Elara blinks a few times. “I beg your pardon?”

Mira levels her with a look Elara can’t quite read before dropping her gaze again. “We’re on the brink of war, my dear.” 

Another blink. “Okay, I know the families have grown restless in recent years,” Elara murmurs, not quite sure where her sister is going with this. “Whatever had swayed them in the beginning has lost its power over time, but to say a war is brewing? What of the Emperor?” 

Mira is silent for a moment. “The Emperor has never been worried about it before,” she allots. “The High Council is powerful enough to annihilate all that lives on the Isles, and with the one witch actually powerful enough to stand against us crippled by a curse, one would think he’d continue to not worry about the families and their petty squabbles.” Her eyes lift to meet Elara’s. “Imagine my astonishment when I learned he’s nervous.”

Elara tilts her head. “Nervous? The Emperor? You’re joking.”

“Not joking,” Mira replies wryly, getting up. “He’s been working on something these last two years. The High Council has been stretched thin across the Isles in search of its pieces.” Elara follows her with her eyes as she strolls back into the kitchen. “I’m assuming it’s almost finished now, as he’s called us all back. We’re to have an audience with him in the morning.”

Elara winced as the water ran again. “Explains why you’re here,” she ran shaking fingers over her brow. Elara’s magic was still attempting to dilute her sister’s, but it was taking time. “I wasn’t meant to see you until tomorrow.”

No comment followed after her words. Mira walked back towards her, and when she moved to stand, her sister’s hand sunk on Elara’s shoulder to hold her in place; her nails dug into the material of her blouse. “There’s more,” The words were a quiet whisper, but rather than soothe her, they launched a slow simmer of panic in Elara, because Mira only used that tone when she knew what she says next will do to her sister. “I had to kill sixteen children yesterday.” A pause. “ All of them Blights.”

Elara stiffened. “Sixteen?” A worried sadness seeped into her tone, mirroring the expression in her eyes as she lifted her gaze to her sister. “Why, Mira?”

Mira seemed to understand what she was asking, as she was no longer capable of looking at her. She lowered her head in shameful guilt. Elara knew her sister well enough to know it wasn’t for the lives she took -they never meant anything to Mira, just flesh and bone made animated; all threats to Elara in her eyes. It’s the awareness of the anguish it causes for Elara to know Mira so ruthlessly takes lives for her benefit. To keep Elara alive. 

“They found out,” Mira snapped, the edge of her anger wavering in the face of her distraught twin. “I don’t know how they found out, but they did, and I couldn’t let them find you out.”

Elara reached up and touched Mira’s face, hooking her thumb and finger on Mira’s chin and forcing her down to be at eye level with her, because continuously tilting her head up was horrible for the pain drumming in her head. “What are you talking about? What did they find out? And why did they need to die for it?” She couldn’t get a read on her sister; Mira was one of the few who knew how to block the All-Knowing Sight. “Mira?”

In a deadpan, Mira answered. “The death glyphs.”

Elara felt the bottom drop out, and a wave of vertigo washed over her. It hurts. She clutches her head with both hands and leans forward, breathing heavily. She can feel Asa’s concern rippling in her magic, but she orders him to remain with Amity.

(“You’re the most powerful healer on the Isles, no?”) She squeezed her eyes shut. (“I want you to save them all.”) She could feel her body shaking, could hear Mira’s voice speaking to her but the words were distorted, as if she were speaking from a vast distance. Spots danced and sparkled before her eyes, the searing in her head amplifying at the sound of that voice ricocheting between her ears. Stop, she wants to beg, though she doesn’t know who it’s meant for. (“I’m sorry! I- this is all my fault. Please...I should’ve known.”)

“Elara!” A touch on her shoulder snapped her back to reality, and she jerked her shoulder away, a gasp escaping her as the muscles wrenched. Mira’s hands didn’t hesitate to clutch the sides of her face, her sharp, sharp gaze flitting between concern and righteous fury. “Don’t go silent on me, Elara,” she commands. Pleads. Talk to me. Do you need me to block it?”

Yes. “No,” She manages to gasp out between gritted teeth. She feels a soft touch and realizes that Mira’s combing her fingers through her hair. Gentle, trembling strokes. “My magic is still warring with yours,” she admits, reluctantly. “Why did you have to be so efficient with your spells, my love? You’re killing me.” Quite literally. She shakes her head. “Are the others compromised?” She breathes out through the pain. Tell me they’re safe. 

Mira’s face is twisted into concern and something else. “No,” the word was calm, in an obvious attempt to console Elara. “We made sure none made it out of there alive with the information, but they still hold the knowledge the glyphs exist and will attempt it again.” She paused, wordlessly pulling her sister close to rest her forehead against Elara’s temple, comforting her in the only way she’s ever known how to. “It’s most likely one of the reasons why the Emperor has called us back.”

“I don’t understand the Blights.” The fire in Elara’s chest roars, anger licking hot again. How many of the younger generation has she watched be withered down to nothing but their parents’ clones? All of their potential going down the drain in the families’ ever burning desire to prove their better than the other. “Why send children into a viper’s nest? They never stood a chance against any of you.” 

“They must have thought we’d hesitate,” Mira assumes, her voice is toneless, dead, unwavering. “They ought to have known we wouldn’t hesitate to protect the identities of our loved ones.”

Control the High Council and you control the fate of the Isles. The room is spinning and Elara has to sink her teeth into her lip as she fights a wave of nausea and pain. She knocks her forehead into Mira’s to dispel the pain for a second. “What would the Emperor do in that situation? Killing us himself would result in you willingly annihilating him, but letting you be controlled by another…” She trails off; she doesn’t want to dwell on the fact her fate lies in the hands of those seeking power.  

Mira closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. “I don’t know,” her voice is hoarse, and even in her state, Elara can sense the panic and urgency in it. “It’s why, I must admit, I snapped on the Blight girl up there,” she continues in a whisper. “After yesterday...I would sooner give my life than let any harm come to you, Elara. That is an absolute truth. And if I lose you, the Isles will feel-”

“No,” Elara interrupted her with two fingers on her lips, and her sister continues to look at her with those sharp, sharp eyes. “I’m not in any real danger of dying yet, my love.” That is a bit of a lie, she’ll admit to herself. Elara is the Isles most powerful healer, yes, but when it comes to spell casting, Mira wins by a landslide; up against Mira’s magic, Elara is losing. But that’s a concern for later.

“You never take this seriously,” Mira says with an expression of disbelief. Something lurked in her eyes, but what Elara didn’t know. “The Emperor may very well execute an order tomorrow to hide you somewhere I will not even know the knowledge of. What if he decides protecting you isn’t worth it? What if he kills you and leads me to believe you’re still alive?”

Oh, I don’t doubt that’s his intention. Elara worried her sister’s bottom lip with her thumb, a futile attempt to dislodge the frown permanently affixed on her face. “We can waste our time on what-ifs if that’s what you want,” she drew back. “Or you can hear me out about a potential lead on the Clawthorne sisters’ curse.” Because however this plays out I don’t think I’m going to make it, but they can end Belos once and for all. End the cycle of death. 

Mira’s eyes narrow, a calculated look in her eyes, but Elara’s a master of concealing the truth -perks of a lifetime of studying others. Momentarily thwarted, Mira rests her chin on her palm, her elbow braced on the armrest of the chair. “And how do you figure? We’ve combed the Isles for answers and have found none.”

Elara closed her eyes, her head tipped back against the back of the chair. “Apparently,” She hums. “There’s a tomb in The Ribs only a human can access.”

“Human,” Mira parroted. “As in Edalyn Clawthorne’s little pet? The one you gave your scroll to?” The I’m still angry about that went unsaid. 

“The very one,” Elara quips, opening her eyes. “And Luz isn’t a pet.” She stares at her sister blankly; her voice shifting to chilly and hard. At this moment, you couldn’t tell the twins apart. “You’re on thin ice as it is, Mira. Under no circumstances are you allowed to harm that girl, and if you do, understand that I will do everything in my power to keep her safe.” Because Lilith loves her, and I will not let anyone take from her again.

Mira is silent for a moment, weighing her options before she replies. “So long as she doesn’t endanger you, I won’t harm her.” And it’s the most Elara can hope for, honestly, but it doesn’t settle the unease in the healer.

Suddenly, Mira’s head shoots up, swiveling to look in the direction of the front door, her lips pressing into a thin line. She’s hoisting herself to her feet not longer after, shifting in front of Elara, almost defensive. “Were you expecting anyone else today?” She questions, keeping her attention on the door. 

“Not that I can recall,” Elara answers, reaching a hand up to grasp her sister’s wrist in a warning, because what if it’s one of her patients on the other side? It certainly won’t be the first time they’ve shown up unannounced and in need of her. I won’t be able to protect them if Mira attacks.

“Then-”

Mira’s interrupted by a loud smack of Elara’s front door slamming into the wall as it's forcefully thrown open in whoever’s haste to get in, and Elara clutches her head at the sheer volume of it. The noise that comes out of her throat is half howl, half sob, and all parts wounded. Mira responds to it, shifting further in front of Elara to block her from what she’s perceived as a threat, her magic crackling in the air; poised to strike.

“Elara?!”

Luz. “Mira, no...” Her voice is rough, wet and thick, but Mira isn’t listening to her anymore. And because she is so useless right now, all she can do is sit here and watch her sister go on the offense; without even assessing the situation, Mira's staff materializes, the twin palisman to Elara's baring its fangs, and she lunges. 

NO!