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A Trip Down Memory Raine

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As with the last two times, they were back in Raine’s office.  Katya was there again, so was Amber, and the last one.  Hunter peered at him.  What was his name again?

“That’s Derwin.  He plays the bassoon.”  Lilly said, seeming to read his mind.  “Let’s get to work.”  She started putting books back on the shelves.

Hunter examined the figures.  Raine was sitting in their chair, peering anxiously at the crystal ball on their desk.  The other three were looking at… what were they looking at?

“Scrolls!”  Hunter exclaimed.

Lilly looked up from the bookshelf.  “Huh?”

Hunter pointed.  “Raine is looking at their crystal ball.  It looks like they’re watching a news broadcast.  But nobody under age fifty uses a crystal ball when they have a scroll.  So where are they?”

“Age fifty ?  Just how old do you think we all are?”  Lilly hissed, but then shook her head and muttered to herself.  “Not the point; focus, Lilly.  Alright, let’s try it.  Look around for those scrolls.”

Hunter found the first scroll.  It had little stickers on the back of it.  A piece of broccoli and cauliflower.  They seemed to be…embracing?  Hunter placed that one in front of Katya.  

Lilly found the next scroll.  It was plain black and boxy.  It looked fairly durable.  That one she placed in front of Derwin.

The last one proved tricky to find.  Lilly finally found it on the bookshelf, much to Hunter’s annoyance.  Her preoccupation with bookshelves was useful after all.  This last scroll was shimmery with little rainbows on it.  She placed it in front of Amber, and nothing happened.

Lilly sighed and then turned back to the bookshelf.  “Oh well, it was worth a try.”

Hunter circled the three figures, concentrating hard.  He ignored Lilly, who had started putting books back on the shelf again.  Luz was right, this was like a puzzle.  Kinda fun, in its own weird way.  What could they be missing?  On a whim, he swapped Amber’s and Derwin’s scrolls, and the room sprang to life.  “Huh.”  Hunter said, impressed.

 

Raine inched their face closer to their crystal ball.  Their nose was almost touching it.  “What happened?  Did anybody catch that?”  They asked desperately as the image switched back to the BBN announcer.

“Here.”  Katya made the shape of a square with her hands and drew them apart.  Her scroll increased in size until it was big enough that they could all see it.  “I found a live feed.  You really need to get a scroll.  Nobody uses crystal balls anymore.”

All four witches turned to watch Katya's scroll, which she had open to Penstagram.  Raine turned in their chair and leaned closer to the screen.  The scroll was playing a live feed of BBN, where news anchor Perry Porter was addressing the camera.  At the bottom of the screen flashed the words “LIVE FROM THE OWL LADY’S PETRIFICATION CEREMONY”.  The camera panned over Perry Porter's shoulder, across a large crowd of people, and finally to the arena stage where a cage held the owl-beast.

“Hey, who is that?”  Amber asked, pointing at the screen.

“Isn’t that Lillith Clawthorne?  Head Witch of the Emperor’s Coven?”  Derwin asked, leaning in towards the screen.

“Not Head Witch anymore, apparently.  Looks like she’s had a demotion.”  Katya chuckled.  “What’s she doing in the Owl-Beast’s cage?  Is she going to get petrified too?”

“Hey, don’t you know her?”  Derwin asked.

“Huh?”  Raine said without taking their eyes off the screen.

“Lillith Clawthorne.  Don’t you know her?  She comes to your office every so often.  The whole coven is talking about it.  Word on the street is that you’re being scouted for the role of Head Bard.”

“Oh right, Lilly.  Yeah.  I do know her.”  Raine said breathlessly, still watching the screen.  " She’s an old family-friend.”

“It’s gotta be hard, watching this happen to a friend.”  Derwin said, watching Raine out of the corner of his eye.  A tentative attempt at offering comfort.  Nobody thought to ask Raine if they knew the Owl Lady.

Raine didn’t answer.  They were leaning so far in towards the screen that they nearly tipped off the front of their chair.

“I met The Owl Lady once!”  Katya said proudly. “She helped save me from the Conformatorium.”

For the first time, Raine took their eyes away from the screen.  “Yeah?”

Katya nodded eagerly.  “She flattened the warden like the crust of a pie.”

Raine chuckled, but then their eyes sobered and they turned back to the scroll.  A beam of light was now pointing at the cage and the owl-beast was howling in pain as it began to turn to stone.  Raine whimpered, their hands over their mouth as the stone nearly consumed Eda.  And then…

“Hey!”  Amber said, bouncing up and down in her seat.  “What happened?”  The cage was now empty, and a tangle of vines had encircled the petrification laser.

“They got away.”  Raine said breathlessly, and then let out an uncharacteristic whoop.  “They got away!”  They jumped up from their chair and started miming playing an invisible violin with an invisible bow.  Three triumphant strokes and then a flourishing finish.  Even though they weren’t actually playing a violin, which didn’t actually make noise, they still sent a small shockwave through the room.  Several books fell off the shelf and the crystal ball tumbled off its base and rolled off the table.

Raine blushed a deep red once they realized their three students were watching them.  “Sorry.”

Amber jumped to her feet and hugged Raine tightly.  “That was fantastic!  Did you see that?  I mean, I actually don’t really know what happened, but it was really cool!  There were vines, and then the cage got opened, and then they flew away.  They flew!  Do you think any of us could fly?”

“It was really cool.”  Katya grinned wickedly.  “They kicked some serious Emperor butt.  I bet he’s really embarrassed right now.”

“They’re going to need a new leader of the Emperor’s Coven now that Head Witch Lillith has defected.”  Derwin said.  He wasn’t outwardly celebrating the way the other three were, but he did have a pretty smug smile on his face.  

“Yeah.”  Raine mused thoughtfully, adjusting their glasses.  “Lilly must have decided that her loyalty to her sister is greater than her loyalty to the Emperor.  Good for her.”

“This is great!”  Amber said, twirling in a circle in the middle of the room.  “Everybody saw that, everybody!  The Emperor can’t pretend it didn’t happen.  This might be the start of a rebellion.”

“The catalyst event.”  Katya grinned.

“Actually…”  Derwin cleared his throat.  He was the only one still watching the scroll.  “The Emperor just claimed that he’s pardoned the Owl Lady.  He said he’s going to let her go to become a lesson to potential deflectors.”

Raine turned back to look at Katya’s scroll, examining the screen.  “Where does it say that?  What’s this written at the bottom…?”  They pointed at the screen.  “What does ‘Crying Breakfast Friends’ mean?”

The three were silent.  Finally, Katya spoke up.  “That’s my Penstagram username.  We really need to get you a scroll.  What kind of Bard doesn’t know how to use Penstagram?  Don’t you need it to like, market yourself?”

“Never mind all that.”  Said Raine, glaring at their students.  “Derwin is right.  The Emperor is going to try to control the narrative.  Convince the public that he had this planned all along.”

“So, let’s not let him!”  Derwin said.

“Huh?”  Three sets of eyes turned to look at him. 

“Let’s not let him.”  Derwin repeated.  More confidently this time.  “Amber said this could be the start of the rebellion, so let’s start one!  We could do what the Owl Lady did!  Well, maybe not that, exactly, since none of us can turn into an owl beast, but, you know.  We could do something.”

“Yeah!”  Amber exclaimed, bouncing on her feet.  “We could be the Bards Against the Emperor, or BATEs for short.”

“Bards Against the Throne would sound better.”  Katya said.  “BATTs for short.”

“Ooh.”  Amber grinned.  “That’s way better.  I’ll make us masks!”

“Wait, wait.  Slow down.”  Raine said, putting a gentle hand on Amber’s shoulder.  “It’s a fun thought, but none of us actually have an idea of how we’d make this happen.  Where would we even start?”

“You need to accept the role of Head Bard.”  Derwin said, and all eyes turned to him.

The colour drained from Raine’s face.  “I mean besides that.”

“I’m serious.”  Derwin said.  The light reflected off his glasses and it added emphasis to his words.  “Everyone knows you’re being scouted for Head Witch once the Old Scoot retires, so I think you should accept.  Play the game, get close to the Emperor, learn a few secrets, and then when he least expects it…BAM!”  He smacked his fist into his palm, making a loud slapping sound.

Raine jumped, and then chuckled.  “As you can see, I’m not really rebellion material.”

“Sure you are!”  Derwin grinned.  “You’re the most powerful bard in all of the boiling isles.  We know the Emperor underestimates bard magic, and we know that he underestimates you.  Double whammy!  You could do some serious damage.”

“What was that thing you told me about fear?”  Katya asked.

Raine rubbed the inside of their wrist thoughtfully.  “You just have to punch fear in the face.”  They muttered, and then straightened.  “Alright, let’s do it.  Today of all days I’m feeling inspired.  Let’s go deal some damage.”

“Yeah!”  Amber said, trying out a few dramatic poses.  “We have to make a statement.  Something bold, something public.  The performance of a lifetime!”

Raine's eyes widened at the word performance.  “Let’s just start small.”

“As long as we start somewhere.”  Katya said and brought her hands up, bending her fingers like little claws.  “To the BATTs!”  She exclaimed, adding a little hiss at the end.

“To the BATTs!”  The other two struck similar poses, then all three young people turned to look at Raine, who looked around the room self-consciously.

Finally they grinned weakly and brought their own hands up.  “To the BATTs.”

 

Hunter followed Lilly out of the memory, troubled.  He had intense loyalty to his uncle.  Intense loyalty.  Or well, he did, right?  Even after everything he’d seen.  Right?  The Emperor had taken him in.  The Emperor had found a place for him.  The Emperor needed him.  The Emperor…

The Emperor was not beloved by all, apparently.  He found it fairly alarming how quickly that conversation had turned to talk of rebellion.  He wondered if similar conversations had happened all over the Boiling Isles.  

He balled his fists up beside him.  He found himself craving Raine’s approval of the Emperor.  Raine’s approval of him .  If only they knew the Emperor like he did.  If only they knew…

…Knew what?  He wracked his brain, trying to find a redeeming quality for the Emperor.  A selling point.  Something he could show to Raine, to convince them that the Emperor deserved to be adored and protected.

The Emperor was nice to him.  Well, no, he wasn’t, actually.  Maybe before today he would have thought that, but not now.  Not after he had taken a peek inside Raine’s mind, and learned what nice could actually mean.  But he was the Emperor.  He didn’t have to be nice, what else?

The Emperor was powerful.  Well yes, he was, but Hunter was learning that there were some witches who did not crave power.  Raine certainly didn’t.  How curious, he’d never met anybody before who didn’t crave power.  What else?

The Emperor had a vision.  Yes, that was better.  A vision for greatness, a vision for unity.  A vision for…what?  Exactly?  The Emperor had never told him any details, and he had never asked.  He’d always just accepted that the Emperor's vision was beyond anything he could comprehend and that he just had to trust that it would come together.  But even that seemed less convincing now.  He struggled to remember what it felt like to be the Golden Guard, with unwavering faith.  And how could he convince Raine to love the Emperor when he couldn’t even convince himself?

That thought scared him.  Who was he without the Emperor?  Who was he if he couldn’t be the Golden Guard?  What else was there for him?

“Edalyn?”  Lilly asked, having no idea of the inner turmoil that was going on inside Hunter's head, spoke up.  “Are you finished repairing memories?”

Eda was standing in the middle of the aisle, her head turned up towards the sky.  Not that there was any sky to see, but she still seemed to be staring at it.  She turned around when she heard her sister’s voice.  Her eyelashes were wet, it looked like she’d been crying.  The last memory she repaired must have been an emotional one.  “Just one more left to go.”  She said, her voice thick and heavy.  She rubbed one sleeve over her eyes.

Lilly placed a hand on her sister’s shoulder.  “Regret is a luxury that we do not have time for right now.  Come on, let’s go fix the last memory and go back home.”

Eda nodded and followed her sister as they walked towards the final memory.  Hunter didn’t know how to react to Eda’s tears.   He’d always thought that crying was a sign of weakness.  Necessary, if shameful, to indulge in occasionally, but never in front of another person.  He would have been eaten alive if he’d shed a tear in front of anybody in the Emperor's Coven.  Yet here Eda was, crying in front of her sister.  Crying in front of him .  And Lillith had reacted with kindness?  The whole idea was entirely unfamiliar.  

They approached the final memory and Hunter recognized it instantly.  A dungeon.  The Coven Heads.  A piece of twine with a line of memories clipped to it.  And Raine, of course, laying in the middle of the room.  Their body covered by a tangle of thin red vines.

He swallowed and dug his fingernails into his palm.  He’d better take the lead on this one.  Not that he wanted to, of course, but…Eda was in no shape to do so right now, and Lilly was...well, Lilly was still okay.  But deep down he knew that this wasn’t about either of them, this was about him .  He knew that he needed to step up.  “Let’s get this over with.”  He led the other two into the memory.

And then they were back in that dungeon, with all nine coven leaders, including Raine, who was tangled in their mass of vines on the floor.  That look of abject horror back on their face.  Hunter would have been happy if he’d gone the rest of his life without seeing that look again.

Eda sank to her knees next to the still image of Raine, while Lilly went to examine Head Witch Thrombin’s face.  For all that Lilly tried to be the dignified one, strong and proud, here she lowered her defences and stuck her tongue out at Thrombin.  Hunter reminded himself that they had all gone to Hexside together, ages ago. 

“So…what is out of place?  How do we fix this one?” Lilly asked at last.

Hunter had been wondering that same question.  All the other memories had been trashed, with pictures off the walls and books all over the floor–so many books.  Raine seemed to have a lot of books in their life.  But here?”

Here there was nothing out of place.  There was nothing to be out of place.  There were no pictures on the wall, no bookshelf to sic Lilly on, no pens, no scrolls, no crystal balls.  There was Raine, and the other coven leaders, and the table where all Raine’s memories were being collected.  But even that was untouched.

“I don’t know.”  He admitted at last.  “Everything is here, everyone is here…”  Just in case he counted the coven leaders.  Everyone was indeed here, even Eberwolf and the ones who hadn’t even participated.

“So what do we do?”  Lilly asked.  “We’re running out of time.”

“Didn’t anybody help them?”  Whispered Eda, from her spot on the floor looking over Raine.

That familiar wave of guilt returned to Hunter.  Nobody did help them.  He didn’t help them.  He just watched…

“Wait a minute.”  He said suddenly.  “It’s me.”

Eda turned her face to look up at him, her eyes still red, and Lilly joined him at his side.  “What was that?”

Hunter pointed at Raine, still frozen on the floor of the dungeon.  “Look at them.  They are unconscious for this part, so how can they remember it?  It’s because this part of the memory isn’t theirs, it’s mine.  The connection goes both ways, right?  But where am I?  I should be standing right about…here.”  He went to stand in the spot where the Golden Guard should be, but nothing happened.

They all looked around, just in case, but there weren’t really that many places to look.  This was a dungeon, there was nowhere to hide.  The Golden Guard was missing.

“I don’t understand.”  Lilly sounded frustrated.  “How can an entire person go missing from a memory?  It’s not like you could have just rolled under the rug.”

“There is no rug.”  Hunter said unnecessarily.

“I think…”  Eda spoke at last.  She stood up and turned away from the image of Raine, but came face-to-face with the image of Darius instead.  She scowled.  “I think that Raine–Inner Raine–is protecting you.”

Hunter swallowed.  “Protecting…what does that even mean?”

“Inner-Raine isn’t logical, they’re emotional.”  Eda said.  She seemed to be getting better control over herself.  Her eyes were dry.  “Remember when they were that cinder-beast?  It didn’t matter to them that they needed to let me go and fix their memories, they couldn’t make that connection.  What was important was the fact that I hurt them.”

Hurt them.   Hunter knew what she was saying, and of course she wasn’t talking about him, but the guilt returned in a wave.  It made him feel sick.  

“Raine?”  Eda called, her voice echoing off the walls.  “You need to release this memory.  We can’t go back until it’s fixed, you know we can’t.”

There was no answer.

“Raine?”  Lillith tried this time.  “I know you’re hurting, and we can talk about it after we all wake up.  It’s dangerous for us to stay here much longer.”

No answer.

Somehow, Hunter knew that neither of the other two witches could fix this.  It was up to him.  It wasn’t Raine who was hurting, it was him.  The connection with Raine was going both ways, and Raine was trying to stop his pain.  Of course they did, that’s who they were.  But they were a being of emotion right now, and they didn’t know how to help him.  But at least he could help them.

Hunter looked down at memory-Raine, who hadn’t moved from their spot on the floor, bound up with red vines.  That face would haunt him.  “Raine?”  He called softly.  “I need to be able to face this.  You can’t protect me from this, I’ve already seen it.  It already lives in my brain.  And my guilt isn’t going to go away.  Not here.  I need you to wake up first, I need to see that you’re going to be alright.”

At first he thought that nothing had happened.  He took a step back and nearly bumped into himself…into the Golden Guard, that is.  He stepped back further and watched as the memory started to unfold.  He watched as Head Witch Augury took the memories out of Raine’s head and watched as Darius burned them.  He watched as Thrombin woke Raine up and watched as Druthers tormented them using an illusion of Eda.  And he watched Eda, the real Eda, took it all in.  She wasn’t looking at him, or at the Golden Guard.  She was looking at Darius, her eyes were sharp and burning with hatred.  Hunter shivered.  He was glad that her wrath wasn’t directed at him.

And then, finally, it was over.  They exited the memory, none of them saying anything at all.  Hunter felt numb.  Eda and Lilly didn’t look much better.  There was no celebration, no fanfare.  They were just finished, and they could go back.  Eda took the bell out of her hair and rang it.