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A Trip Down Memory Raine

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“Easy does it.” 

Hunter was starting to learn the names of the coven leaders.  He never really cared before.  They were all old and crusty.  But now he was in a room with all nine of them, and so he had to remember their names.  He mentally checked them off in his head.  That had been Head Witch Thrombin, who had spoken, the leader of the Healing Coven.

Head Witch Augury, leader of the Oracle Coven, ignored her.  He was bent down over a still form while holding a pair of tweezers, his face frozen in concentration.   Carefully, he pulled a thin strip of what looked like photo paper out of the form and secured it to piece of twine that had been suspended for this purpose.  It joined a row of similar papers, all swaying lazily in the breeze.  Except that there was no breeze, down here in the dungeon.

If Hunter didn’t know any better he’d think these were photographs developing in a dark room.  But this wasn’t a dark room.  They weren’t photos either, even though they looked like it.  They were memories.  Each one had an image on it that was starting to take shape.  Not clear enough to see yet, but getting there.  Augury pulled up another and added it to the collection.

“I fail to see why we ALL have to be here.”  Head Witch Darius of the Abomination Coven complained in his usual tone.  Half bored, half scornful, all contemptuous. 

“Kikimora is trying to send us a message.  This is what happens to coven leaders who defect.”  Head Witch Druthers, leader of the Illusion Coven, added helpfully, his mirror earrings catching the what little light there was and sending tiny reflections darting all over the room. 

Thrombin glared at him as a beam of reflected light hit a memory, singeing the paper.  She carefully extinguished the flame, preserving the memory before too much damage could be done.  “Take those damn things off before you hurt someone!”  She snapped.  Duthers only smirked.

“I hardly think that she needs to test MY loyalty.”  Darius said, looking entirely unconcerned about the fate of the memories.  “I was the one who apprehended them, after all.”

Head Witch Eberwolf, leader of the Beast Keeping Coven snorted indignantly at him from the back of the room.  They and the last three coven leaders seemed content to stay out of the way.

“Ugh, fine.”  Darius said, rolling his eyes.  “Eber helped too, I guess.”

“That’s not what Kikimora says.”  Druthers said smugly.  “According to her she did all the work, while you two only got in the way.”

“She would.”  Darius grumbled.  He peered at the memories, some of which now had an image embedded on the front of them.  He jabbed at one of them excitedly.  “There!  That’s the witch who was with them the day that we apprehended them!  She’s part of the rebellion.  We need to find her.  Who is she, does anybody recognize her?”

Hunter moved so he could see the memories.  He tried not to look at Head Witch Raine Whispers, leader of the Bard Coven, who was laying on the damp stone floor in the middle of the room.  Their face was frozen in horror as thin red vines encased their body, even snaking under their glasses and through their mint-coloured hair.  Hunter shivered, it was all so grotesque.  Instead, he focused on the memories, specifically the one that Darius had indicated.  An old witch with a mass of grey hair and mismatched eyes was smiling out at them.  Or maybe she wasn’t that old, Hunter wasn’t too sure.  Everybody seemed old to a teenager.  He did recognize her, though.  That was…

“Edalyn Clawthorne.”  Thrombin said lazily, shooing Darius’s pointing fingers away from the memories.  “Eda the Owl Lady, she calls herself.”

“The Owl Lady?”  Darius asked, frowning at the memory.  “The one from the petrification ceremony?  Didn’t she lose her magic?”

“So the Emperor says.”  Druthers said.

“The Emperor doesn’t lie.”  Hunter spoke for the first time and the coven leaders fell silent.  None of them wanted the Golden Guard to think that they ever questioned it.

“That should be all of them.”  Augury seemed to be the only one oblivious to the tension in the room.  He pinned the last memory to the line and stood back to examine his handiwork. 

“All of their memories?”  Hunter asked in spite of himself.

“Of course not.”  Augury said quickly and Hunter flushed under his mask.  He felt so youthful and inexperienced next to the head witches.  “These are all the memories related to rebelling against the Emperor.  Some of them seem to be old.  It’s amazing they remained undetected for so long.  They’re a better actor than they let on.

Hunter peered closer, ignoring the glare from Head Witch Thrombin as he did so.  Some of the older memories had a young witch in them, with a mass of fiery orange hair and a single golden fang.  She was younger, and her hair wasn’t grey, and her eyes were both uniformly golden, still it was pretty unmistakable… “That’s the same witch.  Eda the Owl Lady, only younger.”

Darius leaned in.  “I do believe that you are correct.  Well spotted, Hunter.  We’ll make a great leader out of you yet.”

Hunter’s felt his chest swell.  A compliment.  A compliment.  A rare treat.  It made him feel good, it made him feel important.  It made him feel like he could do anything.  He hoped that Darius would repeat his words to the Emperor himself.  He wanted his uncle to feel proud of him.  It had been a while since he’d heard a kind word from the Emperor.  He’d had a partial success when he brought the key back, but it had been damaged, and his victory was soured.  He had paid dearly for that mistake.

“They must have met at Hexside.  She has aged terribly.”  Darius said, squinting at the memories.

“Did you know her at Hexside?”  Hunter asked eagerly.

Darius scoffed.  “I’m not that old.”

“I knew her.”  Head Witch Thrombin said, looking none too impressed by Darius’s swipe at Eda’s age.  “Everyone at Hexside knew her.  Eda was a nuisance, is what she was.  Arrogant and disruptive.  She pranced around the school and attended whichever class caught her fancy.  No respect to the track system, none whatsoever.  She even attended some healing classes.  As if she could learn the subtle art of healing in her senior year.”

“Well, was she any good at it?”  Druthers asked impishly.

Thrombin glared, and then sighed.  “Yes.  She had real talent.  She could have become a great healer if she had focus.  She could have been a lot of things.  Instead she’s…this.”  She waved her hand dismissively in the direction of the line of memories.

“And did you know Raine Whispers?”  Hunter asked, still examining the memories.  The newest ones were coming into focus.

“Not very well.  They were in the bard track, I was in the healing.  We didn’t socialize much.”  She shrugged.  “They kept to themself, played beautifully, but made a fool of themself at recitals.”

“And did you know that they were a couple?”  Hunter asked.  One of the memories had finally come into focus.  A young, fiery-haired Eda appeared to be nibbling on the wrist of an equally young Raine, who looked entranced.  The memory next to it was coming into focus as well.  Thankfully the image only captured the shoulders up, because it was becoming evident that neither of the young witches in the image were wearing any clothing.  Raine was laying down, mint-coloured hair tussled and splayed across the pillow, as Eda was positioned overtop of them, her own orange locks even more disheveled than normal.  And was that a hickey?  It was clearly a lovers’ embrace, though their expressions were tender, rather than passionate.  Hunter drew away.  Gross. 

“Certainly not.”  Thrombin snapped, as though the very idea was beneath her.

“Ugh.”  Darius said, leaning close to that last memory.  “That’s disgusting.”  A spark of light appeared at the tip of his finger, and he reached towards the image.  The memory started to singe and contort as the heat from the magic got close.

“Stop that.”  Thrombin smacked Darius’s hand away.  “Touch the wrong thing and you could scramble their brain.”

“I don’t care about that.”  Darius said dismissively.

“You should.  Like it or not, Raine Whispers is still the leader of the Bard Coven, and we need them intact.”  Her mouth twisted into a sort of cruel smile.  “Parts of them, anyway.  We need to do this properly.”

“Tell me which one to burn then.”  Darius said eagerly,

“This isn’t a game of whack-a-boil.”  Thrombin scolded.  “We’re not doing this because we enjoy it, we’re doing it because we have to.  For the good of the Emperor.”

“That one first.”  Augury pointed to the next image over, as if Thrombin hadn’t spoken.  The memory he was pointing at was the one where the Owl Lady was nibbling on the wrist of a star-struck Raine Whispers. 

Thrombin scowled as Darius eagerly leaned forward and touched the image with his magic.  The whole memory shrivelled and burned.  “This is for what you did to my cloak.”  Darius whispered cruelly as he watched the ashes of the memory drift lazily to the table top.

Hunter’s breath hitched as he watched it happen.  His cloak?  His cloak?  Darius was willing to scramble Raine Whisper’s brain as payback for a ruined cloak?

Augery pointed to another memory and Darius burned that one as well, his eyes cruel and focused.  He was clearly enjoying himself.

Hunter felt the blood rushing to his skin as he watched this through his mask.  This felt wrong.  It felt wrong.  But how could it feel wrong if the Emperor had said it was right?  The Emperor would never do something that was wrong, right?  So why did this feel so wrong?  He felt the need to flee, but he kept his feet grounded firmly in place and he clutched his staff harder as another memory was burned before his eyes.  He watched the ashes drift down to the table like leaves from a tree and his gaze fell upon Raine Whispers, the real Raine Whispers, still contorted in their look of abject horror from their place on the floor. 

Augery was still directing Darius to selectively destroy memories, which the latter seemed very eager to do.  A few images had holes burned into them, where the Owl Lady’s face was removed but the rest of the memory remained more-or-less intact, but most were burned completely.  Hunter watched as another memory was consumed by flame, and still another.  It seemed so deliberate, so artistic, but still so wrong.  Every instinct was telling Hunter to put a stop to it, but he remained frozen behind his mask.  He told himself to be strong.  Be what the Emperor needed of him.  Be the Golden Guard. 

Still, it felt so wrong.

Finally Head Witch Thrombin stepped forward.  “That’s enough.  Any more and you could damage their brain beyond repair.”

Darius looked at her and defiantly touched one final memory, which shrivelled and smoked, the image contorting as the pigment bubbled.  “Oops.”  He said impishly.  From the back of the room, Eberwolf snickered. 

Thrombin sighed and put her body between Darius and the memories, or what was left of them.  “Is that enough, do you think?”  She asked Head Witch Augery, who was holding one hand out above Raine Whispers’ head.

Augery shook his head and twiddled his moustache a few times.  “I think so.  It’s not an exact science, of course, so we cannot know for sure until you wake them up.  But I don’t want to risk doing any more.”

“Very well, return what’s left of their memories, and I will wake them up.”

Hunter forced himself to relax as the remaining memories, many of them singed and distorted, were returned to Raine’s head.  Finally Head Witch Thrombin drew a circle of magic with her finger and the red vines that encircled Raine’s body began to recede into the coven mark at their wrist.  Hunter was in every way relieved once the vines had disappeared and the look of horror on Raine’s face was replaced by a simple frown.  Thrombin drew another circle with her other hand, and Raine’s eyes fluttered open.  They sat up and looked around them, a blank look on their face.

“You are in the Emperor’s Palace, in the heart of the Boiling Isles.”  Thrombin told Raine kindly.  “You are safe.”

“I am in the Emperor’s Palace, in the heart of the Boiling Isles.  I am safe.”  Raine repeated without emotion. 

From behind them, Darius grinned and nudged Augery.  He seemed pleased by the turn of events. 

“Can you tell me your name?”  Thrombin asked them.

“I am Professor Raine Whispers.”

“You are Head Witch Raine Whispers.”  Thrombin corrected.  “You are the leader of the Bard Coven.”

“I am Head Witch Raine Whispers.”  They repeated dutifully.  “I am the leader of the Bard Coven.”

There was a new kind of energy in the room as Raine spoke.  It seemed that the memory wipe had worked better than expected, and the rest of the coven leaders were pleased. 

“Do you recognize me?”  Thrombin asked them.

“You are Head Witch Venus Thrombin.  You are the leader of the Healing Coven.”  Raine said in their bland voice.

“And do you recognize him?”  Thrombin asked, motioning to Darius to step forward.

“You are Head Witch Darius.  You are the leader of the Abomination Coven.” 

“And what does Darius mean to you?”

Raine turned their head to look at Thrombin.  “I do not understand the question.”

Thrombin straightened up and rubbed her hands together eagerly.  “I do believe this is going well.”

“And do you recognize me?”  Edalyn Clawthorne asked, stepping out of the shadows.

Hunter jumped.  He wasn’t the only one.  It was so unexpected, seeing the Owl Lady standing in front of him.  But then he recognized Druthers standing behind her grinning, and he realized what must be happening.  This was an illusion, nothing more, made by the head of the Illusion Coven himself.  Hunter forced his grip on the staff to relax.

Raine looked at illusion-Eda quizzically.  “I do not recognize you.”

“I am Eda, the Owl Lady.”  Illusion-Eda declared, in a voice that sounded off, somehow.  It was the Owl Lady’s form, but it wasn’t her voice.  It made Hunter uneasy.  “Let us plot treason against the Emperor and then have sweaty disgusting sex after.”

Raine blushed.  A real blush, deep and flustered.  “I don’t even know you.”  They whispered at the illusion.

“That’s quite enough of that.”  Thrombin stepped forward and waved the illusion away.  She glared at Druthers.  “Don’t do that again.”

“What?”  Druthers asked innocently.  “We needed to do a real test.”

Thrombin sighed and held her hands out towards Raine, who was peering at the spot where the illusion had vanished.  At last she sighed and rubbed her hands on her cloak.  “Partial success.”  She announced at last.  “Their memories are gone, but their feelings remain.  We need to keep them away from the real Eda Clawthorne if we want to pull this off.”

“Can’t we just burn some more memories?”  Darius asked eagerly.

“Who was that?”  Raine whispered, frowning at the empty floor. 

Thrombin glared at Darius.  “No we cannot.  Destroying any more memories will destroy too much of them.  There won’t be anything left to work with.”

“I see no downside.”  Darius grumbled.

“It wouldn’t work anyway.”  Augery stroked his moustache thoughtfully.  “Emotions can exist outside of memories.  Emotions cannot be altered or destroyed, the way memories can.  I think we’ve done the best we can.”  He pulled his tweezers out of his sleeve and drew one final memory out of Raine’s head and clipped it to the twine.  Nobody spoke as the memory slowly started to become clearer.  Hunter recognized it immediately.  It was the most recent memory, of all of them, standing in this dungeon around illusion-Eda.  Augery nodded to Darius, who eagerly touched the memory and watched it burn and shrivel up. 

As the ashes hit the able, Raine straightened back up, the blank look back on their face.  “I am Professor Raine Whispers.  I am in the Emperor’s palace.  I am safe.”

Hunter decided he’d seen enough.  He tapped his staff on the floor in what he’d hoped was an authoritarian manner and exited the dungeon.  Once he was out of sight of the doorway he fled up towards his own quarters.

 

 

 

Hunter didn’t sleep that night.  Not entirely unusual.  He’d seen some horrors in his time with the Emperor, and sometimes he got the occasional nightmare or sleepless night out of them, but what of it?  He needed to be tough to be the Golden Guard.  That’s why his uncle had chosen him, right?  He needed to be strong.  He needed to be able to handle anything.  He had seen worse, so why couldn’t he handle this?

Disgusted with himself, Hunter donned his cape and exited his room.  His feet took him towards the Head Witches’ quarters.  He tried not to speed up past Darius’s closed door (that guy creeped him out) and then tried to be as quiet as possible past Eberwolf’s.  The head witch of the Beast Keeping Coven had excellent hearing.  He breezed past Head Witch Thrombin’s door, and then past Augery’s, until finally he landed at the door of Raine Whispers.

He wasn’t the only one there.  Raine themself was standing in front of the closed door.  One hand frozen on the doorknob, staring straight ahead.  They never moved, they just stood there.  It was eerie, and it made Hunter feel uncomfortable.  He cleared his throat.

“Head Witch Whispers?  Are you alright?”

Raine didn’t turn around.  They didn’t move from their spot in front of the door.  “It won’t open.”  They said simply.

“It’s locked, it will open in response to your magic.”  Hunter said, feeling sorry for them.  “Here, you just sort of wave your hand in front of it like this…Do… do you remember how to do magic?”

“How do to magic.”  Raine repeated, and then fell silent once, more, staring at the closed door.

“Here.  I think I can override it.”  Hunter said, tapping the door with his artificial staff.  Being Golden Guard came with some perks after all.  The door opened.  “How long have you been standing here?”

“Are you here for your lesson?”  Raine asked, turning to face Hunter for the first time.

“Lesson…?  No.  You’re not a professor anymore, and this is the Emperor’s Coven, remember?  You are Head Witch.”  Hunter fidgeted uncomfortably.  “Besides, it’s the middle of the night.”

Raine shifted their gaze towards the window.  “Are you here for your lesson?”

Hunter sighed.  It was like talking to a crystal ball.  “Yes, I’m here for my lesson.”

Raine nodded and led him into the room.  “What instrument do you play?”

“I…”  Hunter cleared his throat as he followed them into their room.  “I don’t play an instrument.”

Raine nodded and drew a circle in the air.  A stringed instrument appeared in front of Hunter.  He caught it before it fell to the ground. 

“I always start students off with the lute.”  Raine said easily, and Hunter relaxed.  It made him feel better to see Raine Whispers speaking like a normal person for a while.  “It’s easy to start with, though hard to master.  Most students move on to other things before too long.”

Unsure of what to do, Hunter took a seat in a chair opposite them.  He held the lute awkwardly.

“Bard magic is different from most.”  Raine continued.  Hunter found it comforting to listen to them.  At least here their brain didn’t seem scrambled.  He was silent and let the Head Witch continue to talk.  “It doesn’t follow the same formula as the others.  You have to feel it, and you have to make others feel it too.  It’s the closest to wild magic.”

Hunter’s breath hitched in his throat.  “Wild magic is forbidden.”  He whispered.

“Is it?  Why is that?”  Raine asked, that blank look back on their face.

“Perhaps…”  Hunter’s voice squeaked and he cleared his throat.  He knew he shouldn’t be interested in wild magic, but he couldn’t help himself.  Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to hear the bard out?  “Perhaps you can show me?”  He handed over the lute.

Raine nodded and started plucking on the strings, calloused fingers easily teasing a melody out of the instrument.  Hunter immediately felt better.  More relaxed.  A calm yellow light was enveloping them both, as objects around the room started to lazily drift upwards.  Fascinated, Hunter looked around the room at the floating objects.  A hair brush, a potted plant, and books, so many books.  What does one witch need all those books for anyway?  Even his own cloak seemed to sparkle with its own energy as it too floated upwards, tugging gently at the snaps around his shoulders.  Curiously, Hunter’s golden staff, cold and metallic, with a single gold wing curving proudly upwards, remained where he had placed it.  Undisturbed

At last the song was over and silence fell on them both.  The silence seemed almost as powerful as the song had been, and Hunter felt like he didn’t want to break it.  “That was beautiful.”  He said at last.  “What is it called?”

“It’s called…”  Raine frowned at the lute in their lap.  That blank look was back on their face.  “It has a name.”  They finally said.

“You can’t remember what it’s called?”  Hunter asked gently.

“It has a name.”  Raine repeated, and stroked the instrument sadly.  “It has a name.”

“Right, well.  Thank you for the lesson.  It’s late, I really should be going back to bed.  Goodnight!”  Hunter practically flew from the room.  He couldn’t get the bard’s sad look out of his mind. 

Back in his room, Hunter paced a few times, his mind reeling.  He remembered back in the dungeon as he had watched Darius burn all those memories.  It had seemed so wrong.  Like something bad was happening and he should have stopped it.

He should have stopped it.

But he didn’t stop it.  He just stood there and watched it happen like a coward.  Like a…

Like a good golden guard.  He’d done what he was supposed to do.  What he had been ordered to do.  And it was wrong.

Hunter sat down on the bed.  He couldn’t shake this feeling.  He wanted to be able to make this right, somehow. 

A small wooden cardinal hopped onto his lap and cheeped at him, concerned.  It cooed and nuzzled its small body into his cloak.  Usually the sight of the pallisman (that he wasn’t supposed to have) made him feel better, but today it didn’t.  Today he just felt unworthy.

“You shouldn’t be here.”  He whispered, stroking the bird’s chest affectionately.  “It’s dangerous.  You should have chosen somebody else.”

The bird just cocked its head at him.  One eye bright and curious.  The other scarred and closed off. 

Hunter stroked the bird’s chest for a while, thinking.  Finally, he placed the bird on his shoulder and walked to the desk, taking out a piece of parchment and an inkpot.  Why the Emperor insisted on using inkpots when they could get pens was beyond him, but that wasn’t the point right now.  Carefully, he wrote a message on the parchment.

We have Raine Whispers.  We’ll be taking them to the book fair tomorrow at noon.  We did something to their brain.  They need you.  Please come.

He didn’t sign it.  Of course he didn’t, why would he?  Better not to have his name attached to something like this.  He just fanned the ink until it dried, and then rolled up the parchment and took it over to the window.  “Do you think you can take this to Eda the Owl Lady?”  He asked the palisman.

It cooed and nibbled on his finger affectionately, then took the parchment from him and flew out the window and off into the night.  Hunter watched it go until he couldn’t see it anymore, then returned to his bed.  He finally felt like he could sleep.

 

 

 

Footsteps on the cobblestones, echoing off a nearby wall.  His, and Raine’s, and three sets of coven guards’. The footsteps had their own rhythm to them, their own music.  Hunter listened, fascinated.  Was this the bard magic that Raine had told him about last night?  He glanced at Raine, but their face remained expressionless, their movements jerky and unnatural.

And then music, real music this time.  From a different source.  Hunter looked around.  It wasn’t a lute, it sounded higher, like a tin whistle maybe?  He wasn’t an expert, there wasn’t much room for music at the Emperor’s coven.

And then he found that he couldn’t fight the urge to sleep.  He stumbled as he watched Steve and the other two coven guards fell down to the ground.  Raine, it appeared, was unaffected by the sleeping spell; they watched the guards fall with an expressionless look on their face.  Hunter fought it a moment longer before he, too, succumbed to the darkness. 

 

Chapter Text



Hunter woke up a short time later.  Or maybe it was a long time later.  He had no way of knowing.  The sun was still up, anyway. 

He was tied up.  Loosely, badly.  It would take him very little time to get out of this.  He wiggled his hands behind his back, and sat up.  Where was he?

This must be the infamous Owl House.  It was cluttered and messy and it smelled bad, and he wasn’t alone. 

Some of these people he knew.  A few of them he didn’t.  There was Lilith, former Head Witch of the Emperor’s coven.  He’d taken over her job when she defected.  He wasn’t too happy to see her, and he suspected she felt the same way.  She had some sort of worm-owl demon hovering over her shoulder.  She was stroking its chin affectionately; the whole exchange creeped him out.  Eda the Owl lady, of course.  How could he forget her?  He rather wished he hadn’t seen those memories back in the dungeon.  The thought of Eda, even a young Eda, getting all gross and weird with Raine Whispers was nauseating. 

Luz and Amity were there, of course.  He’d had an adventure with each one and they had not been his allies, though he found himself oddly comforted to see them.  He knew they were a couple (Amity couldn’t shut up about it when they were looking for Titan’s blood), so it wasn’t a surprise to see them with their heads bowed together, whispering.  King was here too, of course, he remembered that little demon.  Then there were three bard witches a short distance away.  He thought he recognized them from a notice that was sent out after a prisoner escape a the Conformatorium that had happened a few days ago, but he didn’t know their names. 

And Raine.  Raine Whispers.  Sitting alone on the couch, staring straight ahead.  They looked entirely unconcerned about the situation.  Nothing is unusual when your brain has been wiped clean.  Hunter wiggled his hands through his rope.

And then Eda was in front of him, bending down to glare into his face.  “Alright Pig, start squealing.  What did you do to them?”

Hunter shrank back from her.  The Owl Lady had a wild look about her.  He found her intimidating at the best of times, but now there was a look in her eyes that made him cringe.  “I didn’t do anything.”  He said defiantly, but then choked a bit.  That statement was entirely too true, and his guilt came back in waves.  “I should have done something, but I didn’t.  I just watched.”

Luz came and put a hand on Eda’s shoulder, guiding her away from Hunter.  “Perhaps you can tell us what did happen?”

Hunter squirmed.  He did not like the sheer number of people in this room.  “It was the memory spell.  They erased all the memories of rebelling against the emperor.  They said they could do it without scrambling their brain but…”

Who erased their memories?”  Lilith asked from her corner of the room.

“Head Witch Augury selected the memories and told Head Witch Darius which ones to burn and in which order.  Head Witch Thrombin mostly just tutted in the background.”  Hunter didn’t mind naming names, even if it put them in the crosshairs of the Owl Lady herself.  He had no loyalty to any of the coven heads.  He twisted his arm free of the rope and brought his hands around to the front of him, rubbing his wrists.  Nobody moved to re-tie him, for which he was glad.  Not that he could have gotten far anyway if he’d tried to escape, but it did feel better to have his hands free.

“Who tied those things anyway?”  Eda grumbled.

“This is great!”  Luz said excitedly, and all eyes turned to stare at her.  All eyes except for Raine’s of course.

“I beg your pardon?”  Lilith asked in a low, unimpressed voice.

“A memory spell can be reversed, right?  It’s easy enough, Amity and I did it once before, when she erased Willow’s memories, remember?  We can do it again.  We just need to go inside their head and fix the destroyed memories.  I volunteer to go in!”

“It’s not that simple, kid.”  Eda said patiently.  “I don’t have magic anymore, so I can’t perform the spell.  Besides, I might have under-stated just how dangerous it would be the last time we did it.”

“Edalyn Clawthorne, did you send children into somebody’s mind to recover lost memories?”  Lilith screeched, her eyes nearly popping out of her head.  “Are you out of your mind?  Do you know how dangerous that is?”

“Yeah, it is dangerous.  Almost like they shouldn’t be teaching the spell to teenagers at Hexside in the first place.”  Eda snapped, glaring at her sister.  “Besides, it worked out okay.  They got the memories back.”

“We did!”  Luz said, shifting her weight from foot to foot.  “And we can do it again!”

“Not if I can’t perform the spell we can’t.”  Eda said, looking at Raine sadly.

Luz’s face fell.  “Can’t you just… teach it to somebody else?”

Eda shook her head.  “Not likely.  The only other person in this room skilled enough to pull it off would be Lilly.  And she’s lost her magic too.”

“Are you saying… there’s no hope?”  One of the bard coven trio spoke up for the first time.  A young girl with white hair and bat-like ears.  She looked younger than the other two.  She let out a sob.  “None at all?”

“I don’t want to say no hope.  Just….not a lot”  Eda sighed and knelt down in front of Raine.  “Oh, Rainstorm, what have you gotten yourself into?”

Raine stirred, shifting their gaze for the first time.  “My name is Raine.”

“I know that.”  Eda said.  Her voice was notably softer when she spoke to them.  “And do you know who I am?”

“You are…”  Raine frowned at her.  “You are the witch who captured us.  Captured me and the boy.”

“Yes, and it was remarkably easy.  You’ve gone soft, Rainstorm.”

“My name is Raine.”  They repeated blandly.  “Professor Raine Whispers.  I am in the Emperor’s palace in the heart of the Boiling Isles.  I am safe.”

Eda straightened up, clenching her sharp nails into her palms.  She turned away from them and took some deep breaths to collect herself, her eyes brimming with unshed tears.  “We can’t just leave them like this.”

“We won’t.”  Lily said kindly, coming to put a hand on her sister’s shoulder.  “We just need to find somebody who can do the spell.  What about mother?  She’s a powerful witch, and I’m sure she’d help out.  She always liked Raine.”

Eda pulled away from her sister’s comforting hand.  She angrily swiped a hand across her eyes.  “It has to be somebody without a coven mark.  So a wild witch or a member of the Emperor’s coven.  Somebody who hasn’t had most of their magic sealed away.”

“The boy is from the Emperor’s coven.”  Lilly pointed at Hunter, and then added, “I cannot believe I just said that.”

Hunter’s breath hitched in his throat.  He did not want to reveal that he had no magical talent, not in front of the whole house. 

“Oh yeah.”  Eda said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.  “That’s a great idea.  Or it would be if one: he had about ten years more experience and two: he wasn’t a literal servant of the empire.”

“Eda.”  Luz said kindly, slipping in beside her mentor.  “We can trust him.  He wrote us that note, remember?  He’s on our side.”

Hunter glared at her, wanting her to shut up.  Luz knew that he had no magic, so why was she sticking her foot in it now?  To defend his reputation?  That he hadn’t even earned?  What was up with this human?

“There are different levels of trust, kid.”  Eda’s face softened as she looked down at Luz.  “He’s proven that he can write a letter but he has a long way to go before he can be trusted to fix somebody’s mind.  No, we need wild magic to make this work, and the Emperor has spent the last fifty years trying to snuff it out.”

“Bard magic is the closest to wild magic.”

Everybody stopped and turned to stare at Raine.  An earie silence fell over the whole place.  Hunter was glad of the interruption.

“Say that again.”  Said another one of the bard trio.  A young woman with dark hair pulled back and two small fangs that reached just past her bottom lip.  She crept forward to kneel in front of Raine.

Raine looked at her.  “You are Katya.  You are my student.  You play percussion.” 

“I’m a lot more than that, but never mind.”  She rested one hand on their knee.  “Say that thing again about bard magic being closest to wild magic.”

“Bard magic is closest to wild magic.”  Raine said, their expression still wooden but the words coming easily enough out of their mouth.  “You have to feel it, and allow others to feel it too.  At its most basic you can use soundwaves and vibration to affect your environment.  But at its core Bard magic allows you to bring emotion into a situation where there was none before.  Emotion is a powerful weapon, it can bring down a whole army if used properly.”

Hunter was the first to speak.  “Head Witch Augury tried really hard to leave their knowledge intact.  He wanted to only erase memories of rebelling against the Emperor, nothing else.”

“I guess they associated memories of me with thoughts of rebellion.”  Eda said flatly.  “I should be flattered.”

Lilly ignored her sister.  She knelt down beside Katya.  “Raine, if you wanted to use bard magic to repair the damage done by a memory spell, could you do it?”

Raine blinked a few times.  “Yes.”

There was a new sort of tension in the air.  Nobody dared move.  Nobody dared breathe.  Lilly continued, her words careful and deliberate.  “Raine, if you had to use the bards that are in this room right now, not including yourself, to reverse the damage done by a memory spell, how would you do it?”

Raine’s eyes drifted lazily around the room, falling onto each person in turn.  At last they spoke.  “The subject and two volunteers must hold a resonating object.  Amber would use her tin whistle to cast a sleeping spell.  Right at the moment they fall asleep Derwin would cast a resonating note with his bassoon.  Low C should do it.  Katia would use her tambourine to wake them all up once the memories have been repaired.”

Eda let out a whoop, but Lilith was more cautious.  “What sort of resonating object?”

“A tuning fork, a bell, the strings of a guitar, the membrane of a drum.”  Raine replied automatically.

Eda rubbed her hands together.  “So all I have to do is steal three tuning forks and I’ll have Raine back by midnight.  Perfect.”

Lily held up a hand to silence her sister.  She kept the rest of her attention focused on the bard.  “Raine, what would be the risks involved in such a spell?”

“If the spell is interrupted suddenly then the minds of the witches involved may never be separated fully.  All three would wake up to half lives, and all three would be affected by the corrupted memories.  Amber would have to keep playing continuously for the duration of the spell.”

Everybody turned to look at the bat-eared witch near the back of the room.  The youngest of the bard trio, Hunter figured she was probably still a teenager herself, though she already had a coven mark, so who knows?  She lifted up her chin defiantly.  “I can do it.”

“It might take hours.”  Eda said firmly.  “Are you sure?”

“I can do it.”  Amber repeated, more forcefully this time.  She had spunk, if nothing else.

Eda suddenly looked less confident about the whole idea.  “Are we really doing this?”

“If we’re going to do this, it will have to be tonight.”  Lilith said, straightening up and dusting off her skirt.  “The corrupted memories will degrade over time.  Who is going in there?”

“I’ll do it!”  Luz said, bouncing on her feet excitedly.  She took a breath and made a chopping motion with her hands to calm herself down.  “I mean, it’s logical that it should be me.  I’ve done this once before, so I’m basically an expert.”

“Nope!”  Eda said quickly, going to stand in front of her mentee.  “I’m not risking your brain getting scrambled too.”

“You have to risk somebody’s.”  Luz whined.  “Why shouldn’t it be me?”

“We’re not arguing about this, kid.  Lily will come with me.”

Lily did not look pleased to hear that.  She looked around at the other faces in the room, even seeming to consider the worm-demon for a moment, and then sighed.  “I suppose I am the logical choice. We should gather our supplies.  I guess that means we need some…tuning forks?”

“Raine?”  Eda said, bending down in front of the bard.  “Can you get us some tuning forks?  Three of them?”

Raine drew a circle in the air with their finger.  Three tuning forks appeared and clattered down onto the coffee table.

Eda let out a whoop.  “I can’t believe that worked!”

“Did they conjure those or summon them?”  Lilith asked, frowning at the table.  “We cannot risk them disappearing mid-spell.”

“Summon.  They have a room somewhere full of supplies.  They keep it hidden away from everybody so it’s undisturbed when they need it.”  Eda looked smug. 

“Very well.  Earmuffs for the rest.  Raine, can you get some earmuffs for us?  We will need…”  Lily silently counted as she went around the room.  “…four pairs.”

Raine drew another circle in the air and four pairs of fuzzy, pink earmuffs tumbled down onto the table. 

 “I guess we’re ready to begin then.”  Lily said, though she did not look at all excited about the idea.  “Amber, you’d better drink some water.  You’re going to have to keep this going for a while.”

“You are all ignoring something big.”  Hunter didn’t like drawing attention to himself, but at this point he couldn’t avoid it.  “The sleeping spell doesn’t work on Raine, remember when you captured us, like, earlier today?  How am I the only one who remembers this?  I was asleep!”

Eda coughed, looking embarrassed.  “Oh yeah.”

“Can’t anybody in this room do real magic?”  Hunter asked, and then clamped his mouth shut.  Not that he could do real magic either.  He probably should have just stayed quiet, but old habits, and what not.

“Raine?”  Eda asked, ignoring Hunter.  “Can you make yourself vulnerable to another bard’s sleeping spell, if you choose to?”

“Yes.”  Raine replied without expression.  “I just have to choose to accept their music into myself.”

“I don’t like this.”  Lily said, frowning.  “There are too many variables.” 

“And yet, here we are!”  Eda rubbed her hands together.  “Luz, tell me everything you know about fixing corrupted memories.”

“I could just… come in and show you?”  Luz asked hopefully, and then sighed when Eda glared at her.  “It’s like a forest.  Each memory is in a tree, and you have to go into each one and figure out what’s missing.  Like a puzzle; find the missing piece, fix the memory.”

“Order matters.”  Said Amity, speaking up for the first time.  “It’s important that you find the first memory that was destroyed, and fix that one first.  After that I don’t think it matters quite as much.”

“How will we know…?  You!”  Eda whirled and pointed one bony finger at Hunter.  Her nail was long and sharp like the talon of a bird and it made him uneasy.  “What was the first memory that was destroyed?”

Hunter suddenly remembered some of the memories he’d seen back in the palace.  Some of them were very suggestive.  It was gross, Eda and Raine were old, he didn’t want to think about them doing…that.  He blushed, a real blush, how embarrassing, he never blushed.  But he stuck out his chin, unwilling to take the embarrassment on himself.  She was the one who should be embarrassed, not him.  And he was going to make sure of it.  “You were in the first memory.”  He said defiantly, making direct eye contact with her.  “You were younger, your hair was orange.  You had Raine pinned up against the wall and you were nibbling on the inside of their arm.”

Eda, it seemed, was not that easily embarrassed.  She shrugged, glancing over her shoulder at her sister.  “There might be more than one of those, actually.  We’ll have to be careful that we get the right one.”

Lily groaned and rolled her eyes.  “Just warn me before things get explicit, so I know when to look away.”

“Eda!”  Luz exclaimed, her hands up on her face, her eyes wide.  “Were you and Raine a couple?”

“It was a long time ago.”  Eda said, tapping her fingers together thoughtfully.  “I thought you would have figured it out by now, actually.”

“It is pretty obvious.”  Amity whispered to her girlfriend.

“It wasn’t obvious to me.”  Amber whined from the side of the room.

Lily sighed and started handing out the earmuffs.  “Let’s just get this over with.”  She sat on the couch, holding a tuning fork, and then handed one to Raine, who held it without question. 

“Hey!”  Hunter said suddenly, looking around the room.  “Where are my earmuffs?”

Luz, Amity, King, and the worm-owl-demon-thing (he still didn’t know its name) each had a pair, but he didn’t.

“You don’t get one.”  Eda said coldly, sitting down on the other side of Raine.  “You can have a nice long nap while all this is happening.  This spell is delicate, and I don’t want you running around unsupervised while it is going on.  Raine, Amber is going to be playing a sleeping spell, I need you to make yourself vulnerable to it.”

“We can supervise Hunter!”  Luz said excitedly.  “I was betrayed by him once before, so now I know I won’t fall for any of his tricks.”

“Nope!  Hearing protection on, everybody!  Amber?  Derwin?  Get ready.”  Eda announced, taking her own tuning fork.

“Ugh, fine.”  Hunter said.  He wouldn’t have said it aloud, but the thought of a nice nap seemed perfectly okay right now.  At least he wouldn’t have to sit around awkwardly with earmuffs on while they waited out the spell.  He moved to lay down on the smaller of the couches.  “At least give me a pillow.”

Eda and Lilith ignored him, but Luz handed over a couch cushion.  It smelled funky, but Hunter took it without comment and made himself comfortable as Amber began to play.  He tried to fight the sleeping spell for a short minute, knowing it was a losing battle but trying it anyway.  Just before the darkness engulfed him, he heard Derwin blow a low, deep note with his bassoon.  The metal of his pauldron on his left shoulder started to resonate with the music as Hunter drifted off to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

He awoke in the…where was he?  Not the Owl House.  Not the palace either.  It didn’t really seem to be anywhere at all.

It was, kinda depressing actually.  The whole thing looked burnt, and there was ash flying around everywhere, and the sky was full of smoke.  All around him stood a tangle of wires.  Not wires; strings, like from an instrument.  A violin maybe?  They looked like they had been wound too tight and had snapped.  This whole place had a low buzz to it.  Annoying, unpleasant.  Hunter rubbed one ear, but the buzzing continued. 

Ahead of him stood two figures.  Eda and Lilly.  Surveying the landscape.  He didn’t want to see either of them, but there didn’t seem to be anybody else around either.  He cleared his throat.  “Where are we?”

Both witches whirled around at the sound of his voice.  Eda pointed one bony finger in his direction.  “What are you doing here?”

“Well, maybe if you’d tell me where ‘here’ is.”  Hunter grumbled.  She was no help at all.  Something was sticking out of the ground a short distance away.  It looked like a tuning peg?  A big one, taller than he was.  He wandered over to it.  There was an image floating in front of it.  A burnt image, hard to make out, a hilltop with two witches sitting on the grass holding instruments.  He’d seen that image before, back when Darius had burnt it.  “Are we in Raine’s memories?”  Hunter yelped, jumping back.

“Don’t touch that.”  Eda grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back from the memory.  “What are you doing here?”

“Good question!  What am I doing here?”  Hunter was still backing away from the memory.  “Send me back!”

“Gladly.”  Eda said, and brought a bell out of her hair.  Eww.  What else did she keep in there?

“Edalyn.”  Lilly placed a hand on her sister’s shoulder.  “We can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t?  Send me back!”  Hunter whined.  Or demanded.  Yeah, that was it, he demanded.  The Golden Guard didn’t whine.

Eda closed her fingers around the bell, her long nails making a slight tapping sound on its surface.  “If I ring this now, we wake back up safely in the owl house.  But nothing will be fixed.  We can try it again, of course, but it might take Amber and Derwin a little while to recover first.  We would be losing time.”

Those violin strings that he noticed earlier unnerved him.  How tight would you have to wind a violin string before it snapped?  What sound would it make?  That feeling of wrong-ness returned.  He shifted his eyes back to the bell in Eda’s hand.  Her fingers twitched, and for a brief, terrible moment he wondered if she was going to pass the bell to him.  He didn’t want that.  He didn’t want to be the one to make that decision.  As long as she had the bell he didn’t have to.

Besides, the Emperor didn’t raise him to be a quitter.  “Let’s just get this over with.”  He said without making eye contact.

“Keep up, then.”  Eda told Hunter, putting the bell back into her hair.  “And don’t touch anything.  Lilly, it’s your job to keep an eye on him.”

Hunter kept his hands shoved into his pockets and his eyes focused downwards as he followed closely behind the two witches.  He very deliberately did not look at any of the memories that they passed.  “Luz said it would be like a forest.  With trees.”  He commented, at last.  It seemed like a valid observation.

“That was Willow’s mind.  She’s a plant witch, of course it would be a forest.  Raine is a bard.”  Eda said, and then pushed him gently towards a memory.  “Make yourself useful.  Is this the first memory that Darius destroyed?”

Hunter raised his head to peer at it.  It was burnt, like the others, but he could still make out the image on the front.  Raine was pressed up against the wall by another witch.  There was a big smouldering hole where her face should have been, but it was clear enough what was happening.  Hunter looked away.  “Yeah, that’s it.”

“Great.”  Eda rubbed her hands together.  “You two stay here, I’ll fix the memory.  Back in a moment.”

“It would be unwise to split up.”  Lillith said.  “At least until we encounter Inner Raine.  They will be unpredictable, and might become violent when they see us.”

Hunter looked around nervously.  Inner Raine?  What did that mean?  He didn’t like the sound of it.

Eda groaned.  “Fine, come on.  Just remember we’re in Raine’s mind.  Be respectful.” 

Hunter resisted when Eda pushed him towards the memory.  She didn’t seriously expect him to go in there?  To watch a gross, lovey scene play out of Eda and Raine, with Eda there beside him?  And her sister?  No way.

“Come on, time is snails, let’s go.”  Said Eda, pushing harder against him.  “You wanted this fixed, or you never would have written that note.  Let’s go.”

Hunter dug his heels in.  “How did you know it was me that wrote that note?”

“It was your pallisman that dropped it off.”  Eda said.  “Luz recognized him.  Then he showed up again when we grabbed you from the book fair this afternoon.  He put up more of a fight than you did, actually.  It was really quite shameful.  Let’s go.”

Hunter groaned, staring suspiciously at the memory.  “You go first.”  He nearly stumbled when Eda released him.  Lilly caught him, which he couldn’t be fully appreciative of.  He didn’t fall, but he didn’t escape with his dignity intact either.

“Wait, Edalyn.”  Lilly said, peering at the image.  “Just so we’re prepared.  What is the rating of this one?”

“PG-13?”  Eda shrugged.  “Not the worst one around.  “Let’s go.”

“PG—what does that mean?”  Hunter asked as Eda disappeared inside the memory.  He followed reluctantly, with Lilly behind him.

“It’s a human thing, we picked it up after living with Luz.”  Lilly said as they entered the memory.  “It’s a way of categorizing content according to its intended audience.”

“It means I wouldn’t show it to anybody under age thirteen.”  Eda said, examining the wreckage of the memory.  “Now shut up, both of you.”

Hunter fidgeted nervously as the other two witches wandered around the memory.  Or what’s left of it.  A knot was in his stomach.  The same feeling he’d experienced in the dungeon came back to him.  He couldn’t shake the feeling that this was wrong.  He didn’t want to be here, but he didn’t want to leave Raine’s mind like this either.  It was wrong, and he wanted to make it right again.

At last, Eda gave a triumphant yelp.  There was a row of photographs hanging along the wall.  Family photographs, it looked like, a couple and their child.  One of the photos featured the young child standing alone on a stage, holding a violin.  Eda flipped it around so it was facing the wall.  “They always hated that photo.”  She said, grinning.

And then the whole scene changed.  The colour returned, the ashes disappeared.  And the two witches at the centre of the scene came to life.

Well, not life, exactly.  It was a memory.  They were watching a memory.  Young (or at least, younger), fiery-haired Eda and young, awkward Raine were standing in the hallway of a house, somewhere. 

 

“You’re not going to change my mind.”  Raine said, their voice steady even as Eda backed them against the wall.

“I’m not trying to.”  Eda said, taking hold of their hand and bringing it up to her mouth.

“I’m not like you, Eda.  Not everybody can be a rebel.  Not everybody can spend their lives evading the Emperor.  I have real things that I want to do with my life.”

“Mmm-hmm.”  Eda said, opening her mouth slightly and allowing her single fang to graze along the skin on the inside of their wrist  

Raine groaned and closed their eyes, but continued talking.  “Joining the Bard Coven makes sense for me.  I’ve never had much talent for anything else, I will barely even notice when they seal the rest of my magic away.  Besides, I want to teach.  I think I’ll make a good teacher, but I can’t do that as a coven-less witch.”

“I know.”  Eda continued with her examination of their wrist.

“Why aren’t you trying to talk me out of this?”  Raine opened their eyes and frowned at her suspiciously.

“You’re an adult, you can make your own decisions.  If selling out to a coven is what you want to do, then I think you should do it.”  Eda said, then kissed their wrist and raised her eyes to meet theirs.  Slowly, sensually, her tongue inched out of her mouth and made contact with their wrist.  She grazed one long nail along their arm.

Raine moaned softly.  “What are you doing?”

“If you’re going to get a coven brand on your arm by the end of the day then I only have a few hours left to enjoy this spot.”  Eda said, and kissed that spot again. 

“Eda, it’s not a lolly-plop.  You can’t lick it to claim it as your own.”  Raine teased.

Eda brought her face up.  Her long fingers wrapped gently around their wrist and she smiled affectionately at them.  “Did you really think I wouldn’t make an innuendo out of that?”

Raine blushed.  “We’re twenty-three, Eda.  Most witches do their coven initiation at eighteen.  

“I get it.”  Eda said, bringing her lips back down to Raine’s wrist again.  “If you’d rather go stand on a stage in front of all those people then you would stay here with me, then how can I compete with that?”

Raine paled.  “People?  Like an audience?”

“Mmm-hmm.”  Eda mumbled against their wrist.  “I’m sure it won’t be that bad.  You’ll only have to be up there for a few minutes, tops.  It will be over quickly.”

Raine whimpered.  Whether from their fear of an audience or from Eda’s examination of their wrist, it was hard to tell.

 “I won’t be there to watch this one, though.  Not this time.  Sorry, Rainstorm; you can go to the initiation, but I don’t have to be happy about it.  I’ll go to our spot on the hill and practice the lute.”

“You won’t be there?”  Raine asked in a small voice.

“Not a chance.”

Raine sighed and sagged back against the wall.  “I guess I can put it off for another year.”

Eda gave a triumphant whoop.  She grabbed their hands with both of hers.  “That’s great!  We need to celebrate!”

Raine grinned weakly at her.  “Celebrate?”

“Yes.  Well, there’s a lot of places that I haven’t kissed yet.”

   

Hunter felt a hand on his shoulder.  He jumped, and blushed. 

“Come on.”  Lilly whispered.  “We don’t need to watch this unfold.”  Gratefully, Hunter followed Lilly out of the memory. 

Eda, real Eda, followed a minute later.  She didn’t look at all embarrassed that the others had seen that memory.  She rubbed her hands together.  “There, one down.  Ten to go.  Twenty?  Jeez, the coven leaders really did a number in here.  Come on, let’s go fix the next one.”  She sauntered over to the next memory, peered at it, and then blushed and turned around and hid it behind her, her arms up.  “Not this one!  Come on, over this way.” 

She hurried to the next one down, and Hunter deliberately kept his eyes averted from the memory that Eda had tried to shield from them.  He was sure that he didn’t want to see what was in it.

Eda frowned when she got to the next memory.  “I’m not sure this one is really that great either.”

“We’re running out of time, Sister.”  Lillith said, running her hands nervously along her skirt.  “There’s a lot to do and not that much time.  One wrong note from Amber and we’ll all wish we hadn’t woken up.”

“I’m just…not sure that Raine would want you to see this one.”  Eda admitted sheepishly.  “It’s not explicit, it’s just personal.”

“We don’t have time for an ethics debate, Edalyn.  Fixing the memories is our priority.  In you go.”

Eda sighed and entered the memory.  The other two followed.  They were in a bedroom.  Raine’s, presumably.  They looked young in this memory.  Teenager.  Awkward and pimply.  A young Eda was here too, but as before, her face was burnt off from the memory spell.  The room was a disaster, it looked absolutely trashed.  Hunter figured that was damage done by the coven leaders, and not because that’s how Raine actually kept their room.

Lilly went to start placing books back on the shelf.  “Do they organize their books by author or subject?”  She asked as she worked.

Eda ignored her sister.  She reached down for something on the floor (it looked to be a roll of bandages) and placed it on the desk.  And the room sprang to life.

 

“Let me see.”  Eda said, shoving her fiery hair out of her eyes.

“I’m fine.”

“Let me see.”

Young Raine sighed and turned so their back was to her.  They lifted their shirt to mid-chest level to expose a row of white bandages wrapped around their chest.  “How bad is it?”

“It’s rubbing, no wonder you’re hurting.  Have you been like this all day?  If you’d just let me help you in the mornings then maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much.  You’re going to do some damage.”

“I’m fine.”  Raine said over their shoulder.

“You are not fine.  You are bleeding.  Here, let me help.”

Raine flinched.  “I don’t want you to see them.”

“Well, face the wall then.  I promise I won’t look.”  Eda went to unwrap the bandages from Raine’s chest.  “You know, I’ve been sitting in on the healing track classes for the past three months and I am happy to report that if I keep at it for the next ten to twelve years then I will be able to remove them for you.  Family and friend discount.  Half off.”  Her mouth twitched as she worked.  “Other half is full price.”  

Raine frowned over their shoulder.  “That’s not funny, Eda.”

“Sorry.”  She muttered, unwrapping the last of the bandage and tossing it into the nearby garbage bin.  “I did learn to do this though.”  She traced a small circle over Raine’s ribs.  Here, at least, her fingernails were a normal length.  The bruises faded, the raw patch under their right armpit disappeared.  “Better?”

Raine sighed.  “Much better, thanks.  Now put it back on.”

  “You sure?  You could leave it off for the rest of the day, give your body a rest.  I’ll even lend you my Grugby jacket.  It’s loose on you, it’ll hide everything.”

“Put it back on.”  Raine growled, emphasizing each word.

Eda sighed and took another roll of bandages off the desk.  She started wrapping it tightly around Raine’s chest, careful not to reach her hands around to the front.  “How much is it going to cost you to get them removed?”

“Four hundred and fifty snails.”  Raine grumbled.

Eda whistled.  “Steep.  And your parents won’t help?  Aren’t they loaded?”

“Not when it comes to me, they’re not.”  Raine said bitterly, and then shook their head.  “Sorry.”

“It’s alright.  How much do you have so far?”

“Forty-seven snails.”  Raine said proudly as Eda finished up.  They lowered their shirt back down and went to look at themself in the mirror.  “It would have been forty-eight, but one of them escaped and I haven’t found it yet.”  They turned left and right in front of the mirror, tugging at the hem of their shirt and grinning stupidly at their reflection.

Eda leaned against the wall and watched them, an odd look on her face.

Raine caught her watching them through the mirror.  They blushed.  “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing, you just look…”

“What?”  Raine asked, beginning to look annoyed again.  “I look what?”

“You look happy.”  Eda said, and smiled.

Raine blinked a few times, and then a smile appeared on their face as well.  “Yeah, I guess I am.  Thanks again.”

“No problem.  Hey, did I leave my Grugby jacket here last time?  Lilly will skin me if I show up for practice without it again.”

“Oh yeah, I saw it downstairs, let me go get it for you!”  Raine exclaimed, and scampered out of the room.

Eda smiled fondly and reached back into her hair.  She came out with three snails and a crumpled piece of paper.  The paper she took back, but the snails she dropped into a terrarium that was resting on Raine’s desk.

 

“Hey, that one’s mine!”  Real-Eda exclaimed.

“Huh?”  Hunter blinked and looked around, surprised to be pulled back from the memory so suddenly.  Those things had a way of drawing a person in.  He had to remind himself that he was here with Lilly and Eda.  Old Eda, not memory Eda.

“That last part of the memory, where I dropped the snails in the tank.  Raine wasn’t in the room at the time.  That part of the memory wasn’t theirs, it was mine.”  Eda pointed out.

Lilly looked troubled.  “I believe our connection with Raine is reciprocal, at least to a certain extent.  We’re not just in their mind, but they’re in ours as well.”

Hunter didn’t like the sound of that.  “Is that supposed to happen?”

“I don’t think so.”  Lilly replied.  “We have to hurry while it’s still reversible.”

While it’s still reversible.  Hunter shivered and followed the other two witches out of the memory.  Somebody was waiting for them.  Or something.  Hunter wasn’t sure what to make of it.  It looked like it was made out of burnt wood.  Its surface was cracked and it was missing part of its shoulder.  It left black streaks like charcoal behind it as it walked.

“That must be Inner Raine.”  Lilly whispered.

Hunter’s breath hitched.  Inner-what?

“You shouldn’t be here.”  It was definitely Raine’s voice that came out of that thing.

Eda stepped forward.  “Raine, listen to me.  The coven leaders, they did something to your mind.  Look around, this isn’t right.  We need to fix this.”

“You shouldn’t be here.”  Inner-Raine said again.  Louder this time, and angrier.  “Leave.”  They lifted their arms and the broken violin strings that Hunter had noticed earlier shot out from—well, from everywhere.  Hunter flinched, but the strings bypassed him and went straight to Eda.  They wrapped around her, tightly.  Her legs snapped together and she fell to the ground with a thud.

“Raine.”  Eda gasped.  “Darius erased your memories.  You remember Darius, right?  You hate him.

“You shouldn’t be here.”  Inner-Raine repeated, watching her squirm around on the floor.  “You do not have permission to be here.  Leave.”

“Raine, please.”  Lilly spoke.  “We can’t just leave you like this, you know we can’t.  You have to let us help.”

You can help.”  They told Lilly, without looking away from Eda.  “You and the boy.  She can leave.”

Hunter winced and glanced at Lilly.  The thought of doing this without Eda was intimidating, to say the least.  He wasn’t sure it could be done.  Frankly, he wasn’t sure he wanted to do it.  Sure, he wanted Raine fixed, but he barely knew the bard, his loyalty had limits.  He cleared his throat.  “Raine?  Professor Whispers?  I really enjoyed that lesson you gave me.  I’d like to learn more about bard magic, but I never got the opportunity when I was with the Emperor.  But I don’t think you can keep teaching unless you let Eda help you recover your memories.  I can’t do it without her, and neither can Lilly.  You have to let her in…”

“I did let her in.”  Raine said, watching Eda squirm around on the floor.  “I was open, I was honest, I gave my all, but she never did the same.  And I always respected that because it was her choice, but she does not get to come waltzing into my thoughts all these years later when she would never trust me with hers.”

“Raine, please…”  Lilly began, but she was interrupted by another voice.

“You’re right.”  Eda said from the floor.  “And I’m sorry.” 

The other witches, including Raine, turned to look at her.  She took a deep breath and continued.  “I didn’t let you in.  I should have, I know that now.  I told myself that I wanted to protect you from the curse.  I thought I was being so noble; sacrificing my own happiness to protect you.  But I never gave you the chance to decide that for yourself.  And I’ve only recently begun to learn things about myself, about the curse, and how to live with it, that I think I could have learned twenty years ago if I had just listened to you in the first place.”

The violin strings that were holding Eda began to relax, then release.  Eda crawled to her knees and rubbed her arms.  “And I want to tell you everything now.  I want to tell you how much I’ve missed you, and how much I wanted to go back to you but I didn’t because I knew it was my own damn fault that you left and I had convinced myself that it would be better for you if I stayed away.  And I want to tell you how wonderful it is to live with Luz and King and how I try to pretend that it won’t absolutely destroy me when they leave, but then I’ll have to try to be strong for them, because they have their own families to go to and I will be happy for them but then I will have…nobody.  Because I kept sabotaging things with the people closest to me.  Like I did with you.”

Raine was no longer the burnt cinder-monster.  They just looked like…Raine.  They held a hand out for Eda and pulled her to her feet.  Neither of the two let go and they just stood there for a long moment, staring at one another. 

“I think it’s safe to split up into two groups now.”  Eda called without ever breaking eye contact with Raine.  “You two go fix some more memories.  There have to be some that aren’t… you know.”

“I am learning way more than I ever wanted to know about both of these people.”  Hunter grumbled as he followed Lilly.  The corner of her mouth twitched as she led him away.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The next memory didn’t have Eda in it at all, for which Hunter was glad.  He’d had enough of her for one day.  This memory was more recent, probably within the last few years.  It was hard to tell; Raine just looked old, as they always did.  They had that streak of silver in their hair and lines at the corner of their eyes.  They were sitting at a desk with another witch leaning over the desk towards them.  As before, her face was burnt off, but Hunter recognized her lean figure and sleek black dress.  He recognized her long cloak; white on the outside and grey on the inside.  Lilly was in this memory.

“Let’s just get this over with.”  Lilly, real Lilly, said.

She started organizing the bookshelf.  Again.  Hunter was about to point out that she was wasting her time.  Her technique of organizing the books hadn’t worked before and it wasn’t going to work now.  Except it did work.  Lilly placed the last book on the shelf and the room sprang to life

 

“So, you will not help me?”  Lilly asked coldly.

“I cannot help you.”  Raine corrected from their spot at the desk.  “I haven’t spoken to Eda in fifteen years.  She might not even want to see me.”

“Of course she wants to see you, she always wants to see you.”

“Neither of us knows that.”  Raine hissed.  “I really don’t understand what you are trying to accomplish by coming here.  Surely I cannot be your most promising lead.  I don’t know where she is.”

Lilly flopped down in the chair and tapped her staff irritably.  “She’s getting worse.”  She said at last.  “Her curse is harder to control.  Her behaviour is unpredictable.  She’s hidden herself away in the woods somewhere.  She drinks too much apple blood, plays too much Hexes Hold’em.  I don’t know how she makes money to buy her elixirs, but I cannot imagine it is above-the-books.” 

Raine traced an invisible design on their desk with one finger.  “I don’t know why you’re telling me all this.  I want the best for Eda, you know I do, but she has to be the one to figure all this out for herself.”

“I believe that she is no longer capable of making those sorts of decisions.”  Lilly said.

Raine frowned.  “What do you mean?”

“She has no sense of consequence, even for small actions, much less large ones.  I believe that she is not acting in her own best interest and she needs somebody to step up and decide for her.”

Raine frowned at her, a troubled look on their face.  “What exactly is your plan if you catch up with her?”

“Bring her back to the Emperor.”  Lilly replied simply.  “He will cure her, he has promised that he will.  Imagine the things that she could accomplish once that happens.  The two of us, together, in the Emperor’s Coven, we would be unstoppable!”

“I don’t believe that she would want that.”

“Who cares what she wants?  It’s what’s best for her.”

“And what if she refuses to join the Emperor's coven?  Will he still cure her?”  Raine asked at last.

Lilly flushed.  “That’s not really an option.”

“Why not?”  Raine flapped their hand irritably, sending a pen flying across the room.  “He has the ability to cure her but refuses to do so unless he can control her.  What sort of Emperor would do that?  It seems a lot like extortion to me.”

“Careful, Whispers.”  Lilly said in a low voice.  “Your words are awfully close to treason.”

Raine bowed their head.  “My apologies, Head Witch Clawthorne.  I spoke out of turn.  Long Live the Emperor.”

“Long Live the Emperor.”  Lilly repeated.  Silence filled the room.  Deep, oppressive, lingering silence.  At last she spoke again.  “So, you will not help me?”

“I will not help you.”  Raine replied without looking up from their desk.  

“Your lack of cooperation has been noted.  It will not look good for you when it is time to appoint a new Head Witch.  Rumour has it that Scooter Crane is looking to retire within the next few years.”

“I have no desire to be Head Witch.”  Raine raised their eyes to meet Lillith’s.  “I believe it corrupts one’s morals.”

Lilly took a breath in without releasing it.  The two witches stared at one another for a long moment before she tapped her staff on the floor and walked out of the room.

 

“How long ago was that?”  Hunter asked Lillith…real Lillith…as they exited the newly repaired memory.  

She scowled at him.  “You ask too many questions.”

“I’ve only asked one!”

“One is too many.”

“Hey, I never wanted to be here.  I never asked to be here.”  Hunter planted his body in front of her so she had to stop walking.  “If you’d given me some earmuffs when I’d asked for them I wouldn’t be here.  I think it’s fair that I get to ask at least one question.”

Lilly glared at him, which maybe once he would have found intimidating, but not now.  Not here.

“You told Raine that you would make sure they never got to be Head Witch.  Raine said they didn’t want to be Head Witch.  But we both know how that story ends, so what happened?”

Lilly stepped around him.  “You can walk and listen at the same time.  We’re still on a time crunch, remember?”

Hunter nodded and stepped in pace with her.  Her legs were longer, but he kept up okay.

“That was four years ago.  Maybe five.”  Lilly said without looking at him.  “I went a few times per year to ask the same question, but their answer was always no.  I knew Raine was being considered for the role of Head Witch, but I never reported their insubordination to the Emperor.”

“Why were they appointed Head Witch?”  Hunter asked.  “Isn’t loyalty to the Emperor one of the required qualifications?”

“I believe the Emperor thought they would be easiest to control.”  

Hunter couldn’t help himself.  He laughed.  There was a certain amount of irony to that statement.  The Emperor had scouted Raine, hard, because he thought that they would be easiest to control.  Well, now the two former Coven Leaders were uniting together to un-scramble Raine’s mind, in defiance of the Emperor himself.  Delicious irony.

But something about that thought bothered me.  Former Coven Leaders.  Former.  Was that what he was?

Hunter’s laugh stopped as suddenly as it had started.  Lilly glanced at him with a sympathetic look on her face.  She seemed to know exactly what was going on in his mind, but he was glad that she chose not to say anything further.

“Come on.”  She said, stopping in front of the next damaged memory.  “There aren’t that many left.  Hurry, before Amber gets tired and plays the wrong note.”  

But before they could get a good look at the image on the front, the thing flashed and Eda tumbled out.  A literal tumble; she ended up on her back and lifted her arms up triumphantly, a maniacal grin on her face.  “Take that , Principal Bump!”

“I do hope you are taking this seriously.”  Lillith said, crossing her arms.

Eda got up and dusted off her dress.  “What?  I fixed it, didn’t I?  How many have you done?”

“For your information, Sister, we just fixed our first one.”  Lilly said proudly.

First one?  Well, that’s a good start, keep it up!”

Lilly scowled.  “Well how many have you done?”

“Six.”  Eda boasted.  “And look around, this place already looks so much better!  We’ll be done in no time!”

Hunter did have to admit that she was right.  Raine’s mind wasn’t so depressing anymore.  The smoke was gone, the giant tuning pegs were standing tall, looking indeed like trees in a forest, and that buzzing sound that he had noted earlier was replaced by some sort of music.  Barely detectable, but it was there.  The violin strings that had been tangled and curled were now laid out neatly along the floor.  They made a sort of map, starting out straight but then shooting out at odd angles, making the floor almost look like a stained-glass window.  If he had to choose a word to describe it he would settle on the word pretty.  It wasn’t a word that he used very often, but it was a perfectly adequate word.

“I’m going to go do another six.  Don’t dawdle too long, see ya!”  Eda said, and scampered off.

 

Without another word, Lilly and Hunter continued on with their journey.  The next memory found them back in Raine’s office.  Another witch was here with them, a younger one this time. Katya, the bard witch that he had met in the Owl House.  As with the other two memories, this one was destroyed.  The formula for fixing it was predictable now.  All the two of them had to do was find the missing piece.  Lilly, of course, began to put books back on the shelf.  

Hunter placed a crystal ball back in its stand and peered at Katia, frozen in place across from the bard.  “Hey, doesn’t she play the tambourine?”

“Huh?”  Lilly asked, looking up from the bookshelf.

“Katya.  She has a lyre in front of her.  But she doesn’t play the lyre, right?  She plays the tambourine.”

Lilly came to join them.  “The lyre is significantly more difficult to master than the tambourine.  Maybe she is learning it on the side?”

Hunter shrugged.  “Maybe.”  But just in case, he swapped it out for a nearby tambourine.  Colour returned to the memory, and it sprang to life.

 

“I’ve decided to join the Bard Coven.” Katya announced, her head held high.

“Congratulations, that’s great news!”  Raine said, and then frowned.  “Wait, is that great news?  You don’t look happy about it.”

“Well, I have to join something, right?  And I do like music.”

“You like a lot of other things, too.  I’ve seen you in the greenhouse, you’re a whiz with plants.”

“So you’re saying that I should join the Plant Coven?”

“No, I’m saying that…”  Raine stopped themself and rubbed their forehead.  “Look, Katya, I could get in trouble for telling you this, but the coven system is not for everyone.  Some witches just don’t do well when they’re boxed into one thing.  Once you’re in a coven, the rest of your magic will be sealed away.  You will never be able to grow another vine, or make another illusion.”

“I do like making illusions.  Did I show you this one?”  Katia twirled her fingers over the desk.  A little cartoon piece of pie and a fork appeared on the table in front of them.  Both the pie and the fork had little faces on them, and the pie sighed happily when the fork entered it.  The whole exchange was oddly sensual.  “Maybe I should join the Illusion Coven?”

Raine was looking, wide-eyed, at the table where Katya's illusion had been; they cleared their throat, looking flustered.  “It’s lovely, but my point is you don’t have to join a coven at all.  Or at least you can always join one later if you find one that feels right.”

“Later isn’t really an option anymore.”  Katya shook her head.  “The Day of Unity is approaching and I have to join something.  I’m not talented enough to join the Emperor’s Coven, so where does that leave me?”

“You’re plenty talented, kiddo.” 

“I’m not looking for praise, I'm looking to join a coven!” Katya flapped one hand angrily.  “If I go back to the Conformatorium they'll put me in the Potions Coven, and I know I don’t want to be there.  Please Raine, I’m not the most talented, and I don’t fit in, but at least in the Bard Coven people are nice to me, and I have friends here.  I know I’m struggling to learn, but I will practice every day and I’ll even give up writing fanfiction if it will help…”

“You don’t have to give up your hobbies to join a coven, Katya.”

“Well that’s good, because I love writing fanfiction.”

Raine shuffled in their seat awkwardly.  “Are you sure about this?”

Katya reached her arm over the desk towards them.  Raine took her hand and turned it over so her palm was facing up.  They hesitated, one finger hovering above her wrist, and she nodded.  “Do it.”

“Back in my day there was a big production made of this.”  Raine said nervously, frowning down at her wrist.  “We had to go up onto stage and everything.  I hated it.”

Katya’s fingers twitched.  “Just do it.”

Raine sighed and touched one finger to the inside of her wrist.  A small mark, a harp, appeared on her skin, flashed bright red for a moment, then faded until it was almost indistinguishable from her flesh.

Katya took her arm back and rubbed her wrist.  “Thank you.”

“Just…go.”  Raine said, getting up from their chair and facing the bookshelf.  “And Katya, welcome to the Bard Coven.  We are lucky to have you.”  Katya nodded and left the room, closing the door behind her.  Raine took a deep, shuddering breath, and rested their forehead against the wall.

 

Hunter followed Lilly out of the memory, rubbing his wrist thoughtfully.  “In the Emperor’s Coven, we’re told over and over again how lucky we are to be there.  Nobody would ever say that the coven is lucky to have us.”

Lilly glanced down at him.  “I know, I was in it too.  It’s a lot of pressure.”

“Yeah.”  He muttered.  “It is.”

“I know that must have been strange to watch.”  Lilly said as they walked towards the next memory.  “You’ve always been taught that it’s every witch’s dream to join a coven, so to find out that it’s not true…”

“That’s…not actually what I was thinking.”  Hunter said evasively.

“Well what were you thinking?”

“It’s just…nobody has ever talked to me like that.  Nobody ever told me that they were lucky to have me.”  Hunter didn’t really know why he was telling Lilly all of this.  It’s not like they were friends, but she was right.  If anybody understood what it was like to be in the Emperor’s Coven, she did.  Besides, somehow here in Raine’s mind, his defences seemed to be lower.  His barriers were down.  Was that because the connection with Raine was going both ways?  Lilly had warned him that might happen.  “I’m not sure if it’s because Raine is a nicer person than everybody else I’ve ever met, or if it’s because I just haven’t earned it yet.”

“If Raine were here they would tell you that you don’t have to earn it.  But they’ve always been better at this sort of thing than I have.”  Lilly said, glancing down at him as they walked.  “They used to tell me that I didn’t have to work so hard to earn respect, because it should be given freely.  I never quite believed it as a child.  Or an adult, for that matter.  I’ve only begun to figure it out in the last few months.  It took me leaving the Emperor's coven to do so.”

“Figure what out?”  Hunter asked, keeping pace with her.

“I worked my whole life for the Emperor's coven.”  Lilly said, a distant look on her face.  “I sacrificed for them.  I gave them everything, hoping to get some small table scrap in return.  I’m not sure what I was looking for.  Praise, maybe, or gratitude, some sort of recognition of all that I’d done.  I never got it, and I’m only just learning now that it’s not because of anything that I did or didn’t do.  It’s because of them.  Because they were never going to give it to me, no matter what.”

“Right.”  The whole idea made him uncomfortable, it was too foreign for him.  He didn’t want to think too hard about it.  Not here, not now.  He shuffled his feet a bit, and then wandered over to the next corrupted memory.  Best to focus on the task at hand.  "Ready?"

For the first time, the two of them entered the memory together.  

 

 

Chapter Text

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.

 

Chapter Text

And awake.  Back in the Owl House.  People everywhere, all of them talking.  Chaos.  Hunter would have preferred to stay asleep.

“You’re back!”  Luz squealed, and went to hug Eda, who was just starting to stand up from the couch.  Luz managed to tackle Eda, and the two toppled right into Lilly, who had been sitting at the opposite edge of the couch.  The spot in the middle had been newly vacated by Raine, who had somehow managed to sidestep the commotion and went straight to Amber, who was chugging a nearby water glass, gasping in between gulps.  She went to put it down on the side table, but her hands were trembling and she missed, sending the glass and the rest of the water toppling to the floor.

Raine took Amber into a deep, enveloping hug.  “Were you spellcasting this whole time?  I’m so proud of you.  How long has it been?”

“Hours.”  Said Katya from nearby.

“I’m proud of you, too.”  Raine opened the hug to include her.  “And you, get in here.”  They motioned for Derwin to come and soon all of the bards were grinning and hugging and slapping one another’s backs.

“Mappa Raine!  I’m so glad you’re back!”  Amber squeezed her mentor tightly.  She didn’t appear ready to let go.

Raine leaned back so they could see her better.  “Mappa?  Have you ever called me that before?”

“Nope.”  Said Amber, stepping back and grinning at them.  “But if I say Mamma Eda then I figure you should be Mappa Raine.  She’s great and all, but I think you earned the title first.  Or would you prefer Maddy?  Damma?”

“Mappa Raine is fine.”  Raine chuckled.  “I just wanted to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.  Make sure we got them all.”  They tapped the side of their head, but then their arm got pinned to their side as Amber grabbed them in for another tight hug.

When Amber finally released Raine she stumbled a bit, and had to be caught by Katya.  She rubbed her cheeks, which must have been sore from playing the tin whistle for hours, but the motion just turned into a yawn.

“To bed with you.”  Raine ordered.  “Katya, Derwin, take her to bed.  You can sleep…Eda?  Where can they sleep?”

“Spare room.”  Eda said, having finally disentangled herself from Lilly and Luz.  “They’ve actually been here a few days, they know where to go.”

“But I’m not tired.”  Amber protested, but her words turned into another yawn.  The other two led her out of the room.

Eda rubbed her arm awkwardly when Raine turned back to her.  “So, you know who I am then?” 

“Not anymore, apparently.”  Raine gave her a shy smile.  “We’ve got twenty years to catch up on.  I don’t even know your kids’ names.”

“They're not mine, exactly, but that’s King over there on that cushion.  Aww, did he sleep through the whole thing?”

“Pretty much.”  Said Luz, patting King gently.  The little demon mumbled something unintelligible.  His leg twitched in his sleep.  He was still wearing his pink earmuffs.

“And this is Luz.  She and Amity are… hey!  Where’s Amity?”  Eda asked, looking around the room.

“Oh, she had to go home hours ago.”  Luz said; she went to retrieve a crystal ball off the table.  “She said her mom would ground her until graduation if she didn’t get home before dark.”  

Amity’s face appeared in the crystal ball that Luz was holding up.  “What happened?”  She asked, looking around desperately, as if that would increase her field of view.  “Did the spell work?”

“It worked!”  Luz grinned into the crystal ball.  “Everyone just woke up!  And Raine is back to normal!  Well, I’ve never met them before but I assume this is what normal looks like for them.”

“Ship shape!”  Raine smiled weakly at the crystal ball.

“Oh, thank Titan.”  Amity said through the crystal ball.  “Willow and Gus are on the other line, they’ll want an update.  Hang on, I’ll switch over the call.”

The image swirled and two young witches appeared in the crystal ball where Amity had just been.  Hunter hadn’t met either of them, but he was pretty sure they were troublemakers.  They had that look about them.

“Raine, this is Gus and Willow.  They helped kidnap you from the book fair this afternoon.”  Luz said, holding up the crystal ball.

“Turn your head to the side… damn, I’m not sure if I got that streak of silver just right.”  Said the smaller of the two witches.  Hunter guessed that he must be Gus.

Raine tilted their head to the side curiously.  “You’re going to have to explain that statement.”

“Gus made an illusion of you today!”  The other witch said, clasping her hands together excitedly.  Hunter guessed she must be Willow.  “He made you wander around the book fair for a few hours and then retreat to your old office at the bard coven.  I hope that’s okay, Katya gave us a key.  Nobody has even noticed you’re gone.”

“A few hours?”  Eda deadpanned, leaning down into the crystal ball.  “It was supposed to be a few minutes.  What happened to our plan?  Remember our plan?  We talked about this.  Extensively.”

Gus waved his hand flippantly.  “I was having fun.”

“And are you both safe now?”  Raine asked, frowning into the crystal ball.

“Oh yeah, we’re back at Gus’s house.  But my dad is coming to get me soon.  He said no more sleepovers now that we’re getting older.”  Willow said.

“Yep.  Gotta go.  Nice to meet you, we’re glad your brain is better!”  Said Gus, and the image disappeared off the crystal ball.

Raine straightened and nearly bumped into Eda.  Both witches blushed and looked away.

Hunter, meanwhile, was sitting on the couch awkwardly, his hands in between his knees.  He felt…what did he feel?  Left out, mostly.  Maybe a little jealous.  He didn’t feel like he was a part of any of this.  Would anybody notice if he slipped out?  They all seemed pretty preoccupied.

Silently, he stood up from the couch, and came face-to-face with that worm-owl house demon creature.  His eyes were wide and unblinking, and his neck…or was it a body…was snaking all the way around the room, twisting and turning before finally ending up in Hunter’s personal space.  He jumped backwards and stumbled back onto the couch.

“Hootsifer.”  Lillith said, her voice warm and affectionate.  “Give our guest some space.”

The demon–Hootsifer–brought his head over towards Lillith and cooed happily as she scratched his chin.  

And then Raine was standing in front of Hunter, offering him a hand up.  He stared at the hand for a long moment.  Part of him considered rejecting it.  That’s what the old Hunter would have done.  That’s what he had been conditioned to do.  Taking the hand would be a sign of weakness.  A sign of trust, of kinship, of…

Hunter looked from the hand and up to Raine, who had a small smile on their face.  They didn’t seem to be in a hurry.  They seemed to understand that this was a big moment for Hunter. Content to wait.  Hunter looked back at the hand for a moment longer, then took it and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet.

“You did good work in there.” Raine told Hunter without letting go of his hand.  “You should be proud.”

Hunter stared at their joined hands without really knowing how to respond.  Proud.  He’d wanted somebody to be proud of him for so long.  He wanted to hear those words.  From his uncle, from anybody.  And now here Raine was, standing in front of him, telling him that he could be proud of himself.  What a wonderful gift that they had given him.  He did feel proud.

He still would have liked to hear somebody else say it though.  

“He did an admirable job today.”  Lilly said, which was not quite the same, but much better than anything he'd ever get at the Emperor’s coven. 

The Emperor’s Coven.  Hunter’s heart fell.  Did he have to go back?

“Wait, wait, wait.”  Luz said, looking from Hunter to Raine and back again.  “Did Hunter get drawn into the memory spell?  Hunter?”

Hunter took his hand back from Raine as the two witches stepped apart.  “Not on purpose.”

“Yeah.”  Eda came up to stand beside Raine.  “Did we ever figure out why you tagged along?”

“We were a little busy.”  Lilly said.  “We never gave it much thought.”

“It’s because you two idiots never gave me earmuffs when I asked for them.”  Hunter grumbled.  Not that he regretted his participation, of course, but he did feel the need to rub it in, just a bit.

“It was your pauldron, wasn’t it?”  Raine asked, eyeing up the bit of gold that was still at Hunter’s left shoulder.  “It’s shaped like a bell.”

Hunter reached up to touch his shoulder.  “That… makes sense actually.”

Eda laughed.  Cackled?  Whatever she did, it ended in an undignified snort.  “It’s funny because Raine would have known right away.  And they were sitting right there as we discussed our plan.  They had the knowledge but couldn’t apply it and all we had to do was ask, but nobody did…Oh Titan, I need some apple blood.”

Hunter had to admit it was a little funny.  He could appreciate some wicked irony.  Living with the Emperor gave him a morbid sense of humour.

Luz, meanwhile, was still staring at him, her eyes nearly bulging out of her head.  “You saw Raine’s memories?  Was Eda in there?  Did you see some of her mysterious backstory?”

“More of her than I wanted to, that’s for sure.”  Hunter grumbled.  He’d meant it as playful banter with Luz, but Raine jerked back, a deep blush appearing over their face, and Hunter immediately felt bad.  He was glad that nobody had ever had to go into his memories.  The mind was an awfully personal thing.  Why did the human want to see inside it so badly anyway?

Luz, to do her credit, seemed to pick up on the awkwardness.  She picked up King in one hand and the crystal ball in the other, somehow balancing both without waking up King.  “Well, I’m going to bed.  It’s been a busy day of watching Hunter sleep.  Good night.”

“Don’t stay up too late talking to Amity.”  Eda called after her.

“I think I’ll go to bed too.”  Lilly said, with a stretch.  “I’m okay sleeping in the basement.  Hooty has a bunch of pillows down there, though he wouldn’t tell me why he has them.”

“Lily?”  Hunter asked, but then his voice trailed off.  He wanted to tell her something, but he really wasn’t sure what.  Something along the lines of thank you for your help today, and it’s nice talking to somebody else who knows what it’s like inside the Emperor’s Coven and I think you’ve changed for the better since you got out and I need you to tell me that it’s okay for me to get out too and your shirt is ridiculous and…

Finally, he settled for a simple “goodnight.”

She gave a jerky nod of her head.  “Goodnight.”  And then she was gone too.

Hooty–Hootsifer?  The House demon– had disappeared at some point too.  That left him, Raine, and Eda.  If they were about to have an emotional reunion he didn’t want to be a part of it, but for some reason Raine was looking at him, not at Eda.

Eda cleared her throat.  “I think we should all get some shut-eye.  A spell like that really drags it out of you, even if we were asleep for the whole thing.  Hunter, you’re going to have to sleep on the couch again.  You looked so cozy before.  And Raine?  You’re ah…you’re going to have to take the other couch.  We’re running out of beds, you see, and you can’t really, umm…”  She trailed off, looking flustered.

“The couch will be fine, thank you, Eda.”  Raine said mildly.

She nodded.  “You two will have to fight over the bigger one.  I’ll get some blankets.”  She wasn’t looking where she was going and bumped into the doorframe, before finally retreating out of the room.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Are you hungry?”  Raine said after a few moments of heavy silence.  “I think the kitchen is through here.”

Hunter nodded, relieved to have something else to focus on, and followed them into the kitchen.  Both witches started opening drawers and cupboards.  

“Find anything?”  Raine asked, standing on their tiptoes to see the upper cabinets.  They weren’t quite as tall as Eda.

“Nothing healthy.”  Said Hunter from his spot in front of the fridge.  “Unless you want to cook up a griffon egg.”  There was an awful lot of apple blood in here though.  He took out a carton and examined the label.

“It doesn’t have to be healthy.  You don’t get any of this , though.”  Raine plucked the apple blood out of Hunter’s hand.  “Adults only.  You can have water, if you’re thirsty.”

They sat at the table together and Raine filled up a bowl full of Hex Mix.  Hunter’s diet was strictly controlled at the palace.  Three meals per day, optimized for nutritional and energy needs.  He’d tasted snacks before, but he’d never gotten to actually sit down and snack.  It was nice.  A treat.

It was also nice to get Raine to himself for a little while.  No Luz, no BATTs, especially no Eda.  Just Raine.  Hunter wasn’t quite introspective enough to realize just how dire his need for parental attention was, but he was willing to admit that this was nice, nevertheless.

Raine, meanwhile, was examining the container of apple blood in their hand.  They drummed on it thoughtfully for a moment and then shrugged and jammed the straw through the top of the carton.  They shrugged when they saw Hunter raise his eyebrows at them.  “What?  It’s been a long day.”

“Yeah.”  Hunter said, staring down at the table.  “A long day.  Are you…”  He trailed off.  Okay , he wanted to finish, but he wasn’t really sure how to ask.  He wasn’t in the habit of asking other people about their feelings, and he didn’t really know how to start now.

“Am I…what?”  Raine asked, taking a first sip of apple blood.

“Aren’t you tired?”  Hunter finished weakly.

“At my age, I’m always tired.”  Raine joked, but there was something behind their smile that Hunter recognized.

“You’re afraid to go to sleep, aren’t you?”  Hunter asked, softly.

Raine paused and set the apple blood down on the table.  “Can you blame me?”

“Guess not.”  Hunter muttered, staring down at the table.  There was a moment of heavy silence which was only broken by his pallisman.  That little cardinal knew to hide when there were other people around, but for some reason they came out now.  A spike of fear overcame Hunter when he saw the little bird, hopping across the table.  Would he get in trouble?  Would somebody come and take them away from him?  He couldn’t let anything happen to his little buddy.

He needn’t have worried though.  Raine placed their chin on their hands and cooed at the bird.  They cocked their head back at them and pretty soon bird and bard were whistling and chirping and cooing back and forth at each other.  Hunter couldn’t help it, he smiled.

“Can you understand them?”  Hunter asked at last.

Raine straightened and shook their head.  “No.  Only the witch who is bonded to a pallisman can understand what they say, and I don’t have one.  But I find with pallismen I don’t really need a common language.  Not for anything important, anyway.”  Raine pressed their fingers one at a time down on the table, as if playing an invisible keyboard, and the little bird chirped happily and hopped along the table, chasing their fingers as they played.

“And what are you getting from this one?”  Hunter asked, watching the exchange.  For some reason he’d never thought of simple playtime with his pallisman.  It seemed like such a small thing, but it never would have occurred to him.

“They’re curious.  And lonely.”  Raine said, giving another small whistle.  “They don’t like hiding away.”

Lonely .  Hunter looked down at the little cardinal as it pecked at a dropped pretzel from the snack bowl.  That made sense, though it didn’t make him feel good about himself.  He felt guilty, and unworthy.  Both familiar emotions, but no less unpleasant.  What did he have to offer a pallisman?  “You should take them.”

Raine withdrew their hand quickly, looking shocked.  “What?”

“I’m serious.  They never should have chosen me.  It was a mistake!  You need to take them.  Look at them, they like you.”

Raine shook their head, hard enough to make their earring flap against their cheek.  “No.  Absolutely not.  That’s not how this works.  They chose you.”

“They shouldn’t have.”  Hunter hissed.  “I can’t keep them safe in the Emperor’s palace, not for long.  You need to take them, please.”

Raine’s face changed.  They looked at Hunter thoughtfully.  “You don’t have to go back there, you know that, right?”

Hunter had been waiting for somebody to say those words to him, but even so, hearing them now made him feel all emotional inside.  He looked away.  “I have to go back.  Uncle needs me.”

“Your uncle is the Emperor, right?”  Raine asked, and Hunter nodded.  “Your uncle is an adult.  You are not.  Not yet anyway.  As an adult, he has no business laying this all at your feet.  He should be the one protecting you.  Not the other way around.”

“I…”  Hunter began, but to his horror his voice locked up with unshed tears.  “I need to get some water.”  He got up from the table and turned towards the sink, his back towards Raine.  Was he going to cry?  He didn’t want to cry.  Not here, not in front of another witch.  Not…

And then Raine was there beside him.  For a minute he thought the bard was going to bring him in for a hug, but he wasn’t ready for that.  He turned away and fought with himself, trying to get himself under control.  “What am I without the Golden Guard?  I am nothing.”  He said at last.  His voice came out steady, at least.  He wasn’t looking for pity.  He was just stating a fact.

“You don’t have to be anything.  You’re a teenager.  You can go and do teenager things.  That’s the whole point of being a teenager, is that you still have time to figure all of this out.  Nobody expects you to know it already.”

The Emperor expects it.   Hunter thought miserably, and in a moment of clarity, he knew he wasn’t going back.  The thought of living without that sort of pressure seemed so… liberating. “And where would I live?”  He asked, allowing himself a glimmer of hope.

“Here, at the Owl House.”  Raine shrugged.  “Eda doesn’t seem to mind taking in errant teens.  Or Lilly.  She’s not very maternal, I guess neither of them are.  But Lilly is trying to figure out life outside the coven, same as you are.  And she can teach you an awful lot about magic.”

“And what about you?”  Hunter asked the question that he had been thinking about for the last little while.  “Would you take me in?  Would you teach me bard magic?”

Raine looked away, avoiding Hunter’s eyes.  “I…”

“I understand.”  Hunter said quickly.  And he did, really.  Nobody wanted him.  He wouldn’t want him either.  But it still hurt.  He turned and walked out of the kitchen and back towards the living room.  At some point Eda had placed blankets and pillows on a pile on the coffee table.  He took some and started laying them out on the couch.

“Hunter.”  Raine had followed.  “That’s not what I meant.”

“It’s fine, I get it.”  Hunter said, his voice was steady.  Back under control.  Show no weakness.  

“No, you don’t.”  Raine said, planting their body in front of him.  “I’m going back to the palace.”

Hunter stopped what he was doing, holding a pillow in his hands.  “They’ll kill you.”  He said, matter-of-factly.

Raine shook their head.  “I don’t think they will.  They need me.”

“They’ll do that thing again, to your mind.”  Hunter pointed out.  Somehow he didn’t think that Raine had thought this through.

“Remember when Luz’s friend Gus said he’d made an illusion of me?  As far as anybody knows I’m in my office right now, with my memories still wiped.  So I just need to sneak back in there tomorrow morning and wait for someone to come looking for me.”

Hunter did have to admit that it made a certain amount of sense.  He’d been training all his life to be a tactician and he knew a window of opportunity when he saw one.  Still… “I don’t want to go back in to repair your memories again.  Would it even work a second time?”

Raine shrugged.  “If all goes well you won’t have to.”

“I guess I just don’t understand why you have to go at all.  You’re safe here.  You can be happy, with Eda, and with…”  Me.   He wanted to say, but instead he swallowed, twice.  “With Katya and Amber and Derwin.”  He finished.

Raine was silent for a long moment, rubbing one thumb along their wrist.  Finally they spoke, their voice distant and haunted.  “The memory wipe wasn’t the worst thing that happened to me this week.  You saw how I was in the dungeon.  Those vines, the coven brand…”  Raine’s voice was soft, and barely audible.  Hunter remembered the look of horror that had been on Raine’s face as they lay on the dungeon floor.  He shuddered.  That look would stay with him until the end of his days.  He supposed it was too much to ask that Raine got out unscathed.  

Raine cleared their throat and tried again.  “I have to find out how they did that.  Kikimora, she…she should never have that much power, nobody should.  And it doesn’t take a huge stretch to wonder if that’s the reason the Emperor is pushing so hard to get everybody to join a coven before the Day of Unity.  That’s a lot of coven brands.  A lot of targets on a lot of backs.”

Hunter shuddered and didn’t question it further.  “Are you a good enough actor to pull it off?”  He asked, pointing out the biggest weakness in the plan, as far as he was concerned.  Raine was an open book.  “You’ll have to convince everybody that you’re still mindless.  No slip-ups.”

“Ah.”  Raine grinned sheepishly, rubbing their arm.  “I mean, it helps if I don’t think about it as acting, because acting means performance, which means audience, and I’m really not great with…”  They cleared their throat nervously.  “Lack of acting is more like it, because all I have to do is not react to anything and say as little as possible, and that seems like something I can do.”

Hunter thought for a moment.  “I should go with you.  You’re going to need an ally on the inside.”

Raine shook their head.  “No.  Absolutely not.”

“It makes sense for me to go.”  Hunter pointed out, reasonably, he thought.  “I know the castle, and I can help you avoid detection.  I can get messages back to Eda.  Nobody there cares where I go.  They probably haven’t even noticed I’m missing yet.”

Raine crossed their arms across their chest.  “Still no.”

“You don’t need to protect me.”  Hunter copied their body language.  Arms crossed.  “I can look after myself.”

“Of course I need to protect you.  I’m an adult.  That’s literally my job.”  Raine’s body language softened.  “Haven’t you ever had a responsible adult in your life before now?”

The question was meant to be rhetorical, but it still stung.  Hunter winced.  

“Besides, I’m just being realistic.”  Raine said, relaxing their body language even further to something kinder.  “You’d have to betray your uncle, over and over again.  And I don’t think you’re quite ready for that.”

Hunter sagged, feeling suddenly defeated.  Just a little while ago–minutes? Hours?--he had felt like defending the Emperor had been the most important thing in the world, so he was a little shocked at how quickly he’d forgotten about all that as soon as he heard that Raine might be walking right back into the jaws of the beast.  But Raine was right.  Was he ready to betray the Emperor?  He thought so, but he wasn’t ready to bet Raine’s life on it.

“Alright, I won’t go.”  His voice broke, and he cleared his throat.  He’d said the words, but he wasn’t quite sure if he believed them.  He’d have to think about it some more.  “You need to tell Eda now though.  You’re going to need to convince her before tomorrow.  You’ll need her to be on your side when you tell the others.  And you do have to tell them, you know that right?  If you just sneak out then they will come right back after you.”

Raine gulped and looked over towards the stairs.  “You’re probably right about that.”  They said, but didn’t move.

Hunter went back to arranging the pillows on the couch.  “Just go already.”

“I will, I just… I mean, I don’t really know how long it will take, if I go up there, you see, and it might be a while before I come down, or not at all, because well, you see…”

Hunter groaned and kicked off his boots.   “Raine, you are too old to dance around the word sex.  Come back down, or don’t.  I don’t care.  Either way, I’m taking the bigger couch.”

Raine coughed, redness rising to their face, which Hunter tried not to feel smug about.  He wasn’t that far removed from his upbringing that he didn’t like getting the upper hand.  

He was also tired.  He lay down on the couch–the bigger couch, thank you very much–and closed his eyes.  It was a long moment before he heard Raine’s footsteps shuffle out of the room and towards the stairs.

And he was tired, that part was true.  But sleep…well, sleep was a whole different story.  He supposed that technically he’d been sleeping most of the day.  Maybe that’s why?  He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling.  From upstairs he thought he heard Eda’s voice say “ the hell you are.”

It was different, being in the Owl House.  It was warmer than the palace– not that he could sleep there either– the noises were different, it smelled weird, and was that wall breathing?   But it was more than that too.

Here he was, laying on the couch in the Owl House itself.  Was he still a prisoner?  It didn’t feel like it.  The door was right there and all he had to do was walk through it.  Well, maybe fly through it.  That house demon looked fierce, but Hunter was pretty sure he could outrun him.  He had to run out of neck eventually.  

But Hunter knew he wasn’t going to run.  It’s not that he had nowhere to go.  He could make it back to the Palace; explain away the Coven Guards’ story, be taunted by Kikimora for a few weeks, accept his punishment for losing track of Raine Whispers.  He’d weathered worse, but now, for the first time in his life he knew he didn’t have to.  He had an alternative.  Raine had given him permission to stay away.  And that seemed like the greatest gift in the world.

Raine.  Why was Raine so important to him all of a sudden?  He felt like he would go to the ends of the earth just to hear Raine tell him a kind word.  Not Lilly, not the Emperor.  Raine.  He had spent a good amount of time in Raine’s mind today, and he knew that a few stray thoughts that had been shared back and forth.  Thoughts, memories, emotions.  He had some of Raine’s, and Raine had some of his.  Did the same thing happen between Raine and Lilly?  Raine and Eda?  He supposed it must have.  

But deep down he knew that this wasn’t about Raine, this was about him.  He had shifted his loyalty to Raine Whispers of all people.  And Raine Whispers was going back to the palace.  Back to the Emperor.  Hunter knew what that meant.  Nobody knew the Emperor better than he did, which meant that nobody knew what the Emperor was capable of better than he did.  And the Emperor was capable of… Hunter shuddered.  There was no more pretending that the Emperor’s plan would be anything but horrible.

From upstairs he heard a thump.  He groaned and pulled the pillow over his head.  Old people love.  Gross.  

Part of him was glad that Raine and Eda had found each other again.  At least they would have one night, before Raine went back to the palace.  But that didn’t mean he wanted to hear about it.  Thankfully, there were no more strange sounds from upstairs.

Raine was going back to the palace.  Hunter didn’t like that thought.  He’d spent too much time fixing Raine’s mind just to send them back into danger again.  But the strategist in him did have to admit that it made sense.  The strategist inside him was also telling him that it made sense for him to go too.

Could he?  Could he just go back, was it that simple?  Return to the palace, be the Golden Guard, but do so while plotting against the Emperor?  The thought was… well, it was exciting, actually.  He had told Raine that he wouldn’t, but that was easily side-stepped.  He’d lied to much more intimidating witches than Raine Whispers before.  They would deal.

He was going back to the palace, to help Raine.  To betray the Emperor.  Even that was a happy thought.  It gave him a sense of purpose.  Something he never knew that he was lacking.  Raine would probably have something to say about it.  They all would, but he didn’t really need their permission.  He could probably get Luz on his side if nothing else.

Feeling calmer, and somehow happier, then he had in ages, Hunter allowed himself to fall asleep.

 

Chapter Text

The next morning was emotional, and a little chaotic.  He knew it would be, once everybody found out about Raine’s plan.  There were tears, and hugs.  So many hugs.  A few were targeted at him, but he managed to sidestep each one.  He still hadn’t told anybody that he was planning on leaving too.

And then it was time for Raine to leave.  Earlier was better, of course.  They were on borrowed time, after all.  Everybody piled out onto the front lawn.  Hunter went to stand beside Lilly, the only other person who seemed content to sit back and avoid the hugs.  Even Eda had her own way of protesting and acting all awkward when a hug came her way, but Hunter suspected she secretly enjoyed every one of them.

It was decided that Luz would take Raine and help them sneak back into their office at the bard coven.  Somehow of everybody in the group, she and King were the only ones who weren't fugitives.  Plus Luz was small and inconspicuous.  She’d stuffed some glyphs into her bag and pulled her hood up to hide her ears.  

Raine went to say goodbye to the BATTs first.  The three of them seemed to take the whole thing surprisingly well.  They didn’t like it, but they seemed to understand the plan right away.  Nobody had tried to change Raine’s mind.  Rebellion is what they started their group for, after all.  Doesn’t mean there wasn’t a wail or two.

Next, Lilly got a handshake.  She and Raine exchanged a friendly smile.

“I’m glad you got out of the Emperor’s coven..”  Raine told her.  “It suits you.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this relaxed.”

“Yes, I got out.”  Lilly said coldly.  “Just in time to see you go in.”

Raine shrugged.  “Any advice for me?”

Lilly shook her head.  “Just…watch your back.  They’re ruthless.”

And then it was Hunter’s turn.  Not for a hug, which he was relieved about.  He wasn’t ready for that yet.  “Lilly is right, they’re ruthless.  Watch out for Kikimora.  She can sense weakness.”

“She already thinks I’m weak, so that’s to my advantage.”  Raine smiled sideways at him.  “Hey, I’m proud of you kiddo.  Remember that.”

Hunter swallowed, and nodded.  “Yeah.”  He tried not to feel guilty about his decision to follow Raine into the palace, or his decision to lie about it.  It was for the best.  “Thanks.”

And then it was Eda’s turn.  It seemed like Raine had spent some time last night talking her around to their decision already.  She had already accepted it, however reluctantly, and needed no more persuasion.  She held out her hand and allowed a small necklace to dangle from her fingers.  It had a skeleton key dangling off the end of it--made out of actual skeleton.  “A gift from a friend at the oracle coven.  Keep it on you at all times, so I know if you get into trouble.  I’ll be able to hear you with it, but you won’t be able to hear me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still try, but…just know that I’m there.”

Raine held out their hand for the necklace, then hesitated and gave a guilty glance over their shoulder towards the rest of the party.  Then they turned back to Eda, muttered something that sounded an awful lot like “fuck it,” and stepped forward for a kiss, standing up on their tiptoes so they could reach her.

There was mixed reaction from the crowd.  Lilly scoffed and rolled her eyes.  “About time.”  She muttered under her breath;  Luz sighed dreamily, just as she flicked her cape in front of King to hide the scene from him;  The little demon had just pounced on something in the grass and didn’t even notice anything was happening;  Amber made a gagging motion with her hands; Derwin crossed his arms smugly while Katya… Well, Katya brought a notebook out of her pocket and started sketching.

And then it was time to leave.  Raine boarded Eda’s staff behind Luz and with one last wave, they were gone.

 

 

Hunter decided that he didn’t want to follow King and the BATTs back inside the Owl House.  Amber was crying again, for one thing and besides, that place smelled funny.  He didn’t especially want to stay out here either.  Eda was staring dejectedly up at the sky while Lilly patted her shoulder awkwardly.  In fact, he’d had enough of being around people for a while.  There was a tower out back; he decided to go and explore.

The tower was–pretty awesome, actually.  It reminded him of the Emperor’s palace, but in a good way.  Like everything that he liked best about the palace, except smaller, and less chance of encountering Kikimora.  He could see himself spending a lot of time up here, maybe this could be his bedroom?  A simple shelter, a cot, a sleeping bag, that’s all he needed.  

Of course, he was leaving soon, so he extinguished that thought as soon as he had it.  

He sat against the outer wall, staring off into the distance.  His pallisman came out of hiding and hopped up onto his knee.  He stroked the bird’s chest absently.  Yes, he was leaving soon, going back to the Emperor’s Coven.  For the first time in as long as he could remember the thought didn’t fill him with fear.  It would still be the same cold, unforgiving, awful place with the same cold, unforgiving, awful people that it was before, but this time he wouldn’t be looking to fit in.  This time he wouldn’t be tying so much of his worth to earning their approval.

He had to time his return carefully.  He didn’t want to show up at the Emperor’s coven at the same time that Raine did.  That would be too suspicious.  And he would need a good excuse as to why he’d disappeared from the book fair yesterday.  But he had a pile of good excuses in his back pocket, that wouldn’t be too much of a hassle.  

It was peaceful, up here.  The wind rustled his hair and he inhaled the fresh air.  There was a shuffle from the stairs.  Not the wind though; Lilly had come to find him.  Hunter closed his eyes.  He didn’t really want the company, though he had to admit that if it had to be anyone, Lilly was probably the least bad option.  He didn’t even try to hide his Pallisman from her.

“How is Eda?”  He asked.  He told himself that he was just making conversation and didn’t really care about the answer, but it was getting harder to lie to himself about this sort of thing.

“She’s torn up.”  Lilly said casually.  “Anybody would be.”

“Yeah.”  Hunter muttered without opening his eyes.  He still wasn’t sure what to make of Eda.  She seemed a little unhinged, but her dedication to Raine was evident, so he decided that she was alright after all.

There was a long few minutes of silence, but it was a comfortable one.  Neither of them seemed to mind it.  Somehow, Hunter was glad that she had come up here.  Silence with another person could be nice.  He never knew that before.

Of course, it was not meant to last.  “Does Raine know that you’re planning on going back to the palace?”  Lilly asked, leaning casually over the wall.

Hunter opened his eyes and turned his head towards her.  “I told them I wouldn’t.”  He said simply.  He could try to deny it, but he suspected that he would just be making more work for himself.  They would spend a few minutes arguing about it and then circle right back around to where they were now.

“That is not what I asked.”

“That’s exactly what you asked.”  Hunter pointed out with gentle impatience.  “If you meant something different then you should say that instead.”

“Very well.”  Lilly turned to face him.  “ When you go back to the palace, because I know you are planning to, are you going to betray Raine to the Emperor or to betray the Emperor to Raine?”  

Hunter winced.  He supposed it was a valid question.  There were different layers of trust, as Eda had said, and Lilly had to make sure that he wouldn’t sell out.  The stakes were too high, and she would be negligent if she didn’t ask.  He tried not to take it personally.  “I won’t ever betray Raine.”

“I know you believe that, but it’s a lot easier to say it out here, then it is to follow through in there.”  She waved her hand vaguely into the distance, in the direction of the palace.  “Getting out of the Emperor’s coven is hard enough without going back in to play pretend.  Think of everything that you learned about yourself over the past day.  You won’t be able to do that back at the coven.”

“Everything I learned about myself is because of Raine.”  Hunter said softly.  “I can’t let them go back there alone.”

“I know.”  Lilly sank down to the ground with a sigh, crossing her legs under her skirt.  “It’s just…it’s hard to get out of the Emperor’s coven.  Nobody knows that better than I do.  Not just physically, but they have a way of getting inside your head.  Spend enough time there and you won’t even recognize yourself anymore.  You won’t know up from down; right from wrong.”

She was right, of course.  Hunter knew that well enough.  Still… “Raine needs an ally on the inside.”  He said at last.  “I need an ally on the outside.  That may as well be you.”

Lilly bit her lip in frustration.  “Raine would kill me if they knew I was even considering this.”

“I’ll tell them you put up a good fight.”  Hunter said, allowing a small smirk to edge its way onto his mouth.

Lilly scoffed and flicked a pebble at him.  It bumped harmlessly off his sleeve but Hunter gave a dramatic gasp anyway, clutching his arm and pretending to be mortally wounded.  

“See?”  He hid a grin.  “A good fight.  I barely made it out alive.”

Lilly dropped her defences and made a face at him.  He made one right back and soon both witches were grinning at each other childishly.  

“You’re going to need your helmet and your staff.”  Lilly said at last.  “I know where they are.  I grabbed them when we ambushed you at the book fair.  And you’ll need a plan.  We need to talk to Gus, and figure out what exactly his illusions got up to yesterday.  That means that we will have to involve Luz and Willow and Amity as well.  Nothing gets past one without going through the others first.  And we’ll need a way to locate you.  A way for you to call for help if you need it.”

Hunter nodded thoughtfully.  Make a plan, follow through.  This, at least, was familiar territory.  “And when do we tell Eda?”

Lilly winced.  “I think she may need a little bit of time first.  She finally found Raine, only to lose them again.  And that’s not even the first time this week.  Eda tends to get a little intense when something big happens in her life.  She gets hyper-fixated on one specific thing.”

Hunter nodded, suddenly understanding Eda a bit better.  “Focus on something that she can control to avoid thinking about what she can’t.”

Lilly looked at him thoughtfully.  “That is…right.  Yes.  And surprisingly astute.  When did you get so wise?”

Hunter shrugged.  “Yesterday?” 

“There’s Luz and Amity.”  Lilly said, waving at the sky.  A change of subject, but not a deliberate one.  Luz must have picked up Amity after dropping Raine off at the bard coven.  They were sharing one staff, Amity’s arms wrapped tightly around Luz’s back, even though Amity had her own staff that she could have used.  Hunter rolled his eyes.  What is it about young love that makes people act so weird?  Or old love, for that matter.  Raine and Eda weren’t much better.

But there was no time to think about that.  They had plans to make.  Hunter sat up straighter and waited for them to touch down.

 

Chapter Text

 

Getting into the palace turned out to be the easy part.  Nobody stopped him, nobody questioned him.  He just walked in through the front gates.

Getting out of the Owl House turned out to be much trickier.  For one thing Eda figured out what they were up to right away.  Hunter was pretty sure she could smell a lie.  She didn’t try too hard to stop him though.  For an adult she was pretty cool.  She just took him aside and told him that none of this was his fault and he shouldn’t feel the need to fix it.  A rare bit of warmth from the Owl Lady herself; it was nice of her to say, but Hunter wasn’t sure he believed it.

In the end he didn’t escape the hug brigade.  It was Amber who got him first.  She wrapped her arms around him before he fully knew what was happening.

“Good luck!”  She told him cheerfully, then lowered her voice and whispered in his ear, “if you hurt Raine I will end you.”

Hunter had no doubt that she could.

But getting into the palace?  That was easy.  The guards saluted him as he walked past.

Kikimora was waiting for him.  So was Raine.  The bard had a distant look on their face and wasn’t focusing on anything in particular.  It made Hunter uneasy.  He had to remind himself that this was an act.

“Nice of you to show up.”  Kikimora said, blocking his path with her small frame.  

“Good to be back.”  Hunter said flatly.

“No point in asking where you’ve been.  I just know it wasn’t where you were supposed to be.  You do have a way of shirking your responsibilities, don’t you?”  Her voice was patronizing.  Hunter hated it.

“There was a disturbance at the fair.  I took care of it.”  Hunter growled.

Kikimora tilted her head at him.  “I received no reports of any such disturbance.”

“Well then I guess I did a good job.”  Hunter allowed a touch of irritation into his voice.

“The guards said that you dismissed them.”  Kikimora wasn’t done with her accusations just yet.

That part lined up with what Gus had told him.  His illusion had sent the guards away after they woke up from the sleeping spell.  Rather rudely, from what he heard.  Hunter shrugged.  “They were altered.  They could not perform their duties to my satisfaction.  I sent them away.”

“Not that you could perform your duties either.”  Kikimora told him coldly.  “The Emperor will not be pleased to learn about your incompetence.  Lucky for you, Whispers was found unharmed.  They were at their old office at the Bard Coven, in case you cared to ask.”

“Sounds like everything worked out then.”  Hunter glared down at her.

“No thanks to you.  Take Whispers back to their quarters, and try not to lose track of them this time.  You can handle that, can’t you?”

Hunter didn’t argue, he was just pleased to be rid of her.  “Come along, Head Witch Whispers.”  He turned and walked down the hallway, Raine following passively behind him.

Hunter had been to Raine’s room once before, was it just two nights ago?  It looked unchanged.  That seemed odd, somehow.  Everything else had changed, but the room was still the same.

Raine put a finger over their lips, motioning for him to be quiet, and drew a circle in the air with one finger.  The air around the two of them shimmered and Raine relaxed.

“We should be safe to talk now, nobody will be able to hear us.  You can start by telling me what you’re doing here.”

Hunter looked around at the dome that was shimmering around them.  A spell that protects against eavesdroppers?  How useful.  “I thought you might need a friend.”

Raine pinched the bridge of their nose behind their glasses.  They looked in every way irritated.  “And who else knows that you’re here?”

“Just Lilly and Luz.”  Hunter said.  There was no response, and the two witches just stared at each other blankly.  “...And Amity and Gus and Willow.”  He added.  The silence stretched on again and Hunter fidgeted nervously.  “...And Eda and Katya and Amber and Derwin.”

Raine groaned.  “Titan, grant me patience.”

“...And King and Hooty.”  Hunter finished off weakly.  “They, umm…  They put up a good fight?”

Raine’s sigh turned into a low chuckle.  They shook their head.  “I guess I should have known that you would show up.”

“Yep.”  Hunter said smugly.  “You’re too trusting.  Lilly said you are.  So really this is your fault.  So, umm…what exactly are we looking for?”

“I don’t suppose that I can convince you to return to the Owl House?”  Raine asked one last time.

“Nope.  So what are we looking for?”

Raine sighed again.  “We need to know more about the spell that Kikimora used on my coven mark.  And we need to know more about what the Emperor has planned for the Day of Unity.  And we need to keep our heads down and keep out of trouble.  That last part is the most important.”

“Definitely.”  Hunter thought for a minute.  “There’s a library.  A big one.  There’s a lot of dark magic in there.”  He had been there lots; mostly focusing on wild magic, but he knew there was other stuff too.  He’d read everything he could find on wild magic and the savage ages, hoping to find a cure for his uncle’s mystery illness.  So far he hadn’t had any luck there, but he had found lots of other things.  His favourite was a book called From Bones to Earth .  He kept that one hidden in his room.

Raine’s eyes brightened at the word library .  “I’ll start there.  We’ve already established that I’m a wanderer; in my memory-altered state, I mean.  So it will seem very in character for me to end up there.  The tricky part will be trying to look into one specific thing while pretending to not understand any of it.”

Hunter nodded.  “And I will try to get the Emperor to tell me what he’s planning for the Day of Unity.”

“You will do no such thing.”  Raine hissed.  “Stay away from him.”

“I might not have much choice.”  Hunter shrugged.  “He always summons me after a mission.  Especially if I fail.  He’s gotta tell me how disappointed he is.”

The look on Raine’s face changed.  “He shouldn’t talk to you like that.  Or Kikimora.  It’s not healthy.”

“I know.”   Hunter emphasized.  He’d heard this all last night, though to be fair the idea was still fairly new to him.  “I can handle it.”

“You shouldn’t have to handle it.  You can still go back to the Owl House.”

“So can you.”  Hunter glared at them.  

Raine groaned softly.  

“We don’t really have the time to argue.”  Hunter said.  “Not right now, they’ll come looking for me.  Can I come back tonight?”

“As long as nobody sees you.”

Hunter had years of experience sneaking around this castle without being detected, he also had a pile of glyphs from Luz.  He’d be fine.  “Can do.”

Raine just nodded.  “There are listening spells all over the castle.  Say nothing out loud that you wouldn’t want the Emperor to hear.  Even if you think you’re alone.  Keep quiet until you’re sure that I’ve cast my silencing spell, understand?”

Hunter again marvelled at the silencing spell that Raine had cast.  The Emperor’s Coven had always prioritized big magic.  Flashy magic, powerful magic.  But this, it seemed so simple, and so elegant, and so useful.  He could do a lot with a spell like this.  Maybe he would ask Raine to show him how to cast it?  It looked simple enough, he was sure he could do it with his staff.

But there was no time for that right now.  He knew without being summoned that the Emperor was waiting to speak with him.

 

Hunter knew his way to the Emperor’s throne room.  He could almost count the steps.  Deep, echoing steps that bounced off the walls and seemed to follow him as he walked.  He’d noticed them before today, of course.  They’d always given him a sense of forbidding on his way to the throne room.  A grim hint about what was to come.  But this was the first time he started to wonder if there was a bit of music in them.  He’d felt that once before, when he’d listened to the footsteps echoing off the stone walls the day that he and Raine had been captured and brought back to the Owl House.  It seemed so long ago now.  

He wondered if bard magic could extend to a simple thing like the sound of footsteps echoing along a dark corridor.  He would have to ask Raine about it later. 

The throne room was just as he had remembered it.  There was that giant heart, beating proudly above the Emperor.  Its sound filled the room; imposing, menacing.  It was almost a little bit surprising, to find that nothing had changed here in the palace when he felt like so much had changed outside the palace.

Or was it he who had changed?

Hunter dropped to his knee in front of the Emperor’s throne.  “Uncle.”

“Come here, child.”  The Emperor’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at all.  His voice was deep and melodic, almost kind; it contrasted sharply with the Emperor’s imposing form.  Hunter tried not to remember that he had once sought out that voice, craved its sound.

Hunter stood and approached his uncle, stopping only when he reached the landing.

There was a long moment of silence.  It was not a comfortable feeling.  Hunter didn’t move, he barely breathed.  He fought the urge to fill the silence.  There would be time for a grovelling apology later.

“Perhaps I have been too hard on you.”  Emperor Belos said at last, a sigh coming out from behind his mask.  “You are young, after all.  I fear that I might lose sight of that every so often.”

Hunter didn’t dare allow himself a shimmer of hope.  He knew where this was going.

“I push you so hard because I want you to do better.  I want you to be the best that you can be.”  The Emperor continued, shaking his head mournfully under his mask.  “So you understand why it must be so disappointing for me to watch you fail.”

Hunter swallowed.  He wasn’t wearing his helmet, so he had to be extra careful to keep his face blank.  Just last night he had decided that he wouldn’t let the Emperor’s words affect him.  Turns out that it wasn’t quite that simple.

“Perhaps it is my fault.”  Belos continued, almost tenderly running the outside of one finger down the side of Hunter’s face, starting at the brow and dragging it down towards his scar.  The metal of his glove was cold against Hunter’s skin and he tried not to flinch away.  “I needed a new coven leader after Head Witch Lillith defected.  I thought that you would be a good fit despite your age.  I expected youth and inexperience out of you, of course, but I did not expect incompetence.”

“Uncle, there was a disturbance at the fair.  I took care of it.  I kept Whispers out of the way, I sent them into hiding…”  His story wasn’t totally a lie.  His desperation wasn’t totally an act either.  He found himself desperate for his uncle’s approval, even after everything he’d been through.

“Enough!”  The Emperor roared, raising his hand.  He wasn’t careful, and the joint of one metal knuckle dragged across Hunter’s face.

Hunter deliberately did not react, did not raise his hands to his face.  His face felt hot; there was pain.  He knew there would be blood, he could feel it dripping sluggishly down his neck towards his collar.  No sense in making a scene.  He clamped his mouth shut and folded his hands behind his back, staring straight ahead.

The Emperor paused, staring at Hunter behind his mask.  “Leave us.”  He commanded, his voice echoing throughout the room.  Six guards tapped their six staff on the floor in unison and then filed silently out of the door.

Belos stared at Hunter for a moment longer after the last guard left the room.  The giant, beating heart behind his throne, which had sped up briefly during that little outburst, was starting to even out.  Finally Belos removed his mask and started peeling off his metal gloves.  “Now look at what you made me do.”  He said softly, raising one hand up to cradle the gash on Hunter’s cheek.  

“Forgive me, Uncle.”  Hunter whispered, forcing himself not to flinch.  He wanted to flee.  He also wanted to lean into his uncle’s hand.  Feel the warmth of a comforting touch.  By sheer determination he did neither of those things.

“I am a forgiving man.”  Belos said, continuing to stroke Hunter’s cheek.  His movements were gentle, almost loving.  It almost made Hunter want to believe that this wasn’t a lie.   “And ultimately the mission was a success, despite your blunders.  Raine Whispers was seen in public and was returned to us unharmed.  That should dispel any rumours about their whereabouts.  But do be more careful next time.”

Hunter nodded, not trusting himself to speak.  

Belos tilted his face at Hunter, a small smile at one corner of his mouth.  He continued to stroke the gash on Hunter’s cheek, seemingly unbothered by the blood that was getting on his hand.  It hurt, but Hunter found himself wanting more.  “Should I leave this?”  Belos purred, the dim light reflecting dully off his own scar.  “It would go nicely with the scar that you already have.  Think about it as a companion piece.  Rather striking, if I do say so myself.”

Hunter didn’t dare answer.  

The Emperor thought for a few more minutes, before dragging his finger in a rough circle along Hunter’s cheek.  There was a flash of light, a sear of pain, and then it was gone.  “I have chosen to be merciful after all.”  He said, gripping Hunter’s chin and moving his face side to side.  “You are healed.  Never forget all the things that you owe me.  Without me, you are nothing.  You may go.”

Hunter gave a stiff bow and turned to walk out of the throne room.  He didn’t even turn around when he heard his uncle’s voice behind him.  “And don’t disappoint me again.”

Hunter kept his feet steady as he fled the throne room and made his way back to his chamber.  His footsteps echoed off the walls, just as before, but he found he could no longer hear the music in them.  Belos had healed his wound, but he knew that there was still blood on his face, and down onto his cloak.  He kept his head high, and his pace steady.  Show no weakness.

But he felt weak.  Why did he react like that to his uncle’s touch?  Why did he want to turn back around and tell his uncle everything?  Tell him about Eda and the Owl House, about Raine.  Maybe Lilly was right when she said that getting out of the Emperor’s coven would be difficult.  Maybe Raine was right when they said that he wasn’t ready to betray the Emperor.

Maybe it would be better if he left.  Not back to the Owl House, he didn’t think that he could face them after all this.  They would probably understand, but he didn’t feel worthy of that.  No, he could just leave.  For somewhere.  Or for nowhere.  For good.  Nobody had to hear from him again.  Just, quietly disappear.

He got back to his room and there, laying on his bed, was a lute.  No note, no context, but there really was only one person who could have put it there.  Hunter sat down beside it and plucked one string, then another one.  He couldn’t do much with it so far; he still didn’t know how to hold it or where to place his fingers, but he started to feel better.  Calmer, happier, more at peace.  Maybe things would be okay after all.

 

Chapter Text

 

Hunter didn’t dare bring his lute with him when he snuck into Raine’s chambers that evening.  He had years of experience sneaking around the palace, but he didn’t want to risk being caught in the hallways with it in his hands.  Turns out he needn’t have worried.  He saw nobody, and was able to sneak into the room undetected.

Raine drew a finger to their lips when they saw him, motioning for him to be silent, and then drew their silencing spell around the room.  “It’s safe to talk now.”

“Will you teach me to do that?”  Hunter blurted out.  The spell was intriguing, that part was true.  He could do a lot with a spell like that.  He wasn’t quite ready to admit to himself that he might have another reason for asking.  That he might be looking for a safe topic of conversation, one that wouldn’t reveal to them exactly how he’d reacted to the Emperor’s touch.  That some part of him had been so desperate for his uncle’s affection that he had considered betraying Raine.  No, best to keep quiet about that.

Raine didn’t seem to find anything unusual about this request.  They nodded.  “It’s a Bard spell, but it’s not difficult to learn.  Since you’re in the Emperor’s Coven you should be able to do it.”

“Does it protect against magical spying, or just prevent sound from traveling?”  He asked, examining the dome.  It shimmered around them.

“Both.”  Raine brought their necklace out from under their shirt.  It was that skeleton key that Eda had given them earlier that day.   “Ordinarily Eda would be listening to every conversation I have through this, but right now she can’t hear anything because of the silencing spell.”

“I bet she hates that.”  Hunter muttered.  “Is this something that only bards can do?”

“This one is a bard spell, though witches from the oracle, illusion, or potions coven tracks have their own version of it.  Anybody else would have to set up a protective circle using salt or sand.  It’s not as effective as mine though.”  They gave a crooked smile.  “Manipulating sound is what bards do best.”

“Why didn’t you use it last night when you went up to Eda’s room?”  Hunter asked, examining the dome around them.  He was genuinely curious about that, but Raine got a little flustered by the question.

“I did.   Not that we needed it, but we had it anyway.  Nothing happened between us, not that it would be any of your business if it had, but if you heard a thump it was because Owlbert knocked a book off a table, which was outside the radius of the silencing spell.”  Raine glared, a blush appearing all the way up to their ears.  “Since you asked.”

“Sorry.”  Hunter said sheepishly.  “I didn’t mean to intrude.  Who is Owlbert?”

“Eda’s pallisman.  He’s an owl.  Shall we begin?  Lean your training staff against the door and come here.”

 Hunter’s heart twitched and his knuckles tightened around his staff.  “My…what?”

“Your training staff, leave it outside the silencing circle.  It has a memory card inside of it; it remembers the spells that it has cast.  We don’t need to explain to the Emperor why you’re experimenting with bard magic.”

Still feeling shocked, Hunter looked at his staff.  His staff, his beautiful, golden, majestic staff.  It was a…training staff?  Like the training wands that they handed out to the baby class at Hexside?  All this time he’d been using a training staff?  

“Hunter?”  Raine asked, taking a step forward.  “Is everything alright?”

“I…”  He closed his eyes.  He felt like an imposter.  He knew he couldn’t do magic on his own, but the staff, the staff had given him power.  It had given him purpose.  What was he, really?  Just a powerless witch.  Just a nobody.

“Hunter, you went inside my mind yesterday.  You saw some things that I would not have chosen to share with you.  I think it’s fair that you tell me what’s going on.”

He swallowed.  “I can’t do magic without it.  The Emperor gave it to me, he said it would compensate for my shortcomings.”  Even though it was the source of his biggest shame, he didn’t detect any pity on their face, which Hunter was glad of.  He didn’t think he could handle pity.  “I’m just a powerless witch without it.  I didn’t know it was a training staff.  I thought it was special…”  He swallowed, not sure what else to say.

“A powerless witch…” Raine looked thoughtful.  “Have you ever had a formal assessment?”

“What?  No.  I know I can’t do magic, what would an assessment tell me that I don’t already know.  The fewer people who know about this, the better.”

Raine considered him for a minute, and then said “lean your staff against the door and come here, sit down.”

Hunter did as he was told, sitting in front of them.  He stared downwards, avoiding Raine’s eyes.  He couldn’t shake the sick feeling in the back of his throat.  It was too much all at once.  He felt unworthy.  What was he even doing here, anyway?

Raine drew a circle in the air with one finger and a small, handheld drum fell into Hunter’s lap.  He held it awkwardly, not sure what to do.  He suddenly remembered one of the memories that he had seen in Raine’s mind.  Katya had been there, telling them that she didn’t have much talent.  Had they once done this with her, too?  She played the tambourine, which was a similar shape as this drum.

Raine was speaking again, giving instructions.  “Close your eyes, be silent for a while, listen to your heartbeat.  Take as much time as you need.  When you are ready, tap out the beat with your fingers.  Don’t worry about doing it right, just do it.  Let’s see what happens.”

Feeling a little bit self-conscious, Hunter did as he was told.  He closed his eyes and listened for his heartbeat.  This was stupid.  He didn’t have magic, the Emperor had told him so.  The Emperor was the most powerful witch on the boiling isles, if anybody would know, it would be him.  So what did Raine think they were going to get out of this little performance?  

But, may as well try it, right?  Heartbeat.  Like the one in the Emperor’s throne room.  Actually no, not like that.  His heartbeat, not the Emperor’s.  He focused hard on his chest.  At first he couldn’t hear anything, then he realized that he could hear it ringing in his ears.  A little bit faster than he expected it to be but, well, he had a lot on his mind.  He listened a little bit longer, until it became all that he could hear.  Beating in his ears, his chest, his fingers.  He started tapping on the drum with three fingers, keeping rhythm.  

He had to admit, this part alone was calming, even if he didn’t think anything would come of it.  Maybe he could use this technique in the future when he was feeling overwhelmed, and just needed to get away from it all?  It was like a form of meditation, in a way.  Not that he had ever been much good at meditating, but he imagined that this is what it would feel like.  He noticed the drumming starting to slow down as his heart rate steadied.  It reminded him of walking the halls of the castle, listening to his footsteps echoing off the walls.  

Footsteps, like the ones he had heard on the way to the Emperor’s throne room just a few hours ago.  Deep, rhythmic, soothing.  Hadn’t he wanted to ask Raine about that?  He’d forgotten about that after everything else that had happened.  After the Emperor– his uncle– had slashed his face, had told him he was disappointed.  After his uncle had touched his face, had smiled at him.  How he had leaned into that touch, even though it came with pain, how he still wanted to please his uncle, even after everything he’d learned.  Why couldn’t he just walk away?  Shouldn’t this be easier?  

Heartbeat.  Footsteps.  Fingers.  Drum.  Ba-dum.  Ba-dum.  Ba-dum.

“Open your eyes.”  

He did, only to see his uncle in the room.  Warm smile, cold eyes, reaching out with a blood-soaked hand.  Instinctively Hunter yelped and brought his arm up to protect his face, to hold off the strike that he feared would be coming.  As he did so, his fingers left the drum, and Belos faded from view.  An image.  A mirage.  An illusion?  What the fuck was that?

“Sorry.”  Raine said sheepishly.  “I should have warned you.”

Hunter stared at the spot where Belos had just been, his heart beating strongly in his ears.  He had a lot of questions, but the only three words that he managed to get out were “what the fuck?”

“You just did magic!”  Raine grinned at him, but there were tears running down their face, but they were happy?  It was all very confusing.

Hunter’s hands were shaking.  He didn’t trust himself to hold onto the drum anymore, so he placed it on the desk beside him.  “What did I do?”

“Memory projection.”  Raine said simply, wiping the tears away with a sleeve.  They still looked excited.  “With a little bit of emotional manipulation thrown in too.  For a so-called powerless witch, that’s pretty advanced stuff.  Most witches wouldn’t be able to do that.  Even the coven leaders can’t do that.  I can’t do that!  It involves mixing magic, you see, and my coven mark prevents me from doing that.  It’s part oracle magic and part illusion–and you did it using a bard spell!  On your first try.  Remarkable.”

Hunter did not share their enthusiasm.  Memory projection?  Memory?  Had he just shown Raine one of his memories?  Which one?  “Fuck.”

Raine chuckled, shaking their head with a knowing smile.  “No, it’s a good thing, don’t you see?  You did magic, all on your own.  No training staff, no pallisman.  You did that.  Three different types of magic, in fact.”

“Mixing magic is forbidden.”  He whispered.  He knew that well enough, he’d been hearing it since he was small.

“Yes, it’s forbidden, but that doesn’t mean it’s dangerous or wrong.  You do understand the difference, right?”  Raine frowned at him.  “I thought you’d be more excited about this.”

“I am, I guess.  I just…”  Hunter twirled his finger, tracing a circle in the air.  “I would have preferred to do real magic.”

“Real magic.”  Raine let out a laugh, then clamped their mouth shut.  “Sorry, it’s just…you need to get out of the palace more.”

Hunter bristled.  He got out of the palace plenty.  For missions, mostly, but that still counted.  Real-life experience, right?  The Emperor trusted him with these missions.

Oh yeah.  The Emperor.  Somehow he’d forgotten for a moment that he was supposed to be rebelling against the Emperor.  That seemed like a big thing to overlook.  Hunter rubbed his thigh nervously.

“I didn’t mean to laugh, I was just…”  Raine groaned and brought a hand up to their face, mumbling under their hand.  “How am I messing this up so badly?”

“You’re not…”

“Look, Hunter.”  Raine was still talking, nervously.  They did have a way of getting flustered over small things.  It was adorably amusing.  They could face down Darius or plot against the emperor, but stumbled over simple conversation.  “People tend to underestimate bard magic.  Same with illusion and oracle magic.  They’re just a bit more abstract, and sometimes people have a hard time understanding that, so they figure that they must be weaker.  But it’s not true at all.  In fact, sometimes it’s nice to be underestimated.  Especially when we’re playing a dangerous game like the one we are in right now.”

“Yeah…”  Hunter muttered.  His eyes drifted around the room, avoiding Raine’s gaze.  “I am excited, really.  It’s just a lot to take in…”  And it was a lot to take in.  He was already feeling drained after his conversation with his uncle.

Raine leaned forward towards him.  For a moment, Hunter thought they might take his hand and he unconsciously drew back.  Raine paused, searching Hunter’s face for…something.  For what, Hunter couldn’t hazard a guess.

“It’s alright, I don’t mean to project onto you.  You’re allowed to feel however you want about all this.  Especially after the day you’ve had.”  They said at last.

Hunter frowned.  “The day I’ve had?”

“Yes.  You know, your conversation with Belos?”  Raine waved their hand at the empty room.  “You just showed it to me.  Is that really what he looks like under his mask?”

Oh yeah.  Memory projection.  He’d just shown Raine one of his memories.  That memory.  “Fuck.”

Hunter risked a glance back at Raine.  Their face had changed.  They looked thoughtful, concerned, maybe a little irritated.  Hunter figured that was fair.  He’d seen like, six of Raine’s memories, and here he was being such a big baby about Raine seeing one of his.

“Listen, Hunter.”  Raine sighed, rubbing a hand over their face and knocking their glasses out of place.  “Ordinarily I’d let this go since you’re obviously not ready to open up to me, but right now we don’t really have that luxury.  We’re in the Emperor’s castle and we’re carrying a secret that could get one or both of us killed.  I have no desire to die, I promised Eda that I would come back to her and I have every intention of keeping that promise.  So I need you to talk to me.”

They were right, of course.  Hunter knew it.  This wasn’t some harmless secret he was carrying around; it was dangerous.  He had been so busy trying to protect himself from Raine, but really he should have been protecting Raine from him.

“Lilly was right.”  He blurted out.  “You were right.  Getting away from the Emperor is hard .  Up until recently I wanted nothing more than for him to be proud of me and I can’t just turn that off.  I still want him to be proud of me.  I am terrified of him being disappointed in me even though I tell myself that I shouldn’t care anymore and I want him to touch me even if it hurts me and I want him to die so I don’t have to feel this way anymore, or maybe I want to die so I don’t have to feel this way anymore, because being dead seems easier than disappointing him again.”

He stopped talking only because his throat hitched up painfully.  He was crying.  In front of another person.  How shameful.

But he couldn’t stop himself.  He hugged himself and leaned forward in his chair, bowing his head in a feeble attempt to hide his sobs.  And then his head was on Raine’s shoulder.  The bard had come forward to kneel in front of his chair, taking the boy into their arms.  And the tears didn’t stop, the sobs didn’t stop.  Hunter didn’t even try anymore.

“And he was lying to me.  He told me I couldn’t do magic and I believed him, and he told me the training staff was special and I believed that too.  So I’ve been using it for years after most witches my age would have moved on by now and I can’t do magic without it because I thought I couldn’t…”

Raine was humming.  A bard spell, maybe?  It didn’t seem to have a tune, at least not one that he could recognize, but slowly, his breathing got easier, his sobs subsided into just simple tears.  He did feel better, even though his head hurt and his throat felt tight.  And he was still in Raine’s arms.  He wasn’t quite ready to pull away yet.  There was still something that hadn’t been said.  

“Some part of me wanted to tell my uncle about you today.”  He muttered into their shoulder.

Raine tensed up.  Their hand, which had been making small circles on Hunter’s shoulder, paused.  “Thank you for telling me.”  They said at last, though their voice sounded tight.

Hunter drew back, suddenly panicked.  “I didn’t say anything!  And I wouldn’t!  I promise, I wouldn’t ever, but the thought was there, but I didn’t act on it.  It was just a thought, but I didn’t…”  Aware that he was rambling, Hunter clamped his mouth closed.  He didn’t dare look at Raine.  He was afraid to see the look on their face.  What would he see there?  Anger?  Disappointment?  Rage?  He’d already disappointed his uncle today, he didn’t think he could handle disappointing Raine too.  Of course, it was probably too late for that.

“Thank you for telling me.”  They said again, their voice distant.

Hunter risked a glance at them.  He needed to see the look on their face.  Raine was sitting back in their chair, gazing off into the distance.  They were chewing on one lip and tapping one finger on their knee.  They made a sort of off-key humming sound in the back of their throat.  Somehow they didn’t look angry or resentful.  In fact, they weren’t even looking at Hunter at all.  He wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“I’m sorry.  I get that you’re angry, and you have every right to be.  I understand how I’ve disappointed you…”  Hunter pleaded.  Somehow not knowing what Raine was thinking seemed even worse than anything he would have gotten from Belos.  At least with his uncle he never had to guess.

But Raine was shaking their head.  “I’m not angry, and I’m not disappointed.  I get it; that sounds like a very normal reaction to have.”

“You’re… you’re not?”

“No.”  Raine was still tapping on their knee.  “I’m not angry, but I am scared.  Heck, I’m terrified.  The only thing that is standing between me and certain death is a codependent teenager with an abusive family situation.”

Hunter blinked.  In any other situation he might have resented those words, but now it just felt refreshing.  Frankly, it just felt good to see Raine lose control like that.  Oddly familiar, in a way.  He didn’t feel so bad about his own outburst now.

“Sorry.  I didn’t mean codependent, it’s just…this whole situation sucks.  It’s so volatile.  The longer we’re here the more dangerous it is for us, but I don’t even know what I’m looking for or how to find it.”  Raine shook their head.  “You have a lot of healing to do but you can’t do it here.  You understand that, right?  This isn’t a good place for you.”

“It’s not a good place for you either.”

I am not working through a lifetime of emotional trauma.  Someone is coming.”

“Huh?”  Hunter asked.  Those last three words didn’t even register.

“Someone’s coming.”  Raine hissed, their body tense on their chair.  They tilted their head to the side, listening.  Hunter strained his own ears, but could detect nothing.

“They’ve stopped right outside the door.  They’re trying to listen in.  It’s…hang on, who is it?”  Raine leaned forward in their chair and tapped the floor with one finger, listening attentively as they did.  “It’s Kikimora.”

“Kikimora?”  Hunter’s heart clenched.  “What’s she doing here?”  But he didn’t really need to ask.  She was looking for him.

“Can you fly out the window?”  Raine lowered their voice, even though the two of them were still protected by the silencing spell.

“Not without her noticing.  She always watches for that.”  Hunter shook his head.  “I have an invisibility glyph from Luz, but I can only make it last for like, a minute.”

Raine had gone pale.  “What do we do?”

“Let her think she’s found something.”  Hunter immediately felt sorry for them.  Poor Raine really wasn’t great under pressure.  His own heart was pounding, but he’d gotten out of worse situations than this.  He just had to think on his feet.  “Let’s finish our lesson.”

Raine frowned at him.  “I don’t understand.”

“She wants to catch me doing something I’m not supposed to be doing.  So let her think that I’m here for a music lesson.”

Raine gave a small nod of understanding.  “Light a small fire to keep the forest from burning.” They lifted a finger to trace a circle in the air, but their hands were trembling.  They fumbled the first one and had to try again.  A lute popped out of the air and dropped into Hunter’s lap.  Hunter swiped at his eyes, just in case there were any tear marks left, and cradled the instrument on his lap.

“Hey.”  He said kindly.  Raine looked terrible.  “Let me handle Kikimora.  You just focus on acting your part.”

“Don’t call it acting.”  Raine whispered, but then let a breath out through their lips in an attempt to calm themself.  “Ready?”  They drew another circle in the air with one finger and the silencing spell around them dissolved.

Aware that they were being listened to, Hunter began plucking at one of the strings on the instrument in his lap.

“This one has four strings.”  Raine said, managing to keep the tremble out of their voice.  They sounded wooden and expressionless.  Perfect.  “Some lutes have more.  As many as twenty eight, but we will start with four.  I always start my students out with the lute.  It is easy to start with, but hard to master.  Most students move on to something else before too long.”

“Am I holding it right?”  Hunter asked.  Regardless of who was listening in, he actually did want to know the answer.

“Raise your left hand higher.  Keep the pegbox pointed over your shoulder.”

“Like this?”  Hunter shifted the instrument in his hands, and found that in doing so the fingers of his left hand fell nicely onto the strings.  He tried pressing down on the lowest string, just as he had seen Raine do.  The string he had been plucking changed pitch.  Neat.

And then the door swung open.  He supposed that Kikimora had grown impatient.  Fine by him.  He had a part to play, and at least if she was in the room then he could get a better read on her.  Hunter jumped to his feet, pretending to be shocked.  The chair he had been sitting on knocked backwards and he moved to hide the lute behind his back.  Let her think that he was ashamed to be caught.

Raine, to their credit, did not respond.  They didn’t move, didn’t turn to face the door.  They just kept their body perfectly posed in the same position they had been in a few minutes prior.  

“Ki—Kikimora.  What are you doing here?”

Her eyes narrowed.  “I could ask you the same question.”

“Hello.”  Raine said blandly.  “Are you here for your lesson?”

Kikimora ignored them.  Her eyes were focused on Hunter.  “Does the Emperor know that you are taking bard lessons from the simpleton?”

Hunter glared at her.  He didn’t have to do much acting for that.  Glaring at Kikimora was his specialty.  “The Emperor expects me to have a well-rounded education.  And I happen to have the best bard teacher in the Boiling Isles, right at my fingertips.  It would be a shame to waste the opportunity.”

“The blind leading the blind.”  Kikimora smiled.  How did he know that she smiled, when they couldn’t see her mouth or one of her eyes?  But somehow, he knew.  She had smiled.  Cruelly.  

“Are you here for your lesson?”  Raine asked again.

Kikimora’s eye twitched.  She glanced at Raine with an irritated look on her face before focusing on Hunter again.  “I guess you are wise to go to their room, after your blunder yesterday.  Even you couldn’t manage to lose them here.”

“Don’t you have anything new to torment me about?  You have to recycle yesterday’s news?”  Hunter shook his head in what he hoped was a condescending way.  “Oh well, don’t worry.  Give it a day or two, I’m sure you’ll think of something else.”

“Careful, Golden Guard.”  She hissed, her eye narrowing underneath her…hair?  Was that hair?  “One day you’ll have a serious misstep and I will be watching.  I am always watching.”

“I know you’re always watching.”  Hunter said.  “I’m amazed you have that much free time, to be honest.  But I guess the Emperor doesn’t keep you as busy as you like to pretend he does.”

“Are you here for your lesson?”  Raine asked again.

It seemed that Kikimora had had enough of that question.  She whirled to point at Raine, her claw trembling in anger.  “Do I look like a child to you, Cretin?”

Raine drew in the air with one finger.  A lute appeared in the air and fell into Kikimora’s hands.  “I always start students off with the lute.  It is easy to start with, though hard to master.  Most students move on to something else before too long.”

Kikimora narrowed her eye and clenched her claws over the lute.  Cold, blue fire appeared around her fingers and consumed the instrument, which flashed brightly for a moment before the whole thing dissolved into ash with the death knell of broken strings.

“You are being disruptive to the rest of the class.  One more outburst like that and I will ask you to sit the rest of the lesson out.”  How Raine said that with a straight face, Hunter would never know.  They were a better actor than they let on.  His own face was twisted into a look of elation, but that was totally in character for him.  That’s exactly how he would have reacted to Kikimora being humiliated, no matter what the circumstance.

“You are nothing.”  Her voice was dangerously low, trembling with anger.  “You are a shadow, the shell of the witch formerly called Raine Whispers.  Something big is coming for you and you  will never even understand what has happened because I broke you without you ever even noticing.”

“That shell of a witch just sent you to a time-out.”  Hunter said in a condescending voice, as if he was scolding a small child.  “Go sit in the corner and come back when you are ready to be a better listener.”

Kikimora narrowed her eye at him and Hunter winced.  Antagonizing her was fun and all, but the two of them had probably taken things too far.

“I will speak to the Emperor on your behalf.  If you are serious about learning bard magic then I’m sure we can find you a more–suitable teacher.  Somebody not so–altered”  Kikimora had gotten better control over herself.  Her voice was steady and cruel, like always.  She tilted her head.  “Then again, perhaps there is nobody better suited to you than a witch who gets lost in their own office.  You two will have a lot in common.”

You did this to them.”  Hunter hissed.  

I wasn’t even there.”  Kikimora said mildly.  “If you and the other coven leaders committed a war crime against a prisoner then that has nothing to do with me.”

Raine, meanwhile, had retrieved two books off the shelf.  They held one out for each of them.  “Read chapters one through three before the next class.  I expect at least an hour of practice every day.”

Kikimora ignored Raine, and the book in their outstretched hand.  “Enjoy your lesson, Golden Guard.”  And with that she turned and exited the room, without bothering to shut the door behind her.

Even though Kikimora had left the room, Hunter remembered what Raine had said about listening spells; it wasn’t safe to talk; the Emperor might be listening.  For that matter, Eda was probably listening.  The silencing spell was down and Raine still had that pendant around their neck.

He looked at Raine apologetically and took the book from their hand.  “Thanks.”  He shrugged his shoulders at them and mouthed the word sorry.

Raine, meanwhile, knelt down over the ashes of the lute that Kikimora had burnt.  They picked a string out of the pile and cradled it mournfully for a moment, before glancing back up at Hunter and gave a dismissive wave.  

Hunter hesitated a moment longer.  Was there anything more to say?  Maybe?  Probably.  But nothing that was worth being discovered for.  “Thank you for the lesson, Professor Whispers.”  And with that, he took his book and left the room, closing the door silently behind him.



Hunter stretched out his hand, rolling it around on his wrist.  Raine had said to practice at least an hour, but it had been a wee bit longer than that.  Or a lot bit longer than that.  It was hard to tell, he had lost track of time.  He’d stayed up late playing with his lute, then must have fallen asleep for a while, and then went back to it, tinkering through the night and well into the next morning.  And now his hands ached and his fingertips tingled.  

It was mid-morning, almost lunch time, in fact.  He should probably give it a rest, but he couldn’t help but think that somebody was going to come and take it away from him, so this might be his last chance with it.  Between Kikimora and the Emperor, he figured its days were numbered.  They had a way of seeking out and destroying anything he’d ever loved.

As instructed, he’d read the first three chapters of that book that Raine had given him, and then the next three after that.  After that it started to get too technical for him, this was all fairly new, after all, and he didn’t know what the words ‘chord progression’ meant, so he skipped back to read the introduction instead.

…Magic in those days was primal, by today’s standards.  There was no formal education, no spellbooks, no covens, no glyphs.  Early witches used what they had on hand to cast magic, and what they had on hand was music.  They made their instruments out of reeds, animal parts, feathers, and rocks, or sometimes just of nothing but the voice and the wind.  Though primal it was, ineffectual it was not.  This magic was strong, it was powerful, and it was dynamic.  There have been tales of newborn babes, having heard nothing up until then but their mother’s heartbeat, casting a spell powerful enough to fell a tree.  Though impossible to verify, tales like this can reveal to us…

Hunter frowned at the text.  Heartbeat.  Like the spell that Raine had him try.  Heartbeat.  Like the one in the Emperor’s throne room.

Heartbeat.  That reminded him of something else.  He went to fish his copy of From Bones to Earth from where he kept it hidden in the slats of his bed.  He’d read this book many times over.  At first to find a cure for his uncle’s mystery illness, that the Emperor had always told Hunter had been caused by wild magic.  When he couldn’t do that, he read it a few more times just to be safe.  He'd always told himself it was to learn more about defeating the enemy, but truthfully he just found wild magic really interesting.  But there was something in there about a heartbeat.  What was it again…?

Attempts have been made to harness the spell phlegm out of the bile sac after a subject had died.  All efforts had previously been unsuccessful, until it was discovered, during unethical prisoner experimentation on biped demons, that the phlegm would continue to produce magic as long as the heart continued to beat.  Though impossible, or at least unethical, to replicate, these experiments reveal to us that a beating heart is as necessary to make magic as is the source of magic itself.  We can only speculate that…

Hunter frowned down at his book.  He’d never really paid attention to this part before today.  It seemed important, but he couldn’t really see how.  Maybe he could talk to Raine about it?  It was still early in the day, not even lunch time yet, would it be too risky to sneak into their room now?  

Maybe.

But the idea had taken hold, and it was proving difficult to get rid of.  Surely it wouldn’t hurt to just check in…?

Hunter hid the book in his cloak and snuck down the hallway towards Raine’s room.  He had a pile of invisibility glyphs from Luz, but fortunately he didn’t end up needing to use any of them.  Unfortunately, the room was empty.  Raine was probably out wandering the halls of the palace, bumping into walls and pretending to get lost in the library.  He hoped they would find something useful today; they were running out of time.  

Stealthily, he placed the book on their nightstand, cover side down.  Not the best hiding spot, but he did want it to be found, after all.  He hoped that Raine would find it interesting.

 

Chapter Text

 

Hunter awoke with a start.  He was in his room, it was dark.  What time was it?  Or, better question, who was here?  Instinctively, he swept off the covers and grabbed his staff, sweeping it in front of him gracefully to point at the intruder.

Raine, it was Raine.  What were they doing in his room?  

He was about to open his mouth to ask just that question when the bard held a finger to their lips.  Oh yeah, listening spells.  He clamped his mouth shut but didn’t lower his staff.  He trusted Raine, but still, his heart was pounding and this was his room.   What were they even doing here?  

And what time was it?  Hunter glanced over at the clock.  Oh.  Ten p.m.  Not even that late, really, but he hadn’t really slept that much the night before; he had stayed up too late practicing the lute, so he must have fallen asleep early tonight.

The bard traced a magic circle in the air, activating their silencing spell.  They relaxed when the air around the two witches shimmered.  This spell was obviously a source of comfort for them.

“Sorry.  I would have knocked, but I can’t risk anybody knowing that I’m here.”  They held up the book that Hunter had left in their room that morning.  “I found something.  Do you think you can sneak us out of here?  I need to get to the Owl House.”

Yeah.  That he could do.  Hunter always wore a training uniform to bed.  It was comfortable enough, and it meant he was always ready to go if he needed to be awake in a hurry, so today all that was left for him to do was don a pair of boots and his cape.  He leaned his artificial staff against the wall and held his hand out for his pallisman.  The little cardinal chirped happily and adopted the formation; staff on, wings out, waiting for the two of them to mount.

He fetched some glyphs, giving a silent thanks to Luz as he did so, and placed the invisibility glyphs at the top where he could easily reach them.  “Get ready to hold your breath.  We’ll use two glyphs, one to reach a blind spot under the walkway.  Then we’ll wait for the guard to pass the first tower and use the second glyph to make it to the edge of the forest.  We’ll go faster if we fly higher to avoid the rocks, I won’t risk teleporting until we’re out of sight of the lookout.  They might be able to detect that.  Ready?”

Raine dissolved their silencing spell and boarded the staff behind Hunter, one hand on his shoulder for balance, the other on the staff, keeping a respectful distance between the two bodies.  Both witches held their breath as Hunter activated the invisibility glyph and ghosted silently out of the window.  Thankfully, they were a decent flier, for a witch without a staff of their own; they had good balance and seemed to anticipate the turns, which made things easier.  The two of them made it from Hunter’s window to the platform below the retractable walkway quickly enough, but that was the easy part.  It was a lot farther to the edge of the forest.  

Hunter watched the closest guard as they walked around the perimeter of the outer wall, counting steps.  Get ready… He held up his fingers for Raine to see, pulling down one finger at a time as he counted down.  Three, two, one…now!

He took a deep breath in, feeling Raine do the same, and they were off, ghosting silently over the wall between two guards, then picking up speed as they flew towards the forest, keeping well above the jagged rocks that dotted the landscape.  Almost there… he felt his lungs burning.  Almost there…his head swirled.  Almost there…his chest heaved, but he kept his throat locked up.  Almost there…

Hunter took a risk and teleported the last few meters to the forest, bringing them up safely behind a clump of trees and the two witches spent a few minutes gasping as their bodies heaved in the air that they so desperately craved.  As soon as he trusted his rubbery arms again, Hunter took off.  It was too dark to see very well, especially underneath the forest canopy, so he eased back on his staff and trusted his pallisman to guide them safely through the trees.  

Raine shifted behind him, Hunter glanced back to see the bard drawing their pendant out from under their shirt.  They held it up close to their mouth and whispered into it “we’re on our way to the Owl House, Eda.  Wake everybody up, we’ll be there soon.” 

And then his staff, his pallisman, started to veer off course.  He wasn’t doing that, what…?  He leaned forward to whisper at his cardinal.  “Hey you little Rascal.  Not that way.”  

But the cardinal had other ideas; they maneuvered easily through the trees, ducking and swerving and then swerving again until Hunter felt truly turned around.  Where were they going?

And then they were at a clearing.  An ominous one.  There were bones on the ground, and glowing eyes watching them from the trees.  Many, many eyes.  He felt Raine’s hand tighten on his shoulder.  

“The Bat Queen.”  They whispered into his ear.

The Bat Queen.  Hunter had heard of her, but never met her.  Partly by design.  The Emperor’s coven always had a quiet understanding to leave her alone, and she seemed content to return the favour.  And there she was, stepping out of the woods, ducking to avoid the tallest branches, and then bringing her pale face out from between rows of stringy black hair.  

Raine dismounted, and Hunter followed, ignoring the crunch as his heel crushed a bone.  

“Where have you taken us?”  He asked his pallisman in a hushed whisper.  But the little cardinal ignored him, detaching from the staff and fluttering to her side, perching on her thumb claw and chattering happily away, as if they hadn’t brought the two witches into the den of the most dangerous beast on the Boiling Isles.

The Bat Queen listened attentively to Hunter’s pallisman, nodding her head along as the cardinal chirped and tweeted away.  At first she seemed pleased, a small smile on her face, until the final set of chirps, where she frowned and turned to Hunter..  “You are hiding them away?”

Hunter’s breath hitched.  “I have to hide them.  It’s dangerous for them at the palace.”

“You take them somewhere dangerous.”  She repeated, narrowing her eyes at Hunter, even as his cardinal fluttered over and perched on the top of his head.  They leaned forward and peered at Hunter upside-down, seemingly immune to the tension brewing in the woods.

“Everywhere is dangerous right now.  For everyone, not just pallismen.”  Raine spoke up, their voice wavering.  

The Bat Queen focused her attention on the bard.  “You do not have a pallisman?”

Raine blinked and glanced at Hunter.  “No.”

“Then you have no stake.  Be silent.”

Raine swallowed nervously.  “I have as much stake in this as everyone else.  You see…”

The Bat Queen took two steps towards Raine, her voice intense and powerful.  “ Be Silent!”

“They’re a friend!”  That was Eda’s voice, but it took Hunter a moment to realize where it was coming from.  She had zoomed into the clearing, riding a staff of her own.  Her hair was disheveled and she was wearing a mismatched skirt and sweater combination with a pair of bunny slippers on her feet.  These must be her pajamas; she had obviously left the Owl House in a hurry.  She landed in front of Raine and Hunter, holding her arms out wide.  “They’re both friends.”

The Bat Queen peered at Eda for a long moment.  There was a level of familiarity in her face, perhaps even affection, but she didn’t seem ready to change her tune just yet.  “Your friends put pallismen in danger.  This is second time.”

“Raine is right.  It is the Emperor who is making things dangerous.  We are trying to stop him.  Nowhere is safe.”  Eda said.  Her own pallisman, a little owl, detached from her staff and fluttered over to the bard’s shoulder, cooing happily and taking a piece of their hair into his beak.  Raine murmured something unintelligible as they tilted their face towards the bird, and the two nuzzled one another affectionately.

“Emperors come and go.”  The Bat Queen said, softening as she watched that exchange.  “Pallismen are forever.”

Hunter felt his heart race as she said those words.  Almost unconsciously he started tapping his fingers along his thigh, keeping rhythm to his beating heart.  Emperors come and go, pallismen are forever.   The Bat Queen, she didn’t know; she couldn’t know what the Emperor, his uncle, did to pallismen.  She was ancient, he knew that well enough, everyone knew that.  She had seen emperors rise and fall and she scarcely bothered to watch anymore.  But this emperor was killing pallismen, and she seemed like she would probably want to know about that.

His heart rate started to steady as his fingers tapped out the beat.  It was calming, just as it had been two nights ago when he’d done it in Raine’s quarters.  And then, just as had happened in Raine’s quarters two nights ago, an image of Belos appeared in front of them all.  A memory, his memory.  

Belos had a pallismen in his hand.  He’d dug a sharp thumb of his gauntlet into the little wooden figure, shattering it, and then held it up above his head, allowing the magic to ooze out of the little broken body.  The magic glowed green as it dripped down into the mask.

Horrified, Hunter clenched his fist and brought his hand away from his thigh and the image of Belos disappeared.  But it was too late, the Bat Queen had seen that.  She gave a screech and advanced on Hunter, wings outstretched.

Hunter was dimly aware of the fallout.  Raine tackled him and knocked him to the ground.  Eda stayed where she was standing in front of them, arms outstretched, wings outstretched.  Hunter barely even registered that she had grown wings; that didn’t seem like the most important thing right now.  The pallismen; the owl and the cardinal, and about a hundred others that had been watching from the trees, screeched and hooted and mewed and buzzed and cawed, as they circled around the clearing.

“What did you do?”  Raine hollered in his ear.

“I didn’t do it on purpose!”  

“Give me the boy!”  The Bat Queen screeched, flapping her giant wings and reaching forward with one talon.

“It wasn’t him.”  Raine yelled.  

“It was the Emperor!”  Eda yelled at the same time.  “I’ve been warning you about the Emperor for years, remember?  That’s him.”

“You didn’t tell me he consumes pallismen.”  The Bat Queen turned her attention to Eda, who at this point was flapping her wings, hovering in the air in front of her face.  “You didn’t tell me!”

“I didn’t know!”  

“The boy knew.”

And then there was a sound.  A single, lingering note on the violin.  Raine had stood up at some point, had summoned their violin, had started playing.  The Bat Queen, looking more puzzled than anything, settled down to watch.  The flock of pallismen darted to their respective perches, some of them lingering longer than others, until the clearing was silent once more.

And then Raine let their bow fall down to their side, allowing the silence to overtake the clearing.  “The boy has been in the Emperor’s grasp since he was small.  He only knew what he had been told.  It took him a long time to learn that what he had been told was wrong.”

Unsure of what to do, Hunter pushed himself to his knees, and then to his feet.  He rubbed his arm nervously.  There was a scratch on it, probably from a twig, or an animal bone.  “I know now.”  He said shakily.  “I am trying to make things right.”

The Bat Queen focused her intense gaze on Hunter.  “You have been misused.”   She closed her eyes sadly as her wings drooped.  “I see now why your pallisman chose you.”

Unsure of what to say, Hunter stayed quiet.  His heart was thumping, but he knew better than to start tapping out the rhythm.  The absurdity of the situation was catching up to him.  Did he just accidentally project a memory to the Bat Queen?  

Finally the Bat Queen turned to Hunter.  “You have been misused.”  She repeated again.  “But you are safe now.  Have you chosen a one yet?”

Chosen a… Hunter glanced over at Raine, who shrugged.  “What does that mean?”

“She’s treating you like she would a lost pallisman.”  Eda had landed near them and pulled her wings in towards herself.  “She wants to know if you’ve found another guardian to replace the one who abused you.”

The Bat Queen nodded.  “A worthy guardian.  One who will not mistreat you.”

“Oh.”  Hunter cleared his throat, unsure of what to say.  Abuse was a strong word, he wasn't sure he was ready to accept it.

The Bat Queen shifted a wing, revealing the clearing behind her.  “You may stay here until you find the one.”

“It’s me!”  Raine and Eda said at the same time.  They stopped, and grinned sideways at one another.

“It’s us.  He has found us.”  Raine said.  “And we have found him.”

The Bat Queen focused on them.  “Both of you?”

“That’s right.”  Eda said, flushing a little bit behind her feathers.  “The way a child finds a parent.  He is our child, we are his parents.”

The Bat Queen cocked her head curiously.  “You are mated?”

Raine and Eda both blushed and stammered, their words jumbling together as they both talked at the same time.

“Yes.  That is if you think…”

“I do think.  I mean, if that’s okay with you?”

“Yep, I already said that it was.”

“Good, me too.”

“Good.”

“Yep.”  

“Okay.”

“Good.”

Hunter resisted the urge to roll his eyes.  Really?  They were doing this here?  Really?

But the Bat Queen was no longer paying attention to Eda and Raine.  Her eyes were once more focused on Hunter.  “And do they speak for you?”

Hunter blinked and glanced over at the other two witches, who had now gone silent and were very busy blushing and avoiding the other’s eyes.  He felt oddly touched by this whole thing, in a bizarre kind of way.  Somehow all three of them, including the Bat Queen, had offered to adopt him?  He’d have to think about this some more, but for now his choice was clear.  Going with Raine and Eda seemed like a much better option than staying in this clearing with the Bat Queen.  “Yes, they speak for me.”

“Go then.”  The Bat Queen said.  She inclined her head in one final farewell to Hunter’s pallisman, who flittered around her for a moment before coming to settle on Hunter’s staff.  “But you must promise me one thing.”

Eda nodded.  “Anything.”

An intense look crossed over the Bat Queen’s face.  She stepped forward to the sound of bones crunching underneath her talons.  “The Emperor will be mine.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“You’re back!”  Luz waved excitedly as the three witches touched down in front of the Owl House.  Hunter was riding his own Staff while Raine was riding Owlbert and Eda was flying with her own wings.  “I would have come to greet you, but Eda left in a hurry and she took Owlbert with her and I didn’t know where she’d gone so… what happened anyway?”

“I met the Bat Queen.”  Hunter muttered.  

“Ooh.”  Luz bounced on her feet.  “Did you make a friend or an enemy out of her?”

“Both I think.”

Luz grinned.  “Me too, at various times.  Which one did you end with?”

“Friend.”  Hunter frowned.  “I think she offered to adopt me.”

We adopted him instead.”  Raine had detangled themself from the BATTs’ greetings.  They put one arm around Hunter’s shoulders and guided him into the Owl House.  “Come on, everybody sit around the table.  Everyone except for Eda and Luz and King that is.”

“I have some questions.”  Luz whispered as she followed them into the house.

“I’ll tell you later.”  Eda whispered back, following them into the house.

“I’ve been so focused on dark magic, that I was overlooking the obvious.”  Raine was saying as they cleared off the kitchen table.  “Wild magic.  This is all about wild magic.  Hunter led me in the right direction.  We’re going to need more chairs…”

Chairs were fetched, and Raine directed them all to sit.  Well, not all of them.  Just the ones with a coven tattoo.  Eda, Luz, and King stood off to the side while Hunter, Lilith, Raine and the BATTs sat around the table, squished in, shoulder to shoulder. 

“Everyone, roll up your sleeve and put your arm on the table, coven brand facing up.”  Raine summoned a small, handheld harp from the air.  “I think I know how to remove them.”

Eda squealed with glee as the rest of the witches eagerly placed their arms on the table.  Hunter was a little slower.  He rubbed his thumb over his own tattoo.  He had been so proud when the Emperor gave it to him.  So proud, so happy.  It didn’t seem like a happy memory anymore, but was he really ready to give it up?

He glanced over at Amber, on his left, who looked gleeful, and Lilly, on his right, who looked focused.  They didn’t seem crippled by self-doubt.  Then he looked across the table at Raine, who was busy tuning their lyre.  Something about the way the light reflected off their glasses reminded him of seeing them on the floor of the dungeon, face contorted with horror as red vines encircled their body.  He’d give anything not to see that look again.  Heck, he’d give anything not to be the one encircled with vines.  He was as much a traitor as anybody else in this room right now, after all.  Best to remove it.

Hunter placed his arm on the table with the rest of them.  He had a pretty big scratch from the Bat Queen’s clearing.  It wasn’t that deep, but it was long and already a bit puffy; he’d have to clean that later.

“The coven brand is connected to the heart, which is connected to the bile sac.”  Raine was saying.  “That’s why it’s on the wrist.  They need somewhere vascular.  Everybody, tap out your heartbeat on the table.”

Amber, Katya, and Derwin did so easily enough.  Lilly looked like she was struggling.  She didn’t have bard training the way the rest of them did, and had trouble finding the rhythm.

Hunter withdrew his arm off the table as Raine talked Lilly through the exercise.  Tapping out his heartbeat is what caused him to project memories.  He’d done so twice now, both by accident.  Did he really want to risk it again?  In front of everybody?  What if he projected something truly mortifying?

“Hunter?  Are you ready?”  

Hunter glanced up at Raine.  Everybody at the table was looking at him.  He flushed.  “What if I…you know… project again?”

Raine winced.  “You might.  I don’t have time to teach you to control it better.  Would you rather wait and then you and I can try this again after, when nobody else is around?”

“What’s going on?”  Luz whispered to Eda.

“He can project memories.”  Eda whispered back.  

“Hunter can do magic?”

Hunter glared at Luz, a silent warning not to say anymore.  “No, it’s alright, let’s just do it.  As long as it won’t interfere with the spell.”  He placed his arm on the table once more.  

Raine poised their fingers over the strings of the lyre.  “It shouldn’t.  Everybody get ready to tap out your heartbeat.  Lilly, you start, then Hunter, then everybody else join in when you’re ready.  You might see some things, try not to get distracted.  There will be time for questions after.”

“What about you, Raine?  Will this work on you, too?”  Derwin spoke up for the first time, his voice quiet.

Raine flinched, their fingers drawing out a sour note on the lyre.  “Don’t worry about that.  Let’s begin.”

“I don’t want to do this if it won’t work on you!”  Amber whined.

“I admire your faith in me, but I cannot tap out my heartbeat and perform the spell at the same time.  I’m not that talented.  Don’t worry about it, really.  If the spell works then maybe I can teach it to one of you.”

But Eda had stepped forward, placing her body behind Raine’s as she stood behind their chair.  She placed three graceful fingers along the soft tissue under their jaw and leaned forward to tap out their pulse on the table with her other hand.  “Worth a shot.”  She muttered.

Raine, meanwhile, had sucked a breath in through their teeth as they felt Eda’s presence behind them and her hands on their neck.  Their eyes were wide and they were blushing right up to their ears.  Eda smiled knowingly as her tapping finger increased in pace to the rhythm of their racing heart.  

“Worth a shot.”  Raine squeaked, and then cleared their throat.  “Everybody ready?  Let’s begin.”

Everybody found their rhythm easily enough, even Lilly; six tapping fingers reminding Hunter of the sound of melting snow.  Raine listened for a while and then began to play.

At first it seemed like nothing at all was happening.  Hunter didn’t feel anything, his tattoo looked just the same as it always did.  But then he noticed that the finger drumming around the table was starting to unify.  Somehow, everybody’s heart was beating in sync.  His own fingers found the rhythm easily, beating in tune as the sound of the harp surrounded them.  It was calming, beautiful even.  Nothing at all like the beating heart over the Emperor’s throne.

And, just as he’d feared, he began to project that memory.  The Emperor’s beating heart appeared above the table between them.  This time he didn’t draw away, his fingers kept drumming as he watched it carefully.  It wasn’t a distressing or embarrassing memory at least.  It was just the heart; no Emperor, no Hunter, no casual child abuse.  Just the heart.

Unfortunately, it seemed that not everybody at the table felt the same way.  There were some gasps, some murmurs, some drumming fingers that failed to keep up with the beat.

“Focus, everybody.”  Raine said, still playing.  “Hunter, try to think of a happier memory.”

A happy memory?   Hunter wondered.  What’s that?   For some reason he couldn’t think of any.  That memory-heart continued to beat.  Off-rhythm, too.  Hunter scowled at it.

Okay, a happy memory.  Sure, he could do that.  Using his artificial staff to hold Luz and Eda out above the boiling sea, back when they were out hunting the selkidomas.  That was a happy memory.  Or at least a funny one.  Or well, it was possible that his view of funny was warped.  Maybe he should choose something else?  But it was too late.  The image of Luz and Eda, entrapped in red magic as he held them close to the hot steam of the ocean, appeared above the table.  Maybe he shouldn’t have chosen that one.  From somewhere off to his side, King growled.

But at least he knew that he had some control over things.  He avoided Luz’s eyes and tried to think of a new memory.  Something happy.  Whatever that was.  Flying with Rascal, his palisman.  That was a happy memory; Hunter focused, and the image shifted.  Neat.  Could he do that again?

Sitting at this very table with Raine, a bowl of snacks in the table between them and a little wooden cardinal hopping along the table between them.  That was a happy memory.  The image shifted again, and Hunter smiled, pleased with himself.  He liked that he was learning to control this new power of his.  It made him feel good about himself, even if he didn’t think it was a useful power to have.  It might not be an abomination or a magic circle, but at least it was something, and it was all him.  He tried to think of another happy memory, but his mind went blank.  Surely he could come up with something?

And then a different memory appeared.  A group of people, a cheering crowd, Hexside uniforms, a marching band?  He’d never been to Hexside, not legitimately anyway, so where was this coming from?  And then he noticed somebody familiar.  A young witch with white hair and bat-like ears; marching along, playing her tin whistle.  Hunter frowned at the image.  That wasn’t his memory, it was Amber’s.  Was she projecting memories too?  He looked over at Amber–real Amber–who looked as confused as he did.

And then a different memory appeared, and then another one, then another one after that.  Holding an image for only a few seconds before moving on to something else.  Katya, leaning over a table, her tongue held between her lips as she wrote furiously in her journal.  Derwin, wearing a bat mask, gleefully running through a narrow alley with a coven guard chasing him.  Young Lilly, with curly orange hair, getting a perfect test score back from a teacher.  Katya, walking through a greenhouse, trowel in hand, a smudge of dirt along one cheek.  Raine, reaching one tentative hand out to touch the feathers of Eda, who was in her harpy-beast form.  Amber, arms outstretched, wobbling as she tried to balance on top of a fencepost.  Raine, a serene look on their face, as they held a violin under their chin.  Derwin, playfully bumping into Katya as the two of them walked the hallways of the bard coven, laughing at some unspoken joke.

Fascinated, Hunter watched the memories appear.  These weren’t his memories, but somehow he knew that he was the one making them happen.  He was projecting memories from other people now.  That seemed like a much more useful power to have.  Imagine his prisoner interrogation skills.  

Not that he had any need to interrogate prisoners anymore.

Hunter glanced down at his wrist and saw a streak of gold light snaking out of his coven tattoo, swirling in the air for a minute before wisping away.  Next to him Lilly had an identical one, golden and shimmery, while everybody else at the table had a similar one, except theirs were red.  He watched as Amber’s twisted and branched in the air over her wrist; red and vine-like, reminding him of the red vines that had entrapped Raine on the floor of the dungeon.

As if on cue, the flashing memories above the table switched.  This time showing Raine, red vines snaking underneath their clothes and up their face, that look of horror back on their face.  How Hunter dreaded that look.

There was a gasp from beside him, and Hunter glanced sympathetically at Amber.  She hadn’t seen this before, she was unprepared.  He felt bad for her, and decided he’d had enough of this memory game.  He didn’t just want a new memory to look at, he wanted them all gone .  It took a moment, but he managed it.  The memories disappeared and there was nothing left but the table, with all the witches tapping their fingers around it, and Raine, still playing their lyre.  

Hunter’s coven tattoo was almost gone, and a quick glance around the table revealed that everybody else’s was too.  A few more whisps and then a few more minutes of playing, just to be safe, and the spell was over.  Nobody moved, nobody breathed.  Even Eda never took her hands off Raine’s pulse.  Everybody just stared at their wrists, bare and brand-less, for a long moment.

Hunter stared at his own wrist, at the patch of flesh where his coven tattoo had been just a few minutes before.  It was pale and unblemished, it looked so bare.  Was it really gone?  For real?  How could he tell?  He looked around the table at the other witches, all of whom were gazing at their own wrists with similar bewildered expressions on their faces.  Their coven tattoos were gone.


Chapter Text

 

It was Luz who finally broke the silence.  “Did it work?”

Lilly was examining her wrist.  “I don’t know.”

“There’s one way to find out.”  Katya twirled her finger, and a tiny illusion appeared on the table.  An apple and a pear.  They turned and waved with little twiggy arms.  Katya grinned.  “Looks like it worked.”

“My turn.”  Derwin leaned over towards the table and made a circle of his own.  The scratch that Hunter had gotten in the Bat Queen’s clearing disappeared.  

Hunter jerked his arm back and rubbed it.  “Thanks.”  He mumbled, embarrassed.  

“Ooh.”  Said Amber.  “Let me try!”  She made her own spell circle, but instead of illusion or healing magic like Katya and Derwin had done, she did a construction spell; the effects were a bit more dramatic.  A small tower burst from the floorboards in the middle of Eda’s kitchen.  The whole room shook.  Floorboards splintered, pans fell off the wall, a broom toppled onto the floor.  Katya and Derwin yelped and pulled Amber to her feet, bickering.

“Hey!”  Eda called, straightening up to rest her hand on the back of Raine’s chair.  “You’re going to have to clean that up!”

“What’s going on in there?”  Hooty’s voice called from somewhere outside.  Lilly went to the other room to console him.  

“What about you?”  Eda asked in a soft voice, leaning over Raine’s chair once more.  “Is yours gone too?  For real?”

Raine frowned at their bare wrist.  “I think so.”  They twirled a finger and a red flower bloomed in their palm.  “Yep, it worked.”  They blushed, staring at the table, and held the flower up above their head towards her.  Eda took the flower with a blush of their own, and the two witches stood there awkwardly for a few moments, Raine staring at the table, Eda staring at the flower, both of them ignoring the chaos in the room.  

Hunter decided he didn’t need to be at the table anymore.  His coven tattoo was gone, the room was in disarray, Eda and Raine were being weird; there was no reason to draw this out.  He stood up, and nearly bumped into Luz.

 “Can you really do magic now?”  She squealed.  She looked like she had been holding that question in for a while.  “Memory projection, huh?  So cool!  Can you do one of mine?”

Hunter blinked stupidly at her for a moment.  She wanted one of her memories projected?  On purpose?  “We could try it, I guess.”  He rubbed his wrist thoughtfully.  It looked so empty without his coven mark.  “I do need to practice my control.”

“Fantastic!”  Luz rubbed her hands together.  “We can start tonight… or I guess it’s really late.  We can start first thing tomorrow morning.”

“We have to get back to the castle anyway.”  Hunter shrugged.  “But maybe another time.”

“Wait, you’re going back?  Again?”  Luz’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head.  “Why?  Your coven mark is gone, that’s what you wanted, right?  Stay here!”

Are you going back?”  Eda had stepped back from Raine's chair.  She focused her mismatched eyes first on Hunter, then on Raine.  “What else is there to do?”

Raine avoided her eyes.  “I…”

“You.  Me.  Outside.  Now.”  She pulled them to their feet and dragged them outside the house, shutting the door firmly behind them. 

“Where are they going?”  Amber asked.  She and the other BATTs had stopped bickering when they heard the door close.  The tower was still in the middle of the room; King had scrambled up on top of it, looking very much like an overlord surveying his kingdom.

Hunter shrugged.  “I think they just have some talking to do.”

“Or some kissing to do, you mean.”  Katya said.

“Gross!”  Amber whined.

Katya brought her hands up to the side of her face and made kissing noises with her mouth.

“Eww.”  Amber shoved her playfully.  “Stop it.”

“I mean, they might be.”  Derwin smirked, and Hunter shrugged.  He had to agree that it was a possibility.

“I’m not listening.  La la la.”  Amber said, sticking her fingers in her ears and scrunching her eyes tightly closed.

“Hunter, can you join us outside…what is everybody laughing at?”  Raine asked, poking their head inside the door and looking around with a confused look on their face.

“Luz, can you put King to bed?  I…”  Eda joined Raine at the doorway and then looked around the room, momentarily confused at the group of young people, who were busy stifling their giggles.  “You know what?  I don’t want to know.  Hunter?  Outside.  Now.”

Hunter meekly followed them outside, trying to smooth the smirk off his face.  Lilly was already there, so he guessed the kissing theory was out.  She must have gone around the side of the house from the other door.

“How close is Belos to finishing the portal?”  Eda asked as Hunter closed the door behind him.

“I think it’s already finished.”  Hunter replied.

Eda groaned.  “Do you know if he’s opened it yet?”

“That I don’t know.”  Hunter said.  “He says he’s waiting for the Day of Unity, but he’s got to have tested it out, at least.”

“We’ve only got two more days before then.”  Lilly muttered.

“Wait, two days?  Really?”  Eda turned even more pale than her already ghostly hue.  

“Yes, well it is after midnight.  How could you forget something like that?”

“I didn’t forget, I just…lost track of time.”  Eda grumbled, and then raised her voice a little bit and called out “Luz, I know you’re listening in, you may as well show yourself.”

There was a gasp from nearby and Raine jumped.  Luz had appeared nearby, an invisibility glyph in hand, gulping in air.  “The Emperor has a working portal to the human realm?  Do you know what he’s planning to do with it?”

Hunter shook his head.  “Something big, that’s all he’ll say.  I don’t know the details.”

“Safe to assume it’s nothing good.  What else do we know?”  Lilly asked.

“Just that it’s something big, something about uniting the two worlds, so I guess that’s where the portal fits in.”  Hunter frowned, searching his memory.  “He wants all witches to be in a coven before then.  I got the impression that part is really important.  Something about increasing the power of the coven leaders.  ‘So the worthy can inherit a utopia free of wild magic.’  Or so he says.”

“Belos needs all nine coven leaders to make it work.”  Raine said, though this wasn’t new information to anybody.  “He’s said that our power gets stronger the more people we initiate into our coven.”

“Well, you and Hunter are coven leaders, right?  So can’t you just not show up?”  Luz asked.

Raine shook their head.  “They’ll just appoint somebody else.  It might look suspicious if there’s a new head witch with no announcement and no ceremony, but I doubt the Emperor will let that stop him.”

Hunter nodded in agreement.  “He’s focused, and he’s not at all sentimental.  He’ll have no trouble finding a replacement for either of us.”

“Will it make a difference if you two show up without your coven brand?”  Eda asked, her eyes focused on Hunter.

He rubbed his wrist.  It looked so strange without his tattoo.  “I mean, it’ll throw a wrench into his plans for a while, but I don’t know how we’d hide it.  It’ll be pretty obvious if we show up without them.”

“I might have a solution for that, actually.”  Eda pulled some squares of paper out of her hair and handed one to Hunter and one to Raine.

Hunter examined his.  “A temporary tattoo?  You seriously think that’s going to work?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t it?”  Eda grinned.  “It’s not like anybody will check, right?”

“I…”  Hunter blinked a few times and then glanced at Raine.  “ Could this work?”

They shrugged.  “It might.  A healer would be able to tell, but only if they have reason to examine us.”

Hunter placed the paper on his wrist and held it down for a moment.  There was a dim flash of light and when he removed the paper, an exact copy of the Emperor’s coven brand was on his wrist, right where the old one used to be.  He turned it left and right, examining it for flaws. From beside him he noticed Raine doing the same.  These things were actually pretty good quality.  “Alright, so we show up for the Day of Unity without our coven tattoos and then what?  It might delay the Emperor’s plan for a few hours until he figures out what’s going on, but at best it would be a distraction.  It would delay things for a few hours, at most.”  

“A distraction might be all we need.”  Eda said, rubbing her hands eagerly.  

“A distraction from what?  What is our plan, exactly?”  Lilly asked.

“Our plan is to kick some Emperor butt!”  Eda brought her fist down into her opposite hand.

Lilly did not seem reassured by her sister’s enthusiasm.  She groaned and rolled her eyes.  “So we have an army of teenagers and no plan.  Wonderful.”

“Derwin isn’t a teenager.  And Katya is seven months away from her twentieth birthday, so she’s nearly there too.”  Raine pointed out.

“King isn’t a teenager either.  He’s only eight.  Maybe nine.”  Eda added.

“Neither of you are making the point that you think you’re making.”  Lilly did not seem impressed by that information.

“Nevermind.  Hunter, do you know if the Day of Unity will be televised?”  Raine asked.

Hunter nodded.  This he knew.  “Yes.  Belos wants everybody to see it.  He’s been practicing his speeches and everything.”

Raine went quiet, chewing on their bottom lip thoughtfully.

“Raine?”  Eda asked.  Her voice was always a little more gentle when she talked to them.  “What are you thinking?”

“I think…”  Raine mused, avoiding her eyes.  “I think I can modify my spell a bit.  It’s actually not that difficult, you see, it just takes a bit of time.  I’d want to use my violin next time because I’m more comfortable with it.  Of course, that’s assuming I’d have more elbow room…”

“Raine?”  Lilly put her hand on their shoulder.  “You’re rambling.  Tell us exactly what you have in mind.”

They took a deep breath.  “I think I can use the Emperor’s creepy giant heart to increase the range of my coven brand spell.  I think as long as it’s broadcasted I can reach people through their screens too.  They wouldn’t have to tap out their heartbeat, they wouldn’t even have to be in close proximity, they’d just have to be watching the news.”

“You can erase the coven tattoos of people all over the Boiling Isles?”  Eda asked.  Clearly the idea excited her.

“Everybody who is watching their screens.”  Raine did not seem to share her enthusiasm.

“Which everybody will be.”  Hunter said.  This was starting to sound like a pretty alright plan.  Belos could have another coven leader within the hour if he wanted to, but it would take months to replace all the coven tattoos on all the wrists around the Boiling Isles.  Years maybe.  If it could even be done.  If there was any way to disrupt the Day of Unity this was it.  “We’ve been hyping this up for ages.  It’s a national holiday and everything.  People will be watching.”

“You’d have to play in front of a camera.  A live audience.  All of Bonesborough, all of Latissa.  Everywhere else too.”  Eda said gently.  

Raine closed their eyes.  “I know.”  Their voice was small and unsure.  

“Are you sure you’re up for it?”

Raine nodded mournfully.  They opened their mouth but no sound came out.  They had to swallow several times before they could form words.  “I guess I’ll have to be.”  They opened their eyes and gave a trembling smile.  It was not at all reassuring.

Eda stepped forward and took their hand in hers, giving it a squeeze and rubbing her thumb over the back of their hand.  “It’s a good plan.”  She said gently.

They looked at her and their eyes filled up.  “If I can pull it off.”

“Well, sounds like we have a plan.  I’d better go pack.  Luz, come help me.”  Hunter shoved Luz unceremoniously back into the Owl House.  This was getting awkward and emotional and he was not good with that kind of thing.  Let Eda handle it.

Amber, Katya, Derwin, and King were all crouched beside the kitchen window.

“Were you all listening in?”  Hunter asked unnecessarily.  It was obvious that they were.

Katya stepped back from the window and dusted off her trousers.  “I mean, yeah.”  The others stepped further into the room, out of sight of the window.  King scrambled up Luz’s leg so he could perch on her shoulder.  The sounds he made were adorable, though Hunter knew better than to say as much.

“So, you’re going back?  Again?  Is that wise?”  Amber asked, fixing her gaze on Hunter.

He shrugged.  “It’s only for two more days.”

“You can do a lot of dying in two days.”  Amber pointed out, and scowled when Katya nudged her.  “What?  He can.”

“Nobody will be dying.”  Lilly had followed them into the room.

“Aww.”  King sounded disappointed.

“It’s okay, we just need to figure out our plan.  I’ll talk to Gus, and see if we can get his dad on board.  We’ll need him to make sure the camera is focused on Raine for the whole spell.”  Luz said.  She had a way of sounding soothing and reassuring, but Hunter wasn’t fooled.  He knew how impulsive she could be.  He’d feel better about this whole thing if at least one person here was a better strategist.

“We have all day to figure out our plan.  In the meantime Hunter and Raine need to find their way back to the castle, preferably before three o’clock, when the guards change shift.”  Lilly said.

“Wait, you’re going to figure out the plan without me?”  Hunter asked.  The thought of just going back to the Castle and trusting these yahoos to figure things out was not at all pleasant.

“Right now the plan is to do everything we can to protect Raine and the camera from interruptions so they can complete their spell.”  Lilly said with a sympathetic glance at him.  “But we can arrange for your palisman to communicate the details for you tomorrow in the evening.  We won’t be writing a letter, for obvious reasons, but since you are the only one who can understand what they say then it should be safe for us to tell them everything.”

Hunter nodded miserably.  That didn’t give him much time to prepare, but it was better than nothing.

“We’ve got a lot riding on the assumption that Raine can pull this off.”  Derwin said.

“Derwin!”  Amber nudged him with her foot.  “Stop it.”

“What?  I know we’re all thinking it.”  Derwin said, frowning at her.  “I love Raine as much as the next witch, but come on, we all know they have stage fright.  What about them makes us think that they’re capable of playing in front of a live televised audience?  With that much pressure on them?  I’m just saying we should have a backup plan.”

 “ I  have known Raine longer than any of you have been alive.”  Lilly said, frowning at him.  “They’re resourceful, and they are quite capable of stepping up when needed.  Especially when the stakes are high.”

“I’m with Derwin on this.  We need a backup plan.”  Hunter said, achieving a grateful smile from Derwin.  

Lilly sighed.  “Yes, we’ll have a backup plan.  And a backup to our backup plan.  But only because it’s good to be prepared and not because we have no faith in Raine.  Now, isn’t it time you got going?  Don’t want to cut it too close.  Steve shows up for his shift like, forty five minutes early some days.”

Hunter nodded, reminding himself that Lilly knew the guards at a more personal level than he did.  He’d never bothered with the ins and outs of castle life.  He headed for the door and then hesitated with his hand on the doorknob.  

Lilly raised an eyebrow.  “Something wrong?”

“Maybe I should give them a bit more of a, umm… head start?”  He asked awkwardly.  Raine and Eda were still out there.  How could he be sure he wouldn’t interrupt anything weird?

“Never give your opponent a head start.”  King said, clearly not understanding the source of Hunter’s hesitation.  “Your victory over your adversary should be swift and brutal.”

Hunter blinked over at him, and then glanced at Luz, silently pleading with her to handle this.  

Luz smiled affectionately at King.  “Come on, buddy.  Let’s get you to bed.”  She smiled at Hunter before she left the room.  “Bye, and good luck.  I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.”

“Yeah.”  Hunter said, though he wasn’t sure if he would dare hold out that much hope.  “See you.”

“Oh, for goodness sake.  I’ll go first.”  Lilly said, pushing past him to the door.  From outside she could be heard saying “Break it up, you two.  It’s time to leave.”  Hunter and the BATTs followed at a respectful distance.

“I’ll go with you until the edge of the castle grounds.”  Eda concentrated for a moment and shifted into her harpy-beast form.  “I can see really well in the dark.”

“Show off.”  Lilly grumbled to herself.

“Rainstorm?”  Eda turned to them, grinning smugly.  “I know how terrible your night vision is.  You’d better fly with me until we clear the forest.”

Raine blushed.  “I’d be harpy to.  I mean, I’d be happy to.”  They groaned.  “Let’s just get going.”

Hunter mounted his staff while Eda scooped up Raine and took off.  In the end he was glad that Eda had come along.  It was too dark here under the forest canopy to see much of anything.  Even his palisman was having trouble.  Eda made a small light glyph for him to follow as she glided slowly through the trees, swerving and ducking to avoid trunks and branches.  Hunter mostly managed to do the same, though he did end up with a face-full of leaves more than once.

Finally they approached the edge of the forest.  Eda extinguished her light glyph and set Raine down on the ground as the three of them crept closer to the treeline.  The castle was visible in the distance.  

“I think we’ll have to make three trips for this part.”  Hunter whispered.  “The distance is too great, we won’t be able to hold our breaths long enough.”

Raine nodded and then looked over at Eda.  “Bye Eda.  I, umm… that is to say…I just wanted you to know…”  They sighed and closed their eyes briefly.  “Bye.”

“Bye.  I’ll come back for you.”  Eda said gently.  “And Hunter?  I meant what I said at the Bat Queen’s clearing.  You’ll always have a place at the Owl House.  You and Luz will be bickering over chores in no time.”

That sounded…pleasant.  Hunter nodded and mounted his staff, feeling Raine do the same behind him.  Same as before, one hand on his shoulder, balancing easily enough on the narrow wood.  He checked the glyph situation, confident that they had more than enough for their needs.  Then he and Raine took a deep breath in and took off, flying back towards the castle.

 

Chapter Text

 

Hunter slept in the next day.  Not that it made him feel rested at all, but he did sleep in.  When he finally made his way out of his room he found himself walking the hallways of the castle.  A hazy feeling of dread was inside him.  He felt like he needed to be doing something to prepare for what was coming, but really, what could he do?  He only had the vaguest idea of what the plan was.  He supposed he could practice his magic but somehow projecting memories didn’t seem like a spell that would be much use in a fight.  And really, what else did he have going for him?  He had a magical training staff that he didn’t quite trust anymore and a palisman that he didn’t want to risk bringing anywhere near the Emperor.  Even now the little cardinal was hidden safely away in his room.  He didn’t want to risk bringing them out into the hallways of the castle.  He wandered over to the library, thinking it would make him feel better to catch a glimpse of Raine, but the bard was nowhere to be seen.  He found himself wishing that the Day of Unity had finally come.  He was sick of waiting.

It occurred to him that it would be most useful for him to seek out Belos.  To try to gain information about the Day of Unity.  About what exactly was planned, but somehow he didn’t think he was up for that.  Maybe he was maturing, but he was ready to admit that it was safer for him to stay away.

Finally, annoyed with himself, Hunter returned to his room.  He wasn’t going to be any use to anybody like this.  Maybe it would calm him if he practiced his lute for a while.  His fingertips were still sore, but at least it might put him in a better headspace for what was coming.

But the lute wasn’t there.  Hunter checked again, though it was hardly possible that he could have misplaced it.  There were not that many hiding places for an instrument that size.  The lute was gone.

He sat on his bed, trying to swallow the sick feeling in the back of his throat.  Okay, so his lute was gone.  Somebody had found it.  A servant, or Kikimora, or the Emperor himself.  Either way he’d been found out.  Hardly surprising, considering that he’d led Kikimora to believe that he was taking bard lessons.  He had been expecting this.  Still, the timing was…inopportune.  One more day to fly under the radar.  Just one more day, that’s all he needed.  

He took a deep breath, talking himself through it.  It would be okay.  He could do this.  So Kikimora had found his lute and taken it to the Emperor.  That was the most likely scenario.  She had promised that she would, after all.  Belos would summon him, scold him, play a few mind games.  Nothing new.  Nothing Hunter hadn’t seen before.  Maybe this was a good thing.  Let them think that he was hiding the lute.  Let them think that was the only thing that he was hiding.  Belos would be busy with preparations for the Day of Unity anyway, so it might even be a quick reprimand.  In fact, it would probably be better if he approached his uncle first, rather than waiting to be summoned.  Confess to his sins, admit to his weakness, beg for forgiveness.  That would probably end better for him.  Maybe he should send Rascal back to the Owl House first, though.  Just in case something happened to him.

Where was that little cardinal anyway?

There was a knock at the door.  Hunter flinched.  “Come in!”

The door opened a crack and a coven guard poked his head in.  “Sorry to disturb you, sir.  But the Emperor has requested an audience with you.”

“Okay.”  Hunter said blandly.  “I’ll be right there.”

The coven guard hesitated, his hand still on the doorknob.  “Actually, sir.  I have been ordered to accompany you there.”

“Oh.”  Said Hunter.  Oh .  “Very well.”  He stood up and glanced back at the room.  No sign of Rascal.  Good.  His palisman was getting better at hiding.  He gathered his artificial staff and smoothed his cape and followed the guard into the hallway.  Two more were waiting for him.

Hunter held his head high as he walked the hallways with the guards.  The guards were just for show, he knew.  He could easily overpower them if he needed to.  Not that he needed to.  Or maybe he did.  It was an uncomfortable feeling not knowing which it was.  How much did the Emperor know about him anyway?

He would soon find out.  His footsteps echoed off the stone walls.  That, at least, was comforting.  Familiar.  He knew these halls.  He had grown up here.  He tried to ignore the small but intrusive voice that reminded him that he still might die here.

“Uncle.”  He said, dropping to one knee in front of the throne.  Just as he had done a thousand times in the past.  From behind him he heard the door close as the guards left the room.  

“There is no need for such formalities.  Step forward.”  Belos said, his voice kind behind his mask.  “We are family after all.”

Hunter swallowed and did as he was told.  Gripping his staff tightly.  He caught a glimpse of the temporary tattoo on his wrist.  It looked just like the coven tattoo that Raine had erased.  Visually it was the same, but somehow it felt different.  He felt exposed.

“I fear that I have been neglecting you.”  Belos said.  It was impossible to see his expression behind his mask, but Hunter could hear the smile in his voice.  “We have had so little time to catch up recently.  Please, tell me.  How are you?”

“Me?  I’m… I’m fine.”  Hunter swallowed nervously.  Tell him about the lute.  Don’t let him drag that information out.  It would be better for both of them that way.  “Actually, I’ve been taking bard lessons from Head Witch Whispers.  I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but you were so busy with preparations I didn’t want to bother you.”

“Indeed?  Tell me more.”  Belos said, leaning casually against his throne.

Hunter smoothed his hand along the edge of his cloak.  “Not much to tell, really.  I’m only a few lessons in.  Whispers still has all their knowledge so they can still teach at a beginner level, even if their memories are gone.  They’re a perfectly adequate teacher for my needs.”

Belos inclined his head.  “And does this explain why you have been sneaking into their room at night?”

Hunter forced himself not to react.  Show no fear.  “Yes.”

“And does it also explain why Whispers snuck into your room last night?”

Hunter felt his heart rate spike.  “I believe they got disorientated.  I was able to send them back to their own room.”

“Ah yes.”  Belos said casually.  “Back to their room.  Out the window, while invisible.  A curious choice, don’t you think?  You could have just used the door.”

There it was.  Hunter almost felt relieved.  No more dancing around the issue.  The Emperor knew.  “Uncle.”

“Of course, it doesn’t explain why you were gone so long.  Do bard lessons usually happen in the forest at night?  Rather inappropriate, don’t you think?”

Hunter held his head high.  “Bard magic is just manipulation of sound waves.  The forest is a convenient way to learn about that since the sound of wind through the leaves provides a good backdrop for…”

“Is that so?”  Belos interrupted.  He didn’t seem in any way convinced, so Hunter clamped his mouth shut.  “And is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”

Hunter shook his head miserably.  His uncle knew more than he was letting on, that much was clear, but Hunter had too many secrets at this point that revealing any one of them would be a huge gamble.  Did Belos know that he had a palisman?  That his coven mark was gone?  That he had met the Bat Queen?  That he had helped restore Raine’s memories?  That he had information about a rebellion?  That he was participating in a rebellion?  That he had maybe been adopted and had a new family to go home to?  Did his uncle know any of those things?  All of those things?

Speaking up would be too much of a gamble.  Hunter stayed quiet.

The Emperor stood up and grasped his hands loosely behind his back as he circled Hunter twice, making the boy feel a bit like a prey animal.  His body was telling him to flee but he forced himself to stare straight ahead.  At last Belos stopped behind Hunter and placed one metal gauntlet on the boy’s shoulder, allowing the sharp fingers to tap down one at a time with the clink of metal.  Hunter was very aware of what that metal could do to exposed flesh.  He clenched his fists and reminded himself not to react.  Part of him wished that it would just happen.  Wished that the Emperor would strike him, would draw blood.  Blood was familiar.  Blood he knew how to handle.  Blood would be a mercy.  But Belos was not a merciful man. 

“Well, what kind of an uncle would I be if I didn’t take an interest in your hobbies?  Play for me.”  The Emperor said at last, and the door to his inner-throne room opened.  The Abomaton 2.0, the same one that Hunter had acquired from Blight Industries, was standing in the doorway.  Its bulk was still partly hidden behind the doorframe, but it was clear that it carried Hunter’s lute in its hand.  It stretched one sticky, purple arm silently across the room, deposited the lute into Hunter’s arms, and then drew its arm back into its body.

“Go on.”  Belos said, his voice somehow sounded gentle and menacing at the same time.  “Play.”

Hunter stared miserably at the lute in his hands.  

“Feeling shy are we?”  The Emperor chuckled softly.  “Well, maybe you’ll play for your teacher instead.”

The Abomaton 2.0 stepped out of the doorway.  It had been partially hidden before so Hunter couldn’t see the other side of it.  He almost wished that were still the case.  Because the Abomaton’s other hand was wrapped tightly around what looked to be a witch.  All that Hunter could see was a pair of wiggling boots and a tuft of minty-green hair.

The Abomaton deposited its load on the floor at Belos’s feet.  Raine Whispers tumbled onto all fours, gasping for breath as the Abomaton released them.  

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Could you not breathe in there?”  Belos asked mildly.  “I shall have to ask my machine to be more careful next time.  Useful things, though not without their flaws, as you can see.”

Raine climbed shakily to their feet, rubbing their throat and adjusting their glasses.  They still hadn’t caught their breath.

“Hunter here was just about to play the lute for us.”  Belos said.  “I understand he has been practicing.”

Hunter looked at the lute in his hands, then at his uncle.  He was tired of these mind games.  “Why don’t you just kill me?”  He asked quietly.

Belos gave a low chuckle behind his helmet.  He looked at Raine, as if expecting them to share in his joke.  “Young people these days are so dramatic, don’t you think?”

Raine scowled.  They opened their mouth to say something, but could barely manage a cough.

“You disappoint me, Hunter.”  Belos turned his attention back on Hunter.  “I always thought that you could tell me anything.  We are family, after all.  Now, I ask again.  Is there anything else that you have been hiding from me?”

“No.”  Hunter lied flatly.  “Nothing.”

“Very well.”  Belos said, flapping a hand lazily.  “You may go.”  

Hunter blinked and eyed the door to the throne room suspiciously.  He may…go?  Is that what he just heard?  Surely the Emperor hadn’t just told him he could just walk out of here?  He turned back to his uncle.  “And what about Head Witch Whispers.  Can they go too?”

Belos laughed.  “Of course not.  They are a traitor and a spy.  They will be dealt with accordingly.  You may go.  But Hunter,” his eyes narrowed underneath his mask, “bring me that cage before you leave, will you?”

That…cage?  Hunter blinked and looked around the room.  The Abomaton was back, this time holding a small birdcage with a blanket overtop of it.  A deep feeling of dread overcame Hunter and flipped the blanket off the cage.  A familiar little cardinal cheeped at him, and hopped along the floor of the cage towards him.

The Abomaton held out the cage and Hunter took it, numbly.  He tried the door even though he knew it was useless.  It was locked tight, sealed with magic.

“Well, come on.  Bring me the cage.”  Belos said, holding out one gloved hand.

Hunter took an involuntary step backwards.  “No.”

“Don’t be silly, Hunter.  There is nowhere to go.  Bring me the cage.”

Hunter held it tighter.  “You can’t have it.”

“So you brought home a palisman.  A relic from the savage ages.  It is normal for a boy your age to experiment with wild magic.  I understand, and I will forgive you in time.” Belos inclined his head to gaze down at Hunter through the holes in his mask.   “But wild magic is dangerous.  I have told you that often enough, but you are too young to understand fully what that means.  One day you will understand why I must take your little toy away from you before it corrupts you fully.  Now I ask one more time.  Bring me the cage.”

Hunter turned away from his uncle and focused instead on his palisman, who was watching him carefully.  They didn’t seem distressed or scared at all.  They just watched him through the bars.  Trusting him, even now.

A distant part of Hunter realized what his uncle was doing.  Belos didn’t just want Rascal.  He wanted Hunter to be the one to give him Rascal.  He wanted to test Hunter’s loyalty.  That’s the only reason his palisman was still alive.  His uncle could have destroyed the little cardinal hours ago, but he was a patient man, content to wait.  He had given Hunter the cage and was now demanding it back.  It was a test.  Or perhaps it was a power move.  Either way, Hunter knew he was not going to win.

Hunter’s eyes drifted up to look at Raine, who was standing behind Belos, out of sight of the Emperor’s mask.  They twirled a finger in the air, tracing a magic circle, and Hunter felt the cage in his hands disappearing from the bottom up as a beam of yellow light slithered up its length, before the whole thing disappeared completely.  The palisman and the cage were gone, leaving Hunter’s hands empty.  Well, empty except for the lute that is.  For some reason he still held that.  From the other side of the room, Raine smiled, but that smile would be short-lived.  The Abomaton soldier stretched its arm out towards them.  Raine shuffled gracelessly backwards as it approached.  They twirled their finger in the air, probably attempting to summon their violin, but they were still weak from the first time they were captured.  They stumbled, and the abomination wrapped around them once more, trapping their arms against their sides, though this time mercifully keeping clear of their nose and mouth.

“You disappoint me, Hunter.”  Belos said, fixing his calm gaze on his nephew.  “I fear that you have strayed too far from the Titan’s path.”

“I don’t believe the Titan would want this.”  Hunter said, looking his uncle straight in the eyes.  Or what little of the eyes he could see behind the mask.  It felt good to speak up like this.  He never would have dared before.

Belos stared at him for a long moment.  It was impossible to tell what he was thinking behind that mask, but Hunter suspected that he wouldn’t be able to read his expression either way.  Finally the Emperor held up one hand, and two more Abomaton soldiers marched out of the inner-throne room, joined by the one that held Raine Whispers.  

“You will spend the night in the dungeon.”  Belos said, his gentle voice contrasting with his not-at-all gentle words.  “You have until tomorrow to come to your senses, or I will help you come to them.  I have– methods– of ensuring cooperation.  But you know that, don’t you, Hunter?”

Hunter jerked his arm away from the Abomaton Soldier as it reached for him.  “I can walk.  I know the way.”

Belos considered him for a long moment.  “Very well.  You may walk alongside Head Witch Whispers.  Do take care of them, won’t you?  I fear that these Abomatons may become–careless–if provoked.”  

There was a clear threat behind his words, and Hunter understood his meaning well enough.  Any attempt to escape and Raine would be killed.  He gripped his lute tightly in his hand as he walked silently out of the room, flanked by the three Abamaton soldiers, one of them holding tightly to a captive Raine Whispers.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Sir!”  The coven guard saluted Hunter as they entered the dungeons.  “Whispers again?  Their cell is ready, sir.”

Hunter glanced at the guard with mild amusement.  The poor guy obviously hadn’t been briefed.  All the guard knew was what he saw in front of him; The Golden Guard accompanying a prisoner to their cell.  Which is why he looked so shocked when the Abomaton deposited Raine on the floor of the cell and then ushered Hunter in behind them.  The guard looked from Hunter to the Abomaton to the door and back again, clearly unsure of what to do.  It probably would have been a great opportunity for him to talk his way out of here, if it weren’t for the three abomination soldiers who were standing behind him and the exit, looking ready to pounce.  So escape wasn’t an option, but this was still a golden opportunity, so to speak.

Hunter stood a little ways back from the doorway, watching the guard through the open door.  He felt a little sorry for the guy, though not enough to squander his advantage.  He looked around the room confidently, as if this had been his plan all along.  “Yes, this will do nicely.  You there!  Whispers and I will spend the night in this cell.  We require beds, pillows, bedding, and a warm meal.  I will call if I require anything further.  Dismissed.”

The guard looked at him through the open door, face hidden by his hooded mask, but his body language was hesitant and unsure.  “Sir?  I, umm, I am required to confiscate your weapon.”

Hunter looked down at the lute in his hand.  “That will not be necessary.  Do close the door though, and report back once you have acquired the items I requested.”

“Impressive.”  Raine said behind him as the door closed.  Their voice was still a little raspy from being nearly suffocated by the Abomaton earlier, but they looked mostly recovered.

Hunter listened carefully as the guard scampered off to complete his errands.  He didn’t hear the Abomatons leaving, but he guessed that would be too much to hope for.  “Where did you send Rascal?”  He finally got to ask the question that he had been wondering.

“Your palisman?  They’re safe.”  Raine said.  “I sent them to the same place where I keep all the instruments that I summon.  Eda knows where that is, she’ll find them.”

He handed Raine the lute.  “Can you do anything with this?”

They plucked one string and looked around the room curiously as the air shimmered out from them in a wave, reaching the far corners of the room before bouncing back again.  “Not much.”  They admitted with a sigh.  “The walls are reinforced against magic.  So anything I do is limited to inside this room.  I could do a few small things, but nothing that will help us escape.  There is a listening spell in here though.”

Hunter nodded.  So it was possible that they were being listened to; that made sense.  He gave himself an internal reminder not to say anything out loud that he wouldn’t want his uncle to know about.  Which was most things, if he was being honest with himself, but he could hardly just keep quiet for a full day.  Best to focus on what’s important; no discussing anything relating to the rebellion.

Raine brought their skeleton key necklace out from under their tunic and tapped it, making direct eye contact as they did so.  Hunter understood immediately.  Belos wasn’t the only one listening to their conversation.  Eda was as well.  She was probably on the warpath, if he was to hazard a guess.  He hoped that she wouldn’t try anything too rash.  They were safe in here until tomorrow, at least.

Raine looked around the room.  “Have I been here before?”

“Yes.”  Hunter said, a familiar wave of guilt clutching around his stomach.  “The day that we erased your memories.  It looks a lot bigger with only the two of us in here.”

Raine sagged against the wall and plucked absent-mindedly at the strings of the lute.  “Lovely.”

“Sir?”  The coven guard was back.  The door was unlocked with the squeak of a heavy bolt and rusty hinges.  Hunter caught a glimpse of the three abomination guards still standing watch between him and the exit.  He had no staff and no glyphs, so it was hardly a window of opportunity.  “I brought the items you asked for.  The meal trays are being made and will be delivered promptly.”

The guard deposited two standard-issue fold-up cots and two bedrolls on the floor of the cell.  He then stood there awkwardly.  He still clearly hadn’t been briefed on the situation and had limited information.

“Thank you.”  Hunter said.  “Your superiors will receive my commendation.”

“Uhh, sir?  You are my superior.”

“Of course.  You have my commendation.”

The guard positively preened.  “Thank you sir!”

Hunter stood there awkwardly.  “You may go.”

“Of course, sir!  Thank you, sir!”

Hunter ignored Raine’s smirk as he got to work setting up the cots.  Standard issue; he’d done this hundreds of times before, so he waved off their offer to help and had the room set up comfortably in no time.  At least, more so than it was before.  

Raine sighed happily as they flopped down on one of the cots, leaning casually against the wall.  “That’s better.”  They started plucking out a tune with the lute; a warm glow seeping outwards from it, making Hunter feel oddly weightless.  “I’m sorry I got you into this.”  They said as they played.

Hunter shook his head forcefully.  “You didn’t.  If anything you got me out of it.  If it weren’t for you I would still be up there in that throne room.  I would have given him Rascal and I would have begged him for forgiveness and I would have accepted my punishment because I would have thought that everything that happened had been my fault.”  Part of him knew that his uncle might be listening to that.  Part of him didn’t care.  Let uncle listen.  He didn’t say anything that wasn’t true.

Raine swallowed heavily, a look of heavy emotion on their face.  “Nothing that happened is your fault, Hunter.”

“You keep saying that.”  Hunter said, and sank down onto the cot next to Raine, careful not to bump their arms so as to leave the music uninterrupted.  

“And I’ll keep saying it until you believe it.”

Hunter leaned his head back against the wall, staring blankly at the ceiling for a moment.  His shoulder was pressed up against Raine’s, which felt nice.  Something that he didn’t know he’d been missing opened up inside him, and he leaned his head down onto Raine’s shoulder.

Raine shifted to lean a little closer against him, tilting their own head to the side to rest against the top of Hunter’s head.  Throughout this whole exchange their fingers never missed a note.  Neither one said anything for a long moment, they just sat there, leaning against one another.  Hunter had to admit that this was nice.  He’d never gotten to be this close to an adult before, or anybody, for that matter.  He’d always thought that was normal; to never be touched, never be comforted.  He knew other kids got those things growing up, but he’d always seen that as somehow separate from himself; as if he didn’t need it because he was a soldier, not a kid.  Part of him probably felt like he didn’t deserve it.  It was a relatively new feeling to realize that the reason he had never been a normal kid is because the opportunity had been removed from him, and not something innate or different about him.

So here he was, sitting in the dungeon of the Emperor’s castle, getting the first parental affection in, well…forever, probably.  Somehow, even in this locked cell, he felt more liberated than he ever had before.  

Eventually the crick in his neck started to get too hard to ignore, and he suspected that Raine was just too polite to admit that playing the lute was difficult from this angle, so at last Hunter pulled away, scooting a short distance away and resting his arms on his knees.  

“Here.”  Raine said, handing over the lute.  “Your turn.”

Hunter held it awkwardly in his lap and plucked at the strings.  He couldn’t make anything resembling a melody out of it, certainly nothing like Raine could, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.  “How long until my fingers don’t hurt?”

“A couple months.  Maybe never.  Try alternating your index and middle finger.”  Raine replied.  They held up their necklace once again so he could see it.  A clear reminder that Eda could hear them, could pass on messages to the rest of the crew.  “I wish we’d spent more time on goodbyes when we left.  What would you tell them if you could?”

Hunter looked sideways at them.  Subtlety was not their strongpoint.  “I don’t know.  Thank you, I guess.  For giving me a second chance.  And a third chance.  And probably a few more after that.  It’s hard to keep track.”

“That’s it?  Just thank you?  Hold your left elbow higher.”

Hunter shifted his arms around the lute.  “What else is there to say?”

“Anything you want.  Imagine this is your last opportunity.”

Hunter understood their meaning well enough.  This may well be his last opportunity.  “I think I could have enjoyed myself at the Owl House.”  He mused.  “I had my bedroom all picked out.  I’d like to sleep up on top of the tower.  It’s nice up there, it’s peaceful.  I could take a cot up there, I could be happy.  I don’t think I’ve ever been happy before.”

Raine looked over at him, a mournful look on their face.  

“What about you?  What would you say?”  Hunter asked quickly.  He didn’t want Raine feeling sorry for him.

Raine thought for a minute.  “I think I’d tell Amber that it’s okay to slow down sometimes.  She’s such a powerhouse that I think she forgets that she can turn it all off when she needs to.  And I’d tell Katya that her imagination is her greatest asset, and that she should never feel that she needs to hide it.  And I’d tell Derwin that he doesn’t have to be everything for everyone, it’s okay to take some time for himself sometimes.”  Raine spoke into their necklace, and somehow Hunter understood that they were saying their final goodbyes.  He kept quiet as Raine continued to speak.  “And I’d tell Luz and King that I’m sorry I never got to get to know them, but that Eda has changed so much because of them and I believe that they’re the two best things that could ever have happened to her.”

Hunter had stopped plucking at the strings and a heavy silence descended on the cell.  He tried to imagine what Eda was doing as she listened to Raine’s words.  Was she crowded around the table of the Owl House with the rest of the gang, listening together?  Or was it just her, hiding away somewhere and trying not to get too torn up over everything that had happened?  Or was she on her way here right now, her eyes full of fury?  He hoped it wasn’t that last one.  She was terrifying and all, but she wouldn’t stand a chance past the castle walls.

“And what would you tell Eda?”  Hunter asked at last.

“I’d tell Eda that I love her.”  Raine responded easily, speaking into the necklace, but then their expression changed to sudden panic.  “Of course, if I did that then I would immediately start freaking out until I could hear what she had to say back because I’d have nothing to do but get in my own head and imagine that I’d just messed things up with her.”  They groaned and drew their knees up towards themself, wrapping their arms around their legs and hiding their head.

Hunter snorted and started plucking at the lute again.  

“What’s so funny?”  Raine mumbled without lifting their head up from their knees.

“It’s just if I grow old and fall in love, I hope I’m not so stupid about it.”  Hunter said, which may have been a bit harsh, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t the truth.

“Love is more complicated than you think it is.”  Raine said, bringing their head up and leaning it back against the wall.

“Well, what’s so complicated about it?”

“Loving someone is the easy part.”  Raine mused, staring blankly at the ceiling.  “But then you have to start thinking about a lot of other things too.  Like where you both are in life and how equally you’re sharing the emotional burden and how much of yourself you have to give up to be with the other person.  When you’re a teenager all of that seems so much less important.  But then when you grow up you realize that it’s the most important thing of all.  And that you deserve to be with someone who brings you up, even if that means walking away.  And then you realize that loving someone is not so easy after all, because walking away is the hardest thing that you’ll ever have to do.”

Hunter let his fingers fall still on the strings of the lute, considering what Raine had just said.  That did sound needlessly complicated; they weren’t really selling him on this whole love idea.  That bit about how hard it was to walk away struck a chord with him, though of course his situation was very different from theirs.  “And do you think that things would be different now, if you started over again with her?”

“I’d like to have the opportunity to find out.”  Raine glanced sideways at him.  “I really should be talking about this with another adult.”

“Well, you don’t have another adult, you have me.”  Hunter said.

“Yeah.  I have you.”  Raine shifted closer to him and nudged him affectionately with one elbow.  “And I am glad you’re here.  Well, not glad you’re here , of course.  I wish you were safe but…you know what I mean.”

“Yeah.”  Hunter muttered, and held the lute loosely in front of him.  “Me too.”

Both witches leaned their heads back and blankly at the ceiling.  There wasn’t much to look at down in this dungeon.  There wasn’t really much more to talk about either.  They’d said everything they could say.  Now there wasn’t much to do except wait.  Wait for what?  Hunter didn’t know, but he couldn’t imagine it would be pleasant.  But for now, somehow down here in the dungeon of the Emperor’s palace, he felt at peace.

 

Chapter Text

 

A bang, a thump.  The scrape of iron, the jingle of keys.  

Hunter awoke, momentarily confused.  He reached for his staff, but his hand scraped against cold rock instead.  Where was he?  He swung his feet out of bed, only to find himself on an army cot.  Standard issue, he’d slept on one of these hundreds of times.  Was he on a mission for the Emperor?

He blinked heavily to clear the sleep out of his eyes and saw Raine across the room.  Sitting on the other cot, one hand on the lute beside them, watching the door suspiciously.

Oh yeah.  He was in the dungeon.  He was a traitor to the Emperor.  It was the Day of Unity.

Those were all things that he probably shouldn’t forget.  

The cell door opened and Head Witch Thrombin, leader of the Healing Coven, entered the room.  She was wearing her formal attire, which included a hugely impractical cowl.  She had to be careful while entering the room so as not to bump it on the doorway.  

Raine frowned when they saw her.  “Hello Venus.”

She gave a jerk of her head.  “Hello Raine.”  She didn’t look at all happy to be here.  “You and the Golden Guard have both been summoned to the throne room.”

“I have no intention of going willingly.”  They said; their body language was calm and relaxed, in stark contrast to their words.

“It will be easier for you if you do.”  She replied simply.  “There’s a reason that Emperor Belos chose me to fetch you.”

“Are you going to erase my memories again?” Raine asked calmly.

She shook her head.  “There will be no need for that.  As a healer I am perfectly capable of putting you in a simple trance.  It will make you both very suggestible. You will come along willingly.”

“Willingly?  It seems you have a very loose definition of the word.  Didn’t you swear an oath when you became a healer?  I seem to remember that there is something in there about doing no harm.”

“Don’t presume that you know more about the Healer’s oath than I do!”  She hissed.  “I am a witch of principle.  I take my oath very seriously.”

“Remind me then.”  Raine said with a smirk.  “What did your oath say about irretrievably scrambling somebody’s brain?”

“Oh, don’t be dramatic.”  She placed her hands on her hips.  “How irretrievable could it have been if I am sitting here talking to you?”

Raine’s face twisted into a look of outrage.  They tightened their grip on the neck of the lute.  “Dramatic?”  They hissed.  “You erased my memories!”

Thrombin waved a hand dismissively.  “ I did not.  Darius and Augury did.  What I did was a simple case of harm reduction.  It would have been much worse for you if I hadn’t been there.  Now, let’s get started.  It will be easier if the two of you are facing me.  You, Golden Guard!  Come stand against the wall.”

Raine plucked one string of the lute.  It came as a bit of a surprise to her, considering the lute was still laying on the cot beside them.  The air shimmered and a wave rolled out across the room; she hissed and took a step backwards as it struck her.  “You stay away from him.”  They warned.

“It is the Titan’s will.”  She gasped, holding one hand to her side.  It appears that whatever Raine had done with the lute must have caused a bit of discomfort for her.  Good.

“No it’s not the Titan’s will, none of this is.”  Hunter spoke up at last.  “The Emperor doesn’t speak for the Titan; he just says he does loudly enough and people start to believe him.”

“Ah, Hunter.”  As if on cue, Belos appeared in the doorway of the cell.  The door was high, but Belos still had to stoop to fit through.  “I see you still haven’t come to your senses.  Pity.  I was so hoping that I would be able to share my victory with you.”

Raine and Hunter both scrambled to their feet, just as Head Witch Thrombin dropped down to one knee.  

“This is no victory.”  Hunter growled.

“Your Grace.”  Thrombin said from her place kneeling on the floor.  “I was just about to start the spell.”

“Yes, don’t mind me, I came to observe.”  Belos said calmly from behind his mask.  “The last spell was not done to my satisfaction so I feel that it is better if I directly supervise you this time.”

“Sir!  The memory spell worked!  I checked it myself, I promise you…”  Thrombin said from her spot on the floor.  Belos still had not given her permission to rise.  

“Clearly it did not.”  Belos said mildly.

A heavy silence descended on the cell.  Raine still held their lute, eyes darting from Hunter to the open door again, but Hunter wasn’t so naive.  He knew there was no escaping.

“Well, go on.”  Belos said at last.  “What are you waiting for?”

“Sir.”  Thrombin said, climbing stiffly up from the floor.  She licked her lips nervously under her cowl and glanced around the room.  Raine was still on one side of her while Hunter was on the other.  “I will need them both to stand together to do this, facing me.”

“Very well.”  Belos said, and reached one hand out to the side, towards Raine, who plucked out a cadence on their lute.  For a moment it looked like they were at a standstill.  Raine had a small forcefield in front of them, bracing their feet on the floor to hold back against the Emperor’s magic as he tried to push them towards the center of the room.  

But this was never a battle that they were going to win.  Belos clenched his fist, bringing the sharp fingers of his metal gauntlet in towards his palm.  Raine’s forcefield shattered and they gasped as an invisible force gripped them tightly.  For a moment they tried to keep playing the lute, but Belos twisted his hand, and the instrument shattered, sending splinters of sharp wood into their palm and a few drops of blood pattering to the floor.

Belos raised his arm into the air and from across the room Raine was lifted into the air, gasping and clawing at their throat as the air was squeezed out from their lungs.

“No!  Leave them alone!”  Hunter yelled, and ran at his uncle.  He didn’t have a staff or a glyph and he couldn’t do magic, so all that was left to do was pound at his uncle’s cloak with his bare hands.  Part of him realized that this was foolish of him; a teenager with his rage and his fists wasn’t going to phase the most powerful witch in the Boiling Isles.  But he didn’t care.  Seeing Raine suspended in the air, seeing his lute splintered on the ground, remembering Rascal in that cage…something broke inside of him.  He suddenly didn’t care if he ever got out of this room.  All he wanted to do was rage.

“Enough!”  Belos roared, and flung his arm outwards.  He didn’t even have to use magic this time.  Hunter was thrown backwards.  He tried to catch himself but stumbled over the cot; his shoulder hit the stone wall with a painful crack.

“You have failed me, Hunter.”  Belos said, advancing on him.

Hunter tried to stand up, but he was winded, and he seemed unable to move his left arm.  He glared at his uncle instead.  “And what about all the ways you failed me?  I was a child.  I still am a child.  You took that away from me.  I will never be able to get that back.” 

Belos held one arm out towards his nephew.  His arm grew, like an abomination, or like a tree branch, but somehow sharper and more menacing than either of those things.  It split in two right before it reached Hunter’s neck, so he was pinned in between it and the wall.  He heard the sound of stone chipping on either side of his head as his uncle’s mutated arm pierced the wall.  Hunter forced himself to stay perfectly still, keenly aware of how sharp those things were.  He’d been on the wrong side of them before.

“Whispers has been filling your head with such nonsense.”  Belos said, his calm voice contrasting strongly with his aggressive pose.  “You are my nephew, you are a soldier.  You are nothing more than that, and it would be best for you to remember it before you stray any further from the Titan’s path.”

“That will be quite enough of that.”  Head Witch Thrombin spoke with a surprising amount of authority, considering the circumstances.  She stood in front of Belos and shooed his arm away from Hunter.  “An autonomic stress response will make my spell much more difficult to perform.  The subjects need to be relaxed for it to work.  This will delay things considerably.”

Belos looked at her from behind his mask, considering her carefully.  There was a long moment of silence, which weighed heavily on the room, especially after the events that had just transpired.  “Very well.”  The Emperor stepped back at last, pulling his arm back into his body.  He brought his artificial staff out from under his cloak and leaned on it heavily, standing out of the way even as he watched her carefully.  “Proceed.”

Thrombin knelt in front of Hunter and he flinched away from her as she reached out towards him.  “Don’t be silly.”  She told him gently.  “Your clavicle is fractured.  You must let me heal it.”

“Don’t…trust you.”  Hunter said through gritted teeth, gripping his arm against his body.

“Hunter?”  Raine had crept over to kneel beside him.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m great.”  Hunter gave them an ironic sort of grin.  An obvious lie.  “How are you?”

“Just peachy.”  Raine lied back, and the two witches smiled at one another.  “You may as well let Venus heal you.  She may have questionable morals, but she is the best healer in the Boiling Isles.  She knows what to do with a broken bone.”

“I will if you will.”  Hunter said weakly.  Raine still held their hand cupped in front of them.  Blood oozed from between their fingers where the lute had splintered against their flesh.  

Raine nodded.  “You first.”  They two witches reached out with their uninjured arms to clasp hands.  Belos wouldn’t be able to see that, since Thrombin was kneeling in front of them, which Hunter was glad of.  Let him have this small bit of relief without the Emperor leveraging it against him.  He couldn’t help but notice just how comforted he felt to feel Raine’s fingers against his palm.

Head Witch Thrombin, who was looking none too impressed by Raine’s quip about her morals, drew a magic circle across Hunter’s chest.  Hunter gripped Raine’s fingers tightly and hissed through his teeth against the pain as he felt his bone re-aligning.  There was a crack, a shift, a stab of pain, and then it was gone.  He sagged against the wall, forcing himself to relax.  He could feel the healer’s magic coursing through his body.  It did feel good, he had to admit; cool and soothing.  It tingled against the scar on his face and his missing tooth and the gash on his ear.  It crept down his body, finding a scar on his upper arm, another on his belly, and still more on his knee.  It found other wounds too, long since healed, many of which he’d forgotten about.  The time the fingers of his hand had been crushed.  The time he had broken his ankle and walked on it for two days before finally seeking medical attention for it.  The time he had fallen off his staff and hit a tree branch on the way down.  The time he’d gotten trapped by flesh-eating nettles.  The time he’d been locked outside in the boiling rain.  Thrombin’s magic found them all.  She made a disapproving sound in the back of her throat as she worked.

And then her magic found the coven tattoo on his wrist.  Or at least, the place where the coven tattoo used to be.  Hunter flinched and tried to draw away, but it was too late.  She grabbed his hand and turned it so his wrist was facing upwards.  She frowned and rubbed the temporary tattoo on his wrist with her thumb, and then raised her eyes to meet his.  “Interesting.”  She mumbled to herself.

She reached towards Raine’s hand, but they drew back, watching her suspiciously.  She scoffed and grabbed their hand anyway, pulling it in towards herself.  She made short work of healing the wound on their palm, and then examined the temporary tattoo on their wrist, turning it this way and that and rubbing her thumb over it thoughtfully.  

At last she sat back on her heels so she could examine the two of them.  “Very interesting.”

“Is something wrong, Head Witch Thrombin?”  Belos asked from behind her.  Hunter felt a surge of panic and gripped tighter onto Raine’s hand.  He searched Thrombin’s face, silently pleading with her to not say anything about the tattoo.  She hesitated for a moment, considering her options.

“The boy shows evidence of childhood abuse, possibly ongoing.  I am a mandated reporter.  This will have to be investigated.”

“I assure you, no such abuse exists.  He has always been treated well in my care.”  Belos sounded entirely unconcerned.  “He always has been clumsy though.  Perhaps that is what you are detecting.”

“Yes, that must be it.”  Thrombin said, looking at Hunter thoughtfully.  She did not look at all convinced, but if she had any doubts then at least she had the good sense to keep quiet about it.

“Are you ready to cast your spell, Head Witch?”  Belos asked after a moment.

“Venus, remember your healer’s oath.”  Raine said softly.

“Need I remind you that you also swore an oath to me?”  Belos said behind her.

“I bet you never imagined that swearing an oath to the Emperor would mean you have to forgo your oath to the Healer’s Guild.”  Raine said.

“Careful, Whispers.”  Belos said menacingly.  “I only have use for you until the end of the day, so I suggest you try harder to gain my favour.”

Raine smiled grimly.  “I believe that ship has already sailed.”

“I am waiting, Head Witch Thrombin.”  Belos said.

“Head Witch…”  Hunter whispered.  His voice was small and unsure.  “Please?”

She chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, clearly wrestling with her conscience, before giving a dramatic sigh.  “Yes, I am ready to perform the spell.”

“Very good.  Go on then.”

Thrombin stood up, positioning herself in front of Hunter and Raine.  She was tall, with a hooded cowl and a broad cloak so she was able to keep them well hidden from the Emperor’s view.  She drew a spell circle in the air.  There was a flash of light, and Raine flinched beside him, but nothing else happened.  “There.”  She announced.  “It is done.  You are under a trance.  It will only last until the end of the day, but in that time you will be suggestible; you will follow orders.”

Hunter looked down at his hand, and then over at Raine, who was similarly blinking and looking confused.  He didn’t feel like he was in a trance.  Is this what it was supposed to feel like?  He opened his mouth to ask a question, then closed it again.  Did she just lie to the Emperor?  Good for her.

Raine licked their lips nervously and nodded at her, then took a slow breath and brought a blank expression onto their face.  It came relatively quickly; they had been practicing that look over the last few days.  Hunter attempted to do the same.  They squeezed his fingers encouragingly and let go of his hand and they both brought their hands meekly into their laps.

“Stand up.”  She ordered.  Hunter obeyed, and felt Raine doing the same beside him.  So far this act wasn’t too difficult to keep up.  So far.

“There.  I have done my part.  I want no more to do with this ugly business.”  She turned away, looking disgusted.  

“Step forward, Whispers.”  Belos said, watching Raine carefully as they followed instructions.  “Now step back.  Now turn around.  Now say ‘I am not worthy.’”

“I am not worthy.”  Raine repeated.

“Good, good.”  The Emperor seemed pleased.  “Now Hunter, your turn.”

“We do need to get going.”  Thrombin reminded him.  “The Day of Unity is about to start.”

“Of course.”  Belos said calmly.  “Come along, Hunter.  You too, Whispers.”

Hunter followed his uncle out of the dungeon, followed by Raine and Head Witch Thrombin.  The guard, the same one who had brought him the cots yesterday, was standing near the abomination soldiers, his head bowed.  He handed Raine their cloak with trembling hands and then gave Hunter his helmet, staff, and cape.  Hunter felt sorry for the guy; he hoped he hadn’t gotten him into too much trouble with the Emperor.

Hunter followed his uncle as they walked the hallways of the palace.  His face was blank behind his mask, but his mind was reeling.  Okay, so Thrombin had lied to the Emperor.  Had told him that she was putting the two prisoners in a trance when she actually hadn’t.  That was…nice of her.  Or well, maybe nice was the wrong word.  Still, he did have to admit that she had been in a tough position and of the two bad options she had, she chose to betray the Emperor.  Ballsy.  

None of that meant that she was on their side though..  She knew about the coven tattoos, so she was holding one of their secrets.  He’d have to be careful of her.

So now what?  This place was crawling with guards.  He had his staff, but he didn’t dare try anything with Belos watching him so closely.  It did seem odd that he would get his staff back after everything that had happened.  Did his uncle really trust Thrombin’s spell that much?  Belos had never been a trusting man, so why start now?  Oddly, he found himself missing his cell.  Things were simpler back there.  At least back in the cell he had a meal, and a bed, and his lute.

His lute.  Smashed up to bits.  It probably wasn’t the worst thing that would happen today, objectively speaking, but still.  That hurt.  

Were Eda and the gang still planning a rebellion, even after everything that happened?  Probably.  Not that he had any way of knowing what they had planned.  He hoped it wouldn’t be anything too foolish.

So there wasn’t much to do except to march onwards, footsteps echoing along the walls.  The Day of Unity had arrived.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Witches and Demons of the Boiling Isles!”  Belos spoke triumphantly, his voice echoing proudly to every corner of the throne room.  “For too long we have lived under the dark shadow of the Savage Ages.  For too long we have been influenced by false prophets.  By those who would divide us.  Those who would seek to harm us.”

Hunter risked a glance around the room.  No sign of Eda and the rebellion.  Rows of masked, hooded coven guards were lined up along both sides of the room, shoulder to shoulder.  He’d seen more on his way in.  This place was heavily guarded. Belos either knew or suspected there would be a plot; he had prepared.  Hunter almost wished that he could warn Eda and the gang to stay away.  It was too risky.

Raine stood silently with the other coven leaders, hood pulled up to obscure their face.  Hunter didn’t have a hood, but at least he wore his Golden Guard mask, so his expression was easier to conceal.

“Well today our wait is over.  For today is the Day of Peace.  The Day of Solidarity.  The Day of Unity!”  The Emperor turned dramatically and raised one gauntlet to the sky, creating an impressive profile for the BBN News camera that was pointed in his direction.  “Coven Leaders, step forward.”

Raine followed the other eight coven leaders as they took their medallion off their cloak and placed it down on the stone graphic in front of the throne.  Eight medallions flashed with eight bursts of light as eight streams of magic spiraled outwards from the center of the graphic.  The ninth, the one representing the Bard Coven, fizzled a few times and then went out.  

Belos turned towards the camera, it looked as though he was expecting this.  “People of the Boiling Isles.  It seems that we have an unbeliever in our midst.  One who doubts the power of the Titan.  One who has been tempted by the darkness.  Head Witch Raine Whispers.  Please step forward.”

Raine obeyed, stepping away from the rest of the coven leaders and standing meekly before the Emperor, their head bowed.  From his place at Kikimora’s side, Hunter gripped his staff tighter.  His training staff felt odd, somehow; he missed Rascal.  But it was all he had and he would use it to bring this whole place down around him if he needed to.

“Head Witch Whispers, Leader of the Bard Coven, you have been seduced by wild magic.  It has led you astray of the Titan’s path.  It is time to come back into the light.”  Belos lifted one hand dramatically, the sharp fingers of his gauntlet twisting to form a claw.  A sheet of magical blue flames shot out from the floor.  

Belos turned to address the camera straight on.  “The Titan is a generous god.  He has chosen to bestow mercy upon the Head Witch, providing they agree to cleanse themself of wild magic’s corrupting influence.  Head Witch Whispers, step into the light, and accept the Titan into yourself.”

Hunter felt a stab of fear.  His uncle had this planned all along, hadn’t he?  That whole trance thing that Belos had Head Witch Thrombin cast was all a ruse.  Or maybe he was simply testing her loyalty.  Either way, he didn’t need it; trance or no trance he was going to usher Raine into the fire.  He was going to kill them.

“There is nothing to fear from the Titan’s flame.  For the worthy shall emerge on the other side, unscathed.”  Belos continued.

The worthy shall emerge… Hunter knew what that meant.  The flame would consume Raine and the Emperor would be able to claim that it only happened because they were not worthy of being saved.  He would do this all on live television, watched by everybody across the Boiling Isles, and he’d probably get away with it too.  Nobody would stop him.

No, that wasn’t right.  Hunter would stop him.  He wasn’t going to stand and watch this time.  He would do something, even if it killed him.  Raine looked like they were resisting; as though something invisible was pushing them from behind.  They dug their heels into the floor, but couldn’t help taking a small step forward as whatever magic was pushing them became harder to resist.

Hunter had seen enough.  He had no plan, but the time to act was now.  He stepped forward, gripping his staff, just as a flash of red and the sound of flapping wings appeared above him.  It was Eda, in her harpy-beast form.  Where she had come from, Hunter couldn’t fathom a guess, but she was here now, in all her glory.  Tall and graceful and elegant and more than a little bit terrifying, she swooped down and snatched Raine out from the Emperor’s grasp.

Eda pumped her wings, bringing her and Raine up towards the ceiling and there, among the rafters and the pipes and the Emperor’s giant beating heart, she twirled around slowly, drifting in a lazy spiral.  For all Raine’s stage fright, they didn’t seem to mind making a performance of it now.  They wrapped their arms around her and kissed her, then kissed her again, as Eda curved her wings forward, wingtips loosely touching as she formed the shape of a heart around them.  It was all very theatrical, and the BBN news cameraman seemed to think so as well.  

The whole encounter only lasted a few seconds before Eda perched on one of the pipes high up near the top of the room, one arm around Raine, wings out for balance.  

Belos waited calmly for the camera to pan back down to him again.  “Demons and Gentlewitches, it appears that the corruption in the Bard Coven runs deeper than I feared.  We must come together to purge the darkness from within.  Only then can we all unite under a single leader.  Seize them!”

The coven guards around the perimeter stepped forward as one, gripping their staffs.  Eberwolf crouched down on their haunches, Kikimora raised one claw.  At least Hunter could do something about one of those things.  He used his staff to swipe the feet out from under Kikimora.  That felt good.

Well, he’d succeeded in drawing attention to himself, if nothing else.  Best not stick around, especially since Kikimora was scrambling to her feet, looking outraged.  Hunter gleefully mounted his staff.  Training staff or no, he was well-practiced with it.  He accessed its magic, ordering it to teleport upwards.

Unfortunately for Hunter, the staff did not cooperate.   Did not cooperate being a bit of an understatement.  The thing started to hiss, and vibrate.  Red magic darted out of it and up his hands.  Too late he realized what had happened.  The Emperor had been in possession of it for almost a full day, that was more than enough time to tamper with it.  Belos had set a trap, and Hunter had walked right into it.

He tried to fight it, but the red magic crept up his arms towards his shoulders, holding him tight.  He twitched, and tried to yank his arm away but the magic spread, darting up his body like bolts of electricity.  It wasn’t quite the same magic, but it did remind him of the red vines that had trapped Raine on the floor of the dungeon.  And wasn’t that an unpleasant thought.

“It appears that the affliction that plagues the Bard Coven is spreading.  Our own Golden Guard has been affected.  We must act quickly to repair this before it infects anybody else.”  The Emperor said, as Hunter twitched and fell to his knees.  This hurt .

Dimly, Hunter could hear the flapping of wings and an outraged screech above him.  That would be Eda, trying to reach him, but there were too many powerful witches in the way.  The other coven leaders were throwing everything they had at her; Darius was in his abomination form while Eberwolf had transformed into something truly grotesque.  For such a small beast, they sure could jump high.   The Leader of the Plant Coven seemed to be using her vines as an extension of her own limbs, growing to stand probably twenty feet tall and reaching out to grab at the harpy beast with thorny fingers.  She almost succeeded a few times, and a scattering of grey feathers drifted down to the floor in front of Hunter.  

Fall back!   Hunter wanted to yell, but the staff’s magic held him tight.  Through the sizzling red haze that enveloped him he could see another battle happening further off in the room.  It looked like Luz and King and Amity and Katya and Amber and Derwin and Willow and Gus and–were those the Blight twins?  They must have snuck in disguised as coven soldiers.  Hunter frowned.  Not a single adult in the group.  At least they were doing some serious damage over there, but they had a lot of coven guards to overtake if they wanted to pull this off.  

There was a commotion above him; he couldn’t fight the magic that held him, but he did manage to tilt his head upwards so he could see what was happening up there.  There was a second harpy beast, a black one.  Was that…Lilly?  He watched her for a moment as she twisted and dipped and dodged in the air.  She was bigger than Eda; her feathers were black and grey and maybe a bit of orange.  Yep, definitely Lilly.  Had she learned how to make a harpy beast now too?  Cool.

Raine was up there too.  They had their violin out, though Hunter couldn’t see or hear what they were doing with it.  They were standing on some sort of pipe up near the Emperor’s giant, beating heart.  Hunter dimly remembered that they were supposed to play their spell to erase the coven tattoos of people all across the Boiling Isles.  That must be what they were doing now, though it was too noisy to hear anything.  Would the spell still work?

Hunter wanted to help his friends.  Wanted to help his family .  He wanted to be free from this prison.  But whatever this magic was emanating from his staff was pretty powerful.  He was still stuck tight.  He couldn’t help but feel betrayed by the staff.  He’d had some mixed feelings about this staff ever since he found out it was a training staff, but still, it was his.   It had served him well, up until now.  He clenched his eyes tightly shut as a surge of anger bubbled up in his chest.  Anger at the Emperor.  Anger at his uncle.  He had done this.

Why must you take away everything I love?   He wasn’t sure if he had yelled that last part.  He’d tried to, but his teeth were still clenched together.  His heart was beating in his ears and when he forced his eyes open he saw something unexpected.  An image; a memory.  His memory.  Projected for all to see.  Ordinarily he wouldn’t want anybody seeing this, but dammit, if this was the only thing that he could do right now, then he was bloody well going to do it.

He was a child in this memory; five, maybe six years old.  He was playing quietly beside his uncle’s chair.  He had a small toy, a doll, crude and hand-made.  He was making the doll ride on a stick, as if it was a palisman staff.  He went a little too high, and bumped his toy into the armrest of his uncle’s chair.  The doll was knocked out of his hand and rolled in front of his uncle’s foot.  He looked nervously from his uncle to the doll and back again, before hesitantly reaching forward for his toy.  Belos, with barely a glance downwards, stepped his foot down onto the small boy’s hand, grinding his heel down into the floor.  The child gave a scream and brought his twisted hand in towards himself, his fingers unnaturally warped upwards.  Throughout this whole event, Belos never once looked down at him.

Hunter painfully brought himself back from that memory.  Somehow he’d forgotten that there was a battle happening around him.  Forgotten about Eda and Raine and Luz and even Kikimora.  He risked a glance upwards to see what was happening, and he noticed something interesting.  The BBN News camera was pointed at him while the construction coven Head Witch had stopped fighting, he was looking at Hunter with an unreadable look on his face.  Now that was interesting.  He’d gotten their attention.  He’d shown them the Emperor’s cruelty.  Could he do that again?  He focused on the Emperor’s giant, beating heart and found a new memory.

He was on his staff, it was a race.  The coven track youth champions final competition.  He was the Golden Guard, representing the Emperor’s Coven, while the potions track competitor was right behind him.  He was in the lead, his gold staff catching the light as he made the final turn and approached the finish line.  He might not have a special magical talent the way the rest of them did, but he was fast, and he could teleport short distances.  He would use that to his advantage.  He zapped himself in front of the potions track competitor, then away again at the exact moment when they would have crashed into him.  Startled, the student pulled their staff upwards, then had to spend a few precious seconds adjusting back to their course.  Hunter watched them for a moment, pleased with himself, before he brought his eyes back up in front of him.  There was a flock of birds; his body reacted before his mind did, zooming left and right and up and left again to avoid hitting any of them.  It was slowing him down, but he still had a comfortable lead.  But then he wasn’t even sure what had happened, he must have pulled up too fast, he lost his grip on his staff.  For a moment his fingers grasped at air, before he felt himself falling, falling, falling.  He didn’t have any magic without his staff, so there wasn’t much to do except let himself fall.  He hit a tree branch, then another.  He heard a snap from the branch, and another as his mask cracked, slicing his face.  He fell to the forest floor, and must have blacked out.  When he came to, his uncle was standing above him.  Hunter groaned and tried to push himself off the ground, but a surge of pain overcame him.  He had landed in a patch of flesh-eating nettles.  He bit back a scream as one wrapped around his arm, and another reached for his face.  He held his hand out for the Emperor, pleading for help, only to watch his uncle turn on his heel and walk away, leaving Hunter alone in the forest.

Coming back from this memory was a bit more difficult than the last one.  Hunter was distantly aware that the fighting was still happening.  Distantly aware that he was still trapped by his staff.  He barely flinched when the Head Witch’s plant golem nearly stepped on him.  He felt lost; there was no fight left in him.  His shoulders drooped as another memory overtook him.

He was running towards the castle as fast as his chubby little legs could carry him, but it was too late.  The boiling rain had started.  One drop hit him, then another, then more.  He cried out, holding his arms above his head to protect his face.  He kept running, even after the rain seared his flesh.  Running was all he could do.  He was just a child, and there was nowhere to hide.  Finally, he got to the door, only to find it locked.  He yelled and pounded at it, pleading to be let in, but there was no answer from within.  He had no choice but to back himself up against the wall, trying to find what little shelter the narrow doorway provided.  From a nearby window, he saw his uncle, watching him silently.

The sounds of fighting seemed quieter, more distant.  Was it actually, or did it just seem that way?  He wished his friends would just leave; he didn’t want them to get hurt.  It would be his fault if they did.  Hadn’t the Emperor always told him that?  It would always be his fault.

Belos was bent over a table, tinkering with something.  He had removed his mask and his gauntlets, so his long hair was tucked in behind one round ear.  A servant, a young biped demon, handed him a wrench.  Belos reached for it, but his shoulder twitched, and then twitched again, more violently this time.   Without warning the Emperor transformed; his head twisted back at an unnatural angle as his arms and shoulders grew bigger as his jaw morphed into something truly monstrous.  He shrieked, his skin turning pale brown and glossy, almost like petrified wood.  A nearby cage held a palisman, who cheeped and fluttered their wings as Belos lunged towards the cage.  The demon servant scrambled to get out of the way, but it was too late for both of them.  The palisman was crushed between the Emperor’s sharp claws while the demon was thrown backwards, streaks of blood like claw marks appearing on her body.  Belos sighed as he inhaled the palistrom magic, breathing deeply, and getting himself back under control.  He then calmly reached for his helmet and gauntlets.  Once they were in place, he turned back to the demon servant, who was whimpering and cowering on the floor.  Belos watched her for a moment through the mask before he drew a circle in the air.  Blue flames erupted around the demon, who gave an ungodly shriek as her body turned to ash.

From his place on the floor of the throne room, Hunter gasped.  His body was still encased in that red magic.  This time he didn’t even bother looking up to see how everybody else was getting along.  A part of him recognized that this last memory hadn’t belonged to him.  He must be projecting the Emperor’s memories now.  He didn’t want to be in the Emperor’s head.  He didn’t like it there.  He tried to break free, just as another memory overtook him.  

Emperor Belos was standing at the edge of the castle’s retractable platform, watching across the great cavern as Head Witch Lilith Clawthorne battled something.  It appeared to be a shadow, or maybe a swarm.  She was a powerful witch, but even her strongest spells were ineffective against this enemy.  The swarm seemed to have its own rhythm as it surrounded her, pulsing in and out and then in again.  It would have been beautiful, if not for the beleaguered witch in the middle.  Lilly cast spell after spell at the swarm, but at best she could scatter it for a few seconds before it would congregate around her once more.  Finally the swarm had backed her up against the edge of the platform.  In desperation she waved her hands up to protect her face, before her foot slipped over the platform edge.  She gasped and waved her hands, trying to right herself, but dropped her staff down to the sharp rocks below.  She cringed as the swarm came towards her once more and lost her footing, scrambling to grab onto the edge of the platform before she could fall down onto the jagged rocks.  Her fingers holding tight to the ledge even as the swarm descended on her.  From across the cavern, Emperor Belos watched this all impassionately.  He held up his hand to summon her staff, as it fell, and held onto it for a long minute, watching her struggle to keep her grip as the swarm continued its assault.  Finally, he casually tossed the staff back down into the cavern and walked back into the castle, leaving Lilith to her fate.  

Hunter wanted to scream.  Lilly!  Did she die?  

No, she couldn’t have.  He just saw her, and she had most certainly not been dead.  Or maybe he was dead too.  Maybe everyone was.  Was any of this even real?  How could he know?

There was a fair.  A festival.  It was a long time ago, judging by the outfits that people were wearing; decades, perhaps a century ago.  It looked like a joyous occasion; people were dancing, music was playing.  Children were waving sticks with ribbons tied to the ends, while dozens of palismen were joyfully darting in and out of the crowd, playing together.  One of them, a curious little red fox, bounded to the edge of the trees and cocked their head inquisitively.  A dark figure stood concealed in the shadows of the trees, watching the events somberly.  When he saw the palisman his eyes narrowed behind his mask.  He placed one hand on the ground and the fox crept closer, sniffing at the fingers of the gauntlet.  Suddenly the figure closed his hand around the palisman, shattering it.  There was a shriek from nearby as a witch, presumably the one bonded to this palisman, fell to his knees.  For a moment it seemed like time stopped.  The music stopped playing, the remaining palismen froze where they stood, everybody looked around, more confused than scared.  The figure stepped forward out of the clearing.  And then there was chaos as witches and demons alike scooped up their children and attempted to flee as magical fire erupted around them.  In the middle of it all, the witch that would become Emperor Belos stood, arms raised theatrically towards the sky, the broken bodies of numerous shattered palismen littering the ground around him.

Hunter was on the floor of the Emperor’s throne room.  How did he get here?  His arms were encased in some sort of red magic.  He couldn’t move.  It hurt.  Or maybe it didn’t hurt.  Actually yes, it definitely hurt.  Pain was there, but it was distant, almost comforting.  

He thought he heard his uncle’s voice say the words “lies” and “deception.”   Something about testing our faith.  Why did he sound so angry?  And what was that sound?  It was like a heartbeat, or footsteps maybe?  Echoing in his ears.

He was a child again.  His uncle’s distinctive gauntlet came close to his sight and he flinched, bringing his hands up to protect his face.  There was a moment of hesitation when nothing happened.  Tentatively, Hunter brought his hands down and looked at the sharp fingers of his uncle’s metal claws.  The hand clenched, and then released, and Hunter was thrown backwards as a wave of red magic hit him.  He was thrown against a table and fell forward onto the floor.  He tried to push himself up to all fours, but his head sagged; there was blood in his mouth.  He brought his hand up to his lips and spat out a tooth.

There were shouts, a commotion.  What was happening?  Whose voices were these?

“Demons and Gentlewitches in a shocking turn of events, it appears that Emperor Belos is attempting to attack the Golden Guard.  This looks like it might be the end…hang on, now some of the Head Witches are moving to protect him.  First Healing, then Construction, now Potions and Abomination.  And Bard is joining them from the rafters.  They are now battling the Emperor.  What a show!  I have never seen anything like this in my fifteen years of reporting.  For BBN News, I’m Perry Porter, reporting live from the Day of Unity.”

Hunter shook his head.  His movements were sluggish and painful under that red magic that imprisoned him.  A jolt of red lightning hit the carpet near his hand.  Careful.  He wanted to say.  You almost hit me.

Footsteps on the stones, echoing off the wall.  The Emperor walked down the rows of cages as the beasts inside hissed and cowered.  He stopped in front of the smallest one; the creature, a basilisk, cringed and hid her face as best she could as the Emperor watched her.  For a long moment the only thing that moved was her tail, twitching back and forth nervously.  Finally the Emperor held out a hand towards the cage.  Through the bars, the creature gasped and jolted her head upwards, straining against the chains that held her hands out to her side.  The Emperor squeezed his gauntlet and the basilisk gave a silent scream as magic seeped out from her mouth and her eyes.  The Emperor squeezed harder and then drew the magic back towards himself, eagerly siphoning it into his mask.  The basilisk whimpered when he finally released her, tears streaming down her face.  She curled her tail in towards her face, finding what little comfort she could in her barren cell.  The Emperor turned away from the cage; he was done with her, he had no more use for her.  He turned his face up towards the sky and took a deep breath in, looking in every way rejuvenated.  Finally, he turned and walked again down the long hallway, his footsteps echoing behind him.

He was back in the throne room.  He knew this carpet, he had seen it many times.  But why couldn’t he move his hands, and whose voices were these?  They were calling his name.

“Hunter, can you hear me?”

“Snap him out of it.”

“What’s happening to him?”

“He’s trapped.”

He was a child again.  He had his hands cupped together and he was walking carefully towards the window, making his movements as smooth as possible so as not to disturb the creature he held.  He had almost reached the window when the familiar sharp fingers of a metal gauntlet unfurled in front of him.  Hunter looked up at his uncle and shook his head, taking a step backwards.  The fingers twitched, and Hunter looked at them sadly, before releasing his prize into his uncle’s hand.  It was a bug; a beetle.  Gold and shimmery.  It saw the light of the window and unfurled its wings, but it was too late.  The Emperor squeezed his hand closed and crushed it.  Hunter’s little shoulders drooped as he watched bits of shell fall down onto the windowsill. 

He was back in the throne room.  He didn’t like it here.  It was noisy, and it hurt, and people were still talking to him.  Why were they talking to him?  Couldn’t they see that he wanted to be left alone?  Maybe he could just retreat into the memories forever.  They weren’t so bad, really.  Well, okay, they were bad, but at least they were familiar.  They didn’t expect anything from him.  He could just disappear in them, forever.  Maybe then people would leave him alone.  Maybe then he could rest, could get some peace.  He felt his shoulders sag as he retreated into his mind once more.  This time, there were no memories.  Only darkness.  What a blessing. 

 

Chapter Text

 

The darkness was welcome.  The darkness was comforting.  The darkness was his friend.  But those voices were still in his ears.  He wished they would stop talking and just leave him alone

“I don’t think he can hear us.”

“It’s the staff.”

“We need to break the spell.”

“How?”

“Stand back!” 

 There was a sizzle, a pop, a flash of light, a sear of pain.  Hunter didn’t even flinch as his staff exploded in his hands.  That red magic that had been trapping him was gone.  He could probably move his hands again, but he didn’t want to.  He liked it, here on all floors on the Emperor’s carpet.  When did it get so dirty?  There were feathers on it, and leaves, and a burn mark.  The Emperor would not be pleased.  Hunter bowed his head submissively.  Was he about to be punished?

Somebody was removing his helmet.  Hunter flinched as a pair of talons entered his vision.

“Woah, easy there, it’s just me.”  

That was Eda.  Eda was good.  He liked Eda.  Those must be her feathers on the carpet.  Was she going to be punished too?  He bent his head downwards, waiting for the strike.

“Here, Maybe I’d better do it.”

Another pair of hands entered his vision and unclipped his helmet.  He didn’t recognize these hands.  They were small, and feminine.  Nothing at all like his uncle’s.  He didn’t think these hands meant him any harm, but why else would they be reaching for him?  Of course they meant to hurt him.  Everyone did.

“I’m sorry, uncle.”  He whispered to the floor.  “I failed you.”

“Hunter, no.”  That was Eda again.  “Belos is contained, he can’t hurt you.  You are safe.”

Safe?  No, that couldn’t be right.  There was no safe.  Safe was a lie.  

“I failed.”  He whispered again.

“Damnit, where’s Raine when you need them?  I’m shit at this sort of thing.”  Eda’s voice again.  Why was she still here?

“Want me to go get them?”  The second voice said

“No.  They’re busy, don’t interrupt them.  I can handle this, I hope.  Hunter?  It’s Eda.  Come back to us. Hunter.  It’s over, you’re safe now.”

“It’s not really over though.”  The other person pointed out.

“Shut up.   I’m trying a thing here.”  Eda said.  “Hunter?  Say something if you can hear me.”

Hunter didn’t answer.  He clenched his eyes closed tightly.  Show no weakness.

“Actually, you go join the others.  I’ve got this.  He’s just tired, that’s all.  He needs a minute.”  Eda’s voice came again.  He didn’t think she was talking to him.

“Yeah.  Tired.”  The other voice did not sound at all convinced, but a pair of feet shuffled away, leaving Hunter and Eda alone on the floor of the throne room.

“Hunter?  It’s just us now.  Everybody is worried.  Say something if you can hear me.”

“I failed.”  He whispered again, clenching his fists against the carpet.  “Please, just get it over with.”

“Get what over with?  Kid, I’m not going to hurt you.  Nobody is, I won’t allow it.  You listen to me, okay?  You’re safe.”  

There was that word again.  Safe.   But how could he be safe if he was still in the Emperor’s throne room?  He knew this place.  This was the carpet below him, he could hear that beating heart.  The throne room wasn’t safe.  Why would she tell him that it was?  Would Eda lie to him?  

“Hey, look who is here.”  Eda said gently.  “I brought somebody to see you.  They’re worried about you, see?  They missed you.”  

And from out of her hair she brought a little wooden cardinal, who cheeped and hopped off of Eda’s talon and onto the carpet in front of him.  The sight of his palisman caused a stab of fear to rise to Hunter’s chest.  Why would Eda bring them here?   Didn’t she know that it was dangerous?  Didn’t she know…?

“No!”  He yelped, scooping up the palisman and bringing them in towards his chest.  He folded his body over Rascal protectively.  “No, no, no, no.  They shouldn’t be here.  It isn’t safe.  We have to get them out of here.  Quick, before uncle sees.  We have to…”  He let out a sob and rocked his body back and forth on the carpet.  

“Ah shit.”  Eda muttered.  “Hunter?  It’s okay, really.  Belos can’t hurt you.  He can’t hurt anyone.  I promise, okay?”

Hunter continued to rock his body back and forth.  His brain had gone blank.  He couldn’t think.  He couldn’t breathe.  All he could do was repeat the same words, over and over again.  “You can’t have them.  You can’t have them.  You can’t have them.”  

“Hey, it’s okay, kid.  Let it out.”  Eda muttered, and her voice was low and soothing.  She shuffled in closer to him and gathered him close to her chest, wrapping her wings around him to make a little tent.  “I’m here, you’re safe, your palisman is safe.  Everyone is safe.  Let it out.”

And for the first time, Hunter believed her.  He did feel safe.  Here, sheltered by Eda’s wings, his head against her chest, her talons resting gently on his back, he felt safe.  He allowed his mind to empty, still cradling Rascal, and didn’t try to fight the sobs that were sending giant shudders through his body.  

“I’m sorry.”  Eda was saying, her voice rumbling softly from somewhere above him.  “I shouldn’t have sent you back here.  I should have known better.  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.” 

Sorry?   Hunter allowed his movements to slow, his rocking motion slowing as he thought about what Eda had said.  Why was she sorry?  She hadn’t done anything.

“I knew this was a bad place for you, I knew that, but I sent you back anyway.  I needed you on the inside, I thought that we could just hold out a few more days.  I used you, I am so sorry.”  Eda’s voice rumbled against him.  She had adopted his rocking motion and the two of them moved lazily together, shifting back and forth, back and forth.  It was soothing, and his sobs receded into simple tears.

“S’not your fault.”  He muttered, and swiped his sleeve across his eyes.  His breathing was still heavy, but he felt his tears receding.  It was nice, here, in this little tent.  Safe, cozy.  Distantly, he could hear the sound of violin music.  He didn’t ever want to leave.  Though, of course, he recognized the impracticality of that thought.  

There was more.  He remembered the battle.  He remembered Raine, and Lilly, and Luz, and all the rest.  “Where is everybody?”  His voice felt tight.

“Luz took Amity and King and Owlbert through the portal.”  Eda said, still holding him.  Her talons prickled gently against his back.  He found the sensation comforting.  “Lilly is off in the castle somewhere.  Turns out the coven guards are way more loyal to her than they ever were to Belos.”  She gave a low chuckle and Hunter felt the corners of his own mouth curve upwards.  The irony of that was fairly delightful.  

“Pretty much everybody else is guarding the portal.  Except Raine.  They’ve got some things to finish up.”

“Finish up?”  Hunter muttered, sniffing to clear his nose.  He relaxed his body, leaning gratefully into Eda.  Her arms tightened around him protectively, mindful of her sharp talons.

“That’s right.”  Eda said, shifting her arms around him.  “Belos is trapped for now, but we’re not really sure what to do with him.  We figure it’s best if we follow through with the spell to remove the coven tattoos.  That way he can’t follow through with his plans no matter where he is.”

That would explain the violin music that Hunter could hear.  He nodded against her and took a shuddering sigh, allowing the last of the tension to leave his body.  He still had a headache, and the muscles in his neck and jaw hurt, but he was feeling a bit better.  He also came to the realization that he shouldn’t stay here too much longer.  It was nice of Eda to keep her wings up around him like this, but it was simply not practical.

“And where’s Kikimora?”  He asked.

“I don’t even know.  Out in the castle somewhere.”  Eda replied.  She didn’t sound concerned.  “Lilly will track her down.  I don’t think she’s a threat to anybody though.  She seems a bit unbalanced.”

Hunter nodded against her and shut his eyes tightly.  They hurt.  Everything hurt.  Part of him just wanted to stay here, with Eda’s wings sheltering him from the world around him.  Well, maybe not here , in the throne room, but somewhere.  Maybe a bed.  Any bed; somewhere private, with covers that he could pull up over his head.  That’s what he wanted.  He was tired.  Rascal snuggled into his palm contentedly.

“I’m not usually a hugger.”  He muttered, even as he sank into Eda’s feathers.

Eda chuckled.  “I thought that too, for a long time.  Turns out I just didn’t have anybody worth hugging.”

Oh, right.  That made sense.  Hunter took one last shuddering breath and pushed himself stiffly away from her and brought himself to his feet.  He was still cradling Rascal against him.  He might be feeling better, but he didn’t feel right letting go of them just yet.  Eda stepped back from him a bit, though he noticed that she kept her wings positioned to shield him from the rest of the room.  

“Feeling better?”  She asked kindly.  He hadn’t realized just how tall she was, in her harpy beast form.

“I guess.”  He said flatly.  Better was a relative term.  He felt terrible.  “Sorry I freaked out like that.”

Eda’s eyes flashed.  “Don’t be sorry.  You’re just a kid.  And Belos, he… I saw some of the things he did to you.  He hurt you, and you’re just a kid, and we sent you back here.”  She shook her head angrily, clenching her nails into her palm.  

Hunter blinked at her stupidly.  “What do you mean, you saw some of the things he did to me?”

Eda lowered her head, avoiding his gaze.

He stepped back from her.  “Memory projection.”  He whispered, and closed his eyes.  “I was projecting, wasn’t I?  How many people saw?”

“Hunter…”

“How many?”

Eda sighed.  “Pretty much everybody.  But we wouldn’t have won if not for you, don’t you see?  You showed everybody how awful he is.  He lost almost all of his support, and he’s not so tough without it.  We won, and nobody got killed.  Thanks to you.”

Hunter shook his head.  He felt sick.  Rascal squirmed against him, and he realized that he had been clenching his hands.  He forced himself to relax, and stroked the little cardinal sadly.  Eda still held her wings out, so he couldn’t see anybody and they couldn’t see him, but he suddenly felt very small, and very exposed.

“Who is out there?”  He asked, indicating the throne room behind her.

“Pretty much everybody.”  Eda admitted.  “Don’t worry about it though.  Nobody is paying attention to you, they’re all too focused on Raine.”

“I bet they hate that.”  Hunter attempted a smile, but he could feel it falter on his face.  He felt exposed.  He considered putting his helmet back on, to hide his face, but that didn’t seem much better, somehow.

Eda waited a few more minutes for him to take some deep breaths and cuddle his palisman before he nodded jerkily to her and stepped out from behind her wings.

And it did look like a battle had taken place.  There were scorch marks everywhere, bits of splintered wood and torn tapestries, abomination goo, knocked over furniture.  The portal was still untouched, which was a blessing, and a gaggle of familiar witches stood in front of it, guarding it.  

Raine was standing in front of the giant beating heart, playing their violin.  Their movements were jerky, their posture was stooped, probably because the BBN News camera was pointed in their direction.  It looked like they were finishing up with their spell, at least.  Hunter noticed a few bare wrists around the room.  

Belos was there too, transformed into his beastly form.  Hunter had seen it before, though he suspected that he was the only one who had, until today.  He was trapped in a magical cage, attended to by five coven leaders, including Darius, much to Hunter’s surprise.  

“Did Darius grow a conscience all of a sudden?”  He asked softly.

Eda snorted.  It was clear that she still held onto a fair amount of animosity towards Darius, and he had the slash marks on his cloak to prove it.  “Hardly.  I think he just didn’t want to be on the losing side.”  This earned a glare from Darius.

Belos was straining in his cage.  Hunter had seen him transform before, but never like this.  His beastly form seemed to change even as they watched.  His head was whipping around at an unnatural angle, his arms seemed to grow and shrink as he paced, and something awful was bulging underneath his shoulder.  Hunter blinked and peered at the arms.  Were those…glyphs, etched into his flesh?

Belos gave an ungodly screech when he saw Hunter.  He lunged at the cage, and the coven leaders had to strain to keep it from shattering.  “You!”  He howled in a voice that sounded like the crack of splintering wood.  “This is your fault!  Yours!  Your little teenage rebellion cost me everything!  I hope you see what you’ve done to me.  After everything I did for you.  After I took you in.  After I made you.  This is how you repay me?”

Eda placed one gentle talon on Hunter’s shoulder and moved to stand between them.  “You lost, get over it.”  She said wickedly, even as Belos strained against the bars of his cage.  

Raine had finished their spell.  They came to stand on Hunter’s other side, magicking their violin away.  “Don’t listen to him, Hunter.”

“Did you finish the spell?”  Hunter asked as they put one arm around his shoulders and steered him off away from Belos and towards the rest of the group, who were busy guarding the portal door.  

“Yeah.  And it sucked.”  Raine admitted.  Hunter could feel their hand trembling on his shoulder.  “I’m never doing that again.  How are you doing?  Are you hurt?  I am so sorry, we never should have sent you back here.”

“I wish you two would stop saying that.  I wouldn’t have listened anyway.”  Hunter muttered.  He didn’t really want to keep talking about this.  Thankfully, he was saved from having to say any more because at that moment the portal door opened.

Luz stepped out of the portal, with Amity, and King, and Owlbert, and two more people who Hunter didn’t recognize.  One was a middle-aged human woman.  Presumably Luz’s mother; they had the same facial features, the same skin tone, the same comically small ears.  The other one was…was she human?  Hunter hadn’t seen that many humans before, but he couldn’t imagine that they looked like this.  She looked like Luz, actually, except that she had pale splotches under her eyes and along the back of her hands.  She had ears that were blue, and droopy, and demonic looking.  Hunter wasn’t sure what to make of her.  

“I told you, Mama.  This is really a bad time.  We could always come back later.  At least let me check to see if it’s safe.”  Luz was saying.

“I don’t want to see this place just when it’s safe.  I want to see where my daughter has been for these past few months.  The good and the bad.”  The woman was saying.  So definitely Luz’s mother then.  “Oh wow, is this the Demon Realm?”

“Umm, not all of it.”  Luz muttered, shoving her hands into her pockets.

“You’re back!”  Willow said, rushing forward to hug Luz.  “That was quick.  Is this your mom?  Hi, I’m Willow.  Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Camilla, this is Vee.  Nice to meet you too.”

“I don’t know if we have time for pleasantries!”  Katya said.  “Look!”  She pointed across the room.  Belos had seen the portal open and was fighting hard against his cage, straining to break free.  It looked like the coven leaders were struggling to hold him in.  

“Close the portal!”  Eda snarled, positioning herself in front of the group, wings out, talons extended.  Gus went to close the portal door.  The bards summoned their instruments.  Luz pulled some glyphs out of her pocket.  Everybody adopted a defensive pose, even Luz’s mom, who somehow had a shoe in her hand.  Hunter was the only one who didn’t brace himself for a fight; he just clutched his palisman even tighter to his chest.  There was no way he was using Rascal to battle against the Emperor.  No way.

And then Belos broke free of his prison.  He howled and lunged at the portal, a surge of magic extending outwards from his body and knocking the coven leaders backwards.  

“Everyone get behind me!”  Eda yelled, and transformed the rest of the way into her Owl Beast.  She lowered her head to the ground and hissed at Belos, her wings extended to shield everybody else behind her.  Hunter didn’t think it would do much good.  The Emperor was too powerful.

This was it, he was going to die here after all.  At least he would be with his family.  Too bad they had to die too.

And then the doors to the throne room banged open and the Bat Queen entered, folding her wings so she could fit through the wide doorway.  She shrieked when she saw Belos and launched herself into the air, descending towards him with her claws extended, a look of outrage on her face.  

Belos turned to face her, talons extended, fangs bared.  The two looked evenly matched both in ferocity, and rage.  There was the sound of screeching and howling as claws met flesh.  Belos howled and grabbed his arm as she closed her claw around his bulging shoulder.  The Bat Queen screeched as one of his claws tore at the membrane of her wing.  Neither seemed to be getting the upper hand.

Hunter crouched against Eda with the rest of the group, holding Rascal tightly.  His mind was racing and his heart was beating.  He had to protect Rascal.  He had to protect his friends.  What could he do?  He was powerless, he was afraid.  He knew Belos better than anybody, so he didn’t hold up much hope of the Bat Queen winning this one.  Belos was too powerful.  He had stolen too much magic, he had it stored in that damn heart.  Hunter didn’t think that his uncle was capable of death, not as long as that thing continued to beat.

Wait.  Could this information be useful?   Maybe.  But how to share it?

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, focusing on his heartbeat.  That part wasn’t difficult, it was pounding in his ears.  He focused, and the memory of the Emperor’s giant beating heart was projected into the room for all to see.  It wasn’t much, but would it be enough?

Thankfully, the Bat Queen seemed to understand.  She launched herself into the air, off-balance due to the slash in her wing.  But it was enough to get her where she needed to go.  She sank her talons into that giant beating heart, tearing it from end to end with her sharp talons.

Belos gave a scream, but it was overshadowed by another sound.  It was like a hiss, a loud one.  Like a hurricane, like a lot of wind rushing out of a very small gap.  The Owl Beast howled, clawing at her sensitive ears.  Hunter curled up, clenching his hands up around his ears; distantly, he saw everybody else doing the same. 

The magic ripped at his ears, his clothes, his face.  It hurt, it was like a million tiny little grains of sand, tearing at his flesh.  Dimly, he felt Eda position her body overtop of the group, but it hardly made a difference.  They were being torn apart.  The irony of this wasn’t lost on Hunter, even now.  He was being torn apart by the Emperor’s magic.  That same magic that he had spent his whole life helping to build.

And then Luz’s other companion, the one from the human realm, the one that looked just like her, transformed.  She grew a slug-like body and a furry tail.  She eased herself out from under the Owl Beast and turned her head towards the heart.  Dimly, Hunter recognized her.  He had seen her in one of his uncle’s memories.  She was the basilisk, who had once been trapped in the dungeon.  What was her name again?  Vee?

She stepped forward towards the heart, opening her wide mouth to swallow the magic as it came to her.  Her body grew and she took in more magic, then more, and more, until what had seemed like a hurricane surrounded her, whipping at her ears and her tail.  She turned her face to the ceiling and gasped as her body absorbed the magic.  

And then the magic was gone.  The room was quiet.  Hunter’s ears were ringing.  Dimly he could hear voices.

“Vee!  Are you alright?”

“Sorry, I guess I was hungry.  There’s not much to eat in the human world.”

“You were amazing!”

“Is everybody okay?”

“Sorry about your violin, Raine.”

“Is it over?”

“Has anybody seen Hunter?”

But Hunter wasn’t really paying attention to any of that.  He was walking stiffly out from behind the Owl Beast and towards the middle of the room.  Past the Bat Queen, who was examining the tear in her wing membrane; past the coven guards, who were busy picking themselves off the floor.  Past Darius, who was looking outraged as he examined his ruined cloak.  Past Head Witch Thrombin, who looked like she was setting up a field hospital.

Finally, Hunter found himself standing over his uncle.

Belos’s body was still twisting and contorting, as though he had magic trapped below his flesh that was trying to get out, but he was no longer in his beastly form.  He was back in his witch’s body, or his human one.  Hunter had never quite been sure which it was.  He looked just like Hunter remembered, except that the green scar along his face seemed to be spreading.  It spread down towards his chest and up through his hair.  It hissed and sizzled where it met his flesh, and the Emperor choked down cries of pain.  He looked up at Hunter, piercing blue eyes focusing in on the boy.  “I…made…you.”  He hissed, and then gasped as the magic overtook him.

And then the life was gone from the eyes, but the magic was still spreading, consuming Belos’s body, until his flesh had melted into a dull green puddle on the floor.  

Hunter watched it all happen with an expressionless look on his face.  He watched as his uncle’s body melted away, watched as the green magic oozed out of the cloak.  He didn’t feel much at all until he noticed that it had nearly reached his boot.  And then he felt the need to flee.  He took one step backwards, then another, and then nearly tripped on his own cape.  And then with barely any warning at all, he bolted to a nearby pillar and vomited all over the floor.

The Bat Queen was the first one to reach him.  She brought her uninjured wing tenderly around him and drew him away from that grotesque puddle on the floor.  And then Raine reached him, green eyes full of concern, and then Eda, back in her regular witch form.  Hunter found himself missing her harpy beast.  Those wings were soft.  But, well, regular Eda gave a pretty good hug too, so did Raine.  The two witches gathered him into their arms, to a chorus of “I’m sorry”  and “are you okay?”  Hunter let the hug happen.  Was he allowed to enjoy this?

“I’m fine.”  He said at last, drawing away from them.  “Stop fussing.”

“Let’s just get out of here.”  Raine said, drawing him back towards the rest of the group.  “It’s over, there’s nothing more we can do here.”

But there was an odd sort of energy in the group near the portal.  It took Hunter a moment to figure out what it was.  Luz was standing in front of the door, touching it sadly.  Amity had her arm around her girlfriend.  Vee was crying, which was an odd look for a being that had looked so powerful just a few minutes ago.  Camilla had her arm around the basilisk, comforting her.

And then Hunter figured out what was happening.  The portal.  It wasn’t working anymore.  Visually it looked okay, but its magic had gone out.  There was nothing there, it was just a door leading to nowhere.  Their path to the human realm was closed.

“I think we might be able to fix it.”  Eda said, going up to touch the door.  “We have all the pieces we need.  Even the key.”

“Yeah.”  Luz said quietly.  She brought her hand down and stepped back.  “Maybe.”

“It’s alright.”  Camilla said, coming up to Luz’s other side.  “I have my daughters by my side, that’s all that matters.”

“Come on, everybody.”  Eda said.  “Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

 

There was a tug on his pant leg.  Hunter looked down to see King.  He blinked, surprised.  This was the first time the little demon had approached him willingly.  

“Can I ride with you?”  King asked.  “Usually I’d ride with Luz, but she’s busy with her mom.  Or sometimes I’d ride with Eda, but she’s going to want to stop and eat a vole on the way home, and it’s really gross.”

Hunter glanced over to where Eda stood on the edge of the castle platform.  She was in her harpy-beast form again, and she and Raine were busy blushing and avoiding one another’s gaze.  

“Eat a vole?”  He asked dryly.  “Is that what they’re calling it now?”

“Huh?”  King asked.

“Never mind.  Of course you can ride with me.”  Hunter said, and held his arm up so King could scramble up his body to perch on his shoulder, just like he’d done with Luz plenty of times.  The noises he made were adorable.

Dimly, Hunter recognized something in the little demon.  King was feeling a little rejected.  Or maybe trying not to feel rejected.  Either way, it was a familiar emotion, Hunter knew it well.  Luz was a short distance away, trying to talk Camila through balancing on a staff.  Amity was doing the same with Vee.  Raine and Eda were doing their whole lovestruck thing that they were definitely too old for.  None of that meant that they didn’t still love King, but it’s one thing to know that, another to feel it.  Hunter was determined not to let the little demon feel that way from him as well.

“I’d really like the company, actually.”  Hunter said.  “Maybe we can go up through the ribcage on the way there.”

King hesitated, embarrassed.  “Slower might be better, actually.  I, uhh….”  He twisted his claws together sheepishly.  “...I get motion sickness.”

Hunter smiled affectionately.  “Slower is good too.”

And then he joined the others at the platform edge.  There weren’t enough staffs to go around, so everybody had to double-up.  Camilla was riding with Luz; Vee with Amity.  Katya and Derwin were sharing Lilly’s staff, while Amber was riding with Willow.  Raine was going to be carried by Eda, which the two of them tried to pretend was just because it was practical, and not for any other reason.

And King was with Hunter, of course.  He felt somehow honoured by this, considering the demon had chosen him over Gus, who still had his staff to himself.  It made Hunter feel accepted into the family; he wasn’t sure he would have been as comfortable heading back to the Owl House without it.

And then they were off.  Launching up and over that cavern with the spikes that Hunter knew so well, and towards the jagged rocks that separated the castle from the forest.  Hunter turned in mid air and waved at Lilly, who was still standing on the platform edge.  She had chosen to stay behind with the coven guards.  There was still a lot to do, from clearing out the Conformatorium and helping with the injured, to refining the entire nation’s law enforcement and education system.  Lilly seemed destined for the role, and most people were only too relieved to let her have it.  When they left she was already mumbling something about installing guardrails around the cavern.

Mindful of King’s motion sickness, Hunter glided over the forest.  Far below he saw the Bat Queen.  She couldn’t fly with her injured wing, but she had made it a comfortable distance into the forest and was surrounded by about a hundred palismen and attended to by an elderly witch with a beard and a scar over one eye.  He kinda looked a bit like Eda, actually.  He waved as the gang flew overhead.  

The forest gave way to a clearing; a sunny hilltop with orange and red flowers dotting it.  Eda swooped downwards, still carrying Raine, and gave a graceless landing, the two witches tumbling around one another in a tangle of limbs and wings.

“See?”  King said, perching on the edge of the staff so he could peer downwards, his little tail wagging excitedly.  “She’s going to go eat a vole.”

Hunter wasn’t so sure that’s what they were doing, but he didn’t say anything.  He pulled his staff higher so he could get a good view of the sun peering through the ribcage.  It was rather beautiful, in its own way, and he was glad that he could have King here to enjoy it with him.  Down below he saw Luz and Amity, carefully maneuvering their staffs, mindful of their inexperienced passengers.  Further on, he saw Katya and Derwin and Amber and Willow and Gus doing loops and just generally goofing off.  After the day they’d all had, he figured they’d earned it.

And then he brought them around to the Owl House.  It was both too soon and not soon enough.  He wished he could have kept flying longer with King and Rascal, but at the same time it was getting cold, and his head still hurt from all that crying that he had been doing earlier.  He still wasn’t sure how many people had noticed that–besides Eda, of course, but she was being pretty cool about it.

King hopped off Hunter’s staff and scampered over to where Luz and Amity were hovering their staffs carefully above the ground.  Camila managed a successful, if awkward, dismount, but Vee was another story.  She got one foot onto the ground but somehow got her other leg trapped over the staff.  She gave a yelp and morphed into her basilisk form, which didn’t have legs at all, and suddenly freed from her predicament she went tumbling onto the ground.

“Are you alright?”  Luz asked, holding out a hand to help her up.

“Yeah.”  Vee said, embarrassed.  She turned back into her hybrid form; just like Luz only with basilisk ears and pigment splotches.  She blushed and took Luz’s hand.  “Sorry, I’ve never flown before.”

“Here come the others!”  Amity waved at the sky as five more witches, riding three more staffs, touched down at the grounds of the Owl House.

“Where are Eda and Raine?  Did we lose them already?”  Gus asked, removing his palisman from the staff and placing it on his shoulder.

“Oh, Eda had to go eat a vole.”  King replied.

“Is that what they’re calling it now?”  Amber asked with a snicker.

“She actually does have to go eat voles.”  Amity said helpfully.  “It’s how she makes peace with the Owl Beast.  It’s, like, really gross.”  She shuddered.

“I bet the vole loves it.”  Katya said wickedly, eliciting some laughs from the group.  

“I don’t get it.  Why would a vole love being eaten?”  King asked, tilting his head quizzically, which brought about more laughter.

Who wants a tour?”   Luz yelped, glaring at them and placing her hands over King’s ears.  “Mama, Vee, this is Hooty.  He’s our house demon.  Hooty, be nice to our guests.  Please.”

“I’m always nice.”  Hooty said, rolling his head around in a full circle.  “I even got them presents, see?”  He ruffled his feathers and twisted his neck, making a hacking sound in the back of his throat.  It looked like he was about to regurgitate something up.

“Maybe later, thank you Hooty!  And this is the main living area.  Don’t mind the wanted posters.  Eda keeps them as mementos, but they’re mostly outdated.”

Luz ushered her mom and Vee inside the Owl House.  Everybody else followed, except Hunter, who stayed behind, contemplating the afternoon sky.  It was so surreal to be back here, after the day he’d just had.  Everything was different, but somehow it felt like nothing was different.  Like he had always been here, at the Owl House, with a gaggle of misfit witches and demons.  Nothing to indicate that only a few hours ago he had thought that he was going to die on the floor of his uncle’s throne room.  Nothing, of course, except for the pain behind his eyes and the coppery taste in his mouth and his aching limbs and the strongest desire for a shower.  He was here.  He was…safe?  Was that right?

Yes , he decided after a few minutes of careful thought.  I am safe here.   Maybe he could be happy here.  Maybe he could have fun, make friends, talk to people, sleep for a while.  Maybe all of those things.  What a luxury.  

“Hunter?”  It was Willow, the plant witch, poking her head out of the doorway.  “Are you going to come inside?  Camila figures that she has enough ingredients here to make a Spanish omelet.  I don’t know what that is, but Luz seemed excited.”

Yeah.  Come inside.  That he could do.  The fact that somebody wanted him in there was a small joy.  He’d always had to fight so hard to feel included back at the Emperor’s coven.  Is this what friends do?  Is this how they talk to one another?  He checked off a few boxes in his head.  Smile.  Include them in things.  Invite them to places.  

Yeah.  Maybe he could do this whole friendship thing.  

Hunter followed her inside the Owl House, where the sound of laughter was emanating from the kitchen. 

 

 

“We got you something!”  King said, dancing eagerly from foot to foot.  “A present!  Guess what it is?”

“Uhh… I don’t know.”  Hunter began, looking around the room, confused.  Everyone was still here, showered and fed and looking much happier than they did earlier that day.  Eda and Raine had returned a while ago and were busy fussing over their respective kids.  He couldn’t imagine when any of them would have had time to sneak off and buy him a present.  Had they…planned this?  Ahead of time?

“Go on, guess!”  King was obviously excited about this, so Hunter decided that he would do his best.  What sorts of things do people get for other people?

“Boot polish?”  Hunter asked.  He could tell from the faces around the room that this was the wrong answer.  He decided to guess again.  “Burn Salve?  A suture removal kit?”

“What?  No.”  King said.  “Haven’t you ever had a present before?”

“Sure I have!”  Hunter said, feeling a blush rise to his face.  “One time Darius got me a spool of thread.”

“Oh.”  Luz said, forcing an insincere smile onto her face.  She really was a terrible actor.  “That was…nice of him.”

“And Raine gave me that lute, that was awesome.”  Hunter added.  

“Was that the one that got shattered when your uncle tried to murder you both?”  King asked.

“Err…I mean, I don’t think he was trying to murder us, exactly.  He still needed us alive for the Day of Unity, so he was being careful when he attacked us, and well, umm...”    Hunter hesitated, avoiding the gazes of the people in the room.  He didn’t want to see any pity.  He hated pity.  “He’s dead now, so it doesn’t matter.”  He added, which probably didn’t help.

“How did you celebrate birthdays in the Emperor’s coven?”  Luz asked.

Hunter looked sideways at her, confused.  “Birth…days?”

“No more questions, just give him the present.”  Eda announced, much to Hunter’s relief.  

“It’s a scroll!”  King said, bringing it out from behind his back.  “Go ahead, try it out.  Luz already set you up with a penstagram account.”

Hunter glanced at the screen, and then raised his eyebrow at her.  “Bad But Sad Boy?”

Luz shrugged, sheepishly.  “All the good usernames are taken.  You can change it if you want.”

Hunter considered it for a while before he clicked accept.   “Now what?”

“Anything you want!”  Amber said.  “Here, look.  The Day of Unity stuff is trending right now.  I’ve had this one on repeat.  It’s my new favourite thing.”  She held up her own scroll and drew her fingers apart and it increased in size so that everybody could see it.  On the screen was a video of the battle of the Day of Unity.  Well, a few seconds of the battle, anyway.  It was Darius, looking elegant and impressive in his abomination form.  As they watched, he raised his arms to strike only to have Harpy Eda swoop in and snag at his cloak with her talons.  Amber grinned as the video played again from the beginning, and again, and again.

Hunter jabbed at the screen on his own scroll a few times, but nothing like that was appearing for him.   “Mine doesn’t look like that.”

“They’re all going to look different.  That’s the cool thing about it.”  Katya said, showing him her scroll.  “Over time it learns what you like, and it shows you more like that.  Here, like this.”  They all watched Katya’s scroll as Harpy Eda swooped down and scooped up Raine into her arms and the two of them twirled in a lazy spiral around the rafters of the throne room; lips pressed together, Eda’s wings arched forward into the shape of a heart.  Katya snickered as the video started to play again from the beginning.

“Alright, you’ve seen it once, that’s enough.”  Raine said, blushing deeply.

“Ten thousand views says it’s never enough.”  Katya grinned wickedly.  

“Wait, how many?  Let me see that?”  Eda leaned close to the screen.  “Ha!  We’re famous!  Tag me in that, will you?”

Raine groaned and rubbed a hand over their face.  “Eda…”  They whined, embarrassed.  

“You have to admit that we look good.”

“Just change the channel.”

“It’s not a channel, it’s a news feed.  Here, look.”  Katya swiped her finger along the screen and another video appeared.  Harpy Eda again, fighting the Plant Coven Head Witch.  She dodged as a tangle of vines darted towards her.  She managed to dart out of the way in time to avoid the vines, but became off-balance in the air.  The plant coven head witch smiled cruelly and went to strike, but suddenly her expression changed.  She looked backwards to see Amity and Luz and Willow, grinning as they used their combined magic to take her down.

“Haha, Eda!”  King said, dancing excitedly from foot to foot.  “They saved your butt!”

Eda made a dismissive noise with her tongue.  “I totally had things under control.  But it’s great that you three wanted to help.  You’re welcome for distracting her by the way.”

“Oh, yeah right.”  King said sarcastically.  “You would have been plant food if not for them.”

“Pfft.  She didn’t even touch me.”  Eda said with a good-natured chuckle.  It was clear that she was enjoying this banter.

“Oh yeah?  Well that bruise on your neck says otherwise!”  King announced, pointing towards her.

Eda somehow went both pale and red at the same time.  She brought her hand up to her neck.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  She muttered, suddenly subdued.  She tugged her collar upwards to hide what was clearly a hickey.  Hunter glanced around at the faces in the room.  He’d noticed it earlier but had chosen to pretend otherwise.  Clearly he wasn’t the only one.

“Well, if it wasn’t from Terra Snapdragon then how did you get that bruise?”  King asked, clearly not picking up on any of this.  “Which one of them gave it to you?”

“Yeah, Eda.”  Katya said wickedly.  “Which one of the Head Witches gave you that bruise?”

“It’s really not important.”  Eda muttered, shaking her head.  

“Maybe we should ask Raine.”  Amber said, holding back a cackle.  “Raine, did you see which of the Head Witches gave Eda that bruise?”

Raine glared at her, and Hunter couldn’t resist joining in the laughter in the room.  If looks could kill, Amber would have been struck down by now. 

“Why would Raine…ohhhhh.  Eww.”  King said, realization suddenly coming across in his voice.  “You guys are gross.”

Eda pointed one long finger at Katya and Amber.  “Both of you are cut off.”

“I think it’s sweet.”  Luz said.

“Me too.”  Amity added.

“Is this why everybody was laughing about the vole thing earlier?”  King asked.  “Because I still don’t get that one.”

Amber snorted and brought her hands up to cover her mouth, her face turning red from the effort of keeping in her laughter.

“If you’re going to be immature about this, I’ll give you something to be immature about.”  Raine said at last, glaring at Amber.  “Eda?  How do you feel about public displays of affection?”

“It might make things easier, considering I am never letting you out of my sight again.”  Eda said, her mouth twisting into a half-smile.

“Great, we are in agreement then.  PDA’s are in.”  Raine said without ever breaking eye contact with Amber.

Amber groaned and threw up her hands.  “Fine, I yield.  Just be more careful about where you leave hickeys, alright?”

Raine blushed and ducked their head.  “Deal.”  They squeaked.  The two witches shook hands as if concluding an important business deal.

“No deal.”  Eda muttered, quiet enough that Hunter wasn’t sure if anybody else heard her.

“We’re still good with PDA’s though, right?”  Luz asked Amity in the silence that followed.

“Oh yeah.”  

Hunter wasn’t too sure what to make out of all of this.  It was not unlike the ribbing and insults that happened in the Emperor’s coven, except that this one seemed somehow good-natured?  Nobody looked hurt or offended.  It was all very strange.  He’d have to ask Luz about it later.  He turned his attention back down to his scroll.  “What does the little red dot mean?”

“Those are your notifications.”  Amity said, coming to look over his shoulder.  “Ooh, you’ve got a bunch.  Here, click on it.”

Hunter did so, only to see a list of notifications pop up on his screen.

BADGIRLCOVEN has added you as a friend

WITCHCHICK128 has added you as a friend

GOODWITCHLUZURA has added you as a friend

Hello.Willow has added you as a friend

CryingBreakfastFriends has added you as a friend

BATTOUTTAHELL has added you as a friend

Hello.Willow has sent you a message

RAINEY.DAY has added you as a friend

Chilly.Lilly has added you as a friend

EM_IRA has added you as a friend

BLIGHTBROTHER has added you as a friend

GOODWITCHLUZURA has added you to a group chat

Oopsie.Goopsie has added you as a friend

Bassooner.The.Better has added you as a friend

KINGOFTHECASTLE has added you as a friend

Hunter blinked at the screen, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.  “What do I do?”

“Just click accept all. ”  Amity told him.  “It’s up at the top.”

Hunter did as instructed, and then started reading his messages.  “What does less than three mean?”

“It’s a heart emoji.  See, if you look at it sideways it kinda looks like… who sent you that anyway?”  Amity asked, peering over his shoulder.

Hunter hurried to hold the scroll against his chest.  “Never mind!”

“Don’t worry.”  Katya said with a grin.  “If we could teach Raine to use their scroll, then we can teach you too.”

“It was nice of you to buy him that scroll, Eda.”  Raine said from somewhere behind him.  “You did…buy it, right?  You didn’t steal it?”

“Actually, you bought it.”  Eda replied.  “You’re cool if I pawn one of your violins, right?”

“Eda!”

“I’m kidding!  I would never.”  Eda said quickly.  “I just took some snails from your wallet.  You know, the old-fashioned way.”

“As long as you haven’t touched any of my instruments.”  Raine grumbled.  “I’ve already had four destroyed in the past month.  It’s getting expensive.”

“I would have asked, but you were kinda tied up.”  Eda added.  “And not in the fun way.”

There were a series of groans emanating from every corner of the room, including one which came from Hunter.  He tilted his scroll up against his forehead to hide his face.  Great.  All that work getting Raine back here and now all he got in return was jokes about their sex life.  Which, fine, Eda and Raine were adults and they missed one another so it was hardly surprising that they would want to do the deed, but also what kid wants to hear about his parents’ sex life?

Hunter blinked, confused by that thought.  Kid?  Parent?  Where had that thought come from?  It was an unexpected thought, but somehow a pleasant one.  He was surprised at how easily his mind formed the thought, actually.  He’d never had a parent before.  Not one that he could remember anyway.  Is this what it felt like?  

He looked around the room, mentally taking note of everything, strange and wonderful.  Of the laughter, and the food, and the good-natured teasing.  He watched as the bards summoned their instruments and the room erupted with music and dancing.  He watched as Luz taught everybody to play a human game called Pictionary, and he laughed along with the group when she and Camila tried to convince the skeptical audience that possums were real.  He listened as Camila wiped a tear from her eye and said “it’s just like growing up in Columbia” and he noticed when Vee smiled and bobbed her head to the music.  “Maybe I can be happy in the Demon Realm.”  She admitted quietly as everybody trickled off to bed.  

Hunter headed towards the tower.  Eda refused to let him sleep up on top, but there was a cozy little room in the middle filled with knickknacks and an oddball assortment of items, and a cot that he had swiped from the Emperor’s castle.  He set up his bed, only to see King jump up onto it and prance around in a few circles before settling down happily on top of the covers.  

“Well?  Come on.”  King opened one eye when Hunter hesitated.  “This bed isn’t going to warm itself up.”

So Hunter lay down, a small smile on his face.  He had his toy swamp toad that he had brought back from his room at the Emperor’s coven and his copy of From Bones to Earth, but not much else.  He had chosen to leave the rest of it behind.

On one side of him a little wooden cardinal cooed contentedly in their sleep.  On the other side King snuggled comfortably against him, warm body pressed into his side, foot twitching gently as he dreamed.  Hunter knew that King had followed him out here because both Luz and Eda each needed privacy to do whatever they needed to do with their respective partners, but the little demon didn’t seem to mind.  He just made himself at home next to Hunter, muttering something about conquering worlds in his sleep.

Sleep.  Not a bad idea.  Hunter felt his own eyes drifting shut.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Hunter set his new lute aside and twisted his hand around.  He still hadn’t gotten used to playing an instrument so much.  His fingertips were screaming and his hand was cramping up.  

He had been practicing since Camila left for the market about an hour ago, and he figured that he deserved a short break.  Luz’s mom had been experimenting with Demon Realm cooking, but she still needed help navigating the world, especially if it involved currency or food or well, anything else really.  The BATTs had been only too happy to go with her; they had been fugitives for quite a while and were just excited to be able to go out in public again.  King, always up for a trip to Bonesborough, had chosen to tag along.

That left a much smaller group of people in the Owl House.  Vee, who liked cooking but had no interest in seeing any more of the Demon Realm than she had to, was further off towards the wall, curled up on one of the beanbag chairs that Eda had brought in to accommodate the influx of people that had descended on the Owl House. Raine was here, sitting on the smaller couch, reading a book.   Eda herself was in the next room, puttering around the kitchen and occasionally cursing as she dropped a spoon.  Luz was here too, with her three Hexside friends.  

“What are you reading?”  Hunter asked, mentally categorizing this question under polite conversation.   He still had to remind himself to do things like that.

Raine glanced up from their book. “The Good Witch Azura, Book Two.”  They replied, using their finger to mark the page and holding it up so Hunter could see the cover.

Luz leaned in entirely too close to Raine, who blinked at her and shifted uncomfortably.

“So?  What do you think so far?”  She asked eagerly.

“It’s an interesting study of anthropology.”  Raine replied, examining the cover page.  “The author is a human, with no exposure to magic or the demon realm, writing about magic as she conceptualizes it.  So she’s built this world based on what she thinks that magic should look like, and meanwhile I am reading it and imagining what life in the human world does look like.”

“I can’t believe you’ve gotten that far.”  Eda poked her head around the door to the kitchen and shook her head, before disappearing again to the sound of clanging pots and pans.  

“But what do you think of the budding tension between the main character Azura and her life-long rival Hecate?”  Luz asked, leaning somehow closer.

“Who?”  Raine asked, a blank look on their face.

Luz groaned and leaned forward so her forehead was resting dejectedly on their shoulder.  Raine looked perplexed and patted her back awkwardly as she made strangled noises in the back of her throat.

“And how are your studies going, Hunter?”  Willow asked as Luz slumped dramatically onto the floor, much to Raine’s confusion.

Willow was laying on her front, examining a seed that was laying on the carpet in front of her.  She didn’t seem to be doing anything with it, just smiling fondly and nudging it with her finger.  Hunter didn’t fully understand it, but he had to admit that it did look cozy.  He wasn’t sure he would ever get used to the idea of being unproductive, but he did feel a certain amount of envy to those who had mastered the skill.  

“Fine, I think.”  Hunter said, examining his lute.  “I still can’t make a spell circle, but I can now summon and levitate objects using bard magic.”

“You might never be able to make a spell circle.”  Raine said gently.  “Your magic works differently than that.”

“I know.”  Hunter grumbled.  It was miles better than being a powerless witch, but it was still irksome, to see others doing things that he couldn’t do.

“It sounds nice, I like that song.”  Willow smiled warmly without lifting her gaze from her seed.

“Thanks.”  Hunter felt a blush creeping to his cheeks.  “Whoever said that the lute is an easy instrument to start with should be shot.”

“I was memory-altered when I said that!”  Raine protested.  “Remember, the memory alteration?  My brain was fried.  I had no concept for… never mind.  You’re all terrible.”  They grumbled and hid their face behind their book.

“And what are you working on?”  Hunter asked Willow.  He was still trying to figure out a lot of things about life outside the Emperor’s Coven.  Top of the list was how to talk to people and what to expect from them.  He had to remind himself daily to be kind, to not lash out, to ask people questions and listen to the answers.  It was getting easier by the day, but he still found himself saying or doing things that he thought were perfectly normal but getting funny looks in return.  He hated that.  He didn’t like thinking that people were pitying him.  He sometimes felt pity in the way people looked at him, the way they talked to him.  Especially when his past or his childhood or his time in the Emperor’s coven was brought up, so he tried not to bring it up.  He was frankly relieved when nobody else did either.

Willow was still smiling fondly at her seed.  She had a really sweet face, he couldn’t help but notice.  “I’m not working on anything, I’m just getting to know the seed.  Usually I grow plants really quickly because I need them for something, but sometimes it’s nice just to let a seed be a seed, you know?  They’re all different, and that’s beautiful.”

“They are?”  Hunter asked.  A seed just looked like a seed to him.  Some were maybe bigger or smaller, depending on what type of plant.  Is that what she meant?

“Sure, look at it.”  She smiled and placed her seed on her palm and held it up so he could see.  “With plant magic it’s easy to tell the plant what I want it to do, but sometimes it’s harder to listen to what the plant wants to do.  Here, watch.”  She drew a small circle with the finger of her other hand and the seed started to sprout slowly, then a little bit faster, but nothing dramatic like what he had seen her do back on the Day of Unity.  The vine crept along her palm and then split when it reached her wrist, sending thin little tendrils creeping along her arm.  She smiled as she watched it grow.  

“How does it feel?”  Hunter asked in a hushed whisper.  He had to admit, it was beautiful, if a little eerie.  The vines looked like they were a part of her skin.  They reminded him of something that he’d rather not think about right now.

“It tickles.”  She reached her hand out towards him.  “Here, do you want to try?”

Hunter reached his hand forward, but froze when there was a thunk nearby; the sound of a book hitting the floor.  They turned to look at Raine, who had gone ashen, their eyes wide behind their glasses.  

“No, no no no, no.”  They said in a haunted whisper, slipping off the couch to drop to their knees in front of Willow.  “It’s okay, don’t try to fight it.  It’ll be okay, I promise.  We’ll get you out of there.  We’ll find a way, I promise.  Okay?  We won’t leave you there, we won’t…”  They reached forward to grab onto Willow’s hand, desperately searching her face as they spoke.

Confused, Willow tried to pull her hand back.  “Umm, Mx. Whispers?  Are you okay?”

But Hunter understood immediately what was happening.  It was the vines on Willow’s arm.  They looked too much like the red vine-like magic that had imprisoned Raine not all that long ago.  Hunter had noticed it, so of course Raine would as well.  They were having a flashback; they were trapped in a memory.  He knew exactly what that felt like.

Without hesitation, Hunter placed his body in front of Raine’s, gently moving Willow’s arm out of sight.  “Raine?  Look around you.  We’re at the Owl House, remember?  You’re safe here.  That was just plant magic.  Willow was just playing with plant magic.  She’s going to put it away now.”

“I’m sorry.”  Willow whispered from behind him.  “I didn’t know.”

“Not your fault, just put it away.”  Hunter replied without taking his eyes off Raine.  He remembered back on the Day of Unity, during his own flashbacks.  How hard it was to come back from them.  He remembered some of the things Eda had said when she was trying to get through to him.  And he remembered how much he’d focused on the carpet beneath his hands.  How much that had grounded him.  Maybe that’s what Raine needed to do?

“Raine?”  He called softly, guiding their hands down to rest on the floor.  “Look at the carpet, feel it.  You know this carpet.  Where are we?”

“It’s…We’re in…”  Raine said, their voice distant as they bowed their head and rubbed their fingers into the fiber of the carpet.  “Eda’s house… Eda!”

“I’m here.”  Eda said, kneeling down beside them.  Somewhere along the way Vee had gone to fetch her.  Raine reached towards her desperately, as if they were drowning and she was their lifeline.  But then they paused with their hands a little ways away from her face.  Suddenly they swallowed and looked around at the other faces in the room, focusing on Hunter, then Luz, then Amity, and finally landing on Willow.

“I’m sorry.”  They whispered, closing their eyes tightly, and shaking their head.  Tears burned behind their closed eyelids.  “I didn’t…”

“It’s alright.”  Eda said gently, taking their hand and tugging them to their feet.  “Let’s go for a walk, just you and me.”

Raine glanced down at Willow.  They looked like they wanted to say something, but then closed their mouth and averted their gaze and allowed Eda to lead them out of the room.

“I’m sorry.”  Willow whispered, looking down at the plant in her hand.  She looked like she was going to cry.  “I didn’t think…”

Hunter shook his head.  “You couldn’t have known.”

“What happened?  Will they be alright?”  Gus’s voice came from nearby.  Hunter looked up to see everybody had stopped their various activities and were all watching him.

“They’ll be fine, they just had a flashback from their time in the Emperor’s castle.  It happens.”  Hunter said casually.

“You handled that well.  How did you know what to do?”  Luz asked quietly.

“I think I just…guessed?”  Hunter frowned.  How did he know?  Or more to the point, how did the rest of them not know?  It seemed pretty intuitive.

“And what was that bit about the carpet?”  Willow asked, still looking a little shaken.

“Oh, touching the carpet seems to help.  Or at least, it helps me.”  Hunter waved a hand dismissively.  “I can see it and touch it, so it helps to ground me.  It’s familiar, and it reminds me of where I am.  You should try it next time.”

Something about the way that they looked at him made Hunter pause.  He blinked as realization struck him.  “None of you get flashbacks, huh?”  He asked quietly.

“I do.”  Vee spoke from where she stood at the doorway to the kitchen.  “From my time in the Emperor’s castle.”

Hunter snorted.  “That place.”  He shook his head and rubbed his thumb over the bare spot at his wrist where his coven tattoo used to be.  “At least I was never a prisoner.  I could have left if I wanted to.”

“You kinda were though.”  Amity said from nearby.  “Maybe you didn’t have a cage or chains, but you were still a prisoner.”

“Sometimes there were chains.  Like this one time during basic training we had to simulate a prisoner escape.  We hunted each other down like animals.”  Hunter shook his head and gave a low chuckle.  “Classic.”

Nobody else laughed.  Hunter looked around at the faces in the room and grew silent.  He jammed his hands in between his knees and looked down, wishing he’d kept quiet.  He wished they wouldn’t look at him like that.  Vee especially looked stricken, but of course she had actually been an escaping prisoner at one time.  Now Hunter felt especially terrible.  Why couldn’t he just keep quiet?

“You don’t like to talk about your time at the Emperor’s coven, huh?”  Luz asked kindly.

Hunter blinked and raised his head.  “I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear about it.”

Luz sank to her knees on the floor beside him.  “Why would you think that?”

“I don’t know, it’s just…”  Hunter scowled down at his hands.  “People look at me differently when I bring it up.”

Luz looked like she was going to say more, but at that moment Eda appeared in the doorway, next to Vee.

“How is Raine?”  Willow asked.

“They’re fine.  Or they will be.  They just need to rest.”  Eda sighed.  “They wouldn’t relax until I promised to come down here and tell everybody that they’re sorry.  Especially to Willow.”

Willow frowned.  “They have nothing to apologize for.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell them.”  Eda threw up her hands.

“And will you tell them that I’m sorry too?”  Willow asked in a small voice.  “I didn’t know that my vines would cause an unhappy memory.”

“Absolutely not.”  Eda shook her head.  “You have nothing to apologize for either.  It’s one of those things that nobody could have predicted.  I’m going back upstairs.  Would somebody stir the soup while I’m gone?”  She didn’t wait for an answer.  She was already on her way up the stairs, her voice carrying down behind her.

“I really am sorry.”  Willow said softly as Vee went to the other room to stir the soup.

There was a chorus of “it’s not your fault” from every corner of the room, but Hunter stayed quiet.  He sat back on his heels, thinking.  Of course he didn’t think it was Willow’s fault.  He didn’t think it was Raine’s fault either.  So was there a possibility that it wasn’t his fault?  He’d always seen his own flashbacks as a source of shame, especially because they had been so damned public.  Everybody had seen them and he’d always just assumed that everybody had reacted with pity, or scorn, or disgust, or some combination of the above.  But that just didn’t make sense anymore, considering how they were reacting to Raine’s flashback.  

“Hunter?”  Luz asked.  “Are you alright?”

“Huh?  Yeah, I’m just thinking.”  

“About…?”

Hunter looked around at the faces in the room.  He took a moment to remember the rules of social engagement.  They were so different here than they were at the castle.  It was okay for him to open up a bit.  Nobody would use it against him.

He twisted his fingers together nervously just the same.  Opening up to people was hard .  “I get flashbacks too.  I don’t need to tell you that, you all saw them.  But nobody has said anything about them and I guess I thought it was an act of charity.  You know, like you know that I should be ashamed of them or that it’s my fault for being such a screw up or not being strong enough to overcome them or whatever.  You’re just nice enough to keep quiet about it.”

Everybody started to talk at once, to protest against what he said, but Hunter wasn’t done yet.  He held up his hand to silence them so he could continue.  “But now, after seeing how you reacted to Raine, I wonder if the reason you haven’t said anything is because you just don’t know what to say.”

“Nobody thinks that you should be embarrassed of any of this.  Or ashamed, or anything else.”  Luz said into the silence that followed his words.

“Thanks.”  Hunter gave her a timid smile.  “I guess it’s easier to say that than it is to believe it.”

“Well do you think that it’s Raine’s fault that they had a flashback just now?”  Luz continued.

Hunter shook his head.  “Of course not.”

“Well then why do you think that it’s your fault?”

“I guess I just…do?  Or I did.”  Hunter frowned.  “Or I do.  I don’t know.  It’s hard to change your mind about something like that.”

“Well, even if you don’t trust yourself just yet, maybe you can let yourself trust us?”  Willow asked, reaching out to touch his arm gently.  “And we don’t think that you’re a screw up.”

“Thanks.”  Hunter said, and he meant it.  He stared down at Willow’s hand resting on his arm, admiring the way her muscles moved under her sleeve.  He still wasn’t used to physical touch.  Is that why his arm was tingling and his heart was racing?  It wasn’t a bad thing; in fact, he rather liked it.  It was all very strange, he didn’t understand it, but he wanted to tell her something reassuring as well.  Isn’t that what friends do?  “And don’t worry about Raine, they’ll be fine.  Anything could have triggered them.  It wasn’t your fault.”

“Thanks.”  She smiled at him warmly for a moment, removing her hand only when Gus cleared his throat. 

“So, we are allowed to talk about it then?  Because that was super cool how you got everybody on your side like that.  I know it wasn’t intentional, but man.  You saved our butts.  Things would have gone much differently if you hadn’t done that.”  Gus grinned and leaned forward.

“Of course you’re allowed to talk about it.”  Hunter said nervously.

“Great, because I really want to ask about some of the memories that you showed us.  Was that really what life was like in the Emperor’s Coven?  That’s messed up.”  Gus clamped his mouth closed when Willow nudged him.

“It wasn’t all bad.”  Hunter said distantly.

“It never is.  There’s always good moments, that’s why we stay.”  Amity spoke up.  She had drawn her knees up to her chest and was busy hugging them.  Luz went to put an arm around her.

“Yeah.”  Hunter said, his voice breaking.  “It feels strange to say, but I miss my uncle.  I feel like if I had just been a bit stronger than maybe none of this would have happened and he’d still be alive.  Not that I want him to be alive, of course.  I just don’t want him to be dead either.  I don’t know, it’s weird.”

“I don’t think it’s weird.”  Willow said.  

“I think it’s a little weird.”  Gus muttered, and Willow kicked him gently.

“He was a big part of your life, and now he’s not here anymore.  You might be the only person who does miss him.  Of course you’re going to feel conflicted about that.”  Willow said.

“Maybe.”  Hunter muttered.  He still wasn’t fully convinced, but he did feel a lot better.

“Definitely.”  Willow said.  “And we’re going to be here with you while you figure it out.”

“Yeah.”  Hunter looked down at the carpet, moved by her words.  His voice was heavy, and he had to swallow a few times to get it back under control.  “Thanks.”

A pair of arms wrapped around him, and then another, and another.  Willow, and Luz, and Amity, and Gus had all moved in for a hug.  It was nice, if a little awkward.  Hunter wasn’t sure where to put his arms, and there were too many limbs and too many faces all pressed too close together.  

But, well, it was a hug.  And he was starting to like hugs.  Some of them anyway.  Like this one.  This one was good.  

And there were still a million things he wanted to do.  He wanted to go and set up his room and he wanted to go flying with Rascal and he wanted to go check on Vee and he wanted to practice his lute and he wanted to learn another instrument–that tin whistle looked interesting.

But for now there was a hug.  He relaxed a bit into it, allowing himself to lean sideways into Willow’s strong arms.

It would be okay.  He would be okay.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Is it weird being back here?”  Amity asked, drawing her arms around her knees.

Hunter, who had been deep in thought, glanced up at her.  “Back where?  In the castle, or in the throne room?”

“Both.  Isn’t this where you had all those, you know, flashbacks?”  She lowered her voice to a whisper.

“It’s not so bad.”  Hunter said, a partial lie.  That green stain where his uncle’s body had turned into goop had proved very difficult to remove.  Lilly had finally just ordered some screens to be placed around it until they figured out how to purge the area, but Hunter knew it was there.  He had snuck a glance at it on their way past.

“I’m surprised Eda said yes to you coming along.”  Willow added from her place on his other side.  She, too, had her knees drawn up to her chest.  The three of them had been so focused on offering moral support for Luz as she went back through the portal that nobody had thought to bring chairs.

“She tried to say no.”  Hunter said casually.  “But really it’s not her decision.  I’m not going to freak out or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“That’s not what we’re worried about.”  Willow said.

“Good.”  Hunter leaned back on his hands and tapped his feet together a few times.  “Good.”  He stopped short of asking what they were worried about.  Some things are better left unasked.  

The three of them fell silent, watching the portal door.  It was closed, just like it was the last time they’d checked it, and the time before that.

“How long do you think they’ve been in there?”  Willow asked finally.

Amity checked her watch.  “Forty seven minutes.  And twelve minutes since Lilly checked on us last.”

“It seems like it’s been longer.”  Hunter mused.

“Yeah.”

They all looked at the door.  Still closed.

“I’m surprised she didn’t want to bring you with her.”  Hunter said at last, glancing at Amity.

Amity shook her head.  “Not this time.  There’s a lot to do.  Vee wants to see her friends, and Camila has been missing from her job, and Luz hasn’t been back to the human realm in, well…”  She paused and sighed.  “Anyway, Luz said she’d take me next time.  She says the plants there don’t try to eat people.”

Hunter nodded.  “The rain doesn’t boil, the trees are green, and the nights are quiet.”

“Really?  The trees are green?”  Willow asked, leaning forward eagerly.

“That’s what uncle told me.  He said he looked forward to seeing it again.  I guess he won’t now, though.”  Hunter said, trying not to look at the screen that hid the green stain where his uncle’s body had once laid.

Willow grew quiet.  She shoved her hands in between her knees.  “Oh.”

“I was there for a little while, back on the Day of Unity.”  Amity remarked, awkwardly trying to change the subject.  “The trees actually were green, and the plants didn’t try to eat me, so I guess the rest of it must be true too.”

“Neat.”  Hunter said.  “Maybe Luz will take us to go look around one of these days.”

“I’m sure she will.”  Amity smiled that cute, dumb smile that she only did when she was thinking about her girlfriend.  “But anyway, there’s a lot to do in there, so they’ll probably be hours before they come back.  I wish we’d brought a deck of Hexes Hold’em.  Something to do while we wait.”

Just then the door creaked open.  Through it walked Luz, and Camila, and Vee, holding what looked like grocery bags.

Luz held up one of her bags, grinning wildly as Amity rushed to give her a kiss on the cheek.  “Human food!”  She cried excitedly.  “Let’s hurry and get back to the Owl House.  We’re eating tacos tonight!”