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Bait and Switch

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Hunter awakens in hell. Which at least for him, at least right now… is the Emperor’s portal chamber. 

He’s bound by both his arms and legs, hanging precariously close to the unfinished portal itself. Strong, thorny vines keep him tightly restrained, refusing to budge even as he tries an experimental tug against them. His entire body dully aches, his head especially as it swims with half-formed, fuzzy memories about the last time he was awake. Vaguely, he remembers trying and failing to forage for food, Flapjack dutifully hovering by his side. Vaguely, he remembers those three hooded shadows he’d spotted through the trees, the same shadows that have been stalking him for weeks. And vaguely, he remembers when Kikimora–

When Kikimora and just about the full force of the emperor’s army had converged upon him to capture him. 

He should have seen this coming. He should have been more careful. If anything, he should have taken Luz up on her offer to stay at the Owl House. At least if he had, then he would have had some shred of protection, if not much. At least if he had, he wouldn’t have had to struggle to simply survive in the wilds for weeks on end. At least if he had… maybe he wouldn’t be here, right back in the one place he never hoped to return to. The one place that he’s been wishing he could come back to the most. 

Hunter doesn’t get much of a chance to weigh his options for a possible escape before footsteps, slow and steady, begin to echo through the otherwise silent room. Ice-cold fear grips him as he stares into the darkness, skyrocketing as an all-too familiar silhouette emerges from it. Belos is clad in his full regalia, mask and all as he slowly strides forward, his bright blue eyes shining from behind it as they settle solely on his “nephew”. Hunter has to remind himself that isn’t the case, that Belos isn’t his uncle, that they aren’t family in any way whatsoever. That everything he’d ever known, everything he’d used to believe so strongly in… was nothing more than an expertly crafted lie

“Hello, Hunter,” Belos greets him coolly, cordially, even. 

“...Belos,” Hunter retorts, trying his best to hide his resounding terror. Trying his best not to call this twisted man ‘uncle’ or ‘emperor’ or anything else even remotely respectful. 

“You’ve been wandering so far from home for so very long, child,” Belos says, and Hunter can practically imagine the cloying grin under his mask. “It brings me immense relief to see you finally back where you belong. Thank you for bringing him to me, Kikimora,” he glances to his assistant as she gleefully hurries forward to his side. “You have performed your duty admirably.” 

“O-of course, my liege!” Kiki brightly exclaims, offering the emperor a small bow. Hunter rolls his eyes, suppressing a scoff. At the very least, even if everything else in his life has changed, Kiki hasn’t. Once a kiss-up, always a kiss-up, it seems. “ Anything to be of service. And to bring the Golden Fraud here to justice.”

“Fraud?” Hunter questions, though he’s quick to gather what she means. And the very thought alone is enough to practically make his blood boil with sudden anger. “Wait… are you serious? Did you… know about me this entire time?!”

“Of course, I did, you little brat!” Kiki snickers triumphantly. “The emperor actually trusts me, which is far more than can be said about you . It only makes sense that I’d be privy to the most important-”

“I told her five minutes ago,” Belos succinctly cuts her off as he steps past her. 

Kikimora is quick to shrink back, flustered. “Er… y-yes, well…” Before she can get another word out, a loud bang suddenly echoes from another part of the palace, peeking Belos’ interest in particular. 

“My, they’ve arrived earlier than I expected them to,” he notes, glancing back at the door. “Kikimora.”

“Y-yes, my liege?” Kiki stands at attention, ready for her next order. 

“It seems we have some very special guests,” Belos informs as he turns away from her. “See to it that they’re… taken care of, as we discussed.”

“Ah…” Kiki chuckles, her eye glinting with a hint of devious mischief that admittedly leaves Hunter worried. “With pleasure, my liege! Oh, and good luck, Golden ‘Fraud’,” she shoots Hunter another dirty look before she turns to leave. “You’re going to need it.”

For as much as he might want to, Hunter doesn’t dare question what she means by that. Instead, he remains silent, fixing his former ‘uncle’ with as much of a glare as he can muster until the two of them are left alone. As soon as they are, however, Belos slowly removes his mask, revealing the gnarled, tired, almost remorseful face underneath it. 

“It’s such a pity…” he shakes his head as he steps closer to Hunter. The vines holding him lower him just enough for the emperor to lightly skim his cheek. There was a time, not too long ago, when Hunter would have relished such positive attention from his uncle. Now, he can only revile in disgust at the unwanted touch coming from the stranger he’d always been. “I truly had hoped you’d be the last. You had so much potential, boy, such devotion, such dedication, you were always so eager to please. I really thought you’d be the only one out of so many others to be completely, unquestionably loyal to me. But then, like every one of your predecessors before you… you let yourself be corrupted . And a corrupted Golden Guard has no use in this world… or any other.”

No use… no grand purpose like he’d been promised all his life, no place in the Titan’s “grand” design. Nothing left but shame he knows he shouldn’t even be feeling; shame he still carries so much of all the same. “S-so what are you gonna do?” Hunter asks, his voice much smaller than he’d like it to be. “Kill me? Like you killed all of the others?”

Belos’ expression darkens at this. He pulls away, drawing his hand back as if he means to punish Hunter physically for such a bitter accusation. He’s more than used to that kind of treatment from his ‘uncle’ after years of enduring it at his hands. And while he’d normally tense up to brace himself for the blow, this time he doesn’t even flinch, not even as the emperor’s hand slams squarely into the side of his cheek. It stings, yes, but it scarcely even compares to the pain he’d felt back inside of Belos’ mind, back when the life he used to know had shattered to pieces all around him. 

“I could kill you,” Belos notes, his expression dry, haughty. “It would be quite easy. And really, no one would miss you if I did. Save for perhaps that human girl, not that she’s going to be around for much longer anyway–or at least, not in the way that you know her.”

Hunter swallows hard, his former verve filling in with another burst of fear at the mere mention of Luz. He wishes he didn’t care about that infuriating human so much, but of course, he does. After everything they’d seen together, after the kindness that she’d offered him, kindness he couldn’t even take, he’d be crazy not to. He opens his mouth to ask what Belos means by such an ominous remark, but before he can get a single word out, the emperor continues. 

“Yes, I could end your meager excuse for an existence right here and now,” he says, turning his back on the boy. “But you see… ingredients to create a Grimwalker are getting harder and harder to come by these days. After making so many of them, it seems as though my supplies are starting to exhaust themselves. Galdorstones are easy enough to find, Selkidomis scales too, if you know where to look. Stonesleeper lungs are a much more rare, and as we both know… palistrom wood is a dying breed.” Hunter shudders as he listens to this list, to the very things that apparently compose his own body. A body that isn’t even a witch’s, that isn’t anything other than a glorified abomination, really. Nothing more than a tool this terrible man to use however he pleases, nothing more than a puppet who still can’t escape his own twisted strings. 

“But then… there’s the most vital ingredient of them all: the bone of ortet,” Belos goes on. What little he can see of the emperor’s expression, filled with that far off look of regret again, throws Hunter through a loop all over again as he tries to figure out where it could possibly be coming from. “The bones that you were born from… well, after so many years and so many disappointing Golden Guards… I’m sorry to say that I’ve almost none left. Almost .”

Hunter knows he shouldn’t ask, that he shouldn’t even think about any of this any more than he already has. But after weeks of woefully wondering about his odd existence and whatever it all might mean… he has to know. “W-who’s… bones were they?” 

Belos stays silent for a long time. When he does speak, he glances back at Hunter, a strange, vaguely nostalgic smile fills his malformed face. “Why… they were yours , Hunter. Or should I say, they were the first Hunter’s–the original. My brother.”

If this entire chilling exchange didn’t already have Hunter feeling sick to his stomach, this reveal is more than enough to do the trick. “Y-your… You… You made me… using your brother’s bones?! That… that’s-”

“Disgusting? Despicable? Perhaps,” Belos nods. “But no worse than what my brother did to me. We were as close as two children could have possibly been back in the human realm. But then… we found our way here, to the Boiling Isles. While I kept my guard up and tried to get us home, my brother let himself be charmed and beguiled by the wicked ways of the witches here. One of them even managed to ensnare his innocent heart in her vile clutches. He thought it was love… but I knew the truth. I knew that he had been seduced by wild magic, by the evil that plagues every last inch of these awful isles. And so… I did the only merciful thing I could do to rescue my wayward brother.”

“Y-you… killed him…” Hunter finishes, remembering brief flashes of memories hanging inside of the emperor’s mind. Of a man with platinum blonde hair much like his own, his face brutally scratched out in almost every last frame. A face that Belos had tried so hard to forget, only to be haunted by it, only to recreate it over and over again even still. 

“I did,” Belos sighs, though there seems to be only the barest level of shame behind it. “But when I tried to bring him back as a Grimwalker… he wasn’t the same. He’s never the same. So instead of mourning what I’d lost… I settled. I settled for a Golden Guard instead of my brother. I settled for you , Hunter. And if you force me to destroy you… then I will settle again .”

This is no hollow threat, Hunter knows that. The scattered masks of all of the previous Golden Guards before him, what had happened inside the emperor’s mind, it was all enough proof that Belos isn’t above snuffing his life out in seconds. Which begs the strange question that if he could do it so easily, if he could just make another Hunter, even with whatever limited resources he has left… why doesn’t he? 

“I-I… don’t understand,” he admits nervously. “Do you… still want me to come back?”

He hates that there’s an edge of hope in his tone when he asks this. He hates that he wants to foolishly imagine Belos doing exactly that, welcoming him back into his ranks, into his family with open arms. He hates that some small part of him still craves any kind of love from someone who’s never cared about him in the slightest. 

But that craving, those hopes, are all instantly dashed when Belos turns back to him, laughing . “No,” he says between smooth chuckles. “I require a Golden Guard who will serve me until their dying breath, a Golden Guard who doesn’t run and hide when they discover something they don’t like. And… I require a Golden Guard who doesn’t try to hide dirty little secrets from me, such as, hm… let’s see… this .”

Hunter gasps, feeling like he’s been shot straight through the chest by an ice spell when Belos pulls out a long wooden staff. And sitting, sleeping soundly on the tip of that staff is none other than-

“Flapjack!” he cries against his better judgment. But he can’t help it, not when he sees his Palisman, his Palisman resting in the hands of the one person he’d never hoped would find him. The one person he knows can and will destroy him in seconds. 

“Is that what you call this… thing?” Belos smirks, amused. “How quaint. I honestly can’t recall what my brother referred to it as, not that it matters. It’s still the same bothersome creature it’s always been, even now that it’s found your way back to you.”

“What?” Hunter asks, incredulous and afraid. “Flapjack… belonged to your brother?”

“Of course,” Belos says. “Why else do you think it would follow you around so stubbornly? It isn’t intelligent enough to understand that you aren’t him. All it sees is the resemblance to someone it used to know, someone you could never hope to replace.”

Hunter forces himself to shake away the awe of all of these daunting revelations, knowing that so much more is at stake here. Tears are already starting to fill his eyes as he stares down at Flapjack, sitting still and silent on his staff, all but oblivious to the grave danger his life is in. Danger that a powerless witch–a useless Grimwalker like him can do nothing to stop. Nothing that is… but the only thing that’s never worked for him even once before. “P-please,” Hunter begs, choking out a small sob. “Don’t hurt him. I-I’ll do whatever you want, I’ll even go find other Palismen for you. Just… just let him go! Please, uncle !” his voice hitches to a desperate shout, echoing through the portal chamber. “ Please … don’t-”

Snap

Hunter feels it. He feels it . It bursts through his body in a wave of white hot anguish, splitting through his skull, ripping away at the stone that stands in place of his heart. He screams, but he doesn’t hear it for as much as his ears are ringing; he sees it happen, but his eyes are blurry with tears that won’t stop. But still he watches as the emperor consumes the soul of his sweet, innocent Palisman. He watches as Belos drops the empty shell that used to be Flapjack carelessly to the floor. He watches… as his bird, his very best friend… is taken away. Forever.

“Stop your silly tantrum,” Belos sneers as he kicks the Palisman’s empty shell and staff Hunter’s way. “You’re sobbing over an object, nothing more than a mere piece of wood. You should have known better than to keep it hidden from me for so long, Hunter. Perhaps if you had just handed it over to me to begin with, none of this would have happened.”

Hunter’s hardly listening. He doesn’t even so much as glance up at Belos as he stares down at Flapjack’s remains, his heart breaking more and more with each passing second. Fury weaves its way in between the pain, fury that soon enough, forces him to lash out against this wicked man as much as he’s able. “Why?!” he screams in tearful anguish. “ WHY?!”

“You know why,” Belos counters dismissively. “That Palisman’s energy will keep my curse at bay. Like it or not, Hunter, your folly has served your family well.”

Hunter pulls away when Belos reaches for his face once more. “You’re not my family,” he hisses hatefully. “You never were. Flapjack was my family. A-and now…”

“Now, it’s gone,” Belos finishes coldly, unsympathetically. “So I suppose that means you have no family at all. How fitting; you ought to get used to being alone, Hunter. If the plan does indeed call for me to let you go, then that’s likely how you’ll stay.”

“What are you talking about?” Hunter asks, his face still wet with tears. “What plan? Why am I still here? What do you want with me?!”

“It’s not what I want with you , child,” Belos’ grin is filled with cunning malice. “It’s what a friend of mine wants with a friend of yours. You’re merely the bait, Hunter–bait meant to lure someone very special in.” Hunter watches, torn between lingering despair and rising alarm as the emperor dons his mask once more, as a strange, childlike laughter suddenly echoes from somewhere unseen. As a sinister shadow settles into the space atop the portal, a wide, eager smile spread wide across their mismatched, manic face. “Hello, Collector,” Belos greets them with a cordial bow. “Your human is almost here.”


Eda can smell a trap from a mile away. And this… this entire situation simply reeks of perhaps the most twisted trap she’s ever seen. 

She tries to talk Luz out of it from the moment that letter, marked with the Emperor’s sigil, written by his very own hand, arrives on the Owl House’s doorstep. She tries to tell her what this must be when she rushes to recruit Willow and Gus and Amity and even Lilith to their cause. She tries to convince her that this isn’t worth the risk as they all head out to the Titan’s heart, as they all meet up on the outskirts of the emperor’s palace. As they all prepare to put their lives on the line for someone who, as far as they know, might not be in any real danger at all. 

But Luz is nothing if not determined, if not a bit reckless, when it comes to putting her neck on the line for someone in need. Even if it’s someone who tried to kill them on more than one occasion. 

“Thanks for coming, everyone,” Luz begins as their small, motley crew comes together. They’ve chosen a spot well out of the way of any patrolling guards, hoping to not get caught before they can even get in. “Now, this isn’t gonna be easy, but we’ve gotta get in there and bust Hunter out!”

“Luz,” Lilith speaks up, raising her hand. “Are you sure this is such a good idea? I’m not sure how much time you’ve spent with him, but the Golden Guard is… well, he’s a bit of a brat, to put it mildly.”

“Yeah, Luz, I know you want to help him, but… Hunter isn’t exactly a good person,” Amity adds with a fretful frown. “If he hadn’t taken the portal key, then getting you back home to your mom would be a whole lot easier.”

“He only did that because he was scared of failing Belos!” Luz protests, practically spitting the emperor’s name out. “And why wouldn’t he be after how he got rid of every Golden Guard before him? It’s not his fault, none of this is his fault!”

“...Edalyn,” Lilith whispers to her sister. “Could you maybe… talk some sense into her? Before she gets herself hurt–in more ways than one?”

“Ah, sorry, Lily, no can do,” Eda shakes her head as she steps over to Luz, placing a supportive hand on her shoulder. “Luz is right; blondie may seem like a bad griffon egg, but he’s got baggage. A lot of baggage. And ol’ Emperor Bonehead is to blame for just about all of it.”

“We’ve been out looking for him for weeks ,” King explains, pulling the emperor’s letter out. “But then this morning, Hooty found this on the lawn! I thought it was junk mail, like all those scam coupons for the night market or more of Belos’ weird preachy propaganda-”

“But it was a message,” Luz continues, taking the letter and reading it aloud for the others. “ ‘I’ve found your ‘friend’, if you wish to see him alive, come to the palace by sunset tonight.” Signed Emperor Belos.”

“Huh, well that’s just about as to the point as it can be,” Gus notes. 

“If you wanna save Caleb–er, Hunter , then we’re with you, Luz,” Willow grins, putting her hand out as Luz and Gus pile theirs on top of it. “After all, we can’t afford to lose the Emerald Entrails’ MVP.”

“We’re in, kiddo,” Eda smiles proudly as she and King add their hands to the pile. “After that petrification ceremony, I’ve been meaning to settle the score with that creep anyway. What about you, Lily?”

“...Oh, alright,” Lilith sighs in defeat. “But only because I know my way around the palace far better than any of you. But if we run into Kikimora, I can’t promise I won’t get a bit… violent.”

“Oh, by all means,” Eda chuckles. “Violence is welcome here, encouraged even.”

“I came prepared to gouge someone’s eyes out!” King chimes in excitedly, adorably. 

“Well, Amity?” Luz offers her girlfriend a warm, hopeful smile. “We could really use your help. What do you say?”

Amity hesitates, unable to shake the feeling that something about this entire situation is so strange, so wrong . But in the end, she caves when she meets Luz’ earnest gaze. When she realizes just how important this mission really is to her. How much saving someone else matters to her, no matter how high the danger might be. When she remembers just how caring and kind her girlfriend really is. “Ok,” she concedes as she places her hand on top of all the others. “I’ll do what I can. For you.”

“And… for Hunter!” Luz exclaims, throwing her hand high. She falters though when none of the others echo her. “Oh, uh… you were all supposed to cheer too, so…”

A chorus of ‘ohs’ sounds, followed by a round of halfhearted ‘Hunters’. It’s good enough for Luz, however, as she pushes in toward the palace a bit more, scoping out the best way to approach. “Ok,” she says, pulling her cloak a bit tighter around her shoulders. “How do we get in?”

Willow smirks as powerful plant magic swirls around her hand. Gus shares as he casts ample illusions of himself, both of them on board to cause as much chaos, and as much of a distraction, as they possibly can. “Leave that to us.”


Sure enough, Willow and Gus make quick work of the guards stationed at the palace’s front gates. Their attack gives the others more than enough of a chance to rush in, glyphs and Palismen at the ready for whatever they might face inside. And yet, what they’re met with once they make it into the grand foyer is… silence. And even stranger yet, not a single soldier in sight. 

“Uh… Lily?” Eda asks, glancing around in confusion. “What’s the big idea here? Didn’t you say this place would be swarming with guards?”

“It usually is, yes,’ Lilith nods, frowning. “This is… concerning…”

“No, it’s great!” Luz exclaims, courageously pressing on ahead. “No guards means no one to stop us from getting to Hunter! So, Lilith, where would Belos be keeping him?”

“Hm… well-”

A startled gasp echoes from one of the surrounding halls, one that Eda immediately recognizes as she turns to face its source. Her heart practically stops at the sight of them, their eyes wide as they stare at her in absolute shock and what almost seems to be fear. Not that it’s enough to stop Eda from rushing to them. “Raine!” she exclaims, refusing to let them slip away from her so easily. Not after what happened last time. 

Even so, Raine swiftly backs away before she can even get close. “Eda, what are you doing here?” they ask tensely, glancing around. “Do you have any idea how dangerous it is for you to be here, with your kids no less? What were you thinking?”

“Whoa, hey now, don’t pin this crazy plan on me,” Eda remarks. “This was all Luz’s idea. I’m just here to make sure she doesn’t get herself killed trying to save blondie.”

“Blondie?” Raine raises an eyebrow. “Wait… do you mean… the Golden Guard? Then Darius was right… Belos really has found him…”

“Huh?” Eda asks, though before she can press for more details, Luz quickly cuts in. 

“He’s in trouble!” Luz pleads. “Please, Raine, I-I know you’re still loyal to the emperor, but we really need your help, before it’s too late!” 

Raine hesitates, glancing back and forth between Luz and Eda. Their gaze lingers on their former lover, that hesitation growing as they take in the longing, the sheer sadness in her eyes. They’ve never been able to resist Eda for long, and it seems as though even this time, they’re powerless against her. Powerless to keep this risky ruse up any longer than they already have. “Me? Loyal to the emperor?” they scoff, winking at Eda. “You must have me confused for some other bard. Only a chump would serve someone like Belos.”

It takes Eda a moment or two to catch on, but when she does, she can hardly contain herself. She bursts out laughing, absolutely elated as she catches Raine by surprise, whisking them off their feet as she gleefully spins them around. “Raine Whispers, you shy, sneaky genius!” she laughs blissfully, peppering their face with kisses. “You’ve been playing the Emperor’s Coven all this time, haven’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I… didn’t want you getting hurt,” Raine admits sheepishly. “But since you’re already here… I guess it’s too late to keep you away. Follow me; I know someone who can help.”

“Oh, you do now?” 

 The sudden edge Raine had given them is abruptly broken when the group turns to see who’s standing at the other end of the hall. “Kikimora…” Lilith scowls, her hands curled into tight fists at the sight of her old rival. 

Sure enough, Kikimora is flanked by countless guards, and while that alone would be worrying enough, it’s who they’ve managed to apprehend that frightens Raine the most. “Darius! Eberwolf!” they exclaim, aghast at the sight of their captured co-conspirators. But sure enough, the pair has been subdued by ample spells, both of them barely conscious as Kiki orders the guards to toss them forward for the intruders to see. 

“What a shame that so many of our own Coven heads would turn against us,” Kikimora shakes her head in faux disappointment. “Then again, the Golden Guard is a filthy traitor too. It’s so hard to find trustworthy witches these days. Oh well. The emperor still has use even for turncoats like you all the same.”

With a mere snap of her fingers, magic explodes from the coven brands on Darius’ and Eberwolf’s skin. That same painful spell surges over Raine in turn, eliciting an agonized cry as Eda narrowly manages to catch them before they fall. “What are you doing to them, you little freak?” she demands harshly. 

“Putting them back in line,” Kikimora explains simply, deviously. “By the way, the emperor only requested the human to come. The rest of you have no reason to be here. Leave now and your puny lives might just be spared.”

“Not a chance,” Amity hisses, gripping her staff tightly. 

“We’re not leaving without… uh, what’s his name again?” King asks Luz, aside. 

“Hunter,” she clarifies boldly, a handful of glyphs already prepared for the fight ahead. “We’re not leaving without Hunter.”

“Hm, I don’t know what value you could possibly find in a lowly Grimwalker like him,” Kiki rolls her eye. “But if you want to cause trouble, then you’ll get much more than that in return. Attack!” 

On this command, the guards charge ahead, using spears and swords and magic to try and apprehend the intruders. Eda keeps a close hold on Raine as she does her best to fend them off without magic as Lilith covers her sister as best she can. Despite his size, King readily contributes to the fray, making good use of his screams to drive several of the soldiers back. For their part, Luz and Amity stay close, combining glyphs and with abomination magic to ward off some of their more powerful assailants. Even so, as they continue coming, it’s clear that this battle won’t end any time soon. And unfortunately, time doesn’t seem to be something they have too much of on their side. 

“We’ve gotta get out of here and find Hunter,” Luz says as she uses a plant glyph to knock several guards away. “But how?”

“Don’t worry about how,” Eda assures as she hands Raine over to Lilith. “I’ll take care of that for you.”

“Huh?” Luz frowns, confused. “Eda, what are you-”

She doesn’t finish as Eda suddenly, smoothly shifts into her harpy form. With her much more powerful arms, she abruptly grabs a hold of both Luz and Amity before throwing them straight past the crowd of guards surrounding them. The pair lands smoothly outside of the skirmish, though Luz hesitates when she notices the guards turn even more aggressive against her more monstrous guardian. “Eda!”

“Don’t worry about me, kid!” she calls, spreading her wings wide. “You know I can handle myself. Just find blondie, bust him out, and get back to me safely, ok?”

As Luz watches Eda take out another three guards all in one swing, she nods, knowing that if there’s anyone who can win a fight like this, it’s the Owl Lady herself. “Ok,” she promises before she takes Amity’s hand and bolts down the hall. “C’mon. We’ve got a Hunter, to uh… hunt? Uh, that sounded a lot cooler in my head.”

Amity chuckles, though there isn’t much levity in it as she runs alongside her girlfriend down the echoing halls. With most of the guards focused on the group near the entrance, they’re met with virtually no resistance, something that unnerves Amity even still. Especially when she remembers what Kikimora had said, that the emperor had wanted Luz to come alone

“Aha! This has gotta be it!” Luz exclaims as they happen across a large door. “If Hunter’s in there, then that means Belos might be too. Are you ready for this, Amity?”

“...I guess,” Amity answers apprehensively. Because in truth, she’s ready to face just about anything as long as Luz is by her side, and yet… “But… Luz, I… something about this whole thing… it just doesn’t add up.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean… what if Eda really was right?” she asks, eyeing the doors before them distrustfully. “What if this really is just a trap? A trap the emperor set… to catch you ?”

“Me?” Luz scoffs. “What would the emperor need me for? He already got what he wanted from me. He… he’s rebuilding the portal… If he finishes it before the Day of Unity, then… w-well, I don’t really know what’ll happen, but I bet it’s gonna be bad! So if we can stop him and save Hunter all at once, then we’ll get to kill two birds with one stone!”

“...What does killing birds have to do with any of this?” Amity asks, arcing an eyebrow. 

“It’s an expression,” Luz grins, rubbing the back of her neck. “Point is, the two of us can do this, Amity. I know we can. Together, we’re unstoppable!”

“...Yeah,” Amity smiles as much as she can. Even despite how many reservations, how many hidden fears are still swimming inside her head. “Just… whatever happens in there, Luz, promise me that you’ll be careful. I’ll be right beside you the whole time, but… I know you, and I know how you can sometimes be. Sometimes, you just… you give too much of yourself by trying to do everything for others. I don’t want to lose you like that.”

“You won’t,” Luz assures softly, lightly kissing her head. “I promise, I’ll… I’ll think of myself as much as I’m thinking about Hunter, ok?”

Amity can tell she’s lying, she can see it in the way her smile doesn’t quite meet her eyes, the way her tone slips out of the confidence she so usually carries. If it were up to her, she’d carry her girlfriend out of this death trap right here and now and leave that treacherous Golden Guard to whatever fate Belos has in store for him. But Luz… Luz sees something in Hunter that Amity clearly doesn’t; Luz sees someone who’s worth all of this effort, someone who’s worth trying to save. And even if Amity can’t see any of that for herself… the very least she can do is try to ensure her girlfriend makes it out of this mess alive. The least she can do is save Luz, both from the emperor… and from herself. 

So with that, the pair lock hands, exchange one final, solemn nod… and push the door open together, walking into the darkness side-by-side. 

And what awaits on the other side of that darkness… is something neither of them can believe. 

“...The portal…” Amity whispers, shocked at just how far along it is. How the emperor had so easily used the Titan’s blood that Hunter had taken to get it to such a state. How dangerous this could all prove to the distant world Luz calls home. 

“Hunter!” Luz gasps when she spots him, hanging limply from a dense web of magical vines just beside the portal. Surprised, he darts his gaze up from where it’s settled on the floor, and to the couple’s surprise, it's wet with longstanding tears as he looks between them both. 

“L-Luz!” he exclaims in a sharp, anxious whisper. “What are you doing here?”

“We came to save you, duh,” Luz explains with a small laugh to try and ease his spirits. That laughter immediately dies out, however, as soon as she happens to step on what Hunter had been staring at. As soon as she notices the lifeless remains of an all-too familiar Palisman lying on the floor. “W-wait… is… is that-”

She cuts herself off, unable to finish as she scoops up the broken wood with trembling hands. She glances up to Hunter for confirmation, though all he can do is nod, closing his eyes tightly as he lets out a small, heartbroken sob. And that alone is all Luz needs to piece together exactly what’s happened here, exactly what that monster has done to hurt Hunter even more. 

“Oh… Hunter…” she whispers, wiping a mournful tear of her own away. “I-I… I’m so sorry. If we’d made it here sooner, maybe-”

“He would have done it anyway,” Hunter mutters despondently. “And he would have done even worse to me if… if it wasn’t for you.” His expression shifts from grief to fear as he scans the room as much as he can from his current restrained spot. “Listen to me, Luz, you need to get out of here, now .”

“We will, as soon as we get you out of here too,” Luz says, prepping a few glyphs to cut him loose. 

“No, you don’t understand,” Hunter counters urgently. “If Belos comes back and you’re still here, you could-”

Before he can get another word out, the room is suddenly thrown into total darkness. The only specks of light that come to life in the seconds that follow are from a set of blazing blue eyes. From the figure only Hunter sees looming tall and sinister right behind Luz and Amity. He draws in a breath to warn them, but ultimately Belos beats him to it. 

“Welcome, Luz,” he says, the sound of his voice alone sending a mutual chill down Luz, Amity, and Hunter’s spines. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

Luz doesn’t even have time to fully turn around before all hell breaks loose. Light returns to the room, though that’s hardly any comfort as Amity’s hand is suddenly ripped out of hers. She can only watch as her girlfriend is thrown hard into one of the pillars on the far side of the room, restrained to it by the same vines that are keeping Hunter held in thrall. Ghost is tossed away from her, fortunately out of Belos’ direct line of sight, lest another innocent Palisman meet its untimely end. Naturally, as soon as Luz notices that Amity is in trouble, she leaps into action, throwing herself and the first glyph she has on hand at the emperor in full, furious force. 

“Leave her alone!” she shouts, though Belos smoothly steps out of the way of her ice glyph. He uses a bit of ‘magic’ of his own to shove her forward toward the center of the room, sending her other glyphs scattering before he burns them all out of existence. 

“Worry not for your little ‘friend’ there,” Belos barely even glances over at Amity and Luz can’t help but find some solace in that. His focus isn’t on her, which means she’s out of any immediate harm; for now, at least. “I have no quarrel with the youngest Blight. It’s you, Luz, that I wanted to see.”

“Well, you’re seein’ me now!” Luz snaps as she scrambles back onto her feet. She reaches into her cloak for any spare glyphs she might have on hand, only to find none. Belos had burned up any sort of advantage she thought she’d have, any sort of tool she could have used to thwart him like she thought she did the first time they fought. 

“Please,” Belos advises calmly, politely even. “We’ve no reason to fight. Nobody has to get hurt. This can all be over within a matter of minutes.”

“Oh yeah?” Luz counters, raising her bare fists to fight with them if she has to. “And how’s that?”

“It’s quite simple,” Belos walks past her. His mask conceals his face, but she can practically picture the smug smile underneath it. “You came here to rescue this… disappointment here, didn’t you?”

“Don’t call him that!” Luz snaps, surprised that Hunter doesn’t try to defend himself. Then again, after everything he’s been through at the emperor’s hands, she can’t say she’s too surprised that he doesn’t. 

“I’m merely stating the truth,” Belos says dismissively. “Normally, I would dispose of faulty Golden Guards as soon as they betray me, but with the Day of Unity so quickly approaching, I’m feeling rather… generous. So I’ll cut you a deal. I’ll let that… thing live, I’ll even release him into the care of your companions, if that’s what you’d like. All I require in exchange… is a little assistance from you, Luz.”

Before Luz even has a chance to process these terms, Hunter pipes up in protest. “Don’t listen to him!” he warns fearfully. “It’s not what you think it is. He’s-” With a wave of his hand, Belos quickly conjures up another vibe to cover Hunter’s mouth, silencing him altogether. 

“You speak too much, boy,” the emperor remarks coldly. “Yet another trait you share with him .”

Luz bristles when she sees the panic in Hunter’s eyes, panic that he can’t even voice thanks to the literal hold this horrid man has over him. A hold that she might just have the power to finally break. “...What kind of ‘assistance’ are we talking about here?” she asks. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Amity shaking her head, warning her against whatever this mysterious scheme might be. Even so, Luz decides to hear him out, hating that she has to do even that much for someone who doesn’t deserve it in the slightest. 

“There’s an old friend of mine,” Belos begins. “One that you may have seen when you and Hunter so brazenly intruded upon my memories not so long ago.”

“...The… Collector?” Luz barely manages to recall. After all, so much had been discovered on that daunting day, so many damning revelations made that she still struggles to keep track of it all. Even so, that strange, shadowy figure stands out, their playful, peculiar demeanor such a stark contrast from how gravely serious Belos usually is. She can’t help but wonder what their history is, how two complete opposites like them could even be “friends” at all. 

“Precisely,” Belos nods as he continues to approach the portal. “They’ve been by my side for centuries, a dedicated companion with ample knowledge to spare. If not for their aid, I would have never come this far in constructing my portal back to the human realm. And yet, for all of the invaluable help they’ve given me, all that the Collector has asked is that I give it one small thing in return.”

“And… that thing is?” Luz dares to ask, even though every last one of her better senses is begging her not to.

Belos turns to face her, his eyes gleaming brightly, maliciously as they stare at Luz and Luz alone. “...A human.”

“What?” Luz and Amity ask in disturbed unison. Because in just one word alone, the already dangerous game they’re playing with the emperor just became a thousand times moreso. 

“The Collector is an incredibly powerful being,” Belos explains. “And yet, there is but one thing they lack: a physical form. For the Day of Unity to proceed as planned, they cannot remain bound to the shadows as they currently are. They need a body, a human body to be specific.”

“But… why a human? Can’t they just, uh, u-use a witch?” Luz asks, her voice shaking as Belos starts to approach her. She backs away, her heart already racing as she starts to piece together what he intends to do with her, why he’d used Hunter to lure her here in the first place. What could happen if she says yes to this sadistic scheme. 

“Their power is… incompatible with that of a witch’s,” Belos shakes his head. “They require a blank slate, a being with no innate magic of their own. And, given that the Day of Unity is all about binding this world with our own, who better to give them form than a human? A human… like you , Luz.”

Luz shudders, smacking Belos hand away when he reaches for her shoulder. “Y-you’re a human!” she spits, glaring at him fiercely. “If you wanna help them so badly, why don’t you do it?!”

“I would,” the emperor lies blatantly. “But unfortunately, my curse makes me an… ineligible candidate. Besides, the Collector would prefer a fresh vessel, one that has not been worn and withered by the sands of time. For decades, I have been searching for someone who could satisfy their specific conditions. I was starting to worry that search would be in vain… until you showed up. Isn’t it ironic, Luz,” he keeps his focus set on her as he slowly circles her as though she’s prey. Which, for all intents and purposes, is exactly the case here. “That you would be of such immense help to me in the past, the present, and even the future?”

Despite her lingering fear, a burst of raw anger pierces through all of it as Luz clenches her hands into tight fists at her sides. “No,” she says between gritted teeth. “No way. I am not helping you, on purpose or on accident, ever again! So find your weird friend another vessel ‘cause I won’t-”

She cuts herself off with a gasp as Belos suddenly appears back on the far side of the room. He summons the vines hoisting Hunter low, to the point that the boy is well within his range. Strangely, Belos removes his mask, setting it aside as he regards his fake ‘nephew’ dryly. “How quick you are to forget the terms of our ‘deal’, Luz,” he says with a haughty frown. “I believe I said that if you helped me, I’d let poor Hunter here go. But of course… you don’t have to agree. You’re free to leave with all of your dear friends and pretend like none of this ever happened. Though if that’s the path you choose, then you’ll leave me with no recourse…” 

Hunter gasps as the vines suddenly pull away from his mouth, though he doesn’t get a chance to say a single word before they reposition themselves… around his throat . They tighten immediately, painfully strangling him to the point that every breath he tries to take is an incredible struggle. He lashes out against the vines restraining him, desperately trying to break free, especially when he spares a teary glance down at Luz. Luz, who’s watching all of this with wide, fearful eyes, Luz, who’s currently cornered every bit as much as he is right now. Luz… who he can already tell is starting to consider the unthinkable. All for him. 

“S-stop!” she begs weakly, worthlessly. “You can’t just-”

“I can,” Belos cuts her off, his tone and expression both icy and unfeeling. “And I have, many times before. Think of it this way, Luz. If not for your… clumsy intervention, Hunter would still be in my good graces. His life, however meaningless it might be, is at risk solely because of you . If anything, I’d say you owe it to him to give yourself up in his stead. Maybe then you might finally be able to ease that guilty conscience of yours…”

He’s right. He’s right, and Luz hates that he always seems to be at every turn. Because if she hadn’t forced Hunter to stumble through Belos’ mind with her, if she hadn’t been so insistent on uncovering his dark secrets, if she hadn’t stuck her nose where it didn’t belong like she always does, then none of this would be happening. Hunter would be safe, still under the emperor’s oppressive thumb, still believing his endless lies, yes, but at least his life wouldn’t be hanging by a literal thread like it is now. At least she wouldn’t be standing here, having to make an impossible choice. At least she wouldn’t have to decide if the life of someone who’s barely even her friend is more important than her own. 

“I-I… I…” she stumbles, searching for something to say, for some miracle to come bursting through the door. She wishes that miracle was Eda and the others, wishes that they’d all rush in and distract Belos long enough for her to hurry forward and set Hunter free. She wishes for some easy way out of this, but of course, nothing is ever easy for her anymore, is it? It’s never been easy, not since she first stepped foot through that portal to the Boiling Isles to begin with. 

“Luz!” Amity suddenly speaks up, her expression torn between dread and fury. “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t you dare ! We’ll figure out some other way to help him, just don’t do this, please-

Amity stops starkly, a startled cry escaping her as the vines entangling her slap themselves over her mouth just as they had for Hunter moments ago. “Amity!” Luz yells, turning back to Belos fiercely. “She isn’t part of this. Let her go!”

“I’m afraid I cannot,” Belos denies smoothly. “For it seems you need a bit more… motivation. So here is my final offer: I will release Hunter and Amity safely… so long as you give yourself up in exchange. If not, then I can assure you, Luz, that you and I will be the only ones to walk out of this room alive. So,” he smiles again as he walks toward her, extending a hand out for her to take. “Do we have a deal?”

Luz is powerless to hold back a sob when she realizes exactly how hopeless this all is. She has no glyphs, no plan, no magic of her own to even give her a chance at fighting back. She has no idea where the rest of her friends are, much less how they’re faring in the intense fight she’d so selfishly dragged them all into. She has nothing else to barter with, nothing she could trade for Hunter and Amity’s freedom… nothing… other than herself. 

She doesn’t know what’ll happen to her if she says yes. She doesn’t know what her fate will ultimately be if she agrees to become the Collector’s vessel. She doesn’t even know who the Collector is or what they plan to do once they get a body of their own. But… she does know this. She knows that Hunter is barely breathing, his face pale, his eyes glazing over as his struggling slows to a near stop. She knows that Amity is staring at her, tears pouring down her cheeks, her face filled with heartache that’s enough to parallel her own. She knows that every last part of this, from the very second she’d traveled back in time to meet Philip Wittebane, to this tense, terrible moment in the present, is entirely her fault. She knows that she doesn’t want to do this… but that she has no other choice. She knows that after all of the trouble that she’s caused, it’s only fair that this is the path she’s forced to take. It’s only fair that she sacrifices whatever she can in the hopes that maybe someday, someone else can finally set it all right. 

So, she wipes her tears away, stands as straight and tall as she can, and stares her foe directly in the eyes… as she takes his hand and shakes it solidly. “...Deal.”

The emperor beams at this, and it takes every ounce of self control Luz has to keep herself from punching that smile clean off his disgusting face. “Thank you, Luz,” he says, and the false warmth in his tone is almost enough to make her sick. “I knew I could rely on you once again. Now, come along. The Collector is waiting.”

“Hold it,” Luz says as  he tries leading her toward the portal. “I’m not going anywhere until you let both of them go.”

Belos sighs, rolling his eyes in apparent exasperation. “Very well, we did have a deal, didn’t we?” He waves his hand, finally releasing Hunter and Amity from the vines. In an instant, Amity springs into action, running to retrieve Ghost so she can stop this awful exchange in its tracks. Though the second her Palisman is back in her hands, a sudden wave of energy throws her hard toward the back of the room, a sturdy clear wall of magic rising to block any attempts at further intervention. That doesn’t stop Amity from trying though as she calls upon several abominations to beat against it, but even then, none of them are able to land so much as a single crack against its impenetrable surface. 

At the same time, Hunter lands hard on the ground, barely conscious as he gasps for air he can suddenly get again. Luz rushes over to him, completely forgetting about Belos, about their deal, about everything other than making sure he’s ok as she carefully helps him sit up. “You’re ok,” she assures him, pulling him into a tight hug. “You’re gonna be ok, I promise, I-”

Hunter suddenly shoves her away, his breathing still heavy as he glares at her, tears starting to build in his eyes all over again. “A-are you stupid?! Why would you ever say yes to something like this?!”

“...Why wouldn’t I say yes if it meant saving two people I care about?” Luz returns earnestly, kindly. She leaves Hunter in speechless awe as she stands, walking unwaveringly toward Belos, toward what may very well be the end of her altogether. Hunter doesn’t know how to stop her, he doesn’t know how to stop any of this. He has no magic, no Palisman, nothing to say that could convince her to walk away. Because at the end of the day, Luz is a human of her word, someone who means what she says and does what is asked of her. Even if what’s being asked of her now is a price that’s far too high for anyone to pay. 

As stunned into silence as Hunter is, Amity is anything but. She continues pounding against the barrier with her bare fists, her words muffled by it as she continues begging Luz to stop. Luz can’t hear much of what she’s saying, but as she stops just shy of the portal, she does turn back to her girlfriend, a teary smile on her face. She wishes she could run to her, to tell her goodbye with hugs and kisses and so much more than mere words alone. But words are all she has to give as she blows one final kiss to someone who matters so much to her from afar. “I’m sorry, Amity,” she says, her voice quiet, yet calm, filled with adoration that makes Amity’s already crumbling heart shatter completely. “ Te amo con todo mi corazón…

And with that, she turns away from the two people she’s giving everything to save. From two people who both don’t feel like they deserve such a grave sacrifice at all. 

“Collector!” Belos calls, raising his arms high as he stands just to the side of the portal. “Come to me! I’ve finally found what you’ve been asking for…”

Immediately, gales of spritely laughter fill the room, the sound of it alone proving enough to make Luz’ blood run cold. But when she sees that bizarre shadow slipping down from the eaves of the room, likely having been watching everything from all this time, waiting eagerly for its cue to come in. “You bellowed, Belos?” they greet cheerfully, perching themselves just above the portal. 

“Yes,” Belos nods, grinning broadly. “I’d like you to meet Luz.”

The Collector gasps, pulling themselves down onto the surface of the portal itself so they can be on eye level with their proposed vessel. “Ohohoho! Hi, Luz!” they exclaim with a huge, excited grin. 

“Uh… hi?” Luz tenses up, offering them a small, nervous wave.

“I’ve heard soooooo much about you!” the Collector practically sings as they pool down to rest in Luz’s own shadow. “You n’ me are gonna have so much fun together, I can already tell!”

“Uh huh…” Luz laughs anxiously, if only to try and ease her own frayed nerves if nothing else. “Just… before we do this, I need to know. You’re not gonna try and use my body to… hurt anyone, are you?”

“Hmmmm the Collector muses before ultimately giving a noncommittal shrug. “I dunno. I just wanna play! But if anyone tries to get in my way… well, I guess I can’t really say…”

Despite the playful rhyme, that’s just about the last answer Luz is looking for. She prepares to protest, but the Collector doesn’t give her a chance as they pull themselves high over the portal once more. “So, let’s not waste anymore time–you and I have new heights to climb! My brand new body waits for me, so much to do, to see, to be! I hope you’re ready for the change–your life is about to rearrange! The day is here, it’s you I choose–to be my human vessel, Luz!”

Luz doesn’t even have a moment to prepare herself, to even think of anything at all before the Collector suddenly surges upon her. Her scream echoes through the hall, mingled with terrified ones from Hunter and Amity alike as they watch it all unfold. Luz falls to her knees as the Collectors’ shadowy form covers her like a shroud, engulfing her in inky darkness. Belos stands by with a satisfied, wicked smile on his face as his plan unfurls, as his ‘friend’ becomes something far more useful to him than they’d been before. And all at the small cost of a foolish, young girl’s life, a cost he would have paid ten times over if he could. 

Luz’s screams eventually shift into something different, her voice remaining as someone else’s is added onto it. The Collector forces her to laugh as they cover their new face, the hood of Luz’s cloak sweeping up to cover her startlingly whitening hair. Bright magic swirls around them as they slowly rise, not just to their feet, but to hover only a few inches above the ground, their longer cloak dangling as they gleefully embrace their new form. The form they so readily, happily stole from someone altogether. 

At that exact moment, the doors on the far side of the room burst open. Eda charges in first, still in her harpy form, her claws poised and ready to attack. King and Lilith aren’t far behind, and Gus and Willow have managed to catch up with them as well. Better yet, they’d managed to rescue Raine, Darius, and Eberwolf from Kiki’s clutches, not that it means much when they notice Amity crying when she glances back at them. When they notice Hunter still sitting on the ground, staring in despondent shock at what he’d unwittingly helped unfurl. When they notice Belos grinning down at each of them in greeting, a blue cloaked figure standing small only a few feet beside him. 

“Greetings, Owl Lady,” he addresses Eda as his wicked smile grows even wider. “You’re just in time to watch your shining star of a pupil fall .”

“Too late for that, she’s already burned! Her ashes have paved the way for my return!” The group at the far end of the room freezes as this voice echoes through the room, sounding so much like Luz’s but so unlike it all the same. 

“L-Luz…?” Eda asks, placing a trembling hand against the barrier as she stares at the cloaked figure. But as that figure turns, she gasps, realizing that they aren’t her precious pupil at all. Or at least, they’re nothing like how she should be. 

A cunning smirk rests on the Collector’s face, split between a bright blue and a garish orange, their eyes pools of glowing yellow with blood red pupils. They bow playfully for their ‘audience’, casting their magic upon the portal behind them, the final thing needed to at last get it up and running. The final step to take toward the Day of Unity, the last sacrifice taken, the highest price possible paid.

“It seems your plan has gone all wrong,” the Collector smiles greedily, taking twisted delight in watching so many hearts break before them all at once. So sorry to tell you… but Luz is GONE !”