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I'll See Them off Tomorrow

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Hunter stared down at the stationary cardinal half lit by the rising sun outside his window, his mind still in a fog.

They were so… small.

“What did the human, Luz, was it… call you again?” he muttered, reaching out with hesitant fingers towards the bird. He was half-convinced they would dissolve at his touch like wisps of a dream.

But when he gently cupped… Li'l Rascal, that was it , with his right hand, he was met with worn wood he could feel even through his gloves instead of air.

And then the palisman was springing to life beneath his fingertips, chirping brightly as it flew off the staff.

Hunter let out an audible gasp, his earlier surprise returning as Li’l Rascal landed down onto the windowsill once more.

He glanced back at the staff.

Then to Li'l Rascal, who tilted their head at him and chirped questioningly.

Back to the staff.

Back to the-… his palisman.

Wow. That was a strange concept. Why him, of all witches? Why choose someone powerless… not like he was a fantastic choice for something imbued with wild, dangerous, don’t forget, magic.

He reached out again, cautiously, towards the cardinal. They responded by hopping closer and nuzzling against his palm.

And… yeah, his heart was definitely melting. 

Shoot… 

He knew he couldn’t keep them, even as they fluttered up to his shoulder and took a new interest in tugging at his ears.

 

He knew he couldn’t keep them that evening as he carefully drew out the glyphs Luz had used the night before as best he could from memory while making sure not to accidentally activate them, as the palisman flitted about and explored his room.

Making themself at home, he thought, before shaking his head and willing it away.

His hand brushed against one of the glyphs on accident, and he instinctively held his breath as he stared at it, waiting.

Nothing happened. He should have felt relieved, but…

But nothing. 

L’il Rascal flew down and began pecking at the glyphs. Not one of them activated. Hunter sighed and turned his head out to the open air beyond his window, wondering what it would be like to watch them gradually turn into a red speck and disappear from his life.

It stung a little.

He knew he couldn’t keep them as he stuttered awake for the fifth time that hour, dragging his head up from the worn page that had been acting as his pillow. Blearily, he wiped away the small puddle of drool that had begun to form over the paragraph on wild magic theories. It had taken a very anxiety-inducing trip to the restricted section of the castle library to obtain the tome, and he wasn’t about to ruin it with his saliva.

As he wiped it with a removed glove, L’il Rascal emerged from a fortress of books on his desk. They alighted and firmly grasped a few locks of his hair, yanking sharply.

“What- Ow!!” cried out Hunter as he was suddenly pulled backwards with just enough force for the chair to fall back, and he toppled to the floor.

He dazedly rubbed at his head, sore both from the cardinal’s tugs and his fall. 

In the fog of his thoughts he hoped dimly that no one had heard the crash. His room wasn’t exactly near anyone else’s, but that didn’t mean no one would be able to hear the noise made by a noisy little guest of his.

The culprit landed on his chest, and he could swear they were acting smug, puffing out their feathers and letting out a few distinct chirps.

“Why you little-” he muttered in a whisper, fixing the palisman with a withering glare. “What was that for?”

He vaguely thought for a moment that maybe he really should turn the little bird over to Belos, spare himself the trouble they may bring.

And then immediately felt immense guilt, especially as Li'l Rascal slid down to his neck and nuzzled against him with their soft feathers.

And so the thought was banished for the time being, as Hunter gently cupped them in his hands and stood up laboriously.

He felt a dizzy spell come on suddenly, and grasped the edge of the table for support. L’il Rascal chirped in alarm and took off from his other hand while he shook it off before starting to lean down to pick up his fallen chair, continuing to hold onto the table as he did so.

But the bird positioned themself right under his hand as he attempted to do so, dancing back and forth with quick little movements as he tried to go around. When he let go of the table to evade the palisman’s blocks, he was met with a few swift jabs from a sharp beak that he barely managed to dodge.

He immediately withdrew his hands, throwing them up in the air. He swayed a little with the motion.

“Why are you being so frustrating right now?” he whisper-shouted, barely managing to remember to keep his voice down. He could feel his face growing red, and his right eye was twitching incessantly at this point.

Li'l Rascal responded by flapping over to an old clock gathering dust in the corner of his room, pecking at the cracked glass face.

He rubbed his eyes before squinting at it.

They widened slightly.

 

“Oh.”

It was… late, to say the least.

And he had to be up early the next day… or today rather.

Plus he hadn’t slept a wink the night before thanks to his unexpected escapades with Luz.

“Trying to make sure I get sleep? Now that’s not exactly fair,” he grumbled without much genuine force behind the words as he held up his hands to cup his palisman as they flew back over to him.

He glanced back at his desk, as the realization slowly dawned on him that he couldn’t recall a single thing from what he had been reading for the past hour.

“Sleep is for the weak.” had generally been his motto since he had joined the Emperor’s Coven, but for some reason the somewhat endearing, if a bit painful, attempts by the little bird now melting into his hands to get him to head to bed were… almost convincing.

He relented, deciding in his mind that if he was going to have to break the news to his temporary companion sometime soon that they’d be better off without him and should turn tail and leave, it wasn’t such a bad thing to do as they asked now.

He leaned over to shut off the lamp on his desk, faintly swiping at L’il Rascal as they made renewed attempts to tug at his hair.

“Hey, hey, point taken already. I’m heading to bed. Quit it already!”

He collapsed onto his made bed without bothering to slip into pajamas. With how little he would be sleeping that night, he didn’t see a point. It took a few more nudges from his cardinal to even slip under the covers.

“You won this time,” he yawned as the palisman settled on the pillow next to his head, avoiding thinking about how there wouldn’t be a next time.

He slowly let his eyes slip closed, the exhaustion from the insane day overtaking him.

Before they shot open again and he stared at the sight before him.

A palisman. His palisman, feathers puffed up on the pillow with closed eyes. He wondered vaguely if they slept. And then if they ate. If they breathed?

He listened closely, but wasn’t sure if he heard anything.

He… didn’t really know much about palismen. For all he had researched about wild magic, he hadn’t gone looking for information about them beyond what he had been told by his uncle. Deep down, he wondered if maybe he had been avoiding it so that he wouldn’t get attached to the ones he handed over to Belos to be devoured. It doesn’t matter if all they are is enchanted wood right?

Except… Li'l Rascal was so lively, and rambunctious, and they seemed to actually care, which Hunter hadn’t been expecting, and… what if the others had been similar?

No, no, no. He couldn’t think like that. His uncle needed to do it, at least until he could finally figure out how to actually help him. 

He felt his gut churn slightly as he gazed at the cardinal.

If he was really a good nephew, he would hand them over, wouldn’t he? Especially after he had come back to Belos empty-handed the night before.

But he wouldn’t. He knew it was out of the question at this point even if he tried to convince himself otherwise as he kept his now fuzzy vision on the closed eyes of the palisman that seemed so small and vulnerable despite their large personality.

It was probably best if he just sent Li'l Rascal away to find some other witch that was actually worthy of them. Keep them safe and away from Belos, and away from himself if he ever got desperate to help his uncle.

Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell them, Hunter’s thoughts were spiraling in fractals away from him, I’ll see them off in the morning.

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I’ll see them off in the evening.

Hunter was justifying the extended timeline in his head as he shrugged on his armor as quickly as he could. He’d slept in too late, and there was no way he wasn’t showing up for his duties on time after his abysmal failure the other night.

He couldn’t send them away that morning, right? After all, it was bright out, and there were too many people milling about. They would be spotted easily with their bright red feathers, and that would be the end of it.

Yes, that was why he was putting it off. It definitely didn’t have to do with how despite waking up with his hair turned into a nest for the cardinal, he had almost immediately forgiven them when they had looked up at him with those big, innocent eyes. It certainly wasn’t because his palisman was helping him on with his coat and grabbing his staff from the corner of the room so he could get out the door faster and he found it somewhat endearing.

It’ll just be more convenient, Hunter deluded himself, as he slipped on his mask and raised a finger up to signal Li'l Rascal to quiet down their chirping, even if he thought it to be rather sweet. 

The staff was safely hidden underneath his bed, but he hadn’t had the heart to hide away L’il Rascal in the same way when they were so full of energy, so he hoped that the closed window and pleading would be enough.

 

He was slightly less exhausted than he was the day before, when he had been using all his available energy to maintain his composure and push through. However, that also left room for plenty more thoughts to emerge in the newly open space. As he worked through his tasks for the day, some of which required all his concentration, his mind kept drifting back to the little cardinal waiting for him back in his room.

He was occupied as such while he flew towards the Blight Industries factory site to check up on the progress of the abominations.

It was a mixture of anxiety about someone possibly discovering them (which was unlikely given no one was allowed to enter it, other than Belos who had never had much of an inclination to), and admittedly some lingering confusion about how he had ended up with them in the first place.

But there was also curiosity. L’il Rascal had piqued his interest, about both the bird themself and palismen in general. In the back of his mind he wondered if maybe he could keep them around for research purposes. Surely, that would work as at least a semi-decent excuse to give his uncle if he found out about them, right? If the wild magic inside the palismen could possibly give some insight into Belos’s condition rather than keeping it at bay, it could justify going behind his back…

Hunter came to an abrupt stop over the treetops, hovering in place as he stared down into the green blur below.

Who was he kidding? Even just talking about wild magic in Belos’s presence caused his curse to flare up. Who knew what would happen if he found out his nephew was directly interacting with it…

He put a hand up to his mask, over where his scar was on his right cheek. He thought back to L’il Rascal’s own scar, and wondered where they got theirs from.

 

He shook off those thoughts, like he always did, but the low ache in his gut remained with him throughout the rest of the day, reflecting in his actions. He wasn’t performing up to the high standards set for the head of the Emperor’s Coven, distracted during the abomination inspection, during his weapon inventory count, and during his collection of the scant palismen the other members managed to collect (despite how it now made his stomach turn).

He wasn’t distracted when he heard the disappointment in Belos’s tone at the end of his shift though, even after handing over the palismen with more hesitation than usual, though part of him wished he was. He couldn’t count how many times he’d wanted to just separate from his body and fly away to some far off place when he’d let the emperor down, and his failure weighed heavily upon him.

His heart ached slightly as he made his way to his room, knowing that he would be sending off Li'l Rascal when he got there. Seeing those palismen being devoured earlier had hit somewhere deep inside of him, and he was sure that they would have to go.

 

… That was until he opened the door to his room and was met with a wild fluttering of wings and a chorus of very loud, very excited chirps.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m… I’m happy to see you too.”

He couldn’t help but crack a smile as he removed his mask, Li'l Rascal flying in circles around him. All of a sudden, he didn’t feel quite so tired. There was a lightness in his chest he didn’t feel often.

As he kept his eyes glued to the joyful little cardinal, he felt something crack slightly deep inside, and the prospect of sending him away that evening didn’t seem so necessary.

One more night surely couldn’t hurt… he thought as he wrangled his armor off, sitting himself on the edge of his bed to laboriously yank off his boots.

“Hope you’re ready for a whole lot of complaining, Li’l Rascal,” said Hunter as the bird in question finally settled down and landed on his shoulder, still chirping wildly, “Because I can’t even begin to tell you the absolute nonsense I had to put up with today.”

Unloading felt nice, even if half of it was him explaining who was who to Li'l Rascal and at least a quarter was pondering out loud whether they could even understand what he was saying.

Maybe it was wishful thinking on his part, but he felt that they could. Even if they couldn’t understand the exact details, it seemed as if they were at least listening, and chiming in with sharp squawks whenever he got particularly animated.

“And you know what she said next?!” he huffed, throwing his arms up as he paced back and forth in front of his bed and making air quotes, “She said ‘Ohhhhh… our apologies to the Emperor’s Coven, but we cannot make the delivery on time. There’s been a hold up with the water.’ Like, what does that even mean??!! We live on an island! There’s water everywhere! Sure, it would boil the average person alive, but is that really so much of a problem that it would hold up a vital delivery for FIVE DAYS?? I can’t be the only one to think that’s a ridiculous excuse, right?”

He threw his hands out towards Li'l Rascal, huffing slightly.

They chirped.

“Thank you! At least someone agrees with me!”

In that moment he realized how painfully scrunched up his face had become, and he rubbed a hand over it, willing himself to relax just a bit. He always had some pent up tension, but even he had to admit when he was getting a bit too worked up.

He glanced over to the window. It had long since gotten dark, and he could vaguely make out a few of the stars twinkling over the Boiling Isles.

Hunter heaved a sigh as he turned to his desk. He needed to at least get some research done so the day wouldn’t be a waste in his eyes.

As he walked over to it, he saw Li'l Rascal take off in his peripheral vision, aiming straight for his hair, and he instinctively raised a hand off to block them, forcing the cardinal to land on his hand.

“Hey, no hair pulling tonight,” he chided, “I won’t get to bed so late this time. Promise.”

They narrowed their eyes.

“What, I mean it!”

Their stare pierced into him, and he could feel a bead of sweat roll down his back.

He couldn’t take it anymore, and turned back to pull out his chair and take a seat, all the while feeling L’il Rascal’s punitive gaze boring into him as he avoided eye contact.

 

He ended up not being able to keep his promise, eventually finding himself using yet another book along with his folded arms as a makeshift pillow as he fought to keep his ever-heavier eyelids from drifting shut.

He shivered slightly in the cooling air. He didn’t have the energy to do anything about it.

But he felt a warm weight on him then, eventually recognizing it as a blanket in his sleep-deprived brain. Li'l Rascal landed on a free bit of space on his arms, cuddling up close and tucking their head back.

And so Hunter let himself drift off to sleep with his lips ever so slightly curved up.

Yeah, it was a good call to let them stay for a bit. I’ll see them off… never tomorrow.

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I’ll see them off sometime next week, Hunter lied to himself for the umpteenth time, as he sat cross-legged with his back to his bed, Li’l Rascal on his shoulder, and a book on palismen on his lap.

“So, it says here that a palisman and their chosen witch are connected so that they can sense what the other is feeling… hmm.” he rubbed his chin, squinting at the page.

He glanced over to the cardinal, not sure how much they were actually paying attention.

“Okay, so… can you feel this?” he questioned, pinching himself on the shoulder, and watching for any response from Li'l Rascal.

The palisman just cocked their head to the side and chirped once.

He frowned, mouth twisting down and brow furrowing as he glanced back to the book.

“Hmm, is it more of an emotional connection rather than a physical one? Of course, that’s going off of the idea that we could even fully bond like that given that I don’t have a bile sac.”

His eyebrows lowered and he looked back at the cardinal, pensive.

“If that’s the case, it makes me wonder why you’re even sticking around with me in the first place.”

Li'l Rascal just shook their head and ruffled their feathers, giving him a squinted-eye look before giving him a sharp peck.

“Ow! Hey, it’s not that I’m doubting your decision or anything! I mean, I am quite lovable, aren’t I?” he cocked up an eyebrow and smirked at them.

They weren’t amused, expression not faltering.

Hunter sighed, leaning his head back against his bed, closing his eyes for a moment.

“It doesn’t really feel like I’m getting anywhere with this, Rascal. It’s never been exactly easy to research wild magic. But right now, I have you! You’re imbued with the stuff! And I’m still having difficulties piecing it all together. Doesn’t help that I haven’t been able to remember any of the glyphs Luz used…”

His eyes opened when he heard a loud chorus of chirping and then a weight flying off his shoulder. He turned his head to see Li'l Rascal disappearing under his bed.

Confused, Hunter leaned over, pressing his face against the cold wooden floor as he stared after them.

“Uh, whatcha doin’ there buddy?” he questioned as the small red bird shuffled through his belongings, kicking up quite a bit of dust. A cloud flew into his face and he began coughing, pulling his face away and rubbing at his eyes.

When he finally reopened them, he was met with the sight of L’il Rascal flying out from under the bed, staff grasped in their feet.

They dropped it towards his hands, and he scrambled to prevent it from clattering to the ground.

He stared down at the polished wood, brow still furrowed.

“I… I don’t think it would be a good idea to do this. At least not here, where Belos could theoretically pop in at any time. Having you in here is already bad enough. If I actually used your magic, your wild magic , in his own territory, and he found about it, I- I don’t really want to think about what would happen.”

He looked back up to where Li’l Rascal was flapping in place. They hovered for a moment before flying over to his window, unlocking it and letting a cool breeze flow in. They gestured towards the open sky, trilling a little as they did so.

Hunter felt a pang of anxiety in his gut at the suggestion.

He slowly heaved himself up from the ground, pins and needles running through his legs, and walked over to the window. He gripped the staff far too tightly as he arrived at the windowsill, peering out over the vast view of the Boiling Isles.

He looked back down to Li’l Rascal, who was also looking out towards the horizon. There was a deep longing he didn’t often let himself feel rising up in his chest. He’d been to countless locations around the island as the Golden Guard, using the magic of the emperor and acting on his behalf. But the idea of going out there as just Hunter, with his own palisman with their own magic separate from Belos? It was… sort of tempting,  which Hunter could barely admit to himself.

But it was an idea that was best off left shelved, and Hunter set the staff down, leaning it against the wall, and closed the window.

“Sorry, Li’l Rascal, but that’s just not a good idea. Even at night, and even with pretty much no one knowing me beneath the mask, the risk is just too great, especially to you.”

There was a low chirp in response, one that he hadn’t heard before. He looked down to find that the cardinal had wilted slightly, still staring out through the now-closed window.

Hunter glanced back at his room, realizing how small and cramped it was, and felt a pang in his heart.

“Oh,” it came out a bit choked as he turned his gaze back towards his palisman.

“I’ve been keeping you cooped up in here since you came to me, haven’t I?”

His gut clenched as he saw the cardinal shift around slightly, avoiding eye contact. He looked down at his hands, which he had braced against the windowsill. 

I’ve been acting in the same way to them as… the thought trailed off. But a new one rose in its place.

It was probably - no, scratch that - it was a really bad idea, but it was the only one he could think of that might work.

He felt a bit of excitement rise up, and out of the corner of his eye saw L’il Rascal begin to perk up.

He wondered vaguely if they really could sense his emotions as he turned to them with a playful smirk.

“You know, it might be a bit dicey to fly around with you as Hunter, but maybe you can explore the Boiling Isles a bit with me as the Golden Guard instead.”

 

Considering how many ways this could go wrong, thought Hunter as the cardinal squawked and chirped excitedly, lighting his heart as they flew back up to his shoulder, I may just have to actually see them off soon.

 

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Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. After this, I’ll have to see them off this evening at the earliest. This is a really, really bad idea.

Hunter was shrugging on his cape, his gut screaming at him that things would likely go terribly wrong if he went on with this plan. But as he looked at L’il Rascal excitedly flitting about the room and chirping, he couldn’t help but smile and suppress those thoughts.

He had dug around in his various old belongings and found a small satchel, the perfect size for a little palisman, and he opened it up for them to tuck themselves in.

“Hmm, a little dusty, but you don’t actually need to breathe, right?” He remarked as the cardinal practically crashed into the bag in their excitement, getting stuck upside down in the bag.

Hunter chuckled as he reached in and reoriented them. They peered up at him, shaking their head before resuming their chirps.

Hunter shushed them as he reached for his mask. He didn’t want to dampen their excitement, but the risk of being caught was great.

“If we’re gonna do this, there can’t be a peep out of you, got it?”
The bird just nodded their head, gazing up at him with big eyes.

… He wasn’t too sure just how much he could actually trust them to do as he asked, but it was too late to back down.

He carefully closed the satchel, leaving just enough space from the flap and the main body for L’il Rascal to see out.

Hunter did his best to squash down the doubts he had over this little excursion as he slipped his mask on. He took a deep breath, and pushed open the door to the hallway, emerging into the greater castle, and a greater threat.

 

Things went surprisingly well initially, with nary a sound out of Li'l Rascal as Hunter went around performing his laundry list of assignments for the day. None of his subordinates questioned him about the satchel, luckily, and as the day went on, Hunter began to think that maybe, just maybe, he would pull this off without an issue.

There was still a lingering feeling of unease that he couldn’t quite place, but he did his best not to dwell on it for long.

The highlight of his day was during the flight to a coven outpost, involving brutally long stretches of nothing but treetops and barren landscapes. He normally dreaded these trips for the extreme boredom they had in ample supply, but today the vast open space with no one in sight for miles felt new with possibility and companionship.

As soon as they were out of sight of the castle, Hunter opened up the satchel, feeling a slight pang of anxiety when Li’l Rascal immediately flew out and rapidly dove straight down. But it turned into elation when the little bird rose back up, swooping back and forth to the sides of the staff.

Hunter couldn’t help but grin wildly beneath his mask as he saw his palisman glide along in the wind, their head swiveling in all directions to take in the new sights. In their movements was a sense of freedom, and he could feel it resonating within him as it did in them. It was a new, thrilling feeling, and it left him wishing he could fully experience it for himself. 

His gaze remained laser-focused on L’il Rascal’s movements, his head following their loops and twirls even as he remained on a straight path.

He saw them start to dip down towards a stream below, and was forced to swoop down to reach out and guide them back to where they were headed with a gloved hand.

They let out a squawk of indignation and flew ahead as he did so, and Hunter smiled apologetically. It took him a moment to remember that they couldn’t exactly see that with the mask on, so he leaned forward and accelerated a little to match pace with the cardinal.

“Sorry, no can do, bud,” he apologized, leaning towards them, “Since you’re with me, we’re both on official Coven business today. And that means no detours. Gotta be timely.”

Li’l Rascal’s head lifted a little higher at that, and they cocked their head towards Hunter. Their eyes squinted into beady slits.

He’d been around the palisman long enough to feel a sense of unease at that expression.

“Whatever you’re about to do, you probably shouldn-” He was cut off by the whistle of the wind as Li’l Rascal shot off in the direction of the outpost at lightning speed.

“Oh, come one!” he shouted as he urged his staff to chase after them.

The magic of the emperor was nothing to scoff at, and before long he was catching up with the red speck in the distance, his hood flying off his head as his cape flapped wildly behind him.

When he pulled up next to the palisman, it was with his head in one hand as he wagged a finger at them. He was sure Li’l Rascal could sense his smug grin even if they couldn’t see it.

“Thought you could just get away with that, huh-”

Interrupted again, by the cardinal somehow picking up the pace while also diving low into the treeline.

Hunter’s eyes narrowed, but he couldn’t help but continue to smile, his heart racing, as he continued his pursuit.

He weaved expertly between the trees, all his attention focused on the speeding blot of red ahead, disappearing in short bursts between columns of green.

The wind was cold and icy as it whistled past him, welcome with the heat of the chase washing over him and the beads of sweat gathering down his back.

But he paid little mind to that, the feeling of delight from the chase racing through him like an electric shock. It was a feeling he wished would last forever.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t one meant to last, and he felt a sharp tug from behind him, then a release of pressure.

In shock, he glanced down and realized the satchel had been caught and torn off.

“Well, sh-”

When he finally arrived at the base of the hill the outpost was built into, he was greeted with the sight of Li’l Rascal seated on a low-hanging branch, their chest puffed out. They trilled loudly as he made his landing, stepping off of his staff.

They stopped abruptly when they realized he wasn’t responding to their gloats, tilting their head as he ran a hand through his hair, looking down.

It seemed they finally put two and two together as they looked at the bare space at his hip where the satchel had been previously, and they flew closer, hovering while they waited for him to finish thinking.

He finally reached out with his arm, and the cardinal landed on it.

“I’m gonna need you to stay hidden out here while I head inside and take care of my duties over there. Can you do that for me?”

They bobbed their head up and down, before turning away and flying high into a tree, blending in decently with the warm hues of the leaves. They looked close enough to an actual bird from that distance, and he was relatively confident no one would know the difference.

It didn’t stop the churning in his gut from returning as he trudged up to the door of the outpost. And it didn’t stop his footsteps from growing heavier as a million scenarios of what could happen to a palisman left unattended near members of the Emperor’s Coven ran through his mind.

But the right hand man of Emperor Belos held no weaknesses, and felt no fear.

And so, he straightened himself up, pulled up his hood, and let the mask of the Golden Guard fall over him.

 

The flight back was less eventful than the one there, but riddled with far more anxiety as Hunter considered how in the emperor’s name he would manage to sneak Li’l Rascal back into his room. With how much security there was, he couldn’t exactly just let them fly up by themself, and there was no time to take them there himself with how much he had left to do for the day, even if it was very late in the afternoon.

Li’l Rascal was mostly silent as they flew side by side, and Hunter was grateful for it. It gave him the time to come up with a decision as the castle appeared in the distance.

Not seeing any other choice, Hunter reached up to his hood and pulled it down partially, nodding to it with his gaze on the cardinal.

“Okay, get in. And try not to fidget too much, okay? I know it’s not ideal, but it’s just for a couple hours.”

Li’l Rascal didn’t waste time, settling behind his neck as he pulled his hood all the way up.

He felt their soft feathers against his neck, and every little movement as they adjusted themselves.

And oh, that’s right - he’d somehow forgotten just how ticklish he was-.

He was feeling a wide variety and selection of regrets as he landed on the castle drawbridge, moving his neck around and suppressing laughter every time he felt a fluff of feathers, each of which somehow made it worse.

He mainly had some busywork to finish up with, nothing that was too hands-on, so he was already planning ahead for what should have been, if not an easy task, at least one that was unlikely to get both of them caught, as he made his way to the gates of the castle.

They were opened by two guards, revealing Kikimora on the other side, expression more sour than usual.

He approached with narrowed eyes, holding himself up straight as he kept his gaze on the demon. Since her recent attempt on his life, he’d regarded her more warily than before. He could tell she was still scheming after the incident, though he had yet to detect any direct action on her part.

Her eyes only darkened further as he began to pass by her.

“Seems like something’s got you in a bad mood. Did that hand on your head finally decide to do us all a favor and try to choke you to death?” he remarked airily.

Her expression, which would usually include a slight eye twitch at his quips, instead remained the same.

“The emperor wishes to see you,” was all she said, her typically reserved tone grating out. She then turned abruptly to her right and walked briskly away from Hunter, giving him no time to respond.

Hunter stared at her back for a few moments, willing himself to head where he needed to go, but there was a flicker of anxiety threatening to turn into a spark within him.

It wasn’t that it was unusual for his uncle to summon him at random; he was the head of the coven after all, and he held a certain pride in the fact that he was trusted to be by the side of the emperor at any time that he was needed.

Still… Kikimora’s reaction was more rigid than usual, and there was also the fact that he was currently harboring a palisman in his hood.

For a moment, the horrifying thought that somehow his uncle had discovered his small act of treachery and was lying in wait in the throneroom for him to take Li’l Rascal right to his waiting hands flickered in his mind.

Glimpses of a broken cardinal discarded on the floor flashed by; Hunter felt a bit sick.

The palisman in question responded to his worries, shifting around behind him a bit. He could feel their beak gently preening the shorter hairs on the back of his neck. It was probably an attempt to give him some reassurance, but all it did was make him snort out a half-suppressed laugh.

A few nearby guards looked up in surprise at the noise, quickly resuming their previous positions when he returned their gaze.

He could feel his cheeks had reddened a bit beneath the mask, but at the very least he had been shaken out of his stupor, and he began to make the long walk to where Belos was waiting.

Finally starting to use his brain again, Hunter realized that logically, if the emperor had found out about Li’l Rascal, Kikimora would have been far, far more smug when telling him of the summons. Practically gloating, he was sure, that the Golden Guard had flown too close to the sun and reaped the consequences.

He reassured himself with this thought as he rounded a corner and the looming doors to the throne room came into view.

His footsteps slowed imperceptibly and he could feel his chest tightening as he approached.

The sentries posted outside gave him no time to gather himself as they immediately pushed open the grand doors with a slight heave.

And then he was met with the sight of his uncle at the far end of the hall, his seated form outlined by the torches lit on either side, alone in the room.

Hunter took a deep breath and set his shoulders back as he walked over the threshold, hearing the doors shut behind him, leaving only the sound of the flickering torches and his own footsteps on the carpet leading up to the throne.

He could see as he approached how the emperor had his head resting in one hand, the other gripping the armrest of the throne so tightly that Hunter was sure he would have seen cracks if the lighting was any better.

His heart thudded against his chest as he dropped to one knee, lowering his head slightly.

“Uncle,” his voice came out far more confident than he felt, “you summoned me?”
Emperor Belos slowly, as though with great restraint, lifted his head from his hand, lowering his gaze to regard his nephew.

Hunter felt a bead of sweat roll down his back as he waited. Li’l Rascal had gone stock still, and he thanked them silently for that.

Finally, after what could have been minutes but seemed to creep on for hours, the emperor spoke.

“Raine Whispers has committed treason.”

Hunter’s eyes went wide, and his head shot up.

“What?” he said before he could stop himself.

The emperor drew himself to his full height, clasping his hands behind his back.

“They were found to be behind the recent bard attacks, and earlier today was caught in an attempted attack on coven leaders Darius and Eberwolf, conspiring to kill them with Eda Clawthorne.”
Hunter’s breath caught in his throat, mind racing. Without thinking, he stood up, gaze still focused on his uncle’s mask.

“They tried to kill them? But they- they’ve never seemed threatening before.”

He hadn’t interacted with the bard coven leader much in the past, but the little time he had spent with them was a chaotic mix of stumbling through their words, hiding their face, running from the public eye, and random strokes of genius that proved their mastery of their chosen craft. They were the last person Hunter would have thought a traitor.

“Appearances can be deceiving, Hunter, as has been proven today. Regardless, with the Day of Unity swiftly approaching, and no time to find a new leader, the… measures put in place to remedy such incidents were employed by Kikimora.”

Hunter shuddered slightly as the weight of those words hit, and he repressed the urge to look down to where his own coven mark sat etched in his skin.

“I see. What can I do to help?”

Belos regarded him for a moment, before turning to where the heart of the Titan beat slowly behind the throne.

“I am telling you this to serve as a reminder of the dangers that are in place here. The goals of the Titan are swiftly falling into place. There cannot be any hindrances to its completion. The safeguards may be working as intended for now, but let this be a reminder to stay vigilant. Even among closer circles there may be weak links.”

He turned his head to the side ever so slightly, till Hunter could just make out the outline of the mask’s left eye.

“I have faith that you, Hunter, are not one of those weak links”

Hunter swallowed, his throat feeling sticky as he willed his tongue to work properly.

“Thank you, Uncle. I’m grateful for your trust in me. I promise I’ll help make up for this unexpected hitch. You can count on m-” He was cut off when he suddenly felt Li’l Rascal shifting against his neck right against a very sensitive spot, and he felt with horror a slight laugh escape from him.

Belos turned around fully to face him; his shadow felt darker than before.

“Do you find this situation amusing, nephew?” his tone was frigid.

Hunter stammered out a reply, “No, of course not! It- it was just a, just a sneeze I was holding back. I meant nothing by it, I-”

His uncle was striding towards him, and Hunter was met with the very familiar urge to shrink down and disappear under his gaze.

“It didn’t sound like a ‘sneeze’ to me.” His hand came down on his shoulder, heavy and corrosive, and Hunter suddenly felt very, very small.



He entered his room with a few more bruises than he had left with.

He leaned his staff against the wall to his right.

Hunter shut the door behind him slowly, letting it click shut. He reached up to his mask and slid it off, letting it fall to the floor with a clatter, and in the same motion pulled back his hood to let Li’l Rascal out. The cardinal didn’t fly away, instead moving over to his shoulder as he leaned back against the door, taking a deep breath with his eyes tightly shut.

He was still wound up from having to finish up his tasks after… meeting with the emperor, shoulder aching and fighting to keep his voice steady. He tried to push it all away, focusing his attention best he could on pushing the air in and out of his lungs.

His throat felt thick.

In and out.

In and out.

Next to no tension was released despite his attempts, and he eventually opened his eyes and made what seemed like an endless journey to his bed.

He let himself fall onto the bed face-first unceremoniously, Li’l Rascal letting out a surprised chirp as they flew off of him for a moment before landing beside on the comforter next to his head.

He pressed his face against the fabric, resuming his slow breathing, letting the sheets against his closed eyes block out all light and all thoughts, until he felt his palisman gently preening at his hair.

He shifted his head to the side to look at Li’l Rascal, who hopped back slightly and chirped lowly, looking apologetic.

Hunter felt a pang in his heart and a slight prickle in his eyes; the fatigue of the day was beginning to fully catch up with him as the walls he had put up throughout it came down one by one.

He reached out one hand and gently cupped the small bird in it, lightly stroking their feathers. He lifted his head a bit to look at them better.

Quietly, “No need to apologize. Not your fault I didn’t think this through enough. I should have been more careful. That’s how it always happens, anyways.”

He let his head fall back down, cheek pressed against the sheets as he let a puff of air out of his nose.

“Not the brightest of my ideas, in the end. I guess all that matters is that Belos didn’t see you. If that had happened, I don’t-” he swallowed, “I don't know what I’d do.”

Li’l Rascal let out a higher-pitched chirp, jumping closer and softly pecking at his nose. He couldn’t help but smile a little and chuckle quietly, though it was still laced with a grey gloom.

With a slight heave, he rolled himself onto his back, arms splayed to either side, ignoring the slight twinge he felt in his ribs as he did so. The palisman followed suit, hopping up onto his chest and trilling softly.

He lay there pensively, eyes staring up into nothingness. He thought back to earlier, the thrill of the chase with Li’l Rascal, and the airy feeling that surrounded him then. There was an ache where it had been previously, and he suddenly felt, as he had before, that the walls of his room were boxing him in. He was very aware of the mask laying discarded on the floor and the staff in the corner, bindings to the castle, a reminder that he was nothing without the coven, without Belos.

But…

Was that still completely true?

He slowly propped himself up on his forearms, looking down at his palisman. Li’l Rascal returned his gaze, blinking up at him. A realization that should have been apparent to him when the cardinal first came to him - he supposed he could blame a chronic lack of sleep for that - was slowly dawning.

This was his palisman. A source of magic that had chosen him to wield them, if he chose them back.

He turned to his window, the sky barely lit by the now-invisible sun. Ever since Belos had found him, the greater Boiling Isles had seemed inaccessible without the emperor’s magic, but now…

Last night, leaving the castle with Li’l Rascal and the staff at night had seemed out of the question, filled to the brim with unnecessary risks. But his alternative to it had quite nearly ended his newly-nurtured bond, and now the idea of sneaking out under the cover of darkness didn’t seem so implausible.

Hunter thought again to the feeling of chasing after Li’l Rascal earlier. He could feel the wind rushing past him again, and for a moment, he let himself picture flying with Li’l Rascal instead of his uncle’s staff.

That moment was all it took, and Li’l Rascal responded, flying off and back down to rummage underneath his bed.

This time, Hunter knew exactly what he would be carrying in his talons. Though there was still a twist of anxiety as he laid his eyes upon the worn wood, there was also a gentle rise of excitement, like a current pulling him imperceptibly until he was deep within the boiling waters with no way to turn back.

When he reached out and firmly grasped the staff, the wood feeling sturdy though unfamiliar beneath his grip, his decision was cemented.

“Okay,” he said with renewed, though still cautious, confidence, looking up to Li’l Rascal with a small, hopeful smile, “I’m ready. Tomorrow night, how’d you feel about taking a little trip around the Boiling Isles, sans the Golden Guard?”

When he heard the delighted song of the cardinal and saw him rapidly flutter around the room, he could feel more of his tension melt away.

And so he finally admitted to himself what he had known deep down for weeks:

Yeah, I’m not going to be able to see him off anytime soon.

… But I’ll have to eventually. Not unless I can prove to Belos that he’s more useful alive than consumed.

It was a tall order to fill, yet another of the tasks he had piled onto his plate alongside the overarching goal of helping his uncle overcome his curse.

But he thought to himself, as he watched Li’l Rascal exhaust himself in circles around his room, It’s worth it.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It’s worth it, it’s worth it, it’s worth it, he repeated in his head like a mantra the next evening as he tried to avoid looking out the window, slipping a harness and rucksack onto his back.

Li’l Rascal was bouncing back and forth along the windowsill, chirping excitedly. Admittedly, there was a part of Hunter that felt the same, but the part that was screaming at him that he was a traitor and scorning his uncle’s kindness for taking him in was almost equally as loud.

Good thing his palisman was louder, otherwise he didn’t think he’d be able to go through with this plan.

He slipped on his cloak and reached for his mask. It felt a little strange putting it on, knowing it would be coming off in less than an hour if everything went well. Like the persona of the Golden Guard was just a cheap costume. It was disconcerting. 

He picked up the staff and held it vertically, stifling a yawn. He could feel his tired eyes willing him to close them and collapse onto his bed, but his anxiety over what they were about to do was keeping him upright.

“Okay, hop on,” he scooped up Li’l Rascal from the windowsill and held them up to the small platform. They fluttered onto it,  settling into a stationary position.

Hunter stared at them for a moment, unused to seeing the usually lively bird be so still. But he shook off the unfamiliarity and reached back to slip the staff into the harness, adjusting it so that only the end was sticking out of the cloak. He knew the general shape of it was off, but hoped that he could slip by the patrols without them looking too closely.

“Okay, let’s hope this works,” he said with a sigh as he turned and walked through the doorway, Li’l Rascal once again in tow as he journeyed through the castle.

He lucked out that night, barely running into any patrols due to how late it was, and any that he did pass only saluted and passed by. They didn’t seem to notice any change in his demeanor, despite how Hunter felt like a stretched-thin rope about to snap under the tension. The mask really did a lot of the work for him.

 

It wasn’t until he was across the drawbridge and under the cover of the forest that he ducked behind a tree and took off his mask, cloak, and tunic, turning back into Hunter. As he traded his coven cloak for a nondescript grey one, Li’l Rascal flew off the top of the staff and landed on his shoulder. He stuffed his uniform into the sack. 

Hunter straightened, adjusting his hood, and threw a look back at the castle, the tall towers looming over the trees. He took a deep breath, and turned away, moving further into the undergrowth.

 

Eventually, he was far enough away that he felt comfortable slipping out the staff from his strap. He held it firmly with two hands, brow furrowed. He tried to put on a smile as he looked at his palisman.

“Okay, ready to give this a shot?”

Li’l Rascal responded enthusiastically, making a leap onto the top of the staff and settling down, giving what Hunter believed to be an enthusiastic chirp as they morphed into the wood of the staff.

He swallowed as he mounted the staff, closing his eyes for a moment. 

He sucked the cold night air in, and concentrated.

At first, there was nothing, and Hunter felt his resolve quake slightly.

But then, he felt his feet leave the ground, and his eyes flew open to find that Li’l Rascal’s wings had extended, flapping slowly as they began to rise into the air. Hunter felt his breath catch in his chest, and there was an airy feeling filling him up from the inside out in that, giving him a buoyancy he had never experienced before.

He felt his exhaustion fade away as he urged Li’l Rascal to rise a little faster, and all of a sudden they shot up through the air, the wind blowing his hood off his head, and then they were above the treetops, and the air was compelled to start properly flowing through Hunter’s lungs again because did the Boiling Isles always look this beautiful?

 

As he hovered in the air, he looked out over the expanse of trees before him, the tips shining under the moonlight, the hills and bones of the landscape rising up in uneven patterns. The nearly pitch-black sky was dotted with millions of stars.

He knew he’d seen this sight countless times before, but there was something about witnessing it as just himself, a lone witch with only their palisman to drink in the beauty with.

They began moving forward, Hunter barely having to think for Li’l Rascal to respond. It was both dissimilar and similar to using the coven staff. It felt natural for him to react to the wind and obstacles in tandem with his palisman, the moves the same as he had used with the artificial staff. But with this one, there was a pull in his heart, a warmth that sat in his chest that let him know he was connected to living, wild magic.

The wind rushed past him as they picked up a bit of speed. Hunter had no idea where they were going, but he found that he didn’t care as he felt the thrill from the day before return tenfold, except this time the frigid air was rushing past his face, forcing a few tears out of his eyes that flew away behind him.

It felt like freedom, and for once in his life he let himself experience it, a wide grin on his face as they raced a little lower into the trees, weaving through them and working together like it was the most natural thing in the world. His doubts were washed away by the waves of what must have been happiness, and for the time they spent in the air, Hunter could just be. Just exist in a moment where the whole world contained only them and the endless sky.

His lungs were full of crisp air, his heart was racing from adrenaline, and he couldn’t help but laugh unabashedly as they whisked through the forest.

It felt like it would last forever, and he wished it would.

 

But eventually, they came across a clearing in the trees, and Hunter leaned forward to guide Li’l Rascal downwards, and carefully slipped off of the staff, finding purchase on the grassy knoll. He could hear the faint buzzing of a fire bee hive off in the distance, and the quiet rustling of the forest around him.

He raised up the staff with two hands, seeing Li’l Rascal’s wings tuck back in as he did so. He was still breathing hard from the flight, his mouth still curled up in an unconscious smile.

“So, that worked out better than expected. Maybe our luck’s looking up.”

Li’l Rascal came back to life in response, fluffing up their feathers and chirping at him. His grin widened when he saw how excited they were as well. It was easier to let himself enjoy this time when there wasn’t the constant feeling of being watched, the presence of the emperor in every nook and cranny. He felt safer out here in the middle of the woods... in the middle of the Boiling Isles... in the middle of the night. And maybe that was a little crazy, but at that moment Hunter couldn’t care less. 

He reached up and gently pet the cardinal, and they closed their eyes as he did so, still chirping loudly.

“That was amazing. You’re amazing, Li’l Rascal. I can’t believe I- I can’t believe we just did that!”

They trilled happily, then broke out of his slight hold to fly off of the staff and towards the edge of the clearing.

Curious, Hunter followed them, watching as they landed a bit awkwardly on a medium-sized, moss-covered rock half buried in the ground.

Hunter kneeled down as Li’l Rascal pecked at it a few times, then looked back up at him, then pecked at it again.

Hunter raised an eyebrow, giving them a confused smile.

“Yeah, I don’t really know what you’re trying to get at here. Is there something special about this rock? There’s no way in the Titan’s name that I’m finding a way to haul it back to the room, if that’s what you’re suggesting…”

Li’l Rascal shook their head, letting out a sharp, exasperated sound as they flew up above the staff, landing on it diagonally and pushing it downwards until the tip was pointing towards the stone. 

Hunter’s eyes widened slightly.

“Ohhh, you want me to actually try to use magic with you.”

They trilled in confirmation, pulling the staff back up with a few strong flaps and settling down on the top of it.

He looked at the rock, then back at his palisman, then back at the rock.

He’d never performed magic that wasn’t through the emperor’s magnanimity, though he could imagine that if flying was about the same then this would be too. Still, flying with a staff powered by wild magic was one thing, and actually performing magic with one was something entirely different. If he hadn’t crossed a line before, he definitely would be now.

Still, there was that same part of him that had urged him to keep Li’l Rascal around, that had compelled him to come out here against all that his uncle believed and enforced, that he had justified by telling himself it was all for his research, to help the coven, Belos, and the titan. The part of him that was selfish, that blindly, desperately wanted to be able to do magic on his own, separate from the emperor’s control. And it was now a voice fighting to drown out his doubts out here miles away from his uncle and the coven.

 

And it won out, because Hunter found himself taking a deep breath as he pulled himself up.

With two hands, he held out the staff, the tip of Li’l Rascal’s head aimed at the rock. He narrowed his eyes and bit his lip slightly, concentrating.

The pull in his chest he had felt earlier returned, slowly at first, before he could feel something give, and the warmth that ballooned within him was accompanied with a bright glow from Li’l Rascal’s eyes and a simultaneous, mirrored one surrounding the rock.

Hunter gasped, his eyes opening even further as he watched the rock begin to shake, then finally break free with a small quake of the ground. He instinctively took a step back, mouth agape as he stared at the floating boulder.

I just did that, he thought, his arms tingling slightly as he felt the wave of shock pass over him. I just used a palisman. Wild magic.

It was terrifying, what he was doing, but it was accompanied by the same nervous joy he had felt all evening, bolstering it, in this pinnacle to the evening.

He let the rock drop back down, and jumped backwards as it landed with a thud.

He heard a bright chirp, and turned his head back to a very exuberant Li’l Rascal who was hopping up and down on the small platform, tweeting their little head off.

Hunter joined them, laughing from a combination of nerves and what may have been slight pride in himself . He wasn’t sure if the implications of what just happened had really hit yet, but it seemed his palisman understood perfectly well as they leapt off and flew around his head in dizzy circles.

“Did you see that?!” he shouted deliriously, “Did you see what we just did? That was incredible!”

He held out his finger, and Li’l Rascal landed on it, still vibrating slightly.

Hunter felt a surge of fondness as he gazed at his palisman, cheeks aching from smiling so much. He pulled them closer, gently running a hand along their head as he held them close to his chest.

“Thank you,” he said genuinely, a well of emotion rising up within him.

“Thank you for choosing me.”



The flight back to the castle felt just as exhilarating as the first, and Hunter was still buoyed with his newfound excitement as he landed a little closer than where he had originally taken off, stuffing his grey cloak into his satchel and slipping back on his uniform. Li’l Rascal was tucked safely back underneath his cloak, and there was a slight bounce in his step as he trekked back to the rising spires in the distance despite the exhaustion that was starting to seep back into his bones.

He whistled a peppy tune as he emerged from the woods and made his way to the bridge, unaware of the small demon lurking in the shadows, eyes narrowed as they stared at the shape of the staff beneath his cloak.

He hardly remembered the trip back to his room, his thoughts full of when he would next be able to head out.

His uniform came off easily once he was back inside, and his bed felt like heaven when he collapsed onto it. Li’l Rascal hopped off of the staff and carried it off the bed, hiding it underneath.

Hunter murmured a small thanks as he wriggled under the covers, already nearly asleep when his head hit the pillow.

His eyes were shut tight, but he could feel his palisman land atop his head and start to make themself comfortable. He was going to wake up with a nest for hair in the morning, but he didn’t mind so much, smiling softly as he drifted off.

I’m never seeing him off, am I? He thought in his last moments of consciousness, finding that the idea was easier to admit than before, as he felt for what must have been the first time in years a sense of contentment as he was swept into the realm of dreams.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

I should have seen him off. I should have let him go that very first night he came to me.

 

He knew something was wrong when Kikimora had come to tell him of the emperor’s summons herself, a gleeful energy about her, when the doors were opened to the throne room and Belos’s back was to him, stock still, when not a word was said even after Hunter kneeled and greeted him in a barely-controlled voice.

He had stayed in that position for an eternity, compelled to stay silent from the pressure of being in that room, the slow beating of the Titan’s heart the only sound in the vast chamber, quiet and unassuming compared to the rapid beat of his own heart against his ribcage. He silently wished in his mind for it to quiet down as he carefully controlled his breathing behind his mask, waiting in an eternal limbo.

When his uncle finally turned around, the sight that greeted Hunter made every limb, made his lungs and his very heart, turn ice cold, and everything froze in place.

His eyes went terrifyingly wide and he could hear nothing but the pulse pounding in his ears as Belos’s shadow cast him in darkness, but he could still make out the horrifying picture before him.

 

The staff of Li’l Rascal was gripped by his uncle’s left hand and the cardinal themself was clenched tightly in his right, and Hunter felt the world fall away around him until there was no one but him, the emperor, and his beloved palisman in the clutches of his only living family member.

This was all his fault. This was all due to his selfish desires for companionship and magic of his own. He’d doomed an innocent soul because he couldn’t keep his own emotions in check.

He’d failed countless times in the past, but it had never hurt like this, like his soul was being rended from end to end, like there was a horrible, hollow emptiness that filled his body and replaced his bones, his muscles, his veins with a stinging emptiness.

He couldn’t feel his limbs.

Hunter’s throat felt impossibly thick, and his breaths were coming out in stiff chokes, but his mind and tongue were desperately racing to form words, to say something - anything - to make it all stop. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of the spots of red visible through cold metallic fingers.

“Uncle- my liege- Emperor Belos, please, I- it isn’t what it looks like, I swear. Just let me-”

“Just let you what?” the emperor’s tone was acrid and sharp, reeking of something ancient and tainted, “Explain yourself? It is difficult to imagine how you might explain away such a betrayal. To keep wild magic, that which destroyed our family, is the greatest treason you could have committed against me, and against the Titan.”

Every word out of his mouth was like a stab to Hunter’s gut, a keen pain that permeated through him, and he felt himself grow smaller under the biting gaze of those pools of darkness in Belos’s mask.

He swallowed, breaths still caught in his throat. His mind was struggling to come with something as all his excuses fell away.

“I- I did it for you. To help you! I wanted to research wild magic to try and find a way to cure your curse. I never-”
Help me? ” Belos’s voice grew louder, laced with fury, filling the space around them, and Hunter’s words ran dry in an instant, feeling desperate tears beginning to well up in his eyes.

The emperor began to stride closer to him, each step slow and deliberate, shaking with maddened intent. Pangs of fear echoed within Hunter with each thud.

“You wanted to help, nephew? What, may I ask, is your definition of ‘help’? Deliberately withholding information from me? Sneaking texts on wild magic behind my back? Scorning the graciousness I’ve shown in supplying you with the magic you needed to run the coven to frolic about with the very embodiment of everything the Titan has fought against? And of course, let us not forget,”

He stopped no more than a few feet away from Hunter, forcing him to crane his neck to see Belos’s masked face.

“Hiding away the only thing keeping me here in front of you, keeping me sane enough to serve the Titan and bring about the Day of Unity.” His voice grew very low, but the words rang out like the ringing of discordant bells within Hunter’s mind.

And with that last sentence, his grip on Li’l Rascal suddenly tightened.

There was a crack.

Hunter felt a deep, sundering pain rupture through him, and all of a sudden he was moving of his own accord, acting on instinct as he raised his staff and shot a bolt of magic towards Belos.

The red energy glanced against the emperor’s right shoulder, and the staff went flying to the side, clattering to the ground.

Belos clutched his shoulder as he turned back to his nephew, eyes glowing a vivid blue. He raised his right hand towards him, a red glow instantly forming around one outstretched finger.

Hunter could barely process what he had just done when he felt his hand seize and he was forced to drop his staff. There was a prickling pain on his right wrist, and he ripped off his glove to see his coven mark glowing red, thorny vines beginning to spread outwards from it.

He could feel his body begin to immobilize as he looked back up at the emperor in horror.

“Your betrayal will never leave these walls, Hunter. I never expected I’d have to use this measure on you of all my subordinates. How very disappointing, “ his voice was commanding, but there was a breathlessness in it from the exertion.

Hunter felt himself begin to keel over, the pain immense as he felt as if his very veins were having their blood replaced by the thorns, spreading through him like a parasite. He gritted his teeth to keep from crying out in pain as he struggled to move his useless limbs.

There was an intense pressure in his skull, and his ears were filled with a high pitched ringing sound.

But all of a sudden, it lifted ever so slightly, and the vines’ advance was halted. He looked up, vision swimming, to find a splotch of red launching themself repeatedly at Emperor Belos, who was swatting at them. He shuddered then, and fell to his knees, black sludge beginning to leak from his orifices.

Hunter still couldn’t move his body, and his throat was completely seized up. He felt helpless as he watched Li’l Rascal fly off and snatch up the staff, Belos beginning to seize as the substance bulked up his size.

They flew to him at a breakneck speed, and he was barely able to force his stiff left arm to grab onto it. They quickly settled onto the top and opened their wings, eyes glowing brightly in the darkness. It was all Hunter could do to heave himself onto the staff, leaning heavily upon it.

They shot off, and Hunter glanced back to just see the hazy form of the emperor shudder and contort, angered groans emitting from the shape, before they were bursting through the doors of the throne room, and his uncle disappeared from view.

The halls of the castle became a blur with the speed they were flying at. Hunter could only hold on for dear life and hope that Li’l Rascal could get them both out of there as they whisked past castle staff, cries of surprise blending into the whistle of the air around them.

And then, the walls of the fortress were gone, and they were racing through open air across the bridge and into the forest beyond. Li’l Rascal didn’t stop, only continued to fly as fast as their wings could until they slammed into a large boulder, mask flying off of Hunter’s face with the impact.

Hunter hit the ground with a sickening thud, seeing stars behind his tightly-closed eyes as he lay there, unable to really identify which part of his body was lying where as he was overcome with waves of nausea.

When he finally did move, it was to curl into a ball on his side, clutching his right arm as the pain of the thorns had yet to fully subside and ate into him like a poison. He eventually opened his eyes blearily to find that the red vines were slowly retreating back into his coven mark, the magic that sustained them now miles away.

His focus went in and out, but eventually he managed to see beyond his wrist to that of the small red form of Li’l Rascal waiting about a foot away.

When he made eye contact with them, they chirped quietly, hopping a little closer. That was when Hunter saw the small crack that had formed from the end of their scar and extended down halfway their chest.

And upon seeing what his recklessness had led to, all the stress of the past few weeks, and really the past several years, ever since he had joined the Emperor’s Coven, finally caught up to him. The shape of Li’l Rascal turned into a red blur as tears welled up in his eyes and he began to choke out sobs. Tears ran down his cheeks as he shut his eyes, his aching body shuddering as cried profusely.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I never should have let you stay, this never would have happened to you,” he apologized over and over. His voice was pathetic, coming out in wobbly tones, but it was all he could think to do as he lay there.

He heard a few gentle chirps, and then there was the feeling of soft feathers rubbing against his cheek.

He opened his eyes into slits, seeing the vague red blob of Li’l Rascal looking at him with a warm, but determined look in their eyes. It was hard to let himself believe, but he felt deep within himself that Li’l Rascal was telling him “It’s okay. I chose you, and I will stay beside you.”

Hunter only sobbed harder at that, pulling his palisman close against him as he curled up around them, letting everything out in one go.

Eventually, he calmed himself down, slowly, until he was left with a sniffling nose, cheeks stiff with dried salt, and a throbbing headache.

He sat up, feeling multiple ribs and what must have been all of his muscles screaming in protest.

He brought his hands still holding Li’l Rascal a bit further from his chest, looking down at the little cardinal that had changed so much in the past weeks.

“I don’t deserve you,” he whispered, still feeling the sting in his eyes as he blinked away the rest of his tears.

His palisman begged to differ, squawking at him and pecking lightly at his hands.

Hunter chuckled slightly, though his sore throat twinged with the sound and his lungs ached.

He looked up and around at his surroundings. Nothing but trees lit by the setting sun as far as the eye could see. He felt a pang in his heart as he realized he couldn’t see the spires of the castle from where he sat.

I betrayed my uncle. The emperor. The Titan.

The thought was like a knife buried deep within him, twisting deeper each time it resurfaced. He was still in shock, and he didn’t think the full implications of what he’d done had completely registered yet.

Still, when he looked down at the sweet face of the cardinal filling his palms, there was that same voice whispering inside him that said It’s worth it.

He took as deep a breath as he could with his sore lungs, glancing over at the discarded mask lying further away, glinting in the light. He realized then that he would never wear it the same way again.

The Golden Guard was dead, killed by his treason. And in its place was just… Hunter. That thought rolled around in his mind, and he turned it around mentally, studying it. He wasn’t sure how to feel about it yet. But the idea of losing his identity as the head of the coven no longer seemed so daunting. Because even without the emperor’s magic, even without his status and the persona he had clung to for so long, he still had Li’l Rascal, and he still had himself.

And with time, maybe, just maybe, he could be okay with that.

He gently shifted his palisman to his left palm so he could stroke them with his right, and they closed their eyes as they leaned into the touch. Hunter felt that familiar softness rise up, unwavering and reliable, the one thing that hadn’t been irrevocably changed.

I was never going to be able to send them off. All of this was inevitable from the moment I met them, he thought quietly to himself.

Li’l Rascal was his palisman. They had chosen him. And maybe he didn’t believe himself to be worthy just yet of that honor, but if there was one thing he was certain of at this moment, it was that he was determined to become as such.

With his future ripped away from him, there were suddenly a million possibilities, a countless number of paths that he could take. He had no idea where to start, but there was a hopeful feeling he was hesitantly allowing himself to experience as he looked up into the endless sky above, lit orange by the same sun that had illuminated his first bond with his palisman.

He gazed back down at Li’l Rascal, giving them a shaky smile as they opened their good eye at him, peeping happily.

“So, what do we do now?"