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Masks of Love and War

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Chapter Three

Willow sighed as the light of the sun warmed her face.

She giggled as lean arms wrapped around her from behind, something broad and as warm as the sunlight pressing into her back. Hunter's chuckle met her ears as he leaned around and kissed her cheek before he settled his head on top of hers.

The young lovers stood upon a single round hill, under the shade of a tall deadwood tree with wide, leafy branches. The land was spread out before them, the grass turned to fiery orange by the golden sun. In the distance, the Titan's skull looked back at them with something like serenity.

"I miss this," Willow whispered.

"Me too," Hunter said quietly, nuzzling deeper into her hair and making her giggle again.

"What are we going to do?" Willow asked dreamily.

"That's not important right now," Hunter said. "What's important is the now."

Willow hummed in delight, her cheeks warm — and not from the sun. "It's all so strange," she couldn't help but say. "You, harboring a palisman. Me, spying for Luz and Eda …" She leaned back harder into Hunter's chest, smile widening as his grip tightened around her. "And he doesn't even know," she finished.

"Oh, I know …"

Willow's blood ran cold as storm clouds emerged to block the sun and darken the land, the eyes of the Titan burning red. The grass wilted and turned to dust that blew away in harsh rising winds. Hunter tensed and drew Willow behind him, his posture hunched like a feral animal.

And from the barren ground before of them emerged a pillar of fluid ooze that coalesced into the towering form of Emperor Belos. He hissed and clenched his fingers into a rigid claw, the gauntlet glowing with red magic, and Hunter was lifted from the ground, clawing at his throat as he gasped for air. Willow lunged forward to help, but her arm was snatched by something and she looked back to find the branches of the tree holding her like a vise.

"Oh, sweet, naive little Willow," Belos sighed, almost crooning. "Did you honestly think two children could stop my plans?" He chuckled, the sound low and terrifying. "Look at what your actions have wrought, child." He stepped aside, drawing Hunter with him, to reveal the field below filled with statues. Willow gasped in such fright she might have torn her voice box.

The people she loved … were petrified.

Luz and Amity were frozen in stone, reaching vainly toward each other with horrified screams. Her fathers were crouched around Gus as if to shield him. Eda was wrapped around King to shield her adopted son while Lilith tried the same for her little sister and Hooty wrapped around Lilith. The Troublemakers, all of her friends from Hexside … everyone she cared about was gone.

"It seems you weren't strong enough, after all," Belos sneered. He curled his fingers tighter and Hunter gagged at the pressure.

"Stop!" Willow cried, tears streaming down her face as her heart tore in two. "Stop it!"

"Why?" Belos asked plainly. "The Titan's will is clear as day." He looked up at the dark clouds. "Even this day." He chuckled again and loosened his grip. Hunter didn't fall, but he could choke out a word.

"Willow, I l-!"

There was a wet snap.

"Willow!" Hunter shouted, shaking her by the shoulders as Lil Rascal and Clover fluttered around in concern. "Wake up!" Willow's eyes shot open and she lashed out with a punch that connected to the side of Hunter's head. She yelped and clapped her hands to her mouth in shock. "Oh, wow," Hunter groaned with a pained smile, "that smarts. Nice-"

Hunter grunted as Willow surged upward and tackled him in a hug that sent him spinning to the side to land on his back with her on his chest. She held him with all four limbs, whimpering and trembling with obvious terror. "Hey, it's okay," Hunter said gently, holding her waist with one hand and brushing her hair with the other. "You're okay, Willow. It's okay." The palismen took stations close by and nuzzled Willow to try and ease her down.

Hunter felt the familiar awkwardness of being in a heavily-emotional situation, but forced it down. Willow needed him right now; he could sort through his social inexperience later.

Willow slowly wound down from her nightmare, her trembling easing and her breathing slowing. Her grip on him slowly eased until she was simply lying on top of him. Taking that as a cue, Hunter moved to leave. After their assignment, he had taken Willow to the castle's airship hangar and requisition their transport, much as he had for the palismen mission. After a day of travel, they had landed and had set up their sleeping bags on opposite sides of the deck to rest up before their first mission together, in respect to each other and Willow's dads. He'd only crossed the deck when he'd woken to her frightened cries that had ripped at his heart.

But no sooner had he moved than Willow gasped and latched on again. "Don't leave," she whispered hoarsely. "Please, don't leave me."

Hunter's grip on Willow tightened too, and he sighed. "Okay." Careful to keep a hand on her waist, Hunter shifted them into Willow's sleeping bag, laying on his back as Willow laid her head on his chest. She curled into him in need of comfort, and Hunter held her close. Part of him felt even more awkward than before, sharing what amounted to a bed with the girl he was in love with; another small part was instinctively pleased with it. But the rest of him kicked those feelings down and chose to accept it for her sake.

On Willow's part, Hunter's presence and warmth helped ease her fears, as did the palismen who seemed to have nested in the blankets close to their partners. The nightmare seemed less real with him here and alive and warm and well. Even so, shades of the dream tried to rise and haunt her. Oh, I know.

Willow's eyes widened as something else came to mind. "Hunter?" she whispered. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course," Hunter answered quietly.

"Something about Belos," she admitted.

She felt Hunter tense beneath her and he remained silent for a long minute. "What do you want to know?" he asked, his tone wary.

"When Gus and I helped Luz try to steal the Healing Hat," Willow started, "Luz said that we could heal Eda and get it back before anyone knew it was gone." Her fingers curled to clench his sleep shirt. "And then we all heard his voice say, 'I'll know,' from all around us. That's when the security doors came down."

"And you used the Green-Thumb Gauntlet to smash those doors down," Hunter added proudly.

Willow's lips twitched in a smile before settling back to a pensive frown. "I guess my question is how Belos knew."

Hunter remained silent for a while, idly brushing his fingers along Willow's back. "I've always called it his all-seeing eye," Hunter admitted. "I don't know if it's some kind of artificial magic, or maybe even something he picked up from the Titan. But from what I've been able to observe, he can become aware of whatever he wants within the castle walls. To see and hear anything he wants to."

"He sees it all …?" Willow asked in fear.

"Not all at once," Hunter explained. "From what I can tell, Belos has to know what he's looking for. Otherwise, you wouldn't have been able to sneak around the castle in the first place." He narrowed his eyes in thought. "I think … when you and the others messed with the relics, it tripped some kind of alert and drew Belos's attention. That's how he knew to look in on you like that."

"And it's how you can hide Lil Rascal," Willow noted. The cardinal tweeted drowsily in reply.

"Yeah," Hunter said. Willow's soft warmth was lulling him into a sleepy stupor, which was rather odd for him. He was an insomniac light sleeper, as evidenced by the circles under his eyes. And as Willow's presence eased him toward slumber as well, their conversation rolled in his mind. How Luz could sneak around the castle … Then a thought occurred to him, too.

"Willow? Can I ask you something?"

"Of course," Willow giggled.

"Did Luz ever … tell you what Belos does with palismen?"

"No," Willow admitted. "She didn't want to talk about it. I guess it was really bad."

"Yeah, it is," he admitted, his stomach twisting at the thought. "Luz said she knew during the palismen thing," he admitted. "Did she ever say how she found out?"

"She followed Lilith into the castle during the field trip," Willow said, brushing her fingers over Hunter's chest. "She peeked into the throne room just as Belos did … whatever it was he did."

Hunter's lips pressed into a thin line at the thought of Luz seeing that. Then he screwed his eyes shut at the image of Willow being exposed to such a thing. Then he clenched his teeth as the ghostly visage of Belos tearing into Lil Rascal and sucking him dry into a crumbling husk.

"Hunter," Willow said, sitting up and placing a kiss on his cheek. "Calm down," she whispered soothingly, "it's okay."

Hunter's breathing, which had sped into ragged gasps, eased almost immediately. He gulped in air and settled down, drawing Willow even closer. "How are you so much better at that?" he asked with a humorless chuckle.

"I don't know," Willow admitted, then kissed him again. "But I'm glad I am."

Hunter smiled and drew Willow closer, both of them finally calmed down enough to sleep. As their shared warmth under the sleeping bag lulled them further into slumber, Lil Rascal and Clover traded glances and crinkled their eyes with joy … carefully avoiding thinking about the coming morning.

Mattholomule's eyes shot open at the sound of a chiming ring at his bedside. He blinked and turned his head to the side to find his crystal ball displaying "Incoming call." Matt groaned and unwound himself from his comforter to slowly reach out and tap the crystal to answer. "What …?" he groaned. Then he sat up in surprise at whose face was shining from within the orb.


"Hey, Mattholomule," Angmar said with a wide, forced grin. "How, uh, how ya doin' after … everything?"

"You mean abandoning me and Augustus in a haunted and cursed graveyard?" Matt groused, laying on the lie thick to let the rumor spread if possible. "About as good as can be, I guess."

Angmar chuckled nervously, brushing a knuckle across his nose. "Yeah, since that," he said. Then he bit his lip. "Look, I know it's late and all, but can I ask you something?"

Matt glanced at his clock to find it reading two in the morning. "Might as well," he grumbled. "Since I'm already awake. The uncertainty might actually keep me up if you don't."

"Oh, good!" Angmar shouted, his eyes shining as he lunged within the picture. "Listen, are there any ridiculously powerful girl witches in Hexside's Plant track?!"

Matt flinched backward as Angmar's face suddenly filled the crystal ball, actually flattening against the picture. The felid demon's eyes were practically burning with the question. "Uh, I guess?" he asked. "I mean, different tracks kinds keep to themselves, but I know a few."

"Who?" Angmar asked. "Tell me who!"

"Hey, easy!" Matt snapped. "Why do you wanna know, anyway?"

Angmar hissed and retreated, lowering his face into his clawed hands. "I wanna know if the Silver Belle goes to school there," he admitted morosely.

"The Silver Belle?" Matt asked.

"Yes!" Angmar said, lifting his face to look into the crystal ball. "I've seen her touring the Latissa branch of the Plant Coven house." He clapped his hands to his cheeks, the fur lifting in something like a blush. "She's so powerful! And beautiful under the mask — I bet! She could probably make an entire butterfly sanctuary without a galderstone!"

"Uh, yeah … right," Matt said stiffly. "Uh, look man, I don't have any idea who the Silver Belle is. Honestly, she may not even go to any school anymore. But, uh, y'know … good luck or whatever."

"Thanks, man! Sleep tight!" Angmar said as he signed off.

Matt grumbled as he wriggled back into his comforter and rolled over onto his belly to try and fall back to sleep. But as he struggled to return to dreamland, images of Angmar asking his questions swirled in his mind. It was … kind of concerning, the look in his eyes. Almost obsessive …

He yawned as slumber finally rolled over him and he decided that it was worth thinking about later. Much later.

Clover and Lil Rascal fluttered down through the canopy to perch upon the waiting hands of their partners. Their eyes glowed with that faint, white-gold light that indicated their inter-palismen thought speech, while they buzzed, trilled, chirped and tweeted what they had found to the masked witchlings.

"Gotcha," Hunter said with a nod to the cardinal.

"Thank you, Clover, Rascal," Willow said.

With that, the palismen expanded into their staff-forms for their partners to take up. They donned their masks and took each others' free hands, weaving their gloved fingers as each mentally prepared for what was about to come. The Golden Guard lifted his palistrom staff — his mechanized one tucked into his belt as a backup — and mentally commanded Lil Rascal's magic to send him, the Silver Belle, and her staff into the air with a chirp and a streak of vibrant yellow magic.

Within a boundary wall of magically-grown trees draped with vines that obscured the confines, the ruins that Belos had described could only generously be described as towering. Standing stone monoliths were arranged in a circle around a central slab of the same kind of stone, several toppled and the few that stood broken halfway up and the remains scattered outside the circle. On the surviving surfaces, strings of eldritch runes and sigils were carved.

The formation was ringed by a collection of rough tents, themselves surrounded by the trees, and a few dozen witches and demons — all dressed in similar clothes of leather and Lincoln green wool — milled about cooking food, splitting firewood, taking care of their young, and otherwise maintaining the large camp. The air was filled with a sense of quiet tension, everyone clearly fearful of the Emperor's Coven who had chased them from their homes and led them all to taking refuge here while also finding a sense of community from their shared hardships.

The oldest inhabitants — a Headheld demon with a blue skin and neat white sideburns, a bald man-witch with no mustache to pair with a long, silver beard, a witch woman with eerie, bronze eyes flanked by crow's feet and with dark feathers in her hair, and a demon whose long nose resembled a proboscis monkey from Earth — were each wearing distinctive cloaks embroidered with vines and were examining the circle of stones.

The camp's tense tranquility was broken by a streak of yellow magic that lanced through the air and into the center of the circle, a muffled boom and a cloud of dust rushing outward to reveal the crouched forms of the Golden Guard and the Silver Belle.

"The Emperor's attack dog!" one witch wailed.

"And the newest pretender!" a demon shouted.

The monkey demon snarled and bared his fangs as he traced a spell circle that sent a bolt of lightning hurtling at the masked witches. The other three elders quickly followed up with a gout of flames from the man-witch, a gale of wind from the woman that fanned the flames, and a cluster of speeding stones lifted and shot forward by the Headheld.

Before either the Golden Guard or the Silver Belle could react to the onslaught, the former yelped as Lil Rascal's staff-form swerved in his grip to absorb the magic of the lightning before it spread into a barrier spell much like the Silver Belle had seen Eda use in her duel with Lilith at the covention — the other three attacks washing against the barrier with nary a scratch.

"Wow," the Golden Guard said before he brought down the barrier. "Wait, please!" he shouted, taking his cloak and waving it in the universal sign for surrender, in both the human and demon realms.

"We didn't come to fight!" the Silver Belle called, holding her staff out to the side in a gesture of vulnerability.

The bearded witch bared his teeth and prepared another spell, but the Headheld placed a hand on his shoulder with a look of bafflement. "Hold your spells," he said in a resonant baritone, emotions washing over him like waves on a choppy sea. "They speak the truth."

By now, the commotion had drawn the others in the camp to watch, and all had heard the demon's words. Many were terrified at the sight of the leader of the Emperor's Coven, but it seemed that the Headheld's word held enough weight to stay their flight-or-fight responses. Even so, many began to prepare spells in case things went violent.

"Then why are you here?" the woman asked, stepping forward to speak on the elders' behalf.

"To offer a deal," the Golden Guard said, clapping his staff to the ground and stepping forward alongside the Silver Belle. "As you're no doubt aware, Emperor Belos knows you're here. We've been ordered to detain as many of you as we can and bind you to covens. And the rest, well … the Emperor is determined to stomp out all wild magic."

The Headheld narrowed his eyes, tilting his head in thought as he gestured for them to continue. "I take it you have other plans, Head Witch?"

"Yes," the Silver Belle said, stepping forward. "We're offering some of you the chance to flee with no conflict. But to keep the Emperor from growing suspicious, some of you must return with us to be reported to the coven."

"You children think you can take us all?" the bearded witch snapped, his fingertips igniting with different colored flames. "Such arrogance!"

"We don't have to take you all," the Golden Guard said. "Even if we can get just a few of you, Belos will know that more of you are out here. And he'll have no reason not to send one battalion after another of other coven scouts and guards to track you all and bring you in, dead or alive."

"But if some of you surrender yourselves now," the Silver Belle picked up, her voice strained as if fighting nausea, "we promise to let the others go free, and with a head start. If you can get to any of the small islands on the fringes of the Isles, Belos has less control there outside the cities."

The Headheld blinked and hummed in thought. His fellows looked at him with shock. "You can't honestly be considering this, Kranion," the monkey demon said incredulously.

"They speak the truth, Wurmb," Kranion replied evenly. "Belos will not stop."

"But perhaps he can be slowed," the woman said, stepping forward to join Kranion.

"Marrigorn," the bearded witch said, gesturing to the people behind them, "we can't leave them defenseless."

"And we cannot leave this sacred place for the Emperor to defile again!" Wurmb said with heat in his voice, his long fingers clenching on air.

"The Emperor gave no orders to further harm this place," the Golden Guard said. "We will leave it untouched, so long as you do what we ask."

"Warner," Kranion said, "cast your Sight and tell me what turning this down would wrought."

The bearded witch, Warner, narrowed his eyes and nodded. He reached into his robes and removed a hand-sized oracle orb that he held before him with one hand supporting it from below and the other rested on top. His hands glowed with amber magic and a violet spirit that resembled a serpentine dragon slithered from the orb to hiss at all others and then wrap around the old witch as if to hide him away. Through the semi-transparency, Warner's eyes were clenched and his lips were moving as if speaking. Then his eyes snapped open with a rasp and the spirit unfurled to roar and retreat to its home.

"The children will fight in earnest," Warner said, his eyes distant, "and their convictions are great, as are their skills for two so young. Many of us will fall or be captured, one way or another." He gulped and placed his free hand to his stomach. "But after they flee with some of us, they will be followed by legions of others. Just as the girl describes."

"Prophecies can be fickle," Wurmb said harshly, casting a circle that lifted stones from the ground to surround his hands in earthen gauntlets. "How can we trust their word?"

"The palismen," Marrigorn said simply, pointing at the masked witchlings' staves. "They employ wild magic, the bane of the Emperor."

That got a stir through the small crowd.

"Make no mistake," the Golden Guard said, stepping forward and removing his mechanized staff to pair with Lil Rascal, its crystalline tip glowing with carmine power, "we won't leave here empty-handed."

"We only offer the chance for some to escape without violence," the Silver Belle repeated.

The elders glanced at each other in silent communication. After a handful of tense moments, even Wurmb seemed to stand down. "We accept your terms," Kranion said. "On the condition that you let our people take what they can carry."

"You saw us coming with Oracle magic," the Golden Guard said simply. "A handful of you stayed to fight us off while the others fled for the Boiling Sea."

"Just so," Kranion said dryly with a tight, forced smile. "Those who wish to stay, line up with us! Those with families, take what you can and go!" The camp was a flurry of activity as people packed up and began filing out of the camp. They left behind the elders, and a small number of men and women who chose to stay.

"Alright," the Golden Guard said, "here's the tricky part." He put away his mechanized staff and held Lil Rascal in a forward grip. "We have to make the story look good. So show us what you can do!"

"Show us how you would protect your people!" the Silver Belle shouted, her staff in one hand as vines rushed from the ground and wrapped around her wrist to extend into a lashing whip.

The wild witches hardened their gazes and hearts as they drew weapons and traced spell circles. They raced forward with cries of defiance as the teens met them in a fearsome farce of combat.

"I feel dirty," Willow said hoarsely from behind her mask, her back to one of the burned trees that had surrounded the ruins.

"Well, that one lady did know about Abominations," Hunter said from behind his own, draping his cloak over her shoulders and settling down on a root next to her.

"That's not what I mean," Willow said, drawing the cloak tight around her.

"I know," Hunter admitted, his hidden lips taut. "I … I don't like it either." Both of them cast their gazes over the formerly-wild witches that were spread across the ruins. All of them lived, though most of them had haunted looks in their eyes. Their hands were all locked into gauntlet-like devices that secured their fingers to prevent use of magic, and all of them were marked with one coven brand or another. Not to mention any number of superficial injuries collected during their "battle."

The official report would be that the Golden Guard and the Silver Belle attacked at daybreak for the element of surprise, the latter creating a distraction with massive predatory plants — many of which really did litter the place — while the prior teleported across the battleground and slapped random coven brands upon the battling wilders. In reality, the witchlings had offered them their choice of coven, despite grumbling on their part and guilt upon the youths'. They would also be reporting that the wild witches had foreseen their attack even with their preparations, hence the smaller number of bound witches and demons.

"I feel sick," Willow admitted, leaning her head onto Hunter's shoulder as he leaned his head onto her hers. "I feel like- Like I've somehow betrayed Eda and Luz. These people didn't want this, they just wanted to live in peace, on their own terms."

Hunter sighed and nuzzled closer into the contact with Willow. "I get it," he said. "Now, at least. Before I met you and Luz, I …" His lips twisted into a self-loathing grimace. "I still wouldn't have liked it, but I would have led the charge to bind these people to the coven system."

"No you wouldn't," Willow said without thinking.

"I have," Hunter stressed quietly, his stomach twisting. "I've been a head witch for less than three months, but I've served in the ranks for five years. It was small things, at first, but after I hit fourteen … I owe Belos so much, so it all seemed …" His throat tightened. "I don't even know anymore."

Willow's heart ached for him and she moved her head to kiss him on the cheek, forgetting that they were wearing their masks and her efforts bounced off with a faint clink of metal on metal. He turned to face her, and she could imagine his eyes wide with surprise. Then they stifled chuckles at the absurdity and settled back into each other, the tension abated just a little bit. They stayed like that for some time before Willow drew away and removed Hunter's cloak, passing it back to him before taking his hand and pulling him to stand and then leading him toward their semi-willing captives. Willow guided her boyfriend to the elder woman, Marrigorn. The witch looked up with those dull, bronze eyes and lifted an eyebrow in curiosity.

"May we sit?" she asked politely.

Marrigorn didn't speak, but she lowered her head in a faint nod. Both witchlings settled before her around a small campfire. It was silent for some time before someone spoke to break it. "How do you plan to take us back to the castle?" Marrigorn asked without inflection.

"We have an airship anchored about a mile away," Hunter said. "It'll hold all of us and then some."

"Hmm." Marrigorn turned her head to stare into the fire and seemed to retreat into herself. She stayed like that for several moments before looking back up at them. "Why are you here, Silver Belle? Why speak to me?"

Willow turned her head away, the firelight gleaming off of her silvery mask and lighting the vine-themed engravings. "Can I tell you something if you promise never to tell another soul?" she asked. "I promise to speak only the truth."

Marrigorn's eyebrows lifted in surprise, but she nodded. Willow traced a spell circle around the woman's bound wrists and gripped her restraints. "The oath is sealed," she said, then shuddered.

"Wi-! Uh, Silver Belle," Hunter said, his tone tense with warning, "I wouldn't-"

"My name is Willow," she said quietly. "And I didn't want to do this," Willow's voice was warbling with emotion. "Ever since I was a little girl, I thought the coven system protected us. But then I met a human girl, and her mentor, Eda the Owl Lady."

"You are an ally of the Owl Lady?" Marrigorn said, her tone indicating that she would never have believed it without the Everlasting Oath that bound Willow to honesty.

"I am," Willow confirmed. "Her apprentice is one of my best friends, and Eda herself is like the crazy aunt I never had." Willow chuckled. "I actually have lots of aunts on my dad's side, and they're all normal and not crazy."

Marrigorn was silent for a bit before asking, "Why tell me this, girl?"

"Because I need you to know that this wasn't my choice," Willow said evenly. She squeezed Hunter's hand that was still in her grasp. "Neither of our choices."

"That doesn't make it right," Marrigorn noted dully.

"But it is the reason the others were set free," Hunter said stonily. "Take it from someone who knows, the Emperor is terrifying and utterly ruthless. You and yours got a better deal than most."

Marrigorn's lips twisted with frustration, but she didn't refute the claim. Then she let out a pent-up breath and returned her gaze to the fire. Willow looked at him, and even with the mask Hunter could feel the reproach in her stare. He looked away from her accusing eye slits and to the ruins. Then he got to thinking.

"These ruins look old. As in, 'predating the Savage Ages' old," he said. "What did they do before?"

Marrigorn looked up from the flames to regard Hunter with narrowed eyes before she, too, looked at the toppled standing stones. "They were known once as the Grand Nursery," Marrigorn explained. "In times long passed, witches with a true affinity for plant and beast magic would gather here to nurture the ultimate expression of both." She was silent for a moment. "I only saw one, when I was a young girl. Belos destroyed them all in his bid to seize the throne." She swallowed and a tear fell from her eye. "The last of the Green Men."

"Green Men were real?!"

Willow and Hunter looked at each other in shock, having shouted the same exact phrase with identical inflection. Behind their masks, they smiled at each other as their cheeks pinked.

"Yes, they were real," Marrigorn said with a ghost of a smile.

Green Men were legends among plant witches. They were said to be like living, thinking, walking gardens — ten-foot sentient constructs of plant matter woven into a humanoid shape with gentle candle flames for eyes. Soft-spoken, gentle giants whose presence served to amplify the growth of plants, whether in gardens or the wild. They were said to be wanderers who roamed the Isles, building up forests and offering advice and wisdom to the pure of heart.

"Hard to believe," Willow said. "I wish I could have seen them."

"Can you imagine what just one Green Man could do today?" Hunter asked, getting swept up in his thoughts. "It could bolster farming crops to feed the hungry. Or forests for lumber."

"Or ingredients for potions and medicines," Willow pointed out.

As the teens devolved into a discussion of Green Men, snatched into their own little world, all of the wild witches looked at them with various amounts of disdain, confusion, apathy, or bemusement. Marrigorn herself held back a smile. Was she happy about being captured and forced into a coven? Certainly not. But perhaps things weren't so bad as they seemed, with these children apparently working to better the system.

Perhaps there was a glimmer of light in the gloom.

The next morning, the wild witches were loaded up into the airship that Hunter had fetched and settled in the aft deck to be taken in and processed. They would not be petrified, Hunter was certain of that. With their brands, they were too valuable as a resource for gathering magic for the Day of Unity.

As he piloted the ship, he felt Willow take his arm in hers and lean her head on his shoulder just as she had the night before. He leaned his head on her and felt some of the tension drain from him.

Whatever madness was coming, at least they would have this moment. When they'd turned a horrible situation into a … bittersweet one.