If you're still taking writing prompts, how about 62 or 72 with Darius and Hunter? 👀 Your choice. I think that anything of yours about those two would be a great read. But no pressure if you already have your plate full!
72. “There’s always another way.”
@thyandrawrites thank you for dadrius prompt and for giving me an excuse to write a one-shot for an AU I will probably not have the chance to write in its totality <3333
Anyway, this basically an AU where the whole Day of Unity/Collector fiasco ends tragically for everyone, but Darius wakes up back in time during the events of Eclipse Lake and thinks he may be able to prevent it, despite the massive amounts of PTSD.
He recognizes that voice. That annoying little voice, pestering him with questions, asking for advice, or his orders. It prods his mind like sunlight peeking through the curtains, urging him awake.
Darius? Darius, wake up!
Waking would be agony. His body remembers, even if his brain has yet to catch up. Veins of gold fracturing up his arm, his shoulder, his neck. His throat tightens, it burns, he can’t breathe, or cry out, they’re too late, it’s too late, to—
Darius shoots up in bed. Eyes flying open, searching for... For the boy, that’s who the voice belongs to, where is...?
Where am I?
His vision swims for another second or so before it clears. He’s alone. Alone in his room.
A room that isn’t in shambles. A castle still in-tact.
Darius yanks down his sleeve. Stares at the skin of his sigil, no longer inflamed, or fractured by scars. He inhales sharply, scrambling to his feet.
The date on the calendar isn’t correct. The date says they have weeks until the Day of Unity, the eclipse, the Collector—
His lungs seize impatiently. Choking on the breath he forgot to let out.
Flummoxed, Darius staggers back, missing the bed and landing hard on the floor. The pain is real, grounding. There’s a layer of dust beneath his fingertips, and that’s real, too; he hasn’t had the time to clean, too focused on averting the end of the world. An end that’s already come to pass.
Am I really...?
Time travel does not exist, he reminds himself, rather deliriously, given the circumstances. How else does he explain this anomaly? Even the Collector’s nigh-infinite power can’t warp the past.
Could it be a trick, an illusion cast over his mind? For what purpose? No, the Collector was just a child too callous when handling his toys. Malicious, yes, not calculating enough for this — whatever cruelty this is.
Darius never paid much heed to the Titan’s will, even prior to the revelation it was all a ruse. If he were a Titan-fearing man, this certainly seems like some divine form of punishment. To force him to witness it all over again, fully aware of the hollow victory their initial failure spawns—all the friends he loses, sacrificed to the greater good, which turned out to be a mediocre good at best—
As far as panic attacks go, it isn’t the worst he’s experienced. Not when he’s intimate enough with death to distinguish the difference now, the what separates this fire-laced fear in his chest from the dread of knowing you and all your loved ones will die as you’re dying.
Tension settles beneath his ribcage, tugging helplessly at his heart. Ignorance is bliss, he thinks, if it means with walking into this rebellion with eyes blinded by hope. Instead of being dragged back while knowing there’s no way to stop—
There’s always another way.
He recognizes that voice, too, even if it’s distorted, as though traveling over a distance. The whisper of it eases his pulse, eases his mind out of its panic, anchoring him in a moment much further in the past.
“Well, I’m no oracle, but…” The Golden Guard surveys the room, deftly dodging a splatter of abomination as it drips from the ceiling. “I suspect you have a shift full of cleaning duty in your future.”
“I can’t get this spell right,” Darius groans, picking flecks of goop out of his hair. “I’ve followed all the instructions, done everything right, and yet—”
He gestures to the cauldron, still bubbling with sinister intent. Mocking him.
“Oof,” the Golden Guard grunts eloquently. He bends down to examine the mixture. “Any idea where you’re going wrong?”
Darius scowls. “Did you miss the part where I mentioned I’ve done everything right?”
“What I mean is,” he interjects, wryly. “Have you tried approaching it from a different angle?”
Frowning, Darius crosses his arms. “This is the way the book says to do it,” he mutters, defensively. Even a hack like Alador can follow the instructions.
The Golden Guard chuckles. “Trust me,” he says, and, though it’s perhaps to his detriment in the long run, Darius does. “There’s always another way.”
Reminded of his mentor’s advice, Darius exhales. Dusts off his clothes. Reassess.
The Day of Unity is weeks away. Belos is still alive, still plotting to destroy every witch in the Boiling Isles. The Day of Unity is weeks away, and Darius knows, he knows precisely what they failed to do before, and precisely what they need to do to ensure it won’t happen again.
Maybe this isn’t a cruel, cosmic joke. Maybe this is a second chance.
He checks the calendar once more. He can’t remember anything remarkable about this day in particular, though it hardly matters, when he intends to change the outcome of it all.
Coven meeting in thirty minutes.
Rushing through his routine, Darius manages to look fairly presentable, all things considered. Operating on muscle memory, he walks through the castle halls without any stumbles, as if he’s never left. It feels a bit like he’s sleepwalking.
“If this is a dream,” he grumbles to himself. “It is a very long, elaborate one.”
Surreal or no, the familiarity will work in his favor. He resolves to appear as normal as possible, since that was the folly of their last plan. Terra suspected Raine from the start and saw the betrayal coming.
Fortunately, Darius’s superior acting will be able to pass the test of scrutiny.
He hears the pitter-patter of claws against the tile, a swoop in the air, and then there’s a weight on his shoulder, the bristle of unruly fur against his cape. Darius stiffens.
Scalpel against his throat, eyes blown wide in fear, a fear he’s rarely witnessed in his friend. Darius can’t move, can’t do anything as he’s restrained, can’t do anything as the draining spell begins, his friend collapsing in pain despite all his efforts to save—
Jumping down off his shoulder, Eberwolf tilts his head. Something wrong?
Darius forces out a scoff. “Nothing of note,” he replies, shortly. Any lingering traces of turmoil could be blamed on irritation. “Didn’t sleep well.”
Eberwolf falls into step aside of him. It’s your bed.
“You have no room to talk. You sleep in a pile of filthy fur pelts on the floor.”
And of the two of us, who looks more rejuvenated? Eberwolf preens.
He scowls half-heartedly, too busy swelling with joy. Titan, he missed this bickering.
Meeting with the coven-heads should be a cinch, now that he’s already had this episode with Eber. He’ll be prepared to handle these emotional outbursts should they try to inconvenience him again.
Nothing prepares Darius for the sight of Raine, standing awkwardly next to Terra, waiting for everyone to arrive.
A bard should never be as silent as this. The draining spell left all of them groggy, weak. Raine has yet to stir. Not even as Eda pleads, and sobs, and cradles their body, which is still except for the gentle rise of their chest.
Whatever strength they needed to wake was used up to save the woman they loved. Even as the world screams, a symphony of terror and noise, Raine remains silent. Catatonic, alive in name only...
“Something the matter, Darius?” asks Terra, an ice-cold echo of Eber’s concern. Her voice snaps him back to the present, realizing he’s now the subject of her undivided curiosity, bordering on suspicion. Fuck.
“Yes,” he deadpans, pointing to Raine’s vest. Today it’s a rotted burgundy color. “That eyesore of an outfit caused a momentary lapse in composure.”
Raine pulls a face, shooting Darius a look. Laying it on a little thick there, aren’t you?
You’ll thank me later, songbird. “Remind me to bleach that image from my eyeballs when we’re done here.”
Terra chuckles, not bothering to hide her amusement. That was the trick with the old crone, he’s learned. Keep her entertained and she’s no trouble.
The meeting goes by without another incident. Darius stalks off on his own in search of “eye bleach” afterwards. It gives him a chance to sift through his swirling thoughts, which keep circling back to how this occurred. He removes time-portals from the equation, since it’s solely his consciousness that’s done the traveling.
Out-of-body experiences reek of oracle magic. Loathe as he is to admit, he could use Odalia’s consult on this, though the cost would be enduring her smugness. However, she was a bit too chummy with Kikimora, as he recalls...
Darius wrinkles his nose. Decides he’d rather eat his own boot than ask her for help.
He’s pondering so intently that he fails to look as he’s turning the corner, colliding right into someone else.
“Watch where you’re going!”
That voice. Full of anger, and no small amount of irritation, as its owner tries to brush past the coven head.
Without a second’s hesitation, Darius catches the kid by the wrist, both of them freezing in the middle of corridor. Suddenly, he’s struggling to breathe past the smell of smoke—
—smoke paints the sky black. Flecks of gold mingled in the ash that springs from the from the pyre.
Belos howls against his bindings, very nearly free. The youngest of the Golden Guards stands vigil.
“This curse of our family ends with you,” he vows, a flame glyph clenched in his fist. His words are grim, final. “And with me.”
Darius realizes too late what he means. He isn’t fast enough.
The wire trips, the trap set—
Hunter glares at his lack of response. "What do you want?" he asks wearily. "And why are you staring at me like—mmph!"
His yelp is muffled against Darius's chest as he’s crushed in an embrace. The boy squirms, radiating his uncertainty. Darius holds tighter, reassured by his fluttery pulse. His hand clasps against hair that’s still blonde, not blackened by soot. Skin not blistered, or burnt, his remains distorted beyond recognition. No, Hunter is alive, and whole, and nothing could ever compel Darius to let go—
Something smears onto glove.
"Ack!" Darius gasps, shoving the boy to arm’s length. He glowers at the state of his clothes. "Gross! You're covered in sludge!"
"Well, it wouldn’t be a problem if you hadn't tried to smother me!" Hunter sputters.
"I wasn't smothering you,” he snaps. “That was a hug. Do you not understand what a hug is?"
“A what?” Hunter exclaims, answering that succinctly. “Did you hit your head recently!? Should I call the healing coven?”
Darius pinches the bridge of his nose, sighing. His hand’s trembling, but he doubts Hettie Cutburn has anything that will treat this unique brand of head trauma.
"I was...” He fumbles to explain to Hunter, this Hunter, who has no reason trust his word, steadfastly devoted to the emperor. He hasn’t the faintest clue what sort of danger he’s in. Hasn’t an inkling of the fate that awaits him, a graveyard of golden masks and bones…
Titan, does he even have Flapjack yet? Has he met Eda’s human? Too many liabilities. So many ways this single, persistent child could compromise the mission.
If he was smart, Darius would leave him alone. Claim temporary insanity and push the kid aside, just as he’s done a hundred times before. Hunter would barely notice, accustomed to this kind of neglect.
Besides, the sooner he defeats Belos, the sooner he saves Hunter, and everyone else. When this is over, he can apologize properly, and make up for it, and—
“Let me help,” Hunter beseeches. “I know my uncle better than anyone. And I learned plenty about my family in the human realm,” he adds, grimacing. “I know what I have to do.”
Darius’s exhaustion is bone-deep by this point. Somehow he summons the energy for a smile, threadbare as it is. “Forget it, kid.”
Hunter frowns. “After the draining spell, you’re short on able-bodied witches. I’m no witch, but after all this, you can’t seriously be underestimating me.”
“What about your friends?” Darius retorts. “Would you allow them to join such a mission?”
“They’re kids.” Hunter’s resolve hardens. “Real kids, with families, and homes. I belong here. Fighting, following orders. It’s what I know what to do, what I was made for.”
Stiltedly, Darius opens his mouth, unsure of how to broach the subject. This conversation confirms what he assumed already, that Hunter has no relatives, and nowhere to go.
You could have a home with me, he wants to say, but a shout from Eda draws his attention. It sounds urgent, more important, so Darius shelves the discussion for later. They’ll have time, he thinks, once this is over. It can wait...
“I was checking on you,” he rushes out, stunning the boy into silence. “You look a bit, um. Banged up.”
"Yeah, you would look that way too if you were traipsing around in the mines all day, searching for Titan’s blood.”
“At the Knee?” Darius knits his brow. Belos needs Titan’s blood for the portal. Why send his scouts on a such a fruitless endeavor? “Those mines have been dry for decades.”
“Wish you would’ve told me earlier,” Hunter mumbles. “Nothing left to find there except fool’s blood.”
“Fool’s blood is highly unstable,” Darius says with growing horror. He examines the boy’s face more closely, noting that he’s littered with cuts and bruises, most of it superficial.
“That’s what I said!” Hunter exclaims, throwing his arms in the air. “Try telling the idiot Owl Lady and her rat that.”
So he’s definitely met Edalyn, judging by his utter frustration. Darius huffs out a laugh, short-lived as he glimpses the nasty-looking cut on his forehead, hopefully not caused by any explosions.
He moves to tuck that errant strand of hair out of the way so he can get a better view. Hunter flinches from the touch. “Get away from me,” he says, waspily.
Obligingly, Darius backpedals. “You look like you’re ready to collapse,” he observes, perhaps a bit hypocritically, when he’s teetering over the edge of exhaustion himself.
“Because I’m tired,” Hunter murmurs, the bags under his eyes darker than usual. Despite his admission, he says, “If you’re finished with your weird little interrogation, I have work to do.”
Good, he’s leaving of his own volition. Just let him pass—
Panic blooms in his chest. Burning, frantic and baseless. For Titan’s sake, it isn’t the kid will meet some terrible fate the moment he leaves his sight!
His feet act on their own accord, stepping in front of him and blocking his path. Hunter groans.
“Wait!” Darius halts. Tries to think of something, anything that could detain the boy without drawing suspicion. “Are- Are you hungry?”
Of the excuses he could’ve conjured, that’s a contender for the stupidest.
Hunter opens his mouth, all ready with a snide reply, but he’s interrupted by a long, rumbling growl from his stomach. He flushes, teeth clicking shut.
That’s a yes. Darius smirks victoriously, motioning for Hunter to follow. Reluctantly, the boy complies.
“Stop staring at me,” Darius snaps, though there’s no heat behind it, unless he counts the steam wafting from his cup. “Didn’t anybody ever teach you manners?”
“I’m confused,” Hunter shrugs by way of response. Darius shoves a tin bowl of cookies in his direction as a distraction.
He didn’t mention that any food in his room was whatever snacks Eberwolf hadn’t eaten from his cheat-day stash.
“You have literally never invited me to tea,” Hunter points out. “Or tolerated me for longer than ten-minute increments.”
“That is... Oddly specific.” And incredibly sad. He acted so arrogant as the Golden Guard, trying to boss around adults that he technically outranked, but who was supposed to take a child seriously? It was such an effective front that it never occurred to Darius that Hunter may be aware of how disliked he was among the coven heads.
There was a lot you didn’t consider.
Oblivious to his guilt, Hunter nods. “Your record is higher than most coven heads. Graye can only stand me for four minutes at best.”
“Maybe I should keep you around,” Darius snorts. “Save me the headache of dealing with him.”
Hunter cracks a smile. He munches on a cookie from the tin, seemingly without a care for how stale they are, quickly grabbing another. While he’s scattering crumbs all over his table, Darius sets his cup down, surreptitiously gathering the medical kit he snuck over with the kettle.
When he realizes his intent, Hunter grunts and bats his hand away. “I told you—”
“Hold still,” Darius barks. Regrets it when Hunter goes rigid, instantly obeying. Softly, he dabs at the cut with disinfectant. “Don’t be , it won’t hurt you. This looks like it smarts, though.”
“This? No,” Hunter scoffs. “I’ve had worse.”
He brandishes this fact proudly, a badge of honor. It comes across rather differently to Darius, a child who doesn’t know any better. His gaze flicks over to the scar on the boy's face and decides they both need a distraction.
Luckily, the boy loves to talk, so Darius asks, “Was your mission a success?”
“It...” He deflates at the question, visibly wavering. “The emperor didn’t seem pleased with me.”
Rage overwhelms his senses, because he knows, he knows now what a displeased Belos means for the boy. He manages to reign in his anger. Barely.
“Oh?” he says, faux-casually.
“I sort of. Disobeyed his orders.” Hunter winces in a way that has nothing to do with the disinfectant. “But! I got what he needed! Which is more than Kikimora can say.”
He smirks at this, although it’s bittersweet at best.
“Any other complications?” Darius fishes, applying a bandage over the cut. “You mentioned the Owl Lady.”
“She was there,” Hunter confirms. “And the youngest Blight.”
Interesting. He files away that information for later.
“We fought over the Titan’s blood, and I...” Hunter dithers for a while, sipping at his tea. His fingers twitch restlessly against the ceramic. “I did what I had to do to win. And I fulfilled my mission, so I should be happy, shouldn’t I?”
He doesn’t wait for a response.
“Only she said some things and I... I didn’t want to fight her, really. Or resort to what I did to win. But it was the Titan’s will that Belos have that key, I did what I was supposed to do.” Hunter dares to glance at Darius, who’s listened patiently up to this point. “So why do I feel like I... Like I did something awful? That’s stupid, right? They were the ones opposing the emperor, after all.”
Being a spy is striking a delicate balance between what’s true and what’s necessary. He could tell Hunter the entire, sordid truth right here, right now ... and he would certainly be executed for treason by the next morning. He should be allowed to come to these conclusions naturally, like he is already, and on his own terms...
...though that’s not to say he couldn’t do with some prodding.
“In the coven, there’s no room for second-guessing. You use any method you have to in order to succeed. The ends justify the means and all that.”
“Exactly! You understand.” Hunter sounds relieved, his shoulders sagging with the weight of it removed.
“I’m afraid it isn’t that easy, little prince.” Darius smiles thinly, closing his eyes against the twinge of a headache. “Whatever you’re willing to do, you have to ask yourself — what is this going to cost me? What am I willing to pay?”
He opens his eyes.
“Never mind the emperor for a moment,” he says, fiercely. Hunter balks, taken aback by this blasphemy. “Will you be able to live with the consequences?”
Hunter fidgets with the hem of his cloak, which has yet to be repaired. “I had to,” he whispers, though to whom, Darius isn’t sure. “It was the only way.”
“There is always another way,” Darius imparts. “That was something your predecessor taught me.”
“You knew the Golden Guard who was before me?” asks Hunter, the words skipping over each other in his excitement. Crumbs spew from the corners of his mouth. “What else did he teach you?
“Not to chew with my mouth open, for one,” Darius grumbles. He bops the crown of his head with the side of his palm, despising how it makes Hunter flinch. He’ll ensure that in his timeline, Belos dies a much slower, painful death. “Sit down. I’ll tell you anything you want about my mentor on one condition.”
Hunter nods eagerly.
“If you get hurt like this again, or at all, you’ll come to me for help.” Darius raises his eyebrows at the kid, awaiting his agreement. “Deal?”
Though he seems rather stunned by the terms, his curiosity outweighs everything else. “Deal.”