That was the sum total of the time I got away from the Wizarding World before I got dragged back into it again. Thankfully, it was well into the holidays by the time Lady Artemis returned to us and we were able to safely leave the Hogwarts grounds, so we had had several blissful weeks not having to worry about any bratty children finding us.
Although, I think Artemis had been half hoping that we had some new recruits by the time she got back. Our numbers still hadn't recovered after Puerto Rico and we were heading into yet another war.
We didn't stay in the UK once Artemis returned. We went back to the states instead, to a forest in New Hampshire. It was summer, so the weather was nice and we spent our days doing what we pleased, but my mood was somewhat soured by my imminent return.
Thalia had been the one to break it to me. She was lucky I hadn't broken any of her limbs as payback.
"Come on, Storm. You can't spend all of your last day brooding!"
I rolled my eyes as the peppy strawberry-blonde plopped down on the log beside me.
"I can, Livvy. And that's what I fully intend on doing."
"Uh, no. Come out and hunt with us. For old times sake?"
"By old times, do you mean yesterday?"
"Hey, it feels like a lot longer."
"Go bug your girlfriend," I said, poking the ground with a freshly-made arrow.
It wasn't good for the tip, but I needed something to do with my hands. My scowl deepened when I realised that this time tomorrow, my hands could be occupied with a wand for the first time in decades.
It wouldn't be my wand, though. When I first joined the Hunters I had brought it with me, although I didn't use it until we helped in the fight against Grindelwald. When it was over (or rather, when we stopped helping) I left it behind for good. It was long gone by now, and I couldn't help but feel a twinge of sadness. A wizard without a wand was as good as dead, as my father used to say.
Well, Dad, I thought, I'm a wandless wizard, and I'm doing a lot better than you, aren't I?
I was shaken out of my thoughts when an arrow flew through the air and planted itself in the log between Livvy and I. I only glanced up when Stella came over to retrieve it. Despite being in the Hunters for as long as I had been, she was worse at archery, choosing instead to rely on her demigod powers of light manipulation to fight instead.
Zoë had always insisted that she learn to fight with a knife, or a bow and arrow, or preferably both, but it was only after she died that Stella began to properly learn, probably as a way to mourn her. We had all mourned her, in our own ways, to varying degrees. Of course, the newer Hunters hadn't known her for as long as, say, Livvy, who had been with the Hunt since the Roman times, and as a result, they hadn't mourned her the same way.
Artemis seemed to have mourned her most of all. Although, I say that like she's stopped. She had never been as close to anyone as she had been to Zoë. At least if she had, I hadn't seen it, and neither had Livvy or Nya. It was always strange to remember that Zoë and Artemis had known each other for centuries. After all, Zoë had been one of the oldest Huntresses when she died and had apparently been the Lietunent for most of that time.
"Next time, try to hit the target," I told Stella, watching out of the corner of my eye with a slight smile on my face as she tried desperately to unlodge her arrow from the wood.
"How do you know this wasn't the target?" she huffed.
"Usually they don't have people this close to them," Livvy said, "At least, not practice ones."
"Maybe I was trying to hit you guys."
"In that case, you still missed," I pointed out.
"I would prefer it if you didn't try to hit my friends," Dawn piped up.
She had been teaching Stella and one of the newer Hunters, Grace, and seemed to have wandered over when her student hadn't come back.
"Friends?" I laughed, "Damn, Livvy, I think you've been demoted."
Livvy stuck her tongue out at me, before composing herself and greeting Dawn with a warm smile, which the brunette returned.
Stella pretended to gag and sauntered off, swinging her arrow back and forth rather hazardously, almost hitting several of the wolves in the face before they scattered.
"Yeah, you guys do that," I muttered, "I'm just gonna go be anywhere else."
I slipped off before either of them had a chance to reply - not that they probably would have, anyway.
I wasn't sure where I had been intending to go, but Lady Artemis met my gaze from across the camp and nodded slightly, a gesture I had learnt meant to go to her. As much of a brat as I was to everyone else, I wouldn't dare disobey her - she is a god, after all - so I complied.
"Are you prepared for your trip?" she asked calmly, brushing her fingers through the fur of the grey wold resting on her lap.
"I have everything I need," I replied, sitting down near her.
"That's not what I meant."
I hesitated slightly before answering.
"I'm never going to be ready, but I guess we don't have the luxury of time at the moment."
"No, we do not," Artemis said grimly.
"Are you sure there's no one else who can go?" I asked in a moment of weakness, instantly regretting it.
"It's already been agreed upon, Storm," she said, "And you're the only witch here."
"I'm getting punished for being different?" I muttered bitterly, internally recoiling at the thought of spending an entire year with him, even with the fates of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, at stake.
"That's not what this is."
Artemis studied me for a long moment, her silver eyes shining with something akin to curiosity.
"You hate him," she said at last.
I didn't need to ask who she was talking about.
"He's not a good person," I said, well aware that that wasn't the answer she was looking for.
It wasn't entirely truthful, for starters.
"Is that an objective statement?"
"Depends on who you ask."
I shrugged, studying my hands instead of looking up at her.
"Try not to kill him. They need him."
"Sure," I agreed.
I wasn't ever going to kill him. Maybe seriously maim him, but he deserved that.
"Was there a specific reason you called me over?" I asked, glancing up at Artemis.
"Yes. The prophecy, have you heard it?"
"Not this one, no. Why?"
"They believe it mentions you."
"Do they now."
It wasn't really a question. I didn't want to be involved in any prophecies, I had seen what had happened to my fellow Hunters firsthand, and heard a wide range of horror stories.
"'Storm approaches the horizon," Artemis quoted.
"That could mean a lot of things."
"Indeed it could. Prophecies are known for their cryptic words and double meanings."
"And some are crystal clear to those who have the right information."
I was thinking of Zoë when I said it - I had heard it all from Thalia, that she knew that she was walking to her death and did it anyway - and by the way Artemis reacted, as subtly as it was, I could tell that that was where her mind had gone as well.
"It could just be a coincidence," I said.
I didn't even believe myself.
"The Fates don't believe in coincidences."
"Stupid Fates," I muttered, casting a glare at the sky.
"They do their job," Artemis said grimly, "We all have a job to do, a role to play."
"And I'll play mine," I promised.
= = =
"Where on earth did you get popcorn from, Livvy?" I asked, eyeing the steaming buckets distrustfully.
"You can get popcorn from lots of places on earth," Livvy answered with a grin.
"I think she wants to know where you got this popcorn from," Dawn piped up, "And I have to agree."
Livvy pouted at her, holding out a popcorn bucket to Dawn that was swiftly snatched up by Stella.
"There's a town with a cinema nearby," she said, nudging another bucket towards the brunette.
"Is the cinema still in one piece?" Dawn asked incredulously, staring at the mountain of popcorn.
"Of course it is," Livvy said in a 'duh' voice.
"This has got to be bad for business," Dawn sighed.
"Who cares? It's delicious!" Stella chirped.
She was leaning back against a nearby tree, her blonde hair one of the brightest things in the vicinity, except for the glow of the stars overhead and the flicker of their campfire in the distance.
"Have some, Storm," Livvy insisted, forcing a bucket into my hands, "It's your last night, we have to make the most of it."
"Would you prefer to go to bed early?"
"Nope," I said immediately, finally relenting and picking off a few pieces of popcorn.
"What's so bad about this, Stormy?" Stella inquired, her eyes alight with sudden curiosity, "It's magic school, what's not awesome about that?"
"The people. The school. Mostly the people. Especially the headmaster."
"What do you have against him?" Dawn asked.
"Yeah, if I didn't know you were a lesbian, I'd think you two had dated," Livvy added.
"Gods, no. That would never happen. When I liked him, he was like a brother to me."
"Uh-huh, now we're getting somewhere!" Livvy exclaimed, grinning, "So, I know whatever happened, happened when we were helping the wizards fight that white-haired dude, whatever his name was."
"Gellert Grindelwald," I growled, my grey eyes flashing dangerously.
To her credit, Livvy managed not to look unnerved. Dawn didn't have that luck.
"He had something to do with it, right? Am I right?"
"I'm not going to tell you what happened."
"Why not?" Livvy whined.
"Because it's personal."
"And? We share a tent. I've kissed you."
"Neither of those is particularly outstanding," I rolled my eyes, "Also, your girlfriend is right next to you."
"Hey, what's in the past is in the past," Dawn said dismissively, "As long as it stays there."
"Of course it will. It was decades ago, and she's gotten far more annoying," Livvy smiled, leaning over to kiss Dawn lightly and then promptly stealing a handful a popcorn.
"Better make sure you don't get caught," Stella reminded them.
"Please, Artemis doesn't care if we date each other," Livvy scoffed.
"What happened to Emmie and Josie then?" Stella frowned, "You guys said..."
"We were kidding," I said, "They left because they wanted a life beyond the Hunters, not because they had to. I thought you knew this."
"What?" Stella exclaimed.
Livvy doubled over, falling against Dawn.
"Did you honestly think that Artemis would kick us out for getting with each other?" she asked between hysterical laughter.
"Don't be mean," Stella frowned, curling up against the tree.
"She doesn't mind as long as it's not a guy and we're honest with her," Dawn explained.
"You guys couldn't have told me that, like, twenty years ago?"
"Nope." Livvy sniggered.
I smirked slightly as I watched them bicker back and forth. The argument, like a lot of theirs, mostly consisted of 'whys' and 'becauses'. I would miss this when I went to Hogwarts though. I would miss all of them, however much I hated to admit it.
I had spent decades with most of them, sleeping and fighting by their sides. For the first time in a long time, I would be alone.
= = =
I woke up at the crack of dawn like I always did.
But instead of getting up immediately, I lay there for a while longer. I shared a tent with Stella, Livvy and Dawn (gods help me), so the morning sounds were always quite abundant. Stella would never admit it, but she snored. A lot.
And Livvy and Dawn would whisper half-incoherent things to each other while they thought we were asleep. They were always sickeningly sweet, from what I overheard.
I wasn't sure if I was planning on getting up at all, but a rustle at the front of the tent made me groan and sit up properly. Thalia was crouched in the entrance, her hair still a mess but she otherwise looked ready for the day.
"He's here," she announced, looking right at me.
She offered me a small smile - the most reassurance she would ever give - before vanishing again.
"Go ge' 'em Storm," Livvy yawned, rolling over into Dawn.
I rolled my eyes affectionately and slipped out of my sleeping bag. All my belongings were in a rucksack, except for the clothes I was currently wearing and the ones I needed to change into.
I did so quickly, being used to swift changes thanks to years of being in the Hunt. I had forgone my usual ensemble for jeans, combat boots, a plain white top and a leather jacket. Well, I hadn't entirely forgone my usual ensemble, it just wasn't what I'd wear when we were on an active hunt.
I slung my bag over my shoulder, mentally bracing myself for what was about to happen.
"Good luck," Stella said, peering up at me.
"Yeah," Dawn agreed, holding back a yawn.
"Thanks," I muttered, striding past them and out of the tent.
I was met with a peculiar sight on an old man in horrendously brightly coloured robes and a beard of a spectacularly unpractical length talking to a girl who looked around the same age as me, with braided auburn hair wearing a Greek chiton.
"Uh, good, you're here," Albus smiled.
"Let's just get this over with."
"Good luck," Artemis said, "Remember: if anything happens, we'll be there."
She smiled briskly at me and left us, joining Thalia outside of her tent.
"We should be going," Albus announced, "If you will, Aurora."
He offered me his arm. I glowered at him but took it grudgingly anyway. It wasn't like I had much of a choice in the matter.
It wasn't like I had had a choice in any of this.