Ban took lessons in the Witch Queen's parlor. (Young Mangaverse Ban, written for the theme "Spiders and Snakes" in the 20themes LiveJournal community.)
It was there she taught him the lessons of the serpent and the spider, the quick strike and the subtle trap, and how they combined in the Jagan, the fabled Evil Eye, the ultimate use of subtlety and swiftness. An instant of eye contact, and the web was spun, the trap set.
"The serpent has been in our blood for generations," she said. "But the spider is our patron as well, and her lessons have made us what we are. How do you think we bound Aesclepius in the first place, hmm?"
To truly use the Jagan was to be familiar with fear in every form. Familiar with it, yet also untouched by it. To weave webs of dream and nightmare required an unflinching mind.
And so Ban dreamed.
The dreams he learned to fear most were the ones she gave him after she'd been at her cards; the faces were shadowed and unclear, but they still felt real to him, felt like his future. Everything she saw in the cards was imprinted on his mind the moment he met her eyes, and every day brought a new vision.
There is a man who comes to him in a chariot that ripples like cool water under blue skies. In this dream Ban knows and loves him. He runs to the man, perhaps to throw arms around him, perhaps to see his face, but there is a wrenching pain in his chest, and then there are two men where there was one.
"Tear out my heart," says one, and his voice is sad.
"Why do I need yours?" Ban asks him. "I have my own."
It is the other who answers, and his voice is mocking. "Ah, but we've eaten yours. Chewed it up with sharp, sharp teeth, and it tasted lovely." Ban looks down, and there is a hole in his chest where his heart should be.
"If I take yours, will it replace mine?"
"No," answers one, "but it will taste so very sweet, and you'll never want another."
"No," says the other, "the emptiness will never be filled, and my heart will taste like ashes. But it is what you must do."
So Ban reaches into their chests, and he pulls out one heart, and there is one man again, and that man is dead. Somewhere, he can hear a girl screaming.
"She's next," the heart whispers. It tastes like ashes.
When the dream ended, he cried. He wasn't sure why.
His mouth still tastes of ash when he meets the shining one, warm and bright like the best summer days. The brightness hurts his eyes, but he can't look away."Have you come to take me away?" the bright one asks him, and his voice is just as sad as the voice of the one before, but sweeter. There's still hope there, but hidden.
"I can't take you anywhere. I don't have a heart." He doesn't know why that's important, but it is. The emptiness in his chest is suddenly painful, and he knows beyond all doubt that he has to take the bright one away from this place.
"Oh." The shining figure looks thoughtful, then smiles, and that smile is the sweetest, most beautiful thing he's ever seen. "Take mine!"
Ban reaches for his hands, tries to stop him. "You can't! You'll be empty!" But the shining one pushes the heart into his chest, and it burns, and he screams.
"I don't need it," the shining one says. "I have the lightning." His voice is different now, colder, and his eyes burn gold. Crackling lightning fills the hole in the other's chest, and the borrowed heart burns still. Ban can taste smoke and the tang of ozone.
There is nothing left of the one he came for, nothing but the heart burning in his chest, and the body before him that moves by a different will now, turning back towards the darkness. Something has been lost here, something precious, and Ban knows he's failed already.
"Take it back!" he screams, chasing after the blazing figure.
"Take it back!" The words rang out, and reality returned in a rush. The old woman's smile had never wavered.
"Do you understand yet?" she asked him.
He couldn't answer.
A dark figure stands before him, smiling, but though his face is in shadow, Ban knows him. His father.
"What do you want?" he asks, sullenly refusing to meet the man's eyes.
"Just to see how you've grown up." His father reaches into the hole where two hearts had been. One was his, the other not. What happened to it? He can't remember. Ban feels fingers tracing the edges, slipping inside, obscene somehow, the most intimate of violations.
"Stop!" He wants to run. He cannot.
"Why should I?" His father smiles again, reaches in further, as if making sure that Ban is truly empty. "We have so much in common. Look." The hand pulls away, moving to undo the buttons of the pristine shirt, revealing a bloody, gaping hole identical to the one in Ban's chest. There's sadness behind his smile. "You're just like me."
Ban tells himself that it's a dream, and he will not give that bastard the satisfaction of hearing him scream.
"I understand now," he told her one day. She had forced him to relive those dreams, and countless others featuring more mundane horrors, over and over, until he ran out of tears, until he was too numb to scream anymore.
"Do you?" Her hand lashed out, faster than his eyes could follow, closing around his throat. "Do you really think you understand what fear is? Do you know what I could do to you, grandson of mine?"
He met her eyes again, his face calm, waiting for her to relax her grip. Her hand loosened around his throat, but she didn't pull away, ready to squeeze again if his answer didn't satisfy.
"I know what you could do," he told her. "I also know you won't, old woman. You believe in destiny. You believe in what you've seen. No matter how much you want to kill me, you won't."
"Destiny can be changed," she told him, taking her hand from his neck. Perhaps he only imagined that she was avoiding his eyes.
"You don't really believe that, though. That's why I'm still alive."
"Stop! You say too much, and think too little, boy." Her eyes still wouldn't meet his, but her smile returned. "You're becoming more like your father every day."
He looked at her, searching for the fear that would have met those words before, but it wasn't there. If he was doomed, he was doomed, but if destiny could be changed, he would be the one to change it. He had no other choice but to try and prove the nightmares wrong.
"I know," he said. He turned to walk away, though he could feel her watching him, now that his back was turned.
Alone in her parlor, the Witch Queen smiled to herself. Although she was more spider than serpent these days, it meant little. Her poison had grown more subtle, but no less potent. The web had been spun, and the prey was caught. She could afford to be patient.
"No, you don't, boy," she whispered. "You really don't. But you will, in time."