[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]
“C’mon, don’t be shy,” Ferthur said, coming closer with a twisted grin. A fetid stench rolled off him, reeking of rotting, exposed blood.
“I’m not shy,” Viv said. Probably the best bet was to not lie, but not give too much detail on any part of it, name included. “My name’s Viv. Dandelion’s just guiding us to the border because we’re planning on intercepting someone there. None of us plan to enter the fae realms—” not untrue, since ideally they’d stop the lanternfish before it got there. “It’s a shapeshifter that’s killed before, and wanted to kill one of us. It’s much more dangerous than us and all we want is to stop it.”
Dandelion seemed to twitch at that last comment, but didn’t argue.
Ferthur let out a disgruntled sound. “I can smell the truth on you; you’re not lying. But are you sure the Exile isn’t just misleading you to get what he surely wants?”
Better to let Dandelion do the talking where possible, Viv decided, and looked at him. “Are you?”
“Of course not,” Dandelion snapped. “I don’t even want to go back. I’ve made a good life for myself in the human world and I don’t intend to give it up.”
“How could you lose your home and not want to return?” Ferthur asked, the smile wiped from his face.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Dandelion said, throwing his hands up. “It could have been centuries ago that I left, so it isn’t my home any more. And the fae lords could regularly send humans to your sort so you don’t start a war with us, couldn’t they? Not the nicest of homes to return to, even if it tends to spoil those of us on top so we don’t think of such things.”
Viv was starting to get an idea of what sort of war the lanternfish might view as possible to start, though she tried not to think about it. It’d be harder to tell half-truths to this demon when pressed if she knew too much.
Ferthur spat blood to the side. “Well, pass if you want, cross if you want, do what you want. I suppose it has nothing to do with me, then,” he said, and began sliding back into the shadows.
Although Viv wanted to feel good about this—it was a success, right? They’d gotten past, hadn’t they, and without any violence?—she couldn’t help but feel nervous. Ferthur hadn’t seemed to be appeased, and now he was at their backs instead.
But she didn’t think they’d made enemies, anyway, and demons were practically impossible to appease if you didn’t offer them anything. She wasn’t sure they could have done much better than this.
“Let’sss go,” Varsha muttered. “Before he changesss hiss mind.”
“Agreed,” Dandelion said. He, at least, seemed faintly relieved, or at least, less stiff. What he’d feared had come to pass, Viv supposed, and hadn’t turned out so terribly. “Are you all okay?”
“No problems here,” Adrien said, with agreeable nods from the other two.
Thys had stayed silent through all of that—perhaps for the best. Since Thys was ultimately the lanternfish’s target, if they’d spoken up, Ferthur might have been able to glean too much of what was going on, and god knew what he’d do with it. Still, Thys was trembling slightly, and Viv wasn’t sure if it was fear or strain or anger, even though she was able to feel some of their emotions. It all seemed to be blending together.
“Thys?” she asked softly.
“I’m fine.” Thys leaned on her, pressing a kiss to her ear.
“When this is over,” Viv asked softly, “can we make a better promise to each other? Some sort of… maybe I can know your name? Maybe I can give you something? I want to be closer, I want to help, I want…” She wasn’t sure what she was saying, not really, just that she knew that this was terrifying for Thys, coming so close to a home that wanted to pull them back in and reclaim them for its own.
Thys smiled and seemed to relax a little. Viv felt a rush of warmth, an emotional touch through their connection that felt almost physical. “I would like that,” Thys said.
Viv’s heart lifted, and for a moment, she thought it was entirely because of Thys’s response.
And then she realized that the ash was gone, as was the red light and hot air filtering through the trees. They’d returned from the abyssal realm to the in-between transit of the Otherworld, and thus the air of oppression was gone too.
“The passage to the fae realms is just ahead,” Dandelion said, indicating a place where the trees met overhead, forming an enclosed passage. “If it hasn’t beaten us here, it’ll be coming towards this place. And I can’t see how it would have beaten us here, Ferthur didn’t keep us there that long.”
Viv drew a breath, pulling away. “Okay, great. Can you disguise Thys? If it sees them here it’ll know the jig is up and we’ll lose the advantage of surprise.”
Dandelion gave Viv and Thys both a tremulous smile. “I can do that,” he said gently. “If Thys would permit it.”
“I don’t mind,” Thys said. “Everyone here knows my face and who I am, so I don’t lose myself even if I don’t look the same.”
“True.” Dandelion leaned over and kissed the air in front of Thys’s face. They seemed to shift, the air hazy around them, limbs shortening, hair lengthening, face becoming more angular and whites filling out the blackness of their eyes—until they looked much like Dandelion, a proper daoine sidhe. “If there’s one of us anyway, nobody will be surprised to see two, yes?”
Thys raised their hands and looked at them. “I could be your sibling. Or your lover.”
“I’d be willing to play either role,” Dandelion said lightly, mostly teasing.
It was weird. Thys normally didn’t look like anything that Viv had ever seen before, but they looked like Thys. Seeing them look like Dandelion instead just felt strange. Viv seized their hand to squeeze it extra hard, drawing a look of surprise.
“What about the rest of us? Positions?”
“Let’s try to…get some kind of ambush set up,” Viv suggested. “Varsha, you go somewhere you’ll be safe but can still scent and call to us.”
“That’d be up,” Varsha said, pointing up a tree. She wound her way up there, tucking herself away in the branches, almost invisible except for the yellow parts of her sweater. “I’ve got a good view, ssso I’ll just keep quiet until needed.”
“Great,” Viv said. She glanced at Dandelion and Thys to see if they were on board, but quickly realized she might have to do the rest of the direction herself; Dandelion kept glancing behind them, down the tunnel to the fae realms, while Thys was staring into the gloom ahead of them to where the lanternfish would likely come from: the edge of a darkened city where it began to dissolve into forest. “Uhh, the rest of you, can you spread out around the clearing? Caoimhe, stick nearby so that you can interfere with its hypnosis if it tries.”
Obligingly, she placed herself a little to the left and slightly withdrawn from the clearing, though to Viv’s eyes she still stood out like a sore thumb in her white dress. No helping that, though.
“Adrien, we want someone who can try to stop it if it tries to run, so go closer to the entry of this clearing, maybe between those buildings?” She gestured at the run-down houses. “It’ll either have to go through the three of us or back the way it came, so we want someone who can step out and cold-clock it if necessary.”
Adrien seemed to want to make a joke, but bit his lip on his helpless grin and just gave her a thumb’s up as he headed that way, stepping back a little.
“And Star, can you improve our powers now or does it have to be live?”
Star waggled a hand. “In combat is better. Like, after initiative starts. Basically, I could do it, but I might have to keep up the music to keep the power flowing, which might alert this guy that something’s up.”
“In that case, go across from Adrien on the other side of the clearing? When the fighting starts, you can step up and sing at us or… Or turn into a sticky horse depending on how things go, either way.”
“Can we not say sticky horse? It’s ‘brook horse’.”
“Adhesive horse,” Viv said with a nervous giggle. Her anxiety was rising and it was hard not to ramble. “Adhorsive.”
“Adhorsive,” Star said with delight, instantly and visibly changing his stance on nicknames. “I’ll take that.” But he did go across from Adrien.
That made nearly a full circle. A little reluctant, Viv pulled her hand out of Thys’s. “I’ll go across from Caoimhe so we’ve got it surrounded once it walks into the clearing, okay?” She gestured to the shadows of the trees on the other side of the clearing from the elverpigen. “You two, stay in front of the gate and act like, uh, snotty nobles? So that the lanternfish is focused on you guys when it walks up.”
“It’s been a while, but I think I can manage,” Dandelion said.
Thys considered, then stuck her chin out. “What a fine evening to go for a stroll, my lord,” they said snootily.
“Oh, but I was hoping to get you alone,” Dandelion purred, putting fingers under Thys’s chin.
“Good, great,” Viv said with another nervous giggle, as she too stepped out of the line of sight. “And now we wait.” She unwrapped the breakfast bar that Isaac had got from his neighbour and held it in her hand, ready to pop into her mouth the moment a fight started—after all, as with Star’s music, if they lit up the area too soon, the lanternfish could just take a long way around to avoid them.
But they didn’t have to wait long—Ferthur had delayed them just enough that they’d barely got in place when Viv saw a figure walking up the path toward them.
The lanternfish, again, looked exactly like Thys—certainly more than Thys did right now—and was calm, aloof, self-possessed. They walked up to Dandelion and the real Thys, who were exaggeratedly fawning on each other in front of the pass to the fae realms, and gave a stiff bow.
“Great daoine lords,” ‘Thys’ murmured. “May I pass? I wish to go home. I have been away too long already.”
[Please suggest an action in the Comments.
Have your comments in by 4 pm PST Oct 29]