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Dandelion and Thys immediately leaped into their role as distractions, trying to keep the fake Thys occupied. “We’re a bit busy here,” Dandelion sighed, draping his arm around Thys and drawing them in. “Can’t you take another way?”
“The fastest way is in front of me, my lords,” the fake Thys said with exaggerated patience. “I hardly wish to push you aside, or through, but I will do so if I must.”
“How rude!” the real Thys sniffed, in a much snottier voice than they were generally given to. “Who gave you the right to barge up to us like this?”
It was a perfectly good pretense that they were just rich assholes, but Viv knew it would only work so long before the lanternfish would get suspicious at the delay. She made eye contact with Caoihme and held up three fingers, two fingers—
The lanternfish sighed and said, “My lords, I assure you, it’s fine. If you’d just move aside—” and the area flickered. The shadows in which their motley team were hidden grew deeper, and a light appeared in front of the lanternfish, pulsing, a soft, uncanny blue.
Both Dandelion and Thys stiffened, staring at the light, and the illusion over Thys flickered and vanished as the hypnotism hit Dandelion, undoing his focus.
Viv flipped her last finger down in a hurry and crammed the breakfast bar into her mouth. It was pretty good—mostly honey, cranberry, and nuts—and she could only pray that it worked. After all, the guy had said there might be some side effects.
The area lit up in a bright light, completely illuminating what felt like the nearest half-mile, the ground itself glowing so that shadows weren’t cast anywhere. It also removed the cover for all their allies except Varsha, who was hiding in the leaves overhead, but Viv had to hope they’d be able to do their parts on their own now.
Viv couldn’t do too much more herself, not yet; her feet had lifted off the ground and she was floating, she was glowing, light emanating from her skin, the focal point that was creating the light in the area. The energy rushing through her made it nearly impossible to focus. She saw Caoihme’s hands moving and the lanternfish’s blue light flicker, then go violet briefly, sputtering back and forth between the two colors as they wrestled for control of the lure. Dandelion and Thys were released, and Thys braced themself, wings opening to their full width as if they could block the lanternfish from going forward with their body alone.
“You’re alive,” the lanternfish said, voice going vague and quiet. Their black eyes widened, then widened further, impossibly large as they began to dissolve into tendrils of void-black traveling through their face, the skin peeling away. “Are you a moth or a cockroach?”
“I am whatever I must be to remain myself,” Thys spat.
A loud kazoo song started up from across the clearing—it sounded like Megalovania, which was almost as wild by itself as trying to figure out where Star had gotten that kazoo from, considering—and Viv felt a rush of energy run through her, helping to pull herself back to herself. She saw Dandelion and Thys straighten as well.
The lanternfish began some kind of attack, their arms rising, shadows gathering at their palms—and then Adrien let out a loud cry and headbutted the lanternfish hard, ram-horns slamming into their back and causing it to stagger forward.
Viv could hardly focus for the light pouring through her body, but the music helped, and besides, she knew she had to. She’d studied attack magic just for this; she tried to remember the incantation for lightning, the forms to spell out in gesture and power. Thys was looking up at her, and she nodded at them. Just hold the gate. Don’t let it through.
Thys nodded back, arms wide, wings wide, feet planted.
Dandelion pulled a sword out of thin air; it sparkled into being with a flash as the silver of the blade abruptly began reflecting the light that glowed from all around, making it look like the blade, too, was light. The kazoo tune was circling now and she saw a green horse tearing around the clearing; Dandelion reached out without looking, snagging Star’s mane and swinging himself up, a mounted combatant now.
The light felt like it was getting brighter inside her, stronger. She was at the final lines now, her hands drawing it out, as Dandelion wheeled Star around and began to bear down on the lanternfish.
Skin and wings peeled off entirely, Thys’s body melting away from the lanternfish’s form and leaving only shadow behind. The person who was there looked exactly like Lithway—it wasn’t them, she realized a moment later, was a distinct female silhouette instead of that masculine beauty that Lithway favored, and her features were less defined than Lithway’s were.
But whatever the lanternfish was, it was the same thing that Lithway was. Not something separate at all. One of the shadowfolk, a monster’s monster, universally feared, whose origin and powers were drenched in mystery.
Hopelessness seized Viv, briefly.
“Enough,” the shadow person said, her voice soft and bored and melodious. Shadow slammed off her in a tidal wave; Adrien stumbled back, and Star was brought to his knees, nearly throwing Dandelion. Viv felt the shadow pouring over her own spell and thought that it was trying to block her off, to dampen her light. The light spell was still there in the broader area, still preventing shadows that would permit escape—but this clearing itself was darkening with the shadow woman’s own amorphous body. “Please. You must understand the good I’m doing.”
“Ah, I must have missed it in the two times you attempted to murder me?” Thys spat.
A grin split the shadow woman’s face like ink spilling. “You were a convenient excuse. Your living or dying means nothing to me except that you’re a loose end. If you’re willing to keep hiding, we could come to an agreement. The fae and demons deserve each other, and yet they have held themselves at arms’ length for millennia of careful alliances. And for what? Do you care for the fae realms so much? You know what they do to people. The tithes, the command over the commoners, the casting out of anyone who does not fit with their courts, the suffering. And you certainly don’t care for the abyssal realms and the things the demons do, which is far worse, far darker. Let me rule in your place, let me direct a war. Do you think either of these people deserve more than that?”
“I know what they are,” Thys said. “But war will benefit no one. Those who suffer under harsh rulers will suffer more if they are commanded to the front to die.”
“Do they do better, left leaderless? You abandoned them, so how can you care about what they do? Let me go.”
Viv felt the power inside her, knew she had to do something, but didn’t know what. It wasn’t that she bought into the shadow woman’s argument, but could she attack someone who was trying to parlay, even with such a horrible goal? Just strike someone down who wasn’t actively fighting?
It was hard to see, darkness coating her eyes. She strained around, pulling at the power in herself, and heard Varsha hiss next to her ear, “She’sss right below uss.“
Relieved, Viv reached out and squeezed Varsha’s shoulder in thanks. She focused again, trying to find that darkest patch of shadow, straining to hear what the shadow woman was saying to the others to convince them or lie to them or take them off guard—and in doing so, she heard the sound of distant footsteps and hooves coming from the direction of the gate.
People were coming this way up the path from the fae realms. A lot of them, from the sounds of it. They weren’t here yet, but they’d be here any moment. Viv didn’t know if any of the others had noticed, or if they were too focused on what the shadow woman was saying. After all, they were all fae, all had some investment in a potential war.
Whatever she wanted to do about this, she had to make the decision on her own and had to do it now.
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