[Please read the instructions before jumping in!]
Viv drew a deep breath. She couldn’t second guess this. From everything she’d heard, she was the only one who could change what these fae lords might do to her friends.
“Hey! Excuse me, hello!” Her voice only trembled a little as she shouted, drawing everyone’s attention to where she was floating. “Can someone help pull me down there, I’m stuck, but I think I can help clear things up?”
For a long moment, the group—fae and demon alike—just stared at her. Varsha let out a soft, mortified wheeze on the branch next to her and slithered a bit more under cover.
“Very well, miss,” the fae lady said finally, and beckoned with one crooked finger. Viv felt something seize her. It wrapped around her carefully but firmly—there was no escaping this invisible grasp—and pulled her down to everyone else’s height. “Why were you floating?”
“We all float down here? I don’t know, I was just, it sort of happened. Side effect,” Viv babbled. She drew a deep breath and tried to center herself. “So, hey, yes, I’m Thysania’s wife. Hi. That happened, and I have seen everything here, and you were saying that humans couldn’t lie to you?”
“Oh, humans could lie to us,” the fae lord said dryly. “Humans lie to us frequently. It seems to be part of the human condition. What I was saying was that we could bypass the lies and misdirections if I could see everything through a human’s eyes instead. It cuts through the babble of what he, she, or they said, and instead we are allowed to see it unfold ourselves.”
Thys stepped closer, putting herself beside Viv while glaring at the fae lady, presumably for her magical grip on Viv. Though, given how angry Thys seemed at this woman’s desire to bring them back home, it probably wouldn’t have taken much to earn that glower. “You will not hurt her,” Thys said, voice low. “Or I swear on all the powers above and below and between, I will destroy you myself.”
The fae lord sighed. Viv was getting the impression that he was desperately hoping to be anywhere but here and could hardly wait until he could get free from this entire situation. She wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about potential war being treated as just a nuisance, but… well, if he wanted to get the investigation over with as soon as possible, hopefully they’d all benefit from it. “It will not hurt her to do this. Miss, tell me how you understand things to be, and then I will watch the matching memories from your eyes to confirm it.”
Viv drew a deep breath again, trying to focus. “This shadow woman is… we’ve been calling her the lanternfish. She has the ability to hypnotize or lure people with flickering lights, and then pulls the light away and attacks them in the shadows. Once she’s attacked them, she can take their form and see enough of their memories to mimic their personality and behaviors.”
“I don’t know why we’re bothering with this whole farce,” Ferthur said sulkily. The fae lady hushed him absently.
“I met Thysania after they were attacked by the lanternfish and had just managed to escape,” Viv said evenly. “I bonded to Thys in order to help save their life, and the two of us, with the help of the others you see here, tried to protect ourselves from the lanternfish and figure out what it, what she, wanted, so that we could keep ourselves safe. It turned out what she wanted was to kill Thysania to get rid of loose ends and then take their form, return to Thysania’s realm, reclaim their title and army, and then use that army to start a war between the fae and the demons.”
Dandelion let out a soft hiss of breath. He didn’t sound surprised, not exactly, and Viv supposed he’d put most of that together by the end—but he didn’t sound pleased, either, to have her spell it out in such detail when they’d kept the specifics from him in the past.
But she supposed he’d understand. They could explain later, when they were all safely out of this.
“I see,” the fae lord said, still in that serious, mildly-aggravated voice. “Then, you won’t mind me reviewing those memories?”
“All except one,” Viv said. She felt everyone around her tense more than seeing it, but she had to be honest. She looked that lord in his eyes—which glittered like diamonds and silver—and said, “One person gave me information that helped us track down and deal with the lanternfish, but I promised that person I wouldn’t get them involved at all. So if we can skip that memory, that would be great. You will be able to see everything you need to know from the rest of it, ’cause it’s literally nothing but some tips. Is that okay?”
Ferthur spat again. “She’s obviously trying to trick you! That memory has to be the key to all of it.”
“I have my doubts as well,” the fae lady said mildly. “When we need to know the truth, is there anything that we can afford to leave out?”
“She is not lying,” Thys said fiercely. “She is not a liar. I was there as well, and I tell you, we gave our word. Would you have us break that word simply so that you can assure yourselves, when the rest of what happened will prove the truth otherwise?”
The fae lord lifted a hand as if to wave away everyone’s protests. “I will look at the rest of it. If those other memories clearly, beyond any shadow of doubt, show what you have told me, then I don’t think we need to worry about prying open doors you promised would remain closed.”
“Thank you,” Viv said, weakly. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold onto the cage I’ve made while you do this, so if one of you could be ready with some way of trapping the shadow woman, that would be great, please.”
The fae lady nodded seriously, and even Ferthur nodded along, though with a sneering frown. Viv could only hope that between those two powers, they’d have it covered.
“Then, if you don’t mind,” the fae lord said politely. He put his hands on both sides of Viv’s face, leaned his forehead against hers, and—
Viv remembered. She saw it all like her life flashing before her eyes, a sped-up version of everything that had recently happened. She saw herself waking, saw Beano stalking the moth behind the curtain, saw herself free it and head downstairs and get that sense that something was wrong with the garbage room. She saw herself interrupted by the janitor, and flee in embarrassment, and head out to go to the pub, and then Thysania’s arrival and collapse.
On and on it went, slowing for some details such as Thys’s description of their attack, then speeding up again through parts that seemed irrelevant. When they went to Lithway’s, she tried to interject, screaming at the fae lord in her mind: This is it! This is what I made the promise about! and, although she had doubted him, he sped through that so fast that it was barely a flicker on the overall timeline of her memories.
She hoped that was enough, hoped that he hadn’t seen it and only mislead her into thinking otherwise. But it was the best she could do.
It continued on: she and Thys growing closer, she and Thys trembling on the edge of going further in their relationship, but the second attack happening before they could do anything. The fae lord slowed completely for the attack, played through it in what felt like real time, leaving Viv shaking and terrified and elated all over again.
It seemed as though he was mostly focusing his attention on to the things they talked about: their theories about what the lanternfish wanted, their worries that Dandelion would risk death to try to save the fae realm and Thys alike if he knew that it wanted to take over Thys’s old life. Their conclusion that they had to try to stop the lanternfish, even if it put Thys at risk of returning to a home they hated. And then the entire fight: everything they’d done to stop the lanternfish from reaching its goals.
Everything the lanternfish had said to them to convince them to let her go, her insistence on wanting to cause a war.
The fae lord released Viv.
She reeled, stumbling to try to keep her footing as reality slammed in around her again. The world seemed to spin, and if Thys wasn’t already there, holding her tight and supporting her, she suspected she would have fallen.
“Well?” Ferthur asked.
“My lord?” the fae lady prompted.
Viv looked around, making sure everyone was still okay—it was impossible to tell how much time had passed when she’d just relived several days at variable speeds—but nothing had changed much. Dandelion was still kneeling; Thys was still at Viv’s side; the others were still there and bowing; Varsha was still in the trees, and…
The lanternfish was still captive in Viv’s own bubble.
She looked back to the fae lord, pleading with him silently with her gaze, and he gazed back at her impassively, evenly.
And then he knelt to her.
The reaction sent a shock through everyone watching, demon and fae lady and gathered troops and her own friends alike. Viv froze, unsure of what she should do with this, but before she could say anything wrong, the fae lord spoke.
“We owe you a great debt today, you and Thysania and… Dandelion, and all your friends gathered here,” he said. He rose then, unwilling to kneel to her any longer, but kept his head slightly inclined. “What I saw proves beyond any measure of doubt that this creature wished to impersonate Thysania to gain access to a fae army and use it to start a war with the demons.”
“Are you serious,” Ferthur said, taken aback. “But this whole thing is—”
The fae lord turned back to his own crew. “Both Thysania and the exile Dandelion have put themselves at great risk to try to stop this shadow person from infiltrating our kind and starting a war. We owe them a grave debt, and, as such, will not persecute them any longer.”
The fae lady hmmed but didn’t protest. She looked at Thysania a long moment, as though she had many things to say and no idea of how to say them—and then she just shrugged and turned away.
“I cannot end your exile on my own,” the fae lord added to Dandelion, “but I will bring your actions up at court in your defense.”
“I have no intention to return, so it does not matter if you do or don’t,” Dandelion said, but he rose, finally.
The fae lord sighed. “But I will regardless, child. Now—” he turned back to Viv. “This creature you have fought has worked hard to enter our realm. Out of deference to that, I ask that you hand her custody over to me so that I may take her to court for us to decide her fate. She has impersonated one of our own, and did so in order to undo millennia of our hard work at maintaining peace. I believe that we deserve the right to handle her case from here.”
“Oh, please, yes,” Viv said fervently. She was only too willing to not be the one responsible for this shadow woman’s fate, especially since the two options left to her were ‘kill her’ or ‘let her go’, neither of which seemed particularly great. The fae police putting her on fae trial in the fae courts sounded fantastically like absolutely none of her business.
She willed the ownership of the cage over to the fae lord, and watched electricity spark from his hand, connecting to the cage and turning it into a large sack that he could use to drag the shadow woman away with.
“Fantastic,” he said flatly, and, Viv had to admit, dragging a giant bag of prisoner away wasn’t the most dignified, but he seemed to accept it, turning away and pulling at the bag. “Thank you all again for your service. It will not be forgotten.”
And with that he, the fae lady, and the gathered troops turned to head back down the passage to the fae realms.
The shadow woman said nothing. Her dark eyes, shadows within shadows, watched Viv through the bars of the cage until she was lost from sight through the gate, and Viv couldn’t quite resist a shiver.
Ferthur was the last to go, seeming ready to protest one last time—and then he just scowled, pointed to his eyes and then to all of them in a sulky threat, and slouched after the fae soldiers.
Viv, Thys, and their friends were finally left alone.
For a moment, none of them moved, silent and unsure of what would happen next.
And then Varsha plopped out of the tree, landing with a thud next to them, and pushed herself upright with a huff. “Issss it over?” she said.
“I… I think it is,” Dandelion said, and let out the softest sniffle.
Adrien hollered, as if to cover up the sound of Dandelion’s threatened tears, and wrapped Dandelion in a fierce hug, burying Dandelion’s face in his chest. Caoimhe hugged him as well, and then Star, in human form once again, grabbed Thys, Viv, and Varsha, and smushed them all into Dandelion too.
Giggling, Viv twisted her head to look at Thys, saw them smiling gently and gazing back with eyes only for Viv.
In the midst of the chaos of laughter and tears and hugs, Viv leaned forward and stole a quick kiss.
This time, nobody interrupted their celebrations.
[An epilogue will go up tomorrow sometime,
along with an author Q&A!
Feel free to mention anything you especially want to see covered in the epilogue ;)]