[Apologies for the missed day. I’m feeling a bit better now!
Please read the instructions before jumping in!]
“It might be nice to get Yasmin if we could,” Viv said, “just because she seemed somewhat aware of the lanternfish? But I don’t think she’d be interested since I only talked to her once, so unless she’s really bored with food delivery, not going to happen. I don’t know if Varsha will want to or not, but it may be worth asking her just for her sensory abilities? Theoretically the lanternfish could be anyone. We can tell her to ditch us in case of a fight. Other than that? I… don’t know. I think Dandelion is both willing and able, but you’re the one who’s worried he’ll accompany us too far so I’ll leave that to you.”
Thys nodded. “All right,” they said placidly. “I’ll make some calls, do what I can. You focus on studying.”
“Thanks,” Viv said. She hesitated only a moment, then leaned over and kissed Thys on the cheek.
Thys’s eyes went huge and they raised a hand to touch that cheek, smiling a little. “Oh. For luck?”
“Just ’cause,” Viv mumbled. Blushing, she headed next door to her own apartment to dig up some books before she totally lost her nerve.
Viv had to shuffle some boxes around before she could find the one for her spellbooks—it wasn’t kept where her divination books were, because those were practical, while her spellbooks had been so much dead weight for her for so many years. But she’d never had the guts to get rid of them, let alone the heart to—her family would never have forgiven her for giving up.
She wondered, briefly, what they’d make of this development. Would they be pleased that she was at least able to do magic now? Or disappointed, because ultimately, she wasn’t accessing her magic because of herself but because some fae power had greased the tracks, however long it even lasted?
What would she do if it wasn’t permanent? Her heart ached at the thought. When Thys was fully well, the connection would end—that had been part of Isaac’s spell, after all, and she had only been able to mimic what she’d seen done. Once that connection had been gone long enough, would she dry up again? Shut down?
That was a future problem, she reminded herself firmly, before her tears could start to well up, and took deep breaths until their threat went away. Right now they had a very real, different problem ahead of them.
She unpacked the books, putting them on the kitchen island, and then, after a moment’s consideration, texted Thys that she’d practice in her own apartment. It only made sense; Thys was going to be calling people, and it’d be easier to memorize quickly if she were by herself. The cats were at Thys’ too, so she wouldn’t accidentally set any of them on fire if she triggered anything even in practice mode.
Viv sat on her couch with her books and focused.
The next few hours passed in a blur. She knew most witches had to use something as a focus for their casting, whether stones or thread or whatever else, but what she knew best was fortune telling. Embedding spells was harder to learn than live-casting, so she decided not to pick up cards, and instead used her pendant, swinging it in circles while doing the recommended gestures, letting the familiar guiding weight of it guide her magic. She could feel it working, knew that this would be a good outlet for her.
She practiced light magic—hopefully Isaac’s acquaintances would have already pre-prepared a spell anyone could use, but if not, she needed to do something herself. First, she attempted to do it by will alone, as she’d managed earlier, with no success. Perhaps it had been just her desperation that had let her do it earlier, she thought glumly, like a grandma lifting a car off a toddler—though she hoped not. She hoped there was some inner power in her that nobody else had.
But there was no point in it being that or nothing, so she studied some spells to turn the lights on and off, and did so successfully this time, her pendant whistling through the air as she did the patterns, let them spell out the silent incantation.
From there, she moved from controlling those existing lights to a spell that let her create it, managing to place several orbs around the apartment that glowed, burning on the fuel of her magic. She thought that if she tried, she might be able to make a big orb, maybe enough to do the job, but she didn’t practice it because it was likely to burn enough magic that she’d be tired after.
No point totally wearing herself out before the big showdown.
Then she studied a basic shielding spell—no point in anything specific when she didn’t know what the lanternfish could do—and some attack magic. That she couldn’t practice to completion, not inside the house, but most spells prepared a mnemonic for the final section of a spell so that people could learn it regardless. She decided not to overprepare—simple attack spells that somehow utilized light seemed best; it fit the theme, and would hopefully help cut off the lanternfish’s line of escape if it caused shadows to move erratically. So she went for a simple lightning spell—deadly and efficient.
And then she just grabbed her backpack and shoved some of the smaller books into it. If there was something she needed on the way that wasn’t as time-sensitive as an actual witchfight would be, she could always try casting from the book. Besides, theoretically she could do bibliomancy with spell text as well. Hopefully, it wouldn’t cause any new spells to appear in there. She could handle thinking that maybe she’d just forgotten a quote that was in there or pretend it was by someone she didn’t know. She wasn’t sure she could handle actual magic text altering for her.
Viv shoved some painkillers into the backpack as well, and a bottle of water in next to it. That done, she limped back to Thys’s apartment. She felt… calm. Not ready, perhaps, because she wasn’t sure she’d ever feel ready, but as if she’d done everything she could for now.
Varsha was inside Thys’s apartment when Viv got back, wearing a She-Ra sweater, and gave Viv a wave. “Hi,” she said. “I don’t know how much good I will be, but I don’t sssee any harm in accompanying you to play sssniffer.”
Viv gave her a helpless smile. “I promise we appreciate it,” she said, and turned to Thys, who was now wearing white jeans and a brown, flowing blouse, open nearly to their sternum. “Wait, should I change my outfit too?”
“No,” Thys said. “I am trying to wear the least mystical thing I could think of, so I seem less. Cool. Powerful.”
Biting back a laugh, Viv said, “Oh. Gotcha. I’m not sure it worked but, uh, I’ll just stick with what I have on. Anyone else joining us?”
“Dandelion and his band will meet us just inside the gate. He is strong with glamours and commands, and his band is good in a skirmish, he said—the satyr is a brawler, the elverpigen is capable of casting light that lures people and so may be able to interfere with the lanternfish, and the nixie is also a shapeshifter, as well as able to reinforce other people’s abilities with his music.”
“Well,” Viv said. “I mean, that’s a good set of skills, I think, as long as they know the risk and are careful. They’ve already gone for the gate…?”
Thys nodded. “He wanted to go through to see if he could get any news of what direction the lanternfish is going, since we know its ultimate destination, but if we want to cut it off exactly, we may need to hear what people have seen. We may wish to ambush it, find a way to track it efficiently enough to do a surprise attack.” Thys tucked some of their hair behind one finely-pointed ear. “That is it. I was not able to get hold of Yasmin; OmegaEats does not give out employee information, the skate park has no phone, and… well. I cannot imagine a stranger helping us anyway.”
“No,” Viv said. “I think that ship has sailed. Did Isaac get back to you?”
Thys held out a small baggie, inside which was what looked like a small breakfast bar. “It seems that Isaac’s neighbour is a bakery witch who recently joined the counsel. He sent this. If you put it in your mouth, the area all around you will light up. It was hurried since I asked for it tonight rather than tomorrow as planned, he said, so there may be side effects.”
“Side effects. Great.” Nevertheless, Viv took it, putting it in the pocket of her backpack. “Well, then. Shall we?”
The three of them headed off, walking downhill toward the gate. At first, they were moving a little slowly out of deference to Viv’s injury, though she was trying to ignore it; then Varsha seemed to cave and offered Viv a piggy-back ride. Somewhat embarrassed—not least because Varsha was beautiful and her betrothed was right there—Viv accepted.
They moved much faster with Viv mounted on Varsha, though she had to cling on and get used to the weird swaying movement of her long form. The buildings became more magical, lots of witchcraft parlours and hexeries cropping up near the main road—mystical energies flowed more strongly near the gate—and fewer and fewer humans were seen this far, more and more monsters of various forms.
And then they were at the gate. It was an unremarkable thing which stood in a park at the lowest point of the valley; on the other side, the hill began sloping upward again. It was a simple archway, but mists swirled within it, thick and crackling.
Viv knew that the gate itself would be there with or without the gateway itself—people had often built up those things just to feel better about its presence, feel like they were sure it was contained and not leaking—but nevertheless, she eyed the stone structure as if it was ominous and weighty in itself.
“Onward, then,” Thys said, as if this was going to be easy, and Viv didn’t protest, just let Varsha carry her through.
Pain and nausea struck as the crackling fog washed over her. She did her best not to let it show, but she couldn’t keep herself from tightening her grip on Varsha slightly. She kept her eyes closed, breathing shallowly. She knew what was on the other side of this from having so recently passed through it to move in here—an inverted version of the park, dark in an eternal night, with a monstrous bazaar around it. The park would be full of booths, full of monsters of all ages and types browsing and eating fancy foods. And she could hear it already, people calling out to each other in a variety of languages, buying and selling goods, favors, souls. Smell the meats and stranger things.
It hurt. It hurt it hurt it hurt.
“Viv?” Thys said. They’d noticed, somehow they’d noticed; Viv opened her eyes and saw Thys reaching out to her. She didn’t want them knowing, didn’t want them wasting their energy trying to fix something nobody had ever been able to do anything about. “What’s wrong?”
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