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“I don’t super want to go to Hell and, you know, prove all of my worst relatives right,” Viv said, joking weakly, “but I think that’s the best choice. Ideally, we want to stop it from getting to the fae realms so that—so that whatever it’s planning, it doesn’t get its way, right?”
Thys nodded. “It should be fine. The fae realm pays a regular tithe to the abyssal planes as a promise of neutrality. They don’t mess with us, and we don’t mess with them. Humans are, naturally, at greater risk, but I have claimed you and so it shouldn’t be an issue. I can’t imagine Varsha being in much trouble either; they’re much more concerned with humans than with fellow monsters.”
Dandelion was smiling humorlessly through all this, but he just nodded at the end. “No time to waste, then. I know the way well—hurry.”
A little nervous about Thys’s comment that it shouldn’t be an issue—lots of things that shouldn’t be problems were, after all—Viv just took their hand. Thys squeezed it tight immediately, casting a gentle look aside at her as they tugged her close in against their side, cuddling slightly.
Varsha gave them both a kind of fond eye-roll—clearly just the reaction of someone whose friend had recently hooked up—but stuck close as well, clearly nervous.
The group followed quickly after Dandelion, who was striding ahead with his band close behind him. He led the way through the bazaar, tilting uphill through ramshackle shops that closely resembled those on the human side. Less witchery-focused, perhaps, more antique shops and diableries and contract law shops, but still, remarkably similar.
And then he headed down a side street with a twisted iron gate at the end of it. He and the other fae pulled in close to the center of the road to avoid coming too close to the iron—Viv remembered abruptly that fairy folk tended to hate the touch of cold iron—and, before they passed through it, Dandelion turned.
“Have you been through the other realms before, Viv?”
Vivian shook her head. “I only recently have been able to handle the Otherworld at all, honestly. So I’ve only used the portals that connect the main travel areas between different valleys.”
Dandelion nodded. “The equivalent to the Valleys are called different things in different realms. It’s ‘the pit’ in the abyss, ‘underhill’ in our realm, but they connect the same way: through gates. You shouldn’t feel too many ill effects just travelling through them, but be prepared for a jolt as we pass between realms.”
“It issssn’t very fun,” Varsha agreed. “But it’sss largely harmlesss.”
“Thanks for the head’s up,” Viv said.
They trickled through as a group, and Viv braced herself as she passed through, prepared for a sense of dropping, perhaps, of falling, something.
Which was sort of accurate, except it wasn’t physical. It felt like her heart had dropped instead, depression hitting her with a powerful force. She wanted to cry but, in the moment, she felt too tired to do so, as if even just shedding tears would be more effort than she had in her.
It hardly seemed worth it to go through all this. Maybe she’d been the one who was out of line with all of this. Thys hadn’t even wanted to go, and for good reason. They were free if someone else was filling their role. And what about the others? Varsha would probably be safe, but would she really? Dandelion was an exile; if he went too far because Viv had insisted on this, who knew what would happen to him? And even the others weren’t powerful compared to the forces they were tangling with—they could get hurt, they could die, all because Viv was too idealistic, too stupid—
“It’s called oppression,” Caoimhe told Viv in a slightly strained voice, staring straight ahead into the twisted blackened forest they were walking through. Red light filtered through the trees in the distance and ash floated through the air; it felt like they were in a place that had only recently burned, still suffering for it, and still at threat of whatever inferno raged in the difference.
“Oh, are you feeling that?” Varsha said. “I wasssn’t sure if it was jusst me. It’s a nasssty one, isn’t it?”
Adrien wiped an eye and held out a teardrop on a finger. “It even got me, and sadness isn’t natural to me.”
“It’ll be worse for her, though,” Star said lightly. He at least seemed cheery, unaffected by whatever was going on, or was at least pretending to be. “Because it’s something demons make for humans.”
Thys pulled Viv in closer still, wings flaring protectively with a flash of white. They seemed much, much larger with their wings open, and Viv sheltered in that. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m fine. This is a thing demons do to us?”
“It’s not made for humans,” Thys corrected Star. “It’s something they carry with them at all times that they can project on humans. It’s one of the ways certain types of demons influence certain types of humans. Not all, of course, just as not all fae cast exotic glamours as a habit, but…”
Viv leaned into Thys’s side and let herself feel Thys’s feelings instead of her own for a moment, pulling hard on their connection, surrounding herself in Thys’s adoration and strangeness and determination. “I’m all right,” she said. “I could use a distraction, though. Can we talk about what we can do? Varsha’s here to try to help us use scent to figure out what this shapeshifter is, if needed, and I have a light spell and some attack magic in my pocket, but what about the rest of you? I heard that Adrien was just a brawler?”
“Aye, no magic here that isn’t done in the bedroom,” Adrien said. “But I can pack a wallop, and even if it’s not enough to take something like this down, I’m sure it can be a distraction. Caoimhe, now, she’s no fighter, but…”
“I have similar abilities to what I’ve heard this thing can do,” she said softly. “Most of what I do is simply in merriment; if someone chooses to dance with me, I can control them as I wish. But I don’t expect to use that one—rather, I can create lights that hypnotize others, lead them astray. I don’t know how useful it will be in this circumstance, either, but I may be able to seize control of its lights, or at least interfere with its own powers in some way.”
Star didn’t seem inclined to contribute, so Varsha hissed a sigh and said, “Sssstar?”
“Oh! Me too, huh? Yeah, I’m a shapeshifter and like, do you play D&D?”
“What,” Thys said in confusion.
Simultaneously, both Varsha and Viv said, in unison, “I play D&D,” then looked at each other in some excitement. “I’m looking for group,” Viv added.
“We can totally—”
“Okay, we can make Saturday night plans after we’re done fighting a form-stealing monster,” Star said with annoyed cheer. “But the point is, I’m a bard, I can improve other people’s powers by singing or playing music. Basically buffs or debuffs. I can also turn into a horse and stick it to me and run around wildly until I find somewhere to drown it. That plan usually works for me, but I’m not sure if it’ll work here?”
Viv giggled, relaxing a little despite the oppressive atmosphere. “And Dandelion?”
Dandelion didn’t answer. He was leading the way with a quick, grim intensity, picking each fork in the path with consideration but haste, so the others were left hurrying through the ash after him, seeing only his back.
“Dandelion can command other fae,” Thys said. “He can create great illusions and glamours. He is a master of swordsplay and of riding and his music can enchant humans however he wishes. He can grant immortality to humans, or—”
“Dandelion can do a lot of things, but mostly to humans or other fae,” Dandelion interrupted from ahead. “Just ask Dandelion what you want him to do and he’ll try his best to do it.”
A new voice, rough and grating, cut in: “Oh, well, and if what we want is for Dandelion to stop?”
The demon who stepped out in front of their path was a huge creature, some twisted and horrific combination of man and antelope, twisted hooves and hands and antlers and a human face. A crown hung off one of its antlers, dripping blood down into its hair.
Dandelion stopped short, bringing the others to a halt. “Hello, Ferthur.”
“Hello, Exile,” Ferthur said, his voice as cheery as could be expected from a sound like teeth being ground to dust. “How have things been since you tried to interrupt the tithe?”
Dandelion gave him a smile, flashing teeth. “As you clearly know, I was punished, and all is well. May we pass? We only intend to step back into the between-realms of the Otherworld a little further on.”
“Is that so, is it? State your purpose for travelling and so on. While there is an exit to the between-realms, we both know that the fae lands lie that way as well…” The demon grinned. “Wouldn’t want to have to tell them you’re sneaking back in, do we? And oh, you’re bringing a human. This should be interesting. What’s your name, human?”
“I…” Viv hesitated, unsure what to say or do to convince this demon to let them pass harmlessly.
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