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“Why do you keep wanting to go on ahead?” Webb complained. “At this point, it almost seems like you want to leave me—mmph.”
Webb fell silent as a shadowy hand clamped over their mouth. “Shhh,” they felt Lore exhale next to their ear, tone gently chiding. “You know it’s not like that. I just… want to do what I can to help protect you. To make sure things are successful.”
Webb tried to open their mouth, then found themself flushing heatedly as shadow crept in, pooling against their tongue. They made useless little noises instead until Lore released them. “Fine,” they grumbled, exhaling in a plume of smoke, glaring at Faraday who was trying not to laugh. “You’ve got a point. If you can get up there safely and scope the place out, that would probably be smart.”
“I like that you’re concerned about me,” Lore says softly. “I haven’t… felt this way before. Having anybody who was worried about what happened to me. That is to say—I’m still not sure the concern is needed, but it’s still… nice.”
Webb felt a light pressure wind around them, tightening briefly. A soft squeeze, then a slithering whisper as Lore vanished into the night. Webb watched in that general direction for a long moment, quiet, chafing their arms although they weren’t really that cold.
Ariadne bumped up against their side. “They’ll be alright,” she murmured. “They’re a grown up big scary monster shadow. For all we know, they might be able to wipe out a whole vampire clan without breaking a sweat. Er, a smoke? You know.”
“I know,” Webb said, huffing as they glanced back at her. “Maybe I’m more worried about me than I am about them, did you think of that?”
Her eyes glittered, flashing reflectively like a cat’s in the dim light. She flashed her fangs in a big grin. “Of course not,” she said confidently. “Why could you possibly be worried, when I’m here to protect you?”
Webb spluttered a little, giving her a little shove towards the gondola. “Oh, I wonder.”
“Not a very elegant comeback,” Faraday mused, strolling along with his hands behind his back. “You’re getting soft. Compromised…”
“Make yourself useful!” Webb grumbled. “Weren’t we talking about disguises? Plans?”
Faraday nodded, looking at Webb sidelong, with a thoughtful smile. “I think I can manage something for you,” he said. “Nothing fancy, but we can convince your hat to help make your face a little less… remarkable.”
Webb stared back at him, then huffed, tugging their hat off and handing it over. “Your magic is weird,” they informed him.
“All magic is strange,” Faraday said lightly, unbothered. “That’s what makes it wonderful.”
Webb didn’t know what to say to that. They took their hat back when it was offered and yanked it back down over their ears.
Boarding the gondola was remarkably easy. The ticketing attendant ran Faraday’s card and handed over three paper ticket stubs, waving them along. “Keep it moving,” she said, sounding bored. “Don’t make a mess in the cars.”
“What kind of rule is that?” Webb whispered sidelong to Ariadne as they made their way up to the boarding platform behind a small cluster of would-be partygoers who were taking an endless array of selfies.
She shrugged. “One that they probably put in place after servicing vampires day in and day out. Night in and night out…?”
Webb rubbed their face, sighing, and winced a little as they caught sight of their reflection in the glass of one of the enclosed gondola cars as it glided to a stop. They had to believe Faraday that their eyes were obscured and looked a little different to anybody else who was looking at their face—to Webb’s gaze, they saw their own narrow freckled face staring back at them, their eyes unusually bright and their expression looking scared and small.
They looked away, gaze drifting towards the edge of the woods—
They froze, tensing up suddenly, certain that just for a moment they’d made eye contact with… something. Someone. It was over in the blink of an eye, but Webb’s heart was racing, their palms sweating, their breath suddenly coming fast.
“Webb…?” Ariadne moved a little closer to them, concerned, sniffing at the air. Faraday turned as well, wondering why Webb had stopped as the other group had gone ahead and an empty car had stopped in front of him. “What is it?”
“Nothing…” Webb said uneasily, under their breath. “I—no, wait. I’m not going to tell you that it was nothing. That’s way too victim-in-a-horror-movie. I saw… something. I felt like I was being watched. But I didn’t get more than a glimpse. Fuck.”
Ariadne worried at her lower lip with her teeth, eyes narrowing as she moved a little closer to Webb. “Should we turn back?” she asked uncertainly. “That doesn’t sound good…”
Webb hissed out an irritated breath between their teeth. “Of course we should go back, but we’re not going to. If we were doing the safe and sensible thing, we wouldn’t be here at all.”
Ariadne considered that, then just made a face, shuffling after Faraday as the next empty gondola car began to glide to a stop. She reached back to take Webb’s hand, squeezing. “Onwards and upwards?” she suggested.
“Anything to get this night over with.”
Webb sank heavily down onto the padded bench inside the gondola car, continuing to stare out the window as the doors slid noiselessly shut and sealed with a click. With a little rumble of the engine, the car began to slide upwards along the cables, rising up off the ground and rapidly beginning to leave the town behind.
Webb had to begrudgingly admit that the view was impressive. During the day, they imagined they’d be able to see mountains all around in the distance, and the vast expanse of trees. In the darkness, the town of Shadewick and even nearby villages were visible the higher up they rose, glittering clusters of gold and silver lights amongst the trees.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Faraday murmured.
“It’s fine,” Webb said quickly, turning back to face the two of them, a little flustered. “I’ve just never… been up here before. Or seen anything like this.”
“Not at all?” Ariadne looked surprised. “You lived so close, though.”
Webb rolled their eyes, crossing their arms over their chest and sinking down a little in their seat. “I just never had a chance when I was younger. My family wasn’t really… well, I just didn’t. And then later on, when I was on my own, I developed, you know, a crippling fear and paranoia of that which lurked in the woods, so…”
“That’s… fair,” Ariadne said, wrinkling her nose.
“I can see how that would get in the way,” Faraday added lightly.
Webb looked out the window again, exhaling softly. “I’m… glad you two are with me,” they said quietly. “Thanks… for everything, tonight. I mean, other than the part where you waltzed into my life and turned it completely upside-down—”
“I think it was better than the alternative!” Ariadne protested. But Webb figured that she saw them grinning a little, because her tone was mostly fond.
Faraday extended a leg and tapped his foot lightly against Webb’s ankle. “I used to come here a lot as a kid,” he said. “My grandmother lives not far from here. A little cabin on the lake.”
Webb raised their eyebrows. “Oh, is that how you ended up as vampire prey? Just plucked like a ripe fruit from grandma’s house?”
“Oh, no,” Faraday waved a hand. “I went up there all on my own.” He paused. “That was obviously a mistake, but you know, when you’re young…”
Webb gave him a scandalized look. “And here I thought you were just a victim of circumstance! Serious and reliable…!”
Ariadne snorted, leaning over to kiss Faraday’s cheek. “He was,” she said, sticking her tongue out. “He was a big nerd in over his head, and he was very lucky he was charming.”
“… it sounds like you were both pretty lucky to find each other,” Webb said quietly, then flushed deeply as both of them turned to look at him, expressions touched and startled. “Don’t—don’t get weird about it, I was just saying—”
“I’ll take you to the cabin one day, Webb,” Faraday said warmly. “I think you’d like it. Give you a chance to relax.”
Webb opened and closed their mouth a few times, then tugged their hat a little further down. “Right. Yes. As we were talking about, my love for all things wilderness—”
Ariadne rose up, balancing carefully as she sank down next to Webb, wrapping her arms around them and pulling him close. “You’re right,” she said seriously. “We can take you wherever you want, after all this is done. You’re not going to be facing any of this alone, is all we’re saying.”
Webb hadn’t thought very much about what came after this. They’d made it this far without necessarily thinking there would be an “after this.” The thought struck them as a bit chilling. They’d always planned for contingencies, gathering information, playing it safe… and here they were, just flying into the open fanged maws of uncertainty—why?
Because it’s the right thing to do, they thought. Because there were people that needed help, and people that had been wronged, and people that they’d come to care about that wanted to see this done. It was important to them. And they were important to Webb.
Webb clonked their head against Ariadne’s. “If I was alone, I’d have less of a headache,” they sighed. “Come here, Faraday, you’re making it weird sitting over there by yourself.”
“You were the one sitting by yourself to start with—” Faraday protested, but obediently rose up and came to sit on Webb’s other side, wrapping his arm around their waist.
Webb grinned lazily, leaning their head back to look up at Faraday, their head on his shoulder. Ariadne let out a pleased sound and leaned forward a little, resting her head on Webb’s chest. “Don’t try to poison my mind with your… mmh, facts and truths…” Webb said.
Faraday snorted, nuzzling a little against Webb’s temple, where just a few curls had escaped Webb’s hat. “I know you try very hard to stay in denial,” he murmured, voice low, breath warm against Webb’s ear.
Webb drew in a breath then found themself startled into a laugh, surprised to find how much their breath hitched. “I’m just so very good at it,” they murmured. “Hey, how long is this gondola trip…?”
“Oh, you know,” Ariadne said mischievously, nuzzling at Webb’s neck on the opposite side. “Long enough…”
Then, abruptly, she sat up straight, eyes flashing and nostrils flaring in alarm. “Something’s coming,” she said urgently, shoving Webb down onto the bench—just as something large and pale impacted the glass hard enough to make the car sway and bounce on its cable, hundreds of feet off the ground.
Webb found themself without the best view, startled and a bit winded. Through the slightly fogged, frosty windows, they could see half a dozen white shapes starting to take form, many-winged and many-eyed and ghastly. And over the sounds of the gondola’s mechanism humming, they heard the heavy sound of wingbeats, and the rasping, raucous calls and shrill shrieks of something monstrous as they began to peck and tap and try to get inside.
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