We can't go one-on-one, JC had said. We have equal numbers, but some of them are dangerous and they have the overall advantage and we don't want any of us hurt or killed. And we really do not want to tackle all of them at once. If we do this right, we can keep the advantages of numbers and surprise both, and we can use those to counter their advantages. If we concentrate on the strong ones with the weaker ones still on the loose, we're risking interference that could tip the scales. So we need to start by picking off the less powerful enemies around the fringes, quietly so no one notices. Barry and Gord first. Felix will be fast but might be noticed. Lloyd might have sneaky tricks, can't assume he'll be easy.
It made sense, though Erica found it deeply amusing that it was JC's gaming experience that made her able to look at a situation and analyze and weigh various approaches. They'd all done their best to find weaknesses in this plan, and had spent many hours debating every detail and doing cautious experiments. Now all that was left was to actually implement it.
One way or another, this would be over very soon.
Finding Barry was easy: he was working on one of the spiral gardens. Pausing in the shelter of a plum tree to watch him, Erica could feel the small cries of the intrusive plants, the ones that had spread on their own to this garden, as he mercilessly tore them from the soil and discarded them onto a pile of their dying kin. She thought he genuinely did love the work he did, but it was intertwined with a drive to tame and control and master. Barry's approach, rigid and ruthless, would have been enough to keep Adam from hiring him at his greenhouse. Being able to feel the pointless slaughter gave Erica stronger feelings. Digging up root vegetables or cutting greens, she could tolerate, since at least it had a purpose and she knew her friends had to eat. Killing simply because they grew in a place he didn't approve of, that was another matter.
And he's an abusive monster, need to remember that one too. Actively helping to keep us trapped here. Manhandling all of us when he gets the chance, tried to hit JC, and I've heard about the laundry. Yuck.
Anything it takes. The others are counting on me to deal with him. I'm not the same person I was when you kidnapped us, and whose fault is that? I may not have hypnotic wings or impenetrable scales or kitty-claws, but in some important ways I'm more myself than ever in my life, and I can do this.
Erica stepped out into sight, making directly for Barry with long quick strides. When he looked up and noticed her, she made urgent beckoning gestures.
“Oh, what the fuck?” he grumbled. “The lot of you think that one of the other fae tripping over a dandelion is a crisis.”
Erica shook her head vehemently, backing away from him, still gesturing for him to come with her. Timmy's in the well, come quick! Payback's more of a bitch than Lassie.
Still muttering profanity, he stood up. “If I don't and something's wrong, I'll get chewed out. If nothing's wrong and you're wasting my time, you get to laugh. Can't friggin' win, dealing with fairies.”
She set a pace that made it challenging for him to keep up with her, but not impossible. It was probably just as well that her muteness removed the temptation to make a retort about fairness and being able to win. Her verbal skills had, once, been her best defence. Oh, there's a crisis, all right. It's quite real, I promise. But it isn't going to be what you expect.
At the boundary between centre and autumn, he hesitated, fingering the fake copper charm Isabel had given him, like the others, to wear around his neck. The farther out he went, the more often fae played tricks on him, and some of those tricks were nasty ones—revenge, Erica had no doubt at all.
He was responsible for the grounds, though, and since she continued to urge him along, he finally heaved a sigh and followed her, though more slowly and with greater caution.
She waded across streams, her skirt of living leaves absorbing what it needed and shedding the rest readily, but before long Barry was soaked to the knees, which didn't help his mood at all.
“You're leading crosswise,” he snarled, stopping in his tracks and crossing his arms. “Green fae don't get lost. What are you playing at?”
She shook her head again, facing him but still walking backwards, both hands extended imploringly. He was entirely right that she wasn't lost, and partly right that they were going crosswise: she was weaving a path between lairs and micro-habitats. That should have been obvious, since the farther out one went, the more complicated the apparently peaceful and uninhabited landscape became.
Which made it possible to plot a route that would keep him from recognizing exactly where they were going.
She noticed the change in vegetation, the increased moisture saturating the ground, the shift in the trees around them to species that liked it soggy, well before anything so obvious as the ground squishing under her bare feet.
This was actually a very private part of the island to spend time in. The humans and most of the fae avoided it as treacherous, not penetrating past the outer fringes.
Barry stopped in his tracks, swearing viciously.
“I've had enough. This is some stupid trick, trying to get me into the damned swamp, god knows why. That does it. I'm going back.”
In the undergrowth of scrubby smaller trees, Erica saw a flicker of luminescent colour, then another.
She spun in place and shook her head, holding out a hand pleadingly.
“Not a chance. How fucking stupid do you think I am?”
You don't want to hear the answer to that. But go head, keep making noise, that'll work just as well as going farther.
She came nearer and caught his hand in hers, though it made her long for soap, and she tried to urge him on. He balked and swore at her.
More colours, not at their most striking during the day, but they clearly weren't part of the trees and plants around them, and there were no flowers in the autumn wetlands.
Stomping off like a child throwing a tantrum wasn't a good idea here: it took only a handful of steps before Barry hit one of the deeper soft patches and sank. Cursing Erica, her ancestors, Isabel for talking him into this job, the wizard who had created the island, and a variety of less-relevant targets, he struggled to extricate himself.
Watching for them, Erica still found it hard to follow the motion of the will-o'-the-wisps as they slipped out of the shelter of the trees into sight. Despite the soft glow of their skin, the constant shifting pastel chaos broke up outlines and made it harder to detect edges and shapes, and they were all small and slight—much the same height Erica had been as a human, but only a fraction of her size in any other way. They had so little actual mass that locomotion was more like drifting than walking, and the impossible smoothness of that only made it harder to register them as living things.
Barry looked up, attention caught, and found himself staring directly at the one whose wings were batlike and part of their arms. Experience might have been enough for him to tear his gaze away from the quieter effects of that shimmering skin, but the small fae spread both arms, making as much of the wing membrane visible as possible. Barry's struggles against the bog holding him weakened visibly.
The dragonfly-winged consort moved into place on one side, wings flashing with iridescence. On the other side, another spread wings that had frilly edges, fragile-looking things that must have come from deep in someone's dreams.
“We will keep him here as long as we can,” the queen said from right beside Erica, her feathery rainbow wings fluttering restlessly in response to emotion. “I... well, you can guess the rest.”
Erica nodded, and offered a hand, with great care for her own considerable strength and mass. The queen clasped it graciously, and they shared a smile.
Erica left Barry to the flock's mercies, or possibly their revenge.
She had to get back to the house. Her family, the six others with whom she shared more than anyone would ever understand, they needed her.