There wasn’t much room around the cave to set up, or do recon. They tread water below the mouth. Finally Al-Ysa decided her soldiers would go first and last, with the humans in the middle.
“We can fight,” Pete said.
“Protect the Guardian,” Al-Ysa ordered. “If we meet with trouble, get him and the Archivist out.”
It took them a minute to realize she meant Val.
“If anything happens, get Val out first,” Dakotah said. “She’s the only one without magic.”
“I’m the one with all the knowledge!” Val protested. “How will these two fight without me?”
Dakotah looked at Phin. “Get Val out first.”
“Whatever,” said Phin with a shrug. “If shit goes down, I’m gonna be the first out that cave.”
Val giggled, but Al-Ysa interrupted. “Are we ready?”
“Lead the way,” Dakotah said. He tried to screw his head on straight. They didn’t know what they were getting into.
“No more talking,” commanded Al-Ysa, and she waved a few soldiers up the cliff.
Dakotah couldn’t tell if it was easier or harder for the bunny army to get up the cliff. The rabbits moved fast and needed smaller footholds. But the teens climbed much faster with their longer bodies.
At the cave, they filed in, pressed against the side. Al-Ysa communicated to her soldiers through quick ear flicks. Before them, the cave was a black hole.
“We need light,” Val hissed as a few bunnies hopped into the darkness.
“Lumos,” said Phin, and the humans dissolved into hushed, nervous laughter. They fell silent as Al-Ysa sent them a glare.
“Remain here,” she said. “We will clear the cave.”
The bunnies disappeared into the cave, and the humans were forced to wait. Dakotah’s eyes strained in the dark, hearing heightened. But he still couldn’t tell what was happening.
Suddenly, light bloomed. Phin started. The light bobbed unevenly as it approached–and revealed a bunny soldier with a lantern.
“Come quick,” said the soldier.
Dakotah practically stepped on the soldier’s heels to get further into the cave. Finally the tunnel came to an end and opened into a wide, low space. A bed of coals and kindling took up most of the floor space. The air was damp and reeked.
Al-Ysa hopped up. “We’ve secured the area, Guardian. This is the extent of the cave.”
“So there’s nothing here.”
“Come to this side.”
They followed Al-Ysa. The lantern bobbed forward too, revealing a wall of hooks. Off the hooks, bright stones hung off leather straps. They were all cuts and colors, from smooth agates or unpolished green and white jade. Dakotah saw blue sea glass and red limestone.
“What the fuck!” he said.
“I don’t get it,” said Pete. “What is it?”
“They’re Heart stones,” Dakotah said. “The Unseelie Queen has a collection of Sanctuary Hearts!”
It took only a moment to determine his House’s purple quartz Heart was not among the necklaces. Still, Dakotah was enraged. His hand snapped out to grab a necklace. The moment his fingers got close, a ripple of electricity shot through him, throwing him across the cave.
The girls screamed as Dakotah’s body cracked against the far wall.
There wasn’t much time to react. The electricity in the air did not fade. It gained power, making everyone’s hair stand on end. It started to take on shape, lightning forming in bright bursts. A bolt hit the nest of coals and dry kindling, sparking a fire.
Smoke formed over the flames.
Val and Phin were helping Dakotah to his feet. Pete had stopped on her way. The smoke boiled, growing faster than the flames. Deep in the clouds, lit by flashes of lightning, Pete could see a woman’s face appear. Dark eyes glared out of a moon-round face patterned like tree bark. Her hair was grass–literally, long prairie grass in shades of brown and green. Birds darted in between the blades and small trees were growing. She wore a crown of leafless branches.
Queen Samantha caught Pete’s eye and raised a hand. Lightning started to collect between her twig-like fingers. She threw the lightning at Pete.
A horde of bunny soldiers tackled Pete and the lightning sailed over them to hit the cave wall.
Sound rushed back into Pete’s ears. Al-Ysa was roaring for a retreat. A grey-faced Dakotah leaned heavily on Phin. Unseelie fairies crowded around Samantha, jeering at them.
Samantha formed another lightning ball and lobbed it through the cloud portal, this time towards where two soldiers urged Val down the tunnel. Pete launched to her feet. She caught the lightning ball, swung in a circle, and tossed it back through the portal. Samantha and her Unseelie soldiers were forced to leap out of the way.
This gave them a moment to dash down the tunnel.
Val’s heart jumped to her throat at the thought of having to jump into the black Mississippi. But before anyone reached the end of the tunnel, the Lake appeared before them. The canoe, bobbing at the border, morphed into a large motorboat. The rabbits didn’t slow: the vanguard hopped into the boat in a rapid but orderly fashion. The humans clambered on next, followed by the rest of the rabbits. Phin dropped Dakotah on a seat and turned the key.
The motorboat threw them all backward as it leaped into action. The human world faded away and for a moment they were enveloped by the absolute silence of the Lake.
“Get in formation!” Al-Ysa yelled, moments before the Unseelie court burst into the air.
There were easily a hundred of them, fairies with wild faces, demons, restless spirits on a wild hunt. Some rode horses with skeleton faces across the sky. Samantha rode a black carriage pulled by black swans. One hand held a whip, the other a long leash leading to a muzzle on the Great Salamandra, its wing patched where Pete had hit it. Coals spilled from its mouth and rained on the Unseelie fey, who did not seem to notice. Caitlin rode a beetlelike thing, laughing as she spun magic into a swirling tornado of air.
“Kill them!” yelled the Unseelie Queen, her voice catching like thunder and echoing all around them.
Caitlin released the tornado.
Val took the wheel so Phin could join the bunnies and Pete. They raised their hands to begin a spell–but Dakotah grabbed Phin’s shoulder.
“Don’t!” he said to Al-Ysa before she could command her soldiers to fire. “There’s too many! I’ll do it!”
“Dakotah!” yelled Pete as the tornado bore down.
“You don’t have fighting magic!” Phin said. His hands went up.
“We’re not fighting,” Dakotah said. Then he spoke the words to the one Guardian spell more powerful than any magic there.
The tornado hit his shield and vanished. Caitlin screamed from her perch. She knew a Guardian’s protection could not be shaken.
But Samantha was not perturbed. “You cannot hide forever, Guardian,” her thunderous voice called. Then: “Fall back!”
The Unseelie Court screeched and wailed and hollered, raining insults and abuses at the motorboat and its passengers. But none dared try the glittering shield, and the swarm of them soon turned and flew off over the Lake.
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