A few feet beyond the door, the flashlight did her no good. The darkness seemed to swallow the light, so it barely shown a few inches. Frustrated, Lou muttered a curse about stupid magic tricks as she shoved the flashlight back into her backpack.
“Stupid magic tricks indeed.”
Lou jumped as a torch flared to life near her head.
A dozen fae surrounded her, their eyes black and dangerous in the light of the torch. Lou raised her flashlight like a club, and held her ground. “Where are my folks?”
A cackle answered her right before hands seized her arms. Lou fought for all she was worth, but they clawed away her backpack and dragged her down the winding corridor. She heard shouts and cursing that told her they had collected Warren as well.
The tunnel twisted in confusing loops, descending ever down, into cloying darkness, until they emerged into a massive chamber.
Twinkling lights spotted Lou’s eyes, and she stared up at the cavernous ceiling. She’d never imagined such a huge opening could exist underground. Great rock spears hung down, carved into twisted spires. From these hung ropes of moss and vines, somehow still green despite the lack of sunlight. Braided vines, in full flower, hung from the ceiling and against the walls, dropping brightly colored petals to form a rainbow carpet over the mossy floor.
At the far side of the chamber, seated on a cliff that jutted out from the rock wall about ten feet up, was the Wilde Prince.
He leapt down with casual grace, and grinned at Lou. She licked her lips against the urge to spit at him.
“Welcome, dear Jay Bird, back to the home of your birth.”
“Where are my parents?”
He looked taken a back for a moment, but his smiled returned. “Yes, the humans who cared for you. I’ll tell you what. Agree to stay with us, forever, and I will free them.”
“Lou.” Warren’s voice cut off as another fae hissed at him.
Lou knew better than to look at him, but she remembered Snowtail’s warning. “Free them. You mean you won’t hurt them, you’ll send them safely out of the Mound so they won’t grow old, and let them go home.”
Malice darkened Cian’s eyes for the briefest of seconds, then he laughed. “Clever little Jay Bird. I’m afraid I find it tricky to speak so plainly, after all, who knows when fate will belie one’s words.”
“Let Warren guide them to the entrance, and they will all leave together, unimpeded,” she added with a last hard look at the gathered fae. They snickered and hissed at her.
Cian remained silent for several seconds, expression a mystery to Lou. “And you shall remain here?”
Never. “Why? They cared for me, so you owe them a debt.”
Now Cian hissed, darting close to her. Lou held her ground, though she trembled at having him so near, feeling his hot, rotten-leaf breath against her cheek. “We owe them nothing, for we asked them for nothing. You belong to me.”
She met his eyes calmly, heart stuttering like a hummingbird’s wings against her ribs. “I don’t belong to anybody.” With that, she smashed her ring into his eye.
He screamed, and flung himself away from her. The gathered fae erupted in a panic. Lou lashed out again, wriggling away from the hands grasping her, and throwing out punches. Where her ring connected even the smallest bit, the fae shrank back with squeals and shrieks. She searched for Warren.
The fae swarmed over him. One brandished a black knife. Thrust it forward. Lou watched it sink deep into his belly.
“Warren!” In her few seconds of distraction, they covered her. One grabbed her hand, and with a jerking motion, ripped away her ring. It landed on the floor, a curl of smoke rising from the flowers it touched.
They forced Lou to her knees, and Cian stood over her. Blood poured from a gash under his eye, the skin blackened as if she’d burned him. But he smiled. He had won.