Ch. 41 - Reunion

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Rhianna needed to find a path home, a path to Gretch and Jenny. The choke cherry forest would not hold the darklings for long. She eyed her bag. So far she'd had everything she needed exactly when she needed it. The feather. The seed. What else did she have that could get her out of this new predicament?

Since the mask had come off, she could feel the "presence" of her watchers again, like they'd never left. They looked out for her like benevolent spectators lending a hand when she needed it. They didn't tell her this, she just felt it.

She hadn't felt them when the mask was on, but now she realized now that they had still been there. They would provide a solution for her.

A solution other than the mask. It squatted at the bottom of her bag. She stared at it without touching it. Why did she still have that thing? She wanted to throw it into Mount Doom, or burn it, or bury it. She wanted it far away from her. But she'd kept it.

The only good reason she could think of was to keep Grayson from using it on anyone else. She wondered if that was the real reason. What if some part of her was still fused to the mask and she couldn't let go?

She closed the bag and fished in her pockets. Her fingers snagged something. She pulled it out. The hair Gretch had plucked from her head—the one she said would always lead back to her.

"You wonderful witchy girl!" she cried. This was her solution. She was certain.

She held it up in front of her. Nothing happened. She shook it and it danced, but still didn't show her a path.

Gretch was the witch, not Rhianna. She was part Fae, though and so far today she had turned a feather into a giant swan and a seed into a forest.

"Come on Rhianna. You've got this."

She flicked the hair like she was cracking a whip and it slipped from her fingers, drifting down to the ground.

"Dammit!" She scrambled to catch it, but missed. It singed the grass where it fell, sizzling like a strand of molten sun. Rhianna snatched her fingers back.

The hair melted, the ground melted, into a liquid glowing orange and tremendous heat, then slithered like a serpent across the meadow, up and over a hill. Just as quickly as the ground had turned to magma, it cooled, leaving behind a shimmering pathway of solid gold.

"You've got to be kidding. A yellow brick road?" Rhianna asked aloud, looking around as if speaking to her watchers.

It wasn't glowing anymore, but she didn't want to burn herself. She tore up a chunk of grass and tossed it on the gold. Nothing happened. She tested with her toe. It seemed perfectly safe.

Maybe a little slippery, she thought, as she walked onto the path. And she wouldn't want to be wearing a skirt walking on this thing. Her reflection self-consciously smoothed it's hair in the gleaming surface at her feet.

After a few steps she started to get the hang of walking on it. She had a direction, she had a destination.

The landscape seemed to pass by abnormally fast—one of the reasons she didn't just walk on the less slippery grass bordering the path. There was some extra magic in it, more than just guiding her to Gretch.

The meadow around her turned to sparse trees and then forest and in what seemed like only a few minutes she stepped off the path into a familiar clearing. It was the place they had danced with the Fae on their first night visiting. And Rhianna shivered to think that at least some of those Fae had been darklings.

At the base of one of the standing stones sat Gretch with her arm over Jenny's shoulders. Kasubia hovered nearby.

"Rhianna! You made it." Gretch sagged back against the stone. "How did you get here so fast? Kasubia flew like lightning."

"Long story. Just think fairy tale. That will give you enough of a picture." Rhianna jogged the rest of the distance to them; the ground felt funny under her feet like she'd been riding an escalator too long and wasn't used to walking on a regular immovable surface.

"Jenny, you're ok!"

Jenny's smile was weak and there were dark circles under her eyes, but she seemed to be holding herself upright.

"We had some help."

A woman stepped out from behind the stone. Her smile was so broad it bumped up against her apple cheeks, and coppery red curls peeked out from under the hood of a sky blue cloak.

Gretch was grinning like she'd just met her favorite celebrity. "Rhianna, meet Brighid."

"Wait, isn't Brighid one of your goddesses?"

Rhianna suddenly didn't know what to do with her hands. Should she offer to shake hands with a Goddess? Get down on her knees? Offer gifts? Would she take offense that Rhianna had never worshipped her?

Brighid's laugh was hearty and warm. "Some love and adore me and call me Goddess. But the truth is I am just a living being, like Gretchen is, like you are, like the birds in the sky and the beetles in the earth. We each are different, but yet we are the same."

"Yeah, she likes to say profound stuff every time she opens her mouth, like it ain't no thing." Gretch smirked, disturbingly at ease around her deity. "She is a Fae. They have different races, or ranks, or degrees, or something. Way too complicated to get into. But those of her...kind...often get called gods and goddesses by humans. Long story short, she healed Jenny and helped us get here to wait for you."

"Umm, wow." Rhianna said, finally sticking her hands under her arms.

"Rhianna..." The goddess stared at her for an uncomfortable moment, and then blurted, "Look at you! All grown up. I haven't laid eyes on you since you were a wee little pixen." Brighid pulled Rhianna in for closer inspection and then a strong hug.

Hugging was not the way she had ever expected to greet a goddess. But it seemed less awkward than shaking hands.

The goddess fussed over her, pinching her cheek and commenting on what a fine young woman she'd grown into. Rhianna's face burned redder as she received comments and compliments on everything from her fingernails to the freckles on her nose.

Gretch stood watching with her hands clasped before her in utter spiritual joy. Jenny got up shakily and Gretch broke off her gaze long enough to help her.

"Well, I hate to break this up, but we have to get Jenny back on time before a bunch of humans start stumbling around these woods looking for her.

"Aye. An' you've opened the door between worlds now, my daughter," the goddess said, beaming with a great deal of pride toward Gretch. "At least a few of them will stumble into our lands."

"The way is open?" Jenny asked, shaking the last of the sleep from her head. "I thought it was impossible to unlock?"

"Turns out it was a simple matter of finding a home for a lost soul," said Gretch.

At that, Kasubia whinnied. Mistake.

"Kasubia!" Rhianna ran to the horse and then after a pause to make sure the wildness was really gone, threw her arms open and hugged her. "I am glad to see you looking more like yourself."

"Ha!" A laugh burst out of Brighid. "I assure you. She hasn't been herself in a long time. Ready to come home yet little miscreant?"

Kasubia tossed her head. Time to go.

Kasubia couldn't carry them all, so they decided that Jenny would ride. In all this time, Rhianna still hadn't ridden the horse. Not because of her mom or fear, though—riding couldn't scare her after flying on a swan's back.

She walked beside Kasubia with a hand on her flank. Once they got back, she would ride.

A/N: Sooooo close to the final confrontation now. I keep thinking this one last surprise will come out every time I write a new chapter but it always seems to be not quite the right time yet. Anyone have any guesses yet? I am sure it must be starting to get obvious. 

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