Deirdre was full of apprehensive energy that kept her going through the woods ever after she’d tripped repeatedly, torn her clothing, and had to scramble through so much foliage that she ached all over. They’d gone on a little walk through these woods yesterday, but they hadn’t gone too far, certainly not to the old mill, or the dry river that she’d done a header into.

“It’s much harder to navigate in the dark,” Johann said as he helped her up. “Are you quite alright?”

“I think so.” Her hands were scratched up, but she wiped them on her pants and trusted that the blood wouldn’t show through the dark fabric.

Johann went to check Monty, who was lying on his back in the dirt. Deirdre clambered back up to ground level and stood to look at the old mill. It was decrepit and rotting, and it felt like something that had been thrown aside casually by its owner when they got their hands on a shiny new one. Deirdre squeezed through the broken entrance, and found that there was still quite a lot of room in there. The ceiling, which formed the floor of the second story, looked like it was about to collapse any second, but Deirdre didn’t feel like she was in any danger. In fact, she felt a strange calm. Something half-buried in debris glinted in the slight moonlight, and attracted her eye. She went up to it and picked it up. It was a thick, heavy knife that might have been used for sawing rope or thick parts of plants. Deirdre tossed it from hand to hand and ran her finger along the blade. It was very dull, but she thought she could still do some damage from the sheer weight of the thing, or maybe use it to dig, or as a hammer. 

“Deirdre?” Johann called from outside. “Where are you?”

She slid the knife into her belt and squeezed back through the door. Sylvia and Wilhelm had the sacks, and they were making Monty drag the blades for cutting the grass. Johann clicked his fingers for everyone to follow him, so they did.

The trees began to thin, and soon ended altogether. They were in an open field of long grass, maybe an acre wide, that looked like a rippling sea in the moonlight. There was a church in the middle of the clearing, and it was silhouetted against the sky like something off a postcard. 

“It’s abandoned,” Johann said.

“Shame,” said Sylvia. “I would have loved to absolutely almost die in the woods every Sunday on my way to service.”

“Monty, where are the blades?” Johann asked.

Monty jumped back and threw a scythe at him in the same way he would hurl a harpoon. Johann leapt out of the way, and the scythe sailed through the air to land in the grass, which obscured it completely.

“Nice job, idiot,” Sylvia said.

Monty shrugged and held out another scythe for her to take.

Deirdre took a different scythe and started poking through the grass, looking for the missing one. Johann was busy verbally abusing Wilhelm, trying to teach him how to cut grass and shove it in one of their sacks. Deirdre swept her scythe to the side in front of her, moving it from one side to the other in one fluid motion. It did the trick, cutting the grass low enough that it looked convincingly like some kind of product.

Johann gave up on trying to teach Wilhelm to cut grass, and instructed him that he was to join Monty in getting the grass into the sacks. He then moved on to micromanaging that task. Deirdre lent half an ear to what he was saying, focusing mostly on her own work, and the satisfaction of cutting the grass so smoothly and so evenly. 

The wind rustled the trees, and blew Deirdre’s hair into her face. She took a moment to brush it away, but it had tangled in the chain her crucifix was on, so she had to take an even longer moment to untangle that. 

“Having some trouble?” Johann asked.

“No,” said Deirdre.

“Alright.” Johann reached down into the grass and came up with the missing scythe. “Look at that. Monty, do you want to help us with the blades now?”

Something about that set off alarm bells in Deirdre’s mind. Johann grinned and held the scythe out to Monty, not putting much pressure on his grip on the handle, acting like it was the most simple and natural thing in the world. He was just going to give Monty the scythe. There was nothing wrong with that. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong

She turned away from the exchange. It wasn’t her business what they did. Deirdre was close to the tree line now, so she turned around to go back to the field. As she did, she bonked into something with her head. Deirdre looked up, and an entire noose fell off the tree onto the ground in front of her.

“Hey, Monty?”

He looked up from what he was doing. “Yeah?”

“Did they hang witches in these woods?”

“Yeah. Why?”

The words stuck in Deirdre’s throat. “B- because-”

Johann scoffed. “As if witches really exist.”

“What is wrong with you?” Sylvia asked. “You’re still in denial that Heaven and Hell exist, even though you’ve seen them with your own two eyes.”

Johann shook his head. “I have seen a man who claims to be a demon, and I have seen the place beyond while under the influence of drugs. Neither of those offer conclusive proof on-”

A bloodcurdling howl split the air. Immediately, Deirdre’s instincts kicked in, and she ran for the holy ground of the church. She didn’t know if it would help, and she didn’t know what the danger she was running from was, but there was a foggy memory in the back of her mind that told her that holy ground would help.

Sylvia grabbed the back of Deirdre’s shirt so hard that it jerked her back and almost choked her. “The church isn’t going to help. C’mere, help me with this.” Sylvia bent down and picked up a stick. “Here, put this in your pocket.”

Deirdre shoved the stick in her pocket and continued her run for the church. Something burst out from the woods behind her, and gave an unsettlingly humanlike scream. Deirdre turned around, and saw a woman whose neck hung at a bad angle levitating at the edge of the wood. That was the witch, wasn’t it?

“That’s one ugly witch,” Monty, who had crawled on his stomach through the grass, said. 

“Oh, that’s not a witch,” Sylvia said. “Most witches are innocent women mistaken for what they are. Trust me, if they really had satanic powers, or the kind of faerie powers most witches have, they would not be able to be hanged.”

“What the hell is that thing, then?” Monty asked.

“An unseelie faerie.”

“Why?”

“Someone insulted her, I guess.”

Rot and dead grass spread from the faerie’s feet. Sylvia handed Monty a stick. Johann, Alice, and Wilhelm were missing. 

“Where are the others?” Deirdre asked. She slowly lowered herself to the ground, trying to calm down. 

“I don’t know,” said Sylvia.

“They’re just gonna get magically kidnapped, right?” Monty asked.

“That’s the seelie court. Unseelie faeries kill people.”

“Dammit.”

Someone tried to run away across the field. The faerie levitated over to her, and with a bolt of lightning, the unfortunate person was gone.

Deirdre turned around and saw that Johann had somehow snuck into the church. That must have been Wilhelm, then. 

Monty was crawling on his stomach like a snake through the undergrowth. Sylvia was running awkwardly in a crouched position, so that her head was beneath the grass. Deirdre went down to her hands and knees, which was uncomfortable and felt cowardly but did the trick.

The three of them managed to sneak in through the entrance to the church and join Johann behind the door. 

Sylvia smacked Johann in the face.

“Hey!” Deirdre said.

“It’s his fault,” Sylvia said.

“How do you know?”

“I can tell. Who else has been out far enough into the woods to annoy a faerie? What did you do? Did you drop hawthorn on a sacred spot?”

“Um… yes, I think I did.”

Sylvia smacked him again. 

“This is no time for fighting,” Deirdre said.

“Au contraire! Let’s beat the snot out of each other!” Monty snapped a stick over his knee and brandished the broken end like a knife.

Sylvia raised an eyebrow, apparently unimpressed.

Deirdre snatched the stick out of his hands. “We have to get out of here. Is there any way to barter with this thing?”

“Yes, let it hunt us for sport,” said Sylvia.

“That’s useful,” said Johann.

“What if we let it get its hooks in one of us, then that person led it on a wild goose chase away from all the others?” Monty asked. “Then that person could take an alternative route to safety. That’s what the whales did.”

“That’s a fine idea,” said Sylvia, “except for the fact that one of us has the suicidal task of leading the faerie away from the others.”

No one volunteered. Deirdre hesitated for a moment, then raised her hand. “I’m good at running and leading danger away from people that I care about.”

“You don’t have to,” Johann said. “Really, you don’t.”

“But I want to.” Deirdre took a deep breath. “I really do.”

Johann gave her a hug. “Please be careful.”

“Don’t worry.” She’d run from monsters in the forest a lot during her childhood. This was something she was prepared for.

The four of them crawled back out into the field. Deirdre got a good look at the faerie for the first time, and saw that she was female, but horribly ugly, with skin like ebony, empty eye sockets, long, sharp teeth, and claws as long as Deirdre’s arm. If it caught her, she would be dead.

“We’ll do it now,” Monty said.

“Good luck, Deirdre,” said Sylvia.

All four of them stood up at once. The faerie’s head turned around three hundred and sixty degrees to stare at them.

“Go!” Sylvia shouted.

Deirdre took off running.

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