"There are matters which have drawn me here, perhaps on a more direct path than you," she replied. Then she looked at the crevice. Shall we go inside?"
I nodded agreement. We had to slip sideways through the opening, and our appearance inside the cave brought a squeal of protest and a few dozen shocked faces, both pixies, and gremlins.
That was not a combination I'd expected. The creatures all stared at us with surprise and fear and made me anxious to know what was going on.
Sylph was the one who took the lead and asked a question I had not expected.
"Who has lost a crown?" she asked with a sweep of her hand toward both groups.
"We have," the gremlins said, a group of them all at once. "We have lost the crown, and we no longer have a king."
I sucked in my breath and considered the truth of what they said. For many fae communities, the crown is more important than the person who wears it. The Gremlins may have been small in stature -- the tallest reached my waist -- but they were a large and essential part of the faelands.
Which brought the first of my questions to mind.
"What was the Gremlin Crown doing in the human realm?" I asked.
A few of the Gremlins and the Pixies looked at me, then at the Sylph, and then to me again.
"He has not been in touch with the faelands for a while," the Sylph said.
Her answer seemed to be enough for them.
"We brought it in hopes it would escape the monster, but it came even here," a Gremlin answered. "Even here!"
I looked at Sylph. "You knew a crown would be gone. What other ones?"
"Oh, half a dozen or so, including the Holly Crown of the Sylphs. Someone is collecting power. I followed the Holly Crown to this realm, but ... lost the feel in this strange place."
"Do the Pixies still have their crown?"
The Pixies grew worried at that question. I saw something unexpected as a couple dozen pixies swarmed into a circle, obviously intent on protecting one of their own. I stepped back and gave a bow of my head, and without moving my hands, which they would have taken as a sign, I intended to use magic -- and steal their crown.
"So you still have it," I said as I bowed. "Good. Why are the Pixies here, then?"
I had turned that question to the Sylph with the unstated question about what brought her here -- well, except for another missing crown. She frowned, though, and looked back at the Pixies, waiting for them to answer.
And that might take a while. I know it's a rather impolite joke to say that Pixies need several brains to make even a simple decision, but sometimes their tendency to make group decisions could drive the rest of us mad. I wanted an answer now --
Why now? We weren't really in a hurry, were we?
Fae have an odd sense for trouble heading their way, and that was precisely what I felt just now. The sudden surge of that uncomfortable tingle made me not care what the Pixies said. I even grabbed hold of Sylph -- not a wise thing to do.
Her hair slashed out at my face, and I felt the sting of tiny cuts, while her hands moved, fingers growing longer with wood-like claws --
I went completely still. If I had tried to run, Sylph would have ripped my throat out before I could have spun away from her. Sylph's unnaturally green eyes glowed brightly for a moment -- and then she blinked and pulled back two quick steps.
Everything else in the cavern had gone silent and very still. I worked at getting my heart to slow down, but that was not helped by the feeling that had set this all off --
"Something is coming," I said. Soft words, despite my growing panic. "My apologies, but something --"
"Yes," Sylph said. She lifted a hand toward the crevice, and I saw definite worry grow on her face. "The crown -- you must go with the crown. We will hold this place as long as we can."
That 'we' included me, I realized. I did not protest the assumption since I had intended to face whatever showed up anyway. I was surprised that Sylph would place herself in the same danger with me, though.
As the pixies and gremlins scrambled away into the dark cavern and I heard the sound of a rockfall that closed off the area they went. Gremlins were good at that kind of work. They and the pixies would be safe for now.
I looked at Sylph and gave a slight bow of my head. "Do you know what to expect?"
"Trouble," she replied with a snarl. I saw pieces of bark appear on her face and then disappear again, the sign of a Sylph holding back emotions. This time I had no doubt that she felt rage.
"I apologize for the touch --"
She shook her head. "I reacted badly. The emotions, the trouble -- that we have lost our own crown, fae, means trouble of a sort that we don't even know where to look. It was no easy task."
"I would think not. Do you have any idea?"
"I thought to ask the Gremlins if they saw anything amiss before they lost their crown. That the Pixies still have theirs bothers me, though. It would be far easier to get theirs, would it not?"
"Yes. Maybe so easy that the enemy thinks it hardly worth the effort -- except that whatever is coming this way ... it is coming for that crown now, I fear."