“Be quiet, I’m reading.”
“What are you reading?” Pippa’s voice stabbed Peter Ume’s sensitive fox ears like a pixie’s blade—small, but sharp. From the general direction of her voice, she had to be crawling around under his bed.
Sprawled out on the narrow cot, Peter tucked his arm beneath his head. “Don’t worry about it. Go outside and play.”
“Frost says the X-Men are the queerest superheroes ever.”
A water droplet wet Peter’s shoulder. The Shoe’s roof was fashioned from fresh thrush that had to be replaced every few years, depending on how much it rained. It was time. He made a mental note to terrorize whoever shirked their chores.
A thick droplet speared his eye like a hail pellet, and he slapped his face. “I hate this place.”
“I found something.”
Why did she sound so far away? Wasn’t she right under his bed?
A white flower petal floated near his head, and he snatched the petal and brought it under his nose. Fragrant and pure, potent and clean. Gardenia.
More flowers whooshed from under the bed, and the mattress creaked as he leaned over to get a better view of the floor. A bundle of gray and white animal skin bowled from under the cot.
He tucked the comic book under his pillow. “What is that?
“Skin.” She still sounded too far away. “I think it belongs to you.”
Synthetic gray and black fibers scratched his fingertips, lint and petals peppering his belly as he shook out the garment. Ah, a vest. His vest. If memory served him correctly, he’d swiped this polyester piece of crap from a consignment store back in middle school.
The hood a wolf’s head. The wolf’s right eye shattered from one of the times he’d been stuffed into his locker, the left ear singed from the time he’d accidently burned down the barn. Aside from that, a few blood and dirt stains, nothing major.
“I haven’t seen this in months. Was it under the bed the whole time?”
Unusual silence. He flared his nostrils. Wool, dust, and the weird sour and saccharine scent of small children. No Pippa. His frown worsened as he tried to siphon out a tendril that might confirm her nearness. Nothing.
The deeper he sniffed, the more apparent it became that she was gone.
He swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Pippa, I’m not messing around. Where are you?”
No answer. His nerves crackled, and he lifted his legs a split second before she rolled out from under the bed. More white petals showered the air, the bulk of the blooms clinging to her oversized dark gray sweater.
A young weretiger of some sort, she was all belly, and when she was lying on her back like this, she looked like a fat kitten with an Indian’s deeply bronzed nutmeg skin. Her frizzy black hair tangled over her face as she swatted at her chubby cheeks, revealing notoriously flat eyes, glossy blackberries with streaks of blue and purple highlights.
Pippa wiggled the ball of feathers clasped in her plump hand. “Isn’t it pretty?”
It took Peter a few seconds to make sense of the mess of feathers. Though smaller, it looked like some kind of parrot with a black beak and a broken rainbow for plumage. “Where did you get that? And where are the flowers coming from?”
“There was this place…” Her attention rolled to the leaking ceiling, her eyes shiny, like she was lost in the memory of somewhere else. “The sky is pink, and there are fields of peppermint candies. So pretty. Oh, there were moving trees, and lots of birds like these ones.” She offered up the dead parrot. “They sing.”
Okay, so given the sheer number of supernaturals paraded in and out of the orphanage over the years and the fact that Granny’s closet remained a gateway to the real Oz, there was enough residual magic woven into the Shoe’s walls to trigger the occasional random wormhole. Apparently, wherever Pippa went was stocked with moving trees, little white flowers, and singing rainbow birds.
Not unique or useful identifiers. It could’ve been any number of places.
“Do you remember how you got there? How you came back?”
“No. We were talking, and I was sniffing stuff, and everything went fuzzy. And there was singing. I followed it through the moving trees, and found the birds.” She wiggled the dead parrot, fascinated with the way its head lolled. “I think I’m gonna eat it.”
He threaded his arms through the vest. “Where did you find this?”
“Under your bed.” She lifted her eyebrow like he was an idiot for asking. “Help me up.”
He caught her pudgy hand, and found it warm and calloused in the same spots his were. When he dropped her onto the bed, she tumbled back, giggling, feet going over head until she rolled into a seated position. When she was like this, when she acted her age, his chest tightened.
Pippa bounced on her knees. “Again, again.”
He snatched up his socks. “Maybe later, Pippa. I’m going out for a little while.”
Sneeze. The wet “she got it on his bed” kind of sneeze.
“Don’t wipe it on anything.”
“Something smells funny. My nose is all tingly,” she huffed. “It’s itchy.”
Mold and hay, the musk of matted fur, and the pungent notes of sour milk. Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary. “What do you think you smell?”
“I… Meat.” Her upper lip jumped. “It smells like dogs and meat.”
“It’s just Frost skinning the werewolves. One or two feral ones made it past the fence last night. Granny shot them. She says that they’re getting bolder now that it’s spring and mating season is in full swing.” Pippa made a face at the word “mating,” and he laughed. “Don’t worry. No one’s gonna want a girl with chicken legs.”
“I don’t care.” She turned up her eight-year-old nose. “I’m going to grow up and go live in the jungle, where there are no boys, and no mating, and no one makes me wear pants.”
“We have intruders,” a tiny, ringing voice interrupted.
His lungs deflated on a sigh. “Great, you’re here.”
The door creaked open, and the piskie stomped across the threshold. She was about a cigarette tall, with enough strength in her tiny hand to break his bones. For a fey, she was odd in that she had two human-looking ears. It didn’t make her look any more…natural. Her features more insect-like than hominid. Black eyes large and protruding, yellow hair fuzzy and wild.
No one knew how old she was or where she’d come from.
She leaned back on a deep breath, the pair of curly antennae protruding from her temples spiraled tighter—and tighter. On the exhale, words fled her mouth like steam shooting out of a cranky kettle.
“The wards around Granny’s land activated half an hour ago. There are at least a dozen intruders advancing toward the farm. Some of them are armed with assault rifles. They’ve brought dogs with them, too. I don’t know what you did, Peter, but I swear on a tulip’s bulbed ass that I will have you skewered if anything happens to any of the—”
“Whatever it is, it wasn’t me. And what do you mean, half an hour ago? If the threat is so serious, why did take you so long to tell—”
She jabbed her thumb over her shoulder. “The stairs, you daft bastard.”
“Peter.” Pippa stiffened, her whisper shriveling into a growl. “They’re coming.”
He surged off the bed, and cold wood shocked the bottom of his bare feet. “I’m not agreeing it’s a real threat until I see for myself. This isn’t going to be a repeat of last week—”
“This one is for real, Peter.” Pippa followed him to the balcony doors. She pressed the bird and her palm to the glass. “I can smell them.”
The kids liked to prank him as payback for the jokes he’d pulled over the years. They never included Pippa in their games. Didn’t think they could trust her to stay quiet. They wouldn’t have enlisted her to play a trick on him, so maybe the piskie told the truth.
Peter used his knee to urge the cub to the side while he waited for the piskie to catch up. “I want a visual.”
“Fine, don’t believe me.” The piskie’s labored breath tickled his sensitive ears. A few seconds later, she used the seams of his faded jeans and his T-shirt to climb the distance from the floor to his shoulder. At the top, she stumbled back on a big gulp for air and latched on to his earlobe for balance.
“I’m only a thousand years old. But do you respect your elders? No. Do you care that I’m in charge of the Shoe’s protection? No. Do you listen? No. Why would you listen to me? Why would anyone listen to me?”
He pulled open the balcony door, and a gust of wind almost blasted her off his shoulder. She squealed and held on to his earlobe for dear life.
“A rot upon you, Peter!”
As the second-floor balcony was a few feet below the redwood’s canopy, the wind was strong enough to beat at his exposed skin like a stinging lash. Squinting through the onslaught, he shoved his hair back and made sure to pull the door shut before Pippa followed him.
Damp dirt and moist speckles of hay from the thrush roof stuck to the bottom of his heels, and he grimaced and dragged his feet all the way to the railing. “So gross.”
The piskie flailed from his ear. “Cry me a river!”
Secure in his fist, she patted his index finger, and pointed to the right, to the dark forest stretching beyond Granny’s backyard. “The huntsmen are coming from there. I can’t tell how many they are, only what I can glimpse from looking through the wards. They have weapons, Peter. Serious weapons.”
“Are you sure it’s not a bear or something?”
“Are you even listening to me?” She smacked her forehead and pointed. “Fine, problem child. See for yourself.”
The balcony was mounted on the dorsal side of the boot, and this vantage offered a full view of the entirety of Granny Sole’s front yard. Despite the cityscape extending a few miles past the bridge and the old dirt road, the farm was a unique world. The clouds fuller and fluffier, like they’d taken shape for the children who played beneath them.
Granny’s yard was boxed in by the old post fence lining the wide perimeter of the main house, and shaped something like a baseball field. The Shoe was home base, the greenhouse and the adjacent gardens made up first, the beginning of the bridge extending across the narrow channel was second, and the water tank, windmill, and the barn were third.
As of right now, the barn’s big red alley doors were flung wide open, a few kids bouncing on the seesaw. Three or four witches—he couldn’t tell how many—gathered in the center of an old steel merry-go-round, their images blurring as they were spun by unseen hands.
A shirtless, olive-skinned werewolf with wild black hair burst through the cornstalks, clotheslining all children of a certain height. Granny called him Romeo. Everyone else called him Rover. He floored two duck shifters. One slammed back first on the muddy bank; the other sailed through the air and landed in the pond with a gruesome splash.
“Rover almost stepped on me the other day.” The piskie crossed her arms. “I say we let the huntsmen take that one.”
Rover skidded to a complete stop and poked his nose in the wind.
One sniff and he made a beeline for the duck shifter struggling up to the bank in sopping wet clothes. Rover caught the duck by his muddy T-shirt and lunged into the pond, flawlessly tackling the other twin who’d just managed to get to his feet.
The splash showered the greenhouse’s glass walls, and the children surfaced in a thick bundle of cattails. Rover’s hands braced on top of both boys’ skulls as he forced them to stay low, a third grader who already knew that, given the chance, prey would always try to flee.
One by one, the rest of the children disappeared. Some scurried up into sycamores; others scuttled under the blueberry bushes and into the cornfields. A few rapidly dug holes into the earth. The barn doors closed, and all at once everything stilled.
Peter swallowed hard. “I still can’t smell anything.”
“A monster’s sense of smell dulls with age,” the piskie explained. “I, on the other hand, am connected to this land. I know when someone’s here and they’re not supposed to be.”
He pulled the door shut behind him.
Pippa shuffled back. Her forehead wrinkled, but she said nothing. Just waited.
The small voices of doubt quieted, and he placed the piskie on her shoulder. “Hide.”
Strange fire licked at the bottom of her dark eyes, and she hurried over to the toy box set up at the footboard of her bed. Holding the bird close to her chest like a stuffed animal, she used her foot to toe open the lid. The box’s squeaking hinges loud in the tense silence. From where he stood, the toy chest intimated emptiness, the inside darker than it should be.
A flash of wild electric-blue hair and crimson material appeared over the lip, followed by a few low grunts and happy screeches. Two fuzzy blue hands with long, wispy fingers extended from the darkness and guided the cub into the pit.
“I don’t want to go with them,” the piskie wailed from Pippa’s shoulder.
The furry hands pulled Pippa into the darkness. “Mine.”
The lid snapped shut, and silence swallowed the room.
Stomach twisting, Peter stalked across the nursery, pausing by his old, dilapidated bed to pluck his socks off the comforter, and a pair of weathered old combat boots and started toward the door that led to the hallway.
“Peter.” The disembodied voice echoed. “They’re coming for you.”
Fenris. Of course, because what was a catastrophe in New Gotham without a little bit of unhelpful commentary from the fey?
Hands occupied with putting on his left sock, Peter hopped on one foot and used his elbow to push open Granny’s bedroom door, and it slammed up against the wall. Any harder and the knob would’ve punched a hole in the charm woven into the Shoe.
“Peter,” the disembodied voice called again.
Peter flashed his teeth. “Go away, Fenris. I’m busy right now.”
Autumn flowers and bourbon-soaked cigars, soil from the garden, and the mint she preferred in her tea. The scents filtered under his nose as he closed the bedroom door behind him.
Granny Sole’s walls were a dark shade of dusty pink, patterned with baby-blue swallowtails and white daisies. Busy and old-fashioned, but the colors hugged from the warm, half-paneled wood. Inviting you in. Even as the racks of antique firearms decorating any spare surface warned you to stay the fuck out.
“Peter,” came the singsong purr. “There are people here to kill you.”
An orange tabby padded into existence across the foot of Granny’s perfectly made bed. Despite being plump around the belly, it had the most disturbingly bony structure, too long of a neck, and a mouth too wide and sharp for any natural animal.
Fenris, as it preferred to be called, always took the form of a cat, though it was obvious he was no ordinary house pet. He was another one of the Shoe’s mysteries, as no one understood where he came from or where he ran off to when he wasn’t underfoot. Only that he appeared whenever he felt like it, and it was usually at the most inopportune time.
The cat took a regal seat on Granny’s floral blanket and tilted its head, flashing the corner torn off its right ear. “It sure has been a while, Peter. I didn’t think your story would ever get written.”
What the hell is he talking about? Peter plopped on the bed. “What do you want?”
“I came to watch you die.”
Peter struggled to tie his boots. “I’m not going to die.”
“They’re coming for you.” Its eyes slitted with interest. “Aren’t you scared?”
He swiped his arm for good measure, but the cat had already vanished.
Sweat pebbled on his brow, and he reminded himself that there was no reason for any human to want him dead. He only ever associated with his kind, and the world outside New Gotham and this farm was a distant and irrelevant fairy tale. He had no reason to be afraid.
The cat appeared on Granny’s dresser. “Shouldn’t you move along?”
“Don’t act brand new. It doesn’t suit you.”
Peter was the kind to run out there and end it all in a blaze of glory. Granny ran her farm like a tight ship. She liked rules, and she liked pistol-whipping anyone who didn’t follow them.
Peter slipped his hand under the pillow and brandished a six-shooter. The mother-of-pearl handle cold, the weight comfortable in his palm, familiar. He shoved the pistol in between the small of his back and his waistband. “Rule one: the First must be armed when assessing threats.”
“Are you sure that will be sufficient, Peter? There are more than six of them.”
“Fine.” Peter grabbed the broom leaning next to the nightstand. “There. I’m prepared.”
As per usual, the downstairs was quiet. It was usually reserved for children who needed a nap during the day, but everyone was awake now.
Well, except for the vampires who slept in the cellar.
Half of the kitchen was dedicated to old country countertops, dish hutches, and a massive fire pit with tomato and basil soup simmering above the open flame. The other half was dedicated to an arcane workshop, complete with candelabra, an altar, and a rusty old cauldron that had seen better days long before Granny Sole got her grubby hands on it.
The small card table set up near the back door was disturbingly empty. Normally, Granny Sole sagged in that wicker chair, smoking a cigar while she skinned apples or mended clothes. Her pleated white apron hung over the back, and he rooted around in the pockets for the keys to the farm.
Fenris surfaced at his heels. “The hunters—”
“Scram, cat. You know Granny doesn’t like pests in the kitchen.”
“She lets you in here, doesn’t she?”
Peter snorted. “Just barely.”
He hooked the keys on his belt. Anything living in the Shoe could hear a pin drop, so he whispered, “Okay, guys, this is not a drill. Anyone who’s in here stays in here until one of the big kids says it’s clear. Understood?”
“Yes,” came the hissing collection of tiny whispers.
Peter used his elbow to push open the screen door, and made sure to close and lock both doors behind him before he stepped into the warm sunlight.
Ghostflowers and oleander—the aroma of clean linen hanging on the clothesline.
The scents filtered under his nose, stinging his lungs with the crispness of clean, fresh air. A rolling vastness of packed aspens made up the backyard, a portion of the dense woodlands fenced in to keep anything from wandering in. He couldn’t see or smell anything out of the ordinary, but the children didn’t spook easy.
Drawing on his inborn abilities, he focused the color out of the world, everything dulling into a spectrum of black and white.
Nearly a mile out. Humans, probably. At least seven of them. Maybe more. Each wore a camouflaged helmet of some sort, matching thick jackets, utility pants, and a varying assembly of muddied boots. All of them carried an automatic rifle outfitted with a silencer and the kind of scope used to hunt buffalo. A lot of them were shouldering composite bows, too. A few of them even had silver stakes strapped around their thighs.
Sure didn’t seem like the average tourist coming to “monster-hunt” in New Gotham. But there was no way of knowing. Maybe they were a highly trained team of “some kind of badass” or a bunch of civilians taking themselves too seriously. The hunters fanned out like a pack of coyotes combing through the desert bush, and his canines pricked his bottom lip.
Regardless of who they were, they were traveling in the wrong direction. The farm wasn’t the kind of place that screamed trouble. Seriously, the entire thing was built around a house in the shape of a boot. Any monsters living here were obviously of the civilized and ankle-biting variety.
Hiding behind the banister’s spokes, he divested the broom of the straw top. It wasn’t the most effective weapon, but it was less assuming than a gun, a shovel, or anything else suitable for inflicting blunt force trauma. Not that he thrilled at the notion of taking on an entire company of delusional, trigger-happy rednecks.
But fuck it, it was something to do.
Pure ozone and sharp, cold air filtered under Peter’s nose, and his fox ears twitched at the sound of bare feet crunching icy grass.
“I get the sense that we’re being watched.”
Frost’s voice had a weirdly calming effect, like the beginning stages of freezing to death. Racing currents of balmy air peeled away his glamour in long, swirling stripes, and he appeared from the chasms of magic as a blue-skinned elemental sprite with a straight patrician nose and a permanent frown.
Glittering, icy shards grew from his scalp, his entire face framed by a sharp headband of white and silver snowflakes. He always seemed to be squinting, like his crystal blues were too damn bright. Even for him.
Of course, he didn’t appear the slightest bit human.
Why, the mere idea would offend his overly inflated fey-like sensibilities.
“How’s it hanging, Snowman?”
“Where’s Granny?” he demanded. “She said she’d make me pie if I finished curing these werewolf skins today.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Can’t you see I’m busy trying to save the day?”
Frost dropped the stack of werewolf furs by the deck and took the steps two at a time, searing the wood with frostbite in his wake. He didn’t bother ducking next to Peter, and settled for pulling a thick layer of glamour over himself. An acceptable alternative, given it rendered him practically invisible.
“Peter, what did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“You didn’t answer my question. Where’s Granny?”
“I guess she’s still at the flea market—which, incidentally, makes me reigning big kid on the farm. Hooray for me.”
“The farm might be under attack and you’re what we have to work with?”
“If you die, I’ll make sure the pie doesn’t go to waste.”
“Remind me that killing you is counterproductive. Remind me that I don’t want to be First—”
“No one wants to be First. Now stop your bitching, lock the vampires in the cellar, and go make sure the rest of the kids are locked in the barn. Don’t forget to count them twice.” He followed his instincts and tossed the keys to the left. “Heads up.”
The second Frost’s hand made contact with the iron, he materialized crouched. The metal sizzled his palm through the white glove, and he flashed diamonds for teeth. “Ow.”
Peter opened his mouth to issue a different order.
“Don’t pretend like you care.”
Okay, so I don’t care. “Where are the rest of the big kids? Where’s Hopper? I thought he was supposed to be watching the greenhouse. He should’ve found me by now.”
“No one cares about that perfect idiot. He’s useless to us in a fight. Where are the Giants? They’re supposed to be watching the cornfields, and I didn’t see any of them on my way in. You don’t suppose they’re hiding somewhere with the children? Disgraceful as it might be.”
Hard lines formed around Frost’s mouth, and Peter glimpsed the handsome and brooding man he’d become in a few years. Moisture collected in the hollow of his elegant collarbones, thick droplets crystalizing on his skin like glass tears.
Peter forced himself to look away. “Go lock the barn. Make sure you count them twice.”
“Don’t take them on by yourself. You’ll die, and I don’t want to be First.”
Thanks for the vote of confidence. “Go count the kids.”
Frost made a noise, something between a snort and grunt, and plucked a T-shirt out of his back pocket. He pulled the baggy black tank top overhead and bolted over the railing, the muscles in his round backside straining against the bloodstained white denim.
Peter pulled up his vest’s hood—anything to block out the distraction. Sweat collected along his nape as he crept off the deck and flattened his back to the proud elm growing in the center of the yard. A small snippet of wind raced through the woods, and his nose twitched from the familiar scent.
Freshly cut grass, apples, graphite, and a pungent herb. A root, maybe.
He narrowed his eyes at the lanky redhead slouched and napping on one of the tree’s thickest branches. Experience predicted there was no waking the lazy grasshopper. Nothing short of a meteor cratering their backyard would have the slightest effect, so Peter wasn’t even sure why he was trying.
“Hopper,” he whispered.
His frown worsened. “Goddamn it, Hopper. Wake up.”
Vibrations raced up Peter’s legs as the earth rumbled beneath his feet, drawing his attention to the brush curtaining the side of the Shoe. Jill’s favorite green rain boots and curvy legs emerged from the fan of short tulip trees. She pushed some of the branches aside, and stumbled free with a curse.
“This is why I wanted to come from the cornfields.”
Clad in her usual pair of short cut-offs and a baggy green sweater, Jill had always been a beauty, with great reddish-brown skin and a wild mop of tight-knitted curls. She carted a basket of corn ears on the bend of one elbow, and used her free hand to push back her beat-up straw hat.
“Y’all hear that?” She cocked her ear. “Hurry up, Jackie. Something ain’t right. I can sense it.”
“Well, you sure as hell can’t see it, so I don’t know why you insisted on going first. Move your fat ass, Jill. I’m carrying water.”
Jackie Giant surfaced from the brush after his twin sister, and dwarfed her in his shadow. At thirteen, he was already near six feet tall. He had the same reddish cherry wood skin, and the same tight-knit curls beneath a ball cap brimmed with beer bottle tops. His face was kind of scary, half of it plated with a metal mask. The accessory didn’t match the hand-me-down Jordans or the beat-up cargo shorts.
“I said, move your ass, Jill Giant, or I swear to God I will push you off a cliff next time.”
Jill stomped out of the way, “Not if I push you first.”
“Quit bickerin’ and bossin’ each other around.”
Jolly’s deep baritone obliterated the relative quiet as he bulldozed his way through the bushes and emerged a massive bulk of dark skin and muscle with a dry afro and unnerving, tiny black eyes. As per usual, the pits of his old green shirt were dark with sweat, overalls covered with mud and dirt, the demin straining to accommodate the breadth of his massive body.
“Goddamn.” Jolly’s face wrinkled with disgust, and he smacked on a helmet welded together from metal pails, the words “Fee-Foo-Fum” scribbled across the brow in neon-green ink. “Smells like human ass out here.”
Peter struggled not to cringe beneath their collective scrutiny.
“I didn’t do it.” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “They’re coming from that way.”
Tremors vibrated the earth with every step Jolly took toward the forest. Jill lagged, as she took care to count her steps. Jackie took off in a dead run. He lunged into the air, and landed in a squat, gloved hands and busted sneakers smacking down on the grass.
The world rattled from the impact.
Hopper fell from the elm, straight into a heap of prickly bushes. “Ah! Fuck!”
Jill snorted in his direction. “Serves your lazy ass right.”
The earth rumbled again, and dirt sprayed as a mass of fat vines tunneled to the surface. The vines writhed into the air like independent tentacles, rushed and swept Jill up in a throne fashioned from tightly bound beanstalks, the shorter limbs skirting the base, snapping and roiling with aggression. Hundreds of tiny eyes popped open on every knobbed vine, like sentient lenses.
Jolly stomped the distance to his siblings, the biggest dot in a three-point line. He never spoke much, but the idea of fighting a bunch of humans weighed on him in a way that life on the farm didn’t. He grumbled and sank into a lunge, like a runner in preparation for a gunshot.
“I’ve been moving bales all morning…”
“Stop complaining.” Appearing out of thin air, Frost skated up from the rear and ripped off three of the snowflakes growing from his head, blue blood oozing from the fresh, meaty bald spots. “I counted the kids. They’re all there. Except Pippa. She’s missing.”
Peter flattened himself against the elm. “I know where she is.”
“What…” Hopper surfaced from the prickly bushes, and pulled off his beanie, revealing a mess of oily red curls. “What’s going on? I fell asleep—why is everyone mad?”
It took a few more seconds before the realization set in.
“Humans?” A strange ticking sound vibrated from his throat and a reedy staff materialized in his fist. “Dead humans. This is how we get ants.”
The hunters broke the tree line like an army of shiny G.I. Joes, and halted. Most of the hunters didn’t seem keen on the idea of pressing forward. Of course, that was the downside to pack dynamics.
It didn’t matter what the bottom of the pyramid wanted.
Standing a few paces in front of the other men, the lead hunter straightened to his full height, and pushed off his helmet. If his snow-white hair was any indication, he was pushing sixty, but everything about his body screamed that age hadn’t done anything but hone his iron spine in fire.
Comfortable and alert, he didn’t seem shocked at the fantastic display of aggression. If anything, he took his sweet time scanning the farm.
He took another step and called out, “Who’s in charge here?”
Peter swallowed the lump in his throat. His heart thumped in his ears, and the time it took for him to close the distance to the fence seemed small, insignificant. Every fiber of muscle in his body drew tight from the rising onslaught of adrenaline, and he vaulted over the fence’s beams and came to stand less than a yard from the lead huntsman.
The huntsman was even older than Peter initially thought, and built like a brick house, with wide shoulders and large, powerful arms. The brilliant white color of his short, neatly buzzed hair seemed natural, like it whitened a long time before it should’ve.
“What do you want?”
He scratched at the stubble growing along his chin. “The hell am I supposed to say to a boy?”
One of the goons on the right laughed. “Ah, hell, Hal, we was just boys when we started.”
“I’m a lot older than you think I am.”
The huntsman’s eyes were such a strange color, crow orbs ringed by the faintest rim of periwinkle. The kind of shiny, all-knowing eyes that seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it.
“You speak for them?”
“The bloodthirsty teenagers back there? Yeah, I guess you could say I speak for them.”
“Call them off. We ain’t here to hurt children. We’re looking for a wolf.”
Peter pointed into the forest. “It’s crawling with wolves.”
The air vibrated with disapproval. “I’m looking for a specific werewolf.”
Peter shrugged. “Can’t help you.”
“Are there any werewolves on this farm?”
The sight of Hal leering in the direction of his home curdled Peter’s blood. His grip tightened around the broom. “The wolves on this farm are children. They’re not the wolf you’re looking for, so you have no reason to be here.”
“This wolf I’m looking for has a black coat, a gray undercoat, and silver eyes. Are you sure it couldn’t be hiding on your farm?”
“There’s thirty different types of monsters on that farm, and every single one of them is nosy. Nothing sneaks onto our farm. Nothing hides on our farm.”
“Are you sure? We heard a howl coming from this direction earlier this morning. We didn’t come here to hurt any children, but I would hate for any of them to go missing.”
Was that a threat or a warning?
Something moving in the forest caught Peter’s eye, and he squinted past Hal, into the thick pockets of mist rolling across the landscape. The cramped trees created entire voids of darkness, and on the far right of what he knew to be a large oak, a pair of glowing silver eyes winked to life.
He blinked, and the eyes were gone. Vanished.
He didn’t have time to wonder whether he’d imagined it. Any deviation from his story would result in a loss of credibility, and he wouldn’t give them a reason to doubt.
The rifle resting against Hal’s chest was a powerful, well-oiled piece of machinery. All it would take is one round, and Peter would bleed out long before he healed.
“What were you gonna say, boy?
“You”—Peter swallowed hard—“need to leave.”
Hal lifted his chin. “What about the howl?”
What howl? Peter did the first thing that came to mind—he howled.
His lungs expanded, the sound proud, deep. Nearly a perfect imitation of a feral werewolf.
It was so real that a few of the men standing at Hal’s rear shuffled back, their heads swiveling around, their guns raised in case the source of the sound was coming from somewhere else.
When Peter’s chest started burning, he growled a finish.
“See?” he snapped. “No wolf.”
Every wolf’s howl was unique.
It was like a fingerprint, each ridge and tonal change a piece of the creature expelling it. Unusual traits, distinct differences, and matchless experiences blended into a single note that carried on for miles. That howl, it sounded like music. It was deep, mature. A little rough and ragged from disuse. And there was sadness and longing moving beneath the rifts like a phantom.
Maybe the animal was wounded. Maybe it was dying.
Having long ago abandoned the form of a man, Luca skidded to a stop, paws scratching raw lines into the soil. Dust wafted around his legs, and his tail went ramrod straight. He lifted his pointed black ears, trying to confirm that his howl was coming out of another creature’s mouth. Is that…me?
“Luca?” Hermes dug around his ears. “Luca, are you yelling? Why are you yelling at this ungodly hour?” The flea skittered between to the tip of his nose, and balanced itself on its hairy bottom legs. “What is that? It’s loud, and it sounds like you. I don’t know of a mundane creature who can do that.”
Whoever or whatever they were, they were doing a perfect imitation.
“That’s not possible. I haven’t heard you howl since before the escape.”
Forget that it shouldn’t be physically possible—Hermes was right. Luca almost never howled, as he found the expression unnecessary and counterintuitive to hiding. Even if there was a creature that could mimic him, it shouldn’t have any material to work from.
“What kind of lunatic goes around stealing howls?”
It didn’t matter who’d stolen it or why.
Luca’s shoulders rolled as he prowled in the direction of the sound’s origin. It was a part of the forest that he didn’t frequent, and venturing so close to the city wasn’t smart, but he had to know what was howling. He had to know what it was. He needed to shut it up. For good.
The flea rubbed its grubby claws together. “Let’s get him.”
One would think a demon, even a diminutive one, would have better things to do than hang off Luca’s fur, but Hermes seemed to have all the time in the world, and a strange and inexplicable interest in Luca’s plight.
Of course, there was little doubt in Luca’s mind that the demon had some other hidden agenda. In a world of misery, everyone had an agenda, and the only way to rid yourself of a tick was to burn it out. And if it came to that, Luca would have no problem lighting the flame.
Damp earth pillowed Luca’s paws as he trotted through the tightly woven trees. Elms and burly spruces seemed to bend away from him, harbingers of spring closing their petals. Two mockingbirds perched in opposite trees twittered back and forth in an exotic war song.
They silenced as Luca stalked by.
“What do you think it is? All I smell is you. And I say this as your friend: you need a bath.” Hermes crawled the bridge between his eyes. “When was the last time you were brushed? I can barely see my way through this murky black jungle.”
Luca broke into a run.
Hermes cursed, hanging on by a few strands. “Zeus’ cock! Slow down!”
The farther east they went, the more the forest changed. Mossy banks replaced by tulips rolling over every hill, slope, and fallen sycamore. On his right side, a collection of folly-pink bushes with candy-striped butterflies feeding from its glass flowers. On his left, psychedelic blue and green mushrooms with neon-pink polka dots swaying at the bottom of yews with fireballs for leaves.
New Gotham’s forest meant peering into a kaleidoscope of worlds woven together in an arboreal mandala. There was no way for him to know the origins of this part, but given the singing bellflowers and the dancing will-o’-the-wisps, it wasn’t a hard guess.
Here I am, dropped in the middle of the nursery rhyme from hell.
Luca slowed to a trot, and the forest shriveled around him—crickets and beetles hushed, vines crawling up into the trees, and even roots flattened themselves like a carpet. He followed his nose, trailing after the faint markers of a hunting team until he was drawn to the edge of the strange woodlands.
He slipped his snout through a small break in the bushes.
Is that a shoe? He blinked. Okay…what?
The shoe was still there, with a black leather exterior, gray creases marring the scrawny, vine motifs. The roof fashioned from fresh brush, the boot’s tongue held up by a thick rope, the ends tied to the necks of the trees standing on either side.
The back of the structure pretty much amounted to a heel with a balcony, and a wooden deck extending into the yard. A portion of the forest around it boxed in by an old post fence expending an odd, warding energy. To even look at it made his teeth ache, and he snorted his displeasure.
What the hell kind of monster lives here?
“What an ugly little farm.” Hermes rooted around the top of his head. “You don’t suppose our impostor lives there, do you?”
An entire company of men had advanced from the east, and Luca took special pleasure in the knowledge that what they wanted was standing right behind them.
Heat-retardant boots, composite bows braced across their backs, and top-of-the-line automatic rifles. Master had apparently gone all out and equipped them with best money could buy. Maybe that was an indication that his master still wanted him alive.
He’d venture to say he was at least getting a little irritated by now.
Smell was a sensory map for any werewolf, small chemical particles creating points of interest. Given he was less than two miles from the mercenaries, he should’ve picked up on Hal’s scent. He must be masking it. Maybe under the stench of human sweat and the onions they’d eaten on their hotdogs a few hours ago, lingered a few remnants of Hal’s unique blend of spicy aftershave, stale cigarettes, and unmitigated cruelty.
An image of a collar cut across Luca’s mind like lightning, somehow irrevocably tied to that specific combination of scents, and he jerked back, legs sinking in instinctive preparation for a pounce. He’d never wear a collar again, and he’d never go back to kneeling before the man with the club.
Hermes rubbed his chin. “Who do you suppose those children are? Where are their parents? Do you think this is some kind of school?”
Luca took a quick survey of the tall, dark-skinned young men in the middle of the yard. A throne fashioned from beanstalk elevated the only female six feet above the others. The others being a blue-skinned fey, and an odd, lanky redhead holding a stick.
Children? Yeah, right. Maybe teenagers and young monsters in varying degrees of maturity.
A werewolf like Luca was a young adult among his species. A thousand-year-old demon like Hermes practically an infant. It was possible that many of the teenagers there weren’t children anymore, and hadn’t been in a long time. More importantly, none of them seemed capable of howling like a werewolf.
As always, Hal was lead huntsman, and he said something to someone who smelled like his right-hand man, Ernie, and gave his attention back to some short guy.
The short guy answered and the cluster of mercenaries broke out in a snippet of collective laughter before they reverted to silence.
Like any other werewolf, Luca heard anything within six to ten miles in the open. In a forest, it was more like three miles. He wasn’t interested in conversation.
“Who are they talking to?” Hermes jumped. “I can’t see, Luca. Who are they talking to?”
Luca settled on his bottom and leaned, inadvertently poking his ears through a branch. Obnoxious yellow blooms crested over his forehead like a crown, and he snorted. The branch extended a little higher, like it was trying to make sure it kept itself far, far away from him.
Apparently, Hermes hitched a ride with one of the bleeding hearts, and exclaimed from somewhere above Luca’s head, “Ugh, he’s hairless and ugly.”
A matter of opinion. To Luca, the shifter speaking for the rest of his peers wasn’t hairless or ugly. He was short, but something about the way his worn clothes hung off his frame suggested a solid runner’s build. Like whatever he lacked in strength, he made up for in speed.
Tufts of sandy blond hair escaped from the hood of his wolf vest, covered his right eye, playful currents flirting with the hem of his shirt, flashing the entire world a glimpse of the V forming his pelvis. He patted the material like he wasn’t interested in putting on a show, and lifted his dark brown eyebrows.
Hal must’ve asked him another question, because he pointed to the left, flashing an attractive line of sharp teeth in a short-lived and mirthless smile.
“Luca, I’m surprised at you.” Hermes’ squeaky little voice vibrated with amusement. “For him being such a damn ugly creature, you’re looking awfully hard. Checking for fangs?”
Luca expelled a tunnel of smoke through his nose and did his best to ignore the demon swan-diving into the hair on top of his head. To start with, Luca didn’t care whether the blond came with fangs or not. Vampires were like mosquitos. Bloodsucking pests, easily killed once caught.
Secondly, the blond wasn’t a vampire. Based on the way he smelled, Luca would guess that he was a shifter. Something related to the canine family, but not a wolf and nowhere near a dog.
Both sides, the monster children behind the shifter and the hunters behind Hal, stilled into perfect statues as the two alphas exchanged words.
“Do you think he’s onto something?”
Howl. The mercenaries shuffled, but they weren’t surprised, like it was a requested demonstration. Luca narrowed his eyes on the shifter.
“That fox stole your howl. What a clever little fiend.”
Luca siphoned the impostor’s scent from the collection of smells foaming around him. Wood and old paper, something citrusy, and the coppery smell of fox fur.
Images stirred at the bottom of Luca’s mind, and he blocked out the torrent. He doubted any of the memories trying to burrow their way to the surface had anything to do with his most pressing current problem.
“Do you suppose Hal will do us the favor of killing him?”
Probably not. Murder would attract a lot of attention to a slaver trying to practice the art of social stealth. Luca, on the other hand, could kill whatever and whenever he wanted.
A fight erupted. The fox swung the broom stick and smacked the gun from Hal’s hands, the sound of a gunshot startling the entire woods.
The blond doubled over, saliva spewing from his lips. Probably a punch to the gut. Hal threw his arm around his neck, drawing him into a bone-crushing hug before he hefted him over his shoulder like a heavy bag of flour. Hal dropped on him, wailing punches on his face in rapid succession.
“He’s…not even trying to fight back.” Hermes seemed just as confused as Luca was, though that didn’t stop him from laughing, the sound buzzing and obnoxious. “My, that pathetic little creature should’ve been swallowed at birth.”
Hal caught the front of the kid’s bloodied shirt and hauled his upper body off the grass. He cocked his fist, ready to land the last punch, and the fox’s hand surfaced with the broomstick. Whack. He made a sloppy connection with the side of Hal’s head, and the old hunter doubled over.
“What!” Hermes practically catapulted himself onto Luca’s nose. “Did you see that?”
True, it was rare for anyone to get the drop on Hal, but the fight wasn’t over yet. Maybe Luca would get lucky, and they’d kill each other and solve both his problems.
Blood oozed from the old man’s temple, the scent carrying under Luca’s nose, sharpening his focus into a fine, hungry point. Hal pressed his palm to the wound and used his other hand to brace himself on the forest floor, like he was trying to find his balance in a world that wouldn’t quit spinning.
The fox kicked up his legs, using his hips and hands to push off the ground. He landed on his boots like something mean, wind whirling around him in an unnatural cyclone.
Luca’s hackles rose. What kind of shifter has magic?
The rush of wind knocked back the boy’s hood, revealing damp and disheveled blond hair, and a pair of fox ears sticking up from the disarray.
Hermes hmm-ed. “He’s an innocent.”
Every shifter was born with a second set of ears, and they were temporarily visible in human form. After the fox lost his virginity, things would be different. Per popular opinion, it was a complicated genetic mutation, something to keep mature shifters from unknowingly cornering a child during a wild mating ritual. Not that this shifter looked like he could be cornered into much of anything.
The fox flicked his tongue across his busted lip. “You hit like a girl.”
Hal groused something back and hauled himself to his feet, holding his head, another hand pressed across his stomach, like nausea and age were catching up to him. No sympathy. The fox brought the broom around and smacked him straight across the face. Hal’s entire head snapped to the left, and a tooth shot from his mouth. He collapsed.
“I can’t believe it.”
Neither do I. Luca tilted his head at the fox. Who are you?
For a long time, everything in the surrounding area with a pulse stilled. Quiet. The line of monsters didn’t react as though they’d been declared victors by proxy. Luca knew better.
The only reason Ernie hadn’t commanded the rest of the company to lay down blanket fire was because Hal had probably ordered him not to do anything that might attract the press.
Otherwise, it was protocol to shoot anything that moved when someone in the company went down. Especially when that someone was as vital to the mission as Hal was. Out of all of them, he was the only one who knew how to collar Luca.
“Well.” Hermes settled. “That takes care of one of our problems. What are we going to do about the boy?” Every mercenary lifted their gun in unison, like they’d just realized how close they were to a real monster. “Never mind. Looks like they’re taking care of that for us.”
The fox’s pale lashes fanned across his cheeks, his mouth leveling into a thin line as he used the broom to point to Hal’s crumbled body. “Take him and leave.”
Heat spread through Luca’s limbs, and the flea snickered. “Just like fire.”
Luca smacked his nose. Shut up.
More chittering. “The big, bad wolf has a crush.”
The demon’s chuckle carried into the trees around them, and they wilted, yellow buttercups showering the sky. Luca swatted a petal off his eye, as Hal’s second in command made an executive decision. The way he carried his weight and the general stoutness of his frame suggested that Ernie put on a few pounds since the last time Luca had seen him shooting the shit in the guard barracks.
“Let’s call a truce, boy.” The acrid scent of cheap tobacco fumed around his words. “Deal?”
The fox shouldered the broomstick and hocked a wad of spit near his boot.
Ernie crept over to Hal, like any minute the shifter might decide the truce was over and pounce.
The sound of a gunshot shattered the air, and the humans collectively jumped, all of them exchanging looks as if they were trying to see which one of them was guilty of firing the first shot. Luca studied the way the blond’s lips formed around the sounds, how effortless it was for him to reproduce the resonances of pistol fire. If he hadn’t known any better, he would’ve assumed there was a gunfight going on.
The fox’s mouth curved around the sound effects, like he found inspiring fear and unrest funny. The other monsters didn’t seem impressed. The knuckle dragger in the metal helmet made a sour face, like he was in the middle of reliving a bad memory.
Hermes patted Luca’s nose. “Say, how does he do that?”
I have no idea.
Ernie let his gun hang around his chest and hauled Hal over his shoulder, panting, like he was straining under the weight. He called for someone to pick up Hal’s helmet and gave the signal for the company to change direction. As if Luca needed any more evidence that they were looking for him, the master’s white heraldic crest was woven into their vests.
At the rate the company was hustling back into the trees, he didn’t have long before they picked up on the fact that the wolf they wanted was right under their noses. He was sure there was another company advancing from the north, and still another advancing from the south.
The flea tugged at one of his hairs. “How many?”
If his sense of smell was correct—and it always was—he was facing twenty men per company, and maybe a dozen dogs. Most of the time hunters went out in packs of two or four. The smaller the party, the better the chances for stealth and survival. This was too many. They weren’t hunting him. They were flushing him west, which meant they’d laid a trap. He prowled around, determined to go south.
It was his only chance at getting back to Avaline’s Trees.
Foreboding crested down his spine, seared the tip of his tail.
Hermes dove in his hair, peeking out between two follicles. “What is that?”
A blur of leathery, weather-beaten skin dropped from one of the branches, startling Luca into an arched spine, his tail tucking between his legs. His ears flattened, as he tried to make sense of the creature straightening before him.
It was as tall as a werewolf in canine form with a curved spine, most of its weight supported on its knuckles like a primate. No neck to speak of, its shoulders too broad for its short legs. No eyes. No ears. No genitals. Splotchy russet and terra cotta skin had overgrown its entire body, like it was constantly exposed to the harsh elements.
Its lips quivered, saliva gathering around the torn corners, drawing Luca’s attention to its teeth. Severely crooked, all of them of varying colors and shapes. They didn’t belong, like they’d been collected from a wide range of animals and hammered into its gums like makeshift dentures.
The creature tilted its head, tongue large and clumsy. “Erga una me wulf.”
I don’t have time for this. Luca lifted his ears and straightened on all fours, tail raised high.
The beast shattered the quiet with a bellow that was halfway between a screech and howl, and Luca’s insides twisted, contracted with a deep, most unfamiliar urge to show deference. Any other time, he might have discarded his instincts, challenged the creature’s show of dominance. Right now, with mercenaries approaching from every direction, he couldn’t afford pride. He ducked in submission.
It was not appeased.
Luca sank lower and laid back his ears as he sniffed, trying to understand why the creature carried no scent. All he could smell was the surrounding forest and the approaching humans. If he didn’t know any better, he’d swear the skin beast before him was a figment of his imagination.
Again, despite the show of submission, the creature was unmoved.
Luca blinked, and the creature was gone. Vanished.
“Where did it go? Is it gone for good?”
Luca lifted his ears and stood on all fours. He couldn’t hear anything but branches snapping beneath boots. He made it five or six yards before the heat rising in his veins slowed him into an uneven walk.
The spruces fanning out before him melted together as the world tilted on its axis. Tingles sparked down his spine, the skin under his fur itching with the unnerving sensation of beetles rooting around his flesh.
Hermes lunged and grappled his eyelash, swinging back and forth like a buzzing alarm clock. “Don’t give in, Luca. Not now. We can’t do this right now.”
Luca lowered his snout, as he tried to block out the ringing in his mind. His temperature spiked to a boil, tongue rolling out of his mouth as he panted.
Hermes dug his claws into his forehead. “Don’t give in.”
But he didn’t have a choice. A wolf shifter controlled its changes, but no werewolf had total control. And still, despite never having complete control over his transformations, this one felt wrong. Forced. Unnatural.
Red hazed over Luca’s vision, blood pounding in his ears. He wheezed as his entire body contracted with shudders, bones rolling under his back, ribcage expanding as muscles shredded. He nearly wet himself. Pressure shoved his snout back into his skull, and he lost a mewling whine from a mouth stuck between leather and skin. Several minutes later, Luca blinked and found human hands seated inside massive paw prints in the soil.
“Now you’ve done it, Luca.”
The world reeled as he tried to focus on the tiny demon, smells and sounds skewed as his mind adjusted to the confines of a man’s psyche. His muscles spasmed, arms and legs trembling as his nervous system fired signals to parts of his brain he wasn’t accustomed to using.
“I hate…” He didn’t recognize his ragged voice. “This.”
Human form was impractical. He couldn’t run as fast, he had to eat more, and the lack of fur meant being cold. Stomach acid and partially digested human flesh washed from his mouth, and he choked and coughed. His throat burning, nose wrinkling with annoyance.
“Shit.” He garbled around the sour taste. “I don’t feel like hunting again.”
“Not one of our more pressing problems, Luca.”
Branches cracked half a mile away, and he used the sound to figure out which way was up. The mercenaries approaching from the farm were a few steps from being right on his tail. He didn’t have the coordination to run yet, and he wouldn’t get that far on two legs, not with how close they were.
Luca sought a row of blackberry bushes growing to his left, and mustered up the will to crawl into it, branches thwacking shut behind him.
Mercenaries surfaced. Two scouts.
The first emerged from behind an aspen, the scent of bubblegum and soda on his lips. He was suited up like the others, his frame thinner and smaller than most of the other men.
“What are we gonna do now? Regroup at camp?”
“Shut up, Dallas.” The mercenary who surfaced from behind a leaning maple wore no undershirt beneath his vest, flashing dark skin and banded muscle in between the Kevlar and pads. He jabbed his rifle toward the trees. “You wanna die?”
“Relax, Mac.” The third was the tallest, and by far the lankiest of the trio, with a tuft of brown hair sticking out of the back of his helmet. “He’s just a kid.”
“That ain’t the point, Steve.” Mac checked his gun to make sure it wouldn’t jam. “If Dallas keeps blabbing on and on like that, he’ll give away our position.”
“Relax. Everything is gonna be—” Steve tripped over a root and caught himself on the maple. Syrup clung to his glove, and he made a sound of disgust. “Fucking trees. Why couldn’t this monster escape to somewhere nice, like Reno?”
These guys were all new hired hands; Ernie and Hal were the real monster hunters in the group. Forcing himself to swallow the ball of bile lodged in his throat, Luca rose into a crouch, knees bent and hands braced on the ground like a wild animal.
While the other men launched into the merits of running water and concrete, Dallas wandered from the party, checking around the elm. He used his gun to move some bushes to the side. “I don’t see anything, but…maybe we should meet up with the boys coming from the south. Seems safer.”
Luca darted from the opposite bush, caught his neck, and twisted. Crack.
Luca lunged up into a tree, crouched, and balanced on one of the stronger limbs. Beneath him, the body dropped, slumped against the elm’s trunk in a near fetal position. The scent of blood warmed Luca’s veins, and his lips pulled over his extending canines.
“Did you see how that kid beat Hal’s ass?” Steve smacked a bug on his helmet. “I didn’t know the little bastard had it in him.”
“Hey.” Mac cocked his ear. “Where’s Dallas?”
They panned their heads from left to right. Mac let his gun hang by the shoulder strap, and drew a bow. He pulled an arrow from the holster on his back, and the glowing blue arrowhead whined awake. Steve followed suit, and the men split up, covering ground in opposite directions. Luca’s attention narrowed into a fine, hungry point, the smell of human blood teasing his taste buds.
The second Steve stepped beneath the overhanging branch, Luca dropped and threw him to the ground. He shrieked as they rolled, branches cracking beneath them. Luca released him mid-tumble, and he rolled onto his stomach and thrashed to secure his weapons.
Luca snapped his hand around the back of the mercenary’s vest, jerked his torso off the ground, and slammed him face first into a root. The face shield cracked, his arms and legs going limp.
“That’s enough, Luca,” Hermes snapped. He sounded so far away. Luca blinked. He was still slamming the man’s head into the ground. Over and over again. The face shield shattered altogether, black glass catching the moonlight as the scent of human excrement filled the air. “Look out!”
Footsteps vibrated beneath Luca’s bare feet, a split second before two hundred and fifty pounds of flesh and muscle rammed into his back. He didn’t flinch, crouched, and balanced on the tip of his toes. The impact knocked the wind from the man, and he tightened his sloppy grip.
Luca bucked the hold with little effort. “You should’ve shot me.”
He reached over his shoulder for the mercenary’s vest, and pulled, yanking him off his feet, throwing a grown man like a sack of marbles. Airborne, the man wailed and flailed his arms—his frantic yells cut off by impact. He hit the ground a few yards away and rolled. Luca was already running, racing across the mossy forest floor on all fours.
He pounced, crushing ribs beneath his feet. He grabbed the helmet, and slammed his head back on the ground. Once, twice, three times. He didn’t stop until the scent of urine laced the air, and blood pooled into the soil. A piece of brain floated in the puddle, and his mouth watered with saliva…and hunger.
“L-L-Luca.” Hermes tugged at his eyebrows. “Luca. We can eat later.”
Gunshot. A shower of silver pellets ripped into Luca’s left shoulder. Numbness spread across his chest, and the tips of his fingers tingled as he zeroed in on the mercenary shooting from a point between two thick trees. The man had already dropped the smoking gun and drawn bow and arrow. He released the arrow, and Luca ducked the projectile and ran across the forest on all fours.
The mercenary back-pedaled and released another arrow. “Die!”
It struck Luca’s right shoulder, and he gnashed his teeth and picked up speed. Fumbling for another arrow, the man stumbled over a root, and Luca lunged into the air and brought his elbow down on the top of the man’s skull. Contact. His neck cracked from the force, every single vertebra from head to hip displaced. A ragged breath fogged the inside of the helmet.
He dropped back on the forest floor. Dead.
Luca rose in the moonlight, blood dripping from his fingertips. “I…” His eyes widened as he took stock of the gore surrounding him. “I killed them all.”
Hermes patted his forehead. “Don’t worry about them. We have to run.”
The sound of approaching boots grew farther and farther away, like the rest of the company had realized that they were walking into a death trap. Protocol demanded they leave their team members to their own devices and split up in every direction.
Sweat beaded on Luca’s temple, every fiber in his neck and shoulders wailed for release, and he fisted the arrow sticking out his arm and ripped it free from his flesh in one gruesome pull. His eyes watered as he dragged fresh air into his lungs. Normally, the wound would’ve knitted together instantaneously. Right now, it bled, more and more blue-black blood crusting his elbow and forearm, coating his fingertips. He sniffed the arrow, and his mouth leveled into a tight grimace.
A mixture of mercury, wolfsbane, and ash mined from the Carpathian Mountains. He’d been shot with an erupting arrowhead, and judging from the smell of the concoction, he’d been poisoned. It wasn’t enough to kill him—that didn’t sound like his practical master. More than likely, the poison would slow him. The more he exerted himself, the worse it would get. Running would lead to quick incapacitation.
“That clever son of a bitch.”
“Hurry, slow the bleeding.”
Luca ripped a bunch of leaves off the nearest bush and stuffed them into the shredded flesh with a shaking hand. The gunshot wound numbed his entire torso, but it was only a matter of time. He stuffed leaves into that wound too, and trekked south. He couldn’t run, so he was forced to walk. Heat roared through his body, moisture beading across his upper lip as he fought to put one foot in front of the other.
The entire way Hermes egged him on, promising him the world, and he almost forgot that the flea was a demon with an agenda.
“We’re gonna make it. Just keep walking, Luca. We’ll make it back.”
Silly demon. At the rate Luca was bleeding, he couldn’t cling to consciousness for another mile. And honestly, that was fine. His luck was bound to run out someday.
If the end was near, so be it.
This was the beginning.
Peter wasn’t sure how he knew that, but as the hunters fled into the forest, the roiling in his gut promised that he’d see them again. Soon.
Winds from the west whipped through his hair, sweat matting his bangs over his eyes. Annoyed, he squinted past the strands to make sure the men were leaving, and when the branches thwacked shut behind the last hunter, he deflated on a sigh of relief that nearly collapsed him.
The entire right side of his face had gone numb, the corresponding eye swollen shut. He used the back of his sleeve to wipe the lingering tracks of snot from his upper lip, smeared off what was left of the blood gathering at the corner of his mouth, and fought the urge to palm his ribcage.
There was no room for weakness. Not in front of the kids.
Frost was already gone, had vanished the second the conflict was over. Jolly grabbed the bale of hay he’d dropped by the bushes and disappeared back into the brush. Jackie waited for his sister near the beanstalk coiling its way back into the earth. They made eye contact, and Jackie’s brow drew into a frown.
“The fuck is you looking at, kit?”
Peter flipped him off. “Do a head count, and make sure no one was taken.”
“I’ll do it.” Jill straightened out of her throne, the last of the beanstalk’s tentacles disappearing into the earth. “You”—she poked her brother’s belly—“go turn off the sprinklers. There’s no sense in flooding the fields.”
“Goddamn it, quit bossin’ me around, Jill.”
Peter tried to block out the ringing in his mind. When he opened his eyes, the yard was clear except for the hole in the earth where the beanstalk had once been. Jackie picked up the water pails, Jill holding open the bushes for him, and they disappeared into the greenery.
Peter’s knees shook, legs threatening to give out from under him.
Something short and heavy snapped around his legs like a rubber band, and he winced.
“I thought you were dead.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
He dropped the broomstick, slid his hands under Pippa’s arms, and hoisted her onto his hip. She latched on to his shoulder, her flat blackberry eyes wide and glassy. She was the only Indian he knew with freckles, plum dots showering the top of her nutmeg nose like specks of chocolate. She cradled his chin, her soft, chubby fingers stroking his swollen cheek. “Does it hurt?”
He bounced her on his hip. “Is there a reason you’re naked?”
Naked was a near exaggeration. She was still wearing her underwear and a pair of high wool socks, but the sweater and pants had disappeared. She poked her belly, like she was momentarily awed by the discovery of her bellybutton. Her skin flared orange, black stripes coloring the tops of her shoulders. “I…” She frowned like she wasn’t sure herself. “I think…I was going to come save you.”
He plucked at her nose. “And who was gonna come save you?”
Her expression soured. “I don’t need anyone but Papa and you, Peter.”
An uncomfortable brick of dread dropped into the pit of Peter’s stomach, as he was reminded that, for the last two years, Pippa Longstocking refused to accept that her father abandoned her for good. She insisted that he was lost at sea and would find his way back to her.
And no one had mentioned that Peter would be leaving soon, that he only had the rest of the school year before he was officially too old to live at the Shoe.
What was he supposed to say to her?
They were orphans. They weren’t allowed to like or dislike one another; attachment wasn’t a good idea when there was no way to control tomorrow. At most, they tolerated one another.
Easy come, easy go. Classic survival tactic.
Unable to bear the intensity of her scrutiny, Peter set her down and pointed at the Shoe. “Go back inside. The big kids are doing a head count. You can come see me after it’s over.” When she stopped, he gave her little bottom an encouraging spank. “Now.”
A thick droplet of sweat slid down his nose, salt stinging the cuts slowly knitting together. He kicked up the stick with the tip of his boot, and struck the ground with it like a post, half surprised that he made it all the way to the well in front of the green house.
One pail of was normally weightless. Right now, it was twenty pounds of liquid lead and his arms were nothing but jelly. He caught the edge of the pail, water sloshing over the sides, wetting his shirt sleeve as he pulled it closer.
Jesus, he didn’t recognize himself.
It’d been a long time since he’d gotten this messed up.
An image of the boy he’d been faded into his mind, superimposing itself over his reflection. His fox ears seemed bigger back then. And he’d always been much smaller than everyone else. He’d always been mouthy, too. It wasn’t a winning combination on the playground.
The sound of grass crunching under flip-flops tickled his ears.
The general sharp lines of Hopper’s diamond-shaped face sunk his cheeks, harsh features tied together by a wide, sincere mouth and big brown eyes with no eyelashes. He brushed hay off his sagging jeans, blades of grass and mud staining the elbows of his ragged T-shirt. “Hey, are you okay?”
“I’m the picture of perfect health.”
“You don’t look so hot, Pete.”
“I told you not to call me Pete.”
Warning teased his spine, his senses tingling. Someone is standing behind me.
Hopper was staring at his ass.
Peter’s first instinct was to clock him. He dried his hands on the hem of his shirt. “Not that I don’t treasure every second we spend together. Kinda busy here.”
“You don’t have to be such a prick.”
Peter threw out the remaining water. “You obviously don’t know me very well.”
“That’s not for lack of trying, Pete.”
He hung the pail on the hook. “Stop calling me Pete.”
“Why don’t the Giants like you?”
Hopper had been on the farm for about a month. It made sense that he wouldn’t understand why the Giants hated Peter. His curiosity was natural. Still, of all the times for him to want this conversation…
“Seriously, you want to talk about this right now?”
Hopper shoved his hands into his pockets. “Considering you got the shit kicked out of you and I’m the only one that seems to care, yeah, I’d like to know why.”
“Frost doesn’t care. I don’t see you asking about him.”
“The fey don’t care about anyone but themselves.”
“The Giants had another brother, Nathan. I used to play pranks on everyone when we were kids, kind of how I do now, except that this one ended bad. I cried wolf, and no one believed me because…I’m, well, me. There was a real wolf. Nate and I ran. I made it; he didn’t.” Peter fingered a small patch of dried blood on the vest. “It’s been almost ten years. I’m not sure they’ll ever get over it.”
Death was common in New Gotham, but this was somehow different. Somehow worse. And most everyone who heard the story agreed Peter had earned any bad thing that happened to him from that moment forward. They seemed to understand why his mother would abandon him at an orphanage. They expected that accidently causing the death of someone else made him a villain, and he should live and die as a villain. Branded for life as the unwanted. The trickster and the fool.
Hopper peered to his sandaled feet. “It’s not like you meant for it to happen.”
“Yeah? Go tell them that. I’m sure it’ll bring their dead brother back to life.”
Honk! Honk! Honk!
From the sound of the horn, Granny was a mile out. She always signaled when she had groceries so the brats could line up for unloading. The back door opened again, and a horde of kids stormed out of the Shoe, all of them dispersing in different directions, like marbles scattering across the grass. Hopper stayed behind as Peter made a beeline for the front yard. As First, Granny would expect him to greet her, and give her a full report of the day’s events. He already had a nice, tidy lie picked out. The truth might send her into rage-induced cardiac arrest. The lie was safer. For everyone.
Bushes scratched his skin, aggravating his wounds, and he cursed and stumbled through to the other side. The roar of an old engine buzzed Peter’s ears as he jogged the rest of the way to the dirt path winding from the Shoe’s front porch.
Granny’s beat-up old red Chevy rolled into park next to the mailbox. The door swung open and a dusty black ankle boot kicked up dirt—suitable shoes for a woman who spent as much time trekking around the barn as she did on her knees in the garden. She slammed the door shut in a huff, her weathered straw hat bobbing above the car’s roof.
“This entire town has gone to hell. Music has the power to change us, my ass. I hear a song that reminds me of the person I love and I wanna shout, ‘I’ll have another whiskey!’”
Granny had a rapid-fire cadence, like she was always on the brink of talking herself into cardiac arrest.
“You’re not gonna believe the day I’ve had, Peter. First, it stormed last night and knocked out the generator. Had to move the milk at the crack ass of midnight. I get woke up two hours later because a pack of wolves decides it wants a go at my chicken pen. I don’t finish dealing with that, and Sally comes downstairs hollering about a stomach ache. Billy and Hammon won’t quit fighting, and go back to bed. I settle all that and drag myself out to pasture this morning.”
She busied herself with grabbing grocery ads out of the mailbox, and ranted on about her tire blowing on her way to the market. “I get there, and Hilly is running a booth of poison apple pies. We get to talking about baking and such, and she tells me that a flour crust is better than a graham cracker crust…”
The door to the Shoe creaked open. Peter waved more kids out. Werewolf pups, fey seedlings, and little witchlings scurrying across the yard to the barn and playground equipment. Anything to hurry and make it look like nothing happened.
When Granny cleared her throat, he answered, “How could she doubt your baking expertise?”
“I don’t know, but it makes me wanna shoot her.”
Granny wanted to shoot everyone. “Shooting her won’t change her unbeatable prices.”
“No, but it might make me feel bett— What the hell is going on here?”
She was a potbellied old woman, and it was clear that she’d never been a great beauty. Her sunken dark green eyes were spaced too close together, and it gave her the look of something mean. She holstered her spotted hands on her boxy hips, shotgun hidden somewhere in the folds of her dusty and weathered brown trench.
“What happened to your face, kit?”
The last group of children emerged from the house, Jill holding on to a werewolf pup’s shoulder, letting him lead her down the stairs like she needed help doing stuff like that.
Granny sought Rover through the tall cattails rimming the oval pond. The fingertips creasing the folds of her humble denim dress whitened. The werewolf’s dark eyebrows lifted, and he sought the ducklings for guidance. They shrugged, and he snorted and elbowed them both back into the water.
“I’m not going to ask you again, Peter.”
“Okay, so I wasn’t going to tell you…” He almost lost his nerve at the sight of her scowl, but a sheepish smile spread across his lips. “It was an alien invasion. Their betrayal was inevitable. Frost didn’t make it. He wanted me to tell you that you should bake me a pie.”
“No, I didn’t.” Frost appeared out of thin air, his expression grim, like the theft of promised pies would not be taken lightly. “I will nail your balls to a chair.”
“Not before you tell me what’s going on.” Granny turned her stern regard on the fey. “Well?”
He shrugged and unloaded a bag of groceries. “Don’t look at me. I’m not First.”
“Someone better start talking. What happened?”
“Nothing,” the children answered in unison.
Peter gestured to the children. “The Shoe has spoken.”
“I feel outnumbered.” Granny threw up her hands, and took a knee on the seat, digging for something under the driver’s side. “We’re going to talk about this later, and make no mistake, you will tell me the truth. But for now, I have a task for you, kit.”
“Something tells me it involves manual labor.”
“Peter.” Pippa tugged on his pant leg. She’d replaced her sweater and pants. Her hair loose and hanging over her face, hiding everything but her freckled nose. “I smell the sheriff.”
The whirl of an engine came into earshot. “Granny. Pendragon’s here.”
“Tell them we’ve already found Jesus.” She backed out of the truck and pushed the straw hat out of her eyes. “For Christians being so damn charitable, it’s like I can’t get a moment’s peace—”
He grabbed her shoulder. “Him.”
Thousands of wrinkles pinched her face. “The law shouldn’t be here.”
The sheriff came to the Shoe for one of three reasons: a) someone living at the Shoe was being a public menace, b) someone new was coming to live at the Shoe, c) someone was being taken away to live somewhere else.
Granny shoved a satchel at Peter and elbowed him out of the way. The wind caught the bottom of her denim frock and the ribbons tied under her chin, shaking the bouncy white curls licking at her neck. Boots planted shoulder width apart, she pulled a shotgun from the holster in her coat and checked the double chamber.
“Go on back in the house. I want them beads strung and tied on the fence.”
The sedan’s massive silver grille reflected the dying sunlight like iron bars. Peter’s grip closed tighter around the satchel, as the car door swung open.
A black, department-issued boot hit the road, and dirt wafted as Sheriff Pendragon straightened clad in one of the police force’s new black uniforms, his sturdy cargo pants banded with every manner of stake, grenade, and what smelled like C4. A white floor-length trench washed to his ankles, and random strobes of light caught the star pinned to the wing of his collar.
He pulled back the white trench, flashing a solid gold gun. “I never come here looking for a fight.”
“Then why is it that I always end up shooting you, Arty?” The sheriff’s mouth thinned at the use of the pet name, and Granny lifted the gun. “I gave you that name, Arthur Pendragon. When you didn’t have a friend in the world, I took you in, fed you, clothed you. I’ll use your name however I see fit, or you can kiss my pasty white ass and go back to orphan.”
At the word “ass,” the kids blurted out hissing snickers. She quelled them into silence with an eyebrow, and motioned for Lilly to stop fighting with Steve.
On the opposite side of the yard, Pendragon made eye contact with a beast witch standing next to a frog. She sighed and zapped the frog back into a werewolf.
It was strange to watch Granny and the sheriff wear the same menacing scowl, their eyebrows quirked in the same way, though no one pursed their lips like Granny.
It was an unusual reminder that Pendragon had known Granny for a long time, that he’d lived here back when the kids still called her Momma Mae. Had she changed a lot since then? Were her teeth always yellow? What about the color of her eyes? Had it changed? Had she always been alone?
Bang. Bang. She fired two warning shots, smoke curling from the barrels.
“You best tell me what brings the uninvited on my property.”
“I prefer to be called ‘Sheriff Pendragon.’”
“And people in hell want ice water.”
“Goddamn it, Mom.” He threw up his hands in supplication. “I just came here to talk. I need to ask Peter a few questions about the case I’m working on.”
Peter’s fox ears perked at the use of his name, but he didn’t dare say anything. Even the children had sensed the rapid change in Granny’s mood.
She’d gone from unwelcoming to hostile.
Having long been aware there was a visitor, most of the children continued playing without the slightest hitch. They didn’t seem to notice when Granny started shooting. Now that she reddened in the face, they edged farther and farther away from her path.
“Don’t make me ask you again, Arty.”
Pendragon took a solid step, like he knew that she wouldn’t kill him. Shoot him? Sure. But she’d never have it in her to kill one of her kids. Even if he was a self-important prick.
“What are the nature of your questions, Arty?”
A muscle ticked in the sheriff’s lightly stubbled jaw. “Fine. I’ll tell you about the case I’m working on, but only if you’ll let me interview Peter. And we shouldn’t talk about this out here.”
She huffed and waved Peter along. “Go on and see to the beads like I told you to. I’ll come get you should I think the sheriff’s questions have any merit.”
Shoving the satchel of beads into his pocket, Peter cast one last look at the sheriff, startled when he found Pendragon staring back at him. Unease roiled his stomach in a tight knot, and he tried to think of anything he could’ve done that would merit this visit.
As far as springs went, this had been a slow one. He hadn’t busted any mailboxes in ages, didn’t have money for spray paint, and had pretty much given up on large-scale pranks since the last one almost landed him in the morgue.
Granny cleared her throat, and Pendragon pulled his attention back to the gun at hand. The second Peter was out of immediate earshot, the adults resumed their conversation. Gunshots and all. His ribcage throbbed with every step he took toward the elm in the middle of the yard. Ignoring the way his nerves screamed in agony, he dropped the broom and took a running leap, climbed all the way to the top.
Leaves unfolded around him, he walked the sturdiest branch and plopped, his legs and boots dangling in the air. He wiped away the fluid leaking from his swollen eye.
Now that he was thinking about it, he couldn’t believe that he’d gotten into a fistfight with that old man. Everything happened so fast. One minute, he was giving the guy directions to the nearest lake. The next minute, he and the huntsman were rolling around in the grass like a pair of animals.
A wheezing, skinny voice interrupted the relative quiet. “Unhand me, soulless carrion!”
Peter pushed a branch to the side and peered between his legs to find the scarecrow bracing a gloved hand against the elm. It was a typical fertility creature created from a terminally ill child donated to the farm for ritualistic slaughter.
From what Granny had told him, the child’s blood was poured into a trench with three bales of hay, a pair of faded blue jeans long enough for a leggy teenager, a blue—always blue, never, ever red—flannel shirt, two black buttons for eyes, and enough yarn for a mask, gloves, and boots. The scarecrow never aged, and it didn’t seem to remember life before it had become what it was.
Given that this scarecrow had been around since before Pendragon put up the fence around the Shoe, Peter assumed that it was as much a part of the Shoe as the ropes holding it up. A murder of crows settled on the strawman’s narrow shoulders, and he slouched and gasped, the birds unbearably heavy. He swung a rod-thin arm, and spooked most of the crows into flight.
One remained. The crow on his left shoulder always remained. It was one of the larger birds Peter had ever seen, with glossy black plumage and large brown eyes.
“Go on, scram!”
The crow pecked his nose.
“Ouch.” He covered his button and honked. “That’s not nice.”
“Granny has birdseed. That might keep them busy for a while.”
The scarecrow’s thick yarn eyebrows lifted at the stitches. “What’s that, kit?”
Peter undid the satchel’s drawstring, revealing a collection of silver pearls and a ball of waxed string. Energy sizzled his hand, and he rubbed his fingers together.
“Some kind of magic beads. I’m just supposed to put them together and hang them on the fence. Maybe it’s some kind of charm to help keep the feral werewolves out.”
“That sounds silly.” The scarecrow pressed his back to the bark and slid onto his bottom, long legs stretched out in the grass. Something close to a wistful expression crossed his face, and he pushed back his hat and gazed into the endless field of corn. “Hey, kit, where are you gonna go after you’re too old to live at the Shoe? Are you going to find your family?”
Peter’s immediate answer was no, but he wasn’t in the mood to explain himself, so he tailored his answer for his audience. “I don’t know.”
“Will you come visit us?”
“Sure. I’ll come visit you all the time.”
“Peter!” Pippa bolted across the porch. Jill had finally cornered her with a brush and bound her hair in pigtails, the piskie hanging on one of the braids for dear life.
“Pippa! Slow down!”
Pippa took a running leap over the scarecrow and clawed up the elm. In less than ten seconds, she plopped on the branch next to him, and kicked out her long legs and dirty bare feet.
She pulled two boiled eggs out of her pocket. “Jill made a snack. I stole one for you just in case.” She waved at the scarecrow. “Do you want an egg too?”
He patted his tummy with a happy sigh. “No thanks, kitten. I just had some hay.”
I hate eggs. He wiggled the satchel at her. “Maybe later. I have to finish this for Granny.”
She took a huge bite, eating the shell and everything. “Can I help?”
He set the satchel on her lap and worked the few beads onto the string. “Don’t drop any.”
“I won’t. Hey, Peter, what does ‘city lockdown’ mean? I heard the sheriff telling Granny that there’s going to be a city lockdown, and she made a face and said that it was inconvenient because it’s almost time for the harvest.”
So much for not talking in front of the kids. “Yeah, and what else did they say?”
“They said that there’s a feral monster in the forest and no one knows what it is or how to stop it from killing so many tourists. I guess it hangs them from trees or something. Billy thinks it’s a manticore.”
“Manticore?” the scarecrow scoffed. “Kitten, no one’s seen a wild manticore for ages. If you ask me, it’s probably not even a monster. There’s lots of crazy humans who come to New Gotham and—”
“No one asked you!” came the ringing interruption.
The piskie surfaced on top of Pippa’s head, looking a little worse for wear, though it was almost impossible to tell the difference between her regular general look of outrage and real stress. She tucked her disheveled yellow fuzz behind her ears and climbed the middle of Pippa’s face.
“Peter, as First, I’m sure you can agree that this is not an appropriate conversation for children.” She planted her feet on the girl’s upper lip and forced her mouth shut. “We shouldn’t be talking about this.”
Pippa shook her head, catapulting the wailing fey onto a branch. “Do you think the monster is coming to get us?” She inched closer to him. “Do you think it eats tigers?”
“A rot upon you, Pippa. I just made this skirt.” The fey sat on a leaf and dusted bark shavings off the torn daisy petals. “And for the last time, no, there’s no monster that specifically eats tiger cubs.”
“Except for this one.” Peter plucked a stray leaf from Pippa’s hair and crushed it. Her eyes widened into saucers, and he struggled to keep a straight face. “That’s this monster’s favorite. It has massive teeth, jagged and huge. Fit for rending a little Pippa in half with one chomp. It’ll swallow you whole.”
He swiped at her.
“No!” She ducked. “I don’t want to be eaten!”
“Does the monster eat scarecrows, kit?” the scarecrow wailed, fumbling around on the ground like he was trying to stand and run at the same time. “I don’t think I want to be eaten either.”
Peter laughed, and coughed, discomfort climbing from his ribcage to his chest. He dropped back and hung by the bend of his knees, arms stretched out as he extended the muscles and bones that were slowly healing. The world flipped, earth sitting on top of the sky, and his head swam.
“No one is going to eat you guys.”
“Precisely. Peter was kidding, though I wonder why he bothers. No one finds him funny.” The piskie grappled her sweater and climbed back to her head. “Granny will kill the monster before anything bad happens, and we’ll be safe. Oh, and I heard the sheriff say that city council is offering lots of money to whoever brings this monster to justice. I bet you I won’t see a penny of it. She’ll put it right back into the tired old Shoe, she will.”
“I don’t know; money for the farm sounds like a good idea to me.”
Pippa crossed her eyes, staring at the fey seated on the tip of her nose. Her tiny incisors sharper beneath the shade of the tree. “Granny says the next time she has some money, she’s gonna bring us a doctor. Maybe fix Jackie’s face and Ava’s legs. Plus, Randy has a real bad cavity. And Henrietta’s gotta have her medicine or something bad might happen.”
The piskie flashed a nervous smile. “Of course she should put it back into the Shoe.”
One of the beads slipped out of Peter’s hand, and rolled into a weed-riddled thicket of bushes. “Shit.”
“Uh-oh.” Pippa huddled and pointed. “You dropped one.”
“Don’t worry. I know where it went.” Peter glanced at the scarecrow, and the strawman shrugged. His mouth thinned, and he narrowed his eyes. Of course, being upside down made it difficult to make sense of anything. “Everything is fine—”
“Dis mine!” A short, goblin-like creature with rod-thin bones and large, floppy ears surfaced from a patch of grass near the fence. A lone dandelion grew from the center of the clay pot it wore on its head. Silver marble pinched between its sharp, blackened nails, buggy yellow eyes wide as it studied the relic in the dying sunlight. “What is dis?”
The rest of the gang exchanged looks of confusion.
Finally, Peter asked the piskie, “Do you know that thing?”
“Yes, Peter. Why, all the little monsters in New Gotham get together every year just to make sure we can point each other out to the average fool.”
His face must have communicated how close he was to crushing her in his palm, because she lifted her nose in the air and huffed.
“No, I don’t know him. He’s wearing one of Granny’s flowerpots on its head. I can’t imagine why. That’s so last season.”
The goblin went taut and gaped up at the tree.
“Ah!” It grabbed the pot and ducked. “Who dat?”
Peter pulled up into a seated position. “Listen, you need to give that back.”
The goblin ran for the forest, dandelion shaking in the wind. “Dis mine!”
The gang watched in silence as the little monster disappeared into the brush.
“I…” Peter frowned. “What the hell just happened?”
“You have to get the bead back, Peter! They could be our only hope against the monster!” The piskie landed on his face. “I’m too young to die.”
Peter caught the fey in a vise grip and tiny teeth sank into the skin between his thumb and index finger. He flung her away. “Ouch!”
The squealing fey smacked into Pippa’s face, and she swatted and fell back, tumbling out of the tree. The satchel opened midair, and beads showered the sky in a voltage of silver.
“I got her! I got her!” The scarecrow leapt to his feet and opened his arms. “I got her!” The crow on his shoulder took flight seconds before the cub pancaked him on the grass.
“I”—he wheezed—“got her.”
Beads thudded on the ground and rolled in every possible direction.
“I think I dropped something, guys.”
The piskie deflated over Pippa’s nose like a rag. “We’re doomed.”
Stuffing the strung beads in his pocket, Peter dropped out of the tree in a backflip, and grimaced as he landed in a squat, the shock riding up from his calves. “Are you guys okay?”
They all grunted an affirmation.
“You guys collect these ones. I have to find the last bead.”
By the time he’d realized how far he’d wandered, the lime trees curtaining his path were bathed white in the rising moon, blankets of mist rolling over the leaf-laden forest floor.
The sun disappeared, and the Underwood was plunged into darkness.