“Be quiet, I’m reading.”
Pippa crawled under his bed. “What are you reading?”
Peter folded his arm beneath his head. “Go outside and play.”
“Frost says the X-Men are the queerest superheroes ever.”
Frost, the second eldest kid living in the old woman’s Shoe. Pompous dickhead.
“Frost can use that smart mouth to kiss my candy ass.”
Water droplets struck Peter’s shoulder. “Jesus, what now?”
Whoever built Granny’s strange house fashioned the roof from fresh thrush that needed replacing 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 water droplet speared his eye like a hail pellet, and he slapped his face.
“I hate this place.”
Pippa whispered, “I found something.”
Why did she sound so far away? Wasn’t she right under his bed?
White blooms floated near his head; he brought a petal under his nose.
Fragrant and pure, potent and clean. Gardenia.
More flowers whooshed from under the bed, and he dropped the comic on his chest and leaned to get a better view of the floor.
“Look what I found!” Pippa exclaimed.
She bowled a bundle of gray and white animal skin from under the cot.
Peter tucked the comic book under his pillow. “What is that?”
“Skin.” She sounded too far away. “I think it belongs to you.”
He grabbed the bundle of synthetic gray and black fibers, and lint and petals peppered his belly, as he shook out the garment. Ah, a vest. His vest.
If memory served him correctly, he swiped this polyester piece of shit from a consignment store. It’d been through hell, and it went through worse after him.
Someone designed the hoodies hood as a wolf’s head. The wolf’s face looked wrecked, its right eye shattered from the time someone stuffed him into his locker, and the wolf’s left ear remained singed from the time he’d accidently set the barn on fire.
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. Peter sifted through the scents surrounding him: wool, dust, and the weird sour and saccharine scent of small children. No Pippa. She’d vanished.
Not possible. “Pippa, I’m not messing around. Where are you?”
No answer. Peter’s nerves crackled and he lifted his legs as she rolled out from under the bed. More white petals showered the air, the bulk of the blooms clung to her oversized, dark gray sweater.
Granny identified Pippa as a young weretiger of some sort.
When she lay on her back, she looked like a fat kitten with an Indian’s deeply bronzed nutmeg skin. She swatted at her frizzy black hair and revealed her notoriously flat eyes; her pupils reminded him of glossy blackberries rimmed with blue and purple.
She wiggled a ball of feathers. “Isn’t it pretty?”
Though smaller, the bird looked like a parrot with a black beak and a broken rainbow for plumage.
“Where did you get that? Where are the flowers coming from?”
Pippa shifted her attention to the leaky ceiling.
“The place I went has a pink sky—there are fields of peppermint candies. Oh, there were moving trees, and lots of birds like these ones. They sing. Well, when they’re alive, they sing. I killed this one. Isn’t it pretty?”
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, evidence suggested the Shoe’s walls contained enough residual magic to trigger the occasional random wormhole into another realm.
Apparently, Pippa’s most recent traveling experience included 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. I followed the singing 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.”
“Your call, kid.”
Peter threaded his arms through the vest. “Where did you find this?”
She lifted her thick black eyebrows, like he was an idiot for asking.
“Under your bed. Here, help me up.”
Peter grabbed her pudgy hand and found it warm and calloused. He dropped her onto the bed, and she giggled and tumbled back until she rolled into a seated position.
When she was like this—when she acted her age—his chest ached.
Pippa bounced on her knees. “Again, again.”
“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.”
He inhaled a mixture of 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.” She curled her upper lip. “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 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.”
The piskie interrupted in a high-pitched ring. “We have intruders.”
Peter deflated his lungs with a sigh. “Great, I’m never gonna finish this book.”
The piskie pushed open the nursery’s door stomped across the threshold.
“That isn’t your most pressing problem, kit.”
As First, Peter remained the teenager in charge of the children, the ultimate babysitter. The piskie remained the Shoe’s eyes, its security system, and the person who stood directly above him on the chain-of-command.
For a fey, she looked odd in that she’d been born with two human-looking ears. It didn’t make her look any more . . . natural. Nature crafted her with insect features: large, protruding, black eyes and wild, yellow fuzz for hair. She stood about a cigarette tall and had enough strength in her tiny hand to break his bones with little effort.
No one knew how old she was or where she came from.
The piskie leaned back on a deep breath and her curly antennae spiraled tighter and tighter. On the exhale, she shot words like steam escaping 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 it take you so long to tell—”
She jabbed her thumb over her shoulder. “The stairs, you daft bastard.”
“Peter.” Pippa stiffened, and her whisper swelled into a growl. “They’re coming.”
Peter surged off the bed, and cold wood shocked the bottom of his bare feet.
“It’s not a real threat until I see for myself. This isn’t going to be a repeat—”
“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; they didn’t think they could trust her to stay quiet. Maybe the piskie told the truth.
Peter pushed her to the side with his knee and 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 latched onto his faded jeans and climbed 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?”
“I have no idea. I do my best to ignore you.”
“That’s not funny!”
“Yes, it is.” Peter 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!”
Wind beat his exposed skin like a stinging lash. He squinted through the onslaught and shoved his hair back. Couldn’t see shit.
He pulled the door shut before Pippa followed him.
Damp dirt and moist speckles of hay stuck to the bottom of his heels, and he grimaced and dragged his feet all the way to the balcony.
The piskie flailed from his ear. “Cry me a river!”
He plucked her from his ear. “Better?”
Secure in his fist, she pointed to the dark forest beyond Granny’s backyard. “The huntsmen are coming from there. I can’t tell how many they are, only what I 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, problem child?” She smacked her forehead and pointed. “See for yourself.”
Mounted on the dorsal side of the boot, the balcony offered a full view of the entirety of Granny Sole’s yard. Despite the cityscape past the bridge and the old dirt road, the farm felt like a unique world. The clouds spun fuller and fluffier, like they’d taken shape especially for the children who played beneath them.
Boxed in by the old post fence, Granny’s farm reminded him of a baseball field. The pitcher’s mound was always the mailbox. The Shoe represented home base, the greenhouse and the adjacent gardens made up first base, the bridge counted as second base, and the water tank, windmill, and barn counted as third.
Someone flung the barn’s big red alley doors open, and Peter glimpsed a few kids on the seesaw near the tractor. Three or four witches—he couldn’t tell how many—gathered in the center of an old steel merry-go-round spun by magic.
Across the farm, cornstalks thrashed as a shirtless, olive-skinned werewolf with wild black hair burst through the field and clotheslined all children of a certain height.
Granny called him Romeo.
Everyone else called him Rover.
Rover floored two duck shifters. The taller blond slammed on the muddy bank; the other sailed through the air and landed in the pond.
“Rover almost stepped on me the other day.” The piskie folded her arms. “I say we let the huntsmen take that one.”
Rover skidded to a complete stop and poked his nose in the wind. He sniffed and made a beeline for the shifters. Rover caught one duck by his muddy T-shirt, lunged into the pond and flawlessly tackled the other twin into the water.
The children surfaced in a thick bundle of cattails. Rover held both boys low in the grass. Only a third grader and he knew that given the chance, prey always try to flee.
One by one, the rest of the children disappeared. Some of the kids scurried into sycamores, others scuttled under blueberry bushes and into the cornfields. A few monsters rapidly dug holes into the earth, and rare selection vanished into thin air.
Someone closed the barn doors with magic.
Peter shook his head. “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. “Hide.”
Pippa hurried to the toy box near her bed. She toed open the Victorian chest’s lid and rusted hinges squeaked in the tense silence. Two wild mops of electric-blue hair appeared from the darkness. The Things.
Pippa waved. “Hi, guys.”
They garbled grunts and happy screeches and reached from the black pit with fuzzy blue hands and long wispy fingers.
“I don’t want to go with them,” the piskie wailed from Pippa’s shoulder.
The Things pulled the cub into the void and snarled. “Mine.”
Magic snapped the toy box’s lid shut.
Peter grabbed his socks, shoes, and jogged to Granny’s room.
“Peter.” The disembodied voice echoed down the halls. “They’re coming for you.”
Of course, what was a little catastrophe in New Gotham without some unhelpful commentary from the fey?
“Peter,” the disembodied voice called again.
Peter pushed open Granny’s bedroom door and the wood slammed against the wall. Any harder and the door knob could’ve punched a hole in the Shoe’s charm, the magic that made it what it was. Granny would kill him. Easy.
Peter flashed his teeth. “Go away, Fenris. I’m busy.”
Peter inhaled Granny’s unique collection of scents: autumn flowers and bourbon-soaked cigars, soil from the garden, and the mint she preferred in her tea.
As Granny told the story, someone special to her painted the Shoe’s walls a dark shade of dusty pink and she pressed the wispy swallowtails and white daises.
Busy and old-fashioned, the pattern hugged you, invited you…even as the racks of antique firearms that decorated any spare surface warned you to stay the fuck out.
“Peter,” purred the monster, “there are people here to kill you.”
An orange tabby padded into existence across the foot of Granny’s perfectly made bed. Despite his plump belly, Fenris had the most disturbingly bony structure, a long neck, and a mouth too wide and sharp for any natural animal.
Fenris 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. He appeared whenever he felt like it, usually at the most inopportune time.
The cat took a regal seat on Granny’s floral blanket and flashed its torn 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.”
“I’m not going to die.”
He slipped his hand under the pillow and brandished a six-shooter. The mother-of-pearl handle chilled his palm, the weight comfortable, 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.”
Peter grabbed the broom leaning next to the nightstand. “There. I’m prepared.”
Granny dedicated half of her kitchen to old country countertops, dish hutches, and a massive fire pit with tomato and basil soup simmering above the open flame.
The other half she dedicated to an arcane workshop, complete with candelabra, altars, and a rusty old cauldron that had seen better days long before Granny Sole got her grubby hands on it.
The empty wicker chair near the small card table bothered him.
Around this time of day, Granny Sole normally sagged in that wicker chair while she smoked a cigar and skinned apples or mended clothes. He rooted around in the pleated white apron hung over the back and recovered 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.”
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,” the children whispered.
Peter pushed open the screen door and locked both doors behind him before he stepped into the warm sunlight. He inhaled his home—ghostflowers and oleander, the aroma of clean linen from the clothesline. The fresh air stung his lungs.
He couldn’t see or smell anything out of the ordinary, but the children didn’t spook easy. Drawing on his inborn abilities, he blinded himself to color. The world dulled into a spectrum of black and white.
Nearly a mile out. Humans, probably. At least seven of them. Maybe more. Each human wore a camouflaged helmet of some sort, matching thick jackets, utility pants, and a varying assembly of muddied boots.
Most of the men carried shotguns or semi-automatic rifles outfitted with a silencer and the kind of scope used to hunt buffalo. A lot of them shouldered composite bows and full quivers with mean looking arrows, too.
A few of them came complete with 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. They could be a highly-trained team of “some kind of badasses” or a bunch of civilians taking themselves too seriously.
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 shaped like a boot. Any monsters living here were obviously of the civilized and ankle-biting variety.
The hunters fanned out like a pack of coyotes combing through the desert bush.
Hiding behind the banister’s spokes, Peter quickly 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.
Fuck it, it was something to do.
Frost groused. “I get the sense that we’re being watched.”
They fey’s voice reminded Peter of an R&B singer’s smooth, silky tenor; it had a weirdly calming effect, like the beginning stages of freezing to death.
Frost peeled his glamour away in racing currents of icy air and long, swirling strips of sleet and snow. His blue skin held the same tones as the coldest waters and he’d never been traditionally handsome. His nose seemed a little too big for his face, his lips a little thinner than most.
Glittering, icy shards exploded from his scalp and framed his long face with a sharp headband of white and silver snowflakes. He squinted at Peter. Actually, he always seemed to be squinting, like his crystal blue eyes 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?” Frost demanded. “She said she’d make me a pie if I finished curing these werewolf skins today.”
“At the market.” Peter rolled his eyes. “I’m busy trying to save the day.”
As the Second on the farm, part of Frost’s job included skinning any animals Granny butchered. The fey 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 pulled a thick layer of glamour, which was fine as it rendered him practically invisible.
“Peter, what did you do?”
Peter smirked. “I didn’t do anything.”
“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?” Frost scoffed. “Remind me that killing you is counterproductive. Remind me that I don’t want to be First—”
“If you die, I’ll make sure the pie doesn’t go to waste. Now stop bitching, lock the vampires in the cellar and make sure the rest of the kids secure in the barn. Don’t forget to count them twice.” Peter tossed the keys to the left. “Heads up.”
The moment 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.
Peter opened his mouth to issue a different order.
Frost snorted. “Don’t pretend like you care.”
Okay, so I don’t care. “Where’s Hopper? He should’ve found me by now.”
“No one cares about that perfect idiot. 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.”
Peter glimpsed the handsome and brooding man he’d become in a few years. Moisture collected in the hollow of Frost’s elegant collarbones, thick droplets crystalizing on his pectorals 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. He plucked a wad of fabric out of his back pocket, pulled on the baggy black tank top, and bolted over the railing, the muscles in his round backside strained against his bloodstained denim jeans.
Peter’s heart quickened, and he pulled up his hood—anything to block out the distraction. He crept off the deck and flattened his back to the elm in the center of the yard. 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 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. “Goddamn it, Hopper. Wake up.”
The earth rumbled. Peter frowned at 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.”
The Shoe’s Third and eldest of the Giants, Jill had always been a great beauty with great reddish-brown skin and a wild mop of tight-knitted curls. She holstered her hand on her hip, and her garden glove smudged dirt on her jean shorts.
“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.”
The Shoe’s Fourth and probably the smartest kid on the farm, Jackie Giant, surfaced from the brush after his twin sister and dwarfed her in his shadow. At thirteen, he was already nearly six feet tall. His reddish cherry wood skin glistened in the sun with a fine coat of sweat, his face shadowed by 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.
“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.”
The Shoe’s Fifth and the strongest monster living on the farm, Jolly spoke and it was like hearing a giant yell down from the skies. “I’m sick of your bullshit.”
Jolly bulldozed his way through the bushes and emerged with a dry afro and unnerving, tiny black eyes. He wrinkled his nose and smacked on a helmet welded together from metal pails, the words “Fee-Foo-Fum” scribbled in neon-green ink.
“Y’all smell that? Smells like human ass out here.”
All three Giants glared Peter’s direction and growled in unison. “What?”
“I didn’t do it and they’re coming from the forest.”
Jolly lumbered toward the forest. Born blind, Jill lagged behind and counted her steps. Jackie took off in a dead run and lunged into the air. His gloved hands and busted sneakers smacked down on the grass. The world rattled. Earthquake.
Hopper fell into a heap of prickly bushes. “Ah! Fuck!”
Jill shook her finger in his direction. “Serves your lazy ass right.”
The ground rumbled, and dirt sprayed as fat beanstalks sprung from the earth and writhed into the air like independent tentacles. Jill sat and the vegetation twisted itself into a throne beneath her. Eyes popped open on every knobbed vine.
“Twelve men, all of them heavily armed with Mommy G automatic rifles with auto-tracking scopes. There’s a few shotguns in there too. Run Slot 372 Y stick.”
Jolly stomped. “Fuck 372. We run Right 30 Trap.”
Peter pointed to the house. “Run 372 Y stick or get the fuck off the grass.”
Jolly never spoke much, but the idea of fighting weighed on him in a way that life on the farm didn’t. He sank into a lunge, like a runner in preparation for a gunshot.
“I’ve been moving bales all morning . . .”
Peter and Frost snapped in unison, “Stop complaining.”
Frost skated up from the rear and ripped off three snowflakes, blue blood oozed from the fresh, meaty bald spots. “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, pulled off his beanie, and rubbed his 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.
The Shoe’s Sixth and possibly the most dangerous monster living on the farm, Hopper towered over every other teenager on the field.
“Dead humans. This is how we get ants.”
The hunters broke the tree line like shiny G.I. Joes. Most of them didn’t seem keen on pressing forward. Of course, that was the downside to pack dynamics. It didn’t matter what the bottom of the pyramid wanted.
The lead hunter pushed off his helmet. If his snow-white hair was any indication he was almost sixty, but everything about his body screamed that age hadn’t done shit but honed 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, and the time it took for him to close the distance to the fence seemed small, insignificant. He vaulted over the beams and stood less than a yard from the lead huntsman. “What do you want?”
The huntsman’s buzzed, white hair called the sunlight. Seemed natural. Like he’d gone white long before he should’ve. Built like a brick house, with wide shoulders and large, powerful arms, his chest strained against the Kevlar vest, and he lowered his rifle.
“What are you, like, twelve?”
“I’m a lot older than you think I am.”
The hunter scratched the white stubble on his square chin.
“Ernie, the hell am I supposed to say to a boy?”
One of the goons laughed. “Ah, hell, Hal, we was just boys when we started.”
The huntsman nodded and his dark eyes shone brighter, the crow colored orbs rimmed by the faintest ring of periwinkle. The color of clarity.
“You speak for them kids, boy?”
“The bloodthirsty teenagers back there? Yeah, 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?”
Peter’s blood curdled in his veins, and he tightened his grip 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.”
“The 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 this farm, and every single one of them is nosy. Nothing sneaks onto our farm. Nothing hides on our farm.”
“Are you sure?” Hal lifted his gaze above Peter’s head. “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?
Movement in the forest drew Peter’s attention, and he squinted past Hal. 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.
Peter didn’t have time to wonder whether he’d imagined it.
Any deviation from his story would result in a loss of credibility.
He wouldn’t give them a reason to doubt.
“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 as the sound fled his lips, a vibrating, piping hot call of the wild. Proud. Deep. Nearly a perfect imitation of a feral werewolf.
The howl was so real that a few men at Hal’s rear raised their guns in case the sound originated from somewhere else.
Peter’s chest burned and he growled a finish.
“See?” he snapped. “No wolf.”
Every wolf’s howl was unique.
The cry was a fingerprint, each ridge and tonal change a piece of the creature who expelled it. Unusual traits, distinct differences, and matchless experiences blended into a single note that carried on for miles. That howl sounded like music.
Deep, mature. A little rough and ragged from disuse.
There was sadness and longing swimming beneath the rifts like a phantom.
Maybe the animal was wounded. Maybe it was dying.
As a wolf, Luca skidded to a stop, and his paws scratched raw lines into the soil. He lifted his pointed black ears and tried to confirm that his howl was coming out of another creature’s mouth.
Is that . . . me?
Hermes, the flea, dug around Luca’s ears.
“Luca, are you yelling? Why are you yelling at this ungodly hour?”
One would think a demon—even a diminutive one—had better things to do, but Hermes seemed to have all the time in the world, and a strange and inexplicable interest in Luca’s plight. Of course, the demon probably had a hidden agenda.
In a world of misery, everyone had an agenda.
The only way to rid yourself of a tick was to burn it out.
If it came to that, Luca would have no problem lighting the flame.
“What is that? It’s loud, and it sounds like you.” The flea skittered to the tip of his nose. “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. Even if there were creatures 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 toward the sound’s origin.
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.”
Damp earth pillowed Luca’s paws as he trotted through the tightly woven trees. Elms and burly spruces bent away from him, harbingers of spring closed their petals. Two mockingbirds 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, but 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.
“Zeus’ cock!” Hermes cursed and hung on a strand. “Slow down!”
The farther east they went, the more the forest changed. Mossy banks replaced by beds of tulips. On his right side, a collection candy butterflies fed from of folly-pink bushes with glass flowers. On his left, psychedelic blue and green mushrooms with neon-pink polka dots swayed at the bottom of yews with fireballs for leaves.
Running 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 crawled up into trees, and roots flattened themselves like a carpet. He followed the 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?
Someone fashioned the Shoe with a thrush roof and a black leather exterior. Gray creases marred the hide with scrawny, vine motifs, and ropes tied to the necks of the trees held up the boot’s tongue. Seemed like a functioning house.
The back of the house pretty much amounted to a heel with a balcony and a wooden deck. The old post fence expended an odd, ward energy.
His teeth ached, and he snorted.
What the hell kind of monster lives here?
“What an ugly little farm.” Hermes groused. “Our impostor lives here?”
An entire company of Master’s men advanced from the east. Luca took special pleasure in the knowledge that what they wanted was standing right behind them.
Master had apparently gone all out and equipped them with the best money could buy. Maybe that was an indication that his master still wanted him alive.
He’d venture to say Master was getting a little irritated by now.
Smell was a sensory map for any werewolf, and small chemical particles created 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.
Luca would never wear a collar again, and he’d never kneel before the man with the club. His mind flashed an image of a steel collar lined with sharp spikes, the image irrevocably tied to Hal’s scent. Luca sank in preparation for a pounce. I’ll die first.
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 abnormally tall, dark-skinned young men and the young woman seated in a throne of beanstalk. He assumed she was related to the others. The redhead closed the right flank, the fey stood parallel to him.
If Luca wasn’t mistaken, he was looking at the starting formation of a professional football play. West coast shit too. The hard shit.
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 was practically an infant to his peers. It was possible that many of the teenagers 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 burst 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.
Hermes jumped. “I can’t see, Luca. Who are they talking to?”
Luca sat and leaned his ears through a branch. Obnoxious bleeding hearts blooms crested over his forehead like a crown, and he snorted. The branch extended a little higher, kept itself far, far away from him.
Apparently, Hermes hitched a ride with one of the pink blossoms and exclaimed from somewhere above Luca’s head, “Ugh, he’s hairless and ugly.”
A matter of opinion. The guy was short, but something about the way his worn clothes hung off his frame suggested the beginnings of a solid runner’s build. Like whatever the Asian lacked in strength, he made up for in speed.
Wind skirted his shirt, flashed the entire world his pelvis and his underwear’s gray elastic band. He patted the fabric like he wasn’t interested in putting on a show.
Tufts of sandy blond hair escaped from his hood and covered his eye. Hal asked him another question, and he lifted his dark brown eyebrows and pointed to the left. Hal said something else and the shifter flashed 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.
Vampires were like mosquitoes: bloodsucking pests, easily killed once caught. Secondly, the blond wasn’t a vampire. Based on the way he smelled, Luca would guess a shifter. Something related to the canine family, but not a wolf and nowhere near a dog.
Maybe some kind of coyote.
Both sides, the monster teens behind the shifter and the hunters behind Hal, stilled into perfect statues as the two alphas exchanged words.
The shifter nodded and howled.
Is that a demonstration? Is that a second demonstration?
Luca narrowed his eyes. Fucker.
Hermes seemed delighted. “What a clever little fiend.”
Luca siphoned the impostor’s scent from the collection of smells: wood and old paper, something citrusy, and the coppery smell of fox fur.
Luca’s mind stirred with images, and he blocked out the torrent. He doubted any of those memories had anything to do with his most pressing current problem.
“Do you suppose Hal will do us the favor of killing him?”
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, and the sound of a gunshot startled the entire woods.
The shifter doubled over and saliva spewed from his lips.
Probably a punch to the gut.
Hal threw his arm around the shifter’s neck and drew him into a bone-crushing hug before he hefted him over his shoulder like a heavy bag of flour.
The kid hit the ground like a sack of bricks.
Hal dropped over him and wailed punches on his face.
“He’s . . . not even trying to fight back.” Hermes laughed the sound buzzing and obnoxious. “That pathetic little creature should’ve been swallowed at birth.”
Hal hauled the kid off the grass by his bloodied shirt, ready to land the last punch, and the fox surfaced with the broomstick. Whack.
He made a sloppy connection with Hal’s head.
“What!” Hermes 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. Maybe Luca would get lucky and they’d kill each other and solve both his problems.
Blood oozed from Hal’s temple, and Luca inhaled deeply, the scent sharpened his focus into a fine, hungry point. Die, old man.
Hal pressed his palm to the wound and braced himself on the forest floor, stuck trying to find his balance in a world that wouldn’t quit spinning.
Back against the ground, the fox kicked up his legs. He landed on his boots like something mean, and winds whirled around him in an unnatural cyclone. He said nothing. Bloody, beaten, and totally unaffected by it.
Luca’s hackles rose. What kind of shifter has magic?
Cyclones of wind knocked back the shifter’s hood, and a pair of fox ears stuck up from his disheveled blond hair. He spat blood near Hal’s boot. “That hurt.”
Luca tilted his head. Are those actual fucking fox ears?
Hermes hmm-ed. “He’s an innocent.”
According to modern belief, animal shifters were born with a second set of ears that disappeared after they lost their virginity.
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 fox could be cornered into much of anything.
“You can take a beating, kid.” Hal grumbled. “I’ll give you that.”
The shifter licked his busted lip. “You hit like a girl.”
Hal chuckled drily and stood. “Fuck you.”
No sympathy. The fox smacked him straight across the face with the broom. The wood made contact with Hal’s cheek, and and a tooth shot from his chapped lips.
“I can’t believe it.”
Neither do I. Luca shook his head at the fox. Who are you?
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 probably ordered him not to do anything that might attract the press.
Otherwise, it was protocol to shoot anything that moved when someone went down in the company. 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.
“Never mind. Looks like they’re taking care of that for us.”
The shifter smirked and whispered, “Set.”
Behind him, the teenagers, all five of them, sank to their haunches in perfect unison. Even the female crouched on her throne.
She barked orders. “372 Y Stick, 372 Y Stick.”
The males roared. “Hut.”
The fox pointed to Hal. “Take him and leave.”
Luca’s limbs flushed with heat. Sexy.
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 wilted the bleeding hearts, and pink blossoms showered the sky. Luca swatted a petal off his eye. Shut. Up.
Hal’s second in command made an executive decision. The way Ernie carried his weight and the general stoutness of his frame suggested that he’d put on a few pounds since the last time Luca saw him shooting the shit in the guard barracks.
The acrid scent of cheap tobacco fumed from Ernie’s chapped lips. “Truce.”
The fox hocked a bloody wad near his boot. “Deal.”
Ernie crept over to Hal.
The gunshot shattered the air, and the humans collectively jumped.
Luca studied the way the shifter’s lips formed around the sounds, how effortlessly he reproduced the resonances of pistol fire. If Luca didn’t know any better, he’d assumed there was a gunfight going on.
The fox smiled 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.
“I hate this motherfucker.”
The shifter swayed back and forth, beatboxed with gunshots.
Luca vaguely recognized the song from the radio.
Is that Bad Motherfucker by Machine Gun Kelly? Cute.
Hermes patted Luca’s nose. “Say, how does he do that?”
I have no idea.
Ernie shouldered his gun and hauled Hal over his other shoulder. 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 stood out on their vests. Loud and clear.
Luca didn’t have long before they picked up on the fact that the wolf they wanted was right under their noses. He was sure another company advanced from the north, and still another advanced 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 east, 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 and seared the tip of his tail.
Hermes dove in his hair. “What is that?”
A blur of leathery, weather-beaten skin dropped from one of the branches.
Luca arched his spine and tucked his tail between his legs.
No eyes. No ears. The monster stood as tall as a werewolf in canine form with a curved spine, most of its weight supported on its knuckles like a primate, and its shoulders seemed too broad for its short legs. No exposed genitals. Splotchy russet and terra cotta skin covered its entire body like a flesh suit.
The monster’s lips quivered and flashed severely crooked teeth, all of them of varying colors and shapes. They didn’t belong, like the monster collected scraps from a wide range of animals and hammered them into its gums like makeshift dentures.
The creature spoke with a large, clumsy tongue. “Erga una me wulf.”
I don’t have time for this.
Luca lifted his ears, straightened on all fours, and raised his tail 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.
The monster didn’t look appeased.
It stared at him with no eyes and a dead expression.
Luca sank lower and laid back his ears. He sniffed, tried 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 remained unmoved.
Luca blinked, and the creature… was gone. Vanished.
“Where did it go? Is it gone for good?”
Luca lifted his ears. He couldn’t hear anything but the sound of branches snapping beneath boots. He trotted five or six yards before the heat in his veins slowed him into an uneven walk. The spruces melted together as the world tilted on its axis. Tingles sparked down his spine, the skin under his fur itched with the unnerving sensation of beetles rooting around his flesh.
Hermes grappled his eyelash, swung back and forth like an alarm clock. “Don’t give in, Luca. Not now. We can’t do this right now.”
Luca tried to block out the ringing in his mind. His temperature spiked to a boil, and his tongue rolled out of his mouth. Shut the fuck up, demon.
Hermes dug his claws into his forehead. “Don’t give in.”
I don’t have a choice. A wolf shifter controlled its changes, but no werewolf maintained total control. Still, despite never attaining complete control over his transformations, this one felt wrong. Forced. Unnatural.
Red hazed over Luca’s vision, blood pounded in his ears. He wheezed, as his entire body contracted with shudders, and his bones rolled under his back, his ribcage expanded. Muscles shredded. He nearly wet himself.
Pressure shoved his snout back into his skull, and his bones cracked. He wasn’t sure which ones. So much pain. He couldn’t see straight. He lost a pathetic mewl from a mouth stuck between leather and skin. Several minutes later, Luca blinked and found his human hands seated inside massive paw prints in the soil.
Hermes buzzed. “Now you’ve done it, Luca.”
Smells and sounds skewed, the world reeled. Luca tried to focus on the tiny demon. His mind slowly adjusted to the confines of a man’s psyche. His muscles spasmed, and his arms and legs trembled 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 ate more, and the lack of fur meant being cold.
He spewed partially digested human flesh.
“Shit.” He garbled around the sour taste. “I don’t feel like hunting again.”
“Not one of our more pressing problems, Luca.”
Someone snapped a branch half a mile away. 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 crawled to a row of blackberry bushes, and mercenaries surfaced from around a dark bend of trees. Two scouts. The first emerged from behind an aspen, and the scent of bubblegum and soda fumed from his lips. He was suited up like the others, but his frame seemed thinner and smaller than most of the other men.
Luca marked him as the weakest. The first to die.
“What are we gonna do now? Regroup at camp?”
“Shut up, Dallas.” Moonlight traveled over the second mercenary’s dark skin. He jabbed his rifle toward the trees. “You wanna die?”
“Relax, Mac.” The third man stomped through a bed of roses. He scratched the 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. “Fuckin’ trees. These were, like, eighty dollar gloves. Now they’re sticky eighty dollar gloves. Why couldn’t this monster escape to somewhere nice, like Reno?”
Ernie and Hal were the real monster hunters in the group; these guys were all new hired hands. Easy pickings.
Dallas wandered from the party, and checked around the elm. “I don’t see anything, but . . . we should meet up with the boys coming from the south. Seems safer.”
Luca darted from the opposite bush, caught his neck, twisted. Crack.
The body dropped to the ground and slumped against the elm’s trunk in a near fetal position. Luca lunged into a tree and crouched on one of the stronger limbs, inhaled the scent of blood, and curled his lip over his 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?”
The mercenaries panned their heads from left to right.
Mac shouldered his gun and drew a recurved bow. He pulled an arrow from the quiver strapped to his back, and the arrowhead glowed to life.
Erupting arrowheads. G-Issue 2.
Nice shit. Real nice shit. Expensive.
The men split up and covered ground in opposite directions.
Luca dropped on Steve the second he stepped beneath the branch. The human squealed as they rolled. Luca released him mid-tumble and rolled onto his feet.
Steve thrashed on his back and tried to secure his weapons.
Luca snapped his hand around the mercenary’s vest and slammed him back first into a root. The back of his helmet shattered, his face shield cracked.
“That’s enough, Luca,” Hermes snapped. “He’s dead.”
Luca’s senses piqued. He leaned to the left, dodged the arrow by an inch. The arrow lodged into an oak, erupted on impact, and blue liquid dripped from the bark.
Two hundred and fifty pounds of flesh and muscle rammed into Luca’s back. He didn’t flinch, crouched, and balanced on his heels. The impact knocked the wind from his assailant, and the man wheezed and 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 yanked him off his feet, amused at his ability to throw a grown man like a sack of marbles. Airborne, the man flailed—his frantic yells cut off by impact. He hit the ground and rolled.
Luca raced across the mossy forest floor on all fours.
He grabbed his helmet and slammed his head 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 crimson puddle.
His mouth watered with saliva . . . and hunger.
“L-L-Luca.” Hermes tugged at his eyebrow. “Luca. We can eat later.”
Gunshot. Luca’s left shoulder tore open beneath the focused spray of silver pellets. Numbness spread across Luca’s chest, and his fingers tingled as he zeroed in on the mercenary shooting from a point between two thick teaks.
The man dropped the shotgun and drew bow and arrow.
Luca ducked the projectile and ran across the forest on all fours.
The mercenary backpedaled and released another arrow. “Die!”
Luca caught the arrow with his right shoulder; he gnashed his teeth and picked up speed. Fumbling for another arrow, the man stumbled over a root. Luca lunged into the air and brought his elbow down on the man’s skull. Contact.
The mercenary’s neck cracked, every single vertebra from his head to hip displaced in an instant. His ragged breath fogged the inside of the helmet.
Luca pushed his forehead. “Bitch.”
He dropped back on the forest floor. Dead.
Luca stood in the moonlight, and blood dripped from his fingertips.
“I . . . ” 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.”
Luca’s ears funneled the sounds of men marching across the forest.
Their footsteps faded, like the rest of the company realized 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, and every fiber in his neck and shoulders wailed for release. He ripped the arrow free from his flesh in one gruesome pull.
Snot exploded from his nostrils as he tried to bear the pain.
This kind of pain never got easier. Not ever.
He blinked away the tears and dragged fresh air into his lungs.
Normally, the wound would’ve knitted together instantaneously. Right now, the gash bled—more and more blue-black coated his elbow and forearm, dripped his fingertips. He sniffed the arrow and grimaced. He’d been poisoned with a mixture of mercury, wolfsbane, and ash mined from the Carpathian Mountains.
It wasn’t enough to kill him—that didn’t sound like his practical master.
More than likely, the poison would slow him down. 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 his shredded flesh with shaking fingers. The gunshot wound numbed his entire torso, but it was only a matter of time. Pretty soon that would hurt like a bitch too.
He couldn’t run, so he walked.
Every step was a fight. Heat roared through his body, moisture beaded across his upper lip as he put one foot in front of the other. The entire way Hermes egged him on, promised 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 bled, 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 his gut roiled with a promise that he’d see them again. Soon.
He squinted past his matted hair and made sure they left. Ignoring the pain, he wiped the blood and snot from his upper lip. He didn’t palm his aching ribcage.
There was no room for weakness at the Shoe.
Not in front of the kids.
Hopper had run off to wherever. Frost vanished the second the conflict was over. Jolly grabbed the bale of hay he’d dropped by the bushes, and Jackie waited for his sister near the beanstalk coiling its way back into the earth.
Jackie frowned. “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 and the last of the beanstalk’s tentacles disappeared into the earth. “You never count right.”
Jackie ironed his full lips into a tight line. “Listen, little girl—”
“Shut up.” Jill poked her brother’s belly. “Go turn off the sprinklers. You ain’t payin’ water bills around here, and there’s no sense in floodin’ the field—”
“Goddamn it, quit bossin’ me around, Jill.”
“Stop bickering.” Peter blocked out the ringing in his mind. “I can’t think—”
“You’re okay! You’re okay!” Pippa snapped around Peter’s legs like a rubber band. “Peter! I thought you were dead. I just knew you weren’t going to make it!”
“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 onto his shoulder, her flat blackberry eyes glossed with tears. She was the only Indian he knew with freckles. She scratched the tip of her nose like she wanted the specks of chocolate gone. He grabbed her wrist. “Stop scratching.”
“Does your face hurt? It looks like it hurts.”
He bounced her on his hip. “Is there a reason you’re naked?”
She’d left on her panties and wool socks. She poked her belly, like the discovery of her bellybutton awed her. Her bronzed skin reddened into pale orange and a few black stripes decorated her shoulders. “I think…”
She hesitated like she wasn’t sure herself. “I was gonna save you.”
“Yeah?” Peter laughed and plucked at her nose. “Who was gonna save you?”
She grimaced. “I don’t need anyone but Papa and you, Peter.”
Peter’s stomach twisted. This kid can’t cope…
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. Anyone who pressed the issue caught the wicked end of a cub’s sharp little claws.
No one had told her 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.
Granny thought it best that he didn’t say anything until the time came. He thought it was bullshit. She just didn’t know what to say yet.
Peter and Pippa 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.
Peter set her on the ground 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.” She stomped her foot and he gave her an encouraging spank. “Now.”
Thick droplets of sweat stung the cuts on his nose. He was half surprised that he made it all the way to the well in front of the greenhouse.
One pail of water was normally weightless. Right now, it was twenty pounds of liquid lead and his arms were nothing but jelly.
Water sloshed over the side of the bucket and wet his shirt sleeve.
Jesus, he didn’t recognize himself.
It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten this messed up.
His mind superimposed an image of the boy he’d been over his reflection. He’d always been much smaller than everyone else. He’d always been mouthy, too.
It wasn’t a winning combination on the playground.
“Every time I take a nap calamity ensues.”
Hopper’s diamond-shaped face made him look evil and his cheek bones looked like they cut flesh on contact. The gods fashioned him with no eyelashes and thin spikes of fresh green grass for eyebrows. All of these harsh features competed against his warm, big brown eyes and wide sincere smile. He was kind of laid back for a fey.
Kind of sexy in the right light.
Hopper brushed hay off his sagging jeans. “You okay?”
I’m not your friend. “I’m the picture of perfect health.”
Hopper grabbed his shoulder. “You don’t look so hot, Pete.”
“I told you not to call me Pete.” Peter jerked away. “Kinda busy here.”
Hopper laughed. “You don’t have to be such a prick.”
Peter emptied the dirty water on the grass.
“You obviously don’t know me very well.”
“That’s not for lack of trying, Pete.”
Peter hung the pail on the hook. “Stop calling me Pete.”
“Why don’t the Giants like you?”
Hopper had only lived on the farm for about a month. He wouldn’t understand why the Giants hated Peter. His curiosity was natural.
Still, of all the times for him to want this conversation . . .
“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.”
He smirked. “My people don’t care about anyone but themselves.”
“I used to play pranks on everyone when we were kids, kind of how I do now, and that one ended bad.” Peter fingered the dried blood on his vest. “The Giants had another brother, Nathan. 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.”
Death was common in New Gotham. Nathan’s death was somehow different. Somehow worse. Everyone who heard the story agreed Peter earned any bad thing that happened to him from that moment forward. Peter was a menace. Of course, his mother abandoned him at an orphanage. Of course, he should be outcast.
Causing the death of someone else marked him as a villain, and he should live and die as a villain. Branded for life as the unwanted. The trickster and the fool.
I’ll be the ugliest fool to rock the ward since Thomas Quick.
Hopper grimaced. “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.”
Honk! Honk! Honk!
Granny always signaled when she had groceries so the brats could line up for unloading. Kids stormed out of the Shoe, and all of them dispersed in different directions like marbles scattered across the grass.
As First, Granny would expect Peter 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 cardiac arrest. The lie was safer. For everyone.
Hopper stayed behind. “Don’t tell Granny I fell asleep on the job.”
“We don’t snitch on the farm.”
Bushes scratched Peter’s skin, and he cursed and stumbled through the tulip trees. He jogged the dirt path from the Shoe’s front porch to the mail box.
Granny parked the beat-up old red Chevy and hollered, “Hey!”
Her weathered straw hat bobbed above the car’s roof. She slammed the door shut and smashed a smoking cigar beneath her dusty boot heel like a beating heart.
“There ain’t enough bullets in the world.” Granny drawled with a rapid-fire cadence that suggested she was always on the brink of cardiac arrest or murder.
“Music has the power to change us, my ass. I hear a song that reminds me of the person I love and I wanna another whiskey.” She smacked Rover on the head and he skidded to a stop. “Knock someone else down and I’ll tip you like a fuckin’ cow.”
Rover wheezed. “Sorry.”
“Go play.” She fished grocery ads out of the mail box. “Peter, boy, you’re not gonna believe the day I’ve had. First, the storm knocked out the generator. Hopper moved the milk for me at the ass crack of midnight. I get woke up by Pippa two hours later because a pack of werewolves decides it wants a go at my chicken pen. I don’t finish dealin’ with that, and Jolly comes downstairs hollerin’ about a stomach ache.
“Billy and the pixie won’t quit fightin’, and go back to bed. Henrietta’s cryin’ over those damn nightmares again. I settle all that and drag myself out to pasture this mornin’, and there’s mercenaries sniffin’ around my property like a pack of dogs. One of them nosy motherfuckers limped away from my shit heap, Lord yes, he did…”
She ranted on about her tire blowing on her way to the market.
“I get there and Hilly is runnin’ a booth of poison apple pies. We get to talkin’ about bakin’ and such, and she tells me that a flour crust is better than a graham cracker crust. Now, that hussy wouldn’t know a bag of flour from the crack she snorts between choir practices. The nerve she has shocks even me . . .”
Peter waved more kids out of the Shoe.
The children scurried across the yard into the barn. Some of them pushed each other onto playground equipment. A few of them just started running in direct directions like they couldn’t decide what looked more natural.
Anything to make it look like nothing happened.
Granny cleared her throat. “Are you listenin’, kit?”
Peter answered, “Stupid skirt, how could she doubt your baking expertise?”
“Hell if I 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 in Sam hell is goin’ on here?”
Granny had never been a great beauty. Her eyes were spaced too close together, and it gave her the look of something mean. As an old woman, she’d become a potbellied stick with pockmarked cheeks and bags under her sunken black eyes.
From the pictures Peter glimpsed over the years, she’d been born with hair the color of chestnuts roasted over an open camp fire; the brown, gold, and red silk strands attracted the light even in the tight braid she’d worn in her youth.
Nothing remained of that beautiful color, her oval face framed by a shock of white curls and a bonnet. She holstered her spotted hands on her boxy hips.
“What happened to your face, kit?”
Peter lifted his eyebrows. “Calm down, old lady.”
Granny sought Rover through the pond’s tall cattails. She tightened her grip around her hips, and her fingertips creased her denim skirt. Rover lifted his eyebrows and sought the ducklings for guidance. The blond twins shrugged, and the werewolf snorted and elbowed them both back into the water. Splash! Splash!
“Stop knocking people down, damn you child!” She scowled. “And Peter, you best tell me what’s goin’ on here or I’ll take a switch to that candy ass.”
Peter almost lost his nerve. Almost.
“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.”
Frost appeared out of thin air. “I will nail your balls to a chair.”
“Not before you tell me what’s goin’ on.” Granny grimaced at the fey. “Well?”
Frost unloaded a bag of groceries. “I’m not First.”
“Someone better start talkin’. What happened?”
“Nothing,” the children answered in unison.
“Be calm, Granny.” Peter gestured to the children. “The Shoe has spoken.”
Granny shoved the mail into Frost’s grocery bag and ripped open the truck’s passenger door. She kneeled on the seat and dug under the driver’s side.
“We’re gonna talk about this later. Make no mistake, boy, you’ll tell me the truth. Bur right now, I have a task for you, kit.”
Frost and Peter exchanged deadpan expressions.
Frost answered flatly, “Oh, whatever could this mysterious task be.”
Peter smirked. “Something tells me it involves manual labor.”
Pippa elbowed Frost out of the way and tugged on Peter’s pants. She’d replaced her sweater and pants, but her hair remained a mess. She stared at him through the black frizzy curtain, and the tendrils hid everything but her freckled nose.
“I smell the sheriff.”
Frost snorted and vanished with the groceries. “I hate that prick.”
Peter pushed Pippa toward the house. “Granny. Pendragon’s here.”
“Tell them we’ve already found Jesus.” Granny backed out of the truck. “For Christians bein’ so damn charitable, my prayers for peace go unanswered—”
Peter grabbed her shoulder. “Him.”
Her face pinched with thousands of wrinkles. “The law shouldn’t be here.”
The sheriff visited 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 ribbons tied under her chin. She planted her boots shoulder width apart and pulled a sawed-off shotgun from the holster in her coat.
Click-clack. She shoved a couple slugs into the double chambers. “Go on back in the house. I want them beads strung and tied on the fence.”
The sedan’s massive silver grille reflected sunlight like iron bars.
Sheriff Pendragon straightened from the shiny dick with wheels. Of course, he embodied a New Gotham elitist in one of the police force’s new black uniforms, his sturdy cargo pants banded with every manner of bolt, stake, and grenade. He slammed the door shut and his white floor-length trench washed to his ankles.
The gold star pinned to his collar caught random strobes of light.
“Hey, Momma,” he drawled. “You look good.”
Pendragon pulled back the trench and flashed his gun. Sun rays traveled across the gun’s ridiculously long barrel, illuminated the Latin engraved into the gold plating.
Take me up. Seize the night. He who carries this burden is free.
“I never come here looking for a fight, Siggy Mae Sole.”
“Then why is it that I always end up shootin’ you, Arty?”
The sheriff thinned his lips. “Don’t call me that.”
Granny lifted her shotgun. “I gave you that name, Arthur Pendragon. When you didn’t have a friend in the world, I took you in, I fed you, I 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” a few kids blurted laughs or hissed snickers.
Granny quelled most of them into silence with a look.
She lifted her chin, and Lilly and Steve quit fighting over a ball.
On the opposite side of the yard, Pendragon made eye contact with a beast witch.
She played the fool at first.
He lifted his chin, and she sighed and zapped a frog back into a werewolf.
Pendragon had known Granny for a long time; 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. She fired a warning shot, and the slug cratered a nearby teak. Smoke curled from the shotgun’s barrels.
“Arty, you best tell me what brings the law on my property uninvited.”
“I prefer to be called ‘Sheriff Pendragon.’”
She pushed a stream of spit between her teeth.
“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 perked his fox ears, but he didn’t dare say anything. Even the children sensed the rapid change in Granny’s mood. She’d gone from unwelcoming to hostile.
Most of the children kept playing like they didn’t notice Granny’s first shot. 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 step closer to the line of scrimmage, like he knew that she wouldn’t kill him. Shoot him? Sure. She’d never have it in her to kill one of her kids.
Even if he was a self-important prick.
“What’s the nature of your questions, Arty?”
The Sheriff clenched his pearly white teeth. “Fine, I’ll tell you about the case, but only if you’ll let me interview Peter. We shouldn’t talk about this out here.”
“Like it makes a fuckin’ bit of difference where we talk.”
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.”
Peter shoved the satchel of beads in his pocket and cast one last look at the sheriff. He flinched when he found Pendragon staring back at him.
He tried to think of anything that would merit this visit.
As far as springs went, this had been a slow one. Peter hadn’t busted a mailbox 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 the second Peter was out of immediate earshot, the adults resumed their conversation. Gunshots and all.
Peter’s ribcage throbbed with every step toward the elm in the backyard. He dropped the broom and climbed all the way to the top.
Leaves unfolded around him, and he walked the sturdiest branch and melted to his bottom, he let his legs and boots dangle in the air, confident they couldn’t be seen unless the person stood directly beneath the tree. Privacy at last.
He rubbed his ribs and winced. That old man kicked my fuckin’ ass.
Actually, he couldn’t believe he’d gotten into a fistfight with an old man.
Everything happened so fast.
One minute, he leaned forward to give the guy directions to the nearest lake. The next minute, he and the huntsman rolled into the grass like a pair of animals.
The scarecrow’s wheeze interrupted the relative quiet. “For the love of all that is gold and holy, unhand me, soulless carrion.”
Peter found the scarecrow with his forehead pressed against the elm’s bark. The scarecrow never aged and didn’t remember life before it became what it was. This scarecrow had been luring children into the cornfields since before Pendragon put up the fence around the Shoe. He clung to the tree’s trunk with gloved hands.
“I’m not cut out for this kind of rough living.”
A murder of crows settled on the strawman’s narrow shoulders, and he slouched and swung his rod-thin arm. Most of the crows spooked into flight.
One remained. The crow on his left shoulder always remained.
Sunlight turned its glossy black plumage iridescent blue.
“I can’t take this abuse.” The scarecrow wailed, “Go on, scram!”
The crow pecked his nose.
“Ouch.” He covered his button and honked. “That’s not nice.”
Not the brightest bulb in the box.
Peter smirked. “Granny has birdseed. That might keep them busy for a while.”
The scarecrow lifted his thick yarn eyebrows at the stitches.
“What’s in the bag, kit?”
Peter undid the satchel’s drawstring and found silver pearls and a ball of waxed string. He rooted around in the bag and energy sizzled his fingertips.
“Some kind of magic beads. I’m supposed to put them together and hang them on the fence. Maybe it’s a charm to keep the feral werewolves out of the chicken coop.”
“That sounds silly.” The scarecrow sat with his back against the elm and stretched his long legs out in the grass. “Hey, kit,” the scarecrow mused. “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 the answer for his audience. “I don’t know.”
“Will you come visit us?”
He lied. “Sure. I’ll come visit all the time.”
“Peter!” Pippa bolted across the porch. Apparently, Jill had cornered her with a brush and bound her hair in pigtails. “Peter!”
The piskie hung on to one of Pippa’s braids for dear life. “Slow down!”
Pippa leapt 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 fished a boiled egg 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. “No thanks, kitten. I just had some hay.”
I hate eggs. It’s like eating the unborn.
He wiggled the satchel at her. “Maybe later. I have to finish this for Granny.”
She took a huge bite of egg, ate the shell and everything. “I want to help.”
“Don’t drop any.” He laid the satchel on her lap. “I’m not catchin’ bullets for you.”
She giggled. “Yeah, you would.”
Peter smiled. “That’s true.”
“What does ‘city lockdown’ mean? I heard the sheriff tell Granny 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 planting.”
So much for not talking in front of the kids.
“Yeah, and what else did they say?”
“There’s this feral monster hunting in the forest, and no one knows how to stop it from killing so many tourists. It hangs the people from trees or something.”
The scarecrow scoffed. “There’s lots of crazy humans who—”
“Hey!” The piskie wailed from her perch on Pippa’s head. “No one asked you!”
The fey looked a little worse for wear, though it was almost impossible to tell the difference between her general look of outrage and real stress. She shook her finger at Peter. “I’m sure you can agree this is not an appropriate conversation for children.”
Pippa protested. “But the monster—”
The piskie slid down Pippa’s nose and forced her mouth shut.
“We shouldn’t be talking about this.”
Pippa shook her head and catapulted the fey to a branch. “Do you think the monster is coming to get us?” She inched closer to Peter. “Do you think it eats tigers?”
“A rot upon you, Pippa.” The fey stood on a leaf and dusted bark shavings off her torn daisy petals. “I just made this skirt. I’ll have to gather more flowers. Ugh, the inconvenience. And for the last time, there’s no monster that eats tiger cubs.”
“Except for this one.” Peter plucked a stray leaf from Pippa’s hair and crushed it in his grip. “Tigers are 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.”
“No!” She ducked. “I don’t want to be eaten!”
“Does the monster eat scarecrows, kit?”
The scarecrow fumbled 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’s laugh rolled into a cough, and he dropped back and hung by his knees. He stretched his aching ribs and winced. “I’m kidding, no one is going to eat you guys.”
“Precisely. Peter is kidding. I wonder why he bothers. He’s not funny.”
The piskie grappled Pippa’s sweater and climbed back to her head.
“Granny will kill the monster before anything bad happens, and we’ll be safe. Oh, and city council is offering a reward to whoever brings this monster to justice. I bet you I won’t see a penny of it. Granny will 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 considered the fey on her nose and flashed her tiny incisors.
“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. Henrietta’s gotta have her medicine or something bad might happen.”
The piskie chuckled nervously. “Of course she should put it back into the Shoe.”
Peter dropped one of the beads and it rolled into a blueberry bush.
“Don’t worry. I know where it went.” Of course, being upside down made it difficult to make sense of anything. “No one panic. Everything is fine—”
“Dis mine!” A small green goblin with large floppy ears and skinny arms surfaced from a patch of grass near the fence. The lone dandelion, growing in the clay pot it wore on its head, swayed in the breeze. The goblin pinched the silver marble between its sharp, blackened nails, and widened its buggy yellow eyes. “What is dis?”
Peter and the rest of the gang exchanged looks of confusion.
Finally, Peter asked the piskie, “Do you know that thing?”
“Yes, Peter. All of New Gotham’s little monsters get together every year so we can identify each other to the average idiot.”
Something about Peter’s expression must’ve communicated how close he was to crushing her under the tractor. She lifted her nose in the air and huffed.
“No, I don’t know him. He’s wearing one of Granny’s flowerpots on his head. I can’t imagine why. That’s so last season.”
The goblin stiffened and gaped up at the tree.
“Ah!” It grabbed its pot and ducked. “Who dat?”
Peter growled. “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?”
Pippa squealed. “That bead could be our only hope against the monster!”
“No.” The piskie landed on Peter’s nose. “I’m too young to die.”
Peter flung the fey off his face. “Ouch!”
The piskie landed on Pippa’s face, and she swatted and tumbled out of the tree. The satchel opened midair, and beads showered the sky in a voltage of silver.
“I’ve got her!” The scarecrow leapt to his feet and opened his arms. “I got her!”
The crow 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.
Pippa sighed. “I think I dropped something, guys.”
The piskie deflated over Pippa’s nose like a rag. “We’re doomed.”
Peter flipped out of the tree and grimaced. “You guys okay?”
They all grunted an affirmation.
“I have to find the last bead.”
By the time Peter realized how far he’d wandered, it was already too late.
Moonlight bathed the lime trees and blankets of mist rolled over the leaf-laden forest floor. The sun disappeared, and the Underwood plunged into darkness.