Либрусек (книги fb2)
The Child Thief
Peter is quick, daring, and full of mischief—and like all boys, he loves to play, though his games often end in blood. His eyes are sparkling gold, and when he graces you with his smile you are his friend for life, but his promised land is not Neverland.
Fourteen-year-old Nick would have been murdered by the drug dealers preying on his family had Peter not saved him. Now the irresistibly charismatic wild boy wants Nick to follow him to a secret place of great adventure, where magic is alive and you never grow old. Even though he is wary of Peter's crazy talk of faeries and monsters, Nick agrees. After all, New York City is no longer safe for him, and what more could he possibly lose?
There is always more to lose.
The Child Thief Brom
It would happen again tonight: the really bad thing. The girl had no doubt. It had started a few months ago, around the time her breasts had begun to develop, and now, with her mother gone, there was no one to stop him.
From her bedroom she could hear him pacing the cluttered living room of the cramped apartment. He was in one of his fits, muttering to himself, cursing the television, his boss, the president, Jesus, but mostly cursing her mother for taking all those pills, cursing her to hell and back, over and over. But her mother was dead and would never have to suffer through another of his tirades, not ever again. The girl wished she were so lucky.
There came the sharp snap of a beer tab, then another, and another. Her hands began to tremble and she clutched them to her chest. She wished she could fall asleep, then she would at least be spared the waiting, the dread. But she knew there’d be no sleep for her tonight.
He was there. The flickering light from the television silhouetted him as he leaned against her door frame. She couldn’t see his eyes, but knew they were on her. She twisted the sheet tightly about her neck as though it were some magical talisman to ward away wickedness. Sometimes he stared at her like that for hours, muttering to himself in his two voices: the kind, soft voice, and the harsh, scary voice. Back and forth the voices went, like two men debating their religious convictions. Usually, the soft voice prevailed. But tonight, there was no sign of the soft voice, only a low rasp punctuated with sharp barks of profanity.
He moved into the room, setting his beer on the dresser next to her Betty Boop radio-alarm clock, the one that woke her up for school with its crackling rendition of “Boop Oop a Doop.” She’d missed a lot of school lately, partly because she was tired of the looks and whispers from the other students, from the teachers, all so careful around her, as though her mother’s suicide was somehow contagious. But mostly she wanted to avoid Mrs. Stewart—the guidance counselor—and all her prying questions. Somehow Mrs. Stewart seemed to know and was determined to get her to talk about it. This scared the girl. There was a two-inch scar on the side of her head where her hair would never grow back in. He’d made that mark with a dinner fork the one time she’d tried to tell her mother. The girl found herself thinking more and more about the pills her mother had swallowed, wondered if those pills could take her to her mother. She thought about that every time the bad thing happened.
His hand was on her—heavy, hot. She could feel his heat even through the sheet. He pulled the cover away then sat next to her, his weight sinking into the small box springs and causing her body to slide against him. He laid a calloused hand on her calf, slid it slowly up along her inner thigh and under her flannel nightgown, his thick fingers squeezing and prodding. His breathing became heavy. He stood. She heard his thick brass belt buckle hit the floor then he was on top of her, the small mattress protesting his bulk.
She clutched her pillow and struggled not to cry out, staring out the window and trying to take herself somewhere else. The stars were particularly bright tonight. She focused on their magical glow, wishing she could fly up among them, fly so far away that the man could never touch her again.
A shadow blocked the stars. Someone was at the window looking in. In the faint glow she could see it was a boy. The boy pulled the window up and slid into the room with a quick, fluid movement.
“What the fu—” the man started, but the boy bounded across the room and hit the man with both feet, knocking him backward and into the hall. The boy moved fast, faster than the girl had ever seen anyone move, and was at the man before he could regain his feet. Both the man and the boy crashed down the hall and out of view.
Someone hit the wall hard enough to shake the girl’s bed frame. The man let out a howl and something shattered. There came a single sharp cry from the man, followed by a low “Oh, God” that sounded more like an exhale than a heavy thud. The apartment fell silent.
The girl glanced at the open window and wondered if she should run, but before she could, the boy reappeared, his wiry frame silhouetted in her doorway.
He moved into the room and she drew back. This seemed to trouble the boy and he slipped over to the window, leaped up, and perched on the sill. He had a tangle of auburn, shoulder-length hair, a sprinkle of freckles across his nose and cheeks, and his ears were—pointy. He looked up at the stars as though drinking in their magic, then back at her. She noticed the color of his eyes: gold like a lynx.
He cocked his head, then smiled, and when he did, those golden eyes sparkled. There was something wild in them, something exciting and dangerous. He slid a leg out onto the fire escape and nodded for her to come along.
She started to follow, then stopped. What was she thinking? She couldn’t just follow this strange boy out into the night. She shook her head.
His smile fell. He glanced back up at the stars, then waved to her as though to say good-bye.
“Wait,” she called.
And that was as far as she got, unsure what to do next. The only thing she was sure of was that she didn’t want this magical boy to leave her. A sparkling star caught her eye. The stars were all so brilliant she found herself wondering if she were in a dream, if maybe this boy had come down from the heavens to take her away.
She blinked, tried to clear her head, needing a minute to think. She wanted to go to the bathroom, but that would’ve meant going down the hall, and she didn’t want to do that, didn’t want to see what the golden-eyed boy had done to the man. And she didn’t want to let the boy out of her sight, afraid this might break the spell, that when she returned he’d be gone forever and she’d be alone. Her eyes fell on the man’s big brass belt buckle sitting atop his wadded-up pants and she began to twist the hem of her nightgown, tighter and tighter, until finally a sob escaped her throat. Tears overtook her and she slid off the bed onto her knees.
The boy came and knelt beside her. While she cried into her hands, he told her of an enchanted island where no grown-ups were allowed. Where there were other kids like her, who loved to laugh and play. Where there were great adventures to be had.
She wiped her eyes and managed to smile as she shook her head at his silly story, but when he invited her to come along, she found herself believing. And even though a voice deep within her warned her to stay away from this strange boy, she wanted nothing more at that moment than to follow along after him.
She glanced around the tiny room where the man had stolen so much from her. There was nothing left but painful memories. What else did she have to lose?
This time, when the boy stood to go, she dressed quickly, following him out onto the fire escape, down to the street, and into the night.
If the girl could only have spoken to the other boys and girls, the ones that had followed the golden-eyed boy before her, she would have known that there is always something left to lose.
In a small corner of Prospect Park, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, a thief lay hidden in the trees. This thief wasn’t searching for an unattended purse, cell phone, or camera. This thief was looking for a child.
In the dusk of that early-autumn day, the child thief peered out from the shadows and falling leaves to watch the children play. The children scaled the giant green turtle, slid down the bright yellow slide, laughed, yelled, teased, and chased one another round and round. But the child thief wasn’t interested in these happy faces. He wasn’t looking to steal just any child. He was particular. He was looking for the sad face, the loner…a lost child. And the older the better, preferably a child of thirteen or fourteen, for older children were stronger, had better stamina, tended to stay alive longer.
The thief knew Mother Luck had smiled on him with the girl. She’d been a good catch, too bad about her father. He smiled, remembering the funny face the man had made as the knife slipped into his chest. But where was Mother Luck now? He’d been hunting for two days. Nothing. He’d come close with a boy last night, but close wasn’t good enough. Grimacing, the thief reminded himself that he had to take it slow, had to make friends with them first, gain their trust, because you couldn’t steal a child without their trust.
Maybe Mother Luck would be with him tonight. The child thief had found city parks to be good hunting grounds. Strays and runaways often camped among the bushes and used the public restrooms to wash, and they were always looking for friends.
As the sun slid slowly behind the cityscape, the shadows crept in—and so did the thief, biding his time, waiting for the falling darkness to sort the children out.
NICK DARTED INTO the warehouse entryway, pressed himself flat against the steel door, his breath coming hard and fast. He leaned his cheek against the cold metal and squeezed his eyes shut. “Fuck,” he said. “I’m screwed. So screwed.”
At fourteen, Nick was slender and a bit small for his age. Dark, choppy bangs spilled across his narrow face, emphasizing his pallid complexion. He needed a haircut, but of late his hair was the last thing on his mind.
Nick dropped his pack to the ground, pushed his bangs from his eyes, and carefully rolled up one sleeve of his black denim jacket. He glanced at the burns running along the inside of his forearm and winced. The angry red marks crisscrossing his flesh crudely formed the letter N.
He tried to put the nightmare out of his mind, but it came back to him in heated flashes: the men pinning him to the floor—the floor of his own kitchen. The sour, rancid taste of the dish sponge being crammed into his mouth. Marko, big, thick-necked Marko, with his beastly grin, smirking while he heated the coat hanger against the burner. The wire smoking then turning red then…the pain…red-hot searing pain. God, the smell, but worse, the sound, he’d never forget the sound of his own flesh sizzling. Trying to scream, only to gag and choke on that gritty, soggy sponge while they laughed. Marko right in his face, Marko with his long, straggly chin hairs and bulging, bloodshot eyes. “Wanna know what the N stands for?” he’d spat. “Huh, do you fuckhole? It’s for Narc. You ever say anything to anybody again and I’m gonna burn the whole fucking word into your tongue. You got that you little prick?”
Nick opened his eyes. “Need to keep moving.” He snatched up his pack and unzipped the top. Inside the pack were some chips, bread, a jar of peanut butter, a pocket knife, two cans of soda, a blue rabbit’s foot on a leather cord, and about thirty thousand dollars’ worth of methamphetamines.
He dug through the hundreds of small clear plastic bags until he found the blue rabbit’s foot. The rabbit’s foot had been a gift from his dad, the only thing Nick had left of him now. He kissed it, then slipped it around his neck. He needed all the luck he could come by today.
He leaned out from the entryway, glancing quickly up and down the busy avenue, keeping an eye out for a beat-up green van. He’d hoped for some congestion to slow the traffic down, help him make it to the subway alive, but currently the traffic chugged steadily along. The day waned and soon the van would be just one more pair of gleaming headlights in the night.
Nick slung the pack over his shoulder and ducked out onto the sidewalk, weaving his way between the thin trail of pedestrians as he jogged rapidly up the block. There was a bite to the wind and people had their collars up and their eyes down. Nick pulled up his own collar, skirted around a cluster of elderly men and women lined up in front of an Italian restaurant, and tried to lose himself among the thin stream of returning commuters.
You fucked up Nicky boy, he thought. Fucked up big. Yet part of him was glad, would do about anything to see the faces of those sons-of-bitches when they found their stash gone. It would be a long time before Marko was back in business.
A horn blew behind him. Nick jumped and spun—heart in his throat. But there was no green van, just someone double-parked. He caught sight of the trees and felt a flood of relief. Prospect Park was just a block away. He’d be hard to spot in the trees. He could cut across the park and come out at the subway station. Nick took off in a run.
THE SHADOWS TWISTED and crowded together, layer upon layer, until darkness claimed the playground. One by one the sodium lamps fizzled on, their shimmering yellow glow casting long, eerie shadows across the park.
The parents were gone now, the playground empty. Garbage cans—overflowing with empty soda bottles and soiled diapers—stood like lone sentinels as the distant sounds of traffic and the steady thumping of someone’s pumped-up stereo echoed across the grounds.
The child thief saw the boy sprint into the park, saw him from far across the way, catching glimpses of his face as he dashed through the pools of yellow lamplight. The thief saw the fear, the confusion, and he smiled.
What had led this child here: abuse, neglect, molestation? All of the above perhaps? It really didn’t matter to the thief. All that mattered was something had caused the boy to leave his home behind and venture out into the night alone, a runaway. And like so many runaways, this boy didn’t know where to run away to.
Not to worry, the child thief thought. I have a place for you. A place where we can play. And his golden eyes twinkled and his smile broadened.
NICK PASSED A young couple on their way out of the park, giggling and clinging to each other like Siamese twins. He took a wide detour around a man and his dog. The dog—some sort of large poodle—gave Nick a shameful look as it went about its business. The man stared dully at his phone, texting away, seemingly unconcerned that his dog was laying down landmines along the public walkway.
Nick noticed a pack of youths far up the path. They were cutting through the park, shouting and acting up. They looked like trouble and Nick didn’t need any more trouble. He veered off the path and drifted into the trees.
Nick pushed through a dense line of bushes and jumped down into a wide ditch. His foot hit a slick chunk of cardboard and he stumbled, landing atop something soft. The something soft moved. “Hey,” came a muffled cry beneath him.
The something soft was a sleeping bag, worn and oily, like it’d been dragged through the gutter. The someone was a woman and she didn’t look much better—the smear of cherry-red lipstick over layers of caked-on makeup unable to hide the ravages of the street. Nick thought she might’ve been pretty once, but now her matted hair, hollowed eyes, and sunken cheeks reminded him of a cadaver.
She rolled over and sat up, got a good look at Nick, and smiled.
A bald man with a long, white, grizzly beard poked his head out from a nearby sleeping bag. “Who’s that?”
Nick realized there were several sleeping bags scattered among the bushes, along with cardboard boxes, blue plastic tarps, and a shopping cart full of garbage bags.
“It’s just a boy,” the woman said. “A tender little thing.”
Nick rolled off of her, but when he tried to get up, she grabbed him, her hard, bony hands locking around his wrist. Nick let out a cry and tried to pull away.
“Where you going, sweetheart?” the woman asked.
“You looking for something, kid?” the man said, climbing to unsteady feet. Other heads began to poke out from sleeping bags and boxes, dull, bleary eyes all on Nick.
“Of course he’s looking for something,” the woman said and smiled wickedly. “Ten bucks, sugar, and I’ll blow more than your mind. Got ten bucks?”
Nick stared at her, horrified.
The old man snorted and let loose a chuckle. “That’s a sweet deal, boy. Trust me. She’ll make you holler hi-de-ho.” Several of the other men nodded and laughed.
Nick shook his head rapidly back and forth, and tried to twist his arm free. But the woman held him tight.
“Five bucks, then,” she said. “Five bucks to blow your little rocket. What’d you say?”
Nick caught sight of two men moving around behind him; they looked hard and hungry, eyeing him like a free lunch.
“Let me go,” Nick pleaded, trying to peel away her fingers. “Please, lady. Please let me go.”
“You’re missing out,” she cooed and let go, causing him to stumble right into one of the men. The man snatched Nick by the hair and spun him around, got a hand on Nick’s pack. Nick cried out and twisted away, felt his hair tear loose in the man’s grip, but didn’t care so long as he still had his pack. The pack was all that mattered, all he had going for him now. He clutched it tightly to his chest, reeled, got his feet under him, and scrambled out of the ravine. He tore through the bushes and sprinted off, with their ghoulish laughter echoing after him. He didn’t stop until the ditch was well out of sight. He found a playground, collapsing against a big smiley-faced turtle, trying to catch his breath and get control of his nerves.
In a ditch, he thought. Is that where I’ll be sleeping tonight? And the next night, and the next? With creeps like that around.
He dropped his pack between his feet, heart still pumping. He searched the shadows, the trees, making sure no one was around or following him, before digging a wad of bills out of his pocket and quickly counting them. Fifty-six dollars. How far is that gonna get me? He hefted the pack. No, that’s not all. Just as soon as I find a dealer I’ll have all the money I need. Of course he hadn’t quite worked that part of the plan out: how a fourteen-year-old was supposed to go about arranging a major drug sale. I can handle it, he reassured himself. Just have to play it smart. I’ll take it down to…take it…take it where? “Fuck,” he said, then told himself that for now all that mattered was getting to the subway and getting the hell out of here. Then what? Well? He glanced at the bushes, realizing he didn’t even have a sleeping bag. It made him wonder if maybe his mother had been right. Maybe it would’ve been better to just stay out of Marko’s way. If he had, he’d at least still have a place to sleep, food to eat. He rolled his sleeve back and stared at the burn on his arm, and Marko’s hateful grin came back to him, his angry, bloodshot eyes. No, Nick thought. This was her fault. All of it. She’s the one that let those bloodsuckers into Grandma’s house in the first place. None of this would’ve happened if she hadn’t been so selfish. He felt tears coming and wiped angrily at his eyes. “Fuck,” he said. “Fuck.”
A thump came from back in the trees. Nick spun around expecting to see Marko, or maybe the ghoulish woman with the painted lips. But there was nothing there but the trees and the yellow lights. He glanced about. There was no sign of anyone; the park had become eerily quiet.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A boy-sized shadow climbed straight up a tree and disappeared into the branches. “What the hell?” Nick whispered, then decided he really didn’t want to know. He turned and sprinted toward the street.
NICK CAME OUT of the park just down from the subway station. He waited for traffic to clear, then started across the street. He made it about three strides, then stopped cold.
“Shit!” he said. Propped against the station stairs was Bennie, one of Marko’s boys, one of about a dozen kids that ran his junk for him. A chill slid up Nick’s spine. Does Bennie know what’s up? Bennie had his cell phone pressed up against his ear. Of course he knows.
A car horn blew, reminding Nick he was in the street. He spun and leaped back to the curb. He ducked his head down and kept going, heading back toward the park. Don’t run, he told himself. He didn’t see you. Just keep walking. Keep cool. He ventured a glance back as he entered the trees. Bennie was gone.
Nick knew if Bennie had seen him he’d call everyone, and then they’d all be looking for him. God, Nick thought, what am I gonna do? He pushed deeper into the park, keeping a sharp eye out behind him. Can’t stay in the park forever.
“Yo, cuzz. Whut up?”
Nick let loose a cry as someone came gliding up alongside of him on a tricked-out BMX bike, then wheeled the bike around and blocked Nick’s path.
The squinty-eyed boy looked to be a couple years older than Nick. He sported a puffy jacket at least two sizes too big for him and a pair of wide-legged pants with the waistband hanging low on his hips. His blond hair—braided into cornrows—sprouted out from beneath a Mets ball cap like electrified caterpillars.
The kid slouched back on his seat and let a sly smirk drift across his face.
Nick’s heart began to drum. Is he one of Marko’s boys? Sure looks like one of those assholes.
The kid with the caterpillar hair scratched at the pimples along his chin and leaned forward onto the handlebars. “Yo, dawg. Spot me a dollar?”
Nick relaxed a degree. This was just another prick trying to shake him down. Did he really believe every kid in the neighborhood was looking for him?
When Nick didn’t reply, caterpillar-head sighed, pulled a wad of gum from his mouth, and stuck it on his handlebars. He gave Nick a dark look, one that said let’s get down to business.
Nick dealt with assholes like this every day—a little humiliation, a little physical abuse at the expense of his self-respect—around here the fun never ended. But Nick didn’t have time to play the game right now. He needed to get out of here. Nick thought about just forking over the wad of bills, then maybe he’d get away with his backpack at least. But how far could he get without any cash?
“Yo, cuzz, I’m talking to you,” the teenager said in a tone clearly indicating that good ole Nicky boy was unduly trying his patience.
Nick wondered if this beaked-nose wannabe was going to work Yo, cuzz or dawg into every sentence.
“Yo, dawg,” the teenager said. “You deaf or sumptin?” He snapped his fingers right in front of Nick’s face. Nick flinched and fell back a step.
“Dawg, look at you getting all freaked and shit,” the kid said with a snort. “Chill, cuzz. I’m just fucking witchu.”
Nick managed a strained smile and forced a chuckle, and immediately hated himself for it. The only thing worse than getting dicked around was having to act like you were in on the joke. In this case, the laugh was the wrong move. Nick wasn’t at school. He was alone in the park, and that weak laugh told this kid that Nick wasn’t a fighter, that Nick was—prey.
The kid’s voice dropped, cold and serious. “How much money you got?”
The tone scared Nick; it sounded mean, like this kid just might go over the line and really hurt him.
“I’m here with my big brother,” Nick said, trying to sound cool, like he really did have a big brother looking out for him.
The kid didn’t even bother to glance around. He just sat there with his arms crossed over his chest with a don’t-give-me-that-shit look on his face.
“He just ducked in the trees over there,” Nick said, pointing into the dark woods. “To take a leak. He’ll be back any sec.”
There, of course, was no big brother relieving himself in those murky trees, but if either of the boys had looked, they might have seen a shadow with golden eyes inching toward them along the branch of the big oak.
The kid shook his head slowly back and forth. “Fuuuck.” Letting the expletive slide out like a long, disappointed sigh, as though asking Nick why he’d lie to a nice guy like him.
“Yo, what’s in the pack?”
Nick’s fingers tightened on the shoulder straps. He pushed his bangs out of his face and glanced about for a place to run.
“Hey,” the kid said. He squinted at Nick. “Don’t I know you?”
Nick’s blood went cold.
“Sure. You live at Marko’s place.”
Only it wasn’t Marko’s place, Nick wanted to shout. It was his grandmother’s house. Marko was supposed to be a tenant, but Marko and his pals had taken over and his mother, his goddamn mother, wasn’t doing a damn thing about it.
“Yeah,” the kid said. “You’re that weirdo that lives upstairs with his mommy, the one that never comes out of his room. Marko says you’re queer or something.”
If by weirdo he meant that Nick didn’t play grab-ass with the wannabes on the street corner, didn’t yank at his crotch and call girls bitches, didn’t wear oversized jerseys and pretend to be a gangsta all day, then yeah, Nick had to agree. But there was more to it and Nick knew it. Even back at Fort Bragg, before the move, he’d had trouble fitting in. But here in Brooklyn, where weirdo was a term of endearment compared to what most of the kids called him, he’d begun to feel like a leper, like he came from another planet. As of late, he’d given up on making friends altogether and probably did spend far too much time in his room reading, drawing, playing video games, and anything else he could come up with to avoid pricks like this jerk-off.
“Hey, you seen Bennie?”
“Who?” Nick said, as he eased back a step.
“What you mean who? Bennie. Dawg, he’s over yo place all the time. You seen him?”
Nick shook his head and took another step back but the kid rolled his bike forward.
“Look, I gotta go,” Nick said. “Umm…just a little favor for Marko. Y’know.”
“What? Marko? You’re running for Marko now? No way.”
“Nothing big,” Nick added quickly. “Just an errand.”
“Oh, yeah.” The kid’s voice was suddenly cordial, like he hadn’t just been about to slap Nick sideways and shake him down. “Bennie put in a word for me. Said Marko might be setting me up soon too.” Then, almost as an afterthought, “Dawg, you know I was just fucking witchu, right? We all good, right?”
“Sure,” Nick said, and made himself smile, anything to get out of here already. “See ya then.” He started away toward the playground.
“Yo,” the kid called after him. “When you see Marko, give him a shout-out from his bro Jake.”
That’s exactly what I will do, Nick thought. While he’s burning my tongue with a hot wire, I’ll be sure to let him know his bro Jake said hi.
Jake’s phone came to life. Nick knew it was Bennie, knew it before Jake even answered it. Nick walked faster.
The kid dug out his phone and flipped it open. “Yo. What? Dawg, you said at the park. What—no way. He did that? No way. No fucking way.”
Nick caught the kid cutting his eyes toward him. “I can do you one better than that,” the kid said. “No man, I mean I got just what you’re looking for.”
Nick’s heart slammed against his chest.
“Yeah, that’s just what I mean. Okay, it’s cool. By the turtle. Y’know that fucking green climby thing at the playground.” He glanced at Nick again. “Don’t worry he’s not—”
Nick took off. If he could make it into the trees he might be able to lose himself in the bushes, might have a chance. He was running so hard he didn’t even hear the bike bearing down on him. The older boy kicked him as he flew by. Nick lost his footing and slid across the sidewalk, the concrete tearing into his palms. Nick let out a cry and tried to get up, but Jake was right there and kicked him back down.
“You ain’t gonna leave without yo big bro, are you?” Jake asked, then kicked him again.
Nick heard tennis shoes slapping the sidewalk and two boys came running up. “Yo! Yo! Jake!” one of them yelled. It was Bennie.
“Dawg, you see that kick?” Jake hollered, his voice pumped with excitement. “See that? I’m Steven-fucking-Seagal.” He tugged his crotch with one hand and made a rapid snapping gesture with his fingers, all while sucking his lower lip and bobbing his head. “You don’t want to be messing with Jake-the-Snake. What’d ya say, Bennie?” Jake stuck out a knuckle-fist. “Give it up, bro.”
Bennie gave Jake a look close to pity, left Jake’s knuckle-fist to hang, and turned cold eyes on Nick, eyes that said he wasn’t fucking around like this retard beside him.
Bennie was big. From what Nick had picked up, he’d been a defensive tackle over at Lincoln High before getting expelled for assaulting his math teacher—the word was he’d put the man’s eye out with a pencil. Bennie had thick, hard hands like tree roots, the kind of hands that could tear quarters in half, and one long, bushy brow overhanging small, squinty eyes. Those eyes were cold—not mean, just cold—like he didn’t feel.
Bennie stared at Nick, letting those empty eyes bore into him. Finally, he said, “Man, if I had to pick one person I’d least wanna be right now, it’d be you.”
“True dat!” Jake added, then turned to the third kid, a short, muscular boy with stumpy arms and slumping shoulders. “Yo, Freddie. Check out his shoes. Wouldn’t catch my ass dead in pussy shoes like that.”
“Fucken’ faggot shoes,” Freddie ordained, in a Brooklyn accent so thick it sounded like his mouth was full of marbles. He kicked the bottom of Nick’s shoe.
They were referring to Nick’s leprechaun-green Converse knockoffs. Nick didn’t even hold it against them—no one hated those shoes more than he did. They were the kind of shoes you find in a bin at the discount store, right below the dollar watch display. He’d outgrown his green Vans—best pair of skate-shoes he’d ever owned—shortly after the move. He’d asked his mother for a new pair and she’d come home with these wonders. When Nick asked how he was supposed to skate in those, if she expected him to actually wear them to school, and if she was the biggest cheap-ass in all of fucking New York, she’d called him a spoiled brat and left the room. Of course, his skateboard had disappeared shortly after Marko showed up, so that part didn’t really matter, but being ridiculed at school every day certainly hadn’t helped him fit in.
Bennie flipped open his cell phone and thumbed redial. He pushed the hood of his Knicks sweatshirt back and rubbed the dark fuzz atop his head. “Hey, Marko, who’s the man? That’s right. No, I ain’t shitting you. Of course I got him. Dumbass headed straight for the subway just like you said. We’re in the park. I dunno.” Bennie glanced around. “Over near the playground. No, not that one. The one with the stupid turtle. We’ll wait. Don’t worry, this little bitch ain’t going nowhere.”
Bennie slapped his phone shut. “Check his bag.”
Freddie grabbed the pack. Nick jerked it away and scrambled to his feet, but Freddie nabbed him before he made half a step, wrestling him into a painful armlock.
Bennie yanked the pack out of Nick’s hand.
“Wonder what’s in here?” he said sarcastically and unzipped the pack. He let loose a whistle and held it out for Jake and Freddie to see. Their eyes got big.
“Fuck! Must be a hundred gees worth,” Freddie said.
Jake looked at Nick in amazement. “Cuzz, Marko’s gonna cut you up and feed you to the fishies.”
Nick jerked an arm free and tried to twist away, started screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs. Bennie hit him. It felt like a flare went off in his head. Nick started to yell again when Bennie drilled him in the stomach, doubling him over. Bennie snatched him up by the hair and leaned right into his face. “You wanna run?” Bennie grinned, then grabbed the sides of Nick’s pants, yanking them down to his ankles. “Go on. Run.”
Nick coughed and wheezed, trying to suck in a breath.
“Let ’im go,” Bennie said.
Freddie let go.
Nick clutched his stomach and almost fell over.
“C’mon pussy,” Bennie said. “Whaddaya waiting for? Take off.”
Both Jake and Freddie let out a snort.
Bennie shoved Nick. Nick stumbled, did a duck-waddle, but managed to keep his feet despite his pants twisting around his ankles.
Freddie and Jake crowed with laughter.
Then Bennie hit Nick like a linebacker. Nick’s feet tangled and he slammed to the ground.
“Check his pants and underwear,” Bennie said. “Little queer probably stuffed the stash up his ass.”
Freddie patted Nick down. He shoved a hand in Nick’s pocket and pulled out the wad of bills. “Pay—day!”
“Give me that,” Bennie said, taking the bills. “That’s Marko’s money.”
Bennie leaned over to Nick, so close that Nick could see tomato sauce stains on the sides of his mouth. “Marko said he’s bringing his toolbox. Said it’s gonna be a real horror show. I love horror shows. Do you?”
The limb above them shook and a host of leaves rained down. There followed a soft thump. Nick and Freddie saw him first. When Bennie and Jake caught their faces, they both jerked around.
A boy, not much taller than Nick, stood on the pathway. He wore some sort of hand-stitched leather pants with pointy-toed boots sewn right into them. He also had on a raggedy tuxedo jacket, the old style, the kind with tails, with a black hoodie on underneath and a rawhide pack, almost a purse, strung across his chest. The boy pushed the hood back, revealing a tussle of reddish, shoulder-length hair littered with twigs and leaves. A sprinkle of freckles danced across his cheeks and nose. The boy’s ears were, well, kinda pointy, just like Spock’s, like one of Santa’s little helpers, but oddest of all, his eyes were bright gold.
The boy planted his hands on his hips and a broad smile lit his face. “My name’s Peter. Can I play too?”
THE CHILD THIEF studied the teenagers, making sure to keep up his smile, making sure to hide his disdain. Have to be wily, he thought. Don’t want to spoil the fun.
He looked at the numbed, perplexed expressions on the three older teens and thought, They’re blind. Blind as a nut in a nutshell. There’s magic all around them and they don’t see a lick of it. How could this be possible? Only a few short years ago, possibly only a few months, they were still children, their minds in bodies full of magic, open and alive to all the enchantments swirling around them. Now look at them, miserable, self-conscious fuckwits, going to spend the rest of their lives trying to find something they never even realized they’d lost.
I’d be doing them a favor. To gut the three of them. His eyes gleamed at the thought. Hell, and it’d be fun too. Watching their faces as they juggled their own guts. Much fun indeed. But he wasn’t here to have fun. He was here to make a new friend.
Peter glanced at the boy with his pants around his ankles, the one fighting so hard to hold back his tears. He needed to win this child over, for you couldn’t take children into the Mist against their will. The Mist would never allow it. You could, however, lead a child into the Mist. So they had to trust you. And you didn’t get children to trust you by gutting teenagers right in front of them, not even mean, ugly teenagers. That wasn’t the way to make new friends.
Peter found that he enjoyed this part of the game—winning the hearts of children, getting a chance to play for a while. Games are important. Why, it’s playing, is it not, that separates me from the likes of these dull-eyed cocksuckers?
So the child thief decided he would just play with them.
“CAN I PLAY too?” the boy repeated.
Freddie tensed, his grip tightening. Nick guessed Freddie was as unnerved by this redheaded, golden-eyed boy as he was.
“Who da fuck are you?” Bennie spat.
“What da fuck you want?”
“To play,” Peter said, sounding exasperated. “How many times I gotta ask, birdybrain?”
Bennie’s unibrow squeezed together. “Birdybrain?” And, for the first time Nick could remember, Bennie looked at a loss. Bennie glanced at Freddie as though unsure if he’d been insulted or not.
“Oh man. Kid, you shouldn’t done that,” Freddie said. “He’s gonna kill you for that one.”
But Bennie didn’t look like he was going to kill anyone. Because guys like Bennie weren’t used to kids giving them shit, and it threw him off balance.
“So, what are the rules?” Peter asked.
“What?” Bennie said, his unibrow forming a confused knot.
“Gee wiz,” Peter said, rolling his eyes. “The rules, ball-sack. What are the rules to the pants game?”
“Rules?” Bennie said, no longer sounding confused, but pissed, and regaining some of his equilibrium. Bennie slammed Nick’s pack to the ground and jabbed a finger at Peter. “I don’t play by no fucking rules, asshole!”
“Good,” Peter said, and before anyone could blink, he darted forward and yanked Bennie’s baggy sweatpants all the way down to his ankles.
“POINT!” Peter called.
There was a frozen moment when Bennie just stood there with his mouth agape, staring down at his own skivvies. As a matter of fact, everyone was staring at Bennie’s skivvies, and they weren’t the spiffy Calvin Klein kind either. It looked like Bennie had some hand-me-downs, old-school generic white briefs with several generations’ worth of stains and holes in them.
Bennie’s face went lava-lamp red, and when he looked back up, his squinty little eyes appeared ready to pop out of their squinty little sockets.
“YOU LITTLE PRICK!” Bennie cried, and grabbed for Peter. But the boy was fast, unbelievably fast. Nick couldn’t remember seeing anyone move that fast, ever. Bennie missed, his feet tangled in his pants, and down he went, holey underwear and all, hitting the sidewalk like a fat sack of dough.
Bennie’s antics were rewarded by an uproariously hearty laugh from the boy with the pointy ears. And all at once Nick found himself smiling. He couldn’t help it. Freddie shoved him back and jumped for Peter.
Peter skipped out of the way, effortlessly, stomping right on Bennie’s head as he did so, smashing Bennie’s face into the sidewalk. Nick heard a crunch that made him cringe, followed by a scream from Bennie. When Bennie looked back up, his nose sat at an odd angle and blood was pouring out of it.
“Holy crap,” Nick said.
Freddie dove for Peter, trying to leap over Bennie, who was just standing. Bennie and Freddie collided, landing in a tangle.
Peter leaped high in the air and came down upon Freddie’s back with a double knee jam that would’ve made any professional wrestler proud. Nick heard all the air go out of Freddie in a wounded uuuff.
Freddie rolled off Bennie and began flopping around on the grass, gasping, his mouth opening and closing like a feeding guppy. While Freddie struggled to get an ounce of air back in his lungs, Peter darted over, snatched the back of his pants, and yanked them down to his ankles.
“POINT TWO! That’s two for me!” Peter called. He winked at Nick, then broke into another round of giggles.
Nick wasn’t sure if he was thrilled or terrified.
Peter zeroed in on the kid on the bike. He planted his hands on his hips and glowered at Jake, daring him to make a move.
But Jake, good old Wang-fu, Jake-the-Snake, Steven-fucking-Seagal himself, was frozen in place and looking like he just might be suffering a seizure to boot.
“YOU FUCKER!” Bennie screamed at Peter as he struggled to his feet. He yanked his sweats back up, shoved a hand into a pocket, and tugged out a knife, a big one, and popped it open. “YOU FUCKING FUCKHEAD, FUCKER FUCK!”
“Oh, shit,” Nick said. Bennie loomed easily twice Peter’s height, must have outweighed him four times over. Get out of here, kid, Nick thought. Run while you still can. But Peter just stood there, hands still on his hips, lips pressed tightly together, his eyes squeezed down to slits.
Bennie’s lower lip quivered. He spat blood, screamed, and charged, slashing for Peter’s face.
Peter ducked and spun, and again Nick found himself amazed at the boy’s speed. The back of Peter’s fist caught Bennie full in the face. Nick couldn’t see the actual contact from where he sat, but based on the way Bennie’s head flew back, based on the horrible cracking sound, he knew Bennie was going down.
Bennie crumbled to his knees, his arms flopping limply by his sides, then he fell over face-first onto the sidewalk.
A chill climbed up Nick’s spine. He’s dead. He’s dead for sure. And just for a second, Nick caught a haunted look on Peter’s face. Then, as though knowing the boy’s eyes were upon him, Peter’s quirky smile leaped back into place. But Nick couldn’t get that look out of his head. He’d seen something wild, something scary.
Peter ducked over to Bennie, grabbed the back of his sweatpants, and yanked them down to his ankles.
“That counts. That’s three for me!” Peter called in a delighted voice. “I win!” He rolled his head back and crowed like a rooster.
Freddie stared on in horror as he tugged his pants up and scrambled to his feet. He took off, bumping into Jake, almost knocking him off the bike. Jake’s eyes darted from Nick to the pack.
No! Uh-uh! Nick thought and lunged for the pack, but his legs were still tangled in his pants and he tumbled. Nick yanked savagely to get his pants up. Jake snatched up the pack and pedaled away at full speed. By the time Nick got his pants on, Jake was nowhere in sight.
Peter gave a big wave and laughed, “Later alligators!”
“FUCK!” Nick cried and punched the grass. “FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!”
“Hey, kiddo,” Peter called. “I did pretty good, huh?”
Nick clasped his head in his hands and clenched at his hair. What am I going to do now? he wondered. What the fuck am I going to do now? Could things get any more fucked up?
“I did pretty good, huh?” Peter repeated. “Wouldn’t you say?”
Nick realized Peter was talking to him. “Huh?” he said, low and unsure.
“Y’know, at the pants game. I won, wouldn’t you say?”
Judging by the way Bennie was spread out on the sidewalk with his butt crack peeping out from his underwear, Nick had to agree.
Peter walked over to Nick and extended a hand.
Nick drew back.
“Hey,” Peter said. “It’s okay. We’re on the same team. Remember?”
Nick cautiously extended his hand. Peter shook it, delighted, then pulled Nick to his feet.
“I’m Peter. What’s your name?”
“Nick,” Nick said distractedly as he scanned the park for Marko and his pals, sure they’d be coming out of the trees at any moment, knowing too well that those guys didn’t fuck around, knowing they’d be packing and would have no qualms about shooting either of them.
“Good to meet you, Nick. So Nick, what do you want to do now?”
“What do you want to do now?”
“Get out of here,” he mumbled and headed into the trees, back toward the subway, then stopped. He dug in his pockets. “Fuck.” Bennie had taken every cent. He’d have to find another way out of Brooklyn. Panic began to tighten his chest. Which way should he go? Marko could be anywhere, could be coming from any direction. Nick turned quickly and almost ran into Peter. Nick hadn’t even realized the boy had been following him. Peter’s eyes were full of mischief. “So, what’s the plan?”
“What?” Nick said. “Plan? Look, kid—”
“Peter, you don’t understand, there’s some bad guys on their way.”
Peter looked pleased.
“They’ve got guns. They’re not fucking around either. They’ll kill you.”
“Nick, I said we’re on the same team.”
Nick let out a harsh laugh. God, he thinks this is all some sort of game.
“Don’t you want to kill them?” Peter asked. “Could have ourselves a real good time.”
“What?” Nick said in disbelief, but he could see the boy was serious. “No, I don’t want anything to do with them. I need to disappear, now.”
“I know a secret way out of here,” Peter said, looking left then right. “They’ll never see us. Follow me.” Peter took off.
He’s crazy, Nick thought, but had to fight the compulsion to blindly chase after him anyway. There was just something compelling about the boy, something that made Nick want to follow even against his better judgment. Nick scanned the park again. It was dark. He was alone. It was hard to be alone. He clutched his rabbit’s foot, sucked in a deep breath, and took off after the golden-eyed boy.
They rested in a small church courtyard. Over the past hour or so Peter had led him along a maze of back streets and alleys, walking, running, scaling walls, and ducking through bushes. Slipping about unseen seemed to come naturally to him.
With the park long behind them, Nick began to breathe easier. He collapsed on a bench and Peter hopped up next to him, perching on his heels, reminding Nick of a gargoyle as he gazed up at the stars.
“Nick, you got someplace to go?”
“Sure,” Nick said. “Well, I’m going to…heck, over to…Well—” He stopped. Where was he going? His money, his pack, everything was gone. He didn’t have so much as a nickel, not even a jar of goddamn peanut butter anymore. He felt the sting of tears. He couldn’t go home. He thought of the bums in the park. How long before he was one of them? How long before he was dirty, sick, cold, and hungry? How long before he was willing to do almost anything for a handout? That was if he could even get out of Brooklyn alive. The tears came. “I don’t know,” he blurted out.
While Nick cried big, heavy sobs into his own hands, the golden-eyed boy stayed beside him. He didn’t speak, just sat there waiting for Nick to finish.
“I got a place.”
Nick wiped at his eyes and looked at him.
“Avalon,” Peter said. “I have a fort there.”
Nick raised his eyebrows and managed a smirk. “A fort?”
“It’s at a secret place. An enchanted island. No grown-ups allowed. It’s full of faeries, goblins, and trolls. We stay up as late as we want. No teachers or parents to tell us what to do. We don’t have to take baths, brush our teeth, or make our beds. We play with spears and swords, and sometimes,” he lowered his voice, “we fight monsters.”
Nick shook his head and grinned wryly. “Peter, you’re a kook.”
“Would you like to come with me?”
Nick hesitated, he knew Peter was joking about the secret place, about faeries and all that other nonsense, but you wouldn’t guess it by the way he said it. Why, you could almost believe it was true. But true or not, the idea of a fort to sleep in, maybe some other runaways to hang out with, the idea of anything other than being left out here in the dark, alone, sounded good.
“You live there?” Nick asked.
“Don’t your parents care?”
“I don’t have any parents.”
“Oh,” Nick said. “Me neither. Not anymore.”
A long silence hung between them.
“A fort,” Nick said. “And faeries and goblins, huh?”
Peter nodded and grinned.
And Nick found himself grinning back.
WHEN ASKED, PETER said his fort lay thataway, and pointed in the general direction of the New York Harbor. Nick guessed he must mean down toward the docks.
“Come along,” Peter said, pulling up his hood. “You’ll see.”
So Nick followed Peter as they pushed their way through the dark Brooklyn neighborhoods, still taking care to avoid busy throughways or corners where teenagers were loitering about, but no longer dashing down side streets or hiding behind trees. Nick didn’t feel a need to worry about Marko, not this far west, but couldn’t help keeping an eye out for the green van. After a while Nick began to relax, felt his step lighten, and realized that he was enjoying simply having someone to walk down the street with.
He snuck several sidelong glances at the pointy-eared boy. There was something captivating about him, something about his strangeness, the wildness in his eyes that Nick found exciting. From his gestures to the odd way he was dressed, even in the way he bopped down the street so light on his toes, like some real cool cat—bold as brass, as though daring anyone to challenge his right to be there. Nothing escaped his attention, not a flittering gum wrapper, a cooing pigeon, or a falling leaf. And he was ever glancing up at the stars, as though making sure they were still there.
He wasn’t like other street kids Nick had seen. His clothes might have been worn and dirty, but he wasn’t grimy. He was a bit nutty, sure, but he didn’t seem strung out on anything and his eyes were clear and sharp—even if they were gold. But though Peter felt like a friend, the best sort of friend, one you could count on to watch your back, Nick had to remind himself that he knew nothing about this weird boy and had to be careful. And there was something else, something below the contagious laugh and impish grins that nagged at Nick, something he couldn’t put his finger on, something wicked, something—dangerous.
The smell of nectarines filled Nick’s nose and his mouth began to water. He realized the smells were coming from the Chinese deli just ahead.
“Hungry?” Peter asked.
Nick realized he was, that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He also remembered he didn’t have any money.
“Hold up,” Peter said as he glanced up and down the street. “You be the lookout. Okay?”
“Lookout?” Nick said. “For what?”
But Peter had already entered the grocery.
Nick didn’t like where this was going. He tried to peer over the fruit stands to see what Peter was up to, but could only see the top of Peter’s head bopping about inside the store. A few minutes later Peter came strolling out with two plastic containers of steaming Kung Pao chicken, fried rice, egg rolls, and three sacks of candy bars, almost more than he could carry.
“Here, help me with this,” Peter said, handing Nick the candy bars.
“Wait,” Nick said. “You didn’t—”
“We should probably skedaddle,” Peter interrupted, and headed away at a rapid clip.
A second later a plump, older Chinese man came skidding out of the grocery in his stained apron and yellow rain boots.
The man looked at Nick, then at the sacks of candy bars.
Nick heard the man say something under his breath, and even though it was Chinese, Nick had no trouble recognizing it as profanity. Then the man pointed at Nick and started yelling TEEF over and over again.
Nick broke and ran after Peter.
Luckily for Nick, the old man’s running was about as good as his English, and Nick put a block or two between them in no time.
Nick found Peter waiting for him along a tree-lined street in front of a shadowy alleyway. Peter ducked into the alley and Nick followed.
Peter fell against some concrete steps and began to laugh, laugh so hard he could barely speak. “Hey, you did pretty good!” he chuckled and patted Nick on the back.
“What the hell was that?” Nick cried. “We could’ve gotten in all kinds of trouble!” Nick felt his blood boiling. That’d been stupid. The last thing he needed was the cops after him. “It’s not funny!”
Peter pursed his lips, trying to stifle his mirth, but his eyes were positively giddy.
“Do you have any idea what they would’ve done to us if we’d been caught?” Nick snapped.
Peter shook his head.
“Why they’d, they’d—” Nick stopped. Peter was trying so hard not to laugh, trying so hard to look serious, concerned, and sincere. Nick couldn’t help but grin and that was a mistake, because when he did, a bellyful of laughter escaped from between Peter’s lips.
“Ah, man. You spit all over me!” Nick cried, wiping his face, but by then they were both laughing, big belly laughs. And it was the moment Nick realized that he was having fun. That he was happy, and it’d been a long time since he had been happy.
THEY SAT ON the cold cement steps, eating stolen Kung Pao chicken and watching the clouds roll across a sky full of stars. Nick never remembered anything tasting so good. A sharp wind sent a host of orange leaves and loose paper clattering down the thin alleyway. Late evening dew shimmered off the sooty, graffiti-covered walls. The low hum of an electric transformer sputtered and buzzed incessantly while somewhere in the distance the Staten Island Ferry blew its horn.
Peter sighed. “They’re so beautiful.”
“What?” Nick asked.
“The stars,” Peter answered in a low, reverent tone, staring up at the night sky. “I so miss the stars.”
Nick thought this an odd thing to say, but then there were a lot of odd things about Peter.
Peter tore open one of the bags of candy bars, grabbed a couple for himself and handed a few to Nick.
Nick noticed several scars on Peter’s arms. There was also a scar above the boy’s brow, a smaller one along his cheek, and what looked like a healed puncture on the side of his neck. Nick wondered just what kind of trouble Peter had been in.
“What are you going to do with all that candy?” Nick asked.
“For the gang,” Peter said, between chews. “Back at the fort.”
“Is there really a fort?”
“Peter, where are we going exactly?”
Peter started to say something, frowned, started to say something else, and stopped. Then his eyes twinkled. “Hey, what’s that?”
“By your foot.”
Nick didn’t see anything. It was too dark.
“Is that a turd?”
Nick instinctively jerked his foot away. “Where?”
Peter reached into the shadow and came up with a lumpy brown clump. He held it up. “Yup, big greasy turd.”
It didn’t look like a turd to Nick. It looked suspiciously like a Baby Ruth.
Peter chomped down on it. “Scrumptious.”
Nick snorted, then burst out laughing. Peter joined in between big, loud smacks. Nick found it easier and easier to laugh. Since his father’s death, between moving to the new school and dealing with that fucker Marko, Nick felt he’d forgotten what it was like to be silly, to just be a kid.
“Hey,” came a raspy voice from the shadows, followed by a fit of coughing. “Hey what…what’re you guys up to?”
Nick and Peter looked at one another, then at the pile of boxes beside the Dumpster. One of the boxes fell away and a figure rolled out.
Peter was instantly on his feet.
The shape stumbled into the lamplight and Nick saw it was a teenager, maybe a couple of years older than him. The kid’s long blond hair was greasy and matted, and he was wearing just jeans and a ratty T-shirt.
“You…you guys spare…some change,” the kid said, his words slurry and spaced out. “Need…to, to make a phone call. Anything will help out. Huh…how about it?”
Nick picked up the bags of candy bars and stood up. “Peter,” Nick whispered, “let’s get out of here.”
“Hey, where you going?” The kid tottered forward, put an arm out on the stair rail, blocking their way. Up close, Nick could see cold sores on the boy’s lips and how bloodshot his eyes were. The kid was so skinny he had to keep tugging at his jeans. The kid spied the candy bars in Nick’s arms. “Hey, how about you give me some of those.”
“These aren’t for you,” Peter said, his tone hard and cold.
The kid looked agitated, started scratching at his arms. Nick could see he had the shakes. The kid looked at them again and actually focused. “What’re you guys doing out here?” He took a quick glance around. “You alone?”
Nick didn’t like the way his tone changed, and tried to get around him.
The kid made a grab for the chocolates, snagged a bag, yanking it from Nick’s arms.
Peter let out a hiss and in a mere blink had a knife in his hand. The damn thing was almost as long as Peter’s forearm.
Whoa, where’d that come from?
Peter rolled the blade, letting the street light dance along its razor-sharp edge, making sure the kid saw its wicked promise. “Give ’em back,” Peter said.
“Yeah. Yeah, okay,” the kid said. “Take ’em.” He tossed the bag to Nick, raised his hands, and took several unsteady steps backward until he hit the alley wall. “I ain’t got nothing else. Go ahead, shake me down. I ain’t got nothing.” And then, low, to himself: “Nothing.” His shoulders drooped and his hands fell. Nick thought he looked worn out, defeated, alone, another strung-out junkie with no place to go and no one to care. Nick wondered what had made this kid leave home, wondered how long before he found himself in the same spot—alone, with nothing.
“Let’s go,” Peter said, stuffing the knife back in his jacket and heading toward the street.
Nick grimaced. Growing up can really suck, he thought. And bad things sure as shit do happen to good people and for the most part the world just doesn’t give a crap. He reached into the bag of chocolates, pulled out a handful, and left them on the steps. “Here. Those are yours.” Then he sprinted off to catch up with Peter.
WITH THE EXCEPTION of a few pubs and late-night restaurants, the shops had all closed up. They passed a bar and Nick stole a quick peek inside, caught sight of sullen, tired faces, the smell of cigarettes and beer, the clinking of glasses and strained laughter as men and woman went about the business of putting the long, hard workweek behind them.
Next door, in front of Antonio’s Camping and Sporting Goods, Nick stopped suddenly and peered into the display window.
Peter came up next to him. “What is it?”
Nick stared at the green-and-black checkered Vans propped against a skateboard.
“The shoes?” Peter asked.
“Nothing,” Nick said, but his eyes didn’t leave the shoes.
“You want those?”
Nick nodded absently.
Peter disappeared around the side of the building. Nick took a last longing look at the shoes and followed. He turned the corner but Peter wasn’t there. Nick glanced across the weedy lot and caught sight of a bearded man leaning against a paunchy woman near the rear entrance of the bar. Her blouse was undone and one of her breasts had escaped her bra, hanging down nearly to her navel. The two of them giggled as the man pawed it like a cat toy. “Jesus,” Nick said and watched, mesmerized, until a sharp clank drew his attention. It came from behind the Dumpster next to the sporting goods shop. He peered around the Dumpster—Peter had managed to tug one steel bar from the crumbling masonry of a basement window-well and was using that bar to pry loose a second.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Peter grunted, and the last bar popped off with a loud clang. “Bingo!”
Nick ducked down, peeked back toward the pub. The bearded man still groped the woman, another man had stumbled outside puking, none of them were looking their way.
Peter gave the pane a nudge with his foot and it popped open. The basement was a well of darkness. Peter looked up at Nick. “Well?”
“Well, what?” Nick said.
“Are you going to get those shoes, or not?”
Nick took a quick step back as though from a viper. “Are you kidding me? That’s breaking and entering.”
A look of deep disappointment crossed Peter’s face. Nick was surprised to find this bothered him, that he cared at all what this wild kid thought. “I’m not scared, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Nick said, a bit too quickly. “I’m no thief, that’s all. I mean that’s—”
“Nick, don’t let them win. Don’t let them beat you.”
“Don’t let them steal your magic.”
“Magic?” What did magic have to do with breaking into someone’s store and stealing their stuff?
“Don’t you get it?” Peter said. “You’re free now. You don’t have to live by their rules anymore.” Peter pointed into the inky blackness of the basement. “The darkness is calling. A little danger, a little risk. Feel your heart race. Listen to it. That’s the sound of being alive. It’s your time, Nick. Your one chance to have fun before it’s all stolen by them, the adults, with their cruelty and endless rules, their can’t-do-this, and can’t-do-that’s, their have-tos, and better-dos, their little boxes and cages all designed to break your spirit, to kill your magic.”
Nick stared down into the dark basement.
“What are you waiting for?” Peter said, giving him a devilish grin before disappearing through the window.
What am I waiting for? Nick wondered. What’s ahead for me? Even if I could go home, what then? Graduate? Get some crappy job so that I can spend every weekend trying to drink it all away, puking in a parking lot, or playing fiddle-boobs with some skank? He shook his head. Peter was right: if he didn’t live now—right this minute—then when? Too much of his youth had already been stolen. Why should he let them take any more? Maybe it was time to do a little taking of his own.
Nick took a deep breath and lowered himself through the window. He swung his leg about in the darkness until his foot hit a box, dropped onto the box, and promptly crashed over onto the floor. Something hit the floor and shattered. “Crap,” Nick said, and sat there a long moment, heart in his throat, waiting for the alarms and sirens, the lights, the dogs—the Gestapo. When nothing happened, he climbed to his feet.
The basement smelled of mildew, dust, and old cardboard. Where’s Peter? Nick noticed a weak light coming from the top of a narrow staircase. Hands out, he made his way—adrenaline pumping through his every fiber, heart beating louder with each step. “I hear it, Peter,” he whispered and grinned. “The sound of being alive.”
The streetlights poured in through the display window, dousing the jerseys, bats, balls, and bikes in a soft, bluish glow. No sign of Peter. He crept by the Little League plaques and trophies, going right past the cash register. Nick knew stores didn’t keep money in their registers at night, and even if they had, this wasn’t about money. He wasn’t here to steal, at least not like that. This was different somehow. It was about taking back, about control maybe, the need to be steering his own fate for once—for better or worse.
Nick peered over the racks of jerseys and warm-up suits, searching for Peter’s nest of wild hair. He didn’t find the golden-eyed boy, but found shoes—a whole wall of them. He passed up the court shoes with their springs, gels, pumps, glitter, and glitz—what the boys at his school liked to refer to as dunkadelic—until he zeroed in on a certain green-and-black checked pattern. “Bingo,” he said, just like Peter had.
He allowed himself a moment to enjoy the sight, then scanned the boxes for a size nine. He found a ten, several thirteens, a seven, a six, but no nines. His brow tightened. “Oh, be here. Be here, be here, be here.” A grin lit his face. There. “Yes!” He snatched up the box but didn’t open it, not right away. He just held it, cherishing the moment like a Christmas present you were finally allowed to open. Nick slowly lifted the lid, enjoyed the pungent smell of rubber and glue, then slid the shoes out, holding them up into the light. “S—weeet!” he exhaled, chucking the box and dropping down onto a bench.
He tugged off his bargain-bin specials, stared at the cracked, peeling rubber and frayed stitching. They reminded him of his mother—his cheap-ass mother. He slung them against the wall. He had the Vans laced and on his feet in no time and was up bouncing on his toes, checking himself out in the mirror. Nick froze. There, behind him in the mirror, a pale, haunted face watched him from the shadows, watched him like a cat watches a mouse.
SO MUCH JOY over a pair of shoes, Peter thought and felt the sting of jealousy as Nick’s simple joy made him aware of all he’d lost. He had to remind himself that soon shoes would be the last thing on Nick’s mind.
Nick started and jerked around. “Shit, man. You scared the piss out of me!”
“Killer shoes,” Peter said, putting on his best smile.
Nick studied Peter for a moment, then glanced down at his shoes. He licked his finger and touched the laces, making a sizzling noise. “Watch out, man,” Nick said, grinning. “I’m lethal in these babies.”
“Hey, man. Check this out.” Nick stepped over to a rack of skateboards, snatched one up, and dropped it on top of his shoe, flipping it onto its wheels with a flick of his foot. “Slick, huh?”
“Out of the way,” Nick said, hopping on the board, kicking hard, and shooting down the long center aisle. He kicked the tail of the board, catching some air, but when the board landed, the back end slid out on the slick linoleum, sending Nick into a rack of men’s sweats, taking the entire rack down right on top of him.
Nick’s head popped up between the hangers and sweats, looking disoriented and embarrassed.
Peter let loose a howl of laughter. “Impressive!”
Nick frowned. “Oh, yeah? Let’s see what you got.”
“Oh, you want me to show you how it’s done? Is that it? Why, I’m the skateboard king.” Peter snatched up one of the boards. He’d never ridden a skateboard before, but if this kid could do it, he most certainly could. He dropped the board on the floor and set his foot on the deck, shoving off with his other foot, kicking hard like he’d seen Nick do. The board wobbled and he wheeled his arms for balance as he careened straight toward Nick. “GANG WAY!” Peter cried, fighting for control.
Nick’s face changed from mirth to panic as he scrambled out of the way. Peter tried to swerve, lost control, and landed hard on his butt. The board shot out from under him like a missile, slamming into the leg of a nearby mannequin. The mannequin toppled and the head bounced down the aisle and landed right in Nick’s lap, its charming face smiling blissfully at Nick. Nick stared back in astonishment, then up at Peter, and both cracked up.
“Oh, my God,” Nick wheezed. “Oh man. That’s the craziest thing ever.” He got to his feet, holding the head, took aim at a row of basketball hoops, and shot. The head bounced off the backboard, but completely missed the rim and net. Nick raised both fists in the air. “He shoots! He sucks! The crowd pisses their pants!” He did a little foot dance, kicked his skateboard back out into the aisle, hopped on, and raced away. Up and down the aisle he went, doing spins and hops, sliding, skidding, and carving his way around the displays.
Peter got up, rubbing his butt. He gave his skateboard a disdainful look. “That one’s defective.”
Peter frowned, grabbed another skateboard from the rack, scrutinizing it before setting it on the floor. Nick zipped past, laughing hysterically, almost knocking him over. Peter hopped on his board and raced after him, wobbling and fighting to keep the board from flipping out from under him. Nick cut sharp, wheeled the board around in front of the entrance. Too late to stop, Peter crashed right into Nick, slamming the boy into the door. The impact shook the entire storefront and an alarm began to blare.
“OH, SHIT!” Nick shouted over the noise. “WE GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE!” Nick tried to open the door; it was locked. He slapped the door in frustration and tried to yank it open. No luck. “WE HAVE TO GO BACK THROUGH THE BASEMENT. QUICK!”
“NO WE DON’T.”
Nick looked at Peter, confused. Peter pointed at a swirly pink bowling ball sitting in the display window.
It took Nick a moment to get it. “OH, NO,” he called, shaking his head. “WE CAN’T DO THAT.” Then a spark lit in his eyes. Peter knew the look well. They all got it, once they truly realized they were free.
Nick hefted the ball, locked his eyes on the big display window, his mouth tightened into a hard line. Peter saw the anger, the hostility, and knew this was about more than getting out of the store, more than an act of vandalism, or simple mischief, this went far deeper. Nick needed to strike out—to break out. Nick was like so many of the runaways he’d encountered, too many years of being bullied and mistreated, of being stifled and ignored. They just needed someone to show them how to let it out. And once it was out, once he’d taken them that far, the rest was easy. After that, they’d follow him anywhere.
“GIVE IT TO ’EM, NICK,” Peter cried. “GIVE ’EM THE BIG FUCK-YOU!”
Nick gritted his teeth, snarled, and hurled the ball like a shot-put. “FUCK YOU,” he screamed. “FUCK ALL OF YOU!” The ball smashed through the plate glass, shattering it into a thousand glittering shards.
“YEE-HAW!” Nick screamed over the warbling alarm.
The ball bounced onto the sidewalk and rolled into the street, picking up speed as it headed down the sloping avenue.
“AFTER IT!” Nick cried, snatching up his skateboard and leaping heedlessly across the broken glass.
Peter couldn’t have grinned any wider. He’s mine. He snatched up his own board and caught up with Nick in the middle of the street. A host of men and women had come out from the bar to see about all the commotion, some so drunk they could barely stand.
Nick grinned at them savagely, raised both hands in the air, and gave them the double bird. “FUCK THE WORLD!” he screamed. “FUCK THE WORLD!”
The crowd raised their bottles and returned the salute. “FUCK THE WORLD!”
Peter turned his head to the sky and howled, basking in the spreading madness, aware that sometimes even these dull-eyed adults could let loose, could remember.
“The ball went that way,” Nick cried, slapping his foot atop his board and kicking off down the hill.
Peter let out one last hoot, hopped on his board, and, fighting for control, chased after Nick. It’s a good night. A very good night. Can’t remember a better one in the last hundred years.
Where to?” Nick asked Peter.
“To crazy town,” Peter howled, and wobbled past.
“TO CRAZY TOWN!” Nick cried, and took off after him. They raced down the street, knocking over garbage cans and setting off car alarms, yowling and laughing, setting the dogs to barking all up and down the street.
The cool fall air filled Nick’s lungs, blew the hair from his face. His heart raced, his body flushed with adrenaline, excitement, and the sheer joy of abandonment, of freedom like he’d never known in his life. Thoughts of Marko, his mother, all the bullshit felt a million miles away.
The neighborhoods fell behind, replaced by warehouses and industrial buildings, the steady incline leading them toward the docks. They saw no more headlights, or any other signs of people. Nick felt as though they were the only two souls left in the world, and he wished it would never end.
AS THEY NEARED the harbor, the fog thickened, seemed almost alive the way it swirled and snaked around them. Peter stopped and stuffed the chocolates into his bag. In addition to the knife, Nick noticed a carton of cigarettes and several packs of gum. Peter kicked his skateboard into a ditch.
“Man, what are you doing? That’s a killer board.”
“Won’t need it where we’re going.”
“What do you mean?” Nick let out a weak laugh.
“The Mist is here,” Peter said, and looked Nick in the eye. “This is the point of no return. The Mist will take us to Avalon, a place where you never have to grow up. An island of magic and adventure, but there’s danger and…monsters. Nick, do you go willingly?”
Nick laughed, “Umm, yeah, sure Peter.”
“No, you have to say it.”
“Say, ‘I go willingly.’”
Nick thought Peter was carrying this whole enchanted island thing a bit too far, but fine, he could play along. “Okay. I go willingly.”
Peter looked relieved. “Then we go,” he said, and they continued down the street.
As the buildings and streetlights began to disappear behind the foggy veil, so did the sounds of the city—the chug of the tugboats, the occasional long, low horn-blast from the ferries, all faded. Soon he no longer smelled the bay at all. The wind died and the air became stale. It smelled of the earth, of old things. The mist grew perceptually colder and brighter, as though glowing from its own radiance. And Nick finally admitted to himself that maybe things were getting weird, that maybe following a golden-eyed boy with pointed ears to a magical island might not have been the brightest idea.
“Stay close,” Peter whispered. “And keep as quiet as you can. We don’t want them to know we’re here.”
Nick couldn’t imagine who else would be around here this time of night, but kept quiet just the same.
They’d been in the fog for maybe ten minutes when Nick’s foot caught on something and he stumbled to the ground. He dropped his skateboard and his hands slid into wet, chalky earth—gray, the same color as the fog. Nick couldn’t recall exactly when the pavement had given way to earth. But he wasn’t particularly surprised; he’d figured Peter’s fort would most likely be hidden in a dump, or an abandoned lot around the shipping yards. But he was surprised when the dirt began to evaporate off his hands, drift away in smoking tendrils, as though it, too, were somehow part of the mist. Then he noted what he’d tripped over: a white shape with two large dark holes. Nick squinted, leaned forward, and realized he was staring into the eye sockets of a human skull.
The skull lay half-buried in the dirt, wrapped in the last remnants of worm-riddled flesh, dried and ashen. There was a knot of blond, braided scalp still attached to the top of its head. He also saw what had to be an arm bone, and a few smaller bones scattered about.
“Holy crap!” Nick said, scrambling to his feet.
“Peter,” he whispered, fighting to control his fear. Peter had disappeared.
“Peter,” he hissed again. Where’d he go? He glanced around. No Peter, nothing but the same dull, shifting grayness everywhere. Nick had no clue which direction he’d come from, or was heading to. His breath quickened. He felt the mist was caving in on him, like he would suffocate, like he was being swallowed.
“Peter,” he called, a little louder this time, then louder. “Peter.” He knew he was losing control, knew he might start screaming at any second.
Peter materialized out of the fog.
“I told you to stay close,” Peter said harshly.
“Peter, there’re bones. Human bones! What is going—”
Peter snapped a finger to his lips. “Shhhh. They will hear us.” Peter’s eyes were deadly serious and his look sobered Nick up.
“Who are they?” Nick mouthed, suddenly very alarmed.
But Peter didn’t answer. He only beckoned with quick, sharp gestures for Nick to follow.
Nick had no intention of going another step into this ghostly wasteland. But, as the mist closed in around him, seemed to actually touch him, caressing and slithering along his skin, the touch cold and clammy, as Peter’s back began to fade and Nick realized he would be alone again, his resolve evaporated and he sprinted forward to catch up.
Nick stuck as close to Peter as he could and kept a careful watch where he stepped in case there were more bones. And, of course, there were more bones, many more bones, and not just bones; he saw helmets, swords, and shields, most looking as though they’d dropped in straight from the Crusades. He almost stepped on a flintlock pistol and noticed the moldering remnants of a three-cornered hat, what Nick thought of as a pirate hat. A bit farther on he saw a skeleton with thin, leathery flesh clinging to its frame; it clutched a canteen in one hand and wore the tattered trappings of a British Redcoat. A few hundred feet away lay the remains of a man in a dusty Civil War uniform. The soldier’s rotten hands still dug at his eyes.
Then Nick saw the Nike high-top and his blood went cold. It was just sitting by itself. Nick couldn’t take his eyes off it, so was taken by surprise when his foot stumbled on something soft. He halted and found he was standing on a boy’s arm, his shoe sinking into the soft, pliable flesh.
Nick staggered back. Oh, Christ! Oh, good Lord! Nick put a fist to his mouth and bit hard.
The dead boy looked to be about his age, but it was hard to tell, because his skin was parched and peeling away. The kid’s eyes were wide-open, his mouth a big, hollow O. Nick had no problem reading the terrified expression frozen forever on that face. It mirrored his own. Maybe if I scream, Nick thought, maybe then I’ll wake up back in my bed, and maybe I’ll hear Marko and his asshole friends screwing around downstairs and I won’t care, because anything will be better than wandering around out here stepping on dead kids.
But Nick didn’t scream, because he didn’t really believe this was a dream—this was real, every bit of it. He knew if he screamed, they—whatever they were—would hear.
“Peter,” he whispered. Peter kept walking. “Peter,” he called. “I want to go back.” To Nick’s alarm, his voice carried, not just echoing but actually rolling across the mist as though the mist itself was carrying it along.
Peter turned, his face horrified.
And that was when Nick heard the voices—soft and far away at first, but quickly moving closer: the light calls of children, sweet chorus of women, and deep baritone of men. Laughing and gay, as though they were all on their way to a summer picnic. But behind these, or maybe within, he heard wailing, a sad, terrible keening. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.
“They’ve found us,” Peter said, his voice dead as stone.
“Found us? Who’s found us?”
“Nick,” Peter said, his words quick and urgent. “No matter what you hear, no matter what you see, ignore them. Avoid their eyes. And whatever you do, don’t dare speak to them.” Peter glanced into the fog. “If you lose the path, Nick, your bones will never leave the Mist.”
Nick’s mind was one big WHAT THE FUCK! Then he caught movement. The mist had begun to stir.
Shadows, mere shades of gray on gray, began to swim around them, some hulking and sluggish, almost lumbering, others small and fleet as sparrows, most just furtive wisps of indefinable vapor. Their whispers and calls echoed around them, crawled right into Nick’s head.
Nick glanced at Peter. Peter kept his eyes directly forward and marched onward at a quick, steady clip.
Nick gritted his teeth, balled his hands into fists, and clamped them tightly to his chest. He tried to slow his breathing. Don’t fall behind. Whatever you do, don’t fall behind. He picked up his pace, keeping tight to Peter’s heels.
The mist next to him began to swirl, almost to boil, until the shape of a woman formed, her skin pale and shimmering. She smiled at him demurely, floating along, twirling and rolling. The tendrils of her gown and hair trailed out behind her as though in an underwater ballet.
Nick struggled not to look into her eyes, but felt powerless to do anything but, and when he did, he saw that she was beauty itself. She began to sing to him. He couldn’t understand the words, but he recognized the tune. The same lullaby mothers have been singing to their children for thousands of years. It promised to keep him safe and warm. It promised an eternity of maternal love. She stretched her arms, beckoning him to her.
It would be all over if he went to her. Part of him knew this, the part that was screaming somewhere deep inside to stay on the path. The rest of him knew this too, but thought it was okay, because it would be such a sweet death. Cradling him in her loving embrace, she would rock him, soothe him. All his fears, all the bad things would simply drift away forever. Nick found himself wishing for nothing more.
Peter’s voice came from somewhere far away, little more than an echo. “Stay with me!” And a face, the terrified face of the boy, the one in the high-tops, flashed in Nick’s head. He blinked and forced himself to tear his eyes away from the woman.
Nick saw only a vague silhouette in front of him. Is that him? How’d I fall so far behind? He noticed sheets of mist drawing together like curtains, as though trying to build a wall between them. Panicked, Nick sprinted forward, stumbling across the soft, undulating surface, almost knocking Peter over when he caught up.
“Hang on,” Peter whispered. “You’re doing good.”
Doing good? Nick wanted to scream. Doing good at what? What is going on? What the fuck is going on?
The woman continued to float alongside of him, her face now mournful. Crazily, Nick found himself feeling regretful. Then she raised her arms above her head as though entering a swan dive, arching her back, snaking her body through the smoky tendrils of mist. Suddenly Nick was very aware of how full her breasts were, discovered he could see the shape of her large, dark nipples beneath the thin veil of her gown and the dusky shadow between her legs. A warm, tingling sensation began to grow in his crotch. Nick felt his face flush and glanced away. When he did, he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. A tail? He blinked. She had a long, scaly tail. She also had scales on her arms, small and delicate, and her fingers were long and clawlike. He squinted. Oh good God, he thought, her hair. Her hair is full of worms! No, her hair was worms, thousands of tiny, squirming worms.
Nick jerked back and almost fell over.
She scowled, dark and angry. Her eyes shrank to mere slits, her nipples stretched into long antennae, her belly opened up into a gaping maw, and Nick saw row after row of jagged little teeth!
Oh, no! Oh no! Oh no!
A sound came out of that mouth, like a thousand angry hornets, and she came for him.
Nick screamed and crumpled to the ground, arms out, watching helplessly as she fell upon him, watching as her huge mouth, a mouth easily as tall as himself, engulfed him. So this is how I will die, he thought. But no jagged teeth tore into his flesh. All he felt was a blast of cold air as she passed through him. It took him a moment to realize that he was still alive.
Peter! Where’s Peter? He thought he saw a shape plodding away from him. Was that Peter, or another trick of the fog? “PETER!” he screamed and scrambled to his feet. Now there were three different shapes, each heading in a different direction.
“PETER!” he shrieked, then an inner voice, the one from deep inside of him, said, Stop wasting your breath. Think! Nick stopped, concentrated, tried to clear his mind. Footprints. Find his footprints. They were there, the faintest trace, disappearing as the moist earth rapidly filled them in. Nick gritted his teeth and ran in their direction. And just ahead was Peter, not another illusion but truly Peter.
“PETER!” Nick raced forward and grabbed Peter by the shoulder. “WAIT FOR ME!” he screamed. “WHY WON’T YOU WAIT FOR ME?”
“Steady,” Peter said, not losing a step. “Have to keep steady or all is lost.”
Nick clutched Peter’s jacket, twisting his hand in the fabric, wishing he could close his eyes and make them all go away.
They came, dozens, then hundreds, all shapes and sizes, filling the air with their screams, laughter, wails and cries. A swarm of disembodied heads flew past, singing, a host of naked old women with large, saggy breasts skipped merrily around, holding hands and laughing through wide, toothless grins. A throve of tiny children with grasshopper bodies buzzed insistently, all manner of hungry-looking beasts, with sharp teeth and claws, stalked alongside them, and small, shadowy men with protrusive blank eyes and bird beaks danced wildly.
“What are they?” Nick cried between clenched teeth. What is going on? A short time ago he’d been eating Chinese food in the middle of Brooklyn. How could he now be lost in a fog with these horrors? Things like this can’t really happen!
He felt their wispy fingers crawling through his hair, his clothes, over his mouth and eyes.
A little girl’s face shot up to him, her eyes black holes, her mouth frozen in a scream that made no sound. She just hung there staring at him. He tried to wave her away, but every time his hand went through her, she just giggled, giggled while wearing that horrible scream, giggled until he thought he’d go crazy.
“Oh God,” he cried. I can’t do this. Not any longer. He needed to run, he didn’t care where to, he just had to run.
If you run you will die, came the familiar voice. Calm but stern, it was his voice, his inner self, the boy that had been through his share of hard times and had managed to keep it together. And how had he done that? How had he dealt with watching them shovel dirt onto his father’s casket? How had he dealt with hearing his mother cry herself to sleep night after night? How had he put up with the bullshit at school—the endless taunts and bullying, and Marko fucking with him every day? He’d simply withdrawn deep within himself, pretended as though all the bad things were happening to someone else and that he was just along for the ride. And this had always got him through. It didn’t make it okay. It didn’t make the hurt any less painful later, but it got him through. And right now he just needed to get through.
So Nick went there now, to his safe place, and watched the show from afar. And from afar it was clear that the mist was all noise and bluster, merely trying to scare him, confuse him, drive him from the path.
Nick looked through the mist, locked his eyes on Peter’s back, kept them there, and plodded onward—steady.
Soon, the voices began to fade. The mist settled down, returned to a state of placid, endless gray. And not long after that he smelled the sea again, felt a breeze, heard the lapping of waves. Finally the mist thinned and Nick could just make out a shadowy bank against a starless night sky.
NICK STUMBLED TO his knees and planted both hands on the wet beach, clutching the sand to steady himself. He took in a deep gulp of air, like a surfacing swimmer, and tried not to scream, tried not to think about them. What the hell had that been? He clenched his eyes shut but there was no hiding from what he’d seen. “What was that?” Nick said in a harsh whisper and looked up at Peter.
Peter wore a grin from ear to ear. “You did great!”
Nick glared at Peter. “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?”
“The Mist,” Peter said, as though nothing could be more obvious or natural.
Nick waited for more, but Peter just stood there wearing that stupid grin.
Nick glanced over his shoulder, back into the swirling mist, wondering if it would follow, would come after him. “Those things. What were those things? What were those fucking things out there?”
“Yep, the Sluagh.”
Nick realized this was going nowhere. He pushed to his feet and clenched his fist. He wanted to punch the pointy-eared kid, wanted to beat that smug little smile into his face, had never wanted to hit someone more in his life.
Peter took a step back, looking perplexed.
“YOU TRICKED ME!” Nick shouted. “You jerk-ass! You knew about that crap and didn’t tell me.”
“Not true,” Peter stated like a trial lawyer. “I specifically asked if you were ready to enter the Mist. And you said—” Peter mimicked Nick’s voice—“ I go willingly.’”
Nick glared at Peter. “You know what I mean. You didn’t tell me about all that crap out there. About those things!”
“And what, spoil the surprise?”
“Stop being a fucking wiseass!” Nick cried. “I saw a dead boy out there. Why are there dead people out there?”
Peter’s face clouded and he looked away.
“If I’d fallen behind, would I still be out there? Wandering around, screaming your name until I died?”
Nick stared at Peter, stunned, a forgotten word still on his lips. He turned his back on the boy, eyeing the mist, watching it the way you’d watch a dog you know will bite.
“I had to stay the course,” Peter said. “I did what I could for you. But if I’d wavered, if I’d hesitated, or strayed from the path…all would’ve been lost.
“And Nick, you really did do well. The Mist isn’t an easy path to walk.”
Nick whirled. “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!”
Peter’s jaw tightened. “It’s a good idea to keep your voice down or the Flesh-eaters will hear.” He peered intently down the shoreline.
Nick followed Peter’s gaze. Flesh-eaters? He studied the jagged shadows and twisted terrain lining the beach. It didn’t look like anyplace he’d ever seen. He shuddered; just why had the pointy-eared boy brought him here? “Peter, where are we? Really?”
Peter’s playful smile returned, and his voice fairly danced with mischief. “Oh, there’s lots to see. Lots to do. Adventure awaits. Follow me and I’ll show you.”
Nick shook his head. “No, Peter, I’m not about—”
“Shhh!” Peter jabbed a finger to his lips, his face suddenly hard, squinting into the dark. “The Flesh-eaters, they’re coming. Time to go.”
Nick crossed his arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
Peter shrugged, turned, and headed quickly up the beach toward the woods.
Nick stood alone, staring down the dark shore. “Bullshit,” he whispered. “It’s all bull—” He caught movement far down the beach, several hunched shapes picking their way toward him. “Oh shit.” He glanced at the mist, at its swirling tendrils. “Fuck.” He kicked the sand and, to his horror, found himself hustling up the beach after the pointy-eared boy.
PETER PUT A finger to his lips. This time, Nick didn’t have to be told twice. He got quiet, dead quiet, barely daring to breathe as they pushed their way up the muddy path and into the trees.
The woods were still and silent, no creaking insects, no croaking frogs, as though the very land was dead. The heavy silence amplified their every step as the mud sucked at their feet. They plodded onward, snaking their way around weedy bogs, sinkholes, and across a few shallow, slow-running creeks. The air was heavy with the smell of stagnant water, mud, mold, and decay. The overcast sky provided only a faint greenish glow to help Nick stumble his way over the roots, rocks, and brambles. He could just make out the tortured shapes of the trees looming above them, their leafless branches—like tormented hands—seemed to be reaching for him as they passed. Nick did his best to avoid touching the trees, as their bark felt soft, yielding, more like flesh than bark.
A low bellow rolled out from the woods ahead of them. Peter ducked down against the twisted trunk of a fallen tree and Nick slipped up next to him. Both boys peered through the tangle of roots searching the shadows ahead. From somewhere behind them came another bellow. “Barghest,” Peter whispered and slid out his long knife.
Barghest? Nick thought. Okay, great. Flesh-eaters, now barghest. What the hell’s a barghest?
In a clearing, not twenty yards up the trail, Nick spotted a pair of orange, glowing eyes. A dark, hunched shape about the size of a wolf crept out of the shadows. It crawled on all fours, stood up on its hind legs, and began to sniff the air. From behind them came the slapping of feet tracking through mud. The sound grew steadily closer. Nick allowed himself to slowly turn his head and saw another set of eyes moving their way. He instinctively pressed himself further into the overhanging roots and ground his teeth as he fought the urge to cut and run. The dark shape moved past them, sliding by so close that Nick could’ve reached out and touched it, so close that he could actually smell it—a musty smell like an old, wet carpet.
The shape joined with the other in the clearing and a moment later a third arrived. One by one all three of them turned their orange eyes toward Nick. Cold mud oozed between Nick’s fingers as he clutched the wet earth, afraid to even blink.
Somewhere far away another howl echoed across the swamp, almost human. All three of the shapes tilted back their heads and answered, and Nick felt the sound in his very bones. He struggled to control his breathing. Every ounce of him wanted to run, wanted to get as far away from that sound as he could. He felt Peter’s hand on his shoulder—strong and steady.
Finally the three shapes shuffled away.
Peter waited a long time before he stood up, and they continued down the trail.
PETER HEARD THE gurgling of Goggie Creek and let out a silent sigh of relief. The Flesh-eaters would never dare follow them this far.
He crouched on the bank and put his hands in the fast-moving water. “This water’s safe to drink,” Peter said, and began slurping down large handfuls. He splashed his face, glad to wash away the residue of the city. He hated the city, hated all the concrete, the noise, the stink of exhaust and garbage, but worse than all that, the city was full of men-kind—men-kind and all their cruelty and brutality.
He glanced at Nick. The kid was holding up pretty good. He’d done well in the Mist. Peter had been sure he’d lost him, and yet the boy had found him on his own. Peter couldn’t remember any other child doing that. This boy showed spunk, showed promise. Just the kind of child the Devils are looking for, Peter thought. This one just might live awhile.
Peter watched the boy drink. It had been a long night and the boy looked worn out, exhausted. Good, Peter thought, a deep sleep will make things easier.
“Up ahead’s a good spot to rest,” Peter said.
Nick nodded and they moved on.
THE TWO OF them lay between a cluster of boulders on a makeshift bed of straw. Peter stared up at the overcast night sky. “I miss the stars.”
Nick yawned. “Maybe it’ll clear up soon.”
“No,” Peter said. “The Mist is eternal. The Lady protects Avalon, but at the cost of our dear moon and stars.”
“Avalon?” Nick said. “I thought that was in Britain somewhere.”
“Used to be,” Peter said.
“What’d you mean?”
“Oh, you’ll see.”
“Sure, okay,” Nick mumbled and closed his eyes.
Peter watched the boy until he was sure Nick was fast asleep, then rose, slipping silently out from the boulders. There below him a giant tree grew out from the cliff base; a single tendril of gray smoke wove its way through its craggy limbs. A solid round door was set into the trunk, thick iron spikes protruding from its planks; above the door hung a toothless human skull atop a thigh bone.
Peter rapped on the door three times; a moment later, the peephole slid open; one slanted eye peered out at him.
“I bring fresh blood,” Peter said and grinned.
It will all end soon, the child thief thought as he moved steadily through the forest, back toward the shore, back toward the Mist. Nick’s with the Devils now. His fate is in their hands. What will happen, will happen. He slid from shadow to shadow, stopping frequently to listen, to watch, trying to keep his mind focused on the danger and away from what he had done, what he had left to do, because thinking about it didn’t change it. Thinking about it only led to distraction, and out here, on their part of the island, distraction would get you killed.
Peter came to the edge of the thicket and scanned the beach. There, waiting for him, floated the Mist. He could hear it calling, taunting him. Grimacing, he broke cover and started forward when he caught voices. The child thief ducked back and dropped behind a thick knot of roots. Five shadows sat against a chunk of driftwood not thirty paces away—Flesh-eaters!
Fool, Peter silently cursed himself. You almost walked right into them. He’d allowed the Mist to distract him. Stupid. He reached instinctively for his sword and remembered he only carried his knife.
One of them stood, his tattered shirt fluttering in the breeze. “There they be.”
Peter followed his gaze; a line of dark figures came marching around the cove, easily forty or fifty of them. He couldn’t remember seeing so many out at once, not since the galleons first arrived. What are they up—His blood went cold; even in the dark he had no problem recognizing a tall silhouette; there was no missing the wide-brimmed hat with that ratty feather. The Captain. Peter clutched his knife.
The faintest glow of dawn touched the low clouds as the Captain tromped his way up to the others.
“Found some tracks, aye, but that be all. Tracks come right out of the mist, they do.”
“It’s him,” the Captain said, scanning the tree line. “The devil boy.”
“Think so, do ya?”
“Ya want we should search the wood?”
The Captain shook his head wistfully. “We’ve no time this day.” He patted his sword. “But mark my word, I shall make a trophy of his head yet.”
The line of shadowy figures halted behind the Captain. Peter felt sure every eye was on him. He shuddered and managed to press himself closer to the ground, hoping they couldn’t hear the thudding of his heart. Their hunger was insatiable—every day they took more, every day they burned and murdered their way closer to the heart of Avalon. Some boldly wore the bones of the dead around their necks. How much blood will it take to make them stop? How many more children must die?
The Captain turned to the line. “Who called a halt?” he shouted. “Move your pockmarked asses. We’ve much work to do.”
The dark figures trudged on; as they passed, Peter caught sight of two large barrels being hauled along. What’s the Captain up to now? He felt his chest tighten. He glanced back the way he’d come. I should go back. Should warn them. He dug his nails into his palm. No, there’s no time. I have to bring more children. Just have to be quick, have to get back before the Captain lays all to waste.
THE CHILD THIEF slipped from the scrub even before the last Flesh-eater passed. He dashed from one piece of driftwood to the next, broke free from the last bit of cover, and sprinted toward the waves. The Mist rolled up to greet him, seemed to almost dance in anticipation like a dog awaiting a feeding.
Peter’s face tightened. All things come with a price. No one knows that better than I. He fought to clear his mind, knowing he’d never make it through the Mist otherwise, took a deep breath, and entered the swirling vapor.
The sounds from the beach died in the suffocating silence, even his own thoughts felt muffled. He stood stock-still as he searched for the Path—finding the Path, walking between the worlds, was one of his gifts. “There,” he whispered, spotting the tenuous thread of gold sparkles as it drifted across the grayness.
Peter caught up with the Path and followed, moving quickly, and sooner than he would’ve liked found himself staring at the Nike high-top. He stopped. Keep moving, he told himself. Keep moving or you’ll be as dead as the rest of them. But he heard Nick’s words: “If I’d fallen behind, would I still be out there? Wandering around, screaming your name until I died?” Peter wondered how long the boy in the high-tops had screamed his name. The boy? The child thief laughed at himself, an ugly, contemptuous laugh. The boy had had a name. Jonathan. And Jonathan was among the Sluagh now wasn’t he? Peter thought. “Well what of it?” he whispered bitterly. Whose fault is that? Am I to blame because he hadn’t listened? It’s better this way, he told himself, better to let the Mist sort them out…the weak from the strong. Peter kicked the high-top. Everything comes with a price. Everything. Some things just cost more than others.
Chimes rang from somewhere far away, then muffled laughter and children singing; the Mist began to stir.
This got Peter moving, almost running, keeping his eyes forward, keeping to the path.
“It will all end soon,” he whispered.
THE SPONGY GROUND gave way to asphalt and the Mist began to thin. The sun could be seen crawling up behind the buildings, and the sounds of the awakening city echoed down the long avenues of South Brooklyn. The Mist slid back into the sea, its swirling, sparkling mass dissipating, leaving Peter standing alone.
The child thief pulled his hood up and headed toward a distant cluster of bleak tenant buildings. A sign, covered in graffiti, proclaimed the complex to be the pride of the Brooklyn City Housing Commission. Peter understood none of the political implications of that sign, but he knew about slums and ghettoes; such squalid, impoverished places had always been fertile hunting grounds. The buildings were larger now, the accents and dress different, but the faces were the same destitute faces of centuries ago: the despair of the forgotten old, and the grim hostility of the futureless young. A breeding ground for troubled youth, sometimes too troubled. But time was short and Avalon needed more children; he would take his chances.
The child thief entered the housing complex through the back alleyways, sticking to the shadows, his keen senses alert for the dispirited and desperate, the abandoned and abused, for the lost child. Because lost children needed someone to trust, needed a friend, and Peter was good at making friends.
He shimmied up a drainpipe and dropped onto a balcony cluttered with garbage bags. He situated himself beneath a rain-sodden sheet of plywood and waited for the boys and girls to come out and play. As he waited, an odor permeated his nostrils, every bit as offensive as the sour rot of the garbage. It was the musky smell of grown-ups: their sweat, their gastric utterances, their dandruff-ridden scalps, greasy pimple-pocked skin, wax-encrusted ears, hemorrhoid-infested rumps. He wrinkled his nose. It hadn’t changed since the day he was born—over fourteen hundred years ago.
He could vividly recall that day: the crushing pressure as his watery sanctuary strove to eject him, fighting to remain, a feeling not unlike drowning, sliding from his mother’s womb, cold hard hands clamping about his legs and tugging him into the world, the blurry, dazzling brightness, the numbing cold, the shock as someone slapped him across his bottom, the fury and frustration as he wailed at the blurry blob holding him, and their booming laughter.
Then he was wiped down and passed to other hands, gentle, caressing hands that crushed him against warm, milk-swollen bosoms. Someone covered him in a blanket heated by the fireside and he began to suckle. The milk had been sweet, and the woman had begun to hum a soft lullaby. Peter fell into the sweetest sleep he would ever know.
The smells of grown-ups had not been offensive then, not when mixed with the spice of that large, communal roundhouse: the smoky aromas from the great fireplace, salted meats and honey mead, roasted potatoes and boiled cabbage, the musty scent of the two wolfhounds, stale bedding hay, the sharp tang of fresh-cut spruce hanging from the ceiling beams. But what made it all so harmonious to his nostrils was the ever-pervasive smell of his mother, that warm, sweet milk smell that to him would always be the smell of love.
His eyes were amber then, with only the faintest specks of gold, and his ears—though oddly shaped—had yet to develop their pointed tips. Other than a particularly lush head of reddish hair, he looked like any other cupid-faced newborn.
Peter wintered the first several weeks of his life either in his mother’s arms or in the great wicker basket by the hearth. His mother’s face was lost to him now, but not her grass-green eyes, nor the glow of her bright red hair.
His mother was never far, singing to him while she wove wool and mended tunics with her two golden-haired sisters. He slept away most of his day, dreamily watching his large family go about their daily routines: the two men and oldest boy leaving before dawn to hunt, the younger boys tending the sheep and gathering wood, the old bent man and his old bent wife going about their chores as long as the daylight would allow. At sunset the hunters would return, and with the thick stone walls between them and the winter wind, the family would gather around the rough-hewn oak table for their evening meal.
Day after day, Peter lay there watching and listening. Before long, he could make out words, then whole sentences. When he was three weeks old, he understood most everything said around him.
Each night, before dinner, his mother would nurse him, wrap him in his blanket, and leave him in the large basket near the hearth to sleep while the family ate. But Peter didn’t sleep; he watched and listened as they laughed and joked, cursed and argued, encouraged and consoled, as they shared the good and the bad of their days. And when they would laugh, he would smile, and the tiny specks of gold in his eyes would sparkle, for the sound of their mirth was a sweet song to his ears.
One night, on the evening of his seventh week in the world, Peter decided he was done just watching, that he wished to join in. So he kicked his legs free of the blanket, sat up, and climbed over the side of his basket. His legs gave out from under him and he landed on his bare bottom with a solid thump. What’s wrong with my legs, he wondered; it had never dawned on him that he couldn’t yet walk. Everyone else could. He pulled up onto wobbly legs and steadied himself on the rim of the basket. He looked out across the room. Suddenly the table seemed a long way off.
He took a tentative step, fell, pulled himself up and tried again. This time he didn’t fall. He took another step, another, then let go of the basket and began to waddle his way across the room. By the sixth and seventh step he was toddling toward the table, his face rapt in concentration.
The old man spotted him first. His jaw hung open in mid-chew and a clump of potato rolled out of his mouth and bounced off the table. The old lady frowned and swatted the old man. He let out a cry and jabbed a bony finger at Peter.
They all turned in time to see the naked infant stroll up to the table.
Peter, delighted to have his family’s full attention, put his small, chubby hands on his hips and grinned boldly—the gold flecks in his eyes now positively gleaming. When no one spoke, when no one did more than let out a high-pitched wheeze, Peter asked, “Can I join you?” But this being the first time he’d put words together, it came out more like “an I oin ouu?”
He frowned at the odd sound of his own voice. The words hadn’t come out right and the alarmed and astonished looks confronting him confirmed this. His tiny brow furrowed and he tried again. “Can I join you?” he said, much clearer. Then, with confidence, he said, “Can I join you? Can I?”
He looked expectantly from face to face. Surely that was right? Yet still they stared at him with those wide, startled eyes. If anything, he thought, they look more alarmed than before—angry even. His smile faltered and all at once he needed his mother, needed her badly, needed the reassurance that only her soft bosom and warm arms could provide. He put his arms out and took a step toward her. “Mama,” he called.
His mother stood up, knocking her chair over, her hands clutched at her mouth.
Peter stopped. “Mama?”
Fear—it was on all their faces. But there was more than fear on his mother’s face. Her eyes glared at him, as though accusing him of some horrible deed. What did I do? Peter wondered. What did I do?
The old lady leaped up, brandishing a large wooden spoon. “CHANGELING!” she cried. “GET IT OUT OF HERE!”
“NO!” his mother cried. She shook her head. “He’s no changeling! It’s HIS baby. The one from the woods.” She looked around at them, her eyes wild and desperate. “Now, do you see? Now do you believe?”
No one was listening to her; all their eyes were on Peter.
“KEEP IT AWAY FROM THE CHILDREN!” the old woman cried.
The old man herded the younger children away from the table, pushing them to the back of the room as far away from Peter as he could.
Peter’s mother grabbed the old woman’s sleeve. “Stop it! Stop it! Peter’s no changeling, Mama. I wasn’t lying. He took me—the forest spirit.” She pointed at Peter. “The forest spirit gave me that child.”
The old woman stared at Peter’s mother in horror. “No, child, don’t speak of it. Never speak of it.” She shook her daughter. “It is not yours. Do you understand me? It’s a changeling.” The old woman glared at Peter. “ASGER, GET IT OUT OF HERE BEFORE IT HEXES US ALL!”
One of the men pulled the long meat fork from out of the ham, the oldest boy grabbed the broom, and together they moved toward Peter.
Through a blur of tears Peter saw them coming for him; the man that he’d thought of as papa jabbed the fork while the boy circled around him.
Peter took a step back.
“CATCH IT!” the old woman howled. “Don’t let it get away!”
The broom slapped Peter from behind, knocking him to the gritty dirt floor. The boy pressed the broom onto Peter to hold him, the sharp twigs digging and poking into Peter’s soft skin.
“Don’t spill its blood in the house!” the old woman yelled. “Or there will be sickness upon us all. Take it into the forest. Leave it for the beasts.”
Hard, rough hands held him as the man corded prickly twine about his limbs, the twine bit into his skin, binding his arms to his body and his legs together.
As the man and boy donned boots and furs, the old woman brought Peter’s basket and blanket. “Take anything that it has soiled. I will get the grease.” She poured warm grease from the ham into a pot and brought it over.
The door was pulled open and a biting winter wind blew in. They took Peter outside into the night. Peter got one last look at his mother. She was on the floor, sobbing, her two sisters kneeling beside her, holding her.
“Mama,” Peter cried. She didn’t look up. The door shut.
The old woman poured the warm grease all over Peter. It stung his eyes, soaked into the blanket and quickly congealed into a cold paste on his skin. “It will make things go quicker,” the old woman told them. “Now take the creature far into the woods and leave it.”
The old woman gave the man a wad of wool. “Put this in your ears. No matter what it says, remember, that wicked thing is not of your loins.”
Both the man and boy held a torch. They threaded the broom through the handle of the basket and each carried an end. They marched off down the icy trail, the old woman watching them go from the door stoop.
The cold bit at the infant’s tiny nose. “Papa,” Peter called. “Papa, please. I’ll be good. I promise. I’ll be good. Papa? Please, Papa. Papa?” But no matter how Peter pleaded, the man wouldn’t look at him.
The man and the boy marched steadily, their mouths set tight, neither spoke as they tracked deeper and deeper into the dark, frigid forest.
Peter had no real idea how much time passed, but when they finally stopped, the moon was peeking down at him from high in the cloudy sky. They set him in a clearing surrounded by high shrub and an outcropping of crumbling rocks, then left in a hurry without a single look back.
Peter watched the tree limbs waving to the moon. Thick clouds tumbled in and the shadows wove together. He struggled to free himself, but the bindings were too tight. His fingers and toes grew numb and the cold became unbearable. Peter shook all over. “Mama,” he called. “Mama.” Over and over he called her name. His mother never came but something else did. Peter heard a loud sniffing and fell quiet.
A large shadow emerged from the bush. Its shape reminded him of the hounds back at the house. The dim moonlight glinted off the beast’s black eyes as it sniffed the air. Peter sensed the beast’s hunger. He tried not to make any sounds, but couldn’t help whimpering as the wolf slowly circled in on him.
The wolf bit one end of the blanket and tugged, tipping the basket over and spilling the infant out onto the frozen ground. Now fully exposed to the winter air, Peter began to wail. The wolf licked away the grease from the blanket, then moved to Peter.
It shoved its snout into his face, licking the grease from his cheeks, neck, and along his belly, then clamped its jaws on Peter’s leg and began to drag him into the bush. Peter yowled, but the wolf only clamped down tighter. There came a clatter from the rocks. The wolf let go of Peter and jerked its head up, ears alert.
“A-yuk,” came a gruff, gravelly voice.
There, on the flat outcropping of stone, stood a man. Only it wasn’t a man, really, as he couldn’t have stood much higher than the wolf’s shoulder. He was short in the legs, long in the arms, and solid through the chest and shoulders. His head was large, out of proportion, and grew straight from his shoulders. His skin was gray and gritty like the earth itself. He wore a patchwork of mangy animal furs, covered in dirt and alive with moss. His eyes were no more than black specks set deep beneath his protrusive brow. He saw Peter and grinned, exposing black gums and a sharp underbite of twisted teeth.
The wolf’s fur bristled, and a mean growl rumbled up from deep within its throat.
The moss man hopped off the rock and into the clearing. “GO!” he yelled and clapped his hands together.
The wolf dropped its head, peeled back its lips, displaying an arsenal of long, dangerous teeth, and snarled. The moss man let loose a snarl of his own and before Peter could blink, charged and leaped upon the wolf. He wrestled a hold about the beast’s mane, then bit into its ear, snarling and jerking his head side to side until he tore the wolf’s ear completely off.
The wolf howled, kicked, and spun.
The moss man let go and sent the animal yelping away into the bushes with a solid kick to the hindquarters. He spat the ear onto the ground and stared at Peter while licking the blood from his lips. “A baby,” he said, then picked up a twig and poked Peter. “Make good stew. A-yuk.” His speech came out slow and staggered, like words were unnatural for him.
“Please don’t eat me,” Peter pleaded. “Please. I’ll be good.”
The moss man’s brow rose with surprise then drew together suspiciously. “Baby can talk?” He crouched down, stuck his wide, flat nose into the crook of Peter’s neck, and sniffed deeply. Up close Peter could see all manner of bugs and worms crawling around in the man’s hair. The moss man looked puzzled. He wiped his finger through the bloody bite marks on Peter’s leg and dabbed the blood to the tip of his tongue. The moss man’s beady eyes grew round and he spat into the dirt. “Faerie blood!” he sneered. “Faerie blood is bad. Very bad!” His shoulders slumped, his face grew glum. “Can’t eat baby.”
The moss man bent and picked up the wolf’s ear, stuck the bloody end in his mouth, and started away.
For a second, Peter was relieved to see him go, then the bite of the cold reminded him that he was tied up, naked, and there was a hungry wolf nearby. “WAIT!” he cried. “Don’t leave me here!”
The moss man kept walking.
“PLEASE!” Peter screamed. “PLEASE STOP! PLEASE!” Peter’s screams turned to sobs. “Please don’t go.”
The moss man turned around. He looked at Peter and scratched his chin. Finally, after a long minute, he asked, “Can you catch spiders?”
“What?” Peter asked.
“Can you catch spiders? Lot of spiders in cave. Hate spiders. A-yuk.”
Peter didn’t want to go near any spiders, but he certainly didn’t want to be left in the woods either. He nodded. “Yes. I can catch spiders.”
The moss man considered while Peter shivered. Finally, he grunted, shuffled back, and untied the infant. “No more crying. Hate crying. You follow. Keep up or wolf get you.”
Peter crawled to his feet. He could barely stand, his feet were so numb. The moss man took off at a hearty pace and Peter tried to follow but fell after only a few steps. The frozen ground bit into his knees and hands and he let out a cry. He got up and tried again, but the ice cut into the bottom of his tender feet. After only a dozen steps he fell again. He tried crawling, but the pain was too much. He stopped. He could no longer see the moss man. It was dark, it was cold, he was lost, his knees were bleeding, he was naked and freezing to death, and there was a wolf somewhere nearby. Peter began to cry.
The moss man reappeared, glaring at Peter with his small, dark eyes. His nose wrinkled up in disgust. “No crying. Hate crying.”
Peter tried to stop, but couldn’t. Instead he began to bawl openly and loudly.
The man put his hands over his ears. “Stop that,” he groaned and started away. He made about six strides then stopped. He looked back at Peter, brows drawn together. Finally he let out a great sigh and strolled back to the infant. “Okay. Okay. I not leave. Now stop crying.”
Peter continued to wail.
The moss man pointed to the hill behind him. “Goll’s hill.” He thumbed his chest. “Goll.”
Peter wiped his nose with the back of his arm and fought back the tears. “I’m Peter,” he said between big, hitching breaths.
Goll hunkered down. “Come, Peter. Climb up.”
Peter climbed onto the man’s back, got a firm hold on the man’s hair, and clung tight as the moss man got to his feet.
Goll handed Peter the wolf’s ear. “Here, for you.” He wrapped Peter’s feet in his large, warm hands and away they went, following the icy trail up the hill while Peter chewed on the wolf’s ear.
They came to a dark hollow dug into a ledge; to Peter it looked like little more than a hole. Dirty straw, tuffs of greasy fur, and gnawed bones littered the worn earthen entrance. Shoes hung across the entranceway, sandals and boots, about a dozen all together: small shoes—children’s shoes.
Goll set Peter down and grinned. “Goll’s home. Very warm. Very nice.”
“JUST WHERE THE fuck you been?”
Recalled to the present, the child thief started. He glanced over his shoulder into the apartment. There was a light on now and through the thin, sagging curtain he saw a grotesquely large woman standing in her bra and panties, hands on hips. She was addressing the man leaning against the open front door.
It was raining, a light drizzle that turned the gray public housing to the color of mud.
“I asked you a question,” the woman continued, her voice rising. “I said, just where da fuck has your ass been all night?”
The man shrugged. He didn’t come in.
“How come your shirt’s inside out, Germaine? Huh? How come?”
Germaine looked down at his shirt, then back up at the woman and shrugged again.
“You been with that bitch again. Ain’t you?”
The man didn’t answer.
“Don’t give me that look,” she shrieked. “You know who I’m talking about!” The woman snatched a bottle off a TV tray and pointed it at the man.
“Woman,” the man said, his speech slurred. “You need to calm down. It ain’t like—”
“Goddamn you, Germaine! GODDAMN YOU!” She threw the bottle. It exploded against the door right next to the man’s head. Then she was slapping him.
The man shoved her away. “You need to back off, bitch! You need to just back—”
She came at him again and this time he punched her hard in the stomach, hard enough to knock her into the living room and onto the floor. The woman lay there, making a dreadful sound, like someone choking to death.
“CRAZY BITCH!” the man shouted. “CRAZY FUCKING BITCH!” He slammed the door and was gone.
The woman didn’t get up. She just lay there clutching her stomach and bawling.
Peter had had enough. He hopped down from the balcony; keeping his head low, he walked the buildings, his golden eyes peeping out from beneath his hood, scanning the courtyards, the playgrounds. His thoughts kept returning to the Captain, the barrels. Time was running out; he had to find a child today.
Light droplets of warm rain sprinkled down onto Nick’s face. He could feel the wetness running into his eyes, his mouth, his hair, pulling him out from the depths of sleep. Nick wiped his face, forced himself awake, and blinked up into the faint, misty morning glow.
Three tiny blue people, no bigger than mice, were peeing on him.
“What the fuck,” Nick cried. He sat up fast and rammed his head against the top of his cage. Cage? He spat repeatedly, trying to rid his mouth of the salty-sour taste. What the hell was he doing in a cage? He shook his head and wiped the pee out of his eyes, then spat some more.
There were at least two dozen of them staring down at him, some no bigger than grasshoppers, others closer to the size of rats—thin, spindly, humanlike creatures with silky insect wings and sharp whip tails. They were nude, their skin a deep sapphire blue, with wild manes of black or blue hair running down their backs.
Peter had said something about faeries, and pixies, and goblins. Of course Peter had said a lot of nutty things. Were these pixies? It really didn’t matter to Nick at the moment; he was more concerned with the way these creatures were looking at him, like he’d be good to eat.
“Shoo,” he whispered.
They continued to stare at him with their cruel, unblinking eyes.
“Shoo,” he said louder, waving his hand at them.
They hissed and bared needle-sharp teeth.
“Skat!” Nick said and swatted at the top of the cage.
They leaped up as one, the air suddenly alive with the humming of wings. Hovering, they shrieked at him like feral cats.
Nick slid as far away from them as he could get. He grabbed a handful of straw from the bottom of his cage and threw it at them. Startled, a small brown mouse darted out from beneath his cage, bounding across the stone floor.
The pixies were at it in a flash. The mouse let out a skin-crawling squeal as they pounced. Fur, flesh, and blood spattered the stones, a dog pile of snarling frenzied blue bodies as they fought viciously over the choicest bits.
“Christ,” Nick whispered, clutching his hands to his chest. “I gotta get out of here.” He glanced about the gloom and noticed there were at least a dozen kid-sized cages stacked against one wall. Like his, they were built from branches and twine. Many were covered in raggedy tarps looking for all the world like rotting corpses of beasts. A cluster of spears leaned against one another, teepee-style, and in their center—Nick swallowed—a human skull.
A sharp clack came from somewhere behind him.
The pixies stopped fighting and stood up, their faces alert, heads flicking about as they searched the darkness.
A soft thud followed by a long, low growl slid out of the shadows and the pixies zipped up and away, leaving Nick alone. Nick found himself wishing they’d stayed, anything but to be alone in a cage, in the gloom, with whatever had made that noise.
Another creak; this one closer. Pushing his face against the bars, Nick strained to see into the shadows. He made out a twisting pillar of roots that disappeared into the darkness above. Nick noted a shadow hunched next to the roots, and the shadow—it was moving! It rocked back and forth then darted away.
“Oh, crap.” What was that?
The room grew brighter and the fog began to thin. He could now make out objects hanging from the walls. Nick blinked. Knives with wicked curved blades hung in rows. Alongside were spiked clubs and an assortment of jagged-edged hatchets. Instruments designed to rend and maim, and they all looked well used. Hanging above the weapons were three skulls tied together in a pyramid. Their leathery, wormholed flesh stretched across silent screams. A pair of leg bones set in a cross hung below, forming a triptych of Jolly Rogers.
Gotta get out of here now! He pushed on the cage; it didn’t open. He noticed the front was tied with leather straps. He frantically tugged at the ties. A low hiss came from Nick’s left. He jerked about in time to see something skittered by on all fours. Nick gave up on the ties, no longer wanting out, only hoping the bars would keep him safe from whatever was out there.
“God, get me out of here,” he whimpered.
The fog continued to lift and he could now see all manner of spears and swords hanging from the walls. He noticed a huge fireplace, easily big enough for three grown men to stand in. Several cooking pots—kid-size cooking pots—hung from greasy black chains. Then he saw the bodies. He could just make out their limp, lifeless forms hanging on the far side of the chamber. How many were there? Four? Five maybe? They looked to be children.
Oh good God, Nick’s mind screamed at him. Just what kind of place is this?
Low howls issued from the shadows all around him. Something grunted, like a pig, then snorted, then snickered. Giggles broke out. They sounded like children, strange and wicked. Nick knew he would lose it if they didn’t stop.
A clump of shadows crept into the light and all the air left Nick’s lungs.
They were human, but barely, their bodies gangly and spidery. Childlike in their proportions, but a bit off, as though they’d been stretched. Large, round spots and long streaks of body paint ran along their legs and arms. Their muscles gleamed in the dim light, lean and wiry. Some wore hides, matted and mangy, festooned with bones, tusks and twigs, their ankles and wrists layered in bracelets of leather and twine. Their faces were hidden beneath devilish masks of hide and hair, feathers and antlers.
They closed in on him, dancing about with quick epileptic movements. They surrounded the cage and peered in with wild, crazy golden eyes, eyes just like Peter’s. Nick now understood that Peter had indeed played him. The pointy-eared boy had tricked him so that these things could…could what? Nick glanced at the long knives, at their hungry eyes.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?” Nick shouted, his voice quivering.
They answered by rolling their eyes around, like victims of delirium, by grinning wide, toothy grins and clacking their teeth together, clacking and clacking and clacking; the sound was deafening in the silence of the room.
No, no, no, Nick thought. No more, please.
Nick withdrew within himself then, just like in the mist. He had no desire to watch his own death, but if he had to, he wanted to be in the very back row with his hands over his eyes.
They untied his cage and dragged him out, strong, cruel fingers pinching into his flesh. Someone put a necklace made of bone and teeth, fingers and ears—human fingers and ears—around his neck. They pulled him over to the pillar and began to dance around him in circles, wrapping him in twine, all the while giggling and flicking their tongues at him, rolling their eyes and clacking their teeth. He wanted them to go ahead and kill him, anything to stop that awful clacking.
There came a clang from somewhere far off. The demon spawn, the monster children, or whatever they were, stopped in their tracks. They fell silent.
The mist was all but gone now and morning light filtered in from several angular windows. The extent of the circular chamber gradually materialized out of the gloom. The walls were a mix of rough-hewn stone and natural cave formation. Nick could clearly see a red door surrounded by giant roots, roots as thick as barrels. Nick couldn’t imagine what size tree could have roots that big. He tried to see the top but it disappeared into the roof of the chamber.
The demon spawn were all staring at the red door. One of them spoke, his voice hushed. “The Devil Beast comes.”
“Comes to break bones and chew marrow,” said another.
Several answered in anxious whispers: “We shall all eat soon.”
They spread out, forming a wide circle, and began to smack their closed fists into their open palms.
Fear sharpened Nick’s senses and he became acutely aware that the air smelled of stale sweat, boiled meat, wet leaves, and beetles. He studied the red door. Could there really be something coming to cook and eat him? He didn’t want to believe it. Yet he found his eyes straying to the knives and hatchets, the dark stains saturating the dirt, the child-size pots hanging in the fireplace. He couldn’t get the thought of the hanging bodies out of his head. I don’t want to die, he thought and realized he was crying.
Bells jangled behind the red door, louder and louder. Then it stopped. There came the clack of a bolt being thrown and the door swung slowly inward.
A monster stood in the doorway, a head taller than the other creatures, draped in hides and wearing a mask of bone and fur. A pair of goat horns twisted out from either side of its head and a tangle of coarse hair was captured in a thick braid that ran down the length of its back. And all of it, skin, mask, fur, horns, was covered in cracking red paint. It carried a short club with one long jagged hook protruding from its end.
It locked its eyes on Nick, raised the club, and let loose a loud snort.
“Oh no!” Nick cried. “No! No! No!” He jerked wildly at his bindings, tugging and pulling until he freed his arms. He yanked down the twine around his waist and legs, stumbled to the ground as he tore his feet free. Nick rolled to his feet, glanced back, saw the Devil Beast coming for him, and ran. He tried to break out of the ring of creatures, to barrel right through them, but they grabbed him and shoved him back.
The Devil Beast caught Nick across his face with an open palm. Pain exploded in Nick’s head and he went sprawling to the stones. He crumpled into a ball and lay there clutching his head. It’s over, Nick thought. I’m dead.
The Devil came for him, driving a hard kick into Nick’s upper thigh. Nick screamed, saw a foot coming for his face, and managed to move. The kick caught his shoulder and sent him tumbling.
“STOP IT!” Nick screamed.
The Devil tromped after him, raising the club with its wicked hook above his head. Nick sprung out of the way. The club hit the stones, getting knocked loose from the Devil Beast’s grasp and bouncing across the floor to the middle of the ring. Nick jumped up, limping away, trying to keep some distance between himself and his tormentor.
The Devil leaped forward, catching Nick by the arm, spun him around, and backhanded him across the face.
Searing pain and white-hot light sent Nick reeling, fighting to keep his feet. And still the Devil came.
Nick tasted blood, touched his lip, and was shocked by the amount of blood on his hand. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” Nick screamed, as though he didn’t know, as though he expected anything other than being brutally beaten to death.
The Devil just continued to track him around and around, giving no answers, a predator intent on its prey.
“WHAT?” Nick screamed. “WHAT?” Nick spotted the hooked club lying in the center of the ring. His eyes shot back and forth between the hook and the Devil.
The Devil stopped and stared at him.
Nick dove for it, snatching the hook up off the stones. The weight of it surprised him and he almost dropped it. He held it in both hands and pointed the wicked hook at the Devil. “C’MON!” Nick cried, blood and spit flying from his lips. “C’MON YOU MOTHERFUCKER!”
The Devil just stood there.
“C’MON!” Nick screamed, the club shaking as his arms quivered.
The creatures around him began to chant, “Blood, blood, blood,” on and on until Nick thought he would go mad.
“Enough!” He let out a howl and rushed the Devil, bringing the hook around in a wide overhand swing, intent on sinking it deep into the Devil’s skull.
At the last possible second, the Devil caught Nick’s arm at the wrist and wrung the club away. The weapon bounced off the stones with a loud clank and the chamber fell silent.
“Good,” the Devil said and pushed his mask back.
Nick found himself looking not at a beast, but a boy.
The boy smiled at Nick. “You did good.” He clasped Nick’s hand in his own and raised it up. “NEW BLOOD FOR DEVILTREE!” he shouted, then threw his head back and howled.
The creatures joined in, howling and beating the floor; the entire chamber rung with their fervor. They slid off their masks and now Nick could plainly see that beneath the wild hair and body paint, they were just a bunch of stupid-ass kids.
He caught sight of the blue pixies leaping up and down among the rafters, mimicking the boys like little blue monkeys, adding their feral shrieks to the cacophony. The whole chamber rung with hooting, braying, and cackling. The world seemed a spinning kaleidoscope of insanity, and Nick knew that he’d gone stark raving mad.
The child thief sat on a bench near the playground. Buildings loomed over him on all five sides of the large courtyard. As morning pushed into noon, the beehive of apartments began to wake up. He scanned the balconies, alert for any sign of wayward youth, but mostly found himself confronted with the same tired, hungover faces of the adults. They congregated in small clusters, lounging listlessly about the balconies, often with their apartment doors propped open and stereos blasting out into the courtyard. There was laughter here and there, but for the most part it sounded mean. Many of the people just stared blankly, their eyes glazed over, reminding Peter of the dead in the Mist.
A gleeful squeal caught Peter’s ear, followed by a burst of spirited laughter that drew him like candy.
A few younger kids had braved the drizzle to slip down the slide and climb the monkey bars. They formed teams and began an energetic game of tag.
The child thief watched them, smiling. Here, among so much drudgery—oblivious to the profane graffiti marring every available surface—these children could find joy. They can always find joy, he thought, because they still have their magic.
Peter found himself wanting nothing more than to run and play with them, the same deep desire he had when he first came across children all those long years ago. Only things hadn’t gone so well then. His smile faded. No, that had been a day of hard lessons.
HE WAS SIX years old by then, slipping silently through the woods in his raccoon pelt. It flapped out behind him like a cape, the long striped tail bouncing in rhythm with his stride. He wore the head pulled over his face, like a hood, and his gold-flecked eyes peered out from the raccoon mask, scanning the woods, searching for game. It was spring, so he wore only a loincloth and rawhide boots beneath his coon skin. He carried a spear in each hand and a flint knife tucked into his belt. His body was painted with berry juice and mud to disguise his scent. Goll had taught him that, as well as the importance of always carrying two spears: a light one for game and a stouter one for protection against the larger beasts in the forest.
Peter placed a handful of walnuts in the center of a clearing, then ducked beneath a tall cluster of bushes. When he spied two brown squirrels in a nearby tree, he cupped his hands and mimicked a turkey foraging. Goll had taught him this trick too, that it was better to mimic an animal other than the one you were hunting, because rarely could you fool an animal with its own call, and nothing brought game quicker than the sound of other animals feeding.
Sure enough, both squirrels scurried his way. Peter slowly set the larger spear down and hoisted the light spear to his shoulder. The squirrels saw the nuts, saw each other, and raced for the prize.
Peter stood and threw. The spear hit its mark, leaving one squirrel behind as the other raced away, chattering angrily at Peter.
Peter whooped and leaped up. No spider soup for me, he thought. Tonight I get squirrel stew.
A wolf trotted into the clearing and stood between Peter and his prize. The wolf had only one ear.
The beast locked its dark eyes on Peter. Its lips peeled back as though it were actually grinning.
Peter snatched up his heavy spear and thrust it out before him. “No,” Peter said. “Not this time.”
A low growl rumbled from the wolf’s throat.
Peter held his ground. The wolf had plagued him relentlessly over the last several months. Every time Peter made a kill, the wolf showed up and stole his meal. Peter was tired of spider soup. Today he would keep his prize.
The wolf’s eyes laughed at Peter, taunting the boy, daring him, as though it would like nothing better than to tear his throat open.
Peter swallowed loudly, his mouth suddenly dry. Goll had told him there was only one way to master the wolf: to attack it head-on. “Wolf is hunter,” he’d said. “When you hunt wolf, wolf get mixed up. No know what to do. Then you beat wolf. You will see. Show fear,” Goll had laughed. “Then wolf will eat you. A-yuk.”
Now, Peter told himself. Rush in. Stab it through the heart.
The wolf lowered its head and began to slowly circle the boy. Peter knew what the wolf was up to, they’d played out this dance many times. The wolf was trying to cut off his retreat, trying to get between him and the nearest tree. Peter knew if he took his eyes off the wolf, even for a second, it would attack.
The wolf let loose a loud snarl.
Peter glanced toward the tree.
The wolf charged.
Peter yelped, dropped his spear, and ran. Fortunately, even at six, Peter was as fleet and agile as a squirrel. He dashed across the clearing and leaped for the tree, catching a low branch, then swung up. There came a loud clack of teeth and a sharp tug that almost pulled him from the branch. Peter scampered up a few more limbs before daring a glance below.
There, looking up at him, was the wolf, the raccoon tail dangling from its jaws.
The wolf circled the tree a few times, then trotted over to the dead squirrel.
Peter watched from his small, uncomfortable perch as the wolf devoured his dinner.
When the wolf was finished, it curled up beneath the tree and went to sleep.
As the long day slowly passed, Peter did his best to keep his legs from falling asleep and himself from falling out of the tree. By dusk, his whole body was numb and he had resigned himself to a miserable night.
“Well, look there,” called a gritty voice. “A Peterbird.”
Both Peter and the wolf looked up. Goll appeared above them on a short ledge.
Goll glanced at the wolf, what was left of the squirrel, then back up at Peter. He grinned. “You feed old one-ear again? A-yuk.”
Peter’s face colored and he looked away.
Goll leaped down from the stones and strolled through the underbrush toward the clearing. The wolf, knowing the routine, simply gave Goll a disdainful look and loped off.
Peter dropped from the tree, retrieved his spears, and slunk over to Goll.
Goll held up a large rabbit. “Goll will eat good tonight.” He nudged the remains of the squirrel with his toe. “Look like Peter get spider soup again. A-yuk.”
Peter’s shoulders slumped. “Ah, Goll. C’mon.”
“You want to eat good. You must hunt good.”
Peter kicked at the scraps of squirrel fur and followed Goll glumly back to the cave.
PETER DIPPED HIS spoon into the bowlful of dark, soupy muck. He raised it to eye level and looked from the clot of soggy spider legs over to the half-eaten rabbit in Goll’s hand. The aroma of the roasted meat filled the entire cave. Goll licked the grease off his fingers, smacking loudly as he grumbled contentedly.
“Please?” Peter asked.
Goll shook his head.
“Just a few bites?”
“You know rule. You eat what you kill. You want rabbit, you kill own rabbit. A-yuk.”
“How am I supposed to do that with that stupid wolf following me?”
“You need kill wolf.”
Peter was quiet for a long time. “Goll, will you kill the wolf? Please?”
Goll shook his head. “Not hunting me.”
Peter let out a sigh and sat his bowl down. He stood up, walked to the cave entrance, and looked out into the night. He could see the stars twinkling through the spring leaves. He thought of his mother; sometimes he could close his eyes and actually smell her hair. He wondered what they were eating back in the great house, wondered why they’d left him for the beasts. He slapped one of the boots hanging across the entranceway, watched it swing, and wondered what the child had been like who had worn it, if that child had been left in the woods by its family.
“Whose shoes are these?”
“Little boys. Little girls.”
“Why do you have their shoes?”
“Must take them off before you can eat them.”
“Eat them?” Then he understood. “The children?”
“You eat children?”
“Only when I can catch them.”
Peter stared silently at the shoes. “I don’t think I would like to eat children.”
“You would like. Very tender. Very juicy. Much better than spider soup.”
“Where do children come from?”
“Where’s the village?”
“NO! No speak of village. You never go near village. Men are there. Men very bad. Very dangerous.”
“More dangerous than the wolf?”
“Yes. Very more dangerous.”
Peter tapped the shoe again. It would be nice to have another kid around. “Goll, if you catch another one, can I keep it? We could build a cage for it. Okay?”
Goll cocked his head at Peter. “Peter, you very strange. You stay away from village.”
Peter came and sat back down next to the fire.
He looked at the hind leg of the rabbit in Goll’s bowl, then up at Goll, and smacked his lips.
“No begging. Hate begging.”
Peter stuck out his lower lip.
Goll rolled his eyes and frowned. “Here,” he grunted. “Take it.” Goll slid the bowl over to Peter, watched the boy devour the rabbit leg. After a bit, a smile pricked at the corners of the moss-man’s mouth. He shook his head, then crawled beneath his furs and went to sleep.
Peter finished the rabbit, lay back, enjoying the warmth of the meat in his belly. His eyes grew heavy. Sure would be nice to have another kid to play with, he thought. I could teach it to hunt and—Another thought came to Peter. Why, together we could kill that mean old wolf. Peter found he was now wide awake. I bet I could catch one. Why, I know I could.
PETER WATCHED THE men through a knot of berry bushes. He’d set off before daybreak in search of the village, venturing far south of Goll’s hill, farther than he had ever dared before, and had come across a road, and not long thereafter heard horses. He’d trailed them most of the morning and they now stood drinking at a stream. Four men stretched their legs beside the horses, stout figures with thick braided mustaches and full growths of beard, brass rings in their ears, wearing leather breeches and woolspun tunics. Three of them had great long swords strapped to broad, bronze-studded belts. The fourth man wore hides and carried a double-bladed ax. After living with Goll so long, he thought these men to be fearsome and giant. Peter understood why Goll was so afraid of them.
There was also a wide-faced, solid woman with flaxen hair that ran down her chest in thick braids. She wore a long dress and, atop her broad hips, a wide belt adorned with swirling brass hoops. But it was the children that captivated Peter. He pushed the hood of his raccoon pelt back to get a better look. There were three of them: two boys about his age and a girl who looked a couple years younger. The boys wore only britches and sandals, the girl a bright red dress. Peter watched mesmerized as they chased each other round and round, leaping over logs and skipping through the stream.
One boy would tag the other and the chase would start anew. The little girl chased both of them, shouting for them to let her play until they finally got after her, their faces twisted up and their hands clutching the air like claws. The girl went screaming to her mother, leaving the two boys falling over themselves with laughter. Peter caught himself laughing along with them, and had to cover his mouth. It looked like fun. They could play that game at Goll’s hill, Peter thought, and now, more than ever, he wanted to catch one.
He eyed the men, wondering how to grab a child with them so near, decided he needed to be closer, and slipped up from tree to tree.
One of the boys came bounding into the woods, sprang over a bush, ducked around the tree, and came face to face with Peter. Both boys were so surprised that neither knew what to do.
The boy cocked his head to the side and gave Peter a queer look. “Are you a wood elf?”
“No. I’m a Peter.”
“Well then I’m a Edwin. Want to play?”
Oh, yes indeed, Peter thought, nodded, and gave the boy a broad grin. He started to grab the boy when the girl rounded the tree. She saw Peter’s raccoon cape, the red and purple body paint, let out an ear-piercing shriek, and took off.
“Edwin,” bellowed one of the men. “Come back here.”
Peter heard heavy boots tromping his way and ducked back into the woods.
The man came around the tree and glared at the boy. “I told you to stay close.” The man scanned the trees. “There are wild things in these hills. Nasty boogies that live in holes. They steal little boys like you. And do you know what they do with them?”
The boy shook his head.
“They make stew out of their livers and shoes out of their hides. Now come along. We’ve much ground to cover by dark.”
PETER ARRIVED AT the village well after dark. His feet and legs ached, his stomach growled. But he ignored his body’s grumblings, there was only one thing on his mind—the boy.
He waited in the trees until the men finished putting away the beasts, until there was no one moving in the night but him. There were a dozen roundhouses similar to the one he’d been born in, plus a sprawling stable. These were built around a large square. Pigs grunted, and chickens clucked in a pen somewhere.
Peter slipped silently in among the structures, feeling exposed out among the buildings, sure he was being watched, that the huge, brutish men were waiting for him around every corner. He pulled out his flint knife and ducked from shadow to shadow, sniffing, alert to the slightest sound. He wrinkled his nose; the village stank of beasts, sour sweat, and human waste. Peter wondered why anyone would want to live here instead of in the woods.
He pushed up against the boy’s house, sliding his back along the rough stone and sod wall, creeping up to a small, round window. Dogs began barking from inside and Peter’s heart drummed in his chest. A deep, gruff voice quieted the dogs. Peter tried to peek in the window, but the heavy shutters were closed and locked tight. He plucked at the mud between the slats with his knife until a thin beam of light appeared. Peter peered in.
The room looked for all the world as his home had when he was an infant: the large hearth, the kettles and pots, the spruce hanging from the rafters. The whole family was seated around the table, passing bowls of potatoes and cabbage, the boys giggling and carrying on.
Peter inhaled, and the rich smell of smoked meat and baked bread brought memories of his own family flooding vividly back to him. An overwhelming longing hit him so hard that his legs gave way and he slid down the wall and sat in the dirt. He hugged his legs as his eyes welled up. He shut them tight and hot tears rolled down his cheeks. “Mama,” he whispered. Her laugh, her broad smile, her sweet smell, all of it felt so close, as though he could just walk into this house and she’d be there—would call him to her, would crush him against her warm bosom and sing him lullabies. Peter ground his teeth together and wiped angrily at his tears. He knew very well what would happen if he knocked on this door.
A gale of laughter escaped through the window, not just the boys’, but the whole family, all of them laughing together. Peter glared into the night. The laughter continued, pricking at him. He jabbed his knife into the dirt. “Who cares?” he whispered through clenched teeth. “Who wants to be stuck in a stupid stinky house, with mean stupid grown-ups anyhow?”
His stomach growled and he stood up. He made his way toward the stable, seeking out the henhouse. Maybe I’ll burn their house down. Then they’ll know how it is to be out in the cold.
He found the henhouse, silently slid over the latch, and slipped in. A few hens raised their heads, clucked, and eyed him suspiciously. Peter waited for them to settle, then helped himself to all the eggs he could find. He spied several burlap sacks heaped in the corner, picked one up, and measured it against himself. About right. He left the coup, prowled the stable until he found some rope and a bludgeon. He held the short, stout piece of wood out, tested its weight. He hoped he wouldn’t need it, but brought it along anyway, just in case, because he’d never stolen a child before and thought a good, stout stick might just be in order.
He hid the stash behind a giant oak tree that stood on the edge of a field. He climbed up into the oak to sleep, but sleep didn’t come easy. Tomorrow, he thought. Going to catch me a Edwin.
PETER AWOKE TO the rooster’s crow. He sat up, inhaled the brisk morning air, and wondered if the boy was about yet. He hopped down from the tree. The sun was just peeping over the rise, and a fine mist covered the freshly turned earth in the nearby fields. He relieved himself, then crouched next to the oak, watching, waiting. He didn’t have a plan, not yet, not beyond getting Edwin to come behind the tree so that he could put him in that sack.
Men, women, and older children came out and began to go about their day. Soon the air was alive with the clank of the smith’s hammer, livestock being fed, the calls and grunts of men at field work, but still no sign of the boy.
Peter began to fidget. He didn’t like being so close to the village, too aware of the many men about. Finally he heard spirited shouts and caught sight of Edwin and the other boy. Peter watched them head across the square and into the stables. They reappeared a moment later carrying a bucket in each hand, then disappeared into a line of trees at the bottom of a slope. Peter checked for any nearby men, then dashed from haystack to haystack, crossing the field to the trees.
He found them filling their buckets in a small brook. He slid behind a thicket of blackberry bushes. The boys climbed carefully up the slope, watching their step as they lugged the pails of water. Peter waited until they were almost upon him, then leaped out. “Hi!”
The boys screamed, turned to run, and crashed into each other. Both boys, their pails, and the water spilled back down the slope.
Peter fell to his knees, laughing so hard he had to clutch his belly.
The two boys exchanged terrified looks. Then Edwin’s face broke into a grin. “Hey, it’s him!” he cried.
The other boy looked perplexed.
“It’s him,” Edwin repeated. “The wood elf! See, Otho. I told you.” Edwin punched the other boy on the shoulder. “Now who’s the idjit?”
Otho squinted at Peter. “Are you really a wood elf?”
“His name’s Peter,” Edwin said. “Show him your ears, Peter.”
Peter pushed back his raccoon mask.
“Well damn,” Otho said. “A wood elf. A real wood elf.” He reached out and touched Peter, as though making sure he was real. “What are you doing here?”
“Let’s play,” Peter said.
“Play?” Otho responded. “We can’t. We got all sorts of stupid chores to do.”
“Not every day you get to play with a wood elf,” Edwin said.
“Well, yeah. That’s true,” Otho agreed. “But if we don’t get the hogs watered, Papa will whip us.”
“I know lots of wood-elf games,” Peter said. “They’re a lot more fun than carrying buckets of water about.” A sly grin lit up his face. “We could play for a little while. Over behind the haystacks, near that big tree. Where no one can see us.”
The boys returned Peter’s sly grin, because Peter’s grin was a most contagious thing.
Edwin nudged Otho. “Wood-elf games. I’ve never played wood-elf games.”
“Well,” Otho said. “Maybe for just a little while.”
“Great!” Peter said. “Follow me. And remember, we can’t be seen.” He took off in a crouch. The two boys followed him up the path, mimicking his every move.
They reached the haystacks, stopped. Peter peered around, making sure the way was clear.
“Hey, Peter,” Edwin called. “Watch this.” The boy scrambled to the top of the haystack. Peter started to warn him to get down before someone saw him, when the boy leaped across to another haystack. Edwin poked his head back over the stack. “Bet you can’t do that.”
Peter frowned. “Bet I can,” he said and leaped from one haystack to the next. And for the next hour, they jumped haystacks, raced, played tag and hide-and-seek. Peter forgot about the sack, the rope and bludgeon, even about the men, he was having too much fun. Soon, they’d lost their shirts—Peter only in his loincloth—their torsos glistening in the hot morning sun, covered from head to toe in mud, leaves, straw, and big, fat grins.
They were mighty berserkers now, and a particularly tall haystack behind the stable was a terrible dragon. In a ferocious attack, Peter leaped upon the haystack and tried to climb to its summit. The stack tilted, Peter yelped, and the whole heap toppled over, pinning him beneath a blanket of soggy hay.
The boys ran up and began to dig Peter out. When they uncovered his face, Peter spat out a mouthful of straw, began to cough, then laughed. He choked, spat out more straw, then laughed some more. Soon they were all laughing so hard that they rolled on their backs, helpless.
“Hey,” Peter hollered, between bouts of giggling. “Hey…get…me…out of here.”
“THERE YOU ARE!” came a woman’s sharp, angry shout.
The laughter died. Peter’s heart leaped into his throat as he suddenly remembered just where he was.
“What nonsense is this? I’ve been—” She stopped in mid-sentence, her mouth agape. “Who…? What…?” She let out a scream.
Peter twisted around to look at her and she pointed at him with one fat, trembling finger and screamed again. “GOBLIN! GOBLIN!”
An older bald man and a wiry pockmarked youth stuck their heads out from the stable. They saw Peter and came in at a run. The youth carried a pitchfork.
Peter yanked his arms out from the hay and dug frantically to free his legs.
The two boys looked from their mother to Peter. “No, Mama,” Edwin cried. “He’s not a goblin. He’s a—”
Peter jerked one leg free and kicked and twisted to free the other.
“GET AWAY FROM IT!” the woman screeched. “EDWIN! OTHO! HEAR ME, GET AWAY FROM IT NOW!” When the boys didn’t move, she ran up and snatched them back.
The pockmarked youth raced up, raised the pitchfork, and drove it right for Peter’s face.
Peter jerked his head away, but not fast enough. One of the prongs sliced down the side of his scalp. He felt a red-hot slash of pain and let out a howl. In a wide-eyed fit of panic, he kicked his remaining leg free and scrambled up. He almost made his feet when someone grabbed his arm and jerked him off the ground. The bald man slammed a huge fist into the side of Peter’s face. Peter’s head exploded with white light and pain. His legs buckled, but before he could fall the man punched him again, a hard jab in the ribs, sending the boy tumbling backward. Peter hit the ground in a heap and everything went blurry.
“KILL IT!” the woman shouted.
Peter tried to suck in a breath but his mouth was full of something wet and warm. He coughed violently, spraying the ground with his own blood. The side of his face had gone numb. Through tears and blood he saw a blurry figure moving toward him.
“NOW, KILL IT! QUICK!”
“I got it!” the youth cried.
Peter cleared his eyes in time to see the youth coming at him with the pitchfork. Dizzy, and slow, Peter made it to his feet.
The youth jabbed him. Peter tried to twist out of the way, but the prongs raked across his side, leaving behind three flesh-deep gashes.
The bald man made a grab. Peter ducked and ran, stumbling at first, but once he got his feet under him, ran, ran like the wind into the forest.
Once within the trees, he collapsed to his knees, clutching his side, his face clenched tight with pain. He let out a loud, hitching sob, then spat repeatedly, trying to clear his mouth of blood.
They were yelling and pointing at him from the field. Several more men and women had come around the stable. They weren’t following him, just standing and pointing excitedly into the woods. He could see their faces, could see the revulsion, the fear…the hatred.
Other men came up then. Men with thick, braided beards carrying great, long swords. Peter ran.
PETER’S LUNGS BURNED. He’d been running most of the day and still he dared not stop. He glanced back, eyes wide with terror. He could hear them, their dogs, and the hard clumps of the horses’ hooves. They were closing in.
Peter spotted Goll’s hill far ahead through a break in the trees, and the horrible realization that there was no safety there, that there was no safety anywhere, hit him. Goll couldn’t stop these huge men with their terrible swords and axes. The men would kill Goll. Peter cut down a new path, headed toward the cliffs, leading the men away from Goll’s hill, hoping the horses at least wouldn’t be able to follow him up the steep ledges.
Peter made the cliffs and stopped, listening for the men as he tried to catch his breath. He didn’t hear them. A touch of hope lifted Peter’s spirits. Maybe they’d given up. Maybe he wouldn’t die today after all. Then he saw the smoke and his chest tightened. “Goll,” he whispered.
Peter ran, ignoring the stabbing pain in his side, the throbbing in his head as he sprinted as fast as he could back to Goll’s hill. He topped the rise and froze.
Smoke billowed out from Goll’s burrow and there, dangling from the great oak, hung Goll. The rope was strapped about his chest, pinning his arms to his side, his feet twitched only inches above the ground. The huge men surrounded him, some on horses, some on foot, all with swords and axes in hand.
The moss man was charred and smoke drifted from his red, raw skin. He had no less than a dozen arrows in him, and yet still he kicked and spat. The dogs bit at him, tearing open the flesh on his legs as the men brayed with laughter.
Peter’s knees gave way and he stumbled against a fallen tree, his fingers digging into the rotting bark as he slid to the ground. He wanted to stop them, do anything to stop them, but couldn’t move, couldn’t do more than stare on in utter horror.
A huge fellow with a thick black beard and long knife walked up to Goll.
Goll stared at the blade with wide, terrified eyes.
The bearded man grabbed Goll by the hair and jerked his head back. He first cut off Goll’s left ear, then the right. As the moss man struggled, the men laughed and the dogs ran around in tight circles, howling.
The man jabbed the blade into the moss man’s stomach. Goll screamed and twitched spastically as the man sawed his gullet open. The man slid the blade into a loop of intestine and pulled it partially out of the wound, then whistled to the dogs. The dogs snatched the loop and pulled Goll’s intestines out onto the dirt in wet, rolling coils, tugging and fighting over them as the moss man wailed.
Peter watched, stone-faced, unable to move or cry, to hardly even blink. He watched. He missed nothing.
After too long, much too long, Goll stopped wailing, his head sagged forward, and he was still.
WHEN THE MEN left, Peter stood and walked down the hill. He didn’t cry, he didn’t feel the cuts in his side, the gash across his head, not even the ground beneath his feet. He did not feel. He moved slowly, methodically.
He found Goll’s bone-handled knife and cut the moss man down. To Peter’s surprise, Goll opened his eyes.
“Be brave, Peterbird,” Goll rasped. “Kill the wolf.” And that was it. The moss man’s eyes glazed over.
Peter slipped Goll’s knife into his belt, gathered up his spears, and headed north, away from the village. He had no clear thought of where he
was going, only that he was going away from the village, away from the men.
It wasn’t long before Peter heard the wolf trailing him. Peter stopped in a clearing, turned, and waited. The one-eared wolf appeared. Its lips curled up like it was laughing at the boy, like it knew it had him.
Peter didn’t flinch, didn’t hesitate. He dropped the light spear and hefted the stout one to shoulder level. He slipped the bone-handled knife into his other hand, locked eyes with the wolf, and came at the beast in a dead run.
The wolf looked confused.
Peter’s eyes flared and he let loose a terrible howl.
The wolf fell back.
Peter threw the spear.
The wolf hunkered to avoid the spear, and when it did, Peter leaped forward and drove Goll’s knife deep into its side.
The wolf let out a yelp and took off, but after only a few strides it began to weave and stagger, its hindquarters collapsing, its breath coming out in a harsh, wet wheeze.
Peter snatched up his spear and followed the wolf.
The wolf stopped, unable to do anything but stand and watch the boy coming to kill it, panting as blood dripped from its lips.
Peter’s eyes were hard, without hate nor pity, the eyes of a predator. He thrust the spear into the wolf’s heart. The wolf thrashed, twitched, then lay still.
Peter stared at the wolf for a long time. His eyes began to well. A single tear ran down his bruised, swollen cheek, then another, and another. Peter fell to his knees before the wolf and began to sob. The tears were for Goll, but they were also for himself, a six-year-old boy without a mother, or a friend, scared, hated, and with nowhere to go.
A SCREAM SNATCHED the child thief from his thoughts.
One of the little kids, a boy, lay on the ground in front of the monkey bars. Two older boys stood over him laughing, not teenagers, just bigger boys, maybe eleven or twelve.
The small boy climbed back to his feet and tried to wipe the mud from the front of his T-shirt. Two chubby girls of about seven or eight ran up and stood on either side of him, braids sprouting from their heads.
“Leave him alone,” one of the girls said. She jutted out her chin and planted her hands firmly on her hips. Her friend followed suit.
The handful of children in the playground stopped playing and began to gather around.
“You want me to kick your ass too?” the big boy said and shoved the girl, knocking her to her knees. His pal chuckled.
“Don’t you push her!” the little boy shouted, his muddy hands balled into fists, his face full of fear and hate. Peter shook his head, knowing that soon this little boy would be just as mean as these bigger kids, because meanness had an ugly way of spreading.
“What you gonna do about it?”
“We was here first,” the second girl shouted as she pulled her friend back up.
“Well, we’re here now,” the big kid said. “So get the fuck outta here less you want me to kick all your stupid little asses.”
When none of them moved, the big kid stepped forward. “You think I’m fucking around? I said—” He saw Peter standing next to the little boy. A confused expression crossed his face as though unsure just where Peter had come from. He glanced back at his pal, but his friend looked just as surprised.
The child thief pulled his hood back and locked his golden eyes on the two big kids, the same eyes that had backed down a full-grown wolf. He didn’t say a word, just stared at them.
The big kids seemed to deflate. “C’mon,” the kid said to his pal. “Playgrounds are for candy-asses.” They left, casting anxious looks back over their shoulders as they went.
“Hey, kid,” the little girl said. “You got funny ears.”
Peter grinned at her and wiggled his ears. The kids all burst out laughing.
“You wanna play with us?” asked the boy.
“I do,” Peter said. “I most certainly do.” His eyes gleamed devilishly. “But not today. Today I have to find a friend.”
Nick sat on the floor with his back firmly against the wall. His aching head felt like it would never stop ringing. He touched his swollen lip and winced. At this point, he felt fairly confident that no one was going to eat him, at least not this morning. He rested his head against the stone works and watched the kids go about their madness.
Half-naked kids darted about in all directions, pushing and yelling, but somehow, out of the chaos, fires were started, torches were lit, bowls were brought out of cupboards, and soon the air smelled of soot and smoke. Nick tried to count the kids, but they moved around too much. He guessed around twenty all together, and was amazed at the ruckus they could make.
Soft morning light flickered along the stone-and-dirt floor. Nick could see a sparse canopy of limbs through the few breaks in the roof. He scanned the chamber: it was a bit smaller than a basketball court. His eyes returned over and over to the hanging bodies in the far corner. They’d looked so real in the fog, but now, in the light, it was plain to see that they were just straw dummies. Why there should be straw dummies hanging from the rafters was a mystery, but at this point they were the least of his concerns.
The place was a mess: cages and tarps strewn all along one wall, clothes piled up in and on top of old barrels, candy bar wrappers, crumbled cigarette boxes and butts among the straw and leaves, old, blackened chewing gum worn into the stones. The only thing that was neat were the weapons, glistening with fresh oil and hung in nice rows, along with various types of leather armor, helmets, and pads.
Cooking smells caught Nick’s attention: a nutty, cinnamon aroma. Nick was surprised when his stomach began to growl. How his stomach could think of food after all that had happened was beyond him. He watched them fill their bowls up with a soupy goop. Was that gruel? Nick wasn’t even sure what gruel was, much less what it looked like, but he bet it looked a lot like that stuff.
One by one the kids plopped down onto the benches on either side of a long wooden table and began to eat. Nick still had a hard time believing what he was seeing: wild-haired savages slurping, smacking, yelling, and laughing with large gobs of food in their mouths, several using their hands instead of the big wooden spoons. All the while the little blue people flew about trying to snatch stray berries and nuts.
Another growl came from Nick’s stomach. He really wanted a bowl of whatever it was they were eating. But there was no way he was going to beg to be fed, not after the way they’d treated him.
A girl walked purposely over to him. She had the wide cheekbones and a strong jawline of a Native American Indian. Her body was lean and sinewy. At first glance, she appeared to be around his age, but as she neared, he noted the hard set of her face—especially the eyes, they didn’t look like the eyes of a child—and it became tougher to guess. Her copper-colored skin was dirty and dotted with scars, leaving no doubt she’d seen her fair share of trouble. Her long black hair was captured in twin braids that ran down her back. Two black wings were threaded through a broad, beaded headband. The feathers swept downward from the sides of her head, the tips touching the tops of each shoulder, giving her a noble bearing. She carried a bowl and a wooden spoon.
She stopped in front of Nick and stared down at him. Her eyes were gold like Peter’s, but large and intense. Nick dropped his gaze and stared at the floor.
“I brought you food,” she said, and held the bowl out to him.
The nutty smell tugged at Nick but he ignored her.
“Do not be a child. Eat,” she said. Her words were stilted, spaced. Nick could tell English wasn’t her native tongue.
Nick said nothing.
She gave him a moment longer, then turned to leave.
“Wait.” Nick forced the word out.
She looked at him, her eyes hard, uncompromising.
Nick held his hand out for the bowl.
She continued to stare at him.
“Please,” Nick said through clenched teeth.
She handed him the bowl.
Nick gave the goop a stir. It looked like chunky oatmeal. He scooped a small clump onto the wooden spoon and gave it a nibble. He noticed a touch of bitter beneath the sweet but it was pretty good.
Careful of his busted lip, Nick began to eat. The gruel was warm and felt good going down; as a matter of fact, it warmed up his whole body.
She sat down, cross-legged, in front of him. “Your name is Nick?”
“My name is Sekeu.” There was a long pause. “You should know you did well with the red devil. Most kids are too frightened to fight back. I believe there is a warrior in your heart. You just need skills. We will begin training today.”
Nick stopped eating. “Training?”
“To become a warrior. To become clan. To become a—Devil.”
“You must learn to fight. To defend yourself and your clan.” She said this so matter-of-factly that for a moment Nick thought he might be the crazy one.
“Clan? You mean that bunch of assholes?” Nick jabbed his thumb toward the kids. “You think I want to join their little jerk-off club?”
The kids had pulled swords and spears down from the walls and were practicing basic moves—leaps, thrusts, stances, and so on—while others paired off for light sparring. In spite of himself, Nick was fascinated by their speed and agility as they knocked each other back and forth across the floor. How can they move like that?
“Peter has brought you here to offer you a chance,” Sekeu said sternly.
“To become clan, to become a child of Faerie. Do you have any idea what that means? It is a chance at eternal youth, to live wild and free for a thousand years.”
Nick stared at Sekeu. “What’re you talking about? And where is Peter? Where the hell did that bastard go?”
Sekeu’s eyes narrowed. “Choose your words carefully, Nick. There are those here that would kill you for calling Peter such.” Judging by her face, Nick was pretty sure she was one of them. Nick let out a frustrated sigh.
“Peter is gone to search out more children for the clan,” she said.
“What?” Nick could hardly find the words. “You mean to kidnap more kids.”
She gave him a sharp look. “Talk to them.” Sekeu pointed around the chamber at the kids. “Ask them their story. Peter finds the lost, the left-behind, the abused. Is that not why you are here? Did Peter not save you?”
“Peter tricked me.”
“What would have happened last night had Peter not shown up? Where were you going to go, eat, sleep?” Again she pointed to the other kids. “If what they say is true, then how long before you were selling drugs, or as they would put it, before some pimp made you his boy? Or would you have returned home? Do you wish to go back home now?”
Home, Nick thought. He couldn’t go home. Not ever. But that didn’t mean he wanted to be held captive on some island full of monsters, either. “Just where is here? Just what kind of place is this?”
“Here is the isle of Avalon, the sanctuary of the Sidhe and the realm of the Queen Modron, the Lady of the Lakes. Here is the refuge for the last of earth’s enchanted creatures.” Sekeu’s eyes locked on his, her voice becoming more and more intense. “Here is Devilwood, the domain of Devil Kind, the children of the wolf mask. We are the lost, the wild, the untamable. We are the—”
“Okay, okay,” Nick interrupted, rolling his eyes, realizing he was getting nowhere. “Look, you can’t make me play this stupid game. You got that? I want no part of it.”
She laughed, a cutting, cold sound. “Fool. No one will bother to make you. You still do not understand. This is not a gift. It is something you must earn. Peter has brought you here at great peril to himself. What you do from here is up to you. If you wish to leave, then leave.”
“I’m not a prisoner? I can just walk out of here?”
“If that is what you really wish.”
Nick laughed and shook his head. “Are you kidding me? I’m so out of here.”
She glared at him. “That is the problem with you runaways. You believe you can always run from your troubles.”
“I didn’t run away,” Nick snapped.
Now she was the one shaking her head.
“Well, I did. But it wasn’t like that. Look, you don’t know anything about me.”
But she looked like she did know, like she’d seen it all too many times before. “One cannot be forced to become a Devil, a child of Faerie. It is a hard enough thing if you want it with all your heart. You must take on the challenge of your own free will or the spirit of the forest will never bind with you.”
“Yeah, okay. Whatever. Can you just tell me how I get out of here already?”
She gave him a long, hard look, then pointed toward a large round door at the far end of the chamber.
Nick sat the bowl down and got to his feet. He wiped his hands on his pants, flipped his bangs from his face, and headed for the round door. As he trekked across the hall, one by one, the kids stopped what they were doing and watched him.
A black boy trotted up alongside of him. The kid was a few inches shorter than Nick and missing his left hand just above the wrist. He appeared younger than the others, maybe as young as ten, hard to tell for certain. He had an honest, plain face and kindly eyes, his hair was pulled back into two braids with long blue ribbons woven into their ends. “You leaving already?” he asked in a slight Southern drawl.
Nick kept walking.
“Here.” The boy tried to hand Nick the spear he was carrying. Nick pushed it away.
“Kid, it’d be murder to send you out there without a weapon of some sorts. Now you need to listen up. You come across some of them barghest, you be sure not to show no fear. Got that? They sense you’re afraid then they’ll get after you for sure.”
Nick came to the door and stopped.
“Now, hear me,” the boy continued. “I’m not playing with you. You’re gonna be a-wantin’ this.” He shoved the spear in Nick’s hands.
Nick took the spear and looked at it, positively mortified.
“Oh, yeah. And if the Flesh-eaters track you down, you just drop that there spear and get running. Because,” he laughed, “they’ll just shove the damn thing right up your ass.”
Nick set his hand on the door slat, but didn’t slide it over.
“Here let me help you with that,” somebody said. This voice was deeper than that of the one-handed kid. Nick turned and found himself looking up into the stern eyes of the tall Devil boy.
“My name’s Redbone. Sorry we won’t have the chance to get to know each other better.” He smiled coldly and yanked the bolt over, pulling the thick round door inward. The wooden hinges whined as the door swung open.
Nick immediately noticed the gouged marks on the outside of the door—long, deep slashes running down the splintered wood.
“Don’t mind those,” Redbone said. “The barghest like to sharpen their claws there, that’s all.”
It was gray, musty. Nick could just make out the shapes of a few gnarled stumps and trees, but the rest of the forest fell away into a wall of shifting mist. From somewhere far out, he heard a single howl. Nick recognized that call, would never forget it as long as he lived. It was the same howl that the shadowy hunched creatures, the ones with the orange eyes, had made the night Peter brought him in from the Mist.
Nick found himself incapable of moving.
Redbone put a hand on his back, easing him forward, and started to push the door shut behind him.
“Wait!” Nick cried, slapping a hand on the door. He turned around; they were all staring at him.
“Yes?” Redbone asked, a smirk pushing at the corner of his mouth.
Nick’s lips began to quiver. He started to say something, but was too mad, too afraid he would start crying.
Redbone stared at him. “Maybe you’d like to stay and make some friends? You just might live longer with some friends watching your back.”
The child thief watched the park lamps hum to life one by one. Night had come early beneath the incessant drizzle. The deep shadows from the towering tenement buildings squeezed together and there was no longer a soul in sight. Peter refused to admit that another day was lost, he couldn’t afford another day, not with the Captain on the prowl in Avalon. He pushed through the row of buildings, onto another, then another.
He spotted two figures dodging lamplights and darting from shadow to shadow. Even across the wide courtyard, Peter could tell that these kids were runaways, could almost smell it. A grin snuck across his face—the game was on.
The child thief trailed them into the stairwell of a large building, slipping beneath the stairs. The stairwell smelled of piss and vomit, mold and stale garbage. He leaned back into the shadows, trying not to inhale through his nose as the two boys conversed in low, anxious tones.
Now that they were in the light, Peter could see they had to be brothers, the older one maybe fifteen or sixteen, the younger one no more than twelve. The older boy had a scrape on his forehead, his left eye was swollen, the knees of his jeans torn and bloody. Someone had beaten him.
“What we gonna do?” the younger boy asked.
“We just gonna tell him.”
“Nathan, what else we supposed to do?”
“You think he’s gonna believe us?” Nathan said, the anxiety in his voice rising along with the volume. “That was his dope. He’s gonna blame us, or think maybe we stole it.”
It’s the same story, Peter thought. Drugs. These days it was always the drugs. But Peter had seen too much, knew too well that men-kind didn’t need an excuse to be cruel and murder one another. If it wasn’t drugs, then there was always something else.
“Shh,” the bigger boy said, glancing furtively up the stairwell. He threw an arm around Nathan. “Chill now. Your big bro got it covered. I’m tight with Henry. He’ll work with us. Hell, if he wants to get paid back he’ll have to. Now won’t he?” The bigger boy was trying to sound cocky, cool, like he had it all together, but Peter knew he was just as scared as his younger brother, maybe more so.
“We can just leave,” Nathan said. “Get outta here. To another town maybe.”
“Don’t you understand? We got nothing, man. Not hardly a damn dollar.” A tremor was creeping into the older boy’s voice. “You know anybody gonna take us in around here? Especially if Henry’s after us? Or do you wanna go back and live with the old man?”
The younger boy shook his head hard. “No. I’m never going back there. Never.”
“Look, I got us into this. I’m gonna get us out. Now you just wait here—”
Nathan grabbed his bigger brother’s arm. “No, Tony. Don’t leave me.” His voice cracked, his eyes welled up. “Please don’t go up there. Man, please! Please don’t go up there.”
“Stop blubbering,” Tony said sternly. “You start with that baby shit and I’m gonna leave you for good. You want that?”
The younger boy’s face became terrified. “No!” he said and wiped his eyes on his sleeves. “I’m sorry. I’ll be cool. I promise.”
“I know you’ll be cool, ’cause you’re the Coolio.” He rubbed the younger boy’s head, and a big smile lit Nathan’s face.
“Just wait here,” the bigger boy said. “He ain’t gonna kill me for one fuckup. I’ll be back in a minute and everything will be fine.” He held up his fist. “Give it up.” Nathan tapped his knuckles against his brother’s fist.
“Hang tight, Coolio,” the older boy said and headed up the stairs.
PETER LISTENED TO the rain trickling down the gutters as Nathan paced in and out of the stairwell doorway.
It seemed a long time before they heard anything, then a loud shout echoed down the stairwell.
Nathan started for the stairs.
“You don’t want to do that,” Peter said, coming out of the shadows.
The boy jumped back. “Who are you?”
Nathan squinted at him, then another shout came from above, followed by several angry voices.
The boy forgot about Peter and dashed up the stairs. He made it only one flight up before a scream came from outside, a long, horrified shriek, then a sickening thud in the courtyard. Nathan froze.
Peter grimaced, knowing what that thud meant. He could see by the boy’s face that he did too.
The boy leaped down the entire bottom flight of stairs and shot out of the stairwell. Peter followed slowly behind.
THE BOY LAY sprawled upon the sidewalk, one leg bent awkwardly behind him, his eyes wide, blinking, lips moving but no words coming out. His head lolled over and Peter saw that the back of his skull was crushed inward, his hair wet with blood.
“TONY!” Nathan screamed, and ran to his brother.
Peter glanced up the face of the building. There, looking down from the sixth-floor balcony, was a man and four older teens. The man pointed at Nathan, said something, and all four of the teens sprinted to the stairwell.
“We need to go,” Peter said.
The boy ignored him. “Tony. Tony, man. Ah fuck, no. Tony.”
Several people stuck their heads out their doors, glanced over the balcony, then went quickly back in.
Peter heard the teenagers’ feet drumming down the stairwell. They’d be down in another moment. Peter placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Hey, they’re coming. We need to go.”
Nathan looked up at Peter, his lips trembling. “They killed him!” A sob tore loose from the back of his throat. “They killed my brother!”
“They’re coming for you now. We need to leave.”
The boy looked up to the balcony, saw the man, heard the boys shouting in the stairwell. Peter watched the fear leave the boy’s eyes, replaced with hatred. The boy jabbed his hand into his brother’s coat pocket and pulled out a knife. He popped open the blade and stood up.
“You want to kill them?” Peter asked.
The boy didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. His eyes said it all.
Peter grinned. “Good. Let’s kill them.”
Peter darted back beneath the overhang, ducking behind the open stairwell door. He slipped his long knife from his jacket and pressed his back to the wall.
All four teens rushed from the stairwell out into the yard, saw Nathan, and stopped. They looked at the small knife trembling in his hand and began to laugh.
One of them, a short, muscular kid with long sideburns, stepped forward. “You already dead, motherfucker. You just too stupid to know it.” He pulled a gun from his jacket and leveled it sideways at Nathan. “Well, what’cha waiting for, badass. Let’s see what—”
A blur shot past the teens, a flash of steel, and both the gun and the short, muscular kid’s hand flew through the air, bouncing onto the grass.
All the boys’ eyes went wide. But none wider than the muscular kid’s, as blood began to spurt from his severed wrist. He held his stump away from him as though afraid of it, and began to scream.
The kid next to him made a play for something under his jacket, but Peter didn’t give him time to pull it out. Peter had learned that when guns were involved, there was no room for games. You moved fast, stayed a step ahead. In a blink, Peter shoved his knife into the boy’s neck and yanked it back out again.
The boy fell to his knees, clutching his throat, and began making a horrible, gurgling sound. Peter’s eyes lit up and he let out a laugh like a demented demon. When he did, the two remaining teens took off at a dead run.
“LET’S GO!” Peter called, shouting to be heard over the screams of the kid with the chopped-off hand. “We really need to go.”
Nathan looked at him as if he didn’t know whether to be thankful or afraid.
Shots came from up above them; dirt sprung up around Peter. The man was shooting at them from the balcony. That got the boy moving; the two of them ducked beneath the overhang. Nathan spotted the gun, the one the muscular boy had dropped. He snatched it up out of the grass.
They heard shouts coming from the building across the courtyard, where the teens had fled. More boys were coming.
“I know where we can go,” Peter said and took off.
The boy followed.
Sekeu led Nick over to the long table. It was spattered in gruel and strewn with dirty spoons and bowls. The blue pixies were swarming about the mess, scrambling to lick up any available crumb. Two boys and a girl were doing their best to fend off the hissing pests while they stacked the bowls and carted them over to a sudsy barrel.
“Your training will begin here,” Sekeu said and clapped her hands twice.
The kids stopped, their eyes falling on Nick. These kids weren’t covered in body paint, tattoos, or scarring. They lacked the hard angles in their faces, the wiry muscles, and their eyes weren’t golden. For the most part, they looked like your average middle-schoolers.
“Nick, this is Cricket.”
A girl with sandy, short-cropped hair stood with her hands on her waist and a sassy thrust to her hips. She wore ragged camo pants rolled up to her calves, a pair of well-worn orange high-tops, and a purple tank-top. She had a bald spot on the side of her head, a scar maybe, which gave her a mangy look. She cocked an eyebrow at Nick and smiled.
“And Danny.” Sekeu pointed to a pudgy kid wearing dark-rimmed glasses and balancing a stack of bowls. His glasses were wrapped around his head with a strap—it was a sport strap at least, but the strap still made the kid look nerdy as hell to Nick. Danny had gruel in his hair and smeared down the front of his white T-shirt. His brown corduroy pants were pulled up high on the waist, with the legs tucked into a pair of boots. A pixie landed on his head and tugged at the gruel in his hair. “Goddamn it!” he yelled and flicked his head back and forth. The pixie held on but the stack of bowls toppled, crashing down onto the table and floor. “Goddamn it!” Danny yelled again, swatting at the pixie as it flitted away.
Sekeu shook her head. “Danny and Cricket, like you, are unproven. They are New Blood. Once you prove yourself you become clan and only then may you enter the ranks of Devil Kind.”
Nick rolled his eyes.
“This is Leroy.”
Leroy was a heavyset kid, not pudgy like Danny, but thick-boned and solid through the chest and waist. His short, dark hair lay matted against his skull. He wore a sleeveless sweatshirt and the same sort of stitched-up leather britches as the Devils, but had none of their more extreme adornment.
“Leroy has been with us for a while now. He is still unproven.” She gave Leroy a somber look. “We are hoping Leroy will make his challenge soon.”
Leroy flushed and his mouth tightened.
“Leroy will see to you. Make sure you get settled in.”
Leroy set hostile eyes on Nick.
Without another word, Sekeu turned and left them to their work.
“Get busy,” Leroy said and tossed his rag at Nick. It hit the table, spattering chunks of wet gruel across the front of Nick’s shirt. “Oh, and for the record,” Leroy added, “I ain’t your babysitter. So don’t come whining to me with your problems. Got it?”
Nick let out a long breath, picked up the rag, and dragged it along the table. The pixies hissed and buzzed his head as he made his way down the length of the table. When he came to the end, he wiped the crumbs onto the floor, then strolled over to the suds barrel, where the girl, Cricket, was wiping out the bowls. He dropped his rag over the lip of the barrel and started to walk away.
“HEY!” Leroy called from the far end of the table. “What the fuck? You aren’t done. Look at all the crud you left.”
“No, it’s not fine. You want the fucking pixies crapping all over everything? Get your rag and do it again. Do it right.”
Nick glared at Leroy.
“Lose the attitude,” Cricket said under her breath. “Trust me, you don’t want to push him.”
Nick picked up the rag, walked back over to the table, and began to wipe it again.
Leroy came up behind him. “Are you retarded? That’s not wiping. How hard is it to wipe a stupid goddamn table?” He snatched the rag from Nick and gave the table a good, hard wipe. “Like this. See? Now do it right.” Leroy shoved the wet rag into Nick’s chest.
Nick slapped the rag on the table and started to walk away. He made it two steps before he felt a hand on his collar, and the next thing he knew he was yanked around and shoved against the table. Leroy snatched a clump of his hair and pressed his cheek into the rag. Nick tried to twist away but Leroy grabbed his arm and wrenched it behind his back. Nick let out a cry.
Leroy leaned into Nick’s face. Nick could see the kid’s pulse pumping through the veins along his forehead, felt his hands biting into his wrist, squeezing so hard Nick feared his bones might crack.
“Stop!” Nick pleaded.
“Look, you little shit. I tell you to do something and you better do it. Got it?”
“Yes,” Nick said.
Leroy twisted his arm harder. “Got it?”
“YES!” Nick cried.
Leroy let Nick go. “Now wipe the table, fucktard.”
“YOU CAN WASH up in there,” Cricket said, pointing to a door with a moon burned into its surface. “That’s the privy.”
Nick wrung out the washrag, hung it across the barrel, and headed to the bathroom. He stepped in and shut the door, pressing his back against it. He clenched his eyes and took several long, deep, hitching breaths, determined not to start crying. He clutched his hands into fists. “Fuck all you bastards,” he whispered. “Fucking, fucking bastards.”
Something rustled, a clacking sound.
Nick opened his eyes, glancing quickly around the small, dim room. An oval mirror hung from one wall, a network of cracks ran across the surface, fracturing his reflection into a dozen images. A tall window, about half a foot wide, let in a thin slice of light. Enough light to make out an ancient-looking brass pump in one corner and, below it, seated in the floor, a round wood plank. Nick guessed that was the toilet and realized he needed to go really bad.
There was a rope attached to the plank, which ran up through a pulley and down again. Nick grabbed the rope, tugged the lid up, and was greeted by a warm gush of stink. He was in the middle of relieving himself when he heard the clattering again. It came from the hole. He caught movement. Something about the size of a rat, black and hairy, with lots of spidery legs, skittered out from between the stonework. It cocked its head and looked up at Nick with six blank, soulless eyes, then dropped down out of sight. Nick peered into the depths; in the darkness, hundreds of glowing eyes looked back up at him. Nick kicked the lid down, then noticed piles of white goop, what looked to be bird droppings, on the floor in one corner. He glanced up; there, in the rafters, two of the little blue people stared back at him from their straw nest. They drummed their wings, and hissed.
“What the fuck kinda place is this?” he said under his breath as he zipped up. “Just what kind of hell is this?” He caught his reflection—a dozen angry faces looking back at him. He thought he looked like someone from a refugee camp—mud and gruel in his hair, his lip busted and swollen, dried blood streaked down his face. “What’ve I gotten myself into?” All at once an overwhelming need to see his mother crept up on him. His reflection blurred as his eyes filled with tears.
“No. To hell with her,” he said. This is her fault, all of it. She’s the last person I want to see. He wiped the tears angrily away and stepped over to the pump.
Nick primed the pump, stuck his hands under the spout, and splashed water on his face. The water was cool and refreshing. He washed the mud, gruel, and blood out of his hair and from his face and arms. He looked back in the mirror. I’ll play their game, he thought. But first chance I get I’m out of here.
SEKEU WAS WAITING for Nick when he came out of the privy.
“Come,” she said and led him across the chamber. They maneuvered around several groups of Devils practicing with weapons. The air was punctuated with loud shouts and the sharp clacking of wood hitting wood. Again, Nick found himself amazed at the speed and dexterity they displayed. Could he learn to move like that?
He followed Sekeu to the far side of the chamber, to where the straw men—the ones Nick had been so sure were children—hung from ropes. Now, up close, their purpose became obvious: practice dummies. The ground was sandy here. He watched Leroy, Cricket, and Danny practicing various striking maneuvers with short staffs on the straw men.
Danny stopped, completely winded, red-faced, and soaked in sweat. “Hey,” he wheezed and wiped his brow. “Is it break time yet?”
“Danny,” Sekeu said. “You just started.”
Danny’s shoulders drooped and he let out a long groan.
Sekeu ignored him, went to the wall, and pulled down a staff. She whirled it around her body in a blur, then stopped it with a snap. She held it out to Nick. “Here.”
Nick took the staff.
Nick followed Sekeu over to one of the straw men.
“Today you will learn how to strike.”
Nick noticed the other New Blood watching, couldn’t miss Leroy’s smirk.
Sekeu gave the straw man a shove and nodded to Nick.
Nick hefted the staff and got ready. When the dummy swung back, he struck out as hard as he could. The straw man caught him mid-swing, knocking the staff out of his hands. Nick stumbled back and fell on his butt.
Leroy let out a laugh.
Nick’s face turned red. He didn’t get up.
Nick shook his head. “Why don’t we forget about this?”
Sekeu leaned toward him. “You will always be the brunt of brutes unless you make them respect you.” She cut her eyes toward Leroy.
Nick sighed, picked up the staff, and pushed himself back to his feet.
“Ready?” Sekeu asked.
Nick hefted the staff. Again Sekeu swung the straw man, again the straw man knocked him down.
Nick crawled to his feet. “Look,” he said, shaking his head. “Really, I’m not cut out for this sort of thing. It’s just not in me.”
Sekeu’s ageless eyes searched his face. “Nick, you fought the devil beast today. I saw a brave spirit in your heart. A warrior.”
Nick wanted to laugh at her silly words, but the way she said them, the way she looked at him when she said them, as though she truly believed in him. Nick couldn’t remember the last time anyone had looked at him like that, ever.
Nick let out a sigh. “Okay.” He picked up the staff.
The straw man knocked him down again.
“Damn it,” Nick said and hit the sand with his fist. “It’s too heavy.”
“Size does not matter.”
Nick got up and Sekeu took the staff.
“First, you must get into an L stance.” Sekeu demonstrated. “Weight should be on your back leg. Front leg light. This will keep you maneuverable, but allow you to put the entire weight of your body into the swing. You push off hard with your back foot and fall into the swing with the front.” Sekeu slammed her front foot down to emphasize. “Now, put one hand low on the staff like this. The other midway. When you strike, the high hand slides down and meets the low. This makes power.”
Sekeu demonstrated, snapping the staff in the air. Nick could see the staff actually quiver from the force.
“Most important, do not focus on hitting the target. You want to go through it. If you focus on hitting the target, all your force will be lost on contact. But if you focus beyond the target, your blow will carry power.
“There is also timing, but that comes with practice.”
Sekeu gave the straw man a shove, slipped into the L stance, her body rocking slightly to and fro as the dummy swung back toward her. At the last moment her body exploded like a coiled viper. The staff connected with the straw man, sending a terrific “WHACK” echoing around the chamber. The dummy almost bent double as it flew away from the blow. Loose straw flitted through the air as the slack played out and the straw man jerked on the end of the rope.
“Whoa,” Nick gasped.
“You can do it, Nick. But you must practice.”
Nick couldn’t do it. Not even close. But after an hour with Sekeu, Nick could certainly bring the straw man to a stop without getting knocked down, could hit his mark most every time. These were small steps, but with every blow Nick found himself getting better.
Sekeu moved from kid to kid. Encouraging each of them to focus and push themselves. Showing them tricks and pointing out what they were doing wrong. After some time, Sekeu left them on their own and Nick found himself lost in the repetitiveness of training. Unaware of passing time, unaware that he was actually enjoying himself. And for a while Nick forgot all about high-tops in the mist, blue pixies, Leroy, and the golden-eyed boy named Peter.
SEKEU GATHERED THEM around. Nick, Cricket, and Danny all watched as she pushed the straw man at Leroy.
Leroy struck the straw man a powerful blow, sending the dummy flipping back.
“Good,” Sekeu said.
Leroy grinned. “Hell yeah.”
“Now, once more.”
Leroy gained his stance and hefted the staff, looking cocky, obviously getting a kick out of showing off in front of the New Blood.
Sekeu shoved the straw man toward him, but this time she sent it spinning wildly side to side.
Leroy stumbled back, trying to compensate, and the straw man knocked him to the sand.
Leroy jumped back up. “Hey, what was that?”
“You have to be ready for the unpredictable,” Sekeu said. “Danny, why did he fall?”
“Because the dummy hit him?” Danny said with a grin.
Cricket let out a laugh.
Sekeu frowned. “Nick, why did he fall?”
Nick started to say he didn’t know, but realized it was what Sekeu had been showing him. “He didn’t keep his balance centered,” Nick said.
Sekeu nodded. “Very good, Nick.”
Leroy flashed Nick a dangerous look.
“Leroy, we have been over this many times. You have great power, but you must not rely on strength alone. If you do not practice what I show you, you will never win your challenge.”
Leroy’s mouth got tight and small. Nick could see the vein on his forehead pounding.
CLANG, CLANG, CLANG. A bronze spoon banging against an iron pot resounded through the chamber. The smell of cooked onions brought a loud grumble from Nick’s belly, made him aware of just how hungry he was.
Nick watched the Devils drop their gear and rush over in mass, pushing and shoving one another as they tussled over bowls and jockeyed for position in front of a huge iron kettle. Redbone and three other Devils appeared to be in charge of the food and they began dipping out generous spoonfuls of some sort of stew.
Danny, who’d been lying on his back like the victim of a heart attack, suddenly sat up, looking alive for the first time all day. “Dinner. My favorite sport!”
Nick leaned his staff against a post and started toward the line.
“Don’t even think about it,” Leroy said.
Nick glanced at the bigger boy.
“You got work to do.”
Leroy pointed to the middle arena, where the Devils had dumped all their gear in their rush for the food line. There were swords, staffs, spears, all manner of helmets and pads.
“Stack the weapons in the holders along that wall.” He pointed. “Stack the gear over there. And I better not see you at the table until it’s done and done right.”
Cricket picked up two staffs and headed toward the racks.
“Uh-uh,” Leroy said, shaking his head.
Cricket looked at him, perplexed.
“Nick’s doing it all himself tonight.”
“That’s not fair,” Cricket said. “He shouldn’t—”
“Shut up,” Leroy said.
Cricket began to say more, but bit her lip. She leaned the staffs against the wall and headed toward the table.
“Well, you can stand there all night if you want,” Leroy said to Nick. “But you ain’t gonna eat until everything’s put up.”
Leroy waited another minute until Cricket and Danny were out of earshot. “And one more thing, you little suck-up. You ever embarrass me again and I’ll make you pay for real. For fucking real.” He jabbed Nick in the chest. “Got it, fuckhead?”
BY THE TIME Nick put the weapons away, most of the Devils had already finished eating. He was so tired he almost didn’t bother, but the growling in his stomach won out.
He walked over to the iron kettle, shooed away two pixies, then lifted the lid. There were only a few dry clumps of the stew left. Nick scraped off what he could from the walls of the pot, about enough to fill half his bowl.
Leroy sat alone on the far end of the table. Cricket and Danny sat near two Devils in the middle. Cricket looked his way and smiled. Nick sat his bowl down as far away from everyone as he could and collapsed onto the bench.
He couldn’t remember ever being so worn out. Yet in a way it was good. He hated to admit it, but the training had been very satisfying. He’d never been much good at sports, especially team sports, never stuck with anything other than skateboarding. It didn’t take too many times being the last kid picked before he found the whole team bravado to be a load of bullshit, just another place for kids like Leroy to knock him around.
As the Devils finished up, most of them dumped their dishes in the barrel of sudsy water and began to spread out about the chamber, some migrating over to the shelves of books and comics, others picking up darts, checkers, cards, and various board games.
A soft melody caught Nick’s attention, and he watched a girl with dark, curly hair tune a fiddle over by the fireplace. Within a few minutes, two boys joined her, one working out a primitive rhythm on a pair of tall drums while the other plucked at an acoustic guitar. It was just noise at first, then the girl tapped her bow three times and they began to play for real. The chamber filled up with the sweet, haunting wail of the fiddle. The girl played with her eyes closed, as though the fiddle was her voice singing a sad, slow song, then the drum joined in, a deep, steady beat, like a funeral dirge, and finally the guitar, melodic, along the lines of a spaghetti-Western score. Nick was stunned to see these savage kids playing such a beautiful song, and playing it with such heart. He found himself lost in the deep melancholy tune as he ate.
The stew tasted about like the gruel he had for breakfast. As a matter of fact, the only real difference was that the stew contained chunks of mushrooms and wild onions instead of berries. The mushrooms were amazingly sweet and very chewy. Nick plucked one out for closer inspection. When he did, a pixie flew down and dropped to the table just out of arm’s reach. This one was a young boy with a jet-black mane of hair. He strutted and cocked his head, staring at the mushroom between Nick’s fingers. Nick was struck by how oddly human he appeared. Nick flicked the mushroom to him. The pixie snatched up the morsel, hissed, and flew off. A trace of a smile touched Nick’s lips.
Nick watched the Devils going about their evening activities. There was a lively game of poker going on in one corner, punctuated with plenty of cheering and profanity. A kid was working away on a horned-skull tattoo on some Hispanic boy’s shoulder, using a needle and string to push the ink under the skin. The boy was biting down on a piece of leather, trying to look tough, but to Nick, he looked like he was about to pass out. Nick was surprised to see several Devils with cigarettes jutting out of their mouths, looking like delinquents as they puffed away. He watched three kids engaged in a light game of hoops, tossing a small ball into a makeshift basket. Even though they were just goofing around, Nick was amazed by how agile and quick they were.
The boy pixie was back. He landed on the edge of the table, a bit closer than before. He stared up at Nick with tiny, slitted eyes.
Nick tossed him a crumb.
“You don’t want to do that.”
Nick glanced around and found Cricket standing beside him.
“They’ll never leave you alone if you feed ’em,” she said, taking a seat across from him. A moment later, Danny slid down and joined them.
“So,” Cricket said. “Where you from?”
Nick didn’t answer.
Cricket leaned over. “Don’t let Leroy get under your skin,” she whispered. “He treats us all like that. Just take it easy around him. He gets wound up pretty tight sometimes.”
Nick didn’t need to be warned about Leroy.
“So, where’re you from?” Cricket asked again. Nick started to tell her he didn’t feel like talking when there came a loud crash.
“You moved your battleship! I saw you!”
“It was on B-12. Right there. I called it. It counts.”
“You’re a no-good cheat!”
The room fell quiet.
“It’s Redbone again,” Danny whispered.
“It’s always Redbone,” Cricket said.
“Take it back!” Redbone said and pulled a knife.
“NO!” a big, blond-haired boy said, and pulled his own knife.
Everyone scrambled out of the way as the two boys squared off in the middle of the chamber.
“Oh, man,” Danny said. “Here they go again.”
All the Devils dropped what they were doing and formed up a loose circle around the two boys. They began chanting “first blood” over and over.
“First blood?” Nick asked.
“Yeah,” Cricket said. “It’s how they resolve disputes. Whoever draws first blood, wins the argument.”
The two boys flicked their knives at each other and began a dangerous dance: weaving, jumping, howling, as each sought an opening. They rushed each other, leaping, spinning, their blades mere blurs as they drove past.
“BLOOD!” screamed Redbone, holding up his blade and grinning. “I drew first blood.”
“DID NOT!” cried the second kid.
Everything stopped. Sekeu walked up and examined the boy’s forehead. She wiped her thumb on the mark, then held it up so everyone could see the small smudge of blood.
The crowd murmured approval.
“So,” Cricket said matter-of-factly. “The thinner the mark, the smaller the amount of blood, the more prestigious the win. Shows superior skill.”
The blond kid let loose a string of profanity but lowered his knife. It was over. The Devils returned to what they were doing as though nothing had happened. The band started back up.
“How come they can move like that?” Nick asked. “Doesn’t seem possible.”
“It’s the magic,” she answered.
“Magic?” Nick said. “Give me a break.”
“No, it’s in everything,” Danny said. “You’re eating it right now.”
“What?” Nick stopped eating. “They’re putting stuff in our food?”
“Nope,” Danny said, and pushed at his glasses. “They don’t have to. It’s not a potion or fairy dust. Sekeu told me the magic’s in everything here: the air, the water. When you eat it, though, you’re ingesting it directly. This gunk,” Danny wiped a clump off Nick’s bowl, “is mostly made up of acorns. But like everything around here, there’s magic in them.”
“You’ve noticed their eyes, right?” Cricket asked. “The gold. The magic does that.”
Nick noticed that Cricket’s eyes had the slightest glint.
“My understanding is when you’ve been here long enough, that stuff doesn’t just change the way you look, it gives you superpowers,” she said.
“No, not superpowers,” Danny corrected. “Think more like magical steroids. It’s part of why they can move so fast.”
“What’re the side effects?”
“Side effects,” Danny scoffed. “What are you talking about? This isn’t science, it’s flipping magic. Look at Abraham.” Danny pointed to a black boy over by the fireplace. Nick recognized him as the one-handed boy that had given him the spear this morning. “Abraham’s over a hundred years old. See anything wrong with him? And Sekeu, no one knows how old she is. Some of these other kids have been around since like the sixties and seventies.”
“Yeah.” Cricket laughed. “Go ask Redbone what an iPod is.”
Nick wasn’t sure how he felt about sucking down magical porridge. Were they being poisoned? He could feel the warmth in his stomach, feel it spreading. It was kind of a weird feeling when he thought about it, yet good too, soothing. But he wondered what it was really doing to him.
He eyed a spoonful suspiciously, then studied the Devils. Doesn’t seem to be hurting any of them. He watched a boy leap over his friend, spin around, and do a hook shot all in one bound. No, not a bit. Would this stuff really help him move like that? Did he want to be able to move like that? Nick stuck the spoonful into his mouth.
“I don’t know about you,” Danny said. “But I’d trade this magic mush for a Big Mac any day.”
All three of them laughed and nodded.
Leroy came up and they fell quiet. Leroy eyed them. “You know you guys have to clean up.”
No one answered.
“Did you hear me?”
“We know, Leroy,” Cricket said. “C’mon, lighten up a little.”
Danny nodded. “Yeah, it’s okay. It’s under control.”
“Oh, so that’s the game. You guys are ganging up against me too?”
“No,” Cricket said, letting out an exasperated sigh. “No one’s ganging up on you, Leroy. We’re supposed to be on the same team. Remember? Look, for once why don’t you just sit down with us and talk. Be nice for a change.”
Leroy looked unsure. Finally he sat down next to Nick.
“Y’know, it’s not like I wanna be the one looking after you guys,” Leroy said and stared out at the Devils. “They’re making me. Those assholes are always giving me shit.”
“They give us all shit,” Cricket said. “That’s just part of their scene. I think they feel they’re supposed to. Y’know, to toughen us up or something.”
“Yeah, no sweat,” Danny said. “Besides, you’ll be one of ’em soon. Then they’ll lay off.”
Leroy’s face darkened.
“How exactly do you get to be a Devil anyway?” Danny asked.
“You have to call a challenge and draw first blood,” Leroy muttered. “Or by saving a life, or any act of extraordinary courage. Some bullshit like that.”
“Well, how are you ever going to make it then?” Danny said with a snort.
“You don’t think I’m good enough?” Leroy asked coldly.
The smile fell from Danny’s face. “I didn’t say—”
“Fuck you, Danny.”
“He was just trying to make a joke, Leroy,” Cricket said. “Geez, relax for Pete’s sakes.”
Leroy glared into his bowl. His hand clutched the spoon so tightly his knuckles were white.
“So,” Cricket said, “Nick, you were saying?”
“You were telling us where you were from.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Where you from?”
The pixie boy was back. He landed near Nick, cocking his head left then right, looking up at him with those strange, unblinking eyes.
Nick pinched a crumb of gruel. The pixie eyed it expectantly and took another step forward; when it did, Leroy struck out with his spoon. The utensil caught the small creature with a solid crack, knocking it into the wall behind the table.
“What the hell!” Danny said.
“What is wrong with you?” Cricket cried.
Leroy’s eyes narrowed. “Oh yeah. Is that it? That the way you guys wanna play it?”
The pixie’s wings sputtered as it tried to get to its feet.
Leroy jumped up and slammed his foot down on the pixie. A horrible crunching sound came from beneath his boot.
A cry stuck in Nick’s throat. He stared at the broken shape on the ground, then realized with horror that the pixie wasn’t dead. It was trying to crawl out of a patch of blood and gore, its broken wings quivering. To Nick it looked more human than ever as it gasped and writhed in pain.
Leroy stomped down again, and again.
“GOD!” Cricket cried. “What’s wrong with you?”
Leroy’s face knotted up as he scraped the bottom of his boot along the wall stone, leaving behind a smear of flesh and hair. “Little nasty blue fuckers! Always fucking with me! Everyone’s always fucking with me!” He stomped away.
“HE’S CRAZY. I mean like totally batshit crazy,” Cricket said. “See the way his eyes got? Like his mind left the room.”
They were over by the roots now, as far from Leroy and the dead pixie as they could get. Nick sat on the floor, chin on his knees, hugging his legs while Cricket and Danny leaned against the roots.
“Shit,” Cricket said. “It was Leroy who told us we weren’t supposed to hurt the pixies in the first place. Said it was one of the laws. They’re supposed to be part of the magic of this place or something like that.”
“He didn’t hurt it,” Danny said. “He killed it.”
“Hey thanks, Dan-ny. I was there, remember?”
“Probably bipolar or something,” Danny said. “Just needs his meds.”
“Yeah, well all these kids are messed up one way or another. Hell, I mean we’ve all been through some shit, right? Leroy’s different. It’s something deeper.”
They were quiet for a spell.
“Y’know,” Cricket said, “Abraham told me Leroy’s been here awhile. Not just a couple of weeks but a long time. Said Leroy’s afraid to make a challenge, that’s why he’s still just New Blood. Y’know what I think? I think that’s the problem. I think that’s what’s eating at him.”
“You’re like a regular Dr. Phil, aren’t you?” Danny said.
Cricket cut him a sour look.
“Well, I’ll tell you what I think,” Danny said. “I think old Leroy there ate too many paint chips when he was a baby.”
“Maybe we should tell someone?” Cricket suggested.
“Yeah, that sounds like a good plan,” Danny snorted. “Cricket, why don’t you go do that.”
“Are you kidding? Look around.”
Nick watched two Devils taking turns throwing a knife at each other’s feet. Another group were carving tribal designs into their arms.
Cricket let out a tired sigh and slumped to the floor.
NICK COULDN’T GET the vision of the pixie’s murder from his mind. The little creature had just seemed so human. He guessed all living creatures were the same: animals, people, even pixies, when they’re in pain and in fear for their lives—all the same. Nick’s eyelids grew heavy. He was ready for sleep, ready to put this long, horrible day behind him. His stomach felt warm, unnaturally warm. He wondered again about the food and what it might be doing to him. But it was mostly a good feeling. He shut his eyes and enjoyed the strange way it spread through his body.
The fire had burned low, and several of the Devils were drifting over to the straw-lined cages. The band stopped playing and Sekeu and Abraham were dousing the wall torches.
“I think they’re giving us a hint,” Cricket said. “C’mon, Nick. We need to set you up.”
Nick opened his eyes. “What?” But both Cricket and Danny were headed toward the cages. Nick pushed himself to his feet and followed.
“How’s this one?” Cricket pointed to a cage next to hers.
“Sure,” Nick said absently and started to crawl in. He stopped when the absurdity of sleeping in a cage dawned on him. “Cricket?”
“Why do they put us in cages?”
Cricket laughed. “So the pixies can’t screw with you all night.” She dragged over a cut of canvas. “Here. Toss this over the top. That way they can’t pee on you. You can tie the ends down, but it really doesn’t matter because I don’t think there’s a knot they can’t untie.”
“Yeah, if they get to you they’ll suck out all your blood,” Danny said. “Happened to a kid just the other night.”
Nick looked at him, horrified, then caught the smirk on Cricket’s face.
“Uh-uh,” Nick said.
Nick placed the tarp over his cage and crawled in. He still felt weird about sleeping in a cage, but at this point was too exhausted to care.
“Well, I’m hoping for bacon and waffles tomorrow,” Danny said and crawled in his cage. “Shoot, I’d even settle for Cocoa Puffs.”
Cricket kept rattling on about something, but Nick barely heard. His eyes felt so heavy. The warmth in his stomach continued to spread, covering him like a blanket, pulling him down into a deep sleep.
The warmth followed him into his dream, turning into the bright sunshine of a balmy summer day. He was in a meadow surrounded by trees, everything turned golden by the sun’s brilliant rays. He lifted his face up and put his arms out, letting the heat bathe his whole body.
Giggles caught his attention. A multitude of faerie folk danced and frolicked from one end of the dreamy meadow to the other. Tiny, insect-size people with colorful butterfly wings floated about, pollinating the thousands of multicolored flowers blooming from every vine, tree, and bush. A snort came from the tall grass. Nick saw cat-size centaurs gallop past. Little white-skinned maidens in flowing gossamer rode on their backs, leaping and whooping gleefully. Hoots and howls came from the trees, where purple monkeys leaped from branch to branch. A chorus of bird and faerie song drifted about on the light breeze.
In the dream, Nick drew in a deep breath, filling his lungs with the sweet aroma of flowers and the spice of earth. It was all so wonderful, but all at once he began to sweat and thought a bit of shade would be nice. As he searched for a cool spot, the heat became unbearable and he realized this heat wasn’t from the sun, but from his gut. His stomach was burning. Nick wished he could find some water, something to quench the burning. He clasped his belly and groaned, and when he did, the meadow fell silent. All the creatures stared at him and he could see fear in their eyes—fear of him.
Nick didn’t want them to be afraid. He raised his hands to calm them and that’s when his skin turned black. Right before his eyes, twisting splotches of darkness snaked along his arms, and scaly spots, the color of bruises, bloomed across the backs of his hands. He watched, terrified, as his fingers twisted into jagged black claws.
The creatures fled, leaving him behind. This made him angry, furious. He wanted to hurt them, wanted to chase them down and butcher every one of them.
Nick awoke clutching his gut. His stomach burned, and his clothes were soaked from sweat. He needed some water, but didn’t dare go into the privy at night, not with those damn spiders. So he lay there wondering how he ever ended up on an island, in a cage, sharing a fort with Devils and little blue people. Eventually, the heat in his stomach passed, and shortly before morning he fell back asleep.
Nathan sat on the curb, his face in his hands. He’d been sitting like that for close to an hour.
They were at the docks; the housing projects, the drug dealers, the gangs, all left far behind. The Mist was brewing, swirling up from the bay in front of them, waiting.
Peter wanted to get moving, anxious to get back, but knew better than to pressure or rush the kid. The next step was delicate. The boy had to truly want to follow him or he would never survive.
“I meant it when I said you could come home with me.”
The boy didn’t seem to hear him. Once out of the housing project, the kid had only talked about his brother.
“It’s a really cool fort. You’ll like it. I’m sure.”
The boy wiped his nose, but didn’t look up. “Yeah, that sounds fine,” he mumbled. “I got no place else, y’know. With Tony gone I got no one.”
“You’ll have lots of friends soon. We need to hurry though, before the Mist leaves.”
“Okay, man. Just give me another sec.” The kid wiped his eyes on the front of his shirt and got to his feet. He saw the mist and frowned. “That’s kinda creepy. You sure we wanna go that way?”
“The Mist will take us to Avalon, a magical place where you never have to grow up and no grown-ups are allowed.”
Nathan gave Peter a quizzical look. “You’re a strange dude. You know that?”
“Do you want to go?” Peter asked.
“Sure, why not.”
“Do you go willingly?”
“Well then, you have to say it.”
“Say, ‘I go willingly.’”
“Man, you’re too much. Okay, I go willingly.”
THE CHILD THIEF led, Nathan followed, and the Mist swirled around them. Peter’s mouth filled with the chalky taste of the ghostly vapor. It made him think of ground-up bones and fish scales. It hadn’t always been that way; he remembered the first time—all those years ago.
After killing the wolf, Peter had continued his trek deeper and deeper into the forest, determined to get as far away from the world of men as he could. The worn raccoon skin was gone, in its place the thick silver pelt of the one-eared wolf. The wolf’s head was pulled over his face like a mask. Hard, intense eyes peered out from the dark sockets, alert, scanning the woods for prey and predator alike, but beneath those hard eyes was a six-year-old boy alone in the deep wild woods.
His days were spent following deer trails and creeks, hunting small game. Not knowing where he was going, only knowing what he was getting away from. Near dusk of each day he would seek out a hollow tree or a stone crevasse to curl up within, to try and get some sleep while the larger animals prowled the night.
On the fourth day he felt eyes on him. The forest had begun to change, the trees tightening around him, almost as though herding him this way or that. He heard unfamiliar bird calls, and the whining cries and chirps of insects that sounded all too close to speech.
Other than a few handfuls of nuts and wild berries, Peter hadn’t eaten for two days. He found signs of game, heard them, but never saw them. He felt he was going in circles, his uncanny sense of direction somehow thrown off. He tried to think of Goll’s voice telling him to be strong and brave, but when he came upon the standing stone, the same one he’d passed several hours before, he collapsed exhausted. He sat against the stone, cradling his legs to his chest, and fought to keep away the tears.
Laughter brought him to his feet. A girl, not much older than himself, stood looking down at him from atop a short rise. She had long white hair and wore a short white gown of such a lightweight fabric that it almost floated around her. She flashed him a mischievous smile, then darted away.
Peter stood frozen, unsure what to do, then heard her laugh again. There was something unsettling about that laugh, something that made him feel it wouldn’t be such a good idea to follow her, but curiosity got the better of him and he sprinted up the path after her.
When he crested the rise, she was nowhere to be seen. He heard giggles. There across the way, beside a crumbling ledge, two girls in white gowns were holding hands. They looked like twins. One of them spoke into the other’s ear. They glanced at him and burst into fresh giggling. He started toward them and they skipped away behind the ledge.
As Peter ran to catch them, he realized the trees and underbrush were becoming thicker, a maze of bushes and briars, of creepers and vines. He wondered how he would ever find his way back to the trail. He rounded the ledge and caught sight of their white gowns far down the embankment.
He caught up with them in a wide clearing. There were three of them now, identical in every detail. They stood huddled together before a circle of leaning stones. The stones appeared much older than the surrounding rocks. No mold or moss grew on their surface, and all manner of strange symbols ran up and down their sides, and among the stones—bones—all sorts of bones.
The girls regarded him through slanted, silvery eyes. Peter could see the tips of their pointed ears poking out from their hair. Their feet were bare and dirty, their flesh so white as to almost be translucent. He could see the spider-webbing of blue veins just beneath their skin. They smiled shyly at him.
Now that Peter had caught up to them, he didn’t know what to do and shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. Finally he raised his hand. “Hi.”
The girls burst out in giggles again and Peter flushed.
One of the girls slipped over to Peter. She traced a finger along his arm.
“What manner of creature are you?” she asked.
“I’m a Peter,” he said.
“What’s a Peter? Is it like a boy?”
“Of course, stupid,” the other one answered. “Can’t you see? He’s a boy.”
“A boy,” the third one chimed in. “A little boy all alone in the forest?”
“What’s a little boy doing all alone in the forest?”
“I’m…well, I’m,” Peter started to say he was lost, but didn’t want to be laughed at again. “I’m looking for friends to play with.”
The girls exchanged quick, knowing looks.
“So are we!” said one.
“Can’t believe the luck,” said another, laying a hand on Peter’s shoulder.
“We can be playmates,” said the third as she slipped behind him, sniffing lightly at his neck and hair.
“What sort of games do you like to play?” asked the first.
Peter shrugged. “All sorts.”
“So do we!” said the second.
“Come with us,” added the third.
Peter hesitated. “Are there grown-ups?”
“Grown-ups?” They looked puzzled.
“Oh, you mean men-kind,” said the first. “Blood bells no, boy. Not where we’re going. Just fun and games.”
“Yes,” added the second. “Lots of wonderful games.”
“Come along,” said the third, and gestured for him to follow as the three of them strolled in among the circle of stones.
Peter followed, then stopped. All the hair along his arms stood up, his scalp felt prickly, and a strange tingling tickled his feet and hands. He thought he heard chimes and singing—a lullaby maybe. The sound echoed faintly about the stones.
“Oh, he doesn’t want to come,” said the first.
“Doesn’t want to play with us,” said the second.
“So sad,” added the third.
“Yes, I do,” said Peter.
“Not just anyone can come, little Peter boy,” said the first.
“Only those who really wish to,” said the second.
“Wish it, Peter. Wish it and you can come and play with us,” called the third.
The girls slipped into the very center of the ring of stones, to where a flat round stone lay flush with the grass. Their bodies began to sparkle and then, slowly, they faded away, leaving behind a glittering rain of golden dust.
Peter jumped back, staring at the melting flakes of gold.
“Come, let’s play,” called the girls and laughed; their voices sounded far away as though from the bottom of a well.
Peter glanced about; it was getting dark and cold. He heard the distant call of a wolf, then several answering howls. He didn’t want to sleep in a tree again, not tonight. He looked at the stones. Where else did he have to go? He took a deep breath, bit his lip, and walked into the circle.
Peter closed his eyes. “I wish to follow them.”
Still nothing. He opened his eyes.
“I wish to follow,” he said, and this time he wished it with all his heart.
Golden sparkles flashed before his eyes, a silvery mist spun up around his feet, and the forest and stones faded away. For a second he was falling. His stomach lurched and Peter felt sure he would plummet to his death, but instead the mist thickened, became buoyant, and he was swimming through it, almost as though he could fly. He felt wind blowing across his face, and the air was warm and sweet.
The stones reappeared, taking Peter by surprise. He tumbled across a bed of moss, landing with his legs above his head against one of the standing stones.
He was greeted with a burst of girlish laughter.
Peter righted himself and the world around him righted itself as well, only right wasn’t the word that came to mind. Peter shook his head. The stones were the same as before but the forest—oh my, the forest.
There was so much to see he didn’t know where to look first. Broad, knobby tree trunks twisted their way upward into a canopy of vivid, colorful leaves, their branches—dripping with vines, flowers, and fruit—reached out, intertwining with one another. Warm, glowing rays of sunlight pushed through the treetops, setting the thin ground mist aglow. Chunky, gnarled roots crawled through the tangled undergrowth, and giant mushrooms poked their speckled heads up from the lush moss and grass. Wild flowers of every shape and variety dotted the trees, vines, and bushes, each seemed to be trying to outdo the next in color and brilliance. But the foliage wasn’t what held him spellbound, it was the little people, dozens upon dozens of them. Some barely the size of bees, others as large as cats. Most had wings: bird wings, insect wings, butterfly wings, bat wings. Naked creatures of every imaginable color, some spotted or striped. They buzzed and hummed, giggled and chirped. A thousand little songs forming a gleeful symphony as they chased one another about the small clearing and danced in and out of the beams of sunlight.
The girls were waiting for him along a thin, winding trail. He stepped out of the circle and was struck by the smells; a thousand fragrances perfumed the air. He inhaled deeply, letting the sweet air fill his lungs.
A host of the wee folk flew past his head, then began to circle him, fluffing his hair, plucking at his wolf pelt, the soft humming of their wings tickling him. Peter began to giggle. “Cut it out,” he laughed, and tried to shoo them away.
Someone swatted him on the shoulder.
Peter turned around.
“You’re it!” cried one of the girls, and all three of them skipped away down the path in a gale of laughter.
Peter grinned, couldn’t stop grinning. He gave chase, the swarm of little people fluttering along after him.
The trail wove its way down a gradual slope and the forest began to change. The ground beneath his feet became damp, then marshy. Peter splashed across a muddy creek, then skirted around several weedy bogs. Squat, twisted trees grew up from murky, misty pools, their bark slick, black, and oily, thick moss dripping from their branches. The dim light filtering through their brown, yellowy leaves cast everything in a shadowy amber glow. The delicate scents of flowers and berries were replaced by the sweet, spicy smell of fluff-mud, and the playful birdcalls with croaks and deep bellows.
Peter stopped. He’d lost any sign of the girls. He noticed the little flying people were no longer following him and realized he was alone. Something splashed nearby and Peter jumped. He decided he must’ve gone the wrong way and started to retrace his steps.
There they were—the three girls, as though they’d materialized out of the musky air. They stood in front of the cascading leaves of a huge weeping willow, just staring at him, their faces somber.
“Where’d you go—” he began, then caught movement behind them. Someone was with them.
The shadowy shape of a woman slipped out from the curtain of leaves.
Peter stepped back, his hand dropping to the hilt of his knife. “A grownup!” he hissed.
She was stout but curvy, wide through the hips and thighs. The light danced across her face, revealing smoky, heavy eyelids and luminous, swamp-green eyes.
Peter started to run when she called his name, her voice throaty, barely more than a whisper. Yet he heard her well, as though she were beside him. He hesitated.
“You’re most welcome here, sweet boy.” Her deep, rich voice blanketed him, comforting, soothing, chasing away his fears.
She stepped forward into a soft ray of sunlight, the light glittering off her dark, oily skin. Peter looked closer. Her skin was actually green, the deep dark emerald of evergreen leaves. Her hair was green as well, a darker shade, almost black. It flowed from beneath a skull cap drawn forward into a widow’s peak across her forehead. The twisting weaves of hair snaked down almost to her knees and draped across her face like a hood, keeping all but her large eyes in shadow. Her thin, smoky robe clung to her like a spider web, dripping from her in ropy strings, doing little to cover her full breasts and the shadowy tuft between her legs. Bronze bracelets jangled from her wrists and ankles, and a necklace of bone and claws hung about her neck.
She smiled at Peter, strolled over to him, and slid an arm around his shoulders. Her breath was hot, it smelled of honey, and when he inhaled, he felt a drowsy warmth take him.
“Won’t you come in?” She gestured to a round hole dug into an embankment beneath a thick overhang of straw and matted moss. Large, pitted stones circled the entrance, each with the face of a brooding beast carved into its surface. Dozens of dried gourds hung around the opening, painted red, with bird-size holes cut into them. Small black bat-winged, men-shaped creatures with long scorpion tails were perched or zipping in and out of them.
It didn’t look like any place Peter wanted to go. He shook his head.
“I have fresh-baked gingerbread. All little boys like gingerbread. Don’t they?”
The three girls nodded. “Most certainly they do, Mother.”
The woman put her full, wet lips to his ear, whispered to him. The words were all gibberish to Peter, a strange song of curt, cutting sounds, but the smell of baking bread and honey suddenly came alive. Peter’s stomach growled and his mouth moistened. He licked his lips. He would really like some gingerbread—whatever that was.
“Come along,” she murmured and ducked into the hole.
Peter didn’t think it would be a good idea to follow the woman into that hole, didn’t think it would be a good idea to follow her anywhere, but his mind felt syrupy and slow, and when the three girls took his hands and pulled him along, he followed.
He stooped to avoid bumping the roots and glowing mushrooms as he stumbled drunkenly down the long burrow. The tunnel opened up into a small cavern of black rock and twisting roots. Amber stones burned beneath a stack of branches in a wide earthen fireplace, bathing the cavern in their soft caramel glow.
Peter’s foot caught on a hide and he fell sprawling atop a pile of plush furs.
Bones, feathers, beads, dried flowers, and a variety of animal skulls were strung together and dangled from the ceiling on long cords. Fat black toads, great oily beetles, and colorful birds hung upside down from hooks, staring at him with dead, glassy eyes. Scrolls and clay pots lay scattered about on low-lying tables.
Peter caught movement among the crags and crevasses of the cavern, thought he saw shapes crawling within the shadows. Then he spied the pile of little cakes stacked in a clay bowl and could think of little else.
She crawled across the furs, carrying the bowl, sidling up next to him. She slid a bare leg over him and put a cake to his lips. Peter took a bite.
It was sweet and warm, but oddly gooey in the middle. He ate it anyway, then another, wanted more, but was having trouble chewing, having trouble keeping his head up. The room was growing fuzzy, wobbling somehow, like ripples across a pond. One moment he saw dozens of shiny candles flickering down at him, then he’d blink and in their stead would be eyes, hundreds of slanted yellow eyes.
She straddled him, leaning forward, letting her hair drape across his face. She placed a warm hand on his stomach, running her fingers up his chest, pushing the wolf pelt aside. She bent over and sniffed his hair, her breasts sliding along his bare chest as she sniffed his face, down his neck, then pressed her cheek against his chest. He felt the hot wetness of her mouth on his nipple.
Peter felt his loins stir. He saw the three sisters behind the woman, watching, their eyes wide, feverous, drool running shamelessly down their chins.
“My, he is a firm one,” whispered the first.
“Rigid as a tent post,” chimed in the second.
“We will feed a long time on this one,” added the third and all three giggled.
No, Peter tried to shout, but managed only a weak moan. He felt a sharp sting then a burning at his nipple.
“Blood for the children. Blood for all,” the sisters said as one.
Peter caught movement above him—eyes, the yellow slanted eyes slithering out from the shadows. Hundreds of them, twisted, deformed creatures, some no bigger than newts, others the size of raccoons. Blotchy gray skin rolled along their bony, cadaverous bodies as they slithered and shimmied toward him, all grinning with long, needle-thin teeth.
He caught sight of the bowl of gingerbread cakes, only they weren’t cakes at all, but fat, grubby larvae with little black heads. Again, Peter tried to shout.
The woman convulsed, coughed violently, and sat up. Blood was smeared all around her lips and mouth.
“Mother, what is it?” the sisters asked as one.
She coughed again, a retching cough. She clutched her throat, gagged, and spat up, dousing Peter with a mouthful of bile and blood.
She howled, the horrible sound filling the small chamber.
The creatures froze in place; their eyes terrified.
She stared at Peter while a long string of red drool slid from her lips. “It can’t be?” She shook her head. “How?”
She coughed again, spattered Peter’s face with more blood.
“Mother, what is it?” the sisters pleaded. “Tell us!”
The woman pushed the wolf cap back from Peter’s head. She stared at his ears. “Not a boy,” she said, her eyes wide with confusion and fear before they turned hard. “Not a child of the Sidhe either. An abomination,” she hissed.
Peter felt himself waking up fast, the room coming into sharp focus.
Her hand shot out like a viper, clutching his neck between her rigid fingers, her sharp nails biting into his flesh. “Where did you come from? Did Modron send you? Is this one of her games?”
Peter slid his hand down to his knife, but found the sheath empty.
“Is this her vexings?” she cried, her emerald eyes swimming with malice. “Answer me lest I bite off your boyhood and feed you to the leeches!”
Peter’s hand flailed about, hit the clay bowl. He snatched a hold of it and struck her, breaking the bowl on the side of her head, knocking her over. Peter kicked away and almost made it to his feet when her fingers bit into his ankle, tripping him, sending him barreling into the hearth.
She came after him, claws out, lips peeled back, exposing rows of long, green, blood-stained teeth. Her eyes shriveled to tiny pinpricks of glowing green set deep within dark sockets. She snatched a hold of his arm, her sharp claws puncturing deep into his muscle tissue. She raked her other hand across his ribs, tearing into his flesh.
Peter let out a shrill cry and snatched a shard of timber from the fire, cried out again from the heat of it, but held tight as he rammed the burning end into her eye.
She shrieked, a sound so loud that he had to clap his hands over his ears. She flew away from him, crashing across the room, the burning shard stuck deep in her socket, sizzling flames leaping up between her fingers as she clutched at it.
Peter didn’t wait around to see what happened next; he dove into the tunnel, scrambling up the shaft as fast as a mole rat.
“Get him!” she wailed. “Get him! GET HIM!” she bellowed, and her voice shot up the tunnel, sending leaves, dirt, and bugs rocketing past him in a hot blast.
Every slithering, crawling, and flying thing, the very cavern itself seemed to howl then. And they came for him, all of them, the roots too, grabbing at his arms and legs. The tunnel shrank around him, like the convulsing throat of some giant monstrosity. Things leaped off the walls onto him: bugs, spiders. He felt their stings and bites. He reached the surface and the bat-winged creatures came for him like a swarm of hornets, stinging him with their tails, sending him howling away into the thickets. Peter ran then, ran faster than he’d ever run. He had no idea where he was going, intent only on getting as far away as he could from that woman, that creature, and all the biting, stinging things.
He heard howls and dared a glance back. The three girls were coming for him, running on all fours, great, loping strides, their feet seemed not to even touch the ground, long, pointed tongues lolling out from between sharp canine teeth as they rapidly closed the distance.
Peter broke out of the thicket onto a small path and dashed up the trail. He climbed steadily upward, the bog falling behind as the ground became firm underfoot.
A figure stepped in front of him. A man? Peter crashed headlong into him, both of them tumbling into a small grassy clearing. Peter hopped up, started to flee, and saw more men, five, no, six of them. They pointed long, thin swords at his chest. Peter glanced around, frantically searching for an avenue of escape.
“Whoa. Hold,” said the first man, the one Peter had knocked over. “What nonsense is going on here?”
On second look, Peter realized that these were not men, not of the sorts he’d known, anyway. In fact, they were elves, but Peter knew nothing about elves at the time. These elves were much shorter than men, boyish in size, little over a head taller than himself. Long in limb, thin of face, almost feminine with small, golden eyes, mere slits, slanted and set high and wide above sharp cheekbones. They had pointed ears and skin as white as chalk. Their hair hung down their backs in long braids. They wore tight-fitting garments that looked to be made of woven leaves and bark.
“Give him back,” came a little girl’s voice. The three sisters were standing at the edge of the clearing not ten yards away.
The elves shifted the points of their swords to the girls.
“We brought him through,” the girls spoke. “He’s ours.”
“I think not,” said the elf, the one Peter had run into. Peter could see he looked older than the others. His hair was pure white, and there were strong lines about his eyes. The elf got to his feet, drew his sword, and stepped in front of Peter.
The sisters hissed, all three of them raking the air with their claws, as though they couldn’t wait to rend Peter’s flesh.
“He belongs to me,” came a deep, guttural voice from behind the girls.
The elves exchanged looks.
The woman strolled into the clearing, one hand clasped over her eye. “He owes me something.” She dropped her hand, exposing the raw, bloody wound of her eyeless socket.
Several of the elves gasped, but held their ground.
“You’re trespassing, all of you. Give me one of the boy’s eyes and I will allow you to leave unharmed.”
“Nonsense,” countered a voice from behind Peter.
Another woman entered the clearing. She was a bit taller than the swamp woman, thin-boned and slender through the body, almost frail, her smooth skin so white as to be blue. Her long white hair was tied back and crowned with a ring of holly leaves. She was draped in shimmering white and gold and wore a bronze star attached around her neck by a simple gold chain.
“This is Myrkvior forest,” she said. “You’ve no dominion here. Go back to your hole and rut with your filthy beasts.”
The swamp woman smirked. “What do you know of rutting? You with your cold dead cunt.”
The white-haired woman’s eyes flashed, brilliant cerulean.
The swamp woman laughed. “A barren fertility goddess. No wonder you can no longer hear Father’s voice.”
A low growl rumbled from the white-haired woman’s throat, a sound that made the hair stand up on Peter’s arms. She stepped forward, her lips peeled back exposing long canine fangs, appearing more animal than human at that moment.
“Oh, stop your pissing, Modron,” the swamp woman said. “If you wish this creature, take him.” The swamp woman’s face changed then. Peter wasn’t sure if he saw sympathy or pity—maybe both. “How many?” she asked. “How many will it take to fill that hole in your heart? You can have all the children in our world and in theirs, but it will never bring your little boy back to you.”
Pain, deep pain, fell across the white-haired lady’s face.
The swamp woman started away, then stopped. She looked at Peter. “Be careful, little boy. I only want your eye. But she—she’ll take your soul.” The swamp woman spun away and seemed to evaporate into the woods.
The three sisters backed slowly away, not taking their eyes off Peter. Before the last sister left, she pointed at Peter, then at her eye, and jabbed at the air with a hook claw.
THE CERULEAN-EYED WOMAN stared at Peter. They all did. Peter glanced about, looking for an escape.
“Don’t be frightened, boy,” said the older elf as he dusted off his leggings. “Anyone that stole the witch’s very eye has nothing to fear from the likes of us.” He gave Peter a wry smile of admiration.
The other elves nodded in agreement and put away their swords.
The old elf extended his hand. “Sergeant Drael of the Lady’s First Guard, at your service.” His face broke into a broad grin.
Peter liked the elf’s smile. He shook his hand and smiled back. “I’m Peter.”
“This,” the elf extended a hand toward the woman, “is the Lady Modron, daughter of Avallach. The Lady of the Lake and the Queen of all Avalon.”
A queen? Peter wasn’t sure what a queen was, but judging by the way the elves treated her, it must be something important. He took a closer look. She appeared a bit frail to him, with her fine bones and long, thin neck, yet he sensed strength from her. Maybe it was the confidence in her stride, the way she glided through the forest, the way she looked at all things as though they belonged to her. She was elegant and graceful, but Peter thought her eyes a bit too far apart, her face too long, making her appear animalish, spooky even.
“So, Peter,” Drael said. “How did a boy end up in the clutches of Ginny Greenteeth?”
“Who?” Peter asked.
“He’s not a boy,” the Lady said, appraising Peter. “See his ears. He has faerie in him.”
“What is he then?” Drael asked.
The Lady gave Peter another long look. “He’s a mystery. A most intriguing mystery.” She looked at Peter’s chest. “He’s been marked.”
Peter looked down at himself. He was covered in mud and blood. The cuts in his side were bleeding steadily, the bug stings were red and swelling, and the bite around his nipple was turning black. He’d been so intent on escape he’d not even noticed, but now the wounds began to hurt, the one on his chest burning. His hand did, too. He held out his palm; it was an angry red and dotted with white blisters.
The Lady bent down and lightly touched the edge of the bite wound. Peter flinched and sucked in a breath.
“Come,” she said. “We need to take care of that or the poison will spread.” She held out her hand.
“It’s okay,” she said.
Peter took her hand and she led him up the trail. The elves fell in, three in front and three behind. Peter looked up at her as they walked. She smiled at him. Peter decided he liked holding hands with a queen, liked it very much.
The trail led into a lush glade; at its center sat a circular pond surrounded by large, flat, white boulders. A gentle stream cascaded over the stones, sending a soft ripple across the pond’s surface. The water was crystal-clear.
Peter caught sight of small, colorful fish chasing one another just below the surface—on second look, he noticed that they had the upper bodies of men and women. The winged wee folk skated across the surface as they zipped about snatching bugs out of the air.
The Lady unhooked the clasp on her shoulder, letting her gown drop. She waded out into the pool until her fingertips touched the water. The sunlight glittered off the surface and danced along her gleaming white skin. She closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun, basking in its warmth.
She spoke a few words that Peter didn’t understand and sank beneath the water.
The elves spread out, perching among the surrounding rocks, and watching the woods.
Peter waited for the Lady to surface. He waited a long time. No one could hold their breath that long. He glanced around at the elves, but none of them appeared concerned. He walked up to the bank, caught a flash beneath the water, and saw her, a silvery shape swimming like a fish around the pool. She bobbed up before him and gestured for him to come in.
Peter took off his wolf pelt and tested the water with his foot. It was cool but not cold and felt good on such a warm day. He waded in to his waist and felt something tickling his ankles. The fish people were flittering around his feet, feeding on the silt.
The Lady took his hand and pulled him into the deeper water, until his tiptoes could just touch the bottom. She drifted behind him, draping her arms over his shoulders. Peter stiffened.
“Let go of your fear, Peter,” she whispered.
Peter took a deep breath and she took him under, pulling him down to where the water was dark and cold. Peter could just make out the blurry rays of the sun dancing on the surface far above him. His lungs began to tighten and he felt a twinge of panic.
Her arms squeezed about him and he thought of her sharp teeth. Did she mean to drown him?
Her voice drifted to him, a muffled song resonating through the depths. The water began to warm around him. He felt a steady thumping, like a heartbeat, could hear the swish of blood through his own veins and arteries and it was as though he was back in his mother’s womb. His pulse began to slow, matching the rhythm, two hearts beating as one. His lungs no longer ached for air. He felt part of her, of the pool, the water itself his lifeblood. Her voice the faintest tickle in his ear, I am your forest, your earth, your eternity. I am your life. I am your death. I am all things forever and always. Love me. Love me. Forever love me. He curled into a ball, a floating fetus with the pond his womb. Yes, he answered. Forever. The womb began to glow, growing brighter, then brighter. His head broke the surface.
Peter spat out a mouthful of water and sucked in a deep lungful of air. He blinked against the sunlight. Where was he? Then he saw the Lady and nothing else mattered. She was the most perfect creature he could imagine, and he couldn’t understand how he ever thought otherwise. His heart fairly strummed with her vision, all he wanted to do was gaze upon her forever.
The Lady examined him. “The poison is gone,” she said, looking satisfied. “The wounds will heal with time.”
Reluctantly, Peter tore his eyes from her and glanced down at his chest. There was only the slightest pink trace of the bite mark left. The slashes in his side were closed and the hundreds of insect stings had vanished.
They got dressed and lay out upon a wide, flat stone to warm themselves in the sun.
Peter was watching a heron drift by overhead when a host of hoots and howls burst from the trees. He sat up. A crew of long-armed creatures came swinging into the clearing. They were a bit larger than raccoons, black manes sprouting around their necks. Their small, dark eyes were close-set and their snouts were long, reminding Peter a bit of wolfhounds. They scampered up to the far bank on short legs and knuckles, slurping noisily as they drank from the pond.
“What are those?”
“Barghest,” the Lady said. “Be careful, they can be nasty if given the chance. They’ll certainly rob you of anything they can get their hands on.”
The creatures hooted and barked as they drank.
Peter cupped his hands to his mouth and mimicked their hooting.
The barghest fell silent, all of them staring at Peter. Peter jumped up and let loose several more hoots. The creatures erupted into a volley of irritated barking, the lot of them leaping away into the trees and disappearing into the woods.
The Lady laughed heartily and the sound was music to Peter’s ears.
“That’s good, Peter. How’d you learn to do that?”
Peter shrugged, then began to mimic the whistles, hoots, chirps, and calls of the other animals. Soon all the creatures around the pond were cocking their heads quizzically at him.
The Lady laughed long and deep, and even the elves couldn’t help but smile.
A strange cry caught their attention. Peter saw a large bird with fiery red plumage glide across the pond and alight in a nearby tree. It surveyed the pond, its brilliant orange eyes standing out in stark contrast to a crown of black feathers.
The Lady let out a soft gasp and leaped to her feet. “Peter,” she whispered. “The Sunbird.”
It lifted its head and began to sing, and all the creatures in the forest fell silent. This wasn’t just a call, but a song made up of whistles and chirps, like nothing Peter had ever heard before.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she whispered.
Peter nodded and glanced at the Lady. She held her fingertips to her lips, her eyes captivated.
As suddenly as it had appeared, the bird took flight and left them.
“Oh, don’t go,” she said, and sighed. “I’ve not seen it since I was a girl. That sweet song takes me back to happier times.” She was quiet then, her eyes distant.
Peter caught a flash in the sun and something landed on the sandy bank. He leaped up, raced over, and picked it up. It was a brilliant red feather. He brought it back and held it up for the Lady to see. The sunlight shimmered off the fine filaments, and when he twirled it, it sparkled and glowed as though aflame.
The sparkles glittered across the Lady’s face. “Oh, Peter. It’s beautiful!”
He handed it to her. “It’s for you.”
“For me? Peter, no, you can’t. It is too wonderful a treasure.”
“Yes I can.”
She took the feather and began to twirl it. A smile of unabashed joy lit up her whole face, and in that moment she looked like a little girl.
Peter cupped his hands over his mouth, and began to whistle and chirp, trying to mimic the Sunbird’s song. He didn’t get it right, but after a few more tries, he had it and whistled the song all the way through.
The Lady stared at him in utter amazement, then grabbed his hand and clasped it in both of hers. “That’s wonderful! You must be part bird.”
“Yes, I am,” Peter said proudly. “Why, I’m a Peterbird.”
“Well Peterbird, you must come visit my court and sing for me. Is it agreed?”
Peter gave a big nod.
“Good.” She looked at him, looked at him intently for a long time. Peter wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“One more thing.” She reached behind her neck and undid the gold chain. She held it out so Peter could see the eight-point star. He noticed it was actually fine threads of tarnished gold spun around a dark stone. “This belonged to another little boy, a very special little boy. He is lost to me. I would like for you to wear it for now. Would you do that for me?”
Again, Peter nodded.
She slipped it around Peter’s neck and kissed him atop his head. “My little Mabon,” she whispered, so quietly he almost missed it
As Peter held the star, it began to glow slightly.
The Lady saw it too and her eyes began to tear. She reached for Peter and pulled him tight, hugged him for a long time. She smelled of pollen and the sweetness of cool water.
Peter heard her again in his head, or heart maybe, like in the pond. You are mine. Mine forever.
Yes, he answered. Forever.
“HEY,” NATHAN CALLED. “Wait up.”
The child thief realized he’d let his mind drift, let the kid fall behind. He knew better, knew that the Mist, given the chance, would get in his head and play games. Stupid, he thought. Careless and stupid. And now the boy was actually shouting in the Mist.
Peter waited, searching the shimmering wall of silvery light, listening. Had the Sluagh heard? Were they on their way?
“I don’t like this,” Nathan said. “Just where are we?”
Peter put his fingers to his lips. “Shhh!” Peter whispered. “You have to keep quiet or they’ll hear. Now let’s go.”
“What’re you talking about?”
Peter didn’t answer; now wasn’t the time for talk. He turned, searching for the Path. It was there, just ahead, the thin golden thread sliding and shifting, drifting away as though blown by a hidden wind. You had to stay with the Path or it would leave you behind.
Peter headed for the Path, then realized Nathan wasn’t following; the boy was staring at the ground.
“Look!” Nathan said, pointing.
Peter didn’t need to look. He knew what it was.
“Those are bones! That’s somebody’s goddamn head!” Nathan squinted warily at Peter. “What the hell kinda place is this?”
Peter jabbed his finger to his lips. The kid had to be quiet. Had to!
“Don’t tell me to shhh,” Nathan said, raising his voice. “I asked you a question. What the fuck kinda place is this?”
Peter gritted his teeth, tried to control his temper, but this kid was going to get them both killed. He glanced at the Path, it was drifting away. He didn’t dare lose sight of it, but they needed the kid. Peter stepped toward him.
Nathan stumbled back, jerked a gun out, and pointed it at Peter. Peter halted.
“STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME!” the kid yelled.
Peter heard the distant sound of children’s laughter. His blood went cold. The laughter grew louder, joined by wails and moans, the cackling cries of old women. The Mist began to stir.
The kid snapped his head about. “What’s that? Huh? What the fuck is that?”
The Path drifted farther away, another moment and it would be lost. “Listen, Nathan,” Peter said as calmly as he could. “You have one chance. Follow me, right now. Move, or you’ll never leave the Mist.”
But Nathan wasn’t paying Peter any attention. He spun around, left then right, holding the gun out in front of him, his eyes wide and terrified. “STAY AWAY FROM ME!” he screamed.
The Sluagh came, first the disembodied heads, flying around, circling the boy, followed by the naked craggy women, holding hands and skipping merrily about, then the beasts, all shapes and sizes, their barks and howls, screams and growls rumbling back and forth across the ghostly wasteland.
“NATHAN!” Peter cried. “COME! NOW!”
“OH MY GOD!” Nathan screamed and pulled the trigger over and over. But there was only a dry click as the hammer fell on the dead shells. The kid’s face twisted into a mask of confusion and terror. Peter could’ve told him the gunpowder wouldn’t work, not here in the Mist. It never does. And even if the bullets had fired, they wouldn’t have done a bit of good.
The spirits, one and all, laughed, the sound booming about the Mist like thunder. The flying heads swarmed the boy, pecking at his hair. He ran screaming, swinging the gun wildly, trying to fend them off as they chased him into the swirling wall of gray mist.
Peter didn’t shout to the boy again. It would do no good. Peter found the Path and walked, his face tight, his eyes hard. He watched one foot after the other pound into the soft, powdery ground and did his damndest not to hear the distant echoes of Nathan’s screams.
PETER STUMBLED ASHORE and collapsed on the beach. He punched the sand again and again, until his knuckles were raw, until he could no longer hear the boy’s cries inside his head. He dug his fingers into the beach, came away with two handfuls of sand, turned and glared at the Mist. “WHY?” he screamed and slung the sand into its swirling mass. “Why,” he screamed again, knowing the night would hear, the were-beasts and, worse, the Flesh-eaters. He didn’t care.
“Flesh-eaters,” he spat. “Fucking Flesh-eaters. This is all because of them.” He bared his teeth at the Mist. The glint of madness sparkled in his eye. “Someone,” he whispered, “needs to remind them to be afraid of the night.”
Instead of heading into the swamps and back toward Deviltree, Peter turned and followed the coastline, making his way over the driftwood and rocks beneath the silvery glow of the low-hanging clouds, and it was not long before he heard the soft tread of something trailing him.
Peter slid out his long knife and turned, shouting a challenge, daring the thing to show itself. Nothing did or dared, his madness too plain, and Peter continued on alone until he saw the jagged timber walls of the fort lit up from within by a smoldering watch fire.
He looked out toward the lagoon, to where the skeletons of the great galleons lay half-drowned, leaning off-keel and rotting. Their frames silhouetted against the silver glow of the Mist like the ghostly bones of a sea dragon.
He walked up to the fort wall, mesmerized by the dance of firelight between the jagged timber beams. Atop each of the gate posts sat a boy’s head, their mouths frozen forever in the silent screams of the dead, their hair blowing in the brisk wind, the dark hollows of their eyes staring back at him, mocking him, accusing him.
He counted twenty-four of them. “Jimmy, Mark, Davis…Bob. No. Bill? Which was it?” He started over again, then again, but no matter how many times he tried, he couldn’t remember all their names. As his frustration grew so did his volume, until he was shouting their names, knowing the Flesh-eaters would hear and not caring.
He saw their shapes approach the wall, peering out into the darkness, felt their eyes searching for him.
“DEATH HAS COME,” Peter screamed, “TO CUT YOUR THROATS AND DRINK YOUR BLOOD!” He threw back his head and howled like a wolf.
The gate opened. Dozens of Flesh-eaters carrying torches and wielding swords and axes stepped out. A figure pushed through them, a tall man wearing a wide-brimmed hat. He slid his sword from his belt, sliced the air with its long, narrow blade, and strolled forward.
Peter slipped silently back into the shadows and disappeared into the night.
Oww! OWW!” Nick cried.
“Just hold still,” Cricket said. “You’re making it worse.”
Nick grimaced. During the night, something—and Nick had a damn good idea what, judging by the pixies giggling from the rafters—had tied his hair to the bars of his cage.
“Just one more. There,” Cricket said. “Y’know, you’ll have to learn not to sleep with your head so close to the bars.”
Nick sat up, rubbing his hair, and shot Cricket a cutting look. “Thanks, but I think I figured that one out on my own.”
“Eww, someone’s a sourpuss,” Cricket laughed, then stopped abruptly. “Whoa, you don’t look so good.”
Nick frowned. “Thanks.”
“No. I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, you don’t look well. You feel okay?”
“I’m fine,” Nick said curtly. “Just had a bad dream, that’s all.”
NICK WAITED HIS turn for the privy, stepped in, and took a hard look at himself in the mirror. Cricket was right, he looked bad. There were dark circles under his eyes and his eyes looked haunted, his face oddly gaunt. He couldn’t stop thinking about the nightmare. Unlike most nightmares, this one stayed with him. Not only could he clearly remember every detail, but he still harbored the ill feelings, the horror of what he’d seen and the terrible things he’d done. He knew it was silly, but he checked his hands, searching for any signs that they were turning black or growing claws. It had been that real. He doused his head with the cool water. It made him feel better, but didn’t wash away his dread or the dark mood lingering in his chest.
Nick almost ran into Sekeu when he came out. She was busy refereeing breakfast and getting the fires going.
“Sorry,” he said.
She gave him a passing glance, stopped, stepped back, and looked at him again. She didn’t seem so much concerned as disturbed. “Nick, how do you feel?”
Sekeu eyed him, skeptical. “You are sure?”
“Yeah,” Nick said, a bit annoyed. “I’m fine, really.”
Redbone came up behind Sekeu and jabbed her in the butt. “Squaw, paleface need’um powwow.”
Sekeu spun around, leading with her fist.
Redbone was ready for her and leaped back, but she caught him on the arm so hard that even Nick flinched.
“Oww, Jesus Christ, man!” Redbone cried, wincing and clutching his shoulder. “Geez, I was just kidding around.” He shook his arm out.
“What do you want?” Sekeu snapped, looking ready to take his head off.
“Nothing really, except to say we’re running low on acorns, and berries, and mushrooms. Oh, and pretty much every other damn thing.” Redbone leaned over to Nick, still rubbing his arm, and whispered, “She got her muscles from scalping white men, y’know.” He snorted and elbowed Nick, then did a double-take. “Hey, wow. Cat, you don’t look so good.”
“How did you sleep?” Sekeu asked Nick. “Did you have any bad dreams?”
The image of his skin turning black and his hands twisting into claws came to Nick. He was about to mention it, but didn’t like the way the two of them were scrutinizing him, like he’d committed a crime. “No,” he lied. “My stomach hurt a little. That’s all. I feel fine now.”
Sekeu and Redbone exchanged a wary glance, neither looked convinced.
Redbone slapped Nick on the back. “That’s just your body getting used to the different food, man. That’s all. It’ll pass.” But Nick didn’t miss the dark look Redbone shot Sekeu.
It scared him.
THE NEXT COUPLE of days flowed into one another: breakfast, training, dinner, sleep, breakfast, training, dinner, sleep, round and round. Nick did his best to stay out of Leroy’s way, but the bigger boy took special pleasure in targeting him, taking every opportunity to give him a hard time. Nick tried not to let it get to him, losing himself in his training. He found the drills and long hours of practice to be the one place where he could forget his troubles. He also found he was getting pretty good with the staff and spear—his ability quickly outpacing that of both Cricket and Danny. His progress was encouraging. But more than anything, he wanted to beat Leroy, and worked tirelessly with Sekeu trying to master every move and trick. Soon he was pressing her to show him the advanced maneuvers he saw the Devils performing. He wasn’t sure if it was the exercise or the strange food, maybe both, but either way, his body felt stronger, his timing and speed increasing with each passing day.
The nights were the hardest, the dark dreams haunting his sleep. Each night in his nightmares, his skin would turn black and the dread and rage would grow in his chest. He would wake breathing hard, his stomach burning and murder in his heart.
After breakfast on Nick’s fourth morning, Sekeu led him, Cricket, Danny, and Leroy over to the big round door on the far side of the hall.
A few moments later, Redbone and the one-handed boy, Abraham, joined them, toting buckets and potato sacks. They’d put on leathers, tight-fitting, hand-stitched, single-piece garments with pointed boots sewn right into them, held up by a belt strapped high across the chest.
Redbone tugged on a beat-up, black leather jacket. This one wasn’t hand-stitched, this was a genuine American motorcycle jacket, complete with spikes, patches, and SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL painted in peeling red letters across the back.
Redbone had a sly grin on his face. “Any of you cats up for a break?”
Danny perked up. “Hey, that’d be great!”
“Good,” Redbone said. “We’re going on a little adventure.”
Nick didn’t like the way Redbone said adventure.
“We are going foraging,” Sekeu said.
“Give you a chance to see some of the sights,” Abraham added and gave Redbone a wink.
“Dirk and Dash are coming with us,” Redbone said to Sekeu. “Be here in a sec. Just as soon as Dirk finds his sword.”
“What, again?” Abraham asked. “How do you lose a sword? Kid would lose his butthole if it weren’t attached to his ass.”
Redbone laughed out loud at that, showing all of his teeth. He seemed to always be wearing that wide, fierce grin. Nick felt that grin combined with the dye, or paint, or whatever it was he rubbed on his skin and hair to make it red, made him look like a real devil. Then there was that ridiculous red bone, the one tied into the topknot of his wild, tangled hair, like something out of the Flintstones. Nick figured if he were to ask—which he had no intention of doing—that ridiculous bone would have something to do with his nickname. Up close, Nick couldn’t help but notice all the scars on the boy, and wondered how many scrapes and challenges this whacked-out kid had been in. One particularly nasty-looking scar snaked lengthwise right down between his squinty, fiendish eyes.
Abraham, other than his missing hand, had very few scars. It was his golden eyes that made him so striking, contrasting sharply with his dark skin. Nick didn’t believe he’d ever seen a person as dark as Abraham; his skin was almost raven-black. Abraham wore a scruffy bowler hat dressed up with black feathers and beads, and a tight-fitting pin-stripe dinner jacket with the sleeves cut out.
Two more boys joined them; one hopping along as he laced up his boot.
“Nick,” Sekeu said. “Meet Dirk and Dash.”
Dirk’s scalp had been shaved; jagged ritual scarring spun away from his eyebrows and along the side of his head. He was a bit shorter than Nick, square-jawed with a hefty build, reminding Nick somewhat of a bulldog.
Dash pushed a clump of blond hair from his face and stared down at Nick. He was almost as tall as Redbone, had a slight underbite, and a head full of long, greasy hair. Bits of bone and metal jutted from his ears, nose, eyebrows, nipples, and Nick didn’t want to imagine where the hell else.
Dirk and Dash cocked their heads from side to side and began to click their teeth.
“No,” Sekeu said, and whacked Dash.
“Hey,” Dash said and jerked a thumb at Dirk. “What about him?”
Sekeu whacked Dirk. Dirk frowned and whacked Dash. Then the two boys were punching each other, and Redbone and Abraham had to separate them.
Ignoring the ruckus, Sekeu went to the wall and tugged over a basket of mangy-looking hides. She handed one to each of the New Blood. “Put these on.”
Nick held it out before him, unsure just how one went about putting on a hide.
“Just stick your head through that there hole,” Abraham said, then added, “They’re for camouflage.”
What are we hiding from? Nick wondered, but was afraid to ask.
By the time Nick got the hide situated, Sekeu handed him a belt. The belt looked ancient, the leather cracking and flaking. It was wide and studded with rings of tarnished brass. Nick noticed intricate swirling designs all but worn away from the years of abuse.
“You have to earn the right to carry a sword,” Sekeu told them as she plucked four spears off the wall. “For now, you are permitted spears.”
Nick noted that the Devils carried a long knife on their belts and a short sword slung across their backs. Dirk and Dash brought along spears as well.
Sekeu tossed Nick a spear. It was heavier than the practice spears, the staff a bit thicker. It felt smooth and true in his hand. He admired the sharp, jagged edge of the spearhead.
Danny was staring at his spear with a sour face. “What do we need these for?”
Nick could’ve answered that one, recalling the claw marks on the door.
“In case we are attacked,” Sekeu said.
“Attacked?” Danny stammered. “Huh? By what?”
“Monsters,” Redbone said, his eyes serious.
SEKEU SLID THE bolt over and pulled the heavy round door inward.
Nick was surprised to find himself eager to venture out. The last time he was out, it had been too dark to see anything, and the time he peeked out the door, well, he’d been too scared to see past his own shadow. But with all the Devils coming along, all armed to the teeth, he didn’t feel scared, he felt an odd excitement.
He glanced at Redbone, Sekeu, Abraham, Dirk, and Dash; they looked alert, dangerous. Not a group he’d want to run into in the forest.
They shuffled out single-file; Nick following Redbone. He took in a deep breath and the musky smell of damp earth filled his nostrils. He peered around the tall boy, eager to see the forest.
The door thudded shut behind them and the heavy bolt clacked into place. Nick stared at the deep claw marks on the door and swallowed loudly. He glanced up and realized that the fort—at least part of it—was actually in a tree, a huge tree that appeared to have grown right out of the stony cliff face, its thick roots and vines twisting around the boulders like a massive octopus. It towered above them and he could see a few lookout stands here and there among the limbs.
They crested a short slope and Nick got his first clear look at the land of Avalon. He couldn’t have told you exactly what he’d envisioned, but the scene before him wasn’t it.
Gray saturated everything, dull and rutty, like the skin of something long-dead. Where was the thick, flowering undergrowth, the giant trees alive with purple monkeys and floating butterfly people, as in his dream? There were no magical creatures, not even a pixie. For that matter, there wasn’t a sign of any living creature of any sort. Not so much as a bird or a bug. The landscape laid out before him was composed of barren sooty earth and the carcasses of once mighty trees. Thorny vines snaked around jagged stumps and huge briar patches formed daunting barriers in all directions.
They marched over the rise and down a crooked, uneven trail, crawling over and under the fallen hulks of rotting trees. There came the occasional break in the low-hanging clouds, and Nick could make out steep, rugged cliffs just beyond the forest.
Redbone fell in beside him and they brought up the rear of the troop. He stared at Nick, that weird grin on his face.
Nick smiled back once, hoping this would placate him. Redbone reminded Nick of the crazy folks that talk to you on the street, the ones you quickly learned it was best not to make eye contact with.
A dense fog swept across the trail, momentarily obscuring the path.
Redbone began making low ghost sounds.
“Silence,” Sekeu called from the front of the troop.
Redbone stopped at once but his crazy grin never wavered. He gave Sekeu a sieg heil salute and winked at Nick.
As they moved along the path, Nick noted a few trees—usually the larger ones—that still held a bit of green in their uppermost branches. Curiosity got the best of him and he asked Redbone in a hushed whisper: “Is the forest dying?”
“Man, all of Avalon is dying,” Redbone answered, seemingly pleased as Punch that Nick wanted to talk. “They call it the scourge. Even in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve seen this forest go from a thing of beauty to the way it is now. Each time we go out for berries, seems we got to trek farther and farther north.”
“How long you been here?”
“Man, that’s hard to say. Time’s different here, y’know. I do know it was 1974 when I left the human world.”
“That’s nothing. That cat Abraham, he left the human world way back during the Civil War. He used to be a slave.”
Nick looked at Abraham, disbelieving. “No way.”
“Yup, and if you think that’s way out, dig this: Sekeu has been here since the pilgrims. She was a slave of the Delaware tribe. Peter stole her right out from under their big fat noses.
“Abraham told me that when he first arrived, this whole forest was still teeming with all sorts of magical little beasties, even the wee folk. Looking at it now, man, that’s hard to believe.”
Nick saw something move in the mist, a dark, skittering shadow about the size of a rat.
“That’s a darkling,” Redbone volunteered. “From what I’m told, they’ve always been a part of Avalon. Nasty life-sucking things. But pretty much the only life you find around here, now. Hell, these days, even the darklings are starting to fade. With all the wee folk gone, they only got each other to eat.”
Nick saw another one duck away into the hollow of a log. It looked like a spider but was the size of a cat. Geez, Nick thought, and made a mental note to steer clear of any hollow logs or stumps.
They passed a clump of dead bushes, then rounded a bend, and a shallow valley opened below them where brown foliage sparsely littered the trees. As they trekked along the trail, the landscape gradually began to shift and the trees and bushes to fill in. But it wasn’t until after about an hour of hiking that Nick finally caught sight of any real greenery.
They forded a wide, lazy creek, crossed a field of tall brown grass dotted with a few wilted wildflowers, and shortly thereafter entered a forest of thick, sprawling trees.
“This is Myrkvior Forest,” Redbone said. “It’s the oldest woods on Avalon, the very heart of the island. Its magic is strong, but man, look at that.” Redbone pointed at the scraggly limbs and gray-and-brown leafage. “Man, even here the damn scourge is choking the life out of everything.”
Nick found no signs of magical creatures, and only heard the occasional lonely birdcall.
The troop halted while Sekeu and Abraham inspected a line of prickly bushes, poking and prodding among the brown leaves.
“Find anything?” Abraham asked.
Sekeu held out two shriveled berries.
“Now that be a pitiful sight,” Abraham said, shaking his head.
The group moved along, farther and farther into the tall trees, checking one cluster of bushes, then another, then another. A couple of hours later they halted beneath a grove of short trees. Redbone pulled a limb down for Sekeu to pluck a couple of berries. She dropped them into Abraham’s bucket.
Abraham looked into the bucket. “Well now we’re getting somewhere. Why that makes eight berries and about twenty acorns so far.”
“Enough for my breakfast,” Redbone said. “Don’t know what the rest of you jive turkeys are gonna do for grub.”
Abraham let out a long, defeated sigh. “Once you could’ve filled all our buckets up from just this one bush here. If this keeps up we’ll be eating thorns sure enough.”
“What the fuck?” Dirk said. “Last week there were plenty of berries here.”
“Shit,” Redbone said. “It’s like it’s going faster. Every time we have to search farther and farther into the forest. Man, what’re we gonna do when we run out of forest?”
“Enough talk,” Sekeu said sharply, her face tight. She walked quickly away, continuing down the trail.
The rest of the Devils exchanged somber looks and followed.
A SMALL DEER broke cover. It was thin and mangy. It leaped across a wide, shallow creek, up a slope, and disappeared into the brambles.
Redbone snatched Danny’s spear away from him and started after the deer.
“NO!” Sekeu shouted.
Redbone ignored her.
“THE LADY’S WOOD!” she cried.
Redbone stopped. He looked up and down the creek, his face confused.
“Oh, good Lord,” Abraham said, his voice incredulous. “She’s right. That’s Cusith Creek. Why, I didn’t even recognize it. Not with all them leaves and flowers gone.”
“Impossible,” Dirk said. “The scourge in the Lady’s Wood?”
“If we don’t bring something back we’re gonna starve,” Redbone growled. “I say we go after it.”
“You go,” Abraham said. “I’m in no mind to throw my life away for a spot of venison.”
Redbone stared after the deer.
“The elves will kill you,” Sekeu stated with certainty. “The trees have eyes and ears.” She pointed to three bird-size faeries watching them from a high branch.
THEY FOLLOWED THE dark creek downstream, stopping occasionally to examine the bushes along the banks. The sun never came out from behind the clouds, but the day had grown warm and humid.
“Hey,” Danny huffed, wiping the sweat from his brow. His face was bright red, his T-shirt soaked. “Any chance of a break?”
Sekeu kept plodding onward, her eyes relentlessly searching the bushes and underbrush.
“Y’know,” Abraham said, “break might not be such a bad idea. Be a mite awkward if we were to kill the New Blood on their first day out.”
Sekeu stopped, took a hard look at Danny, then scanned the surrounding tree line. “Rest here. I will go check oak grove. Dirk, come.”
Nick collapsed atop a large, flat stone next to the shallow creek and watched Sekeu and Dirk disappear into the woods. He let out a tired sigh and joined the rest of them in dousing his head and getting a long drink. The sweetness of the water still amazed him.
“Can’t believe the scourge has spread to the Lady’s Wood,” Redbone said. “Man, I would’ve never dreamed that possible.”
“Seems to me, it’s accelerating,” Abraham said. “I do wonder if Peter has any idea.”
“Y’know,” Dash said, “Peter should’ve been back by now.”
“Just hope he ain’t got himself in a spot he can’t get out of,” Abraham said.
“There’s no such thing as trouble that dude can’t get out of,” Redbone said.
“I just hope he brings some more Snickers,” Dash said.
“Man, there ain’t much I miss about the world,” Redbone said. “But I gotta say I sure miss the food. Remember that time Peter brought back six boxes of Ray’s pizza?”
“Do I ever,” Abraham said, and a big smile lit up his face. “Why I dream about that most every night.”
Danny’s eyes grew big. “Pizza! Wow, that’d make my decade.”
“Don’t tell me you’re getting tired of acorns and mushrooms already,” Redbone said, and nudged Danny. “Man, you gotta wait ’til you’ve been here as long as me before you start griping about the food.”
“So where is Peter?” Nick asked.
“Catching kids,” Redbone said with a laugh.
Nick couldn’t believe they were laughing. “That’s funny?”
Redbone’s smile faded.
“It’s not right,” Nick muttered, half-under his breath.
“What’s not right?”
Nick didn’t answer, he just shook his head.
“I said, what’s not right?”
“What do you think?” Nick said. “The bastard kidnapping kids. That’s what’s not right.”
Redbone struck Nick. He moved so quickly Nick didn’t even see it coming, hit him in the chest, knocking him into the creek.
Abraham was up and between them in a blink, holding Redbone back. “Whoa. Ease back now. Let it go. He’s New Blood, remember?”
Redbone glared at Nick then glanced around at the other New Blood. “Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t want to catch any of you badmouthing the man. That jive don’t fly with me.” He walked over to Nick, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him up out of the creek. He propped Nick back up on the rock, then plopped down across from him, leaning forward and locking his crazy eyes on him.
“You need to understand a thing or two,” Redbone said. “So I’m gonna lay it on you. Back before I came here I lived upstate with my old man. Got tired of the sorry fuck beating the snot out of me every other day. So I upped and lit out for the big city. In less than a week, I was sleeping in a cardboard box, stealing, and turning tricks just to eat. You’ve any idea how bad that is? I had to do things I can’t even talk about still. I was thirteen. Fucking thirteen!
“One night this pimp gets a hold of me. Bastard tells me if I wanna work his street, I gotta pay. Pay? With what? I didn’t have enough dough to buy food. How was I supposed to pay this hustler? So I don’t. Sure enough he catches up with me and beats the crap out of me. I mean really beats the crap out of me. Left me in a Dumpster, spitting up blood. Man, at that point I wanted to die.
“Week later I’m back at it, because that’s all I got, see. Only now, no one wants anything to do with me. Y’know why?” Redbone’s eyes bore into Nick. “Because I got this gnarly scab on my mouth and I was all scraped up from the beating. So I’m mostly stealing shit and eating out of garbage cans. He caught me on his turf again. I wasn’t getting any action. I was just there, y’know. Made no difference to this motherfucker. He drug me into an alley, stuffed garbage in my mouth so no one could hear me screaming, and pulled out his knife. Says he’s gonna fix me for good and gives me this.” Redbone traced the scar running down his face. “Would’ve killed me, but that’s when Peter showed up. Y’know, the guy you were just badmouthing? Before that asshole even knew what was happening Peter cut him wide open. Laid him out! That’s one son’bitch that’ll never hurt another kid, ever.
“Peter doctored me up the best he could and brought me back with him. So let me lay it on you straight. I love that pointy-eared dude. He did more than save my life. He gave me a life. Gave me a family. I know what I’m about, ’cause it’s all real simple here. We’re clan. We’re Devils and we look after one another.”
Abraham and Dash nodded along.
“And if you think my story’s bad,” Redbone continued, “man, you ain’t heard shit. Get Abraham to tell you what it was like to be a runaway slave sometime. Ask him about the life Peter saved him from. Hell, ask any of them kids back at the fort. Every one of them gots a hard-luck story that’d bring tears to your eyes. Plenty a lot worse than mine. And there’s not a single one of them that wants to go back. Because we’ve all had our share of dealing with fucked-up parents, stepparents, priests, cops, pimps, pushers, crackheads, all those fuckers out there. That world out there, I say they can keep it, man.
“Peter’s given us another chance. That cat has put his life on the line for me. For you and for every kid here, time and again. The sooner you get your mind right about that the better off you’ll be. Are we straight on that?”
No, Nick thought. We’re not. But he nodded anyway.
“Good,” Redbone said. “Because I like you. And I’d hate to have to kill you.”
Nick wasn’t sure if Redbone was kidding, was pretty sure he wasn’t, pretty sure this kid would kill him if Peter asked him to, and judging from what he had seen back at the fort, probably any of them would. He glanced at Abraham, Dash, Leroy, even Cricket and Danny. He could see it in all their eyes. They were completely taken in by Peter’s ruse. It was as though Peter was some sort of messiah to them, come to take them to the promised land.
“This is a magical place,” Abraham said, addressing all the New Blood. “You wouldn’t know it. Not by the way things are now. But when I first come here these forests were lush, teeming with life. Every kind of fruits and nuts you could imagine. Why there were wild bananas hanging off the trees…a true paradise.”
“And it’ll be again,” Redbone stated with absolute conviction. “That’s where we come in. Where you come in. Together we’re gonna drive away the Flesh-eaters and then.” His eyes glimmered. “Then, we’ll be the Lords of Avalon.”
“Flesh-eaters?” Cricket asked.
Redbone hesitated, cut his eyes to Abraham.
“Tell us,” Cricket prodded.
“Yeah, well,” Redbone muttered. “Let’s just say they’re the ones causing all this trouble and leave it at that.”
“What are they?” Cricket persisted.
“Hush up, now,” Abraham said. “Here comes Sekeu. She’s in a foul enough mood already. She’ll scalp the lot of us if she hears us talking to New Blood about Flesh-eaters. Peter will tell you. Let you in on everything soon enough.”
Why can’t we talk about these Flesh-eaters? Nick wondered. What are they hiding? Nick thought about asking Sekeu, then saw her face and decided now wasn’t the time.
Sekeu held out her hand: four gray acorns.
“That there’s from Oak Grove?” Abraham asked.
“What’re we gonna do?”
“I say we slip across the creek,” Redbone said. “Make a quick raid into the Lady’s Wood.”
Abraham looked at him as though he’d lost his mind. “You do have a death wish.”
“The elves are too vigilant,” Sekeu said.
“Well, that leaves the witch’s swamp,” Redbone said.
They all fell quiet.
“Well?” Abraham asked, looking at Sekeu.
Sekeu shook her head. “What other choice do we have?”
THEY FOLLOWED THE creek downstream until the land began to level out. The water turned brown and led into a marsh of high, gray reeds. The reeds gave way to squat twisted trees with slick, black, oily bark, their branches dripping with thick moss. The path became soggy then muddy, grabbing at their feet. The trees pressed in around them as the path wove around weedy bogs and stagnant ponds.
Nick didn’t like it; other than an occasional bellow, the swamp was still and silent, the air musty and stifling. Even Redbone had fallen deathly quiet, all of them creeping along, weapons out, keeping a tight watch on the trees and murky pools. Nick felt as though he was in a sideshow spook house, knowing something would pop out at any second. He was worn out, his feet sore, and the dread was wearing on his nerves. He decided he’d had all the adventuring he needed for one day, and found himself actually longing to be back at the fort.
A cry came from behind and Nick spun about in time to see Danny sliding down a short embankment and into a pool of black, viscous mud.
“HELP!” Danny cried as he clawed at the slippery bank. The mud bubbled up around him. It was up to his waist in no time and appeared to be pulling him down.
Redbone leaped over, grabbed a root in one hand, and snatched a hold of Danny’s wrist with the other. Dash and Dirk were there in a second and it took all three of them to finally pull Danny out.
“Hey Danny,” Redbone said. “Next time you decide to drown yourself, try not to make so much noise. Okay?”
Danny looked like he was about to cry. He’d lost both his boots and was covered from the neck down in stringy, oily mud. The mud gurgled loudly behind him and he scurried away from the bank.
“Maybe we should take them back,” Abraham said to Sekeu.
“There,” Sekeu said, and pointed to a cluster of spotted mushrooms growing beneath a thick, thorny hedge.
“Few more over here,” Dash said. “We should spread out. Might just find enough.”
Sekeu nodded in agreement. She pointed at Nick and the other New Blood. “You four look here. Abraham, stay with them. The rest of you spread out. But keep in sight. We must be quick. She will find us if we linger.”
“OUCH,” NICK SAID, and stuck his finger in his mouth. That was about the hundredth time he’d been pricked so far. The only mushrooms they’d found were growing beneath the thornbushes. Nick guessed these were the ones the deer couldn’t get to.
“Me too,” Cricket said. She held up the back of her hand. She was a couple bushes down the slope, but Nick had no problem seeing the scratches. Danny actually looked like he was enjoying himself for the first time all day. He was on all fours, knocking at a mushroom with his spear.
“It’s kind of like hunting Easter eggs,” Danny said. “Don’t you think?”
“Just shut up and keep picking,” Leroy said.
Abraham came over to Leroy and dropped a handful of mushrooms into his sack.
“We do need to hurry,” Abraham said, looking worriedly up the hill. “The fog’s gettin’ up.”
Nick glanced up the hill and could just make out the shape of Sekeu and Redbone digging around on the ridgeline.
Something splashed nearby; Abraham heard it too. The fog was indeed getting thicker. At first, Nick thought he was just imagining things, then a wave of fog drifted into the clearing and all but obscured Danny.
“No sir, this ain’t right at all,” Abraham said. “We need to git. I’ll fetch Sekeu. Now, don’t any of you go nowhere.” He sprinted away up the hill.
The fog continued to roll in.
“Nobody told you to stop,” Leroy said.
“Can you see them?” Cricket asked.
“Not anymore,” Nick said.
“Got it!” Danny said, holding up a big yellow mushroom. “Man, would you look at the size of this thing?”
“Shit, I can’t see a thing,” Cricket said.
“I said get back to work,” Leroy growled.
A small break opened in the fog. Nick spotted Abraham nearing the ridge, then the hair shot up on the back of his neck. Behind Abraham were four, maybe five hunched shapes, right on his heels, and whatever they were, they weren’t human.
Nick was in mid-shout when a horrible screech cut him off.
It was Danny. He was on the ground and on top of him was a—monster. It had red fur, was no larger than a cat, and reminded Nick of a hyena but with long arms and clawed fingers that were even now digging into Danny’s arm and shoulder. It whipped about a long tail with a wet red stinger protruding from the end, and it began slamming the stinger repeatedly into Danny’s neck and face.
“OH, SHIT!” Nick cried. His sack fell from his hand, sending the handful of mushrooms tumbling down the slope.
Danny’s face went bright red, his mouth opened wide as he gasped loudly for breath. He toppled over backward, twitched violently, then lay still, his eyes staring up at nothing.
Another hyena-thing dropped from the tree above Cricket, knocking the spear from her hand. This one was much larger, closer to the size of a German shepherd, a thick mane of black fur circling its head. It too had a whip tail, but this one lacked any sort of stinger that Nick could see.
Cricket screamed and swung wildly with her bucket, driving it back. She tried to get around it, but it kept her pinned between the thorn bushes, hissing and snapping its teeth.
Leroy, not five strides away from her, seemed frozen in place, his eyes big, his mouth agape, clutching his spear between his white-knuckled fists.
“HELP HER!” Nick shouted. But Leroy only continued to stare.
Cricket hit the monster with the pail. It jigged side to side, darting to and fro. Nick saw the smaller, red-haired creature creeping up from behind her. If somebody didn’t do something now, Cricket would be as dead as Danny.
Leroy stumbled backward and fell.
Nick rushed out from the bushes, not even feeling the thorns dig into his legs, not thinking about anything but driving those monsters away from Cricket. He snatched up his spear and rushed the beasts, leaping past Leroy as Leroy scrambled up the hill on all fours.
The red creature leaped on Cricket’s back and jabbed its stinger into her neck, over and over. Cricket let out a pitiful cry and tumbled over.
“NO!” Nick screamed, and slammed the spear into the red creature’s ribs, knocking it off Cricket and driving it into the dirt.
The red creature shrieked and thrashed, black blood spewing from the wound.
The black hyena-thing let loose a howl that almost caused Nick to drop his spear. The wail sounded human, sounded full of rage and anguish.
Nick yanked his spear free and leveled it at the hyena-thing.
The monster locked eyes with Nick and began to beat the ground in front of it. It bared its fangs and tore up clumps of dirt and leaves, slinging them into the air.
It means to tear me apart, Nick thought, and wanted to run, but knew if he turned his back, even for a second, the creature would have him. His heart thundered in his chest. This is beyond me, I can’t do this. But there was a new voice in his head; Sekeu, telling him to hold steady, to focus. Nick slid into the L-stance, fixed his trembling hands on the spear. One shot, he thought, that’s all I’m gonna get.
The hyena-thing let loose an earsplitting screech and came for him, ripping across the ground in a crazy zigzagging charge, hooting and howling.
Focus, Nick thought, taking quick, short breaths, fighting to hold steady. The monster leaped and Nick swung, putting a snap on the spear just as Sekeu had showed him. The blade caught the beast in the neck, cutting its throat wide-open.
The creature slammed into Nick, spattering him in black blood and knocking him to the ground. Nick shoved the convulsing body away and tried for his feet, but before he could get up, something landed on his back. The smaller, red creature, its claws sunk into his shoulder, its stinger whipping toward his face. Nick managed to get his arm up and the stinger ripped across his forearm.
Nick cried out as searing pain shot up his arm. He twisted free and kicked away from the beast. It twitched and clawed at the dirt but didn’t get back up.
Nick clasped his wounded arm to his chest; he could feel the burning spread up his shoulder. His face began to grow warm, then hot; his throat tightened. Nick dropped his spear and fell over on his back, gasping for breath as his throat continued to constrict. He caught a glimpse of Cricket. She was pale and still, her eyes lifeless.
The red beast lay on its side, twitching. Leroy, his face a mask of fear and revulsion, rushed up and slammed his spear into the monster’s body over and over, and kept repeating, “Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!”
“THEY ARE HERE!” Sekeu shouted, running out of the fog, taking in the scene in a glance and sliding down next to Cricket. She leaned over, putting an ear against the girl’s chest.
Abraham, Dirk, Dash, and Redbone came running up. Redbone was splattered in black blood. A nasty slash ran across his shoulder and chest, his breath coming hard and fast through clenched teeth, sword in one hand, knife in the other, both dripping with blood. He locked wild, fierce eyes on the two dead creatures.
“I killed them,” Leroy said quickly. “Killed both of them.” He looked at Cricket and Danny. “I tried to save them. Things just happened so fast. I did what I could.”
Redbone met Leroy’s eyes; his mouth a grim line. He slipped away his knife, clapped a bloody hand on Leroy’s shoulder, and shook the boy. “Those are barghest, man. Right on, Leroy!”
Leroy grinned weakly and cut his eyes to Nick.
What? Nick thought. “No!” he tried to shout, but his throat was too tight and he broke into a fit of painful coughing.
A howl cut through the fog; it came from everywhere, from the very ground. The fog itself began to darken like a storm cloud.
“The witch,” Sekeu said.
Peter stared at the bodies. In the soft glow of dawn he could see that the earth was still dark from their slaughter. There were four of them, Pooxits, distant cousins to the centaur, only much smaller, coming no higher than Peter’s knee. They had the bodies of cats, and the torsos of monkeys. They’d always reminded Peter of little people with their dexterous fingers, chattery speech, and lively, expressive faces.
He could see where the Flesh-eaters had burned them out of the nearby brush, there were slashes in the dirt of a struggle and tracks where they’d been dragged over to be skinned and butchered. Their bones lay scattered about the dirt; Peter couldn’t help but notice the teeth marks on the bones.
He found their heads and hands in a ditch, tossed aside like garbage.
Their eyes—glazed and jellied—stared up at him, the horror of their deaths still plain to see. Peter had heard the screams of those caught by the Flesh-eaters. Be they elf, centaur, gnome, troll, faerie folk, or even Devil, it didn’t matter, the Flesh-eaters showed no mercy. They skinned them alive, butchered, and ate them. Better to die by my own hand, Peter thought, than ever fall into theirs.
Other than a slight tightening of the jaw, Peter showed no emotion. He turned and pressed on, heading north. The Flesh-eaters’ path of razed, brutalized land spread out before him as far as he could see. He skirted the remnants of a village. The burned-out huts jutting up from the dead, ashen earth like so many jagged teeth. A stack of broken skulls were piled against one wall; their hollow eyes followed him as he passed. It is time to end this, Peter thought. One way or another, it must end.
He glanced heavenward. Somewhere above the low-lying clouds, the sun lit up the sky. He could tell the day was going to be warm, could feel the humidity building. He scanned the gray mud and burned husks of long-fallen trees and wondered if the sun’s face would ever grace this tortured landscape again.
Peter crested a long, sloping hill, found himself staring into the eyes of a god, and realized where he was. “Avallach’s Shrine,” he said and dropped heavily onto a boulder. He gazed at the broken ruins. He could see the marshlands below. Deviltree wasn’t far now, just past the swamps, but he wasn’t looking forward to crossing through the witch’s land, not during the day. Not while I still have my eyes, he thought, and grinned a nasty grin.
He regarded the god’s head, a giant thing of carved granite easily the size of a barrel. It had been knocked from its base at the neck and lay on its side as though listening to the earth. Its face was marred, hacked, and hammered, but even so the eyes still held their strength.
The rest of the great statue still stood, its hands forever clasped to its chest. A ring of craggy stumps spiraled out from the statue—all that remained of the vast apple orchard. When Peter closed his eyes, he could still see those trees, hundreds of them, their white blossoms flittering in the warm sunlight of that faraway day.
PETER SAT BESIDE the old elf upon a large field stone. He cupped a hand across his brow, shielding his eyes from the midday sun as he looked up at the giant statue. The statue’s eyes were set deep within the shadow of its thick furrowed brow, staring ceaselessly out over the orchard.
Apple blossoms drifted lazily by, glittering in the sunlight, gathering in every crease and fold of the statue’s drapery. The apple trees surrounding the statue hummed and buzzed with honey bees, birds, and the ceaseless chatter of sprites and faeries.
Peter followed the Lady’s every move, found he cared to do little more. She stood before the statue, a slender hand resting upon its foot, looking up into the stern face.
“That’s Avallach,” the old elf said. “God of healing, Lord of Avalon. He’s left us, his mortal time on earth long past. He now reigns in Otherworld, leaving his children to watch over Avalon.”
“Uh-huh,” Peter said distractedly.
“The Lady Modron is one of his children.”
“Did her mother leave her too?”
“Mother? I don’t believe the Lady had a mother. Not in the way we might think of, anyway. Avallach created his children from the elements at hand. The Lady’s spirit comes from the rivers, lakes, and streams. Water will forever be her lifeblood. Her brother, the Horned One, was created from living sacrifices of flesh and blood, while her sister, Ginny, the witch, was grown from the earth like a tree.”
Peter glanced over at him, concerned. “The witch is her sister? How can that be? The witch is so wicked.”
The elf laughed. “They’re gods,” he said, as though that explained everything.
Peter looked puzzled.
“They’re Nature and one must always be wary of Nature. They play their roles, keeping the balance of Avalon. None of them would flinch at killing any who should threaten that balance. Why even the children of faerie are not immune from their ire. The Horned One will smite any who enter Avalon uninvited. The witch, well you’re well aware of what the witch does to outsiders. The Lady guards us all with her Mist. Even among the Sidhe, only a very few can walk the Mist.”
Peter watched the Lady lay her cheek against the stone and close her eyes. “I like the Lady very much.”
“Yes,” the elf sighed. “She is hard not to love. She is like the earth itself. But,” he lowered his voice, “one must always be wary of gods and goddesses, lest we become too entangled in their desires and schemes.”
The elf fell quiet for a while.
“Did you know that the whole world was once Faerie?”
Peter shook his head, half-listening.
“Yes indeed, before men-kind came along.” The elf’s voice sobered. “Men have disturbed the balance, putting the children of Avallach to the test. All we have left now is this island. The new gods are pushing out the old. Soon, I fear, there’ll no longer be room for Earth’s first children…anywhere. That is why the Lady comes here. To seek her father’s counsel. Whether he hears or not, none of us know. Judging from her face I don’t believe he does. But that’s the business of the gods. My business is to keep the Lady safe.”
“Safe?” Peter glanced up at the elf. “From what? The witch?”
“No. I don’t believe the witch would harm her, or even could. They might not like each other, but they need each other, the way the land needs water and water needs land. But there are others that would.”
Peter looked concerned.
“The Lady’s spirit is immortal, but she’s not. There are those, even in Faerie, that would feed on her flesh. If her mortal form were to pass she’d no longer be bound to the earth, to Avalon, then where would we be?
“But that won’t happen. Not while I’m part of the Guard,” the elf stated with obvious pride. “It’s my duty to see to it she comes and goes without fear of beast, or witch, or little red-headed freckle-faced boys.” He smiled.
Peter leaped to his feet. “Can I join the Lady’s Guard?” He thumped his chest. “I’d make a great guard. Why, I’m not afraid of that witch, or wolves, or bears, not anything.”
The guard laughed and patted Peter on the head. “Maybe, one day.”
“WE’RE HERE, PETERBIRD,” the Lady Modron said. “My garden.”
It had been a long trek from the statue to the garden. They’d passed through forests and glades, crossed creeks and streams, but to Peter it had seemed no time at all as he walked beside the Lady, as she told him about all the sights and creatures they came upon.
The sun edged toward the horizon, painting the sky and surrounding forest a brilliant gold. The trees about the garden were tall and straight, with pale blue bark and leaves.
They proceeded up a walkway of alabaster flagstones framed by two long, slender wading pools. Tall standing stones stood sentinel in their still waters. The walkway led to a lofty archway cut into a towering white stone ledge. Wide bands of gold veined the stone, glittered in the waning sunlight, sending dazzling beams sparkling off the long pools. A gentle waterfall spilled onto the crest of the archway, dividing the waterfall into twin falls that cascaded down either side, forming the head of each pool.
A field of wildflowers spilled over the banks of the pools, filling the air with the sweet perfume of nectar and evening dew. Wild faeries and sprites perched upon every reed, lily, and stem, some even straddling the backs of bored-looking bullfrogs. They filled the dusk with their song as they watched the Lady pass.
The Lady and her procession approached the archway and two young elves pulled the tall doors open. The boys bowed to the Lady, giving Peter curious looks as he passed.
They entered a short passageway of polished, iridescent stone, the palest shade of green. The walls were framed by stone pillars in the shape of trees that looked to have grown right from the floor, their branches weaving into a spidery canopy. Music drifted along the corridor, accompanied by raucous laughter, squeals, and grunts. Peter glanced down the hall and saw a tall, handsome boy with a heavy brow and dark, brooding eyes striding purposely toward them.
“Someone does not look pleased, my Lady,” Drael whispered.
The Lady sighed. “When ever does he?”
The boy was much taller than Peter, eye level with the Lady. Peter guessed him to be several years older than himself. His dark hair was cropped in a bowl cut just above his ears, oiled and shiny, not a strand out of place. He wore a quilted jacket, trimmed in gold, with long puffed sleeves, made from a finely woven fabric. He had on black stockings and gold shoes with pointed toes. Peter could not find a speck of dust, nor a trace of dirt anywhere on the boy.
The tall boy dismissed Peter at a glance and addressed the Lady.
“Modron, you were supposed—”
“Ulfger,” the Lady interrupted. “Not today. I do not need this from you today.”
“You were supposed to be here hours ago,” he continued, his voice stern and serious. “Have you forgotten your duties?”
“No, Ulfger,” the Lady said with noticeable irritation. “I have not forgotten my duties. And I will not be drawn into this today. Not today.”
“The fate of Avalon hangs in the balance, yet the council spends its time drinking, gossiping, and exchanging rude riddles.” He stared accusingly at the Lady. “They need leadership.”
“Ulfger, it is not your place to tell me—”
“It is my place, Modron,” he said, making no attempt to hide the contempt in his voice. “This frivolity and buffoonery…it is why Avalon is dying.”
“Oh, Ulfger. Why must you do this? You’re a boy. You should be having fun, running wild, getting into mischief. You—”
“No! That, Modron—that is the very problem. Avalon needs order and discipline.” He clenched his hand into a fist. “Needs an iron hand to combat men-kind’s aggression. Without it we are destined to become extinct.”
The Lady looked at him sadly. “Those are your mother’s words. Even at death’s door, she can’t keep her long nose out of things. And look what she has done to you. At an age when you should be at your most carefree, you are bent beneath the weight of her nettling and conniving.”
Ulfger flushed. “No, that’s not true.”
The Lady shook her head. “This is my fault, I should have stood up to her, should have insisted you live in the forest with your father. Your mother has done everything in her power to kill the wildness within you. I am fearful the Horned One will not know his own son.”
Ulfger’s eyes fell to the floor. He turned away, but not before Peter caught the wounded look on his face.
The Lady took Peter’s hand; they pushed past the handsome boy and strolled down the hall.
THEY PASSED BENEATH another arch and entered a great domed hall. A small circular pond lay at the center of the hall, cut into the stone floor. The pond glowed brightly—the very water was phosphorescent—filling the whole hall with a soft, greenish glow. A crescent moon, stars, and winged fish were carved into the dome. The light swirled over the designs, making them appear to swim around the ceiling.
A dozen curved tables circled the pond. Plates and bowls of wild game, bread, boiled carrots, beets, and potatoes littered the pitted, well-worn surface, their spice filling the chamber. Peter inhaled deeply and his stomach grumbled.
“I believe someone’s hungry,” the Lady said.
Peter grinned up at her and nodded.
A man set down his goblet, pushed back his chair, and propped a cloven hoof on the edge of the table. He wore no clothing, only a thick leather yoke with large brass bells. His small, boyish body appeared to be that of a shaggy goat from the waist down. His skin was blood-red, his hair black. A long, pointed goatee curled upward off his chin and two short horns poked up from his sloping forehead, each with a small gold bell jangling from its tip. “You’re late,” he growled.
“And a good end of day to you too, Hiisi,” the Lady said, a smile pushing one corner of her mouth. “Nice to see everyone waited.”
A boar with long, curving tusks, dressed in a brilliant crushed velvet tunic complete with ruffles, held up a drumstick. “Like one swine waits for another,” he said through a mouthful of food, then snorted.
There were at least forty folk in attendance, mostly elves, their thin, spindly bodies draped across their high-backed chairs, their movements and gestures elegant and graceful. There were many other strange beings that Peter had never seen or imagined. Four plump men—easily as wide as they were tall and not a one larger than a chicken—with big red noses and cheeks and tiny black eyes that looked like they’d been pushed into their faces, sat upon tall stools wearing outlandish feathered caps and passing a large jug of wine back and forth. A flock of winged faeries sat crossed-legged on the table top, sharing a bowl of fruit. These were different than the ones Peter had seen in the forest; foremost, they were clothed, wearing britches and jackets or wispy gowns, and were well-mannered as they ate from tiny plates and sipped from tiny cups.
There were various other impish creatures, some more beast than manlike. Peter noticed two elven women, one with skin as black as coal, the other pink as roses. They lay coiled in each other’s arms, their eyes closed as they kissed and licked each other’s mouths, their hands lost beneath each other’s dresses. A child—an infant really—with a single red horn jutting from its forehead puffed away on a pipe, his eyes heavy as though lost in a dream. There were at least three faerie folk passed out on the floor, one of them snoring loud enough to be heard even over the ruckus.
Sour-faced servants moved in and out of the chamber, carrying trays, pouring wine into goblets, and complaining loudly to each other all at the same time. Over in one corner four stout faerie folk with bristly beards that fell all the way to their knees were playing flutes and plucking at string instruments, creating a whimsical melody.
Several servants came in and hastily laid out a table setting before an elegant, high-backed chair. The chair was by far the tallest in the room, formed of delicate white roots and branches. It appeared to have grown straight from the floor, its limbs reaching upward, weaving together into a symmetrical arch that nearly touched the top of the dome. The uppermost limbs sprouted into an umbrella of draping leaves. Tiny sprites played in the leaves, their multicolored lights blinking on and off.
The Lady leaned over to Peter. “Wait here with Drael.” She strolled to the chair. The band stopped playing and most of the attendees rose as she was seated. The Lady smiled and inclined her head. The dinner guests dropped back into their chairs, returning to their food and conversation as though nothing had happened.
Hiisi, the red-skinned man, sat on the Lady’s left. He leaned over. “My Lady, Tanngnost has asked to speak.”
The Lady let out a sigh. “Can I not at least eat first?”
“He’s just returned from the lands of men-kind. If he doesn’t get to speak soon, I fear he will simply burst.”
“Oh, dear. I wouldn’t wish our beloved Tanngnost to burst, not here in my chamber anyway. I guess we have little choice but to let him say his bit.”
Hiisi stood and banged his fork against his goblet. Most everyone ignored him. “Tonight, Council,” he said. “A dear old friend has graced us with his pungency. I’ve composed a rhyme in honor of this most un-notable occasion. Shall I?”
Several heads shook in dire disapproval, but the Lady smiled. “Why yes, dear Hiisi. By all means, proceed.”
Hiisi smiled, flicked his eyebrows, then cleared his throat. “I bestow a special troll. One who is dear to heart when he is apart, and hard to bear when he is near. But his lack of charm does no harm. Yes, the harbinger of doom and gloom is back in the room.” He inclined his head across the table to a tall figure cloaked in long, tattered gray robes. “Back from his daring jaunt across the lands of men-kind, I give you no other than—Tanngnost.”
The troll, who didn’t look as though he appreciated his introduction in the least, stood up to a spattering of weak applause. He appeared more beast than man, much taller than the elves, taller even than any man Peter had ever seen. He was stooped and appeared ancient but not frail; solidly built, like a stag. His legs were those of a great woolly elk, while his upper body resembled that of a man. A mane of sand-colored hair rolled down his shoulders in thick tangles, framing a long, goatlike snout. Golden, intelligent eyes peered out from beneath thick, drooping brows. Broad horns curled outward from the sides of his head, and thick tusks jutted from his mouth.
Under most circumstances, such an imposing beast would have frightened Peter, but something in this creature’s bearing spoke of graciousness, even refinement.
The troll bowed to the Lady, cleared his throat. “I am at your service,” he said in a deep baritone. “It is truly an honor to attend the ever-fair Lady Modron, daughter of Avallach, Great Lady of the Lakes, Goddess of—”
“Yes, yes, don’t you start with all that silliness,” the Lady said, waving her hand as though shooing a fly. “You’ll not flatter me. You want something or you’d not be here my dear Tanngnost. Something besides the feasting; which I see you’ve done your share.”
The troll dropped a guilty glance at the five dirty plates stacked before him.
“What ill tidings do you bring today?” she asked. “Go on, spill the beans. Get it over with.”
Tanngnost inclined his head. “Lady, you mustn’t slay the messenger.”
“A very wise old saying indeed,” Hiisi interjected. “Unless of course that messenger so happens to be a minder, meddler, and manipulator of other people’s business.”
This brought plenty of snickers from around the tables.
Tanngnost gave the Lady a long-suffering look. “Modron, if I may be so bold? How did the visit with your father go today?”
The table fell quiet and all eyes turned to the Lady.
The Lady’s face clouded.
Tanngnost let out a regretful sigh. “I see.”
Somber murmurings hummed around the tables and several folk began to speak at once.
“Why has Avallach abandoned us?” the boar called out, his words slurred. “Why now, when we need him most?”
“Why does he not hear us?” an elf demanded.
“He is dead,” shouted a smallish gray man with donkey ears.
“No, not dead. Avallach cannot die you ass. He is just gone.”
“We’re lost without his hand,” someone cried from under the table.
“We’ve angered him,” added a peevish green man with leaves for hair.
“We must placate him.”
“A living sacrifice!” a rosy-cheeked lady cried out.
The plump folk all raised their mugs and cheered at that. “Blood, blood, blood.”
“AVALLACH IS GONE!” the Lady spoke, her voice commanding, not loud, yet somehow rising above the ruckus. She came to her feet, eyes gleaming, her shadow growing tall, darkening the room. She looked both beautiful and dangerous, and for a moment, Peter was afraid. The room fell quiet. “It is time we all accept that.” She looked from face to face, daring any to challenge her. “We are his children. But do we wish to be children forever? It is time we face our trials on our own.”
No one spoke for a long minute.
“Aye,” the boar said, setting a hand on the table to steady himself. “That’s very stoic and all, my Lady, but where does that leave us? I mean really? What are we supposed to do with that?”
“It means it’s time to stop waiting for Avallach to save you,” called a boy’s voice.
All eyes turned to find Ulfger standing in the doorway. He walked in and stood next to the Lady. “It’s time to end the decadence and debauchery. To think about something other than wine and lust and song. It is time for Avalon to embrace order and discipline or die.”
The boar dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “With all due respect Lord Ulfger.” The boar let out a short burp. “I’d rather not be preached to by a boy.”
“Maybe it would do you some good to give him a listen,” the troll said.
“Those are not even his words,” the boar stammered as he refilled his goblet. “We all know he’s merely a mouthpiece for his mudder, muther—his mother.”
Ulfger stiffened and the Lady set a hand on his shoulder.
“And where is your father, Lord Ulfger?” the boar growled. “Where is the mighty Horned One? Why does he not come and talk with us?”
“That is not his way,” Tanngnost said. “You know that well enough.”
“I know he’s not here,” the boar said. “Just what does it take to bring him out of his deep dark forest cave?”
This was met with expectant nods and lively quibbling, and again the chamber disintegrated into bickering.
The Lady’s shoulders slumped and she sat back into her chair. Her eyes drifted away as though she were somewhere else. She looked very sad to Peter, and he wanted to go to her, wanted to do whatever he could to cheer her up. Then her eyes found him and she smiled. She came to her feet. “Today I was sent a gift.”
The room quieted as one by one the occupants looked her way.
“Maybe it came from Avallach, maybe it sprouted from a cabbage. Either way, a most wonderful delight.” She pointed to Peter.
All heads turned to Peter. He blushed and slid behind Drael.
“This boy fell into the clutches of Greenteeth herself,” she said. “Did he wait for Avallach to save him? No, not him. This brave child singlehandedly burned out the witch’s eye and escaped from her very lair!”
An astonished gasp came from every attendee at the table. Several stood to get a better view of Peter.
“Lord Ulfger is right. We can no longer afford to wait for Avallach. Like this boy, we need to save ourselves. We need to take all the wonderful gifts that Avallach has bestowed upon us and make good use of them.
“Peter,” the Lady called. “Don’t be bashful. Come here and sit beside me.”
The old elf nudged Peter and Peter dashed over to the Lady’s chair. The Lady pulled him into her lap.
“Where did he come from?” the boar asked.
“From the lands of men-kind,” the Lady said. “Through the stones.”
Hiisi poked one of Peter’s feet. “What is he?”
“A human boy, I think,” the Lady said. “But look.” She flipped back his hair, exposing the pointed tips of his ears. “He seems to have some faerie in him as well.”
They all leaned forward.
“Modron,” Ulfger said. “What does he have to do with—”
“Tanngnost?” the Lady asked. “How can such come to be?”
“Most curious,” Tanngnost said. “I’ve never seen the like. Have you?”
The Lady shook her head. “I didn’t know it was possible.”
“Does he not remember his parents?”
“Not his father,” the Lady said. “His mother was human. It was she that left him to die in the forest.”
“Men-kind are such cruel beasts,” the boar huffed.
“So, the faerie in him comes from his father,” Tanngnost remarked absently and stroked his hairy chin.
“Modron,” Ulfger said. “This is exactly why nothing ever gets done. We need to discuss—”
“Maybe one of the satyrs,” the boar suggested, and everyone looked to the red-skinned, horned man.
Hiisi grinned. “Well, I’ve certainly fucked my way through every young maiden I could catch. But to my knowledge, all I’ve ever left behind in those sullied maidens was the flush of orgasmic delights.”
An old faerie lady with drooping wings and powdered cleavage nudged the boar. “If the satyr’s seed could sprout, why we’d have a couple million pointy-eared mongrels running about. Aye.” She winked at Hiisi and let loose a cackle.
“He can travel between the worlds?” the troll asked.
The Lady cut the troll a suspicious look. “Tanngnost, don’t start your scheming. I’ll not have you using this boy toward your ends.”
Tanngnost looked taken aback. “My Lady, I would never dream such.”
The Lady laughed. “Of course not, and Hiisi would never diddle a virgin.”
This drew several snickers.
“Besides,” the Lady said. “You cannot have him. He has told me he wishes nothing more than to serve in my Guard.”
“You’d be lucky to have one so brave,” said Hiisi.
“I would. Not only is he stouthearted, but talented as well,” the Lady said like a proud mother. “Peter, let them hear the forest.”
Peter beamed, drinking in all the attention, their curiosity making him bold. He started with a frog’s croak, then the chattering of a squirrel, a hooting monkey, then lifted his head and howled, the sound resounding off the dome. He played through a dozen birdcalls and ended with a rooster’s crow.
The hall burst into laughter and applause. If Peter had grinned any wider his face would have split in two.
“Modron,” Ulfger growled. “Please, there are important matters to—”
“All in good time, Ulfger,” the Lady said. “But first, I want you to hear something. It might do your spirit good. Come, sit here beside me.”
Ulfger shook his head, but sat down.
“Now, Peter,” the Lady whispered. “The Sunbird.”
Peter drew in a deep breath, sat up straight, cocked his head back, and began the song. The hall fell silent, even the servants stopped, all of them listening in stunned silence as his song echoed and resonated around the chamber, the acoustics of the dome amplifying the tune and the green ambient light of the pool brightening in response.
Peter finished and looked around, expecting more applause. Instead he was met by faraway eyes, half-opened mouths, some of them even weeping. Peter wondered what he’d done. He glanced at the Lady, unsure. Saw that she too had tears in her eyes.
“That was beautiful, Peter,” she said and her wonderful smile fell on him and he knew he’d done well.
“Truly breathtaking,” the old faerie lady blurted out, dabbing away at her eyes.
“Ulfger,” the Lady said. “Does his song not touch your heart?”
Ulfger looked as though he’d drunk sour milk.
Hiisi stood up and began to clap, the rest followed his lead, all except for Ulfger, who sat stoned-faced, digging his nails into his palms.
PETER WAS BROUGHT a plate of food. One sullen-faced servant actually smiled at him and slipped him a honey pie. Peter ate his fill and then some, and soon the drone of warm conversation, the soft music, and hypnotic glow of the pool made him drowsy. He rested his head against the Lady’s breast.
The Lady slipped her arms about him and began to softly twirl his hair. She smelled of pond water and honeysuckle, and these scents, like his mother’s sweet milk of so long ago, filled him with contentment. He was where he belonged, by the Lady’s side, for always and forever.
Hiisi slid over a few chairs and began to flirt with a blushing elven maiden. Tanngnost came around, taking a seat next to the Lady. He leaned over and spoke low. “My Lady I would speak with you.”
The Lady sighed. “You cannot stand the sight of me being happy, not even for a moment. Can you, you fretful old goat?”
Tanngnost shook his head sorrowfully. “There is nothing I wish more than your happiness. But…things are worse than we feared.”
“Yes, I know. I read that much in your eyes.”
Tanngnost let out a sigh. “These are ill times, my Lady.”
“Christians. They’re determined to rid the land of any who worship the Horned One. Murdering all the druids, burning the temples, sometimes whole villages, and knocking over the standing stones.”
The Lady’s face hardened. “This god of peace and love certainly likes to bathe the land in blood.”
Ulfger’s eyes lit up; he leaned over. “Now is the time to take the folk of Avalon to war! Now, before it is too late. Now while we still have allies in the world of men-kind.”
The Lady looked at him sadly. “Ulfger, why are you in such a hurry to abandon your youth? The weight of the world will be on your shoulders soon enough, then you’ll yearn for these days. What I wouldn’t do to have one carefree day of my youth back.”
Ulfger grimaced. “Modron, I don’t see what my age has to do with any of this.”
Peter looked up. “The bad men? Are they coming here?”
“No, Peter,” the Lady said. “Not here. They can’t come here. I would never allow it.” She handed him a cream puff and sat him on the floor.
“Ulfger, do me this favor, take the boy here out into the yard with the other children. Go and play.”
Peter’s ears perked up. There were other children to play with?
“I am not a nursemaid,” Ulfger snapped.
“I mean you, Ulfger. You go and play. Run around. Build something. Break something. Climb a tree. Get dirty. Get in some trouble. Have some fun.”
Ulfger looked at her as though she’d lost her mind.
“Just try it. For once. For me?”
“No. I wish to hear of Tanngnost’s travels.”
“You will hear everything in good time. Your mother will see to it. For now, I wish you to take Peter to the courtyard.”
Ulfger didn’t move, just stared at her.
“Ulfger, please. We can talk later. I promise.”
Ulfger looked as though someone were twisting a knife in his gut. “Fine,” he said, forcing the word out through clenched teeth.
The Lady touched the tall boy’s arm. “Ulfger, I hope to Avallach that you wake up and see what that woman has done to you. I hope you see it before all of your youth is lost.”
Ulfger turned and headed for the door. Peter glanced at the Lady, unsure. She nodded and he followed the boy out from the chamber.
PETER CAUGHT UP with Ulfger in the hall. The tall boy stood studying an intricately woven tapestry. The scene was of a massive, caped lord holding a long black sword and wearing a helmet with great elk horns jutting up from either side. The helmet covered his face, but his eyes glowed out from the visor.
Peter heard the distant calls of children coming from somewhere down the way. Peter cleared his throat. “Um…Ulfger.”
The tall boy didn’t respond; his eyes lost in the tapestry.
“Hey-ho, Ulfger,” Peter called.
“You will address me as Lord Ulfger,” the tall boy said, without taking his eyes from the tapestry.
“Lord Ulfger, can we go play now?”
“This is my father,” Ulfger said. “The Horned One. He rules the forest.” Ulfger moved down to the next tapestry. “And this…this is my mother.” He inclined his head toward the portrait. A thin-faced woman with piercing eyes glared back at Peter. He felt the woman’s eyes were judging him, staring right through him.
“Queen Eailynn, of the elven line of Norrenthal.”
Peter thought he detected a sneer in the tall boy’s tone, and wasn’t sure if the boy revered the queen or resented her. Maybe both, he thought.
“Their lineage makes me a lord.” He looked at Peter as though expecting something. “When I come of age I shall rule all of Avalon.”
“Sure. Okay,” Peter said, nodding. “Can we go play now?”
“Try, ‘Lord Ulfger, may we go play now?’”
“Lord Ulfger, may we go play now?”
Ulfger stepped over to the next tapestry. Peter recognized this one right away; it was the Lady. In her portrait she looked kind and strong, her eyes bright and glowing.
“Modron is a creature of whim and fancy, song and sentiment,” Ulfger said, looking troubled. “She was never meant to lead.”
Peter glanced wistfully down the hall. He really wanted to play with the other children, and didn’t understand why they had to stand here looking at these boring portraits.
“She tries,” Ulfger continued. “There are moments when she seems capable. Tonight, there at the round table, I thought she would rally—make them see what was at stake. But no, her mood shifts like the wind, distracted by something as trivial as a singing child.” Ulfger stared at Peter, his dark eyes boring into the boy. Peter squirmed, and glanced nervously up and down the empty hall.
After a moment, Ulfger asked, “Do you adore her?”
“Do you wish for her love?” He leaned toward Peter, his voice became harsh, more intense with every word. “Her attention? Her motherly doting?”
Peter stepped back.
“Of course you do. What choice have you? She has most certainly caught you in her spell. But heed me. You’re naught but a distraction, a substitute for her poor lost Mabon. She’s but trying to plug that ever-bleeding hole in her heart.” He let out a long breath. “She was stronger before her great loss, before her son was stolen from her. Now she is always pining for her Mabon. That is why she spends so much time at Avallach’s Shrine, not for the sake of Avalon. No, it is her hope that Avallach will tell her where she can find her son.” Ulfger all but spit this last bit out.
“So now she brings her little surrogate child to the court. Has him sing us a pretty ditty.” He gave Peter a peculiar smile. “And the fools beam, and applaud, and shed sentimental tears then go back to wine, feast, and frolic while Avalon sinks beneath their very feet!” He gritted his teeth. “When I come to rule I will put an end to their debauchery. Faerie shall become a force to be feared. Ulfger, a name spoken in frightful whispers. We will make men-kind remember their place and will hide behind the Lady’s Mist no longer.”
“Ulfger, I mean, Lord Ulfger,” Peter said. “Can we go play now?”
Ulfger bristled. “Play? Play? To run around with the boys and girls laughing and giggling. Is that all you can think of?”
Peter nodded wholeheartedly.
Ulfger sighed. “Come.”
“HOW DO YOU become one of the Lady’s Guard?” Peter asked.
Ulfger looked down at him and smirked. Walking right next to him, Peter realized how big the boy was. He was already taller than the elves, but unlike them, he was thick-boned and solid through the chest, more like the men Peter had seen.
“First you have to learn respect for your betters. You can start by addressing me properly. My title is lord. As in, ‘Lord Ulfger, may I’ or ‘May I, Lord Ulfger.’ Can you grasp this simple bit of etiquette?”
Peter gave him a quizzical look but nodded.
“No! You do not nod to me. Never nod to me. That is only allowed among peers. Understand?”
Ulfger stopped. “Are you simpleminded? Shrugging is the same as nodding. Try again.”
“Try what again?”
“No!” Ulfger growled. “It’s, ‘Try what again, Lord Ulfger?’”
Peter could hear the spirited shouts of children and tried to peer around Ulfger.
“Now say it.”
“It, Lord Ulfger.”
Ulfger let out a breath of frustration. “You’ll be lucky if they allow you to guard the maid’s chamber pot.”
“Never mind,” Ulfger huffed, and pushed open the gate into the courtyard.
It was night, but the courtyard was lit with hundreds of orange lanterns. Well over a dozen elven children—boys and girls of all ages—were climbing and racing around a group of standing stones. Several had blunt wooden swords and spears and were busy raiding and defending the stones.
“Hey, it’s that kid!” a boy shouted. “The one who took the witch’s eye.”
They all came running over to get a closer look at Peter, circling him but keeping their distance as though scared he might bite them.
“Lord Ulfger?” a girl asked. “Is it true? Did this boy really burn the witch’s eye out?”
“So the story goes, if you choose to believe such tales.”
“He doesn’t look so tough,” a boy said.
“He has hopes of entering the Lady’s Guard,” Ulfger said.
The children burst out laughing.
Peter looked to Ulfger. “Lord Ulfger, why’s that so funny?”
“Because you’re an uncouth mongrel that doesn’t know the first thing about courtly etiquette. Why, look at the way you’re dressed. Who would want such a dirty little monkey escorting them anywhere? Do you know how to march? Have you ever even seen a formal parade? Do you know the first thing about titles, ceremonies, manners? There’s more to being a guard than just being brave.”
Peter’s eyes dropped. He hadn’t realized being a guard could be so complicated.
“Don’t worry yourself,” Ulfger said. “You will make a fine manure boy. Now go play your mindless games with the rest of them.” He glared at the children. “Now, everyone leave. Get out of my sight.”
The boys and girls all scampered back to the rocks. Peter ran along after them, glad to finally get away from the tall, brooding boy.
THE BOYS AND girls stood around Peter, staring at him as though he’d just hatched from an egg.
“Weren’t you afraid?” a freckle-faced girl asked. Her front teeth were so big that she reminded Peter of a rabbit.
“Afraid?” Peter laughed and stuck his chest out. “No, not at all.” He pulled his wolf hood up. “I’m the wolf slayer. I fear nothing.”
“How’d you do it?” a boy asked. His head was shaven and he had dirt crusted around his mouth, making Peter wonder what he’d been eating.
“You really want to know?” Peter asked.
The kids all nodded.
“I’m warning you, it’s a very scary tale. Are you sure you want to hear it?”
They leaned in, nodding eagerly.
“Well, okay, I’ll tell you then. I was walking alone in the swamps when she jumped out of a hole, blocking my path. She was a horrible sight, all covered in scales and horns, her hair a nest of snakes. Her teeth were green and as long as knives. She came for me, drooling and snapping her teeth.”
The kids exchanged quick, nervous looks, some putting their hands up to their faces.
“Anyone else would have screamed and run, I’m sure. But not me. I snatched out my knife.” Peter picked a stick up off the ground. “And drove her back.” His face twisted up into a snarl as he made jabbing motions with the stick. “I chased her back down her stinking hole. Her den was full of demons and monsters. She set them on me. My knife broke on their thick hides and I had to beat them away with my bare fists. The witch jumped on my back, hissing, clawing, and snapping her long teeth. I threw her across the room, and grabbed a limb from the fire, jabbed it into her eye like this.” He bared his teeth, jabbed the stick at the air, and twisted it back and forth. “I could have killed her, but she began to cry, begging me to spare her life. It would have been cowardly to have killed her then. So I let her live.” He raised one finger, squinted. “But I gave her fair warning. Told her if she should ever, ever, attack another child, I would come back and cut out her black heart.”
The kids stared at him wordlessly. Finally, the buck-toothed girl whispered, “Wow.” Several others echoed her sentiment, all wide-eyed.
The buck-toothed girl scooted over next to Peter. “You certainly are brave,” she said and gave Peter a flirty smile.
Peter blushed and grinned. “Heck, I did what I had to do.”
The boy with the shaven head frowned at the girl, then gave Peter a hard look. “Yeah, well, I don’t believe anyone is that brave.”
“If you’re so brave let’s see you catch a Fire Salamander.”
“Fire Salamander,” the boy repeated. “You’d have to be very brave to catch one of those. Their bite is as fifty hornet stings.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
The elf boy’s eyes gleamed. “Because I dare you.”
The other boys and girls looked at Peter expectantly.
“Well, if I knew where one was, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” Peter said, then realized all the kids were suddenly grinning. “What?”
The elf boy’s smile reached from ear to ear. “I can show you where a bunch of them are.”
“Oh…hmm,” Peter said weakly, caught the girl’s eyes on him. “Sure, okay. Show me then.”
The elf boy led Peter up to a small garden pond. Wildflowers and marble stonework surrounded the pond; wide lily pads floated along its surface. Set among the lilies were crystal globes the size of pumpkins, giving off a sparkling, golden luminance.
The kids stopped at the knee-high hedge.
“That’s the Lady’s orb pond,” the girl said. “We’re not allowed past here.”
“Yeah,” agreed the boy. “If Ulfger catches us in there he’ll have us lashed.”
“No, really,” the girl said.
Peter hesitated, glanced back down the slope. He could see Ulfger’s back. The tall boy sat upon a bench among the trees, his head down, looking lost in thought. Peter felt sure he could sneak up to the pond and back without drawing any notice.
“He’s scared,” the elf boy said. “See, told you he wasn’t so brave.”
Peter stepped over the hedge, not missing the looks of admiration. He puffed out his chest and strolled boldly up the short walk to the pond’s edge.
Peter had no problem finding a salamander—they glowed. A plump red one floated just below the surface in front of him, its short legs dangling beneath its long body. It was about as long as Peter’s forearm, from nose to the tip of the tail. Peter wondered what the big deal was. He’d caught his fair share of frogs, and frogs were fast. The thing looked about as fast as a slug.
He stepped out onto a rock, keeping one foot on the bank, straddling the salamander. He figured the best way to avoid getting bitten was to snatch it up from behind the neck, like you would a snake. Peter slowly eased his hand into the water, trying to come up behind the creature. The salamander didn’t move, didn’t seem aware that Peter was there at all. Peter’s hand hovered above its neck. He swallowed loudly, wondering just what fifty hornets’ stings might feel like, hoping not to find out.
Peter grabbed the salamander. Caught it cleanly about the neck, whipped it out of the pond, and held it high for the kids to see. The kids clamped their hands over their mouths in amazement; even the elf boy with the shaven head looked impressed. All at once the salamander came to life, wiggling and squirming, slipping loose of Peter’s grasp. Peter caught hold of its tail and realized his error the second it bit him—pain shot up his arm. Not fifty hornets, more like a hundred and fifty.
He screamed and tried to sling the creature off his arm, lost his balance, and fell backward into the pond, hitting one of the globes. The globe smashed into another and both of them exploded with a loud, hollow boom. There came two brilliant flashes of light followed by a flume of smoke. But Peter didn’t care about the globes, didn’t care about Ulfger, the only thing that mattered was getting the stinging monster off his arm. He slapped wildly at it, but the thing only clamped down harder. Finally he grabbed it around the neck and twisted it loose, leaving six deep puncture wounds in his arm. Only then did he hear the tall boy shouting at him.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” Ulfger cried, his eyes full of outrage. “Get out of there! OUT! OUT!”
Several of the children had run away, but most stood stock-still, mouths open, staring in stunned disbelief.
Ulfger yanked one of the wooden play swords away from a boy, pointed it at Peter. “Come here,” he demanded.
Peter had no intention of coming anywhere near Ulfger and made a run for it. Ulfger leaped after him,