Or maybe time doesn’t exist in this place. I don’t know why I found that immensely disturbing, but I did.
My feet were aching, my stomach hurt, and my legs were burning with exhaustion when the eternal twilight finally began to dim. Puck stopped, gazing up at the sky, where an enormous moon glimmered over the treetops, so close you could see pits and craters marring the surface.
“I suppose we should rest for the night.” Puck sounded reluctant. He gave me a sideways grin as I collapsed on a moldy log. “We wouldn’t want you stumbling onto a dancing mound, or following a white bunny down a dark hole. Come on, I know a place not far from here where we can sleep undisturbed.”
He took my hand and pulled me to my feet. My limbs screamed in protest, and I almost sat down again. I was tired, cranky, and the last thing I wanted was more hiking. Gazing around, I saw a lovely little pond through a stand of trees. The water shimmered in the moonlight, and I paused, gazing out over the mirrored surface. “Why not stop there?” I asked.
Puck took one look at the pond, grimaced, and pulled me onward. “Ah, no,” he said quickly. “Too many nasties lurking underwater—kelpies and glaistigs and mermaids and such. Best not to risk it.”
I looked back and saw a dark shape breach the perfect surface of the pond, sending ripples across the still water. The top of a horse’s head, coal-black and slick like a seal, watched me with baleful white eyes. With a gasp, I hurried on.
A few minutes later, we came to the trunk of a huge, gnarled tree. The bark was so knobby and rough that I could almost see faces peering out of the trunk. It reminded me of wrinkled old men, stacked atop each other and waving their crooked arms indignantly.
Puck knelt among the roots and knocked on the wood. I peered over his shoulder and, with a start, saw a tiny door, barely a foot tall, near the base of the tree. As I watched, wide-eyed, the door creaked open, and a head peered out suspiciously.
“Eh? Who’s there?” a rough, squeaky voice asked as I stared in wonder. The little man’s skin was the color of walnuts; his hair looked like a bundle of twigs sticking out of his scalp. He wore a brown tunic and brown leggings, and looked like a stick come to life, except for the eyes peering out of his face, black and shiny like a beetle’s.
“Good evening, Twiggs,” Puck greeted politely.
The little man blinked, squinting up at the figure towering over him. “Robin Goodfellow?” he squeaked at last. “Haven’t seen you round these parts in a while. What brings you to my humble tree?”
“Escort service,” Puck replied, shifting to the side so that Twiggs could get a clear view of me. Those beady eyes fixed on me, blinking in confusion. Then, suddenly, they got huge and round, as Twiggs looked back at Puck.
“Oh, my.” Twiggs opened the door wide, beckoning with a sticklike arm. “Come in, come in. Quickly, now. Before the dryads catch sight of you, the irritating gossips.” He vanished inside, and Puck turned to me.
“I’ll never be able to fit in there,” I told him before he could say a word. “There’s no way I’m going to squeeze through, unless you’ve got a magic toadstool that’ll shrink me to the size of a wasp. And I’m not eating anything like that. I’ve seen Alice in Wonderland, you know.”
Puck grinned and took my hand.
“Close your eyes,” he told me, “and just walk.”
I did, half expecting to walk nose first into the tree, courtesy of a great Robbie-prank. When nothing happened, I almost peeked but thought better of it. The air turned warm, and I heard a door slam behind me, when Puck said I could open my eyes again.
I stood in a cozy, round room, the walls made of smooth red wood, the floor covered with mossy carpet. A flat rock on three stumps served as a table in the center of the room, displaying berries the size of soccer balls. A rope ladder hung on the far wall, and when my gaze followed it up, I nearly fainted. Dozens of insects crawled on the walls or hovered in the air high above us, for the trunk extended farther than I could see. Each bug was the size of a cocker spaniel, and their rear ends glowed a luminescent yellow-green.
“You’ve been renovating, Twiggs,” Puck said, sitting on a bundle of furs that passed for a couch. I looked closer and saw the head of a squirrel still attached to the skin, and had to look away. “This place was barely a hole in the tree when I saw it last.”
Twiggs looked pleased. He was our height now—actually, I guess we were more his height—and up close he smelled of cedar and moss.
“Yes, I’ve grown quite fond of it,” Twiggs said, walking over to the table. He picked up a knife and split a berry into thirds, arranging the pieces on wooden plates. “Still, I might have to move soon. The dryads whisper to me, tell me dark things. They say parts of the wyldwood are dying, vanishing more every day. No one knows what is causing it.”
“You know what’s causing it,” Puck said, draping the squirrel tail over his lap. “We all do. This is nothing new.”
“No.” Twiggs shook his head. “Mortal disbelief has always taken a bit of the Nevernever, but not like this. This is…different. It’s hard to explain. You’ll see what I mean if you go any farther.”
He handed us each a plate with a huge slab of red berry, half an acorn, and a pile of what looked like steamed white grubs. Despite the weirdness of the day, I was ravenous after hours of hiking. The berry wedge tasted tart and sweet, but I wasn’t about to touch the maggoty-looking things and gave them all to Puck. After dinner, Twiggs made me a bed of squirrel hides and chipmunk fur, and though I was mildly grossed out, I fell asleep immediately.
THAT NIGHT, I DREAMED.
In my dream, my house was dark and still, the living room cloaked in shadow. A brief glimpse of the wall clock pronounced it 3:19 a.m. I floated through the living room past the kitchen and made my way up the stairs. The door to my room was closed, and I heard Luke’s grizzly-bear snores coming from the master bedroom, but at the end of the hall, Ethan’s door stood slightly ajar. I padded down the hallway and peeked in through the crack.
A stranger stood in Ethan’s bedroom, a tall, lean figure dressed in silver and black. A boy, perhaps a little older than me, though it was impossible to tell his exact age. His body was youthful, but there was a stillness to him that hinted at something far older, something incredibly dangerous. With a shock, I recognized him as the boy on the horse, who had watched me through the forest that day. Why was he here now, in my house? How did he even get in? I toyed with the idea of confronting him, knowing this was all a dream, when I noticed something else, something that made my blood run cold. Thick, raven-wing hair tumbled to his shoulders, not quite covering the delicate, pointed ears.
He wasn’t human. He was one of them, one of the fey. Standing in my house, in my brother’s bedroom. I shuddered and began to ease back down the hall.
He turned then, looking right through me, and I would’ve gasped if I had the breath. He was gorgeous. More than gorgeous, he was beautiful. Regal beautiful, prince-of-a-foreign-nation beautiful. If he walked into my classroom during finals, students and teachers alike would be throwing themselves at his feet. Still, it was a cold, hard beauty, like that of a marble statue, inhuman and otherworldly. His slanted eyes, beneath long, jagged bangs, glimmered like chips of steel.
The changeling was nowhere to be seen, but I could hear faint noises coming from beneath the bed, the thud of a rapidly beating heart. The fey boy didn’t seem to notice. He turned and placed one pale hand on the closet door, running his fingers down the faded wood. A ghost of a smile touched his lips.
In one smooth motion, he pushed the door open and walked through. The door shut behind him with a soft click, and he was gone.
Warily, I edged toward the closet door, keeping a careful eye on the space beneath the bed. I still heard muffled heartbeats, but nothing reached out to grab at me. I crossed the room without incident. As quietly as I could, I grasped the closet doorknob, turned it, and pulled the door open.
“My closet!” shrieked the bowler hat man, leaping out at me. “Mine!”
I SCREAMED AND JERKED myself awake.
For a moment, I glared wildly around the room, not knowing where I was. My heart pounded, and a cold sweat made my forehead clammy and slick. Scenes from a vivid nightmare danced across my mind: Ethan attacking me, Robbie making books fly around the room, a portal opening to an eerie new world.
A loud snore caught my attention, and I turned. Puck was sprawled out on the couch across from me, one arm flung over his eyes, his torso wrapped in a squirrel blanket.
My heart sank as the memories came flooding back. This wasn’t a nightmare. I hadn’t been dreaming this. Ethan was gone; a monster had replaced him. Robbie was a faery. And I was in the middle of the Nevernever searching for my brother, though I had no idea where to look, and no real hope of finding him.
I lay back, shivering. It was dark in Twiggs’s home; the fireflies or whatever they were had stopped blinking and were now clinging to the walls, apparently asleep. The only light came from a flickering orange glow outside the window. Maybe Twiggs had the porch light on or something.
I bolted upright. That glow was actually candlelight, and above it, a face was peering into the room from outside. I opened my mouth to yell for Puck, when those blue eyes turned to me, and a face I knew all too well backed away into the night.
I SCRAMBLED OUT OF BED and sprinted across the floor, not bothering to put on my shoes. Puck snorted and shifted under his mound of furs, but I ignored him. Ethan was out there! If I could get to him, we could go home and forget this mess ever existed.
I yanked on the door and stepped out, scanning the woods for my brother. Only later did it occur to me that I was normal-size again, and that the door was still only a foot tall. All I could think about was Ethan and getting him home, getting us both home.
Darkness greeted me, but up ahead, I saw a flickering orange glow bouncing along, getting steadily farther away. “Ethan!” I called, my voice echoing into the stillness. “Ethan, wait!”
I started to run, my bare feet slapping against leaves and branches, slipping on rocks and mud. My toe hit something sharp, and it should’ve hurt, but my mind didn’t register the pain. I could see him up ahead, a small figure making his way through the trees, holding a candle out before him. I ran as fast as I could, branches scraping my skin and tearing at my hair and clothes, but it seemed he was always the same distance away.
Then he stopped and looked back over his shoulder, smiling. The flickering candlelight cast his features in an eerie glow. I put on a burst of speed, and was just a few feet away when the ground suddenly dropped away from me. With a shriek, I plummeted like a stone, landing with a splash in icy water that closed over my head, flooding my nose and mouth.
Gasping, I floundered to the surface, my face stinging and my limbs already numb. Above me, a giggle rang out, and a glowing ball of light hovered overhead. It dangled there a moment, as if enjoying my humiliation, then sped away into the trees, high-pitched laughter echoing behind it.