Despite my uneasiness, I felt a slow flame of anger burning my chest. “So, you want me to drink that…that stuff, and just forget about Ethan. Just forget about my only brother. That’s what you’re saying.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Well, when you put it like that…”
The burning grew hot and furious, searing away the fear. I clenched my fists. “Of course I won’t forget about Ethan! He’s my brother! Are you really that inhuman, or just stupid?”
To my surprise, a grin spread over his face. He dropped the bottle, caught it, and put it on the floor. “The first,” he said, very softly.
That threw me. “What?”
“Inhuman.” He was still grinning at me, the smile stretching his whole mouth so that his teeth gleamed in the fading light. “I warned you, princess. I’m not like you. And now, neither is your brother.”
Despite the fear prickling my stomach, I leaned forward. “Ethan? What do you mean? What’s wrong with him?”
“That wasn’t Ethan.” Robbie leaned back, crossing his arms. “The thing that attacked you today is a changeling.”
I stared at Robbie, wondering if this was another one of his stupid pranks. He sat there, observing me calmly, watching my reaction. Though he still wore a half grin, his eyes were hard and serious. He wasn’t joking around.
“Ch-changeling?” I finally stammered, looking at him like he was insane. “Isn’t that some kind of…of…”
“Faery,” Robbie finished for me. “A changeling is a faery offspring that has been switched with a human child. Usually, a troll’s or goblin’s, though the sidhe—the faery nobility—have been known to make the switch, as well. Your brother has been replaced. That thing is not Ethan, any more than I am.”
“You’re crazy,” I whispered. If I wasn’t sitting, I’d be backing away from him toward the door. “You’ve gone off the deep end. Time to cut back on the anime, Rob. There’s no such thing as faeries.”
Robbie sighed. “Really? That’s what you’re going with? How predictable.” He leaned back and crossed his arms. “I thought better of you, princess.”
“Thought better of me?” I cried, leaping off the couch. “Listen to yourself! You really expect me to believe that my brother is some kind of pixie with glitter dust and butterfly wings?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Rob said mildly. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re thinking ‘Tinker Bell,’ which is a typical human response to the word faery. The real fey aren’t like that at all.” He paused a moment. “Well, except for the piskies, of course, but that’s a different story altogether.”
I shook my head, my thoughts spinning in several directions at once. “I can’t deal with this right now,” I muttered and staggered away from him. “I have to check on Ethan.”
Robbie only shrugged, leaned back against the wall, and put his hands behind his head. After one final glare at him, I rushed up the stairs and opened the door to Ethan’s bedroom.
It was a mess, a war zone of broken toys, books, and scattered clothes. I looked around for Ethan, but the room appeared empty, until I heard a faint scratching noise under his bed.
“Ethan?” Kneeling down, pushing away broken action figures and snapped Tinkertoys, I peered into the space between the mattress and the floor. In the shadows, I could just make out a small lump huddled in the corner with his back to me. He was trembling.
“Ethan,” I called softly. “Are you all right? Why don’t you come out a second? I’m not mad at you.” Well, that was a lie, but I was more shaken than angry. I wanted to drag Ethan downstairs and prove that he wasn’t a troll or a changeling or whatever Robbie said he was.
The lump stirred a little, and Ethan’s voice drifted out of the gap. “Is the scary man still here?” he asked in a small, frightened voice. I might’ve been sympathetic, if my calf wasn’t throbbing so much.
“No,” I lied. “He’s gone now. You can come out.” Ethan didn’t move, and my irritation sparked. “Ethan, this is ridiculous. Get out of there already, will you?” I stuck my head farther under the mattress and reached for him.
Ethan turned on me with a hiss, eyes burning yellow, and lunged at my arm. I jerked it back as his teeth, jaggedly pointed like a shark’s, snapped together with a horrid clicking sound. Ethan snarled, his skin the ghastly blue of a drowned infant’s, bared teeth shining in the darkness. I shrieked, scrabbling back, Lego blocks and Tinkertoys biting into my palms. Hitting the wall, I leaped to my feet, turned, and fled the room.
And ran smack into Robbie, standing outside the door.
He grabbed my shoulders as I screamed and started hitting him, barely conscious of what I was doing. He bore the attack wordlessly, simply holding me in place, until I collapsed against him and buried my head in his chest. And he held me as I sobbed out my fear and anger.
At last, the tears stopped, leaving me drained and utterly exhausted. I sniffed and backed away, wiping my eyes on my palm, shaking. Robbie still stood there quietly, his shirt damp with my tears. The door to Ethan’s bedroom was shut, but I could hear faint thumps and cackling laughter beyond the door.
I shivered, looking up at Robbie. “Ethan is really gone?” I whispered. “He’s not just hiding somewhere? He’s really gone?”
Robbie nodded gravely. I looked at Ethan’s bedroom door and bit my lip. “Where is he now?”
“Probably in Faeryland.” Stated so simply, I almost laughed from the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Ethan had been stolen by faeries and replaced with an evil doppelg?nger. Faeries kidnapped my brother. I was tempted to pinch myself to see if this was a twisted dream or hallucination. Maybe I had fallen into a drunken stupor on the couch. On impulse, I bit the inside of my cheek, hard. The sharp pain and taste of blood told me this was, indeed, real.
I looked to Robbie, and his grave expression banished the last of my doubts. A sick feeling rose to my stomach, making me nauseous and afraid.
“So…” I swallowed and forced myself to be calm. Okay, Ethan was kidnapped by faeries; I could deal with this. “What do we do now?”
Robbie raised one shoulder. “That’s up to you, princess. There are human families that have raised changelings as their own, though they are usually unaware of the child’s true nature. Generally speaking, if you feed it and leave it alone, it will settle into its new home without too much trouble. Changelings make a nuisance of themselves at first, but most families adapt.” Robbie grinned, but it was an attempt at lightheartedness rather than humor. “Hopefully, your folks will think he’s just going through a late terrible twos.”
“Robbie, that thing bit me, and probably made Mom slip and fall in the kitchen. It’s more than a nuisance, it’s dangerous.” I glared at Ethan’s closed door and shuddered. “I want it gone. I want my brother back. How do we get rid of it?”
Robbie sobered. “Well, there are ways of getting rid of changelings,” he began, looking uncomfortable. “One old method is to brew beer or cook stew in eggshells, and that will make the changeling comment on the weirdness of it. But that method was for infants who’d been switched—since the baby was too young to speak, the parents knew that the impostor was a changeling and the real parents had to take it back. I don’t think it’ll work for someone older, like your brother.”
“Great. What’s another way?”
“Er, the other way is to beat the changeling near to death, until the screams force the fey parents to return the real child. Barring that, you could stick him in the oven and cook him alive—”
“Stop.” I felt sick. “I can’t do any of those things, Robbie. I just can’t. There has to be another way.”
“Well…” Rob looked hesitant and scratched the back of his neck. “The only other way is to travel into the faery lands and take him back. Bringing the real child into the home again will force the changeling to leave. But…” He paused, as if on the verge of saying something, only to think better of it.
“But…you don’t know who took your brother. And without that knowledge, you’ll just be walking in circles. And, if you’re wondering, walking in circles in Faeryland is a very, very bad idea.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I don’t know who took him,” I agreed, staring hard at Robbie, “but you do.”
Robbie shuffled nervously. “I have a guess.”
“It’s just a guess, mind you. I could be wrong. Don’t go jumping to conclusions.”
He sighed. “The Unseelie Court.”
“The Unseelie Court,” Robbie repeated. “The Court of Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness. Sworn enemies of King Oberon and Queen Titania. Very powerful. Very nasty.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” I held up my hands. “Oberon? Titania? Like from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Aren’t those just ancient myths?”
“Ancient, yes,” Robbie said. “Myths, no. The faery lords are immortal. Those who have songs, ballads, and stories written about them never die. Belief, worship, imagination—we were born of the dreams and fears of mortals, and if we are remembered, even in some small way, we will always exist.”
“You keep saying ‘we,’” I pointed out. “As though you’re one of those immortal faeries. As though you’re one of them.” Robbie smiled, a proud, impish smile, and I gulped. “Who are you, anyway?”
“Ah, well.” Robbie shrugged, trying to look modest and failing entirely. “If you’ve read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you might remember me. There was this unfortunate incident, completely unplanned, where I gave someone a donkey’s head and made Titania fall in love with him.”
I ran through the play in my mind. I’d read it in the seventh grade, but had forgotten most of the plot. There were so many characters, so many names to sift through, people falling in and out of love so often it was ridiculous. I remembered a few human names: Hermia, Helena, Demetrius. On the faery side, there was Oberon and Titania and…
“Shit,” I whispered, falling back against the wall. I stared at Robbie with new eyes. “Robbie Goodfell. Robin…you’re Robin Goodfellow.”
Robbie grinned. “Call me Puck.”
PUCK. THE PUCK WAS STANDING in my hallway.
“No way,” I whispered, shaking my head. This was Robbie, my closest friend. I would’ve known if he was an ancient faery. Wouldn’t I?
Frighteningly, the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed. I’d never seen Robbie’s house, or his parents. The teachers all loved him, though he never did a lick of school-work and slept through most of the classes. And strange things happened when he was around: mice and frogs ended up in desks, or names were switched around on term papers. Though Robbie Goodfell thought these scenarios absolutely hilarious, no one ever suspected him.