“My closet!” hissed the figure. A spiderlike hand darted out and grabbed the doorknob. “My closet! Mine!” And it slammed the door with a bang.
Robbie gave an exasperated sigh as I skittered behind him, my heart careening around my rib cage like a bat. “Bogeys,” he muttered, shaking his head. He strode to the door, tapped on it three times, and flung it open.
This time, the space stood empty, except for hanging shirts, stacked boxes, and normal closet things. Robbie shoved aside the clothes, maneuvered around the boxes, and put a hand to the back wall, tracing his fingers along the wood. Curious, I edged closer.
“Where are you?” he muttered, feeling along the wall. I crept to the doorway and peered over his shoulder. “I know you’re here. Where is…Aha.”
Crouching down, he took a breath and blew against the wall. Instantly, a cloud of dust arose, billowing around him and sparkling like orange glitter.
When he straightened, I saw a gold handle on the back wall, and the faint outline of a door, pale light shining through the bottom crack.
“Come on, princess.” Rob turned and beckoned me forward. His eyes glowed green in the darkness. “This is our ride. Your one-way ticket to the Nevernever.”
I hesitated, waiting for my pulse to slow to something resembling normal. It didn’t. This is insane, a small, scared part of me whispered. Who knew what waited through that doorway, what horrors lurked in the shadows? I might never come home again. This was my last chance to turn back.
No, I told myself. I can’t turn back. Ethan is out there, somewhere. Ethan is counting on me. I took a deep breath and one step forward.
A wrinkled hand shot from beneath the bed, latching on to my ankle. It yanked savagely and I nearly fell, as a snarl echoed from the dark space beneath. With a shriek, I kicked free of the flailing claw, charged blindly into the closet, and slammed the door behind me.
In the musty darkness of Ethan’s closet, I pressed a hand to my chest and waited once more for my heartbeat to return to normal. Blackness surrounded me, except for the thin rectangle of light outlined against the far wall. I couldn’t see Robbie, but I felt his presence close by, heard his quiet breathing in my ear.
“Ready?” he whispered, his breath warm on my skin. And before I could answer, he pushed the door back with a creak, revealing the Nevernever.
Pale silver light flooded the room. The clearing beyond the door frame was surrounded by enormous trees, so thick and tangled I couldn’t see the sky through the branches. A curling mist crept along the ground, and the woods were dark and still, as if the forest was trapped in perpetual twilight. Here and there, brilliant splashes of color stood out among the gray. A patch of flowers, their petals a shocking electric-blue, waved gently in the mist. A creeper vine snaked around the trunk of a dying oak, long red thorns a stark contrast to the tree it was killing.
A warm breeze blew into the closet, carrying with it a shocking assortment of smells—smells that should not be together in one place. Crushed leaves and cinnamon, smoke and apples, fresh earth, lavender, and the faint, cloying scent of rot and decay. For a moment, I caught a tang of something metallic and coppery, wrapped around the smell of rot, but it was gone in the next breath. Clouds of insects swarmed overhead, and if I listened hard I could almost imagine I heard singing. The forest was still at first, but I then caught movement deep in the shadows, and heard leaves rustle all around us. Invisible eyes seemed to watch me from every angle, boring into my skin.
Robbie, his hair a bright flame atop his head, stepped through the doorway, gazed around, and laughed. “Home.” He sighed, flinging his arms wide, as if to embrace it all. “I’m finally home.” He spun in place and, with another laugh, fell backward into the mist, like he was making a snow angel, and vanished.
I gulped and took a cautious step forward. Mist swirled around my ankles like a living thing, caressing my skin with damp fingers. “Rob?”
The silence mocked me. Out of the corner of my eye, something big and white darted into the trees like quicksilver. “Rob?” I called again, edging to the place he had fallen. “Where are you? Robbie?”
“Boo.” Rob appeared behind me, rising out of the mist like a vampire from its coffin. To say I screamed was a bit of an understatement.
“A little jumpy today, aren’t we?” Robbie laughed and darted out of reach before I could kill him. “Time to switch to decaf, princess. If you’re going to shriek at every bogey that jumps out and says ‘boo,’ you’ll be exhausted before we reach the edge of the woods.”
He had changed. Hunter-green pants and a thick brown hoodie replaced his jeans and ratty T-shirt. I couldn’t see his feet very well in the mist, but it looked like he’d traded his sneakers for soft leather boots. His face was leaner, harsher, with sharp angles and pointed features. Combined with his bright auburn hair and green eyes, he reminded me of a grinning fox.
But the most noticeable difference was his ears. Slender and pointed, they jutted out from the sides of his head, like…well, like an elf’s. And, in that moment, all traces of Robbie Goodfell disappeared. The boy I’d known for most of my life was gone, like he never existed, and only Puck remained.
“What’s the matter, princess?” Puck yawned, stretching his long limbs. Was it my imagination, or had he gotten taller, too? “You look like you lost your best friend.”
I ignored the question, not wanting to dwell on it. “How did you do that?” I asked, to steer the conversation elsewhere. “Your clothes, I mean. They’re different. And the way you made the books fly around the room. Was it magic?”
Puck grinned. “Glamour,” he said, as if that meant anything to me at all. I frowned at him, and he sighed. “I didn’t have time to change before we came here, and my lord King Oberon frowns on wearing mortal clothes to court. So I used glamour to make myself presentable. Just like I used glamour to make myself look human.”
“Wait a minute.” I thought back to the dream conversation between Robbie and the nurse. “Are there others like you…you faery-types, walking around back home? Right under everyone’s noses?”
Puck gave me a very eerie smile. “We’re everywhere, princess,” he said firmly. “Under your bed, in your attic, walking past you on the street.” His smile grew wider, more wolfish. “Glamour is fueled by the dreams and imagination of mortals. Writers, artists, little boys pretending to be knights—the fey are drawn to them like moths to a flame. Why do you think so many children have imaginary friends? Even your brother had one. Floppy, I think he called it, though that wasn’t its true name. A pity the changeling managed to kill it.”
My stomach felt tight. “And…no one can see you?”
“We’re invisible, or we use glamour to hide our true nature.” Puck leaned against a tree, lacing his hands behind his head in a very Robbie-like fashion. “Don’t look so shocked, princess. Mortals have perfected the art of not seeing what they don’t expect to be there. Though, there are a few rare humans who can see through the mist and the glamour. Usually, these are very special individuals—innocent, naive dreamers—and the fey are even more attracted to them.”
“Like Ethan,” I murmured.
Puck gave me a strange look, one corner of his mouth quirked up. “Like you, princess.” He seemed about to say something else, but then a branch snapped somewhere in the tangled darkness.
He straightened quickly. “Whoops, time to go. It’s dangerous to linger in any one place. We’ll attract unwanted attention.”
“What?” I exclaimed as he strode across the clearing, moving as gracefully as a deer. “I thought you said this was home.”
“The Nevernever is home to all fey,” Puck said without looking back. “It’s divided into territories, or more technically, Courts. The Seelie Court is Oberon’s domain, while Mab rules the Unseelie territories. While in the Courts, it is usually forbidden to torment, maim, or kill another fey without permission from its rulers.
“However,” he continued, looking back at me, “right now, we are in neutral territory, home of the wild fey. Here, as you humans put it, all bets are off. The things coming at us now could be a herd of satyrs who will make you dance until you’re exhausted, then rape you one by one, or it could be a pack of hedge wolves that will tear us both apart. Either way, I don’t think you want to hang around.”
I was afraid again. It seemed I was always afraid. I didn’t want to be here, in this eerie forest, with this person I only thought I knew. I wanted to go home. Only, home had become a frightening place as well, almost as much as the Nevernever. I felt lost and betrayed, out of place in a world that wished me harm.
Ethan, I reminded myself. You’re doing this for Ethan. Once you get him, you can go home and everything will go back to normal.
The rustling grew louder, and twigs snapped as whatever was out there drew closer. “Princess,” Puck snapped, right next to me. I jumped and bit down a shriek as he grabbed my wrist. “The aforementioned nasties have picked up our scent and are coming for us.” Though his voice was casual, I could see the strain in his eyes. “If you don’t want your first day in the Nevernever to be your last, I suggest we move.”
I looked back and saw the door we came through standing upright in the middle of the clearing. “Will we be able to get back home this way?” I asked as Puck pulled me along.
“Nope.” When I stared at him in horror, he shrugged. “Well, you can’t expect the doors to stand around in one place, princess. Don’t worry, though. You have me, remember? When the time comes, we’ll find the way home.”
We ran for the far side of the clearing, straight for a tangle of bushes with hooked yellow thorns as long as my thumb. I held back, sure we’d be sliced to ribbons, but as we neared, the branches shivered and peeled away from us, revealing a narrow path cutting through the trees. As we stepped through, the bushes knitted together again, hiding the trail and protecting our retreat.
We walked for hours, or at least it felt that way to me. Puck kept up a steady pace, neither hurrying nor slowing down, and in time the sounds of pursuit faded away. Sometimes the trail split, wending off in different directions, but Puck always chose a path without hesitation. Many times, I’d catch movement from the corner of my eye—a flash of color in the brush, a figure silhouetted between the trees—but when I turned, there’d be nothing. Sometimes, I almost swore I heard singing or music, but, of course, it would fade when I tried to focus on it. The sickly luminescence of the forest never dimmed or brightened, and when I asked Puck what time night would fall, he cocked an eyebrow at me and said night would come when it was ready.
Annoyed, I checked my watch, wondering how long we’d been traveling. I received an unpleasant shock. The slender hands were frozen in place. Either the watch’s battery was dead, or something else was interfering.