Treading water, I gazed around. A muddy bank rose above me, slick and treacherous. There were several old trees growing out over the water, but their branches were too high for me to reach. I tried finding handholds in the bank to pull myself out, but my feet slipped in the mud, and the plants I grabbed came loose from the soil, dumping me into the lake with a noisy splash. I’d have to find another way out.
And then I heard another splash, farther out, and knew I wasn’t alone.
Moonlight shone upon the water, painting everything in a relief of silver and black. Except for the buzzing of insects, the night was very still. On the far side of the lake, fireflies danced and whirled above the surface, some glowing pink and blue instead of yellow. Maybe I’d only imagined I’d heard a noise. Nothing seemed to be moving except for an old log drifting toward me.
I blinked and looked again. That log suddenly looked a lot like the top half of a horse’s head, if a horse could swim like an alligator. And then I saw the dead white eyes, the thin shiny teeth, and panic rose up in me like a black tide.
“Puck!” I screamed, scrabbling at the bank. Mud tore loose in clumps; I’d find a handhold only to slip back again. I could feel the thing draw closer. “Puck, help me!”
I looked over my shoulder. The horse thing was only a few feet away, raising its neck out of the water to expose a mouthful of needlelike teeth. Oh, God, I’m going to die! That thing is going to eat me! Somebody, help! I clawed frantically at the bank—and felt a solid branch under my fingers. Grasping it, I yanked with all my strength, and felt the branch lift me out of the water, just as the horse monster lunged with a roar. Its wet, rubbery nose hit the bottom of my foot, jaws snapping with an evil snick. Then the branch flung me, gasping and crying, to the bank, and the horse thing sank below the surface once more.
Puck found me minutes later, curled into a ball several yards from the bank, wet to the skin and shaking like a leaf. His eyes were a mix of sympathy and exasperation as he pulled me upright.
“Are you all right?” He ran his hands up my arms, making sure I was still in one piece. “Still in there, princess? Talk to me.”
I nodded, shivering. “I saw…Ethan,” I stammered, trying to make sense of it all. “I followed him, but he turned into a light and flew away, and then this horse thing tried to eat me….” I trailed off. “That wasn’t Ethan, was it? That was just another faery, playing with my emotions. And I fell for it.”
Puck sighed and led me back down the trail. “Yeah,” he muttered, glancing back at me. “Wisps are like that, making you see what you want to see, before leading you off the path. Though, that one seemed particularly spiteful, leading you right to a kelpie’s pond. I suppose I could tell you never to go off alone, but I think it’d be a waste of breath. Oh, what the hell.” He stopped and whirled around, stopping me in my tracks. “Don’t go off alone, princess. Under any circumstances, understand? In this world, you’re viewed as either a plaything or a light snack. Don’t forget that.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “Yeah, I get that now.”
We continued down the trail. The door in the knobby tree was gone, but my sneakers and backpack lay outside, a clear sign our welcome was over. Shivering, I slipped the shoes over my bloody feet, hating this world and everything in it, wanting only to go home.
“Well,” Puck said too cheerfully, “if you’re done playing with will-o’-the-wisps and kelpies, I think we should continue. Oh, but do tell me the next time you want to have tea with an ogre. I’ll be sure to bring my club.”
I shot him a poisonous glare. He only grinned. Above us, the sky was lightening into that eerie gray twilight, silent and still as death, as we ventured deeper into the Nevernever.
The Wild Hunt
We hadn’t gone far when we came upon the patch of death in the middle of the forest.
The wyldwood was an eerie, quiet place, but it was still alive. Trees stood ancient and tall, plants bloomed, and splashes of vibrant color pierced the grayness, indicating life. Animals slipped through the trees, and strange creatures moved about in the shadows; you never got a clear view of them, but you knew they were there. You could feel them watching you.
Then, all of a sudden, the trees dropped away, and we stood at the edge of a barren clearing.
What little grass remained was yellow and dying, sparse patches of vegetation in the rocky ground. A few trees were scattered here and there, but they were withered, twisted things, empty of leaves and blackened. From a distance, the branches glinted, jagged and sharp, like weird metal sculptures. The hot wind smelled of copper and dust.
Puck stared at the dead forest for a long time. “Twiggs was right,” he muttered, staring at a withered tree. He made as if to touch one of the branches, but withdrew his hand with a shudder. “This isn’t natural. Something is poisoning the wyldwood.”
I reached up to touch one of the glittering branches, and jerked back with a gasp. “Ouch!”
Puck whirled on me. “What?”
I showed him my hand. Blood welled from a slice in my finger, thin as a paper cut. “The tree. It cut me.”
Puck examined my finger and frowned. “Metallic trees,” he mused, pulling a hankie from his pocket and wrapping it around my finger. “That’s new. If you see any steel dryads, be sure to tell me so I can run away screaming.”
I scowled and looked back at the tree. A single drop of blood glistened on the offending branch before dropping to the cracked earth. The twigs gleamed along their edges, as if honed to fine blades.
“Oberon must know about this,” Puck muttered, crouching to examine a circle of dry grass. “Twiggs said it was spreading, but where is it coming from?” He rose quickly and swayed on his feet, putting out a hand to steady himself. I grabbed his arm.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“I’m fine, princess.” He nodded and gave me a pained smile. “A little perturbed about the state of my home, but what can you do?” He coughed and waved a hand in front of his face, as if he smelled something foul. “But this air is making me sick. Let’s get out of here.”
I sniffed, but smelled nothing bad, just dirt and the sharp tang of something metallic, like rust. But Puck was already leaving, his brow furrowed in anger or pain, and I hurried to catch up.
THE HOWLING BEGAN a few hours later.
Puck stopped in the middle of the trail, so abruptly that I nearly ran into him. He held up a hand, silencing me, before I could ask what was going on.
I heard it then, drifting over the breeze, a chorus of chilling bays and howls echoing behind us. My heart revved up, and I inched closer to my companion.
“What is that?”
“A hunt,” Puck replied, looking off into the distance. He grimaced. “You know, I was just thinking we needed to be run down like rabbits and torn apart. My day just isn’t complete without something trying to kill me.”
I grew cold. “Something’s after us?”
“You’ve never seen a wild hunt, have you.” Puck groaned, running his fingers through his hair. “Damn. Well, this will complicate things. I was hoping to give you the grand tour of the Nevernever, princess, but I guess I’ll have to put it on hold.”
The baying grew closer, deep, throaty howls. Whatever was coming at us, it was big. “Shouldn’t we run?” I whispered.
“You’ll never be able to outrun them,” Puck said, backing away. “They’ve got our scent now, and no mortal has ever escaped a wild hunt.” He sighed and dramatically flung his arm over his eyes. “I guess the sacrifice of my dignity is the only thing that will save us now. The things I endure for love. The Fates laugh at my torment.”
“What are you talking about?”
Puck smiled his eerie little grin and began to change.
His face stretched out, becoming longer and narrower, as his neck began to grow. His arms spasmed, fingers turning black and fusing into hooves. He arched his back, spine expanding, as his legs became hindquarters bunched with muscle. Fur covered his skin as he dropped to all fours, no longer a boy but a sleek gray horse with a shaggy mane and tail. The transformation had taken less than ten seconds.
I backed up, remembering my encounter with the thing in the water, but the dappled horse stamped its foreleg and swished its tail impatiently. I saw its eyes, shining like emeralds through the dangling forelocks, and my fear abated somewhat.
The howling was very close now, growing more and more frenzied. I ran to horse-Puck and threw myself on his back, grabbing his mane to heave myself up. Despite living on a farm, I’d only been on horseback once or twice, and it took me a couple of tries to get up. Puck snorted and tossed his head, annoyed with my lack of equestrian skills.
Struggling upright, I grasped the mane and saw Puck’s eyes roll back at me. Then, with a half rear, we plunged into the bushes and were off.
Riding bareback is not fun, especially when you have no control over your mount or where it’s going. I can honestly say this was the most terrifying ride of my life. The trees flashed by in a blur, branches slapped at me, and my legs burned from gripping the horse’s sides with my knees. My fingers were locked around his mane in a death grip, but that didn’t keep me from sliding halfway off whenever Puck changed direction. The wind shrieked in my ears, but I could still hear the terrifying bays of our pursuers, seemingly right on our heels. I didn’t dare look back.
I lost track of time. Puck never slowed or grew winded, but sweat darkened his body and made my seating slick and even more terrifying. My legs grew numb, and my hands seemed to belong to somebody else.
And then a huge black creature burst from the ferns to our right and lunged at the horse, snapping its jaws. It was a hound, bigger than any I’d seen, with eyes of blue fire. Puck leaped aside to avoid it and reared, nearly spilling me to the forest floor. As I screamed, one foreleg slashed out, striking the hound in the chest midleap, and the dog yelped as it was hurled away.
The bushes exploded, and five more monstrous dogs spilled into the road. Surrounding us, they snarled and howled, snapping at the horse’s legs and leaping back as he kicked at them. I was frozen, clinging to Puck’s back, watching as those massive jaws clicked shut inches from my dangling feet.
Then, through the trees, I saw him, a lean figure on a huge black horse. The boy from my dream, the one I saw from the bus that day. His cruel, angelic face wore a smile as he drew back a large bow, an arrow glistening at the tip.
“Puck!” I screeched, knowing it was already too late. “Look out!”
The leaves above the hunter rustled, and then a large branch swept down, striking the boy in the arm just as he released the string. I felt the hum as the arrow zipped past my head and lodged into a pine tree. A spiderweb of frost spread out from where the arrow hit, and Puck’s equine head whipped toward the source. The hunter fit another arrow to the string, and with a shrill whinny, Puck reared and leaped over the dogs, somehow avoiding their snapping teeth. When his hooves struck dirt again, he fled, the hounds barking and snapping at his heels.