I watched Ash and his brothers disappear into the crowd of dark fey, saw the grim, terrifying look on the Erlking’s face, and made my decision.
I took a deep breath. “All right, then. Let’s get out of here.”
Grimalkin stood. “Good,” he said. “We leave now. Before the chaos dies down and Oberon remembers you.” He looked over my elegant gown and sniffed, wrinkling his nose. “I will fetch your clothes and belongings. Wait here, and try not to draw attention to yourself.” He twitched his tail, slipped into the shadows, and vanished.
I stood by the dead chimera, looking around nervously and trying to keep out of Oberon’s sight.
Something small dropped from the lion’s mane, glimmering briefly as it caught the light, hitting the marble with a faint clink. Curious, I approached warily, keeping my eye on the huge carcass and the few redcaps still gnawing on it. The object on the ground winked metallically as I knelt and picked it up, turning it over in my palm.
It looked like a tiny metal bug, round and ticklike, about the size of my pinkie nail. Its spindly metal legs were curled up over its belly, the way insects’ legs do when they die. It was covered in black ooze, which I realized with horror was chimera blood.
As I stared at it, the legs wiggled, and it flipped over in my hand. I yelped and hurled the bug to the ground, where it scuttled over the marble stage, squeezed into a crack, and vanished from sight.
I WAS WIPING THE CHIMERA blood from my hands, discovering it stained flesh, when Grimalkin appeared, materializing from nowhere with my bright orange backpack. “This way,” the cat muttered, and led me from the courtyard into a cluster of trees. “Hurry and change,” he ordered as we ducked beneath the shadowy limbs. “We don’t have much time.”
I unzipped the pack and dumped my clothes to the ground. I started to wriggle out of the dress, when I noticed Grimalkin still watching me, eyes glowing in the dark. “Could I get a little privacy?” I asked. The cat hissed.
“You have nothing I’d be interested in, human. Hurry up.”
Scowling, I shed the gown and changed into my old, comfortable clothes. As I jammed my feet into my sneakers, I noticed Grimalkin staring back at the courtyard. A trio of Seelie knights wandered toward us across the lawn, and it appeared they were looking for someone.
Grimalkin flattened his ears. “You have already been missed. This way!”
I followed the cat through the shadows toward the hedge wall surrounding the courtyard. The brambles peeled back as we approached, revealing a narrow hole in the hedge, just big enough for me to squeeze into on my hands and knees. Grimalkin slipped through without looking back. I grimaced, knelt down, and crawled in after the cat, dragging my backpack behind me.
The tunnel was dark and winding. I pricked myself a dozen times as I maneuvered my way through the twisting maze of thorns. Squeezing through a particularly narrow stretch, I cursed as the thorns kept snagging my hair, clothes, and skin. Grimalkin looked over his shoulder, blinking luminous glowing eyes as I struggled.
“Try not to bleed so much on the thorns,” he said as I jabbed myself in the palm and hissed in pain. “Right now, anyone could follow us, and you are leaving a very easy trail.”
“Right, ’cause I’m bleeding all over the place for shits and giggles.” A bramble caught my hair, and I yanked it free with a painful tearing sound. “How much farther till we’re out?”
“Not far. We are taking a shortcut.”
“This is a shortcut? What, does it lead into Mab’s garden or something?”
“Not really.” Grimalkin sat down and scratched his ear. “This path actually leads us back to your world.”
I jerked my head up, jabbing myself in the skull and bringing tears to my eyes. “What? Are you serious?” Relief and excitement flared; I could go home! I could see my mom; she must be worried sick about me. I could go to my own room and—
I stopped, the balloon of happiness deflating as suddenly as it had come. “No. I can’t go home yet,” I said, feeling my throat tighten. “Not without Ethan.” I bit my lip, resolved, then glared at the cat. “I thought you were taking me to the Unseelie Court, Grim.”
Grimalkin yawned, sounding bored with it all. “I am. The Unseelie Court sits much closer to your world than the Seelie territories. It is faster to enter the mortal lands and slip into Tir Na Nog from there.”
“Oh.” I thought about that for a moment. “Well, then, why did Puck take me through the wyldwood? If it’s easier to reach the Unseelie Court from my world, why didn’t he use that way?”
“Who knows? Trods—the paths into the Nevernever—are difficult to find. Some are constantly shifting. Most lead directly into the wyldwood. Only a very few will take you to the Seelie or Unseelie territories, and they have powerful guardians protecting them. The trod we are using now is a one-way trip. Once we are through, we will not be able to find it again.”
“Isn’t there another way in?”
Grimalkin sighed. “There are other paths to Tir Na Nog from the wyldwood, but you would have to deal with the creatures that live there, as you found out with the goblins, and they are not the worst things you could meet. Also, Oberon’s guards will be hunting for you, and the wyldwood will be the first place they’ll look. The fastest way to the Unseelie Court is the way I am taking you now. So, decide, human. Do you still want to go?”
“Doesn’t look like I have a choice, does it?”
“You keep saying that,” Grimalkin observed, “but there is always a choice. And I suggest we stop talking and keep moving. We are being followed.”
We kept going, wending our way through the briar tunnel, picking through the thorns until I lost all sense of time and direction. At first, I tried avoiding the brambles scratching at me, but continued to be pricked and poked, until I finally gave in and stopped bothering about it. Strangely, once I did, I was scratched a lot less. Once I stopped moving like a snail, Grimalkin set a steady pace through the brambles, and I followed as best I could. Occasionally, I saw side tunnels spin off in other directions, and caught glimpses of shapes moving through the brush, though I never got a clear look.
We turned a corner, and suddenly found a large cement tube in our path. It was a drainage pipe; I could see open air and blue sky through the hole. Oddly, it was sunny on the other side.
“The mortal world is through here,” Grimalkin informed me. “Remember, once we are through, we will not be able to return to the Nevernever this way. We will have to find another trod to go back.”
“I know,” I said.
Grimalkin gave me a long, uncomfortable stare. “Also, remember, human—you have been to the Nevernever. The glamour over your eyes is gone. Though other mortals will not see anything strange about you, you will see things a little…differently. So, try not to overreact.”
“Differently? Like how?”
Grimalkin smiled. “You will see.”
WE EMERGED FROM THE DRAINAGE pipe to the sounds of car engines and street traffic, a shock after being in the wilderness for so long. We were in a downtown area, with buildings looming over us on either side. A sidewalk extended over the drainage pipe; beyond that, rush-hour traffic clogged the roads, and people shuffled down the walkway, absorbed in their own small worlds. No one seemed to notice a cat and a scruffy, slightly bloodied teenager crawl out of a drainage ditch.
“Okay.” Despite my worry, I was thrilled to be back in my own familiar world, and astounded by the huge glass-and-metal buildings towering above me. The air here was cold, uncomfortably so, and dirty slush clogged the sidewalks and drains. Craning my neck, I gazed up at the looming skyscrapers, feeling slightly dizzy as they seemed to sway against the sky. There was nothing like this in my tiny Louisiana town. “Where are we?”
“Detroit.” Grimalkin half closed his eyes, peering around the town and the people rushing by us. “One moment. It has been a while since I have been here. Let me think.”
As he was thinking, a large figure in a tattered red hoodie lurched out of the crowd and came toward us, clutching a bottle in a sack. He looked like a homeless person, though I’d never actually seen one. I wasn’t too worried; we were on a well-traveled street, with a lot of witnesses to hear me scream should he try anything. He would probably ask me for change or a cigarette, and keep going.
However, as he got close, he raised his head, and I saw a wrinkled, bearded face with fangs jutting crookedly from its jaw. In the shadows of the hood, his eyes were yellow and slitted like a cat’s. I jumped as the stranger leered and stepped closer. His stench nearly knocked me down; he smelled of roadkill and bad eggs and fish rotting in the sun. I gagged and nearly lost my breakfast.
“Pretty girl,” the stranger growled, reaching out with a claw. “You came from there, didn’t you? Send me back, now. Send me back!”
I backed away, but Grimalkin leaped between us, fluffed out to twice his size. His yowling screech jerked the man to a halt, and the bum’s eyes widened in terror. With a gurgling cry, he turned and ran, knocking people aside as he fled. People cursed and looked around, glaring at one another, but none seemed to notice the fleeing bum.
“What was that?” I asked Grimalkin.
“A norrgen.” The cat sighed. “Disgusting things. Terrified of cats, if you can believe it. He was probably banished from the Nevernever at some point. That would explain his words to you, wanting you to send him back.”
I looked for the norrgen, but it had vanished into the crowd. “Are all the fey walking around the human world outcasts?” I wondered.
“Of course not.” Grimalkin’s look was scornful, and no one does scornful better than a cat. “Many choose to be here, going back and forth between this world and the Nevernever at will, so long as they can find a trod. Some, like brownies or bogarts, haunt a house forever. Others blend in to human society, posing as mortals, feeding off dreams, emotions, and talent. Some have even been known to marry a particularly exceptional mortal, though their children are shunned by faery society, and the fey parent usually leaves if things get too tough.
“Of course, there are those who have been banished to the mortal world. They make their way as best they can, but spending too much time in the human world does strange things to them. Perhaps it is the amount of iron and technology that is so fatal to their existence. They start to lose themselves, a little at a time, until they are only shadows of their former selves, empty husks covered in glamour to make them look real. Eventually, they simply cease to exist.”
I looked at Grimalkin in alarm. “Could that happen to you? To me?” I thought of my iPod, remembering the way Tansy leaped away from it in terror. I suddenly recalled the way Robbie was mysteriously absent from all of his computer classes. I’d simply thought he hated typing. I had no idea it was deadly to him.
Grimalkin seemed unconcerned. “If I stay here long enough, perhaps. Maybe in two or three decades, though I certainly do not plan to stay that long. As for you, you are half-human. Your mortal blood protects you from iron and the banal effects of your science and technology. I would not worry too much if I were you.”