Keeping a wary eye on Grumly, I started forward.
“Wait,” Grimalkin muttered.
“What’s the matter?” I turned and found him scanning the room, eyes narrowed to slits. “Afraid of the ogre? Shard will keep him off us, right?”
“Not at all,” the cat replied. “Her bargain is done. She just opened the path to Tir Na Nog for us. She never promised us protection.”
I looked into the room again and found Grumly staring at us, drool dripping to the floor from his teeth. On the other side, Shard was smirking at me.
There was a sudden clatter on the stairs, the sound of many feet skipping down the steps. Over the railing, a wrinkled, evil face peered down at me, shark-teeth gleaming. A red bandanna fell off its head to land at my feet.
“Redcaps,” I gasped, stepping into the room without thinking.
Grumly roared, surging to the end of his chain, raking the ground with his claws. I yelped and flattened myself against the wall as the ogre snarled and slashed at the air, straining to reach me. His huge fists pounded the floor not ten feet away, and he bellowed in frustration. I couldn’t move. Grimalkin had disappeared. Shard’s laughter rang in the air as a dozen redcaps swarmed into the room.
“Now,” she said, leaning against the door frame, “this is entertainment.”
The redcaps crowded through the doorway, teeth flashing in the dim light. They wore biker jackets and leather pants, and sported crimson bandannas instead of their trademark caps. Snarling and gnashing their teeth, they spotted Grumly at the same time the ogre noticed them, and leaped back as a huge fist pounded the pavement.
Snarls and curses rose in the air. The redcaps danced madly out of the ogre’s reach, brandishing bronze knives and wooden baseball bats. “What is this?” I heard one of them screech. “Goat-man promised us young flesh if we followed the stairs. Where’s our meat?”
“There!” snarled another, pointing at me with what looked like a tarnished shiv. “In the corner. Don’t let the monster get our meat!”
They slid toward me, hugging the wall as I had done, keeping out of the ogre’s grasp. Grumly roared and slashed the ground, raking deep trenches into the cement floor, but the redcaps were small and quick, and he couldn’t reach them. I watched in horror as the hideous fey swarmed toward me, laughing and waving their weapons, and I couldn’t move. I was about to be eaten alive, but if I ventured any farther into the room, Grumly would tear me apart.
Through it all, I was aware of Shard, lounging in the other doorway, a self-satisfied smirk on her face. “Do you like where our contract has gone, little bitch?” she called over the bellows of Grumly and the clattering teeth of the redcaps. “Throw me your real name, and I might call them off.”
One of the redcaps leaped at me, jaws gaping, springing right for my face. I threw up my arm, and the jagged teeth sank into my flesh, clamping down like a steel trap. Shrieking, I flailed wildly, dislodging the repulsive weight and flinging it at the ogre. The redcap hit the ground and leaped to his feet snarling, just as Grumly’s fist smashed him into bloody paste.
Time seemed to slow down. I guess that happens when you’re about to die. The redcaps surged forward, shark teeth grinning and clacking, Grumly bellowed at the end of his chain, and Shard leaned against the door frame and laughed.
A huge black bird flapped through the open door.
The redcaps leaped.
The bird dove, sinking its talons into a redcap’s face, shrieking and flapping its wings. Startled and confused, the redcaps hesitated as the bird thrashed about, beating its wings and stabbing at the faery’s eyes with its beak. The pack hooted and slugged at it with their bats, but the bird darted up at the last second, and the redcap howled as the weapons slammed into him instead.
In the confusion, the bird exploded, changing shape in midair. A body dropped between me and the redcaps, shedding black feathers and giving me a familiar grin.
“Hi, princess. Sorry I’m late. Traffic was a bitch.”
He winked at me, then shot a glance at the Winter sidhe, standing in the doorway. “Hey, Shard.” He waved. “Nice place you’ve got here. I’ll have to remember it, so I can give it the special ‘Puck touch.’”
“It’s an honor to have you, Robin Goodfellow,” Shard answered, grinning evilly. “If the redcaps leave your head intact, I’ll mount it over the bar so everyone can see it when they come in. Kill him!”
Snarling, the redcaps leaped, teeth flashing like piranhas swarming a drowning bird. Puck pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it. It exploded into a thick log, and the redcaps clamped their jaws around the wood, teeth sinking into the bark. With muffled yelps, they clattered to the floor.
“Fetch,” Puck called.
Shrieking with rage, the redcaps splintered the log, shredding it like buzz saws. Teeth chattering, they spit wood chips and glared at us murderously. Puck turned to me with an apologetic look. “Excuse me a moment, princess. I have to go play with the puppies.”
He stepped toward them, grinning, and the redcaps lunged, brandishing knives and baseball bats. Puck waited until the last second before he dodged, into the room and away from the wall. The pack followed. I gasped as Grumly’s fist hammered down, but Puck leaped aside just in time, and a redcap was smashed flatter than a pancake.
“Whoops,” Puck exclaimed, putting both hands to his mouth, even as he sidestepped Grumly’s second swing. “Clumsy of me.”
The redcaps snarled curses and lunged at him again.
They continued this deadly dance around the room, Puck leading the redcaps on with taunts, laughter, and cheers. Grumly roared and smashed his fists at the little men scurrying around his feet, but the redcaps were quick, and now wary to the danger. This didn’t stop them from launching an all-out attack on Puck, who danced, dodged, and pirouetted his way around the ogre, almost seeming to enjoy himself. My heart stayed lodged in my throat the whole time; one wrong move, one miscalculation, and Puck would be a bloody smear on the floor.
The air around me chilled. I’d been so focused on Puck, I didn’t realize Shard had slipped away from the door frame and was now a few feet away. Her eyes glimmered black, and her lips curled in a smile as she raised a hand. A long spear of ice formed overhead, angled at me.
There was a yowl, and an invisible weight must have thumped onto her back, for she staggered and nearly fell. Something flashed golden on her chest: a key, attached to a thin silver chain. With a curse, Shard flung the invisible assailant into the wall; there was a thud and a hiss of pain as Grimalkin materialized for a split second and winked out of sight again.
In that moment of distraction, I lunged, grabbing the key around her neck. She turned with blinding speed, and a pale white hand clamped around my throat. I gasped, clawing at her arm with my free hand, but it seemed to be made of stone. Her skin burned with cold; ice crystals formed on my neck as Shard slowly tightened her grip, smiling. I sank to my knees as the room began to dim.
With a fierce screech, Grimalkin landed on her back, sinking claws and teeth into her neck. Shard screamed, and the pressure on my throat disappeared. Lurching upright, I shoved the sidhe with all my might, pushing her away. There was a jerk and a tinny snap, and the key came loose in my hand.
Coughing, I staggered away from the wall, looking up at the ogre. “Grumly!” I yelled, my voice raw and hoarse. “Grumly, look at me! Listen to me!”
The ogre stopped pounding the floor and swung his tormented gaze to me. Behind me, a feline yowl cut through the air, and Grimalkin’s body tumbled to the floor.
“Help us!” I cried, holding up the key. It winked golden in the light. “Help us, Grumly, and we’ll free you! We’ll set you free!”
Something smashed into the back of my head, nearly knocking me out. I collapsed, clutching the key, as pain raged across my senses. Something kicked me in the ribs, flipping me to my back. Shard loomed overhead, her dagger in one raised hand.
Grumly’s bellow filled the room. Startled, Shard looked up, just realizing she was within the ogre’s reach. Too late. Grumly’s backhand smashed into her chest, hurling her into the wall with a nasty thud. Even the redcaps stopped chasing Puck around and looked back.
I scrambled to my feet, ignoring the way my muscles screamed in protest. I staggered toward Grumly, hoping the ogre wouldn’t forget and smash me into pudding. He didn’t move as I reached the chains, the cruel iron manacle digging into his flesh. Shoving the key into the hole, I turned it until it clicked. The iron band loosened and dropped away.
Grumly roared, a roar filled with triumph and rage. He spun, surprisingly quick for his bulk, and kicked a redcap into the wall. Puck scrambled out of the way as the ogre raised a foot and stomped two more like roaches. The redcaps went berserk. Snarling and screeching, they swarmed Grumly’s feet, pounding them with bats and sinking teeth into his ankles. Grumly stomped and kicked, barely missing me, and the ground shook with his blows, but I didn’t have the strength to move.
Dodging the carnage, Puck grabbed me and pulled me away from the battle. “Let’s go,” he muttered, looking back over his shoulder. “While they’re distracted. Head for the trod.”
“What about Grimalkin?”
“I am here,” the cat said, appearing beside me. His voice sounded strained, and he favored his left forepaw, but otherwise seemed fine. “It is definitely time to leave.”
We staggered toward the open door, but found our path blocked by Shard. “No,” the sidhe growled. Her left arm hung limp, but she raised an ice spear and angled it at my chest. “You will not pass. You will die here, and I will nail you to the wall for everyone to see.”
A rumbling growl echoed behind us, and heavy footsteps shook the ground.
“Grumly,” Shard said without taking her eyes from me, “kill them. All is forgiven. Rip them apart, slowly. Do it, now.”
Grumly growled again, and a thick leg landed next to me. “Frrriends,” the ogre rumbled, standing over us. “Free Grumly. Grumly’s friends.” He took another step, the raw, chafed wound on his leg smelling of gangrene and rot. “Kill mistress,” he growled.
“What?” Shard backed away, her eyes widening. Grumly shuffled forward, raising his huge fists. “What are you doing? Get back, you stupid thing. I command you! No, no!”
“Let’s go,” Puck whispered, tugging my arm. We ducked under Grumly’s legs and sprinted for the open door. The last thing I saw, as the door closed behind us, was Grumly looming over his former master, and Shard bringing up her spear as she backed away.
THE CORRIDOR STRETCHED AWAY before us, filled with mist and flickering lights. I slumped against the wall, shaking as the adrenaline wore off.
“You all right, princess?” Puck asked, green eyes bright with concern. I staggered forward and threw my arms around him, hugging him tightly. He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close. I felt his warmth and the rapid beat of his heart, his breath against my ear. Finally, I pulled away and sank back against the wall, drawing him down with me.