RAIN HISSED through the branches of the trees, a cold, gray rain that leeched color from everything it touched. Even Puck’s bright auburn hair turned dull and colorless in the misty deluge. He’d rake his fingers through it, streaking his hair with red, only to have the rain soak through it once more, bleaching away the color. Grimalkin was nearly invisible; not even his eyes glimmered in the gloom.
Above us, the massive wall of black thorns rose into the air, tendrils creaking and curling about. Some of the thorns were longer than me, waving about like the spines of a sea urchin, and the whole thing bristled with eerie menace.
I shivered, even standing close to Ironhorse and the smoldering heat radiating from him. The Iron faery steamed in the rain, surrounded by writhing smoke, as water struck his hot metal skin and sizzled away. Ironhorse gazed up at the wall of thorns, craning his neck to stare at it, billowing like a small geyser in the storm.
“How do we get through?” I wondered.
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the wall shifted. Branches creaked and moaned as they peeled away to reveal a narrow, spiky corridor through the thorns. Mist curled out of the hallway, and the space beyond was choked in shadow. Puck crossed his arms. “Looks like we’re expected.” He looked down at Grimalkin, a gray ghost in the mist, calmly washing his front paws. “You sure you can get us through, cat?”
Grimalkin gave one paw a few more licks before standing up. Shaking himself so that water flew everywhere, he yawned, stretched and trotted forward without looking back.
“Follow me and find out” were his last words before he vanished into the tunnel. Puck rolled his eyes. Holding out his hand, he gave me an encouraging smile.
“Come on, Princess. Don’t want to get separated in here.” I clasped his hand, and he curled his fingers tight around mine. “Let’s go, then. Rusty can bring up the rear. That way, if we’re jumped from behind, we won’t lose anything important.”
I felt Ironhorse’s indignant snort as we entered the tunnel, and I pressed closer to Puck as the shadows closed in on us like grasping fingers. Around us, the corridor pulsed with life, slithering, creaking, unfurling with faint hissing sounds. Whispers and strange voices drifted down the hallway, murmuring words I couldn’t quite understand. As we stepped in farther, the hole behind us shut with a quiet hiss, trapping us within the Briars.
“This way,” came Grimalkin’s disembodied voice up ahead. “Try to stay close.”
The bristly walls of the corridor seemed to press in on us. Puck didn’t release my hand, but we had to walk single file through the tunnel to avoid behind scratched. A couple times, I thought I saw a thorn or creeper actually move toward me, as if to prick my skin or catch my clothes. Once, I glanced back at Ironhorse to see how he was faring, but the thorns, much like the rest of the Nevernever, seemed loath to touch the great Iron fey, curling back from him as he passed.
The tunnel finally opened up into a small hollow with tunnels and paths twisting off in all directions. Overhead, the canopy of bramble shut out the light, so thick you couldn’t see the sky through the cracks. Bones lay here and there among the thorns, bleached white and gleaming in the darkness. A skull grinned at me from a tangle of brambles, empty eye sockets crawling with worms. I shuddered and turned my face into Puck’s shoulder.
“Where’s Grim?” I whispered.
“Here,” Grimalkin said, appearing out of nowhere. The cat leaped atop a large skull and regarded each of us in turn. “We are going deep into the Briars now,” he stated in a calm, very soft voice. “I would tell you what we might face, but perhaps it is better that I do not. Try to be silent. Do not separate. Do not go down another path. And stay away from any doors you come across. Many of the gates here are a one-way trip; go through one and you might not be able to go back. Are you ready?”
I raised my hand. “How do you know your way around this place, Grim?”
Grimalkin blinked. “I am a cat,” he said, and vanished down one of the tunnels.
WHEN I WAS TWELVE, my school took a field trip to a “haunted” corn maze on the outskirts of town, a week or so before Halloween. Sitting on the bus, listening to the boys brag about who would find his way out first, and the girls giggling in their own little groups, I made my own vow that I would do just as well. I remember walking down the rows of corn all by myself, feeling a thrill of both fear and excitement as I tried finding my way to the center and back again. And I remembered the sinking feeling in my gut when I knew I was lost, when I realized no one would help me, that I was alone.
This was ten thousand times worse.
The Briars were never still. They were always moving, slithering, reaching for you out of the corner of your eye. Sometimes, if you listened just right, you could almost hear them whisper your name. Deep within the tangled darkness, twigs snapped and branches rustled as things moved through the brambles. I never got a clear look, just glimpsed dark shapes shuffling away into the undergrowth. It creeped me out. Big-time. The Briars went on, an endless maze of twisted thorns and gnarled branches, shifting, creaking and reaching out for us. As we ventured ever deeper, doors, frames and archways began appearing at odd intervals in completely random places. A faded red door hung perilously from an overhead branch, a tarnished 216 glimmering in the dim light. A filthy restroom stall, cracked and shedding green paint, stood near the edge of the path, so wrapped in thorns that it would be impossible to push the door open. Something lean and black slithered across our path and vanished through an open closet. As it creaked shut, I caught a glimpse of a child’s bedroom through the frame, and a crib outlined in moonlight, before thorny vines curled around the door and pulled it back into the Briars.
Grimalkin never hesitated, leading us on without a backward glance, passing gates and doors and strange, random things stuck in the tangled web of thorns. A mirror, a doll and an empty golf bag dangled from the branches as we walked by, as well as the countless bones and sometimes full skeletons that littered the trail. Strange creatures watched us from the shadows, mostly unseen, just their eyes glowing in the dark. Black birds with human faces perched in the branches, observing us silently as we passed, like waiting vultures. At one point, Grimalkin pulled us all into a side tunnel, hissing at us to be quiet and not move. Moments later, a massive spider, easily the size of a car, crawled over the brambles directly overhead, and I bit my lip so hard that I tasted blood. Huge and shiny, with a splash of red across its bloated abdomen, it paused a moment, as if sensing warm blood and fluids were very close, waiting for the slightest tremor to betray its quarry.
We held our breath and pretended to be stone.
For several heart-pounding seconds, we crouched in the tunnel, feeling our muscles cramp and our hearts thud too loud in our chests. Above us, the spider sat perfectly still as well, patiently waiting for its prey to grow bored, to assume it was safe and make the first move that would be its last. Eventually, something rustled in the branches ahead, and it darted away, frighteningly quick for something that huge. The scream of some unfortunate creature pierced the air, and then silence.
For a few moments after the spider left, no one dared to move. Eventually, Grimalkin crept forward, poking his head out warily, scanning the thorns.
“Wait here,” he told us. “I will see if it is safe.” Slipping into the shadows like a ghost, he disappeared.
I sagged to my knees as the adrenaline wore off and my muscles started to shake, leaving me weak and nearly hyperventilating. I could handle goblins and bogeymen and evil, flesh-eating horses, but giant freaking spiders? That’s where I drew the line. Puck knelt and put a hand on my shoulder. “You okay, Princess?”
I nodded, ready to make some snarky comment about the pest problem around here. But then, one of the thorns moved.
Frowning, I bent closer, squinting my eyes. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, the three-inch barb shivered and unfurled into a pair of pointed black wings, attached to a tiny faery with glittering eyes that glared with insectlike menace. Its spindly body was covered by a shiny black carapace. Spikes grew from its elbows and shoulders, and it clutched a thorn-tipped spear in one tiny claw. As we stared at each other, the faery curled its lip, revealing teeth as sharp as needles, and flew at my face.
I jerked back, swatting wildly, and hit Puck, causing us both to tumble back. The faery dodged my flailing hands, buzzing around us like an angry wasp. I saw it pause, hovering in the air like an evil hummingbird, then streak forward with a raspy cry. A gout of flame seared the air in front of me. I felt the blast of heat on my face, bringing tears to my eyes, and the faery disappeared into the fire. Its tiny, charred body dropped like a stone to the earth, curling in on itself, the delicate black wings seared away. It gave an insectlike twitch, then was still.
Ironhorse tossed his head and snorted, looking pleased as smoke curled from his nostrils. Puck grimaced as he pushed himself to his feet, holding out a hand to help me up.
“You know, I’m really starting to hate the insect life around here,” he muttered. “Next time, remind me to bring a can of Off!”
“You didn’t have to kill it,” I told Ironhorse, dusting off my pants. “It was like three inches tall!”
“IT ATTACKED YOU.” Ironhorse sounded puzzled, cocking his head at me.
“IT CLEARLY HAD AGGRESSIVE INTENT. MY MISSION IS TO PROTECT YOU UNTIL
WE RETRIEVE THE SCEPTER. I WILL ALLOW NOTHING TO BRING YOU HARM. THAT IS MY SOLEMN VOW.”
“Yeah, but you don’t need a machine gun to kill a fly.”
“Human!” Grimalkin appeared, bounding up with his ears flattened to his head. “You are making too much noise. All of you are. We must leave this area, quickly.” He glanced about, and the fur on his back started to rise. “It might already be too late.”
“Ironhorse killed this teensy little faery—” I began, but Grimalkin hissed at me.
“Idiot human! Do you think that was the only one? Look around you!”
I did, and my heart nearly stopped. The thorns around us were moving, hundreds upon hundreds of them, unfurling into tiny faeries with pointed, gnashing teeth. The air filled with the sound of buzzing, and thousands of tiny black eyes glimmered through the thorns.
“Oh, this isn’t good,” Puck murmured as the buzz grew louder, more frantic.
“I really, really wish I had that Off!”
“Run!” spit Grimalkin, and we ran.
The faeries swarmed around us, the hum of their wings vibrating the air, their high-pitched voices shrieking in my ears. I felt the weight of their tiny bodies on my skin, an instant before the stings, and flailed wildly, trying to dislodge them. Puck snarled something unintelligible, swiping at them with his knives, and Ironhorse blasted flame from his mouth and nostrils, roaring. Charred, dismembered faeries dropped shrieking from the air, but dozens more buzzed in to take their place. Grimalkin, of course, had vanished. We charged blindly down a tunnel of thorns, through swarms of furious killer wasp-fey, with no clue of where we were going.
As I rounded a corner, a body appeared right in front of me. I had no time to react before I crashed into it, and we both went sprawling.