“Ow! What the hell!” someone yelped.
Swatting faeries, I looked into the face of a girl a year or two younger than me. She was tiny and Asian, with hair that looked as if she’d taken a machete to it, wearing a ratty sweater two sizes too big. For a second, my mind went blank with the shock at seeing another human, until I saw the furry ears peeking out of her hair. We blinked at each other for a second, before the sting from a killer-wasp faerie snapped me out of my daze. Flailing, I scrambled to my feet as the swarm buzzed around the strange girl as well. She yelped and swatted wildly, backing away.
“What is this?” she hissed, as Puck came up behind me and Ironhorse charged in, blowing flame. “Who the hell are you people? Oh, never mind! Run!” She darted past us, looking back once to shout “Hurry up, Nelson!” over her shoulder. I barely had time to wonder who Nelson was when a kid built like a linebacker barreled through us, somehow dodging Puck and Ironhorse, and pounded after the girl. I caught a glimpse of gorillalike shoulders, muddy blond hair, and skin as green as swamp water. He clutched a backpack in his arms like a football and charged down the trail without a backward glance.
“Who were they?” I asked, over the buzzing of the swarm and my own frantic flailing.
“No time,” Puck said, slapping at a faery on his neck. “Ow! Dammit, we have to get out of here! Come on!”
We had started down the path again when a roar shook the air ahead of us, causing the swarm of killer fey to freeze in midair. It came again, guttural and savage, as something rattled the wall of thorns, coming toward us with the sound of snapping wood. I sensed hundreds of creatures in the brambles fleeing for their lives. The faeries scattered. Buzzing in terror, they vanished into the hedge, through cracks and tiny spaces between the thorns. In seconds, the whole swarm had disappeared. I peered through the branches and saw something coming down the trail, ripping through the wall of thorns like it wasn’t there. Something black and scaly, and much, much bigger than the spider.
Is that what I think it is?
“Thiiiief!” roared a deep, inhuman voice, before a gout of flame burst through the hedge, setting an entire section on fire, making the air explode with heat. Ironhorse bugled, rearing up in alarm. Puck cursed, grabbed my arm, and yanked me back the way we came.
We fled down the trail after the strange girl and her muscle-necked companion, feeling the heat from the monster’s fire at our backs. “Thieves!” the terrible voice snarled, staying right on our heels. “I can smell you! I can feel your breath and hear your hearts. Give me back what is mine!”
“Great,” Puck panted, as Ironhorse cantered beside us, bellowing that he would shield me from the flames. “Just great. I hate spiders. I hate wasps. But, you know what I hate even more than that?”
The thing behind us roared, and another blast of flame seared the branches overhead. I winced as we ran beneath a rain of cinders and flaming twigs. “Dragons?” I gasped.
“Remind me to kill Grimalkin next time we see him.”
The trail narrowed, then shrank down to a tight, thorny tunnel that twisted off into the darkness. Bending down and peering into it, I could just make out a door at the end of the burrow. And, I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw the door shut.
“I think I see a door!” I called, looking over my shoulder. Puck nodded impatiently.
“Well, what are you waiting for, Princess! Go!”
“What about Ironhorse?”
“He’ll have to squeeze!” Puck pushed me toward the mouth, but I resisted.
“Come on, Princess. We don’t want to be in the middle of that if Deathbreath decides to sneeze on us.”
“We can’t leave him behind!”
“WORRY NOT, PRINCESS,” Ironhorse said, and I gaped at him, not believing my eyes. Where a horse had been, now a man stood before me, dark and massive, with a square jaw and fists the size of hams. He wore jeans and a black shirt that bulged with all the muscles underneath, the skin stretched tight over steely tendons. Dreadlocks spilled from his scalp like a mane, and his eyes still burned with that intense red glow. “YOU ARE
NOT THE ONLY ONE WITH A FEW TRICKS UP YOUR SLEEVE, GOODFELLOW,” he said, a faint smirk beneath his voice. “NOW, GO. I WILL BE RIGHT BEHIND YOU.”
With a horrible cracking sound, the dragon’s head rose above the briars on a long, snaking neck, looming to an impossible height. It was bigger than I’d imagined, a long toothy maw covered in black-green scales, ivory horns curling back from its skull to frame the sky. Alien, red-gold eyes scanned the ground impassively, gleaming with cunning and intelligence. “I see you, little thieves.”
Puck gave me a shove, and I tumbled into the burrow, scratching my hands and knees and jabbing myself on the thorns. Cursing, I looked up and saw two familiar golden eyes floating before me in the dark.
“Hurry, human,” Grimalkin hissed, and fled down the burrow.
The tunnel seemed to shrink the farther I went, scraping my back and catching my hair and clothes as I followed Grimalkin, bent over like a crab. I heard Puck and Ironhorse behind me, felt the glare of the dragon’s eye at my back, and cursed as my sleeve caught on a thorn. We were going too slow! The red door loomed at the end of the tunnel, a beacon of light and safety, so far away. But as I got closer, I saw Grimalkin standing in front of it, ears flattened against his skull, hissing and baring his teeth.
“Saint-John’s-wort,” he snarled, and I saw a cluster of dried yellow flowers hanging on the door like tiny sunbursts. “The fey cannot enter with that on the door. Take it down, quickly, human!”
“Burn, little thieves!”
Fire exploded down the tunnel, writhing and twisting in a maelstrom of heat and fury, shooting toward us. I ripped the flowers off the door and dove through, Puck and Ironhorse toppling in after me. Flames shot over my head, singeing my back as I lay gasping on a cold cement floor. Then, the door slammed shut, cutting off the fire, and we were plunged into darkness.
For a few moments, I lay there on the concrete, my body curiously hot and cold at the same time. My neck, my shoulders, and the backs of my legs burned from the fire that had come way too close for comfort. But my cheek and stomach pressed into the cold cement, making me shiver. To either side of me, Puck and Ironhorse struggled to their feet with muffled curses and groans.
“Well, that was fun,” Puck muttered, helping me stand. “I swear, if I ever see those two kids again, we’re going to have a little chat. If you’re going to steal from a fifty-foot, fire-breathing lizard with the memory of an elephant, you’d better have a damn impressive riddle, or you wait until it isn’t home. And who the hell put Saint-John’s-wort over the door?
I’m feeling very unwelcome right now.”
A flashlight clicked on in the shadows, blinding me. Shielding my eyes, I counted three silhouettes at the end of the beam. Two I recognized; the tiny girl with furry ears and the green-skinned boy we’d met in the Briars. The last, the one holding the flashlight, was tall and skinny, with thick dark hair, a scraggly goatee, and two ridged horns curling up from his brow. He held a cross in the other hand, raised in front of his face like he was warding off a vampire.
Puck laughed. “Hate to break it to you, kid, but unless you’re a priest, that isn’t going to work. Neither is the salt you have poured across the floor. I’m not your average bogey.”
“Damn faeries,” spit goatee boy, looking pale. “How did you get in here?
You’d better leave right now, if you know what’s good for you. She’ll tear your guts out and make harp strings with them.”
“Well, there’s a problem with that,” Puck continued with mock regret. “See, right outside that door is a very pissed off reptile who is eager to turn us into shish kebab, because you three were stupid enough to steal from a dragon.” He sighed and shook his head in a disappointed manner. “You know dragons never forget a thief, don’t you? So, what’d you take?”
“None of your business, faery,” goat boy shot back. “And maybe I wasn’t clear when I said you’re not welcome here.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out three iron nails, holding them between white, shaking knuckles. “Maybe a faceful of iron will convince you otherwise.”
I stepped forward, shooting Puck a warning glare before he could rise to the challenge. “Take it easy,” I soothed, holding up my hands. “We don’t want any trouble. We’re just trying to get through the Briars, that’s all.”
“Warren!” gasped the girl, staring at me wide-eyed. “It’s her!”
All eyes flashed to me.
“It is you,” Warren breathed. “You’re her, aren’t you? Oberon’s half-blood. The Summer princess.”
Ironhorse growled and pressed closer, causing the trio to shrink back. I put a hand on his chest. “How do you know me?”
“She’s looking for you, you know. Got half the exiles looking for you—”
“Whoa, slow down, goat-boy.” Puck held up a hand. “Who is this remarkable she you keep talking about?”
Warren shot him a look that was half fearful, half awe. “Her, of course. The boss of this place. So…if this is Oberon’s daughter, you must be him, aren’t you? Robin Goodfellow? The Puck?” Puck smiled, which caused Warren to swallow noisily. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “But—” he glanced at Ironhorse “—she didn’t say anything about him. Who’s he?”
“Stinks,” rumbled the green-skinned boy, curling his lip to reveal blunt, uneven teeth. “Smells like coal. Like iron.”
Warren’s eyebrows shot up. “Aw, crap. He’s one of them, isn’t he? One of those Iron faeries! She won’t be happy about this.”
“He’s with me,” I said quickly, as Ironhorse drew himself up. “He’s safe, I promise you. And who do you keep talking about? Who is this she?”
“Her name is Leanansidhe,” Warren stated, as if I were an idiot for not figuring it out. “Leanansidhe the Dark Muse. Queen of the Exiles.”
Puck’s eyebrows arched into his hair.
“You’re kidding,” he said, his face caught between a grimace and a smirk.
“So, Leanansidhe fancies herself a queen, now? Oh, Titania will love that.”
“Who’s Leanansidhe?” I asked.
The grimace won out. He shook his head and turned to me, his face grim.
“Bad news, Princess. At one time, Leanansidhe was one of the most powerful beings in all the Nevernever. The Dark Muse, they called her, because she inspired many great artists, helping them produce their most brilliant works. You might recognize some of the mortals she’s helped
—James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain.”
Puck shrugged. “But, as you should know, such help always comes with a price. None whom Leanansidhe inspires lives very long, ever. Their lives are brilliant, colorful, and very brief. Sometimes, if the artist was particularly special, she’d take him back to the Nevernever to entertain her for eternity. Or until she got bored. Of course, this was before…”