The fairies have a secret they’re just dying to protect…
Emma knows breaking the rules can get you into trouble; it nearly got her sister killed. That’s why Emma’s stuck in backwater Nowra, Australia, under temporary witness protection with no friends—and no life.
So when Emma has to break the rules to retrieve the runaway family dog, she decides the fairy she sees is clearly a guilt-induced hallucination. Problem is, hallucinations don’t usually send you invites to Fairyland—and shadows don’t usually chase you home.
It would be easy to ignore the invite.
It would be sensible to avoid the shadows.
But when Emma’s only new friend is snatched by the shadows in the middle of the night, Emma knows she has a decision to make: stick to the rules and leave her friend and dog to die, or risk her own life to save them.
THE DOORBELL RANG. That doesn’t sound exciting in and of itself, but let me assure you: it was the most heart-pounding thing to happen all week. It was my birthday, I was home alone, and because of the stupid witness protection business, I’d been stuck in the house all summer. I hadn’t even been allowed out to see friends, because we’d arrived in town at the end of last year with only three school weeks to go—so I didn’t have any friends.
Well. I had friends, but they were back in Melbourne, and I wasn’t allowed to contact them for fear someone would track down our new location. Lucky me.
Anyway, it was my birthday, I was alone because Mum and Dad had gone to do something regarding birthday surprises and Anna had inexplicably chosen to go with them, and the doorbell had just rung. I stared at the closed door, heart pounding, while our chocolate Labrador, Veve, tried to chew it down. Was I going to open it?
Of course I was going to open it. The chances of it being a mobster were slim to none; for starters, a mobster wouldn’t have rung the bell.
I opened it.
“Miss Tanning?” The deliveryman raised a questioning eyebrow and cocked a digital pen at me.
I nodded, heart flip-flopping, and scrawled a fair impersonation of my signature on the digital pad.
He handed over a small, brown-paper parcel with a handwritten address, and departed.
I closed the door behind him, throat dry, and stared down at Veve. On the one hand, yay birthday present. On the other, holy crap, someone had our address. That was not a good thing.
It became even less of a good thing when I noticed that the parcel was indeed addressed to a Miss Tanning: a Miss Anna Tanning, as in my sister, not me, Emma Tanning.
Anger bubbled up in my chest, hot and tight, and the parcel protested in my grip.
Veve whined softly.
“How could she do this?” I whispered to Veve.
I turned the parcel over. It was from Kade, Anna’s frogging ex-boyfriend. Who apparently wasn’t an ‘ex’ after all.
Urgh. I ground my teeth. “You know what?” I asked Veve.
She looked up at me with her liquid brown eyes, tongue lolling as she smiled.
“Screw it. If Anna can get interstate mail from people who aren’t even supposed to know we exist anymore, you and I can go for a walk on my birthday. What do you think?”
They say dogs don’t speak English, but Veve sure as heck knew the word ‘walk’—though I think in her vocabulary it was something closer to ‘Magical Trip To Disneyland’ and less like ‘Comparatively Bland Meander Through Trees’. She tucked her tail right under her butt and shot down the hall, whirling in frantic circles a few times at the end before pelting back as I retrieved her lead from the drawer in the front cabinet.
I rolled my eyes as I clipped her lead onto her collar. For my troubles, I got slimed right up the nostrils. “You’re disgusting, you know that?” I wiped off the worst of the dog slobber on the shoulder of my shirt. She just grinned.
Out on the street, she leapt and twisted madly. “Hair-brain,” I told her, snapping the lead to get her attention. “It’s just a walk.”
She just snorted—and stiffened. I followed her gaze to where a flock of corellas pecked their way through the dry grass at the end of the street.
My shout was in vain: the lead burned through my fingers and Veve shot down the road, a chocolate bullet howling death and destruction for all things feathered.
I cursed her to the lower circles of doggie hell. Which probably involved, I don’t know, a world devoid of birds, cats, people, sunshine, and walks, if Veve was anything to go by.
“Veve!” If the sight of the mad Lab-rat barrelling toward them hadn’t scared the birds off, my shouts would have. “Come back here now!”
Predictably, she ignored me, pounding down the slope, through the fringe of gum trees, and down the narrow stairs between giant granite boulders that led to the river.
“Stupid frogging brainless beast of a stupid frogging dog,” I muttered as I followed. “If Mum gets home before we do and freaks out, I swear, I’ll pluck your tail hairs out.”
Empty threats, obviously, but Mum’s freak-out wouldn’t be. Her thoughts would go straight to the day Anna nearly died—and I wouldn’t blame her. I should have left a note. Urgh.
The stairs ended and I found myself on a track broad enough for two twisting along a creek the colour of bitter tea. Tussock grass clustered in spikes—where the eucalypts would let it—and hot summer sunlight glinted from the leaves. Some-where to my right, downstream and in the opposite direction to the house, Veve barked. I exhaled like a whale coming up for air and set out after her.
Veve bounded out from the undergrowth in front of me, a dolphin leaping through water, tongue flapping with every bound.
“Stupid mutt,” I told her under my breath.
She didn’t care what I thought (of course), and saved a leap for the last minute so she could plant muddy feet on my hips as I tried to catch her collar.
I straightened, about to insult her some more, and realised that she’d gone stiff again, ears pricked and mouth tight, listening down the path.
My neck prickled. Someone was coming. A second later, I heard footsteps in the gravel, and a low, male voice, humming, or maybe singing softly.
My chest constricted, and just as suddenly my hands were slick. Chances were it was just a stranger out for a midday stroll, but my stomach wound knots about my memories and I smelled the hot concrete and melting asphalt, old oil and stale urine of the Lilydale train station where the body had been hidden in a toilet stall, the body of the girl who’d looked like Anna.
I had to get off the path.
“Come on, Veve,” I said, pulling her close, white-knuckled as I stepped into the undergrowth. The tea tree scrub protested, but I shoved my way through anyway, glancing over my shoulder as the humming grew louder.
I kept going until I couldn’t hear footsteps any more, until the wind swallowed the hum that sounded too like the warning cry of a hive—danger, we’re working here, come close and get stung.
I didn’t want to get stung; visions of a blood-streaked face refused to be blinked away. Only Veve tugging brought me back to myself, and I realised firstly that I was holding the lead way too tight, cutting off Veve’s air supply, secondly that the reason my cheeks were suddenly cold was because I’d been crying, and thirdly that I’d found the creek again, looping back westward maybe fifty meters or so from the path.
Abruptly I dropped Veve’s lead and strode forward to kneel by the water. I dipped my hands in, felt a shiver slide through me at its chill, and scooped it up to wash my face.
Flinging the excess water away, I gulped at the air, deep, calming breaths all the way down into my belly, and visualised a river washing away the blood from my thoughts, just like the police psych had taught me.
Once the space behind my eyes was calm and black, I drew in one last forceful breath, and opened my eyes. Perched on a rock by the creek, I hugged my knees to my chest as cool water lapped at my toes. Veve was a little upstream, just before the creek bent back toward the path, doggy paddling in circles in a deep spot where the water broadened to maybe ten meters across. In front of me it was broad but shallow, only ankle deep, its path torn to white foam by the rocks.
And—I gasped. In the middle of the stream, glittering in the sun like a piece of fallen sky, was the hugest butterfly I’d ever seen. Which was pretty huge; besides the fact that I grew up visiting the Melbourne Zoo with its impressive butterfly house every Christmas since I could remember, Mum and Dad had taken us up to Brisbane for a family holiday two years ago, and we’d seen giant tropical butterflies bigger than my hand.
This one, bright blue with black edging like a Ulysses, was bigger than both my hands put together.
And then it turned around.
Okay. I’d grown up reading fairy tales as much as the next person, and although I’d had a horse-crazy stage instead of a fairy-crazy stage like Anna had, I’d seen all her paraphernalia. Still, none of it prepared me for finding something that looked exactly like a fairy, standing smack in the middle of a creek in boring, backwater Nowra. I’m pretty sure my eyes were only hanging in their sockets by a thread.
And then it talked.
Her face lit up like a cloud had just uncovered the sun as she spotted me. “Hi there!” she said, fluttering over.
I just stared, heart pounding against my ribcage as though it wanted to run away from the absurdity of it all. “No,” I said. “I’m hallucinating.”
The fairy frowned. “I don’t think so.”
I shook my head. “No. No, things like this do not happen. Things like this aren’t real.” I stood, backing up a step.
The fairy sighed. “I promise. I’m quite real.”
“You would say that, wouldn’t you,” I said, eyeing her. “Veve!” I waved at the dog and hopped from one foot to the other, trying to lure her in with the promise of play. “We’re going now!”
Veve, adorable beast that she was, landed a little upstream and shook vigorously before trotting toward me. I backed hurriedly away from the bank, dancing to keep Veve’s attention.
“Wait!” the fairy cried, wings snapping out and propelling her a couple of feet into the air. “You’re a Traveller! I need to talk to you!”
“Uh huh, sure,” I said as I wound the lead around my hand and set off back into the bushes. This was punishment for leaving the house, obviously. The universe was out to get me, reminding me forcefully that once you started disregarding some rules, who knew what other rules you’d end up flouting.
The rules of physics, for example.
I glanced back once, right before the bushes hid the stream altogether. Blue flashed, high up, but I ducked to get a better view and it was only the sky. I scowled. Stupid fairy. Stupid universe. Served me right for leaving the house in the first place. Urgh. “Come on, Veve,” I said, snapping the lead. “Even if the house is prison, at least it’s sane.”
I was stomping so furiously as I burst out onto the path that when a figure rose from a stoop only a couple of steps away, I squeaked in surprise, then scowled. People never surprised me; I always knew when someone was coming before they got close.
I glowered at the boy who lived to make my school life a misery. “What are you doing here?” I snapped. “Isn’t it bad enough that I have to deal with you on school days? Which, by the way, don’t start until tomorrow. You’re ruining my holidays.”
Okay, so maybe that was a little harsh, but come on. It was Scott. I’d arrived in town with three weeks left in the school year, and he’d spent every day of them humiliating me in front of his mates, and I didn’t care for a repeat this year.
Scott eyed me warily, which was a strange expression on him. Usually he strode around like he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was too good for the world, and also—somewhere deeper, somewhere I’d only caught a glimpse of once or twice—that it had nothing left to throw at him that could hurt.
Occasionally, in my more generous moments, I wondered what had happened to make him look that way. Mostly, however, I just wondered why he was such a moron.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, voice dripping with accusation and suspicion.
My hands fisted of their own accord, and beside me Veve’s hackles rose as she chimed in with a low-pitched, rumbling growl. I flicked the free end of the lead at her nose. “Nothing,” I said, in a rousing blaze of wit. “What are you doing?”
He scowled. “You shouldn’t be here.”
For one heart-stopping instant I thought he meant out here generally, walking around, as if he knew what had happened and why I’d hidden away all summer. Then I realised he was nodding into the undergrowth. I rolled my eyes. “I might be a city slicker,” I bit off, “but I’m not stupid. I made enough noise to scare off a herd of elephants, let alone any snakes that might have been lying around.” The thought chilled me, though; I hadn’t been thinking about snakes when I’d hurried off the path. One badly-timed footstep and a brown snake bite later, and I could be a dead body too.
But Scott had moved on, stalking off down the path. He had nice shoulders, I’d give him that much. Pity he couldn’t derive his personality from them, instead of whatever dead weight it was he kept inside his head for brains.
Beside me, Veve growled again, louder this time, more urgent. I snapped the lead at her and stared after Scott’s retreating form, trying to think of something cutting.
It was only when Veve growled for the third time that I realised she wasn’t even facing Scott. Instead, she was looking back into the bushes—and something dark was flickering in there, deep in the shadows of the trees.
My chest squeezed in on itself and adrenalin shot through my body. Veve’s growling grew louder until it broke in a bark, something midway between slavering and terrified, and I realised my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. Carefully I peeled it away, unable to tear my eyes from the shifting darkness in the bushes. There was no discernible form, just shadow, darker than it should have been this soon after midday, and a pervasive sense of dread clamping down on me like an on-coming storm.
Veve began backing away, hackles prickling, growl rising and falling like thunder. I glanced down at her, back to the shadows—and they were closer, much closer than they had been.
I turned and bolted.