In the small loft tucked above Faulks’s bedroom, Story sat with her legs crossed beneath her on the rough wooden floor, giggling as she whipped a jamfruit across the room with a concentrated wave of her hand. Bliss gave an exasperated cry and flew after it, plucking it from the air before the ripe red fruit could splatter against the wall. “Story,” she said in an attempt at chastising the girl. But the treat proved too tempting, and she bit into the fruit before she could get started, rolling her eyes in a taste bud delight as she chewed, the juices running over her tiny chin in a most un-Bliss fashion.
“I’m sorry, Bliss,” Story said, laughing as she watched the Thumbelina devour the snack. “But I’m trying to tell you a story and every time you eat jamfruit you lose your marbles and don’t pay attention.”
“Huh?” Bliss asked, licking her fingers in feverish delight. “Marbles?”
Sighing heavily, Story picked up another one of the fruits and popped the cherry-sized fruit into her mouth. The juicy, sweet flavor was certainly yummy, but she didn’t understand why Thumbelina Fairies went mad whenever they set their sights on the fruit.
Wiping the juice from her chin, she looked up as Bliss regained her senses and fluttered down to Story’s knee. “It’s an enchanted fruit, I try to avoid it when I can,” Bliss said, shrugging her slim shoulders apologetically and giving a soft flutter of her wings. “A fairy prince many years ago commissioned a wizard to capture the attention of a certain whimsical Red Rose Thumbelina. The spell worked so well she would wait hand on foot on the prince, who after a while, started taking advantage of her devotion, demanding that she search out and bring him the rare jamfruit. When she almost died doing his bidding, the wizard, who was second-guessing the ethics of love spells anyway, enchanted the prince so that when he next ate a jamfruit, he turned into one. The Thumbelina, not realizing what had happened, ate the jam fruit and was at once cured of her love for the prince. But ever after, when any Thumbelina eats a jamfruit, we are at a loss of sense while consuming it. They are dangerous. Fortunately, they’re rare.” She smiled, while Story mocked gagging.
“That’s kind of gross, Bliss. She basically ate another fairy. You’re all like cannibals,” she said, giggling as Bliss’s small face turned red.
“It seems ever since your birthday last week you have been insufferable, are all Real Worlders so amused by themselves at your age?” she asked, rolling her eyes.
Opening her mouth to answer, Story was thrown off as a strange vibration rattled her from the floor up to her head. “Story?” Bliss asked, but Story wasn’t listening and instead had cocked her ear to the breeze coming through the open window.
From a short distance she could hear a steady beat coming closer. At first she thought it might be another storm. But it was quieter, more ominous. Not a storm, she realized with a flutter of panic rising in her chest. Lurching to her feet, she made for the door, stumbling back as it was flung open and Faulks rushed into the room. His appearance was startling, bearing the look of a wild man, with wide eyes and a nearly panicked expression taking over his naturally steady exterior. His long auburn hair streaked with gray, usually pulled back with a rubber band, was falling down around his shoulders in chaotic tufts.
“Story!” He leapt forward and grabbed her firmly by the arm before she could even respond.
“Papa!” Story struggled to disentangle herself from his fierce grip, scowling beneath a puff of snarled dark hair. Inwardly she knew something was horribly wrong, she knew that something was coming.
“Quiet, lass,” Faulks grunted. “You must not say a word … Now listen to me.” Story watched as Faulks’s eyes darted around before catching her own in an intense gaze of blazing steel and worry. Gripping her shoulders he began to speak.
“Just do as I say and it’ll be okay.” His deep voice remained steady, but his tremendous hands, the ones that nurtured life, were shaking and belied his customary stillness. Story began to tremble in response. Faulks was a big man and in her whole life, she had never seen him so frightened. Not even the first time he had seen her accidentally poke a hole through time and space. Not even when she had disappeared for … her thoughts were cut off as Faulks began to speak in low, hurried tones.
“Do you have the charm I gave you?” he asked, directing a pointed nod toward Bliss, who was fluttering around them nervously. Shouts from outside made them both turn. Faulks shook her lightly when she didn’t answer because she was so distracted by the noise that was gradually getting louder. Blinking, she nodded, patting her pocket “Good. Now put it on,” he said.
Words escaped her tongue, so she shook her head in defiance instead. She was only supposed to put it on in the gravest of dangers and she just didn’t want this to be the gravest of dangers. Downstairs a door slammed and men’s voices thundered through her heart like the hooves pounding the path to doom.
“Papa?” she whispered through trembling lips, finally regaining her ability to speak. Grabbing her by the hand, Faulks slipped a knife from his boot and stuck it under one of the grooves between the floorboards, opening up what appeared to be a secret door. He gestured for her to be quick, but she stood rooted to her spot, unable to comprehend what was going on and unwilling to leave him behind.
“Story,” he whispered so beseechingly she relented. She couldn’t cause him pain and quickly clattered down the short number of steps. He gazed at her for a moment, his eyes that had been like steel only moments before had faded to the soft blue of cornflowers once more. “I love you, my Story,” he whispered. Pointing down into the hole, he jerked his head at Bliss. “You too.”
“But Faulks, I can he—“
“You made me a promise, Bliss girl,” he said softly, and although her wings wilted at his demand, she lifted her chin in determination.
“That I did,” she said softly, dropping a quick kiss on his nose and then whooshing down into the hole with Story.
“But, Papa! What’s going on? Please tell me!” Story pleaded. He started to say something in response, but a crash sounded below.
“There ain’t no time. Put the charm on and then you have to … wake up.”
She shook her head with force, trying not to hear the sound of shattering and wood splintering and what it might mean. A woman cried out, and she knew it was Jemma and gave a small sob beneath her breath.
“But what will happen to you? You must come with me!” She grabbed two of his fingers, the most her own hand could hold, and clenched them as tight as she could, tears beginning to drip from her eyes and roll down dirt-stained cheeks. The big man smiled softly and leaned his hulking form down so he could brush his lips across her forehead.
“I can’t, lass. But I’ll be fine. You gave me the chance to be a papa. And one day yer going to change the world,” he spoke more eloquently than she’d ever heard him, and it made her worry more.
“I want you to remember lass—one day you’ll know who yer real father is and you’ll have to trust him … and forgive him.”
Shaking her head, tears continued to roll down her cheeks. “You’re my real father,” she insisted. He smiled slowly, and she relished the way the corners of his kind eyes crinkled.
“And yer my real heart … But yer going to need him, my Story, my lass.”
She stared mutinously up at him, refusing to let go of his hand, but he tore it away as the noises from downstairs started to get closer. “Be a good lass and do what I say,” he whispered fiercely and shut the trap door.
Standing on her tiptoes, she peered up through the thin slats in the wood and watched as Faulks turned just as the door swung open bearing a pack of men who crept with predatory stealth into the room. They must be soldiers from the Capital, she thought, looking for the insignia and frowning at their lack of weapons.
Bliss perched on Story’s shoulder, soothingly stroking her hair, but she couldn’t be calmed. Gritting her teeth, she looked around the blackness of the cubby she hid in for a weapon of some sort. Maybe she could make a door. That was it! She could create a door just behind Papa and then pull him through before anything bad could happen to him.
She raised her hand and closed her eyes, but a tug at her hair broke her concentration before she could even get started. Her eyes flew open and she turned a glare to Bliss. “Story, if you do this and they catch you, all Faulks has done to protect you will be for nothing,” she whispered quietly but fiercely.
Not caring, she shrugged the Thumbelina off and lifted her hand again but quickly forgot her well-intentioned mission when she heard a man speak. “Take him,” he ordered in a baritone voice.
Two men moved forward and, grabbing the cornered Faulks, forced him to his knees. Story gasped and clamped a hand over her mouth, desperately hoping they hadn’t heard her.
“Where is the Dreamer?” The yellow-haired man asked harshly. Faulks didn’t speak. He merely stared expressionlessly back, his blue eyes steeled defiantly. For a moment, Story thought the man was going to turn away, but instead he wheeled back and backhanded Faulks in the face with a steel-clad fist. Blood sprayed from Faulks’s mouth and nose. Keeping her hand clamped over her mouth, she desperately tried to keep her cries inside.
“Tell me where she is,” the man demanded angrily.
“I don’t know nothing about no dreamer,” Faulks said with a gruff lisp as if he was missing a couple of teeth.
Story braced herself, awaiting the next punch. A century passed as she held one hand firmly clasped against her mouth to keep in her pain. The hulking blonde man lifted his hand as if to hit Faulks again, and she bit into her lip. She knew she could only take so much before she would give her position away or climb out of her hole swinging. But the blow never came. Instead, a lithe, more modest form, by comparison, stepped into the room. He had a clean-shaven face and eyes as glacial as his heart. The other men deferred to him at once, their demeanor changing as if the very air had shifted.
The ability to breathe escaped her, and she doubled over, a pain shooting through her chest. As she had so many times before, Story tried to imagine what a Wolf would look like from a man with so little hair. Jess’s grim voice played in her mind from a time when things had seemed scary but not impossible as they did in that moment. Not everyone can tell what one looks like on sight. But I can. Others have to watch for their smile. Their true self will then be revealed. But even then, not everyone can see. Story didn’t need to see his smile; she’d seen it before, in the woods with Jess. Her friend had been haunted ever since and so had Story. These weren’t guards, this was the pack. And the blue-eyed demon was the alpha.
All eyes turned to the man and waited. Full-blooded lips pulled back revealing glistening, razor-sharp teeth, while the sunbeams bouncing across the walls caught the glare of his lifeless eyes.
“The Lord Brink has requested the Dreamer’s presence at the Capital, and we mustn’t keep him waiting,” he said in a voice that was light and civil, as if his human mask was his real face.
Faulks had grown still, seemingly having recognized who he was dealing with the moment the man had entered the room. “Nigel,” he said, lifting his head to meet his opponent’s flat, disconcerting gaze without flinching.
“Ah, I see my reputation precedes me,” the alpha murmured with a flourish of his hand and a bow, his cold mocking smirk more wolfish and bestial than most. Faulks paid him no mind, his back rigid.
“You smell fouler than the others. That’s how I knew. You got a scar about ten inches going down your ribcage, right about here?” Faulks asked while illustrating the location of the scar by drawing a line in the air across his own body.
If it was possible, Nigel’s eyes had grown frostier and his smile had disappeared. “Where is the Dreamer, old man? My patience grows thin.”
Faulks chuckled. “Yeah, I thought it might be you. Old Red might have missed you way back then, but Little Red will get you eventually.”
All humor slipped from Nigel’s face. It started quietly enough, an indistinctive low guttural noise, until the room filled with the feral growls of multiple, vicious rabid wolves.
Faulks held himself still and did not belie his fear. Holding back her sobs, Story clamped her hands over her ears to shut out the terrifying cacophony of vicious snarls. But she couldn’t just let her papa die, and so she sucked in a breath and lifted her hand once more, determined to make a door. Bliss flew at her, but it was Faulks who suddenly flicked his gaze to her through the floor and firmly held them for a fleeting moment, that made her pause. It was a final wish, and her hand trembled in the air as tears seeped out of her. Blinking back the salt stinging her eyes, she lifted her gaze and made herself watch, so that Faulks had someone to witness his passing.
As the men stooped low and lean, teeth glistening white while yellow spherical eyes narrowed in on Faulks, she heard him whisper: “Don’t forget the fiddler.” Then they were on him and it was all she could do not to scream aloud, although her interior screams reverberated so profoundly she felt the world blur. Why hadn’t she opened a portal and saved him? Why couldn’t she? Why had she listened to them? She sobbed as quietly as she could, a sickness so intense washing over her she retched in the blackness of the hole she sought safety in and wished with all her might that Faulks was okay, that all he would need was a healer. She should have given herself up, should have let them have her. They wouldn’t have killed her. Lord Brink wanted her for something. She tasted her own blood as she bit into her hand and only paused in her self-recriminations when the hiss of the alpha caused her body to violently shudder.
“Enough!” Nigel spoke quietly, and yet the beasts moved back. Story could see blood on their hands and faces. She thanked The Green that she couldn’t fully see what they had done to her papa.
Nigel nudged the body with his foot and glanced at his pack as rage slowly crept over his already-terrifying features. “You weren’t supposed to kill him!” he said with deadly quiet. “Get this body out of here and search the place. She must be here. And no snacking!”
As she had more lately, Story wondered why this Dreamer she was supposed to be was so important. Just as she began to ponder this she heard one of the Wolves clamp his boots above her. Pausing, he stomped his foot once more, and Bliss gestured frantically to Story’s necklace.
“What is this?” A new voice joined the fray just as the Wolf directly above her began to sniff, lowering his body slowly to catch a scent.
Story could see the newcomer through the cracks. He was close to her age, perhaps a couple of years older. Tall and gangly, he had black hair that swooped across his eyes, which when they met hers through the floor, were as black as darkness. He seemed able to see beyond wood and nail right at her without any trouble at all.
“You must wake up,” Bliss buzzed in her ear, whispering fiercely, slapping her with a tiny hand. “Wake up!” Story shook her head, new tears forming in her eyes.
“But what about you?” she sobbed softly.
“I will be waiting or your return. But I need you alive. So wake up!”
Above her the young man had turned away and appeared to be staring down at Faulks, a look of disgust on his face. “My father told you not to kill him,” he said with disdain. Turning to Nigel he gave a smirk. “And you without any supper of your own. It was my understanding that the alpha was supposed to dine before their pack. In this case, you have cheated yourself out of nourishment and my father out of knowledge. I always thought he was a fool for allowing you to have so much power. Now we’ll see how much control you wield on our return after this mishap.”
Nigel’s jaw tightened and bulged, but his dead eyes never wavered as he managed a condescending smile at the boy. In the face of that terrifying countenance, she couldn’t help but admire the young man’s confidence and arrogance. She would probably hate him too if she was a big strong Wolf being ordered around by a boy who was just into his teens.
“You.” The boy pointed to the man-Wolf who was paused over the trap door, ready at any moment to reveal her hiding spot. “Take this man’s body outside and make sure he is left for the people of this home to give him a proper burial. I hope you didn’t kill anyone else around here. We don’t need any more uprisings.”
The Wolf sneered at the boy’s tone but nodded and turned toward the door. Story sighed in relief and felt a well of gratitude for him rise up inside her.
“Never mind this! Wake up!” Bliss hissed, pinching her arm. Story nodded, but she was drawn to the boy’s face as he stared down Nigel. He’s probably thinking about eating him, she mused. Jess had said to stare down a Big Bad Wolf was almost unheard of, but to stare down an alpha male meant almost certain death. The alpha was sure to kill him now.
“Your father will also be most unhappy if we don’t find the Dreamer,” Nigel said, a wolfish smirk lifting the corners of his mouth.
“Do you know anything about the Dreamer?” the boy asked, his tall, skinny frame held loftily as he continued to hold the Wolf’s stare. “She lives between two worlds. We’ll return later in hopes to find her. But she is probably in the Real World by now if she was ever here. I’ve already questioned the woman downstairs. She’s merely a housekeeper—she knows nothing.”
Nigel glowered at him. “I do hope you are not being disloyal, boy. I think you’ll find your father’s loyalties would not be so loyal to a traitor, even his own son.”
Nicholas laughed, although no humor lit his eyes. “And you think me naïve, but I am not.”
Nigel stepped back, a strange expression flickered across his features as he nodded. “Your father underestimated you,” he said in a measured tone and then left the room. As he climbed down the stairs she heard his cold hiss of a voice give orders to his men to search the cottage.
Story turned her gaze back to the boy and once again was startled to see him staring directly at her. Wake up! she told herself, and yet she still couldn’t go, overcome so with grief and taken by the boy who had saved her life. She wished she could thank him, wished he could have come earlier before her papa had been murdered by the hounds of hell.
They gazed at each other until finally the boy nodded, pressed his hands together as if in prayer, and touching the tips of his fingers to his lips, bowed. The custom show of respect when someone close to you had died. Tears sprang anew to her eyes and she decided that she wasn’t going anywhere until she could see Faulks buried properly, when from the fog of her grief her mother’s voice broke through. “Story!”
The boy, who had turned toward the door jumped when he heard a woman’s concerned voice call from nowhere. He looked around the room and then back through the slats in the floor and was astonished to see the sweet little face that had been only moments before peering up at him, gone.
The silence that followed pervaded his being and a thick well of guilt threatened to overwhelm him as he glanced down at the ravaged body of her father. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Kneeling next to the man who had been so big in life and looked so withered now, he pressed his fingertips to Faulks’s open eyelids and slid them down, hoping at least his mother would forgive him for being too late—her message to the Green Thumb falling on dead ears. But he murmured his mother’s message to him anyway, the dark irony of it falling heavily on him.
Finally, he looked down on the dead man, startled when the blue eyes he had closed moments before now showed a spark of life. “Nicholas?” Faulks croaked, his throat half torn apart.
Nodding, he took the man’s hand. “Yes,” he said, feeling at once as if he would have liked to have known this mysterious man who had his mother’s heart and the world’s supposed savior under his care.
Faulks smiled as best as he could while his lifeblood drained out of him. “You have to protect my girl, my Story—” Blood dripped from his lips as he began violently coughing. Below, Nicholas heard the Wolves trashing the house. Thankfully, he’d artfully conducted the woman and her husband out of the cottage and to a safe place while the Wolves has been busy killing his other charge.
Cursing himself for his failures, he nodded. “I promise,” he whispered, remembering the girl’s sunshine golden eyes brimming with inconsolable grief. He’d worked toward this goal his entire life without truly ever believing. He’d thought his mother’s faith misguided, her prophecies not entirely to be believed. But staring down into Faulks’s eyes he really believed for the first time. And so he promised.
His oath seemed to appease Faulks, who lay quiet for a few moments. Nicholas had just started to think he’d truly died, when he opened his eyes once more staring intently up at him.
“Tell your mother that she will always be my happy ending. And that someday—“ he choked on blood and spat it out, his face losing all color as his lips turned blue. “Tell her someday she will too … and that I bel—I believe we’ll find one another again.” And as if he’d completed his last words, Faulks allowed death to take him. Nicholas heard the thundering hooves of Death’s horse and shuddered, closing his eyes as if it was coming for him. When he opened them again Faulks was gone, his kind blue eyes dead as Nigel’s, but still a warmer shade of blue even in death. This time when Nicholas closed Faulks’s eyes they didn’t open again.