His voice cut through the cottony layers of her sleep with the sharpness of a cat's claw. Her head jerked off the pillow and her sleep-fogged eyes snapped open.
"Wake up, girl!" The sylvan's voice squeaked with urgency. "The feeders are at it again! I need you!"
Nest Freemark pushed the sheet away and forced herself into an upright position, legs dangling off the side of the bed. The night air was hot and sticky in spite of the efforts of the big floor fan that sat just inside her doorway. She rubbed at her eyes to clear them and swallowed against the dryness in her throat. Outside, she could hear the steady buzz of the locusts in the trees.
"Who is it this time?" she asked, yawning.
"The little Scott girl."
"Bennett?" Oh, God! She was fully awake now. "What happened?"
Pick was standing on the window ledge just outside the screen, silhouetted in the moonlight. He might be only six inches tall from the tips of his twiggy feet to the peak of his leafy head, but she could read the disgust in his gnarled wooden features as clearly as if he were six feet.
"The mother's out with her worthless boyfriend again, shutting down bars. That boy you fancy, young Jared, was left in charge of the other kids, but he had one of his attacks. Bennett was still up--you know how she is when her mother's not there, though goodness knows why. She became scared and wandered off. By the time the boy recovered, she was gone. Now the feeders have her. Do you need this in writing or are you going to get dressed and come help?"
Nest jumped out of the bed without answering, slipped off her nightshirt, and pulled on her Grunge Lives T-shirt, running shorts, socks, and tennis shoes. Her face peeked out at her from the dresser mirror: roundish with a wide forehead and broad cheekbones, pug nose with a scattering of freckles, green eyes that tended to squint, a mouth that quirked upward at the corners as if to suggest perpetual amusement, and a complexion that was starting to break out. Passably attractive, but no stunner. Pick was pacing back and forth on the sill. He looked like twigs and leaves bound together into a child's tiny stick man. His hands were making nervous gestures, the same ones they always made when he was agitated--pulling at his silky moss beard and slapping at his bark-encrusted thighs. He couldn't help himself. He was like one of those cartoon characters that charges around running into walls. He claimed he was a hundred and fifty, but for being as old as he was, it didn't seem he had learned very much about staying
She arranged a few pillows under the sheet to give the impression that she was still in the bed, sleeping. The ruse would work if no one looked too closely. She glanced at the clock. It was two in the morning, but her grandparents no longer slept soundly and were apt to be up at all hours of the night, poking about. She glanced at the open door and sighed. There was no help for it.
She nudged the screen through the window and climbed out after it. Her bedroom was on the first floor, so slipping away unnoticed was easy. In the summer anyway, she amended, when it was warm and the windows were all open. In the winter, she had to find her coat and go down the hallway and out the back door, which was a bit more chancy. But she had gotten pretty good at it.
"Where is she?" she asked Pick, holding out her hand, palm up, so he could step into it.
"Headed for the cliffs, last I saw." He moved off the sill gingerly. "Daniel's tracking her, but we'd better hurry."
Nest placed Pick on her shoulder where he could get a firm grip on her T-shirt, fitted the screen back in place, and took off at a run. She sped across the back lawn toward the hedgerow that bordered the park, the Midwest night air whipping across her face, fresh and welcoming after the stale closeness of her bedroom. She passed beneath the canopies of solitary oaks and hickories that shaded the yard, their great limbs branching and dividing overhead in intricate patterns, their leaves reflecting dully in the mix of light from moon and stars. The skies were clear and the world still as she ran, the houses about her dark and silent, the people asleep. She found the gap in the hedgerow on the first try, ducked to clear the low opening, and was through.
Ahead, Sinnissippi Park opened before her, softball diamonds and picnic areas bright with moonlight, woods and burial grounds laced with shadows.
She angled right, toward the roadway that led into the park, settling into a smooth, even pace. She was a strong runner, a natural athlete. Her cross-country coach said she was the best he had ever seen, although in the same breath he said she needed to develop better training habits. At five feet eight inches and a hundred twenty pounds, she was lean and rangy and tough as nails. She didn't know why she was that way; certainly she had never worked at it. She had always been agile, though, even when she was twelve and her friends were bumping into coffee tables and tripping over their own feet, all of them trying to figure out what their bodies were going to do next. (Now they were fourteen, and they pretty much knew.) Nest was blessed with a runner's body, and it was clear from her efforts the past spring that her talent was prodigious. She had already broken every cross-country record in the state of Illinois for girls fourteen and under. She had done that when she was thirteen. But five weeks ago she had e
ntered the Rock River Invitational against runners eighteen and under, girls and boys. She had swept the field in the ten-thousand-meter race, posting a time that shattered the state high school record by almost three minutes. Everyone had begun to look at her a little differently after that.
Of course, they had been looking at Nest Freemark differently for one reason or another for most of her life, so she was less impressed by the attention now than she might have been earlier.
Just think, she reflected ruefully, how they would look at me if I told them about Pick. Or about the magic.
She crossed the ball diamond closest to her house, reached the park entrance, and swept past the crossbar that was lowered to block the road after sunset. She felt rested and strong; her breathing was smooth and her heartbeat steady. She followed the pavement for a short distance, then turned onto the grassy picnic area that led to the Sinnissippi burial mounds and the cliffs. She could see the lights of the Sinnissippi Townhomes off to the right, low-income housing with a fancy name. That was where the Scotts lived. Enid Scott was a single mother with five kids, very few life options, and a drinking problem. Nest didn't think much of her; nobody did. But Jared was a sweetheart, her friend since grade school, and Bennett, at five the youngest of the Scott children, was a peanut who deserved a lot better than she had been getting of late.
Nest scanned the darkness ahead for some sign of the little girl, but there was nothing to see. She looked for Wraith as well, but there was no sign of him either. Just thinking of Wraith sent a shiver down her spine. The park stretched away before her, vast, silent, and empty of movement. She picked up her pace, the urgency of Bennett's situation spurring her on. Pick rode easily on her shoulder, attached in the manner of a clamp, arms and legs locked on her sleeve. He was still muttering to himself, that annoyingly incessant chatter in which he indulged ad nauseam in times of stress. But Nest let him be. Pick had a lot of responsibility to exercise, and it was not being made any easier by the increasingly bold behavior of the feeders. It was bad enough that they occupied the caves below the cliffs in ever-expanding numbers, their population grown so large that it was no longer possible to take an accurate count. But where before they had confined their activities to nighttime appearances in the park, now al
l of a sudden they were starting to surface everywhere in Hopewell, sometimes even in daylight. It was all due to a shifting in the balance of things, Pick advised. And if the balance was not righted, soon the feeders would be everywhere. Then what was he supposed to do?
The trees ahead thickened, trunks tightening in a dark wall, limbs closing out the night sky. Nest angled through the maze, her eyes adjusting to the change in light, seeing everything, picking out all the details. She dodged through a series of park toys, spring-mounted rides for the smallest children, jumped a low chain divider, and raced back across the roadway and into the burial mounds. There was still no sign of Bennett Scott. The air was cooler here, rising off the Rock River where it flowed west below the cliffs in a broad swath toward the Mississippi. In the distance, a freight train wailed as it made its way east through the farmland. The summer night was thick with heat, and the whistle seemed muted and lost. It died away slowly, and in the ensuing silence the sounds of the insects resurfaced, a steady, insistent hum.
Nest caught sight of Daniel then, a dark shadow as he swooped down from the trees just long enough to catch her attention before wheeling away again.
"There, girl!" Pick shouted needlessly in her ear.
She raced in pursuit of the barn owl, following his lead, heading for the cliffs. She ran through the burial mounds, low, grassy hummocks clustered at the edge of the roadway. Ahead, the road ended in a turnaround at the park's highest point. That was where she would find Bennett. Unless ... She brushed the word aside, refusing to concede that it applied. A rush of bitterness toward Enid Scott tightened her throat. It wasn't fair that she left Jared alone to watch his brothers and sisters. Enid knew about his condition; she just found it convenient now and then to pretend it didn't matter. A mild form of epilepsy, the attacks could last for as long as five minutes. When they came, Jared would just "go away" for a bit, staring off into space, not seeing or hearing, not being aware of anything. Even the medicine he took couldn't always prevent the attacks. His mother knew that. She knew.
The trees opened before her, and Daniel dove out of the shadows, streaking for the cliffs. Nest put on a new burst of speed, nearly unseating Pick. She could see Bennett Scott now, standing at the very edge of the cliffs, just beyond the turnaround, a small, solitary figure against the night sky, all hunched over and crying. Nest could hear her sobs. The feeders were cajoling her, enticing her, trying to cloud her thinking further so that she would take those last few steps. Nest was angry. Bennett made the seventh child in a month. She had saved them all, but how long could her luck hold?
Daniel started down, then arced away soundlessly. It was too dangerous for him to go in; his unexpected presence might startle the little girl and cause her to lose her balance. That was why Pick relied on Nest. A young girl's appearance was apt to prove far less unsettling than his own or Daniel's.
She slowed to a walk, dropping Pick off in the grass. No point in taking chances; Pick preferred to remain invisible anyway. The scent of pine trees wafted on the humid night air, carried out of the cemetery beyond, where the trees grew in thick clumps along the chain-link fence. In the moonlight, the headstones and monuments were just visible, the granite and marble reflecting with a shimmery cast. She took several deep breaths as she came up to Bennett, moving slowly, carefully into the light. The feeders saw her coming and their lantern eyes narrowed. She ignored them, focusing her attention on the little girl.
"Hey, tiny Ben Ben!" She kept her voice casual, relaxed. "It's me, Nest."
Bennett Scott's tear-filled eyes blinked rapidly. "I know."
"What are you doing out here, Ben Ben?"
"Looking for my mommy."
"Well, I don't think she's out here, sweetie." Nest moved a few steps closer, glancing about as if looking for Enid.
"She's lost," Bennett sobbed.
A few of the feeders edged menacingly toward Nest, but she ignored them. They knew better than to mess with her while Wraith was around--which she fervently hoped he was. A lot of them were gathered here, though. Flat-faced and featureless, squat caricatures of humans, they were as much a mystery to her now as ever, even after all she had learned about them from Pick. She didn't really even know what they were made of. When she had asked Pick about it once, he had told her with a sardonic grin that as a rule you are mostly what you eat, so the feeders could be almost anything.
"I'll bet your mommy is back home by now, Ben Ben," she offered, infusing her voice with enthusiasm. "Why don't we go have a look?"
The little girl sniffled. "I don't want to go home. I don't like it there anymore."
"Sure you do. I'll bet Jared wonders where you are."
"Jared's sick. He had an attack."
"Well, he'll be better by now. The attacks don't last long, sweetie. You know that. Come on, let's go see."
Bennett's head lowered into shadow. She hugged herself, her head shaking. "George doesn't like me. He told me so."
George Paulsen, Enid's latest mistake in the man department. Even though she was only fourteen, Nest knew a loser when she saw one. George Paulsen was a scary loser, though. She came a step closer, looking for a way to make physical contact with Bennett so that she could draw the little girl away from the cliff. The river was a dark, silver shimmer far below the cliffs, flat and still within the confines of the bayou, where the railroad tracks were elevated on the levy, wilder and swifter beyond where the main channel flowed. The darkness made the drop seem even longer than it was, and Bennett was only a step or two away.
"George needs to get an attitude adjustment," Nest offered. "Everybody likes you, Ben Ben. Come on, let's go find your mommy and talk to her about it. I'll go with you. Hey, what about Spook? I'll bet your kitty misses you."
Bennett Scott's moppet head shook quickly, scattering her lank, dark hair in tangles. "George took Spook away. He doesn't like cats."
Nest wanted to spit. That worthless creep! Spook was just about the only thing Bennett Scott had. She felt her grip on the situation beginning to loosen. The feeders were weaving about Bennett like snakes, and the little girl was cringing and hugging herself in fear. Bennett couldn't see them, of course. She wouldn't see them until it was too late. But she could hear them somewhere in the back of her mind, an invisible presence, insidious voices, taunting and teasing. They were hungry for her, and the balance was beginning to shift in their favor.
"I'll help you find Spook," Nest said quickly. "And I'll make sure that George doesn't take him away again either. What do you say to that?"
Bennett Scott hugged herself some more and looked fixedly at her feet, thinking it over. Her thin body went still. "Do you promise, Nest? Really?"
Nest Freemark gave her a reassuring smile. "I do, sweetie. Now walk over here and take my hand so we can go home."
The feeders moved to intervene, but Nest glared at them and they flinched away. They wouldn't meet her gaze, of course. They knew what would happen if they did. Nevertheless, they were bolder than usual tonight, more ready to challenge her. That was not a good sign.
"Bennett," she said quietly. The little girl's head lifted and her eyes came into the light. "Look at me, Bennett. Don't look anywhere else, okay? Just look right at me. Now walk over here and take my hand."
Bennett Scott started forward, one small step at a time. Nest waited patiently, holding her gaze. The night air had turned hot and still again, the breeze off the river dying away. Insects buzzed and flew in erratic sweeps, and, not wanting to do anything that would startle the little girl, Nest fought down the impulse to brush at them.
"Come on, Ben Ben," she cajoled softly.
As Bennett Scott advanced, the feeders gave way grudgingly, dropping down on all fours in a guarded crouch and skittering next to her like crabs. Nest took a deep breath.
One of the feeders broke away from the others and made a grab for Bennett. Nest hissed at it furiously, caught its eye, and stripped it of its life with a single, chilling glance. That was all it took--one instant in which their eyes met and her magic took control. The feeder collapsed in a heap and melted into the earth in a black stain. The others backed off watchfully.
Nest took a deep, calming breath. "Come on, Bennett," she urged in a tight whisper. "It's all right, sweetie."
The little girl had almost reached her when the headlight of the freight train swept across the bayou as the lead engine lurched out of the night. Bennett Scott hesitated, her eyes suddenly wide and uncertain. Then the train whistle sounded its shrill, piercing wail, and she cried out in fear.
Nest didn't hesitate. She grabbed Bennett Scott's arm, snatched the little girl from her feet, and pressed her close. For a moment she held her ground, facing down the feeders. But she saw at once that there were too many to stand against, so she wheeled from the cliffs and began to run. Behind her, the feeders bounded in pursuit. Already Pick was astride Daniel, and the barn owl swooped down on the foremost pursuers, talons extended. The feeders veered away, giving Nest an extra few yards head start.
"Faster, Nest!" Pick cried, but she was already in full stride, running as hard as she could. She clutched Bennett Scott tightly against her, feeling the child shake. She weighed almost nothing, but it was awkward running with her. Nest cleared the turnaround and streaked past the burial mounds for the picnic ground. She would turn and face the feeders there, where she could maneuver, safely away from the cliffs. Her magic would give her some protection. And Pick would be there. And Daniel. But there were so many of them tonight! Her heart thumped wildly. From the corner of her eye, she saw shadows closing on her, bounding through the park, yellow eyes narrowed. Daniel screeched, and she felt the whoosh of his wings as he sped past her, banking away into the dark.
"I'm sorry, Mommy, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Bennett Scott sobbed, a prayer of forgiveness for some imagined wrong. Nest gritted her teeth and ran faster.
Then suddenly she went down, arms and legs flying as she tripped over a road chain she had missed vaulting. She lost her grip on Bennett Scott and the little girl cried out in terror. Then the air was knocked from Bennett's lungs as she struck the ground.
Nest rolled to her feet at once, but the feeders were everywhere, dark, shadowy forms closing on her with wicked intent. She turned to mush the handful that were closest, the ones that were foolish enough to meet her gaze, ripping apart their dark forms with a glance. But the remainder converged in a dark wave.
Then Wraith materialized next to her, a massive presence, fur all stiff and bristling, the hairs raised like tiny spikes off his body. At first glance, he might have been a dog, a demonic German shepherd perhaps, colored an odd brindle. But he was deep-chested like a Rottweiler, and tall at the shoulders like a boxer, and his eyes were a peculiar amber within a mass of black facial markings that suggested tiger stripes. Then you recognized the sloped forehead and the narrow muzzle as a wolf's. And if you looked even closer, which if you were one of the few who could see him you were not apt to do, you realized he was something else altogether.
Scrambling over each other in an effort to escape, the feeders scattered like leaves in a strong wind. Wraith advanced on them in a stiff-legged walk, his head lowered, his teeth bared, but the feeders disappeared as swiftly as shadows at the coming of full sun, bounding back into the night. When the last of them had gone, Wraith wheeled back momentarily to give Nest a dark, purposeful glance, almost as if to take the measure of her resolve in the face of his somewhat belated appearance, and then he faded away.
Nest exhaled sharply, the chill that had settled in the pit of her stomach melting, the tightness in her chest giving way. Her breath came in rapid bursts, and blood throbbed in her ears. She looked quickly to find Bennett. The little girl was curled into a ball, hiding her face in her hands, crying so hard she was hiccuping. Had she seen Wraith? Nest didn't think so. Few people ever saw Wraith. She brushed at the grass embedded in the cuts and scrapes on her knees and elbows, and went to collect her frightened charge. She scooped Bennett up and cradled her gently.
"There, there, Ben Ben," she cooed, kissing the little girl's face. "Don't be frightened now. It's all right. Everything's all right." She shivered in spite of herself. "It was just a little fall. Time to be going home now, sweetie. Look, there's your house, right over there. Can you see the lights?"
Daniel winged past one final time and disappeared into the dark, bearing Pick with him. The feeders were scattered, so the owl and the sylvan were leaving, entrusting the return of Bennett Scott to her. She sighed wearily and began to walk through the park. Her breathing steadied and her heartbeat slowed. She was sweating, and the air felt hot and damp against her face. It was silent in the park, hushed and tender in the blanket of the dark. She hugged Bennett possessively, feeling the little girl's sobs slowly fade.
"Oh, Ben Ben," she said, "we'll have you home in bed before you know it. You want to get right to sleep, little girl, because Monday's the Fourth of July and you don't want to miss the fireworks. All those colors, all those pretty colors! What if you fell asleep and missed them?"
Bennett Scott curled into her shoulder. "Will you come home with me, Nest? Will you stay with me?"
The words were so poignant that Nest felt tears spring to her eyes. She stared off into the night, to the stars and the half-moon in the cloudless sky, to the shadows of the trees where they loomed against the horizon, to the lights of the buildings ahead where the residences and the apartments began and the park came to an end. The world was a scary place for little girls, but the scariest things in it weren't always feeders and they didn't live only in the dark. In the morning she would talk with Gran about Enid Scott. Maybe together they could come up with something. She would look for Spook, too. Pick would help.
"I'll come home with you, Ben Ben," she whispered. "I'll stay for a little while, anyway."
Her arms were tired and aching, but she refused to put the little girl down. By the time she reached the crossbar blocking the entrance to the park and turned left toward the Sinnissippi Townhomes, Bennett Scott was fast asleep.
From the Paperback edition.