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Feyland short cover2FEYLAND: THE FIRST ADVENTURE

~ a novella prequel to the Feyland Trilogy ~

Jennet Carter sneaked into the computer room, her heart beating too loudly in the stillness. She closed the door, holding her breath until the lock clicked solidly home. It was silly, being so nervous in her own house, but still. She didn’t want any of the staff walking in on her while she hacked her dad’s new sim equipment.

She padded across the plush carpeting to the prototype version of the FullD system, and ran her hand over the smooth curve of the sim helmet. The room lights reflected off the visor like miniature stars.

The most immersive gaming equipment ever designed was here, in their house—had been for two weeks—and so far all she’d been allowed to do was run around on grids and jump off blocky gray squares. Her dad wasn’t the best player, despite being lead project manager on the FullD, so he let Jennet gear up while he took notes for the programmers. It was kind of fun, in a boring way. At least she got a chance to learn how to use the sim gear.

Then, last night, she’d noticed a new icon as she logged on; an F made of scrolled golden flame.

When she asked Dad about it, he’d made some weak excuse and hustled her off the system. Luckily, she knew his password. He hadn’t changed it in three years. She should say something. But then, how would she be able to access the stuff he didn’t want her to see?

Jennet hit the power button and slid into the sim chair, cushioned in fresh-smelling black faux leather. She donned the helmet, then pulled on the gaming gloves. The embedded LEDs winked at her as the system powered up, the sensor nodes on the gloves glinting like precious jewels: amethysts, rubies, emeralds.

At the loading interface, she lifted her finger and selected the new, flame-colored icon.

Haunting, mysterious music played through the helmet, and anticipation tingled through her. What was Dad hiding? What amazing new game was VirtuMax developing to go with their new technology?

Words appeared across the black background of the visor:

Feyland: A VirtuMax Production

Alpha 1.1.923

WELCOME TO FEYLAND

The letters glowed golden, then deepened to crimson as flames flickered along the sides. The music rose, and the words whirled up into a flurry of leaves the color of ashes. Behind them… Jennet blinked, a chill running through her. Was that a pair of eyes, gleaming from the shadows?

If the programmers were trying to create an eerie opening, they’d definitely succeeded.

The shivery feeling lingered, even as the standard character-creation interface popped up. She scanned the limited options: Knight, Spellcaster, or Bard. It didn’t take long to read the descriptions and make her decision. She always liked being a magic-user in other games, so it was a no-brainer to choose Spellcaster.

Judging by the lack of options in the character menu, this was a very rough draft of the game. Jennet chose blue eyes and blonde hair—her own coloring. Her new character wore long blue robes and carried a magical-looking staff with a glowing crystal set in the end. She hoped she wouldn’t end up running her avatar through more featureless gray landscapes—that would be a serious disappointment.

Enter game?

She tipped her thumb up, the universal glove command for yes.

Dizzying golden light enveloped her senses, and she swallowed. Whatever the programmers were experimenting with, it made her feel queasy. She wished could share her reactions and feedback with Dad. But she couldn’t tell him she was using the prototype equipment without his permission.

For once, she was glad he was such a workaholic. As long as she logged off in time, he’d never know she’d been accessing Feyland.

The golden light cleared, and Jennet found her avatar standing in a grassy clearing surrounded by white-barked trees. She stood in the exact center of a ring of pale mushrooms that glowed like the moon. The sunlit grass under her feet was springy and soft, and she swore she could feel the wind against her face.

Wow. The developers had done a ton of work with the immersion software. This was nothing like the primary simulations Dad had her running around in. This world felt real. A faint, spicy scent tickled her nose—the smell of herbs and warm grasses. Jennet breathed in deeply, and smiled.

A breeze riffled the leaves, their undersides flashing silver, and birdsong lilted through the air. On the far side of the clearing, a fern-draped path beckoned. Taking a firm grip on her staff, Jennet jumped over the circle of mushrooms and started forward in search of adventure.

*~*~*~*~*~*

The Dark Queen reclined on her throne of tangled branches, stars snared in her midnight hair. Her dress was made of moonlight and shadows. Around her the denizens of the Dark Court thronged, fey eyes glittering. Twig-limbed creatures crouched beside the throne, flanked by gossamer-winged maidens. Beneath the dark trees, hounds with glowing red eyes paced back and forth, held in check only by their antler-helmed master.

A goblin approached the throne. Trembling, he bowed and swept off his blood-red cap, keeping his gaze averted from the terrible beauty of his ruler.

“What news?” the queen asked, in a voice colder than winter ice.

The goblin bowed even lower. “A human presence has been sensed at the edge of the Realm.”

The Dark Queen stood, her eyes deep as night-dark pools. Her long, pale fingers curled eagerly at her sides.

“Another human? Tell me everything.”

“My queen—I know little.” The goblin shivered, clearly hoping his lack of knowledge would not prove his death. “It is a female, younger than the man….”

He hesitated. The queen did not take kindly to reminders of her failure.

The Dark Queen slashed the air with her hand. “Go on.”

“A mortal girl. She is being watched.”

“A young one.” The queen smiled, a sharp, dreadful expression on her inhuman face. “Bring her to me, but carefully. We will make no mistakes with this one.”

“Aye, my lady.”

On shaking limbs, the goblin scuttled away. He did not dare turn his back on the Dark Queen, or the avid, feral members of her court. As a redcap goblin, he was vicious—but one redcap alone was no match for the creatures under her command.

At last, reaching the edge of her court, he turned and fled; past the eerie violet-hued bonfire where figures capered around the flames, past the high, keening laughter of a banshee, past the forbiddingly still figure of the Huntsman, his antlered head silhouetted against the late sky.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Jennet followed the mossy path through the white-barked trees. Sunlight sifted in golden shafts between the trunks, and yellow-winged butterflies danced against the deeper shadows of the woods. The oak of her mage staff was smooth and solid under her palm.

This was prime. By far the best sim experience she’d ever had. VirtuMax had done an amazing job with their new tech. It was hard to believe she was in a prototype game, the interface felt so smooth.

Something rustled in the bushes beside the path, and she whirled, her breath catching.

“Who’s there?”

No reply. She stood for a long moment, scanning the underbrush, but saw nothing. Warily, Jennet started down the path again. Just because she was in the beginning level of the game didn’t mean she was safe. Monsters and creatures could spring out to attack her at any moment. That’s how these fantasy-type games went.

Although usually a character picked up a quest first, instead of wandering around in the woods, waiting to be attacked. Clearly Feyland was still in the rudimentary storyline phase. She had nothing to go on, beyond exploring the world and hoping to figure things out. No prompts, no cues, no text explaining what her game objectives were.

But as long as the world was so amazing, she didn’t care. The game developers would give her something to do soon enough.

The trees thinned, showing glimpses of emerald meadows and azure sky beyond. Jennet stepped out of the trees, and smiled at the view. Rolling hills spread out before her, spangled with white blossoms. Nestled in a nearby hollow stood a cozy-looking cottage, full-on fairytale with its whitewashed, half-timbered walls and diamond-paned windows. Red flowers spilled from the window boxes.

The path she stood on led directly to the front step.

A brown, squat creature sat there, watching her. Her first quest-giver? Or an enemy? There was nothing about it to give her any indication—no green friendly icon over its head, or red shield that would signal aggression. In most sim games, NPCs, Non-Player-Characters, were marked so that players knew how to interact. Obviously, the programmers had a bit more work to do on the game.

Pressing her lips together in concentration, Jennet reviewed her Spellcaster’s arsenal. Fireball, Wall of Flame, and Arcane Blast. All three spells seemed strong enough to take down an enemy, though Wall of Flame had a ten second cooldown that made it less useful. Still, it seemed a decent enough assortment to work with.

Jennet strode down the path toward the cottage. As she approached, the figure on the doorstep looked up at her. He was a hideous creature.

His dark eyes and thin lips were overshadowed by his enormous, jutting cliff of a nose. The only things larger than his nose were his ears, great ugly flaps of skin on either side of his head. He was covered in a pelt of coarse brown hair, his only clothing a tattered cloth tied about his waist.

He didn’t seem primed to attack, so Jennet stepped closer, wrinkling her nose at the smell of moldy earth and old wood-smoke. She halted a few feet from the stoop, waiting, but the creature only regarded her from its murky brown eyes.

“Hello?” she said at last.

“Greetings.” His voice sounded like stirred gravel. “Did you bring me milk?”

She glanced around. Was there supposed to be a store nearby? Had she missed a step somewhere?

He folded his spindly arms. “I want milk.”

“Okay.”

If this was the first quest, it was a strange one. She wished she could give the developers some advice.

Clearly she wasn’t going to get anywhere with the weird little creature until she’d brought him milk. Whatever. Jennet walked around the cottage, looking for clues, and when she got back to the front step, the creature was holding a wooden bowl cradled between his knobbly fingers.

“Slow-witted mortal,” he said, holding out the bowl. “Fill this with milk from the black cow over yonder hill.”

Jennet took it, careful not to touch the creature. Something about him was just too odd for comfort. Bowl tucked under her arm, she headed for the rise behind the cottage. The wind tugged a strand of her hair free, and she pushed it behind her ear. She could almost feel the warm sunshine, like a hand upon her shoulder.

At the top of the hill she took a moment to appreciate the view. The grassy hills, green-gold in the sunlight, rolled away before her. A small valley lay below, the silvery glint of a stream at the bottom edged by graceful cottonwoods. Farther out, a darker line of trees stood. Pines, maybe. Behind them, the blue shadows of mountains rose, jagged against the sky.

The world of Feyland beckoned, a fantastic place to explore. But first, she had to get some milk.

A white fence enclosed a small field below, holding—as the creature had promised—a black cow. She’d never actually milked a cow before, but surely the game designers wouldn’t make it too hard.

Of course, she had to catch the cow first. Jennet climbed over the fence. The cow watched her with soft, placid eyes, but every time she got close enough to grasp the red harness it wore, somehow the animal ended up on the other side of the meadow.

She plucked handfuls of grass to entice it, tried sprinting and sneaking, and finally, after ten useless minutes, gave it up.

Fine. Jennet set the bowl down and crossed her arms, deliberately ignoring the animal. What else could she use? There was nothing in her in-game inventory, and somehow she didn’t think blasting the cow with a Fireball would help. The creature had asked for milk, not rare steak.

There was some quote… something about music soothing the savage beast. Could that be the answer? And was it even possible to catch a cow with music?

She had to at least try, no matter how farfetched the notion. Leaning back against the white fence, she hummed a snatch of song they were working on in youth choir—Ca’ the Yowes.

To her surprise, the game picked up the song and amplified it. Jennet straightened. She started singing for real, pulling the air deep into her lungs and letting out a strand of melody that felt almost tangible.

Ca’ the yowes to the knowes, 

Ca’ them where the heather grows, 

Ca’ them where the burnie rowes, 

My bonnie dearie.

The cow lifted its head and took a step forward. Jennet imagined the song surrounding the black cow, looping around its broad neck and leading it forward. The animal took another step toward her, then another. It was working! Keeping her breath steady, Jennet kept singing, drawing the cow closer and closer. At the last verse, she grasped the supple red leather of its harness with a burst of triumph.

The cow snorted when the song ended, but didn’t seem too unhappy to be caught. Jennet tied the cow to the fence rail and picked up the bowl. Giving a doubtful glance at the udder, she squatted down.

Was she actually supposed to grab the gross pink flesh? What if she pulled too hard, and the cow kicked her? Those hooves looked sharp.

She could do this. Really.

Jennet slid the bowl under the udder and grabbed one of the teats. It was warm to her touch, and she tried not to shudder. Pull and squeeze, right? She tugged, and thankfully, a white stream shot out, straight into the bowl.

A dozen more pulls, and the bowl was nearly full. Jennet carefully set it beyond the fence, then untied the cow.

“Thank you,” she said, and turned it loose.

It uttered a low moo and trotted to the far side of the field. A second later it started munching the grass, ignoring her completely.

The smell of warm milk drifted up to tickle her nose. Careful not to spill, she carried the bowl back over the hill and set it in front of the creature who still waited on the step.

“Ah!” he cried with glee.

Picking up the offering, he guzzled the milk in one long swallow. He looked happier when he was finished, his face plumper and not so scowly. Still really ugly, though.

He nodded at her, dark eyes gleaming. “So, mortal. My use-name is Fynnod, and I welcome you to the Realm.”

“Thanks. I’m—”

“We will name you Fair Jennet here,” he said. “What do you seek?”

He knew her name? That was weird—but then, she had logged in under the user name of Jennet. Of course she didn’t use her real name when playing actual games, but this was just the pre-beta.

“I seek…”

She paused. What was the goal of Feyland, anyway? The intro storyline was non-existent. Clearly it was a fantasy-type game, but what was the objective?

Fynnod was no help. He sat, still as a stone, and watched her.

“Victory,” she finally said in a firm voice.

“Then you shall continue further into the Realm.” He nodded, something murky and unpleasant moving through his eyes. “Be brave, Fair Jennet. I will send you to the next circle of Feyland.”

He lifted his hand, fingers twisting in a complex pattern. Glowing runes inscribed the air, and Jennet blinked. A moment later, white light swirled around her. The blue sky over her head tipped and shredded away. Jennet gripped her staff tightly, forcing herself to stay calm. It was just a game. It couldn’t hurt her, no matter how real it felt.

The light cleared, and she found herself standing in another clearing, the same pale mushrooms encircling her. This time, though, dark pines surrounded her. The sky overhead was the pearly gray of impending dusk, the air heavy with the scent of dust and sap.

So, this was the second level of the game. She frowned. The starting lands were more appealing, with the wide horizon and sunlit hills. She wouldn’t have minded spending more time exploring there, but clearly the game had other ideas.

Chiming laughter scattered through the air like glitter, and Jennet glanced up to see silvery balls of light floating through the trees. Squinting, she could make out small, winged figures in the center of each shimmering light. Faeries.

They floated to the edge of the forest and hovered, illuminating the beginning of another path. All right. She had time to do a little more adventuring.

Jennet stepped over the mushroom ring, and followed the glimmering creatures down the path. A thick carpet of pine needles muffled her footsteps. Wisps of gray mist floated through the trees, and she was grateful for the little faeries leading the way. Occasionally one would laugh, like high tinkling bells, and they all would float faster. Jennet picked up her pace until she was running through the silent forest, the shimmering lights bobbing ahead.

The crystal set at the end of her staff glowed, sending a dim bluish glow onto the path. No obstacles blocked her way, no fallen limbs or thorny brambles. Dark violet flowers studded the nearby bushes, pulsing oddly in the light.

At last, the balls of light slowed. When Jennet reached them they floated slowly upward, higher and higher, until they twinkled like stars against the evening sky. Then they winked out.

“Hey,” she called. “Come back!”

Even though they’d seemed more like fireflies than sentient beings, she’d been glad of their company. The forest was darker now, the stillness full of menace. Throat suddenly dry, Jennet looked around to see where the faerie creatures had led her.

A dark ruin rose among the trees, a tower, crumbling against the sky. Its empty door gaped blackly. Had something moved in those deep shadows?

Usually she was up for any kind of fight, in-game, but this just felt creepy. Her heartbeat pounded in her chest, frantically sending the message go home, go home.

Too late.

A figure stepped from the doorway; an armored knight clad all in black. The shadows slid away from him, as though his armor were made of an even deeper blackness. His helm completely obscured his face. If he had a face at all.

Jennet raised her staff, her mind scrabbling to recall her spells. She had no doubt this was a true enemy.

“Fair Jennet,” the figure rasped, lifting a huge sword, “prepare to meet the Black Knight in battle.”

Oh damn. Spellcaster against heavily armored fighter. This couldn’t end well.

Forcing back her fear, Jennet called up Wall of Flame. Before the knight took another step forward, a sheet of fire roared from her staff and enveloped him.

He bellowed and strode forward, seemingly untouched. Jennet sidled to the right and sent an Arcane Blast at her enemy. A bolt of blue sizzled through the air like lightning, and she took advantage of the distraction to dart for the edge of the tower. Her best bet was to stay out of range of that dangerous sword and try to wear the knight down with magic. If he got close…

Well, she wouldn’t let him.

But he was fast. Before she could summon her next spell, he charged her. She danced back as his blade whistled past, far too close. She wasn’t ready to die in-game. Not yet. Keeping new characters alive for as long as possible was a point of honor for her.

She called up a Fireball and flung it straight at the knight. Orange-red flame scorched through the air, and he staggered back a pace. Jennet slid further around the tower. Maybe she could make a break for the trees, use them for cover.

Clang! The sword bit into the stones right above her head. She dodged away, blinking grit from her eyes. The knight was fast—too fast. His next attack came before she was ready, his sword slicing across her chest. A burning line scored her shoulder, and she stumbled backward.

And fell through the doorway of the tower, into blackness.

*~*~*~*~*~*

“Where is she?” the Dark Queen hissed, in a voice edged with ice. “You were to bring Fair Jennet to me, not cause her to flee!”

A white tracery of frost formed on the Black Knight’s chest-piece, proof of his ruler’s ire. He bore the cutting cold without complaint.

“I will not fail you again,” he said.

The queen crooked her finger, compelling him forward until he stared into her deep, fathomless eyes.

“See that you do not.”

She drew a wickedly pointed blackthorn spike from her robes and, faster than thought, plunged it deep into the place his heart should be.

The knight shuddered but held his ground. This was the price of his failure. He would not die from it, though the pain would have sent any other member of the Dark Queen’s court screaming to their knees. Instead, he merely bowed his head.

The watching Court laughed: pale maidens gowned in cobwebs, sharp-toothed goblins, hollow-eyed, nameless creatures with impossibly twisted limbs, all cackling and gibbering until the noise eclipsed the waning scythe of the moon above.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Jennet pulled off the sim helmet and shook her head. She felt disoriented and muzzy, as if she’d fallen asleep in the hot sun and cooked her brains. That last fight had not gone well. Good thing the game suddenly glitched out.

She slid her hands from the gloves and stood up. Her shoulder ached—stung, really. Rubbing it, she powered down the FullD system, then checked it over to make sure she’d left no sign of her illicit gaming. Everything looked just the way Dad had left it.

She glanced at the clock and sucked in a breath. It was later than she’d thought. Dad would be home for dinner any minute. Hastily, she left the gaming room, turning the lights off behind her.

Just in time—the front door chimed open and she heard her dad come in, talking to somebody. Had he invited Thomas over?

Sure enough, her father’s friend, Thomas Rimer, had joined him after work. Thomas was like an uncle to her. Though she didn’t see enough of him, since Dad had gotten him a job with VirtuMax as a lead game designer.

Smiling, she went to the stairs and hung over the railing above the entryway.

“Hey there, Jennet,” Thomas said, waving. “Come down. I brought you something.”

“You’re going to spoil her,” Jennet’s dad said, but his voice was mild.

She hurried down the stairs, and Thomas handed her the flat package he’d had tucked under his arm.

“What is it?” She lifted it, guessing it was a book. Thomas collected rare old print volumes, though her dad teased him about hoarding dead trees.

“Come, sit,” her dad said, playing host.

He shepherded them into the living room, then keyed an order into the house computer; tea for her, wine for Thomas and himself. Their place was old—most of Jennet’s friends had voice-activated house networks—but they’d lived in the house for over ten years. Dad bought it after… she swallowed. After her mother took off. She preferred not to remember anything about that time.

No, this was their home, the only one she and Dad needed. Just the two of them. Old tech or not, she liked it that way.

Jennet sat on the soft couch, avoiding the one cushion that pulled people in like a black hole, and carefully peeled back the plain brown paper enclosing her present. As she’d guessed, it was a book—an old one, from the dusty, comforting smell emanating from the pages.

It was bound in green leather, the title worked in raised gold lettering: Tales of Folk and Faerie. Jennet ran her fingers over the words, the letters cool to her touch.

“Another old book?” There was a smile in her dad’s voice. “Jennet has a top-end tablet, you know. Nobody reads those old, musty things any more.”

“This book is only available in print,” Thomas said. “It’s special. Go ahead, open it.”

She lifted the cover, and caught her breath at the illustration on the opening page.

Moon-pale mushrooms encircled in a dusky glade, with dark pines rising behind. Within the circle, small figures danced, winged and shining. The colors were rich and mysterious, and she could almost smell the resin of pine and cedar drifting from the page. The picture was titled Midsummer Pixies.

Fingers trembling, she turned the pages, titles of songs and stories flashing before her eyes: The Elfin Knight, Childe Rolande, The Nixie.

Most of the drawing were in black and white. Gnarled figures perched in tree branches, lovely women who called men to their deaths in deep water, winged sprites darting through a clearing. And the Black Knight. Jennet’s stomach clenched as she stared at the picture of the knight. Her shoulder ached, and she hastily turned the page.

Next was a full-color illustration of a beautiful fey woman. Her face was delicate, her eyes deep and compelling. Her dress was woven of shadows and night. Pointed ears were just visible through her midnight-dark hair, gems tangled like stars in its silky blackness.

Her expression held a certain cruelty; something sharp in the tilt of her lips, her long-nailed fingers.

The Faerie Queen.

Shivering, Jennet closed the book.

“What do you think?” Thomas asked.

“I… it’s amazing. Thank you.”

“Keep it safe,” he said. His smile was weary at the corners. “It’s very valuable.”

She hugged the book to her chest, her mind whirring. Pieces clicked into place like clockwork. Thomas: hired on to develop a top-secret game project for VirtuMax. Feyland: the game her dad was project manager for. And this book, full of ancient faerie lore that clearly was the inspiration for the world she had just been in.

Yet she couldn’t say anything. She knew, with a bone-deep certainty, that Dad would forbid her to play Feyland again if she confessed she’d snuck on to the system. He would change his passwords, locking her out of that vividly magical world.

After dinner, she excused herself. Claiming she had too much homework, she went up to her room and pored over the book, absorbing every bit of information. Fynnoderee was a brownie from Manx lore. The Pixies were mischievous creatures, but not malicious. She found no mention of the Black Knight, though a dim memory of some ancient ballad hovered at the back of her mind.

Jennet read a short fable of a girl who entered an enchanted faerie ring on Midsummer’s Eve, and found herself transported to the Realm of Faerie. She had feasted and danced—and when she returned to the real world the next morning, seventy human years had passed, and everyone she loved was dead.

It was brilliant, how Thomas had woven faerie lore into the game interface, and how VirtuMax brought it to virtual life. In a way, using the sim equipment was like stepping through a magical portal into another world.

Anticipation burned in her blood. Tomorrow, as soon as she got home from school, she’d return to Feyland and see what new adventures awaited.

*~*~*~*~*~*

In the moon-deep clearing of the Dark Court, the queen sat silently on her throne. She turned a hollow glass sphere between her elegant hands; a vessel, waiting to be filled. Her Realm was withering, but the means to save it was nearly within her grasp.

The old ways had closed; the circles tumbled and broken, the wild places lost. But as long as she ruled the Dark Realm, she would fight for a return to the human world.

Midnight wind lifted her hair, the dark strands tarnished silver by starlight. Centuries of patience honed her to stillness as she bided. Soon. Soon.

A shiver ran through the court, and the queen smiled. That smile could cut to the bone, and the creatures nearest her throne cowered.

“Huntsman,” she called. “I charge you—seek out your quarry in the mortal realm.”

The antlered form of the Huntsman detached himself from the dark trees.

“I shall call the hounds,” he said in a voice pulled from nightmare. “Tonight, the Wild Hunt rides.”

“Do not let her escape.”

“My queen.” He bowed, his antlers sweeping a shadow across the moon.

Turning, he let out a piercing whistle. Feral red-eyed hounds flowed to him from the shadows, lithe and deadly. Behind them came the riders, white-haired elfin knights upon flame-footed horses. Without a word they leapt into the sky, blotting out the stars with their passage.

The eerie winding of the horn unfurled through the night. Small animals curled tighter in their dens. Any unfortunate, wakeful creature felt panic freeze their blood at the baying of the hounds and the thundering of hooves as the Hunt was loosed.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Jennet woke ten minutes before her alarm. Her skin was clammy from sweat, and the aftermath of weird, confused dreams echoed in her head. In fact, she didn’t feel at all well. She stumbled out of bed and pulled on her robe, then hit the intercom button in her room.

“Marie?”

“Yes, Miss Jennet,” the house manager said in her clipped accent. “I’ll send your tea right up.”

Jennet had been thinking of staying home from school, but maybe a cup of tea would perk her up, chase the last tatters of uneasy dreams from her head.

By the time George, their chauffeur, dropped her off at Prep, she felt better. The normalcy of the school day folded around her. The aggravations of her classes, the tight silence between herself and her former best friend, Taree—not pleasant, but at least familiar.

At lunch, Jennet sat alone at the end of a long table. Until last month, she and Taree had claimed this corner as their own. But now Taree was with a new boyfriend, one that Jennet couldn’t stand. She’d been a little too honest about that with her former friend, and Taree had stopped talking to her.

Petro was rich, even by Prep standards, where the kids came from wealthy families. He was also mean, constantly picking on the ’shippers, the few scholarship students admitted to their elite school. Jennet wished she had the courage to say something, but getting on Petro’s bad side meant nothing but trouble for everyone involved. If she had any hope of mending her friendship with Taree, she’d have to bite her tongue and wait for things to work out.

However, her sympathy didn’t extend far enough to welcome the company of one of the ’shippers, when the tangle-haired girl set her lunch down next to Jennet. Didn’t the girl know what a hairbrush was for? Jennet bolted the rest of her food and got up, leaving the girl to eat her meal alone.

Jennet went into the courtyard and found a bench in the shade. Closing her eyes, she conjured up memories of playing Feyland. She could hardly wait to get back in-game and shed the unhappiness creeping over her.

“Uh, hi.” The unsteady voice broke into her musing.

Great. Brock Havers, the most annoying geeklet in school. For a second, Jennet contemplated faking sleep, but he’d just poke at her until she responded. With a sigh, she opened her eyes.

“Hey,” she said.

Brock smiled, his eyes painfully full of unrequited love. “So, Jennet. I was just, uh. Anyway. There’s that new movie?”

“I’m busy this week,” she said. And next week. And next year.

“Oh, right.” His expression clouded and he scuffed the gray concrete with his boot. Then he looked at her again, his eyes brightening. “Like, beta-testing for your dad or something I bet. Right? Isn’t there a new top-secret game going into production?”

Jennet couldn’t decide if Brock had a bigger crush on her, or on her connection to VirtuMax. She’d destroyed him in a school-organized sim tournament earlier that year, and ever since he’d followed her around as if he were a lost puppy. He didn’t take hints, either.

“So, are you free this summer?” he asked. “Because soon as school’s done, I’m organizing a gaming club. If you joined it would be so prime. We’ll have lots of fun.”

“I bet.”

“Like, my dad said he’d take us to SimCon to see Spark Jaxley!”

The celebrity gamer was a fixture in all of VirtuMax’s ads, her signature magenta hair flying as she flawlessly met any challenge the sim systems threw at her. Jennet understood the appeal, but it wasn’t worth having to spend all summer with Brock just to meet the gaming superstar.

“I have to work this summer,” she lied. “My Dad’s developing a new game, and I’m helping pre-beta it.”

“Oh.” Brock’s eyes widened and he looked even more worshipful. “You’re so lucky.”

“Yeah.”

If luck meant being practically an orphan in her own home.

Ah well, she’d learned to deal with the fact her mom had taken off years ago, and accept her workaholic dad with his messed-up priorities. At least she was surrounded by the best tech money could buy, attentive staff, and awesome games. And now she had Feyland.

The bell rang, a discreet ping signaling the end of lunch. Jennet stood and slung her satchel over one shoulder.

“See you,” she said.

Before Brock could reply, she strode away. The force of his adoration always made her feel guilty, like she was a bad person for not finding him appealing in return. He wasn’t a total loser. There was somebody out there for him—it just wasn’t her.

Too bad the guy she was interested in didn’t seem to know she existed. Kenzer was a year ahead of her in school. He wasn’t in any of her classes, but he lived in her neighborhood. She sometimes saw him at the g-board park or getting snacks at the corner store, but the most she’d ever done was muster up the courage to say hello. He’d nodded back, and that was it. Still, she couldn’t help watching for him in the halls of Prep. The sight of his dark unruly hair, crooked smile, and blue eyes always made her heart beat faster.

No sign of Kenzer today, though. The wood-paneled walls absorbed the echoes of yelling students, but this close to the end of school, the excitement was palpable. One more week until summer break. And with Taree not talking to her, and no real boyfriends in sight, Jennet was more than glad to have the sweet distraction of Feyland waiting.

She could spend all summer exploring the game. Plenty of time when Dad was at work, and she knew the staff wouldn’t say anything. Especially since they didn’t have any way of knowing exactly what she was doing in the gaming room.

*~*~*~*~*~*

The scent of roses and blood filled the clearing housing the Dark Queen’s court. The queen waited upon her throne of knotted midnight, her sharp nails shredding the curling, dark vines beneath one hand. As though alive, the throne shivered in protest.

Behind the throne, a willowy creature with mossy hair played upon a flute, accompanied by the slow, solemn beats of a gnarled drummer, the pulse filling the spaces between the air. Waiting.

An eerie light filled the sky, and the queen lifted her head. She slashed her hand across the darkness and the mournful music stopped, letting the sound of hounds and hooves penetrate the night. The Wild Hunt had returned.

The clearing filled, the sinuous bodies of the hounds flowing like black water, the red-eyed horses lathered and snorting. And riding majestic, the Huntsman.

“Where is my prize?” the queen asked, in a voice boding thunderstorms.

“My lady.” The Huntsman dismounted and bowed, so low his antlered helm brushed the carpet of moss. “We cannot break through to the mortal world. The chink has been sealed.”

“What?” The Dark Queen’s voice cracked through the night, a whip felt across the breadth of her Realm. A killing frost swept the air, and the moss shriveled, flecked with diamonds of cold. The Huntsman did not straighten.

“We could not make our way into the places humans inhabit. The girl is lost to us.”

“I will not allow it. Our salvation lies within reach—and I will not let it slip away.” The queen rose, her pale face promising doom to any who met her eyes. “Watch for the mortal girl’s presence. The moment a trace of her is felt, come to me.”

“As you command.”

The Huntsman, wise to the ways of his liege, backed away slowly, never once looking upon the queen’s beautiful, terrible face.

The queen drew forth from the starry depths of her gown her long black thorn, honed to a killing point. Her fingers caressed it, moon-white against its darkness.

All protections against the Realm of Faerie eventually failed—and this one had to have been hastily made, at best. The human world would open again to them, soon.

“MeadowRue,” the queen said, beckoning to one of her handmaidens.

She would set a trap, while they waited. One that the human girl could not escape. The mortal would return and blunder into the queen’s snares.

And when she did, the Realm would take what was necessary.

*~*~*~*~*~*

For the next week, Jennet didn’t get a chance to sneak back onto the FullD. Studying for finals squeezed out almost all her free time, thoughts of the game nibbling at her concentration. To distract herself, she watched some vids, took her g-board out in the waning light, and generally tried not to think too much about when she could get back into Feyland.

Still, she finished the year with good grades, despite her distraction. The day after school ended, she slept late and woke up smiling.

Their chef had made scones and left them with a bowl of fresh strawberries, on the dining room table. George, their chauffeur, messaged her tablet to let her know he was available if she wanted to go anywhere, and even Marie, the tight-faced house manager, unbent enough to offer her a cup of tea.

An hour later, Jennet was in the plush quiet of the computer room, belly full, door locked, and the whole day stretched gloriously before her. She flipped the FullD power on and geared up, then settled into the sim chair.

What awaited? Was the Black Knight still stationed outside the ruined tower, sword poised to run her through? If so, she’d be ready.

Adrenaline spiking, she gave the command to enter game. The music sounded a fanfare, but this time there was no dizzying golden light, just a flare of white. Jennet’s avatar materialized in the center of a clearing surrounded by birch trees, a faerie ring of tiny tan mushrooms around her feet. There was no sign of the dark woods, or the ruin—or the Black Knight.

She turned a slow circle to make sure, then let herself relax, tension flowing out of her shoulders. Sunlight dappled the green mosses beneath her feet, and the trees swayed in the slight wind.

A wind she couldn’t feel.

Jennet frowned and dropped to her knees. Putting her face to the ground, she inhaled deeply. Nothing. No scent of herbs and flowers, not even the brown smell of soil. The programmers obviously hadn’t worked the full range of sensory detail into this level of the game. It was a little disappointing.

Jennet stood again, then followed the path winding out the clearing. The trees were richly-detailed, but not as perfectly rendered as the ones in the first level of the game. Still, Feyland was a beautiful, enchanted world—far removed from her mundane life.

The path brought her to another clearing in the woods, larger than the first. The perfectly blue sky arched over a small meadow dotted with golden flowers. On the far side was a granite boulder, the grey stone sparkling with flecks of mica. Atop the stone sat a petite maiden in a yellowish gown, combing out her long dark hair. Her ears were sharply pointed.

A reassuring green glow surrounded the figure. Jennet guessed the aura surrounding the maiden signaled that she was friendly. Not that Jennet was taking any chances. Spells at the ready, she strode forward.

“Greetings,” she said.

The maiden stopped combing her hair. “Greetings, brave adventurer,” she said in a high, sweet voice. “Have you come to aid my people?”

“What aid do they require?” Jennet asked.

This dialogue was much more along the usual lines—a clear script to follow, unlike the weird interactions she’d had with Fynnod.

“Alas, my village has been suffering the attacks of bogles. Will you help defeat them?”

“I will.”

A chime sounded in the air. Quickly, Jennet toggled open her game interface, to see that she had accepted a quest called “Bogle Battle.”

Maybe the programmers hadn’t done a spectacular job with the graphics in this level of the game, but the NPC interaction and storyline was much stronger here. Probably the result of different teams working independently on the various parts of Feyland, then swapping around.

The maiden lifted a delicate hand and pointed to where the path continued past the boulder.

“My village lies yonder. Tell them Mustard Blossom sent you. Many thanks and a fine reward will be yours, if you prevail.”

She picked up her comb again, and the green glow surrounding her faded. Her part was clearly done—though Jennet didn’t think too highly of the programmer who made a character that sat around on rocks and did her personal grooming while her home was being attacked.

Then again, not everything in a game made sense, and at least this level was easier to follow. Jennet headed past the boulder and down the path.

The trees thinned, and beyond them was a small collection of whitewashed cottages. As she got closer to the mini-village, she saw a huddle of petite, sharp-eared figures beside the path. Three of them were weeping while one, a taller male, had his arms folded. He, too, bore the telltale green glow of a friendly NPC.

“Hi,” Jennet said to him. “Mustard Blossom sent me to help.”

He nodded. “We are in dire need. The bogles are rampaging in yonder field, and we fear our village will be next.”

“I’m on it.”

She turned off the path and headed through the first field, where golden stalks of grain waved softly in the breeze. When she came to the end of that field, she paused.

Ahead of her lay a ruined field—the grain trampled and blackened, as if from fire or blight. In the middle were four squat figures wearing rough leather armor and carrying wickedly sharp pikes. The bogles. A reddish glow outlined their figures, and they didn’t seem to have spotted her yet.

Four against one. She didn’t like the odds, but it didn’t look as if any of the cowering villagers were going to help her. Her first real battle, and she was on her own. Jennet’s pulse buzzed with adrenaline.

She’d start with her big opener; Wall of Flame. Sure, then she’d have four hot, irate bogles attacking, but she doubted she could pick them off singly. They were standing so close together that damaging one would alert the others.

The trick would be to keep moving, staying out of their weapon range while doing as much damage as possible. As a cloth-wearing Spellcaster, she was a “squishy” character, an easy pincushion for the bogles’ sharp spears.

Jennet stepped back, finding the farthest range for her spellcasting. Charred wheat stubble crackled beneath her feet. Mentally crossing her fingers for luck, she lifted her staff and sent out her Wall of Flame. The air shimmered with heat and flame as her spell raced toward the bogles. Before it hit, she conjured a Fireball and flung it at the closest bogle.

The two spells reached the bogle simultaneously, and with a screech it fell to the ground. The remaining three turned, searching for their attacker. They spotted her and began yelling, their cries hoarse and guttural. The two nearest her brandished their pikes and sprinted forward, while their companion lagged behind. She really hoped that last one wasn’t a magic-user.

Jennet raced away from her enemies at an angle, casting spells behind her. The lagging bogle raised his arms, red flames dancing at his fingertips. Not good. Hating to pause, Jennet whirled and took careful aim. Just as the bogle’s spell formed, her Arcane Blast took him out—but she’d lost her lead on the other two bogles.

Forcing her hands to a steadiness she didn’t feel, Jennet sent another Fireball at the closest one, then turned and ran.

The creatures were gaining—the rasp of their breathing scraped the air behind her. She put on a burst of speed to keep from getting a spear in the back, then pivoted and fired a blue bolt of arcane energy at her closest pursuer.

He halted, grunted, then slowly folded over. Before he hit the ground, his body disappeared. The other two bogle’s bodies were gone, too.

Which left one angry bogle still at her heels. Jennet tilted her staff, ready to cast another Fireball, but she’d misjudged. The last bogle was too close, the wicked barbs of his weapon thrusting right for her head.

Heart pounding, she ducked, reflexively raising her staff. Metal met wood with a jar she felt down to her shoulders. The bogle grunted, then pulled his pike back, ready for another jab.

Jennet danced back and sent the glowing orb of a Fireball toward her opponent. The bogle leaped out of the way, then rushed her, his sharp teeth glinting in a cruel smile.

Grabbing the end of her staff with both hands, Jennet swung it like a baseball bat, putting all her strength behind the blow. The bogle’s eyes went wide at her unexpected move, and he couldn’t get his pike up in time to block her attack.

Her staff connected with his leather armor, then kept going, meeting no resistance as her final foe disappeared. The force of her swing pulled her around in a half-circle, and she staggered, finally catching her balance.

The field was empty of bogles.

She’d done it—though not as gracefully as she might have liked. Triumphant music drifted through the air as the inhabitants of the tiny village hurried toward her. Their delicate faces were smiling, and the leader carried a heavy sack.

“Bold adventurer,” he said, bowing to her. “You saved our village. We can never repay you—but please take these gold coins as a token of our gratitude.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, taking the sack.

The moment it was in her hands, it disappeared with a clinking sound. Curious, she toggled open her game interface to see that she now had one hundred gold coins in her inventory. Nice. No doubt they would come in handy.

“Will you take word of your victory to the forest camp?” the leader asked, gesturing to a small road leading away from the village. “Our kin there will be glad to hear of it.”

“Sure,” Jennet said. The NPC continued to look at her, so she changed her wording. “I will.”

This time, the man nodded to her, and she heard the chime that signaled she’d accepted a new quest.

“Be careful on your travels,” the leader said. “Many dangerous creatures lurk within the forest and prey upon the unwary. Farewell!”

He waved, and the villagers bowed to her—her cue to go.

It was time for her to stop playing, anyway, and the road seemed a good place for her to exit Feyland. Jennet strode away from the small village. When she reached the pale, dusty road, she lifted her fingers in the command to log out.

*~*~*~*~*~*

The weeks flew past, and Jennet felt as though she was living two lives—the depressingly mundane one of Jennet Carter, and the rich, lively adventures of Fair Jennet in Feyland. She’d faced off against ogres, fought basilisks, spoken with ethereally beautiful faerie maidens, and completed some of the strangest quests. Things like sorting out a big pile of lentils and rice, or falling down a well and talking to animals.

There was one creature who kept showing up, a Non-Player-Character with ratty hair and a tattered dress who tried to get Jennet to do pointless quests. The creature reminded Jennet too uncomfortably of the ’shipper girl at school, so she tried to avoid the NPC whenever possible. Easy enough to do—the world of Feyland was full of levels and layers. Completing the Deep Forest had taken her most of a week, and that was with hours a day in-game.

When Jennet wasn’t playing Feyland, she was thinking about it. She spent the evenings poring over Tales of Folk and Faerie, so much that Dad even noticed.

Thomas came over for dinner a few times, and Jennet couldn’t help asking him questions about the book; trying to find out what she could about Feyland without being obvious. He gave her searching looks, but answered. Sometimes the answer made no sense, but she didn’t want to push it. Thomas was suspicious enough as it was.

Weekends were the worst. Barred from her secret FullD playing, she wasted time on Screenie games and counted the hours until Dad left for work again. Once, she messaged Taree, but her ex-friend didn’t bother responding. So much for that.

The only other thing for her to do was take her g-board out. Their neighborhood had a local park with half-pipes and ramps. She wasn’t the best boarder, but she knew some tricks—which put her in the uncomfortable, solitary ground between the newbies and the prime riders.

When she arrived at the park, she made a quick scan for Kenzer. Her heart gave a crazy bump when she saw him at the far side, doing half-flips with ease. The afternoon light gleamed off his helmet, and she squinted, trying to see his face.

This time she’d talk to him.

But by the time she worked up her nerve to go over, he’d merged with a group of his friends and they were already heading out, talking and laughing as they left the concrete half-pipes and ramps behind. Jennet clutched her g-board, the edges digging into her hands, and watched as Kenzer and the others piled into a new-model grav-car. The car lifted smoothly and pulled away.

So much for that. At least the park was quieter now, with fewer kids to notice as she tried out some new moves. An hour later, the sun was low enough to make her squint every time she turned around. Still, it hadn’t been a total waste. She’d figured out the board-flip move, even if she had a few bruises to show for it.

When she got home, she stowed her board and headed to the kitchen for a glass of water. After that, she needed a shower to wash the faint stickiness of sweat off her skin and hair.

“Jennet?” her dad called as she passed the open study door, “could you come in here, please?”

Apprehension zinged through her, drying her throat. Had he found out she’d been sneaking onto the FullD?

“Sure.” She tried to keep her voice nonchalant.

She stepped into the room and perched on one of the blue upholstered chairs facing the desk. Lacing her hands together, she gave her dad a smile meant to look innocent.

“I have some news.” He paused and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

Something jagged and bright flashed through her. Had he actually heard from her mother, after all these years? She leaned forward. Sunlight sliced through the slatted blinds at the window, falling like promises across the disheveled papers on his desk.

“VirtuMax wants to relocate all the senior employees,” he said, and Jennet sat back, swallowing disappointment. Not her mother. Never her mother.

“Relocate? To where?”

Maybe it would be a big city, or somewhere with beaches. Middland was all right, as far as medium-sized cities went, but there were more exciting places to live in the world.

“Crestview,” he said.

Jennet felt her brows pull together. “Crestview? Where’s that? I’ve never even heard of it.”

“Not many people have.” He steepled his fingers and gave her a weary smile. “It’s in the middle of the country, a smallish city compared to here. But the backbone of the ‘net runs right through, making it ideal for VirtuMax.”

Probably the podunk little town had offered bribes and incentives, too. After all, VirtuMax was the biggest gaming company in the world.

“I don’t really want to move.” Not that she had a lot going on here, but Prep was a great school, and she loved singing in the concert youth choir. Eventually she and Taree would start speaking again. And how would Kenzer ever notice her if she left?

“I don’t want to be separated from you, Jennet, but I don’t want to uproot you, either. Prep has a boarding option.”

“Wait, you’d just leave me here? Alone?” The thought rose up to choke her. She’d already had one parent abandon her.

“Honey. I only want what’s best for you. I’d miss you a lot, but Crestview doesn’t have much to recommend it. VirtuMax is building an intentional neighborhood for the staff—but right now very few of the amenities are in place. Until the VirtuMax school is built, you’d have to attend the local high school. There’s no choir, none of the kind of cultural activities you’re used to.”

Great. Accept abandonment, or go with Dad to the backside of nowhere. Neither choice appealed.

“I’ll think about it.”

He nodded. “It’s still a few months out. We’ll figure it out.”

She didn’t want to figure it out. She wanted to crawl back inside the game, where winning was practically guaranteed, and where troubles didn’t cling to her like viscous shadows, darkening everything.

“All right,” she said. Though it wasn’t.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Adding to Jennet’s frustration, her dad caught a summer cold that kept him home for a solid week. Though her head itched and her fingers burned with the desire to play Feyland, she couldn’t risk logging into the FullD system. Even when Dad was napping.

Once he felt a little better, Thomas came to visit. The three of them sat in the living room, drinking cups of minty tea. Jennet scuffed at the patterned oriental rug with the toe of her shoe, wishing she could ask him about Feyland.

“Dr. Lassiter was inquiring when you’ll be back to work,” Thomas said to her dad. “She doesn’t want the project to fall behind.”

“I’ve messaged her every day,” Dad said. “Asking you isn’t going to make me miraculously better.” He paused to cough, then took a sip of tea. “I should be back next Monday. And we’re not going to fall behind. We don’t have the time.”

Thomas nodded, and a look passed between the two men that Jennet couldn’t decipher. She wrapped her hands around her mug and studied Thomas. He didn’t look that great, himself; pale and strained, and thinner than the last time he’d been over.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Surprise flashed over his face before he covered it with a tight smile. “I’m fine.”

“Maybe coming down with my cold,” Dad said at the same time.

“Maybe so,” Thomas said, after a too-long second. He gulped his tea and rose. “I’ll see you at work. Lunch as usual on Monday?”

“Of course.” Her dad half-rose as Thomas stood to leave.

“No, don’t get up.” Thomas waved him back onto the couch. “You rest. And Jennet,” he turned to her, “stay out of trouble.”

“Always do.” Since there was pretty much zero trouble she could get into in their upscale neighborhood, with the house staff watching, and her game access denied. She took a sip of her cooling tea. “I’ll see you out.”

At the door, Thomas took her by the shoulder. “I’m serious. If you’re—”

“One more thing,” her dad called, moving slowly out of the living room. “If you need something to mollify Dr. Lassiter, tell her the techs are ready to code the next level.”

Thomas nodded. He squeezed Jennet’s shoulder and let his hand drop heavily to his side.

“You two take care.” He stepped outside, into the too-warm brightness of the summer afternoon.

For a moment he was outlined in light, a brilliant flare that made Jennet blink. Then it was just Thomas, thin and weary, walking out to his car. She and Dad stood together, watching until Thomas pulled away. The smell of fresh-cut lawn swirled into the house, and Jennet’s dad sighed.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Just work stuff. I’m going to lie down for a bit.”

Pressing her lips together in worry, Jennet didn’t push him. Couldn’t push. Her words were leashed inside her, demands and arguments she’d swallowed for a dozen years.

Even though she and Dad never talked about it, she knew why her mother had left when she was four. She still dimly recalled her yelling tantrum, the last straw that had driven her mother away.

Sure, Dad had taken her to expensive therapy, but the shame still bound her, the secret knowledge that she had been so terrible her own mother had fled. So she didn’t argue, didn’t talk back, just went up to her bedroom and watched stupid vids until she was too tired to think.

By Monday, her dad felt well enough to go back to work. Jennet waved goodbye a little too enthusiastically, then ran up to the computer room. A few minutes later she was in-game. This time, golden light enveloped her, sending dizzy spirals through her stomach.

It reminded her of the first time she’d played.

She’d mastered six levels since then—each one with interesting challenges. There had been puzzles to unlock, and ferocious fights, and plenty of the usual hack-and-grind questing she was used to from other games. Sometimes Feyland threw odd twists at her, but after that first, creepy start, things had normalized.

No question that the game had patchy coding, which was to be expected of a pre-beta prototype. It was obvious the techs had concentrated their efforts at the beginning. After those first couple quests in-game, the experience had flattened out; the sensations not as vivid or immersive. Though it was still an amazing game.

Jennet’s avatar materialized, as usual, in a faerie ring—but this time she was in the center of a circle of moon-pale mushrooms. Tall oaks encircled the clearing, and the sky was an indigo curtain, dusted silver with stars. A sweet night wind ruffled her hair, pulled at the skirt of her gown—and she felt it. There was an extra-reality to the sensations enfolding her. The taste of dew tingled on her tongue, the soft mosses gave like plush velvet beneath her feet.

Clearly the programmers had concentrated on the endgame, too—which meant she was getting close to the final boss.

*~*~*~*~*~*

“She comes!” The wood-colored spriggan bowed before the queen, spindly limbs trembling to be this close to her darkness.

“At last.” The queen’s smile was a blade, her eyes black chasms.

The spriggan shook like bare branches in the winter wind. He was the least of his clan, and fully expected to be seized in those pale, deadly hands, broken into kindling, and thrown on the violet bonfire flickering behind him, his screams mixing with the flames as his essence was consumed.

But the queen dismissed him with a gesture, beckoning instead to one of her gossamer-clad handmaidens.

“Greenbriar,” she said.

The faerie maiden bowed her head, hair like moonlight dipping over her face, and moved with willowy grace to stand before the queen. Rising, the Dark Queen took Greenbriar’s hand and pulled her close. The blackthorn dagger pulsed in the queen’s pale grasp, an absence of light, of hope.

With one swift move, the queen plunged the thorn into her handmaiden’s chest, stabbing her to the heart. Greenbriar let out a keening cry that rose up until the stars themselves shuddered. Shaped by the queen’s need, powered with fresh-spilled faerie blood, the Realm opened an inexorable path beneath the mortal girl’s feet.

Hollow and lifeless, Greenbriar’s body fell to the mute grasses, her pale hair spread out around her like snow. Goblins hastened to bear her away. The musicians struck up a dirge, and the queen tucked her deadly thorn back into her gown.

“Now,” she said in a voice hard as diamond, “we await our guest.”

*~*~*~*~*~*

Jennet drew in a breath of the night-deep air, chill with the faint memory of shuttered flowers. Above, the sky was pricked with stars, and the thin sliver of a crescent moon tangled in the dark branches of the oaks. She’d never been here before, and her heart sped with the lure of the new. The path wound between tall, night-shadowed trees, their branches gilded with silver light.

Her mage staff shed its usual blue glow, tingeing the shadows azure. Some night creature called, then went still. The wind shifted and for a moment she thought she heard music, flute and drum, borne on the air.

No question this was one of the most immersive levels of Feyland. She hadn’t felt the sensory input this keenly since her first adventures in-game. A smile sparked through her, moving up from her feet until it found her face, and stayed.

The path led her smoothly on—no briars or brambles to snare her feet, no sudden enemies leaping from the shadows. Ahead, she glimpsed flickers of violet flame. Music threaded between the trees, the flute and drum now joined by a fiddle in a tune that made her want to dance.

This was it. Something important lay ahead. The final challenge of Feyland.

Her smile faded. If it was, what happened when she defeated the last boss and finished the game?

Of course she’d roll a new character and experience it all over again, but nothing ever compared to that first time through.

Motes of light glimmered ahead, beckoning. Jennet set aside her bittersweet thoughts and went forward. Whatever happened, she was here now. She was ready.

The trees opened to form a clearing. In the center a garish purple bonfire burned, disjointed figures capering about it. Beneath the canopy of trees on one side, long tables were set, spread with delicacies. Candles in huge silver candelabra illuminated gem-crusted goblets and sharp-edged knives. Creatures from dream and nightmare feasted there, many of whom she recognized from the pages of Thomas’s book: sprites and banshees, goblins and phoukas.

Silken-winged creatures with sharp teeth swooped and darted above the crowd, and laughter chimed like bells. A trio of musicians played just beyond the tables, the music frothing and spinning beneath the sky. The moon had won free of the trees and now hung, a radiant scythe harvesting the dark.

Jennet took a step into the clearing, away from the shelter of the trees. Silence crashed down, like a door suddenly slamming. The fey folk turned toward her, their eyes avid.

Fear clogged Jennet’s throat. There was no way she could fight them all. But they made no move to unsheathe weapons or attack. From the nearby shadows, a spindly figure approached. Jennet lifted her staff, spells at her fingertips.

“Fair Jennet,” the creature creaked in a voice like long-dry wood. “Welcome to the Dark Court. Our queen awaits you.”

“Is it… safe?” The question caught in her throat.

The figure laughed. “The court is never safe. But the Dark Queen has given you leave to pass.”

His words broke the spell of silence binding the company. The musicians struck up again, and the fey folk turned back to their feasting, though Jennet could still see their feral glances and sly smiles turned her way.

“Come.” The creature gestured with oddly-jointed limbs, then led her around the bonfire.

At the far end of the clearing sat a throne of night-black vines And upon that throne…

The Faerie Queen.

Her black hair framed a pale face as hard and exquisite as ice. Her gown, made of tattered midnight, stirred in an unfelt breeze. Her eyes were deep pools of starlight and shadow, fathomless, promising everything—and nothing.

Jennet met the queen’s gaze. Her breath caught in her throat, burned her lungs, as though she had opened the freezer and accidentally taken a deep breath of frigid air.

Gasping, she tore her eyes away. Pain crimped her side. The queen was dangerous. Beyond dangerous. And this was Feyland’s final combat; Jennet felt it in her bones.

“Fair Jennet,” the queen said, the barest wisp of a smile on her beautiful, pitiless face. “You think to best me in battle?”

“I plan on it.” Jennet shook off the doubts, cold as snow, that settled on her shoulders.

“Very well,” the queen said. “I accept your challenge.”

Jennet couldn’t see any weapons on her opponent, and that dress was no substitute for armor. This was going to be a magical duel, then; spell-caster against spell-caster. She flexed her fingers around the smooth wood of her staff. Anticipation spiked through her. She could do this.

The fey folk left their feasting tables and encircled her and the queen in a loose ring. From the corner of her eye, Jennet saw red-eyed hounds and the shadow of antlers rising against the dark trees. She swallowed a shiver and focused back on the Dark Queen.

A figure stepped forward from the obsidian shadows behind the throne—a knight clad all in black, tall and forbidding. Jennet couldn’t contain the prickle of fear tightening her skin.

The Black Knight. If she had to fight him, she was in severe trouble.

He held his gauntleted fist high and grated out a single word. “Begin.”

It echoed eerily through the glade, and the fey folk let out a rough cheer. There was no one to cheer for Jennet.

Without hesitation, she tipped her staff and shot a bolt of mage-light at the queen. A sphere of shadow appeared, blocking Jennet’s attack and swallowing the fire into its dark depths. More spheres materialized and began floating toward her, called by the Dark Queen. Jennet ducked and wove, avoiding their deadly touch.

Lightning crackled from her staff, illuminating the clearing with shocking white light, but the queen evaded her bolts. Still, Jennet kept pressing the attack. The dark spheres were multiplying now, bobbing in the air on all sides. A low, menacing hum surrounded her as she tried to find a clear shot.

She couldn’t afford any mistakes—but the fight was pushing her to her limits. Worry nibbled at the edges of her concentration. She just had to watch for an opening… there. She took aim and sent another bolt crackling through the air.

White fire sizzled and Jennet heard the queen gasp. Yes! She could do it. She could beat this game. The first player ever to claim victory over Feyland.

A dark sphere brushed against her shoulder. Frost stabbed into her skin, sent numbness down her arm until she could barely hold onto her staff. She stumbled back, trying to regain the rhythm of the battle. Keep breathing. Keep fighting. But where was the queen? The place where her opponent had stood was now filled with twisting shadows.

Everything rippled, as though the clearing was made of cloth billowing in a sudden gust. Jennet heard high, chiming laughter as she fell backward…

And landed in an ornate chair set before a feasting table. What? She jumped up, heart racing, and knocked the edge of the table. A goblet sitting in front of her shook, sending a drop of deep red liquid to stain the white tablecloth.

“Sit down, Fair Jennet,” the queen said from her place across the table. “This is the next stage of our battle.”

Pale candles in thorny candelabra illuminated the feast. Their silver flames reflected in the queen’s fathomless eyes.

“You changed the rules! You can’t do that.” Jennet’s legs felt shaky as she edged back into her chair. She was so not prepared for this.

The queen laughed. It was the sound of ice shattering on a black lake. “Of course I can. This is my court. My realm. You are but a visitor. Please—drink.” She waved one delicate hand at the goblet.

“No, thanks.”

Jennet’s mouth said the words, but her hand reached out anyway and lifted the heavy silver goblet. A sweet, thick smell drifted from the cup. Roses and burnt sugar. The edge of metal touched her lips.

No. She was not going to do this. The queen might try to control their battle, but she could still fight back. Fingers trembling from effort, Jennet forced the goblet away. The air around her was sticky and nearly solid, like dough. She pushed against it, her breath coming in gasps, until at last the cup touched the table.

“Very well.” The queen’s voice was edged with frost. “If you disdain my hospitality, then you must answer a riddle.”

That seemed safer than drinking whatever was in the goblet. And the game wasn’t giving her a lot of other options. “A riddle? All right.”

The candles flared and the queen’s eyes glowed. “Listen then, and listen well, the answer to this riddle tell, or forfeit of thyself will be, and never more wilt thou be free.”

Jennet shivered. The queen’s voice was ominous, her words intoned with deep meaning. Whatever happened, it was clear that failing to answer the riddle carried a price. Jennet curled her fingers tightly into her palms and tried not to show the fear flickering through her.

“Ask me your riddle,” she said.

“As soon as it begins, it is ending. Without form, still it moves. When it is gone, it yet remains.” The queen smiled, sharp as a blade. “You have three guesses.”

“Ah…” Jennet’s mouth was dry. Her mind beat against the riddle like a bird trapped behind glass. Without taste or form. Something powerful, but insubstantial. “Is it the wind?”

A low sighing went through the branches of the dark trees. The candle nearest her snuffed out, as though some invisible hand had abruptly doused the flame.

The queen shook her head. “One chance gone.”

A circle of watchers had formed around the table. Lithe women with gossamer wings gathered beside the queen. Gnarled brown creatures with fingers that were too long for their hands swayed next to them. Red-capped goblins and capering sprites—they all watched her with avid, gleaming eyes.

Freaky. This whole battle had turned beyond strange. Jennet pulled in a deep breath, though her chest felt tight, and gave another answer. “Music?”

The second she said the word, she knew it was wrong. She shivered as a second candle flame went out. The watchers surrounding her tittered, and the low breeze rustled the branches.

“Two chances gone.” The queen’s words held a victorious edge. “A pity you have no allies in this.”

She beckoned, and a faerie stepped up to her side—a beautiful maiden in a dress spun of cobwebs and dusk. Gossamer wings rose from her shoulders, changing hues in the wan light from blue to silver to palest violet.

“My handmaiden, MeadowRue,” the queen said. “You have met before.”

“I don’t think so,” Jennet said.

The Dark Queen smiled, an expression so sharp it could draw blood. “Ah yes. She wore a different form then.”

The queen’s pale fingers moved in a complex gesture, and the faerie maiden shrank and darkened, until a lumpish creature stood there, clad in a ragged dress with unkempt hair. Jennet sucked in a breath. It was the annoying creature who had kept wanting her to do dead-end quests! The one that had reminded her too much of the unfortunate scholarship girl at Prep. Damn it. Obviously she’d made a bad call there.

“Fair Jennet,” the handmaiden said, her voice as thin and raspy as Jennet recalled. “Thrice I begged you for aid, and thrice you refused me. Had you but bent your grasping human ways, I would now be permitted to aid you. But your impatience and selfishness blinded you. Now, at your time of need, you must stand alone.”

“But…”

Jennet caught her lower lip between her teeth. She wanted to argue, to beg for another chance, but there were no excuses. Not for the way she’d behaved in-game, and not for the way she’d treated the ’shipper girl. Should-haves writhed in the pit of her belly. Even in a game, she could have strived to be a better person. And definitely in real life.

With a wave of her hand, the queen restored MeadowRue to her true form. The handmaiden gave Jennet a glance full of pity, then turned away.

“The riddle remains,” the queen said. “Answer it.”

Jennet squeezed her eyes closed, blocking out the shadowy glade, the fantastical figures, the wicked curve of the Dark Queen’s smile. Her heart thumped loudly in her chest, and she tasted the metal edge of fear on her tongue. Think. She had to figure this out.

“Your time has run, Fair Jennet. Speak your final answer.”

She opened her eyes, to see that the Dark Queen had risen to her feet. A single candle burned between them.

“I…”

Panic banged through her, like a hundred doors slamming shut. The watching creatures grew still and silent. Even the wind quieted, waiting. She had to answer.

“Is it … a dream?” The words floated from her mouth and hovered there, just beyond her lips.

In the silence that followed, Jennet felt shadows gathering closer. Dread crawled through her, carrying the awful sensation of failure.

The last candle died. A high, wailing music started up, the keening cry of pipes swirling through the air. Slowly, the queen shook her head. Diamonds sparkled like frost in her dark hair.

“No,” she said. “You have lost. Now, mortal girl, I take my due.”

The queen held up a hollow crystal sphere in one hand. With the other, she scribed strange gestures in the air. Her fingers left glowing streaks of silver against the darkness. Then she pointed straight at Jennet.

“Ahh!” A sharp pain speared through Jennet, as though the queen had stabbed her in the chest. She doubled over, gasping, while agony iced her blood. Oh god. It hurt.

“Behold, Fair Jennet,” the queen said. “The answer is Life. Your essence is captured here. It will serve us well.”

Jennet looked up, tears clouding her vision. The queen held the sphere aloft. It wasn’t empty any more. Inside was a bright swirl of color, like rainbow flames. They pulsed and danced, trapped inside their crystal prison. Wavering, calling to her.

“How,” Jennet forced the words out through lips tight with pain, “how do I get that back?”

Every game had a second chance, a third. You kept fighting the last battle until you finally won. Failure wasn’t permanent. Not like in real life.

The queen laughed, and the sound carried a bitter chill. “You cannot. Without a champion, you are lost. Now go. Go! I send thee, defeated, from the Dark Realm.”

Pain wrenched through Jennet and she screamed. Golden light blinded her senses and she swirled through a sickening vertigo. Blackness waited, merciful and dark, on the other side. She opened her arms to it, and fell.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Jennet woke, aching, in the sim chair. Her hands were stiff inside the gaming gloves, and when she sat forward, fire exploded in her shoulder. She could barely lift her arm, but it was impossible to take off the helmet one-handed. Trying not to whimper, she gritted her teeth against the agony and pulled off her gear.

She had lost.

Feyland was more than just a sim game. The clues had been there all along, but she hadn’t paid enough attention until now. Now, when it was too late. And she’d done worse than lose the game.

There was a frigid hollow in the center of her chest. The Dark Queen had taken something from her—something she feared she couldn’t live without. Bright flames trapped inside a magical sphere. Her mortal essence, the queen had said.

She had to get it back.

Jennet stumbled to her bedroom. She swayed at the edge of her bed, trying to pull the covers back. No use. She toppled forward onto the blue coverlet, and let the blackness of sleep take her down.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Call an ambulance! Now!

…unusual symptoms, Mr. Carter. No signs of external trauma…

–still unconscious?

…as soon as she wakes up we’ll notify you. Now get some rest…

(sobbing)

  *~*~*~*~*~*

“Dad?” Her voice was creaky, the word sticking in her mouth like it was coated with tar.

Jennet thought she’d heard him, his voice taut with panic. And later—crying? What was going on?

She couldn’t open her eyes. And then she could, the lashes parting gummily. Unfamiliar white walls surrounded her, and the antiseptic smell hit her nose the same time her brain registered hospital.

What was she doing lying in a hospital bed?

An IV fed into her left arm, and she was dressed in a dun-colored gown. The gridded lights overhead made her want to close her eyes again, but she had to figure out what was going on.

“Dad?” she called again, fear lending her voice a wavery strength.

The door opened and a blue-smocked nurse bustled in, her hair tied neatly back.

“Awake at last,” she said. “And how are you feeling?”

“I really don’t know.” Jennet took a deep breath. Nothing hurt, but her throat was blazingly parched. “Could I get some water?”

The nurse nodded. “I’ll be right back. But if you need anything else, press the call button.”

“I need my dad.”

“Contacting him is the first thing on my list.” The nurse gave her an encouraging smile and left, closing the door softly.

Jennet stared around the room. There was a big vase of hydrangeas—blue and purple and green—the only real spot of color in the place. Thick white curtains were drawn over the window, the light a bright smear behind.

The door flew open, and her dad rushed in. His hair was rumpled and he looked exhausted, but as soon as he saw her, a smile transformed his face.

“Jen! Oh, honey.”

He caught her up in a hug, careful of the tubes stuck in her arm, and Jennet clung to him. He smelled like sunshine and safety.

“I’m here, Dad.”

“I know.” His voice was thick with emotion. “The docs say they want another day of observation, and then they’ll let you come home. I can’t believe I didn’t realize you had walking pneumonia—I’m so sorry.”

“I did?” She didn’t remember being sick.

What she did remember was the Dark Queen taking her mortal essence—but that must have been a dream. Right? She had been feverishly ill, after all. The strange, hollow feeling in her chest was just an after-effect of her illness; nothing more.

“We’re through it now,” her dad said. Tears lurked in his eyes. “Let me get some light in here.”

He went to the window and pulled back the curtain. Afternoon sun poured into the room, as though it had just been waiting for an invitation. The branches of a tree were visible from the bed, dark green leaves moving gently in the breeze below the cloud-spotted sky.

Returning to the bedside, her dad sat and took her hand.

“I have some bad news,” he said, his voice strained. “It’s… I don’t know how to tell you this, but—Thomas is dead.”

“What?” She clutched his hand, her mind buzzing in circles. “How could he be? What happened?”

Dad shook his head. “He died at home, the doctors think from a stroke. It was fast, and probably painless.”

Tears choked her throat. “But I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

“None of us did.” Her dad blinked, hard, but a drop of moisture still rolled down one cheek. “I’m so sorry to have to break this to you while you’re still in the hospital, but I thought you’d want to know right away.”

Jennet pressed her lips together and nodded. She couldn’t quite believe that Thomas was gone.

“The funeral is the day after tomorrow. You’ll be home by then.” Her dad leaned forward again and wrapped her in a tight hug. “I love you,” he said against her hair.

“I love you too, Dad.” She hugged him awkwardly back, mindful of the IV.

She felt cold and empty inside, but at least she was alive, and with her dad. Thomas’s death was horrible—but she and Dad had gone through worse and come out the other side.

Not perfectly, no, but who ever made it through life without a few scars?

*~*~*~*~*~*

The Dark Queen paced the length of her court, her dress a shimmer of smoke and shadows, her midnight hair stirred by the ever-present night breeze. In one hand she held a crystal sphere where a small flame flickered. It was the barest ember of fire—but it was enough.

She had made a bargain, and she would remain true to it. The fey folk were ever bound by their word. But bargains were tricky things, and she had centuries of experience. The poor mortal who had thought to negotiate with her had gotten what he wanted, but at a price few would pay, and for a far shorter time than he believed.

The queen smiled, as bright and sharp as the stars overhead. In a swirl of night, she mounted her throne and settled into its tangled black depths. To one side stood a knot of musicians: a long-fingered creature with a wooden flute, a squat goblin holding a skin drum, and a sad-eyed man with a battered guitar slung across his back.

“Music,” she said, gesturing to the players. “I would hear a song from my new Bard—something pleasant to pass the time. A tale of treachery and deceit, perchance.”

The denizens of her court laughed, their cackles and gibbers echoing off the trunks of the tall oak trees. Pale moths fluttered away from the sound, wings beating like panicked hearts.

“As my lady commands.”

The man set his fingers on the strings of his guitar, bowed his head, and began to play.

THE END

*~*~*~*~*~*

Is Jennet truly free of the Dark Queen? Find out more about the FEYLAND trilogy, and discover a world of magic, dangerous adventure, and a hint of romance…

4 Responses to FREE READ!

  1. Pingback: Anthea Sharp

  2. Pingback: What does eligible for the Campbell award mean? | Anthea Sharp

  3. Brenda says:

    I reLly enjoyed your book!

  4. Mark says:

    A good read. Hooked !!

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